Quirky, 30 year-old Merlin, Harry Potter, Sherlock, Star Wars, Twilight, Percy Jackson, Jane Austen, Monk and Psych fan. Mom to four beautiful kids, and wife to an amazing man. I love to read humor, romance, drama and angst. I am not a fan of smut.
I tend to stick to canon pairings in what I write and what I read. Edward/Bella, Harry/Ginny. I adore Merlin/Freya; they are just too cute together. But I have to admit, my guilty pleasure is Merlin/Morgana. I'm *sure* it has *nothing* to do with the amazing chemistry between Colin Morgan and Katie McGrath. *ehem*
Aithusa's actions in The Sword in the Stone pt 2 have drastic and far-reaching consequences, though not what anyone would have guessed. "Was it possible to foster such a great love from the seeds of redemption and forgiveness?" Mergana/Arwen Rated: Fiction T - English - Adventure/Romance - Merlin & Morgana - Chapters: 15 - Words: 81,948----
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Chapter 1: Celebration
There wasn't a street in Camelot that didn't have a crowd buzzing around and dancing in their giddiness. The kingdom was celebrating; the day prior, Arthur and Gwen had been handfasted. Only that morning had Gwen been crowned. Courtiers and peasants alike were celebrating all over the city. Even in the citadel, the mood was buoyant. Guards were a bit more friendly and servant's smiles more frequent. Even the usually cantankerous cook in the palace kitchen had been singing merrily as she prepared a feast fit for royalty.
The king's manservant was just as pleased as all the rest; perhaps even more so than his peers. Except that he'd be more than happy when he could finally collapse into his bed. For now, he'd be pleased just to steal a rare quiet moment to himself. After ensuring that Arthur was dressed and that the head table was set properly, Merlin left the last of the banquet hall preparations to the other servants and stole out into a little-used servant's corridor.
He reveled in the quiet of the deserted corridor and seriously contemplated the possibility of propping himself up in a small alcove and attempting to get a short nap before the feast began. It was likely to last well into the early morning hours and Merlin had been up since before dawn. The manservant looked up and down the empty hallway and breathed a weary sigh of relief as he crossed his arms, closed his eyes and leaned back against the wall within his little niche.
A moment later, the sound from the banquet hall became slightly dampened. Merlin surmised that the courtiers must be moving to their seats- he could afford a few more minutes. He knew that the gathered knights and nobles would only be truly quieted when the feast was served and they could stuff their faces with it all. Even then, their palpable excitement would hardly be banked. Especially since the king's best wine would be served in honor of his new queen.
The king had been anxiously awaiting this day for the last four weeks and he had nearly driven Merlin mad with his grouchiness. It had taken all of Merlin's considerable patience to deal with Arthur's impatience. The moment she had accepted his proposal, Arthur had been ready to marry Gwen without further notice or plan. Luckily, cooler heads (mainly Merlin's) had prevailed and Arthur was convinced to wait until the castle could be put to rights. After all, there had been two hostile takeover battles in as many weeks.
Therefore the castle servants had been put to work as though a fire had been lit beneath their feet. Numerous hurried preparations were undertaken, in addition to the usual cleaning duties, for the joint handfasting and coronation celebrations. Not to mention the necessary repairs to Camelot herself. Some things had been completed with only hours to spare, just in time for a wedding befitting a king and his beloved bride. Merlin had hoped that with the festivities nearly behind them, he could finally find a moment's rest.
Just as he'd settled into his little patch of wall and started to doze lightly, the doors to his left opened abruptly. Booming laughter and loud voices overflowed from the banquet hall, only to be slightly muffled when the door was swiftly latched shut. Merlin pondered on the possibility that whoever just came out that door would simply pass him by. Alas, it was not meant to be, judging by the booted footsteps slowing to a stop right in front of him.
"Merlin, my friend, what are you doing out here? There's food, mead, wine and more than one pretty serving girl inside that hall. What more could a couple of blokes such as ourselves want?"
Merlin chuckled at his friend's simple outlook. If only.
"Well, I'm sure even you could manage an invitation into a lovely lady's bed," Gwaine teased rakishly. "But you can't do that from out here, so what are you waiting for?"
"I meant my own bed, you cad. I'm enjoying a moment's peace, if you must know, Gwaine," Merlin answered cheekily, without opening his eyes. "The moment I walk in there, it's going to be 'Fill my goblet, Merlin. Fetch me a fresh napkin, Merlin. I need more drumsticks, Merlin. Move Guinevere's chair closer to mine, Merlin.' Not all of us are afforded such luxuries as a seat at such a sumptuous banquet, Sir Knight," Merlin finished with his characteristic grin, finally opening his eyes and taking in Gwaine's amused expression. Merlin was in no way feeling put out that he was working at the feast, regardless of how he teased Gwaine. He was a servant, it was his job to serve. But Gwaine was never one to let the underdog lie. Merlin could see the glint in his friend's eyes. That look was never a good thing, Merlin had found.
"Come on then, you can sneak some ale while you're slaving over princess and his lovely queen. You might even get a lass or two to pay you a favor! You'll get nothing of the sort out here!"
Merlin chuckled and allowed his boisterous and more-than-slightly inebriated friend to sling an arm over his shoulders and pull him into the great hall. However, he was not expecting the welcome that awaited him.
"I FOUND HIM!" Gwaine bellowed upon entering. Several heads turned in their direction causing Merlin's face to redden. "He was skulking in the hallway, trying to get away from Princess' many demands!"
Merlin could feel his ears and cheeks burn at the attention focused on him and at Gwaine's words. The warlock put on his most innocent face and shook his head at Arthur, who was smirking at him. Gwen smiled and came to stand right beside Merlin.
"Gwaine, I will ignore that slight upon my husband, but only because you've brought me my best friend," Gwen teased, linking her arm through Merlin's and raising her eyebrow in a reasonable imitation of Gaius.
Merlin looked between the two in confusion. He had missed something somewhere, and he was wary of what had gotten into his friends. Gwen smiled even larger and pulled him away from Gwaine, towards the head table. The cheerful knight followed, chuckling merrily.
"Merlin. Whatever were you doing skulking in the hallway?" Arthur mocked, still smirking at Merlin's wary gaze.
"Just enjoying the lovely ambiance, sire." Arthur narrowed his eyes at Merlin's sarcasm; only Merlin could make the title sound like one of the terrible afflictions written about in one of Gaius' dusty tomes.
"Well, Merlin. If you hadn't been skulking in the hallway, you would have known that your presence here was required."
"Of course, sire. We mustn't let your cup run dry! What would you prefer? Ale? Wine? Mead? And your plate! That belt's got plenty more room for improvement!" Merlin grinned triumphantly. Arthur never won their arguments when Merlin referred to the king's potentially expanding waistline. Arthur just rolled his eyes.
"Merlin, you really are an idiot, aren't you. Or have you taken a blow to the head lately that I didn't know about?" Arthur asked drolly. Merlin's face fell. That was not the reaction he had hoped for. He'd have to try harder next time.
"What?" Merlin asked, trying to get his mind back into the confusing conversation he was having.
"What Arthur is trying, and failing I might add, to say, Merlin, is that we don't want you to serve us at this feast."
At Merlin's slightly taken-aback and hurt expression, Gwen quickly backtracked.
"No, no, no, you misunderstand me. We don't want you to leave, we want you to have a seat and enjoy this feast, as our guest."
"What?!" Merlin shook his head and pulled on his earlobes, not quite believing what he'd heard.
"Is that all you can say anymore, Merlin?" Arthur taunted.
"I'm sorry, I thought Gwen just said I was a guest tonight. That couldn't possibly be what she said. Gwaine, did you slip me something whilst I wasn't paying attention?"
"Merlin! Gwaine has not given you anything, that is what I said. We would like you to be our guest, our friend, tonight," Gwen assured him. Merlin broke out into a huge grin.
"Then I would be delighted! Am I to sit with Gaius? Where has he got to? I haven't seen him since this afternoon." Merlin looked around, seeking his mentor amongst those already seated.
"You really are thick, aren't you?" Arthur laughed. "We owe a great deal of what we've accomplished here these last few weeks to you, Merlin. Tonight you are here as a guest of the king and queen. That means you will sit at the head table, at my right side, along with the knights of the round table."
Merlin was speechless; he could feel the lump in his throat as he processed all that Arthur said. Then the prat cleared away any awkwardness in one swift, brotherly stroke.
"Don't be such a girl's petticoat, Merlin, and get your sorry backside to the table."
Merlin grinned at Gwen as she rolled her eyes and smiled lovingly at her husband's retreating back. Merlin held out an arm to the queen and the two of them went to take their seats on either side of their king.
The feast was wonderful; Merlin could not recall a time in all his life in which he ate more, or better. He was almost too full for comfort, a sensation he could not claim to have ever suffered before. Merlin was also feeling somewhat inebriated. While he had been able to avoid most of the ale and wine that Gwaine had pushed his way, he had definitely had more than was usual for him. Merlin decided it was past time to stop when he inadvertently drew his goblet into his hand from more than a hand's length away.
That was precisely why he never had more than a single mug of ale. Any more than that and his magic just overflowed as though a great barrier had been breached. He and Will had found out the hard way that getting Merlin drunk was great fun in the moment, but very hard to explain later. Cows did not grow unicorn horns by themselves, after all. Old man Simmons had not been pleased.
Hopefully, everyone else was just as tipsy as he was and no one had noticed his little slip up. Nevertheless, Merlin put down the goblet with a newfound sense of sobriety and looked around as surreptitiously as possible. The round table knights flanked he and Gwen on either side of Arthur. Elyan and Leon on Gwen's left, seemed entirely engrossed in their conversation. The various courtiers throughout the room were more than sufficiently drunk to have noticed something so small. No one seemed to be watching him, until he noticed Gwaine to his right. The friendly knight had a startled look on his face, his eyes fixed on Merlin's goblet.
Thankfully, Percival, sitting just beyond Gwaine, was distracted trying to flag down a servant carrying a platter of roast chicken. Merlin held his breath anxiously until Gwaine met his worried gaze. For one seemingly endless moment, Merlin was unsure what the genial knight was going to do. Gwaine's face went blank, showing no emotion. His eyes tracked back and forth between Merlin and the goblet. Gwaine's mouth twitched very slightly, then he blinked and shook his head. Merlin was hopeful that his friend would put it down to his own drunkenness. The warlock let out the breath he'd been holding and tried to hide his visible relief as he wiped his mouth with his napkin. Though he nearly choked at the knight's next words.
"I expect we'll be having a little chat soon, Merlin," Gwaine murmured into his mug just before he took another hearty swallow. Slamming the empty flagon down to the table, Gwaine raised his eyebrow and gave Merlin a smile that said that he was not going to be able to squirm his way out of said conversation.
Merlin chuckled nervously, then cast his eyes around the room once more. Gaius was speaking quite animatedly with Geoffrey of Monmouth. Several bored-looking servants floated around the room, a couple of which gave him envious glances. Merlin thought they wouldn't be so envious if they had to put up with the prat as much as he did, or if they had to give and do as much as he had to earn the seat he was currently occupying. Lastly, he dared to look to his immediate left. As suspected, Arthur and Gwen were huddled close together, whispering and giggling as only the newly married could.
"Isn't that just revolting?" Gwaine said, following Merlin's gaze. Though his grin said otherwise.
"Utterly and completely," Merlin agreed, grinning just as widely. He was incredibly happy for his friends; he was glad that they had forgiven one another. He had certainly hinted and prodded Arthur towards that end often enough.
Merlin's smile slowly melted as he watched his friends for a moment longer before looking away. There hadn't been any time for him to want or need a companion. He was content in his life, or so he thought. As it was, Merlin was entirely unprepared for the sudden pang of longing that lanced through his gut. His friends' happiness was a sudden and stark reminder that he had no one; not the way Arthur and Gwen had one another. His love, his Freya, was unattainable. He hadn't even been able to touch more than her hand when she had presented him with the sword at the lake.
Perhaps it was all the alcohol he had recently consumed, but he had thought that he had a better grip on himself and his emotions than that. It had been more than a year since he spoke with Freya, and more than two since he had held her in his arms by the lakeside. It suddenly seemed far too long to Merlin.
Newly resolved, he made an impromptu decision. He needed to go to the lake; perhaps he could see Freya while he was there. Gwaine was talking to a pretty serving girl; everyone else was occupied. Mumbling softly to those around him, he slipped away from the table before anyone truly heard and processed whatever nonsense he had used to excuse himself. Even Merlin wasn't quite sure what he had said.
The woods were dark and quiet; the forest and its residents still recovering from the upheaval of the last month. Merlin walked slowly, purposefully onward, needing no light. He simply allowed his magic to guide him; he could feel the power, the magic, centered around the lake. It was like a beacon to him.
The trees thinned, the breeze calmed, and then he was there. The sheer beauty of the Lake of Avalon left him breathless once more. The moon shone upon its glassy surface as the waters lay as still as stone. The mountains loomed protectively beyond the lake's waters, reflected just as magnificently as the moon. Merlin walked slowly, reverently, to the edge of the shore where he fell to his knees and allowed his fingertips to gently break the surface of the water. He was suddenly reminded of the Vilia and the way their magic surrounded and healed him so many months ago. Absentmindedly, Merlin waved his fingers through the water, watching the ripples as they continued across the moonlit surface of the lake.
It was like a whisper on the wind, but Merlin would recognize that voice anywhere.
"Freya?" he gasped, looking wildly around the lake.
"Merlin, my love. You are sad."
"I miss you," he choked out, eyes still scanning the water.
"And I you, Merlin."
An ethereal blue light glowed at the center of the lake. It started small, then grew larger and brighter until it was glowing white and suddenly Freya was rising from the center of it. The water seemed to rise with her, encasing her legs in a fountain of glowing water. Slowly, she began to glide over the surface, transported by her fountain, until she stopped about twenty feet from the shore.
"Come to me, Merlin, for I cannot go any further."
Merlin wasted no time, immediately running into the shallows, heedless of his boots and trousers that were now soaked. He stopped just short of Freya, wanting to wrap her in his arms, but not knowing if he could. The water flowing around her calmed until it was just below her knees. Then she smiled and opened her arms to beckon Merlin forward. Without hesitation, he gathered her up and buried his face into her shoulder for a moment before he took a big breath and lifted his lips to meet hers.
It was a simple, chaste kiss, but it was more than Merlin had hoped for. Too soon, he broke away and looked into Freya's deep brown eyes, unable to speak.
"As much as I miss you and love you, Merlin, you must let me go," she whispered with a sad smile. "I have my duties here in Avalon; you have yours in the mortal world. You shall always hold a dear and special place in my heart, but I am not your future."
"I know. I know. But I am so lonely sometimes. There is no one for me; no one that I can be myself with, as I was with you. I cannot love someone with such a secret between us, and I can never tell anyone else and allow them to risk themselves should my secret come to light before Arthur is ready to hear it. Perhaps I am meant to be old Dragoon, puttering away in my madness as the years pass me by." Merlin grinned sardonically.
"You are destined for greatness; it was never said that greatness equaled loneliness."
"Yet still, I can have no one."
"Do not be so sure; things are happening. Fates are changing, destinies shifting. The white dragon has clouded all that was expected; there are things to come that no one could have foreseen."
"What do you mean?" Merlin was stunned. Could his hatching Aithusa really have changed so much? Would it all be for the better, or had it made things worse? It wouldn't be the first monumental mistake he had made. But no, Merlin could not see Aithusa as a mistake. Merlin had felt such pure joy at the little dragon's hatching. It was not a foreboding event. Even Kilgharrah said as much.
"The white dragon bodes well for Albion; for you and Arthur and for the land you will build together."
"You will see, in time, Merlin. There are a great many things in store for you, including love."
"Shhh..." Freya pressed her fingers to Merlin's lips, silencing his protests. "You are not destined to love only me. Open your heart, Merlin. It is my desire to see you happy."
With a smile, and one last gentle kiss, the Lady of the Lake backed slowly away from Merlin and released the magic supporting her, sinking slowly, silently back into the still waters.
Merlin took in a shaky breath and wiped away the tears that he hadn't realized were falling from his eyes. He would always love Freya, nothing could change that. But he could honor her last wishes, he owed her that much. A new well of hope sprang in his heart; if Freya was right (and why wouldn't she be) he wouldn't be alone forever. It was enough to bring a tremulous smile to his face. He slowly waded out of the waters of Avalon and stood, contemplating this latest riddle.
Absentmindedly, Merlin waved a hand towards his legs and feet, drying them instantly. Distantly, Merlin chuckled as he thought of the scolding he would have received had Gaius seen him dry his clothes and boots as though he were swatting an errant fly. Thinking of his foster-father jolted him back to awareness and of how late it was. It was well past time to head home to Camelot. As he turned and began his journey home, he was certain he heard Freya's parting words follow him on the wind.
Open your heart, Merlin. It is my desire to see you happy...
Deep in the heart of the Perilous Lands, Morgana Pendragon sat upon the throne of the fabled Fisher King. She had long since abandoned the hovel in the forest. Emrys knew where it was and Morgana wasn't about to wait there for him to come for her. The scurrying rats and bugs didn't deter Morgana from the crumbling castle. Nor did the nesting wyvern. It wasn't the throne or the kingdom that she coveted, but she would make do until Arthur Pendragon lay dead at her feet and Gwen no longer wore the crown that belonged on Morgana's head. Soon, it would be hers.
All around her it was still and silent, save for the distant screeching of the wyvern. Cenred and Morgause were long dead, though Morgana thought at times that she could still hear her sister whispering to her. Agravaine was no longer around to snivel cautiously at her feet like an abused dog. Helios was dead, no longer eyeing her like she would welcome him into her bed. Morgana was entirely alone except for the white dragon who hadn't left her side for more than a few hours at a time since she had healed her. Morgana assumed the creature only left to hunt.
Even the Southron army was scattered asunder. Though that was hardly surprising. One could not expect an army half-built of forcefully conscripted villagers to stay fearfully loyal to a dead man. No matter; in the end the result was the same. There was no one left to hail to Morgana's banner.
Neither Queen Annis nor Alator of the Catha were interested in continued partnership. The only hope Morgana had was of finding Alvarr, Mordred, or both. As for an army, she had hope that King Alined or King Odin would be open to negotiation. There was certainly no love lost between Odin and Arthur, and Odin had proved that he was ruthless. Alined was a coward, though Morgana had heard rumor that he was not as opposed to magic as he would have had Uther believe.
Morgana sat unmoving on the throne, eyes unfocused, her mind awhirl. It was in quiet times like this that she heard her sister's voice the clearest.
Sister... I hope that you will remember me fondly... Sister... You are the true heir of Camelot... Sister... You must take this coin... Sister... Merlin must die! Sister...
Morgana shuddered at the whispers in her mind. She had felt increasingly hollow since the death of Morgause, like there was something pulling her apart. Morgana found that she became more distant and apathetic as the days wore on, even to her own needs. She could count on one hand, the number of times she had responded to the pangs of hunger in the last week. Morgana felt like a shell of her former self, wasting away until there was nothing left but her magic.
At the thought of the thrumming power that coursed through her veins, Morgana reached out with her magic for perhaps the sixth time since she had arrived at the ruin. Morgause had taught her long ago to quiet her mind to sense any lingering traces of magic that had been performed in the area recently. It was a useful skill, though one she unfortunately had little patience for.
Settling her mind and breathing deeply, Morgana closed her eyes and relaxed as she took in all the faint whispers of magic around her. There had been powerful magic at work in this very castle, and though the trace was more than a year old, it was certainly not old enough to belong to the once-vaunted Fisher King.
There was an odd sense of familiarity to the magic that imbued the very room she sat in, though it was one that she couldn't quite place. It felt as though it was something that she had once held in her hands, though what it was, Morgana couldn't say. Few people ventured into the Perilous Lands; they were in fact, aptly named. Morgana knew of only one person in the last few years who had willingly traveled into this area and been in this very room. Her half-brother, however, had no magic to speak of and couldn't possibly be responsible for the trace she sensed. Arthur was never supposed to reach this room, yet he had not only reached the castle of the Fisher King, but returned to Camelot, annoyingly healthy and smugly triumphant with the blasted trident in hand. If only Arthur hadn't lost the cuff Morgana had given him...
The eye of the phoenix. Morgana gasped at the sudden realization. The magic she felt in this room had in fact been in her hands at one time. She herself had put the eye on Arthur's wrist; when he apologized for having lost her gift to him along the way, Morgana had cursed herself for not enchanting it to be unremovable. However, the trace she felt here was now unmistakable. The eye hadn't been lost in a marsh as Arthur had claimed. It had made it all the way to the castle and had performed its final purpose, just not on the right person.
But that didn't explain the other somewhat-fresh traces of magic Morgana sensed within the crumbling walls of the castle. They were nearly as familiar as the trace from the eye, but yet not. One tendril felt warm. Gentle yet powerful. It felt like the a smile of a supportive friend. Some distant part of Morgana, deep within her mind, was instantly soothed by this touch of magic. She might even go so far as to say that part of her yearned for it.
The other trace was raw, instinctive. Wild, though ulimately tame. Morgana was vaguely reminded of the feel of the dragon magic that imbued the little creature that had healed her. There was a distictly animalistic feel to the very human magical trace. It was nothing Morgana had ever felt before. Inexplicably, she felt as though both the warm, gentle magic, and the raw, wild magic were impossibly, undeniably, cast by the same person.
"Who could wield two such different, yet powerful gifts?"
Morgana hadn't realized that she had voiced the last aloud until she heard an answering chirrup from the white dragon as she perched in the long-broken window's sill. She seemed to be studying her; it was unnerving. The little dragonling seemed to be able to peer into the depths of Morgana's soul. She could have sworn many times in the last month that the dragon had been waiting for something. Or someone.
"What is it, little one," Morgana crooned, wishing she knew what to call the beast, or better yet, what she could do to bring this dragon under her absolute control. Its compassion was undeniable, but Morgana had hopes of making a powerful ally of the white dragon. Make her someone who would do her bidding the same as the other dragon obeyed Emrys.
Surely, there were spells that could make such a feat possible. Dragonlords were extinct, but there had to be someway to mimic their gift. Emrys had done it, somehow. That proved it was possible. Morgana herself had a special gift with controlling serpents. The formorroh and the nathair had been ridiculously easy to bring under her control. Perhaps the dragon would be similar, if she could just find the right spell.
"What shall I call you, hmm? You certainly won't be a 'little one' forever, you've nearly tripled in size since you healed me. You are a pretty girl, maybe Delyth. No? Aylwen, perhaps? Do you look like a 'white brow?' Too masculine? Are you pure and holy as well as white? Perhaps Annwen, or Blodwen then. There's always Tanwen. White flame is a fitting name for a dragon, don't you think?
"I think the Southrons would agree, though maybe they wouldn't since they're dead. Perhaps none of those fit you. Are you darker than your coloring would suggest? Is that why you healed me, a proud priestess of admittedly dark magic?" Morgana gave a mirthless and insane chuckle.
Sister... Morgause whispered again. Morgana stopped laughing as suddenly as she had begun.
In response, the dragon clumsily dropped down from the window and walked on hind legs towards her, still chirruping in its odd language. It tilted its head from left to right, as though studying her. Then, it straightened as though coming to a decision.
Morgana gasped in surprise, taken aback by the whispered, gravelly voice that resounded through her head much clearer than Morgause's whispers. This was more like Mordred's youthful voice had sounded as he had spoken to Morgana once before.
"You can speak?!" she managed to utter through her astonishment.
"Mind to mind, yes. I cannot yet talk as the great one does, but soon I will. I have almost grown enough to learn to speak as man does."
Morgana narrowed her eyes slightly at the last. Why were men always so highly valued? Women spoke just as well if not better than men, she wanted to argue, but she decided it wasn't worth it. The dragon probably wouldn't understand her indignation anyways. She was a dragon, after all.
"Aithusa. What language is that? It is not of the old tongue."
"It is the dragon tongue. My dragonlord hatched me when he named me for the light of the sun."
Morgana raised her eyebrow at that. It was certainly more poetic than any of the names she had considered. Then she thought more on what the dragon had said. She didn't seem very old, yet the last dragonlord had died at least two years before. Of course, Morgana had no real idea of how quickly dragons matured. As such long-lived and massive beasts, perhaps they aged and matured very slowly. It would explain the time discrepancy.
"How old are you?"
"I will soon see the end of my first year."
Morgana's eyebrows wrinkled in confusion. How could this dragon have possibly hatched then? Only one person, or creature, rather, could tell her.
"The last of the dragonlords was killed at least two years ago, when the Great Dragon attacked Camelot. My sister told me of the great carnage and how Uther sent Arthur on a desperate mission to find a dragonlord to rescue them from Uther's stupidity and ill-thought revenge. Morgause influenced Cenred to send some men after the last dragonlord in the hopes that his death would cement Camelot's fall. How could anyone have hatched you? Dragonlords are extinct, their gift lost to time."
"No, my dragonlord is the last."
"No, my dragonlord is the last."
Morgana fought the urge to roll her eyes. "I heard you well enough, what I meant is how is that possible? Uther slaughtered all but one and the last remaining dragonlord was killed before Arthur could get him back to Camelot."
Aithusa merely tilted her head again, studying Morgana, as though measuring the witch.
"Balinor was not the last. My dragonlord is," Aithusa said carefully, as though every word had a hidden meaning that Morgana was unable to see.
"Balinor wasn't the last?"
"No, my dragonlord is," the dragon repeated.
Morgana huffed in irritation. This was getting her nowhere. It was almost as though the little white dragon was playing with her. But, if Aithusa was speaking the truth, then there was a living dragonlord. Someone other than the traitor Emrys, who could control this young dragon, as well as the beast that had slain an entire legion of the Southron army. Someone who had to have been in hiding and was possibly very lonely.
A sly grin stretched across Morgana's lips. She just had to find this dragonlord and persuade him to join her, or teach her what she wanted to know. It couldn't be that difficult, Agravaine and Helios had been entirely too easy to sway and she hadn't even had to follow through with her temptations. Men were easily controlled once they thought a beautiful woman was willing to give them what they wanted. This dragonlord would be no different.
"Tell me, Aithusa. How does one become a dragonlord?"
"Dragonlords are not trained, it is a gift with which they are born."
"How is that?"
"I may be newly hatched, but even I know how hatchlings come to be."
Morgana fought the urge to growl at the beast's cheek. As if she didn't understand how a babe was conceived! Her governess had certainly warned her of the perils of the carnal pleasures often enough. Not to mention the gossip that ran rampant through the courtiers about who was bedding whom and which servants of the castle were in fact illegitimate children of the lords of Camelot. Morgana certainly understood these things. Yet this dragon had the audacity to mock her! It was almost as bad as talking with Merlin. At the thought of the meddlesome servant, Morgana really did growl.
"Fine, I will explain. You see, when a mated pair comes together-"
"I don't need you to explain mating! I am perfectly aware of the facts of life and of the activities of mated pairs! I meant, how is the gift passed on? Is it through the father's bloodline, or the mother's? Is it the oldest child, the oldest male? What are the rules of dragonlord succession?"
"The dragonlord's gift is passed from father to son. If there is more than one son, the gift can be inherited by one, none, or all of them. But the gift is only inherited upon the death of the father."
"Has there ever been a female dragonlord?"
"I have never heard tell of it, though the great one would know more."
Morgana scowled at the thought. Why was it that men got everything?! If she were to birth a dragonlord, she felt as though that even her daughters would have the gift, such was her tenacity and willpower. Never mind that it was passed on from the father. Son or daughter, her child would be powerful, just on the merits of being the heir of a high priestess of the old religion. Being a dragonlord would only add to that legacy. Morgana froze. Had she seriously just considered having a child to further her agenda?
Not just any child, she reminded herself, but one who could command a dragon. She could feel her lips turning up into a smirk. It was her most audacious plan yet. It would take patience, not to mention pain and sacrifice. And time- months, years, even. Could she do it? Would she do it?
Considering everything that she had done in the last two years, sacrificing her sister for one, and ordering innocent people cut down or starved for another, seducing a dragonlord seemed rather tame. Surely there were spells to ensure good results from such a union? Nothing could be left to chance, for if the gift was only male-inherited, she couldn't afford to have a daughter first. Her mind set, Morgana merely needed the identity of her next pawn.
"Who is your dragonlord, Aithusa?" Morgana hoped that her voice sounded friendly and curious. It wouldn't do for the little dragon to grow suspicious and fly away before she could even get the most important information.
"What would you do with such information?"
Damn. Perhaps the youthful dragon was more insightful than she appeared. Again, not unlike a certain bothersome servant. Why could she not forget about that infuriating peasant? Even leagues away, he continued to be a thorn in her side.
"I am merely curious, little one. I too do not wish to see the line of dragonlords to go extinct. They are a noble people, and they deserve our respect and admiration, not our scorn."
"You need to let go of your hate, Morgana Pendragon. Deep within you, there is a kind and noble heart that the great one is blinded to. It has been buried under many hurts and sorrows and a veil of darkness, but it is still there. You need help letting go of your anger, of this darkness within you before it entirely consumes the person you truly are. Therefore I will tell you who my dragonlord is. He is Merlin, son of Hunith and Balinor."
Morgana froze in shock once more. There were no words to describe how utterly furious she suddenly became. It always came down to Merlin, didn't it? Would she ever be free from this torment? Of all the people in the five kingdoms that could have possibly been the last dragonlord, it was Merlin?! Morgana found herself doubting whether she could follow through with her hastily made plans. Could she seduce Merlin? Did she even want to? Would it even be possible, with all that they had done to one another?
There had been a time, years before, that she had thought that he had harbored feelings for her. He had brought her flowers more than once. He had regularly delivered her sleeping draughts to her and stayed behind to chat, whereas before, she had always gone to Gaius for them herself. Merlin had listened to her when she was emotionally distraught because of her newly emerging magic. He had seemed like such a good and kind friend, helping her to find the druids instead of reporting her when she admitted to having magic.
But then he had poisoned her. Morgause had explained that he had used her as a bargaining tool to make Morgause give up her siege on Camelot. Morgana hadn't believed it at first, that maybe it had been an accident. But then she had remembered the way he kept pushing that water skin into her hands and insisting she drink. She had realized then that Merlin had known exactly what he was doing and it had hardened her heart.
Could she seduce Merlin of all people? The prospect made her sniff disdainfully, but she doubted Merlin would even realize that she was propositioning him. He had always seemed so clueless and naive. Merlin had never realized that Gwen had been head over heels for him, and Gwen had told Morgana that Gwen wasn't the only serving girl to harbor a crush on the friendly-yet-gangly manservant.
Would Morgana's feminine wiles be enough to win him over, where so many had simply fallen flat? Especially considering their common history. Perhaps some persuasion, nay incentive would be in order. Merlin would surely capitulate to her demands if he knew his precious dragon was in her hands.
And if he was unwilling, it would only add further insult to Merlin's tender little heart. Morgana recalled the look in his eyes when he was chained within her hovel. He had truly looked terrified when she had promised him that she wasn't going to make things as easy as dying. His imagination had surely run away with him, especially as close together as they had been. She could have kissed him she had been so close to him and he would have been powerless. The thought was enough to solidify her decision spur her into action.
Before Aithusa could react, Morgana swiftly threw her hand out and spat, "Weorc untoworpenlic!"
Aithusa screeched and tried to take flight, but the magical chain had caught her fast. Her left wing was pinned to her body, and the chain circled her neck twice. She narrowed her reptilian eyes at the woman before her.
"It is not wise to chain a dragon, but I waited more than 400 years to be released from my egg. I can wait for you to realize that you have made a grave error." With those words, Aithusa turned her back to the witch and curled up as though asleep.
Morgana had to find a way to keep a dragonlord from commanding a dragon. If their gift was truly as close to magic as Uther had feared, then perhaps a magic-binding chain would prevent Merlin from calling a dragon. She had a plan in mind; now she just had to put it into motion. Then, perhaps she would be the one to bring Emrys to his knees.
In the still quiet of the early morning, Merlin lay face-down, sprawled across his narrow bed, limbs akimbo. His thin blanket had fallen half onto the floor as he'd rolled over a few minutes previous. Gaius cracked the door open and looked in on his boy. He smiled fondly at the warlock as he reminded himself that Merlin was far too old any more to be called a boy. Gaius was almost loathe to wake Merlin, but it had to be done.
"Merlin! You had best get up! The king may be relaxing his duties since his marriage, but you have no lovely bride to excuse your lateness. I have need of some wolfsbane, alder bark and horehound. You'll have to go fairly deep into the forest for the wolfsbane, so you'd best get a move on." Gaius didn't spare any effort to keep the door from latching shut rather loudly. The noise would get Merlin up faster.
Merlin glanced to the window and grimaced at the dim grey light of the barely risen sun. It had been a week since he had woken up this early. He could not deny that he preferred the new routine that Arthur had fallen into since marrying Gwen. Rather than expecting his breakfast within an hour after dawn, Arthur was content to breakfast with his wife at eight in the morning. Merlin was well aware that the king's new relaxed schedule wouldn't last beyond the first few weeks of Arthur and Gwen's marriage. But Merlin had decided that he was going to enjoy it while it lasted. Of course, Gaius had other ideas. Such as sending him into the forest at dawn. Merlin grudgingly supposed that it could be worse. He could be cleaning the leech tank, instead.
With a groan and a muttered curse, Merlin stumbled out of bed and to the cupboard in order to get dressed. Contrary to Arthur's belief, Merlin did know how to use his storage cupboard. He had, in fact, endeavored to use it for many years now. Ever since his mother had scolded him for his slovenliness when she had come to Camelot gravely ill thanks to Merlin's failed attempt to bargain with Nimueh.
Merlin shook his head at the memory of his mother's fierce reprimand- she'd cowed him even while bedridden- and trudged down the steps from his room while still pulling his jacket onto his shoulders. Merlin couldn't stop the huge yawn that escaped him; he'd been up late reading his spellbook again. Gaius chuckled and handed him a slice of bread and a hunk of cheese along with the burlap herb bag, dismissing him with a fatherly smile and a wave of his hand.
"And don't dawdle, Merlin. The king may be sleeping later, but that doesn't mean that he wants his breakfast stone cold when he does rise."
"Don't worry, Gaius, I'll be back in plenty of time."
Merlin hustled through the halls nibbling on the bread and cheese. He didn't slow when he reached the streets of the city, intent as he was on finishing his task for his mentor. The guards at the gate barely blinked an eye at Merlin when he hurried past them. He'd become quite a familiar sight at that hour in the morning, herb sack slung over his shoulder as it was. Merlin was rather glad for it; he didn't particularly relish the prospect of being delayed from attending to his morning duties. Arthur was always grumpiest when his breakfast was late.
Fortunately, Merlin found the horehound and alder bark easily enough; both grew quite abundantly near to the city where the trees were thinner. Unfortunately, Gaius was correct in assuming that the wolfsbane was deep into the forest, as it grew best in mountain meadows. Luckily, Merlin knew of a field about three quarters of an hour on foot from Camelot that always yielded plenty of wolfsbane.
It was there in the clearing as Merlin was harvesting the wolfsbane that he heard near-silent footsteps approaching him. Tucking the plants that he held in his hands into his bag, Merlin slowly got to his feet and slung the braided-twine strap of the burlap sack over his shoulder. Reaching out with his magic, Merlin closed his eyes and brushed against three minds not far from where he stood.
"Who's there?" he called, letting them know that he was aware of their presence.
"Emrys, it is I, Iseldir, chieftain of the eastern druid clan. I come with Heilyn and Morien, chieftains of the northern and southern druid clans. We are hopeful that we can have peace between Camelot and our peoples. We come to you in the hope that you can facilitate a meeting between the druids and King Arthur."
"Show yourselves," Merlin said firmly. He found it rather disconcerting to have a conversation with a disembodied voice. It had driven him mad every time Kilgharrah had insisted on summoning him in that way. Without further prompting three men dressed in druid robes emerged from the trees and bowed to him. Merlin grimaced.
"It is an honor, Emrys," one of the unfamiliar men said without raising his head.
"Honestly, that is really not necessary," Merlin insisted. He didn't especially enjoy being bowed to. "And please, call me Merlin."
"We only wish to show respect for you and your great destiny," the other of the unfamiliar druids answered. "I am Heilyn, chieftain of the northern tribe."
"And I am Morien, chieftain of the southern clan. We are honored to meet you in person," the first man repeated. Iseldir watched Merlin's obvious discomfort with a slight smile.
"Right, and you as well," Merlin offered awkwardly. He felt distinctly out of place; their bows and honoring words didn't quite match his servant's garb and dirt-encrusted hands from picking herbs. "You want to discuss peace with Arthur; what is it you want of me?"
Iseldir took another step forward at Merlin's question, and produced a tightly furled scroll from his robes. Merlin took it and put it into his bag without hesitation.
"We hoped that you would carry our request for a peace negotiation to take place at our next clan meet. Our three tribes are convening in a fortnight in the Darkling Woods. We hoped that the king would be willing to come with a delegation to see that we are truly a people who desire peace."
"I will do what I can; I believe the king is ready to offer peace to the druids." Merlin remembered Arthur's heartfelt promise at the druid shrine. He didn't doubt that Arthur would be ready for this next step in their destiny.
"We hope to meet you again soon, Emrys," Iseldir said. Then he and the other two chieftains bowed in respect and disappeared into the trees.
Merlin was starting to wish that he had come out on horseback. Usually he preferred to make these forays into the forest on foot so that he could decompress and let go of the stress that built up in the city. It also didn't hurt that these trips usually afforded him at least an hour or two of unobserved practice time for magic.
He was nearly running now, trying his best to avoid the roots that stuck out of the ground. For the most part he was successful; though he had stumbled a few times, Merlin had managed to stay on his feet. He would have been back in plenty of time, but his little talk with Iseldir put him behind schedule. Now, Arthur and Gwen would be waiting on their breakfast, and Arthur was never pleasant when he didn't have breakfast on time.
Finally, the castle walls were visible through the trees. Merlin grinned and put on a burst of speed in his eagerness. Unfortunately, it was then that his foot caught in a rabbit hole and he went down in a spectacular tangle of limbs.
"Ooow," he groaned, just lying there for a moment.
"Merlin! That was rather impressive."
"Gwaine!" Merlin sheepishly looked up at his approaching friend. He had tried to avoid being alone with Gwaine ever since the knight had seen Merlin summon his goblet into his hand at the feast. He couldn't be sure if Gwaine had been drunk enough to forget the incident, or if the knight had simply shrugged it off as his imagination. Merlin, however, wasn't about to tempt fate and ask Gwaine if he remembered anything funny about that night.
"Gaius said I might find you out here," Gwaine said without preamble. "You've been avoiding me, Merlin, and I wonder why?" he continued with false confusion.
Of course Gwaine remembered what he saw, Merlin thought defeatedly. That was just his luck. Merlin let out a deep breath and slowly got to his feet, trying to avoid Gwaine's eye.
"Courage, strength, and magic. Mighty strange necessities for a quest. Me, I prefer food and water, a nice bed roll, and maybe a little ale too... Magic, though, not something that I would have put on a packing list for a quest. Especially not a quest involving the prince of Camelot..."
Merlin's face paled at Gwaine's seemingly casual ramblings and he opened his mouth to protest, but Gwaine went on.
"Not to mention all the strange stuff that happens whenever you're on patrol with us. Did you know that when you're there when bandits attack us, half of them trip or develop slippery fingers or lose their pants or the tree branches all suffer a sudden rot? But nothing like that happens when you're not there. The way that Lamia screamed her head off whenever you tried to touch her? And the Dorocha?! No one else thawed out, not a single one. Just you. You are either the luckiest man in all the five kingdoms or you're hiding something."
Again, Merlin opened his mouth, but no sound came out. Gwaine smiled mischievously.
"Did you really think that I hadn't suspected at least a little something curious about you my friend? Seeing that goblet move was just the first real proof I've had. I may play the fool, but I am far from stupid. Of course, you'd know all about that sort of thing, wouldn't you?"
"Why didn't you say anything?" Merlin asked shakily, finally finding his voice.
"Well, I was hoping that you would say something. Lance knew, didn't he?"
"Yes, he did."
"Why didn't you tell me?" Gwaine almost sounded hurt.
"Because I don't like to ask my friends to commit treason. Lancelot only found out by accident."
"Fair enough, I suppose. Though I'm not much one for following rules, you know."
Merlin smiled for the first time since falling. "No, I don't suppose I am, either."
"Only when it suits you, eh? Arthur doesn't know, then, I presume."
"No, and you can't say anything..." Merlin's eyes widened. "Damn! I'm going to be even later now. Come visit me later, I'll be in the stocks, I'm sure!" With that, Merlin took off running again, leaving a chuckling Gwaine to follow in his wake.
Twenty minutes later, Merlin skid to a halt just outside Arthur and Gwen's chambers. It had been quite the whispered scandal amongst the gentry for the king and queen to share rooms. As a commoner, the idea of separate rooms seemed ridiculous, thus Gwen convinced Arthur that it would be much more sensible to share. Considering the benefits, Arthur hadn't been very hard to convince. Though it did make things a bit more time consuming for Merlin. Checking everything was still upright on the tray, Merlin took a deep breath and knocked two firm knocks, followed momentarily by one more. Having his own unique knock made things much less embarrassing for all parties.
"Come in, Merlin," Arthur called. Merlin cringed briefly at the king's tone then plastered his widest grin and burst into the room.
"Morning, your majesties!" he called.
"Please don't call me that!" Gwen moaned from her seat at the table. Merlin simply grinned at her as he set the tray down and started to set the plates in front of them.
"What did you do?" Arthur asked, suspicion clearly in his gaze.
"Nothing! Whatever makes you think I've done something?!"
"Let's see, you're late, you're out of breath, and you never call me 'your majesty,' therefore, you have done something. Should I tell the guards to prepare the stocks? I'll bet cook's got something rotten in the root cellar."
"Arthur, we will not put our best friend in the stocks," Gwen scolded while slicing her sausages. Merlin beamed triumphantly at his best friend. Arthur pouted like a petulant child.
"Well then, at least explain to me why you were more than an hour late?"
"It wasn't my fault! Gaius sent me out for alder bark, horehound and wolfsbane at the crack of dawn! Do know how far into the forest wolfsbane is?"
"It took you nearly four hours to gather three herbs?" Arthur asked incredulously.
"No, while I was out there, I had a little visit." Merlin pulled the scroll that he had luckily managed to remember to pull out of the burlap herb sack and held it out to Arthur.
"What is this?"
"My last will and testament," Merlin offered dryly. "Why don't you open it and find out?"
Arthur glared at him but pulled the scroll from Merlin's hands and looked more closely at it; especially its seal.
"This is a druid symbol," he said, eyeing Merlin questioningly.
"Very good, sire."
Arthur narrowed his eyes once more. Merlin simply put on his cheekiest grin. The king cracked the wax seal and carefully unfurled the parchment.
"This is a request for a meeting to discuss a peace treaty," Arthur said, handing the scroll to an interested Gwen.
"Yes, Arthur," Merlin said, all traces of teasing gone.
"In a fortnight! That's not much time! In the Darkling Woods. Who can I send on this mission?"
"Might I suggest those from the Round table?" Gwen interjected sensibly.
"I'll need a strong leader to stay here, and keep the council in line," Arthur said, looking at Gwen pointedly.
"Me?! What can I possibly do? I've been Queen for a week!"
"By this time, you'll have been queen for three," Arthur said, gesturing to the scroll. "Besides that, from what Geoffrey says, it wouldn't be the first time you put the council in their place. While still a serving girl, no less." Gwen blushed at Arthur's obvious pride.
"You could do it, Gwen," Merlin agreed.
"Well then, Merlin, seeing as you were the one to bring this to my attention, you can plan and prepare provisions for five for the journey. In addition to myself and you, we'll take Leon, Gwaine and Percival. Elyan will stay here in Camelot to ensure Guinevere's safety. This must be kept secret; we will go under the guise of a hunting trip. I'll not have anyone undermine this opportunity," Arthur said.
Merlin nodded solemnly and gave a small but respectful bow and a smile to the two royals before he turned on his heel and left the room. He couldn't help but feel a little lightheaded and giddy. Destiny was hurtling towards them faster than Merlin could imagine.
"Please be safe," Guinevere murmured into Arthur's shoulder. Merlin stood a few feet away, discreetly checking the girth straps and saddle bags on the horses that stood ready in the courtyard.
"Of course I will be. I'll have three of my best knights with me. I'll be perfectly safe." Arthur sealed his promise with a kiss and stood back as Leon, Gwaine and Percival strode down the steps and to their mounts. Merlin approached and stayed back a respectful distance as Arthur and Gwen said their farewells.
"Even still. Take this with you and remember me before you do anything stupid," Gwen said, tying her kerchief around the king's right arm.
"I'll keep him safe, Gwen," Merlin chimed in, causing Arthur to roll his eyes.
"As if a scrawny manservant could protect the king of Camelot," Arthur teased good-naturedly. Though loathe to admit it, Arthur knew for a fact that Merlin had saved his life more than once.
"I've told you before, Prat. You don't know how many times I've saved your life."
Everyone chuckled appreciatively at the banter between the two friends. Though Gwaine was nearly bent double he was laughing so hard at Merlin's response. Arthur, Gwen, and the rest of the gathered knights looked at him with a raised eyebrow.
"Sorry," Gwaine apologized, still trying to control his mirth. "It was just funny, that's all."
Merlin rolled his eyes at Gwaine, though not for the reason everyone else assumed. Then his face brightened. Merlin wasn't sure if those without magic could hear thoughts directed at them, but he decided to try it and see if he could give Gwaine a little friendly prod. With one last wave, they all pulled themselves into their saddles and turned their horses about, heading towards the city gates.
"You're being rather obvious, Gwaine. Just remember who packed the provisions, including your bedroll and your stash of mead before you go inadvertently revealing any secrets. I hear that plenty of gear goes missing on such rough travel routes."
Merlin smiled innocently at the knight beside him, who, judging by his gobsmacked expression, heard Merlin's message loud and clear. The warlock laughed joyfully as he kicked his horse to move faster and took his place on Arthur's right side.
Within a couple hours, they had reached the Darkling Woods and Arthur signaled for them to stop. Everyone took the opportunity to drink from their water skins and eat some dried meat from their packs. Several times throughout the morning, Merlin had caught Gwaine looking at him with narrowed eyes and a wrinkled forehead. The warlock had to wonder when Gwaine would realize that without magic, his efforts to mentally communicate were in vain. The thought made him grin widely.
"Did Iseldir tell you anything about where their camp was within the forest?" Arthur asked Merlin, whose eyes widened at the sudden attention placed upon him. He hadn't thought of how he was supposed to explain his innate knowledge of where the druids were camped. He didn't think that Arthur would appreciate the truth, that he planned on following their magic like a hunter tracked their quarry.
"Yes," he improvised quickly, shifting anxiously in his saddle. "He said I would just know when we got here."
"Is that something every magic user says?"
"What?! I don't know. Why would I know? Why are you asking me?" Merlin rambled. Arthur looked at his manservant as though he had suddenly sprouted a third arm.
"I don't know why I bother to ask you anything," Arthur taunted. "Regardless of your general ineptitude, Morgause said the same when I went to meet her. Turned out my ruddy horse knew the way, remember?"
"Are you comparing me to a horse?"
"Don't be stupid, Merlin."
Said warlock grinned at successfully distracting Arthur from his question.
"So where are we going?" Leon asked, guiding his horse to Arthur's left side. Both men looked expectantly at Merlin who continued to fidget in his seat. Merlin took a deep breath and closed his eyes, feeling for any source of magic nearby.
"This way," he said, kicking his horse into motion without a backwards glance. Arthur raised his eyebrows and shared a bewildered look with Leon.
"Shouldn't we follow?" Percival asked, ever sensible.
"Of course. Let's go," Arthur said, following his friend deeper into the woods. Arthur could only hope that Merlin really did know where the hell he was going.
