It is war that takes Uther Pendragon’s life: his war on magic, which in turn spreads to a clash with a baron desperate to keep his daughter’s magical studies hidden, sends Camelot marching to her king’s death. No one can say exactly how it happened, only that the king fell as the sun rose on the eighth day of battle, toppled from his horse by the gravity of a stopped heart. It is his son who takes up his fallen banner, who roars challenge and fights with the vicious anger of the newly-orphaned; it is his son who brings the baron to his knees and forces the opposing army to surrender: to be certain, his own army rose with him, but the stories that follow from this day always mention Arthur and Arthur alone by name, great and terrible both in his grief–bloodied and still shining golden under the last rays of the setting sun.
The king is dead; long live the king.
The stories precede them: Camelot is already draped in colors of both mourning and celebration by the time the army returns, limping and diminished, and the moment Arthur dismounts he is swept up into an inexorable tide of people. Everyone has to speak with him at once, from councilors to envoys to servants, their voices competing with one another until everything came together in a terrible cacophony of sound. He is the picture of remarkable poise and grace and so cements more of his legend into place. By the time Merlin finds him and beats off the lingering vultures (a metaphor, certainly, but one perhaps more literal than Merlin himself likes, and he would have to be blind to miss the flash of naked relief in Arthur’s eyes after he chased off the last pinch-faced minister), there are already people murmuring about the new king’s inhuman patience and calm, how he seems less like a man and more like an ideal, rock-solid as if his feet were rooted directly in Albion’s soil. That is how a king should be, they whisper with satisfaction, and no disrespect to his lord father, but that’s only the truth of the matter.
It is only hours later, when things are dark and still and Merlin is the only other person with him, that Arthur shares his opinion on the matter: it was a relief–a lifetime of obsessive hatred changes a man, however noble his intentions once were. It was a relief, because Uther was starting to lose himself. He was becoming less of a father and a man, more of a caricature of hate. Maybe in this way, dying in battle with sword raised and banner high, people would someday remember him as he was: the king who brought peace and prosperity to Camelot and loved his kingdom so well she was always first and foremost in his thoughts, as much–if not more–as an older sibling to Arthur as Morgana. Maybe his legacy would not be forever tarnished by the madness and decline of his later years.
Merlin listens to him say these things, low and hoarse–embarrassed confessions that Arthur will completely disavow in the morning–and says nothing for once; he knows what it is like to lose a father, and he has learned enough to realize when his silence is his greatest comfort.
Uther’s funeral ends with Arthur’s coronation. Arthur dislikes the idea, his lips pinched white and his eyes tight at the corners–but he cannot argue the practicalities of it, with the kingdom nervously waiting her proper king and rivals eying Camelot’s borders with hungry speculation. He wears Pendragon’s red and gold without a scrap of black, but it does not take a particularly observant person to see he is mourning. Still, he keeps his back straight and his shoulders squared, even as he kneels to accept his crown, and Merlin almost can’t watch, because his heart has swelled nearly to a point of pain. He joins the cheering with a fervor that might have embarrassed him once upon a time; now, he only hopes that Arthur hears him, and is comforted by that.
Afterward, everything comes together into a blur: Uther’s death was ill-timed (but then, there is very rarely a good time for a king to die, even with a proper and acknowledged heir left behind him), in the deep, suffocating cold months that follow midwinter and in the midst of delicate trade treaties. There are agreements that must be reworded, lines that must be redrawn, and Camelot’s young new king spends his time in discussion and political maneuvering. He has little time for sleep and less for meals; it takes Merlin and Gwen both working together to ambush him before he will accept either. He ages in those long months and Camelot holds her breath to see which way he will fall, when his plans and his treaties unfurl into action. The flurry of rumors and stories that began with his father’s death turn uneasy with speculation. Will he be a good king? the servants whisper to each other, and to their families in the lower city. He is a good man, and one who has grown remarkably in the past few years, but does that make him a good ruler? Is he ready for this responsibility?
