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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 !!!!!!!

Chapter Text

“But Father,” Arthur tries to argue, desperate to resolve the situation. He hurries alongside the King, practically jogging just to keep pace with him.

“I won’t hear another word of it,” Uther shuts him down immediately. “If you didn’t want this, ‘Merlin’, for your manservant you should have chosen one for yourself sooner.”

Arthur scowls. He’s all too aware that his own indecisiveness regarding the appointment of a permanent manservant has put him in this position; but that does nothing to help his mounting frustration. Throughout the course of his life he has been attended to by a selection of servants and he’s never taken issue with it before, why should he need to have one person around him all the time? Worse still if that person is to be Merlin.

“But Merlin, really?”

Uther frowns. The guards open the doors to the king’s chambers as they approach. “Has the boy done something wrong? If he poses a threat to you I can remove him from the position.”

Arthur scrambles for a cover story. “No! It’s completely fine, Merlin has— he’s done nothing wrong.”

To admit to his father why he is hesitant to employ Merlin as his manservant means revealing what Merlin had said about Arthur, their resulting squabble and Arthur’s decision to let him go. The resulting lecture would do nothing to improve the already exhausting night.

Uther takes a seat at his desk, eyes scanning over documents even as he continues to speak to Arthur. “After all Arthur he saved your life,” he says with an air of finality. “He deserves to be rewarded.”

Arthur bites back his retort that he has no idea why Merlin saved his life when Arthur practically tried to kill him the day before.

He grapples for any excuse. “Merlin isn’t even trained.”

“So he’ll be trained,” Uther replies dismissively, waving his hand to shoo away Arthur’s worries like a bothersome fly.

Arthur opens his mouth and closes it again when he realises he has no further substantial arguments to present.

Uther looks up at Arthur for a moment. “Is there anything else, Arthur?”

He poses it as a question but his tone is a dismissal, a kinder way of saying ‘I was patient with you but now my patience has reached its end, I suggest you leave the room immediately’.

Arthur resigns himself to the fact that he is going to have to put up with Merlin on a constant basis, and that his frustrating presence will be a new staple in Arthur’s life. He takes a deep breath and forces a smile, his political smile, bright and full. Only someone who knew him incredibly well would be able to tell it isn’t a true smile. So no one can tell.

“No Sire, that’s all,” Arthur concedes, bowing his head.

“Very well,” Uther replies, already returning to the documents in front of him.

“Goodnight Father.” Arthur leaves the room immediately after, not expecting a response and not receiving one.

~-~-~

Arthur lies awake, having slept fitfully through the night in nervous preparation for Merlin’s first day of work.

Arthur doesn’t actually know whether he wants Merlin to improve his behaviour. The thing about Merlin is that he is entertaining because he’s like no one Arthur has met before. He’s rude and sarcastic, he says what’s on his mind, and he doesn’t care about Arthur’s position. His strange rudeness makes Arthur enthralled by him, however simultaneously those very traits make him froth at the mouth with anger. To be surrounded by that all day, disrespected and brazen with insults, sounds like absolute torture.

Arthur doesn’t know which would be worse; Merlin turning up only to act as the model servant, or for him to continue to be discourteous.

He is drawn out of his confusion by Merlin stumbling into the room, five minutes late and struggling with the weight of the breakfast platter.

“You’re late,” Arthur complains, wrinkling his nose in distaste as Merlin drops the platter onto the long table with a clatter.

“I came as fast as I could,” Merlin argues as he doubles over, taking the chance to breathe.

“Don’t argue, just do better.” Arthur sits up and meets Merlin’s unimpressed gaze.

“Well apologies, your royal prat-ness, not that you would know, or care, but the kitchens are not within convenient walking distance of your chambers,” Merlin snipes, throwing the curtains open so the sun floods the room.

Arthur groans and covers his eyes against the sudden bright onslaught. “You aren’t allowed to say things like that to me,” he attempts.

“Sorry Sire,” Merlin replies without a pause, moving over to the bed and tugging the covers off Arthur, exposing him to the icy morning air. Somehow he manages to make the title sound like an insult, like ‘Sire’ is just another word for ‘chamberpot’.

“Are you able to dress yourself, or is that a part of my duties too?” Merlin asks.

Arthur uncovers his face to stare at him disbelievingly. “Do you actually know anything about being a servant?”

“Not really, your father just gave me the position.”

“I wish he hadn’t,” Arthur mutters, swinging his feet over the end of the bed and getting up.

“That makes two of us.”

Arthur watches in fascination as Merlin bustles around the room. Despite knowing nothing about his role he seems to understand the vague processes involved with getting Arthur ready for the day. He ties back the curtains so the window is cleared, moves the plates and cutlery into a seating place for Arthur and pulls back the chair.

“Yes, you have to help me get dressed,” Arthur says, remembering Merlin’s question.

Merlin nods with a wry smile and moves to Arthur’s closet, retrieving a red tunic and a pair of trousers. “You know,” he muses as he approaches, “most small children know how to dress themselves.”

Arthur tightens his jaw and takes a steeling breath. “I could throw you in the stocks for your insolence.”

“But then how would you put on your trousers?”

Arthur glares heatedly at Merlin, hoping to make him cower with nerves before the prince.

Merlin doesn’t even flinch, instead he smiles cheekily and opens the trouser leg for Arthur to step into. The interaction has done nothing to answer Arthur’s question. He still has to tamp down the urge to make Merlin pay for daring to speak to him in such a rude manner; and he’s equally fascinated by the conversation, how different Merlin is, how much fun it is to bounce insults between them.

“You will help me with my training for the tournament tomorrow,” Arthur says, stiffly. He imagines battering Merlin with his training sword and smiles. This is the perfect solution for releasing his frustrations towards his idiot of a manservant.

Merlin looks cautious for the first time all morning. “Right… What exactly does that entail?”

“Sparring,” Arthur answers bluntly.

Merlin pales.

~-~-~

It takes Arthur three days to finally verbalise the question that's been sitting in the back of his mind like a looming presence. He is sitting on the edge of his bed, undressed and ready to sleep but his mind is whirring. Merlin is across the room, stoking the fire in preparation to warm Arthur’s room for the night.

“Merlin?” Arthur calls Merlin’s attention. His voice comes out meek and small, he clears his throat and tries again. “Merlin, come here I have a question.”

Merlin looks up from his task with a curious glance. “Okay,” he says, stretching out the word to emphasise how perturbed he is by Arthur’s behaviour.

“When we met,” Arthur starts when Merlin stops in front of him, faltering as he realises he has no idea how to say this.

Merlin raises his eyebrows impatiently, his hands are clasped in front of him in a loose semblance of the position servants are meant to take when speaking to Arthur. Everything Merlin does is just shy of correct and respectful, the hands are meant to be behind his back, and his feet lined straight; but it’s close enough.

Arthur tries again. “When we met, you stopped me from berating the servant boy.”

Merlin blinks a few times, like he’s waiting for Arthur to say more. “Yes?”

Arthur shifts awkwardly on the bed, toying with the corner of the sheet. “I don’t understand why.”

He chances a look up at Merlin, meeting his confused expression with the most welcoming face he can muster. Merlin’s brows are furrowed in thought, his mouth twisted and pursed in a way that seems like he’s holding back a laugh, or thinking very hard about how to respond respectfully — so it’s significantly more likely to be the former.

“You don’t understand why?” He confirms and Arthur nods sharply.

“Explain,” Arthur commands.

Merlin out a single bark of disbelieving laughter. “You were being an arse.”

“You really can’t call me that,” Arthur tries to argue,

“There’s no other word for it,” Merlin replies, barely even hearing Arthur’s protest. Arthur clamps his mouth shut, tamping down the flash of irritation that runs through him.

Merlin sighs, tugging on a loose string on his tunic and Arthur watches the movement of his fingers with interest. “You can’t just treat people like what they want doesn’t matter.”

He looks up to meet Merlin’s blue eyes, confused. “My father told me that everyone wants to serve me, that it makes them happy.”

“And you believe that?”

Arthur hesitates and considers. Slowly he nods, his head heavy and almost clumsy in his shy hesitance. “I’ve never had any reason not to. No one has ever told me otherwise.”

“Just because everyone is too scared to speak out, doesn’t mean they agree with you,” Merlin explains, staring at Arthur to ensure he understands.

Teeth clenched and feeling like a stranger in his own skin Arthur lets the words settle into him. They’re sharp, pricking his skin like pins that sit uncomfortably within him, sharp points that force him to acknowledge his failings. He wants to do the right thing by the people of Camelot, and he had always thought he was. The realisation that he was wrong is like a rash, irritating his skin and leaving him feeling ill at ease. He needs time to process without Merlin there watching him with a bemused expression.

“Alright. You’re dismissed.” Arthur waves Merlin away.

Merlin rolls his eyes. “You’re welcome,” he drawls, making his way to Arthur’s door.

“You called me an arse,” Arthur reminds him.

~-~-~

His first few days of working for Arthur were horrible. There’s no doubt about it.

Arthur had him spar with him until his arms were like lead, so heavy that by the end of the day he could barely move them. The next day he was delegated a list of chores so long it would have taken him well into the evening and the next day if he didn’t have magic to help. He forgot half of the steps to get Arthur into his armour for the tournament which earned him a disappointed glare — and isn’t that the kicker? Despite it all, Merlin is more upset that Arthur doesn’t seem to like him any more than before, despite their close proximity to each other.

However on the third day, after their conversation in Arthur’s room that evening, there’s a shift. Merlin starts to see something in Arthur that he hadn’t before. He sees it in the way Arthur smiles and how he quickly disguises it with a cough when Merlin tells a joke. How he blinks in surprise when Merlin straps him into his armour successfully and his hesitant compliments before remembering himself and covering it with an insult.

“Is it my imagination, or are you starting to enjoy yourself?” Gaius asks, catching Merlin smiling as he watches Arthur run onto the field for the tournament.

“What?” Merlin scoffs, crossing his arms across his chest like a barrier. “Enjoying myself— what are you even—” he cuts himself off with a sigh on seeing the disbelieving quirk of Gaius’ brow.

Gaius smiles knowingly.

“It’s not… totally awful,” Merlin admits reluctantly.

It’s just as much of a shock to Merlin as it is to Gaius how true that is. Arthur is still an arse, and that seems unlikely to change, but he doesn’t mind Merlin’s lack of formality too much, and is quick and sharp with barbs of his own. They get along well and that edge of dislike has dropped away into tolerance. Merlin might even go as far to say that they almost enjoy each other’s company.

Which is why it hurts so much when Arthur sacks him.

Arthur’s back is to the door when Merlin walks in, his shoulders hunched up to his ears, like he’s trying to retreat inside his body. He’s braced on his desk, hands splayed out to steady himself and even from across the room Merlin can see the harsh way he’s breathing. Merlin doesn’t dare speak.

Arthur has been competing in a tournament for the last few days, a gross sweaty affair that Merlin truly cannot see the point of. One knight from a visiting kingdom, Valiant, made it no secret that he planned to beat Arthur. He didn’t stand a chance, Arthur might have many faults but his fighting ability is not one of them. Merlin was the one who discovered that the Knight Valiant was using sorcery in the tournament, and he had gone to Arthur for help.

Gaius had warned Merlin that without proper evidence the word of a servant was not enough to get Valiant convicted. Though Merlin had seen his shield come to life with his own eyes — snakes lifting themselves from the metal with venomous teeth bared — his word was worth nothing against the gentry. For Arthur to stand before the King anyway, on Merlin’s word alone was a show of complete faith. Yet Valiant twisted Arthur’s words to make it appear like he was making false accusations to avoid facing him in the tournament.

Now Merlin feels like he’s standing on the edge of a dark cliffside, with no idea what will meet him when he falls.

“I believed you, I… I trusted you,” Arthur says eventually, voice terrifyingly even. “You made me look like a complete fool.”

“Arthur—” Merlin tries to apologise but Arthur ploughs on, cold with anger.

“Do you understand how much appearances matter to someone like me? You made me look like a coward in front of my father and the entire royal court.”

Arthur steps forward, crowding into Merlin’s space, his face red with livid fury. Anger radiates off him in waves, shaking with the force of keeping it somewhat contained.

“I didn’t mean to—”

“—You humiliated me!” Arthur shouts, arm slicing through the air by his side. Merlin’s knees tremble, he curls in on himself slightly away from Arthur, he’s never seen anyone so furious.

“We can still expose Valiant, then they’ll see you were telling the truth,” he says, grateful that his voice doesn’t shake.

The rage in Arthur’s eyes dim, like the fight is completely drained out of him. He goes lax, shoulders dropping low and heavy, slumped under the pressure piled upon him.

“No Merlin,” he grits through his teeth, turning his back on Merlin and staring out the window. Even from behind Merlin can see the way he squeezes his eyes shut.

“I no longer require your services.”

Merlin’s stomach plummets to the floor. “You’re sacking me?”

“I need a servant I can trust,” Arthur replies, his chin jutting out stubbornly.

“You can trust me.”

“Look where it got me.” Arthur’s hard and unyielding eyes glance over the Merlin. He is impossible to read, Merlin can see in their deep blue the stone wall that Arthur has built and barracked at the entrances. Impenetrable.

“Get out of my sight,” he says quietly.

“Arthur—”

“— Get out.”

Merlin storms straight for The Dragon’s cavern, his own anger rendering him breathless. With every pounding step he sees Arthur’s eyes in his mind, the fury, the distrust and worse still, the aching pain and humiliation.

“Hey!” Merlin yells into the cavernous space, his shout reverberating off the walls. “I just came to let you know you have the wrong person! Whatever grand destiny you think I’m meant to fulfil, whatever my great purpose is, you’re wrong.”

The cave doesn’t answer, The Dragon nowhere to be seen. Merlin pants heavily, chest heaving, his irritation bubbles in his throat.

“You’re wrong! It’s not me,” Merlin says, he slumps against the wall, the determination in his blood fizzles out. The cave remains silent and unhelpful. “So that’s it! I’m done.” He turns to walk away.

“If only it were so easy to escape one’s destiny,” The Dragon’s voice stops him. The chain around his ankle rattles as The Dragon flaps over to the rock opposite Merlin and perches there with an all-knowing smile.

“Destiny,” Merlin scoffs, kicking at a rock with the toe of his shoe. Arthur’s face flashes across his mind, the burning hatred in his blue eyes. “How can it be my destiny to protect someone who hates me?”

The Dragon chuckles. “The half cannot truly hate that which makes it whole,” he answers cryptically.

“That doesn’t even make any sense,” Merlin says. “I don’t need riddles, I need answers.”

“Sometimes the answer you need is not the answer you seek.”

“Do you ever give a straight answer?”

With a smile The Dragon ignores Merlin’s question, instead saying, “Your path and Arthur’s lie together, that is not a riddle. That is the truth.”

“How am I meant to protect him when he won’t even look at me?”

“All will come with time. This is not the end, young warlock, it is the beginning. You will see.”

The Dragon flies away before Merlin has the chance to reply, leaving him with more questions than answers, and a heaving ache sitting in his lungs.

~-~-~

Merlin can’t stop turning over The Dragon’s words in his mind. His supposed destiny is to protect Arthur, but he tried to do that and failed. Now Arthur hates him, and he’s more lost than he was before. He wanders around the castle for almost an entire hour, trying to work out what to do.

He can’t leave Arthur to die in the tournament, but Arthur doesn’t want his help. His magic is useless if he doesn’t have a way to channel it, and he doesn’t have a plan. Nothing about this situation is simple and it makes Merlin want to put his head in his hands and cry.

Gwen catches his arm when he finally makes the choice to return to Gaius’ chambers, feeling like all of his limbs are dragging him down towards the ground. He wants to tear his hair out with desperation, or sink into the floor and succumb to exhaustion.

“Merlin,” she says, fingers wrapped around his wrist like a bracelet. “Is it true what you said about Valiant using magic?”

Her dark eyes are round as saucers and terrified. Like every young person who grew up in Camelot she would have been taught from infancy to fear sorcery as a dark force of evil.

Merlin nods jerkily, unsure what else to do. He looks away, preparing for Gwen to scorn at him, to not believe his outlandish claim. Instead her mouth parts in shock and she lets out a shaky exhale.

“What are you going to do?” She asks, and it’s the last response he’d expect. His head snaps back to her, eyebrows raised.

“Me?” He confirms, meeting her worried expression with confusion. “Why does everyone seem to think it’s down to me to do something?”

Gwen pauses, considering, and answers frankly. “Because it is. Uther certainly won’t.

He doesn’t even believe you.” She looks out the window, in the vague directions of Arthur’s chambers. “And Arthur can’t, no matter how much he does believe you.”

Merlin chuckles humorlessly. “He doesn’t believe me.”

“Yes he does,” Gwen snaps. Merlin blinks in surprise and she gathers herself. “Just because he can’t do anything about it doesn’t mean he doesn’t believe you. I was…” she trails off.

Merlin waits for her to continue.

“I’ll admit, I was a bit worried when the King gave you the position of Arthur’s servant, you two seemed to hate each other.” Merlin tips his head in agreement, unable to help the small smile that creeps onto his face. “But that’s changed already, I can tell you don’t want him to get hurt. He needs that. Someone like you to watch his back.”

“He’s the prince, no one wants him to get hurt,” Merlin points out.

Gwen nods. “But no one cares enough to stop it from happening.”

The words make something deep in Merlin ache.

He thinks of Arthur, nervous and oblivious to the fact that not everyone is happy to do his bidding; learning for the first time that just because his father says something is right, doesn’t mean it is. How he disguises his emotions with a hand over his smile, a cough over his laughter, a diplomatic expression over his sadness. Realisation washes over Merlin. It’s not by choice, Arthur has never been allowed to be himself. It’s not as simple as not wanting to appear cowardly, he cannot be afraid.

They’re not close, Arthur isn’t his friend, but Merlin doesn’t want anything to happen to him. Even if that means putting himself in a position to get hurt. Uther wouldn't do the same, he won’t trust his son’s word alone, or stick his neck out for him.

Gaius had warned Merlin that no one would listen to him. The word of a servant against a knight is worth nothing, but Arthur had listened. Merlin needs to do the same.

“I don’t know what to do, Gwen.”

“You have to show everyone that you were right and they were wrong.”

Gwen looks Merlin deep in the eyes, her face shining with a deep trust and faith, like she’s never doubted him. Her confidence is infectious.

Merlin pulls a face. “And how do I do that?”

There’s a short silence, Gwen’s lips parted like she’s about to speak but doesn’t know what to say. “I don’t know,” she finally answers.

Merlin nods slowly. “Me neither.”

He stares around the entrance to the citadel where they’ve stopped. It’s a large courtyard, with the centre taken up by a looming staircase leading towards the castle’s entrance and pillars lining the borders. There are small statues of various animals decorating the space, dragons, lions, owls and dogs. Merlin’s eyes fixate on them, a scheme forms slowly in his brain. The pieces of an idea start as whisps, barely fathomable, and slowly form into something more tangible that weaves itself together into a clear plan.

If he can make the snakes emerge, force them off the shield and into public view, everyone will see that he was telling the truth and Valiant will be disqualified. More importantly, Arthur will be cleared of any humiliation or dishonour.

Gwen is kind enough not to question his sudden desire to steal the dog statue from the courtyard. She even goes so far as to help him by fetching a wheelbarrow and carting it with him to Gaius’ chambers.

Merlin flicks through the pages of the book hurriedly, skimming past instructions for curing magical poisons, the intricacies of ageing spells, and various recipes for enchanted poultices that help with sleep. His eyes skip wildly over the pages, desperately searching for the right enchantment.

Eventually he finds it. A spell to temporarily force artificial life into objects.

He looks at the dog statue and carefully says the incantation. Nothing happens. It remains lifeless and no different to when he and Gwen lugged it across the castle. He tries again, reaching for his magic and struggling to grasp it.

Merlin puts more emphasis on the start of the incantation, the end, the middle, every second syllable. He tries it standing, sitting, upside down. The dog statue remains a statue, staring judgmentally back at him, an immalleable stone.

He grasps fruitlessly for the usual swell of his magic within him, its familiar pull, the energy coiled deep in his soul. He pulls it forward, but it veers uncontrollably, writhing in his grasp and resisting his attempts to channel it. Attempting to control it feels like attempting to reign a wild horse, spiralling out of his grasp with every attempted incantation.

Merlin doesn’t sleep, he repeats the incantation all night, his head lolling forward as tiredness seeps into his bones. The morning sun rises through his window and still he continues. He can hear the sounds of the people heading for the field to watch the finale of the tournament. Arthur will be there already. Soon the snakes will emerge from Valiant’s shield where no one can see them and kill him, and Merlin can’t do anything about it.

A surge of desperation claws up his throat, bringing his magic with it. He lets his mind seize hold, channelling his desperation to succeed into emotion and letting that power his words. He can feel the difference, the clear path for his magic to follow from his body to the statue. When he opens his eyes a dog is sitting before him.

“I did it!” He cheers, ducking away from the angry dog. He runs to the tournament, ducking and weaving through the halls and narrowly dodging other servants in his path. Excitement pounds an exhilarating rhythm through him, a thrum of energy that surges up his legs with every step he takes. The arena is just to the left of the castle, the sun burns high above him and he relishes in the warm feeling of it as he skids to a stop by the entrance.

Arthur’s sword clashes with Valiant’s. Valiant is fast, and talented, but he’s not quick enough. Without sorcery he doesn’t stand a chance of defeating Arthur and he knows it.

Merlin is glad Arthur is smart enough to avoid Valiant’s shield almost more so than his sword. He jams Valiant in the shoulder with the hilt of his own sword, using the time it takes Valiant to stumble backwards to dodge around him. Valiant slashes forward twice. Arthur’s sword is lost in Valiant’s attack but he doesn’t lose the upper hand, using Valiant’s shield as a lever and crashing it into the Knight’s nose. There’s an opening for Merlin to force the reveal.

He knows the sensation to draw on, he feels his magic tug deep in his gut, seizes it and wraps it around the incantation. He whispers the words, careful no one around is looking his way.

The snakes materialise from the shield with an ominous hiss, baring their sharp fangs at Arthur. Both Valiant and Arthur are equally surprised by the snakes’ appearance. Merlin grins at the horrified look on Valiant’s face, taking a moment to enjoy it before glancing towards Uther. He is stone faced with fury, teeth bared and eyes burning with disgust.

“How dare you!” Uther roars, Arthur glances over to him and Valiant chuckles darkly, taking advantage of the distraction.

“Kill him!” Valiant commands, pointing at Arthur and urging the snakes forward. They advance on Arthur with malicious snaps of their jaws, hissing so loudly Merlin can hear it from across the arena.

Morgana tugs a free sword from the sheath of the knight by her side, and tosses it towards Arthur with a shout of his name.

Arthur lunges forward, attacking first Valiant with rigour until he stumbles back. The clanging and sharp sounds of swords clashing fills the air. He turns, spinning on his heel and beheads the snakes in a single fell swoop. Without breaking stride Arthur turns back to Valiant. Their swords clash first, ringing out, Arthur steps around Valiant’s clumsy swing.

Merlin watches enthralled as Arthur knocks Valiant’s sword from his hand. He steps between his shield and unprotected chest and plunges his sword into Valiant’s chest. He twists and Valiant’s eyes go glassy and still. Merlin can’t find it in himself to feel sorry for the man, even as he drops to the ground. Not after he tried to kill Arthur.

The crowd erupts in a cheer, launching to their feet with raucous applause.

~-~-~

There’s something thrilling about defeating a sorcerer in front of an entire audience. The victory is sweet; Arthur savours the proud glint in his father’s eyes and the awed whispers that follow him as he makes his way through the feast that has been thrown in his honour.

His success feels even more satisfying with the knowledge that defeating Valiant serves as indisputable indisputable proof that he had been telling the truth in court; his name has been cleared of the humiliation that was following him like a foul stench.

Arthur’s eyes glance over to Merlin, standing stiff as a board on the side of the banquet hall. Guilt twists uncomfortably in his stomach, much as he’s loath to admit it, his outburst of anger was entirely uncalled for, and now that the dust has settled, Arthur is forced to see that he was the one in the wrong.

Now it’s up to him to make things right again. He makes his way across the hall to Merlin, picking his way through the crowd. A few nobles stop him to congratulate him on the win and he smiles, accepting them graciously.

Merlin looks up at him in surprise with eyes wide like an owl as Arthur approaches. Arthur just wants them to settle back into the routine they’ve developed over the last couple of days.

“Can you believe Morgana? She says she saved me,” Arthur attempts to launch immediately into their usual quips but much to Arthur’s disappointment, Merlin doesn’t reciprocate. Instead he nods, smiling half heartedly, staring at the ground like he’s afraid to meet Arthur’s eyes.

It’s clear that ignoring what happened between them is not going to produce any results. Arthur has never had to apologise to anyone except for his father and Morgana, he doesn’t know how best to approach the challenge. He chews on the side of his mouth.

“Look, I wanted to say,” he says, changing tact. He leans closer, turning properly towards Merlin so they’re facing each other. Merlin looks up from the floor, meeting Arthur’s eyes. “I made a mistake, it was unfair to sack you.”

An odd part of Arthur warms at the sight of Merlin’s slight smile. “Is that the closest I’ll get to an apology?” He teases, nudging Arthur with his shoulder.

Arthur rolls his eyes. “Don’t push it, Merlin.”

“Not even going to buy me a drink to call it even? That’s just common courtesy,” Merlin continues, his words swimming with mirth.

“I can’t really be seen buying a drink for my servant, now can I? Wouldn’t be proper.” Arthur quirks his head, hoping Merlin will pick up on the hint so he can avoid saying the words explicitly. There is only so low he is willing to stoop in a single day.

“Oh of course,” Merlin nods.

Arthur watches in amusement as the words dawn on Merlin properly, mirth slipping from his face to be replaced with wonder. He turns to look at Arthur in surprise.

“Your servant?” He asks, tipping his head in confusion. “You sacked me.”

Arthur bites at his cheek to keep from smiling. “Now I’m rehiring you. Turns out you’re not so bad to have around.”

“Much appreciated, Sire,” Merlin replies, beaming from ear to ear. “You’re not so bad yourself.”

“Excuse you, I’m a delight.”

~-~-~

If someone had told Merlin a week ago that he’d be thrilled to be reappointed as Arthur’s servant he wouldn’t have believed them. If they then told him that he would be disappointed when Arthur instructed him to assist Gaius with the plague that had arrived in Camelot instead of completing his duties, he would have deemed them raving mad.

He and Gaius have made no headway on the disease, and while they struggle to work out the cause, it is spreading like a wildfire through the lower town.

“Don’t be stupid Merlin,” Gaius says sharply, cutting off Merlin’s plea to use magic to help

“What else is this power for if not to help people?” Merlin demands. “You keep telling me it’s not for playing immature tricks.”

Gaius huffs, snatching a vial of liquid from the table and stomping to his stove. “You want to practise magic when the King is actively on a hunt for sorcerers? Are you mad!”

“Maybe! What else am I meant to do?”

“Keep your head down,” Gaius replies seriously. “Your life is destined for more important things.”

Merlin groans, running his hands over his head. “What could be more important than saving a man’s life?”

“Finding the cause of the disease!” Gaius snaps. “It’s no good just saving one person.”

“Tell that to the one person,” Merlin mumbles sarcastically.

The body behind them is like a physical presence in the room, demanding Merlin’s attention. The corpse’s cold skin is whiter than human flesh should ever be, like a blanket of snow, lined with visible blue veins that creep from his eyes and circle his purple mouth. It looks like he was lying in the winter cold for months, rather than the single night with the illness present in his body.

Gaius sighs, prickling with frustration. “I understand it is tempting to use the way you find easiest Merlin—”

“— it is when it could save a life—” Merlin interjects. He thinks of the man in the village, still alive but on the precipice of succumbing to the disease. He could have done something.

“—But you have to be careful. Science is our best answer right now, magic is too dangerous.”

“So what can we do?” Merlin asks, irritation dulling to a frustrated hum.

Gaius’ shoulders slump, letting on how worried he truly is. “Hope science finds the answer before it kills us all.”

~-~-~

The answer doesn’t take long to arrive. The next morning another dead body is brought to Gaius’ chambers. Merlin grimaces at the sight when he exits his room, still rubbing sleep from his eyes.

“A bit of a grim wake up call,” he mutters.

Gaius doesn’t deem that with a response, instead beckoning Merlin over to examine the body.

“What is different about this victim?” Gaius asks, voicing it like a teacher conducting a lesson rather than a genuine question, prompting Merlin towards the right answer.

“Uh.” Merlin scans over the body, taking in her glassy eyes, well kept hair and green dress. “She’s a woman?” He tries.

Gaius lets out a disappointed breath.

“Incredible observational skills. Anything else?”

Merlin chews on his lip. “She’s a courtier?”

“Good,” Gaius says with a nod.

“How does that help us?”

“Courtiers seldom visit the lower town, so what does that mean?”

Merlin lets out a long sound of thought. “She hasn’t made contact with any of the other victims.”

Gaius makes a pained face but nods slowly, still trying to encourage Merlin towards the answer himself. “Yes… it suggests that the disease isn’t spread by contact.”

Merlin’s head bounces in a nod like a doll. “She wouldn’t have eaten the same food as the others, spoken to any of the same people. I doubt they would even breathe the same air.”

Gaius starts to smile. “So what’s the only thing they do share?”

The day of a courtier and a peasant couldn’t be more different. She would have spent her day in the upper town with other people in high society. Servants would have fetched her food, prepared her daily tasks, and collected her daily water intake from the well.

Merlin inhales sharply.

“Water.”

Gaius nods proudly. “Exactly.”

“You think the illness is spreading through water?”

“I’m sure of it, only I’m still not sure how to fix it.”

They are interrupted by Gwen bursting into the room, tears streaming down her face, cheeks ruddy and red.

“Gwen!” Merlin exclaims, rushing to her side but she pushes past him blindly and runs to Gaius.

“Do you have the sickness?” Gaius asks worriedly and Merlin watches his wise eyes dart across Gwen checking her for visible signs of bad health.

She shakes her head roughly, breath coming out in small hiccups. “No, it’s my father. Please Gaius he’s all I have.”

“Gwen,” Gaius says sadly, taking her by the elbows. “I have no cure.”

“Please,” she sobs. “I am begging you.”

“I wish there was something, anything, I could do,” Gaius says. Merlin feels a sting deep in himself. “But the remedy is beyond what I can achieve.”

She wrenches herself out of Gaius’ hold, shoulders shuddering with grief before her father is even lost. She runs from the room without even looking at Merlin.

“We have to do something,” Merlin insists.

“We must hope this water hypothesis provides answers,” Gaius says, voice even and unyielding. “Run to the well and fetch me some will you?”

Merlin’s face drops in horror. “That will be too late for Gwen’s father.”

Gaius looks up at him sadly, his reading glasses perched on the end of his nose, looking worn and saddened. “I’m afraid you’re correct. But there is nothing we can do”

~-~-~

Gaius may have been able to cope with the knowledge that Gwen’s father would die, he may not feel guilty in his idleness, but Merlin does have the ability to alleviate the family’s troubles, and he can’t stand by watching knowing Gwen will suffer.

The usual guard patrol is stricter than usual, on the hunt for the sorcerer who is wreaking havoc in Camelot so Merlin has to be careful. He sneaks under the cover of night, sticking to the shadows, making his way through the darkness to Gwen’s cottage on the edge of the city. Her home with her father is attached to the forge, making it easier for Merlin to sneak in through the open area.

He knows it’s dangerous, even as he lays the poultice under Tom’s head and whispers the incantation, but the change in Gwen’s demeanour the day after makes the risk worth it. She comes into the castle with a brilliant smile on her face, back to her usual self rather than the grief stricken girl he had seen the day before.

He’s feeling quite proud of himself until Gwen is accused of sorcery.

“Merlin!” Gwen screams as the soldiers pass him in the hall, her arms caught tight in each of their grasp. “Please help! I haven’t done anything!”

Merlin stares stricken after her as she’s dragged away, kicking and screaming, as she attempts to fight the guards.

He and Gaius hurry after her into the throne room where the guards dump her unceremoniously to the floor at the foot of Uther’s throne.

“Well done,” Uther says, nodding slightly to Arthur. Merlin takes in the stony look on Arthur’s face, completely devoid of emotion, like he’s aware that he can either show his true emotions and be castrated for it or show nothing at all.

“Please,” Gwen says desperately, eyes wild and confused. “Why will no one believe me? He got better, he just recovered, please believe me.”

Morgana steps forward, her chin tipped high in defiance and her green eyes steely. “I believe you.” She stands beside Gwen in a show of solidarity, displaying to the entire court that she is supporting her maid, rather than the King. “Perhaps this illness is not always fatal, perhaps he recovered naturally, have you considered that?”

Uther doesn’t waver. “Then what of the poultice that was found?”

“What poultice?” Gwen asks frantically. “I don’t know anything about a poultice.”

Uther glares severely down at her, looking down his nose. “It was found in your house.”

He gets to his feet and marches to stand above Gwen, commanding the attention of the room to his will.

“Undo this enchantment. Put an end to this contagion.”

Gwen stares desperately up at him, the usual flush to her cheeks has drained away. “I can’t. I am not a witch, I don’t know how to stop the illness,” Gwen’s voice grows ragged as her sentence wears on, completely terrified.

A vein in Uther’s temple throbs dangerously. “If you will not undo your sorcery you force my hand, I must find you guilty. I have no choice but to pronounce you to death.”

Gwen’s chest shudders. “No,” she whispers, voice stolen by panic.

“I can only hope that when you die, this evil plague dies with you,” Uther scorns, waving his hand to the guards. “Take her away!”

Merlin runs after the guards who drag her from the room as she trembles and screams for mercy.

~-~-~

Arthur rubs a hand anxiously over his chest, trying fruitlessly to subdue the hollow ache of guilt that sits there. The room clears behind Guinevere but her screams still fill the space, tormenting Arthur with their pleas. Though he was only following orders he can’t help but feel he’s made a terrible mistake.

Morgana turns to Uther with desperate eyes.

“I know Gwen, she’s my maidservant not an enchantress,” Morgana pleads, her fingers twist in her skirt, clutching for something to ground herself as her fear and grief threaten to pull her away.

“Have you ever seen an enchantress?” Uther demands. “Believe me they bear no mark or sign.”

Arthur pushes a hand over his mouth, desperately trying to swallow down the bile rising in his throat. He can’t let his father see how this has affected him, it’s important to remain composed, especially before Uther. Arthur has seen hundreds of sorcerers and enchantresses condemned throughout his lifetime. He was permitted to attend his first execution at seven years old, standing by Uther’s side. Arthur still remembers the smell of burning flesh. A sorcerer’s death is nothing he hasn’t seen before.

This is different. He knows Guinevere, and although they haven’t spoken much it’s impossible not to have a fondness for her. As Morgana’s maidservant she’s around constantly, for mealtimes, in Morgana’s chambers, following at her heels. She has always offered Arthur a smile and polite greetings when he’s nearby. She’s kind, and compassionate. She’s going to die.

“I’ve seen the way the girl works. Her fingers are worn, her nails are broken. If she was a sorceress why would she do this?”

He listens with clenched teeth as Morgana argues with his father. She is right. No powerful sorcerer in their right mind would willingly work as a servant. The labour is hard and gruelling, for little pay, someone with power would never subject themselves to such treatment.

“I have made my judgement,” Uther shuts Morgana down with a wave of his hand.

She sounds on the verge of tears. “But you’re sentencing the wrong person.”

“She’s right, Father,” he blurts out before he can stop himself, forcing his voice to remain even as he faces his father. “You hear the word magic and you no longer listen.”

Uther’s eyes snap towards him, alight with fury at Arthur’s blatant display of disrespect. “You saw it for yourself, she used enchantments.”

“Yes, perhaps. But to save her dying father. That doesn’t make her guilty of creating a plague,” Arthur attempts to reason. “One is an act of kindness, of love; the other of evil. I don’t believe evil is in this girl’s heart.”

A shadow of frustration falls over Uther’s face. “And if you’re wrong? If this maidservant is responsible for the plague. How many more will die for you to play at being noble?”

Arthur flinches, recoiling in on himself.

“If there is any doubt about this girl she must die or the whole kingdom may perish.”

“I understand that—” Arthur starts but is silenced by the dark look in Uther’s eye.

“You understand nothing. When you are king, then you will understand. Such decisions must be made. We have to combat the dark forces that threaten this kingdom.”

Arthur wrenches his eyes from the floor to meet his father’s heavy gaze. “I know witchcraft is an evil, Father,” he says in the hope of appeasing his father. His heart tugs, an image of Guinevere tied to the pyre for daring to save her sick father burning into his mind's eye.

“But so is injustice. I know I am not yet king and I don’t know what kind of king I will be. But I know of the Camelot I wish to live in, and it is one where the punishment fits the crime.”

Uther’s glare makes Arthur’s legs wobble. He takes a deep breath to keep himself standing tall and sure, even as his father stands from his throne and approaches.

“I fear you are right. She has played with fire, and now she must die by fire,” he spits, storming from the room.

Arthur squeezes his eyes shut and releases a shaking breath.

~-~-~

Across the table Gaius’ stare is unwavering and patient, though his eyes are filled with dismay. The silence is heavy, laden with Gaius’ disappointment and Merlins’ guilt. It fills every crevice of the room, forcing its way under Merlin’s skin until he’s squirming. Gaius doesn’t say anything, encouraging the heavy silence as he waits for Merlin to speak.

“I thought I was doing the right thing, that curing Gwen’s father would help her,” Merlin says with a trembling voice. “I couldn’t stand the idea of letting him die when I knew I could help. It seemed so simple.”

Gaius nods in understanding. “An easy solution is like a light in a storm, Merlin. Rushing towards it puts you at risk of peril, for it may not always lead to a safe harbour.”

Merlin chews on his lip, staring steadfastly at the table.

“I have to see her,” he says eventually, getting to his feet and heading straight for the dungeons. He passes Morgana on his way, tear stained and shaking as she leaves Gwen’s cell, which dashes all his hopes that she might have convinced Uther to have sympathy and see reason.

Gwen is staring hopelessly at the wall when he approaches her. Her eyes are sunken and heavy with bags as if she hasn’t slept in weeks, face sticky with barely dried tears. Her hands are bound in thick iron chains. It is a precaution that is exclusively used for sorcerers; iron weakens their magic and Merlin is woozy just from its close proximity.

“Gwen,” Merlin whispers, getting her attention.

She brightens when she sees him, getting to her feet and hurrying as close as she can when there are chains binding her to the wall.

“Thank you,” she says, voice hoarse and scratched from tears.

“What for?” “Coming to see me,” she replies immediately, wide eyes genuine and grateful.

Merlin shakes his head, heart squeezing painfully. “Of course I would come to see you, you’re my friend.”

She smiles sadly, her eyes wet with new tears and her bottom lip wobbling.

“I’m so sorry,” Merlin says, leaning his head against the wooden beams of the dungeon’s barred door.

“It’s not your fault,” she says, forcing a pained smile. Merlin almost buckles under the weight of his guilt. “It’s all right, don’t worry about me.”

“Oh Gwen…” Merlin murmurs, unable to think of much else to say beyond the ache that threatens to splinter his heart into fractured pieces. “I can’t let this happen.”

“Please just… one thing...” Gwen inhales sharply, and exhales in fragmented gasps. “You don’t have to…” she trails off, leaving her sentence unfinished.

“What is it?”

“Please remember me,” she begs, dark eyes brimming with tears, staring imploringly at Merlin. Shame swells and curdles in Merlin’s gut, rotting his insides until his skin crawls. He hates that he’s put her in this situation, and he refuses to lose her to his own stupid mistakes. Gwen is too wonderful for that.

“You’re not going to die,” he promises. “I won’t let this happen.”

“Merlin—”

Merlin shakes his head roughly, backing away. “I promise, Gwen.”

~-~-~

Merlin bursts into the throne room, throwing the doors open with such a force that they clatter as they hit the walls.

“It was me!” He confesses, all eyes in the room turn to him. “It was me who used magic to cure Gwen’s father.”

His chest heaves with fear, hands shaking by his sides. His heartbeat is so loud in his chest it's a wonder the entire court can’t hear it.

No one says anything. The silence rings in Merlin’s ears, so profound he hunches under the weight. Uther stares at him in interest, brows furrowed with thought. Somehow, his silence is worse than a condemnation, because Merlin doesn’t know what comes next. He is hanging over a precipice, stomach dropping as he prepares for the fall.

“Gwen is not the sorcerer, I am,” Merlin declares.

Gaius’ chair makes a sharp sound as he stands to his feet and it is shoved backwards and out of his way.

“Merlin,” he hisses and Merlin glances away from Uther for a moment to meet his worried eyes. “Are you mad?”

“I cannot let her die for me,” he answers, clenching his fists until crescent moons cut into the palms of his hands. He turns to Uther again, standing as tall as he can muster. “It was me. I place myself at your mercy.”

Uther nods, folding his hands in front of him and looking sternly at Merlin.

“Then arrest him,” he says with a detached tone. The room spins around Merlin and his legs are so unsteady he feels like he’s standing on a boat in a storm. His thoughts crash like thunder, and Uther’s glare is like lightning. His mind pitches and throws him around until he’s lost in the cascading rain of fear. Then he pictures Gwen’s face, the terror and confusion in her eyes and returns to firm ground.

Guards seize his arms on either side and he takes a shaking breath to keep from resisting them.

“Father, this is madness, I can’t allow this,” Arthur cuts in, and Merlin blinks in shock. “There’s no way Merlin is a sorcerer,” Arthur says scornfully, wrinkling his nose at the prospect like he can think of nothing more ridiculous. .

Uther frowns. “Did you not hear him? He’s admitted it.”

“Yes but…” Merlin watches in confusion as Arthur scrambles for something to say. His eyes are wide and frightened, for him, for Merlin.

“He saved my life, remember? Why would he do that if he were a sorcerer?”

“Why would he fabricate such a story if he weren’t?” Uther rebuts.

It’s a wonder Uther doesn’t send Merlin away immediately, as Arthur visibly tries to construct an excuse. He thins his lips, biting down on them intensely in thought, fingers drumming on the back of a chair anxiously.

“He’s in love,” Arthur blurts just as Uther’s frown goes from impatient to frustrated.

Merlin’s eyes bug. “What?”

“With Gwen!” Arthur continues, looking supremely proud of himself. The crease in Uther’s frown has deepened so severely Merlin is a little concerned just looking at it.

“I am not,” Merlin insists.

Arthur marches over to Merlin’s side and slings an arm over his shoulder, pulling him close to his side almost protectively.

“Yes you are,” he snaps. “I saw you yesterday with that flower she’d given you.”

Merlin splutters, certain that the blush creeping up his neck is doing him no favours to help convince the council members he isn’t in love with Gwen.

“That was…” he can’t think of any good reason why Gwen would have given him the flower if she wasn’t flirting. Oh God was Gwen flirting with him?

“Don’t worry Merlin, you can admit it,” Arthur says to Merlin while looking imploringly to his father. Merlin trods hard on Arthur’s toes, taking great pleasure in his hiss of pain and resulting glare.

“Perhaps she cast a spell on you,” Uther says seriously. Both Merlin and Arthur’s heads snap to look at him, eyes wide with fear. A Cheshire smile slowly stretches across Uther’s face and he chuckles like he’s just told a truly funny joke and didn’t just pull the rug out from under Merlin’s feet, leaving him disbalanced and dumbfounded. If it weren’t for Arthur’s arm around his shoulders Merlin is sure he would have collapsed to the floor.

Arthur laughs too, a quick sharp sound just to show he’s amused, Merlin wonders if it’s even real laughter.

“Merlin is a wonder, but the wonder is that he’s such an idiot,” Arthur grits the final word through his teeth. He ruffles Merlin’s hair, like one would a small child and steps away. To the court it probably looks affectionate, but Arthur’s fingers scrape against Merlin’s scalp.

Arthur turns to look at Merlin, his voice going serious. “There is no way he’s a sorcerer.”

His eyes are dark, heavy with vexation and stress, he meets Merlin’s gaze without wavering. There’s an intensity in his expression that makes something in Merlin stir despite his frustration. They don’t look away from each other until Uther speaks.

“Don’t waste my time again.”

It’s a dismissal if Merlin has ever heard one but still he hesitates in the doorway. Arthur shoots him another pointed glance and Merlin fights the urge to glare back at him, instead spinning awkwardly in place and making his way out of the room, Gaius on his heels.

He manages to hold his tongue until they reach Gaius’ chambers, throwing the door open and revelling in the way it crashes against the stone wall.

“Arthur’s the idiot,” he says with a growl.

“No, he was right to do what he did, he saved you from your own stupidity,” Gaius retorts harshly, levelling Merlin with a look so full of disappointment that Merlin shrinks under it.

“I couldn’t stand by and do nothing. It’s my fault Gwen is going to die.”

“Yes it is,” Gaius says simply. Merlin reels with the honesty of it. He had been expecting Gaius to attempt to alleviate the severity of the situation, but it seems the time for patience has passed.

“But you don’t prove her innocence by offering to jump into the flames yourself, you do it by finding out what’s causing the disease,” Gaius continues, not quite shouting but so furious it achieves the same effect. He thrusts a bag into Merlin’s arms and stalks out of the room, signalling for Merlin to follow him.

Merin fumes the entire journey to the water supply. He knows Gaius is right and that Arthur was righteous in protecting him; but the guilt clawing at his insides isn’t relieved by that knowledge. He wants to do something for her, and chasing dead ends isn’t going to stop her looming execution.

The entrance to the water supply reminds Merlin of the staircase to The Dragon’s cave, a long steep staircase with a domed roof and dark lighting.

“The water from here supplies the whole town,” Gaius tells Merlin, pointing at a stoned off section of water. Merlin presumes that it runs from the river just outside of Camelot, but it’s murky and dark like no river water Merlin has ever seen. “Take a sample.”

Merlin dips his hand into the water, scooping the liquid out and corking it. He peers into the small bottle with a grimace. It feels like another dead end, hopeless, even as he looks at it.

Gaius nods, taking Merlin by the shoulder and steering him out of the dark tunnel. They make it a couple of steps before there is a loud splash and water drenches the back of their heads. Merlin spins around as the creature roars ferociously. He barely gets a glance at the monster, spotting brown sticky skin and sharp yellow fangs, before it disappears back into the water.

“What the hell was that?”

~-~-~

Merlin rushes into The Dragon’s cave, almost tripping in his rush to speak with him. He and Gaius had scoured through his many books on zoology, until finally Merlin thought to pull out the book about magic. They concluded that the creature was an afanc, a being made of clay that could only be conjured by the most powerful of sorcerers. However, the description gave no indication of how to defeat it, only how to create such a thing.

He calls out a greeting into the abyss, waiting impatiently for The Dragon’s response.

“Hello, young warlock,” The Dragon says with a welcoming smile, landing on the rock opposite Merlin.

“I need to know how to defeat an afanc,” Merlin cuts to the chase, anxious to help Gwen before it’s too late and already sensing The Dragon has no care for small talk.

The Dragon’s smile grows, stretching wide and smugly across his scaly face. “Yes I suppose you do,” he muses.

Merlin clenches his teeth to keep from snapping a sarcastic retort. He’s mostly sure The Dragon can’t read minds, and at this moment he hopes he’s correct.

“Will you help me?” He asks, a little demandingly.

The Dragon is silent for no more than a few seconds but it seems to stretch for hours, Merlin fidgets anxiously in the quiet, every second that passes they inch closer to Gwen’s looming execution.

“Trust the elements at your command,” The Dragon says finally.

“Elements? But what do I do with the elements?”

The Dragon seems amused, and as usual doesn’t answer Merlin’s question.

“You cannot do this alone,” he says instead. “You are but one side of a coin. Arthur is the other.”

Merlin frowns, mulling over the words. “I don’t understand. Just tell me what I have to do.”

The great wings of The Dragon unfurl, opening into a wingspan that would easily cover double Camelot’s great throne room.

“No!” Merlin shouts as The Dragon prepares to fly away. “Tell me what I have to do! Help me!”

The Dragon looks down on him, laughter in his huge yellow eyes.

“I have,” he replies simply, flying away and leaving Merlin with his confusing riddles.

“Brilliant, thanks,” Merlin mutters. “Barely helped but sure.” He kicks at the stone wall on his way out. It does nothing, and The Dragon will never know, but he gets some satisfaction out of the small act of defiance anyway.

~-~-~

Though Merlin is loath to admit it, The Dragon’s words are actually extremely helpful.

When Merlin comes to Gaius with a question about elements he’s quick to make the connection that the afanc, a creature of earth and water, would likely be destroyed by the other two basic elements, fire and air. The solution is so simple Merlin is somewhat frustrated that they didn’t come up with it without The Dragon’s help.

“How did you realise elements were the answer?” Gaius asks, watching Merlin shrug on his jacket as he prepares to leave.

He comes up with the lie easily. “I just knew, you know, part of my powers.”

“What else do your powers tell you?”

Merlin shrugs. “That I am one side of a coin — the brighter side obviously.”

One of Gaius’ eyebrows creep up to his hairline. “Who’s the other side?”

Merlin forces a smile. “I think that might be Arthur.”

“What about Arthur?” Morgana asks as she enters the room, somehow still looking put together despite the frantic glint in her eye.

“I need his help. The plague is being caused by an afanc in the water supply. We need to kill it,” Merlin answers. Gaius shoots him a look for his bluntness but doesn’t say anything to stop him.

“We need to tell Uther,” Morgana says immediately.

“We can’t,” Gaius cuts in and she looks at him in surprise. “An afanc is a creature of magic, he will only assume Gwen has summoned it and bring her execution forward.”

“So what are we to do?” Morgana demands.

“We need to destroy it,” Merlin replies. “Then the plague will stop, and Uther may see sense.” He looks to Gaius for confirmation and is relieved when the physician nods.

“And that’s why you need Arthur?”

Merlin nods. “He’s our best chance, but he’ll never disobey the king.”

“Arthur is not as conservative as you think him to be,” Morgana says. “He’ll come if I ask him to.”

“He’ll defy his father?”

She purses her lips. “Arthur cares about what Uther thinks, but he cares more about doing the right thing. Leave him to me.”

She storms from the room, her silk dress billowing in her wake.

Not even twenty minutes later he, Arthur and Morgana are making their way into the underground water system Merlin and Gaius had visited earlier. The darkness seems more ominous, every shadow birthed from the flickering of the torch in Arthur’s hand becomes a monster waiting to attack them. They wander through the stone tunnels, Merlin close on Arthur’s heels and Morgana by his side.

“You’d better be right about this, Merlin,” Arthur mutters, eyes scanning from wall to wall in search of the creature.

Merlin swallows, throat crackling, trying in vain to bring moisture to his mouth, completely dry with fear. “I appreciate the faith, Sire.” Arthur’s eyes bounce to him for a moment before returning to their hunt with a slightly frustrated roll.

He tips his head towards a path. “This way then.”

A low growl echoes through the tunnels, seemingly everywhere and nowhere all at once. Merlin’s heart pounds a staccato beat against his ribcage and Morgana gasps sharply.

Arthur turns to look at her, face twisted with worry.

“You should go back,” he says, it seems he has only just realised that he has led his adoptive sister into danger.

She tips her chin in defiance. “I’m coming with you.”

“No.”

Merlin glances between them, getting the sense he is stuck between two immovable objects.

Morgana smiles in a cat-like fashion. “Scared I’ll show you up?”

“I’m scared you’ll get hurt,” Arthur amends honestly.

“You’ll be the one getting hurt if you don’t get out of my way,” she rebuts, flipping her dark braid off her shoulder with a flourish and sashaying past Arthur.

“Father will slam us both in chains if he knew I put you in danger,” Arthur protests to her turned back, as she strides away from them into the darkness of the tunnel.

She glances over her shoulder with a wry smile. “Good thing he doesn't know then.”

Arthur and Merlin share a look, lamenting her stubborn nature, before continuing after her.

Morgana screams, tripping backwards and waving fire at the shadows, Merlin and Arthur rush forward to meet her, hearts in their throats. Merlin hears the snarling before he sees the afanc. The growls are wet, gurgled in the back of the creature’s clay throat. It bites at the air in front of Morgana with loud snaps of its jaw, roaring when she rushes to Arthur’s side and out of its reach.

Arthur lunges at the shadow but by the time his sword reaches where the beast should be the blade slices through thin air.

“Where is it?” He grits out, frantically looking around the cave for the deformed looking creature.

Merlin follows the sound of low growling in the tunnel across from them. “I think it went this way!” He shouts, leading Arthur and Morgana towards the source of the sound, and hopefully, the beast.

The afanc roars, so loud Merlin can feel it rattle his bones, as it lunges from the shadows towards Arthur. It drips with clay, leaving a trail of sticky residue on the ground, spit clinging in strings between its monstrous jaws. Arthur is pinned against the stone wall, while Morgana has been forced into a small crevice, and the creature has positioned itself menacingly between them. None of them can move for fear of angering the beast.

“Arthur!” Merlin shouts. “Use your torch!”

Arthur drives the torch forward like a sword towards the afanc. As he does so Merlin plunges deep into his own mind, seeking the tendril of his magic and pulls it forward. He didn’t have time to learn this spell like when he forced the appearance of the snakes on Valiant’s shield. He only had the opportunity to glance over the incantation before rushing out to meet Morgana and Arthur. He has to place complete trust in his magic, in the supposed power he holds, nature has always been a friend and he greets it now.

He chants the incantation under his breath, tugging on his magic. Wind whips through the tunnel, whistling in Merlin’s ears and buffeting his clothes. It sweeps the fire from Arthur’s torch, sending it towards the afanc in a gust. The beast roars in pain, bellowing out before melting into a pile of sticky mulch on the ground.

Little to Merlin’s knowledge, miles away on a secret island that moves with the tide, an enchantress Nimueh curses his name.

~-~-~

The shackles drop to the floor with a clunk and an overjoyed Gwen throws herself her father’s arms. She laughs in disbelief, the sound muffled by her father’s shoulder. Merlin feels a swell of affection for her as she squeezes her eyes shut and smiles wildly. He ignores the slight dizziness that comes from being so close to iron, focusing instead on Gwen's delight as she turns to him and Morgana.

“Thank you,” she breathes, taking Morgana’s hand in her own and squeezing it. Morgana rolls her eyes and pulls Gwen into a tight hug.

“I’m just glad you’re okay,” she says fondly.

Gwen pulls away and looks to Merlin, joyful tears in her dark eyes. “I can’t believe you really did it.”

“I told you I wasn’t going to let you die,” he says with a shy smile. Gwen throws her arms around him and squeezes tight, hands bunched in his tunic as she holds him close. He smiles into her curls, squeezing back.

The weight of her in his arms is a welcome reminder that she’s okay. Alive and well. It makes the anxiety from the last few days worth it. The fear that had choked Merlin while facing the afanc is just a distant memory and the guilt at having put her in this situation and threatened her life begins to slowly dissipate .

She pulls away and smiles at him, squeezing his shoulders fondly once more.

“Come on Gwen,” Tom says, nodding to the door. “Let’s get you some rest.”

They leave the room together, Gwen waving goodbye to Morgana as they go. Merlin turns to follow but is stopped by Morgana catching his attention.

“I wanted you to know,” she says, eyes serious, “your secret is safe with me.”

Merlin’s stomach drops to his feet. He’s tried to be so careful, but to be caught out by the king’s ward is as good as signing his death sentence. His pulse jumps in his throat, pounding a fearful beat.

“My… secret?”

Morgana looks unamused. “Come on, don’t pretend, I saw it with my own eyes.”

He forces a laugh, scratching at the back of his head. “You did?”

His head is pounding, he feels like he might collapse, legs turning to liquid mulch as he looks into Morgana’s serious eyes. He doesn’t want to die, he can’t die, he’s too young. There’s so much he still wants to do. His stomach lurches painfully, twisting itself into a tight knot of anxiety.

“I understand why you don’t want anyone to know, but I won’t tell anyone, I promise.”

Merlin swallows a gulp of air, the combination of rushing fear and the close presence of iron makes the entire room spin. He longs to sit on the ground and put his head in his hands, just to feel some sense of stability amongst the lurching turmoil Morgana has thrown him into.

“Thank you,” he gasps, suppressing the urge to grab the wall for support.

Morgana nods stiffly, smiling although it doesn’t quite reach her eyes.

“Gwen would be lucky to have you.”

Merlin blinks.

“Gwen?”

Morgana smiles, more genuinely and pats Merlin’s cheek in a way that is somehow both fond and condescending. “It’s our secret.”

She leaves Merlin alone in the cell, staring at the floor and trying to fathom how multiple people seem to think he’s in love with Gwen. He laughs a little to himself under his breath and makes his way out of the dungeon.

 

 

 

~-~-~

 

Once again I have been blessed by the incredible art (TWO ARTS) of APBuffy, I literally owe her one of my arms at this point <3 check him out on tiktok at the same name !!!

Chapter Text

Merlin is run off his feet. King Bayard is visiting whilst the kingdoms of Camelot and Mercia are in the process of sealing a long awaited truce, which has subsequently reduced Arthur to a pile of anxiety with a pair of legs. And if there’s anything Merlin has learnt about Arthur over the last month, it’s that when he’s stressed, he likes to ask things of Merlin.

“There is no good reason new bed sheets should be essential in the middle of the bloody afternoon,” Merlin mutters under his breath, lugging a basket of fresh linens towards Arthur’s chambers.

He is almost knocked off his feet by a girl rushing in the opposite direction. Merlin’s sheets and the clothes she’d been carrying go toppling to the floor, spreading out across the hallway.

She must be a member of the Mercia delegation because he hasn’t seen her before. She has vibrant blue eyes that immediately remind Merlin of Arthur’s and her hair is wrapped in an equally blue shawl.

“Oh goodness, I’m so sorry,” she says, sinking to the floor to gather the bedding for him.

Merlin waves her off, offering a smile. “Don’t worry.”

“No it’s my fault.” She bends forward to reach a pair of trousers and the front of her dress slips down slightly, Merlin quickly averts his eyes.

“Really,” Merlin insists. “It’s not a problem at all.”

The girl reaches for a tunic at the same time as Merlin and their fingers brush together. She smiles shyly at him, batting her eyelashes. He pulls his hand away, scooping the sheets into his arms again, hoping Arthur won’t complain too much about the wrinkles.

“I’m Elise,” the girl introduces herself, with a flirtatious look.

Merlin smiles awkwardly. “Merlin.” His hands are full with the basket of sheets so he nods his head in greeting.

“You’re Arthur’s servant,” she says, mystified. “That must be such an honour.” Her eyelashes are almost unnaturally long, they exaggerate each blink.

“Oh yeah, in a way.” Merlin scratches the back of his neck.

He looks around for a way out of the conversation, unaware that Elise’s face drops as soon as he isn’t looking at her, confused by his reaction. When he turns back to face her she smiles again.

“I’d better get these to Arthur,” he says, shrugging his shoulders to hold up the sheets.

She nods, gone is the flirtatious quality of her smile, more than anything else she looks confused.

“It was nice to meet you.”

Merlin nods, lying through his teeth. “Likewise.”

He hurries to Arthur’s chambers, bumping the door open with his hip.

“What took you so long?” Arthur asks as he enters, not looking up from the jacket he’s inspecting.

“I bumped into a serving girl from Mercia, got held up,” Merlin explains loosely, dumping the sheets unceremoniously on the bed.

“Sorry for pulling you away from your flirting,” Arthur quips, shooting a grin at Merlin over his shoulder and beckoning him over. “I found my ceremonial jacket for the feast tonight.”

Merlin rolls his eyes but does as Arthur instructs, moving closer to look at the jacket.

It’s red and embellished with gold buttons along the shoulders and chest, musty from being in the wardrobe all year and smelling vaguely like tomatoes left to ferment.

He screws up his nose, holding the jacket at arm’s length. “When was the last time this was cleaned?”

Arthur shrugs. “Last year sometime? Before the Feast of Beltane.”

Merlin sniffs the jacket again and groans. “Did it end in a food fight?”

“Don’t all feasts?”

Merlin squints at Arthur, trying to gauge if he’s being sarcastic or not. Arthur however is impossible to read as he simply smiles at him. Merlin holds the jacket up for Arthur to slip on and ensure it still fits.

“I wouldn’t know. It may surprise you to hear, but I haven’t attended many feasts.” Merlin adjusts the collar of the jacket and scans appraisingly over Arthur. “The airs and graces of the court are a mystery to me.”

Arthur hums distractedly, inspecting a slightly loose button on the sleeve. “Tonight they won’t be.”

“I’m going to be at the banquet?”

“Not quite.”

Arthur shrugs the jacket off and hands it to Merlin. “You’ll be there to make sure my cup doesn’t run dry. If I have to sit through Bayard’s boring speeches, I don’t see why you should get out of it.”

“Great. Thanks so much,” Merlin drawls sarcastically.

“Wouldn’t want you to miss out on the fun,” Arthur replies, mirth threaded through his words.

He steps away from Merlin and disappears behind the changing screen in the corner of the room. “Do you want to see what you’ll be wearing tonight?”

Merlin looks up from his assessment of the loose button Arthur had found. He’s not much good with a needle and thread so he’ll need to visit the seamstress or beg Gaius to do it for him.

“Won’t this do?” He asks, looking down at his own clothes.

Arthur steps out from the changing screen, a bundle of clothes in his arms. He scans his eyes over Merlin’s body, slow enough that Merlin squirms. He rests for a few seconds on Merlin’s neckerchief, blue today, and wrinkles his nose. “No.”

“What’s wrong with my clothes?” Merlin asks and Arthur shoots him a look that seems to say he doesn’t have enough time to list all the things he finds wrong with Merlin’s attire.

“Tonight, you’ll be wearing the official ceremonial robes of the servants of Camelot,” Arthur says instead of answering Merlin’s question. He unfurls the bundle in his arms and holds it up for Merlin to see, smiling mischievously.

“You can’t be serious.”

Arthur grins, looking utterly thrilled.

“There’s a hat too.”

Little to Merlin’s knowledge, as Arthur chases him around the room trying to jam a feathered hat onto his head, across the castle the enchantress Nimueh, disguised as Elise, sneaks into King Bayard’s chambers. She swaps one of the silver chalices, the smaller of the pair, with her own and slinks out of the room.

~-~-~

Merlin glares at the back of Arthur’s head, feather from his hat tickling his nose. Gwen poorly conceals a giggle from his side, as she has done every time she glances at his hat. It’s more of a headband, a thick band of green and gold with large plumed feathers sticking in the air. It makes Merlin look like a preening bird during the mating season.

Arthur turns around and meets Merlin’s eye with a wry smirk, very obviously trying not to laugh. His smile widens as Merlin shakes his head disparagingly at him. It doesn’t help that Arthur looks excellent in his red jacket — including the stray button that Gaius helped Merlin mend — so Merlin can’t very well tease him back.

Merlin rips the hat off his head and Arthur bites down on his lips to keep from laughing out loud, squeezing his eyes shut in happy crinkles and turning back to listen to Bayard.

“People of Camelot,” Bayard greets, spreading his hands wide to encompass the entire room. “For a great many years we have been mortal enemies. The blood of our men stains the ground from the walls of Camelot, to the gates of Mercia.”

Arthur is right, Bayard, though a powerful speaker, delivers awfully boring speeches. He’s too dramatic, putting emphasis on every word like an actor in a poorly written melodrama.

Merlin’s eyes glaze over as the goblets are brought forward, vaguely aware that Gwen has moved over to attend to Morgana, and watching as Arthur twists his fingers together on his lap to keep from fidgeting.

“As a symbol of our goodwill, and of our newfound friendship, I present these ceremonial goblets. To you, Uther,” Bayard takes out the larger goblet and holds it aloft. “And to your son, Arthur,” he presents the smaller goblet. “In the hope that our friendship may last.”

Elise, the serving girl from earlier, comes and pulls Merlin out of his half-hearted listening by grabbing his shoulder.

“I need to speak to you,” she whispers, face consumed with worry and pleading desperation.

Merlin glances over her worriedly but she doesn’t seem hurt. “What is it?”

Her eyes dart around nervously. “Not here, please, I don’t know who else to tell.”

He follows immediately. Though he has no interest in Elise he isn’t willing to let something bad happen to her just because he was uncomfortable with her flirting. They quietly leave the room; no one bats an eye towards two servants leaving the feast, even while Bayard is still speaking.

They stop in an alcove just outside the dining room, the evening light through the window casts a blue glow over both of them. Elise grabs him by the wrist and pulls him close so she isn’t speaking any louder than a rushed and urgent whisper.

“It wasn’t until I saw him give the goblet to Arthur that I realised, I should have known sooner, but I didn’t even consider—” she rushes through her words, stumbling over them in panic.

“Woah woah,” Merlin puts his hands on her shoulders to encourage her to relax. “Slow down, go back, start from the beginning.”

Elise takes a heaving breath. “Two days ago I was bringing Bayard his evening meal. We’re supposed to knock so he wasn’t expecting me to walk in—” she cuts herself off with a shudder. “If he knows I said anything he will kill me.”

Merlin rubs her shoulder soothingly. “I’m not going to let that happen; I promise. Please tell me what you saw.”

She nods jerkily, hands clutched tight in the fabric of her bodice, knuckles white with the force of her grip. “Bayard is no friend of Camelot, he craves the kingdom for himself. He believes that with Arthur dead, Uther’s spirit will be broken and Camelot will fall.”

Terror creeps up Merlin’s throat. Merlin knows Uther would be devastated by the loss of his son. If there is one thing he cares about in the world it is Arthur. Despite that, Uther would not be weakened but imbued with the desire for revenge. His already stern character would moult into something tyrannical. Camelot will survive, but its people, and the people of Mercia would suffer greatly.

“Tell me, what has Bayard done with the goblet?”

Her blue eyes are wide and terrified. “He—” she stops abruptly as another servant walks by. “I shouldn't, he'll kill me.”

Merlin’s heart jumps in his throat. “Please Elise, tell me.”

She shakes her head, pressing her lips together in silent terror.

He doesn’t really need her answer, he knows, he is just desperate for her to be wrong.

“Is it poison?” He asks, dreading her answer.

Please say no, please, anything but poison.

She nods slowly, confirming his worst suspicions.

“Fuck,” he gasps under his breath, taking off in a run towards Arthur.

~-~-~

Arthur bites back his fourth yawn. How Bayard still has more to say is beyond Arthur, the entire speech has just been a reworking of the same sentiment in various different ways. Camelot and Mercia are now to be allies, and as such their shared past should be put behind them. Arthur’s sure he would have been able to make the same speech in less than a minute, but it’s taken Bayard almost twenty.

Finally, Bayard lifts his own goblet.

He toasts. “To your health, Uther, and Arthur.”

Arthur sends a thanks to the sky that it’s finally over and goes to lift his goblet to his lips when Bayard continues. “The Lady Morgana…”

Arthur stands back to his full height, clenching his teeth together to control himself and to not roll his eyes back into his head.

“The People of Camelot,” Bayard says to finish, turning to brandish his goblet towards the knights encircling the room on long banquet tables.

Arthur lifts his own goblet in return and is stopped once more, this time by his own father.

“And to fallen warriors from both kingdoms,” Uther acknowledges. It’s a polite addition to the toast, politically sound but with an edge of threat. Arthur knows his own father well enough to recognise the warning, if Bayard were to cross him, further war would be inevitable.

They all pause, waiting for Bayard’s nod of approval, and when he gives it, the room lifts their goblets to their lips.

“Stop!” The word booms in the silent banquet hall.

“It’s poison! Don’t drink it!” Merlin shouts

Arthur blinks and his goblet is being snatched from his hand. He stares at his servant in horror, hand still poised as if he’s holding an invisible goblet.

“Merlin? What are you doing?” He asks frantically, reaching out for his goblet to be returned to him. Merlin twists so it’s further from Arthur’s grip, covering the top of the chalice with his hand.

“Bayard laced Arthur’s goblet with poison,” Merlin announces, not just to Arthur but to the entire court. Arthur inhales sharply, he doesn’t even need to look at his father to know he is red with fury.

Bayard’s face distorts in livid outrage.

“How dare you?” He roars, drawing his sword, brandishing it towards Merlin. The Knights of Camelot and then the Knights of Mercia follow suit. The entire room is a circlet of sharp weapons. Merlin winces, curling in on himself in fear and Arthur plants himself firmly to the ground to keep himself from pulling Merlin to safety.

“Order your men to put down their swords,” Uther commands in a deceptively calm tone. Camelot’s guards rush closer so there is more red than blue in the standoff, the crimson of Camelot’s capes practically swamp the blue donned by the men of Mercia. “You’re outnumbered.”

Bayard’s quivers with fury. “I will not allow this insult to go unchallenged.”

Arthur looks from Merlin to Bayard, quickly realising with a sinking stomach that Merlin, in the eyes of every political figure in the room, is the one to blame. Whether or not the goblet is poisoned is irrelevant, by interrupting the feast and accusing Bayard of such an outrageous crime he has threatened the entire peace treaty.

“On what grounds do you base this accusation?” Uther asks, his voice cold and brimming with barely concealed fury.

Arthur quickly steps forward. “I’ll handle this,” he says, hurrying towards Merlin. His status as prince should protect Merlin, it’s worked before.

“Merlin, you idiot,” he grits out. He grabs Merlin by the shoulder and tries to lead him away from the centre of the attention, snatching the goblet from his grasp. “Have you been at the sloe gin again?” He looks to Bayard apologetically, forcing his most winning political smile.

Uther doesn’t allow the distraction.

“Unless you want to be strung up, you will tell me why you think it’s poisoned” he says, eyes boring into Merlin like there is nothing he would rather do than string Merlin up himself. Arthur tightens his grip on the chalice to keep from tucking Merlin under his arm where he’ll be safe. “Now.”

Merlin’s fingers release the sleeve of Arthur’s tunic, Arthur hadn’t even realised Merlin had lingered there until the touch was gone.

“He was seen lacing it,” Merlin answers and Arthur is astonished by how even his voice is.

“By whom?”

Arthur holds his breath. All Merlin needs to say is one good name. A knight, or a fellow nobleman, someone of merit, and the whole incident will be dismissed.

Merlin swallows roughly. “I can’t say.”

Arthur resists the urge to groan, or worse still, curse. His stomach cramps as he looks at Merlin, standing tall and confidently despite the weight of the room resting upon him. Uther’s jaw visibly clenches and Arthur’s veins flood cold with dread.

“Pass me the goblet,” Uther orders, holding out his hand. He marches around the table and Arthur hands the chalice over immediately, subtly stepping forward to shield Merlin from Uther.

Uther doesn’t look at Arthur, nor Merlin, but at King Bayard, still standing with his sword outstretched towards Merlin.

“If you’re telling the truth…” Uther begins, with narrowed eyes.

“I am,” Bayard insists.

“Then you have nothing to fear. Do you?”

Bayard visibly processes the words, mulling them over with a frown before nodding and sheathing his sword. He reaches for the goblet, raising his eyebrows in silent question.

Uther pauses, regarding Bayard with interest.

“No,” Uther says abruptly, pulling the chalice away. “If this does prove to be poisoned, I want the pleasure of killing you myself.”

Bayard lets out a single bark of cold laughter and retracts his hand.

Uther turns slowly, the chalice still outstretched in his grasp, looking past Arthur to Merlin.

“He’ll drink it,” he says, dark and unsympathetic. Arthur feels the blood drain from his face and he clenches his hands into fists by his sides so no one will see how hard he’s shaking.

“But if it’s poisoned he’ll die,” Arthur protests, staring imploringly, desperately, at his father. He begs with his eyes for the King to reconsider. Deep below his hard walls and cold exterior, there must be a kindness to his father, a man who can sympathise, a man who understands that Arthur needs Merlin around. Merlin matters to him.

Uther doesn’t even look at him. “Then he can die comfortably, knowing he was telling the truth.”

Merlin takes the goblet from Uther’s outstretched hold.

“And what if he lives?” Bayard asks.

Uther doesn’t hesitate. “Then you have my apologies, and you can do with him as you will.”

The dangerous glint in Bayard’s eyes leaves no room to question what he would do to Merlin. Merlin would be lucky to be killed mercifully. Horrifying images of Merlin beaten and bloodied flash across Arthur’s mind, fresh terror roars up in him. He thinks he might be sick.

Gaius objects before he can.

“Uther please he’s just a boy, he doesn’t know what he’s saying,” Gaius appeals, a raw emotion scraping the edges of his words so they sound pained. Arthur knows that though the physician and Merlin have not known each other for long they have developed a close bond, and he can hear that in Gaius’ plea for mercy on Merlin’s behalf.

His father turns to look at Gaius, voice even and eyes cold.

“Then you should have schooled him better.”

