Knights of the Round Table
"I knew I recognized those cheekbones," Tristan snarled.
Arthur held up his hands. "That's slightly creepy."
Gwaine took a step back, hurt brimming in his eyes. "You're...the Prince of Camelot?"
"And you yearn power," Tristan said to Arthur. "Why else would the King be hunting you down for treason?"
Arthur huffed. There was no reason to explain himself. Nothing he said would change their opinions of him. They judged him without knowing him. Maybe Arthur deserved that judgement, but he was not in the mood for it now.
"Stop," Merlin said.
Apparently, neither was Merlin.
"We don't have time for this, we need to keep moving and find a safe hideout. You guys can kill him later," Merlin said.
Arthur snapped his head toward his manservant. "Thanks, Merlin, don't be too quick to defend me," he dripped sarcastically.
Merlin rolled his eyes.
"He's right," Isolde said. "We can't afford to linger. We must seek refuge."
Percival studied their surroundings. "Follow me," he said. "I know of a place."
Tristan growled as he took his sword from Arthur's neck and sheathed it. They held a stare down before Arthur followed after Percival and the others.
He couldn't blame them for being angry with him. It was his fault they were in this mess and were being hunted down. No matter what Arthur did, his life brought trouble and death onto others.
The six of them ran throughout the forest. They stopped for water at a small stream, filled their canteens, and kept moving.
Shadows of leaves flickered upon them as they rushed through the woods.
Arthur kept a close eye on Merlin, who had yet to fully recover from his near-death sacrifice against the Shadows.
Merlin panted heavily and his jog was sluggish. Yet the sorcerer kept pushing, kept on pace.
Sweat covered Arthur and his tunic stuck to his skin. He poured water over his head, dampening his hair to cool himself.
It was well past mid-afternoon by the time Percival lead them down a narrow valley. They rounded a corner and Arthur gapped at the sight before him.
At the entrance to the Valley of the Fallen Kings were two giant ancient statues, chips in their design and vines hugged around them. Both statues held a scroll to its chest, their cape billowed against their legs.
Arthur and Merlin stared up in awe as they walked by.
Percival caught noticed. In a low voice, he said, "This used to be called the Gates of Camelot. It used to mark the southwest border of Camelot back then. It was renamed because legends state that here was where the ancient kings fell."
Arthur read of a similar story growing up. Uther was responsible for Camelot's expansion. Years ago, Camelot was smaller, the center of the five kingdoms, the peacemaker.
"Careful, kid," Tristan whispered behind him. "This may be where you'll meet your demise."
Arthur turned and glared at the older man who returned it in kind before he walked past him.
"We're almost there," Percival said.
In half an hour's time, they reached a river that cut through the valley, it was being fed by a waterfall, pouring from a crack in the valley wall. Ferns and rocks aligned the fall as the water crashed onto moss-covered rocks.
They carefully walked upon each stone as they headed up the slight hill.
Arthur and the others followed Percival through the pouring waterfall. They walked through a short cave, leading them to the other side. They entered a clearing, surrounded by thick ferns, trees, and purple flowers. A portion of the valley hovered over them like a protective mother.
"We can settle here for the night. That waterfall is the only entrance into this place. If you continue to walk, you'll fall off a steep cliff," Percival said.
Tristan and Isolde ventured further across the clearing, surveying the hideout.
Gwaine shook the water from his hair like a dog. "How did you find this place, mate?"
"During your smuggling days, eh?" Gwaine smacked his friend's chest playfully.
Arthur found himself chuckling. "Good thinking, we'd never thought to look here."
"That's because the knights lack creative thinking," Gwaine teased.
"Oh, actually it's because we're afraid of water," Arthur teased back. "Think about it, all that armor we're wearing, we'd sink straight to the bottom."
Gwaine threw his head back and laughed. Then he suddenly stopped as if he realized who he was laughing at. "I'll find us dinner," he said before he quickly departed.
Percival clasped Arthur's shoulder. "Give him time. He'll come around."
Arthur raised a brow. "You don't have a problem with nobles?"
"I don't have trust issues like them," Percival said. "Besides, it reveals a lot about a man's character when he's so willing to give up his life for a friend and group of strangers."
Arthur's ears burned. "Uh, anybody would've done that." He cleared his throat. "I'm going to find some firewood. Merlin!"
Merlin spun from staring at the small narrow cave they entered through. He rushed over to Arthur.
Arthur came to discover that Percival was not kidding. After a two minute walk, he found the edge of the cliff, and it was a long drop. He stared out into the vast forest beneath the cliff, feeling like he was standing at the edge of his world.
Arthur turned to Merlin who held a bundle of broken branches in his arms.
"What is it?"
"They're right, Merlin. Why should they place hope in me?" He turned back to the beautiful view, the sunlight grazing along the edge of the leaves.
Merlin sighed. "Arthur...they don't know you."
"It doesn't matter. I did those things. I...hunted down the druids. I'm no different than any of those in power. I was foolish to think I would be a wise king, fair and just. How can my people follow a king who once killed innocents?" Arthur scoffed. "I'm not even a king, just a prince with delusions of grandeur."
