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Falls the Shadow

Chapter Text

 

 

 

Between the idea

And the reality

Between the motion

And the act

Falls the Shadow

T.S. Eliot

 

 

The old man’s eyes.

Were not old mans’ eyes.

“You’ve killed him!”

“No.” 

 

When Merlin heard Arthur talk to Gwaine and Leon about pursuing Julius Borden to ensure the destruction of the dragon’s egg in the Tower of Ashkanar, he’d wondered if this time he’d be going with them. For the past few excursions, he’d been left at the castle and while he’d been quietly upset at the exclusion he hadn’t worried too much. The outings had been short and Merlin had simply added a few extra spells of protection to Arthur’s armour and left it at that, trying not to dwell overmuch on the reasons he never seemed to be needed lately. If Arthur didn’t want him this time, then Merlin would have to make his own way to save the egg from both Borden and the king.

Merlin sighed as he considered his worsening relationship with Arthur. Arthur had been silent in his company recently and at first, once he finally took note of it, Merlin had merely assumed there was something troubling him and Merlin would inevitably find out about it when Arthur was ready to talk. As days slipped into weeks and Arthur’s attitude didn’t improve, Merlin became increasingly concerned. Initially, all his enquiries were met with vague comments, which eventually became a vicious order to mind his place. Since then, Merlin had been careful in what he said and resorted to sticking to those conversations relating to his duties for Arthur. The change in their relationship made Merlin uneasy but for the moment he’d no way of addressing it. 

When Arthur turned to him and demanded he get ready to accompany the expedition he felt too pleased to be bothered by Arthur’s off-hand and clipped instructions. Arthur simply ordered Merlin to ready supplies and to try not to be useless. Merlin had responded by bustling about drawing together everything they might need and tried not to appear too elated at the mere fact he’d been included. He spent some time considering the weather and whether he should take extra blankets and ended up trotting rapidly down to the stables when he heard the unmistakeable sounds of horses and men preparing to leave. He was slightly taken aback when he got there and realised they hadn’t saddled his usual horse. Merlin loved her and quietly believed Arthur had picked the mare especially for him because of her placid but willing nature, which had always convinced him that she took special care of him.

Puzzled, he turned to the stable boy. “Where’s Daisy?”

The stable boy rolled his eyes at Merlin. Daisy actually possessed some ridiculous name Merlin had difficulty pronouncing, so he’d called her Daisy and ignored Arthur’s teasing, claiming Daisy liked her name.

“King Arthur had her sent to the stallion.”

Merlin was surprised at the depth of his disappointment, and an uneasy chill travelled down his spine. When he turned to look, he could see Arthur standing by his own stallion and was staring at him almost as if he’d never seen him before.

“Get on a horse – the knights are ready to ride and they shouldn’t be kept waiting by the likes of you.”

“No need to be rude,” Merlin said, shocked beyond words when Arthur took one stride forward, drew his arm back and smacked the side of Merlin’s head hard. Merlin stumbled and would have demanded what Arthur thought he was doing until he caught sight of his expression and any thought of rebellion withered and died within him.

Instead, his face searing with mortified heat and his head reeling from the blow, he attached his pack and took the reins of the horse. He mounted as quickly as his spinning head would allow, sitting uneasily on the unknown quantity of horseflesh he’d been offered. As they left the courtyard, he managed a brief survey of the knights’ faces. Leon and Percival looked sympathetic, Elyan confused and Gwaine – Gwaine who was supposed to be Merlin’s friend, not Arthur’s – rode ahead at Arthur’s side and hadn’t spared Merlin a glance. He wondered uncharitably whether Gwaine’s noble blood had finally asserted itself now he had become a knight of Camelot, and immediately felt ashamed at the thought.

A knot formed in Merlin’s stomach, feeling acutely abandoned and hard done by. He continued to sulk until he realised Arthur seemed not to have noticed and the others were following their king’s lead and leaving him on his own. At which point his sulking became real hurt and confusion, not understanding what he’d done to be treated like this. The easy camaraderie he’d known was still readily apparent in the way Arthur and the knights interacted, but for the first time Merlin was rarely included in it, and never by Arthur.

They rode throughout the day as they followed the trail, and Merlin could almost see the murky aura of Borden in the air as they travelled. The weather stayed fine and dry, the ground firm beneath them and they could travel swiftly. They stopped occasionally to rest and water the horses and to eat standing holding the reins. Merlin kept busy looking after the horses while the knights disappeared into the trees to take care of their own business, and he only just managed to grab a piece of bread and a couple of handfuls of dried fruit before they were on the move again.

He sighed in relief when they stopped for the evening, expecting the knights to help in setting up the camp. One of the benefits of common men becoming knights had been the way they didn’t expect to be waited on hand and foot, and usually tasks were divided between them enabling Merlin to get on with the cooking. Arthur had picked a wooded glade close to a stream and, as it looked dry underfoot, it promised to be a comfortable camp. Merlin smiled at Arthur in satisfaction, his smile fading when Arthur didn’t react.

True to form, Percival turned to offer help but paused when Arthur stopped him.

“Come and have some wine, Sir Percival. You have to learn to let the servants work for their keep, you know. That’s why we brought him after all. He doesn’t have much else to recommend him.” He said it with a laugh, but the humour for Percival, not Merlin, who found himself fixed with a cool eye and an offhand. “Try not to take all night.”

Merlin offered a clearly hesitating Percival a weak smile and turned away to find firewood, making a list of the tasks he’d have to do and in what order. Somehow, he knew he couldn’t afford to make any mistakes. Getting a fire going, the food cooking and the horses tended to were the first priorities and he set to work, trying to ignore the laughter of men he’d thought were friends, blocking out the chatter as they passed the wineskin around. Once he’d completed his initial list of tasks and the stew beginning to bubble, he set to gathering wood enough to last the fire for the rest of the night.

Merlin almost stumbled as he came back to the campsite and dropped the fuel onto the pile he’d been amassing. As he looked at it to judge whether he needed more he rubbed his head, the dull ache from Arthur’s blow making him feel dizzy and sick. The knights had already served themselves from the pot and were looking for another helping. The teasing, when they pretended to have finished it all, almost proved the last straw but he managed to laugh along with them, determined not to give Arthur the opportunity to cast any further comments in his direction. He could hardly believe how grateful he felt when a still steaming bowl of food appeared and he could fill his empty stomach. Once he’d finished, he looked across the campfire and almost brought everything back up. Arthur’s frown left Merlin with the conviction there wasn’t supposed to be any food left for Merlin at all.

Finally, when he found himself banished from the warmth of the fire and had to sleep outside the ring of protection the knights offered, he let slip the smile and don’t care attitude and, under the cover of his blanket, worked hard to hold back tears of exhaustion and unhappiness. Eventually, head, eyes and heart sore, he slept.

  

Merlin came back to consciousness slowly, not wanting to leave the dream with Arthur running a hand through his hair as if to check where his blow had landed the day before. He sighed, and then stirred as the dream ended. Abruptly, a boot nudged him and he heard Arthur’s voice, cold and hard.

“Get your lazy arse up and ready the horses.”

Merlin’s day turned out every bit as bad as the one before. The knights seemed less willing to talk to Merlin, picking up on Arthur’s mood and even their occasional teasing seemed to pick up a meaner edge. Merlin bit his lip, tried to laugh it all off and steadfastly ignored the growing knot of misery. If it hadn’t been for the need to save the dragon’s egg, he would have turned around and headed back to Camelot – on foot if his blasted horse wouldn’t oblige.

When they stopped for the night there was no teasing, and once again Merlin, tired and dispirited, worked his way through the chores. This time at least there was some stew left for him, and he managed a smile as he bent to the pot. His pleasure lasted only as long as it took for him to discover a poultice in the midst of the meat. Staring round at Arthur and the knights, he could already see the effects and knew if he didn’t act quickly they could die. He didn’t know how Borden had managed to get close enough to put poison into their food, but somehow he’d deposited something strong enough to kill. Desperation lent Merlin’s magic an extra edge and he crafted and worked a frantic spell to save them. Only once he knew the poison had been expelled and they slept naturally, did he head out after Julius Borden. Something in him tolled like a bell and he knew with a certainty he couldn’t explain that he was close and he had to get there before Borden or Arthur.

  

In a way, Borden had done him a favour. Merlin knew the knights and Arthur would sleep at least until the morning, which gave him enough time to find the egg and hide it. The traps set were ridiculously easy to evade with his magic, which led him to wonder whether it could have been a deliberate ploy of the long-dead Ashkanar to ensure no common thief would survive an attempt to steal the egg.

When he saw the dragon’s egg sitting on its plinth, shining white with the blue at its base, a fierce protectiveness took root deep in him and the presence of Borden with his clumsy attempts to win Merlin over seemed pitiful.

