The dragon flies overhead, jaws open wide, flames spewing forth. Its eyes are not war mad or blood-thirsty, only so old, so sad--
And then the dragon is landing on the cool evening grass, jaw snapped closed, eyes as old and sad as a mountain, as an old castle, as Time itself. He leans down, bringing his head to the level of the human standing in front of him, a human with thick black hair standing on end, skinny shoulders shoved back until he stands ramrod straight--
Merlin speaks to the Dragon, murmuring words in a voice that has a rough drawl to it. Words that she could not understand, for they were not, she realized, were not in English but in--
The dragon lifts onto its hind legs and roars, suddenly fierce and formidable instead of old and withering. She can’t see Merlin’s face, but there is a resigned slump to the skinny shoulders. Merlin lifts his hand and speaks more words that she can’t understand, words in a tongue thick with syllables and meaning and magic--
Merlin’s hand is glowing blue, bright blue, and she suddenly knows: he is magic.
Morgana woke with a gasp, her skin covered with sweat. She looked around wildly, the afterimage of the dragon and Merlin playing in front of her eyes, but she saw nothing but her bed-curtains, swaying softly in the wind coming from her open window. Outside she could hear crickets chirping. Little by little, she relaxed. There was no danger here.
She laid back in her bed. So Merlin was magic. Her dream had been true, of that she had no doubt - her Seer dreams carried a different sort of weight than her regular ones. But it was so strange to think that Merlin - skinny, sassy, unimportant Merlin - had anything of the Goddess’ touch in him.
And if he did have magic, why had he not done something about Uther? He was Arthur’s right hand man, he had all the chances in the world to dispose of Uther. Was he a traitor to his own kind? That was the only explanation. Anyone who felt true loyalty to magic would never allow Uther to walk free and alive. Arthur--Arthur, Morgana could understand, but Uther was a monster who deserved neither love nor loyalty. He deserved nothing but death for the things he’d done not only to innocent people but also to her kind. To their kind. And Merlin had done nothing to stop it.
She considered this. She didn’t want to expose him, for he was magic, but he was also a traitor who had attempted to kill her. Who had killed her, in order to save his precious Arthur and Uther. And that kind of magic didn’t deserve to exist happily. Merlin deserved pain for the suffering that he’d condoned by not killing Uther whenever he had the chance. And the worst kind of suffering she could inflict on him was to expose him for what he truly was--a sorcerer.
Morgana smiled, slow and wicked. She would talk to Merlin, out of respect for his kinship with her through magic, but after that she would go to Uther and tell him everything. And seeing the look of resignation, of defeat on Merlin’s face as he burned--it would be sweet revenge for his ruthless decision to murder her.
Merlin hummed absently under his breath as he walked through the corridor, Arthur’s boots tucked under one arm. He’d gone to the kitchens to polish Arthur’s boots, so that he would have a chance to gossip with the head chef, who liked to talk almost as much as she liked to cook. She also had had several loud arguments with Merlin over his skinniness and how he need to eat more and did he think he was going to attract any women-folk if he looked like a bag of bones?
Merlin once thought about telling her that it wasn’t exactly women-folk he wanted to attract, but one blond prince instead. The look on her face would have been priceless, but Merlin had decided secrecy was probably better. The less people who knew about his . . . inappropriate feelings for Arthur, the better. And besides, it wasn’t like Merlin wasn’t used to keeping secrets.
“Merlin?” Merlin froze. Slowly, he turned on his heel to face Morgana, hand clenching around the top of Arthur’s boots so tightly that, later, he would see slight indentations in the leather. “Can we talk?”
Merlin took a deep breath and tried to remain calm. It was hard when he remembered, with sudden clarity, the betrayed look in Morgana’s eyes when she realized he’d killed her, the way she’d gasped around her breath, the cold, hard fury that crept into her face every time she and Merlin were in the same room together--
“Of course,” Merlin managed to say around the lump in his throat. “Of course--would you like to go somewhere more private, my lady?”
Morgana’s smile was knife-sharp and just as deadly. “No, here is fine,” she murmured.
She took a step closer. Merlin was glad, at times like these, for his height, which made it easier to pretend that Morgana wasn’t as intimidating as a fire-breathing dragon bearing down on him.
“What did you want to talk about?” Merlin asked, trying to contain his nervousness.
Morgana’s smirk told him that he was as bad at concealing his emotions as ever. “Merlin,” she said, deliberately slow, “why didn’t you ever tell me you’re magic?”
Merlin had once accompanied Gaius to see a patient who was suffering from chest pains. During their visit, the man had clutched at his arm and had a heart attack. Merlin could remember trying to pump life back into him, hearing the man’s stuttering heart beat once, twice, three times before it went out completely. The way Merlin’s heart was thudding now made that man’s heart look almost heathly.
“What?” he asked, trying for nonchalance and failing.
Morgana’s smirk widened and Merlin felt anxiety open a giant, gnawing pit in his stomach. “Don’t pretend ignorance, Merlin,” she half-whispered. “I know. I’ve seen it.”
Merlin remembered Morgana’s ability as a Seer and cursed silently.
“Morgana,” he said, all pretence dropped, “Morgana, I know that you hate me, and with good reason, but you cannot tell anyone--”
“You are magic, then,” Morgana breathed, looking more fascinated. “I was so sure, but it’s different, hearing you admit it.” She looked him up and down critically. “You can’t be very powerful,” she added doubtfully.
Merlin decided not to correct her assumptions. “Morgana, you can’t tell--the King or Arthur or Gwen--”
Morgana frowned at him. “Why have you done nothing about Uther, if you are magic?” she demanded, sudden and urgent, her fascination gone like leaves on the wind. All of the sudden, her eyes were sharp, searing, and her expression demanded answers. “You must hate him as much as I do, and you’ve had more of a chance to kill him than I have--”
“He’s Arthur’s father,” Merlin answered immediately.
There was no other answer. Sometimes, in the dark night, his hatred for Uther would unfurl in his chest, a heavy, snarling monster that screamed, he doomed your father, he’s killed so many of your kind, he would kill you if you gave him the chance, who knows what he did to his wife, look at what he’s done to Arthur, and he’s made you keep secrets and lie and cheat and murder--
Merlin learned, slowly, to shake the monster off. It had either been that or go insane.
Morgana eyed him closely. “You really do care for Arthur,” she said, almost wonderingly. “Why is that?”
Merlin met her eyes. “One day,” he said, quiet and sure, “Arthur is going to be a great king. The greatest king that has ever lived.” He paused, then added quickly, as if it shouldn’t matter next to something like that, “And he’s my friend.” And, of course, there was the love that Merlin would admit to no one other than himself.
Morgana was staring at him, eyes wide, nostrils flaring. “You believe Arthur will be the greatest king that’s ever been known?” she asked, incredulous and almost condescending. Merlin nodded and she laughed, sharp and brittle as her smile. “You’re a fool then, Merlin. Arthur will follow in his father’s footsteps, as he’s always done. And Camelot will be forced to live another generation without magic, with the senseless killings of sorcerers.” She shook her head. “No, Arthur will not be a good king.”
Merlin wanted to shake her, to show her all of the times Arthur had gone against his father to do what he thought was right, to do the just thing, the merciful thing. He wanted to tell her about all the times Arthur had said to him, quiet, contemplative, unsure sometimes I wonder if my father is doing the right thing, killing sorcerers. Arthur was better than Uther. He was.
“You’re wrong about him,” Merlin said steadily. “I’m sorry that you have so little faith in him, but you’re wrong. He will move out of Uther’s shadow. He will bring magic back to Camelot. And I,” he added, standing up a bit straight, “will help him.”
Morgana laughed again. “Oh?” she asked, her face all amusement: quirked eyebrows, a smirk in the corner of her mouth. “And how exactly are you going to do that?”
Merlin wanted to tell her about the destiny he shared with Arthur, but this was Morgana. Had she been the Morgana he knew a few years ago, he wouldn’t have hesitated. But this Morgana, this cold, calculating, bitter Morgana--he didn’t know her, not at all. And he couldn’t trust her.
So he shrugged, deliberately nonchalant. “I will somehow,” he said, with much less confidence than he actually felt.
Morgana gave him a long, hard look. “You allow our kind to die every day so that you can help Arthur become a great king?” she asked, and Merlin flinched away from the scorn in her tone, the anger.
“No--” Merlin tried, but Morgana glared at him, icy eyes all stinging fury.
“Uther burns as many of us as he can find,” she said, voice shaking. “He burns us by the dozens but you--you have had so many chances to get rid of him, to save our people and you haven’t, for Arthur’s sake? You haven’t saved magical lives because you believe in some gibberish about Arthur becoming a great king?”
Merlin’s neck felt hot - he could feel the blush curling around his ears. Well, when she put it like that--
“I’m sorry that they died,” he murmured quietly, remembering the screams from the very public burnings. “But I will not kill Uther, not when it will shake Arthur to his core.”
