The Power of Three
Chapter Six: Lancelot, Part Three
It felt a bit silly, Morgana thought as she looked around at the festivities, to celebrate with such a feast when the threat of the griffin loomed over Camelot. Her dreams had left her restless for days, with Arthur killed night after night by the fearsome beast. That looming feeling of dread, the constant companion of her nightmares, persisted even now.
However, she was pleased that Merlin's friend had been knighted. Based on her conversation with the sorcerer earlier in the week, she had a feeling that Lancelot wasn't who he said he was, but, she thought as she sipped her wine, that didn't mean he deserved the knighthood any less.
She noticed Gwen smiling in Merlin's direction, her face alight in an expression Morgana recognized immediately. "You should go talk to him," she nudged, grinning as Gwen's face turned bright red. Even as she urged her servant to approach Merlin, who stood across the room with Lancelot, a strange hollowness attached itself to her heart. She brushed it off - of course she was thrilled that the two servants, her friends, seemed to be made for each other.
Arthur sauntered up to her then, glancing back over his shoulder in the direction she had been staring - toward Merlin, Lancelot, and Gwen. She hoped he didn't notice that her eyes had been pointed directly at the servant. Arthur seemed distracted, eyes clouded over with some cocktail of emotions she couldn't quite pinpoint.
"Morgana, standing here all alone? No one volunteered to be your escort?"
Haughtily, Morgana sniffed, "Unlike you, Arthur, I'm emotionally independent enough not to need someone to be with me every day. Speaking of which, where's your date? Over there, with Gwen and Lancelot?"
Arthur nose wrinkled in disgust. "Very funny. If he were, he'd be a terrible one. As it stands, he's been wholly lacking as a servant this whole evening, goofing off with Lancelot. Besides, that idiot is so useless, he couldn't get an escort even if he tried."
"Oh, I don't know," Morgana replied, watching how easily he interacted with Gwen, who was laughing at something he or Lancelot had said. "He seems to be doing pretty well for himself."
"With your servant?" Arthur's eyebrows lifted in surprise. "I doubt it. She's far too pretty for the likes of him."
"Oh, you've noticed Gwen?" Morgana asked, batting her eyelids innocently.
"That's not what I meant!" Morgana smiled devilishly. Getting Arthur riled up was one of her favorite things.
"Well, did you come over here to gossip about the love life of our servants, Arthur, or are you here for a reason? To ask me to dance, perhaps? The answer is no, by the way. Your dancing is terrible."
"Actually," Arthur said, lowering his voice so that Morgana had to lean in slightly. "I wanted to ask you what you think about Lancelot."
"Just… humor me."
"He's the new knight; I've barely spoken to him. I don't know what insight I can offer."
"You're no help."
"Now you know how I feel in all our conversations."
"Morgana, could you be serious for even a moment!" She paused, noticing how flustered Arthur had become. "Have you ever committed to something that you know could go poorly?" he asked in a rush, changing topics suddenly.
"I… can't say I understand." For once, Morgana found herself at a loss for words. "What is this about, Arthur?"
"Nothing, never mind. I just … have you ever, I don't know, felt torn between doing what is right or doing what you are supposed to?"
"If you are asking if I've ever been torn between duty and what is right, then…" She glanced for just a second at Merlin, who was laughing so hard at something Lancelot had said that his face was ruddy - or maybe it was the mead. She looked back at Arthur who was waiting expectantly for a response. "Not any time recently," she answered at last. "But that's because I learned a long time ago from watching my father that sometimes the right thing and one's duty don't always go hand in hand, and that sometimes you have to do what's right-"
"Damn the consequences," Arthur finished for her, shaking his head. "That's really becoming your mantra these days, isn't it?"
"It's always been my mantra, Arthur. You should try it for yourself sometime." She smirked at Arthur's stunned silence. "Will that be all?" she asked primly.
Wordlessly, Arthur nodded. Satisfied, she left him alone to think about what she had said, completely unaware that he had already made the monumental decision to choose his friend's life over the magic ban.
