Merlin was intimately familiar with the sensation of lives depending on his ability to lie. Most often it was his life that relied on the silver of his tongue, but - if nothing else - his years in Camelot had taught him exactly how heavy the lives of others were.
Something he wasn’t familiar with was having to lie for the lives of knights. To, yes. He lied to knights hourly. His very existence in Camelot relied on his ability to craft a convincing tale about why the un-killable creature had suddenly vanished, or where he’d been for three days, or his life outside of being Arthur’s manservant. Being close friends with Camelot’s king and its foremost knights when one was secretly the most powerful magic user to ever walk the earth seemed to necessitate that most of what came out of his mouth be lies.
For, though? He was sure there had to have been a time, even if it were only accidental, but nothing came to mind. His distrust of Mordred meant that he didn’t count the druid as one of the knights and probably never would, so his lies there had no bearing. For the others, there was nothing. He’d lied often enough for Arthur, sure, but those occasions tended to involve secretly meeting Gwen or avoiding council meetings. Hardly important. And it wasn’t like he was actually trying when Arthur asked him to spin excuses: it was a fantastic opportunity to present himself as a markedly terrible liar, after all. Truthfully, the knights were far more likely to be the people he was protecting others (and himself) from. It was disorienting, having them be the ones to rely on the quickness of his tongue.
They clearly weren’t too pleased about it either. Arthur looked like he’d resigned himself to his death, and the other knights had followed his lead. Even Mordred, who knew more about Merlin than most, was struggling to remain hopeful. Merlin wanted to roll his eyes at them.
“So all I need to do is tell five stories, and if none of them can pick when I’m lying for three, you’ll release us?”
“Correct,” the fae said.
Merlin folded his arms. It was too easy.
“…and magic won’t be used to help them?”
“No. But your friends will be under a spell which will compel them to discover if you are speaking truthfully, and to announce their findings without deceit.”
“Is this a trick?” Merlin asked suspiciously. “This doesn’t seem particularly difficult.”
The fae laughed. “And yet, the walls of this castle are built solely from the bones of those who could not achieve my task. I have yet to find one who is an able liar when faced with their closest companions.”
“Let one of us take his place.” There was a hint of desperation in Arthur’s tone, which Merlin was determinedly not offended by. “Surely you want to see some kind of challenge – Merlin here couldn’t lie to save his life, which is exactly what you want him to do!”
The fae raised his eyebrows at Merlin, who looked away, stomach clenching. It was comforting, on some level, to know his façade had been good enough that they still believed his reputation as an honest man. Mostly, though, it made him feel sick – a feeling not helped by the fae’s clear delight at the level of deception he had managed.
The delight was still there when the fae spoke again, clear enough that even the knights picked up on it. “I have picked the most suitable of your companions, and you would be wise not to try negotiating with me on this matter. Be seated.”
A long table appeared at the careless wave of his hand, with six seats on one side and one on the other. It was clear who was expected to sit where.
Seeing no way around it, Merlin sat. The knights didn’t do the same.
“This is a terrible idea!” Gwaine exclaimed to the fae, seemingly winding himself up for a long rant before Mordred elbowed him in the stomach. Gwaine turned to snap at him, then winced as he spotted Merlin’s unimpressed stare. “Uh- Merlin, mate. Look, you’re a good, honest bloke, and…”
“Sit down, Gwaine.”
“Merlin…” This time it was Arthur.
Merlin looked away in frustration, jaw clenched, only to be met with the fae’s gaze. There was amusement there.
“This might be the first time I’ve ever seen someone trusted too much, Emrys. How you have deceived them!”
Merlin turned away quickly.
“Do you want to die here or not, Arthur?” He didn’t wait for an answer. “Because you’ll die anyway if we don’t at least try.”
Merlin held eye contact with him until Arthur finally exhaled and sat across from him. The other knights arranged themselves around him, with Leon directly to his right and Mordred at the very end.
Goblets appeared before each of them they moment they were all seated. Merlin looked down, expecting to find something similar, but discovered that he was instead seated before a stack of parchment. Each sheet was oddly thick, and seemed to be blank.
“What’s this?” asked Mordred, picking up the goblet and tilting it towards the light. Merlin caught a flash of dark liquid.
“The wine before you contains a compulsion," the fae answered readily. "It will do you no harm, but I must be certain that you are trying your hardest to identify the truth. You must drink it or else forfeit.”
There was dismay on Arthur’s face. It was clear he thought the only way to survive this was pretending to believe Merlin, but that hoped had just been dashed and to forfeit would mean death. He turned away, grimly.
