Arthur slowly made his way through the trees and vegetation trying, not for the first time, to clear his mind with a hunt. Ever since he’d first met Merlin his world had seemed to crumble around him leaving nothing behind but confusion where once conviction had been.
His father had convened his war council nearly immediately and yet now two months later they were no closer to a decision. While Uther wanted to rush in and destroy Merlin and his Haven for magic, the other rulers were far more reticent to do so. They thought that the fact that Merlin had managed to tame the perilous lands and had gone undetected for so long was reason enough for caution. If he was being honest he tended to agree with them on that, but in public out loud he agreed with his father standing firmly behind his king as he has always done.
The longer the argument dragged on the more people took sides. Even Gaius and Morgana, two people he would have said had as much faith in Uther as he did, were beginning to side with the others urging caution and sometimes even understanding. Gaius kept insisting that Merlin was a force for good, that he was helping everyone by keeping the dangerous magic users away from the other kingdoms. Again he was beginning to agree, they had not seen Mary Collins or the Great Dragon since they were sent to Haven. Uther took this as a sign that the treacherous sorcerer Merlin was building an army that he would one day use against them all. He insisted that the best plan of action was to attack now when he wouldn’t be expecting it.
Only Arthur wasn’t so sure that he wouldn’t be expecting it. There had been something in his face before he and Gwaine had disappeared in a swirl of lights and magic, something akin to resignation. It was almost like he knew what was going to happen next, like he had no expectation of peace anymore, only the venom, hatred, and war his father demanded.
Hearing the faint snap of a twig off to his right he looked through the trees and spotted … a unicorn? Even as he raised his crossbow there was something in his minded urging him not to fire, but he ignored it. He would have his prize.
Merlin felt the death of the unicorn, the injustice of it echoed across the magic that was his life’s blood. He felt the guardian’s punishment take hold as he quickly ran to the balcony to try to find the direction it was coming from.
“What’s wrong mate?” Ah, Gwaine with his normal cheer and love of life. Normally he would easily match it, but not today. Today he felt only sorrow at what was soon to come to pass in Camelot.
“It would seem Camelot is about to face some magical trouble.”
“What again? Bad luck all around for them isn’t it.”
Yes, bad luck on them. Only it wasn’t so much bad luck as bad decisions. Nearly every problem they have faced so far has been a disaster of their own making. He didn’t even know why he was dwelling on the problems of his enemies, but he just couldn’t seem to shake this urge to help them.
“Don’t even think about it.”
Wonderful just what he needed right now.
“Don’t you Freya me, I know you far too well for you to hide from me. You’re thinking about helping them aren’t you? Aren’t you!”
“The thought had crossed my mind briefly, yes. I have yet to decide what I’m going to do though.” He made sure to keep his voice calm and even. He didn’t mind people questioning or challenging him once he made a decision but it was a little irritating to have a decision second guessed when he hadn’t even made it yet.
“Well you had best decide to leave them to their fate, whatever that may be. They convened a war council against us Merlin. Uther is already set against us! If you just go waltzing into Camelot offering to help the only thanks you’ll get from the likes of him will be the pyre.” She turned quickly and ran off not wanting to be part of this conversation a moment longer.
“She has a point mate.”
“I haven’t made a decision yet!”
“Yeah you have.”
Yeah he had. The only thing he didn’t know was why. Why did he care what happened to Camelot?
Arthur stood on the battlements overlooking the heart of Camelot and tried to understand what was happening. The water had dried up, the grain had shriveled and blown away on the winds, and the people were beginning to suffer. All because he’d shot a unicorn.
He had gone to Gaius seeking advice on a solution to this problem and found resignation and legends but no answers. He knew the unicorn had a guardian, the man who enacted the vengeance of the slain animal, but he had no idea where to find this man. Or even if finding him would do any good.
Looking over his lands as the sun began to set he made a decision. He would take a group of his most trusted knights and they would search the woods come morning starting where he first saw the beast. Hopefully they would find this man and with him their salvation.
Merlin managed to convince Gwaine to stay in Haven, just barely, and finally set out toward Camelot. He knew that the coming events would be a defining moment for the would be king and for some reason he felt compelled to help him find his way through this maze he was about to enter. A muttered spell took him to the exact spot where the unicorn had died, glancing around he saw nothing but the forest surrounding him, so he sat and waited for someone to arrive. He knew that both the guardian and Arthur would be here soon enough; he just had to be patient and wait for them. Luckily he was very good at doing both.