Merlin holds his breath as well, counting the lines that begin to bracket Arthur’s eyes and mouth, and does what he can: a quick whispered spell to ensure that Arthur’s clothes are warmed, a charm that lets the heavy royal cloak block out all but the most persistent of winter winds, and more to keep the fire burning and the rooms draft-free. It is perversely easier now: the ban on magic still stands, but Arthur is not there to catch him, though Merlin lurks in the king’s chambers more than anywhere else–and if his efforts are noticed, no one is ready to bring it to the king’s attention just yet.
He prays, though, and he can feel the land stirring to life as the winter drags on to its slow and inevitable end. Albion shivers and stirs, and there is an excited thrumming in Merlin’s veins that he cannot suppress. It is the same way he felt the first time he looked at Arthur and saw the king the man could become–would become. As her last and truest king guides his kingdom through the pitfalls of winter, of food shortages and speculative whispering from bordering countries, the land awakens and begins to sing. The sound echoes in Merlin’s ears day and night, and he thinks it will keep him from sleeping, but instead, he sleeps better and more soundly than he can remember in his entire life.
On the first day of spring, the boy comes to Camelot.
It takes several months of wheedling and subtle hints and a few blunt outright statements, but Merlin finally convinces his king to take a short ride, though they do not go even far enough to lose sight of the castle gates–the wind today is sweet, rather than the bitter aching cold of previous weeks, and it seems to do Arthur some good: he even smiles a little, though he is still quiet and subdued. The arrogant princeling is a persona that will take months to rebuild if it ever returns, and the quiet thoughtful man revealed in his place is someone Merlin is rather looking forward to getting to know. They don’t talk, but it isn’t a brooding silence; there is singing in Merlin’s ears and the nervous excited feeling of something–something–coming.
At the gates of the castle, when they return, is a boy.
He isn’t very old–more child than man, with tremendous bristling dark brows that didn’t match his fair hair. He dresses like a countryman, but his cloak is long and unstained by travel, and of finer quality than anything else he wears. Under those brows, his eyes are green as Albion’s hills, but that and the roundness of his face were the only softness in him–his face was set in a terrible scowl, his arms crossed over his thin chest. Arthur stops dead at the sight of him, an odd confusion plain on his face. For Merlin, though, the singing in his ears swells to its greatest crescendo, to the point where he couldn’t even hear anything else. Something shudders into life in his chest like a second heartbeat, a growing sense of excitement that, he thinks, could lift him off his feet and into the air with no effort by himself or his magic.
“You’re the king,” the boy says; his is one of the only voices that cuts through the cacophony in Merlin’s ears.
“And you’re …” Arthur’s voice is the other. A name forms on Merlin’s lips, but he can’t quite make himself speak it, just yet. Arthur frowns as if he has the same block, mouth twisting around a word that won’t come.
But: “My mother is Albion, who was your father’s, and your father’s father’s,” the boy says, his eyes clear and ageless under his heavy brows, “and I am yours.”
It’s utterly ridiculous and completely impossible and carries the weight of absolute truth. Merlin wants to laugh, and can see from Arthur’s face that he feels the same–but neither of them can manage it. Long seconds pass as king and boy stare at each other; the guards look to Merlin, who can only shrug helplessly.
Finally, though, never taking his eyes from the newcomer’s face, Camelot’s king holds his hand out to the boy who claims to be the son of his country. Gravely, the boy accepts it, and the two walk side-by-side, not quite touching beyond their clasped hands, and Merlin can only trot in their wake, trying his hardest to keep his feet on the ground. He does not entirely succeed, so he is grateful that his cloak is nearly long enough to hide that fact.
