Only A Boy
"The Old Religion is the magic of the Earth itself. It is the essence which binds all things together. It will last long beyond the time of men."
It's a strange notion, and in some circles laughable. Of course, Merlin had first-hand experience in regard to the fickle whimsies of Fate. It had been his to guide and protect Arthur. It had been his to bring back magic to a land soaked with the blood of sorcerers. And it had been his to bring about the era of modern wizardry.
He had heard what those among the growing magical community called him. Emrys, The Prince of Enchanters, the greatest wizard who had ever lived.
But he felt like a boy.
Maybe that's why his blue eyes twinkled the way they did. And maybe that's why he had snorted with laughter when Arthur had almost dropped the most important document in the history of magic. The scene flashed before his eyes, lingering on when they'd had peace—before things had fallen so far out of hand.
"Merlin!" Arthur snapped. He'd dubbed that tone as 'Merlin's Tone' because he only ever used it when talking to him.
"Yes, Sire?" A cheeky smile.
But all he got was a glare. Merlin grinned back, his eyes flickering over to the group of four that stood before them—all of which looked about ready to burst into laughter. After being guests of the court for several months, Merlin suspected they had grown accustomed to the way things worked around here.
The man who had handed Arthur the document was large and burly, with wild ginger hair and a square jaw—prominent even from beneath his tangled beard. His name was Godric Gryffindor and Merlin was always forcefully reminded of Arthur whenever they talked—though he was certainly nicer to him than Arthur was. Next to him was a tall pale man with well-groomed black hair and brilliant green eyes that always seemed crinkled in mockery. Salazar Slytherin had become a close friend of his—even if Gaius disapproved of some of their shenanigans.
But turning all of the capes and banners green for a week had been hilarious.
Rowena Ravenclaw and Helga Hufflepuff he knew less well. Both were refined women, though the latter thoroughly enjoyed the tavern. And when Helga had a tankard of mead in her; well, she was certainly unrefined to say the least. It was a good thing he was already smiling, because the image of a woman with curly dirty-blonde hair dancing on a bar table certainly would've fixed that.
Rowena was slightly taller than Helga, with sharp elven features and a rather serious disposition. Proven when she looked up at him and raised an eyebrow, indicating that he should probably pay attention to the speech Arthur was giving. As if—he'd written the thing, and practically had it memorized himself.
It was to mark the beginning of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, a place where children with magic would learn how to correctly use it. Merlin could remember how they'd fought over the name for weeks. He'd personally liked The Academy of Albion—Hogwarts sounded like a disease. Maybe that's why Gaius snickered every time he heard it.
Merlin glanced over at Salazar, recognizing the foreign language that slipped from his tongue. It was the language of the snakes, Parseltongue. They'd discovered it together only a few weeks prior. Merlin had been trying to pass on the language of the Dragon Lords, but with little success. Instead, they'd discovered Parseltongue, the development of which was based on the very same idea of blood magic. Of course, it didn't have nearly as much power.
But it was pretty nifty.
"What?" he hissed in reply.
Salazar smirked again. "Your accent is still off," he whispered, his words drawn out and running together.
Merlin nearly rolled his eyes. "It's not. You, sir, are forcing it on."
"It soundsss better that way."
"It really doesn't."
"Merlin? What are you doing?"
Merlin started, the sudden assault of English forcing his thoughts into a rumble. He turned to look at Arthur, who was giving him that incredulous 'are you insane' expression.
"Nothing," he said quickly.
"You were hissing."
"Really? I hadn't noticed."
"Anyway," Arthur cleared his throat. "As High Priest of the Old Religion you need to sign your approval."
It was amazing how he could make it sound like he didn't believe a word of what he'd just said. Merlin had that affect. How could he be this great and powerful sorcerer? Not to mention that he was now the Chief Advisor as well—thank the gods he didn't have to polish armour anymore.
"Right." Merlin glanced at Salazar—who was smirking all the more widely now—and strode over to the document that Arthur was spreading out on the table. After skimming the headline for the hundredth time that week, he removed his ring. He'd crafted it from magic himself once it had become apparent that he would need a seal in order to sign official documents. Made of a smooth black metal, it bore the carving of a merlin in the mist of flight. The wings had been imbedded with slivers of a gorgeous light blue gem, given to him by the dragon Kilgharrah.
