“No, not a sorcerer,” Merlin said brazenly, although his eyes were wide with his own impunity. “Warlock. There is a difference.” He waited, expecting the prince to laugh at the thought of Merlin having any kind of magical ability—or any ability at all.
Arthur’s expression didn’t change. “Really. Tell me, Merlin, what exactly is the difference between a sorcerer and a warlock?”
Merlin swallowed hard. The air had gone still around them, taut with tension, waiting, watching…
“A sorcerer is someone who has a magical talent, but has to learn and develop it, like with sword play or healing. A warlock, on the other hand, is born with magic, so that it is inherently a part of him—or her. It is instinctive, like breathing.”
“Mm.” Arthur kept his gaze stern and unreadable as he let the silence stretch out to an almost unbreakable point between them. Then– “Do all warlocks also have a relationship with giant bloody dragons and have an active death wish, or is that just you, Merlin?”
“WHAT?” Merlin yelped, sawing back on his horse’s reins as he frantically attempted to flee.
Arthur swore and was around him in a flash once again, blocking his path as faithful Amira reacted instantly. “Dammit, Merlin, will you stop? MERLIN!”
Horses and men both stared at each other, wide eyed and panting with their excursions.
Merlin was the first to blink. Arthur watched his lashes sweep down, hiding those impossibly blue eyes, so much like his own, and all the thoughts and fears and hopes behind them. When they opened again, they were shadowed and resolute. “You know.”
Arthur nodded silently, still watching his every move like a hawk.
The prince snorted loudly, making the nervous warlock jump slightly. “Less than forty eight hours ago, I tried to kill my own father, Merlin. Yet somehow, you managed to talk me down. A bit of advice—the next time you take someone’s emotions, be sure to give them back when you’re done.”
It was almost comical, how wide Merlin’s eyes got. He had thought it was just residue of the emotion draining spell he had used, had thought that constant sense, the awareness of Arthur in the back of his mind that night was just a result of spending nearly every waking moment with the prince for the past two years.
“So.” Relaxing in the saddle, Arthur rested his arms easily on the saddle, fingers hanging loosely just beyond reach of his sword. “Oh, relax, Merlin! If I was going to kill you, I’d have done it a dozen times over for your sheer idiocy and incompetence before we ever got around to this whole magic thing.”
The tension didn’t leave Merlin’s body. “You’re taking all of this awfully well…”
Arthur shrugged. “You gave me back most of my emotions, but there was still a feeling of disconnect. I don’t know if it was shock, or I was already drained from the experience with Morgause, or the confrontation with my father…” he trailed off. “Either way, going down to visit the dragon—Kilgarrah—felt like a battle situation. I was forced to think beyond the emotions. You can’t emote when you’re fighting for your life; if you feel anything-anger, frustration, betrayal-then you’re dead.” He shot the warlock a level look. “And that may have been what saved your life.”
Merlin returned the look, and held out his hand. Arthur watched, warily entranced, as a familiar blue globe of light shimmered into existence on his palm. “I guess that makes us slightly more even then.”
Arthur gazed at the light, and finally realized why there had been such a spark of familiarity in his heart when it had first appeared in that cave so long ago.
The color was the same fathomless blue as Merlin’s eyes.
And now, looking once more into that steadily trusting gaze, Arthur knew everything was going to be okay.
“I always knew there was something about you, Merlin…”
The warlock grinned at the familiar words. “Finally put your finger on it, then?”
Arthur shoved him lightly, nearly toppling him from his horse, who snorted in protest. “Come on. The sooner we catch something, the sooner we can settle in for the night and talk.”
Merlin groaned as he dismounted and melted into the brush. “You’re already getting ideas, aren’t you?”
Arthur ignored his attempt at levity, already focused on the task at hand, although it was true—his analytical mind was already whirling with possibilities. This was what he excelled at—gauging the enemy, finding their strengths and weaknesses, and knowing when to press forward and when to retreat. History, magic, politics—all different battlefields to step on and learn from.
