Merlin thought nothing of it when Gaius dropped the first clay pot.
It was, after all, an empty pot.
Two months after defeating Nimueh on the Isle of the Blessed, Merlin first covered for Gaius on his rounds.
It only made sense, after all, that Merlin, who was more than physically able and still young, run about the castle while Gaius spent his time on more valuable pursuits such as studying and creating the potions and elixirs all in the King's court depended on.
When he returned to his bed that night, Merlin was exhausted from the combined duties of serving the Prince and Camelot's ailing, and slept with the weight of the dead.
Three weeks later, Merlin could hardly remember what he did with all his spare time before taking on Gaius' rounds.
Gwen had requested a private audience with Arthur to express concern on Merlin's behalf. The Prince had merely grunted as Merlin insisted that it was the least he could do for the man who had done so much for him. Gaius had developed a bit of a limp, and Merlin hated the thought of him traveling all the steps of Camelot.
'See that his rounds don't interfere with your obligations to me,' Arthur had said, understanding perfectly as one of Merlin's rounds included the King for a lingering twinge in his knee, brought on while carrying his dying son across the courtyard.
The executions never stopped. Merlin considered himself lucky that his duties, such as they were, precluded any witness of yet another witch burned at the stake or a sorcerer separated from his head.
Merlin frowned, though, as he quickly ate the lunch of hard bread and cheese he'd nicked from the kitchens that morning while traveling the castle's empty corridors to avoid the latest public spectacle.
He couldn't remember the last time he'd seen Gaius eat.
Five months following his battle with Nimueh and very nearly the deaths of all he held dear, Merlin took over the making of Gaius' simplest potions, balms, and elixirs.
Not that he really needed to, Merlin assured himself, but Gaius had broken a number of pots of late. He was growing weary of repairing them.
Yawning, Merlin had to blink and forcibly widen his eyes to keep himself alert. The potion was nearly finished and the Lady Eleanor needed it by morning for the aches she insisted were so terrible they prevented her from doing ... whatever it was Ladies did. Merlin didn't much care, but he'd recognized the potion she had requested months ago.
This was his own version, having gradually weaned her off the original, which he knew from Gaius' texts latched on to a person like a leech until they were no longer of sound mind. Now she was consuming nothing more than the harmless herbs and syrup that made up the bulk of the pain-relieving potion, though he had to make sure to keep the Lady's version separate from the one he made for those injured and in great pain.
He could have left it all to Gaius, but he hadn't the heart. He listened to the man again toss fitfully on his small bed. Exhaustion had stolen Gaius' typically sharp mind, and Merlin no longer trusted him with the more complex matters as physician.
Funny how he'd never been able to lie to the King before when it was Arthur who needed the excuse.
But he could hardly stand to see Gaius turned out from his position as court physician simply because his nights were filled with troubled sleep.
His lies had never been so convincing.
The Prince's hunting party encountered a hydra in a sheltered lake in Camelot's eastern forest. Only Arthur and two of his knights returned of the seven who'd initially began the venture.
They told a tale of their bravery and mastery of sword.
Never once did they mention the fire that rained from the heavens, burning the stumps where their blades had sliced through the necks, leaving the forest floor littered with hydra heads.
Via Gwen, Merlin sent his apologies to Arthur for failing to attend the feast celebrating the great victory. Then he promptly collapsed on his bed and didn't wake until dawn.
"How is Gaius? It's been long since I've seen him."
"He sends his regards, your Highness." Merlin smiled at the King, a smile he'd crafted from continued exposure to the man he so deeply loathed and yet found himself healing all the same. The King's knee had failed to properly heal in the eleven months since the Questing beast's bite and Arthur's near death. Merlin suspected something was wrong with the sinew, something he knew balm would not cure, but he dutifully gave the King the mint-smelling cream he requested. Who was he to argue with the King, as the lowly manservant to Arthur, not court physician.
"Perhaps tomorrow I will visit and demand to know why he sends his errand boy instead of seeing to me himself."
Merlin gave a half-bow, something Gwen had taught him after his first panicked meeting with the King regarding his health. Not that he wished to show any deference to the man who murdered hundreds of sorcerers in the name of revenge, or murder, or just because. But for Gaius' sake, Merlin learned to hide from Uther's attention.
"He would enjoy that, my Lord." Merlin refrained from belligerently pointing out the inherent falsehood in the King's statement. He'd never set foot in Gaius' chambers, not when he had to maintain his image of perfect health for the people of Camelot.
A King who could not climb stairs was a weak King.
Odd that the man who would have Merlin's head in a fairy's breath kept his crown due to Merlin's silence.
One year after defeating Nimueh on the Isle of the Blessed, Merlin stared at Gaius in abject horror. "No. I will not."
He fled from Gaius' chambers and was immediately ill in the corridor.
Not that anyone noticed; there was another witch to burn.
"Merlin, I cannot ask this of anyone else."
