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What Infinite Heart's Ease - Part 2c

The klaxon of the alarm rang out well before dawn. Arthur felt as if he had just closed his eyes when he was awakened by the shouts through the castle, the clanging of the bells. He gave himself a moment to let relief wash over him before pushing the covers off and swinging his legs over the side of the bed. He rubbed his face wearily and then he was up, before the pounding on his door had even begun.

His knights and advisors had mostly gathered by the time he was dressed and had made his way to the council chambers. He saw Gwaine watching him as he entered the room, standing silently at the edge of the group while the others talked excitedly. He looked tired, Arthur noted, and carrying strain in his shoulders. Arthur tilted his head in Gwaine’s direction, giving him an almost imperceptible nod. Gwaine returned it with a nod of his own and Arthur could see his tense bearing relax just the smallest amount.

“Gentlemen,” Arthur said, moving to his place at the head of the table, the seat his father had previously occupied. He remained standing while everyone took their places. When they had settled and he had their attention he asked, “What is the news?”

“The sorcerer Merlin has escaped,” one of his father’s men—one of his men now, he corrected himself silently—said.

“I gathered as much. Do we know more?”

“Not much. The cell was found empty and the guards were out cold. He must have had help from someone in the castle.”

Arthur shook his head. “That’s impossible. I have the only key and it never left my sight,” he said, not looking in Gwaine’s direction. “I think we must assume he used sorcery. And likely put a spell on the guards as well. We already know he’s extraordinarily powerful.”

Talking erupted all at once as the men discussed the charges Arthur levied.

“We need to go after him. He’s too dangerous to be allowed free.”

“How do you catch a sorcerer who can knock out the castle guards and move through locked doors?”

“He can’t have gone far, and he’s wounded. That was quite a blow to the head.”

Arthur winced at that statement, knowing he was the cause of Merlin’s injuries.

He let them discuss amongst themselves for a few moments more before speaking out, but it was clear the majority were in agreement that Merlin must be found. A rogue sorcerer who had already attacked once could not be left to roam unchecked.

His voice rang out. “He killed my father.” The men shifted their attention back to Arthur as the room grew quiet. “That cannot go unanswered. I’ll gather my men. We’ll leave by dawn.”

“Is that wise?” asked another of Uther’s men. He swung his head around to see who dared challenged him. “You’re likely his next target.”

“I’ll not have my men riding out to face a danger I would not face myself,” Arthur said, leaning his hands on the table and looking around the room, daring anyone to argue. No one did.

“Gwaine,” Arthur spoke again. His knight looked up, startled to be singled out. “You knew him well.”

Gwaine nodded in agreement, eyeing Arthur cautiously.

“Where do you think he would go? I know he has family in Ealdor. Do you think he would head there?”

With a shake of his head, Gwaine said, “No, I think that’s the last place he’d go. He’d know we’d look for him there first.”

Arthur gave a nod of his head, acknowledging the answer, confident Ealdor was exactly where Merlin was headed.

“Leon?”

“Yes, my lord?”

“Check at the stables to see if any mounts have gone missing. And have them ready the horses.”

“Yes, sire,” he said, rising from the table, giving a bow in Arthur’s direction before exiting the council chamber.

“Lancelot?”

“Yes, sire?”

“You’re with me. Gwaine, Percival, Bedivere? You’ll also ride.” They nodded in acknowledgment. Addressing Lancelot again, Arthur said, “Choose three more men and have them meet us at the stables. The rest will remain here.” Lancelot nodded and likewise left the room with a bow.

Arthur turned to the other council members. He addressed a few of his father’s oldest friends and confidants, nodding at them in turn. “Gentlemen, if you wouldn’t mind staying a few moments to discuss how matters are to be handled while I’m gone I’d be most grateful.” They murmured their assent and the rest of the room slowly emptied as preparations were made for their departure.

Hours later, Arthur and his men were off, heading north toward the Darkling Wood. There had been much discussion about which direction to take, after they confirmed Merlin was on horseback. If he had been working with the other sorcerers—Arthur was not yet ready to fully discount any possibility—his gut told him Cenred was involved. But heading east would take them near Ealdor, exactly where Arthur did not want them to go. Gwaine suggested Merlin would likely avoid that route, expecting them to take it, and instead circle around from the north. They had no better lead to go on, so the decision had been made.

