Walk of Atonement
Sunlight poured through the glass window and stretched upon the covers of Arthur's bed. He dimly blinked the brightness away and rubbed his left eye. His body was stiff and he emitted a soft groan as he tried to move into a sitting position.
Arthur's hand froze. He slowly lowered it to gauge a good look at the man sitting next to his bed.
His heart started pattering. This was not how he wanted to wake up. Where was Merlin?
Arthur's gaze immediately shot to the doors of his chambers. No guards. Then again, there may be some posted outside. He swallowed and returned his attention back to his father.
Dark bags hung under Uther's eyes, extra lines marked his forehead, and his hair was disheveled, unkempt. When did his father get so old?
How long have I been asleep for?
Tears welled. "You're awake..." Uther reached out to grip Arthur's hand.
Arthur, despite his nervousness, allowed his father to do so. He continued to stare at Uther, unsure of what to say. What do you say to the man who nearly got you executed? To the father who hunted you down?
"I'd thought we'd lost you," Uther finally said.
"I thought you wanted me dead," Arthur couldn't help but darkly quip.
Uther pulled his hand back and averted his gaze. "I..."
Arthur used his arms and pushed himself up into a sitting position. He adjusted his pillows and debated whether or not to call for the guards or Gaius.
This time, when Arthur looked back at his father, tears had spilled down Uther's cheeks.
"I...allowed my emotions to get the better of me, allowed my fear to cloud my judgement." He stared into Arthur's eyes. "I am so sorry..."
You nearly got me killed, you caused an uprising, you allowed yourself to get manipulated by Fyn, and allowed Camelot to be taken, Arthur bit all those words back. He was just tired of this. Tired of being at odds with his father. Tired of Uther hurting him and then always apologizing for it.
Most of all, he was tired of always forgiving his father each and every time. Arthur hated himself in this moment for that he could find no hatred toward his father. Only pity, and only a heavy sense of tiredness.
"When I saw you, lying dead in the throne room..." Uther cut himself off and buried his face into his hands.
Arthur sighed and reached out a hand. "Magic saved me...once again, Father. It's always been my guardian angel."
Uther only trembled.
Arthur squeezed his father's shoulder. There would never be a good time to have this conversation, but it must be done. "Did Gaius or any of the council members talked to you?"
Uther lowered his hands and gathered his composure. "I've decided in a fortnight to step down and relinquished the throne to you, Arthur."
Arthur hid his surprise. This must be Gaius' doing. "You think I'm ready to be king?"
Creases formed around Uther's eyes. "I think it's time for me to step down."
Arthur knew that was Uther's polite way of telling him that he didn't deem Arthur ready. However, his father stepping down without a fight...that was something.
In Arthur's heart, he knew their relationship would never be the same again.
Arthur was no longer the son who sought for his father's approval.
And Uther had crossed a line he could never come back from.
For some strange reason, in that moment, Arthur felt older than Uther.
There was a knock on the door and it creaked opened. Gaius poked his head in through the doorway.
"Arthur. Glad to see you're awake."
Uther stood and pressed his lips together in a thin line. "I'll leave Gaius to tend to you. Get some rest, Arthur." He opened his mouth and then shut it with a tight smile. He bobbed his head and left the room.
Well, that was certainly not awkward.
Gaius tapped his thigh and then grabbed his medical pouch from around his shoulder.
"Where's Merlin?" Arthur asked.
Gaius chuckled. "He's well. He's off on an errand."
Arthur raised a brow.
Gaius' smile deepened. "One of the magical kind. He told me you would understand. It was something he must do. He'll be back in a week's time."
A week? What was so important that Merlin had to up and leave?
Gaius seemed to read Arthur's expression. "He never once left your bedside, sire. He went to deal with Cornelius Sigan's soul."
Arthur sat up straighter, the ordeal fresh in his mind. "Do you know who he was?"
"One of the most powerful sorcerers known to Albion. He was rumored to have helped build Camelot. He was one of the sorcerers your ancestor Bruta kept on the council."
"Let me guess," Arthur said, "he yearned for power and Bruta had to deal with him?"
"It appears history has a way of repeating itself."
"Or people will never change," Arthur grumbled. His eyes shot to the doorway where Uther had left.
Gaius followed his gaze and then chuckled. He sat at the edge of Arthur's bed. "Your father and I had a very long chat."
"I'm surprised he's stepping down without a fight, it's not in his nature."
"No," Gaius said. "However, I believe seeing you dead on Merlin's lap was enough to smack sense into him. I believed the reality of what he was trying to accomplish hit him. You know what he said to me?"
Arthur shook his head.
"He said that seeing you dead was like killing Ygraine all over again."
His chest grew heavy with emotions. Arthur bit his lower lip.
"Arthur, your father loves you very much. His biggest flaw is that he holds onto the past and cannot let it go. He continues to allow it to haunt him and..." Gaius trailed off.
Arthur wondered how many times Gaius had to explain Uther's behavior, he wondered if Gaius tried to convince himself of the good he'd once saw in Uther. Did he still see it?
"I won't be haunted by it," Arthur said.
"And that is why you'll make a better king...and a better man than your father would ever be."
When Arthur woke again, this time, Morgana sat in the chair next to his bedside.
"Morgana!" he exclaimed. "You're okay."
"Please, I can hold my own, better than you, apparently. You always find yourself in these situations where Merlin has to revive you, don't you?" Morgana said with mirth, though there was a slight twinkle in her eyes.
"I like cutting things close," Arthur said.
Morgana shook her head and rolled her eyes with amusement. She turned serious as she studied him. "You've had me worried, you've been cutting it close too often lately."
