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The Once and Future Kings

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When Merlin first walks through the gates of Camelot he thinks it might be the most beautiful place he has ever seen. The streets seem to be alive, everywhere he looks there is movement; shopkeepers bartering, young girls running after their mothers with heaping piles of fabric and overflowing baskets of wheat. He ducks under a tray of bread carried by bakers with heaving muscles and deep booming voices. A smile stretches his face as he observes the beauty of the city.

He grew up in a small town just over the border in Essetir, with a population so small that the whole village could likely fit into a single street of Camelot. Merlin had always wanted to travel, to meet new people, to expand his horizons past the wheat pastures of Ealdor, but until now he had never been given the chance. He’s never seen anything outside of village life, so a place like Camelot, with its bustling energy, is completely unknown to him.

Merlin follows the sharp sound of the bugle into a large town square, eager to see what else the city has to offer. There’s a large crowd gathering around a podium, but even when he stretches tall onto his toes he can’t see what the purpose of the gathering is until it’s much too late to turn back.

A loud voice rings over the square.

“Let this serve as a lesson to all,” a man booms, the King, Merlin assumes as he notices the golden crown encircling his head. Uther. He’s a stocky man, with very little hair, a scar jutting across the right side of his forehead and a permanent frown crease between his brows, he holds himself with the poise of someone who believes they are better than everyone.

A man is dragged towards the podium and it dawns upon Merlin what exactly is happening in the square. He turns to escape. Executions do occur in Ealdor, though they are few and far between, but Merlin has never enjoyed them. He cannot even share the crude perverse entertainment some are able to take from the event.

“Thomas James Collins is charged guilty of the use of enchantments and sorcery,” Uther continues and Merlin pauses, turning to look up at the King once again.

“In Camelot, such practices are banned, on penalty of death.”

Merlin’s heart drops like a stone, leaving him stock still. He’s sure the fear coursing through him is evident on his face, but he can’t find the ability to control his expression.

His magic, a core piece of him, as much a part of his person as his name, is enough in this beautiful city to have him killed.

Having magic has never been safe. His mother has always warned him to keep that piece of himself hidden away where no one would see it. That no one should know. King Cenred is known for using sorcerers to pursue his own desires, forcing them to work for him and casting them aside like any other weapon when they were no longer of use.

Hunith never said, but Merlin knows he has more power than is normal; and that if Cenred were to know he would steal Merlin and enslave him as a weapon of mass destruction, before anyone could do anything to stop him. But even then, Merlin was never at risk of death.

Uther is still speaking, but Merlin hears nothing but the sharp sound of the blade being sharpened by the executioner, the heavy pounding of drums, the low murmur that passes through the crowd, they are unsurprised, they have seen this many times before.

He stares at Thomas — a young man, at best only ten years older than Merlin’s nineteen years — as he bends to his knees before the chopping block. Merlin’s mind places himself on the chopping block, his own forehead resting on the cool, hard wood. He can’t help it, he knows how easily he could end up there, a small slip, an emotional outburst. Magic is a part of him, but it’s also something he has little control over, like a bucket filled to the brim it has a tendency to overflow. The image of the execution flickers before Merlin’s eyes, Thomas, Merlin, Thomas, Merlin.

With the sharp gesture of Uther’s hand the axe raises, and with a clenched fist it falls.

Merlin’s hand flies to his throat, feeling the harsh jumping of his pulse as it pushes against his fingertips. An insistent reminder that he’s still here, still alive.

But for how much longer? A cruel voice in his head asks.

Uther keeps talking, saying something about a feast and honouring the peace he’s brought since the capture of the Great Dragon, since ridding Camelot of the evil of sorcery. Merlin barely hears a word of it.

He’s still seeing double — his head rolling, his grunt of pain as the axe hits — when the woman starts screaming. The crowd parts to reveal her, hunched with more than just old age but a grief so immense Merlin can hardly conceive it.

“There is only one evil in this land and it is not magic,” she cries, voice wet with tears. “It is you.”

Uther’s jaw sets in a hard line but he says nothing, staring down at her from his elevated platform.

“You! With your hatred and your ignorance, you are the evil that plagues us all.” The woman pauses, taking a heaving ragged breath as she struggles to compose herself, heavy tears rolling down her wrinkled cheeks. “You took my son. My boy.”

Merlin blinks and the woman is his own mother, Hunith, screaming in pain at a King who does not care. Merlin’s body lies dead at her feet, her face is twisted with anguish. He blinks again and the old woman has returned, but the pain of a mother and her lost son remains.

“I promise you, Uther Pendragon, you will share my tears, my grief, you will understand what it means to hurt.” She spreads her hands to the square, addressing them all but her gaze never wavering from the King.

“An eye for an eye; a tooth for a tooth… a son for a son.”

At those words Uther’s gaze changes from stoic to furious.

“Seize her!” He thunders, but she screams an incantation into an amulet and disappears before the guards so much as move.

Merlin drops his hand from his throat, having barely even realised he had frozen with it there. He schools his expression into something as neutral as possible, feigning indifference and avoiding the eyes of the guards posted around the square. He straightens his spine and marches from the stone surrounded area.

One thing is for certain, he needs to get out of Camelot.

He’s almost tempted to walk immediately out of the city. It’s a long week’s walk back to Ealdor, but at least he won’t be killed. Small victories.

He’s set on his path to do just that when he remembers Gaius. He’s never met the man, but when his mother had let her old friend know Merlin would be coming to Camelot, the man had been kind enough to offer Merlin housing and training as a physician’s apprentice. The least Merlin can do is let him know of the change in plans.

He follows the path into the citadel of Camelot, it’s not grand for a castle, simple paved stone and arching windows, but it's the largest single structure Merlin has ever seen. It’s just as busy inside as it was out, servants are hurrying along with chores and various tasks to complete, and littering the halls are a few knights along with many guards. One of whom points him in the direction of the physician’s chambers, up a short winding staircase and to the left.

“Hello?” Merlin calls out softly, knocking on the half open door. “Gaius?”