“I’m a sorcerer,” he said, and enjoyed the way Borden’s face paled. “This egg and the life it contains are magic and no concern of yours.” Then he let his magic free, channelled grief and hurt into it, and Borden slammed backwards until he met unforgiving stone and fell to the floor. Merlin didn’t know whether he’d killed him or not. He didn’t really care. Instead, he lifted the egg carefully, wondering at the sheer joy washing over him. The building rumbled and groaned and the floor heaved, banishing elation and leaving fear in its wake. Instincts kicked in and, holding the precious egg close to him, he ran for both their lives.

Merlin struggled with the adrenalin still surging through him when he made it back to the camp. The knowledge Julius Borden hadn’t made it out of the tower and Merlin had left him there had his stomach clenching and he’d needed to swallow hard to try and keep down his meagre breakfast. He hadn’t had much time to compose himself before he faced Arthur again and he endured a number of frowns from Arthur when he thought Merlin wasn’t watching. Merlin wondered about the fleeting looks, almost afraid Arthur had some idea what had happened and would stop and insist on searching the baggage. Merlin shivered at the thought of what Arthur might do if he found the egg and stayed quiet, keeping to the back of the group and trying to be as unobtrusive as possible. For the very first time since he’d met Arthur, he really felt like a servant.

Only the thought of saving the egg from destruction kept him going. Once he could find somewhere safe to keep it, he’d try to talk to Arthur and make another attempt to find out what he’d done wrong. 

  

Making a decision to talk to Arthur was easy. Finding a time when they were both alone, as well as a way to broach the subject without triggering Arthur’s temper, turned out to be another matter entirely. Merlin tried on several occasions, only for Arthur to cut him off or order him from his presence. Eventually, Merlin landed on the idea of reverting to the way he’d usually reacted to Arthur. Maybe Arthur would slip back into those familiar behaviours too, and whatever had been bothering him would fade into the past.

With that heartening thought, he made his way to Arthur’s chambers, entering without knocking and ignoring the heavy frown of disapproval as he knelt at the fire.

“Where’s my blue doublet?” Arthur’s tone held an edge Merlin had learned to dread. His good idea suddenly felt almost dangerous, but in the absence of anything better, he decided to plough ahead.

“What do you need it for?” Merlin continued to tend the fire, as he would have done in the past and concentrated so much on it he didn’t notice the extended silence at first, not until it became a still, heavy, almost tangible presence. By the time Merlin turned his head to face Arthur, he could feel the hair on the back of his neck rising.

Arthur waited until he had Merlin’s full attention.

“Since when have I been required to explain anything to my manservant.” Arthur’s eyes held no warmth at all and his voice was ice. “Where’s my blue doublet?”

Merlin reached for a teasing reply, for some way to bring them back to their usual easy back and forth but even with his earlier resolution still fresh in his mind, nothing came to mind. He felt almost overwhelmed as he finally acknowledged how many weeks it had been since Arthur had spoken to him with anything approaching friendliness. The realisation brought with it an overwhelming wave of sadness and he looked down at the grate to hide his burning eyes.

“It’s in the wardrobe.”

The same tense silence permeated the air until Merlin pulled himself to his feet, dusted his hands off on his breeches and fetched the garment. About to hand it directly to Arthur, something in Arthur’s eyes stopped him and instead he laid it carefully on the bed and helped Arthur to change without further comment. He hesitated as Arthur flinched at his touch and when he’d finished he stood quietly and waited with a certain amount of dread for Arthur to speak, hardly able to breathe for the grief choking him.

“I’ll be going hunting this morning and I’ll return in three days. The steward has a list of chores for you. I want my chambers clean and tidy before my return.”

“I’m not going with you?” What if something happened? What if Arthur was attacked? How could Merlin protect him if he wasn’t even there? Short trips with Merlin still close at hand were almost bearable, but even if Merlin knew something had gone wrong, there’d be no time to reach Arthur.

“No,” Arthur strode to the door without further explanation. Once there, he paused. “Sir Agravaine has all authority while I’m away. You’ll obey him as you would me.” Cold eyes raked Merlin. “I’ve allowed you a certain amount of leeway in the past. But take warning. Do not forget my rank.”

“I… I’m sorry, sire.”

Without another word or gesture Arthur left the room and Merlin remained staring at the wood, his eyes wide and uncertain.

What have I done, he wondered, to make him hate me? The one thing to spring instantly to mind was obvious, but he was convinced if Arthur knew he had magic, something would have been said already. The thought of what else it could be occupied his thoughts and kept him awake the nights Arthur was gone.

He was so terribly afraid of the answer.

  

 Only now with Arthur absent and their friendship apparently a thing of the past did Merlin understand how protected he’d been. Everyone seemed to know he’d lost favour and reacted accordingly; other servants were offhand or avoided him as if afraid of being noticed as one of his friends. Even Gwen would hesitate before she spoke to him, glancing around as if to check Arthur wasn’t close by and Merlin took to avoiding her as much as possible. His jealousy over her closeness with Arthur seethed within him, too, even though he hated himself for it. Some of the knights – in particular those who’d been Uther’s men - began to take delight in ordering him around and complaining about everything he did. Even after Arthur returned it didn’t stop and in some ways was worse, because Arthur didn’t seem to notice the rising tide of petty irritations that were becoming a part of Merlin’s every day. 

It started with verbal abuse, and escalated to an occasional shove and slap to the back of the head when it became clear Arthur didn’t seem interested or about to stop it. Only if Percival or Leon were around did the treatment cease. Leon would intervene and send Merlin off on another errand. Percival would scowl at the knights and glance nervously at Arthur but, even if he seemed concerned at what the King might think, he always manage to insinuate his bulk between Merlin and whoever was tormenting him, allowing Merlin to make his escape. Merlin felt unspeakably grateful for their support even in the face of Arthur’s disapproval, but mourned at the lack of a similar response from Elyan, and especially Gwaine. Occasionally, he caught Gwaine looking at him and could see guilt and concern, but his one time friend stayed away from him and actively avoided any time when they might be alone.

At the moment Merek and his sidekick Ulric were taking the lead, hooting and laughing as they shoved Merlin back and forth between them. Grimly, Merlin attempted to twist away, knowing he couldn’t afford to give them any leeway or excuse to accuse him of anything. Desperate and dizzy, he glanced around for either Leon or Percival. Elyan, while he didn’t take part in the teasing, had never made an attempt to help him, to Merlin’s dismay. All he could see was Arthur, but with a queasiness that couldn’t only be put down to the maltreatment, he didn’t expect any help from that quarter.

Arthur stopped it, though, striding up. “If you’ve quite finished with your fun, training is about to start, gentlemen.”

With a final push, in full view of Arthur, Merek sent Merlin stumbling away and Merek laughed aloud as he and Ulric offered Arthur a sketchy salute and sauntered off towards the training field. Merlin couldn’t name the expression on Arthur’s face as he frowned after them, but then Arthur turned back and his mouth settled into the thin line Merlin had come to hate.

“I assume you’ve got work to do. Stop loitering and get to it.”

Merlin didn’t wait for anything further, he turned on his heel and darted off, letting the cool morning air take the colour from his cheeks as he ran. The steps up to Gaius’ chambers stopped his headlong flight and he leaned against the wall half way up, panting and pressing his hand to his gut. One of the many aspects of Arthur’s disfavour meant that Arthur had someone else take him his meals. In the past there had always been plenty left for Merlin, and at one stage, Arthur had even taken to dumping food on another plate for Merlin. Now, there was never enough, and less time to eat even when he got the chance. Arthur’s lack of thought and the change in his behaviour towards Merlin was felt so much more keenly on the top of an empty stomach and bones weary from work and tension. Not that he found it easy to eat anyway, as misery kept his stomach in a state of constant knots.

Merlin rubbed angrily at his eyes and walked slowly up the remaining stairs, pushing against the door and entering, immediately soothed by the smells of herbs that permeated the room and the sight of Gaius pottering around the space. The familiarity was comforting. Here at least there he could be sure he’d be treated like a human being.

“Merlin, there you are. I wondered if you’d mind going out into the forest to get some herbs I need?” Gaius was busy packing up some meat, bread and fruit. “I’ve sent a message to Arthur to say I’ve need of you today.” Gaius had said little about Merlin’s change in circumstance, but he was doing everything in his power to help and Merlin appreciated both his forbearance and his practical approach to aiding Merlin.

In response, Merlin nodded and slumped onto a stool. He folded his arms and rested his head on them for a moment. He was so tired. A hand pressed against his shoulder in silent sympathy and Merlin sat up, scrubbing the back of his hand across his eyes.

“Gaius, do you think Arthur could have been enchanted? He’s so different these days.”

“I’m sorry, Merlin, I don’t believe that’s the case,” Gaius moved around the room, gathering up ingredients for whatever potion he was intending to work on. Merlin saw lettuce, white poppy and coltsfoot – a sleeping draught then. “There’s nothing other than his treatment of you that suggests any involvement of magic.” He paused, and Merlin heard the fear and worry in his voice. “Perhaps you should go and visit your mother for a few weeks. It’s been a while since you saw her.”

Merlin shook his head, stubborn. This wasn’t the first time Gaius had made the suggestion. “No, I have to be in Camelot to protect Arthur. I’d never forgive myself if anything happened to him and I wasn’t here.”

