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12 February 2012 @ 11:19 pm
Merlin Fic - The Sundered Coin  
Title: The Sundered Coin
Characters/Pairings: Merlin, Arthur, Uther, Gaius, minor Arthur/Gwen
Rating: PG-13
Word Count: ~12000
Warnings: Violence.
Notes: Based on this piece by zephre, done for merlinreversebb.

Summary: When Merlin leaves after the business with the questing beast, he doesn't come back.

Part I
Part II

It didn't bother the prince at first. As everyone in Camelot agreed, Merlin was a strange young man. He said strange things and disappeared at odd hours, only to resurface looking disheveled and groggy. It was blasted difficult to tell when Merlin was acting out of sorts. One might as well attempt to predict lightning.

And yet.

Arthur stood at the window and looked out over the lights of Camelot. He had always found it comforting to do so, because they were a reminder of his kingdom's strength and wealth. The luxury of light in the darkness was unheard of in other lands, except in the houses of the wealthiest lords. But here there were candles under the roofs of merchants and tradesmen, torches carried by frequent patrols. It was a safe, ordered city, unconquered by the darkness. The night was not to be feared here.

Yet no matter how Arthur tried to settle his thoughts, they kept whirling around the last conversation he'd had with Merlin. The words themselves were not as alarming as the steel in the boy's eyes. It was a mettle Arthur had seen staring out at him from the faces of soldiers before they poured their lives out on the battlefield: a resignation to death and a determination to meet it sword first.

If he'd heard the same words a year ago, he would have thought nothing of it. But Merlin's reckless, ridiculous loyalty was well-documented, and Arthur believed him fully capable of doing something rash. The prince reminded himself that there was no rational reason to think that his manservant was about to hurl himself in harm's way. After all, the danger was past: the questing beast was defeated and Arthur's wound was healing. Yet all he could hear were those words, pounding through his thoughts like the waves on the shores of Gedref, when Merlin had tried for the second time to drink poison in Arthur's stead.

I'm happy to be your servant. Until the day I die.

Arthur had tried to dismiss the entire encounter as Merlin's way of cheering him up. He could always count on his bumbling servant for some humbling words when the rest of the kingdom was singing the prince's praises; it was only when the world seemed to be against him that his manservant spoke plainly of his faith in his prince. And maybe that's all it was.

But Arthur couldn't shake the feeling that there'd been a deeply buried current of farewell beneath every gesture. The longer he dwelled upon their last meeting, the more certain he was that Merlin did not expect to return. He spent some time gazing out over the city, considering the pain radiating out from his shoulder and the weariness that weighted his limbs. As with all moments in the life a prince, there was really only one course of action he could take. Donning a clean shirt and snatching a handful of cheese, he marched out of his chambers and began searching for his wayward servant.

Gaius woke gasping in a chill rain.

The sky was clouded over, roiling with lightning. It filled his vision, and for a few moments he was lost in it. Then the wind whorled the rain around him and he remembered: the questing beast, the bite, and the dark pact he had made for Merlin's life.

He couldn't help groaning as he struggled to stand. His bones ached in the best of weather, and this downpour carried the threat of winter. He wrapped his arms around himself as soon as he managed to lever his body into a standing position. He remained where he was for several heartbeats, legs shaking and heart pounding with the panic of the realization he wanted desperately to avoid.

The horses caught his eye before he could sink too deeply into denial. His own snow-white palfrey was standing tail-to-nose with a bay from the prince's stables. They were huddled beneath the trees, waiting out the violence of the whipping, rain-soaked wind with the endless patience of beasts. Gaius turned a slow circle, scanning the standing stones for signs life, though he knew before he started that he would find none. He tried to shout Merlin's name, but it came out as a strangled whisper, borne away by the wind.

His boy was gone.

Arthur tried to act casual, leaning against the frame of Gaius' door as he waited for an answer to his knock. As the crown prince, he was perfectly within his rights to simply walk in, but he had never been able to view Gaius as a subordinate. The old man was too wise and too dignified to be treated as anything other than an equal.

The last person he'd expected to see was Guinevere. Quite suddenly, he found himself replaying the cadence of her voice as she spoke of the king she knew he could be. Words failed him. Her reaction to his teasing had made him slightly remorseful (in a dignified, princely way), and the sincerity behind her words made him lose his mental footing.

In an irrational moment of desperation, he shoved the last bit of his meager dinner into his mouth and chewed vigorously, trying to recapture the swagger he'd managed while bedridden. However, the fact that his mouth was full did not prevent a demurely expectant look from Gwen. He paused a moment, then asked the obvious question.

"I'm sorry, sire?"

The prince frowned and finished swallowing his hasty meal before repeating his request without the mouthful of cheese. "Is Gaius in?"

"No, sire. I'm sorry," she added, when Arthur remained where he was, staring at her.

"It's alright. I'm just...where did he go?" He couldn't help being surprised at the physician's absence. He had never known the old man to be unreachable at any time, much less a day when his services had been called upon to save a member of the royal house.

"I...well, I'm not sure. I haven't seen him. It was Merlin who asked me to come here and watch over Hunith."

Arthur gave a start. "Merlin's mother? She's here?"

"Yes, sire." Guinevere eyed him uncertainly. "Merlin didn't tell you?"

"What happened?" he demanded as he politely but firmly pushed his way into the physician's chambers. "Is she alright?"

"She was very ill last night. Gaius wasn't sure...he asked me to make her comfortable. But she's much improved now, sire."

"And where is my lousy excuse for a servant?" He tried to keep his tone casual, but the question still came out more harshly than he'd intended. A tide of concern was rising within him, expanding with each piece of information.

"He left just after sunrise." Arthur did not miss the lack of the honorific. A faint current of disapproval was now undercutting her respectful tone. For the second time in less than a day, he found himself thinking that Gwen was too sincere to successfully lie about anything. Or maybe he was just more observant these days.

"Did he say where he was going?"

"No, but...I'm sure it was important. He wouldn't abandon his duties lightly. He was in a terrible rush."