Morgana scoffed. “Oh yes, let’s spare Arthur the suffering,” she spat disdainfully. “You--I can’t believe we were ever friends, Merlin. I can’t believe that we share the magic and yet you--” She shook her head, looking oddly disappointed.
Merlin wanted to tell Morgana that he had had those same thoughts her before she’d been taken by Morgause, that he still had them now - how could he have been friends with someone who would turn against Arthur, would turn against Camelot? But, in the deepest part of his heart, he felt like he understood Morgana not because he intellectually knew that she was right when it came to Uther’s stance on magic, even if her ways of revolting against it were wrong, but because he knew that, in another life, he could have very easily become her: angry, bitter at the world, bent on getting revenge for his lost brothers and sisters.
“Some day, Morgana, I hope that we can be friends again,” Merlin said finally, when Morgana’s cold, pale eyes were too sharp to bear.
Morgana laughed. The sound wasn’t happy. “I very much doubt that, Merlin.” With that, she swept down the hall, skirts swishing.
“Wait!” Merlin called after her, heart hammering in his throat. “Wait, Lady Morgana!”
She didn’t stop.
Merlin took a deep breath. He felt like he’d been kicked repeatedly in the chest and his heart hurt and terror was beginning to set in because--because Morgana had never said if she was going to keep his secret. He thought that she would, since she professed that she hated seeing people with magic killed, but at the same time--at the same time, she’d made it clear that she had little love left for him and there was no better way to get rid of him then to just whisper to Uther, Merlin’s a sorcerer. Uther wouldn’t think twice about killing a servant accused of sorcery and Arthur--
Merlin didn’t want to imagine the betrayal he knew he’d find in Arthur’s face the moment he found out Merlin’s secret. Merlin knew that he could have told Arthur of his magic a long time ago if Arthur’s reaction didn’t terrify him so, if Arthur’s disappointment and anger and hurt keep him silent. He didn’t want Arthur to be angry with him, or hurt by him.
Merlin took a deep breath. He’d known this day would come some time - the day he would be discovered. He’d hoped it’d be in the future, when Arthur was King and more lenient towards magic, but--Merlin’s lips tightened, and fear clawed at his belly. Perhaps after dinner, he would corner Morgana again and see if there was any way he could wrangle a promise out of her to never speak of it to Uther, but--
He remembered the cold, angry disappointment in Morgana’s icy gaze, the way she scoffed and sneered at him. He had no doubt she hated him - Merlin couldn’t really blame her for it, even. And that made him realize, with a sinking heart, that there was probably little he could do to convince her not to tell Uther this secret that would kill him as surely as he’d killed her.
“This would be a really good time for some angry sorcerer to attack the castle,” he muttered under his breath.
“Merlin, this is my second-best jacket,” Arthur said, mockingly angry. “What have you done with my best one, hidden it away so you can admire yourself in it later? Not that there’s much to admire.”
“I’ll go fetch it right away,” Merlin said, too quiet and serious because Morgana was still pressing at the back of his mind. He knew she was going to tell Uther, he knew it, but it was already dinner time and he’d yet to be arrested--
“What is the matter with you Merlin?” Arthur asked, turning to glare at him. “For God’s sake, you’re gloomier than a widow at her husband’s funeral. What? Gauis isn’t being nice enough to you? Some girl reject you?”
“Not like it’d matter much if they did,” Merlin muttered before thinking.
Arthur’s head whipped around. “What did you say?” he barked, eyes wide with surprise.
Merlin jumped and blushed. “Nothing! Nothing at all!” he stammered. For God’s sake, was he to share all of his secrets with the Pendragon family today? “I was just--nothing.”
Arthur eyed him for a long moment, surprise giving way to something very--calculating. “You know, Merlin, I don’t believe I’ve ever seen you express an interest in any of the maids,” he said.
Merlin swallowed. “You haven’t been looking right,” he said, remembering Freya, with her wide, scared eyes and dark hair, the way she’d smiled in the candlelight. He had loved her, even if his love for her was starting to become a pale shadow of his love for Arthur.
Arthur raised an eyebrow. “Oh?” he asked, a little sharp. “Who is this lady-love of yours, then?”
Merlin shrugged. “Doesn’t matter anyways,” he said, trying to be as honest as he could without saying, you killed her. “She’s gone now.”
Arthur smiled again, this time without the edge. “You’re an odd one, Merlin, but you’re not entirely ugly. I’m surprised you haven’t had more girls flinging themselves at you, considering you’re my manservant.”
Merlin scoffed. “What, like that’s a privilege?”
Arthur pointed a finger at him. “I’ll have you know, you could have any maid in Camelot just by telling them you work for me. It’s a position of honor.”
“Honor, my arse,” Merlin muttered. Arthur must have heard him, because a second later a boot was thrown at his head.
“Hurry up and get my best jacket, you lazy sod. And while you’re at it, get another pair of boots, these look horrible.”
“You take longer getting dressed than some of the ladies I know,” Merlin said as he turned back to the closet.
“Excuse me, Merlin,” Arthur said, turning to glare again. “Did you just say something or was the whining of an annoying dog I heard?”
“Those dogs are getting to be such a problem,” Merlin said wryly, grinning a little as Arthur’s angry frown twitched into a smile.
Dinner that night was lively and light-hearted, but Merlin couldn’t summon any cheerfulness. Every time Morgana would lean in to whisper into Uther’s ear, he’d tense, prepared for the guards to come marching towards him to lead him away. But then Morgana would lean back and Uther would roar with laughter from whatever she’d told him and Merlin would relax, minutely, until she leaned forward once more. Merlin was fairly sure that Morgana was doing it to rile him up, and while he hated that she was playing for a puppet, he couldn’t say it wasn’t working.
“Merlin, you’re being even more useless than usual,” Arthur whispered as Merlin nearly dropped the wine jug for the third time in as many minutes. “Do I need to send you out? Are you ill or something?”
“N-Yes,” Merlin answered. “Yes, I’m feeling a mite bit woozy. Can you suffer without me for the feast?”
Arthur eyed him, then shrugged. “Go on then, get some rest. Otherwise who knows how long you’ll be sick and God knows if you get even worse at your job while ill, you’d better get well as quickly as possible.”
Merlin grinned at him. “I think that was a round-about way of wishing me health, Arthur,” he said delightedly.
Arthur scowled at him. “It was certainly was not. Now, get. Before I change my mind.”
Merlin handed the wine jug off to the nearest servant and then hurried away, aware of Morgana’s eyes on the back of his head. He wasn’t really ill, of course, but every noble was gathered in that dining hall and Uther and Arthur were both distracted. There would be no better time to go out to the forest to talk to Kilgharrah.
The forest was dark and quiet, aside from the hoof beats of Merlin’s horse. Merlin spotted the usual clearing he used to summon his old friend and hurried towards it, not bothering to keep quiet - if there were any patrols out, they would be far from this place.
“Kilgharrah,” Merlin yelled, voice hoarse from the dragonspeech. “Kilgharrah, come to me.”
Only a few minutes passed until Merlin could hear Kilgharrah’s wing beats, and then, suddenly, the dragon was bearing down on him, landing a few feet away and dropping his head.
“Young warlock,” he said solemnly. “What news have you, to summon me so soon?”
“Morgana has found out my secret,” Merlin said without preamble. “She is threatening to expose me to Uther.”
Kilgharrah considered this. “The witch is in a very dangerous position,” he agreed. “She has the ear of Uther, and he will believe whatever she whispers into it. You’re certain she knows?”
Merlin nodded sharply. “She confronted me about it this afternoon,” he said. “She said I--I killed our kind and I deserved to be punished for it.”
“A very black and white view of the situation,” Kilgharrah mused. “You do realize what will happen if she follows through on her threats?”
“I will be burned at the stake,” Merlin answered, throat tightening at the thought of it. Being burned was a horrible way to die.
The dragon lowered his head to stare Merlin directly in the eye. “That cannot be allowed to happen, Emyrs. You are the path that will lead to a bright Albion, an Albion with magic. Without you, Arthur will never discover his greatness.” Kilgharrah paused, then made the dragon equivalent of a smile. “And I would miss you dearly, my friend.”
Merlin smiled up at him, touched. Kilgharrah was odd and manipulative and so bitter sometimes, but he was also wise and he cared what happened to Merlin and to Camelot.
“I’ll have to convince Morgana to keep my secret then,” Merlin murmured. “Not sure how I’m going to do that.”
Kilgharrah opened his mouth, but then paused, tilting his head. His eyes narrowed. “Someone is leaving this place,” he murmured. Merlin tensed. “On horseback.” Kilgharrah took a deep breath and huffed. “The witch, if my nose is right.”
Merlin muttered a curse under his breath. “I will leave you here, old friend,” he said. “If I have need of you in the next few days, will you come?”
Kilgharrah inclined his head. “Of course,” he murmured, and then he was in the air, great wings beating.