Old jealousy crept in when Arthur watched Lancelot kiss Guinevere goodbye. That hurt had been assuaged by the happiness he’d found with Merlin, but of course that happiness had been shattered and his heart ached in ways he couldn’t express. He was startled from his brooding stare by a movement at his side; someone had come to join him.

Elena smiled up at him when he turned his head. Her gaze moved to Guinevere and Lancelot, following the path his eyes had taken moments ago.

“So is she the reason, then?” she asked with a tilt of her head.

Arthur gave a rueful smile and shook his head. “No, she’s not the reason. She might have been, not so long ago. But, not any longer.” He sighed. “There was…nevermind. It doesn’t matter any more.”

He felt her hand on his arm. He looked down, staring at her slender fingers, and for a moment he pictured another hand, pale and graceful, resting there. He blinked and gave his head a little shake. Then he looked questioningly into Elena’s eyes.

“I’m sorry about your father.”

He placed his hand on top of hers and gave it a squeeze. “Thank you.”

“You’re a good man, Arthur Pendragon. You’ll be a fine king.”

Arthur felt a lump form in his throat and looked away from her face, staring into the distance as the rising sun turned grey skies to soft shades of pink and orange. The words were familiar; Merlin had said something similar to him once. Would everything remind him of Merlin, he wondered?

He realized he hadn’t responded when she started speaking again. “I wanted to thank you for everything. My father is anxious to travel home, so I expect we’ll be gone by the time you return.” Arthur shifted his attention back to Elena’s face. “I hope our families will always be allies,” she continued. “And I hope you’ll allow me to regard you as friend.”

Lifting her hand, he turned toward her and leaned over, kissing the back of it. “Of course, my lady. I should like that very much. I feel the same.” He released her and she in turn tugged at his upper arm, pulling him down while she reached up on her tip toes to kiss his cheek.

“Be well, Your Highness,” she said with a deep curtsey. “Travel safely.”

“Thank you. And you as well.”

Lost in thought as they rode, Arthur had to wonder if he had made a mistake refusing Elena. She was kind and understanding, smart and spirited, both beautiful and strong. He couldn’t think of anything else he’d need in a queen. Now that he was king, he’d be expected to produce heirs. The luxury of time, which had previously kept him from dwelling on such things, had vanished. And his reasons for wanting that time no longer mattered. There was no burgeoning relationship to nurture and protect, no Merlin to curl up with at night, no hands to hold or lips to kiss.

Squeezing his eyes shut against the pain those thoughts immediately brought, he gave himself only a moment to dwell on his loss before opening his eyes, refocusing on their route. He suddenly wondered what he was doing, going off on a wild goose chase for a sorcerer who wouldn’t be found, heading in the opposite direction of their intended quarry. They’d likely be gone weeks, hours on horseback each day with nothing to distract him from his thoughts. Nothing to distract him from his memories. Already he could feel them ready to break through the moment he let down his guard. Arthur spurred his horse forward, as if he could put distance between himself and the thoughts on which his mind longed to dwell. He had no idea how he’d be able to stand it.

-o-


The long days on horseback, as Arthur predicted, proved to be unbearable. He spent hours replaying every moment with Merlin in his mind, all the way back from the very start when Merlin drank from the poisoned cup in his stead. Now Arthur wondered if he had planned the incident to gain his father’s attention and work his way inside the court. He questioned Merlin’s close friendships with Guinevere, Lancelot, Gwaine. How easy their camaraderie had seemed, how he slipped into their lives as if he had always been a part of them. He questioned his own relationship, how willingly he had submitted to Merlin— both physically and emotionally. He couldn’t help but wonder if he had somehow been ensorcelled, if Merlin had manipulated him to care. More than any other, this thought left him bereft. Even though he ached from the betrayal, still questioned the truth of the events of his father’s death, he desperately wanted what had blossomed between them to have been real, at least on his part, if not on Merlin’s. Arthur held tightly to the memories of how it felt to have something that was wholly his, something private and special, apart from his duty to the crown. Even if Merlin had been using him, he wanted his choice to have been his own.

