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It had taken a long time for Merlin to wrap his head around the concept of ‘quiet’.
His mother, when asked, told him that he had always been a noisy child - though not in a bad way. It hadn’t been that he had screamed or cried; indeed, he had almost never been upset about anything. It was just that he had always been making some kind of sound. Wherever he was, whatever he was doing, Merlin would be humming or singing or tapping to a beat no one else could hear. Even as an infant he had gurgled musically, she said, and once he was old enough to vocalise he never seemed to stop.
And, Hunith said, if she ever asked him to be quiet, he would just looked at her with wide puzzled eyes. It was only once he grew older and started to play with other children that he learned to be silent, and to listen.
In fact, it had been Will who made Merlin learn how to not listen, and for him that was much more important.
From the slow, deep thrum of the earth to the bright, high chiming of sunlight, Merlin’s world had never not been full of sound. Indeed, it was hard for him to understand that other people lived their lives almost entirely deaf to the world. When Will had first told him that no, he couldn’t hear the trees singing about the coming spring, Merlin hadn’t believed him. How could anyone not hear it? It was there, as it had always been, the sound that filled Merlin’s every waking moment and flowed through his dreams as well. A touchstone of his reality, the extra dimension to every living thing and to every not-living thing too. It was like learning that Will was blind, to think he couldn’t hear the rocks or the birds or the ripening of the harvest.
With careful questioning, Merlin found that his mother couldn’t hear the family of mice that lived in the wall, or that the roof was thinning in places and would soon need re-thatching, or that the hens had hidden their eggs near the shed. He still had trouble believing it, though, and the idea of living without the music was a terrifying one. How would you know that there were no monsters hiding under the bed or prowling outside if you couldn’t listen for them? How else did anyone know that it was time to harvest the crops or milk the cows if they couldn’t hear the music? How did people live without sound defining every single thing they did?
It was almost too much to wrap his mind around. The absence of music, the idea of silence, was so foreign he could hardly imagine what it might sound like. But it wouldn’t have a sound, would it? There would just be nothing. Just silence, just a great dark void where there would be no music, no life, no people - just emptiness. It would be like death, Merlin thought, and the idea gave him nightmares for months.
Even once he knew why people expected him to not make noise, Merlin still had trouble being quiet. Because really, how could he not want to harmonise with the trees or sing a duet with a passing dragonfly?
Paying attention to people was even harder. Why would he want to listen to what they said when he could listen to what they sang? Well, sang was probably the wrong word for it, for the resonant song of a person as they went about their day, but it was the best Merlin could come up with when Will badgered him to describe what he could hear.
So if Merlin seemed distracted at times, away with the fairies, daydreaming, he was probably only thinking about how Will sounded like a cheeky bubbling stream when he smiled, or how similar Old Man Simmons sounded to the gnarled old apple tree in the town square that still produced sweet fruit every summer. The other villagers were used to seeing him wandering and humming, used to his vague smile and to having to tell him something several times before he seemed to hear it. And if they thought him a little simple and left him mostly to himself, well, that just gave him more time to enjoy the music.
As for magic? Magic was easy. All Merlin had to do was change the note of the table from “there” to “here”, and the table would move. If he stretched out his mind and thought of what something ought to sound like, the music would change and it would happen. The more sounds he tried to change the harder the magic became, trying to keep all the notes in his head at once - but Hunith got mad whenever Merlin tried anything too loud, so he didn’t try that too often.
Will asked once how Merlin knew what to change the sound to, and Merlin just looked at him. “How do you know what a purple tree would look like?”
“A purple tree? Why would anyone want a purple tree?”
“Just if they did. You could imagine one, yeah?”
“Well, it’s the same. I know what a tree sounds like, and what purple sounds like. I just ... put them together and there you go. Purple tree.”
And if the oak trees nearby had a suspiciously lilac-like tinge to them by the end of the conversation, well, that was hardly likely to be Merlin’s fault, now was it? And surely no one would notice or care anyway.
Ealdor, for the most part, was a village of harmony, a united chorus of contentment. There were occasional discordances, arguments, vicious clashings of tone that made Merlin flee for the comforting sound of the forest, but for the most part every song had its place and Merlin grew up imagining nothing more than a happy life in the fields. Of course he would continue to hide his magic, and Will was the only person who knew about the music, but the songs were beautiful and he was content.
But somehow, dissonance began creeping into the village. It was difficult to place, but slowly there came to be a sour note from someone who had always been friendly, or a loss of harmony from where it had always been before. And then it turned out that mentally linking the apple tree with Old Man Simmons had been a bad idea, and suddenly his mother was telling him to go.