He ignored the twitch Arthur gave. His King thought it absolutely criminal to stick such a beautiful ring into wax but, lucky for him, Merlin had enchanted it to smithereens. No one else could put it on, it'd never get damaged, and it was enchanted to always return to him. As if he was afraid to stick it in wax.
The memory shifted, losing its tangibility. And as the images began to fade, a bone-breaking tremor ripped through him. Though strangely devoid of pain, the jarring sensation sent him into a tailspin; heaviness seized his heart. Impressions flitted past him, colours, sounds, emotions, like leaves carried by wind that vanished before he could more closely examine them.
There was something wrong.
Something had gone wrong. Something had changed – an unexpected complication that now threatened to ruin everything—but what?
Somehow Merlin knew that destiny demanded something new of him—something that would probably damn near kill him. He could feel the old magic swirling around him; more potent and alive than he had ever felt it before in his life.
It suffocated him.
It jerked him forward, a strange tug of pure magic pulling him at an impossible speed.
Images flashed before his eyes again, half-remembered memories that couldn't quite make it to the surface of his convoluted mind. Camelot was warping before him, and as he saw the moments fade he realized what was happening.
He was forgetting.
He couldn't recall the events of that morning. What had happened before now, before this blackness? He was spiraling down, falling into a never-ending pit of inky darkness and he couldn't remember whether he had seen the sun that day or not.
He started to panic, something the warlock hadn't done since Arthur had returned magic to the land. Wait, Arthur was just signing the order to return magic. No, he wasn't, he was just talking about it. Even as he thought it, it ceased to exist.
Arthur didn't know his secret. He didn't know who Emrys was or how he had saved his life all those times.
Merlin felt every bit like the young boy who had discovered he could use magic for the first time, and every bit the terrified teen that had first screwed up. He tried to open his eyes, but couldn't. He couldn't move his arms or legs. He felt a tear roll down his cheek as his best friend forgot whom he was, as he became a servant once more. His memories were being wiped away just as he tried to hold onto them and there was nothing he could do about it.
But something worse was about to happen. Something had already happened. Years of anguish and grief slammed into him, one after the other. He couldn't breathe, feeling as though something heavy pressed down on his chest.
He grimaced, resisting the urge to cry out when another wave of ancient magic crashed into him; filling his ears with inhuman screams and pleads. It was a stream of twisted and perverted rituals, each performed more incorrectly than the next and they were slamming into him like shockwaves. He didn't know what day it was anymore; he didn't know what month, what year.
And then it all stopped.
He saw himself standing in the crowd, smiling as a beautiful woman in royal purple walked up the aisle. She took the hand of a man with golden hair, crowned and radiant in vibrant red, and they pressed their lips together. He was cheering, chanting with the crowd—watching as she too was crowned, and a servant became a Queen.
And then it all faded to nothing.
"How long was he out there before you found him?"
He heard her voice as if from far away, the sound smudged and blurred. He tried to focus on it.
"I don't know, maybe a few hours?" A male this time, his tone clipped and bored.
"Poor dear," the woman continued and Merlin found he could hear her better. "He looks far too thin." She paused.
"You know, he almost reminds me…" she trailed off, leaving silence wherever her sentence had been heading. She had a grandmother's voice, warm and protective. It eased Merlin back into the realm of conscious thought. He heard some bustling and then a warm hand was pressed against his forehead and he caught a whiff of lavender.
"Silas, could you grab a glass of water?"
"How long till he wakes up?" A new voice—that of a young boy. He sounded anxious and excited, his words bumbling with barely constrained glee, as though waiting to receive a special present.
What was going on? Where was Gaius? Now fully awake, he realized he hadn't heard the physician's voice. Merlin groaned and whatever response the woman had been about to give, cut short. He felt her shift next to him, and then her soft voice beside him, "Can you hear me, dearie?"
"Yeah," he breathed. The word felt fuzzy on his tongue. Wasn't water coming? His eyelids felt too thick to open, so he rubbed them with his fingers. No one said anything, and finally, he managed to pry his eyes open. As the ceiling came into focus, so did the cold realization that he wasn't in the castle. He'd never seen a wall like that in his life.
