Helpers/enablers/accomplices in crack:
Staraflur, the Golden Beta-machine, who made sure you don't cry tears of blood while reading this (and then I went and ruined it, but that's another story) and my fantastic support group, merlincrackers, who indulged me and provided the much needed encouragement (and cracky conversations) to finish my fic. You guys are awesome! Thank you!
This didn't really turn out as I expected/wanted (the OOC! it burns!) but I had fun writing it, and I hope you'll enjoy reading it.
Disclaimer: I don't own them. They own me.
Table of Contents
"This will never work."
Merlin took a deep breath and tried to quell his sudden urge to throttle Arthur. They had been sitting in the meadow since the break of dawn, and all Arthur did was criticize Merlin’s plans and decimate Aidan The Bloodthirsty’s favourite flowers.
It was close to noon now, and Merlin was thirsty, hungry, and quite scared of Aidan, who was the blacksmith, and did everything to earn his nickname daily¹. And, yes, that was his prized petunia Arthur just ate. Maybe Merlin should just kill Arthur himself and save everyone the trouble.
Weird. He didn't remember being this blood-thirsty before he met Arthur.
"Look, this is our only plan. Unless you have a better suggestion?"
Arthur's contemptuous snort made him grit his teeth. Murder never sounded that tempting.
"Don't be daft. Even stealing food from a dragon would be better than this."
There was no way, no way any jury would convict him. None.
"So, your highness, please share your wisdom with us dumb peasants."
That shut the prat up. His fleeting look of discomfort was, however, shortly chased away by triumph.
"Hah! I know what we are going to do!" He paused dramatically. "We're going in disguise!"
A resounding thump was his only response. He waited until Merlin dizzily lifted his head from the trunk he'd banged it on, and continued.
"You could pretend to be Morgana, and I could be Lancelot. Obviously, you'll need better clothes. Maybe a hat, but that's all. No one will notice anything. I am brilliant!"
Merlin let his head fall back on the trunk.
"We're going to die."
It was a brilliant summer day when Arthur’s (and, consequently, Merlin’s) life went to hell.
The sun rose shrouded with clouds, but by the start of the drills, it cleared up to be a perfect day in June: warm, the strong smell of herbs permeating the air, but with enough clouds to give a respite from the heat.
Unfortunately, it had the undesirable effect of making the knights want to be absolutely anywhere but on the training grounds, letting Arthur beat the crap out of them in full armour for hours. Arthur suspected they acted particularly incompetent on purpose, so that he would lose his temper and send them off. It testified to the power of the sunlight, usually the knights (and everyone, really) would rather roll around in horse manure than be told off by the crown prince. His shout was known to loosen window panels in their cases and make all wildlife abandon the forests around Camelot in a 30-miles radius, which in turn only served to make him more irritable, since then hunting was out of the question for at least a week.
But today he was just as eager to finish the drill as his knights, if not for the same reasons. In the last few days, almost exactly a week after his father left on "vacation" (he could still hear his father’s voice: "It’s a vacation, Arthur; please do stop calling it ’buggering off to who-knows-where with Gaius to do perverted things’. It’s not only rude, but also terribly inaccurate. What you’re talking about is a honeymoon," at which point Arthur made an inarticulate sound and dropped the topic like so much hot iron), and while Arthur was busy with other things (like having some fun, finally), Morgana took up the habit of holding royal audiences by herself.
The consequences of that were less than promising. Apparently, she thought that with Uther’s absence his laws could be ignored. She actually let a woman suspected of witchcraft go on the basis of ’insufficient evidence’. Granted, the man who accused her was her long-time neighbour and nemesis, and also a tiny bit drunk; still, the law for these cases was clear: put into jail for the duration of the investigation. The fact that she ignored this meant that she was openly rebelling against the king, which she would have never dared had Uther not bugg… gone on vacation.
Arthur gritted his teeth. As much as he liked having a sort-of-sister when he was younger, he had grown more and more annoyed by Morgana’s antics lately. Did she really think she could get away with this insubordination? Last time he checked, he was in charge. He should just let her spend the night in the dungeons; it would be merciful, compared to what others charged with treason had to suffer.
Arthur looked up to find one of his knights standing before him, the others watching curiosly.
"What," he barked out curtly.
"We've finished the exercises, and it’s time for patrol, Sire." The knight shifted uneasily under his glare. "Of course, we practice as long as you want us to."
"Of course. How nice of you," he said, voice dripping with sarcasm. "No, I had quite enough of your bumbling for today, and I have more important matters to attend to." He raised his voice so that the others could hear it as well. "We’ll continue tomorrow; I expect everyone here by sunrise. Don’t be late."
And with that, he turned, hiding his grin at the horror on his knights’ faces. Oh, he did love installing the fear of Arthur in his men first thing in the morning.
His good mood lasted only to the door of the throne room. He could hear voices: Morgana’s clear and authoritative one, and an unfamiliar but unusually confident and brazen one. Must be a nobleman, peasants usually spoke in the meekest and most respectful tones they could manage.
He dismissed the thought. It didn’t matter who was there in with Morgana, they would have to leave so he could speak to her.
Pushing the door open, he stopped short when he saw the scraggly boy conversing with Morgana. Not a nobleman, then.
The boy must have heard the door opening, since he fell silent and turned towards Arthur. He actually had the cheek to slowly look over Arthur head to toe, and then send him a blinding smile.
Arthur scowled in response, but swallowed the cutting remark on the tip of his tongue. He had more pressing matters now.
He turned to Morgana to find her looking at him with a perfect eyebrow raised in question.
"Yes? Can I help you?"
It would be unbefitting of a prince to conk a woman on the head, he reminded himself. At least, with other people present.
"I have to talk to you. In private."
"Can’t it wait? I’m busy. Doing your work."
"That’s what we have to talk about. And no, it can’t wait."
With a put upon expression, Morgana turned to the curiously watching boy.
"Merlin, was it?" At his quick nod, she smiled charmingly at him. "Could you wait outside for a bit? I’m sure it won’t take long."
Merlin smiled back. "Of course."
Arthur only waited for the door to close after him to start his tirade.
"Can I ask you what the hell do you think you are doing?" Morgana’s baffled look only spurred him on. "I was letting you hold the audiences because I thought you could deal with them. But obviously you can’t. Tell me, did you really think I wouldn’t find out? Did you think that just because my father isn’t here, his law didn’t have to be upheld, either?"
By this time, Morgana regained her composure, and looked at him with icy disdain.
"Are you talking about that woman brought here on false accusations?"
"This isn’t about whether it was true or not!" Arthur raked his hands through his hair distressedly. "She was suspected of witchcraft, and the law says that everyone suspected of witchcraft has to be incarcerated until their trial. And you just… you just let her go! Tell me, did you really think this was a good decision?"
"Oh, come off of it, Arthur! You know she was innocent!"
"That doesn't matter! It is the law, and I should try you for treason. Consider yourself lucky you’re the king’s ward."
"Then tell me, do you think magic is bad? Bad enough that people should be killed at the smallest sign of using it? Do you?"
Arthur looked back at her steadily.
"The king does, and that’s enough for me. It should be enough for you, too."
"You’re just like your father, aren’t you?" Morgana spat. "Well, I hope you can sleep at night."
And with that, she stormed off.
She couldn’t believe him! Morgana fumed. It was like Arthur never had a thought of his own; it was always ’my father this, my father that’. It was a huge disappointment, to tell the truth.
"Oh, Merlin, I didn’t notice you. You can go in now, though I have to warn you, Arthur’s in a foul mood." She placed a reassuring hand on his arm. "Don't worry, though. He's a warrior. He can't say no to bloodshed."
"Thank you." He looked up worriedly. "But you don’t look so good. Are you alright?"
Morgana gave him a wan smile.
"Yes, don’t worry. I hope you’ll succeed with Arthur. Go."
Merlin nodded, then with one last concerned look, disappeared in the throne room.
Morgana stifled a sigh. She had made a big mess, hadn't she? Now, it was time to rectify it, and the best way to do that was revenge.
"Um, sire? Can I talk to you now?"
The prince seemed distracted, noted Merlin. No wonder, after that huge row he had with Morgana. Hopefully, he wouldn’t take out his temper on some hapless by-stander. Though, if the rumours were true, it was a slim chance.
Still, he had to try. For his mother. For his village.
’For Ealdor, then,’ he thought, determinedly.
Taking a step towards the throne, he tried to get the other man’s attention. "Sire?"
Arthur apparently didn't hear him, or simply wasn't paying attention, so Merlin walked closer. The sun shone through the high windows, bathing everything in warm light, and Arthur looked exceedingly handsome in this lighting.
Luckily, he was a prat. Merlin didn't fancy having a crush on the crown prince.
Finally, Arthur seemed to notice him. "Oh, it’s you. What do you want?"
Well, wasn’t that lovely. Little ray of sunshine, that Prince Arthur.
Suppressing a snicker at his thought, Merlin put on his most respectful expression (which still made most noblemen's hand inch for their swords, but never actually got him more than a scowl).
"I came to ask for your help. Ealdor, my village, is constantly attacked by bandits." His hands clenched into fists at the thought of the damage they had done. "We’re helpless against them."
Arthur was too well-trained to show his emotions, but his voice betrayed his incredulity.
"And what do you want me to do? Go there with my knights and beat them?"
"Actually, yes, I kind of do."
"The answer is no. Was that all?" Merlin opened his mouth, but Arthur was quicker. "Great. Next!"
Merlin just stood there, staring.
"That’s it? The famous warrior Prince Arthur is going to let people die because he’s too much of a coward?" At Arthur’s twitch, he continued with a grim smile. "Oh, I hit a nerve, didn’t I? Is this what you argued about with Morgana?"
He didn’t even see Arthur move, but the next moment he found himself pinned to the wall by his throat.
"Do you have a death wish, peasant? Because I can grant that."
Merlin just looked back at him, fearless.
"If you want to kill someone so badly, kill those bastards."
"You're dumber than you look. Your village is out of Camelot's jurisdiction. Going there, even with just a few knights, would mean certain war."
Merlin's lips tightened grimly.
"My people are dying either way. At least we wouldn't go out without a fight."
They stood there for a moment, locked, neither backing down. Then Arthur stepped back, and Merlin sagged. Arthur seemed to be sizing him up curiously.
"You’re brave, I’ll give you that. But I still can’t help you. Why don’t you ask your own king?"
Merlin grimaced bitterly, gingerly massaging his aching throat.
"Because he does not care about Ealdor, or any of his subjects. As long as we pay our taxes, we might as well be dead to him."
Arthur squashed the tiny bit of sympathy that started growing in him. He had to think oft his own country first. He wouldn’t become a king like that.