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The journey from Ealdor to Camelot was not overly long, though there was no reliable road all the way through the mountains and forests. Merlin knew his mother had sent a letter to the court physician, an old friend, and that he was expected to arrive in Camelot on Wednesday. That was probably the only thing that kept him moving on through the beautiful symphony that was the wilderness.
It was as if being alone had made his ears sharper - he had never heard the world so strongly before. The song of the mountains echoed in his bones, a glorious thrumming that was deep and rich and powerful, and Merlin hummed along as he walked. Snow gilding the peaks chimed in harmony with the high, glittering splendour of the sunlight; and the wind whistled with melodies from distant lands. The sound of the melt-water waterfall was somehow like both the mountains and the river, but different again; deep and smooth and beautiful, and the forest sang joyously with the springtime. Merlin opened his mouth and let sound burst forth, joining the chorus of the world with his own voice and wishing, again, that he could sing more than just one note at a time.
The occasional passing human sounded so out of place that they were clearly audible from miles away, and Merlin would have plenty of warning to stop singing or humming before they came close, walking or trotting along the highway. As soon as they were past, though, he would join back in, picking up a descant as the earth rumbled contentedly beneath his feet.
Merlin could have spent days just wandering, drinking in the endless chorus of nature, paying no heed to where he was going, or why, lost in the timelessness of sound. Food was no object, he could hum spring to the trees and have fruit for the wanting, or sing like a rabbit until one was lured too close. (Will had always called it cheating, but Merlin considered it just a clever time-saver. After all, it wasn’t his fault that rabbit sounded a bit like delicious.) As matters stood, he lingered as long as he could, trying to imprint the peace of the wild places into his mind before turning his path toward civilisation.
He heard Camelot long before he saw it. The city was loud, louder than anything he’d ever heard before. There were so many people, so many different sounds, and the cacophony was deafening him even before he reached the city walls. How was he going to live here? It was so busy. People were everywhere, all going noisily about their business as Merlin wandered through the crowded streets, each person adding their own particular song to the united chorus of sound. He rubbed at his ears, trying to focus on the sights and smell rather than the overwhelming sound, and craning his neck to admire the castle. It was strong, authoritative note against the discordant babble of the town, and Merlin hoped he would be able to stay there rather than in the town. He made his way toward it and found himself in a courtyard filled with people, a strangely silent crowd who echoed discordantly. Merlin slowed his pace and glanced around, confused by the sudden contrast to the babble from the town. There were no voices, but the fierce undertone of the gathering was disconcerting.
Distracted, it took a few minutes before he realised what was going on. The man on the balcony began to speak, and Merlin realised with a jolt that this must be the king. He both looked and sounded like a man to be feared. His song reminded Merlin of the cold north wind, and also, somehow, sounded a bit like a river in flood - strong and relentless. And he was saying something, so it was probably important. Merlin focused, trying to hear, but it was so hard over the persistent rumble of the crowd. He tried to tune out the overwhelming hum, concentrating on the words.
“... judged guilty of conspiring to use enchantments and magic.”
Merlin inhaled sharply, eyes widening as shock and fear shot through him. It was one thing to know, abstractly, that magic was forbidden, but to see a man condemned for what Merlin did every day... He had to suppress a shudder.
The king was still speaking. “I, Uther Pendragon, have declared that such practices are banned, on penalty of death.”
Merlin turned to look at the man being led into the wooden platform. He might have been a sorcerer, Merlin supposed - he had never met anyone who practiced magic before, and he couldn’t tell over the noise if the man (sorcerer?) sounded different to anyone else. And there were so many people just watching as the man was forced to his knees, and - Merlin looked away as a song went abruptly, awfully, silent.
What kind of a place had his mother sent him to? How could this huge, loud city be any kind of place for Merlin? Closing his eyes against the crowd, he let the wave of noise wash over him, still deafening but somehow all the more reassuring for it, for its continuing presence. He had never heard a person just stop like that before, their song silenced forever, and the simplicity of it was deeply shocking. And Merlin knew, with a dreadful certainty, that he would be on the block if anyone had any idea of what he could do. The idea of kneeling, helplessly waiting for that sudden silence, was terrifying.
The cold-wind king was speaking again but Merlin didn’t want to listen. He was turning away when he noticed the strange-sounding old woman shouting at the king, and he focused to listen to her.
“Your hatred, and your ignorance! You took my son!”