Arthur took this in without comment and headed for the back room, certain that Merlin would give his own bed to his ailing mother. What he didn't understand was why Merlin hadn't mentioned it. The boy normally chattered like a magpie about every insignificant triviality of his life; how could he fail to remark on something so dire?

The room was dim and quiet, and Arthur entered as respectfully as his sense of urgency would allow. Hunith was sitting up in bed, looking tired but healthy otherwise. When she saw who her visitor was, there was a brief flash of disappointment before she began obeying the proper formalities.

"Please," Arthur insisted when she tried to stand. "There's no need for that. I just came to see how you are."

"Much better, thanks to Gaius's skill." She settled back on the coarse pillow and regarded him with the same quiet strength he had seen when he traveled to her village. "I don't know what came over me. I felt certain I was going to die, and only wanted to see my son..."

Arthur stepped in smoothly when her voice failed her. "I'm glad to see that you're doing better." He wiggled his injured arm, still resting in a sling across his torso. "I also have Gaius to thank for my recovery. He managed to come up with a cure when all seemed lost."

Hunith smiled, her eyes heavy with unshed tears. "It was my hope when I sent Merlin to Gaius that he would learn the physician's art. That he would learn how to help and heal. Sometimes..."

"What is it?"

"It's nothing, sire. I only...I can't recall much of last night, but I feel as though I've said goodbye to Merlin. I feel as though I'll never see him again. Can you...do you know where he is?"

It was all Arthur could do to keep from shivering. He imagined a scene in this little room identical to the one that played out in his chambers, only with more familial sentiment and fewer insults. A picture was slowly emerging of a string of valedictions leading up to some cryptic journey. The prince felt his battle instincts stoking his urgency.

"I'm on my way to track him down," he replied firmly, already moving toward the door of the tiny room. "You rest now."

"Thank you, sire." It was a weak whisper, but it carried, borne on the desperation of a mother who had lost her son.

It didn't take long for Arthur to discover which gate Merlin had torn out of, nor for Uther to hear about the crown prince's reckless behavior. Not for the first time, Arthur found himself wishing for a good knight or two who were loyal to him rather than his father. A treasonous thought, to be sure. Even the crown prince was, after all, a subject of the king. But Arthur had latitude that none of his subjects possessed: not the indulgence of a father (Uther had always been a king first) but certain legal protections afforded the heir to the throne.

Of course, none of that would matter if Uther decided to charge him with treason. A part of Arthur feared that deeply, but he didn't think his father would make such a decision unless Arthur harmed the kingdom directly. Taking liberties with his own safety was something he could usually get away with.

Still, it was a lonely defiance. He trusted his knights with his life, but could not trust them to defy their king. Even if they were willing to side with the prince, Arthur could not in good conscience allow them to risk the king's anger. Arthur himself might escape punishment, but any knights he ordered to assist him would not be so lucky.

He was used to making decisions alone; it came with the monarchical territory. Yet sometimes he wished for another with whom to share his thoughts. Even Merlin-

He was halfway back to the stables when the realization hit him: the person he wanted to mull over his thoughts with was his manservant. Despite his foolish antics (or perhaps because of them), he was the only person in Camelot that Arthur felt he could speak to freely. And he knew with ironclad certainty which royal the boy would pick if asked to choose between Arthur and Uther.

After a moment's shocked hesitation, he resumed his hurried walk, eager to be on a horse and riding out the gates before word got back to his father. The stablehand did not even blink when he requested Aureus, a mount whose stamina made him an ideal choice for long, hard riding. Yet he knew that the servants' reports would soon reach Uther's ears, so he leapt onto the horse's back as quickly as his wound would allow, and began galloping down the path he knew Merlin and Gaius had taken.

He was thundering through sheaves of barley by the time he heard the first faint peals of the warning bell.

The twin trails were not hard to read. Arthur could follow the signs from horseback with ease, and he took full advantage of the fact, urging his mount to a brisk trot that became a canter on the straightways. The path Gaius and Merlin had picked out was unfamiliar and trackless, but that only made it easier to confirm that he had their trail and not that of a traveling merchant or minstrel.

The mounts of the Pendragon stables had very distinctive hoofprints, if one knew what to look for. Arthur followed as quickly as he dared, guiding his well-trained mount with his knees while he held his injured arm close to his body. It didn't seem to matter how he held himself; even the smooth gait of this magnificent creature sent stabbing knives of agony through his flesh. Only a few hours into his mad pursuit, his limbs started to shake with exhaustion and weakness.

That would be a lark, he thought darkly: the heir to the throne of Camelot, dead in the wilderness, his body found some days afterwards by his father's knights. He couldn't keep himself from imagining Uther's reaction. He knew, objectively, that his father cared for him and would grieve him if he didn't make it back, but the only images his mind could conjure were impressions of the man's anger.

Sorry for dying, father. I know a dead son is a great disappointment to you.

He wondered if perhaps he was growing feverish. He was certainly more amused than the situation warranted. Gaius would be able to tell - assuming Arthur was able to find him. The prince was not at all sure he liked where this trail was leading him: away from civilized lands and deep into a rolling, rocky country that was claimed by no king. Crops would not flourish here, and no goods could be moved without long journeys across empty land. He could have claimed this land long ago, but what would have been the point? It would not even serve as a buffer between his kingdom and a neighbor. Beyond the White Mountains, there was nothing: certainly no power to rival the strength of Camelot.

He looked up at the mountains and shuddered without knowing why.

After some hours, the weather turned against him and he found himself trotting into a driving rain. To his chagrin, the trails faded and disappeared in a river of mud. The skies cleared almost as quickly as they had darkened, but the damage was done. Arthur continued for almost a league, following doggedly the inexplicable course that both Gaius and Merlin had set out. He couldn't fathom their destination, and could only hope that they had continued along the same heading. Still, he kept his eyes peeled for some sign that they had passed this way.

The sign came, but it was Aureus who found it, bucking his head a little and flaring his nostrils at a familiar scent. He let out a ringing whinny, and to Arthur's surprise, he was answered. The prince followed the sound of the second horse over a small hillock and into a rock-strewn gully. At the bottom, he found two horses and a silver-haired figure crumpled on the ground.