The words strike a painful chord in Arthur’, leaving an aching pain on the inside of his skin. It is impossible to escape his notice that Uther is punishing Merlin for speaking up to try to protect him, to protect Arthur. The way he’s done it is stupid, and an outrageous insult to the visiting king, but he has put himself in this position for Arthur and is going to die for his trouble. No one else would dare cause such an insult on Arthur’s behalf, no one else cares enough to consider it.

He can’t lose Merlin.

“Merlin, apologise,” Arthur orders frantically. “This is a mistake.”

A frenzied idea seizes him and Arthur surges forward, reaching for the goblet and trying to take it from Merlin’s grasp. Should there be poison in the goblet it is intended for Arthur anyway, it isn’t fair for Merlin’s life to be put at risk.

“I’ll drink it.”

Merlin bats his hand away, his long fingers seizing around Arthur’s own and pulling them from their loose grip on the cup. He doesn’t look at Arthur but at Bayard. “No no no. It’s alright.”

Please look at me, Arthur thinks desperately.

Merlin doesn’t waver. He presses his mouth in a long thin line as he raises the goblet in toast first to Bayard, and then to Uther. Arthur is so close he can see the clouded edges of fear in his blue eyes; but he doesn’t flinch or give any indication to the wider court that he’s afraid.

His eyes quickly glance to Arthur before he raises the goblet to his lips, an apology, and a refusal to accept Arthur’s returning apology, all in one. Stubborn idiot.

Arthur doesn’t want to lose him. Merlin is annoying, and rude, and he refuses to treat Arthur with respect, no matter how much Arthur tries; but he’s also sarcastic and funny, he makes Arthur laugh and makes the days interesting. Arthur hadn’t realised how much Merlin has become an important part of his day in the last month until he is about to lose it.

His stomach lurches like he’s going to vomit as Merlin takes the first gulp of wine, and then a second. Merlin lowers the goblet, staring resolutely at Uther. Arthur is amazed by his ability not to waver in the face of Uther’s furious glare.

Nothing happens.

Merlin looks down at the goblet, Arthur can see his shoulders slump in realisation.

“It’s fine,” he says softly.

Uther scoffs, waving his hand dismissively. “He’s all yours.”

Arthur’s heart thunders painfully against his chest. He can’t tell whether to feel relieved or horrified. He forces himself to walk mechanically away from Merlin and retake his seat. If he doesn’t do the right thing his father will be more furious with him than he already is. He has to do the right thing. He has to.

Merlin coughs and Arthur spins back around to stare at him in horror. Merlin is clutching his throat like it is burning, pulling at the skin, already red and inflamed along the column of his throat. He makes a gurgling sound, choking and spluttering, eyes wide as they connect with Arthur’s.

“Merlin?” Arthur asks, his voice thick with fear.

Merlin coughs again, the choked noise sounds suspiciously like Arthur’s name, before his eyes roll back in his head. He collapses to the floor in a crumpled heap, legs twisting as they give way beneath him. The goblet clatters against the stone floor, rolling out of Merlin’s limp hand.

Arthur sprints to Merlin. He doesn’t stop to see his father’s reaction, or to act with any sense of propriety, his only thought is that he needs to reach Merlin now. Arthur’s knees collide hard with the ground as he drops by Merlin’s side. He hovers over him nervously, noticing the pale clammy quality of his skin, the fluttering of his eyelashes. The room around them is muffled, swords unsheathing to point at Bayard as Uther announces the use of poison.

Arthur’s hands skitter nervously over Merlin’s body, afraid to touch and make things worse but desperate to check on him. He can hear his heartbeat in his ears, feel it in his throat, he’s never felt fear like this before.

“Merlin?” Gaius calls. Arthur jumps as Gaius lays a hand on his arm to shift him out of the way. He doesn’t move far, he hesitates before resting a hand against Merlin’s shoulder reassuringly just in case he can feel it.

“Merlin, can you hear me?” Gaius tries to open Merlin’s eyes but all the touch reveals is the whites of his eyes.

Arthur’s hands tremble against Merlin’s shoulder.

“We need to get him back to my chambers, now,” Gaius says, turning to Arthur with an intense set to his face. To Guinevere he adds, “Bring the goblet, we need to identify the poison.”

Arthur levers Merlin up, tucking one of his arms under his legs and pulling Merlin’s torso to his chest, like a peasant would carry a bride through the door to their new home. He rushes towards Gaius’ chambers, not bothering to check if Guinevere and Gaius are keeping up. Merlin’s head lolls against his chest, a little bit of wine drips from his mouth and stains Arthur’s red jacket a deep burgundy.

He lays Merlin carefully on the pallet in the centre of Gaius’ chambers, careful not to jostle his head too much. Merlin’s breathing has steadily gotten shallower as they made their way to the physician’s chambers, his breaths are heaving his chest and audibly rattling in his airway.

Gaius lays a cool towel on Merlin’s burning forehead.

“Will he be alright?” Arthur asks, eyes trained on the way Merlin twitches as the cool touches his skin.

“You can heal him, can’t you Gaius?” Guinevere asks, her hands twisted together and clutched to her chest. Arthur hadn’t even known they were friends.

Gaius’ bushy eyebrows are furrowed so low Arthur can barely see his eyes. He sighs heavily.

“I won’t know until I can identify the poison,” he answers honestly, Arthur’s stomach lurches. “Pass me the goblet.”

Gaius and Guinevere switch places, she holds the cold rag in place on Merlin’s forehead and he inspects the goblet. Arthur hovers nervously, feeling out of place and intrusive but not willing to leave Merlin.

“There’s something stuck to the inside,” Gaius murmurs, plucking out a flower petal with tweezers. Despite the fear in his voice his movements are steady and precise, without a hint of tremor in his hands. He moves over to a book on flora and flicks through the pages. “Ahh, the petal comes from the Mortaeus flower.”

Arthur moves to stand beside him, looking over his shoulder at the flower on the page. “What does that mean?”

“It says here that someone poisoned by the Mortaeus can only be saved by a potion made from a stem of the very same flower,” Gaius explains, still reading the page, his finger tracing the words. “The flower can only be found in the caves beneath the forest of Baloch, growing on the root of the Mortaeus tree.”

Arthur’s eyes fall on a drawing in the corner of the page, a cruel looking reptilian creature, with a rooster’s head, a long forked tongue and heavy plates along its back.

“That doesn’t look particularly friendly,” he mutters.

Gaius hums, avoiding Arthur’s eye. “A cockatrice — it guards the flower. Its venom is potent, a single drop would mean certain death. Few who have gone in search of the Mortaeus have returned alive.”

A wave of fear crashes over Arthur and he steps back and away from Gaius, crossing his arms tight across his body. He feels like his body might tremble apart with fear if he doesn’t hold himself together. A mission so dangerous is potentially suicide, it isn’t worth the risk.

He looks at Merlin, who sacrificed his life for Arthur without hesitation. Who despite their rocky start has been some of the best company Arthur has ever had. Arthur has to do this, or he’s going to lose him.

Merlin groans in his fitful unconsciousness, his breath sounds like stones scraping together with every exhale, and he shudders as he inhales. His skin is sweat soaked and flushed red with fever. He needs Arthur.

“Sounds like fun,” Arthur says tersely, spinning on his heel to leave the room.

“Arthur, it’s too dangerous.” Gaius attempts to stop him.

Arthur doesn’t hesitate. “If I don’t get the antidote, what happens to Merlin?”

Gaius sighs, a deep pain in his wise eyes. “The Mortaeus induces a slow and painful death, but an inevitable one. He might hold out for four, maybe five days if he’s lucky, but no longer. He will die.”

Arthur looks once more at Merlin’s sleeping face, the pain in his furrowed and sweaty brow. There is no decision to be made. He nods and leaves the room.

~-~-~

Arthur shouldn’t be surprised his father tells him not to go but he is. To him, it hadn’t been a question; Merlin risked his life to save Arthur’s — twice now — he should do the same. Uther has no such qualms.

“What is the point of having people taste for you if you’re going to get yourself killed anyway?”

“Merlin’s job is to serve me, not to taste my food, he shouldn’t have been asked to do so in the first place,” Arthur argues.

“Still better him, than you,” Uther replies, cold and indifferent.

“That’s not fair, it wasn’t his place—” Arthur tries but Uther talks over him.

“You’re right, it wasn’t his place to speak out in court. He learnt his lesson as did the other servants in the room.”

Arthur recoils. “If he hadn’t said anything I would be the one in Gaius’ chambers dying.”

“Then he can die a hero.” His father shrugs dismissively.

“He doesn’t need to die! I won’t fail no matter what you think, I can get him the antidote—”

Uther growls, his footsteps turning to furious stomps. “Arthur, you are my only son and heir.” Arthur doesn’t miss the emphasis on the word ‘heir’. He is a valuable possession to both his father and Camelot. He has always known that the role he is destined to fulfil is beyond his own importance, and significantly more important than his own desires.

Uther continues, “I can’t risk losing you over the sake of some serving boy.”

Arthur thinks of Merlin lying shuddering, dying on the pallet and a fresh wave of frustration bubbles up in him.

“What, because his life is worthless?”

Uther rounds on Arthur, irritation sparking in his gaze. “No, because it is worth less than yours.”

The words snap Arthur out of his frantic fury like a slap across his face. It awakens him but leaves him hollow.

“Please Father,” he begs, acutely aware of how desperate he sounds. “He saved my life, I can’t stand by and watch him die.”

Uther exhales sharply through his nose.

“Then don’t look.”

The air is knocked from Arthur’s lungs like a punch to his chest, he falters to a stop. Uther stares at him, stubborn and apathetic, refusing to soften his blows.

“One day I will be dead, and Camelot will need a king. You cannot go risking your life on some fool’s errand to save the life of a servant boy.”

“But—” “But nothing. This boy won’t be the last to die on your behalf, nor is he the first. It’s something you’re going to have to get used to.”

Arthur knows that people will die for him. Knights die for him every day. He has been on quests, battles and regular patrols and watched Knights fall for him at the hands of beasts, soldiers and mercenaries. It is their job, their purpose, to protect and serve the royal family. They volunteer for the position, knowing the potential cost.

Merlin is different. This is not his responsibility, his burden to bear. Dying for the royal family is not what he was hired to do. All he wanted was to protect Arthur, and he was willing to put himself in danger to do so, but he shouldn’t have been put in that position at all.

“I can’t accept that,” Arthur says, quiet but determined. “I have to save him.”

Uther shouts, face dangerously red with anger. “Damn it Arthur!”

Arthur flinches away from his Father, stomach stewing with sick terror.

“You are not to leave this castle tonight! That is an order.”

Arthur holds himself together until he reaches his chambers. He passes four servants and Sir Owain on his way. All of them nod and smile and tell him that they are glad that he is okay and none of them suspect a thing. He’s good at keeping his emotions in check.

He throws his sword at the table when he enters the room, appreciating the satisfying clunk it makes against the wood. Gaius would forgive him if he didn’t go on the journey, he was the one to point out how dangerous it would be. Guinevere might not, but they aren’t friends, even Merlin isn’t technically his friend, it’s improper for a prince to be so dedicated to his servants.

Merlin wouldn’t want Arthur to risk anything for him, not after risking his own life. He would forgive him, a million times over. He’d probably tease him for even thinking about it.

Arthur can practically hear Merlin now. ‘I’m honoured you’d consider getting off your lazy arse for me, but don’t be an idiot, you’ll get yourself killed,’ because he has no sense of propriety.

Arthur rests his forehead against the wall, the cool stone refreshes his skin, flushed with stress.

“Say what you want about the food, but you can’t beat our feasts for entertainment,” Morgana’s voice cuts through the silence of the room.

Arthur quickly recovers, standing tall and plastering a neutral expression onto his face. She raises an eyebrow at him but doesn’t comment.

They grew up in the castle together, she’s the only person in the world who might understand him, regardless of how they tease and get on each other's nerves. No matter how much he trusts her, he still doesn’t let her see how much tonight has upset him. It’s prudent to guard his emotions carefully.

“Yes well, nothing like an assassination attempt to spice up the evening,” he retorts sarcastically.

Morgana smirks. “I’m almost disappointed I didn’t get to clobber a few Mercians around the head with a ladle.”

Arthur sighs, unable to help himself from smiling a little. “I’m sure the guards could have handled Bayard and his men.”

“Yes,” Morgana tips her head, agreeing easily, “but why let the boys have all the fun?”

“Morgana,” Arthur tries to chastise.

She interrupts him, waving her hand and pairing it with a well practised eye roll. “Oh spare me the lecture, I’ve already had it from Uther.”

“I’m sure,” Arthur says, turning his back on her to look out the window towards the forests of Baloch, unable to manage their usual back and forth.

Morgana looks at him intently, like she’s reading into his very soul. Arthur always gets the sense that Morgana knows more than he would ever dare to tell her. The walls he builds to protect himself are as clear as glass when she narrows her eyes at him.

“Not that I listened to him of course. Sometimes you’ve got to do what you think is right, damn the consequences.’

Arthur turns to face her in surprise.

“You think I should go,” he says, not a question but a surprised observation.

Morgana raises a perfectly manicured eyebrow at him, green eyes flashing. “It’s not about what I think, it’s about what you want.”

“It’s never about what I want, if it were it would be easy.”

She looks pointedly at the way he’s fidgeting uncomfortably with his shirt, an action he usually would never dare exhibit in front of others.

“It is easy. You care about Merlin.”

Arthur opens his mouth to argue that he can’t care for Merlin, and she rolls her eyes again. “Alright fine don’t get your pants in a twist; but you enjoy his company and you don’t want to lose him.”

He can’t argue with that and so he nods hesitantly.

“So do the right thing, Arthur.”

Arthur has never broken a direct order from Uther in his entire life. His twentieth birthday has just passed and never once has he gone against his father’s word. He is the King, and his order is not a suggestion but a command.

“What if I don’t make it back? Who will be the next King of Camelot?” Arthur asks. “There’s more than just my life at stake.”

They both hear the words that go unspoken. If it were just my life I would risk it in a heartbeat.

Morgana blinks solemnly at him.

“And what kind of king would Camelot want? One that would risk his life to save that of a lowly servant?” She unsheaths his sword from where it sits on the table and holds it out to him. “Or one who does what his Father tells him?”

Arthur inhales sharply, meeting her challenging expression with his own. Morgana is brash and wild, whereas he is tempered and cautious, he usually would never let her incite him into something so perilous. His insides are twisting in turmoil but her ultimatum is one he is not willing to submit to.

He knows what kind of king he wants to be.

~-~-~

The mist is heavy between the trees in the Forest of Baloch, clinging to Arthur as he rides. The branches twist and reach towards the sky like clawed hands, grappling at his skin, scratching at his face and snagging on the fabric of his red cape. It’s one of the eeriest places Arthur has ever visited, even the dirt seems to have a sinister motive. Every piece of nature is dark and somehow supernatural, waiting to strike Arthur when he least expects it.

The soft sound of a girl sobbing draws his attention. She is curled on a log, hunched in on herself, with shaking shoulders. Her red dress is torn to shreds, and there’s a harsh gash cutting along her right arm.

“Hello?” Arthur calls out, careful not to raise his voice lest he frighten her. He ties his horse to the branch of a nearby tree and makes his way over to her.

She shudders, looking at him with teary eyes. Her eyes are a vibrant blue, so bright Arthur pauses a little at the sight of them.

Arthur kneels in front of her, making himself as small as possible so he isn’t intimidating. She blinks at him widely, still shaking.

“Are you alright?” He asks gently.

She goes to reply but a loud roar interrupts her, cutting through the near silence of the forest. Arthur jumps to his feet, hand reaching for his sword, drawing it out as the cockatrice breaches the top of the hill.

As terrifying as Arthur had found the illustration in Gaius’ book it doesn’t compare to the cockatrice’s real form. It’s immense in size and mostly reptilian in appearance, completely covered in brown and black scales, with two huge plates sticking out of its back. It’s head is like that of a rooster, only with rows of sharp teeth along its beak and eyes a terrifying piercing yellow.

It roars again, charging towards him on all four legs, tail slashing through the air, kicking up dirt in its wake. Arthur lets the familiar calm of a fight overcome him, inhaling and letting his muscles relax. His sword slashes through the air, just missing the beast. He ducks to avoid its sharp beak; remembering Gaius’ warning about the deathly nature of the venom.

The cockatrice has the advantage of size and strength over Arthur, but he has speed on his side. Though the beast is dangerous its heavy tail makes it slow when turning. The beast gnashes it’s jaws as Arthur ducks behind it and manages to slash a few shallow scratches along its side.

It roars, hitting Arthur hard in the stomach with its tail, sending him flying. He twists, using the momentum of his fall to roll back to his feet, and ignores the throbbing pain in his side from the blow. The cockatrice ignores the girl thankfully, instead turning to Arthur with a low growl.

The beast rears up onto its hind legs and roars, Arthur braces himself against the noise, careful not to wince. A moment’s weakness is all it would take for the cockatrice to kill him. Blindness, even for a second, is enough time for the beast to overcome him. If Arthur dies, he would prove his father right, and Merlin will never receive the antidote; more importantly, with Arthur’s death Merlin’s sacrifice will have been for nothing. He would have risked his own life only for Arthur to fail him. Death is not an option.

As the cockatrice lunges forward with an almost cat-like pounce, Arthur drops to his back and rolls underneath the creature’s clawed feet. He turns before the beast has a chance and stabs forward in the defenceless small of the cockatrice’s back. It screams, throwing its head back with a deafening roar, scrabbling for purchase on the ground.

Thick black blood oozes from it’s back as it drops dead to the ground.

The girl stares at the dead monster with a somewhat confused expression, as though she can’t understand how Arthur could have bested it. She trips backwards as Arthur approaches, fear in her bright blue eyes. Arthur has never seen eyes like them, they seem almost inhuman. Not like Merlin’s which, though bright, are as natural as flowing water. Her eyes seem like they were forged and planted into her head, completely artificial.

“Don’t worry,” he assures her, reaching out a hand. “I’m not going to hurt you.”

She nods shakily, her eyes glance down at the wound on her shoulder.

“Who did that to you? What are you doing alone in the forest?” Arthur asks. He catalogues the wound. He’s no physician, but battle has taught him to learn the difference between fatal wounds and treatable injuries. She won’t die but it should be treated before it gets infected.

“My master. I escaped him but then I got lost, I have no horse, no supplies. I’m stuck here,” she explains. “Please don’t leave me.”

Arthur shakes his head. “I’m not going to leave you, don’t worry,” he reassures her. She visibly relaxes. “We’ll leave together, there’s just something I have to do first.”

He makes his way over to his horse to release it, leading it towards the gaping mouth of the cave not far from where the cockatrice had lurked.

“What do you seek in the caves?”

Arthur glances at her, cautious to say too much.

“I know the caves, I might be able to help.” She offers a small smile. There’s no risk in giving her more information about what he seeks, especially if she can help him. Merlin is far from her reach, and he’s already slain the cockatrice, if she wanted the flower for herself she could have already taken it.

“It’s a rare flower that only grows here in the caves,” Arthur explains. Not too much information, not too little.

“The Mortaeus flower?” She guesses. “I know where they are, come on, I’ll show you.”

~-~-~

Gaius watches in concern as Merlin thrashes in his sleep, face screwed up in pain and panting for air between pitiful whines of anguish.

His skin is burning hot when Gaius touches it, like there’s a fire lit in his chest, heating him from the inside out. Gwen squeezes out the cool towel and returns it to Merlin’s forehead and he whimpers in pain.

The circular rash on his skin makes Gaius’ heart heavy with worry. The mark is a confirmation that the poison had been enchanted, escalating its efficiency, making certain that death would only be two days away.

He is almost convinced that the poison is the work of Nimueh. He had been right to be concerned after Merlin stopped her afanc and thwarted her attempt to bring about Camelot’s destruction from within its belly. She is not a sorceress known for forgiveness. Gaius knows that, he should have known she would want revenge on Merlin.

He takes the seat opposite Gwen, taking Merlin’s hand between his own weathered palms and giving it a squeeze. Merlin’s hand is sweaty and clammy with fever, the tips of his fingers are as hot as burning coals, but Gaius holds on anyway.

In the last month he has developed a fondness for the boy unlike any other. In a short space of time he transitioned from protecting Merlin for Hunith’s sake, to doing so out of his own affection for the boy.

He hates sitting by him, unable to do anything and knowing that if Arthur fails, Merlin doesn’t stand a chance.

“Arthur,” Merlin whimpers, still completely unconscious. “Arthur, stop, no, it’s a trap.”

Gwen’s eyebrows furrow in both concern and confusion as she rubs her thumb over his cheekbone. “His fever’s getting worse, isn’t it?”

Gaius nods, watching with an aching heart as Merlin’s face twists in agony, his breath coming out in heaving whistles and gasps.

“The poison’s setting in,” he says solemnly.

Merlin mutters in his restless sleep, mumbling incantations and other magical spells Gaius doesn’t recognise. Gaius shushes him gently, taking the cool towel from Gwen and dabbing it against his burning forehead. There’s only so much magic Gwen can hear before she connects the dots, and Gaius can’t let that happen no matter how trustworthy Gwen seems.

“Can you get me some more hollyhock?” He asks, searching in his mind for the herb that will take her the longest to acquire.

“Yes, of course,” she nods, getting to her feet and hurrying from the room.

Gaius waits until the moment he hears the door click closed after her before leaning close to Merlin.

“You have to fight this, Merlin,” he whispers, squeezing the boy’s hand tight in his own. “You must fight it.”

~-~-~

Within the caves it’s so dark that without the light of a torch Arthur wouldn’t be able to see his own hand inches from his own face. Their footfalls echo loudly through the tunnels, every sound they make is like a thunderclap against the silence. The tunnel opens to form a wide cave and Arthur’s torch barely casts enough light to reach the opposite wall. A thin formation of rock juts out forming a bridge to the far side of the room. As he stretches his torch arm out he can see the yellow petals of the Mortaeus flower clinging to roots implanted in the wall.

“Stay away from the edge, alright?” Arthur turns to look at the girl, as he begins to inch his way along the thin outcrop.

As he inches away from her she begins whispering what he initially presumes to be a prayer. However as her voice grows louder the sound of magical incantation is unmistakable. Arthur has been raised to fear magic, to know its signs, its sounds. Those words are undoubtedly the words of the Old Religion.

“What are you doing?” He shouts, turning to look at her in distress.

She smiles cruelly, continuing to chant. The innocence from her eyes has been devoured, and her inhumanly blue irises almost glow in the light of the torch. The rock beneath Arthur’s feet crumbles and he launches for the far wall, towards the Mortaeus flower. His torch falls into the chasm below, the light extinguishes and her torch becomes his single source of light.

Arthur’s hands latch onto a small ledge, there’s just enough of an outstretch of rock to grip onto. His arms shake with the effort of holding himself up. Arthur gasps as his hand slips and he has to readjust to a stronger hold. As his fingers struggle for purchase his stomach drops in preparation for a fall that is yet to come. His heart races in his chest, strong enough that he can feel it in the tips of his fingers.

“I expected so much more,” she says disdainfully, wrinkling her nose at him.

“Who are you?” Arthur demands, grunting with effort as he attempts to haul himself to safety.

She tips her head consideringly at him. “The last face you will ever see.”

“Then why don’t you kill me?” Arthur asks. His fingers slip slightly, his hands cramp, and his arms tremble as his stamina wears thin.

An ominous hiss sounds before the girl has a chance to answer and she smiles, red lips curving into a cold grin. He follows her line of sight to spot a scuttling creature, a spider the size of Arthur inching along the walls. Its eyes are red and beedy as they survey Arthur, and as its long legs move towards the torch light he can see they are fuzzy with black hair.

“It is not your destiny to die at my hand, Arthur Pendragon,” she answers cooly. He glances around in surprise, although he shouldn’t be shocked she knows his name. “I think I will leave my friends to finish you off.”

She turns and leaves, taking with her any answers Arthur might hope to receive and his only source of light. The darkness of the room swallows Arthur, he couldn’t hope to see past his own nose. The sounds of the creatures moving towards him echoes in his ears, made infinitely more terrifying by the fact that he can’t see them. His heart pounds in his throat as they hiss and snap their oversized pincers. His breaths come in short sharp pants, panic making the air thin.

He breathes harshly through gritted teeth, trying to keep himself calm but it’s impossible when all he can hear is the scuttling of spiders signalling his imminent death. When every shifting rock beneath his fingertips will be the final thing to crumble the ledge to pieces and send him falling into the abyss below.

He’s completely blind, and completely alone.

~-~-~

“Arthur. It’s too dark, too dark, ” Merlin whimpers, struggling in his sleep, before going very still.

His incantation is clear, instead of the words slurring together he pronounces them with perfect articulation. A strange glow emits from beneath the cover of the worn, rough blanket Gaius swaddled him in earlier.

Gaius pulls the cloth away, revealing a glowing blue ball of light sitting in the palm of Merlin’s hand. The light casts a soft blue glow over the room. Merlin is now the most peaceful since the poison entered his bloodstream. His eyelashes flutter in sleep, his lips are parted, his eyebrows are scrunched in concentration and his breath , while shallow, comes out in slow steady exhales.

“Merlin?” Gaius asks aloud. “What are you doing?”

Merlin gasps suddenly, groaning in pain and still completely unconscious despite his movement.

“No,” he practically shouts. “Leave them, Arthur.”

The glow of the magic in his palm intensifies, growing to match his franticness, so painfully bright that Gaius is forced to shield his eyes.

“Please Arthur, please just leave it,” Merlin says, voice raw with desperation. “Save yourself, follow the light. Get out of there, please.”

~-~-~

Arthur’s arms shake, threatening to give in. He knows he has the strength to haul himself onto the ledge, but it’s impossible to know if the rock is safe. The hissing has definitely gotten louder, it seems to close in on him from every direction. His breath hitches, and a drop of sweat slides down the side of his forehead. He’s completely paralysed by fear, stuck imagining the worst case scenarios that fill his mind. He tries to focus on slowing his breathing and rationalising his thoughts. He only has two options, pull himself up or stay out of sight. If Arthur pulls himself onto the ledge and a spider is waiting there, he doesn’t stand a chance, but his arms can’t stand the strain for much longer either.

He squeezes his eyes shut, arms shuddering with pain and weakening as every second passes. When he opens them again a blue glow is illuminating the cave. He looks around desperately, eyes falling on the ball of luminescence as it casts light throughout the cave. Magic.

“Come on then!” He shouts at the offensive magic. “What are you waiting for? Finish me off!”

The ball of light does nothing to endanger him, but it hovers closer, not so close that it could touch nor hurt him, just enough to show it is there for him. The spiders are visible now, and Arthur can see they’re further away than he thought. He grits his teeth hard and musters his strength, heaving himself up onto the ledge. His muscles scream with effort but he’s able to crawl onto the ledge, heaving huge gulps of air and tucking himself close to the wall.

The ball of light edges closer. It feels welcoming, familiar. It drifts close to him almost affectionately, which is daft, a ball of light can’t be affectionate. Nevertheless, the magic achieves it. Arthur doesn’t understand how, but he knows the light is friendly. It emanates an energy that makes Arthur certain, without a shadow of doubt in his mind, that he can trust it.

It starts to float upwards, despite being silent Arthur knows it is beckoning him to follow, to climb out towards the safety. Arthur looks at it and then turns to see the flower just out of reach. He hasn’t come this far only to let Merlin die. It’s not an option.

He inches along the wall, hands pressed to the stone. The spiders hiss, crawling closer, their long hairy legs making scuttling noises that echo throughout the chamber. Arthur ignores them, gathering his courage. The Mortaeus flower is just above his head, he climbs towards it.

There isn’t a foothold close enough. He stretches as far as possible, but the flower remains just out of reach from his pinching fingers. Arthur strains desperately, Merlin’s sick face in his mind, Merlin dying in Gaius’ chamber and Arthur the only one who can help him. The scuttling of the spiders grows closer but he blocks them out, focusing only on the flower, so close, just barely out of his grasp.

He stretches a tiny bit further and his fingers curl around the stem, pulling the flower free.

The spiders are dangerously close. His hands slip and scramble against the walls of the cave, as he climbs, following the blue light towards safety. The stone crumbles in places as his hands grip for purchase, he eventually tugs his gloves off with his teeth, letting them drop into the abyss below. The blue light guides him towards safer footholds and more secure walls. It’s companionship is comforting, a physical representation that somewhere out there, someone wants to keep him safe.

He kicks out at a spider that comes too close, striking it in the face and listens to its screech as it tumbles down into the chasm.

The blue light moves into the open air, through the open roof of the cave and into the forest. Arthur focuses on putting one foot after the other, tucking his feet into the best footholds he can find, desperately climbing towards the light.

Arthur collapses onto the ground outside the cave, quickly jumping to his feet, sword at the ready; but the spiders don’t follow him out. He gives himself two short moments to breathe, letting his shoulders slump, before squaring them again and running for his horse.

~-~-~

Arthur advances on the castle faster than he’s ever ridden in his life. His heart is thumping with such vigour against his chest it feels like it might escape. A blockade of soldiers meet him at the northern gate, swords drawn and circle his horse so he can’t enter the citadel.

He frowns. “What are you doing? Let me pass.”

The knights shift uncomfortably, like they would rather be doing anything else.

“I’m sorry Sire,” Bedevere says. “You’re under arrest by order of the King.”

Arthur blinks, muscles tensing and heart stuttering to a stop. In the hysteria of the day since leaving the castle he had completely forgotten about his father, and he tenses in anticipation of what is to come.

He does not unwind for the duration of the walk to the dungeons. His heart is a steady war drum beating against the barrel of his chest, urging anxiety through his veins with every steady pump. The fear only increases when the King storms into the cell with a crash.

His father is more furious than Arthur has ever seen him. He seems possessed by an enraged energy, rendering him unable to pause for a moment. He paces the length of Arthur’s cell, his face steadily growing redder as he storms the small space.

“You deliberately disobeyed me,” he growls, glaring at Arthur like his very presence disgusts him.

Arthur runs an anxious hand through his hair. “Of course I did! A man’s life was at stake.”

Uther stares at Arthur in shock, finally going still, his jaw slack. Arthur doesn’t speak his mind. He doesn’t disobey orders; and he certainly doesn’t yell at his father.

“Do not let Merlin die because of something I did.”

His father blinks at him now completely still. It’s almost more terrifying than his pacing. “Why do you care so much? The boy is just a servant.”

Arthur feels sick.

Yes, Merlin is just a servant but he’s the only person who would ever think to put himself at risk for Arthur, and Arthur alone. Not because he’s a prince and not because Merlin has an obligation to protect him, but because he wants to. He cares in a way no one in Arthur’s life ever has: unconditionally.

“He knew the danger he was putting himself in; he knew what would happen if he drank from that goblet,” Arthur says instead. Uther turns his back on him, leaving Arthur with only the tense line of frustration in his spine and shoulders. “But he did it anyway. To save my life.”

Uther scoffs, “I thought you would be happy, you never wanted to hire the boy in the first place.”

“I was wrong. I would not wish this fate on anyone.”

Least of all Merlin.

The flower is fragile in Arthur’s hold as he pulls it from the satchel and holds it out to his father. Uther looks down at it, face stern but confused.

“Gaius knows what to do with it,” Arthur says, letting Uther take the flower. He allows the emotion that has been driving him all night seep into his words; the exhaustion and desperation to protect Merlin.

“Put me in the stocks, for a week, a month even. I don’t care. Just make sure this gets to him.” He stares at his father pleadingly. “I’m begging you.”

Uther stares at him, the crease between his eyebrows as deep as the chasm Arthur had confronted. The King doesn’t break eye contact as he takes the delicate flower in his grasp and crushes it in a fist.

“No!”

Arthur stares distraught at the crushed flower. His chest shudders as his airway seals itself closed, his ribs spasm as they struggle to bring air to his already desperate lungs. His eyes won’t part from the broken petals of the small flower, too frail and delicate to hold such importance.

“You have to learn there’s a right, and a wrong way of doing things,” Uther says, watching Arthur’s horrified reaction without a care. “I’ll see you’re let out in a week.”

He turns and walks out of the cell. Arthur inhales deeply struggling to keep the tears pricking his eyes at bay. He blinks furiously, eyes following the swing of his father’s fist where the crushed flower remains as he slams the door closed.

Uther turns and looks at Arthur once more.

“Then you can find yourself another servant.” He drops the flower to the ground, just outside of the barred door.

It lies on the floor, crushed and wilted.

Arthur waits until Uther is out of sight before dropping to his knees and reaching through the bars, stretching until his fingertips brush the flower’s broken petals.

He’s sitting at the back of the cell when Guinevere enters with a tray of food. He bites at the inside of his cheek hard enough to draw blood in effort not to reveal how relieved he is to see her. There isn’t a chance Morgana’s attendant would be responsible for bringing him food, her position as maidservant is too highly ranked, she must be here for Merlin. He has to remain impassive and calm, if he reveals to the guards that she has snuck down here not only will she be in danger but Merlin will never get the antidote.

“Set it down over there,” he orders, keeping his voice stern and emotionless. He sees the flash of worry, in Guinevere’s eyes but it can’t be helped.

She carefully moves across the cell in silence, and lays the plate of bread and cheese on a crate in the corner.

Arthur walks over to the meal, letting the flower slip from his tunic onto the plate and tucking the bread around it.

“Wait a minute,” he calls out, stopping her before she leaves the cell. Dread gnaws at his insides. He can see in her eyes that Merlin is not faring better. “I couldn’t possibly eat this, it's disgusting.”

He shoves the plate into her arms and looks intently at her, desperately hoping she understands his concealed message. “The state it’s in, it’s better suited to a servant.”

Guinevere smiles slightly, just enough Arthur can see it but the guards cannot with her back turned to them. He forces himself not to squirm with embarrassment, uncomfortably aware how vulnerable and genuine he is being.

It doesn’t matter, as long as Merlin will be okay.

~-~-~

Gaius hasn’t used his magic since the Great Purge. He remembers the day it began as clearly as if it were yesterday. He remembers Uther demanding Gaius denounce magic, or join the other sorcerers on the pyre. To condemn sorcery was a low price in comparison to keeping his life and position as court physician.

Ever since he was a young man his desire had been to combine his prowess for healing magic with his natural inclination towards science and the practise of medicine, to merge the two fields and improve medicine for the better. The Great Purge all that was required of him was to adjust his dream to be solely focused on physical and practical healing. His magic had always been a weaker part of him, to surrender it was not difficult, and he has never even thought about returning to the practice of sorcery.

Until now. Until Merlin.

He looks at the boy. He’s so pale he looks like a breathing corpse, his eyelids sunken and purpling, mouth pinched in pain and hair plastered to his forehead with sweat. His breaths are so shallow they barely sink his stomach, Gaius has to place a hand to his mouth to feel a whisper of air whistling in and out. He doesn’t have a choice. Without magic, he cannot make the antidote Merlin needs, and he will be lost.

He sends Gwen to fetch water for him. She’s a lovely girl who has shown many times in the last two days that she would do anything for Merlin, but being witness to sorcery may be too far, even for her. To Gaius’ knowledge she would have only been a year old when the Great Purge began, and would have grown up being taught to fear magic. It’s better to not force her to confront that now.

As soon as the door closes behind her Gaius digs deep into his soul, searching for the magic that once resided there. When he was a young man, though he was not a powerful sorcerer, his magic was a thick and strong coil of rope; now it has thinned away with misuse, frayed and thin as a piece of thread, but it’s still there.

He cups the pestle with the ingredients to the antidote and tips his head back. The words return to him immediately, even after twenty years of neglect. He murmurs the incantation, careful to be quiet so no passing soul would hear. He seizes his magic and steers it towards the concoction, wrapping the tendrils of it around the flower’s stem and fusing them together with the ancient incantation.

Gaius opens his eyes carefully, peering down at the potion as it hisses and bubbles before falling still. A swell of relief rises in him, washing over him in a steady wave. Even internally he’d had an itch of doubt as to whether he would be able to perform magic after so long. He doesn’t know if he could forgive himself if they lost Merlin now because of his own lack of skill.

Gwen runs in with the freshwater, her face flushed with exertion and exhaustion, but hopeful. He takes it from her with a quiet thanks and pours it into the potion, mixing as quickly as he can fathom.

He hurries to Merlin’s side, commanding Gwen to hold his nose as he carefully pours the potion down his throat. Merlin doesn’t respond, immobile beneath Gaius' hands as he tends to him. There’s a long stretching silence as they both wait.

Merlin stops breathing.

“Gaius,” Gwen says, panic making her voice high and shrill as she leans forward and presses her fingers to where Merlin’s pulse should be on his wrist.

Gaius’ heart drops. He places his hands on Merlin’s chest, waiting for the feeling of his heart. Nothing comes.

“His heart has stopped,” he forces out, the words are thick and stick to his throat. Merlin lies completely still, the sight of him lifeless feels like a horrific nightmare.

Gwen shakes her head, hands pressed to her lips and tears shining in her eyes. She is mute with horror.

“It can’t be,” Gaius murmurs, touching his fingers to Merlin’s wrist, the side of his neck, desperately chasing the faint outline of a pulse. “It can’t be,” he repeats helplessly.

Gwen shudders. “If I had been quicker, if I had gotten here sooner—” she cuts off with a sob.

“No,” Gaius stops her, opening his arms and letting her fall into them. “No it’s not your fault. He was under my care, I should have looked after him better.”

Gaius squeezes his eyes shut, rubbing Gwen’s back as she shakes against him. In all his years as physician, all the deaths he has been forced to witness, it has never felt this overwhelmingly terrible, like an important piece of the world has been annihilated.

“The way you’re acting, you’d think somebody died.”

They both look down at the pallet to see Merlin looking up at them with a weak smile. Joy swells in Gaius as he takes the boy in, who’s breathing, smiling and wonderfully alive. His heart sings in relief, exhaling easily for the first time in days.

“Merlin!” He exclaims, a smile overcoming his face. “You’re alive!”

Merlin grins, his arms trembling with the effort of holding himself up.

“Nah, I’m a ghost, come back to haunt you,” he teases, a cheeky glint in his eyes.

Gwen lets out a gleeful sobbing noise, overwhelmed with joy, and throws her arms around Merlin’s neck, knocking him back onto the bed with a grunt. He smiles over her shoulder, the crinkled edges of his eyes just visible as he buries his face in her neck.

“I’m so glad you’re alright,” Gaius can just hear her say softly, the words muffled by Merlin’s shoulder.

~-~-~

Arthur watches Bayard’s delegation as they march away, a sea of blue soldiers, servants and noblemen. After a week of back and forth, in which Arthur was contained to the dungeon, the kingdom had finally decided to leave without signing a peace treaty. The visit did not achieve what they had hoped, and likely has ensured another period of war between the two kingdoms.

“Arthur,” his father’s voice interrupts Arthur’s observation of the leaving embassy. “You knew Bayard’s men were not responsible for the poison, you said so to the guards, did you not?”

Straight to business, exactly like always.

“I did.”

Uther follows Arthur’s line of sight to Bayard’s men and their path out of Camelot. “What made you realise?”

“There was a woman at the mountain,” Arthur says. He sees his father jerk out of the corner of his eye and he looks at him curiously. The scar jutting across his forehead is creased along with his frown lines, deep in thought.

“She knew I was there for the flower,” he continues. “I think she was the one who tried to poison me.”

Uther pauses, digesting this information.

“This woman, what did she tell you?” He asks, voice surprisingly solemn.

“Not much. She was too busy trying to get me killed.” Arthur shrugs.

Uther’s jaw tightens, a twitch that Arthur has come to know he’s worried about something. He also knows better than to ask. Uther is not one to share his personal feelings with his son.

“You must have been scared,” Uther says, finally turning to look at Arthur. After a week in the cell, alone with his thoughts, unaware if he had even succeeded in saving Merlin, it’s a relief to see the edge of guilt around his father’s eyes.

He tips his head slightly. “It had its moments.”

“Those who practise magic know only evil. They despise and seek to destroy goodness wherever they find it…”

It is a tirade Arthur knows well, familiar as a well worn children’s book read to him by the nurses at bedtime. However Uther’s addition is not one he expects.

“Which is why she wanted you dead.”

Silence falls over them again, it’s uncomfortable, the way it always is with his father. Eventually Uther sighs, reaching out and touching Arthur’s shoulder. He’s startled by the touch, looking down at it in surprise. Uther has never and will never be a physically affectionate father. He stopped hugging Arthur at six years old. A touch to the shoulder is high comfort coming from him.

“You did the right thing, even though you were disobeying me,” he concedes.

Arthur can’t help but smile, crossing his arms over his chest and doing his best not to grin. The words light up in his veins, leaving a pleasant hum that warms him from the inside out.

“I’m proud of you, Arthur. Never forget that.”

~-~-~

Merlin’s entire body aches. In spite of a week having gone by since the antidote rejected the poison from his system, still every muscle in his body feels like he endured hours of physical training; even the muscles of his pinky finger are tender and sore.

He’s hunched over a cup of tea Gaius prepared for him — much to his protests — with a scratchy blanket thrown over his shoulders.

“Still alive then?” Arthur’s voice cuts through the quiet. Merlin turns towards him, taking in the easy, almost affectionate, smile on his face.

Merlin smiles back, unable to help himself, Arthur’s smile is contagious. “Uh yeah just about.”

Arthur’s smile goes soft, less teasing and more genuinely relieved to see Merlin sitting up and alright.

He knew that he and Arthur were growing closer, the animosity to the beginning of their relationship long forgotten even though only a month has passed. It’s a symptom of spending the majority of their days together, but it’s nice to have reassurance that Arthur actually cares.

Not only did he retrieve the antidote Merlin needed, putting his own life on the line, but he clearly cares about Merlin’s recovery too.

“I understand I have you to thank for that.” Merlin looks up at Arthur where he’s come to settle by him, one hand sitting on the back of Merlin’s chair, close enough his knuckles brush Merlin’s shoulder.

Arthur rolls his eyes. “Well, it was nothing. A half-decent servant is hard to come by.”

“Half-decent? That might be the closest you’ve ever come to complimenting me,” Merlin teases, shooting Arthur a weak grin.

Arthur laughs. “Don’t get used to it.”

Arthur has a nice laugh, it’s loud and addictive, infectious in the best way, inciting everyone around him to smile too. His eyes crinkle deeply in the corners and his grin stretches wide. Sometimes, if Merlin can get him to laugh hard enough, his shoulders will shake with it.

Merlin looks down at the table, ducking his head to hide how wide he’s smiling.

They both go quiet, relaxing in the comfortable silence.

“Well,” Arthur says, his voice soft so as not to break the bubble they’ve found themselves in. “I was only dropping by to make sure you were alright.”

Merlin’s head turns to look at Arthur in surprise, and behind them he can see Gaius doing the same. Arthur stiffens slightly, remembering where he is and that he usually doesn’t let himself relax so openly.

“And to check you’d be back to work tomorrow,” he adds, raising his eyebrows pointedly at Merlin.

It’s a weak excuse but Merlin allows it. “Oh yeah, of course, bright and early.”

Arthur turns to leave, patting the back of Merlin’s chair absently before he steps back. Merlin watches Arthur go, and even sees the awkward bob of his head directed towards Gaius as he passes. He makes it all the way to the door before Merlin calls out.

“Arthur.”

He turns back to Merlin at the sound of his name, a surprised and curious expression on his face.

“Thank you,” Merlin tries to saturate his gratitude into those two words. There aren’t enough words to express how much Arthur’s actions truly mean to him, but he does his best with the simple show of acknowledgement.

Arthur stares back, his eyes going soft and unguarded. “You too,” he says quietly. An acknowledgement of Merlin’s risk in protecting him from the poison, and Arthur’s own appreciation

“Get some rest,” Arthur adds, turning and walking out of the room before Merlin can think to say something in response.

Chapter Text

If Merlin dies while foraging for mushrooms, he’s coming back as a ghost purely to make sure Gaius never forgets it.

The beast charges out of the forest on all fours, sprinting towards Merlin. His breath catches in his throat. The beast advances on him with terrifying speed. Merlin doesn’t even have time to gasp before it is almost upon him. The creature moves like a cat but propels forward with the body of a lion. Its sharp claws hit the ground, kicking up dirt with every stride. Its screeching head belongs to an eagle, the beak of its feathery face stretched wide and sharp as it prepares to attack. Huge wings fan out behind the beast, flapping to increase its already terrifying speed.

Merlin runs, feet slamming into the ground in his frantic scramble to escape. He feels slow and sluggish compared to the hulking beast, he swings his arms wildly in a desperate attempt to move faster. He doesn’t dare look back, but the sounds of the beast grow closer. His lungs burn, his heart rate sprints wildly, thumping against his chest like war drums. Sweat trickles down his forehead as he rushes through the trees.

He lets out a yelp as his foot snags on a root and he topples to the ground, hitting the floor with an oof. He turns, scrabbling on the loose dirt. His breath catches in his throat. The beast rears up above him.

Merlin squeezes his eyes shut, preparing for the fatal blow. His heart beat crashes in his ears. He waits, but nothing happens.

He opens his eyes to see a man has jumped to his rescue. Armed with a sword, he attacks, driving the beast back with wide sweeps of silver. The creature roars, snapping at the man, ducking its massive beak as it backs away from the blade.

The man stumbles as the beast swipes him to the side but doesn’t falter. He drives his sword forward at the first opportunity. The sword splinters as it collides with the beast’s hide, shattering to pieces. The man freezes, looking down at his sword, then at Merlin in horror.

“Run! Run!” He urges, grabbing Merlin’s arm, hauling him to his feet.

They bolt through the forest, weaving between the trees, jumping over roots and rocks. The man, clearly more logical than Merlin, stays within the trees that have grown closer together. Here they can fit comfortably but the beast can’t.

The pounding of the creature’s paws follows them, accompanied by angry shrieks which send chills down Merlin’s spine.

The man uses his hold on Merlin’s arm to yank him down and behind a log. Merlin holds his breath, careful not to make a sound over the deafening boom of his heart thumping in his ears.

The beast, thankfully, flies away with a furious shriek, taking off in the direction of a nearby town.

Merlin drops his head back against the log, finally letting out a gasp. Fear still sits in his throat in a thick layer but the air passes through, entering his lungs in a relieving wave. The terror slowly eases from his body in bursts of shivering tremors.

“Holy shit,” Merlin wheezes, pressing his palm to his heart, he can feel it racing against his touch through his chest. He repeats the sentiment a few more times to be sure.

The man next to him lets out a weak laugh of agreement.

“You saved my life,” Merlin says, turning to him with a wide eyed look of appreciation. “Thank you.”

The man waves him off flippantly, Merlin vaguely notices the man is barely moving his left side, but his mind is too slow from the adrenaline to comprehend it.

“Don’t worry about it.”

“I’m Merlin.” He holds out his hand for the man to shake and he does so with an exhausted smile.

“Lancelot.”

Merlin watches in horror as Lancelot’s head lolls back and his eyelids droop, still clutching his left side. The confusion from the fight falls away and Merlin can now see a small wound where the beast must have struck.

~-~-~

When Merlin gets Lancelot to Gaius he assures him that the man will be fine.

“The wound itself is superficial and the fever will pass. He should be fine by the morning.”

Gaius is right of course. Merlin discovers a fully recovered Lancelot the next morning, peering out the window and looking down in wonder at the streets of Camelot. If Merlin’s first impression of the city had been amazement, it doesn’t hold a torch to the awestruck way Lancelot admires the view from the castle. He smiles down at the streets, practically falling out the window in desperation to see more.

“Good morning,” Merlin greets him, leaning against his door frame.

Lancelot turns and returns the sentiment with a beaming smile, so bright that Merlin suddenly needs the support of the door frame to stay upright.

“It’s amazing isn’t it?” He says, turning back to the window.

Merlin takes a seat by his side, careful not to stare for too long. He had noticed Lancelot was attractive when they met, but the adrenaline of being in mortal danger was clouding his judgement in that moment. Now he can see that his initial assessment wasn’t favourable enough. Aside from Arthur maybe, Lancelot is one of the most gorgeous men Merlin has ever laid eyes on. He has deep soulful eyes that shine with wonderment, framed by soft dark hair that curls around his ears. The subtlest beginning of stubble spreads across his chin and upper lip that all curve into a giddy smile. His tanned skin glows in the morning light and soaks in the Camelot sun. He holds his shoulders in an assured yet humble manner, it’s clear that chivalry has been embedded into his very bones. Merlin can see the lines of strong muscles through his threadbare shirt, built up with years of consistent training and labour.

“Ever since I was a child, I’ve dreamed of coming to this city,” Lancelot says, still looking out the window rather than at Merlin, like he can’t bear to take his eyes off Camelot.

“You grew up in Camelot?” Merlin asks.

Lancelot shakes his head. “No. I grew up in the villages of Nemeth just south of here.”

“Why Camelot then?”

Lancelot’s eyes sparkle with a dreamlike wonder as he faces Merlin. “It is my life’s ambition to join the Knights of Camelot. They are revered throughout all the kingdoms for their honour, their strength. I want to be one of them.”

Merlin smiles to himself. It’s easy to picture Lancelot in such a role after he came to Merlin’s rescue only a day ago. He has more of the knightly qualities Arthur prattles on about than most of the idiots who already are knights. The mental visualisation of him in a knight’s armour is not only easy to conjure but Merlin imagines would be easy on the eyes.

With a sigh Lancelot turns back to the window.

“I know, I expect too much. They have their pick of the best and bravest in the land. Why would they choose me?”

Merlin frowns in disbelief. Just a few days ago one of the ‘best and bravest in the land’ had knocked over an entire display of armour while attempting to pull off his boots. Only Sir Leon had been kind enough to stay behind to help pick up the mess left behind.

“Lancelot,” Merlin says, drawing the man’s attention. “They’re going to love you.”

Lancelot’s eyes go wide with hope, and a gracious smile adorns his soft mouth. It’s small, as if he doesn’t dare believe Merlin could be telling the truth.

“They are?”

“Absolutely! I’ve seen you in combat, you’re incredible.”

“Hardly.” He waves Merlin off, ducking his head with a shy smile to avoid his eyes.

“Trust me I’ve seen my fair share of knights, you are more than worthy. I think you could beat Arthur himself.”

Lancelot’s eyes widen to the size of saucers. “Certainly not.”

Merlin slaps his knees, determination settling with an exciting buzz as an idea blooms in his mind. “In fact, I’m going to speak with him right now. I’m sure he would love to meet you.”

“You know Prince Arthur?” Lancelot asks incredulously, jaw dropping open in disbelief.

Merlin grins, getting to his feet. “Oh yes, too well I’d say.”

Lancelot stares at him with a cynical twist to his eyebrows, like he’s waiting for Merlin to reveal the punchline. “I’m his manservant,” Merlin explains, tipping his head, gesturing for Lancelot to follow him out of Gaius’ chambers and towards the area where Arthur would be preparing some of the squires to face their final test before achieving knighthood.

~-~-~

As Merlin expected, it’s easy to arrange with Arthur to meet Lancelot. However there is a small issue: according to the knight’s code, only noblemen are permitted to be knights of Camelot. It’s nothing Merlin can’t overcome, all it takes is a magically forged seal of nobility, and Lancelot’s dream of becoming a knight is essentially achieved.

The harder part is convincing Lancelot to agree.

Merlin knew, even before he asked, that Lancelot would be opposed to the lie. He seems to be someone determined to do the right thing, no matter the cost. But Merlin also knows that Arthur needs more knights, he’s been complaining about it constantly, especially since the presence of the newfound beast tormenting Camelot. He’s also sure that Arthur will appreciate Lancelot’s strength and honour. If he never finds out Lancelot isn’t a member of the nobility, how will that hurt him?

“I’m still not sure, Merlin,” Lancelot says softly as Merlin leads him to Gwen’s cottage, rapping twice on the door.

“Remember, you still have to prove yourself. Pretending you’re nobility is only a little lie to get your foot in the door,” Merlin reminds him. “Everything else is up to you.”

The door opens to reveal Gwen. She’s wearing a soft pink dress and her hair is twisted into a messy updo, the picture of casual beauty. She offers them both a winning smile which Merlin returns eagerly.

“Merlin! And you must be Lancelot.”

Merlin glances over at Lancelot taking in his awestruck expression with a smirk.

Gwen steps aside to let them in, giving Merlin a short hug before he passes. “Come in, make yourself at home, Merlin.”

Gwen leads Lancelot to the centre of the room, unravelling a measuring ribbon and beginning to size him. Both she and Merlin only have a short space of time when they’re not expected to be attending to Morgana and Arthur so she moves quickly.

Merlin watches from the corner of the room in amusement as Lancelot’s face steadily colours as Gwen moves down his body.

Lancelot clears his throat. “This is very kind of you, Gwen. Thank you.”

Gwen wraps the measuring ribbon around his thigh and Merlin has to bite his tongue to keep himself from laughing as Lancelot’s eyes snap to the far wall.

“There’s no need to thank me, I’m happy to help,” she assures him. When she stands they both pause for a long moment, before Gwen breaks contact by moving around his back.

“I think it’s great that Merlin’s got you this chance — sorry can you raise your arms? — We need men like you.” Lancelot raises his arms out to his sides and Gwen wraps her own around his middle, pulling the ribbon to circle him.

“You do?” Lancelot looks at her in wonder. Their eyes meet again as Gwen moves to measure around the width of his neck, her knuckles brush his skin and Merlin watches Lancelot shiver.

A dark flush creeps up Gwen’s neck, her eyes growing wide and her expression more than a little enamoured. Merlin contemplates leaving the room to give them privacy.

“Well, not me, personally that is. We, like Camelot, you know, Camelot needs knights um—” She shuffles away from Lancelot again, unconvincingly checking her notes.

“We need knights like you, not just people like Arthur and his kind, but ordinary people like you and me,” she explains quickly, not looking up from the parchment.

Lancelot smiles, scratching the back of his neck. “Well, I’m not a knight yet, my lady.”

Gwen looks up with a startled smile. “And I’m not a lady.”

There’s another long pregnant pause where the two stare into each other’s eyes, smiling shyly. Lancelot looks at Gwen the same way he looked at Camelot, like she’s breathtaking and he can’t take his eyes off her for a second, lest she disappear.

“Right!” Gwen says suddenly, too loud. “We’re done, um, I should have these ready in no time.”

Merlin gets to his feet, and she glances at him with wide, startled eyes. She had clearly forgotten he was there. He smirks, hoping she sees one his face that he will absolutely be teasing her about this later.

“It was nice to meet you, Lancelot,” she says, holding out her hand for him to shake.

Lancelot takes her offered hand and bends over to press a kiss to her knuckles. Gwen’s cheeks go a brilliant shade of dark red.

“And I you, Guinevere.”

He walks out the door first and Merlin turns to Gwen, still standing with wide eyes where Lancelot left her.

“We’re talking about this later,” he mouths cheekily, ducking the measuring ribbon that she whips his way with a laugh.

Obtaining Lancelot’s knighthood proceeds easily. Gaius doesn’t approve and Merlin sees that in the way the man glares at him whenever they make eye contact, but Merlin hadn’t expected him to. Gaius likes to follow the rules, even if they’re unfair. Lancelot advances through training with incredible speed. He willingly does whatever Arthur asks of him and though Arthur hides his thoughts well Merlin is almost sure he’s impressed.

He cleans stables, faces Arthur in hand to hand combat and shows honour and chivalry to those in need. With the beast steadily advancing on Camelot, the need for more knights becomes so dire that Arthur is even willing to move forward his last trial. Merlin and Gwen watch in terrified anticipation as they duel. Arthur is the better swordsman, but Lancelot is able to best him, granting him the title of knight.

Merlin should have known better, when something seems too good to be true it almost always is.

~-~-~

Arthur doesn’t know what to do with himself, what to feel. Lancelot is one of the best knights and best fighters he has ever known. His eagerness and willingness to serve is unparalleled to any other man Arthur has trained; but he lied.

He watches, still as a statue, as Lancelot is pushed to his knees in the centre of the throne room before Arthur’s father.

“Tell him what you told me,” Uther orders Geoffrey, who is standing to the side with a solemn expression. From what Arthur knows of the man he takes his documentation very seriously.

“These credentials are faked,” Geoffrey announces, his voice booming around the large room. “The seal itself is faultless, a forgery of the highest possible standard, but a forgery it must be. There is no record of a fifth son of Lord Eldred of Northumbria.”

Lancelot closes his eyes against the words like they pain him. When he opens them he keeps them trained on the floor, by Uther’s feet.

“Therefore he lied,” Uther growls, stalking towards Lancelot, each step decisive and brimming with anger.

“Do you deny it?” He asks, stopping just above Lancelot, forcing him to stretch his neck in a painful way to look up at him.

Arthur pleads desperately in silence for Lancelot to deny the claim, to provide a good reason for the misunderstanding. Perhaps for the first time in over forty years of service, Geoffrey has finally made an error. It must be difficult to see past those ridiculously bushy eyebrows, maybe he read the wrong piece of documentation.

However Lancelot does no such thing. He hangs his head in shame and quietly speaks.

“No Sire, I do not deny it.”

Arthur lets his head drop forward into his hand, pinching the bridge of his nose painfully. He can feel a headache starting to form behind his eyes, building a thick and uncomfortable pressure in his temples. Regardless, it’s easier to focus on the throb of pain in his head than the uncomfortable sting of betrayal in his chest. That sharp feeling is too painful, and too heavy to comprehend.

“You have broken the first code of Camelot, and so you have broken a sacred trust. You brought shame upon yourself, and upon us. You are not worthy of the knighthood bestowed upon you. You never were.” Uther stares down his nose at Lancelot, whose expression is devastated.

Arthur frowns. He agrees with his father only to an extent. The knight’s code is sacred and to break it so shamelessly, to lie to Arthur’s face, is a massive betrayal that cannot be overlooked. However, the notion that Lancelot does not, and never did, deserve knighthood is wrong.

Arthur has never met someone who so wholly embodied the principles of a knight. Lancelot has proven from the day he arrived in Camelot that all he wishes is to serve and to serve honourably. His methods were deceitful and whilte that is inexcusable, he was more than worthy of the knighthood bestowed upon him. Perhaps even more so than the majority of the knights who did come from noble families.

“Get him out of my sight,” Uther says, his lip curling distastefully as he looks at the disgraced knight.

The doors haven’t even closed behind Lancelot as he is escorted from the court before Arthur turns to look at his father.

“Sire,” he begins.

“You contest my judgement?” Uther interrupts. It’s a dangerous question, with only one correct answer and Arthur doesn’t doubt that overstepping will unleash an outburst of Uther’s fury upon himself.

He shakes his head, not answering the question but instead choosing to explain himself.

“His deception was inexcusable, but I am certain he meant no harm. He only wished to serve.”

Both Geoffrey and his father turn to him, Geoffrey in surprise and Uther in frustration.

“The knight's code is a sacred law, it bends for no man. To break the first code means to break the trust that bonds the knights together.”

He stares at Arthur, almost daring him to disagree. Arthur knows better and so he says nothing.

“How can you trust a man who has lied to you?”

The question digs its talons deep into Arthur’s skin, catching with sharp cruelty on the fragile edges of his heart. He swallows around a thick lump building in his throat, and turns away from his father. He cannot answer.

~-~-~

Arthur doesn’t have time to ponder the question. The winged beast that tormented the outlying villages of Camelot has reached the citadel, and Arthur is focused on putting a stop to the creature.

He stumbles his way into the court where his father and other officials are discussing the danger the beast poses to the kingdom and to their people. A sombre atmosphere sits like a dense fog over the sea of heavy frowns and troubled expressions worn by every member of court.

Arthur is exhausted, his limbs practically drag along the floor, his fringe is plastered to his forehead and his muscles ache. His heart is still racing in his chest. The beast was invincible, its claws were vicious as it tore through capes and pierced armour. Their swords were useless against the beast’s body, splintering into useless pieces as they made contact. Arthur doesn’t know what to make of it, all he knows is he is terrified.

“Did you vanquish the beast?” Uther asks, an eager and expectant smile on his face.

Arthur hesitates. “It did not succeed in hurting anyone,” he says — not quite an answer.

“It escaped?” The smile slips from Uther’s face to be replaced by a much more familiar frown. “What happened?”

“Nothing we did seemed to make any impact. We managed to stave it off the citadel for now but it’s still out there.”

Uther nods, getting to his feet and meeting Arthur by the doorway.

“Then we finish this, today, before it can return.”

“Sire, if I may?” Gaius interrupts them. “I’ve been researching this creature, and I believe it to be a Griffin.”

Uther frowns. “What’s in a name?”

Arthur hears Gaius swallow, he’s noticeably nervous for the sentence about to come. He knows Arthur’s father well, better than Arthur could ever hope to know him, so there must be a cause for his nerves.

“The Griffin is a creature of magic Sire—”

“—I don’t have time for this,” Uther cuts him off with a stormy look in his eye.

“Sire, it is born of magic and it can only be killed by magic,” Gaius ploughs on, imploring Uther towards reason, but where magic is involved that endeavour is nearly impossible.

Arthur considers the physician’s words even as his father continues to dismiss them. He remembers how his sword seemed incapable of even scratching the Griffin, despite being made of flesh and blood, just like any other creature. He meets Merlin’s eyes over Gaius’ shoulder, it’s clear that he agrees with the physician and his face urges Arthur to do the same. The image of swords shattering haunts Arthur’s mind again.

“You are mistaken,” Uther assures Gaius, turning away. “Arthur and his men proved that today.”

Arthur shakes his head. “I’m not so sure, father. I think there may be truth in what he says.”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Uther snaps harshly, a clipped and dangerous tone to his voice.

“The creature went unharmed, my Lord. Our weapons were useless against it.”

Uther scowls, his face going rigid, a sign he was steadfast in his choice and would not be convinced otherwise. “Useless? I think not. No, the beast has tasted our steel once and the next time will be its last.”

His father turns to him with a cold, demanding look in his eyes. Arthur dreads the words before they even leave his father’s lips.

“When will your knights be ready to ride again?”

Arthur’s heart sinks but he doesn’t let the devastation appear on his face.

“An hour, maybe two,” he answers hesitantly. His knights will not be happy to ride out again so soon, they barely made it back into the castle earlier. The weight of their exhaustion was all consuming, leaving their eyelids heavy and their legs shaking. It’s unlikely they will all make it back alive if he forces them into battle again under such conditions.

“Good,” his father nods. “We finish this tonight.”

With those final words he storms from the room, Gaius following in his stride. Merlin flounders, clearly unsure of whether to follow or stay. Arthur turns away to leave him to make that decision in peace. He squeezes his eyes shut and grinds his teeth together, careful not to play out his frustration visibly.

“You’ll die if you go,” Merlin breaks the silence, choosing to stay by Arthur’s side.

Arthur nods sharply. “Yes, probably.”

“So don’t go,” Merlin proposes as if it’s that simple. As if Arthur has ever had the choice to just stay in his entire life.

“When are you going to learn that’s not an option for me?” Arthur asks, rolling his eyes to the ceiling.

Merlin shrugs and doesn’t answer.

Arthur sighs, a slow inhale, and then a longer exhale. He needs knights, good knights. He needs men like Lancelot. Arthur knows that if Gaius is right — and he likely is — without magic they don’t stand a chance of conquering the beast, but magic isn’t an option. There is only so much Arthur can control.

Mind made up, he looks back at Merlin, who’s still staring at him, not expecting anything but hopeful regardless. Hopeful that Arthur will change his mind and stay, even though they both know he can’t do that.

“I have to go and do something. You should go to Gaius. I expect you at work in the morning,” Arthur dismisses him as though this is just a regular afternoon.

Merlin opens his mouth and then closes it with a scowl, like he wants to argue but thinks better of it.

“Fine,” Merlin grits out in a tone that ensures Arthur is aware he means the opposite.

“Good.” Arthur marches out of the room, towards the dungeons.

Lancelot is sitting against the far wall of the cell, but he scrambles to his feet immediately as Arthur approaches. The Griffin’s attack had been enough to distract Arthur from Lancelot’s lie, and the complicated knot of emotions it leaves in his chest; but seeing him again reopens the wound.

“Sire—” Lancelot says softly, like he’s about to apologise, but Arthur speaks over him before he gets the chance.

“I can’t believe it, how could I have been so stupid?” His eyes jump over Lancelot and now it’s so obvious he isn’t a nobleman. The way he holds himself is reminiscent of Merlin. He isn’t stiff in the shoulders, with a straight back and upturned chin like members of the nobility, but he stands at an angle, with a proud chest from years of honest work.

“You don’t look like a knight, you don’t even sound like a knight,” Arthur says agitatedly, running a hand through his still sweaty hair.

“I’m sorry,” Lancelot says honestly, accompanying his words with a slight bow.

“I’m sorry too,” Arthur snaps back, exhaling through his nose in a frustrated huff. “Because damn it Lancelot, you fight like a knight. A damn good one, and I need—” he stops himself.

No matter what Arthur is about to face, he cannot ask Lancelot to join him. Not because he wouldn’t, Arthur is sure he would agree to serve in a heartbeat; but because if his father were to find out, his wrath would be worse than the Griffin itself. He came to the dungeons to give Lancelot the opportunity to escape, or to fight alongside them by choice. The guards posted outside the cell need to know that Arthur ordered Lancelot to leave Camelot.

If Lancelot is the man Arthur thinks he is, he will stay. If he’s not, Arthur made an error in judgement and let a man go free without consequence.

“The creature?” Lancelot guesses.

Arthur nods jerkily. “I have never faced anything like it. We could not kill it.”

“I faced it myself, Sire, some days past. I struck it squarely, I wondered how it endured.”

Arthur thinks of Gaius, and of Merlin. “There are some that believe this creature, this Griffin, is a creature of magic, and can only be killed by magic.”

Lancelot’s eyes widen in horror. “Do you believe this?”

With a rough swallow Arthur shrugs. “It doesn’t matter what I believe, magic is forbidden.”

He looks to Lancelot, standing tall despite being locked in a cell. He does not ask for anything, since the moment Arthur arrived he has not once begged for freedom or attempted to excuse his actions.

“There is a horse waiting outside, take it and never return.” Lancelot’s face falls, he retreats further into the depths of the dank cell. “No. Please Sire, it is not my freedom I seek. I only wish to serve with honour.”

“I know.”

“Then let me ride with you sire.”

“I cannot.”

Lancelot falls silent, expression crumbling inwards. His jaw wobbles and his dark eyes are hurt. He does not disguise his feelings, they are worn for the world to see, for Arthur to see.

Arthur scratches his thumb into his forefinger, a nervous habit his father had forced out of him long ago. He looks imploringly at Lancelot hoping he recognises Arthur’s silent plea to help.

“My father knows nothing of this, I release you myself, but I can do no more. Now go.” He steps to the side so Lancelot can leave through the open cell door.

Lancelot hesitates a moment, looking desperately at Arthur, before nodding and leaving. Arthur can only hope he will do the right thing.

~-~-~

Merlin might be sick.

It was easy to convince Lancelot to let Merlin help him face the Griffin, putting on a charade of false bravado and assuring him he could hold his own. Despite the show of bravery, Merlin’s heart is hammering against his ribcage like a pounding drum, and his stomach stews in fear.

Arthur, Camelot, and now Lancelot, they all depend on Merlin. He can’t fail, it isn’t an option. To fail means to lose everything. To fail means that Merlin did not fulfil his destiny. He must do this.

They dismount at the first sight of a red cape draped across the ground. Merlin’s eyes skip over the fallen knights in terror, searching amongst them, he runs between the bodies frantically, searching amongst the rubble for one person. His gaze falls on a familiar blond head of hair.

“Arthur,” he breathes, rushing over to him, almost tripping over a root in his desperate haste. He presses shaking fingers to Arthur’s pulse point, between his strong jaw and neck. The reassuring beat of a heart meets his fingertips.

“Thank god,” he gasps with relief, turning to Lancelot. “He’s alive.”

The distant call of the Griffin growing closer distracts them from saying anything more.

Through the fog and dark of night the beast strides into view, it’s beady black eyes narrowed and beak stretched wide as it roars. It slinks forward like a cat, but it’s huge wings drag on the ground in its wake, fluttering, ready to unfurl and take flight.

Merlin looks down at Arthur, unconscious and completely helpless.

“Stay with him,” Lancelot says, already jogging away towards his horse.

Merlin lays a hand on Arthur’s chest plate protectively. “I won’t leave his side.”

He knows that Lancelot is concerned because he believes Merlin to be defenceless. But even then, he doesn’t plan to leave Arthur, hell could rise and Merlin won’t be pulled from Arthur’s side.

Lancelot’s horse rears as he hauls himself onto the saddle, lance drawn and prepared to attack. The Griffin screeches, prowling towards him with arched haunches. The air is still, tension drawn taught as a bowstring. Lancelot’s eyes are firm on the Griffin, staring down his nose at the monstrous creature.

“Come on Merlin, it’s now or never,” Merlin murmurs to himself.

He whispers the spell but his magic stubbornly plants itself in his chest and won’t be tugged forward. He tries again as Lancelot starts to charge. The horse’s hooves strike the ground heavily, advancing upon the beast. The Griffin lunges towards Lancelot at a similar pace, it lets out piercing shrieks that rattle Merlin’s heart. The two race towards each other, a pocket of a storm, creating thunder crashes with their fury. Merlin’s palms are sticky with sweat, adrenaline pumping in his ears, he needs to do this now.

Merlin looks down at Arthur. Fear makes his magic uncontrollable, it’s dangerous to use such a tumultuous emotion to harness magic. Yet he doesn’t have much choice, strong emotions are like alcohol to fire, they cause magic to surge. If he can harness that, it might be his only chance.

He lets the fear rise, flooding his veins, making his heart clamour. He focuses on the knowledge that he could have lost Arthur today, the terror for what that would mean for their destiny. Even more, that real raw fear that he could have lost Arthur, not the man from his future destiny but the boy he’s coming to know.

Merlin likes being around Arthur. He likes getting to know him in tiny increments, when Arthur accidentally gives things away. He likes saying something rude and watching Arthur squeeze his eyes shut as he decides whether to tell Merlin off or quip back. He likes the bond they are forming, and the future they are destined to bring to light. This beast could have taken that away.

His magic surges in a rush, his roaring fear draws the difficult tendrils of his most powerful magic to a place where he can seize and control them. Merlin’s heart races as he wraps them around the syllables of the incantation. Terror and magic surge through in his veins, making his ears pop and his eyes burn with golden energy.

Blue light surges from the tip of the lance, enchanted flames that expand until they lick the entire sharp speared point of the lance. Powerful enough to kill a magical beast. Lancelot’s posture solidifies with the appearance of the magic, hunching forward and urging his horse faster.

Merlin watches with wide eyes, positioned protectively in front of Arthur, as the Griffin launches itself at Lancelot. It attacks with a horrific scream, rearing over him with its huge wings unfurled and flapping and long, sharp claws bared.

The lance spears the beast right in the heart. Where Lancelot’s sword had once shattered to pieces the enchanted spear pierces directly through the Griffin’s hide and it collapses with a crash.

Merlin launches to his feet and cheers. He jumps up and down, laughing with glee and throwing his head back hollering. His relief makes him feel like a bubble, floating high above their heads. Lancelot takes off his helmet and grins at him, and Merlin could collapse with how overjoyed he is.

Arthur stirs at Merlin’s feet and his eyes flick to him. He can’t stay, his lack of explanation for his presence paired with the use of magic would cause too much suspicion. He offers Lancelot one last smile and runs. As he turns the corner he hears Arthur shout.

“You did it, Lancelot!”

~-~-~

There is an immensely proud look in Uther’s eye as Arthur approaches, a smile stretches across the king’s often stern and serious face. He strides across the room towards his son.

“You did it.” His father’s smile grows into a proper grin as he looks at Arthur.

Arthur shakes his head. “Not I, father.”

He wishes for a moment that he could lie in good faith, if only to savour his father’s delightedness a little longer. Instead the expression falls from the man’s face, dropping completely when Arthur finishes his sentence.

“It was Lancelot.”

He gestures to where Lancelot is waiting sheepishly by the door, his hands clasped behind his back with the utmost respect.

“What is he doing here?”

“Father I can explain—”

“You. Wait outside,” Uther commands.

Lancelot obeys without a word, bowing out of the room with a complicated mix of emotions splashed across his serious face.

Arthur turns to face his father.

“I confess it, Sire. I released Lancelot and I will face the consequences, but surely his actions change things?”

For any other man, such a display of courage would grant them a feast in their honour. To face the Griffin alone, and slay the beast, saving hundreds of lives is an act worth celebrating.

Uther rounds on Arthur with a sneer. “It changes nothing. He broke the knight’s code.”

“He put his life on the line for me! He served with honour.” Arthur’s nostrils flare, his mouth set in a hard line. The anger on Lancelot’s behalf keeps him from buckling under the weight of his father’s stare.

“I can see you feel strongly about this, Arthur,” Uther says, running a hand over his face.

He turns and paces, from Arthur, to the throne, and back.

