It all begins with a conversation about nothing, nothing at all. It's a summer night, and they are camping in the woods, just Arthur and Merlin, because this is not a hunting trip or a patrol. It most certainly is not a desperate mission to retrieve a banished dragonlord. This is Arthur following Gwen's advice. They have been worried about Merlin, both of them, because he talks less and less, and now that castle and town have been rebuilt after the dragon's attacks, now that there is no urgent crisis demanding Arthur's attention, he has decided to do something about this. He has experienced this kind of lengthening silence before, the way even smiles start to feel brittle; with Morgana, the entire last year before Morgause took her away. He can't shake the sense of having failed Morgana somehow, the feeling that if he had paid more attention to her silences, made her argue with him as she used to, she would not have started to fade before Morgause ever came to Camelot.
There is a story that Uther told Arthur when Arthur was a child, a bedtime story, on one of those occasions when Uther tried to share time with his son that did not involve training or lessons. Arthur can still hear the story in his father's calm, precise voice. There was once a maid, fair as the morning, the joy of her parents and beloved by everyone who knew her, and she married a man who gave her parents golden gifts and seemed to have the riches of ten kingdoms at his disposal. But he was no king, and he would not say where his largesse came from. When the maid became his bride, he was not a young man anymore, though handsome enough so that she was drawn to him. He took her with him and nobody in her village saw either of them again for a year. Then the maid's father travelled to visit a cousin in another town, and the cousin told him of a young lord who had recently settled nearby, devoted to his old mother who still lived with him, and rich, rich enough for all women of the area to hope he'd consider one of them as a bride. Look, said the cousin, here they pass by, the lord and his mother, on horses both. And indeed there was a beautiful young man, richly clothed, and an old woman, who looked nothing but grey: her cheeks, her hair, her clothes, the very shadow she cast on the ground was grey, as if something had drained her of all colour. The young lord greeted all bystanders with a friendly, loud voice, and hummed a spring song, but she was silent, utterly silent, as if even her voice had faded. She had nearly disappeared on the horizon when her father recognized the horrible truth: that old, grey woman was his daughter, and the young lord was the man who had married her. "He was an evil sorcerer, wasn't he?" Arthur exclaimed when his father got to this point, because even at only five years old, he had heard enough of these stories to recognize the solution. "Yes," his father said. "An evil sorcerer who used magic to drain the poor young woman of her life. That is what magic does. But her father let it happen. This is why you must always remain vigilant, Arthur, or those who depend on you will suffer for your neglect."
Impossible to remember Morgana in the weeks before Morgause came and not to think of that story. But Merlin is no maid, though he can be such a girl at times. Also irritating, prone to accidents, and determined to get himself killed, and more loyal than anyone regularly exposed to Arthur's bad temper has any right to be. Arthur won't let him fade as well. "If he won't talk to me or to you," Gwen had said, in a stolen moment when they were organizing food distribution for the townfolk in the aftermath of the dragon's attack, "maybe he could talk to his mother. He hasn't seen her for over a year, has he?"
It wouldn't have occurred to Arthur, who doesn't think of parents as people to confide in, and who specifically tries not to think of mothers if he can avoid it because the woman who was not, could not have been Ygraine still haunts his dreams. But ever since hearing Gwen suggest it, he has remembered Hunith, and how Merlin behaves around her, and has decided Gwen's idea makes sense. Of course, what he has told Merlin about this trip was something else altogether.
"There are rumours about Cendred drawing soldiers together behind the border, but they're from a really unreliable source. I don't want to send a patrol, because if it's all talk, then Cendred would suspect Camelot of starting something. So I'll investigate myself. Make yourself useful and come along. If we meet someone on the way, you can tell them you're on your way to visit your mother."
You can't reach Ealdor in one day, so they're making camp for the night, and Merlin isn't nearly as disturbingly quiet as he was when they were searching for the dead dragonlord. They end up talking about a lot of things, none of which are important, but still, it feels as if they're on their way back to normal again.
"If a gryphon fought a Questing Beast," Arthur says because it's the kind of thing that's fun speculating about if neither animal is anywhere near your kingdom, "which of them do you think would win?"
This leads to an animated discussion because Merlin champions the gryphon, which is clearly wrong because while Lancelot was able to defeat the gryphon without getting a scratch, Arthur nearly died to defeat the Questing Beast, which means the Questing Beast is the harder foe.
"Or it means Lancelot is a better fighter than you," Merlin says, and Arthur regrets not having a pillow to throw at him. It's beneath his royal dignity to insist on his superior fighting skills, so he combines his defense of the Questing Beast's greater threat level with a cunning hint that anyone not able to cope with a Wildren, a beast as blind as Merlin himself, is not a better warrior than someone who can outwit Wildren without a sweat.