The crowd was muttering, nervous now, and the added voices made it harder for Merlin to distinguish any words over the tumult. But her last proclamation rang in his ears, and he felt a thrill of dread as she declared, “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. A son for a son!”
The guards surged forward at the wind-king’s command, but the witch was already incanting a spell, and she disappeared in a cacophonous burst of air and sound that left Merlin’s ears ringing.
Everyone was moving. He moved too, with no idea where he was going, but wanting to be far away from the ominous-sounding platform and the cold song of the king.
The crowd dispersed quickly, and Merlin wished for nothing more than a corner to hide in, to stuff his fingers in his ears and hide from the overwhelming sound. The relentless rumble of city-and-castle was making his head ache, and the higher notes of people everywhere distracted him and made it hard to focus. He wanted to go, to run and run until he was lost in the mountains again with no discordant people to shout and clash and stop.
But if he disappeared into the mountains, his mother would worry. Gaius was expecting him. He couldn’t just vanish, no matter how much he wanted to. Merlin took a deep, shuddering breath and forced himself to focus.
With a little help, he found the right chambers easily enough, and pushed open the door. The room looked to be empty, and Merlin couldn’t help but smile at the comfortable harmony of the bubbling pots, the vials and jars strewn everywhere, the books stacked and lining the walls. It was - relaxing, after the commotion of the town, and Merlin found himself reassured that not all the city was ridiculously loud.
Then he realised the strongest note in the song was coming from up on the balcony and looked up to see the old man, back to the door as he looked through his books.
Clearing his throat, Merlin asked, “Gaius?”
The man turned around and with a sharp squeal the wooden rails were breaking and he was falling. Without a thought Merlin slowed the music to a fraction of its normal pace, stopping the fall, and looked around the room for something to catch the man. The bed sounded sturdy enough, so he shifted it over and let the music speed up again, and Gaius crashed onto the soft surface.
Merlin grinned in relief, but then Gaius was yelling at him and he had to listen to the words rather than musing on how the old man sounded remarkably green, just like the forest near the mountains.
“That was nothing to do with me!” he tried to assert, but Gaius was having none of it.
“I know what it was! I just want to know where you learned how to do it!”
“Nowhere!” Merlin said frantically, wondering how he was going to explain that he had never studied magic, he didn’t even know what other peoples’ magic sounded like! Though he knew better than to say that - bringing up the music would hardly help at this point. He could see the old forest-man didn’t believe his protestations. And even though Merlin knew he was different, it still hurt to hear that apparently his existence was “impossible”.
Once Gaius realised who Merlin was, though, things got a bit easier. Merlin had to quash a pang of disappointment that he could have stayed longer in the mountains, but if Gaius wasn’t going to report him to the wind-king, Merlin was going to count his blessings and retreat to his new room.
The small chamber was mostly empty and Merlin loved it instantly. It was almost quiet, with the soft humming of a few old crates, books and the bed to keep him from getting too spooked by the near-silence. The background rumble of the city and castle were still there, of course, but without the over-riding noise of humanity, they were much more bearable. Merlin opened the window and leaned out, smiling as the gentle sound of the sleep-muted town washed over him. Maybe Camelot wouldn’t be so bad after all.
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The words echoed through Merlin’s head as he drowsed awake, and he sat up, rubbing his eyes. The busy clamour of Camelot filled his mind with sound, but behind that he thought he could hear something calling to him. But that couldn’t be right, could it? He couldn’t hear anyone nearby who might sound like that, and the music never had words. It must have been a dream, then, or perhaps just a figment of his imagination.
As he got dressed, he found the general noise of the city had faded overnight into something more bearable, much to his relief. He wandered out to see if green-forest Gaius was up, and found him puttering around and making breakfast. Merlin tried not to hum along with the bright sunlight dancing in the window as it harmonised with the happy room, and instead sat down to eat the porridge he was offered. He was contentedly enjoying the music and the food, and didn’t notice forest-Gauis sneaking up behind him until the clash of water falling made him look up and automatically pause the bucket half-way to the floor. Gaius gasped, and Merlin realised what he’d done. He unpaused the music and let the fall finish sounding.
Gaius stared at him, wide-eyed. “How did you do it? Did you incant a spell in your mind?”
Merlin thought about telling the truth. About saying that he’d just paused the notes of the water and of the bucket, and then let them play again, and that he didn’t know any spells because he had never needed them, the music did it all for him. He wondered what Gaius would say, and if the physician knew anything about the music. If Merlin was the only one to hear these things, or if, perhaps, it was just a normal part of being a sorcerer. Surely if anyone knew, Gaius would? He had so many books on so many things, and Hunith had said he was a very learned man.