"There's nothing I can do. I wish you good luck in your quest. Goodbye!"
And with that, he shoved the stunned Merlin out the door.
"No more audiences today," he told his servants. "I have other things to do. If anyone asks for me, I’ve gone on patrol."
He paused on his way to the door.
"If Morgana asks for me, I’ve gone on a hunting trip, and won’t be back for a week. Make it sound convincing."
The baffled servants only nodded. Arthur left, satisfied, unaware of his approaching doom.
Dear Lady Morgana,
I have for years secretly pined, stunned into silence by your beauty and royal bearing, but the day has come to reveal my feelings. You might have already guessed the nature of them, for I fear my countenance has betrayed the extent of my devotion and admiration to you. I cannot seem to control myself when I’m around you; I burn, I pine, I perish, if I cannot have you. Alas! Our fate dictates otherwise, placing vast canyons between our yearning hearts. Thus, I can confess my love only in this missive. Ah! How I wish I could hold you in my arms, like I imagined it on restless nights! How I yearn to touch your hair! Not just to braid it, but to caress lovingly your soft tresses! How I long to look into your eyes, and see my love returned there; but no! I should not torment myself with such futile fancies. Maybe…
"I can’t believe that daft little… Ah, Lancelot, you’re here. Good, I need your services. What are you doing?"
It took a split second to hide his letter and assume an innocent expression.
"Nothing important, m’lady. What can I do for you?"
Morgana narrowed her eyes in suspicion, but then dismissed the matter. She had a crown prince to torment.
"Arthur is being an idiot again. I need to teach him a lesson, but the laxatives are getting old. I need a new plan."
Lancelot nodded, resigned.
"What do you want me to do?"
Morgana twirled a lock of hair thoughtfully.
"I think I have an idea. It’s both humiliating and workable." She swirled on her heels and called out over her shoulder. "Lancelot! To the secret lab!"
Crumpling the letter in his hand, Lancelot followed his mistress slowly. Another cranky day for Arthur, another crazy Morgana-scheme.
Another typical day in Camelot.
The existence of Morgana’s Secret Lab was common knowledge in Camelot and the surrounding villages. If asked, most people just shrugged and wrote it off as one of the weird habits of royalty. "Must be all the in-breeding," they said. Others saw it as just another tactic in The Never-Ending War Between Arthur And Morgana (also known as ’The Crown Prince Sure Is A Dolt, Isn’t He?’). Even the king tolerated it, after Gaius convinced him it was a harmless hobby (that is, harmless to everyone but Arthur), as cooking up concoctions and pranking Arthur would keep her from trying out more drastic methods to get her way.
Also, her antics proved amusing (again, to everyone but Arthur), and the people needed the entertainment, especially now that the Romans had moved out and taken their circuses with them. (The bastards. Now Uther had to find another place to take Gaius on dates.)
’Well,’ Uther had said, after much contemplation, ’as long as there is no dabbling in magic, and of course there isn’t, it’s not like she has magical abilities or anything, right, even the idea is risible, she can keep the lab.’ Gaius had nodded, and went to tell Morgana that her secret was safe and Uther didn’t suspect a thing. Oh, and that Uther permitted the lab. Morgana was very grateful. So grateful, in fact, that she not only did not poison Uther’s favourite dog, but also refrained from spreading nasty-but-mostly-true rumours about him and the old cook in the tavern. (Her gratitude, of course, did not encompass Arthur. It had its advantages: by now he was immune to practically every kind of poison known to mankind. Growing up with Morgana does that to a man.)
"Scale of dragon, tooth of wolf, witches' mummy, maw and gulf of the ravin'd salt-sea shark, root of hemlock digg'd i' the dark…"
"My Lady Morgana?"
Morgana stopped squinting at the list in her hands. Gaius really had terrible handwriting².
Lancelot gulped. "Are you… what are you going to do to him?"
That wasn’t a smile. Something so terrible shouldn’t be called a smile, he thought frantically.
"Nothing awful, I assure you. Just turn him into something he never expected, or wanted, to be."
"And that would be…?"
Morgana’s expression turned into the evil twin of her previous one. How could mischievousness look so bloody terrifying?
"Are you sure you want to know? It might frighten you."
Lancelot squeaked indignantly. "I don’t scare that easily!"
Morgana gave him an indulgent smile before continuing with her current task of scaring him shitless. Lancelot was forced to take a step back as she leaned in close, only to find himself pinned to the wall.
With that unholy smirk still on her face, Morgana stood on her tiptoes and whispered into his ear. Lancelot eyes widened when he heard her words.
"I’m going to turn him into a… girl."
Lancelot made a funny noise, something between a sob and a snort, but did not lift his head from his hands. He didn’t stand up from his defensive crouch, either. Who knows, maybe Morgana felt the need to test the efficiency of her plan. One could never be too careful with her.
She rolled her eyes and put a hand on his shoulder. He recoiled in horror, which earned him an amused huff. She didn’t remove her hand.
"I know what you think, but it's for the greater good. And for gods’ sake, don't look at me like that! I wouldn’t do this to you!"
Cautiously lifting his head, he asked petulantly: "Why not? You’re perfectly willing to do this to the prince."
Morgana looked at him with fond exasparation. "Because, you great idiot, you’re not as pigheaded as him. Sometimes, you’re actually useful, which is more than I can say for Arthur."
Considerably calmer but still wary, he stood up. "Isn’t there another way to convince him, though? This seems a bit… cruel."
Morgana’s lips thinned. "He deserves everything he gets from me. Come! We don’t have much time if we want to be finished by dinner."
"Yes. He’ll get a special treat. Something he wouldn’t forget soon."
He knew he probably looked foolish, standing there in front of Arthur’s door, with an expression of perfect misery on his face, but he couldn’t help himself.
The task before him wasn’t particularly hard or dangerous, yet it required all his courage to complete it. He briefly wondered why he had even considered knighthood, he was obviously a coward. However, he couldn’t wriggle out of this scheme. He had to just suck it up and do it.
Bracing himself, he knocked.
Smiling nervously, he did so, bowing deeply as soon as he was within.
Arthur regarded him warily.
"What do you want?"
So Arthur didn't trust him. That hurt a bit. But that wasn't important now.
Feigning innocence, he straightened.
"My lady Morgana sent me, along with her deepest apologies and regrets, to beg for your forgiveness, and to invite you to dinner. She is quite distressed over your disagreement, and wishes to entreat you in person."
With a searching look, Arthur tilted his head to one side. His slow smile did nothing to assuage Lancelot's guilt.
"So, what is poisoned this time?"
Forcing himself to act normal, he whispered conspirationally, "I wouldn’t touch the cake if I were you, sire."
Shaking his head amusedly, Arthur waved him out of the room.
"Tell Morgana I’ll be there."
Dinners with Morgana were always unpleasant. Only a fool would have dined with her without some healthy fear and trepidation; only a suicidal fool would have declined her invitation.
Arthur thought he was neither, and therefore it was with reluctance that he set out on his journey towards her chambers. He didn’t think she would actually kill him, but according to the rumours and his own experiences, Morgana was far from an expert potion-maker, so there was a real chance she might just kill him by accident.
Anyway, he wasn’t willing to take risks in this; that’s why he always asked Lancelot. He knew that he could trust the information; Lancelot apparently liked Morgana’s schemes as much as Arthur. He often caught the servant's disapproving expression whenever Morgana's latest little plan was revealed. Although they often came too late, when Arthur was already writhing on the floor, having broken out in rashes, losing all his hair, or, on one memorable occasion, growing feathers on his nose.
Having arrived to his destination, he wasted no time in knocking and entering. The sooner it was over the better. Being brisk will take care of that, and if that hadn't worked, he could still play sick. If their previous dinners were anything to go by, Morgana would be more suspicious if he didn't.
"Arthur," Morgana hurried over to greet him, "I am so glad you accepted my invitation. It pains me greatly whenever we have a falling out."
Tight-lipped, Arthur nodded. "Then maybe you should avoid provoking me."
Smiling charmingly, Morgana motioned him to sit. "But it’s just too much fun! However," she continued seriously," I realize I was out of bounds this time. I apologize for my behaviour. It was not within my rights to question the king’s judgement, or yours. I hope you can find it in your heart to forgive me."
Arthur’s features softened. "I do forgive you, Morgana, but it’s not that simple. You have to promise me that you won’t rebel against my father so openly in the future."
Seeing his concern, Morgana almost felt sorry for what she was about to do.
"I promise that I will act more reasonably. Is that enough?" At Arthur’s assent, she clapped her hands.
"Then let us drink to that! Lancelot!"
Lancelot appeared, looking anxious, with a tray in his hands.
Morgana lifted her cup, toasting Arthur with an amused quirk to her mouth.
"To peace in Camelot!"
She watched with keen interest as Arthur threw back his wine, not really caring for the taste. It was a good thing he wasn't a connoisseur; she hadn't quite worked out how to make her potions tasteless.
But in a moment, her thoughts took a different turn, as the first signs of change started to show. When it concluded, she could only sit there and stare in dumb shock at the pint-sized unicorn that had been Arthur before.
It was lucky Lancelot was pretty and dumb. A craftier servant would have already fled. This way, Morgana had plenty of time to recover and start doling out punishment.
"Tell me, what part of ’turn Arthur into a girl’ did you not understand? A girl, Lancelot, not a unicorn! How did this even happen?"
Lancelot only wheezed in reply, clawing at Morgana’s fingers around his neck. A terrible suspicion started to form in her mind.
"You didn’t… Lancelot, give me the potion."
He struggled in her grip, trying to reach his pocket. She rolled her eyes and let him go. He collapsed on the ground, hacking and coughing.
"It’s in my pocket," he croaked.
Morgana held out her hand impatiently. "Then give it to me already."
He handed her the small vial, his expression wounded and reproachful. She would have to pacify him somehow.
That thought flew out of her head when she saw the label. She gritted her teeth.
"Tell me," she said, voice dangerously calm, "are you really so much of an imbecile that you thought this was the right potion?"
Lancelot somehow managed to look indignant even from his supine position.
"Of course it is," he said, still a bit hoarse, "this was the girliest label I could find. Flowery, and pink, look, there’s even a… unicorn…" He trailed off, realization dawning on him. "Oh."
"Yes, ’oh’. Stop looking so gormless, we have to clean this mess up." She took a deep breath. "Right. Here's the plan: I’ll go make the antidote while you hide Arthur somewhere."
"Can't he just stay here? Or in your room?"
Morgana wrinkled her nose in disgust.
"I won't have my room turned into a stable. We can't just leave him here, either; anyone can come in, and we don't want him to be found, now, do we?"