“Why have you come Emrys?” Turning at the sound of the voice he found an old man draped in robes.
“Hello, honored Guardian, if I may make a request so soon after our meeting I would ask that you not call me by my druid name. Only they and the people of Haven know me as such and I would like to keep that knowledge from the one who you punish.”
“I understand and I shall honor this request. Now why have you come?” The man looked sincerely curious. So he answered as honestly as he could.
“Honestly, I do not know for sure. I felt the death of the unicorn, you have my sympathies for the loss of such a majestic creature, and the curse take hold of this kingdom. At first I was going to just let the events unfold as they would without my interference, I felt that they had brought this upon themselves and in doing so they should also conquer it or fail on their own as well. However, no matter how loudly my mind told me to leave them to their fate, my instincts drove me here. You have my word that I will do no more than advise them, I will not intercede on their behalf.”
“Thank you for your honest and kind words, Merlin. I understand the need that drives you and I do harbor you no ill will for your presence here, I believe you when you say you will not interfere with the course of this curse. I feel the young prince approaching now so I shall leave until he is truly ready to speak with me.”
“I understand great one, and I thank you for your understanding in return.” He watched the old man fade before his eyes and he turned once more sitting upon the long and waited for the foolish prince and his knights to arrive.
Arthur didn’t know what he was expecting to find when he arrived at the place where this entire mess began, but he knew he never thought to find Him.
It didn’t make any sense why he would be here? Unless…
“Are you the one who’s cursed us then?” For some reason he knew that even if that were true he still would not hate the man. He should hate him now on principle alone, the man was a sorcerer for god’s sake, but for some reason he just couldn’t make himself take that final step into hatred when it came to this man. Truth be told he didn’t truly hate any of the magic users, who weren’t openly and actively trying to kill him, if anything he pitied them. Shaking his head to clear his thoughts he waited for the young man’s reply and wondered what he would do if the answer was yes. Kill Merlin? He didn’t think he could even if he wanted to, not that he wanted to, oh hell he was confusing himself again. Why was Merlin always so confusing?
“No, I did not place this curse on your kingdom, though I did feel it take hold. Just as I felt the death of the unicorn.”
That last part sounded like an accusation or a chastisement. He was being scolded.
“How was I supposed to know this would happen because of shooting one beast in the forest?”
“You are Uther Pendragon’s son are you not? You have been persecuting magic for your entire life haven’t you? Isn’t that what you’ve been up to?” Well, what his father was up to. For some reason facing Merlin again, it was harder and harder to remember why he was considered a threat to the realm.
“I thought so. So why is it that even after having waged war against magic for decades, Uther never allows anyone to learn about magic at all? Wouldn’t it make sense to have at least some basic knowledge on hand, if not about the people who use it then at least about the creatures that spring from it. Unicorns, Griffins, Dragons, all of these creatures still roam the earth and yet you are ignorant of what to do about them, or in the case of the unicorn what not to do. I don’t know about you lot but I was always taught that fighting blind was a good and fast way to die.”
He had a point, and if the looks on the faces of his knights was anything to go by, he wasn’t the only one who noticed either.
“So if you aren’t the one who placed this curse then are you here to help?”
“I am here to advise you. I will not interfere but I will help you muddle through as best I can without actively becoming involved. This is your mess you must clean it up yourself, I can’t do it for you and more importantly even if I could I wouldn’t do it for you.”
That was straight forward enough now he supposed it was time to ask the important question.
“What can we do to stop this?”
“You must prove yourself worthy.”
What? He was worthy, he was the prince of Camelot, he was the greatest fighter of the realm, he was more than worthy of anything and everything. He had just opened his mouth to inform the little urchin of this when he was cut off.
“Before you start spouting nonsense about how worthy you are let me be the first to tell you that as you are now you are far from worthy. Guardians like Anhora don’t look to your ability to fight or kill to prove your worth, they already know you can do that, you killed the unicorn. They look to everything else.”
“What do you mean?” What else was there?
“Well knowing how to fight is good and will serve you well that’s true, but do you know when to fight?”
What the hell was he talking about he fought when it was needed. When his king commanded it or when he was provoked just like everyone else.
“Of course I know when to fight.”
“We shall see if that is so soon enough young prince.”
Spinning around he caught sight of an old man in robes for a moment before the image and the man himself faded away. Turning back to Merlin to demand answers he found him gone as well. Perfect, just what he needed. What the hell were they even talking about anyway?