“And these?” Merlin asked, gesturing to his stack.
“On the other side, there are statements about your life – some true, some false. You will read them out exactly as they are written, and defend them as your companions determine which is which.”
Oh hell. Merlin hadn’t been worried before, when he thought he’d be able to choose his own lies, but he was now. Who knew what the fae thought would be amusing?
“Why are you doing this?” Leon asked over Merlin’s inner emotional turmoil.
“I take pleasure in other people’s ability to lie, as I cannot do so myself,” the fae responded, baring his pointed teeth in a terrifying smile. “But to be able to speak untruly is a gift that mortals tend to waste. My purpose here is weeding out those who put their gift to ill use. Now, drink, and we shall see if you are worthy.”
Arthur looked at Merlin, and Merlin looked straight back at him. His knuckles were white where he clasped his hands on the table, but they both ignored the evidence of his tension.
“Seems like we’ll never get away from drinking goblets of poison, doesn’t it?” Arthur joked, startling a laugh out of him. The king grinned with him before quickly sobering.
“Well, bottoms up then.”
He raised his goblet to Merlin, then downed the wine in one long swig. The other knights followed his example, with the empty cups vanishing the moment they touched the polished wood of the table. Then, inevitably, they all looked to Merlin.
Merlin didn’t move. His heart was pounding so hard he was sure it was shaking him every time it beat, and his fingers wanted to tremble.
The fae had no time for his fear. “Read, boy.”
Merlin inhaled slowly, centring himself the same way he did before performing a complex spell. So what if his life hinged on how well he could lie in the next hour? It wasn’t anything he didn’t already face every day. Maybe having no control over the topic of the lie would make it a little more complicated, but he and complicated were old friends. He refused to let this phase him.
He reached out with steady hands and picked up the first statement.
“Before he died, Lancelot and I were…” Here, he hesitated and didn’t have to work hard to produce a blush. “…romantically involved.”
He put the card down and fidgeted a little as he waited for the knights to begin questioning him. It was clearly a blatant lie. Even a blind man could have seen how much Lancelot had adored Gwen, and the knights certainly weren’t blind.
But it didn’t matter: blatant lies were his forte. ‘What, a sorcerer? Me?’
He fidgeted some more, and deliberately didn’t meet the knights’ eyes.
“That’s a lie,” Arthur said, though Merlin could detect a hint of uncertainty. After all, while Merlin’s body language screamed ‘uncomfortable’, there was no hint of the dismay that should have been present at having to defend such an obviously false statement. In fact, Merlin’s current fidgeting was something Arthur had seen a hundred times: Merlin did it like clockwork when being forced to admit something he didn’t want to.
Thankfully, the fae was unimpressed with the hasty conclusion. “You will question him first, then present a verdict you all agree to.”
“Right,” Elyan started, dubious. “For how long were you…together?”
Merlin didn’t answer immediately. Instead, he let his eyes flick towards Elyan, then immediately away. He folded his arms and shrugged, lips tight. He was the very picture of discomfort.
Half of a good lie was the body language, after all.
“A while,” he said reluctantly.
“How long is a while?”
Merlin shrugged again, and let the self-consciousness bleed into his sentences, making them short and pause-filled. “We, er. Messed around a bit. The first time he was in Camelot.” He stopped, then remembered that only Arthur and Leon had been around and added for the benefit of the others, “There was a griffin.”
“‘Messed around a bit’?” Gwaine asked, waggling his eyebrows.
If this story was true, he'd be starting to get aggressive to hide his discomfort right about now. He rolled his eyes and snapped, “We fucked, Gwaine.”
Gwaine looked startled at the amount of anger that had been directed at him, and the other knights looked vaguely awkward.
“Whoa, sorry. I didn’t realise…”
“What, that I didn’t want to talk about it?” Merlin laughed sarcastically, spitting out the words. “I’ve only had half a decade to bring it up! If I wanted to ‘talk about it’, don’t you think I would have mentioned it before now?”
Still taken aback, it took a while for a response to come. When it did, it was Mordred who braved his wrath.
“Why didn’t you mention it earlier?”
“I...” Merlin let himself deflate a little.
“It was a sore topic," he said finally. "Lancelot was banished, partially because of something I did, so there wasn’t really a reason to bring up a week-long fling while he was gone. And when we came across him again after Gwen was captured, I was still feeling guilty, so I avoided the whole thing. He took that as a sign that I wasn’t interested.”