After Lancelot just continued to stare at her, she snapped. "What are you waiting for? Go!"
Shaken out of his reverie, Lancelot took up the unenviable task of hauling a unicorn into a hiding place. After a moment of contemplation, he decided to bundle it up in one of Morgana’s old blankets, to make it less conspicuous.
Carrying it was surprisingly hard; even though the unicorn (or should he call it Arthur? He pondered) was roughly the size of a small pony, it was still heavy. Though he thought it was rather cute, for a revenge scheme gone horribly wrong.
Humming lightly under his breath, and checking every few minutes that he was still alone, he made his way towards the castle grounds. Morgana’s remark about the stables stuck with him, and he found he could think of nothing more perfect for a hiding place than the stables. It made sense: Arthur was kind of a horse now, and that’s where he would raise the least suspicion, were he to be found.
Managing to avoid two gossiping courtiers by sheer dumb luck, he finally ducked into one of the stalls and set his load down. With one last regretful look, he turned to leave. There was nothing more he could do for the prince.
Arthur woke with a headache and promptly swore he would never, ever drink again. And did he seriously, seriously fall asleep in the bloody stables? He would fire whichever servant failed to take him to his chambers. Actually, he would fire them all. That’d show them to abandon him when he was drunk. Though, strangely, he didn’t even remember drinking. That must’ve been some potent stuff. Too bad he was never drinking again, or he would have ordered a few hundred gallons of it.
Getting to his feet seemed impossible, which was another strange occurrence. He will have to get some fresh air to sober up enough to manage the stairs to his room.
It was really smelly in the stall. It wasn’t manure, though. The hay smelled like sweat and people and sex. In fact, the whole place stank of debauchery. He wrinkled his nose in disgust. It was appalling, how all people seemed to do was fornicate. He had to get out of here, the stench was unbearable. Maybe a walk in the woods would clear his head.
Sneaking out of the building was a piece of cake. The gates would pose a bigger problem; fortunately, he knew the patrols' route by heart (he did write them himself), and thus would have no difficulty avoiding the guards. It wouldn’t do for the Crown Prince to be seen wandering around at night, especially when he couldn’t even stand up. He had a reputation to uphold.
Crawling along the shadows of the houses, he slowly made his way to the gate, undetected. He felt rather proud. Obviously, his dizziness didn’t impair his stealthiness.
A few minutes later he was standing outside Camelot, just off the side of the road. He took deep breaths from the cool night air. There was a curious feeling in his chest, something like excitement and freedom, and an almost irresistible urge to go farther from the city, to wander in the forest and chase the streams in the mountains. His thoughts still fuzzy, he followed the pull of the wilderness. Nobody saw him, and he disappeared into the night.
It took him a few hours, but he finally calmed down enough that he could think clearly.
Merlin stopped and looked around, taking in his surroundings for the first time since he left Camelot. He had strayed deeper into the forest than he had planned or than was safe, but he could still see where the trees thinned to give way to the road. Judging by the waning light, he had an hour until sunset at the most. He should start to look for a place to set up camp.
A few minutes searching provided him with one, and he snapped his fingers almost mindlessly, starting a fire in a nearby pile of leaves. Still preoccupied with his angry thoughts about stupid prats with stupid tempers and stupid blond hair, he plopped down heavily, throwing a few tree limbs to feed the flames.
He never noticed the approaching danger.
Arthur was happily munching on a flower when he came to his senses. He spat it out disgustedly, feeling as sober and cold as if he was dumped into a lake. What the hell was he doing? He would never live it down if his knights got wind that he had started to sleepwalk.
"Right," they would say, "sleepwalk. Into a lady’s chambers, perhaps?"
The fools. They never quite knew when to quit teasing Arthur. They had the scars to prove it.
Shaking himself, he turned around to make his way back to his room, only to find himself surrounded by forest on every side. He didn’t panic, though. He was a skilled hunter and spent most of his free time chasing game in these woods.
He would surely not get lost.
Except he did, and there was a strange, queasy feeling in his stomach. His thoughts were disoriented, and his instincts told him to go further into the forest. Your home is there, whispered voices that sounded almost familiar and yet utterly alien.
He would never admit just how relieved he felt when he saw fire light in front of him. There was a man huddled close to it, murmuring angry-sounding phrases to himself, his back to Arthur.
Arthur sneaked closer, keeping his head low. When he got within a foot of him, though, the man suddenly jumped up with a shout of pain, clutching his side surprisedly. Arthur winced at the loud sound.
"Stop screaming like a girl, you idiot!"
He must’ve been right about the idiot part; the guy just stared at him blankly, like he’d seen a ghost.
There was something familiar about that stupidity.
After a few minutes, the idiot finally recovered enough to speak.
"I wasn’t screaming! It was a manly shout!"
He was ridiculous. Arthur felt duty-bound to enlighten him.
"You were screaming like a little girl when her favourite frilly pink dress gets dirty. Manly shout, my arse."
The idiot glared at that.
"Because you're so manly, aren't you? Well, I think you’re…" he paled suddenly "please tell me you’re not the Crown Prince."
Hah! So he knew that, at least. Not completely brainless, it seemed.
"Good, you finally recognized me. I am Prince Arthur, and it would do well for you to remember that. What are you doing?" he asked, because the other man suddenly sank back on his hunches, his face buried in his hands.
At Arthur’s question, he made a funny sort of noise, almost like a sob.
"I am so fucked," he whispered, talking more to himself than Arthur.
Curiosity now piqued, Arthur asked him again, using his most imperious tone.
"Why? Did you do something illegal?" He paused in thought. "I could let it slide, I guess, if you helped me home."
When still no answer came, he started to get impatient. "Answer me, dammit!"
Arriving back to earth with a suddenness visible even to Arthur, the guy (Merlin, Arthur suddenly remembered, with a clarity shocking after his muddled thoughts) turned a forced smile to him.
"You haven’t looked in a mirror lately, have you?"
Arthur regarded him suspiciously. Did he just now notice how gorgeous Arthur was? Was it what floored him? Because it would be flattering to his pride, but would reflect badly on Merlin’s intelligence.
"I think you should do so now. There’s a pond over there."
Arthur, still suspicious, made his way in the pointed direction, more out of curiosity about the man’s reaction than anything else.
Then he saw his reflection.
All hell broke loose.
"Ow! It… OW! Wasn’t… Ow! Me!" Merlin said, all the while trying to dodge Arthur’s attacks. Unsuccessfully.
"Really?" Arthur gritted his teeth while he searched for an opening. "So it wasn’t you who was so mad about my refusal that he had to take revenge? Didn’t think so." He continued to poke Merlin with his newly acquired horn.
Merlin tried to defend himself and convince Arthur at the same time. "Why can’t you get it in your thick head it wasn’t me? Do I look like a criminal? Oi, bloody stop already!"
Arthur did, if only because he wasn’t quite accustomed to fighting in his new body.
Apparently, unicorns were so bloody peaceful because they were wimps.
Then the meaning of Merlin’s words finally hit him, and he had to reconsider his earlier accusation. No, Merlin didn’t look like a criminal. More importantly, he didn’t look clever enough to pull such a big plan off.
"Right, you look barely capable of tying your shoelaces," he conceded, making Merlin splutter indignantly. "Damn. Then I have no choice. I have to go back to Camelot. Morgana has that ’Secret Lab’; she might find a way to reverse this."
Having resolved this, he called out to Merlin, who was still watching him warily. "Come on! What are you waiting for?" When Merlin still didn't move, he poked him. "You aren’t really an idiot, are you? Let’s go!"
Merlin seemed to contemplate something, then he stuck his chin out defiantly.
"I’ll help you if you promise to help my village."
Arthur couldn’t believe his white, hairy ears.
"What did you say?! Do you know who you are talking to? I’m the crown prince of Camelot! I could behead you for this!"
Merlin only set his shoulders stubbornly.
"Either you help or you won’t get out of this forest."
"Are you threatening me? Well, let me tell you a little secret. Come here. No, a little closer."
When Merlin shuffled nervously to Arthur’s side, he shouted in his ear. "I don’t make deals with peasants!"
Rubbing his ringing ears, Merlin backed away angrily.
"Then I guess I can’t help you get home."
Arthur shrugged and started on the path.
"I didn’t need your help, anyway."
He was surprised by Merlin stopping him, with sincere worry in his voice.
"Wait! The forest is really dangerous if you don’t know the way. Especially for you. There are all sorts of creatures who prey on unicorns."
Arthur suppressed a shiver and reminded himself that he was trained to kill those very creatures since birth.
"Nonsense! I’m the best fighter and hunter in the whole of Camelot. I can deal with anything that comes my way. Goodbye."
Soon, there was only a flabbergasted Merlin standing by the fire.
"Fine! Get yourself eaten! See if I care!" Merlin shouted belatedly at Arthur's retreating back.
He flung himself on the ground sulkily. He was decidedly not thinking about stupid prats who were totally intolerable and suicidal and who might not live to see another day.
He sighed, stood up, and stomped out the fire. Arthur couldn’t have gotten far.
Arthur had, in fact, gotten far. He had gotten as far as determining that he was going in the wrong direction, and letting out a string of expletives one wouldn’t expect from a creature as pure as a unicorn. That was when he found himself facing a strange man.
The man was wearing armour and was sharpening his sword. In the forest. In the middle of the night.
Arthur started backing away from the lunatic, but he was still not used to his new body (or rather, his new ass) and managed to back into the nastiest, thorniest bush in the whole forest.
His sharp yell of pain startled the knight, who jumped up, ready to drive his sword through the banshee that was screaming. Then he noticed Arthur.
"Oh, it’s just a unicorn. Go away, little fella, and be stupid somewhere else."
"Excuse me?!" Arthur exclaimed, enraged. "You can't just call me stupid! I'm the crown prince!"
That caught knight's attention. There was a predatory gleam in his eyes Arthur didn’t like.
"Really, now. I see you got what was coming to you, finally. Interesting." He swung his sword as he stood up. "Though it won’t be as much fun to kill you like this."
A guy who was talking to unicorns like it was an everyday occurrence wanted to kill him. Arthur wished he could say he was surprised.
"What? Who the hell are you, anyway?"
The man gave an exaggerated bow.
"I am Knight Valiant. I fought you in the last tournament, though I don't expect you to remember. You are rather self-absorbed."
Arthur thought about protesting this, but then his survival instincts kicked in. Maybe talking his way out of this was a tad bit more sensible.
"And what makes you think that you can kill me now if you didn’t managed then?" They weren't particularly good survival instincts.
Valiant smirked at him.
"Don't worry, I’m much more prepared now. Guys, kill him!"
Arthur looked around, but haven’t seen anyone. He turned back to Valiant in confusion.