Merlin dropped the broken branches that he'd collected. "If you believe that, how can you expect your people to follow you?"
"No, Arthur. I can have all the belief and faith of the world in you, but it doesn't matter if you don't have it in yourself." He sighed. "Someone once told me, that the past is the past, nothing can be changed about it."
Arthur knew the truth of that. Nothing he did would ever bring back the lives that he'd destroyed.
"You can change the future, Arthur. Who you were back then doesn't matter. All it did was shape you to be the worthy king Camelot deserves. What you do now, who you are now, that's more important."
Arthur shook his head. "No...it's not. Look what my life has brought upon Camelot. My birth resulted in the death of thousands. My sword resulted in the death of a few more. I'm stained with the blood of my people. I won't be responsible for more." Arthur walked away from Merlin. "The people need to find a new king."
"Arthur..." Merlin called out, but Arthur kept walking.
He couldn't bear to hear more of Merlin's words. He nearly got Tristan and the others killed by simply meeting with them. Every life he touched he destroyed.
Tristan was right.
Arthur was no better than his father.
He was worse.
After the tense dinner eating burnt rabbits and the debate on what they should do next (to which Tristan pointed out they wouldn't be in this mess if weren't for Arthur which only sent the prince down a deeper spiral of depression), Merlin decided that he would take first watch.
He was exhausted and wiped out.
Most of all, he was frustrated on why he couldn't summon forth his magic. Only sparks and sputters.
He spent most of his watch drawing up plans in his head on how to return Arthur to Camelot to begin his reign as the Once and Future King. Everything he came up with was half-baked and ridiculous.
Just as Arthur lost faith in himself as the Once and Future King, Merlin was beginning to lose faith that he was Emrys, destined to be one of the most powerful sorcerer in Albion who would help unite the land and bring back the Old Religion.
How could he be the most powerful sorcerer when he couldn't even tap into the full potential of his magic? He hated feeling like this, so weak and helpless. Without his magic, Merlin was nothing. He was worthless.
Merlin groaned and leaned back, staring at the sparkling diamonds in the dark sky.
He had been right. Arthur was Uther's life-long prisoner, and now Arthur was on death row. Merlin should've never came to Camelot. He should've stayed in Ealdor.
That voice again. He heard it when he first entered the valley, then again when he came through the waterfall.
"Emrys, seek me out..."
"Who are you?" Merlin asked. He jerked his head, trying to locate the echoing garbled voice.
"Seek me out..."
If it'll shut you up, Merlin thought bitterly as he rose to his feet. If this was another druid telling him of his great destiny, he was going to tell that person off.
Merlin suddenly locked in a trance and an invisible force guided Merlin forward. He walked back through the waterfall, down the stones sticking out of the river, and back into the valley.
He walked for several minutes before he felt compelled to walk through the valley wall. He pressed his hand against the rocky slope and the wall glowed white. Merlin took a step back in surprise as an entrance to a cave was revealed.
"What..." Merlin gasped.
Merlin took a deep breath and walked through the entrance. He bounded up the hardened-mud stairs when he entered the heart of the cave. His jaw dropped.
The cave was lined and decorated with crystals of all size and shape. Moonlight glinted off the edge of all crystals, giving the cave a dim glow.
"It's been a long time, Emrys."
Merlin snapped his head to see a glowing spirit-like figure walking down a slope behind an array of crystals.
"Who are you?" Merlin asked.
The figure drew close. He wore an eight-point crown and had a red cape draped over his leather armor. He was probably in his early fifties, with shoulder-length hair and slender figure.
Merlin took a step back. It wasn't exactly a striking resemblance but the glint in the man's eyes, the smile, and the posture, it was so much like Arthur.
"Arthur?" Merlin gasped. "It can't be..." The attire didn't fit.
"I am Bruta, I'm sure you are familiar with the stories of me?" Bruta said, resting a hand on the pommel of his sword. It was a strange sword, there was no cross-guard.
"Bruta?" Merlin racked his memories. "Camelot's founder and first king. You stopped a never-ending civil war, you founded the Five Kingdoms. You..."
"United the land of Albion. Yes, but I couldn't have done it without my close friend and warlock, Horus, also known as Emrys."
Merlin's heart skipped a beat. "What? What are you talking about? Emrys' destiny was to..."
"Protect and aid the Once and Future King of Albion," Bruta said with a smile that was so much like Arthur's. "He did, and he's doing it again."
Merlin tried to organize his thoughts, the new revelation. "Wait...that means..."
"Why do you think Arthur already has the makings of a great king? He's the Once and Future King."
Merlin stuttered a gasp. "He's...your reincarnation?" He pointed at Bruta's spirit, "but how are you..."
"I'm not truly here. My spirit is in the past and I'm able to
communicate to you now with the help of these crystals."
"My soul decided to rest here in the Crystal Cave after my demise in the valley, so that I would have the chance to communicate with you, Emrys."
Merlin surveyed the beautiful crystals hanging from the ceiling, protruding from the cave's rocks and floor. "Where are we?"
