Pairing: gen (about as slashy as canon with the sacrificing for each other and all)
Rating: PG-13 (violence)
Word Count: ~ 5800
Summary: Any weapon can be terrible in the wrong hands.
Disclaimer: Merlin belongs to the BBC (so we should probably keep the fanfic secret! Sh!)
Notes: Posted in a hurry, so if you spot goofs, please don't keep them to yourself. I'm happy to get any and all feedback. Set after 1.11, but before 1.13.
And in his hands, a weapon
It wasn't a typical request, certainly not one Arthur had ever heard from Merlin before.
“You want to go with me on patrol?”
“No, not exactly.” Merlin shook his head. “I just thought if you’re going to the eastern glades, I should be glad to ride out with you.”
“For what reason?” Arthur asked, suspicious.
“The pleasure of my lord’s company,” Merlin said without missing a beat, and immediately Arthur knew there was an ulterior motive at work. Merlin wasn’t a knight and had never shown any interest in the patrols. He detested hunting with Arthur, although he went along, but he made no secret of his desire that Arthur should shoot nothing that was not expressly for food. There had to be another reason.
“You’re a filthy liar, Merlin.”
“You wound me, sire.” Merlin was trying to look serious, but failing miserably. The sparkle in his eyes was a dead give-away, and Arthur had to work to keep his face sober.
“Let me guess. Gaius has set you a list of herbs to be gathered from the eastern glades, and you thought it better to ride than to have an hour’s walk each way, right?” Merlin’s mouth twitched and Arthur felt the thrill of victory. Trust Merlin to figure a way to get out of doing more work than absolutely necessary.
“Your wisdom and insight is truly astounding,” Merlin grinned as he slid a buckle into place. He truly had gotten better at getting Arthur into and out of his armour during the last few months; although Arthur would never admit it, Merlin really wasn’t the worst manservant he’d ever had, a fact that continued to genuinely surprise him.
“Enough, Merlin, I’ve already said you can go. Just be sure you pay heed to your surroundings when we’re there; we’ve had reports of bandits in that vicinity. It’s why we ride out this morning.” Arthur reached for his sword and slid it into his scabbard, then did the same with his dagger. “And you’ll do as I command when we’re away; I’ll not have your usual cheek in front of my knights.”
“If it pleases you, sire.” Merlin gave a stuttering half-bow, and Arthur was sure it was to hide the stupid smile on his face. Even when he was pretending to be respectful, he was insolent. Arthur resisted the urge to box his ears; they were entirely too tempting as targets.
“Of course, Merlin. I can think of nothing that would please me more than to take four armed knights and escort you on a flower-picking expedition.”
“Good. I’ll meet you at the stables then,” and with that Merlin was out the door and away before Arthur could say another word.
“Damned impudent servant,” Arthur said loudly enough that he knew his voice would reach Merlin’s ears. He thought he heard the faint response of laughter echoed back at him, but it didn’t matter. Apparently, he was going on patrol and Merlin was going with him.
The eastern glades were not so much glades as swamp land fed by a river whose banks had eroded substantially over the years. The horses didn’t care for the terrain, which was damp and uncertain, their hooves sticking in soft sponge-like ground as they picked their way along the paths toward the heavier wooded stands that inter-cut the marshes. They paused at the point where the path grew wider and the horses stamped their feet in the sand to clean away soft earth that clung to their shoes.
“We’ll leave you here, Merlin,” Arthur said, marking the place and position of the sun in his mind. “We ride on to Fahrbaern, but shall return before the sun has reached its zenith.”
“Alright,” Merlin said, sliding down from his mount and tying its reins to a slender ash. “That should give me plenty of time to find what Gaius needs.”
“Just don’t stray too far from the path,” Arthur cautioned, even as his restless horse shook its head, anxious to ride on. “Don’t go following any will-o-wisps. I don’t want to return and find I need to drag you out of a mud-hole.” The knights laughed, and Merlin looked for a moment as if he might stick his tongue out, but apparently thought better of it.
“I shall endeavour to stay out of trouble,” Merlin said, “as long as my lord does the same.”
“You know me, Merlin,” Arthur replied with a quick quirk of his brows, before he tugged at the reins of his stallion and led his knights away at a trot.