That was when he heard the hissing.
He looked down to see two enormous snakes slithering towards him, and a third just emerging from Valiant’s shield. He looked around for a weapon, then cursed when he remembered he couldn’t have used it anyway. He braced himself for fighting only with his horn, when he heard someone yell his name.
"Arthur! Watch out!"
He barely had time to duck, when a familiar figure burst into the clearing. It was swinging on a rope of some kind, and holding an axe. It managed to chop off the head of one snake, then disappeared into the foliage.
Arthur took a panicked look at the remaining and furious snakes, but then suddenly, Merlin swung back and grabbed him around the neck, removing him from the danger and almost choking him in the process.
They landed on a tree limb, more by luck than competence, and Arthur just opened his mouth to berate Merlin when he heard an ominous crack. He shot a nasty look to Merlin.
"I hate you."
And then they were falling, falling, into the cold embrace of the river.
Blessed darkness took over.
The thought of giving mouth-to-mouth to a unicorn was almost disgusting enough for Merlin to not even try it. However, leaving the crown prince to die was not an option, and using magic would have had such unpredictable results that he didn’t even dare contemplate it.
This didn’t mean he hadn’t tried other methods to revive Arthur first. But as these included poking him with a stick, shaking him (Merlin admitted these weren’t particularly inspired), and praying fervently that he didn’t have to touch him with anything but his hands (but preferably with a long stick), it didn’t come as a surprise when Arthur stayed still and motionless, scaring Merlin to death.
Resigning himself to a task that would surely scar him for life, and probably end in tears (his), he leaned over Arthur to get a good angle. He opened Arthur’s mouth, noting distractedly that he had very crooked teeth for such a majestic creature, and touched his lips to the unicorn’s.
He almost managed to convince himself that this wasn’t the most mortifying thing that has ever happened to him by the first exhalation. And, because it was just his luck and likely a self-proclaimed duty to Arthur to make his life as miserable as possible, he found himself looking into a bewildered pair of eyes on the next breath.
They stared at each other for a minute, before Merlin jumped back and they both started hacking in unison. Merlin wiped his mouth and made a mental note to learn all the resuscitation spells in existence, along with a few healing ones. After a brief pause, he added a few particularly nasty curses for vengeance purposes.
Speaking of potentional victims.
The first sentence out of Arthur's mouth was something so insulting Merlin pretended not to hear it. The second wasn't any nicer, but at least contained no mentions of any animal's anatomy.
"We’re not talking about this, ever. Understood?"
How Arthur got up in his face in his current form was anyone’s guess (Merlin suspected the artfully heaped rocks hadn't been there before he turned his head), but Merlin had to give it to him, he was a master of intimidation.
It was unfair, Merlin sulked, how he was a powerful wizard and Arthur a tetchy pony, and Arthur still had the upper hand.
"Why would I talk about it? I want to forget it as much as you. But a ’thanks’ would be nice," he answered, and so what if he sounded a tad petulant? He did save the git, and all he got were insults and orders.
Arthur apparently thought otherwise. Or was just simply a brat with no manners.
"I didn’t need your help. I could have swum to the shore by myself."
"Of course you could have. Your bloated head would have kept you floating."
"It's not my head that's completely empty."
"It isn't better if it's stuffed with thoughts of yourself! Damn it, Arthur, would it hurt you to show a bit of gratitude?"
"Would it hurt you to be respectful?"
"I would be if you were worthy of my respect!"
"I could have you beheaded for this!"
"Fine! Be a prat, see if I care!"
Maybe he really should have let him drown.
Arthur went to sleep almost immediately after their argument, so Merlin threw caution to the wind and conjured a flame in his hand. There was no point in avoiding execution if he was to freeze to death instead.
He soon had a cheery fire going and roasting a fish he caught with magic. He wished he had normal fishing equipment, because even though he could lure the fish to himself with a small ball of light, they always slipped out of his hands and swam away before he could grab them again. He was lucky he caught even that one.
The wind picked up while he was fishing, and he shivered slightly. He huddled closer to the fire, and his gaze automatically strayed towards Arthur. He could only see his back, but he appeared to be a tight ball of misery from there, violent shivers wracking his body.
Merlin hesitated, then took off his jacket and walked over to the rock Arthur was basically curled around, in a desperate attempt to shield himself from the wind. He tucked him in carefully, not looking at his face. He felt Arthur’s gaze burning into his back when he turned around, but apparently the prat had more common sense than pride, and didn’t say a word.
Merlin lay down as close to the fire as he could, and sank into a dreamless sleep.
He was going to break off Arthur’s horn if he kept poking him with it.
Merlin cracked open a bleary eye, and tried to communicate his displeasure to Arthur. Who only grinned back at him. Well, as much as a unicorn can grin. He certainly excluded cheerfulness and energy. Merlin closed his eyes with a groan.
"You’re a morning person. As if I didn’t hate you enough."
"Come on, Merlin, get up! I have a plan."
This was alarming enough that Merlin opened both eyes to stare at Arthur in disbelief.
"And is that supposed to be an incentive for me to get up?"
"You said you wanted to help me! I’m just providing you with the opportunity."
"I feel so honoured. Really." Arthur pouted. Merlin felt a headache coming. "Fine, fine, what’s your great plan?"
Arthur beamed. It was very disturbing.
"You said that your king wasn't willing to help you, right? Well, we simply have to send someone he won't be able to say no to." A dramatic pause. The headache was coming with the force and speed of a stampeding dragon. "We'll send Morgana."
"Arthur. Everyone in the kingdom knows, yes, even me, that all Morgana has ever done is prank you. Are you sure this is a good idea?"
"Of course it is! It is my idea, afterall."
"So no, then."
"What's the worst that can happen? At least Morgana will be out of my hair for a while. After she turns me back, of course."
Merlin was still sceptical, but didn't say anything. Who knew, maybe Morgana would be able to convince the king. She certainly had Arthur whipped, a king would be just light practice to her. Still...
"Arthur. Promise me that you'll help us if she fails."
"I promise," he said, not looking at Merlin. "Can we go now?"
Merlin’s smile was blinding.
"As you wish."
It was well after sunrise when they arrived at the last bridge they needed to cross to arrive at Camelot. It stretched over a great ravine, cutting Camelot off from the forest completely on this side. Going around it would take several days.
Arthur sped up as soon as he caught sight of the castle, leaving Merlin to support himself on a tree, panting and clutching his abdomen.
He was halfway over the bridge when he realized that Merlin wasn’t following. He turned back to urge him on, but his impatient words got stuck in his throat at the sight of a huge man the size of a bear lift an axe over the oblivious Merlin’s head, ready to strike. He didn’t realize when he started moving, but his warning shout reached Merlin almost the same time as he did.
Merlin’s eyes widened as he quickly spun. Arthur only had time to grab his shirt with his teeth and pull before the axe lodged into the ground where Merlin had stood moments before.
"Run, you idiot!" Arthur shouted, and then launched himself at the man, gutting him with his horn. The man fell with a disgusting gurgling sound.
Arthur had no doubt that they were surrounded. That bandit must have been part of a bigger group, and his allies probably lurked in the bushes until he dealt with the travellers. They were most likely caught off-guard by the sight of him, but this peace wouldn’t last. They had literally seconds until an ambush.
"Do you know anything about fighting?"
Merlin slowly nodded, his countenance calmer now.
"I’m from a small village, you know. The only protection we can count on is our own strength."
"And do you know how to use that?" Arthur asked, nodding to the axe.
Merlin’s confidence wavered, but he grabbed the weapon up and looked ready to make anyone regret picking a fight with him. That was all Arthur expected, so he continued to scour the nearby shrubbery, looking for movement, determined not to be caught by surprise.
He didn’t have to wait long. The leaves parted on his left and he was moving on instinct, his blood already pumping with adrenaline, his muscles tightening in anticipation.
He dodged the first swing of the sword that was aimed at his head, and parried the second with his horn. His opponent wasn’t a skilled swordsman, so it was relatively easy to disarm and incapacitate him with a kick to his knee, then to his head.
He checked on Merlin, who was fighting off two men with wild swings of his axe. The bandits seemed reluctant to go any closer to him, mostly because his swings were completely unpredictable. One of the men already sported a cut on his arm (Arthur suspected more through luck than any skill on Merlin’s part), and the other was limping slightly.
He didn’t have more time to watch, though, as more attackers came at him. He noted with relief that his reflexes stayed just as superb as they had been before his transformation, and his muscles were just as strong and flexible. Dealing with these ragged buggers would be a piece of cake.
He thought he could smell smoke, but didn’t pay attention.
Letting out a feral battle cry (Which sounded like a whinny. Bloody unicorns.), he charged the closest bandit, and then there was only one good word for what came after.
Criminals had gotten a lot smarter since he last had to deal with them, Arthur noted with satisfaction. It took them only ten minutes to realize they had no chance against Arthur’s skill and Merlin’s blind luck, and ran, with their tails between their legs.
Merlin wiped the sweat and blood from his brow, and grinned at Arthur.
"We sure showed them, huh?"
Then he fainted.
Arthur had had quite enough. If life decided to suck, then he had every right to just sit by the unconscious form of Merlin and contemplate going after the bandits and eviscerating them, one by one. Thankfully, the idiot's injuries weren't serious.
There were things that would make even Arthur cry. Having to lug Merlin's carcass to safety by himself, while he was slowly bleeding to death, was such an event. He nudged one limp shoulder, and when Merlin batted him away, he decided that it was alright for him to bite his hand.
Merlin shot up with a harsh cry of pain.
"What the hell, Arthur? Don't you think I'm injured enough already?"
Arthur levelled him with a condescending glare.
"Obviously not, or you wouldn't have the energy to argue. Do you think you can walk?"
"Because those bastards just burned down the bridge and we need to find another way to Camelot."
"I see you're catching up. So, can you?"
"Yes. I think."
"Wonderful. Come on, then. We can't waste any more time."
"What, right now? Can't we take a break?"
"No, we can't. And don't whine. What are you, five?"
"We've just been in a fight! I'm tired."
"You're a girl. If we hurry up, we can reach Camelot in four days. Come on, we'll see to your injuries in the next village."
Merlin, seeing that arguing was futile, pushed himself to his feet wearily.
"Lead the way."
Arthur was a fucking liar, Merlin sulked. He had promised they'd be in the village in a few hours. The few hours turned out to be six. Merlin was dragging his feet after two.
After three hours, he simply collapsed. Arthur rolled his eyes and stood imperiously over him.
"Stop with the dramatics, Merlin." But as he examined the other man's prone figure, he noticed the million cuts and forming bruises, and realized that probably this was the first serious fight Merlin was ever in. No wonder he was exhausted. Arthur remembered vividly how sore he was after his first skirmish.