The room is warm and homely, covered in various knick knacks, boiling potions and poultices. Glass bottles filled with various herbs and liquids line the walls and further up on a landing are shelves so densely packed with books they bow under the weight of them. By the overflowing bookshelves is an old man with shoulder length silver hair, muttering to himself.

“Hello!” Merlin says again, announcing himself. The man, Gaius presumably, turns and suddenly the barricade splinters and breaks, and he is falling.

A surge of fear wells up in Merlin and his magic bursts out of him. His eyes flash gold. Its tendrils push from Merlin, reaching around the room and seizing the pallet in the corner, thrusting it under Gaius’ falling body.

“What did you just do!” Gaius shouts once he lands safely, sitting up on the pallet and staring at Merlin in astonishment. “If anyone had seen— oh nevermind that, tell me!”

“Do what? I didn’t do anything,” Merlin stammers, the image of the falling axe present in his mind.

“You know what. Tell me how you did it.”

Merlin shakes his head. “That?” He gestures wildly to the moved pallet. “That had nothing to do with me. That was—”

“—I know what it was,” Gaius snaps, cutting through his fumbling words. He stares at Merlin for a long moment and when Merlin doesn’t say anything further he gets to his feet and hurries to close the door.

“Where did you learn to do magic?” Gaius asks more clearly now that the heavy oak door is cutting them off from the rest of the castle.

“I didn’t, I never studied magic, or was taught,” Merlin answers, grateful for the opportunity to be honest.

“Are you lying to me?” Gaius does something with his eyebrow that makes Merlin feel ten years younger, like he’s a small child being caught with his hand in the sweet jar.

“No!” Merlin says insistently. “I swear, I was born like this.”

Gaius pauses at that. “That’s impossible,” he says finally.

“It’s the truth.” Merlin shrugs.

They stand staring at each other for a few long moments.

“Who are you?” Gaius asks.

“I’m Merlin,” he introduces himself, sticking out a hand.

“Hunith’s boy,” Gaius says, more to himself than to Merlin, taking Merlin’s hand in his weathered palm and giving it a firm shake, still looking at Merlin bewildered, like he’s a miracle.

“Your room is there,” Gaius points behind himself to a door at the back of the room. “Feel free to take your belongings in there and set it up how you like.”

Merlin winces. “Actually. I’m not going to stay.” Gaius halts and stares at Merlin with that same eyebrow trick, pinning Merlin with his gaze until he’s squirming before asking, “Whatever do you mean?”

“I can’t control my magic,” Merlin lowers his voice as though the King himself might hear him and come to take his head. “I can’t stay here, it’s not safe, they executed someone for using enchantments just this morning.”

Gaius frowns. “Your mother thought Camelot would be the best place for you.”

“I’m certain my mother wasn’t aware exactly how dangerous this place is for someone like me,” Merlin retorts.

There’s a beat of silence as Gaius contemplates this. “Hunith is a smart woman, she sent you to me for a reason. She’s well aware of the dangers.”

“I don’t think—” Merlin attempts, stepping backwards but Gaius cuts him off.

“—Give me a chance to help you control it. Power like yours, I’ve never seen anything like it.”

That makes Merlin hesitate. “What do you mean?”

Gaius smiles, like he knows that Merlin is already convinced. “When you moved the pallet, how did you do it? Did you speak a spell in your mind?”

“No. I don’t know any spells.”

“So what did you do? There must be something.”

There’s something in his grey eyes that tells Merlin he already knows his answer, but he says it anyway. “It just happens. I don’t have to do anything.”

Gaius nods. “I thought as much. That kind of power Merlin, it takes years to hone and master. People study for years to do what you were born able to do. Magic, it takes incantations, spells, what you did was… elemental, instinctive.”

Merlin feels a swell of something deep in his chest; an odd concoction of pride in his magic, a part of himself he has always loved no matter how much he felt he had to hide it, and fear for what that type of power means for him. To have his suspicions that he’s stronger than he’s ever known confirmed is equal parts relieving and terrifying, and does nothing to quell the lost feeling that has always followed him.

“I understand Camelot is dangerous for you, but I think your mother is right, I can help you,” Gaius’ words are soft, tentative, like he’s trying not to startle Merlin away.

Merlin nods slowly, reluctant to admit even to himself that he had given in minutes ago when Gaius said he’d never seen magic like Merlin’s.

“Alright, I’ll stay.”

Gaius smiles, as warm and inviting as his chambers. “We’ll just have to keep you out of trouble.”

~-~-~

In Merlin’s defence, he had fully intended to follow Gaius’ advice to stay out of trouble. He is willing to stay in Camelot because of the hope that Gaius will be able to help him, but the image of the chopping block has not yet slipped his mind and he’s not eager to place himself in any form of danger.

However he’s never been much good at staying out of trouble, no matter how much his mother, and now Gaius, may have liked him to.

It only takes a day for things to start to go wrong, beginning with one of the most handsome young men Merlin has ever seen. Merlin is halfway through delivery rounds when he sees him — standing off to the side of the path, laughing with his friends, one hand covering his smiling mouth. He’s dressed in a loose semblance of armour, a shoulder plate over a red tunic that brings out the sharp blue of his eyes; with soft blond hair that glows in the morning light, a strong jaw, and broad shoulders. If Merlin took to his nighttime fantasies with a mortar and pestle and ground them up to make a single person, he would look like this man.

“Where’s the target?” The blond man asks, staring pointedly at a skinny boy in drab clothes. He has a drawling voice, with a formal edge to it, as if someone went to a lot of effort to teach him how to speak properly.

The boy points to the target. “It’s there, sir.”

“So it’s into the sun,” the man says condescendingly.

“It’s not that bright.”

“A bit like you then.”

The boy sighs so heavily Merlin can see his shoulders slump as he shuffles to move the target to the other side of the courtyard, staggering under the weight of it.

“You know you’re not actually meant to argue against your tasks,” the blond man points out.

The boy grimaces, half heartedly nodding. “Right, sorry sir.”

The blond man turns to his friends, muttering something Merlin can’t catch over the laughter and chatter of the square. With a trained precision the man readies a knife and throws it into the target still in the boy’s hold, so fast it is no more than a blur of movement. He stumbles backwards with the force of it and pops his head out to stare at his master in shock.