Merlin sat alone in the forest and tried to puzzle out just how he was going to handle this entire mess. He knew what Anhora would do if Arthur managed to convince him by word or by deed that he was deserving of a second chance. He also knew that without the proper guidance given in the proper way he would fail the coming trials. He could not shadow the prince while he was within the Citadel but he could help him with whatever happened beyond the walls of Camelot. He had felt part of the curse lift the day before so the prat had passed the first part of the trial and showed both mercy and good judgment. He knew that the second half of the trial would begin today. Now that he had shown mercy he would be made to show his restraint. That could be a problem.
Feeling Arthur enter the woods, alone for once, he muttered a spell to find him. He would do what he could to help him with this next part of his test, but he feared it would be doomed from the start. Of all the things that was praised about the prince, his skill with a blade being the most spoken of, his pride was something else always paired with his name. He had a sinking feeling prince prat was about to discover the truth in the saying pride goeth before the fall.
Arthur had gotten slightly turned around and he knew it. He had been trying to find the place where he’d felled the unicorn so that he could find this Anhora and demand the rest of the curse be lifted. Water had returned to Camelot but that was not enough, everything else was still wrong. Turning around to try to get his bearings he found… Merlin.
“What are you doing here sorcerer?” Not the best way to start but he was beyond frustrated. He’d grown up in these woods and now he was lost. Not that he’d ever admit such a thing.
“Not the nicest way to greet someone who’s trying to help you. Might want to work on that.”
“Work on what? What are you even talking about? Never mind, go away I’m busy.” He had thought about asking Merlin for help but thought better of it at the last moment. The night before after learning of Merlin’s presence in the forest, his father had blamed this entire mess on him. He’d told the other rulers that this whole curse business was just a ruse created by the sorcerer as a way to weaken Camelot before we were ready to attack. A pre-emptive strike he called it. That had won over some of the monarchs that had been previously on the fence about attacking somewhere as well defended as Haven. He knew better though, this curse was very real and he was the cause of it not merlin.
“Looking for Anhora?”
That stopped him in his tracks. Did Merlin know where he was, could he risk asking him for help, what if his father found out?
“Don’t play dumb with me Arthur, you’re the only blond here. You won’t find him you know, not until you’ve passed or failed the next part of your trial.”
“My trial?” What trial and next part did that mean he’d already completed part of it?
“You’re second chance so to speak, you did notice that part of the curse had lifted yeah? That was because you showed mercy and compassion. Now you must show conviction and restraint. You are seeking Anhora, let no one and nothing distract you from your mission.”
He opened his mouth to respond only to find himself alone again. Why did people keep doing that? Didn’t they realize just how disconcerting it was? Or maybe that was the whole point. Shrugging it off he turned once more and continued on to try and find this Anhora and the salvation of Camelot.
Merlin stood alone in the woods once more and waited. He sensed it when Arthur came into contact with Anhora’s illusion. He listened to the taunts thrown at the prince and while they were harsh he should have been able to ignore them in favor of his quest to break the curse holding his people hostage. He did a decent job at first but it was clear that his patience was eroding with every word the man spoke, until finally he stopped resisting and started fighting, throwing conviction and restraint to the wind. Camelot was doomed; the prince had failed.
He had failed, Arthur knew this was his fault and no amount of blaming magic would change that. He knew why his father was set on this path but that didn’t change the fact that this was his fault. Merlin had warned him that he would need restraint and yet he didn’t listen. Wait a minute, Merlin! That was it, their solution, their salvation, Merlin could help him gain another chance. Grabbing his sword he set off to the woods to find him.
Arthur and Leon had been wandering around in circles for what seemed like hours before they found what they were looking for in the clearing where the Unicorn had first been felled. Honestly he didn’t know why they didn’t start looking there, it seemed like this place was where they were always found.
Merlin stood in the forest on the spot where the unicorn had died and he seemed to be looking for something, or more likely someone. Giving a signal to Leon they stayed in the shadows of the trees and waited, he wanted to see how this went before he revealed himself.
“You said you would not interfere young warlock.”
Jerking around to the left he saw the very man he’d been seeking and Merlin had been seeking as well apparently.
“I’m not interfering, I’m seeking an audience to ask for another chance, for the prince and for Camelot.” Why would he do that?
“Why?” Echoed by a magic user, whatever would his father say.
“I’m sorry what?” Not the response he was expecting, he would have expected laughter before he would have expected that question.