If she had known, she might not have shown it, but she would have been quite proud.
Lancelot got to enjoy nearly a whole day of being a knight of Camelot before everything went wrong. Apparently, the king had already had his suspicions even before the knighting ceremony, and he had had the court genealogist, Geoffrey of Monmouth, look more deeply into the royal seal.
And so, less than twenty-four hours after achieving his dream, Lancelot was dragged before the king, charged with forging a seal of nobility, stripped of the title and cloak he had so longed for, and thrown into the dungeon. Everything had gone as badly as it could have, Arthur thought as he watched the man he had taken such a risk on being led out of the throne room, head hung low in shame.
The prince had to be careful not to overstep his bounds with his father, who was already furious about the deception. He couldn't give away his own suspicion of the truth his father had rooted out, or he could make things much worse for himself and for Lancelot. And much, much worse for Merlin, if the king somehow found out how the forgery was made. Still, he had to try something.
"Father, I realize that this man lied about his bloodline, but he only did so because he was so eager to serve our great kingdom. We are riding out tonight to hunt down and face the griffin. Don't we need men like him, brave warriors who only want to fight for their kingdom, on our side?"
The king, as he had suspected, was unyielding. "Everything that this man has told you about himself is a lie, Arthur. He began your relationship with deception. How can you fight with and trust a man who has already lied to you once?" The words hit Arthur like an arrow to the chest, but it wasn't Lancelot's face he pictured when his father spoke. It was Merlin's.
Merlin was on the verge of panicking. "They're riding out any moment now, Lancelot's in the dungeon because of me, and Arthur can't defeat the griffin without magic, but I was useless the last time I faced it! I almost died, Gaius! How can you expect me to fulfill my destiny, to save Arthur, if I can't save myself? I don't know how to do this, Gaius." His voice cracked on his mentor's name.
Gaius squared his sloped shoulders the best that he could and put a withered hand on Merlin's shoulder. "I cannot imagine how hard this is for you, Merlin. But we will find a way. Come now, I have a spell that might work; practice it now, and surely you will have mastered in time to follow after Arthur and defeat the griffin."
Arthur felt no guilt about releasing Lancelot from the dungeons without his father's knowledge or permission. After all, the man was there partially because Arthur had agreed to test him even when knowing - or at least strongly suspecting - that his seal was forged. But he drew the line at letting Lancelot join them, no matter how much they could use a man like him.
At least this way, he'll live, Arthur thought, heart heavy as he watched Lancelot trudge toward his freedom.
And now, Arthur had to make a decision. What his father had said had really struck a chord in him. How could he fight with a man, trust a man, who had built their entire relationship on a foundation of lies? No, he didn't think Merlin was evil because he possessed magic, but Merlin had been dishonest with him from the beginning. What other lies had he told?
Should he trust Merlin despite the constant presence of lies in their friendship, if that was even what it was anymore? Could he fight alongside a man who had lied to him over and over again, and not just about having magic? He could go back to pretending like he didn't know about Merlin's magic and keep an eye on the servant from a distance, or he could take the plunge, fully acknowledge the truth, and give Merlin his complete trust.
It didn't take him long to make his decision. Well, damn. He had been planning on having a lot more fun with this reveal, making things about as hard on Merlin for a bit as Merlin had made them for him. But now he had delayed so long that there was no time for games.
Purpose in every step, Arthur pelted in the direction of Gaius's chambers with the knowledge that everything was about to change.
Merlin didn't know how many times he'd tried to incant the spell with no luck. Every time he tried, he felt his eyes burn bright and the magic leave his body, but nothing. Frustrated didn't even begin to describe how he was feeling. All his life, magic had come so naturally to him. Now that he was trying to learn specific and advanced spells, however, he was actually having to work to succeed at magic. He felt like a failure and an idiot at the same time.
Arthur barged into the physician's chambers without knocking right after the gold had faded from his eyes, and his heart fluttered at the thought of what a close call that had been.
