You are viewing hobnailedboots

Previous Entry | Next Entry

Things Behind the Sun, Part V

blue
Previous Part


Chapter Five

Merlin


Merlin acted on instinct. The sword Morgana was hefting was far too big for her waifish frame, and looked like it belonged to one of the knights. Her hate for him in his dream had been all too real, and now she had come back to try to seize the throne whilst Camelot was under attack.

He didn't have time to think about any of those things, though; he simply held out his hand and flung the sword to the ground with a thought.

Arthur took a step away from him, knocking the platter of food to the ground in his haste, but Merlin could not regret it: better a living enemy than a dead friend.

“I could pick that up and send it through your neck, sorcerer,” she spat. “I learned control in Conorgia, if nothing else.”

Merlin didn't have time to marvel at the fact that Uther and Morgana had apparently found time to sit down and name their hellish dreamscape. Instead, he leapt to his feet and hoped that no one would notice the way he swayed upon them.

“You can't hurt him,” he said, “I won't let you.”

“Oh, so there are some people you're willing to risk your neck for, then?” she growled, before visibly reasserting control over her emotions. Breathing out heavily, she lowered the sword until the tip of the blade was inches from the ground.

Merlin was in between the two of them, so he couldn't see Arthur's expression. He didn't particularly want to, either, but Arthur surprised him by taking a step forward so they faced her together. Arthur's face was frozen in a way that Merlin had seen before, when he'd found out about Morgana. Frankly, he looked like he'd been blindsided by a wild boar; his eyes were unfocused and blank.

“I hate to interrupt this … whatever this is,” said Morgana, sneering at the pair of them, “but I'm not here to take your throne – though to do so would seem remarkably easy, given your lamentable security. The place is overflowing with commoners, did you know? Father won't like that one bit, when he wakes up.”

Morgana paused for a beat in the same way she'd done in their shared dream – in Conorgia, or whatever she'd called it – as though she expected acknowledgement or agreement. When none came, she sighed and continued.

“Look,” Morgana said, “I know you won't believe me – especially since I, ah, incapacitated Sir Leon – but I'm here to help. Unlike some people,” she said, glaring at them (subtle wasn't a word Merlin thought he'd ever associate with Morgana, no matter what their destiny would turn out to be), “I can't sit back and let innocent people die.”

Between the three of them, silence reigned. Merlin, by force of habit, caught Arthur's eye, but he looked away. Morgana, unlike Merlin, was not waiting for a reaction.

“Uther should be waking up any moment now,” she said, and exited the room as quickly as she'd entered it.

~

"We,” said Arthur, still looking at the door as though he expected Morgana to slam her way back in any second, “We are going to talk. You aren't to leave this castle, am I clear?”

“Where do you think I'd go? It's not exactly perfect weather for a hunt, in case you hadn't noticed. Do you think I could swim off to Ealdor?”

Arthur turned to him, and though they were almost equal in height he managed to dwarf Merlin by dint of sheer rage.

“Oh, I don't know, sorcerer, perhaps you could have other methods of escaping?”

Sorcerer. That's all he was now: a lawbreaker. Something must have broken in Merlin's expression, because Arthur closed his eyes for a moment and breathed out loudly.

“Merlin,” he said. “Merlin, I mean. Look, I'd better—she'll probably stab my father if left alone with him for a second, and I—”

“You're more right than you know. I know you don't want to look at me, let alone talk to me, and you probably won't ever again, but this is important. Morgana and Uther and I were somehow in the same dream, I don't know why, but I didn't get there because of an abnormality in the brain. The nymphs – naiads, they're the ones who've been causing the weather—”

“I know.”

“And Mordred is wasting his magic to keep me awake so that I can attempt the ritual to stop them. So I have to—”

“Mordred is keeping you awake? Does this mean Gaius knows?”

“Did you miss the part about the magical ritual, and the fact that Mordred over here is slowly dying because of me? Whether or not somebody knows about my magic isn't important!”

“Of course it's important! How many times have you used magic in Camelot? Ealdor – that wasn't Will at all, was it? All this time, you've been courting death because—because what?”

Arthur grabbed Merlin's shoulders, but didn't shake him. Instead, he gripped them tightly as though he were trying to prevent him from magicking himself away. He's not going to kill me, thought Merlin, though his heart rate said otherwise, He remembered Will's name.