“Well come on! I didn’t tell you to stop! Keep moving!” Blond Prat hollers, and his friends jeer in agreement. “We want some moving target practise!”

“Teach him a lesson!” One of them calls to the Prat who throws a smile over his shoulder before launching another blade.

Merlin glances around, hoping to find someone who will put a stop to the behaviour. While the action draws the attention of many people around the square, no one pauses to help.

When the fourth knife lodges into the target the boy trips, dropping the disk as he crumples to the floor. It rolls along the length of the small courtyard before coming to a stop at Merlin’s feet.

“Hey, come on, that’s enough.”

Blond Prat stares at him incredulously, as if Merlin saying something against him is shocking and not his appalling behaviour.

“What?” He demands, like he’s sure he must have heard Merlin wrong.

“Look, my friend,” Merlin attempts to placate him. “You’ve had your fun but that’s enough now. Someone could get hurt.”

Blond Prat walks towards Merlin, tipping his head at him like he’s a puzzle to solve.

“Do I know you?”

“Oh um,” Merlin holds his hand out, “I’m Merlin.”

The Prat makes no move to take Merlin's outstretched hand. “So, I don’t know you then.”

Merlin hesitates before lowering his hand. “No.”

“Yet you called me ‘friend’,” Blond Prat points out.

“Right. That was my mistake.”

“Yes I think so.”

Merlin smiles falsely. “I could never have a friend who could be such an ass.”

He turns to walk away, sure that will be the end of the interaction. No matter how attractive the prat may be, he is far too much of an arsehole for Merlin to ever be interested in him.

“Nor I one who could be so stupid,” Blond Prat retorts before he can leave. Merlin stops and glances over his shoulder.

“Tell me, Merlin,” Blond Prat continues, he says Merlin’s name like he’s testing how it feels on his tongue, putting more emphasis on the start of his name. “Do you know how to walk on your knees?”

Merlin’s eyes drop to the Prat’s right hand which is resting on the sword slung low on his hip.

“No I don’t,” he answers haughtily. Blond Prat steps close so their chests are almost bumping, daring Merlin to be the one to step back first.

“You don’t? Would you like me to help you?” The Prat pats the sword on his hip as though Merlin could have any doubts over what he means.

“Don’t make me fight you,” Merlin says, frustration only growing when the Prat has the gall to laugh at him.

“Oh, be my guest,” he goads. “What are you going to do to me?”

“You’d like to know wouldn’t you?”

“I would, I really would.”

The Blond Prat steps back and spreads his arms wide and defenceless in invitation.

“Show me what you’ve got, Merlin.”

Merlin’s fists clench at his sides but he pushes a lid down on the simmering anger building in his chest.

“Come on,” the Prat encourages. “Come on,” he repeats mockingly, issuing a challenge for Merlin to either take or give up. Merlin has never backed down from a challenge.

He swings his fist, aiming for the Blond Prat’s stupidly attractive face, figuring at the least bruising the arsehole’s face will give him something to remember him by. He’s not an idiot, without magic he doesn’t stand a chance of actually winning this fight, but he can’t just let the arse get away with challenging him like that.

To his dismay he doesn’t even land a punch. The Prat catches his fist easily and twists it far behind his back before Merlin can even blink.

“Argh!” Merlin lets out a yelp of pain, his arm pulling painfully in his socket.

“I’ll have you thrown in jail for that,” Blond Prat says lowly, right into Merlin’s ear.

Merlin grunts, attempting to wriggle his way out of his hold. “What? Who do you think you are? The King?”

“No,” the Prat says, jolting Merlin’s arm purposefully. “I’m his son, Arthur.”

That makes Merlin freeze.

True to the Prat — Prince Arthur’s — word Merlin is thrown in jail. He’s compliant the entire way to the dungeons, significantly too shocked by his own stupidity to put up much of a fight.

They say everything is clearer in hindsight.

Arthur was training just outside the Camelot castle, with a posse of other young men — knights of Camelot Merlin now realises — surrounding him and seemingly listening to his every word.

He was dressed in red, the Pendragon’s signature colour. Albeit his outfit was dressed down, more for comfort in training than a usual prince’s garb, but even then it was well laundered and without a single tear. He had a servant doing his bidding — and really that should have been the thing to tip Merlin off.

More than anything, no one spoke out against him; and everyone, none more so than Prince Arthur himself, was surprised by Merlin doing so.

Hunith has always said that Merlin’s desperate need to do the right thing all the time was going to get him in trouble. She would hold his bruised face in her hands after every fight turned sour and sigh softly.

“My sweet boy, you can’t protect everyone.” She would say, stroking his fringe out of his face with calloused hands. “One day you’re going to get into trouble, and I might not be able to help you.”

Will said something similar, although he emphasised how amazing it was that Merlin didn’t know how to back down from a fight.

“You’re gonna get in trouble, Merlin,” he’d mutter, throwing an arm over Merlin’s shoulders. “But at least you’re going to look cool while doing it.”

Merlin would grin and retort. “I’m going to look like a sack of potatoes dropping to the ground.”

“A cool sack of potatoes.”

Turns out both Will and his mother were correct.

Merlin looks around at the empty cell walls, scowling at the pile of straw in the corner that made a poor substitute for a bed. It’s not his fault he was antagonised by the prince, or that the prince is such a pompous prat.

~-~-~

Merlin jolts out of his slumber to a voice calling his name. He initially heard it the night before, but reasoned that he was having odd dreams due to being in a new place for the first time in his life. Today it is louder and clearer, and impossible to explain away as a dream. Someone is speaking to him.

Merlin.”

It is deep and rings between Merlin’s ears, like the words are being spoken directly into his mind. The voice resonates deep in his stomach and sends a shiver that runs from the top of his spine to the core of his belly. He stands and peers out of the barred doorway but sees no one.

Merlin,” the voice says again. Although it’s only a disembodied voice Merlin can practically see the finger beckoning him towards it, like whoever is speaking is calling him. He walks the border of the four walls but the voice gets no louder and no softer, like the person speaking is right by his side. He lowers himself to the ground, pressing his ear to the stone. It’s cool against his cheek, prickly with straw and completely solid. The voice doesn’t speak again.