"I know," Arthur said. There was no point in trying to make excuses. It was the life of a warrior, the life of a prince, and it'll be his life as king. "But I'll have you watching over me as well, won't I?"
"Maybe, or I'll just let your stupidity take its course."
Arthur smiled. Then he heaved a sigh. He needed to tell her. "Morgana..." He reached out for her. "I know. You have magic."
Morgana pulled her hand away before Arthur could reach her. "I don't have magic. I have intense dreams and nightmares..."
Arthur stared at her sadly. "I've felt it. I'm sorry, I should've told you sooner."
Morgana scoffed. "Like it mattered. You were hiding secrets from me as well. You and Merlin both."
"I didn't have to hide it as long from Uther..." Arthur said. "You're brave and..."
Morgana stood and faced the window. "I don't want to be brave!" She gazed out to the courtyard. "I just want to be myself," she said, softly.
Arthur wondered what would've happened if Morgana, and even Merlin, had to continue to hide their magic in secret. Would it have eventually destroyed them?
Morgana hugged her arms, her gaze faraway. "You're to be king in two weeks' time."
Arthur didn't say anything.
Morgana turned to him and Arthur could tell she struggled to keep her tears at bay. Tough Morgana. Always hiding her true emotions under the surface. "And what do you wish for me?"
That Arthur knew. "Did you ever find a lord to offer you a hand in marriage?"
Morgana's face twisted in disgust. "Thankfully, no." Her eyes flashed dangerously.
"Good," Arthur said. "I would hate to break up a betrothal."
Morgana's eyes narrowed suspiciously.
"As for you, it'll be nice to have sharp heads on my council. If you wish it."
A smirk tugged on the corner. "Council?"
"I've seen you with Uther. Like you said, someone has to do what's right and damn the consequences. I need that type of advisement."
"I can easily do that," Morgana said.
She crossed her arms. "I have a feeling the position of your advisor will go to Merlin."
Arthur couldn't stop the smile on his face at Merlin's name. "I was thinking of appointing him as my Court Sorcerer."
"And is that all?"
Arthur creased his brows. Her knowing tone suggested something else.
She laughed. "You're both pigheaded, aren't you?" She strolled toward the bed. "When you two figure it out, just know, I'll be performing the ceremony."
"Ceremony?" Now Arthur was just confused. "When I swear him into court?"
"Into something else."
Cryptic. And vague. Somehow, he had a feeling that many answers he'll receive from Morgana in the future would be cryptic and all-knowing.
"Anyway...Merlin can help you with your magic. I know he would he like that."
She smiled. "I would too." Morgana sat down once again. "As for my position..." Her features deepened in thought. "Have you ever heard of the High Priestess of the Old Religion?"
All the nightmares he had as a kid surfaced. "Vaguely..." he said, unsure.
Morgana glared. "Not those horror stories our wet nurse used to tell us."
Oh, thank the gods. "Then no."
Morgana smirked. "I'll look into it, but I think that's my path..."
Arthur pursed his lips. "High Priestess Morgana. Has a nice ring to it."
She smiled. "You've really accepted magic, haven't you?"
"Thanks to Merlin," Arthur said.
"I've seen yours..." She tapped her fingers against his wreath-crown...oh gods, that was still on him? "I'm not familiar with it."
"I can't wield magic like most sorcerers...mine is something else," Arthur said. His fingers curled into a fist. If he had his way, he'll never use his powers again. He didn't want that ability over people. If they found out, they would fear him even more. Hell, they may not even trust him.
Morgana chuckled. "Looks like I'm not the only one being brave." She rose to her feet. "I'll leave you to get your rest." As she headed for the door, she paused and faced him once more. "Arthur...I think the fear will disappear if you just be yourself."
A couple days later, Arthur was out, walking through the streets of the lower town.
He argued that he didn't need to be babysat by Leon and Kay, they refused to let him visit the people alone. Given that Arthur did die, he allowed it to go just this once.
He didn't know why they were overprotective. The knights weren't so persistent in guarding Uther. Then Arthur realized, Uther never really left the sanctuary of the Citadel.
Arthur found himself aiding several townspeople in rebuilding the homes that were destroyed by the Southrons. Even Leon and Kay pitched in. His body was still recuperating from his ordeal and he immediately was washed over with fatigue, but he refused to return to his chambers and rest.
His people needed him.
He struggled to hammer a nail into place when a familiar person joined his side.
"Cian!" Arthur exclaimed.
The kid grinned, waved his hand over the nail, muttering something, eyes flashed gold, and the nail embedded deeper into the wood.
"You're getting better," Arthur said.
"I want to help more..." the kid said, dejected. "Donna said I still have to keep my magic a secret."
Arthur squeezed the kid's shoulder. "Only for a little while longer. I promise, you won't grow up in fear."
Cian touched the leaves of Arthur's crown. "That's what Father used to say."
And I will ensure that your father keeps his promise to you.
"If you want to help, stick by my side, and you can use your magic to help me," Arthur suggested.
Cian beamed and rocked on his heels. "Yeah!"
The kid trailed after Arthur and helped him with a few more houses.
Arthur grew to realize, magic really did help speed things up, and the homes were sturdier. He asked Cian if the kid knew any spells on how to strengthen the homes. He didn't, but was excited to figure it out for him.
Cian reminded Arthur of a young Merlin.
Gods, he missed having Merlin by his side.
It was near nightfall when Arthur headed back for the Citadel. He found Audrey, preparing for supper.
