The Best Present
They were losing.
Arthur could feel the tide of the battle turning; feel it like an ache in his bones, a gnawing in his stomach. That sixth sense was something one became accustomed to after fighting in so many battles, so many near death experiences. You learned to trust your instincts.
He could no longer count how many Saxons he himself had cut down, but yet, they kept coming…in a seemingly unending stream.
While Arthur’s senses were still sharp and focused on the task at hand, a part of him was drifting…thinking of Guinevere, of what would happen to her if it was his fate to fall at his sister’s hand tonight. With him gone, who would look after her? Who would protect her?
But of course, the answer was simple: Merlin would take care of her. Merlin would…
Arthur felt his heart lurch painfully in his chest at the realization: Merlin wasn’t there. Merlin was always, always there…only this time, he wasn’t.
Arthur wasn’t even sure what Merlin could possibly have done in a battle like this, in a virtual sea of bodies; for even after ten years, his manservant was no warrior. No matter how often they practiced together, Merlin was still utterly useless with a sword.
Nevertheless, Arthur felt his absence keenly, as if a part of him had gone missing.
“Sire!” Sir Leon panted as he reached the King’s side. “The Saxons are retreating…”
Retreating? Arthur thought, shocked. That made no sense! Unless…
Even over the sounds of battle, Arthur could hear it; a laugh, a sick maniacal laugh echoing off the walls of the canyon. Morgana.
Moments later a great plume of flame rained down on them from the sky. Arthur ducked, feeling the heat from the fire scorching the back of his neck. Desperately, he looked around at his knights, his soldiers, his brothers. Close combat ready, none of them had shields they could use to stave off the dragon’s attack.
It was then that Arthur realized: this was never meant to be a fight of honor fought on the battlefield between opposing armies. It was meant to be a slaughter, an extermination, a trap, and he’d just walked his men right into it.
Again, Morgana’s half-mad laugh echoed around them. “Where is your precious Emrys now, Brother? Not so much the great King without him to protect you, are you?”
Arthur took a step away from the ranks of Camelot soldiers, and then another, putting space between himself and them, trying to draw his sister’s attention to him and only him. Tilting his head up in the direction of her voice, he asked, “What are you speaking of, Morgana? Who is Emrys?”
Morgana’s laugh melted into astonished glee. “My goodness, Arthur…you really don’t know? Mordred said you didn’t but…”
Arthur’s stony silence was his answer.
“Emrys is supposedly the greatest sorcerer to ever live,” Morgana supplied, her voice full of heavy sarcasm that Arthur did not understand. “And he has sworn to protect you, a magic hater, a Pendragon.” She spit the name as if it were abhorrent to her; as if it were not also her surname. “But once I finally discovered his true identity, it was so simple to destroy him…so easy.”
Arthur’s heart lurched painfully at Morgana’s words, although he knew not why.
He shook his head vehemently. “I know of no such man.”
“You do! You have met him in disguise more than once, Brother. He was the sorcerer who offered his life in place of Gwen’s…the man who tried to heal our worthless father.”
Dragoon? Dragoon the Great was Emrys? Arthur shook his head in denial even as he felt some unnamed emotion swell within his breast at the thought. “You’ve got it wrong… he killed my father!”
“I killed Uther,” Morgana cackled with pride. “It was my pendant that twisted his magic, made it harm instead of heal. At least Agravaine was useful for something…”
A knife of anguish twisted in Arthur’s gut at the thought of his father dying at the hands of his daughter and brother-in-law rather than a nameless sorcerer. No, not nameless: Emrys…who tried to save the life of the man who would have him killed if he knew.
“And yet, even after you blamed him, even after you tried to have him burned at the stake, he continued to protect you. He is an enemy to his kind, to his kin.”
Arthur’s brows drew together in concentration. He felt as if the answer were there, just beyond his reach…
He could hear the condescension in Morgana’s voice as she said, “Have you still not guessed, Brother?” She tutted at him like a child. “Let me help you, then: I’ll make it plain. Who follows you around like a sickeningly loyal puppy? Who drinks poison for you, and fights dragons with you and wanders into the midst of an immortal army for you? Who has walked beside you into every single battle for the last ten years and come out unscathed? Every battle but this one, that is…”
Good Gods, it was Merlin. Merlin was his protector… How could have not seen it? How could he have not known?
“Where is he?” Arthur demanded, his fury white-hot at the thought of Merlin at Morgana’s mercy. “What have you done to him?”
“Oh, don’t worry, Merlin is alive…for all the good it will do him.”
“For years, he has thwarted my every plan; but no more. He is useless to you now. Merlin’s magic is gone. I stole it from him. I could have killed him, but he did not deserve such mercy. Instead, I have left him to a fate worse than death: trapped in a cave deep in the Valley of the Fallen Kings, where he hoped to find a way to regain his powers. Tonight, you shall die, and it will drive him mad knowing that I have won, that, in the end, he could not stop me!”