“Did you get tired of safe old Ealdor, and fancy moving to a place where magic was banned? You're literally the most irresponsible, stupid, idiotic person I have ever—”

The door opened again, and Arthur practically growled, whipping his head round and staring daggers at Sir Leon, who ducked his head in confusion.

“Did you know?”

“Know what?” asked Sir Leon. The miserable expression on Merlin's face must have tipped him off, because Leon's eyes widened and he glanced from one of them to the other. “Uh, no, I didn't. I mean, I don't think I did know that thing that, uh, I don't know about.”

“You told Sir Leon and you didn't tell me?”

“I didn't tell him! Gaius has known since I arrived, and Lancelot since I helped him with the griffin. I only told Gwen a few days ago, really.”

Arthur had far more control than Merlin gave him credit for. Not only had he refrained from breaking something upon discovering Merlin's powers, but he had also stayed silent for his list of other people who already knew about them. He did, however, appear more mutinous by the second, face slowly growing puce as he forgot to breathe.

“Lancelot?” he said, voice barely a whisper.

“Griffin,” Merlin countered. “It was reveal myself or let him die, and I'm not going to apologise for those priorities.”

Arthur had hardly seemed to hear the explanation, and was off again, brow furrowed. He removed a hand from Merlin's shoulder, and waved it in the air to make his point.

“It's not just them though, is it?” he said. “Because Morgana knew, somehow, and Mordred has to know about the ritual, so—”

“Are you angry because I didn't tell you, or because after all this is over you're going to have to behead me?”

"I'm angry because you're an idiot,” said Arthur.

Merlin considered a number of responses, but most of them would open up whole new cans of worms; Leon was already trying to shuffle out of the room as it was, and hadn't Arthur said something about going to protect Uther from Morgana?

Arthur showed no signs of remembering that any time soon. Instead, he used the hand that was still on Merlin's shoulder to steer him over to the bed and sit him down.

“You're ill,” he said, righting the chair he'd knocked over when Morgana came in. He sat down upon it and gestured for Sir Leon to come in. Merlin noted with relief that although Morgana had said she'd incapacitated him, he was not injured. “Why does it have to be you who defeats the nymphs?”

“Well, me and everyone, really – and even then we might not succeed. I'm … you could say that I'm quite talented.”

“Somehow I doubt that, Merlin,” said Arthur, the words seeming to come before he'd even had time to think about them. Suddenly, everything was a little less scary and strange.

"You don't know how many times I've saved your princely arse, sire.”

Arthur ran a hand through his hair, and managed to conjure a wan-looking smile.

“Well,” he said, “now you're going to have to do it again. After that, Merlin, you've got a lot of explaining to do.”

Explaining. Merlin could do explaining. Of all the 'ex's, explaining was by far the best. Of course, explaining could lead to execution or exile, but the way Arthur was acting made Merlin regret that he hadn't got it over with sooner. Then again, perhaps it took a supernatural force bent on the destruction of the earth to put other things into perspective; certainly, if he'd been revealed whilst Uther was still reigning king, he'd have been burned alive no matter what Arthur would have had to say.

Now that he'd filed the revelation of Merlin's magic into a box labelled 'After (assuming there is one)', Arthur changed. His expression grew determined and stony, and, picking up the chair that had been knocked to the floor, he asked Merlin what he needed for the ritual. Arthur always was good at adapting to the situation.

“Some fresh clothes, for a start,” said Merlin.

Arthur took a step forwards and changed again. He'd gone from angry to kingly in a fraction of a second, and now he was something different. Arthur frowned and reached forwards to do up a button on Merlin's nightclothes.

“That can be arranged,” Arthur said, smoothing down Merlin's nightshirt. Until Arthur turned to Leon and nodded at him, it seemed as though Arthur had forgotten his presence. “Get something that looks official,” Arthur said.

Leon left, looking extremely grateful to escape.

~

“So,” said Arthur, lowering himself back onto the righted chair, “I have a magician for a manservant.”

“The polite term is sorcerer,” said Merlin.

Arthur snorted, but didn't catch his eye.

“So you aren't as useless as you seem?”

Here we go, Merlin thought. There was an unsettled feeling in the pit of his stomach. He was cripplingly anxious, but not that Arthur would order him killed. Merlin trusted him that much, at least.

“You remember Sophia? The one you tried to elope with?”

“Yes,” said Arthur, as though he would rather not be reminded.

“Well, she was a sidhe.”

“Well, I know that.”

“No,” said Merlin. “A fairy. The sidhe. Her father was one too. They wanted to sacrifice you so that they could return to Avalon, so she enchanted you.”