Arthur looked rightfully confused. “But he was in love with Gwen – they were flirting the whole time!”
Merlin laughed again, this time in actual amusement. “Have you never flirted to make someone else jealous? It worked, too.”
“They kept flirting after Lancelot was properly knighted, though,” Leon pointed out. “Surely he wouldn’t have kept that up if it was just to make you jealous?”
“At that point, it was just to make Arthur jealous. He needed the motivation to make a move on Gwen, or he would have been too scared.” Arthur spluttered, but was ignored. “Lancelot and I actually spoke that night at the Castle of the Ancient Kings, and I suggested it after we sorted the whole thing out.”
“But then Arthur did make a move, and you still didn’t say anything?”
Merlin shrugged helplessly. “It was just easier not to. And later I thought you already knew – we’d never made much of an effort to hide it, and you were always teasing us about our ‘secret meetings’ and being ‘joined at the hip’.”
There was a wistfulness to his smile that wasn’t just the faked pain of losing a lover. Lancelot had been his closest friend and confidant, and he still had days where he expected to pass him in the halls, or have him make an inside joke about his magic after the ‘miraculous’ death of a dangerous creature. He missed him so much it hurt, even now.
All the knights who'd met Lancelot were wearing identical looks of dawning realisation as they re-evaluated his interactions with Merlin in a new light. Knowing Merlin’s secret had given their friendship a level of closeness none of the others had ever achieved, and they’d all wondered about it. Now, they had finally been given an explanation which justified what they had never been able to place before.
“He always asked after Merlin first in the wake of a battle,” Elyan pointed out.
“And the only reason he came back to Camelot in the first place was Merlin’s letter,” Percival added. “Lance dropped everything to come. Merlin was the person he talked about most while I was with him, too.”
Arthur, who had been quiet for a while, suddenly said, “He took your place in the Veil, didn’t he?”
The room fell silent.
Merlin flinched, and couldn’t answer over the lump in his throat. He’d never expected anyone to realise why Lancelot had truly sacrificed himself; had been prepared for everything but that connection being made. He looked away, blinking hard to keep himself from crying.
Mordred, always more aware of Merlin’s emotions than Merlin was comfortable with, was beginning to look concerned. Arthur, on the other hand, hadn’t noticed anything was amiss.
“You were going to sacrifice yourself, weren’t you?” he continued. “And then you must have mentioned it to him while you were recovering, and he decided that he wouldn’t let you.” He shook his head with wonder. “All this time I thought it was him keeping his promise to Gwen, but he really did it for…”
Merlin’s mouth moved without his permission. “Christ, Arthur, leave it!”
His voice shook dangerously, and he had to press his hands over his face to give him the chance to regain his composure. When he lowered them again, the knights were regarding him with pity.
“Your verdict?” the fae asked, before they could say anything.
Arthur looked at the other knights, who all nodded, then faced the fae. “It’s true,” he said with certainty.
Merlin felt light-headed with relief, and had to fight to keep it from showing on his face – no easy feat given the emotional turmoil he was experiencing. Lancelot wasn’t a topic he normally touched with a ten-foot pole because of the amount of repressed grief it brought up, and to have his role in his friend’s death brought up so carelessly…
It would be worth it if it helped them get out of here alive, Merlin reminded himself. Until then, he needed to keep it together.
“Very well,” said the fae in response to the knights’ verdict. A subtle flick of his fingers carved a tally mark into the table by Merlin’s elbow. When none of the knights noticed its appearance, Merlin shifted the completed prompt to cover it. He didn’t want them to realise they had been wrong – it would make his next lies harder.
To that end, he pleaded with the fae silently, “You won’t tell them until the end which was true and which was a lie?”
The look the fae gave him was inscrutable.
“…For the mastery of that lie, and the mastery of that lie alone, I will not,” came the eventual answer.
Responding would have been tantamount to admitting a debt, so Merlin turned back to the table without any indication that he’d heard the fae’s response and picked up the next piece of parchment.
“When I was three summers, my mother tried to drown me in the pond.”
That was true. He’d been doing magic from the moment he’d taken his first breath, but it hadn’t been until he was three that the hunt for Balinor had brought Uther’s men to Ealdor. They’d begun burning magic-users immediately – never mind that Ealdor wasn’t part of Camelot, or that the people they burnt were the only healers they had, or even that there was no real evidence. They'd been swept up by the madness of Uther's crusade, and the people of Ealdor had been forced to watch their neighbours burn. Hunith hadn’t been able to see anything but him in the flames.