Merlin, much to Arthur's annoyance, didn't say anything else. He rode on about ten feet in front of the group, occasionally pausing and redirecting his horse incrementally. When the forest became too dense and treacherous for the horses, they left them hobbled in a small clearing and continued on foot.
"It's not much farther now," Merlin murmured. He halted, closed his eyes and tilted his head slightly as though he were hearing something in the distance. No one but Merlin could hear the mental whispers of the druid camp. It reminded the warlock of the time Mordred and Alvarr had come to seek Morgana's assistance in stealing the Crystal of Neahtid. Except that this was a conglomeration of happy voices; children playing magical games together, mothers calling for their children, and neighbors visiting in harmony. It was almost pleasant. Certainly a far cry from the discomfort he had felt when Mordred had infiltrated Camelot.
"This way," Merlin repeated, opening his eyes and striding confidently towards a slight rise in the distance, just to the right of the company. Arthur and his knights looked to one another for a moment and shrugged, deciding to catch up to the gangly manservant who had just disappeared over the top of the hill. Arthur, Leon, Gwaine and Percival had just started to climb the incline when they heard children shouting.
"Emrys has come!"
"He is here!"
Arthur paused at the top of the hill and nearly fell down in shock. There at the bottom of the hill lay a little valley, dotted with crude tents that blended into the woods around them. There were several cooking fires burning with women tending to them while preparing the midday meal. Flags and unmistakably magical totems hung from low tree branches. It was definitely the druid camp. The largest gathering of the peaceful people that Arthur or the knights had ever seen.
However, that was not what had Arthur ready to fall over. That honor belonged to the sight at the bottom of the hill on the edge of the camp. There stood Merlin, surrounded by druid children, each of them trying to climb on him and hug him. Though most shocking of all were the parents of the children who had come running at the sound of their children's ecstatic voices. They were bowing. To Merlin. As though he were their king. More and more druids came through the maze of tents and trees and gasped at the sight of Arthur's manservant; some simply nodded their heads respectfully. Others bowed as well. Merlin was reaching out to the children, ruffling their hair and laughing at their exuberance. He hadn't noticed the adults on the periphery; otherwise, he may have been less surprised by what happened next.
"Emrys?" Percival choked out, white-faced and staring at Merlin as though he were an entirely different person. Leon was staring, open-mouthed. Gwaine was smiling, but his eyebrows were just as high as Gaius'. Arthur opened his mouth to speak, but found he couldn't utter a thing. The king recovered sufficiently enough to clear his throat rather loudly. At the sound, Merlin froze ramrod-straight and hung his head in defeat.
"Merlin?!" Arthur finally managed. "Care to tell us what the hell is going on?"
Arthur's words were like a bucket of icy water dumped over Merlin's head. He had been entirely surprised when he had started down the hill and had been besieged by druid children. At first, he hadn't known why they had all recognized him; not every magic user or druid possessed the ability to know him on sight. Freya hadn't known, nor had Aglain. Only Iseldir and Mordred had ever known exactly who Merlin was. He couldn't be certain whether Alator had known because of Gaius or if he too would have recognized him as Emrys on sight.
"Merlin?! Are you listening?! What is going on?! Who is this Emrys that these people have been waiting for?" Arthur asked impatiently. He concentrated on taking deep breaths so as to not storm over to his manservant and take him by the shoulders and shake him. The druids surrounding Merlin silently returned to their duties in the camp. The parents ushered their children away, sensing the monumental event that was moments away from taking place.
"Why did they call you Emrys?" Leon asked, staring at Merlin in confusion.
"Yes, tell us Merlin." Arthur ordered. He couldn't remove his gaze from his friend's back.
"It is time, Emrys."
Merlin looked up at the mental contact. Iseldir stood several feet away; when Merlin met his eye, the Druid elder gave a respectful nod of his head and stepped forward.
"This day was foretold," the druid leader told Merlin privately. Then he turned towards Arthur and spoke aloud. "We meet again, Arthur Pendragon. I am Iseldir, chieftain of my clan. You are troubled. Before we discuss what brought you here, perhaps you would prefer to explore these matters with your friends on the other side of the hill? There you will be afforded privacy."
"Yes, I think that best. Merlin?" Arthur voiced it as a question, but Merlin could not deny the order within the query.
Merlin nodded, turning around to see Arthur and the knights climbing back up the rise. Taking a shaky breath, he followed them back the way they had come, hoping that when all was said and done, he could still claim these men as friends.
As Merlin came over the hillcrest, his heart pounded and his head swam, but he pushed forward, one step at a time. The knights turned as one to watch Merlin as he approached. Arthur, however, remained with his back to him. Merlin came to a stop and out of habit, assumed a proper servant's pose. His head bowed, arms clasped behind his back. Leon, Gwaine and Percival looked to one another and nodded in wordless agreement to hear Merlin out.
"It was not due to your postion as my manservant that this treaty request was directed through you, was it. Tell me, Merlin. Do you have magic?" Arthur asked without further preamble. "For that matter, who is Emrys and why were those druids bowing to you like you were their king?!"
"You don't know how long I've wanted to tell you," Merlin insisted, without lifting his head.
"Then you do not deny that you have magic?!" Arthur asked incredulously, his gaze still fixed on some distant tree.
"I do not," Merlin said firmly, lifting his head regally. At the warlock's stern tone, Arthur finally turned and was taken aback by Merlin's posture and the power that suddenly radiated from the usually humble servant. Merlin's eyes shone like they were lit within. There was an intensity to him that Arthur had never before seen.
Arthur nearly shuddered at the realization that his best and most loyal friend had betrayed him. But he held himself strong, showing no reaction beyond his fierce glare. It was Merlin's previously doubtless loyalty and steadfast friendship that stayed Arthur's hand. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath, calming himself and waiting for his manservant to elucidate. He owed Merlin that much; a chance to explain. Arthur met Merlin's unwavering gaze once more and was momentarily stunned by the unshed tears in his servant's eyes.
"Who is Emrys?" Arthur asked. The steel in his voice betraying just how close to breaking he was.
"I am Emrys," Merlin said, eyeing Arthur evenly, gauging the king's reaction. Leon looked entirely confused; Gwaine, less confused, but no more certain. However, Percival looked at Merlin with what could only be awe.
"WHAT DOES THAT MEAN!?" Arthur suddenly yelled, his anger bleeding out at last. "Are you their prince? Their KING?! Is Emrys your name or some sort of title? Have you been nothing more than a false friend? A SPY, A TRAITOR, ALL THESE YEARS AT MY SIDE?!"
"Emrys is not the name my mother gave me; it is what the druids call me. I had never heard of Emrys before we helped the druid boy Mordred escape Camelot," Merlin said with forced calm. "It's difficult to explain."
"Start trying," Arthur gritted out, hands planted on his hips. Merlin took in a shaky breath, grateful, at least, that Arthur's hand hadn't once gone to the hilt of his sword. Merlin opened his mouth, but nothing seemed to want to come out; there was a lump in his throat that felt like a stone.
"Arthur, I think I can help," Percival said.
"Did you know about this?!" Arthur rounded on Percival, fury in his eyes.
"Not about Merlin, sire, but I have heard tell of Emrys."
Everyone looked shocked at the usually quiet knight, even Merlin. Percival met the warlock's gaze, as if asking permission. Merlin nodded.
"I was not born in Camelot, sire," Percival explained, finally looking away from the manservant and meeting the eyes of the anxious king. "I was raised in Essetir, the same as Merlin. Magic was not banned, but it was frowned upon; my village lay close to Camelot's borders.
"When I was a boy, we had a terrible illness kill many of our number. Had it not been for a nearby druid encampment and their healers, we would all have perished. The druid healers stayed in our village for many days and nights, helping the sick by day and telling us of their histories and prophecies by firelight when the sun went down. One of the stories that they told us was of Emrys, the greatest warlock to ever live, and of his destiny to protect the Once and Future King. I thought it was just a story," Percival finished.
At the last, Arthur's eyes widened, tearing away from Percival and locking his cool blue gaze on Merlin's.
"'Once and Future King.' You've called me that before. When I sent Mithian away. What did you mean?" Arthur said, gaining some control over himself.
"Yes, I've called you the Once and Future King before," Merlin agreed, finding his voice. "It was foretold before either of us was born, that together, we would unite Albion and return magic to the land."
"Return magic?!" Arthur ground out. "Tell me Merlin, why would I bring back magic?! Why would I restore the very thing that killed my parents? Magic is evil! Why would you learn magic? WHY WOULD YOU DO THAT TO ME? I TRUSTED YOU!" Arthur took three hasty steps towards Merlin, intent on grabbing the young man as he'd wanted to.
"IT WAS NEVER MY CHOICE TO LIE TO YOU!" Merlin yelled right back, shocking Arthur to a halt with his defiance.
"EVERY MAN HAS A CHOICE! You taught me that, Merlin," Arthur growled, jabbing his finger at his manservant while struggling to regain his composure.
"Oh, now you remember everything I ever said!" Merlin said, exasperated.
"Yes, I also remember you saying more than once that you wouldn't lie to me," Arthur stated, calm, yet steely.
"Excuse me for liking where my head sat on my shoulders," Merlin spat.
"Do you honestly think that I could kill you, Merlin?" Arthur asked, shaking his head. "Banish you, perhaps, but I could not kill you."
"That's exactly why I lied. You need me to protect you, and I can't very well do that while exiled, can I?"
"When did you start practicing magic?" Arthur asked, hurt. Merlin folded his arms defensively.
"I was a newborn babe in my mother's arms when I performed magic for the first time. Lit every candle in my mother's house when I cried."
Arthur and the knight's eyes widened at the implications of that statement, but Merlin plunged on.
"So ponder this, sire, before you get so angry at me. I have spent every hour of my entire life under the threat that someone would realize that I had magic and take me straight to the pyre. The first lesson my mother ever taught me was keep the magic secret.
"Whenever soldiers or travelers came through Ealdor when I was a child, my mother would hide me in a grain barrel, worried that I'd be taken or killed for something I couldn't help and could hardly control. That's why she sent me to Camelot; to Gaius. She hoped that he'd be able to help me control my gift before it completely controlled me or got me killed. I had not been in Camelot for more than an hour before Gaius insisted, '...tell no one, or you'll lose your head.' I could't help but believe him since I had just witnessed a man's beheading for having used magic." Merlin fell silent and waited for Arthur to process that.
"My father has been dead for nearly a year, Merlin. Why did you not tell me since then?"
"Believe me, I wanted to, but every time I thought that maybe I could, you'd say something like 'magic is evil, magic is dangerous, magic cannot be trusted,' shall I go on? Every time you've said that, you've basically told me that if you knew what I was, you would see me as evil, dangerous and untrustworthy."
"That still doesn't excuse your lies," Arthur argued feebly. Merlin rolled his eyes in frustration.
"What would you do, Arthur, in my place? Look at this from my perspective! Let's say that your father was very worried about you, thought you were an uncontrollable soldier liable to hurt yourself as much as the next person, and that you needed to be trained better. Let's say he sent you to Ealdor, since he's got a friend there who can teach you to be a better soldier. But the day you get to this little village, you find out that they hate royalty, especially princes. There's even a captured prince in the town square, waiting to be executed for the terrible crime of being born royal.
"Let's say you stood there, helpless, when the leader of the village brought that axe down and lopped off that prince's head. Maybe you'd think twice about staying there, but after you found your father's friend, you're told that you're really there because of destiny. You didn't ask for it, you didn't even want it! Yet now it's your job, nay, your duty, to return nobility to this village. But there's a catch! You have to protect everyone from evil princes, yet convince them that princes aren't really so bad, all while you make sure that no one realizes you're a prince. Otherwise, your head is next on the block and your destiny is lost, forcing the land into years of darkness and chaos."
Arthur gaped at Merlin who stood breathing heavily after his outburst. Was that truly how things had been for Merlin, Arthur wondered. Would he himself have done any differently in that situation? Could he have done any differently?
"It was you," Arthur said, putting the pieces together, entirely taken aback.
"What?" Merlin asked, confused.
"After Gaius was abducted. When I apologized for doubting him he said that there were many people with different beliefs who were seeking to protect me, because they believed in the land I wanted to create. That someday, I would know how much they had done for me. That I would understand. He wasn't talking about just anyone, was he? All this talk about destiny... Gaius was talking about you, Merlin."
"I suppose he was," Merlin admitted, holding his head high.
"I've been taught all my life that magic is evil, Merlin," Arthur said, finally softening.
"I've lived all my life knowing that it isn't, Arthur."
"What is it then?" Arthur asked, suddenly exhausted by the revelations he'd had thrown into his face. Merlin pondered that for a moment.
"I was once told that magic was neither good nor bad, it just is. Magic is, its like herbs!"
"Magic is like herbs?" Arthur said dryly, raising an eyebrow in disbelief. "That's the stupidest thing I've ever heard, even from you, Merlin."
"No, really! Think about it, if you can manage it! If you use herbs improperly, they can be a deadly poison. Use them for the right purposes, and they can be a great instrument for good. It is the heart, the intent, of the magic user that decides whether it is light or dark."
"You honestly believe that?" Arthur said, hope shining in his eyes for the first time.
"Do I seem evil to you? One who has never known a moment without magic? If I were evil, would I have willingly drunk poison for you, faced a dragon with you, or jumped in front of a Dorocha in your stead? Would I have stood by your side, given you strength when you were lost? Would I have 'ridden into the mouth of hell' for you?"
"I have to say I agree, sire," Leon interrupted. "I owe my very life to magic. Were it not for the druids, I would have died long ago."
"And I," Percival agreed. "I would have died as a child if it weren't for magic."
"I can't say that I'm particularly fond of Morgana's brand of magic," Gwaine said. "But I've been all over the five kingdoms and I've seen what Merlin says. There are plenty of people out there who have magic that aren't out for blood."
Arthur stood still, taking in the council of three of his best knights and trying to control his turbulent emotions. More than once after he was crowned prince of Camelot, Arthur had questioned his father's stance on magic. He had developed a genuine distaste for how quick his father was to jump to conclusions when it came to magic and sorcerers.
Guinevere herself had been an innocent victim of Uther's prejudice; more than once, in fact. The first time for something as innocuous as a healing poultice. Arthur thought back on that particular experience and was taken aback at the memory of Merlin bursting through the doors of the council chamber and declaring that he was the sorcerer that had healed Tom, not Guinevere. Arthur himself was the one to deny Merlin's claims, insisting his manservant was a fool in love.
The king nearly gasped at the realization. Merlin had always been there for him and for Guinevere, from the very first week he had come to Camelot. Pulling Arthur out of the path of a dagger or knowingly drinking poison for him. Facing a dragon or prodding a recalitrant prince or storming a castle full of immortal men set on killing them. Merlin had always done more for Arthur and Camelot than any other servant. Arthur could not deny it. He wondered what else Merlin had said or done that Arthur had dismissed as impossible.
"What of my mother? Were you telling the truth then?" Arthur asked, entirely vulnerable.
"Not entirely," Merlin admitted, quickly elaborating when Arthur's eyes darkened. "You were born of magic, but your father didn't know that it would be your mother's life taken in the bargain. Morgause truly did twist the truth to her liking to try and get you to kill your father."
"Why did you stop me? I was prepared to accept magic at that point. I was ready to kill my father for his lies and his hypocrisy. Yet you stopped me. It would have made your life much easier had you let me kill him."
"Yes, it would have. But it would have destroyed you. Once your father was dead, you would have realized what you had done and you would have begun your reign tainted by guilt. Not to mention the distrust of your people."
"You said then that magic was evil and that sorcerers lied."
"Well, I lied, obviously."
"You're not helping your case, Merlin," Arthur said, narrowing his eyes at the warlock.
"I had to say something, you wouldn't have listened otherwise."
"What of Morgana? Agravaine? Did you know about them?"
"Yes," Merlin confirmed.
"Why did you say nothing? How much could we have avoided if you hadn't held your tongue?"
"I did say something, as I recall, you threatened to exile me for it," Merlin replied testily. "As a servant my word means nothing, even when I've been right more than a dozen times before."
"Why did you stay?" Arthur asked, guilt flashing in his eyes.
"Because, I believe in the world you will build."
"If you're so powerful, why haven't you tried to take the throne yourself?" Arthur asked warily. "Why wait for me at all?"
"I have no desire to rule, Arthur. It is my destiny to help you to fulfill your destiny to rule over all of Albion as the greatest king history will ever know. And you can be sure that, in this, I am telling the complete truth. For nearly seven years I have let you order me about, use me as a training dummy, repeatedly put me in the stocks and occasionally arrest me when I could have just killed you anytime I wanted."
Arthur froze at Merlin's blunt answer. Leon tensed, shocked at Merlin's admission, his eyes shifting between the king and his manservant. Gwaine and Percival looked to one another with wide eyes. None of them could imagine Merlin as a real threat to Arthur. The skinny servant was the clumsiest man to ever wield a sword on the training fields.
"You say that you could have killed me anytime you wanted. Would it really have been that easy?" Arthur asked doubtfully. He too couldn't imagine Merlin being able to hurt a fly.
"Do you remember when we first met?" Merlin asked.
"You mean in the market when you called me a prat for the first time?" Arthur said in frustration at the memory and at sudden change of subject.
"Yes. You told me 'I could take you apart with one blow,'" Merlin raised his eyebrow, hoping Arthur would remember the rest.
"You said you could take me apart with less," Arthur said skeptically. "How?"
"You see that tree stump over there?" Merlin gestured with a tilt of his head to a large stump, left behind when its tree was felled. Arthur answered with a confused nod. With a flash of his eyes and a jerk of his chin, Merlin obliterated the stump in a shower of splinters. Arthur's mouth dropped open and he met his friend's solemn eyes with newfound respect. Then he looked back to the demolished wood with undisguised amazement.
"Have mercy," Leon breathed, causing Merlin to wince before he smiled what he hoped was a disarming grin at the astonished knights. Gwaine and Percival were smiling back at him; there was a hint of pride in their expressions. Leon looked just as shocked as Arthur, though there was no anger in his countenance.
"How many times do I really owe you my life? How many times has it been you who has saved Camelot from the brink of destruction?" Arthur asked, finally pulling his eyes away from the shattered stump. His mind swirled with undefeatable magical beasts and immortal armies that disappeared, or collapsed, or exploded inexplicably. How many times had he ridden out to certain death, only to return with naught but a cheeky, unarmed manservant at his side?
"I'm not sure you really want to know that, Arthur," Merlin smirked. "Your head may not withstand the deflation."
"I do. No more secrets. I want to know everything."
"You may not like everything that you hear."
"I don't care. I want to know."
"We haven't got time now. We could just sit here all day to cover everything that has happened since I have been your servant, but there is a gathering over that hill that is waiting for us to take the proverbial axe off their necks."
"Proverbial? That's a big word, Merlin," Arthur teased, slipping easily into their usual banter.
"Yes, I do have a rather impressive vocabulary," Merlin agreed, smiling impishly. Arthur narrowed his eyes at Merlin's very effective diffusion of his barb.
"Do you promise me that you are on our side in this?" Arthur asked.
"I have always been on your side, Arthur. That will never change."
"Then let's work together to earn peace for your people," Arthur said, holding his arm out to Merlin. The warlock looked at the offered arm for just a second before reaching out his own. Arthur surprised Merlin by gripping the thin man's forearm and pulling him into a friendly embrace, complete with a few thumps to the back that knocked the air from the manservant's lungs.
"Thank you, Arthur," Merlin said without a hint of sarcasm as they pulled away.
"I feel that I should be thanking you, instead," Arthur replied.
"This is incredibly touching and all, but perhaps we should actually accomplish what we came here for? Besides, it's dinner time, and there is something cooking in that camp that smells delicious," Gwaine interrupted.
"As usual, Gwaine, you have such an amazing way with words," Arthur said sarcastically.
"I am pretty amazing, aren't I."
"Gwaine, we don't need any more fat heads. Our horses will hardly be able to carry the burden," Merlin taunted, throwing a smile over his shoulder as he started over the hill once more.
As the five of them rejoined the gathering of druids, they were met again by children, who grabbed them by the hands and led them to the center of the camp where the three largest tents stood, arranged in a triangle and facing a fire pit in the center of a large open area.
Iseldir was waiting for them with the other two chieftains that Merlin had met before, Morien and Heilyn. Iseldir stepped forward and bowed his head in respect to Merlin before turning to Arthur and greeting him as an equal.
"Arthur Pendragon, as I said previously, I am Iseldir, chieftain of the eastern clans." He gestured to the two men beside him. "This is Heilyn, chieftain of the northern clans, and Morien, chieftain of the southern clans."
"Are there no western clans?" Arthur asked curiously.
"You recognise the druid symbol, yes?" Iseldir pulled back his sleeve, showing the triskelion tattoo on his forearm. "We believe in the power of three; past, present and future. Therefore, we separate ourselves into three main groups. Each clan then separates into many small encampments as our need for concealment prevents large groupings. We avoid the west as a general rule as its fewer, thinner forests make it harder to hide our presence."
Arthur nodded in understanding. Then he, Merlin and the knights followed Iseldir to sit around the fire pit to discuss peace.
"I promise you, Iseldir, Morien, and Heilyn," Arthur said nearly an hour later as he looked to each clan leader in turn. "Your people will be safe and protected. You will be given the respect you deserve."
All three druids smiled gratefully and bowed in respect.
"We have waited many years to hear those words, King Arthur," Morien said.
"Indeed, this is a time long spoken of in prophecy," Heilyn agreed.
"Let us share a meal together and celebrate new friendships," Iseldir said, gesturing to several young men and women who immediately brought bowls of a simple but hearty stew to them. Water was poured into carved wooden cups and passed around to the gathered men.
Throughout the afternoon, Merlin watched with unrestrained happiness as magic was used without fear in front of four of his closest friends; neither they nor the magicians seemed uneasy. Merlin had even joined in himself, calming a young boy's nerves when Merlin conjured a dragon in the smoke of the fire to show that the king and the knights wouldn't react poorly to magic.
When the food was gone, Iseldir, Morien and Heilyn regaled Arthur, Merlin, Leon, Gwaine and Percival with stories of past, present and future. Merlin told of some of the things he had done to protect Arthur and Camelot. Notably, how he had met the Great Dragon and consulted with him many times. When Iseldir recounted how it was foretold that Morgana and Morgause would thrice siege Camelot with an immortal army, only to be thwarted by Emrys at every turn, Arthur gave Merlin a long, hard look.
"It wasn't Morgana who destroyed the skeleton army," Arthur stated, without looking away from Merlin.
"No, it was me. I followed her into the burial vaults and tried to convince her to stop, but she wouldn't give up. I broke the staff that animated the bones, after I dueled Morgana with a sword, I might add." Arthur's eyes widened at the pleased smile on Merlin's face.
"Why does she hate us so much?" Arthur asked, still hurt over his sister's betrayal.
"I'm afraid some of that fault lies with me," Merlin admitted, all trace of his smile gone.
"How?" Arthur asked, wondering if this was part of what he wasn't going to like.
"You remember her nightmares?"
Arthur nodded, and Merlin continued.
"She's a seer; her magic is natural and powerful, like mine, though it didn't manifest until she was an adult. Gaius and I recognized it for what it was, but we disagreed on whether or not to tell Morgana that she had magic. Gaius felt that she would do better not knowing about her gift because if Uther found out he wouldn't see it as such. But Morgana was terrified that she was becoming a monster; she confided in me that she was scared and that she knew it was magic. I wanted so badly to tell her that I had magic and that I understood what she was going through, but Gaius had made me promise not to reveal my magic to her. So I did the best thing I could and sent her to the druids for guidance. They never kidnapped her; they were trying to help Morgana."
Arthur closed his eyes, feeling even more guilty for raiding the druid camp that his sister had sought refuge with.
"When I realized that Uther was going to kill everyone he'd arrested because he thought Morgana had been kidnapped, I went to her and begged her to come back. She didn't want to, but in the end she didn't have much choice. After that, Morgana despised Uther even more than when he condemned Gwen's father."
"Sending her to the druids doesn't make you responsible for her actions, Merlin," Arthur said sternly. Merlin, however shook his head in denial.
"I could have told her then that I had magic, helped her to see that she wasn't alone, but I didn't. I left her alone and scared in order to keep myself safe. Then, she met Morgause and was taken in by her promises of family and power and revenge. Worse of all, I thwarted Morgause's intention to take Camelot with the Knights of Medhir because she underestimated me and how far I would go to protect you and Camelot." Merlin looked down at his boots and picked up a twig on the ground, twirling it absentmindedly.
"Just how far did you go, Merlin?" Arthur asked warily.
"Morgause needed a vessel for the spell that caused everyone to fall asleep. For the energy needed for that spell, the vessel had to be powerful in their own right." Merlin glanced around, seeing the apprehension on everyone's faces. He swallowed heavily and continued. "Morgause made Morgana the vessel. The only way to end the spell was by destroying the anchoring vessel. It was Morgana or all of Camelot; I had to kill her. I tricked her into drinking hemlock to break the sleeping spell and bargained her life in return for Morgause calling off the Knights of Medhir. Morgana has never forgiven me and I'm afraid that my actions may have eliminated any sense of loyalty to Camelot that she once had."
"We all have our choices, Merlin. Even Morgana. You didn't make her hate us, she did that on her own. If she didn't appreciate your betrayal, then she shouldn't have betrayed us first. I do not blame you Merlin."
Merlin smiled weakly. "Would you be so forgiving if I told you I released the dragon and that you never killed him?"
Arthur's face burned with sudden anger. "What?!"
"I didn't know he would attack Camelot, I swear," Merlin began. "But as I said before, I had gone to him for knowledge and advice many times, and he said that he wouldn't help me anymore until I promised to free him. I had already promised to free him a year before the Knights of Medhir attacked, but I had never intended to follow through and he knew it. He wouldn't tell me how to break the sleeping enchantment until I promised on my mother's life that I would set him free." Merlin had tears in his eyes again. He blinked them back furiously, hoping that Arthur would forgive him.
"Many people lost their lives, their loved ones, when that dragon attacked, Merlin."
"I know, I know. And I hold myself responsible for every last one of them. But I and Camelot have greatly benefitted from Kilgharrah's freedom as well."
"Kilgharrah? The beast has a name? I suppose you gave it to him, soft-hearted fool that you are," Arthur groused irritatedly.
"Kilgharrah has had a name for more than a thousand years, Arthur. I couldn't change that no matter how much control I have over him."
"Control? You have control over the dragon?"
"Did I not mention that?" Merlin asked innocently.
"No, Merlin, you conveniently left that bit out."
"Are you a dragonlord?" Leon asked, confused. "I thought that Balinor had been the last?"
"Balinor was a dragonlord, but he was not the last," Merlin explained. He looked to Arthur, hoping he wouldn't have to say it. "The gift is passed on from father to son, upon the death of the father."
"Are you saying that Balinor was your father?" Arthur asked, finally understanding Merlin's incredibly emotional response to the dragonlord's death. He looked to his manservant with empathy in his eyes.
"Yes. He escaped the purge with help from Gaius. Did you know Gaius is my great-uncle? He sent Balinor to his niece, Hunith, in Ealdor. She took Balinor in and sheltered him for a time and they fell in love. Uther tracked my father to Ealdor despite its being beyond Camelot's borders and my father fled to protect my mother. He didn't know I existed until we found him in that cave. He died protecting me from Cenred's men. He wouldn't have been there if not for me; I killed him when I released Kilgharrah just as much as I killed everyone who died in those attacks."
"How then can you defend the beast?" Arthur asked. "Has his freedom really been that beneficial?"
"Yes. He healed me when Morgause and Morgana bound me and left me to the serkets. He's carried me safely over hostile territory. He saved Lancelot and I from the Dorocha when we were catching up to you, and he covered our retreat from Ealdor when Agravaine led the Southrons right to us. He incinerated the entire legion, save Agravaine and five men," Merlin explained. The knights and Arthur raised their eyebrows in astonishment.
"Then what happened to Agra- You killed Agravaine, when you went back in the tunnels," Arthur said, realization dawning.
"And the other men with him as well? You said five?" Gwaine asked, amazed.
"They cornered me, left me very little choice. I had to protect Arthur and Gwen." Merlin twirled his twig some more, using it to draw shapes in the dirt and avoid the astonished gazes of those around him.
"You really are the most loyal man I've ever met, Merlin," Leon said, shaking his head in wonder. Gwaine and Percival both nodded wordlessly.
"No sense of self preservation, though," Arthur said wryly. Merlin finally lifted his head and gave a chagrined smile.
"I bet you're a load of fun when you're drunk though, huh?" Gwaine laughed.
"No, not a good idea, Gwaine." Merlin said solemnly.
"So you do more than summon flagons from across a table then?"
"What?! Did you know about Merlin before today, Gwaine?" Arthur asked incredulously.
"I've suspected for awhile that there was something funny about Merlin, but I didn't have proof until your wedding banquet," Gwaine said, meeting Arthur's curious eyes. "Merlin here was rather tipsy and he held out a hand for his mug and it came right to him without a word. At first I thought I imagined it, until Merlin started avoiding me like a pair of dirty socks. Then I finally caught up to him two weeks ago and forced him to spill the beans."
Arthur narrowed his eyes at Gwaine, deciding that it wasn't worth it to argue with the mead-loving knight.
"So what else happens when you're drunk? Why is moving flagons so bad?" Percival asked reasonably.
"It's not a pretty sight," Merlin hedged, refusing to elaborate further.
"What's the worst that could happen? So you turn Princess into a toad," Gwaine chuckled along with the other knights. Arthur grunted indignantly and Merlin sighed in defeat.
"I gave a cow a unicorn's horn, turned a pig purple and made all the chickens lay blue robin's eggs for two days straight the first and only time I've ever been truly drunk," Merlin said, much to everyone's amusement.
"What are you so worried about then?" Arthur asked curiously, trying not to laugh in the face of Merlin's seriousness.
"I'm not sure how I did those things; Will said I was doing strange things every time I hiccupped. But I was maybe just fifteen at the time; I didn't know any spells then. And my powers have increased greatly as I've grown older and more experienced. I worry that if I ever truly lost control like that again, what happened to that tree stump earlier would be the least of my worries."
With that, all of them sobered. Arthur realized that the sun had begun to sink lower in the sky and he stood to signal their need to depart. Once everyone was on their feet, Arthur nodded to the chieftains with respect.
"I hope that our peoples will forever more live in peace," he said. "We left our horses and our provisions in a clearing a few miles back. I feel it is time for us to bid you farewell, and return to our horses to make camp."
"Thank you for coming; we appreciate your willingness for peace."
All three chieftains bowed their heads at Iseldir's words. The five representatives of Camelot returned the gesture before they turned and made their way back through the forest.
Arthur was especially reserved on the journey back to the horses. Everything that he had learned in the last several hours tumbled through his head, leaving him distracted. The knights, however, made up for his solemnity, laughing and joking with one another. Percival and Leon passed the time by recalling moments that now seemed painfully obvious in the fact that magic had been involved. Gwaine chattered at Merlin, asking increasingly ridiculous questions about the sorts of things Merlin could do. After the warlock admitted to using his magic for pranks with his boyhood friend Will, Gwaine was eager to hear what sort of trouble Merlin had gotten into as a child. The conversation brought to Arthur's mind a particular moment from that afternoon.
There had been a young waif of a boy in the druid camp; he couldn't have been more than ten. He had been cautious and nervous around the king and the knights. At first the boy had been hesitant to come too close to them as he tended to the fire in the central pit, staying nearer to Merlin, Iseldir and the other druid leaders as he lay new logs and stirred them with a long stick. The boy was very unlike the older children who had blatantly performed magic without second thought as they served food and water. Arthur convinced himself it was sympathy for the boy's difficult life that had caused him to notice this child in particular. Not because the black-haired waif bore a vague resemblance to a young Merlin.
Arthur couldn't help but wonder what this child's life had been like thus far, as he wouldn't have known anything besides hiding in the woods from those that would kill him for being born. It had brought Merlin's story of Hunith's fear of Merlin's being discovered as a magical child into stark reality for Arthur. Though Merlin hadn't voiced it directly, it was implied in his passionate defense earlier that he had lived in fear for his life because of a gift he had not asked for. Arthur didn't like to think that anyone, let alone a child, was afraid of him. As such, he felt compelled to soothe the boy's fear.
Arthur's curiosity rose even further when it seemed Merlin was communicating with the boy silently. Merlin had noticed who had drawn the king's attention, guessed correctly what Arthur was worried about and had mentally reached out to the boy. After a moment, the child had nodded slightly, giving Merlin a reserved smile and an eager look in his eyes. Iseldir, Heilyn and Morien leaned forward as well, interested in what Merlin was planning.
Merlin had grinned and made a show of stirring the logs in the fire with only a gesture, forming the resultant smoke into an enormous and highly detailed dragon breathing a plume of sparks. Arthur and the others gasped at the appearance of the smoky figure, then looked to Merlin in awe. The boy's reserved smile grew wider and more exuberant as he saw the respect on Arthur's and the knight's faces. Merlin allowed the dragon to fade and gestured to the fire in invitation.
"Go ahead, Delwyn," Merlin encouraged, surprising Arthur with the use of the boy's name.
Delwyn scowled at the fire in intense concentration, then held out a thin hand and said, "Mearcweard."
A wolf appeared, smaller and much less defined than Merlin's dragon. It was a hazy, static image, whereas the dragon had been moving gracefully as though in flight. Delwyn's face had fallen at his less-impressive display, but Merlin shrugged it off.
"You just need to practice," he assured Delwyn. Arthur was struck silent for a few minutes afterwards. Delwyn was the youngest person Arthur had ever witnessed performing magic. There was no way that he could see the boy as evil; he was young and innocent, as Arthur knew many who perished in the purge had been.
Arthur took a good look around him, taking in the people and their way of life. The frolicking children and the gentle mothers and the patient fathers could no more be evil for their magic than Arthur was for being king. Though he would never admit it, Arthur acknowledged to himself that Merlin had been right. He would however, admit to everyone that he knew that magic did not make a person evil. It was their choices more than their gifts that made them good or bad.
By unspoken agreement, everyone took care of their own horse and bedroll when the five men reached their hobbled mounts. Merlin was also unfailingly put in charge of their supper, being the best cook amongst them. Fortunately, Percival had the forethought to set a few traps before they had left for the druid camp that morning. The three plump rabbits they had snared would supplement their provisions along with the roots and mushrooms Merlin had foraged.
None of the knights nor Arthur had even blinked when Merlin had wordlessly summoned the salt, carrots and potatoes from his pack which sat more than ten feet away. Neither did they react when he lit the fire and nestled the iron pot into the resulting coals with a flash of his eyes and a subtle gesture of his hand. Openly using magic had made supper preparations much faster and easier for Merlin; there was very little that could dampen the smile on his face. For the first time in his life, he truly felt what freedom was.
"Merlin, mate, how did you ever hide this from us?" Gwaine asked, laying out his bedroll amongst those circling the central fire pit and watching Merlin work with rapt fascination.
"Simple, I wasn't stupid enough to do this while you were watching," he replied, wiggling his fingers in demonstration.
"Have you always cheated on your chores?" Arthur asked, eyebrow raised. At Merlin's sheepish grin, Arthur continued, "I've always wondered how you could scrub my floors, polish my armor, sharpen my sword, and muck out my stables all in one morning. I had suspected that you pawned things off on other servants with your pathetic puppy-dog look so that you could go spend the afternoon in the tavern."
Merlin sputtered indignantly, "I'll have you know, I've never once pawned my chores or spent the day or even just an afternoon in the tavern! Gaius can be a horrible liar when he wants to be! Every time he's ever told you that, I was doing something with magic to save your sorry backside or to prevent Camelot's destruction!"
"I suppose that explains your utter lack of hangovers," Arthur laughed.
"Honestly, how could you even believe it?! A man my size could never drink that much and be sober the next morning! I have absolutely no tolerance for alcohol; I got a hangover from one tankard of ale at Lancelot's knighting celebration." Merlin grew sober at the mention of his fallen friend, as did everyone else.
"Lancelot knew, didn't he?" Percival asked. "He was very protective of you."
"Yes. He found out when he killed the griffin; as a creature of magic, they can only be killed by magic. I enchanted his lance as he charged the beast, but he heard me and knew it was a spell. It was why he left. In his mind, he couldn't take credit for what he didn't do, even though it was his skill with the lance that killed the griffin."
"He was a noble man," Arthur said charitably, though his eyes were clouded.
"It wasn't him that came back, Arthur. He didn't betray you. He was a shade; a puppet summoned by Morgana's dark magic. I'm certain that Gwen was enchanted as well." Nothing more was said on the subject, though Arthur's mood was decidedly lighter as they all enjoyed their supper.
"I'll take first watch," Gwaine offered, and everyone smiled gratefully. Merlin cleaned the pot with magic, a smug grin on his face. Then he gladly joined his companions as he bedded down and settled into an easy sleep, listening to Gwaine whittle away at a piece of wood.
Gwaine was just finishing the head of the horse he was carving when he heard a rustle in the trees. Instantly alert, Gwaine dropped the carving and drew his sword, keeping his short blade in his left hand. His eyes roved over his companion's bedrolls; it had been little more than an hour since they bedded down and they were all still asleep. Gwaine decided to do a quick walk around the perimeter to ensure that it wasn't an intruder.
Just as he reached the edge of the camp and peered into the darkness of the trees surrounding them, Gwaine heard another sound on the other side of the fire. He turned around, only to see a wadded ball of linen land in the lowly crackling fire and let off an extraordinary amount of tangy smoke. Gwaine recognized the herbal scent of the smoke and belatedly tried to cover his mouth with his forearm. A moment later, he fell into a boneless heap, entirely unconscious.
Merlin groaned as he woke with a splitting headache. Blearily, he blinked his eyes and tried to take in his surroundings. Arthur, Percival, Leon and Gwaine were kneeling in a semicircle in front of him. They were gagged and their hands were bound behind them. Their ankles were also tied together with thick ropes. Their wrists and ankles were then tethered together with another short length of rope. There was no way that any of them would be able to stand up properly. It was then that Merlin realized that he, too, was on his knees, and that he was restrained by an irritatingly familiar set of chains.
"Look who's decided to join our party," a mocking voice said from the darkness.
"Morgana. Party? I don't think my invitation specified chains as required attire," Merlin said snarkily, pushing at his bonds with magic.
"Ah, ah, ah!" Morgana sing-songed. "A little bird told me you've been keeping secrets, Merlin. Those chains have been specially enchanted, just for you. They are magic-binding and will not allow you to call your scaly friend. Oh, where are my manners? Arthur, brother, didn't you know? Merlin is a dragonlord." Morgana grinned wickedly at Arthur's kneeling form; the king glared at her angrily.
"What do you want, Morgana?" Merlin asked tiredly, thankful that he had disclosed that very fact to the king and the knights earlier. He was grateful that the horror and anger on Arthur's face wasn't because of him.
Merlin couldn't help but wonder curiously what Morgana had in mind. She could have killed all of them while they were caught unawares, yet she had positioned them all just so and waited for them to gain consciousness. There had to be a reason Merlin was trussed up in the center of this little 'party' and he doubted it was simply for Morgana to reveal that he was a dragonlord. Merlin had the disturbing thought that perhaps Morgana hated him so much that she wanted to torture him as his friends watched before finally killing him.
"You have something I want, Merlin. But I have something of yours, too. I was hoping we could come to an arrangement."
"What could you possibly want from me, Morgana?"
"Your son," Morgana said, without any preamble. Arthur, Gwaine, Leon and Percival's eyes all widened in shock, looking at Merlin incredulously. Merlin almost rolled his eyes at their reaction.
"I'm not sorry to say that you are mistaken, Morgana. I have no son, I have no daughter, I've never taken anyone to my bed." The last was almost directed more towards his friends than Morgana; did they honestly think he could be that dishonorable? To father a child and hide them away?
"Aww, no one interested?" Morgana with mock pity.
"I've had plenty of offers," Merlin said defiantly. "No matter how thin and gangly and awkward I may be, I am manservant to the king. That alone affords me rank amongst my peers, and therefore, desirability. However, I was taught, despite my fatherless state, that one has to love their partner to make love to them. Not to mention, I didn't think it would be very responsible, considering my gift. I'm sure that a potentially magical child would be hard to conceal in Camelot."
"And there we come to the crux of the matter. Any son of yours is bound to be powerful; even if I have to kill you in order for him to gain that power."
"And therein again lies your problem. I have no son."
"And therein lies your problem, Merlin. In any case, I don't want just any serving wench's child," Morgana sneered, pacing back and forth in the space between Merlin and the others. Merlin's eyebrows rose at the implications of Morgana's last statement. She wanted Merlin's child, but only from a mother the witch herself deemed worthy. Who did Morgana have in mind, Merlin wondered. Then Morgana stopped pacing and smiled at Merlin. It wasn't her usual satisfied smirk that she wore when she had pulled one over on Uther. This smile was, for lack of better word, seductive.
"What do you mean?" Merlin asked, looking away from Morgana. Whatever she had in mind, he was determined not to cooperate. The warlock caught the wary gazes of his friends. The king and his knights were working their jaws and arms trying to loosen their gags and the ropes binding them. If Merlin could distract Morgana long enough there was a chance that one or more of them could get free. Morgana suddenly laughed, startling Merlin from his thoughts.
"Oh, Merlin, you really are naive, aren't you?" Morgana teased. Merlin felt a thrill of panic race up his spine at her question. There was a hint of insanity in the tone of her voice. Then Morgana stopped pacing and knelt in front of Merlin. He was taken aback when the witch raised her hand and rather than striking him with it, caressed his cheek. Merlin tried to lean away, but Morgana grasped his chin firmly in a frighteningly familiar way.
"I want you to give me a son, Merlin," Morgana said. Merlin's breath hitched in his throat. That was something he could not, would not do. Morgana carrying his child, and having that sort of control over him, would be disastrous. He thought back to his last visit to the lake; Freya had told him that he was going to be happy. He was certain that this was not a part of that fate.
"No," he said firmly. Morgana ran her hands up into Merlin's hair and started to comb through it, getting closer to his face. Her gaze pointedly shifted between Merlin's eyes and his lips. He tried once again to turn his head away, very aware that Arthur, Gwaine, Percival and Leon could see everything. Distracting Morgana or not, being seduced in front of his friends wasn't on his list of things to do before he died.
"Merlin, I remember a time when you would bring me flowers. You would come and check on me and make sure that I was alright. You would deliver my sleeping draughts and stay to chat. I know you used to like me; that your eyes would follow me around the banquet hall and distract you from your duties. I liked it when you watched me. There was never lust in your eyes like there was in the nobles'. No, you had a certain innocent awe in your gaze." Morgana leaned forward and placed a kiss very close to Merlin's mouth; yet again he pulled away, glaring at her.
"Have you no shame? No dignity?" Merlin growled as Morgana pulled his face back towards hers and placed a brief kiss on his unresponsive lips before scoffing incredulously.
"Shame? Dignity? You saw the hovel I lived in. I lost any dignity I had left when I sacrificed my sister and lived like a filthy hermit in the forest." Morgana stood up and paced away again. "Why must you be so difficult?! Do you always have to be a thorn in my side? Why can't you just give in when a beautiful woman is throwing herself at you?!" she shrieked. Then she smiled, seductress once again. "No matter, I have a little incentive."
Merlin's eyes widened in fear, wondering if Morgana hadn't gone truly mad in her isolation. Her moods were shifting faster than Merlin could keep up with. The warlock met Arthur's similarly frightened gaze. Both of them hoping that Morgana hadn't kidnapped Gwen as leverage. Merlin's head snapped to the witch when she began to chant a spell.
"þu you ábirest oþ mé Aithusa! þu you ábirest sé draca!"
"NO!" Merlin yelled. Regardless of his protest, a great whirlwind sprouted to his right and deposited a tangle of white limbs and wings bound in the same chain as Merlin. Distantly, Merlin was surprised at how much Aithusa had grown since he had hatched her. Seeing how much larger she was only reminded him that she was meant to roam free, not be shackled in this manner.
"Aithusa!" The dragonlord cried, angry that the dragon he had hatched had been bound by Morgana. "WHAT HAVE YOU DONE?! Dragons are not meant to be bound! They are meant to be free to roam the earth!" Without realizing it, Merlin's voice took on the timbre of power inherent in his dragonlord birthright.
Arthur and the knights eased back, trying to gain distance from the confrontation as best they could while restrained on their knees. Morgana also shrank back momentarily, as though waiting for an explosion. Seeing Merlin still bound on his knees and breathing heavily in his agitation, Morgana smirked again.
"Temper, temper, Merlin," she drawled as she knelt in front of Merlin again. Merlin closed his eyes, slowing his breaths and seeking his connection to his magic. It felt as though it was a turbulent whirlwind, growing and writhing within him. He hadn't realized what the consequences of having his magic restrained would be. Soon, the flimsy enchantment on the chains wouldn't be enough to hold back the tide of power that was building up within him. Morgana reached out, grasping Merlin's forearms just below the elbow, his bound wrists between the two of them. If she felt the surge building within Merlin, she didn't show it.
"What do you think, Merlin? A babe for a babe? That is how you feel about Aithusa, isn't it? Like she's your daughter? You did call her forth from her egg, after all."
Aithusa chirruped angrily and stood tall on her hind legs.
"Do not let her bargain with me, Merlin," Aithusa thought. "Even now, you are nearly free of her enchantment. Push your magic at her when you break free. Help her, she needs you! Fill her with your light."
Merlin nodded, eyes still closed, instinctively understanding that Aithusa was right, though the others thought that he was giving in to Morgana. Arthur finally worked his gag free.
"No Merlin! Don't let her win! You cannot give in to her!"
At Arthur's words, Merlin opened his eyes. They weren't blue, but were glowing a constant, brilliant, shining gold as the magic built up within him. His irises swirled like a burgeoning storm cloud desperate for release. Without further warning, Merlin slammed his magic against the restraining enchantment and burst through as though the chains were constructed from delicate lace. His now-free hands darted as quick as a lightning strike and gripped Morgana's forearms just as she had his.
"I am no ordinary dragonlord, Morgana," he began, eyes still a swirling, molten gold. Morgana flinched back in growing fear and tried to pull away, but Merlin's magic held her fast. She couldn't let go of his arms.
"What is this?" she whimpered, truly frightened.
"I do not have magic, Morgana. I am magic. You cannot bind me;I am Emrys, and you have made a grave error."
Morgana's eyes widened and Arthur, Leon, Percival and Gwaine all dove for the ground behind them at Merlin's fierce words. His voice had taken on an ethereal quality; there was power thrumming all around them now, as though the very air was tingling. The wind had begun to swirl around them, tossing the leaves on the trees to and fro. The very ground seemed alive as subtle vibrations emanated from where Merlin knelt with Morgana. Everyone but the dragonlord shuddered when they heard the angry roar from a dragon; one much larger than the fair dragon in the clearing.
"Merlin! Aithusa!" the ancient voice called anxiously, just as a heavy weight caused the ground to tremble. Kilgharrah the Great Dragon had arrived. He narrowed his draconian eyes at Morgana, though he left her to Merlin and turned towards Aithusa. He breathed upon the youthful dragon, who chirruped and broke through the chains binding her. Aithusa immediately took flight and circled over Merlin and Morgana, eyeing them cautiously.
Merlin reached out with his magic, slowing time and searching for Morgana's mind. He was acting on pure instinct; something was drawing him into Morgana's thoughts. Her memories and emotions flowed over him, each of them dark, hurtful, and lonely. It was as though everything that once made Morgana a good person was gone. She was a shell, a husk. This terrible and insane woman wasn't the Morgana that had been his friend. What had happened to her? Merlin drove deeper into her mind, heedless of the pain of the dark emotions. Then Merlin gasped; deep within Morgana's mind was an evil,writhing, black tangle of dark magic.
