[…] The legend of the Lost City of Camelot has its origins in the writings of Queen Nimueh I of Camelot, after the coup that gave her the throne, and as many scholars debate its true existence as debate the existence of the island of Atlantis. If it is true, the discovery of the city of Camelot would be the unquestionable find of the millennium, and if it isn’t, it’s still the most valuable allegory available for the dangers of attempting to eradicate magic from a kingdom. The story of a king blind enough to commit mass murders of sorcerers (even going so far as to nearly eradicate both Dragonlords and the dragons themselves) is chilling on its own, but the story of his whole castle, city, and all its inhabitants (with the exception of a trapped dragon) disappearing overnight, leaving the kingdom free for Nimueh and the few remaining magic users to take, is the stuff of nightmares and fairy tales.
However, the legend is given credence by the writings of one of Queen Nimueh’s contemporaries, a sorcerer known simply by the name Emrys (whose place in prophecies at the time is a legend of its own), who in his writings on magic, natural philosophy, and the art of the Dragonlord, mentions the Lost City of Camelot only once, to say that the son of the blind king was the only one who might have been strong enough to change his father’s ways. […]
~Excerpt from “Myth and Legend from the Formation of Albion”
Merlin Emerson hates camping.
Well, okay, he really doesn’t hate camping. Some of his best memories from when he was a kid are camping in the woods behind his house with his father, and he loves being out in nature, whether that means in the woods or at the beach or just sprawling out under a tree when he doesn’t have a lecture. Much as he scoffs at the sects of Druids who talk about magic users having to be One With Nature (capital letters very much implied), he actually sort of thinks it’s true, which makes camping great.
No, Merlin just hates camping with Gwaine, yet somehow he ends up spending a week in the wild woods in the middle of Camelot with him every year, a tradition that started gods-knew-how when they were sixteen and continues even though they’re getting ready to head into their last year of university. There are three things that must happen while camping with Gwaine: one of them must get slapped (yet to happen, but they’re only halfway through the week), they must get lost at least once (which they somehow always manage even though they’ve been in the woods quite a lot throughout their lives, mostly because Gwaine insists on finding a different area to camp in every year), and they must get so drunk they can’t even stand.
Judging by the way his head is pounding and his mouth feels like a mouse crawled into it and promptly perished, Merlin is betting the drunk thing happened last night. He groans his eyes open when a cacophony of birds starts outside the tent, like nature’s overly cheery alarm clock. Gwaine is sprawled out next to him, mouth open and snoring unattractively. “Wake up,” he hisses. Gwaine doesn’t do a thing. “Come on, you were the one who wanted to go for a dawn hike and then took out the whiskey. Wake up.” He shoves Gwaine’s shoulder and gets him blinking awake at last.
“This is your revenge, isn’t it,” Gwaine mumbles, so indistinct Merlin can only translate because he has the dubious pleasure of being fluent in Hungover Gwaine. “Greatest fucking sorcerer in a century, blah blah blah, can’t even cure a simple hangover.”
“The hike was your idea,” Merlin reminds him, and gropes for the water bottle he filled in the stream last night. “I would be happy sitting at the campsite.”
Gwaine manages to sit up. Merlin decides not to ask how he ended up shirtless, since he’s fairly sure he fell asleep in a t-shirt and sweatshirt. “Yeah, but you’re also the one who’s been whining that we’ve been coming here for years and never got to see the Dragon Caves, and today’s the only day this week that isn’t supposed to be too hot too do it.”
Merlin nods and levers himself to his feet. After years of camping and then being roommates at university, they know how to deal with hangovers together, so he wanders out to the stream near their campsite and ducks his face in the water while Gwaine pokes at the embers of their campfire, then starts their awful instant coffee in a kettle over the fire once Gwaine gets it going again to give Gwaine the chance to do the same.
Within twenty minutes, they’ve managed coffee and breakfast and clothes, so Merlin clears up their campsite and casts protections against animals and other curious campers and lets Gwaine pack their rucksacks up for the day’s hike. It’s a misty morning, a little chilly after some showers in the night, but the sun’s starting to break through by the time they get started, heading deeper into the woods on the path that Gwaine swears is a hiking trail but looks more like a deer path to Merlin.
The birds seem more agitated than usual this morning (“such a fucking princess, Merlin, it’s just the hangover talking,” says Gwaine when Merlin mentions it), and when he sees a deer he can’t coax it over like he usually does when he’s with Gwaine just to make him laugh. “Okay, something’s off,” he says when the mist only gets thicker as they walk, instead of lighter in the daylight.
Gwaine seems to have shaken off his hangover entirely, the bastard, and just turns around from where he’s walking ahead on the path to make sure Merlin gets the full effect of his rolled eyes. “Because the birds are acting funny?”
“Because …” He probes out with his magic, stopping to listen even if he isn’t really using his ears at all. Gwaine stops too, head cocked like he’s expecting to hear something out of the ordinary, because he knows that when Merlin uses his magic like this it’s something serious. There’s some other spell around, something old and strong, and it’s nothing he’s noticed in this part of the woods before. “Something’s definitely off,” he says, firm, and instead of backing off and calling for help like his teachers would tell him to do, he steps forward.
Of everyone he knows, Gwaine’s the most likely to want to get into trouble, but he still pauses, lagging behind when Merlin starts walking again. “Off like we’re going to get attacked by a massive reptilian something, or off like we walk in the mist too much and we grow tentacles?”
“I’m not going to ask where you got either of those ideas,” Merlin says, distracted, and keeps walking. “Off like there’s something there that shouldn’t be.” No, that’s not right. “Like there’s something there that isn’t usually, and someone put it there a long time ago,” he corrects.
“We’re going to end up the newspapers as those tragic student hikers who stumble on some sort of cosmic horror and end up dismembered,” Gwaine laments, and continues rambling on in that vein until they step out of the woods.
“Wait, what?” says Merlin, because as far as he’s aware there isn’t a clearing several square kilometers across in the middle of Camelot Woods, much less one with a town and a fucking Medieval castle in the middle of it. Or at least there wasn’t the last time they were in this section of the woods, and there isn’t on the maps, just the Dragon Caves he wanted to visit. But there it is, not an illusion or a mirage, fields around stone walls around a large cluster of huts around more walls around a white castle the likes of which he’s pretty sure isn’t still standing in Albion, or at least not without major renovations. “Where the hell are we?”
A grin breaks out across Gwaine’s face, the same grin that Merlin recognizes with a sinking heart from adventures in the past. The ones that generally end badly. “No use waiting around. Let’s find out.”
There are actual armored guards at the gate to get into the town. And not armored guards in the sense that the rulers of Albion’s various kingdoms travel around with dangerous-looking people with weapons, these men are wearing actual chainmail and carrying actual swords, and they collectively gape at Merlin and Gwaine walking through the gates without saying a thing, even when Gwaine tries to ask where they are.
“Okay,” says Gwaine when they get inside and have a good gawk at the straw-roofed huts and the horses and everyone wearing clothes they’ve only seen in history books, “it’s one of those … history villages, right? We somehow got way more lost than we assumed, and ended up here on some sort of festival day.”
Merlin closes his eyes and listens again, feels that old, old magic under everything, even as he notes the absence of protection spells against fire or leaks on the houses, the lack of charms around people’s necks, the lack of any magic in anyone that isn’t just the barest of sparks. “I … don’t know.”
“Right, great.” Gwaine clears his throat and uses his best smile on a passing woman. “Excuse me, ma’am, but would you happen to be able to tell us what’s going on?”
She gives them—and their clothes—a wide-eyed look. “I think you’ll be wanting to go to the courtyard,” she says, and flees.
“Helpful,” mutters Merlin, but he can already tell that the crowd is trickling in a certain direction, towards the castle, so he’s guessing something is going on there, and he catches Gwaine’s eye and nods there. Gwaine nods back, so they adjust their packs and walk through the town, where nobody talks to them and everyone seems nervous and unwilling even to look at them, into the courtyard of the castle that looks even more imposing and old than it did in the distance, where there’s a stone block raised up above everything else.
And, Merlin realizes when the crowd quiets at some invisible signal, a man up on a balcony on the castle—several men, but only one of them is wearing a crown, and at his gesture the masses part to let a terrified man through, prodded along by a hooded man with an axe, and Merlin’s brain blanks, because this can’t be happening, this definitely isn’t happening, whatever it is. “People of Camelot,” says the man on the balcony, but Merlin can’t look at him because he’s stuck looking at the man being pushed to kneel in front of the block. “I greet you with sadness on this, the tenth day of the curse. Today you see before you a sorcerer, one who will not undo the curse and be pardoned for his magic, so he must be condemned to death.”
A woman behind them snorts under her breath. “Notice he never condemns his Lady Morgana, just locks her up in her room.”
“Hush,” says another, just as quiet. “You know as well as I that the Lady Morgana is our only—”
“This is a sad day indeed,” continues the man on the balcony, interrupting their conversation, and Merlin forces his eyes up there, because he has a sick, horrified feeling about what’s going to happen. “It would have been a day of celebration, before the curse, the twentieth anniversary of a stronger Camelot without magic. Instead, I can only tell you that we are trying to break the curse, and to remind you never to go into the woods, not until it’s over.” He raises his hand, and Merlin finds he can’t even look at that, skirts his gaze away where it sticks on a dark-haired girl his age peering out a nearby window, pale and upset, and then when he can’t look at her on a man standing behind the one on the balcony, wearing a less fancy crown and standing with his jaw set.
He isn’t looking when it happens, but he hears the sound and Gwaine’s low curse, and turns to look at him as the crowd starts talking again and an old woman starts wailing—the man’s mother, Merlin realizes when she starts cursing them, saying she should go into the woods and put them all out of their misery, and then there are guards coming from everywhere and before whatever spell she starts chanting can finish she’s gone as well, another spark of magic out of this strange, empty, old city.
Gwaine grips his arm. “Merlin, we need to get out of here and tell someone about this. That wasn’t a joke. And what’s all this talk about magic?”
Merlin looks around, dazed, because he knows this story. It was his favorite growing up, even if his mother scolded his father every time he told it as a bedtime story, and he wrote a whole paper on it for his Philosophy of Magic course last term. “It’s the Lost City of Camelot,” he says at Gwaine’s questioning look.
“That’s a fairy tale.” Gwaine gestures around. “This is a bunch of nutters and anti-magic separatists with weapons, and I’m thinking we should get out of here and make a run for the nearest ranger station so someone can do something about it.”
“Gwaine.” He takes him by the shoulders and shakes him lightly. “This is not on the maps. If there were a castle in these woods someone would have noticed it by now, which means it probably wasn’t here before this morning when everything started feeling weird, which means really powerful magic. I think a castle appearing out of nowhere with no warning is about the same level of unlikely as the Lost City of Camelot appearing out of nowhere.”
“Excuse me.” They turn in unison to find a young woman standing behind them, her brows drawn together. She’s dressed like she belongs in a book of fairy tales as some sort of deserving peasant girl, clean plain dress and flowers tucked in her hair, and she’s the only one in the crowd who dares to look at or talk to them directly, judging by the stares she’s getting. “Are you from outside?”
“Yes, and we were just leaving,” says Gwaine, taking Merlin’s arm to steer him, but Merlin stops him with a look.