"Absolutely not. I won't do it. You cannot ask me to do that." Merlin never considered himself a coward, but his own voice mocked him as he stormed from Gaius' chambers.
For the first time in over a year, he spent the entire day with Arthur.
And when he returned that night and watched Gaius stare vacantly as though he was lost in his own room, Merlin couldn't decide which guilt was greater: that Gaius might be right or that he resented the man for keeping him from Arthur.
Neither let him sleep that night.
An ornate dagger lay on the table before Merlin, handle twisted and knotted like ivy. Ceremonial, something from Gaius' past for all it smelled of old magic.
He just stared at it, refusing to so much as remove his hands from his lap for fear of making a gesture of acceptance. "I won't do it, Gaius."
His old mentor's eyes were clear that night, though his fine white hair had long ago turned matted and grey. Merlin wasn't sure if it was from simple lack of care or the ... other. When Gaius nudged the knife towards him, Merlin saw the physician's fingers submerge into the metal before they physically connected enough to push the dagger.
Merlin couldn't quite choke back the sob.
"You're the only one who can."
This time Merlin ran to his own tiny room and slammed the door behind him.
He hated magic. He hated his mother for giving him magic. He hated the Old Ways and he hated Nimueh and the Great Dragon for all their manipulations. He hated Camelot for all the stupid laws and the King for making them. He hated Gaius and he hated magic. He hated his magic. He hated the Prince for making Merlin miss him. He hated the guilt and the lies and most of all he hated magic.
Only he didn't.
And that hurt so much it ached and made him weep all the harder.
"Gaius, are you certain?" Merlin asked, resolve and determination bleeding into the desperation. He'd caught Gaius on one of his good days, when life appeared more present than not, though what that 'not' was Merlin was still unsure and could find no mention of in his book of magic.
It was the 'not' that worried them both.
"Yes," was Gaius' simple reply.
Merlin studied his mentor for a time, but he didn't cry, not again. Gaius needed him, had needed him for some time. "How much time do you need?"
He didn't elaborate. And Gaius understood. "I have been ready."
Nodding once, Merlin ignored how it felt like he was shattering on the inside. "I need a day."
Merlin spent the one day with Arthur who was so prattishly Arthur that Merlin couldn't stop smiling.
"Gaius." His voice broke on the name, a million pieces falling like teardrops on to the blue robe. Gaius' favorite.
The one he'd worn that day. Not that it showed any age; it hadn't so much as pulled a thread or dulled in over a year of constant wear. Just as the wearer had not eaten or drunk in over a year.
"There, there." Gaius' hand patted Merlin's face and he had the eerie sensation of it passing through his skin. "I died that day, life just hasn't quite let go of me yet."
An imbalance, Merlin knew, not of life and death but destiny. Fate unravelled about Gaius leaving bare threads of magic and glimpses of what was, but long had it been since the tapestry was whole and none knew what would exist when it stopped. "I love you," Merlin smiled despite the tears which continued to fall as he spoke, meaning every word to the man who had treated him as a son.
"My boy," Gaius struggled to say as the 'other' threatened to overwhelm, but Merlin heard it as clearly had it been sung.
Straightening with resolve, as Gaius had insisted it be done while he was him, not when he was that ... other, Merlin spoke with calm certainty the incantation which had taken him so many tries with the griffin to succeed. The dagger arched with blue light as it burned with magic, a magic Merlin hoped powerful enough to restore what had been torn on the Isle of the Blessed.
If it wasn't, Merlin didn't know if he could live through another night like this one.
He raised the dagger and Gaius' eyes cleared, piercingly aware and such the old Gaius that Merlin's hand stopped along with his heart.
Merlin squared his jaw and with the respect due not only his mentor and elder, but a sorcerer as well, Merlin bowed his head.
Then he plunged the dagger lit in blue.
There was no blood.
Merlin wept all the same.
Merlin blearily raised his head, eyes crusted stiff and aching. He couldn't figure out what had woken him, and for a terrifying moment, he feared everything had been for naught and Gaius was still ... not dead.
The body was cold and Merlin did his best to avoid looking at the dagger with the twisted vines handle protruding from the chest. He had things he needed to do - plans - he had things to do, to make it look like ... before.
On shaking knees he stood, his back a knot of pain from sleeping in the chair placed as close to the bed as it could be.
"Merlin! What happened? Who did this?"
A hand with the Prince's ring shook him, but Merlin's thoughts never rattled, frozen in his mind as well as his tongue. For all the lies he'd told, for all the careful mastery over the past year to protect Gaius, all Merlin could feel was the truth.
"Tell me who killed- Merlin? Who was it?" Arthur demanded, fingers digging into Merlin's arms. He'd protest but he wasn't certain if he'd say 'stop' or 'me.' Didn't matter as Arthur stilled and Merlin, not for the first time, wondered if he'd directed a thought without speaking at all. "Tell me this wasn't you."