Merlin didn’t stay to watch him go. Instead, he ran back to his horse and rode her as fast as he dared back to Camelot. Morgana seeing him with Kilgharrah wasn’t as bad as it would have been even a day ago, but it was still bad: it meant she knew he was in cahoots with the dragon, and that was something that would make him look like even more of a traitor to Uther and Arthur. Not to mention she might wonder why Kilgharrah would talk to him, if he was such a lowly sorcerer with so little power and she might realize that he was not all he claimed to be.
He managed to get the horse back to the stables without causing any suspicion and was just slipping back into the castle when he was suddenly dragged into an abandoned alcove, face to face with Morgana herself. She smirked at him, all amusement, but her nails were digging into Merlin’s arms like daggers.
“Consorting with dragons now, are we?” she purred.
Merlin sighed tiredly. “Why are you doing this, Morgana?” he asked. “I’ve already apologized for what I did to you - surely you must have realized it was necessary--”
Morgana’s fingers tightened into Merlin’s arm and he winced. “Necessary?!” she cried. “Necessary to kill me?!”
“If I hadn’t Arthur would have died! I would have died! Camelot would have been ruined!” Merlin yelled, partly to explain to Morgana and partly just so he could calm down the guilt that always resurfaced whenever he thought of that day. “I’m sorry I did it, I am, but it was the right choice.”
Morgana scoffed. “Yes, what a regular hero you were, Merlin,” she spat. “Killing a girl who had no idea what was happening to her just to save your precious kingdom, your precious Arthur. A regular knight in shining armor.”
“And are you any better, Morgana?” Merlin asked. “You’re going to tell Uther, aren’t you?” Morgana didn’t answer, but the sharp, pleased twist of her mouth showed her thoughts plainly. “Of course you are. And you’ll be condemning me to death, you realize that? One of your own kind? Does that make you better than me, Morgana?”
Morgana drew him in close, until their mouths were nearly touching. “I never pretended to be better than you, Merlin.” She flung him away from her and turned on her heel, marching away. Merlin watched her go, heart heavy in his chest.
Footsteps in the hall. “What on earth was that?” Merlin froze. He turned slowly to see Arthur walking down the hall, glaring.
“Um,” Merlin stammered, wondering if he’d offended some God, because why did everything have to be happening to him all at the same time?
“Was that--with Morgana--Is she your lost lady love?” Arthur demanded, striding up to Merlin. “Merlin, what on earth on you thinking--”
“We’re not like that!” Merlin protested, surprised. “We’re not! It’s just--Morgana and I are fighting about something, that’s all.”
“Oh?” Arthur asked skeptically. “And what would that be?”
Merlin felt the blood drain from his face. Arthur will know soon enough, a voice whispered in the back of his head. Shouldn’t you just tell him now and let it be done with? Don’t you think he’d rather hear it from you, then learn it from his father? Arthur deserved to know the truth, to hear it from Merlin instead of Morgana. It would, at the very least, make him seem less like a traitor to the one person whose opinion Merlin cared about. He opened his mouth, finally prepared to say the words that had been stifled for so long: Arthur, I’m a sorcerer. They were there, on the tip of his tongue.
Then they got stuck.
He kept seeing Arthur’s confused expression melting into betrayal, into anger, into hate. I don’t want you to hate me, Merlin thought miserably, closing his mouth again. And seeing your face as I expose the truth that will turn you against me will--
It would destroy him.
“Just a difference of opinion, that’s all,” Merlin muttered, feeling heart-sick.
Arthur harrumphed. “Looked more like a lover’s quarrel to me.” He placed a hand on Merlin’s shoulder and Merlin flinched away from him. Arthur’s hand tightened and when Merlin looked up, his face was full of concern. “Are you alright, Merlin? You’re twitchier than a rabbit today.”
Merlin smiled, painfully fake. “Just tired, Arthur,” he exclaimed brightly. “A night’s rest and I’ll be ready to go!”
Arthur’s concern changed into bemusement. “If you’re sure,” he said uncertainly, removing his hand from Merlin’s shoulder. Merlin missed the weight and warmth of it immediately. “You’d best be getting to sleep then. I’ll see you in the morning.”
Morgana paced her rooms like a wild animal caught in a cage. Merlin was magic and, more than that, he was powerful magic. No weak sorcerer would catch a dragon’s attention. They were proud, powerful creatures and they only deigned to talk to the most powerful sorcerers. Morgause had talked with longing of the days she’d spent talking to dragons as a child, before the Great Purge. They’d indulged her because she’d been particularly powerful for her age, but they spoke in long conversations with the elders of the Druids, the ones who gained that position by the depth and breadth of their magical knowledge and poweress. That a dragon would converse easily with Merlin, would come when he called, meant--
She had underestimated him.
She’d seen the dragon in the dream, but she hadn’t considered why Merlin hadn’t killed it or why it had spoken to him. She wondered how long the dragon and Merlin had been conversing and why. Was Merlin so powerful? Or was there another reason? The dragon had come when Merlin called, and Morgana had never heard that happening for anyone other than--
Morgana sat on her bed, feeling suddenly weak with shock. Was Merlin a Dragonlord? It was explain his relationship with the dragon, but--Where did he come from? Dragonlords had been wiped out before Merlin’s time, years before he was born. All of them except for Balinor, Morgana thought, eyes narrowing. Perhaps Balinor . . . .?
She shook her head. It didn’t matter. She’d made her decision - this time tomorrow, Merlin would be locked in a cell, waiting for his execution.
Morgana supposed she should feel guilty for sending one of her own kind to his death. But all she could think of was the thick, gasping sensation of death and the way Merlin had stood over her body and watched. Instead of guilt, satisfaction curled in her stomach.
“Gaius!” Merlin yelled, storming into their rooms. “Gaius!”
“What is it, Merlin?” Gaius asked irritably, looking up from his book. His aggravation melted upon seeing Merlin’s face and he set the book aside. “What’s happened?” he asked, with more concern.
“Morgana knows,” Merlin said without preamble. Gaius paled. He didn’t need to ask what Morgana knew about. “She knows and she’s going to tell Uther.”
“You must go,” Gaius announced, standing. “Now, Merlin, you must run--”
“And where would I go?!” Merlin demanded, on the edge of hysteria. “Tell me, Gaius, where? Back to my mother, to Ealdor? Gaius, you know Uther. It isn’t enough that I’m a sorcerer - I’m a sorcerer that works under his son, I’m the closest thing to a friend Arthur has. You know how furious he’ll be at how close I’ve gotten to him, to Arthur. He won’t be satisfied with running me out of Camelot - he’ll search for me to the end of the Albion, to the end of the world.”
Gaius sat back down, looking even paler. “You cannot stay here to die, my dear boy,” he half-whispered. “You cannot.”
Merlin ran a hand over his face. “I won’t live my father’s existence, Gaius,” he said wearily. “I won’t be forced to live in a cave, in hiding, because Uther wants me dead. But I don’t want to die. I don’t know what to do.”
“We must convince Morgana to keep your secret,” Gaius said. “Or make her forget it somehow. There are tinctures I could make that cause forgetfulness--”
Merlin looked up sharply. “How fast can you make them?”
Gaius paused. “A day, perhaps more,” he said. “They require several delicate ingredients.”
Merlin shook his head. “She’s telling Uther tomorrow, I don’t know when exactly--They won’t be done in time. Once Uther knows, it’s all over--”
“Perhaps a spell?” Gaius suggested, looking desperate.
Merlin frowned. “I’ll check,” he said. “But I’m sure that there aren’t any spells that can induce that kind of forgetfulness.”
Gaius slumped. “I wish you would leave,” he murmured. “To sit and watch while someone I consider a son burns to death--That is the worst hell imaginable, Merlin.”
Tears pricked at the back of Merlin’s eyes. “I’m sorry,” he said honestly. “I’m sorry I got you mixed up in all of this, I’m so, so sorry--”
Gaius stood and hurried over to him, capturing him in a tight hug. “My dear boy, you have nothing to be sorry for. I would not give up any of our time together, not even for my safety, not even for yours.”
Merlin leaned into him, taking deep breaths. He didn’t want to think of what would happen tomorrow--what would happen to Gaius, to him.
The next day, Uther opened his castle to the people, allowing them to take their concerns directly to him. Merlin watched in the crowd as Uther settled the disputes of peasant after peasant. However, Merlin’s attention was focused more on Morgana, who sat at Uther’s left hand, a tiny smirk curled in the corner of her mouth for the majority of the four hours that the proceedings took. Sometimes, just to dispel the sick sensation in his stomach, Merlin turned to Arthur, who sat on Uther’s other side, but then he was only reminded that Arthur would no doubt hate him by the end of the day and he had to turn away again.
He wondered why Morgana hadn’t told anyone yet. There had been plenty of time during breakfast and before the proceedings in the afternoon - perhaps she was just waiting for the opportune moment? Perhaps she had changed her mind? Merlin didn’t want to let the hope rise, but with every moment that he wasn’t arrested and sentenced to death, that spark grew a little bit stronger.
He glanced over at Gaius, who stood on his other side, looking extremely pale and tired, and felt a stab of guilt. Perhaps he shouldn’t have told Gaius of Morgana’s threats. Then, at least, what could very well be their last hours together wouldn’t be tinged with sadness.