“We are. Can you tell us what’s going on? Where we are?”
She looks around nervously, and up at the window where the dark-haired woman was. She’s gone now. “I think we’d better not do this in front of everyone. Come home with me, I promise you won’t be harmed.”
Merlin turns his best imploring look on Gwaine, who finally makes a face and nods. “Okay,” says Merlin for them both. “I’m Merlin, and he’s Gwaine. You are?”
“Guinevere. Just Gwen, really. And you really should come with me.” She gives a nearby guard a nervous look. “We don’t get many people from outside here. The last one came five days ago, and he’s with me now, people are only just starting to trust that he isn’t a sorcerer.” Merlin tries not to stiffen up. “Not that it’s a problem if he were, not that he is, at this point, as long as—well, we can talk about that at my home.” Gwen ushers them along as she talks, taking them down a few cobbled streets to a blacksmith’s forge, where she kisses the cheek of a man who must be her father and then leads them inside. “Lancelot! We’ve got guests.”
Another man steps out from behind what looks like a curtain at the back of the main room (possibly the only room) of the hut, and Merlin tries not to stare, because really, between he and Gwaine, it’s a real toss-up of which one of them looks more like a model, especially with apparently-Lancelot’s shirt half-unlaced. “Guests from outside, it seems,” he observes, eyeing Merlin’s jeans and Gwaine’s shirt with a big picture of a cartoon dragon on it.
“Yes. I thought I’d bring them to you, since, well, you would know what to do.” She actually wrings her hands, which Merlin is pretty sure people don’t do outside of novels.
Lancelot smiles at her, so obviously besotted that it’s almost a little depressing. “You were the one who helped me, Gwen. I’ve just been following your advice.” He looks back at Merlin and Gwaine. “I’ve been here for five days, which isn’t much, but I’m the only person who’s walked in since the curse—until you two, that is.”
“What sort of curse?” Merlin asks. Whatever it is, it’s going to be big magic, the kind of thing that almost nobody can do these days, or at least doesn’t bother to do. Most times a curse is just giving someone bad luck or some physical embarrassment or discomfort, and the worst ones generally come out of family grudges. There hasn’t been a curse that affected more than a city block since the ‘40s.
“Oh.” Her face falls. “Of course you wouldn’t know. I suppose the world’s forgotten us by now. That’s what she said, that the world would forget us, and ten days, that’s—” She stops when Lancelot rests a hand on her shoulder and straightens. “There was a sorceress—Nimueh, her name was.” Queen Nimueh, leader of the Magical Renaissance in Albion even if she couldn’t make the kingdoms stop warring. The first person to write about the Lost City of Camelot, and Merlin knows that Gwaine realizes that when he lets out a low whistle. “She put a curse on us so that every day when we wake up, we’re a hundred years in the future, and if any of us leave, even go as far as the woods, the next time we go to sleep we’ll never wake up again.”
“Holy fucking shit,” breathes Merlin, because that isn’t just big magic, that’s the biggest, that’s the kind of thing they tell stories about, the kind of thing that nobody’s supposed to be able to do anymore (the kind of thing that he wonders, when he’s testing the limits of his powers or on the nights when the magic feels too big for his body, rising up and choking him, if he’d be able to do. But he can’t say that, not really, not even to his parents, because it sounds stupidly, unspeakably arrogant).
“Wait,” says Gwaine, heading right for the practicalities while Merlin is still floundering imagining the amount of raw power and feeling that would have to go into that kind of curse. “Does that mean we can’t leave?”
“Oh, no!” Gwen shakes her head, looking horrified. “You’re fine! Lancelot just stayed because—um.”
“Because of Gwen,” Lancelot says, smiling at her again. “There was little to stay for in my own life, and when I met her, she needed comfort and I wanted to stay for her.”
“As far as almost everyone knows,” Gwen adds, “he’s just a peasant who came to visit Camelot at exactly the wrong time and I took him in. We don’t want to know how people will react if they know he walked in after the curse.”
Merlin does the math. “Five days—so you came here five hundred years ago? Wow. This is all kind of … this city is a legend, you know? The Lost City of Camelot, the city without magic.” He stops, and turns that over in his head again, turns over the scene in the courtyard just minutes ago. “Oh wow, the city without magic. That’s … not good. Your king, he kills sorcerers, right?”
She wrings her hands again. “He says any sorcerer who breaks the curse would be pardoned, but everyone else … oh, are you? Lancelot, we’ve talked these past few days, he says that there’s more magic out in Albion than there ever was when we still heard from the outside. You can’t—you shouldn’t let King Uther know. Or the prince, actually, though he’s a bit less strict with it ever since my lady was locked up.”
“Oh, right, the prince,” says Merlin without thinking, and gets an expressive wiggle of the eyebrows from Gwaine, who knows that Merlin owns and still has a yearly reread of the trilogy someone wrote about the prince from the Lost City of Camelot and his adventures after his city disappeared (although he doubts that he’s actually called Prince Frederick), and that he wrote a whole paper on him based off Emrys’s writings for his Myths of Early Albion course. “What’s the prince’s name? And who’s this lady? I’ve heard her mentioned a few times.”
“Prince Arthur. But really, you should avoid him, he still arrests sorcerers and the way you two look …” Gwen pauses, bites her lip, and waits for Lancelot to encourage her before she continues. “And the Lady Morgana is the king’s ward. Was, maybe. We found out she’s got magic on the second day of the curse, and the king didn’t kill her, maybe because when we dream every night she’s the one who sees what’s going on outside, and what might be coming up. I’m her maidservant, though she’s locked in her rooms so there isn’t much to be done, these days.”
Merlin nods slowly as he tries to think his way through everything. He suspects he and Gwaine wouldn’t get back with help in time to keep Camelot from drifting off into the mists again, so if he does anything, it’s going to be on his own—and he needs to do something, since even if the king kills his kind there are plenty of people in the city like Gwen who don’t deserve this. “Can you take me to see her?”
“I can try. I’ll go see her and see if she can think of a way to sneak you in, or maybe you can get in by magic. I’ve got a place you can hide in the mean time.”
“That would be great, thanks.”
He looks at Gwaine in a half-arsed apology, but Gwaine’s grinning and rummaging through his rucksack. “Okay, Merlin, you go talk to the lady in the tower even if it’s a waste of a fairy tale cliché, and I’m going to take pictures of everything so people won’t think it’s a collective hallucination when we try to tell them about it. Sound like a plan?”
“You’re amazing,” says Merlin with a grin of his own.
“Come on, then,” says Gwen, pulling at his arm. “I don’t want to be late. Lancelot, look after him, would you? Make sure the guards don’t see … whatever that is and think it’s sorcery.”
Merlin ends up crammed behind a tapestry in a little stone nook in a castle corridor, where Gwen leaves him with an apologetic look to run off and get Lady Morgana’s breakfast and laundry. “You could be here as long as an hour, and I’m sorry,” she hisses, “just don’t draw attention to yourself, this is the safest place I know.”
And that’s why, twenty minutes in, Merlin can’t help a sneeze from behind the musty tapestry, and five seconds later he’s hauled out by the collar by a bloke his age who’s just unfairly pretty, blond and armored and wearing an intense snarl with his sword at Merlin’s throat—the man from the balcony, he realizes after a second. “Who the hell are you and why are you skulking around my castle?”
Part of Merlin’s mind registers that “my castle” probably means he’s just met the prince Gwen said he should avoid if at all possible, but unfortunately it’s not the part of mind that controls his mouth, so he snaps “None of your business, arsehole” before he can stop himself.
“What did you call me?” The prince backs Merlin up against the nearest wall, sword still up. “Do you know who I am?”
Merlin isn’t sure that his magic would do something useful fast enough to keep him from getting stabbed, and even less sure that he would want it to, so he raises his hands in surrender. “I’m guessing you’re Prince Arthur? Sorry, I didn’t recognize you, I’m, um.”
Prince Arthur steps back, sword still out but lowered, and gives him a once-over, then pauses and does it again, wide-eyed. If they were in a club, Merlin would be pretty pleased, but he’s relatively sure that Arthur’s just seeing jeans and trainers for the first time. “What are you wearing?”
“It’s the latest fashion?” Merlin tries. Somewhere out there in the city Gwaine has just started laughing uncontrollably and doesn’t know why. It’s a bad lie, especially coming from him of all people, and it makes the prince take another step back, mouth falling open. He scrambles for another excuse. “I need to do laundry.”
“You’re from outside.” The prince’s arm falls down by his side, sword swiping the stone floor with a clang. “You’re—we haven’t had visitors since the curse, how did you get here? I talk to Morgana every morning, she didn’t say you were coming. Who are you?”
“I just … walked through the gate. I mean, it’s all been kind of a surprise, I’m only now figuring out that this is the lost city—that this is Camelot, me and my friend Gwaine were just out for a hike when we found you. I’m Merlin.” He holds out his hand to shake and the prince just looks at it like he’s afraid Merlin is diseased. Right, because royalty can’t touch the common folk. Merlin decides Prince Arthur is a wanker and drops his hand.
“Merlin,” drawls the prince like he’s thinking really hard about it (so maybe he’s not an arse, just a bit slow). “Where is your friend?”
“In the city.” He squares his shoulders because he isn’t even from Camelot (well, okay, Ealdor is one of those little towns that gets swapped around a lot in the constant squabbles, but it’s been in Escetia ever since he was born, so even if the prince were still a prince he wouldn’t be Merlin’s). “You’ll excuse me if I don’t tell you exactly where, because you don’t look that friendly. I’m just here to figure out what’s going on, is all.”
Prince Arthur sheathes his sword and crosses his arms in one smooth motion. “Then you’re here to see Morgana.”
“Who’s Morgana?” Merlin asks, his eyes as wide and guileless as he can make them.
He fails miserably, even though the innocent act is usually the one he can pull on anyone but his parents and Gwaine. “If you’re lurking about on this corridor, and knew to do it, you’re waiting to see Morgana.” Merlin winces, because he’s sneaking in to see some woman he’s never met who’s under house arrest, and probably the Prince isn’t going to like that much. “Smarter than you look, then,” Arthur adds, and Merlin blinks at him to find his face a little lighter. “She’s the only one of us who knows anything about what goes on outside Camelot, other than what she’s told us.”
“So you aren’t going to run me through or lock me up or something?”
“What good would it do?” Arthur gives him a hard look again, eyes narrowed. “You are coming with me, though. Before you get anywhere close to Morgana, you’re going to talk to me.”
Merlin thinks of Gwen and her likely reaction to him going missing. “The person who left me here will worry.”
“The person who left you here is trying to sneak a possibly-suspicious outsider in to see a prisoner, so she’s probably right to. How is Guinevere this morning?” Arthur takes his arm and starts propelling him down the corridor before Merlin can try to save Gwen’s arse. They run into a few servants on the way, listlessly scrubbing floors or doing other chores that Merlin’s sure are vital to the castle somehow, and all of them give Merlin a curious look but they never bother to say anything, just drop their eyes when they see who he’s with. It’s not a very long walk before Arthur’s pushing him through a door and shutting it behind them, leaving them standing in a large, sunny room with a good view of the courtyard and a doorway to a room with a big red-curtained bed in it, by which he cleverly surmises that they’re in Arthur’s personal chambers.
