Country boy, they call him.
Country boy, because of the way he gapes when he first sees Camelot, a sprawling hive of a city, filled with market vendors and women with baskets filled with flowers, lines of smartly dressed guards and children playing in the streets.
Country boy, in the castle steward's face when Merlin hands over his mother's letter. He's given a job and a bed in the servant's quarters and he spends the afternoon scrubbing pots in the hectic, sweltering kitchens, wondering how he's ever going to fit in here.
Country boy, that evening, when he's given a wine pitcher and ushered to the great hall. The tables are lines with beautiful ladies and handsome knights and the King himself is at the high table, making a lengthy toast. He looks kind and slightly frail and Merlin has trouble reconciling him with the tales bards sing about him. King Gorlois was once a mighty warrior, but maybe he's better now as a just and gracious ruler.
There is nothing of the King's gentleness in his daughter, the lovely Princess Morgana. Merlin's eyes, along with most of the other feast-goers', cannot help but follow her as she leaves the high table to dance and mingle. She is captivating in her grace, in the proud tilt of her chin.
A fellow servant nudges him. Merlin closes his mouth with a snap and goes back to work with a will.
Things go well. Merlin manages to refill innumerable goblets without spilling anything, finds his way to and from the kitchens for more wine and avoids treading on anybody's toes. He's feeling very pleased with himself, until a dancing lady stumbles and knocks into him. He fumbles his pitcher and pours it all over Princess Morgana's ivory silk dress.
There's a long and horrible moment where the hall gradually quietens as everyone turns to look.
"I'm sorry--" Merlin begins.
"You--" The princess is livid and dripping and Merlin can't remember ever being so afraid. "Clumsy--"
"I'm so sorry, I didn't mean--"
"--Look what you have done! You--"
"--Really, it wasn't my fault, I--"
"You will speak when spoken to!"
Merlin clutches the pitcher as if it will protect him from her rage. She takes a deep breath and he braces himself for the worst, but a man steps between them and gently takes her arm.
"Morgana," he says, and Merlin spares a thought from his panic to note that this man is exceptionally, devastatingly handsome. "Calm down. I'm sure this was just an accident."
"Yes, my lord," says one of the senior servants, appearing at Merlin's side and tugging at his arm. "Lady, this boy is new. I apologise for his mistake and I will make sure he never does so again."
Merlin, steered from the scene with speed, thinks hysterically that he might be executed for spilling some wine. Instead he's taken to the kitchens and made to scrub pots and, when the feast is long since finished and it's time for the servants' dinner, left to scrub the floors.
A long time later, when he has scrubbed nearly the entirety of the expansive kitchens, the sound of boots on the steps makes him look up.
"You're still down here?"
It's the man from the feast, who saved him from the wrath of the princess. And who's tracking footprints all over Merlin's freshly clean floors.
"Could you not stand there?" Merlin asks.
The man looks down at the wet floor and hops up to sit on one of the kitchen tables instead, looking at Merlin pointedly. "My lord," he says, after a moment.
"What?" says Merlin. "Oh. Yes--my lord."
The man grins. "I'm Arthur."
"You're new, aren't you?"
"Quite a start to your career, that."
"That stunt earlier."
"It was an accident! It's not like I mean to--"
"I believe you," Arthur says, holding his hand out in placation. "Seriously, it's fine. Morgana can just be a little highly strung sometimes. And she was under pressure to impress someone tonight."
"Oh no," gasps Merlin. "If I ruined--I'm sorry, I--"
"I'm telling you, it's fine. No harm done."
Merlin very nearly feels relieved, but Arthur continues,
"--Except for Morgana's dress, maybe."
Merlin glares. "Could you be any more of an arse?"
Arthur looks a bit surprised, but then grins. "I don't know. Probably not."
Merlin finishes the last flagstone and throws the scrubbing brush into the bucket with relish, jumping up to sit on the table next to Arthur while the floor dries. Arthur swings his legs like a child.
"So," Arthur says, drawing the syllable out. "What business do you have in Camelot?" Before Merlin can do more than open his mouth, he adds, "Besides ruining the gowns of innocent princesses?"
"Came to seek my fortune."
"Yeah. The village I'm from--it's quite isolated. I've got to support my mother. You know."
"Ah," says Arthur. "Wouldn't know anything about that."
"What, on account of you being a lord?"
"On account of me not having one."
"Oh," says Merlin. "What happened? I mean--I shouldn't ask, I don't--"
"It's okay. She died when I was born, so I didn't even know her. My father too."
And that's when it clicks.
"You're the King's ward!" Merlin exclaims.
"You prat, why didn't you say so?"
Arthur raises an eyebrow.
"You prat, why didn't you say so, my lord?"
Arthur just smiles and shrugs.
"What're you doing down here talking to me anyway?" A careful pause. "My lord."
"You want a job, Merlin?"
"Already got one, thanks."