"This was where the Old Religion began, the heart of magic exists in this very room. Only few can use these crystals to gaze into the past, into the future, to gaze upon things that were or can never be," Bruta said, gesturing to the cave around them. He lowered his arm. "You are one of the few that can use it."
"I can't look into the future, it's too dangerous...No man..."
"No matter how great," Bruta recited, "can know his destiny. He cannot glimpse his part on the great story that is unfolding. Like everyone, he must live and learn. Why else do you think both you and Arthur have been kept in the dark from your true destiny most of your lives? You had to shape and grow to become that very man of destiny."
Merlin scoffed. "What destiny? I can't tap into my magic, and Arthur wasn't supposed to have magic...at least..."
Bruta released a patient smile. "Sometimes a man makes his own destiny, other times, destiny choses the man. Albion chose Arthur as her king, and she chose you, Merlin, to wield all the magic of the earth, the sea, the sky. Magic is the fabric of this world, and that magic runs through your very veins. You haven't lost it, and it can never be drained from you. You must realize that you are magic."
Merlin glanced down at his palms and closed his eyes. He struggled to tap into the magic within him.
Bruta laughed. "I can't believe I'm giving you advice on magic of all people. Think, you idiot, you don't tap into your magic like a farmer would water from a well. You are the sea of magic, there's nothing to tap into. You just have to let it spill out."
Merlin inhaled a deep breath and relaxed. Okay. Don't reach inward. Let it pour out. There was a sharp tingle in his chest and then the warmth spilled out over him and Merlin could feel his very magic pulsed all throughout him, through his veins, his skin, his heart, his arms, his legs, his head, and every tiny speck of him flared with magic.
He slowly opened his eyes and held out his palm. "Forbearnan." A huge swirling fireball formed in his hand.
Merlin laughed with glee and relief.
Bruta pressed his knuckles against his chin and chuckled.
"Thank you," Merlin exclaimed. He felt different. Stronger. Powerful. Top of the world. The magic roared and sang under his skin.
"Don't lose faith in yourself, Emrys. Whenever you feel like you've lost the way, you will find yourself again inside these very caves."
"How do I make Arthur find himself again?" Merlin said, making the fireball to disperse.
Bruta stroked his thumb over the pommel of his sword. "Remind him of his heart. Doubt has always been a deadly poison for the Pendragons." He gestured to one of the crystals and it turned a dark crimson color. "There's another reason why I called you here. Gaze into that crystal. Don't be frightened."
Yet Merlin's heart pattered faster and faster as he drew near the crystal. He reached out his hand and wrapped his fingers around it. A jolt pierced up his arm and crimson flooded his vision.
Camelot was under siege. Men in black rags stormed the city. Fyn sat on the throne with Uther restrained by men in black. His fallen crown rested on the bodies of Camelot's knights by his feet.
A flash of red and suddenly Merlin was looking at the gate where he helped Arthur escape with the child, Mordred. He saw Sir Leon motion over his shoulder to those in the tunnel and one by one several of Camelot's commoners slipped out of the gate, he caught sight of Gwen and Sir Kay. He tried to search for others but the vision flashed again.
The fields of Camelot were burning, it was an ashland, yellow and gray. The skies were black, concealing the sun. The very essence of magic in this world gone.
Another flash and Merlin saw a vision of himself, pale and sick, doubled over on his knees. Behind him was Morgana, dressed in black rags and her hair wild. She shot him a venomous glare. "You and Arthur abandoned me and Camelot. Why should I grant you any mercy?"
Crimson spiraled that vision away. Arthur materialized before Merlin's eyes wearing a black cape and a thorny crown. He slowly rose his head and seemed to glower directly at Merlin. His skin was a sickly gray and Merlin never seen such evil in Arthur's eyes before. A group of men in black robes appeared behind Arthur, their eyes a dark gold. "What's wrong, Merlin?" Arthur sneered. "I'm bringing magic back to the kingdom and we're going to slaughter all the non-magic users."
Fear clutched in Merlin's heart. No! That wasn't Arthur!
An evil smirk graced Arthur's lips. "I'm going to unite Albion with blood."
"NO!" Merlin screamed. He shot back from the crystal and fell onto his back. He panted and wheezed. He raised a trembling hand over his face. "It's not Arthur. It can't be."
"The crystals are dangerous, Emrys. Remember they show what is and what shall never be," Bruta warned.
Merlin lowered his hands and struggled to recollect himself. "That's not Arthur."
"You have strong faith in him," Bruta said. "Good. He needs it. Only you can restore Arthur's faith."
"Remind him of his heart."
Merlin groaned and sat up. "That's so cryptic. It doesn't help me at all." He jerked his head up. "Wait. Fyn. Is that happening in Camelot right now?"
"They are storming the castle this very minute," Bruta said.
Merlin scrambled to feet. "I have to warn Arthur, the others. There's no way we'll get to Camelot in time."
"No. But it can still be saved."
Merlin nodded. "It can."
Bruta smiled. "History will forget about Bruta and Horus, but it is you and Arthur who will be remembered for years to come."
With his last words, Bruta faded away leaving Merlin in the cave with fresh and real nightmares replaying in his head.
