Rating: PG-13 (Series rating: R)
Character/s: Arthur, Merlin (Emrys), Queen Annis, other.
Summary: Arthur is made to confront his own beliefs, and Merlin leaves Caerleon.
Warnings: Angst, issues of rape, mentions of violence.
Word Count: 2123
Prompt: #35 Amnesty Post (#16 Picture prompt, #21 Promise (as in "showing promise")).
Author's Notes: There is a lot going on in this chapter, and I hope I've managed to keep track of all the threads: Arthur's feelings and Merlin's feelings and Emrys' feelings and Arthur's challenged views and all the rest. Let me know if something is unclear, or missing, or just plain bad. Also, I'm starting to feel guilty about the whole length-thing again. :(
You can find the rest of this series on AO3, or here at Camelot Drabble.
The Queen throws open her window, but doesn’t linger beyond the first glance, gathering her skirts and running for the door. Arthur is next, and looks down to see a circle of guards closing in on two people on horseback, one an old man, the other a young woman. The horses stamp uneasily as the ring of spears grows smaller around them.
Arthur follows the Queen, and catches up with her quickly. “Who was that?” he asks breathlessly, while they run.
“We will know in a moment,” she replies, but there is something purposeful and distressed in her expression that tells Arthur she knows more than she says. Mordred is soon on their heels.
The three of them emerge into the bleak day to find most of the assembled soldiers groaning on the ground, but a handful still stand, and hold the old man and woman at bay. Arthur runs forward, drawing his sword, the old man looks over his shoulder, and Arthur stops short as he recognises Dragoon the Great. No longer dressed in a shabby, red robe, the sorcerer would look regal in blue, except his hair and eyes are wilder than ever.
“Stay out of this, Arthur!” the sorcerer shouts, but is quickly distracted by a soldier lunging at his blind spot. The horse jumps back, neighing in fear, Dragoon thrusts out a hand, and the soldier’s spear splinters, clattering to the ground.
“Stand down!” Queen Annis strides past Arthur to stand tall before Dragoon. “Enough! I demand to know who you are, and where you think you are taking my prisoners.”
Arthur’s eyes shift to Dragoon’s companion, only to be astonished at the sight of a little girl, ten years old at the most, sitting in the saddle in front of the woman. They resemble each other greatly, both red haired, with large, dark eyes, but even unwashed, undernourished and covered in dirt, the mother is clearly beautiful, while the child is not. Her forehead is bumpy, her nose crooked, and her hands misshapen. It is not a natural deformity, however, but the result of violence, committed long ago. Arthur’s stomach turns.
Dragoon sneers down at the Queen. “Did you think yourself just and merciful, when you ordered the torch to give light to their cell? Did you think a little extra hay and a little extra food would make their prison less confining, less cold? Were you proud to have saved your people from the witch?” His hand sweeps out, and Arthur looks again to the woman, but it is the child who hunkers down as if to hide, while the woman places protective hands on her daughter’s shoulders.
More people are gathering, coming from the castle, from the grounds, even from the town outside. More soldiers surround the sorcerer and the women. Arthur notices how reluctant Annis is to look at the two she called her prisoners.
“Two men died,” the Queen says. “The fire nearly destroyed a whole village. We have the witch’s own word that she started the fire.”
“Her name is Leena!” Dragoon shouts furiously. “And it was an accident. Sometimes, a sword slips and someone is hurt. Leena was provoked, and her gift slipped from her grasp, and you put her in a cell, to languish with the rats! You put her in a cell next to wanton murderers!”
“Sorcery is banned in Caerleon,” the Queen says. “The girl used sorcery.” She turns to the woman. “You should have left Caerleon when you had the chance.”
Arthur sees it before Annis, the storm that builds, suddenly and violently, in Dragoon. The old man’s eyes blaze gold, he roars like an animal, like a dragon, and Arthur is just in time to dart in front of Annis before the spell comes flying at her. He is thrown backwards and the impact with the ground is like a sledge hammer to his back.
“Arthur!” The Queen is at his side quickly, and helps him to his feet. Arthur holds out a hand to calm his own knights in the crowd, as they have drawn their swords and look ready to commit murder. Only Mordred is standing back, eyes wide on the old sorcerer.
“Monster!” Dragoon’s voice rumbles like thunder. “You would rather execute innocent people than make laws to govern magic! You banish and burn the unknown, because facing it would require bravery! Cowards!”
Arthur takes a step forward, struggling to breathe through the ache. “Queen Annis banned magic in a show of sympathy with Camelot. You can direct your fury at me.”
For a long moment, Dragoon looks down at Arthur, his chest rising and falling with agitated breaths, but slowly, he calms, and the storm slips from his brow. “They sing songs of you, Arthur Pendragon. Seers mumble your name in their prophecies. Even the Great Dragon promised me that Albion would be reborn under your kingship, to a place of peace and freedom. Magic would return to the land, they said, the prophets and the seers and the minstrels. But it’s been years, and I am not free.”
Arthur feels the burden of his kingdom grow heavier with the expectations of a vast island full of peoples, and he rolls his shoulders to shrug it off. He cannot take on any more! Not now that he has driven away the man who carried the burden with him.
“My father and mother were taken from me by magic. I do not owe your kind anything.”
“I tried to save your father! You can ask your royal physician, he will tell you about the pendant he found on Uther, enchanted to reverse my healing spell. Why would I kill a dying man, when I could have proved to you once and for all that magic can be used for good?”
“So it wasn’t you. It was magic nonetheless.”
“No, no, no! That’s not ... You don’t know ...”