Arthur stepped away, disbelief never leaving his face though he didn't touch Merlin again. He looked lost, appropriate as Merlin felt much the same. He also didn't miss the hesitation in the Prince's voice when he spoke. "I hereby arrest you, Merlin of Ealdor, for crimes and contraventions of the laws of Camelot."
Minutes passed, then an hour.
The numbness melted with the time, but Merlin had never felt so cold.
The cell door opened and closed; a squeaky hinge sounding so loud it hurt in the silent dark of the dungeon.
He was surprised when Morgana swept in, all lace and gown and mourning.
Merlin forgot how to speak when she sat beside him to gather him in her arms and kiss the top of his head. "More brave and true than any knight."
Stunned and confused, Merlin didn't think the Seer was referring to Gaius.
"You must flee. The door in the armory is unlocked and the gate is open."
Merlin leaned warily against the wall as Arthur appeared in the torch light, looking more golden wild than controlled Prince. There were no guards at his side; as far as Merlin could tell this was no trick to kill him as he ran. But while he trusted Arthur, he held no such convictions of the King.
"My father is-" Arthur ran a hand through his hair, the one not clutching a scroll tight until the middle had crumbled. Merlin was as entranced by the action as he was concerned for the open act of distress. "He is not thinking clearly. No matter Gaius' words, he still intends to execute you at dawn for keeping secret Gaius' magicked state."
Gaius had been ready, Merlin understood. Ready for quite some time.
"Sometimes I wish-" Arthur cut himself off again, but Merlin could taste the treason upon his tongue. Felt it as the small cell charged with the frustration and sorrow of a Prince who had grown so old in the two years since they'd first met as bully and peasant.
His next words were barely audible, whispered at once across the cell and in Merlin's ear as he was shoved back against the wall so hard it made his teeth clack.
"You are stronger than I."
There was nothing tame about the kiss, as wild and uncontrolled as the Prince himself. It was unfettered desperation and guilt coloured in anguished rage, at once pure and dark and a shattered innocence that lay beyond their reach.
Merlin couldn't taste which side of the coin bore them, but then he knew it didn't matter.
The kiss belonged to both.
Merlin sprinted through the shadows, clutching the small pouch Arthur had shoved into his hands before pushing him in the direction of the armory. Every flicker of torch light was a perceived danger, every whistle of wind a threat, but his way was remarkably unencumbered by knight or servant, noble or peasant
He would have guessed there was another witch being burned, but he knew that wasn't true.
They had a murderer's execution to witness at dawn.
The gate was open, just as Arthur had promised, and Merlin stumbled out into the quiet darkness outside the castle. He hadn't been expecting the horse tied to the gate, packed light with provisions for a journey and a sword.
On the hilt was tied a ribbon the color of mustard seed; Gwen's favorite color.
A frantic pace took him over meadow and stream, remembering enough from Arthur's hunting trips and the skilled trackers at Uther's behest to cast a simple charm obscuring his tracks as the horse galloped in shared urgency.
On the northern edge of Camelot three days outside of the castle, Merlin finally remembered the small pouch. Alighting to permit his horse to feed and drink, he sat beneath the shade of an old oak tree and turned it out into his hand.
In it were a few pieces of gold and Arthur's signet ring.
He bartered passage on a Saxon ship headed east; he risked the lives of friends and his mother if he lingered. Albion was no longer safe until Uther passed and he would protect the ones he loved with as much devotion as he had Gaius.
His destiny would simply have to wait. Merlin prayed to every deity he knew to protect Arthur until his destiny could be fulfilled - and spent the remainder of his time using his magic to keep the ship he was on afloat. Merlin spent nights of utter wretchedness crossing a turbulent sea which he was pretty sure intended to kill him by making him so ill he would vomit his entrails. When they reached land, he fell face first onto the rocky beach and swore a lifetime before he crossed another sea.
It was a lie, and he knew it.
But it did make him determined to divine how to control the waters before his next journey.
Merlin dreamt of Gaius. In some dreams he cursed Merlin, in others he forgave him, and in others he insisted there was nothing ever to forgive.
They all ended with Merlin shoving a blue-lit dagger through his heart.
Language, Merlin discovered, meant little when it came to magic. Or rather, to understanding magic. Incantations required the focus of the specific words, sounds, and intonations, but to understand the magic deeply rooted in the land beneath his toes and in the heavens above required no language at all.
Which was how he found himself in a hut stinking of reindeer and whale oil, holding hands with a woman so aged even her smile was wrinkled. He didn't understand a word she said, but he could read the rune-etched bones laid out before him, past-present-future.
The magic spoke to him, burning deep within so old and comforting Merlin couldn't understand how he had ever not been aware of it bubbling and stretching his insides until he simply was filled by it. It felt nothing and everything like what he had felt on the Isle of the Blessed, only that power had felt so tainted by Nimueh and revenge and grief it had become something else. Something darker.
The darkness had frightened him. And so Merlin listened.
Ten months following his escape from Camelot, Merlin first dreamt of someone other than Gaius.