Arthur stared at the full moon, casting a blue glow onto the forest below him. His legs dangled off the edge of the cliff as he listened to the crickets and watched the fireflies danced.
The beauty of Camelot never ceased to amaze him.
Maybe he really should just run away.
Arthur snapped his head to look behind him.
Merlin burst through the trees and doubled over, grabbing his knees. "Oh! There you are!"
Arthur scrambled to his feet. "Merlin? What is it?"
Merlin gripped both of Arthur's upper arms. "We have to go back to Camelot. Fyn's taken over. I think...the Southrons? A siege."
Arthur burrowed his brows. "How do you know that?" If Merlin was making this up... But he wouldn't. He knew Arthur loved Camelot too much.
"I saw it. Your father's been dethroned. Possibly dead."
It was the perfect plan. Take over the city in the middle of an uprising.
Gwaine appeared behind Merlin with Percival. "What's all this racket?" He rubbed the sleep from his eyes.
Merlin ignored him. "Arthur, we have to go."
How did Merlin expect Arthur to save the kingdom with just the two of them? It was done, Camelot had fallen.
"What's this I hear?" Tristan approached them with Isolde on his heels. "You're ditching us, leaving us as bait for the hunting party?"
Were any of Arthur's men alive? What of Morgana and Gwen? Geoffrey and Gaius? Audrey? Cian and Anna? Arthur hated himself in that moment. He'd left them to their death. His people were dead because Arthur fell into Fyn's trap. Because Arthur decided he was ready to be king. What an idiot he was!
"Merlin...there's nothing I can do about that now. It's done."
Merlin dropped his arms and widened his eyes. "You give up?"
Arthur's heart broke. In the end, he did fail Merlin.
Merlin shook his head in dismay. "No. Don't tell me that."
"Eh, mates...could one of you..." Gwaine started before he was interrupted.
Merlin jabbed a finger at Arthur's chest. "Did you give up when you traveled to the Forest of Balor to get the very flower that saved my life?"
Arthur blinked at that. No. Giving up wasn't an option. It was Merlin's life, for crying out loud.
"Did you give up when you rescued that druid child from your father?" Merlin continued.
It was a child! Arthur wasn't going to make that mistake again.
Merlin jabbed Arthur's chest again. "Did you give up when you rallied the people of Ealdor to fight back against Kanen?"
Arthur swallowed, uncomfortable.
"Did you give up when the unicorn's curse caused a food shortage in Camelot and your people nearly starved?"
"No! You went out and you offered your life to protect them, to protect me! You didn't give up when the darkest of magic threatened to grow within Cian, you went out and you promised him a land where he could live without fear of being who he is! Do you give up on your dreams of a better Camelot? A land of equality, a land that is fair and just, a land where magic can roam freely once again? Do you give up on that?" Merlin smacked his hand against Arthur's chest. "Do you give up on me?"
Arthur's heart seized. "No, Merlin. Never... I couldn't..."
"Then get your head out of your arse and be the king you're destined to be, Arthur."
Arthur swallowed a thick lump. A king destined for failure, to let his people down?
Merlin stared at him, a realization dawning upon his features. "Gods, nothing I say is going to get through to you, is it?"
Merlin shook his head and grabbed Arthur's hands. He pressed two fingers against Arthur's palm. Their magic connection sparked and Arthur gasped at the strong tingle of magic in his chest that reacted.
"You feel that, Arthur? The magic inside of you?"
A luminous glow spilled out and covered Arthur's skin.
Gwaine, Percival, Tristan, and Isolde all took a step back as the light from Arthur shined down upon them.
Fireflies swiveled round Arthur. An owl flew down and landed on Arthur's shoulder.
He glanced at it in shock.
The leaves of the trees reached out for him and the squirrels chittered as they rushed toward him.
Merlin smiled. "Albion chose you to be her king. She knows your heart better than anyone, better than you. You were chosen to be the Once and Future King who will unite the land of Albion. The land of Albion believes it, but it means nothing if you don't believe it."
Arthur sighed and closed his eyes.
Why was it so hard to believe in himself? Every time he instilled himself with confidence, his self-doubt would return tenfold. Why was he so determined to fail? He didn't want to.
All those dreams Merlin spoke of, Arthur still wanted that. He never gave up on those dreams...but he gave up on himself.
What was it that he recently told Sir Kay? Oh, right. He told the younger knight: "Know your strengths, know your weakness, but most importantly, you must have faith in yourself. A sword wields no strength unless that hand that holds it has courage."
What kind of example did Arthur set if he didn't live up to his own words?
Arthur took a deep breath.
I believe in myself.
The negative voice in his head scoffed, ready to provide all examples of why Arthur shouldn't.
"You have to believe, Arthur," Merlin reminded him.
Arthur tried again.
I'm a warrior, a knight and protector of Camelot. I strive to create a better land for my people. I'm worthy of them and will be a great king.
I am the Once and Future King.
I believe in myself.
Nothing will stand in my way.
I will unite Albion and I will bring peace, I solemnly swear so to do.