“Yeah, that’s the trouble,” Merlin muttered, but Arthur didn’t bother to turn back. He knew the look of concern well enough by now, and he knew that Merlin had no cause to worry. He was the Crown Prince of Camelot, safe in his own lands, accompanied by four of his knights. There was nothing he could foresee that would compromise his safety in so short a time.
It was far easier for Merlin to gather herbs with magic since he’d taught himself a spell for the Collection of Useful Things. He’d found that once the words were spoken, it was a simple matter of concentrating on the thing he wanted—say, the leaf of a certain plant—and those leaves would divest themselves from their stems and sail towards him, neatly stowing themselves in the bag that he held. He’d learned early on that it was extremely important to picture exactly the right plant in his head and that subtle differences had to be concentrated on lest he mistake Purple-loosestrife for Rosebay Willowherb. Gaius had been none too happy with him that time, and had sent him out immediately to correct his egregious error—after helping clean up the botched potion, of course.
“Feverfew,” Merlin muttered, and called to mind the pale green of the stem, its soft white flowers, making sure that he differentiated between the fuller sturdy blossoms of chamomile and daisies, that he pictured the centre as flat, not bulbous, the petals erect, not sloping. He checked the plants as they sorted themselves into a neat pile in his basket, and satisfied that he’d got enough, went on to the others on his list. In no time at all, he’d completed his inventory, and settled himself under a sheltering tree to have a small nap. It was one of the rare luxuries of being outside the castle, and there was never time for it when he went with Arthur on a hunt. Then he was too busy toting dead animals around and trying to keep Arthur from shooting mythical creatures that weren’t actively threatening their lives; naps were out of the question.
He let the sunlight warm his face and coax him towards light sleep. He would hear if riders approached from either direction, and would have sufficient time to busy himself so Arthur had no cause to rebuke him for laziness. Of course, Arthur was likely to do it anyway, but there was no reason to give him additional ammunition in their little war of insults. Merlin thought they were generally well-balanced in their sparring—at least when it came to words—and he took some pleasure in the fact that he could unbalance the prince with a well-chosen line. It was rare to see Arthur laugh out loud without worrying about what people would think, but those times were becoming more frequent all the time, and Merlin felt that maybe the dragon had been right. Maybe, inconceivably, his task was to make sure that Arthur, the prat and the idiot, became something more like a king.
If he survived that long, of course. Merlin honestly didn’t know how Arthur had lived to see his age of majority considering how many attempts on his life had happened within the last few months alone. Either the assassins of Camelot were simply inept, or Arthur lived a truly blessed life. Merlin figured the truth lay somewhere between the two.
He drifted sleepily, sunlight dappling his clothes, the soft rustle of leaves whispering overhead.
It was difficult to say what exactly woke him. At first Merlin thought it must have been the breeze picking up because when he opened his eyes the sky had noticeably darkened, the air chill and damp where it had been warm before. He stood and stretched, trying to ascertain the sun’s position behind the clouds. It hadn’t felt like rain earlier, nor had the horizon shown the slightest hint of inclemency when they’d started out. Merlin hurriedly stored his bounty in his saddle-packs and untied the reins of his unsettled mare.
“Shhh, it’s alright,” he intoned softly, letting his hand slide down the chestnut slope of the horse’s neck. It whinnied and shook its head, and Merlin realized that beyond the rising wind and the shake of the trees, he could hear the ring of swords coming from the direction that Arthur and his knights had gone hours ago.
Merlin swung himself onto the mare’s back and turned her toward the path. Arthur was undoubtedly in some kind of trouble, and more likely than not it would be up to Merlin to save him. He touched his feet lightly to the horse’s flanks and urged her on, following the unmistakable sounds of men engaged in battle.
It was a wholly unexpected sight that Merlin encountered when the trail opened into a clearing amidst the trees.
Arthur and his knights were indeed engaged in battle, but Merlin could not discern any foe, and immediately he felt the prickle of energy that accompanied powerful magic. Something ancient and menacing was at work in this clearing. Merlin dismounted and tied his horse loosely, knowing she could run if necessary. He spoke a word of assurance as he left her at the edge of the glade and moved swiftly towards the combatants. Sir Roderick lay injured, bloody gauntlets pressed against his side, and Merlin moved first towards him to offer aide.