"Where am I?" he asked shrilly, jerking upright— a wave of dizziness threatened to drag him back into the blackness. He clutched his head, squeezing his eyes shut.
"Who are you? Where's Gaius?" But the more he talked, the more apparent it became that something was very, very wrong.
That wasn't his voice.
"Dearie, calm down." The woman was talking again, soft and controlled. "Who's Gaius? Is he your father?"
"What?" Merlin reopened his eyes, finally looking at the people around him. The closest and most notable was an older woman, her light grey hair pulled back into a tight bun. She looked nearly as old as Gaius—possibly older. She had a kind wrinkled face that still remembered beauty, with high cheekbones and rounded chin. Her dark brown eyes were narrowed with concern as she surveyed him closely from behind wire-rimmed rectangle spectacles.
Behind her was a distinct man in a dark grey suit, a prominent frown on his face and a greasy salt-and-pepper mop of hair. As he watched, the man glanced at something on his wrist and tutted, apparently impatient. Last of all, a young boy with a tuft of unmanageable brown hair and wide hazel eyes held onto the metal post at the foot of his bed.
Everything about this was wrong. This—what was this? He'd never seen a suit like the man wore, or the sunflower dress of the woman. And he was becoming extremely aware of the glowing balls of light hanging from the ceiling, illuminating the room more effectively than two-dozen candles.
His heart started to pound in his chest, blood rushing in his ears. Who were these people? What was this place? And as these panic filled thoughts coursed through his mind, the lights began to flicker like candles caught in the wind. He tried to calm down.
Magic was forbidden. Arthur didn't know he had magic yet, and this wouldn't be a good way for him to find out.
"Calm down," the woman repeated, clearly enunciating the word. "You're quite all right. You're at Wool's Orphanage in London."
"London?" Merlin repeated, dumbfounded. He'd never heard of a place called London. Or—or was she talking about Lundenbruh? But that only confused him all the more! Lundenbruh was very far away from Camelot—and hadn't he just been attending Gwen's wedding and coronation?
"Yes, dearie." The woman was nodding, keeping eye contact with him. "Take a deep breath; everything is going to be okay. Who's Gaius?"
Almost comically, Merlin took a deep breath, willing his nerves to relax. He'd thought Gaius's reputation was widespread, but considering he wasn't even in the same kingdom…
"He's my guardian and a physician," he began slowly, growing ever more painfully aware of his voice. It wasn't his—It sounded too young.
"No," and Merlin looked around, as though hoping to find him hiding in a corner. "I just came under his care recently. I've been helping him with his work."
He could see that these words meant something profound to the woman, though he didn't have the faintest idea what. She nodded, her lips pursing before she took a deep breath herself. She put her hand on his shoulder, and gently squeezed in what Merlin gathered to be a comforting matter.
"This sometimes happens," she said in what he knew was her softest tone.
"W-what does?" he pressed, warily.
"Your mother made plans for you to live with him should the worst happen, correct?"
Merlin just stared, utterly perplexed.
"This isn't your fault." She was staring straight into his eyes, and the intensity floored him for a moment. "You don't deserve this and you are wanted."
"Right—I've no idea what you're on about, milady."
She seemed thrown off by his reply, though he couldn't fathom why. He was clearly missing something. She gave him a searching look before, "We found you on the doorstep. When a child no longer has any living relatives," she smiled apologetically, "they take them here."
"This Gaius doesn't want you."
"You—" Merlin shook his head, still utterly lost. "But I'm not—"
I'm not a child!
She didn't seem to know that though. She gave another sad smile and pulled him into a tight hug, ignoring his halting sentences. But—but she shouldn't be able to wrap her arms around him like this. His memory of himself was that of a man. But his voice—it was the young, small, terrified voice of a young boy.
Had he accidentally managed to de-age himself?
"Can I leave?" the man interrupted curtly. He had been watching the scene unfold in absolute silence, and it seemed that his patience had finally worn out.
The lady broke the hug—at last—and turned to glare at him.