"I remember both of us sweating a lot in those tunnels," Merlin says, sounding downright amused, which is annoying but also heartening, given how long it is since he sounded like that. "So it's Wildren against gryphons now?"
"No, Merlin, because that would be too easy for the gryphons. They can fly, and Wildren can not. I suppose if you trap a gryphon in a tunnel…" Arthur grimaces, recalling the Questing Beast in its cave, its poisonous bite, and another cave, that one full of spiders and an eerie light. "You know what's unfair?" he asks. "Not being able to remember the best fights. I'd love to remember how the gryphon finally went down, and the Questing Beast, and the Dragon, but what do I get stuck with in my memory instead? Wildren, spiders and that winged cat beast I killed, and that wasn't even much of a fight, in the end. One stroke, and it was over."
There is a profound silence. Merlin doesn't chide him for boasting, though the "one stroke" claim gives him an obvious opening. He doesn't tease Arthur about having run from spiders, which he could have, because it sounds ridiculous, naming spiders in the same breath with majestic beasts like gryphons and dragons, and if you haven't seen them, heard them in the darkness as Arthur did when seeking the Morteous flower for Merlin, you have no idea how frightening they can be. No, Merlin doesn't say anything for a long while, and when he finally speaks again, his voice sounds rough, as if something is strangling him.
"You killed her yourself?"
Something is profoundly wrong here, and Arthur starts to feel alarmed, trying to figure out the implications of Merlin's question while he automatically replies: "It wasn't a her. The beast could make itself look like a girl, but I saw its true shape."
He does remember the girl disguise, a slight young thing, dark hair, big eyes, her hands raised as if in need of protection. But he remembers the way she changed into a beast as well. He remembers the slaughter that beast had left behind, the dead lovers, their entrails being torn from their bodies, the guard, even the bounty hunter, whose gore had splattered on Arthur as the man died. It had been just after he had been fooled by Morgause into believing that magic could be good, that there was such a thing as an honorable sorceress he could respect. That she really did bring his mother back, and that it was his father who was evil instead. He had killed the beast to stop the nightly slaughter of the townfolk, but the reason why he had not hesitated, why he had known the girl's pleading eyes had to be a trick, that was the memory of his own voice saying "Morgause is an enchantress, and she has done us no harm". Of his foolish weakness, which had nearly cost his father his life.
"Of course I killed it," Arthur adds, his voice growing sharper. "Why is that news to you? You know we hunted it down."
"I didn't know it was your sword that slew her," Merlin says, still with that strangled voice, and some awful mosaic starts to be put together in Arthur's mind. He remembers Merlin stealing food during those days, and the bounty hunter's accusations. He remembers his father's insistence that the druid girl – the beast, not a girl, a beast in disguise – must have had help within the town. Before he can begin to voice his suspicion, even to himself, Merlin speaks again, this time sounding very cold, and what he asks makes no sense at all.
"Do you remember Sophia?"
What Sophia had to do with anything is impossible to guess. Most likely, there is no context, and Merlin is being Merlin, which means he's being partly insane. Which is preferable to what Arthur suspects being true, because if Merlin hid a dangerous magical beast while it was killing people... But – this is Merlin. Who cries over the deaths of unicorns and surly strangers living in caves. He would never let innocents die. The girl – the beast must have fooled him with its disguise. Yes. That must be it. Just like Arthur was fooled by the vision who can't have been his dead mother, is still fooled in his dreams where he can't tell himself it's all a lie, because dreams don't work like that. Merlin has been fooled, he didn't know what the beast really was until she – until it died.
Until Arthur killed her.
"Of course I remember Sophia", he replies, trying to get order into his thoughts, trying to remain calm and sensible, indulging Merlin in this odd question because he honestly has no idea what to say to him about the winged cat disguised as a druid girl. In truth, Arthur doesn't remember that much about Sophia. He remembers meeting her, saving her and her father from the robbers. He remembers liking her, and feeling a bit more than was seemly for a prince. And then things get confused. He knows at some point he wanted to marry her, because he does remember his father threatening to have both Sophia and her father beheaded, something that cut through the pleasant daze Arthur best recalls about those days and made him realize with a sharp clarity that this was no bluff, that his father would do it. He remembers giving in, but not much that happened afterwards, not until he woke up in his bed with Merlin and Gaius sitting nearby. There are fragments he recalls, kissing Sophia, the way her lips felt on his, her cool, dry skin as her fingers stroked his face. But he does not remember any conversations they had after that first encounter in the woods and the way to the castle. He knows he wanted to elope, but he does not remember what led up to it. He remembers the colour of Sophia's eyes, and what her voice sounded like, but not what she actually said, and the strangest thing of all is that he does not recall loving her. He must have done, but all he can remember feeling is that weird, pleasant daze, where nothing mattered.