He sighed heavily, and bent his neck so he could look Merlin in the eyes.
"I will carry you on one condition: if you promise not to tell anyone, ever."
Merlin managed a weak smile.
"Our little secrets seem to increase in number every day, huh?"
"Save the wise-cracks and hop on. Moron."
Merlin clutched his neck and climbed over his back, burrowing his face in Arthur's mane. He even nuzzled it a little. Arthur would make sure he never lived this down.
"Are you comfortable?" He asked in mock-concern.
"Mmm-mm." Came the sleepy-sounding reply. Arthur winced as he felt a drop of drool on his neck.
"Right. Then we're off. Try not to fall down."
"Merlin, you lazy sod, wake up this minute or I’ll drop you."
"Don’t say I didn’t warn you."
Merlin yelped as he was shocked awake by landing on the ground. Hard.
"What the hell was that for?"
Arthur looked at him with disdain.
"I told you to wake up. And you were drooling on my neck."
Merlin surreptitiously wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. "I wasn’t!"
Arthur shook his head.
"Don't worry. I'm used to people reacting to me like that. I am extraordinarily attractive."
Merlin’s eyes were wide with mortification and amusement.
"What? You did not just say that. Also, ew. Unicorns are so not my type."
Arthur’s smirk promised death. Death by embarrassment.
"So you prefer my human form? Good to know."
"Was this what you woke me for? Because I’m just going back to sleep then."
Arthur rolled his eyes.
"Could you be any more useless? No, I didn’t wake you just so you could whine. We’re almost at the village."
"And we need to figure out a disguise for me."
"Why? You’re just a horse. Why should we disguise you?"
"Merlin. I’m a unicorn. A magical creature. And I have a horn. Do you think the villagers would let me go unharmed?"
Merlin had to admit this was very unlikely.
"So, what are we going to do?"
Arthur huffed and sat down beside him. Well, tried to. He finally gave up and just sprawled out, 'accidentally' kicking Merlin in the process.
They were silent for a few minutes.
"We could dress you up as a girl."
"And what would that achieve?"
"It would make me laugh."
"Look, if you don’t have anything useful to say, just keep silent."
Honestly, Arthur thought an hour later, pretending to be a fake unicorn with a strap-on was clearly a superior idea. Merlin could just stop laughing anytime.
"Stop snickering, Merlin. It’s not that funny."
They were sanding before the village’s only inn. It was called ’The Prancing Pony’³.
Merlin found that hilarious, of course.
"But, it’s like they named it after you! Oh my god, it is practically fated that we spend the night here."
Arthur was not amused.
"Are you quite finished? Great. Then you can go get us a room."
Merlin wiped the tears from his eyes.
"Us? You should sleep in the stables, I don’t think they let horses in."
"Merlin. I’m not sleeping in the stables. Besides, in this disguise, I’m practically invisible."
Merlin muttered the most ancient and obscure Old English curses he knew. They sounded surprisingly like variations of 'prat'.
"What did you say?"
Merlin was the epitome of wide-eyed innocence.
"I just said we should go in."
Arthur didn't seem to be convinced, but let it slide, to Merlin's relief. He wasn't in the mood for another row.
Once inside, they were greeted by the innkeeper, who, to Merlin’s trepidation, proved Arthur right by completely ignoring him.
"How can I help you, lad? Just name it, we have everything you could want. My ale is the best in Albion, my cook learnt at Camelot, and my rooms are clean and pest-free."
Merlin ignored Arthur’s smug look and asked for a room and some food. When Arthur trod on his foot, painfully, he asked for some vegetables, too, with a glare towards his right knee.
They followed the innkeeper to their room and they burst out laughing as soon as he left the room.
"Oh god," gasped Merlin "I can’t believe it worked."
"Of course it worked," said Arthur, trying for dignified but thwarted by the escaping sniggers " I am a genius."
This elicited another fit of laughter from Merlin, which Arthur thought was quite unnecessary.
Merlin wiped the tears from his eyes.
"Right. I'm going to get some food. I’ll be back in a second."
He was still grinning when he spotted the innkeeper, serving guests in the dining area. He was about to call out to him, but a voice made the syllables die in his throat.
The voice came from one of the nearby booths. It was familiar, but that wasn’t what made Merlin stop in his tracks. It was what it was saying.
"I should have just killed the brat. We don’t have much use for him, anyway."
"What? I’m just telling the truth. He’s popular, yes, but when did he ever do something for his people? Never." Morgana massaged her temples. "It would be easier on my nerves, too."
Merlin wasted no time. He turned on his heels and ran up to their room.
Morgana and Lancelot, unaware that they had an eavesdropper, continued their conversation.
"You don’t mean that, Morgana."
Morgana looked ready to protest, but instead sighed heavily.
"You’re right. I’m just worried. And I hate it when I’m worried about the stupid brat. I could strangle him sometimes. It’s a wonder he lived so long, unharmed."
"Mostly unharmed," she amended.
She turned wistful eyes to the window.
"I just wish we could find him."
Merlin burst into the room, panting and flailing and talking a mile a minute. Arthur didn’t understand a word.
Two minutes and quick kick to the shin later, Merlin was glaring at him balefully from the ground, but was thankfully silent otherwise.
"Now," Arthur said slowly, carefully pronouncing every word so that even people with mental afflictions could understand, "try that again without the flailing and the idiocy."
Merlin took a calming breath and started over.
"I said that Morgana is here and she’s looking for you." He quickly grabbed Arthur’s tail. "Wait, Arthur, where are you going?"
Arthur turned back from trying to figure out how to pull the doorknob, and cast a disparaging look Merlin’s way.
"I’m going to talk to her. She might be able to help."
"But I haven’t finished yet! Arthur, she wants to…"
Arthur shook him off impatiently.
"Right, right, we’ll talk about it later. I’m in a hurry now."
"Just shut up, Merlin! I’m not staying in this form any longer than I have to!"
Merlin was quickly losing his temper.
"I know! I’m just trying to help!"
"Then open the door!"
"You can’t go! It’s dangerous!"
"Dangerous?" Merlin didn’t like the expression on Arthur’s face. "Oh, dangerous for you. You think I wouldn’t keep my promise?" He sounded hurt. He continued despite Merlin’s protests. "Is this what you think of me? That I’ll just go back on my word at the first opportunity, like a coward? Dammit, Merlin, you…"
The rest of his words were lost in a mumble, as his mouth sealed itself shut, and he couldn’t open it anymore, no matter how he forced it. Merlin was staring at him in horror, and a terrible suspicion started to form in the back of Arthur’s mind. It was confirmed in a second as Merlin, shaking, slowly lowered himself to his knees in front of him.
"Oh god," he whispered, reaching out towards Arthur’s face, "Oh my god, I’m so sorry, Arthur, it was an accident, I just lost control, I wanted to tell you, I swear, but there was never a good time…" He trailed off, looking absolutely miserable. "I can undo it, I think. Will you let me?"
His hands hovered near Arthur’s cheeks. Arthur could only nod mutely, and Merlin brushed his fingertips along the line of his mouth with a few murmured words.
As soon as he felt the tingling of magic undo the spell, he backed away from Merlin and glared furiously.
"You are going to leave this inn in five minutes and never come back. If I see you one more time, I will chop your head off myself."
"Don’t talk to me! I’m going to find Morgana. You will be gone by the time I come back."
"But she wants to kill you!"
Disappointment was a bitter taste in his mouth.
"I never thought you’d stoop so low as to make up such ridiculous lies about the king's ward. You will talk about her with more respect, understood?"
"Your five minutes start now."
The door closed after him with an ominous click.
Arthur rushed dowh the stairs, eager to get away from Melin and trying to leave behind the hurt and betrayal he felt. He had to concentrate on finding Morgana before she left, everything else was secondary. He wouldn’t get so lucky twice.
She wasn’t in the pub, though, so he ran to the stables. Yes, there; that was her, and she was talking to Lancelot. He could hear her words now.
"If you hadn’t switched the vials, we wouldn’t have this problem! Arthur would be safely disposed of while I lifted the ban on magic, and Uther couldn’t have done anything to stop me. It’s…"
Arthur felt the hysterical laughter bubble up in his throat. Merlin was right, the bastard. He should have trusted him. Though he did hide his magic. Morgana, on the other hand… no. He wouldn’t think about that now. If Morgana wanted to kill him, he would do wisely to avoid her. He had no illusions about his own chances against her and her magic.
He manouvered carefully until he was out of hearing range, and then he ran.
He wasn't lost. He wasn't. He was the prince of Camelot, with an innate sense of direction, not to mention years of hunting experience behind his back. Trained to kill since birth. He didn't lose all his skills just because he was a unicorn. He would have to die for all that knowledge to vanish.
Which did little to explain his situation: namely, that he had no idea where he was or how to get out of there.
Fortunately, help was on the way. Arthur would not like it, though.
The first thing he heard was the sound of hooves. He strained his ears to make sure. Yes, there were at least ten... horses? Maybe. He had learned not to make premature assumptions about the dwellers of the forest.
He was proven right not to do so when a mass of white bodies burst into the clearing. They sparkled in the sunlight, their snowy manes catching every little ray and throwing it around like prisms; powerful muscles contracting and flexing as they ran, their grace not ruined by their fantastic speed.
They were unnaturally quiet, nothing but the sound of hooves, even that muted by some ethereal sense of reverence; like even Nature held its breath at the sight of these stunning creatures.
They didn't seem to notice Arthur, even though he was standing in plain sight, too fascinated to attempt to hide.
The unicorns circled him, gracefully cutting of any potential escape route. Not that Arthur would have tried to escape. These creatures, no matter how alien, were his kind, his kin now, weren’t they? He would have to learn to live with them.
Suddenly, the unicorns stopped, and angled their heads as if listening to something.
Then Arthur heard it, too. The same distant, bodiless voice that he had hazy memories of following, back when this whole mess started. He heard it more clearly now, though. It had a slightly raspy quality to it, like it belonged to someone really, really old.
Then the owner of the voice stepped out of the trees, and Arthur had to modify this statement. The guy was bloody ancient.
He was calling the unicorns. His manner was soothing, his expression was that of benign joviality.
He creeped Arthur out, frankly.
The creep creeped closer, and chuckled. Creepily.
"Now, what do we have here? Are you lost, little foal?"
"I’m not a foal, and I wouldn’t come closer if I were you. I’m more than capable of defending myself."
"Ah, you’re a feisty one." The old man sounded positively thrilled. Arthur shrank back a little. "But I assure you, I mean no harm. I’m Anhora, keeper of the unicorns. I’m here to help you."