"A better one. Better pay, less scrubbing."
"What did you have in mind?"
"I'm between manservants at the moment. Fancy it?"
"The job, idiot."
"Being your manservant? Er, yeah. Why not? What would I have to do as your manservant?"
"Tend to my every waking need."
Merlin raises an eyebrow.
"Okay, more like be a servant just for me."
"I could do that."
"Good. But, whatever happens, you've got to be fed, Merlin. You're so thin, you could stand out in a field and the birds would mistake you for a scarecrow."
Merlin's stomach takes that opportunity to agree. Loudly.
"I missed dinner," says Merlin, sheepishly.
"Come on," says Arthur, sliding off the table. "Some of the other knights are continuing the piss-up at the tavern. I'll buy you a pie."
"No, I'll dock it off your first wages."
"Thanks," says Merlin, rolling his eyes and following Arthur up the stairs. "But, wait. You don't even know if I'm a good servant or not."
Arthur pauses and shrugs. "Well, at least it'll never be boring."
Merlin learns within his first week that Arthur's sole quest in life seems to be to stave off boredom.
Riding, hunting, training, mock tournaments, anything to fill the time. This tends to generate a lot of work for Merlin, but it could be worse. He could be serving Princess Morgana instead, who never does anything of the sort and absolutely terrifies him.
Not without reason. Her presence dominates the council meetings Arthur sometimes drags him to. Arthur explains, after Merlin first comments on it, that the King is growing older and frailer and that more and more of his duties are passing on to Morgana for when she becomes Queen.
"It's lucky," Arthur says, "That Morgana is so politically minded."
Merlin doesn't think Morgana is politically minded, so much as politically born. Ruthlessly thorough and passionately fair, she is starkly beautiful in form and in mind. Merlin stands behind Arthur's chair during council meetings, watches her graceful fingers upon maps of the kingdom, and does not see neglect in Camelot's future.
Perhaps ironically, Merlin's biggest help and best friend in the castle is Gwen, Morgana's handmaiden, who shows him the ropes and makes sure Arthur's best tunic is clean in time for court dinners and explains, very patiently, everything there is to know about armour. She's pretty and sunny and has the biggest smile when Merlin confides his terror of the princess to her.
"Princess Morgana is not that bad," she says. "She's just a bit stressed at the moment. She has to make a lot of important decisions and she hasn't been sleeping well recently."
"Maybe if she went for a ride?" Gwen nearly loses her grip on her basket of linen, so he takes it from her and continues up the stairs. "It might clear her head, and tire her out. I don't think I've ever seen her ride for pleasure, actually."
"She's busy. She stays up to all hours by candlelight, drawing up contingency plans."
"I think she called it, 'an undiplomatic possibility'."
"I won't even pretend to know what that means."
"Me neither." Gwen smiles sheepishly at that, but it fades as she says, "She gets such terrible nightmares, though. I worry about her."
"Well," Merlin's not quite sure what to say to that and settles for, "I'm sure she'll be fine," before retreating to the training ground. Sir Kay, the head of Camelot's armies, is beating several of his knights around the jousting field, making them aim at a hoop hanging from a string. It's windy and none of them are succeeding.
Merlin watches one of the knights charge for the target and miss, the ring blown out of range by a gust of wind. The knights brings his horse, blowing and stamping, around to the fence Merlin's leaning against, then lifts his visor and it's Arthur under there, red in the face and gritting his teeth with frustration.
"Not good enough, Arthur," calls Sir Kay.
"I know," grates Arthur, watching another knight approach the target and miss wildly.
"Why don't you give it a rest for today?" says Merlin, because Arthur's looking fraught and tired. "You're just pushing too hard. Maybe you'll come to it better tomorrow."
"No," says Arthur. "No, I want to get this today. If Gawain can, I can."
Merlin resists rolling his eyes. He's already seen the overwhelming rivalry between Arthur and Gawain, and he suspects that it would devolve into bitter one-upmanship if only they weren't such great friends.
"Well, at least have a break. I've brought you something to eat."
Arthur reluctantly sits down on the grass, eats his fruit and drinks his water, and lets Merlin distract him a little with some gossip he overheard from some washerwomen. This time, when he mounts his horse, he looks less angry and flushed.
This time, he doesn't miss.
Negotiations have to be made with Wessex, peaceful ones about trade propositions, but there's the possibility of offense if the wrong thing is said. The kingdom can't spare Gorlois and Morgana is busy holding numerous talks with the council about a possible war with Mercia, so they send Arthur instead. Merlin tries not to smile every time he sees how proud Arthur is.
He asks Gwen to help pack, because he's still not entirely clear about the number of things that protocol dictates concerning baggage.
"I hope you have a good time," she says, folding Arthur's tunics more neatly that Merlin thinks he'll ever manage. "My lady used to go on loads of these sorts of trips. Everyone makes such an effort because they want to impress. It's nice."