"Arthur!" she exclaimed. "I'm so glad to see you are all right."
He bit back a groan at the tight hug and returned it.
They pulled apart, and Audrey cupped Arthur's cheeks with her hands. "I've heard a rumor that I'm to prepare a big feast in less than a fortnight."
"You heard right."
She grinned. "I'm glad."
Arthur glanced around. "Need any help?"
"Carrots and potatoes need some chopping if you want to jump in. My helpers are out on loan in the lower towns for the time being."
Arthur jumped right in. He listened to Audrey chatter away about her boys, about the knights and Southrons she beat up with her frying pan. She suggested that perhaps the knight should train how to fight with kitchen utensils.
Arthur couldn't figure out if she was joking or not.
His worries eased away and Arthur was able to think clearly on what he must prepare for and do.
First thing first, he had to find the vagabond knights he befriended when he was on the run.
Leon mentioned how he offered them a couple of the knight's rooms. Knights sat out in the hallway of their rooms, playing cards on small tables or drinking.
He found Percival and Gwaine's table and picked up a snippet of their conversation:
"Whatever happened to that bottle of rum I brought last night?" Percival asked.
"Eh, I finished it off," Gwaine mumbled.
"You finished it off? Why?"
"It's rum, it goes bad once it's opened."
Gwaine and Percival looked up from their table.
"Ah! Good to see you walking around, Princess," Gwaine said, raising a pint.
Percival shook Arthur's hand. "Last we heard you were still unconscious."
"I'm on the mend." He pulled a chair and joined them. They were playing with dice. He grabbed the cubes and scooped them into the playing cup. "How are you settling in?"
"Eh, we've got some warm welcome and we've got some not so warm," Gwaine said.
"That'll change once I get back out there and start training them," Arthur said. "You proved your worth."
Gwaine grinned. "We don't trouble ourselves with the opinions of sheep, mate."
Percival grabbed the cup from Arthur's hands and rolled the dices on the table. "Woo! Double."
Gwaine groaned and handed Percival a pouch of coins.
Percival turned to Arthur. "Rumors are spreading that the throne will be yours soon."
"In ten days' time," Arthur said. "I'm not sure I'm ready for it."
"Trust me, mate," Gwaine said, pouring his pitcher of mead into an extra pint. He handed it to Arthur. "You're more than ready."
Arthur took a sip. "How you two feeling after the...ahem..." After my powers killed you, "after what happened in the throne room?"
"Bit sore," Percival said. "We always are after the rush of battle wears off."
Arthur sighed. "My magic..."
"Wasn't you," Percival said. "You were being controlled."
"Doesn't mean it wasn't my powers."
Gwaine raised his pint. "If anything, mate, it only makes us want to follow you more. You've proved you don't abuse your powers, kind of like Merlin."
Arthur raised his own pint, as did Percival. "Cheers then, to the future," Arthur said.
"To the next battle," Gwaine added.
"To the Round Table," Percival said.
They tapped their pints together before they chugged down the rest of their contents.
Strange, how Arthur grew up with nobles and found a deeper friendship among those his father would've disproved of.
His thoughts began to stray, he thought of how to build his own Round Table in Camelot. Maybe he should expand his council.
Arthur scoffed at himself. He'll think about that in two weeks. He gathered the dices up once again and shook them in the playing cup. Tonight, he would just be Arthur and steal money from his friends.
Moonlight shimmered off the edge of the crystals when Merlin entered the Crystal Cave.
He'd left Eirian outside, now that the unicorn no longer had a horn, he could pass for a regular horse. Merlin could understand why Arthur loved to ride him, Eirian ran so fast it was almost as if you were flying.
Merlin forced Eirian to slow during their travels. He needed to organize his thoughts. He needed to figure out what to do next. Arthur had yet to wake when Merlin left, yet he had a strong feeling that Arthur would be okay. He knew he had to do this.
When Arthur woke, he would start the process to become king. Merlin overheard the conversation between Gaius and Uther.
For some reason, Merlin could find no room in his heart to forgive Uther, nor could he emphasize with the man.
He listened to the confessions pour from Uther. The beatings and whippings Arthur took, Merlin never knew Uther issued his son to be flogged when Arthur returned from Ealdor. Five lashings. Merlin had shivered at that. He'd received one once, and he never wanted to again.
He listened to how Uther would punished Arthur to the dungeons as a young child for disobeying his orders, even if there were other cells occupied by prisoners.
How he forced Arthur to hunt down the sorcerers and magic users by manipulating Arthur's care for his people.
No wonder Arthur had been such a prat.
An arrogant mask was easy to wear when you had so much pain to hide. It made Merlin understand Arthur a bit better.
Merlin had grown angry when he'd learned that Uther only regained his sanity when he saw Arthur's dead body.
It seemed Arthur's death or near death always snapped Uther out of his madness, yet Uther would never learn from it.
A crystal jabbed at Merlin's ankle and he jerked back in surprise. He bobbed and then cradle the heart-shaped crystal close to his chest. Wouldn't be good to drop Sigan's soul now.
"You have returned," Bruta's voice boomed through the cave.
Merlin held up the crystal which glowed blue. "I brought an old friend."
Bruta's spirit materialized between the rows of crystal. "Cornelius Sigan." He gazed sadly at the soul in Merlin's hands. "His own powers of magic consumed him."
"I thought it was best to return him here." Memories slammed into Merlin, the wave of relief and grief still fresh. "Arthur gave up his life to stop Sigan. He's lucky to be alive..."