“Under the circumstances, a pardon, perhaps?” Uther offers.

On a normal day Arthur would take that small concession without a second thought, but today, he cannot give in and cower when Lancelot did so much for the sake of Camelot. He has earnt Arthur’s support.

“No Father, that’s not enough. You must restore Lancelot to his rightful place, as a knight of Camelot.”

A storm cloud passes over Uther’s face, his expression turning stony. He stands imposingly over Arthur, glaring until the inch of height he has over Arthur feels like a head.

Despite fear twisting inside him he squares his shoulders and meets his father’s frustration head on. He knows that no matter how diligently his father clings to rules and traditions they still have the potential to fail. The law is failing Lancelot and Arthur is the only one who can do something about it.

“Never,” Uther spits. “The law is the law. The code bends for no man.”

“Then the code is wrong!”

The knight's code prevents good men, like Lancelot, from defending their kingdom. In refusing to adapt Camelot is preventing itself from the best protection it could receive. A man of Lancelot’s standing could only hope to be a royal guard, or a common squire; but he’s a better fighter, and a better man than most knights Arthur has seen in his lifetime as prince.

Arthur and Uther stare at each other, each as solid in their stance as mountains. Two unyielding forces butting heads until one collapses under the force. For once, Arthur is determined to not be the first to break.

~-~-~

Merlin can hear the muffled sounds of Arthur and his father yelling through the door, debating Lancelot’s right to be a knight of Camelot. While the man himself stands just outside the door, running his hands along his arms nervously.

“They’ll restore your knighthood,” Merlin assures him. “Of course they will. You slayed the Griffin.”

Lancelot doesn’t look up, staring at the floor with a conflicted look in his deep eyes.

“But I didn’t kill the Griffin,” he sighs, walking down the hall so they’re further away from the guards posted by the doors to the throne room. “You did.”

Merlin forces a high pitched and strangled laugh out of his throat. “That’s ridiculous.”

Lancelot finally looks at him, eyebrows raised in blatant disbelief and a hint of amusement.

“I heard you, Merlin.” He repeats the incantation Merlin had roared back in the forest, leaving no room for Merlin to argue.

Merlin glances around frantically but no one seems to have heard him.

“I saw you,” Lancelot says.

Merlin’s stomach swirls, threatening to unload itself onto the stone floor beneath them.

Lancelot smiles a little. “Don’t worry. Your secret’s safe with me.”

“Thank you,” Merlin whispers hoarsely, his heart still recovering from the sudden terror of being discovered. “If Uther ever knew—”

“I understand,” Lancelot promises. “But I cannot take the credit for something I did not do. I came to Camelot to serve with honour, I cannot do that by lying, I see that now.”

“What are you going to do?” Merlin asks with a frown.

Lancelot looks back at him, the picture of virtue, regardless of his birth.

“The only thing I can do,” he answers vaguely.

Before Merlin can open his mouth Lancelot rushes forward and throws the throne room doors open. The guards rush forward and seize him at once.

“What is the meaning of this?” Uther demands, his left eye twitching with such force that the prominent scar on his forehead creases almost in half.

Lancelot struggles against the guards’ hold. “Let me speak,” he pleads.

“Wait,” Uther raises a single finger and the guards freeze. “I will hear him.”

They release Lancelot and he shakes himself off.

“Forgive me, Sire,” he apologises with a low bow. “I’ve come to bid you both farewell.”

Merlin watches from around the doorway as Arthur’s brows crease together.

“What is this, Lancelot?”

Lancelot’s shoulders visibly tense before falling with a heaving sigh.

“I lied to you both, and now there is conflict between you. I cannot bear that burden, as you should not be made to bear mine.”

Arthur’s face drops, confusion giving way to sadness in his blue eyes. He opens his mouth like he wants to say something but Lancelot keeps speaking.

“I must start again, far from here. Then maybe one day fate will grant me another chance, to prove myself a worthy knight of Camelot.”

Arthur frowns. “But, Lancelot, you've already proven that to us.” He steps forward, like he’s welcoming Lancelot into his personal circle.

Lancelot takes a step back. “But I must prove it to myself.”

Uther’s face is contemplative as he looks down at the floor, deep in thought. Arthur by comparison is saddened and amazed simultaneously; upset at the news of Lancelot’s departure, but in awe of his strength and goodwill to step away. Merlin wishes he could say something to convince him to stay. To explain that if Arthur sees he is a worthy knight, then he has proven himself plenty and need not leave; but he knows any attempt would be futile. Lancelot has made his choice and he will not be dissuaded from it.

“Your Highness,” Lancelot says, bowing to Uther. While being a sign of respect, it is a mere formality in comparison to the reverent way he speaks to Arthur. “Prince Arthur.”

He nods to Merlin on the way out with a small smile, an acknowledgement of what the two endured together and their friendship, no matter how short.

And with that he leaves Camelot.

~-~-~

Merlin,” Arthur sighs as he buries his head in his hands, emphasising the start of Merlin’s name in that specific way only he does.

Merlin smiles sheepishly up at Arthur from the bush he’s tangled in.

“Yes, Sire?”

Arthur drags his hands slowly down his face and peers at Merlin with a look of pure exasperation.

“I ought to leave you here, I’ll have more chance of actually catching something,” Arthur grumbles. Despite his words, he leans to help Merlin detangle himself from the bush. He steps away as soon as Merlin is comfortably on his two feet once more.

“Then you’d have to carry the game back by yourself, and we can’t have that,” Merlin chirps back cheerfully.

“Assuming we catch any game that is,” Arthur mutters bitterly. He motions for Merlin to follow him as he takes off through the trees.

This is the first time Merlin has accompanied Arthur on a hunt. Though Merlin has been working for him the past couple of months, thus far, hunts have coincided with other tasks that took priority; preparing for feasts, assisting Gaius, scrubbing Arthur’s floor and the like. So until now, Merlin hasn’t had the pleasure of joining Arthur on a sweaty trek through the forest to catch innocent animals.

“Remind me again why you couldn’t bring another servant along with you?” Merlin asks with a scowl when yet another branch hits him in the face.

Arthur shoots a frustrated look back at him, either for his repetitive questioning or because Merlin is likely scaring off any nearby wildlife by speaking at all.

“Because, Merlin, you are my manservant. This is one of your responsibilities.”

Merlin parrots the words back in a high pitched tone, pulling a rude face and rolling his eyes skyward.

Arthur directs his signature glower in Merlin’s general direction.

They trek further into the forest. Arthur pads softly across the dirt floor, inspecting the trees and shrubbery for any signs of life. Merlin follows him, trying to keep quiet, but he still manages to step on every twig, piece of bark and crunchy leaf that could possibly give away their position.

Arthur holds up a hand to indicate Merlin to stop and points through the trees to a small clearing. A rabbit is cleaning its nose by the bushes, unaware of their presence.

“We need to move closer,” Arthur whispers, so low and soft Merlin barely even hears the words.

Merlin nods. He takes a step forward, eyes trained carefully on the rabbit. In his single minded focus he fails to notice a stone in his path. His foot catches on it and he goes down with a crash. The rabbit scampers away in fright.

Arthur glares down at him and Merlin offers him an embarrassed grin.

“I hate you.”

“Liar.”

~-~-~

Gaius had known from the moment Edwin arrived that there was something suspicious about him.

Perhaps it was the fact that his arrival coincided so perfectly with Lady Morgana falling ill. Or it may be the shifty way he dodged Gaius’ inquiries as to whether they had met before.

Morgana’s impressive recovery under Edwin’s care should have been a welcome relief. However it was not.

Gaius did not pride himself on much, he practised being a humble man by trade and it was best not to let pride overcome oneself, but his observance in treating his patients was something he was very meticulous with. He would not, and did not, overlook any blood in Lady Morgana’s ear. It had not been present before Edwin entered the room, therefore how he managed to diagnose and heal Morgana was beyond Gaius.

Until he discovered why he recognised Edwin.

Most of his memories of the Great Purge are locked away in a chest at the back of Gaius’ mind. His actions in that time of his life are his biggest regrets. He turned his back on magic, and let those who were once kin burn in flames. He cannot change the choices he made twenty years ago, so to reflect on them only brings guilt and grief that would eventually chew him into nothing.

However, he remembers the little boy who ran into the flames of the pyre in a desperate attempt to save his parents. Edwin is in Camelot for revenge. Against Uther, and against Gaius for standing by and neglecting to stop the king.

Turning to the Great Dragon is a last resort.

The Dragon leers down at him with a disgusted expression twisted over his large scaled face.

“How old a man can become, and yet have changed so little.”

Gaius crosses his arms, returning the creature’s glare. “You have not changed either.”

The Dragon’s eyes narrow. “For you, a lifetime has passed, for me, time has been more kind.”

Gaius has not missed the deep boom of The Dragon’s voice. A voice who for so long has taunted him for turning his back on his own kind.

“I am not here for me,” Gaius says, denying the avenue of discussion The Dragon attempts to steer towards.

The Dragon smiles all knowingly, with a cold and calculated glint in his bright yellow eyes.

“The boy,” he supplies.

Gaius frowns, the insides of his stomach curdle unpleasantly. The knowledge that Merlin has spoken to The Dragon, and that his powers extend so far that The Dragon could know of him generates an uncomfortable sensation that creeps under his skin.

“You know about Merlin?”

The Dragon smiles cruelly, sharp teeth bared for Gaius to see. “Of course. Someone with so great a destiny could not escape my notice, or anyone’s.”

Something invisible catches in Gaius’ throat, his heart picking up speed in an unsteady climb. “So it is true then?”

“Oh yes. You have struggled with his destiny but neither you, nor he, have the ability to change it.” The Dragon leans closer and Gaius plants his feet to keep from tripping backwards in haste to get away. “He and the young Pendragon will one day unite the land of Albion.”

Merlin is too young to have such a destiny.

“But he is in danger,” Gaius highlights.

The Dragon’s snout wrinkles in thought. “No, it is my jailor who stands in peril.”

Gaius cannot let Uther die. Despite all they have been through, Gaius regards him as almost a friend, or as close as they can be considering their positions. Perhaps it is simply him clinging to the memories of who Uther once was, a time where his smiles were more forthcoming and his kindness extended beyond himself. He cannot condone all of Uther’s actions, particularly his war against magic; but ultimately when his options are turning his back on the king or staying, he made that choice long ago.

If it weren’t for Edwin’s threat to unveil Merlin’s magic Gaius would have already told Uther everything.

“Must Uther be sacrificed to save the boy?”

The Dragon’s scaled legs shift in what could almost be a shrug if he were human. “His and Arthur’s time cannot come until the King’s has passed.”

Gaius considers this. No matter what The Dragon believes Merlin and Prince Arthur’s destiny to be, Gaius cannot accept that they are ready for such a future. Merlin has not yet fulfilled the true scope of his abilities, and Arthur is not old enough, nor wise enough to be king. If he lets Uther die they will be thrust into this destiny before their time has come.

However if he warns the King, instead Merlin will be sacrificed. An impossible choice.

“I will not choose between them. I can’t.”

The Dragon seems unsurprised, though it is hard to read the expressions on his scaled and reptilian face.

“Then turn a blind eye, that is after all, your talent.”

The words hurt more than Gaius thought they would. He had thought he had grown thicker skin over the years, but The Dragon’s taunt cuts through it like butter.

He carries that pain into the court where Uther retires him.

He lets himself feel the painful reminder that while during the Great Purge he had picked the safest route for himself, he turned a blind eye to the suffering of many. Instead of fighting the horrible memories of his past actions, as he usually would, he lets them sit in his muscles. He is painfully aware that he is choosing the path of idleness once again, to stand for nothing, and therefore fall for nothing.

Turning a blind eye is his talent, even if he longs to believe he has changed. It isn’t until he has left Camelot that he realises he has.

~-~-~

Merlin bursts through the doors, staggering into the guest chambers that Edwin is currently occupying. He pulls to a halt as he observes the room. Fear is making his brain slow, and the shock of what he sees when he enters, takes a moment to sink in.

Gaius is standing against one of the pillars in the room, his back pressed against the stone and chest stiff. A ring of fire surrounds him and it inches closer by the push of Edwin’s outstretched hand. The light radiating off the fire lights up the cruel darkness in Edwin’s eyes, catching on the burn that mars the right side of his face.

“What’s going on?” Merlin rasps. His thoughts are stuck in heavy mud, weighed down as they attempt to trudge through his mind. He doesn’t understand what’s happening. He just knows that Gaius is in danger.

“He was going to kill the king,” Gaius explains frantically, his chest shuddering as the flames close in further. The fire is so close now it is practically licking his ankles. Merlin’s heart rate escalates, like a horse thundering into a gallop.

“I couldn’t let him.” Gaius continues, squeezing his eyes shut as the flames flare upwards, Merlin can feel their intense heat, a thick smog that presses into his throat.

“Stop, you'll hurt him!” Merlin pleads, his veins turning cold as Edwin stares apathetically back at him.

He smirks cruelly, leering at Gaius.

“That is the idea.”

Merlin edges along the wall, carefully shifting inch by inch towards Gaius.

“Why are you doing this?” He asks, trying to goad Edwin into talking as he subtly creeps his way nearer to Gaius. The closer he gets to the flames the more they leave his skin scorched hot, almost burning but not yet scalded.

Edwin sneers, baring his teeth.

“Don’t you know what he did, what this kingdom has done to people like us?”

Like us.

Merlin isn’t like Edwin. All they share between them is magic which runs through their veins, thicker than blood. He knows he is right to an extent, Uther, Camelot, even Gaius, have let hundreds of people like them fall, have sent them to their unjust deaths, but that does not mean more murder is the answer.

Edwin continues speaking, storming the length of the room.

“I want to watch them burn, just as they sent my parents to their deaths. With them gone I will rule the kingdom.” He looks fanatical, wild and burning with hatred.

“You can join me, you know?” Edwin offers, holding out a hand coaxingly. “We can be all powerful.”

Merlin backs further away, the heat of the flames is excruciating on his back. He glances at Gaius, his cheeks flushed red and sweat trickling down his face, watching Merlin with wide eyes.

“I won’t join you,” Merlin says, shaking his head.

“You would protect a kingdom who hates you? A man who let people like us die?” Edwin scorns; with his anger the flames jump to such a height that Merlin can barely see Gaius through the wall of raging fire.

It isn’t a fair accusation.

Gaius is atoning every day for his mistakes. Merlin can see it in his downcast eyes whenever the Great Purge is mentioned that he feels the regret he feels like a heavy burden. Every time he bends the rules and shields Merlin from the law it is an apology to those he failed to protect in the past.

“Release him!” Merlin demands.

Edwin’s cajoling expression slips away like a mask being tugged from his face, leaving only dark cruelty.

“Such a shame, you had such potential,” he says with a pitying sigh.

Edwin thrusts an arm out, buffeting Merlin into the wall, his head smacks against the stone with a painful crack. A force of heavy magic aimed at Merlin pushes forward and pins him to the wall. Smart. Magic is hard to control without movement, the channel of it is unpredictable at best and guesswork at worst. Sorcerers use their hands to channel the direction of their spells. Edwin is trying to stop Merlin from protecting himself; but Merlin doesn’t need to control his magic.

When Merlin met him Gaius said he had stronger power than he had ever seen before. That his instinctive powers were a miracle, a power unparalleled to anything the physician had seen before. Now is the moment to put that to the test.

With a sweeping arm Edwin pulls a decorative axe from the wall and sends it hurtling towards Merlin. His magic bursts from his chest protectively, coiling around him like a shield. His eyes flash gold, time seems to go still.

The axe is suspended, inches from Merlin’s nose. The blade is barely a whisper from Merlin’s face, if he so much as breathes the curved edge would land true. His eyes spark again, a blink of movement that sends the axe flying away from him.

The hatchet whirls through the air, colliding with a sickening squelch in Edwin’s skull. His body drops to the ground with a thud.

Merlin looks away, sick with terror at what he just did. He had only wanted to get the axe away from himself and Gaius, but he hadn’t meant to kill Edwin. His head spins, he might vomit. He can’t think about it or he will definitely vomit.

Gaius provides the necessary distraction, collapsing into the fire as the heat becomes overwhelming.

Merlin dives through the flames, ignoring their searing heat as they lick at his skin. His arms grasp blindly for Gaius, seizing his shoulders and pulling him to safety. The heat eases away into unpleasant stinging. Neither he nor Gaius should sustain any injuries but his skin itches from the burst of heat.

He holds Gaius upright in a tight hug, waiting until his coughs have turned to wheezes and then to whistling and mostly calm breaths.

“Are you alright?” He asks, his own voice coming out shaky and soft. He holds Gaius a little tighter, painfully aware of how he almost lost him.

“Yes,” Gaius answers hesitantly, still trembling with shock.

Gaius gently extracts himself from Merlin’s hold, squeezing his shoulders affectionately before letting go.

“Thank you Merlin,” he says softly.

Merlin nods, letting himself take a few seconds before hurrying over to Edwin’s work table. He ignores the body on the floor even as his stomach lurches.

“Uther’s ill with the same thing Morgana was diagnosed with,” Merlin explains as he opens a small chest of beetles Edwin had shown him earlier. “Edwin said he used these to cure Morgana, perhaps we can too.”

Gaius frowns, coming closer to look into the chest.

“Elanthia beetles,” he identifies immediately with wide eyes. “They can be enchanted to enter the brain and feed on it until they devour the person’s very soul…”

“He didn’t cure her,” Merlin gasps, speaking the realisation aloud.

Gaius nods his confirmation.

“We must get to Uther, before it’s too late. Magic is the only thing that can save him now.”

~-~-~

It takes a long time for the adrenaline of the day to wear away. He is trembling with aftershocks even hours after he and Gaius have returned to the physician’s chambers, Uther safely healed and the danger averted.

Gaius assures him that’s to be expected after killing someone with an axe and then immediately performing magic on the King who despises magic and would literally execute him if he knew.

However as the stress wears away into gentle trembles and his nerves ease away it starts to sink in just how much Gaius risked for him. The King, his position as physician, his life in Camelot; all so Merlin would be safe.

He’s not only trustworthy, but the closest to a father Merlin has ever known. But there is still a secret Merlin hasn’t shared with him.

Evening has settled over Camelot, a soft blanket of steadily darkening sky as the sun disappears over the horizon. He and Gaius are both reading, Merlin his grimoire and Gaius a thick text on the qualities of mint leaves which looks dreadfully boring. Merlin can’t focus on the words, his eyes have skimmed the same paragraph at least four times already and he’s absorbed none of the information.

“Gaius,” he breaks the quiet they’ve settled into with an awkward cough. Gaius looks up at him, peering over the top of his reading glasses. “Would you— I mean um.” He coughs again, words sticking in his throat. His stomach flips anxiously, twisting and knotting in all sorts of unpleasant ways. He crosses his legs, uncrosses them and then thinking better of himself crosses them again to be sure.

“Can I talk to you about something?”

Gaius looks understandably concerned, moving over to the table Merlin is sitting at, taking the seat across from him.

“Of course, Merlin. You can always talk to me.”

Merlin nods, his heart has made its home in his throat and he swallows roughly around it. He coughs again, in a vain attempt to dislodge his heart. His hands fidget nervously, tugging at the short hairs at the back of his neck, scratching at his wrist, tucking between his thighs, acting on the nervous energy thrumming through his body.

He forgot how terrifying this is. He hasn’t had to do this in years. Everyone in Ealdor knew.

“I just wanted to tell you, um, because you’re like a father to me.” He doesn’t look at Gaius as he says it. Dread pools in his gut at the idea that Gaius might not feel the same, but he needn’t have worried.

“And you are like a son to me. I never dreamed I would have such a blessing this late in life.” Merlin meets Gaius’ eyes as he smiles, his old skin wrinkling in happy crease marks around his eyes.

“Right. I’m glad,” Merlin says, laughing awkwardly in a bright and high pitch that makes him wince. “Anyway I just, I wanted to tell you that, that I um… that I like...” The shyness in his voice drops away the more nervous he gets, going frantic and loud.

“Men!” He shouts suddenly, slamming his hands on the table. The words burst out of him. “I like them, and that’s just the way it is, if you don’t like that, well that’s too bad because I can’t change it and I don’t want to,” he blabbers nervously.

He stares at the wall over Gaius’ shoulder the entire time he speaks, unable to make himself look at the physician. Gaius is quiet for a pause that can’t be longer than a few seconds but stretches forever, every passing moment makes Merlin want to sink through the floor and become one with the Earth. He picks at the skin around his thumbnail while he waits.

“Oh Merlin,” Gaius says fondly, placing his weathered hand over Merlin’s to stop his anxious movements.

Merlin looks at him nervously, meeting Gaius’ kind expression with a terrified one of his own.

“I already knew that,” he says with a kind smile. He looks into Merlin’s eyes warmly, without a hint of hesitation or rejection. It is open, and affectionate, and Merlin feels loved down to his very bones.

“You did?” Merlin’s eyes widen, his nerves come down slowly as Gaius pats his hand reassuringly.

His breaths are coming out in pants as if he’s just run a race, head spinning from the confusion and turmoil of the day. Even though it’s the best reaction he could have conceived, Gauis' reaction still has him floored, dizzy with relief and confusion. He is so overwhelmed that tears spring to his eyes and he has to bite down a laugh that bubbles happily from his chest.

Gaius smiles. “Yes Merlin. I did. You were certainly more interested in Lancelot than you’ve ever been in Gwen.”

Gaius chuckles at the weak splutter of protest Merlin makes.

“Thank you for telling me.” He squeezes Merlin’s hand, and pulls out his book again, and it’s as simple as that.

Chapter Text

Arthur sinks. His limbs are heavy as he is dragged down through murky water which is the colour of the sky at dusk. His eyelids are heavier still, cemented shut.

His chainmail drags through the thick grip of the water, pulling lower and lower, further and further; swallowing him into the depths of the water’s great gaping mouth, into the gaping darkness where she will no longer be able to see him.

The water grabs at his arms, his legs, wrapping around his throat. Its icy cold hands drag him deep below the surface. Arthur is its gift to hoard, the prince, the jewel of its murky collection. It claims him, sucking his body down, down, down.

Above the surface, a girl with long brown hair and sickly sweet smile looks down at him. Her eyes are soulless, as if their spirit were gouged out, and her smile is so cold it puts the water to shame.

She watches unperturbed as Arthur drowns. Her hands drift over the surface of the water, creating ripples that distort the vision of her impossibly beautiful face.

Arthur sinks out of view, consumed by the water, into the darkest depths to be suffocated and devoured.

He is gone.

Gone.

Gone.

Morgana’s eyes fly open with a loud gasp, chest heaving with fear, her nightmare wraps its hands around her throat.

“Arthur.”

~-~-~

“You must stay here a while,” Arthur’s father says to Sophia and her father Aulfric. “Break your journey. A noble family like yours is always welcome in Camelot.”

The two bow graciously to the King, their noses nearly hitting their knees in their eagerness to show their respect.

Arthur can’t take his eyes off Sophia, he’s not quite sure what’s wrong with him. The moment he laid eyes on her earlier in the forest he felt drawn to her enchanting presence. When he stepped in to save her and her father from bandits there hadn’t been an ulterior motive. He hadn’t even seen her before jumping in to help. It was just the right thing to do.

As soon as Sophia had turned to face him, pulling her cloak from her head, an odd feeling overcame Arthur; like a magnetic pull connected him and the girl. Arthur almost feels woozy looking at her, his head is clouded with rose coloured thoughts that clutter his mind. She has long brown hair pulled out of her face by braids and gold clips, and a sweet smile, even when he turns away from her thoughts about her dance before his eyes.

The feeling of her skin against his lips from where he kissed her hand lingers, leaving his mouth over sensitive and tingling like his lips are swollen. Her lilting voice is stuck in his head like an endless melody. It sticks to his brain like honey, a heavy thick substance that makes her name, her voice, her face, catch on his thoughts and stay. He can’t stop thinking about her.

Arthur barely even notices the journey back to his chambers, he is completely consumed with thoughts of Sophia.

“Make sure you put Sophia and her father in a decent room,” he orders Merlin as they enter the room. “The best we can offer.”

Merlin shoots him an odd look, like he’s trying to withhold laughter and Arthur sends him a withering stare in return.

“Will do, Sire,” Merlin replies, clearing away the dirty plates on Arthur’s table.

“The room next door is empty?” Merlin suggests.

The strange tugging sensation in Arthur tells him he needs to be as close to Sofia as possible, it almost purrs in delight at the very thought. He doesn’t understand it.

“Next door is fine,” he responds. “Excellent, in fact.”

Merlin gives him another amused look, staring at Arthur pointedly.

“She’s very pretty, isn’t she?” Merlin says, raising his eyebrows at Arthur.

Of course. The solution makes perfect sense. All Arthur can do is think about her, her voice, her angelic eyes, her soft hands and pleasant smile. He’s attracted to her, he’d be stupid not to be.

“Yes. She is,” he answers, voice growing dreamy at just the thought of her. He’s been away from her for far too long.

Merlin coughs, poorly hiding his laughter.

“Shut up Merlin,” Arthur scoffs, chucking a pillow in his general direction.

Merlin looks up at him, affronted when it hits him in the forehead.

“I didn’t say anything!” His words are overcome by a little giggle that makes Arthur smile despite himself. For a moment, thoughts of Sophia are gone from his mind, and then he remembers her smile and it’s like he never stopped thinking of her.

“You didn’t have to.”

~-~-~

Merlin fluffs the pillows on Arthur’s bed — why he needs four of them is beyond Merlin. His own bed comprises of only one pillow, and it’s threadbare and thin as anything, but no the pompous prince needs to be completely cushioned in his sleep. Merlin shakes one of the pillows from its case and begins replacing it with practised movements.

Arthur wanders over, too slow and precise to be aimless, but purposefully casual, signalling that he’s going to ask Merlin for something, and he’s not going to like it.

“I’m taking Sophia out for a ride today,” he begins, leaning against the bedpost opposite Merlin. “You know, show her around Camelot, let her take in the best sights of the kingdom.”

Merlin nods slowly. “Right, that sounds like a nice idea.”

Arthur doesn’t move, still watching Merlin like he’s anticipating something.

“What does that have to do with me?”

Arthur’s fingers drum against his arm.

“Well…” he says, eyes shifting from the uncovered mattress, to the pillow still in Merlin’s hands, to the roof and back again, but never meeting Merlin’s eyes.

“I’m supposed to be on patrol with the guard and my father this morning. I need you to cover for me.”

Merlin’s head snaps up, certain he must have heard wrong. Arthur stares back, completely unbothered by what he’s asking of Merlin.

“What, and lie to the king?” He asks, eyes wide.

Arthur tips his head from side to side. “More or less.”

Merlin stabs a finger at Arthur. “No. No way. He’ll see right through me!”

“He will not.”

“He will too. He’ll have me in the stocks quicker than you can say ‘rotten tomatoes’,” Merlin whines, looking pleadingly to Arthur.

“Merlin,” Arthur cuts in with a heavy sigh as the corners of his lips quirk up. “I need you to do this for me.”

Merlin squeezes his eyes shut, if he looks at Arthur too long he’s bound to do what he asks.

“I can’t lie to your father. I’m a terrible liar, my knees get weak, I start sweating, my brain stops working—“

“—Oh so no change there then.”

Merlin raises his eyebrows, looking at Arthur incredulously. “You want my help, remember?”

“Right, you’re right.”

Merlin wisely chooses not to comment on the rarity of Arthur actually admitting Merlin is right.

Arthur sighs, shifting so he’s leaning against the bedpost right next to Merlin, so they’re only a few steps apart.

“Look, I promised Sophia I’d take her out, if I don’t follow through now it’ll blow my chances.”

“You really like her then?” Merlin asks, taking in the awestruck look in Arthur’s eyes, not to mention his willingness to genuinely ask Merlin for help.

“Yeah, what’s not to like?” Arthur answers honestly.

Merlin forces a smile. There is something deep at the back of his mind that is oddly uncomfortable with the idea of helping Arthur to win over this girl, but he ignores it.

“I can’t order you to lie to the king,” Arthur says with a warmth in his voice that Merlin can’t ignore. “But you’ll be a friend for life if you do.”

Arthur tilts his head to the side, looking at Merlin intently. Merlin doesn’t look away fast enough and finds himself pinned by the inciting blue of Arthur’s gaze. There’s a hopeful question written in his crooked smile and Merlin’s resolve melts away like snow on a hot summer’s day. He’s spineless and too easily agrees to Arthur’s whim.

He sighs, lamenting his inability to say no to this colossal prat and nods.

“Well go on then, you don’t want to keep her waiting,” he relents, fluffing the pillow excessively.

Arthur lights up with a bright sunny smile that makes Merlin feel the need to shield his eyes. His heart does a funny little jump that he dutifully ignores.

“Thanks Merlin, I won’t forget this.”

Merlin can’t help but let his eyes follow Arthur as he leaves the room with a little skip in his step. That strange itch at the back of his mind scratches uncomfortably but it doesn’t matter. Arthur is happy, which is the most important thing.

Uther it seems, wouldn’t agree.

He stares at Merlin as he enters, eyes darting around in search of Arthur and narrowing when they don’t find him.

“Where’s Arthur?” He asks with a frown that makes Merlin’s knees shake. Arthur is a mad man for asking him to do this.

“He’s, well, he’s not here,” Merlin answers, his tongue feels oversized in his mouth making his words trip over it. His knees knock together and his legs turn to jelly.

Uther’s frown deepens, his eyes growing furious in a way that makes Merlin’s stomach coil.

“Yes I can see that,” he replies, unamused. “Where is he?”

“There’s been a mistake, I think, no, I know it’s my fault… Sire.” He tacks on the honorific at the end as an afterthought, having almost forgotten.

“Stop gibbering and tell me where he is.”

“I’m not sure.”

Uther puts his hands on his hips and glares at Merlin as his frustration continues to mount. Unlike Arthur there is no teasing or halfhearted nature to Uther’s glare, it’s glacial and dark as he regards Merlin who is trembling before him. Merlin swallows roughly, his throat is as dry as a sandbank and every lie he must tell the king is an additional grain forced into his throat. He’s never been a very good liar, but Camelot has forced him to improve the practice.

“Prince Arthur wasn’t sure of his orders so he asked me to check and see if he was riding out this morning and, well, I may have forgotten,” Merlin blubbers his poor excuse without a single pause for breath.

“You… forgot?” Uther scorns, his head inclining like he’s imagining all the ways he could murder Merlin. A vein on his forehead throbs and Merlin watches it cautiously.

Merlin swallows again, making his Adam’s apple stick in his throat and wipes his clammy hands against his trousers as subtly as he can manage.

“Yes. I’m sorry, My Lord. I’m sure he would have been here, had I informed him.”

Uther scowls. “If this was a time of war I would have you flogged.”

Merlin attempts to offer a pleading smile that likely would have convinced Arthur to let him off the hook but only makes Uther scowl.

“But since it’s not we’ll let it go just this once?” He asks hopefully.

The vein on Uther’s forehead is so prominent it looks dangerous.

Merlin spends the afternoon in the stocks being pummelled by rotten fruit.

~-~-~

A soft voice calls his name and Arthur bolts upright with a hammering heart, fuelled with the anticipation of seeing Sophia again. Instead it is Morgana who greets him in the doorway, her hand raised to rap her knuckles on the wood. He slumps in disappointment, scowling like a petulant child, crossing his arms tight over his chest.

“Can I come in?” Morgana asks when Arthur remains silent. He shrugs, beckoning with a hand to welcome her into the room, forcing down the simmering irritation that she isn’t who he wished for.

He blinks rapidly to clear the rosy haze that comes with thinking about Sophia. When his vision clears he is able to see the concerned curve to Morgana’s eyebrows and her deep frown that creases her usually smooth and unblemished skin.

“What is it?” He asks, worry crawling up his throat, tightening the pressure around his airway.

She hesitates, chewing on her lip.

“Nothing. I just—” she visibly changes her mind, shaking her head slightly to clear her thoughts before trying again. “You seem awfully fond of Sophia.”

Arthur frowns as the tether wrapped around his heart tugs. “You make that sound like a bad thing.”

“Not necessarily, I’ve just never seen you fall under a woman’s spell so quickly.”

The spark of irritation begins to simmer in his gut, bubbling and itching hot under his skin.

As they talk about Sophia, the wave of fondness washes over Arthur again, and there’s a pull in his chest telling him that he needs to be with her. His vision clouds and his brain is jumbled with wonderful thoughts of what it would be like to touch her hand, to kiss her, to caress her cheek and hear her heartbeat. She kissed his cheek in the forest today, before knights interrupted and she grew shy. He longs for her to do so again; the spot where her lips touched his skin seems to burn with need.

“Is that so terrible?” He asks, busying himself with tasks to maintain his concentration. No one ever told him love was so all consuming.

Morgana follows him around the room, concern knitted in her brow. “I’m worried, I don’t think she’s what she seems.”

The simmering in his chest explodes.

“Why?” He demands as fury fuels him, rounding on her with a wild expression. “What makes you say that?”

Morgana’s eyes widen, she stumbles backwards a few steps as he storms towards her. “I just have a feeling. It’s difficult to describe—”

“— your feeling is wrong,” he hisses. Hot anger burns through his veins, setting everything in their path alight. He feels consumed by the need to protect Sophia, to take Morgana by the shoulders and shake her until she apologises for every negative thing she considered saying about his true love.

“Arthur, I’m trying to protect you,” Morgana protests and Arthur scoffs, turning his back on her.

“Well stop trying.”

Morgana doesn’t heed his warning. “I had a dream and Sophia she—”

Arthur explodes into a cold, cackling laugh, drowning out her words. He clutches his stomach and lets the bitter amusement roll over him. He doesn’t miss the way Morgana flinches away, a horrified look of betrayal flashing across her face. All that matters is defending Sophia. There isn’t space in his mind for anything else.

“You had a dream, and you thought that was a good reason to bother me?” He jeers, turning towards Morgana with a savage glint in his eye. “Get out.”

Morgana takes a shuddering breath, closing her eyes as she regains her composure, rearranging her posture so she’s poised and tipping her chin at him defiantly. When she opens her eyes again they are bright with anger, an impenetrable mask that protects her like a knight’s shield.

“Fine. I don’t know why I bothered,” she sniffs; the thick emotion in her voice is the only indication that reveals how his words hurt her. “Get out before I make you,” Arthur seethes with a dark and commanding tone. For a moment he feels like his father, a force to be reckoned with.

She glowers at him. “I just hope I’m wrong about her,” she says, pausing a moment before spinning on her heel and striding from the room.

The door slams closed behind her.

~-~-~

Morgana corners Merlin when he’s returning from his second round in the stocks.

He has never seen Morgana anything less than perfectly put together, so it’s a bit unnerving to be tugged into a private hallway with her when he’s covered in dripping tomato pulp.

She pauses when they come to a stop; she had been so focused on catching his attention that she didn’t even notice his dishevelled state.

“What put you in the stocks?” She asks, the anxious look in her eyes disappears for a moment as she hides a giggle behind her hand.

“Arthur,” Merlin replies simply, wiping his juice soaked fringe out of his eyes. Better to simplify than try to explain that he was willing to subject himself to the stocks just because Arthur pouted a little. Merlin doesn’t quite understand that himself.

He’s choosing to ignore that for the second day in a row he willingly lied to the king and was punished accordingly, for Arthur. He’s beginning to realise if Arthur makes his eyes go wide while he’s asking Merlin for something then Merlin is undoubtedly going to say yes. He doesn’t know how to interpret that.

Morgana’s face hardens again and she twists her hair between her fingers.

“That’s actually why I wanted to talk to you.” She pulls him a little further down the corridor and away from the continuous bustle of servants.

Merlin’s face scrunches with confusion. “You wanted to talk to me about getting put in the stocks for Arthur?”

Morgana’s lips thin like she’s working hard not to laugh even despite the obvious concern in her eyes.

“No. I’m worried about Arthur,” she admits quietly. Merlin’s stomach twists with anxiety, creating a tight lump in the bottom of his gut.

He matches her tone, lowering his voice. “Why? What’s wrong?”

Morgana hesitates. “I’m not sure exactly, but have you noticed he’s been acting strangely ever since Sophia arrived?”

A sharp stabbing sensation joins the coil in Merlin’s stomach. He has noticed Arthur’s strange behaviour, but had managed to convince himself he was imagining things. While he’s beginning to understand and learn who Arthur is, he’s still difficult to understand and predict, it wouldn’t be out of the question to be incorrect in his assumptions.

“What makes you say that?” He asks nervously.

Morgana sighs. “I have a bad feeling, and I tried to warn him about her and we got into a fight. He yelled at me.”

“Morgana, I’m so sorry,” Merlin attempts to apologise on Arthur’s behalf but she waves him off with a roll of her green eyes.

“Don’t be silly, I’m quite able to handle Arthur having a mood.”

She hesitates, like Arthur, Morgana is almost impossible to read, although she’s not as guarded with her emotions. In the short time he’s been at Camelot Merlin has heard her stand up to Uther in ways Arthur wouldn’t dare, she’s obvious in her affection for Gwen, and she is open and honest with the townspeople. However, she has the poise and restrained expressions of someone raised as a member of the royal household, and right now it makes it almost impossible for Merlin to decipher what she might be thinking.

“It’s just… he doesn’t usually yell at me like that, even when he’s angry. I’m worried,” she admits finally, her gaze strong as she notes Merlin’s reaction. “Just… Do you promise you’ll look out for him?”

Merlin nods quickly but the entire conversation leaves an odd taste in his mouth. He feels like he’s missing pieces of a puzzle and trying to make do without the whole picture. He can sense Morgana knows more than she’s telling him, but also that she doesn’t know enough to understand what is actually wrong with Arthur.

“Of course.”

Morgana smiles softly, taking Merlin’s hand and giving it a kind squeeze.

“You’re a good friend Merlin,” she says. “Arthur’s lucky to have you.”

A flush rises up Merlin’s neck and warms his cheeks.

“I care about him, that’s all.”

She nods, gliding away without another word. Morgana doesn’t need to finish conversations, they end when she decides and everyone else is just expected to accept that, it’s quite impressive.

Despite her sudden departure from the conversation, her words remain in Merlin’s thoughts. He tells Gaius everything as soon as he arrives back at Gaius’ chambers. The more Merlin reveals, the deeper Gaius’ frown grows.

“What do you know about Seers, Merlin?” Gaius prompts when Merlin finishes explaining the entire story to the physician.

Merlin stalls for a moment, confused. “Not much. They’re supposed to be able to see the future, like prophets.”

Gaius nods. “Yes, it is said to be an innate ability, those who have it are born that way. Some aren’t even aware that what they see is the future, as it comes to them in their dreams.”

“What does this have to do with Arthur?”

“Not Arthur, Morgana,” Gaius corrects, his mouth set in a long thin line. “The night before Sophia and Aulfric came to Camelot, Morgana had a dream. Sophia was in it.”

Gaius’ expression is twisted in discomfort and mulling confusion.

Merlin blinks rapidly, completely knocked off kilter by the reveal. The information is practically unfathomable, so much that he doesn’t know how to begin unravelling it.

“She what? Before she arrived in Camelot?”

Gaius nods sadly.

The conversation lulls as Gaius shifts in his seat. His concern is obvious, the weight of his thoughts makes his brows sink until his eyes are almost completely concealed. He frowns at the floor and folds his hands on his knees, before looking up at Merlin with a sad expression.

“I’ve been observing Morgana since she was very young,” he says with a heavy sigh, “and though I tried to persuade myself otherwise I realised that some of her dreams have come to pass.”

Merlin’s head spins, he reaches out a hand to steady himself and his eyes go wide as Gaius continues.

“I kept it a secret from Uther of course, the gift of prophecy is far too similar to the work of magic, and too often the two go hand in hand.”

Merlin resists the urge to put his head in his hands to keep the room still. The news requires a complete readjustment to his very way of thinking. Gaius waits patiently for Merlin to decipher the information, allowing the knowledge to sink into Merlin’s mind without urgency.

“You think Morgana is a Seer?” He asks after a long stretch of silence.

Gaius nods with a solemn expression. “I don’t only think it… I fear it.”

Merlin frowns, a sense of dread creeping up his spine like a spider. The expression on Gaius’ face is foreboding, a storm that clouds over his eyes. It is obvious that he has more to say, that he still holds information that leaves his shoulders hunched under their burden and an anxious twist to his kind face.

“Morgana said that in her dream… Sophia killed Arthur,” Gaius reveals.

Merlin’s heart drops, the whole world tips for a moment before righting itself.

He shakes his head desperately. “Couldn’t that have just been a dream, maybe the woman Morgana saw only looked like Sophia,” he offers optimistically.

Gaius’ mouth twists. “That’s what I hoped too, but with the changes you and Morgana have noticed in Arthur, it seems unlikely. Not to mention, earlier, Aulfric caught me in Sophia’s room, and in a flash of anger his eyes changed colour.”

Any hope Merlin had left is dashed by Gaius’ words.

“What do they want with Arthur?” Merlin asks, worry infecting his words.

Gaius’ shoulders heave with the force of his sigh. “I examined the markings on Aulfric’s staff, and from the research I’ve done it appears to be Ogham — an ancient script.”

He gets to his feet and beckons Merlin over to a large book about ancient and dying languages, pointing to a line of script and reading it. The words have a distinct similarity to magical incantations, but sound more accented and stiff.

“‘To hold life and death in your hands’,” he repeats in English. “I’m afraid… we might be dealing with the Sidhe.”

Merlin’s hands tremble. “That really doesn’t sound good.”

Gaius grimaces. “No, it’s not. The Sidhe are masters of enchantment…”

Merlin catches on. “You think Arthur’s been enchanted?”

“Considering his odd behaviour, I am certain of it.”

~-~-~

Arthur is mesmerised by the soft curve of Sophia’s mouth, the way her lips stretch into a soft and wide smile. She is beautiful. Arthur wants to gaze upon her face forever.

The room around her is a blur, it hardly matters, she is the only thing in the room that he would care to look at. He’s thankful that he already sent his manservant away, so that no one can disturb them. To look away from Sophia even for a second would be a disaster. He wishes he could stitch his eyelids open so he could never look away again. For she deserves his every attention.

He wouldn’t be able to breathe without her, she holds his lungs in the palm of her hand. His every inhale, every exhale, every breath he takes is hers to keep and control.

Her hand strokes his face lovingly, a wonderful touch that smooths his edges and makes him as perfect as she is. Without her he would be nothing. He is a shell, a husk of a person, she makes him whole. Her skin prickles, like the stab of pins over his skin and under his fingernails, but he seeks it regardless. He needs it.

“Our love is strong,” she whispers, the soothing melody of her voice as familiar as his favourite song. It is all he can do not to sigh at the wondrous sound. He could listen to it for a lifetime, to live in silence without her would be torturous, would be worse than death. “You feel the same way too.”

She is right of course, he would never doubt her. She knows exactly what to tell him, it’s reassuring, to know that their love is so resolute that she can speak his feelings for him. He does not need to think, for she knows everything he could ever want to say.

She slinks forward, a predator, beautiful and compelling, the queen of beasts. She smiles at him like a jungle cat, gazing at him lustfully as her next meal. He loves her more than meals, more than air, he will offer himself willingly for her to feast upon. His flesh, his blood, his mind is hers to consume.

“If we were ever to be parted…” she says, the worry in her voice makes Arthur feel like he will die. He can feel his lungs close as his heart shudders; her pain is his pain. He could not be without her, to be parted from her is to be parted from his body. She is his reason for survival. If he was without her it would feel as though his skin was being torn from his body, he would be melted and consumed from the inside. He knows he would rather die than experience the agony of existing without her.

“I will never let that happen,” Arthur promises.

He would rather rip out his own heart with his bare hands than let that happen.

Sophia smiles, batting her gorgeous eyelashes at him, her hands sit over his, keeping him still and impeccably moulded to her touch. He cannot move until she says so. He is her marionette, he willingly hands her his strings and lets her play puppeteer.

“You may not have the choice. There are some here who do not want us to be together.”

“I will never let them come between us.”

Arthur wants to kill them, he wants to tear them limb from limb if they dare to keep him from his darling Sophia. If she says the word he will do it, whatever she wants, she can have.

“You must seek permission for us to marry, so that we can be together. Forever,” she instructs. Whatever she wants.

“Till death do us part,” Arthur mumbles, completely enraptured in the beautiful pattern of freckles beneath her eyes. He would promise her anything if it meant he could watch her forever, until he dies, until the skin had rotted from his corpse leaving him as nothing but bones.

“Because we are in love,” Sophia says softly.

“Because we are in love,” Arthur echoes.

She leans forward and kisses him but Arthur cannot move, completely overwhelmed by the magic of her presence. Her lips claim him, marking him as her territory, her possession to treasure.

Whatever she wants. Whatever she wants. Whatever she wants.

~-~-~

Merlin’s worst fears about Sophia and Aulfric are confirmed the next day. He had almost been hoping that they were all overreacting and simply too invested and intrusive about Arthur’s strange behaviour. There was every possibility he was just having a poor week, and it coincided with Sophia and Aulfric’s arrival completely by accident.

However Arthur’s behaviour on the third day eliminates that possibility.

When Merlin wakes Arthur up with a light shake to his shoulder he remains unresponsive. He stares at Merlin unseeingly with unfocused and glazed eyes, like he’s seeing straight through Merlin.

“Arthur?” Merlin tries to catch his attention.

Arthur blinks lethargically, he’s focused on the space beyond Merlin’s shoulder even though he blinks to acknowledge Merlin’s presence. Merlin steps out of Arthur’s way as the prince swings his legs off the edge of the bed and stretches.

“Fetch me my finest tunic,” Arthur says with a snap of his fingers in Merlin’s vague direction, not even looking him in the eyes. Typically in the mornings, Merlin will rouse Arthur and duck a few pillows thrown his way for daring to wake him — even though it’s one of Merlin’s assigned duties. Then they’ll quip back and forth as Merlin helps Arthur prepare for the day, before they exit his chambers together. The change in the established routine is unmistakable. The contemptuous way Arthur is treating him now is enough to make Merlin feel unsteady, even with the knowledge that Arthur is likely not acting of his own volition.

“Your finest tunic?” Merlin confirms even as he makes his way to Arthur’s wardrobe to retrieve it. There is no occasion that should warrant such lavish clothing.

“What for?”

Arthur frowns and for a moment Merlin can see the family resemblance between him and his father, there is no glint of amusement in his eyes, only icy frustration.

“That doesn’t concern you, Merlin. I have business to attend to with my father,” Arthur huffs, turning his back on Merlin.

Merlin bites his tongue to avoid mentioning that technically Arthur’s plans for the day are his business, as it’s his job to attend to him; knowing what Arthur wants to accomplish is a fairly important part of doing his job. He can sense that Arthur wouldn’t appreciate hearing that in his current state.

As it turns out Merlin doesn’t have to wait long to discover what Arthur’s plan is. He requests an audience with his father within the hour, and barely waits to exchange civil pleasantries before asking Uther’s blessing of his marriage to Lady Sophia.

A horrible feeling stews in Merlin’s gut as Uther attempts to laugh Arthur off and receives nothing but a blank stare and furrowed eyebrows. The anxious feeling curdles as the discussion grows more heated, both King and Prince snapping back and forth at each other and their frustration mounts. In his normal state Arthur would never dare raise his voice at Uther, but when he’s under an enchantment he holds no such qualms.

It’s almost upsetting that Uther doesn’t realise something is blatantly wrong with his son, instead he only grows furious and his face colours. He resorts to threatening both Sophia and Aulfric with execution if Arthur does not respect his decision to deny the union. Merlin watches with bated breath as the two sneer and snap at each other like wild dogs, Arthur growing more and more furious until eventually he snaps and storms from the court in a huff. Merlin hurries after him, stomach stewing with anxiety and a looming feeling that prickles at the back of his neck.

Arthur is wrestling himself into chainmail when Merlin walks in; just the sight of him clearly preparing to leave is enough to send Merlin’s heart rabbiting.

Arthur looks up and lays eyes on Merlin and his expression is nothing short of livid. Merlin ignores how the disappointment in Arthur’s blue eyes sends burning pain lashing across his stomach.

“Get out,” Arthur mutters venomously, turning back to his task.

Merlin ignores that too.

“Arthur, you need to stop,” Merlin tries to reason.

Anger flashes across Arthur’s face like lightning. “How dare you? I ordered you to get out. Now leave me.”

Merlin approaches tentatively, cautious not to startle the livid prince. It feels as though the floor is rotting beneath his feet, and every footfall might send him into peril. “I understand you think you’re in love with Sophia—” Arthur slams his hand into the bedframe, it crashes against the wall and Merlin fights not to flinch at the burst of anger.

“That I think I’m in love with Sophia?” Arthur demands.

“Alright, that you are in love with Sophia,” Merlin rectifies hurriedly.

Arthur turns away from Merlin with an indignant sneer, continuing his preparations to leave Camelot.

“You think this is a good idea but it’s not, you’re not in your right mind. You can’t do this,” Merlin attempts again, squaring his shoulders against Arthur and refusing to back down.

“Who are you to tell me what I can and cannot do?” Arthur scorns.

“I’m your friend.”

Arthur rounds on Merlin with a scoff.

“No Merlin, you’re my servant.”

The words are a punch to Merlin’s gut. It hurts more than he would like to admit. His heart squeezes, he feels it crack under the strength of Arthur’s grip, tightening in his chest until he thinks it might crumble away. With a rough swallow and a few quick blinks he dispels the ache, he doesn’t have time to think about that now.

“She’s cast a spell on you, you’re enchanted,” Merlin insists, following Arthur around the room even as he tries to shake him off. Arthur pauses, the glazed look to his eyes clearing as he considers Merlin’s words. A blossom of hope buds in Merlin’s heart.

“I told you people would try to keep us apart,” Sophia’s voice floats from the door, her words dripping with insincerity. Merlin turns to face her and finds her expression set hard in stone, jaw locked and gaze burning as she glares at Merlin.

“I know,” Arthur answers, Merlin’s gaze flicks back to him, his heart plummeting. “I won’t let that happen.”

“Don’t listen to her, she’s controlling you,” he says frantically, stepping between Arthur and Sophia so she is forced to speak to Arthur over his shoulder.

Arthur’s face flickers with a range of emotions, a conflicted confusion dances in his eyes. His expression reveals an internal raging war as he grapples with how to proceed.

Sophia tries to tempt him towards her.

“We can elope together, get away from these people,” her words are sweet but her tone is malicious as she says ‘people’, and she sends a glare at Merlin in case he wasn’t aware who she was speaking about. “Get away from this place.”

“Arthur you have to believe me, they’re crazy, they’re going to kill you,” Merlin rebuts. He’s still facing Aulfric and Sophia, a human barrier between Arthur and the Sidhe, but he glances over his shoulder, at Arthur, while he speaks.

Arthur squeezes his eyes shut tight, his face twists like he’s battling a painful headache. When he opens his eyes again they are tormented with confusion, if Merlin were to ask he’s sure Arthur wouldn’t know up from down.

“Let’s go, Arthur,” Sophia pleads in her silky smooth voice that trails cold fingers up Merlin’s back. “Let’s go, let’s leave tonight. Then we can be together.”

Merlin doesn’t give Arthur a second to consider her offer, interrupting with his own before they can take root. He can see the familiar sharpness to Arthur’s gaze slowly returning through his tortured disorientation. His expression slowly loses that befuddled sweetness and transforms into something more contemplative, more Arthur, the longer Merlin talks.

“She’s going to kill you. Sophia plans to sacrifice you. If you go with her you will die. Arthur, do you understand?”

Arthur looks pained, screwing up his face and taking a gulp of air like he’s on the verge of tears. “I-It doesn’t make sense,” he stumbles over his words, looking desperately to Merlin for answers. “We’re in love.”

He looks like he’s trying to convince himself as much as Merlin.

“They’re magical beings! They’ve enchanted you,” Merlin cries almost mad with desperation. He needs evidence. Arthur is always harping on about evidence, his eyes fall on the staff in Aulfric’s hand. “Look at the writing on his staff.”

As soon as he steps to move closer Aulfric’s eyes glow a dark, ominous red, fires burning in his irises. Merlin gasps and stumbles backwards, his heart hammers in his ears, despite his fear, he feels vindictive.

“Look, Arthur don’t you see? Look at his eyes,” he shouts, driven to madness with how desperately he wants Arthur to see reason.

Arthur is staring at the opposite wall, his head turned from Merlin.

“Arthur?”

Slowly, Arthur turns to face Merlin, his usually cerulean blue eyes the same hellish red. The comprehension that had slowly been returning to Arthur’s gaze is gone, he is a mindless corpse, a puppet completely subject to the will of his master.

Fury bubbles inside Merlin until it overflows and floods his entire body, turning everything in his sights red. He turns to the Sidhe and charges with a shout, determined to free Arthur from their hold. He barely makes it two steps before Aulfric turns the blue staff in his hands, firing a blast of energy that hits Merlin squarely in the chest. His head cracks against the stone wall as he flies backwards.

Everything goes black.

~-~-~

Merlin wakes to Gaius’ hands on his shoulders, shaking him awake, his worried face consuming his line of vision. His head hurts something terrible, there’s a sharp ringing in his ears that makes everything muffled and he’s seeing double.

He groans as the split images slowly merge and he makes out the question Gaius keeps repeating.

“What happened to you?”

“It was Aulfric,” he says, reaching a hand up to his head, wincing as his fingers prod at the tender bruised skin of his scalp.

As the grogginess wears away he remembers. He sits up with wide eyes, wincing as his head pounds. The sudden movement makes his stomach lurch, almost unloading the contents onto the floor, but he manages to swallow it back down, steadying his swaying body by resting his throbbing head against his knee.

“Where’s Arthur? I have to go after him, he’s in trouble,” he explains frantically, heart clenching at the thought of Arthur with those monsters. As he scrambles to his feet he notices an odd murmur of noise in his ear canal. “What’s that buzzing noise?”

Gaius frowns, reaching out, grabbing Merlin by the elbows as he sways dangerously. “Be careful Merlin, you can barely stand.”

Merlin ignores both Gaius, and the buzzing. He has a single minded focus — Arthur, everything else can wait.

“I have to go,” he says, frantically walking away from Gaius. The room careens like a boat travelling over a vicious wave and Merlin takes a steadying inhale through his nose.

“Don’t be ridiculous, you can’t go anywhere in this state. You owe it to your powers that you survived Aulfric’s attack at all.”

Merlin shakes his head — a mistake, the porridge he ate for breakfast threatens to make a reappearance — as he continues to try and escape Gaius’ grip. “I’ll be fine, he needs me.”

Gaius’ eyebrows furrow in the specific way that means Merlin is worrying him.

“Has that buzzing stopped?” He asks.

No, Merlin thinks, it’s actually quite frustrating.

“Yes,” he replies instead.

“Liar.”

“I have to go Gaius, he’ll die if I don’t.”

Merlin levels Gaius with a serious look but his vision is still slightly out of focus. He must look grave enough because Gaius doesn’t argue, but his frown deepens as he rubs Merlin’s shoulder soothingly.

“The Sidhe are a vicious people, Merlin,” Gaius warns, carefully releasing Merlin’s shoulders, eying him appraisingly as he sways in place. “You must be careful.”

Merlin grins, attempting to give off an air of casual confidence. “Don’t worry,” he waves off Gaius’ concerns. “I know what I’m doing.”

He doesn’t, but Gaius doesn’t need to know that.

The adrenaline and stress of reaching Arthur trumps the continuous agony of his injury from Merlin’s mind. He focuses on the rhythmic slamming of his feet hitting the floor as he races to the stables, urging his body faster and faster. The Lake of Avalon is the only place Sophia and Aulfric would take Arthur and it is about a half a day’s ride from the Camelot citadel. Merlin was unconscious an hour at least, there isn’t a moment to lose.

His mind churns with anxieties of what the Sidhe could be doing to Arthur. A million scenarios bounce in his head, each worse than the last. If anything happens to Arthur, Merlin isn’t sure what he’ll do.

“I’m your friend.”

“No Merlin, you’re my servant.”

Friend or not, Merlin’s responsibility is protecting Arthur, it’s his destiny.

He dismounts his horse a good few yards out from the lake to maintain the element of surprise, sneaking towards the expanse of water where Arthur, Sophia and Aulfric have gathered. The lake is a huge glittering body of water, which glistens with a magical energy. It is surrounded by arching willow trees and reeds, and there are small abandoned row boats along the edge of the lake.

Merlin isn’t sure what Aulfric and Sophia are planning exactly, but the incantations Aulfric is chanting from the lake’s bed appear to be some kind of ritual. Taking into consideration Gaius’ research on the Sidhe and their immortality, which Sophia and Aulfric seem to lack, it presents the conclusion that the pair are planning to sacrifice Arthur as some kind of exchange. Merlin refuses to let that happen.

Arthur is completely unresponsive as Sophia leans forward and kisses him. He doesn’t even notice her lips are touching his, he doesn’t notice how she holds him. He is lethargic and unaware of her touch. The horrible feeling in Merlin’s chest turns to acid that burns his lungs, rising in his throat like bile. He hates her for subjecting Arthur to such a spell, anger coils within him, tightly wound and heavy, leaving him nauseous and electrified with fury.

He watches as Arthur falls into the water pliantly, his eyes falling closed and Merlin’s heart sinks with him. He glances around, frantically searching for a way to get to Arthur in time. Sophia’s staff, with the blue jewel encased in twisting vines sits on the floor by Aulfric’s feet. A sliver of hope wedges itself into Merlin’s mind, jamming itself between his terrified thoughts of possibly losing Arthur.

Merlin reaches for the familiar weight of his magic sitting in his chest. This is the type of magic he knows, it is a tool he’s been using his whole life, he learnt how to use magic before he learnt how to talk. The new forms of magic he’s been learning demand focus, attention, concentration, but this doesn’t; this is as instinctive as walking. He reaches out with the coils of his magic, seizing the staff and pulling it to his hand, thankfully without disturbing Aulfric.

The staff is warm in his hand, he can feel the buzz of the sorcery concealed under the surface, the stick seems to be alive with power. The enchantment thrums to match Merlin’s magic, responding to his touch and coming to life.

He breathes deeply as the magic settles comfortably into his skin like a second mind. Directing the spell’s course is easier with the staff in hand, his own magic surges up to meet the power within the staff. They work side by side as he aims the staff at Aulfric. Merlin’s magic swells within him, flowing through his veins, lighting up his nerve endings with energy. It mingles with the magic within the staff, passing from him to the stick and out of the jewel in a burst of light.

The beam hits Aulfric between his shoulder blades, and he stumbles forward with a shout before exploding into light and dust. Merlin doesn’t have time to recognise that he’s just killed a man. He’s too distracted by Sophia, who runs towards him, her dress pulling slowly through the water.

“Father!” She screams, her voice raw with horror.

Merlin inhales deeply and turns the staff on her, squeezing his eyes shut he fires another blast of light. He hears her scream, a shout of fear cut short by the explosion of light.

Once again he represses the sick feeling that swells at the thought of taking another life. Instead he throws his jacket from his shoulders and dives into the lake. The water is ice cold, clinging to his body like glacial hands trying to pull him away from Arthur. His trousers and tunic are soaked through as he swims further.

“Arthur!” He calls desperately, scouring the water for a glimpse of the prince. His pulse is clamouring like a wild horse, and his entire body is shaking in a way that has nothing to do with the chill of the water. He splashes around, driven wild with his need to find Arthur. With every second that passes he feels more frenzied. He finds nothing but murky water and leaves. “Arthur!”

Merlin inhales a mouthful of air and dives beneath the surface, squinting through the gloom in search of Arthur. He stays under for as long as possible, swimming wildly, scouring the depths for a glimpse of the prince. Panic rises in Merlin as his search continues to be fruitless. He swims deeper, flailing his arms about, hoping that even if his eyes fail to detect Arthur his fingers will find him by grazing the prince’s skin. His eyes sting with the effort of holding them open in the dirt filled water. The need for air becomes too great, he swims to the surface and heaves gulps of oxygen before diving under again.

In the murky depths, a glimpse of shining chain mail and blond hair catches his eye. He swims towards it, towards Arthur, unconscious and steadily sinking, lower and lower, towards the centre of the lake. His lips are parted sleepily, unaware of the danger he’s in, and the heavy mail of the royal family is pulling him down and away from Merlin.

Merlin wraps his arms around Arthur’s middle and kicks firmly, propelling them both towards the surface. He’s extremely heavy, the weight of the water in the notches of his metal armour makes him dead weight in Merlin’s arms. He kicks harder, and together they slowly make their way to the top of the lake, to air. His lungs scream as he continues to hold his breath, the surface grows closer.

Darkness creeps at the edge of his vision, leaving only an out of focus vignetted picture of the surface as he desperately struggles to reach air. The pain he has been desperately ignoring crashes over him, adding to the incredible weight of their two bodies. For all that he’s willing to protect Arthur he never imagined he would kill someone. His body is the same as it has always been; but he feels different. When he killed Edwin it was self defence, an accident, he hadn’t intended to send the axe towards the other sorcerer, only to protect himself and Gaius. Sophia and Aulfric were choices, he held a weapon in his hands and he used it to kill.

The weight of those actions is unbearable, he doesn’t feel strong enough to push through it. He’s already so tired, he blinks away the dregs of unconsciousness that attempt to smother him. He wants to let his eyes fall closed, his exhaustion slip over him, succumb to the pain and guilt clawing at the inside of his chest and sleep.

They breach into the open air with a loud gasp from Merlin.

The oxygen is sweet as it enters his sore and desperate lungs. He swallows huge gulps of it, relishing in the way it eases the pain in his body. His eyesight clears, the darkness at the edges of his vision blinking away in the streaming sunlight of dusk.

Merlin holds Arthur to his chest, panting desperately and frantically searching Arthur’s neck for a pulse. It pounds steadily and Merlin almost sobs with relief when he feels it beneath his fingers, pressing his forehead to the hard surface of Arthur’s shoulder and letting the immense wave of happiness wash over him.

“Of all the people to be destined to protect, you’ve got to be the most troublesome,” Merlin tells the unconscious Arthur as he swims them both to shore.

~-~-~

Arthur’s head pounds like a sword is being forged on his skull. Every small increment of stimulation wreaks havok on his aching head, even the small amount of light filtering through his eyelashes is like torture. He groans, allowing his head to fall deeper into the soft pillow beneath his head.

“Arthur?” Merlin’s familiar voice says softly from somewhere by Arthur’s side. Arthur grunts, and with an agonising strain he manages to open his eyes. He’s in his bed chambers, he realises as he recognises the drapes adorning the four poster bed, although he doesn’t remember returning to the room. To his left, Gaius and Merlin, seated on wooden chairs, are looking down at him with twin expressions of concern.

“What happened?” Arthur grumbles, his voice croaky with disuse. “Oh my head,” he says with a pained noise, clutching his skull as he sits up.

Merlin looks at him with squinted eyes, like he’s trying to solve a puzzle in Arthur’s expression, and Arthur scowls in what he hopes is a threatening way despite the migraine pounding in his temples. To his surprise Merlin beams almost wildly back at him, like he’s utterly thrilled to have Arthur scowling at him. It’s odd, but in that good way that only works for Merlin.

Instead of answering Arthur’s question — like any good manservant should — Merlin asks one of his own.

“How much do you remember?”

Arthur considers his question, the last three days are an odd blur. He remembers getting out of and into bed most days, asking Merlin to cover for him so that he could be with a girl.

“I remember a girl… Sophia,” Arthur squeezes his eyes shut and thinks, the memories are so hazy it’s like they’re being obscured by fog. “I asked my father something about her? I asked him…”

The memories flood back into his mind, still blurry and disfigured, lacking clarity, but memorable all the same. He had asked his father’s permission for Sophia’s hand in marriage.

Arthur has never felt any desire to be married. It’s a political alliance that he knows he will be forced to participate in one day, but beyond that he’s never given it much thought.

“What was I thinking?” He gasps, turning to Merlin and Gaius with wide eyes.

They both wince and turn to each other with a shared guilty expression on both men’s faces. Merlin chews on his lip, looking Arthur in the eye and then quickly looking away when he meets Arthur’s impatient glare.

“Well we did wonder… especially when you decided to elope with her last night,” Merlin says with a sheepish grimace.

Arthur’s jaw slackens and drops open. “I did what.”

His voice goes embarrassingly high, like a boy going through puberty for the first time. He turns to Gaius who nods in confirmation. “Merlin had to bring you back to Camelot.”

There isn’t even faint recognition in Arthur’s mind of the vague story they’re unravelling for him. He doesn’t remember anything after he left his father’s court and even that is such a faint memory he would deem it a dream if it weren’t for Gaius and Merlin’s recollection.

“Why don’t I remember any of this?” He demands, looking to Merlin for answers.

Merlin just goes owl eyed and smiles uncomfortably so Gaius answers instead.

“It must have been quite a blow,” he says with a well meaning smile.

Arthur feels more confused with every word of the conversation.

“What blow?”

This time Merlin does speak, looking almost amused. “Well, when I managed to catch up with you I couldn’t persuade you to return, you were beyond reason. So I had to make you…” Merlin gestures absently with his hand for Arthur to fill in the gaps himself.

He can’t help the incredulity that slips into his voice as he asks, “You managed to knock me out?”

Merlin smiles cheekily. “Yep. With a lump of wood.”

That at least explains the excruciating headache. As Arthur opens his mouth to scold Merlin, Gaius speaks.

“You understand he only did it to ensure you were brought back safely.”

Arthur closes his mouth with a snap. His mind is reeling with embarrassment as he observes Merlin’s scrawny build and weak arms. The fact that his manservant resorted to physical measures to force him away from a painfully embarrassing elopement was humiliating enough; to know that Merlin was successful is enough to make Arthur flush with shame.

He points a threatening finger at Gaius, and then at Merlin, being sure to hold it on Merlin to ensure he understands.

“No one can know about this, any of it. The kingdom can only know that I made the error of asking Sophia’s hand in marriage, that I realised my mistake, and nothing came of it. Is that understood?”

Merlin and Gaius both nod with poorly concealed smiles. Arthur can’t help but feel they don’t fully understand the weight of his embarrassment.

“Not a soul,” he makes them promise. “Not even as a story to help you win over some girl, Merlin.”

Merlin does actually choke on laughter when he says that, stifling the sound behind a closed fist, but when he sees the stern look on Arthur’s face he nods emphatically.

“We won’t tell anyone, promise.”

Arthur pauses, stewing in his silence before letting another embarrassed groan slip out and flopping backwards against the bed.

Chapter Text

Merlin might be going insane. Which is not the way he wanted to start the day.

He tries to rationalise to himself that hearing voices isn’t completely out of the ordinary for Merlin. The Dragon has spoken to him through a telepathic connection before. It’s probably just a magic thing. Hopefully.

“Help me, please.”

The voice sounds young, and it croaks with pain, echoing through Merlin’s head like one of his own thoughts. It’s nothing like the voice of The Dragon which speaks to him with purpose and wisdom, it’s childish and bordering on frantic.

Merlin steps out into the bright daylight and scans the courtyard, unsure of what he’s looking for. The courtyard is as busy as usual, servants bustling in and out of the castle with baskets of clothes, ingredients for dinner and other mismatched items. Amongst them people come and go from the castle with requests and enquiries, while guards attend to business. In the very corner, almost completely concealed by a fountain, is a boy.

The boy is ridiculously small, and can’t be older than eight years old. He’s got messy black hair hidden by an emerald green cloak that is swaddled around him as he curls up on himself to keep out of sight. When they make eye contact, Merlin can see that his big eyes shine with tears.

“Help me. They’re searching for me.”

It’s then Merlin notices that the guards in the courtyard are not wandering aimlessly but are scouring the small square in search of something, accompanied by hound dogs that sniff out the scent of their prey. The boy trembles, curling in on himself and under the lip of the fountain.

Merlin reaches out with his own magic, wrapping it around the boy’s like a handshake. Unlike his own magic which is warm and feels like a spark of lightning, the boy’s powers feel tranquil, like water flowing through a brook. Merlin has never spoken to someone through his mind before, but he finds it’s no more difficult than speaking out loud; he nudges his thoughts through the link of the magic and to the boy.

“Why are they searching for you?”

“They’re going to kill me,” the boy whimpers, tucking his knees under his chin and shivering. His right hand is clutching his opposite arm tightly but he’s too far away for Merlin to deduce why.

The guards are encroaching on the boy, they’ll find him within a few minutes, at best. Merlin should do nothing. He should walk away and pretend he never heard the boy and ignore the dark guilty fog that will creep into his mind. He should. It’s dangerous enough in Camelot without harbouring someone who is clearly wanted. It’s obvious why the boy is in trouble, his magic still nudging at Merlin is an obvious clue; being associated with a magic user is as good as placing his own head on the chopping block. He should do nothing and save himself a world of trouble.

But Merlin isn’t any good at doing nothing.

He inclines his head, a subtle way of beckoning the boy and strides across the courtyard as casually as he can. He musters a charade of nonchalance, swinging his arms cooly and walking with an easy air to his step. No one stops to look at him. He reaches one of the servant’s entrances and looks back at the boy.

“This way,” he says, pushing the words at him. “Come on, run. Run!”

The boy dashes across the courtyard towards Merlin, his emerald cloak billowing behind him and his head ducked down. The guards spot him immediately with a shout and make chase, Merlin ducks inside before they can see him and waits. The boy runs in first, fast for his small size, with terrified watery eyes that widen with relief when he sees Merlin again.

“Come on,” Merlin says, out loud this time, taking the boy by the hand and pulling him through the castle. He whimpers with pain but follows without complaint, running double Merlin’s speed just to keep up with him. The guards thunder behind them and the clattering sounds of armour and heavy boots echo through the castle’s corridors.

Merlin doesn’t have a plan, he didn’t think this far ahead. He just runs.

Morgana’s room is nearby, she’s always shown him kindness, perhaps she’ll be willing to extend the same to the boy. It’s the only option Merlin can think of on the run. He tugs the boy’s hand and hurries them towards Morgana’s chambers, bursting through the door and slamming it behind them. The sound of the guards follows them.

Morgana and Gwen spin around to stare at him in shock, and in Gwen’s case horror.

“Have you forgotten how to knock, Merlin?” Morgana demands.

Merlin’s stomach twists itself in knots, he holds the boy to him almost like a human shield. It’s easy to forget sometimes that Morgana is the King’s ward, and barging into her chambers is a serious violation.

“I’m sorry,” he stammers. “The guards want him, I didn’t know what to do.”

Morgana and Gwen both look down and see the boy seemingly for the first time, both their eyes widen in tandem as they realise how terrified the young child is. He’s trembling so furiously against Merlin’s side that it seems like he’s been out in the cold for months and the tears that were welling in his eyes have spilled over his round cheeks.

As if to prove Merlin’s words true a guard batters his fist hard against the door to knock.

“My lady?”

Morgana blinks rapidly, running her fingers through the two curls framing her face to steady herself and nods.

“In there, quickly.” She points to a closed off section of her chambers, behind a veil.

Merlin nods, trying to convey to Morgana just how grateful he is in their short shared glance, and hurries behind the curtain. The boy looks up at Merlin as they press against themselves flat against the wall. There’s a long still moment where Merlin holds his breath and listens to Morgana talk to the guard, and he thinks everything might be okay. Then the boy’s eyes go glassy and cross eyed, and he collapses into Merlin’s side. Merlin only just manages to catch him before he hits the wall. Now Merlin can see why he was clutching his arm earlier. There is a deep gash in his left shoulder, dripping with blood and sticky around the edges.

The veil is ripped open and Morgana and Gwen hurry to his side.

“What happened?” Morgana asks with a horrified gasp, as she drops to the floor beside Merlin to inspect the wound. “I didn’t know he was injured,” Merlin explains. “We didn’t speak… aside from him telling me he needed help.”

Gwen frowns, running a hand over his clammy forehead worriedly.

They quickly realise the wound is infected. The boy slips in and out of consciousness over the following days as the castle grows incensed at their inability to capture him. Morgana is kind enough to continue hiding him, growing more protective over the young druid as the days pass. However it’s obvious they need to get him out of Camelot. Arthur is being worked into exhaustion by Uther in his mad desperation to capture the child, and it’s only a matter of time before they search her chambers properly.

Merlin hadn’t wanted to involve Gaius but it became necessary. The boy couldn’t stay awake for more than a few minutes at a time, and even when he did manage to keep his eyes open he was whimpering with pain. They couldn’t get him out of the castle while he was sick and he wouldn’t recover naturally with an infected wound. Once Gaius treated him it only took a day for him to recover, and the preparations to get him to safety swiftly began.

Morgana is the one who volunteers to escort him out of Camelot. Or rather, won’t hear a word of Gwen and Merlin’s protests, insistent that she is the only one who will be safe if she were caught.

“Thank you Emrys,” the boy says, projecting the words to Merlin as they bid each other farewell at the door to Gwen’s cottage.