But there was a part of Merlin was afraid to ask, terrified that he would find out he was the only one who could hear the world, or that he was mad. And it was so lonely, sometimes, being the only one to hear the mountains or the trees or the summer, to be lost in his own world all the time and have to make an effort to connect with other people every time he wanted to have a conversation. The music was beautiful and he couldn’t imagine ever living without it, but sometimes he felt like no one would ever understand him, that he would never be close to anyone, because how could he be when they were deaf?
But on the other hand, if it turned out that all magic-users could hear the music - Merlin almost thought he didn’t want to know. He was so used to the songs being private, just for him, he could hardly imagine sharing them with anyone else, let alone with anyone who could do basic spells.
And another part, a secret and not-very-nice part, hoped he was the only one, because even if Merlin denied it, he did want to be special and important and unique. And maybe Gaius wouldn’t know, anyway, just because he had a lot of books didn’t mean they were on magic. Besides, it would be illegal for him to have spellbooks, wouldn’t it?
So Merlin kept quiet and mopped at the water humming over the floor.
Surprisingly and to Merlin’s relief, Gaius didn’t seem too annoyed. Instead, he sent Merlin to run errands around the castle. That alone made Merlin half-suspect he didn’t know about the music - the sheer loudness of the castle was confusing, disorientating, and finding his way around was a real challenge. After dropping off the medicines, he wandered aimlessly, taking in the chiming glass windows and fierce-clanging armour that made every guard sound so loud.
As he meandered, a song caught his attention. One strong, resonant note was clearly audible above the all the clamour, and Merlin followed it over to the group of young men. He watched them curiously, wondering who could possibly sound like both the distant and glorious coming of spring, and also like the resonating brightness of a slow-burning fire. It was such an unusual combination, two melodies that Merlin had never thought to associate in any way, but together somehow startlingly beautiful - a perfect complement to the deeper thrum of Camelot.
It seemed to be a blond boy, maybe a few years older than Merlin. The boy spoke, and somehow Merlin could hear his words more clearly than any other voice he’d ever heard, cutting through the background noise like it wasn’t even there. Merlin wondered who he could be, this strangely audible boy who was ... throwing knives at someone? Surely there was a mistake. Someone who sounded like that couldn’t be such a prat.
A short time later, Merlin was sitting in the dungeon, wondering how the prince could sound so clear and harmonious but be such an arse. But at least the dungeon was quiet, and Merlin was glad of some space where he could sit and let the song of the city wash over him, letting him gradually grow accustomed to the relentless and ongoing sound.
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The next morning, Merlin was woken again by a voice calling his name. The call penetrated the fog of sleep and he started to his feet, wondering what on earth beneath the city could sound like that. It felt as if the mountain beneath the castle was summoning him, but of course that couldn’t be right, could it? And there was fire there too, somewhere deep below. How could that be possible?
And then forest-Gaius was there, and somehow Merlin ended up in the stocks, at the receiving end of a rain of discordant vegetables and talking to a pretty, softly-humming girl. Gwen seemed friendly and her endearing awkwardness made Merlin feel at ease, as did her chiming similarity to a field of flowers in spring. He smiled after her as she walked away and hoped he would get to see her again. She was relaxing to be near.
Later, cleansed of the off-sounding and off-smelling vegetables, Merlin sat and listened to Gaius talk of magic.
It was certainly flattering to hear that he was special, and as Gaius spoke of elemental, instinctive power and of spells and incantations, Merlin grew even more certain that no one else heard the music. The thought was both gratifying and disappointing, that he was “a question that had never been posed before.”
He considered telling the physician, asking him about it, but when he questioned Gaius’s own experience of magic, Gaius changed the subject. And when he mentioned a dragon kept beneath the castle, Merlin realised what had been calling to him and was completely distracted.
Gaius seemed to have never-ending errands that took Merlin to all the far corners of the castle, but he didn’t complain, wandering through the echoing halls and contemplating what the physician had told him about the dragon.
When he finally found the right place (after getting lost several times), it turned out that Lady Helen wasn’t in her chambers. Merlin moved to leave the vial on the table, but as he did so he noticed that the straw doll sitting on the table was humming two notes. One was normal, expected - the sound of straw, cord and beads; but the other sound was eerie and unfamiliar, prickling over his skin like a thousand tiny claws. He picked the doll up and looked it over, but nothing he could see could be making the second sound. It had to be the doll itself, and that was something he’d never encountered before. The two songs intermingled strangely, creating an intricate duet unlike anything he’d ever heard. And a book nearby was the same, two notes sounding together from one object.