"She made you happy, didn't she? Because you acted like an idiot around her, and that usually means you're happy. You remember being happy when you were with her?"
They insult each other all the time, but there is nothing playful in Merlin's voice right now, and Arthur is too disturbed by the entire conversation to get properly angry about being called an idiot in earnest.
"There was – I obviously – well, yes. I suppose. She made me happy."
"Good," Merlin says savagely. "Keep remembering that. Because I'll tell you something else. Sophia was a Sidhe. She wasn't even human, not one little bit. She was magic, just like Freya was, except that Freya was cursed. She killed because she had to, not because she wanted to. Someone else did this to her and left her no choice at all. But Sophia, Sophia chose to kill. She wanted to kill. She wanted to kill you. So I killed her. I didn't hit you on the head to stop you eloping with her, I dragged you out of the lake where she tried to drown you after killing her. And if I hadn't, Freya would still be alive. Sire."
Silence sinks down on them again, thick and heavy, like molasses.
One of the lovers disemboweled by the beast – the druid girl – Freya -, was missing a hand. Arthur knows this because he searched for it, and found it lying behind a nearby barrel much further up the street. It must have been torn off the dead woman's arm with such force that it flew to this spot. He asked Gaius to sew the hand back to the stump of an arm, because the parents of the couple wanted to have their bodies for a funeral, and he didn't want the woman's mother to see her daughter with half an arm. Maybe it wouldn't have made any difference. Maybe it would have.
He has heard many screams in his life. From dying people, from wounded people, from grieving people. Some screams he has caused, some avenged. The cries of mourners; those are the worst, always.
When the dark-haired girl transformed into a beast, she kept screaming, and even the roars of the beast sounded like screams. Not screams of rage. Screams of despair.
He has heard enough grieving to know the difference.
Sophia smelled of leaves when he kissed her. That much, Arthur remembers. Leaves and the woods in autumn, as if she had brought them with her when he brought her to the castle.
Of all the things Merlin has said today, the one that is least suprising is that Sophia should have been magic, that she wanted to kill him. It fits with the rest of his life. Arthur really should have been nicer to his father about the whole Catrina fiasco, but Uther had been close to actually apologizing, and Arthur had no idea how to handle an expression of regret coming from his father. So he deflected by teasing him about the nights he spent with a troll. The idea of Sophia as someone not human, like Catrina had been, leaves a hollow feeling. He wonders what she had looked like in reality, and his stubborn mind keeps producing the memory of the winged cat, of that terrified girl transforming into it, the way it roared when his sword struck, and his stomach lurches.
That Merlin should have killed Sophia, that was the real surprise. If someone had asked Arthur whether his manservant was capable of killing, then, leaving aside all jokes about Merlin's general competence and likelihood to kill by sheer clumsiness, he would have remembered Ealdor and would have said Merlin, like most people, was capable of killing in defense of his home, family and friends. But fighting warlords, mercenaries or thugs in the heat of battle was different from killing someone who, no matter her intentions, looked exactly like the kind of person a man would want to protect. (Again, his memories of Sophia and the druid girl intermingle, and the sense of being sick gets worse.) And Merlin, as opposed to Arthur, has not been trained to kill for most of his life. Arthur would never admit it, but this is something he has always liked about Merlin, something that made him different from most people in Camelot. He hadn't wanted Merlin to change in this regard.
Evidently Merlin had, to protect Arthur, which is awful enough, because Arthur is supposed to protect him. Worse is the matter of Freya, though. Which evidently is the answer to what has been eating at Merlin these last weeks. Maybe she did put a spell on him, made him love her so he'd help her. But then those feelings would be gone now. It wouldn't be real to Merlin any more, just like the memory of Vivian leaves Arthur mostly with a sense of embarrassment and shame when he thinks of Guinevere during that time, and the memory of Sophia, before Merlin's revelation, just left hazed confusion, but no regrets. If Merlin has been grieving for weeks – for months now, really – then it can't have been something produced by a spell, it must have been real. Just as real as the fury in his last words, which hadn't been anything like the spluttering anger Arthur is familiar with, the one that usually makes him smile. Merlin has lashed out with the intention to hurt, and it resembles nothing as much as Uther saying "I am disappointed in you", or Gwen's face when she said "you did it before, with my father", in the shadow of another execution.