No one stops them as they enter the castle, as they make their way up the long stone stairs to the king’s private chamber. One courtier approaches them and abruptly pivots before he gets within hailing distance, and Merlin is fairly certain it isn’t his doing–but there is such a large part of his awareness that is preoccupied by that strange bubbling excitement; the entire kingdom is singing, and if he is nudging things to make sure that song doesn’t stop, he cannot entirely blame himself. The boy walks like a king himself, head high and back straight–but he clutches Arthur’s hand with a white-knuckled grip and his lips pressed together, like a child determined not to cry.
Once in his chamber, Arthur lets go of the boy’s hand slowly, almost reluctantly, then goes to throw himself into his chair. He steeples his fingers, his expression solemn.
“I think I remember you,” he says, as Merlin shuffles quietly in after both him and the boy, closing the door behind him and heading for the fire. In spite of himself, he strains to hear his king’s voice. “When I was a child–”
“Your father didn’t appreciate us,” the boy cuts in. His voice is too loud, and there are high spots of color in his cheeks; while his posture is still proud and tall, he is so painfully and clearly nervous that it’s painful to watch. “Mother Albion warned him–she told him it wouldn’t end well, and he banished her.” His fists ball up, trembling, and there is a tension in his shoulders and the lift of his chin, like he’s bracing for a blow. “We’re supposed to serve our leaders, but he didn’t want, he only–we went to the others, but they were never right, so–”
Arthur holds up a hand. The boy immediately falls silent, but he took a deep breath, puffing himself up further.
“I remember,” he says softly. “Father was furious for weeks after. We lost a border skirmish with Mercia that month, and we very nearly lost more. It took years to recover from that setback, and even then, we never really won all that territory back.” He leans back further in his chair, resting his chin on one hand, fingers splayed against his face; it is such a familiar gesture in such an alien situation that Merlin is struck by it, watching the shadows on Arthur’s face. “Was that you?”
“We don’t have the power to change the tides of war,” the boy says. “But we swear sword and shield to our liege, and there are none who know our lands better.” His lips press together, and his eyes sparkle dangerously wet. “And if we’re forbidden, there’s nowhere else for us to go.”
“Don’t cry,” Arthur says, and that is also a voice Merlin remembers, the prat under the king. He sits forward then, his blue eyes shadowed and glittering, intent as a hawk–as the dragon on his crest. Merlin finds himself holding his breath, the pounding of his heartbeat in his ears nearly enough to drown out the joyous singing he can still hear; his vision is overlaid with the image of clear skies with the Pendragon banner flying gloriously free. “You’re here for me, then? What do you want?”
“I’m here to serve you,” the boy says, and his face goes even redder; he fidgets without looking at anything but his own feet. “Whatever you want from me–if you’ll have me, your majesty, I–” He fumbles for a moment, then drops to his knees, hands clasped now as if in prayer or pleading. “I’ll serve you all your life. You’re going to be my king, everyone’s always said that, it’s supposed to be destiny–”
“I don’t believe in destiny,” says Arthur, and that is enough to make both the boy and Merlin stop. His expression is calm as he gets to his feet, his hands folded behind his back, and goes to stand before the fireplace. Backlit as he is, he is a powerful figure, the sort that legends could be made from, and his expression is absolutely unreadable. “I believe in hard work, and in determination. A man doesn’t need to be of noble birth to amount to something–and neither does he need sanction from some higher power in order to enact change.” He turns away from the fire and approaches the boy, drawing his sword.
Merlin freezes and opens his mouth to protest, but Arthur rests the blade on the boy’s shoulder instead, the flat of the blade on the narrow slope of flesh. He says, “You’ll follow me?”
“To the end of everything,” the boy says. He isn’t afraid any more: his eyes are clear and there is less tension in his posture; though there is a sword close to his exposed neck, he doesn’t flinch away. “Even if you don’t believe, I do.”
“That’ll do for now,” says Arthur. He steps back and sheaths his sword immediately, all without taking his eyes away from the boy’s face. “What do I even call you?”
“I am Albion,” the boy says. “Like my mother before me.” He glances over then, at Merlin, who hovers as unobtrusively as possible in the back of the chamber. “And you’re–”
“Merlin,” he says quickly. “Just Merlin. The king’s manservant.”