A couple birds chattered and chirped above.
Suddenly, an object dropped on top of Arthur's head.
Arthur snapped his eyes opened to catch Merlin stifling a laugh.
Arthur slowly raised his gaze to inspect the edge of a wreath-like crown resting near his brow, decorated with gold-leaves which sparkled in magic.
The owl on his shoulder hooted.
The leaves rustled their approval.
The fireflies zipped up and down.
Merlin chuckled, his eyes bright with mirth. "Long live the King."
No matter how many times Arthur tried to toss it away, somehow, the wreath crown ended back up on his head. He yanked it off again and threw it into the river.
Arthur grumbled as the birds tossed a fresh crown back on him. He glared up at it.
Gwaine laughed. "Better get used to it, Princess."
"It's such a good look on him, isn't it?" Merlin teased.
"The crown or the pout?" Isolde said.
Their laughter grew.
"I'm going to kill every last one of them," Arthur muttered.
"Ah, don't be harsh," Percival slapped Arthur's upper back which almost caused him to stumble forward, "you're enjoying it on the inside."
Arthur's ears burned.
When Merlin finally told the others that he stumbled into a Crystal Cave and saw Camelot swarmed by Southrons, Gwaine and Percival were quick to offer their services. Arthur gathered the sense that Gwaine didn't quite trust him, but he was honored that Gwaine was willing to go so far to help Camelot.
Isolde managed to convince Tristan to join the fray.
The older man lingered behind the group and each time Arthur caught Tristan's eyes, he would catch the glint of uncertainty and...hope.
They were heading up the river, nearing a fork where one would lead them through the White Mountains back to Camelot. Yet if they continued to press on north? Arthur thought on it.
"Merlin? Did you happen to see if Morgana escaped?" Arthur called up.
Merlin stiffened. He forced a swallow and turned back to Arthur. "It was just a flash, I couldn't see specifically all who escaped."
He's hiding something, he saw something else that he's not telling me. "But you saw Gwen."
"That's for certain." Merlin furrowed his brows. "Why?"
"She served years as Morgana's handmaiden. Morgana is bound to have told her some secrets." He tapped his chin. "I wondered if she would convince Sir Leon and the others to hide out there."
"An abandoned castle," Arthur said. "The Castle of the Ancient Kings."
"Wouldn't Fyn know about it?" Merlin asked.
Arthur shook his head. "Nobody's set foot in it for years. Morgana and I used to ride out there when we were younger."
"And how do you plan to take back Camelot?" Tristan snorted behind him. "You're outnumbered."
Arthur stopped walking and turned to him. "Have you ever heard the story of the Black Lord?"
Tristan shook his head.
"Famous story among the knights. Lord Eddard and his men had recently ended a battle against the Mercians. They were battered and weary, too exhausted to move. The King's division lined up on the ridge, fresh and mounted, ready to slaughter what little remained of Eddard's men. Eddard didn't lose heart, he rallied the few men he had, mounted on a horse before he could collapse, and charged for King Mercia and his army."
Arthur noticed that Tristan listened intently yet crossed his arms as if to feign disinterest.
"Eddard and his men cut through Mercia's army until there was no one left before them and took the King of Mercia prisoner. They defeated Mercia's army by hard slogging and sheer guts. In war, it's not the numbers that tips the odds in your favor, sometimes its sheer guts with a bit of genius."
Gwaine chuckled sadly next to Arthur. "The Lord of Manau. You know that story?"
Arthur smiled softly. He loved that story when he was a kid. Growing up, he daydreamed of leading his own men against such odds, being the hero of his people, and having his father beam with pride. "A leader has to model himself after someone," he said before he joined Merlin at the front.
The two walked alongside each other.
"Funny, you never told that story at Ealdor," Merlin said.
Arthur glanced over him. "That's because I believed it was just a story, until I saw proof at Ealdor." Arthur noticed Merlin's gait had a purpose, he seemed robust and hearty. "You can summon your magic again."
"Better than that," Merlin said. "I know how to wield it."
"You mind using that magic when you help me retake Camelot?" Arthur asked.
Merlin pursed his lips in thought. "Nope, don't fancy it."
Arthur lightly shoved Merlin to the side. "Too bad. You don't have a choice."
"And you wanted a just kingdom..." Merlin scoffed playfully.
Merlin's eyes widened and flashed to gold.
An arrow that shot for Arthur suddenly slowed to a halt before his chest and it fell.
Battle cries sounded in the air and the small band around Arthur, apart from Merlin, drew their swords.
Bandits. Why were there always bandits in the Valley of the Fallen Kings?
A rabble of men charged for them, armed with axes, maces, and swords.
Arthur ducked one with a mace and brought his sword down.
Merlin held up his hands and six of the bandits went flying back to crash into the boulders.
"We best move it!" Percival yelled. "They're closing in!"
Arthur noticed a band of men coming in from both narrow paths of the valley. They would have no way out.
"Merlin!" he barked.
"Way ahead of you!" his sorcerer snapped back. He raised his palm, eyes flashed gold, and a wave of boulders came smashing down to block the oncoming bandits behind them.
