Merlin made a promise.
Problem was, he’d made it before he knew where he was going to end up.
Merlin was marched not to one of the cells, but to the very end of the dungeon and a trap door that gaped open into an endless pit. It wasn’t endless, of course, merely dark as a winter’s night and just as cold, with only a rickety ladder to climb down.
But Merlin had made a promise, and that promise was to stay where ever Arthur put him.
Stupid and foolish, Gaius would say had Merlin been given the chance to talk to him. But he’d only been allowed to talk to Arthur, who had asked questions, made demands then ordered Merlin to “the deepest reaches of the dungeon”; to have him out of sight until Arthur decided what to do with him.
Because that was the thanks one got when saving the king from an enchanted beast with magic. Merlin hadn’t even known what the beast was, with its heads that regrew every time they were lopped off, doubling and tripling until there were fifteen heads about to tear Arthur limb from limb, until Merlin finally rained fire on it.
Merlin had always figured that when the day came for his magic to be revealed, it would do the revealing for itself. It boggled his mind that it hadn’t happened sooner, to be honest. Merlin also realized he was being rather calm about all this. But, then, he hadn’t had time to process the situation beyond “haven’t been tied to the stake to burn just yet so that has to mean something.” And making the promise, of course, even if it was only to himself. Because obedience was all that Merlin had left to show Arthur that he was still the same clumsy idiot that had stumbled into his life four years ago. Now was not the time to run away and hope for the best.
But second thoughts were being quite persistent as Merlin climbed the ladder down into the hole. It was a cell, empty save for a pile of old straw in one corner. It stank of mildew and mold, and the walls glittered with moisture and slime. Merlin’s feet slid precariously on the slick floor when they stepped off the last rung, and he stood there, eying his new abode with mounting trepidation.
The trap door whined shut on rusting hinges, its wood so thick and heavy it blocked out the light completely, and a darkness only ever experienced behind closed eyelids swallowed Merlin whole.
Except it wasn’t like the dark behind closed eyes. It was more than that; like something real, something tangible, with a breath that was moist and cold and foul, and skin as slick as the walls. It oozed around Merlin, into Merlin, as his eyes strained until they ached for any light, any light at all. The only sound was his unsteady breathing and the roar of his blood in his ears.
This was where Arthur wanted him to stay until he came to a decision.
Merlin brought up his hands and whispered a word. The blue ball of light that had saved Arthur when he’d tracked down the morteaus flower glowed softly inches above Merlin’s palms. It was a gentle light, and while it didn’t fill the chamber its presence was enough to calm his rapid heart. He moved to the hay pile and sat down in a miserable huddle, watching as the light swirled with clouds of indigo and cornflower blue.
It hit Merlin - as he stared at the light that he had used to save Arthur while Arthur was saving him - everything that happened and what had followed. The beast had been smart and quick, using the trail of destruction it had caused to lead Arthur and his men to a trap. It had lunged out from the cave where it had been hiding, killing four and wounding others including Arthur. So Merlin had called down fire from the sky, incinerating it to ash.
While Arthur had watched on, horrified.
Then Arthur became angry with a rage Merlin had only ever seen once, when Arthur had nearly killed his father over the words of an illusion.
But Merlin’s thoughts didn’t stop there, moving back and beyond to living in the shadows day after day, fighting the good fight while being belittled and mocked. Playing the part of the idiot servant, ducking goblets and languishing in the stocks, trailing after Arthur in the cold and rain, whispering spells to bring down bandits and Arthur calling him a coward after.
Anger filled Merlin like molten rock until his hands shook. This was the thanks he got. After everything he had done, everything he had sacrificed, his lot in life was to rot in a hole.
The light flickered. Merlin sucked in a breath, released it slowly, and pulled in another.
No, this was Arthur’s lot in life – to be raised fearing magic and have it betray him at every turn. This was why Merlin wasn’t blasting his way to freedom, because what Merlin did next would either usher in a golden age or condemn it to another purge.
It would either save a friendship, or end it.
Merlin could do this. It was sitting around in a hole being the lazy sod Arthur always accused him of – not fighting monsters or losing loved ones. Merlin could do this.
Exhaustion replaced rage. Merlin curled up on the ancient pile of hay, but did not let the light go out until he had closed his eyes.
Darkness pressed on him like an unwanted touch.
It was confirmed when one of the guards grumbled to another about nearly forgetting to feed the sorcerer.
“I didn’t forget, I didn’t want to,” the guard whined as he lowered bread, cheese and a flask of water down into the pit with a bucket and rope. The ladder had been removed some time ago, probably while Merlin was asleep. They preferred interacting with him as little as possible.
Merlin scrambled forward and grabbed the food and water before the bucket was yanked back up. The guards never waited long when lowering the food. The trap door fell back into place, and Merlin summoned his light to see as he ate. One hand held the light while the other stuffed the pathetic piece of bread into his mouth.
A soft clicking drew Merlin’s attention to the wall on his right. A tiny pink nose was peeking through a small hole in the corner, and a tiny white head with pink eyes soon followed.
Merlin pressed both the cheese and flask of water to his chest.