Merlin was peering curiously at the book when he heard a soft hum behind him and quickly put everything back on the table, whirling around just as Lady Helen walked into the room. She sounded oddly familiar, but Merlin didn’t want to hang around and work out why, not when she was staring at him like that. He gave her Gaius’s medicine and fled, still wondering how one thing could have two songs.
After going back to Gaius’s chambers and finding the old man gone, Merlin decided to go for a walk through the town to try and get accustomed to the noise. After all, if he was going to live here, he would need to get better at dealing with the constant loud humming of the busy city.
He heard the prince long before he saw him, and kept his head down as he walked past. Merlin had hoped that he’d been mistaken, that Arthur hadn’t actually resonated such a perfect note while being such a perfect prat, but it seemed that both the resonance and the pratliness were still there. And his voice was still strangely audible above the crowd. It was disconcerting, to hear a voice so clearly, but Merlin hoped his distraction wasn’t too obvious as he dodged and ducked and tried not to let Arthur kill him with a mace. It was also hard to hear anything else over the beauty of Arthur’s song, and Merlin found himself falling over things that he hadn’t noticed, distracted as he was.
Tripping and stumbling backwards, he tried to tune out the prince and listened desperately for anything that sounded remotely useful. A pair of sickles caught his ear and he hummed “tangled” at them and Arthur’s weapon, buying himself a few seconds to scramble to his feet. A box was shifted to sound like an obstacle, the rope’s note was changed to taut, and Merlin grabbed his own mace from where it had fallen on the floor. It sang confidently in his hand as he shouted at the prince.
“Do you want to give up?”
Arthur’s expression was incredulous as he backed away. “To you?!”
“Do you?” Merlin started to smile as he advanced. Now he knew what a whirling mace sounded like, he could keep his going with no trouble at all, and when Arthur tripped on the convenient sack Merlin grinned triumphantly. But then a familiar green note from behind him caught his ear and he turned to see Gaius staring at him from the crowd. Merlin felt his stomach drop to his feet at the disappointed look on the old man’s face, and then the rest of him was falling too as Arthur struck him hard from behind.
Two loudly clanging guards pulled him to his feet, but surprisingly, he wasn’t being arrested again. Instead, Arthur instructed his men to let Merlin go.
Merlin was relieved, but somewhat disconcerted as Arthur stared him with a strange expression on his face.
“There’s something about you, Merlin.” Arthur mused, and Merlin’s belly roiled in fear - suddenly conscious of how much magic he’d just used in front of the crown prince.
But then Arthur continued, “I can’t quite put my finger on it.”
Merlin breathed a sigh of relief as the prince walked away, though deep inside, a small part of him wished Arthur would come back and let Merlin enjoy his music some more. He quashed that thought quickly.
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Gaius was yelling at him again, berating him again, anger and concern strong enough to turn his forest-note sour. Merlin winced at the discord, but it didn’t stop him from finally letting his fear and frustration come to the surface as he yelled back.
“What is there to master? I could move objects like that before I could talk!”
“Then by now you should know how to control yourself!”
“I DON’T WANT TO!” The words burst out of him, fierce and uncontrolled, and he found himself shaking with emotion as he continued. “If I can’t use magic, what have I got? I’m just a nobody. And I always will be.”
Gaius’s song came back in tune, his face softening as he looked at the boy before him. Merlin’s shoulders heaved as he took a deep breath.
“If I can’t use magic...” he trailed off, trying to imagine a world where there was no music. Where everything were silent, without the constant reassuring thrum of the world beneath his feet or the chirruping of leaves, without the singing of sunlight or soft whisper in the air that heralded the coming autumn. The idea of a world without sound was utterly horrifying. Merlin shuddered violently.
Complete silence was unimaginable. The mere thought of a life without magic, without sound and music and life... it was unbearable. Only when people died did their resonance stop, fading from bright sound to almost-silence. There was still the soft hum of flesh, but that was nothing like the ringing music of life. Silence was like death, but more terrifying.
Merlin thought he could bear anything but silence.
“I might as well die.” Merlin said the words softly, staring into Gaius’s eyes. Then he turned, fleeing the soft harmony of the physician and his chambers for the comforting murmur of his room.
A few minutes later, Gaius was at the door. The pack he carried chattered with medicines, so Merlin did as he was bid, sitting up and letting the physician clean his scrapes and scratches with a clean-sounding balm. He relaxed a bit, letting some of the tension seep from his muscles as Gaius tended to him.