Upon awakening, he'd flown into a panic and nearly thrown himself at the Shaman, begging for answers, for reassurance that he hadn't slipped into the spirit world during his sleep and encountered the dead.
She didn't understand a word he said of course, but somehow she understood everything.
Tapping his ring with a knowing finger, she smiled, then pointed at the wood for the fire pit. Her demanding look begged no question.
In the spring, following one of the worst (and darkest) winters he'd ever experienced (but had apparently been mild for the Shaman's lack of concern), Merlin's feet grew restless. He could feel the old magic beckoning him on.
Somehow, she had known. On a particularly bright morning, a traveling pack was prepared for him when he returned with the spring water for the morning's breakfast. Beside it rested a rowan staff far too long to have been the Shaman's, intricately carved with runes down the length. Merlin had no idea what they said but he understood what they meant. He could feel its power, see it as the runes curved and twisted with the pale wood until one had to wonder if the staff wasn't created after the runes. The staff was nothing like the Sidhe's. It felt not good but connected, deeply rooted in the earth and the heavens, burning fire yet free as the spring water spilling over his hands.
It was long enough to be perfect for him, but he'd spent months with her, and never had he seen her carving it. He wasn't even sure how she had managed the delicately carved dragon curled possessively around the top knob with the state of her hands, age stiffening and crooking her fingers.
She just grinned at his confusion and took his hand, placing it over his heart. The steady beat thumped against Arthur's ring.
He walked south simply because he couldn't stomach another winter chipping frozen urine out of a bucket to empty it when not even magic could make a dent in the cold.
The first time he'd used the staff - actually consciously used it - Merlin had saved a funny-looking dwarf from a rock slide.
The second time he used the staff, he killed the funny-looking dwarf who had tried to steal his ring.
Merlin was mid-step crossing a valley when it hit him, though what it was that did it he wasn't entirely sure. The trees were nothing like the trees in Albion, the people he encountered didn't look like the people of Albion, the foods he ate were definitely not made of anything found in Albion. Even the water tasted different.
But it'd struck like a mace to the chest, and when Merlin howled into the wind, his voice found no ears to hear save his own.
He was alone.
His friends, his mother, people who spoke his own language, Arthur - he'd left them all. Fled. No, been banished for killing his mentor - who wasn't entirely living but he'd stabbed the magicked dagger through his chest and he couldn't forget that sight or the feel. Merlin had thought he'd made peace with himself, but as the grief and guilt clawed its way back up his throat he knew he'd been so terribly, horribly wrong.
It erupted in a scream. He kept on screaming until his throat felt ragged and then he whispered when his voice died altogether. Everyone, everyone he loved gone. His hands shook as he clenched them to his temples, shaking as his magic picked up the cry when sound failed him. It roared about him, swirling and lashing out with every breath, every thought of self-loathing and raging hate, every teardrop, until Merlin could no longer distinguish himself from the golden fire within and the violent windstorm that crackled with thunder as the earth appeared to boil.
When Merlin awoke, he looked across the devastated valley and felt shame and horror so great it was a moment before he could breathe.
He wasn't a monster. Gaius had told him so.
He couldn't be, not if Arthur was his destiny.
'You idiot' Merlin could hear Arthur saying, and for once, Merlin agreed.
He touched the soil and whispered his apology.
With both palms flat on the ground, Merlin felt for the magic he knew lived beneath the surface and in all things. It was there, a current flowing in tangled webs that Merlin combed with fingers of magic, relishing the calm peace as it whirled and twisted, lazy and sun-drenched.
He had no idea what he was doing, but he knew what needed to be done.
With a smile as he looked out across the scarred valley, he curled his fingers into the earth and healed.
The first whispers began while he laid in the flower-filled meadow, tall trees waving leafy shadows over his skin while he indulged in some proud admiration of what his magic had done.
What he'd created.
Every leaf and every branch, every blade of grass and boulder, every nesting bird and startled deer; he could hear them all.
For the first time in nearly two years since fleeing Camelot, Merlin laughed.
As his words meant nothing to the people he encountered, Merlin simply stopped using them.
His magic translated into all tongues.
Not all dragons were dead or captured, Merlin learned. Uther was just foolish enough to believe he was that great a king.
Merlin still hated the King, though pity was rapidly replacing the loathing.
It was hard to hate someone so small.
When the winds whispered to Merlin of the approaching storm, he quickly spelled a warning to the caravan he followed of the danger.
They'd just battened down when the storm hit, a fierce wind that howled through the camp with the strength of a dozen horses. Ropes strained and wood creaked, but all held fast while the travelers huddled for warmth and safety within.
Merlin stood outside, unafraid as the rain fell, tasting Albion and bloodshed - another war, another battle, and he wondered which kingdoms were spoiled by unrest.
Camelot spoke the trees as the wind tore through their leaves.
Not for the first time, Merlin wished for the accursed man's death. Uther would bring about the Prince's death before he ever rose to the throne with all of the King's wars.