“And an utterly useless one at that,” Arthur says, but his mouth quirks into a smile, which is warmer than any expression he’s had for months. “He’s not bad for entertainment, though, which is why I keep him around.”
Arthur leans forward and offers his hand to the boy–to Albion, who stares at it for a moment before clasping it again, and lets himself be helped to his feet. He clasps the boy’s other shoulder with his free hand and smiles, the firelight golden in his hair and reflected in his eyes. His gaze is distant, as if he can also see those clear skies and the flourishing country, and the land sheltered under the dragon’s wing. “We will do what’s best for our people,” he says, “and together we will build something great.”
“I have to admit,” Merlin says later, “I’m surprised.”
“Hmmmm?” Arthur raises an eyebrow, one cheek stuffed with a torn chunk of bread. “And what’s that?”
“That boy,” Merlin says, “he just shows up, tells you he’s the–he’s the living embodiment of the entire country, and you just accept that? Poof, that’s it? Where’s all the the accusations of lies, where’s the yelling about magic and how you’ll never accept that, where’s–”
“Merlin,” Arthur sighs. “Merlin, Merlin, Merlin. Clearly, I shouldn’t have expected someone as uniquely thick as you are to understand the reasoning here–I’ll admit, it’s quite complicated, especially useless uneducated servants who get uppity–”
Arthur takes another bite, and his expression goes slowly sincere. “I meant what I said,” he says. “About remembering him. And the woman who came with him–you don’t forget someone like that.” He picks up his cup, but he doesn’t drink, staring down into its contents. “I’d never seen them before in my life, but when they showed up, it felt like I’d known them forever. And when they left …” His mouth twists abruptly, and he puts the cup away. “I don’t know. It was the right thing to do.”
“Even though you don’t believe in destiny,” Merlin says, and he can’t help himself, his voice is small and almost afraid. Arthur looks at him sharply.
“No,” he says finally, slowly. “I don’t. If you simply expect things to happened, merely because they’re destined–that’s taking the lazy man’s way out. I’d rather know the consequences of my actions are things I’ve earned, rather than something that was just handed to me, by right of my birth.”
From somewhere deep inside, Merlin dredges up a smile. Judging from the way Arthur’s frown deepens, it is not a very good one. “What a change,” he manages. “Wasn’t it just last year you were telling me that you should get things because you were the Crown Prince?”
Arthur’s tired half-smile is no better than his own, he knows. “The responsibilities of a prince versus those of a king are very different,” he says. “I’ve learned a lot.”
Silence spins out in the wake of that comment, and finally Merlin can’t stand it–he reaches out and tentatively brushes his fingers against the back of Arthur’s hand, still resting near his cup. The skin there is warm and rough from calluses, with only the barest promise of fragility in it–the delicacy of being mortal and fallible, and it takes more effort than he would like not to snatch that touch back at once. He looks at Arthur and Arthur looks at the fire, and just when he thinks that he’s being ignored, and move away, Arthur’s hand moves, lacing his fingers just barely with Merlin’s own.
“Is it all right, then,” Merlin says softly, “if I believe? In destiny and rot like that.”
Arthur’s eyes cut towards him again before the other man snorts in a moment of unexpected good humor. “I hardly think I could stop you,” he says dryly. “I could order you to do a thousand things, and you wouldn’t listen to a single one.”
That’s not entirely true, Merlin thinks; you could order a hundred things, and I would do a thousand.
Aloud, he says nothing, but he does not move his hand away.
Guinevere, with dozens of small white flowers embroidered into her hair, kneels in a ripple of cream-colored skirts under a night sky, nervous anticipation and hope both in her eyes. When a man appears at the edge of the garden, she leaps to her feet with a glad cry, and she kicks off her fine shoes to run barefoot to him; she throws something aside as she tosses herself into her lover’s arms, and the Pendragon emblem is softly outlined by fickle starlight. She whispers apologies between kisses and they are echoed back to her, but the man whose pain they regret is nowhere nearby, unaware of his betrayal.