“Not that I’m not glad that this isn’t a dungeon or an executioner’s block or something, but if I’m not in trouble what am I here for?”
Arthur raises his eyebrows. “You’re here to tell me everything, of course, starting with how you found us.”
“It’s not … I mean, there isn’t a marker saying ‘Lost City of Camelot, show up on this date in this year and you’ll see a castle where people murder sorcerers before lunch’ in the woods. We were out hiking in the woods, there was something off, a lot of mist, and then suddenly there was a castle that wasn’t on the map.”
“Oh. I suppose … a thousand years is a long time, nobody would know where to look for us even if they knew what had happened.”
He looks angry, but he sounds sad, and Merlin shifts uncomfortably, casts around for anything at all useful to say. “You’re a legend, if that helps. The whole city is, I mean, but you and your father especially.” Not in a good way, but they can get to that later.
“It doesn’t. Generally it’s best if you’re a legend after you die.” Arthur picks a paper up off the table and doesn’t bother pretending to read it before he turns back to Merlin, shoulders straightening and eyes going sharp again. “That’s enough of that, though. You’re going to tell me about what it’s like out there. Morgana tells me such strange things, in the mornings. Is it true there are metal dragons that take you from place to place?”
An hour later, Merlin is trying to explain the internet to Arthur (and failing, judging by the dubious look on Arthur’s face) when someone knocks on the door. Within a few seconds, Merlin is shoved under the table, actually under it, and Arthur is answering the door, cool as can be. “Ah, Guinevere,” he says, and Merlin relaxes but doesn’t move. “Can I help you?”
“Morgana is asking for you again.”
“Really? I rather thought you might be looking for Merlin.” Merlin winces and hears Gwen make a pitiful sort of squeaking sound. “You’ll be glad to know that I found him instead of my father. Come on out, Merlin, before she goes back to Morgana and tells her I had you thrown in the dungeons.”
Merlin crawls out from under the table and wonders if he should bother explaining that he wasn’t hiding like a little girl and Arthur was actually the one who shoved him there. Judging by Gwen’s relieved expression, though, he doesn’t have to mention it. “Hi, Gwen. Sorry. I sort of wasn’t given a choice about all of this.”
“Never mind. It explains why Lady Morgana told me to come here after you weren’t with—um, my father.” Gwaine and Lancelot, that means, most likely. “Are you all right?”
Arthur claps a hand on Merlin’s shoulder when he stands and speaks instead of letting Merlin answer, which is annoying but not enough to bother with arguing about it. “He’s fine. He’s been telling me about airplanes. Morgana is ready to see him, then? Let’s go.”
“I don’t—we shouldn’t—” Gwen looks back and forth between them imploringly, but Merlin really doesn’t have any leverage so he just looks helplessly back as Arthur steers them out the door, never moving his hand from Merlin’s shoulder. He takes them right down the main corridors, ignoring the odd looks that everyone they pass give at the sight of Merlin, and past Merlin’s erstwhile hiding place to a room with two guards outside it.
“Good morning again,” says Arthur, and takes a key out from somewhere while ignoring both of the guards, who seem a bit nervous about letting him in, or maybe letting Merlin in, since Arthur and Gwen are both regular visitors.
“Who’s the—” one of the guards starts, before Arthur breezes past them, shoving Merlin in front of him and Gwen trailing behind, and they’re suddenly in another bedroom, this one with a lot less weapons strewn about and more silks, and the dark-haired lady he saw through the window at the execution sitting at a table waiting for them.
She’s gorgeous in the same improbable fairy-tale way as Arthur is, as Lancelot is, like maybe everyone was just that much more attractive in the past. Gwaine is going to fall to his knees and swear his devotion when he meets her. “You’re him, then,” she says after a moment of sizing him up. “Emrys.”
“Um, Emrys is a historical figure, actually.” He winces, because he’s actually probably not historical to them. Judging by historians’ best guesses, he probably would have been within a decade on either side of them in age, if things were still as they were meant to be. “I’m just Merlin.”
“Either way. You’re … I knew you would be coming eventually.” She stands up and gives him a hard look, then looks over his shoulder at Arthur and Gwen, who are standing silent. “The two of you go and get his friend, and Lancelot, if you wish, Gwen. Merlin and I need to talk on our own.”
Arthur frowns. “I don’t think that’s a good idea. You’ve never met him before, and—”
“Do you think it matters if he tries to kill me, Arthur?” Merlin steps back, lets them square off and stare at each other. “While we’re all under this curse, while Uther has me locked up, do you really think it matters to me? I think he can help, but you need to leave us alone so I can be sure.”
“Him?” Arthur jerks his head in Merlin’s direction. “What could he do?”
“Use your eyes, Arthur, he’s a sorcerer.” Merlin winces, but Arthur doesn’t draw his sword again, or start shouting or threatening to drag him off to the dungeon. He steps back from Merlin, wary and wanting to keep his eyes on him, but he doesn’t shout. “We’ve got to take the chance that he’s powerful enough to help us. Go, bring his companion before the guards find him, make yourself useful for once.”
“Of course.” Arthur bobs a nod that’s almost a bow and storms out of the room with one last suspicious glance at Merlin, which hurts more than he was expecting it would.
“My lady?” says Gwen, looking between them.
Lady Morgana’s face softens. “Go on, you actually know what the man looks like, and I didn’t send Arthur just to keep him from bothering me. Give us a little while.” Gwen looks nervously between them, but she goes, and Merlin listens to her murmur to the guards on the other side of the door for a minute before she goes off behind Arthur.
“I don’t know if I can do anything,” he starts, but she cuts him off.
“They’ll have told you that I dream every night about what happens while we sleep.” He nods, since she seems to expect a response to that, and takes a seat when she gestures him towards one. “Gaius, our physician, tells me that I’m a Seer, and would have seen much smaller spans of time had things continued as normal. If I’d lived.” She snorts. “He always neglects to mention that part, even with the chains on my door now. You’ll want to talk to him later, though. He knows more about magic than anyone else in this castle, now.”
“What makes you think I could do anything? I’m a student, and I’ve got a lot of power, yeah, but this is big magic. Like, really big. It takes five normal-strength sorcerers to launch a rocket-ship properly, how am I supposed to do this alone?”
Morgana walks restlessly to the window. “Because you have to. I can’t, I’ve tried and failed—all my magic will do is show me the outside, and some of the future. The rest of it isn’t unlocked yet. None of the other sorcerers hidden in Camelot are powerful enough or brave enough to try. How many more magical visitors can we expect to get?”
“I don’t know! Gwaine and I will make it known, so in a hundred years every sorcerer in the world will be here to work together and fix it. It could happen.”
“Lots of things could happen.” She walks back and sits down at the table across from him, close enough that he can see the circles around her eyes that make it clear that even if she’s been sleeping like the princess in a fairy tale that doesn’t mean it’s been restful. “I know how much things can change in a century—a whole city forgotten and made into legend, another one built, going from traveling by horse to traveling in the sky in machines nobody believes me about … they could have forgotten you, by then. Refuted you. They forgot us quickly enough, with help from Nimueh. I haven’t had the heart to tell Arthur how thoroughly we’re forgotten.”
“I’d read about you,” he offers. “As a legend, yes, but enough that I knew where I was when we got here. You haven’t been forgotten that much. I can’t get anyone today, no matter what advances we’ve made this forest is big enough that we couldn’t get to help in time and the magic on the city would make too much interference to contact them, but in a hundred years—”
She shakes her head. “Someday, we’re going to wake up in the morning and there won’t be forest at the boundary of the spell, there will be nothing but fire and ash. We’ll have outlived the world and there will be no hope at all, and it could be in twenty days or it could be tomorrow, but I don’t want to see it, and I don’t want to see Arthur’s face on that morning, either.”
That can’t possibly mean anything good, it really can’t. “What do you mean?”
“I mean that if you can’t break the spell, I’m going to break out this evening and go to the woods.”
The thing is, he can’t exactly blame Morgana, because she’s right. He could tell her to wait another day, or a week, but he’s not the one who can see the future, and he can’t imagine what it would be like to dream the end of the world and know without a doubt he was going to wake up to it.
That doesn’t mean, however, that he likes it. “So that means that if I’m not good enough,” he says, once he’s had time to swallow down his first reaction, “it’s going to be my fault that everyone in this city dies.”
“It will be mine. And I don’t like it either, but we’re all dead, for all it matters to anyone. We’re a children’s tale, now. In a hundred years we might not even be that.”
Merlin looks around, like anything in her room is going to help him. As far as he knows, they and the doctor are the only sorcerers left in the city. “I’ve never tried to undo magic this big. Nothing even close.” He can feel the spell woven into everything, when he concentrates, but he can’t find the trigger, can’t find anything, really. The spell is just there, the same way the magic in the few dragons he’s met is just there. “I’ll try, but I’ll need to check on the borders of the spell, I think, see if I can find a weak spot to pick at.”
“Of course. Arthur will take you, when he comes back.”
Merlin winces at the thought. It’s hard to get the look on Arthur’s face out of his mind, when Morgana said he’s a sorcerer. It’s not something he’s ever had to be ashamed of before, much less apologize for, and the desire to do it is both new and completely unwelcome. Still, it’s not as if he’s going to object. Having the prince with him will go a long way towards him not getting executed. “Have you seen me fix it?” he asks instead of any of the other hundreds of questions he’s got building up. “You’re a Seer, and you knew about me right away, called me Emrys. Will I do it?”
“I can’t see everything. Or most things that would be of any use to us.” She shifts restlessly. “I think you could. Whether you figure out how is another matter entirely.”
There’s really no answer he can make to that, so it’s a relief when they’re interrupted by the guards talking outside and then Arthur and Gwen coming back, this time with Gwaine and Lancelot in tow. Gwaine, predictably enough, gapes when he sees Morgana. “Damn, Merlin, you get all the luck.”
She ignores him, which Merlin doesn’t bother to tell her will only encourage him. “Arthur, take Merlin out to the borders, let him see what he can. We’ll stay here, and have Gaius waiting for you when you return.” Arthur opens his mouth, glaring, but she just raises her eyebrows and shuts up. Merlin suspects it’s going to take him all of three minutes to get really jealous of that trick. “You’re the only one who can, Arthur. Go.”
“Fine. But you’re the one who gets to tell my father where I’ve—” Arthur breaks off and nobody fills the silence, Gwaine and Lancelot because they’re confused, Gwen and Merlin because they’re horrified, Morgana because her mouth is pursed tight on something that looks like hurt. “Morgana, I’m—”
“Let’s go,” says Merlin, because he can’t see this conversation going anywhere good and he doesn’t think they’ll want to have it out in public.
Arthur doesn’t look relieved, exactly, but he does relax, and gives Morgana a complicated look, the kind Merlin and Gwaine exchange because they know each other so well, before turning away and letting Gwen step forward to start fussing over Morgana’s hair. “Come along, Merlin. I don’t suppose you know how to ride a horse, with your air-planes taking you everywhere.”