Instead, Gaius walks into the cell, interrupting Merlin from his hunt. “Merlin?”

“Gaius!” He exclaims, scrambling to his feet.

He’s appropriately chastised by the look on Gaius’ face. “I don’t know what to tell you Merlin!” He says, crossing his arms across his chest. “The one thing you need to do, that someone like you must do is keep your head down, and what do you do?”

Gaius pauses but Merlin knows he’s not meant to answer. “You pick a fight with the Prince,” Gaius finishes for him.

“Yes,” Merlin replies sheepishly. He’s astonished at how this man Merlin has known for all of a day can make him feel so much like a small child.

“You behaved like an idiot, and you could have gotten hurt.” Gaius shakes his head in disappointment, but Merlin can hear the undertone of concern beneath.

“I’m sorry,” Merlin attempts, with a meek hopeful smile.

Gaius’ lips turn up a little in the corners. “You’re lucky is what you are. I managed to pull a few strings to get you released.”

Merlin cheers, barely letting Gaius finish his sentence. He throws his arms in the air and grins, doing a little jig of celebration. “Thank you, truly.”

“I pointed out that you wouldn’t have done something so foolish if you had known Arthur was the prince.” Gaius raises a threatening eyebrow at Merlin.

Merlin nods, certain he can honour that silent request. If he never speaks to Prince Arthur again it will be too soon.

“I won’t forget this.”

“Yes well, there is a small price to pay,” Gaius says with a poorly concealed smile, placing a hand on Merlin’s shoulder and steering him out of the room.

~-~-~

A rotten tomato hits Merlin squarely in the jaw, sliding down his cheekbone before plopping to the floor, leaving a trail of sticky juice in its wake. The child who threw it laughs happily at Merlin’s grimace. He barely has time to recover before another tomato is thrown and the pulp makes itself at home in his hair.

He makes the mistake of taking a moment to breathe and a cabbage hits into his mouth, crumbling into pieces.

“Oh God,” he groans, spitting out chunks of rotten leaves with a hacking sound.

“Uh hello?” Someone says, Merlin turns as best he can when he’s hunched through the stocks.

The voice belongs to a beautiful girl, about Merlin’s age with brown skin and dark curly hair that frames her face. She’s smiling apologetically down at Merlin, hands clasped politely in front of her. Merlin knows if he was even remotely interested in women he would be simpering at the sight of her.

“I’m Guinevere,” the girl introduces herself. “But most people call me Gwen. I’m the Lady Morgana’s maid.”

“Oh uh,” Merlin tries to extend his hand towards her but the attempt results in him just twisting his wrist in her general direction. She giggles and takes it.

“I’m Merlin, but most people just call me ‘idiot’,” he gestures to his general predicament.

“No! I saw what you did, it was very brave,” Gwen says, smiling kindly at him.

Merlin wrinkles his nose. “It was stupid.”

She tips her head from side to side, considering. “A little, but still brave. Are you new to Camelot?”

“What gave it away?”

“You did try to fight the prince,” she points out. Merlin tips his head, conceding her point with a smile.

“I could have taken him,” he insists.

Gwen sizes him up with an expression of disbelief. “Could you? You just don’t look like one of those big, strong type of fellows.”

Merlin raises his eyebrows and Gwen seems to hear herself.

“Oh goodness I didn’t mean— well it’s just, you’re not exactly a knight are you? And Arthur’s the strongest in the kingdom.”

Merlin grins crookedly, he likes Gwen already, she’s obviously sweet by nature, but has a witty edge and Merlin senses he’s only just getting the first glimpse of it.

“I’m stronger than I look,” he assures her. She doesn’t look convinced but offers him another winning smile regardless.

“Well, I’m glad you stood up to him.”

Merlin blinks at her, surprised. “Yeah?”

“Yes, Arthur needs someone to tell him he’s wrong every now and then,” she says with a decisive nod. “Everyone thinks you’re a real hero.”

A crowd of children and young teenagers interrupt them, walking over with arms laden with rotten produce.

“Oh sorry Gwen you’ll have to excuse me,” Merlin points to the laughing kids preparing to throw their fruit, “my fans are waiting.”

Gwen giggles again, backing away from Merlin with a small wave goodbye. The first piece of fruit hits him in the face just as Merlin is attempting to wave back.

~-~-~

Arthur laughs at what he hopes is an appropriate time in Pellinore’s story. He’s focused on the monotonous nature of doing rounds, eyes scanning over the familiar scene in a rote pattern. The woman who usually sells cabbage on the corner is selling lettuce instead, which generally sums up how exciting the morning’s activities have been.

He inclines his head towards the greater market area and the other knights follow him obediently without question. There are a few people milling about, but the busier hours of the morning when most people collect their produce has passed. Camelot has been relatively peaceful following the execution of the sorcerer, so the daily rounds are more about checking on the general population and making pleasantries than actually doing anything of substance. Arthur attempts to swallow a yawn, and smiles half heartedly as two young men wave hello to him.

A familiar figure passes by, the peasant boy Merlin, from the day before and Arthur’s spine straightens.

There isn’t a good reason to call out to Merlin. If later someone were to ask him why he did so, he wouldn’t have an explanation. Maybe just that the day has been dreadfully dull and he is craving some form of entertainment. Or maybe he’s curious, no one has ever spoken to Arthur the way Merlin did. The man is intriguing, a puzzle to solve.

Whatever the reason he cups his hands to his mouth and calls out, “Did you enjoy the stocks?”

Merlin doesn’t respond, but Arthur notices his shoulders tense infinitesimally.

“Oh don’t run away,” he teases, intentionally lacing his voice with challenge. He remembers the way Merlin had risen to his bait the day before and Merlin doesn’t disappoint.

“From you?” he scoffs, it’s obviously addressed to Arthur but he still doesn’t turn to face him.

A spark of anticipation lights up in Arthur’s chest.

“Thank God. I thought you were deaf as well as dumb,” he mocks. He turns to grin at the knights around him, all chortling with glee.

Merlin straightens his shoulders like he’s preparing for battle. He turns to face Arthur, sharp cheekbones accompanied by even sharper eyes.