The nights were the hardest, as he lay alone in his tent, the murmur of voices around the camp lulling him to sleep. He’d dream of sparkling blue eyes staring down into his own, the feel of Merlin’s body pressed against him, limbs tangled together, the warmth of his breath against his neck. Then he’d wake alone, arms empty, cheeks damp. The loss would hit him the hardest those mornings, and he’d feel a tightness in his chest, as if he couldn’t breathe. Thoughts of his father would inevitably creep in and Arthur would roll onto his back and lie there silently, grief like a heavy blanket weighting him down. It would be some time before he’d find the strength to move. The men would steer clear of him on such mornings, reading his dark mood in the clip of his words, the scowl upon his face.

Other nights he was haunted by erotic dreams, his body responding to the memory of Merlin’s hands on his skin, hot breath in his ear, the thrust of his body, even in sleep. He’d wake aching and hard, flushed and wanting, knowing he’d need to find relief before leaving his tent. At first he’d tried to not think of Merlin as he stroked himself to his release, but it proved impossible, no matter how determined he was. Eventually, he’d just given in, replaying his memories in vivid detail, re-living their intimate moments again and again. At times the images in his head were so real, it was as if he could sense Merlin’s presence.

He could picture Merlin’s face—sharp cheekbones, luscious lips, fair skin—but it was the expression it wore that inevitably pushed Arthur to the edge. He could recall it with perfect clarity, devoted, adoring, as if Arthur shone brighter than the rising sun. He’d spill over his fist, muffling his moan, then he’d lie there, eyes closed, holding onto the memory as long as possible before he had to face another empty day.

As the weeks wore on with their search yielding little news, the men began to grow restless. Arthur could hear the murmurs of dissatisfaction, their wondering amongst themselves how long they were going to continue to look for a man who most likely would never be found. Arthur knew the search was in name only, and the days were hard. The nights harder. But as brutal as the long stretches of time were with nothing to do but think and remember, the idea of returning home to Camelot was even worse. In Camelot every inch was suffused with memories; Arthur wasn’t ready to face them.

Eventually, Lancelot called him out. They had travelled through the Darkling Wood and beyond. Rumour held no assistance. The complete lack of news led them all to conclude they were on the wrong track.

“We should head back to Camelot. Our efforts are futile,” Lancelot said. “We’ve been gone long enough people will be satisfied that we did our best to locate the sorcerer. Merlin,” he corrected. Anticipating Arthur’s objection, he added, “We can still send out search parties—smaller ones, to different areas, but without any concrete evidence to go on, we’re searching blind. He could be anywhere.”

“I’m not ready to give up so easily,” Arthur said.

“It’s not giving up. It’s searching smarter.”

“Mayhap you’d like to rephrase that.”

“That was meant as no insult to you. Surely you know that.”

“Do I?”

Lancelot’s expression shifted, becoming cautious. “You should.”

Arthur turned, putting his back to Lancelot, trying to gather himself. He could feel his emotions ready to spiral out of control, the building frustration, anger and grief reaching a tipping point.

Arthur spun back around. “And just how should I know that, exactly? You’ve given me reason before to doubt your loyalty.”

Lancelot stepped back, almost staggering, as if the words were a physical blow. His face was pained. “Arthur?” he asked, but didn’t deny the charge.

Arthur glared at him, feeling his anger swell. Words he wasn’t sure he meant were bubbling to the surface. He knew he should keep silent, walk away, but some urge inside him kept looking for a way to lash out.

“Arthur,” Lancelot said again, voice entreating, “I thought… I thought what had gone before… with Guinevere, was settled between us.”

“This isn’t about Guinevere. It’s about Merlin.”

Lancelot’s face shifted again into grim determination. “Are you sure about that?”

“Questioning me again? Is that wise?”

“Probably not, but someone needs to speak up, to call a halt to this madness.”

“Oh, madness now, is it?”

“You’re not yourself. It’s understandable. You’ve been through a lot.”

Arthur’s hand moved to the hilt of his sword. Lancelot’s eyes followed but he made no move to reach for his own weapon; his arms remained hanging loosely at his sides.

“I’m curious,” Arthur said, slowing circling Lancelot. “Why do you want so much for us to give up the search? Are you hoping he escapes? Do you not want to see him brought to justice?”

“If justice is deserved then I would like to see it met.”

