Type of King
Arthur entered Morgana's chambers to find her folding a purple dress into her long trunk. She lifted her head at his arrival and scowled.
"Have you come to express your jealousy in your father finally passing me off to another suitor?" she said, her voice like a whip.
Arthur noticed Gwen, placing together Morgana's jewelry. "Guinevere, could you give us some privacy?"
Morgana held her chin up and folded her arms. "There are no secrets between me and Gwen."
A lie, Arthur knew, but he didn't say it.
Gwen gave a slight bow as if to apologize before returning her attention to the jewelries.
"I'm sorry about all this," Arthur said, deciding that was the best place to start.
Morgana scoffed. "Why? Because my marriage is supposed to benefit you and not me?"
Why did she always attack him and think he was her enemy? It seemed whenever she was mad at Uther, Arthur always got the brunt of her fury.
"I'm not the one pressuring him into this, and..."
"Maybe not, but I appreciate you defending my honor."
Arthur pinched the bridge of his nose, biting back his childish retort of I did defend your honor. There was no talking to her when she was in her fiery mood, especially when it was directed upon him. He lowered his hand, getting to where he came here for. "I wanted to wish you safe travels. As well as you, Guinevere."
Gwen smiled sweetly and nodded her head. She tucked a stray of her curly black hair behind her ear. "Good luck ruling the kingdom in your father's stead while he's away."
Arthur mirrored her expression. "Thank you. I need it." He turned back to Morgana. "I wish I could overruled Father's laws, but if you do find a suitor, I hope he's worthy of you."
There was a slight tug at the right corner of Morgana's lips that it could almost be a smile.
He walked over and pressed her into a hug, his hand gripped her neck as she buried her face into his chest. He immediately felt the magical link, the connection. The fear had grown. "I hope you don't have any more nightmares," he whispered. "I hope your dreams are light." Her skin shocked his hand, and he forced himself not to jerk away. What was that?
They pulled apart.
"I hope Merlin keeps your ego in check while we're gone."
Arthur laughed. "I think he's ready for that." He gave a slight wave to Guinevere before he headed back to the door.
"Arthur..." Morgana called out at the doorway.
He glanced back at her.
"Don't ever forget who you are...you're not your father..." she said.
Arthur narrowed his eyes in confusion. It felt like she knew more than she was letting on, like it was a warning. What type of magic did Morgana have? Did she know she had magic? Or was she like him, uncertain and confused? Was she born with it? She must've, because he knew with Uther around, there was no way she would learn sorcery to spite him. He struggled to remember her dreams. There were only two he recalled specifically, the one that stood out the most was her panic state before he left with his knights to kill the Questing Beast. Did she dream that? He vowed when she returned, he would confess that he knew of her magic and support her. He wouldn't let her down again.
"I won't. I'll see you both out tomorrow morning." He smacked his hand against the doorframe before he left.
"I expect that my kingdom shall remain standing when I return," Uther said from his horse.
Arthur knew his father was teasing, but somehow that remark still stun. "You can rest easy, Father. Camelot is in good hands."
"I shall return in a couple months' time." Uther leaned a bit forward, his words meant only for Arthur. "Make me proud." And he clapped his hand on Arthur's shoulder.
Even the most fatherly statement sounded like an order in Arthur's ears. His lips thinned. "I will, Father."
Uther jerked his horse's rein and rode up to the front of the party. No goodbye. No advice or concern. Only his usual Make me Proud remark. Sometimes Arthur felt like something held his father back from loving Arthur with all he had, like most fathers. The only time he seemed to show concern was when Arthur's life was in danger. Or did he only show concern because if Arthur's mother really did die for Arthur to be born, Arthur's death would make hers pointless? Does Father blame me for Mother's death? Was it my fault?
Arthur waited for the other knights, servants, and members of the council walk or ride by, many bearing the red mark of Camelot. He caught Morgana and Gwen on their respective horses in the distance, they chattered among themselves. He caught Morgana's eyes and she gave him a slight gesture with her head, as if saying farewell.
It felt strange. For the first time in his life, Camelot was solely in his hands, his responsibility. Every decision will be decided by him.
What type of king do you want to be? Arthur knew this was his moment of truth, his test. Whatever actions he decided or performed now could possibly decide his future. He wasn't naïve, he knew his father could rule, possibly for another twenty years. Heck, Arthur could die before he ever got the chance to be king. It didn't hurt to prepare, to be ready. In case that time ever comes.
Arthur never told anyone the truth: that he doesn't want to be king.
Everyone always talk about it like it's a great honor, how they could change the kingdom, the world even, as they see fit. He always wondered who would ever want to be king. His father conquered this kingdom with spilt blood. Blood he continued to spill to keep Camelot. Arthur doesn't want to have that type of power over people. With one word, and people would do his bidding. He'd trade that power in a heartbeat.
He sat on his horse and watched Uther and his company disappear on the road within the vastness of the forest.
Arthur turned his head slightly to see Merlin sitting on his own horse, alongside him. They had a long conversation ahead. After the reveal the day before, Arthur had to return to aid his father and have Uther prepare him for the coming months.
"Shall we?" Arthur called out.
"After you, sire," Merlin sang the last part out.
Arthur cast him a glare.