His attention snapped back to the front when Uther stood, announcing the end of the proceedings and sweeping out of the room, Arthur and Morgana trailing after him. Merlin watched them go with his heart in his throat. All he could think of was that Morgana had an ample opportunity to talk to both Uther and Arthur alone, and he couldn’t stop wondering if she would finally seize her moment.
Morgana watched as Uther sat down with a heavy sigh. She didn’t let her sneer show. How she hated him. He had burned so many of her people, and innocents beside, in a thoughtless, prejudiced war of hatred. She wished for him to die a painful death, the death he deserved for inflicting so much hurt on others.
Her hatred conflicted with her desire to confess Merlin’s secret. She wanted to tell Uther, oh she did, but the desire to see Merlin burned and dead battled with her own personal morals of never giving up one of her own kind to Uther. She remembered, suddenly, that Merlin knew she had magic and had never confessed it to Uther, though he doubtlessly could have. But then her memory of her death came back, the way Merlin had stood over her body, prepared to go to any lengths to insure the continuation of Uther’s reign--
Morgana shook her head. No, Merlin had to die. She regretted losing someone with magic - a Dragonlord! - but she had no other choice. He had turned his back on his people, and now they would turn their backs on him.
“My Lord?” Morgana said softly, drawing Uther’s attention to her. He smiled at her, as if she was the most precious thing in his existence. Morgana felt repulsed by it. “I have some--news, of a sort, to share with you.”
Uther raised an eyebrow. “Oh?” he asked, fond expression changing to curiosity. “What news is this?”
Morgana glanced at Arthur, who shared his father’s curious expression. She wondered, for a split second, how Arthur would react before she said, “I believe Arthur’s manservant to be a sorcerer.”
Then, to Morgana’s surprise, Uther laughed heartily. “You speak of Merlin, do you not?” he asked between chuckles. Morgana nodded. “That boy is easily the most inept and incompetent servant I’ve ever seen, but he’s no sorcerer!”
Morgana frowned, glancing at Arthur, who looked less jovial than Uther but no less amused. “He is a sorcerer,” she declared, more heatedly. “I’ve seen him practice magic.”
Uther’s chuckles died and his expression turned serious as he stared at her face, taking in her vehemence. “Are you absolutely certain, Morgana? He’s been with our household for a very long time and I’ve never seen any evidence of sorcery from him.”
Arthur, Morgana noticed out of the corner of her eye, was gripping the handle of his sword so tightly that his knuckles were turning white. She pointed her chin defiantly and added the final, damning detail.
“I saw him conversing with a Dragon,” she declared.
Uther frowned. “All the Dragons are dead, child,” he said impatiently. Morgana felt rage roar up in her, but she calmed it as quickly as she could. “Arthur killed the last one.”
“Last night, you allowed Merlin to leave early,” Morgana said to Arthur, who looked pale. “I left soon after to follow him. He went into the woods and spoke to a Dragon - the same Dragon you supposedly killed, I believe. Didn’t Merlin go with you to that battle as well?”
Uther was looking suspicious now. Morgana could feel triumph in her grasp. Arthur nodded shallowly, skin growing paler by the minute.
“Then perhaps the Dragon is not as dead as we thought. Perhaps he helped it get away. Do you remember killing the Dragon, Arthur?”
Arthur paused. “My memory of that night is unclear,” he said quietly. Morgana smiled.
“I have seen him practice magic and speak to Dragons,” Morgana said clearly. “At the very least you can bring him in for questioning and see if my story holds true against what he says. After all, as you said, he has been a part of this household for a very long time.”
Uther’s expression was stony. “Arthur,” he said evenly. “Arrest Merlin. Bring him to the dungeons.”
“Father,” Arthur started, his eyes wide with--terror, or horror, Morgana couldn’t tell which. “Please, I’m sure this is just a misunderstanding--”
“Arthur,” Uther snapped. “You will do as I say, so help me God. If your manservant is innocent, then that will come out, but as it is--”
Arthur’s lips thinned and he stared at Uther for a very long time. Then, stiffly, he bowed his head. “As you wish, Father,” he whispered.
Merlin folded Arthur’s shirts over his arms with a sigh, walking down the hallway with his head down, biting his lip. He wondered if Morgana, Arthur, and Uther had left the throne room yet, what they’d discussed, if Morgana had spilled his secret--
Boots on the floor. Merlin tensed and looked up. Arthur was coming down the hall, face solemn, surrounded by guards. Merlin’s heart lept into his throat, his stomach curling anxiously into knots. Arthur’s face, the guards, that could only mean--
“Merlin,” Arthur said as he approached. “You are under arrest for suspected use of sorcery.”
Merlin dropped the shirts.
“Arthur--” he said, desperate, “Arthur, please--”
“Be silent,” Arthur said, cold and distant as stone. “You will be escorted to the dungeons, where you will stay until the King decides your fate. Guards, take him.”
“Arthur!” Merlin cried as the guards seized his arms, carrying him away down the hall. Merlin twisted to keep Arthur in his sights, but the guards’ grips were firm. “Arthur, I’m sorry--”
Arthur didn’t turn to look at him.
Arthur breathed in and out, deep and even, staring out at the darkening sky. It had been two hours since Merlin had been taken to the dungeons.
I don’t know what to do, he admitted silently to the room. Merlin was about as close to a best friend as anyone had managed to get with Arthur. And, sometimes, when Merlin turned a certain way, or the light was right, Arthur wanted nothing more than to--
No, Arthur instructed himself sternly. You know nothing can come of those thoughts. Even if Merlin hadn’t been a servant, Arthur was still Prince of Camelot. He had a duty to his people to provide them with heirs. Any--dalliances on the side would not be condoned until he was married and had a child. And Arthur had always disliked the idea of mistresses, for he felt it wasn’t right to ask a woman to stand by the side while he was wed to someone else. The thought of asking that of Merlin, who was his closest friend and strongest ally, made Arthur feel sick.
So, no, it couldn’t matter that Arthur sometimes wondered what Merlin’s skin would feel like under his hands, or that his plush lips featured heavily in Arthur’s fantasies. And, most importantly, his desire for Merlin couldn’t factor into this situation because--
Well, it would only make Arthur want to save Merlin more, and he wasn’t sure he could.
He’d considered it the moment Uther had dropped his amusement and taken Morgana’s claims seriously. Because Merlin, even if he was a sorcerer - which he couldn’t be, it was Merlin for God’s sake - had been his loyal servant since they were forced together, and far longer than Arthur had deserved it. Merlin had stuck by him through everything.
But. If it was true, if Merlin was a sorcerer, then--
Had he ever wanted to kill Arthur? Uther? Had he ever arranged for one of Arthur’s numerous magical enemies to attack? Had he ever spread their secrets, which they had entrusted to him?
Arthur had watched sorcerers burn since he was five years old. He wouldn’t be surprised if Merlin betrayed them as revenge for his people.
But it was so difficult to imagine Merlin going against them--against him. It was even harder to imagine that Merlin was a sorcerer. Merlin was all bumbling, ineffectual energy, a kind-hearted if clumsy soul. Arthur couldn’t imagine him as the ruthless killer Uther had told him all sorcerers were. But Morgana--well, Morgana had no reason to make it up. And Arthur remembered her leaving soon after Merlin last night, remembered the confrontation he’d played witness to--
“Just a difference of opinion, that’s all,” Merlin had said.
Arthur felt sick.
He twitched when he heard his door open, and turned to see Morgana entering, her face full of hesitation.
“Are you alright?” she asked softly, closing the door behind her.
“My manservant has just been accused of sorcery,” he said baldly. “I’m just peachy, Morgana.”
Morgana approached him cautiously. “I’m sorry,” she said sincerely. “I know how close you two are, but I had to tell Uther. He’s been in our fold for so long--”
“And he’s in the perfect place to betray us, I know,” Arthur finished for her. “You’re sure that he was practicing magic, Morgana?”
“Yes,” she said, with a hint of sharpness to her tone. “I’m sure. I know what magic looks like, Arthur. His eyes were gold.”
Arthur wondered what Merlin would look like with golden eyes, then shook the thought away. He’d never know.
“Has father decided?” he asked brusquely, trying not to show his vulnerability.
Morgana paused, then put a hand on his shoulder. “His execution is to be tomorrow, at midday.”
Arthur willed himself to breathe.
He’d hoped that his father would look at Merlin’s long years of service and see not betrayal but loyalty. He’d hoped that Merlin would somehow come away with a banishment sentence instead, which would be horrible but so much better than--
Tomorrow, Merlin would be dead. He would never bumble about Arthur’s room in the morning with breakfast, never smile at Arthur with something close to pride during practice, never roll his eyes or call Arthur clotpole--
Arthur stood. He had to talk to Uther, fix this--
“Arthur,” Morgana said softly, her hand still on his shoulder. “There’s nothing you can do. Merlin is going to die.”