“Merlin, keep away,” Arthur called out, his tone harsh. He was holding his sword firmly and its end was tipped with blood. Near him, Sir Kay stood in fighting stance, half-turned towards Arthur, his sword clashing against the blade of Sir Tyraen who seemed determined to fight his compatriot.
Merlin ignored Arthur and knelt by Roderick, taking off his neckerchief and pressing it against the wound to help slow the bleeding. “What’s happened here?” he asked, watching incredulously as Sir Kay had to turn to counter a thrust from Arthur’s sword, accompanied by young Sir Tyraen’s terrified cries of “See? He’ll kill us all. He must be stopped.”
“The prince is ensorcelled, I fear,” Roderick gasped out as Merlin applied pressure to his side. “He attacked without warning.”
“Arthur gave you this wound?” Merlin asked, unbelieving, but he continued to look on as Kay parried another brutal onslaught from Arthur, and this time, Tyraen was at Kay’s side, fighting back Arthur.
“Aye, it was the prince.” Roderick closed his eyes and strove to take a deeper breath. Merlin could see the pain of the task written across his pale features. “He struck down Sir Gareth in one blow, then went at me. I managed to deflect the thrust, but not enough to spare a wound.” He winced.
Merlin watched Arthur press his advantage against Kay and Tyraen, using the slightly higher ground and their proximity to one another to limit their movements. He easily parried their jabs, and Merlin heard Kay attempting to reason with Arthur. “Sire! Do you not know us? We are your knights, your men.”
“I know,” Arthur spat out in a voice heavy with regret and frustration, seemingly aware but unable to do anything about his actions. His blade clipped Sir Kay across the thigh, and he went to one knee, only spared a killing blow because Tyraen stepped in front of him and swung his sword two-handed with all his strength. Arthur retreated quickly, but the blade still rattled across his chainmail ominously.
Kay cried out, “Tyraen, he is still our prince. You must not harm him.” With obvious effort, Kay pulled himself to his feet, and now Merlin understood the odd tableau he’d first come upon. Sir Kay was simultaneously trying to protect Arthur and defend himself against him.
“Go! All of you, away from me,” Arthur forced out between clenched teeth even as he brought the sword to bear on Kay again. “This madness may end if there is no one to fight.”
“We cannot leave you, my lord,” Sir Kay replied, his sword ringing against Arthur’s. Tyraen circled warily, uncertain of the protocols for dealing with a dangerous and probably spell-bound prince.
“Leave,” Merlin shouted, standing. “I’ll stay with him.”
The men all turned to look at him, even Sir Roderick who’d closed his eyes from the pain.
“And take my idiot manservant with you,” Arthur managed to grind out, although it seemed like every word was costing him something. His face was flushed, sweat dripping from his brow, although the air had turned chill around them.
“Sire,” Sir Kay tried once again.
“That is a royal command,” Arthur shouted, his voice growing hoarse on the last word, and even as Kay parried another blow, he nodded respectfully to Arthur.
“As you command, my lord. Tyraen, fetch the horses.” The younger knight sprang away from the field without delay, and Merlin wrapped Roderick’s arm around his shoulder and hoisted him to his feet. While Arthur and Kay’s swords continued to clash, Merlin helped settle Sir Roderick on a horse in front of Tyraen.
“Go,” Merlin told Tyraen in a low voice. “There’s nothing more you can do, and Roderick will die if he doesn’t reach Gaius with speed.”
Still, ever the knight, Tyraen looked to Kay for his orders, and waited until Kay gave a quick nod before riding away. Merlin grasped the reins of the other horse Tyraen had led forward, approaching Arthur and Kay cautiously.
“Arthur,” Merlin tried. “What’s happened?”
“Leave,” Arthur choked out, a trickle of blood staining his lip, and both Kay and Merlin exchanged frightened glances. “Before you cannot!”
“I did not strike him a blow about his face,” Kay said, beginning to back away, and Merlin nodded, knowing that he’d been right in thinking Arthur’s efforts to communicate his desires with them were as much part of the battle for control as were his sword strokes.
In one move, swift for a knight with a wounded thigh, Kay had grabbed Merlin around the waist and pulled him towards the horse. Merlin felt weightless as a ragdoll as Kay pulled him onto the horse, and turned to ride out. He struggled against the knight; he couldn’t leave Arthur like this, alone, the victim of some kind of spell, a danger to others and possibly himself.