Exhaustion fled. The lingering pain of the questing beast's bite faded in a tide of battle-readiness, though there was no enemy to attack. He slid off Aureus's back and onto his knees, putting an ear to the old man's chest. He could hear the faint stirrings of life, but Gaius did not respond to his voice or touch.

Arthur glanced at the sun and considered. He could not get back to Camelot before nightfall in any case - not exhausted as he was, and carrying an injured man. He doubted the physician was well enough to travel in any case. And there was still Merlin to think about: if he was anywhere nearby, Arthur intended to find him.

He made camp as best he could, gently moving Gaius to the meager shelter of a partial overhang and coaxing a fire out of the driest wood he could find. Thunder still rolled ominously among the restless clouds, but no more rain fell. Arthur thought of Merlin and hoped the boy was out of the weather, at least.

"Merlin..." The prince nearly jumped out of his skin at Gaius' pained whisper. He dropped the rations he'd been about to eat and rushed to the old man's side.

"It's Arthur, Gaius. Don't speak. Drink this." He raised the waterskin to Gaius's mouth and was relieved when the injured man swallowed a few sips. He had draped his own cloak over him, and pulled it tighter now. More than anything, he wanted to ask about Merlin, but he forced himself to proceed slowly.

Arthur's knowledge of healing did not extend any farther than a commander's triage on the battlefield, but he did what he could to make the old man comfortable and warm. More than once, he started to yell at Merlin to put some soup on before he remembered, and caught himself. As Gaius began to come around, Arthur began heating a bit of water over the meager fire. By the time the "soup" was ready, the mumblings were coming closer together.



Gaius drank, and slowly regained his senses. When he finally opened his eyes, they were heavy with grief.

"What happened?" Arthur kept his voice steady and even, though he wanted to shout.

"I...tried, sire. I tried to save him. But he saved me."

"Merlin?" It felt as though someone else was using Arthur's voice, burying the panic in an avalanche of denial and duty.

"He's gone. I've...I've lost him."

The prince in Arthur demanded answers, but he only rested his hand on the old man's shoulder. "Rest. We'll get you back to the city." He wasn't sure if Gaius slipped into a comforted slumber or unconsciousness, but he wished fervently that he'd brought some men with him, that the bite on his shoulder wasn't so painful, that he knew something about treating wounds. Most of all, he wished Merlin were there. He told himself it was because he'd have someone useless to blame, a scapegoat to make the journey shorter. It certainly wasn't because everything seemed to turn out when the skinny fool was around.

Arthur conserved his strength as the sun slipped toward the earth. Sleep did not come, however. Instead of dreams, he replayed his memories, seeing the questing beast charge and feeling its claws. He'd taken enough knocks to the head to know that the moments leading up to the injury would be hazy, but as he stared into the hypnotizing flames he thought he remembered certain things quite clearly. He was sure that he'd lost his sword on the other side of the cavern. Moreover, the creature had felled him before he could even strike it. It had felt like death, the talons ripping open more than his skin. Even if he had rallied in the last moments before he lost consciousness, he could not possibly have struck the creature decisively enough to harm it.

The prince of Camelot stared into the flames and wondered what had become of his manservant.

Merlin remembered very little of the days following his confrontation with Nimueh at the Isle of the Blessed. Sometimes he thought that he was still there, fighting an endless battle that raged through battlefields of thought and intention. At other times, he could see nothing except the final stroke delivered: the first time he had killed so deliberately and decisively with magic. He'd been more stunned than anything, shocked at his own anger and the ease with which he willed her to die. The world had paused as he realized what he had done, and in that space between one heartbeat and the next she had slipped in.

He didn't recognize her, and she never offered a name, or even so much as a word. He couldn't even be sure she was real; that line had blurred in the days (weeks? months?) since she had taken him. The pain was real. Merlin didn't understand much about her motives, but he knew she wanted him to hurt. Sometimes he wondered what he had done to anger her; most of the time he just screamed. When his voice ran out, magic brought his outpourings of agony to new heights. It was the one use of his power that she allowed him. Everything else was hers, and she used it against him, again and again.

In his few lucid moments, he realized that she had picked the perfect instrument for her revenge (if that was what it was). He thought he might have been able to endure if it had been another's magic searing into his bones.

But it was his.

It was as though reality itself were tearing him apart. Everything he believed in was turned against him. The power that came from life and its love had been stolen and corrupted into something unrecognizable. His very hope and strength had become fire against his skin, and his mind began to crack and buckle under the onslaught. He tried to retreat, but the enemy was everywhere, even in the most guarded sanctum of his thoughts. He himself was the enemy, his existence a prison. If he'd been capable of finding escape in death, he would have. Instead, he shattered.

The witch's malicious satisfaction followed him all the way down into hell.

Morgause remembered very little of the days following Nimueh's death. She had seen the confrontation in the crystal, of course. She should have been ready. Nimueh had taught her the importance of recognizing inevitable events. She knew her teacher's death was one of them, and she had thought herself prepared. But when the lightning struck, Morgause's rage shattered her control. She didn't come back to herself until much later, when the little warlock was writhing beneath her and her lips were drawn back into a snarl of vengeful hunger more profound than anything she had ever felt. Her anger had merged with the power that slept inside him, rolling over them both until he was destroyed and she was empty.

It was hers now, that magic. When she slipped her wrist through the geis-chain, she felt it, like a storm in her mind, roiling and raging for release. Nimueh's murderer had stopped responding to her assaults, but there were others on whom she could vent her rage. She tightened her grip on his bonds and headed for Camelot, drawing her armies to her as she went.

In the months that followed Merlin's disappearance, Arthur carefully avoided Gaius. Common wisdom agreed that the old man was never the same after his apprentice ran off. Arthur knew the cause of the grief in his eyes, but he didn't dare acknowledge it. The prince of Camelot could not afford to. He had begun to suspect that laws had been broken in order to save him, and ignorance was the only repayment he could offer. It was also the only way to assuage the guilt of his every breath being a betrayal not only of his father's trust, but of the integrity of the crown itself.