Arthur wanted to protest, to yell, to tell her that he would do something god damnit, because Merlin had been hiding this secret from him for years but he had been Arthur’s friend for just as long--
But, strangely, he sat back down. He felt weak-kneed and light-headed, as if he’d had too much wine.
“You’re right,” he said, without realizing he was going to. “Merlin is going to die. There’s nothing I can do.” Then, suddenly feeling tired, he added, “Leave me, Morgana. I need to sleep.”
Morgana slid silently out of the room. Arthur stood mechanically, his head still strangely full of wool, and went to his bed, collapsing on top of it and falling into a deep sleep.
Outside of Arthur’s door, Morgana smiled.
Merlin paced his cell, biting his lip. It took him ten steps to get from one side to the other, he noted distantly. He switched sides, going from the bars of his cell to the tiny, dingy window. Only eight steps for that one.
“I’m going to die tomorrow,” he said aloud, getting used to the weight of it.
He’d always thought about what it would be like to be found out, what would happen when his secret was finally realized. But he’d always hoped it would come sometime after Uther’s reign, that he would reveal himself when Arthur was King and, perhaps, when Arthur was more amiable to magic. He’d hoped that, at the very least, he wouldn’t be burned to death.
Merlin’s knees shook and he sank into a sitting position. He remembered, with sudden, vivid, clarity, his first day in Camelot, how he’d watched that poor sod burn on the pyre. He wondered, distantly, if it would hurt, if he would feel it.
He buried his face in his hands. He didn’t want to die. Not just because he had a destiny to fulfill, though that was part of it. He wanted to live because--well. The thought of being wiped out, of never seeing Gwen or his mother or Arthur again--
“You have a visitor,” the guard announced with a sneer.
Merlin jerked up, hoping that the dim light masked his tears. “A what?!” he exclaimed, just as Arthur came into view.
Merlin stared, his heart stuttering.
“Hello, Merlin,” Arthur said quietly, coming up to the bars.
“Arthur,” Merlin said, standing. “What are you doing here--”
Arthur’s eyes narrowed. “Of course I came to see you.”
“But--” Merlin said, trying to wrap his head around Arther being there, coming to see him, even though Merlin was, Merlin was--
Arthur scowled at him. “You’re an idiot, Merlin,” he said crossly. The scowl evened out. “And apparently a sorcerer as well.”
Merlin paused, then said, hurriedly, hoping Arthur would hear all of it, “I’m sorry, I wanted to tell you but I couldn’t, your father would have--And the Dragon said it was a bad idea, and I had never hurt you, Arthur--”
“The Dragon?” Arthur asked, incredulous and on the edge of anger. “Why would you listen to that creature, after what it did to Camelot?”
Merlin paused. “I talked to him before that incident,” he confessed quietly, coming to the realization that if he was going to die tomorrow, it didn’t matter if Arthur knew all of his secrets. “I was the one who set him free.”
“What?!” Arthur yelled, hand flying to his sword hilt. Merlin flinched away. “Merlin, why in God’s name--”
“He helped me!” Merlin protested. “He told me how to save you so many times, how to save Camelot so many times! And he asked to be repaid with his freedom. I put it off as long as I could, but after the last time we saw Morgause--”
Arthur’s hand fell away from his hilt. “You’re the reason she called them off,” he said with shock. “You did something--Merlin, what did you do?”
Merlin laughed, feeling almost hysterical. So many secrets to tell. “I poisoned Morgana,” he said.
“Merlin,” Arthur said, slow and furious, “explain, or I will watch your death with happiness.”
Merlin laughed again. “Morgana was the only one awake, Arthur,” he said. “Looking bad, I don’t think she even realized, but--Morgause did something to her. That spell, it needed a--key, if you will, something to hold it together, something in Camelot.”
“Morgana was the key,” Arthur said.
“Yes,” Merlin said, weary. “If she had remained alive, the spell would never have broken. However, Morgause came upon us as she was dying and willingly broke the spell in order to keep Morgana alive, to know what I poisoned her with so she could save her.” Merlin spread his hands. “And in killing Morgana, I kept Camelot safe, kept you safe.”
Arthur stared at him, all wide blue eyes and shock. “How many times have you done something like that, Merlin?” he demanded. “How often have you saved my skin without me knowing?”
Merlin smiled, and he knew that it looked tight and hard and grim, but he was dying tomorrow, so he figured that gave him a reason to look less than cheerful. “Too many times to count,” he said.
Arthur took a deep breath. “Is that why Morgana is telling my father about this now?”
Merlin shrugged. “She never knew before now, but I have no doubt it’s the main reason she’s telling him at all.”
Arthur blinked. “How on Earth did you manage to keep it a secret?” he said, almost to himself.
“I’m much sneakier than you give me credit for!” Merlin cried indignantly, and when Arthur gave him an incredulous look, it almost felt like everything was normal.
Then, of course, he saw his bars and realized that nothing would be normal again.
Arthur cleared his throat. “My father won’t--won’t spare you,” he said. Merlin blinked in surprise at the crack in his voice.
“I didn’t think he would,” he said. “Uther’s not exactly known for being a kind man.”
Arthur tensed. Merlin eyed him, then sighed.
“Arthur, will you listen to the advice of a dead man?”
Arthur smiled a bit, though it wasn’t a happy expression. “The dead man has been the closest thing to a best friend I’ve ever had - I think I can spare him my ear.”
Warmth burst in Merlin’s chest. Arthur rarely let him know if he appreciated Merlin’s company outside of subtle friendly gestures - to hear him outright say that they were friends, close friends, was something that Merlin never expected.
“Uther’s wrong,” he said. Arthur’s eyes snapped to his, angry and intense. “About magic, I mean. And you’d do well not to follow in his footsteps when it comes to it.”
“Why not?” Arthur asked, on edge. “After all, sorcerers have done nothing but--” he stopped, expression twisting.
“But hurt you?” Merlin finished for him wryly. “Except for me, of course. And Balinor.” Merlin paused, then added, “He was my father, by the way.”
Arthur’s jaw dropped. “Balinor--”
“--was my father,” Merlin finished. “I didn’t know until we left to go get him. Gaius told me.” Merlin paused, heart jumping to his throat. “Arthur, you can’t let Uther do anything to Gaius--”
Arthur waved a hand. “He won’t. He’s proclaimed Gaius to be innocent, unknowing of your sorcery.”
Merlin sighed in relief, relaxing. “Don’t let him come to my--Well. Don’t let him come, alright? Order him away.”
Arthur examined him closely, then sighed. “You’re a mystery, Merlin. A sorcerer who cares for people and who’s saved my life.”
“Sorcerers aren’t evil, Arthur,” Merlin said tiredly. “Magic isn’t evil, even. But if you give someone the power to do what he wants, when he wants . . . It can corrupt people. Power does that. But it doesn’t corrupt everyone who uses it.” Merlin smiled a bit. “It’s a bit like being a King, actually. There are some Kings who are corrupt because they can do what they want without anyone going against them, and some who use their power for good because they feel they have the responsibility to do so.”
Arthur gaped at him, eyes full of shock. Merlin smiled a little bit. He always enjoyed getting that expression from Arthur.
“You’re comparing sorcerers and Kings--” Arthur started, fury in his voice.
“Yes,” Merlin interrupted before he could get any further. “Because they’re the same, Arthur. You and I--we’re not so different. I have the power to kill men with a flick of my hand - and so do you. And yet,” he paused, staring at Arthur, willing him to understand, “neither of us use that power unless we have no other choice.”
Arthur whirled on his heel and started pacing the outside of Merlin’s cell. “Merlin,” he said, his voice ragged. “You’re going to die tomorrow.”
“Yes,” Merlin said, and tried to ignore the quaver he could hear when he spoke. “But I’m not going to die because I’m wrong. I’m going to die because your father is wrong.” He paused, then decided to throw caution to the wind. “And you know it.”
Arthur slammed his fist against the wall. Merlin jumped and flinched back as Arthur whirled on him, eyes angry. “Merlin, you’re a sorcerer. I have no choice but to let this happen, you know that!”
“There’s always a choice, Arthur,” Merlin told him, hope blossoming. If he could just convince Arthur that his father was wrong, if he could convince Arthur that he didn’t deserve to die, then maybe--
Arthur shook his head and Merlin’s hope died. “I cannot help you, Merlin,” he said, almost helplessly. “You’ve made your choice and my father caught you. As much as I--” He paused, then took a deep breath. “As much as I care for you, I cannot help you.”
Merlin bowed his head and tried to shove the disappointment away. He’d known this would be the result. He hadn’t even thought Arthur would come down and see him.
He laughed a little. “I’m scared, Arthur,” he whispered. “I don’t want to die.”
Merlin jumped when a hand touched his shoulder through the bars. He looked up to see Arthur close to him, eyes wide and troubled.
“I’m sorry,” Arthur said helplessly. “I’m so sorry--”
Merlin took a deep breath. “Go, Arthur. You’ve made your choice.”
Arthur paused, staring at Merlin. Merlin stared back evenly until Arthur finally looked away and turned to leave.