"Yes, you certainly may." She looked as though she was wondering why he hadn't left already. The man grunted and gave a stiff nod before walking briskly from the room. She turned back to Merlin.
"That," she said, nodding toward the door swinging shut, "was the fella who found you. Lucky he did mind, but I don't much care for the business types."
Merlin didn't know what to say to that, so he just nodded. He'd realized he'd started shaking from the combined effort of trying to piece together what was happening whilst struggling to maintain control of his magic. He felt weird, empty—wounded almost. As if something had just been violently ripped from him and his mind had yet to process the pain. There was a gap—a tangible one—between the memory of Gwen's marriage and now. He could even feel the lingering traces of old, chaotic magic on his person; like dust after a windswept journey.
He closed his eyes, trying to remember.
Falling. He had fallen—but not really, just the sensation of it. He could remember the Old Religion calling out to him, begging for him to restore balance. What was he supposed to do? He took another deep breath, frowning. Had the magic of the earth brought him here? Or had he made the journey intentionally, for a purpose he could no longer remember? Here for some new destiny but—
His eyes snapped open, and in a wave of thoughtless panic opened his mouth—not even knowing what he would say—when something calmed him.
Just a feeling.
Somehow, he knew Arthur was safe. But the tangible gap was becoming less empty. He could make out faded images like smeared paintings behind his mind's eye, although he still couldn't make out a single one. He grabbed his head in an attempt to focus, noting how the blackness was strongest when he thought of recent events.
The lady misinterpreted his movement.
"You should lie back down. I know this is a lot to take in," she said, touching his shoulder again. But she was wrong—he hadn't been abandoned like some mutt. Oh no, he was trying to figure out what was going on, how he'd gotten here. The lady was silent once more, giving him time to think. He heard her shush the other boy that hovered at the foot of his bed.
He tried to piece together the events that had led to this, but it was impossible. What images he could make out were blurry at best, and as he brushed against them a twinge of pain reverberated around his head. But while he couldn't see them, he did glean emotions.
He felt more confident in his earlier conclusion that Arthur was safe, in fact he felt as if all of Camelot was. He couldn't explain it. But it'd due for the present—hopefully the entirety of his memory would return in time.
The lady was surveying him, and knew when he'd calmed down.
"I'm Ms. Martha Green," she introduced. "But I don't much care for propriety, there's me growing up in the twenties for you. Just Martha will do."
What were the twenties?
Something of his confusion must've shone on his face because she'd fixed him with a curious expression. "What's your name, dearie?" she asked. The other boy had started rocking back and forth on his toes, still watching with his wide eyes.
"Ooh!" The little boy sounded thrilled. "Like after that wizard? Merlin from the Arthurian Legends with the round table and all that?"
"Don't crowd him Silas," Martha snapped. Merlin's head was spinning. Legends?
"Wait." They both looked at him. "What's the date?" He knew how stupid he sounded, and their perplexed expressions didn't help but—
"It's Wednesday," the boy, Silas said.
"I mean the actual date."
His stomach had disappeared. It'd been April last he knew. "The year!" he pressed, knowing how shrill he sounded.
They were looking at him as if he had worms crawling from his ears. "1991," Martha uttered softly. She put her hand on his forehead again, frowning. He thought she muttered something about drugs, but he wasn't listening anymore.
He couldn't hear at all really.
He, Merlin Ambrosius, was over a thousand years in the future. According to Gaius they'd barely hit 900 AD back home— keeping time hadn't seemed all that important. It made his current predicament almost ironic. He'd lost time, his memories, his life, and was so far in the future that he, Merlin, had been reduced to legend. Plus, he was almost positive now that he was in his ten-year-old body once more.
Merlin did the only thing he could in the face of so many impossible things assaulting him all at once.
He fell back in a dead faint.
Well, he could've handled that better. Taken it in stride like everything else—Morgana going evil, Lancelot rising from the dead, seeing Freya in a puddle of water. But no, he'd reacted like a ten-year-old and fainted.
Not that you could blame him.
When he woke up the second time, Martha and Silas weren't with him and the room was dark. He could see the night sky through a gap in the curtain drawn windows, accented by a strange, dim yellow light that—like the ceiling lights from earlier—lacked the flickering consistency of candles. He lay there on the bed, staring at the ceiling, just able to make out the lines of architecture in the darkness.