“If?” Arthur was in front of Lancelot now. He leaned in closer to his face to ask the question. “He felled a king with his sorcery.”

“I am not yet convinced that is the truth.”

“So you think Merlin is innocent?”

“I did not say that either.”

“But you think it.”

Lancelot didn’t answer.

“Is this what you believe? Answer.”

“I believe Merlin is innocent, yes.”

“Hmmm.” Arthur made a thoughtful noise and continued his circling. “There’s still his crime of sorcery. Of that there can be no question.”

Once again, Lancelot remained silent.

Arthur was struck with a thought and his stomach turned to lead. “You knew,” he said, moving around quickly to face him.

Lancelot stared back defiantly.

“You did know.” Arthur was seething now. “You knew Merlin was a sorcerer. And yet you said nothing.”

Lancelot didn’t have to answer. His expression said it all.

“How long? How long have you known?”

“I’ve known since…” He paused.

“How long, Lancelot?” Arthur slowly pulled his sword from its scabbard.

“Since… almost since the beginning.”

“So you betray me again?” His voice was steel.

“What? Arthur, no—” Now Lancelot was alarmed. He took a step backward.

Arthur pressed forward, bringing the tip of his sword up.

“You lie to me, keep secrets from me, what would you call it?”

“Please, no, that’s not… you are my king. My allegiance is to you. I would never betray you.”

“And yet, you have. Twice now.”

“No, Arthur…” Lancelot’s distress was evident. Arthur was unmoved, his face a mask.

“Why shouldn’t I take you back in chains? Or better yet, why don’t we have it out right here? Draw your weapon. We’ll settle this like men.”

“I will not fight you.”

“And if I command you to? As your king?” He sneered the last word, putting mockery to Lancelot’s claims of loyalty. “Would you disobey me still?”

Lancelot was stricken. Arthur could see it in his eyes. This would end badly, he knew, but he seemed unable to stop himself from pressing the issue.

“I cannot take up arms against my king. I cannot,” Lancelot whispered. “Arthur, Merlin is no threat to you. Just as I am no threat to you.”

Mentioning Merlin’s name was a mistake; Arthur could see Lancelot realized it immediately as Arthur’s expression morphed into something dangerous.

“So I should surround myself with liars? Dishonest men who replace my judgment with their own?”

Lancelot only stared.

“No, those are the actions of a fool,” Arthur yelled. “And I will be made a fool of no longer. You are to leave this search party immediately. And then you are to leave Camelot.”

He watched dispassionately at the emotions played out on Lancelot’s face.

“Arthur,” he choked out.

“You may return for Guinevere, but when we get back from our search, you are both to be gone. Do you understand?”

“Arthur, please don’t do this.”

“It is already done,” Arthur said, voice final. Then he turned from the heartbreak on Lancelot’s face, hardening himself against it, ashamed of the grim satisfaction he felt to see someone suffering as he had done.

He faced the others who had gathered round and were watching silently. “Prepare to ride,” he commanded. “We’re heading to Ealdor.”

Arthur ignored everyone as they made ready for departure. He noted Gwaine speaking softly and urgently to Lancelot, his hand on his shoulder, heads close, Lancelot nodding at his words, jaw tight. Seemingly unruffled, Sir Leon was going about his tasks, efficiently helping the others get on their way. Arthur didn’t turn to watch as Lancelot sat on his horse, giving one long last look back at him; didn’t watch as Lancelot tugged his reins, turning his horse in the opposite direction; didn’t watch as Lancelot rode away from them, eventually disappearing from sight between the trees.

Arthur mounted his horse, rode to the front of his men, and said, “Come. We ride.”

-o-


The first signs of trouble appeared when they were on the road toward Cenred’s kingdom. Bordering to the east, north of Ealdor, it sat beyond the forest of Ascetir. From the north the road took them past the turn off to Mercia. Travellers were common through the area and they stopped for the night at an inn near the junction. The people in the village reacted cautiously when they passed, almost as if in fear. The reaction reminded Arthur of the way people had behaved after the attacks on the druids had occurred. Arthur and his men travelled without any outward sign they were from Camelot; they hoped to discover more information if their origins were unknown.

When they were unable to unearth even the slightest rumour from anyone, Arthur finally confronted the innkeeper, ordering an ale from the tavern on the main floor, taking in his surroundings, keeping his ear open to any gossip.