Isolde punched a bandit and flipped her ponytail to the other side of her neck. "Trouble follows you around, doesn't it?" she said with a wink.
The swarming bandit from the front neared them.
Merlin raised his palms and then paused.
Two figures leaped down from the walls onto the men. All ten of the bandits were tackled to the ground. The two figures bounded up, swords in hand, both panting.
"Whew, never asked me to do that again."
"Wait. That wasn't your idea?" The figure turned and Arthur released a gasp of relief.
"Lancelot!" The other guy faced Arthur. "Elyan!"
Merlin rushed forward and hugged Lancelot. Arthur swallowed back the tinge of jealousy. I still can't believe Lancelot knew of your secret before I did.
"Glad to see you took Gwen's advice and partnered up with Elyan's blacksmith business in Haldor," he said.
Arthur approached them and smacked both of the newcomers' shoulders. "What are you guys doing here?"
"Looking for you," Elyan answered. He poked an unconscious bandit with the tip of his sword to double check his work. "Gwen sent me a message. Said you were in trouble. Wanted for treason?"
Merlin and Arthur shared a concerned look.
Lancelot peered over their shoulders. "Seems like you already found help."
"Ah, well, we need an extra hand carrying the Princess' ego," Gwaine said.
Elyan read Arthur's body language. "What is it?"
"Camelot was stormed by enemy troops."
Elyan's features dropped. "Guinevere?"
"We think she made it out," Arthur said. "We're on our way to reconvene with those who escaped." He clasped Elyan's shoulder. "I appreciate you coming out for me."
"You watched over Gwen when our father was killed. I had to return the favor and watch out for you."
I should've stopped that from happening, Arthur thought with regret.
"We'll come with you," Lancelot said. "There are more bandits along this road. The whole of Camelot has been in a turmoil when word spread of your wanted arrest."
Perfect. Funny how everything changes in the span of just two days.
Elyan held up a finger at Arthur. "Why are you wearing leaves around your head?"
"Come on," Merlin said. "Time's not on our side."
Arthur finally remembered why the primeval castle was abandoned. Most of the roads to it was impassable.
It was nearing nightfall when Arthur finally hacked a thick root free from his path. He stepped out into the clearing before the grand stoned castle, the early stars twinkling behind it. Vines clutched the side of one of the turrets, and another turret had a wall that had crumbled away, with a young tree protruding from the center.
A breath caught in Arthur's throat. He always felt like he had been here before, like something out of a dream.
The others tottered out after him, scratches upon their faces, thorns and leaves stuck in their hair.
Gwaine gestured over Arthur. "You didn't even get a scratch, what the hell?" he gripped.
"Because he had the good sense not to plow ahead into the thorns," Percival said.
"King of Albion," Merlin said as if that explained everything. "Best get used to it."
Everyone aligned next to him to gaze up at the towering castle.
"It's magnificent," Isolde said. She grasped Tristan's hand and gave him a tight-lipped smile.
Tristan returned it and squeezed her hand.
Arthur watched the starlight reflect within Merlin's eyes, his jaw slacked as he took in the sight of the castle.
"Just when I thought I'd seen all of Camelot," Merlin muttered.
Arthur smiled. "It used to be a neutral place where the kings of old used to meet." He beckoned them with his jerk of his head. "Come on, let's find if the others are here."
Arthur took the lead and rushed through the bundle of trees in front of the castle. He jogged down the hill and came upon the main entrance. The drawbridge was up, smashed in and broken, with a bashed-in hole big enough for a man to squeeze through. The ditch before it filled up over the years, blanketed by moss.
"Who goes there?"
Arthur stumbled to a stop as did the others behind him. He knew that voice.
Sir Leon stepped from the shadows, smeared blood on his features. "Arthur?" He charged forward and grasped the man into a hug. "Arthur!"
Arthur squirmed uncomfortably. "Glad to see you're alright."
Leon pulled back and held up a stern finger. "If you order me to stand down again when I'm trying to save your life, by love of Camelot, I'll run you through myself."
Arthur held up a hand. "Fair enough."
Sir Leon turned to Merlin and pulled him in for a bone-crushing hug. "Merlin! Arthur didn't get you killed!"
I resent that statement.
And another person rushed for him. Arthur recognize the blur as he was crushed for a second hug.
"Sir Kay," Arthur greeted.
"You're alive." Sir Kay pulled free and stepped back. "You came back for us."
"I didn't come alone," Arthur said. He turned to the group behind him and introduced them to each other. When names were exchanged and awkward greetings made, Arthur stepped forth to Leon. "What happened?"
"It was crazy after that dragon rescued you. Uther had most of us knights locked in the dungeons. Hell, he even locked up Morgana and Gaius. The people protested against your near-execution. Uther left Fyn in charge when he led the man-hunt for you."
"Yeah, I ran into him," Arthur said, bitterly.
Leon winced at that before he cleared his throat. "In the middle of the night, Fyn allowed the Southrons access into Camelot and that's when everything..."
"Arthur! Merlin!" a familiar voice cried.
"Guinevere," Arthur exclaimed.