“If you think you’re getting any then you’ve come to the wrong cell,” Merlin said, glaring at the rat. “It’s not like there isn’t a whole bloody larder for you to raid.”
The rat ventured another inch out, its whiskers shining blue in Merlin’s light.
Merlin took a vindictive bite of cheese and chewed. Rats chewing on Arthur’s boots had been half the reason for Merlin’s miseries. The little blighter deserved to starve.
The rat scuttled out of the hole, and doing what Merlin had never seen a rat do before, huddled into a ball to look absolutely pathetic.
Merlin narrowed his eyes. It was such a scrawny rat, at least compared to those rats that liked to make a meal of Arthur’s boots. And for some reason Merlin’s treacherous brain decided that it reminded Merlin of, well, himself. Arthur was always more than happy to remind Merlin about how pathetic he was, and useless, and a bane to Arthur’s existence – not unlike a rat, really.
And maybe Arthur was right, seeing as Merlin had resigned himself to living in a hole until Arthur decided to forgive him… or not forgive him.
Merlin set the cheese in his lap, broke off a piece with his fingernails and tossed it to the rat. Rather than snatch it and scamper away, the rat took it in its tiny paws and nibbled it in Merlin’s presence.
“You’re either brave or foolish,” Merlin said. He sighed. “Not that I’m one to talk. I could kill you with only a thought, you know.”
The rat nibbled on, maybe oblivious, maybe foolish, or maybe happy to have some company.
“I wish Arthur could be like you,” Merlin said. He broke off another piece and tossed it.
Then Merlin said in a conspiratorial whisper, “I’ll let you in on a little secret. The castle cat is pregnant. That mean she’s going to be a little slow on the rat catching for a time. So if you want to raid the larder, now’s the time. It’ll serve Arthur right.”
The rat took the next piece of cheese and nibbled.
Clive had no stories, but he had ears to hear, and gave Merlin his company in exchange for a bit of cheese.
Merlin was the one who told the stories, about Arthur and Camelot, magic and creatures, and sometimes Merlin was quite sure there were moments when Clive was actually interested in what Merlin had to say. Merlin made sure to leave out any tales that involved having to kill rats (although he still wasn’t sure if wildoren counted).
“I know what you’re thinking,” Merlin said after tossing Clive the last of his bread. “Merlin, why do you bother with Arthur? You save his life who knows how many times and what does he do? He sticks you in a hole in the dark.”
Clive gnawed silently on the bread.
“He is a good man,” Merlin said, settling himself more comfortably on his hay pile, one knee drawn up and his hands clasped around it. He had finally figured out how to get the ball to hover without having to hold it.
“Much better than Uther, let me tell you. He’s wiser, even if he does have a bad habit of not listening to his friends and throwing things at me. But he knows how to judge a man by his actions rather than his status in life… don’t look at me like that. He hasn’t actually seen me save him with magic except once. Besides, it isn’t as though he’s had any great examples of magic being used for good. He just needs time to come around. It’s why I’m still down here, after all. To show him that I’m still loyal. If I escape, he’ll only take it as proof that magic and magic users can’t be trusted. But he will come around, you’ll see. We’re two sides of the same coin and all that according to the dragon. The half can’t hate what makes it whole, or something.”
Clive finished the bread. He rose and sniffed at the air, but when no food was forthcoming, he turned and hurried back into his hole.
“See you tomorrow, then, Clive,” Merlin said. He curled up on the hay and went to sleep.
Food was slow to come today, if it even still was today and not tomorrow, or two days later – Merlin could no longer tell. He was also coming to the unnerving conclusion that for being a powerful warlock, his magic was no better than his body when it came to things like hunger and thirst. Or perhaps, more logically, it was that – him being of magic – his powers were tied to his physical state. Except that he had summoned the ball of light even while unconscious and delirious under the effects of poison.
But Merlin had been poisoned, not starved. It had been Gaius’ theory that Merlin’s connection with Arthur had allowed him to see what Arthur was going through, and seeing what Arthur was going through had spiked Merlin’s adrenaline enough to allow him to use his magic even while weak and unconscious.
Merlin didn’t have adrenaline backing his magic at the moment, not this time. The longer he went without food and water, the more the ball of light began to flicker. Trying to maintain it was like trying to climb a steep hill while carrying a satchel of rocks, and Merlin had to extinguish it more and more often to conserve strength.
Clive continued to keep him company, even with no food as a reward. He scurried along the wall, nibbled at the hay, and at one point attempted to nibble at Merlin’s boot until Merlin shooed him away.
“I’m grateful for the company, Clive, but that’s pushing it,” Merlin said groggily. He was lying on his side, his head throbbing and his throat and mouth so dry they hurt. Then the trap door opened and the bucket was lowered. Merlin crawled slowly to where the bucket touched the floor and retrieved his meager reprieve. He made sure to consume slowly – he’d been apprentice to Gaius long enough to know what happened when you guzzled and gulped on an empty stomach. The ball of light slowly solidified.
Clive was there, waiting patiently for his pittance. Merlin tossed him a crumb of bread and cheese.
“I know what you’re thinking,” Merlin said. “Does it really take this long to decide what to do with one sorcerer?” He turned and crawled back to his hay pile. “You have a point on that one.” He curled up. “Arthur will come around. He’s just being a prat about it. As usual.” He slept.