"Yeah, I'm looking forward to it. Listen, has, er, the princess been feeling any better? With the nightmares, I mean?"
"Not really. Gaius is looking into it, though."
Merlin makes a noncommittal sound. Magic is rare in Camelot and Gaius, the court physician, is probably the best-known sorcerer in the land. Merlin's mother made some comment about him, saying maybe he'd like an assistant, but Gaius already has one, a harried young man who's always weighed down with bags. Merlin likes it better in the servants' quarters anyway, with the way they look out for him and make jokes when he comes back from Arthur's chambers at a late hour.
Arthur is permitted to take four other knights with him, some of the most likeable and diplomatic ones, and they ride out of Camelot with their cloaks of deepest green rippling behind them. Gawain is not among them, which Merlin privately thinks is a blessing.
They're attacked by bandits a couple of hours into the journey. One minute, Merlin's laughing along to some tale about the last time Owain got roaringly drunk, the next, armed and hooded men are running screaming from the woods. He's aware of making an unmanly yell before the clouds darken and lightning flashes from the sky and there's suddenly nothing left of the bandits except charred earth and a smell not unlike bacon.
There's a palpable moment of shock, where everyone just breathes and the horses get restless, then,
"Merlin," says Arthur. "Did you do that?"
"Uh," stutters Merlin. "Maybe. I--don't know."
Arthur's looking as shell-shocked as Merlin feels and he'd give anything to wind back the last two minutes and just leave it to the men with swords. Because they're knights, honestly, it's not like they can't handle a little troupe of bandits, and Merlin looks down at the scorched places on the ground and thinks, those used to be bandits. But I killed them. I killed them. Oh God. Oh God, Oh God, Oh--
A tree bursts into flame.
Suddenly, Arthur's by his knee, hands gentle on Merlin's, which are, when he looks down, clutching the reins in a white knuckled grip.
"Calm down, Merlin," Arthur says in a soothing voice, like he's settling a horse. "It's okay. Look at me."
Merlin manages to tear his vision out of some other smoky plane and meet Arthur's eyes. In a world washed with gold, they are very blue.
"Put out the fire, Merlin."
The flames evaporate with a hiss, leaving a charred trunk.
"Now, are you all right?"
Merlin nods shakily and Arthur squeezes his hand.
"Your eyes went gold," he says. "It was incredible."
Merlin manages a choked-out laugh and rubs his eyes. The other knights look a bit shocked, but mostly awe-struck. Merlin looks away in embarrassment.
"Are you all right to carry on?" Arthur continues. "Or would you rather we made camp?"
"No, I'm fine."
"Arthur, I'm not diseased."
"Well, I don't know, do I? And you must admit," he says, casting a hand at the destruction. "It was a bit of an overreaction."
They make camp that night under an overhang of rock. It's raining and all the wood is wet. Nobody can get a fire going until Merlin takes the flints from Arthur, puts them aside and lights the tinder with a glance.
Arthur smiles. "I have been wondering how you get all your chores done so quickly."
A bitter wind curls under their overhang, bringing in cold rain and making the fire stutter.
"Merlin," says Sir Dylan, who has remained conspicuously quiet ever since Merlin's outburst. "Would you be able to--I don't know."
"Well, shield us from the weather? I've never seen it done, but..."
Merlin considers the rain. "I can try."
He's unsuccessful, at first. He can deflect the rain, but it takes concentration to maintain a consistent border and little showers keep coming through, so he gets up and draws a line in the dirt with a stick, all the knights watching him raptly, along the edge of the overhang. It's easy, after that, and much warmer.
"Back home," says Dylan, "There was this shepherd. His lambs never got attacked by wolves, not in any memory. And, one winter, he fell through the ice on the pond and lived, though we were sure he must have drowned."
Merlin takes this for the acceptance it must be. Arthur just half-smiles and pokes at the fire.
The rest of the journey passes without incident and, when they cross the border four days later, Merlin feels something change. He can taste that this land is different, that Wessex is clearer, less muddied than Camelot. There is little magic here, but what there is feels unused, untainted. It's like a breath of fresh air. He mentions nothing of this, because he's not sure Arthur would understand.
The King and other members of the court are waiting to greet them. There are welcomes and handshakes and a magnificent feast with an excellent rendition of Beowulf by their bard, made better by a miscommunication to the Wessex staff, resulting in Merlin being sat at the high table. He doesn't care to know how it came about, only that it seems Gwen was right about these visits. The Prince of Wessex keeps engaging him in conversation, seemingly to Arthur's extreme discomfort. He keeps making interruptions and insists they retire rather earlier than Merlin thinks is polite.
"What was that all about?" Merlin asks as soon as they're in their guest chambers. "Why did we leave so early? The prince said there might be firebreathers."
"I worry about you," says Arthur, falling backwards onto the bed. "All through that dinner, I was afraid you'd have an episode and set his Highness alight."