“I can’t leave him,” Merlin said, but Sir Kay ignored him, managing to turn the horse and spur it onward without relaxing his grip on Merlin.
“I understand, but there’s nothing we can do. This is magic, and darker magic than I’ve ever seen. The prince fights it, but there is little he can do. We must inform the King.”
“No!” Merlin objected, and even though he was faced away from Sir Kay, he could tell the man’s surprise by the way his muscles tightened. “Sir Kay, please, let me down.”
“Arthur commanded you be taken to safety,” Kay said solemnly, speaking into Merlin’s ear to be heard over the wind and the pounding hooves. There were times when Merlin wished the knights weren’t quite as chivalrous as the knight’s code instructed them to be. According to Arthur, they were more like guidelines anyway, but Merlin didn’t think this was the time to point that out to Sir Kay as every moment took them further away from Arthur and whatever sorcerer had got hold of him this time.
“Someone needs to stay with him. What if he tries to take his own life?” Merlin blurted out. He didn’t know if magic could be used that way, but apparently Sir Kay didn’t know either for he stopped the horse so suddenly Merlin would have tumbled off if Kay hadn’t been holding him in place.
“You believe this to be the purpose of this magic? To kill the prince?”
“I don’t know, but I think someone should go back,” Merlin answered honestly, and then decided it was time to start lying. “I can sneak up to the clearing and keep an eye on him until you return. He won’t even know I’m there. I’m very stealthy.” Merlin was glad Kay hadn’t been on the last hunting expedition where Arthur had gone into a long treatise on stealth and how Merlin utterly failed at anything resembling it.
Kay looked conflicted and more than a little pale. The wound in his thigh was no doubt giving him pain, and Merlin knew the knight should be returning to the castle regardless of whether Uther could offer any assistance or not. Since they didn’t even have a candidate for head-chopping, Merlin didn’t see how the king could possibly be any help, but if it gave Merlin a chance to extricate Arthur from whatever spell he was under, he was happy for the time.
“You will not attempt to subdue him.” Kay made it a statement rather than a question.
“Absolutely not,” Merlin promised. “I’ll just keep watch, make sure he doesn’t try to harm himself.” Merlin made a sort of stabbing motion towards his own chest, and Kay blanched. “Besides,” Merlin said softly, and his next words were the truest he could think of, “it’s Arthur. I have to help him if I can.”
Kay nodded gravely and released his hold so Merlin could slip down from the horse. “Good luck,” Kay said, and turned into the wind, spurring his horse to a gallop that must have been incredibly painful for the rider.
Merlin echoed Kay’s sentiments, then turned and ran back towards the clearing as fast as he could manage.
As soon as Kay and Merlin were out of sight, Arthur dropped to his knees in triumphant exhaustion.
“You cannot have him. He is safely away,” Arthur murmured to the empty air, and it was almost painless to speak now that he was alone with only the voice of an unseen sorcerer for company.
“He will return,” the woman’s voice said confidently. Arthur didn’t know if the voice was in his head or all around him. He didn’t think the others had heard her in spite of her constant commentary on the battle, sometimes in English, sometimes in a language that hissed and slithered in his ears like a snake.
“I commanded Kay to take him away. He will do it, or risk execution. It is treason to disobey a royal command.” Arthur realized he couldn’t move from the position on his knees, but for the moment it was alright. At least he had control over his voice again, and his limbs were happy for the rest.
“Yet even at this moment, Merlin is arguing his point.”
Of course, he is, Arthur thought. Merlin was the bravest idiot he’d ever met.
“He’s convincing Sir Kay that someone must be here with you. You are the crown prince of Camelot, after all, and what is Merlin but a servant boy? His life is worthless compared to yours.”
The sorcerer laughed and it sent ripples of worry down Arthur’s spine. He knew confidence when he heard it, and this woman seemed to know them both entirely too well. It was discomforting.
“His life is as valuable as any subject of Camelot, and I would not risk him—”
The laughter again and the chill wind dried the sweat on Arthur’s forehead. “But he would risk everything for you. Of that, I am certain.”
“Why are you doing this?” Arthur asked. “What possible purpose is served by this? What use to you is Merlin?”