Merlin waited until the sound of Arthur’s boots faded away to crumple in on himself.
The day of Merlin’s execution dawned foggy and dark.
His burning was set for midday, so Merlin had the pleasure of waking up early and waiting for hours, every sound making him think the guards were finally coming from him. By the time they actually did come for him, he was worn around the edges and on edge.
They marched him through the castle, and Merlin took the time to say goodbye to the places that he’d come to know so well. Ealdor would always be home to him, but Camelot had become a place he loved dearly. He wondered what the other servants thought of him now, what Gwen thought--
He swallowed those thoughts as he was led out into the courtyard, into the fog. He flinched when he saw the crowd of people gathered, but otherwise betrayed no other emotion as he was led to the stack of wood that made up his pyre. He was hustled onto it and tied tightly. Merlin looked out into the crowd and bit back a curse when he saw Gaius standing there, front and center, staring up at him with wet eyes.
“This man,” Uther said from his seat high in the castle, “has committed the crime of sorcery, for which he will burned to death. If he has any last words, let him speak them now.”
There was a pause. Merlin took a deep breath.
“My only crime,” he said, as loudly as he could, “was being born different. I will offer no apology for that. As for you, Uther--” he looked up where Uther’s voice had come from, hoping that he was looking directly at him and ignoring the gasp that went through the crowd at the way he insolently refused to use Uther’s title, “I hope that every death you’ve caused, innocent or otherwise, haunts your sleep, your dreams, and your every waking hour. I hope you come to realize the pain you’ve brought not only on my people,” and Merlin felt a fierce, sudden joy at being able to claim them as his people, publicly and without shame, “on the dragons of old, on my family and on your own charges.”
“Burn him!” Uther called out, sounding furious.
Merlin took a deep breath as a guard stepped forward, torch lit, and lowered it to set the pyre alight. He tilted his head back and waited for the heat, for the flames, for his sudden painful death. He closed his eyes, almost at peace.
Then a roar echoed throughout the courtyard. Merlin’s eyes snapped open.
Kilgharrah roared again, this time with flames, and set the crowd running, screaming. Guards attempted to take up an attack position, but they were too caught off guard to make any semblence of order.
“Hello, warlock,” Kilgharrah said as he dipped low. “I think it’s time for you to take your leave.”
With that, he scooped Merlin and the piece of wood he was tied to up in his talons and took flight.
“Kilgharrah!” Merlin shouted, voice hoarse with Dragonspeech. “Kilgharrah! We cannot do this! I must go back!”
Kilgharrah, however, ignored him and continued to fly.
Arthur watched as his father paced the throne room.
“He must be a Dragonlord,” Uther said furiously. “That is the only explanation for why the dragon would save him.”
Arthur paused, then said. “He told me his father was Balinor.”
Uther dropped heavily into his seat. “Balinor,” he repeated with disbelief. Then his eyes narrowed. “And when did he tell you this?”
Arthur hesitated. “I went down to see him last night,” he admitted. “I wanted answers from him. While I was there, he mentioned that his father was Balinor.”
“And you didn’t think to share this information with me?” Uther asked dangerously.
Arthur tensed. “I figured that since he was to be burned to death it wouldn’t matter,” he said, fighting to keep his voice even. “And you did know he’d conversed with the dragon before.”
“People other than Dragonlords can speak to dragons!” Uther said impatiently. “If you had told me, I would have thought to be more prepared for a Dragon swooping in!”
“I apologize,” Arthur said stiffly. “I didn’t realize it was so important.”
Uther sighed heavily, anger dropping from him a little. “We need to find him,” he said. “Send out knights immediately.”
Arthur hesitated, then said, “Why not just let him go?”
Uther turned to stare at him. Then, slowly, he said, “Arthur, I understand that you care for this boy more than is really warranted for a servant, but he is a sorcerer, and a Dragonlord at that. Not to mention everything he knows about us, from working here for years. He’s dangerous.”
“He’s one boy,” Arthur said, though something in him protested at calling Merlin, who was his age, a boy. “He may be a Dragonlord, but there is only one dragon left alive. He isn’t all that powerful. I say, we let him go. There’s no way we can catch up with him anyways, not if he’s flying dragonback. He could be in any country by now.”
Uther scowled, brow furrowing. “You may be right,” he said reluctantly. “If he’s still on Dragonback, he could be anywhere, and we can’t afford to cross borders right now. But I’ll have the patrols strengthened along the borders, and we’ll tell our contracts to keep their ears open for a sorcerer boy and a dragon. If he comes back to Albion, he is a dead man, do you understand me, Arthur? He will not be spared.”
Arthur bowed his head so that his father wouldn’t be able to see the happiness in his face. “Yes, father. May I go now? I still have practice with my knights.”
Uther sighed. “Yes, Arthur, you may go.”
Arthur hurried out of the throne room and bumped into Morgana. “Is he going to pursue Merlin?” she demanded.
Arthur paused, thrown by her vehemence. “No,” he said. “Not unless he returns to Albion. With a Dragon, he’s too far out of our reach to track him.”
Morgana pursued her lips, and for a moment she looked more coldly angry than Arthur ever remembered her being. Just as quickly, the expression was wiped from her face, replaced by a gentle smile.
“Hopefully he doesn’t come back to Albion,” she said sweetly.
“Yes,” Arthur said, a spark of suspicion in him. “Hopefully he doesn’t.”
Merlin woke to dark and cold and a mountaintop.
He scrambled to his feet, eyes adjusting to the light, and tensed when he realized Killgarrah was there, staring down at him.
“You are awake, young warlock,” he said gravely.
“Take me back,” Merlin yelled. “I must go back!”
Kilgharrah tilted his head. “You wish to die that badly?” he asked, genuinely curious.
Merlin paused, then ran a hand through his hair. “I--I need to--what of my destiny with Arthur?” he demanded. “How can it be fulfilled if I am not there with him, at his side?”
“If you had stayed in Camelot, you would surely be dead, young warlock,” Kilgharrah reminded him. “It would have been difficult to stay at Arthur’s side as a corpse.”
Merlin stared up into his old, knowing eyes, and his anger fled from him as quickly as it had come. Kilgharrah was right. If he went back, he would only face his death again. But the thought of having to hide, of running, of living his father’s life, terrified him almost more than that pyre had.
“Where will I go, Kilgharrah?” Merlin asked, shoulders slumping as the fight went out of him. “I cannot go to Ealdor, not if it will put my mother in danger, and I cannot go to Camelot for fear of death. Where will I go, if I cannot go to the two places I call home?” He shook his head. “I cannot live the life of an outcast. I must do something.”
“Go to the druids,” Kilgharrah suggested. “They will protect you until it is safe for you to return to Albion.”
Merlin bit his lip, considering the idea. It was true the druids would protect him, and they definitely wouldn’t harm him, though he wasn’t sure of their intentions. It was, he acknowledged tiredly, as good of a place as any other now that his two homes weren’t open to him.
He looked up at the dragon. “Take me to them,” he said.
Something was off about Morgana.
Arthur wasn’t sure what it was, but he was uneasy around her. Whenever he was in her presence - and sometimes even outside of it - his mind would fill with fog, his thoughts would become confused, especially when he thought about Merlin. He hadn’t really noticed it for the first week or so after Merlin’s escape, but it was becoming more frequent to feel it when he was around her.
And Morgana was--different. She had been, since they’d found her in the woods, but Arthur had assumed she had changed due to her year in captivity. But there was something else about her - a harder, meaner edge. The old Morgana would never have turned in Merlin for execution - not only because she knew that Arthur cared for him (and because she cared for him herself) but because she had never agreed with Uther’s extreme response to magic users. So why had she turned in Merlin, when she knew it would lead to his death?
He cornered Gwen one day. He felt a pang of regret at the sight of her - she was thinning rapidly, and there were dark circles under her eyes. She had been just as close to Merlin as he had, Arthur realized.
“Guinevere,” he said softly and she jumped.
“Oh, it’s you,” she said with a sigh of relief, then consternation crossed her face. “I mean, my lord.”
Arthur smiled at her. “How are you?”
Gwen sighed. “I miss Merlin,” she said quietly. She bit her lip, then added, “Was he really a sorcerer?”
“Yes,” Arthur said. “Though he didn’t deserve to burn for it.” Gwen stared at him with wide eyes. “Guinevere, is there something going on with Morgana? She’s been acting strange lately.”
Gwen’s eyes widened further. Furtively, she looked around the courtyard before leaning in to Arthur. “She’s been different,” she whispered. “Crueler, maybe. She seemed almost happy to see Merlin on that pyre, Arthur. And . . . Sometimes, I think--”
“Gwen!” Morgana called from the doorway to the courtyard. Arthur jumped and whirled around to face her. Her face was coldly composed. “If you could stop canoooddling with the Prince and attend me?”
Gwen flushed bright red and hurried off, deliberately not looking at Arthur. Arthur stared at Morgana and felt the fog start rolling into his head again. Staunchly, he tried to ignore it. It half-worked, but he could still feel his thoughts getting jumbled, distorted. He met Morgana’s eyes and felt his stomach twist at the expression on her face: smirking amusement, almost joy.