"I'd never do that. These negotiations are meant to be peaceful, aren't they?" says Merlin, collapsing next to Arthur. "And besides, the prince is too handsome to be set on fire. There'd be scarring."
There's a long silence before Arthur says eagerly, like he's been holding it in, "Show me something magic."
Merlin extinguishes the candles and scatters stars across the ceiling. Arthur draws in a sharp breath.
"I've always been able to do it," Merlin says. "It's never been this easy, though. Like before--with the bandits. I haven't lost control like that since I was really small."
"I don't envy your mother, having to put up with your tantrums."
"Yeah, but you know, she's my mother. She just said I was special."
Arthur's silent for another moment, then says, in a voice of hushed wonder, "I've never seen magic before."
"Well, I've seen Gaius heal people from the brink of death, but there's not really anything noticeable about it. And there've been some skirmishes and things that involved sorcerers, but I've never been a part of them. Apparently, my father had a Court Magician, but she disappeared after his death. No one knows why."
"Sounds suspicious to me. You never thought she killed him?"
"My father wasn't murdered," says Arthur, sitting up on his elbows so he can grin down at Merlin. "Didn't you hear? It was the most romantic story of the time."
"He died of a broken heart."
"You are telling porkies, Arthur."
"I'm not! Kings' wards do not tell lies."
"That is also not true. You lied to the council only last week about the rotation of the guard."
"That was bending the truth, Merlin, not lying. You must really learn the difference."
Merlin looks at Arthur and says, slowly, "You don't bend the truth with me, do you?"
Arthur seems a bit surprised, then just smiles and shakes his head. "Never."
Merlin is so overwhelmed by such a surge of affection that he's powerless to do anything but lean over and kiss him, gently. The stars on the ceiling shine noticeably brighter and they set a twinkle in Arthur's eyes when he pulls away. Arthur smiles sleepily and Merlin smiles back, until Arthur completely ruins the mood by saying,
"Help me get my boots off, then."
But before Merlin retires to his cot on the far side of the room, Arthur kisses him back saucily and Merlin lies awake in his small bed for a long time afterwards.
After the trade negotiations are finished, they meander back to Camelot in a rowdy, slightly drunken gaggle. If the other knights notice the looks Arthur and Merlin give each other throughout the journey, they don't say anything, but Merlin's pretty sure they're too tipsy to care.
They arrive in Camelot to a courtyard full of cheering people, welcoming them back. Arthur gets handed three bouquets of flowers by little girls and he blushes so prettily that Merlin's immediate desire to tease him about it is quelled by fondness. Arthur takes the flowers with him to the council chamber, to break the good news to the King, but they're completely upstaged when Gaius informs them, in that quiet conviction of his, that Princess Morgana is a Seer.
Morgana grows into her Sight so quickly it frightens Merlin. She sleeps better, now that her visions are not just nightmares, and she uses her knowledge to brutal effect in the council chamber. He must have been blind not to see it before, because he can taste the magic from the other side of the castle now, see it in her graceful fingers upon maps of the kingdom as clearly as if they mark fiery trails.
She is more beautiful now. More confident, more sure. It sets Merlin's teeth on edge. Arthur has fulfilled Merlin's wishes and not advertised his magic, but it does nothing to comfort him the first time he walks into the council chamber at Arthur's side and Morgana looks at him, flares her nostrils slightly. He wonders how long it will be before she realises it's magic she smells on him.
When Merlin asks Arthur what he thinks of Morgana's Sight, he's silent for a very long time and Merlin thinks he has just ignored him, but when he tries to change the subject, Arthur says,
so Merlin leaves him to it.
Arthur is quiet all day. He says nothing on their hunting trip, nor when they return with their spoils, and he watches Morgana at dinner with a weighty, considering look that she must feel upon her skin, but she doesn't even look his way.
Much later, when Merlin is putting out the candles one by one, Arthur says,
"She's different. And yet, the same."
Merlin pauses before the last candle. Arthur is sitting on the edge of his bed, staring at his clasped hands.
"When we were children, she-- She's always been older, but when we were children, she seemed an age away. It's like that now. With her Sight, she can do things I'll never understand. I thought I knew her, but I didn't. Not really."
"She's still Morgana," Merlin says quietly, putting out the last candle. The absence of its light takes all the warmth out of Arthur's face and makes him look tired and depthless. Merlin wonders if this is the man in him, the King he would be if his father had not taken that chance from him.
"It's not-- I can't--" Arthur falters and looks at Merlin pleadingly. "I don't know what she'll do. I don't know who she is anymore," and Merlin can see the effort in his face when he says, "I'm afraid of her."
Merlin goes to him, kneels at his feet. "What about me? Are you afraid of me?"
"Why not? I'm magic, too. What makes me so different from Morgana?"