(How could you, he cries; why would you, with what you had!)
A battlefield that is a thousand times worse than the one that claimed Uther’s life, enemies and allies alike lying dead and discarded, blood and mud and worse churned into the ruined earth. Two men in particular lie together as if locked in a lover’s embrace. One still struggles, choking on the blood that runs from both corners of his mouth, trying to push the deadweight of his killer off; his eyes roll like those of a terrified horse as a woman approaches them both, a second boyish figure trailing in her wake. They speak in low hushed voices, and the larger man, pliable and loose-limbed in death as he never was in life, is lifted into the boy’s arms. The woman raises her face and pulls back her hood, and Morgana looks down upon her companion’s burden with infinite sadness before she kneels to retrieve both fallen swords, and they walk away.
(No, he weeps; it isn’t true, it can’t be true, we were meant to be immortal.)
The boy–Albion–bows low to a woman who is agelessly beautiful and painfully sad, whose dress is the same shimmering misty grey of early morning. She accepts the dead man that her son has brought to her and cradles him like a mother would a beloved infant. She turns away and walks from the shore, slowly and calmly, and is swallowed up by the mists that shroud the Isle of the Blessed.
The first thing he does is scrub his face, oddly furious at the tears on his cheeks, and then gets up, dressing in the peculiar light of pre-dawn, and he goes searching.
He finds the boy standing on the battlements, looking down at the sleeping veiled countryside. Though Merlin himself shivers in the chill, the boy doesn’t even seem to notice, his green eyes shadowed and thoughtful. He looks up once at Merlin’s approach and nods, solemnly, but does not say anything as Merlin takes a place by his side.
Merlin himself has to break the silence: “I thought you said you’d protect him.”
“I will serve him,” the boy corrects softly. “Like my mother served his grandfather, and would have served his father, if she’d been allowed.”
“But he’ll still–”
“All humans die,” the boy says, and the last few of Merlin’s lingering doubts are dashed away: there is something alien and sad in the boy’s face, and while there is understanding, there is no empathy. “Even the best and most beloved.”
“Is the most beloved. He’ll still die. I can’t protect him from that.” For just a moment, Albion looks regretful, his small fingers going white-knuckled against the stone. “That’s part of his destiny.”
Merlin opens his mouth to protest–this cannot be, no one with Destiny could die like that, gasping and alone except for his killer–abandoned by everyone else until it was too late for anyone to reach him–but cannot make the words come out. Something in him trembles with the knowledge of inevitability. He swallows and it feels like a blade going down his throat. Albion turns to face him now, one hand still braced against the stone, the other outstretched.
“Until then, I will fight for him,” Albion tells him, young and so utterly serious, like another boy Merlin once knew. “Everything will prosper, and when it’s done, my mother will care for him.”
For long moments, Merlin just stares at that hand. Slowly, with an odd feeling of detachment, he lifts his hand and clasps Albion’s outstretched one. Part of him expects–hopes–for better visions, happier visions, like the gleeful anticipation from the day before, but there is nothing but a small, warm, slightly callused fingers against his own. The chill of early morning is beginning to fade, burned away by the rising sun. He looks down into those solemn green eyes and sees a reflection of his own fears.
“Both of you are first and last,” says Albion. It’s on the tip of Merlin’s tongue to protest, but it’s arrested by the look in Albion’s eyes. “He doesn’t know, does he?”
Merlin shakes his head. There is only one thing Arthur does not know–one critical thing that has fallen by the wayside, busy as they’ve been. Merlin has not been as secretive as he once was, but he has never simply come out and said By the way, I’m a sorcerer. At this point, he’s not sure he can, not without destroying the years of rapport he’s built up with his young king and losing the best and dearest friend he’s had the fortune to cherish. Fear turns him silent; anticipation keeps him still.