With a sigh, Merlin pushed the storm away, but not before he embraced the smell of Arthur.
One of the travelers - a little girl with hair the color of earth and a smile that warmed his heart - handed him a doll made of twigs. Wrapped round its head was a crown of leaves. Confused, Merlin quirked an eyebrow as he flipped it in his hands, seeing the magic imbued in the twigs but unable to understand its meaning. It was magic unlike he'd known before, something unique and very much like the people of the caravan.
She spat on the ground in a rather shocking way; Merlin didn't think he'd ever seen a woman spit before, much less an angelic little girl. But she merely laughed at him and pointed at the woman that Merlin assumed was her mother, for all she smiled the same way.
The woman had made it then, and wrapped it tight in magic. She held up a branch lit by the communal fire, and offered it to him, gesturing to the small doll.
He often wondered if Arthur would think him a coward for not killing Uther.
He more frequently wondered if the sorcerers and witches would ever forgive him.
Merlin kept the doll tied to his pack, a reminder of what he could be.
The woman traced a line on his palm, following it from his wrist to where it met the signet ring. It meant something to her, something which made her smile sadly.
Her name was Vivienne, and Merlin kissed away her sorrow.
Merlin cracked the first crystal he touched, which made the Chovihano mutter to himself and throw salt at Merlin in a way so reminiscent of Gaius it made his heart ache. For some reason, all this made Lila's eyes grow large and then sent her into peals of girlish laughter as only a child could laugh.
He remembered laughing like that, mostly at Will. But every now and then, he and Arthur had laughed like that too.
He encountered many beasts while traveling with the caravan, though none seemed quite as dangerous as the ones which plagued Camelot.
Except for the creatures made of mist and night which drank the blood of their victims. They killed over half the caravan before the Chovihano managed to create a sanctuary for the travelers and Merlin conjured the light of the sun with his staff.
Then they pierced the hearts of each of their fallen with the wood of an ash to ensure the loved ones did not rise as those creatures.
Merlin joined the survivors in their grief for the family lost.
One morning, when Merlin went to his pack to fetch the warm mittens the Shaman of the northern country had given him countless seasons ago, he saw that the twig doll had simply fallen to pieces. The leaves which had remained green for an impossible length of time had withered and crumbled to dust.
With a scowl more question than anger, Merlin stepped out into the cold, ignoring Vivienne's shocked curse as the frigid air touched her skin. There it was, the sensation in his feet, trembling with the urge to move - which made little sense as he traveled with a caravan and they stayed in one place only for a short time. But his magic pulled at him until Merlin was sure even his beard was pointed in the same direction.
He had no concept of where he was, or how far from Albion his feet had taken him.
But he knew home was calling him.
The King has passed, the trees spoke in agreement, and Merlin couldn't help but smile as the magic of the world danced.
"Emrys," Vivienne said when he'd returned, a name she had called him when he first arrived and one he had never corrected. He was Emrys, he supposed, for all that had changed since he'd fled Camelot. She spoke other words too, after his name, and Merlin had been around the travelers long enough to understand some words as well as their magic. 'Our ways part,' she said, or thereabouts, understanding her more than the words themselves.
But while her face shone with tears, Merlin knew as well that she had always known this day would come, though he'd never spoken of what he had left behind.
In fact, he couldn't remember speaking at all since he'd screamed in the valley, so many seasons past.
Merlin said nothing still, just used his magic to tug the blanket from her hands before tumbling her to their sleeping pallet.
His traveling pack had grown since his time with the Shaman in the northern country, or at least the contents had; he may have enchanted it to remain light and carry much more than its outward appearance. But in addition to the reindeer hide cloak and boots, mittens, scarf and hat all heavily thrumbed for warmth, Merlin had accumulated clothing from across the lands, magical instruments and herbs that would have made Gaius most envious.
He also now traveled with a set of bells from the Chovihano, beads and luck charms from the family of travelers who had welcomed him in, and a book of spells - mostly curses, but also a few concealment charms perfect for maneuvering in crowds - written by Lila in a language he couldn't recognize though he read the magic as easily as he had the Shaman's bone runes.
And from Vivienne he received a beautiful crystal ball and a lock of her hair.
The trees reported that King Arthur was 'questing.'
What that meant, Merlin hadn't a clue. But he hoped it didn't involve beasts.
Traveling was far less enjoyable without companions, and Merlin could almost appreciate why Arthur would drag him along on his hunting trips. Almost. He knew the prat had deliberately ordered Merlin to join him just to rub in that he could.
He listened to the birds' gossip and to the bears grumbling about beaver dams. He passed through a forest so evil it gave him chills; its vines plotted their next meal and rabbits with red eyes and sharp pointed teeth stalked him. The mountains were the most solitary places, with only his thoughts, the warm staff, and the stinging wind to ground him.
Merlin quickly grew tired of walking and glared at any inclining slope that resembled a mole hill, much less mountain. Once he even stopped a river in frustration because he didn't want to find another way across, parting the waters so he could walk on semi-solid sludge.