“Look, I’ve already told you you’re an ass. I just didn’t realise you were a royal one.”

A breathy chuckle bursts out of Arthur. Merlin is unlike any person Arthur has ever met, and he’s torn between wanting to hear more and wanting to flay him where he stands for his insolence.

“How did you find the dungeons?” He asks derisively.

Merlin bares his teeth in a mockery of a smile. “Oh wonderful thanks. My compliments for the interior design, really sets the mood.”

“Comfortable, I hope,” Arthur says, voice dripping with sarcasm.

“Oh yeah.” Merlin rolls his eyes. “I had the best sleep I’ve had in years.”

“I’m glad.”

Merlin smirks. “You should try it down there some time. I recommend insulting an arse if you’d like to be thrown in. That does the trick pretty easily.”

The knights behind Arthur rouse at the insult, stepping forward so they’re at his side rather than a few paces behind. The movement reminds Arthur he shouldn’t tolerate this type of behaviour no matter how entertaining Merlin is.

Merlin speaks before he gets the chance to.

“Ooh,” he murmurs, raising his eyebrows slyly at Arthur. “What are you going to do? Get daddy’s men to protect you?”

Arthur laughs sharply. “I don’t need them, I could take you apart with one blow.”

“I could take you apart with less than that,” Merlin retorts easily.

Arthur sizes Merlin up with a disbelieving glance, taking his time to look up and down Merlin’s wiry frame. His ratty red tunic doesn’t leave much to the imagination. Despite being the same height as Arthur he seems much smaller, his arms and legs are skinny but lean; while his muscles are less toned and defined than Arthur’s own Merlin’s have been built up over years of general labour.

“Are you sure?” Arthur goads, he’s a little curious to see how far Merlin will escalate this.

Once again Merlin doesn’t disappoint. He blinks at him, assessing the strength of Arthur’s muscles as they pull against the fabric of his blue tunic, before nodding. He sheds his jacket but leaves his horrific neckerchief tied around his neck. Arthur lets out a barking laugh, easily agreeing to Merlin’s offer of provacation.

“Here you go, tough guy,” he says, throwing a mace at Merlin, watching in amusement as he fumbles with it. He takes his own from Kay and swings it by his side with practised ease, enjoying the way Merlin’s eyes go wide.

“I should warn you, I’ve been trained to kill since birth,” Arthur says, raising an eyebrow challengingly at Merlin.

“Wow,” Merlin deadpans. “And how long have you been training to be a prat?”

Arthur falters, no one else would dare say something like that to him. “You can’t address me like that,” he insists.

Merlin nods and looks down at the ground, compliant for the first time in their interactions.

“Sorry. How long have you been training to be a prat,” Merlin bows deeply with a flourish of his hand and looks up at Arthur through long thick lashes, “my Lord?”

Arthur blinks, unable to stop himself from smiling. A thrill runs through him like a surging wave, starting at his toes and ending in the tips of his fingers. Excitement. He finally identifies what is so entertaining about Merlin, why he feels this pull to torment him, this desire to goad him into action. For the first time in years Arthur is having fun.

He wants to fight Merlin, and he wants to win. He wants to prove that no one can insult him and get away with it. He hasn’t felt this level of excitement for a battle since he was fifteen and his father sent him on his first quest.

He doesn’t respond to Merlin’s taunting, instead swinging his mace towards Merlin just as he starts to smile back. He ducks, missing the attack by inches and scurries away.

“Scared?” Arthur mocks.

Merlin shakes his head, still stumbling away from Arthur. “Just giving you a head start that’s all.”

“Ah, naturally,” Arthur quips back.

He swings the mace back and lets it fly into the wall where Merlin was standing, grinning when Merlin yelps. A crowd of people have begun to gather around them and they all gasp as Merlin only just evades the attack.

Merlin attempts a swing back in retaliation; it’s weak wristed and he’s holding the mace entirely incorrectly. If this was one of Arthur’s newer knights he would bite back his laughter and teach the young man how to hold it correctly. Merlin warrants no such kindness so he throws his head back and laughs openly.

He gathers speed in the mace and brings it down beside Merlin, who vaults himself over a fruit cart to avoid it, sending apples flying in every direction.

“Don’t run away now Merlin!” Arthur crows after him.

“Run away? Never,” Merlin says, even as he does just that, hopping over a shelf of crates to hide behind it. “I’m just ensuring we have space to fight properly.”

“Right... which I assume is why you’ve backed yourself into a corner?” Arthur points to the dead end behind Merlin, smiling when his opponent’s face drops.

Merlin trips in his panic, falling onto a sack of potatoes with a grunt. He scrabbles like a trapped animal, eyes darting left and right for an escape. In the end Merlin’s need for escape is futile, as much to Arthur’s embarrassment, when he swings his weapon it gets caught in the hanging beams above, which happened to clash together. Merlin grins as if he was responsible for the unfortunate accident and gets to his feet, he takes advantage of Arthur’s bewilderment and heaves a decent swing at Arthur’s stomach.

Arthur grunts in pain as the mace hits him. It’s off kilter so it hits him in the arm instead of the intended target of his gut, and there isn’t enough force to do any real harm, but it hurts all the same. He rushes towards Merlin in fury and stumbles over a crate that he was sure hadn’t been there before, falling to the floor and skinning along his palms.

“Are you going to give up?” Merlin teases, spinning the mace threateningly.

Arthur glares up at him in disbelief. “To you?”

He hauls himself to his feet before Merlin can so much as move, grabbing him by the scruff of his neckerchief and punching him firmly in the gut.

Merlin drops to the ground in a heap with a gasp, knees slamming audibly into the ground. Arthur looks down at him and echoes Merlin’s words, “Are you going to give up?”

Merlin doesn’t say anything, he’s laid himself out on the ground with the breath knocked out of him, but despite that nods.

“Good,” he steps away from Merlin and two guards move forward to deal with him.

“Wait.” Arthur holds out a hand as the guards haul Merlin to his feet, who is still wheezing from the force of Arthur’s punch. “Let him go.”

The guards follow his order immediately although confusion flits across their faces.