“Ah,” says Albion; there is something knowing in his tone, as if he could hear that unsaid explanation. His brow furrows. “But he has to know,” he says. “Everyone knows–it’s all the faeries sing about, when people ask about you–”
In that moment, he looks just like a confused little boy, confronted by the challenge that his bedtime stories (and what sort of stories does one tell an infant country, really; if Albion exists in this form, with a mother, then are there more, do they know each other, is it–it’s beginning to make Merlin’s head hurt) are not real. He says again, “Shouldn’t he know? By now? You’re going to tell him, right?”
(Merlin dreamed, and in those dreams, he had not been in a single one.)
He does not let go of Merlin’s hand, so Merlin is the one who has to pull away, muttering something about fetching breakfast for the king, and flees. He feels strange and out of place, like all the familiar hallways and faces have been replaced by strangers. By the time he makes it to Arthur’s chambers–the king’s chambers–that feeling has intensified to what feels like physical pressure across his shoulders.
He opens the door and finds Arthur awake, in nearly the same position he’d been the night before, seated in his chair and facing the fire. Merlin hovers, unsure suddenly of his welcome–in the short distance between the doorway and the chair, he can see a thousand opportunities wasted, and all the ways things could still go incredibly wrong. When he blinks, he sees that cold muddy field again, and the steel-shot iron of Arthur’s wet hair. He thinks–he knows–he could be there, and he could stop that from happening, but only if–
“Merlin,” the king says with a sigh. “Just put it down and leave it, will you?”
Timid, Merlin creeps forward, to do as he’s asked. He lingers after, blinking away the cobwebs of visions. Though he hesitates to call what he’s doing hovering, he knows it’s pretty much the same thing, and he knows that in a moment, Arthur will notice and be irritated. Before that moment comes, he takes a deep breath. “Arthur,” he says. “Arthur, there’s something you need to know–”
Arthur laughs; it’s a short rough noise, but it’s mostly amused. “There’s lots of things I need to know,” he says. “Who’s going to gun for war next, how well the grain harvests will do this year, what to do with that boy–what is it this time?”
Merlin licks his lips. “I,” he starts to say. He stops and shifts his weight. His restless fingers find the knife he brought with Arthur’s breakfast and begin to fiddle with it. “You know, I know I should have said before, I just–it’s just that I–there were things that kept coming up, and–”
“Merlin,” Arthur sighs. “Just get on with it.”
“I know you want to do things your own way,” Merlin says in a rush, fast enough to make himself breathless, “and that’s good, that’s great, I just want you to know–it’s not just your knights that you have at your disposal, all right, anything that I can do, whatever you want, I–” He falters when Arthur’s gaze lifts to his, and there is no reading that expression, dark-eyed and flat-mouthed. “… Whatever you want. Sire.”
“Whatever I want,” Arthur echoes. His voice is very soft. “That’s a dangerous thing to promise, Merlin.”
“If you want it,” Merlin says, equally quiet, “I’ll do it. I swear, Arthur, it’s all for you–”
Arthur holds up a hand. Merlin shuts up immediately.
“Your timing is shite as your skills as a manservant,” he says. “Not that I don’t understand why, but–”
“I wanted you to know,” Merlin protests, unable to stop himself. “More than anyone else, I wanted to tell you–I don’t want you to think it’s because I didn’t trust you, and I mean, I guess I was afraid, but it wasn’t of you, it was just–”
Arthur sits back in his chair, hard enough to send it skidding back a little, covering his face with one hand. Merlin continues to hover, anxious and afraid, and then he sees the smile that peeks out from under his fingers. It’s unexpected and staggering, the relief that rushes through him and leaves him weak-kneed, leaning heavily against the table for support. Arthur doesn’t laugh–he hasn’t really laughed in over a year–but there is something friendly and wry and knowing in his look, as if he does understand, and he forgives Merlin’s part in his ignorance.