Whatever Arthur had been expecting, it clearly wasn't that.

“What? So she was trying to kill me, and you—”

“I stopped her.”

“Well, clearly,” said Arthur. “and then you let me think I was an idiot.”

“Would you rather I hadn't saved you, and left your dignity intact? Arthur, the number of times I've killed others to save your skin—”

“You killed her?” Arthur said, narrowing his eyes and examining Merlin as though he'd be able to see the evidence of it on his face.

“Well, clearly,” Merlin echoed. “Were you under the impression I pulled her aside and made her see the error of her ways?” Arthur opened his mouth to speak, and then closed it again. Merlin was almost irritated: Arthur wasn't appalled by the act of killing, but rather by the fact that it had been Merlin who did it.

“Remember Edwin, the physician? He was taking his revenge out on Uther, who had burned his parents to death, by killing you. I sent an axe into his brain,” said Merlin, “and that was that. And I would do it again in a heartbeat.”

Arthur simply looked at him. Both of them knew that, in the weeks after Edwin had left the castle, Merlin had grown pale and clumsy. He'd slept less than an hour each night, and had twitched at loud noises. Both of them also knew that Merlin wasn't lying when he said he'd do it again if it meant saving Arthur.

“You don't have any more secrets, then?” said Arthur. “You're not an elf, or something?”

“No,” said Merlin, and couldn't help his disapproving expression. “Everyone knows elves aren't real.”

Arthur started laughing, but stopped when Merlin began to speak.

“I suppose—I am a dragonlord.”

Arthur blinked.

“Please tell me that doesn't mean what I think it means.”

“I can control dragons,” said Merlin. “Look, we really don't have time for all this right now. Morgana—”

“When the dragon attacked Camelot, it was you who got rid of it,” said Arthur flatly. “And you let me take the credit.”

Of course. Of course that would be the detail with which Arthur took issue.

“You can hold a parade for me later,” said Merlin. “We have to save the day again first.”

“Why did you protect us? You've saved my father too, I'll bet, with the troll.”

Merlin considered hiding behind destiny, but the idea was fleeting. He'd made it this far being honest, and he'd continue that way.

“You're not as big of a prat as I first thought,” said Merlin.

“I'm reserving judgement on whether you're an idiot,” said Arthur, which, all things considered, was far better than could be expected.

Despite everything, despite the fact they were breaking new ground, and that if they survived Arthur would surely interrogate him more thoroughly, Merlin smiled and tried to sit up. Arthur reached out to push him back onto the pillows, but Leon knocked at the door so Arthur helped Merlin out of the bed instead.

“It's time to put on your armour,” said Arthur. Leon dropped a pile of hideous gold-embroidered clothing onto the bed, and Merlin groaned.

~

Morgana

The soft velvet of the curtain hung against her face, at once smothering and soothing her. She remained in the alcove, barely breathing, for a good five minutes, until she could be sure that the group of peasants had disappeared. When she came out, the corridor was empty, and it was almost like nothing had changed at all.

On the way to Uther's rooms, she had a vision of the nymphs. Caliadne, who she now knew to be the leader, danced across the ramparts, flashing gold into a large, ragged crowd. Groups of people fell to their knees, and then forwards into the grimy stone courtyard. The crowd was so tightly packed that some of those who were struck dead did not move at all, supported by the people around them.

Uther was walking down the corridor by the time she reached it. His eyes lit up when he saw her, so she laughed in his face just to see it crumple.

“I still hate you,” she informed him, as casually as she could, “but if saving my kingdom means that I have to suffer your company for a while, then so be it.”

Uther looked at her with sad eyes, but she remained indifferent and, eventually, he gave her an approximation of a smile.

“Shall we walk, then?” he said. Morgana captured his arm in hers, squeezing hard enough to bruise, and turned back the way she came.

Arthur nearly collided with them on the steps, so focused was he on reaching Uther's rooms.

“Morgana,” he said, looking so overwrought that she nearly laughed again.

“I don't have time for this,” she said. “We don't have time. My sister told me about nymphs, how they're the perfect predator, because they can only be defeated by a large magical force, yet their very existence drains magical souls. There's some sort of ritual – Gaius will know.”

For a moment, Morgana thought back to the year that Morgause had spent teaching her about magic and the world in which she lived, and missed her so fiercely that it hurt more than a hundred deaths in Conorgia. For a moment, Morgana wanted nothing more to return to her dank, empty cave with her skeletal, empty sister, and wait out the end of the world.