Instinctively, Merlin wanted to pull away from such darkness, but something drew him forward. The obsidian tangle was like an infection in her brain; encapsulating every good thing about Morgana, leaving her with nothing but hate, bitterness, revenge, and apathy. Merlin almost cried out for his friend; she was there, locked away, a prisoner in her own mind.
Steeling himself against the darkness, Merlin again pressed his awareness against the tangled web and felt the unmistakable essence of Morgause. This was no ordinary enchantment. This was a dark, evil magic, as black and tainted as the magic that had released the Dorocha. Merlin probed the sinuous trap, testing it, trying to discover its weaknesses. If he could break through this vile plague, perhaps Morgana could be as she once was; noble, kind, selfless and courageous. She deserved a chance to redeem herself.
Merlin pressed upon the tangle again, discovering a crack in the surface. Suddenly he was flooded with memories, not from Morgana, but from Morgause. He saw the blonde priestess chanting over a trembling, weak and unconscious Morgana. He saw the nature of the spell, designed to entrap everything good and worthy about Morgana within the dark web like a spider wrapping its prey within its silk. Merlin could not understand how the enchantment had withstood Morgause's death. Surely it would have left Morgana by now. Prodding the crevice in the blackness again, Merlin got the answer.
Morgause had indeed been a clever and powerful witch. While Morgana had been weak from the poison, Morgause had reached into her sister's mind and bent it to her will. Morgause had implanted the drive for revenge much as Morgana had used the formorroh against Merlin. Except that this enchantment was fueled not by a magical creature, but by Morgana's own magic, creating an internal loop that was anchored by the hurtful truths within Morgana's memories. Uther chaining Morgana for defying him; Uther refusing to admit Morgana was his daughter; her own father, slaughtering Morgana's magical kin. But to Merlin's horror, the greatest anchor of all was his own betrayal. Fueling the darkest threads of the web were the memories of Merlin poisoning Morgana. He had been one of her closest friends, her confidant, even. It was Merlin who had dealt the most significant blow and guilt nearly overwhelmed him.
However strong the enchantment still held, the black tangle in Morgana's mind was unstable following Morgause's death. It was dangerous; like one of Gaius' potion experiments gone horribly wrong. The spell was driving her insane; the madness he had witnessed had not been imagined. Most damning of all, it was Merlin's fault. His betrayal had made this evil enchantment possible.
Aithusa had been right. He had to help her, she needed him and not just because he felt responsible for Morgana and for what she had become. He had the opportunity now to right his wrongs and he was going to take it. Determined, Merlin sought out the weakness within the tangled web once more. Acting on instinct, he released his hold on time and flooded the crack with the light of his magic that had built up within him.
Suddenly Merlin and Morgana were surrounded by a blindingly white light and their hair stood on end. Merlin thought of all the things that Morgana used to be. Kind-hearted, loyal, courageous, selfless, and strong. He concentrated on each of those qualities and pushed against the darkness. He fought the tangle within Morgana as it tried to wrap and weave itself around him as well. The dark strands reaching for him were sticky, reminding him of the tar that he had used to seal the cracks in his mother's house.
Merlin pulled away from the reaching tendrils, stunning them with a fast jab of his own magic. Then Merlin took a deep breath and pushed with all of his will. The web immediately began to buckle, but it still resisted him. Merlin was breathing hard; he was tiring faster than was usual because of the sedative still affecting his system. Merlin thought that if he could somehow join Morgana's magic with his, he could overpower the enchantment entirely. He tried to borrow power from Morgana through their clasped arms, but the enchantment prevented him from doing so. Just as Merlin attempted to draw from Morgana a second time, Aithusa swooped low and breathed upon the pair.
"Aithusa!" Kilgharrah protested, but the magic had been cast.
An undulating gold and silver light began to swirl around Merlin and Morgana like living ribbons, causing both of them to gasp. Merlin felt a great surge of power and gripped Morgana's arms tighter as the darkness in her mind gave no further resistance and his magic rushed forward with nothing holding it back; the darkness was gone. Morgana and Merlin shut their eyes and gritted their teeth against the onslaught as their thoughts suddenly ran together as though a veil was lifted from between them. It was intense and nearly overwhelming, their most recent memories moving between them like the ebb and flow of the tide.
Neither of them could grasp ahold of the rapidly flickering images, they moved too quickly. The one thing Merlin was able to see properly before the exchange of their thoughts ceased was Aithusa breathing her magic over an injured Morgana. Merlin realized abruptly that it was the young dragon's healing spell that had caused the tiny crack in the dark tangle of encapsulating strands. The little dragon's insistence that Morgana needed him, that Merlin had to help Morgana, had not been random. Aithusa had known that Morgana was enchanted and had wanted Merlin to save Morgana.
The cords of light that Aithusa had breathed upon them swirled closer and tighter, finally settling over Merlin's right and Morgana's left wrists, binding them together. At last, with a gasp and a jolt from both witch and warlock, the light surrounding them burst outward in a dome and dissipated, leaving the clearing cloaked in darkness once more. Both Merlin and Morgana wavered on their knees for a few seconds, then crumpled to the ground, unconscious.
Arthur stood carefully, as did his three knights, only realizing once they were on their feet that the ropes binding them had disappeared. The sudden and total stillness after the rushing, blinding, tumult was unnerving. The two dragons stood anxiously, protectively, over the unconscious pair. The sight did nothing to ease Arthur's fear.
"Aithusa?! What have you done?!" Kilgharrah growled, though Arthur heard no comprehensible response from the chirruping juvenile dragon. Warily, Arthur approached them.
"What happened?" he asked, unsure if the massive dragon would answer him.
"They have been exhausted. Merlin has performed a very powerful and entirely unprecedented feat of magic. Aithusa tells me that Merlin was flooding Morgana with his magic, trying to break an enchantment. What this will mean for either of them, I do not know. They will likely sleep for some time."
Arthur nodded, looking down at his treacherous half-sister and the man he considered his best friend.
"Kilgharrah? What is that on their arms?" Gwaine asked, coming to stand beside Arthur, and pointing to a silvery-white strand that moved like smoke and wove around and around Merlin's right arm and Morgana's left in a sinuous pattern, binding them together. Leon and Percival pressed in to see what Gwaine was talking about.
"You know my name, knight," Kilgharrah said, instead of answering. Gwaine and the others nodded.
"Yeah, and mine's Gwaine, not knight."
"Merlin told us about everything today," Arthur explained, cutting Gwaine off before he could build up a head of steam. "We were at the druid clan meet this afternoon, discussing peace between our peoples."
As if on cue, Iseldir, Morien, and Heilyn emerged from the trees with a woman.
"This is Taryn, she is a healer," Iseldir explained. "We at the camp felt a powerful magical surge; surely, it could only have come from Emrys."
"It was..." Arthur trailed off and gestured to the pair on the ground, opening and closing his mouth several times as he searched for words to describe recent events. But there were none; instead, the king shook his head. "I cannot even begin to explain what just happened."
Heilyn stepped forward, studying the unconscious pair and gasped at the sight before him. "It has been many years since I have seen such ties. Is this what I believe it to be?"
"It is, but it was not my doing," Kilgharrah confirmed reluctantly. "Aithusa insists it was necessary."
"Will someone please tell us what is going on?" Arthur asked, not without a tone of command.
"You asked before what was on their arms. It is an ancient rite, reserved for dragonlords..." Kilgharrah trailed off.
"Yeees?" Gwaine drew the word out in an attempt to encourage the recalcitrant dragon to continue. Heilyn picked up the explanation.
"Fýrdracafæstnian; a dragonfasting, some have called it. It is an ancient magical rite, performed only by the dragons. It is a binding ritual reserved for dragonlords... and their brides. "
Silence fell once more as everyone processed the implications of Heilyn's statement.
"Do you mean to tell us that Merlin is now married to Morgana?" Leon asked incredulously.
"Yes," Kilgharrah rumbled. "It is indissoluble; they are bound through the eternities."
Aithusa chirruped excitedly, undeterred by the older dragon's indignation. Everyone's eyes widened and jaws dropped open.
"That dragon has bound Merlin to Morgana? For eternity? Why punish Merlin like that? Merlin doesn't deserve to have such an evil, insane woman married to him! He didn't even have a choice! Morgana was trying to take advantage of him!" Arthur argued angrily, glaring at Aithusa accusingly, furious on his friend's behalf.
"Peace, young Pendragon," Kilgharrah soothed. "For a dragonfasting is a pure magic; it will not hold in the blackhearted."
"But Morgana is far from purehearted," Leon argued. Gwaine nodded in agreement.
"Things are not what they seemed. A great change has been wrought this night."
Arthur raised his eyebrows and scoffed at the confusing riddle that the dragon felt was a good answer. No one could deny the hope that swelled within them, though.
"What does that even mean?" Gwaine demanded.
"Just what I said, Sir Gwaine. Things are not what they seemed. Morgana is not the evil that she was once thought to be."
"Now that just explains everything," Gwaine said irritatedly.
"In time, you will understand," Kilgharrah said, refusing to elaborate further. After a moment's silence, Gwaine scoffed and looked to a consternated Arthur.
"Well, sire, I don't envy you in the morning," Gwaine said, filling the awkward silence by chuckling mirthlessly.
"Why is that, Gwaine?" Arthur asked, unsure if he really wanted the answer.
"Because you get to tell Merlin that he and Morgana are now eternally bound in holy matrimony," Gwaine grimaced in sympathy as Arthur groaned and clasped a hand to his suddenly pounding head.
"Good luck with that, sire," Percival said as he clapped a hand to Arthur's shoulder in sympathy. Leon nodded his agreement and the three knights went to straighten their disturbed camp site. Taryn the healer finished administering her strengthening potions to the witch and warlock and turned to the druid leaders and Arthur.
"I've done all I can, they just need rest. Can you help me move them to a more comfortable place?"
Arthur was just about to bend down and physically pick one of the unconscious pair up when Iseldir and Morien each held out a hand and uttered a string of words. Morgana and Merlin hovered in the air, side-by-side, arms still bound, until Gwaine and Percival finished unfolding Merlin's bedroll and laying the blankets out to accommodate both Merlin and Morgana. The druid elders and Taryn bid them farewell as soon as the unconscious pair was settled and disappeared back into the trees. Leon stoked the fire and everyone, human and dragon alike, settled down to wait until morning and whatever daylight would bring.
Arthur sat up the rest of the night. The implications of what had happened between his manservant and his half-sister were mind-boggling. Oddly enough, first and foremost in Arthur's mind was the fact that Merlin could no longer be his manservant. For all intents and purposes, Arthur had just gained a new brother-in-law. Though many would argue that Morgana had long since lost any privilege she may have had of claiming the Pendragon name. And yet more would deny that the name was ever hers to take, despite her parentage. But Arthur could not forsake even an illegitimate half-sister; she had always been a sister to him in his heart.
Morgana was certainly Camelot's first enemy. But the dragon had said she was not the evil she once was. What did that mean for the future? Would she no longer seek the throne and Arthur's death? Would Morgana still be hell-bent on revenge? What had Kilgharrah's cryptic ramblings meant? Most worrisome to the king, would Merlin be stuck forever more in a marriage founded not in love, as Arthur and Guinevere's was, but by mutual hatred?
Was it possible for Merlin and Morgana to simply disregard the marriage and continue as before, or were they so bound by this magic that they had to stay together? What would become of them? If Morgana forsook her previous ambitions and showed true remorse, could Arthur and the whole of Camelot forgive her for her crimes? Could Merlin?! Or would the people begin to lose trust in Merlin because of his unasked-for wife, despite how well-liked he was? More immediately tangible, Arthur wondered how long the witch and warlock would be bound by the infernal tie around their wrists.
Kilgharrah had been very little help at all. Merlin had said the day before that the dragon could be as infuriating as he was helpful and Arthur found he was inclined to agree. The only thing the Great Dragon had said was that Aithusa had foreseen that Morgana hadn't been herself and that only Merlin and Morgana together with the little dragon could heal the witch.
Had there been something making Morgana do the things she did, like the way Arthur had unwittingly chased after the Lady Vivienne? Morgana had seemed different somehow when they had found her stumbling through the forest after Morgause had taken her. It wasn't anything large or glaringly obvious, at least, they hadn't been obvious at the time. But there had been a collection of smaller things that should have caught Arthur's attention much sooner.
After her return, Morgana hadn't teased Arthur in quite the same way. Whereas she used to bait and taunt Arthur about his training with an amused smile, her remarks had become barbed and vitriolic. She hadn't seemed as talkative; conversations between her and Arthur had seemed stunted and awkward. Perhaps most telling of all, Morgana had spent far less time amicably strolling through the castle or the lower town with Guinevere.
At the time, Arthur had put it down to the stress and trauma of captivity, but now he was wondering if it wasn't something else. The Morgana he had known had treated Guinevere as her own sister, handed out her spare coin in the market, defended those sentenced to death and followed a gangly manservant to his beleaguered village and risked her life to defend complete strangers from a bully.
As Arthur pondered over the matter further, he realized that there had been one glaringly obvious change in Morgana that really should have raised Arthur's concerns more. Before she was taken, Morgana had come to Arthur in Merlin's defense many times. Especially when Morgana thought the manservant was unjustly put in the stocks. After Morgana's return, she had avoided Merlin, had refused his service when he was attending them at a meal and had once looked Merlin coldly in the eye and suggested that perhaps a night in the dungeons would improve Merlin's belligerence. In short, she had gone from a good, loyal friend to an antagonistic enemy. How had Arthur overlooked it?
Arthur sighed, frustrated with himself, and thought over the other's reactions to Merlin's latest conundrum. Gwaine had been very reluctant to accept that his friend was now married to the very woman who had imprisoned and starved him, Elyan and Gaius. The distressed knight had even proposed separating the newly bound couple, by force if necessary. Aithusa had been very protective of the magical pair though, gristling in Gwaine's direction before curling up next to her dragonlord and laying her head beside Merlin's with her wing stretched protectively over the newly bound couple. Kilgharrah said that the little dragon had had her reasons for doing what she did.
"If anyone can pull this off, Merlin can," Percival had said simply.
"That is true," Gwaine had agreed hopefully, possibly just trying to convince himself of that fact. "After all, he's handled you for seven years, Princess."
Leon was more reluctant to think the best of the situation. While Gwaine had suffered personally, Leon had been forced to watch helplessly as Morgana ordered her immortal soldiers to fire into an innocent crowd. It had been Leon's refusal to bow to her that had triggered Morgana's response and Leon still blamed himself for the deaths that occurred that day.
Arthur also felt that Leon had begun to see Merlin as a brother, much as he did his fellow knights. There was little doubt that they all felt protective of the younger and, they had thought, weaker manservant. Arthur suspected that each of them felt a sense of failure at not having been able to prevent this whole damn fiasco in the first place. Though the king was sure Merlin would object to the sentiment.
The warlock in question woke when Aithusa moved away from Merlin and Morgana just as the sun started to filter through the trees to the east. Arthur was surprised when his manservant's eyes flew open without any warning as Merlin inhaled sharply. He lay still for a few moments, moving just his eyes, taking in his surroundings in silence. Arthur was painfully reminded of the way Merlin had looked that horrible morning in the forest after the manservant had taken a mace to the chest. Exhausted, in pain, and overwhelmed.
Then Merlin startled Arthur further by suddenly sitting up and looking all around the quiet clearing. Without saying anything, the warlock raised his hand to rub his eyes, only to meet resistance. Merlin looked alarmed once he realized his arm was still bound to Morgana's.
"Arthur?" Merlin called out, staring warily at his tied arm and trying to orient himself.
"I'm right here," Arthur answered softly, moving closer and trying not to startle his agitated friend. Merlin looked around at the other knights, the dragons and back to Morgana before everything seemed to fall into place.
"Did it work?" Merlin asked groggily, rubbing his brow as though he suffered from a severe headache.
"Did what work, Merlin?" Arthur asked, hoping the warlock knew what he was talking about. Arthur was still in a state of shock himself. He was grateful that Merlin had revealed himself before Morgana's dramatic scene the night before. Arthur was certain that had he discovered Merlin's magic when things had been blowing around and glowing, his heart would have given out.
"I destroyed the dark enchantment in her mind. It was never really her that attacked us. She wasn't herself, just like when Elyan was possessed at the shrine. She couldn't get out of it. It was trapping her. She couldn't control it, it was so powerful. It was my fault," Merlin rambled. Arthur was starting to worry that Merlin wasn't himself.
"Young warlock," Kilgharrah's voice interrupted, to Arthur's great relief. Perhaps the great scaly beast would be the one to tell Merlin that he was a married man now.
"Kilgharrah, did it work? What happened?"
"Peace, young warlock. You've had a trying ordeal. What do you remember?" the dragon rumbled. Merlin closed his eyes in concentration.
"I threw my magic at her. I looked into her mind and saw a black, writhing, tangled web. Arthur, do you remember the story I told you about the creature Morgana used to control me?" Merlin asked, finally sounding coherent.
"Yes," Arthur answered, shivering at the thought of Merlin trying to kill him. Albeit in the least effective ways possible it seemed. Merlin nodded and opened his eyes.
"This tangle in Morgana's mind was a powerful enchantment cast by Morgause, similar in some respects to the controlling nature of the formorroh. It worked to bind every good and positive part of Morgana until she was left an empty husk of her former self. The spell was formed in hate and held fast with sorrow and bitterness. Morgana wasn't as ruthless as Morgause, so Morgause made her that way."
"Morgause? But she's dead. I thought that a spell was broken when a sorcerer was killed?" Arthur asked in disbelief.
"Unfortunately, the enchantment didn't leave Morgana when her sister died. It was anchored too well within Morgana's own magic and fueled by hurtful memories and painful truths. It was feeding off of Morgana like a leech, and growing stronger as it did. But even as clever as Morgause was, such dark magic has serious side effects. The spell had been driving Morgana insane even as it fed off of her. When Aithusa healed Morgana's injuries two months ago, her dragon magic started to break down the web of the spell. But Aithusa is young and not as powerful as she will one day be; she wasn't able to affect the spell fully. Even so, she created a breach within the enchantment that allowed me to break through and hopefully bring back the Morgana we all loved."
Merlin's ears turned red at his last words, but Arthur felt a well of hope spring up in his heart. It had hurt him deeply to see Morgana so driven by hate and revenge. Many times since Morgana had revealed herself, Arthur had wondered what he had done to make his sister hate him so fully. He could almost understand his sister's anger at their father, but Arthur had always tried to protect Morgana from Uther. When he had approached her in the throne room and sheathed his sword during their most recent battle for Camelot, Arthur had hoped that she would somehow turn back into the sister he had once protected.
"Do you remember what else happened, young warlock?" Kilgharrah asked warily, pulling Arthur back to the present. Merlin narrowed his eyes and tried valiantly to pull the memories from his mind.
"I remember... light. There was an energy around us. Morgana's hair was standing on end..."
"So was yours, Merlin. You looked ridiculous," Arthur laughed, bringing much needed levity into such a serious moment. Merlin rolled his eyes.
"Thanks Arthur," he griped. Then he turned serious once more. "I remember... As I was trying to break through the darkness, Aithusa did something, breathed a spell over us. I remember our thoughts and memories sort of blending together. Like our magic had joined for a minute or two. It helped give me the strength to tear through and destroy the enchantment... I don't remember anything else."
"It is as you said, young warlock," Kilgharrah agreed. "Aithusa said that she felt the darkness in Morgana's mind when she healed her, but Aithusa had not the strength to combat it. She foresaw last night's events and knew that only together could you and Morgana destroy the curse upon the witch. It felt as though your magic joined because for a moment, it had. You and Morgana were literally of one mind and soul while Aithusa's spell worked its magic."
Arthur and Merlin's eyes widened and the warlock looked down at Morgana beside him. One mind and soul sounded too intensely personal for his liking. Too personal and intimate for two people who had been so far at odds with one another. Merlin closed his eyes and took a few calming breaths before looking to Kilgharrah once more.
"So will she be good again?" he asked hopefully. Arthur couldn't help but join Merlin in that hope.
"She has a long road ahead of her. You both do," Kilgharrah said.
"What does that mean?" Merlin asked, exasperated. He was not in the mood for cryptic non-answers.
"There are many trying times ahead," Kilgharrah answered vaguely. Merlin fought the urge to growl at the riddle-loving dragon and asked what he hoped was an easily answered question.
"How do we take this off?" The warlock gestured to his and Morgana's bound arms.
"I think the other side of the coin can explain it best, and you'll figure out the rest." Kilgharrah laughed not unlike he did when Merlin had told him that Uther had married a troll. "Come, young one," the great dragon called to Aithusa, and together the dragons took flight, leaving a confused Merlin in the hands of an irritated Arthur.
"THANK YOU VERY MUCH!" Arthur yelled to the fleeing dragons. He was even more irritated when the great beast laughed again, his chortles fading into the distance.
"Arthur? What isn't he telling me? What do you know? And why am I still tied to Morgana?"
"Ahh, that's a very interesting question and it has a very interesting answer," Arthur stalled.
"What. Are. You. Not. Telling. Me?!" Merlin raised his eyebrow in a very good imitation of Gaius. Arthur's face paled.
"What, what is it?!" Merlin asked, worried for Arthur's sudden loss of complexion.
"Gaius is going to kill me," Arthur moaned. "Of course he's not," Arthur reconsidered, brightening slightly. "I am the king! Not to mention, I'm technically family now."
"WHAT ARE YOU TALKING ABOUT?!" Merlin yelled, waking Leon, Gwaine and Percival.
"Can you keep your voices down? Some of us didn't sleep very well last night," Gwaine groused.
"Shut up!" Arthur and Merlin said together.
"Look, they're acting like brothers and everything," Gwaine grinned, stretching as he sat up.
"Somebody had better explain to me what is going on right now, or you will all ride home with giant boils on your backsides!" Merlin said, trying emphasize his point with his hands. Except that he was still bound to a limp Morgana, and it looked much more comical than menacing. Gwaine, Leon and Percival were struggling not to smile, though the threat of arse boils was enough to stem the tide of their laughter.
"Merlin, you remember the little dragon-"
"Aithusa," Merlin interrupted.
"Yes, Aithusa," Arthur agreed. "You said she did something when you were throwing your magic at Morgana. Do you remember?"
"Yes. It made our thoughts and memories blend together, one mind and soul," Merlin shivered involuntarily. "It gave me the strength I needed to break the enchantment and free Morgana from Morgause's spell," Merlin repeated exasperatedly. The knights all looked to one another with wide eyes, all of them hopeful that Morgana would again be the kind person she once was.
"Well, there was a small side-effect to Aithusa's dragon magic. It has certain long-lasting, um, consequences," Arthur hedged his way through the explanation.
"Arthur? Giant, pus-filled boils, I kid you not! Just spit it out!"
"Merlin, you and Morgana are bound together for eternity."
"I hope you don't mean literally," Merlin said ominously, lifting his and Morgana's bound arms, shaking them back and forth.
"Well, I should hope not," Arthur agreed. "But Heilyn said that it was an ancient magical rite."
"Okay, what kind of rite?"
"A Firo...drag...fest- I believe he called it a dragonfasting," Arthur said quickly, gauging whether or not Merlin knew what exactly a dragonfasting was.
"What the hell is a dragonfasting?" Merlin asked, answering Arthur's unasked question.
"Heilyn explained that it was an ancient rite."
"Yes, you said as much already."
"Would you just tell him he's married already?!" Gwaine said irritatedly, tired of Arthur's hesitation.
"Please tell me you're joking," Merlin deadpanned. Everyone winced at his tone.
"Heilyn said that it was an ancient rite reserved for dragonlords... and their brides," Arthur finally admitted. Merlin froze in place, blinking slowly for an entire minute.
"You mean to tell me that Morgana... me and Morgana, your sister Morgana-the-dethroner, and me, your manservant, are married?" Merlin stammered. "No, no, no, no, that can't be it. Morgana hates me! This can't be what Freya meant. She said I wasn't meant to love only her, I thought that I would meet someone new, not Morgana, but... this, this... this can't be right," Merlin rambled, confusing everyone with his nonsense.
"Freya?" Leon asked. Merlin shook his head and pulled his legs up to his chest. He certainly didn't want to have that conversation at the moment.
"You loved this Freya." Percival stated though he was ignored as Merlin put his head between his knees and took several deep breaths.
"This is not happening," Merlin groaned.
"He's certainly grumpy for someone who just got married," Gwaine said offhandedly, trying to lighten the heavy atmosphere. Merlin lifted his head and glared in his direction, though Gwaine didn't notice, rummaging as he was through his pack for something to eat. Suddenly, the knight chuckled into his bag. "But I suppose it's only natural. Leave it to Merlin-the-virgin to sleep through his own wedding night."
Red-faced, Merlin tilted his head to the side as though considering a difficult problem. Then a smirk appeared on his face and his eyes flashed gold. Gwaine yelped as his rear-end sprouted a tail and his ears lengthened and grew fur. Any further protests were reduced to brays that perfectly matched Gwaine's new tail and ears.
Percival and Leon both laughed uproariously, though Arthur grimaced in sympathy. His ears had itched for a week after that blasted goblin had given him a set of those donkey ears.
"Merlin, you should have finished the job, we could have used a pack animal," Percival said straight-faced. Gwaine finally fell quiet and sat grumpily next to his horse, eating from his pack while giving Merlin the occasional scowl.
"What are we going to do when we get back to Camelot?" Arthur asked solemnly. Merlin sobered immediately.
"We'll tell the Round Table, then the council, that I have magic. Then we'll start to change things. Lessen punishments to fit the crime, let those that use magic for good to use it openly, that sort of thing. Allow druids to trade within Camelot without subterfuge. Morgana is another situation entirely. We'll have to see when she wakes up. We'll have to tell the council sometime. Let's keep the Emrys bit within the Round Table, though. It tends to get me a bit more attention than I'm comfortable with."
"Did you hear that?" Arthur asked the three listening knights. "The identity of Emrys stays secret. Only the Round Table will know; let Merlin reveal things in his own time. He's a big girl and he doesn't want any attention."
"You have my solemn vow," Leon pledged to his king and Merlin both.
"Aye," Percival agreed, though Gwaine just nodded.
"What was that, Gwaine? I didn't quite hear you?" Leon asked, cupping his hand to his ear. Gwaine tried to tell everyone off, but only managed to bray obnoxiously.
"What is that infernal racket?!" Morgana moaned, trying to bring her hands up to cradle her head, but finding it rather difficult with her left arm still attached to Merlin's right. Everyone held their breath as Morgana slowly sat up and looked around her in confusion. "Why am I tied to you, Merlin, and what are we doing in this forest? Did everyone wake up?" Then Morgana looked down at her tattered black dress. "What am I wearing?!"
"That would be Gwaine's braying you hear; Aithusa bound us together; we were camping overnight on our way back to Camelot; Arthur, Gwaine, Leon and Percival are indeed all awake and I believe that is called a dress," Merlin explained, eyeing Morgana speculatively.
"I know it's a dress! But I don't recognize it! And Gwaine? Aithusa? Percival? Why do I know those names? They sound familiar, but I don't know why. I remember we were in Camelot, I was wearing my emerald gown and you and I were dragging Uther down the corridor and those knights were after us. Everyone was falling asleep and..." Morgana trailed off, looking at Merlin with newfound hurt and suspicion. Morgana started trying to pull her arm away from Merlin. "Get away from me," she growled, yanking harder.
"You don't remember anything else?! You remember what you were wearing but everything else is blank?! The Knights of Medhir attacked Camelot four years ago! Stop pulling on me, that hurts!" Merlin argued, pulling right back. Both Merlin and Morgana glared at one another fiercely as they continued to pull at their hands. Arthur groaned; it was going to be a long ride back to Camelot with two such stubborn people at odds with one another.
It hadn't taken long to gather all of their things and pack them onto their horses. The knights had done most of the packing, Gwaine only occasionally braying now that Merlin had taken pity on his friend and had allowed the spell to wear off. Morgana had seemingly taken a vow of silence and only communicated through pointed glares at Merlin, who returned them full force.
While Percival, Gwaine and Leon mounted their horses, Arthur led Merlin's mare to the bound witch and warlock and eyed them speculatively.
"I'm not entirely sure how we're going to manage this, but you are both going to have to get on this horse somehow," Arthur said.
"Have the horse kneel, it will be easier for us to step on that way," Merlin proposed. Arthur raised his eyebrows at his manservant.
"This is a war horse, Merlin, not some jester's pet. She does not kneel."
Merlin rolled his eyes and took the reins from Arthur. The warlock murmured soft words and stroked the side of the horse's head while he reached out to the mare with a small tendril of comforting magic. Then, with a slight downward gesture from his free hand, Merlin's horse knelt down on the forest floor.
"How did you do that?!" Arthur asked incredulously.
"I have a way with animals," Merlin answered dryly. "Right then, let's get on."
"What do you think you're doing?" Morgana said, pulling Merlin back when he moved to get into the saddle.
"I'm getting on the horse, what does it look like?" Merlin asked defiantly.
"I will not ride behind you! You will sit in the back," Morgana insisted haughtily.
"I think you're mistaken," Merlin replied. "It's my horse, I am riding in front."
"This is no way to treat a lady of the court," Morgana argued. Merlin laughed dryly.
"You have not been 'my lady' since you sided with Morgause and staged a coup, Morgana."
"What?!" Morgana asked, narrowing her eyes and putting her hand to her forehead, trying to break through the haze that clouded her memories. Her face crumpled at some recollection. Merlin's eyes softened marginally.
"You were under a dark enchantment. Morgause essentially hid everything good about you in a tangled trap deep within your mind-"
"Morgause is my sister she wouldn't do that to me," Morgana protested half-heartedly. Merlin shook his head sadly and continued.
"In the last four years, you've been doing everything in your power to kill everyone you loved and take control of the throne. The white dragon, Aithusa, remember? She helped us to break the enchantment last night, but that has somehow left us dragonfasted," Merlin explained.
"What? What does that mean?" Morgana asked weakly, overwhelmed by the onslaught of information.
"Ah, we're married," Merlin confirmed sheepishly, avoiding her eyes and holding up their bound hands as confirmation. Morgana's mouth fell open.
"That would seem to be the case," Merlin agreed.
"I will not be your wife, your little trophy! You are a servant!"
"You think you're a prize?! Far from it! And I'd watch what you say about servants," Merlin griped. "Gwen is queen now, despite her humble beginnings. A lot has changed in the last four years, and much of it was your own doing!"
Morgana's eyes widened and she wavered on her feet. Merlin instinctively caught her upper arms as her knees buckled. He instantly felt contrite. Merlin knew she didn't remember these things and that her previous actions had not been her own. Morgana was bound to be disoriented and weak with a four year gap in her memories, but she was just so angry with him still and it raised Merlin's defenses.
Coming to herself, Morgana straightened and stepped back as far as she could. She did not want to be held by Merlin at the moment. It only brought her most recent memory to mind and recalling how tight her throat had been nearly brought the sensation back. Arthur stepped in, seeing that Merlin and Morgana could be arguing for some time if he didn't.
"Merlin is right, Morgana. Much has changed in the last four years, not to mention in the last two days. We have much to discuss and I suggest we do that back home in Camelot. Now get on the horse!"
Morgana glared at Arthur for presuming to give her a command. Merlin sighed and tried to guide her onto the horse. Morgana pulled back violently, nearly pulling Merlin off his feet.
"What is your problem? Are you still on about sitting in front?!" Merlin asked, exasperated.
"I don't take lightly to riding on a horse with a man who's poisoned me."
Merlin rolled his eyes and nearly growled.
"I didn't want to poison you; it nearly broke me to do it! Besides, it's not like you haven't tried your best to kill me in return!"
"Me, do something to you?!"
"Yes! How about chaining me up and leaving me to the serkets? Or the snake you stuck in my neck, the formorroh! You think those were pleasant experiences? You know how much serket venom hurts, you've been stung before! That was just your leg; I was stung in the back and it almost paralyzed me. I nearly died! Kilgharrah is the only reason I'm still alive!"
Morgana's eyes widened at Merlin's ranting. Then she nodded, her brow wrinkling in concentration. Suddenly she deflated.
"I remember, I think... I can remember moments... Some events... But it's like watching it in a dream, or through a fog. Arthur!" Morgana spun to face her brother with an astonished look on her face. "You're my half-brother... and you're king! I killed Uther, I killed..." Morgana's knees went weak again and she started to fall, but Merlin grabbed a hold of her held her against him.
"We all have things that we're ashamed of Morgana," Merlin said somberly. Morgana pulled back, tears filling her eyes, and almost forgot to glare when she met Merlin's sympathetic gaze. When she did, Merlin sighed in frustration and deftly maneuvered her onto the horse. He moved to sit in front of her, twisting around under their linked hands so that he held her arm in front of him as she sat behind. Morgana's left arm wound around his waist, leaving little room between them. It was more comfortable than having their bound limbs between them with Merlin's arm twisted behind his back, but it also had the rather unfortunate drawback of being entirely more intimate than either of them were prepared for.
Merlin shifted to sit more comfortably in the saddle; as a result, Morgana's front was pressed into his back. Merlin gasped and froze as he felt her faint breath on his neck. Clearing his throat awkwardly and willing the redness to recede from his face, Merlin ignored Arthur's knowing smirk and prompted the horse to stand up. Without waiting for Arthur's order, Merlin nudged his horse to a walk, preparing himself for the longest ride he'd ever endured.
Leon, Gwaine and Percival all quietly chatted throughout the morning, watching an entirely different Morgana shrink into Merlin's back. The change from the Morgana who had woken them up the night before with madness in her eyes, to this timid, confused woman was undeniable. Arthur rode beside Merlin and Morgana, only occasionally joining in the knight's conversation. What he had seen of his half-sister this morning gave him hope like he hadn't dared to feel in ages. Timid though she was, this woman pressed into Merlin's back was closer to the girl he had grown up with than any other incarnation of her that he had faced in the last four years. It made Arthur happier than he cared to admit to once again recognise the sister that he had cared for and lost to Morgause.
By mutual decision they all had dried provisions in the saddle rather than a cooked breakfast. Merlin gave half of his to Morgana, though he thought she might refuse whatever he offered. But as she watched him eat the other half of anything he gave her, she submitted to her growling stomach and ate the food. A few hours later, when they crested the slight rise that gave them a magnificent view of Camelot, they all stopped wordlessly. Arthur's heart beat faster at the knowledge that Guinevere was close by.
"We'll have to hide Morgana's identity," Leon advised. Arthur nodded his head in agreement.
"Get a blanket, let's wrap it around her. Morgana, press your face into Merlin's back," Arthur ordered. Gwaine pulled his horse closer to Merlin's and draped the blanket as Arthur suggested. Morgana offered no protest, seemingly returning to her earlier vow of silence. Merlin tensed when her forehead rested on his back between his shoulder blades, then pulled his neckerchief off to cover their unnaturally bound hands. The motion caused Morgana to stir and Merlin froze when he felt her fingertips brush the now-revealed scars from Gaius' removal of the formorroh heads. Without saying a word, Morgana dropped her hand and once again pressed her face into his back.
"I don't know about you gents, but I'm ready to be home," Gwaine grinned.
"Aye," Leon agreed.
"You mean 'ale,'" Gwaine joked.
"You can think about ale at a time like this?" Percival asked in disbelief.
"Gwaine is always thinking about ale," Merlin said, joining their banter for the first time that day, though his grin was more reserved.
"Now that's just not true," Gwaine argued. "Mead and wine are often on my mind as well. Pretty ladies, too. And occasionally, honor and all that knight stuff."
Arthur rolled his eyes. They all knew Gwaine was being facetious. If there was anything Gwaine took seriously these days, it was his duties as a knight.
"We all know what's on Arthur's mind," Merlin teased. The king raised his eyebrows questioningly.
"Guinevere," Merlin and the knights said in unison. Arthur's face reddened momentarily, but he quickly subdued everyone.
"You're all just jealous," Arthur protested, much to everyone's amusement. "Just because you can't manage to find yourselves a wife..." he trailed off, looking chagrined at Merlin and Morgana riding beside him. Merlin narrowed his eyes at the king and raised his eyebrow. Arthur coughed to cover his awkwardness. "Let's get home," the king ordered, kicking his horse onward and stopping only once the cobblestoned courtyard clattered beneath their horses' hooves.
Clearly a scout had announced the imminent arrival of the king; Gwen was waiting with Elyan on the front steps to welcome their party home. Arthur grinned at his wife as he jumped down from his horse and was quick to greet her with a kiss.
"Arthur, you smell like a campfire and the forest, you need a bath," Gwen teased. Her face morphed into curiosity when she noticed Percival and Leon awkwardly helping Merlin and his mysterious passenger to dismount. Leon was steadying Merlin while Percival had the passenger. Both Merlin and the cloaked figure leaned into the knights' arms as they were half-dragged, half-lifted off of the horse. Elyan had moved to assist, suspicion clear in his posture. Gwen frowned at the woman- for she was sure it was a woman- who was cloaked entirely in a blanket. The queen's frown deepened when she realized that this woman was tied to Merlin somehow, though his scarf covered the binding. Arthur took in Guinevere's expression and murmured quietly through a forced smile.
"There were some complications along the way. Gather the round table in the council room, immediately. We have much to discuss."
Gwen forced her own smile for those watching them and nodded her agreement. "I'll just send for Gaius, then. He had rounds in the lower town this afternoon."
"Thank you, Guinevere," Arthur breathed, grateful for his wife. Then he kissed her again, regardless of who was watching- no one could complain, he was the king. All teasing aside, he had missed his wife, and he didn't care who knew it.
Chapter 7: Homecoming
Arthur paced at the head of the room as his private council assembled themselves around the newly commissioned round table. Merlin stood to the side, studiously avoiding Gwen and Elyan's eyes. Leon, Gwaine and Percival sat at their places looking intently at the carvings that adorned the table's edge. Merlin had put his neckerchief on as best he could one handed; he thought that Gaius would probably be more suspicious if the beloved article was missing. He rarely went without one these days. Morgana had yet to say a word, still concealed as she was under the blanket. Merlin was surprised that she seemed eager to hide slightly behind him on his right side, their bound hands between them. Morgana surprised him further by grasping his upper arm with her free hand. The gesture seemed instinctual, and yet, more intimate than Merlin had thought possible.
When the heavy wooden doors at the end of the room opened and Gaius hurried through, Merlin hastily hid his and Morgana's bound hands behind his back and stepped almost entirely in front of her. He couldn't be sure that his mentor wouldn't recognise a dragonfasting if he saw one and he wasn't entirely eager to test the theory, much to Gwaine, Leon and Percival's amusement. Merlin assumed the most innocent expression he could muster and smiled as Gaius took in everyone already seated around the table and Arthur pacing at the other end of the room. Then the physician looked for his ward and Gaius' eyebrow raised straight to his hairline as he fixed Merlin with an unmistakable what-did-you-do look.
Merlin's stomach sank. The euphoria he had been experiencing with Arthur's acceptance of his magic had disappeared when he realized that he still had to reveal himself to Elyan and Gwen. Not to mention having to tell them just who he had found himself married to.
"Good, we're all here," Arthur began, pulling out his chair and sinking into it. "We have important things to discuss. The least of which is lifting the ban on magic."
Elyan's mouth opened in shock, but Gwen let out a startled gasp. Arthur smiled reassuringly at his wife and her brother. Gaius, however, fixed his gaze on Merlin who had yet to take his seat, still tangled as he was with Morgana.
"Merlin, aren't you going to sit down?" Gaius asked, curious about who Merlin was sheltering.
"No, I'm quite comfortable right here. I've been sitting on a horse all day, after all," Merlin said hastily.
"Who's your friend?" Gaius pressed.
"Oh, um, funny you should ask, Gaius," Merlin struggled to answer.
"For pity's sake Merlin, we're all here and most of us know already. Just tell them," Arthur ordered.
"Right. Ah, well..."
"Do you mean to tell me that after everything we've witnessed in the last two days, you're afraid of Gaius, Elyan and Guinevere?" Arthur smirked. Merlin scowled.
"Need I remind you that I've been trained since birth to tell no one? I've voluntarily told two people in my entire life! Two! Everyone else has just sort of stumbled upon it."
"Fine, I'll tell them," Arthur said, turning to Gwen and Elyan. "Merl-"
"I have magic!" Merlin burst out before Arthur could finish.
"What?" Gwen asked as Elyan's eyes widened in surprise. "No, you can't have magic," Gwen said, fear for her friend clear in her eyes. She had watched Morgana's goodness rot from the inside out when she had started using magic and Gwen didn't want to see the same thing to happen to Merlin. He was too good, too kind-hearted.
"Merlin!" Gaius called out, a frustrated and frightened expression on his face until he realized that none of the knights at the table were reacting. Except for Elyan, whose face was hard as he stared in Merlin's direction. Percival put a hand on Elyan's shoulder and shook his head when Elyan moved to stand and pull his sword. Everyone else turned to see what had so enraged the mild-mannered knight and Gaius received the second great shock of the day. There beside Merlin, finally revealed, was Morgana. And she was glaring at Merlin.
"Morgana?!" Gaius exclaimed, looking incredulously at Elyan being restrained by Percival.
"What is going on here?!" Elyan asked, looking at Arthur and his fellow knights as though they had gone mad.
"Patience," Arthur commanded. "We'll explain everything." The king nodded towards the tense pair at the side of the room. They seemed to be having some sort of stand off, neither relenting in their glare, unwilling to be the one to give in.
"You have magic?" Morgana finally spoke through gritted teeth. "And you never told me? You knew how frightened I was! I told you everything! I thought I was becoming a monster, I needed help! I trusted you and you couldn't find it in you to do the same for me? To help me?"
Merlin's shoulders sagged and he pointedly studied his boots.
"I wanted to tell you," Merlin said, raising his head to meet Morgana's hurt gaze.
"And yet you didn't," Morgana said, steel in her voice. Merlin's glare returned, his defenses raised.
"You were the king's ward, his daughter! You might have been safe from Uther's wrath, but me? He would have burned me without hesitation- he tried to more than once! He probably would have chopped off my head and then burned me if he thought I was the one to teach you magic, to corrupt you. The more people who knew, the more dangerous things were for me and I couldn't risk that."
"Then why learn magic at all, Merlin?!" Gwen interjected, standing so abruptly that she nearly upended her chair. "Magic has hurt every single one of us here. Why?" The queen was near tears. Merlin broke his glaring match with Morgana and turned to his friend with a sad smile.
"Gwen, there was never any other choice for me. I've had magic from the moment I was born. But I am not evil and I never will be, because that's my choice. I control my magic, it does not control me. You say it has hurt all of us here, but what you don't realize is that magic has helped everyone in Camelot. Magic has saved all our lives more than you'd probably care to imagine."
"As Merlin brilliantly put it, 'magic is like herbs,'" Arthur mocked. Gwen and Elyan looked even more confused. Merlin rolled his eyes and tried to explain.
"You've proven yet again, that you are a cabbage-head. I don't know why I bother with you," Merlin began. "Used properly, herbs can help us and heal us, keep us strong and healthy. If we don't use them properly, those same herbs can be a deadly poison. Magic is the same; it is good or evil depending on the intent of the user. Sometimes it isn't the user's fault, though," Merlin finished, looking towards Morgana sadly. She sniffed and tried to wipe the tears from her eyes surreptitiously, glaring at anyone staring at her with a hint doubt in their eyes.
"I'm still not certain about magic or Morgana, Merlin, but I know you, and I know you'd rather die than hurt Arthur, or Camelot. I'm willing to try and see things your way," Gwen said, reclaiming her seat and giving her best friend a cautious smile.
"And that brings us to the next item on today's agenda," Arthur said, smiling at Guinevere before turning back to those gathered around the table. "Morgana accosted us in the forest last night and tried to do naughty things to poor Merlin here."
Morgana turned her glare on the king. Now that Arthur was removed from the situation in the forest and he'd had several hours to process everything, Arthur felt he could afford to tease Merlin and Morgana about it like any brother would. It helped him to see Morgana as his reclaimed sister, rather than his enemy.
"Naughty things..." Gwaine chuckled.
"Then why is she here?" Gwen ground out, uncharacteristically angry. Elyan nodded in agreement, gripping the pommel of his sword and glaring icily at the woman who had once tortured him.
"Why isn't she in the dungeons where she belongs?! She has brought us nothing but misery and pain!" Elyan finished for his sister. Gwen was nearly trembling in her fury. Morgana hung her head in shame.
"She wasn't herself these last few years. Elyan, do you remember how powerless you were when you were possessed?" Merlin explained when Morgana refused to defend herself. Elyan nodded, though he looked no less wary. Merlin turned to the queen. "Gwen, do you remember the formorroh?" he asked, subconsciously rubbing the back of his neck. Gwen nodded, grimacing at the memory of the gruesome extraction of the snake head in Merlin's neck. Morgana closed her eyes at the reminder; it was the second time Merlin had mentioned it, which was helping her to remember the incident better. Unfortunately, she now vividly recalled the way Merlin had screamed. Morgana shuddered slightly, squeezing Merlin's arm tighter in apology. His free hand covered hers momentarily, understanding the gesture.
"What is that?" Elyan asked, the only one to have not heard the story. Gaius saved Merlin from having to explain.
"That was in your neck?" Elyan asked, mirroring his sister's grimace and looking at Morgana in disgust. Merlin nodded and moved ahead with his explanation.
"During the... situation... last night, I was able to look deeply into Morgana's mind and I found a dark enchantment there, similar in some ways to the qualities of the formorroh, but much, much worse. The spell was like a black, tangled web, planted by Morgause to entrap every good thing about Morgana and leave her with nothing but apathy, hate and bitterness."
Gwen gasped and put her hand over her mouth, tears finally spilling over as she looked compassionately at the woman that she had once considered her best friend. The queen slowly stood once more and made her way around the table, much to Elyan's discomfort. Arthur watched proudly as his ever-loving wife approached the two magicians and hugged them both tightly for a long moment; they returned the embrace gladly.
After Gwen returned to her seat, Merlin went on to give a rough outline of what had happened in the last two days, from the druids inadvertently revealing that he had magic, to his control over the dragons and their assistance in breaking the enchantment over Morgana. Everyone listened with rapt attention, especially when Morgana finally spoke for herself.
"I believe that my memories are slowly returning. I remember the magic I've learned, mostly, and many of the things I've done, which I am very, very sorry about. Truly and utterly ashamed. But I feel very disconnected from it all. It's like I'm watching someone else in my memories. They're dim and fuzzy. The most recent clear memory I have is four years ago, when the Knights of Medhir attacked." Then Morgana turned to Merlin and glared at him again. Merlin scoffed at Morgana's continuing anger over the incident and shook his head in frustration.
"What is wrong with your arm, Merlin?" Gaius asked, interrupting Morgana and Merlin's staring match. The physician's curiosity had been driving him mad, but Merlin hadn't revealed their hands even once during his explanation.
"Well, there was a bit of a side effect to Aithusa's assistance," Merlin stalled, watching his mentor warily. Gaius' eyes bore into Merlin's, waiting for his ward to elaborate. Merlin smiled, trying to convey that he was innocent.
"Let me see your arm," Gaius insisted, complete with raised eyebrow. Merlin raised his left arm and waved it around with an innocent grin, only to falter when he received a stern glare from his foster father.
Leon, Percival and Gwaine grinned at the sight of the most powerful warlock to ever walk the earth being cowed by an old man. Arthur was struggling to contain his mirth; it seemed entirely inappropriate for the situation. Merlin sighed in defeat and pulled his right arm and subsequently Morgana, from behind his back. Gaius' reaction was immediate.
"MERLIN! That had better not be what I think it is!"
"What is it?" Gwen asked, alarmed.
"A dragonfasting, if I'm not mistaken," Gaius answered, eyeing Merlin in stern annoyance.
"It's not like we asked Aithusa to do it!" Merlin argued. Morgana rolled her eyes and tried to cross her arms, yet her arm and Merlin's were still bound, resulting in yet another minor bout of tug-of-war. "Do you have any idea how to undo this?" Merlin asked, gesturing to his and Morgana's struggling hands exasperatedly.