What he says, though, is just, “You’re still mine, then?”
“Till the day I die,” Merlin says, and adds, “Arthur,” for good measure.
“Well then,” Arthur says, and doesn’t bother to hide how pleased he is by that, “I suppose that’s enough for me.”
In the east tower, only two doors away from what had once been the Queen’s personal chambers, is another small set of rooms. Albion claims these for his own, when checking the records discovers they had once belonged to a Lady Brighid, whose family and house were unrecorded, but who had apparently stayed in those chambers until shortly before the Queen’s pregnancy. Albion’s mouth does a moue at the mention of the woman’s name, but he repeats his claim until the king formally invites him to stay. He takes no human name and prefers to keep to himself, emerging only to trail like a ghost after Arthur into council meetings. If the nobility find him peculiar, none can really seem to bring themselves to genuinely protest his presence.
On Midsummer’s Eve, when the last of Uther’s bans on magic have been formally lifted, Merlin finds king and country both on the battlements, looking out over Camelot. Fires burn in the distance, but as symbols of celebration rather than fear; even this far away, the sounds of singing and celebration can be heard. Neither of them speak or look up at Merlin’s approach, two fair heads bent not quite together in their vigil, but it is a comfortable sort of silence rather than anything strained. Merlin takes up a spot to Arthur’s right, and says, “Nice night.”
Arthur snorts, but the sound is amused. “Master of stating the obvious, aren’t you.”
“Oy,” Merlin protests without heat. He jostles Arthur’s arm a little with his elbow, halfhearted. He glances sideways and sees Arthur looking back and Albion leaning against the cold stone, apparently fascinated by the shadowed countryside. “I’m glad,” he adds, almost shy. “About everything that’s happened today.”
“Flexibility is an important quality in a ruler,” Arthur tells him, and it’s not his kingly voice but his voice, slyly magnanimous. “Despite some people insisting on never seeing things in a different light, I pride myself on being observant and adapting with the times.”
“Look!” Albion cuts in, and he’s leaning so far against the stone that he seems nearly in danger of toppling forward, but hardly seems to notice, even when Arthur hooks fingers into his shirt and drags him back. He points to a spot in the distance, towards where the sun had set just a short hour before, in the direction where Merlin knows the Isle of the Blessed lies hidden. There, beyond the bonfires of revelry, below the spread shimmering blanket of stars, between the tall sharp spires of trees, is a single globe of pure white light. It holds steady and easy, never flickering or fading, and Albion’s face glows like that of an excited child. “That’s Mother,” he says, turning to look at Arthur and Merlin both, bouncing a little on the balls of his feet. “Mother must know what’s happened, she must be so happy.”
“Nothing’s really happened,” Arthur says indulgently. “We won’t be seeing herb-witches in the street tomorrow, or for a long time yet. It’ll take the example set–” and here he reaches out, tugging at the pendant around Merlin’s neck, symbol of his new position–“and work before it really it’s really anything the people will believe. It’s a sign of goodwill, but it’ll be our actions that give it any meaning.”
But Merlin catches Albion’s eyes and understands that flicker of excitement he sees–something has happened, though it is a step forward whose reverberations will not be felt for a short time yet. The time will come, though: sorcerers and their kin will stop shunning Camelot’s borders, and as with the men who come to lay their swords at Arthur’s feet, so there will be witches and wizards who will swear fealty to this proud young king, whose acceptance and determination will only expand the boundaries of his country further and further, until the entire country kneels before him. That is the promise embodied in the boy who looks up at Arthur with shining green eyes–the destiny implied in this country’s foresworn fealty.
Merlin moves a little closer to his king–they both do–to this flickering brilliant warmth (best and most beloved) who looks at them with quizzical affection. He says, “But things will happen.”
“Of course they will,” Arthur says at once, easy instinctive confidence in every word. Failure is not an option with him; it never has been. “We’ll make sure of it.”