“He may be an idiot but he’s a brave one,” Arthur explains. Merlin shakes his arms with a scowl when they let go, loosening the tension in them.

He stares Merlin down, stupid haircut, big ears and all. Despite everything Merlin still meets Arthur’s gaze straight on, refusing to relinquish his pride and lower himself to the prince. He makes Arthur equal parts curious and frustrated, like an itch impossible to scratch.

“There’s something about you Merlin,” he mutters, mostly to himself. “I can’t quite put my finger on it.”

~-~-~

“How could you be so foolish?” Gaius shouts as they march into his chambers, slamming the door closed behind him with a crash that rattles the walls. “You could have been caught!”

“I wasn’t,” Merlin rebuts, as the frustration from the fight with Arthur continues to boil in his gut.

“It isn’t worth the risk! Don’t you understand, your mother trusted you in my care, if anything happened to you—”

“—You’re the one who wanted me to stay in Camelot!” Merlin points out, his own voice rising to match Gaius’.

Gaius’ face goes red with anger. “Because I thought you could be sensible! If anyone had seen you doing magic you could have been killed.”

“They didn’t! I was careful!”

“You were reckless and impulsive,” Gaius maintains, storming across the room to face Merlin. “You have to learn to control yourself before you get hurt!”

Anger surges through Merlin’s veins, heating his body like a furnace. Frustration bunches in the muscles of his shoulders and hardens on the walls of his stomach. He twitches with the effort to keep his magic contained.

“Don’t you get it? I don’t want to control myself!” He slices his arms out wide, rage making his movements wild. “You said it yourself, I’m more powerful than anyone you’ve heard of before. Why?

Gaius pauses, his frustration slackening until he simply looks perturbed. “I don’t know.”

“You don’t know, my mother doesn’t know. I don’t know why I’m like this!” He takes a heaving breath as his heart drums a furious beat against his rib cage. “All I know is magic is a part of me, it’s who I am.”

The words choke and catch in his throat. “I can’t separate myself from it. I am magic. What is the point of all this power if I’m not allowed to use it?”

Silence settles over them like a fog, long and stretching until Merlin can hardly conceive an end to it. His chest heaves with his outburst as his fury fades away into exhaustion.

Finally Gaius replies. “That I cannot answer. Your powers force us to ask a question that has never been posed before Merlin.”

“If you don’t know the answer, no one will,” Merlin sighs as the familiar feeling of being lost settles like a heavy weight in his throat.

“No matter what it is for, Merlin, you are a miracle.”

“But I can’t use it,” Merlin says, frustration giving way to resignation.

“What you did today was not the right way to wield it regardless,” Gaius argues gently. “Magic is a tool to be used for good, not for idiotic pranks.” Despite being at least a head shorter than Merlin it feels like he’s looking down at him.

“I think teaching that arse a lesson is a very ‘good’ thing.”

“He is the prince, Merlin!”

“That doesn’t mean he can behave like a prat.”

Gaius flicks the side of Merlin’s head.

“Speaking about the prince that way is treason, you’re lucky I don’t throw you back to the dungeons,” Gaius mutters, but his words are softened by the smile toying at his lips.

Merlin offers a shaky smile in response.

“Come on,” Gaius tips his head towards Merlin’s room. “Let me have a look at your bruises and get a poultice sorted for the pain.”

~-~-~

Merlin can’t sleep, despite resolving his argument with Gaius, the words still plague his mind. He has always felt stranded by his magic. It is something intrinsic that he loves and appreciates about himself but it is also a question no one can answer. To hold so much power, seemingly without explanation, doesn’t make sense. Every time he closes his eyes, their argument plays in his mind, probing him and jabbing him with its barbs. So he is very much awake when the voice calls out to him again.

Merlin.”

This time it is more than just the sound of his name but a feeling deep in Merlin’s body that compels him to follow. The directions to the source seem to be embedded in his very veins, bones and muscles, like Merlin was born with this knowledge hidden within him.

He quietly pulls on his boots and sneaks past Gaius snoring in the main room of the chambers. The night air is a cool sting on his face and the darkness shrouding the castle makes everything feel vaguely foreboding. The pull towards the voice takes him across the castle in the direction of the dungeons. He’s careful to avoid any guards patrolling the area; there isn’t really a good explanation for ‘I’m following a voice in my head’.

He reaches a staircase that is long and arched, paved with ageing stone and shrouded in darkness, the light of Merlin’s torch dances on the walls in flickering patterns and sends goosebumps down Merlin’s arms. He knows he is going in the right direction, but still Merlin hesitates for a moment.

Merlin,” the voice calls again, as though it can sense his hesitation and knows Merlin needs to be nudged towards it. He takes the first step, cringing as his footstep echoes through the hallway.

He reaches the end and rounds the corner into a massive cave that stretches as far as the eye can see. The ceiling is curved and covered in dripping stalactites that hang from the rocky surface. The cavern is so expansive that the light of Merlin’s torch doesn’t even reach the far wall. He squints into the darkness, following the lines of granite in search of something that could have called to him. Nothing stands out. Despite the incredible size of the space it is bleak. The most interesting thing in the whole space is the large boulder that sits in the immediate entrance, which is larger than Merlin’s home back in Ealdor.

“Hello?” He calls into the cavernous abyss, his voice reverberates around the room, echoing in Merlin’s ears. “Are you there?”

A chuckle responds to his call, so low it vibrates in Merlin’s rib cage and sends a chill down his spine. The voice isn’t warm but simultaneously isn’t guarded, and is aged with a wisdom Merlin couldn’t comprehend.

“I am here.”

With heavy beats, a gust of wind smacks into Merlin, so powerful he’s almost pulled completely off his feet. He grabs at the rocky wall to steady himself, torch flickering dangerously close to going out completely. The wind stills and the cave falls quiet again but from the chaos a dragon is now perched upon the rock, staring down at him.

Merlin stares up at the massive dragon in awe. He is a golden brown colour, scales glittering where Merlin’s torch light falls on them. His eyes are bright yellow and seem to gaze directly into Merlin’s very soul, like his skin and bones are just a facade and the dragon can see beyond that into the very core of Merlin’s essence.