Clive didn’t come. Not when food was lowered down in the bucket. Not when Merlin set crumbs by the hole. Clive didn’t come, and the pile of crumbs grew.
Merlin sat on his hay, watching the hole, waiting, hoping.
“Clive?” he said. “I’m sorry if I said anything to offend you. I didn’t mean it. You’re right. Arthur is a prat. It shouldn’t take this long to come to a decision.”
The hole remained empty.
Merlin’s eyes stung and his throat tightened.
“Please come back.”
Clive didn’t come.
Merlin had come to realize something.
It made the ears strain for any sound, any at all. But even when Merlin scraped his boot across the floor, even when he shifted in the crackling hay, and hummed, and told himself stupid riddles, the silence still hurt.
Merlin’s light was wavering and he didn’t know why. Perhaps the bread and cheese hadn’t been enough, but usually it was. All he could figure was that he was getting sick, or he was sick and hadn’t realized it. Although he wasn’t sure how one didn’t realize they were sick. Then again, with how often the food came, which wasn’t often enough, he hadn’t felt particularly well since he’d been forced down into this hole.
He was tired all the time, as though his limbs were made of lead and the slime and moisture had crawled into his lungs and taken up residence. His head always pounded and his joints always ached. All he wanted to do was sleep but when he slept he would dream of the trap door being flung open and Arthur hurrying down the ladder. Sometimes it was to announce his sentence and then Merlin would find himself tied to the stake as the flames licked at his feet. Sometimes it was to hug Merlin and tell Merlin that he forgave him and that he was free, then they would start up the ladder.
And Merlin would wake up.
Sometimes Merlin would dream of Clive scurrying out of his hole, waiting for his crumbs. But when Merlin tossed him his crumbs, Clive would fade away like mist in the morning light.
Sometimes Merlin would dream of the sun, but it would always be cold. He couldn’t remember what it was like to be warmed by the sun.
Sometimes the sun would hang in the darkness, lighting nothing.
Sometimes Merlin would be awake, unable to hold his light, and stare into the dark until he saw shapes. The shapes became faces – Gaius, his mother, Balinor, Freya, Will, Gwen, the knights, Arthur. They would tell him things, he was sure of it, but the silence was so heavy he could never hear them.
Sometimes they laughed at him.
The darkness became the dragon.
The half cannot truly hate that which makes it whole.
Merlin screamed, “Shut up!” and tossed a fire ball that was little more than a candle flame, fizzling out before it barely left his palm.
Sometimes Merlin curled up on the hay and wept and wept and wept until exhaustion made him sleep, and he would dream.
Merlin awoke with a yelp to a sharp pain in both his shoulder and leg. Awareness slammed into him with the speed of a single heartbeat – the sound of scratching and scrabbling, dozens of small, moving weights crawling about his body, sharp pains on his leg, ankle, shoulder, hand, back, ribs and neck. Instinct and fear made him slap away one of the moving weights, and his hand briefly encountered something soft and covered in course fur.
Merlin bolted upright and scrambled backward until he was at the other end of the chamber. He held out his hand and whispered the word that would summon his light. It flickered, weak and barely able to light his palm. He tried again, then again, focusing harder.
It flared, briefly, lasting from one thump of his heart to the next.
Long enough to see his hand covered in small cuts and scratches. It flared again, less this time, but long enough for him to see his pile of hay.
It was covered in rats, dozens of them – large and fat and vicious; the antithesis of Clive. They swarmed the hay pile, but began making their way directly toward him.
Merlin screamed and flung out his hand and a spell. Rats squealed and the scratching and scuttling increased. Merlin called on his light and it lasted just enough for him to see the rats squeezing back through Clive’s hole.
The light flickered, faded and went out.
Merlin huddled shaking, sobbing, twitching at the feel of thin lines of hot blood trailing down his skin.
The darkness laughed. It sounded remarkably like Morgana.
“Oh, silly Merlin,” Morgana simpered. “Did you really think it would be so easy? All you have to do is wait, you said. He’ll come around, you said. The half can’t truly hate that which makes it whole,” her voice lowered to a growl. “You said.”
Merlin sucked in a trembling breath. “He will,” he said, his voice small.
Morgana tsked. “You keep telling yourself that, Merlin. You keep reminding yourself of what a good man he is. That man whose life you saved day in and day out, only for him to throw you in a hole and forget about you.”
“He hasn’t forgotten,” Merlin said.
“Are you so sure?” Morgana said. “Maybe you’re right. “Maybe he hasn’t. Maybe he threw you down here so he no longer had to look at you. I would think that would be easier than trying to decide what to do with you. Out of sight, out of mind, or have you forgotten that saying?”
“He hasn’t forgotten.”
Morgana chuckled. “Keep telling yourself that, Merlin.”
Her voice faded away. Merlin’s company was now his wet, ragged breaths, and the rats scratching on the walls.
The darkness pressed on Merlin, pushing on him like walls, crushing his bones to powder.
The rats scurried and scratched and pricked him with pain. Lots of pain. He didn’t mind the pain. The pain said he was real. It said the darkness hadn’t eaten him, yet.