'You idiot' rang in his head, sounding very much like Arthur, and Merlin realized how foolish he was being. Thumb and finger to his lips, Merlin blew a piercing whistle laced with magic. He smiled when the stallion appeared.
Riding without saddle was something different, but Merlin didn't complain as Horace covered far more distance than Merlin could on foot. They found a coast line, but so long as his magic pulled him west, Merlin was unconcerned about sea travel. Haste is what drove him, though he didn't know why. It seemed the further they went the stronger the pull, sharper, until it nearly clanged in his head with the rhythm of Horace's hooves.
He hated trolls more than any other creature.
Especially ones that wasted his time with long threats of bone smashing and flesh cooking.
Merlin found that he'd been incorrect. He actually hated sirens more than trolls.
The trees informed Merlin that Arthur's quest had ended and the disappointed King had returned to Camelot.
All Merlin minded was that disappointed was better than dead. And since Merlin wasn't there to make foolish deals with manipulative, vindictive witches, he preferred disappointed.
He blinked when he felt the shift, so subtle for all its demanding urgency that he nearly rode right past.
Merlin didn't know how long it'd been, how far his journey had taken him, or where he even was - he could be at the far ends of the earth for all he knew.
But the pull had changed.
Merlin set Horace loose before purchasing passage on a ship headed north with one of the gold pieces Arthur had given him so long ago. He'd kept one just for this purpose; if that made him sentimental he supposed he was. Merlin's eyes narrowed at the skies, daring clouds to unfurl into storm as his impatience to reach Albion again was making him desperate enough to want to hurtle the ship across the waters.
He wouldn't; though long ago, it wasn't difficult to remember in what regards magic had been held in Camelot. Merlin wasn't about to enter his homelands again labeled both murderer and wizard.
One damning title was enough to make him question why he was even returning, but then the magic jerked hard enough to make him dig his fingernails into the railing, the signet ring burning against his skin.
For better or worse, he was going home.
Merlin felt stifled by the time they reached the tiny port village in southern Camelot. He'd been among people for so long who openly embraced magic that to consciously hide it - to stuff it all back inside so the fish didn't just jump into his lap when he grew hungry - was strangling and uncomfortable. He missed the travelers, he even missed the mountains and valleys, and it occurs to him that perhaps he should have enjoyed the freedoms for a little while longer instead of immediately turning for Camelot.
But destiny beckoned. He could hear it in the crash of the waves and the gulls crying over head, could see it laid out in magic tangled within the earth.
Uther was a fool to believe he had ever banished magic.
Stopping by the village's only tavern, Merlin gestured for a flagon of ale and took a seat in the corner, listening to the men speak of battles, of Uther's death and the new King, and the tenuous hold on power the new King held. The kingdom was shaken - not because the men believed Arthur to be a poor king, but because every surrounding kingdom wished to usurp the new blood while they could.
So much for Arthur's peaceful kingdom, it would appear.
His ears perked up when he heard mention of a Queen.
He choked on his ale in disbelief when he heard the name "Guenivere."
If hearing Gwen's name had shaken him, Merlin had no words to describe the chaos when he discovered that Arthur had repealed all of Uther's decrees against magic.
Merlin repaired the table he was sitting at without a second thought.
He broke it again when he heard that the Queen's consort was Sir Lancelot. He found himself torn between cheering for Lancelot's return and empathy for Arthur's solitude.
The falcon returned from the castle with a few scorched tail feathers which Merlin promptly healed and a few blossoms clutched in her claws.
He knew that flower.
Fury burned within him, spiraling wildly out of control until the sun itself dimmed as Merlin coiled its power around his fist. With a distant eye he saw destruction as the earth shook and giants flew, sweeping wings and roaring fire consuming life as naturally as breathing. The spirit world would open, mountains cowering and seas churning, whirling with tides of drowning force. He would stand alone as not prey but hunter.
He knew that plant.
A sharp pain shocked the rage right out of him, his eyes clearing so fast it left him dizzy, but he couldn't stop the tired chuckle. She was fierce, latched on to his hand and arm with beak and talon, almost daring him to shake her off. A cry overhead warned Merlin of her mate who was likely ready to dive at his head and gouge his eyes out if he so much as plucked a feather.
They were right, of course. The scarred valley was still clear in his mind, as was the joy and laughter when it was finally whole once again.
Merlin stroked her head and she released him with an unrepentant squawk that sounded much as his mother's chastising when he had been a child.
He would be happy to see her again.
Using one of Lila's charms to deflect attention, Merlin slipped past the guards at the castle gates without so much a question of identity or name. He'd been unable to discover if his head still carried a price, and he wasn't willing to test the might of Arthur's knights, even if he was mostly unrecognizable from the innocent waif who'd fled in guilt and terror so many years ago.
The castle's walls remembered him, though; he could hear their welcoming chorus when he allowed his hand to brush against the stone.