“Hello young warlock,” The Dragon greets him, bowing his giant scaly head. “How small you are, for someone with such a great destiny.”

The Dragon speaks like he understands more than Merlin can ever possibly know, his words underpinned with the knowledge of hundreds of lifetimes passed and to come.

“What do you mean?” Merlin asks, his own voice feeling small by comparison.

The Dragon smiles, sharp teeth glinting. “I speak of the answer you have been seeking, the reason for your great power.”

Merlin’s eyes go wide. “So there is a reason?”

“Of course. Your destiny.”

Something blooms in Merlin’s chest, bright and hopeful, he feels dizzy with the revelation.

“What is my destiny? I don’t understand.”

“You will,” The Dragon says simply.

Merlin struggles not to leap with joy. He knew he was destined for something, that there was a purpose to his power. To have that confirmed, by a creature with such great power and wisdom, is a dream come true.

“Arthur is the Once and Future King whose destiny is to unite the Land of Albion. In his path he faces many threats, from friend and foe alike”

Merlin hesitates, the change in topic leaving him feeling off kilter and unsure. “Right…” he says, confused. The Dragon says nothing so Merlin continues, “I don’t see what this has to do with me.”

“It has everything to do with you,” The Dragon snaps.

“You are what guides the path to making Albion a reality. You must protect Arthur against those determined to bring him harm.” The Dragon stares at Merlin, his sharp gaze sitting like a weight on Merlin’s shoulders. “For without you Arthur can never succeed. Without you there can be no Albion.”

Merlin gapes at The Dragon. “You can’t be serious.”

The Dragon stares at him amused. “I know more than you can ever fathom, young warlock.”

“No. No way, no.” Merlin shakes his head roughly, trying to shake off The Dragon’s words. “If anyone wants to kill him they can go right ahead, in fact, I’ll give them a hand.”

The Dragon laughs, a booming sound that rings against Merlin’s eardrums.

“None of us can choose our destiny, Merlin,” he says, mouth stretched in an entertained grin. “And none of us can escape it.”

“No, you’re wrong.” Merlin steps backwards. “No, there must be another Arthur because this one’s an idiot.”

The Dragon chuckles again. “Perhaps it is your destiny to change that.”

With those final words he unfurls his wings and takes off before Merlin can open his mouth to speak. Merlin is pushed backwards by the force of the wind from his wings.

“Wait, stop!” Merlin calls after him. The chain around The Dragon’s leg rattles as he takes off towards the roof of the cave. “Please stop! I need to know more!”

If The Dragon hears him he doesn’t acknowledge it, flying out of sight and leaving Merlin with the answer he has always craved, and now wishes he didn’t have.

~-~-~

Merlin stares at Arthur across the banquet hall talking with some of the knights, trying to understand how he could possibly be the Once and Future King. He cannot reconcile such a destiny, to be the King who will unite the lands of Albion, with the idiot Merlin has just met. Even if Arthur were to assume this fate, their interactions alone are enough to prove that Merlin will not be at his side while he does it. No matter what The Dragon says, or how all knowing he claims to be, Merlin is sure that he’s mistaken in what he believes to be Merlin and Arthur’s destiny.

Merlin can tell one of the other knights has drawn attention to Merlin’s entrance because Arthur hunches himself over and pretends to cry in fear. The whole group laughs like he’s told some clever joke.

Destiny can go fuck itself.

He turns his attention to the rest of the party instead. The Lady Morgana is as beautiful as everyone has assured him. He hadn’t gotten the chance to see her before, despite delivering a healing potion to her the day before. She has thick black hair bound in a spiralling braid at the back of her head, and a proud smile that says she’s aware of the way eyes follow her across the room.

“Merlin,” Gaius hisses, smacking his shoulder, mistakenly assuming that Merlin was gawking at Morgana’s beauty when he was truly just in awe of her confidence. “You are here to work,” he reminds him.

Merlin doesn’t quite understand how he ended up serving the banquet when he isn’t an employee of the castle, even Gaius isn’t a traditional servant, but he moves from table to table nonetheless, pouring wine and serving food. He’s partially grateful for the opportunity, as he scans the room in wonder at the opulence before him.

A blasting trumpet announces the entrance of the King Uther, and signals to everyone attending that they are to take their places at the long tables. Merlin moves to the side with the other servants as Uther marches down the centre of the two long tables laden with food and glowing candles. Heads bow in respect as he strides past with a confident tilt to his royal chin, as though attention is a comfortable cloak he shrugs over his shoulders.

When Uther reaches the front of the hall he turns to face the audience with a smile.

“We have enjoyed twenty years of peace and prosperity,” he says, gesturing widely as though to encompass the amount of peace. Merlin thinks of the sorcerer he saw executed, and has to bite his cheek to keep himself from showing any disbelief on his face.

“This has brought the kingdom, and myself, many pleasures,” Uther continues. “But few can compare to the honour of introducing…” he pauses for dramatic effect and Merlin puts a lot of effort into not rolling his eyes. “Lady Helen of Mora.”

Lady Helen enters the room with a pleasant smile, turning both her hands to the audience and bowing once to the king before beginning her song.

Her voice is clear as crystal, a lilting melody that is as tender and smooth as a caress. She keeps her head high as she sings, letting the notes perform for her. Despite her beautiful singing Merlin feels an uncomfortable itch between the connections of his joints. A hissing noise pushes at his mind, like he’s sensing something he can’t see. The only time he’s felt anything similar was when The Dragon called Merlin to his cave, like magic was pulling him in a specific direction. Only now it pushes with force.

He claps his hands over his ears just as the rest of the hall begin to droop, slumping against the table and their neighbours in slumber. The room darkens as the candles extinguish, like she is pulling the life and energy from everything in the room with her words. Cobwebs begin creeping along every member of the feast, stringing from one person to another. A layer of dust collects over the room, in the span of a single song she has made it appear like the kingdom has been asleep for centuries.

The allure of Lady Helen’s voice remains but it is bone chilling, building in a crescendo. There is an ache to her words, a sadness flowing from the vowels and a fury hidden in the way she vocalises the consonants. Merlin shivers, shifting from foot to foot in a desperate attempt to stave off the inhumane cold she brings.