At a subtle sign from Queen Annis, soldiers once again advance on all sides. The woman on the horse whimpers, her daughter clings to her, and Dragoon looks around in distress. When his eyes land on Arthur again, there is desperation in them. The sorcerer holds out a hand.
“Geedcíege sæsteorra brádhanda mín.”
Arthur lifts Excalibur, prepares himself ... and lowers the sword again.
In the palm of Dragoon’s hand lies a familiar-looking orb of glass, filled with wisps of white and blue light that drift in circles like mist. The horses neigh and toss their heads, unnerved by the electric aura of magic in the air.
“What is that?” Queen Annis asks.
Arthur stares, mesmerised. The simple gesture holds a wealth of meaning that utterly transforms the man before him. The man who appeared out of nowhere to shift the blame when Gwen was accused of enchanting Arthur. The man who led Arthur out of the cave. Arthur’s guardian angel.
“Who are you?”
The sorcerer’s eyes flicker over the crowd, dart to the women beside him, and then back to Arthur.
“... Emrys,” he says finally, and bows his head like a shy boy, cradling the orb of light to his chest.
“I thought Emrys was merely a legend,” Queen Annis says.
“He is that,” Dragoon ... Emrys, replies. “But he is also me.”
Arthur is dizzy again. He looks at the women, at the girl’s ruined face, her broken fingers, her averted eyes. He can fear her, but he cannot but think that her fury would be righteous. How she must have suffered, all because she was born with that curse ... that gift?
When he opens his mouth, he doesn’t know what he is going to say before he says it, but he feels his heart throbbing, expanding to encompass a new horizon. “Where do you intend to take the child ... take Leena? If she has magic she cannot control, then she is a danger to herself as well as others. She will need help.”
The ball of light fades from Emrys’ hand. “There is my king,” he says, and the tone is so intimate and so proud, that Arthur almost blushes. The old man reaches out and places his gnarled hand on Leena’s little one. “I will take her and Enid to Essetir, where the druids can teach Leena how to use her gift for good.”
“Then you will have to ride through Camelot.” Arthur frowns. “I will not tolerate you using magic there.”
Emrys throws up his hands. “I can no more stop using magic than you can lay down that sword! And how else is a frail old man supposed to catch dinner for three?”
“So that’s it?” Queen Annis interjects sarcastically. She has one hand on her hip and looks like she can’t decide whether to laugh or chop someone’s head off, possibly Arthur’s. “Did he hypnotise you with that ball of light or is the King of Camelot so easily persuaded against his own views? You’re going to let him go, just like that.”
“I’m not letting him go anywhere,” Arthur replies. “My whole army couldn’t let him do anything. I’m trying to negotiate.”
“Oh, I see,” the Queen says mockingly. “And with what leverage are you negotiating? I’m surprised we’re still talking, and our legendary sorcerer hasn’t simply taken off.”
She has a point, and Arthur looks back up at Emrys curiously. He is surprised to see the pain in the old man’s eyes.
“I am going,” Emrys says, very quietly. “You are right, I have nothing to linger for.”
Then there are shouts and the slap, slap, slaps of hurrying feet, as two guards come running out of the castle.
“My Queen, my Queen!”
“There's been a murder!”
They reach the Queen and bend close, whispering urgently to her. Arthur can't hear what is being said, until Queen Annis shouts “What?” and turns a look on Emrys that could make a dragon cower.
“So, you are judge and executioner in one,” she says, tone dangerously composed. “You demand we rule by law, but flaunt the law when it has been laid down.”
Emrys’ eyes widen.
“What's happened?” Arthur asks.
Annis smiles with no mirth and a great deal of steel. “Ragnor is dead, along with his men. Slaughtered in their cell, like rabbits in the trap.”
Shock ripples through Arthur, and he looks up at Emrys, eager to read on his face any knowledge of that night, because surely that must be why he ... but how could he know, and why would he protect Arthur once again? Why does he care still about a King who has only disappointed his hopes?
“Well, Emrys?” Annis asks. “Do you deny that you murdered my prisoners?”
The old man shakes his head, swallowing like he feels sick. “No, Your Majesty.”
The Queen laughs. “Oh, now it's “your majesty”. Looks like the great Emrys writhes in the dust with the rest of us. Tell me, before you ride away to Essetir, why did Ragnor have to die, when sunrise would have seen him hanged anyway? How do you justify depriving my people of their satisfaction?”
The courtyard is holding its collective breath, waiting for the answer.
Emrys seems to be caught in some inner struggle, his brow furrowed and his eyes pained again. Increasingly, the pain takes over. Abruptly, he scowls. “What can I say?” he says, face comically scrunched up and voice dripping with disdain. “One of them insulted my beard, another looked at me funny. I'm sensitive, you know. Not like you're going to miss them, is it?”
Arthur realises then that the cantankerous old man is an act, a mask that protects someone who is alone, and vulnerable, and full of secrets.
The look on Queen Annis' face is actually pretty funny; having never met Emrys before, she is completely taken aback by the abrupt shift in tone.
“Now if you don't mind, we'll be off,” the old man continues. “If you know what's good for you, you won't get in our way.” He growls menacingly at the soldiers that stand between him and the gate, and he cackles when they scramble out of the way.
There is something like frustration in the hand he throws out towards the gates. “Ísene gatu gecrymaþ!”
The two portcullises crumble into dust, clearing the way for the horses. Arthur and Annis quickly remove themselves from the path. Arthur catches Leena’s fearful eyes for just a moment, and he wonders what will become of her.
The horses take off at a gallop. A single glance back is all Emrys gives, but in it, Arthur sees a different man, and he thinks to himself, like he has before, that those eyes are terribly familiar.