But it was eating him, it was just being slow about it. It had dissolved his skin and drank his blood, and now was plucking his ribs from his spine and sucking free the marrow. It was eating him, he just didn’t know it yet. And soon he would be nothing, nothing at all, floating in the dark forever and ever.
But the rats said no. They said we’re eating you, and here’s the pain the darkness is keeping from you. The darkness is too kind.
Merlin felt them, little weights and little claws and little bites, bites, bites drawing his blood and drinking it like soup and wouldn’t soup be nice in his empty stomach that was turning inward. Because, no, he wasn’t being eaten because there was nothing to eat, little skin and bones that he was. Nothing, nothing at all because he was nothing.
The darkness laughed.
“Now you understand,” it said in Morgana’s voice.
He was nothing.
The darkness caressed his cheek with a cold finger, then reached inside of his chest and squeezed his heart.
The darkness laughed louder, and danced and danced with the dead swirling like a storm, screaming at him.
“The half can hate the whole.”
The rats bit him. Not yet, not yet. We’re not done.
The darkness sang and filled his lungs until he couldn’t breathe.
Merlin wept louder, great heaving sobs that made him cough and scare the rats. But they returned crawling and gnawing and stripping him to nothing, nothing at all, nothing.
Because he was nothing. Nothing he ever did mattered. Nothing he had ever done mattered. The half hated the whole. The half had forgotten the whole. He was nothing.
Merlin tilted his head back and screamed and screamed and screamed.
A square of light ripped through the darkness, driving it back, and a voice called, “What the bloody hell is going on!”
A ladder appeared and bodies descended, bodies of darkness and nothing come to eat Merlin with the dark. Merlin screamed and waved his hand, flinging them out of the hole.
The light remained. Merlin stared at it, uncomprehending.
Light. Light was… good. Good. The rats ran from it. It was good. The darkness shrank from it. Very, very good.
Merlin rose on legs that trembled. He limped to the ladder, to the light that made his eyes sting. That wasn’t good, but the light made the dark go away so that was better. Merlin climbed the ladder, slowly because he hurt and he was so tired. The light stung his eyes but it wasn’t like the pain of the rats. It said he was real, but it wasn’t interested in him, that light. The dark bodies lay on the floor, moaning and barely conscious. They wore metal that reflected the light, making more light.
Good, good, good, good, good…
Shouting, loud. It hurt, like the silence. It made Merlin’s brain hurt and spin, made it hard to move. He stood there, shaking, as men in shining metal surrounded him. They yelled at him and held swords at him like teeth, devouring teeth.
No, no, not good, not good, not good…
But when he tried to make them fly away, his head cracked and his stomach coiled, making him vomit up nothing. Strong hands grabbed his arms and dragged him away from the hole, away from the dark, but he hurt too much to know what to think about it. They dragged him up steps that banged against his feet, bruising them. A door opened.
The light stabbed him, like lances of white fire piercing his skull and brain, and Merlin screamed and screamed and screamed…
Merlin jolted, unsure if he was waking up or if he’d always been awake. Or maybe he was still dreaming, because the darkness was there, but it was warm and gentle, soft at his back and a light, comfortable weight at his front.
“I’m sorry,” he said with a voice raw and barely able to go above a whisper. “I’m sorry Gaius.”
“I’m sorry, Gaius,” said another who sounded like Arthur.
“Are you?” Gaius demanded. “A month, Arthur. You had him down there for a month when you had promised only a few days! You assigned him guards that have confessed to stealing food from him because they were so certain you would have him executed, so what did it matter? You left him down there for nearly a month! And you still have the audacity to think he had been trying to escape!”
“He was trying to escape!” Arthur shot back. “You said so yourself, Gaius.”
“I said he was trying to escape the hell you put him in. Gods, Arthur, you saw the state he was in. He was covered in blood. He is whittled down to skin, bone and rags. He couldn’t handle the light of day! Why, Arthur, after all this time would he choose to escape now?”
Gaius’ answer was met with silence.
“Exactly,” Gaius spat, as though the silence were answer enough. “Now if you will excuse me, I must go attend to my patient.”
Silence again, but it didn’t hurt. It was broken by the soft squeak of hinges and the padding of booted feet.
“Merlin?” Gaius said quietly, trying not to wake him while hoping he was awake.
A warm, callous weight settled on Merlin’s forehead. Merlin flinched hard with a gasp and began to shake as he waited for the small pricks of pain.
“Shh, it’s all right, Merlin. It’s just me, just Gaius.”
The hand brushed back over Merlin’s hair, light and gentle and without pain.
His dreams were never so kind.
Which meant this wasn’t a dream.
Merlin sucked in a breath, and when he released it, it was a sob.
“Gaius?” he said, his voice like frayed wood.
“That’s right, my boy,” Gaius said, his voice thick with tears.
Merlin lifted his hand and felt around him until he brushed the thick sleeve of Gaius’ robe. He followed it to Gaius’ arm, and clung to it with the little strength that he had.
“Gaius, I can’t see…” he whimpered. “Why is it still dark?”