There could not be one law for his subjects and another for himself. He wasn't sure when he had decided that, but it was inviolable. Yet in the evenings, he would stand in the harsh wind that swept the battlements and think: would it have been better for the kingdom to lose an heir? The more he thought about it, the more he began to suspect that Uther would think it a fair price. What was such a sin in return for the life a prince?

Somehow, that seemed more frightening than the king's anger.

So Arthur stayed silent. There were, after all, training exercises to organize, hunts to pursue and matters of state to attend. The prince threw himself into his duties with a single-minded intensity that earned his father's approval, if no one else's. The intimacy that Gwen had shown him so briefly was gone as though it had never been, except for the occasional thoughtful glance when she thought his attention was elsewhere. If anyone could have understood the hardening of his heart, it would have been her, which was why he accepted her service as formally as she offered it. He had resolved to keep an appropriate distance between himself and his subjects, for the good of all concerned.

Perhaps it was frustration at his self-imposed isolation that caused Arthur to torture his new manservant. The poor boy was subjected to insults, hard labor, unreasonable demands, thrown objects and every other indignity that the prince could conjure. And he accepted them all with the stoic respect that every citizen should show towards his lord. It drove Arthur mad.

It wasn't fair to punish the boy for not being Merlin. He knew that. But there was a tiny, unacknowledged part of him that was waiting - until the stars fell from the sky if need be - to hear an indignant retort. There had to be a limit to the punishment a servant would accept in the name of propriety. Arthur liked to think that Pendragons ruled through respect, not fear. If the boy had any self-regard at all, he would have abandoned his position on the first day. And yet he stayed. And Arthur fumed.

The hunt became his only release. When the chase was on, he could fly beyond the walls of Camelot and imagine a world without the duties of the royal house. He pursued boar, deer and quail, but his real quarry was hope. On the game trails, things just seemed more possible.

And then there was the dream.

It started a fortnight after Gaius declared him fit for battle. He'd had hunting dreams before, of course, but none quite so vivid. The first time, he put it from his mind, but when the exact same vision unfolded the next night and the night after that, he began to wonder if the images meant something.

It always started out benignly enough, with an ordinary hunt. The details were vague until he saw the white hart, at which point everything snapped into sharp focus: the trees, the smell of the earth, the distant calls of his knights as, one by one, they fell away from him. Some shouted that they saw the beast in some errant direction, while others made exclamations of dismay or surprise as they stumbled or lost their way. Arthur would start to slow, thinking he should help them, but the hart would look back and he had to pursue. It wasn't just that it was a magnificent bounty, sporting more points than he had seen on any living deer. It wasn't just the sleek, bunching muscles or the pure and unusual color. It was the eyes, shimmering with something that hinted at more than what it was.

In the dream, it seemed he chased the animal forever, and he woke with the chorus of the chase still singing in his blood, his breath coming fast and his muscles aching as though he had spent the entire night on a horse. The feeling never faded, not completely, and he spent every available day prowling through the forests, searching for a quarry he wasn't sure existed. In fact, he began to question his own sanity. Yet when the trails called, he answered.

Winter was whispering on the wind when he finally saw the creature in the waking world. An entire fruitless summer had passed, full of game but empty of what he sought. The sun was setting and he'd been about to turn back when he caught a flash of white, stark against the dark background of tree trunks and turning leaves. He was sure he'd finally gone mad, until Leon whispered, "I've never seen such a crown." The prince watched events unfold even as his dreams. One by one, his men set to the deer's trail and one by one, they disappeared until it was only Arthur and the hart.

They flew like arrows, racing down a narrow trail that Arthur knew hadn't been there a week ago. His mount, an agile courser called Step, began to tire, but the quarry ran on. Snowy flanks bunched and stretched, propelling the deer with regular, inexhaustible precision. Arthur gave the horse leg, and the straining animal responded with a last burst of speed just as the trail brought them out of the thick forest and into a small clearing that sloped down to the shores of a crystalline lake. The deer headed straight for the water, and Arthur brought his mount to an earth-furrowing halt.

And stared.

The white hart bounded out onto the water, hooves striking the surface as though it were solid ground. It disappeared silently into the low fog that hung over the lake, leaving Arthur breathless and befuddled while Step blew out a few great breaths and jostled to the side. The prince unconsciously reined him in, his attention focused on the mirror-like water. The deer he'd been chasing had not left so much as a ripple. The water was so still, it could have been glass.

Arthur dismounted and hastily hobbled his horse before walking to the edge of the water. His breath steamed out into the cool air, making him uncomfortably aware of his rising fear. He stood at the very edge for what seemed like an hour but could not have been more than a few minutes. Not just the water but the air and the earth itself were absolutely silent and absolutely still. The only sounds came from his own pounding heart and Step's nervous snort. He wondered if this was what magic felt like. Part of him wanted to run, but a larger part of him needed to know.

He stepped into the water.

His movement sent ripples out across the ethereal surface, and his boots got wet, but he observed no other change for several heartbeats. He was beginning to feel a little foolish, and had shifted his weight to turn back, when the water was suddenly all around him. He could look up and see the other side of the mirror that formed the surface of the lake, and watch the dim light from the cloudy sky filter down through the water. It illuminated a woman: beautiful, pale and full of sorrow.

Despite being underwater, he felt no urgency to return to the surface for breath. His vision was unblurred; the strange spectre was as clear as an insect trapped in amber. Her face was a mask, but tears were slowly sliding down her cheeks. They looked like diamonds: citadels of grief that repelled the water around them. Time seemed to have no meaning as he gazed at her. He wasn't breathing, but it didn't seem to matter. He felt a strong urge to touch the hair that surrounded her head like an undulating halo, or the once-fine dress that floated in tatters about her limbs.

Before he could act, he found himself abruptly in the real world again, water sluicing off him as though he'd just had a swim, though he was no more than ankle-deep in the lake. He gasped and spluttered, suddenly starving for air. But the most surprising thing was the object that had appeared in his hands. He stood there, shivering, and looked at it.