It felt like Merlin was always close to losing Arthur. For a man who was chosen by Albion to rule, the land wasn't doing a very good job of protecting him. Merlin knew there would be a day when Arthur would die for good, and it felt like it was drawing closer.
"I keep losing him," Merlin said.
Bruta smiled reassuringly. "You'll never lose him. Even if his life ends in the physical sense, you two will always be tied together."
Merlin stared at Bruta, not really believing him.
"Horus never truly left me," Bruta said.
Merlin only dipped his head, half-listening. All this madness lately, Merlin felt that Arthur's death broke him. Yes, Eirian brought him back...
He barely heard as Bruta addressed him to place Sigan's soul within the bundle of crystals. Merlin dimly watched as the blue heart-shaped crystal dissolved into the earth.
All he could see was Arthur's lifeless body.
All he could remember were the close times Merlin thought he'd lost Arthur, the near-deaths.
Deep in his heart, Merlin knew he would outlive Arthur. By how long...that was what scared him because he couldn't live a second without Arthur. A world without Arthur. That was Merlin's hell.
Bruta watched him in understanding. "Arthur feels the same of you." He beckoned Merlin forward. "Come."
Merlin approached and Bruta stepped back to reveal a large crystal protruding from the ground, basked in gold light.
"All men have their own destiny," Bruta said. "The truth everyone forgets is that it's always changing..."
Merlin stared hard at the crystal, remembering the red one he touched last time that revealed things Merlin wished he'd never seen. His gaze transfixed as he was mesmerized by the gold. He reached out his fingers for it.
"Shape your own destiny, Emrys," Bruta said.
Merlin's fingers touched the crystal. An electric tingle shot through his arm as gold spilled into his vision:
A vibrant and lush garden decorated Camelot's courtyard, light sparkled off the bright green of the leaves. The yellow, pink, and red flowers glistened with their own glow. A hearty laughter filled Merlin's ears...It was Arthur. The vision led Merlin through the garden maze to the sight of him and Arthur.
Arthur's head was back as he laughed. Despite the trajectory, the crown managed to stay on his temple. A white cape draped from his shoulders. Arthur wrapped an arm around the vision-Merlin's neck and smacked his chest.
The vision of Merlin was dressed in noble clothes, a fine red tunic over his brown trousers. A white scarf wrapped around his neck, the sigil of House Pendragon stitched at the side...alongside with a falcon.
Merlin watched himself smile back at Arthur, a blush growing on his cheeks.
For the first time, Merlin noticed that Arthur's skin glowed like the garden around them, that the squirrels and birds tended to gather up in the trees near Arthur.
Arthur dropped his arm and his features turned serious.
A blue butterfly fluttered around from behind the finely-dressed Merlin, it dropped into Arthur's palm a ring that was similar to the one Arthur wore on his forefinger, an infinity-knot was embedded into the silver.
Merlin watched as his gaze shot up to Arthur in surprise, before Arthur could say anything, the vision-Merlin bobbed his head with a huge smile, "Yes, you prat. Yes!"
Gold splashed into the vision, erasing the moment.
Merlin saw Camelot, its kingdom had grown. Lines and lines of Camelot's knights were stationed and ready for training. He witnessed a few knight sorcerers, practicing spells.
A flash and he saw Morgana, in her purple dress, laughing as she created a yellow ball of light in her hands, with noble-dressed Merlin sitting beside her.
Another flash and Merlin saw Kilgharrah, sleeping on the hill before Camelot. Next to him, Eirian slept peacefully.
Merlin and Arthur laid together at the bottom of the hill, pointing up at the stars.
They looked so peaceful. Did he and Arthur truly achieve peace? Not just for Albion, but for themselves?
"As long as you hold onto hope, as long as you believe, you can create the destiny that you want," Bruta's voice echoed in his head.
Merlin blinked and he was back in the Crystal Cave, alone.
He smiled softly.
Bruta was right. If Merlin held onto the fear of Arthur dying, if he held onto the fear of losing Arthur before they could create the heart of their destiny, then their destiny will never come to pass. He'd rather believe in hope.
He rather believe in his bright future with Arthur. The ring...what did that mean? His heart thumped against his sternum.
As he exited the cave, Merlin found Kilgharrah waiting outside for him, instead of Eirian.
"I sent the unicorn back to Camelot," Kilgharrah said.
"How's your wound?" Merlin asked.
"Healed, and my strength has returned. The more I fly, the younger I feel, like myself again," Kilgharrah said. "Freedom. I never thought I'd see the day."
Merlin smiled. "I'm glad for you."
"I've heard whispers from Albion, Arthur is to be crowned King of Camelot. His reign is about to begin."
"Albion crowned him," Merlin said. "It's more than you've dreamed."
"Don't get ahead of yourself, young warlock. Arthur has yet to have his coronation."
Merlin froze. Albion crowned Arthur, yes, but he never held a coronation to officially announce himself as Ruler of Albion. Merlin knew Arthur couldn't go around announcing himself as such. But he knew that it was a coronation with greater need than the one for Camelot. One needed of magic... He thought of the visions he had, both dark and light.
"Kilgharrah..." An idea slowly forming. "Could you take me to the Druids?"
Kilgharrah tilted his head, curious. "The Druids? Merlin, as much as I hope to bring magic back to the land, they are distrustful of Arthur. His malicious acts upon them, even though under his father's orders, are still fresh in their minds. He was lucky he met with the main chieftain when he turned over Mordred."
Merlin nodded. "I know. It'll take time to rebuild that trust. But..." he stared hard at Kilgharrah, his gut not liking this already, "Arthur has to be the first to make amends."