Gaius moved to sit opposite him, “Merlin, I’m worried he suspects you. What else would make him behave this way?”

“It’s like he hates me,” Merlin had to swallow hard.

“I know you don’t want to leave him, Merlin, but just think about it, hmm? It doesn’t have to be forever, you know.”

Merlin nodded in defeat, unable to speak. He pulled himself to his feet, and Gaius handed him the pack of food with an encouraging smile that did little to mask his concern. 

  

There was no improvement in Arthur’s treatment of him over the next few weeks, and it seemed to Merlin as if he was being watched constantly. Between that and the bullying, Merlin took to creeping along corridors, avoiding the most travelled routes and using his magic to sense if people were nearby. Gaius looked increasingly worried but hadn’t raised the subject of Merlin leaving again. Merlin felt worn ragged, and knew he’d become thin and nervous but even when he was feeling his worst, he found it impossible to walk away, to leave Arthur at the mercy of any magical attack. The knowledge Agravaine was in league with Morgana meant the threat was far too close to home.

Agravaine.

Another one who took great delight in Merlin’s fall from grace. Merlin might have been able to overlook it, mixed in as it was with the poor treatment from so many others around him, but Agravaine’s malice extended to Gaius and Merlin had to work hard not to use his magic to inflict as nice a case of boils and pustules as he could in places on Agravaine’s body where it would hurt most. Gaius was no longer welcome at the council table and when Merlin had discovered what had happened he’d found it difficult to subdue either his anger at Agravaine, who had engineered it, or the throat-closing mix of anger and disappointment in Arthur, who had allowed it to happen.

By this time Merlin knew better than to try and talk to Arthur about it. He’d learned the hard way to speak only when spoken to, and to keep his tone low and respectful, taking the occasional blow without flinching, but with increasing resentment and dislike. The day before, Arthur had used the buckle end of his belt, smacking Merlin hard across his back in retribution for some imagined slight to Agravaine.

His expression hard, Arthur had informed Merlin, in Agravaine’s presence, that Agravaine was a member of the Royal family and was to be treated as such. There was more, delivered in Arthur’s cold, cutting voice, but Merlin was smarting too much both physically and emotionally to be able to take much notice. He’d felt the power roiling within him, desperate to escape and take retribution for the physical assault. Horrified at the impulse, he’d fixed his eyes firmly on the floor and spent the time fighting against his feelings and his magic. Eventually he’d been released, making sure to bow low before them and only just resisting the urge to spit in their faces, and had taken his leave as quickly as he could. The strike had been hard and strong, and Merlin knew he was bruised, but he didn’t dare tell Gaius.

Instead, he’d decided Gaius was right and it was time to leave. Then they’d see just how long Arthur Pendragon managed without any protection. Merlin no longer cared about his destiny. Arthur had become Uther and there was no longer any hope for magic here, let alone the idea of a united Albion.

He made it back to Gaius’ chambers, where Gaius, with one sharp look, didn’t attempt to talk to him and didn’t try to stop him as he climbed the stairs to his room.

  

“Merlin?”

“Gaius?” Merlin shook himself from his brooding and shrugged at the raised eyebrows. A night’s disturbed sleep had eased most of his physical pain but left him more conflicted about whether he should leave Camelot.

“I need you to take this pack to Leon and the company. They’re heading out on patrol this morning and they’ll be gone for several days.”

“Who’s going?” These days Merlin could only find a modicum of interest in those he thought of as ‘his’ knights.

“Leon is taking out Gwaine, Percival and Elyan.”

Merlin’s heart sank, and he clutched the pack he now held to his chest.

“On you go now, my boy. Don’t keep them waiting.” Gaius’ own anxiety translated into a sharpness of tone but he patted Merlin on the shoulder in apology as he obviously noticed Merlin’s wince.

He scuttled away, choosing corridors where he was less likely to see either Arthur or any of the other knights, moving as swiftly as he could until he was in the courtyard and could jog up to Gwaine.

“Gaius asked me to give you this, Sir Gwaine.” Arthur had recently snapped at Merlin about remembering his rank and everyone else’s. That it had happened was bad enough, but it had been done in the full council session and the dressing down Merlin received had obviously vindictively amused several of the knights.

“Thanks, Merlin.” Gwaine hesitated and then pressed a quick hand to Merlin’s shoulder. Just as quickly, he spun away to fix the pack to his horse.

It was a simple touch, but it brought sudden tears to Merlin’s eyes and he scrubbed angrily at his face. He wanted to speak, to wish them a good journey, but his throat seemed stuffed full and he couldn’t swallow enough to find voice or words. Managing a weak smile for a concerned Percival, he turned on his heel and ran from them, ignoring Arthur and Agravaine who’d just arrived in the courtyard. No doubt he’d pay for the lack of obeisance later but for now all he could think of was getting away.

Merlin left an uneasy silence behind him. 

  

Merlin hadn’t expected Arthur to be present in his chambers, so hadn’t thought to knock before he entered. Gaius had sent Merlin into the lower town earlier to deliver various mendicants and also to get him out of the way of some of the knights. As far as Merlin was aware, Arthur was scheduled to spend the afternoon in a council meeting. His heart leapt to his throat in alarm at the sight of Arthur sitting on the bed. For a moment he was held still, taking in the broad muscled back. Arthur was in the middle of changing, but for the moment he was sitting with his head buried in his hands. Merlin must have made some sound, or else Arthur’s instincts kicked in as he turned his head and Merlin gasped at red-ringed eyes.

“What are you doing here?” Arthur cleared his throat and moved to the table, downing whatever was in the goblet standing on the surface.

“Sire, I’d like to request a leave of absence to visit my mother.”

“No.”

“Sire, I –“

“I don’t intend to repeat myself. Once you’ve proved you’re a half-decent servant I might consider it. Until then, get on with your duties.”

“Why – “

“I’ve suffered enough with your insolence, boy. Take yourself off before you feel my belt again.”

Arthur appeared furious and it was anger well matched by Merlin’s own. For a moment they stared at one another and Merlin knew he couldn’t possibly be hiding just how much he disliked Arthur.

“Out. Now.”

The rasp in Arthur’s voice sounded like pure fury and was enough to pull Merlin back from venting his own anger. Merlin managed the sketchiest of bows and shut the door with exaggerated quietness behind him. Despite apparently hating him, it seemed Arthur wouldn’t even let him leave.

Sadness washed over him as he mourned what he now knew he had irretrievably lost. He pressed his forehead to the wood, startled by the sudden thud as something hit the other side of the door. Stumbling away, he ignored the sounds of destruction coming from Arthur’s chambers and made his escape. 

  

With the departure of the only knights Merlin had received any friendship from, the teasing intensified until it began to take on a more sinister edge.

Merlin had never thought he was particularly naïve, he was brought up in a small country village, for goodness sake, he understood all about such things. But when Merek cornered him in the armoury, Merlin had expected more physical abuse and was steeling himself for it, only to be shocked into stillness as Merek reached out with a thumb and pressed it into Merlin’s mouth.

“You’ve got a pretty mouth, boy, especially now you’ve learned to keep it shut.”

Merlin kept his breathing even, though every instinct was screaming at him to get away, and he was aware of his magic simmering under his skin. Terrified it would lash out to protect him of its own accord, he closed his eyes and willed it to calm.

“Why don’t you put that mouth to good use, eh?” Merek moved his other hand to Merlin’s shoulder and was beginning to press down when there were sounds of someone else approaching.

Merlin pressed himself against the wall, as far away from Merek as he possibly could.

Merek leaned in close, foul breath washing over Merlin and adding to Merlin’s urge to vomit. “Tybalt and Ulric will be joining me in my chambers this evening. You’ll bring a pitcher of wine at the ninth candlemark.” His eyes were dark with lust as he stepped back. “You have your orders, servant. If you don’t obey them, I’ll make sure the King hears about it.” He spun away with a swirl of his cape and strutted out of the armoury.

Merlin stayed where he was, too weak with the release of tension to do anything else. He breathed deeply and tried to gather some composure, forcing down the overwhelming urge to be sick. Aware of someone moving closer, he started in alarm and scrambled out of the corner into the centre of the room where he wouldn’t feel so trapped.

Sir Lamorak was checking over a piece of armour, and was taking no notice of Merlin whatsoever. Merlin kept his steps light and worked his way around him. Lamorak had teased him from time to time, but with nothing like the malice of some of the others and had never laid a finger on him.

“Don’t go to his room, Merlin.” He’d made it to the door before Lamorak spoke, the man’s voice delivering a low warning.

“He’ll tell the King.”

“Nevertheless, don’t go.” Lamorak abandoned the armour to look at Merlin, though he didn’t move closer, for which Merlin was grateful.

Merlin managed to nod his thanks for the advice, and then slipped away, making himself as invisible as he could. He almost ran past Gwen, ignoring her call to stop and the worry on her features and took himself out of the castle, racing across the green sward and into the forest beyond. He was well known as Gaius’ apprentice and had the authority to come and go from the castle at will. Never had he appreciated it as much as in this moment, not feeling as if he could breathe until he’d made it into the cover of the trees. Moving deeper into the wood, he found somewhere quiet and set up a barrier to inform him if anyone came close and then he let his magic go, pouring his grief and anger up into the sky and down into the earth.