As long as he treated Kilgarrah as another source of tactical information; as long as he didn’t allow emotion to overwhelm him, kept moving, thinking, planning, looking towards the future, then he would be fine. He had succumbed once only; that night when he had returned alone to his rooms. He had wept, brokenly, for the sacrifices, for the loss of innocence, friendship, love, and faith that his family, and like the aftershocks of an earthquake, the rest of Camelot and the five kingdoms had endured. In the darkness, just before dawn, he had also forced himself to look deep within his own mind, heart, and soul and confront all the shadows within that spoke with his father’s voice, lecturing, patronizing, unyielding. And it was only as the first rays of the sun pierced the horizon that Arthur truly accepted the dual sides of his lineage and destiny, and knew that this was where he would take the first step towards his future as king alone, away from his father.
If everything worked out according to plan, Merlin, Morgana, and Guinevere would be there standing shoulder to shoulder with him at the end.
“Ow! Merlin!” Arthur snarled, rubbing his side where the other man had jabbed him with a stick.
“Arthur!” Merlin mocked, waving two rabbits in front of his face. “If I had known that you finding out about my magic would reduce to you to brooding, almost thoughtful silence while on a hunting trip no less, I would have told you a long time ago.” He walked away to where a fire was already burning brightly, adding over his shoulder, “Come on, mighty hunter. I’ll let you redeem your pride later. Right now I’m hungry, and we don’t have much time before that rain hits.”
Arthur automatically glanced up at the sky, which had turned a dark and ominous grey during their conversation/confrontation, then turned his frown on his servant.
“How in the hell did you do all that already? We haven’t even started the hunt.” He snapped, gesturing at the campsite, the fire, and the rabbits.
Merlin raised his brows slowly. “Um. Magic.” He frowned. “I thought you’d be pleased.”
“Dammit, Merlin!” Arthur snapped, seeing red. “I didn’t accept it so that you could go around being more of an idiot than you usually are! Why would I be pleased with you taking a shortcut on an honest skill that could someday save your life?”
Merlin opened his mouth, but stopped when he realized that he didn’t have response.
Arthur sighed and shook his head. “Merlin. I’ve been taught all of my life that magic is powerful, a force to be reckoned with, meant for great deeds and greater evils. It corrupts and slays the mind and soul. I know that’s not always the case, but it’s not a crutch, either. Even for someone like you, it’s still a tool like any other, to be wielded as delicately as a physician’s knife or harshly as an executioner’s axe. Don’t take it for granted.” He finished sternly. “You are not invincible; no one is. No one is meant to be.”
The warlock was silent for long moments, absorbing the prince’s words. “Sire.” He said quietly, bowing his head, both in apology and acknowledgement of his liege’s lesson and warning.
Arthur waited another moment before saying briskly, “Still, no need to waste what little effort you did put into all of this.” Clapping Merlin on the shoulder, he walked over to the log near the fire and sat down, reaching out gingerly to check the rabbits, now spitted and roasting over the flame.
His friend followed suit after a moment, and they sat in silence, staring into the fire.
“It feels like a weight has been simultaneously lifted from my shoulders and is crushing me down to earth, “ Arthur murmured. “You have magic, Merlin. In Camelot. Under my father’s reign.” He rubbed a hand over his face and sighed. “I’m not going to ask why you came here, because there would be no point. I’m not going to even get into the fact that you lied to my face, starting all the way back at Ealdor.” He glanced sidelong at his companion, who did not meet his gaze. “No more lies, Merlin. Starting now. If there’s one thing I can’t abide more than anything, it’s being lied to. No more deceit, no more trickery. No more short cuts, unless there’s no other solution.”
This time he waited until Merlin met his gaze. “I mean it. Camelot is still under my father’s rule. I will protect you as best as I can. But people are going to begin to talk, if they haven’t already, if you carry on the way you are. You need to learn basic hunting, tracking, and fighting skills, Merlin. I don’t care if it’s with sword, staff, or bow. You just need to learn. Also, no more riding out with me without at least chainmail or a jerkin to protect you.”