He was ten-years-old. He was in the future. How?
He still couldn't remember anything past Gwen's coronation. At the same time, a quick mental catalogue of his spell library told him he had entire bookcases of added knowledge he couldn't remember learning. Well, it explained why he felt so in tune with the Old Religion—he'd never been so aware of the earth breathing and pulsing beneath his feet.
But how many years had he lost? It felt like a lot—the sheer amount of magic churning within him was a testament to that; it was far more powerful than he recalled. Gaius had mentioned magic strengthened with age—though being Merlin, his magic had always been potent. But combined with the wild and instinctual quality of his youth? Beautiful chaos.
Anyway—It didn't look like the how was something he could answer anytime soon. Not without his memories. Where were they? Did time travel rattle the noggin a little, or were they lost to him for more nefarious reasons? Merlin shook his head—pushing at the blackness. It felt like he was attempting to dissect his brain with an ice pick, and he stopped with a wince.
Well, at least he knew Arthur was fine. With time travel involved, there was nothing he could do about Camelot. Not until he got back to his time period, and that wasn't happening for a while. He'd come here for a reason—he could feel it dancing right on the tip of his tongue. Just out of his reach. How was he supposed to accomplish anything?
New destiny? Sure, but he kind of needed to know what it was first.
He groaned, and rolled over. He'd even take a Kilgharrah riddle right about now. He could tell that something was wrong with the magic here—his own melded with the earth, and felt cavernous injuries like festering sores. The Old Religion demanded balance… but what to do?
"Are you awake?"
Merlin craned his head toward the door, squinting in the dark. He heard the creak of floorboards, and the boy—Silas—came into view. He glanced behind him, wringing his hands together before bouncing over to Merlin's bed, hovering on the end post like before.
"Martha thinks that this Guy fellow drugged you. She's trying to file a police report."
None of this made sense to Merlin for a second. "You mean, Gaius?" he asked, slowly.
"Yeah, that guy." He had an innocuous tone, soft and animated. It had the same spring that he had in his step.
"Do you know his last name? She can get him arrested!" The kid sounded overjoyed by the idea.
"Uh, no. Listen, he wouldn't drug me." Okay, Gaius would but that was irrelevant here. "He's a good guy. I think I just—I mean, I'd forgotten he's not around anymore either."
"Oh." Silas bit his lip. The boy seemed to understand Merlin's meaning. He wrung his hands together again, and after an awkward silence asked softly, "Was he nice?"
"He… had his days," Merlin said, a smile rising at the thought. Silas smiled in response, and rocked back and forth on the balls of his feet. Merlin got the impression he was teetering on a question he desperately wanted to ask, but was trying to restrain himself. After the moment began to drag, Merlin sighed. "What?"
"Is your name really Merlin?" the kid blurted out. "Like in those legends?"
Right. Legends. Merlin stared at him, nonplussed. It made sense now that he knew he was in the future, but it was still incredible. They still remembered them, after all this time? Did he have his very own epic poem? The idea of people singing his tales left him numb.
"Legends?" he repeated, hoping Silas would expand on them. He didn't disappoint.
"Yeah! Merlin, the greatest wizard that ever lived!" Silas swung around the post and sat down on the foot of his bed, speaking faster and faster. It didn't escape Merlin's notice that the language had evolved, and found it miraculous he could follow the kid at all.
"Of course, Martha says it's just a myth. One of those stories that never happened or did, but has become so twisted that no one knows what really happened. I dunno, it happened a really long time ago, so I think it could be true. Martha's really smart anyways. She tells us the stories at night—well, we have to ask, but she never says no. But yeah, Merlin was this guy with a really epic beard, like all white and super long. He was the tutor of King Arthur, who pulled the sword Excalibur out of a stone!"
He went on and on, telling of the beautiful Lady Guinevere and her affair with Lancelot, the bravest of the knights. About Morgana, the evil witch who was Merlin's greatest and most ruthless enemy. He even spoke of Merlin's love for the Lady of the Lake—though there the story got really inaccurate. Apparently, some people thought that Merlin had been Arthur's father. That made him burst into laughter. He had to tell Arthur if he ever made it back to Camelot—the look on his face alone would be priceless.