"I know you," says Arthur, cupping his face. "You just put out all those candles by hand, Merlin. I'm not afraid of anything you might do, because I know you'll never hurt me."
There's nothing Merlin can do except kiss him and push him backwards onto the bed with all the magic in the land coursing through him, saying this is right. As they move together, Merlin thinks of Morgana and sees every woman she might become. He sees Arthur die by her hand on blood-soaked grass and vows, with thousands of years of magic dancing on their skin, that he will never allow it to happen.
A few months later, while out on a ride, they spot a plume of smoke rising from the forest. When they investigate, they find a pillaged camp, littered with bodies and burnt almost to the ground. They find the boy under the smouldering wreckage of a tent and they take him back to Camelot with them.
Gaius patches up the boy's burns and scratches and points out the tattoo, explaining that he must have been raised by druids. Merlin's not really listening, because, every time he looks into the boy's vividly blue eyes, he hears someone whisper, Emrys.
"Are you all right, Merlin?" asks Arthur.
"Yeah, I'm fine," he replies and puts it to the back of his mind.
"Good," says Arthur, turning back to the boy and exhibiting a talent with children Merlin wasn't aware he possessed. "Now, what's your name?"
"Mordred," says the boy and, somehow, that name sets a warning bell in Merlin's head, a queasiness that won't go away. He ignores it determinedly.
"Mordred?" says Arthur. "Well, Mordred, you've been very brave, but I'd like you to do one more thing for me. Could you come with me to tell the King what happened? Then he'll make sure nothing like this happens to you again."
Mordred nods and Arthur leads him to the council chamber. Merlin follows with a heavy heart he doesn't understand.
Morgana adores him immediately, so Mordred stays.
That night, Merlin has an awful, paralysing dream about Arthur's death that scares him so much he has to get out of bed and run to Arthur's chambers just to check on him. He crawls into bed with Arthur, whose snoring doesn't even hitch, and in the morning, Arthur only looks surprised and doesn't ask any questions when Merlin announces he'll be staying there every night.
On the morning of her twenty-fourth birthday, Morgana falls down the longest, steepest staircase in the castle. There's a great deal of screaming and shouting, with the King coming down the stairs after her so fast his cane slips and he nearly ends up falling as well.
Morgana is sprawled at the foot of the stairs and Merlin doesn't think he'll ever forget the sight of her like that, limbs akimbo, dress twisted up, dark hair over her face. There's a moment where nobody wants to touch her, to confirm that she is gravely injured or worse, but then she sits up and brushes her hair back.
"Morgana!" cries Arthur, from where he's helping the King down the last few steps. "You're all right!"
"Yes. Yes, I'm all right," she says, standing up gingerly. "I'm fine."
Gwen still has shocked tears running down her face and Morgana gives her a hug first, then her father, who looks shaken and pale and has to have a sit-down afterwards.
Gaius is summoned to check her over, but Merlin can't see what for. Morgana isn't even bruised.
"She was very lucky," Merlin says to Arthur at her birthday feast.
"Yes," says Arthur, watching Morgana over the rim of his goblet. "Very lucky. I don't like to think what the King would do if--"
He pauses, then sneezes explosively.
"Bless you," says Merlin, and the lady sitting next to Arthur offers him her handkerchief.
"Thank you," says Arthur, then sneezes again.
"Arthur, are you feeling okay?" Merlin asks. Upon closer inspection, Arthur's eyes are very bloodshot and his forehead feels clammy.
"Not really, no, now that you ask. I think I'll retire early, Merlin. Make my excuses, would you? And send Gaius up to my chambers."
Gaius declares it to be a cold and prescribes bed-rest and a truly awful-smelling tonic.
"You'll be better in no time, my lord."
Except he does not get better. After two days, Merlin has to fetch a feverish, coughing Arthur from where he's trying to attend training and bundle him back into bed with the fire banked uncomfortably high. He stands vigil after that, sitting by Arthur's bedside, struggling through a book of Latin poetry and feeding him warm broth.
After a week, Arthur slips into delirium.
"You need rest, Merlin," Gwen tells him, after bringing him something to eat. "You can't go on like this, you'll make yourself as sick as my lord."
Merlin ignores her and focuses instead on Arthur's laboured breathing. "He's not getting better."
Gwen makes a strange sound, as if she would sigh if she didn't think he would snap at her for it. "Merlin, there's nothing you can do. Gaius is doing all he can."
Gaius has indeed been in three times this week and done some strange magical chanting, drawn an arcane circle around Arthur's bed. It hasn't helped and nothing Merlin does helps either, like there' s a block on his magic, dampening it.
"Please get some sleep," Gwen says. "I'll stay here and look after him for a few hours."
Merlin relents, just to make her feel better, but can't sleep, so he goes to the library instead. At this time of night, it's empty, so Merlin buries himself in volume after volume of incomprehensible books without interruption.