"I'm assuming you know that the rite is unbreakable?" Gaius asked.
"Yes, for all eternities, now how do we undo this?" Merlin said quickly. Gaius frowned at Merlin's flippant attitude towards such a permanent and life-altering situation.
"WHAT ARE YOU TALKING ABOUT?!" Gwen yelled, then she slapped a hand over her mouth, surprised at her own outburst. "I'm so, so sorry," she apologized.
Arthur took pity on Merlin, who was still pinned beneath Gaius' irritated glare.
"A dragonfasting is an ancient rite, performed by dragons, and reserved for dragonlords and their brides," the king quoted, looking to his own bride pointedly.
"You mean to tell me that Merlin and Morgana are married?" Gwen asked, eyes wide.
"Yes! Now please, Gaius, do you know how to undo this wretched thing?" Merlin pleaded with the old man. Morgana glared at Merlin.
"So being tied to me is wretched?! Let me tell you, Merlin, you're not so great to be tied to either!"
"I am not the one glaring at you every five minutes!" Merlin groused, returning the glare.
"You aren't the picture of innocence here, Merlin," Morgana scoffed. Merlin's mouth dropped open.
"What makes you think you are?!" he asked irritatedly.
Everyone watched the heated exchange with wide eyes. Arthur was about to pull them back to the topic at hand when Morgana pushed forwards.
"I am the victim here, you tell everyone about how I wasn't myself before then you're complaining about how wretched I am!"
"I never said you- forget it. Gaius?!" Merlin asked exasperatedly, pointing to their hands.
"I should have thought that was obvious, Merlin," Gaius said as dryly as possible.
"Do I have to call Aithusa to undo it?" the dragonlord asked.
"No, she cannot undo it, only you and Morgana can."
"Great, how do we do it?" Merlin asked again, his patience thinning.
"Merlin, what is the first thing a newly married couple does immediately following a handfasting ceremony?" Gaius asked pointedly. Gwen's eyes widened in realization. Merlin shrugged, exasperated.
"They share a kiss as husband and wife," Gwen provided helpfully.
"You mean to say we've got to kiss?" Merlin asked, straight-faced, waving his free hand between himself and Morgana.
"We have to kiss?" Morgana asked as well, scowling. Merlin looked at her in astonishment.
"You wanted to do a lot more than kiss last night!" Merlin exclaimed, then turned a brilliant shade of Camelot red as Arthur, Gwaine, Percival and Leon snickered and tittered at his embarrassment.
"I obviously wasn't in my right mind," Morgana growled. "Let's just get it over with, I need to go to the privy."
"How romantic," Merlin said sarcastically. Both of them scowled at one another, while everyone else struggled not to laugh.
Steeling himself, Merlin took Morgana's face with his left hand and quickly pecked her lips before he could lose his courage. Merlin reddened when Gwaine whistled and Arthur slowly, facetiously applauded them. However, both Merlin and Morgana were distracted when the smoky binding seemed to sink into their skin and their hands were suddenly free. The witch and warlock stepped back while rubbing their wrists and glaring at one another.
"How romantic, indeed," Arthur said dryly, hoping that eventually, for the sake of his friend, the new couple could at least come to respect one another. Then he, Gwen, and the rest of the council immediately began to discuss strategies for reintroducing Morgana to the people in a way that wouldn't break their trust. Thus enabling Arthur to lift the ban on magic without backlash.
However, Merlin was suddenly worried about things like where Morgana would live. What exactly did this marriage bond require of them? Would they have to live closely together, or would Morgana run away, leaving them alone and unable to move on with someone else. In the grand scheme of things, Merlin hadn't realized just how awkward being unexpectedly married would be.
Was it now his responsibility to provide for her since they were married? Would she want that? Would her title and dowry be reinstated, and if so, where did that leave Merlin? In some sort of limbo, too lowly for any sort of title, but not low enough for his fellow servants to still want to associate with him? Not to mention that Morgana was still glaring at him every now and again, which if he was honest, did hurt. He had healed her, blast it, and she was still treating him like he was her worst enemy.
"The people are going to need to be approached with this subtly," Gaius argued, pulling Merlin back to reality. Arthur was of a mind to make an official announcement of Morgana's innocence in conjunction with her pardon. The knights wanted to have at least a mock trial, open to the people, so that Morgana's innocence could be explained fully. Merlin was of half a mind to take her away somewhere to avoid the situation entirely.
"If anyone cares, I still need to visit the privy," Morgana interrupted. The men in the room all looked to Merlin.
"Don't look at me, I can't take her to the privy," Merlin objected. Arthur rolled his eyes.
"Guinevere, could you take pity on poor innocent Merlin here and take Morgana to the privy? I'd ask a servant to do it, but I'd rather keep her identity under wraps for the moment."
"Of course," Gwen agreed, squeezing his hand and giving Arthur a kiss as she stood from the table. Elyan stood as well, clearly not entirely forgiving just yet, and intent on accompanying the two women. Gwen looked at Morgana shrewdly, weighing what she had witnessed of Morgana's fall against what she had just been told. Gwen's instincts had always served her well, and she couldn't deny that she felt that it wasn't a mistake to give Morgana another chance, if nothing more than for Merlin's sake.
"Hang on," Merlin said, bending to retrieve the blanket Morgana had been concealed in and holding it out in front of him. "Ic i bredan þes wæstling, æpuldran hacelan."
Gwen's eyes widened in shock as the rough, grey, woolen blanket lengthened and transformed into a deep-blue, velvet, hooded cloak.
"If you can do that, why do you wear such rags?" Arthur asked incredulously, eyes fixed on the elegant fabric now in Merlin's hands.
"Because that wouldn't be suspicious at all," Merlin said sarcastically. "You know what my wages are. If I suddenly had such nice clothes you'd have wondered where I had gotten them from. Course, maybe you wouldn't have. After all, you didn't realize I had magic for nearly seven years, even though I admitted it in front of your father's council and alluded to it several times... Not to mention all the times I've saved your life."
"Shutting up, sire," Merlin said cheekily, handing the cloak over to Morgana who pulled it from his hands with a scowl before wrapping it around herself. Merlin folded his arms and sighed as he watched Morgana, Gwen and Elyan leave the room. Arthur took advantage of Morgana's absence to summon a servant to request platters of food to be brought for everyone to eat.
Just as the food was arriving, Merlin realized that he was suddenly very itchy. He started to fidget and squirm, trying to relieve the sensation, but soon he was absentmindedly scratching. Then, as the council doors shut behind the last servant, it was like a fire had been lit under his feet and he couldn't stand still, pacing back and forth and chewing on his fingernails. Arthur, Gaius and the knights were watching him with undisguised curiosity, but he paid them no notice. The itchiness and the anxiousness seemed to alternate and intensify in stages until he was pacing and scratching simultaneously.
"GAIUS?!" Merlin yelled, growing more anxious. "What is wrong with me?!"
"I have my suspicions, though I think we're going to have to wait a few minutes to confirm my theory."
"What is your theory?" Leon asked curiously.
Gaius looked apologetically at his ward. "I believe Merlin misses Morgana."
"What?! Have you seen the looks she keeps giving me? The way we argue? She may be my wife now, but she hates me, why would I miss her?"
"Yes, there's certainly some tension between you." Gaius drawled. Arthur snorted into his goblet, though Gaius pointedly ignored him. "It's the nature of the dragonfasting, I believe. Dragons owe their existence to the dragonlords who call them from their eggs. It only makes sense that a magical binding such as a dragonfasting should work to encourage the continued existence of such a beneficial symbiosis."
"By making me itchy," Merlin said doubtfully. Gaius sighed in frustration.
"Merlin, how is the gift of the dragonlord passed on?"
"From father to son, what has that got to do with itchiness?!"
"Merlin, surely you cannot be so obtuse. Use your head boy! The symptoms only started following your separation from Morgana. A significant separation, such that you can no longer see or touch her," Gaius urged, not wanting to voice his rather embarrassing suspicions. Arthur, having been taught from his boyhood the necessity of an heir, caught on.
"It pains me to admit it, but Merlin surely isn't that obtuse, Gaius," Arthur defended. "However, he is that innocent," Arthur said, losing the battle to hide his grin, and feeling entirely grateful for once that Guinevere was out of the room for this conversation. Merlin glared at the chortling king and the snickering knights.
"Merlin, why do people get married?" Gaius tried another roundabout explanation.
"Usually, because they love each other," Merlin said, missing the point entirely.
"Yes, yes, but then, what inevitably follows marriage?" Gaius widened his eyes and nodded his head at Merlin, willing him to understand and save Gaius from the indignity of explaining the facts of life to a man well into adulthood. "I suspect the anxiousness and the itching sensation is meant to foster close contact."
Thankfully, Merlin caught on, and then burned the deepest shade of red Arthur had ever seen on the warlock.
"Is that what a dragonfasting is traditionally for, then? To ensure continuation of the dragonlord gift?" Merlin asked, carefully observing the stonework in the ceiling to avoid meeting anyone's eyes.
"That is my belief, yes," Gaius said gratefully. Merlin nodded, eyes still fixed to the ceiling.
"I suddenly feel like a horse," Merlin said offhandedly.
"Look at the bright side, Merlin," Gwaine encouraged. "At least you're a stallion and not a gelding."
Arthur and the knights all laughed uproariously at Gwaine's wit.
"Great! Now that's sorted," Merlin said, trying to reclaim his dignity. He forced himself to sit down but couldn't stop fidgeting. Therefore, Merlin decided to busy his hands by serving plates of food to everyone, omitting himself out of habit. After that was done, he sat down, bouncing his foot and rolling his shoulders until Gaius placed a full plate in front of him. Merlin was rapidly devouring the food when Gwen, Elyan and Morgana returned.
Morgana was rolling her shoulders and wringing her hands, glancing around the room until she found Merlin. Then she stormed over to him and tore the cloak off of her body, revealing a fresh dress underneath. Morgana growled as she balled up the navy fabric and threw it in the astonished warlock's face.
"What did you do to that infernal cloak?!"
"Nothing! You heard me enchant it! I merely transformed it!" Merlin defended himself.
"Then why was my whole body itching? I felt like there were bugs crawling all over me!"
"Morgana," Gaius interrupted the witch's rant before it could go any further. "Merlin was suffering from the same malady, and you'd do well to realize that you are neither of you suffering any longer."
Gaius explained his theory once again. Thankfully, Morgana was also entirely too aware of a noble bloodline's need for heirs and so the explanation went much faster the second time around.
"So now I've been reduced to a breed mare," Morgana groused, to everyone's amusement.
"What are the chances they'd both refer to themselves as horses?!" Gwaine guffawed. Merlin rolled his eyes and ignored them.
"So they may feel this way until there is an heir?" Gwen asked reluctantly.
"Isn't that what Morgana wanted in the first place, what started all this?" Arthur asked. Merlin and Morgana both glared at the smirking king.
"I don't remember what I wanted, let alone what I did last night," Morgana argued.
"I suspect you will," Gaius admitted, ignoring Arthur's laughter and pulling their attention back on track. "You will probably recall more and more, most likely through dreams. And you are most likely to feel out-of-sorts until an heir is conceived, though it seems to be under control as long as you're in close proximity, so I don't think there's any need to be hasty in anything."
Both Merlin and Morgana looked at Gaius, appalled.
"I don't think you'll need to worry about that, Gaius," Merlin said.
"What, am I so horrible?" Morgana scoffed.
"Pardon me?! You're the one who keeps glaring at me every chance you get! I tried to be considerate and give you a nice cloak to cover you instead of a scratchy blanket and you threw it in my face!"
"You? Do something nice for me?"
"I've healed you and helped you when Kilgharrah said I should have just let you die. I have risked a dragon's wrath and commanded him to grant me a spell to heal you, even though I knew you were loyal to only Morgause. And most significant of all, instead of killing you outright last night, as I very well could have, I made the effort to break through the enchantment in your mind, so don't tell me I don't do anything nice for you!"
"You claim to do those things and yet you STILL POISONED ME!" Morgana shrieked.
"I DIDN'T HAVE ANY OTHER CHOICE!" Merlin defended himself. The windows rattled ominously in response to their anger. The rest of the round table council watched the argument with wide eyes and bated breath. Merlin and Morgana were two entirely stubborn, strong-willed and powerful people. There was no telling who would win the argument.
"Choice? CHOICE?! If you wanted a bargaining tool so badly, you could have held a knife to my throat! Morgause would still have negotiated."
"That wouldn't have broken the- She didn't tell you," Merlin gasped, realization dawning.
"She didn't have to, I remember you insisting that I drink from the water skin! Morgause explained to me how you waited until I was unconscious and then bargained with my life for her to lift the sleeping spell and call off the Knights of Medhir!"
"I didn't poison you to use you as a bargaining tool, Morgana," Merlin said softly, every trace of ire gone. "I did it because Morgause focused the sleeping spell on you. She made you the vessel; such enchantments cannot be broken or ended. The spell has to fulfill its purpose or the vessel has to be destroyed. I had to choose, you or all of Camelot. Believe me, it wasn't an easy decision."
Morgana had tears in her eyes. "Morgause loved me," she argued feebly. "She was the only one who cared. She wouldn't have done that to me." Merlin shook his head at Morgana's naivety.
"She was not the only one who cared for you, you just couldn't see it beyond your own fear. Morgause risked your life simply by making you the vessel for such a large and powerful spell. Furthermore, that wasn't the worst thing she did to you, or don't you remember the reason we're in this mess?"
Morgana covered her face in her hands, crying harder as the truth hit home. Merlin sighed and stood up, pulling her into his arms as he did that fateful day that he convinced her to drink the hemlock. But this time, she didn't fight him. Morgana melted into Merlin's chest and sobbed as he stroked her back and murmured apologies into her hair as he rocked her side to side.
"And that, gentlemen, is how you comfort a woman," Gwen sniffed, startling Merlin and Morgana out of their bubble. The other men in the room were looking pointedly elsewhere, avoiding the emotional scene. Morgana wiped her eyes on her sleeve.
"Back to the matter at hand," Merlin said, pulling out his chair and allowing Morgana to sit in it. Gwen smiled proudly at him. "If we're going to get all itchy and anxious whenever we're out of sight of the other, how am I going to perform my duties? Morgana can't exactly follow me around whilst I scrub floors and muck out the stables."
"Technically it's not entirely appropriate for you to do those things anymore. Unfortunately, I'll have to get a new servant," Arthur interjected.
"What?! You're sacking me? Have we not already established that bad things happen when you sack me?!" Merlin argued, much to everyone's amusement.
"I can't exactly have my brother scrubbing floors and mucking out horses, now, can I?"
"Your brother? You're not serious," Merlin said, watching Arthur for any sign of humor.
"I'm not joking, Merlin. You are now just as much my brother as Elyan."
"What am I to do then? I'll drive Gaius insane if I don't have something to do, and we can't exactly reveal yet that we're now brothers-in-law."
"We could call you my advisor. You do enough of that already," Arthur said.
"And what about when you go out on patrols? Or am I to protect you from the council room now?"
"Why does Arthur need your protection?" Elyan asked, confused.
"Because he's the Once and Future king, and it is my destiny to protect and assist him."
"Destiny?" Morgana gasped, overwhelmed by a sudden memory of the Cailleach speaking to her, calling Emrys her destiny and her doom. Everyone focused on Morgana, stunned to see her trembling in her seat. Merlin pulled her chair around and knelt in front of her.
"What's wrong, Morgana?" he asked, brows furrowed.
"Emrys! He is my destiny and my doom," Morgana said, frightened. Merlin's confusion melted at her explanation, and his face softened.
"No, the gatekeeper, the Cailleach, she said Emrys was my destiny and my doom."
"Morgana, you don't remember what I said last night?" Merlin asked, grasping Morgana by the shoulders.
"No, I remember light, just lots of light."
"Morgana, you have no reason to fear Emrys anymore."
"Yes, I do! He's tried to kill me already!" Morgana was starting to panic, wondering when the old man would emerge from the shadows.
"Morgana, calm down, you've nothing to fear," Merlin reassured her again.
"You don't understand!" Morgana insisted. "Emrys is more powerful than you can imagine, you don't have the strength to go against him. I... I think I nearly died the last time I fought him..." Morgana put her hands to her temples, massaging, trying to ease the memory.
"Emrys is nothing to fear, Morgana," Merlin repeated.
"Did you not hear a word I just said? Emrys hates me."
"I never hated you, Morgana. I hated what you had become."
"That does not reassure me! Emrys is the one I'm concerned about!"
"And I'm trying to tell you that you don't have to be."
"How can you possibly know that ?" Morgana asked, confused.
"Because I am Emrys."
The quiet stillness of night seemed thick and heavy to the young warlock pacing the physician's quarters. He wasn't even sure why he was so anxious; surely he wasn't so emotionally invested in Morgana already? Or was this from the dragonfasting and not a real emotion of his own? Whatever the reason, Merlin's mind was whirling and he couldn't relax even though he had been awake for close to a full twenty-four hours. Gaius looked to the anxious warlock and sighed.
"You're going to put a rut in my floor," he chided. Merlin stopped and looked up at his foster-father.
"Sorry, Gaius. It's just that it's been nearly twelve hours since Morgana collapsed. Are you sure there's nothing I can do?" Merlin asked, glancing at Morgana's still, sleeping form on the patient's bed.
"Sit down and rest, Merlin, you look ready to collapse."
"But what's wrong with her?"
Gaius fixed Merlin with a fatherly look and gave him a gentle smile. "Merlin, she received a great shock, on top of being exhausted, dehydrated, and poorly nourished. She's probably not been eating very well since, well..."
"Since we took back Camelot."
"I dare say, you're taking this rather harder than I thought you would. Why is that, I wonder?" Gaius chuckled.
"Why shouldn't I? I would be heartless if I didn't care. We were good friends at one time."
"Of course," Gaius agreed, though Merlin could hear the disbelief in the physician's tone.
"I don't love her, Gaius. It would be foolish of me to think I did at this point."
"Do you think it possible that you will, eventually?"
"I have to hope so. She's irrevocably my wife now, Gaius! What else is there for me to do?" Merlin asked desperately.
"For now, you can rest, my boy. She'll still be here in the morning, you can think more about it then. Sleep," Gaius ordered. Merlin nodded reluctantly and commandeered Gaius' bed in order to remain within view of Morgana.
As Merlin lay there, trying to calm his anxious mind and body, he returned to contemplating just where his emotions were coming from. Was he feeling some suppressed affection that he had buried when Morgana turned away from them? Was this urge to protect her an instinct of his magic, responding to Morgana's own magic? Was this something that he was doing of his own volition, or was he once again a puppet in the cruel hands of fate?
Merlin tried his best to put his unanswerable questions from his mind, but only succeeded in vividly recalling the moment in the council room when Morgana's eyes had rolled back into her head and she had collapsed into Merlin's arms.
Apparently, hearing that her new husband was her prophesied doom was too much. Merlin had frozen, clutching her limp form to his chest, unable to comprehend why his heart was pounding and his limbs were trembling. Thankfully, Gwen had jumped into action, ordering the knights to help discretely transport Morgana and shepard a numb Merlin to Gaius' chambers.
The physician had made quick work of coaxing the unconscious woman to swallow several spoonfuls of broth followed by a few nutritive potions of Gaius' own concoction. It had helped Morgana's coloring immensely; Gaius was certain that with a little rest and more to eat, she would be right as rain. Merlin was another story altogether.
Arthur had stood by Merlin's side as best he could as the warlock paced and fidgeted and generally got in Gaius' way. After the physician threatened to sedate Merlin, Arthur practically sat on the warlock to make him settle down. However, when the king and queen had retired to their own chambers to rest at Gaius' urging, Merlin had taken to pacing once more.
Merlin took a deep breath and tried once more to settle into Gaius' bed more comfortably, pushing all the anxiety and memories from his mind. It had been a long day and now that Merlin was lying still, the exhaustion suddenly hit him full-force, pulling him into a deep, restful sleep.
Gaius smiled at the sound of his ward's gentle snores, grateful for the peace and quiet. Standing carefully so as to not make any loud noise, he went up the stairs and borrowed his ward's bed for a few hours rest.
Merlin, however, soon began to dream. He found himself back at the lake, only this time, the water was as firm as glass, reflecting the world around it like the most flawless mirror. He eased himself closer, hoping to see what would be reflected for him. There were cloudy specters swirling across the surface as he approached, whirling and shifting until they coalesced into hazy but distinct images. Merlin was eerily reminded of the times he had seen the future within the Crystal of Neahtid and again within the Crystal Cave itself.
Suddenly visible in the glassy water was a slightly older version of Merlin himself. He was wearing nicer clothes, and there was just the slightest sign of age around the eyes. Most surprising of all was the child in his arms. A dark-haired boy of about five, giggling as future-Merlin tickled his tummy. Future-Morgana smiled adoringly at the pair and her Merlin smiled back, reaching out to caress her belly, rounded with another child. Then the scene changed, morphing into a springtime picnic. Future-Merlin was sitting on a blanket beside future-Morgana. Slightly older versions of Arthur and Gwen sat with them, laughing at a group of blonde and black-haired children in the distance. Merlin smiled as he too watched the children playing king-of-the-hill with Percival as a veritable mountain while Gwaine, Elyan and Leon laughed.
The visions shown in the lake's surface were so very happy. The experience was altogether much more pleasant than any other he'd ever had while being shown the future. Merlin gasped when he saw an image of Morgana looking at him with pure love before giving her Merlin an intensely passionate kiss. Merlin fell to his knees on the shore at the sight, utterly floored by how much he wanted this future.
Open your heart, Merlin. It is my desire to see you happy...
Merlin gasped as he recalled Freya's words from the last time he had seen her. It seemed like so long ago now, so much had happened. When Arthur had told him just that morning that he was now inexplicably married to Morgana, he had thought that it was some sort of mistake. Or that fate had tempted him with the possibility of something good before cruelly snatching the chance away before Merlin had even had the opportunity to experience it.
Now, seeing these images, he felt a wellspring of hope in his heart once more. Was it possible to foster such a great love from the seeds of redemption and forgiveness?
"Merlin," a voice called, causing him to spin around and clamber to his feet.
"Who's there?" he called, seeing no one.
"Hello Merlin," Freya said, coalescing into a transparent silhouette beside him.
"Are you real?" Merlin asked, confused. Any other time he had seen Freya at the lake, she had seemed solid and real, but bound to the waters of the lake. This Freya was standing on the shore next him, as insubstantial as the images in the glassy water.
"I'm as real as you make me," Freya laughed.
"So I'm dreaming, then?"
"Where does the mind wander when one sleeps?"
"I'm not dreaming?"
"You are what you make of things," Freya said.
"You're making as much sense as the dragon," Merlin complained. Freya laughed.
"Is this the future? How is this even possible after all that Morgana and I have done to one another? We have tried to kill each other! She hates me, not to mention that she's terrified of me!"
"Hate often stems from fear. You said yourself that Morgana has no need to fear you any longer."
"Is this what waits for us, then?" Merlin asked hopefully, pointing over his shoulder at the lake-mirror.
"The future is what you make of it."
"What does that mean?"
"You make your future, Merlin; you may have a destiny, but it is wrapped in layers of choices. There is more than one way to fulfill a destiny, after all. Could you not have let Uther Pendragon die many years ago and put Arthur on the throne as your puppet? In the most basic sense, it would have satisfied the elements of the ancient prophecies. But you decided how to fulfill your destiny on your own terms. If you want this happiness, you must work for it the same way."
"Wait!" Merlin shouted as Freya and the mountain lake dissolved into darkness. "Wait!"
"What in blazes are you going on about Merlin? Wait for what?"
Merlin wrenched his eyes open, startled to see Arthur hovering over him. The warlock looked around him, disoriented.
"I just had the strangest dream. At least, I think it was a dream." Merlin's eyes widened and he put a hand to his forehead in confusion as he woke further. He shook his head to dispel his sleepiness and the odd feeling left behind as the dream faded.
"Is Morgana awake?" he asked, turning towards the patient bed, only to find it empty.
"Yes, Gwen is helping her get changed in your room."
"How is she?" Merlin asked.
"Guinevere's just lovely," Arthur teased, knowing who exactly Merlin was asking after, but unable to resist.
"Thanks, Arthur, but I wasn't asking about your wife, I was asking about mine," Merlin groused, surprised at the ease with which he had just referred to Morgana as his wife. Arthur grinned cheekily in response, opening his mouth to retort.
"She'll be fine," Gaius interjected, handing Merlin a hunk of bread and a lump of hard cheese for breakfast. The warlock took them gratefully and smiled at Gaius. A moment later, the door to Merlin's room opened and Gwen emerged.
"Morgana would like to talk to you, Merlin."
"I'll be right there," Merlin promised, standing up and walking towards the small bedroom with his breakfast in hand.
"Good luck," the queen murmured, squeezing Merlin's shoulder in support as they passed one another.
Merlin walked through the door, latching it behind him with a distinct click.
"What is happening to us, Merlin?" Morgana asked without hesitation from where she sat in the high window sill, her back to the door as she gazed out over the city.
"I'm not entirely sure."
"You're Emrys." Morgana stated.
"I am," Merlin confirmed softly, climbing up onto the table below the window and leaning beside her. He offered her half of the bread and cheese and was inwardly triumphant when she accepted them without hesitation. Merlin smiled and they began to eat.
"I was told that you were my destiny and my doom," Morgana said a moment later, looking at Merlin for the first time. He shrugged.
"And I've been told that you are the darkness to my light and the hatred to my love. That our destinies are forever intertwined. Maybe the Cailleach was referring to the enchantment within you that I destroyed. Perhaps I was only destined to be the doom to your darker persona. You were entirely different to the Morgana I met seven years ago." Merlin shrugged again. "And neither of us can deny that we're destined to be together now. I was beside myself when you collapsed yesterday, where two days ago I would have celebrated." Morgana glared at him.
"Sorry, that was rather harsh. I wouldn't have celebrated. I would have mourned the necessity of hurting you, but acknowledged that it had to happen," he amended.
"Are we just pawns in fate's game then?" Morgana scoffed. "Do we truly have no choices in life?"
Merlin thought back on his dream, and the riddles that his dream-Freya had given him.
"Gaius once told me that the future is still unshaped. That it's we that shape it through our actions and our decisions," Merlin said. "I believe that. We all of us have choices. I could have walked away from my destiny years ago. Almost did, in fact. Or I could have done things differently. Chosen other methods. You know that I'm powerful enough; I could have put Arthur on the throne years ago and pushed a magic agenda. But I've chosen to help Arthur become the great king that I know he is. I have no interest in pulling the strings to a puppet. What would I be if I had? I would be Uther in different clothes."
"Are you saying that you would have chosen me to be your wife if given the option?"
"If you had asked me that a few days ago, I would have wondered who had bashed you in the head. Now? Maybe I didn't choose to marry you, but I'd like to think that I can choose to make the most of our situation. I can choose to do my best to be there for you, in the way that I should have been a long time ago."
"You admit that you should have told me about your magic?" Morgana asked, triumphant yet doubtful.
"You don't know how much I wanted to tell you. Gaius and Kilgharrah both kept warning me that it was a bad idea. It was one of the worst disagreements that Gaius and I ever had. Kilgharrah had said that you were dangerous and couldn't be trusted. I believe he foresaw your actions of the last few years. But I don't think that he saw or understood everything. Perhaps it was Aithusa's youth that enabled her to look beyond your actions and see the truth for what it was. Kilgharrah is incredibly old and wise, but I think that his captivity and his hatred for Uther blinded him to many things. Gaius, I think, just wanted to protect you from Uther's grief-driven hatred of magic."
"Those are fine words, Merlin, but you can't understand how I felt. I was so scared. I thought that I was turning into a monster and that the very man who professed to love me like a daughter would burn me for it. I was so confused, and Morgause was the only one who accepted who and what I am. And yet she turned me into the very monster that I feared. My own sister?! How can I trust anyone ever again?!"
"You can trust me," Merlin argued.
"You? The one who poisoned me?"
"That's not fair. You know I didn't want to and that I've regretted it every day since. You don't understand how I felt. I understand being afraid of yourself. I understand feeling like a monster; like a freak. Why do you think I didn't fit in in Ealdor? The others in the village may not have known for certain that I had magic, but they knew there was something different about me.
"Magic has always been a part of me. The things that happened around you when you had no control over your magic? They happened to me when I was just a babe in the cradle. One of the old men in the village told me that I was a demon's bastard when I was just six years old. He hated me, especially when I felled an old oak tree with magic and nearly crushed him with it. I was only twelve and it was an accident. I didn't know he had followed me and Will. But suddenly he was there screaming in my face. I thought he was going to strangle me with his bare hands! I understand your fear!
"I had nightmares about poisoning you for weeks afterwards. I didn't know if you had lived or died. Then we started looking for you, and I felt so guilty every time we went out and came home without you. We all missed you..." Merlin trailed off into silence, allowing Morgana to wipe her tears without comment.
"What do we do now?" she murmured, looking away from the window and into Merlin's questioning eyes. "Am I still destined to be the hatred and the darkness in this game of fate's?"
"We make the best of things," Merlin said shrugging. "For better or worse, I am your husband and you are my wife. Even more mind-boggling, if we ever want to spend more than twenty minutes apart, one day we may have a child. Our destinies are forever altered; so we'll make our own future. You decide, Morgana, how good and loving or dark and hateful you are. Not even fate can make you something you don't want to be. We have a choice before us now, Morgana, and I choose to try."
"I suppose that's the best we can do for now. Try."
"Thank you," Merlin said earnestly. Then he smiled mischievously. "You realize that Arthur and Gwen are listening at that door, right?" he asked mentally, then held a finger to his lips. Morgana looked at him in confusion.
"We need to discuss where we're going to stay from now on, since we can't tolerate to let the other of us out of our sight and my room is rather small for two people," he said aloud, then he looked at the doorway and whispered, "ic i ætýne!"
The slatted-wood door flew open, dumping Arthur, Gwen andsurprisingly, Gaius in an undignified heap into the room.
"Merlin!" Gaius scolded. "What have I said about using your magic for tricks?"
"I'm not sure, Gaius, I think I must have missed that lesson somewhere along with the do-not-eavesdrop lecture," Merlin said cheekily.
"We were just trying to make sure you were alright," Gwen reassured them guiltily. Merlin and Morgana both raised their eyebrows at the trio.
"What did you expect? Two days ago you were ready to take each other's heads off, now you're planning common sleeping arrangements! We're only trying to look out for the both of you!" Arthur argued, helping Gwen and Gaius to their feet.
"Of course, sire," Merlin snickered. "We're grateful that you care so much."
"Shutting up, sire," Merlin answered jauntily.
As it was, it had been a very good job that Gwen had been listening. The queen very sensibly took charge and had led them to Morgana's old chambers that had been left unused ever since Morgana had left Camelot with an injured Morgause. Fewer people ventured into Morgana's old wing of the royal bed chambers as compared to the physician's quarters, thus there would be less chance of someone stumbling upon Morgana until they revealed her presence in Camelot.
So it was that Merlin gathered his meager belongings from his room in Gaius' quarters and moved his things into his new chambers with his wife. His staff and spell book in particular had been highly interesting to Morgana. Gwen had been rather amused to see the pair getting along quite well as they discussed the different elements of the sidhe magic used to create the staff. The queen practically had to order them to put the magical artifacts aside and get back to the task at hand. Morgana had put on a pout that Gwen had found was common to Pendragons but Merlin had grinned sheepishly and obediently stowed his things for later.
Within the hour, Merlin was at work removing dust cloths, straightening things, and freshening the sheets while Gwen and Morgana sorted through some old gowns that Gwen'd had brought out of storage. In consideration of Merlin and Morgana's desire for their own space, despite their awkward need to be close together, Gwen sent for Gwaine and Percival to quietly move Merlin's bed into the alcove beside the elegant four-poster.
Of course, the knights' services had come with plenty of jokes and teasing. Merlin ignored them after a while. He and Morgana were prepared to share space, but they were nowhere near prepared to share a bed even just for sleep. Merlin was fully aware of that fact and refused to be ashamed of it. The knights however, believed it was their place to ensure that Merlin felt included in their brotherhood through copious amounts of good-natured ribbing. As such, Gwaine had started to sing a baudy tavern song as they were reassembling Merlin's bed frame. However, he promptly fell silent when he brayed halfway through the chorus. Percival had still been chuckling when they had left to attend to their duties.
"Merlin, I've also taken the liberty this morning of sending for your mother. I thought it might help you as things are brought to light to have Hunith here," Gwen admitted as they were getting things situated. Merlin stiffened as he finished tucking the fresh sheets around the large feather mattress. He suddenly stood straight and with wide eyes, spun to face Guinevere.
"I'm going to be in so much trouble," Merlin said, then clapped a hand over his mouth.
"You're a grown man, Merlin, I think you'll survive the trauma," Morgana said dryly. Merlin shook his head and dropped his hand.
"You don't understand, my mother's number one rule was keep the magic secret and number two was don't get married without telling me."
"You can't be serious," Gwen laughed.
"Perhaps there were a few rules in between those two, but my mother always wanted to see me get married since she never got married herself. You see, when I was sixteen and Will was seventeen, he fancied a girl in the next village. His father had been killed a few years before and he'd become quite rebellious. Well, my mother heard Will telling me that he was planning on running away with the girl, so my mother waited for him to sneak out with his pack and caught him. Pulled him by the ear all the way back to Will's mother's house. My mother said if I ever tried it, she'd do the same to me."
"Merlin, you're the most powerful warlock to ever walk the earth, and you're afraid of Hunith?" Morgana asked in disbelief.
"My mother walked all by herself from Ealdor to Camelot to come for me. Even after Kanen hit her because she stood up to him and refused to let him starve her village. And did you see the way my mother took down some of Kanen's men? Besides that, she raised me without a single bit of her own magic. I'm not ashamed to admit that that was no small task!
"I set things on fire before I was an hour old, levitated and moved things around before I could talk, and manipulated time before I was three! She had to keep me in line through sheer strength of will and ample use of guilt. If I had been so inclined, there's no way she could have physically stopped me."
Morgana's eyes widened and her face paled.
"My mother has a temper when she's upset," Merlin continued. "You should have seen how angry she got when she realized Will knew about my magic. Scolded me for a full twenty minutes and sent me straight off to Gaius!"
Gwen and Morgana gaped at Merlin as he caught his breath after his rant. Morgana had heard very little after Merlin had described what he had done at such a young age. It was almost unfathomable, what Hunith had accomplished entirely on her own, and in secret. Morgana shook her head and forced herself back to the task at hand.
"Merlin? Our children had better take after me and not come into their magic until they're older," Morgana said as she pulled another gown from the storage trunk and studied it distractedly.
Merlin's face reddened at the implications of having children with Morgana, but it brought his dream to mind and caused a sappy smile to spread across his face. He wasn't entirely sure how aware Morgana was of what she had said, but it gave him hope that things would turn out for the better. Gwen too, was smiling broadly; she couldn't wait to tell Arthur how well things were going.
Four days later, Merlin was helping Arthur prepare for training under the king's amused eye. The warlock tried to ignore the snickers and the hardly concealed smiles as Merlin scratched or fidgeted or paced about the room.
"What's wrong, Merlin? Bit agitated?" Arthur asked innocently. Merlin glared at the king in response. "There's a cure for that itch, you know," Arthur teased.
"Not having this conversation with you," Merlin retorted, returning to the table to retrieve another piece of armor.
"Eventually, you'll have to spend more than thirty minutes at a time outside her presence, Merlin."
"We're not going to be hasty just because we're a bit inconvenienced."
"You're looking a bit more than inconvenienced, Merlin. You're about to crawl out of your skin!"
"Where's George?! Why couldn't he get you into your armor? I thought I wasn't supposed to do this anymore?"
"You should know why I didn't ask for George, he re-polishes every piece of my armor before and after he puts it on me. I think he believes a fingerprint is going to be the death of me. Don't even get me started on his jokes," Arthur said exasperatedly.
"Please, I wouldn't dream of it. I learnt every last one of them when you tortured me with training with him," Merlin complained. Arthur smirked at the memory. Then the king's face fell.
"I'm just trying to see how you're doing. I've been reviewing the old laws with Guinevere and I think we're ready. I'm convening the council tomorrow morning to discuss the ban on magic and to present Morgana's case to them. I'd like you both to be there."
"I'll let Morgana know," Merlin agreed, fastening the last buckle on Arthur's wrist guards and stepping back.
"How are you doing, really?" Arthur asked.
"Fine," Merlin answered quickly. "I mean, it's getting there. It's a bit awkward, sharing space with Morgana. There's such a history between us; it's like we take one step forward and two steps back. One minute she's smiling and mentioning our future children and the next she's scowling at me like everything is my fault!"
"Welcome to marriage, Merlin," Arthur laughed. Merlin shook his head and continued.
"She's woken up screaming and crying at the memories resurfacing in her dreams every night that we've been sleeping in our new chambers. She calls for me and clings to me in the night, then pulls away into herself in the morning. We've been reading a lot, practicing magic, and Morgana has taken to ignoring me now and then by sorting through and mending her clothes.
"There's little we can do stuck as we are in our chambers until Morgana can show her face and neither of us have ever done well in close quarters with little to occupy our time. I'm not sure what else to do." Merlin finally fell silent, shocked that he had admitted that much. Telling Arthur about his magic seemed to have opened the floodgates. Arthur was rather surprised as well at the torrent that had come pouring from Merlin's mouth. The king had never heard Merlin speak so much about himself at once.
"Give it time. Isn't that what they say? 'Time heals all wounds?'"
"Well, I wish I could find 'they' and beat them with a stick for not being more helpful," Merlin groused, folding his arms in an effort to keep himself from chewing off his already torn fingernails. Arthur laughed and sent Merlin back to Morgana while he headed down to the training field where the knights were waiting.
"What did Arthur want this morning?" Morgana asked a few hours later.
"He said he wanted me to help him into his armor but it was just an excuse."
"Yes. Arthur rarely admits to feeling emotions. He always hides his heart behind orders and taunts. You ought to remember that."
"No, I just remember a spoilt bully," Morgana said.
"No. He had changed a lot before you left the first time. You just didn't want to see that he wasn't his father."
Morgana scowled at his honesty, but Merlin was inwardly pleased that her ire was half-hearted and not truly directed at him.
"He wanted to know how we were doing," Merlin said softly, distracting her from her thoughts.
"And how are we doing?" Morgana asked curiously.
"We're getting there. Eventually," Merlin answered, smiling lightly and holding out his spell book in invitation. Morgana nodded her acceptance and smiled in return as she took a seat at the head of their table. Merlin sat down perpendicular to her and lay the spell book on the corner of the table between them.
Smiling eagerly, Merlin opened the magic book to a random page. Morgana's eyes brightened at the set of spells before them and they began to discuss the different elements to each enchantment. It was one activity they had discovered in their seclusion that didn't devolve into petty bickering and scowls, as they had found they were likely to do, confined in such cramped quarters.
They were learning, slowly but surely, how to share space and cautious, chaste affection with one another. Morgana allowed Merlin to hold her and rock her when she broke down in the night, and it was becoming her habit to take a hold of his upper arm and give it a squeeze whenever he returned to their room. Merlin had pressed a kiss to the top of Morgana's head when he had comforted her the night before, surprising the both of them, though she hadn't protested. But beyond that, they had kept to themselves.
They had gotten into an animated discussion on the subtle variations between shield spells and the strengths of each when Morgana had leaned in closer to Merlin to read the page directly in front of him. Merlin realized as she did that they had somehow woven their legs together, touching at their ankles. It had been entirely subconscious and Merlin was surprised by how natural and comfortable the intimacy of the position felt.
Morgana sat back as she turned the page to a spell Merlin had really enjoyed learning a couple years previous. He smiled, eager to discuss this particular section, but his enthusiasm was dampened when a quick knock resounded from the door. They weren't expecting anyone. Usually it was just Gwen who came to visit and this knock was decidedly firmer than Gwen's. Morgana met Merlin's wide eyes and quickly moved to hide on his bed behind the curtain while he hastily stood and shut the book. Merlin spun around to face the entryway and sat awkwardly on top of the large tome to hide it just as the door opened.
"Good job, Merlin, that doesn't look suspicious at all," Arthur said sarcastically. Merlin smiled snarkily in return. "The guards at the gate assumed you were with me on the training grounds. So I've brought you a surprise."
"That makes no sense whatsoever, Prat," Merlin drawled, smiling as Morgana poked her head out from the curtain. Arthur smirked.
"Merlin! Is that how you speak to your king?"
"It's your mother," Arthur said triumphantly as he stepped aside to reveal Hunith. Gwen had shared exactly how nervous Merlin had been at the prospect of his mother coming. Arthur had been only too willing to personally escort Hunith to her son when she had turned up at the training fields. He had shrugged off her insistence that a servant could help her to Merlin, and not just because Merlin and Morgana were currently off limits to servants. Apparently there was someone who could ultimately control the strong-willed warlock even better than Gaius. Arthur hoped to see Hunith in action; he was seriously considering asking Hunith to stay in Camelot. Perhaps Merlin would learn some sense of self-preservation if she did.
"Mother!" Merlin exclaimed, quickly glancing towards Morgana's hiding place in panic before he rushed forward to embrace Hunith and block her potential view of Morgana. "How did you get here so quickly? The messenger couldn't have reached Ealdor more than two days ago. I wasn't expecting you for another day, at least."
"Nathaniel and Ceren were traveling this way to sell some surplus grain, so they let me ride along in the wagon," Hunith explained. "Now tell me, what's your news? You apparently got new accommodations, what's going on?"
"He's been promoted, for one," Arthur answered for a speechless Merlin. Hunith smiled brilliantly at Arthur's words.
"And married for another," Morgana said, coming to stand beside Merlin and taking his arm as had become her habit. Hunith's smile fell and she gasped in shock. She took a step back, looking at Merlin with narrowed eyes. Hunith put her hands on her hips then lifted a single eyebrow, looking eerily similar to Gaius.
"You eloped with Morgana?!" Hunith incredulously questioned her son. Merlin did the only thing he could.
He covered his ears.
Hunith looked sternly at Merlin for a full minute before speaking.
"It appears you have some explaining to do, young man. Not only are you married, but to the woman who tried to KILL YOU and TAKE OVER Camelot?!" Hunith's face melted into utter confusion. "Surely there is some rational explanation for your actions. For why Morgana is MARRIED TO YOU instead of under ARREST?"
"It wasn't exactly planned, you see," Merlin began.
"It was the dragon's fault," Morgana added.
"Well, you did start it," Merlin said, crossing his arms and looking to Morgana with raised eyebrows. As a dragonlord, he couldn't help but get defensive of the dragons.
"And we've already established that I wasn't in my right mind," Morgana said with forced cheer, meeting Merlin's eyes pointedly.
"So you had to be out of your mind to marry Merlin?" Arthur interjected with a triumphant grin. Merlin and Morgana both turned towards Arthur and glared at the same time.
"Would someone PLEASE tell me what happened?!" Hunith demanded. Merlin, Morgana and Arthur dutifully sat down at the table with Hunith and explained the events of the last week to Merlin's increasingly shocked mother.
"You were enchanted?" Hunith asked at long last, looking at Morgana with pity and sadness in her eyes.
"I was," Morgana confirmed. "I'm still struggling to remember the events of the last four years. Things haven't come easily."
"No, it seems not," Hunith agreed, reaching across the table to squeeze her new daughter-in-law's hand. Then she turned to Merlin with a fond expression.
"My son, a married man. Imagine that," she said, smiling tentatively. "I'm sure I would have liked to have seen it. Balinor explained it to me once, but since there weren't any dragons..." Hunith trailed off, her eyes glistening with unshed tears. Merlin stood up and pulled his mother into his arms.
"I'm sure in his heart you were his wife, dragonfasted or not. He was very emotional when he spoke of you," Merlin explained, tears welling in his own eyes. Arthur and Morgana looked away, allowing mother and son to have their moment.
"Thank you," Hunith whispered, pulling away and patting Merlin's cheek affectionately. "Now, you just need to give me some grandchildren and all will be perfect."
Merlin's face burned. "We- W-We'll keep you posted," he finally stammered out, trying his hardest to ignore Arthur's poorly smothered grin and Morgana's sudden renewed interest in the spellbook.
"I'll just let you all get fully caught up," Arthur said, standing and walking towards the door. I expect you three tonight at seven in Guinevere's and my chambers, we'll have supper together."
"Thank you," Hunith accepted, awed to be dining with the king and queen.
"We'll be there," Merlin acknowledged, and Arthur strode out of the room.
"Then Uther sent Arthur to summon Gaius for an urgent problem. We get to his chambers and we find Uther completely bald! He looked so angry!" Merlin laughed.
"As he should have been! Baldness is not becoming of a king," Arthur insisted, to everyone's amusement.
"But the next day at court! At the time I was so stressed over getting the goblin back in the damn box that I couldn't see the humor in the situation for a long while afterwards, but oh-"
"Don't even mention that day!" Gwen shuddered.
"What happened? I don't remember," Morgana asked.
"Don't ask! You'll be sorry to remember that day," Gwen insisted. Morgana just looked more confused, and looked at Merlin with a raised eyebrow.
"Gaius was possessed by the goblin by that point; he had started to give out bogus remedies to 'cure' a plague that he invented in a scheme to get gold. He gave Uther, Gwen and you, Morgana, a potion to cause horrible wind. Thinking back on that day, after I had caught the goblin, I probably laughed for a full half-hour."
"Didn't you get arrested?" Morgana asked, concentrating on the memories.
"Merlin! You didn't!" Hunith explained. Merlin tried to look innocent, but only succeeded in looking sheepish.
"Yes, and it wasn't the first time," Arthur answered. "It's amazing he lasted as long as he did in secret. How many times have you been arrested for sorcery, Merlin?"
"I've been arrested as myself four times in all. Of those four, twice the charge was sorcery, but I was always proved innocent in the end," Merlin admitted, smiling smugly.
"As yourself? What does that mean?" Arthur asked, eyes narrowed.
"Well, there was that time that you arrested me as Dragoon."
"Merlin! That was you?! But he was an insolent, doddery old man!"
"It was an aging spell! I had to get the focus off of Gwen, so I created another sorcerer to take the blame. I was supposed to just change back into myself and let Dragoon mysteriously disappear, but the enchantment was too strong. Gaius managed to slip me a restorative potion just in time though," Merlin said, shrugging.
"You nearly burned for that!" Gwen said, alarmed.
"Merlin!" Hunith gasped. Merlin just shrugged once more.
"Dragoon... YOU insulted me and my father! You made me carry you like a horse! You-" Arthur cut off, staring at Merlin, hurt clear on his face.
"I didn't kill your father, Arthur," Merlin said gently.
"No, I did," Morgana said quietly, gaining their attention. Morgana dropped her gaze, staring down at her lap to avoid the hurt in Arthur's expression. "I remember making an amulet to reverse any healing magic used on Uther. Agravaine took it... I'm so sorry. Though I despised him, I know what he meant to you."
"Why did you despise him so? He raised you and loved you. Treated you like a daughter, even if he denied your parentage," Arthur asked.
"When my magic began to develop, I was terrified. I had seen so many people killed for having magic. No one was immune to his prejudice, not even the nobility. I thought many times that my life would be so much easier if Uther was gone. I thought I was ready to see him die when he had Tom killed, but I couldn't go through with it. I ended up saving him. I realized then that as hateful as the man was, he did love me. I was very conflicted until Morgause took me away. Then I had only one goal."
"To take the throne," Arthur acknowledged sadly. Morgana nodded and looked down at her plate in contemplation.
"Morgause had said that it was a good thing that he was my father, because that meant I had a rightful claim to the throne. If I had been in my right mind I would have realized that the rights to succession do not take unrecognized, illegitimate children into account. I tried to get Uther to acknowledge that he was my father after I fell down the stairway, but he wouldn't.