“Why do you wish for Camelot’s salvation? They hunt your kind, persecute you without cause to near extinction, even now they have convened a war council for the sole purpose of destroying you and everything you have spent your life building. Why do you care if they live or not?” The man had a point, looking over at Leon he found the knight just as nervous as he was. Would Anhora’s words sway Merlin from their side?
“Because… because they are suffering. It is one thing to die because of something you have done or something you have caused but it is another to die slowly because of a mistake made by one man. If the citizens of Camelot had had a hand in the demise of the Unicorn and the failure of the test after then I would leave them to their fate, but they are being punished for something they had no part in. How could I, of all people ever condone that?”
“You words hold truth young warlock, but what of the act of doing nothing? The citizens of Camelot are widely known for their apathy. To die in Camelot is to die alone for all shall turn a blind eye.”
That wasn’t right was it? He couldn’t believe it of his citizens, they were all good people and it wasn’t like they were executing people for no reason. Every person who’s life was lost was because they had broken the laws. He tried to ignore the voice at the back of his mind that whispered that the laws were wrong, but that voice was growing louder and louder with each passing day.
“I do not come before you to argue about the past nor do I stand here and claim that all the citizens of Camelot are worth saving, most of them are not worth much to me. I stand here for the few who are at least trying to rise above. It is not easy to cast aside all that you have ever known to be true and yet at the very war council you mentioned to me before there are those who do not wish to attack me.”
“How do you know this to be true?” How did he know that? Did he have a spy within the castle? Did he have a traitor in Camelot?
“Because they have had months to declare their war and have not yet done so.” Or maybe he just had logic.
“You say yet, you do not believe they will leave you in peace?”
“Not while Uther Pendragon draws breath I don’t.”
“Then why save him?”
“I’m not doing this for him, I would never do anything for the good of Uther Pendragon, I may be a good person but I doubt anyone is that good of heart as to save their would be murderer. I don’t even really do this for Camelot, I do this for myself, I would not be able to live with myself if I did not at least try to help them. If I just turned my back and returned to my life then I would be no better than they are. I will never allow myself to sink to their level, not if I still want to be able to look myself in the mirror with my head held high.”
He made them all sound like the lowest form of life in the land, and the saddest part was he was having trouble disagreeing with him. Looking back on things now he saw that maybe they were all that he said. He certainly hadn’t truly been doing things for the right reasons lately, it was always about him and his pride, never before now had he truly cared about what happened to the peasants in the lower town. Until he caused their suffering and then was forced to see the consequences of his actions.
“Very well young warlock, I will grant you your request, the young prince may have another chance. Hear me young royal for I know you are there, if you wish to take this chance offered to you then follow the path that I leave you, come alone and face your final test.”
With a wave of his hand both the guardian and Merlin were gone leaving behind only a trail that blazed gold with the purest of magic lighting the way for his final test.
“Sire I do not believe you should do this. What if it is a trap, the sorcerer said it himself that he knew we were here all along.”
“What other choice do we have? If I do not take this chance then our people will starve to death. If there is still a chance to save them, no matter how slight it may be, I must take it.”
Without another word he set out to follow the path and to find Merlin.
The labyrinth of Gedref, honestly, he should have guessed this would be the final testing grounds. Merlin knew of this place, from legend and story, but to see it was another matter altogether. The labyrinth itself was vast and he sat at a table at the far end of it, and still he knew the young prince would have no trouble traversing the distance between them. Anhora wanted him to get to this point after all, for here was the test, not the labyrinth itself.
Hearing a twig snap off to the side of him he looked up and found the prince standing where forest gave way to sand, the look on his face not very promising. He had a bad feeling about this, the guardian had told him this final test would put his very life on the line, and considering how well the other tests went he wasn’t holding his breath. Well, at least he would have a nice beach to look at before he died.
“Took you long enough, come on, have a seat.”
He watched the young prince look from side to side warily, as though he would suddenly be able to see Anhora coming or something. Finding nothing, he eventually sheathed his sword and walked the short distance between them to join him at the table. Finally they could begin, and hopefully he would be back in Haven before sunset.
When he finally settled into his seat, then and only then did Anhora show himself, he had known he was there hidden the entire time but he didn’t see any reason to mention it. Watching the royal prat jump slightly in surprise was well worth the hours he waited for him to finally arrive.
“Ah, young Pendragon, you have arrived. Now that you are here the test shall begin. Before you both sit two goblet with the same amount of liquid in each. One is poisoned, while the other is simply water, the poison is tasteless and odorless. You may each only drink from one cup, and you may not leave until all the liquid is gone, these are the rules. I wish you good fortune on this your final test.”