Arthur tries to summon some of his own anger, because that always helps. After all, Merlin has not only lied to him, he hid a dangerous beast – a woman, yes, a girl, yes, but cursed or not, she murdered every night, and if Merlin hadn't hid Freya, then three innocent people would still be alive. He opens his mouth to say as much, as cuttingly as possible, but before a sounds escapes from his mouth he becomes aware that what he really wants to ask isn't "would you rather your cat beast was still alive to kill more people than she already did?" but "so if you could choose, you'd rather have me dead and her alive, is that it?". And there is no way he is going to say this out loud. He's ashamed for even thinking it. His concern should be for Camelot, for the people, and only for the people, not about whether or not Merlin hates him now. This is unworthy behavior for a prince. Merlin isn't - Merlin is his servant. Who should be judged according to his merits as a servant, not by any others, because he's not family, they can't be friends, and so however Merlin feels about him does not matter as long as he does his duty and doesn't risk any more lives by falling in love.
Then he thinks about going to rescue Gwen from Hengist, not even asking whether Merlin would come with him, taking it for granted he would.
"Who is that Wildren eating? Oh, it's just Merlin."
"I'm sorry. I shouldn't have risked your life like that."
What he finally says out loud, still feeling sick and still unable to disentangle the faces of two dead girls from one another, is: "I'm not sorry."
It's a summer night, the stars are unclouded, and his eyes have adjusted, so he could probably see Merlin's expression if he turned towards him. Which he doesn't. Arthur looks determinedly up to the stars. Merlin doesn't say anything.
"To be alive," Arthur adds. "But I am sorry your – that Freya was cursed, and I wish that never happened to her." This is how he has resolved the situation in his head. It's not that Merlin either risked or willingly sacrificed the lives of Camelot's citizens for a creature of magic. It's that Merlin tried to help a victim of magic, and being Merlin, didn't think things through. It has to be this way, because Arthur is not going back to Camelot to tell his father Merlin is guilty of treason. He can't. "I wish she hadn't been, and you had met her in another way."
"Then I would never have met her, and she would not have been who she was," Merlin says. While the emotion in his voice is still raw, it feels more like grief than like anger now. After a while, he adds: "I'm not sorry you are alive, either."
A bit of the shameful, disturbing fear of being hated by his servant lifts, but the sick sense of guilt remains. If Freya was a victim of magic, then he has killed an innocent. Maybe, if he had simply tried to drive her into some sort of cage, Gaius or Geoffrey of Monmouth could have found a way to lift the curse without killing the girl. He hadn't even considered the possibility at the time. Magic is evil, he can't let himself doubt that again, but that doesn't mean each practitioner uses it of their own volition. Precisely because it is evil, there could be those who were tricked into it, or don't know what they were doing, or were blackmailed, or forced, like this girl had been. In the future, he has to make sure to investigate each case, more thoroughly than simply by following tracks and striking down what he finds at the end of them.
There are probably more things to be said, but Arthur has no idea of how to say them. He has some practice talking to his knights about the deaths of comrades, but what he says then simply can't be applied to two girls who died by their hands, and memories of love imagined or real. Maybe Hunith would find words, tomorrow. Maybe there is some secret way in which mothers know what to say even in the wake of events such as these. Lacking such knowledge, Arthur falls back on the other way he knows how to talk.
"So… you dragged me out of a lake," he says slowly. "With my clothes and my chainmail soaking wet. You and which army, Merlin?"
He risks turning around and looking in Merlin's direction again, and yes, Merlin is rolling his eyes.
"Fine, I confess. The lake spit you out by itself because it couldn't stomach such a prat," Merlin says.
"No," Arthur returns, warming up to the theme, "it was you whom it couldn't stomach. Probably thought you were a drowning rat and had had enough of those. So it threw up a mighty wave to the shore and there we were, because you were clinging to me. Admit it, Merlin, that's what really happened."
"Maybe it thought I was a rat," Merlin retorts, quicker and quicker, "but rats can swim. You, on the other hand, it mistook for a Wildren. Easy mistake to make, you know, what with the weight, and the smell, and the teeth. That's how it happened, I swear."
Arthur leans over and punches him in his left arm, careful to make it just hard enough so Merlin would feel it, but no more.
"Maybe it just felt sorry for you being all by yourself and thought you shouldn't be alone with your misery," Arthur says, voice as light as he could manage. "Because you really shouldn't be. Ever."
Merlin turns away from him and busied himself with the fire, which burned a little brighter, maybe even a little warmer, after he was done.
"Maybe," Merlin murmurs. "And maybe it thought you shouldn't be, either."