This, then, was why Merlin had left. He had gone to try and restore his magic so he could continue to protect him, to protect Camelot, to protect their dream of a united Albion…and the last thing Arthur had said to him—would ever say to very best friend—was to call him a coward.
Perhaps he deserved to die. But his people did not.
Arthur walked forward, putting more space between himself and his men. “Morgana, this has always been between you and I.” He waved a hand backward toward his soldiers. “Please do not punish them simply for following the orders of their king. Take me, kill me…but spare my men. Please.”
“And let you martyr yourself for them? I think not. I have had a taste of the obedience I can expect to receive from the knights of Camelot. You have tortured and persecuted my kind, exterminated them, as your father did before you. Tonight, I shall return the favor; an eye for an eye, Brother, dear.”
Before he could so much as twitch, Arthur felt Morgana’s magic envelop him, turn him around on the spot, and lock his limbs in place. Her voice now beside him, whispered in his ear, “And you shall watch.”
Arthur was helpless. He could only stare in dread and horror as the white dragon swooped lower and lower, as each man under his command tipped their chin skyward, waiting bravely for the blast that would incinerate them all.
And then, just as the blast of flame issued from the maw of the creature, Arthur saw it… a tiny ball of glowing blue that floated upward from the midst of his men and shattered into millions of tiny shards, immediately reforming into a dome of light that repelled the dragon’s breath.
And then a deep, guttural voice split the silent night, speaking a language he’d never heard before, “Nun de ge dei s'eikein kai emois epe'essin hepesthai!”
Amazingly, the dragon above their heads screeched and bowed its head once toward the sound, and then flew off into the night.
“Aithusa, no!” Morgana called after her, but to no avail. The dragon was gone.
As both she and Arthur watched, the sea of Camelot soldiers parted, and a man stalked confidently up the ranks. The chill air ruffled his ebony hair and his leather jacket and red neckerchief flapped in the breeze. Stopping a few feet before Morgana, Merlin waved a lazy hand in Arthur’s direction and his eyes flashed gold, wordlessly releasing the spell trapping the king.
Merlin’s eyes speared Morgana’s and his voice was low and menacing. “Aithusa may be loyal to you, Morgana, but I am a Dragonlord. She must obey me, and I have sent her away.”
Morgana actually staggered backward a step, intimidated. “But…how…? I don’t understand…” she stuttered.
“No, you don’t,” Merlin agreed, his voice still restrained and dangerous. “You never have, Morgana, and I doubt you ever will.” He leaned in still further and hissed, “You cannot take away what I am made of.”
“I am your past, your present, and your future. I am your destiny and your doom. I am timeless, ageless, and eternal. I am the Emrys. Run, while you still can, Morgana, for I will not rest until your fate has come to pass.”
Morgana’s eyes widened in terror. As if she feared even removing her eyes from Merlin’s face, she called out to her troops behind her, “Retreat!” and then raised her hands to the sky and disappeared into the night in a twist of turning winds.
For a split second, everything was quiet…and then a loud cheer raised up through the ranks. Arthur let out a deep breath he hadn’t realized he was holding and turned to his manservant, his friend, his protector. They clasped forearms for a moment before Arthur yanked Merlin into a hug. He tucked his chin into Merlin’s neck and murmured into his ear, “I’m glad you’re here, Merlin.”
Merlin’s arms tightened briefly around Arthur’s back as he replied, “So am I, Arthur. So am I.”
Arthur followed up with a couple of manly back slaps before releasing his friend from his grasp and wrapped an arm around Merlin’s shoulders instead in order to steer him back toward camp. “I do think you were laying it on a little thick there at the end though…with all that ‘past, present, and future’ stuff…” Arthur teased, his voice lilting with amusement and relief.
Merlin pursed his lips to keep from snickering and shrugged one shoulder nonchalantly. “Perhaps…but it worked, didn’t it?”
Arthur barked out a laugh and ruffled Merlin’s hair. “Yeah, it did. Well, this is the best ‘present’ I could have asked for…” He waved his other hand to encompass the mountain pass still full of his knights.
“Oh, don’t be fooled, Arthur,” Merlin cautioned. “She’ll be back.”
“I know,” Arthur replied, his voice suddenly solemn. “But we’ll be ready for her.”
Merlin nodded. “Yes, we will.”
As they walked through camp, the other soldiers gave the pair a wide berth, leaving them to their reunion.
Arthur was about to lift the flap of his tent when he stopped dead in his tracks, causing Merlin to bump into him awkwardly.
“Hey!” he said indignantly, removing his hand from Merlin’s shoulder and instead using it to punch his friend in the arm.
“Ow!” Merlin’s eyebrows scrunched in consternation. “What was that for?” he cried, rubbing the sore spot on his arm ruefully.
“When we get back to Camelot, I want my money back.”
Merlin stared at Arthur, flummoxed. “What? What are you talking about?”
Arthur’s eyes narrowed dangerously. “You cheated.”
Peals of Merlin’s delighted laughter echoed in the night, soon joined by the king’s, as they slouched their way under the tent flap.
And, for that night at least, all was well.