Characters/Pairings: Merlin, Arthur, Uther, Gaius, minor Arthur/Gwen
Word Count: ~12000
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.
Twenty years later...
Arthur skidded to a halt when he reached the other side of the meadow. Bad enough he'd been running across open ground for the last five breaths: now he faced a great outcropping of stone, as though the mountains above were reaching out to entrap him. There was no place to run and no time to conceal himself. He turned, sword in hand, but arrows were already in flight. One drove him back against the cliff with bruising force, its wicked tip skipping off his plate and embedding itself in the chain.
He would have been sprawled flat if not for the granite behind him. As it was, he slumped breathlessly against the rock face, struggling to stand and hoping that his knights had made it through the Westron patrols. It seemed likely, as the entirety of the enemy army was facing him across the clearing, horses pulling closer in a tightening circle, the full moon spilling over their armor and giving it a dull glow.
But Arthur wasn't looking at the archers or knights or even Gloucester, commanding his troops from an enormous destrier that had probably cost more than his entire kingdom was worth. All Arthur could see, as he struggled to breathe and struggled to stand, was the slight figure next to the king. Corwin. The sorcerer.
"Is this how you compensate for the strength your arm lacks, Gloucester?" he shouted. "Magic tricks?"
"A tool of war," the king replied, all confidence and superiority. "This is why Camelot is the past, and I am the future. Lay down your sword. We will see what sort of ransom a Pendragon fetches."
Arthur raised his sword. "I will die first."
Gloucester shrugged. "Then we will see what sort of ransom a dead Pendragon fetches." He gave the order and a dozen archers raised their bows. Another word and they fired, the shafts invisible in the darkness, but the sound of their flight like a whip in the silence. Arthur straightened his back and buried his fear.
But the arrows never fell. Or rather, they parted like a curtain, burying themselves in the ground on either side of him. He blinked and suddenly noticed a figure riding out of the Westron line. The Westron knights seemed to see the rider at the same time Arthur did, and a ripple of startled exclamations flew down the chain of command, culminating in a second rain of arrows that fell as harmlessly as the first, to either side of Arthur and the mysterious rider. With a start, Arthur recognized the horse as being from his own stables. It was, in fact, his own mount: a bay courser he had painstakingly trained to respond only to his commands or those of his manservant. Yet the stupid beast acquiesced to the cloaked rider as he would to Arthur himself, trotting forward obediently and standing patiently once the rider had dismounted and dropped the reins. Arthur felt a cold sinking in his gut as he realized that the only thing standing between him and Gloucester’s army, sorcerer and all, was another magic user.
Gloucester himself seemed uncertain when his pet warlock urged his mount forward to confront the newcomer. What followed was as strange a sight as any that Arthur had seen. The cloaked figure was faceless in the moonlight, but he was clearly looking at Gloucester’s sorcerer in the same way that a knight would appraise his opponent in the joust. Corwin spoke without seeming to speak, his words echoing in the mind rather than on the ears. His lips did not move, but his voice rolled through Arthur's head like a wave. Gloucester looked at his sorcerer sharply, clearly startled both by the man's willingness to speak before his king and his manner of communication. That was what came of consorting with sorcerers, Arthur thought darkly. It was like trying to leash lightning.
I will not, Corwin's voice thundered, and Arthur realized he was hearing half of a conversation. The cloaked figure was also talking without speaking, but his words were apparently for the other sorcerer alone.
"What is this?" Gloucester demanded.
"This...upstart demands that we leave the field or he will strike us down," Corwin answered.
"Then he will die with his liege."
"I am not his liege!" Arthur insisted, and felt a little foolish, waving his sword at a field full of enemies and knowing that he stood no chance, even if they fought amongst themselves. But he was a Pendragon, and he would die with a blade in his hand and a curse on his lips. None of the combatants paid him any heed, except the cloaked figure, which turned to regard him over its shoulder. He shivered inwardly, feeling like a piece of meat being tugged apart by a pack of hungry dogs.
You should be helping me, Corwin said without speaking. Either he didn't know he was broadcasting his thoughts for all to hear, or he simply didn't care. You're a traitor to your power, to your blood!
There was no audible response from the stranger, but Arthur thought he felt...sorrow. Like the weariness of a general who has poured so much blood onto the battlefield that he takes no joy in performing his grim duty. It spread from the cloaked sorcerer inexorably, a spilling over of a great sadness that could not be contained.