“We were expecting more of a welcome,” he said addressing the innkeeper after he had sipped on his drink for a few moments. “Why are we feared? We have done nothing.”

“You’re not Cenred’s men?”

“Cenred’s men? Have they been causing trouble?”

“Who is it that wants to know?” the innkeeper asked, giving Arthur a penetrating look.

Seeing no reason to continue to hide their origins, and more than a few to reveal who they were, Arthur answered, “We’re from Camelot.”

“Camelot? Should you not be home then, preparing?”

“Preparing? We’ve been on the road for some weeks. What exactly should we be preparing for?”

The innkeeper’s face became calculating, as if he were trying to come to a decision. Then he looked around the room to ensure they weren’t being overheard. He leaned in closer to Arthur and said, “Rumour is that while the new King Arthur is away from his kingdom, seeking the sorcerer who killed his father, Cenred is building an army and recruiting magic users to move into Camelot.”

“And how came you by this news?”

“His men were here, recruiting in this very inn, making promises. And threats,” he added.

Arthur pulled a gold coin from the purse at his belt and slid it toward the man. “I thank you for the drink, and the information.”

The innkeeper looked at the coin then picked it up, studying it closely. He looked back at Arthur with an appraising look, cocking his head questioningly. Arthur gave him a slight shake of his head to forestall any more questions then took his leave with a “good evening.”

The news was the same in every village they passed. With proof now of what he had long suspected, Arthur knew he should return home. Indecision tore at him as he travelled across the land. He contemplated the rich earth, the crops in the fields. The forests with their teeming life. He loved Camelot; he always had. Even as he doubted his fitness to rule, he’d always held a deep protectiveness toward the land he loved. He wasn’t sure why they didn’t turn back immediately; he knew his decisions could be putting the kingdom at risk. Maybe he was going mad, as Lancelot had suggested.

The longer Merlin eluded him, the more urgent the need to find him became. What had started as a hunt in name only had at some point turned into a reality. Arthur was becoming obsessed with confronting Merlin, forcing him to answer Arthur’s questions about what had been real, what was a sham. The need to know was an imperative. Part of it, he suspected, was that things felt unfinished between them. A bigger part of it, he knew, was he couldn’t bear the thought of never seeing Merlin again—never seeing that dark hair framing his pale angular face, seeing his lean body and long limbs. Never looking into his bright blue eyes again.

He tried not to examine his desire too closely, his drive to find Merlin at all costs. But he knew the need that was buried deep inside, the memory he rarely allowed himself to think of these days, because the pain of it was too great. He knew what he really couldn’t bear to lose was the look on Merlin’s face, the one so full of love, where he looked at Arthur as if he were the centre of the universe. Somehow that had become more important than Camelot itself.

But that would never happen now, he admitted, his thoughts bitter. He himself had seen to that. Arthur knelt at the side of a creek, downstream from the other men and the horses, wanting a moment to himself. These were the thoughts he tried his hardest to keep at bay, to keep buried deep so he was able to function day to day. These were the thoughts that could bring him to his knees—the devastated look in Merlin’s eyes as Arthur’s sword hilt came toward his face. The blood that seeped from his throat as the blade of Arthur’s sword pierced his skin. How in his rage, Arthur had nearly choked the life from him and then tossed Merlin to the ground like refuse. His tearful eyes as he begged Arthur to believe him.

The sun was bright, the sky a deep blue. The water in the brook sparkled clean and clear, sunlight glinting off the surface as it babbled and danced over twigs and stones. Birds chirped in the trees above. The day was beautiful, but Arthur could appreciate none of it as he doubled over in pain, his stomach clenching from the ache in his gut. He reached into the stream, filling his hands with the cold water and splashed it on his face. Anger raged through him, unable to be contained now that his emotions were surfacing. He splashed his face again, trying to get himself under control.

Arthur was startled by a touch on his shoulder.

“Are you all right?” It was Gwaine.

Arthur took a deep shuddering breath and splashed his face with water again. And then once again. He fought to regain his composure before rising.

“I’ll be fine.”

Gwaine was silent, staring at Arthur, his expression thoughtful. Arthur stared out over the water, not meeting his eyes.