Across Albion, people looked to the sky in trepidation, wondering why, for a brief instant of time, the world shuddered unsteadily under their feet and as if the heavens above had paused. 

  

Merlin didn’t go to Merek’s chambers.

Once he returned from the forest, calmer if not happier, he hid down in an old cave deep under Camelot until the early hours of the morning. He couldn’t even remember how he’d found this place, but he knew no one else would bother him there. As he sneaked through the corridors to his room, all he could think about was getting away. He’d tell Arthur he was leaving. He wasn’t a slave and there was nothing Arthur could do when he announced his intention to leave Camelot forever.

Before he could put his plan into action, they came for him, Merek, Ulric and Tybalt. The latter two grabbed him and marched him along while Merek strutted through the corridors with his hand on the pommel of his sword. Gaius protested but ignored, so he brought up the rear, going as quickly as he could, but gradually falling behind.

Merlin concentrated on keeping his feet, too off-balance to even attempt an escape. Although still early there had apparently been news of Morgana and a full council was already in session when Merek gestured at the guards and the doors were flung open. A sea of faces, curious, affronted, surprised, frowning swarmed before Merlin as he found himself pulled past them all.

Merek, Ulric and Tybalt should never have been knights, in Merlin’s humble opinion, but the days when anyone would listen to him were long gone. He concentrated on his own growing anger rather than the shame of being hauled along so ignominiously in front of the council and so many of the servants. The knights dragged him down the full length of the hall and threw him at the foot of Arthur’s chair.

Arthur stared down at them, disapprovingly. Agravaine was by his side as he always was these days. Merlin didn’t dare get to his feet, but he moved until he was no longer sprawled on the floor, staying on his knees and meeting Arthur’s eyes fearlessly and with dislike. His trust in Arthur had been eroded so far, he found it impossible to believe he’d receive any support.

“What is the meaning of this?”

“This cur has refused to obey our commands. Sire, we all heard you order him to pay due respect to his betters.” Merek booted Merlin back to the floor and made sure his voice could be heard all around the hall, the clever phrasing making it impossible for Arthur to ignore the charge, even if he wanted to.

Merlin struggled back to his knees, letting his outrage overcome his fear of Arthur’s reaction. “I’m not going anywhere near their rooms,” he said, his tone defiant and he hoped it covered his very real terror. “I’m not going to be on my own with them.”

For a moment, Arthur showed every sign Merlin recognised of contained fury, a banked, simmering incandescence, but then Arthur’s expression became a shuttered and cold mask. “You disobeyed them?” Arthur’s voice sounded brittle and he waited for only a few moments. “Answer me.”

“Yes.” Merlin met his eyes then and the last tiny kernel of hope shrivelled and died within him.

“Three lashes for your insolence.” Arthur delivered the sentence without even looking at Merlin. “Now get out.”

“Sire, please.” Gaius stepped forward to protest.

Arthur did not let him continue. “Three lashes. And the next person who speaks out will receive the same. And the servant will receive six. I don’t have time to spare for the misdemeanours of serving boys.” His flat, cold eyes were on the knights, and they stirred uneasily, aware they’d displeased their king. “The next time, arrange his punishment accordingly.”

Merlin struggled to his feet, fighting against the nausea at the knowledge Arthur had just given the knights a free hand in their treatment of him. And not just him, he thought, as he looked swiftly around the room and catalogued the worried faces of other servants. He ignored the malicious grins on the knights’ faces and the satisfaction on Agravaine’s. He grabbed Gaius’ arm, whispering, “Don’t, please, you’ll just make it worse. Please, I’ll be fine.”

Gaius held him close for a moment. “Come to me when it’s done, my boy.”

Merlin nodded and then he stood tall, squaring his shoulders. He ignored the gleeful knights behind him and bowed low to Arthur. And when he looked up, he knew that for the first time he was glaring at Arthur with hate. Even so, a part of him mourned and hoped, so he turned away and headed for the dungeons to undergo his punishment. Trying to get away would only result in worse and might mean trouble for his friends and he knew he would have to endure this final indignity. Deep, so very deep inside there was still a kernel of belief in their shared destiny, but hope was fading and he was spending too many nights wondering whether the way he was living now, whether the type of man Arthur was becoming, was worth what was happening to him. Based on today, Merlin had even less reason to stay.

He walked straight to the dungeons and sought out the head jailer there.

“I’ve to have three lashes – order of the king.”

Gaden had been in charge of the dungeons since Merlin had arrived in Camelot and, despite his job, had always seemed like a fair and just man. Even the sorcerers held there before their deaths had been provided with food and drink and a comfortable pallet on which to spend their last, miserable nights. One night, hoping to provide some comfort to a young man sentenced to be beheaded the next morning, Merlin had sneaked down the stairs, only to pause at the quiet rumble of Gaden’s voice. Merlin had listened for a while, realising Gaden had been talking about the family he’d lost long ago and about the last summer they’d all spent together. It seemed an odd thing to talk about but on peeking round the corner he could see the young man sitting close to the bars, his eyes hungry and listening closely to every word.

Now, he had to face a questioning look and he struggled to keep the keenly felt injustice from showing. Gaden narrowed his eyes.

“Well, lad, best get it over.”

He took Merlin to the rack set up for such punishments and Merlin shucked off his shirt and reached up to the leather straps. He’d never been beaten in his life but had seen Gaius treat the odd man who’d been flogged. Uther had used the punishment sparingly and only for the worst of crimes and up until now, Arthur had eschewed it completely. Merlin swallowed hard and tried not to show just how scared he was.

The clatter of approaching feet broke the quiet and covered the sound of Merlin’s panicked breathing. He glanced behind and his heart shrank at the sight of the three knights.

“Something you need, sir knights?” Gaden had stepped into the entrance of the cell, barring their entry.

“The boy’s insult was for us. Seems only right that we serve him one lash apiece.”

“The meting out of the King’s punishment is my role. Only the King Arthur’s direct order would give me leave to do otherwise. You may watch if you wish, but I’ll flog the boy, not you.”

Gaden’s great bulk stood in their way and Merlin felt grateful that, for the moment at least, they couldn’t see how he trembled in fear at the very thought of these men being allowed to whip him. He trusted Gaden, though, and tried to use that to calm himself.

“We’ll watch – make sure you do it properly and if you don’t we’ll tell the King that.”

“As you wish.”

“Wait.” Merek had stepped forward. “Use this whip. The one you have there is worn and soft – it’ll hardly leave a mark. We want him scarred for his affront to us.”

“It’ll hurt him enough,” Gaden responded, his tone mild but with enough steel beneath the words to silence them. Merlin heard the grumbling behind him but they seemed disinclined to argue further and he blocked it out, as he felt a soft touch to his bare shoulder. “Brace yourself,” Gaden said softly, and then murmured, “Make me look good and yell a bit.”

Despite his situation, Merlin had to bite back a laugh, but managed a slight nod to show his understanding.

When the whip cracked through the air and striped across his back the shock alone had him letting out a shout. The next two followed in quick succession and he yelled at each of them, forcing his anger and humiliation into every reaction.

Merlin was crying, not from the pain because there was remarkably little, but because Arthur had put him here. Without asking for his side of the story, without even acknowledging he might have had a reason for his refusal to follow orders, Arthur had sent him to this.

“It’s done, sirs, time for you to be about your business. I’m sure the King has need of you.”

Only when all sounds of them had faded, did Merlin release his hold on the straps. Gaden helped him slip his shirt on over the marks on his back.

“I need to get some salve for my knees from Gaius. I’ll walk with you.”

Merlin nodded, only half-aware in his misery as he paced alongside a limping Gaden. Briefly, Merlin wondered when Gaden’s knee had started to hurt, he didn’t recall him limping earlier, but then his own woes intruded again and he didn’t think to question him.

Merlin was glad enough of his company, however, when they reached the stair to Gaius’ rooms and Merek and Ulric were loitering at the foot. Merlin kept his head down until they’d gone, unaware of the unwavering look Gaden had sent in their direction. He stumbled up the stairs and straight into the arms of a white-faced Gaius.

“He had me whipped, Gaius. Arthur had me whipped. How could he do that? How could he?” The growing misery of the past weeks came to a head, and Merlin brushed away tears he couldn’t seem to stop.

“I’m sorry, my boy. I’m so sorry. Let’s get that shirt off and take a look shall we?”

Merlin shrugged out of his shirt once more, and felt cool fingers on the heat of his back.

“Gaden?” Gaius’ voice sounded surprised.

Merlin looked round in time to see Gaden shrug. “I carried out my orders, Gaius.” There was something in his voice, something Merlin in his weariness hardly noticed although he did see the considering look Gaius cast at Gaden. “Three strokes were ordered – three strokes he got. I’ll look in on him later.”