Merlin takes that for the opportunity it is and starts chattering about cars being a more common mode of transport while they leave the room and walk down the hallways, keeping his voice down so people don’t stare at him even more than they already are. They don’t seem to dare to ask questions with Arthur there—not that anybody dared in the morning before the execution either, so maybe they just don’t want to know—but he isn’t taking the risk of anybody telling the king, who he really doesn’t fancy meeting.
It takes nearly an hour to get out of the city, because Arthur stops to talk to everyone who so much as looks at him once they get out of the castle, if only for a few seconds, to check and make sure that they’re okay, keeping their spirits up and all. He looks awkward about it, not used to it, and they look uncomfortable answering him, but then again it takes more than ten days to get used to a curse this big, and it’s all sort of endearing. Which is not good, because Merlin was perfectly happy with his conclusion that the prince of the Lost City of Camelot is a dick.
Luckily for Merlin, the second they’re outside the gates the concerned ruler face is gone and Arthur is scowling and gesturing around impatiently. “Do whatever it is you need to do as quickly as you can, please. We may be cursed, but no matter what Morgana thinks I do have duties.”
“I’m not … promising anything, right? I’m good, but I’m not this good.” He gestures around. “But I’ll try. We’ve got till the edge of the woods, so let’s go a little further, it’s likely to be weaker close to the edge.”
Arthur lags behind, the closer they go, but Merlin knows why and he isn’t going to bother to be obnoxious about it, so he makes a point of stopping at least ten meters from the edge of the spell and kneels so he can get his hands in the dirt, since whoever did the spell (and he’s going to not think for a few minutes about how it was probably Queen Nimueh I because she’s a bit of a hero and everything is very confusing just now) seems to have pinned it into the earth. “What are you going to do?” Arthur asks just as Merlin is about to start trying to find the boundaries of the spell. “Do you have to chant, or … use blood, or something?”
“Um, no.” He’s about to ask where the hell he got all that from, but, right, city without magic, so Merlin can’t really blame him for being ignorant. “Just shut up a minute, would you?” Arthur looks affronted and Merlin rolls his eyes. “Or come down here with me, you rule the land so you’ve got some connection to it, that might help.”
For a second, Arthur just stands there looking stiff and uncomfortable while Merlin remembers once again that he was raised to hate magic, and then he kneels down, even if his enthusiasm is lacking, and gives Merlin his hand. “Do whatever you need to do.”
Merlin puts Arthur’s palm flat on the ground and lays his own next to it, and then takes a deep breath and goes as deep into the magic and the dirt beneath his fingers as he can. The first thing he figures out is that whoever cast this spell—Nimueh, if all the legends are true, and it’s too cohesive to be the work of multiple sorcerers—was really fucking good. There’s no atom within the spell that’s free of it other than the weird blips that are Merlin, Gwaine, and Lancelot and the air around them, it goes into the sky and into the soil so they can’t even dig their way out, and the mechanics behind it all are dizzying, the complicated give-and-take of sustaining life across centuries.
From there he tries to pull at the structure of it, tries to figure out what went into it and what thread to pick at to unravel all of it. He doesn’t do anything too complicated, just batters at it with all the brute force he can muster, all the depths of magic he doesn’t get to use in his classes because it’s very impressive and all having huge amounts of power but it’s actually kind of useless unless you’re in a high-ranking position. He might as well be trying to make the moon go backwards for all the good it does, but he pours the magic in anyway, because it’s got to be good for something and he wants it to be—
“Merlin!” says Arthur, and Merlin reels back and realizes his cheek is stinging. When he focuses his eyes Arthur’s close, holding him up by the shoulder, jaw set and eyes a little wild. “What was that?”
“What was what?” he asks, or thinks he asks. He feels like his mouth is working slower than his brain so he might have slurred it a little judging by Arthur’s expression. Merlin shakes his head, brings himself back to his body a little more, gets the sharp throb of his cheek in reward. “You slapped me!” he accuses.
“You were sitting there not moving for ten minutes and then all of Camelot started shaking, of course I slapped you! Are you trying to bring the castle down?”
Merlin looks hazily around to see dust settling and decides that trying to rip the spell apart by brute force isn’t going to work. “No, I was just … trying. Sorry. I didn’t realize it would do that.”
“I should hope not.” Arthur’s got the arrogant-prince voice from earlier on, but he still looks too shaken for it to be real. “And whatever you were trying, it’s quite obvious it didn’t work. Come along, Gaius should be in Morgana’s room by now, hopefully without alerting my father to anything suspicious, and you might as well hear what he’s got to say.”
Things in the town and the palace are tense as Arthur leads Merlin back through, ignoring the conversations all around them about the earthquake, and was it from outside or in, and either way what caused it (which makes Merlin duck his head, guilty). The guards at the gates look even more nervous, and when they reach Morgana’s room there are no guards at all, the ones from earlier probably off seeing if Merlin’s attempt at breaking the curse caused any damage to the palace. Morgana is locked in, after all, Arthur’s key the only thing that gets them through.
Everyone inside looks up in tandem when Arthur lets them in. Lancelot is at the window, probably keeping watch. Gwaine and Morgana are eyeing each other suspiciously from opposite sides of the table, Gwaine with his camera in his hands. Gwen is talking softly with an older man wearing actual robes of the sort that Merlin hasn’t seen since he read picture books, and she’s the one who stands up to greet them. “Was that you, Merlin? Or something to do with the spell? It was just after Gaius and I got here—this is Gaius, by the way. He’s the physician.”
“Yes, it was him,” says Arthur, just as Merlin is opening his mouth to say the same thing but more apologetically.
The physician crosses his arms and raises an eyebrow in the same way that some of Merlin’s professors have a habit of doing when he overdoes it a bit on assignments. “You alone caused that? Anyone in the city with any magic at all must have felt it, that could be very dangerous.”
“Right, so, I won’t try brute strength again, it was just a first try and then His Royal Highness over here decided I was finished with and dragged me back in again.”
Arthur glares at him. “What, you’d rather we stayed out there so next time you could leave us still stuck in this curse but with a crumbling heap of ruin instead of a castle?”
“I wouldn’t have brought the whole city down! I have never in my life brought a building down!” Gwaine coughs. Merlin corrects himself. “I have never in my life brought down a building that wasn’t already falling down.”
“And I’d rather your first time wasn’t my home!”
Before Merlin can come up with a good enough retort for that, the physician interrupts. “Do you mean to tell me, boy, that you did that much just throwing magic at the spell?” Merlin nods. “Just how powerful are you?”
“Um, very? But apparently not enough, I don’t know how one person managed to put that whole spell together.”
“Nimueh had years to plot her revenge, to think of what would hurt Uther worst.” Arthur clenches his jaw, Morgana looks at her lap, and Gwen reaches out for Lancelot’s hand. Merlin looks between all of them and wonders if he needs to say something before Gaius speaks again. “She was powerful, but it was the force of her need for vengeance that makes the spell so difficult to break. I doubt brute force will do the job.”
Merlin makes a helpless gesture. “Well, how was I supposed to know that? They don’t exactly teach us this sort of thing in school, you know. I could tell you six different ways to start a fire and turn a house upside down—”
“Even if you can’t cure a hangover,” Gwaine interjects.
“—yes, thank you, but this is a pretty big curse and I can see why you all think I’m this big savior who’s come by destiny or whatever to save the day but I’m not and I can’t and …” He carefully doesn’t look Morgana’s way. “It’s not fair to pin your hopes on me.”
There’s a moment of silence while everyone shifts uncomfortably, which Merlin would feel more guilty about if he hadn’t meant every word of it. “I apologize, Merlin,” says Arthur eventually, and much to his surprise he actually sounds honest about it. “I suppose I assumed that you were some sort of godsend and assumed you would be able to do it no trouble. If it’s true as Morgana says that sorcery is … respected, in your time, then perhaps you can tell them about us after today. See what they can do. If they care to, considering our reputation.”
Merlin has no idea what to say to that, because it’s disconcerting to say the least that Arthur is suddenly being nice to him, but Gwaine breaks in and saves his arse just like always. “Come on, now, no need to give up hope just yet. Merlin said he might not be able to help, not that he definitely can’t.”
“Exactly,” says Gaius, much to Merlin’s surprise, and goes to rummage in a bag that Merlin hadn’t noticed before, bringing out a thick book. “I kept this through the Purges in case of emergency, sire, and I hope you will forgive me for it, but it may be of some help in this.”
“I don’t care if it is sorcery, as long as it helps. We can’t afford to be proud.” Merlin raises his eyebrows and looks around in time to see that Gwen, Morgana and Gaius all seem surprised by that as well, in their own ways. “If you’ll pardon me, however, I must be going to assure my father that what happened was entirely natural. It would be best if you kept to this room, Merlin—and Gwaine as well, of course. I don’t want to have to break you out of the dungeons before sundown.”
With that, he sweeps out, leaving the rest of them tense and not sure what to do. Gaius is still holding the book of magic that Merlin can’t wait to get his hands on, and Morgana’s staring at it as well, eyes narrowed. Gwen seems to notice, because she’s the next one to speak. “Well, I suppose I should talk to the kitchens and see if I can get some extra food up here without raising too much suspicion.”
Gwaine grins and gestures to his rucksack. “No worries for Merlin and me, we’ve got some food packed up from this morning. Just worry about yourselves.”
“Very well, then. My lady?”
Morgana snaps around to look at her. “Yes, of course, Gwen. Do as you wish. We’ll be fine in here.”
Gwen curtsies, lets Lancelot clasp her hand with a blush, and ducks out of the room again. “You’d best start looking at the book, my boy,” says Gaius before the silence can descend again, and Merlin takes it from him and stares. He’s pretty sure he knows academics who would commit murder to get their hands on it.
“I’ll help,” says Morgana, and gives Gwaine a pointed look until he vacates his place at the table, leaving a chair for Gaius to take while Merlin pulls up a stool. “I may not be practiced in magic, but perhaps I’ll recognize the spell that would help.”
“It will likely be a combination, my lady,” Gaius warns. “As I said, Nimueh had many years to plan her revenge, and I doubt she used a spell that could be found in any book and easily countered. If it’s strong and intricate enough to withstand the amount of power Merlin must have thrown at it earlier, we will have to be very clever to come up with the key to undo it.”
Lancelot, after a look between them all, takes up a post by the door. “I’ll keep an ear out for anyone coming and make sure we have warning to hide if someone besides the prince tries to come in.”
“Great.” Merlin opens the first page of the book and looks over his shoulder at Gwaine, who’s fidgeting around looking unimpressed, probably wanting to go out and do detective work or something. “Gwaine, I know it’s boring, but would you mind taking pictures of the pages as we go through the book? I’m pretty sure my teachers will kill me if we tell them about all this and I don’t have some pictures of the book.”
“Sure,” says Gwaine, relaxing slightly and wandering around to stand behind them, earning a glower from Morgana.
Gaius clears his throat. “Very well, then, let’s begin.”
The book, as it turns out, is almost no help. Well, that’s not entirely accurate, Merlin learns a whole lot of spells that his teachers never taught him, even if he’s not sure he’ll ever really need to know how to enchant a sword to kill a beast of magic, but while he tries out every spell they find that seems to have anything at all to do with the curse over Camelot, nothing works. A few times, he can feel something in the weave of the spell tweak or tug, but whenever he tries to tease at it, it smoothes over again before he can do anything. Even when he encourages Gaius and Morgana to say the words along with him he can’t do anything.