She didn’t think he knew that she’d held his face in the water until he couldn’t hold his breath anymore and began to choke, but he could recall the incident with more clarity than his father’s face. Just as vivid was his memory of her pulling him out as his vision had begun to blacken at the edges, sobbing and apologising and promising that she loved him. He couldn’t hold it against her – for every druid that had burnt since he’d come to Camelot, he’d burnt with them. He knew what it was like to die on the pyre, and it was a fate far more terrible than being drowned by someone who loved him.
What was truly sad was that it wasn’t even his worst memory as a child.
“What happened? Were you really that annoying at three?”
Arthur laughed, and Merlin laughed with him. “Yeah, I started developing my talents early.”
“Was it because she thought you had magic?”
Mordred was very good at killing the mood, Merlin thought as the table fell silent. The youngest knight looked horrified at what he’d said. He'd clearly been compelled by the spell to ask about what he thought to be most likely.
Merlin responded the only way he could: with a little too much enthusiasm. “Yes!”
Then he widened his eyes, as if he hadn’t meant to say it so forcefully. Leon looked like he was considering impaling himself on his sword before the fae could kill do it.
“Why would she think you have magic?” he asked instead of pre-emptively committing suicide. “You’ve got to be the least magical person I know.”
Out of the corner of his eye, Merlin could see Mordred biting his lip so hard he was surprised it wasn’t bleeding yet. Thankfully, he said nothing, so Merlin was free to fake fumbling for words.
“Uh… my father was a sorcerer.”
Arthur was frowning now.
“Years ago, when we were searching for Morgause to learn about my mother, you said you knew nothing about your father.”
Merlin opened and closed his mouth without anything coming out, then said in a rush, “I didn’t! Not then, at least. Afterwards, I wrote to my mother and asked about him.”
Now all the knights were frowning.
“Your verdict?” the fae said, sensing that they had almost reached a decision.
“Hunith doesn't strike me as the sort of woman to kill her son because she suspected him of magic,” Arthur pointed out.
“And Ealdor isn’t even in Camelot,” said Leon.
“It’s so close to the border that it might as well be,” Mordred argued. “And if Merlin’s mother truly thought he had magic, she might have wanted to spare him a sorcerer’s death later on.”
Mordred was too perceptive for his own good, but Merlin’s stuttering and badly thought out excuses had already convinced the rest of the knights.
Gwaine, Percival, and Elyan all voiced their belief that it was a lie and, in short order, another tally was etched into the wood by Merlin’s elbow.
Merlin exhaled silently, then picked up the next prompt. If all went well, it would be the last.
“I once entered a castle by flipping into a room on the second floor through the window. I used no objects and had no one assist me.”
This one was also true, but it was so unlikely that Merlin wouldn’t need to put in much effort to get them to believe it was a lie. After all, there was nowhere they could make him demonstrate, and without physical proof, no one would believe it was possible for anyone to do it. They certainly wouldn’t think he could, clumsy as he was.
“What do you mean by ‘flipping’?” Gwaine asked immediately, eyes lighting up.
“Like cartwheels and backflips and… things.”
Obviously neither of those would have gotten him in, but he wasn’t going to give himself away by volunteering what would.
“But those wouldn’t get you into a room on the second floor without some other assistance,” Mordred pointed out, voicing Merlin’s thoughts.
Before Merlin could fumble a response and convince them he knew nothing about acrobatics, Percival spoke up.
“I’ve seen jumps called ‘layouts’ in my travels. If you had enough momentum they might work.”
Just his luck that one of them would actually know something about acrobatics. Merlin fought not to curse.
“Yeah, I used a layout,” he said instead, reluctantly.
Admitting that it was physically possible made it more likely they’d decide it was true, which he couldn’t let happen. But he didn’t have much of an option: the knights thought the initial statement was a lie, and expected him to be attempting to convince them it was true. Not putting in even a token effort would be suspicious enough that they’d start to suspect it actually was true.
“If you can do one, show us,” Elyan said.
Merlin looked towards the fae. “I don’t think-” he began.
The fae cut him off. “It is a perfectly acceptable request, and you must adhere to it.”
Merlin got to his feet slowly and pushed in his chair, thinking fast. He’d do a couple of basic flips and claim they were layouts instead – surely Percival wouldn’t remember the difference? He could deliberately mess up an actual layout, but that was liable to end in very serious injury, and they were several days from Camelot.
Decision made, he stepped away from the table, raising his arms, and-
“You will perform the requested move to the best of your ability,” the fae said before he could step into a cartwheel.