"For...Forbanian," Arthur stuttered out. He stared at the palm of his hand, expectantly.
"No," Merlin chuckled. He held out his own palm. "Forbearnan." A fireball sparked to life and hovered in Merlin's hands.
Arthur was more fascinated by the way Merlin's eyes turned gold whenever he said a spell. Usually, when he saw golden eyes, something dangerous was coming his way. The golden eyes seemed to fit Merlin more than anything, like it was a part of the mystery that always surrounded him.
The fire disappeared and Merlin gestured at Arthur to try again.
They were in Arthur's chambers, the doors bolted shut. Merlin showed off a few of his skills and then randomly decided to teach Arthur.
"Fobearnan," Arthur said. Nothing.
Merlin almost looked disappointed.
Arthur sighed. "I'm not like you, Merlin. I was told I can't do spells or enchantments."
Merlin scrunched his eyebrows. "But you're of magic, how can you not?"
Arthur flashed his teeth. "Apparently, I'm a rare kind."
Merlin frowned, thinking.
Arthur waved it away. "Enough, Merlin. Don't worry about it." He was somehow both relieved and disappointed he couldn't make anything happened. "Tell me. What magic have you done in Camelot?"
"Besides saving your royal hide?"
Arthur's lips twitched to the side, unamused.
Merlin slumped into the chair across from Arthur's table, looking years older. He stared at Arthur for the longest time that Arthur started to feel that Merlin wasn't going to tell him anything. Finally, he took a deep breath and began, with their initial meeting.
"I knew those hooks and buckets moved of their own accord!" Arthur shook his head in mock disapproval. "You cheated."
"You told me you've been trained to kill since birth, I was just leveling the playing field," Merlin snapped playfully.
Arthur chuckled and then he listened. He listened how Merlin used magic to save Arthur's life that resulted in him becoming Arthur's manservant. He listened to how Merlin tried to use magic to convince Arthur about the magical snakes on Valiant's shield. Then the afanc and how he was the one that saved Gwen's father and Arthur hid the fact that when Merlin confessed he was a sorcerer to save Gwen, Arthur had already known. He's been acting like a true clotpole for so long. Then Merlin told Arthur of Lancelot and the Griffin.
"Wait, Lancelot knows you have magic?" Arthur cried. You trusted Lancelot over me? A stranger over me?
"I didn't tell him, Arthur," Merlin's voice was soft. "He found out, like you, on his own."
Arthur decided to leave it alone, but the bitterness and jealously still remained inside of him.
He listened about Edwin Muirden, about Sophia and the Sidhe ("I knew you weren't strong enough to knock me out!" "That's what you're most concerned about, not that you let a girl enchant you?"), about Mordred yet Arthur knew Merlin was hiding something when he failed to disclose why he was late in opening the gate, about Ealdor. Then Merlin started to fidget.
Arthur wondered what happened the past couple months after Ealdor that stood out. Uther and Morgana were attacked by Tauren's men after Gwen's father died. He pushed aside the memory of his agreement with his father in freeing Morgana from the prison, forgetting the deal he made with Uther that he told no one of. Arthur winced at the memory.
What happened after...oh. "How did you save me from the Questing Beast? That bite was supposed to kill me, yet it didn't."
Merlin averted his gaze. "I...I can't talk about that."
You still don't trust me?
Merlin glanced down at his hands. "It's just...I haven't come to terms yet with what happened, and I'm not ready to talk about it." He looked back up at Arthur and his face fell more as he seemed to realize Arthur's expression. "Arthur...it's not you."
"There's something else you're hiding from me," Arthur pressed.
Merlin opened his mouth to protest.
"It sounds like you've been going to someone else besides Gaius for magical advice. Who?" Morgana? Though, Arthur knew that was unlikely. Was there another sorcerer living here in Camelot, protecting them?
Merlin winced. "I vowed I would never see him again. He deceived me and I'm afraid whether or not I can trust him."
So, I'm not the only one you have trust issues with. Arthur sighed. "It sounded like he helped you a lot in the past."
"Only for his own interest," Merlin replied, scornfully.
Sounds like my father. Arthur leaned back in his chair. "Regardless of his intentions, he did still help you."
"Only at the cost of the people I care about."
Are we talking about my father? Arthur wanted to quip, instead he said, "Certain people can become blind to what their actions are doing to those around them. I don't think they intentionally set out to hurt to others, but they become so focused on their goal, nothing else matters."
What he said made him think of Uther. Was his father an evil man? No. Ignorant, misguided, and blind, yes. And how Uther passed on those traits to Arthur. He didn't want to become like his father. That was his biggest fear.
Merlin reeled his head back, surprised at Arthur's words. "Wow...uh..."
Arthur pursed his lips up. "What?"
"You're smarter than you look," Merlin quipped.
Arthur glared, not pleased to have his own words thrown back at him. He knew Merlin thought he was dumb, maybe that's what they were both good at, pretending to be idiots.
Merlin shifted in his seat. "Maybe you should meet him."
Arthur pointed at himself. "Me? The Crowned Prince of Camelot meeting another sorcerer?"
"He's not exactly a sorcerer..."
Arthur furrowed his brows.
Merlin chuckled darkly, lost in his thoughts. "In a way, his fate is in your hands."