By the time Gwen comes back, Gaius is going through the book for a second time, Morgana is pacing angrily around the room while Gwaine is very obvious about taking pictures of her, and Merlin is sitting massaging at his temples, all the use of magic starting to wear on him. “No luck?” she asks, face falling as she sets the lunch tray down on the table.
“Not yet,” says Lancelot, giving Merlin a smile. “What’s the word out there?”
“Everyone seems to think that the shaking was some sort of sorcerer trying to do something as revenge for being stuck in Camelot forever, I think.” She grimaces. “Sorry. I imagine Arthur is trying to talk the king out of that.”
“Much good it will do,” mutters Morgana. “He’ll be coming to see me this afternoon, I’m sure. You should all get to Gaius’s quarters when you can, and I’ll say it was me. He can’t do much worse to me than he’s already done.” Merlin meets her eyes but she looks away.
Nobody has an answer to that, so they pick listlessly at the tray Gwen brought and the packets of crisps and energy bars and sandwiches Gwaine and Merlin have in their packs (Morgana especially seems delighted by the crisps).
Arthur comes just as they’re finishing the meal, letting himself in without talking to the guards—they must still be off, maybe searching for the sorcerer who caused the earthquake, which makes Merlin feel even more guilty. He nods around, eyebrows raised when Gwaine offers him a granola bar. “No luck, then?”
“There’s got to be something,” Merlin says, trying for comfort as well as he can, even if everyone in the room looks disbelieving at it. “If a spell is made in the first place, there’s got to be a way to undo it, even if it isn’t obvious. It’s sort of one of the rules of things—like Newton’s Laws, for physics.” Of course, that means nothing to anyone but Gwaine, but Merlin forges on in the face of their baffled expressions. “Emrys’s Laws, some people call them, although it’s pretty obvious he didn’t come up with them. But one of them says that every spell or curse can be undone, so there’s got to be a way, even if she didn’t use spells from books or anything to make it in the first place.”
“The question,” Gaius interrupts with the dour look that Merlin is coming to realize must be habitual, “is if we have enough time to figure it out before you have to leave.”
“I’ll do what I can, really I will.”
“And we’ll help you as best we can,” Arthur says firmly. “Gaius, have you got any more books of magic?” Gaius shakes his head and Arthur sighs. “Very well, we’ll just … think of something else. My father is hunting sorcerers again, so we’ve got to be careful. I doubt he’ll look in here, since Morgana is already locked up, so we might as well stay. As far as he’s aware I’m out directing the search, so we have some time.”
Lancelot steps away from the door now that Arthur is back. “What can we do that would help, Merlin? Gaius?”
Merlin racks his brains for a second. “I think it would help to know exactly how she cast the spell. Like, what exactly she said or what objects she used or really … anything.”
Arthur comes to lean against the table. “I think she must have done much of the work beforehand. She appeared in the hall one morning while my father was having audiences and said that the next day all but one in Camelot would wake up the next morning a hundred years in the future, and every morning after that, and that to leave the borders of the spell would mean endless sleep for all of us, and then she threw something on the ground that disappeared, a ball of some sort, and then there was a great deal of mist and she disappeared.”
“All but one?” asks Gwaine.
Morgana is the one who answers that question. “Uther had a dragon—the last of them, as far as we know, chained in the dungeons beneath the castle. He wasn’t there that first morning of the curse.”
There aren’t many dragons these days, not even as many as there are Dragonlords, and they mostly won’t talk about what cut their population in Albion down so drastically when once they were everywhere. Merlin’s willing to bet that the story of Camelot has something to do with it, but he doesn’t have time to indulge his curiosity, not unless it has something to do with breaking the spell, and the dragon getting left behind by it actually makes sense—there are very few curses that will do more than discomfit a dragon. “I just don’t understand why she didn’t kill us all, or at least my father and me, since it’s us she really had the grudge against in the end.”
“She always saw the people of Camelot who did not speak out against their king implicit in his guilt,” says Gaius, shaking his head. “And as for killing us—”
“Balance,” Merlin says, because he knows this one. For all a lot of information about Queen Nimueh I is hearsay and legend, all the sources agree that she was a High Priestess of the Old Religion, and must have known not to kill a whole city outright unless she could replace the loss of life somehow. “It would have thrown everything out of balance, to kill you. She just … took you out of history, instead. The same result but with no blood on her hands.” He thinks over Arthur’s story again. “You said she threw a ball at the ground?”
“That was what it looked like,” says Morgana, and he turns to look at her in surprise. Of course she wasn’t locked up then. “Something real, I think, not just a ball of magic, but it vanished before it hit the floor, or as it hit the floor. Round or close to it, and opaque, but I can’t tell you any more than that.”
“Okay, that … helps.” Or it would help if Merlin had a library of reference books around, but he’ll do what he can. Judging by the looks on everyone else’s faces, though, they don’t have a whole lot of faith in that, but he’s done plenty of things people didn’t think he could, so he’ll try anyway. “I’ll see what I can do with that.”
Arthur nods, though he looks pretty dubious about it, and crosses his arms before looking around at everyone. “We should go about business as normal as much as we can. I would tell my father about Merlin but I don’t trust that he wouldn’t lock him up if he can’t help, so I’d rather save that for a last resort. I’ve got my excuses to be scarce, but Gwen, Gaius, Lancelot, if you had anything you were planning to do today, you ought to do it. The rest of us will stay in here and try to do what we can.”
They all seem quite used to following the prince’s orders, or at least Gwen and Gaius do, and Lancelot seems to go where Gwen does, so after promises to check in as often as they can, they disperse, leaving Merlin with Gwaine, Arthur and Morgana.
“I’m going to try meditating again,” says Merlin after going through all the spells they’ve marked in Gaius’s book a few more times. “I promise I won’t try to shake Camelot apart again, and I’d appreciate not being slapped out of it this time.”
Arthur glares at him, but he doesn’t object when Merlin finds a comfortable spot to lay on the floor. “Do you need me to join you again?”
“You’re in the same room, that should be good enough.” He looks at Morgana, who’s staring blankly out the window either because she’s ignoring Gwaine’s surreptitious attempts to take pictures of her or because she’s still thinking about making a run for it if Merlin fails. “Do you want to help?”
“If there’s a way I can, then let me know, but my magic is too weak to do much without help, still.”
He rests his hands at his sides. “Normally I would try to teach you a few tricks, but time is pressing. I’ll let you know if I need to draw power or something, but otherwise … I suppose it’ll help to have you around, as well.”
Gwaine stops fiddling with the camera long enough to give him a serious look. “You aren’t wearing yourself out too much? You started today at a disadvantage anyway.”
“I can do more than this and still be fit as a fiddle,” says Merlin with his best grin, although too much longer and he’ll start overreaching himself trying to fix a spell that’s probably beyond his level of experience, if not his level of power. He can’t just leave it, though, not when it feels more like a huge knot of wrong the more he prods at it. “Stop fussing,” he adds when Gwaine seems inclined to keep poking at it, and gets a sigh and a nod in return.
Merlin closes his eyes and goes for the breathing pattern his tutors have drummed into him over the years, although usually he cheats and doesn’t bother with the meditation part of doing magic. Someone in the room pulls one of the chairs from Morgana’s table to sit near him—he’s betting on Arthur—and someone else is fidgeting, and then he isn’t paying attention anymore.
He’s near to the center of the spell, or as near as he’ll get without wandering into the throne room and inspecting things there, so he doesn’t try to find an edge to pick at; if Nimueh was as good as it seems she was and the whole spell is rather egg-shaped, as he’s beginning to feel like it is, there won’t be any edges to pick at. Instead, he makes a point of getting to know all the dimensions as well as he can, the exact size and shape of the little bubble of time Camelot is caught in and all its irregularities. It’s not really a circle around, more of a wide oval, and by the time he’s felt the dimensions he’s really wishing Arthur or Morgana had got a closer look at whatever it was Queen Nimueh threw at the ground in their throne room, because he’s willing to bet that it was the same shape as the boundaries of the spell. Not that that does him much good.
This time, Merlin is much more careful when he actually tries to do anything, but it doesn’t seem to make much difference. He tries everything he can think of—first structured spells, everything he tried with Gaius strung and stitched together into magical gibberish and every spell he knows that affects time in any way on top of that, and then raw power again, the way he feels most comfortable in general. He tries breaking the boundary, stretching it, shrinking it, banishing the frame of the spell to the surface of the sun, but it all snaps back even when he can feel his magic working, like he’s missing some terribly obvious trick that would make it go away.
By the time he comes back to himself, gasping, he feels like there isn’t a molecule in Camelot that hasn’t been soaked in his own power as well as Nimueh’s, and he’s sweating and bone-weary as if Gwaine had dragged him hiking from dawn till dusk. It takes a second to figure out whose hand is on his shoulder pressing it back, and he only manages it because he recognizes the warm, bright-sharp energy of Arthur. Sometimes it’s like that for a minute after he’s been deep in magic, like he’s seeing the whole world in its energy and not what it looks like. “—all right?” Arthur finishes when he blinks himself properly back into his body.
“I’m sorry,” he says, lets Arthur and Gwaine lever him till he’s sitting up from either side. “I couldn’t manage it. I don’t know if I can manage it.”
Morgana is standing by the window—still or again, it must be again, the sun’s moved enough to let him know he’s been gone a while—and she’s white-faced when she turns around. “But you must be able to. I saw you come today, you can’t just be a traveler, not with magic like that. You’re supposed to set things to rights.”
“Yeah, well, he’s only human,” Gwaine retorts before Merlin can manage a response, and stands up to square off with her. “He’s good, he’s the best we’ve got these days, but he’s doing the best he can, and you can fuck right off if you think he’s slacking. You okay, Merlin? That was a bit over an hour, you missed Gwen stopping by.”
“I’m fine. Just need a rest before I try again.” Though he has no idea what he’s supposed to try. He’s beginning to run out of ideas and, judging by Morgana’s edgy expression, time. “How long have I got?”
Arthur stands and offers Merlin a hand, pulls him to his feet and catches him when he staggers, legs still unsteady. “Some hours yet. You’ve got time to rest. It doesn’t seem to happen until some hours after sundown—when most of the people except the night guards and servants have gone to bed.”
There might be something in there about the mechanics of the spell, but at the moment all he wants to do is flop right back on the floor and sleep for the rest of the day, so he ignores it. It doesn’t feel like the right track to be on, even if he ought to know everything about the spell before trying to break it. They’re on a time limit, so he’s got to make some shortcuts. “Okay, I’ll have a break, then.”
“Good. It seems to me as if you need one.” Before Merlin can answer that, Arthur walks him over to a chair and sits him in it like he’s five years old and can’t do it himself. Which is actually pretty fair because Merlin’s still feeling a bit slow, the kind of post-sleep feeling without the benefit of actually feeling rested that comes with the situation. “I’m going to check on the search for this mysterious sorcerer and make sure I’m visible for a while. Morgana, do you mind looking after Merlin and Gwaine?”
“It’s fine. It’s good to have some variety of company, I suppose, and Gwen will be by again soon enough.”