There was no emotion in the statement, but the threat it contained was clear all the same. Merlin clenched his jaw and began to strip off his jacket, neckerchief and boots, but stopped when a platform appeared high on the wall.
He looked at the fae questioningly, and the fae met his gaze with a smirk. “I want to see you try harder.”
Merlin was abruptly angry. “You just don’t want to release us!”
The fae grinned, teeth sharp. “Be careful what you say,” he warned.
It didn’t escape Merlin that he hadn’t denied the accusation, unable to lie as he was. He attempted to blank his face, but was too furious and terrified to do so entirely. Before, he’d been confident in his ability to lie his way out of this, but now? How could he possibly win a game that the gamemaster had stacked against him?
“Off you go, boy,” the fae prompted when he hadn’t moved.
“The ground doesn’t have enough give,” Merlin countered with an impressive amount of hostility. “And I’ll break my ankles if I land on a platform that hard.”
They stared at each other for a long second, the fae growing dangerously displeased for every moment he didn’t move, but Merlin refused to back down. If he was going to be made to do this, he refused to injure himself.
When the fae showed no signs of acquiescing, Merlin shrugged carelessly.
“Well, I suppose breaking all my bones attempting to do this will convince them it’s a lie,” he said glibly, unconcerned if the knights heard him. If he didn’t do it, they’d be dead, and if he did, they’d know it was true anyway.
The fae snarled wordlessly and jabbed a hand in the air. Merlin smiled at him, close-lipped, as the texture of the stone changed beneath his feet to something more reminiscent of a feather mattress.
He bounced on his toes a little as he walked to the end of the hall, getting a feel for the surface, and only stopped when he was within touching distance of the wall. He hesitated there, using the opportunity to mutter a quick spell to warm up and stretch his muscles, then turned to face the daunting prospect of reaching the platform.
Three deep breaths were all he allowed himself before he broke into a sprint to gain momentum. Then, aware of the knights watching in fascination, he threw himself forward into a flip. It turned into two, then three, then five, then seven; and suddenly he was launching himself off his hands into a triple layout. He came down hard on the pillowy platform, arms outstretched for balance, and stumbled once as he stood upright again.
There was an awed silence. Merlin took the opportunity to sketch out a mocking bow to the fae.
“My god,” Gwaine said finally, voice carrying in the quiet. “You’ve been holding out on me!”
Merlin grinned. “Of course – I know exactly what sort of things you’d be wanting me to do if you’d known.”
“Would you like to get me down, or should I stay up here all day?” he mentally asked the fae at the same time.
The fae sneered, all traces of his previous hospitality gone.“I’m sure you’re more than capable of doing it yourself, Emrys."
Merlin glared at him, but nonetheless launched himself from the platform to the table, breaking his fall with a roll.
“Alright,” Leon said, when Merlin had retrieved his clothing and sat back down. “So you can do it – but why on earth would you need to?”
Merlin shrugged. “Just for fun?”
Arthur narrowed his eyes at him. “Really, Merlin.”
Merlin groaned and answered as quickly as possible in the hopes that it would somehow make his answer better. “I needed to get into the castle, but the corridors were crawling with guards, and I knew one room on the second floor stored mattresses and always had the window open, so…in I went, I guess.”
“‘The castle’ – wait, you did this in Camelot?” Mordred asked incredulously.
Diplomatically, Merlin chose not to answer. At least he hadn't asked why he was avoiding the guards.
As he had the thought, Gwaine caught his eye and opened his mouth. Merlin knew exactly what he was about to ask.
“Verdict?” the fae interrupted.
Gwaine closed his mouth. The knights looked at each other.
“It’s clearly true,” Leon said, looking as if he couldn’t believe that he was saying it.
A red tally mark helpfully etched itself into the table in front of the knights.
“Wait,” Elyan said slowly, eyes fixed on the mark. “If we get a tally when we guess correctly…”
As one, the knights’ eyes swivelled to Merlin. He blanched.
“I haven’t got any marks!” he lied defensively. “Maybe that one was just special?”
Mordred opened his mouth, probably to point out the flaws in that statement, but they were once again interrupted by the fae.
“Read,” he said darkly.
Merlin pressed his lips together tightly, then picked up the next prompt.
“At the age of seven, I was kidnapped by a nearby lord held captive for three years. My escape involved tearing down the castle walls.”
“If it were anyone else, I’d be laughing right now,” Arthur muttered. “As it is, I’m seriously considering that this might be true.”