Running through the shadowed corridors was far easier than he remembered in his younger days, slipping effortlessly from one dark hollow to the next, even with two falcons at his shoulders and his cloak snapping with every turn.
His destiny awaited, and Merlin swore he heard the dragon roar.
Upon reflection, Merlin's entrance had perhaps been a touch dramatic; Gaius would have scolded him with that amused scowl that said he approved but couldn't openly admit it.
Couldn't have, had Uther still been King.
Flinging the heavy wooden doors open until they slammed against the walls served a purpose, stunning every occupant of the hall as though Merlin had stopped time itself. Even the guards hadn't so much as breathed as Merlin swept past. Over his head, the falcon pair darted into the room, just a blur as they focused on their prey, but Merlin paid no mind, intent on the dozens if not hundreds of goblets in the room filled with feasting tables fit for many kings.
And so there were; Merlin recognized two from feasts of years ago, everyone on their feet with goblets raised to drink in toast to whatever they were toasting.
He heard the metallic slide of swords but that didn't stop him.
Staff outstretched, Merlin concentrated, sending flickers of magic lashing out and upturning every goblet as he strode up the middle of the hall. He didn't stop there; every vessel of wine or water burst, refusing to permit any to drink the poison.
Any - including the royal table.
Arthur was as handsome as Merlin remembered, the crown gleaming golden at his brow, older and perhaps wiser and very much King, more so than his father had ever appeared.
He was different, Merlin understood. Different than Uther, no matter the blood that bound them.
Uther spent his life trying to prove himself King.
Arthur simply was.
And he stared as though he could see beneath Merlin's hooded cloak, staring with a confused-shocked-relieved expression that reminded Merlin so much of the first time he'd interrupted a toast that he couldn't help but smile.
Chaos filled the hall screams filling the air as shouts for guards and apprehension of the sorcerer bellowed above the din. They didn't touch him. They couldn't, just as the lightning failed to touch the falcons ushering in the cursing woman dressed as a servant who shouted the deadly spells in the old tongue.
She cursed all the way to the royal table, spitting mad at the two who pecked and goaded her into place. Merlin had known it was too tempting for her to resist, watching her handiwork as she had in the past.
With no small amount of enjoyment, Merlin upturned the King's goblet on her dress.
She wore a new face that fooled all, even the King. But Merlin recognized her magic, knew her for her corrupted meddling and her attempts on his life, his mother's, and he supposed the semi-successful attempt on Gaius'.
She'd never really died, just as he'd never really lived.
Merlin felt his magic curl in his belly, pushing and begging to smite as heady and alluring as passion.
So very, very tempting.
"Who are you?" Nimueh demanded, throwing fire that Merlin brushed away.
Merlin answered with his magic.
'Elemental' Gaius had said, years ago, though Merlin remembered it just like yesterday. Merlin believed him now more than ever as his magic sang, resonating in a hum within the stone of the castle and the air until all that stretched before him within a column of gold was as endless as time itself. He saw beyond and within, destiny's tiny branches splintering in possibility and fate interwoven in magic, earth, fire, water, and air. He shifted until the tapestry once more shined with the purity of a unicorn and the innocence of a child.
And like the scarred valley, he healed.
Past, present, and future, told by the runes upside down and right-side up. So many possibilities, so many choices; he could feel them warm beneath his hand and etched upon bone so easy to understand even if he didn't know the words. He flipped them, picked them back up to hide their faces, returned them to the casting cup to be thrown again for a new fortune, a fresh destiny.
'I am no monster,' Merlin thought as he rattled the cup, wondering at the answers past-present-future the bones would reveal.
At the sound of a wail, Merlin withdrew his magic, pulling it back within no matter how it wished to spread out over the lands and sea and entwine with fate like lovers.
As he stood over the baby Nimueh, looking so tiny and cold in the mess of servant clothes, Merlin wondered if it would be enough; if with a second chance she might become so much more, or if he was merely ensuring the past would be repeated in more misery and suffering.
The runes spoke of possibility.
Merlin couldn't help but think that Gaius would be proud.
He'd heard silence before.
This was different, marked by the cries of a cold infant lying on the floor.
But the silence was still that of a windless night in the frozen northern country, so heavy one could feel the weight of it pressing down on one's shoulders. No one moved, however, no one made any attempt to arrest him.
Merlin rather thought they believed they hadn't dare. Which was in part, truth. He would not return to the dungeons to await execution, but they really had no reason to fear him.
Not even the King moved, eyes fixed on Merlin's staff which still felt warm to his touch. And then Arthur smirked, a look so familiar it stole Merlin's breath. "At least you weren't foolish enough to drink the poison this time."
Quirking his lips in confusion, Merlin glanced down at the staff in wonder and then his eyes caught the shine of metal on his finger.
Of course. He'd not removed the ring since he'd fled Albion.
"Bigger crown, but still a prat, I see."
The collective intake of the room sounded sharp as diamond over stone, but Merlin's grin was as broad as Arthur's. The words tasted funny - tickling and twisting in his throat - and the sound of his voice surprised Merlin, much deeper than he remembered it ever being. For once these were words he understood.