"Arthur!" Gaius exclaimed, and Merlin could tell from his tone that he, too, was equally perturbed at the prince's bursting in and relieved at the timing. "What are you doing here, sire? I was told you were supposed to be on your way to face the griffin by now."
"We are about to leave," Arthur acknowledged. Merlin noticed that there was a wild look in his eyes. A fresh wave of panic stole over him. He hadn't really had a chance to talk to Arthur since the prince had exploded on him a few days ago, and when the two had interacted, Arthur had been coarse and clipped and refused to be baited into banter of any kind. Was he here to throw Merlin into the dungeon with Lancelot, too?
"Then why are you here?" Gaius pressed. He was as impatient as Merlin for Arthur to leave so that he could continue practicing the spell.
"I'm here," Arthur took a deep breath, "for you, Merlin. I realize that as my servant, there is no obligation for you to follow me into battle, but… I need you to do just that."
It would have been comical how quickly Merlin's mouth fell open at Arthur's statement had the situation not been so dire. As it was, Arthur forced himself to continue, knowing that if he didn't say this now, he might chicken out again, and Camelot couldn't afford that. However many lies Merlin had told, he was Arthur's best bet at defeating the monster and saving his people.
"It has come to my attention that you may be helpful in light of our current circumstances."
Merlin laughed nervously while Gaius looked on in what appeared to be impatient concern. "Why, do you think the griffin will need someone to fold its laundry and polish its talons?"
"No," Arthur responded, more patiently than he thought possible given what was about to happen. "But, as Gaius has told my father many times, only magic can defeat this monster. And, you, Merlin, have magic."
Arthur had never seen the color drain so quickly out of two faces at the same time.
Merlin's everything crashed around him - his life, his one-sided friendship with Arthur, his destiny, his security all plummeted like falling stars to his feet. How did Arthur know? How could this have happened? More importantly, what was going to happen now? Visions of wooden pyres and chopping blocks and hangman's nooses chased each other around frantically in his mind, his breath was short and stunted, his hands shaking, nausea roiling in his stomach. He was going to die. Worse, Arthur, someone he considered his friend, was going to kill him.
He was only broken out of his howling fear when Arthur lunged forward and grabbed Gaius by the arm. "Careful, Gaius," the prince said, guiding the wavering old man to a chair. "I'm sorry, I didn't think about how this news would affect you. Are you all right?"
Oh thank gods, at least Arthur didn't think that Gaius knew already and was treating him with civility. Gaius waved the prince off vaguely, his eyes moving anxiously between prince and servant.
"Oh, for the gods' sake, Merlin," Arthur griped. "We don't have time for this! Camelot is in danger, and - oh, this is unpleasant to say - you are the only hope that we have at defeating this creature."
It took longer than usual for Arthur's words to penetrate Merlin's awareness. His voice shook as he asked, "W-What are you talking about?"
"What in the hell do you think I'm talking about?" Arthur's voice was approaching shrill levels. "The griffin! It can only be defeated by magic. You have magic. Therefore, I need you to ride with us to defeat it."
"You… you want my help?" Merlin murmured like he was in a dream. Arthur could have strangled his servant then and there.
"I won't say it again. You heard me the first time; you're just too stupid to understand what it means, apparently."
A frenetic kind of relief flashed in Merlin's eyes, but dread quickly took its place. "What happens when we return?" he asked, eyeing Arthur warily. "Are you going to turn me over to your father? Are you going to execute me?"
A plethora of emotions attacked the prince all at once - hurt, anger, bewilderment, and finally, the haunting pain of realization. It hadn't even occurred to Arthur that Merlin would think Arthur would have him killed, perhaps because that thought had never seriously entered Arthur's mind. But here he was seeing a glimpse of the hell Merlin's life must have been, terrified for his life, expecting to be sentenced to death at any moment. If the fear of being executed for magic had such deep roots that he thought Arthur would kill him, then it must be a terrible constant in his life. Arthur felt something that he had not anticipated for his servant when addressing the truth: pity.