She rushed past him to give Merlin a tight hug. Arthur pursed his lips and dropped his arms. She found Elyan, and brother hugged sister.
"You found him," she sighed with relief.
"And he found you," Elyan said.
"I'm glad Morgana told you about this place," Arthur said. "Where is she?"
Guinevere's face fell. "Still in Camelot."
Arthur gripped the sides of Gwen's arms, hard. "What?"
Gwen smiled sadly at him. "You know her. She distracted the guards so that we could all get away. She's safe for now. She, Gaius, and Geoffrey have locked themselves in a hideout in the library. No way out though. We communicated by raven." She pulled a small scroll from her dress pocket. "Fyn's taken complete control. He's dethroned Uther."
Gwen sighed and turned to Leon.
Sir Leon lowered his head. "We got out as most as we could, but I feared the Southrons were too much. I'm sorry, sire. Many of the people remain."
"You got out with your lives and you helped those that you could. There's nothing to be sorry for. Where are the rest?"
Gwen motioned with her head. "This way," she said.
She and Arthur squeezed through the tight opening in the drawbridge. A torch was lit behind the drawbridge giving them a bit of light as they traveled over the uneven stoned-passageway, with bundles of fern-like leaves that have grown through the cracks.
They entered the Great Hall, candles were aligned on every windowsill, and campfires were set up in the center of the hall, contained by boulders. Commoners and knights, peasants and nobles, all gathered as equals. Some handed out bread, others shared stories, and a few were comforting one another.
One by one, they glanced up at Arthur's arrival.
The room silenced.
"Arthur!" a kid's voice exclaimed. Cian suddenly came bounding up the stairs. "You came for us!"
"Always," Arthur said. He scooped Cian up and cradled him against his hip. "I'm glad to see you're okay."
"Donna was right. You do care about Camelot."
"Yes, she was," Arthur said.
Cian touched the crown on Arthur's head. "A wreath crown?"
Arthur was suddenly overwhelmed with embarrassment. He should probably take this off.
Cian giggled. "Did you go and become king of the forest of something?"
Arthur blushed. "Something like that."
"For the Love of Arthur!" the kid screamed on top of his lungs.
Arthur whirled his head back at the display of loyalty. What... He'd thought this kid hated him.
In a huge chorus, the survivors in the Great Hall bellowed out a cheer, "For the love of Arthur! For the love of Arthur!"
Tears welled in Arthur's eyes. His people never gave up on him. Arthur was the one who had given up on himself.
He set Cian down.
"I used my magic to light the campfires...that's good, right?" he asked.
Arthur took the kid's hands. "You saved their lives, Cian."
Arthur, along with Cian, walked down the stairs to greet and acknowledge every single person in the Great Hall. He reunited with Audrey, with Ben and Donna, as well as Anna and a few of his knights. He offered words of encouragement to those who needed it, silence gestures of support to others, and received upliftment in return.
For each and every one of them, Arthur thanked them for their loyalty. Because without them, Arthur wouldn't be king.
It was late into the night by the time Arthur found the council room. It took a lot of doing, but eventually, Arthur pried open the door. Dust flew into the air and consumed the room. A huge cloth draped over the table in the center.
The Round Table.
The stories were true.
The room was bigger than the council room in Camelot, decorated with spider webs. A chandelier hung over the table and a few half-pillars held candles. A fireplace was in the center of the back wall, with two armored knights stationed at both ends of the fireplace.
Arthur walked toward the table, reached his hands over the chairs and yanked the cloth back. More dust swiveled in the air and Arthur coughed.
When the air cleared, he inspected the table before him. A stoned table hardened by the layers of dust over the years. He trailed his fingers over the interweaven-knotted designs to indicate each seat that set at the table. He counted eleven. At the edge of the table for each seated person was a carved ancient word Arthur didn't recognize.
Arthur touched the one before him and felt a spark of magical connection as his fingers traced the carved word. He gathered the sense of respect and pride. He smiled. He needed to create a round table for Camelot when the city was saved.
And it will be saved.
"The legendary round table."
Arthur spun on his heels to face Merlin who had already entered.
Merlin rested against the doorframe. He ruffled his nose. "Needs some tidying up." He whipped his palm out. The fireplace and candles flared to life, the spider webs spiraled and vanished in a puff of gold light. Dust collapsed onto the floor and seeped through the cracks.
Arthur cocked a brow. "You like to flaunt your magic every time you get a chance, don't you?"
"Well, when you've been hiding it for so many years..." Merlin said, clasping his hands behind his back. He measured Arthur up. "You're planning to overtake Camelot tomorrow, aren't you?"
"I must strike now before Fyn expects me. Right now, he assumes I'm heading west and intent on escaping."
Merlin wiped a finger on the table as if to ensure there was no more dust upon it. "I'm surprised Fyn moved in as fast as he did."
"My father always told me to watch out for lords and nobles for they yearn the king's power more than commoners. Fyn used me to blindside my father." Arthur sighed. "Maybe all Fyn wanted was to be heard and we created this."
"You can't be at fault for the actions of others, Arthur."