After a long moment in which neither of them spoke, Gwaine finally asked, “What are we doing, Arthur?”

“We’re searching for Merlin.”

Gwaine let out a heavy sigh. “Are we?”

“Yes. What did you think we were doing?”

“Honestly, I’m not really sure. I thought I knew…” He shook his head before continuing. “Giving you the chance to grieve, I thought, perhaps. Giving Merlin time to get away.”

Arthur didn’t answer.

“He’ll be long gone from Ealdor by now.”

“You don’t know that,” Arthur snapped.

“And what will you do if you find him?” Gwaine’s voice took on an exasperated tone. He pressed on. “Why bother to go to all the trouble of helping him escape if you just plan to capture him again?”

“I don’t—”

“What do you think is going to happen if you find him? Are you going to tell all your men you’re letting him go again? Surely you can see how unworkable this plan is?”

Arthur’s ever-present anger, always under the surface, sprang to life.

“Again, such vehemence. He has quite the champion in you, doesn’t he? Why is it so important to you that I not find Merlin?”

“I just told you—”

Arthur’s expression turned cruel. “What happened that night in the dungeon? Did you comfort him? Was he grateful for your help?”

Gwaine’s nostrils flared and Arthur could see the play of muscles across his face as he clenched his teeth.

“Did you finally get those pretty lips around your cock? Is that why you don’t want me to find him? So you can have him to yourself?”

“Would you listen to yourself? Can you even hear how you sound?”

“That’s it, isn’t it? Do you know where he’s hiding? Tell me.”

Gwaine shook his head. “I’ll not have any part in this madness.”

“Madness, is it?”

“Yes, madness,” Gwaine practically yelled. “We’ve been gone for months now. You’ve heard what Cenred’s planning. And yet, you’re still chasing after shadows. Did you ever consider, Arthur, that maybe Merlin doesn’t want to be found?”

The words were like a slap in the face. Arthur reeled backward.

“I’ll not stay for any more of this. You can continue on this mad path, driving everyone who cares about you away, but I’m done. I’m leaving and going home to Camelot.”

Fury reared to life inside Arthur, hearing Gwaine voice aloud the thoughts he’d had himself. He knew Gwaine was right, yet he wanted to punish him anyway.

“I should strip you of your knighthood,” he snarled.

Gwaine paused, as if about to speak, then let out a heavy sigh before turning and walking away.

Arthur stared after him silently. He didn’t follow.

-o-


Arthur was aware of how irrational his actions were. He knew, yet he seemed unable to stop himself from continuing on—yes, he thought ruefully, Gwaine had been right to call it such—this mad path. After Gwaine had left, his drive to find Merlin seemed even stronger; it was becoming all-consuming. When they heard of a rumour of a powerful sorcerer being spotted in the forest of Ascetir, Arthur immediately changed routes, postponing their arrival in Ealdor. Gwaine’s words once again reverberated in his head, this time about chasing shadows. Arthur cared little; if shadows were all he had left, then shadows he would pursue.

After several long days of bad weather and one lost trail after another, the men were growing irritable. Tempers were short and the strain of travelling was taking its toll on everyone. Arthur pulled Leon aside, needing his steady head.

“What is your counsel, Leon? Should we return home?” Arthur asked. “In my heart I know we must, yet for the first time since we set out I feel we’re close. It’s as if I can sense him nearby.”

“Whatever choice you make, I’ll stand behind you.”

“What about the men? Do they, like Lancelot and Gwaine, think we’re on a madman’s quest?”

Leon looked troubled. After a pause he said, “If they do, they would not say so aloud.”

“Lancelot and Gwaine had not trouble stating their opinion.”

“If you’ll allow me…” Leon started.

“Yes?”

“There is much value in surrounding yourself by men unafraid to speak their minds.”

“So you think I was wrong to send Lancelot away?”

Leon shook his head, his curls bouncing around his face. “I make no judgment there. That’s between you and Lancelot. I know there are complications between you I cannot possibly know the details of.”

Arthur nodded, accepting his answer. “And what of Gwaine?”

“Gwaine burns hot, but he’s loyal to you,” Leon said. “He’ll cool down. I wouldn’t be surprised to see him back here any day.”

Arthur shook his head. “I doubt that will be the case.” He paused, then continued, staring into the distance, not meeting Leon’s eyes. “I… said some things he might find difficult to forgive.”