After a few minutes, Arthur hesitantly agreed. He was free for the remaining of the morning anyway. So, Merlin took him down toward the crypts, then snuck past Camelot's guards to head down an unused corridor.
He decided he would come up with another training regimen in his head to always keep the guards on alert. He knew most of the time it was boredom and confident that made the guards slack off in their duties. Maybe he needed to have someone always trying to slip through the guards and reveal the weaknesses of Camelot's defense.
Arthur blinked back to the present. Merlin was holding a torch, standing in front of him with a concerned look.
"Stay here, I'll call for you," Merlin said before he headed down the hallway and through the dark entryway.
Arthur's heart pounded in his chest. What kind of sorcerer hides in the darkest basement of Camelot? His gut churned and Arthur knew he wouldn't like the answer. Arthur strained his ears as he heard a silky, yet rough voice slipped down the passageway.
"What is this, young warlock? I thought you vowed you would never see me again?"
For some reason, Arthur felt like he's heard that voice before, like from a distant dream.
"I didn't come here for me," Merlin replied. Arthur was surprised at how Merlin sounded, confident and unwilling, like a leader. Is this what was hiding beneath the clumsy idiot persona? "I came here because it's time to decide your fate."
The other person...no, it sounded too great to be a human, snorted. "My fate lies in accordance with you and Arthur."
Arthur stiffened at the mention of his name. What?
"Exactly," Merlin said.
It took several seconds to realize that was his cue. Arthur took a deep breath of courage before he walked through the entryway to a dark cave and blanched at the sight before him.
A huge, golden-scale reptile creature sat perched on the cave rocks.
"Your—you're a...dragon," Arthur stuttered, blinking. Fear and awe rose in his chest. He's seen many magical creatures, fought against them, yet he'd never seen a dragon.
The dragon tilted its head at Arthur. "Ah, the young Pendragon," Arthur caught traces of shock in the dragon's voice.
"And...you can talk."
"You expected me to yodel?"
Arthur felt his cheeks grow red, then he wanted to smack himself for acting like a bumbling fool before a dragon.
"Arthur, this is Kilgharrah," Merlin introduced, struggling hard not to break out in to a huge grin. It made Arthur want to smack him, though it would be a bad idea to do that in front of a dragon who possible liked Merlin.
Arthur settled to giving a very awkward wave to the towering dragon. "Kilgharrah, it's an honor...I thought there were no more dragons."
Given Merlin's quick "Did you seriously just say that" expression, he knew that was the wrong thing to say.
"You have your father to thank for eradicating most of my kind. I'm chained here as example to all magical beings," Kilgharrah said. "I've been down here for nearly twenty years, I'm beginning to think Uther forgotten about me."
Arthur knew better than that. Uther remembered, he's done it to prisoners, leave them rotting in their cells without contact in order to drive them mad. Arthur lowered his head, ashamed, but then forced himself to look back at Kilgharrah. For the first time, he noticed the chains. "I am sorry..."
Kilgharrah immediately chimed in, "Those were your father's actions, not yours."
Arthur had once stood by Uther's side with blind loyalty in his father's war against magic, against sorcerers. How many innocent did he stand by and watch get condemned? How many times did he let his pride, let his need for his father's approval, shield him from the very truth that was right before him? How many suffer Kilgharrah's fate?
Kilgharrah peered his head a bit closer to them. "I take your presence here means you are aware of Merlin's secret."
Arthur stole a glance over at Merlin who glanced down at his feet and shifted. "Yes," he said.
"And what will you do with this newfound knowledge?" the Great Dragon inquired.
Arthur locked his gaze with Merlin, eyes blaze with curiosity and respect. No matter what Arthur decided, Merlin would accept it. What type of acquaintances are so willing to die for each other? Arthur had asked himself that question every day since Merlin drank poison for him. What were they? Friends? Possibly. Arthur had a feeling that he trusted Merlin more than Merlin trusted him. Suddenly, it hit Arthur. Merlin bringing him here to meet this dragon was a test of trust.
He turned back to Kilgharrah. "I hoped to seek understanding." Of magic...and of Merlin. And what is Merlin to me?
Kilgharrah reeled his head back and gave a ruffle of his wings in approval.
In that moment, Arthur knew what he had to do. It was only right. What type of king do you wish to be? Arthur knew his answer: I don't want to be my father. I want to be me. Arthur straightened his back, standing proud. "You're a prisoner, and as Prince of Camelot, I've declared you've suffered enough, too much, I will free you."
"Arthur!" Merlin took a step forth. "You can't trust him."
Kilgharrah gave a strange short of growl, like he wanted to attack Merlin, yet his idiot servant held his ground. He knew Merlin well enough by now to finally understand his reaction. At least he hoped he did.
"He threatened your mother...or Gaius?" Arthur probed.
"Both..." Merlin said.
Anger roared in Arthur's chest. Who dared hurt Merlin? Especially Hunith, despite the short time Arthur's come to know her, he valued her life well before his. She was Merlin's mother. And Gaius? Why harm the physician?
He glared at Kilgharrah, ready to verbally lash at him or demand an answer, until he remembered what the dragon said. Kilgharrah was the last of his kind. His father destroyed all the dragons. Arthur tried to imagine sitting in a prison in a place where a king killed everyone he loved. What if he was a creature of magic and watched helpless as magic faded away?