Even as the words escaped his lips, Arthur realized he didn’t truly want an answer. The sorcerer was too bold, too strong in her convictions, and Arthur knew Sir Kay, brave and loyal as he was, would have difficulty keeping Merlin on the road to Camelot unless he bound him to the horse and rode as if the hounds of Hell were after them. Even then, Arthur wasn’t certain that Merlin wouldn’t find a way back to him—it was just in his nature to be there whenever Arthur needed him.
Arthur looked across the clearing to where the body of Sir Gareth lay and felt a surge of guilt and anger well up in him at the needless loss of life. The sword in Arthur's hand was stained with blood, the blood of his own men, and if Merlin entered this clearing and the sorcerer commanded, Arthur did not know if he could stand to watch his own sword strike down someone who had become an unlooked for ally and a firm friend during the past few months.
“He approaches,” the voice said, tone gleeful. “He fears that with no opponent, you might turn the sword upon yourself.”
Even as the words were spoken, Arthur found himself rising to his feet, drawing the dagger from its place at his side. He shifted his sword to his left hand, twirled it with practiced rhythm, and pointed the dagger at his own chest, the tip settling right at the vulnerable part of his chainmail above his heart, where Tyraen’s initial wild thrusts had broken a hole in the metal.
“Arthur, stop!” Merlin cried out on cue, racing towards him, and Arthur fought with every ounce of his being to shape his lips into letters, push air through his throat, so that Merlin would know to run away as far and as fast as he could.
Not that Merlin ever listened to him, Arthur knew, and given the determined look on Merlin’s face, Arthur figured Merlin wasn’t about to start now.
Arthur felt the tip of the dagger pierce the skin of his chest, and he tried to keep his face from showing anything that might cause Merlin to come too close.
“Merlin, stay away,” Arthur managed to get out, the dagger pressing a millimetre deeper into his flesh.
“Let him go,” Merlin shouted, stopping about six feet from Arthur, and directing his voice heavenward. He raised his arms in what Arthur had no doubt Merlin thought was a menacing stance, but all it did was make his arms easier targets for a man with a blade. Without hesitation, Arthur found himself sheathing his dagger, relief flooding through him only to be replaced by dread as he shifted his sword to his right hand in preparation for a strike.
“Merlin!” Arthur choked out, but the fool refused to move and then Arthur lunged and brought the sword down upon Merlin’s outstretched arms. Arthur closed his eyes as the sword struck something solid, then passed through as if there’d been no barrier. He’d seen his share of battles, dealt enough blows to know the way his sword felt as it swept through bone, hard muscle, the moment when steel won over flesh.
He felt bile rising in his throat, couldn’t bear the thought that he’d done this to Merlin. Cut his hands away. His usefulness. His life, for he would surely bleed to death before anyone could arrive to aid them.
“Arthur, I’m sorry,” Merlin was saying, his voice miserable, and Arthur knew Merlin should be screaming, not apologizing. He forced his eyes open, saw Merlin still standing with both hands outstretched, a wavering light shimmering between them like some kind of shield.
Arthur lifted his sword against his will, slashed heavily towards the blue light. Merlin held steady, and the sword seemed to simply disappear at the edge of the light, then reappear when Arthur stepped away. Merlin was unharmed, although his face was grim and his eyes seemed gold instead of their usual blue. Arthur thought it a trick of the strange light, but he couldn’t explain why Merlin wasn’t dying at his feet.
“You’ll need more than that, Merlin,” the sorcerer said. Arthur heard the sibilant chant begin and then his sword began to raise again, flame curling out around its edges and where they touched the invisible shield, it disappeared. Merlin shook his hands and stumbled backwards. He whispered something low and incomprehensible to Arthur, and then the flames were dying out, disappearing like fireflies in the dawn. Arthur suddenly realized he was caught in the middle of a duel between two sorcerers—and one of them was Merlin.
“Nimueh, let him go,” Merlin called and he sounded more commanding than Arthur had thought possible. But then Arthur was spinning towards Merlin, sword cutting sideways through the air, and Merlin made a motion with his hands that Arthur couldn’t quite comprehend as he tripped over something underfoot and started to fall backwards. He landed hard, and he knew there was no way that rock had been there a second ago. Merlin grinned apologetically, and Arthur blinked.