But if she stopped now, she might as well still be asleep.

“We need powerful sorcerers, average warlocks, anyone we can convince to help us. The people will think it's a trap, she says. Especially with you there,” she said, turning to Uther. “You should cede the throne to Arthur, so that—”

“And not to you?” Arthur said. “I thought you said the throne was yours.”

It is, thought Morgana. But she wasn't an idiot. Public opinion was so far against her that she'd be hanged before she could do so much as order a crown. Besides...

“After the kingdom's won back, will you kill Merlin, or shall I?”

“You're not killing Merlin.”

“We'll see about that,” said Morgana. Even then, with Uther trembling at her side, the memory of the ways in which she'd killed him fresh in both their minds, Morgana wondered whether she could take a blade to Merlin in reality. If she were being honest with herself, she didn't even know if she could do what he had done to her: slip her poison and wait for it to do the dirty work.

She was succumbing to weakness, but it was only momentary, and once this battle was over then she could get to work on winning the war.

That said, Arthur and Merlin had emerged from the revelation of his magic a united front, and it made Morgana sick, with worry more than jealousy. If Merlin had been accepted by Arthur, and of course he had been, the guileless, idiotic boy who had been prepared to kill rather than reveal himself or reassure her, then laws could very well change to accommodate magic. And if that happened, how could she justify pursuit of the throne?

“For us to fight over Camelot, it needs to remain in one piece,” said Morgana. She took Arthur by the arm and, flanked in shocked and angry Pendragons, made her way down the stairs and towards Gaius's rooms.

~

Leon

The dusk was warm and light. Bar its sea-hemmed state, Camelot was experiencing a perfect summer evening.

“The world's always beautiful right before a fight,” said Gwaine.

“That's poetic, mate. Really,” said Elyan, shoving his shoulder.

“Shut up,” whispered Percy, louder than the average man's speaking voice. He pointed up to the balcony, where Arthur and Merlin stood. Even from the ramparts, standing guard above the crowd, the knights could see Merlin's condition. He was clutching the balcony for support, and looked as though he was about to be sick.

“In a cruel, uncaring way,” said Arthur, his voice echoing through the courtyard, “the floods have brought us together. Villages have been crushed and earth has become water. You have opened your homes as I have opened mine. Farmers live with barons, and woodchoppers dine with smiths. Camelot has always been the apex of the five kingdoms, and now it is all that remains. We have been united physically, but we need to be truly united if we are to defeat our enemy. Our enemy goes by many names, but whether you call them naiads, or nymphs, or elementals, you must fight as one. Groups must come together and act as a united front: villagers and city-dwellers, Mercians and people of Camelot, those with magic, and those without.”

Morgana stepped out of the room and onto the balcony, stalking between Arthur and Merlin. She took her place like she belonged there. The crowd began to shout and point, but Arthur spoke on. The commanding tone in his words was Arthur's own, but Leon suspected that he had a little help from Merlin when it came to speaking over everyone else. His voice echoed off walls, but not hollowly. Rather, the reverberations hummed together and created an atmosphere of anticipation.

“I am showing unity! I have not forgiven Morgana her sins, but I know and need her strength. You may quarrel with your neighbour, but you must work with him. These rains were unnatural, and the floods will not disappear until the nymphs have been wiped from the earth. The nymphs believe that we will fight amongst ourselves. They believe that we will murder each other, and that we will starve, and that we will fall.”

“Arthur knows how to make a speech, that's for sure.”

This from Gwen, who had appeared on the ramparts without Leon noticing.

“What are you doing up here?” said Lancelot. “It's not safe, and you—”

“What, you think your swords'll be any use against the nymphs? You're up here for show and you know it. Besides,” she said, patting her hip, where a gleaming, newly-forged sword hung, “I can use a weapon as well as any of you.”

“We need to show the naiads,” said Arthur, “that humanity is more than that. We must show them that we can work together for the good of us all. For a magical problem such as this, we need a magical solution. I know you will be reluctant to come forwards, even with the promise of an amnesty, but every person counts, from my sister, to my manservant, to my physician.”

“Is he saying—” began Gwaine, but his voice was drowned out as Arthur continued.

“These creatures feed on magical energy, so we need to act quickly if we're to have any hope. I've done all I can to protect you, but there is no more that I can do myself. People of Camelot—no, people of Albion, I beg for your aid. The Pendragons have committed many wrongs against those of you with magic, and for that I apologise. You have my word that my father will stand trial for his crimes. Even now, he is currently being watched by my knights.