“Thanks, Gaden.” Merlin was more grateful than he could say. Even without being able to see, he knew Gaden hadn’t broken his skin, which meant no real threat from infection.

Gaius repeated the thanks, though there was a level of puzzlement in the look he bestowed on Gaden that, in addition to that earlier appraisal, even managed to impinge on Merlin’s misery.

“What is it, Gaius?”

“Nothing, my boy. Let’s get some salve on those bruises. A couple of days bed rest and you’ll be fine.

Merlin, safe with the one person in Camelot he was sure he could really trust, shut his eyes and, under the gentle touch of Gaius’ hands and the numbing of the cool salve, he was soon fast asleep. 

  

It was two full days and three nights before Gaius expressed enough satisfaction with Merlin’s condition to let him leave their rooms. Merlin insisted he felt fine and Gaius was satisfied enough and exasperated enough by his fractious patient by then to let Merlin resume his duties.

Merlin padded through the corridors to Arthur’s chambers, keeping his eyes down and trying to avoid any interaction with the people he passed. Most of the servants had a quiet hello, or said his name as he passed by and he responded with a quick sideways smile and though he didn’t stop, he at least felt a little warmed by their obvious support. It was a change from the months of cold-shouldering he’d endured from so many of them, and he was too grateful to hold a grudge for earlier mistreatment.

Only Gwen stopped him, placing a hand on his arm so that it would’ve been rude not to pause and acknowledge her. There was a soft sympathy in her eyes that almost annoyed Merlin and he looked away rather than face it, not entirely sure why her kindness and concern should make him react so.

“How are you, Merlin?”

“Fine. Really, really fine. Thanks for asking.” He stepped forward, attempting to move past her but she tightened her grip.

“Arthur shouldn’t have done it, Merlin. It wasn’t right.”

The old part of Merlin wanted to find excuses for Arthur’s conduct but it was obliterated by the sudden acid memory of the knights and the lash. He didn’t know what was in his face when he finally met Gwen’s gaze head on, but her hand left his arm as if she’d been stung, and she stepped back a pace.

“I know he shouldn’t have done it. But he did, didn’t he? That’s the type of man he is – the type of king he is. We’re common people, you and me, Gwen and so we don’t matter. You’d better keep that in mind.”

With that vicious parting shot, he walked away and this time she didn’t attempt to stop him. He knew he should have felt ashamed, Gwen had done nothing to merit such treatment from him but he couldn’t deny that jealousy had prompted the response. Gwen still seemed to have Arthur’s favour – for the moment at least - and had always been treated by Arthur as someone important in his life. Merlin had to accept that he’d been nothing other than the butt of jokes and a convenient whipping boy when occasion demanded. Merlin smiled wryly, as his role now seemed to be as a literal whipping boy, too. Somehow, he knew this wouldn’t be the last time. Not if he spent any time close to Arthur. No, the friendship he’d believed they shared was clearly only a figment of his imagination. And he was done with it.

Reaching the door of Arthur’s chambers, he paused to gather his courage, then knocked and entered.

His resolve along with his hate almost deserted him as he took in the sight of Arthur sitting at his desk, his features pensive and dark circles shadowing his eyes. When Arthur saw who’d entered, however, his whole demeanour altered and instead Merlin was faced with the remote stranger he’d come to fear – and to actively dislike.

“Why are you here? What do you want?”

Merlin took a deep breath, Arthur’s expression when he entered had shaken his conviction, because even now the slightest hint that the Arthur he’d cared about was still there somewhere was enough to make him reconsider his decision.

“Gaius needs my help more these days. I’ve come to resign as your manservant – you don’t really want me around anyway.” He couldn’t keep the bitterness from his tone and he stared at the floor, cursing the tiny part of him that still waited for Arthur to tease, to be the way he used to be.

Arthur moved until he was leaning back in the chair, and when Merlin looked up in hope, he saw a king relaxed and cold. Bleakly, Merlin acknowledged that the miniscule hint of the man Arthur had once been had gone as if Merlin had dreamt it. Perhaps he had. Perhaps this was what Arthur had always been and it was Merlin’s foolish hope that made him think Arthur was anything noble and good.

“You could have told the steward this – he’ll organise a more efficient servant. Is there anything else you’ve neglected to tell me, Merlin?”

It was the first time Arthur had used his name for months and the sound of it cracking whip-sharp made Merlin jump. Wary, he met Arthur’s eyes and felt real fear. There was something in his look, the hint of knowledge suppressed suddenly terrifying and Merlin backed away.

Arthur’s favoured him with a bitter rictus of a smile. “Off you go then. Do make sure I see as little of you as possible.”

It held all the menace of the threat it was and Merlin managed to bow quickly and leave, standing in the corridor, one hand steadying himself against the stone. He ignored the sidelong curious glances of the guards and as soon as he felt his legs would carry him, he fled. 

  

Merlin did what Arthur had suggested and stayed out of his sight as much as possible. Gaius was still pressing him to leave Camelot for a time, but there was still something within Merlin that wouldn’t let him go.

Despite his best efforts, though, he was aware of Arthur’s brooding presence everywhere he went. Agravaine was always by Arthur’s side, sending out directives and orders in Arthur’s name and becoming an ever stronger power in the land. His eyes were often on Merlin and their malice was almost palpable. The very atmosphere felt taut and there were times Merlin could hardly breath for the pervading misery haunting his every waking moment. Every night as he flung himself on his cot he made the decision to leave and yet by morning he found he couldn’t.

At least the knights had ceased most of their bullying and neither Merek nor any of the other knights had approached him. Merlin thanked the stars for those small mercies, even as he struggled through yet another endless day.

He was carrying a load of laundry down the steps when he stumbled, stopping himself from falling by slowing time enough to get his feet under him. When he gathered the bundle closer to him and started walking again he realised he wasn’t alone. Arthur was watching him. Merlin remained calm and passed him with a deferential nod. Surely there was no way he could have seen. Trembling, Merlin dumped the laundry and headed back to Gaius in a fever of anticipation.

Nothing happened.

Nothing happened the next day.

Nothing happened the day after that.

Arthur hadn’t seen.

Merlin relaxed. 

 

“Merlin.”

Merlin turned at the sound of Fendrel’s voice, frowning slightly at the tone. Fendrel was one of Uther’s men, men Arthur seemed to have been spending more time with over the past few months. Fendrel was a person Merlin had always been wary of, too aware of his fanatical adherence to Uther’s policy on magic and magic-users. Merlin’s blood ran cold. The knight stood tall, in full armour and cloak and with his hand poised on his sword. Merlin swallowed and felt his fear intensify. Two guards were standing to attention behind him.

"You are to attend the King in the throne room immediately.”

“Do you know what he wants?”

“It is the King’s command – he needs provide no explanation to me or to you.”

In the past, even with some of Uther’s men, Merlin would have ventured a tease, seeking to shake the man’s stuffy attitude, but the breakdown of his relationship with Arthur and changes in the way others treated Merlin made him loath to experience the resulting reaction from someone who’d never had much time for him in the first place.

Instead, he nodded and turned to walk towards the throne room, only too aware of the hulking presence striding along just slightly behind him. As he reached the end of the corridor another two guards fell in behind them.

When he entered the room the entire council was present, silent and tense and Merlin stumbled at the expressions on their faces, searching around for some sense of reassurance and support from any of them. He recognised many of them, but even those he’d thought liked him were studiously avoiding his gaze and when he looked round frantically for Gaius or Gwen, they were nowhere to be seen. Others, like Agravaine and Merek, watched his progress with obvious relish. Numbly, he made his way up the centre of the room and didn’t dare to look at Arthur until he reached the front.

Arthur was standing, strong and king-like in mail and Pendragon red cloak, his features fixed in stern disapproval and his eyes like flint. He didn’t look directly at Merlin, as if he couldn’t bear to see him.

There was a long silence before Arthur spoke, but once he began the words resounded around the still, waiting room.

“Merlin of Ealdor, you stand accused of the crime of sorcery. How do you plead?”

Merlin’s tongue seemed to cleave to the roof of his mouth, and there was a wild moment when he thought to offer a denial. A brief glance at the knowledge in Arthur’s expression was enough to dissuade him. At the very least, he could try and explain his actions. “I admit I have magic, but Sire, I’ve only used it to help –“

In amidst the sudden tumult in the room, he didn’t see the blow coming, reeling and dropping to his knees as Agravaine’s fist crashed against the side of his head.

“Silence, dog, your master didn’t ask for your mewling excuses.”

Agravaine wasn’t much liked in the court and his rise to prominence had displeased many, so there was a murmur, almost of sympathy Merlin had to hope, as he stayed on his knees with his head down bent and waited for the spinning to stop.

Please, Arthur, he begged silently, please don’t do this, please. He’d no hope left, not really, not when Arthur would stand there and allow a prisoner to be mistreated.

“You don’t even deny your perfidy. Under the law I have no option other than condemn you to death. You will burn.”

Merlin would never have believed Arthur could ever sound so cold.