Like he hadn’t heard that one before. Still, Anhora looked sincere, and he was probably too frail and weak to do much harm to Arthur anyway. Loath as he was to admit it, he needed all the help he could get.
He couldn’t help but to wish for Merlin’s easy-going company, though. It wasn’t the first time since their argument that he regretted his hasty judgement, but he couldn’t fight his upbringing. Uther taught him not to trust magic-users, and while Arthur didn’t hate them, he was conditioned to have adverse feelings towards sorcery. However, he was starting to suspect his father was more than a little wrong on this point.
He nodded resignedly to Anhora.
"Alright. Where are we going?"
Anhora beamed at him in a very disconcerting way, and Arthur almost changed his mind. But really, what did he have to lose?
"Follow me. I’ll show you your new home."
Considering the amount of life-changing events he had gone through, he should at least be eighty, not twenty, mused Arthur as he was led into a settlement that was really a small town. A magical town. It was astounding, really, just how inefficient his father’s purge was. Not only was Arthur attacked by sorcerers and witches every week, the magical folk had managed to form a self-sustaining little community right under his father’s nose.
The village buzzed with activity, despite the late hour. Arthur had never seen so many weird creatures in one place before. There were flying things, slimy things with tentacles, human-like things with animal-parts, and things Arthur never wanted to see again, even in his worst nightmares. Arthur didn’t have a name for half of them, mostly because his nannies were much too terrified of Uther, at the height of his anger after his wife’s death, to dare to tell folk tales about the magic that surrounded them and lived in every single plant and animal and stone around the whole of Albion.
Now he realized that Camelot was no more than an island in the sea of sorcery, and magic would take back its rightful place once the king was gone, because it was more ancient, more powerful, and more relentless than any human’s hate and anger could ever be. He looked around and saw life and colour everywhere, a prosperity Camelot could never achieve under Uther, because the ban disrupted the natural flow and deprived the land of its source of energy.
However, he reminded himself, not being evil doesn’t mean that they couldn't be dangerous. Case in point: the unicorn whisperer or whatever he was, Anhora, who was very blatantly checking him out, noted Arthur with mounting horror. The guy was hitting on him all the way back to town, and he was running out of ideas on how to get rid of him.
The old man caught his gaze, and showed him a gap-toothed smile, meandering through the crowd to reach him. Arthur desperately looked for an escape, but found none. He resolved himself to horn another villain.
Fortunately, it didn’t come to that.
Their little stand-off was broken by a commotion on the other end of the clearing. Arthur watched in horrified fascination as the crowd parted before a beast he had only seen on tapestries, mostly pictured in the moment of its defeat at the hands Uther. He had no idea there existed another one. Could it be…? Surely not. His father would have told him if the one kept in the dungeons had escaped.
The dragon stopped at the fringes, however, and swept its ageless gaze over the awestruck faces. It was the gaze of a king taking note of its subjects, and Arthur ached at the familiarity of it.
The dragon’s eyes finally rested on Arthur, and there was a glint of recognition there. It started slowly making its way towards him. Arthur eyed it warily.
It stopped a few feet in front of him, and leaned in close, sniffing him. Arthur froze. The dragon huffed amusedly, and reared its head, towering over Arthur, looking down at him with a knowing look.
"Young Pendragon. You have wandered far from Camelot."
There was a collective gasp as the gathered creatures realized there was an enemy in their midst.
Arthur took a step back.
"How do you know who I am?"
The beast chuckled.
"I know a great many things, Young Pendragon. Have no fear! I see your destiny, and it is not to die here. You might have lost your path for now, but there is someone who can help you."
"Who? And please don’t say it’s that unicorn-molester."
The dragon chuckled again.
"Anhora is a great man, but he’s merely a pawn in the hands of destiny. No, the one who’s sharing your destiny is not here."
"Sharing my destiny? You mean… my soul-mate?" Arthur winced inwardly. God, he sounded as much a girl as Merlin.
"He’s a great deal more than that. He’s your other half; you’re like two sides of the same coin."
"What does that even mean?"
The dragon only smirked at him. Arthur started to really hate it.
"You'll have to find out that for yourself, young Pendragon. I can show the path, but you have to walk it."
Maybe that was why Uther hated magical beings: they were bloody infuriating.
"I want answers now, dammit!"
The dragon just curled its lips (in an indulgent smile, Arthur guessed, or rather, hoped).
"Come with me. I shall provide you with a dwelling for the night. When you're rested, you can go to find that which makes you whole."
Arthur tried to refuse, but then he took a good look around, at the angry mob and the perverted, slobbering unicorn-keeper, and decided that annoying dragons were the least of his problems.
He missed Morgana’s poisons.
The dragon's home was entirely, unexpectedly... ordinary. Except for the fact that it was on the top of a tree. The three minutes Arthur spent in the dragon's clutch while the beast flew both of them to the entrance would forever be his most unpleasant memory.
The great dragon didn't seem to mind his guest's perplexity, and curled up in front of a fireplace he lit with his breath. Arthur took in his surroundings slowly, fearing for his sanity. There were bones everywhere, along with heaps of gold and treasure, discarded weapons piled neatly in a corner, and the scariest: a big picture of Uther himself, his face singed in places, a thick layer of ash under it showing it wasn’t the first one. Arthur allowed himself a moment to be enraged, then continued with his examination.
When he got properly used to the house, he turned to the dragon.
"So, are you going to tell me who this mysterious person I'll share my destiny with is, or do I have to wander around Albion and take a lucky guess?"
The dragon must have expected this question, and was unusually forthcoming with his answer.
"You've already met him. Tell me, haven't you felt a strong connection with the young warlock?"
Arthur was confused for a minute, then overwhelmed by disbelief.
"Merlin? Merlin is my other half?"
Strangely, the idea wasn't totally repulsive. Kind of appealing, really, when he thought about it.
The dragon nodded.
"You are bound together by a force stronger than any magic."
Arthur’s happiness lasted only a minute. The reality of the situation hit him soon after.
"There's only one problem: I don't know where Merlin is, and even if I knew, I couldn't just walk up to him and say, 'Hey, Merlin, you remember that time I was a total bastard and accused you of lying and betrayal? Well, forget it, cause the dragon said we're totally going to be best friends forever'. I'd be lucky if he didn't turn me into a toad on sight."
"Young Pendragon, he cannot fight destiny any more than you can. The thread that holds you together is beyond even his powers."
That was a new development.
"Even his? Just how powerful is that blockhead?"
"You shall see one day, young Pendragon. You shall see."
Arthur had to admit: apart from his vagueness, the dragon was good company. They didn't talk after their initial conversation, in which the dragon promised he'd help find Merlin. The silence suited him, he had a lot of thinking to do.
He was reluctant to admit it, but he felt guilty over his behaviour towards Merlin, and wished he could make things right with him. He was composing apologies that didn’t sound like apologies in his head until he fell asleep.
The night quickly gave way to dawn, and the dragon stirred. Arthur woke immediately, his instincts honed by years of training and nights of running from crazies who considered unicorn meat a vital part of a healthy diet. He didn’t waste time in getting to the point.
"Can you tell me where Merlin is now?"
"Patience, young Pendragon. Your path is fraught with perils, and you have to be ready to deal with them when the time comes."
"I'm ready. Just tell me where I can find that idiot so that things can go back to normal."
"Nothing will ever be the same, you should remember that. I promised I would help, so heed my words: the young warlock is where he is most needed."
That was bloody unhelpful, and untrue, since clearly, Merlin was most needed here, by Arthur's side, and he wasn't here, now, was he?
"Could you be a bit more specific?"
"Just remember the beginning. All will become clear."
He would find a way to kill the dragon, he was sure of it, even if he had to skin it with his teeth.
The dragon wasn’t giving any more clues, though, so he had to rely on his superior intelligence.
What was the beginning? It had to do something with Merlin, so probably the first time they met. That’s easy, it was in the forest. That’s not right, though, he was in the palace before that, wasn't he? Blabbering about bandits. Arthur snorted. Merlin could probably have dealt with those by himself, he just had had to use his magic. So why did he come to Camelot? He was clearly needed in his village more…
He turned excitedly to the dragon.
"I know where he is! He’s in Ealdor!"
The dragon huffed in response, which Arthur took as an agreement. He strolled to the entrance, looking expectantly over his shoulder.
"What are you waiting for? Get me down already!"
The dragon did more than carry Arthur down to the base of the tree: it flew him almost to the edge of the village.
It landed gently a few hundred yards from the first houses, put the reeling Arthur down and took off again without a word, leaving Arthur to his own devices. He stumbled at first, but regained his balance quickly, and set out in the direction of the village.
He didn't have to go far, though, as he heard a splash and then laughter from the other side of the bushes, just at the edge of the forest surrounding Ealdor. He stalked closer, and peered through the leaves.
Merlin stood there, clothes a muddy mess, cursing at his companion, who was hugging his stomach, laughing so hard his face had gone entirely purple.
Merlin gave him a sour look.
"You know I could just turn you into a toad, right?"
"Oh, relax, Merlin. You couldn't even turn me slightly green."
Merlin got an unholy smirk on his face at that.
"I bet I can do that without magic. I just have to remind you of our failed attempt at sex."
What do you know, the guy really turned green at that, but Arthur was too busy fuming with jealousy to notice. So this was Merlin's boyfriend? He chose to come back to this, instead of helping Arthur and thus securing his gratitude (which might have manifested itself in sexual favours)? That guy wasn't even half as handsome as Arthur, and was most likely an awful lay, if what Merlin said was true.
The guy finally recovered enough to squeal high-pitchedly.
"We agreed we wouldn't talk about it!"
"I'm starting to regret that. It's a good way to get you to behave."
"Oh no no no, you’re not threatening me with disappearing my prick again. Even you can’t be that heartless."
Merlin’s answer was interrupted by a guffaw from a nearby bush. The bickering duo stared at it, as Arthur was trying desperately to smother his laughter. Then he realized his cover was blown anyway, and walked out of his hiding place, still chuckling.
"Is that true, Merlin? Did you really magick his prick away? No wonder you’re a virgin if you do this to every guy."
Merlin turned beet-red, and muttered something under his breath.
"What was that?"
"I said," Merlin almost shouted, "that it bloody hurt, alright? My magic was just protecting me."
"Wait," the guy Merlin still hadn't introduced said, "you told him about your magic? Who is this, anyway?"
And just like that, Merlin’s anger evaporated.
"Er, Will," he started,"look, just, believe me alright? Because this is going to sound crazy."
Will The Other Guy (Whose Name Was Just As Unremarkable As His Looks), seemed suspicious, but nodded warily.
"Right," Merlin breathed a little relieved sigh,"Will, this is Prince Arthur. Arthur, this is Will, my best friend since we were 5 and hiding rats in Emma Green’s bed."