"Before Arthur becomes king, he must face his own demons. That must be his final test," Kilgharrah agreed.
"I don't want to force him into this..." Merlin said.
"I understand. You and I both know of his true nature. Not everyone sees it, it'll take time for all of the magic users to view Arthur as an ally, to separate him from his father," Kilgharrah said. "Even though he may be of magic, they may be wary if they learn of it. The druids are peaceful people, Merlin, but they are humans who sometimes allow their emotions to cloud their reasoning."
Merlin remembered the dark look in Arthur's eyes when Tristan and company recalled of Arthur leading men to raid a druid village. How much guilt and sorrow had Arthur been building from all the lives he'd taken? He remembered the regret Arthur held in killing Peter, Cian's father.
Peaceful people the druids may be, how could you forgive a man who wielded a hand in killing your people? How could you follow a ruler who hunted you down once? Excuses wouldn't save Arthur. Merlin knew if the druids found out Arthur had magic, if they came to discover the truth of Arthur's magic, they wouldn't believe Arthur rose to power on his own. They'd see it as Arthur abusing it.
What was he supposed to do?
"Young warlock," Kilgharrah said. "Take heed on those spiraling thoughts. You once claimed you'll give a hand in killing Arthur..."
Merlin blushed at that memory. He hated Arthur for a good month before he warmed up to him.
"How did the young Pendragon change your perspective of him?" Kilgharrah pressed.
"I know I'm just a servant and my word doesn't count for anything. But I wouldn't lie to you."
"I want you to swear to me what you're telling me is true."
"I swear it's true."
"Then I believe you."
"When he first treated me as an equal," Merlin said. "That's how Arthur will win them over. Kilgharrah, take me to them."
Kilgharrah gestured with his head. "Hop on back, young warlock. But don't get used to this arrangement, I won't always be used as your transportation."
Somehow, when Merlin settled in between the scales on the dragon's back, he knew Kilgharrah was lying.
Kilgharrah dropped Merlin off a few acres away from one of the Druid settlements. He told Merlin that the main chieftain, Iseldir, of the Druids resided within this certain clan.
Merlin rubbed his hands together and blew into them. It wasn't cold, it was just a gesture he did to calm down his nerves. Apparently, he was known to the druids by his magic name, Emrys. They've longed awaited for his return.
Merlin lowered his hands and wiped them on his trousers. Why was he so nervous? He could face down bandits and sorcerers without batting an eye, yet this... he wasn't good with words. Right now, he couldn't be Merlin.
He had to be Emrys, sorcerer...
King Arthur's sorcerer.
Somehow, that thought eased his nerves. This was for Arthur and for the future they would build together.
He walked forward, following the directions that Kilgharrah had left him. He headed deep into the woods, the mass of leaves growing on the tree branches above. Shadows danced upon him. He heard the soft sound of a babbling creek when a familiar child-like voice boomed in his mind:
Merlin stumbled back as the familiar blue-eyed, black-hair boy charged forth between the bundles of tree trunks. Instead of slamming into Merlin for a hug like he expected, Mordred skid to a halt a foot before Merlin. He smiled a soft smile.
"You've returned," Mordred said.
Merlin tried not to wince. He still wasn't used to telepathic communications, and Mordred's voice was so loud in his head. He smiled, still uncertain of whether or not he was talking to Arthur's future killer.
"It's good to see you," Merlin said. "Morgana misses you."
"I miss her as well," Mordred said.
A figure approached from behind Merlin, a tall man with shoulder-length silver hair. He wore a blue-green cape, the hood over his head. Years and ages of wisdom shimmered in the man's eyes. "Emrys. I've long awaited the day for when you would seek me out. It's nice to finally meet you in person."
Merlin, uncertain of formality, held out a hand. "Call me Merlin...I'm still not used to this Emrys..."
The man smiled knowingly. "You will in due time, Merlin." He shook Merlin's head. "I am Iseldir, but I'm sure you already knew that." He straightened himself and placed both hands on Mordred's shoulder. "Tell me, for why have you come?"
"Arthur Pendragon. He will be crowned King of Camelot in a fortnight."
Iseldir's brows creased. "He's to be King already? It's earlier than the prophecies have foreseen."
Merlin recalled Bruta's words. "All men shape their own destinies, and it's always changing."
Iseldir chuckled. "You are wise. Why are you sharing this news with me?"
"I've come to seek your support and ask for your loyalty to Arthur," Merlin said. "And to come out of your hiding." He held his shoulders back when he said this and stood tall.
Murmurs scattered among the trees.
"We will not trust a Pendragon."
Six druids, three men and three women, older than fifty, stepped forward.
A woman, face lined with heavy wrinkles, barked, "My daughter was among those Arthur and his knights butchered that day. He slaughtered innocents, he's slayed many of our people, hunted and executed magic users."
Merlin shook his head. "That was Uther's doing, not Arthur. Arthur is not Uther."
"No," a man with a salt and pepper beard said. "He's worse. Uther is evil, but there's nothing worse than a man who follows a madman's orders, who obeys without question and without morals. Uther issued the order, but Arthur was the one who performed."
Merlin shook his head. "No. Trust me. Arthur didn't obey without question. I once thought of him the same as you did. I lived in the heart of Camelot for the past year, I've lived with the threat of getting caught as sorcerer, and I've seen Arthur's true nature..."
"He's manipulated you, he's made you his puppet," an old crone snarled.
Iseldir sighed, yet his features remained stoic. Merlin could see the heavy tiredness in the man's eyes. This obviously was a conversation held many times with the same conclusion: Arthur was not to be trusted. Merlin knew he was talking to the council of the druid clan.