“Then Camelot will fall.” He couldn’t stop the words as they tumbled from him, struggling to his feet and fighting against the guards as they placed the shackles around his wrists. The moment the iron – cold iron – closed tight, the pain hit and his magic roiled and screamed within him, protesting against being caged and trapped.

He echoed his internal agony as he screamed out loud, the sound tearing from his lungs as he fought for air, fixing his gaze on Arthur and letting his pain show as a plea.

For the briefest moment Arthur started and some indefinable emotion flashed across his features but it was gone the moment Agravaine shouted.

“Even now the traitor threatens Camelot.”

No, Merlin thought in despair, fighting for air and words, that’s not what I meant at all.

Arthur’s features had settled into harsh, unforgiving lines as he spoke.

“Take him to the dungeons.”

Merlin sobbed as he finally accepted there was no mercy here for him. The guards hauled him up using the chain and the iron burned into his skin.

He could only scream again, and again, and again, until he welcomed the darkness swallowing him.

 

“Gaius, you must come with me.”

Gaius was slow to look up, almost afraid to face Arthur and yet how could he refuse when Merlin had endured, even as the person Gaius knew Merlin loved most in the world denounced him and sentenced him to burn. If Arthur’s stance against magic had hardened to such a degree that Merlin was not safe, then Gaius held out little hope for his own survival.

He looked up and met his king’s eyes squarely. He wondered, briefly why Arthur was on his own. But then, what harm could one old, broken man do him, even with the magic which Gaius realised Arthur must know about.

Maintaining his composure, Gaius nodded once, folding his hands together into the sleeves of his robe, so that Arthur couldn’t see them tremble.

“I’ll follow where you lead, Sire,” And let Arthur take that any way he pleased. “As does Merlin. We’re here to serve you and Camelot as we have always done.” He knew his expression was defiant now and he wondered at the way Arthur’s mouth twisted, almost as if he was in some way amused.

Arthur inclined his head and stretched his arm out. Gaius accepted it as an unspoken invitation, stepping in front of him and out into the corridor.

 

Merlin was huddled in a corner of the cell. It wasn’t one of the worst cells by any means, there was even a clean pallet and blanket and fresh water. It was still a cell, though, and was a clear enough indication of his situation. In the distance he could hear the sounds of people working in the square and knew they were building a pyre. Building a pyre for him. Merlin swallowed nausea emanating more from grief than fear, though there was plenty of that, too. He was unable to deny the part of him keeping his faith in Arthur strong and he couldn’t believe Arthur would let him burn. They’d been through too much together, had saved one another’s lives so many times. Surely Arthur, as hot headed as he was, would remember everything they’d shared and would find some way to forgive him, would understand and accept in the end what Merlin had done to keep him from harm.

So it was with hope in his heart and expression that he looked up at the sound of someone approaching the cell.

Arthur, in full armour and armed, two guards hovering closely behind, halted at the entrance. Arthur’s eyes glinted, mouth drawn into a flat thin line. He looked beautiful and deadly.

“Your accomplices have been stopped in their attempt to rescue you. They have been executed.”

The words made no sense. “Who?”

“The sorcerer, Gaius – and the maid.”

“Gaius? Gwen? You killed – No, no, Arthur, you can’t have. They loved you. Gaius has cared for you since the moment you were born. Dear Gods, please tell me it’s not true.”

Arthur was implacable, still and silent as the reality settled within Merlin and he realised everything he’d believed in, their great destiny, was nothing more than dust and ashes.

After a few moments Arthur spoke again. “I can’t allow traitors to live. I can’t allow someone who brought a sorcerer into being live either.”

It took a moment for Arthur’s meaning to sink in.

“My mother? No. No, you wouldn’t.” He searched Arthur’s expression for any sign of him relenting and saw nothing but ice. So Arthur Pendragon had finally shown his true colours and they matched his father’s in all ways. “What harm has she ever done you? You bastard, you stinking bastard!” Rage bubbled up from nowhere, fury and grief combining potently in his blood. His fists clenched, and if he had access to his power at that moment he would have blasted Arthur to dust. “I thought – I thought nothing could ever make me hate you. I’ll never forgive you, Arthur Pendragon.” Merlin was aware there were tears streaming down his face but he couldn’t care about such weakness when he was facing the ruin of all his hopes, the death of everyone he loved and the end of the dream of Albion.

“You’ll be executed at dawn.”

Merlin hauled himself to his feet and lifted his chin. “I’ll haunt you for the rest of your days and beyond, Pendragon. You’ll never be free of me. And without me, your land will wither and die. You’ll be forgotten and Camelot will fall into despair and ruin. And it will be your doing, Pendragon, not mine.”

Arthur met his eyes, his own shuttered and cold. How could he still be so beautiful when he’d just destroyed them all, Merlin wondered. Arthur’s cape swirled around him as he stepped from the cell and walked steadily away, as tall and straight as ever.

Once he was out of sight Merlin slid down the wall, hugged his knees to his chest and buried his face in his arms. For a few moments he let the grief overwhelm him, until he thought once more of his mother and knew if there was any chance at all to save her, then he had to find a way out of his prison. Wiping his hands across his face, he sniffed once and turned his attention to the cold iron shackles that bound his wrists and his magic. Earlier, he’d thought there was some movement in them but while he was still hoping against hope that Arthur would see sense he hadn’t looked too closely. Now, however, he examined them closely, noticing one of the rivets holding them together had sheared and allowed enough movement that he thought he’d be able to slip his hand through if he worked at it.

He persevered, ignoring the tears rolling down his cheeks as he moved the metal back and forth until sheer desperation had him crying out with furious, seething syllables. The cold iron may have stopped the spell from working properly, but now he began to understand just what being Emrys meant as the spark inside fizzed through him and into the metal. One last tug and it was free. His magic rushed through him, tightening all his muscles and he arched backwards in a terrible, frozen rictus until it passed. Trembling, he lay on the pallet and caught his breath for a moment, until he felt calm enough to pad across to the cell. With a few whispered words the guards outside slumped to the floor and were snoring as he slipped past them. Pausing, he retrieved a sword and dagger and then was on his way, wrapping his magic around him to walk silently and firmly from the castle and past the sentry at the gate. When he reached the trees, he cast away the weapons and began to run. As he did, he heard the warning bell sound out and increased his pace, using his magic to try to mask his progress as well as speed his feet.

Merlin wasn’t sure if it was the temporary prison of the cold iron, or the fury and hurt driving him, but it felt as if something had shifted in his magic. He’d always had a certain ability to work instinctively, but now the magic thrummed through his veins and only waited for him to act, turning thought to deed. He paused for a moment, turning to look back at the castle, and knew he had the power to raze it to the ground. He hesitated and raised his hand, but something within him as yet unmoved to hate, protested and instead he turned away and ran.

It wasn’t long before Merlin heard the sounds of pursuit. Even with magic to help him, he wasn’t going to be able to outrun horses. He was almost more frightened of himself if they caught up with him; his magic was running wild through his blood and if he was faced by knights he’d known and trusted, he wasn’t sure what might happen.

 

 

Merlin drew in another gulping breath and staggered onward. The spell he’d been using didn’t seem to mask his scent and he could hear the baying of hounds drawing ever closer. Sobbing, he contemplated just stopping, letting the dogs find him and rip into him until there was nothing but mangled flesh remaining.

It couldn’t possibly hurt any more than he hurt already; the pain of a shocking betrayal and the loss of everything he thought he understood and believed in. Arthur had… Arthur had…

A shout startled him from the despairing cycle of his memories, driving him into action despite his earlier thoughts of giving up and he increased his pace. The voice continued to call out directions, but appeared to be drawing further away, rather than running him to ground.

There was no time to rest. If there was any chance of saving his mother then he had to make it to Ealdor before any of Pendragon’s men. With the loss of the hounds driving him, he settled into a steady jog, slipping through the forest as if he was already a ghost.

He staggered into Ealdor in the afternoon, heading for his mother’s home and praying he was in time. As he shoved open the door, he knew he was already too late. The very fact the door was closed at this time in the afternoon provided the first indication; the disarray in his home was another. Hunith would never have left the place like this if she’d had a choice. Merlin sank to his knees and let despair take him. So many tears already, lost hopes and lost lives and one man, one single man who had destroyed all his hopes and dreams, and taken all the people he loved.

Pain and anguish congealed within him, turning him as cold as the cursed iron that had encircled his wrists. Pendragon would pay. All of Camelot would pay and any thought of a united Albion could sink into oblivion. Merlin no longer cared.

Merlin no longer existed.

Getting to his feet, he stared around the ruin of the room and wiped away the moisture on his face impatiently, features settling into harsh lines. Looking around, he picked up enough to put together a pack of supplies. If he was going into the forest, he had to take everything with him.

He needed to find the one person who hated Pendragon just as much as he did. And while she hated Merlin, too, if not more, Merlin felt quite sure she would put that aside long enough to destroy Pendragon and all he stood for. Merlin would help put Morgana on the throne and after that – well, he didn’t much care whether she waited until then to take her own revenge on the person who had tried to kill her.

Walking out of the building, he saw one of the village elders approaching.

