It started with a girl. She couldn't have been more than six years old, tangled gold hair and blue eyes that reminded him a little of his own, not that he could see much of their colour. She'd been crying, red-faced and terrified, and she kept twisting away, trying to escape as the guards pulled her toward the lake. Toward her death.
Arthur was not much older, just turned ten and his father had thought him man enough to bear witness to the law. At first, he'd been thrilled that Uther was proud enough to have him standing alongside, his father smiling down at him as he explained what it was like to be king and how someday he'd follow in the great work of eradicating that worst of evils, magic.
But he hadn't realized just what was going on. Executions were commonplace but up until then, he'd only attended when it had been adults, scummy-looking rogues or enemies of Camelot, or once in a while, an insane women shrieking for revenge. Never a little girl, barely old enough to play with dolls.
As Arthur stood there at the edge of the precipice, looking out over the black water, the shrieks of the girl intensified, the terrified cries of her family echoing in the frigid air. It made him sick to hear it but he knew that his father would not approve of such weakness. Swallowing down the bile that was rising in his throat, he stood there, watching. Shivering. Silent. Even Uther's hand on his shoulder was not enough, seemed more to keep him in check than warm reassurance.
Dragging her feet, sobbing, the girl was trying so hard to pull away but the guards was relentless as they marched her to the edge. Then with a nod of his father's head, they lifted her up and tossed her out over the cliff and into the endless depths. Her scream lasted a long time as she fell, abruptly cutting off as she hit the water and sank.
Arthur hoped it might be over; sometimes people died from falling that far but not this time. The girl broke the surface, shrieking for her mother. She thrashed about, begging for someone to help her but there was no escape. The cliff-face was sheer and she kept slipping back into the lake.
It took her a long time to die.
Her parents soon followed, three bodies floating in the black water, but by then, he was numb.
He didn't remember the speech his father gave after that. It was the same anyway, talking about the horrors of magic and how it had to be eradicated from Camelot but it didn't matter. His father had just executed a little girl for trying to heal her cat with magic and her family for shielding her and it was the first time Arthur had ever truly questioned whether Uther was right.
It was not the last.
Merlin found him looking out over the courtyard. The stones had been wiped clean of Uther's funeral pyre, the smell of smoke giving way to the fresh scent of pine and the hint of autumn. For a while, Arthur ignored the bustle of chores and the idiot's worried looks prodding at his back.
Merlin was babbling about something or other. "Cook is worried that there won't be enough pheasants for the feast and pickled eggs are in short supply and she wants you to know she's doing her best to find more. And Geoffrey is looking up protocols what with the rulers of five kingdoms coming to your coronation and Gwaine has been looking into the wine stocks and…."
Minor, foolish things. The memory of a dead child's tangled hair rose up, golden curls swirling in the black depths and suddenly Arthur didn't want to hear any more of Merlin's prattle. "Do you think magic is dangerous?"
The sharp clatter of dishes hitting the table was enough. Of course, Merlin would think it dangerous. After all they had been through, how could he not?
A long, heavy silence and then Merlin said, wariness in his voice, "Why do you ask?"
For years, any time magic was mentioned, he would tremble, turn away, refuse to look Arthur in the eye. If he didn't know better, he could have sworn that Merlin was more afraid of it than his father had been – if that were even possible.
He knew Merlin was a brave man about most things. They'd both been through deadly attacks and fantastical creatures bent on destruction. He had even had a sorcerer for a friend back in Ealdor so it seemed odd his reaction to it. But then Merlin was odd in so many ways.
"My father certainly thought it was and he killed enough people for it."
The memory of the girl returned, the screams, her parents' grief, the struggle to live that seemed to go on forever. Bile rising and then another memory of what had happened after the girl had drowned.
His father had known somehow that Arthur disapproved of Uther's actions that day. He could still hear his father's voice lashing into him, all cutting disdain and ice. A disappointment, a weakling for letting his heart rule his head, a fool that would bring down the kingdom if he didn’t change. As he stood there, silent, he tried not to cry. He wanted his father to be proud of him. Instead Uther's fury had gutted him.
After that, he learned to hide his feelings, learned to say the expected things and do the expected things, to look into his father's eyes with steadfast determination, to lie without hesitation.
Now he didn't have to lie any more.
"I'm not so sure." Behind him, there was a sharp gasp, a breathless sound as if Merlin couldn't believe what he was hearing. Arthur turned, saw him standing there looking startled, almost panicked. And in that instant, more than anything, he wanted Merlin to understand. "What if magic is just a tool? Surely children are not evil and yet my father killed them without mercy. And others have been condemned for healing, and growing their crops. Should I punish everyone for something only a few would misuse?"