Merlin wrinkled his nose, but yielded to the Prince’s command. “Fine. I’ll learn the quarterstaff and bow, alright? No swords. And a leather jerkin is fine, but no chainmail. Nothing metal. It…interferes.” He waved his hand vaguely, which Arthur took to mean that the metal links somehow interfered with his magic.
“Fine. We will begin first thing tomorrow morning.” He was amused by Merlin’s groan, which was only partly exaggerated, and took a few moments of teasing and banter before getting down to the true subject at hand. “Your magic wasn’t the only secret revealed to me by the Great Dragon, Merlin…”
“So let me get this straight.” Merlin said. The rabbits had long been devoured, the bones buried a safe distance away to deter scavengers, and a magical shield had been erected over the clearing to deter anyone else. Now, even if anyone was out in the dismal weather, they would simply see more thick forest, instead of the quite cozy campsite they had put together.
“There were two sisters, Igraine and Nimueh. Morgause is your cousin by blood, the daughter of your aunt Nimueh and Duke Gorlois. Morgana is both your cousin and your half-sister, being the daughter of Nimueh and Uther.” Merlin swung around to face the Prince. “And in an effort to bind her loyalties to Camelot, you have suggested to King Uther that he make his illegitimate magical daughter, whom he may or may not know is his daughter and definitely does not know that she is magical, a lawful Princess of Camelot and potential heir to his throne. Have I just about covered it?”
Arthur sighed heavily. “Yes, Merlin, that just about covers it. Again. Repeating the same thing over and over again won’t make it any less true. Unfortunately.”
“Bloody hell.” Merlin breathed, still pacing.
Despite the gravity of the situation, Arthur couldn’t help the small involuntary smile. He had never heard his friend curse before, not even when they were caught in the most dire of situations. Then again, it was a lot of information to take in, but he was pleased to see this side of the other man finally coming out. He had taken a chance in confiding in Merlin, for all that the servant had shared his confidences more and more over the past two years, but this was different. A part of him had wondered if the balance of power would change with the knowledge that Merlin was in fact his equal as far as magical royalty went. All that had changed—at least, for the moment—was Merlin’s attitude. Without the burden of his magical secret weighing him down, the warlock was moving and speaking with more confidence and authority than Arthur had ever seen out of him. And the prince had instinctively reacted to the change, treating Merlin like an equal and advisor, rather than the bumbling manservant the rest of the world saw.
“That doesn’t make sense.”
The prince frowned at his companion. “What doesn’t make sense?”
“Everything you just told me. Morgause is older than you, and Morgana is younger. So the timeline doesn’t make sense.”
With a pang, Arthur realized that he was right. That niggling feeling of wrongness that he had the night of his conversation with Kilgarrah appeared again.
“The dragon had it wrong,” he said slowly. “Morgause is the daughter of Nimueh and Uther, and Morgana of Nimueh and Gorlois. Nothing else fits.” He swallowed hard.
They stared at each other for a long moment as the implications of what that meant sank in. Morgause was a Pendragon, unacknowledged but still with claim to the throne of Camelot, if she so desired.
“So what do we do about it?” Merlin demanded, turning to face him.
“Wait. Watch.” The prince sighed. “She may try to infiltrate Camelot through Morgana, if she knows that they are half sisters.”
“They did show an intense curiosity about each other,” Merlin murmured. “Gaius mentioned it, in passing.”
Arthur sighed, although it was more of a groan. “I will still push my father to make Morgana a Princess of Camelot. Hopefully that will bind her loyalties to us, rather than a sister who has left her alone for all these years.”