I've done all i can to protect you, and there is no more i can do. People of camelot. People of albion, i beg for your aid. The pendragons have committed many wrongs against those of you with magic, and for that i apologise. You have my word that my father will stand trial for his crimes.

You have his word, too. Uther pendragon awoke this morning and ceded the throne to me. He is currently being watched by my knights.”

Leon was sure that Elyan's suddenly panicked expression was mirrored on his own face.

“Sir Bor,” Gwen told them. “They're holed up in Gaius's chambers.”

“I beg you not only to help me save Camelot, but also to forge a new one. A better Camelot, and a better Albion. I am not asking those of you with magic to intervene to protect me. I am asking you to protect your friends and your family. Without your aid, they will surely die. They might not die today, and they might not die tomorrow, but as time passes and food dwindles, as water dirties and disease spreads, people will begin to lose their lives, and the nymphs will win. I am not exaggerating, then, when I say that the ritual that we are about to begin is our last chance.”

~

Merlin

A yellowed, weighty book was open on the bed between them, and Arthur snapped it closed.

“You know the ritual off by heart, Merlin. We've spent so long in your cramped, untidy room that any people who might have shown up in the courtyard have probably gone back to their homes. You know what you have to do, and now you need to show me some magic, so I know that you're up to it.”

“And if I'm not up to it?” said Merlin. Dust had puffed into the air when Arthur shut the book, and Merlin was fighting the urge to cough. “Do you have a replacement waiting in the wings?”

“You'll be fine,” said Arthur, clapping him on the back and nearly sending him face-first off the bed and onto the floor. “Now show me some magic. What can you do, apart from save people?”

Arthur had apparently decided that if he pretended Merlin was fine, he would be. Merlin, for his part, was doing his best to act like he wasn't about to pass out at any second.

“Saving people is quite useful, you know—”

“You know what I mean. Show me a trick.”

Merlin glared, but Arthur stared at him impassively, and Merlin had to either humour Arthur in this, or leave the safety of his room and so Merlin lifted a fist in the air and uncurled it to let flames dance. Arthur frowned at the fire, expression rapt. He was clearly fascinated, and the sight of it sent heat curling into Merlin's abdomen. Not for the first time, Merlin wanted to—

Arthur was looking at him, and Merlin ducked his head.

“That's amazing,” said Arthur.

“Fire's easy.”

Arthur leaned forwards, and, giddy and terrified, Merlin thought if not now, when?

They were all going to die, and he didn't mean that in an abstract, philosophical sense. Merlin wasn't half as strong as he normally was, physically or magically, and he was worried he would drain Mordred completely. He didn't know how many people would turn up for the ritual, or even that any would.

Merlin prided himself on being an optimistic person, but he had to face facts: his mother had been killed by the floods, along with the rest of Ealdor, and Merlin had not been able to protect her. Now Camelot would be slaughtered by creatures that Merlin could not destroy.

Arthur gripped his wrist and brought him out of his gloom. Arthur's fingers, warm and dry, curled over Merlin's and balled his hand back into a fist.

“Is it from the movement?” he said. “I always thought you had to say words for spells, but you didn't with the sword, and right now—”

“Normally people have to speak,” said Merlin, “and sometimes I do too.”

Arthur didn't let go of his hand.

“I always said there was something strange about you, Merlin.”

Merlin laughed, and disengaged his hand from Arthur's. “Hope it's enough of a something to win.”

“Be careful.”

“I've got my armour, don't I?” said Merlin, gesturing to his clothes. They fit surprisingly well, and but for their colour Merlin would have said they were a manservant's uniform from days gone by. The black fabric was thick yet soft, and the gold thread painted strong, delicate hooks and curls over it.

Back in the room where he'd woken up, Merlin had fumbled with the ties on his neck for long, embarrassing seconds, before Arthur had shaken his head and said, “Honestly, Merlin. You're as bad at dressing yourself as you are at dressing me. Here, let me.”

“You've got your armour,” Arthur agreed, looking him up and down. An odd sort of silence followed, but it wasn't uncomfortable. In fact, Merlin would have been happy for that moment to go on forever, with them simply sitting on his bed, equals.

“Merlin—”

“We have a war to win,” said Merlin, as much to himself as to Arthur. “I have to go.”