Twenty years sitting in rage and sorrow.
"Your destiny..." Kilgharrah began.
"You are selfish and only care about your own revenge," Merlin snapped. Arthur read his manservant right away. He was feeling betrayed. "You don't believe in our destiny, you just want it to happen so you can be free."
Arthur held up a hand and Merlin took a small step back. He lowered his hand to his side and walked up toward the edge of the cliff, keeping his gaze steady and true.
"Kilgharrah, I will free you."
"Arthur..." Merlin whispered out in disagreement.
Kilgharrah met Arthur's gaze, uncertain. "I know the nature of humans. What do you wish for in exchange?"
"Do not harm Camelot or any of its people." He took a deep breath. "If you do seek revenge, then I will offer you my life to do as you wish."
Kilgharrah's nostril flared. "What would I gain with your life?"
"You'll destroy Camelot. I'm not saying this out of blatant pride, but I've seen how much I mean to the people and to my father," Arthur swallowed. "And I'm just as guilty as my father in regards to what happened to magic over the years."
Kilgharrah tilted his head. "How will you ensure that I keep my word?"
Arthur graced a small smile and shrugged. "It may be naïve and foolish, but over the years, I've come to learn that if you want to know whether or not you can trust someone...trust them anyway."
Kilgharrah gazed at Arthur for the longest time. Finally, in a whisper, he said, "You are truly indeed the Once and Future King."
What? He's sworn he's heard that title before. But him? There was nothing special about him. Once and Future King? The name sounded...terrifying. Arthur pushed those thoughts aside. He held out his hand. "Agreed?"
Kilgharrah leaned his snout forward and pressed it against Arthur's palm. Gods, Arthur never felt so tiny in his life. His miniature hand pressed against the Great Dragon's snout. A wave of magic flowed through Arthur's arm at the connection. He felt sadness, anger, loneliness, and yet somehow amidst all of that, trust.
Kilgharrah pulled his head back and released a slight chuckle. "How the fates have changed. I never realized you, Arthur, were a creature of magic like me."
Arthur joined in with him. "I never realized either. But Merlin's the one who is magic," he turned to his friend, who stood, beaming with pride. "Not me."
"Indeed, he is, young Pendragon. Perhaps now that you know his secret can your destiny together truly begin."
"Destiny?" Arthur cocked his head at Kilgharrah.
"Yours and Merlin's destiny lies together. And for what, only time will reveal."
Him and Merlin? Together? It made sense, and it felt right. He never really thought much about what type of king he wanted to be until Merlin came along. Now that Merlin was here...Arthur found it hard to imagine his life without the man on his side.
He had a feeling that Kilgharrah knew more of Arthur's destiny than he was willing to share. As much as Arthur craved to know, he found that he didn't want to know the details, for fear that he'll let Kilgharrah and Merlin down.
Arthur clasped his hands together. "So, how do we free you? I'm assuming those are no ordinary chains on you..."
Kilgharrah growled. "Chains that can only be broken by magic forged by the Old Religion."
Arthur's heart skipped a beat. He was forged by the Old Religion...
Merlin narrowed his eyes in thought. "What of that sword you forged?"
The dragon tilted his snout upward in thought. "Hmmmm. It's dangerous, last time you allowed the sword to fall into the wrong hands."
Merlin glared, he opened his mouth, glanced over at Arthur, and then swallowed his protests.
Even now, he still hides things from me. What would it take for him to trust me?
Kilgharrah regarded Arthur. "You have indeed proved your heart, young Pendragon, yet the strength of your spirit has yet to be determined. I will bide my time and wait. Only when I deem you're ready, can you take up the sword and free me."
For some reason, Arthur felt like a huge honor had been bestowed upon him. "Are you certain you can wait?"
"I've been trapped here for nearly twenty-years. What's a few more?"
Arthur rose his brows. It was going to take that long to prove himself? Were his own people uncertain about him like Kilgharrah and Merlin were? His doubts began to grow. Heck, Arthur had thought he had saved certain people when really it was Merlin behind the scene. Had anything Arthur done been of value since Merlin came?
"I swear I will free you," Arthur vowed, pushing his doubts aside.
Kilgharrah smiled. "I'm pleased that you are aware of my existence, and that you accepted Merlin. Perhaps you are indeed the man destiny has foretold."
"You don't have to join me," Arthur said once more as he and Merlin headed down the outdoor corridor that overlooked the courtyard.
"I've seen you fall asleep during these meetings," Merlin said, struggling to keep up with Arthur's quick gait. It was easy for Arthur to move in his own castle, people simply parted for him. Merlin kept crashing into everybody. "I've never seen you take control of them."
Arthur spared a glance over his shoulder. "You just want to see me make a fool of myself."
"You do that every day," Merlin was quick to retort.
Arthur held back a smile and shook his head. They turned and headed down the North Wing of Camelot's Keep, nearing their destination.
Arthur noticed Sir Leon approaching from the other end.
"Sire," Leon greeted.
"Sir Leon," he beckoned the knight to enter the room before him. The three of them slipped into the council room.