Silas had talked for nearly an hour when the door opened again and he cut off mid-sentence, about a battle Merlin had missed the name of.
"Silas! What are you doing? I told you not to bother him." Martha folded her arms, frowning at them.
"It's okay Martha," Silas said, glancing toward Merlin as though asking for help. "He was already awake. He asked about the legends of King Arthur and Merlin!"
Martha gave him a stern look, her eyebrow rising disbelievingly. Merlin swallowed, not wanting Silas to get in trouble. "He wasn't being a bother," he supplied with a smile.
Martha rolled her eyes and crossed over to them, flicking something on the wall as she did so. Merlin jumped as the whole room was bathed in brilliant white light. Had she just done magic? He hadn't heard her say an incantation. He looked up, blinking as he stared at the glass balls.
"Don't stare at the light bulb! Martha said indignantly and he looked back at her, seeing purple blotches in his vision. Okay, not magic, probably some technological advancement. "Silas, you should be in bed. Off you go."
Silas heaved a loud sigh, getting to his feet in an unnecessary flurry of movement. He waved back at Merlin. "See you tomorrow, then!" he said, before dashing out of the room.
Martha rubbed her temples, shaking her head as she looked after him. Then, she opened a drawer from the dresser beside his bed. She withdrew something thin and black, holding it over his eyes. There was a clicking sound and he was immediately blinded. He automatically recoiled, raising a hand against the light.
"Oh, calm down," she said briskly. "It's only a flashlight."
But Merlin dropped his hand and let her do, well, whatever it was she was doing. He found it odd she'd told him not to stare at the light bulbs when shining the flashlight in his eyes. But it only lasted a few seconds, before she clicked it off and stepped back.
"Well, if it was a drug, it's out of your system. Your eyes are reacting normally."
Merlin blinked. "Are you a physician?" he asked, unable to mask the eager curiosity in his young voice.
Martha gave him that look again, perplexed. She took a moment to respond, taking a seat on his bed. "I have training equal to a nurse," she replied. Merlin had only ever heard of a wet-nurse before. Maybe it meant some kind of female physician here.
"Now," she continued, "Do you know where you are?"
"You said I'm in London."
"Just making sure you remember all of that." Her lips quirked downward. "I filed a report with the police about this Gaius of yours. They'd have more to go on if you talked—"
"No," Merlin interrupted. He swallowed, wondering how to sell this. He had a feeling Martha could see through lies just as easily as Gaius. "I—I think I hit my head when I fell. Gaius—he's not here anymore either." He looked down at his hands. He wouldn't be able to run to Gaius for advice here…and it left him more nervous than he cared to admit.
"I see." He didn't know if that meant she'd bought it, but she let the subject drop. "Well, I best start filing the paperwork for you." She got briskly to her feet.
"Paperwork?" Merlin repeated, looking up at her.
"Yes. We need records for everyone who lives here at Wool's Orphanage."
"I'm going to live here now?" Maybe there was a reason he'd been dropped here of all places.
Martha nodded. "Now, I only need to know a few things." She was at the other end of the room now, rummaging in a desk. Merlin realized that this was some kind of infirmary, with an office at the back. There were only three beds, the other two separated by pallid curtains.
"Right," Merlin said, fidgeting. He was already counting back ten years, figuring out which year he would've been born in. And, predictably:
"Uh… July 31st 1980."
Merlin rubbed the back of his neck. "I don't know." What was Ealdor even called in this day and age? The woman didn't press him though.
"He thought he saw her smile. She waited for him to continue, looking up when he didn't. But he couldn't tell her his actual last name. She'd never believe him!
She sighed. "Merlin," she said gently, "you don't have to hide it from me."
He cast his eyes around, trying to think of surnames. But all the ones he knew were also from Camelot, and Pendragon wouldn't be any better than Ambrosius. His gaze fell on a book resting on a bedside table on the opposite side of the room, the spine facing toward him. Well, it was better than nothing.
"Evans," he said looking back at her. "Merlin Evans."