"I think his refusal to claim me fueled the hatred that had taken me over more effectively than anything else, and Morgause knew it would. That's why she felt it was such a good thing. She must have known that Uther would never admit his indiscretion and that his refusal would incite my anger. She was always so quick to stoke my temper..."
Morgana finally met the king's tear-filled eyes, her own eyes red and moist.
"Uther may have loved me in some way, but he loved you more."
Arthur shook his head. Though he accepted Morgana's apology, he immediately refuted her last words.
"He loved you more than you can understand, perhaps even more than me. He sought the magic he hated to heal you when you were near death; yet when I was in the same condition after the questing beast bit me, he was prepared to let me die, rather than use magic. Our father was broken when you took the throne and then were forced to flee with Morgause. He was never the same again."
"I wish that I had been stronger and lived up to what Gorlois raised me to be," Morgana admitted. "That I had fought Morgause, or thought of anyone other than myself. I was weak."
"Morgana," Merlin interrupted. "You could not have broken that enchantment; you were not weak. It took both of our combined strength to eliminate it."
Morgana's tears finally fell as she nodded, acknowledging Merlin's words.
"We must not forget the guilt of the man who dealt the fatal wound to begin with," Arthur reasoned. "Whether or not either of your magic finished my father, it would never have been an issue if not for the gleeman who stabbed my father in the first place."
"I cannot let myself forget my part of it," Morgana whispered.
"Nor can I," Arthur replied. "But I can forgive. To forget would only invite us to repeat our past mistakes."
"Then I will strive to never repeat my mistakes," Morgana vowed sincerely.
"You were not fully in control. You must remember that as well, or you will never forgive yourself," Merlin said softly. Arthur cleared his throat, eager to leave the painful subject in the past.
"So that makes five arrests for you since you came to Camelot," Arthur said, trying to pull them out of their melancholy. Merlin immediately followed Arthur's lead.
"No, four for me, one for Dragoon, the doddery, insolent old man," Merlin grinned.
"Merlin! That is nothing to be proud of!" Hunith insisted.
"It's alright, Hunith," Arthur soothed. "We've all of us here spent some time in the cells. Technically, we're all committing treason by sitting here with two known sorcerers, especially considering that Morgana won't be officially pardoned until tomorrow."
At Hunith's shocked expression, they all laughed until tears streamed down their faces.
"Your mother is just as lovely as I remember," Morgana mused later as Merlin changed for bed. Morgana sat at the vanity, removing the ties from her braids. "I'm glad that your fears were unfounded."
"So am I," Merlin agreed, coming out from behind the screen freshly scrubbed and in his nightclothes. "She was so angry when she realized Will knew about me. I was afraid that she'd react the same way. I should have realized that she'd been expecting this news for a while now. It was our being married that truly shocked her."
"It shocked us, too," Morgana reasoned. "I'm glad Hunith didn't pull you all the way back to Ealdor by the ear," she chuckled and Merlin nodded, watching in undisguised fascination as she combed through her hair with her fingers. Morgana winced at a particularly difficult tangle before reaching for her hairbrush.
"Let me," Merlin said softly, feeling an irresistible urge to touch Morgana's long, dark hair. Morgana handed him the brush with a bewildered expression, but turned towards the mirror regardless. Merlin gathered her hair in one hand and began to brush the ends, just as he'd learned to do while caring for the horses' tails and manes. Not that he'd admit that particular fact to Morgana.
Her hair was considerably silkier than that of a horse, Merlin mused as he started to make longer strokes with the brush. Just as he reached the crown of her head, he caught her eye in the mirror and was taken aback by the expression on Morgana's face. Merlin was the first to admit that he had little experience with women, but he felt reasonably sure that the flush on Morgana's cheeks had little to do with embarrassment.
Looking back to his task, Merlin brushed her long hair for a few minutes more before putting the brush back on the vanity and taking her hair in his hands again. Morgana was surprised when Merlin's deft fingers began to braid her hair in a loose plait suitable for sleeping.
"I didn't know you knew how to braid hair," she said, her voice rough.
"How do you think a peasant farmer makes rope?" Merlin asked rhetorically. His voice was just as strained as Morgana's. He hadn't realized how very intimate it was to care for someone like this. It was one thing to attend to Arthur, but this was entirely different. There was no sense of duty or obligation in brushing and braiding Morgana's hair. Instead, there was a desire to help her and to touch her. It left a certain charge to the air that seemed to resonate between the both of them like a buildup of magic. The sensation seemed to intensify every time their eyes met in the mirror. With a practiced hand, Merlin tied off the braid and stepped back, extremely aware that his face was just as flushed as Morgana's.
"Do you need anything else?" he asked in a strangled voice.
"No, I'm fine," Morgana said, struggling to keep her voice from trembling. Merlin took a deep breath; neither of them moved, but held one another's gaze in the mirror. Merlin wasn't prepared when Morgana suddenly stood up. His feet were frozen to the floor and her eyes couldn't seem to leave his lips. They were physically closer than they had been since Morgana had tried to tempt Merlin in the forest. The memory was enough to push him into motion.
"I had better get to bed," he said, backing hastily away and practically diving into his bed behind the curtain. Morgana tried to calm her racing heart with a few deep breaths. Once she had, she settled into her big feather mattress and tried to understand why she felt so disappointed.
It wasn't more than a few hours later that Merlin heard Morgana start to thrash in her sleep. He hadn't been able to settle after brushing Morgana's hair and the moment they'd had when she'd stood up. His body felt tense, anxious and entirely unable to relax.
Just when he thought that perhaps Morgana had settled back down into sleep, he heard her.
"No, no, no. Don't shoot them. No! Run away, no! Please don't do this! I wouldn't do that, why did I do that?!"
Merlin didn't waste anymore time. He threw back his thin blanket and rushed to Morgana, grabbing her by the shoulders to steady her as he sat facing her on the bed. Tears were running down her face in great streams and her breath was starting to hitch as she became overwhelmed by the memory.
"Morgana! Wake up!" Merlin called, instinctually reaching out to her mentally as well. Calm down, I'm here!
With a great jolt and a startled scream, Morgana sat up and threw herself into Merlin's arms, pressing her face into his chest.
"Merlin! Please tell me it isn't true, tell me I didn't kill innocent people! TELL ME!" she screamed.
"I'm sorry, Morgana, I can't. I know it's difficult, but you have to remind yourself that it wasn't you, not really."
"No," Morgana moaned. "Why don't you hate me? I hate me! How could I have done that? There were mothers and fathers, sons and daughters in that crowd. I ordered the soldiers to fire. I was him, Merlin! I was Uther! I was worse! I should have known better, I AM A MONSTER!"
"No." Merlin stated calmly. There was steel in his voice and that more than anything caught Morgana's attention. She pulled back and looked into Merlin's eyes.
"If anyone was a monster in that situation, it was Morgause. You were under an enchantment! One more powerful than you can believe! Aithusa had to bind us in the most intimate way she could to make it possible for me to break it. You have to forgive yourself, or you will never find peace."
Morgana said nothing, but nodded her head and pressed her face into Merlin's chest again. He wrapped her snugly in his arms and rocked her until her breathing evened out in sleep. Closing his eyes and pressing his lips to the top of her head, Merlin started to lay Morgana back on the bed. Her hands fisted into his nightshirt at the movement, and the whimper that escaped Morgana's lips was enough to keep him from leaving. Just for a few minutes, he promised himself, laying down beside her and holding her tight.
It was there that he found himself the next morning, on his side, still clutching a sleeping Morgana to his chest. Merlin was certain that he'd lain on top of the covers last night, intending to go back to his bed. Yet he was now inexplicably under the covers with Morgana. She was cradled protectively in his arms; her arms were tucked snugly between them and their legs were tangled comfortably together. Merlin was rather surprised by just how much he enjoyed the unfamiliar contact.
He tried to move as little as possible in order to take a good look at Morgana. Her face was smooth and the dark circles that had been under her eyes the in days previous had lessened considerably. Merlin had just closed his eyes, intent on going back to sleep when he heard the door latch shut followed momentarily by light footsteps approaching him. Merlin froze, listening, not wanting the intruders to know he was awake.
"Aren't they so sweet, Arthur?" Gwen whispered.
"Disgusting, more like," Arthur replied, not bothering to check his volume.
"Shhh! You'll wake them up!" Gwen cried.
"Isn't that why we're here? They should be honored! They're being woken up by the king! In any case, they have to get ready, the council meeting is in two hours!"
"I've rarely ever seen her sleep so peacefully," Gwen explained.
"Nor him," another voice chimed in. "He was always such a restless child, tossing and turning and kicking off his blankets. Too much energy to just lay down and sleep. Ran me ragged!" Hunith sighed affectionately.
"Maybe he just needed more work," Arthur theorized. "I've seen him fall asleep while riding a horse and sleep like the dead if he gets a soft patch of ground beneath him."
"That's because you work him to the bone," Gwen argued good-naturedly.
"And if I didn't, he'd be running us ragged just like Hunith said," Arthur replied.
"I'll just go arrange the trays," Hunith said, humor evident in her tone.
"I'll help you, Hunith," Gwen offered amicably.
Merlin's eyes flew open. Several things came together in his head in that second. The council meeting that he was attending as a speaker, rather than a servant, was just hours away. It was the life-defining moment that he had been working towards for the better part of a decade.
And he was still in bed, with Morgana. Arthur and Gwen could see them and his mother was there too. It was that thought that had him sitting up in a hurry, dumping Morgana unceremoniously back onto the bed.
"What are you doing in here?" he asked, struggling to get untangled from the blankets.
"We could ask you the same question," Arthur said smugly. "Scratching that itch?"
"Arthur! My mother is right over there," Merlin said under his breath, pointing to his mother and Gwen, who were still arranging the food at the table. Arthur just grinned, enjoying Merlin's discomfort.
"We've got two hours until the council meeting, so get your lazy backside out of bed and get dressed!"
"Would you shut up?!" Morgana groaned, sitting up beside Merlin and glaring at Arthur. The king just stood there, arms folded and a smug grin in place.
"I have endless means to torture you, Merlin, of course I'm enjoying it."
"Clotpole," Merlin muttered, getting up and stomping over to the changing screen.
"You really have a way with people, don't you?" Morgana asked sarcastically.
"It's one of my many charms," Arthur agreed.
"You're right Merlin, his head is as big as his waist," Morgana said loudly.
"Careful sire, we don't want to add another hole to that belt!" Merlin said cheekily. "Your head might not be able to keep up and fall right off your shoulders!"
"You're just full of wit this morning Merlin. Why don't you save some for the council?" Arthur grumbled, stomping off towards the table to get his breakfast.
Merlin quickly joined them, dressed in his usual clothes. Morgana took a bit longer getting into her dress. She was pleasantly surprised when Hunith had come and offered to help her with her fastenings.
"You're good for each other already," Hunith whispered as she laced the gown tightly.
"What?" Morgana asked, confused.
"Merlin has always been such a lonely person, even when surrounded by people. No one has ever been able to really relate to him, and he's had to keep so much to himself. Seeing you with him this morning has eased my heart a great deal. With a little more time, I feel that you two will share a great love."
"Thank you, Hunith," Morgana whispered, taking Hunith's hands and squeezing them affectionately. She was grateful that Merlin's mother was so accepting of her, despite the things that she had done in the past.
"Let's get you fed, then? You could use some meat on your bones! Both of you are just too thin! You're looking half-starved!" Hunith said, wrapping her arm around Morgana's shoulder and guiding her around the screen. Morgana wasn't sure what to think about being called half-starved by a peasant woman who would obviously know the trials of having little to eat. Had the last four years really affected her that much? Morgana sat without protest when Hunith guided her to a chair at the table.
"Mother, are you threatening to feed her?" Merlin asked, starting to serve a plate for Morgana. He knew well what it was like to be force-fed by his mother. As a child, he'd tried to insist that he was just naturally thin, but Hunith had argued that no one was naturally skin and bones. Merlin had begun to expect that constantly containing his excess magic had the side effect of burning through anything he ate before it could really 'stick to his bones' the way his mother had tried to make it.
"Honestly, the both of you are too thin! A childbearing woman needs to be well-fed to keep her healthy!"
"Mother!" Merlin exclaimed, turning just as red as Morgana. Arthur and Gwen were stifling their laughter behind their hands.
"Well, that goes for the queen, too!" Hunith added, turning to Gwen, who immediately stopped giggling. "You both need to be prepared for when you find yourself with child. It's much healthier for the mother and the babe," she said reasonably. The rest of the meal was eaten in embarrassed silence, save for occasional comments about the meeting to come.
"Good morning," Arthur said as the various nobles filed into the room and began to take their seats at the table. Merlin stood behind and slightly to Arthur's right side, waiting to be called on. Gwen sat at the king's left, regal and poised in her finery, every bit a queen. Hunith and a hooded Morgana stood in a small antechamber attached to the council room, waiting to be summoned. The knights of the round table stood around the sides of the room, ready to help if needed, but also present to show their full support for the revelations that would be made.
"What is it that we have been summoned for," Geoffrey of Monmouth asked curiously. "I've not been made aware of any disputes or threats to Camelot."
"There are things to discuss," Arthur said evasively, wanting to have everyone seated and attentive before he began. The last lord took his seat and Gwaine and Leon shut the doors with a heavy thud.
"We are here, sire, what have we to discuss," Lord Beynon entreated Arthur. The king gave the lord a cool look. Lord Beynon had always been an ardent supporter of Uther's policies, but had become even more anti-magic after Morgana had killed his son, Sir Bertrand, on her quest to tear open the veil.
"A time of great change is upon us; we must all look forward to a united Camelot if we are to achieve our ultimate goal of peace. As such, I have made negotiations with the Druids. They are no longer an enemy of Camelot. They are to be treated with the respect that they deserve," Arthur said in a strong voice, daring any to contradict him.
"Sire! They have magic, surely they will turn on us the moment our guard is lowered!" Lord Beynon argued.
"They are a peaceful people and they deserve our respect," Arthur commanded, daring Beynon to protest further.
"I can attest that the druids have never instigated any aggression towards Camelot or her people." Geoffrey interjected, leaning forward onto his elbows and moving to the edge of his seat.
"As can I," Gaius agreed.
Arthur nodded his head to the physician and the librarian, grateful that he seemed to have another ally within the council.
"This is outrageous! I suppose you'll want to legalize magic next?!" Lord Pellinor raged. He too, had lost a son to magic.
"As a matter of fact, yes, I do," Arthur stated boldly.
"This is madness!"
"Dismantling the kingdom!"
"Your father would roll in his grave if he knew!"
Everyone fell silent, shocked by the forceful tone of the usually gentle queen.
"The king has his reasons and I'm sure if you would all be so kind as to listen, you would agree," Gwen said calmly.
"Thank you, Guinevere," Arthur smiled lovingly at her before turning back to the council. "My father was a good king. He helped this kingdom to flourish out of chaos and brought prosperity to many of our people. However, in his tremendous grief, my father was blinded. His prejudice sowed the seeds for much of the hatred and attacks we have suffered these last few years.
"Fortunately, unbeknownst to us, Camelot has benefitted from magical protection. We have faced undefeatable magical beasts and immortal foes, yet always we have come off conqueror. Why is that, do you think?" Arthur asked rhetorically. "The truth is, we would not have done so if not for the efforts of one man. Every last one of us owe our lives to him. He risks his life simply by being a warlock within the borders of Camelot. He does so to protect us from those who would seek to use magic against us, as he has for many years."
At Arthur's words, the council looked around nervously, as though trying to see the evil that they feared lurking within the room.
"Merlin, if you would?" Arthur entreated him. Merlin stepped forward.
"You would have a servant address us?!" Beynon argued, glancing surreptitiously at Gwen with thinly veiled contempt.
"He is no longer my servant," Arthur replied. "I've promoted Merlin to my personal advisor. He has proved himself worthy of the title many times."
"Is he to tell us which of your commoner knights is this fabled good sorcerer ?" Lord Pellinor asked, watching Arthur's closest knights as though one of them might sprout horns and start to fling spells at all of them.
"No, I'm here to tell you that I am that warlock," Merlin said boldly. "I am not a sorcerer. I was born with magic, that makes me a warlock. I am the one the druids call Emrys and it is my destiny to protect Arthur and Camelot."
"Emrys?!" Geoffrey of Monmouth whispered, eyes widened at Merlin's statement. The elderly librarian sat back heavily into his chair, awe and incredulity in his expression. Merlin met Geoffrey's probing gaze and gave a quick nod.
"You expect us to believe this? You've tried this before," Beynon argued, pointing at Merlin accusingly. "Which pretty lass are you trying to save now?"
"I was telling the truth then, as I am now," Merlin argued, putting his hand to his mouth and whispering forbearne as he had once before with Gilli. Merlin extended his hand, alight with a small flame, for all to see. Half of the council seemed stunned, though not alarmed. The others leaned back into their seats as though they expected Merlin to start hurling fireballs at them. Closing his hand, Merlin let the flame extinguish.
"This is treason! He's bewitched you!" Lord Beynon argued, causing several other council members to look more nervous than before.
"I can assure you that I am under no such enchantment," Arthur stated firmly.
"Where's the proof?" Lord Beynon asked dubiously.
"Merlin, enchant Lord Beynon," Arthur ordered.
"Excuse me?!" Merlin asked bewildered, as Lord Beynon protested outrageously.
"I would like to show the council what one looks like while they're under an enchantment. Just don't make it irreversible," Arthur said pointedly to Merlin. "I'd also like for you to pick a random person in the room and include them in the enchantment. The rest of us will try to pick out the secret person."
"Right," Merlin agreed, meeting Beynon's angry glare and murmuring a variation of the spell he used to create Arthur the simpleton. Merlin almost felt guilty by allowing the spell to reach beyond the rude noble and affect Sir Leon, but Leon was nothing if not loyal. No one would expect him to act in any way disloyal. Beynon blinked slowly for a moment, then looked around him in confusion.
"I'm sorry, what were we talking about?" he asked. Those sitting beside him nearly stood up in their shock. There was no denying that Beynon was unnaturally out of character.
"What do you remember?" Geoffrey asked curiously.
"Ahhh, hmm. I don't know, what are we doing here?" The other nobles around the table gasped, shocked at the complete change of character in the man. Then they looked around them nervously, knowing that Merlin had been ordered to enchant another in secret.
"I myself have been enchanted before," Arthur admitted. "I've been put under a love spell in two separate attempts to undermine Camelot. Neither of which were placed on me by Guinevere." Arthur's eyes flashed to those present, warning them not to contradict him.
"If not Guinevere, then who placed these enchantments on you?" Lord Pellinor asked.
"The Lady Sophia was not a noble. She was in fact a banished sidhe, and were it not for Merlin, I would have been drowned in her bid to return to Avalon. The other was not perpetrated by the lady in question, but by King Alined. I'm sure you can all recall how absurdly I was acting at the time, and the fiasco that ensued because of my and Lady Vivienne's actions. To my knowledge, she may still be enchanted, as it required a kiss from one's true love to break it." Arthur looked to Guinevere and smiled, acknowledging to all in the room that Gwen had been the said true love to break the enchantment.
"I was enchanted as well, during the situation with Lancelot," Guinevere admitted. "I would never have betrayed Arthur that way. At the time, I couldn't understand why I had done what I had. In either of those situations, if anyone other than Merlin had paid closer attention to how out of character Arthur or I had behaved, things might not have gotten so out of hand.
"For that matter, if people weren't so afraid of magic, they might have voiced their suspicions had they had them at the time," Gwen explained. "Magic is not evil. A wise man recently told us that it is the heart of the magician that decides whether magic is light or dark. Magic does not automatically make a person evil. There is choice in all things, even magic."
Arthur smiled at Guinevere once again, before turning to Merlin. To his alarm, and his amusement, the warlock in question was starting to scratch at his arms absently and fidget where he stood. They needed to hurry things along before Merlin was thought to be enchanted himself. Which, Arthur supposed, wasn't entirely far from the truth.
"Can any of you see the second victim of Merlin's spell?" Arthur asked, though as soon as he caught sight of Percival, Gwaine and Elyan struggling to remain composed, he had a feeling he knew who it was. Sure enough, a glance towards Leon confirmed his suspicions. The second knight of Camelot was currently waving his arms to and fro within his scarlet cloak, watching the voluminous fabric wave in gentle undulations in utter and complete awe. Arthur's bemused expression caused everyone else in the room to look towards Leon, who remained oblivious to the eyes watching him, interested as he was in his own cloak. Then Leon caught sight of his own hair and began to pull repeatedly on an errant curl, just as awed as he was with the cloak.
"Merlin, I think we've seen enough," Arthur ordered. "It is obvious when one has been enchanted, if you know how to look for the signs."
Merlin instantly restored both men and stepped back, grateful that he had taken the time to learn such a spell after Arthur had remained a simpleton for far longer than Merlin had intended. Arthur watched as Beynon and Leon both blinked and looked around them in confusion.
"As I said previously, I've negotiated with the druids during my recent journey away from Camelot. They are now a free people, with no restrictions as to aiding them, or trading and associating with them. And, Lord Beynon, I'm glad that you brought up enchantments, because we've recently had some startling revelations in that respect," Arthur said, hurrying things along for Merlin's sake. The warlock was surely ready to start pacing at any moment.
"What revelations would those be?" Geoffrey asked, finding his voice once more.
"After we had left the druids, whilst we were encamped for the night on our journey home, we had an altercation with Morgana. Luckily, Merlin was able to fight her, magic for magic." Several members of the council gasped. Merlin stepped forward again, feeling it was his place to explain.
"While I was confronting Morgana, I was able to look deeply into her mind. I found a terrible enchantment, placed on her by the high priestess Morgause. This enchantment was like a tangled web, deeply entrenched within her mind. It bound every good thing about her, leaving nothing but darkness. Morgana has not been in her right mind these last four years, nor has she been able to fight it. She was little more than Morgause's puppet. In fact, it was starting to drive her insane."
"Is the witch dead then?" Lord Montague asked viciously, for he too had lost a son to Morgana. Merlin narrowed his eyes at the lord. He had never appreciated anyone calling Morgana a witch, but now he found that he was especially irritated by it.
"Morgana lives," Merlin answered, stressing his wife's given name. "I was able to break the enchantment with the help of a dragon named Aithusa."
"A dragon?!" several in the council shouted in alarm.
"Ahh... I am the last dragonlord," Merlin admitted. "This particular dragon had foreseen my confrontation with Morgana, and knew that Morgana could be saved, if Aithusa helped me."
"Then where is the witch now and how can we be sure this is not a trick?"
Merlin reached out mentally and called for his wife. We're ready for you, Morgana.
As one, the council turned their heads towards the exit leading to the servant's antechamber as the door was opened. Hunith came in, her arm linked with that of a cloaked figure. The peasant woman smiled supportively at her new daughter-in-law and went to stand by the wall as Morgana stepped forward and dropped her hood.
"I can assure you, councilmen, that it is no trick." Morgana sunk to her knees, humbling herself before them. "I am truly sorry for the things I have done in the last four years; as Merlin said, I was entirely beholden to Morgause's desires. However, I still feel as though I have to shoulder some blame for allowing her to bewitch me. To my utter shame, I did terrible things that I am not proud of and ordered others to do the same. I hope that in time you and the citizens of Camelot can come to forgive me and accept my humblest and sincere apologies," Morgana finished, bowing her head in her shame. Merlin pulled her to stand at his side, grasping her hand within her voluminous cloak and weaving her fingers in his discreetly.
"We all know Morgana to be a talented actress. How do we know this is not another of her schemes? The only proof that we have of the veracity of these claims is the word of a self-admitted liar," Lord Beynon said, glaring at Merlin.
"You will not speak of my advisor, my brother in such a way again, Lord Beynon. Merlin has my trust and you would do well to offer yours, too. We all owe our lives to him many times over," Arthur reprimanded.
"Your brother?!" Geoffrey asked, shocked.
"It was an unexpected circumstance of the dragon's help," Merlin explained. "As I said, the enchantment over Morgana was extremely powerful and well-entrenched into her mind. I could not have broken it alone. Because I am a dragonlord, Aithusa was able to bind Morgana and I together in a dragonfasting, combining our power for a brief moment during the rite. As such, I was able to break the enchantment."
"A dragonfasting, you say?" Geoffrey asked curiously. Merlin could see the hope shining in the portly librarian's eyes.
"I witnessed it myself," Arthur attested. Gwaine, Leon, and Percival all added their witness as well. Geoffrey smiled in great relief.
"Rest your minds, gentlemen, for he speaks the truth. It is written that a dragon can bind a dragonlord and his bride, but only if they are honorable and worthy, for the binding will not hold in an impure heart," the librarian assured those assembled. Merlin smiled and nodded to Geoffrey in thanks. Morgana also acknowledged the librarian with a smile.
"A dragonlord and his bride," Gaius emphasized. "As Morgana is indeed the king's half-sister, Merlin is no longer a member of the royal household, but a member of the royal family."
None of the council said a word, but nearly all of them fainted when Gwaine asked curiously, "Does that make Merlin a prince?"
Not even Morgana, standing beside him as she was, was fast enough to catch Merlin when he sank heavily to the floor, a dumbfounded expression on his face.
"Gather the people," Arthur said to the council, ignoring the question and his former manservant's reaction entirely. "We lift the ban on magic at the third hour after the noon bell. We will immediately thereafter hold a mock trial to explain Morgana's innocence and pardon. Council dismissed."
Merlin slowly blinked his eyes owlishly at the people circled around him. He was forcibly reminded of his experience in Jarl's lair, but at least this time he was reasonably sure that he wasn't going to be sold as a slave.
"You are such a girl, Merlin," Arthur said, pulling the warlock to his feet and steadying him as Merlin swayed.
"I can't believe you fainted, mate!" Gwaine chuckled.
"I did not faint. I merely fell over in shock," Merlin argued.
"Prince Merlin. You're honestly a better fit for the title than most nobles out there."
"What makes you think I will?"
"I can restrict you from any alcohol and make you train three extra hours every day for a week."
"Shutting up, then."
"I thought you might," Arthur grinned.
"Please tell me he's wrong," Merlin said, holding his head and grimacing.
"He's wrong. Technically, Morgana has never held the title princess, considering that she's an illegitimate child of our father. If she did have such a title, as her husband, you would have been granted the title of royal consort. It's a powerless title, though. Besides, what's wrong with being a prince?"
"I've names and destiny enough, I don't need to add prat to the list," Merlin said, relieved.
"Merlin?" Arthur scowled.
"What makes you think I will, Arthur?" Merlin asked, repeating Gwaine's question. At the king's incredulous expression, Merlin smiled cheekily. "You said yourself, we're brothers now, and family is not so bound by decorum and titles." Merlin nodded innocently, enjoying every moment of Arthur's discomfort.
Camelot gathered anxiously as the great bell tolled three times in the early summer afternoon. The crowd rumbled with hushed whispers. Speculation and rumor ran rampant through the people. Arthur stood at the head of the great hall, regal and composed with Guinevere by his side. The king was stunned by the sheer number citizens who had come for the announcement; word had spread fast that the king's proclamation was one for the bards to tell for many generations to come.
Merlin, however, was numb as he looked out over the crowd from his position behind Arthur. The buzzing of conversation and anticipation swirled around him, but he found he couldn't join in. Distantly, Merlin was aware that Morgana stood cloaked beside him, and that the round table knights were there to support and protect them. Morgana squeezed his hand in her nervousness and he returned the pressure, allowing it to ground him for just a moment. Merlin had only ever seen a gathering equal to this when Gwen was crowned queen. No royal decree, to Merlin's knowledge, had ever been attended so well.
Things had progressed very quickly after the morning council meeting. Servants had been dispatched with the call to gather while the court scribes had been pressed into service drawing up an official proclamation to be read to the assembled citizens. Before Merlin had even realized that the court librarian had stood up, Geoffrey of Monmouth was reading from the hastily prepared scroll enumerating the many years of bloodshed that Camelot had suffered in the last decade and how change was needed. Then Arthur stood to address the crowd and change Camelot forevermore.
"For many years our magical brethren..." was all Merlin heard before the only thing he could comprehend was the pounding of his own heart in his ears.
"LONG LIVE THE KING!" shook the rafters as more than a thousand people shouted loudly, Morgana included. Merlin startled further out of his numb reverie as Morgana grabbed him in a hug. Merlin embraced her in return, the crowds' shout still ringing through his ears. He was taken aback when Morgana placed a soft, quick kiss to his cheek.
"One more mountain to climb," she whispered within the folds of her hood. Merlin squeezed her hand reassuringly. Distantly, he wondered how he had missed the crowd's reaction to the legalization of magic. His only excuse was that he was entirely overwhelmed by how drastically his life had just changed, and all within a week. Merlin had gone from a secret-warlock-servant-to-the-king to the king's personal-warlock-advisor and brother-in-law. And Arthur hadn't even arrested him for it. It was almost too much to take in.
Thankfully, Merlin had vehemently refuted any suggestion that he ought to address the people. Arthur had finally agreed that it was for the best. Merlin was fairly certain that it was because the king didn't want to suffer the indignity of having the warlock stammer like a fool before all of Camelot.
Arthur stood solemnly at the center of the dais, allowing the crowd to have their moment. Then he raised his hands to signal for quiet.
"There has been a startling revelation in the last week..."
Merlin tuned out Arthur's words as the warlock scanned the crowd and watched as the faces of those gathered morphed from caution, to wariness, to stunned disbelief. Every so often, Merlin would come across someone who was staring at him. They inevitably looked away after he met their gaze, their nervousness evident. Then Merlin began to listen to the king once more.
"...Morgana's actions of the last few years have not been her own."
A deep rumbling spread through the people, their disbelief shifting to anger. Morgana was universally despised throughout the kingdom. Arthur raised his hands again, eager to soothe the agitation of the people.
"In his efforts to remove this curse, Merlin was assisted by a dragon. One who understood that Morgana was not the woman we had come to know. This dragon helped destroy the evil enchantment by binding Merlin and Morgana in an ancient rite."
The crowd began buzzing again, eyeing Merlin and the mysterious figure standing beside him, suspicion in their eyes. Arthur continued.
"As such, Merlin and Morgana have been joined in marriage by dragonfasting, witnessed by myself and three of my best knights. Our court historian..." Arthur gestured to Geoffrey of Monmouth, who stood and nodded to the gathered people. "... assures me that such a bond is impossible unless those joined are pure of heart and worthy. Therefore, on this day, I, Arthur Pendragon, King of Camelot, declare that the Lady Morgana Pendragon is a free and innocent woman. She was cruelly used and she deserves our forgiveness."
Morgana lowered her hood and bowed her head submissively at the declaration. Stunned silence fell on the huge crowd as they absorbed the king's words and saw the newly pardoned woman standing beside Merlin. No one was entirely sure what to believe. Morgana had proven herself to be an accomplished actress, yet the king's words rang with truth and confidence, backed not only by his most loyal knights, but the court historian as well. Geoffrey was seen by many as an incontrovertible voice on the council. But the people had suffered cruelly at Morgana's hands more than once in the last few years and such a thing was hard to forgive.
Merlin however, was well-known as the most loyal (perhaps insanely so) of all the servants in the kingdom, trailing after the king in all manner of dangerous situations ever since he had very publicly saved Prince Arthur's life nearly seven years before. So it was that Merlin's fiercely loyal reputation stayed the voices of protest, for at least as long as it took for Morgana to show where her loyalties truly lie.
"I bid you to spread your knowledge to all who do not stand amongst us this day." Arthur fell silent once more. Whispers broke out in the crowd as they discussed the latest proclamation from their beloved king. Then Sir Leon settled the people when he cried out, "LONG LIVE KING ARTHUR!"
The people instantly took up the cry. Merlin was aware, though, that while the people respected their king and would follow his lead, their forgiveness where Morgana was concerned would be hard-won. The warlock joined in with the crowd's final shout, feeling an odd sense of detachment to the whole situation. Morgana squeezed his hand, bringing him out of his stunned stupor.
"You're a free man, now Merlin," Morgana smiled, bringing Merlin out of this thoughts once more.
"We're both free," he corrected, returning her smile and grasping her hand in his before the both of them were suddenly surrounded. Arthur and the round table knights were eager to congratulate them. Gaius, Gwen and Hunith were eager to hug them. It ended up being a massive group hug, much to Arthur's chagrin, with Merlin and Morgana in the center.
In the weeks that followed Morgana's pardon and the legalization of magic, Merlin and Morgana tested the boundaries of their bond. They still couldn't let one another out of their sight without looking as though they had run bodily into a poison ivy bush, but they had discovered that physical contact while they were together lessened their anxiousness while they had to be separated. Thus, they had taken to holding hands whenever they could, much to everyone's amusement and speculation.
Morgana had yet to venture very far from the castle. Though the people tentatively trusted Arthur's word, it was difficult for them to accept that Morgana was no longer the evil woman they had come to fear. Most mornings, Merlin and Morgana would go to the training fields and sit together, hands entwined, to watch as Arthur trained with the knights. Gwen sometimes joined them to chat about how things were going, as would Hunith, who had decided to stay in Camelot for the time being to help Gaius now that his assistant had been promoted. In the afternoons, they retreated to their chambers and read over Merlin's magic book together or separated into their own corners of the room until the itchy anxiety drew them closer together.
For the most part, there hadn't been any significant strife over the revelation that Merlin had magic. The warlock had attended a few more council meetings (scratching and fidgeting his way through them) and was slowly being accepted by the councilors. Especially when he had given exceptionally good advice in a dispute between two nobles' land rights. There was the odd servant or two who would now freeze at the sight of him and scurry in another direction, though Morgana had argued that it was more likely her that sent them running. All in all, Merlin had been pleasantly surprised by how smooth the transition had been.
They were still rather awkward when it came to bedtime as Morgana's inevitable dreams would pull them together in the darkness, only to leave them floundering for words come morning. Merlin made it a point to ensure that he returned to his own bed every night, but after a couple weeks of disrupted sleep, they both admitted that they had never slept better than the night they had snuggled together. They had a routine now, in which they would don their nightclothes and then Merlin would brush and braid Morgana's hair. It was a process that seemed to lengthen every night and the tension between the two of them only intensified as a result, much to their mutual frustration.
Merlin would tie off the braid and pat Morgana's shoulders before practically running to the bed and diving under the covers. Morgana would follow more sedately and they would start the night with their backs to one another, only to wake the next morning entirely entwined together. Merlin was certain that it was helping them sleep, but he was also aware that it was slowly driving him insane. They seemed on the verge of allowing the already-seeded affection to blossom between them; yet their mutual history and past antagonism would inevitably hold them back.
Gwen, however, was rather annoyed when she discovered that the knights and Arthur were betting on how much longer the bonded pair would remain so itchy and antsy. Leon, Percival and Elyan were more conservative in their estimates, owing to the history between Merlin and Morgana. Arthur and Gwaine, however, were convinced that Morgana's beauty and the close contact fostered through the dragonfasting would push things forward sooner rather than later. No matter their stance on the subject, no one was quite sure how the newly-married couple had lasted as long as they had, what with the palpable tension that seemed to build daily.
In an effort to escape the constant scrutiny and speculation, Morgana proposed one morning that Merlin show her the secret room that he had discovered within the library. Thus, they found themselves in front of Geoffrey, who was keen to show them all the tomes that contained any reference to Emrys. Red-faced, Merlin stammered out their excuses and pulled a mirthful Morgana along to a particular shelf in the east wing.
"I think you're his hero," Morgana remarked dryly, raising her eyebrow teasingly. Merlin groaned in embarrassment and pulled back on the lever-book.
"Do not even think about mentioning that to Arthur. Or Gwaine," Merlin said as the shelf spun around. Morgana chuckled.
"It's rather filthy in here," she coughed once they had come to a stop in the secret room.
"Yeah, I've considered coming in and cleaning up and looking for more magic books, but I've not had the time," Merlin explained.
"Well, here we are, let's do it," Morgana suggested. Merlin smiled at her eagerness.
"Do you know any cleaning spells?" Merlin asked.
"I lived in a hovel for most of the last two years, Merlin, it wasn't exactly a study of cleanliness."
"Luckily for you, I've spent the last eight years cleaning up after a rather slovenly royal prat," Merlin laughed.
"Will you teach me?" Morgana asked solemnly. Merlin smiled broadly and nodded.
"Dust is the easiest, just command it to return to the earth. Dústa edhwierfta éara!" Merlin's eyes glowed gold and the thick layer of dust over everything immediately dissipated. "Cobwebs are a bit trickier, you have to banish them into a state of unbeing: átorcoppan netta béoþ ádéaþ!" Several spiderwebs immediately dissolved.
"That is entirely useful," Morgana said, impressed.
"Unfortunately, I've not developed or found an organizational spell. We'll have to sort through things on our own."
Clean of the dust and cobwebs, the job didn't take as long as Morgana had feared. The concealed room had proven to be a veritable treasure trove of artifacts and useful items. They sorted through numerous urns and chests of aging parchments. An omnibus of noble genealogies sat seemingly out-of-place with a collection of crystals and sorcerer's chimes.
There were dozens of history books amongst the shelves, chronicling events dating as far back as the first king of Camelot and as recent as fifty years prior to Uther's reign. Many of the other tomes they found weren't magic books, but they were close enough that Uther would have destroyed them had he known of their existence. In all, Merlin and Morgana found a dozen spell books and several volumes of an encyclopedia of magical beasts.
"I'm certain that Gaius has a few of the missing volumes in his quarters," Merlin said as he collected them into a spare trunk to take to the physician.
"So much of my training, spell knowledge and magical experience comes from dark magic," Morgana said sadly as she sorted through some moth-eaten linens.
"I have no training to speak of," Merlin admitted. "Beyond my instinctual skills, I'm entirely self-taught from the books Gaius has given and lent to me and of course, trial and error. Kilgharrah has given me knowledge a couple times, like when I healed you after your fall. It's dead useful since it's just there in my head, ready to use, but it leaves me feeling unsettled for a few hours afterwards. Being gifted of a dragon's breath is certainly not my favorite way to learn. Luckily, Gaius insisted that I become fluent in the old tongue, rather than just learn certain spells. Usually I can just make up a spell in a pinch."
"I've had some success in that regard, but it takes more power than I'd like," Morgana said.
"True, though I've never really had a problem with power. It's more the finesse that usually eludes me at first. Though I've always wanted to know how to transport. Gaius has refused to tell me the theory and he won't tell me where to find it. I suspect he's hidden away any book that references it, since I've not found it in any of his collection. He says it's too dangerous and that I'd end up in a tree or in a bandit camp with my luck," Merlin laughed.
"I can teach you. Finesse happens to be my strong point, and transporting is something I know how to do well." Morgana tossed the ruined linens aside to pick up an ancient text and leafed through it. "It's a highly valuable skill, and not really dangerous once you've been taught properly. Perhaps we can teach each other; transform this room into a space for us to study," Morgana suggested. "It's secret and we can use it to escape our chambers when we're going stir-crazy, or even just get away from the others and their not-so-secret bets."
"Sounds perfect," Merlin agreed with a grin. Morgana returned the smile then gestured to the book in her hands.
"Take a look at this, it has some very interesting spells in it," Morgana said, waving Merlin over.
Moving to sit close beside her, Merlin peered over Morgana's shoulder to get a better look.
"The language is highly archaic, but I think this is a spell for transforming into an animal, at will," Morgana explained, pointing to one of the spells written on the page in fading ink.
"I think you're right... Though I think this must have been a study journal of sorts. It looks like the spell has been modified a few times..." Merlin trailed off, suddenly aware that Morgana wasn't looking at the book any longer. "What?" he asked.
"Have you ever kissed a woman before? I mean, before we kissed for the dragonfasting?" Morgana asked, her eyes fixed on Merlin's mouth.
"Yes," Merlin answered, his voice deep and strained as his eyes drifted to Morgana's mouth.
"Oh," Morgana replied, eyes unmoving.
"It was a long time ag-" Merlin cut off as Morgana leaned in and pressed her lips to his. It was a quick, chaste kiss and then Morgana started to pull away. Merlin, to her surprise, gripped her neck and held her to him before she could. He paused momentarily, his mouth brushing hers very lightly as though seeking permission to continue.
Morgana smiled against his lips in response. Then she proceeded to give Merlin the most passionate kiss that he'd ever had. Considering his limited experience, however, he wasn't sure how much that said. He was nearly overwhelmed by the sensations of her mouth on his and Merlin suspected that Morgana felt similarly. He was reluctant to deepen the kiss further; even as inexperienced as they were, the kisses were intoxicating, almost addicting. It was as though their magic was reaching out to the other in tandem with their lips. Dimly, Merlin was aware that a few of the things around them were rattling on their shelves and some of the parchments were starting to levitate.
It was some minutes before either of them pulled away, breathing heavily in an attempt to pull air into their starved lungs. Merlin touched his forehead to Morgana's and held her close as they calmed down, absently combing through her hair with his fingers. He hadn't realized that he had entirely unraveled Morgana's braid, leaving her long hair loose and fairly unkempt where he'd had his hands in it. Merlin found that the scent and the feel of Morgana's hair in his hands was quite enjoyable.
"Thank you," he finally managed.
"For what?" Morgana asked, somewhat dazed.
"I don't know," he admitted. Before Morgana could voice her confusion, Merlin returned the favor and took her lips with his once more, his hands weaving deeply into her hair.
It took a great deal longer to finish the task that they had set out to accomplish that morning. Mostly because they very willingly became highly distracted any time that they came within touching distance of one another. But they both agreed that cleaning became a lot more enjoyable.
"Where did you two disappear to today?" Arthur asked as they sat down to dinner that evening. "Guinevere said you weren't in your chambers."
"What? Why do you ask?" Merlin asked, wide-eyed.
"None of your business, brother," Morgana answered coolly, rescuing Merlin from having to stammer a red-faced answer.
"I'm only looking out for you," Arthur said innocently, eyeing Merlin's red face with glee.
"Looking out for your bet, more like," Morgana tossed back, instantly dampening Arthur's humor.
"Arthur!" Gwen scolded. "Tell me you're not still betting on Merlin and Morgana?!"
"I'm not still betting on Merlin and Morgana," Arthur answered, though no one believed him.
"We've just set up a study for ourselves," Merlin explained, trying to keep the peace between his wife and her brother.
"A study," Arthur said disbelievingly.
"Yes, you know, books and desks, that sort of thing. I wouldn't expect you to understand," Morgana teased.
"Regardless of my reading habits, which I do have, I had hoped to see you two during training this morning. Gwaine had an idea that I have to say, I'd like to try."
"Oh?" Merlin asked curiously.
"Gwaine said, and I have to agree, that all we've seen you do is conjure flames, shine like the sun itself, move things around with your mind and transform a cloak. Yet you've said over and over again that you've been protecting us. We want to know just what you can do, so we know that we won't have to worry about you while you're hiding behind a tree in our next skirmish."
"You realize that I've only ever hidden behind a tree or on the ground to cover the fact that I've been using magic, right?"
"That may be the case, but I've never seen the proof. Be at training tomorrow, the both of you," Arthur ordered.
Merlin and Morgana shared a look, raising their eyebrows in silent communication. Together, they both turned to Arthur with mischief in their eyes.
"We wouldn't miss it," they said in unison.
Arthur smiled nervously and wondered just what Gwaine had gotten them into.
Early the next morning, Merlin and Morgana arrived, hand in hand, at the training fields ready for whatever Arthur and the knights could throw at them. They had stayed up later than usual, trading kisses and discussing which spells and tactics to prepare. Merlin had a clear advantage over Morgana because his natural ability allowed him to perform a good deal of magic with a thought or a gesture while Morgana was more limited in that ability and usually had to use sometimes-lengthy incantations. However, Morgana possessed a healthy repertoire of spells to draw from and wouldn't have any problems defending herself.
"Ah, magic has arrived!" Gwaine called out teasingly. Merlin smiled sheepishly, though Morgana gave a scarily familiar smirk.
"I hope you have come well-rested, because we aren't going to go easy on you," Arthur said.
"It's not us I'm worried about," Morgana taunted.
"We've set up a special training course just for this," Arthur explained, leading the way to the farthest sparring field. It had clearly been well prepared. Merlin raised his eyebrows at the host of training dummies, archery targets, and various weapons at the ready.
"Then, we'd like to see how you do sparring with us," Gwaine interjected. Leon, Elyan and Percival nodded eagerly as well.
"Where do we start?" Merlin asked.
"Over here," Leon gestured. 'We've set up a grouping of dummies, some marked with red paint and others marked with blue. The object is to shoot the blue enemies and leave the red friendlies standing, so you can't just push them over with magic." The knights all looked quite smug, proud that they had outwitted the great warlock.
"Only the blue ones you say?" Merlin asked, quirking an eyebrow in question.
"Just the blue ones," Percival confirmed.
Merlin walked over to the table holding the weapons and selected a quiver of crossbow bolts before turning back to the dummies. Morgana raised her eyebrows, uncertain of what he was planning, but Gwaine couldn't hold silent.
"Usually, you use a crossbow with those," he said impishly. Merlin turned to the knight with a serious expression.
"Yes. Usually," he agreed, then turned back to the quiver. The king and his knights looked at one another and shrugged.
Merlin looked out at the dummies and counted ten with a large blue circle painted across the chest. There were eight red in all, mixed in randomly with the blue. Grasping ten bolts in his hand, Merlin let the quiver fall to the ground. With a flash of gold, Merlin set the arrows to hover at chest height in front of him, causing eyebrows to raise all around him. With a deep breath, Merlin let loose. With a flick of either wrist or a jerk of his chin, he sent the bolts flying into the center of the blue targets one and two at a time. Within a matter of seconds, all ten bolts were buried into the dummies, nearly to the fletching. With a smile, Merlin dusted off his hands and turned to the gathered knights.
"That was fun, what's next?"
Arthur and the knights were frozen, mouths open. They all startled when Morgana clapped her hands appreciatively, a smug smile on her face.
"Not so fast, Merlin. It's my turn," Morgana said. Merlin smiled and bowed to her, gesturing for her to take the field.
"My lady," he said, smiling widely.
"My lord," she replied with a curtsey, surprising Merlin. Morgana turned to the field, surveying the dummies much as Merlin had.
"Don't you want a weapon, Morgana?" Arthur asked warily.
"Why should I use a weapon," Morgana drawled, "when I am one myself?" Without any warning Morgana threw out her hands while shouting "Tæfle!" Her eyes flared gold and three blue dummies were torn right off their stands. Morgana then ran right into the field of dummies and used close-range blasts to do the same to the rest before sauntering back to the assembled knights. "Now, that was fun."
"So," Merlin said cheerfully, turning once again to Arthur. "What's next?"
Arthur began to direct them to the next challenge and realized as they moved forward that the commotion had started to draw a larger crowd. Few had seen Morgana using magic, and none had ever witnessed Merlin using it. The sheer curiosity was drawing knights, nobles and servants alike. Arthur grimaced; his first thought was to disperse the crowd, but he quickly realized that it could go a long way towards helping others accept the new laws if they saw the king and his knights interacting with and supporting those with magic. Thus, the king allowed the gathering people to continue watching.
Merlin and Morgana worked through each trial placed before them with increasingly large magical feats. It wasn't long before it became apparent that the witch and warlock had turned it into their own competition, complete with flirtatious taunts that became bolder as the ill-named 'training' continued.
Gwaine and the other round table knights chuckled at the strangled grunt that Merlin let out when Morgana had pressed herself into his back as he was directing a spear towards a distant target. Arthur however, was hard pressed not to grimace when Merlin returned the favor a few minutes later and went one step further to whisper something into Morgana's ear.
After the last dummy had been nearly obliterated by the two of them, Merlin, breathless and eyes sparkling, turned to Morgana, who gave the warlock a charged look. Merlin smiled smugly and raised his eyebrow, recognizing the particular flush that covered Morgana's face. The pair of them were abruptly reminded by the scattered applause that they had an audience. Merlin turned to Arthur excitedly.
"Who are we sparring now?" he asked.