“I’ll be back as soon as I can, and try to keep father away from here as well.” Arthur looks around all three of them, wincing when Merlin makes his best attempt at a smile. “Don’t get up to any trouble.”
“As if I could,” says Morgana, and Arthur just nods and claps Merlin on the shoulder once more before he leaves.
An hour later, Gwen’s been in and out again after fluttering worriedly between Morgana and Merlin and going off again to check on Gaius, who is doing research in his chambers and not finding anything helpful by the way Gwen looks disappointed when he asks. When someone starts using a key on the lock, talking to the guards who have taken their places outside again and forced Merlin and Gwaine’s conversation into whispers, Merlin assumes it’s Arthur for a split second before Morgana grabs Gwaine’s arm and pushes him with more strength than Merlin was expecting under the bed. “Stay there,” she hisses, and Merlin’s on his feet looking wildly around for a place to hide when the door opens and the man from the balcony in the morning walks in—Arthur’s father, King Uther, the man who executes sorcerers just for being magic.
From the way his face immediately darkens, it’s obvious what he sees: Morgana, pale-faced and frightened, braced on a bedpost and staring at Merlin, in his odd clothes and just as scared, looking around for something. “Guards!” he shouts.
All Merlin can think is that this can’t be made to be Morgana’s fault, or Gwaine’s or Arthur’s or Gwen’s, so he blurts out the first thing that comes to mind. “I’ve come to break her out and you can’t stop me.”
The guards who come bursting through the door after the king aren’t the same ones from the morning, so they don’t recognize him, just grab him. “How did he get past you?” the king asks as they drag Merlin towards the door and Morgana starts shouting over it all about lies and Merlin being a friend and how dare he.
“Must be a sorcerer, your Majesty,” says one of the guards. “Probably the one that caused the fuss earlier. Look at what he’s wearing, he must be from outside.”
Merlin’s magic may be depleted, but he has faith in his ability to get away if they imprison him or try to kill him. He always works best under the force of panic anyway. And, he realizes as the king stalks up to him and gets in his face, this is a way to make sure they’re keeping an eye on Morgana so even if he keeps failing at helping them she won’t be able to get out of the city and doom it for good. “What is your business here, boy?” the king asks.
“I was sent by an organization entrusted with a task by Queen Nimueh,” he starts, ignoring Morgana’s cut-off shout of “What are you—,” “and was ordered to get the seer out of the palace and doom Camelot.”
It’s all utter shit and wouldn’t stand up to logic, but it doesn’t have to: King Uther’s already in a fury, shouting for the guards to take Merlin to the dungeon, shouting about Nimueh being no queen, shouting for extra security around Morgana’s rooms, and he tries to look apologetic and firm at once in Morgana’s direction, but she isn’t paying attention, just trying to scream to be heard even as Merlin is dragged out of the room, the king walking along behind him.
They don’t take him out to the courtyard for an immediate execution, and he doubts they would have two executions in one day anyway, so he’s got until the end of the curse’s day to get himself free and, if possible, end the curse. Instead, they drag him through the palace and down all the way to a dungeon, where he’s tossed in a cell, bruised and unprepared, and where the king starts interrogating him right away.
Merlin makes up complete rot, the sort that his mother and Gwaine always recognize but nobody else seems to, about instructions meant to be opened after a thousand years and breaking into Morgana’s room during the changing of the guard after causing a minor earthquake for a distraction. Anyone else would point out the inconsistencies, but after a while King Uther loses his temper and storms away after informing Merlin that Morgana will be well-guarded now and he’ll be executed in the morning, after seeing how he likes it to wake up a century in the future.
When he’s gone, Merlin leans against the cell wall and breathes shakily. The bars on his cell are iron, but the stone and wood around them aren’t, so he can smash through to get out if he likes, or even just break the lock and put any guards he sees to sleep. He’s got faith in the others to get Gwaine out of the city safe, so he won’t worry about that, either. He’s still shaky from using too much magic and then the adrenaline, but there’s not much to be done about that. He keeps breathing, lets himself rest. He needs his energy, and he has hours to replenish it before the situation gets urgent.
He drifts, keeps prodding at the curse lightly the same way he can’t help poking at a bruise once he sees it’s there. It doesn’t help, but at least now if he has the chance to talk to any of the friends he’s made before he leaves he’ll be able to say he kept trying.
Arthur turns up after about an hour, by Merlin’s count. He’s got the same expression on as he did on the balcony in the morning, like he’s trying to be blank but is too angry to manage it completely, and he’s got two guards with him. “You’re dismissed,” he tells them without looking.
“Your Highness,” one of them objects, but Arthur cuts him off before he gets further than that.
“Dangerous sorcerer or not, he’s simply a boy, and I am quite certain that my skills are up for the job. Unless you disagree?” Both of the guards mutter and duck their heads, and by some sort of royal magic they’re out of the way—and hopefully out of earshot—within seconds. The second they’re out of sight, Arthur’s shoulders relax, but he doesn’t look any less pissed off, and when he speaks he might as well be growling. “Do you care to explain to me, Merlin, why my father informs me there’s a secret society attempting to kidnap Morgana and doom Camelot? Imagine my surprise when he described the prisoner he apprehended, found in Morgana’s own bedchamber.”
“He just came in, she had time to get Gwaine out of the way but not me, I said the first thing that came to mind that wouldn’t get her in trouble.”
Arthur crosses his arms. “Well, you did one thing right, at least. He’s more worried about a threat to her than a threat she might pose to the kingdom, so perhaps he might let her out of her room eventually.”
Merlin winces. “Um, about that. Maybe keep an eye on her?”
“What do you mean by that?” Merlin tries not to squirm, and Arthur lowers his voice. “Merlin, what is that supposed to mean?”
“Just …” He flounders around for the right way to put it. “She sees things, she told me, and not all the future is going to be great, and she’s afraid of what’s going to happen if Camelot wakes up one morning and the world is … over. So she’s thinking of going out past the border just to prevent that.”
Arthur’s face closes off. “That’s not her decision to make. I don’t want to see our people hurt like that either, but she can’t give up on hope and make a unilateral decision.”
“That’s why I’m telling you. I mean, I can’t blame her, I wouldn’t be feeling great about the world if I were her either, but … she can at least give us one more day, right? Gwaine and I, we won’t let the world forget about you again, he’s collecting evidence so people will believe us and in a hundred years there will be a whole army of sorcerers there to fix it. Even if I can’t do it today, which it looks like I can’t.” He grimaces. “Sorry.”
“A hundred years,” says Arthur, voice low, and slumps against the bars. “More than a thousand, in the end. I wonder what we’ll do if—when the curse is broken. The world has moved on, with your air-planes and your net that isn’t a net and lights that don’t need fire or sorcery. Electricity.” He says the word like he’s tasting it. “It will be difficult.”
Merlin struggles to his feet and goes to stand near Arthur, leaning against the bars on the other side but not quite touching him. “There will be people there to help, though. They’ll expect that. And even if I’m not … I mean, I won’t be there, but there will be plenty of people who’ll do just as well as I would have. Better.”
“Still, I’ll …” Arthur pauses, searching around for the right words, eyes on Merlin. Merlin resists the urge to duck out of the way. “I’ll feel your lack,” Arthur settles on at last, and Merlin could kiss him for the way he trails off at the end, unsure, but, well, that wouldn’t be fair to either of them, not really. Not if Merlin can’t break the spell and there’s no way he’ll live until the next time Camelot comes out of the mists.
“Your Highness,” one of the guards calls down the hall, sounding nervous.
Arthur brushes his hand against Merlin’s before pulling back and straightening, every inch the prince again. “We’re getting Gwaine out of the palace as we speak,” he whispers. “Gwen and Gaius are doing it, the guards trust them. I’ll be back as soon as I can be—don’t try to break out on your own, yet. My father foolishly thinks the dungeons impregnable so it shouldn’t be too difficult, but it will go easier with my help.”
“Okay,” says Merlin, and before he can say anything else, Arthur’s gone.
Merlin keeps trying.
At this point, it’s about as useful as trying to force himself to lift a whole car when he’s too tired to do more than push-ups, but he can’t stop. Camelot, in an odd way, feels like his responsibility now, now that he’s spent so much magic and effort on it, and even more than that, Arthur feels like his responsibility as well. Every time he stops, breathing hard even though magic isn’t physical, he thinks of Arthur’s expression at Merlin’s admission that he probably couldn’t do it and tries again.
Besides, it isn’t like there’s anything to do. Prison, he soon discovers, is boring more than it’s anything else. It would probably be less boring if he actually thought he were going to die, but the way things are, it’s nothing more than a nuisance. If he were out, he might be able to use some of Morgana’s or Gaius’s magic to bolster his own, even though that’s a delicate and dangerous spell in its own right, but as it is he can just watch the scant daylight move across his cell as he waits.
The afternoon moves on, long enough that he starts getting antsy, worried that Arthur is held up and won’t be able to come back for him after all. Judging by the way his stomach is rumbling, it’s dinnertime and past before anyone comes, and then it’s Gwen with a tray and not Arthur, escorting by two guards—who, it turns out when Merlin squints at them, are actually Gwaine and Lancelot. “What are you three doing here?” he hisses, struggling to his feet.
“We’re the rescue squad!” says Gwaine cheerfully, only to get hushed by the other two. He gives an exaggerated roll of the eyes and points to Gwen’s tray. “His Highness’s keys are there, he’s going to meet us outside the city, he says, but he can’t make it down to the dungeon.” He pauses. “Morgana’s a bit pissed off at you, mate.”
Merlin winces. “Yeah, I thought she might be.” Gwen takes the cloth off her tray and fishes the keys out of what looks like a bowl of soup, wiping it off before she puts the right one in the lock, opening the cell and ushering him out. “Is she safe, though?” he asks once he’s out. “I mean, she won’t—”
“She won’t,” says Gwen, mouth trembling. “I didn’t think she was … I knew she didn’t always see good things, but I should have realized what that meant. I don’t know what we’ll do, if she’ll have to be under guard for the rest of Camelot’s days so she doesn’t … and the king doesn’t know, but Arthur told the rest of us, and—”
Lancelot puts a hand on her shoulder. “It’s all right. We’ll find a way.”
“Today’s the last day,” says Merlin, with as much assurance as he can muster, though considering he stumbles with every step and Gwaine has to hold him up, that’s not a lot. “I can’t do it today, but next time you wake up, you’ll be back in time again. I’ll do anything I can to make that a promise.”
Gwen smiles at him a little tearfully. “Thank you, Merlin. I won’t hold you to it—not that I think you can’t, but it’s best not to get our hopes up. But it’s nice knowing you want to try, at least.”
“We can have this discussion outside of the dungeons,” Gwaine interrupts, shifting his grip to Merlin’s shoulder and prodding him along. “As far as anyone knows, mate, you’re our prisoner, so try to look at least a bit terrified, yeah?”
Lancelot comes up on his other side and cups his elbow to move him along. Gwen leads the way, nodding at the guards at the door, who seem to be under the impression that Merlin is on his way for another interrogation at the king’s hands.