Merlin nodded slowly, struck by a sudden thought. “What about her magic? I could help—“
Surprised by the abrupt and harsh command, Merlin protested, “But—“
Arthur’s gaze was hard, unyielding as he met Merlin’s stare. “Morgana is ruthlessly unforgiving to those she feels have betrayed her. She and my father are very much alike in that regard, for all that they are opposites in everything else. Revealing to her that you have knowingly have had magic the whole time that you have been in Camelot, yet never reached out to her or made a move to help those my father has persecuted will only make you an enemy in her eyes.” Merlin tilted his chin up mutinously, and Arthur growled. “Merlin.” He was going on nothing more than a gut feeling, but he knew better than to ignore it.
Merlin paced some more, needing to expand frustrated energy. “What if…what if I don’t help her as myself?” He finally burst out. “What if I disguise myself, create a separate persona? That way, if the king ever did find out, that person could disappear, and I’d still be safe.”
Arthur mulled it over. It wasn’t a bad idea, but…”It’s too risky right now.” He shook his head. “Besides, didn’t Gaius mention something about Morgana sleeping through the night without her sleeping draft? Maybe it was just a phase.”
That earned him a sardonic snort from the warlock. “Magic isn’t just a phase that you go through. She’s a witch, Arthur. Morgana was born with magic, just as I was. The dreams didn’t just stop suddenly, on their own.”
“Well then, what happened?” The prince demanded. “Did Gaius try some new mixture—“
“I don’t know, Arthur.” Merlin interrupted crossly, sitting down on the log with a huff. “We were a bit distracted by the bloody quest Morgause sent you on, and the ensuing revelations that were divulged. Morgana wasn’t exactly a priority.”
“Well then, until we know more, we do nothing.” Arthur replied with a note of finality in his voice, going over to his bedroll. “Get some sleep. We have much more to do before we return to Camelot.”
The next morning both men were up early. Arthur went hunting this time, hoping to bring down something larger than a couple of rabbits, while Merlin gathered some herbs and plants that he knew Gaius would send him out to replenish anyway. Both prince and warlock were successful in their endeavors, and returned triumphantly to the campsite at about the same time.
It was still early morning, so there was no need yet to rush back to Camelot. They settled back into their spots for lunch, which this time was a couple of fish from the nearby stream that Merlin had speared—without magic.
They ate in silence, delaying the inevitable. And then they made plans, continuing the conversation from the night before. The military man in Arthur wouldn’t be satisfied until there were back up plans for the back up plans.
The sun was turning the sky a glorious red and gold when Arthur finally stood up and silently began breaking down the camp. Merlin followed suit, dissolving the shield spell and burying the fish bones so that there would be no trace that anyone had been there as Arthur saddled the horses.
The prince mounted up, and Merlin followed suit. Side by side, they began the trek back to Camelot. Just before they left the forest, Merlin pulled his horse to a stop.
“As soon as we return into town, it’s back to business as usual, right?”
They both could hear the wistfulness in his voice. A couple of days ago, Arthur would’ve made some sarcastic and degrading remark in favor of maintaining the status quo.
“It won’t be forever, Merlin.” The prince said gently. “And we have plans for the groundwork to be laid for the future. You help me to fulfill the dragon’s predictions, and I promise you, one day you will walk free through this kingdom and everyone will know you for who you truly are.”
Sapphire and aqua colored eyes met and held for a long moment, before Arthur shoved at him companionably. “Until that day however, you have a whole list of chores to make up: cleaning my room, mucking out my horses, polishing my armor…”
“You know, it might be worth it to turn you into a toad.” Merlin said thoughtfully. “There was a bard that used to come through Ealdor who used to tell this story about an arrogant prat of a prince who made a sorceress mad, so she turned him into a toad, and he had to convince a princess to fall in love and kiss him in order for the spell to be broken. I know Gwen is tolerant of a lot of things, but unfortunately for you, she detests frogs and toads. Anything squirmy and slimy, actually, so you may be out of luck, my friend.” He wiggled his fingers menacingly.
“Shut up, Merlin.”
Grinning, the warlock followed the prince as he rode back to town.