Leon turned toward Arthur. “If you give him an opening, he’ll take it.” He searched Arthur’s face then placed his hand on Arthur’s shoulder. “Your men love you. They don’t like to see you suffering.” Arthur’s eyes darted away, but Leon continued to speak. “They don’t understand what we’re doing, but they follow you willingly. As do I.”

Arthur could feel his throat tightening and he pulled away, turning his back to Leon. After taking a moment to collect himself he said, “I’m not sure any more that I understand what I’m doing.”

“Then perhaps it’s time we returned home.”

Arthur looked out into the forest. His thoughts were full of Merlin, full of regret. Feeling that they were finally so close was like a tickle at the back of his neck. Could they come so far and then just give up? Could he let it all go? Could he resign himself to never seeing Merlin again? He thought of Cenred and his growing army, the people in Camelot under his care. He knew he’d neglected them these past months, put his kingdom at risk. And all for selfish reasons. In his heart he knew it was time. At the very thought a weight seemed to settle on his shoulders. He steeled himself to say goodbye to what might have been. In front of him now was duty—a possible upcoming war and preparations to be made. He closed his eyes, the pain of loss hitting him once again, like a punch to the gut, a piercing blade through his side.

He nodded his head slowly. “Yes, it’s time we returned home.”

-o-


Arthur was awoken from a sound sleep by someone calling his name. The voice was faint, and he could swear it sounded like—

“Merlin,” he whispered.

His heart raced. He pushed his blanket aside and dressed quickly, hands shaking. Exiting his tent, he looked around the camp. Everyone was asleep; even the guards were dozing, exhausted from the day’s ride. Merlin was nowhere to be seen. Then he heard the voice again to the east. Momentarily, he considered waking Leon, but his conversation with Gwaine was still fresh in his mind. If the men knew he had found Merlin, he’d have to determine some way to explain another escape. Or he’d be forced to take him prisoner. No, this confrontation needed to occur in private. Arthur quietly left the camp, heading in the direction he thought the voice originated. “Merlin?” he called softy.

“Arthur?” he heard again. “I’m over here.” This time it sounded like it was coming from the north. Arthur adjusted his bearings, heading deeper into the forest. The moon above shone brightly and lit his way. As he walked, wisps of fog crept over the ground, stealing across the terrain like the rising tide. He called for Merlin again, trying to pinpoint the direction he must be in.

“This way,” Merlin called. “Over here.”

The fog was thicker now, obscuring Arthur’s path. He saw a flash of crimson in the distance—Merlin’s kerchief, he thought—and he began to jog toward it. But when he reached the spot, there was nothing there.

“Where are you?” Merlin called again. “Arthur, where did you go?” His voice was fainter this time, and Arthur started to panic.

He ran this time, yelling louder. “I’m here. Stay where you are and give another shout. I’ll come find you.”

“I’m over here,” Merlin called, even fainter than before.

Arthur batted at the fog, as if he could wave it away like smoke from a campfire, but it grew thicker, slowing his progress. He could barely see his hand held out in front of his face. Stumbling through the forest, he called louder, “Merlin?” He stopped, listening for an answer. One didn’t come.

Spinning in all directions, trying to calm his loud breathing, the pounding of his heart, he strained to the slightest sound. “Merlin!” he yelled. “Merlin!”

Again he heard no response. As he tried to quell the rising despair—he couldn’t lose him before he even found him again—the mist began to emit an odour, thick and sweet. Arthur almost felt as if he were in a dream; his brain was as foggy as the air. He stumbled forward, calling for Merlin yet again, hoping he was still within range. As his lungs filled with the sickly sweet air, his head began to spin and spots danced before his eyes. He stumbled again, falling to his knees, catching himself with his hand. Coughing, he tried to rid his lungs of the noxious gas, but his head became even more muddled. Arthur choked out one more plea for Merlin before his arm gave out and he fell heavily to the ground on his side. As he lay there dizzy, panting for breath, he saw a figure emerge from the mist. Arthur blinked slowly trying to focus—pale skin, long limbed, night-dark hair.

“Morgana,” Arthur gasped as he lost consciousness.

End of Part 2


Continue to Part 3 | Masterpost
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