Brun had fallen over, Nimueh was screaming, and all three figures were almost on their knees, but all that Arthur saw was Sheridan, the man who had so badly mistreated Merlin, his best friend, brother; Sheridan, who had just stabbed Merlin and almost killed him; Sheridan, who had to die.
Before he even knew what he was doing, Arthur yanked Excalibur from the cube, and began to rush up the slope towards the man, who stood, dazed, not seeming to notice anything. The prince refused, and felt it wrong, to kill a man in cold blood, so he first got Sheridan’s attention.
“It’s you, isn’t it? Sheridan?”
“Yes…” Sheridan stared at him incredulously.
“Good, now draw your sword,” Arthur said, gesturing to the scabbard by Sheridan’s side.
“Do you wish to fight me, prince?” Sheridan asked mockingly. “You do know you don’t stand a chance.”
“Draw your sword,” Arthur repeated.
Laughing, Sheridan drew it. Not even waiting another second, Arthur leapt at him, hammering Excalibur against his enemy’s own sword. Sheridan seemed taken back by this unexpected ferocity, but quickly compensated for it, and dodged out the way, leaving Arthur to stumble over thin air. The prince hastily regained his balance, and rounded on Sheridan again. Again and again Excalibur came crashing down on Sheridan’s sword. The man was becoming increasingly worried now. The prince seemed driven by anger, and he was much younger than himself. But no, he could not think like that. He could never die.
Arthur, with a great swing of Excalibur, sliced Sheridan’s sword into two clean-cut pieces. Hiding his shock of the sword’s ability, Sheridan dropped the now useless weapon, and instead picked up his dagger, determined not to be defeated. Arthur, however, was more determined, and with another swing of Excalibur, he slid the sword into Sheridan’s stomach. Sheridan looked shocked, his mouth forming an ‘O’ and his eyes widening into dark depths of pain. His face hard and unfeeling, Arthur withdrew his sword, leaving Sheridan to tumble down the other side of the slope. But the prince barely had a moment to think, as he watched the hated man dying at the foot of the slope, for the cube was doing something.
The three figures were now on their knees, writhing around in agony. From a lengthy crack along the surface of the cube, a great shining light poured, increasing in intensity. Sheer power gushed from the thing in waves. The prince was crushed flat to the floor, and a tremendous explosion swept over the mountains. The light was gone in a matter of seconds, and he saw the cube sitting in all its innocence for a moment, before it suddenly shattered into a million shards of crushed light. Two of the three figures – Koran and Jethro – screamed, and in a flurry of mist, evaporated from sight. As he watched on, Arthur saw Nimueh turn her face to him, fury sparkling in her eyes, before she too was gone.
And then, a great wind began to blow, forming a tall column, and dragging everything towards it. The shards left from The NightmareChild rose into the air along with the last traces of the three sorcerers.
Arthur felt himself beginning to slide over the rocks and down the slope, pulled by the ferocious wind. Merlin, who was still lying unconscious, some meters below, also began to slither across the ground. Scrambling down the slope, the wind whipping his hair, Arthur caught hold of him and dragged him back, fully aware that he could not save Brun, who, still in a state of unconsciousness, had already been drawn into the wind. Sheltered behind a rock, the prince pulled Merlin into his arms, and stared in awe at the wind, which was now, slowly at first, but with escalating speed, soaring upwards towards a break in the black sky. For a moment the darkness seemed to be rippling, the air itself quivering. And then the sky began to suck the winds up, and with one last explosion, which sent the dark clouds fleeing from the heavens, and both Merlin and Arthur flying to separate sides of the rocks, everything stopped.
Arthur climbed to his feet, and stood, staring up into the sky. The sword was held loosely in his hand, his eyes fixated on the spot where the cube had vanished. Part of him felt numb, not able to process what he had just seen. Eventually though, one single thought registered in his head…
Tearing his eyes away from the sky, he frantically searched the rocks, not quite sure what he was going to say when he found the servant. He was not even sure what he was feeling, let alone what was going to come out of his mouth. It did not take him long to locate Merlin; he was still where he had fallen, after using magic. Merlin had used magic. Powerful magic as well. And judging by the look in his eyes before it had happened, he knew precisely what he was doing. Which would mean that he had been doing it for a long time. Under Arthur’s very nose. That hurt.
Scrambling across the rocks, Arthur dropped to his knees by Merlin’s side. It did not matter what thoughts were raging through his head, it was relief that he felt when he saw that the boy was conscious. His friend’s eyes were fixed on the same spot that had captivated Arthur’s gaze. Merlin had obviously seen the cube disappear, although how much more, Arthur was not sure.
“Merlin?” he called softly.
Merlin turned his head towards the prince, looking deep into his eyes. What surprised Arthur was that there was no trace of fear, or remorse of any kind. He was looking at the prince in the same way before everything had happened to turn Arthur’s world upside down. Almost as if he did not know what had just occurred.