Still, there was no time for that now. No time of any of this. Every moment they delayed, the creature could be encroaching upon the citadel, or another village. An attack in the dead of night would be devastating. They had to hunt it down and kill it before it could attack again.
"You're an idiot, Merlin," Arthur said. Merlin blinked owlishly. "Why would I kill you when I've got a pile of dirty laundry and dusty chambers with your name on it?"
"You never listen," Arthur interrupted, glancing over at Gaius to make sure the man hadn't keeled over, but the physician was fully aware, watching the proceedings with wide eyes. "We don't have time for this! Do you have a… spell, or potion, or something that can stop this monster?"
"Then come on! There's no time to waste. You don't have to ride with us, but follow closely behind. That way, you can work from the shadows to keep from getting caught."
"And, Merlin, be careful. If you die, you'll never be able to explain to me why you decided to practice magic in Camelot in the first place, and I've been anticipating that conversation for a long while."
Without giving Merlin a chance to answer, Arthur left the room, a stunned Gaius and Merlin in his wake.
Gaius was the first to speak. "First Morgana, and now Arthur. It really is a wonder that your head is still attached to your shoulders." His trembling hands belied his curt words.
Merlin, for his part, was in a state of shock. His understanding of the world around him, his life in Camelot, had just flipped upside down. He had experienced both paralyzing terror and anesthetizing relief in less than five minutes' time, and he still couldn't believe what had happened. Arthur knew about his magic… and, if not accepted it, at the very least tolerated it. When Merlin had dreamed of this day, it had been far, far in the future. He couldn't process this; it was too much-
"Merlin." Gaius's voice was sharp but kind. "I understand that this is a lot to take in. It is for me as well. But did you hear what he said? He needs you. Camelot needs you." A small smile appeared. "Your destiny has called on you directly, Merlin. Don't let him down."
Doubt clamped its festering fingers around any building hope. "But I haven't mastered the spell, Gaius. What if I fail?"
"You won't, Merlin," Gaius assured him. "But it will all be for naught if you keep standing around here gaping like a fish. Go to Arthur, help him defeat the griffin, and then you can come home and deal with all that has happened."
Reminded of his purpose, of his destiny, and of how he simply could not fail - the stakes were too great - Merlin nodded at Gaius and raced out of the room, toward the stables.
When he got there, Lancelot was mounting a horse, a javelin in one hand.
"Lancelot!" Merlin cheered. "How did you escape?"
"I didn't. Prince Arthur released me. He is full of surprises."
Merlin chuckled rather madly. "That he is. Where are you going?"
"I'm taking the horse Arthur prepared for me, and I'm going after him and the knights. I cannot stand by and let them die without at least trying to help, no matter what Arthur ordered me to do. I swore long ago that I would protect those who need it, and I cannot stop now."
"Can I hitch a ride, then?" Merlin asked, knowing it would waste precious time for him to prepare his own horse. "I'm heading that way, too."
When they arrived at the scene of the battle, Merlin feared that they were too late. The griffin circled slowly above, its feathers and talons glinting in the dappled moonlight filtering through the trees. It would have been beautiful if it weren't for the knights strewn about on the forest floor.
"Arthur!" Merlin fairly leaped from the horse's back and found the prince stretched beneath a tree, out cold, but thankfully alive. He had a nasty cut on the back of his head and scratch marks in his new chest plate, but his breathing was steady and his heart beat at a regular pace. He would be okay.
A horrible screech shattered the chilled silence, and Merlin spun around to see that the griffin had landed, pawing its front claws on the ground and creating great divots in the earth with each talon. Lancelot had put distance between himself in the beast, javelin held aloft, knowing, Merlin thought, that the weapon would not be enough to kill the griffin. He was sacrificing his life in the vain attempt to save the knights, and Merlin, and all of Camelot.
Resolve pooled in Merlin's bloodstream and trickled into his chest. How about I even the odds a bit?