Gaius took Merlin’s hand and held it. “It’s all right, Merlin. I just have a bandage over your eyes. You’ve been in the dark so long that your eyes need time to readjust. The room should be dim enough, though. Just give me a moment…”
The warmth of Gaius’ hand vanished from Merlin’s. He tried reaching for it but felt only air. Fabric rustled, something tugged against his head, and then the darkness fell away. Merlin blinked at the dusky light of a familiar room – his room, with his things. He could see, even in the dim light, every detail; every knick-knack, cranny and crack. He could see Gaius’ face looking on him with fatherly love and concern.
He could see.
“Gaius,” Merlin said, clinging to Gaius’ sleeve again and holding to it like an anchor keeping him in reality. Then Gaius gathered Merlin to him, and Merlin buried his face in Gaius’ chest and wept.
And wailed, howling, he was sure, for all of Camelot to hear. He went on and on like this until exhaustion and congested lungs demanded that he stop, and he slumped boneless against Gaius, coughing fitfully. Gaius gently lowered him onto the bed, but when he made to leave, Merlin grabbed his sleeve one more time.
“Don’t go, please!” he said.
Gaius took his hand and patted it. “I won’t be gone for long, Merlin. I have some medicine you need to take, and a bowl of porridge you need to eat. I’ll only be a minute.”
Merlin released Gaius’s sleeve. As Gaius left, he curled up on his side, clutching his blanket as he fought to stop his incessant shaking. This wasn’t a dream. It was real, it was real, it wasn’t a dream…
You keep telling yourself that…
Gaius returned with a tray, and froze briefly as he studied Merlin with worried eyes. He deposited the tray on the side table, then helped Merlin to sit upright so he could eat. He handed the bowl to Merlin. The porridge was thick and warm, sweetened with a little honey and berries. The water was cold and soothed Merlin’s burning throat.
“Clive would like this,” Merlin said.
“Clive?” Gaius asked as he sorted through the small collection of medicines on the tray.
“He was a rat. I used to give him some of my cheese. Then he vanished, and other rats tried to eat me.”
Gaius stopped fussing. He looked at Merlin, part in shock, part with that concern that seemed to be a permanent feature of Gaius’.
“That would explain the injuries,” Gaius said carefully, as if he’d had other theories as to where those injuries had come from. It was then that Merlin looked down at himself and noticed the bandages wrapped around his hands to his knuckles, bandages peeking through the open collar of his nightshirt, and felt them against his skin beneath his clothes. They didn’t cover him enough to hide the disturbing way his collarbones jutted out, nor the ridged lines pressed to the skin of his chest by his ribs.
Merlin finished his porridge and water, and took the medicines Gaius gave him.
“They’ll help with the cough and against infection. They’ll also help you sleep.”
Merlin startled out of his drowsy state and looked at Gaius in horror.
“No, please, Gaius, I don’t want to sleep. I’ll dream, I don’t want to dream, please.” He clutched tightly at the cloth over Gaius’ shoulder. “Please, Gaius, don’t let me dream, please.”
But Gaius took his hand and set it back on the bed. “Shh, it’s all right, Merlin. You need the rest, and I’ll be right here if you need me. The potion should be strong enough that you won’t dream.”
“You promise?” Merlin said, not caring how pathetic he sounded.
“Yes, Merlin, I promise.”
Gaius helped Merlin settle back beneath the covers, and kept his hand on his shoulder as he slipped off to sleep. Merlin remained unsure. Too many promises had been broken. He couldn’t bare for this one to break as well.
Merlin looked up from his stare at Gaius’ bookshelf and looked at Gwaine. “I had a beard?”
Gwaine smiled at him, but it was a sad smile. He was sitting on the edge of the patient cot, while Merlin sat in Gaius’ padded chair before the fire, wrapped in a blanket because he chilled easily. It was fine so long as he didn’t look into the fire or else it made his eyes sting with its light. Gaius was at his reading table pouring over a book.
“Yeah. Big bristly thing. I didn’t even know you were old enough to grow a beard, to be honest. It made you look like a ra—er, a bear. A really skinny bear.”
The few people who visited were always careful about what they said around him, although Merlin supposed he understood. The word rat always made him two parts nervous and one part despondent these days, making him stare as he thought of things he didn’t want to think about.
“Oh,” Merlin said softly, his voice still weak from soreness and having screamed himself raw the day he’d tried to escape, or whatever that had been. Everyone called it escape. Merlin called it going where the dark wasn’t, and supposed that was the same as escape. He didn’t know anymore. The time in the dark was too much of a jumble in his head, making him sick and dizzy and terrified if he thought about it for too long. So he tried to think of the times before the dark, but they never felt real to him, more like a story than a life he had lived.
There was silence for a moment, although it didn’t make Merlin’s ears hurt. It did make Gwaine squirm.
“I don’t know if Gaius told you yet,” Gwaine said, tossing a surreptitious glance Gaius’ way. “But, um… you were pardoned. A nice big fancy pardon read from a scroll and everything. He’s even talking about legalizing magic.”
“Gwaine!” Gaius hissed.
Merlin flinched, but not because of Gaius.
The golden age of Albion.
That was… that was good. Very good. It was important. It was why Merlin had stayed in the hole, in the dark.