“You don’t know why I was born like this, do you?” he asked plaintively.
“No,” Gaius replied as he dabbed at the wounds, eyes kind and so completely empty of comprehension of what it must be like to be Merlin that he ached with loneliness.
Sometimes, when he talked about the crops sounding ripe or the music of spring in the air, Will had just looked at him in a way that Merlin felt like another kind of being all together, and the gulf between himself and the rest of humanity seemed unfathomably deep. He felt like that now. Though he couldn’t imagine living without the music, would never dream of giving it up, but above all he just wanted to know why.
“I’m not a monster, am I?” Merlin tried to make it sound like a joke, but he somehow doubted it came across that way. Gaius’s hand stilled, and he pulled away. A pang of despair shot through Merlin, and he drew back too.
But the old man merely stared deep into his eyes and said softly, “Don’t ever think that.”
“Then why am I like this?” Merlin asked desperately. “Please. I need to know why.”
But Gaius only shook his head. A surge of disappointment swept through Merlin, and he looked down. “If you can’t tell me, no-one can.”
If his magic did have a purpose, and he hoped that it did, perhaps he would find out eventually. The comforting chorus of his room in the afternoon sun washed over him as he sat and wished with all his might that one day he would know.
Gaius gave him a soft-humming tonic and left him to his thoughts. Merlin lay down and let music echo soothingly through his mind, as it had always done. Soon he drifted off to sleep, but his dreams were haunted by the intangible spectre of silence.
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It was dark. The dragon was calling him. Merlin sat up, hearing the voice resonate up from deep underground, penetrating the thick stone between them like it didn’t exist. He pulled on his coat and crept out.
Getting past Gaius and the dungeon guards was easy enough, and Merlin followed the distant thrum deeper and deeper into the bowels of the castle. It grew steadily louder, until he found himself in a massive cavern that reverberated with the song of the dragon. Merlin listened in awe as the creature landed before him, an echoing harmony of fierce flames and ancient mountains sweeping over him in immense waves. It was so big, and so loud.
Fortunately, the dragon’s voice was like Arthur’s and Merlin could hear the words it spoke remarkably clearly over the music resonating through the huge space.
“How small you are, for such a great destiny.”
The two tones of bright-burning fire and ice-crusted mountains entwined and curled and wove around him, and he was distantly reminded of the strange-sounding objects in Lady Helen’s chambers. But they were to this as a single leaf to an ancient and massive tree, and the immensity of the music almost overwhelmed Merlin as he gazed at the creature before him.
It had mentioned destiny. Merlin swallowed against the hope that swelled in his throat and asked, “Why? What do you mean? What destiny?”
“Your gift, Merlin, was given to you for a reason.”
The relief was so powerful it was almost a shock, to find that there really was a reason behind it all, that he had a great destiny that had been foretold. He was somehow a little less than surprised to hear that Arthur was destined to be a great king - it made sense, given what Merlin had heard. He would, though, be a great royal arse, and Merlin didn’t really want to have to hang around and deal with the amazing-sounding prince’s prat-like behaviour for years to come. But the dragon seemed convinced that Merlin’s role was important.
“Without you, Arthur will never succeed. Without you, there will be no Albion.”
Well, Merlin had wanted a purpose to his magic, a reason for why he had been set apart from every other person he had ever met. But surely this couldn’t be right? Maybe they meant a different prince Arthur, who resonated with an even better sound.
“There is no right or wrong. Merely what is, and what isn’t,” the dragon told him.
Merlin scowled, because that was really, really unhelpful. But even as he protested that surely there had to be another Arthur, that this one was an idiot, he knew the dragon hadn’t made a mistake. The prince sounded unlike anyone Merlin had ever encountered, and it all made sense.
The dragon’s laugh echoed in harmony with its song, and then it was flying away.
“Wait! Stop! I need to know more!” Merlin shouted after it, a wave of disappointment surging though him. He hadn’t even had a chance to ask about the music - surely, if anyone knew, it would be the dragon. But the creature had already disappeared, leaving Merlin standing on the ledge and wondering what on earth he was going to do now.
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The following morning, Merlin learned that Gwen really was as nice as she had first seemed, that the Lady Morgana was beautiful and reminded him of an eagle soaring, and that hen-bane and sorrel sounded remarkably similar. He spent a good part of the afternoon wandering the nearby woods in search of the plants Gaius had asked him to fetch, and it was centering to be alone in the gently-singing forest. The noise of Camelot was more bearable now than when he had first arrived, but the effort of listening to words over the clamour all morning had left him with a pounding headache. The soft familiarity of the wood-song was so relaxing. Merlin leaned against a tree and let the music wash over him, and he was asleep.