Not caring if it was appropriate or not, Merlin replied with equal fondness, "Arthur."
"I looked for you, after Uther died."
Merlin stretched out his legs, enjoying the comforts of the royal chambers which were finer than anything he'd seen - much less experienced - in years. Superfluous, really, but worthy of a King.
It was then Merlin realized that Arthur's questing had been for him. He responded the only way he knew how. "I listened to the trees talk about you."
Arthur's answering, disbelieving snort mocked Merlin's words before the air stilled as swiftly as the King. "You're serious. Talking with trees isn't in the book."
"The book?" It was Merlin's turn to still.
Arthur hummed in agreement, appearing quite pleased with himself as he stretched in the chair next to Merlin's. "Some idiot left a book of magic under the floorboards in his room. I ...may have read it in curiosity." A foot nudged his, shaking Merlin from his regret, not for the magic he had done, but for everything he'd kept hidden. He imagined Arthur's reading hadn't been quite as casual as he made it sound. "Ten years, Merlin. More than enough time to reach a peace."
Silence stretched between them, before Arthur filled it once again. "I read Gaius' notes, about his condition. You were a good friend when he needed you."
Wincing, Merlin felt the barb and knew without question that Arthur directed it at himself as well. They were both at fault, for so many things the other had suffered that no amount of magic could have fixed. Arthur suffered his father, Merlin suffered banishment. He didn't know which was worse. "I laid ruin to an entire valley," Merlin offered by way of explanation, shameful a story as it was. "I returned when it was time."
Arthur leaned forward, elbows on his knees and studied Merlin until he wished to squirm from the attention. "That's why you didn't kill Nimueh" - and after a pause - "or my father."
Merlin turned away, staring at the fire for a moment before he nodded. He could hear the Shaman of the northern country berating him for his guilt and he nearly smiled. Vivienne too would have had none of it and with courage forged by miles of walking, listening and discovery, Merlin faced Arthur with full confidence that while it perhaps had not made it easy, he had chosen the right path.
All that was within Arthur's eyes was respect.
"You've more strength than I," Arthur repeated, and while the words were the same, Merlin understood the difference.
Their first kiss had been wrought by guilt and shame, desperation curling fingers into clothes as though to banish the impending future simply by strength of their resolve.
Nearly ten years later, their second kiss still tasted of desperation, but it was older, wiser, and in a far warmer place. It wasn't perfect and neither were they, frantic by a decade of desire and scarred by battles neither wanted to mention, but both had survived. And it was beautiful, Merlin decided as he watched the shimmering lines of destiny entwine while their hands fumbled with foreign buckles and laces.
Merlin huffed with laughter into the kiss; he couldn't help himself when Arthur's impatience manifested as a growled curse and soon they were both shaking with laughter, just two young men again markedly more innocent with purity of purpose in their hearts.
The purpose was still there, as was the purity, Merlin could see it, read it in the magic that curled from the stone floor and wrapped around their legs, over their hips and shoulders, never restraining but pulling together. But the innocence was gone; he saw reflected in Arthur's eyes what he knew to be in his own. That didn't stop Arthur from smiling in wonder, touching Merlin's cheek, right near his eye before tugging on his beard. "What do you see, with your eyes turned gold?" Arthur asked.
Merlin struggled to find words which could explain, but he had spent so long not speaking he wasn't sure if the right words even existed. His magic simply was, a part of him so embraced he'd no sooner be able to part himself from what he was - what he'd become - than Arthur would be able to separate himself from being the leader and ruler of his people.
He canted his head and with a smile, used his magic to slip buckles and untie laces while he backed Arthur towards the bed. Arthur laughed in amazement as his and Merlin's clothing fell to the floor; he tripped as he simply walked out of his boots but never fell; and he couldn't stop staring as Merlin pushed him on to the bed and tumbled after.
Noses brushing, Merlin paused for a moment before he pressed his lips to Arthur's and showed him what he saw, explaining in the language Merlin understood and knew better than any other. Arthur gasped and immediately rolled them so he straddled Merlin's hips, staring wide-eyed about the room. "Merlin," was the oath that left his lips as he stretched a hand to touch a pillow, a bed post, the very air that surrounded him. Finally it fell upon Merlin's hair, longer than it had been when Arthur had seen him last. He gave it an experimental pull, moving it this way and that, and Merlin knew what he saw.
Merlin was as much magic as the earth and the air, the fire and the water. Arthur couldn't stop touching and Merlin understood that too. But Arthur's frown confused him until Merlin's hand was lifted by Arthur, a band around his finger gleaming brilliantly in magic twisted so tight and fine that it appeared solid. The signet ring, Merlin knew, and he answered Arthur's unvoiced question with a word.
Arthur refused to let go of that hand the entire night, twisting his fingers so tightly that Merlin knew the ring would leave an imprint upon Arthur's skin.