It was a sword, but only in the same way that the sun is a lamp. It was the most magnificent weapon he had ever seen, let alone handled. Even before he swung it through a few practice forms, he could tell its balance was perfect. The craftsmanship was such that when he held it, it felt like an extension of his own limb. And it was gorgeous: clean, elegant lines and a perfectly deadly edge. He examined the inscriptions on either side of the blade, but could find no sense in them.

It was an exemplary weapon, to be sure, but there could be no doubt it had been delivered into his hands by magic. Whose magic, he wondered. And why? What could possibly be the purpose of such a gift? It was a weapon he would think twice about wielding. And yet, he couldn't bring himself to fling it back into the water. He knew he should. It was what his father would have done. No good could come of such strangeness. But he couldn't bring himself to part with it. It felt so right to have.

So he carefully concealed it beneath his cloak and mounted Step, shivering violently now in the chill air. If he didn't get back to a warm fire soon, his limbs would freeze. He took one last look at the glassy calm of the lake and turned his mount back down the trail, the shining sword a discomfiting weight at his hip.

When Arthur returned to Camelot, he grabbed the first opportunity for solitude he could find. It was a simple matter to wrap the hilt of the weapon in leather and slide the blade into a plain but finely-crafted scabbard. In the coming weeks, he kept the sword by his side but never drew it. When Morgana asked him about it, he responded tolerantly but vaguely to her teasing. Let the rumors fly, he thought. It was hard to care about gossip with the memory of his odd encounter ever fresh in his mind. The dreams were quenched, but he still thought of them often in his waking hours. Someone - or something - had armed him, and as the days passed, his eyes turned more and more frequently to the borders of Camelot, waiting for her enemies to strike.

It was nearing dawn when Guinevere found him on the battlements. It was the first day of the last month of winter, but she braved the biting wind with the same quiet dignity that had carried her through Uther's wrath.

"The Lady Morgana seeks you, sire."

"At this hour? One must arise very early indeed to get the advantage of her."

"She did not sleep well."

There had been a time when he would have ignored his foster sister's nightmares, but these days he felt more inclined to listen. "I will see her."

Guinevere appeared satisfied with his answer, but she did not turn away at the obvious dismissal in his tone. He regarded her curiously, but withheld reprimand. A dozen heartbeats passed before she spoke again.

"You miss him."

It was a statement, and yet it required an answer. Arthur opened his mouth, but there were no words. Not for his restlessness; nor for his unanswered questions; nor for the silence of rooms that felt empty even though they were filled with people. He had driven his grief away with a relentlessness born of duty, but it was always waiting there on the borders of his mind, sweeping in when he was alone with his thoughts. To speak of it would give it strength, and yet to not speak seemed a betrayal of what he had lost. It turned out that he didn't need to say anything for Guinevere to hear him.

"I miss him too."

In that simple declaration, he heard a deep sorrow that matched his own, and the confusion of one who has loved and been betrayed. For a moment, he was overcome by an urge to put his back to the world and embrace her, to drive away her unhappiness with the force of his will. The realization of what he'd be willing to do was unexpected and somewhat frightening. He could almost hear his father's voice in his head, telling him not to throw away his kingdom for the sake of a serving girl.

The moment passed, but it left its mark, and he found himself saying, "He didn't run off."

"What?" Unshed tears paused in her brown eyes, teetering in the cruel wind.

"He was...trying to save me. He did save me." Arthur's heart was beating wildly at the admission. He stared out over the city because he could not look at her, afraid of the implications of his words. "Merlin didn't leave Camelot; he was taken."

"By whom?"

He didn't need to look at her to feel her mounting horror. He suddenly felt foolish, trying to raise her spirits by heaping more ugly truths on an already unpleasant pile. "I don't know," he admitted. "But I do know he was as loyal and brave as any knight. Even if the crown cannot acknowledge it. He didn't leave us willingly."

The heat of her gaze left him as she too turned to look down from the dizzying heights of the castle. "And you think," she said at last, "this enemy will return?"

He paused a moment before replying, so that he could let the full force of his simmering rage soak into the words.

"Oh, I'm counting on it."

They came at dawn on the day after Imbolc, when the defenses of a city might be supposed to be at their weakest. But neither Arthur nor his knights had partaken in more than two goblets of wine, and the normal shifts of soldiers had cycled through the garrisons, ensuring that every patrol was alert and well-rested. Even so, word of the invasion did not reach the city until several villages had been overrun, their guardians slaughtered where they stood. Arthur set the warning bells to ringing, and immediately began shifting resources. Peasants and merchants poured into the city and the outer walls were fortified according to prearranged plans.

Ripples of apprehension swept through the ranks when the tales of the few survivors of the rural battles began to circulate. No enemy had ever breached Camelot's borders so quickly. Neither had any army advanced to the capital with so few casualties. There were whispers of a sorcery greater than any the kingdom had faced. Arthur quelled the hand-wringing with a look, though his heart lurched when he heard the knights' reports. Somehow he knew that he faced the enemy he had been preparing for, the one that had sent the questing beast and taken Merlin from him.

"Keep the outer wall manned, but bring the people within the inner court. Sir Brastias, make sure the tunnels are ready," he ordered. Glances were exchanged, but to Arthur it was simple wisdom. The walls existed to protect the people, and need only stand long enough to allow evacuation; if they fell, Camelot would live. And, much as he hated to admit it, the outcome of the battle was uncertain.

As it turned out, the battle was more than uncertain; it was a slaughter. Arthur was forced to pull back again and again, his forces overwhelmed by the strength of the enemy. When he caught his first glimpse of the invading commander, he nearly despaired.

She did not look particularly imposing. She was not tall. Her hair shone in blonde ringlets, delicate as any lady of the court. Her clothes were well-cut, but not ostentatious. She looked the part of a moderately successful courtier, all except for the dark-cloaked figure that rode next to her. She had shackled herself to it so that when she raised her hand, the cloaked figure's rose also. And when her eyes blazed gold, there was an answering flash from the depths of the dark figure's cowl.