“What happened?” Merlin asked, his voice betraying the exhaustion and pain that he was in. He looked so lost and fragile lying among the rocks, that Arthur knew that he couldn’t be angry. Not now. Not ever. Although what emotion filled the void that was echoing deep within him, he was not certain.
“Let’s just say that it was very illuminating,” Arthur responded, watching Merlin’s face carefully for a reaction. To his dismay, Merlin still seemed to have no idea what he had done, for his face remained blank and neutral.
“Almost like magic,” he continued, not noticing the slightly bitter note that had crept into his voice.
Merlin noticed though. Turning pale, his eyes finally showed what Arthur had been looking for. Although why he wanted his best friend to look at him in such horror and fear, not even the prince could answer that.
“What did I do?” Merlin whispered.
Arthur had expected him to deny everything, but maybe the idiot had finally realised what a terrible liar he had always been. And yet Arthur had never once seen through the obvious lies. Feeling a fool, the anger that he had been expecting from the very beginning finally burst forth.
“What did you DO?” Arthur’s voice rose in volume, causing Merlin to flinch. “You only destroyed the cube with one flick of your wrist, after healing yourself from a fatal injury! I – I thought…” Arthur’s voice trailed off as he realised what he was most angry at. It wasn’t Merlin, however much he wanted to unleash it all on him for the lies. It was himself, for not being able to protect him.
“You thought what?” Merlin’s voice sounded slightly stronger as the smallest amount of hope entered it cautiously, as if he wasn’t sure whether he should be feeling it or not.
“I thought you had died, Merlin. And all along, you’ve been able to do all these…things, with just one word.”
“I don’t always need words,” Merlin said softly, anxious to be able to be given the chance to explain himself, although he was not sure whether Arthur was ready to listen. “I’ve been able to use magic since before I could remember. I didn’t study it, Arthur; it wasn’t something that I chose. It chose me. You know I’d never use it to harm you or anyone else, don’t you? Please, Arthur, you must know this.”
Arthur merely shrugged. He supposed that he did know. Only good luck had come his way since Merlin entered his life. But with a small start, the prince realised that it was not good luck at all. It had all been Merlin, with his extraordinary gifts. Every peril he had faced and walked away from practically unscathed when he should have died. All of those times, and yet he had never realised…
“It was you, wasn’t it?” he asked, and elaborated when the warlock looked at him in confusion. “With Lady Helen and the dagger. The griffin. My miraculous recovery after the bite from the Questing beast. The forests of Balor, the light I saw when I was trying to save you. All of those times, it has been you. And I’m guessing that there was more to the whole Sophia thing than you hitting me with a lump of wood…”
“You don’t want to know,” Merlin told him, shivering slightly at the memory of trying to find the drowning prince in the vast lake. Taking a shuddering breath, he voiced the biggest concern on his mind.
“Are you going to kill me?”
His voice was soft, so quiet that the prince must have strained his ears to hear it. But for the reaction that he got, he might as well as shouted it as loud as he could. Arthur visibly jumped, emotions flickering across his face almost too quickly for the warlock to identify what was going on inside. But he did notice the concern, the fear – of what; Merlin was not quite sure – the guilt. But the thing that scared him the most was the loyalty. It was undeniable, but Merlin was not sure to whom it belonged. To him, his friend, or to his father, the king. Depending on which, determined two very different outcomes.
“No,” Arthur muttered, almost as quietly.
As soon as he said the words out loud, he knew that was the truth. Merlin had not told him because it was his life on the line. It wasn’t out of spite. It was out of protection. Even now, if it had not been in this situation, Arthur himself was not sure how he would have reacted to finding out that his servant was a sorcerer. No wonder Merlin hadn’t managed to pluck up the courage to open up before.
Hoping the sting of betrayal would ease with time, Arthur decided. His father or his friend? In this case, and with no doubts in his mind whatsoever, it was his friend.
“No, I’m not going to kill you. Nor let anyone else. I’m going to take care of you. Then we are going to go home and put this behind us. I would say ‘act as if never happened’, but I’m not sure that will be possible. I don’t know if I can protect you against the king, Merlin, but he won’t find out through me. You have my word.”
Overcome with emotion, Merlin felt a lump rise in his throat, making it hard to get the words out. If only Arthur knew how much this meant to him, how long he had wanted to tell him everything, be accepted for who he was and no longer have to hide.
“Thank you,” he stated, no more needed.The emotion behind the words made Arthur smile at him fondly, understanding the depth to those two simple words. He finally felt as if he understood Merlin. After all of this time, it was only now that he realised just how much Merlin had constantly sacrificed to stay by his side. It was more than anyone had ever given him before, and he was not going to let that slip through his fingers.