"All of us," Gwaine challenged. Percival, Elyan and Leon nodded in agreement, each of them deciding on a different weapon. Merlin turned to Arthur, raising his eyebrow, knowing the king couldn't resist a direct challenge. Arthur sighed and joined his knights at the weapons table, choosing a blunted sword. A few more knights took up the challenge with their king, raising the number of challengers to eight.
As Merlin and Morgana, back to back, took up a central position on the field, Arthur and his knights formed up around them. No one seemed eager to strike, so Gwaine decided to make the first move, charging at Merlin with a fierce roar.
Merlin held up a hand in response, and with a flash of his eyes, froze Gwaine where he stood. Everyone charged at once then, and Merlin and Morgana were taking it in turn to freeze or disarm their opponents. With the last challenger disarmed, Merlin held up both hands and made a grasping motion with each, causing all the weapons to fly into one pile and the knights into another.
"Do you concede?" Merlin asked, tilting his head and smiling mischievously. Morgana folded her arms and lifted an eyebrow.
"I can still beat you Arthur," she said, triumphant.
"That never happened," Arthur groused, pulling himself from the pile and glowering at the two magicians.
"You've beaten us all," Leon conceded with a nod as he got to his feet. The crowd applauded once more and began to disperse, eager to tell all who would listen of the displays they had witnessed.
"You!" Gwaine yelled, pointing at Merlin with narrowed eyes, a sudden realization striking the mead-loving knight. "Wouldn't happen to know an old man, long white hair and beard, would you?"
Merlin smiled, whispered, ""Miht dagan, beþecce me. Adeadaþ þisne gast min freondum ond min feondum! " and transformed into Dragoon before their very eyes. Morgana gasped and the knights of the round table all gaped in astonishment. With a cheeky smile and a wink to Morgana, Merlin uttered the counter spell and became young once more.
"If this was fun," Gwaine said gesturing to the decimated training dummies, "remind me to never make you angry, mate," Gwaine finally managed.
"What happens when you're angry?" Elyan asked warily.
"Depends," Merlin shrugged.
"On what?" Leon asked.
"What you've done to make me angry."
"I get the feeling you're speaking from experience," Arthur said.
"Maybe I am," Merlin said evasively.
"Tell us," Gwaine insisted.
"It wasn't my finest moment," Merlin admitted shamefully.
"We've all done things that we're ashamed of," Morgana said, echoing Merlin's words to her.
"When Arthur was bitten by the questing beast," Merlin said, looking at Arthur briefly, "I petitioned Nimueh to trade my life for his. She gave me water from the Cup of Life for Arthur to drink. But it wasn't my life that Nimueh bargained. It was my mother's; she came to Camelot after Arthur was healed. She was suffering from a horrible plague, so I intended to return to Nimueh at the Isle of the Blessed and demand that she take me instead.
"However, Gaius left before I could. He had already offered his life by the time I reached the Isle. Nimueh wouldn't take my life because of who I was. I got very angry that she had tried to kill my mother and that she had taken Gaius. We fought; she was under the impression that she had defeated me when I stood and called a bolt of lightning down from the sky. She, ah, sort of exploded."
"I'm glad you're on our side," Elyan said, eyes wide. Gwaine, Percival and Leon quickly added their agreement as well. Arthur stepped forward, and clasped a hand to Merlin's shoulder.
"Thank you," the king said sincerely. "For being willing to give your life for mine, but also, for being willing to protect us all, even though at times it must have seemed that we hated you for what you were."
"It's been my pleasure," Merlin smiled and gave Arthur a nod of respect.
"And now it's ours," Morgana agreed, stepping closer to her husband and taking his hand.
"Who would win in a contest between you and Morgana?" Gwaine asked Merlin mischievously.
"I would," both Merlin and Morgana answered together.
"What?!" they responded, in unison again.
"I've won every time we've fought," Merlin argued.
"I wouldn't say that. I'd say it was more of a draw," Morgana contended.
"A draw?" Merlin said incredulously.
"Yes. We neither of us are dead, and that was certainly the goal at the time," Morgana reasoned.
"It was never my goal to kill you," Merlin disagreed. "I could have, many times. But I could never bring myself to do it. Maybe fate held me back, to give us this chance."
Morgana's eyes softened and she smiled. "Are you saying that I've always lost because you were too chivalrous to finish me off?'
"No," Merlin acknowledged. "Her being a woman didn't stop me from killing Nimueh. Or the sidhe Sophia or Elena's fairy nursemaid Grunhilda. I'm saying that I could never bring myself to kill you." Morgana smiled at Merlin's admission.
"Let's have a friendly sorcerer's duel then, see who comes out on top," she proposed.
"I like that idea!" Gwaine crowed, reminding Merlin and Morgana yet again that they had an audience and that they had moved significantly closer together while they were speaking.
"Rules?" Merlin asked playfully.
"Nothing fatal, obviously," Morgana said quickly. "Nor anything seriously damaging. We throw balls of light instead of fire, and cushion any fall. First one touched by a ball of light or knocked off their feet loses."
"You're on," Merlin smiled, much to Arthur and the knights' approval. They made quick work clearing the area of the broken dummies and faced one another in the center field. Arthur and the round table knights moved to the side just as Gwen, Hunith and Gaius came to watch.
"Sorcerer's duel. They made short work of the lot of us," Arthur admitted to his wife. "Morgana challenged Merlin to see who would win between the two of them."
"They're not going to hurt each other, I hope," Hunith said, worried.
"They'd better not, or I'll make him clean my leech tank, promotion or not," Gaius said grumpily.
"On the count of three?" Merlin asked. Morgana nodded.
"One." Both witch and warlock tensed.
"Two." Merlin bent slightly at the knees, preparing himself. Morgana raised her hands in readiness.
"Three!" Morgana shouted, instantly throwing a glowing orb of light towards Merlin, who batted it away with a flick of his hand. He and Morgana began to circle the field, testing one another. Merlin sent a larger globe towards Morgana, who hastily shielded herself.
"Hleap on bæc!" Morgana shouted, while sending a second spell non-verbally, trying to catch Merlin off-guard. Rather than try and block both spells, Merlin froze time, and ran to the right. To the spectators, it had seemed as though he had disappeared and reappeared in an instant.
"How did you do that?" Morgana asked astonished.
"Magic," Merlin responded cheekily, freezing time again and running behind Morgana. Time flowed naturally once more, but Morgana was surprised when three thick roots sprouted out of the ground, grabbing each of her wrists and wrapping her legs together. They slowly started to pull her downwards.
"Do you yield?" Merlin asked, coming to within a foot of Morgana's back.
"Do I look like I'm on the ground?" Morgana retorted.
"Hmm, I suppose not. Yet..." Merlin teased.
"Scréadunga!" Morgana shouted, breaking free of the roots and spinning to face Merlin who froze time and ran back ten feet. This time, Morgana was ready, and she hurled three balls of light in quick succession.
Merlin threw both hands up and froze the lights a few feet in front of him. Morgana gasped in shock and threw several more light spheres towards Merlin. She growled in frustration, though, when they all froze beside her initial volley.
Merlin stood, his face blank as he held his hands in front of him and casually held eleven glowing orbs entirely frozen. Morgana held out her hands to conjure more lights in an effort to overwhelm him when Merlin smiled wickedly. Morgana's eyes widened when Merlin jerked his hands in a tearing motion and then pushed them forward. The eleven lights suspended in front of him tripled in number and flew swiftly towards her.
In a panic, Morgana darted to the side, but the glowing projectiles followed her. Hastily, she flung her arms up and conjured a wall of energy that materialized in time to absorb the balls of light before they could touch her.
Breathing heavily, Morgana thrust her arms forward and pushed the wall of energy towards Merlin. He threw his hands up and met Morgana's energy with his own, her initial strike against his shield enough to push him backwards nearly a foot. Both determined to win, they gritted their teeth, dug in their heels and pushed at one another's magical shield. Those watching gasped and took a few steps back as sparks began crackling and snapping, radiating outwards from an invisible barrier halfway between the two magicians.
"Do you really think you can best me in a power struggle, Morgana?" Merlin taunted. Morgana grit her teeth.
"No, but I can keep you at bay until I can outsmart you."
"Really?" Merlin asked teasingly as he pushed his hands out further. The sparks grew in intensity, sizzling and popping furiously as they started to slowly inch back towards Morgana, who began to sweat at her temples. There was a kind of resonance building between them, reminiscent of the connection they had felt when Aithusa had dragonfasted them. It grew and faded and grew repeatedly as Morgana and Merlin continued to push against the wall of magic holding them back and searched it for weaknesses.
Merlin was aware on some subconscious level that every spark that crackled between them was a temporary blending of their powers, which was then reverberating back and forth. Concentrating on that sensation, Merlin realized that he could feel the very essence that made Morgana who she was, and she him. He could see it in the flush of her cheeks and in the brightness of her eyes, which only served to remind Merlin of the kisses that they had shared the day before.
It was intoxicating, stimulating, and nearly overwhelming all at the same time. They both refused to give in, pushing at one another until they could hardly catch their breath.
"I think we've had enough," Merlin ground out. He and Morgana dropped their arms simultaneously, a blazing look on both their faces that raised eyebrows all around them.
Both witch and warlock were breathing heavily, their starved lungs working to pull in air. Without a word spoken, they both rushed forward, duel forgotten as they met in the center with a fiery and passionate kiss. Merlin immediately had his hands in her hair, destroying the braid Morgana had woven that morning. Her arms wrapped around his neck, holding him to her as she returned each kiss with her own.
Arthur was shocked when the pair sunk to the ground on their knees, heedless of their friends still watching. Gaius loudly cleared his throat three times before rolling his eyes and yelling, "MERLIN!"
It was then that Merlin and Morgana heard him through the heady feeling they were immersed in.
"Sorry," Merlin choked out, mortified to see the glee on Gwaine's face and the amusement on the rest of the knights. Gwen was struggling to hold back her grin, as was Hunith. Arthur looked rather nauseated and Gaius stood sternly before them, arms crossed and eyebrow raised to his hairline.
"Excuse us, ladies, gentlemen," Morgana said, nodding to everyone gathered and wrapping a red-faced Merlin tightly in her arms. "Bedyrne ús! Astýre ús þanonweard!"
Everyone stood shocked, staring at the place where just moments before, Morgana had transported herself and Merlin away in a rushing whirlwind.
"Eight weeks. Who called eight weeks?" Gwaine asked curiously. Percival raised his hand, grinning. Gwen scowled while Gaius and Hunith shook their heads as all the knights and Arthur grumbled and handed Percival five gold coins apiece.
Queen Guinevere was revered by peasant and noble alike within Camelot. She had proved many times that she was worthy of her crown and was not one to be crossed. Arthur and the round table knights were reminded of this when Gwen shamed them into cleaning up the training field as punishment for gambling on Merlin and Morgana's personal affairs. As the king and his knights dutifully picked up broken dummies, spears and crossbow bolts under the queen's watchful gaze, they all tried to think of new ways challenge the witch and warlock and potentially regain their dignity from their loss. However, no one seemed very eager to continue training in the warm summer sun. It was unanimously decided that dinner was their next goal.
Gaius and Hunith had bid them farewell as Gwen had started lecturing and left for their rounds with smiles on their faces. Gaius was eager to check on a few of his patients that had been ill with a stomach ailment. Gwen had originally planned on making their rounds with them, but decided to wait and accompany Arthur back to the castle. As the last weapon was stowed and the final bits of debris were cleared, they bowed to a pleased Guinevere and moved as a group towards the palace where food was waiting.
"Eight weeks, I can hardly believe they lasted as long as they did," Gwaine chuckled as he ambled across the grass.
"It's not that unbelievable, considering a few months ago, they were trying to kill each other," Elyan said reasonably.
"Yeah, but that's all done and over with; water under the bridge. Have you not seen the tension between those two? You were there when they started talking in their heads during the king's audience in the throne room a few days ago! We have to listen while some merchants fight over stall space and those two are lost in their own heads, smiling and giggling and flirting! I almost asked them if they wanted to be left alone. They could have lit a fire with just one look!"
"They do light fires with a look, Gwaine," Percival said, straight-faced. "They have magic."
"Are you all blind?! I thought for sure with how much time they've had to spend together, that they would have given up this itchy issue at least a month ago," Gwaine argued.
"Do you ever tire of hearing yourself speak?" Leon teased.
"Come on, you all thought they would give in much sooner!"
"Honestly, the things you men bet on! It's deplorable!" Gwen scolded. Arthur chuckled and tucked her hand into the crook of his arm as they led the way back to the palace.
"Where do you suppose they went?" Gwaine asked as they walked along.
"Hopefully somewhere private," Arthur grimaced, unable to forget the sight of Merlin and Morgana falling to their knees as they kissed so passionately. It was just not something he wanted to think of.
"Do you suppose they'll be all fidgety still?" Percival wondered.
"I hope not," Elyan said fervently. "It was starting to make me itchy, too, watching Merlin scratching and pacing like that."
"I suppose we'll- Aaah!" Gwen screamed, startled as a great explosion sounded just as their group entered the courtyard. Arthur pulled Guinevere behind him as a few servants scattered and horses spooked at the commotion. The castle guards looked around wildly, ready to attack any intruder.
Glass shards rained down on the cobblestones from the windows across the way from them. Arthur took in the damage and exactly which windows were broken and immediately relaxed. The king shook his head ruefully, feeling the battle reflex fade as it was replaced by relief. The abrupt shift in his mind and body left Arthur fighting the urge to bend double and laugh until he couldn't breath.
"What happened?!" Leon asked, dutifully scanning the area for threats to his king and queen.
"Stand down," Arthur ordered.
"But sire," Leon protested.
"There's nothing to worry about. Look closely at just whose windows have been blown out," Arthur said, fighting between grimacing and laughing.
"What?" Gwen asked, shading her eyes from the bright noon sun as she took in the second story windows over the courtyard. All of which were perfectly intact except for those of a room that Gwen was quite familiar with.
"Oh... my," Gwen said, clapping a hand over her mouth to contain her relieved giggles.
"What is it?" Elyan, Gwaine and Percival asked. Leon had caught on and started to chuckle himself.
"Those windows are in the chambers that Merlin and Morgana are sharing now," Arthur explained to the knights who hadn't lived in Camelot back when Morgana had been a frequent sight in those very windows. The king grimaced at the thought of how the windows came to be broken.
"Ohhhh," Gwaine said as the others joined in the king and queen's laughter.
"Do you think they're alright?" Gwen asked, suddenly worried.
"Do you want to be the one to go and ask?" Arthur said, his grimace morphing into a look of pure nausea. Gwen blushed, but looked towards the burst windows with concern.
A moment later, her fears were laid to rest and they all began laughing anew when a muffled, breathless, "SORRY!" was heard from the now wide-open windows. The voice was unmistakably Merlin's, though he was nowhere to be seen.
Then, all the glass began to glow blue before a gust of wind picked up every piece and swirled up to the windows. With a sound like egg shells being crushed underfoot, the blue-tinged shards and pieces fit into their separate panes and melted back into solid glass, leaving the windows intact once more.
"Merlin is never going to live this down. I'll see to it!" Gwaine vowed.
"No you won't, Gwaine," Arthur said. Gwen beamed at him, until the next words fell from his lips. "Because I'm going to do it first."
Very early in the morning, just before sunrise, Merlin was awoken from a rather pleasant dream by an insistent, rumbling voice.
"Shhhh..." Merlin whispered sleepily before he pulled a slumbering Morgana closer.
"Hush, please," Merlin muttered into Morgana's hair.
"I don't want to, you scaly beast, it's not even dawn yet, and I am very comfortable where I am, thank you very much," Merlin groused, refusing to do so much as open his eyes.
"Merlin, you had better be talking to a dragon. Now would you please shut up?! I got to sleep rather late last night," Morgana groaned.
"You say that like it was my fault," Merlin said defensively.
"It was your fault," Morgana argued, eyes still closed.
"How?! You attacked me, if I recall correctly."
"It was you and that blasted hairbrush and you know it," Morgana teased, rolling over to face her husband now that they were both awake.
"I thought you liked it when I brushed your hair," Merlin responded playfully, combing through the strands in question with his fingers.
"I do, that's the problem," Morgana laughed, leaning in to kiss Merlin temptingly. He smiled and very willingly allowed himself to be tempted.
"All right, all right!" he shouted, pulling away from Morgana and rolling out of the bed to scramble for his clothes.
"What are you on about?!" Morgana asked, confused, watching Merlin as he pulled on his breeches and hurried about like he'd heard someone shout 'fire.'
"Kilgharrah is calling to me," Merlin explained as he pulled his blue tunic over his head and stuffed his feet into his boots.
"I'll come with you," Morgana said, getting up as well and moving towards her wardrobe.
"Don't bother, he's getting impatient. He's already called me four times. I won't be long," Merlin promised, kissing Morgana and pulling his jacket on.
"You'll want this," Morgana said, donning her dressing gown as she handed Merlin his red scarf and pointed to his neck. Merlin looked briefly in the mirror, pulling his tunic further to the side. He was dismayed to see a bruise darkening over his collarbone, the edge of which was visible at the neckline of his tunic. It was rather close to where he'd taken the mace hit the year before, causing Merlin to remember what had happened to that particular injury.
"Morgana!" Merlin exclaimed hopefully. "Can you heal it? I'm rubbish at healing magic." Morgana looked at him innocently.
"There's no time," she argued impishly. "Besides, it will let everyone know exactly who you belong to," Morgana said coyly.
"Oh, I belong to you now, is that right?" Merlin asked, pulling her to him with an impish smile and kissing her quickly.
"Exactly. I think everyone ought to know it."
"I think everyone knew it the moment we blew out the windows," Merlin said, red-faced. Morgana chuckled and then smirked.
"Yes, I suppose so," she agreed. Merlin smiled and kissed her again.
The warlock winced and pulled away, concentrating.
"Alright! I'm coming you impatient lizard!"
"Kilgharrah?" Morgana asked. Merlin nodded.
"I'll be right back," he promised, giving her one last kiss. Then Merlin walked out of their chambers, tying his neckerchief as he went.
This early in the morning, there were few people out and about. Merlin had made it entirely to the courtyard without coming across anyone. It gave him hope that he'd be able to make it out of the city unhindered. Yet it was not meant to be. Unfortunately for the warlock, it was Arthur and the knights of the Round Table who saw him first.
They were preparing to head to the training grounds when Merlin's exit from the castle caught their attention. He was utterly focused on where he was going, walking straight past the king without a backwards glance. Arthur exchanged a gleeful look with his knights and they wordlessly agreed to follow. Merlin's annoyed expression and hurried stride did not deter them in the least.
"Look who finally decided to emerge," Arthur teased, falling into step on his newest brother-in-law's left side. Merlin turned entirely red as the knights all came to flank him and the king and matched them stride for stride.
"Merlin," they teased, enjoying how embarrassed the warlock was.
"You're quite alone and looking rather calm," Arthur drawled.
"Not an itch in sight," Percival agreed.
"Quite serene," Leon observed playfully.
"You mean satisfied, Leon," Gwaine corrected.
"Definitely something different about you, mate," Elyan said, smiling.
"I don't know what you're talking about," Merlin said innocently, smoothing his neckerchief down subconsciously. Arthur raised his eyebrows incredulously and laughed at Merlin's obvious deflection.
"Two-and-a-half days, and not a sight nor sound from either of you. If I didn't know that Guinevere was sending you trays from the kitchen, I'd be worried that you'd died," Arthur said disgustedly.
"Well, there was a little sound a few days ago," Gwaine said with false bewilderment. "Sounded a lot like glass shattering, nay, exploding! What was that, Merlin? Would you happen to know?"
"We fixed it," Merlin stated ineffectually, causing them all to laugh at his chagrined expression.
"Yes, though I have to wonder why it needed fixing. How every last window in your chambers just exploded," Gwaine drawled. Merlin sped up trying to avoid the question.
"I am not discussing this with you," Merlin stated firmly. Silence reigned for a full minute.
"That was some kiss on the training fields," Elyan said matter-of-factly, causing Merlin's step to falter momentarily.
"That it was," Gwaine grinned mischievously. "Didn't think our Merlin-the-virgin had it in him."
"Well you can't exactly call me that anymore, can you, Gwaine?" Merlin asked, then abruptly stopped, realizing what he'd just admitted in his frustration. Arthur raised his eyebrows, grinning, while the knights all wolf-whistled and slapped a red-faced Merlin on the back.
"So that's how the windows exploded!" Gwaine crowed triumphantly. Merlin grimaced and closed his eyes, resigned to the inevitable.
"I, ah, well, we were overwhelmed. Morgana and I, ah..." Merlin trailed off, rubbing the back of his neck, utterly embarrassed. "You wanted to know what would happen if I was intoxicated and lost control. I think that's as close as you're ever going to get."
"Relax, Merlin, we've all been there," Gwaine said good naturedly. "Can't say any of us have ever shattered windows, though. That's just you, mate."
They all laughed at Merlin's sheepish smile. Then Merlin turned serious.
"Now, if you're done torturing me, I have an impatient dragon calling." Merlin tapped the side of his head in explanation and headed resolutely to the gates, hoping to escape the teasing of the brotherly knights. Merlin groaned, however, when the five of them followed him out of the city.
"You're not alone in this anymore, Merlin," Arthur admonished him, finally serious.
"Thank you. I appreciate it," Merlin said genuinely.
"Do you do this often?" Gwaine asked a minute later as they began to weave through the forest to the clearing where Kilgharrah waited.
"Talk to the dragon?" Merlin asked. "Yes. I spoke with him a lot more often when he was still captive, but whenever I've needed his advice or help, I've gone out to the forest and called for him. It is unusual for him to call to me like this though. Whatever it is, it must be important."
"How exactly do you call a dragon?" Elyan asked curiously.
"You speak to them in their tongue," Merlin said, shrugging.
"What, you roar?" Percival asked jokingly.
"Something like that," Merlin smirked. Percival's eyes widened comically.
"I'd like to see that someday," Gwaine laughed, trying to picture Merlin roaring like a dragon.
"Perhaps someday I'll show you," Merlin offered, then they all fell silent as they broke through the trees into the clearing.
Kilgharrah lay there in the grass, looking at Merlin with narrowed eyes. The knights and Arthur stayed close to the tree line. They were still somewhat wary of the enormous and obviously irritated beast that had once tried to raize Camelot. Merlin however, marched right up to the dragon, utterly fearless and more than a little perturbed.
"Hello Kilgharrah," Merlin greeted, folding his arms across his chest.
"Scaly beast?!" Kilgharrah grumbled indignantly in response.
"You did wake me up before dawn. I was very comfortable where I was, you know," Merlin defended himself.
"Impatient lizard?!" Kilgharrah said in the same irritated tone.
"Well, you kept interrupting us!" Merlin said indignantly. The king and his knights struggled not to laugh at the sight of Merlin, so slight-of-build that he would blow away in a stiff wind, arguing unabashedly with the famed Great Dragon who, even laying on the ground as he was, towered over the warlock. Kilgharrah's expression morphed into what Arthur could only describe as draconic glee.
"Yes, I can sense that you are well and truly bonded now. With as difficult as it was to get you out here, we will surely have a new dragonlord heir within the year. After all, Aithusa and I cannot restore our noble breed on our own, young warlock," Kilgharrah said, enjoying the crimson stain on Merlin's cheeks. Then the warlock's mouth dropped open in embarrassed realization.
"Is that why you wanted to talk to me? Why you woke me before dawn and pulled me away from my wife and our very comfortable bed? To check that we were ensuring your future?! You are just as bad as my mother!"
Arthur had to clap his gauntleted hand over his mouth to keep himself from laughing. Gwaine wasn't as successful and Percival had to elbow his fellow knight when Kilgharrah raised his head and took in his and Merlin's audience with narrowed eyes.
"I did promise Aithusa that I would see how you and Morgana were faring. But that was not why I wanted to see you," Kilgharrah said solemnly, deciding to ignore the mirthful knight. Merlin instantly turned somber in response.
"What is it, old friend?" he asked.
"Mordred has once again joined with the fanatic Alvarr. They make plans to attack Camelot, and seek to take revenge on Arthur and you, especially."
At Kilgharrah's words, Arthur and the knights moved forward to hear more, though Merlin closed his eyes in frustration. Would they ever know true peace?
"I recognise those names, but I'm not sure why," Arthur interjected, eyeing Merlin's downtrodden posture. "Who are they?"
"Mordred is the druid boy whom we helped Morgana smuggle out of Camelot. Alvarr styles himself a freedom fighter for those with magic. He's ruthless; he doesn't care who he uses or who gets hurt or dies in his quest to restore magic. But he can be very persuasive. He's the sorcerer who convinced Morgana to help him steal the Crystal of Neahtid," Merlin explained.
"The Crystal of... but that was before Morgause took her. What does that damn thing do? Why would she do that to us?" Arthur asked, hurt.
"The Crystal of Neahtid is a magical artifact; those with the power can use it to see the past, present and future. Alvarr wanted it for Mordred to use and Morgana was in a position to help him get the crystal. She was scared and alone and vulnerable so Alvarr used her. Told her exactly what she wanted and needed to hear when no one else would," Merlin explained frustratedly.
"Morgana's poor choices were not your doing, young warlock," Kilgharrah admonished, rightly guessing what had so disheartened the dragonlord. Merlin shook his head sadly at Kilgharrah's defense of him and turned back to Arthur.
"I should have been there for her when she needed help and understanding. I should have followed my instincts and told her that she wasn't alone in having magic, but to my shame, I didn't. I had been told that she was destined to join Mordred in an alliance of evil and that I should keep my distance. But that distance didn't protect us; it only pushed her into an alliance with Morgause." Merlin looked to Kilgharrah pointedly and the dragon bowed his head.
"I was blinded by my hate for Uther, young warlock. Aithusa has helped me to see a great many things in a new light."
"What of Mordred? I committed treason to smuggle him out from under my father's thumb! Why does he hate me?" Arthur asked, his concern for Camelot at the foreground of his thoughts.
"Mordred has sworn vengeance on Camelot for his parents deaths and on you personally, Arthur, for the death of Aglain, the druid leader who took him in under Iseldir's direction."
"Why me? I don't even know who this Aglain was..."
"You did not personally kill Aglain, but he was killed when it was assumed that his camp had kidnapped Morgana."
Arthur closed his eyes, shamed that his actions under his father's command had brought strife to Camelot once again.
"And Merlin? He has never killed druids or raided their camps as I have. Why would Mordred hate Merlin when every other druid treats him as their king?" Arthur asked.
"Mordred sees Merlin as a traitor and as too weak-minded to fulfill his true destiny. Mordred does not understand that compassion and mercy can be greater strengths than sheer power. Thus, Mordred sought out Alvarr to help him gather those with magic and urge them to come together under their banner in order to defeat Camelot and return magic to the land," Kilgharrah explained.
"Surely they have heard the proclamations if they are anywhere near Camelot. Their quest is fruitless, for they already have what they seek," Arthur argued.
"They have indeed heard the recent declarations," Kilgharrah confirmed. "Alvarr feels that the ban on magic has been lifted in word only, and that the only way to truly free those with magic is with a magic user on the throne. He and Mordred had long thought that Morgana would be that ruler. Mordred was particularly upset at the revelation of Morgana's innocence and pardon, and of Morgana's union with Merlin. Therein lies part of the problem as well. It was prophesied many years ago that Mordred would unite with Morgana in evil, yet it is now impossible for this to happen. Mordred believes that his destiny has been stolen and he is determined to wrest it back to his liking."
Merlin folded his arms across his chest and grimaced. He hadn't thought about the bond between his wife and the druid boy and how Mordred might take the news of Morgana's and his marriage. Merlin shook himself from his thoughts as Kilgharrah began to speak again.
"There have been whispers amongst the dryads and the vilia that Mordred has been to consult with the Dochraid, one of the last remnants of the old ways to possess the second sight. The Dochraid is dangerous; she has been utterly twisted by dark rites meant to grant her greater foresight. It was she, I believe, who encouraged young Mordred to seek out Alvarr once more."
"How big of a threat are they?" Arthur asked. "Especially against Merlin and Morgana together?"
"Alvarr's own magic is unexceptional; on his own, he is no match for Emrys," Kilgharrah explained, surprising Merlin by emphasizing his druid name. "Mordred, however, has great power; he is not to be underestimated. Though he is not your equal, young warlock, the boy is powerful; his mind has been twisted and his heart hardened by those who have fostered him since Aglain was killed. Mordred is ruthless. More alarming though, is that Mordred and Alvarr now believe that to truly bring to pass freedom for those with magic, they must exterminate those without the gift as well as those who supported Uther's ultimate goal."
"Have mercy," Leon uttered.
"Where are they now?" Merlin asked, a horrible sinking feeling in his gut.
"Where they are now, I do not know. Until recently, they had been gathering in the Forest of Balor. They seem to have hidden themselves well. Even my foresight is blinded to them now."
Merlin nodded apprehensively, thinking over all that Kilgharrah had said.
"Keep looking for them and get us word when they surface. Aithusa may not be widely known yet, but I fear what would happen if she were found by Mordred. It was too easy for Morgana to capture her; don't let Aithusa go off on her own anymore until she's grown larger and can defend herself properly," Merlin ordered. Kilgharrah nodded his acquiescence. Arthur was taken aback, not just by the huge dragon's unwavering obedience, but by how natural it seemed to Merlin to take charge and command the ancient dragon. There was no hesitation or wavering in the former manservant; just absolute authority.
"Aithusa rests safe in our den, which you know is unreachable except by wing. She is experiencing a time of significant growth and it is very tiring for her. She has reached the final stage before adulthood; we were very pleased to see her flame-breathing start to develop. Aithusa will not be defenseless much longer."
The dragonlord grinned excitedly at the news.
"I look forward to seeing her again," Merlin said, then he reached out and rubbed the scales on Kilgharrah's snout affectionately. Arthur and his knights were surprised to see the Great Dragon lean into the dragonlord's touch, returning the sentiment. It was a moment that attested to the bonds of brotherhood between dragonlord and dragon that few were privileged to witness. Kilgharrah finally stood and bowed his head once more to Merlin.
"Aithusa is anxious to see you as well, young warlock. Be careful," Kilgharrah said in farewell, then he opened his huge wings and took to the skies. Merlin watched him fly off into the west for a few moments before he turned to his awestruck companions.
"Breakfast anyone?" he asked, pulling them from their reverie.
"How can you think about eating after that?" Arthur asked in shock.
"Simple, I'm hungry," Merlin said cheekily, then loped off through the woods, leading them all back to the city.
Upon their return to Camelot, Arthur called for breakfast trays to be brought to the round table. Gwaine was sent to retrieve Gaius and Hunith, Elyan was sent for Gwen, and Merlin was sent for Morgana.
In the corridor just outside their chambers, Merlin sensed her. He smiled and just managed to contain his startled yelp when the familiar hand of his wife pulled him bodily into an alcove and kissed him thoroughly.
"You said you'd be right back," Morgana growled when she finally pulled back. "It's been over an hour."
"You do enjoy surprising me in this alcove, don't you?" Merlin said, eyeing the small space with amusement and trying to flatten his newly-riled hair.
"And yet you never seem to expect it," Morgana answered with a smirk.
"Well, I have to say that this time was much nicer than the last," Merlin commented. Morgana's eyes darkened.
"I'm sorry about that," she whispered.
"Don't be. Things are different now. In fact, things are very different- I was actually sent to get you. We're meeting at the round table to discuss Kilgharrah's news," Merlin explained. Morgana nodded.
"Let's go then," she said, taking Merlin by the hand and heading for the king's private council chambers.
The others were already assembled when Merlin and Morgana entered. Arthur raised his eyebrows at the warlock's freshly disheveled appearance.
"We were starting to wonder if we had made a mistake in sending you to collect Morgana all by yourself, Merlin,"Arthur teased, smiling. Merlin's cheeks burned but Morgana raised her chin and ignored her brother as she moved to her seat beside Merlin.
"We seem to be making a habit of this," Gwaine joked as they all followed suit and assembled themselves around the table. Immediately, they began helping themselves to the trays of fruit, meats, breads and cheeses.
"Hopefully, it will be for more enjoyable reasons in the future," Arthur agreed.
"It's good to see you out and about," Gaius said in mild reproval, greeting Merlin and Morgana with a raised eyebrow. Merlin seemed permanently flushed. He studiously avoided his mentor's gaze by taking a drink of his tea. Morgana merely smiled unashamedly at the old physician.
"It's nice to feel comfortable in our own skin again. We weren't sure how long it would last, considering the nature of the bonding, but we shouldn't have been so worried. Merlin was quite thorough," she said nonchalantly in answer. Merlin promptly spat the tea in his mouth across the table while everyone stared at Morgana in open-mouthed shock. Though Gwaine gleefully stood and slapped a choking Merlin on the back.
"Morgana!" Gwen exclaimed, covering her mouth to hide her grin. Gaius and Hunith looked on, teetering between reproach and amusement.
"Don't deny that you were all curious. I saw you teasing Merlin as you left the courtyard this morning," Morgana said, eyeing Arthur and the knights with censure. They all assumed their most innocent expressions.
"Well, you two weren't exactly subtle, what with that kiss on the field and the blown-out windows and the two-and-a-half days holed up in your chambers! We couldn't let Merlin-the-virgin-no-longer go without a bit of good-natured teasing. That's what brothers are for," Gwaine said jovially as Merlin removed his scarf to mop up the tea all over the table.
"Especially when he's sporting one of those," Percival chuckled, pointing to the now-exposed love-bite on the warlock's collarbone. Merlin's hands flew to his neck to cover the bruise, much to everyone's amusement. He looked at Morgana's proud expression with exasperation before he gave up and hid his burning face in his hands.
"My mother is right there," Merlin groaned without uncovering himself. His neck, face (what was visible, anyways) and ears shone a brilliant red. Hunith smiled at her son's embarrassment.
"I'm not entirely naive, Merlin. You are a married man, now, and I do believe I said that I wanted grandchildren," Hunith chuckled. Merlin sank low in his seat with another groan.
"There is a reason we are gathered this morning," Arthur interrupted, fighting his laughter. "I'm afraid it's a bit more important than mortifying Merlin."
Everyone struggled to contain their mirth at the king's words. After a few moments, calm was restored and Merlin dropped his hands and sat up, hastily retying his neckerchief. It was damp in a few spots from the tea, but Merlin wasn't about to leave Morgana's claim of ownership in full view. All of the round table looked to Arthur to continue.
"Merlin, as it was your dragon who brought us the information, why don't you share it?"
"I don't know that I'd call him my dragon," Merlin argued.
"Well, for the time being, you're the only dragonlord. Just shut up and tell us," Arthur ordered. Merlin raised his eyebrow at the contradictory command, but explained regardless.
"Alright then. Kilgharrah called to me this morning. He wanted to inform me that Mordred has joined once more with Alvarr in a bid to attack Camelot, Arthur and myself."
Gaius and Hunith both nodded grimly, concerned for the two men they saw as sons, regardless of blood. Gwen looked between Merlin and Arthur with unconcealed worry. Morgana gasped, wide-eyed, paling at the mention of Mordred and Alvarr. Merlin looked to his wife in apology.
"Mordred is especially angry that his supposed destiny has been thwarted, and that you and I are married."
"I suspected he had a silly crush on me when I saw him last. He was much more affectionate than he had been when we helped him escape Uther."
"I suspected the same," Merlin agreed.
"How would you know?" Morgana asked in confusion.
"How do you think Gaius knew where Alvarr was camped? I followed you, of course," Merlin explained. Morgana's mouth dropped open in surprise and Merlin smiled sheepishly.
"You really do have a knack for trouble, don't you mate?" Gwaine asked, chuckling. Morgana shook herself from her musings and turned solemn once more.
"Alvarr?" Morgana asked guiltily.
"He's just as fanatical as he was six years ago, if not more. He seeks revenge for his parents, though his ultimate goal, as he told you back then, is eliminating all who followed Uther in order to put a magic user on the throne. I believe that Mordred wants to form an alliance with you to that end."
"They won't get anything from me," Morgana said viciously, eyes flashing. Merlin smiled in response.
"Kilgharrah said that Mordred had consulted the Dochraid," Arthur interjected. "What is the Dochraid? Could she have given Mordred something to help them in their quest?"
"It is doubtful, sire," Gaius answered.
"What is the Dochraid?" Gwen repeated.
"Few still live who could truly tell us," Gaius began.
"I can," Morgana said, massaging her temples, struggling to remember how she had met the Dochraid. "Morgause told me that she was a seer many years ago... She is a hermit, living in a dank hole of a cave beneath a tree. Morgause told me that the Dochraid long ago gouged out her own eyes to improve her second sight, and that I should take something to her... I don't... It was a coin of necromancy! I saw Morgause! I was in the spirit world with her... you almost killed me," Morgana whimpered, turning to Merlin, who winced.
"I'm sorry. In my defense, you had stuck a formorroh in my neck," Merlin said. Morgana's face crumpled again.
"I'm so sorry, Gwen," Morgana apologized. "I used the coin Morgause gave me to bring a shade of Lancelot to life."
Gwen instantly knew what Morgana meant, and smiled tremulously.
"I cannot be angry at you any more than I can be angry at Merlin for trying to kill Arthur while under the influence of the formorroh. It sounds like Morgause had a hold of you, even from the spirit world. I cannot hold a grudge," the queen said wisely. Merlin smiled at Gwen then reached over to squeeze Morgana's hand.
"What do we do now?" Leon asked, pulling them back to the issue at hand.
"We need to show that Arthur's acceptance of magic is genuine," Merlin suggested. "The fewer magic users willing to believe Alvarr's message, the better."
Arthur considered Merlin's words and nodded.
"Then we increase patrols and continue to spread the word that magic is not only legal, but welcome in Camelot. Merlin, I want you and Morgana to increase your visibility, especially while doing magic," Arthur said.
Everyone nodded in agreement. Merlin caught sight of Hunith's proud expression and couldn't help the joyful grin that spread across his face.
He couldn't deny that, despite the dangers that they still faced, it was good to be free.
Merlin and Morgana took Arthur's instructions to heart. They spent their mornings either on patrol with the round table knights or on the training fields with them, sparring with both sword and magic. Merlin had been quite pleased to finally be able to openly use magic to supplement his swordplay. He had utterly surprised all of them by dueling Gwaine to a draw using the same subtle tricks that he had used on Arthur during their now-infamous mace fight.
Their patrols had uncovered very little, save for a few bandit camps that were quickly dealt with. Wherever Mordred and Alvarr had gone, they had hidden themselves well, likely biding their time until Camelot was more vulnerable. It made Merlin uneasy to have such a danger hanging over them. It reminded him of the nerve-wracking feeling of his first days in Camelot, when he'd still had the tendency to react with uncontrollable bouts of instinctual magic.
In addition to patrols and training, Merlin and Morgana hoped to show another facet of beneficial magic as they accompanied Gaius on his rounds in the lower town every afternoon while Hunith acted as nurse. Gaius proudly proclaimed that together, Merlin and Morgana's healing talents rivaled those of Alice. Whereas Morgana was a natural in magical healing, Merlin was quite talented in herblore and practical medicine. Their skills complemented one another perfectly, each of them compensating where the other lacked. Though Merlin was pleased to note that each of their lesser skills had improved as he and Morgana continually tutored one another.
The people were wary of Morgana at first, not eager to accept her help or her presence in Camelot, despite their king declaring her innocence. Still she persisted, her head held high, determined to use her skills to help show that she was truly worthy of their forgiveness. Some though, were persuaded to trust in her simply because of Merlin standing beseechingly at her side. Thus, within a few weeks, Morgana and Merlin together had healed three otherwise-hopeless cases, one of whom was a chronically ill child. Some had even hailed Morgana a hero when just two nights previous, Morgana had tirelessly helped Caroline the midwife with a difficult birth that had threatened the life of the mother and child. So it was that, more than any apology she had given, Morgana's efforts with healing magic earned her the forgiveness of many of the people of Camelot. It had pleased Merlin to see Morgana accepted once more by the people of Camelot, despite her turbulent history with them.
In light of Kilgharrah's warning, Merlin had also made an effort to magically shore up the city's physical defenses. Many citizens had looked on with curiosity and awe as he had stood upon the wall that bound the lower town from the surrounding fields and incanted a strengthening spell that had left the walls glowing for nearly half an hour afterward. Merlin had been slightly winded from the effort, but the resonating charge he felt from an observing Morgana may have been a part of it. Merlin performed the same incantation on the castle walls and, knowing that Mordred was aware of the grated exit beyond the dungeons, Merlin added a protective spell over it and all the other siege tunnel entrances. There was no way of knowing where the stolen copy of the siege tunnel plans had gotten to, as Morgana couldn't remember, and Merlin didn't want to assume that they had been destroyed. He preferred to be prepared.
Morgana had also taught Merlin how to transport in what little quiet time they had within their appropriated study. He had taken to it quite readily, much to Morgana's frustration. What had taken her a month of hard work and tutelage from Morgause to learn, Merlin had taken just hours to master. He had delighted in transporting them from one end of Camelot to the other, then back to their chambers before he had finally collapsed, happily exhausted from the effort.
Morgana had been aware that Merlin was powerful; his being Emrys was testament to that. But his transportation abilities had left her speechless. She had been exhausted just by transporting herself and Morgause to their cave and yet Merlin had transported them many times that distance before his strength had faded. Now he was determined to refine the technique in order to reduce the time necessary for the spell to work, as well as make it as unobtrusive as possible. After all, there could be a great advantage to transporting without the wind and tumult in a scouting situation and Merlin was determined to work it out.
"Are you going to brush my hair all night?"
Merlin snapped out of his thoughts, and met Morgana's amused eyes in the mirror.
"Hmm?" he asked, still brushing.
"Are you going to brush my hair all night?" Morgana repeated.
"Oh," he said sheepishly, dropping the brush onto the vanity. Merlin slowly began gathering her hair into his hands, savoring the silkiness. "Just thinking about how busy we've been in the last month."
"That we have," Morgana agreed. "Makes me miss being confined to our chambers," Morgana said coyly, once more catching Merlin's eye in the mirror and smiling. Merlin returned her smile, finally able to control his blushing, and responded with a tendril of magic. Morgana gasped at the sensation before her smile grew broader and she sent a tendril of her own to brush against Merlin's.
It had become their own private expression of affection; more intimate than simply saying 'I love you,' for that was what they felt. Merlin had told Morgana before Aithusa had dragonfasted them that he had been taught that making love required love and affection. He was never more sure of that than now. Their experience with the magical current that had reverberated and sparked between them as they dueled on the training field had mentally laid them entirely bare to one another. They had felt one another's very soul. Coming together as husband and wife had only strengthened that connection.
Merlin smiled and pulled his magic back as he began to divide her hair into even sections. Morgana reveled in the feeling of Merlin's hands working in her hair. It had become one of her favorite times of the day, when it was just the two of them and no one was watching them like they were one of Gaius' experiments. Therefore, they were both surprised by the soft knock on their door just as Merlin began to braid.
"Come in," Morgana called. Gwen came in and quietly latched the door. As the queen turned and took in the sight of them in their nightclothes and Merlin braiding Morgana's hair, her eyes widened.
"I'm sorry, am I interrupting something?" she asked sheepishly.
"Not at all, I do this every night," Merlin assured her, though his eyes never left his task. Morgana nodded her agreement.
"I have to say, I'm impressed, Merlin. I didn't know you knew how to braid," Gwen admitted, watching spellbound as Merlin braided his wife's hair as well as Gwen herself could have. Merlin chuckled.
"A peasant farmer has to get rope from somewhere," he said, grinning.
Morgana was unfailingly reminded of when her husband had performed this now-familiar task for the first time. Merlin's tentative and gentle touches and the smoldering glances traded in the mirror had shocked Morgana, as had the disappointment she had felt when the evening had ended innocently. Merlin had been more willing than she to try giving affection at that point. She had dug in her Pendragon heels and proceeded to pull away from him for eight long weeks. Though the conclusion of those eight weeks had been utterly incomparable to anything Morgana had ever felt. She smiled at the memory, then turned to Gwen, her expression openly curious and inviting.
"I went to see Gaius or Hunith, but they were out. I think that there was someone in the lower town that they wanted to check on," Gwen rambled.
"Are you not feeling well?" Merlin asked, concerned.
"Well, it was something that I hoped to talk to Morgana about," Gwen answered evasively, though the hand placed subconsciously over her lower abdomen gave her away.
"I knew it!" Morgana crowed triumphantly in Merlin's head. "I win. You owe me!"
"What are you on about?! We both knew it. Gwen isn't normally one to turn green at the scent of smoked fish. She's even less likely to run to the privy because of it," Merlin replied.
"Does Arthur suspect yet?" Merlin asked, grinning. Gwen's mouth dropped open. "Or have you only just figured it out yourself?"
"How did you know?!" she asked.
"I have eyes, and unlike Arthur, I know how to use them," he teased, tying off his wife's braid. Morgana instantly stood and moved to draw Gwen into a gentle hug. "Is Arthur busy?" Merlin asked.
"He was reading over some reports when I left our chambers. George was supposed to be up soon to turn down the bed though," Gwen answered, allowing Morgana to pull her over to a chair at the table.
"I'll leave you ladies to it then..." Merlin grinned at them and donned his jacket over his sleep shirt before heading out the door. Morgana grinned excitedly at Gwen as she sat across from the queen.
"How long have you been feeling nauseous?" she asked without introduction.
"A couple weeks now, I thought perhaps I'd gotten a touch of the sickness that passed through a while back."
"And your monthly?" Gwen blushed, but found comfort in Morgana's familiar bluntness.
"It hasn't come this month or last," Gwen admitted. "In all the stress of everything I didn't even think of it." Morgana calculated quickly.
"So you can expect to deliver between Imbolc and Ostara, roughly." Morgana nodded, standing and moving towards her healer's bag and rummaging through it. "These are dried leaves from a red raspberry bush. It makes a lovely tea and Caroline the midwife tells me it helps to ease things along. Have a cup every morning," Morgana instructed as she handed a small satchel of the leaves to Gwen. Then she smiled impishly.
"What are you thinking," Gwen asked warily, fighting a smile of her own.
"Arthur is going to be entirely shocked and I hope I'm there to see his face when you tell him."
"I don't think I could say it in front of an audience," Gwen blushed.
"Gwen, being a fruitful woman is nothing to be ashamed of. You are married and if anyone thinks it a scandal, then surely they don't appreciate the lovely benefits of marriage."
"Morgana!" Gwen laughed.
"What? I'm married, too, and I'm very appreciative of the benefits," Morgana said innocently. She and Gwen looked straight-faced at one another for just a moment before they burst into laughter. As they tried to control their giggles, Gwen couldn't help but feel a great sense of comfort at truly having her friend back.
Merlin had a feeling that Gwen and Morgana would be talking for some time. It had been a while since he'd had a moment to speak with Arthur without the knights there to tease him good-naturedly about Morgana, so Merlin decided to head for the king's chambers.
Arthur was sitting at his desk when Merlin burst through the door as he always had.
"Marriage hasn't taught you to knock I see," Arthur drawled.
"I knew I wasn't interrupting, and it's taught me plenty; though it hasn't seemed to have taught you anything," Merlin said, eyeing the clothes that Arthur had shed and left in piles on the floor and the balled parchments that had been carelessly tossed aside. "What does Gwen think of your slovenly habits?"
"Obviously, she doesn't have to think about it, that's what y- George is for."
"You were going to say 'you,'" Merlin said cheekily. "Admit it, you miss me."
"I'll admit no such falsehood," Arthur said sternly, leaning back in his chair and propping his feet on the desk.
"That's alright, Arthur, I miss yo- No... Sorry, I much prefer tending to Morgana."
"Tending to her? If that's what you're doing, you're missing the point entirely," Arthur teased dryly.
"I think the point was obviously well-made when we shattered the windows," Merlin taunted before his eyes flashed and a chair from the table moved towards him. Merlin sat in it in front of Arthur's desk and then went one step further by mirroring Arthur's position with his feet propped up as well.