Fortunately, finding the herbs was easy enough with the help of magic, and he wasn’t too late getting back. Gaius scowled but didn’t complain, instead rushing Merlin out the door towards the hall, saying something about seeing the castle steward and assisting at the feast. The steward looked relieved when they appeared in the noisy, busy kitchens - it turned out one of the servants had fallen sick, a replacement was required, and Gaius had volunteered Merlin for the position. Not that Merlin particularly minded - the kitchens smelled absolutely delicious, and he’d missed lunch. The cook scowled at him, grumbling about empty hands in her kitchen and skinny boys who obviously didn’t eat enough, and handed over a plate heavily loaded with slightly-burnt treats. Merlin dug in happily, enjoying the friendly clamour of the busy staff.
After he finished eating he was set to assisting with carrying the dishes into the hall, and before he knew it the sun had set and the room was full of well-dressed nobles. Gaius had arrived as well, and Merlin went over to join him, unsure what he was supposed to be doing now the food was laid out. Looking around, he marvelled at the rich garments and bright colours, enjoying the general splendour. The prince caught his attention immediately, resonating brightly from his corner of friends, laughter cutting easily through the loud backdrop of sound.
The general cacophony of so many people in a single room was nearly deafening, but Merlin found he was much better able to cope than he would have been only a few days ago. Besides, it was much easier to try and not hear anything at all, and just look.
Morgana scintillated as she crossed the room, and Merlin watched her curiously. Her proud, strong note intrigued him, seeming at odds with everything he’d thought a young noble-woman was supposed to be. The chiming behind him told him Gwen had joined him, and he turned to her with a smile, hoping she didn’t notice how much trouble he was having hearing what she was actually saying over all the noise.
They chattered and laughed together, and then it was time for the feast to begin. The nobles seated themselves and Merlin took up his assigned position near the high table as the king entered and introduced Lady Helen to sing for them all.
Merlin had really been looking forward to this - hearing such a famous singer perform was an honour few could boast. He was not disappointed. The Lady Helen had a beautiful voice, and Merlin found it surprisingly easy to focus on her singing over the general chorus of the crowd. He was a bit surprised, as he had never heard anyone sound like that before, but then she was the most famous singer in the land. Maybe that was why?
It was strange, though, because her voice seemed to have two layers to it - just like the dragon, and the objects in her room. He could hear a second tone beneath the first, twining in harmony around the song as Lady Helen walked forward. It was beautiful, eerie and familiar and foreign, and Merlin let the sound wash over him with pleasure.
But then her voice swelled and the second tone changed, and now she was singing sleep. But why would she be singing that? Surely it must be a mistake. Then Merlin noticed the nodding heads, the closing eyes and pillowing of heads on arms as all those listening began to fall into slumber. He quickly covered his ears, wondering what on earth was going on.
The woman was still moving forward, and still singing, and the second tone shifted again. Now cobwebs were growing over the sleeping nobility, and Merlin looked around frantically, wondering what he should do.
Lady Helen kept singing, and now she was approaching the high table. Merlin looked from her to the sleeping prince, and then he heard the dagger in her sleeve. Her song rose to a crescendo and Merlin knew he had to do something.
The old chandelier needed only the soft hum of falling and then suddenly it was crashing down, knocking her to the floor and silencing the sleep-song.
Merlin uncovered his ears and looked around at the still-sleeping courtiers. There was a moment of stillness, and he wondered if he needed to start humming awake. But then they were rousing, untangling themselves from the thick cobwebs and starting to murmur in confusion.
Eyes went to the woman lying on the floor, and Merlin suddenly realised why she had sounded familiar - it was the witch from the courtyard, from only a few days ago. And before anyone could act, she had hurled her knife at the prince.
Merlin didn’t think. Action was instinctive. He slowed the song of the room and dashed forward, grabbing Arthur and yanking him out of the path of the sharp-sounding dagger. They both crashed to the ground and lay there, staring at the weapon now embedded in the chair. Exhilaration shot through Merlin’s veins and he gasped for breath, a grin spreading over his face as he heard the witch’s note fade to nothing. He couldn’t find it in himself to regret her silence.