The first time he whispered the incantation, nothing happened but the sound of pounding hoofbeats and talons against the forest floor. The second time he said it louder, and the weapon remained unchanged. Merlin began to despair, knowing that if he failed here, Lancelot would die, Arthur would die, the knights would die, and Merlin himself would die, along with who knew how many others in Camelot and the surrounding villages.
Arthur somehow knew the truth about his magic but was trusting him anyway. That thought alone was enough to lift Merlin's flailing spirit to new heights. Arthur trusted him. He couldn't, he wouldn't, let him down!
Merlin incanted for the third time as Lancelot and the griffin met, his voice casting the spell amidst the sounds of impending battle. The javelin glowed, met its mark, and this time, it didn't break or glance off.
Arthur woke as the griffin fell and Lancelot dismounted regally from his horse.
Merlin stood outside of the throne room with Lancelot, waiting on the king's judgment. Arthur was with Uther now, trying to convince him to reinstate Lancelot as a knight of Camelot. He and Merlin had not had a chance to talk any further than they had the night before, seeing as Arthur had been in and out of consciousness on the slow ride back to the citadel, propped up in the saddle in front of Lancelot, and had only regained his senses after a good night's sleep. The other knights who had accompanied them were still recovering, as many of them had been gravely injured by the griffin. So far, none of them had died.
"He'll have to make you a knight now, I know it!" Merlin assured his friend. "How could he not? You killed the griffin and saved the kingdom. That's about as noble as you can get!"
Lancelot, who had been surprisingly subdued throughout the aftermath of slaying the griffin, regarded Merlin with something akin to respect before answering in a slow, measured voice, "But I wasn't the one who defeated it, was I?"
Not again! Why was everyone suddenly figuring out his secret? Determined to play innocent just in case he was misreading the situation, Merlin chuckled and remarked, "I don't know who else could have killed it! Arthur and the knights were out cold, and you know how useless I am in a fight."
"I saw you," Lancelot stated bluntly. "I heard you. That was the language of magic, I am sure." He said all of this in a whisper, but it sounded like shouting in Merlin's panicked mind. He couldn't take much more of this!
"I can explain-" he started, but Lancelot interrupted him.
"Your secret is safe with me," he said. "And I should thank you for what you did. You saved my life, and you saved Camelot. You're the real hero here."
Merlin flushed. "I just did what I could do to protect Arthur and Camelot," he deflected.
"Like I said: You're a hero. I cannot take credit for what you did." Merlin, so thoroughly unfamiliar with receiving praise, stood blushing and contemplating Lancelot's words for so long that he almost didn't realize that the other man was making his brazen way to the doors to the throne room and throwing them open, despite protests from the guards. Merlin scurried in after him right before the double doors closed right behind him.
Arthur was shouting at his father when they entered. "- not good enough! I want you to reinstate him as a knight of Camelot!"
Both sets of royal eyes swiveled to the newcomers. Uther glared. "How dare you barge in here?"
"I'm sorry, but I have to say one thing, your highness - I am leaving Camelot."
Both Uther and Arthur stared at him in silence. Finally, Arthur stepped forward. "No, Lancelot - you've proven your worth! You deserve to be a knight, sod the First Code. Stay. Please."
Lancelot shook his head. "I must start again, far away from here, and maybe one day I will return and prove myself to be a man fully deserving of knighthood."
Arthur strode forward and clasped the man's arm. "Are you sure? Camelot needs men like you."
Lancelot's smile was more of a grimace. "I think Camelot has just the right men to protect it," he said. To Uther, he added, "Do I have your leave, your majesty?"
Something like approval sparked in the king's eyes. "Yes."
Lancelot left the throne room with head held high, and winked at Merlin as he passed.
Lancelot departed that same day. He and Gwen seemed to have hit it off rather well, because the maid came with Merlin and Arthur to see him off, and an air of sadness hovered over her as Lancelot rode out of sight.