~

Gwen was downstairs in Gaius's chambers. With her hand on her sword, she was glaring at Morgana whilst carrying on a conversation with Sir Bor. When she saw Merlin coming down the steps, her face brightened.

“Have you learned the ritual?” she called to him, leaving Bor and making her way to the steps. He nodded, and concentrated on making it down in one piece.

“They want me to stay down here with Uther and Bor,” she said, dropping her voice to a whisper, “but Gaius'll help me give them the slip. I'm going to be there when you do the ritual, Merlin, whether I'm in the room behind you or on the ramparts with the knights.”

“Thank you, Gwen. And thank you for trusting me, as well, even when you found out about my magic.”

Gwen's brows furrowed, and her hand found its way back to the handle of her sword.

“How's Arthur taking it?”

“Oh, he's fine,” said Merlin. “Well, not fine, but, you know, he won't order me killed, so that's a win. But you've always looked out for me, Gwen, right from the day you met me in the stocks. I can't—I don't say thank you enough, you know?”

“Stop it,” said Gwen angrily. “You're not going to die, so you can save the praise for later.”

Merlin hugged her.

“Even if we win,” he said, face buried in her hair, “I'm leading the charge. I have to give my all, and that probably means my life.”

“Stop it,” said Gwen, and hugged him back.

~

More people turned up than Merlin had expected. More people were in the courtyard than Merlin even thought had magic. From the look on Arthur's face as he finished his speech and surveyed the crowd, it was clear that he thought the same.

Merlin's fingers pressed tight against the granite balcony. The small jagged bumps in the rock scraped into his hands; he used the pain to anchor him to the present and to consciousness. Staring out into the sea of the crowd, he recognised the wide, open face of Gilli, staring up at him. Here and there, long cloaks indicated the presence of druids.

Now he came to think about it, Merlin probably had the druids to thank for the number of people there, in all honesty. All this prophecy nonsense had finally proved useful.

The crowd weren't silent, but after that speech of Arthur's they were as close to it as they could be expected to get. Pale faces were upturned towards him, and opposite, on the castle walls, he could see the red cloaks of the knights. If he squinted, he could see Gwen, clutching Lancelot's hand.

Now was his time, and he had to make it count.

“Um,” said Merlin.

Beside him, he heard a ruffle of skirts as Morgana, now dressed in the finest clothes Camelot had to offer, was pulled out of the way by Arthur, who came to his side.

“'Um'?” he said, under his breath. “Biggest moment of your life, and you choose 'um'?”

The king clapped a hand down on his shoulder, and raised his voice so everyone in the courtyard could hear, no matter whether Merlin was able to amplify his voice or not.

“People of Albion,” he roared, “those of you from Camelot's Upper and Lower towns may recognise this man as my manservant. He's also, as I've recently discovered, an extremely powerful sorcerer. He will be leading this fight. Ladies and gentlemen, seers and healers, sorcerers and sorceresses: Merlin—”

“I don't have a surname,” said Merlin.

“You don't—that's ridiculous! What sort of person doesn't have a surname?”

Arthur turned back to the crowd.

“This is Merlin Dragonlord!”

Merlin felt himself flush.

“You're laying it on a bit thick, aren't you?”

“Nonsense,” said Arthur. “Remember to speak up. We don't want someone mishearing you and accidentally turning Morgana into a frog. Ow!”

Arthur's hand at his back, Merlin began to speak.

~


by nane0. Leave feedback here!

~

The invocation itself was not long. Since the ritual could only be led by someone with magical strength beyond that which spells can provide, it relied on the ability of the caster itself; for most warlocks, the construction of a spell provided a crutch, but for Merlin it was a hindrance, more often than not.

Speed and power were of the essence: the nymphs were so tuned in to what was basically their food source that it would be a matter of seconds into the ritual before they'd realise what was happening. With the help of the crowd, Merlin had to guide the magical energy of each person into the air above them, and bring all that together into a powerful sphere. If he managed to do that without collapsing, he then had to direct it towards the nymphs.

The laws of magic were vastly different to other laws, and in many cases they provided an exception to the general rule. However, as in life, the more energy they expended, the more exhausted an individual became. For most people, the risk was that they could lose their magic permanently; for Merlin, who was nearly a creature of magic himself, the risk was far greater.