Merlin frowns. “Emrys? Why do you call me that?”

The boy stares back at Merlin with his unblinking gaze, that is so serious for such a young boy.

“Among my people, that is your name.”

Merlin doesn’t get the chance to ask for an explanation because Morgana arrives. She takes his hand gently and they hurry out the door.

They don’t make it far.

~-~-~

Morgana straightens her spine and glares back at Uther, refusing to cower under his glare. He is visibly furious with his jaw set in a hard line and nostrils flaring, a furious red flush has crept from his neck to the taut lines of his neck and face.

He called her to the courtroom for this conversation, a space where he commands all. The room feels impossibly large, and despite Arthur’s presence it has tunnelled to only the two of them. Her and Uther.

“All this time you’ve been hiding the boy in my own palace,” Uther says in a dangerously calm tone. He doesn’t look at Morgana, instead staring intently at his clenched fist resting on the long table of the courtroom.

Morgana doesn’t dare speak.

“How could you betray me like this?” He asks, his eyes shooting up to meet hers with ruthless ire.

Morgana takes a deep breath through her nose, rolling back her shoulders and meeting his anger with her own.

“I would not see him executed.”

Uther scoffs, pacing down the length of the table towards her. “I have raised you since you were a child, is this how you repay me?”

“I did what I thought was right.”

“You think it is right to conspire with my enemies against me?”

Her knuckles grow white with as she clasps her hands together, but she holds her ground even as he stops only steps away from her.

“How can he be your enemy? He’s just a boy.”

She was no older when arrived in Camelot following the death of her own father.

“He is a druid,” Uther justifies, waving a hand dismissively.

“Is that such a crime?”

“His kind would see me dead and this kingdom crumble to anarchy!” Uther screams and droplets of spit fly from his mouth. He goes devastatingly quiet once again. “And you would help them.” Uther points an accusing finger at her, directly towards her heart.

“Then punish me,” the words fly from her mouth before she can even consider what she’s saying, but she doesn’t regret them. “Punish me, but spare the boy. I beg you.”

Arthur is standing off to the side, staring at the floor with a sad and troubled expression. His shoulders are hunched around his ears and his elbows are tucked into his sides, for someone so broad and strong it’s almost impressive how small he can make himself seem. She wishes she could shield him from this. Morgana doesn’t understand why Uther forced him to be present, he has no reason to be here.

Morgana saw the pain in Arthur’s eyes when he and the knights captured her and the druid boy the night before. She saw the way he glanced around at the guards surrounding them and she watched as the realisation dawned on him, that there was nothing he could do. It is her fault he is hurt, and that aches like an iron grip around her heart.

“Make arrangements for the boy to be executed tomorrow morning,” Uther says and Morgana’s heart plummets. Arthur looks up with horror flashing across his eyes.

“No, please, he’s done nothing,” Morgana begs, finally finding the ability to move, rushing across the room towards the King, pleading with a raw voice that claws at her throat. Her eyes prickle hot tears as she reaches Uther.

Uther bares his teeth, lip curling with animosity. “Let this serve as a lesson to you.”

Morgana’s chest feels achingly hollow, like every breath will shatter her into pieces. She feels thin and on the verge of shattering; she is porcelain glass held in Uther’s callous hands.

“You don’t have to do this,” she says, furious at her own voice for sounding so pitifully soft.

Uther ignores her, turning to Arthur with a snap that makes both him and Morgana flinch. “Did you hear me? I want him executed at dawn.”

Arthur opens his mouth, and Morgana sees the wobble in his jaw. She watches his eyes harden, resignation overcoming the sorrow in his eyes.

“Yes father,” he mutters, hanging his head in defeat.

Morgana wants to stand in front of him and protect him from this whole situation; but she also wants to scream herself hoarse, to beg him to do something. Uther will never listen to her, but Arthur has a chance to make this right.

She knows he won’t.

Uther turns to leave and rage burns through Morgana, the flames of her anger lick at the cold fear in her veins until she is filled with fiery resentment.

“What have these people done to you?” She hisses, storming after him. “Why are you so full of hate?”

“Enough!”

With a snarl Uther whirls around to face her, grabbing Morgana by the throat and shoving her against the throne at the end of the long court table. The leather of his gloves pushes hard into her skin and she gasps as his fingers tighten and her airway closes.

“I will not hear another word,” he says coldly, leaning close and spitting the words in her face. Morgana’s eyes are wide, shining with tears as she looks back at the man who raised her. The throne digs painfully into her spine as he shoves her backwards.

“Do not speak to me until you are ready to apologise for what you have done.”

He releases her and she collapses forward and heaves for air, gulping mouthfuls of it until her head stops spinning. She squeezes her eyes shut to keep tears from escaping, letting the slowing rate of her breathing calm the frightened tremble of her hands.

She can hear Uther’s stomping footsteps retreat, slamming the door to the courtroom behind him. She flinches away from the loud noise and wishes she didn’t.

“Morgana,” Arthur breaks the silence, barely more audible than a whisper but in Morgana’s agitated mind it seems to boom and echo around the stony space.

“Leave it, Arthur. Just leave me,” she says through gritted teeth. She feels frenzied with hatred for Uther, and yet is completely numb. It is like Uther has ripped her skin open and left her vulnerable to the world, her fragile insides exposed and defenceless against the cruel open air.

She stares at the floor and waits for Arthur to leave, letting her dark hair fall forward around her face like a shield. Only once the door has closed behind him does she let herself cry.

~-~-~

Whenever Merlin doesn’t know what to do, he seeks out The Dragon. The creature might be elusive, and downright frustrating at times, but he has a wisdom that surpasses Merlin’s own by centuries, and he is the only magical being Merlin knows of in the entirety of Camelot, sorcerer or otherwise.

“Young warlock,” The Dragon greets, as he always does, although he lacks the amused smile he usually bears. “No doubt you have come to me about the druid boy.”

Merlin really shouldn’t be surprised by The Dragon’s knowledge any more, but still his eyes widen.

“How did you know?”

The Dragon tips his head consideringly at Merlin. “Like you, I hear him speak.”

That opens a plethora of questions that Merlin longs to ask; did The Dragon call out to the young boy like he did to Merlin? Have they spoken? Can all magical beings speak to each other through their minds? But there’s one that is plaguing him more than any other.

“Why does he call me Emrys?”

“Because that is your name,” The Dragon replies simply, looking down his snout at Merlin as though he’s stupid for even asking the question.

Merlin shakes his head. “I’m pretty sure you’ll find my name is Merlin, always has been.”

The Dragon finally smiles, a familiar condescending smirk. “You have many names. Emrys is only one of them. It is what you are known as to the druids and other magical beings.”

“How do they know of me? I’ve never even met a druid.”

“There is much written about you, young warlock, that you have yet to read.”

Merlin stares into the great chasm where The Dragon resides. He has come to terms with the idea that Arthur, and protecting the prince, is his destiny; but it never occurred to him that he would be known for it. His destiny is far greater than him, but perhaps his story is as well.

“You came here for another reason,” The Dragon reminds him, pulling him from his spiralling thoughts about his own future.

“The druid boy, I don’t know how to help him.”

The Dragon’s nostrils flare. “You should not protect the boy.”

Merlin’s thoughts stagger to a grinding halt, and he looks up at The Dragon with a scrunched face. “What? Why? He has magic, he’s just like me.”

“You and the boy are as different as they come.”

Merlin frowns. “What do you mean?”

The Dragon’s eyes narrow, peering at Merlin like he’s dissecting him with his gaze. Merlin crosses his arms defensively over his chest and stares back.

“If the boy lives, you cannot fulfil your destiny,” he says, voice quieter than Merlin has ever heard.

An uncomfortable feeling swirls in Merlin’s stomach and he is subjected to a deep sense of unease that makes his muscles clench and raises the hairs on the back of his neck.

“What do you mean? What does the boy have to do with my destiny? You told me my destiny is to protect Arthur.”

The Dragon doesn’t blink, patiently waiting for Merlin to decipher his words in a way that makes Merlin equal parts furious and scared witless. It can’t be.

“Then you have the answer you seek,” he says. The silence that stretches between them settles over Merlin like a heavy weight pushing him down.

“You’re telling me, that little boy is going to kill Arthur?”

He thinks of the big innocent eyes of the druid boy, and the way he stares at Merlin with an exhaustion far beyond his years. It’s incomprehensible that he could one day be responsible for Arthur’s death.

“It is foretold that a druid boy by the name of Mordred, will one day lay to rest the Once and Future King. This boy is the one who was prophesied. He will kill Arthur Pendragon.”

Merlin’s legs wobble, the room spins, he stumbles into the wall to keep himself upright. His body falls into a state of shock, the air feels glacial, like winter has come early and is freezing Merlin right down to his core. He is hollow, empty, a husk of a person, like the ruins of an uninhabited castle. His stomach lurches, he is shipwrecked on the shore of a beach, the tumultuous waves sending him careening into nothingness. He feels suffocated in his own skin.

Arthur can’t die. He just can’t.

“No, no way, no.” Merlin steps back and away from The Dragon, shaking his head. “You’re wrong. You can’t know that for certain.”

The Dragon frowns at Merlin and his disappointment leaves a bad taste in Merlin’s mouth.

“There must be another way,” Merlin insists, his pulse is so loud he can hear it pounding against his eardrums. “The future isn’t set in stone.”

His protests fall on deaf ears. The Dragon sneers, baring his sharp teeth at Merlin, they glint in the darkness and curve like sharp knives.

“You must let the boy die.”

~-~-~

Arthur was already feeling awful when he entered his chambers, and the feeling worsens at the sight of Morgana seated at his table. Her face is gaunt and ashen, heavy bags sit under her eyes from crying and her usual mask of indifference is cracked and splintered. She still manages to hold her shoulders with poise and her hands are folded neatly on the table, but Arthur has never seen her so vulnerable.

“Make yourself at home,” he mutters, closing the doors behind him.

Morgana doesn’t bother with introductions. “You can’t let your father execute the boy.”

Arthur shrugs off his jacket and throws it onto a spare chair for Merlin to deal with later. The harsh act only temporarily cedes his temper before another short burst of frustration bubbles within him once more.

“You’re lucky he’s not executing you. He ought to. If you were anyone else he would.”

Morgana ignores that barb and straightens her spine so that she is meeting his gaze head on.

“I know you believe your father is wrong for sentencing him to execution. He’s only a child.”

Arthur’s stomach clenches at the idea of the small child’s round cheek resting on the chopping block, with tears welling in his eyes and dripping down his chin. He’s so young to be subjected to such a fate.

“It doesn’t matter what I think,” he answers honestly, turning to take off his belt so he doesn’t have to look at her. “My father has already made up his mind, and he won’t be persuaded otherwise. I tried.”

“Then the time for talking is over.” Morgana stands and the chair screeches against the floor as she shoves it out of her way.

“Whatever you’re thinking, it’s not going to happen,” Arthur mutters, turning to meet her headstrong stare.

Morgana scoffs, rolling her eyes at him.

“Why am I not surprised?”

Despite being raised by the same man, he and Morgana have never been the same. Arthur follows the rules, he wants to do the right thing, if that means conceding to his father more often than not, then he accepts that. He’s by no means passive, but it’s easier to let his father have his way and not risk his wrath.

Morgana on the other hand is a force to be reckoned with. She never hesitates to speak her mind, she is vocal against Uther and against the rules of Camelot. Even as a small child she would openly challenge the king with blazing green eyes of defiance.

“My father—”

“—Is wrong and you know it,” Morgana interrupts. “We have to get the boy back to his people.”

“No, forget it.” Arthur walks away, turning to the window in the hopes that avoiding her eyes will make the sting of her disappointment any less potent.

Morgana huffs a sharp, cold laugh of disbelief.

“You would let an innocent child die?”

Arthur spins around with a hiss. “It’s too late now!”

He knows the words reveal more than he wants, they sound raw and vulnerable. When he meets Morgana’s eyes his fears are proven correct. Her eyes are narrowed and her head is tipped in analytical contemplation.

Though they are wildly different, when they were young Morgana would never hesitate to include Arthur in her schemes. More times than Arthur cares to count, Morgana would run into Arthur’s room, excitement gleaming in her bright eyes and grab his hand, pulling him through the castle’s halls on the run from the guards. They would sneak into the kitchens together and stuff themselves full on meat pies and ginger ale, giggling in hidden alcoves and shushing each other. She would poke him with her toes until he conceded to skip lessons with her, and instead they would run through the castle gardens or hide in a back corner of the library and play dice.

As they got older their defiance aged with them. Morgana would come to Arthur’s chambers complaining about Uther’s latest lecture, pacing in front of his bed until she’d practically worn a path in the stone floor. She would encourage Arthur to use his position as the prince to protect the townspeople from accusation, and convince him to risk his father’s disappointment to save his manservant.

Small acts of rebellion that she had always shared with him.

He doesn’t understand why she didn’t trust him with this. What has changed between them, that she didn’t trust that he too, would want to protect the child from harm?

If he had been included in her plan, she and the druid boy would never have been caught. He could have led the guards in the wrong direction and given them enough time to get out of Camelot. It is too late now.

“Arthur…” Morgana’s voice is barely louder than a whisper.

He clenches his jaw, crossing his arms tight over his chest to put a barrier between them.

“I need you to help me. If I know you at all… I know you won’t let this happen.”

Arthur squeezes his eyes shut, allowing the words to settle into his skin like pinpricks.

“Do you at least have a plan?” He asks with a heavy sigh. Her pleading eyes have chipped away the rough edges of his stubbornness, he knows it’s dangerous, but he’s never been much good at evading danger. He would prefer to put himself in danger’s way if it means keeping Morgana from doing so alone. Where she is involved, he would risk life and limb to support her.

Morgana walks him through her plan, fingertips tugging at the edges of her dress and her eyes are nervous but wild. It could be worse, but it’s tenuous at best, every element requires perfect timing and if one thing falls out of place the entire operation will collapse. He agrees, of course.

Merlin interrupts them when they’re mostly done finalising the details, barging into the room without knocking. Arthur pinches the bridge of his nose tightly.

“Merlin, we’ve spoken about the knocking thing,” he mutters, a little too harshly as the stress of the day presses against his skull.

“Sorry, was I interrupting something?” He asks, glancing between the two of them with a concerned look. Now that Arthur looks at him properly it’s clear he’s troubled, face pale and his bottom lip red from worrying it between his teeth.

Arthur glances at Morgana, asking a silent question. Over the years they’ve perfected the art of silent communication, ensuring the other is comfortable before any topic of conversation was breached — his father necessitated it. Not that Morgana has ever listened to Arthur’s silent warnings, nor is he much good at telling her how he’s really feeling when she silently asks.

Today though she understands his question and nods.

“I trust Merlin.”

The worried look on Merlin’s face only strengthens at that, his jewel blue eyes going wide. Arthur beckons him into the room with a two fingered motion, and they all stay completely silent as the door creaks closed. He doesn’t properly enter the room, staying by the door with his hands behind his back anxiously, the closest he’s ever come to actually behaving like a servant should.

“We’re going to break the druid boy out of the dungeons.” Arthur looks Merlin in the eye, trying to convey the severity of the situation.

“You can’t!” Merlin says suddenly, startling both Arthur and Morgana.

Morgana looks at him with a frown. “We have to, Uther’s going to execute him at dawn.”

Merlin thinks better of himself and shrinks inward, pulling at the scarf around his neck.

“I mean.” He looks between Arthur and Morgana a little helplessly. “It’s too dangerous.” Morgana scoffs but Merlin ploughs onwards. “You’ve already been caught once and if the king catches you a second time he’ll never forgive you.”

“I’m not worried about myself,” Morgana retorts, dismissing Merlin’s worries.

“He’s got a point,” Arthur interjects and ignores the furious look Morgana sends his way. “I’m serious, when my father finds out the boy has escaped he will suspect your involvement.”

Merlin nods. “It’s suicide.”

Morgana hesitates, he notices the minute shift of her shoulders, the way they tense before smoothing into feigned indifference.

“You must go to my father and apologise. Dine with him.” Morgana pulls a face like she would rather dine with a pig so Arthur hastens to add, “he cannot hold you responsible if you’re with him when the boy escapes.”

Morgana’s lips pinch in consideration. “You need me for the plan to work,” she points out. “You can’t do this on your own.”

She’s not wrong, Arthur evaluates the plan in his mind, his eyes drifting to Merlin easily, as they naturally tend to do these days. He looks nervous, more so than he should be about the druid boy, but perhaps he sees himself in the young child, he does look a bit like Merlin after all. He will want to help, Arthur is sure of it.

“Merlin will do it,” Arthur volunteers.

“Me?” Merlin looks at Arthur like he’s lost his mind.

Arthur storms over to Merlin, stopping right in front of him and looking deep into his eyes. Merlin squirms but doesn’t look away, his face twisted with poorly hidden nerves.

“There’s a tunnel that leads beyond the city walls,” Arthur tells him the plan. “Get my horse from the stables and meet me there. There’s a grate that covers the entrance to the tunnel, bring a rope and a grappling hook.”

Merlin shakes his head madly, trembling in place. “No, no I can’t,” he stutters, tongue tripping over the words.

Arthur grabs him by the shoulders and the touch startles them both. Merlin’s skin is warm even through the fabric of his tunic, Arthur can feel the way he’s shaking through his fingers.

“Merlin.” The moment he says Merlin’s name he stills, looking with wide eyes over Arthur’s face. “Do you understand? If you’re not there to meet us, we will be caught.”

They’re still and silent for a long pause that stretches between them, blue eyes meeting blue eyes and the words hanging in the air between them. Arthur watches as Merlin’s face flickers, his brows furrow and smooth, as he tries to conceal his emotions despite normally bearing them on his sleeve. Slowly, with a clenched jaw he nods jerkily.

Arthur quickly releases his shoulders.

“Good. Don’t be late.”

~-~-~

The meal Gaius has prepared is ashen and gritty in Merlin’s mouth. He forces each mouthful down with a painful swallow, his stomach churning with protest. The Dragon’s words are a heavy weight sitting in his stomach, turning the food to acid that burns Merlin from the inside.

He’s so wrapped up in his inner turmoil that he doesn’t hear Gaius clear his throat.

“Merlin, are you going to tell me what’s wrong or will I have to force it out of you? I presume it’s the plight of the druid boy that has you in such a state?”

Merlin looks up and meets Gaius’ worried stare; the reminder of Mordred’s fate only worsens the sick feeling in his stomach.

“Would you let something terrible happen, if you knew it would prevent something even worse from happening in the future?”

Merlin’s shoulders hunch further under the oppressive burden of the question. He can’t look Gaius in the eye as he asks, instead staring over the physician’s shoulder at the rows of bottles and herbs lining the walls.

“I suppose it depends on what the ‘terrible’ and ‘even worse’ things were,” Gaius answers honestly.

Merlin glances over and meets Gaius’ eyes, they’re swimming with concern and fatherly devotion that makes Merlin feel simultaneously protected and guilty for not telling him the truth.

“One of them’s bad…” Merlin thinks of Mordred, so young to be saddled with such an awful destiny. Is it fair for Merlin to hinge the fate of the young boy on the assumption that his future is inescapable and characterised by destruction? He’s so incredibly small, to picture him on a pyre, walking towards his executioner, is terrible to even imagine.

“Really bad.”

He imagines Arthur, dead at Mordred’s hand. He imagines Arthur dying in a million terrible ways all while Merlin is helpless to stop it. His destiny is to protect Arthur, but even if it wasn’t, the idea of losing him is more painful than Merlin can dare to imagine.

“But the other… it’s unthinkable.”

Gaius raises his eyebrows, a frown pulling deep at the corners of his mouth.

“It sounds as if you’ve already made your decision,” he points out kindly, pausing to let Merlin digest the words. “You can only do what you believe to be right, Merlin. I just hope it doesn’t involve you putting yourself in terrible danger.”

Merlin tries for a smile but it’s strained, aching with sadness for the young boy he’s sentencing to death.

“For once you don’t have to worry.” He reaches across the table and pats Gaius’ hand reassuringly. “I’m going to do nothing.”

It’s easier said than done. Merlin goes to his room feeling like the guilt is going to eat him alive. It coils in his gut, tearing at the insides of his skin and leaving him pained and feeling terrible. Regret and sorrow rot his organs and leave them intolerably cold as they sit in his chest and torso.

The guilt only intensifies as the warning bells to the castle ring out, each clang loud and echoing in his eardrums. Merlin chews on his fist to keep himself from making any pained noises, leaving harsh red bite marks in the flesh. He trembles from head to toe, weak with the waves of remorse that crash over him. Arthur will never forgive him if Uther catches them. The boy will die and no matter how different The Dragon insists they are, it’s impossible not to see himself in Mordred. It could have been him facing the pyre and the King’s wrath. He can’t even fathom how terrified the child must be.

His dinner rises in his throat, unable to settle in his writhing and guilt ridden stomach. Merlin drops to his side, wrapping his arms around his legs and buries his face in his knees, letting the numbness overcome him.

“Emrys.”

Mordred’s voice intrudes in the silence. Merlin sits up, chest heaving as his lungs stop taking air at the sound of the small boy’s single word, filled with terror.

“Emrys please. Where are you?”

Merlin squeezes his eyes shut, digging the heels of his palms into the side of his head as he desperately tries to block out the voice. He can’t, it’s inside him. It makes the guilt that grinds his bones together intolerable. His self hatred is like a whip, lashing against his skin and leaving stinging welts in their wake. He can’t ignore it, can’t escape it.

“Emrys. Emrys! They’re coming, please. Help us.”

“Don’t do this. Don’t ignore me. I know you can hear me. They’re going to kill me! I don’t want to die.”

“I thought you were my friend.”

The voice hitches on the last word. Friend, like Mordred is crying, and that is what breaks Merlin’s resolve.

He can’t do this.

He sprints through the castle, towards the passage Arthur had told him about, his lungs ache and with every impact his legs shudder. He ignores The Dragon’s warnings, and his own fears about Arthur’s future. He can protect him. He will protect him. No matter the cost, but he can’t stand by and do nothing now.

“Hey,” he ducks down by the grate and meets Arthur’s wild eyes.

“Where the hell have you been?” Arthur hisses. He resembles a caged animal, completely wild, blue eyes shining with fear in the moonlight.

“I had trouble getting out of the castle.”

Mordred, who is tucked into Arthur’s side with big blue eyes brimming with tears frowns at Merlin disbelievingly. Merlin avoids his eyes, he’s not sure if the boy can know with certainty that Merlin wasn’t planning to come.

Merlin wrenches the grate from the passage with the aid of the grappling hook and ignores the heavy fear choking his throat as Arthur pulls Mordred onto his horse.

“You’d better make yourself scarce,” Arthur mutters, turning to Merlin with concerned eyes as he clips his heels into the mare’s side and she begins to move. “Or they’ll execute you in his place.”

Merlin nods, barely even conscious of his own movements.

Mordred turns back and looks at Merlin as they ride off into the night.

“Goodbye Emrys. I know that someday, we will meet again.”

It’s meant to be a reassurance, but Merlin can only hope he’s wrong.

~-~-~

It takes some time but Merlin begins to forget his anxieties about the threat Mordred poses to Arthur. The ceremony in which Arthur will be bestowed crown prince looms, and the various preparations required to arrange the day provide a welcome distraction. By the time the day of the feast arrives Merlin has all but forgotten The Dragon’s warning.

Arthur is kneeling before the King, gazing up at his father. The entire kingdom seems to hold their breath, watching the ceremony with eager eyes and joyous smiles as the young prince transforms from heir to crown prince.

Merlin has to bite down on his lips to keep from grinning madly as Arthur swears allegiance to the kingdom of Camelot. He seems almost ethereal, bathed in candlelight, his blond hair practically glowing, like spun gold.

“I, Arthur Pendragon, do pledge life and limb to your service, and to the protection of the kingdom and its peoples.”

Even Uther smiles proudly, turning away from his son to retrieve a circlet of gold. The symbol of the crown prince.

“As you are now of age, and heir to the throne, from henceforth you shall be crown prince of Camelot.” Uther’s voice booms around the throne room as he lowers the crown onto Arthur’s head.

Something strange flutters in Merlin’s chest as he looks at Arthur. He’s enchanting like this, with a brilliant smile on his face as he stands and faces the court officially as the crown prince. The circle of gold catches in the glow of the candelabra and he seems to gleam in the soft golden light.

“How does it feel to be servant to the crown prince?” Gwen asks, nudging her sharp elbow between Merlin’s ribs, beaming at him.

Merlin laughs, tearing his eyes away from Arthur who is meeting the eyes of every person in the room and offering a dazzling smile.

“Washing his royal socks will be even more of a privilege.”

She giggles, rolling her eyes. “You’re proud of him really. I know it.”

“I am not,” Merlin protests, struggling to fight the smile on his face as Arthur waves at the two of them with a smile that could light up even the darkest of spaces.

Gwen looks at him knowingly.

“You are, I can see it in your face.”

Before Merlin can retort the festivities are interrupted by the deafening smash of glass as a figure clad in black leaps into the room on horseback. The joyous atmosphere of the space is destroyed like the broken shards of glass that litter the floor.

The room is silent but for the frantic whispering of servants and noblemen, and the heavy footfalls of the horse’s hooves against the paved floor. Merlin’s breath catches in his throat as the knight stops before Arthur and tosses his gauntlet to the ground.

Arthur has been trying recently to teach Merlin the basic rules of the knight’s code — these lessons became more frequent after Lancelot departed, which is likely not a coincidence.

Only yesterday Arthur had explained how to issue and accept a challenge; whoever takes the gauntlet accepts the declaration of combat offered by the opposing knight. Arthur won’t hesitate to accept that challenge himself.

Sure enough, Merlin watches as Arthur moves to take the gauntlet. He surges forward, but by the time he reaches the laid challenge it is too late. Sir Owain scoops the gauntlet from the floor, lofting it into their air for all to see.

“I, Sir Owain, accept your challenge.”

The Black Knight turns to look at him with a looming stare. As he turns his head Merlin observes the deep scratches in his helmet.

“So be it. Single combat, noon tomorrow, to the death.” His voice is inhuman, empty in his chest plate and croaky with misuse.

He leaves the great hall cold and hollow.

~-~-~

First Sir Owain and then Sir Pellinore fall to the Black Knight’s sword. He is invincible, he is more than a talented fighter, his body does not bleed. Merlin knows what he saw, Pellinore’s sword pierced the Black Knight’s armour, he should have fallen to such a fatal blow. Instead he paces from the arena with a head held high, leaving Pellinore’s body on the ground.

Of course, like the idiot he is, Arthur challenges the Black Knight to combat before Uther can stop him; because why would he make Merlin’s destiny any easier?

Gaius explains that the knight is infallible, a ‘wraith’ he calls it. The spirit of a dead man revived with the sole purpose of achieving their goal, to bring justice to those who tormented their demented soul before death. In the case of this wraith — Tristan de Bois, the brother of Arthur’s deceased mother and Uther’s wife, Ygraine — he craves revenge on Uther, who he held responsible for the death of his beloved sister.

“That doesn’t make sense,” Merlin argues. “Ygraine died in childbirth, that isn’t Uther’s fault.”

Gaius pulls a face. “True, however Tristan didn’t see it that way. Regardless of what we think, he will not rest until he seeks revenge on Uther.”

“Then we have to kill him.”

“We can’t, because he’s not alive, no mortal weapon can kill him.”

“But he’s facing Arthur tomorrow, he’ll kill him.” Merlin says hysterically. He’s tempted to wrap Arthur in a blanket and keep him out of harm’s way. Just to give himself a break from the constant pressure of keeping the idiot alive. Only Arthur could make his way into this many dangerous situations in such a short space of time.

Gaius nods slowly, a pained look on his wise face. “Yes, it seems so.”

Merlin throws himself into the search for a weapon capable of killing a being that is already dead. With Geoffrey’s aid — and an infuriatingly long story — the answer reveals itself, a sword forged in a dragon’s breath.

The sword is easy enough, Gwen supplies it with little hesitation. Then he has to seek out the help of The Dragon.

“It’s Arthur,” he explains to the great creature, before doubling over to catch his breath, exhausted from running through the town. “His life’s in danger, he will die, unless I can create a weapon strong enough to kill the dead.”

The Dragon’s huge yellow eyes narrow, and his voice grows low and suspicious.

“So what have you come to ask of me?”

Merlin swallows roughly, his throat as dry as desert sand. He lifts a hand and with a murmured incantation levitates the sword towards The Dragon.

“Will you burnish it to save Arthur?”

The Dragon doesn’t answer his question, instead tipping his large head to look Merlin truly in the eye.

“The dead do not return without reason, who has he come for?”

Merlin winces, it would be better if The Dragon had no knowledge of the Wraith’s victim.

“Uther.”

The Dragon smiles cruelly, stepping back with its talons and moving away from the sword.

“Then let the wraith take his vengeance, and die without my aid.”

Merlin shakes his head roughly. He doesn’t have time for this; the sun will soon rise over Camelot and Arthur will face the Black Knight.

“You don’t understand. It is not Uther who is going to face him, it’s Arthur, you have to save him.”

The Dragon looks unamused. “That is your destiny young warlock, not mine.”

“This is what I’m doing to fulfil my destiny! This is the only thing I can do. Without your help, Arthur will face the wraith and die, and Camelot will have no heir and I will have no destiny.” Merlin’s chest constricts at the idea, like a rope wrapping around his rib cage and pulling tight until he can’t breathe.

The Dragon contemplates his words with eyes so narrow they are no more than glowing yellow slits.

Finally, he speaks again. “A weapon forged with my assistance will have great power.”

“I know.”

“You do not know,” The Dragon snaps. “You can only guess. You underestimate it. You have not seen what I have seen, perhaps if you had, you would not ask this of me.”

He speaks with a mark of great pain and suffering of which Merlin does not know, though his words are as vague and unfathomable as always.

“What do you mean?” Merlin dares ask.

“In the wrong hands, this sword could do great evil. I will forge this sword for Arthur, and Arthur alone.”

Merlin nods, wiping his clammy hands against the rough fabric of his jacket.

“I understand.”

The Dragon dismisses his words with a shake of his massive head.

“You must do more than understand, you must promise.”

“I promise.”

The Dragon nods, face still twisted with reluctance as he steps back and opens his jaw. Merlin covers his face with his arm as The Dragon roars. The fire is so hot it practically sears Merlin’s skin as it erupts from The Dragon’s great throat. The cavern is awash with the bright luminance from the flames, a streamline of pure heat and light.

Merlin squints through the haze to watch as the fire licks up the blade, encompassing the sword in its power. It dances with colour, hues of pink, yellow, blue and magenta, the purest form of magic Merlin has ever witnessed. It swallows the sword whole and transforms it.

As the fire melts away it leaves behind engravings of gold, two plates on either side of the blade. The hilt is encrusted with a golden handle, wrapped in sturdy, thick leather. It emits its own otherworldly glow.

“Excalibur,” The Dragon declares the sword, glaring down at Merlin with an impassive expression. It floats to Merlin’s hand, still glowing with ethereal light.

“Heed my words, the sword was forged for Arthur, and him alone.”

~-~-~

Uther paces the length of the courtroom, up and down the side of the great table. He is void of any emotion, his nerves are dead and his body is a hollow husk storming back and forth. Tomorrow, Arthur will die. Gaius had warned Uther that the Black Knight is a wraith, the dead soul of Tristan, come to seek revenge on Uther. He should be seeking revenge on magic, the curse that took Ygraine from him. Instead he chose Uther, and now Arthur will bear that burden.

The flames of the candle flicker out, casting the room in darkness.

Uther turns, hand flying to the sword on his lip and eyes narrowed but they fall on the woman easily. He hasn’t seen her in twenty years but looking at her now, it’s like no time has passed at all. She has changed, her once neatly coiled hair is cascading down her back and her wrists are thin as paper, but her eyes are the same inhuman blue and her cold smile is just as he remembers. Nimueh.

“I should have known,” he mutters darkly, taking a swig of wine.

The numbness within him is replaced by coiling and furious anger, thrashing and unpredictable as a forest fire. He longs to surge forward, to wrap his hands around her throat and twist until he feels her neck snap under his fingers. He wants to listen to the sound of her gasping for air, and her cries of pain as he rips her neck. He wishes he could kill her, as painfully and slowly as possible.

However, no matter how vile and disgusting their magic is, he knows sorcerers have great power; Nimueh’s greater than any he knows of. He cannot overpower her with brute force alone.

“It is more than I’d hoped for Uther,” she says, a spiteful laughter sewn into her voice. “Soon Arthur will be slain, you will have sent him to his death.”

Uther downs the rest of his wine in a single gulp, wiping it away with the back of his hand as he glares at the wicked sorceress.

“Haven’t you tired of revenge?” He asks with a bitter scoff. He despises her for the prideful way she stands in his kingdom, provoking him without fear of repercussion.

“Haven’t you?”

They pause, glaring at each other and daring the other one to speak first, to break their silent challenge. It is the challenge of two predators, prowling around each other, their teeth bared and vicious; both equally desperate to tear out the other’s throat with their claws sharpened and hackles raised.

Nimueh tips her chin, her upper lip curling as she observes him.

“You began this war when you threw me from the court and slaughtered all of my kind.”

Uther dismisses her with a growl. “You brought it on yourselves. You practised evil.”

“I was your friend, Uther! You welcomed me here.”

“You betrayed that friendship.”

Nimueh recoils with a wounded gasp. If it weren’t for the rage buffeting his insides Uther may have smiled at the sight of her pained expression. She grits her teeth, torn dress clenched in tight fists at her side.

“I did as you asked,” she hisses. “I used the magic you so despise to give your barren wife the son you craved—”

“—Don’t ever speak of her that way,” Uther spits over her, words white hot with anger.

The reminder of Ygraine twists the knife he constantly carries embedded in his ribcage, an aching memory that has gotten no easier to bear in the twenty years she has been gone. The emptiness within him grows infinitely worse as he looks into the eyes of the vile woman before him.

When he lost Ygraine he turned on himself, on his emotions, with a sword, mutilating and butchering the feeling in his chest until he could feel no more and still the wound continues to bleed. He still misses her like a limb. His heart died with her and every day without her another part of him dies still.

“She was my heart, my soul. She meant everything to me.” His voice is thick and dry, scratching raw the inside of his throat as he forces the words out. He hates her, he hates Nimueh with a passion so carnal it makes him feel completely enraged.

“And you took her away from me.”

Nimueh shrinks away, curling in on herself. Her eyes spark with betrayal and a deep, desperate pain, and Uther wants to slaughter her for daring to look upset when he is the man who lost his wife.

“She died giving birth to your son, it was not my choice.” She stands tall, and smoothes the lines of her face, re-covering her emotions, tucking them out of Uther’s sight. “That is the law of magic. To create a life there had to be a death, the balance of the world had to be repaid.”

Uther growls. “You knew it would kill her.”

“No you’re wrong.”

Silence falls over them like a heavy cloud, so thick Uther can taste the bitter taste of it weighing on his tongue.

Her eyes narrow at him.

“If I had foreseen Ygraine’s death and the terrible retribution you would seek… I would never have granted your wish.”

Uther can’t help but imagine a life where Ygraine hadn’t been taken from him too soon. A beautiful life where the cold that permeated from the left side of his bed was never there, and his hand which stretches out for someone to hold was never met empty.

“I wish you hadn’t,” he admits.

Nimueh frowns, her brow wrinkling heavily.

“You wish you didn’t have a son?”

Uther opens his mouth and finds he has nothing to say. Arthur, his son, barely seems real in the face of the memories of his wife. He squeezes his eyes shut and breathes heavily, and it is answer enough.

When he meets Nimueh’s eyes again a slow, wicked smile is curling over her dark lips.

“Don’t worry, Uther. Your wish will come true tomorrow.”

He snaps out of his haze. Ygraine is gone — the knife twists again — but he will not lose Arthur too. He lost too much in gaining his son. The heir to his throne.

“I will not let you take him,” he snarls, clenching his hands into tight fists. He imagines punching her repeatedly until her face is soaked with blood and her body lays unconscious beneath his furied hands.

“I have watched so many people I love die at your hands, Uther Pendragon.” Uther lets his head drop to avoid her burning gaze, grinding his teeth into dust. “Now it is your turn.”

When Uther looks up, she is gone.

~-~-~

The dawn sun shines through the small slatted window of the armoury, falling on the miraculous sword as Merlin slowly unsheathes it. Excalibur is perfect for Arthur, the gold plating compliments his soft hair, and the handle is the perfect size for his outstretched palm.

Merlin runs a gentle finger along the engravings, ‘Take me up’ and on the other side, ‘Cast me away’, in an ancient magical language. He admires the smooth curves of letters, the shallows of the grooves and the cool smooth metal of the blade itself.

He lifts Excalibur high into the air. Although made for Arthur, it is natural in Merlin’s grasp, an extension of his own limb. The sword feels like a tangible representation of the connection between himself and Arthur.

“That’s a fine blade,” Uther interrupts. He is standing by the door to the armoury, eyes stony as they observe Merlin and the sword.

Merlin nods, bowing his head towards the King. He can’t help but smile as he looks back to the sword in his hand. “It’s for Arthur.”

“He won’t be needing it today. I will be taking Arthur’s place.”

Merlin looks up with a start, frown etching along his brow. He folds the cloth over Excalibur to hide it from Uther’s sight, in the hopes he will quickly forget the sword.

He isn’t stupid enough to question the King — no matter what Arthur might think — but he knows Arthur won’t have agreed willingly to this arrangement. Arthur would rather throw himself directly onto the Black Knight’s sword than appear cowardly.

He is, however, willing to somewhat argue on Arthur’s behalf.

“But Sire—” he attempts to protest. “Arthur should be the one to fight today.”

Uther dismisses him with a scoff, indicating for Merlin to prepare him for battle.

“This grievance is with me, therefore the fight is mine.”

“I don’t have your armour.”

“This one will do,” Uther says flippantly, gesturing towards Arthur’s armour. His eyes are distant and distracted, he is preparing for battle but his mind is elsewhere. “It’s likely to make little difference.”

Uther moves the cloth off the sword, revealing Excalibur to the soft light of the armoury once more. Merlin scurries forward and stumbles to a halt, his hands jerking towards the sword before he quickly pulls them back to his chest.

“I’ll get you your sword,” he offers as The Dragon’s warning rings in his ears.

Uther waves him off. He lofts Excalibur into his grasp. The sword looks misplaced in his hold, unlike the fluid way it moved in Merlin’s touch, in Uther’s grip it appears disjointed and stiff.

“This one will do fine.”

“No Sire!” Uther looks at him with a perplexed expression, which Merlin knows could quickly turn to aggression. He toes the line carefully. “That one was made specifically for Arthur, you would do better with your own sword.”

“Who made it?” Uther inspects the sword with a heavy frown.

Merlin swallows, busying his nervous fingers with the King’s chest plate.

“Tom, the blacksmith.”

Uther’s frown deepens. “Tom is not the royal swordsmith, I’m surprised Arthur went to him.”

“That was me,” Merlin admits before he can think better of it, his tongue running ahead of his mind.

Uther turns to look at him over his shoulder and Merlin’s fingers fumble against the clasp. He swallows roughly, nerves bundling in a tight coil in the base of his throat.

“I felt he needed a better sword,” he mumbles, returning to the task as dutifully as he can manage.

Uther hums, staring at Merlin and picking him apart with his eyes. It’s a similar expression to the one Arthur sometimes wears when Merlin does something particularly insubordinate or clumsy, like he can’t work out what is wrong with him. Although if Merlin didn’t know any better he would describe the way Arthur wears it as almost affectionate, but on Uther it is perplexed.

“You show him the most extraordinary loyalty...” he says, turning to admire Excalibur again.

Merlin shrugs the comment off, moving to Uther’s other side and attaching his shoulder plate.

“It is my job, Sire.”

Uther shakes his head.

“Beyond the line of duty.”

Merlin’s Adam’s apple bobs. It’s not an unfair call to make, Merlin certainly cares for Arthur more than his duty as servant calls for. However, even he doesn’t know the depth of his care for Arthur. Certainly, Arthur is Merlin’s destiny, but is that all he is?

When The Dragon told Merlin that Mordred was destined to kill Arthur, his heart all but stopped. The threat of losing Arthur to the Wraith makes Merlin want to throw himself into the arena, just to keep Arthur out of harm's way. Is that destiny?

“Well… you could say there’s a bond between us,” Merlin concedes. He shoves away thoughts of how Arthur’s eyes glitter when Merlin tells a particularly awful joke and he’s trying desperately not to laugh. How his cheeks dent inwards as he bites at them to tamp down the smile, failing to hide his amusement from Merlin. It wouldn’t do well to dwell on how deep that bond might be.

“I care about him,” he says with some degree of finality, summarising his own feelings simply. He hands Uther his helmet and clenches his elbows to his side to keep from shying away from his intense gaze.

“I’m glad,” Uther says finally. “Look after him.”

With those final words Uther goes to meet Tristan de Bois, the Black Knight, on the battlefield. Armed with Excalibur in hand.

~-~-~

His father winning the battle against the Black Knight is inconsequential to Arthur, he shouldn’t have been duelling him in the first place. Arthur listened to the whole duel from his room, from when it started, to the moment his father won and it was ended. He woke to the sounds of swords clashing, the applause of the audience and the faint murmuring of their voices, and found the door to his chambers barred. Since then frustration has been simmering in his gut, ruminating in his blood as he listens to the battle commence without him whilst he is unable to do anything.

He slams the doors to his father’s chambers open, relishing in the booming crash that echoes against the stone walls. Gaius scurries from the room the moment Arthur storms in, calling out instructions so Uther can tend to his own wound as he goes.

“You had Gaius drug me?” Arthur shouts, slicing his hands through the air.

Uther sighs, turning his back on Arthur to lean against the square table in his chambers.

“It was a sleeping draught, that was all.”

“That was all,” Arthur repeats incredulously. He feels a hum of irritation within him that sparks and hisses like a wildfire. His father had been the one to teach him that his shortcomings on the battlefield, even within the arena, reflect not only on himself but on the whole of Camelot. They make him seem like a failure, and therefore make the kingdom appear weak. To not fight his own battle is a show of cowardice, and his father ripped that choice from Arthur’s fingers.

Arthur pounds his fist against the table, getting his father’s attention as his head snaps up.

“I was supposed to fight him.”

“No, you weren’t.”

Arthur’s blood boils, he flexes his fists by his sides to keep from lashing out.

“But the knight’s code—”

“—Be damned.”

Uther turns to face Arthur with a frenzied look in his eyes. Arthur has never seen him so agitated about something that isn’t sorcery. Even an attack on the kingdom — be it man or beast — leaves his father in a cold but aggressive calm. This is different, his face is flushed, his eyes are wide and intense as gaze at Arthur. He looks genuinely upset.

“I believed you would die, and that was a risk I was not willing to take.”

Arthur scoffs, he can’t take his father’s feelings seriously, not with the furious frustration humming under his skin. It makes him feel wild, buzzing with energy, like a bolt of energy was plucked from the sky and sewn into his veins. He wants to kick something, to throw something across the room and watch his father’s expression harden.

“You are too precious to me.”

Arthur freezes. It takes his mind a few seconds to catch up. His shoulder tense as he waits for a catch, for disappointment to overcome the affection. His eyes flick over to his father, watching the deep sincerity appear on his softened face, which is usually so stoic and rigid. He doesn’t understand.

“You mean more to me than anything I know, more than this entire kingdom and certainly more than my own life.”

“I—” Arthur’s voice catches traitorously on the word and he swallows roughly to dispel the thick feeling in his throat. “I always thought—”

“What?”

He shudders, a hard tug pulling at his heart.

“Well… that I was a big disappointment to you.”

Uther’s face flickers with emotions that Arthur can’t interpret: regret, sadness, but most of all, guilt.

“Well that is my fault, and not yours.”

Uther reaches out a hand and takes Arthur’s shoulder, resting it gently on the junction between Arthur’s neck and collarbone. The touch is warm, a reassuring weight that makes Arthur’s entire body unwind while simultaneously making his stomach clench. It’s so out of the ordinary it sets him on edge, like cold ice against his teeth, and yet so wonderful that he craves more almost desperately. He doesn’t know how to interpret this feeling, this affection.

“You are my only son, and I would not wish for any other.”

A heavy lump sits in Arthur’s throat and he swallows roughly around it. To his horror, a sheen of tears glaze over his eyes, and even as he tries to blink them away the stinging behind his eyes remains.

The moment stretches between them. Father and son. The silence sits heavily, a dense blanket that weighs down the entire room, thick with awkwardness and both of their discomfort. Both are equally unable to say anything to breach the expansive space that separates them.

Arthur coughs, ducking his head and stepping back, out of his father’s hold. It severs the tension, the moment between them, cutting it away like it was never there. Uther claps Arthur once on the shoulder and lowers his arm, mirroring Arthur. He distances himself from the moment they shared, not only physically but mentally. His smile is more casual, his expression is restored to the guarded look that Arthur is more familiar with.

Arthur seizes the odd feelings humming in his ribs and tucks them away in the back of his mind.

“I heard you fought pretty well,” he says, crossing his arms and leaning against the table beside his father.

Uther smiles, a small flash of teeth that might as well be a beaming grin.

“Thank you.”

“You should join us for training.” Arthur narrows his eyes tauntingly. “Sort out your footwork.”

Uther chuckles, shooting Arthur a dangerous look.

“I’ll show you footwork.” He kicks at Arthur and laughs almost boyishly as Arthur darts away and out of the room.

He makes it down the hall before he realises he’s still smiling.

~-~-~

Merlin makes his way to The Dragon’s cave with his heart in his throat and his stomach twisting itself inside out. His legs tremble with every measly step, walking so slowly that the journey is twice as long as it should be as he tries to delay the inevitable.

Excalibur is a burdensome weight by his side, growing heavier with Merlin’s guilt as he nears the cavern.

The Dragon doesn’t seem to know of Merlin’s failure when he enters, looking down on him with a familiar amused glint in his huge yellow eyes.

“So, does the young Pendragon live?” The Dragon asks.

Merlin nods eagerly, his head bouncing up and down so hard his neck cracks.

“Yes, the sword was excellent, amazing in fact.”

“As I promised.”

Merlin tugs nervously on the edges of his sleep shirt, as Excalibur’s weight continues to grow in his sweaty hold. His stomach curdles, and for a brief second he humours the idea of not revealing his failure; but he can’t.

“But…” He mumbles. Nervous anticipation bubbles within him, the apprehension like facing a perilous cliff and staring over the edge. His stomach lurches, his heart pounds.

The Dragon’s eyes narrow as the amused expression slips from his snout and turns stony.

“Yes?”

“Things didn’t quite go according to plan,” Merlin admits, his eyes jump around the cave, avoiding eye contact. “I mean they did but… it wasn’t Arthur who wielded the sword.”

The Dragon says nothing, waiting for him to continue.

Merlin squeezes his eyes shut in anticipation of the retribution to come — he entertains the idea that he really should have learnt a protective enchantment before coming down here, The Dragon could easily fry him to a crisp.

“It was Uther.”

The Dragon bellows and roars over Merlin’s attempts to explain. The entire cavern trembles; stones drop from the ceiling and the ground beneath Merlin’s feet shudders. He shrinks in on himself, bracketing his arms over his head as the room threatens to crumble inwards.

“I’m sorry,” Merlin shouts, loud enough that The Dragon appears to hear him, falling quiet with a cold hiss and ducking his head to look Merlin in the eye.

“Excalibur is born of the Old Magic, in the hands of Uther it will bring only evil.”

“I brought it to you.” Merlin lifts up the sword shakily for The Dragon to see.

“You have betrayed me.”

The Dragon doesn’t even seem to see the sword. He looks past it, towards Merlin, with cold-blooded hatred in his eyes. Merlin swallows, fear leaving his mouth and throat dry as sand and his blood pumps in his ears.

“You can destroy it,” Merlin suggests desperately, lofting the sword higher into the air.

The Dragon sneers. “What is made cannot be unmade.”

Merlin drops Excalibur to his side, guilt giving way to frustration. It wasn’t as if he chose to let Uther wield the sword; there’s only so far a servant can protest the king’s wishes before he would be better off tying the noose for his own execution.

“Then what do you want me to do?”

“Take the sword far from here, and place it where no mortal man can ever find it.”

Merlin leaves the cave with a crestfallen heart and thick determination to make things right. There is only one place which seems untouchable to the mortal man; imbued with magic just as Merlin has sorcery stitched into his soul.

The journey to the Lake of Avalon is easier without the fear of Arthur drowning, but Merlin still can’t relax. He spends the entire ride there stiff and riddled with guilt as the memory of The Dragon’s betrayed expression sits in his mind, adding additional weight to the poor horse.

His back throbs with the pain of riding without pause, and his eyes are heavy but he doesn’t stop until they reach the great expanse of water.

The morning’s sun shines in rays over the surface, creating glittering patterns and casting the area in a serene glow. It seems too bright and joyous of a day for the sharp guilt of his own betrayal lodged in his chest.

Merlin unveils the sword, admiring one last time the way it glows, the perfect balance between beauty and severity in its sharp golden edges. It’s a magnificent sword.

Arthur deserves to wield it.

With a heavy sigh Merlin holds the sword to the glowing sky, a sacrifice, and an apology to The Dragon. He casts the sword into the lake, using his magic to propel it far into the water.

Merlin watches with a heavy heart as it sinks like an anchor.

Chapter Text

“Mother?”

Merlin is sure that the image of his mother walking towards him on the streets of Camelot is an illusion; but she beams when she sees him, rushing forward and pulling him into a hug. The feeling of his mother’s arms is something he can never capture in his dreams, so he knows this must be real. There’s a distinct quality to the strong muscle of her wiry arms, the earthy smell of her hair that Merlin can never quite summon without her there.

He pulls back to look at her properly and registers the black eye adorning her face.

“What happened to you?” He asks with a horrified gasp. The idea of someone hurting his mother ignites a spark of anger within him that burns.

Her eye is swollen almost completely shut, and the surrounding skin is coloured black, fading into mottled shades of yellow and purple. It looks painful, Merlin resists the urge to wince away from it, but it still doesn’t detract at all from the warmth of her smile.

“Oh my boy, I need to ask your help.”

His mother tells him everything, about bandits coming to their town under the rule of a tyrant, Kanen. She explains that they have been stealing the harvest, without leaving anything for the village to eat, taking every piece of grain down to the stores that are necessary for resowing the fields next year.

His mother is a steadfast and stubborn woman, she doesn’t like to cower or admit defeat, and she definitely doesn’t like to drag Merlin into her problems. For her to come to Camelot exposes the severity of the situation. He agrees to help without hesitation.

Merlin would do anything for his mother. Whatever she needs, he will provide, she has never failed him and he won’t do the same to her. However, to help her he knows that he needs Arthur’s help and that makes his stomach stew with nerves.

“Arthur? Can I ask something?” Merlin raps his knuckles against the door like Arthur is so adamant about him doing.

“You just did,” Arthur replies, still busying himself with menial tasks.

Merlin rolls his eyes and doesn’t respond, waiting for Arthur to continue.

He looks up with a cheeky grin and waves a hand loosely, approving Merlin’s request to speak.

“Since when do you ask permission to speak? Have you finally learnt how to behave?” Arthur glances up at Merlin with a jesting wiggle of his eyebrows.

Merlin scoffs. “Hardly. Who would keep your big head from inflating any further?”

“Careful Merlin, I could have you in the stocks for that.”

“You’d be bored without me.”

“Your faith in your importance to my overall happiness is touching.”

Merlin bites at his cheek to keep himself from smiling, the sarcasm dripping from Arthur’s words is clear evidence of how much he does enjoy Merlin’s company. Even if Arthur will never admit it, they’re friendly, comfortable in each other’s company, they’ve got a good companionship.

He shifts, nerves flooding back with an uncomfortable itching sensation that creeps up his arms. He’s never asked so much of Arthur before, while their working relationship has grown significantly, but Merlin can’t quite discern the line that marks what constitutes as too far.

Arthur shoots him an odd look, his eyebrows raise high into his hairline and his mouth twists. “What’s got you so skittish?” He demands. Arthur doesn’t tend to ask questions like a normal person, instead he demands things with the nature of someone who is never told no — and only ever by Merlin if he thinks he will get away with it. Merlin hates to say he finds it somewhat endearing.

“I’m not actually going to put you in the stocks,” Arthur points out, his eyebrows furrowed like he’s confused at how Merlin could have genuinely believed his remark.

“I know,” Merlin replies, moving to pick up the tunic and various trousers Arthur has strewn around the room.

“It’s just… my mother arrived in Camelot,” he explains. Out of the corner of his eye he sees Arthur’s head turn in interest. “There’s been trouble at home, in Ealdor, bandits are coming and taking their harvest and at this rate there isn’t going to be any food left.”

“That’s terrible,” Arthur says. Merlin turns to look at him and finds genuine concern knitted into the low furrow of his brow.

Something odd warms in his belly at the sight.

“Yeah… I was just— well I was wondering—”

“Spit it out, Merlin. Honestly, I’m only joking when I say you have a mental affliction but now I’m beginning to wonder if I’m right.”

Merlin glares at him which makes Arthur’s eyes sparkle.

“I was hoping you could get her an audience with the King. She wants— she needs help,” Merlin babbles in a rush, nerves forgotten in the face of Arthur’s teasing.

“Of course. Any way I can help,” Arthur replies. He pauses as soon as the words have left his lips, seeming almost surprised at how easily he answered. Arthur clears his throat, looking distinctly uncomfortable under Merlin’s amazed staring.

“I’ll speak with him this afternoon.”

“Thank you. Truly,” Merlin says and lets the subject drop.

~-~-~

It isn’t difficult for Arthur to organise an audience with his father for Hunith’s grievances. As King it is his responsibility to meet and listen to any delegates on behalf of the people, and with Arthur’s recommendation she is received that very day. Arthur feels a sense of pride at his ability to help even in such a small way by ensuring that Merlin’s mother is heard.

Hunith is a small woman compared to Merlin, who is long limbed and gangly, but despite that she bears a striking resemblance to her son. They have the same sloped jaw, bright eyes, long nose and the daring way they tip their chin in silent challenge is identical.

However, unlike Merlin, Hunith is the picture of perfect respect standing before the king, her hands are clasped behind her back and her words are careful and measured.

“The winters are harsh in Ealdor, and there are many children,” she explains, “some of them won’t be strong enough to survive.”

There are tears in her eyes as she looks to Uther pleadingly, in her eyes Arthur can see the reflection of a village’s children whose stomachs ache for food. She wrings her fingers behind her back anxiously.

“There’s barely enough food as it is, and if Kanen takes our harvest…” she doesn’t need to say any more. The children won’t live to see another summer.

Uther runs a hand over his mouth, rubbing at his jaw thoughtfully.

“Ealdor is in Cenred’s kingdom, is it not?” He says finally, fingers tapping against the armrest of his throne in pensive thought.

Hunith’s jaw quivers but she nods. “It is.”

“Your wellbeing is his responsibility then.”

Hunith shakes her head. “We’ve appealed to our king but he cares little for the outlying regions. You’re our only hope.”

Arthur watches, fingers clenched tightly around in the fabric of his jacket as Uther frowns.

“You have my deepest sympathies, I would have this barbarian wiped from the face of the Earth,” he says solemnly.

Hunith’s eyes go wide with hope, clinging to his words like a rafter keeping her afloat. “So you’ll help us?”

Uther shakes his head. “I wish I could.”

It breaks Arthur’s heart to see Hunith’s hope shatter. Her eyes go distant, her lip trembles before she clamps down on it, thinning her mouth to hold herself together. In her eyes Arthur can see her village torn by starvation and the burdensome weight of the knowledge that she must return home without salvation for them.

“Surely we can spare a few men,” he suggests tentatively.

Uther’s frown deepens. “It is not resources that are the problem…”

“Then what is?” Morgana demands, a familiar glimmer of defiance on her face.

“Ealdor lies beyond the ridge of Essetir, if an army of Camelot were to enter, it would be considered an act of war. ”

Hunith drops to her knees, hands clasped in front of her chest. There are unshed tears in her eyes. Arthur is awed by her ability to humble herself before a King she does not even serve. She lays herself out, vulnerable before the King and looks to him desperately for assistance.

“I know you’re a good king, a caring man.” She looks desperately up at Uther, tears filling her eyes. “I’m begging you, please, help us.”

“The treaty Camelot struck with Essetir was years in the making, I cannot risk hundreds of lives for the sake of one village. I’m afraid Camelot cannot help.”

With those words the conversation is effectively ended, with no room for argument. The room clears and Arthur is left to himself.

He stares out over Camelot, disappointment curdling in his stomach as he remembers the broken look on Hunith’s face and the barely restrained sadness on Merlin’s. He hears Merlin’s footsteps behind him but doesn’t face him until he’s by his side.

“I’m sorry, if it were up to me we’d be on our way there now,” Arthur says softly, digging his fingernails into the meat of his biceps to keep himself from doing something ridiculous like reaching out to touch Merlin’s shoulder reassuringly.

“I know.” Merlin smiles a little, like he’s never doubted Arthur for a second. “You tried. Thank you, for getting an audience with the king.”

Arthur doesn’t respond, even as his heart clenches painfully. He hates knowing there are people out there who aren’t receiving help, support, people who won’t last the winter, and he can do nothing to help. Accepting gratitude for something as simple as acquiring an audience with his own father feels shameless.

“I wish…” He chews on the side of his mouth, watching the people of Camelot bustle about their daily business below. In his periphery he can see Merlin turn to look at him curiously.

“I wish Camelot were able to help people, regardless of how far away they lived.”

Merlin nods, and silence descends over them.

Merlin takes a deep breath, like he’s preparing for a physical altercation.

“I’m going back to Ealdor,” he says definitively.

Arthur nods, he’d expected as much. Nothing is stopping Merlin from going, and he will want to be there for his family, his village.

“Of course.”

“It’s been an honour serving you.”

That gets Arthur’s attention. He turns to look at Merlin with a confused look and a terrible feeling of dread settles over him, gnawing at his gut as his heart gradually picks up speed.

“You’ll be coming back,” he says. It’s not quite a question, but an expectation, he can’t imagine living without Merlin, nevermind the twenty years he’s lived before his arrival. Six months is nothing in the grand scheme of Arthur’s life but the manservant has made more than an impression in such a short span of time.

Merlin shifts awkwardly, offering Arthur a lopsided smile. He’s never nervous in Arthur’s company. Even when he was new to the position of Arthur’s servant, when Arthur’s threats weren’t empty promises, he still spoke his mind. If anything, in the early days he would have made a better impression if he had shown some timidness in the presence of the prince.

“She’s my mother, I’ve got to look after her before anyone else,” is all Merlin says in explanation. His words give Arthur no true sense of whether or not he will be returning and it makes Arthur’s stomach clench.

“You understand?”

Arthur feels Merlin’s gaze burning into the side of his head as he avoids his bright blue eyes. He imagines what it would be like if his own mother were still alive. If he, like Merlin, had grown up a peasant boy in the country, what would he do to protect his mother? The answer is simple: anything.

“I’d do exactly the same,” he answers honestly. His heart feels tender, like the surface is covered in bruises, but he understands Merlin’s position all the same. Arthur won’t stand between him and his mother.

The look Merlin is giving him is too genuine, too understanding, Arthur doesn’t know what to do. He doesn’t know how to handle the warmth in the silence between them. Merlin is easy to be around because he’s so sharp witted and brash, this gentle silence feels off and uncomfortable, like squeezing into a jacket that is too small.

“Well,” Arthur says suddenly, intentionally shattering the sincerity of the moment. “You’ve been terrible.” Merlin smiles properly, a true grin like he’s trying not to laugh. Arthur smiles crookedly in return.

“Really, I mean it, the worst servant I’ve ever had.”

Merlin chuckles, bumping his shoulder into Arthur’s amicably.

“Thank you, Sire.”

With that he turns to walk away, Arthur almost lets him leave, but he knows if he never sees Merlin again he can’t let him go just yet.

“Merlin!” He calls out, stopping him only a few paces away.

“Good luck.”

Merlin smiles. “Thank you.”

Arthur watches as he walks away, and wishes… wishes he could stop him, wishes he could follow, wishes he wouldn’t leave at all. Just wishes.

~-~-~

The journey to Ealdor is an easy one, it entails only a minor amount of trekking through the wilder parts of the forest, the majority of the trip is spent on larger, well kept roads. Merlin rides with his mother on his tail, and Morgana and Gwen not far behind.

He couldn’t convince them to stay in Camelot, though he wanted to. He knows Kanen and his men won’t be any more merciful towards them just because they’re women. The mottled bruise on his mother’s face is enough to attest to that. However, even though he fears for them, it means the world to have them with him.

Merlin did try to persuade them to stay, but Morgana had just looked at him like he was stupid, and Gwen had pat Merlin’s arm affectionately; chastising him for even attempting to talk them out of accompanying him.

“You would do the same for us,” is all Gwen said, kissing Merlin’s cheek affectionately.

“You have,” Morgana added, a kind smile making her sharp angles appear soft and with a deep warmth in her green eyes.

That was that.

Merlin is settling down to rest by his mother’s side when the clattering of hooves and soft trampling through the underbrush catches his attention. He gets to his feet with a frown, careful to move as quietly as possible. The sword Gwen gave him earlier is stored by his side, and he carefully retrieves it, wincing when it scrapes against the side of the sheath.

Every sound in the forest seems to be amplified in the dark of night. The crunch of leaves in the distance, the whistling of wind passing through trees, every sound is someone waiting in the darkness to attack.

Merlin’s sweaty palms are slippering on the hilt of the sword but he grips it tightly in both hands, squinting into the cover of night searching for the shape of a figure. He spins to his right as the bushes rustle, and turns to his left when a creature snickers. His breaths are heavy and loud in his ears as he prepares for an attack.

The pointed blade of a sword touches his upper back, pressed at the junction between his shoulder blades. Merlin’s breath catches in his throat, every muscle tenses in preparation for a blow. Instead a familiar voice breaks the silence.

“I’d ask you for money, but I know you don’t have any,” the voice teases.

“Arthur!” Merlin whirls around with a beaming smile. He’s still holding out his sword and it skims over Arthur’s head as he ducks for cover and stands with a frustrated grimace.

“For God’s sake, put the sword down Merlin, before you take my eye out,” Arthur mutters, but his eyes glimmer with amusement in the sliver of moonlight.

“I don’t know, I think I look sort of cool, almost like a knight.” Merlin poses with the sword, smiling at Arthur’s unamused face.

“You look ridiculous,” he retorts, snatching the sword from Merlin, marching towards the camp.

Merlin grins and follows, an odd fondness swelling in his chest as he watches Arthur pick his way through the underbrush.

Arthur heads straight for the fire, it’s obvious from the way he shivers periodically that he’s still cold from riding under the darkness of night. With winter around the corner, Camelot is slowly succumbing to chilly days and practically frigid nights. The knowledge that Arthur was willing to ride to them without the heat of day makes Merlin warm in a way that makes the fire unnecessary.

When Merlin takes a seat on the log beside him Arthur speaks again.

“How long is it from here to Ealdor?”

“About another half a day’s travel.”

Merlin shifts, he can feel Arthur’s warmth by his side.

Arthur nods. “And how many men does Kanen have?”

“I’m not sure, I think from what my mother’s said maybe as many as forty.”

Arthur’s expression flickers into a grimace. He’s still impossibly difficult to read but Merlin is starting to learn the intricacies of his emotions. Merlin recognises this grimace as one of deep concern, the same that Merlin feels when he thinks of what is waiting for them in the village. In Ealdor there are no knights, there are no men who are trained to be fighters like Arthur is used to home in Camelot. They are facing impossible odds with little more than the armour strapped to the sides of their horses.

“Right, we should get some sleep then. Long day of riding ahead of us,” Arthur decides, clapping Merlin once on the shoulder and standing to get to bed.

Merlin grimaces at the reminder of the journey ahead, he’s never been a big fan of riding.

He watches the silhouette of Arthur in the night, the side of his face illuminated in the warm glow of the fire.

“Arthur?” He stops Arthur before he can leave. “Thank you. I know you didn’t have to come.”

Arthur nods, shrugging off the expression of gratitude like it’s uncomfortable.

“Get some sleep,” he says, instead of responding, but Merlin sees the small pull of a smile on the edges of his lips.

~-~-~

Kanen and his men are in Ealdor when they arrive. Merlin recognises the man that Kanen is speaking to, his name is Matthew and as the owner of the mill house has taken on a leadership role in the village. Although speaking is a generous term for what is occuring, it seems like Kanen is seconds away from lobbing Matthew’s head off. He lifts his axe to do just that when Arthur charges in a blaze of glory. Arthur slices his sword through the air, sending Kanen’s axe flying from his grip.

The village square erupts into chaos. Men rush to meet Arthur, weapons drawn and lips curling in hatred. Kanen’s men are wild, covered in scars and unkempt knotted hair and their eyes flash cruelly as they attack the helpless village. Merlin jumps into the fray, protecting Arthur’s left flank while Arthur takes on the larger of the men.

A thin but menacing barbarian corners Merlin, snarling as Merlin ducks his blows and side steps out of the swing of his sword. The barbarian kicks, striking Merlin’s knees causing him to buckle backwards into a wall. He only just manages to heave his sword forward to block an incoming attack.

The force is formidable against his own weak arms, the blade comes dangerously close to the bob of his Adam’s apple. Merlin doesn’t dare breathe, he focuses on the hum of magic under his skin, pulling it to the front of his mind with a forceful tug. He speaks a heating spell quietly, struggling not to grin as the barbarian’s malicious smile slips with a curse of pain as the hilt of his sword sears into his skin. He drops his sword with a clatter and Merlin uses his momentary shock to incapacitate him.

Merlin looks up just in time to see Morgana jump in front of Arthur, easily striking one of Kanen’s men. She throws an easy grin over her shoulder to her adoptive brother.

“Bring back memories of when I used to beat you?” She teases, raising a mischievous eyebrow. In the heat of battle, she, like Arthur, thrives; it is obvious in the fluid way she moves and the way the energy of the fight seems to take a heavy burden off her face, leaving her young and bright.

Arthur scoffs. “That never happened.”

“You’ll pay for this with your lives, all of you,” Kanen threatens, drawing all of their attention to him. He mounts his steed and takes off with his men trailing behind him, the fading sounds of horses hooves mark their departure. The harvest they had come for stays hidden behind some young farm hands.

“Oi,” a familiar voice makes Merlin spin around. “You still up to your old magic tricks? I thought I told you we don’t want your kind around here.”

Merlin tries to play along but he can’t help the joyous smile that spreads across his face at the sight of his old friend. Will returns his smile with equal joy. He’s strengthened in the months Merlin has been away, obvious from the muscle tone building in his shoulders from longer hours in the fields. But the dimples of his mouth are the same, and so is the way his smile crinkles around his eyes. Merlin has missed him terribly.

“It’s good to see you too.”

Merlin throws his arms around Will and hugs him tight, burying his smile into his friend’s shoulder. The adrenaline of their recent victory eases away into the hug, relaxing his muscles and unwinding from his shoulders. The presence of Will after so long without his friend is a welcome relief.

“How have you been?” Will asks when they pull away. His familiar lopsided smirk makes Merlin beam with happiness, a pleasant hum in his chest that fills the small homesick crevice of his heart that is always a little bit hollow in Camelot. He prefers life in the city, but a part of him will always miss Ealdor, his mother, Will.

“I hear you’re being worked to the bone by some prince.”

Merlin shrugs. “I wouldn’t say that but—”

“—Merlin!” Arthur interrupts them with a shout. “Round up the villagers. I need to talk to them.”

Will shoots him a look that seems to say ‘you were saying?’ and Merlin sticks his tongue out at him.

It doesn’t take long to gather up the villagers, as they were already in the town square, coming together to seek solace in each other after Kanen’s attack. Arthur stands on the edge of a well, there’s a confident tilt to his jaw and a determined set in his strong brow.

“I know Kanen and his kind. He’ll be back, and when he is we’ll be ready for him.” Arthur’s voice is strong, commanding the attention of the village. He imbues them with a sense of confidence just by projecting his own. It’s more than admirable, it’s majestic.

“First of all we have to prepare—”

“Sorry, am I the only one wondering who the hell this is?” Will interrupts Arthur, cutting through the crowd until he reaches the front so he can face Arthur properly.

Merlin swallows down the urge to bury his face in his hands. Nerves prickle at the back of his neck, and he’s overcome by an uncomfortable sensation that this cannot go smoothly.

“I am Prince Arthur of Camelot,” Arthur answers without hesitation.

His words strike something fond in Merlin’s chest, how oblivious he is to Will’s sarcasm and how genuine he is in return. There is no possibility that Will doesn’t know who Arthur is, not when they were just speaking about him. So his interruption is more of a display of disrespect than a genuine curiosity of who Arthur is.

“Great, and I’m Prince William of Ealdor,” Will retorts with a scoff.

“Keep quiet, he’s here to help,” Merlin’s mother scolds. To his credit Merlin is quite impressed by Will’s ability to continue opposing Arthur in the wake of Hunith’s disappointed stare, although he does shrink in on himself a little.

“He’s made things worse,” Will insists, looking back at Hunith, wincing at the reprimanding look on her face, turning to Arthur instead. “Kanen will return and now he’s angrier than ever. He’ll be looking for revenge. You’ve just signed our death warrants.”

Hunith opens her mouth to argue with him but Arthur stops her with a shake of his head.

“It’s alright Hunith, this is his village. What would you have us do?”

The two stare at each other for a moment, Merlin resists the urge to groan. Two of the most stubborn, hot tempered people he knows are standing in a stalemate, what could go wrong?

Will yields first with a frustrated huff and a furious clench of his jaw.

“We can’t fight against Kanen, he has too many men. Trained men.”

Arthur raises his eyebrows. “So what’s the alternative?”

“We give him what he wants.”

A murmur of dissatisfaction ripples through the crowd in a hum of anxious energy. There isn’t a person in the village who appears content with the idea of facing Kanen, but neither are they willing to give in to his demands. Their agitation is palpable, a thick tension that seethes in the air.

Arthur seizes the murmur of the crowd, utilising it to support his proposal. He thrives off leading others, he carries the strength required to maintain a restless crowd and transform them into a united army. It’s what he was born to do, and he wears it with as much pride as his crown.

“Then what? Those of you who don’t starve to death will face him again next harvest, and the one after that.” Arthur surveys the active crowd with determination glinting in his bright eyes, encouraging them to consider his question.

“We’ll manage, we’ll survive,” Will argues, growing red in the face.

The crowd around him echoes with questions of how before Arthur can respond.

“The only way he can be stopped is if you stand up to him,” Arthur says, sending Will an encouraging and hopeful smile.

Will laughs grimly. “No. No, you just want the honour and glory of battle. That’s what drives men like you.”

The smile slips from Arthur’s face and he flinches into himself. It’s a small movement, only Merlin standing so close beside him is able to see it.

“Look,” Will continues. “If you wanna fight, then go home and risk the lives of your own people, not ours.”

Will storms away, leaving an anxious atmosphere behind him.

“I’ll talk to him,” Merlin promises, hurrying after his friend, leaving Arthur and his mother in the square. He hears the villagers rally behind Arthur, promising that if they are going to die, they want to do so fighting.

Will is bustling about the empty barn, pretending to be busy with tasks that both he and Merlin know are entirely useless. He picks up an upended stool and rights it, glancing up to look at Merlin and looking away again with a stormy expression.

“He knows what he’s doing, you’ve got to trust him,” Merlin says, breaking the awkward silence. He hates being like this with Will, they’re never uncomfortable with each other.

The only time they’ve been like this before was when Merlin was leaving for Camelot.

He and Will have always been friends. As far back as he can remember, Will has always been there. Merlin always had trouble making friends in Ealdor. Even though none of the other children knew about his magic they could all tell he was different, he was always just a little too odd.

Will was never like that. He liked Merlin for who he was. When Merlin needed a friend, Will was there, they understood each other. He was the first person Merlin told that he didn’t like girls, and then that he had magic; both conversations were taken impressively in stride.

When they were on the cusp of turning nineteen Will kissed him under the oak tree in Merlin’s yard. His lips were chapped and warm against Merlin’s and he tasted like the crisp apple he’d just eaten. It was wonderful.

Being with Will was lovely, exhilarating even. They existed in a state of pure bliss, it was like the rest of the world didn’t matter. It was fun, and new, and fresh, and everything Merlin had imagined love could be. It just couldn’t last.

When Merlin told Will he wanted to move to Camelot, Will didn’t speak to him for an entire day. He walked away from Merlin, leaving him alone in the field by his house, next to the tree where they’d shared their first kiss. Merlin still remembers how it felt as his heart splintered into pieces.