"But I thought…." His hands grasping at the table's edge, Merlin looked as if he couldn't comprehend what Arthur was saying.
He didn't think Merlin would react this strangely. He was an idiot at times but still he valued his opinion.
"You thought I agreed with my father?" Worried, Arthur took a step closer. He had to make Merlin see reason even if the rest of the court would not. He needed someone to understand what he was about to do. "What else could I say? He was the king after all and his word was law."
An urgent knock on the door and there was no more time for talk. The guards were calling his name, reminding him of the time. It was his coronation day and his court was waiting.
Arthur turned to go, looked back to see Merlin still staring at him with a puzzled, wary look on his face. Shaking his head, he said, "Come on, Merlin, it wouldn't do for my idiot manservant to miss the ceremony."
Shaking off whatever seemed to be troubling him, Merlin gave him a quick grin. "Wouldn't miss it for the world. I want to see if that crown will fit on your big fat head."
Before he could sputter a reply, Merlin came forward, pulled the heavy red cape up and over Arthur's shoulders. Gentle hands, nimble and experienced, forever familiar and well-loved, smoothed the cloth down as Merlin fussed and tugged and tried to make things perfect.
Arthur could see that Merlin was worried, uncomfortable with their conversation about magic. He'd already turned it aside, into word play, back into a ritual they both knew all too well would work between them. For now, Arthur was willing to let him. But it was not over, not yet.
"At least I'm not a clotpole, like you." Then Arthur opened the doors and started striding toward the Great Hall.
Trotting beside him down the corridor, Merlin shook his head, still brushing invisible bits of dirt off Arthur's shoulders as they walked. "You don't even know what that means."
Arthur squared his jaw, tried not to let his eyes light with amusement. "Yes, I do. It means Merlin, pure and simple."
"Simple? I'm more intelligent than you," Merlin shot back.
Ignoring the guards flanking them as they neared the ornate doors, Arthur said, "Oh, really? And who lost my best pair of boots yesterday? And spilled wine all over my favourite shirt? And when asked a simple question that even a simpleton could answer, you stammered and turned red as a beet?"
"You didn't answer it, either." As Arthur looked over at him, he saw that Merlin was scowling again but there was laughter lurking behind it.
Nudging Merlin with his elbow, watching him stumble a bit and trying not to smile at his clumsiness, Arthur said, "I am the king. I don't have to answer stupid questions."
"Prat!" Catching up, Merlin was obviously about to shove him in retaliation when the doors opened and a sea of faces looked back toward them. He stopped short, breathed out a wondrous, "Oh…."
A long moment later, turning back to Arthur, he straightened his shoulders, bowed his head, was no longer playing the fool; the light in Merlin's eyes was somehow sacred, pure as he said softly, "My king."
Then the trumpets were blaring and there was no more time for anything but that steady, slow walk toward destiny.
He rescinded the ban on magic that afternoon.
Waiting until after the fealty oaths were done, an endless line of acknowledgement and politics and hangers-on pushing for positions in the court, he called for Geoffrey to read the proclamation. He would have done it himself but he wanted to watch their faces, to see what his people would do when their world turned upside down.
At first there was a stunned echoing silence and then everyone was talking at once, so many shouting for Arthur's attention that it seemed more a riot than a celebration. His councillors waving their arms, a few of them red-faced, telling him how wrong he was and how dare he change it when Uther had been so set on destroying magic for all time, that he was a traitor to his father's memory. Some even had the temerity to call him untested, a mere boy, but they stopped that quickly enough with one intense stare and a quiet reminder that he was king and his word law.
Merlin, on the other hand, stood to one side, watching everything that was going on, his gaze flicking from Arthur's face to those most opposed to the changes and back again. He didn't say anything but Arthur could feel Merlin's worry vibrating all the way across the room.
And it didn't get much better at the feast. His knights backed him up, especially Gwaine surprisingly, and they were a force to reckon with. They were seen arguing with several members of the court but either by force of their words or force of arms, they seemed to be effective. The noise quieted down to the dull roar of a normal party in time.
It was a long day and he knew there would be a struggle for months over it but he was not about to change his mind. There would never again be a golden-haired child drowning because of magic.
He had to admit that he was more worried about Merlin's reaction than anything else. Somehow over the last several years, the idiot was more a friend, more a confident than anyone else had ever been, even those he'd known all his life. The others were too deferential; Merlin spoke his mind and he needed that so much, even now, especially now.