Gaius and Geoffrey were already there and seated. Near the King's chair was...Arthur bit back a groan: Fynbar Hans.
Silky brown hair, perfect nose, straight smile, he was dubbed one of the most handsome man in Camelot by the ladies of the court. Arthur despised him. Merlin always poked fun as he tried to guess the reasons why Arthur hated Fyn. Arthur enjoyed hearing the ridiculous reasons from Merlin that he never told Merlin the truth of why.
Arthur considered Fyn a rival and enemy. Fyn was some twice-removed cousin on Uther's side of the family and a couple years older than Arthur. At fifteen, Arthur was already head of Camelot's Knights. Fyn had been one, and Arthur stripped him of his knighthood within a month in his new position.
Fyn was furious. He had been a knight for three years and wasn't going to be easily cast aside by a "spoiled kid who had everything handed to him". He demanded his right to return by combat, where Arthur easily defeated him. It wasn't lack of skills that made Arthur dismiss him. It was Fyn's attitude.
Why couldn't Uther have taken Fyn with him?
Fyn's father, Alec Hans was a good man, a great member of the council. He died a couple months ago, and Fyn got the job, simply because he was a noble. A man's worth shouldn't be weighed by blood alone.
"Prince Arthur," Fyn greeted with a forced smile, his pesky servant, Lee stood behind him. He always addressed Arthur like that.
It irked Arthur. He gave a nod of greeting in return as he settled into the chair across from his father's. He hated how his father's chair was higher than the rest of the table. Uther always had to be placed higher than the others. Arthur would never sit in that chair.
"Gaius. Geoffrey," Arthur greeted and Sir Leon took a seat next to him.
Merlin, thank the gods for him, stood directly behind Arthur. He instantly felt relieved knowing Merlin was by his side. He could do anything with Merlin on his side. Why was that?
"Before we get into it, are there any issues that needs to immediately address?" Arthur asked. Not like Uther who only opened the council to the rest of his members after he covered what he wanted.
Sir Leon leaned forward onto his elbows. "Sire, I received reports of bandits, rooting several of the outlying villages."
Take a group of knights and find these bandits was what Uther would've said. "What do you suggest to do about them?" Arthur asked.
Leon blinked at the question. He leaned back and regained his composure. "I will send a group of knights out to hunt down these bandits. However, these bandit reports have heightened the past several months, I would like to suggest stationing certain knights at these outlying villages."
Arthur struggled not to smile too much from pride. There's a reason why Sir Leon was his favorite. The man knew what was to be done. See, Father, what happens when allow the people to think for themselves? "Any you trust?"
"Send them, and I have no doubt crops were the main thing taken, gather a couple of supplies from our storage and order these knights to supply them to the villages," Arthur said.
"Is that wise?" Fyn rolled his fingers on the table.
"You disagree?" Arthur said.
"We barely have enough supplies to feed the people within this city. Are you aware because of our dry spring that crops are low this year?"
Arthur remembered Peter's body and his children. He gritted his teeth. Of course, Arthur was aware.
"We barely have enough supplies to trade with Mercia and meet the conditions of the agreement."
King Bayard was a reasonable man. He thought back to after he saved Merlin from the poison. Arthur was still locked in the dungeon when an illness spread and ended up sharing his cell with King Bayard. The King had told Arthur that the future of Camelot was in good hands because Arthur was a much better man than his father. Arthur still wasn't sure about that.
"King Bayard will understand if we explain our conditions to him, perhaps he would be willing to loan Camelot some provisions."
"Sire," Gaius spoke up. "I must stress that your father would not allow that to happen."
It still stung that Gaius was still ever loyal to Uther. What did his father hold over him? He wondered why Uther kept him around, he barely listened to Gaius' wise counsel.
You must learn to listen as well as you fight.
"Also," Fyn jumped in once again, "the crown is low on money. We do not have enough funds to support Camelot's army."
Arthur didn't like how Fyn said Camelot's army instead of our army.
"Fynbar is correct," Geoffrey said. "I must add Camelot is not the only one to suffer in trade this year. King Alrik and the kingdom of Svealand suffered an attack on their ships and lost most of their amber trade, as well as their fish trade and weaponry. We received most of our profits through those trades."
And this would be the part when Arthur would begin zoning out.
"They are foolish barbarians," Fyn snapped. "Choosing their king line through war."
They are a country of warlords, Arthur realized. Why wasn't he born there? He'd rather talk with his sword than with words. "King Alrik is our friend and ally. My father hopes to make peace with him and the four other kingdoms in the near future. Continue whatever trade you have with them, however little."
"How do you propose I retrieve the money to support Camelot? Magic it out of thin air?"
"Magic is forbidden," Geoffrey chided.
"A mere joke," Fyn said, condescendingly.
Uther had a lot of money when he took over Camelot, mostly from the villages he pillaged on the way. The Great Purge also increased his wealth, but the twenty-year war against magic had cost Uther a lot. Especially maintaining an army that was always in use.
Fyn pursed his lips up. "I could suggest raising the taxes, especially on our lords."
And who would suffer most? The people. "And cause the people to revolt?"
An evil grin crossed Fyn's face but was quickly contained. "I did do some calculations, Prince Arthur." The way he said Prince Arthur sounded like he was calling Arthur a bastard. Fyn glanced down at his notes. "I've come to realize that you've won nearly all the tournaments hosted by Camelot since you were thirteen of age."