“Bastard,” he said, but he meant it with admiration. At least now he knew how Merlin had managed to gain the advantage over him in that first fight with the maces. If they got out of this alive and with all their limbs intact, he and Merlin were going to have a long chat about making one’s prince look like a complete arse.
The air grew colder, a slow drizzle starting to fall, and Arthur knew instinctively that Nimueh was with them. A young woman with an ageless face stepped out from a bank of rolling fog and stood watching them.
“A little showy, don’t you think?” Merlin said, and Arthur would have grinned if he could have.
“I hold the power of Nature in my hands, Merlin,” Nimueh said. “The power of life and death. Surely you must want to know what this much power feels like.”
She raised a slim white hand elegantly and twirled it once, even as Arthur felt his own sword echoing the motion in his hand, lunging forward again in a series of strikes and thrusts that Merlin barely managed to dodge. Arthur’s sword caught him in the shoulder just as he turned away, and this time Merlin did cry out, hand going to the wounded place.
I’m sorry, I’m sorry, Arthur thought as strongly as he could, tried to make his face, his eyes show it so Merlin would know he would never hurt him under ordinary circumstances. Never. Not even knowing the truth of what secrets Merlin had been hiding.
“He would strike you dead, Merlin. Him and his father.”
I’m not my father, Arthur thought, blinking back pride and anger.
“He’s not his father,” Merlin echoed as if he’d heard Arthur’s very thoughts, and Arthur wondered if Merlin believed this to be true why he hadn't trusted Arthur with his magic.
“For twenty years, they have killed our kind. Burned, beheaded, drowned as witches. They’ve cut off the hands of those who’ve helped us, forced us into hiding, made us deny our very nature.”
“And Uther was wrong,” Merlin said, his voice never wavering even though the words he uttered were treason. Arthur now had two reasons to see him put to death, and he wondered how it was that Merlin had so little sense of self-preservation. “But this is not the way to set things right.”
At Nimueh’s hissed command, Arthur pushed forward again, his blade now growing until he had no choice but to wield it two-handed, and with all his force and weight behind it he pushed Merlin backwards.
“Fight back,” Arthur said, still struggling to make the words his own. “Merlin, fight back!”
“I won’t fight you.”
"Use your damn magic!" Arthur meant it, even though he knew now that Merlin could probably end his life with a spell. Still, he'd put his life in Merlin's hands so many times, he couldn't stop doing it now. "Merlin, fight!"
Merlin shook his head as the wind grew from a breeze to a sweeping gust and then a whirling cone of earth and air. Arthur held his ground, barely, and then he felt himself lifted and thrown as if by a giant hand, all his breath taken when he crashed into the ground.
Arthur gulped for air watching Merlin’s hands turn into fireballs that flew towards Nimueh and then burst as if they were soap bubbles. The woman laughed even as she called down rain and lightning around her, forcing Merlin to dodge explosions that tore the ground open and left him scrambling in mud.
“You think this young Pendragon so different from his sire, yet he too will use you as Uther used me, then cast you away when your magic becomes troublesome, when he can’t make it work the way he wants it to.”
Arthur was soaked now, his hair flat against his brow, but his sword, shrunk back to normal size, burned with a bright blue flame.
“It won’t be the same,” Merlin said, pushing rain and hair out of his eyes. “It doesn’t have to be the same.” He looked at Arthur, half pleading, half hopeful, and Arthur tried to answer that trust with his eyes. It wouldn’t be the same. He would make sure of that; they both would.
“He will make you a weapon.” Nimueh watched almost lazily now as Arthur moved sure-footed through the mud, tracking a stumbling Merlin who was trying to keep track of the lightning, Arthur’s sword, and Nimueh all at once. “He will forge you in his image and use you to make his kingdom great. When he is finished, he will cast you away, Merlin. There is no other possible ending.”
“There is,” Arthur spoke, surprised that the words resonated so clearly in the rising storm. Lightning flashed and struck the ground beside him. He didn’t move.
“You can defeat him, Merlin,” Nimueh coaxed. “He’s but a man, flesh and blood, no real power except what’s been handed to him by frightened peasants and cowed armies. The Pendragons rule with terror; we must answer them in kind.”