"I think we've corrupted you," Arthur laughed. Merlin chuckled as well.
"I think Morgana has been the one to do that," Merlin admitted, smiling fondly. "If you can't fight them, join them. She can be rather bold."
"That she can," Arthur agreed. "Where is your better half? I didn't think you came separately anymore, that you were a matched set."
"She's talking to your better half in our chambers."
"Guinevere said she was going to talk to Hunith. I assumed it was to discuss Mabon celebrations. It is coming up rather quickly and your mother was quite helpful to Guinevere in planning the Lughnasadh festival."
"She said Gaius and my mother weren't in and that they likely had a patient that they wanted to check on. So Gwen came to see Morgana instead."
"Just you, Merlin. I always find you odd." Arthur grinned at Merlin.
"I can't imagine what you're talking about," Merlin said straight-faced.
"You enjoy being married to my sister, for one," Arthur grimaced.
"If you have to wonder why, perhaps you're missing the point," Merlin teased.
"I am the king, I never miss the point of anything," Arthur retorted. Merlin raised his eyebrow and pointed to the ceiling, wordlessly conjuring a flame on the tip of his index finger in response. They both laughed at the rather glaring example that Arthur had overlooked a very big point for nearly seven years.
"How has everything else been?" Merlin asked, waving the flame away and turning serious, gesturing to the pile of correspondence stacked haphazardly on the desk.
"Well, for the most part," Arthur answered. "I've received pledges of support from Mithian's father King Rodor, Lords Godwyn and Bayard, and King Olaf. Thus far, nothing has been heard from King Alined, King Lot or Queen Annis."
Merlin's brow furrowed, and his expression turned solemn. Arthur straightened slightly, recognising the shift within his former manservant from blitheful to insightful.
"I think Queen Annis will come around, though it may take some time. Regardless of your history with Caerleon, you've shown her that you are a good and honorable man, a worthy king. Alined is another matter entirely. I don't believe him to be trustworthy, not after the debacle with Lady Vivienne. He would love nothing more than an excuse to make war.
"King Lot is also not to be trusted. Escetians had long suffered under Cenred's rule, but Lot was always more feared than his elder brother. Where Cenred cared little for his people, Lot seems to despise their necessity. It's one reason that I'm hoping that my mother will stay in Camelot permanently."
Arthur nodded, acknowledging Merlin's wisdom.
"I agree, though Kilgharrah's news has left me feeling uneasy. I can only hope that this Albion you speak of is not just an impossible dream."
"You will unite the five kingdoms, Arthur," Merlin swore. "I haven't been protecting your backside for nigh on seven years just to give up now."
Arthur opened his mouth to deliver a surly retort, but was interrupted by a swift knock at the servant's door. When Arthur bid them to enter, George came in and gave a deep bow, speaking without raising his head.
"Sire, I have come to prepare you and your chambers for bed, my lord."
The enthusiastically proper servant finally looked up and stopped in his tracks. George's eyes widened momentarily at the sight of the king and his former servant lounging together so casually. He recovered quickly, however, and cleared his throat as he gave Merlin a disapproving, raised eyebrow. Merlin grinned cheekily in response, not bothering to move his feet off the king's desk.
"Sire," George entreated Arthur while ignoring Merlin pointedly. "Would you like me to turn down the bedclothes and stoke the fire, my lord?"
"Of course, George," Arthur agreed, though he laughed at the flustered look on George's face when Merlin's eyes glowed and a fresh log landed in the fireplace and set instantly ablaze despite the dying embers that had lingered in the grate.
"Fire's set," Merlin said smiling. George sniffed disdainfully at the warlock's lack of decorum and moved to the bed to turn it down.
"Merlin... Gwen is on her way. I'm waiting for you..."
Merlin's head instinctively turned in the direction of his and Morgana's chambers and his feet dropped off the table as he stood in a rush.
"Gwen's coming," he explained.
"How do you know?" Arthur asked, surprised, but getting to his feet regardless.
"Morgana told me," Merlin explained, pointing to his temple.
"That's convenient," Arthur said.
"It can be. Unless it's a dragon waking you before dawn," Merlin said grumpily, then turned to the door as Gwen quietly entered.
"I thought I'd find you here," Guinevere laughed upon seeing Merlin.
"Just doing some advisorly things," Merlin said, ignoring the quiet sniff from George as the servant finished his duties and came to stand beside the warlock.
"Is that all, your majesties?" George asked solemnly, pointedly leaving Merlin out of the honorific as he eyed both Arthur and Gwen.
"Yes, George, you may go," Gwen dismissed him kindly.
"I'll be off, too," Merlin said, smiling at Gwen as he moved towards the door. "Good luck," he murmured to the queen as he passed her.
"Goodnight Merlin," both royals entreated.
"Night," he replied, then Merlin closed the door as he heard Gwen softly tell Arthur that she had some news for him. Before he had moved more than a few steps away from the door, Merlin smiled as he heard a muffled thud. Arthur had taken the news exactly as Merlin had thought he would. He wasn't worried though. Gwen was a highly capable nurse and Arthur would likely come-to relatively quickly. Merlin chuckled and gleefully returned to his own chambers and his waiting wife.
"You knew, didn't you, with all your talk on odd things last night," Arthur said by way of greeting on the training field the next morning. Merlin turned from where he stood watching Morgana duel Gwaine and Elyan and eyed Arthur with amusement.
"Course I did. Morgana and I have been waiting on tenterhooks this last week for Gwen to realise and tell you. Nearly drove Morgana mad with the suspense," Merlin answered.
"How could you have possibly known?" Arthur asked incredulously.
"As I told Gwen last night, I have eyes. I did live with a physician for six years after all, and I actually have helped Gaius deliver a child when the midwife was visiting the outer villages. Not to mention that there is little that goes unnoticed when you live in a place as small as Ealdor. It was all the village gossips could talk about when any of the women got sick to their stomachs."
"I'm going to be a father, Merlin," Arthur said, his face suddenly alarmingly pale.
"Yes, Arthur, I rather thought that was the idea. You can't tell me that you hadn't expected this to happen?"
"Of course I did. It's just that now it's real."
"You'll be a good father, Arthur. You are not Uther," Merlin reassured him.
"Right," Arthur nodded, dazed. Merlin slapped the king on the shoulder in support as they both turned back to Morgana's furious duel with the knights. Arthur's brow wrinkled. "What about Morgana? Should she be doing all this if she could potentially be..." Arthur trailed off, gesturing towards his sister, not wanting to say the words.
"You try and tell her that," Merlin said, smiling. "Besides, it hasn't been long enough. We wouldn't know it yet if she was." Though Merlin suddenly found himself wondering if it wasn't something to worry about as he watched his wife parry a strong blow over her head. Arthur followed Merlin's line of sight and abruptly grinned mischievously.
"You can't deny it any more. I have irrefutable proof," Arthur crowed.
"Of what?" Merlin asked, utterly confused.
"You are a girl. You braid Morgana's hair every night. From your own mouth and witnessed by my wife." Arthur smirked triumphantly. Merlin shook his head.
"I don't expect you to understand, Arthur," Merlin said, folding his arms defensively.
"What is there to understand? You braid her hair and I bet you talk about her dresses. Will you make daisy chains with her as well?"
"There's plenty to understand. You may not realize it, but caring for someone in that way can be very fulfilling. In any case, the only reason I know how to braid is because it's how we made rope in Ealdor. I've no intentions of making daisy chains. No, I don't usually discuss Morgana's clothing with her unless it is to ask, 'how does this come off.' And I believe that Morgana would agree quite readily that I am, in fact, a man," Merlin answered smugly. Arthur grimaced at the thought.
"Duel with me, Merlin," Arthur entreated him in an effort to forget about what Merlin had just said. Without waiting for a response, he moved to a clear spot on the field to wait for the warlock to retrieve a weapon.
Morgana finally disarmed Gwaine and Elyan, taking advantage of their distraction as their attention was drawn to where Merlin and Arthur prepared to duel. They both conceded gladly and all three turned to watch their king spar with the greatest warlock of all time. Leon and Percival were quick to follow suit; this was a match that was not meant to be missed.
Arthur had watched Merlin fight Gwaine to a draw the week previous and the king wanted to see how Merlin would fare against him. He and his former manservant circled one another, waiting for the other to strike first. Merlin drew magic to him and used it to steady his feet and his senses. Arthur found it unnerving to see how little Merlin resembled the bumbling oaf that six years ago couldn't even put on armor properly, let alone wield a sword.
Arthur lunged forward quickly, trying to catch Merlin by surprise, but Merlin froze time and disappeared. He instantly reappeared three feet to Arthur's left and struck the first blow on the king's unguarded side.
"You can't do that!" Arthur argued.
"Why not? I'd do it to an enemy. Aren't we training here?" Merlin replied reasonably. Arthur growled and lunged again, this time catching Merlin off-guard and forcing the warlock to raise his blade in defense. They traded a swift series of blows, Arthur forcing Merlin into a retreat, when Merlin suddenly disappeared again.
Arthur looked around him wildly. "Where are you? Show yourself!"
"I'm over here," Merlin said, and Arthur spun at the sound, but found no one but those observing.
"Did you make yourself invisible, Merlin? Couldn't keep up with me, so you had to resort to cheap tricks?" Arthur taunted, watching the area around him warily.
"Cheap tricks?! Do you know how difficult an invisibility spell is? Let alone a wordless one?!" Morgana said incredulously.
"Obviously not, Morgana, now stay out of my duel," Arthur groused.
"You should be flattered that he's had to use such a defense!" Morgana harrumped. "Gwaine didn't merit such tactics!"
"Thank you, my lady," Gwaine said sarcastically. Arthur growled at the continued distraction.
Merlin suddenly reappeared close to Arthur's right side. The king instinctively swung his sword towards Merlin, but found that it was suddenly incredibly heavy, causing the tip to fall into the ground. Arthur abandoned the sword and instead waited for Merlin to swing. He ducked under the blade and grabbed Merlin's wrist as the warlock tried to bring the blade back around. Arthur wrenched the sword away from Merlin and held it to the warlock's chest, expecting him to yield. Merlin's eyes glowed gold, however, and suddenly Arthur's newly acquired sword was parried away by his own abandoned blade.
"It will take more than that to win, Arthur," Merlin taunted, his eyes flaring gold. Suddenly, the ground beneath Arthur transformed into a thick, sticky bog. His feet became stuck within the tarry goo as he struggled to get free. Merlin stepped closer to attack and Arthur seized the opportunity, grabbing Merlin by the arm and pulling him down into the mud, forcing him to end the spell and drop his sword. Arthur moved as soon as his boots were free and used his foot to pick up the discarded blade, holding the both of them in front of Merlin who, though he had regained his feet, was now weaponless.
Arthur grinned in triumph until Merlin smirked and his eyes flashed again. Arthur tensed, waiting, only to be shocked to discover that he was no longer holding two blunted-training swords, but rather two long-stemmed roses.
"Just try and kill me with those," Merlin said cheekily as everyone watching laughed uproariously at Arthur's expression.
"That's exactly what the little person at the bridge did to me!" Gwaine exclaimed. "I swear my sword smelled like flowers for a month afterwards!"
Arthur gaped at the blossoms in his hand for a moment before looking at Merlin incredulously. The warlock offered him a smile and a slight bow before Merlin was turned bodily around by Morgana and kissed rather thoroughly. Gwaine, Percival and Elyan began to whistle and cheer while Leon clapped Arthur on the shoulder.
"That was an impressive display, my lord," the second knight of Camelot offered. "Gwaine didn't last half so long."
"Thank you, Leon. Merlin!" Arthur shouted, pulling Merlin back from Morgana's attentions.
"Yes?" Merlin asked, shaking his head to clear it.
"What am I supposed to do with these?" Arthur asked petulantly, waving the roses wildly.
Merlin smiled, then flicked a hand towards the flowers and murmured, "Ic i ágiefe."
Instantly, Arthur held two swords once more. When he looked back to give Merlin a surly retort, the warlock smiled impishly and wrapped his arms around Morgana. Merlin whispered, "Bestealcedon ácweahtedon urnon!" and he and Morgana disappeared in a blur of color and a gentle breeze.
"Now that is a handy trick," Gwaine muttered, shaking his head as everyone looked to the once-occupied space with wonder.
As autumn colors flourished and Samhain was swiftly approaching, Arthur declared that the winter stores required replenishing, and that he and the knights of the round table were privileged to do it. Merlin suspected that Arthur's sudden drive to replenish the winter stores himself had more to do with Gwen's recent craving for fresh roasted venison than any real need. However, Arthur was determined to give Guinevere anything she desired, whether the queen admitted to wanting it or not. Merlin had grumbled at the prospect of hunting so close to winter, though he couldn't very well let Arthur go off on his own into the Darkling Woods with Mordred and Alvarr's whereabouts unknown.
Thus, Merlin found himself deep within the forest, stirring a pot of stew over a campfire instead of dining with Morgana in their chambers. All complaints aside, Merlin had decided that hunting as Arthur's brother-in-law was much more tolerable than as the king's manservant. Though Merlin still set up camp and cooked for the group, he wasn't piled down with all of Arthur's weapons, nor was he left to drag the carcasses across the forest. And best of all, Arthur, Leon, Percival, Elyan, and Gwaine each took care of their own kills. Not having to skin and clean five deer carcasses in addition to everything else he did was enough to significantly brighten Merlin's outlook on being included in the hunting party. Even if he was separated from his wife.
Though Morgana had often insisted on accompanying them on patrols and other hunting excursions, she hadn't protested the suggestion that she remain in Camelot to protect the city and Guinevere. Merlin had been utterly surprised, but pleased nonetheless. He had prepared himself to argue with Morgana to convince her to stay behind. Merlin hadn't relished the prospect, though, as he'd seen first-hand how his wife would respond to such a suggestion.
Merlin hadn't realised that Arthur would take to heart his playful challenge for the king to tell Morgana to slow down. Morgana had balked at Arthur's recommendation at supper nearly three weeks previously that she ought to tone down her training. When Morgana had refused, arguing that she was a stronger fighter than all of Arthur's knights, the king had stammered that she had to consider that she was now a married woman of childbearing age. Merlin had been forced to intervene after Morgana pointed at Arthur and threatened to finish the job goblin started and turn the king into the ass that he was.
Merlin smiled fondly at the memory and felt a pang at Morgana's absence. He realised as he and the hunting party were riding out the day before that he and Morgana hadn't spent a single night apart since they'd been dragonfasted. He hadn't realised how dependent he'd become on Morgana's warm presence beside him in their feather bed. At least, he hadn't until he lay awake in his bedroll that night, alone and shivering and unable to fall asleep. Likewise, Merlin knew that Morgana had been nervous of what her dreams would hold without him there to keep them at bay or comfort her when they still came. Yet Morgana had kissed him farewell and stood stoically beside Gwen as the two women watched their husbands prepare to leave for three days and two nights.
Regardless of her initial vehement protest to Arthur's suggestion, Morgana had been slowing down lately. She had observed training almost as often as she participated during the previous weeks, and she'd been attempting fewer power-draining spells. Even so, Morgana had nearly fallen asleep sitting up while Merlin was brushing her hair three nights previous.
Though she hadn't shown any of the same signs as Gwen, Merlin had his suspicions that Morgana was with child. The prospect never failed to produce a huge smile on his face, considering that not long ago, he had despaired at the prospect of being forever alone. Morgana had scoffed when Merlin voiced his suspicions. His wife had said that his theory was absurd, that she didn't feel nauseous as Gwen still was, she just hadn't been sleeping well.
Yet Merlin knew that Morgana had been sleeping deeper than was normal and she had been harder to rouse come morning for the last three weeks. Not to mention that the typical nausea had been superseded by a rather telling increase in appetite. Most convincing of all, though, was the gleeful glint in Hunith's eye whenever she looked at Morgana. Therefore, Merlin was hopeful that Morgana's unprotesting agreement to stay back in Camelot was proof that her subconscious knew, even if she was still in denial.
"So quiet, Merlin," Percival commented jovially as he and the other knights and Arthur sat around the fire circle while Merlin tended to the supper pot.
"He's missing Morgana," Elyan teased good-naturedly. Merlin smiled but chose not to comment. It was true and denying it would be pointless.
"Come on Merlin, enjoy some time with your mates," Gwaine prodded.
"I am enjoying some time with my mates," Merlin grumbled dryly.
"Come on Merlin, it's been nearly four months since you married Morgana-"
"Well those first couple months weren't exactly easy," Merlin interrupted. Arthur ignored the excuse and spoke over Merlin's half-hearted protests.
"Not to mention that the two of you have been sneaking off every chance you get- don't think we hadn't noticed!" Arthur said, pointing his finger accusingly at a sheepish Merlin. "I had just three weeks after I married Guinevere before I was off doing my duty to my kingdom. Did you see me all sulky and melancholy?"
"Yes," the knights answered immediately. Arthur narrowed his eyes and grunted indignantly as the knights laughed. Merlin looked at him with sympathy, though he nodded his agreement with the knights.
"Very funny," Arthur said snarkily. "Regardless of what these cabbage-heads think, I was not as bad as you, Merlin. What has you all ruffled?"
"That's my word," Merlin replied, avoiding the question.
"And yet it fits them so well," Arthur said, glaring ineffectually at his men with narrowed eyes, causing the chortling knights to snort into their fists. "I'm not going to let it go until you tell us, Merlin."
"Yes, Merlin, tell us how you miss your wife," Gwaine teased.
"Why are you all picking on me? Arthur was the one calling for Gwen in his sleep last night!"
"Because he's the king," Leon argued. Arthur grinned triumphantly, waiting for Merlin to respond. Merlin remained stubbornly silent.
"And you were the one tossing and turning all night. You've never had trouble sleeping while camping; you've always been the one to sleep like the dead, even on the ground," Gwaine pointed out.
"And you've not been chattering our ears off," Elyan added.
"And you hold too much inside," Percival said somberly.
Merlin opened his mouth to protest, but everyone nodded their agreement. Merlin grunted and started ladling stew into their bowls instead. Silence permeated the camp as the men hungrily devoured the soup. Then, after a burp of thanks, Gwaine began again.
"So Merlin, tell us all about it. Do you miss braiding her hair?"
Merlin sighed. Of course Arthur had told them.
"You would braid your wife's hair, too, if she thanked you like mine does." Merlin frowned in false sympathy. "Ooh, sorry... you don't have a wife."
Arthur grimaced at the implications behind Merlin's deflection, though the knights all hooted at Merlin's taunt. Gwaine smiled knowingly.
"You are a sly one aren't you? You almost succeeded in changing the subject," Gwaine said, raising an eyebrow invitingly.
Merlin wondered if they would help him to convince Morgana to take things easier if he voiced his suspicions to them. Though there was every possibility that she would just turn him into an ass as well as anyone else who tried to support him.
"Merlin..." Gwaine cajoled. Giving up, Merlin said the last thing they expected.
"I think Morgana's with child."
Arthur blinked, unsure of how to respond.
"You think? How does that work?" Gwaine asked, confused. Merlin raised his eyebrow teasingly.
"It happens when a man and a woman-" he began. Gwaine rolled his eyes.
"I think I get that part," he interjected. "I mean, why do you only think? Wouldn't Morgana sort of have to tell you that?" Merlin smiled at the knight's defensiveness.
"I knew Gwen was with child before she did," Merlin explained. "It sort of comes along with living with a physician and being made his de facto apprentice. It's obvious, if you understand what to look for. Morgana's been so hungry and exhausted even though she's been doing less, and recently she's been sleeping so deeply that I once checked her pulse. Yet Morgana hasn't been feeling sick or craving things like Gwen has been, so she's sort of in denial. But she's with child, I'm sure of it."
"Is that why Hunith is looking so pleased lately?" Arthur laughed.
"Yes, I believe it is," Merlin chuckled.
"So... Papa Merlin," Percival said. Merlin's smile was brilliant; none of them could resist returning it.
"I suppose so. But I've only told you five so that you can help me convince Morgana to stop doing so much," Merlin entreated them.
"No offense Merlin, but I think we'll leave that job to you. We can't just magic away any new ears or tails she gives us," Elyan said as the others nodded their agreement.
"And I don't fancy braying my stories at the tavern again," Gwaine said dryly.
Merlin laughed but sighed resignedly. They were probably right.
After the pot and bowls were cleaned, Merlin decided to try spelling the perimeter of their campsite with a few protective enchantments. He had constructed what he theorized would be very effective wards as he had tossed and turned in his bedroll the night before. Gwaine followed close behind him, watching as Merlin circled their clearing, incanting as he touched every third tree.
As it was, the spell would only be effective on a small scale. But Merlin was certain that it would be enough to stop anyone before they reached their camp. The enchantment complete, Merlin nodded in satisfaction. No one with ill-intent towards Camelot or her people could come within twenty feet of them.
"But that doesn't mean that we shouldn't keep watch," Merlin explained after he informed the others of what he'd done. "A skilled magic user could potentially break it down if given enough time."
"How did we ever get by without your magic?" Gwaine asked teasingly.
"You didn't. You just didn't know about it," Merlin said seriously, wiping the grins off everyone's faces.
"Best get some rest, men. Merlin, you and I will take first watch," Arthur ordered. He and Merlin sat on a log by the fire to keep watch while Elyan, Percival and Leon lay down without protest. Gwaine hesitated briefly, then gave Merlin a brotherly punch to the arm.
"Good job, Merlin," he congratulated. Then he lay down as well, shifting to get comfortable in his bedroll.
"For what?" Merlin asked, confused. Gwaine sat up with a gleeful grin.
"You were as thorough as Morgana claimed," he said, fighting the urge to laugh. Merlin sat unmoving on his log, feeling a blush rise in his cheeks at the memory. Then Gwaine started to snort as he tried to contain himself. Merlin rolled his eyes and did the only thing he could.
Gwaine abruptly stopped laughing and flopped backwards, a wide grin still plastered across his face like a drunken court jester.
"What did you do to him?" Arthur asked, trying to decide if he should laugh at Gwaine or admonish Merlin.
"He's just asleep," Merlin reassured the king. Laughter won out.
"The look on his face! Oh, that is priceless... I think, deep down, he must enjoy provoking you into using magic on him; he never seems to learn." Arthur continued to chortle as Merlin smiled and picked up a stick to stir the fire. Arthur composed himself as he watched Merlin wordlessly form horses and dragons in the smoke and sparks that flew up from the crackling flames. Arthur broke the silence after a few minutes.
"He's right, though, Merlin, at least in commending you. You've done admirably these last few months," Arthur said softly, mindful of the now-sleeping men around them.
"Thank you, Arthur," Merlin said genuinely, dropping the stick and dusting off his hands. He was surprised and pleased at the rare praise from the king.
"I didn't think that I'd ever see this side of Morgana again," Arthur continued. "I thought that one day, I'd have to kill her. The woman I had grown up with, whom I had sworn to my father to protect. My own sister. The thought haunted me every day from the time she first took the crown from our father, until the morning the two of you woke up tied together."
Merlin nodded, understanding.
"I've nearly killed her four times, Arthur. Not a day goes by that don't I think of all that I would have lost if I had succeeded. But I can't dwell on it; as you said, it would haunt me. I have to think of the things I have now. A beautiful and loving wife and a child on the way. Before, I thought I was destined to live in lonely isolation, beholden to none but my secrets. Now, I have everything I could have ever wanted. That is what I think about."
"It's rather strange, seeing you so wise all the time. I thought you were primarily a fool when you weren't forced into saying something helpful when panic set in."
"Thanks, I guess," Merlin said, chuckling at Arthur's awkward compliment.
"How did you possibly stay sane playing such a fool for so long, Merlin?"
"Some days I wonder if I wasn't a little insane to stay in Camelot," Merlin laughed.
"Of course you were, Merlin. How many times did you almost get killed, only to escape by the skin of your teeth?"
"Too many times, Arthur."
"Quite right," the king agreed, then they fell into silence.
"You know, I didn't realise you knew how to field dress a kill," Merlin said, changing the subject abruptly and eyeing the deer hanging from a branch of a tree out of the reach of scavengers.
"Of course I do, I've been hunting since I was old enough to draw a bow," Arthur said incredulously.
"Then why have I had to do it all these years? You know I hate hunting. For that matter, why don't you drag George out on these excursions, make him do it?"
"George?! Can you imagine him getting a little blood on his hands? Or worse, his clothes?" Arthur asked. Merlin thought of how fastidious Arthur's new manservant was and then imagined how George would react to gutting and skinning a deer. He bit his lip to keep his laughter from bursting forth and made the mistake of looking at Arthur, who was also struggling to stifle his amusement. Both of them completely lost it, laughing uproariously.
"What's going on?" Leon said groggily, sitting up and taking in Merlin and Arthur, the two of them wiping tears from their eyes and struggling to calm themselves.
"Merlin wanted to know why I don't bring George on a hunt with me," Arthur answered. Leon grimaced.
"If you ever do, sire, I shall be glad to do my duty and protect the queen while you're away." Without another word, Leon laid back down and settled back to sleep. Merlin and Arthur laughed into their fists, trying not to wake anyone else. A few minutes later, they grew serious once more.
"Morgana being with child will change our battle strategy for any confrontation with Mordred and Alvarr," Arthur said.
"I know. I think that's why she's fighting what she knows already. She doesn't want to be left out or leave me to face them alone."
"Where are they, Merlin? What are they planning?" Arthur asked, sounding tired.
"I don't know. They must know that they cannot win alone. They have to be trying to gather followers somewhere. It's possible they've gone beyond the borders of the five kingdoms. Distance isn't so great an obstacle to a powerful sorcerer."
"I'm not sure if I should feel heartened that they must go so far to find an ally to fight against us or frightened at what they'll find," Arthur admitted.
"Whichever it may be, we'll be ready for them," Merlin promised.
Merlin had just settled into his bedroll it seemed, when he was being nudged awake. He blearily opened his eyes and looked around, not able to see much in the dim pre-dawn light.
"What's going on?" he asked, seeing that Percival and Elyan were on watch, and that the latter was shaking him by the shoulder. Leon and Gwaine had relieved Merlin and Arthur from watch last night; Merlin realized that he had slept longer than he'd originally assumed.
"There's someone out in the forest. They hailed the camp, but they're not coming closer," Elyan explained. "We thought that they might have magic, since they are staying well out of the area you said was protected."
Percival had worked quickly to rouse the others as Elyan explained the situation. Merlin stood swiftly, closing his eyes and reaching out with his magic. There were in fact two people waiting just beyond the border of Merlin's protective enchantment. More importantly, they both had magic, one much stronger than the other. Realizing that this was exactly how Mordred and Alvarr would appear, Merlin tensed and reached out mentally.
"Who are you? What business do you have with us?"
Merlin waited a moment, gathering his magic, preparing himself to face an opponent when he heard a response in his head.
"It is I, Alator of the Catha, to bring you news. We sensed your powerful protections and were wary to cross them without knowing their consequences."
"If you wish no harm upon Camelot or her people, then have no fear; it shall not harm you, and you are welcome here."
"What of your companions? Do they know and understand who you are?" Alator asked, unwilling to reveal his ill-gotten knowledge without Merlin's approval.
"Yes. There are no longer any secrets here."
"Then we have information for you and your king."
"You were right; they do have magic. But they're friends," Merlin said as he opened his eyes and caught sight of Alator moving through the trees, a tall warrior-priest following him.
"Who is it? Are they druids?" Arthur asked, coming to stand beside Merlin as the other knights took flanking positions behind and to the side. Alator finally entered the small clearing, eyeing each of them where they stood. Then both Catha priests knelt before Merlin as Alator had when he had pledged his fealty to the warlock.
"I am Alator of the Catha, Arthur Pendragon," he said without standing or raising his head. "We heard tell that magic was welcome in your borders once more, but we did not know if we could hope that the rumor was true."
"It is, indeed. What brings you to us now?"
"I have come bearing a warning for Merlin, who the druids call Emrys, and my people call Myrddin."
Merlin's eyes widened at the addition to his apparently growing collection of names. However, regardless of his position as a figure of prophecy, he was still not used to people bowing to him.
"Alator, please stand," Merlin entreated. Arthur was amused at the groan that was well-concealed within Merlin's plea, though he doubted this Alator had recognized it for what it was. Alator stood without further requests from Merlin.
"Who are the Catha?" Arthur asked curiously.
"The Catha are high priests of the Old Religion, who live far to the north of Camelot, even beyond Mercia's borders, King Arthur. I and others of my people have been approached recently by two called Mordred and Alvarr. They sought us out, not realizing that my people have sworn their loyalty to Emrys."
"Do you know where they are now?" Merlin asked.
"I do not, though I fear that they have learned of a vicious clan living across the seas to the northeast of our lands, and have sailed abroad in search of them," Alator said grimly.
"What clan is this?" Arthur asked.
"The Norse clan," Alator explained. "They caused some troubles for my people many generations ago."
"Do they have magic?" Merlin asked.
"Some do," Alator confirmed. Merlin nodded, understanding. Before he could pose another question, Merlin was suddenly distracted by a gust of wind and a familiar voice.
"MERLIN!" Morgana cried, having just transported to him in a near hysterical state.
"Morgana?!" Merlin asked, turning to his wife as she rushed towards him. Almost too late, Merlin noticed Alator and his companion tense. The unknown priest threw his hands forward and shouted, "Wáce ierlic!"
"NO!" Merlin instinctively threw himself in front of Morgana and flung his arms up, his eyes flashing. A hazy shield sprung into existence, absorbing the stunning spell and flaring brightly. Merlin held the shield, which crackled and hissed with his anger, not wanting to relax until he knew there was no more threat. Morgana stood frozen behind him, still breathing hard from her abrupt transport and rush towards her husband.
"You will not harm her!" Merlin said vehemently.
"Merlin?! Is this not Morgana Pendragon, who sought Gaius for his knowledge of Emrys? Who tried to kill you when last we met?" Alator asked, highly confused.
Arthur and the knights' eyes widened at the Catha's words. That was one story that Merlin had yet to share.
"She is indeed, but as you see, she is within my protective circle and she remains unharmed."
Alator and his companion looked to Morgana with questions clearly visible in their expressions.
"I am Morgana Pendragon, as Merlin said. I was not whole when last we met. Morgause had twisted my mind with a powerful enchantment that left me a shell of who I truly am. Merlin was able to lift the curse from me. We are dragonfasted."
Alator's eyes widened and he looked to Merlin for confirmation. The warlock nodded without moving from his protective stance, or lowering his shield. Alator relaxed slightly, as did his companion.
"I see a great many things have changed since last we met. This dragonfasting, what does it entail?" Alator asked.
"I am the last dragonlord; she is my wife," Merlin answered evenly. Alator and his companion took to one knee in respect. Merlin finally lowered his arms and released the shield, but remained in front of Morgana.
"Our apologies, please excuse Niall and myself, for we both believed Morgana to be your enemy still," Alator said, both he and Niall lowering their heads penitently. Merlin nodded, fully relaxing and the Catha stood once more at Merlin and Morgana's urging.
"Morgana? What are you doing here?" Arthur asked, breaking the sudden silence. "Is Guinevere safe? Is she alright? What of Camelot?"
"She's fine, Arthur, and the city is safe," Morgana reassured her brother. Merlin realized she was shaking against him and turned around to gather his wife's trembling form in his arms.
"What is it?" he asked, realizing that she must have left in a hurry. She was dressed only in her nightclothes and dressing gown, her hair loose and wild from her transport spell. She hadn't even grabbed a cloak. Merlin pulled off his own jacket and draped it over her to protect her from the chilled late autumn morning. Before he could pull her closer to warm her with his body heat, she grabbed his arms, pulling back to look into his face.
"I had a dream, Merlin," she whispered, her eyes boring into his, truly frightened.
"What did you remember?" Merlin asked, not understanding what could have unsettled Morgana so thoroughly. He had not seen her in such a state since she had hysterically begged Arthur not to go after the questing beast so many years before.
"No, it wasn't a memory, it was a dream, a vision of the future, it was terrible!" Tears began to gather in Morgana's eyes. "There was a monster, it looked like a dragon, but it was different; it had very small legs. It slithered through the air like a serpent on wings, and it breathed green fire. It was attacking Kilgharrah and Camelot! Mordred was controlling it! There was fire everywhere!"
Merlin froze, a feeling of dread sinking into his gut. This was the first vision of the future that she'd had since the dragonfasting. Either she had remembered all that she would, or this particular vision was more powerful than Morgana's need to recall the last few years.
"Do you know what sort of beast this is?" Arthur asked Merlin, startling him from his thoughts.
"No, though it could be related to the dragons, like the wyvern," Merlin explained.
"Could you control it, too? Like you said you could with the wyvern?" Gwaine asked hopefully. Everyone looked to Merlin, eyes shining with the same optimism.
"I don't know; I can't know until I face it," Merlin admitted. Arthur's face hardened as he made a decision.
"Pack everything, we've got to get back to Camelot. Perhaps Gaius knows more," Arthur said, stirring the knights into action. Merlin held Morgana tightly to him once more, rubbing her arms to ward off the chill air.
"I believe I know of what she speaks," Alator interjected, freezing everyone where they stood, expectant.
"Tell us," Arthur commanded, eager to protect his kingdom.
"The Norse clan that I spoke of... when I was but a lad, there were some of their number that arrived on our shores in boats, seeking refuge from a terrible plague, one of pure evil. They spoke of a winged serpent that fed on their livestock and burned their crops and homes. About a fortnight after the first boats arrived, another group came to call the refugees home. They said that their sorcerers had defeated the beast and trapped it within a great tree. They called it Niðhöggr. Only dark magic could release the beast; I fear this Mordred has gone to find the tree and release the terror within."
"Niðhöggr... Yes..." Morgana whispered. Merlin startled when Morgana suddenly leaned heavily against him and moaned softly.
"Morgana?!" he cried, alarmed, and lowered her to the ground.
"What's wrong?!" Arthur asked, kneeling at Merlin's side as the warlock quickly checked over his wife.
"Merlin?" Morgana said, faintly.
"Have you eaten anything?" Merlin asked her, checking her pulse and taking in her pale face. At her negative response, Merlin turned to the knights. "Get me an apple from my pack and some dried meat as well!" Merlin called and Elyan hurried to do so.
"May I help, Merlin?" Alator asked. Merlin nodded and the high priest came to kneel on Morgana's other side, across from Merlin. Alator held his hand over her head and closed his eyes, moving his hand slowly down the length of her body. Once over her abdomen, Alator froze and his eyes flew open, looking to Merlin with a reserved smile.
"She is with child," Alator explained. Merlin grinned.
"I know. She just wouldn't believe me," he laughed.
"What did you say?" Morgana said weakly, looking to Alator in confusion.
"He said you are with child," Merlin said happily. "I to-"
"Don't you dare say, 'I told you so,' Merlin," Morgana growled half-heartedly. Arthur chuckled and moved aside as Elyan brought the food and a water skin as well. Morgana began to eat hungrily, alternating between the apple and the meat. After a long drink of water, her color slowly improved and she sat up, leaning gratefully into Merlin's chest.
"No more transporting for you," Merlin said sternly.
"At least, not before I've eaten," Morgana argued. Merlin narrowed his eyes, but didn't comment. It was likely to be an argument oft-repeated between them.
"Will the ride back to Camelot be too hard on her? Or can you take her back?" Arthur asked Merlin.
"I am right here," Morgana insisted.
"You need to consider your child," Arthur reasoned. "He is my nephew, after all."
"What makes you think she won't be a girl?!"
"With all the itchy fidgetiness and intent to produce dragonlords, I think it's a fair assumption," Arthur argued.
"Are you two done arguing?" Merlin asked, smiling.
"I do not argue, Merlin," Arthur insisted, as Morgana scoffed.
Merlin smiled again and pressed a kiss to the top of Morgana's head.
"I can take her. I'll be right back," Merlin promised, cradling his wife in his arms and intoning his transport spell. In the blink of an eye, they disappeared, barely stirring the air around them. Alator and his companion gasped in shock.
"He is truly Myrddin," Alator whispered.
"Just how many names has Merlin got?" Gwaine asked.
"His is a great destiny," Alator answered. "He will be remembered for all time as the greatest warlock to walk the earth. As you will be remembered as the Once and Future King, he who will build Albion and bring peace to all its peoples. It is my privilege to assist you to defeat this blight that would threaten your noble goal." Alator kneeled to Arthur as he had to Merlin. "I and my brother will return with you to Camelot at your leave."
"I would be honored to have you fight with us, Alator of the Catha," Arthur said, his voice deep and full of authority.
"And I am honored to have your assistance as well," Merlin said, surprising them all, as none of them had heard him return.
"For the love of Albion," Arthur intoned.
Merlin, Alator, Niall and the knights took up Arthur's clarion call.
"For the love of Albion!"
In the full light of morning, Arthur and his men swiftly broke camp in preparation for returning home. As Merlin began to prepare the horses, Alator and Niall bid the king's hunting party safe travels and headed towards Camelot, eager to gain some ground before those on horseback caught up with them. Finally Merlin released the protective enchantment surrounding the camp, walking the perimeter of the small clearing as the others mounted their horses.
Nearly thirty minutes into their journey home, Gwaine began whistling a jaunty tune. Elyan, Leon and Percival groaned as Gwaine began to sing about dragons and the 'love that made babes.' Merlin raised his hand over his head and snapped his fingers without looking back. Even Arthur applauded when Gwaine instantly fell silent despite his attempts to do otherwise.
Embarrassing though it was, Gwaine's bawdy song reminded Merlin that he needed to call for Kilgharrah and Aithusa to ensure that the dragons were aware of the most recent developments. As soon as they came across a clearing sufficient enough to accommodate both dragons, Merlin spoke up.
"Arthur, I need for us to stop here for a moment."
"Don't tell me your little bottom is sore already," Arthur teased.
"I won't then. However, that is not why I need to stop."
"What is the matter?" Leon asked as Merlin dismounted and walked to the center of the clearing. Looking to Gwaine, the warlock released the spell binding the knight's voice.
"Gwaine, I hope reality lives up to your expectations."
"What are you on about, Merlin?" Gwaine laughed.
Merlin gave no explanation; instead he threw back his head and roared to the heavens.
"O drakon! E mala soi ftengometh tesd'hup anankes! Erkheo..."
"What the hell was that?!" Arthur asked, trying to calm his suddenly anxious horse.
"That would be the dragon tongue. I just called Kilgharrah and Aithusa. They should be here in a bit."
"And they come, no questions asked?" Gwaine asked, slightly awestruck.
"Yes. They have no choice but to heed the call of a dragonlord. I suggest we move the horses under the trees a ways. They may spook if they see Kilgharrah and Aithusa."
Everyone quickly moved their horse into the cover of the trees and tied them to a sturdy branch. Within ten minutes, they stood in the clearing, heads turned towards the sky. Merlin was the first to hear the faint sound of wing beats. His exuberant smile was followed soon after by the huge shadows of the dragons circling overhead.
Kilgharrah touched down with a heavy thud; Aithusa's landing was softer, though not by much. Merlin laughed joyously at the sight of her; she had indeed grown a great deal in the four months since he'd seen her last. Whereas the white dragon had been about the size of a horse, she was now easily two-thirds Kilgharrah's massive size.
"Aithusa!" the warlock shouted, rushing forward to better greet the dragon who had altered his life so much for the better. Aithusa bent her head as Merlin reached her; he reached out a hand to caress her scaly snout and was surprised when Aithusa nuzzled her huge head into his chest like an over-grown horse. Kilgharrah looked on fondly at the pair; the Great Dragon understood that Merlin and Aithusa would always have a special bond. Not only had Merlin called her from her egg, but Aithusa had strengthened their connection when she had dragonfasted Merlin and Morgana.
"As you see, Aithusa is nearly fully grown," Kilgharrah said proudly.
"Yes, she certainly is!" Merlin laughed, rubbing the pearlescent scales on Aithusa's neck. The white dragon made a sort of purring noise at the attention, much to Merlin's amusement.
"What is it you have called us for, young warlock?" Kilgharrah asked, immediately sobering Merlin. Arthur stepped forward.
"We've received some rather troubling news," the king said.
"What news?" Kilgharrah said, looking between Arthur and Merlin expectantly.
"Alator of the Catha came to us this morning. He informed us that Mordred and Alvarr had been in the far north, hoping to enlist the Catha."
"It is troubling that I was unable to see this," Kilgharrah rumbled, perturbed that his second sight was blocked.
"It is. Though Morgana has seen a vision," Merlin said gravely.
"Then the witch's gift is powerful indeed."
"I've told you before, she's not a witch!" Merlin said indignantly.
"Peace young warlock," Kilgharrah soothed. "She is as much a witch as you are a warlock."
"It just sounds so derogatory. I prefer to call her a high priestess."
Kilgharrah chuckled at Merlin's irritation.
"Then what has the high priestess seen?"
Merlin narrowed his eyes but continued.
"She saw Mordred controlling a beast similar to a dragon. A great winged serpent with small legs that breathed green fire. Alator believed it to be the Niðhöggr, and Morgana agreed."
"They are correct," Kilgharrah confirmed. "This is troublesome news indeed, for the Niðhöggr is a fearsome and ruthless magical creature."
"Is it at all related to dragons? Could I possibly have some control over it, as I do Wyvern?" Merlin asked hopefully.
"It is possible, though not likely. The Niðhöggr is more snake-like than we dragons. You do not possess the gift of a serpent-speaker."
"What about Morgana? She has told me that it was quite easy for her to command both the formorroh and the nathair."
"It is possible, though I have reason to believe that you will not want her to engage in such battles," Kilgharrah replied. Merlin smiled at the reminder.
"Yes. I'm sure you are quite happy with that news," Merlin said, grinning hugely.
"So pleased with yourself, young warlock," Kilgharrah chuckled. Arthur, Leon, Percival and Elyan snorted into their fists but Gwaine did not hold back; he guffawed heartily. Merlin, however, surprised them all with his response.
"Yes, yes I am. For the first time in my life, I believe I can be truly happy."
"Indeed, Merlin. But first, you must eliminate the Niðhöggr as well as Mordred and Alvarr."
"We will need your help, old friend," Merlin said, turning serious once more. Aithusa snorted and stamped her front leg.
"Yyyou will nnneed mmy hhhelp, as welllll," Aithusa said, startling them by speaking aloud for the first time.
"Of course, Aithusa," Merlin beamed. "We would be honored to have both of your help."
"Do you know where this Niðhöggr is trapped?" Arthur interjected. "Would it be possible to find the beast before Mordred?"
"I do not," Kilgharrah answered, shaking his great head. "The tree that the Niðhöggr is said to be trapped within is hidden deep in the heart of an ancient forest. We can only hope that it will take Mordred some time yet before he finds it, though I fear that he is too close to it already."
"Then be prepared, Kilgharrah; Aithusa," Merlin looked to each dragon in turn. "Stay close to Camelot. When Mordred and Alvarr attack, we must be ready."
"You need only call and we will be there, tooth, flame and claw," Kilgharrah promised viciously. Both dragons bowed their heads to the dragonlord and took again to the skies without another word.
"Do they always leave so abruptly?" Arthur asked, breaking the silence that had settled around them. Merlin just laughed and went to collect his horse without answering. Gwaine shook his head, watching his friend walk off into the trees as abruptly as Kilgharrah and Aithusa had flown away.
"I think Merlin's spent too much time with the dragons..."
Arthur did his best in the days that followed to have the city and the citadel prepared for attack without causing a panic all while trying to arrange a more subdued Samhain Feast. Gwen oversaw the efforts to organize the banquet while also instructing the kitchen staff to stockpile grain and storable fruits and vegetables. The queen also ordered the newly hunted venison dried and prepared for the winter stores, rather than indulging in her craving.
Merlin and Morgana enlisted Alator's help as they made an effort to place flame-retardant wards around the densely packed wooden structures of the lower town and on the wood-shingle roofs of the upper quarter's stone-walled homes.
Merlin had also taken Arthur aside and shown him the secret room in the library. The warlock proposed using it as a safe room for Gwen and Morgana during Mordred and Alvarr's attack, as the library's central location within the castle naturally protected it. Merlin explained that he planned on further safeguarding it placing a protective enchantment on the room as he had around their campsite. Arthur readily agreed; it was just a matter of convincing their wives to stay in the room when others were in danger.
However, such preparations could not be undertaken without notice. Rumors that Camelot was to suffer an imminent attack had started to run rampant. Some of the people were starting to panic and look distrustfully at Morgana once more. Gaius and Hunith did their best to keep the citizens calm as they made their rounds through the town every day, but there were some who refused to be appeased.
Hunith had stayed back from the physician's rounds that afternoon to work on supplementing their growing stock of bandages, healing salves and potions. Merlin had been pulled away to place more protective wards around the great hall in addition to the library safe-room, leaving Morgana and Gaius on their own.
When the two of them reached the lower town, they were pulled quickly to Tom's old forge by a young boy. He explained that his father, Aaron, was the new blacksmith and that he had been badly burned. Aaron, however, was very distrustful.
"I'll not have her touching me," he growled.
"Surely you would like to have use of your leg," Gaius reasoned. "These burns are deep. The best I can do is clean them and hope that they do not become infected. There is every possibility that you will lose your leg or even die from infection."
"I'll not have her touching me," Aaron repeated. Morgana narrowed her eyes.
"You'd rather lose your leg or even your life than accept my help?" she asked incredulously.
"You don't fool me. You killed my wife when you ordered your soldiers to fire into the crowd. You are a wolf in sheep's clothes; marrying a daft serving boy with magic doesn't change that," the blacksmith gritted out.
"And your son? You'd leave him orphaned for your pride?!" Gaius asked incredulously. The blacksmith glared mulishly at the physician, refusing to answer.
"I do this for your son. Swefnu!" Morgana said, startling Gaius. Aaron immediately flopped back, unconscious.
"Morgana?!" Gaius exclaimed.
"He can hate me later, when his son still has a father. I took their wife and mother from them. I cannot allow the boy's father to die as well."
Gaius fell silent but stepped back to prepare a strengthening draft, allowing Morgana to incant her spells. Tears welled up in her eyes as she endeavored to heal a man who hated her, though she tried to wipe them away discretely. As soon as she was finished, she stood and walked out of the blacksmith's home without looking back. Gaius allowed her to leave without comment knowing that there was only one person who could comfort her.
Morgana strode through the streets and to the citadel with her head held high. Her vision blurred as her tears welled up, but she refused to cry in front of everyone. Before she fully realized where she was, Morgana was pulling back on a certain book in the east wing of the library and found herself in the quiet confines of her and Merlin's study.
"Morgana?" Merlin asked, startled at his wife's red, tear-filled eyes. At the sound of his voice, Morgana's face crumpled and she threw herself into Merlin's arms, finally allowing herself to release the tension in her mind and body.
"What is it? What happened?" Merlin asked, stroking her hair and rubbing her back comfortingly.
"Aaron, the new blacksmith..." Morgana trailed off, sobbing uncharacteristically.
"What about him? Did something happen to him?" Merlin asked, aware that Morgana had been more emotional lately in regards to those that they treated, especially the children.
"His son spilled a vat of molten iron down Aaron's leg. He was burned badly; it missed his leather apron."
"What happened? Did he die?" Merlin asked, unable to think of anything else that would incite such a reaction in Morgana.
"No. But he said that he'd rather lose his leg or die than let me treat him. He said that I killed his wife when I ordered the soldiers to fire into the crowd. He was ready to lose his leg or even orphan his son before he accepted my healing skills, but I put him to sleep and healed him anyway. Merlin, he had such hatred in his eyes. He cannot be the only one who thinks that way. What am I doing here? I will never be able to gain true forgiveness," Morgana explained in a strangled whisper.
"That's not true. You will and you have. There may be those who are slow to forgive, but you have shown what is truly in your heart. Be it on their own heads if they cannot give up on their hatred," Merlin said firmly, reaching out and caressing Morgana's mind with his magic. She immediately returned the gesture and Merlin held her to his chest and swayed with her for a few minutes before Morgana pulled back, wiping her eyes, and giving Merlin a tremulous smile.