Arthur just raised a brow, and said in his most condescending tone.
"Charmed, I’m sure."
Will gritted his teeth, and answered in kind.
"The pleasure is all mine."
Merlin sighed. He was surrounded by assholes.
After his hurried explanation, Merlin took Will aside for a little chat. All the while, Arthur was eying them like he wanted to see if unicorns were omnivorous.
"Will, play nice," he whispered frantically,"I know it’s hard to believe, but he’s not that bad."
Will was positively seething.
"Not that bad? Not that bad? You just told me you spent days escorting him, saving his life over and over again, and then he just threw a hissy fit when he found out about your magic! Right, that’s not bad; that’s absolutely awful." Then he seemed to realize something. "That’s why you were moping around, being miserable for days! You were sulking over him."
Merlin’s eyes widened.
But Will was already looking at him with a mixture of glee and disgust.
"Oh my god, you have a crush on him! On that stuck-up little good-for-nothing!"
Merlin didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.
"Is that your biggest problem? What about the unicorn part?"
Will waved it off magnamimously.
"That doesn’t matter. It’s only temporary."
"Why do you think that?"
Will rolled his eyes.
"Oh, come on, like you won’t magic him back in a second. I’m surprised you haven’t turned him back yet."
"Umm, Will. That might be because I don’t know how."
"Don’t look at me like that! I’ve only just started learning spells! Without Gaius, I wouldn’t even know where to search for the counterspell!"
"Mate. Gaius is on vacation, remember?"
"I know." Merlin raked his fingers through his hair."We have to find another way to solve this."
"We? There’s no ’we’, Merlin. There’s just you and me. And the dumb unicorn."
"So you’re not helping us."
Will patted his shoulder.
"You’re on your own in this, man."
Will was quite steadfast in his refusal to help, so Merlin resolved himself to looking through hundreds of tomes by himself, while trying to find a place for Arthur, and while trying to not to let the prat drive him crazy. Arthur got bored quite often, and if he asked Merlin to sing for him one more time so he could laugh at him and make crude remarks about his lack of talent, Merlin was going to strangle him with his own (shiny, silky, absolutely fabulous) mane.
Obviously, they needed Gwen.
"So, this Gwen lives in your house?"
"But she’s not your sister."
"Is she your wife then?"
"No! Why would you even think that? I mean, if she was my wife, I wouldn’t be a virgin, would I?"
"Well, not necessarily. If you’d rather bugger Will, then this Gwen person doesn’t really stand a chance, now does she? She just doesn’t have the right… equipment." He leered at Merlin.
"You’re totally disgusting. Gwen is not my sister by blood, that’s true, but I’d never touch her, no matter what ’equipment’ she has. She’s my friend, and I’d like to keep it that way."
"Why is she living with you, again?"
"Because she didn’t have anywhere to go after her father’s death, and my mother decided to take her in."
Arthur seemed to be mulling this over, and Merlin turned his thoughts to planning how he would tell Gwen. She was always the sensible one in their little trio, and therefore less likely to just accept that A) Prince Arthur was a unicorn B) a bitchy unicorn who could talk C) Merlin had nothing to do with it. Not that Gwen didn’t trust him. Unfortunately, Merlin was kind of famous for always getting into trouble, magical trouble most of the time, and even he had to admit half of it was his own damn fault. So, yes, the likelihood of Gwen believing he had done nothing to instigate this was bordering on zero.
Really, it was quite disappointing how little faith his friends had in him.
"You were in Gaius’s secret stash again, weren’t you."
It wasn’t even a question. Maybe his story wasn’t believable enough, despite it being the truth. He had to pull out the big guns.
"Gwen. Promise me you’ll not scream."
Gwen nodded, and Merlin felt a flash of affection for her. She was the most trusting person he has ever known.
He called out to Arthur, who promptly stuck his head in the nearest window, and got promptly hit in the face with the pan Gwen was holding. Merlin tried not to laugh at the dazed look on Arthur’s face.
He took a few calming breaths until he could speak again, and gently took the pan from Gwen.
"That was Arthur, by the way."
Gwen’s lips formed a perfect ’o’ as she rushed to check on the dizzy crown prince.
"I’m so sorry, your majesty, I didn’t know it was you, well, how could I, you don’t really look like a prince, not that you’re not very, umm, majestic and all, just that it’s not how I would have imagined one…"
"That's alright," Arthur said, still a bit cross-eyed, "I would have been very offended if you imagined me as a unicorn."
Gwen laughed at that, relieved, and Merlin found he kind of did have a crush on Arthur. Which was so not important now. He turned to Gwen.
"Gwen, we need your help."
"Alright. What do you want me to do?"
"We need to hide Arthur, then find a way to turn him back. I don't know how long that'll take. You’re our only hope."
"Well, he can sleep in my room, can’t he? I’ll help you with the research."
"Thank you, Gwen, you’re a real life-saver." He steered Arthur towards the cottage's only chamber. "Come on, your majesty, I’ll show you to your room."
"Damn it, there’s nothing here!"
Gwen looked at him disapprovingly.
"You can’t just give up!"
"And why not?" Merlin shut the book with slightly more force than necessary. "These books contain only basic level spells and potions. Transformation of any kind is referred to only as ’difficult’ or ’downright impossible’." He buried his face in his hands. "They’re useless."
"We have no other options."
Merlin thought about that.
"We might… We’ll just have to figure out a way to sneak into Morgana’s lab."
Arthur perked up, interested. Research and he didn’t really agree.
"How would we do that?"
"I don’t know," Merlin admitted. "We need a plan."
"But not right now," Gwen interrupted. "We should go to bed. It’s too dark to read now, anyway."
"Alright," Arthur reluctantly agreed, surprising them both. "What? I’m tired! Unicorn eyes aren’t made for reading."
Gwen smiled at them.
"Good night, then."
The ensuing silence was a comfortable one. It didn't last long.
"So, what are you not telling me?"
The silence took on a faintly surprised quality around Arthur’s bed.
"I know you, Arthur. You get that ’I have troubles but the first one to ask about it will end up in the stocks’ air about you when you want to hide something."
More silence. Merlin huffed.
"Fine. See if I try to be nice to you again."
Arthur’s words were so quiet, had a pin dropped, he’d have missed them.
"It was Morgana."
"It was Morgana, okay? Who did this. By accident. When she tried to kill me."
"You don’t need to look so shocked. You told me so, didn't you?"
"But, why would she do this? Oh, never mind, you must have pissed her off royally. How did she do this?"
"Thank you for your astounding faith in my good qualities." Merlin could practically hear the pout that was on Arthur’s face. "I’m a unicorn, so I must have deserved this?"
Merlin waved him off airily.
"Oh do stop being a baby, you probably did. So, did she use magic?"
"Maybe. We'll see when we get into her lab."
"But how will we? Now we have to avoid her, too."
"Why? We could easily overpower her."
"Arthur. You're a unicorn. You gutted all your opponents so far. Do you want to do that to her, too?"
Arthur set his jaw stubbornly.
"You could disarm her with your magic."
It loosened something in Merlin's chest that Arthur ordered him so easily to use his magic. However...
"I'm not sure about that. And anyway, I’d rather not use my magic against anyone." He paused thoughtfully. "Well, maybe if someone was in danger. So let that be a last resort, yeah?"
"Fine, fine. Then what do you suggest?"
Merlin opened his mouth, but Gwen was quicker.
"I suggest you both go to sleep before I throw you out of my room."
Arthur yawned, and Merlin realized they must have been talking for quite a long time. He settled in more comfortably, and swatted Arthur's hooves away from his face.
"Prat," Merlin murmured, with a small smile.
"Idiot," Arthur answered, but Merlin haven't heard that. He fell into a deep, dreamless sleep, the smile never leaving his face.
Gwen kicked them out at the break of dawn, claiming that she had work to do. They needed to start planning soon, anyway, because she didn't want to listen to their whining into the small hours again. Arthur, the bastard, woke up as fresh and cheerful as if he hadn't spent the night on the floor with two other people in a room too small even for one slim girl. Merlin woke up with a crick in his neck and a vow to never ever sleep in the same room as Arthur, and followed the trail of curses that was Arthur trying to navigate in a house clearly not made for equines with half-metre long horns on their heads.
Merlin just lurched into the kitchen, and greeted his mother with a croaky "morning," which was barely discernible from someone's dying breath, but she just smiled at him and told him breakfast was ready. He nodded and rested his head on the table, still half-asleep, when he heard the hissing.
"Mum, the water is boiling," he said without opening his eyes.
The hissing continued.
He cracked open one bleary eye to see his mother in the other half of the kitchen, chopping up vegetables. There was no pan or kettle on the oven. And the hissing still didn't go away.
He was completely awake now, and a bit worried about snakes, when he discovered the source of the noise. Surprise, surprise, it was Arthur.
He was hiding under the table, and Merlin had one second to find this extremely embarrassing before Arthur's horn found his lower ribs.
Ouch! What was that for?" he whispered.
"For being an idiot, of course. You should've warned me about your mother."
Merlin was even more confused now.
"You don't have to hide from Mum. She wouldn't tell anyone."
Arthur looked uncertain.
"But, wouldn't she... you know... get scared?"
"Why?" Then he remembered Gwen's reaction. "She wouldn't hit you, if that's what you're worried about. She's seen weirder things before. I mean, she is my Mum."
That seemed to convince Arthur, even if he was still a bit apprehensive.
Merlin didn't leave him time to change his mind.
"Mum, I need to tell you something."
His mother stopped chopping and, sensing the seriousness of the situation, came over to cup his face in her hand.
"Oh honey, I know you like boys." Fortunately, Merlin's spluttering covered up Arthur's snickers."You're still my son, and I love you dearly." He couldn't say anything to that, so he just hugged her, and thought that he was very, very lucky to have such a wonderful mother.
Of course Arthur had to ruin the moment. Of course.
"Merlin," he whispered urgently,"focus. This is not about you. This is about me. Me me me."
Merlin reluctantly disengaged from her arms.
"Um, Mum? I'm glad you're so understanding about this, but that's not what I wanted to tell you."
She sat down on the chair next to him.
"No? Then what is it?"
He cleared his throat.
"Arthur, you can come out now. Mum, meet Prince Arthur. Arthur, this is my mother, Hunith."
Merlin was right, Arthur thought grudgingly, she really didn't freak out. Unfortunately, the barely suppressed laughter wasn't better. She got herself under control quicker than her son had, though, and curtsied politely.
"Your Highness. To what do we owe this pleasure?"
Arthur inclined his head graciously, and grinned.
"I think Merlin can explain it better."