No, it was to show Arthur that he was still Merlin, still loyal.
“…erlin, mate?” Gwaine’s voice cut in.
Merlin blinked, feeling as though he were waking up, and looked at Gwaine. Gwaine, however, kept looking between him and Gaius.
“That’s good,” Merlin said, realizing he should say something.
Gwaine cleared his throat. “Well, I would think so, seeing as how you’re magic and all.”
“What made him decide?” Merlin asked.
Gwaine exchanged another look with Gaius, as if asking for his permission before speaking. Gaius sighed and closed the book he’d been reading.
“Arthur and I did quite a bit of talking while you were… anyway, I made certain matters clear to him. But my theory is that he believes this a way to make up for what he did. But that does not mean you have to forgive him, Merlin, not if you’re not ready.”
“I’d say make him squirm some more,” Gwaine says. “Serves him right.”
Merlin blinked and looked away. Forgive Arthur. He hadn’t thought about it. Forgive Arthur, who put him in the hole. But Arthur was Arthur, raised to hate magic and betrayed by it more often than not.
You keep telling yourself that.
Merlin blinked with a twitch. “I, um… I don’t…”
Gwaine waved his hand as if brushing the words away. “Don’t worry about it. Don’t even think on it. You’ve worried too long about Arthur. It’s time you worry about yourself.”
Merlin nodded, even while not knowing if he agreed. How did he worry about himself? He wasn’t sure.
But he did know that you usually forgave someone when they apologized. And Arthur hadn’t apologized to him.
But he was legalizing magic.
And it had only taken Merlin being lowered in a hole and eaten by the dark.
Sometimes it was Gwen who accompanied him, or Lancelot or Gwaine. They took short walks through the training grounds then back before Merlin found himself winded and too tired to keep going. They always sat for a spell on one of the lower walls, because it didn’t matter how often Merlin went out, he could not get enough of the wide expanse that was the world.
Sometimes, though, it scared him, all that expanse, as if he would fall into the open sky if he stayed out too long. Which was strange, because he distinctly remembered flying, once, and loving it.
They’d occasionally take walks through the castle halls to help build up his strength. At one point Gwen took him to the kitchens where she knew the cook was making honey cakes. The pantry door had been open and Merlin looked inside hoping to see a white rat. When he hadn’t, he had to hurry back to Gaius’ chamber, leaving a confused Gwen behind. He hid in his room and cried until he fell asleep. He woke the next day feeling ridiculous at having cried over a rat. But the melancholy wouldn’t leave him.
The people they would pass on these walks, people who Merlin had once called friends, gave him a wide berth as though he, too, were a rat. Elyan never did, nor did Percival. Leon’s discomfort was made obvious in the stiff way he stood, but he was polite and offered Merlin a smile.
Merlin walked with Gwaine on the training grounds, the sun having set but with still enough light to see the way. Gwaine was going on about his travels north when he’d had to hide in a mead barrel because of some misunderstanding with a butcher and his wife, and ended up south drunk on the fumes.
“I didn’t know which surprised the cart driver more, me popping out of the barrel or me giving him a sloppy wet kiss for bringing me beyond reach of that butcher,” Gwaine said laughingly.
Merlin smiled, because Gwaine always made him smile. Then a sharp, hot pain skimmed Merlin across the side of his skull. He cried out while falling to his knees and clutching his head, hot blood sliding between his fingers and down his hand, and all he could think of was rats gnawing and chewing and devouring him like the darkness couldn’t, and the darkness laughed and laughed and…
“You little bastards!” Gwaine screamed. Merlin startled, almost tipping onto his side. He looked up to see the world spinning and Gwaine chasing down a gaggle of terrified pages. He managed to grab the tallest one and shove him to the ground, screaming and kicking at him.
“What is the meaning of this!” said another, and the familiarity of that voice made Merlin go perfectly still.
Arthur stepped into sight, regal and proud and full of authority even in only his red shirt with no armor or cape. He shoved Gwaine aside, then picked the squire up by the back of his shirt.
“What happened, what’s going on?” Arthur demanded.
“That little piss!” Gwaine spat, pointing a rigid finger at the boy, “thought it would be a laugh to throw rocks at Merlin.”
“I’m sorry, sire, it was just a dare. We didn’t mean to hurt him,” the boy sobbed.
“Didn’t mean… didn’t mean to?” Gwaine sputtered. “Didn’t mean to! You struck him in the bloody head!”
Arthur turned to Merlin, his face like stone. He moved toward Merlin, his strides quick, his stance rigid and full of anger. Like the day Merlin had saved him and Arthur saw his magic. The day Arthur had ordered him to the very depths of the dungeon.
The world went white. A noise like shifting straw filled Merlin’s head. He scrambled weakly away, hobbling like a wounded animal, the world spinning and tilting and Arthur marching toward him to take him away, to put him in the hole, to feed him to the dark that took its time and laughed and sang…
“Merlin. Merlin! It’s okay. It’s okay, mate.”
And then Gwaine was there taking him by the shoulders and holding him. Someone kept saying no over and over again, and Merlin realized it was his own voice. A shadow passed over him.
Merlin looked up to see Arthur, a black shape against the growing darkness.
The darkness took him.