A long time later, he finds it on an old, damp-stained scroll. A legend that concerns a powerful priestess who can control life and death itself. Merlin steals a map of the kingdom and rides for the Isle of the Blessed on Arthur's horse with magic quickening its hooves.
He feels the Priestess's presence as soon as he sets foot on the island, a sharp, metallic scent that makes his eyes water. She appears out of the fog between blinks, tall and beautiful, with the coldest eyes he has ever seen.
"Merlin," she says, and the word chills his skin. "I did not think you would come. I did not think you would have the courage."
Merlin bristles. "And why is that?"
"You are weak," she says. "Nothing like you should have been."
"What are you--" he starts, but she cuts across him.
"I presume you have come about the Disregarded King. You have come in vain. There is nothing I will do for Uther Pendragon's son."
Merlin hears the word 'will' and is abruptly angrier than he has ever been. "Why not?"
"That is no longer his destiny," she says, and her smile shows too many teeth. "That was taken from him along with his father."
"His was the greatest ever written. No more. He is just a man. And you," she spits, "They call you Emrys, but you are not half that."
"Heal Arthur," Merlin snarls, "Or I will kill you."
She laughs. "Kill me? Maybe once, the fates would have favoured you, but not anymore. You are a wild, unfocused shell of what you would have been. This is Morgana's time and I will not allow to you to interfere with that."
"You healed her." It's suddenly, blindingly, deafeningly obvious. "You saved her when she fell!"
"By taking another's life," she replies, smirking. "There is always a price."
Arthur's life. "Give it back."
Merlin sees nothing but her and her heartless smile. The rest is gathering darkness and the smell of oncoming rain.
"Do as I say, or you will die."
She smiles and raises a hand, fire at her fingertips. "No."
Lightning flashes down and catches her, scorching the grass. The thunder rolls across the island and echoes off the ruins, but Merlin only hears her death. He takes her life, bright and squirming, and thinks of Arthur, pushes it into Arthur's sickly body.
A hundred miles away, Arthur breathes freely again. Merlin collapses to his knees as it starts to rain.
When he arrives back in Camelot, exhausted, Arthur clatters down the steps to meet him.
"Where have you been? You nearly drove Guinevere to hysteria, running off like that!" he says, shaking Merlin slightly.
"But you're all right?"
"Yes, I'm fine, but what if I hadn't been? You were nowhere to be found, they thought you'd--"
But Merlin stops listening. Morgana is standing on the top of the steps, watching them very carefully. His blood runs cold as he realises, she knows. The High Priestess of the Old Religion is dead and Merlin killed her with magic.
Morgana turns to Mordred, standing behind her, and Merlin can't see her face, but he can see his. Mordred smiles once, sinisterly, before following Morgana back inside.
Not long after Arthur's recovery, Sir Kay, the Head of the Armies, is killed by a boar on a hunting trip. Arthur is made his replacement.
Merlin is filled with uncontainable joy every time he sees Arthur's blinding smile, every time he watches Arthur lead a training session. He has no words to describe how proud he is, but there's an unsettled feeling in the air that unnerves him and interrupts his dreams.
He figures it out two days later, when Morgana announces to the court, smiling triumphantly, that they are now at war with Mercia.
Arthur's first battle is hellish.
The men are tired and demoralised by the constant, driving rain, Arthur's confidence is gradually waning, the enemy are entrenched and better positioned and they have a sorcerer guiding their arrows.
"Merlin!" Arthur shouts, over the screams of men and the clashing of swords. "That sorcerer!"
Merlin can see him, on the highest point of the hill, can hear his voice on the wind, chanting.
"If you can get rid of that sorcerer, this battle is won!"
Another wave of arrows obliterates Camelot's front line before Merlin can deflect them. The battle may not be won, nor evened, but it would be better than this slaughter.
Merlin scoops a bow out of a dead man's hand and an arrow out of the mud. He puts it to the string and takes a deep breath. Dimly, he can hear Arthur shouting for knights to protect him, but he doesn't pay attention. He draws the string back and thinks of the sorcerer, standing brazenly on that hill, wishes with a detached malice and looses the arrow.
There's a very long moment before he feels the life wink out.
The next wave falls short, falling on Mercian men instead. The Camelot soldiers cheer and surge forward. Merlin follows them into the fray, magic guiding his sword, lightning in his fingers.
Mercia surrenders by parts, the most reluctant knights surrounding their king, but all it takes is Merlin's presence and some appropriate rolls of thunder before they relent. Arthur looks at Merlin wonderingly.
"You amaze me."
"Still not afraid?"
Arthur's face is bloodied, his armour is coated in mud and his horse has two arrows in its hindquarters, but he just grins. "Never."
Merlin has learned to pay attention to his bad feelings by the time Morgause arrives on the steps of Camelot with a smile that doesn't reach her eyes.