"I've told you, Arthur Pendragon must not be king," another man said. "We should have taken him out years ago."
"That is not our way. We strive for peace, we will not solve our predicament with violence and hatred," the youngest of the women said.
"Peace? We hide like cowards to preserve the remnants of our people while we're hunted down like animals," the bearded man said.
"Enough!" Iseldir shouted. "Let us listen to what Emrys needs to say." He gestured for Merlin to continue.
What would convince them? Merlin could waste all day and night with words to try and sway them. "Arthur is the Once and Future King..."
"Ha!" one of the council members barked.
Iseldir sent a glare to his left.
Merlin tried a different tactic. "Arthur strives for the same goal as you and your people. He seeks peace."
Hope sparked in Iseldir's eyes, but the rest were not easily convinced.
Mordred beamed at that statement.
"He dreams to unite the land under a banner of peace. He dreams to rebuild Camelot into a flourishing kingdom. He's tired of all the bloodshed as you are." Merlin took a deep breath. "He knows I'm a sorcerer since our second meeting and he protected my secret."
"For his own gain," the bearded man mumbled.
Iseldir rubbed his temple.
Merlin's words weren't reaching them. "Let Arthur show you who he really is. Let him prove my words are right."
Merlin suddenly got the feeling he was now gambling with Arthur's life. Was he making the right choice? Did Arthur truly need the druids' support now? He could regain their trust during his reign. Why was Merlin pushing this?
The incident with Sigan scared him more than he thought. A rogue sorcerer bent on revenge. Granted, it was a thousand years' worth of revenge, but all it served was to remind Merlin of the many sorcerers out for Arthur.
Arthur was lucky to be alive.
Despite all the powers Merlin had, he couldn't protect Arthur forever.
And he was sick of everyone seeing Arthur for who he was not.
"Let him answer for his crimes," the bearded man said.
There were murmurs of agreement.
For some reason, a small smile grew on Iseldir's features. "The Walk of Atonement," he declared.
Merlin didn't like the sound of that. What had he gotten Arthur into?
"I'll bring him," Merlin said. "By midnight."
Iseldir's brows creased. "We are three days out of Camelot."
Merlin grinned. "I have means of fast travel."
A dragon and a unicorn.
It was a couple hours past nightfall when Arthur stumbled back into his chambers. He wasn't drunk, but he drank enough to begin to feel the loose effect of alcohol. His cheeks were beginning to warm, and he knew he should take an easy. If Arthur kept drinking now, he wouldn't stop.
He slumped down at the foot of his bed and rubbed his shoulder where the Questing Beast bit him. The wound had fully healed, yet it still ached every once in a while. The incident felt like it was years ago.
Had it only been two months since then?
Arthur felt like he'd grown years. He felt like an old man, at the end of his years, not the young prince at the start of his life. What changed?
I have. Arthur no longer hid behind his veil of ignorance.
Arthur glanced up from the bed to stare at Merlin who waited in the doorway.
"Merlin..." He rose to his feet and stared at him. His mind froze and words died on his lips. There was so much he wanted to say...and yet Arthur had no idea what he wanted to speak.
"You're awake," Merlin said, voice full of emotions. "I..."
Arthur walked forward and pulled Merlin into a hug. "You're you... You're not..."
"No," Merlin said, his arms wrapped around Arthur. "You saved me from that, you clotpole."
"Idiot. What did you expect I'd do?" Arthur said as they pulled apart.
Relief flooded Arthur's veins. Merlin really was okay.
Merlin smacked Arthur in the arm.
Arthur widened his eyes and playfully grabbed his shoulder. "What was that for?"
"You keep gambling with death."
Arthur's features fell. He wondered how many close encounters Merlin had saved him from. He thought of when he thought he'd lost Merlin to the Shadows. He remembered what his worst fear was: leaving Merlin behind.
"I'm sorry," Arthur said. "All I could think about was..." getting you safe was the number one priority. Nothing else mattered.
Merlin sighed. "I never knew you would go to the same lengths for me. I think that scares me more."
Right after they met, they were so willing to trade each other's life for the other. They never even hesitated. There was never any question about it.
Merlin writhed his hands and turned his back to Arthur.
Arthur's brows furrowed. Merlin was hiding something. "What is it, Merlin? Where did you go?"
"I took Sigan's soul to a safe place where he can no longer do anymore harm..."
"Thank you for dealing with that, Merlin."
Merlin's body was rigid.
"Merlin," Arthur drawled out. "Spit it out."
"I found the Druids."
This time, Arthur tensed.
Merlin slowly turned around. "You're going to need their support, Arthur, if you're planning to legalize magic. Not all magic users are druids, but they represent the magic community on a whole."
Arthur swallowed a thick lump. "How can I ask for their support when I..." slaughtered their people?
Merlin grimaced. "They'll offer their support if you can prove your worth to them, by performing a test."
Arthur shook his head. "Did they truly promise that?"
Merlin writhed his hands even more. "Not exactly..."
Arthur scoffed. "I have nothing to prove." He waved a forefinger in Merlin's face. "They can't deem my worth." Arthur turned and strode over to his window. He rested his palms against the frame overhead as he gazed down onto the courtyard.
Why did he have to keep proving himself over and over?
"No," Merlin said. "You don't have anything to prove." His voice was stern, and Arthur stole a glance back at him.
Merlin's posture changed. His back was straight and there was a strange spark in his eyes. "You once told me that you wanted to unite Albion and all the kingdoms under a banner of peace. You can't just expect to sit in your castle and magic it to happen."