Right. Not in a hole anymore.
The light was the silver-gray Merlin had long ago come to associate with morning, with a touch of gold that said it wouldn’t be long before the sun breached the horizon.
Merlin sat up slowly and looked around, trying to remember when he’d gone to bed.
He remembered, instead, Arthur stalking toward him, then darkness following as if he’d been dropped back into the hole.
Merlin shivered hard. He wrapped his arms around himself, and when that did nothing to keep off the chills, he pulled his blanket around his shoulders. His stomach groaned in hunger. Merlin slid from his bed and shuffled to the door. Peering out, he found the room to be empty. But a fire was going with a pot of something boiling. Merlin shuffled out down the steps, and so spotted a note in Gaius’ handwriting saying he had an emergency birth to attend in the lower town and that he would be back soon, and that Merlin was to make sure to eat something and continue resting.
Merlin took one of the wooden bowls and the ladle from the bookshelf and gathered himself some steaming porridge. He moved to the table, set the bowl down and lowered himself into the chair.
A floorboard creaked. Merlin, stirring the porridge froze, his heart like thunder in his chest. His eyes rolled, slowly, to the left and the shadows not yet chased away by the growing light of day. A shape darker than the darkness detached itself, moving forward.
“Merlin,” Arthur said, wide-eyed and uncertain.
Merlin stared at him, his heart stopping.
Then it was chaos and noise and madness as he flung himself from his chair and scrambled backward, toward his room, desperate to get a door between him and the king. Arthur stood there as if rooted to the floor, then he was moving. Merlin leaped back only to slip on the first step. He crab-crawled backward up the steps, and once inside the room lurched forward to slam the door.
But Arthur was faster and so much stronger, catching the door and shoving it open, forcing Merlin to scuttle away.
“Merlin, stop, please!” Arthur said, no longer advancing and his hands held out.
Merlin scrambled to his feet. He tried to lunge past Arthur only for Arthur to catch him. Merlin cried out. Arthur’s hand clapped over his mouth and Merlin struggled, squirming and kicking.
“Merlin, stop! Stop! Shh! It’s all right, I’m not going to hurt you. Please, stop!”
Merlin stopped struggling, not because Arthur commanded it, because his body didn’t have the strength. He slumped in Arthur’s arms, tears squeezing through his tightly closed eyes. He felt Arthur dragging him and, gods, no, please, not the dark, not the dark, not the dark…
Only he was lowered onto something soft and familiar. Merlin opened his eyes to see his bed.
Arthur let him go. The moment he did, Merlin scooted quickly away and huddled at the head of his bed, his knees drawn to his chest and his body shaking.
Arthur back away, pale, wild-eyed and looking just as ready to bolt.
“Gods, Merlin, I…” he said, staring at Merlin as though he were something never before seen. Then his features softened, melting into something melancholy before tightening as if in pain.
“I’m sorry,” he said, barely a whisper. He then turned and left.
Arthur had said sorry.
And when someone said sorry, you forgave them. That was how it was supposed to be.
But all Merlin could think about, all he saw in his mind’s eye, was Arthur barreling down on him, grabbing him, dragging him as the guards had, because Arthur was a man of force and action, forcing his way like a bull as was his right as king. Merlin hadn’t stopped trying to get away from him, so Arthur had made him stop.
He could have dragged Merlin back to the hole if had wanted.
But he could have.
But he didn’t.
He said sorry.
And had to corner Merlin to do so.
Gaius found him where Arthur had left him, still huddled on the bed, no longer crying but unable to stop shaking. Merlin wasn’t aware of Gaius until he felt hands on his shoulders and flinched hard enough to knock his head on the wall.
“Shh, shh, it’s all right, my boy. You’re safe,” Gaius said, rubbing Merlin’s trembling shoulders as he studied his ward with a father’s eye. “What happened, Merlin, what’s wrong?”
It took Merlin a moment to get himself under control long enough for his teeth to stop chattering. When he was able, he blurted out, “Arthur… stopped by.”
And Gaius stared, then nodded once. “Are you hungry? Do you think you can eat?”
Merlin didn’t think he could, but he knew Gaius would want him to try. So he let Gaius help him up and guide him to the table, where he spooned fresh porridge that was still warm into another bowl, and made Merlin a cup of tea to sooth his nerves.
“I need to attend to some business Merlin. I’ll only be a moment,” he said, settling Merlin’s blanket back around his shoulders. Gaius left.
Merlin sat there, staring at the bowl and the tea.
Arthur had said sorry.
Merlin took a sip of tea.
Merlin took a bite of porridge.
Merlin shivered and thought of darkness that laughed.
A month of darkness.
He had said sorry.
Merlin took another sip of tea.
Another bite of porridge.
The darkness laughed.
The door creaked open. Merlin looked up, tensing, but relaxed on seeing it was only Gaius. Except his cheeks were moist and his hands were shaking.
“Gaius?” Merlin said softly.
Gaius smiled. “Sorry, Merlin. I was… just having a few words with Arthur.”
Merlin looked at Gaius’ shaking hands. “You yelled at him, didn’t you,” he stated.