Well, that was concerning given that it was actually true.
“I suppose we should start with why you were kidnapped in the first place,” Arthur said, louder this time.
“Ah,” Merlin said. “Well.”
He paused, attempting to phrase the story in a way that wouldn’t sound mad, then gave in when he remembered that it needed to sound like a lie.
“So, there was a lord who lived near Ealdor. Sort of.”
“Where did he actually live?” Mordred asked immediately.
Merlin looked at him blankly, actually trying to recall. At that age, he hadn’t had a very firm grasp on geography, and everything that he’d done there had convinced him to avoid the region since. Even if it hadn’t been in his best interests to stammer his way through the question, he likely would have done it anyway.
“Um, to the east?” he finally tried, only to quickly correct himself when Arthur started to disagree. “Wait, no, there’s no towns to the east. West. He lived west of Ealdor.”
The declaration with made with certainty.
Mordred looked dubious.
“I was seven!” Merlin said defensively.
“Surely you’d have learnt where this place was since then?” Arthur pointed out.
Merlin had, actually – he’d even learnt approximately how many miles it was from Ealdor - but that was it. Somewhat superstitiously, he refused to learn anything else in case he was somehow drawn back there.
Merlin shrugged, for lack of a better answer. “It never came up?” he tried.
Everyone looked disbelieving, and Merlin caught Elyan frowning at the damn tally mark again. Shit. Time to pretend he was trying to make it believable.
“Look, would you want to go back to the town where you were held captive for years?”
The disbelief receded a little, and Merlin felt that he could continue pretending to exaggerate.
“Anyway, this guy was a piece of work, and crazy on top of that. He wanted to build a castle on top of a really specific hill, but the foundations kept… um… crumbling. But instead of doing the reasonable thing and trying the identical hill next door, he asked someone who happened to be even more of a nutjob, and was told that he needed to kidnap a bastard child.”
“Why you?” Leon asked. “Surely there were plenty of fatherless children on his land.”
“If he took anyone from the nearby town, there would have been enough angry people to do something about it. I was from a village too small to raise any sort of force to take me back, so he just… rode through and snatched me up.”
“What happened when he took you back?” Percival asked.
“He stood me in front of the half-built castle and told me to tell him why it wasn’t staying upright, or he’d have my mother killed.”
“What did you do then?” Arthur asked, intrigued.
Merlin hesitated. He certainly couldn’t tell them that he’d reached out with his magic, panicked, and that magic had reached back and delivered him a true prophecy.
“Er… I made up a story about two dragons fighting under his castle. It was supposed to be a metaphor – like the inner battle of good versus evil, that sort of thing. He took it literally, and went hunting for caves.”
“Did he find anything?” Mordred, this time.
Merlin shook his head in disbelief. “You wouldn’t believe it, but…”
Arthur rolled his eyes. “Let me guess; there were actually two dragons under the castle.”
“Wyverns, actually, but yeah. It must have been a territorial battle, because they were really flinging each other around. The white one was in pretty good shape, but the red one looked half dead. The lord wanted to have them both shot, but I didn’t think that was right-”
“Of course you didn’t,” Arthur muttered. Merlin ignored him.
“-so I made up another metaphor about the white one representing him and the red one representing his enemies, and said that as long as the white one lived in the cave, his fortune would be good.” Merlin paused, then added sadly, “He killed the red one.”
Arthur rolled his eyes.
“And did he build the castle?” Elyan asked.
“Yeah, everything was fine after that. The only problem was, the whole thing had convinced him I was a prophet. He made me stay at court and give made-up prophecies.”
Leon snorted. “Surely he realised that they were fake.”
Merlin shook his head. “I learnt my lesson after the wyverns and was as vague as possible. It worked a little too well - at one point, he would only let the harvest be brought in if I said it would be okay.”
“Did you like it there?” Mordred asked.
Merlin hesitated. “…it was a gilded cage. He gave me anything I wanted in the lead up to asking for a prophecy, but at other times he basically treated me like a slave.” That had been where he’d learnt to ignore titles. When a few words from him could get anyone in the court executed, regardless of title, you learned that power didn’t mean much. Not even for him – he still had scars from the whippings. “And I didn’t see my mother for three years,” he added, as if it were an afterthought.
Arthur, who knew exactly how much he adored his mother, frowned at the flippant mention.
Elyan, on the other hand, seemed to have recalled the last part of the statement. “What was that part about tearing down the walls?”
That was also his magic, but he couldn’t say that either.