“Merlin, the King’s men were here. They took your mother.”

“When?”

“Three days ago.”

Three days. Pendragon had planned all this then. Merlin nodded his response and strode past.

“Merlin, where are you going?” The man seemed agitated, and Merlin wondered how close Arthur’s men were.

“I’m leaving. You’re not going to try to stop me, are you?”

“The Lord Agravaine came here yesterday. Merlin, he said if you managed to escape and we didn’t hand you over then he’d raze the village and sell us all as slaves.”

“Well then, you’d better run and hide, hadn’t you? Because you won’t be handing me over to anyone.”

“Merlin –“

Once upon a time Merlin would have understood their dilemma and would have done his best to find a way to help them all. Once upon a time he had. He glanced around and saw the men of the village manoeuvring around him, trying to entrap him. They’d learned the lessons Arthur had taught them well.

“My name is Emrys. Merlin, son of Hunith is dead. Tell the Lord Agravaine that.” He flung out his hand and saw them all scuttle backwards as his eyes flashed gold and they finally saw him.

Shouldering his pack, he walked steadily by, and none put out a hand to stop him.

 Emrys hunkered down and extricated the rabbit from the trap, adding it to the brace he already held. Padding through the wood, he made his way to his small camp and began readying them for the fire. Casually, he checked his wards, reaching out with his senses to touch on any living creatures close by. Most of the birds were roosting, though he startled an owl on its nightly hunt, and a badger stopped suddenly and then bustled away in another direction, heading away from the strangeness that touched her animal consciousness, her cubs tumbling and playing as they ran with her.

The slightest of smiles softened the austere line of Emrys’ mouth before it flattened again. He poured some water over his hands and cleaned them off before dragging his fingers through his hair and beard.

“So do you have something to say to me or do you intend to stay there all night watching me?”

“Emrys.” The man walked out of the shadow and into the meagre light of the fire.

Emrys remained in his place, sitting cross-legged and tending to the meat as it cooked.

“You’re a Druid.” Emrys did not ask a question.

“I am.”

“I rather thought you were all avoiding me.” It was true. Emrys had found Iseldir and his band quite easily when he’d left Ealdor and had informed him what had happened; that Arthur would be continuing the Pendragon persecution of those with magic and now was the time for the Druids to fight back.

Iseldir had regarded him calmly but with some puzzlement. “That isn’t our way,” he’d replied.

“Then you’ll all die.”

Iseldir’s voice had sounded just as puzzled inside his head. Emrys, I wish you well, but we can’t help you in this.

Emrys had been tempted to bring the cave down around them but had left without offering any response or asking any more from them.

Since then, the Druids had been conspicuous by their absence and despite his best efforts, Emrys had been unable to find any trace of them or Morgana.

His attention returned to his guest as the man spoke.

“Not all Druids believe we can continue without fighting. There are some of us who have come together to plan, to hone our skills until the day comes when we can wreak havoc on Camelot and erase the Pendragon line from the earth.”

“Why are you here?”

“We felt your power and we know you. Emrys is foretold and we come to ask you to teach us, to help us become ready so that some day – “

“I’m not interested in some day,” Emrys responded. “I’m interested in now or soon. I want Pendragon to die at my hand – as painfully as possible and as soon as possible.”

“Then let us help you, my Lord.”

In response, Emrys removed the meat from the spit and handed some across to the other man. “We leave at first light.”

“My name is Ruadan. I am –“

Emrys glanced up and Ruadan stopped talking, swallowing and turning his concentration to the food.

They did not speak.

It took them three days to make their way to the camp. Emrys was aware Ruadan was leading him on a circuitous route, hoping to keep the actual location of the camp a secret. Emrys let him have his deception and didn’t provide any indication that he knew exactly where they were at any given time.

They walked during the day until not even Emrys’ magical light could help them in the oppressive darkness of the forest and they had no choice but to stop. Setting up camp was carried out in silence, they shared the campfire in silence, and then they slept.

Eventually they stepped through a stand of trees and a shimmer of magic shielding and were in the grounds of a ruined church. Emrys recognised it as being from the new religion that was sending out its devotees to preach their tenets. This should have been a relatively new building and yet it looked old, torn down and tumbled, and festooned with ivy as the forest accepted it back and the old religion took the ascendance once more. He glanced around without much curiosity, more interested in whether the person he wanted to meet was here.

They’d disturbed the controlled activity of a camp, as everyone stopped and stared, clearly unused to the sight of a stranger in this place.

Almost thirty people were scattered around the space, mainly men who were obviously warriors, hard-bitten and suspicious with swords and daggers swiftly in their hands. There were a small number of women, but they were barely distinguishable from the men as many had cropped their hair. Even when they had not, it was tightly braided and coiled close to their scalps.

These people bore little relation to the Druids Emrys was used to seeing. Tunics and trousers replaced robed, for ease of fighting and it was obvious this was a warrior band. Emrys stood quietly and let his eyes assess their strength. Despite their numbers, even the entire group together would pose no threat to him.

A ripple of movement alerted him to the arrival of the one person who could conceivably harm him if – if she got lucky.

For the briefest of moments Morgana seemed shocked. Emrys raised his chin and met her glare dead on.

“You!” Her eyes flashed with fury and magic.

Emrys didn’t even move; let her see how powerful he is. He was barely aware of the shocked cries as Morgana’s magic, indiscriminate and unfocussed even with Emrys directly in front of her, caused shockwaves to surge through the air, smacking people out of the way as leaves and branches rose and swirled around them.

Power broke against the shield Emrys had raised and he waited until it washed over and then was absorbed, strengthening his defence rather than weakening it. When it was over there was silence apart from the sound of Morgana’s rapid breath. It wasn’t long before she raised her chin and met his eyes again.

“So, you’re doubly a traitor, Merlin. Kinslayer.” She spat the word at him.

“My name is Emrys.” He couldn’t deny the satisfaction he felt as he saw what little colour she had drain from her face. She swayed.

“Are you here to kill me then?”

Emrys could only admire her courage. He shook his head. “I wronged you, Morgana. I knew it even before – “ A vision of Arthur, head thrown back in unbridled laughter, had him confused for a moment, before he remembered. “I’ve come to offer you my help and my power.”

Morgana just stared at him.

“I was told my destiny was to help the Once and Future King, but Pendragon has finally proved to me what you knew all along. He is his father remade. I won’t have a King. I’ll have a Queen.”

“You really expect me to believe you?”

“No. I was too foolish for too long. I gave him my loyalty – and my love –“ He paused as his magic swirled unhappily within him and he took a few moments to ensure it was more tightly controlled. “Pendragon has taken everything from me. He had me flogged, he put me in cold iron, and he’s killed everyone I cared for.”

“Who?” Morgana sounded almost fearful.

“Gaius, my mother, and Guinevere.”

Emrys fought against emotion he couldn’t entertain, couldn’t succumb to. He saw a fleeting sorrow in Morgana’s eyes, too and saw the way she gathered herself. He’d trust no one. He was Emrys. And Emrys was revenge.

Morgana was still suspicious; no doubt she always would be. “You said he put you in cold iron. Your magic couldn’t have withstood that. How did you escape?”

“I’m Emrys. There’s no one in this land more powerful than I am. Even cold iron couldn’t stop me.” He carefully ignored the fact cold iron would stop him as it would stop any other sorcerer and only a weakness in the cuffs had allowed his magic enough leverage to act.

Almost as one, the Druids sank to their knees. Had Emrys retained any ability to feel, he might have been embarrassed but as it was he merely made a gesture telling them to stand and raised an eyebrow as he stared at Morgana, waiting for her response.

“And if I don’t agree?” she asked.

“Then I’ll leave and take my revenge on Camelot alone, and I’ll take my time killing Pendragon. Afterwards it’ll be up to you to win the throne against Agravaine.”

“He’ll follow me.”

Emrys shrugged. “I don’t care. I want Pendragon dead.”

“I still don’t trust you.”

Emrys nodded. He’d expected this and during the journey to the camp he’d thought round ways to ensure Morgana would work with him.

“I’ve crafted a spell,” he said. “A spell that’ll ensure I won’t betray you.”

Her eyes brightened at that. “Tell me more.” Keeping plenty of distance between them she moved as gracefully as she ever had, and seated herself carefully on a large block of hewn stone.

Emrys sat on the ground and crossed his legs and explained about the spell he could cast on his body, how his own words would act against him if he by act or thought betrayed their joint purpose.

 The moon was full and Emrys’ magic was at the height of his power as he stood naked in the centre of the glade they’d travelled to for the ritual. Away from the muddying influence of the new religion, he let the energy of the space fill him and settle his own magic.

As if it sensed what he was about to do, his magic swirled and eddied within him, agitated and uncertain. It didn’t matter. Emrys had enough certainty to carry him and his magic through and was able to find wry amusement at the light in Morgana’s eyes as she hefted the sharp knife she’d have to use upon him. He may well just end up with his throat cut, but he couldn’t find it within him to care. At least if she did so it would all finally be over.