Arthur blinked at this side of Merlin.
"The Druids are your people. I know of your past actions against them, and I know you regret it and I know you want to forget about it, but you can't run from the past like this. If you want peace, you must confront it. You'll be a stronger King because of it."
In that moment, Arthur caught the first glimpse of a moment between a King and Advisor.
Merlin hadn't changed. He finally revealed to Arthur the wisdom he held inside him all along.
Merlin reached out a hand and pressed it against Arthur's shoulder, his features sympathetic. "I wish I could find another way..."
Advisor...and friend. No, not friend. More than that.
Arthur heaved a deep breath. "You're right, Merlin. As always."
"I'm starting to enjoy hearing that."
"Don't push it," Arthur stressed.
A lopsided grin graced Merlin's features.
Arthur laid a hand on top of Merlin's which still rested on his shoulder. "What must I do?" he asked.
Walk of Atonement.
The whole ride over on Eirian didn't erase the dread pushing down on Arthur's stomach.
Merlin flew overhead on Kilgharrah and Arthur was thankful for the solitude and silent companion of his unicorn.
Merlin's blabbering in this case would only increase Arthur's nerves. He knew Merlin had a point. It was just...why did he have to do it now? Arthur was nowhere ready to face his past. He was nowhere close prepared in being king.
He, along the ride, tossed out his wreath crown into the wind. He pleaded with Albion not to crown him again. He couldn't face these druids revealing he had magic, revealing that Albion chose him as ruler. He got the sense it would be almost disrespectful at this point.
Thankfully, the crown never returned.
His head felt bared without it, even with the wind whipping in his hair.
Eirian ran fast, he kept pace with the Great Dragon overhead, perhaps a bit faster.
Arthur closed his eyes and lost himself in the moment. He thought of his mother and prayed to her. I ask to loan me your strength, Mother, for I fear whatever the Druids ask of me, will break me.
There was a reason why Arthur wanted to delay this as long as possible. He didn't even want to admit that he'd been that person. The good solider of his father's, and the evil prince to the Druids. He just wanted to look to the future, look at the good that he could do, see the blind and unyielding faith in Merlin's grin and stares, he wanted to be the strong and good type of king.
Yet Merlin was right.
How can Arthur move forward when he was still chained to the past? He had to face it. He had to make amends.
Eirian slowed upon a clearing. A few moments later, Kilgharrah circled down and landed next to them softly.
Merlin hopped off Kilgharrah's back.
It was time.
Arthur rubbed the side of Eirian's mane and patted him. "Thank you for giving me my life back," Arthur whispered. "But I'm afraid it may be all for nothing."
Eirian snorted and Arthur got the sense he was laughing at him. Well, glad to know someone still held a sense of humor.
He slid of Eirian and jumped to the ground.
Merlin approached, hesitant, nervous. "Ready?"
"No, but I'll never be," Arthur confessed.
"Your crown..." Merlin started.
"I can't face them as a ruler...I..." Arthur didn't know what else to say.
Merlin nodded. He offered a smile of reassurance and slipped his fingers into Arthur's.
A strong sense of protectiveness and faith swelled within Arthur. The spark of their magical connection. "You're not alone, Arthur."
Arthur smiled in return.
Merlin guided Arthur through the thick woods, the full moon high above in the skies, a swirl of green and purple spiraled among the stars.
A man approached them, the hood of his cape over his head. Arthur immediately recognized the man he handed Mordred over to.
"Iseldir," Arthur greeted. He inclined his head in a gesture of respect.
A flash of surprise flooded up Arthur from Merlin.
Iseldir's gaze flicked down to their intertwined hands, yet he said nothing. "You're right on time. One of my lookouts stated you rode on a dragon and unicorn?"
"Friends of ours," Arthur said. "If your men touch a hair..."
Merlin widened his eyes, aghast that Arthur would already start threatening.
Iseldir, however, smiled in amusement. "A Pendragon concerned of the wellbeing of magical creatures. Perhaps Merlin was correct. You have changed."
"But you want me to prove it," Arthur snapped.
Damn it, his fear was showing. He always seemed to grow angry when he was afraid. He inhaled a deep breath and squeezed Merlin's hand.
Merlin squeezed back. It'll be okay, Arthur, he heard.
"Sadly. We've prepared the spell, unfortunately..." he gestured to Merlin. "You can't come forth with him."
"I'm not leaving Arthur," Merlin said.
"You won't," Iseldir assured. "You'll be watching on the sidelines along with the others."
Oh, great. His misery a grand show for the others. Perfect.
"Mordred," Iseldir said as he stepped to the side.
Arthur bobbed a nod of greeting to the child he helped saved.
Mordred beamed up at Arthur, reminding him of Cian. "Come Emrys, I'll show you where you'll be."
Merlin squeezed Arthur's hand once more. "I'll watch over you," he said.
I know. The magical connection disappeared as Merlin's fingers slipped from his grasp.
Arthur's heart began to patter fast. His mouth grew dry. "What must I do?"
Iseldir lowered his head so that the hood blocked the moon's rays from illuminating his features. "In our culture, we don't believe in harsh punishment, such as an eye for an eye like the rest of Camelot. We conducted a spell, the perpetrator must atone for his crimes."
I'm not that person...Arthur wanted to argue. Instead he nodded, showing Iseldir that he was listening.
"Follow me," Iseldir said.
They walked between the arrays of thick tree trunks, the moonlight scattered upon the forest floor. They approached the edge of a clearing.