There was something wrong with Morgana.
The druids didn’t exactly welcome Merlin with open arms, but he came crashing into their camp on dragonback - they had little choice but to let him join them. However, the majority of them didn’t seem to mind him being there as long as he stayed out of their way. Some of the younger druids even came to see him, asking him quiet, hushed questions about Camelot.
The druids had a camp, but they moved every month or so to keep away from magic hunters. Mercia was less strict about magic than Albion, but any druid caught could expect to be burned to death. Merlin had been with them for about a week or so - Kilgharrah had left him only two days ago, saying that he was no longer needed and that he would come when Merlin called. Merlin had watched him fly away with some sadness - Kilgharrah had been a familiar face in a sea of uncertainty.
“You look troubled, young one,” Iseldir, the chieftain, said as he sat down at Merlin’s side at the fire. Merlin jumped - most of the time, the druids ignored his existence. He’d grown used to that.
“I’m just--” Merlin sighed, and shrugged. Missing home, he thought.
Iseldir smiled at him a little. “I’m sure Camelot will be fine,” he said kindly.
Merlin snorted. “If Arthur can stay out of trouble long enough.”
Iseldir eyed him. “Your prince will be fine,” he said calmly. “And you will be returned to him soon enough.”
Merlin snorted. “Uther would have to die before I could go back to Camelot, if Arthur would even let me.” He paused, eyes narrowed. “Iseldir? What do you mean, I’ll be returned to him soon enough? Is there--Are you planning something?”
Iseldir smiled at him. “Get some sleep, Emrys. Let your troubles go for the night.”
Merlin watched him stand and leave, still frowning.
Arthur watched Morgana closely, but she never did anything out of the ordinary. If it wasn’t for the fog in his head, he wouldn’t have even felt uneasy about her, except--
Now that he looked, he noticed how much she smirked instead of smiled.
Merlin had been with the druids for three weeks when Lancelot and Gawaine arrived, together, on horse back. Merlin had been helping make dinner for the clan when they came clomping in - when he looked up and saw them there, both grinning, he dropped his pot.
“Merlin!” Gawain called, swinging down from his horse with his easy grace. He swept Merlin into a tight hug. “It’s good to see you!”
“Gawaine?” Merlin asked, still shocked. He looked over Gawaine’s shoulder at Lancelot, who had climbed down from his horse as well. “Lancelot?”
Gawaine pulled away from him. His smile dropped a bit as he looked Merlin over. “By the gods, Merlin, you look like you’re little more than skin and bones. Don’t the druids feed you?”
Merlin laughed. “What are you saying, Gawaine, I’ve always been little more than skin and bone.” Delight began to spread through him. “Why are you both here? How did you know I’d even be here?”
“I got a letter from the chieftain,” Lancelot said, stepping forward to gave Merlin a warm handshake. “He told us to come, said you needed our help.”
“Aye, me too,” Gawain agreed. “He made it sound urgent.”
Merlin blinked and glanced back, trying to catch sight of Iseldir. He was nowhere to be seen, however.
“Why are you here, Merlin?” Lancelot asked, though there wasn’t any sort of question in his face - he already knew the answer.
Merlin smiled and glanced at Gawaine before saying, “I was arrested for sorcery in Camelot.”
“What?!” Gawaine exclaimed. “Is Uther mad? Wait, don’t answer that--is Arthur mad? You, a sorcerer--” He paused, taking a better look at Merlin’s amused face. He frowned, comprehension dawning. “You really are a sorcerer?”
“Yes,” Merlin answered, feeling that rush of delight that always came when he was able to admit his secret to others without fear of death.
Gawaine eyed him closely, then snorted. “You little shit, how many times have you saved Arthur’s hide without him knowing?”
Merlin grinned. “Far too many times for me to remember.”
Gawaine grabbed him in a headlock, rubbing his hair. Merlin yelped, fingers scrabbling at Gawaine’s arms. “Leggo!” he cried.
Gawaine released him abruptly, laughing when Merlin fell to the ground. “Graceless as always, Merlin,” he said.
Merlin glared at him and stood, brushing himself off. He looked over at Lancelot, who was watching them with faint amusement.
“Are you going to stay with us then?” Merlin asked, glancing between them.
“The chieftain obviously feels we’re needed,” Lancelot answered. “And both Gawaine and I have no other pressing duties. I think we can stay for a while. And you, Merlin? Are you content to stay with the druids until you can go back to Camelot?”
Merlin sighed. “I think I will. I don’t know how long it will be until I can go back to Camelot, if I ever can. I have hope that when Uther dies, I will be allowed to return, but--”
“As if Arthur would ever keep you out,” Gawaine cut in, rolling his eyes. “You’re that prat’s best friend, you idiot, he’d be a fool to keep you in exile, sorcerer or no.”
Merlin smiled, a little weary at the edges. “Well, I’ve always said Arthur is a foolish man, but let’s hope he proves me wrong this time.”
He is standing in a field and there are flowers. He wonders where the monsters are, the fighting--they are what usually populate his dreams. He turns, shielding his eyes against the glare of the sun, and sees blue eyes and a face that he knows better than his own.
“Merlin!” he exclaims, caught between joy and worry. “What are you doing here?!”
Merlin smiles at him, lips curving enigmatically, and Arthur entertains, not for the first time, the thought of what Merlin’s mouth would feel like against his own.
“I don’t know,” he says, delighted. “One minute I wasn’t dreaming at all, the next I was--here.”
“Do things like this normally happen to you?” Arthur asks, more wry than irritated.
Merlin laughs, and it is the most beautiful sound Arthur has heard in ages. In lifetimes. In the month that Merlin has been out of his life.
“Yes, actually,” he says.
“Well, you always have been a bit much to manage, Merlin,” Arthur grins and Merlin laughs again.
They stare at each other for a while, drinking in each others faces. Arthur traces the curve of Merlin’s cheekbone with his eyes, the fan his eyelashes make when he blinks.
“Arthur, there’s something you should know,” Merlin says suddenly. “Something I didn’t tell you before.”
Arthur tenses. “More secrets, Merlin?” he asks tersely, on the edge of dissappoinment, all the more bitter after his previous joy.
Merlin smiles sadly. “I never wanted to tell you, because it wasn’t my secret to tell. Now though--Arthur, understand, we are in your dream. In your mind. Look around--what do you see?”
Arthur looks. They are in a field of flowers, but everything outside of that field is gray at the edges, covered in fog. Arthur’s stomach tightens with dread. Fog.
He turns back to Merlin. “This has to do with Morgana, doesn’t it?”
“Arthur, she’s a witch,” Merlin says. “She is magic.”
Arthur laughs without humor. “Is everyone close to me doomed to practicing magic? Is Gwen going to come out as a witch next?”
Merlin stares at him, eyes so big and blue and earnest and Arthur looks away before he gets lost in them. “What has she been doing to me?” he asks the nearest daisy, refusing to look Merlin in the eye.
“Some sort of mind-control,” Merlin says, sounding tired. “It’s very light and I think it’s only focused on me or when you question her motives. It seeps into your thoughts and twists them to what she wants you to think, or makes you think of something else instead.” He hesitates, then adds, “I could clear it from you, if you’d like?”
Arthur considers it. He doesn’t like the thought of magic being done in his head, on him, but he likes even less someone controlling his thoughts, even Morgana, who he still loves as a sister. He faces Merlin and takes a deep breath.
“Do it,” he says.
Merlin smiles at him, then holds out his hand and mutters something in a different language, something ancient and complicated. Arthur watches, entranced, as his eyes turn gold briefly. Then, with a silent gust, the fog is blown away, revealing the rest of the field. Arthur relaxes instantly, feeling tension he hadn’t even known was there lift away.
“Arthur?” Merlin asks after a moment. He looks almost vulnerable. “After your father--When you are King--” Merlin huffs with frustration, then says, all in one breath, “Will I be able to come back to Camelot?”
Arthur considers Merlin and his big, blue, earnest eyes and ridiculous ears and gorgeous cheekbones. He thinks about Merlin and what he’s done for Arthur and all the unexplainable bits of luck that happened to Arthur over the years that he’s now coming to realize were not luck at all. He thinks about Merlin on that pyre, closing his eyes, ready to die. He thinks about the last month without Merlin at his side, not there to tease and to prod and to challenge.
“Will you ever use magic against Camelot in an intentionally harmful way?” he asks.
Merlin stares at him. “Never,” he says steadily.
Arthur holds out a hand. After a moment, Merlin takes it in his own. His palms are very warm and dry against Arthur’s.
“Then you will be welcomed back the day I become King,” he swears. “And I will restore magic back to this land, with you at my side.”
Merlin stares at him, then smiles, slow and sweet and sure. He bends his head and presses his lips to their clasped hands.
“I await the day, my King,” he says, and Arthur swears he hears him murmur something in his strange old language before everything turns to black.
Arthur went to see Uther the next morning.