Another streak of lightning flashed overhead and Arthur felt its electricity lift his hair. Merlin’s blue shield had reappeared over Arthur. It hung there and Arthur could see clear sky through it where before there’d been only clouds.
“I won’t fight Arthur. I’d rather die.” Merlin’s eyes were pure gold, even through the rain and the muck they shone with a purity of light, and Arthur wondered how this could make his father so afraid. All he could see was goodness, bravery, an unbearable loyalty that Arthur was going to have to talk to him about—he really didn’t want Merlin to be so keen to die for him. He wanted a chance to prove Nimueh wrong—about him, about Merlin, about what their future held.
“Then you are damned, Merlin. Damned for all eternity, and I will not rest until you and the entire line of your damnable prince is swept from this earth.”
She clapped her hands, let fall a deluge upon them, the clearing becoming nothing less than a lake where there had been none before, and Arthur stayed rooted to one spot letting the water sweep up and over him, unable to do anything else until he felt slim arms around his chest, pulling at him. He and Merlin broke the surface together, both gasping, and Arthur for the first time in hours felt control of his body return to him as they half-swam, half-loped towards what was now a kind of rocky shore among the trees.
"That is the last time I'm saving you from a gods-damned lake!" Merlin sputtered.
They lay on the rocks, breathing, and Arthur could hear the distant horn that signalled help was closing in on them. Merlin heard it too, and got to his feet, attempting to ring water out of his clothes in what Arthur was sure was a vague attempt to improve his appearance before being dragged off to the dungeon and execution.
“Why wouldn’t you fight me?” Arthur asked. It was not the question he’d intended.
“I couldn’t use magic against you,” Merlin said, then catching Arthur’s raised eyebrow, he recanted. “I couldn’t use fighting magic against you, lethal spells, damaging spells. Making you trip over a rock—”
“Or a box.”
“—or a box,” Merlin added, “that’s not exactly harmful. But I couldn’t use magic to hurt you. It’s what Nimueh wanted, to use us against one another.”
“And it would prove my father right.” Arthur’s voice was soft.
“Wouldn’t want that,” Merlin said, but Arthur could tell his heart wasn’t in it. They were both numb with cold and exhaustion, each of them had bleeding wounds, and the knights of Camelot were fast approaching.
“So what do we do now?” Merlin asked as Arthur got to his feet. The water was beginning to recede, but Arthur knew there would be no tangible signs of what had happened here, save for perhaps Gareth’s body still at the edge of the trees.
“We keep each other honest,” Arthur answered. “We fight together. Eventually.” Arthur slung an arm around Merlin’s shoulder, careful of his wound, but grateful for the warmth and strength of his friend. “And in the meantime, we keep you safe.”
“You mean secret.”
Arthur knew it wasn’t right, but he also knew there was nothing he could do to change it until his father had passed from his reign. All Arthur could do was resolve to be a different kind of man, a different king.
“Only until it’s safe, until those who hate magic and hate power have passed on.”
“I won’t be a weapon for anyone, not even you,” Merlin said, looking at the sword that had wrought so much carnage at Arthur’s hand.
“I wouldn’t ever expect you to,” Arthur promised, and sheathed his weapon, as the sounds of galloping horses grew closer. “Which means, Merlin, that we need to double our efforts on the practice grounds so you’ll be able to mount a passable defense if you need one. That invisible blue shield thing doesn’t seem all that reliable.”
“It saved you, didn’t it?”
“I think Nimueh just isn’t a very good sorcerer. She’s all flash. Fog rolling in. Lightning.”
“Lightning that almost killed you,” Merlin pointed out, but he was grinning as they moved slowly towards the muddy path.
“Bah! She didn’t even get close.”
“And I suppose you could have gotten yourself out of her puppet routine at any time, sire?”
“As I recall, that spell was only broken when she left in a huff, and—oh yeah, a flash of lightning. All you seemed to be good for was distracting her with shiny bubbles.”
“You’re a real prat, you know that?” Merlin said as the riders came closer and prepared to dismount.
“Yeah,” Arthur whispered, “but you wouldn’t want me any other way.”
Merlin didn’t say anything, and Arthur took that as agreement. It might not be how his father and Gaius and Nimueh would have settled things twenty years ago, but Arthur had a feeling that he and Merlin were going to change everything that had come before.