Arthur did not pretend to understand how she was doing it, but he quickly realized that the kingdom had never faced a sorcerer with such power. The earth trembled where she trod. Fortifications were smashed apart, buildings set ablaze with no more than a flick of a fine-boned wrist. The knights who stood against her died before they struck a blow, bones crunching as her magic caught them like leaves in a storm. The prince ordered his men to give ground, an order they received so seldom that the chain of command rippled. He would have to restore their morale later; for the moment, survival was his only concern.

Arthur had been introduced to war at an early age, and he'd thought he'd become used to the smells of opened bellies and rotting corpses, and to the screams of men and swords. He had always forced an iron control over his mind when the confusion of battle was at its worst, because he knew the day would go to the commander who kept hold of his senses in the mindless frenzy of death. As Camelot trembled around him, he felt that control slipping as a great gnawing panic threatened to overtake his senses. It was no use pretending that he'd faced worse, when this was clearly the kingdom's darkest hour. All he could do was throw himself into planning a strategic withdrawal and attempt to save as many of his people as he could. There would be time to go mad later.

They had already lost the Low Town when his father found him. They'd been communicating by messenger up to this point, relaying reports and, in Uther's case, commands. His father had taken a birds-eye view of the combat and directed Arthur's hand accordingly. However, Uther Pendragon was not one to leave the fighting to others. The old man was girded for battle and dripping blood when they met on the first battlement of the citadel.

"We've covered the people's retreat behind the walls." Arthur took a moment to rest his sword arm as he spoke, though he had to raise his voice to be heard over the bombardment. It was hard not to sink to his knees in despair when he realized that the witch woman carried the strength of twenty siege engines in a single delicate hand. "My scouts report the tunnels are clear and I have knights standing by to oversee the evacuation."

"Evacuation?" Uther scowled and Arthur's spirits sank. He'd been hoping that, today of all days, his father's actions would be guided by wisdom rather than pride. "I'll not see the royal house fleeing before sorcerers like frightened peasants."

"We cannot win this battle, father. Not here. Not now."

"The citadel has never been taken. If we cede the heart of Camelot, the kingdom is lost. Better to die with our swords in our hands."

"But these people are not soldiers. And if we cannot protect them-"

"We will," Uther interrupted harshly. "We must. Fortify the outer walls and boil some oil. They may have foul magic on their side, but they'll still burn."

Arthur found himself making a short, respectful bow as his father stormed off, and wondered why his voice had deserted him. The ground shook again as the sorceress pounded the city with her magic. It is madness to stay here, he thought. He realized then that he would have to make a choice between his father and his people, and it was a decision he made instantly, and painfully.

He stopped, though, and let Uther stomp back into the fray. The king was shouting orders, messengers were scurrying to carry his commands, and knights were readying useless weapons. No one was paying any attention to Arthur, probably because he was just standing there, a point of calm in the middle of the besieged city, a silent warrior standing with one sword in his hand and one at his hip.

The sword.

He'd just about forgotten the marvelous weapon he'd been carrying all these months. It hadn't occurred to him to draw it, and he didn't draw it now. But somehow he knew the time was soon. Perhaps defeat was not as certain as it appeared.

"I must be mad," Arthur whispered. Another tremor rocked the walls and he sprinted to his position, directing the last defense of Camelot with both dread and hope in his heart.

"And there he is: the golden prince." Morgause could hardly contain her satisfaction. She didn't know if she wanted to ravage his body with magic or peel him apart with the knife at her belt. So many of her kin had died for this boy. How did one extract the deaths of thousands from one beating heart? How could he ever give back what had been taken?

"Witch!" Morgause turned to regard the pretend king. Uther the Stupid. Uther the Betrayer. She had worked out his punishment long ago, but it could wait. The boy, though...the boy was a puzzle. With a gesture as casual as brushing aside a fly, she pinned the aging king to his own castle wall and urged her mount across the courtyard until she was a stone's throw from the prince. The sounds of battle had faded at the first hoofbeat. Combatants on both sides were watching her approach the young Pendragon. Even the groans of the dying had ceased. Perhaps she had used the murderer's magic again without realizing it. It was slipping out more and more often these days.

Arthur was panting, sweat-slick and bloody, as magnificent as Nimueh's magic could make him. So much strength and beauty stolen from her people. It occurred to her that destroying him would be a worse crime than Uther's. The prince straightened, facing her with a high head and clear eyes, ready to fight and die for his stolen kingdom. At that moment, Morgause knew she wanted to bow that head, to make the lion kneel at her feet for all eternity. It would start here.

"What do you want?" the Pendragon boy was asking her. "What is worth the innocent blood you have shed here?"

"There are no innocents in a kingdom of murderers. But I will give you a chance never offered my sisters: a fair trial before the gods, as it was in the old days. Single combat. To the death." She saw the prince's eyes wandering to the cloaked slave at her side, lingering on their joined wrists. "I'll even tether my pet. No magic. Just the strength of our arms."

Doubt in the blue eyes. But he didn't have a choice, did he? "I accept."

She manipulated the limbs of the murderer, causing the cloaked figure to scramble down from his mount and in turn help her to the ground. Then she walked him over to the wall and slipped the geis-chain from her wrist, maintaining her hold on his power long enough to drive it into the stone. The slave stood there, one hand chained to the stone, and would go on standing there until she told him otherwise. She wondered idly if there was a way to give him his fight back. He'd given her some lovely screams, and she would require entertainment when she was queen of Camelot.

The ring of steel interrupted her musings as Arthur drew his sword. Hadn't he been holding a sword? The fleeting thought disappeared as she turned to face him, drawing her own weapon as she did so. It had been some time since she'd tested herself against a worthy opponent and she was eager for the challenge, eager for blood.

"Come, boy."

Arthur felt certain he was walking into a trap. Anyone could see the madness in the witch's eyes. Even if he defeated her, would she accept his mastery and withdraw? On the other hand, she would certainly kill him and destroy the city if he didn't figure out a way to stop her. Even if it cost him his life, he owed it to his people to try. And she had put aside her magic, which gave him at least a fighting chance, didn't it?