“I gave some bad prophecies in an effort to anger the townspeople enough that they’d ransack the castle?” Merlin tried.
“And they were so angry they pulled down the castle walls,” Arthur said, disbelievingly.
The fae decided that they’d had enough time. “Verdict,” he spat.
Merlin waited, tense, as the knights looked at each other. He wasn’t sure which way this would go. Unfortunately, his propensity for attracting the absurd meant that the tale wasn’t as unbelievable as it would have been had anyone else been sitting there. On the other, without knowing the full story, it was impossible to believe he’d come up with such an accurate prophecy.
“It’s a lie,” Elyan said.
Leon agreed with him. “There’s no way that’s true. They wouldn’t have been able to tears the walls down, at the very least.”
Percival, who Merlin had expected to also believe it was a lie, was hesitating. Gwaine was too.
“You get used to the impossible happening around Merlin, though,” the latter pointed out. “It could be true.”
“I think it’s true,” Mordred said with certainty. Merlin stared at him, narrow-eyed; irritated that someone he so distrusted could read him so easily. Of course, Mordred’s knowledge of his magic meant that he caught most of his lies by default, but that didn’t make it any less infuriating.
Now it was just Arthur and Percival.
“I’ve seen some strange things in my travels,” Percival began. Merlin’s heart dropped. “This story, though… I don’t think it could be true.”
Blank face, Merlin reminded himself.
Arthur was staring at him closely. Merlin widened his eyes a bit when he looked back, the same way he did when he was trying to get Arthur to believe something that was clearly ridiculous. He’d only fallen for it once, way back in Merlin’s first year in Camelot. He wouldn't fall for it now.
“It’s a lie,” Arthur declared.
Merlin stopped breathing, then laughed disbelievingly. They'd won.
The relief faded fast when the fae screamed with rage, glamour flickering to reveal a terrifying being made of sharp edges and teeth. A breeze began to ruffle the parchment, and Merlin ducked for cover, as it rapidly became a gale.
“What the hell is going on?” Gwaine yelled over the magically-induced howling wind.
“We beat him!” Merlin yelled back. “That was the third lie!”
“Wait, you’re saying that was true?!” Leon exclaimed.
“Now isn’t really the time to discuss my childhood, Leon!”
Fire was beginning to streak the wind, so Merlin looked towards Arthur pointedly.
“We need to leave!” he yelled to him.
Arthur glanced around the room, looking for a closer escape than the door at the very end of the hall but finding nothing. “We’ll have to head for the door we came in through,” he ordered. “Quickly, while he’s distracted!”
They ran for it.
The fae was so preoccupied with his tantrum that he didn’t notice them leaving until they’d almost reached the door. Merlin had only Mordred behind him when the inhuman shriek of fury reached them. He turned to glance at the fae, and found that he couldn’t be seen through the avalanche of magic thundering towards them, intent on obliteration.
Merlin's eyes flashed gold as he instinctively slowed time. He needed the extra seconds it gave him to pull together some sort of defence before the magic burnt them to cinders; but even then, he had no time for spells or finesse. Only raw power. He threw up a hand, pitched everything he had into creating a block, and strained to hold it there as Mordred reached him.
“Go!” he bellowed when the druid hesitated. He couldn’t move – all his energy was being poured into holding back the flood.
The fae was acting deliberately now, pushing waves of magic at them with all his might. Merlin gritted his teeth and pushed back, fingertips burning with the amount of power he was directing through them.
Mordred moved past him, and Merlin thought he’d left until a pair of hands grabbed him around the waist and hauled him. He flinched in surprise, magic stuttering, then refocused; but he’d already lost a frightening amount of ground and the pause had made it harder to keep holding the block. It groaned under the weight of the fae’s magic.
“Come on, Emrys!” Mordred shouted at him as they made it out of the hall and into the maze of corridors. Merlin gritted his teeth and dug deeper, but he didn’t have anything left. The block buckled once; twice.
“If you don’t stop it, Arthur will die!” Mordred said desperately.
Merlin would have been swearing right now if he’d had any air. “I know!” he wanted to say. Instead, he screwed his eyes shut and reached.
Help me, he whispered to the land.
Always, it replied.
The wave of magic it sent him was intoxicating and heady. Merlin struggled to keep hold of his sense of self in the face of such enormous power. It would be so much easier just to let go and be part of the land; to give himself up to renew the earth; to-
Mordred’s voice broke through the haze, the rare use of his real name attention-grabbing even now. “Merlin?!”