Merlin, for his part, was running late - again - to bring Arthur his dinner. He and the prince had still not had the conversation that Arthur had spoken so eagerly of, and Merlin found that he had much more anxiety regarding this talk than he had ever had with Morgana's. Still, it had to happen eventually, and despite the nightmares that had plagued him all night, and the doubts that had manifested with each new one, his head was still on his shoulders, and Arthur had shoved him in that fond-but-still-kind-of-painful way of his on the way out of the throne room earlier, so maybe everything would really be okay.
Arthur's face seemed carved in stone as Merlin entered, his jaw working furiously. "S-sire?" Merlin stammered, placing the tray of meats and cheeses down on the table with shaking hands. "Did I do something wrong?"
"I can't believe you even had to ask, Merlin!" Arthur hissed. A chill lanced down Merlin's spine. Then the prince continued, "You're late! Again! I swear, Merlin, I believe you must have been late to your own birth!"
Merlin's pulse stuttered to a safer level. "I - what?"
"It's getting ridiculous, Merlin. If this doesn't stop, I'm going to have to dock your pay."
He looked at Merlin expectantly, and Merlin realized just what he was waiting for. "Well, that might mean something if you paid me much of anything to begin with."
Arthur's stern demeanor cracked and he stood, shaking his head in exasperation. "But, I suppose that since you did help me save Camelot yesterday, I can let it slide one last time."
Merlin found himself falling easily back into their normal pattern, the light-hearted bickering reassuring him more than promises or vows ever could. "Helped you? As I recall it, you were in a heap under a tree when I saved Camelot. What exactly did you do?"
"I'm the crown prince, Merlin," Arthur shot back. "And you are my servant. I automatically get credit for anything you do."
Merlin thought about this for a long moment. "So does that mean that if I mess up, you mess up too?"
"No, that just means you're an idiot. An idiot," he pressed before Merlin could retort, "who uses magic, it would seem." Merlin grew still at his words, but panic didn't fill him as it had before. It would be okay, he knew that now.
"I suppose you want to know the truth."
Arthur rolled his eyes. "No, I want you to keep lying to me because I enjoy the intrigue of it all," he said dryly. Merlin offered a wan smile. Arthur motioned at the chairs around the table, and Merlin gingerly took his seat while Arthur plopped down across from him.
"Now," he said, "You are going to tell me everything. Who taught you magic, why you use it, how long you have used it, and why you only seem to use it to help people or to cheat on your chores when sorcerers are supposed to all be evil. And neither of us are leaving this table until I know everything. Am I clear?"
"What if another magical creature attacks the citadel before I'm done? Can we leave then?"
"Merlin." It was hard to tell if Arthur was more impatient, frustrated, or amused.
"Okay, okay. But it's kind of a long story. Maybe you need to take a bathroom break first, you know, since you can't leave this table until I've finished talking"
Things would never be the same between them, Merlin knew, as he began to speak, but maybe that was okay.
Maybe they would be even better.
A/N: Thank you so much to everyone who reviewed chapter 5 - Cdnacho98, CrystalFire, scylla646, Alverran, oma13, Gingeraffealene, weirdhead, Taz, Guest, general zargon, and LaRieNGuBleR - as well as to everyone who read, followed, and favorited! Even though I have been swamped with work and haven't had time to respond to everyone individually, I am so grateful for all the support! :) Also, I apologize for the late update; this weekend was rather hectic, and I just now got the chance to post.
So now the magical cat is out of the bag. The next chapter will be a sort of interim between "episodes" simply titled "Conversations." It's already written, so it should be posted on time.
One final thing regarding the last lines of this chapter - they came to me in a sudden burst of inspiration, and I really love them, but there's a part of me (the really paranoid part of me) that's dealing with a sense of deja-vu, like I've read something similar before. Just know, if there is another story out there with lines like these, I didn't copy them. I might just be crazy or overly paranoid about this, but I wanted to make sure I put that out there, just in case I'm not wrong and someone does have a similar ending line in a story. :)
That's it for Lancelot. Thanks again so much to everyone who reviewed and read and favorited and followed - you all are so amazing! :)