As the moon reached its zenith, Morgana approached and the silver light caught the blade and was reflected back until it shimmered. Emrys stood still and waited until the point of the knife broke the skin just below his eye. Odd that there wasn’t any pain. He watched as the steel was removed, beaded with the darkness of his blood. Morgana looked surprised, as if she hadn’t expected him to go through with it, or believed he would flinch as he was cut.

He met her eyes and nodded once, before he began the incantation. The language was old and unfamiliar on his tongue, different from what he normally used to cast his spells, but it was old, old and oh so powerful and he felt the curse sink within him as he continued, battering down the part of his magic still fighting against him. In the moonlight, he stood unflinching, speaking the words as Morgana carved them into his skin.

At the end, once she’d stepped away, breathing heavily and looking as if she was drugged, he cried out the final words of the spell. White light washed over him and the runes etched on his skin writhed before they stilled and settled on one side of his face, flowing down his neck to spill across his shoulder and right arm ending up across half his chest. When the light ceased, the blood and gore had gone and only the words remained, black against his pale skin as if they’d been tattooed in ink and not carved in blood.

Silently, Emrys dressed and then faced Morgana.

“Now it’s time to plan our attack.” 

  

Morgana had spent her time profitably, building relationships with other disaffected groups and mercenary bands. It still took weeks to amass their allies and finalise negotiations but Emrys could only admire her diplomatic abilities as she promised them little and yet managed to win their allegiance. Quietly, the warrior bands gathered, and with Emrys and Morgana working together they could shield the encampments from any of Camelot’s patrols. They’d still be a small number, but with magic on their side, there was little anyone in Camelot would be able to do against them. The aim was to put Morgana on the throne and she wanted a land to rule. It was a lesson learned from her last sojourn, and she asserted her wishes to them all. The citizens of Camelot were to be left unharmed, and property respected. She argued fiercely that only by ensuring as little disruption to people’s daily lives as possible could she hope for a peaceful transfer of their loyalty.

A part of Emrys was unhappy at the thought he wouldn’t be able to raze it to the ground, but Morgana was his queen and he would obey her commands.

“We should kill the knights,” Emrys said. Anyone who stood with Camelot was an enemy to him, even Percival and Gwaine, steady Leon, and especially Gwen’s brother who’d done nothing to save her.

Morgana disagreed. “I’ll need the knights.”

“They wouldn’t bend to your rule before.”

“Uther and Arthur were alive then. This time they won’t be. The knights will see the need for order and if they’re assured of their place then they’ll follow me. Those that don’t will be dealt with.”

“As you wish.” Emrys shrugged. He didn’t really care as long as Pendragon died.

Morgana was silent. She’d neither forgiven him nor trusted him, Emrys knew, but they were united in their wish to see Pendragon die and it had proved enough to enable them to work together so far.

“We’re expecting a report from one of our spies in Camelot. She’s copying the keys we need for the lower gates. Once we have those we can enter the tunnels and mount the attack.”

“And what of Agravaine?”

It was Morgana’s turn to shrug. “He has Arthur’s favour. I expect he’ll wait to see which side wins.”

“I thought he was loyal to you?”

“Agravaine is loyal to Agravaine. I’ve no illusions about that.”

“Then you’re not expecting help from him?” Emrys wasn’t surprised at her dismissal of Agravaine. It seemed that as Agravaine’s power and influence with Pendragon grew, so his much vaunted loyalty to Morgana diminished. Emrys knew she couldn’t have seen Agravaine for some time before he arrived in her camp, because she hadn’t been aware of his magic.

“Perhaps. Perhaps not. It doesn’t matter either way. Our plans haven’t included him.”

Ruadan approached them. “Sefa has returned from Camelot.”

“Does she have the keys?” Morgana was eager.

“She does. We’re ready.”

“Then let’s go and kill a king.”

For the first time in many months, Emrys felt his mouth stretch into a smile.

Arthur Pendragon glanced around the tables in the great hall. The knights were together at one end, laughing and well into their ale. He frowned suddenly at the lack of discipline, but there was nothing to be said for the moment. Shifting in his chair he picked over his food, wondering at the tight feeling in his gut screaming at him to be wary. He avoided his wine completely and called for water instead. Agravaine beside him appeared unperturbed, attacking his food with his usual good appetite and had sunk most of a pitcher of wine, his face flushed with its effects.

There was no reason for Arthur’s uneasiness and yet he’d a sickening sense of something approaching. He’d already sent Gwaine a glance that had the knight, one of the few sober ones it seemed, slipping from the room. When he returned sometime later he’d caught Arthur’s eye and shrugged. Arthur nodded in response but noted Gwaine calling for water. Arthur was left wondering if Gwaine was feeling the same unease, or whether Arthur had simply infected him with his own. Leon leaned across and had a quiet word, at which point he glanced sharply towards Arthur before sitting back and staring blankly at his mug.

Arthur shrugged aside the by-play and attempted to pay attention to Agravaine’s slurred advice on how to run his kingdom, wondering at his uncle’s lack of caution when every other sentence began with: “If I was king…”

It was an interminable evening and more than once Arthur glanced behind him, seeking to share rolled eyes or a quiet comment with –

Scowling, heart sore, Arthur tuned out his uncle and disappeared into his own weary thoughts.

The warning bell didn’t sound.

The first Arthur knew of trouble was the unmistakable clash of swords meeting in anger. Surging to his feet, he called his men to arms.

“Knights of Camelot, we are under attack!”

His own sword was at his side and it rasped as he pulled it free of its scabbard, but many of those who wore the trappings of knights had not brought their weapons. Arthur cursed them roundly. Percival, Gwaine, Elyan and Leon were all present and properly armed, as were a handful of others. Agravaine was looking stunned as he struggled out of his chair, staggering as the wine fully hit him. He looked shocked, something Arthur noted and would think on later – assuming he survived this. The knights were quickly pushing the tables against the back wall, people tipping them on their sides to hide behind, while clearing most of the hall to give the knights room to defend their king.

As Arthur headed for the door, pushing milling, panicked nobility out of the way, there was a resounding boom and the great doors flew open.

When the dust cleared, Arthur could see two figures, both slight and dark, though one was taller.

Merlin and Morgana stepped into the room and Merlin’s eyes flashed. People tumbled away, out of the circle he’d created with one look. Arthur felt his breathing quicken as he witnessed just how much power Merlin possessed. His stomach lurched as he saw Merlin more clearly as he approached. His fair skin was tattooed with a black pattern that covered the whole side of his face and spread down his neck to disappear beneath his tunic. Arthur wasted a moment of his attention as he wondered what it might mean. Merlin stalked forward and thrust out his hand.

Without warning, Arthur felt himself forced to his knees and however much he struggled, he couldn’t get back to his feet. He raised his chin instead, and faced the sorcerers who’d invaded his kingdom.

Merlin stared at Arthur and the hate in his eyes was suddenly more than Arthur could take. It was time. Surely it was time. Morgana stood to one side, apparently enjoying the spectacle of Arthur’s once-trusted manservant in a position of such power over his master. Arthur looked at her for a moment, really looked at her, and his heart ached anew.

The magical hold on him eased and he managed to get to his feet, ignoring the way Merlin scowled at him.

“Whatever we’ve done to you, Morgana, please believe me when I say I’m sorry; from the bottom of my heart I’m sorry. You’re my sister and whatever you’ve done or may do now or in the future, I’ll always love you.”

He’d shocked her, and for a moment the cruelty and madness in her expression was washed away by regret and pain. Watching, Arthur saw her struggle and then regain her composure, features settling into mockery and disdain.

“How very sweet, dear brother, but my plight won’t trouble you for long. You can have no idea how much pleasure it will give me to watch Emrys kill you.”

Merlin’s laugh resounded harshly, and there was a cruelty in the sound Arthur would never have believed Merlin capable of making. He had to work hard to suppress a shiver as the echo of it rolled around the throne room. Behind the shimmering wall Arthur could see his knights watching in horror as they witnessed their king at the mercy of the people who hated him most.

Almost.

“With your death, magic will be restored to Camelot and the male Pendragon line will be scoured from the earth. Morgana will bring magic back.” There was an almost exultant note in Merlin’s voice now.

“You do remember the last time she ruled in Camelot, Merlin? When she almost destroyed the kingdom in a week? What makes you think this time will be any different?”

Morgana threw out a hand and Arthur found himself slammed backwards, pressed against the solid wood at the base of his seat. He stared at Morgana.

“I think I’ll help Emrys kill you.”

Arthur couldn’t help his sorrow at this vision of hate and madness, even though his obvious compassion seemed only to enrage her further. With a deep sigh, he began the struggle back to his feet, surprised to find it easier this time, almost as if Merlin’s magic had recognised him. For a moment it felt as if a helpful hand had been slipped under his elbow, supporting him as he stood. A quick glance at Merlin showed obvious signs of confusion and frustration.

Once he could stand tall once more, he spoke. “It’s over, Morgana. I’m sorry.” Arthur turned his attention to Merlin, even as both sorcerer and witch raised their hands and called their power. “Merlin, you have my trust.”