He sounded terrified, but not in the same way he had been before. Merlin opened his eyes and noted absently that he was glowing, then looked at Mordred. The druid was pale with fear, but it looked – oddly – to be fear for him. Merlin smiled at him, wanting to put his worries at ease.
Mordred looked even more scared. “Merlin, whatever you’re doing, you can’t lose yourself! Arthur needs you!”
Merlin frowned. Arthur was familiar, somehow. A foreign magic attempted to pounce on him while he was distracted, but he batted it away with the ease of a cat holding up a mouse by the tail.
“Arthur?” he asked.
“Yes, Arthur! The Once and Future King! Your best friend!”
Reminded of his purpose, Merlin focused all his concentration on the fae’s magic. It was building inside the castle, so strong it shook the foundations and roared. Previously, it would have overwhelmed him. Now, with the wild borrowed magic…
Mordred carried him down the front steps of the castle, and Merlin lifted a hand and shoved. To the castle, so oversaturated with destructive magic, it was like he’d dropped a match in a bucket of oil. It flared gold, so bright it hurt to look at. Then the walls buckled, and the stones seemed to rip themselves apart.
Mordred stumbled, though whether it was from the explosion or shock, Merlin couldn't tell. His carrier stopped in the middle of the courtyard, staring at the ashes falling from the sky where there had once been a building.
Merlin tried to slide from his shoulder, but his knees buckled the moment he touched the ground and he would have fallen had Mordred not caught him again. People were speaking to him, but the wild magic, knowing it wasn’t needed anymore, chose that moment to seep out of his body and back into the earth. The sudden emptiness had his ears ringing and black spots dancing before his eyes.
Merlin closed them for a moment and breathed until he thought he wouldn't be sick.
“…happened? Merlin… glowing?” he caught Arthur saying as he began to recover. Mordred, who was right by his ear as he held Merlin up, was far easier to hear.
“The fae lost control of his magic, and Merlin got hit by the edge of it,” he said. “He’ll be fine.”
That was Merlin’s cue to make an effort to seem like he didn’t feel like a rag wet with magic which had been wrung out too hard. He ducked out from under Mordred’s steadying arm, stumbling as he tried to put weight on his legs again, but managed to keep his balance.
“Fucking ow,” he said faintly.
Arthur clapped him on the back, nearly sending him sprawling, but Mordred was there to catch him again. “Glad to see that useless brain of yours wasn’t hurt too badly,” the king joked. He was unable to completely hide the relief in his voice, though, which made Merlin grin.
“What, were you worried?” he teased.
“Never,” Arthur said. Then his eyes narrowed. “I am worried about this sudden ability to lie though.”
Merlin blanched. “Um.”
“I’m sure you’ll tell us all about it on the way back to Camelot, hmm?”
Arthur gave him a wolf’s grin before turning away and beginning to organise the horses. Merlin was left alone with Mordred.
“Thanks,” he said with some reluctance, after several long seconds of uncomfortable silence. “For taking me. And reminding me what I was trying to do.”
“Well, I couldn't exactly leave you there.”
They stood awkwardly for another few seconds before Mordred checked that the knights were out of hearing and added in undertone, “I’ve never felt so much magic before. It was like all of Albion had condensed itself into…”
“Me?” Merlin guessed. “I asked for help, and help was given.”
Mordred started at him with so much awe that Merlin had to look away.
“You mean you-?” Mordred started, then cut himself off. “Gods, you really are Emrys.”
“What are you two whispering about?” Gwaine called from his horse before Merlin could think up a response. He'd never been more grateful for his timing. How exactly were you supposed to respond to being reminded that you were a literal legend?
Elyan joined in. “Are you prying more secrets out of him, Mordred?”
Mordred laughed at that, a little unsteadily, so Merlin answered for him.
“Pft, I am an open book,” he announced, faking insult as he swung himself up onto his horse.
“Yeah, I’m sure you are,” Arthur said jokingly, though there was something like calculation in his gaze when he looked at his manservant. It made Merlin want to hide somewhere, or maybe wipe his memory of the past hour.
He laughed instead. “What do I have to hide, Arthur? Really.”
“I’ve never heard that story about the lord and the dragons before,” Gwaine pointed out. Traitor.
“Well I had fairly good reasons for not wanting to relive that, didn’t I?” Merlin shrugged. “Anyway, it never came up.”
“What actually was true in those stories?” Leon asked as they left the courtyard.
Merlin sighed and prepared himself for a long trip of dodging questions. At least there wouldn’t be so much blatant lying this time.