He'd even gone looking for him but Merlin was nowhere to be found and finally he gave up. It wouldn't do for a king to be looking for a servant, and this first day had been hard enough without more whispers of his folly.
What he didn't expect was Merlin to be waiting for him. And that he'd be so upset.
"Everyone is talking about it. Are you really going to do it? I thought I knew you but this…."
Any other time, Merlin's hand-waving would be amusing and Arthur would have mocked him for it but he was exhausted and in no mood for wit, or in Merlin's case, half-wit. So he threw off his cloak, letting it pile by the door, and as he moved toward the table, he poured himself a drink. "Merlin, I know you are worried but it will be alright."
Scowling at him, Merlin kicked the cloak out of the way, not even trying to clean up after him. "They are saying that you are just trying to flush the sorcerers out, make them think you are serious." Then he shoved the door shut, a sharp angry sound. "Most people think it's a good idea. Lure them into a trap and then… snap. Get rid of them once and for all."
Well, that was unexpected. It sounded almost as if Merlin were defending magic.
Apparently, Merlin wasn't even going to let him object. "And that's not very honourable and are you really trying to lure them in? Because if you are, you are not the man I know at all."
Before Merlin could take another breath and rabbit on about something that he knew nothing about, Arthur put up a hand and stopped him, well at least stopped him from babbling. His glaring eyes and crabbed mouth were still speaking volumes, however.
He would have thought that Merlin knew him well enough not to believe those lies but it had been a trying day and they were both tired. As patiently as he could, he said, "Merlin, the gossip mongers have it wrong. I am serious about lifting the ban. I'm sorry if you think I'm wrong, too, but I have to try to change things."
"Really?" He seemed calmer already, no longer scowling at him and Arthur could almost see ideas churning inside that idiotic head of his.
"Yes, really." Arthur nodded. "I know that you are afraid of magic but I'd like your support."
Shooting him a confused look, Merlin shook his head. "Arthur, you have no idea."
"I think I do. You've avoided talking about magic for years now, always turning away when the least little thing comes up." He looked down at the goblet, the dark liquid reminding him of another time when children were drowned for their gifts and it only hardened his resolve. "I know you think magic is dangerous but I want to do this. I've seen too many people die for using magic to heal a child or feed their families."
Sitting down, scrubbing at his face, trying to banish the tiredness behind his eyes, Arthur said, "Abolishing the ban is only the first step. The people of Camelot may resist it. And even if they didn't, I'm not sure the sorcerers and other magic users will believe me. My court apparently doesn't. And you just assumed that I would do something that dishonest. Thanks for the vote of confidence, by the way."
"Sorry." Merlin even managed to look ashamed. That was a start, at least. "Umm, is the new law in effect then? Could someone actually be free to practice magic now?"
He took a swallow of wine, then put the goblet down, moved it back and forth in a little circle, avoiding Merlin's eyes. "Yes, and yes, Merlin. As long as they don't break the other laws, they are free to practice it. I hope that doesn't frighten you too much."
He looked up to see his servant frowning again. "No, it doesn't frighten me. In fact, I know someone who has been waiting for this for a long time."
"I already know about Gaius, Merlin. No need to worry about him. He is safe."
It would make sense that Merlin would be concerned about Gaius. After all, he was a known sorcerer who had given up magic but he still had power and that would make him dangerous in the eyes of the court. How Uther managed to keep the old physician from execution was a mystery – well except for that one time with Aredian but Arthur wanted to forget that entire episode. It only reminded him of how easily it could all go horribly wrong.
Watching him carefully, Merlin said, "No, someone else. Someone you didn't know about. Would you accept them if they had been practicing sorcery all along, helping people, protecting yo… others with magic?"
Arthur sat up at that. This was new. He'd thought Merlin afraid of magic with the very large exception of Gaius and here he was talking about other sorcerers as if he knew them personally, as if he'd been helping them all along. "You know of someone? And you didn't say anything?"
"No, I don't… I couldn't…." Merlin looked a bit panicky about it, his eyes wide and his hands clenched. But still he didn't back down. "What person would remain here when your father burned them for being who they are?"
"You do know someone and you never said." As Merlin started to shake his head, skin pale as shroud-cloth, Arthur tried to calm him down. "It's alright, it's alright. I'm not going to punish you for it and I understand. Any idiot, even a daffodil like yourself, would keep quiet about it."
For a moment, Merlin didn't say anything, just stared at Arthur as if trying to decide something that was so important a wrong word might shatter the world and everyone in it. He looked down, biting his lip and then straightening up, said, softly, intently, "Do I have your word, Arthur? It's true?"
"Yes, Merlin, you have my word. Sorcery is permitted once again in Camelot."