Nobody bothers them on their way out of the castle, which is probably due to Gwaine and Lancelot looking very official in their capes and mail (and it’s going to be a bitch talking Gwaine out of taking the chain mail out of Camelot, he’s been playing knight to Merlin’s wizard since they were kids). People look at Merlin sideways and nervous wherever they go, but they make it out of the palace without anyone stopping them and Merlin keeps his eyes on his feet, putting one in front of the other and concentrating on nothing else.
Arthur catches up to them at the city gate and snaps a few meaningless orders at Gwaine and Lancelot that seem to reassure the guards into letting them out. Merlin’s a bit fuzzy by then, worn out from all the magic, more of his weight than he’s like to admit leaning on Gwaine and Lancelot. They barely get out of sight of the guards at the gate before they’re lowering Merlin gently into the grass and Gwen is settling her tray on his lap, letting him eat the food she’s brought along. It helps get him back to himself quicker than rest alone would have, and he tunes back into the conversation in time to hear Gwaine say “I’ve seen him overdo it before, if not quite this bad. It’s normal, I promise. Most sorcerers wear out faster than Merlin.”
“He wasn’t this bad earlier,” says Arthur, worried, and crouches down in front of Merlin. “Were you doing more magic in the dungeon, Merlin?”
He shrugs and talks through a mouthful of bread, feeling even more ravenous now that he’s starting to wake up a bit from the magic. “Of course I was. I said I would keep trying, right?”
“Not if it’s going to kill you,” says Arthur firmly, and steals a piece of what looks like chicken off Merlin’s plate. “Even Morgana admits it was foolish to pin all her hopes on one man, and none of us think less of you for not being able to do it.”
“I should be able to, though, that’s why it’s bothering me. I feel as if I ought to be able to do it, aside from all the Druids and dragons and my professors telling me I’m the most powerful warlock on the record at the moment. The spell just feels like I’m missing something really obvious.”
Lancelot shakes his head. “None of us doubt that you’ll keep doing everything you can, and that we’ll be free soon—tomorrow, even. We’ll always thank you for that. Remember you for it.”
Merlin pauses in his eating to watch Arthur’s reaction to that. He misses his expression because the prince is suddenly busy turning away and doing something busily, but that’s telling enough on its own. “I’m sorry. And tell Morgana I’m sorry as well.”
“You can tell her yourself,” says Gwaine, and Merlin gets vertigo from whipping around to look at him at that. “We’re waiting for her and Gaius. She’s promised not to make a run for it, and his Majesty has decided to be magnanimous and call her visions a curse from Nimueh and not magic of her own for now, which upsets her but at least allows her out of her rooms again.”
“She’ll be under guard, but it’s for her own protection as far as he knows,” Arthur adds. “Right now she’s technically being given an examination for the curse by Gaius, so they’ll be along shortly. I’m meant to be guarding her, so it’s all efficient.”
Gwen bites her lip. “If you’re too tired, we understand, of course, but we just thought … well, she’s got magic too, maybe one more try before you leave.” She nods out towards the borders of the spell, where there’s just starting to be a bit of mist on the ground. “People have been watching over the last week, once we realized the curse was true and serious, and when the mist starts up, that means we’ve just got a few hours left. It’ll start getting dark soon, so you and Gwaine should go, but …”
“One more try can’t hurt,” Merlin finishes for her, and as if that’s a cue, Gaius arrives with a figure wrapped in a cloak from somewhere that isn’t the castle gates.
“We went out one of the hidden gates,” Morgana says, putting her hood down, and gives Merlin a hard look. “I won’t thank you for telling them what I meant to do.”
He straightens up as best he can and hopes he doesn’t have any food on his face. “I wouldn’t expect you to. I had to say something, though.”
“I suppose you did.” She raises her chin and looks around as if daring the rest of them to say anything, though Merlin is willing to bet Arthur at least had words with her after Merlin talked to him. “Well, let’s not stand here making apologies. Gaius and I are going to try to lend you what magic we can, Merlin, for another try.”
Merlin brushes his hands off on his jeans and holds them out. “It’ll probably be easier if we’re touching.”
Gwaine touches his shoulder. “Are you sure you’re okay to do this? Even with them along, you’re pretty much at your limit.”
“One more try won’t kill me.” Morgana kneels on one side of him and Gwen helps Gaius down on his other, and they all grab hands. “Okay, you two, I’m just going to … do what I can, and pull you along with me. Just let me go if it’s too much.”
He keeps his eyes open just long enough to make sure they both nod before he falls into the magic again, back into the weave of the spell that he can’t manage to unpick. This time, Morgana and Gaius are there with him—Gaius steady, not very powerful but with knowledge enough to point him at possible weak spots, and Morgana more powerful than he’d thought but all twisted up and veiled, not come into her full power yet. He teases that out as much as he can while keeping his concentration on the task at hand, and the energy flows a little easier after that.
After a few minutes, he feels something almost, almost give, just under the sheer weight of their combined will, but then he’s being pulled backwards, someone’s hands on his shoulders, and he loses contact with Morgana and Gaius and slams back to himself. It’s Arthur again, hovering over him white-faced while Gwen fusses over Morgana and Lancelot helps Gaius sit up. “I don’t know what you did, but you’ve got to go,” says Arthur, and Merlin twists just far enough to see the mist rising, faster than it ought to.
“Shit, it must be some sort of protective measure,” he says, struggling to his feet and blasting magic at it, not trying to break the spell, just trying to delay it. “We should have hours still, shit!”
“I don’t care, you’ve got to go, you and Gwaine can’t do a thing if you’re trapped here with us. And besides, listen.” Merlin stops and does, hears some strange noise coming from the citadel. “That’s the warning bells, they know you’ve gone, you’ve got to go.” Gwaine’s got their packs, he’s still in the chainmail but there isn’t time to change now, so Merlin looks a little wildly around the group. Morgana’s pale and still like some sort of ice statue, still sitting on the ground with Gwen hovering over her and with Lancelot hovering over Gwen. Gaius’s head is bowed.
“I’m so sorry,” he says helplessly, because there isn’t anything else to say. “I’ll … tomorrow, okay? I’ll make it my life’s work if I have to, but tomorrow, there will be so many people waiting for you.”
Gwaine’s walking around giving hugs and slaps on the back to everyone, only pausing in front of Morgana to give her an awkward nod that she barely unfreezes enough to return, and that would be something to think about, wouldn’t it, if only they had more time. Merlin’s wobbly, overtaxed, but he finds it in him to clasp Gwen’s hand, thank Gaius and Lancelot, whisper one last apology to Morgana, and then he’s in front of Arthur again and neither of them has a thing to say. “Don’t—live well, Merlin,” Arthur settles on at last, voice choked though Merlin doubts he would ever admit it, and Merlin … all Merlin’s got by way of goodbye that could begin to encompass everything he wants to say is a quick, hard kiss that just catches the corner of Arthur’s mouth.
Arthur turns into it for one breathless second and then pushes Merlin gently away, just gently enough to keep him on his feet. “I promise,” Merlin whispers, and the mist is getting higher at the border, almost shoulder height and he doesn’t know when it gets impassable so he lets Gwaine drag him to the border and across it, looking back the whole way.
He makes one last try, when they’re on the other side, blasting whatever reserves of power he’s got left at the mist, and there’s something there, something easier than there was before, but half his concentration is on Arthur on the other side, disappearing into the mist and saying something that Merlin can’t hear through the ringing in his head and he runs out of power just as the group on the other side of the barrier disappears into the mist. Gwaine forces his hand down when he would keep trying and they both stand there breathing, nothing to do but breathe, in the twilight forest that looks just as thick as normal all around them all of a sudden, just wreathed in mist.
“Come on,” Gwaine says softly, no hint of a tease, which is a sign of just how bad Merlin must look. “We should go to our campsite and then right to a ranger station, we’ve got a long walk ahead of us.”
Merlin will never know how he makes it all the way to the ranger station after the day he’s had, but he knows he and Gwaine manage to break down their campsite and walk the mile to the nearest station. He barely remembers it, and doesn’t remember any of the explanations that follow, because he faints at the ranger station door and wakes three days later in hospital to the news that he’s famous and his mother’s sad smile when he asks about Camelot.
“Would you go back, if you could?” Merlin asks Gwaine the day after their university graduation. It’s the question he thinks is always in the air between them, though neither of them dares ask it. They don’t talk about Camelot much at all when it’s just the two of them, really, since they had to talk about it in public so much those first few months when it seemed half the sorcerers in the world were trooping through Camelot’s woods and since Merlin did his whole thesis project on it.
“For what?” Gwaine asks, which is a fair enough question. “I’d be glad if they rejoined history tomorrow, but I wouldn’t give up my life to go back, not from what I saw of it.”
Merlin fingers at the rim of his pint glass, which he’s been nursing for half an hour while he and Gwaine talk about nothing at all. “I don’t know … I thought, maybe, you and Morgana.”
Gwaine shrugs. “Maybe, if there’d been more time. But I’m betting this is less about her Ladyship and me, and more about you and Arthur.”
“I dream about him, sometimes,” Merlin admits. Gwaine raises his eyebrows and grins. “Not like that, you complete arse. Or, not really. They’re not … normal dreams.” This is something not even his professors or the team of sorcerers working on the Camelot problem know about, because he knows how it sounds and it sounds like wishful thinking. “I think I’m actually sharing them with Arthur. We talk about things that are going on out here—he thinks it’s really funny that people keep using your shots of Morgana in adverts, things like that. And I mean, it’s not completely impossible, right?”
“If it were anyone else it would be.” Gwaine knocks back the rest of his drink. “But you’re Merlin, currently being hailed as the second coming of Emrys.” Merlin groans and buries his face in his hands. “Seriously, though. You really think it’s him?”
After a second, Merlin nods into his hands. “And it’s … it’s really stupid, I know that, okay? But I sort of feel like if I’m dreaming about him, there’s got to be some sort of reason for that. Like, maybe there’s still something I can do. I mean, people keep patting me on the head, way to go, Merlin, do some research for us, we’ll get right on that in a century, but what if I can do something now?”
Gwaine groans. “I really wish I could pretend that doesn’t make some sort of twisted Merlin-sense.” Offended, Merlin looks up, but Gwaine is grinning. “Do you want to take a field trip? It’s not that long a drive to the woods, and I know you haven’t been back since that first month when everyone wanted pictures with us.”
“Consider it your chance to figure it out one way or the other. We’ll go to the Dragon Caves, won’t even stay a night, just let you have your chance, do your mystical communication thing with Arthur, and then either it works or it doesn’t.”
Merlin eyes him. “What’s in it for you?”
“Eternal glory? The potential for you to stop mooning over his Hotness?” When Merlin just keeps looking at him, Gwaine sobers. “I know you. You’ll keep worrying at it, maybe for the next fifty years, but you’ll keep telling yourself it’s a stupid idea and won’t do it and then when you do try you’ll be geriatric and won’t be able to fuck your royal boy toy.”
“Thank you for that, that was an image I needed.” Merlin thinks of his academic advisor gently encouraging him to get on a project besides Camelot for his graduate work with the pitying expression that means she’s probably got some idea of what he doesn’t say to the papers. This could be closure, in a way—one last chance before he tells himself it’s a stupid obsession. “Okay, yeah, let’s do it.” Gwaine blinks at him. “Field trip.”