He glanced at the cloaked figure, wondering what part it played in her schemes. Perhaps it was some sort of magical creature she wielded like a weapon, or a vessel for her power. What would happen, he wondered, if that vessel were damaged?

He tossed his bloody sword to the ground and drew the one he had taken from the lake. It looked as unremarkable as ever, its hilt wrapped in plain leather and its blade blackened to obscure the markings. But it fit his hand like no weapon he had ever held. He almost thought he could feel it humming with a buoyant life of its own.

She came to him, despite her taunts. He maneuvered defensively, trying to get a sense of how she moved. It was obvious in the first few seconds that her skill matched or exceeded his own. The shock of that realization almost cost him a leg, but he recovered in time to dance out from under her ruthless slash.

The courtyard was deathly silent. Soldiers from both sides watched the battle unfold with grim eyes, their own combat forgotten as their commanders battled. Arthur gave ground steadily, moving her about the courtyard is broad circles, maximizing his space. His reach was longer, so she would have the advantage of him in tighter quarters. Eventually, though, he found his back inching toward the wall.

A low thrust and he spun back and to the side, parrying her next blow neatly, trying not to give the last of his ground. But she knew she had him and her attacks became more calculated, concentrated on controlling his movement rather than striking at his vital areas. Her strange cloaked companion loomed in his peripheral vision, utterly still, the chain on its wrist giving off a sickly gleam in the sunlight. In his distraction, he let the witch drive him back against the wall, and it was less than half a heartbeat before her sword began tracing a deadly thrust he could avoid only by rolling to the side.

Time seemed to freeze. He had seen this before on the battlefield. Sometimes things seemed to happen between the slow cadence of pulses and breaths, a slow ballet of sweat and blood. He knew the action he should take, the only one that would save his life. But the sunlight was glinting off the chain, and the sword was humming in his hand and he knew, he just knew, that it was now. This moment.

Instead of diving to the right, the prince of Camelot spun left, bringing his sword down on the chain encircling the cloaked figure's wrist, sundering it. The witch's sword pierced his side, but he hardly felt it in the aftermath of the blow he had struck with the weapon from the lake. Its blade flashed with a brilliant light like a second sun, and he felt the power of its strike sweeping through him, a magic he had directed but could not completely control. It severed the metal cleanly, and sliced through the wall as though it were made of wheat rather than stone, shining and burning with that terrible light, its humble wrappings seared away to reveal the gleaming, rune-inscribed length of the blade and hilt.

Dimly, he was aware of the witch screaming in panic. She shoved him to the ground without ever touching him, and he tumbled gracelessly, unable to keep a grip on the sword, which clattered to the cobbles with a distinctive ringing like the pealing of a bell. He managed to maintain his grip on consciousness, sustained by the thought that he had broken the witch's power somehow, because her eyes were full of wrath and fear as she gripped the figure's throat in one hand, chanting in the dark tongue of sorcery.

The figure's hood fell back to reveal a dark-haired youth with an ugly-looking chain encircling his skinny neck. The witch was gripping the chain like a hunter trying to bring a recalcitrant dog to heel, but the youth's hollow blue eyes were filling like a tide pool, rage and magic pouring through the gaps that Arthur had opened. The witch's eyes were shining gold, but the youth's began to blaze so powerfully that Arthur had to squint through the glare.

He didn't actually see the witch fly through the air. She just seemed to disappear and reappear several dozen feet away. Her scream didn't last long, as the breath was blasted from her lungs upon her impact with the ground. The chain around the boy's neck snapped, seemingly of its own accord, and slithered to the ground, leaving behind a row of neat bloody holes in his flesh. He turned to look at Arthur and it was only then that the prince recognized him.

The boy - the sorcerer - was Merlin. Or at least, something wearing his face. The eyes were wrong, emptied out and blank, the features structurally the same but somehow drained of the character that made a person recognizable. But Arthur could see what he used to be, like a faint outline below the surface. It was Merlin. When the desolate eyes met his, he could tell.

The witch was getting to her feet, chanting frantically, her dark, mad eyes fixed on Merlin. The air seemed to stir with her magic, a working so powerful that everyone in the courtyard could feel it rushing down the corridor of her words and into the world around her. It built like a wave, and Arthur felt his familiar fear building with it. But no magic he had ever witnessed was as terrifying as what happened next.

Merlin didn't speak a word. He made no gesture. But the stillness of power bled from him, wrapping the courtyard securely in his will. He looked at the witch, and she died. There was no flash of power, no sound or storm. His eyes didn't lose their steady glow, but neither did they brighten with effort. He just stood there, and the woman crumpled, her eyes staring and slack before she hit the ground.

Silence encased the courtyard.

Uther was the first to emerge from the dumbstruck fog. He clattered to his feet, the clanking of his armor echoing across the stones. Crazily, Arthur expected to hear him calling for a pyre, but the king raised his sword with a fierce battle cry and took off his nearest enemy's head. As one, the enemy soldiers and the knights of Camelot rejoined the battle, though it quickly became a rout as the witch's forces turned tail and ran.

Arthur tried to rise and join his knights, but found that his limbs would not respond to his call. The sun seemed suddenly brighter. He squinted into the light, aware that there was a shape looming over him, trembling and dripping blood. A hand pressed painfully into the wound on his belly and his attempted scream was swallowed in a shriek of magic that seemed to last forever and no time at all. When Arthur came back to himself, he was sitting up, the pain and the exhaustion gone as though it had never been. Merlin was kneeling next to him, looking as though he hadn't eaten a decent meal in months, which he probably hadn't.


For a long moment, Arthur searched for words, but none came. He just stared, and his former servant stared back, as though he couldn't think of anything else to do.

"Merlin," he breathed finally. "I thought...I thought you were lost."

No sound came from the ravaged throat, but Arthur heard the words nonetheless, closing his eyes at the shivering touch of magic in his mind.

I was lost.

"You're injured." He struggled to his feet, snatching the fallen sword from the cobbles, its burnished blade flashing in the sun. "I'll call for Gaius. He'll be...great gods, Merlin." Arthur didn't know how to communicate the impact this would have on the old physician, like the rising of a second sun, the boy he thought lost returned to him. The prince started to put a gentle hand on his shoulder, but stopped when Merlin flinched.