She's Morgana's half-sister, by the King's first wife, and though Morgause is not as beautiful, she has a stability in her gaze that Morgana can sometimes lack. Merlin doesn't sleep for two nights before her arrival, and Arthur begins to look more worried every morning.
"You look terrible, Merlin," he says. "Bad dreams?"
"No," Merlin replies truthfully. The nightmares only start after Morgause appears, kneeling before the King, then giving him a hug. Merlin is wary. The King's health is poor nowadays and Morgause stinks of magic different from either Morgana or Nimueh.
He catches her one afternoon, talking to Arthur by a tall stained-glass window.
"I knew your mother," she says and it sounds strangely hollow, as does the silence after, like she expects a specific reaction.
"Oh, really?" says Arthur, politely, clearly more focused on the training session he's late for.
Morgause looks put out, then recovers. "It is strange to see you. You look so alike."
"I have heard many people say that," Arthur replies, nodding. "Now, please excuse me, my lady. I have urgent business I must attend to."
He leaves. Merlin slides out from his alcove, not bothering to hide he was spying. Dappled by patches of green and blue light, Morgause looks as unworldly as her magic feels.
"Stay away from Arthur," he says.
She smiles mirthlessly. "Don't worry, I can smell your protection on him. But it won't save him from destiny's touch."
Merlin's getting tired of sorceresses talking about destinies. He turns down the corridor without a backwards glance, rudely, and follows Arthur to the training ground. If Arthur notices Merlin shadowing him for the rest of the day, he doesn't say anything.
That night, Merlin does not dream, but he still wakes up in the dark, cold and gasping.
"Merlin?" Arthur mutters groggily. "What's wrong?"
"Nothing," he replies, but he's lying. Something is very wrong. He waits until Arthur is snoring regularly again before sliding out of bed and ghosting down the halls, quietening his footsteps with magic.
Listening to the castle's agreeable rumbling, he's about to go back to bed and dismiss it as a false alarm, when he hears a soft choking sound from the King's chambers. He whirls down the corridor and through the locked door faster than the wind.
Morgause is there and her eyes are the colour of freshly spilled blood.
"You are too late," she says.
Merlin starts towards the bed, towards the pale and lifeless King, but she throws him into the wall and pins him there. Merlin clicks his fingers and Morgause sinks ankle deep into the floor, stuck. They glare at each other in an equal battle of will and magic.
"You killed the King. Why?" he asks, even though he already knows the answer, thinking of Nimueh and the way she said this is Morgana's time.
"For my sister, so she may be Queen," Morgause replies, glancing at the King. "He was old. Feeble. It was nearly his time anyway."
"He was your father."
"I was never close to my father. This was not so great a hardship, to take his life for my sister."
"Morgana told you to do this?" says Merlin, horrified.
"No, she would have waited. It's in her nature and her magic, to see things fall into place and pick the best odds. But sometimes, progression requires sacrifice."
Merlin looks at the King's face, passive in death, thinks of how gentle he had been in his old age, and feels an insensible rage.
He asks, just to be sure, "You feel no remorse?"
Morgause shakes her head. "No."
The flagstones swallow her up and Merlin waits until she suffocates before sounding the alarm bells.
A servant has to be sent for Morgana, but Arthur turns up of his own accord.
"What's going on?" he says, then sees the King. "Oh, no."
"Morgause killed him," says Merlin. "She escaped before I could stop her."
Gaius looks up from his mute examination of the body. "There is truth in what he says. I can sense it," he says, but he gives Merlin a measuring look, as if to say, but not the whole truth. Merlin wonders if he can sense Morgause's body, trapped in the floor, and quickly turns her to stone.
Morgana arrives and Merlin knows, as soon as he sees her, that she had been having a vision of this moment before being woken. He waits for her to say something, but she stays oddly quiet.
Arthur breaks the silence.
"The King is dead. Long live the Queen."
Merlin bows with the rest of them, but does so with a heavy heart.
On the day of Morgana's coronation, it rains. It rains so hard, the gutters overflow and the training ground is a wallowing pit of mud. Arthur remains blissfully unaware that this might have something to do with Merlin.
The crown the castle stewards dug out for her is old, overly ornate and ugly, so Morgana is crowned with her father's circlet instead. Merlin can't stomach the irony and walks out, but at least does so unobtrusively.
He stands on the castle wall, watching the courtyard, where people have gathered in crowds to throw flowers when the door opens.
Merlin doesn't turn around. "I just needed some fresh air."
"The rain," says Mordred. "Cease at once."
"What makes you think this is my fault? It does rain sometimes, you know."
"Stop the rain, Emrys."
"Why don't you do it?" Merlin replies, getting annoyed. "Or is that too hard for you?"
Mordred sneers and snarls some incomprehensible words. Merlin's thrown over the wall and across the training ground, landing in the stream almost before he can soften his fall. He feels his arm break upon impact.
When Merlin surfaces, spluttering, Mordred is standing on the bank, smirking.
"You're not so powerful," he says.