"What of it?"
"And all together, the prize money you've earned is roughly a hundred thousand in coins, is that correct?"
Arthur flicked his gaze up at Lee. No doubt whatever his answer was Lee would be quick to fuel the castle's gossip tonight. Fyn was always out to ruin Arthur's reputation with his people, yet mostly to Uther. Arthur had Geoffrey check years ago. While Fyn did have a claim to the throne, it was far-fetch, and he would need to win all the lords and nobles favor.
Arthur was no fool. If Fyn won Uther's favor, that was all that mattered.
"Yes, that's correct," Arthur said. If Fyn managed to count the winnings Arthur won from other kingdoms' tournaments, when he disguised himself as a commoner, who allowed all to join and not just nobles, Arthur's total winnings would be close to six million. Wasn't his alias once Wart?
"Perhaps as your duty as Prince of Camelot, you should donate your winnings to ensure Camelot will continue to flourish."
I would never trust my winnings to a spineless coward like you. Arthur was saving his money...to ensure an old childhood dream for when he became king. Arthur cleared his throat and tugged at his shirt collar. If there's one thing he's good at, it's playing the idiot. He added a cough. "Ahem, I'm afraid I don't have it."
"I blew it all, at the tavern." He turned to Sir Leon. "I always lose my money to the knights."
Sir Leon narrowed his eyes, knowing it was a lie, yet picked up on it. He turned to Fyn. "It's true. I've had to ban Arthur from gambling with his men, for his sake."
"Pity..." Fyn said, in a tone that was filled with glee.
Enjoy sharing that little gossip. And I'm sure my father will hear about it somehow.
Gaius and Geoffrey stared at Arthur in shock.
And the council meeting went only downhill from that. Arthur had to end up cutting a trade with two kingdoms to ensure Uther still had money during his reign. A poor king didn't stay in power for long. Gaius brought up the fact that a sickness was spreading in the lower towns, and Arthur begrudgingly agreed to ward them from the rest of the castle. Geoffrey added how Cenred was itching for war, especially since he found out that Arthur helped protect Ealdor, and demand to pay his price for trespassing. After figuring out how to deal with that with Leon's help, Leon mentioned how a group of knights were closing in on several Druid camps. Arthur told him to rein in the men, hold off on attacking and be cautious.
Arthur finally dismissed the council and stayed in his chair as the others left. I don't want to be King. If this is what it's like...
Arthur paused in rubbing his temple and glanced up at Merlin, who had remained standing there this whole time. He glanced behind his manservant to ensure the doors were closed. "What would you do?"
Merlin's brows creased.
"If you were me," Arthur explained. "How would you make Camelot flourish?"
Merlin thought about it for a moment. He bit his lips, uncertain whether to say it.
"With magic?" Arthur said, stroking his upper lip.
"Arthur, you've got to realize, our land was built on magic, Albion is magic. I think we've stopped understanding what we're supposed to use magic for. Not for religion or power. If I could, I would use magic to bring rain or strengthen our crops. I would use it to heighten the defense of Camelot's walls..."
"And what of the outlying villages? How could you protect them?"
Merlin seemed taken aback. "With wards? I'll have to look into that."
"When..." Arthur swallowed. "When does magic ask for a price?"
This time, Merlin stared at him. He took a seat next to him. "What is it?"
"I was born of magic, Merlin..." Arthur sighed. "I don't know the details, I don't know if it's true, but...are you aware of the balance of the Old Religion?"
Merlin's brows furrowed deeper, than they rose in realization. "To create a life, one must be taken." He covered his mouth. "Your mother?"
"If it's true...can you believe what a hypocrite that would make my father? All those lives..." Arthur pushed himself up and strolled over to the windows. "All of them dead...so I can live. Where's the balance in that? What's one worthless life against ten thousands?"
"How can I trust magic, Merlin? How can I trust people won't abuse it?"
"How is it any different than the nobles who abuse their power?" Merlin snapped.
Arthur slowly turned back to Merlin who stood, fists on his side.
"You abused your power sometimes. How can I trust those in power when I see them abuse it every day?"
Is that why you didn't trust me? Did I always abuse my powers? Arthur knew he used to bully servants, but it was for show, to prove to Uther that Arthur was like the other nobles, that Arthur was a Prince.
"There are days when I think about using my powers to turn you into a frog...or to put warts on some of your knights, or even trip Fyn. I don't. Because I chose long ago to stop using my powers for pranks and to use it for the greater good." He sighed and stared hard into Arthur's eyes. "For you."
How is it that Merlin was so loyal to him, yet didn't trust him?
"Magic doesn't always come with a price. It can be a gift, Arthur. It can heal, grow things, save lives...there is beauty to it. Stronger magic, sometimes require a balance. I'm still learning about it."
Arthur stared out the stained-glass window, out into the courtyard. The details of the meeting running through his head.
"Did you really gamble away your tournament money?"
Arthur hid his smile behind his hand. "What do you think?"
"You don't trust Fyn. I understand that, but don't you think you should give it to your people?"
What would it take for Merlin to trust me? Should I tell him my childhood dream? "I'm sure you remember Ealdor, how my father wouldn't send men to help your village."