Gaius’ smile turned sad. “I may have been firm in my words, yes. Arthur knows better than to put any of my patients under any type of stress. He was most contrite about it. The most contrite I’ve ever seen him, to be honest.”
Gaius folded his hands within the sleeves of his robes. “He wishes to come by later, to speak to you.”
“About what?” Merlin said, tensing.
“Most likely to apologize,” Gaius said. “But you don’t have to speak to him, if you don’t wish.”
“He’s the king. I’m going to have to speak to him because that’s what he’ll want,” Merlin said with a touch of bitterness that surprised him.
Gaius moved around the table to Merlin and placed his hand on his shoulder.
“Not this time,” Gaius said gently, like a promise.
Arthur came well after Merlin had managed to finish what he could of his porridge and tea, and Merlin had remained where he was, waiting for him with Gaius nearby.
Arthur stood in the door wearing a look of reluctant panic, and it made Arthur like a stranger. Not once, since Merlin had met him had Arthur ever exuded the air of a man who wanted to run away. And for that reason, it made Merlin nervous.
He knew how to handle a sad Arthur, a stupidly brave Arthur, an infuriated Arthur. He had no idea what to make of a panicked Arthur.
Then Arthur took a deep breath and found his composure.
What was left was a melancholic Arthur and that, too, Merlin did not know how to handle.
Arthur had never showed contrition, not to Merlin. Never to Merlin.
Arthur opened his mouth, closed it, opened it again. He straightened his back forcing as regal an air as he could. Only for his shoulders to slowly lower as though the weight of such a bearing was too much.
“They were supposed to care for you,” he said, rushed, getting the words out before they could seek refuge behind his tongue. “The guards. I had ordered them to move you out of the oubliette and into one of the cells, I didn’t… I had no idea they hadn’t obeyed.”
Merlin stared at Arthur. He said, as if his voice had a mind of its own, “I was down there a month.”
“I know,” Arthur said. His voice cracked at the end. “Gods, Merlin, I’m…” he cleared his throat, took another breath, tried to straighten again. Kings weren’t supposed to apologize.
The weight bore him down. “I’m sorry,” he said.
He’d said sorry.
Silence surrounded them thick as mud and just as stifling. Arthur cleared his throat a second time.
“You’ve been officially pardoned. You’re free, now. Gaius… he explained everything, and once I managed to get my head out of my arse I did listen. I can’t… gods, Merlin, everything you did. For me. For Camelot. I can’t…” He scraped both hands through his hair, making it stand up. Merlin wanted to laugh, but he knew if he did, he doubted he’d stop.
Arthur’s hands dropped limply to his sides.
“May I see?” he said, like a shy child.
Merlin’s brow furrowed. Arthur gestured vaguely toward him.
“What – what you can do. May I see?”
Merlin eyes widened.
Arthur wanted to see his magic.
Merlin’s heart hammered while his chest tightened, and tightened, and tightened until he could barely breathe. He shivered and shivering became trembling that wouldn’t stop.
The darkness laughed and laughed and laughed.
Merlin shrank back.
“No,” he said, like a frightened child.
Arthur blinked in surprise. “Merlin, it’s all right. You’re in no danger. Just something simple?”
But Merlin shook his head, his body trembling harder. He said in a voice that was barely even a whisper, “I don’t want to.” Tears blurred his vision.
“Sire,” Gaius said calmly as he took Arthur by the elbow and guided him out the door. “I’m afraid that will have to be all for today.”
Arthur looked at Merlin once more with pursed lips. “Yes. Yes, I understand. I’m sorry, Merlin.” He let Gaius escort him to the door.
The moment the door was shut, Gaius hurried over to Merlin, slowly knelt beside him and wrapped his arm around his shoulders.
“It’s okay, Merlin. It’s okay.”
But Merlin shook his head, the tears falling, and his throat coughed out a sob.
“I don’t want to use my magic, Gaius.”
“I know Merlin, you don’t have to show Arthur any of it…”
Merlin shook his head harder. “I never want to use magic again.”
“It won’t be for long,” Gaius said, his voice muffled by the close door. “He just needs time.”
“But how much time?” Arthur asked, and didn’t bother to fight the fear in his tone.
“As much time as he needs, you must understand that. He needs to feel safe again, and that just isn’t going to be possible if he remains in Camelot.”
“Don’t you mean as long as he remains near me?” Arthur said, flat and dejected.
Gaius said nothing.
“Gaius,” Arthur said, gentle and kind and so very, very sad. “This is my fault, and it’s the consequence I’m going to have to bear. While he’s around me, I’m going to want to fix things, and we both know it will only make matters worse. I just… I just hope he comes back.”
“That will be up to him, sire,” Gaius said. “I’m sorry.”
A wagon had been made ready out in the courtyard, with Gwaine at the reins as both driver and escort, and a bed of straw and a blanket for Merlin whenever he needed to rest. Gwen and the knights were there to see Merlin off, and Arthur standing within the entrance, unsure if his presence was welcome.
As Merlin climbed onto the wagon next to Gwaine, his eyes met Arthur’s.
Merlin couldn’t remember Arthur ever looking so sad, not for Merlin. Never for Merlin.
I might come back, Merlin thought.
But he knew better than to make any promises.