"Thank you," she whispered.
"You know it's just the baby that's making you feel this way," Merlin said mischievously, rubbing Morgana's still-flat, though firmer abdomen with the back of his fingers.
"Then it's all your fault!" Morgana laughed. Merlin began to protest, but Morgana cut him off by pulling him into a passionate kiss, her hands gripping his hair and holding him to her.
Unbeknownst to them, Arthur had come to check on Merlin's progress on warding the proposed safe room. Just as Merlin's hands unconsciously began to work Morgana's hair loose from its intricate style, the king cleared his throat.
"Do you two ever stop? Or is this some symptom of being married by a dragon?" Arthur said disgustedly. Merlin broke his kiss with Morgana but leaned his forehead on hers as he caught his breath.
"I'm starting to regret ever telling you about this room," Merlin said, finally meeting the king's eye. "It was a lot nicer when there was no one barging in."
Arthur's face wrinkled in a grimace as he looked around the room in a new light.
"I don't even want to know," Arthur vowed. "What I do want to know is if this room will be ready to protect Guinevere and Morgana."
"Yes. Morgana will need only to seal the door with a spell and then they will be safe in here."
"You're still intent on hiding me away?" Morgana groused.
"It's for the best, Morgana; think of the child who is dependent on you right now," Merlin said reasonably.
"I am. What would I tell the child if I let their father hide me away and fight without me only to die because of it?"
"You don't know that will happen," Merlin soothed.
"Regardless, you will not be locked away doing nothing. You'll also be protecting Guinevere and the heir of Camelot," Arthur said, halting any argument Morgana had prepared.
Morgana nodded, but in truth, had no intention of staying locked away in a safe room when she had the power to help.
As planned, Samhain was a much more subdued celebration. Arthur decreed that in lieu of the traditional bonfire at sunset, they would instead hold a candlelight vigil for those who had passed on. The king was not eager to start a large conflagration within the courtyard when Morgana had seen such fiery destruction in her vision. The feast was also much less sumptuous, much to the consternation of the attending nobles, owing to the need to preserve food and supplies for the pending attack.
Merlin was on edge the whole evening; a feeling of imminent danger causing his senses to flare and his magic to boil over in small bursts. He hadn't felt so out of control in years.
"Would you settle down Merlin?" Arthur chided after the third time Merlin had caused the flames of the candles in the room to brighten and flare a few inches higher.
"Sorry," Merlin apologized. "I think I'm just on edge because of what happened last year. Not to mention that I'll probably never get used to sitting here, no matter how many feasts we have. Do you know how many times I've nearly offered to refill your wine?"
Arthur grunted in acknowledgement, chuckling at Merlin's nervous chatter.
"I should have had you write my speech for tonight, Merlin. I'm afraid George is a rather dry speechwriter. I'm sure if the wine has put half of the nobles to sleep by midnight, then my speech will send the other half straight into a stupor. Perhaps you can collapse to the floor a little earlier this time and I won't have to give the speech at all."
As it was, Merlin decided that Arthur should really learn to shut his big mouth, because fate had ears and a horrible sense of humor. Morgana suddenly inhaled sharply, startled by a heavy, wet-blanket sensation, but Merlin nearly doubled over, clutching his chest.
"I was not being serious, Merlin! Merlin!"
Merlin couldn't respond; he felt as though he had been kicked in the chest by Arthur's cantankerous old mare again. He could hear the others around him, but they sounded muffled like he was wearing a helmet. His vision swam with dark spots and his lungs seemed to seize as he tried to draw breath.
"What's going on?! What's happened to him?"
Dimly, Merlin realized that it was Gwen's panicked voice, but his mother's and Gaius' gentle hands that lowered him to the floor. He still couldn't breathe properly; every breath seemed to hitch in this throat and it was starting to make him feel light-headed and scatter-brained. Merlin reached out with his magic, trying to find his wife. She could help, he knew she could, but in his pain and agitation, he couldn't think why.
Then Morgana was suddenly there, reaching out to him with her own magic. Merlin realized that she was incanting a spell and touching her hand to his forehead as she held her other hand to her own chest. A moment later, the pain eased and Merlin took in a great shuddering breath even as he fought the urge to empty his stomach of all that he had just eaten. Arthur stood to the side, holding a frantic Guinevere.
"You had to open your big mouth, didn't you Arthur? I am not coming to next year's feast. I'm staying in bed," Merlin forced out, much to Arthur's relieved amusement. Gwaine, Percival, Leon and Elyan chuckled and moved to block the curious noble's stares. They stood imposingly between Merlin's prone form and the rest of those gathered in the hall, glaring at anyone who dared to get too close to their friend.
"What's wrong with him?" Arthur asked Gaius, watching as his best friend fought to stay conscious.
"He is no ordinary warlock," Morgana explained when Gaius shook his head in bewilderment.
"You're just about as clear as that blasted dragon. Do all your magic books have a special section on speaking in cryptic riddles?!" Arthur said exasperatedly. Morgana glared at her brother as Merlin chuckled weakly.
"Merlin said before, he does not merely have magic, he is magic. Something dark has happened and I shudder to think what. I felt it too, but not to the extent that Merlin did."
"Merlin!" Aithusa and Kilgharrah called to the dragonlord in unison. Merlin clutched at his head and moaned, rolling onto his side. Their dragon voices had sounded louder than usual due to the pounding in his skull.
"The Niðhöggr! It has been released!"
Merlin groaned, gripping his hair as he clenched his eyes shut and uttered in a strangled whisper, "I know, I know, I know. I felt it."
"What do you know? What did you feel, my boy?" Gaius asked as he felt Merlin's brow for a fever, causing Merlin to focus on his mentor's worried eyes. Gwen gasped and Hunith's face crumpled at Merlin's next words.
"The Niðhöggr. Mordred has released it."
As the sun stretched across the sky the next morning, so too did the gossip. The panic that had begun in the days previous turned into pandemonium. The knights did the best they could to calm the citizens and allay their fears, but word had spread quickly that a fearsome creature was headed towards Camelot.
Arthur made an announcement that those wishing to stay could take refuge in the castle. Otherwise, he would not force them to remain in the city. The king was heartened by how few actually left; it gave him strength to know that his people had faith in his ability to protect them.
"I believe we are ready," Merlin said, coming to stand beside Arthur where he stood at the western battlements. The sun was setting on another dark night. Arthur had declared a restriction on open outdoor fires and torches in order to make it easier for the watchmen to spot airborne threats. The moon was only a waxing sliver in the sky; it was little use to them.
"As ready as we can be, I suppose," Arthur agreed.
"We survived Kilgharrah's attack. We will survive this, and be stronger for it," Merlin said confidently.
"I hope you're right, Merlin."
"Me too," the warlock admitted. Arthur chuckled at Merlin's attempt to lighten the mood.
"Get some rest, Merlin."
"As long as you do, too."
"Did Guinevere send you out here to say that?"
"Would it matter if she had?" Merlin asked cheekily. Arthur chuckled.
"Maybe," Arthur admitted.
"We'd both better be getting some rest then. We wouldn't want our wives angry at us."
"Please, you two would only use it as an excuse to kiss and make up. You're utterly disgusting." Arthur grimaced. Merlin shrugged unrepentantly.
"Be sure that you actually do get some rest tonight, Merlin," Arthur chided over his shoulder as he turned and headed into the castle.
"Tell that to Morgana," Merlin chuckled to himself, though he too returned to his chambers to claim a few restless hours sleep.
The warning bells rang at dawn.
Merlin jolted up out of bed hastily, Morgana right behind. They changed clothes hurriedly; Merlin raised an eyebrow as Morgana belted a sword around her waist.
"It never hurts to be prepared," she reasoned, and Merlin couldn't argue. He armed himself with his sidhe staff and the two of them scrambled out the door, their hearts pounding and their magic tingling. They met Arthur and Guinevere as they emerged from their own chambers. Gwen was nervously cradling her newly rounded belly and Arthur was just sheathing his sword that he had only recently named Excalibur.
"Morgana, you must get yourself and Guinevere into the safe room. The watchmen have spotted the beast in the distance flying over a group of perhaps forty men. There is little doubt that they are all sorcerers of some sort."
Morgana nodded, taking Gwen by the arm and leading the way to the library. Merlin walked away with a sense of worry in his heart. He had little hope that Morgana would actually stay there in the safe room with Gwen.
"Let's get to the battlements. We can assess things better from there," Arthur commanded, and Merlin unquestioningly followed.
"Sire, there are closer to fifty men and women. Alvarr is leading those on foot. We believe that Mordred is riding the Niðhöggr and that they will reach the city in less than an hour," Leon reported when Arthur and Merlin reached the battlements.
"Are all the citizens in the castle safely?" Arthur asked.
"There are a few who refuse to leave their homes, but they are the minority," Percival answered.
"There are others who have asked to help defend the city," Elyan said.
"Have them join the guards in protecting the castle entrances," Arthur allowed, then he stepped up onto a stool to see everyone gathered.
"Knights!" Arthur called. "We are going to meet these attackers outside the city walls and stop them before they can threaten our homes and loved ones. You will form up around me and we will take Alvarr and his force to task. Our archers are going to be the most disadvantaged. We've seen what Merlin, Morgana and Alator can do to a long range attack, but hopefully our archers can give us cover and distraction from atop the outer city walls.
"Niall will shield us as best he is able, but we must use close-range attacks and surprise to defeat them if they have any real skill in magic. The average sorcerer requires spells and at least a moment to concentrate. Quick strikes and light feet are the key. Keep moving and take them down before they can get their words out.
"However, Mordred and the Niðhöggr are the real threat; Merlin and Alator will take them to task. We must give them time and cover from the others. FOR THE LOVE OF CAMELOT!"
"FOR THE LOVE OF CAMELOT!" every knight, squire, soldier and warlock returned.
Not another word was spoken as they moved as one to the courtyard to form up in their ranks. Arthur led the column out of the city, each man prepared to do their duty or die trying.
"Morgana, what are you planning?" Gwen asked. Morgana had dutifully ushered the queen into the secret safe room, but she paced restlessly across the space. Merlin and Arthur would have already taken their position outside the gate and Morgana was growing increasingly restless.
"What makes you think I'm planning anything?"
"You can't possibly have use for a sword in here, are you honestly considering going to join the battle?"
"I'm sorry Gwen, but I have to. I cannot let Mordred kill Merlin. It's my fault that Mordred is the way he is."
"That's not true, Morgana! Mordred has made himself who and what he is!"
"Still, they need me, I know it," Morgana said tearfully. Gwen's eyes widened in realization.
"You had a dream, didn't you?" Gwen asked shrewdly. Morgana nodded.
"In the prophecies that stated that I would join Mordred in evil, I was prophesied to seduce Merlin and be his end, eliminating the Once and Future King's protector and opening the way for Mordred to kill Arthur. When Merlin and I were dragonfasted, we made that particular future obsolete. I dreamed of a new possible future in which Arthur was wounded and Merlin was the one killed. I cannot let it happen!"
"Then you must go! But do not make me stay in here alone. I can at least help to keep the people in the great hall calm," Gwen pleaded. Morgana hesitated, considering her promise to Arthur that she would keep Gwen safe. However, she couldn't force her friend, her sister, to stay locked up when Gwen felt she could be more useful elsewhere. Not when she herself was going to join the battle.
"I will not lock you in, but you must promise me to come back here if any of Mordred's followers breach the city gates."
Gwen nodded, and Morgana hugged her briefly.
"Don't do anything stupid," Gwen admonished her friend.
"Me?" Morgana said innocently, then turned and rushed out the doors of the library.
Arthur and his forces stopped and formed up in the large clearing just outside the northern gates. Merlin stood tall beside Arthur, his staff at the ready as Arthur kept his hand on the pommel of Excalibur. Alator and Niall flanked Merlin and Arthur respectively and the knights and soldiers formed a line fifty strong. Kilgharrah and Aithusa waited in a clearing just on the other side of the city, trying to preserve the element of surprise.
Alvarr and his followers came to a stop on a small rise across from Camelot's forces. A small, shallow valley lay between them. Mordred and the Niðhöggr were nowhere in sight, presumably high in the clouds above them.
"Alvarr! I will ask you now to give up your fight. You must know by now that you already have the freedom you claim to be fighting for. This battle is pointless!" Arthur entreated.
"Those are pretty words from a liar," Alvarr returned. "Where is your proof that you have accepted magic? Where are the families with magical children? There are no more sorcerers or magic users in Camelot than there were a year ago. The only proof you have are the traitors who stand beside you. They are nothing more than pets."
Merlin gritted his teeth at Alvarr's words. He was no one's pet.
A moment later the winged serpent landed heavily in the shallow valley between the two forces with Mordred sitting between the two wings. Merlin tensed, angling his staff to better defend against any attack.
"I told you Emrys, I would never forgive and I would never forget," Mordred said coldly as he leaped down from the Niðhöggr. He was no longer the young boy they had once smuggled out of Camelot. He was at least seventeen or eighteen, but his eyes were hard. This was a boy with no conscience or love in his heart.
"Why are you doing this?" Merlin asked. "The prophecies say that Arthur is the Once and Future King, destined to bring magic back to the land and unite all of Albion in peace. Why are you fighting it?"
"BECAUSE THAT IS NOT MY DESTINY!" Mordred screamed, his eyes flashing bitterly. "You STOLE my destiny! Morgana is MINE!"
"Wrong thing to say, buddy," Gwaine muttered. Merlin's eyes narrowed.
"Morgana is not an object or a trophy to be won. She's made her choice, and it was not you," Merlin said, his voice strong and laced with power.
Mordred's eyes turned stormy and he screamed as he ran forward, intent on attacking the warlock. Merlin blasted Mordred back with his staff and a hundred angry cries rose up in answer.
All hell had broken loose. Alvarr and his followers rushed forward, meeting Arthur and his forces in the center. Camelot's archers made use of the distraction of the charging soldiers and killed four enemy sorcerers before the risk of hitting their comrades on the ground became too great. Alvarr's forces were ill-trained with the sword, and most had never seen battle. However, they had been trained in magical attacks. Alator and Niall were both being put to task in protecting the soldiers from magical attacks.
Arthur and Leon fought side-by-side; Alvarr and three others were taking it in turn to attack the two of them as they fought back to back. Alvarr fought mainly with the sword; his magic attacks were small and easily avoided. Though Arthur soon pressed Alvarr and the woman fighting beside him enough that Alvarr had to give up on using magic and rely on his skill with a sword.
Percival, Gwaine and Elyan were making short work of the less experienced fighters, as were the other knights. Unfortunately, the same was true for Alvarr's more skilled magicians. The knights learned very quickly not to underestimate the women. More than one soldier of Camelot fell because their opponent was a woman.
Merlin was unfortunately on his own. The Niðhöggr was sniffing his unconscious master; Merlin tensed as the Niðhöggr caught sight of him and took to the sky, intent on attacking the warlock.
"Kilgharrah? Aithusa? Now!" Merlin thought. He could sense the dragons circling in the clouds overhead. Merlin breathed deeply, concentrating on his dragonlord gift. As the Niðhöggr dove towards him, Merlin shouted in the dragon tongue.
"S'enthend' apakhorein nun epello!"
The winged serpent hissed at Merlin and though it hesitated briefly, the dragonlord did not have true control over the beast. The Niðhöggr landed heavily in front of Merlin and stalked forward, opening its maw to attack the warlock with its fire when two angry dragons dropped on top of it, roaring threateningly. The Niðhöggr writhed and hissed beneath them, scratching at them with its claws and trying to bite at them with its teeth. The dragons' claws made no mark upon the beast, nor did their teeth. Fortunately, Kilgharrah and Aithusa seemed to share the same immunity to the Niðhöggr's teeth and claws.
Suddenly, the Niðhöggr blew a burst of flame in Kilgharrah's face. The great dragon had to close his eyes to protect them and the Niðhöggr managed to wriggle away from the dragons and leaped into the sky. Kilgharrah and Aithusa roared angrily and took off after it, disappearing into the clouds. Distantly, Merlin could hear Kilgharrah's and Aithusa's roars and the Niðhöggr's snarling hiss. The dragonlord hoped that his dragons would be able to keep the beast from attacking the city.
In the Great Hall, Gaius, Hunith and Gwen made the rounds of the citizens taking refuge there. Hunith and Gwen passed out food and water while Gaius treated a few minor scrapes and twisted ankles from the rush into the castle.
Two deafening roars resounded, rattling the large northern windows and causing a panic to spread among those gathered. Several women screamed and children began to cry as a great winged snake rose up and flew over the city, letting loose with its green fire. Luckily, the magical protection seemed to hold, and the rooftops did not burst into flames. Two huge dragons were right behind the beast, chasing it and breathing their own fire in its direction.
"We're going to be burned alive!"
"They're going to eat us!"
"We are being punished for allowing magic to return!"
"SILENCE!" Guinevere commanded, climbing to the top of the dias at the head of the room. The people all looked between her and the windows, where the intermittent orange and green flames were visible as the giant beasts attacked one another in the sky over the city.
"The dragons are our allies," Gwen said firmly. "Merlin is the last dragonlord and they fight for him and for us. They will not eat us, nor will they burn us alive. We are safe in here. Furthermore, we are not being punished for allowing those with magic the right to life.
"You must see that though the fires rage through the sky, none of your homes are burning. Merlin, Morgana and Alator of the Catha have given much time and effort to protect you and your homes. Even now they risk their lives for each of you! You should do them the courtesy of not marring their good deeds with your hatred and prejudice."
The people looked to their queen with shame, bowing their heads. Gwen stood tall, trembling in her nerves as she looked over her subjects and then out the windows at the beasts fighting overhead.
"LONG LIVE THE QUEEN!" Gaius cried out, breaking the silence.
Gwen's heart pounded as the citizens of Camelot unanimously took up the call, nearly shaking the rafters with their raised voices.
Merlin scanned the area hurriedly, looking for Mordred. The young man was not where he had fallen moments ago, which made Merlin nervous. The warlock entered the battle in earnest, eager to help where he could and protect Arthur with Mordred unaccounted-for.
As Merlin was dealing with the Niðhöggr, Arthur and Leon dispatched all their opponents but Alvarr who used a magical push to disengage from them and assist four other sorcerers in attacking Niall; Alator had been pulled away and was now dueling with Mordred. Arthur moved to follow Alvarr, but was forced to dodge a ball of fire as a pair of magicians pinned the king and Leon behind their shields by rapidly flinging fire at them.
With a nod to Leon, Arthur and the knight rushed forward and used their shields to slam bodily into the fire-throwers, knocking them to the ground unconscious. Arthur took a look around, taking stock of how his forces were faring. For the most part, Camelot's knights had proved superior, as only a handful of Alvarr and Mordred's followers had any real skill. The king did not see more than one red-cloaked knight on the ground, though a number of the less experienced soldiers lay dead, as did Niall.
Merlin rushed to help his friends any way he could, blasting three enemies away from Gwaine and Elyan and shielding a group of Camelot's soldiers that were being attacked by a woman wielding a short staff. Merlin then froze six sorcerers that were attacking three younger soldiers, then put the sorcerers to sleep until he himself woke them. Five more sorcerers lost to the knights they were fighting when Merlin made their weapons unbearably hot.
Finally, Merlin found Alator on the edge of the battle fighting Mordred. Merlin rushed forward, intent on helping the Catha priest, when he heard Leon shout, "SIRE!"
Merlin turned to see Arthur clutching his left shoulder. He and Leon had been separated and Alvarr had snuck up behind the king, cutting his shoulder with a hastily cast and crude spell. Merlin quickly turned Alvarr's sword into a bouquet of lavender just as the fanatic rushed forward in an attempt to run the sword through the king's back. Arthur let out a loud battle cry, reversed his grip and thrust behind him, putting Excalibur through Alvarr's chest. The sorcerer looked down in shock at his sword-turned-flowers and at the wound in his chest. Then Alvarr fell backwards, the last of his men, save Mordred. Arthur met Merlin's eye and nodded his thanks, then Arthur's eyes widened.
"Merlin!" the king shouted in alarm. Merlin spun around just as Mordred blasted him off his feet. Merlin hit the ground hard and clutched at his ribs with his left hand as he scrambled to get up. Mordred smirked at the warlock and sauntered forward like a cat toying with its prey. Merlin held a hand up in warning, though his ribs felt as though they were on fire and it hurt to breathe. He probed the area gently without taking his eyes off of Mordred and found a slight crack.
"Lácne þurhhæle," he muttered, leaving his hand over the cracked rib and feeling entirely grateful for Morgana's tutelage as the bone healed with an audible pop. Merlin was sure it would leave a significant bruise, but at least he could breathe properly again.
Mordred grinned coldly, picking up Merlin's sidhe staff that the warlock had lost when he was blasted backwards. Merlin looked around; Alator lay on the ground, either dead or unconscious. Merlin's back was to the city wall, not far from the gates. Mordred now stood between him and Camelot's remaining forces. The knights and soldiers moved towards Arthur, flanking him as they watched the two warlocks facing off. Merlin caught sight of Gwaine eyeing Mordred with anger and knew that the hot-headed knight was tempted to charge.
Merlin's instinct proved true when Gwaine rushed towards Mordred. The cold-hearted warlock swung the sidhe staff around and sent a blast towards Gwaine. Merlin threw his hand up and the magical energy dissipated into Merlin's hastily raised shield. Gwaine stopped behind the shield, breathing heavily.
"Stay back," Merlin ordered, dropping the shield to conserve his energy.
"No, just try it, I dare you," Mordred taunted the knights without taking his eyes off of Merlin. Mordred started to slowly saunter towards Merlin when a volley of arrows streaked toward him. With a flash of his eyes, Mordred took control of the arrows and sent them all towards Arthur.
"NO!" Merlin screamed and suddenly every arrow froze in place and burst into flame, disintegrating into ash.
"Move towards the gate!" Arthur commanded, though Mordred blasted the first two soldiers to move.
"You will stay right there!" he screamed, then took control of the two fireballs that Merlin had thrown at him, sending them towards the soldiers who were still trying to obey their king. Arthur signaled for the soldiers to halt; they would have to wait it out.
Mordred smiled cruelly and sent a blast from the staff at Merlin, who hastily blocked it with his right hand. Merlin's eyes flashed, sending a powerful stunning spell that Mordred batted away with the staff. Mordred chuckled maliciously and sent another blast that Merlin absorbed into his outstretched hand and sent back threefold at the younger warlock, though Mordred dodged to the side as he shielded himself.
Merlin's eyes flashed; the ground beneath Mordred softened and he began to sink. Merlin sent three powerful bursts of magic towards the mired warlock, who screamed in fury and batted them away with the staff once again.
"Is this the best the mighty Emrys can do?!" Mordred spat, trying to pull himself out of the clinging mud. Finally, Mordred shrieked and released a stream of blue, crackling magic from the staff towards Arthur and the knights. Merlin did exactly what Mordred expected. With a flash of Merlin's eyes, a shield sprung up to absorb the attack on the king, distracting Merlin sufficiently that Mordred was able heave himself free of the mud as he continued to pound against the shield with the staff. Mordred then flung his free hand up and sent a burst of energy at Merlin, who had left himself unprotected as he shielded his friends.
Everyone watched in horror as Merlin noticed Mordred's second attack too late to conjure a shield. Instead, Merlin froze time at the last second and dove to the ground to try and avoid the worst of it, jarring his injured ribs and losing his grip on time. However, Mordred's triumph was cut short. He screamed in frustration when a powerful shield halted the blast just inches away from Merlin.
"You would be wise not to do that again," Morgana said as she stepped beyond the shadows of the city gate. Her voice was hard and her expression steely as she stared Mordred down. In the sudden quiet, the fearsome roar of two dragons echoed over the land.
"Morgana!" Merlin exclaimed fearfully, rolling painfully onto his back and sitting up as he supported his ribs.
"Why do you protect this traitor?!" Mordred screamed furiously, pointing at Merlin with an angry jab.
"Firstly, because he is Emrys; magic has been restored, but you are too blind to see. More importantly, because I love him. He is my husband and the father of our child," Morgana said, moving slowly towards Merlin as she spoke. Silence fell over the battlefield again as Mordred looked between Morgana and Merlin and finally to Morgana's as-yet unchanged belly.
"NOOO!" Mordred screamed, releasing a wave of uncontrolled magic as he stomped his foot and tantrumed. "You are MINE! This is NOT how it is supposed to BE! YOU WILL NOT HAVE HIS WHELP!"
As he shouted, Mordred lifted the sidhe staff and aimed it towards Morgana, rousing Merlin's normally well-controlled temper. The clouds overhead darkened and the wind swirled as Mordred released a blast in Morgana's direction. She quickly shielded herself from the attack, but Merlin's expression went entirely flat.
"You should not have done that," Merlin said with cold ferocity, drawing Mordred's attention as he slowly stood, strong and unhindered. Merlin's eyes shone with power; Mordred dropped the sidhe staff as his face showed pure terror for the first time. Then Emrys reached towards the tumultuous heavens and fisted his hand before yanking it downwards. To everyone's astonishment, not one or even two, but three bolts of lightning obediently rushed down from the clouds, striking Mordred and holding him within their fiery grip.
Mordred struggled, but his efforts were in vain. Just as Nimueh before him, Mordred exploded in a shower of sparks and magical energy, leaving nothing but a blackened circle where he once stood.
Arthur, the knights and the remaining soldiers stood speechless for a few seconds before the younger soldiers startled them from their shock as they cheered in victory. Morgana rushed to Merlin as the warlock released the skies from his command and sagged, holding his ribs. Their celebrations were cut short, however, when an enraged Niðhöggr landed over the charred circle and hissed in its fury.
Kilgharrah and Aithusa landed in front of the defenseless soldiers and knights and Arthur ordered the men to make for the city. As the other knights and soldiers retreated, Leon, Percival, Gwaine and Elyan loyally formed up around Arthur as Kilgharrah and Aithusa kept the Niðhöggr at bay with their imposing forms.
"Merlin! It is immune to our attacks! We need Arthur's sword!" Kilgharrah called. The Niðhöggr protested the dragon's presence with ominous hisses and snarls.
"Arthur! We need Excalibur!" Merlin shouted. He grabbed Morgana's hand and ran as the Niðhöggr turned at the sound of Merlin's voice and released a torrent of green flames at the two of them. Aithusa took advantage of the distraction and pounced on the winged serpent, grabbing ahold of its neck with her teeth. The two struggled together, black and green against pearlescent white. Kilgharrah lunged for the Niðhöggr's body, holding the writhing, wriggling, angry serpent within his claws. Morgana stepped forward holding her hands out.
"Niðhöggr! Naðr! Minn kalla gaumr! Létta knyja, hljóta minn!"she entreated the beast in a language that was foreign to Merlin.
The Niðhöggr ceased its struggles, but did not stop hissing angrily or baring its long fangs menacingly. Merlin smiled at Morgana in amazement, taking her hand and lending her strength as Morgana struggled against the will of the Niðhöggr.
"I haven't got perfect control over it," Morgana gritted out, looking to Arthur. "You need to strike while it's subdued."
"Ready your sword, Arthur," Merlin explained further. The king held Excalibur out in front of him, raising an eyebrow at Merlin who raised his hand towards it.
"Bregdan anweald gafeluec!"
Excalibur burst into blue and gold-tinged flames, and Arthur's eyes widened momentarily. Then the king's face hardened in determination as he stepped forward and shifted Excalibur into a reverse grip, throwing the flaming sword like a spear. Aithusa and Kilgharrah held on until the blade struck the Niðhöggr; then they leaped into the air and backed off as the serpent writhed in agony and screeched deafeningly before exploding in a ball of blue and green flames that reached as high as the city wall.
Arthur stepped back, shielding his face from the heat while Merlin and Morgana pushed forwards to suppress the flames. Within minutes, the conflagration was contained and the battle-weary group finally relaxed, clapping one another on the shoulder and shaking hands in their relief as the bells rang triumphantly over the city.
"What happened to my sword?" Arthur asked suddenly, eyeing the charred, smoky, circle. He'd grown quite fond of that blade; he was not eager to lose such a perfect weapon.
"We've just managed to kill the beast, saving the city and all her people and you're worried about your sword?!" Morgana asked incredulously, rolling her eyes. Arthur glared at her.
"Excalibur was burnished in a dragon's breath, you think a little Niðhöggr is going to destroy it?" Merlin chuckled, easing the tension between the half-siblings.
"The beast didn't seem so little a few minutes ago," Arthur replied, moving forward beside the witch and warlock and squinting through the haze. A second later, he was able to make out Excalibur, standing point down in an anvil that had most definitely not been there before.
"Not this again," Arthur groaned.
"Just go get your sword," Merlin chided, smirking at his king's frustration. Arthur glared at Merlin momentarily then strode forward purposefully. Without hesitation this time, Arthur grasped the pommel of his sword and pulled it from the anvil. As soon as he did, the piece of iron disappeared, suddenly as insubstantial as the smoke it sat within.
"See? Was that so hard?" Merlin teased.
"Oh, go make yourself useful," Arthur groused, nearly successful in hiding his grin as he joined his men in searching for survivors amongst their fallen comrades.
Merlin and Morgana went to work with them, separating the dead from those who were only unconscious and treating the more minor wounds. Gaius and Hunith were soon there to help, instructing soldiers on who to transport into the infirmary and who to take to the dungeons. Merlin was relieved to find that Alator had not suffered the same fate as his fellow priest, though he had sustained a concussion.
Once they had gathered in the infirmary, Gaius tutted over the rough gash on Arthur's shoulder, only to be interrupted when Gwen burst in and wrapped her arms around her husband. Hunith scolded Morgana for going out to the battle while with child, before following the queen's lead and enveloping Morgana in a tight hug and profusely thanking her for saving Merlin.
The son in question laughed until he had to stop, clutching his injured ribs. Before he could even protest, Merlin found himself shirtless on a patient bed while Gaius, Hunith and Morgana all poked and prodded and treated his bruised ribs. When he was finally let up, his ribs bound tightly in bandages, Morgana kissed him fiercely.
"Don't ever try and leave me behind again," she said, pointing a finger in his face. Merlin nodded his agreement and Morgana kissed him once more, as though staking her claim. Merlin pulled away, grinning at his wife, finally noticing Arthur, Gwen and the round table knights smirking at him.
"I know I've said it before, Merlin. But I'll say it again," Gwaine said, shaking his head in wonder.
"What's that?" Merlin asked warily.
"Remind me to never make you angry, mate."
The stars over Camelot shone brightly in the clear, moonless night. Temperatures had only just recently begun to warm up, finally bringing the cold winter to an end, just in time for Beltane. Merlin was glad of it; Morgana had started to go stir-crazy in the last few weeks that everyone was stuck inside with late-season snow.
As it was now, Merlin was going more than a bit stir-crazy himself. He paced from one end of the council room to the other, feeling Arthur's eyes on him wherever Merlin's restless feet took him.
"For pity's sake, sit down!" Arthur ordered.
"Easy for you to say," Merlin huffed, continuing to walk up and down the room.
"Should be easy for you, too. It's not like this is the first or even the second time you've been through this," Arthur drawled.
"How can you say that? I've seen you when it's your wife giving birth. The first time, you hyperventilated and passed out! Then the second, you were half-inebriated because you stupidly accepted a glass of wine from Gaius. You should know by now that he laces anything he says will 'calm your nerves' with a sedative. Besides, this time is different; the first two were simple in comparison."
"I think Morgana would beg to differ," Arthur laughed.
"I'm not saying that Balinor or Vanora's births were easy or painless. It's just that Morgana is carrying two babes this time and it makes the birth more dangerous."
"Caroline is the best midwife in all of Albion, Merlin. And she's got Hunith and Guinevere to help her and you if something beyond their skill comes up. Morgana will be just fine."
"Says the man who has been either unconscious or not entirely lucid during his wife's two labors."
"There's no winning with you. Maybe I should go wake up Gwaine? He'd be able to distract you!"
"No!" Merlin protested. "I don't want to hear any more of his tavern songs tonight."
"Then think about something else. Tell me how Aithusa and Kilgharrah are doing," Arthur tried. Merlin grinned at the mention of his 'other family' as Morgana liked to call them.
"Kilgharrah is worse than I am. Aithusa has a clutch of three eggs right now. They'll be mature enough to hatch in a few weeks. Frouuin and Gailana are both about to start nesting any day now."
"It was a good job that you were able to find the cache of dragon eggs, then," Arthur mused.
"It was," Merlin agreed. "Having two more males and three more females makes the dragon bloodline much stronger. I was worried that even with finding Aithusa, we had only delayed the eventual extinction of their breed. Now there is real hope for them."
"And if you and Morgana keep having more sons, then there is even more hope," Arthur agreed cheekily.
Merlin winced and rubbed at his brow, waving a hand to douse the candles that had suddenly become torches. Arthur chuckled.
"Is she screaming at you again?"
"Yes," Merlin groaned. "Yet another example of how mindspeech is not always convenient."
"That's what you get for sneaking off all the time, you know."
"You're just jealous," Merlin quipped.
"Please. I'm the king, I could never be jealous of you," Arthur scoffed.
"Still a cabbage head, though," Merlin replied.
"Better than a clotpole," Arthur argued.
"And yet you are still using my words!"
"Shut up, Merlin. No one likes a clever-clogs."
Merlin spun around as the door to the council room burst open a few minutes later and Hunith rushed through, an enormous grin on her face.
"Morgana would like to see you now," she said, her smile never wavering. Merlin's face broke into his own grin, his eyes nearly disappearing it stretched so wide. Arthur chuckled as Merlin left Hunith shaking her head in fond exasperation when, rather than walk all the way to his and Morgana's chambers, he simply transported himself in the blink of an eye.
Arthur stood and greeted Hunith properly. She had become his surrogate mother since she had come to live in Camelot. Though Arthur continuously denied it, he loved it when Merlin's mother would wrap him in a hug as only mothers could. When he pulled back, Hunith had a knowing glint in her eye.
"Did he wear a rut into the floor this time? Or set anything else on fire?" she asked.
"Amazingly enough, the floor is intact despite your son's incessant pacing. He kept the ignitions to a minimum this time. It was only an issue when Morgana was screaming into his head," Arthur chuckled.
"Well, at least there's that," Hunith chuckled leading the king to gather the older children and prepare them to meet the newest members of the family.
Gwen smiled as Morgana gazed, happily exhausted, at the newborn babe in her arms. The queen made quick work of tightly swaddling the second-born twin before adding to Morgana's burden. Caroline chuckled at Morgana's overwhelmed expression as the midwife finished tucking the high priestess into bed just as the sun began to shine through the windows.
"How am I supposed to do two at once?" Morgana asked sleepily as the second babe began to nuzzle at her as well.
"That's why we have a pair of bosoms," Caroline said cheekily. Morgana looked even more tired at the thought.
"Trust me, dear, you'll learn soon enough and you'll manage just fine," the midwife said encouragingly. Morgana nodded, allowing Caroline to help situate the second babe to get them suckling together.
"It will help your womb to recover faster as they feed. No wet nurses; you'll need the extra help to recover since you carried two," the midwife said sternly.
"I've never used a wet nurse," Morgana said sleepily. "Too possessive, I suppose."
"It never occurred to me to use one, having been common born. Still, I loved feeding Llacheu and Gwydre," Gwen mused fondly.
"Hunith said that it was the only time Merlin ever held still," Morgana said, smiling. The three women laughed quietly, trying not to disturb the babies. Gwen, however, startled and yelped in surprise when Merlin suddenly appeared beside her.
"Merlin!" Caroline chided, looking to Morgana as she fed the babies through the openings in her gown.
"It's nothing he hasn't seen," Morgana said bluntly then looked at her husband impishly. "You're going to disturb our sons if you're not careful."
"Sons?! Both of them?" Merlin exclaimed. Morgana nodded and looked to the babe in her right arm.
"This is Gorlois, who was born first," she explained, then looked to his twin cradled in her left arm. "And this is William."
"I'm glad we picked those names. They seem like a good fit," Merlin said, his eyes beginning to tear up. Morgana smiled as Merlin sat next to her on their bed and carefully took in both boys, brushing their soft curls and watching as they nursed peacefully. As the boys finished, Merlin eagerly offered to relieve Morgana of the two of them, allowing her to close her gown. It was a bit of a challenge at first, but soon Merlin was cradling them both, using a bit of magic to steady them during the transfer.
"Thank you," Merlin whispered, leaning in to press a kiss to his wife's brow.
"You're welcome," Morgana replied drowsily. "Just don't expect me to do this again anytime soon."
"You'd best not," Caroline said sternly, turning away from her task of cleaning the room and dismantling the birthing chair. The midwife was eyeing Merlin especially.
"I wasn't even thinking it!" the warlock said defensively.
"These last two pregnancies were too close for my liking. Morgana needs more time to recover, especially since she carried twins this time," Caroline said sternly.
"Perhaps you'd better be telling Morgana this," Merlin argued.
"Even if I did instigate things, you certainly went along with it," Morgana responded.
"Are you kidding? I'm not stupid. I know by now not to argue with you, especially when it comes to-!"
"Perhaps you'd like to save this conversation for a more private time?" Gwen asked, blushing brilliantly. Merlin's face flushed as well, but Morgana smirked. Though he was used to speaking so bluntly around Arthur, Merlin was not in the habit of doing so in front of Gwen.
A quiet knock distracted them from the sudden awkward silence. A moment later, Hunith peeked around the door and smiled.
"I have some visitors for you, if you're ready," Hunith said gently.
"Please, let them in," Morgana said, smiling.
Hunith opened the door wider and stepped in, followed by two dark-haired children. Seven-year-old Balinor carried his nearly-two-year-old sister Vanora on his hip, the both of them warily eyeing their mother and father. Arthur was right behind with his and Guinevere's sons. Merlin smiled, holding the two babes in his arms a little higher in invitation.
"Come and meet your brothers," he said softly. Balinor put Vanora down on her feet and the two of them eagerly moved towards their parents. Morgana smiled as Hunith followed and lifted Vanora up to sit beside her mother on the bed. Arthur kept his boys back by the table and Gwen joined them there as Caroline bid her goodbyes and left the family in privacy.
"They look all wrinkly," Balinor said, scrunching up his nose. Merlin laughed.
"So did you, when you were first born," Merlin explained. Balinor looked up at his father incredulously, his green eyes showing his disbelief.
"Would you like to hold one?"
Balinor shook his head nervously, but Vanora raised her hand excitedly.
"Me, papa, me! I wanna howed bowf of dem!"
"Maybe if mama helps you," Merlin chuckled. Seven-year-old Llacheu and three-year-old Gwydre moved forward then, the king and queen following in amusement.
"Can we see them, Uncle Merlin?"
The eleven of them visited for nearly two hours, until Gorlois and William began to fuss and fidget.
"I think someone is probably getting hungry," Gwen said fondly. "We should take our leave so you can do that. Llacheu, Gwydre, let's go."
Arthur and Gwen herded their boys from the room offering their congratulations as they went. Hunith stayed to help Morgana get situated and Merlin smiled and took Balinor and Vanora out for a little walk.
"Is Mama gonna stay big?" Vanora wondered.
"No," Merlin chuckled. "And I suggest you do not ask your mama about that anytime soon."
Merlin smiled as he walked his children to the courtyard to sit on a bench in the late April sunshine.
"Why did you and Mama name them Gorlois and William?" Balinor asked curiously as he sat beside his father.
"When your Mama was carrying you, Balinor, we decided that we wanted to honor those who had meant a great deal to us in our lives. You were named for my father," Merlin explained.
"Wha' abou' me?" Vanora interrupted excitedly, her dark curls bouncing as she hopped from foot to foot in front of their bench.
"You, my little dragonling, were named after your Aunt," Merlin said, tapping Vanora's nose playfully.
"I not a dragon, Papa. I Vanowa," the little girl said indignantly, putting her hands on her hips in a perfect mimic of her mother.
"But we don't have an aunt named Vanora," Balinor said in confusion.
"Well, we didn't want to confuse everyone with another Gwen or Guinevere, so we researched a bit and found Vanora, which means the same as Guinevere."
"So who are the new babies named after?" Balinor asked curiously.
"Gorlois is the nobleman who raised your mother until he died fighting for Camelot. William, or Will, was my very best friend growing up. He protected me when magic was still illegal and he died saving your Uncle Arthur. Though he was a peasant farmer, he was just as much a hero as any knight of Camelot."
"Why did Mama get raised by Gorlois? I thought Mama and Uncle Arthur were brother and sister?" Balinor asked, even more confused than he was before.
"It's complicated," Merlin deflected, then brightened when four smirking knights sauntered towards them.
"I'm guessing by your enormous smile that everything went well?" Leon asked.
"Yes. We have two more boys, Gorlois and William."
"Congratulations," Leon, Elyan and Percival said, clapping Merlin on the shoulder amiably.
"Good job, Merlin! Who would have thought that you'd have such potent- eHAW!"
Balinor and Vanora weren't sure why Gwaine was suddenly braying, but they thought it funny, nonetheless.
Merlin couldn't help the occasional lump in his throat when he walked down the streets in Camelot now. Life was certainly easier these days, and not just because the twins were finally using the privy by themselves. The city had changed drastically since he had first arrived sixteen years previous. Then, Merlin had been young and naive, eagerly excited for his new adventure. But the alarm and horror he had soon felt as he had watched a man being executed for using the very thing that ran through Merlin's veins had stayed with him for nearly seven years.
But now the market was full of life and magic. Many families that openly practiced magic had come to live within the city, their sorcerer's chimes hanging from the eaves of their homes proudly displaying the gift of their heritage. Druids frequently entered the city as well, trading their goods and services. People were much friendlier than they were before, no longer afraid of being executed by unwittingly associating with sorcerers. As a result, the city had flourished and it was evident in everything.
Life was certainly good in Camelot. Arthur was coming ever closer to uniting all of Albion, further strengthening ties with Camelot's allies every year. Merlin and Morgana had begun training their own apprentices in magic, in addition to their children. Balinor, at nine, was quite skilled already. Prince Llacheu was rather indignant when he realized that he had no talent for magic as his cousins did, but Gwydre was happy enough just being able to coerce Balinor and Vanora into supplementing their pranks. Arthur and Gwen's newest son, Amhar, at only a year, couldn't care less that his cousins had magic while he did not.
Gaius and Hunith had apprenticed two new healers in the last five years. Gaius was approaching ninety; he was happy for the new apprentices to assume his duties, leaving him free to tinker in his pharmacy with new experiments and herb mixtures. Leon and Percival had both married ladies of the court, though Elyan had surprised everyone when he married a druid girl that he had met when she came to trade in the marketplace. Gwaine was determined to remain a bachelor. Merlin figured it was only a matter of time, though. Gwaine had been unofficially courting Elaine, the innkeeper's daughter, for nearly a year now.
Morgana had suggested after breakfast that morning that such a fine spring day ought to be celebrated outside. Thus, Merlin was in a hurry to get back the the castle after accompanying the healer-apprentices on their rounds. The royal family had a picnic planned for dinner and Merlin did not want to be late.
After the third time Merlin was stopped in the market for trivial chit-chat, he stepped onto a side street and transported the rest of the way to the courtyard where everyone was assembling. Arthur raised his eyebrow at his first advisor's late arrival, but said nothing. Gwen smiled in greeting but quickly hid her smile behind her hand as Merlin turned around and sheepishly greeted Morgana, who stood before him with her hands on her hips.
"You were supposed to be here twenty minutes ago," Morgana chided him.
"Yes, I was caught up in the market," Merlin explained hurriedly. Morgana raised her eyebrow but couldn't hold the facade any longer. She smiled brilliantly, grabbed Merlin by his ever-present scarf and kissed him. Balinor and Llacheu grimaced along with Arthur, much to Gwen's amusement.
"Let's get on with it," Arthur groused good-naturedly, climbing into his saddle as Merlin and Morgana mounted their horses beside him. Gwen climbed into the open carriage with the children along with the knights' wives. Elyan climbed up into the driver's seat of the carriage while Percival, Gwaine and Leon followed behind on horseback.
Merlin smiled when they reached the clearing they regularly picnicked in. The children squealed as their mothers let them down from the carriage to run free while the blankets were spread and the food laid out.
Morgana laughed as Vanora used magic to beat the older boys in a race. Of all their children, Vanora had been the most like Merlin. Where Balinor had shown signs of magic around five, Vanora had been levitating her toys and lighting the candles by eighteen months. Now that Gorlois and William were two, their parents were watching them carefully. Merlin had sworn several times that things had moved around in their nursery and that things that hadn't been there before suddenly appeared, but they hadn't caught the twins in the act yet.
Leon helped his wife, Sarah, who was heavy with child, down from the carriage steps while Percival picked his new wife Efa up and over the side. Elyan chuckled as his wife, Siân, waited to come down the steps. Merlin was just settling down on a blanket beside Morgana across from Gwen and Arthur when the children ran up to them.
"Uncle Merlin! Uncle Merlin!" Llacheu and Gwydre entreated.
"What is it?" Merlin laughed.
"Can you show us how you put the sword in the stone?" Llacheu requested, his eyes alight with anticipation as his brother and cousins nodded their agreement.
"Wouldn't you rather see how I pulled it out?" Arthur argued.
"Papa, pulling it out would be easy," Gwydre said in his five-year-old wisdom, much his father's indignation.
"Yeah, putting it in the stone is the really impressive bit," Llacheu said, causing his father's mouth to fall open in disbelief. Arthur then turned and narrowed his eyes at Merlin and Morgana, who were struggling to remain straight-faced. Gwen took pity on her husband.
"Let's save that for another time, perhaps," the queen offered diplomatically, soothing Arthur's ruffled feathers.
"Fine," Llacheu and Gwydre intoned together in disappointment. Then they brightened without another word and turned to Percival, begging him to play with them.
Percival was never one to refuse an excuse to rough-house, so he kissed his wife and allowed himself to be pulled into the children's games. A moment later, as Merlin was watching them, he had a strong feeling of deja-vu. Merlin looked carefully around at the scene. Everything seemed to be moving in slow motion. The blond and black-haired children climbing over Percival; Elyan, Leon and Gwaine laughing as the knight was piled upon, Morgana smiling at the sight while Gwen and Arthur laughed.
Open your heart, Merlin. It is my desire to see you happy...
Merlin gasped as he remembered the dream he'd had ten years earlier; the night after he and Morgana had been dragonfasted. The dream that he had thought was his imagination.
"What is it?" Morgana asked curiously.
"I just realized I'm sitting in my dream," Merlin said, awestruck.
"You're speaking nonsense again, Merlin," Arthur taunted.
"You had a dream? Like one of mine?" Morgana asked, ignoring Arthur.
"No, yes. Maybe."
"Still nonsense," Arthur said.
"I had a dream, a long time ago. The night after we were dragonfasted. You had collapsed and I was besides myself. I couldn't believe how much seeing you collapse had affected me, since we'd been fighting all day. Gaius finally convinced me to lay down and get some rest and when I fell asleep, I saw a lake like a mirror; in the mirror I saw Morgana and I, happy. I saw her with child as I held our son, I saw her kiss me, and I saw this. The picnic, the children, the knights. I saw it all, and I wanted it so much, because we all looked so happy."
"And here we are," Gwen said, smiling.
"I thought it was just a dream," Merlin said, still utterly taken aback by the realization.
"Now you know how I feel," Morgana teased. Merlin looked at her blankly for a moment then the two of them burst into hysterics, laughing until they couldn't breathe.
"Was that a magic joke?" Arthur asked grumpily, setting their laughter off once more.
Merlin finally settled down, taking in everything again with a new sense of awe and wonderment. The last ten years had been by no means easy. There had been fights and battles and struggles nearly every step of the way. But there had also been happiness, family, and love. He had despaired when he had woken up married to a woman who had tried so hard, so many times, to kill him before then. Now she was his greatest joy, his love, his heart.
And that was when Merlin realized that he wasn't just trying his best to make the most of what he had been given. He hadn't been doing that for a very long time.