He sensed Merlin's confusion. "Erm, I understand that, his treaty with Cenred..." He sighed. "Are you trying to change the subject?"
Arthur rested his forehead against the cool glass. "There was a similar situation when I was a kid. Have you ever heard of the village, Manau?"
"It was an outlying village in Olaf's kingdom. We had several refuges seek safety within Camelot's walls and they begged my father to save their village." Arthur closed his eyes, remembering that day. "This village was twice the size of Ealdor, soldiers that had been dismissed from Olaf's army was pillaging the village, raping both men and women, torturing everyone, even the children. Yet my father declared that Manau was not within Camelot's borders and not of our concern."
Merlin didn't say anything. Arthur could hear his breathing, knowing that his manservant was listening.
"It was the first time I ever outright disagreed with my father. I was...ten? Eleven? I told him that there was an injustice being done and that it was our duty, and the knights' duties, to fight against it." Arthur gave a wry chuckle. "My father told me I'd understand when I become king."
"I was old enough to know that it took money to run a kingdom, so since then I've been saving my winnings so that when I became king, I would conquer all of Albion and protect all of its people from injustice."
There was a sharp inhale.
Arthur lifted his head from the glass and glanced over at Merlin who looked white as snow.
"You want to conquer all of Albion?" Merlin's voice was strained.
Arthur rolled his eyes. "I was a kid, Merlin. I don't want to conquer much of anything." I don't want to be my father. He tapped his chin. "Though, to unite Albion, to unite all the kingdoms under one peaceful banner so that there will be no more Manau, or Ealdor."
Merlin gave him that look like he believed Arthur could do all of that. The look of utmost faith.
Arthur cleared his throat. "It's a childish dream."
"No!" Merlin quickly said.
Arthur raised a brow.
"Erm, no, it's not. I believe you can do it."
Arthur creased his brows. This time, he voiced his question out loud. "Why do you believe in me so much?"
Merlin just grinned.
Damn it, Arthur wanted a straight-out answer. He tried to recall exactly when Merlin started to give him that I believe in you look. He blinked when he remembered. When Merlin told him of Valiant's snakes and the shield, Arthur told him that he believed him and Merlin gave him that same exact grin he's giving now.
"Come on," Arthur said. "Show me more of your magic."
Arthur found himself waking before the crack of dawn. It wasn't like he was getting any decent sleep anyway. He knew Merlin would be up in a couple hours to rouse him.
Thoughts whirled in his mind.
Everything changed, yet it was a change that Arthur welcomed. A change that was for the good. A change Arthur wanted.
He threw the covers off him and stared out of his window into the dark morning sky. He stroked his upper lip.
What type of king do you wish to be?
Why did that question keep haunting him? Tormenting him?
The next couple months will test Arthur, he knew that.
I need to prove to myself I'm ready to be king...and to my people. Arthur had hoped it would be many years before he was king, yet talking with Merlin about his magic, having Merlin reveal more of his powers...how many more years can Arthur just watch those with magic get persecuted and murdered by his father, for just simply being as they are?
How could Merlin watch all that and still maintain his good heart, still maintain faith in Arthur?
Could Arthur easily watch his father continue to rule when in his heart he wanted a fair and just kingdom for all? A place where everyone, regardless of status, were treated equally.
Arthur knew that he needed to set the example first. He started with Merlin without even realizing it. It was time to expand on that.
He dressed himself in his simple red tunic and brown trousers. Merlin would be shocked to discover Arthur had begun the day without his help.
He knew right now Sir Leon would be setting up for training on the field. Arthur had his morning free for he had to be well prepared to address the common people in the throne room at noon.
He grabbed an apple from his bowl on the way out of his chambers.
The first light streaked across the sky when Arthur sought out the couple who took in Peter's children, Donna and Ben.
Ben was out front of his small cottage, shirtless and chopping wood.
"Morning, Ben," Arthur greeted.
Ben startled. "My lord?" He lowered his axe.
"Call me Arthur," Arthur said. They shook hands in greeting, and Arthur forced himself not to wipe off the grime on that transferred onto his palm. "How are the children?" he asked.
"Anna is adjusting better than Cian. The boy disappears for hours at a time. My poor wife worries for him."
"He's grieving, and angry...rightfully so." Arthur pulled out a small pouch from his pocket. "This should help cover means for a couple months."
Ben's mouth parted. "Sire..."
"Arthur," he stressed.
"Arthur...I cannot take this."
"Take? Psh, you're a shoemaker, correct? I'm buying as many shoes and boots as that'll cover."
"This is enough for an army..."
"Consider it an early payment. My knights are in need of new boots, the whole lot of them."
Ben's eyes twinkled and he motioned the pouch at Arthur. "You'll give a man his pride, will you not? You're a good lad."
Arthur winced. He hated compliments, it always made him uncomfortable. He shifted and rubbed the back of his neck. "It's nothing, truly. Especially since I..." I'm the reason why you have to foster those two children.
Ben sighed and gripped Arthur's shoulders. "We all must do our duty. Yours just happens to be a whole lot bigger."
Arthur checked in on the progress of his knights' training. He caught Leon's gaze and gave him a nod, pleased with their progress.