With that, his servant, his friend, his confidant, lifted his chin, looking tall and strong and nothing like the fool he so often was, the transformation a little unsettling, and said, "Arthur, I… I've been hiding for so long and I wasn't sure this day would ever come. I've wanted to tell you but there was never the right time, not while Uther was still king."
Then he cupped his hand around his mouth, muttered some kind of nonsense into it and when he looked up again, his eyes were gold.
Merlin's eyes were gold.
And in the palm of his hand, fire danced.
It wasn't possible. It couldn't be. It had to be a trick. Merlin was having him on, a joke, a poor one and he was in no mood to be mocked.
He didn't even remember standing up. Suddenly he was marching toward Merlin, furious at being ridiculed over something so fundamental. "What sort of game is this? I'm in no mood for foolish tricks."
Stepping back, moving so that there was a barrier of chairs between them, Merlin was looking shocked and not a little angry. "It's not a trick. I am a sorcerer."
Leaning against the table, his hands splayed across the wood as he stared at his wayward servant, Arthur said, "You trip over your own feet. How could you be a sorcerer of all things?"
Merlin blinked at that, seemed to realize how it must have looked. Another gesture and the flames turned into embers and then into the shape of a Pendragon's crest as Merlin whispered, "Draca."
Arthur couldn't help watching the little dragon floating in the air. It was beautiful, delicate and spark-bright, as wondrous a thing as he'd ever seen and he almost didn't hear Merlin say, "Umm, I was born with it?"
As the embers died, he turned back to Merlin. "And you couldn’t have trusted me with this knowledge?"
"I didn't want to be burnt at the stake or have my head chopped off." He was looking at Arthur as if he were a dollop-head, whatever that meant and then his gaze softened, turned contrite. "I'm sorry, Arthur, truly I am."
He still couldn't wrap his mind around the fact that his servant, a man who couldn't do laundry without ruining it, a man who always had a smile to make Arthur's day lighter, a man who cried when the unicorn died or argued about hunting furry woodland creatures, who had the softest heart in the kingdom, was once Camelot's sworn enemy.
He'd have to deal with it later, sometime when he wasn't so exhausted. He stood up, folded his arms across his chest and tried to look stern as Merlin fidgeted his worry.
Finally, he said, "Well, I thought maybe Gaius might help me with advice on magic but it would seem that you might do just as well… unless you are as terrible a sorcerer as you are a servant."
"I'm actually quite brilliant at magic." Merlin grinned at that, his eyes lighting in pride and not a little relief.
"And the fact that you've been lying to me for years? You must be brilliant at that, too, since I trusted you so completely." He didn't even try to keep the bitterness out of his voice.
"I'm sorry, Arthur, I only did it because I had to." He was squirming again, looking almost lost and Arthur had to admit that he could never stand to see that look on Merlin's face.
He waited a long, long moment and then sighed out his disappointment. "I will be much angrier about this in the morning, once I've come to terms with the fact that apparently my idiotic toad of a servant has magic and has lied to me from the first day we met. But…,"As he rubbed fingers across his eyes, to try and wipe clean the tiredness there, he sat down again, heavily, reached for a drink and after draining the goblet, he said, "No more, Merlin, no more lying. I can forgive the magic but lying is another matter. I need to be able to trust you again."
Merlin came out from behind the chair, looked at him solemn and steadfast and then with a gesture as sacred as a fealty oath, he knelt down before Arthur, bowing his head. "My king, on my honour and my life, I will tell you the truth always, no matter the cost to myself. So I do swear."
Then he took Arthur's hand and kissed the ring on his finger, servant to king, pledging his word.
For a moment, no one moved. Arthur's throat tightened; he could feel the power of Merlin's oath settling into his heart. And it was enough.
Finally, Merlin stood, slowly, as if not willing to break the moment, to let it linger a little longer for them both. Then he looked down at Arthur, hope and acceptance and joy shining in his eyes as he said, "One thing I don't understand, though."
Arthur felt as if he'd been talking for hours. This had wrung him dry. And while he knew he'd have to face his people's angry questions in the morning, he felt stronger and more sure than he'd ever been before. "What is that?"
Hesitating, perhaps not wanting to shake their accord, Merlin said carefully, "You get attacked all the time with magic so I could understand you hating it. When did you decide that magic wasn't so bad after all?"
The swirl of golden hair in black water and the wails of a child desperate for her mother. The memories still haunted him, would always haunt him but after his father's contempt, he'd never spoken of them to another soul. Now, finally, there was one person to share the grief that troubled his spirit for all those years. At last.
"There was once a little girl…."