Then the north-wind King Uther was thanking him, rewarding him. Merlin grinned even wider until he heard the words “Prince Arthur’s manservant,” and he thought he must have misheard over the noise of the crowd. How was a job as a servant a reward?
From Arthur’s expression, it seemed that the prince agreed with him.
But the crowd was applauding, and Gaius was beaming proudly, and Merlin suspected neither of them had much choice in the matter.
This was going to be interesting.
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A few hours later, Merlin was sitting in his room. He stared at the small candle with its happily chiming flame, thinking about his new position and about how the fire sounded a bit like the prince. He hadn’t the faintest idea what a manservant did, and though Gwen had promised to help as much as she could, he suspected he was still going to be hopeless.
There was a knock on his door and Gaius came in, carrying something that sounded - strange. Apparently, he agreed with the dragon about Merlin’s destiny being Arthur, handing the package to Merlin with a smile.
Merlin opened the wrappings, and his eyes widened as he revealed a book that chimed with the two notes he was coming to associate with magic. But this was nothing like Lady Helen’s book, or her strange straw doll. These two notes were much richer, more potent, resonating in a clear, strong harmony that reminded Merlin of the dragon as they caressed his thoughts. He opened it and flipped through the pages, a huge grin spreading over his face.
“But this is a book of magic!”
“Which is why you must keep it hidden,” Gaius told him, looking stern.
“I will study every word!” Merlin promised, paging through the wonderful book with delight.
A knock on the door interrupted them, and a clanging guard called, “Merlin! Prince Arthur wants you, right away!”
Merlin left the book on his bed and went, smiling. Gaius was clearly proud of him, the comforting forest-song following him out the door. Camelot was feeling more and more like home each day now. And if the prospect of spending more time with the fire-prince wasn’t so terrible, well, he certainly wasn’t going to admit it.
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Much later that night, after Arthur had given his new manservant a fierce glare and a long set of instructions, and then dismissed him until the following morning, Merlin crept across the courtyard.
The dragon was waiting for him. “It is as I predicted, young warlock. You will stay with the young prince and protect him from those who may wish him harm.”
If anyone had told Merlin a week ago that a dragon could sound smug and that it was really annoying when it did, he would have thought they were crazy. But it was really, really annoying.
“He’s still a prat, even if I do have to be his manservant. What does a manservant do, anyway? How is this supposed to be a reward?” He grumbled as the dragon laughed at him.
“It is not a reward. It is destiny.”
“I didn’t ask for a destiny!” Merlin argued, carefully ignoring the fact that only a few days ago he would have been thrilled by the idea.
“But you have been given one nonetheless. It is up to you to do with the responsibility as you will.”
“You’re really not helping.”
The dragon just laughed again. Merlin glared at it, wondering how it managed to have a laugh that fitted so well into the resonating harmony. And that thought reminded him why he had come to see the dragon in the first place. Butterflies bloomed in his belly.
“Dragon - I have a question.”
The dragon somehow seemed to raise an eyebrow. “What could possibly make you think that I will have an answer?”
“If you don’t,” Merlin paused and took a deep breath, then continued, voice shaking. “If you don’t, then no one does. If you don’t know - I have no idea what I’ll do.”
The dragon bent his head towards Merlin. “Ask, then.”
Merlin took another deep breath, swallowed against the fear, and asked, “Do you hear the music?”
The dragon reared back, flapping his wings and throwing his head into the air. “Do I hear the music? Do I hear the music! Do you know nothing of your gifts, that you ask me such a question?”
“If I knew, would I ask? What do you know? Tell me!”
“The music is soul of the world. No human has ever before been granted the ability to hear as you hear, to know what you know. ”
Merlin felt the knowledge settle into his stomach like a weight. It was as he had suspected - he was alone, separated from the rest of humanity by an unbridgeable chasm, forever destined to always be different from the people he knew and loved. He was glad to finally know, but it was cold, lonely knowledge.
The dragon hadn’t finished speaking. “The music is, however, known to human kind. Those who practice magic may seek a trance state in an attempt to hear what you hear. However to do so is fraught with risk. Many who try are never able to find their way back. Those who succeed may go mad from the overwhelming nature of what they find. It is rare for any but the High Priests and Priestesses of the Old Religion to attempt this.”
He lowered his head to stare into Merlin’s wide eyes. “You should not tell anyone else about what you can hear.”
Merlin nodded vaguely, lost in his own thoughts. “Do you hear the music?”
The dragon smiled, bent his head and then leapt into the air, flying away without answering; leaving Merlin, startled, staring after him in surprise and disappointment as harmonious laughter echoed through the cavern.
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