She hasn’t yet noticed he is still awake because she is wholly focused on one point in the room — Arthur.

She pulls a dagger from her sleeve, never once turning away from the sleeping prince. The blade glints despite the lack of light, sharp and deadly. Merlin feels a swell of panic crash over him. He glances around the room desperately, eyes falling quickly on the chandelier above Lady Helen’s head. Her voice is so high she is practically screaming.

With a flash of gold Merlin’s magic slices through the air, severing the chandelier’s chain, sending it crashing to the ground on top of the Lady Helen just as she reels her arm back to launch the dagger at Arthur.

The second her body hits the ground the room begins to rouse. The guests are all waking with confused expressions, rubbing the sleep out of their eyes and pulling at the thick layer of cobwebs stretched over them. Uther is faster to react than anyone, jumping to his feet and staring at the Lady Helen.

Only she isn't Lady Helen any longer. She pushes herself up slowly, struggling against the weight of the enormous chandelier. Her arms shake with the effort and Merlin reels back. It’s the woman from the execution, the mother, he recognises her immediately. She isn’t crying today, but the fury, the burning hatred in her eyes, is the same.

“A son for a son”

Merlin remembers her words vividly now, she doesn’t care what happens to her, she only has one goal. With a scream of rage she throws the dagger.

Merlin doesn’t have time to think about it, he doesn’t even consider otherwise. He jumps towards Arthur, stood frozen in place, and grabbing him by the arm pulls him down. There is a thunk above their heads as the dagger collides with the throne Arthur was standing in front of.

Arthur scrambles to sit up, from his profile Merlin can see the fear in his eyes as he looks at the sharp blade embedded in the exact place his heart would have been.

“You saved my son’s life,” Uther says in wonder as they both get to their feet. Arthur turns to look at him for the first time and his face drops in shocked recognition. They stare at each other for a moment that seems to stretch. Arthur’s eyebrows are furrowed in confusion as though he can’t understand why Merlin would save him, and Merlin is trying to discern the same thing within himself.

“A debt must be repaid. You shall be rewarded”

Merlin snaps out of his stupor. “No honestly, you don’t have to, Your Highness. It was nothing.”

“I won’t hear of it,” Uther insists. “This merits something quite special. You shall be awarded a position in the royal household.” Arthur’s head snaps from Merlin to look at his father in disbelief. From the deep knit of his brow and the incredulous twist of his mouth, it’s obvious that Arthur understands something that Merlin is oblivious to.

“You shall be Prince Arthur’s manservant,” Uther declares with a tone that suggests it is a reward Merlin should be eager to receive.

He sees his own horror reflected in Arthur’s face as he protests.

“Father!”

Uther either doesn’t hear him or doesn’t deem his son’s grievance worthy enough to acknowledge, walking towards the applauding crowd with a benevolent grin. Merlin glances at Arthur, meeting his glare head on with a grimace.

~-~-~

Merlin presses his face into the table and lets out a long inhumane noise, broken up by a litany of curses and a scream which he tempers with clenched teeth.

“A reward?” He mutters incredulously to himself, lifting his forehead up only to thump it back into the table again. “In what universe is serving that prat a reward?”

“Most would consider being a part of the royal household an honour,” Gaius answers from the doorway.

“Gaius!” Merlin shouts, sitting up straight and plastering a smile onto his face.

Gaius chuckles, walking properly into Merlin’s room and taking the seat across from him on the small cramped desk. In his hands is a red parcel, about the size of a large dinner platter but thick and weighted as it thumps onto the table.

“It seems that you’re a hero,” he says, raising his eyebrows at Merlin.

Merlin hums. “Seems like it. Hard to believe isn’t it?”

“Not at all.” Gaius reaches over and pats Merlin’s hand fondly. “I knew it from the moment I met you, you saved my life, remember?”

He shrugs sheepishly. “That’s not being a hero, anyone would do that.”

Gaius concedes the point with a nod. “But not just anyone can.”

Merlin furrows his brow in confusion, taking in Gaius’ words slowly.

“You mean my magic?”

Gaius nods. “It seems we finally have a use for it, an answer to the why. I saw how you saved Arthur.”

“That wasn’t magic,” Merlin attempts to argue.

“No, but I assume the Lady Helen was not crushed by a chandelier by chance.” Gaius smiles knowingly, raising his bushy eyebrows in question at Merlin.

“Well, no…”

Gaius makes a knowing noise. “Perhaps that is its purpose.”

Merlin thinks of The Dragon’s words, what he had tried so hard to reject.

None of us can choose our destiny Merlin, and none of us can escape it.

“My destiny,” he says a little glumly.

“Indeed.”

Seeming to remember the wrapped gift on the table, Gaius slides it towards Merlin.

“This book was given to me when I was your age, a very long time ago now.” He pats the top fondly before releasing it to Merlin. “I have a feeling it will be of more use to you than it ever was to me.”

Merlin unwraps the red cover slowly. The book is a deep brown, scratched with use and the embossing along the edges has almost completely worn away. It is fastened by clips that might have once been a brilliant bronze, but are now damaged and old. He unfastens the clasps carefully, rifling through the old and yellowing pages.

“This is a book of magic,” he whispers, eyes glancing over the words with eager fascination.

“It is,” Gaius says quietly. “Which is why you must keep it hidden.”

“I will,” Merlin promises, tears pricking at the corners of his eyes.

It’s the most information about magic that Merlin has ever seen, or heard, in his entire lifetime. He touches the pages almost reverently, as though he can soak the magic through the ink. Between the actual fastened pages of the book there are spare pieces of parchment, spells, potions, lists of ingredients and their properties and how those can be enchanted to create magical poultices.

“I’ll study every word.” “I know you will,” Gaius says.

Merlin looks up at Gaius. “Thank you,” he says, voice cracking around the words.

The old man smiles back at him, leaning forward to lay a reassuring hand on Merlin’s arm. “You’re very welcome.”

 

 

~-~-~

thank you to the incredible Buffy for the amazing art she did for the chapter !!!! i am so honoured 💕

Check him out on tiktok at APBuffy !!!!!!!