Merlin sent him a hateful glare and fidgeted nervously. Why did he always have to do the dirty jobs?
"Okay, mum, first of all, believe me when I say: I didn’t do this, and I’m completely innocent of anything Arthur accuses me of." He took a big breath."So, it all started when…"
The talk with his mother went more smoothly than he expected. Hunith listened with rapt attention, and made sympathetic noises when Arthur took over to perform his little ’I’m a lonely rich kid and my only friend betrayed me’ monodrama. She cooed at him and stuffed him with tea and cookies, while Arthur suffered nobly and mutely. Merlin was absolutely outraged at first, but then he saw Arthur’s grateful expression. He suddenly remembered that the Queen died very young, and shut his mouth.
Or rather, he resorted to just sticking out his tongue at Arthur, who winked at him in response.
Merlin resolved to shave his mane while he was asleep.
When Arthur finished his cookies-and-tea breakfast (Merlin played with his porridge disinterestedly), he excused them from the table, explaining they had some research to do, and Merlin was so nice as to offer to help, right, Mer-lin?, and they snuck out of the house in the early morning light, to find a place where they could talk uninterrupted, and make plans to break into the lab.
Merlin thanked the gods for his reputation. Anyone else would have attracted a lot of attention if seen with a unicorn, but not Merlin The Magical Moron (villagers were fond of alliteration).
Finally, they reached the fields. Merlin threw himself on the ground, enjoying the warmth of the sun and the smell of crushed grass. He grinned cheekily at Arthur, who was looming over him, scowling.
"Come on, are you afraid your pretty hair will get dirty?"
Arthur just snorted and plopped down beside Merlin, hind legs bent, front legs straight, looking for all the world like a well-trained guard dog. He sniffed a few times, then cautiously bent his neck and took a bite of the grass. Merlin hid his snickers by coughing loudly.
"So, about those plans..."
And so that's how they got here: Arthur triumphant, Merlin despairing for his sanity. It doesn’t get much better than this.
They went home for lunch, hot and sour and tired from hours of arguing.
They were greeted by Will at the neighbour’s pigsty, where he was hiding and watching Merlin’s house nervously. He dragged them into the sty, and told them to stay quiet.
"Will, what happened?" asked Merlin, after a full minute of pig stench and oinks, and nothing else.
Will winced, and shushed him.
"There’s a woman and a guy looking for Arthur. We figured it was the king's ward and her lackey, and Gwen sent me here to warn you. Oi, where are you going?"
That last question was addressed to Arthur, who twitched at the mention of Morgana and would have stormed out, had Merlin not held him back.
"Calm down, Arthur! You can’t just go in like that!"
"We’ve talked about this! And just think: this is our chance to break into her lab! Will and Gwen can delay her, while we go back to Camelot."
Arthur stopped struggling and got a calculating look on his face.
"That’s not a bad idea. I can deal with her when I’m human again."
Merlin let him go and stood up, dusting the unidentifiable dirt from his trousers.
"Will, tell mum we’re going back to Camelot, and tell Gwen to buy us some time."
Will nodded disgruntledly.
"I’ll do it this time for you, mate, but only to get the prat out of our hair."
Merlin clapped his back.
"Thanks, Will. I owe you one."
"I won’t forget that." Will smirked and left.
Merlin leaned back against a pillar.
"Now, you said something about avoiding the guards?"
Will came back in a few minutes, and they set out on their journey. Compared to the first one, it was uneventful, and Arthur appreciated the change of pace.
In a mercifully short time, they stood at the gates of Camelot. Arthur felt the first stirrings of excitement. He did love breaking and entering.
The sun was setting over the small, secluded village of Ealdor. The horizon blurred over the fields, the earth still giving out enough heat to make the temperature rival that of Aidan's forge.
A slight breeze stirred the dust, the dry leaves and tumbleweeds dancing and twirling on the main (and only) street.
There were only four people out, the others having shut themselves in at the first sign of trouble.
Will cowered behind Gwen.
"Honestly, Will, they don’t seem that evil or dangerous. Maybe it was just a misunderstanding," Gwen, the eternal optimist, said.
"Yeah? That’s why Merlin and Prince Pratface ran away?"
"Look, I’m sure we can reason with them if we try." She started walking over to Morgana and Lancelot, who stood at the other end of the street. She stopped after three carefully measured steps. Morgana and Lancelot did the same.
"Hello there. You must be Morgana. Er, Lady Morgana. Or should I call you your Majesty? I mean, you are Arthur’s, er, step-sister, sor of, aren't you, I meant Prince Arthur of course, and that means royalty, but everyone says Lady Morgana, so I just assumed…"
"You can call me Morgana." Her tone was cagey. "How did you know who I was?"
"That’s a long story." She eyed her apprehensively. "Tell me, did you really want to kill Arthur?"
Morgana looked taken aback. "No. But how…?" She recovered quickly. "I see we both have some explaining to do. Is there a place where we can talk?"
Gwen still wasn’t convinced, but she nodded.
"Merlin, stop fussing. I know what I’m doing."
"I bet you said that when you were changed into a unicorn. Maybe it’s karmic retribution for your stupid ego."
"Your face is stupid."
"Haha, very clever. Just like your plan."
"My plan is flawless. You just can't see the genius of it."
"Yeah, the fact that you’re a unicorn proves your great planning skills."
"Shut up, I’m concentrating."
"We’re going to get caught, I just know it."
"You’re such a girl, Merlin."
"Says the unicorn."
"Don’t make me behead you."
"Shutting up now."
Merlin wanted to punch things, but mostly just Arthur. The stupid prat had been unbearable since they arrived at the royal quarters of the castle. Merlin resolved never to let him be right again, even if he had to use magic for that.
Morgana's lab was hidden behind an intricate relief, and had possibly the most illogical entrance mechanism Merlin had seen. Not only were there several levers hidden among the figures (who were all very interesting and also very naked, no wonder Arthur-as-a-unicorn felt sick here), most of them didn't even do anything.
Finally, after what felt like hours of running his fingers along the sculptures under Arthur's disapproving gaze (and Merlin couldn't wait for him to turn back and stop being such a prude, gods, just who was the blushing virgin her?), he found the right one. He only registered spinning around faster than he could grab onto something, and then careening into the darkness, only to land on a slide of some kind, Arthur following him with a surprised grunt.
Disentangling themselves from the heap they had landed in was a feat worthy of the best contortionists. Arthur kept getting his horn between Merlin's legs (it couldn't all be accidental; Merlin could swear he heard a few giggles from him), and his proximity did weird things to Merlin's body&sup4;.
After they could stand up and Merlin carefully checked he hadn't broken anything, they found it wasn't as dark here as they had expected. Merlin could barely make out the outlines of several shelves, stacked with bottles and vials, most of them containing what Merlin hoped weren't Morgana's failed experiments. One shelf in particular caught his attention: the bottles on that seemed to be mere potions, and there were little pictograms on their labels. On closer inspection, all of the pictures were of animals (and some decorative motifs Merlin couldn't deduce the meaning of), which meant the unicorn potion should be there somewhere. He quickly scanned the length of the row. No sign of the antidote. He frowned. There, there was an empty space where a vial should have been.
"Looking for this?"
Merlin froze. He heard Arthur growl from somewhere to his left, and instinctively reached out to hold him back.
"Morgana. Give me the antidote, now."
"Don't worry, I will. Whether you believe me or not, this wasn't my plan."
Arthur laughed bitterly.
"I know. However, I think I prefer this to being dead."
Confusion clouded Morgana's features.
"I don't know what you're talking about."
Arthur gestured widely with his head, mane flying everywhere and hitting Merlin in the face.
"There's no need for these games, Morgana. Merlin heard you."
Morgana's eyes flitted over to Merlin. He was surprised to see real pain in them.
"I'm not sure what he had heard, but I assure you, I didn't mean to harm you in any way. Maybe wound your pride a bit, yes, but never actually to hurt you."
This was getting more confusing by the second.
"Then why did you say that you should've killed Arthur, because everyone would be better off if he was dead?"
Morgana tossed her head impatiently.
"I've been threatening Arthur with strangling him for years. It should be obvious by now that I never mean it. Here, I'll prove it. Catch." With that, she threw the potion to Merlin, who barely caught it, shocked as he was.
A quick glance confirmed that Arthur was equally astonished.He kept opening and closing his mouth, apparently at a loss for words. Merlin found himself regarding Morgana with a new-found respect. Shutting up Arthur was a skill he hadn't quite mastered yet¹.
"But.... why?" Arthur narrowed his eyes in suspicion. "Is this a trap? It is uncharacteristic of you to give up so easily."
She smiled ruefully.
"Someone convinced me that you're in good hands now and don't need my, ah, unconventional methods to keep you in check. Anyway," she turned to leave, "I have other things to do now. I can't hold your hand forever." She didn't wait for a response, and soon it was just the two of them in the lab again.
Merlin was still staring dazedly at the place Morgana had been, mind twirling with the implications of what Morgana said (he had no doubt about who that mysterious benefactor was, and he made a mental note to send Gwen some flowers as soon as he could) when Arthur nudged him.
"Are you going to just stand there, or are you going to open that for me so I can be human again?"
"Oh. Sorry. Here you are." And what if he was a bit sad about their adventure ending so abruptly? He couldn't have stayed with Arthur forever anyway. The prat would probably boot him out as soon as he was back to normal.
He was shaken out of his maudlin thoughts by a hand on his shoulder. A hand. Wait a minute.
"I've been meaning to thank you properly for a long ime now," Arthur whispered huskily, leaning in to give Merlin the kiss of his life.
Huh. So Arthur wasn't in a hurry to get rid of him.
Maybe that 'forever' thing wasn't as impossible as he thought.
¹ People tended to underestimate Aidan's love for his flowers, even though he 1) called his hammer 'Weedkiller' and 2) bashed in more heads for dandelion-related reasons than any other. Unfortunately for those too-drunk-to-walk-in-a-straight-line-and-not-puke-on-the-chrysanthemum, his garden was right next to the local inn. It was said that you could tell the age of a regular customer in the Cock and Bull by the number of head injuries he suffered, like the rings on a tree trunk.
² It was, in fact, named after Arthur. Or rather, due to the intricacies and paradoxes of Time and Seeing The Future, before Arthur, but Seers usually do not bother with irrelevant details like this. Incidentally, they share this trait with Arthur, who would only care about the fact that it took being turned into a unicorn to have something named after him.
³ Fortunately, none of those were fatal, though Merlin was sure he'd never have children now (not that he planned to).
¹ Later, Merlin will find that there are many ways to ensure Arthur's silence; however, he'll also discover some of those methods are far more enjoyable when Arthur doesn't keep quiet.