They barely spoke about it. Will arrived at Merlin and Hunith’s cottage as the sun was saying its final goodbye, kissing the edge of the horizon. His eyes were red with unshed tears and Merlin knew it was over.

They screamed at each other by the oak tree for hours. Merlin urged Will to come with him, and Will begged Merlin to stay.

Their love was never going to last, they should have realised that sooner. Merlin has always been suffocated by the small village of Ealdor. Everyone is always in each other’s business and every day is the same. He needs change, the buzz of new experience, the flavours of a larger world and the chance at a life filled with wonders, everything Camelot could offer. Will was more than comfortable with the small town life, he thrives off simple pleasures and the ritualistic pattern of the day to day on a farm.

Eventually their burning anger mellowed, and their screams turned to quiet words. Tears trickled down Merlin’s face as Will took his hand, pressing their palms together, drawing him in for a final kiss.

It was mutual, it was for the best, but it still hurt.

In Camelot the ache dissipated, and all he could remember were the favourable points of the relationship. Moments spent under the shade of the wheat harvest, dappled sunlight warming hitting their laughing faces, and hot, magnificent moments in Will’s bed, hands dipping under the covers and smiles pressed together.

Will was a good friend, one of his best, and their relationship had been lovely. But it had come to a close and Merlin was satisfied with that.

They sent letters back and forth by raven weekly, and their usual banter and dynamic slowly seeped back into the words as Will healed too. Which is why it’s so unsettling to return to cold air and stilted conversation between them.

Will scoffs but doesn’t say anything, turning his back on Merlin when he tries to approach.

“Look I understand. When I first met Arthur I was exactly like you, I hated him. I thought he was an arrogant, pompous prat—”

“—So you were correct?” Will interrupts with scorn that makes his voice sound bitter.

Merlin sighs heavily. “You don’t know him, okay? In time I came to respect him, for who he is and what he stands for.”

Will slams a bench into place and Merlin winces.

“I know what he stands for, okay? He stands for princes, and kings, and nobility and other men like him.”

Merlin recognises the pain under Will’s voice, the torn edges of his words that came with the loss of Will’s father when he was a child. Arthur isn’t like the nobleman who allowed that to happen.

“Will… don’t bring what happened to your father into this.”

“I’m not,” Will snaps, his voice breaking on the last word as he finally turns to look at Merlin.

Merlin nods and Will scowls like he knows that Merlin doesn’t believe him.

“Why are you defending him? You’re just his servant.”

The words sting more than Merlin cares to admit and he struggles to keep a straight face as he meets Will’s defensive gaze.

“He’s also my friend.”

“Friends don’t lord over each other.”

“He isn’t like that.”

Will makes a sarcastic noise of agreement.

“Really? Let’s wait till the fighting begins and see who he sends in to die first.”

Will looks pointedly at Merlin, it’s obvious that in his eyes he sees Merlin as Arthur’s sacrificial meat, ready to be tossed for Kanen and his men to devour at a moment’s notice.

“I guarantee you it won’t be him.”

The statement hits Merlin like a punch but he doesn’t let Will see the impact. He knows Will, and Will knows him. He’s searching for low blows to keep Merlin away from his own pain, to protect where he’s really hurting.

“Arthur isn’t like that. I’d trust him with my life.”

There isn’t a hint of doubt in Merlin’s voice. He leans forward over the table between them, planting his palm flat on the surface and looks at Will with raw honesty.

Will blinks, stepping back with wide and confused eyes. Merlin watches as he visibly absorbs his words, frowning as his expression flickers between being guarded and antagonistic.

“Is that so?” Will asks, an insistent and barbed quality under his words. “So he knows your secret then?”

Will’s words push Merlin from a cliff, his stomach drops, his hands go numb, his heart pounds agony against his chest. He can’t mask the sting of the wound, the positive expression he had forced onto his face drops.

“That’s not fair.”

Will sighs heavily, looking sympathetically at Merlin.

“Face it, Merlin, you’re living a lie. Just like you were here.”

Merlin turns away, trying to school his features into something less pained, less openly hurt by Will’s words. Will can read him like a book, and he’s always worn his heart on his sleeve. There is no doubt he knows how his barbs are digging sharply into Merlin’s skin, but he continues anyway.

“You’re Arthur’s servant, nothing more. Otherwise you’d tell him the truth.”

There’s no good explanation for why that stings more than any of the other truth’s Will uncovered. It’s like a wound he’s been ignoring has been torn open and exposed to the harsh cold winter air around them.

He grits his teeth against the pain lashing under his skin, knowing his reaction is what Will is hunting for, even if he’s doing it under the guise of protecting Merlin.

“You’re wrong about him, you’ll see,” Merlin promises, turning on his heel, leaving Will in the barn alone. He doesn’t see the heavy slump of Will’s shoulders as he leaves.

~-~-~

The ground is stiff beneath Arthur’s head as he struggles to get comfortable. When he sleeps during hunts, he sleeps on padded warm soil, but this stone is unyielding and agonisingly uncomfortable. At least he’s not cold, Merlin’s body is a warm source of reassuring heat by his side. His head is down by Arthur’s feet, and every time he shifts Merlin’s long limbs brush Arthur’s torso.

Merlin sighs lightly, his breaths haven’t evened into sleep yet, they’re still erratic and thoughtful. Earlier he had been obviously irritated, unnerved, ever since he emerged from the barn after his conversation with Will. Arthur isn’t sure what they talked about, he only noticed that afterwards Merlin hadn’t been himself, he was distant. He refused to respond to Arthur’s ribbing, and only half heartedly smiled at his jokes.

“Merlin?” Arthur breaks the silence of the night. Ealdor is so much more still than Camelot. It’s like the entire village is holding its breath in anticipation of Kanen’s arrival, even the trees and crops are still as they wait.

Merlin hums sleepily. “Yeah?”

“Have you always slept on the floor?”

Merlin lets out a short breath of laughter.

“Yeah, my bed in Camelot is a luxury in comparison to this. I can’t imagine having a bed like yours, with your ridiculous number of—” Merlin puts on a ridiculous and overly posh accent “—fluffed, down pillows.”

Arthur grins at the ceiling, letting the darkness cover his amusement. He likes the way Merlin pokes fun at him, even if he’d rather cut off his own foot than admit it.

“Shut up, Merlin.”

A comfortable quiet descends over them and Arthur’s body relaxes against the painfully hard floor.

“It must have been hard,” he muses.

“Well yeah, it’s hard as rock,” Merlin replies. Though he can’t see Merlin in the dark Arthur can clearly picture his eyebrows rising in confusion.

Arthur rolls his eyes. “I didn’t mean the ground, you idiot. I meant for you… it must have been difficult.”

“Oh,” Merlin’s voice is contemplative as he mulls Arthur’s words over. Arthur waits in the quiet for him to respond. The dark of night is like a blanket over them, a cocoon of safety ensuring that anything they divulge to each other in the dark will bring no consequence once the sun rises; it’s a shroud of safety over their words.

“It wasn’t really, I didn’t know any different. Life’s simple out here, there’s nothing to really worry about besides the harvest. You eat what you grow and everyone pitches in, as long as you’ve got food on the table and a roof over your head you’re happy.”

Arthur frowns, imagining what that would be like; to get up each day and have to work for your meal later than night, toiling in the fields, running errands around town. It sounds exhausting.

“Sounds… nice?” He manages, cringing at how halfhearted his answer sounds.

Merlin giggles. “You’d hate it.”

“No doubt.”

Arthur frowns, turning over Merlin’s words in his mind. Regardless of how he would feel about village life, Merlin speaks of it with a kind fondness, with the affection one would show a close friend or family member.

“Why did you leave?”

Merlin sighs. “I liked it here, but I was never comfortable.”

“What do you mean?”

“I dunno,” Merlin tries to shrug off the conversation. Arthur isn’t willing to concede so easily. Curiosity is itching at the back of his mind, a strange desire to understand the inner workings of Merlin.

Arthur stretches his neck to look down at him, poking Merlin’s face with his foot until he shoves it out of the way with a huff of amused exasperation.

“Come on, stop pretending to be interesting,” he teases. He’s almost sure that through the darkness he can see Merlin smile.

After a long pause Merlin answers.

“I was always too different, too much to handle...”

He thinks of when he first met Merlin. How he was loud, abrasive and rough on the edges; ready to fight without hesitation when Arthur hinted at a challenge. Was that something he learned in Ealdor? Defend yourself first, worry about the consequences later.

“I just didn’t fit in, I wanted to find somewhere I did.”

Arthur’s stomach does something confusing. “Had any luck?”

“Not sure yet,” Merlin replies. His answer is more honest than Arthur was expecting but it’s still not the answer he was hoping for.

The conversation closes naturally and within minutes Arthur hears Merlin’s breaths slow and grow even as he slips into an easy slumber.

The next day starts with sun streaming through the windows, rousing everyone as the day begins. Merlin goes to fetch wood, while Gwen and Morgana seek the women of the village to gather intel, leaving Arthur alone in Hunith’s home doing his best to put away their bedding. He should leave the job to Merlin, but Arthur will need his help later for teaching the men to fight — or as Arthur had teased earlier, he will need an example of what not to do in battle. He had received a hearty glare in return.

Hunith walks into the cottage, her arms laden with a basket full of clean tunics, drenched from the wash.

“Can you help with hanging these out— oh!” She stops short when she lays eyes on Arthur and curtsies as best she can. “Apologies, Sire. I thought Merlin was here.”

He waves her off with a smile. “Don’t worry. I’m happy to help, if you’d like?”

It’s a surprise to Arthur even as he says it, but truly, he wouldn’t mind helping Hunith. She’s a lovely woman and she’s been kind enough to extend her home to him, Morgana and Gwen when there’s barely enough space for just Merlin. It’s the least he can do.

“Oh no, I couldn’t ask you to do that, Sire. You’re a prince.”

“Are you sure Merlin’s your son?” He laughs, getting to his feet and taking the basket from Hunith before she can protest any further.

At Hunith’s astonished look he adds. “Believe me, your son is in my employment and he doesn’t bother with respecting titles, you are under no obligation to do so.”

Hunith ducks her head to hide her smile and gestures for Arthur to follow her out the back door.

Hunith leads Arthur over to a long piece of rope tied between two trees in the yard. He puts the basket between them and looks up at it, a little unsure about how to proceed.

“I do hope Merlin isn’t too poorly behaved,” Hunith says, taking the topmost tunic and pegging it to the line.

Arthur laughs, he copies her and takes another item — one of Merlin’s tunics — and tries to drape it over the line.

“He’s not so bad. Awful at his job though.” The tunic somehow manages to snag and twist itself into a lump of fabric. He stares at it in concern. “I don’t really mind… but don’t tell him I said that.”

Hunith smiles fondly, smile lines wrinkling around her warm eyes.

“It can be our secret,” she promises with a wink. The mottled bruising around her eye does nothing to detract from the immense kindness Hunith holds in her expression. She might be the nicest person Arthur has ever met. Not that he has had the pleasure of much genuinely compassionate company, most of his acquaintances are raised to upturn their noses and consider themselves of the highest regard. Arthur thinks that he would consider Hunith to be one of the best people he knows regardless. How she produced someone like Merlin is beyond him.

She takes the tunic from him with a poorly hidden chuckle and straightens it out before pegging it up.

“Why don’t you handle the scarves and smaller items?”

They pass the time comfortably, Arthur asks questions about Ealdor and does his best not to arse up the chore too badly as they talk. Hunith shares the tales of her life happily and Arthur listens with rapture. She was born and raised in Ealdor, and she shares that she’s never wanted to be anywhere else. She doesn’t mention Merlin’s father and Arthur doesn’t ask; but she does tell him all about Merlin as a mischievous little boy who was always getting into all sorts of terrible trouble.

And it’s nice. It’s easy to understand what Merlin meant when he said that life in Ealdor is simple and comfortable. It’s easy to settle into.

~-~-~

Will notices Merlin across the field. He’s stepping his way through the woods on the edge of the village, axe swinging in hand. It’s simultaneously wonderful to have Merlin back in Ealdor and incredibly painful. He’s missed him dreadfully, but it’s obvious he’s not here to stay, and his princely accessory is a grating presence.

Will jogs to catch up with Merlin, calling out his name and struggling not to smile when he spins around in that dazed clumsy way he always has, tipped too far to one side and almost toppling sideways.

“Where are you off to with that thing?”

Merlin pulls a bemused expression and continues further into the woods with Will by his side.

“What’s it look like? We need wood.”

Will scoffs. “We both know that you don’t need an axe to cut down a tree.”

“Yeah, and I remember the trouble that got me in.” He nudges Will with his shoulder. “I nearly flattened old man Simmonds.”

Will blows a raspberry. “He deserved it, stupid old crone.”

Merlin hums, looking up contemplatively as he battles a winning smile.

“He never did like me all that much.”

“Even less after that,” Will smirks.

An uncomfortable silence stretches over them. It never used to be like this, but every time Will looks at Merlin all he can think about is how Merlin left, and the pain he’s brought back with him.

“Why are you being like this?” Merlin frowns at him, just as uncomfortable with their dynamic as Will is. His nose is wrinkled in that way Will knows to mean he’s frustrated, like Will is behaving like a pest.

Will scowls. He remembers the sting in his heart as he watched Merlin leave, never once turning back or lingering, set on his journey to Camelot. He treated Ealdor, Will, like an old coat that was finally being discarded, shrugging them off for new and better things.

“You know why,” he mutters, sitting on a log and staring out over the village.

Merlin hesitates before settling himself on the log beside him. In the corner of his eye Will can see the patient and saddened way he’s studying him, waiting for Will to continue.

“Why did you leave?” He asks finally. They never really spoke about it, they were too swept up in what Merlin leaving meant for them, for their relationship. Will told him why he wanted Merlin to stay, and Merlin told him why he wanted Will to come; but never why Merlin was leaving in the first place.

Merlin sighs, his fingers twitch anxiously as he tugs at the fabric of his trousers.

“I needed more, I needed to get out… I didn’t know who I was anymore.” Will frowns, finally turning to face Merlin properly, taking in the uncomfortable stiffness in his shoulders, the determined way he’s staring at the floor.

“What do you mean?”

“I’ve never been able to control my magic, you know that. It was getting too dangerous, and I felt like there was this massive part of me that I couldn’t explain, couldn’t control. My mother was worried and when she found out you knew she was furious…”

Will hunches in on himself defensively. He always thought Merlin’s magic was wonderful, an explosion of gold eyes and sparks that were uncontainable and bright. He looks at home when he uses his magic, like during normal life he’s forever holding his breath, but when he lets his magic reign free, he can breathe. He is a dazzling spectacle of endless possibilities. It was an honour just to witness it.

“I wouldn’t have told anyone.”

“Well I know you wouldn’t!” Merlin snaps. He stops with an irritated huff and visibly collects himself, smoothing his shoulders down and unclenching his white knuckled fists, pulling his wild emotions back into order. “It just wasn’t safe here.”

“But Camelot is so safe?” Will retorts, lathering his words with sarcasm. He’s frustrated, and his anger feels like thorns lodged deep into his skin. He knows Camelot, knows its laws, Merlin is no safer there than he was at home; and at least at home he was with Will and his mother.

“At least there I have someone who can teach me.” He looks at Will imploringly. “I’m getting better. I can do things I never could before.”

It’s obvious from the look on Merlin’s face that this is important to him. Will wants to be supportive, he truly does, but something about Merlin’s words strikes a chord in him. He saw Merlin’s power before he learnt to control it, if he’s more powerful than that he would be unstoppable to a mortal man.

“You’d be able to defeat Kanen on your own wouldn’t you?” He asks softly.

Merlin frowns at the sudden change in topic, shrinking into the protective cover of his neckerchief and shrugging helplessly.

“I’m not sure… probably.”

“So what’s stopping you?”

“Arthur.” Merlin answers simply.

In one word Merlin identifies the reason Will is so vexed. He has desperately been trying to bury it deep in his subconscious. But there is one true reason for why Will has been feeling uneasy around Merlin.

Arthur.

Merlin looks at Arthur like the sun shines from his arse, like he’s wonderful. He smiles at the prince as if he’s truly comfortable, at ease and relaxed. His posture loosens, his arms drape casually. He stands with Arthur like he stands with Will, like he’s a friend, like maybe he’s more than that. Arthur will say something to Merlin and he will laugh, open-mouthed and loud, not bothering to hold in his giggles and not ashamed to be wild. He grins with that full beam of happiness that Will used to draw out of him.

It hurts. Even though it shouldn’t. He feels a cold squeeze around his heart every time he sees Merlin look at Arthur even though he has no right to. It’s worse when Merlin thinks no one is watching, that’s when he looks at Arthur like he’s golden, like he’s glowing.

It’s selfish, he knows that. He always knew Merlin would move on, and he was always comfortable with that. Hell, he barely feels that way about Merlin himself anymore. He just always hoped that he would be the best, not just the first. Will can’t live up to a prince.

Will can’t help but wonder if Arthur makes Merlin happy enough to ignite his magic. He’s always loved how when Merlin was happy, really happy, little wildflowers would spring up around his feet. His joy could bring springtime; but could Arthur create that joy?

What makes it worse is that Arthur doesn’t seem to care for Merlin the way Merlin cares for him. Will told Merlin that Arthur would willingly sacrifice Merlin if it meant saving his own neck, and he meant it. Men like Arthur will never prioritise a servant over themself. Men like Arthur don’t deserve Merlin’s loyalty.

“So what if Arthur finds out?” Will demands, fists clenching by his sides.

Merlin stands, trying to wiggle his way out of the conversation, turning his back on Will.

“I don’t expect you to understand.”

“Try me!” Will hates the insinuation that he wouldn’t understand Merlin. He has always understood Merlin. Even when he hates his reasoning and he wants to shake him until he sees sense, he understands.

Merlin stops in place, his shoulders bunch by his ears and his spine tenses into a tight line.

He whirls around.

“One day Arthur will be a great king, but he needs my help.” Merlin heaves a deep breath, his chest shakes with the effort of keeping himself together. “And if anyone, ever, found out about my magic I’d have to leave Camelot for good.”

Will lets out a breathy laugh of disbelief. Frustration bubbles in his lungs, boiling at the idea that Arthur, Camelot, is worth risking his family over. He almost doesn’t recognise Merlin, and it makes him livid.

“Are you telling me that you’d rather keep your magic a secret for Arthur’s sake, than use it to protect your friends and family?”

Merlin doesn’t say yes. He just looks at Will.

But he doesn’t say no either, and maybe that says everything.

~-~-~

It takes Merlin more than a couple of hours to escape the intense training regime Arthur has created for the men of Ealdor. In that time he’s been reduced to a glorified practice dummy for Arthur’s advice on how to parry, block and land blows on one's opponents.

Merlin groans as he lowers himself into a chair at his mother’s kitchen table, after a whole day of being victim to Arthur’s strikes, he feels like he’s just one large bruise.

Arthur laughs, clapping him on the shoulder amiably and grinning down at him. Merlin hisses in pain as the friendly slap manages to somehow strike pain in his entire shoulder.

“Have a quick rest, then meet me outside for a tactical meeting,” Arthur instructs, walking out of the room before Merlin has a chance to respond.

“Prat,” Merlin mutters, letting his head drop forward onto the table.

His mother laughs from the back of the room.

“You shouldn’t speak that way about a prince, it’s treason,” she scolds lightly.

He smothers his grin into the table, his mother doesn’t know the half of it — assuming Gaius hasn’t written to her.

“He cares for you a great deal,” she says with a false air of detachment, hardly concealing a knowing edge that lilts under her words.

Merlin lifts his head to look at her curiously, trying to decipher the soft look on her face.

“Arthur would do the same for any village, that’s just the way he is.”

It’s not a lie. Arthur is just naturally good. He’s a prat, and he’s terrible at expressing himself to the point Merlin thinks he might be emotionally constipated; but at his very core he wants to do the right thing. Merlin’s almost certain that if Arthur could give every needy person within Camelot’s walls a home and a full stomach he would do it in a heartbeat.

His mother shakes her head, looking at him almost sadly.

“It’s more than that!” She insists. “He’s here for you.”

Merlin’s heart skips a beat, a happy little jump that he couldn’t hope to interpret.

“I’m just his servant,” he argues. He doesn’t dare believe his mother’s words, no matter how much he cares for Arthur, it is a one sided friendship.

Hunith rolls her eyes like she’s never believed anything less.

“Give him more credit than that, he likes you.”

Merlin smiles bitterly. He thinks of Will’s words, his warning that Arthur would leave running the second he discovers the truth; and even worse, that Merlin knows he is completely right.

“That’s because he doesn’t know me. If he did I’d probably be dead by now.”

Hunith falters, a heavy frown wrinkling her kind face.

“You don’t really believe that do you?”

Merlin can’t meet her eyes. The truth of the matter is, he doesn’t know what Arthur would do. For Arthur to know Merlin’s secret, and to protect him, would mean disobeying his father, forcing him to make an impossible choice. Merlin won’t put him in that position.

“I don’t know,” he answers eventually, still staring at the floor.

The sounds of men gathering outside draws his attention and he gratefully uses the excuse to escape.

“I have to go, Arthur really will have my head if I’m late to this meeting,” he mumbles, glancing at his mother quickly before leaving the room. Her expression is sympathetic, a downturned frown with soft eyes as she looks at Merlin. It makes something twang painfully in Merlin’s chest and he turns and leaves before she can say anything else.

The men gather around Arthur like moths to a light, like he is their beacon of hope and that just being close to him will give them strength. He’s pacing, face screwed up in an expression Merlin now recognises as one of intense concentration.

“We’re not going to defeat Kanen with sword and sinew alone. We need a plan. We need to find a way to limit their mobility.”

Arthur is halfway through explaining the plan when a blood curdling scream interrupts him. It tears through the air. A piercing sound of hoarse, raw pain that scrapes along Merlin’s eardrums, leaving the group standing in horrified silence.

Arthur and Merlin take off at the same time, running out into the field in pursuit of the sound.

It’s a woman screaming, her eyes on a horse riding into the village with Matthew’s body strewn over it. He flops lifelessly over the horse’s careening back.

“Get him down from there,” Arthur commands. A group of men follow his instruction, lifting Matthew’s corpse from the steed, lowering him to the ground.

An arrow is jammed in the small of his back, dripping blood in long disgusting rivulets down his spine and onto the ground, staining his clothes and the dirt beneath him dark red. Merlin presses a hand over his mouth to keep himself from dry heaving over the cobbled ground.

There is a note pierced through the arrow and Arthur kneels down to gently retrieve it from Matthew’s dead body.

“What does it say?” Merlin manages to ask, though it feels like his throat has closed.

Arthur closes his eyes against his misery.

“Make the most of this day, for it shall be your last,” he reads quietly.

A woman breaks through the crowd with an anguished scream, throwing herself over Matthew’s body and sobbing. His wife, his sister, Merlin isn’t sure, but her heartbreak is chilling, raw and wretched, her sobs tear from her throat like they are forcing their way out. He looks away, he can’t bear it.

“You did this!” Will shouts, shoving his way forward until he’s standing in front of Matthew. He observes the scene with a horrified shudder, before turning back to Arthur, a livid glare burning in his eyes. “Look what you’ve done! You’ve killed him!”

Arthur’s face breaks Merlin’s heart. His jaw drops open and his eyes sink in defeat and grief, mourning a man he barely knew and blaming himself for the loss.

“It wasn’t his fault,” Merlin steps to Arthur’s defence immediately.

“It is,” Will insists, pointing at Arthur like he’s the devil. “If he hadn’t been strutting around and treating us like his own personal army this never would have happened.”

“I want to help,” Arthur manages, Merlin can hear the strangled quality of his voice, forced around thick emotion that jams in his throat.

“You’ve made everything worse, can’t you see that?” Will gestures to Matthew and the woman, clutching her loved one and sobbing into his lifeless shoulder.

“These men are strong enough to fight for what they believe in, even if you aren’t,” Arthur shouts, grief transforming into fury as Will provokes him.

Will steps back, looking at Arthur with undisguised revulsion.

“You’re sending them to their graves. You’ve already killed one man, how many more need to die before you realise this is a battle that can’t be won?”

Arthur collapses in on himself, his expression first crumbles with despair, before smoothing into an unreadable and hollow mask.

“That’s enough!” Merlin jumps in before Will can say anymore.

Will looks at him, his eyes glazed with betrayal and fury, before storming off towards his cottage.

Merlin falters, looking first at Arthur still paralysed after Will’s tirade, and then at Will’s retreating back. He hurries after his friend, resolving to comfort Arthur later.

Will doesn’t look up as Merlin enters, continuing to shove his belongings into a well worn sack.

“Don’t bother Merlin, I’m not interested.”

“Well I don’t give a shit, because you should be. Whether you like it or not, Kanen is going to attack tomorrow and we’re going to have to fight.”

”I won’t if I’m not here,” Will retorts, still refusing to offer even a glance in Merlin’s direction.

Merlin laughs drily. “Well that’s up to you but the rest of us are staying.”

He feints walking away and almost slumps under the weight of his disappointment as Will continues to prepare to leave.

“Join us,” Merlin pleads. “This isn’t about Arthur, or nobility. This is about Ealdor. This is about your friends, are you really going to abandon them?”

Will slams the tunic he was struggling with down on the table and finally looks at Merlin. His jaw is clenched in a stubborn line, and Merlin flinches under the weight of the burning fury in his eyes.

“What, like you did?”

Merlin squares his shoulders, trying desperately to build armour around his vulnerable heart. He can’t face the thoughts that Will’s words threaten to uncover.

“I’m here now.”

Will makes a scornful noise. “Yeah… yeah you are and you could end this. If you used your magic, no one else would get hurt. No one else would have to die.”

Merlin’s heart gives a painful tug at the harsh truth he’s been doing his best to ignore since he saw Matthew’s body sprawled limply over that horse.

“You know I can’t,” he manages to mumble.

“Can’t or won’t?” He asks bitterly, he leaves the question on Merlin’s shoulders until he squirms, guilt striking him in sharp lashes.

Will scoffs. “I just hope your ‘precious prince’ is worth it,” he spits coldly, sneering at the title and looking pointedly at Merlin, before he resumes packing.

“What?”

“Prince Arthur,” Will answers shortly. “Don’t act coy about it now, it really doesn’t suit you.”

“Act coy about—”

“You two—” Will tips his head with scorn, and then meshes his fingers together in a crude gesture. “—together. It’s obvious.”

Merlin splutters, eyes going wide as an owl as he realises what Will is insinuating.

“Don’t be ridiculous. Arthur isn’t— we’re not— it’s not like that.”

Will sends Merlin an incredulous and unamused expression that covers his face like a mask.

“Right,” he drawls disbelievingly. “Sure it’s not.”

He shoulders his satchel and looks wearily at Merlin with a frustrated glare that speaks volumes louder than their entire conversation, and yet one that Merlin can’t entirely understand. It oozes with frustration, mistrust and most painfully: disappointment.

“I’m not the one abandoning these people Merlin, you are.”

~-~-~

Arthur flexes his hand, curling it into a fist, then stretches it out into a splayed position and repeats the motion. He watches the movement with blood rushing in his ears, while his eyes go in and out of focus. Every time he blinks the image Matthew’s dead body flashes in his mind, burnt into the back of his eyelids. He knows he wasn’t the one who killed him, his hand didn’t hold the bow, his fingers didn’t release the arrow; but he blames himself. The guilt is heavy and thick, lining his stomach like bricks, weighing him into the ground.

He feels Merlin sit beside him, their calves brush together and shoulders bump as he situates himself. Arthur doesn’t say anything to acknowledge him, he just hunches his shoulders and waits for Merlin to speak.

“Will’s father was killed fighting for King Cenred… so he doesn’t trust anyone of nobility.”

It breaks the silence and manages to cut through the frenzied spiral of Arthur’s internal monologue in a fell swoop. It makes perfect sense, and it explains William’s animosity towards Arthur from the moment he arrived. Nonetheless the sting of Will’s words, and the fear that he is leading Ealdor to their doom isn’t alleviated; but it is eased somewhat by Merlin’s explanation.

“Do you think the villagers believed him?” He asks, voice coming out quieter than he intended.

Merlin laughs softly. “Nah. He’s always been a troublemaker, they’re used to ignoring him.”

“And if he’s right?” Arthur asks, unable to hide the insecurity itching at the inside of his skin.

He stares directly ahead, unable to meet Merlin’s intense blue eyes, but he can see Merlin’s head snap to look at him from the very edges of his vision.

“He isn’t,” he answers.

He’s so confident it makes Arthur’s chest ache. He doesn’t doubt Arthur at all. Merlin is so trusting it’s like he was built from layers of sincerity, like if Arthur were to look into him he would see only kindness. It’s admirable, and dangerous.

“I’m treating these men like soldiers, and they’re not.” Arthur blurts out, trying to explain the hesitation he feels to Merlin. “You’ve seen them fight, they haven’t got a clue. I don’t know what I was thinking…”

“You were thinking that we need to stand up for our home, and you were right.”

Arthur shakes his head, fear and distrust still a cumbersome burden across his shoulders.

“We need to tell them to flee the village before Kanen’s men arrive.”

“No,” Merlin stops him before he can cement the plan into his mind. “We’re going to stay, we’re going to fight, and we’re going to win.”

“Merlin.” Arthur turns to face Merlin finally, meeting his steady and unfaltering stare. “It can’t be done.”

“It can,” Merlin stands firm. His jaw is clenched and unshakeable, his blue eyes never waver from Arthur’s; stubborn and steadfast as a mule, he looks like he could take on Kanen’s men alone and emerge from the fight.

They’re so close their shoulders are pressed together, it’s as warm and reassuring as Merlin’s words. It’s another thing Arthur has noticed about Merlin, he’s incredibly tactile. He doesn’t hesitate to bump Arthur with his shoulder, or jab him in the ribs with his elbows. When Arthur needs support he’s there by his side. Merlin is generous with his touch in a way Arthur has never, and can never, be.

Princes are taught to keep their distance. To keep their hands by their side, to not get too close. Any touch could be misconstrued as blessing, disapproving, or encouraging an action. A friendly touch of a visiting princess’ shoulder becomes a romantic advance, a clap to another kingdom’s knight’s back is a provocation. Everything Arthur does is a political advancement.

Not with Merlin though, with Merlin it’s easy, it doesn’t mean anything.

“We’re going to make Kanen rue the day he ever came to this village,” Merlin promises. Arthur can tell by the twinkle in his blue eyes that he truly believes it. “All you need to do is get the men ready for battle, the rest will take care of itself.”

“How?” Arthur demands.

Merlin shrugs. “You’ve just got to believe in them. If you don’t they’ll sense it and the battle will be lost before it’s even begun.”

“I don’t know if I can,” Arthur admits softly. He feels weak, so nervous it’s eating him from the inside, everything his father has taught him not to be.

How can I show them I believe in them when I don’t even believe in myself? He doesn’t speak the sentiment out loud, but Merlin’s eyes soften like he heard it.

“That’s fine,” Merlin says with a small smile. “I’ll believe enough for the both of us.”

~-~-~

The entire village rallies in the old barn late that night. A fire casts a warm glow over the room and softens the buzzing atmosphere of the crowd. Merlin watches from the edge of the congregation as Arthur stands in the centre of the room, looking over the people of the village who eagerly await his instruction.

This is Merlin’s village, his family and hometown, his mother, but at this moment they are rallied behind Arthur.

“Tomorrow morning the women and children will gather what belongings they can carry and wait in the woods, it will be safer there,” Arthur is explaining when Gwen steps forward and interrupts him

“We’re not going anywhere,” she says, tipping her chin defiantly in a way that is reminiscent of Morgana but also wholly her own strength.

Arthur blinks in surprise.

Merlin knows this has been an ongoing argument between Arthur, Morgana and Gwen since they arrived; and privately Merlin thinks the girls are right. They are adamant they should stay to fight, while Arthur would rather the women flee to safety and bide their time until the attack is over and the village is safe once more.

“I know you want to help, but the women can’t stay here,” Arthur tries to argue, shifting nervously on his feet as Gwen scowls. “It’s too dangerous.”

“The women have as much right to fight for their lives as the men do,” Gwen retorts with stubborn belief in her tone.

“None of you know how to fight.”

“The more of us there are the better chance we stand,” Gwen says firmly. She waits for Arthur to argue and when he remains silent she ploughs on. “Tell me I’m wrong and we’ll go.”

Arthur visibly digests the information, looking around the room at the women gathered, as strong and capable as any man.

He nods, managing to make eye contact with every woman in the room and showing that he trusts her.

“This is your home. If you want to fight to defend it, that’s your choice. I’d be honoured to stand alongside you.”

Merlin watches in awe as the leader he knows Arthur to be shines in the glow of the fire. His spine straightens, his eyes blaze and his chin tips high, supporting the crown he will one day wear.

“Tomorrow, Kanen attacks. He is brutal, he fights only to kill.”

Everyone shifts anxiously, completely silent but humming with nervous energy that reverberates against the walls of the room.

“Which is why he’ll never defeat us,” Arthur continues determinedly.

Arthur marches around the circle that has formed around him, gazing at each individual and rallying them together.

“We have something Kanen will never understand. Look around. In this circle we are all equals. You’re not fighting because someone’s ordering you to, you’re fighting for something much more important than that.”

The light catches on Arthur’s hair in a golden circlet around his head. He looks dignified, a monumental force that is untouchable and transcends the very ground they walk on. But equally, he looks tangible, grounded in the Earth and as much a part of the village as every person in the room. It’s breathtaking to behold.

“You’re fighting for your homes. You’re fighting for your family. And if you fall, you fall fighting for the noblest of causes, fighting for your very right to survive!”

The room holds its breath as a collective, and exhales as one.

“And when you’re old and grey you’ll look back on this day and you’ll know you earned the right to live every day in between.”

Arthur looks at Merlin, a confident blaze in his blue eyes. He is mesmerising like this, strong, powerful, the epitome of a leader.

“So you fight! For your family. For your friends. For Ealdor!”

Arthur holds his sword in the air, a call to arms that is matched by the entire village. The room is alive, like a bolt of lightning is striking the Earth where they stand.

“For Ealdor!”

~-~-~

Anxiety keeps Merlin wide awake. He listens to the soft sounds of night that settle over Ealdor. Unlike Camelot, Ealdor is near silent once night falls, only broken by the distant sounds of owls and wildlife in the nearby forest.

Merlin takes comfort in Arthur’s soft rhythmic breathing beside him, slow and deep in sleep.

“Morgana?” Gwen whispers, her soft voice cutting through the air.

Morgana hums an acknowledgement, equally soft in the quiet night. Merlin listens quietly to their soft breaths, grateful for the opportunity to listen to something besides his own thoughts.

“Do you think we stand a chance?” Gwen asks anxiously. Merlin can imagine her fingers fretting with the rough blanket Hunith provided nervously.

Morgana doesn’t say anything for a long stretch, there’s a rustle and Gwen makes a happy noise so Merlin presumes she’s reached over to take Gwen’s hand.

“I think there’s nothing we can do now but try. We have every chance, we just have to believe in ourselves now.”

Quiet falls over the room again, and Gwen breaks it once more.

“Arthur spoke well tonight.”

When Morgana speaks again Merlin can hear a proud smile in her voice.

“He did. That’s why I think we have a chance. Arthur doesn’t do anything he doesn’t believe in.”

“Why do you think he came here?” Gwen wonders.

“Same reason we did,” Morgana answers without hesitation. “Merlin.”

Merlin’s heart jumps, skipping happily against his chest. Something warm and pleasant hums through his body, fluttering in his stomach like a swarm of butterflies. It’s an indescribable feeling, and he doesn’t know what to make of it.

“Arthur may act like he doesn’t care, but he wouldn’t be here if he didn’t,” she adds, without a trace of doubt.

Morgana’s words linger in Merlin’s thoughts throughout the night and into the morning. They’re on his mind as he slips chainmail over his head and as he prepares Arthur’s armour for the battle. They refuse to leave his mind, sticking stubbornly to his thoughts, taunting every spare moment.

He lifts Arthur’s breastplate, using the weight of the armour to ground him. He’s halfway across the room to Arthur when Arthur dismisses him.

“No, not today,” he says, taking the breastplate and beginning to dress himself. “Put on your own.”

The table of armour looms over Merlin. He’s never done anything like this before. Thick lumps of fear obstruct his throat, making it difficult to breathe. He swallows it down, along with the nerves that bubble in his stomach. His hands wobble as he picks up the heavy armour, hoisting it over his head and clasping it into place. He fumbles with the clasp of a wrist brace. It’s strangely difficult to dress himself, the buckle slips through his fingers and his nails catch in the loops of chain mail. When he dresses Arthur, it’s second nature, but now, on himself, he feels inexperienced, like he’s never done such a task before. He feels Arthur’s eyes on him, watching him struggle with the stupid armour, but Merlin doesn’t see him step closer until Arthur’s fingers are batting his away and his hands circle Merlin’s wrists.

Arthur’s fingers are strong and confident as they fasten the armour in place. Merlin’s heart thunders against the cool chainmail. He ducks his head, his cheeks are flushed, and he’s hyper aware of how close they are standing. Arthur’s fingers brush the back of his hand as they adjust the tightness of the armour. It clicks as it falls into place.

“You ready?” Arthur asks, squeezing Merlin’s shoulder gently. Merlin’s neck jerks as he looks up, meeting Arthur’s friendly gaze.

“My throat’s dry,” Merlin admits instead of answering the question properly. His legs are wobbling, knees knocking together, and his entire body is trembling with nerves and adrenaline.

Arthur smiles earnestly, his eyes are creased around the edges and hold a warmth that Merlin could melt under.

“Me too.”

Merlin nods, smiling shakily back at Arthur.

“I’m nervous.”

Arthur chuckles drily. “I’d be more concerned if you weren’t.”

Merlin watches Arthur fiddling anxiously with the edge of his chainmail. He’s obviously thinking about something, his eyebrows are twitching in contemplation and his mouth is pinched tightly.

He unexpectedly holds out an arm for Merlin to take and looks deeply at him with firm but warm eyes. With a rough swallow Merlin takes the outstretched hand, clasping Arthur’s elbow tightly, receiving a friendly squeeze to his forearm in return.

Merlin’s face is warm and his heart is beating twice as fast as usual, a clamour of frantic exhilaration in his chest. Still, he doesn’t look away from Arthur.

“It’s been an honour,” Arthur says seriously, offering Merlin a sincere smile.

Merlin returns the expression, chest warming at the earnestness of Arthur’s expression. He is still terrified. His heart drums anxiously at the thought of what they’re about to face, but it’s reassuring to have Arthur there with him.

“Likewise.”

Memories of Morgana the night before are swept away in the blue of Arthur’s eyes, quickly replaced with the knowledge of the day to come and what he plans to do.

His mother had warned him against it, refusing to let him risk his position in Camelot for her, or Ealdor; but Will was right. If Merlin let anyone get hurt, knowing he could do something to help, he might as well have abandoned the village. However, it would be a terrible way to reveal himself to Arthur.

Arthur releases his arm and finishes preparing for battle but Merlin’s thoughts are launched into a crusade against his emotions. The silence between them is tearing him apart, if this is the last time he sees Arthur he wants to make the most of it.

“Whatever happens out there today, just promise you won’t see me any differently?” He begs, voice bordering on frantic as Arthur looks over his shoulder at him.

“I won’t. It’s alright to be scared, Merlin.”

Merlin nods.

Merlin could tell him. He could loosen his tongue, release the words that shove painfully at the borders of his mind, be out and done with them. If Arthur witnesses his magic there will be no excuses that could shield him from the truth. Merlin should just tell him.

He doesn’t.

~-~-~

The battle is a cacophony of noise that beats at Merlin’s ears; horrified screams overlap with the furious shouts of Kanen’s men, metal rings as swords and axes meet, while horses rear and bray. They had cornered Kanen’s men in a small part of the town square, blocking the exits with carts and fencing to better their chances. As Arthur had suggested, they needed to meet the barbarians on their own ground, forcing them into a small area to catch them off guard. It was a good plan and at first, it was effective.

Merlin moves through the battlefield clumsily. He’s not skilled with a sword, he knows enough to be considered adequate, but little enough that Arthur had taken one look at his technique, grimaced, and demanded Merlin stay close to him for the entirety of the battle.

He keeps one eye on Arthur at all times, blocking blows from Kanen’s men and staying close by his side to ensure their protection. Whenever he gets a chance he disarms the men with a flash of golden eyes, careful to ensure Arthur is looking the other way. It’s exhilarating, it’s wild, it’s terrifying.

There’s a crash behind Merlin and he whirls around to see Will tackling a bandit away. He stands with an impish grin.

“I didn’t think you were coming!” Merlin shouts over the clamour of battle.

Will shrugs. “Neither did I.”

“Merlin!” Arthur shouts, diving in front of an axe swinging at Merlin’s head, to block it with his sword. “Less chit chat and more protecting your arse,” Arthur grunts, but his attempt to sound frustrated is dampened as he nervously scans over Merlin for injuries.

“Yes, Sire!” Merlin replies cheekily, grinning at Will who is eying them with something akin to surprise and wonder.

They fall into the rhythm of battle once more; dodging attacks, scraping away from weapons and watching over their shoulders. Merlin’s breaths are loud in his ears, halting gasps as a sword swings too close to his stomach and pants as he pushes through thick exhaustion. Sweat beads on his forehead and drips down the back of his neck but he doesn’t dare stand still long enough to wipe it.

They’re losing. Around them, both men and women fall to Kanen and his men. Merlin’s eyes scan over injured villagers, who wail as they fall to the floor or desperately try to flee to safe harbours. The cackles of Kanen’s men ring in his ears like the clang of bells and their weapons leave trails of blood and sinew in their wake. Merlin watches with horror as his friends and neighbours run to safety clutching blood soaked sides and screaming in agony and chilling fear.

The world slows.

Merlin watches as around him villagers fall. People he grew up with, the baker from across the way, his neighbour since the day he was born, the girl who once gave him flowers when he was sick. All fighting and falling for their home, for Ealdor.

Kanen’s men are ruthless, barbaric. They show no mercy and they won’t stop until the entire village lays at their feet. The clash of their weapons rings in Merlin’s ears, the clatter of horse hooves against cobbled ground drums against his chest.

“There’s too many of them,” Will says breathlessly, a hopeless expression shattering his face.

Merlin takes a deep breath.

“Not for me.”

His heart is thundering in his chest, louder than the horses, the knives, the shouting and the screams. The town is like a hurricane, the collision of weapons are the deafening din of thunder, the screams are wind whipping through trees, but Merlin is the eye of the storm, completely calm. He thought he would be a war of indecision and anxiety, but in the face of an impossible choice he knows what he needs to do, he can’t be doubtful, he needs to have faith for Ealdor.

Merlin looks at Arthur.

This is his only regret. He knows what he needs to do, for his mother, for his village, for Ealdor. But doing this means Arthur will never let him remain by his side. He’ll lose him, forever.

Merlin blinks away the sting of tears in his eyes, swallowing the rough feeling in his throat. He closes his eyes, focusing on the surge of his magic rushing forward to the surface of his consciousness.

He lets it culminate, filling his chest and crackling in his fingertips, exploding once it can no longer be contained. The wind whistles as it catches the dirt on the ground and whisks it up, a heaving cloud of dust and gravel that storms through the air. With a flash of gold he steers it towards Kanen and his men, weaving it through the citizens of Ealdor, past Arthur and Morgana and Gwen, and instead barreling into the confused and wide eyed barbarians.

They scream as they’re torn from their horses. Merlin’s wind buffets them in every direction, pulling them away from the villagers, slamming their heads into walls with sickening cracks as they drop unconscious. He flings men from their horses, throws them into the paths of weapons. Merlin watches in sick fascination as the men scream in fear, he can’t stop until they’re gone, to never return. They run for their horses, tripping over their own feet in haste to escape. Merlin sends the wind after them as they flee for the forest, and the villagers shout jeers at their retreating backs.

There’s a moment of still. The entire village seems to hold their breath, before slowly exhaling as one with the shared realisation that they are safe. For the first time in years they will have a winter with full bellies, and they won’t waste their days glancing nervously over their shoulder and waiting for an attack. The victory tastes like sweet honey, and relief gives way to mounting joy as the entirety of Ealdor erupts in cheers. Gwen throws herself into Morgana’s arms with a happy shout. Hunith is embracing four other women as tears of joy stream down her face. Arthur glances around with a proud smile gleaming on his face, glittering in the morning sun.

Merlin sags into Will’s side, the adrenaline slumping from his body. Will grins, hugging him tight to his side, warm hands holding Merlin upright and so close Merlin can feel Will’s smile pressed against his own shoulder.

“Pendragon!” Kanen roars with burning fury igniting his voice, storming into the village towards Arthur and snapping Merlin back into focus.

He lunges at Arthur, sword drawn, but Arthur’s fast. He drops into an defensive stance, blocking the blow and dodges Kanen who lashes at him viciously. Arthur’s eyes glint with the thrill of battle, this is where he excels. He’s been trained to wield a sword since birth and it shows, the weapon is but another extension of him.

Kanen charges forward, forcing Arthur backwards. Their weapons strike with loud clanging sounds that fill the air. Kanen swings hard and Arthur feints left, parrying his sword and twisting it out of his grip. He slams the hilt of his sword into Kanen’s hand and it breaks with a sickening crack.

Arthur lunges, taking advantage of Kanen’s new defenceless state, he drives his sword forward, impaling Kanen with a sickening squelch. Kanen gasps, dropping to his knees, eyes bugging as Arthur wrenches the sword out of his body. The blade drips steadily with blood, creating a dark red puddle by Arthur’s feet.

He steps over the body apathetically, storming towards Merlin and Will with a dark expression clouding his face.

“Who did that?” Arthur asks furiously, teeth clenched and eyes blazing in a dangerous way.

Merlin’s throat feels very dry.

“What?” He asks, fumbling for time. He can feel his life in Camelot slipping through his fingers.

Arthur makes a sharp noise of frustration, glaring at Merlin as he comes to a stop just before the two of them. He’s close enough to touch but he has never felt so distant.

“Wind doesn’t just appear like that. I know magic when I see it. One of you made it happen.” Arthur looks between them, when his eyes fall on Merlin they’re edging on desperation, a furious need for the answer to not indict Merlin.

Will has the decency to shift sheepishly beside Merlin, glancing at him like he recognises that he goaded Merlin into this. Merlin wishes that was true, but even though Will encouraged him to use his magic, Merlin made this choice. He knew the risk, and now he has to face the consequences.

“Arthur…” Merlin starts, his voice scraping painfully along the line of his throat. Arthur’s eyes are all he can see, endless blue spanning the width of the entire world. He looks enraged, he looks violent, but mostly he just looks scared.

He’s only just finished forming his mouth around Arthur’s name when he’s interrupted.

“Look out!”

In the space of a blink Arthur is shoved to the side and Will is on the ground, an arrow jammed through the rungs of his ribs, just below his heart.

“Will!” Merlin doesn’t feel it as his knees slam into the floor. He can’t feel anything except the coursing of his blood through his veins, and the heavy pounding of his heart in his head. He cradles Will’s head, wide eyes scouring over his shaking body and pained expression.

“You saved my life,” Merlin hears Arthur gasp as he helps Merlin lift Will to his feet.

Will coughs around a weak chuckle.

“Yeah, don’t know what I was thinking.”

~-~-~

They carry William into the nearest house, the owner, a baker with a smear of blood over his temple, ushers them inside with a terrified look on his face. Merlin and Arthur carefully place Will onto the table. Arthur’s heart is beating an alarmed rhythm against his chest as he watches Merlin’s friend heave for air. He’s terrified for this man, who risked his life for him.

Will’s breathing is hoarse and ragged, each inhale is wet with blood that makes him cough. The dark red blood slowly seeps from the wound, pooling on the table, saturating the fabric of Will’s tunic.

“That’s twice now I’ve saved you,” Will chuckles, sending Arthur a grim smile. He jolts with pain and Merlin makes an aborted movement with his hands, like he moved to help but remembered there was nothing he could do.

“Twice?” Arthur asks hollowly.

“It was me,” Will grits out, he’s shaking so hard he looks like he might break into pieces. “I’m the one who used the magic.”

“Will don’t—” Merlin tries to speak but Will holds up a shaking hand to stop him.

Arthur looks up at him in shock. Merlin knew?

Merlin’s face is a battlefield of emotions, grief warring against horror. His lip trembles and his shocked eyes are filled with tears that have yet to fall.

Will makes a grim sound. “It’s alright Merlin. I won’t be alive long enough for anyone to do anything to me.”

Merlin inhales sharply, shaking his head. “No, no, don't say shit like that.”

“It’s true.”

Will turns his head away and back to Arthur just in time to miss the grief stricken expression that flashes over Merlin’s face like lightning in a storm.

“I did it. I used magic. I saw how hopeless things were becoming and I had to do something.”

He gasps, fingernails scraping uselessly at the wood beneath him as he scrabbles for purchase. He squeezes his eyes shut and shivers, unable to stop moving.

“You’re a sorcerer?” Arthur can’t help but ask, the words slip off his tongue almost unconsciously.

Will laughs grimly. “Yeah, what’re you going to do? Kill me?”

Arthur freezes, Will’s question is like a bucket of freezing water splashing over his head, bringing him to cold clarity.

His father has always taught him that sorcery is a sin of nature, the worst evil that a person could possess. Uther told him that sorcery digs deep into the hearts of men and turns them black as coal, leaving nothing but a husk of flesh, as soulless as a corpse.

Arthur knows to an extent his father’s views are wrong — the magic that cured Gwen’s father from the afanc’s plague couldn’t be evil, the ball of light that protected him in the cave had guided him to safety, that could not be evil. He just never thought that a sorcerer themself, the person wielding the magic could be anything but corrupt and cruel.

Will, who took a blow for Arthur, who is bleeding out on a baker's table, forces him to reassess that judgement. Why would a creature of evil save his life?

Will looks at Merlin, avoiding Arthur’s eyes even as he flicks anxiously between his friend and Arthur. He is afraid for Will, it is clear on Merlin’s face, but he doesn’t fear the arrow embedded in his friend’s chest, he’s scared of Arthur.

“No,” he answers honestly. “No, of course not.”

Will nods, trembling and hissing in agony through gritted teeth. His breaths are growing more laboured, every exhale barely leaves his lips before he gasps for another mouthful of air. His hair is plastered to his forehead, red and flushed with exertion as he struggles to keep himself breathing. Arthur swallows, he’s seen enough men die in battle to know that Will doesn’t have long left. He doesn’t need Arthur and the others gawking, he deserves a moment alone with his friend.

“You’re a good man, William,” Arthur says softly. He hesitates, fingers twitching by his side before reaching out a hand to squeeze Will’s shoulder amiably, careful not to jostle his injury.

He steers Morgana and Gwen from the room. Hunith squeezes Will’s hand once before following them out.

~-~-~

“I was right about him,” Will grits out the moment everyone has left. “Told you he was gonna get me killed.” A hacking cough cuts off his laugh but he smiles at Merlin all the same.

“You can’t do this to me Will, you can’t go,” Merlin gasps, tears gather in his eyes and slowly begin to trickle down his cheeks.

Will’s grip on his hand is a tight aching pressure, crushing his bones, but it’s a steady reminder he’s there, he’s still alive, Merlin wouldn’t trade it for anything.

Will’s face is sticky with sweat, eyes screwed shut as pain wracks through his body in jolting waves.

“Why did you do that?” Merlin asks softly, running his fingers through the knotted hair at the top of Will’s head. He doesn’t explain what he means exactly, he isn’t sure if he’s asking about saving Arthur, or taking the fall for Merlin’s magic, but Will answers all the same.

“You’re a great man, Merlin,” he smiles affectionately up at Merlin. “One day, you’re gonna be servant to a great king. Now you can still make that happen.”

Merlin sniffs, pulling his hand away from Will’s head to wipe away the tears steadily dripping down his face.

“Thanks to you.”

“Arthur makes you happy, Merlin,” Will says softly, his voice strained. “Promise me you’ll let yourself be happy?”

There’s weight behind his words, an inference that Merlin can’t miss. He swallows around the lump of tears pressing painfully at the base of his throat and nods.

“Yeah, I promise.”

“And stop being an idiot about it,” Will threatens, his knuckles whitening as he grips Merlin’s hand.

Merlin laughs wetly. “I’ll do my best.”

Will smiles, the air entering his lungs is rattling audibly with every breath he takes.

“I should’ve come to Camelot with you, like you wanted me to.” He tips his head to look at Merlin properly and Merlin chokes on a sob. “It’s been boring here without you. It’s good to see you again.”

Merlin smiles through his tears. “Yeah, you too.”

Will coughs, choking painfully on a wet sobbing noise.

“Merlin—” he groans, eyes going wide and desperate.

“You’re okay,” Merlin whispers uselessly, leaning forward and pressing a kiss to Will’s burning forehead. “You’re okay.”

Will’s hand goes lax in Merlin’s, his head lolls back onto the table.

He’s gone.

~-~-~

They gave Will a proper farewell, the entire village gathers to watch the flames dance around him and consume him slowly. It breaks Merlin’s heart to watch him go. The heat of the fire stings his eyes as he watches his friend burn, but he doesn’t look away, he stays until the elements welcome Will back into their arms.

He hears Arthur make his way to his side, hovering above him awkwardly like he doesn’t know what to do before lowering himself onto the grass beside Merlin.

“I’m sorry.”

Merlin nods. He doesn’t trust his voice just yet. He hasn’t spoken since Will left almost four hours ago.

“I know he was a good friend,” Arthur says softly.

It startles a soft laugh out of Merlin. Good friend doesn’t even begin to describe Will.

“The best,” he replies croakily.

He can see Arthur nod out of the corner of his eye, endearingly awkward, unsure how to help.

“Would you like some time off? To recover?” Arthur offers carefully.

Merlin shifts on the dirt to look at him properly, Arthur won’t meet his eyes, instead he’s staring at the grass as he pulls blades out with pinched fingers.

“Are you actually offering me time off?”

“Is that the wrong thing to do?”

Arthur’s eyes are so wide and his expression is so worried as his head snaps up to look at Merlin that Merlin instantly takes pity on him.

“No, it's lovely, thank you. I just… I don’t think time to myself, with nothing to do, is a good thing right now.”

Arthur nods. “That makes sense.”

Silence descends over them again. It’s not uncomfortable, just a quiet that settles into the carely left gap between them. Merlin can sense Arthur is building up to say something, and he leaves him the time to do so, focusing on Will and letting his grief sit heavily in his chest.

Finally Arthur speaks.

“You knew Will was a sorcerer, didn’t you?” He asks, the string of betrayal slipping into his words without meaning to.

Merlin blinks in surprise. “Yes.” A half lie.

“You should have told me,” Arthur frowns. “You know how dangerous sorcery is, you can’t keep something like this from me.”

Merlin’s heart's a heavy weight, sinking slowly into the ground to join Will.

“I’m sorry,” he says softly, a genuine apology for the lie he is telling, and for the lies he will continue to tell.

“It’s okay, just don’t do it again.”

Merlin doesn’t say he won’t, he already feels heavy with the lies he has told today, he can’t speak another, he fears it might break him.

Luckily Arthur doesn’t ask for the promise, instead he heaves himself to his feet, dusting dirt off his trousers and looks down at Merlin. He does a charming floundering action that Merlin’s coming to realise means he’s gearing up for some act outside of typical royal conduct. Sure enough, Arthur offers a hand to Merlin.

Hesitantly Merlin takes it. Arthur’s palms are rough with callouses from training and his hand is warm against Merlin’s cold fingers. He hauls Merlin to his feet, patting his arm stiffly before letting go and stepping away.

“I’m sorry, again,” he says, walking away to where Morgana and Gwen are gathering their supplies.

Merlin isn’t left alone for long, his mother approaches slowly, wrapping her arms around Merlin and letting him slump into her embrace. He falls to pieces in her arms, tears soaking the fabric of her tunic. He breathes in her familiar scent, lets himself relax in her arms. The loss of Will is like a weight over him, it crushes his shoulders and grinds his bones to dust.

His mother holds him together, her kind hands keep the pieces of him in place and she strokes his back until his shakes turn into gentle tremors, and then he grows still.

Once he’s ready he stands, sniffling and scrubbing away tears with the heels of his hands.

“You’d better be going,” Hunith says softly, stroking Merlin’s arms gently.

He looks into his mother’s warm eyes and wishes desperately he didn’t have to leave her.

“I don’t have to go,” he says hoarsely, despite what he said to Arthur. He feels like he should stay, for Will’s memory, even though Will would never want him to stay in Ealdor, and he would never be happy here.

Hunith smiles sadly, like she understands why he’s offering, and can hear all the words he isn’t saying. A mother’s intuition.

“Yes you do,” she answers. There isn’t a trace of hesitancy in her voice, she just knows, urging him towards his life in Camelot without a thought for herself.

“If anything were to happen to you,” he tries to protest but his mother shuts him up with a look. A ‘go on and try it and see how far that gets you’ look.

“I’ll be fine. I know where to find you.”

Merlin sighs, leaning into her hand as she rests it fondly on his cheek.

“You have to go, Merlin. You belong at Arthur’s side.”

Something warm ignites in Merlin’s chest, a pleasant fire deep within him, keeping out the frost and thawing his insides.

“I’ve seen how much he needs you, how much you need him,” she says with a fond pat to his cheek. “You’re like two sides of the same coin.”

Hunith smiles knowingly, and the look in her eyes makes it all the more difficult to avoid the thoughts creeping into the back of his mind. He ducks his head away from her stare, glancing over at Arthur who’s whipping a rag at a giggling Morgana with a wide smile. The warm feeling in his chest hums happily at the sight.

“I’ve heard someone say that about us before,” he says with an indulgent smile.

His mother returns the smile, her warm face wrinkling with happiness at seeing the small glimmer of joy on his.

Merlin bids his mother goodbye, wishing fervently he could take her with him. If he thought there was any chance Hunith would be happy in Camelot he would whisk her away without a second’s thought; but he knows that her life is here in Ealdor. She would never want to be anywhere else, and she understands he needs to go. So she waves them all the way out of the village happily.

For months now Merlin has been stowing away his feelings.

He knew Arthur was attractive from the moment he met him, the most handsome young man he’s ever laid eyes on. With his blond hair, alluring blue eyes, his well sculpted muscles carved from hours of knighthood; he’s gorgeous. Merlin isn’t blind. It’s never been in question that Arthur is attractive.

Will seemed to think it was more than that, his mother seemed to think it was more than that, hell even The Dragon was dropping hints at Merlin.

He doesn’t want to believe them.

Except… When he looks at Arthur his whole body warms, tingles run down his spine and hum in the tips of his fingers. His stomach flutters and twists in itself, his cheeks flush. He thinks that he wouldn’t mind gathering Arthur in his arms, kissing the dip of his cupid’s bow, his temple, his cheek, bumping their noses together.

Arthur is a prat. He’s stubborn, infuriating and he doesn’t understand that the world doesn’t revolve around him. He takes Merlin, and his life as a prince, much for granted; he acts without realising that it is possible to ask for too much. He’s brash, hot tempered, and when he’s angry, he lashes out wild and without abandon.

But he’s also one of the kindest people Merlin has ever met. He would throw himself into danger without hesitation, if it meant protecting those in need. He’s noble, the embodiment of chivalry, and he cares with every bone in his body. His heart is overwhelmingly good. He’s wonderful.

God, Merlin likes every piece of him. There isn’t much he wouldn’t do to put a smile on Arthur’s face, not much he wouldn’t sacrifice to see him safe and well.

Arthur throws a grin over his shoulder, winking at Merlin.

“Race you to the nearest gully?” He goads, kicking his horse into action with a whoop.

Merlin’s heart skips a beat.

He watches Arthur ride away with a wild laugh and he knows that there isn’t much use denying it any more. Will saw it, his mother saw it. It’s time Merlin accepts that it’s true.

Fucking hell, he fancies Arthur Pendragon.

Chapter Text

Merlin quickly realises that having feelings for Arthur is going to be a significant issue. He will have to dispose of them, fast.

There are a multitude of reasons for this. The most notable being Arthur’s status as prince. Uther is adamant that Arthur will never be permitted to have romantic engagements with anyone but a noblewoman. It is his belief that a marriage should not only be born of love, but be the formation of a political alliance that will benefit Camelot.

He would never allow a courtship with a servant, much less Merlin.

Arthur is so far out of Merlin’s reach it’s almost laughable.

Then there’s the ridiculous notion that Arthur would ever actually want a romantic engagement with Merlin. Arthur has never shown any interest in men, and even if he were to, Merlin knows that he would not be Arthur’s choice.

He knows what Arthur wants and it isn’t him. A princess, made of soft lines and noble values, appreciative of Arthur’s knightly qualities, his status as crown prince and respectful of his title. Everything that Merlin isn’t. He’s gangly, awkward and would rather throw himself into The Dragon’s gaping mouth than admit he admires Arthur.

In addition to all of this and not least of Merlin’s concerns is his close proximity to Arthur. Something which immediately proves itself to be a valid concern.

They arrive back in Camelot with little fanfare, Uther presumably didn’t even notice they were missing. Arthur had explained on their way home that he told the knights he was going on a hunting trip so no one would raise any alarm at his disappearance.

Morgana and Gwen head back to her chambers, both kissing Merlin on the cheek fondly before they leave. Merlin follows Arthur back to his room, bustling around the prince’s chambers as Arthur settles back into the castle. Once the room is decently tidy Merlin turns to leave, eager to finally step away from Arthur and process his newfound feelings in privacy.

“Merlin,” Arthur calls out, stopping Merlin with his hand on the door handle.

Merlin grits his teeth, turning slowly to face Arthur.

“Yes?”

Arthur sighs. “I’m going to ask again if you need time off… considering…”

Merlin speaks over him before he can mention it, even the utterance of Will’s name will be enough to shatter him. “No, thank you.”

“Right, then, I should remind you, for the hundredth time, that one of your responsibilities is preparing me for bed.”

Merlin’s thoughts convert to a steady stream of curses and expletives. In the whirlwind of the past couple of days he had managed to forget how often he needs to assist Arthur in the process of dressing himself.

“And for the hundredth time I will remind you that a man of your age should know how to dress himself,” Merlin manages to quip back but the end of the sentence is strained as Arthur steps forward into Merlin’s personal space.

“You don’t have the dog and fetch the stick yourself,” Arthur sniffs, grinning at Merlin’s affronted expression. “No offence.”

“Hmph,” Merlin grunts, heart pattering frantically at how close Arthur’s warm smile is to his own.

His fingers fumble with the laces of Arthur’s tunic, somehow getting them more tangled. Arthur is so close that Merlin can feel his breath blowing through the strands of Merlin’s hair when he bends to inspect the twist of the laces. Merlin pulls at them, carefully unknotting the mess he’s made, trying to ignore the soft inhale and exhale of Arthur’s breath and the heat of his skin.

Once the laces are successfully detangled he realises much too late that the next step is to strip Arthur of his shirt.

Without warning Arthur grabs the back of his own collar and pulls it forward over his head. The movement reveals long expanses of strong lightly tanned skin, warmed by the sun and strengthened through rigorous training. Merlin tries hard not to swallow his tongue as Arthur looks at him expectantly.

It isn’t the first time he’s seen Arthur without a shirt, far from it. However, the circumstances have changed drastically and Merlin is left feeling extremely out of his depth, with a very impatient and still painfully shirtless Arthur staring at him. He can’t help but notice the strong muscles of Arthur’s biceps, the smooth expanse of his chest. As a knight Arthur trains daily, and his muscles are a reflection of that, every curve and sharp line of him is strong and fit. He’s gorgeous, and so close to Merlin it’s impossible not to notice, it makes Merlin’s stomach pool with heat.

“Any day now, Merlin,” Arthur drawls, interrupting Merlin’s reverie.

Merlin coughs awkwardly as he is brought back to reality and fetches Arthur’s nightshirt, holding it out for Arthur to slip into. His knuckles brush against the warm smooth skin of Arthur’s sides, and a hot flush creeps up the back of his neck.

Arthur’s head emerges through the collar adorably ruffled, his hair messy from the static of the shirt. Merlin’s heart gives a sharp tug of affection as he helps to smooth down the flyaway strands.

“Tomorrow you’ll have to tidy my chambers.” Arthur begins to list off Merlin’s chores for the following day as Merlin ties the laces of his nightshirt. Merlin means to listen but gets caught up in fighting the blush on his cheeks and schooling his features into neutrality that won’t alert Arthur of his internal dilemma.

“Merlin, are you listening to me?”

Merlin straightens and most certainly doesn’t squeak when he realises he and Arthur are almost nose to nose.

“Are you saying anything interesting, my Lord?” Merlin asks snidely in return. He’s grateful he can disguise his feelings well enough that Arthur won’t notice his inner revelation.

His brain feels slightly foggy with their proximity, every thought in his head devolving to an endless babble of: chest, warm, Arthur. Consequently he’s not quite in the state of mind to duck Arthur’s flick and it hits him squarely on the forehead.

“Information about how to do your job should be interesting to you, Merlin,” Arthur scolds patronisingly.

Merlin scowls, rubbing at his head. “I think I’ll have to disagree with you. What was it you wanted me to do?”

“Clean my chambers,” Arthur grumbles.

His eyes are extremely blue this close, they sparkle in the low light of the candles littered around the room. Merlin is finding it increasingly more difficult to breathe.The room must be getting warmer, he certainly feels hot under his collar.

“Right,” he says, intentionally drawing out the word. “And I’m supposed to be interested in these thrilling plans?

Arthur rolls his eyes and blessedly steps out of Merlin’s personal space. Merlin exhales in relief, hurrying over to Arthur’s bed to prepare the linens for him, pulling back the quilt and fluffing the pillow.

“You know Merlin—” Arthur begins, moving his lips slowly around Merlin’s name and oh God, how has Merlin survived this long without realising how bad he has it for Arthur, when he says Merlin’s name like that.

“—Most servants would consider it a privilege to be in your place.”

Merlin rolls his eyes.

“I’ll remember to treasure it next time I’m washing your royal undergarments.”

Arthur sticks his tongue out and Merlin hates himself a little for how hopelessly endearing he finds it.

He takes a deep breath, and makes his way to leave the room before he is stopped by Arthur’s voice.

“Goodnight, Merlin,” he says softly, muffled from the way his face is squished into his pillow.

Merlin’s heart does a little skip.

“Goodnight, Arthur.”

He closes the door, letting his head fall forward against the wood with a heavy sigh.

“I’m so fucked,” he mutters aloud, letting the cool wood of the door ease the burning flush of his cheeks.

Throughout the following weeks Merlin does his best to push any feelings for Arthur from his mind. He knows that the sooner he gets over his feelings the better off he will be. There’s no point in pining forever over someone completely unattainable.

~-~-~

The unicorn is the most enchanting creature Merlin has ever seen.

An ethereal being that is so bright and otherworldly it could put a ray of sunshine to shame. Its coat is soft and glows with radiance, as white as a pearl and shimmering faintly with an unknown magic. Its mane and tail appear to consist of glossy strands of moonshine that flow freely in the cool breeze. Merlin is breathless, standing transfixed as he stares at the beautiful creature.

A branch snaps behind them, careening Merlin back into the real world. He blinks, pulling himself back into focus.

“Go,” he whispers to the creature, trying to usher it out of the clearing, back into the dense forest. “Please go, they’re going to kill you.”

The footsteps grow louder and closer, slowly encroaching upon them with cracks of twigs and careful stomps.

“Go,” he hisses, pushing at the unicorn’s front flank. It stares at him, unbothered by his attempts to startle it away.

There’s the clunk of a crossbow, the soft clip of an arrow being notched on the bow string.

“Arthur no!” Merlin turns, trying to stop the prince. But he’s too late.

The arrow fires from the crossbow with startling speed and accuracy. It hits the unicorn in its stomach and it lets out a loud neigh of pain. The front legs buckle first, sending the unicorn crumbling into the dirt, and it lands on its neck with a sickening crunch.

Merlin runs to the fallen animal, kneeling beside its head and stroking gently along the line of its muzzle and nose.

“Shh, shh you’re okay,” Merlin coos gently, continuing to pat the unicorn’s nose soothingly until it falls still.

He feels the unicorn’s head go heavy in his lap, his comforting words falling on lifeless ears and he can’t help but think of Will. The sentiment is an echo of what he had whispered to his friend as he died, the memory intertwines with what Merlin is seeing, the two scenes blending together like paint spilling into water. He can’t discern the truth from the memory.

His vision blurs with tears and his breath hitches painfully, catching like thorns on the sensitive hollow of his throat.

“I’m sorry,” he murmurs quietly, blinking away the tears gathering in the corners of his eyes.

Arthur and the other knights hurry over, hollering and whooping with excitement at the falling of the gorgeous creature.

“Ha! A unicorn!” Arthur celebrates.

Merlin swallows the huge lump in his throat, glaring up at Arthur.

“What have you done?” he asks accusatively.

Arthur rolls his eyes. “Don’t be such a girl, Merlin.”

Merlin opens his mouth to retort but is distracted by a flicker over Arthur’s shoulder. He peers around the prince to see a man, shrouded in a heavy white cape and tattered cream robes staring disdainfully at the party. He has long wispy silver hair and a frown that is heavy with grief and contempt.

“What are you looking at?” Arthur demands, spinning around to look at the man, by the time he has turned away from Merlin the mirage is gone. A figment of Merlin’s grief, just like the memory of Will.

“Nothing, a trick of the light,” Merlin answers, coughing to clear his throat and getting to his feet.

~-~-~

It hasn’t escaped Gaius’ notice that he is significantly more productive when Merlin is otherwise occupied. Although Merlin aids him on a number of tasks, he also has a habit of getting into the worst trouble and relying on Gaius to help him out of it. He’s only been in Camelot for half a year and he’s already managed to ensure that Gaius does not possess a single strand of hair that is not grey.

Arthur took Merlin and a collection of knights on a hunt a few days ago, and in the meantime Gaius has been able to restock and tidy his entire supply of herbs and premade poultices.

Merlin comes flying into the room, a distraught expression on his face and Gaius suppresses a sigh while simultaneously happy being to see him — he does miss the company while Merlin is away. He watches patiently as Merlin collapses onto a chair and stares glumly at the table.

“How was the hunt?” Gaius asks carefully, prodding at the likely cause of the issue.

Merlin’s face twists, the pout on his face transforming to genuine sadness. A correct assumption then. He turns away and busies himself with preparing a tincture for Peter in the lower village, who is being bothered by a sore back, offering Merlin some time to decipher whatever he is going through.

“Arthur killed a unicorn,” Merlin says flatly after a decent stretch of silence.

Gaius freezes, before turning very slowly to look Merlin in the eye.

“You saw a unicorn?” He confirms. A cool chill prickles down his spine. He grits his teeth against the uncomfortable sensation that he is about to witness something terrible, cautioning himself not to make any rash reactions.

Merlin nods slowly, a concerned look overtaking his initial sadness from when he entered.

“And Arthur killed it?”

Merlin frowns. “Are you okay? You’re doing that thing where you repeat everything I tell you.”

There is a legend that anyone who kills a unicorn must bear a mighty curse, plagued by bad luck and torment. Gaius knows better than to underestimate a curse, he has known to many who have fallen to such things to not respect their truth. However there is always a chance it is nothing more than an old wives tale, it would do no good to jump to conclusions.

“Unicorns are rare and mystical creatures,” he explains thoughtfully, folding his hands and looking intently at Merlin. “There is a legend that says that bad fortune befalls anyone who slays one.” He keeps his tone mild and even, revealing the information with careful precision to avoid striking fear in Merlin’s heart.

However Merlin’s eyes widen the more Gaius reveals. Gaius can see him realising what this would mean for Arthur, turning over worst case scenarios and possible dangers in his mind. Though he tries his best to hide it, Gaius knows that Merlin’s care for Arthur has extended beyond his destiny into genuine fondness. Perhaps even a friendship.

“I have to tell Arthur,” Merlin says, his expression troubled and fingers fiddling anxiously in front of him.

Gaius nods encouragingly.

“Be careful, Merlin. Arthur won’t appreciate being accused of engaging with magic.”

Merlin nods absently and runs off. Gaius has an uncomfortable feeling that Merlin didn’t hear his warning.

~-~-~

Merlin has been scowling for the better part of the day and it’s beginning to piss Arthur off. He’s been feeling quite pleased with himself ever since he saw the pleased expression on his father’s face when he handed over the unicorn’s horn. Merlin’s unpleasant behaviour is entirely ruining Arthur’s mood.

He looks over at where Merlin is staring forlornly out the window, completely neglecting the tasks Arthur had been allocating for the afternoon.

“Merlin!” Arthur barks and Merlin startles, spinning around to look at Arthur. “What is the matter with you? You’ve had a face like a wounded bear ever since we got back from the hunt.”

Merlin shrugs, maddeningly quiet and still looking irritatingly sullen.