"No," Arthur said. "But I can understand him." He stared into the flames of the fire.
"You've got a good heart, Arthur. Don't ever lose it," Merlin said.
Arthur turned to him. "You idiot, how can I lose it when it's right in front of me?"
Merlin's cheeks turned red. He studied his feet.
"You're the one with the big heart, Merlin. You're one of the bravest and selfless man I know. You're the one who taught me that it was okay to be me," Arthur said. He walked forward and grasped the back of Merlin's neck. "Thank you."
Merlin slowly flicked his gaze up and locked eyes with Arthur, his deep blue eyes. Merlin cleared his throat and stepped back.
Arthur added a bit of distance and scratched the side of his neck. "Um, yeah..."
"What's your plan?" Merlin asked.
Arthur stared at the round table. "I'm not sure. Yet I know where to start."
He knew who he would have by his side.
It took time but he and Merlin gathered the other nine people to the room.
Arthur waited behind a chair at the table, his back to the fireplace. He watched as the ten people he chosen collected into the room: Merlin, Sir Leon, Sir Kay, Guinevere, Gwaine, Percival, Tristan, Isolde, Lancelot, and Elyan.
"Come and join me," Arthur beckoned.
They all stood behind their own respective chairs, Merlin was to Arthur's left and Guinevere to his right.
"This table belonged to the ancient kings of Camelot. A round table afforded no one man more importance than any other. A place where everyone had say that was of equal value, a place where their voices mattered regardless of rank and title. I vowed to create a land of equality, and today will mark the start of that."
Arthur took the time to look at each person at his table and measured them in as if taking in their value. "Without each of you, I would not be here." All of them had taught him and influenced Arthur's dreams of building a better future. "We would not be here. Camelot has been taken over by Southrons. Tomorrow, I make my bid to rescue the kingdom from the hands of a man driven by greed and spite. No longer will Camelot be run by those traits. It's the dawn of a new day. Are there any around this table who will join me?"
The logs cracked and sizzled from the fireplace behind him.
Sir Leon was the first to answer. He raised his shoulders tall. "I have fought alongside you many times. There is no one that I would rather die for."
Arthur smiled softly at that.
Sir Kay was next, "When I first came to Camelot, you treated me as an equal, you had faith of the man in me I had yet to see. Let me repay that with my overwhelming faith in you."
Lancelot glanced between Arthur and Merlin. "For the brief time I was there, you two taught me the values of a knight and a code that a man should live his life. To fight with honor, for justice, freedom, and all that's good. I believe in the world that you two will build."
Elyan inclined his head. "Even though she was a servant, you ensured Gwen was taken care of. My father, Tom, believed in you, as do I."
Percival crossed his arms. "Your enemies are my enemies," he said, simple as that.
Isolde twisted her braid. "You returned to me the spark of hope I'd thought I had lost. You bet I'm joining you."
Tristan turned to her and grabbed her hand. "Partners for life, love." He brought it up and kissed her knuckles. He turned to Arthur. "Arthur, most of my life I've shied away from other people's wars, and despised the power and wealth that kings buy with the lives of men, but you've shown yourself to be different."
Tears welled in Arthur's eyes.
Gwaine chuckled. "He's right. I mean, you guys don't stand a chance, but I wouldn't miss it for the world." He winked. "Maybe you are worthy dying for."
Arthur released a soft laugh.
Gwen caught his eye. "I see a Camelot that is fair and just. I see a king that the people will love and be proud to call their sovereign. You know my answer."
Finally, Arthur glanced at Merlin, who stood with tears bubbling up in his own eyes. "You prat, I believe in you. I always have."
Arthur tightened his lips, struggling to contain his emotions. He was touched by each and every one of their words.
"Thank you," he said, his voice cracked a bit. "There's no one else I'd rather have by my side. You've proved to me the strength of your character, and of your convictions. Tonight, I'm going to do something that my father will greatly frown upon."
He gestured to the fireplace behind him.
"Line up, on your knees," Arthur said.
"You're not going to execute us, are you?" Gwaine quipped.
The ten of them lined up, knees touching the floor.
Arthur unsheathed his sword and started with the one on the far left. He tapped the flat of the blade on Lancelot's right shoulder. "Arise, Sir Lancelot," he said, before he proceeded to tap the blade on the man's left shoulder, "Knight of Albion."
Then he went to the next person and repeated.
"Arise, Sir Elyan, Knight of Albion."
"Arise, Sir Leon, Knight of Albion."
"Arise, Sir Kay, Knight of Albion."
"Arise, Sir Percival, Knight of Albion."
"Arise, Sir Gwaine, Knight of Albion."
"Arise, Sir Tristan, Knight of Albion."
"Arise, Sir Isolde, Knight of Albion."
"Arise, Sir Guinevere, Knight of Albion."
And finally, the bravest of them all,
"Arise, Sir Merlin, Knight and Sorcerer of Albion."
Merlin grinned and rose to his feet.
Arthur mirrored Merlin's expression and looked upon his new knights with pride. "Tomorrow, when you fight, you can stand proud knowing you are members of the most noble army the world has ever known, the Knights of the Round Table."