Gloucester’s man snarled in response to whatever was said. And you use your power to "preserve life" when you attack your own kindred for the sake of this spoiled royal brat? He would kill you given half a chance! For the power that is your birthright! Anger roiled through the clearing, sending shudders through battle-hardened knights and making warhorses buck.
"Enough!" Gloucester shouted. He pulled one plate-clad arm up and down in a swift gesture. All along the line, archers drew their bows, lancers lowered their weapons, and Corwin began muttering in the arcane tongue, his eyes glowing with the sinister light of magic.
The cloaked stranger did not appear to move. There were no words, no gestures. Whatever power he used was utterly instinctual and perfectly controlled. As the Westrons readied both arms and magic, the air turned suddenly cold. Arthur's ears popped, and a sound like the crash of a thousand waves whipped through the clearing. He felt the earth shaking, a great rumbling that reached into his bones and shook them.
As one, Gloucester’s entire army blew backwards in an eruption of wind and dust. An enormous half-circle of flattened grass and furrowed earth radiated out from the silent figure that stood between Arthur and his enemies. Stray clods of earth and tiny pebbles continued to rain down for a few heartbeats and then all was silence. Knights, horses and king all lay where they had tumbled, dead or senseless - it was impossible to tell which. The only man still standing, albeit shakily, was Corwin. He began incanting immediately, the strange words thick with fear and rage.
The world seemed to explode in fire. Arthur flinched, his eyes overwhelmed by the light. He could see nothing except the flames, but the expected heat didn't come. The cloaked sorcerer hissed a single word, and the flames parted around his raised arm, like rapids tumbling around a stone. Arthur found himself irrationally startled by the thin, pale hand that emerged from the stranger's sleeve; he'd half-expected him to be some sort of spectre.
Corwin had begun his next spell long before the flames died down. The final words rang out through the moonlit meadow as the fire of his first attack faded. Arthur recognized the strategy: distract your enemy with a swift charge from the front while you maneuver your reinforcements to drive into his flank. And Corwin's reinforcements proved...formidable.
They came from the shadows beneath the trees: sinuous outlines separating from the dark only as they reached full moonlight. They bore a faint resemblance to hunting cats, but the whip-like tentacles extending from their muscular shoulders marked them as creatures created by magic. There was another crashing boom as a second windswept forth from the hooded sorcerer. It had less effect than the first, though it disrupted the creatures' charge somewhat. They regained their momentum quickly and were soon charging at the stranger.
Arthur had never seen anything like it. He'd witnessed magic before, of course. He had watched innocents killed by it; he had fought its monsters, even when conventional weapons seemed useless; he had been on the receiving end of malevolent enchantments that had left him feeling utterly powerless. But he had never seen one sorcerer fighting another. He was surprised to find that there was a flow to it, just as there was in a melee: Corwin was coordinating his attacks with those of his creatures, and the hooded sorcerer was defending himself - and Arthur - in between counter offensives. It was like a dance, and as the battle waged on, it became clear who would have the mastery.
Corwin's attacks were blunt and rapid, as though he planned to smash his way through with brute force. He hammered the stranger's shields again and again, trying to catch the newcomer unawares. He screamed his incantations as though the force of his voice would give them more power. The cloaked sorcerer reacted with seasoned calm, whispering counterspells and making his gestures with an economy of motion that would have impressed any master of arms. He switched targets rapidly, firing off fire and lightning as though they were simple sword strokes, keeping the creatures at bay and repelling Corwin's own evocations of flame and force.
The one-sided conversation seemed to continue, because Corwin let loose the occasional shout of denial or wordless snarl. And then more words came rolling through the clearing, punctuated by blasts of magic and the howling of the magical constructs. How many of your own kin have you murdered in defense of this hypocrite? Do you fool yourself into thinking he will thank you for your sacrifices? There is no reasoning with a Pendragon. They are all zealots!
For a second time, a great sorrow swept the clearing, and even Corwin seemed to feel it this time, because he faltered slightly in his attack. For a moment, Arthur thought the fighting might end right there, the two sorcerers parting ways like knights held to a truce. Then the inexorable rage welled up in Corwin again, and he screamed his final attack, driving the magical beasts forward at the same time he unleashed a cacophonic onslaught of flame and lightning so forceful that the unknown sorcerer staggered. One of the cat-like creatures got close enough to strike, burying its fangs in the arm the cloaked figure flung forward to protect his neck. The stranger let loose a very human-sounding cry of pain, and then the moon winked out.