Without another sound the old man faded before their eyes.
“Wait! How is that a test? That’s just dying!”
Of course he wouldn’t understand, he was a Pendragon after all, and they weren’t exactly known for their quick wit.
“This is a test of your resolve prat, either way you win, because either way both of us were willing to die for the test to be completed. We could sit here and wait it out for another option to show itself, one where we both live, but the curse has yet to be lifted and your people would still suffer while we sit here waiting. That is the test, no tricks this time, only death.”
He almost felt bad for him, he looked so dejected and confused. Like a little boy lost in a crowd with no idea in what direction he would find his home.
“But what if you die? How would that prove my resolve?”
“The reason you are here is because the thought of others dying for you, or because of you, is something you can not abide. In choosing to begin the test and placing my life in danger with your own you prove your resolve of helping your people no matter the cost to you, or me.”
He knew he looked pouty, like a small child told not to leave the table until all his vegetables were gone. He couldn’t help it, when he agreed to help and asked for another chance for the prince to prove himself, this had not been what he meant.
He knew the moment that Arthur noticed his mood, because the prat couldn’t stop himself from commenting.
“What’s the matter Mer-lin? Don’t want to die for me?”
“Not especially no, no I don’t.”
His matter of fact and fast response seemed to throw the man for a moment, before he cleared his throat and sat up straighter as though that would help matters. Slouched or board straight he doubted the man would be able to think his way around this.
“There must be a way for one of us to survive.” Yeah, but which one of us?
“Oh, there is, I just haven’t figured it out yet.”
“Then how do you know there’s a way?” Idiot.
“Because numpty, there’s always a way, you just have to be smart enough to find it. Normally, I am, so just give me a moment. If you like you can think on it too, though I don’t know how much help that’ll be, what with your limited brain power and all.”
“Why you little -” Really he was just so easy to rile, it was almost like a game.
“Careful, your majesty, remember that temper of yours is why we’re both here in the first place.”
That seemed to deflate him in an instant, as well it should. Maybe he wouldn’t forget this so soon after all.
“I got it! Anhora said we could only drink from one cup, so we pour both goblets into one that way we know which is poison. Then all that’s left is for one of us to drink it.”
Reaching forward he did just that before tossing the now empty goblet to the ground and placing the poisoned on in the center of the table between.
“Now we just have to decide who drinks it.” He thought for sure the prat would start to prattle on about his being the heir to a kingdom and all the reasons why his life was more important than Merlin’s. After all they were the Prince of Camelot and a known sorcerer, it was almost tradition.
He was about to offer a compromise, a way to choose fairly, when the prince’s hand shot out grabbing the cup and he chugged it all down in one go. It seemed to have no effect for a moment before the prince fell to the side, crashing to the ground below.
Noticing the steady rise and fall of his chest he got up and went to check on him, he was still alive. In fact it almost seemed like he was-
“Sleeping.” Jerking his head around he found Anhora standing just behind him. “The young prince sleeps, and the curse has been lifted, you are both free to go whenever you so choose.”
So the lughead did it after all. Good on him.
Arthur woke up beneath a tree in the forest boarding the castle, he was home. How did he get there? The last thing he remembered was, sitting with Merlin on a beach in a maze, then -. Shooting up to his feet he remembered the rest, poison! He’d drunk poison! He should be dead, so why wasn’t he. Looking over he saw his horse tied to the tree next to him just waiting to take him home with a note tied to his saddle that hadn’t been there before. Untying it he read as he walked back towards his home, he would ride but he knew after this letter he would likely need the time to get his thoughts in order, and he was right.
It seems that there was a trick after all, instead of poison you ingested a sleeping draught, good news for you I’m sure. Your willingness to die for your people and not to let me die for them instead demonstrated your good heart, which was all Anhora had been looking for to begin with, a sign that you weren’t heartless. For this reason the curse has been lifted and your Kindom should be back to normal by the time you wake and return. Now, don’t get me wrong it’s not like we’re friend or anything, you and your father are still trying to destroy me and all I hold dear, which would make any friendship between us more than awkward, but I just wanted to say that I respect what you did back there. You took responsibility for your actions and that is never an easy thing to do, for just a moment the good man you could become one day shined through which gives me hope that maybe you won’t be such a prat forever.
Until next time, because let’s face it with the way your life is going at the moment there will very likely be a next time very soon, try to remember that man you were for a moment in the labyrinth. Because that man is a true leader and he will get through all the things to come with dignity and grace.
Your NOT friend,