A small clan of druids lined up by the edge, a few holding torches. Merlin stood at the front with Mordred, alongside some grim looking older druid members. They had to be members of the council. Those that spared Arthur the barest glance was full of loathing, hurt, and anger. Arthur knew he deserved that. The druids may be peaceful people but it didn't mean they were easy to forgive others.
On the other side of the clearing was a tall tree, its trunk the thickest Arthur had ever seen.
Iseldir leaned in toward him. "All you must do is walk to that tree trunk and back."
Arthur's forehead creased. "That's it?"
"The Walk of Atonement. Once you step forth, the spell will reveal the spirits of your victims."
Ah, hells. Arthur tried not to let his features betray his inner emotions. He was trembling. "I...I understand."
He caught Merlin's gaze, and there it was, the look that Merlin gave Arthur that told him that he believed in him.
Arthur inhaled deeply. He will do this. He will face his past.
"The test will begin when you are ready. Remember, to the tree and back," Iseldir reminded. He stepped back and joined Merlin at the front of the line.
The bundle of druids stared ahead now, not even looking at Arthur. They took this spell, this test, seriously.
Gain me your strength, Mother. And land of Albion watch over Merlin. He knew if anything went wrong, Merlin would start to intervene on his behalf.
He curled his fingers into fists. Now or never.
He stepped forth. A ripple spread forth across the air like water. One by one, those that he killed or had a hand in their deaths showed up. The clearing was packed, save for a single path before Arthur which led him to the tree.
Just there and back.
Arthur walked forth. He tried not to look at his victims, he stared at the tree. One foot in front of the other. He can do it. It'll be over soon.
Children raced to the front of the path and stared at Arthur, blood dripping down their face from a sword wound on top of their heads.
He waited. Why didn't they say anything?
Then he saw his most recent victim: Peter.
He stopped in his walk. He was halfway to the tree.
Arthur stared at Peter, the man he killed so that Uther wouldn't kill his children. Peter had forgiven him.
Arthur then looked at each of his victim's face, one at a time. So many he remembered, so many still haunted his dreams. Yet there were many he didn't remember.
The Walk of Atonement. How could Arthur atone for his crimes just for walking there and back? He may no longer be that person...but once he had done this.
Arthur held up his hands outward in a sign of surrender. He then lowered himself to his knees. He thought he heard a few gasps from behind. He couldn't walk away from this. He needed to make his own atonements. He couldn't do what Iseldir said.
"I am responsible for what happened to you. And for the violence that occurred in the manners of your deaths. Your blood..." Arthur shuddered, his buried emotions pushing to the surface. "Your blood is on my hands."
He glanced around, surrounded by his victims who only stared at him.
"There's no excuse for what I did. I had so many to help me sleep better at night. I was young, inexperienced, and desperate to prove myself to my father. I thought I was saving others." Arthur's voice cracked. "Nothing can justify what I did. I can still hear many of your screams..." His body racked. "I'm haunted by what I did. Nothing I ever do will right the wrongs I've done." Tears slipped from Arthur's eyes and a couple sobs escaped his lips. He straightened himself. There was one thing he learned from this experience.
"I promise you, when I become king, I will do everything I can to prevent any of the horrors from happening again. The druids, all magic users, will be treated with the respect they deserve. I give you my word. I...am terribly sorry for what happened to you all...I..."
His words left him and he stayed there, on his knees, arms still out, shaking.
The spirits drew in closer, hands out. Arthur wanted to close his eyes, but he wasn't going give into his weakness. He will take his punishment. His breathing quickened as he awaited for his death.
Hands pressed all around him, his head, neck, shoulders.
All their voices boomed into one loud whisper, "I forgive you."
A burden lifted from Arthur's heart. A blue-white light blinded him and he felt hands lifting him to his feet. Arms wrapped around him. As the blue-white faded, the spirits were gone, save one.
The woman pulled away from her hug, her blonde hair pulled up into a loose bun. She appeared to be a couple years older than him. He stared back at blue eyes full of love. He instantly knew who this woman was.
"Mother..." Arthur said in a choke.
She cupped her hands around his cheeks. "My son."
"I'm so sorry..."
"Oh, you have nothing to be sorry for," Ygraine said. She lowered her hands to his shoulders.
"You died so that I could have a life..."
"I may not have had a choice in your birth, but watching you, seeing you grow into the man you are, I would've given my life to you willingly."
Arthur's throat constricted. How could she say that?
Her eyes sparkled. "You'll find there are many people willing to give their life for yours, Arthur."
He thought of Merlin. "I know."
"Love makes us do crazy things. Don't ever forget that. Your father..."
Arthur stiffened at the mention of Uther.
"He loved me, as much as he loves you. Not all of us can be so strong to change like you, Arthur. Be gentle, be understanding. It may be years before he'll accept what you wish to do in your reign."
Tears welled in his years. His emotions tipped over the surface.
"As for your guardian angel," she said in a teasing voice. "I approve. He is most definitely your equal. You are two sides of the same coin."
Arthur chuckled. "You're not the first to have said that."
She hugged him once more. "I love you, Arthur. Always have. Stop blaming yourself...you're to create a better world."
His mother dissolved into a white light and disappeared from his grasp. He lowered himself and dropped to his knees.
His chest racked with sobs.
Familiar hands gripped his shoulders and Arthur peered into Merlin's eyes, wet with tears.
"Merlin..." Arthur said. And it came out, wrecking sobs, years and years of pushing his emotions under the surface, years of trying to forget, years of being haunted, of blame, retching out into his sobs.
Merlin said nothing. He only wrapped his arms around Arthur and held him as Arthur released the heavy burdens of his past.