Arthur raised his sword in the sudden darkness, barely able to make out the vaguest shapes. There were sounds like shears cutting cloth, and something wet splashed out onto the grass. The light of the full moon returned as quickly as it had fled, revealing a snarling cat-creature flying towards Arthur. He reflexively jumped back, sword arm raised to strike, before he realized that the beast's head had been separated from its body. He watched it tumble to the ground and roll a few feet, slinging strings of black blood. When he looked across the clearing, he found Corwin in a similar condition: eyes still filled with rage, and features twisted into a now permanent mad grimace.
The strange sorcerer stood still and calm as ever. He turned to Arthur, and the king raised his sword in a defense he knew was futile. This man had just toyed with an entire army before killing their leader in a heartbeat. But death had been Arthur's constant companion since his birth, and he had never shrunk before it.
But the sorcerer did not strike him down. He simply regarded him, inscrutably. Arthur found himself unable to make the first strike, even though he believed himself to be in mortal danger. The king of Camelot did not hesitate; he had never done so in the past. His survival and the survival of his kingdom depended on him not flinching before his grim duty. And still his sword remained still.
"Who are you?"
The cloaked figure did not answer, but for the third time he felt that engulfing sadness wash over him and he nearly staggered with the weight of it. In the moment it took him to recover, the stranger slipped away into the shadows beneath the trees. Arthur leapt after him, following the faint silhouette in the bright moonlight. He did not answer Arthur's calls, but neither did he vanish in a puff of smoke as the king suspected he could.
After several minutes of silent pursuit, they emerged in a clearing dominated by a great stone, half the height of a man and thicker than a warhorse's back. In it, suspended in a moonbeam, was the sword. When Arthur recognized the gleaming blade, with its exquisite workmanship and gleaming runes, he nearly dropped the ordinary weapon he was still carrying in his hand.
"You..." He couldn't finish, but he didn't need to. The hood was being pulled back, and he was looking into the eyes of a man he'd not seen in two decades. For a long moment, he simply stared. Merlin regarded him patiently. He looked older, of course, and he'd changed his haphazard grooming habits: his hair was longer, but resembled a haystack less than it used to, and the short beard made him look almost...well...distinguished. The golden torc hinted at associations he didn't really want to think about. It was hard to believe this was the same bloke who once fell asleep in Arthur's leftover lamb stew.
His first impulse was to greet Merlin like the old friend he was, but it was all too strange, and what he actually wound up saying was, "So you've fallen in with the druids, then?"
"You might say they've fallen in with me." So he'd recovered from the wounds, though the scars remained, as did a slight rasp in his voice. "Arthur, what happened?"
"What do you mean?"
"When you became king, I thought...well, I thought you'd repeal the laws against magic."
"Don't be stupid. Magic almost destroyed Camelot. It killed my father. What happened to you...Merlin. Don't you understand?" Puzzled blue eyes. "I kept the laws in place because of what happened to you." Merlin gaped at him, and the expression made him seem so much younger that Arthur almost burst into laughter. Almost.
"I thought you'd betrayed us," he whispered.
"You mean you're on magic's side? After what it did to you?"
"Arthur, the witch who captured me didn't make me what I am. She twisted what was already there. I was born with magic."
The king felt a sudden need to sit down. As there was nothing immediately available, he slouched over the stone that held the sword. He noticed this made Merlin wince, which made him enjoy slouching there tremendously. "She razed the city. Merlin. She razed the city. You mean you could have done that any time?"
"I would never harm Camelot."
"But you could have. You were capable."
Arthur stared at the gleaming sword, then glanced at Merlin, who looked as nonplussed as he felt. "You brought me here to blackmail me, didn't you?"
"You were going to make me promise to repeal the law in return for the sword, and your aid."
"You've banished magic from your kingdom! The same magic that saved it! What was I supposed to do?"
"I don't know," Arthur answered honestly. "In my experience, magic's only ever brought ruin and death."
For several moments, neither of them spoke, lost in their own thoughts. Arthur found his eyes drawn again and again to the sword, aching to hold it in his hand, as though it were made for him. He had cast it aside once, but this time he knew he would never surrender it, even in death. He looked at Merlin. "Whatever price you ask, I will pay it gladly. For the sake of Camelot, and the friendship we once shared."
Merlin nodded and pulled the sword out with a casual burst of magic. He held it in his hands for what seemed like a long time. When he handed it to Arthur, there were tears chasing wet tracks down his cheeks.
"No price," he said. "No price but this: I'm coming with you."
As he reached out to take the sword, Arthur found that he was smiling.