For a second, Merlin thinks he’ll say he was joking after all, but then Gwaine grins. “That’s my boy. You’ve never given up on a thing in your life, Merlin. May as well not now.”
It’s as easy as that. Within an hour, they’ve got on hiking clothes and have grabbed the equipment they need, which they haven’t used since last summer. Gwaine drives to the forest as night falls, telling him he’ll need his energy, and Merlin casts an invisibility spell on them when they sneak away past the rangers’ station, makes sure they’re home free before he takes it off and takes out his torch.
The Dragon Caves aren’t too far from the station Gwaine parked them at, but it is dark, so it takes an hour of stumbling through trails to get there. All the sorcerers and archaeologists are gone for the night, which is good, as he would have a hell of a time explaining what he’s trying to do when all they’re really doing at the moment is trying to figure out the exact dimensions of things, double-checking even when he drew it like a big golden grid all over the forest.
“What do we do?” says Gwaine once they’ve ducked past the tape that tells them to keep out.
“Um, let me think.” Merlin feels out with his magic. When Camelot was there, there was definitely a feeling of something meant to be there but out of place nonetheless, and he looks for the feeling again. “It’s not like it can just disappear!” he says after a few seconds, frustrated. “It’s not the way things work, you can’t just suspend the existence of something for a century, all that life, all that matter’s got to have at least some token, some sign.”
“But you don’t feel it?”
“I feel like I should. Like there’s something really obvious just jumping up and down screaming ‘look at me!’ that I missed entirely like I did that day.”
Gwaine pauses, and Merlin does the same, going over the story he’s told so many times that he can gloss over certain parts and feel as if he’s still told them as closely as he can. It’s Gwaine who speaks first. “It’s something to do with the ball,” he says, sounding suddenly sure. “It’s got to be, right? The one Arthur and Morgana talked about, that she threw down.”
It’s one of the more baffling parts of the story, one of the ones that the experienced sorcerers Merlin talks to mostly dismiss as irrelevant, some sort of symbolic gesture that made the spell solid or sketched the boundaries of it out or something. “It … could be,” he allows. “What do you mean?”
“I mean, the token, like you said. Maybe when Camelot’s here, it’s not, and when it is, Camelot’s not.”
That … makes a disturbing amount of sense, actually, the kind of thing that he really should have noticed before, that someone should have noticed before, but, well, people don’t really do that kind of magic. If they’re going to make something disappear, they make it invisible, or shrink it or something. They don’t take whole cities and somehow stick them inside rocks. “Even if that’s true, how are we supposed to find the right rock? We’re at a cave.”
Gwaine rolls his eyes and wiggles his fingers about in the universal layman’s sign for magic. “Do your thing, feel for something bewitched. That much magic should turn up, right?”
“Right,” he says dubiously, but he tries again, looks for something with that same eerie feeling that Camelot did that morning, the right and not-quite-right at the same time, casts down into the rocks and caves below them because it would make sense that when a city disappeared it would fall into the chasm below.
What he runs into, much to his surprise, is the unquestionable feeling of his own magic calling out to him, compressed and packed into a somewhat ovoid rock and fighting for dominance with—Nimueh’s magic, the same magic he felt that day. It is a rock, it’s solid, he can tell that much from where he is, but it’s Camelot as well, because there’s nothing else he’s drenched with that much power, until there wasn’t an atom inside it that hadn’t been brushed with his magic.
“Gwaine, I think I found it,” he says. “Just … hold on a second.”
“All the time you need,” says Gwaine, on a laugh that sounds too happy to be disbelieving.
Merlin’s rubbish at summoning objects—he can make them float easily but if he can’t see them he tends to bring the wrong thing—but this isn’t the same thing at all, this is just calling his own magic back to him. It lands in his hands, solid and heavy, under a minute later, and he just holds it for a second, everything laying itself out in front of him perfectly. “I couldn’t have broken the spell that day no matter what,” he says slowly.
“I couldn’t have … it’s got to be while Camelot is gone, that’s the trick, that’s what I was missing. She knew nobody would ever find one stupid rock among many, magic in it or not, her magic is from the earth so it blends in. But she didn’t count on someone finding the city and marking it with magic so the rock was marked too and then coming back to find it.” He spins around to look at Gwaine, knows the smile is splitting his face. “We can do it, I’ve just got to break the rock!”
Gwaine grins, wide and free, and pulls his camera out of his pocket, sets it to record, which is the only sign of go-ahead Merlin gets. He sets the rock carefully on the ground and then uses the spell that he’s been forbidden to use since he and Gwaine had a bit too much fun with fireworks when they were twelve and blows it up. The whole forest seems to shake and Merlin staggers towards a tree to protect him against the sudden vertigo and the feeling of his own power coming back to him, brimming up and spilling over.
His hands find stone instead of wood, and his eyes fly open, and he’s in Camelot again, in what must be the throne room. Gwaine is standing wide-eyed, camera still running, but then he starts to laugh like he can’t help it. “I can’t believe that worked!”
“That worked,” says Merlin, and feels out again. Nimueh’s magic is dispersing out into the air, and there’s no boundary that he can feel anywhere. Camelot’s back in time again. “I’ve got to …” He looks around. It’s still night, no one around. “I’ve got to find Arthur, I’ve got to wake Arthur, you just … keep filming. Or find Gaius, that would be good.”
Gwaine keeps laughing. “Go on, go on, I can take care of myself! Don’t know what kind of mobile reception you get here, but call me if you need me.”
Merlin’s barely paying attention, already running for the door and then getting lost in the corridors three times before he finds one that leads him towards Arthur’s chambers, the ones he was dragged to that morning when Arthur caught him. He doesn’t meet anyone along his way, but he wasn’t really expecting to.
Arthur’s chamber door is locked, but Merlin just brought back an entire fucking city, a lock is nothing. He opens it without bothering to use a spell and tiptoes in, dropping his rucksack as he goes. Arthur’s snoring, shifting in his sleep, shirtless under his covers with the moon shining down, and Merlin goes to kneel next to his bed. “Wake up,” he whispers, grabbing out for Arthur’s hand, which he decides he’ll assume he can do until Arthur tells him otherwise. “Come on, lazy, I spend a whole year trying to break your damn curse and you won’t even look at me?”
Arthur mumbles in his sleep, and Merlin shakes him gently. “Not morning,” he manages to make out in the next series of mumbles.
“I know it’s not, come on, get up, we probably don’t have long before people start figuring out something’s up.” That gets Arthur to open his eyes, even if they’re just slitted open, and Merlin gives him an encouraging smile. “There we are.”
“Merlin?” Arthur mumbles.
“Yes, that’s me.”
That does it. Arthur goes from three-quarters asleep to wide awake in a second, sitting bolt upright in bed and staring down at Merlin. Merlin can’t quite help staring himself. “Merlin, what did you do? If you’ve stuck yourself in this curse with me, so help me, I’ll—”
“No, no, really no, it’s okay, I … fixed it.” He gestures out the window. “Look, no mist. It’s been a year for me, and it took me a while, I’m sorry, but I figured it out. You’re back.”
Arthur stares. “I was just dreaming about you, you were talking about … about people preparing for—”
“Oh, so I was dreaming with you, tell that to Gwaine later, would you? I think he sort of thought I was going crazy. But anyway, there are going to be a lot of sorcerers and archaeologists here in the morning and I imagine you’ll have quite a lot to do, but I wanted to see you first and say—”
“Come here.” Merlin shuts his mouth and blinks at him because that sounded rather stern. “Merlin, come here, I’m not going to hurt you.” There’s no reason not to, and Merlin’s still too giddy to care much what’s going on, so he stands up and goes the extra foot to the edge of Arthur’s bed with an indulgent smile.
Arthur grabs for him, pulls him in and kisses him without any warning. “Thank you,” he whispers against Merlin’s lips, and Merlin kisses him this time, too frantic to be slow about it. Within a minute, Arthur’s pulled him until they’re both tumbled onto the bed, smiling too much to kiss properly but trying anyway.
Gwaine’s probably found trouble by now, and probably someone on the outside had alarms set up at the site that are going off and bringing people to figure out what happened, but as far as Merlin’s concerned that can wait for a while. He’s been waiting a year, and there will be time enough for everything else later.
[…] His Royal Highness Arthur Pendragon is one of the residents of the former “Lost City” who has chosen to rejoin the modern world, and we caught up with he and Merlin Emerson, his fiancé and the man who broke the curse, in their flat in Mercia City.
Two years after Prince Arthur was brought forward from another time, you would hardly be able to tell that he isn’t any other university student—he answered the door in jeans and a t-shirt and the flat was smaller than one would assume for a royal. He invited me to sit on his couch while Emerson made tea for us and sat down to talk about his studies (he’s on track for a degree in politics with honors), his friends inside Camelot and out of it, and his relationship with Emerson, which got much press commentary after a photographer caught them the morning the curse was broken.
“My father is happy to run Camelot the way he always did, with some obvious differences, such as the repeal of the ban on magic after political pressures in that area, but many of us certainly see the value of living in the modern world. Lady Morgana, for instance, is at school for magic—Merlin [Emerson] is one of her TAs, actually, we all thought that was quite funny. Gwen, another dear friend of mine, and her husband Lancelot [who has his own article in this issue, ‘The Man Who Joined the Curse For Love,’ pg. 48], live in the city as well, they’re getting help to start a coffee shop.”
Emerson laughs at this. “Medieval-themed, though thankfully the coffee is modern. It’s quite good, Gwen’s been trying her coffee out on me for ages.”
“And Gwaine—you’ll have heard of him, he never lived in Camelot but he’s a friend, he’s working on the film crew for the documentary about the whole thing at the moment, since it’s his footage that got there first,” Prince Arthur adds.
When asked what he thinks of the changes in Camelot since the curse broke, Prince Arthur smiles. “Well, I can’t say I’ll ever like McDonald’s, for all they’re enterprising, but I do think life there has been made much easier by the installation of electricity, which is still ongoing, as well as some other modern amenities I now can’t imagine living without.”
“Like chocolate bars,” Emerson contributes.
Talk turns serious when I ask about their relationship. “I don’t know what I would do without Merlin,” says Prince Arthur. “I can’t say it’s been easy, with my father and occasionally with the modern public, but it would have been even worse acclimating to the twenty-first century without him. I’ll never be able to say how glad I am that he didn’t give up on us and let another century pass.”
“As if I could have,” Emerson says, without paying attention to me, and then turns back to the conversation. “I knew there was something, the day I spent with him the first time, but … well, a year of waiting, I knew what I wanted by then, and I’m only glad that he seemed to feel the same, I’d have been miserable if he’d said no.”
“As if I could have,” Arthur parrots, and I take a sip of my tea while they exchange smiles.
When asked about their plans for the future, both men smile, but it’s Emerson who answers. “Well, there’s still the whole ‘uniting Albion’ thing to go, isn’t there? If you read the prophecies, and all. We don’t want to depose any kings or queens, that’s for certain, but … well, there’s more than one way of going about things, in the end.”
I, at least, will certainly look forward to seeing what the future brings.
~Excerpts from “The Prince and his Sorcerer,” from the Camelot: Two Years Later special edition of TIME magazine