"I'm sorry." He wasn't sure what he was apologizing for, but it was all he could bring himself to say. "Merlin, I am so sorry."

Blue eyes regarded him for a moment, looking lost until somehow they found a hint of humor, unearthed from some ancient memory.

Can I get that on a royal decree?

Arthur felt a grin spilling out over this face, fueled by the giddy relief of having survived the most deadly battle of his life and having his servant - no, his friend - returned to him. It was Merlin, despite whatever the witch had done to him. It was his Merlin, battered but not broken, alive and back at his side.

"Arthur, step away from him. Guards! Seize the sorcerer!"

The prince whirled to see his father advancing on them, a cadre of soldiers at his side. The fighting had mostly died down and the king had the luxury of turning his attention to witchhunting. The men-at-arms looked understandably hesitant about apprehending someone who had just killed with a thought, but Arthur knew that the force of his father's will would overcome their uncertainty.

"Sir, it's Merlin. He's just saved all our lives."

"He's in league with the witch!"

"Not willingly, obviously!" Arthur could hardly believe what he was hearing. "He's been a prisoner of the enemy."

"He has violated the laws of Camelot."

"He saved my life. Twice. Father, surely-"


Arthur turned back to Merlin, surprised at the resignation in his voice. "It isn't right. I won't allow-"

It's okay.

There was a current of frustration in the mind voice. As though he were trying to explain a more complicated concept for which there were no words. For a moment, Arthur looked out on the world as Merlin saw it: an intricate web of causes and relationships, of seemingly disparate events that were nonetheless entwined. Destiny, some would call it. And it was in tatters: a tapestry that would have to be rewoven.

"Get away from my son!" Uther thundered, stepping forward to apprehend Merlin himself. Arthur felt like the world was unraveling just when he'd thought it had finally been set right. Arthur stepped between Merlin and his father, feeling an icy dread in his stomach when he realized that Merlin would be forced to defend himself.

"May we speak in private, sire?" The level tone he forced into his voice seemed to have the desired effect. His father's rage cooled slightly, and he ordered two knights to stand guard over "the sorcerer" before following Arthur into one of the guard rooms.

When they were alone, Arthur saw more of his father and less of the king staring back at him, a mixture of fear and relief struggling to spill out into his eyes.

"Arthur," he whispered with uncharacteristic emotion, and suddenly they were embracing, not as warriors after a battle but as father and son. "I thought I'd lost you."

"I'm fine, father." When they broke apart, Uther looked at him as if to reassure himself that he wouldn't melt away or collapse. "Merlin saved me. You witnessed this."

"The laws of Camelot are inviolable." The king's eyes were closed. "Sorcery cannot be trusted. It corrupts even a pure heart. The boy cannot be allowed to live."

"Is this how the Pendragon line repays the loyalty of its subjects? With execution?"

"I will not have sorcery in this kingdom!"

"Then banish him. The laws require punishment, not execution." He could see that the older man was wavering, his sense of justice warring with itself. "Sire. He saved my life. He destroyed the greatest enemy that Camelot has ever faced. Surely he deserves mercy?"

"It's not about what he deserves. It's about the security of this kingdom, and that can only be ensured through the eradication of sorcery."

"Except that sorcery secured this kingdom today. Camelot would have fallen if Merlin had not acted. We both know that." He could see that Uther wanted to argue the point, so he played his last card. "And what makes you think that you could execute him even if you wanted to? You saw what he did to the witch. He will escape anyway, and our enemies will see that as weakness. Banish him, and Camelot's strength is assured."

Arthur struggled to keep his expression calm, knowing that Merlin's fate - and thus the fate of the kingdom - depended on his ability to make a logical argument. But his heart was pounding so fiercely he was surprised his father couldn't hear it. After what seemed like an eternity, Uther finally nodded.

Arthur should have felt happy, but instead his heart grew heavy with his impending loss.

The prince of Camelot personally escorted the sorcerer to the borders of the kingdom. The king had demanded that thirty of the land's finest knights accompany him, but Arthur ordered them to stay behind while he and Merlin walked their mounts slowly to the banks of the river that marked the border.

"Keep the horse," Arthur said thickly as Merlin started to dismount.

Your father-

"Will get over it. A horse is the least we owe you. Also, I think..." He fumbled at his belt for a moment and then handed Merlin the sword from the lake. Merlin took it, regarding Arthur thoughtfully. "I think this should go with you."

A powerful weapon.

"It served its purpose. I don't need it anymore."

A fond smile. That is why it belongs in your hand: because you know when to lay it aside. You will have need of it again, and when that time comes, it will return to you.

Arthur frowned, wondering if Merlin's suffering at the witch's hand had affected his mind. He didn't used to be so...portentous. He squinted at his former servant, trying to see the old Merlin in this battered magic-user. The blue eyes had regained some of their vital spark, and his newly cropped hair was close to achieving its standard penultimate state of unruliness. The bandages that Gaius had applied to his neck stood out in stark relief to the too-pale skin, making him look even more emaciated than he was. Arthur hoped that a few weeks of rest and comfort would erase some of those signs of captivity, though the gods only knew when Merlin would find that rest.

"Yes, well. Take care of yourself. Don't do anything stupid."

The smile brightened. You're one to talk. Beef-witted git.

Arthur wasn't sure if it was a laugh or a sob that threatened to escape his throat, so he simply nodded, watching his own sorrow reflected in Merlin's eyes. There was no more to be said, so they turned as one and rode in opposite directions. Arthur urged his horse into a gallop, heading straight back to the city.

He did not look back.
einahpets: Metal Pendragonreni_m on February 14th, 2012 09:50 pm (UTC)
Oh, I really enjoyed this.
Kinda sad and bittersweet, but really well done!
Great job!
Luxorienluxorien on February 24th, 2012 01:01 am (UTC)
Thank you!
flyaway213: pic#115186625flyaway213 on March 18th, 2012 04:47 pm (UTC)
I really loved this. It was so well written.