“Don’t tell me you’re still upset about the unicorn.”

Arthur throws his finished apple core onto his plate with the rest of his lunch and goes to pull on his boots, impatiently waiting for Merlin’s response.

Merlin huffs a frustrated breath through his nose.

“I don’t think you should have killed it,” he says cheerlessly, glowering at Arthur from under heavily furrowed eyebrows.

Arthur rolls his eyes even though Merlin has turned back to the window and isn’t looking.

“Oh really?”

Merlin nods jerkily. “It was doing no harm, what purpose did you serve by killing it?”

Arthur bites down on his tongue to keep himself from snapping at Merlin.

“We were hunting,” he explains slowly, like he’s explaining the concept to a small child. “That’s what you do.”

“In that case, hunting is stupid,” Merlin retorts haughtily.

Arthur can’t help but smile a little, even through his flaring annoyance.

“Yes you’ve made your opinions on hunting painfully clear.”

“It’s also something Gaius told me,” Merlin blurts out, cutting over the tail end of Arthur’s sentence.

He’s irked by Merlin’s sour mood and agitated to get the conversation over with so he can do something more interesting. He raises his eyebrows at Merlin, gesturing impatiently for him to continue speaking.

“Legend says if you kill a unicorn you will be cursed,” Merlin explains, the words stringing together into one long stream.

Arthur just manages not to scoff, pinching the bridge of his nose with a heavy sigh.

“I respect Gaius very much,” he says. “But that is absolute nonsense, it was just a unicorn Merlin. That’s it.”

As he turns his back on Merlin, Arthur’s eyes fall on small brown lumps by the side of his bed. He inspects them closer and reels back with disgust.

“Merlin! Come look at this!”

“What?” Merlin asks, rounding the bed to meet Arthur, grimacing when he too sees the droppings on the floor.

“Rat droppings.” Arthur wrinkles his nose in disgust. “My chambers are infested. You need to spend less time worrying about already dead unicorns, and more time searching for that rat.”

He’s interrupted from reprimanding Merlin any further by a knock at the door, Kay sticks his head in with an apologetic but nervous expression on his face.

“My Lord, the King requires your presence. It is a matter of urgency.”

Arthur’s heart sinks. The news can’t be good, his father never requests his presence unless something is terribly wrong.

His assumption is correct.

Every bit of food in the kingdom has vanished to an unknown cause. The crops are dead, down to the last ear of grain, and the livestock has either been eaten or escaped. There is little to explain the phenomena, whatever disease has overtaken Camelot has happened seemingly overnight.

Merlin’s warning about a curse enters his mind for a moment but Arthur dismisses it with a scowl. Just like Merlin to say something outright stupid so that during a kingdom wide crisis his infuriating servant is the only thing on Arthur’s mind.

“Is this really all the grain we have left?” Uther demands, frowning at the meagre pile of grain left in the store cupboard.

Arthur scratches at the back of his head, avoiding his father’s steely gaze.

“The people are growing scared,” he explains cautiously. “There’s been some looting.”

Uther glowers. “We must maintain order at all costs, panic will only make the situation worse.” Arthur nods, though he has an uncomfortable feeling he won’t agree with his father’s methods of maintaining order.

“I will issue a decree that looters will be executed,” Uther says decisively. “And tonight Camelot will be placed under curfew, we must protect the grain we have left.”

Arthur nods again, ignoring the sour taste in his mouth.

“I will see to it.”

~-~-~

Merlin is wandering back to Arthur’s chambers when Gwen stops him. His stomach is gnawing itself up with anxiety, turning itself inside out and then back again. He chews on his nail bed in deep thought while Gaius’ concerns about the grain, and his warning about the unicorn’s curse, plague his mind.

“Merlin!” Gwen calls out. “Is it true what everyone is saying about the crops?” She asks with a concerned frown. “That they’re all dead?”

Merlin winces. “I’m afraid so.”

“What are we going to do?” She asks, a worried expression flashing across her face.

Merlin shrugs helplessly. “Start tightening our belts I guess.”

“I’m sure Arthur will think of something!” She assures him, smiling in that lovely way only Gwen has the capacity to; equally joyous, concerned and sincere all at the same time.

Merlin winks at her.

“And if he doesn’t, I will.” She buries a giggle into her hand, and waves him away with a roll of her eyes.

Merlin makes it partway across the courtyard before Gwen screams his name. He skids back, kicking up dust as he pulls to a stop in front of her. His eyes scan worriedly over her body for injuries and when he finds none turns his attention to the subject of her horrified gaze.

Her eyes are firmly planted on the citadel’s well. It’s attached to one of the outer walls of the castle’s bordering walls, it consists of a huge metal pump with a slot underneath for a bucket to sit. Merlin still feels a little queasy when he has to visit it, the memories of the afanc heavy in his mind.

Instead of water it is filled to the brim with sand. Gwen pushes the lever down again and another torrential downpour of grains falls into the bucket.

“Shit,” he gasps. The crops are one thing, their destruction can be explained away with disease and weather conditions, but this is impossible to rationalise.

He fetches Arthur immediately, as the anxiety knotting in his stomach turns cold and twisted in his fear. He watches as Arthur storms away, barking orders for men to check the underground reservoir and marching fiercely to meet his father.

Merlin takes the bucket of sand Gwen poured from the well and heaves it to his and Gaius’ chambers. If Camelot has truly fallen to a magical curse, Merlin can only hope his own magic is strong enough to combat it.

He spends hours trying to transform the sand back into its natural state. By the time Gaius returns to their chambers he is staring helplessly at the dust which still stubbornly refuses to become water.

“Have you had any luck?” Gaius asks, laying a hand on Merlin’s shoulder. It is only the reassurance in his tone that stops Merlin from snapping a crude retort. It isn’t Gaius’ fault he’s so frustrated.

“I wish I knew how to make it work,” Merlin says, running an exasperated hand through his hair and tugging at the ends of the strands. Gaius had given it a trim earlier in the week but it’s already starting to grow out.

“What have you tried?” Gaius prompts, taking a seat across from him.

“Everything.”

Merlin gestures feebly towards the grimoire sitting to his right. It’s opened to a page about shifting the elements between one another, but most of the information simply states that such magic is impossible and requires exclusively elemental magic held by no sorcerer.

“If it is magic, it’s more powerful than what I possess,” Merlin admits.

Gaius sighs in defeat, steepling his fingers under his chin.

~-~-~

Merlin makes his way out of Arthur’s chambers, rubbing at a crick in his neck that he developed in pursuit of that bloody rat.

He’s just cussing out Arthur when the man in question calls out to Merlin as he makes his way across the courtyard back towards his own chambers.

“Merlin! You do realise there’s a curfew,” Arthur says, walking over with crossed arms and a disapproving expression on his face.

“Yeah, I was in your chambers hunting for the rat,” Merlin points unnecessarily backwards towards Arthur’s room.

Recently he feels like he’s always useless around Arthur. He may normally be clumsy but there is still a limit to the number of furniture items he would typically walk into. If Arthur didn’t think he was an idiot before Merlin was definitely proving his assumption correct now.

“Did you find it?” Arthur asks, he comes to a stop just in front of Merlin.

Merlin cringes. “No.”

Arthur raises his eyebrows, unimpressed.

“So you have been outwitted by a rat?”

“In my defence, it’s a very clever rat. They do say rats are very intelligent,” Merlin defends himself weakly.

“More intelligent than you it would seem,” Arthur mocks in return.

“I’ll find it tomorrow,” he promises.

Arthur rolls his eyes.

“See that you do. And go home, it would be embarrassing to have to lock up my own servant for breaking curfew.”

His words are blasé but his tone suggests he cares about Merlin more than he would dare let on.

Suddenly Arthur’s attention is caught, head snapping to the far side of the courtyard, towards an entrance to the castle that leads towards the kitchens.

“What was that?” He asks.

Merlin follows his line of sight but sees nothing but an empty archway.

“What was what?” He asks but Arthur doesn’t answer, tugging once at Merlin’s arm and taking off in a run towards whatever he saw. Merlin spares a second to roll his eyes heavenward and question if he will ever get a moment’s peace, before chasing after Arthur.

As they run through the halls Merlin sees the flash of a white cape disappearing around a corner and they both rush to follow. It’s a figure, who seems to only be walking but stays evasively out of their reach.

He and Arthur stumble down the spiral staircase, bumping into each other at every turn as their feet trip on the steps. They reach the landing with heaving chests. Merlin knows that this area of the castle is essentially a large circle with the kitchens on one side and the pantries on the other. There is one exit on either side, the one they came from, and the other which leads towards the banquet hall and the royal families’ chambers, but that is locked from the eleventh hour. So whoever they are chasing should be trapped.

Arthur grabs Merlin’s shoulder and his thoughts stagger to a halt. Arthur is making some sort of movement with his hands, directions for Merlin to follow. His hand movements might as well be a foreign language for Merlin doesn’t understand him at all. His thoughts are too consumed by the warm feeling of Arthur’s fingers on his arm and the determined flash of Arthur’s blue eyes.

Arthur retracts his hand and moves to walk away and Merlin follows listlessly, trying to decipher Arthur’s sign language through the enamoured fog of his mind. He really has to do something about these feelings, if he continues at this rate Arthur’s going to think he’s truly lost his mind.

“What are you—” Arthur spins around with a frustrated growl. He leans in so close Merlin forgets to breathe.

“That means, you go that way—” Arthur points in the opposite direction, “—and cut him off.”

“Okay, right, yes,” Merlin blabbers, running towards the pantries. His heart is going at hare’s pace, and it has nothing to do with the adrenaline of the chase.

He and Arthur meet in the middle again, with no sign of the intruder. Merlin’s stomach starts to sink and an uncomfortable feeling prickles at the back of his neck. He can sense there is something wrong with this mysterious trespasser, and the uneasy feeling makes his muscles clench in anticipation. A shadow of the figure crosses past a torch in the direction Arthur came from and Arthur shoves Merlin’s shoulder to get him moving. They run back the way they came and once again find nothing.

“Where is he?” Arthur demands crossly.

“I didn’t see anyone.”

Arthur’s eyes bug and he throws his hands wide in frustration. “He was right here! Don’t tell me you let him get past you.”

Merlin’s irritation bubbles in his gut uncomfortably. “Arthur there was no one here! No one passed me!”

“Are you blind?”

Before Merlin gets a chance to snap back a deep voice interrupts them.

“Are you looking for me?” He asks. It’s the man from the forest, the mirage that Merlin pictured in his grief, but now he’s standing in front of them in the flesh, staring dispraisingly at Merlin and Arthur.

His hair is white as snow and his head is shrouded in a cloak that drapes in heavy folds. He is holding a staff with old and crooked knuckles, it curls appeasingly towards the ceiling. His silver eyes are partially concealed by extremely bushy white eyebrows; but what can be seen of them hold so much emotion it makes Merlin’s heart ache. They swim with grief and wisdom that he could not imagine ever possessing. There is a fog of magic surrounding him so strong it makes Merlin’s ears pop with pressure.

“I am Anhora, keeper of the unicorns,” he introduces himself. His voice is gravelly, wisened with age like The Dragon’s, but lacking the amusement that Merlin associates with the winged creature.

Arthur looks at Merlin bewildered, as if hoping he can offer an explanation. Merlin returns the look with one of equal confusion.

“Camelot is under curfew, what is your business here?” Arthur asks, clearly settling on approaching the situation with the discipline and control of a prince.

Anhora doesn’t blink, instead he tips his head in consideration at Arthur. The movement is so reminiscent of Sophia and her father that Merlin has to stiffen his muscles to keep from stepping between the keeper of the unicorns and Arthur.

“I have come to deliver a message.”

Arthur’s eyebrows creep down his forehead. “And who is this message for?” He prompts impatiently.

“It is for you, Arthur Pendragon,” Anhora replies calmly.

Both Merlin and Arthur’s spines straighten at the use of Arthur’s full name. The man has not come here without purpose, and his knowledge of exactly who Arthur is concerns Merlin to no end.

Arthur jumps to the offensive immediately, shoulders squared and jaw clenched like he’s ready for a physical fight.

“Is it you who’s been killing our crops, and turning our water into sand?”

“You alone are responsible for the misfortune that has befallen Camelot,” Anhora answers simply.

Merlin’s mouth drops open and anger burns through him like a flash of lightning, igniting in his chest and spreading out through him until everywhere is hot and furious. How dare this man accuse Arthur of hurting Camelot, when all he cares about is doing right by them?

“Me?” Arthur spits. “You think I would bring drought and famine upon my own people?”

Arthur’s body is shaking with fury, Merlin can see his anger tensed in the muscles of his shoulders and spine, creating rigid and hard lines down his body.

Anhora looks between the two of them, tense and ready to spring into a fight and sighs.

“When you killed the unicorn you unleashed a curse. For this Camelot will suffer greatly.”

Arthur’s hands clench by his sides, Merlin has the strange urge to take them in his and hold them until they relax.

“If you have put a curse on Camelot, you will lift it, or you will pay with your life,” Arthur growls.

Anhora shakes his head slowly.

“I do not control the curse, only the unicorns do. This was not my doing.”

His words sink slowly into Merlin’s skin. Although his body tries to repel them he can see their truth. Gaius had warned that the slaying of a unicorn would enact a curse; Anhora’s words are only confirmation of what Merlin already suspected. In killing the unicorn Arthur endowed this curse, whether he chose to do so or not.

“Undo the curse, or face execution,” Arthur orders, stepping closer to Anhora and staring down his nose at him threateningly.

Anhora does not flinch or shrink under Arthur’s gaze as many would, he simply lifts his chin to meet his menacing stare.

“Only you can do that.”

Arthur growls and reaches a hand forward to grab Anhora’s arms.

“You’re under arrest.” As his hand meets where Anhora should be, the man disappears, no more corporeal than a wisp of smoke. Arthur staggers forward without the expected weight to stabilise himself.

“You will be tested,” Anhora says from behind Merlin and Arthur. They both whirl around to face him. Merlin’s fingers tingle with adrenaline, the thrill of interacting with and being in the presence of such powerful magic makes his body thrum with energy.

Anhora is looking directly at Arthur, over Merlin’s head like he is not even present.

“Until you have proven yourself, and made amends for killing the unicorn, the curse will not be lifted. If you fail any of these tests Camelot will be damned for all eternity.”

With those words Anhora disappears once more, leaving the two in staggering silence that seems to suffocate the oxygen from the room. Merlin turns to look at Arthur with wide eyes. There is nothing the prince cares more for than Camelot. When he first met Arthur, Merlin assumed he was a selfish prince who cared only for himself and his own ego. However it didn’t take long for him to learn that Arthur would put Camelot before anything else. There is nothing he wouldn’t sacrifice for his kingdom.

Arthur is staring at the place Anhora was standing with a horrified look on his face, with an open jaw and pale cheeks. He stays still for a few seconds before blinking, recovering and arranging his features into a nonplussed expression.

“Go home, Merlin,” he orders. “Tomorrow we’re going to find that sorcerer and make him retract the curse.”

With that Arthur walks away without another word.

Merlin stares after him, left alone with a foreboding sense that this whole dilemma is only going to get worse.

~-~-~

“Merlin!” Arthur yells, storming across the room with a boot clenched in his fist.

Merlin has a split second to think “I should duck in case he throws it” before Arthur shoves the boot in his face instead.

“Look! That rat has eaten through my boot!” Arthur growls, shaking the boot under Merlin’s nose.

Sure enough, there is a small hole, just big enough for a finger to poke through the leather.

Merlin barely manages to stifle a smile.

“Perhaps the rat is as hungry as the rest of us?” He suggests, looking up and meeting Arthur’s grumpy stare.

“You think this is funny,” Arthur says. It’s not a question but an accusatory statement.

Merlin is unable to contain his smile any longer.

“Moderately.”

Merlin winces when the boot hits him square in the chest.

He scowls as Arthur moves to fetch his sword from the weapon stand in the corner of the room, he only just barely manages to refrain from making a rude expression behind Arthur’s back.

“Get it mended,” Arthur orders. “And find that rat.”

They bustle around the room in silence for a moment, and Merlin does his best to keep his eyes on tidying Arthur’s things and not the heavy frown that sits on the prince’s face. It’s some sort of ridiculous joke that Merlin finds Arthur’s pout so endearing. Even when he’s cranky from hunger, and when he’s being a stubborn idiot, Merlin’s chest still warms as he watches Arthur strap his sword around his waist; and he can’t help but look when the tip of Arthur’s tongue pokes out of his mouth in concentration.

Merlin shakes himself out of his stupor, and turns his mind to more pressing matters: Anhora’s warning.

“Have you given any more thought to what Anhora said last night?” He asks, careful not to look Arthur in the eyes.

Arthur hums, he doesn’t sound like he wants to murder Merlin for asking so Merlin chances a peek in his direction.

“Well, he may have escaped last night, but at least we now know who we’re looking for,” Arthur answers, his brows furrowing determinedly.

Merlin frowns. There had been a small part of him hoping that what Arthur said the night before had been impulsive, influenced by the spur of the moment, and that once he had more time to think, he would come to the realisation Anhora had been telling the truth.

It could never be so easy.

“I told my father I would find this Anhora and make him put an end to this nonsense,” Arthur continues, completely unaware of Merlin’s worries.

Merlin grits his teeth.

“What if he was telling the truth about the curse?” He suggests, feigning an air of nonchalance. Arthur slams his new pair of boots to the ground and Merlin struggles not to flinch.

“You think I would bring suffering upon my own people?” He hisses. There’s a dangerous note to his voice that promises time in the stocks if Merlin doesn’t tread lightly.

Merlin inspects Arthur’s ruined boots with more interest than they deserve, too nervous to meet Arthur’s steely gaze as he replies.

“Of course not, I know you’d never do that…”

“Good.” He sees Arthur nod stiffly out of the corner of his eye. Apparently satisfied with Merlin’s response, he resumes putting on a new pair of boots.

“... Deliberately,” Merlin adds.

Arthur’s head snaps up and Merlin sighs internally.

“Look, I know better than anyone that you would never wish this misery on Camelot. I’m not accusing you of that,” Merlin promises, finally looking up and into Arthur’s stubborn eyes. “I just think he might have been telling the truth.”

Arthur rolls his eyes with a scoff.

“What makes you say that?” He asks, just barely humouring Merlin as he continues his preparations for the day.

“When you killed the unicorn, I saw Anhora in the forest,” Merlin blurts out.

Arthur glances up at him. “What? Why the hell didn’t you say anything?”

“It was just for a second and then he disappeared!” Merlin scrambles to defend himself, remembering the self doubt and immense grief that had clouded his every thought when he was holding the dying unicorn. “I didn’t even— well— to be honest I thought I was seeing things.”

Worry flashes across Arthur’s eyes for a moment, just a split second of concern before masking it with a dismissive wave of his hand.

“That doesn’t actually prove anything, Merlin,” Arthur points out.

“Doesn’t that make you think he was telling the truth?”

“Because he was skulking about the forest? That makes me trust him even less.”

Merlin resists the urge to scream.

“He appeared when you killed the unicorn, so his connection to them must be true,” Merlin says diplomatically. Arthur opens his mouth to argue and Merlin continues before he gets the chance.

“Why would he appear in Camelot just to lie to you?”

Arthur shrugs petulantly. “We had him cornered, he was trying to talk his way out of it by blaming me.”

Merlin gapes at Arthur, almost bordering on being amazed at how resistant Arthur is to the truth, that he’s able to convince himself into believing such outlandish ideas.

“Arthur, he can disappear into thin air, he didn’t have to talk his way out of anything,” Merlin reminds Arthur almost desperately.

The chair scrapes against the floor with how quickly Arthur stands and he slams his hand on the table, leaning forward so he and Merlin are eye to eye. Merlin’s mouth goes very dry as he stares into Arthur’s steady blue gaze.

“My father has warned me about sorcerers like him. They will not rest until our kingdom is destroyed,” Arthur says solemnly, his glare is steadfast and his mouth is set in a hard stubborn line.

“Well I believe he’s telling the truth,” Merlin says softly.

“Then you’re a fool,” Arthur snaps. “You cannot trust a single word a sorcerer says, you’d do well to remember that.”

The words scratch through Merlin’s chest painfully, leaving his insides stinging with a bitter pain as they bleed sluggishly. It hurts for Arthur to be so overt in his hatred of who Merlin is. They’ve started to build a bond of trust, but if Merlin told him the truth that would burn to ash. Their tentative friendship is tenuous as a tower of sand built on the shore of a beach, only one wave away from coming crumbling into dust.

Not for the first time Merlin wonders how Arthur would react if he knew the truth, about Merlin, and about their shared destiny. A jeopardous and reckless part of him desperately wishes he could admit the whole thing just to see the look on Arthur’s face.

He knows it’s hardly Arthur’s fault, he’s held the belief that sorcerers are the root of all evil, that magic is simply a gateway towards darkness since the day he was born. His father ingrained such beliefs so deep into his mind that he couldn’t fathom anything else. It’s impossible to know what hardened Uther’s heart against the practice of sorcery, what made him long so desperately to eradicate it. However the issue remains that Arthur has never known any different.

It’s unfair of Merlin to expect Arthur to believe anything else, when he’s never been given any good reason to do so. Merlin will just have to be that person for him. With that, the impulse to blurt out the truth evaporates and Merlin’s shoulders relax.

Merlin stays silent, resolving to help Arthur uncover the truth about the curse some other way. Clearly, conversation between the two of them was not going to be enough to convince him he is in the wrong. He watches as Arthur shrugs a jacket onto his shoulders, and waits for him to speak again.

“I think I’ve figured out what Anhora’s next move is going to be, and when he makes it, we’re going to be waiting for him.”

~-~-~

Merlin smacks his lips again right next to Arthur’s ear and Arthur resists the urge to throttle him. Arthur knows his frustration is high because of how enormously hungry he is; and he also knows that Merlin is — perhaps unfairly — bearing the brunt of Arthur’s anger. He grits his teeth as Merlin smacks his lips again.

“Stop smacking your lips,” Arthur orders.

Merlin glares back at him, equally grumpy.

“I’m thirsty,” he complains.

“We’re all thirsty, Merlin,” Arthur retorts haughtily, falling quiet at the end of the sentence as the sound of footsteps catches his ear.

They’re shrouded by the dark of night, waiting near the grain store for Anhora, where Arthur predicted he would come next. Now it appears the man has arrived, exactly as Arthur knew he would.

“Well—” Merlin tries to argue but Arthur shuts him by holding up a hand.

“Someone’s coming.”

Arthur retreats back to the corridor that leads to the grain store and peers around the corner. The corridor is completely dark but there is a small flicker of light shining off a torch at the end of the hallway, disappearing into the room where the grain is being held.

He tiptoes after the light, Merlin close on his heels. When he stops, Merlin does the same, though he never listens to Arthurs spoken instructions, he follows Arthur’s silent movements perfectly in time. Arthur slowly unsheathes his sword, wincing as the sound it makes in the silent corridor.

Merlin is watching his every move, eyes wide like an owl as Arthur prepares to ambush the sorcerer. He leans close to his manservant, trying to mimic to Merlin without speaking his plan of attack, but Merlin just blinks at him without understanding. Impossible. Arthur rolls his eyes.

They creep into the store in sync. Thankfully Merlin seems to take the hint to cover the other side of the room, grabbing a scythe from the wall to arm himself.

“Show yourself,” Arthur finally speaks, his voice thankfully coming out confident and commanding, “Before I run you through.”

He points his sword into the darkness. Instead of Anhora, a peasant man emerges from the shadows, a shovel in one hand and a small bag of grain in the other. He bears a striking resemblance to Merlin’s friend Will from Ealdor, enough that Arthur is taken aback for a moment before regaining his footing. He glances to his side, where Merlin is standing, but the sad downturn of his mouth is the only indication that he too sees the resemblance between this man and his deceased friend.

“Who are you?” Arthur demands.

The man trembles. “My name is Evan, My Lord.” He bows so low his head almost hits his knees.

Arthur imagines what his father would say in this situation, the man is obviously a thief, committing a crime in Camelot’s currently precarious position which cannot be overlooked.

“I see you think you can help yourself to our grain reserves,” he says eventually, tipping his head in what he hopes appears to be a powerful gesture.

The man, Evan, physically shakes under Arthur’s heavy stare and he just bobs his head mutely.

“My father has ordered that looters be executed,” Arthur continues, keeping his voice even and assertive.

Evan’s jaw wobbles.

“Please, Sire. My Lord I do not steal for myself, I have three children they have not eaten for two days. They’re hungry,” he babbles, clutching the hand with the grain fearfully to his chest as Arthur slowly approaches.

Arthur’s heartstrings give a painful tug. He imagines the small children, desperate for a meal on the table and unable to comprehend why it will not arrive.

“It is the same for everyone,” he manages to say.

Evan nods so frantically Arthur is worried his head will shake off his shoulders.

“I know, and I know it is wrong to steal I simply—” he cuts himself off with a pained gasp, like he’s holding back tears. “I could not bear to see them starve.”

Arthur withholds himself from visibly reacting to the poignant sadness in Evan’s voice. He remembers when Hunith spoke about the children in Ealdor, and just as he had then, Arthur can no more bear to imagine Evan’s children starving than the man himself. His father would not falter, no amount of empathy is a match for the law. It should change nothing.

“Could you bear for your children to see you executed?” Arthur questions, adamant that Evan understands the weight of his decision.

The man is overwhelmed by emotion, unable to speak he shakes his head, tears dripping slowly down his cheeks. Arthur feels guilt press down on his shoulders. His father would not stand for benevolence of any kind in such a situation, Evan is a criminal, and he must be executed.

Arthur steps to the side, giving Evan space to pass.

“Then you should go home,” Arthur says gravely.

Evan looks up with awestruck eyes and a hopeful part to his trembling lips. He looks like he hardly dares believe his own ears.

“If I catch you stealing again, I will not spare you,” Arthur adds, the presence of Uther on his shoulder a staggering weight that forces him to remain resolute.

Evan beams regardless, a grateful smile that shows off a missing tooth on the bottom right of his mouth. He throws the shovel to the side and returns the small bag of grain to the stockpile.

He’s halfway out of the room when Arthur stops him, ignoring his father’s hissing voice at the back of his mind.

“Wait.”

Both Evan and Merlin look at him curiously. Arthur lifts the small bag of grain and looks at it for a moment. It’s so small that in a normal situation it would hardly be enough for a bowl of porridge, but right now perhaps it’s enough that the family can survive at least a week longer.

He throws it to Evan.

“Use it sparingly,” he instructs. “It might be the last food you and your family get for some time.”

Arthur can feel Merlin’s eyes burning into the side of his head but he refuses to meet them. Instead he focuses his gaze on the peasant man who looks gratefully back at him.

Evan’s voice takes a wizened quality which is staggeringly different from the simpering and fearful man from only a few minutes ago.

“You have shown yourself to be merciful and kind, My Lord,” he says articulately, bowing once more to Arthur.

Evan smiles. “This will bring its own reward.”

~-~-~

Arthur gulps down his fourth goblet of water desperately. He gasps with relief as the cool water soothes his dry and tender throat. He wipes away the droplets that dribble down his chin with the back of his hand, sagging gratefully against the table.

Merlin does the same across from him, eyes squeezing shut with ecstasy as he alleviates his parched throat for the first time in over two days.

“I never knew water could taste so good,” Arthur pants, letting his head drop back against his chair, relishing how his breaths no longer scrape along his windpipe like sandpaper.

Merlin nods frantically, downing another heavy swallow.

“My throat was so dry I thought I wouldn’t be able to talk,” he gasps.

“Well at least some good would have come out of the drought,” Arthur teases, grinning at the vexed glare Merlin shoots him in response.

Merlin pours them both another glass, and the water sloshes enticingly in the goblet. Arthur doesn’t think his thirst will ever be quenched, it’s possible he will drink the entire well before he’s sated.

He watches as the cool, clear liquid pours into their goblets. It’s impossible to believe that the water in his goblet was sand only hours earlier. Arthur understands even less why Anhora chose to revert that specific part of the curse.

“It doesn’t make any sense,” Arthur mutters, taking his goblet and swallowing two huge mouthfuls. Merlin looks at him curiously, tipping his head like a confused animal. “The sand disappeared, the water returned to the well. I don’t understand why.”

Merlin nods slowly, pulling a face like he’s working hard not to speak his mind.

Arthur sighs.

“I suppose you have some explanation for this, Merlin.”

Merlin shifts on his feet, confirming Arthur’s suspicions.

“Let’s hear it then.” Arthur gestures flippantly for Merlin to speak. He seems apprehensive to share his thoughts, perhaps unsure if they will be received. Which is fair, Arthur himself isn’t sure why he’s asking his servant of all people to weigh in on matters of state.

The only thing he can attribute to his sudden interest in Merlin’s opinions is that he can trust Merlin to be honest with him. He has proven time and time again he will comfortably speak his mind regardless of how discourteous his opinion may be. This should be no exception.

Arthur sends a glare Merlin’s way that he hopes will encourage him to speak.

“Anhora said you would be tested,” Merlin babbles, his words coming out in a rush now that Arthur has extended an invitation for him to speak. “Last night in the grain store, you let that villager go and he said that would bring its own reward.

Arthur frowns. “He was merely grateful, as he should have been.”

Merlin shakes his head emphatically. “I think that was your first test. You passed it, so the curse is beginning to lift.”

The words make a striking amount of sense, but they twinge uncomfortably in Arthur’s gut. If Merlin is right, it means that the misery that has befallen Camelot is due to a curse brought on by Arthur. He doesn’t want to believe something like that could be true.

Arthur looks down at his cup, discomfort itching at the walls of his chest.

“I know you don’t have to listen to me,” Merlin says softly.

“Glad we agree on something,” Arthur mutters.

“Arthur,” Merlin snaps, looking at Arthur intently. Arthur glances up in surprise at the frustration in his voice, meeting Merlin’s steely blue scrutiny head on.

“If you’re tested again that means you have a chance to end your people’s suffering,” he says simply, pausing a moment to let Arthur consider those words.

“I know you want that more than anything.”

Arthur’s mind wars with itself, part of him is inclined to believe Merlin and his theory, leaning towards the logic of its solution like a plant seeking the sun. If it’s true, he can protect Camelot, and stop the misfortune that has spread like a plague through the kingdom. He wants that more than words could express. But equally, if Merlin is right he would have to accept that he was the cause of Camelot enduring such suffering.

When Arthur says nothing Merlin ploughs on.

“I think we should seek Anhora out.”

Arthur can just visualise that conversation with Uther. The idea is so comically stupid he has to bite at his cheek to keep from laughing in Merlin’s earnest face.

“I can’t negotiate with sorcerers. My father would never hear of it,” he answers, placing his goblet back on the table with a thump.

Merlin’s lips pull into a crafty smile.

“Then it’s probably best you don’t tell him,” he answers with a shrug.

Arthur’s eyebrows shoot up. He looks at the cocky smile on Merlin’s face and feels a strange thrill of excitement spark through him. He’s stupidly brave, and it’s almost admirable. If it weren’t such a dangerous suggestion.

He considers the possibility, face screwing up as he considers. It’s too much for him to handle, his head is heavy with the weight of all the things that could go wrong. He shoves the thoughts aside fervently.

“I’m going to check on the guard,” Arthur decides, standing to his feet and marching away from Merlin with purpose. His stomach gives a loud grumble. In his eagerness to drink again he’d almost forgotten how desperately hungry he is.

“And find me some food.”

~-~-~

Merlin is sure that when Arthur requested food, he hadn’t wanted to be served rat stew; but food is scarce and beggars can’t be choosers. What Arthur doesn’t know won’t hurt him.

“Here you go, eat up,” Merlin says with a grin, placing the plate of stew before Arthur with a clatter.

Arthur wrinkles his nose like a small child kicking up a fuss about a plate of vegetables.

“I’m not hungry,” he grumbles.

Merlin frowns. “What do you mean you’re not hungry? None of us have eaten for three days. You’ve got to be hungry.”

Arthur glares at Merlin, heated and eager to argue, reminiscent of a toddler on the verge of throwing a tantrum.

“I can’t eat when I know my people are starving.”

A pang of longing rushes through Merlin, affection rising in him like a growing wave. He should have known that Arthur wasn’t eating for some stupid noble reason. Arthur never turns down a meal. Merlin can’t help but ponder if this famine might actually be harder for the prince to endure as he has likely never missed a meal in his life. His choice to avoid food could only be due to some ridiculous reason like undergoing a hunger strike to stand in solidarity with his people, whom he loves more than himself. His pout of defiance is so adorable it makes Merlin’s chest flutter, and his heart patters a staccato rhythm in his ribcage.

As sweet as his declaration of compassion is, Merlin doesn’t know how to convince him to eat. A silence settles over them as he deliberates but to his surprise, Arthur is the one to break it.

HIs eyes are determinedly fixed on the hard wood of the table as he speaks, with a frown between his creased brows.

“Merlin, do you really believe I am responsible for the curse?” He’s quite clearly attempting to sound detached, but he’s unsuccessful. It’s painfully obvious that this really matters to him.

Merlin chews on the side of his mouth, trying to formulate a response that won’t send Arthur spiralling. He knows — much as Arthur argues against it — that the prince values his honesty. He wouldn’t have asked Merlin if he didn’t want the truth, but that doesn’t change the fact that the truth will likely hurt him.

“I’m afraid so,” he murmurs eventually, ducking his head in preparation for Arthur’s inevitable snapping retort, but he doesn’t ever look away from Arthur.

He watches the infinitesimal changes in Arthur’s expression. His face at first glance seems to be an impassive mask, appearing completely removed from the conversation, but because Merlin is looking closely he can see that’s not the case. There’s a stubborn glint in his downturned eyes, and his brows twitch defensively. He notices the way Arthur’s jaw juts forward into defiance before smoothing into something neutral before the motion repeats, like his mind can’t decide between the two.

Arthur rubs a hand over his jaw thoughtfully, scratching at the side of his mouth and frowning. Merlin waits for him to rise to the defensive and snap at Merlin. There’s an empty goblet by Arthur’s hand that is liable to be thrown at Merlin’s head. He regrets not filling it when he had the chance, he’s much less likely to throw things when they will cause a mess.

Instead Arthur surprises him.

“We’re going to the forest first thing in the morning,” he says decisively, still not looking up at Merlin. “Maybe… we can pick up Anhora’s trail.”

Fondness swells within Merlin, filling him with warmth like a soothing balm, it eases down his spine and nestles in the tips of his fingers. He struggles to bite back the smile overcoming his face. He’s aware he’s beaming at Arthur like a yearning fool but unable to aid the situation.

“I think that’s a very good idea,” he says, holding his hands tightly behind his back to keep from reaching out to squeeze Arthur’s hand reassuringly. Arthur huffs softly, finally looking up and meeting Merlin’s eyes.

“Well, whatever it takes.”

Merlin gives up on trying to hide how proud he is and grins at Arthur widely. He claps his hands together and pushes the bowl of stew a little closer to Arthur.

“Okay, but you have to eat, you’re not going to be able to help anyone if you’re too weak to pass the test.”

Arthur scowls, looking like he desperately wishes he could argue but knows Merlin is right. He takes his spoon with a pout and Merlin tries to busy himself but finds it impossible not to watch as Arthur eats.

Arthur scoops a spoonful of the stew, slurping it from the spoon in a way that’s sinful. Merlin pointedly ignores the heat in the base of his belly, focusing instead on watching Arthur from the corner of his eye. He chews slowly, pauses, chews again and then wrinkles his nose.

Merlin winces internally, battling to keep his face as composed and unreadable as possible as Arthur looks down at the bowl, then up at him with a confused frown.

“What type of meat is this?” Arthur asks, chewing slowly on a particularly gamey piece with a grimace. “It has a very strange texture.”

Merlin raises his eyebrows innocently.

“It’s pork,” he answers, careful to keep his voice light.

Arthur pulls a face, sniffing the bowl, his lip curling in distaste.

“This isn’t pork,” he argues, pushing the meat around the bowl and peering at it. “It’s far too stringy. What is it, it’s um…”

Arthur stops, his spoon hovering just above the surface of the stew. Merlin watches in equal parts horror and amusement as Arthur’s face flicks through a range of emotions before settling on a sort of constipated frustration.

“It’s rat, isn’t it?”

Merlin offers a nervous smile and nods.

“Try not to think about it.”

Arthur downs three huge gulps of water and Merlin absolutely does not watch his Adam’s apple bob. He coughs, shuffling to grab the jug and refill Arthur’s glass to keep his hands occupied.

“Look at me, I’m being rude,” Arthur says with exaggerated earnest.

Merlin slowly turns to face him, shoulders hunched in preparation for something to go awfully wrong.

Arthur sends him an excessively innocent smile that Merlin knows he can’t trust.

“Here I am, stuffing my face with this delicious stew, when you must be hungry too!”

Arthur gets to his feet and pats the chair, smiling tauntingly at Merlin.

“Come on, take a seat.”

“No thank you, I’m not hungry.”

Merlin shakes his head, backing away into the chest of drawers as Arthur steps forward and corners him against it. He’s so close that Merlin could easily lean forward and capture his lips with his own, it wouldn’t even be difficult. He needs to stop thinking about kissing Arthur immediately.

“Nonsense,” Arthur says with a leering smile. His hands curl around Merlin’s shoulders and the warmth of his palms seeps through the thin fabric of Merlin’s tunic.

I’m going to die, Merlin thinks a little helplessly as Arthur manhandles him into the lavish seat.

“Come on Merlin,” Arthur taunts, his tongue curling delightfully around Merlin’s name. “Eat up.”

He’s leaning over Merlin with his arm secure over the back of the seat, coiled around Merlin’s shoulders and his nose brushing the side of Merlin’s hair as he watches Merlin pick up the spoon. Merlin’s fingers tremble, whether from hesitation to eat the stew or Arthur’s proximity is anyone’s guess, he certainly can’t fathom anything over the pounding of his own heart.

“Eat,” Arthur orders, the barest hint of amusement threaded through the single word.

Merlin scoops a small portion of the stew and tentatively eats the mouthful. Arthur was right, the texture is truly strange. It’s uncomfortably gamey, falling apart into chewy pieces of stringy meat that won't dissolve no matter how much Merlin chews them.

Arthur makes a humming noise of encouragement right by Merlin’s ear and his heart skitters at the sound.

Merlin struggles not to gag as he swallows the meat.

“It’s actually not too bad,” he manages to choke out, screwing up his nose as another whiff of the odd smelling stew wafts through the air.

“I’m glad,” Arthur smiles acidically. His fingers curl around Merlin’s and push another spoonful of the soup to his waiting mouth. Arthur’s calloused fingers wrapped around his own distracts Merlin enough to make him more pliable to Arthur’s urging hands.

“Because there’s plenty more where that came from.”

Arthur points to the pot of extra stew and Merlin pales.

~-~-~

They have been scouring the forest for Anhora’s strail for almost an hour when Arthur sees a flash of white cape rounding the corner.

“Merlin!” He shouts, not even bothering to look over his shoulder to see where Merlin is before taking off after the sorcerer.

Arthur tramples over brambles and shoves his way through branches and twigs in a frantic rush, jumps over fallen logs and ducks underneath branches in a frantic rush as he slips through the beaten path. The sorcerer may be powerful, but Arthur knows this part of the forest and he cuts through a shortcut, pushing his way through the underbrush and gains on Anhora.

His feet slip on the icy, muddy ground but he doesn’t slow lest he lose the sorcerer in the woods.

He rounds the corner but the sorcerer is gone, instead, Evan, the peasant man from two nights earlier is seated on the floor, leering up at Arthur.

“You.”

Evan is surrounded by piles of food, tomatoes, watermelon, carrots and oats. It's more food than Arthur has seen in days. He’s eating an apple leisurely, lavishing every bite. He grins at Arthur as his teeth sink into the crisp apple and Arthur’s stomach growls desperately.

“You’re a thief,” Arthur states the obvious. There’s a huge pile of grain just behind Evan. The meagre bag Arthur allowed him to steal would have only accounted for a sixth of the sack at most.

Evan laughs coldly. “Wasn’t that obvious when you caught me stealing your grain?”

Arthur tamps down the flash of irritation that flares in his gut. He redirects his thoughts to Anhora. His people need him.

“You’re lucky I have more important things I need to deal with,” Arthur mutters through gritted teeth, walking away from Evan.

“You didn’t really believe that story about my children did you?” Evan calls after him, cruel laughter sewn into his words.

Arthur stops, looking over his shoulder at the man.

“What kind of sick person lies about starving children to save his own skin?” He demands. Camelot sits heavily in Arthur’s mind. When he and Merlin were leaving the city this morning, a small girl had approached him; her gaunt face was twisted with grief and her hands were as thin as bone and shaking as she held them out and begged desperately for food that Arthur was unable to give her.

“You let a thief steal grain that your people so desperately need.” Evan tuts, shaking his head at Arthur. “This is why they doubt you.” He chuckles cruelly.

Arthur ignores the prickle of fear that shoots through him.

“You don’t speak for my people,” he fires back. He feels like he’s trying to convince himself more than Evan.

Once more Arthur moves to walk away and Evan continues to throw insults at his turned back.

“You know, your father would never have allowed himself to be fooled like that.”

The derision knocks Arthur off balance, causing a wave of dizzying insecurity to strike through his body. He knew when he let Evan go that he was not acting as his father would. If Uther were to know that Arthur spared a thief his wrath would be insurmountable. His father would not have hesitated to have Evan executed, regardless of whether his plea about starving children was true.

“You would do well to hold your tongue,” he says in a clipped tone. “Or I will make time to teach you some manners.”

Evan grins, as if what Arthur is saying is extraordinarily funny rather than a threat.

“Your father would have had me executed, but you didn’t have the stomach for it, did you, Arthur?”

“I would have too if I didn’t care about the children of my kingdom.”

Evan tsks, shaking his head.

“Not your kingdom yet, now is it?” A stab of pain shoots from Arthur’s gut. “Lucky thing too. If you can’t even uphold the law, your father has good reason to doubt that you’ll make a good king.”

Arthur freezes. His muscles grow tense and taut while his stomach clenches painfully. The frustration he had been carefully suppressing roars to life, a furious fire that burns in his gut.

“You know nothing of what my father thinks,” he spits, glaring at Evan who continues to lounge back against the stolen goods.

“I think he wishes he had another son,” Evan answers casually. He waves his hand flippantly, as if he’s talking about nothing more consequential than the weather. His words make Arthur’s stomach roll, filling him with dread that tugs sharply at his heartstrings. He desperately wants to tell Evan that he’s wrong, but his mouth feels sewn shut. It’s growing impossible to battle the fear clawing at his chest that what Evan is saying could be true, that Uther does wish he had another son.

“One who is worthy of taking his place,” Evan continues and Arthur’s anger erupts. “You bring him shame.”

He exhales sharply, rage clouding his eyes and his mind as he storms towards the treasonous peasant.

“Pick up your sword.”

Evan scoffs, slowly getting to his feet and brushing off his legs. He moves in a slow, leisurely manner and is obviously untroubled by Arthur’s fury.

“The king must fear the day when you will take the throne.”

“Shut up!” Arthur roars, lunging forward with his sword. He slashes at Evan wildly; he lacks his usual careful precision but makes up for the loss by driving his movements with pure unadulterated rage.

Evan dances out of his grip, blocking his movements with ease and grinning at Arthur. He makes Arthur’s blood boil, his hands shake, he’s infuriating in the worst possible ways.

Their duel is like a dance and they bound over the dirt floor in synchrony. Their blades ring out in sharp bursts as they clash together, blocking and swiping at each other as their feet jump over roots and stones.

“The king must wonder if you are even his son,” Evan laughs and Arthur yells as he strikes his sword down, almost growling with frustration as the blade is blocked easily.

Arthur hacks wildly at Evan, blind with rage. His knuckles are white as he grips the hilt of his sword, sweaty palms sticky against the metal hilt. He is frenzied with his anger, completely lost to the red clouding his vision. Evan forces him into a weaker stance and Arthur parries his way out of the position. He is barely aware of the duel, only the rushing of his blood in his ears and the way his heart punches against his chest.

He drives Evan against a tree, barely stilling long enough to breathe before sending the next arch of his sword towards the man. The smug look on Evan’s face slowly fades into fear as he is backed into a corner.

Arthur plunges his sword forward, but where it should meet Evan’s body it passes through nothing. He staggers forward, unprepared for the lack of resistance.

The peasant man is gone, vanished into thin air like a wisp of smoke. Arthur whirls around searching frantically for an explanation and his eyes fall on Anhora who stands calmly across the clearing, staring at him. If the sorcerer’s face had been disappointed when they first met, there aren’t words to describe the displeasure in his eyes as he looks at Arthur today.

“This was your doing,” Arthur realises, storming towards Anhora menacingly.

Anhora doesn’t so much as blink, where others would quiver under Arthur’s threatening stance the man is completely aloof.

“It was a test,” he explains with a monotonous and calm voice. “To see what was truly in your heart.”

Arthur is still brimming with anger, so much so that he dismisses the doubt eating at his skin with a scoff.

“No. Your tricks prove nothing.”

Anhora stares at Arthur, unperturbed.

“Why did you kill that man?” He asks, completely ignoring Arthur. Anger simmers in Arthur’s blood, the frustration from his fight with Evan still leaving him breathless, chest heaving with resentment and the aftershocks of adrenaline.

Arthur splutters. “He insulted my honour.”

He can’t stand still, fury hums under his skin, nervous energy that makes his entire body itch with hives. He paces the forest floor, breaths coming out in short pants and heart colliding painfully with his rib cage.

“You could have chosen to ignore his taunts,” Anhora raises the point impassively, without even raising an eyebrow. “What harm would they do to you?”

The desire to scream builds in Arthur’s throat, bubbling like a cauldron left to boil. Anhora’s words burn into his skin, blistering and scarring.

He thrashes them away, blind with anger.

“You will lift the curse,” Arthur orders, pointing his sword at the sorcerer’s jugular.

Anhora’s shoulders sag in a sigh.

“It is not in my power,” he answers placidly. Arthur is infuriated by his calm demeanour, it claws and crawls under his skin, burrowing into his body like a parasite, stoking the raging fire of his frustration.

“Then you will die,” Arthur decides. He plunges his sword, aiming for the sorcerer’s heart, flying forward when he fails to make impact as the sorcerer disappears and reappears a foot away.

Anhora sighs heavily, treating Arthur like a disappointing small child who held such promise, and failed to meet his purpose.

“Killing me will not help you,” he tells Arthur calmly, disappearing once more as Arthur swings his sword; it meets nothing but air, slicing easily with no resistance. He falls to the floor with a crash, landing heavily on his shoulder.

Arthur groans, rolling off his arm and ignores its dull throbbing as he twists his neck to see the sorcerer.

Anhora looks down his nose at Arthur.

“You have failed the test.”

Arthur’s heart plummets. His anger tears away almost painfully, leaving him devastatingly empty, a horrible twisting feeling swallowing him whole.

“No,” he gasps, choking on each inhale. “No please—”

Anhora doesn’t flinch.

“You have shown that you are willing to kill a man to defend your pride,” he states coldly, ignoring Arthur’s desperation. “For this, Camelot will pay dearly.”

“My people have done nothing,” Arthur begs frantically, plea tearing from his throat painfully. Tears spring to Arthur’s eyes, achingly vulnerable in the face of this impassive stranger. They sting as he struggles to blink them away.

“Your people’s suffering is not my doing,” Anhora dismisses. “It is yours.”

With those final words he disappears, leaving Arthur lying in the dirt with his head hung and hot tears burning his eyes.

~-~-~

Guilt festers in Arthur’s chest, a horrible sensation that chills him deep in his bones and the thin lines of his veins.

The remaining grain in the store has completely rotted away, leaving no morsel behind. The kingdom will starve and it’s all Arthur’s fault.

He should have realised he was being tested and protected his kingdom. Anhora was right, in one stupid interaction he has proven what is truly in his heart. He would risk not only the life of one man, but his entire kingdom, on the insults of one man.

Arthur has always wanted to be a good king, he wants to do the right thing for his people, protect them, keep them safe. He isn’t even king yet and he is already letting them down. How can he be a good king when he values himself over the lives of his people?

He drums his fingers against the stone table of the courtroom. His father summoned him, impatient to discuss Camelot’s fleeting food supply. How he plans to address the issue, Arthur doesn’t know.

His head jerks up as Uther storms into the room, cape billowing in his wake and a stern clench in his jaw.

“What news?” Uther demands, waving his hand, signalling for Arthur to speak.

“There are some supplies left in the palace stores. We have begun distributing them to the people, but they’re meagre. They’re not enough to live on.” Arthur answers dutifully. He pushes down the suffocating guilt sitting in the base of his throat. It is a continued pressure on his air supply, forcing every breath that leaves his lungs to squeeze painfully, but he manages to speak around it.

Uther nods slowly, running a hand over his mouth and jaw, his brows creased deeply and leaving chasms in his forehead. Arthur waits impatiently, fingers twitching by his side as he itches to hear his father’s thoughts.

“Then you must stop distributing food to the people,” Uther says blankly, staring at the wall with a distant look in his eyes.

Arthur only just manages to stop himself from gaping, confident he must have misheard his father.

“What?” He asks hollowly. “They will starve.”

Uther nods roughly. Arthur's grip on the table tightens until his knuckles are white with strain.

“We must conserve the food we have for our army,” Uther declares diplomatically, raising his chin and staring directly into Arthur’s eyes, almost daring him to disagree.

Arthur wants to shrink under his stare, bow out of the conversation as he usually would. But he has already let his people down so much. He can’t let them suffer any more at his hand. Especially not due to his own cowardice in the face of his father.

“We cannot let out people go without food—” he tries to argue, but his father disregards him.

“We must protect the kingdom at all costs.”

Arthur only just manages to withhold a scoff.

“What’s the point of protecting a kingdom when its people have starved to death?” ”

Uther’s face wrinkles with contemptuous frustration. He waves a dismissive hand at Arthur. A movement Arthur knows to mean Uther thinks Arthur’s opinion is invalid, as he does not yet understand what it takes to be a king, even though it is the role he has been training for since his birth.

“What would you have me do?” Uther offers the opportunity for Arthur to speak his mind, even though Arthur knows he won’t listen to the answer.

“Ask the neighbouring kingdoms for help,” Arthur tries anyway knowing his suggestion will fall on deaf ears.

Uther laughs callously.

“They might be able to provide some help,” Arthur continues to push.

“Out of the question,” Uther snaps. “As soon as they realise how weak we are our enemies will strike against us.”

“You don’t know that for certain,” Arthur argues. “And it is a risk you are willing to take?” Uther asks derisively, lip curling as he looks at Arthur. The king is intimidating, a power incomparable to Arthur’s own. His forehead is flushed red and his eyes are burning with ridicule, entirely disgusted with Arthur’s suggestion.

“It is a risk we have to take.”

His father growls, slamming a hand against the side of the throne and Arthur flinches away.

“I would rather starve than beg my enemies for help,” Uther snarls.

He looks at Arthur with contempt and disappointed derision, frustrated with Arthur’s stubbornness. He knows his father is expecting him to cower beneath his stare and so he does his best to stand tall, lifting his chin and holding his stare.

“What of our kingdom’s reputation? Have you no pride?” Uther demands.

Arthur stills. His heart races, and his chest heaves, and the world freezes around the point where he and his father stand.

He can hear Anhora, staring at Arthur with disdain.

You have shown that you are willing to kill a man for your own pride.

Pride.

What good is pride anyway? He favoured his pride, protected it with all his worth and fought for it as his father would have done; and all it brought Camelot was pain and suffering. What good does strength do for a kingdom that has fallen and people who are unhappy and dying?

Arthur would rather be humiliated every day for as long as he lives than subject Camelot to any more hardship. If he can protect his people, his pride should be his last concern.

He looks his father in the eye, strengthening his resolve and bracing himself for attack.

“I cannot think of my pride, whilst our people starve,” Arthur says solemnly.

Uther’s face grows livid, his cheeks flushing red with restraint as he struggles not to scream at Arthur.

Arthur’s heart clamours in his chest as Uther stalks toward him. He stands his ground, clenching his hands into fists to keep them from shaking.

“Give the order to stop distributing food to the people,” Uther commands coldly, his stare burning into Arthur. Arthur’s throat goes dry, breaths coming out in short pants.

He says nothing and Uther’s expression darkens. The king is standing on the platform at the front of the courtroom and its height allows him to look down his nose at Arthur.

“Is that understood?”

Arthur’s breath sticks in his throat and he swallows in an attempt to bring some moisture to his dry mouth. He can’t inhale properly, the air enters shallowly into his lungs before puffing nervously from his lips. His hands shake fiercely by his side. A long pause descends over them as Arthur struggles to force his voice out.

“You’ll have to give that order yourself,” he says, quiet but firm, staring unshakably into the king’s eyes.

He strides away, shoulders stiff and stomach curling unpleasantly.

“Very well,” Uther says to his turned back. “But if you had caught the sorcerer I wouldn’t have to. That is your responsibility.”

His words are untrue but their meaning strikes Arthur like the lash of a whip. It is Arthur’s fault, not his father’s, that Camelot is in this position.

He, and he alone, bears the responsibility of their suffering.

~-~-~

In all the time he has known Arthur, Merlin has never seen him so desolate.

He is concerned for the future as the two look down at the stretching queue of people who wait for a meagre portion of grain. Gaius had served Merlin scorpion for lunch, and despite the physician's insistence it would taste like chicken, it had tasted of nothing of the sort.

However his own concern is nothing compared to the hollow look in Arthur’s eyes. The prince is perched against the stone railing, chin cupped in his hands and eyebrows furrowed low over his blue eyes. His blond hair is messy, and Merlin observes a gaunt look under his eyes which has been present since he failed Anhora’s test.

“Arthur, are you okay?” He asks cautiously. His fingers itch to reach out to Arthur, to seize his elbow or squeeze his shoulder in reassurance. He folds them together to keep himself from the desire.

Arthur ignores him, indicating towards the long line of people below them.

“They do not yet know there is worse to come,” he says with a voice that is empty and broken, devastated by something Merlin does not yet understand.

Merlin frowns, turning towards Arthur properly.

“What do you mean?”

Arthur sighs, dropping his head forward into his hands and taking a slow breath. He turns to look Merlin in the eyes, and Merlin is startled by the mournful depth.

“My father is going to stop distributing food to the people,” he explains quietly and meticulously devoid of emotion. Despite his carefully guarded emotions, the sheen of tears in his eyes and the way his fingers tremble against his chin reveals how devastated Arthur is by the news.

Merlin’s stomach sinks. The people have already endured days with barely enough food to survive, to go without food at all is unthinkable.

Arthur voices what Merlin doesn’t even dare to think.

“They are to be left to starve.”

Merlin watches with a heavy heart as Arthur turns back to the courtyard wearing a sombre expression.

“I had the chance to lift the curse, and I failed them,” he says bitterly, frustration turning his words sour; they ring with self hatred, so filled with disgust it makes Merlin’s heart tug.

“You didn’t know you were being tested,” he tries to convince him.

Arthur doesn’t roll his eyes but it’s a near thing.

“I should have done the right thing,” he shuts Merlin down.

Arthur doesn’t look at Merlin as he speaks but Merlin feels his heavy gaze against his skin like a brand.

“My people are starving. Camelot—” Arthur’s voice hitches and Merlin watches him swallow the stinging weight of tears. “—My kingdom is on the verge of collapse… and it is all my fault.”

“Arthur—” he says softly, trailing off when he realises he doesn’t know what to say. Merlin aches to reassure him, to tell him it isn’t his fault, but he can’t make empty promises which will only injure the prince. He won’t lie to Arthur unless he has to. To lie to him now would only be an injustice to them both.

Without a word Arthur turns and walks away and Merlin watches him leave.

There is only one thing he can do to help.

~-~-~

“Anhora!”

Merlin’s voice echoes through the forest, he listens for a sign of the sorcerer as his words reach the very tops of the trees.

“Anhora!” He shouts again, scanning the forest frantically. There is no sign of the white cape of the sorcerer, nor his coiled staff. Merlin’s heart begins its slow descent into his gut, and his stomach twists. He isn’t coming.

As Merlin turns to leave, Anhora's deep voice disturbs the silence of the forest.

“You wanted to speak with me,” he states simply.

Merlin whirls around to face him.

“I came to seek your help,” Merlin says, rushing forward to Anhora’s feet, looking up at the sorcerer from where he stands on a raised mound of dirt.

“I will hear you, but I cannot guarantee my help,” Anhora permits, waving his hand for Merlin to speak.

“Please. The people are starving, they will soon be dead. We need food,” Merlin explains, wringing his hands in front of him.

Anhora sighs, running a hand soothingly along the worn wood of his staff.

“You must believe me when I tell you, it gives me no pleasure to see the people of Camelot suffering.”

Merlin’s hands flap in the air as he loses his last piece of restraint.

“If it pains you then put an end to it,” he begs, barely keeping himself from dropping to his knees in desperation.

Anhora’s frown deepens with a heavy crease between his brows and around his mouth. He seems both disappointed and regretful, it is the saddened expression of someone whose hands are tied but still longs to help.

“It is not within my power to end the curse, if it were I would do so.”

Merlin stands his ground even though his hands tremble with nerves. He thinks of the emptiness in Arthur’s eyes and the line of starving people at Camelot’s gates who will soon be turned away.

“Then give Arthur another chance,” he urges. “He has accepted he is responsible , he will prove himself worthy, and lift the curse. You just have to give him one more chance.”

Merlin can see the contemplation enter Anhora’s deep silver eyes and he coaxes him just that bit further.

“I know he will.”

“You have faith in Arthur?” Anhora asks thoughtfully, his weathered knuckles curl protectively around his staff.

Merlin stands tall. He sees Arthur in his mind’s eye, magnificent, wonderful, Arthur. The ignorant, pig headed prat, who has never once willingly shown his weaknesses to Merlin before today. The prince who was only truly broken by the thought that his people would suffer, knowing that he doomed them to their fate. Merlin knows that deep to his core he is a good person, a great person even, who would one day make a great king. He just needs another chance to show Anhora that.

“I trust him with my life.”

Anhora nods slowly, a thoughtful look spreading across his old face. He purses his lips and looks at Merlin, his silver eyes seem to be staring into Merlin’s very soul.

“Arthur must go to the Labyrinth of Gedref, there he will face his final test,” he instructs, speaking slowly and eloquently to ensure Merlin does not miss a word.

“If he fails, there is no hope. Camelot will be destroyed. There is nothing I can do to stop it.”

~-~-~

Merlin follows Arthur towards the Labyrinth of Gedref, keeping a few paces behind and careful to stay out of Arthur’s sight. The git is stupid if he truly thought Merlin would obey him when he forbade him from coming. As if Merlin was going to let Arthur walk into danger alone; especially when Merlin knows Arthur would willingly die to save Camelot.

Luckily for Merlin, Arthur is so swept up in his journey to the Labyrinth he doesn’t even notice Merlin following him. For now he is grateful, but Merlin resolves to have a conversation with Arthur later about the importance of being aware of his surroundings. Especially when one is the crown prince and sole heir of the throne.

The labyrinth sprawls over the span of the hillside, an enormous mass that looms over them. Merlin loses sight of Arthur as soon as he steps into the maze. The hedges appear to swallow him whole, and no matter how much Merlin attempts to carefully follow his footsteps, or listen for sounds of him, Merlin can’t find a sign of Arthur.

The foliage encompasses him from every side, a claustrophobic winding path that seemingly continues on forever. Merlin’s breaths start to quicken as he turns identical corners and wanders down indistinguishable corridors. With every twist in the path he feels that he’s only moving further away from Arthur. There is no sound but his own footsteps squelching against the muddy path and his heartbeat pumping in his ears.

He rounds a corner and is met with Anhora who is waiting with a sword drawn and a dark expression in his eyes.

“You said Arthur would face a test, and here you are preparing a trap for him,” Merlin accuses, unable to keep the vitriol from his voice.

Anhora raises his eyebrows, the closest he has ever come to looking surprised.

“The trap is not for Arthur,” Anhora replies cooly, pointing the sword at Merlin’s jugular. Merlin’s breath catches in his throat. “It is for you.”

Merlin braces for the sword’s fatal blow but it doesn’t come, instead Anhora chants an incantation. The spell runs up the metal of the sword and transforms into vines that wrap tightly around Merlin’s flailing limbs.

He struggles against the twisting coils, desperately trying to escape their hold but they dig into his arms and legs firmly. Merlin can feel them cut into the flesh of his skin, leaving harsh, raw gashes in their wake as they loop tighter. He’s left standing like a knight prepared for battle.

“Come now,” Anhora beckons, putting up a hand to stop Merlin as he continues to fight the hold of the vines. “Arthur will be arriving soon.”

~-~-~

Merlin sags with relief when Arthur finally emerges from the great mouth of the labyrinth, sword drawn in anxious preparation and eyes scanning the scene for danger.

Merlin is seated at a wooden table against the shore of a beach. Whenever a particularly strong wave careens into the shore, droplets splash onto Merlin’s ankles and shins. From where they are seated, the water appears to continue forever, stretching endlessly until it seizes the horizon. There is nothing particular of note, even the table is bare, but for two goblets of white wine.

He watches as Arthur takes it all in. The goblets, the table, Merlin. He can see the moment Arthur’s eyes fall on him, because they widen with disbelief and then narrow in frustration.

“Merlin?” He says incredulously, making his way over the rocky beach towards him.

“I’m sorry,” Merlin blurts out immediately.

Arthur stands still, taking in Merlin’s nervous disposition, hands tucked under his thighs as his eyes dart nervously to where Anhora observes the entire interaction.

“Let him go,” Arthur demands, straightening his spine. “I’ll take your test, but not until he is released.”

Merlin’s heart skips with fondness as Arthur positions himself so he’s standing protectively in front of Merlin, partially shielding him from Anhora’s sight.

Anhora shakes his head serenely.

“That is not possible. Merlin is part of the test.”

Arthur turns back to look at Merlin, and he can see the hesitation in his blue eyes. Arthur’s feet stay planted on the rocks and his eyes flicker with indecision. Merlin tries to wordlessly reassure Arthur even as his insides curl and knot into themselves with anxiety. It’s impossible to convey with eyes alone that Merlin would rather stay in this dangerous position than leave Arthur alone. He would suffer any consequence if it meant keeping Arthur safe.

“If you refuse the test you will have failed, and Camelot will be destroyed,” Anhora presses.

Arthur’s face screws up with indecision but he makes his way to the other end of the table, seating himself opposite Merlin. The two goblets wait menacingly on the table before them, a physical presence of their own.

“I thought I told you to stay at home,” he says, looking at Merlin with frustration that poorly masks his concern.

Merlin ducks his head away from Arthur’s irritated stare even as something warm and affectionate sets off in his chest. He didn’t realise Arthur cared about what happened to him. It’s odd really, to think how far they’ve come in the short six months they’ve known each other. If someone had suggested to Merlin that Arthur might be concerned for his well being back then he probably would have laughed in their face.

“Alright, let’s get on with it,” Arthur snaps. His tone is rude and demanding but Merlin sees the fear clouding his eyes. He’s anxious, and desperate for the test to be completed.

Anhora doesn’t falter, staring appraisingly at the two of them.

“The test is simple,” he says clearly. “There are two goblets before you. One of the goblets contains a deadly poison. The other goblet, merely harmless wine. All of the liquid from both goblets must be drunk, but each of you may only drink from one goblet.”

Merlin’s eyes jump to Arthur. His face is screwed up in either confusion or disgust, his nose is wrinkled and his eyebrows are furrowed.

“What kind of ridiculous test is that?” Arthur demands, looking at Anhora with a scornful expression. “What does that prove?” Anhora frowns. “What it proves is for you to decide. However, should you pass the test, the curse will be lifted.”

Arthur’s disdain slips away to reveal a more vulnerable fear concealed underneath. Merlin watches his emotive eyes flick from Merlin, to the goblets, to Anhora, before repeating the cycle once again. It’s like he can’t settle on a place to focus, every movement is dictated by indecision.

A heavy silence settles over them as they both look at the goblets. Merlin’s mind turns over the riddle. There are only four elements really, the two goblets, himself and Arthur. The answer is simple; he cannot let Arthur die, so it has to be him who drinks the poison. He just has to ensure he drinks from the right goblet.

“Let’s think about this,” Merlin breaks the silence. “What if I drink from my goblet first?”

Arthur’s frown deepens, when he’s upset with something his eyebrows crease in the middle, right above the bump in his nose. It’s upsettingly becoming.

“If it’s poisoned you’ll die,” he dismisses Merlin’s proposal with a scoff.

“And if it’s not, you’ll have to drink from yours and you’ll die,” Merlin retorts.

Merlin drums his fingers anxiously against the surface of the table. The goblets suddenly seem much larger, they seem to loom like menacing beasts over the two young men.

“There must be a way around it,” he mumbles, thinking out loud.

“No it’s perfectly simple like he said,” Arthur argues. “One of us has to die.”

“Thank you, your royal obviousness,” Merlin mutters sarcastically.

Arthur rolls his eyes.

“What I mean is the challenge is working out which one has the poison,” he explains, articulating the question Merlin is mulling over in his mind.

“Then I will drink it,” Arthur says calmly.

Merlin’s eyes snap up from the goblets to meet Arthur’s. His heart squeezes, causing a sharp burst of pain to strike through him. He’s horrified Arthur would even think to suggest such a thing. To Merlin there was never any doubt that he would drink the poison, it was only about ensuring that could happen.

“Absolutely not,” he says sharply. “I will be the one to drink it.”

Arthur glares back at Merlin, meeting his insistence with equal force and stubbornness.

“This is my doing. I’m drinking it.”

Merlin’s heart begins to pound in his chest like a drum. A world without Arthur is unthinkable.

“It’s more important that you live,” he argues, gritting his teeth until his jaw aches. “You’re the future king, I’m just a servant.”

Arthur doesn’t budge, his headstrong gaze is as steely and determined as it was before Merlin spoke; if anything his resolve strengthens with Merlin’s words.

“This is no time to be a hero, Merlin. It really doesn’t suit you.”

“This is no time to be an arse, but here you are,” Merlin quips back, words saturated with frustration.

Arthur just smiles, but it doesn’t quite reach his eyes. They stay firmly on the two goblets in the centre of the table. Merlin follows his gaze with a heavy frown.

He can’t let Arthur die, that is the only thing he knows for certain. No matter what they do, nor what Arthur wants. Merlin must drink the poison.

“What if… I drink from the first goblet, and if it isn’t poisoned I’ll drink from yours too?” Merlin suggests hopelessly.

Arthur shakes his head.

“I will be drinking the poison,” he vows stubbornly with a pout.

“Besides.” Arthur’s eyes flick over to where Anhora is watching them passively. “He said we could each only drink from a single goblet.”

Merlin sighs, running distressed hands over his face and rubbing at the beginnings of a headache in his temples. He can feel Arthur’s eyes on him, watching his every anxious movement with an intrigued expression.

“I had no idea you were so keen to die for me,” he teases. His foot bumps against Merlin’s under the table fondly and Merlin’s pulse stutters.

I would do anything for you Merlin thinks fiercely, looking at Arthur.

He’s silhouetted against the bright blue sky and a halo of light is spanning from his golden hair. He is bright and gorgeous, casting light over the beach even with his taunting smile and anxiety filled eyes.

Destiny be damned, Merlin can’t let Arthur die, simply because he cares about him.

“Trust me, I can hardly believe it myself,” he jokes in return, carefully placing his feelings in his chest and holding them close.

Arthur chuckles, letting his head drop forward. Merlin sees the normal warmth return to his eyes for a moment before apprehension resettles as he looks at the goblets once more.

“I—” Arthur’s eyebrows knit in frustration as he struggles with the words and his fingers wrap tightly around the edges of the table.

“I’m glad you’re here Merlin,” he says eventually. He looks into Merlin’s eyes and Merlin can see the sincerity that lies there. “Despite—” Arthur vaguely gestures at the situation they’re in.

Merlin’s chest warms. He knows Arthur can’t say it. That he would have hated to face this test alone, even though he ordered Merlin not to come. He’s grateful that Merlin didn’t listen. He’s grateful for Merlin.

It’s not the same as how Merlin feels for him, it doesn’t even come close, but it’s nice to know that Arthur wants him there.

He looks at the goblets and the answer finally becomes clear.

“I’ve got it!” Merlin exclaims, grinning wildly at Arthur with eyes that sparkle in exhilaration. He leans over the table in his eagerness, a confident buzz making his movements large and uncontrollable.

“If we pour all the liquid into one goblet, we will be sure it is poisoned. Then all the liquid can be drunk and it will be from a single goblet.”

Merlin sits back with a proud smile, feeling rather impressed with himself for thinking of the solution. The pleased feeling grows as he watches the realisation dawn like the rising sun over Arthur’s face. A slow smile stretches over his pink lips and his eyes glimmer with amazement. The genuine awe in his eyes makes Merlin’s heart skip with elation and he has to duck his head to hide his flushed cheeks.

“You never cease to surprise me,” Arthur praises with a warm awestruck lilt to his voice that makes Merlin’s body tingle. “You’re a lot smarter than you look.”

Merlin raises an eyebrow with a smirk, choosing to ignore the backhandedness of his remark.

“Is that actually a proper compliment?”

“Don’t let it get to your head,” Arthur grins.

“Of course not, Sire,” Merlin answers with a cheeky smile.

Arthur’s grin fades into a soft smile as his eyes glance over Merlin slowly, taking him in almost like a final goodbye.

“Arthur?” Merlin prods carefully.

“Look out!” Arthur shouts, pointing over Merlin’s shoulder.

Merlin whips around, hand flying out, ready to protect them; but he sees nothing but blue sky and glistening water. He turns back to Arthur as the clunk of goblets reveal the prince’s plan.

“No!” Merlin shouts. He reaches out a hand for the goblet as Arthur pours the liquid into the one cup and tucks it close to his heart.

“I will drink it,” Merlin insists.

Arthur slaps his hand away.

“As if I’d let you,” he says, his stubbornness is equally infuriating and charming. Merlin wants to punch him, and kiss him, and wishes he could hate him rather than feel so unbearably fond.

Merlin’s heart is racing, pounding a frantic beat in his chest that echoes into his ears. His breaths come out in short sharp bursts. Anxious energy making him dizzy. He can’t think past the knowledge that he has to stop this. His thoughts are swamped by terror that looms over his head and threatens to swallow him whole.

“Arthur, you can’t die,” Merlin persists. “This isn’t your destiny.”

“Seems you’re wrong again, Merlin.”

Arthur doesn’t waver, blue eyes shining with fear and strength all at once.

He’s beautiful in a staggering way that makes Merlin’s heart ache.

“Please Arthur. Listen to me—”

Arthur offers Merlin an indulgent smile.

“You know me Merlin, I never listen to you,” he says, his voice trembles but his words remain firm.

“Arthur—” Merlin tries to protest but Arthur halts him from continuing by toasting the goblet and tipping it down his throat.

Merlin’s heart plummets. The world slows as Arthur’s eyes droop, eyelids sinking under a heavy weight as his pupils lose focus; everything grows muffled except for the ceasing of Arthur’s breath.

“No!” Merlin screams, the word tearing from his throat as Arthur topples backwards. He launches from his stool, rushing to Arthur’s side. His knees crash painfully into the rocky shore, his hands flutter over Arthur, touching his breastplate, his chainmail, his jaw.

“Arthur, come on, don’t do this,” Merlin murmurs. His heart races anxiously in his chest.

“Arthur, Arthur please,” Merlin repeats Arthur’s name frantically. His hands won’t still, they jump over Arthur’s body in a desperate need to do something. Merlin cups Arthur’s cheeks, presses his palms to his still chest. He chokes when he feels nothing under his touch, no heartbeat, no gentle breath, Arthur is stagnant.

Arthur doesn’t move. His lips are parted, his limbs are heavy and unresponsive.

Merlin’s hands shudder, he can’t breathe. He can’t lose him. He can’t lose someone else, not now, not again. Never. He can never lose Arthur.

“No, Arthur,” Merlin gasps, his words feel like thorns that latch onto the column of his throat.

His chest aches, it feels like he’s suffocating; the air around him does nothing to fill his lungs as every breath catches on the tears in his throat. Merlin shivers as he moves closer to Arthur. His fingers cup gently around Arthur’s jaw and tenderly strokes the lines of Arthur’s cheekbones with his thumbs.

It feels like his body is closing on itself, crumbling inwards to protect him but simultaneously leaving him crushed and claustrophobic.

Merlin can feel Anhora’s eyes watching him, passively observing from a few feet away. Like he’s treating Merlin’s grief as a spectacle, a performance for his entertainment.

“Please,” Merlin begs, his voice scratched and raw. “Please.”