Even as he pushed his strength into the sky – a large gold sphere surrounded by a fiery corona – he felt himself weaken. Everyone copied him quickly, though: he'd expected everyone's magic to be the same colour as his, but Morgana's was purple, and Gilli's was blue. Soon the ball was larger than the scaffolds on which so many people were standing, not to be executed but to help fight for those who would hurt them. It was a giant rainbow sun; it hadn't dulled or become muddy like paints being mixed together. It was brilliant and awe-inspiring, and Merlin could sense Arthur holding his breath behind him.

Still...

“It's not enough,” said Merlin, feeling his knees buckles as he tried to put more of his energy into the sphere. “It's not nearly enough.”

The sphere pulsed and grew, and seemed grow more radiant with every passing second, undimmed even by the sudden arrival of the naiads. Vicious winds appeared from nowhere, and a nymph with red hair and an overlarge mouth sailed towards him on the current of air. Merlin ignored her.

It would be enough to stun them, certainly, but he doubted it would destroy them. Frustratingly, Merlin felt like if he'd only had a minute longer, they'd have made it. He could feel it, somehow, a great reservoir of power that was as yet untapped. Merlin coaxed more magic from himself to the fledgling weapon, and scanned the crowd, feeling for more with senses he didn't know he had possessed.

“Nice try, Emrys,” said the nymph, “but you've waited too long, and the king's killed off half of your kind already. You don't have enough there to poison us; all that ball is right now is a banquet. It was almost too easy.”

Fire's easy, Merlin thought. Oh, great. I'm going crazy. Either that or my life's flashing before my eyes.

His fingers lost their death-grip on the balcony, and began to dissolve. This is it, he thought. He saw the sphere begin to grow again, and screamed in agony and triumph. Arthur's body held him upright; Merlin was dimly aware of hands gripping him tightly.

“Merlin,” said Arthur, as though from a great distance. “You have to stop,” he said. “You're going to die.”

The rain began to fall. The water's coolness was almost pleasant on his fevered skin, and through half-shut eyes he saw a group of druids fall to their knees. They toppled forwards onto the earth, and the winds snatched the screams of those around them. Here, on the balcony, the air was an almost physical force, buffeting him backwards.

Fire's easy.

Arthur tried to grab his hand, but there was nothing to hold. Merlin's sleeves, with their elaborately-stitched designs, drooped over thin air.

Fire was easy. It was the first spell he had learned, and, like all elemental spells, was one of the simplest incantations to master. Once a sorcerer started a fire, it burned of its own accord, as the natural magic in the world bent to the caster's will.

Start a fire, Merlin knew, and it'd grow no matter how powerful the sorcerer who started it was.

“Merlin!”

Byrne,” whispered Merlin, trying to focus on the sphere of magic. Everything was swimming before his eyes. He heard a pounding, thrashing noise, thudding repeatedly in his skull, and decided it was his own heart, beating its last.

~

Mordred

Mordred could no longer see everyone's magic, as he was too focused on remaining alive to expend any energy scanning for magical signatures. To him, the world was a wall of black, punctuated only by the pinprick of magic that Merlin and the others had created. As he lay there, bored by the end of the world, something changed. Something was created, or transmuted, because his vision turned a terrifying, searing gold.

Merlin

Merlin was surprised to wake up. He was even more surprised that it appeared to be night time, and, from the fact he was lying on the stone balcony of the castle, it appeared to be the same night time.

“Merlin, wake up. You can't die, not today.”

The crowd was completely silent, and all Merlin could hear was Arthur beside him, crying. Merlin twitched his fingers, which had reappeared, but was only slowly gaining control of his body. Arthur was too busy sobbing to see straight, though, so Merlin was going to have to do something to let him know he was alive.

“'S'not very kingly behaviour, y'know.”

Arthur stopped crying – stopped breathing, possibly. He grabbed Merlin by the shoulders and pulled him up into a rib-crushing hug. Over Arthur's shoulder, Merlin could see Morgana's eyes widen in surprise and then narrow in calculation.

“Shut up, Merlin,” he said, and kissed him.

Arthur was warm and powerful and everything Merlin thought he'd never have, but Merlin pulled away. He was conscious of the crowd below them, and Morgana behind them, unguarded.

“We're alive?”

“Not all of us,” said Arthur, looking Merlin in the eye. “Some of the crowd were targeted by the nymphs. The knights are sorting everything out.”

“Mordred?”

“I don't know,” said Arthur.

Gaius entered the room behind them, wheezing and panting. Merlin tried to stand up and go to him, but Arthur placed a hand upon his shoulder and, with no effort whatsoever, kept him where he was.