“Ah, Arthur,” Uther said, looking up from the maps spread over his table. “I was just about to send for you. There’ve been reports of--”
“Father,” Arthur cut in, “I have something I need to tell you.”
Uther frowned. “Can it wait? This really is urgent business--”
“It’s about Morgana,” he interrupted again. His heart was pounding against his ribcage.
Uther raised an eyebrow. “Oh?” he asked.
Arthur took a deep breath. For a moment, he remembered twelve-year-old Morgana and the way she would push him into mud piles just for her own amusement, the way she’d comforted him after he’d cried on the anniversary of his mother’s death, her sharp smile and sharper tongue. Then, he remembered her look of glee when Merlin was taken, the strange smirks she’d been wearing, the mind control--
“Morgana is magic,” he said, in a rush.
Uther stared at him. He didn’t laugh, but his frown deepened. “What exactly are you saying, Arthur?” he demanded, his voice soft and dangerous. “I hope you’re not trying to imply that my charge, your honorary sister is practicing sorcery!”
Arthur took another breath. “That’s exactly what I’m saying, Father,” he said. “She exposed Merlin for her own gain,” Uther snorted at that, “and has been putting mind-control spells on me for the past month to keep me from suspecting her sooner.”
Uther’s jaw dropped. “You cannot be serious, Arthur!” he exclaimed. “Morgana would never do such a thing to you!”
“Maybe in the past she wouldn’t,” Arthur admitted. “But she’s changed. She came back to us different, father, why can’t you see that? She’s no longer our Morgana.”
There was a slow clap from the door. “Well said, Arthur, well said.”
Arthur froze, then turned slowly to see Morgana standing in the doorway, smirk in place. He wondered, briefly, what she had done to the guards outside.
“Morgana,” he said, fighting to maintain an even expression.
“Good, you’re here,” Uther said, sounding irritated. “Now you can clear up this ridiculous allegations--”
“They’re not ridiculous,” Morgana said quietly, her eyes still on Arthur. “Nor are they untrue.” Then she smiled, truly delighted. “I had thought I would have to wait so many years for this moment, as Morgause instructed, but it seems Fate has decided to give it to me much sooner.”
“Morgana?” Uther asked, sounding weak. Arthur didn’t look at him - he needed to keep his eyes fixed on Morgana, who was slowly making her way into the room. His hand inched down to his sword hilt. Morgana laughed.
“Do you really think you can hurt me with that?” she asked, all scorn. “Do you think you could even touch me?”
“Morgana--” Uther tried.
“Be quiet,” Morgana hissed at him, anger making her face almost unrecognizable. Then, just as quickly, she calmed. “I am a sorceress, Uther Pendragon, and you are murdering scum. Today will see the end of the Pendragon line and the beginning of a new Albion - an Albion with magic.”
She stepped forward, grin manic, and waved her hand, murmuring Merlin’s strange language, her eyes flashing golden. Arthur only had a moment to realize she was going for him first before he was flung off to the side, pushed out of the way, and forced to watch as his father’s body exploded into pieces.
He stared at the scattered remains of his father’s body and heard Morgana huff.
“Not the way I imagined it, but it will do,” she said.
Arthur felt sudden, deep rage swell within him and before he could stop himself he was on his feet, sword in hand, swinging. Morgana stopped him with a word, flinging him to the wall. He was pinned there, helpless, unable to run as Morgana spoke the words that had killed his father. He closed his eyes as she said the last syllable, waiting for death and thinking, inexplicably, of the press of Merlin’s lips on their hands in the dream. I should have told him, he thought, and waited.
Moments passed, but death did not come.
Arthur cracked open his eyes to see Morgana staring at him in astonishment and burgeoning rage. He looked down at himself and his eyes widened when he saw that he was surrounded by a blue glow that seemed oddly familiar. He remembered, suddenly, Merlin whispering words right before their dream ended and he wondered if Merlin had--
“No!” Morgana screamed and started heaving curse after curse at him. They all flowed off of him like water. Morgana screamed again, helplessly enraged.
“Go,” Arthur said to her, hope rising in his chest. Death would not come for him today. “Go and never return to Albion or Camelot.”
“You are weak!” Morgana said, eyes ablaze. “You would let me live to come back and kill you--”
“I let you live because you were once my sister,” Arthur corrected quietly. For a moment, her rage abated and he thought he got through to her, but her face hardened again almost immediately.
“This is not over,” she snapped. “Your pet sorcerer won’t be able to protect you every time, Arthur, and on that day, the Pendragon line will fall and I will rule.”
Arthur laughed. “Morgana, I made a promise to Merlin. Would you like to hear it?” Morgana eyed him suspiciously, but Arthur just smiled at her. “I promised him I would see magic returned to the land, with him at my side.” Morgana’s eyes widened. “And for the life you’ve just taken and the people you’ve betrayed, I make another promise: never will you enjoy this magical Albion, and never will you be welcome in it.”
Morgana stared at him. “You’ve changed, Arthur.”
Arthur bared his teeth at her. “No, you just haven’t been looking right. Now get out of my castle.”
Morgana gave him one last look, chin pointed high and defiant before she made her dramatic exit, sweeping out with a wave of hands and a flash of smoke. Arthur sagged against the wall the moment she was gone, free to move again, and guards burst through the doors that had apparently been blocked.
“Sire?” Sir Percival, one of Arthur’s newest recruits, knelt at his side, staring at him. “What happened? Where is the King?”
Arthur laughed without humor. “You’re looking at him.”
Merlin received the summons three days after the dream. He wasn’t sure if he was surprised or not. He knew Arthur would likely do something foolhardy after having his mind cleared, but-- They’d received news of Uther’s death a day ago, though no one knew the circumstances. Merlin had no doubt it had to do with Morgana, and he thought, with some satisfaction that the fact that Uther was dead and Arthur alive meant that his protection spell must have had some effect. He’d had no idea how well it would work in the dream world, but he’d taken the chance anyway.
“You’re to come with me,” he told Lancelot and Gawaine. They both looked inordinately surprised and Merlin rolled his eyes. “He needs more knights and you two are the best, stop looking so shocked.”
Gawaine laughed and pulled him into another headlock.
Merlin met with Iseldir before they left. He was sitting away from the camp, smoking in a pipe.
“Have you come to say goodbye, Emrys?” he asked without turning around to see Merlin.
Merlin smiled and took a seat on the tree stump Iseldir was perched on. “I wanted to thank you for taking me in,” he said genuinely. “And for getting Lancelot and Gawaine here. It meant a lot to me.”
“You will bring the coming of a new age, with the King at your side,” Iseldir said distantly. “It has been written. The least I could do was make sure that you managed to get there alive.” He looked over at Merlin and smiled. “One day, Emrys, your name will be known throughout the world and you will be considered the greatest sorcerer to have ever lived.” Merlin could feel a blush coming. “Until that day, you are just a boy. But you are learning your way.” He reached out and ruffled Merlin’s hair. “If you ever need the help of the druids, simply send a summons. We will always answer the call of Emrys.”
Merlin bowed his head, his heart full. “Thank you,” he said, and stood to leave.
“Emrys,” Iseldir said before he had gone too far. “Beware of the witch. She will never stop until you and the King fall.”
Merlin didn’t turn to look at him. “Then we’ll just have to stop her first.”
Camelot was unchanged. Merlin wasn’t that surprised.
Arthur greeted them in the courtyard, a golden crown on his head. It suited him. Merlin was off of his horse before it had stopped and he skidded to a halt in front of Arthur, only barely stopping before knocking them both over. They stared at each other.
“You’ve gotten skinnier,” Arthur said.
“Your head’s gotten bigger,” Merlin replied, grinning.
Arthur smiled back and reached out to slowly, carefully, give Merlin a hug. “Thank you,” he said. “For everything.” He pulled away, looking embarrassed, and cleared his throat. “I suppose I’ll have to give you a new job since you were so abysmal at your old one. Can’t have an incompetent servant for the King.”
Merlin, still feeling a bit tight-hearted at the hug, simply smiled. “Oh?” he asked.
“I was thinking court jester,” Arthur said, smirking. “Or maybe court clown.”
“Oi!” Merlin cried, sending Gawaine a betrayed look when he snickered.
Arthur smiled a bit and ruffled his hair. “Or court sorcerer,” he said, more softly and sincerely.
Merlin perked up. “I think I like the sound of that,” he said.
Gawaine slung an arm over Merlin’s shoulders. “So, King of Camelot, Court Sorcerer, what are our plans for the evening? Rum? Ladies?”
Lancelot came up on Merlin’s other side and rolled his eyes. “Can you think of nothing else?”
“Nothing else is important enough,” Gawaine said with a wicked grin.
“First we have to get the two of you knighted,” Arthur said, smiling. “And then we have a few laws to change.” He met Merlin’s eyes.
“Well, let’s get to it then!” Gawaine said, leading Merlin inside.
Arthur came up on his other side, so close that their fingers brushed. Merlin concentrated on the feeling of their skin touching as Lancelot and Gawaine bickered and felt like he was home.