He looks down at Arthur, who lies peacefully in his arms, his eyelashes fanning out against his pale cheeks and his mouth parted. Merlin would do anything for this idiot, anything at all. It should be a terrifying thought but it isn’t. Not with Arthur here, unresponsive under Merlin’s gentle hands.

“Just, let me take his place,” he pleads, looking with frenzied eyes at Anhora.

Anhora doesn’t move, his expression doesn’t twitch or shift to indicate what the keeper of the unicorns is thinking.

“This was Arthur’s test,” he replies plainly. “Not yours.”

Merlin’s heart convulses painfully, tugging sharply at his chest. He squeezes his eyes shut, breath catching on the thick lump of tears in his throat.

“You don’t understand,” he says hoarsely. “You’ve killed him. I was—” he breaks off with a gasp.

Merlin strokes his thumb along the soft skin under Arthur’s eye gingerly. Something twists painfully in his chest, like a shard of glass has been embedded into his lungs.

“I was meant to protect him,” he whispers.

“He isn’t dead,” Anhora says serenely.

Merlin’s head swims with confusion even as his breaths ease. The thick cloud of fear in his mind makes his thoughts slow and muddled, like they’re wading through thick treacle in order to get to his mind.

“What?” He manages to croak.

Anhora folds his fingers around his staff and stares evenly at Merlin.

“He has merely consumed a sleeping draught, he will awaken shortly.”

“What?” Merlin echoes. The realisation slips over him slowly, and then collides with his body all at once. His head drops forward with a gasp of relief, shoulders trembling as the aftershocks wear from his body.

“A unicorn is pure of heart,” Anhora explains. “If you kill one you must make amends by proving that you too, are pure of heart. Arthur was willing to sacrifice his life to save yours, he has proven what is truly in his heart.”

Merlin looks down at Arthur, a fond smile pulling at his lips.

“And the curse?” Merlin asks.

“The curse will be lifted.”

~-~-~

Camelot is flourishing when they return.

The city is a bright whirlwind of colour and energy, nothing like the desolate and hunger struck city that they left for the labyrinth. Farmers and peasants bustle from the citadel’s walls with baskets of bread and grain, both food and smiles are easy to come by. Every person seems to be imbued by a sense of sweet relief, laughing and chattering with vigour, like they’re making up for days of inactivity and exhaustion. Merlin’s stomach grumbles loudly as a platter of laden food passes his nose. It's been days since he had a good meal and just the sight of it makes his mouth water.

Merlin watches with a fond smile as the tension in Arthur’s shoulders unwinds as they venture deeper into the city. The burden of Camelot’s suffering has been eased off his shoulders. The anxiety that has lingered in his eyes for days slowly fades into comfort and twinkling joy.

“Arthur! Merlin!” Gwen shouts, she races towards them with a brilliant smile and throws her arms around Merlin, squeezing him tightly. “Oh it’s wonderful.”

“What is?” Merlin asks, hugging her back and grinning into her shoulder.

She pulls away and bobs a short curtsey to Arthur who smiles in return. Merlin can’t help but wonder if he would appreciate a hug too.

“The crops are growing again and they’re bringing in the harvest!” She grins, barely able to stand still. “And a supply of food was found just outside of town.”

She points to someone walking past with a heaving pile of tomatoes in a crate.

“I’m glad,” Arthur says genuinely. He seems unable to contain the brilliant smile lighting up his face, and it makes him seem more welcoming and compassionate than usual.

Gwen beams back at him and skips over to Morgana a few paces away.

Merlin leans close to Arthur’s side, nudging him with his elbow affectionately.

“You did it,” he says softly.

Arthur smirks, elbowing Merlin back.

“Careful Merlin, or I’d almost think you’re proud of me.”

“Me?” Merlin gasps with feigned offence. “Never.”

Uther greets them at the gates with a pleased smile. It’s so out of character to see him cheerful that Merlin almost considers he could have been enchanted.

“Is this your doing?” He asks Arthur as he strides towards them.

“Yes, Father,” Arthur answers, coming to a stop a respectable distance from the king and holding his hands stiffly by his sides.

“The sorcerer is dead?”

Merlin stands a pace behind Arthur, watching his side profile carefully. He observes Arthur’s twisted mouth and pinched eyes, so inscrutable it’s almost difficult to see the shifts in his expression. When Merlin looks carefully though he can see the hesitation there, just before Arthur gives a slight nod.

“He won’t be troubling us anymore,” he answers carefully.

Uther’s smile grows.

“Good,” he praises.

He leans forward and clasps Arthur’s shoulder tightly.

Merlin watches as Arthur looks down in surprise at his father’s display of affection, a private smile graces his lips even though he looks somewhat lost; like he doesn’t know how to respond. It’s so staggeringly different to Merlin’s own family; Hunith is so forthcoming with her affection, showering Merlin with hugs and kisses, never allowing him to doubt for a moment the expanse of her love for him. Merlin can’t even imagine having a parent like Uther. Since Merlin arrived in Camelot this is the most warmth Merlin has seen Uther show his son.

“Make sure the grain reserves are restocked,” Uther instructs, wide smile still on his face. He claps Arthur on the arm once more and marches away.

Arthur watches him go with a dazed expression and Merlin waits patiently. He feels no need to pull Arthur out of his reverie, he’s content to just watch him. When Arthur is unabashedly happy, when he doesn’t feel the need to conceal his joy, his shoulders tilt downwards, widening his stance appealingly. His lips are soft and parted in an easy smile, distracted by the uncommon display of affection that he forgets to be guarded.

The distracted demeanour only lasts ten seconds at most, and then Arthur shakes his head and tips his head, gesturing for Merlin to follow.

“Come on, there’s something we need to do first.”

~-~-~

Arthur’s heart is heavy as he lowers the unicorn’s luminescent horn into the grave he and Merlin dug. Their fingernails are caked with dirt and their hands are scraped from tugging loose rocks out of the path, but the horn is clean and well preserved. Despite the joy he felt when he entered Camelot and was able to see his people thriving once again, his heart is still heavy with sadness for the creature he killed.

“I never should have ended your life,” he says quietly, laying the pads of his fingers on the horn. “I’m sorry.”

Merlin doesn’t say anything. He hasn’t spoken since they left the castle with the horn in hand, only offering Arthur a smile of pride when he realised what they were about to do. Making Merlin happy shouldn’t bear so much significance, but a small part of Arthur is relieved to have pleased him. He knows Merlin was upset with him after he killed the unicorn. It’s reassuring to see the soft smile on his face again. Not that it matters what Merlin thinks of course.

Arthur is still troubled by the whole experience. He doesn’t know what to make of the fact that Anhora spared him. It doesn’t align with anything his father has told him of sorcery.

If sorcerers were anything like his father said they were, then there was no explanation for Arthur’s encounters with enchantments. Will had been a kind young man, and a friend of Merlin’s, and he had died to save Arthur. The ball of light that had protected Arthur in the caves of Baloch had been warm and affectionate. Anhora had continuously led Arthur to a better version of himself, had spared him when he proved himself.

It had not been sorcery that doomed Camelot these past two weeks, but Arthur. His thoughts are like pieces of string, crossing over one and another and getting confused and tangled in a way he couldn't hope to unravel.

“Arthur,” Merlin prompts his attention, breaking his temporary silence.

Merlin doesn’t meet his eyes, instead looking over Arthur’s shoulder towards the clearing past the trees. Arthur follows his gaze and sees a unicorn standing proudly in the forest.

When Arthur killed it the first time he failed to stop and appreciate its beauty; he now recognises his mistake. It’s breathtaking. The majestic creature is more beautiful than anything Arthur has ever seen. It stands in the clearing, lifting its head regally towards the sky, practically glowing in the evening light. Arthur might one day be the king of Camelot, but this creature has sovereignty over the forest and the essence of nature itself.

“When he who kills a unicorn proves himself to be pure of heart, the unicorn will live again,” Merlin says breathlessly, repeating a quote he has heard before.

The unicorn turns to Arthur. As he looks into its dark eyes he feels the churning guilt that once sat heavily in his stomach dissolve. He and this creature are one, now and forever. It turns and walks away.

Chapter Text

Merlin wakes to a sharp ringing in his ears.

It’s an unsettling sound, like the sudden onset of quiet after leaving a crowded tavern. He can’t hear anything else, the world is muffled under the sharp trill. As he moves it echoes throughout his ear canals, as if the sound is resonating from inside him. There is no doubt that the sound is caused by magic. The enchantment is so powerful he can taste the earthy texture of it, like his tongue is coated in soil, the mud seeping into his taste buds.

Merlin rubs the sleep from his eyes, letting out a low groan as the sound scratches its nails down his spine. He drops his head forward onto his knees. The dregs of sleep cling to his skin like fog but as the ringing fades into a dull throb he knows he won’t be sleeping any more tonight.

His knees crick as he drops his legs over the edge of the bed and trundles blearily down the stairs into the main chambers. His bare feet meet the cold of the stone floor, matching the odd chilling sensation that the ringing left in Merlin’s bones. Gaius peers at him over the thin rim of his circular glasses.

“Can’t sleep?”

Merlin shakes his head. “I was asleep, but something woke me… a bad feeling.”

Gaius frowns. “What kind of feeling?”

“Powerful magic, here, in Camelot.”

That catches Gaius’ attention; he puts down his quill and turns his body towards Merlin.

“You could sense it?”

Merlin nods. “It was like a ringing sound but it was under my skin… I can’t really explain it,” he tries to find the words, twisting his fingers together.

As Gaius listens his eyebrow is steadily climbing towards his hairline.

“Is the royal family in danger?”

Merlin shrugs weakly. He swallows the urge to sprint towards Arthur’s chambers; Arthur can handle himself, and bursting into the prince’s bedroom while he’s sleeping would only raise questions Merlin can’t answer.

“I don’t know,” he answers honestly, which does little to quell the anxious look on Gaius’ face. “I just know whatever magic I felt was strong. Very strong.”

He’s interrupted by the door slamming open with a crash. Gwen flies in with her red cape billowing behind her.

“Gaius! Merlin! My father has been arrested,” she cries, clutching at Merlin’s elbow. The terrible feeling grows like an infection, twisting around Merlin’s organs and clenching in Merlin’s stomach.

“Arrested? For what?”

Gwen’s eyes well with tears, and Merlin can feel her trembling as he pulls her into a hug, moving to rub her back soothingly.

“They say he was making weapons for a sorcerer, but he wouldn’t! I know he wouldn’t.” She pulls back from Merlin’s hold to look him imploringly in the eyes.

Merlin strokes his thumb back and forth across her shoulders in an attempt to reassure her.

“Of course he wouldn’t,” he agrees easily.

It isn’t a lie to ease her concerns. Tom is one of the sweetest souls Merlin has ever met, he exudes kindness and would never do anything that could hurt the people of Camelot. He shows great pride for the kingdom and he loves his daughter more than anything in the world. A danger to Camelot poses a danger to Gwen, and Merlin knows Tom would never risk that.

“They’re charging him with treason,” Gwen looks to Gaius with a wild and deeply concerned glint in her dark eyes.

“Treason?” Merlin repeats incredulously.

Gaius frowns deeply, the wrinkles in his forehead creasing with concern.

“Treason is a serious charge if he’s only been suspected to be consorting with a sorcerer…” he muses, scratching thoughtfully at his chin.

Gwen watches him think, Merlin can feel her constant anxiety as she shifts in his arms. He starts to imagine what it would be like in Gwen’s position, if his own mother were sentenced with treason. He quickly halts that line of thought. The idea of anything happening to Hunith is unbearable, too horrible for Merlin to even consider it.

“He must have been dealing with something much bigger than merely sorcery,” Gaius says slowly, still turning thoughts over in his mind. “Do you know who the sorcerer was?”

Gwen nods shakily.

“I think they said his name was... Tauren,” she says, looking between Merlin and Gaius for recognition.

They both pale. Merlin has heard the name Tauren on Arthur’s lips more times than he would dare count. He leads a band of renegade sorcerers who have sworn to assassinate the King. Their forces have threatened Camelot before and Arthur, along with the other knights of Camelot have done everything they can to keep them at bay. However Sir Leon had confided to Merlin that only a few days ago they lost track of them.

To hear that they have infiltrated Camelot is enough to turn Merlin’s blood cold.

“You know of him?” Gwen asks, the concern in her eyes growing.

It isn’t a surprise to Merlin that news of Tauren hasn’t reached Gwen. Morgana has essentially refused to hear news of sorcerers ever since Mordred’s time in Camelot. Gaius nods. “Quite well, I’m afraid. If the King suspects your father of conspiring with Tauren...”

He doesn’t need to finish the sentence, instead looking worriedly at Gwen as she shudders, eyes so big she looks like a frightened owl.

“We must speak to Tom at once,” Gaius says decisively, ushering the two young adults from the room.

~-~-~

“Gwen!” Her father sits up straight the moment he lays his eyes on her. He hurries across the cell to meet her at the barred door.

Even though it’s a relief to see her father, Gwen’s heart clenches at the sight of him in this position. He means the world to her, she loves him with all her heart. The person she is comes from what he has taught her, the kindness she holds is a gift from him. The last thing he deserves is an accusation of treason, she knows him better than that, he would never defy the king.

“Father, are you alright?” She frets, reaching through the bars. He takes her hand and she struggles not to shiver as his icy cold fingers touch hers.

Her father smiles warmly at her.

“Yes Gwen of course,” he answers, squeezing her fingers lovingly. She knows he’s lying, his situation is perilous and he must be terrified; but her father has never allowed himself to cower when he could bring a smile to her face, and he won’t start now.

Something painful slashes through Gwen’s heart, like a cold knife is carving sharp slices over her chest. She loves her father so much, and she can’t help but feel like they are standing on the edge of a cliff, and her father is preparing to fall.

Gaius and Merlin shuffle behind her, they’re not rushing her and she feels a rush of gratitude at their sympathy, but she knows that they’re both anxious to resolve the situation.

“Why were you helping Tauren? He’s a sorcerer, it’s so dangerous.”

Tom shakes his head roughly.

“I didn’t know Tauren was a sorcerer, I meant no harm, I swear.”

He runs his calloused and worn thumbs over the back of her knuckles gently, with care, like she’s something that requires delicate and wholehearted attention.

“Then why didn’t you tell me?” She asks, voice shaking. Her nerves are a living thing within her, chewing and clawing at her bones.

Her father sighs. “I knew you wouldn’t like it Gwen, you’re cautious.”

“I am cautious for a good reason,” she defends herself weakly, gesturing to the cell her father is contained in.

Her father offers her a wan smile.

“Yes, I should have told you but… I didn’t want to let an opportunity pass…”

Gwen’s breath hitches, tears springing to her eyes.

“Opportunity?” She echoes incredulously. “You call this an opportunity?”

“I know,” her father sighs, squeezing her fingers as they wrap tighter around his. “I’ve been a fool.”

“I just wanted to make a better life for us… for you,” Tom confesses, he reaches through the bars as far as his hand will allow and grazes his knuckles fondly against her chin. “I wanted you to be happy.” Gwen makes a choked noise as she attempts to swallow down a sob that builds in her throat.

“But I am happy,” she says wetly, leaning her forehead against the cool metal bars to bring herself as close to her father as possible. “I don’t need anything else, I have everything I could ever want.”

Her father’s face screws up with pain, fat tears dripping down his brown cheeks as his eyes dart away from hers.

“And I’ve thrown it all away,” he says mournfully.

Gwen shakes her head, wrapping her hands around his and pressing a kiss to his knuckles.

“No, it’s going to be alright,” she assures him. “We will get you out of here, I promise.”

Tom’s eyes are heavy with disbelief, he attempts a weak smile but instead of the usual bright joy that beams from his face he simply looks lacklustre.

“I need you to tell me everything that Tauren told you,” Gwen says. She listens patiently as her father explains, sparing no detail in his description. She relays what he told her to Merlin and Gaius, explaining that Tauren hadn’t wanted weapons from her father but access to the forge. He wanted to use it for some sort of experiment, but he didn’t tell her father what it was.

“He said he used some kind of stone… some kind of magic,” Gwen hisses the word, terrified and all too aware of the eyes of the guards stationed in the corridors.

~-~-~

Merlin has been turning the same question over in his mind since Gwen returned from the dungeon, yet feels no nearer to an answer. He waits until Gwen is fast asleep in his bed before raising his concerns with Gaius.

“I don’t understand it,” Merlin says when Gaius makes his way over. “What would a sorcerer want to do with Tom?”

Gaius doesn’t hesitate for a moment.

“His forge, Merlin,” he answers confidently. “It’s the finest in the kingdom.”

That would mean Tom was forging weapons for Tauren.

“You think Tom was lying?”

“No I don’t.” Gaius shakes his head, and beckons Merlin towards his bookcase with a crooked finger.

He pulls out a heavy book and rifles through its pages in search of something.

“When Tom was arrested the guards found him in possession of gold,” Gaius explains. “And based on Gwen’s description, Tauren’s experiment bears all the signs of alchemy.”

Merlin frowns, confusing stewing in his gut as he listens.

“But alchemy is impossible, isn’t it?”

Gaius hums his assent. “To change the very nature of one thing to another has defeated all who have tried… without magic.”

He finds the page he was searching for with a small noise of exclamation.

“Do you think that’s what woke me?” Merlin asks, moving around Gaius to peer over his shoulder at the page.

Gaius shrugs.

“It is possible. I think this would have allowed Tauren to perform such an experiment.” He points to a yellow stone on the page, illustrated with swirling orange patterns and inscribed with ancient symbols much like Excalibur.

“The mage stone?” Merlin reads. “What does it do?”

Gaius perches his circular glasses on his nose and peers through the glass.

“Theoretically, it could give the wielder the power of transformation.”

“Alchemy,” Merlin breathes, looking in wonder at the illustration.

Gaius nods. “Exactly.”

“It makes perfect sense,” Merlin says slowly, looking at the drawing of the stone with a solemn weight. “Gwen said Tauren had some kind of stone.”

Although Merlin’s question of what Tom was doing is answered, he feels no relief. Uther will perceive Tom’s actions as treason, even if Tom only unknowingly assisted a sorcerer. His position is precarious, and his fate seems sealed.

~-~-~

Morgana wasn’t lying when she told Merlin that there was no hope at all for Tom.

She knows Uther better than most. For all his talk of a fair trial, Tom’s fate has already been sealed, and the executioner’s axe is already being sharpened.

That doesn’t mean Morgana can just concede. Gwen loves her father more than anything in the world, her heart is expansive and beautiful and Morgana cannot allow for it to be broken.

She sneaks into Arthur’s chambers, wincing with every creak the floorboards make beneath her feet and gritting her teeth as the drawer squeals on release. She carefully takes the appropriate key and makes her way down to the dungeons, chin held high and eyes confident as though nothing is amiss. If a guard senses even the slightest hesitation then Tom’s last chance will be lost.

“Tom,” she greets with a tip of her head. She feels a stab of guilt at the glimmer of hope that passes his eyes at seeing her without Gwen by her side. “I bring you no relief, I’m sorry,” she admits before his hope has the opportunity to take seed and grow. It isn’t fair to leave him with false expectations.

“I have only come to check you are being well tended to,” Morgana continues, carefully feeding the key from her sleeve into the palm of her hand as she speaks.

Tom bows his head respectfully.

“As well as can be hoped for, My Lady.”

Her heartstrings pull taut for him. Tom is truly one of the kindest men in Camelot, even when he’s facing an almost certain death he attempts to offer her a smile and warmth. He is always extending his kindness outwards rather than keeping it to himself. How Uther can think him capable of treason is beyond Morgana.

“How is Gwen?” Tom asks, his dark eyes round with worry.

Morgana does her best to smile, but it is strained and she knows it must be unconvincing. “She’s a brave girl, she’ll be alright. She wishes only to see you free,” she replies honestly.

Tom’s smile dims into nothingness, flickering out like a candle in heavy wind. He looks down at the floor, swallowing roughly to bring moisture to his mouth, dry with fear.

“I know what Uther thinks of sorcery…” his eyes glance up to meet Morgana’s. “I’m a dead man aren’t I?”

Grief swallows Morgana like a crashing wave coming down over her head. It is one thing for her to know that Tom has little chance of survival, but for Tom to have already accepted that fate himself is terrible. He is alone in this small and dingy cell, with no chance of holding his daughter one last time, left alone with the knowledge that by morning he will likely be dead.

“I cannot see the future, Tom, only the present,” she answers, avoiding the question for both of their sakes. She reaches through the bars, only just slipping her thin wrists through the gap and squeezing his hands reassuringly. She presses the key into his palm with her fingers, letting him feel the cool press of the metal against his skin.

“You must take hope in what you have now, and seize the moment.”

“Thank you, My Lady.”

She steps back and away without another word, looking back once over her shoulder before making her way up the spiralling stone staircase.

That is the last time she ever sees Tom. For before morning he is dead. By fleeing Uther had declared him guilty, and he was killed before he reached the city’s gates.

~-~-~

Gwen’s scream is the worst sound Merlin has ever heard. She falls to her knees in the middle of the courtyard with a devastated wail that echoes hauntingly throughout the open space.

“Father!” She screams hoarsely, staring as the cart rolls away and out of the citadel. Her eyes are haunted, her mouth has dropped open in devastation and her fingers are curled tightly into the fabric of her bodice.

“Gwen,” Merlin says gently, trying to coax her to her feet.

She screams, burying her head in her hands with heaving sobs that rip from her throat.

“No,” she gasps, her voice is so torn it sounds more like a haggard whisper than a word. It breaks Merlin’s heart to see her like this; her eyes are haunted, her lips form around pleas that go unheard and her knees are scratched and covered in dirt from the weight of her fall.

Merlin manages to help her back to his chambers, an arm curled protectively around her shoulders and shooting daggers at anyone who tries to approach. He settles her gently on his bed, rubbing circles between her shoulder blades as the shock thrashes through her in tremors and convulsions.

He holds her as she cries, each sob shudders through her body with devastation that threatens to shatter her into pieces. It feels terrible to sit there so uselessly when she is so distraught. Her tears soak the fabric of his tunic, and her sweaty forehead is pressed against his neck, so that each gasp for breath between her sobs tickles at Merlin’s collarbone. His neck is tilted at an odd angle to accommodate her but he doesn’t dare shift.

He simply holds Gwen, running a reassuring hand up and down the length of her spine and letting her cry until her eyes are dry and she collapses from exhaustion.

The day passes in a heart wrenching rhythm, Gwen waking, remembering and sobbing until her body forces her to stop, falling back into an uneasy sleep. Slowly her grief settles uncomfortably into her body, Merlin can see it in her eyes as the initial shock turns to pained acceptance.

At one point in the morning she stops and writes a letter, tying it to one of the castle’s ravens with shaking hands and sends it off. Gaius comes and checks on her periodically, taking her hand between his wrinkled palms and squeezing gently. It is to him that she reveals who the letter was for.

“I wrote to Elyan,” she admits softly. “But I haven’t h-heard anything,” her voice catches on a sob in the middle of the sentence. Merlin knows Elyan only from Gwen’s passing mentions, and only that he is her younger brother who left Camelot to explore the world at seventeen. Merlin doesn’t know when they last spoke.

“Give it time, Gwen. Your letter may not have even reached him yet.” Gaius says softly, reaching forward and wiping the hot tears from her flushed cheeks.

She nods through tears.

“I just thought he might—” her breath hitches and she stops to take a long slow inhale. “I don’t want to be alone.”

Merlin buts in, squeezing her shoulder affectionately.

“No matter what, you’re never alone. We’re here.”

She smiles through tears, kissing his cheek bone warmly. “Thank you Merlin.”

Merlin doesn’t leave Gwen’s side all day.

He resolves to deal with Arthur’s inevitable irritation tomorrow, but today his friend needs him and he won’t leave her. To his surprise, he does not need to wait to face Arthur, as the prince announces his presence with a gentle knock. However he isn’t seeking Merlin, he turns instead to Gwen who is sitting on the edge of the bed with red rimmed eyes and a numb expression.

Gwen jumps to her feet, hands behind her back and her head bowing respectfully.

“Sire.”

Merlin can hear the sharp edge of anxiety in her voice. Tom being charged with treason could easily lead her to the same fate if Uther suspected she were conspiring with her father.

Arthur sighs, easing the door closed behind himself. His eyes, which are usually so bright and animated, are dulled with sadness.

“Guinevere… I want you to know that your job is safe, and that your home is yours for life,” he says, his voice soft with empathy. “I guarantee you that.”

Gwen stares back at him silently, her eyes wide and shining with unshed tears.

Arthur lowers his head. “I know that under the circumstances it isn’t much… but…”

He scratches the back of his head, shifting from foot to foot. Merlin watches in awe as Arthur wrestles through his discomfort to console Gwen.

“If there’s anything you need, anything at all, all you need to do is ask.”

He looks first at Merlin and then back to Gwen, like he’s seeking Merlin’s reassurance that he’s doing well. Merlin’s heart squeezes and he nods his encouragement with a small smile.

“Don’t hesitate to reach out,” Arthur finishes.

Gwen stays silent, but her lips have parted in surprise and her hands move to twist her skirt.

Arthur turns to leave but stops himself, facing Gwen once more and offering her a warm nod.

“I’m sorry,” he says genuinely, voice barely louder than a whisper. His eyes are big and blue, filled with earnest sadness, imploring her to believe him.

Gwen’s lashes catch heavy tears that threaten to fall and she nods once more, pressing her fingertips to her lips and swallowing a sob.

“Thank you Sire,” she says softly.

Arthur hesitates, eyes wide and fearful of her strong emotions like she’s an anomaly he’s never encountered before. He tentatively reaches forward and squeezes her shoulder, Gwen stares back at him in surprise. Merlin’s heart squeezes at the sight of Arthur so genuine and kind, letting his walls fall away for the sake of Gwen’s comfort.

The moment stretches until Arthur breaks it with a cough and steps back. He flees the room with a final pat to Gwen’s shoulder and an awkward nod towards Merlin.

~-~-~

Morgana storms into Uther’s chambers. Her entire body is alight with anger, fizzling hot, burning her veins into ash. The air around her is scorching, like her fury can’t be contained and is bleeding into the surrounding atmosphere.

She bares her teeth at Uther like a wild dog.

“There is blood on your hands, Uther Pendragon. Blood that can never be washed away.”

He looks up at her, completely unperturbed, sitting about as he usually would on any other day. The life that he has destroyed is of no consequence to him. Tom is simply another notch to add to his lengthy tally of victims.

He regards her with contempt and pity, looking her up and down before turning to the guards and waving them away with a dismissive hand.

“Leave us.”

Only once the guards have filed from the room does he look at Morgana again. She is trembling with rage, fists clenched so tightly by her sides that her manicured nails cut into the skin of her palms.

“May I remind you that you are speaking to your king?” He suggests with a dangerous edge to his voice. His words sound like the sharp blade of a knife pressed against her throat, daring her to move and be slit open.

“May I remind you that a king is right and just? You are neither,” she spits with venom on her tongue.

“Tread carefully, Morgana,” Uther warns coldly.

He stalks across the room, pouring himself a goblet of wine and doesn’t offer her the same.

“You rule only with the sword, so you can never be a good king,” Morgana forgoes his warning, pushing it aside with bitter indifference.

Uther’s fingers clench around the stem of his goblet but otherwise he shows no signs of hearing her accusations.

“You know nothing of what it means to be king,” he informs her coldly. A harsh reminder that she is simply his ward and no more; Arthur is his son and heir and knows what it means to rule. She has no such privilege.

“I know a king must protect his people,” she answers defensively.

Uther’s eyes narrow but still they do not look her way, instead he decides to stare contemplatively into the dark pool of wine in his goblet.

“Yes. It is my responsibility to keep the kingdom and its people safe. Camelot’s well-being rests solely on my shoulders. I, and I alone, must protect the kingdom from its enemies.”

“Then the kingdom is doomed,” Morgana spits, tilting her chin challengingly and straightening her spine. “For one by one you make enemies of us all.”

The air freezes, turning frigid as Uther stops mid sip and stares blankly out the far window.

“You speak treason, Morgana,” he says frostily.

She scoffs.

“Only a mad man hears the truth as treason.”

Finally, Uther’s eyes snap to hers, as dangerous as a sword. She clenches her jaw and stands firm under his cold gaze, meeting his steel with her own. She transforms their eye contact into a duel, a battle of wills, and she will not be the one to surrender.

“Don’t test me Morgana,” Uther growls. “Or I will have you restrained.”

“Because that will surely prove that you are not a tyrant?”

For all her brave face she struggles not to flinch as Uther’s face convulses in anger. He seizes her wrist in his stone tight grip, pulling her from the room. His fingers dig into her skin, leaving painful bruises in her pale skin.

He throws her into the guards who take her shoulders without question, following him in his tyrannical storm to the tower dungeons. She kicks and pulls against their hold, fear seizing her as tight as a knight’s hand around her airway. Her heart clamours for release in her chest like a frightened bird trapped in a cage.

As she’s forced into the room, shock hits her in a wave of nausea. The iron handcuffs seem to burn her skin as they are clamped around her wrists. She is dizzy with overwhelming fear and fury, her stomach clenches and she has to keep her mouth clamped shut for fear of vomiting.

Uther stands in the doorway, a dark silhouette against the cold darkness of the cell. His hands are folded placidly in front of him and his eyes are narrowed as he watches Morgana be chained, struggling for release like a frightened animal ensnared in a trap.

“You will remain here until you have learned your lesson,” Uther says callously.

It is a phrase she remembers well from her childhood.

She grits her teeth.

“Then release me, because I’ve learned it already,” she hisses. “That you care not for me, or anyone else. That you are driven mad with power. That you are a tyrant. I know it well.”

Uther’s jaw clenches, his skin flushes red with anger but he says nothing, turning and slamming the cell door behind him, leaving her in the darkness.

Morgana’s heart plummets. The isolation is nothing new, she has been punished in this way for as long as she has been Uther’s ward. How many hours has she spent locked in rooms?

As a younger child her bedroom would suffice, she would go without supper and would run back crying to Uther in the morning. The moment the key had turned in the lock to let her free she would sprint through the halls, trembling with fear as she collapsed at Uther’s feet with apologies pouring from her lips. As she got older and her stubbornness turned to defiance, the dungeons became the new punishment.

Never before has she been put in chains.

The sharp cold metal was rubbing her soft skin raw, cutting into her wrists with every movement. Their hold is brutally tight, leaving little room to move as she pulls against the chains as far as they will stretch and crumpling to the floor. The hem of her dress catches in the chain and her ankle twists painfully in the torn fabric as she struggles to her knees.

She wants to be strong, for Gwen, who deserves so much better than Morgana could ever give her. She wasn’t even strong enough to protect her father from Uther. She doesn’t want to be afraid.

But she’s terrified. The darkness presses in around her, her head is spinning and she feels sick with fear. Her head throbs with the beginnings of a headache and she presses her forehead against the cool stone of the floor and lets sobs shake through her body.

She’s so afraid.

~-~-~

Morgana wakes to the sound of the heavy door opening with a clunk. She pushes herself to her knees, spitting out dark hair that sticks to her mouth and hurriedly wipes her tear stained face. It’s too late to protect her dignity, but she won’t lose her pride.

She looks up and meets Arthur’s eyes; she was expecting Uther and the unexpectedness of Arthur’s arrival sends her reeling.

“You.”

Arthur looks down at her impassively, arms crossed defensively over his chest.

They were once so close, but Uther’s reign has driven them apart like a knife cutting away the tether between them strand by strand. He forced them to abandon the other to protect themselves from his ire. Morgana grew vines with barbs and thorns to guard her heart, while Arthur built stone walls as thick as the citadel’s border. Maybe years ago she could read the expression on his face, but today she only sees the passive scorn in his eyes.

“How proud you must be. Son of the mighty Uther,” she mocks, her anger lashing out like whips. He is her only target, if she cannot hurt Uther, Arthur is as good a substitute as any.

He doesn’t react and it only stokes her anger, making it spike and burn up her throat.

“You must look up to him, you want to be just like Daddy. The righteous King,” Morgana spits.

Arthur sighs heavily through his nose, he purses his lips and says nothing.

Morgana’s head drops forward, exhausted from the night alone and still dizzy with the weight of the chains around her wrists.

“Does the king’s little helper bring a message?” She asks, directing the question to the floor. “Or have you just come to gloat?”

Arthur doesn’t answer her, but he finally speaks.

“Guards.”

Morgana scrambles backwards, scraping her knees along the ground and tripping over her feet in desperation to flee.

“Get away from me you cowards!” She pulls as far backwards as the chains allow, wincing against the onslaught of pain that tears through her body as they chafe her sensitive wrists.

“You’re free to go,” Arthur interrupts her panic, still standing across the room, his emotional armour so strong she can’t see where his impassivity ends.

The guards reach her and unclasp the shackles from her wrists, she holds them to her chest protectively. They are raw from a night spent in their clutches, bleeding sluggishly from where the rough edges had dug into her skin.

Her eyes are wide as she looks at Arthur. Uther would never release her without coming to ensure that she had learnt her lesson. She had expected at least another night in the hollow room, so cold that the chill seemed to seep down to her very bones. All through the night as she had shivered and endured her dizzy head she had prepared to survive another isolated day. Even Arthur never got away with a single night of solitude when he was being punished.

Not willing to look a gift horse in the mouth, she quickly hurries from the dungeon. Arthur’s voice stops her as she reaches the door.

“Morgana?”

She pauses, fingers winding into her bodice defensively.

“Yes?”

He doesn’t turn to look at her, instead he continues staring at the floor. She recognises his behaviour, it is what he does to defend himself from his father; avoiding eye contact because he knows better than anyone that his emotions are too easily read in his expressive blue eyes.

“I swore to him that you would never challenge his authority again. I swore that you’d learned your lesson.”

Her heart clenches and her grip on her bodice tightens.

“Tread carefully,” Arthur cautions softly. It is the same warning Uther gave her the day before, only then it was a threat, these words, Arthur’s words, are words of protection. The slight difference in their inflection is enough to make her feel overwhelmingly guilty for using Arthur as a reciprocal for her anger.

“Next time I might not be able to help you,” he finishes.

“Thank you,” Morgana answers quietly. “You’re a better man than your father. Always were.”

~-~-~

Morgana makes her way back to her chambers, feeling too exposed and vulnerable in the corridors. She clutches her arms gingerly to her chest and ignores the curious stares of others as she passes them. She’s expecting her chambers to be empty so she hurries in as quickly as possible, but staggers to a halt when her eyes fall on Gwen.

“Gwen!” She drops her arms and lets her sleeves fall over her injured wrists, hiding them from Gwen’s sight. “I wasn’t expecting to see you.”

Gwen’s eyes grow wide as they scan over Morgana’s dirt covered dress and tangled hair.

“What happened to you?” She asks, concern threaded through her words like fine embroidery.

Morgana shrugs her off, hurrying across the room, doing her best to conceal the worst of her injuries from her maid.

“Nothing. You ought to be resting,” Morgana says softly, trying to dismiss Gwen before she can ask too many questions.

Morgana hears Gwen follow her across the room. She listens as Gwen stops behind her, and shivers as her warm fingers touch the base of Morgana’s spine. It’s a gentle and affectionate caress that makes the tight knots of Morgana’s muscles unwind.

“I couldn’t sit alone with my thoughts any longer,” Gwen easily rebuffs Morgana’s weak attempts to dissuade her. “What happened to you?” She repeats.

Morgana tries for a weak smile, but it comes up short; the confident mask she so often wears falls apart like parchment under water.

“Nothing a hot bath wouldn’t fix,” she assures Gwen, rubbing her hand reassuringly.

The sensation of her sleeves against her wrists is unbearable. Every time the fabric brushes the raw skin a jolt of pain sears up her arms and rings in her jaw. Her dress catches on broken skin and tears spring to Morgana’s eyes that she tries to blink away before Gwen can notice.

“Morgana.” Gwen frowns, squinting at Morgana’s face like she’s trying to decipher something in the smooth skin.

Morgana’s sleeve slips down as she reaches for the edge of the bed to steady herself. She doesn’t notice the movement until Gwen gasps sharply. Her eyes follow Gwen’s line of sight to her damaged skin and winces.

“I spent the night in the dungeons,” Morgana admits quietly.

Gwen’s mouth drops open in devastation. She reaches out hesitantly and her hands gently take Morgana’s, brushing the pads of her fingertips delicately over the injured skin with great care.

It should hurt, she should be in agony; but Gwen’s touch is like cool water over her stinging flesh. It eases the pain away and leaves her trembling with relief. Sometimes it feels like Gwen is the one soothing balm keeping her from coiling into a knot of anxiety and turmoil. Morgana loves her, more than she loves anything else.

“Uther,” Gwen says softly. It’s not a guess, or a question, but a statement; quietly brimming with anger, more intimidating than if Gwen screamed. His name on Gwen’s lips is soaked in malice Morgana didn’t even know Gwen was capable of.

Morgana nods shakily, still shivering in Gwen’s hands.

“He doesn’t like to be challenged,” she answers. The hatred stewing in Morgana’s gut returns at the reminder of what Uther did to Gwen and to her father.

Silence falls over them like a shroud, hesitant and tentative, like a fawn taking its first steps.

“Please tell me you didn’t do this for me,” Gwen begs, finally breaking the silence.

Morgana eases her hands out of Gwen’s hold; as soon as the touch is gone she craves it, needs it like she needs oxygen in her lungs.

“I would have spoken up either way,” Morgana answers, carefully toeing around the truth. “Uther is a tyrant, what he did was wrong.”

“I know that,” Gwen butts in with a shake of her head. “But tell me it wasn’t about my father.”

Morgana blinks, her heart shuddering in her chest. Gwen is looking at her with such desperation, such kindness, it makes Morgana feel obligated to protect this wonderful girl. At the same time, it makes her feel fragile as thin glass, desperate to collapse into her arms.

“You have enough to deal with, without worrying about such things,” Morgana evades.

Gwen’s expression crumbles, eyes welling up and mouth twisting in worry and grief. Morgana’s hands flutter around her, desperate to console her and unsure how to do so.

“You shouldn’t have done that,” Gwen whispers, her words thick with tears. “Not on my behalf.”

Morgana doesn’t say ‘I would do anything for you’, but she wants to. It’s too much, too close to her heart. She has already been torn open and left vulnerable for Arthur to see; she cannot take much more than that.

She would do anything for Gwen, but telling her that would only hurt them both, and so she will not say it.

“Uther needed to hear it,” Morgana says instead.

Gwen shakes her head roughly, tears paving a slow path down her brown cheeks.

“No. If anything happened to you—” her breath hitches on a sob. “I couldn’t bear it.”

Morgana frowns, taking Gwen’s trembling hands in hers again.

“You need to go home, Gwen. Get some rest,” she urges.

Whilst it is an attempt to steer the conversation from herself — if Gwen shows any more concern for Morgana she might shatter — it is also founded on real worry. Gwen looks terrible. The usual healthy glow to her cheeks is pale and ashen, and her eyes are sunken and heavy. Her head droops in an exhausted manager that infers too many unslept nights with haunting emotions that settle beneath her eyes. Her shoulders are hunched inwards, curling in on herself like she wants to avoid taking up space.

Gwen takes a deep breath, swallowing heavily and visibly collecting herself. She wipes away stray tears with the back of her hand and forces a smile so fake it makes Morgana wince.

“I’m fine, my Lady.”

Morgana frowns. “Please. I insist.”

Gwen pulls away from Morgana, ducking her head and shuffling around the room. She listlessly moves from place to place, moving Morgana’s hand mirror to a new shelf even though there is no need to relocate it.

“Gwen?”

Gwen’s shoulders shudder and she shakes her head, she’s turned away from Morgana, impossible to read but for the stiff line of her spine. Morgana hesitantly reaches out and lays a hand on Gwen’s shoulder blade.

“Gwen?” She urges once more.

“I can’t go home,” Gwen sobs, leaning into her touch easily.

Morgana’s heartstrings pull sharply with a harsh tug that leaves her breathless. It has been years since her own father died; she was only seven, and she barely remembers what it felt like to lose him. She remembers heavy and thick grief that sat in her lungs, the loneliness that tore through her, leaving her hollow and small.

Unlike Gwen, she never had to return to her home without her father. She was moved into the castle to live with Uther and Arthur the moment the battle ended and Gorlois’ body was recovered. She can’t even imagine being alone with the empty spaces where her father’s body and spirit once stood.

“It is understandable to feel alone—” she tries but her words stutter to a halt with the shake of Gwen’s head.

“Tauren,” Gwen says hoarsely.

“Tauren?”

Gwen turns to look at her, her eyes brimming with tears and lip wobbling as she struggles to contain herself. There is fear in her dark eyes, now that Morgana is looking she can see the terror there so obviously.

“He attacked me. He threatened me. He was looking for some kind of stone,” Gwen explains, voice shaking.

Morgana thinks of the stone she found in the forge while she was searching for Gwen. It had sat on the ground, glowing yellow and thrumming with some kind of magic. It sits in her dresser, in a small leather pouch, concealed under her spare stockings.

“A stone?” She asks distractedly.

Gwen nods. “He said if I didn’t bring it to him he’d kill me. He’s waiting for me in the woods. If I don’t give him the stone to him by dawn tomorrow—” Gwen can’t bring herself to finish her sentence, distress tightening like a noose around her words.

Fear, colder than the dungeon, surges within Morgana and seizes her throat. Anger follows suit, brutally vicious and painful as it rushes through her veins. She’s blind with rage, she’s consumed by it.

Uther, all of this leads back to Uther. If he hadn’t intervened, she would not have spent the night alone in the dungeon, Tauren would not be tormenting Gwen, Tom would still be alive. It’s his fault.

Morgana shakes her head, reaching out and cupping Gwen’s cheek tenderly.

“No. He won’t be able to hurt you. I won’t let him.”

With those words she turns and makes to storm from the room; Gwen stops her as she reaches the door.

“What are you going to do?” She asks worriedly.

Morgana pauses, and looks back at Gwen.

She’s standing in the centre of Morgana’s room, hands held over her chest like she’s guarding her heart. Her eyes follow Morgana with deep concern.

“Tell the guards of course,” Morgana lies easily. “It won’t be you that Tauren confronts, but the knights of Camelot.”

~-~-~

When Merlin is once again woken by the sharp ringing sound of the mage stone but rather than ignore it, this time he pursues the source. He leaps from bed, tiptoeing past Gaius who is snoring in the main chambers, and into the cool outdoors.

As he squints through the darkness he spies a cloaked figure crossing the courtyard. Their cloak billows behind them as they head towards the woods. Merlin follows in their shadow cast by the moonlight.

He follows the figure deep into the heart of the woods, where they stop and wait, peering into the dark trees with bristling impatience. They are not left waiting for long. Tauren and his band of renegades step from the darkness, swords and staffs pointed at the cloaked figure.

Tauren reaches forward and rips the hood from their head. Merlin has to clamp a hand over his mouth to stifle his gasp when he sees Morgana.

“Where is your maid?”

Merlin doesn’t even have time to wonder what Tauren could want with Gwen before Morgana answers him, her voice shakes but her words are loud and clear.

“I’ve come in her place.”

Tauren sniffs. “Kill her.”

Merlin almost trips over his feet in his effort to surge forward and protect her but stops himself when Morgana speaks.

“No wait!” She shouts, reaching into her cloak. “I brought the stone.”

Tauren snatches the stone from Morgana’s trembling hold with a suspicious glare.

“What else have you brought with you, my Lady. The knights of Camelot?”

Merlin flattens himself against the tree, the knobs of his spine press painfully into the trunk as he attempts to smooth himself out of sight.

“No, I’ve come alone I promise,” Morgana promises.

Merlin holds his breath. He can feel the sound of his heart in his chest echo throughout the forest as Tauren’s men glance around sceptically. To his immense relief no one investigates her word.

“And why have you come?” Tauren asks slowly. His words are deceptively calm, but as Merlin peers around the tree, he can see the point of the man’s sword pressing against Morgana’s stomach. “You have made a stupid decision, I had no quarrel with your maid. But you, Lady Morgana, you are Uther’s ward.”

“Killing me would be a mistake,” Morgana says, her voice is astonishingly calm and clear, ringing with confidence.

“And why is that?”

“Because I hate Uther too. I want him dead.”

Merlin’s knees buckle as he scrabbles at the sharp bark of the tree to keep himself upright. His thoughts tangle and twist over themselves, running in every direction trying to make sense of the words.

It’s no secret that Morgana doesn’t approve of Uther and his policies. However, Merlin had always assumed she was like Arthur, and had a complicated relationship with the King that swung like a pendulum between familial admiration and frustrated hostility. Though Arthur respects his father greatly, it’s obvious that their relationship is significantly more complex than the typical love between parent and child. He had guessed Morgana to be the same, but to wish death upon Uther is something entirely unexpected.

Tauren seems equally dubious of the truth behind Morgana’s statement. He squints at her with a sceptical raise of his eyebrow, meeting her jutted chin with heavy suspicion.

“You? An enemy of the king?” He demands incredulously, letting out a brash bark of cold laughter. “And I am to believe that?”

Morgana clenches her jaw. “Why else would I be here?”

“I can only guess at your motives, my Lady. You could be a spy for all I know.”

“And this?” Morgana demands. Merlin can hear rustling and sharp intakes of breath, he chances peering around the tree once more to see what is happening.

Morgana’s cloak and sleeves of her dress are rolled to her elbows, revealing harsh gashes across her thin, pale wrists. The tender skin has begun to blister, grazed raw with deep pink gashes along the bottom of her palm. The damage is considerable, as if she had been chained in the dungeon for days rather than a single night.

“Does Uther usually chain his friends to a dungeon wall?”

Hesitantly the weapons are lowered with a nod of Tauren’s head, Morgana’s injury is evidence enough of her hatred towards Uther.

At Morgana’s request Tauren explains his plan, to use alchemy to create enough gold for bribing the citizens of Camelot; to turn guards’ eyes the other way, for servants to change their shifts, allowing assassins into the walls of the castle, all the way to King Uther himself.

Morgana shakes her head with a wry smile.

“The guards may be fools Tauren, but the King is not.”

Tauren frowns but does not argue. He must know already that the plan is tenuous, reliant on a significant amount of luck for all the pieces to fall into place without word reaching Uther’s ears.

“Do you have a better plan?”

“Yes,” Morgana says, her green eyes flashing. “To get to Uther, you need someone close to him. You need me.”

Merlin’s stomach sinks as they lay out a plan. Morgana will lure the King to her father’s grave to make amends, pleading that the death of Gwen’s father reminded her of the loss of her own. There Tauren and his men will attack the defenceless, unexpectant King from behind.

The King will be dead by sundown in two days' time.

Merlin is faced with a choice, to give Uther what he deserves and allow it to happen. Or to stop it.

~-~-~

Merlin is still turning over the choice in his mind as he watches Morgana and Uther leave for Morgana’s father’s grave.

Gaius says that Uther is a good king, regardless of if he is a good man. He is good for Camelot, and he does his best to serve the kingdom. Ultimately Arthur is not yet ready for the crown — that much Merlin agrees with — he’s too impulsive, reckless, and he has a tendency to explode in anger that would make him an irresponsible king. Not only that, but the responsibility would be too great, Arthur would collapse under the pressure like a tower of sand under a boot.

But Arthur has a kind heart, a goodness to him that Uther lacks. He is good right to his core, pure of heart, he had proven that at the labyrinth of Gedref. Would it not be better to have someone like him at the throne?

Then there is the question of Gwen, and her father, Tom. Uther is a tyrant, and he rules with the executioner’s axe. Gwen lost so much because of Uther’s rash decision, his inability to see reason is a danger to both himself and to Camelot. He is a horrible man, he kills people like Merlin without hesitation.

“Merlin?” Gwen jolts him out of his thoughts with a gentle hand on his arm.

“Gwen,” Merlin greets. “Are you alright?”

She raises an eyebrow at him. “I was actually about to ask you the same question.”

He shrugs her off, trying to situate his arms into something casual and feeling uncomfortable no matter where he rests them.

“I’m fine. You’re the one who…” he doesn’t finish as pain flashes over Gwen’s eyes.

She turns to follow his gaze out the window to where Morgana’s emerald green cloak is disappearing around the corner.

“Morgana has been amazing these last few days,” she says softly, a private smile flickering across her face.

Merlin’s heart clenches, Morgana is undoubtedly doing this for Gwen. The care they have for each other is obvious, they don’t hold it close to their chests and hide it like Merlin and Arthur do — although Merlin and Arthur’s budding friendship is nothing like the bond Morgana and Gwen hold.

“I think you’ve been amazing,” he says, because he doesn’t know how to acknowledge Morgana without revealing his anxieties about what she is plotting.

Gwen tries to dismiss him but he shakes his head, turning to face her properly.

“No really Gwen. After everything that’s happened… the fact that you’re here, getting your life together and not letting it… consume you, it’s amazing.”

Gwen’s eyes go wide and glassy with tears, and her lips wobble into a smile.

“It’s better than sitting in an empty house and waiting for my father to walk through the door.”

The smile slips from her face as she ducks her head away, squeezing her eyes shut and pushing her fingers over her mouth with a shaky breath.

“The thing that I find hardest to bear is that people will always think he was guilty because he tried to escape,” she admits

Merlin reaches out and touches her shoulders gently.

“I know he was innocent. So does Morgana, and Gaius, and Arthur, and anyone who truly knew him.”

She nods, swallowing heavily and looking up to meet his eyes.

“I think he tried to escape because he knew that no matter what he said… he would be killed. Uther had already made up his mind.”

“I wouldn’t blame you if you wanted him dead,” Merlin says softly. The tumultuous thoughts in his mind make themselves known once more. To let Uther die, or to save him. The question he cannot answer even here, as he stands with Gwen.

Gwen’s eyes widen and her eyebrows crease with concern. She glances over her shoulder and nods shakily when she sees that they are completely alone. Merlin stares unblinkingly back at her.

“If Uther died I would feel nothing, he means nothing to me,” she confesses, so quiet Merlin can scarcely hear her. “He is a horrible man with no sense of justice.”

“But if you had the choice… what would you do?” Merlin asks.

Gwen stares back at him, her hands anxiously coiled in her skirt and her dark eyes huge like an owl’s. She says nothing, confusion flickering across her face like a candle in the wind.

“Would you kill him for what he did?”

He needs to know. He needs to hear her say it. Gwen is the best person he knows, she will know if this is the right thing to do. Morgana is doing this for her, he is doing this for her.

“No,” she answers confidently.

The single word is enough to make Merlin’s heart lurch.

“You wouldn’t?” He asks hollowly. In his mind’s eye he can see Morgana and Uther riding into the forest, and the fate that awaits Uther there.

“Of course not. What would that solve?” Her eyes are wide and earnest, and though her hands shake her words are solid and sure. “That would make me a murderer. All I would be doing is causing Arthur the same pain Uther caused me.”

Merlin’s stomach plummets to the floor.

“You’re right,” he murmurs, already running from the room. “Merlin?” Gwen shouts after him, her words are heavy with concern. “Is everything alright?”

“Yes! I’ll be back! Don’t worry!”

He has to stop Morgana before she does something she will regret forever.

~-~-~

Morgana and Uther ride to the place where her father rests. His gravestone is settled under the shade of a large oak tree, it is a peaceful place, not a graveyard but his favourite place on the edge of the great forest that borders Camelot; secluded and dappled with sunlight.

Morgana kneels by her father’s grave, touching her fingertips to the cool headstone. She hears Uther settle beside her, ordering the guards to give them privacy, exactly as she planned.

Her heart clamours in her chest.

“Your father was the greatest man I’ve ever known,” Uther speaks softly, resting a hand gently on her head. “He stood for everything this kingdom represents: truth, justice, valour…”

Guilt rots in her stomach, turning sickly and spoilt as mould climbs the walls of her gut and turns her innards black. She says nothing and Uther continues.

“His strength and his courage were without equal. When Gorlois died, I lost the truest friend I have ever had, for he was as fearless in questioning my judgement as he was in defending my kingdom.”

Morgana nods slowly, tears stinging her eyes.

“I know you speak the truth, my Lord. You knew him well…” she swallows down the lump of tears growing in her throat. “But I don’t share these memories.”

The memories Morgana has of her father are no more than sensations. In her mind he is made of a series of portraits, rather than a dimensional figure. She remembers a warm hand on her cheek, his bellowing laugh, being bounced on his knee, how he stood tall before battle, and nothing more. She can’t remember the sound of his voice, or the structure of his face. He is a wisp in her memory.

“How can I?” She asks, without truly wanting an answer. Morgana doesn’t look at Uther, but in her periphery, she can see him turn to look at her. “I was seven years old when he passed. I only know that I loved him and he was taken from me.”

“I understand. There is nothing I can do to replace that pain, nor to replace what he was to you.”

His hand comes to rest on her shoulder and she hates herself for leaning into it. She wants him dead, she does, she was certain of it until they came here.

“When Gorlois died… when I took you into my care, you were already so strong. You fought me from the beginning.” Uther smiles indulgently at the memory of her younger self. “You challenge me as a friend should, as your father did in his time.”

His words do nothing to ease the bitterness that sourly sits on Morgana’s tongue.

“And when I do you clap me in irons,” she spits. Her wrists still ache from the night of isolation.

Uther nods slowly and regretfully.

“I apologise for that. I know I am not an easy man, my temper blinds me and I am quick to act. I have made many mistakes… and there are things that I regret.” He looks at her wrists as he speaks. Morgana is aware of the way she is holding them defensively to her stomach, carefully keeping them from Uther’s watchful eye.

“Like Gwen’s father?” She asks provokingly instead. It is not her own pain that concerns her, but Gwen’s.

Uther sighs.

“Yes,” he admits quietly, staring at the ground with abashed humility.

Morgana’s head jerks up. Of all the answers she had expected from him, scorn, irritation, she had not prepared for remorse.

“Are you saying you were wrong to have Tom killed?” She presses. Her heart gathers speed in her chest, beating a hard rhythm against her ribcage.

Uther nods slowly. “Yes. I was too rash, and it brings me great sorrow to have lost a good man because of my anger.”

Morgana doesn’t know what to say, her world has been tipped askew by the confession. She exhales shakily. The uncertainty in her head thrashes like a frightened animal, pulling her attention and pinning it in place just as one would pin a butterfly to a board.

“You have been a blessing to me, Morgana,” Uther confesses, cupping her cheek with his gloved hand. “I will strive to listen to you more, and quarrel with you less,” he promises.

Air won’t enter her lungs properly, it catches on the growing lump in her throat and won’t dislodge. She shudders, tears springing to her eyes and mind a whirlwind of confusion. She doesn’t understand her own feelings, and the unknown leaves her dizzy and overwhelmed.

“You…” Uther hesitates, stroking her cheek affectionately. Despite his kind gesture there’s an unsure look in his eyes, resistance that gathers in the corners of his eyes and tenses his smile. “I love you like my own daughter.”

Morgana’s heart splinters, collecting in a pile in the bottom of her chest. Her heart aches and she can’t breathe at all. She can see Tauren approaching, sharp blade glinting in the morning light.

“Your counsel is invaluable as is your friendship and your love. Without you I cannot hope to be the king this land deserves—”

“My Lord—” Morgana tries to interject but her voice gets stuck halfway on the growing lump in her throat.

“Please forgive me, Morgana,” Uther begs.

And she does, God have mercy she does.

She can’t do this.

Tauren’s knife raises over Uther’s head, preparing to strike.

“No!”

Uther turns in time to block the strike and both men fall to the ground. Her heart is thundering in her eardrums. She sucks in a sharp breath, pressing a hand to the centre of her chest, trying desperately to steady herself.

She’s hardly aware of what she’s doing, or what she’s feeling, but she surges forward after them. Tauren pins Uther to the ground, his hand trembling as he struggles to keep the King still. Morgana reaches into her cloak for her own dagger, gifted to her by Arthur for her fourteenth birthday.

Tauren lifts his blade once again. “Die, Uther Pendragon.”

Morgana takes a shuddering breath and plunges the dagger into Tauren’s stomach. She winces as it squelches when it pierces his skin and breaks through his flesh. He freezes immediately. She withdraws the dagger with a sickening sound and lets it fall to the ground.

Uther looks up at her in wonder as Tauren falls still. He staggers to his feet and pulls her forward into his arms. She sags into the touch, shoulders shuddering and tears slipping down her cheeks.

“Thank you, Morgana.”

~-~-~

Merlin sags into his bed, exhaustion dragging down his limbs, while his eyelids droop so heavily he has to blink with effort to keep them open.

Though Morgana made the choice herself to protect Uther, and thus saving the King, Merlin ensured it could happen. He faced each of Tauren’s men alone, armed with the staff he stole from the Sidhe. Unlike when he struck Sophia and Aulfric, the renegades were merely wounded by Merlin’s blows.

He was successful in incapacitating each of the sorcerers but Tauren; who used the mage stone to harness the blast Merlin aimed at him and send it ricocheting back at Merlin.

He rubs absently at the wound on his chest. Gaius applied a tincture to it, of which he made an abundant amount, even offering Gwen some to deliver to Morgana for her wrists, but the sting is still present. It’s likely to scar, leaving a walnut sized burn on the left side of his chest.

“Merlin!” Arthur calls from the main chambers and Merlin suppresses a wince. “What makes you think you can skive off your duties for an entire day?”

Merlin runs his hands over his face.

“Merlin!” Arthur shouts.

“Coming, Sire,” he calls with as much derision as possible, and heaves himself to his feet.

Chapter Text

Arthur leans back in his chair with a satisfied hum, letting the happy buzz of the day settle comfortably into his skin. His chambers are warmed with the soft glow of dusk, and the sky streaked in brush strokes of orange and red as the sun disappears over the horizon. He swirls his wine in his goblet, taking another contented sip.

It has been a good day. The new knights are shaping up nicely, and adapting well to the training regime Arthur had assigned. He sparred with Merlin and managed to best him a total of sixteen times over the course of the hour. His father was in a wonderful mood throughout dinner, without a word of criticism to offer, and even complimented him on the state of the lower town.

Arthur watches as Merlin trundles around the room, lighting the candles and picking up Arthur’s discarded clothes with disgruntled complaints under his breath. The environment is as comfortable as the day has been, a familiar rhythm they have settled into over the nine months since Merlin was appointed his manservant.

“Merlin?” Arthur breaks the quiet.

Merlin looks up from where he’s rummaging through Arthur’s armoire in search of Arthur’s sleepshirt.

“Yes?”

“What’s your favourite colour?” Arthur asks, crossing his feet, watching as a bemused expression flickers over Merlin’s face.

“My favourite colour?” He echoes as he continues to tidy Arthur’s room distractedly. “Why do you want to know that?”

Arthur shrugs. There hadn’t been any specific motivation behind his question. He was simply inspired by the amiable atmosphere and the desire to get Merlin talking.

“I feel like I don’t know that much about you,” Arthur says. Merlin falters, almost dropping the hose he is folding. He looks up at Arthur with an almost fond expression, as warm as the setting sun behind him.

“That’s not true, you know plenty about me,” Merlin argues amiably.

“But not your favourite colour,” Arthur points out.

Merlin smiles. “I suppose that’s true.”

He places the folded pile of clothes into the wardrobe and glances back at Arthur over his shoulder.

“It’s green,” he answers just as Arthur is contemplating repeating the question in impatience. “What about you? What’s yours?”

“Red, obviously,” Arthur replies immediately. As he’s always been taught to do. Red is the colour of the Pendragons, it adorns the castle, the crimson of their capes, it is the mark of their respect.

Merlin shoots him a look, one that says he doesn’t believe him for a moment.

“Really?” He asks quizzically.

“No,” Arthur replies, shocking himself with the honesty of his answer. He contemplates putting down his goblet for the night, the wine making his tongue loose.

“Odd thing to lie about,” Merlin says with an amused lilt to his voice, raising an eyebrow at Arthur. He must be learning that from Gaius, it’s getting quite good.

“Red is the colour of Camelot,” he answers with a cavalier gesture.

Merlin nods. “But you’re not Camelot, you’re Arthur.”

“Well spotted, any other brilliant observations?” Arthur mocks and Merlin sticks out his tongue immaturely.

“I’m just saying. You don’t have to always have to be the epitome of Camelot. Sometimes you can just be yourself.”

Arthur blinks, a little taken aback by the bluntness of the statement. Something soothing and delightful settles into him, like the feeling of getting into a cool bath after a long day.

His father taught him from a young age that red would always be his favourite colour, a sign that he admires his kingdom down to his very core.

“It’s blue,” he admits.

Merlin makes a contemplative noise, shuffling over and leaning against the edge of Arthur’s bed so conversation is easier. Arthur ought to dismiss him, he’s clearly completed his chores for the night, but he likes having someone to talk to and Merlin doesn’t seem in any rush to leave.

“Blue is a nice colour.”

Arthur nods. He’s always liked the peacefulness of blue, like waves lapping at a shore or the sky on a bright day in the middle of summer.

“What’s your favourite animal?” Arthur asks, turning the conversation away from himself.

Merlin laughs. “What is this an interrogation?”

“Hardly. You wouldn’t survive a proper interrogation if you think these are the kinds of questions that get asked.”

“I’d be great in an interrogation,” Merlin argues, just for the sake of it.

Arthur rolls his eyes, swallowing a gulp of wine and letting the liquid flood pleasantly through his body.

“Not true, you’d buckle under the pressure and spill every secret you know.”

Merlin grins. “Shouldn’t have told me your favourite colour in that case. Wouldn’t want that precious kept secret to get out,” he teases.

Arthur balls up the fabric napkin laid on the table and chucks it at Merlin’s head. It misses him by several inches but causes Merlin to erupt into a fit of giggles, which is just as satisfying.

“Answer the question, Merlin.”

Merlin smiles. “I like owls.”

Arthur is surprised by the answer though he doesn’t know exactly what he expected.

“Why owls?” With a shrug Merlin leans back, propping one foot up against the foot of Arthur’s bed to situate himself more comfortably. It occurs to Arthur that he probably shouldn’t be letting his servant sit on his bed but finds he doesn’t really mind.

“When I was younger I befriended an owl,” he says, like that’s a reasonable thing to say to Arthur.

“How does one befriend an owl?”

“You feed it pieces of stew until eventually it comes to your window every evening,” Merlin says, smiling impishly. “His name was Archimedes.”

“I really sympathise with your poor mother,” Arthur says, failing to hide his amusement. It’s easy to picture Merlin as a young boy, all knobbly knees and bony wrists, with big eyes to match Archimedes the owl. Arthur can clearly visualise a stressed Hunith, attempting to raise the mischievous young boy, with a fond smile on her face.

“Oh she loved Archimedes,” Merlin waves away his concern, blowing his fringe from his eyes in a dismissive gesture.

Arthur grins. “Sure she did.”

“Well what about you, Sire? What’s your favourite animal?” Merlin asks. The question is genuine but there’s an entertained smile twitching at Merlin’s lips as he asks.

Arthur opens his mouth to answer but is interrupted by Merlin pointing a finger threateningly at his face.

“And don’t you dare say a dragon.”

“What if it actually was a dragon?” Arthur splutters.

“I’d call you a liar,” Merlin shrugs. “And I’d know that you’ve clearly never met a dragon.”

Arthur pulls a face.

“What, and you have?”

Merlin’s grin is so wide he looks slightly insane. “I guess you’ll never know.”

Arthur scoffs, ignoring Merlin’s obvious bluff. There’s no way he could have met a dragon and survived.

“Well, no need to call me a liar, it’s not a dragon,” Arthur assures him, crossing his ankles and settling into his chair. “It’s a lion.” Merlin makes a teasing ‘ooo’ sound.

“Very regal of you, Sire.”

“You asked for my honest answer, I gave it.” Arthur resists the urge to pout, knowing Merlin will only tease him more for acting childishly.

“Now I have two dark secrets someone could interrogate out of me.” Merlin claps his hands to his cheeks in a mockery of fear, holding the exaggerated facial expression until Arthur has to chew on his cheek to keep himself from smiling.

“Well I won’t give you any more highly classified information tonight,” he responds, with just as much faux seriousness embedded into his tone.

Merlin’s melodramatic expression slips away to reveal a happy smile. It’s nice, this camaraderie, messing around with each other. Arthur doesn’t get to experience this very often, it’s as close as he’s ever come to friendship.

“Good idea. Someone might accost me on my way back to my chambers.”

Arthur scratches at his nose so Merlin can’t see the smile blossoming on his face.

“Speaking of which, you’d better finish up here for the night,” he says, finally dismissing Merlin for the evening.

With a nod Merlin gets to his feet in preparation for getting Arthur ready for bed.

“By the way,” Arthur says, shrugging off his jacket, leaving it on the chair. “We’re going on a hunt tomorrow.”

He enjoys Merlin's contemptuous expression. For some reason Arthur can’t fathom Merlin seems to absolutely despise hunting, and is vocal about his displeasure every time Arthur forces him to join.

“What on Earth for?” Merlin demands, he trails after Arthur, picking up the jacket he left strewn and hanging it properly. “We went for a hunt earlier this week.”

Arthur hums a noise of agreement.

“Yes well, that was a hunt for food, this is a hunt for a beast.”

“Even better,” Merlin mutters sarcastically with a heavy scowl.

“The people in the outlying villages have been complaining of some sort of beast terrorising them. We’re going to find it, and kill it,” Arthur explains, ignoring Merlin’s complaints.

“Let me guess, it will be terribly dangerous?” Merlin offers Arthur an unamused look as he watches Arthur flop onto his bed with a grin.

“Most likely.”

“Wonderful.”

“Stop scowling, your face will get stuck that way, and we can’t have you getting uglier,” Arthur mocks, biting at his cheek to keep from laughing as Merlin’s scowl only darkens.

“Shut up, Sire.”

“You can’t tell me to shut up,” Arthur scolds loftily, lounging into his bed with a sleepy yet contented noise.

“Whoops, I just did,” Merlin replies unapologetically, snuffing out the candle by Arthur’s bedside.

Arthur is glad his responding smile is hidden by the encompassing cover of darkness.

~-~-~

Merlin has spent the better part of an hour conceptualising as many creative insults for Arthur as possible. He’s come up with some pretty impressive options if he does say so himself. His foot lands in a deep puddle and in response he brainstorms a few more insults.

He, Arthur and a select group of knights are trudging through the undergrowth of the forest, with mud sticking to their boots and pollen drifting into their hair. He hates hunting. It’s dirty and he is always the one responsible for carrying the various pieces no one else wants to carry, which is inevitably dead meat or some keepsake of a beast. By the end of the day they’re all exhausted and covered in a layer of sweat and grime. It’s a horrid experience that he wishes he didn’t have to partake in.

Arthur holds up a hand, and the knights dutifully fall to a stop. They listen, ears tipped towards the trees for the signs of a beast. Merlin can’t hear anything over the laboured sound of his own breathing and exhausted pump of his pulse. Instead of listening he watches as Arthur crouches low to the ground, fingers skimming the dirt and eyes shining with focus as he scans the landscape. This is the only benefit of these godawful hunts — getting to see Arthur on the scope for a beast. He has a quality about him that rarely appears anywhere else other than the battlefield; Merlin is occupied resisting the urge to indulge in Arthur’s attractiveness when the prince finally speaks.

“Merlin,” Arthur whispers, keeping his face turned towards whatever sound caught his attention. “Spear.”

He holds out a hand for his weapon. Merlin bites down on his tongue to keep from telling Arthur where he can stick his stupid spear and hands it to him. His sweat slicked fingers fumble with the stick and it drops to the ground with a clunk, hitting Arthur’s shoulder on the way down.

Arthur turns to look at him with a disappointed grimace curling his lip.

“Do you have any natural gifts, Merlin?” Arthur gibes, retrieving the spear with a frustrated yank.

I’m quite the sorcerer, Merlin considers muttering in response and inhales deeply to keep his temper under control.

“Not that I can think of,” Merlin says instead.

Arthur sighs exasperatedly. “So we agree on one thing.”

He begins to shift forwards, crouching low and spear lofted in his grip. Merlin tiptoes after him, his feet crunching loudly on every stick he encounters.

“Well at least I’m not naturally rude or insensitive,” he quips lowly, ensuring Arthur can hear him.

“Just naturally irritating.”

Merlin isn’t given the chance to respond, the beast bursts through the bushes and rears on its hind legs. They all freeze, hearts in their throats and blood running cold. It towers over them with a snake-like head hissing maliciously as its curved, sharp fangs cast dark shadows over the party, it’s covered in matted fur, spotted like a leopard, and sturdy as a lion.

“Holy fuck,” Arthur gasps sharply. “Run!”

They tear through the bushes, sprinting as fast as their legs will carry them. Merlin follows the blur of red capes before him, focusing on keeping his breathing even as he pumps his arms to gain momentum. His feet fly over stones and mud, pounding heavily on the forest floor.

He can hear the heavy sounds of the beast behind them, screeching and crashing into trees and bushes as it gains on their small group. Fear and adrenaline surge through him, pumping in his veins and straining his lungs.

Merlin’s foot catches on an upraised root, sending him flailing. He hits the ground with a heavy thud that knocks the air from his lungs.

“Shit,” he gasps, repeating the word a few more times for good measure as he trips and fumbles trying to get to his feet.

Arthur’s hands seize around his shoulders, pulling him up and into a run alongside him.

“Come on! You’re fine!” Arthur shouts over the heavy sounds of their heartbeats. Merlin has to bite back the urge to laugh hysterically.

They reach the edge of the forest, slowing to a simultaneous stop as the group realises that the sounds of the beast are no longer following them.

“Did we lose it?” Sir Kay asks, scanning the forest madly with wide terrified eyes.

“We must’ve,” someone else answers.

Merlin turns to Arthur, eyes flicking over him in search of an injury and letting his muscles relax when he realises there are none. Arthur’s eyes are sharp, darting between the group with a calculated furrow to his strong brow.

“Who are we missing?” He says, frowning in concern as they all glance amongst each other.

Merlin looks over each of the knights, cataloguing them in a short scan and coming one short.

“Where’s Sir Bedivere?” The words have barely left his lips before a mangled scream shreds through the air, bringing each of their hearts to a stop.

~-~-~

Arthur wishes he felt confident as he stands before his knights, but the fear stewing in his stomach is telling otherwise. The Questing Beast, as Merlin called it, is a nightmarish creature. They have already lost Sir Bedivere to its monstrous jaws, and he doesn’t wish to lose any more good men.

He takes a steadying breath, and remembers what Merlin said in Ealdor. If the men can see that he does not have faith in them, they will not have faith in themselves, and the battle is as good as lost. He tips his chin, embedding his posture with certainty and faith, standing tall like the leader they need him to be.

“The foe we face is a creature of nightmare,” he bellows, scanning his eyes along the line of knights standing to attention. “I will not lie, it is a fearsome beast, and if you are nervous you have a right to be. I know I am.”

The knights look at him with wide and shocked eyes. It is not customary for the first knight to admit to fear; but Arthur cannot allow them to feel cowardly when he himself feels that same fear. They are not so different, they train together, they fight together, and they feel together.

“But you are the best knights in the realm,” he reminds them. “We can and we will slay this beast before it harms another citizen of our kingdom.”

He unsheathes his sword, lifting it in the air with strength and poise.

“For the love of Camelot!” He shouts, his voice rings out around the courtyard. The knights echo the sentiment with steadfast determination in each of their jaws and bright eyes.

The doors crash open behind them and Morgana flies down the stone staircase, her feet skipping over the steps and her nightdress billowing behind her.

“Arthur!” She sobs, grabbing at his hands and holding them so tight he fears they might lose circulation. “You cannot face it,” she says, hysteria wild in her eyes and desperate in her voice.

“Morgana, what are you doing?”

Arthur absorbs her appearance; her face is flushed with fear, bags sit under her eyes so heavy they appear bruised and her cheeks are stained with tears.

“Arthur please you cannot face it,” she repeats, shaking with tears and hands desperately resisting his attempts to keep her at bay. He cannot console her now, his knights need his pillar of strength to keep their own fear captive.

“Morgana,” he hisses, frantically trying to calm her. “Go back to bed, there is nothing to be afraid of.”

Morgana screams through her teeth, fat heavy tears rolling down her cheeks as she shakes her head roughly.

“No, please. Arthur, I have seen terrible things.” Her eyes are wide, desperately imploring him to listen to her.

Arthur frowns, torn between worry and confusion as he stomachs the state of his adoptive sister.

“Morgana I don’t understand but you have to—”

“No!” She shouts, so loud that he winces.

Suddenly Merlin is by his side, the worried look on his face is identical to Arthur’s. He turns his head towards Arthur, whispering through clenched teeth so the other knights will not hear.

“She probably had another bad dream Sire,” he cautions. “I will have her taken to Gaius.”

Arthur’s stomach drops for forgetting the nightmares that plague Morgana. In the last few months they have been escalating, and he feels terrible for having them slip his mind.

“I’ll be okay Morgana, it’s just a dream,” he assures her, carefully manoeuvring her thrashing arms.