“Merlin,” he said, “do you remember when I asked you if you had any more secrets, and you said you were a dragonlord? You said you had gotten rid of the dragon when it was burning people?”

“Yes?”

“You didn't kill the dragon, did you?”

“I—er—sorry," Merlin said, not a little confused. “What, did he turn up and save the day?”

“No, you idiot,” said Morgana, “you did. You turned the magic into fire and burned the naiads to a crisp. Kilgarrah just added to the flames.”

~

Morgana

“I have to go,” Morgana added, talking to no one in particular.

The crowd were chanting Arthur's name, as well as 'Dragonlord'. It seemed that magic was well and truly back.

“You're not going anywhere, Morgana. You're dangerously underfed and, I believe, suffering severe physical exhaustion. What's more, you've just participated in a highly risky and challenging magical ritual. I'd be surprised if you could levitate a feather, let alone transport yourself to some hovel in the middle of nowhere."

“Don't tell me what to do,” Morgana hissed, and turned on the spot. Instead of disappearing, she nearly fell off the balcony. No matter how much she hated it, Gaius was right. “How am I supposed to get her back, then? What do you suggest I do, send the dragon off to bring her back in his mouth?”

“I suggest you rest,” said Gaius. “Look at you. You're out of breath from an argument, Morgana.”

Merlin began to speak, but was interrupted.

“I could—”

“Shh, rest,” said Arthur, face sickeningly concerned.

“Shut up, Arthur. You're not my mum. Morgana, listen: I could get the dragon to do that, actually.”

Morgana paused, half at the absurdity of the idea and half at the offer. “Why would you—”

“He's got a lot to atone for,” said Merlin, “and so do I.”

Epilogue

Trerhys Nimbletongue, Court Bard


He couldn't sing about the trials. In normal circumstances, King Arthur's position would be weak: with all his family either dead or in the dungeons, the kingdom would be ripe for revolution. Since he and Merlin had stopped the floods, though, to take his throne would be folly. The Court were too busy cleaning the stink of the peasants from their rooms to scheme, anyway, and the other kings were all dead.

In fact, if Trerhys were to wager on it, he would say that King Arthur was more likely to conquer than to be conquered. The five kingdoms needed a leader, and no one else seemed willing or able.

Nevertheless, thought Trerhys, he couldn't sing about the trials. This banquet was supposed to be a celebration, and he could not be a reminder that the next day, like the one before it, Morgana - still stubbornly clad in black, even though it had been months since Morgause's corpse was taken to the castle - would be presented in the courtyard for her trial. She'd stood, surrounded by those of the knights who had sworn their loyalty at the Round Table, and time and time again she had failed to justify what she'd done.

Uther's trial would come after Morgana's judgement and sentence, though he was so weak that he might die before he could be brought out into the courtyard and everyone could see how frail and old he had become.

The scene in the hall that night was one of youth and joy. Mordred, now the king's ward, was watching the magic show with interest. In the first weeks after the floods started to recede, Mordred had been close to death, and when he'd recovered he stayed in his room for the most part. There were whispers in the streets that he was conspiring with Morgana to overthrow the king; whilst it would be very poetic if another ward tried to betray their guardian in such a way, Trerhys doubted the rumours. He sung at nearly every banquet, and he'd seen Mordred change from a pale, sunken boy to a full-cheeked, laughing one. He'd formed something of a partnership with Sir Gwaine, which, whilst surely a recipe for disaster, wasn't something a dark sorcerer would distract himself with.

The words of the ballad which he was about to sing rustled in his mind like dead leaves. Here, now, as the sorcerers left, taking their fireballs with them, Trerhys felt the same swooping in his stomach as he did every time he was to perform a new song.

It's fine, he told himself. Everyone's so drunk that no one will mind what you sing.

Lady Guinevere was laughing at something Sir Lancelot had said; both of them looked far too wrapped up in each other to pay attention to the banquet in their honour, let alone a humble singer.

People like love songs, he thought.

King Arthur was carving boar flesh from the centrepiece of the banquet, and dumping it all on Merlin's plate. Merlin pulled a face, but the king laughed and slapped him on the back.

The hand lingered.

Everyone knew that Arthur would never marry, and everyone knew why. Still, singing about the whole tale would involve mentioning Lady Guinevere, and Trerhys did not want to cause discomfort on her wedding night.

His ballad was a love song, but only if someone listened for it. Mostly, it was a song about magic, and dragons, and leadership.

People like legends, thought Trerhys, and began to sing.