Merlin pulls on the mud beneath Mordred's feet, making him slip. He stalks up the bank, past where Mordred is sprawled, red-faced, in the dirt.
"Don't doubt me," he says, in warning.
As soon as Merlin's back is turned, however, Mordred spits some consonants, knocks him off his feet and tries to trap him with some conjured vines, but they're spindly and weak. Merlin gets up without very much effort, even if his arm protests loudly.
Mordred, angry and pink with embarrassment, throws a bolt of lightning. Merlin deflects it to within inches of Mordred's boots.
"Why are you doing this?" he asks.
Mordred does not reply, seeming to draw himself inwards. He speaks a strange word and Merlin feels its power surge through the air. The grass catches alight, despite the rain and the sodden ground. The flames are a brilliant blue and they snake towards Merlin, encircling him. They do not go out.
"Not so powerful," repeats Mordred, though he is gasping and bent double, exhausted. "If I can kill you so easily."
"What purpose would that serve?" Merlin pants. It's getting hotter and harder to breathe every second.
"You are Arthur's last protector. Without you, his destiny will finally be closed to him."
That word, destiny, sets a rancorous fire in Merlin's gut. He pulls the water out of the stream and folds it around Mordred, drowning him. Mordred struggles, then hiccups, swallowing water. There's a long stand-off as they both slowly wilt, then there's shouting and men running and Arthur calling Merlin's name.
The flames douse and the stream drops with a splash as the two of them are pulled apart, gasping for breath. Arthur brushes cinders off Merlin while Morgana, ruining her coronation dress in the mud, tends to Mordred. As she leads him away, she looks over her shoulder at Merlin and gives him an assessing look. Merlin realises with dawning horror that this was only a test.
Arthur takes him to see Gaius about his arm and grills him during the healing.
"Just some fun and games," Merlin replies. It's clear that Arthur does not believe him.
During the first battle of Morgana's next war, when Merlin is distracted by a flanking surge of enemy cavalry, Mordred waits until Arthur is thrown from his horse before stabbing him.
Merlin stumbles as Arthur's agony rips through him.
"No," he whispers, running forwards, blasting aside both ally and enemy.
Mordred is standing over Arthur with a bloody knife in his hand, his eyes very wide.
"Emrys," he stammers. "Don't--"
But Merlin is deaf to anything but vengeance. Mordred's magic may be powerful, beating inside him, but his body is fragile. Merlin takes Mordred's hand, the one holding the knife, and makes him slit his own throat.
A scream echoes over the battlefield, high and feminine, and suddenly Morgana is there. She hunches over Mordred's body and makes a noise like a sob, but when she stands up, her eyes are dry.
"It is pointless, Emrys," she says. "All is lost to you."
"Not everything," Merlin replies. He can feel Arthur's heartbeat, weak, but still there.
"He cannot escape his destiny and neither can you."
"I don't believe in destinies."
"You should. Arthur would have been the greatest king ever to have been known. He would have united all the kingdoms of Albion under one rule, but now he will die. Not a king, just a man."
"Didn't you want that?" says Merlin, desperately. "Why didn't you help Arthur fulfil his destiny?"
Morgana's face is at once horrifyingly beautiful. "I saw myself in that future," she spits. "I am mad, hideous. I am cast out of Camelot, my gift is persecuted, and you--"
Merlin looks at her face, suddenly old and lit from within with malice, looks into her eyes, piercingly yellow, and does not see a difference between the Queen and the madwoman.
"He had to die," she says. "Or his destiny would have prevailed."
"Nimueh said that future would never happen, not anymore."
Morgana laughs, high and cruel. "Nimueh was a short-sighted fool who couldn't even foresee her own death."
She raises a hand and Merlin does so as well.
"Stop," he commands. "Now. Or I will kill you."
"I have seen myself die," she says, smiling. "And it is not by your hand."
Merlin traps her inside a fallen shield instead, the coat of arms changing to a golden circlet and a long slash like a scream, and sends it to the bottom of a deep lake, where she will not be found for millennia, if ever.
He collapses, finally, next to Arthur, who is drawing long, rattling breaths like they're his last.
"I'm sorry, Arthur, I--"
"But it's my fault!"
"How?" says Arthur, shaking his head minutely. "You could never have known."
Merlin feels tears roll down his cheeks. "I never told you I loved you."
Arthur smiles wearily. "I already knew."
His life flickers once, twice, then dies. Merlin feels a loss so great it tears at his own chest, dampening his own life. The world fades to grey as he clutches at Arthur's body.
"It should not have ended this way," he sobs.
So, with every soldier watching him, Merlin reaches back into the past to change what might have been. He forgets himself, the people he has killed, the love he has felt, and forces time into a new shape. With Arthur's body a heavy weight in his arms, he remembers Nimueh's words.
That was taken from him along with his father.
He convinces Uther Pendragon to live.