“No!” She screams. “No! I will not let you go!”

“Morgana please—”

“No!”

Arthur turns to Merlin.

“Get her inside, please.”

He watches with a heavy heart and rolling stomach as Morgana is ushered up the stairs, tripping over her own feet and screaming to be heard.

~-~-~

Merlin follows cautiously at Arthur’s heels, his heartbeat thumping in his throat, pushing hard against his windpipe so it’s impossible to breathe properly. He hovers his hands awkwardly by his sides, it makes him appear more cowardly than he is, but at least if the Questing Beast attacks he’s prepared to push Arthur to safety.

He watches with bated breath as Arthur follows the beast’s tracks, his eyes narrowed and his shoulders broad. Despite the danger he looks confident, striding forward with sure steps. Every few paces he stops and scans the area in search of something before continuing. The knights follow his footsteps, stopping when he does and matching him pace for pace. Merlin does not have the same confidence but he keeps close to Arthur nonetheless. They all freeze when a low growl emits from a cave just off the path.

Gaius warned Merlin that the Questing Beast is a creature that lies at the heart of the Old Religion. Its nature is written in scripture and doctrine, it holds the very essence of mortality at its core. One bite from the creature and you are sentenced to death. There is no cure.

Arthur beckons the knights forward with two fingers, keeping his eyes firmly on the mouth of the cave. They follow him in a cautious line, hands on swords as they scan the darkness. The air is uncomfortably stagnant, not even the wind dares to breathe as they enter the cave. Merlin stays close by Arthur’s side, hands shaking and lungs trembling as he struggles not to make a sound.

Their every footfall feels uncomfortably loud, the atmosphere is charged with tangible fear that drapes heavily over their shoulders and forces their backs to hunch under the weight.

Silently Arthur turns to the group, making complicated signals to the knights which they follow with wordless obedience. Merlin can’t understand anything Arthur silently communicates but it hardly matters, even if Arthur had been indicating for Merlin to split off he wouldn’t obey, he won’t leave Arthur’s side for even a second.

The two of them creep around the corner, the light of the torch only offers enough vision to see a few feet in front of them, but they persist onwards. Merlin wishes he could summon a ball of light, he has an eerie sense that the Questing Beast is waiting in the shadows, eagerly awaiting the meal wandering into its home.

Merlin’s steps on something and it breaks with a crack. Both he and Arthur tense but nothing attacks. He lowers the torch to see the path ahead and his stomach lurches as the light falls on piles of bones and skulls. The skeletons litter the floor, a massacre of bones and torn apart flesh, collected over a number of years. Merlin feels like he might be sick as his stomach wrings itself and nerves gnaw on the walls of his gut and chest, chewing him apart from the inside with disgust and fear. He lifts the torch so the bones are engulfed by darkness once more.

Arthur freezes, hearing something that Merlin’s unaccustomed ears don’t pick up on.

“What is it?” Merlin whispers, barely louder than a breath.

Arthur shakes his head roughly, his face is chiselled in the harsh lighting of the singular torch, his chin and the far side of his face are completely lost to darkness. His eyes are narrowed, glancing around the large space in search of the beast.

“Shh,” he instructs but his whisper is interrupted by the low growl of the Questing Beast. The sound rumbles throughout the cave, vibrating in Merlin’s chest and in the hollow of his windpipe.

The creature's huge slitted eyes glint as it slinks from the shadows, haunches raised and prowling like a lion. Merlin feels dizzy with fear, his sweaty palms slippery against the torch. He stumbles backwards as Arthur’s hand makes purchase with his shoulder, shoving him behind and to relative safety.

Merlin scrambles to a higher vantage point, he’s quick and agile as fear transforms his magic into pure energy surging through his veins, humming with activity. He can hear the sounds of Arthur’s sword clashing with the heavy hooves of the beast. His heart lurches with every shout that leaves Arthur’s lips. Every noise Arthur makes could be him succumbing to an attack and falling, and that unknown makes Merlin feel sick with fear.

When Arthur is struck it is upsettingly obvious. He lets out a loud shout of pain that echoes around the cavern and rings in Merlin’s ears. Merlin’s body goes cold, heartbeat staggering to a halt as he reaches the crest of the rock pile and sees the beast towering over Arthur’s limp body.

“Oi! You brute! Hey!” Merlin catches the Questing Beast’s attention, waving his torch around madly until the giant creature turns to face him with a menacing hiss. His heart is racing, his mouth goes dry and his skin prickles, but the sight of Arthur in danger makes him puff his chest and stand firm.

Arthur’s sword lies discarded on the floor, a few feet away from his unconscious body. Merlin seizes it with his magic, wrapping it tightly around the abandoned weapon and tugs it into the air. His eyes flash gold as he shouts an incantation. The sword illuminates, casting a blue light over the cave and with a tug Merlin pulls the weapon through the air plunging it into the heart of the beast. It staggers to the ground with a deafening roar, scrabbling on the bone covered ground before collapsing with a thud.

Merlin is already halfway to Arthur by the time the beast stills. A sense of calm had washed over him when facing the beast, but now he feels nothing but unadulterated panic. He is frantic, nerves alive like there are bees caught in his muscles and around his bones. He falls beside Arthur, hands skimming over his body, checking for vitals and injuries as Gaius has taught him.

“It didn’t bite you, it didn’t,” he pleads desperately, repeating the words over and over as his hands jump restlessly between the plates of Arthur’s armour. When he reaches the prince’s shoulder his hand comes back sticky with blood and the world comes crashing down.

“No,” Merlin rasps, his stomach tightens until breathing is impossible,and the air in his chest comes out in hollow gasps. “Arthur!”

Arthur remains unresponsive, flopping weakly in Merlin’s hold. Tears sting Merlin’s eyes, pressing harshly on the sockets of his eyes until he wants to sob.

“Fuck,” he gasps hollowly, the word crushes down on his windpipe until each heaving breath comes out hoarse with distress.

He swallows, forcing moisture back into his mouth so air will break through.

“Help!” Merlin screams, clutching Arthur to his chest and pressing his hand against the wound to staunch the blood flow. “Someone help me!”

He looks down at Arthur, eyebrows furrowed with pain but lips parted and breaths coming out evenly, like he’s taking a nap rather than being on the verge of death.

“You’re going to be okay,” Merlin promises. “You have to be.”

~-~-~

Merlin sprints into Gaius’ chambers, throwing books and papers from the table in a fell swoop of his arm. The knights lower Arthur onto the cleared table and quickly flee the room, giving the physician space.

“What happened?” Gaius’ eyes are wide as he hurries over. He scans his critical eyes over Arthur’s body, quickly noticing the slowly oozing wound on the prince’s shoulder. Merlin takes a slow breath to keep himself from collapsing

“He’s been bitten,” Gaius says, looking at Merlin with a horrified expression on his old face.

Merlin’s breath hitches, the tears that were building in his throat threaten to fall as Gaius begins to remove Arthur’s armour to inspect the extent of the damage.

“I tried to protect him,” Merlin manages to speak through the despair that is lumped in his throat.

He leaves Gaius as the physician watches the blackening and oozing edges of the injury, taking the stairs to his bedroom two at a time. After too many close encounters he and Gaius had created a hidden alcove under Merlin’s bed for him to store his grimoire. He retrieves it with clumsy fingers that scrabble at the loose floorboard gracelessly and tremble as he tries to flick through the pages.

“What are you doing?” Gaius demands, looking up with a wild expression as Merlin almost trips down the stairs with his nose buried in the book. “The king is going to be here any minute!”

Merlin looks up — whatever Gaius sees in his eyes is enough to make the physician pause. Perhaps it’s the desperation, or how close Merlin is to the verge of tears, or the way his heart feels like it’s splintering and crumbling; he’s certain he’s showing it all on his face.

“I have to try,” he says, hysteria thick in his voice. “I have to protect him.”

Gaius hesitates, his indecision is evident.

Merlin’s entire body is shaking, weak as a dandelion under a heavy gust of wind ready to dissolve into nothing.

“We haven’t done all the things we’re meant to do,” he says with a choked voice, gently brushing Arthur’s fringe from his forehead.

“That is the lament of all men. It does not mean you should die alongside him,” Gaius says solemnly but Merlin cannot fathom the idea of doing nothing.

“Gaius.” Merlin looks intently at Gaius. “He’s my destiny.”

He watches, heartbeat as loud as thunder in his ears as Gaius considers.

“Then save him,” Gaius finally agrees with a nod of permission.

Merlin allows his fear to drop like a heavy stone into the pool of magic within him, letting it overflow. It rifles through the pages of the grimoire, turning the pages faster than his fingers could ever achieve. His eyelashes flicker as he sees a thousand spells, recipes, instructions fly over his eyelids in the space of a breath. His hand flies towards Arthur. He attempts an incantation, and another, and another.

Arthur doesn’t move. His chest barely shifts with each breath, the movement is so minute that Merlin can hardly tell if he’s taking in air at all. Merlin bites down hard at his cheek to keep himself alert and in the moment, pushing away the fear and despair creeping into his vision.

You’ve failed him, the thought creeps over his mind, like a hot breath on the back of his neck. It makes goosebumps pebble on his skin and hairs rise along his arms.

“Maybe… maybe the spells just need time to take effect,” he says, forcing optimism into his voice when all he feels is overwhelming helplessness.

“The bite of the Questing Beast is a death sentence. There is no cure,” Gaius says softly.

Gaius’ expression is dark, grief amalgamated with cynicism. From his face it’s clear what he is thinking. There is no hope.

Merlin bites down hard on his fist to keep his tears at bay as Uther storms into the room.

“Where is he?” He demands, red faced and with a dangerous expression that makes Merlin shrink backwards into the shadows. He steps in front of the grimoire, carefully closing it out of Uther’s sight.

“Arthur,” Uther gasps, hurrying to his side. The king is dishevelled in a way Merlin has never seen him. His crown is lopsided on his balding head, his eyes distraught with terror that ages him by decades.

Merlin knows that despite it all, Uther does care for Arthur, no matter how terribly he might express it. It is obvious now as tears drip down the King’s face as he looks over his son.

“Do something, Gaius,” Uther commands. His order is harsh, unearthed from the depths of his grief stricken chest.

“I’m trying, Sire, but…” Gaius shies away from Uther’s enraged stare. “I’m afraid there isn’t much hope, but I will do everything in my power.”

Merlin is painfully aware that it won't be enough.

~-~-~

He debates for almost an entire hour before deciding to go to The Dragon with desperation and fear warring in his stomach. The Dragon frowns in a confused way as Merlin enters. Merlin has not dared return since the incident with Excalibur, he has been too riddled with shame and the knowledge that he betrayed The Dragon’s trust. But now he doesn’t have a choice.

“I have failed in my destiny,” he gasps, stumbling to a stop. His chest feels compressed, constricting his ribcage until it cracks and groans in protest. His words are thick with tears he hasn’t yet allowed to fall because he simply doesn’t have the time.

“I have failed Arthur.”

The Dragon tips his head in contemplation. “I do not think that is true, if it were, you would not be here.”

The Dragon’s cryptic words and impassive expressions grate against his patience like stones against brick. Merlin squeezes his eyes shut, frustration rising like a swelling wave.

“He was bitten by the Questing Beast,” he shouts, chest heaving as anger crashes over him. “He’s going to die,” the word catches like a hook in his throat, ripping the inside of his vocal chords open as he pushes them into the air.

The Dragon is unwavering in his nonchalance, looking down at Merlin as though he is behaving strangely.

“Does Arthur still breathe?” He asks cooly.

Pain settles in Merlin’s skin like needles as he nods. He can’t erase the image of Arthur’s barely moving chest from his mind, his shaking exhales no louder than the flapping of a butterfly's wings.

“Only just,” he manages to croak.

“Then there is still time to save him,” The Dragon says, continuing to speak calmly and without urgency, lounging on his boulder in a relaxed way.

Merlin grabs at the short hair around his ears and tugs hard in frustration, letting the sharp pain keep him from screaming himself hoarse.

“I already tried! I couldn’t save him!”

I failed. I failed him. I couldn’t do it.

The thoughts hit him one after the other in a barrage of anguish and self revulsion. They crash against his skin, leaving him bleeding and bruised. He’s overwhelmed by it, exhausted, desperate to collapse under their weight and succumb to the pain.

“I can’t save him,” he whispers hoarsely.

The Dragon shakes his great head slowly.

“You do not know how to save him,” he corrects patiently.

Merlin’s frustration dulls into a low hum that buzzes under his skin, still filling him with restless energy but calmed enough that he can focus on The Dragon’s words.

“You can tell me how?” He asks hopefully.

The Dragon smiles mildly. “Perhaps, but it will not be easy.”

It doesn’t matter. He does not feel hesitation, or indecision about this, he will do whatever Arthur needs. The fear of losing him is overwhelming, worse than anything Merlin could ever imagine, so immense that he could sink under the weight of such a terrible thought. He feels nothing but hardened resolve when he considers the sacrifices he might need to make in order to protect Arthur.

“I will do anything,” he vows solemnly, gaze steady as he meets The Dragon’s giant yellow eyes.

“Anything?”

There is a pleased undertone to The Dragon’s surprised answer, who continues to look imploringly at Merlin.

“Yes,” Merlin answers easily. “Please, just tell me what I have to do.”

The Dragon hums, narrowing his eyes critically at Merlin.

Merlin feels oddly defensive, tipping his chin up at the great beast and almost daring him to suggest that Merlin wouldn’t go to the ends of the Earth to save Arthur.

“Very well,” he agrees finally, looking down his snout at Merlin. “The Questing Beast is a creature conjured by the powers of the Old Religion. As such, the same old magic must be wielded against it. That is what you must use to save the young Pendragon.”

Merlin frowns heavily. “But the Old Religion died out centuries ago.”

The Dragon scoffs, plainly offended by Merlin’s inadequate knowledge.

“The Old Religion is the magic of the Earth itself. It is imbued into nature, it is the essence that binds all things together, and it will last long beyond the time of men.”

Merlin is dumbstruck by the knowledge. He pauses, thinking of his own magic and how it instinctively reaches for the earth, drawing him towards the forest and nature. Since he was a small child, he’s loved the feeling of soil and water against his fingertips, and the way his magic would fill him with warmth and pleasant tingles he would experience if he let it extend towards nature. It is understandable that his magic is simply an extension of a more ancient magic, of the Old Religion; however there is one aspect that remains confusing.

“But how will that help me save Arthur?”

“There are few left who still serve the Old Religion, you must seek their help. Those who hold dominion over life and death.”

Merlin has read about the ability to control life and death in the grimoire; such power is not something that can be harnessed by just any warlock, only the most powerful sorcerers are capable of wielding such an ancient form of magic, a form of magic that extends beyond simply causing death but having the power to exchange life for death. The ability to strike a bargain with the very essence of nature.

“Where can I find such a person?”

The Dragon smiles, the eager expression stretches across his lips, revealing the sharp teeth that line his mouth.

“Go to the place that men call the Isle of the Blessed, where the ancient magic can still be felt. It is there where you will find Arthur’s salvation.”

Hope blooms in Merlin’s chest, a small flower that he guards carefully, protecting it from harm as it stretches its petals towards the sun. His eyes glisten with tears, as he feels optimistic for the first time since his hand came back from Arthur’s devastated shoulder sticky with warm blood.

“Thank you,” he says gratefully. “Thank you so much.”

“Young warlock,” The Dragon stops Merlin before he can leave. Merlin turns to face him once more, meeting the intense expression on The Dragon’s face. “The young Pendragon must live. No matter the cost.”

Something resigned yet firm settles beside the hopeful flower within Merlin. Understanding that some things, even himself, pale in comparison to Arthur’s importance.

He nods pensively, and offers The Dragon a tip of his head in farewell, all too aware that they may never see each other again.

~-~-~

Merlin thunders into the physician’s chambers, determination beating through him like war drums preparing for battle. He has never felt so assured about what he must accomplish, his fear, his hesitation, has faded away into nothingness. He can save Arthur, he can succeed in his destiny. This is what he was born to do, if everything he has done has led to this moment, he is satisfied with that.

Gaius looks up in surprise as Merlin begins to storm around the room. He retrieves a discarded satchel and hurriedly packs anything that might aid his journey to the Isle of the Blessed.

“What are you doing?” He asks, pausing his mixing of an ailment to watch Merlin with interest.

“I have to save Arthur,” is all Merlin offers, his hand stalls over the grimoire before deciding to leave the book where it is. Where he is going no amount of information can assist him, only the magic that is stitched into his very soul.

“You’ve already tried,” Gaius protests. “Now we must ease his passing.”

Merlin’s chest squeezes at the mention of Arthur’s passing. Gaius’ words are surrender, a submission to the natural order. Merlin cannot yield so easily.

“No. The Questing Beast is a creature of the Old Religion, so the cure must come from the same source.”

Gaius eyes Merlin suspiciously, his fingertips tap the tabletop as he continues to watch Merlin bustle around the room.

“There are not many left who have mastered such an art,” he says dubiously.

Merlin nods. “I know, but you said it yourself, the Old Religion is still alive. There is an island—”

“No!” Gaius cuts him off with a shout, his eyes blazing and his back tall.

Merlin falters and turns to face Gaius properly.

“...The Isle of the Blessed,” he finishes cautiously, watching Gaius’ tense reaction with a wary eye. “You know it?”

Gaius chews on the side of his mouth, and his brows draw over his eyes like a dark shadow falling over his face. Merlin watches with wide eyes and an uncomfortable feeling in his chest as Gaius swallows, clearly reluctant to divulge the information he so obviously holds.

Finally his head dips low in a singular nod.

“It was said to be the centre of Old Religion, the heart of its power.”

Merlin frowns, what Gaius is saying aligns with what The Dragon told him.

“Why did you keep this from me?” He asks, hurt that Gaius is still keeping secrets from him in spite of the trusting relationship they have built.

“Because it was too dangerous, Merlin,” Gaius argues without hesitation.

“I should get to decide what I can handle,” Merlin retorts, irritation prickling the back of his neck.

Gaius’ face is steadily reddening with frustration. “You’re just a boy—”

“—I’m nineteen years old!”

“Exactly!” Gaius’ hand hits the tabletop in a splayed palm.

Merlin freezes, staring back at Gaius with wide eyes and jaw hanging open. Gaius softens immediately, his wise eyes heavy with exhaustion and love for Merlin.

“You are under my care. As your guardian I only want what is best for you. I did not think you were ready to face the Isle of the Blessed and I do not regret my decision to keep it from you.”

“The Isle of the Blessed could be our only chance to save Arthur,” Merlin says soberly. He understands Gaius’ desire to keep Merlin safe and he can’t fault him for that. However, for Merlin, Arthur must come before all else.

“If there is something I can do to save him, I have to. It is my destiny.”

Gaius doesn’t look pleased with his answer, his jaw is tense and he glares at Merlin when he returns to his task of packing.

“Once you are there what will you ask?” He demands eventually, interrupting Merlin once more.

Merlin doesn’t look at him, shoving an apple and some bread into his satchel.

“For Arthur to be saved,” he answers without pause.

Gaius exhales sharply through his nose in frustration. “The Questing Beast chose Arthur, that means the Old Religion has already decided his fate.”

Anger bursts in Merlin, a furious explosion from his core to his fingertips.

“Then I will convince them to change their minds!” He yells, slamming a book onto the table with a smack that echoes around their chambers.

“It is not that simple!” Gaius shoots back fiercely.

They both still, faces torn with fury and chests heaving. Merlin hates the anxiety creeping under his skin, it corrupts Gaius’ reasonable arguments into harsh sandpaper that scrape against his patience, eroding it into dust. He has to do this, he doesn’t have another choice. Arthur will die, he will have failed, there is only one option and he needs Gaius to see that.

Gaius sighs, bridging the gap between them when it is clear that Merlin won’t. He reaches out a hand, resting it on Merlin’s shoulder and squeezing affectionately.

“The high priests of the Old Religion have the ability to mirror life and death, but it is an exchange. They will demand a life in return.” Gaius’ eyes are sad as they watch Merlin’s reaction. Merlin tries to contain his fear, the terror that makes his beating heart feel too big, claustrophobic in his chest. He knew this already, but it is one thing to be aware, and another to consider just what he is risking by saving Arthur’s life.

“Please Merlin,” Gaius begs, his touch a reassuring weight against Merlin’s arm. “I beg of you.”

Merlin takes a deep steadying breath, meeting Gaius’ eyes with unfaltering, steadfast confidence. He is afraid, but he is not uncertain. This is what he was born to do.

“I’m sorry Gaius,” he says honestly. “Whatever the price is, I will pay it gladly.”

Gaius sighs reluctantly, sadness twisting his features as he accepts Merlin’s commitment.

“You’ll need to know how to reach the Isle in that case,” he says, with an air that indicates how little he wants to reveal such information to Merlin.

He makes his way over to the bookcase, climbing the ladder to the top balcony alcove and fetches a small dust covered key.

“This unlocks the cabinet at the back of the royal library, it is where the King keeps any maps or scriptures related to sorcery,” he explains, pressing the key begrudgingly into Merlin’s hand. “The Isle of the Blessed is a place embedded in magic. It does not cling to the shore, or settle in the water like any other island, it moves and shifts with the tide. The map tracks its whereabouts, you will need it if you are to get there at all.”

Merlin offers Gaius a smile, taking the physician’s hand and holding it tight.

“Thank you, Gaius,” he says gratefully.

Gaius huffs, a small reluctant smile tugs at the corners of his mouth. He clicks his fingers, suddenly remembering something, and hurries over to his bed in the corner, reaching under the pillow and retrieving a small object.

“Here, I want to give you this,” he hands Merlin the item with careful fingers. It’s a small rabbit’s foot, fluffy to the touch and so small it fits comfortably in the palm of Merlin’s hand alongside the key.

“My mother gave it to me,” Gaius tells him softly, emotion straining thick through his casual words.

“To keep you safe,” Merlin murmurs, turning the small thing over in his hand with a private smile.

Gaius nods. “It was said to protect you from evil spirits.”

Merlin looks up at the physician, a comforting warmth spreads throughout his body, like sitting by a warm fire on an icy winter’s day. “It’s rubbish, I don’t believe in superstition,” Gaius rambles, obviously self conscious by the tenderness of the moment. “I don’t know why I thought you would want—” he tries to take the rabbit’s foot back to save himself the embarrassment but Merlin holds it to his chest.

“No.” He smiles at Gaius, reassuring him and thanking him all at once. “I want it.”

Gaius smiles back, eyes glistening with unshed tears and a distressed twist to his eyebrows. He takes Merlin by the shoulders and pulls him into a tight hug, thumbing the top of his spine. Merlin’s body eases into Gaius’ arms and he rests his cheek against the physician’s head, relaxing into the embrace with a pleased hum. Gaius always smells vaguely of herbs and sharp spices, the tang of his medical remedies is sewn into his state of being. It’s comforting now, as nerves solidify in his gut and sit there, heavy as a stone.

“Be careful,” Gaius whispers softly into Merlin’s shoulder. It’s needless, they both know what Merlin needs to do, the sacrifice that must be made. However, the plea softens something in Merlin’s chest and he swallows heavily to hold back the tears that spring to his eyes.

He doesn’t promise anything. It would be a disservice to them both for him to lie.

~-~-~

Morgana eases herself onto the bed beside Arthur; her body is tense in frightened anticipation of jostling him. It breaks her heart to see him like this, heavy and still, forehead shiny with sweet and face screwed up in pain. His chest is bare, wrapped tightly with bandages that are slowly staining with blood as his injury weeps.

She combs her fingers gently through his hair, brushing it out of his eyes, slowly untangling the knots that are accumulating in the soft strands.

“I told you not to go,” she says softly, chastising him like he was awake and merely injured. It is the ultimate goal of any sibling to be proven right, but now she only wishes that Arthur had proved her wrong.

“I told you that you would get hurt, why couldn’t you just—” her words crumble into a shuddering sob. Tears trickle down her face and drip from her chin as she takes his hand. It is heavy, almost lifeless but still warm from his persistently pumping heart. Morgana takes a shaky breath, but her tears continue their slow path down her face.

“If you had just listened to me just once, instead of being so damn stubborn—” she laughs wetly, eyes shining affectionately as she gently rubs her thumb over the bumps of Arthur’s knuckles.

“—Then you’d be okay.”

He remains unresponsive, eyelashes flickering in uncomfortable slumber and his breaths are shallow, but thankfully, still even.

“Please…” Morgana chokes, swiping at her tears with the heel of her hand.

“Please Arthur, you have to be okay.”

~-~-~

The map moves fluidly in Merlin’s hand; the illustrated trees blow under an invisible breeze, the clouds shift over the sketched mountains, and the painted water laps at the shore in gentle waves. He rides towards the Isle, today it’s located about a half day’s ride from Camelot’s border, but he keeps his eyes on the shifting map the entirety of his journey.

When he reaches the shore his heart is pumping fast against his ribcage. He takes a steeling breath before he braves the dismount and starts making his way towards the small rickety rowboat positioned at the water’s edge.

He approaches the boat cautiously. It feels like something is watching him, he can’t help but check behind him on the short walk to where the boat waits. There are no oars, but as soon as he enters the small barge it pitches into motion, bobbing over the waves and towards the looming Isle, which is almost completely concealed in a heavy fog.

The magic in the air is potent, it sticks to his skin and pulls at his hair as the boat makes its slow path towards the castle ruins. His ears start to ring as he advances, his own magic rises within him, towards his fingertips and mind, eager vibrations that simultaneously settle him and provoke his anxiety.

The boat floats under huge, overhanging arches that cast dark shadows over the water. Merlin weaves along a twisting river, through the ruins and the fog and towards the epicentre of the castle. The magic in Merlin’s chest is practically thrumming with fervour. It knows this place, these walls, these stones, it knows them by heart even if Merlin himself has never encountered them before.

His heart pitches as the boat pulls to a stop. His stomach heaves and bubbles as he peers over the lip of the boat towards the steep staircase ahead.

“Okay,” he mumbles, mustering his courage and stepping onto solid land. The walls are alive with magic, the whole Isle hums with it, emitting an energy that makes the hairs on Merlin’s arms stand tall.

Stones crumble under his feet as he tiptoes his way up the staircase. With every step the ageing stairs threaten to drop out from under his feet and his muscles clench in anticipation of fall with every tentative footfall.

The staircase opens into a huge courtyard. The walls are dilapidated, covered in creeping moss that swallows the crumbling stone. It is a manifestation of what is left of the Old Religion, broken and feeble, but still connected to nature at its very essence. Mist sits heavily over the scene, thinner than the magic that permeates the Isle but shrouding the space in eeriness everywhere Merlin looks.

Merlin swallows heavily, breathing in the earthy taste of magic around him.

“Hello?” He calls out into the empty air. The castle feels deserted, a liminal space that was once alive, only now to be left in isolated ruin.

“Hello, Merlin.”

He spins around, eyes searching for the source of the voice. They fall on a woman. Merlin recognises her immediately, Nimueh. Though he met her under the pseudonym of Elise, Gaius had explained the sorceress’ true identity when Merlin woke from his poison induced coma.

She looks different to when she visited him in Camelot. Her once innocent and wide eyed face has become twisted with the years of solitude that was forced upon her, her exile from the world that once welcomed her has turned her heart into stone. Her soft lips are pulled into a cruel red painted smile, and her inhumanely blue eyes seem to burn with hatred.

“You.”

Nimueh smiles. “Me,” she answers, brushing her knotted dark hair from her shoulder.

“No, you can’t be who the Dragon meant,” Merlin mutters, shaking his head to dispel the fear trailing down his spine.

Nimueh blinks at him with theatrical innocence.

“And why is that?”

“You tried to kill me, and Arthur,” Merlin reminds her.

Nimueh shrugs. “I don’t deny it, but Arthur was never destined to die at my hand; and now it seems that I will be his salvation.”

She smiles coldly. Everything about Nimueh and her smug, leering smile is enough to set Merlin’s teeth on edge and riddle him with distrust; but he has no other choice. Arthur needs him, and Merlin cannot fail him.

“So you know what I’ve come for?” He asks hopefully.

Nimueh raises a thin eyebrow at him in amusement. “Yes,” she answers simply.

“And will you do it?”

With a contemplative expression Nimueh stalks towards the altar at the centre of the courtyard. Her bare feet create sparks as they strike the earth, reacting with the energy that hums beneath the surface, forming a connection between her and the magic of the Isle itself.

“I do not have the power to mirror life itself and give nothing in return,” Nimueh advises, the blue in her eyes is glacial like solid ice, sharp and inhospitable. She has become so isolated that even her eyes are uninhabitable, she is beyond cruel and nearing barbaric, stripped of her humanity.

Merlin nods, interrupting her. “I know that a price will be asked.”

Nimueh tips her chin appraisingly at him.

“To save a life there must be a death, the balance of the world must be restored.”

Merlin knew this was true, The Dragon had inferred it, Gaius had told him outright, but to hear it from Nimueh’s lips makes his blood run cold.

He takes a slow, deep breath, bolstering his courage and standing tall while pinned by her dark, amused stare.

“I willingly give my life for Arthur’s,” he says with an air of confidence he does not feel.

She grins predatorily, a slow pull of her lips that makes her appear to be a lioness only seconds before her kill.

“How brave you are, Merlin,” she says condescendingly. “If only it were so simple.”

Merlin frowns, goosebumps raising on his skin. “What do you mean?”

She ignores his question, instead her grin widens until her cheeks are practically split in two. Her lipstick is blood red, and smeared in the left corner, she looks mad.

“Once you enter into this bargain, it cannot be undone,” she warns him.

Merlin swallows his fear.

“Whatever I have to do, I will.” He steps forward, chest swelling with pride when Nimueh’s eyes widen at his certainty.

He lets calm eclipse the fear, the knowledge that this is what he is meant to do, he is destined to protect Arthur.

“His life is worth one hundred of mine.”

Nimueh raises her eyebrows, looking at Merlin like he’s an experiment; peering at him through the scope of a magnifying glass. He is the ant beneath her boot, she is simply waiting for the right moment to kill him.

She waves her hand over the stone altar, and beneath her fluid fingertips a goblet appears. Forged in bronze and gilded in gold, it shines amongst the mist and hums with the same magic that is infused through the air.

“The Cup of Life,” she introduces, taking the goblet and beckoning him over. “It contains the very secret of life itself. If Arthur drinks water from the cup, he will live.”

She offers the cup to Merlin, smirking as he reaches out gingerly and takes it from her outstretched hold. It feels too easy, like something should come at any minute to strike him where he stands. But nothing happens.

Nimueh smiles once more, a cruel stretch of her lips that sends chills up Merlin’s spine.

She chants a spell, looking to the sky with outstretched hands, summoning dark clouds to gather over their heads. As the sky darkens Nimueh looks to Merlin, a knowing look in her vicious blue eyes.

From above, the clouds break and heavy rain begins to fall, a torrential downpour that escalates in seconds until Merlin can barely see a few inches from his own nose. The water splashes in the cup hitting the rim and bottom of the goblet in plinking sounds that steadily fill until he holds a full cup of water in his hands.

Rainwater drips from his eyelashes and chin as the rain slowly eases to a stop under Nimueh’s careful instruction. She offers Merlin another wicked smile, taking the goblet from him once more and pouring it into a small canister. He stands waiting for her, shivering as cold spring air whistles between his teeth as they chatter. He rubs his hands uselessly over his saturated arms and the waterlogged fabric of his jacket.

She hands Merlin the canister, pressing it hard against the skin of his palm.

“A bargain is struck.”

Merlin nods, dripping a puddle onto the moss covered floor and still shaking with nerves and cold. He turns to walk away from her, eager to leave this magic infested place and remove himself from her sadistic gaze.

Her hand darts out and seizes his wrist just before he’s out of her reach. Her grip is a shackle, unkempt fingernails dig harshly into his wrist and cut into his skin.

“I hope it pleases you,” she bids him, her tone simperingly sweet but her eyes are malicious and hungry.

Merlin wrenches his wrist from her grip, hurrying from the Isle as quickly as he can manage. He can feel her eyes on the back of his neck all the way back to his horse.

~-~-~

Gwen opens the door to Arthur’s chambers as quietly as she can, with a bowl of fresh water balanced on her hip and her heart sitting at the base of her stomach.

The news of Arthur’s defeat from the Questing Beast shattered her heart. She has grown up alongside him, but only this year has she begun to see him as anything but untouchable and unapproachable, Prince Arthur. When they met he was arrogant, guarded in every sense and emotionless aside from immature humour; she had assumed him to be callous like his father, or cocky like the other royalty that came to Camelot.

Only this year did she realise she was wrong, and now he is going to be lost forever.

Gaius is dozing in the chair by Arthur’s bedside, drained from his efforts to keep the young prince alive.

She knocks gently on the door, startling him awake.

“Gwen,” he greets her, rubbing at his face to rouse himself as his trained eyes scan over Arthur.

“You should get some rest,” Gwen says, placing the water on the bench, making her way over to Gaius.

He shakes his head.

“He must not be left alone,” he says solemnly, but she feels the sag of his shoulders as she touches his arm.

“I’ll tend to him.”

Gaius looks at her with affectionate eyes. Since the death of her father, he has been a comfort to her, offering her to sit in the physician’s chambers often so she isn’t left alone in the silence of her home.

“You don’t have to do that,” he says softly.

She nods. “I know, but I want to, and you need proper sleep or you won’t be able to care for him.”

Gaius frowns hesitantly, glancing at the sleeping Arthur before conceding with a nod. He eases himself to his feet, muscles groaning and bones creaking as he rises from the stiff wooden chair.

“Thank you, Gwen,” he murmurs, patting her arm warmly before hobbling his way out of the room.

Gwen perches on the bed beside him, gently easing the cool cloth from Arthur’s head and ignoring the stab of guilt when he whimpers slightly in sleep. She dips the rag in the fresh water and dabs at his sweat soaked forehead gently, cooling his fever with soothing motions.

“You’re not going to die, Arthur,” she says adamantly. “I’m not asking, it’s not a request… I’m ordering you.”

He is unresponsive, but she continues nursing him regardless.

“I know you’ll be okay, because I know that one day you will be king.” She smiles, dabbing the cloth at the hollow of his neck and carefully around the bandaged wound on his shoulder.

“A greater king than your father could ever hope to be.”

The pain of what Uther did to her, to her family, has not eased over the last month. She hates him with every fibre of her being, and even though she would not wish death upon him she would happily see him suffer for the remainder of his days. She knows Arthur will be a better king than his father because he is a better man than Uther could dream of being. He is good, and kind, and he will be more than his father. She knows it.

“Since the death of my father that’s all that’s kept me going,” she admits softly, tongue loosened with the awareness that he cannot truly hear her. “The knowledge that one day I will see your rule. You can’t take that from me.”

Gwen takes a shaking breath, taking his hand between her two smaller palms.

“You are going to live to be the man I’ve seen inside you, Arthur,” she tells him softly. “You are going to achieve amazing things. In the future I can see a Camelot that is right, and just, and I see people who love their king.”

Uther could never know what it is to be a beloved ruler; he strikes unease in the population; he is respected, but despised. Arthur will be loved, he is already cherished by the people; as King he will be adored.

“You will be a sovereign they are proud to call their own.”

She squeezes her eyes shut, refusing to cry or else admit that things are hopeless. She needs the hope and clings to it like driftwood in a sweeping current, it is the only thing keeping her afloat. She adjusts the cloth on his forehead so it doesn’t soak his fringe or drip onto his eyes, with tender, careful motions, like he is a fragile antique that must be protected.

“For the love of Camelot… you have to live,” she pleads, voice choked and hoarse but firm. She presses his knuckles to her lips and waits as he sleeps, watching over him protectively.

~-~-~

Merlin and Gaius sprint through the halls towards Arthur’s chambers with the canister of enchanted water held tightly in Gaius’ grip. Merlin’s heart feels like it might beat its way right out of his chest. The anticipation is like a bolt of lightning injected right into his bloodstream, electrifying his every nerve and muscle.

The chamber is thankfully empty when they arrive so they don’t have to make any excuses. Merlin sits on the bed, gently lifting Arthur’s head onto his lap so Gaius can offer him the water with ease. He’s careful as he manoeuvres the sleeping prince’s head, his fingers are gentle and delicate as he affectionately smooths Arthur’s hair.

Merlin wishes for a moment that his feelings for Arthur were reciprocated, that he could hold him the way he desperately wants to. He longs to tend to the warm fever of Arthur’s forehead, to press a gentle kiss to the bump of his nose. It would be so easy to express his feelings; but he can’t. He acquiesces that at least if this works his destiny will be fulfilled. He may never be anything more to Arthur than his poorly behaved manservant, but at least he will play a key role in his story, in his journey to become a great king.

Gaius unstoppers the canister with a steadying breath and nods at Merlin.

Merlin gently presses the pad of his thumb to Arthur’s cupid’s bow, encouraging his lips to part for the water.

He holds his breath as Gaius pours the liquid into Arthur’s mouth, watching anxiously as he swallows the drops with heavy bobs of his Adam’s apple. There is no power in the room, no thrill of magic or sense of destiny. It is just Arthur and the water, seemingly nothing extraordinary.

Arthur whimpers, his body is flushed red and shaking with fever, and his eyes are sunken with grey shadows, unconscious but unrested. Merlin shushes him gently, stroking the soft hairs around his ears soothingly until he settles again.

“What are you doing?” Uther’s voice from the doorway makes them both snap up in surprise. Merlin’s stomach clenches at the sight of the King. Despite how unassuming the act appears Merlin can’t help but feel as if Uther will smell the stench of magic in the air.

Gaius answers confidently and without pause. “I discovered an ancient remedy against poison, made from the lobelia plant, I was just administering it to the prince.”

“A cure?” Uther asks, coming to stand by Gaius’ shoulder.

Merlin forces himself to exhale, unwinding his muscles lest the King notice anything suspicious tense disposition. He ceases petting Arthur’s hair, while Gaius didn’t acknowledge any ulterior motive behind the touch, he senses Uther would see right through his paper thin skin to his true feelings for Arthur.

“I can only hope, Sire,” Gaius answers cryptically. He pours the remaining drops into Arthur’s mouth and glances nervously at Merlin who returns the gaze with equal force.

“We should allow him to rest,” Gaius suggests, shifting to his feet with a gentle pat to Arthur’s uninjured shoulder.

Uther shakes his head. “I won’t leave him. You go.”

Merlin wishes he could stay, he wants to be with Arthur until the moment he wakes up. There’s a large chance he might never see Arthur again, he wants to make the most of every second he has left, but he could never explain that to Uther. He squeezes his eyes shut, resisting the urge to hold Arthur close, all too aware of the King’s watchful stare and moves from under Arthur. He gently eases Arthur’s head onto the pillow with a careful cradled motion, chancing one gentle nudge of his knuckles to the prince’s strong jaw before stepping away.

Please be okay, it’ll be worth it if you’re okay, he thinks desperately, and leaves the room on Gaius’ heels.

~-~-~

Arthur wakes groggily, drowsy and ears stuffed full of wool. His head is pounding, his limbs are heavy like they’re made of stone, and his mouth is dry and ashy. It’s reminiscent of the terrible feeling that plagues his mornings after a heavy night of drinking at a particularly eventful feast.

He blinks slowly, rubbing away the crust of sleep clinging to his eyelashes and stiffly lifts his head to inspect the room. He blinks in surprise when he turns to the left to find his father dozing at his bedside. Arthur only has a moment to ponder whether he’s still asleep before Uther blinks awake, his eyes widening when they meet Arthur’s.

“Arthur!”

Uther surges out of the chair and to Arthur’s side, clutching his hand like a lifeline. The gesture only startles Arthur more, he subtly pinches the side of his leg just in case he really is dreaming but the mirage of his father’s joyous eyes doesn’t disappear.

“You’re okay.”

Uther squeezes his hand and Arthur thinks of saying ‘no I think I’m hallucinating’, but if this really is his father he likely wouldn’t take kindly to that response so he stays quiet.

He lets his head drop back onto the pillow heavily. He takes a heaving breath, winded by simply attempting to sit up. The wound on his shoulder throbs with pain as the dregs of unconsciousness slip away and his muscles awaken.

“How am I okay?” He manages to ask.

From what Merlin had been inanely muttering as they began their hunt, the bite of the Questing Beast is a death sentence with no cure. Arthur knows the beast sunk its teeth into him, it is the last thing he remembers. He can recall sharp teeth, blinding pain, and then sweet, encompassing darkness.

“I found an ancient remedy,” Gaius says, emerging from the servant’s entrance by the side of his bed with a fond smile. “Welcome back, Sire.”

“Thank you.” Arthur smiles back, his chest flooding with warmth and gratitude. “And thank you, for curing me.”

“Always,” Gaius pats Arthur’s ankle affectionately before bowing out of the room.

While Arthur’s attention was occupied with the physician, his father has returned to his usual self. The raw and unguarded look on his face from a moment ago is shielded once more, but he still gazes at Arthur with a fond expression.

“I truly thought we lost you,” Uther admits.

Arthur blinks in surprise, caught so off guard that a smile slips onto his face. It’s hard sometimes to remember that under the heavy armour of being a King, that Uther is a father at all. That he would feel upset, emotional, if something were to happen to his son, beyond fears for his own succession. He knows that the weight of the crown is heavy, a burden he carries on his shoulders and in the stiff lines of his frown, but it’s reassuring, in a terrible way, to see in this moment that his father has unravelled like a poorly made tapestry when Arthur’s life was threatened.

“Don’t worry father,” he says with a grin. “I’m not going to die.”

He thinks of his narrow escapes with death just in the last year, and muses. “I think I might have a guardian angel, someone watching over me and keeping me from harm.”

Uther hums. “Perhaps that’s a good thing, it’s a long journey to being king, you could use someone like that keeping you safe.”

Arthur’s smile grows, dopey and touched by his father’s out of character warmth.

Uther knocks his hand against the bedframe with a nod.

“I shall inform the court that their prince lives,” he says with a large smile that makes the warm feeling in Arthur flourish.

From the corner of his eye Arthur sees Guinevere enter just as the door clatters closed behind his father. Her arms are laden with linen, and her eyes are downturned and sad until they glance up and meet his.

“You’re awake!” She exclaims, almost dropping the fabric in her excitement. “Oh I knew it, I said you would be all right.” Her smile is infectious, a happy trill hums in Arthur’s chest as she beams at him.

She places the linens on the armoire and Arthur watches her go with a contemplative frown. There’s a memory that flickers in his mind, faint and hazy, nothing more than sounds and sensations but there all the same. He remembers in the dark and painful haze after he was bitten, the sounds of people coming to and from the room. Morgana’s soft hands in his, Merlin’s fingers brushing his hair, and Guinevere’s cool touch nursing his fever.

“You were speaking to me,” he recalls faintly. “While I was asleep. I remember.”

Guinevere turns back to him with wide owlish eyes, shock painted across her face.

“You do?”

Arthur nods, shifting as a jolt of pain shoots down his arm.

“Tell me again what you said?” He says hopefully. The memories are so ambiguous he hardly remembers at all. Faint whispers of him becoming king, and the man Arthur is inside, they’re like echoes heard from the other end of a long cavern.

Guinevere shakes her head self consciously. “I don’t remember,” she says, but from the blush on her brown cheeks Arthur knows she’s lying.

Arthur smiles. “Yes you do.”

“No I don’t.”

“Come on,” Arthur prompts with a teasing smirk that makes Guinevere smile back reluctantly. “Something about the man I am inside.”

“No, I think I’d remember saying something like that,” Guinevere retorts, shaking her head shyly.

Arthur rolls his eyes warmly.

“Guinevere.”

She smiles back but doesn’t budge, piling dirty tunics and rags into a basket with astonishing efficiency.

“I have to get these washed, Sire,” she says, stepping back and away.

Arthur nods, even the short interaction has left him completely drained, chest straining with the effort of keeping air in his lungs. He smiles as Guinevere turns to leave, pausing in the doorway.

“I really am glad you’re okay, Sire.”

She bobs a small curtsey and leaves the room, his smile following her out.

~-~-~

Merlin wakes up, which is the first sign that something has gone wrong.

He’d thought that the same cool confidence that fueled him when he spoke to Nimueh would return when he went to sleep, but instead he had laid awake for nearly two hours in panic. He felt like anxiety would chew through his skin and leave him as an empty husk before whatever magical intervention came to kill him. Eventually he had fallen into a restless sleep, expecting every moment to be his last.

But he wakes up.

The rabbit’s foot is still clenched tight in his palm, and he’s slightly dazed from sleep and the shock of being alive, but he sprints downstairs as fast as he can manage.

“Merlin,” Gaius says, looking up at him with wide eyes. “Don’t come any closer,” he warns, holding out a hand to stop Merlin from approaching.

Merlin ignores the physician’s attempt to keep him at bay, well used to Gaius attempts to shield him from patients with terrible, bloody injuries.

His heart stops when he sees the woman in the bed. She is covered in blisters and boils, skin chafed raw and peeling, breaths coming out in haggard gasps; but Merlin knows those eyes, that smile.

“Mother?”

His mother’s eyes soften as they fall upon him.

“Merlin,” she croaks.

“What happened to her?” Merlin asks desperately, turning to Gaius with pleading eyes.

“She’s gravely ill,” Gaius tries to explain but Merlin’s heart is pounding in his ears, he can hardly hear his own thoughts let alone Gaius’ voice.

“Help her—”

“If I could—”

“Please Gaius!” Merlin nearly sobs. His mother is all he has. She is his family, his support, she has been there for him through everything and he can’t lose her. He can’t.

Gaius shakes his head, putting a consoling arm around Merlin’s shoulders until his trembling subside and he is able to hear again.

“This is no ordinary illness Merlin, this is magic.”

Hunith manages a nod but Merlin notices how fragile his mother seems to be, it seems like the smallest movement may crumble her to pieces.

She manages to explain around the hoarse croak of her illness that she had arrived in Camelot by way of magic. She had been collecting firewood in Ealdor when suddenly she had arrived at the gates of Camelot’s citadel, weak and disoriented from the sudden onset of illness. The only place she had thought to go was to Merlin and Gaius.

“This isn’t fair,” Merlin mumbles once his mother has fallen into an agitated sleep. “This is not her burden to bear, it is mine.”

Gaius nods sadly, his fingers stroking at his chin slowly.

“Who did you meet at the Isle of the Blessed?” He asks carefully.

Merlin chews on his cheek until he tastes the metallic sting of blood.

“Nimueh.”

“Nimueh?” Gaius’ eyes go wide.

Merlin ignores his reaction. “You were right, she demanded a price; but I bargained my life, not my mother’s.”

Gaius’ eyes flash with sadness at Merlin’s confession. Up until now Merlin had managed to avoid mentioning his self sacrifice aloud. He’s sure Gaius knew, it would be impossible not to, but still it was easier on both of them if he didn’t say so explicitly. Now he doesn’t care.

“I’m going to fix this,” he says, and doesn’t bother to wait to see if Gaius responds.

He storms to The Dragon’s cave, he doesn’t care if anyone sees him, he doesn’t care if he looks mad. He’ll probably be dead by morning if all goes to plan. It’s hardly the time to be cautious.

The Dragon looks amused when he charges into the room, looking down at Merlin with laughter in his giant, yellow eyes. It only serves to make Merlin more furious, his nerves are like fire, burning within him and turning his insides to ash. He’s more angry than he’s ever been in his life.

“You knew this would happen!” He bellows. “You had me trade my mother’s life for Arthur’s.”

The Dragon blinks at him, completely unbothered by Merlin’s fury.

“You said you would do anything,” he argues serenely.

Merlin huffs a cold disbelieving laugh as anger continues to bubble under his skin. “Did you know my mother was going to die?”

The Dragon tips his head in consideration with a low hum that vibrates in Merlin’s ribs.

“I knew the price would be a heavy one.”

“But you sent me anyway.”

The Dragon does not offer any apologies, his expression is remorseless.

“We need Arthur to live. Your destiny is to protect the Young Pendragon until he can assume the crown. When he does, magic will return to the realm, only then, can I be free.”

Merlin goes very still. The fury flowing through him solidifies, weighing down with horrified understanding and turning thick and strong as it lines his veins. His breaths whistle in his lungs and his emotions harden. He’s still furious, but it’s different. He has transcended beyond lashing anger, and reached glacial calm.

“Oh,” he mutters, clenching his jaw. “I understand now.”

The Dragon peers at him with cold interest, tipping his giant head and looking deep into Merlin’s eyes. Merlin hopes he can see the livid anger burning through his veins.

“So that’s all you ever cared about? I thought you were my friend,” Merlin spits the word friend like it’s an insult. His words are venomous, his mouth is poison, he wants to kill The Dragon with words and he wants to cry and he wants the world to break into a million pieces.

“I am more than that, young warlock. I am your kin.” The Dragon smiles

Merlin’s chest feels incredibly hollow, his whole body has been scooped of everything solid, leaving him as hollow walls filled with cold fury.

“No,” he hisses, shaking his head. “The only family I have is my mother, and you had me murder her.”

The Dragon doesn’t flinch, he doesn’t even pause, he instead looks down condescendingly at Merlin like he’s the one acting strangely for daring to care about his mother’s life.

“Her life has not been taken in vain,” The Dragon says calmly.

The calm rage is whipped to life by torrential winds. It is a wildfire within Merlin, incinerating the trees, killing the creatures who inhabit it.

“We will achieve great things together. You and I.”

“Fuck you!” Merlin roars, furious tears stinging his eyes. “I didn’t want this!”

“We want the same thing, young warlock. For the young Pendragon to live,” The Dragon continues with the same cool and ambivalent tone.

“It’s not the same!” Merlin clutches at his chest, holding together his shattering ribcage. “You need Arthur to live. I want him to. We are not the same.”

“One day Merlin, you will see—”

“No!” Merlin interrupts with a crazed shout. “You will never be free!”

He thinks of his mother, lying in his chambers and the life slowly draining from her. She never chose this, it was not her sacrifice to make. All she had ever done was love and support Merlin, to lose her life for such a commitment, it wasn’t fair.

“For what you have done, I will make sure you never see the light,” he hisses. His voice is cold and unsympathetic, and he means every enraged word.

Finally, The Dragon’s composure is broken. His eyes narrow in frustration, scaled shoulders hunching and wings unfurling threateningly. Merlin isn’t afraid, he is exhilarated, he has finally broken through the thick scales protecting The Dragon’s poise.

“Merlin!” The Dragon screams with such force that the walls vibrate, causing rocks to drop from the ceiling and the stone floor to quiver.

Merlin throws an arm up, conjuring a shield spell just as The Dragon unleashes a stream of fire at him. He can feel the heat bouncing off the magic, the searing burn unable to penetrate the protection charm he cast. He is supposedly the most powerful sorcerer to ever walk the Earth, it’s almost reassuring to see that proven.

~-~-~

Merlin sways into his chambers, muscles acting of their own volition as betrayal coils in him. Gaius has drawn the curtains over the window to allow his mother to sleep, leaving the fire in the corner as the only source of light. It casts a soft glow over the room, that is too warm for the ice cold feeling of Merlin’s blood under his skin, for the grief ravaging his insides.

Gaius doesn’t say a word as Merlin walks over to him, sinking into the seat opposite with slumped, heavy shoulders. The silence is suffocating, infuriatingly quiet in comparison to the cacophony of his own thoughts.

“I have to save her,” Merlin breaks the silence, speaking into the fire so he doesn’t have to face Gaius’ eyes.

“You can’t,” Gaius replies simply, not to hurt Merlin but to protect him. It stings like salt in his wounds nonetheless.

“I have to.” Merlin’s eyes shine with tears, and he holds his breath to keep them from falling. “If the balance of the world needs a life then it must take mine. Not my mother’s.”

In his periphery Merlin can see Gaius slowly shake his head as he leans forward, placing his elbows on his knees to bring himself closer to Merlin.

“No, Merlin. You are young, your gifts, your destiny are far too precious to be sacrificed.”

“This was my plan all along,” Merlin argues hotly, still refusing to meet Gaius’ gaze. “Why didn’t you argue before? Now that there is an innocent woman who will die instead of me, suddenly my destiny matters?”

Gaius makes a sharp wounded sound that causes Merlin’s ribcage to ache with guilt, but he won’t retract his words.

“I never wanted you to make this sacrifice,” Gaius reminds him softly. “I do not think there is another option now, her death is inevitable. Nimueh is not one for extending generosity, you do not know her like I do. I worry that your life will be lost in vain.”

“No, I can’t just accept that.” Merlin finally turns to meet Gaius’ eyes, consumed with worry and fear. “I’m sorry Gaius, this is my mother. Destiny, my powers, they mean nothing if I cannot save her.”

Gaius presses his lips together, Merlin can plainly see how he wants to continue arguing but they both know Merlin won’t be convinced.

“You’ve taught me so much, who I am, the purpose for my skills, to always use my magic for good… but most of all you’ve taught me to do what is right,” Merlin says, looking deep into his mentor’s eyes and pleading for his understanding.

Gaius’ expression breaks, eyes welling with tears and despair, silently begging for Merlin to change his mind.

“Merlin…” he urges desperately, voice catching on Merlin’s name.

Tears slip down Merlin’s cheek and he swipes them away roughly, unable to bear the look in Gaius’ eyes for another moment.

“I have to say goodbye to Arthur,” he says decisively. He stands and makes his exit as quickly as possible.

Merlin enters Arthur’s chambers with a gentle knock on the door. It’s not something he does often, but Arthur harps on about it so often he might as well respect it now.

Arthur is a bit dishevelled, and his arm is strung in a sling that hugs tight to his body, but otherwise he looks well. He looks up and his eyes brighten when they fall on Merlin, not that Merlin notices details like that about Arthur, not that he minds.

“Ah, Merlin,” Arthur greets with a small nod.

“How are you?” Merlin asks immediately. He can see that Arthur’s doing better with his own eyes but he needs to hear it, he needs to know Arthur is okay.

Arthur blinks. “I’m good,” he answers easily. “Really good. It’s almost a miracle really.”

Something incredibly tight loosens in Merlin’s chest, allowing him to breathe.

“I’m pleased,” he says genuinely, closing the door behind himself.

Arthur nods, shuffling over to his table and easing himself into the chair slowly. Despite his talk of miracles it's obvious the wound has left Arthur physically debilitated. His movements are sluggish and he winces every time his shoulder brushes the fabric of his shirt.

“I need to talk to you,” Merlin says, breaking the silence that has settled over them.

Arthur looks at him with a bemused expression.

“You still haven’t gotten it yet have you?”

“Gotten what?’

“I decide when we need to talk.”

Merlin rolls his eyes, pushing himself off the door and standing before the table, so he and Arthur are opposite each other.

“Not today,” he says, shaking his head.

Arthur furrows his eyebrows over the rim of his goblet, taking a slow sip.

“I sometimes wonder if you know who I am,” he says, tipping his head at Merlin.

Merlin can’t help but smile as a rush of fondness floods through him, warming pleasantly under his skin. “Oh I know who you are.”

“Good.”

“You’re a prat.” Merlin grins as Arthur’s eyes jump to him in a glare. “And a royal one.”

He watches, enthralled, as Arthur’s expression flickers. Irritation transforms into barely concealed amusement. A smile that slowly stretches across Arthur’s lips in the most mesmerising way, quirking at the corners just so. Arthur chuckles softly, and tries his best to cover the sound with a small cough but Merlin can easily hear it is in fact a laugh.

“Will you ever change, Merlin?” Arthur asks with a surprisingly endeared smile.

“Nah, you’d get bored.”

Arthur chuckles into his goblet to avoid agreeing with Merlin.

Merlin wishes he didn’t have to die. He wishes he could wrap this pocket of time around himself and remain swaddled in it as the world passed him by. He would rather stay here, in this moment, forever.

But he’s going to die, and Arthur will replace him, and he hates it.

“Just promise me if you get another servant, you won’t get a bootlicker,” Merlin says, trying to embed a false smile into his voice.

“If this is your way of trying to leave your job—” Arthur tries to say but Merlin cuts him off with a rough shake of his head.

“No.” Merlin surprises even himself with the assurance of his answer.

Arthur looks at him curiously, with narrowed eyes and a frown pinching around his lips.

“I’m happy to be your servant… till the day I die.”

It’s the truth, the impending nature of that day is entirely irrelevant. Even if Merlin knew that he wouldn’t die for decades he would still give Arthur the same answer. He would happily live and breathe every moment at Arthur’s side; being his servant ensures he can do that, and so he fulfils the role happily.

There’s almost some insanity in how much Merlin has changed since he arrived in Camelot nine months ago. If someone had told Merlin then that he would mean it when he said he would happily live as Arthur’s servant, Merlin would probably have taken them to Gaius for signs of concussion or some other debilitating brain injury. But now there is no doubt in his mind that it’s true.

Arthur blinks at him, eyes widening and lips parting. He is completely silent as he considers Merlin’s words. Merlin wonders if he’s thinking the same thing, of how utterly different they were only a few short months ago. Or if there’s something else behind those guarded blue eyes, still utterly unattainable and so vigilantly protected it almost breaks Merlin’s heart. He wishes he had the opportunity to truly know Arthur, the young man underneath the layers of armour, beneath the crown he wears.

“Sometimes I think I know you Merlin… but then other times well…” Arthur trails off, shaking his head.

Merlin smiles. “You do know me, favourite animal and all.”

Arthur matches his smile, losing the confused expression and letting it slip into something more comfortable.

“I mean beyond animals and favourite colours you great idiot,” he teases. “I meant to really know you.”

“Well I was told your favourite colour was a great secret so now I’m offended.”

Arthur huffs, rolling his eyes and slumping back into his chair.

“You do know me though,” Merlin says more genuinely, once the laughter has settled and pleasant silence has taken the room once more. “And I know you.”

Arthur raises an eyebrow curiously, a permittance for Merlin to continue.

“I know you’re a great warrior, and an even better leader. I know that one day… you’ll be a great king.”

Arthur looks at him intently, like he’s trying to pick Merlin apart with his eyes so he can better understand his inner workings.

“That’s very kind of you,” he says suspiciously.

Merlin nods jerkily.

“I know you have a good heart, Arthur.”

Arthur’s eyes are so enticingly blue as they widen and look at Merlin in ardent surprise it's a wonder Merlin doesn’t drown in them.

He thinks he would lay down his life a thousand times for Arthur. His mother is the only other person he cares more for, which is a terrifying but strangely freeing thought. He wishes he didn’t have to leave Arthur. Until this point, their time together had seemingly stretched expansively into the distance, leading to a wondrous future which could contain endless possibilities. If Merlin cannot spend that time with him, cannot watch Arthur become the revered King he knows he can be, he wants to at least be remembered. To offer a piece of advice, no matter how trivial, to continue to keep him safe. For Merlin, that would be enough.

 

“But you must learn to listen as well as you fight,” he says softly.

Arthur’s eyes narrow once more.

“Right, any other pointers?”

Merlin shakes his head, struggling between the desire to laugh or to cry. He can feel emotions bubbling up within him, culminating in his throat like water rising against a dam, threatening to burst. He tries to think of everything he wants to say to Arthur, everything that can’t be consolidated in this small moment.

He thinks for a moment, that if ever there was a time to tell Arthur how he feels it would be now. Stood on the edge of a cliff and waiting for the final push to throw him off, the final moments he is alive. There are no consequences, no loss, he could tell him.

But he doesn’t want to ruin this moment. Selfishly, he wants to cherish the way Arthur is looking at him like he cares, like he’s a friend, he wants to keep it until his last breath. He doesn’t want to ruin that.

“No… just… don’t be a prat?” He suggests lightly, uncomfortably aware of the way his voice cracks on the final word.

Arthur doesn’t laugh, doesn’t even smile. Instead his frown deepens in confusion as he continues to stare at Merlin.

“Are you alright, Merlin?” Arthur asks, tentatively like he’s not really sure how to do it. Merlin wonders if he’s ever had to console someone before, besides maybe Morgana.

Merlin nods, pressing his lips tightly together and blinking to keep the tears at bay.

“Perfectly fine, my Lord.” He nods his head in semblance of a bow. “I’ll leave you to rest.”

Arthur nods slowly, like he’s unconvinced but doesn’t know what to do about it.

“Alright then.”

Merlin leaves before Arthur can say anything else, hurrying through the curtains of the servants entrance and out of sight. He presses his forehead to the cool stone walls, and takes a shaking breath, blinking away his tears. He takes a second to compose himself before hurrying back to his chambers where his mother is waiting.

~-~-~

Gaius is gone.

Merlin should have realised the second he returned to his room to find Gwen in the physician’s place. He was too distracted by his mother, and the sting of The Dragon’s betrayal. He didn’t think about it properly.

But come morning Gaius hasn’t returned, and there is a letter waiting on the dining table. Merlin’s heart clenches with the terrible anticipation that something is wrong. It is a short note, written in Gaius’ measured and practised script, nothing like the frenzied writing Merlin has seen in moments of great panic and urgency. This letter was written with purpose.

Dear Merlin,

My life is already near to its end. There has, for the most part, been very little purpose to it, very little that will be remembered.

In contrast, your life is destined for greatness.

Live by the tenets I have taught you and I believe in time you will become the greatest warlock ever.

To have known you has been my greatest pleasure, and to sacrifice myself for you is but an honour.

You are, and always will be, the son I never had.

Gaius.

Merlin feels the world fall apart; the earth shatters and the walls crash over him like waves, they bury him deep in his own grief until he’s drowning and choking on it. He stumbles into the wall on weak legs, grappling for purchase as his chest goes ice cold with dread. His fingers scrabble uselessly against the buckle of his satchel and he is unsurprised but devastated to find the map missing from its contents.

He feels sick. He can’t allow this. He refuses to sacrifice his mother and he is not willing to sacrifice Gaius. Gaius is his father by all but blood.

Gaius might have the map and the only guide Merlin has towards the elusive Isle, but Merlin possesses more magic that Gaius could ever conceive of. Now he needs to use it. He summons deep inside himself, searching for the pull of his magic towards the earth, the tether that has kept him tied to the essence of nature itself ever since he was a child. It buzzes beneath his skin, nudging earnestly into his touch. He plunges it deep into the ground, letting it weave through the soil, and stones, feeding into the streams and brooks and spreading like the roots of a great tree.

He squeezes his eyes shut, letting the magic see for him, coloured sensations, the patter of footsteps, the vibrations of horses riding over land. Finally, the warm hum of magic, so potent that when his magic grazes its sturdy edge he can taste the bitter tang of leaves.

He saddles his horse blindly, barely noticing his own movements as he focuses on the feeling of the Isle in the distance. Merlin rides towards the feeling, using the tether of his magic as a guide. He almost cries with relief when the Isle comes into view, not daring to hope, to believe that it worked until the last possible moment.

“Thank god,” he murmurs against the horse’s neck, swinging his leg over and running towards the small dingy.

The fear Merlin felt the last time he entered the Isle of the Blessed is nothing compared to the panic coursing through his veins now. Before he had felt nervous, filled with frightened anticipation for what was to come, now he feels frenzied with fear and anger that blaze through his body like wild flames.

He practically leaps from the boat before it has come to a complete stop, taking the stairs two steps at a time and bursts into the great courtyard.

Nimueh turns to him with an amused smile; as she steps towards Merlin he can see Gaius’ limp body at the base of the statue and his blood runs icy cold. He trembles, feeling like he might be sick all over the grassy and moss covered floor.

“Back again so soon warlock?” Nimueh asks cruelly.

“What have you done?” Merlin gasps.

“Your mother is safe, if that’s what you’re asking,” Nimueh replies evenly. “I thought that was what you wanted.”

Merlin’s eyes keep drifting back to Gaius, his father, his mentor, his friend. He can’t bear the thought of him being gone, he can’t be too late.

“Have you killed him?” He asks, desperation making his voice hoarse. He blinks away tears, he won’t cry in front of this witch, she does not deserve to see him vulnerable.

Nimueh tips her head cooly, a pleased smile curling her wicked lips.

“Yes. It was his wish.”

He groans, tipping his head to the sky and pressing the heels of his hands into his eyes to keep the tears at bay.

“Why didn’t you kill me?” Merlin demands, his voice echoes loudly around the space as he screams. “I bid my own life, not my mother’s, not Gaius’. Mine.”

Nimueh stares at him unamused. “Why I make the choices I do is none of your concern.”

“It’s my concern when you’re killing my family!”

“I did not want to kill you,” she answers ambiguously, tossing her dark hair over her shoulder and raising an unamused eyebrow at Merlin.

“You’ve tried before,” he reminds her. “Why then and not now?”

“Because I did not know who you are, back then.”

Merlin frowns, momentarily taken aback. “Who I am?”

Nimueh frowns as though Merlin’s identity is a great offence to her, she purses her red lips and stares scornfully at him.

“Yes, who you are. Magic is an equilibrium, what is killed must be born, it is a transference of energy, never a destruction.”

Merlin nods, he has read as much in his grimoire. Magic cannot be created, nor destroyed, it simply exists.

“The Great Purge occurred just before your birth,” Nimueh continues. “The destruction was… like nothing you could imagine.” Her eyes are haunted as she speaks and for a moment Merlin almost feels sorry for her.

The Great Purge is no secret to the citizens of Camelot. He has learnt much about it since arriving in the city, and he imagines that there is still a rich history he has yet to hear. No one dares to speak the names of those who were killed, or to speak respectfully of the lives that were taken; Merlin knows there are stories that are lost between the crevices of what he has been told.

Nimueh doesn’t speak of it now without cause, there is purpose in her tone, something she wishes to explain. She looks darkly at Merlin and the sympathy for her is lost. He cannot feel compassion for someone who looks at him with such hatred.

“You were the recipient of this magic. When those lives were lost their magic needed a place to rest. A transferral was necessary.” Nimueh looks shrewdly at Merlin, to gauge if he is understanding what she is telling him. The realisation emerges slowly, like the sun rising at dawn, slowly falling over Merlin’s face.

“I hold the magic destroyed in the Great Purge,” he murmurs in understanding.

Nimueh wrinkles her nose at him, lip curling in distaste. “Seemingly. So I didn’t dare kill you, you can achieve too much.”

“But you’ll kill my family,” Merlin growls. The reminder makes his blood rush and he trembles with anger that won’t be contained under his skin.

“The Old Religion does not care who lives and who dies,” Nimueh scoffs. “Only that the balance of the world is restored!”

“It is not the Old Religion who has done this! It is you.” Merlin’s hands curl into tight fists by his side. His magic reacts to his rage, crackling through his bloodstream.

Nimueh smiles cruelly. “Come now Merlin, we are too valuable to each other to be enemies. We are kin.”

“No! I share nothing with you!” Merlin shouts. “My magic is my own, you have no part of it.”

“With my help Arthur will become king.” Nimueh grins victoriously, leering at Merlin with the poise of a woman who believes herself already to be victor.

“I will make Arthur king,” Merlin hisses. “You will never live to see that day.”

He thrusts his hand out, letting the force of his anger push his magic forward, his fury is a crashing wave which swarms his magic and sends it flying out of him. Lightning launches from his fingertips, sparking along the nerves in his fingers and exploding from his palm.

Nimueh waves her hand nonchalantly, banishing the lightning in a breeze that whips back her hair.

“Oh Merlin, your childish tricks are useless against me,” she says patronisingly with a wicked smirk. “I am a priestess of the Old Religion.”

She summons a ball of fire into the palm of her hand. Merlin’s heart leaps and he forces himself into motion only seconds before the fire lands, crashing into the wall behind where he once stood with an echoing boom. Nimueh stalks towards him as she launches another at the ground. Merlin rolls out of its path, it singes the hairs around his ears, practically brushing his cheek with searing heat as it passes.

Nimueh’s heel lands on his chest, keeping him trapped against the ground. Heat burns in her hand as she glares down at Merlin, the light casting a harsh glow on the gold in her eyes.

“You too are a creature of the Old Religion, you should join me.”

Merlin lets out a short, sharp bark of laughter. “You think I would join forces with such a selfish and cruel magic?”

He closes his eyes and tugs his magic forwards, letting it collide with Nimueh, sending her staggering back.

“Never,” he spits, heaving himself to his feet.

Nimueh glares at him, bright eyes like poison, a single drop from their irises would be deadly.

Before Merlin can breathe another ball of fire launches from her fingers, hitting him in the centre of his chest. The impact sends him flying backwards and he crumples to the ground. He skids along the ground, wincing in pain as the force slices his head along the floor and grass catches in the sticky blood on the base of his skull.

He groans. His chest is burning, pain radiating through him in sharp, relentless waves. He gasps hopelessly, desperate to relieve the agony but is unable to touch the wound. It should have killed him, if Nimueh had wanted him dead he’s certain he wouldn’t be breathing. Despite the torturous sting of his singed and smoking flesh he’s vaguely aware that Nimueh’s fire extinguished before it could sear deep into the layers of his skin. She didn’t want to kill him, but maim him, leave him in agony.

The smell of burning flesh hits his nose and Merlin gags, heaving spit and vomit onto the ground. His arms and legs tremble as he pulls himself to his feet, every pull of his skin makes his stomach roll, sending flares of agonising pain throughout his entire body.

He lets the pain, anger and grief weave together, strands forming a strong coil of magic that wraps comfortably around his fingertips. His anger is so savage he can taste it, it ripples from his magic in waves, surging out of him and plunging deep into the earth. He can feel the water in the air, his power wraps around them thickening the clouds until he and Nimueh are shrouded in darkness.

“You should not have killed my friend,” he hisses, glancing towards Gaius’ still body, crumpled against the altar.

He doesn’t miss the flicker of fear in Nimueh’s eyes that she quickly conceals with confidence.

His magic has never been so strong, he can feel it all around him, seeping from his pores, buzzing in his nerves. His heartbeat pushes it out of him in surging tides.

The magic of life and death is something that can only be harnessed by the most powerful of sorcerers, but Nimueh had said that he contains the power of all that was lost in the Great Purge. Gaius said that he was the most powerful warlock who has ever walked the Earth.

Merlin lets the magic within him strike, it explodes from his body and collides with Nimueh’s lifeforce. He can feel her heartbeat in his mind, the way her breaths ebb and flow under the push of Merlin’s magic, she is within him.

Lightning flashes, cresting over the Isle and colliding with the sorceress’ body with a shriek. He watches with terrified eyes as her back arches in pain and her hands reach outwards in desperation, finding no purchase. Her lifeforce, held in Merlin’s trembling fist is severed from her body as she crumples to the floor.

He swallows roughly, letting the warm flow of life cupped gently within his own magic cascade towards Gaius. It settles into the physician’s body with a sigh, buzzing before falling calm.

Merlin gasps, coming out of his trance with a shudder and runs , tripping in his desperation to reach Gaius. He hadn’t even noticed that it had started to rain but the heavy drops hit his back and head, saturating him to the bone as he drops to Gaius’ side.

“Gaius!” He shouts desperately, fingers fumbling as they frantically search for a pulse. Gaius doesn’t move, Merlin can’t feel a sign of life within the man. He is cold and still under Merlin’s hand, head flopping against Merlin’s shoulder limply.

“Please, no. No!” Merlin shudders, words succumbing to wrenching sobs as he lets his head drop onto Gaius’ body. “No.”

“Merlin?” Gaius’ voice speaks over Merlin’s sobs.

Merlin’s breath hitches, relief flooding through him like a wave crashing down on his head as he feels Gaius shift.

“Gaius?” He gasps, sitting up to meet the physician’s eyes, squinting through the rain to see Merlin. “Oh Gaius you’re alive,” he sobs, surging forward to hug Gaius again.

Gaius chuckles, leaning into the hug.

“What did you do?” He asks worriedly, words slurred from the impact of death, and then life being thrust upon him so quickly.

Merlin laughs around his tears, hardly daring to believe this is true. He doesn’t move away, keeping his hands on Gaius’ shoulders and stays close, terrified that if he shifts away then this will all be ripped from his grasp.

“Nimueh is dead,” he explains, enjoying the wide eyed surprise Gaius offers in return. “The balance of the world has been restored.”

“My boy, you amaze me.” Gaius places a warm hand on Merlin’s cheek, gently rubbing away the tears dripping down Merlin’s cheeks. “You have mastered the power of life and death itself.”

Merlin is so relieved he feels like he could burst. He’s trembling from head to toe, shuddering so hard his teeth chatter even though it’s no longer raining. The sobs continue to shake his whole body, fear and anxiety and love rushing out of him in heavy tremors and loud hacking sobs.

“Merlin, Merlin I’m okay,” Gaius says reassuringly, rubbing his arms. “It’s okay now.”

“I know,” Merlin gasps around a sob, laughing hysterically. Tears continue to drip down his cheeks and from his chin. “I know but I can’t stop.”

Gaius laughs fondly and wraps his arms tightly around Merlin, embracing him in a warm hug. He continues holding him, rubbing his back affectionately until the worst of the trembles ease and he’s gently crying into Gaius’ shoulder.

“Thank you, Merlin.”