There was to be a feast today, as there always was with the nobles and knights once a week. He decided to stop by the kitchen. When he reached the doorway, a servant stumbled out, George or was it Gaylord?
George's eyes were wide with panic and he nearly plowed Arthur down. "Ah, sire...Lord Sully..."
A ladle flew out and George barely ducked it. He skittered away.
What in hell? He knew Audrey, their head cook, had a bit of a short temper. She smacked his hands a few times when he tried to steal extra honeycakes. She terrified Arthur to no end.
Arthur ducked his head into the kitchen. There were wisps of smoke and she was fanning them out with a cloth. Sweat glistened her skin and she was frantic.
Arthur swallowed his fear and stepped in. "Audrey, is everything..."
"Stay out, George. Tell precious Lord Sully to pour down wine with his extra-dry chicken!"
Arthur ducked a brick of cheese.
Her eyes widened as she noticed him. "Sire! Oh! My dear apologizes...I'd thought..."
A reprimand was on his tongue and he was ready to toss her into the stocks for the day. That was Uther's reaction instilled in him. What type of king do you wish to be?
He truly looked at her. Her face was red and she seemed to be on the verge of tears.
"What happened?" came out of his mouth instead.
"My helpers are at home. There's a sickness spreading in the lower towns, my boys..." she trailed off as she realized whom she was speaking to. "The feast will be ready by nightfall, my lord."
Arthur waved that away. "Do you need extra hands?"
"Perhaps if you could loan me a couple of servants..."
Arthur rolled up his sleeves. "Put me to work."
Audrey blanched. "Sire..."
"You're in charge, come on."
Her mouth worked. She glanced about the room, as if this was all a joke. The round cook set her lips in a thin line. "Very well."
So, she put him to work. Audrey chided at him when he did something wrong, smacked his hands when he folded the yeast of bread wrong, mocked him when he cried chopping the onions.
For the first time in his life, Arthur reveled in being ordered around, not being in charge. It was different than with Uther. When Audrey told him to do something, Arthur didn't feel compelled to do it. He did it, because he wanted to.
As time passed, Arthur found Audrey chatting his ear off. She had ten boys, two were off in the army, two training to be knights, another that's a carpenter, and the other five were still young.
One thing Arthur noticed, she was passionate about her job.
"Here, taste this."
Arthur leaned in and slurped the broth from the spoon she held up to him.
"Oh, that's good. Venison stew broth?" Arthur said, recognizing the taste.
"My secret recipe is the mulled wine," Audrey said, stirring the pot.
"I won't tell," Arthur teased.
She smacked his arm. "Anyway, to get my boys to stop stealing my honeycakes, I told them I chopped up rat's feet and mixed it into the yeast." She placed her hand on her hip, the other still stirring the pot, "One day, I come home to a pile of dead rats. My boys were anxious to help." She held up a spoon to Arthur. "That'll teach you for lying to your kids."
Arthur laughed. How could his father believe that nobles and his own life were above that of a servant, of commoners? They all had their own nobility in spirit. Audrey, hot tempered she was, cared. She made an offhand comment earlier about how Uther made her and the others tossed the leftovers to the hounds, so much food that could be given to the people, to the orphanages, so much wasted. She calmed up after that, afraid she spoke too much, but it didn't get much to get her going again.
Arthur came to learn that if he only just listened, everyone had their own ideas to create a better kingdom. Why surround himself with nobles? Why surround himself with people so he would only feel superior? Arthur would rather that he was surround by people smarter than him, people more compassionate than him, because how else would he find the inspiration and ideas to create something better? Who would know better than the common people?
Arthur snapped his head to the doorway to see Merlin. From the way Merlin stood, it was obvious he'd been there for quite some time.
Arthur realized how ridiculous he must've looked, covered in flour, smoke streaked in his hair, cheeks stained with onion tears. He blushed, as if Merlin had caught him in an intimate moment, doing what no prince should be doing, conversing with a servant, taking orders from one in a position lower than he.
He set the knife down, unsure of how to save face.
Merlin coughed into his hand, and Arthur wondered if he was hiding a laugh. "They're...they're waiting for you in the throne room."
"Right..." Arthur needed to clean himself off. He turned to Audrey, somehow feeling that it would be rude to leave without her permission.
She smacked his backside and he jumped in alarm. "Go boy, I've got things settled here."
He brushed his hands on his tunic, smearing flour on the red. "Audrey, if it's not too much, could you find someone that you trust to distribute the leftovers from the feast to those who truly need it? I trust you know where they should go."
She smiled. "I can find the perfect person, sire."
"Arthur," he corrected.
Her smile grew. "Arthur."
Arthur cleared his throat and clapped his hands together before he joined with Merlin. They headed down the corridor, up to Arthur's chambers. There was no way he was going to greet the people like this.
He gave a sideways glance at Merlin. "Get that ridiculous grin off your face, Merlin."
"What a rare sight, the Crowned Prince of Camelot slaving away in the kitchen." Merlin checked Arthur up and down. "You're not enchanted, are you?"
"I'm a knight," Arthur said. "I swore an oath to protect and help the weak."
"Ooooh, was that what that was?"
There was silence.
"You've got flour in your hair."
"Shut up, Merlin."