Life in Camelot was going unusually smooth as of late... and Merlin did not say that often.
No giant attacks by undead armies. No renegade sorcerers poisoning the water supply, or grievous illnesses befalling them. In fact, the height of Merlin's worries had been the fact that Arthur had taken a liking to wrestling—in the mud. This meant a great deal more washing than normal for Merlin and there was already a lot to begin with.
But that aside, Merlin was beginning to worry, because Camelot was never this peaceful for such a long stretch of time. Not with magic still banned and Uther still reigning. Camelot held far too many enemies, and Uther held far too much hatred. Merlin may not have believed in fate once upon a time, but after finding out about his destiny, things like that hardly seemed out of the question. He was beginning to worry what seemed like a nice break from danger may just be the calm before the storm.
He hoped against hope he was wrong, and it was all just silly, misplaced concern. But of course it wasn't, and he didn't have to wait long for the storm to roll in.
It came in the form of a man, and a name Merlin by no means wanted spoken aloud in the court. But when had he ever really gotten his way with things like this?
The court was called to order. Merlin asked Arthur why, but Arthur didn't seem to know the answer, and that alone caused a nagging worry to knot itself in the pit of his stomach. He followed his charge to the throne room, fastening Arthur's cape around his neck as the prince walked quickly and unheedingly ahead. Arthur didn't seem worried, and if he noticed Merlin's tight-lipped look, he didn't mention it as the doors to the throne room were thrown open and the Crown Prince took his place by his father's side. Merlin took his solemnly next to Gaius.
The court physician and the servant shared a glance, mutely asking each other the same question. They both had the same answer—neither knew what this was about.
The king sat on his throne, gloved fingers to his lips. The court fell silent, waiting for his words.
Uther nodded in the direction of the guards. "Bring him in."
The guards bowed in obedience and swung the doors open once more. Two more guards escorted a man Merlin did not recognise into the room—bearded and clad in a long brown cloak with dark rider's boots. He didn't look very threatening, but Merlin got chills looking at him. Instinctively, he backed further against the pillar to his right.
The man swept to the centre of the throne room with a sort of assured confidence and bowed grandly. "My lord," he said, his voice deep and rolling.
Uther paid him a nod in recognition of his reverence. "I have received word that you had something to report. A possible threat, to Camelot and its people?"
The man nodded, rising and lacing his hands behind his back. "This is true, sire. My name is Oliver, and I am no a resident of Camelot, but I am a traveler and have dwelled long in the forests within your kingdom. One hears things when you travel amongst those who wish to remain hidden."
Uther's eyes narrowed. "And of what people do you speak?"
"The Druids, sire," the man answered, and at that, Merlin pressed the palms of his hands to the pillar with force. "A peaceful, but magical, people. I know magic is banned in your lands and I do not condone the use of it. I have seen first hand what destruction it can cause. But they provided me with shelter, and that I could not refuse. However, one hears things. The Druids speak little aloud—much of what they share with each other is spoken with their magical minds. But I overheard a conversation I found most disturbing."
Uther leaned forward. "What is it you heard?"
"Not much, I am afraid," the man admitted. "But they spoke of a man. A sorcerer. A sorcerer they seem to believe is the greatest sorcerer to have ever lived."
The court stirred. Murmurs broke out. Gaius shot a glance Merlin's way. Merlin met it for about a half a second, trying to keep his growing terror in check as his gaze flickered back to the man.
Uther's eyes had gone wide. "Is there such a thing? One greater than them all?"
The man nodded gravely. "If the Druids believe it to be true, I fear it is. But that is not all. They seem to believe this sorcerer has already been born and that he is here, in Camelot."
He said "Camelot" with a dramatic gesture of his arm and the court exploded into nervous frenzy. Merlin looked to Arthur and cringed to see his worry and outrage. His gloved hand was noticeably on the hilt of his sword. The thought of having such a powerful sorcerer hidden away in his kingdom clearly energised him enough to be thinking about plunging his sword into the man...
Uther seemed to be struggling with several conflicting thoughts, but after a moment, he raised a hand and the court quieted.
"This… great sorcerer," the king began, fingers clutching the edge of his throne in taut distress. "Was he given a name?"
Merlin held his breath. His stomach twisted again, and this time he could feel his magic twisting with it, as if preparing to do what was necessary if the situation called for it. Please, no, he begged silently.
But to his despair, the man nodded.
"Yes," he answered quietly, but the single word echoed like the roar of dragon fire in Merlin's ears.
"I just don't understand it."
He really didn't. With a frown, Arthur held out his arms for Merlin to pull a white tunic on over his head.
"Understand what?" the servant asked, and Arthur hardly tried to hold back his eye roll.
"This... Emrys," Arthur clarified, grinding his teeth as he fastened his belt himself. "If he is as powerful as this man claims, then why would he come here, to Camelot, without making himself known? Surely hiding does nothing."
Merlin didn't answer right away. "He must have a reason."
"Probably not a good one," Arthur muttered darkly. He held out his hand for his sword and Merlin obediently gave it to him. "I'll have to conduct a very thorough search. I'll start in the least likely places, just to get them out of the way. Morgana's chambers. Yours. Gaius'. Then move on to the rest of the citadel and the lower town."
"Of course, sire," Merlin acknowledged, sounding distracted.
For the first time since the court had convened, Arthur paid his servant proper attention. The skinny farm boy seemed more out of it than normal—and that was saying something.
"Are you feeling all right, Merlin?" Arthur asked, less concerned than he was curious.
Merlin took a second to look up at him. "Fine," he said. "Just worried for Camelot, is all."
Arthur sighed. "Aren't we all," he murmured, more to himself than to Merlin as he peered out his window and to the courtyard below. The knights were beginning to gather, waiting for him. "I'm off, then. I expect my armour polished when I get back, and for you to stay out of significant trouble."
He expected a quip from Merlin in response. In fact, he waited for it, but it never came.
Arthur left his chambers with a small frown.
The search yielded nothing. No one in Camelot seemed to have heard the name "Emrys," let alone found to be harbouring him. The traveler who'd come to warn them held no physical description of the sorcerer to offer, which left Arthur with no idea of what to look for. He and the knights interrogated the most recent newcomers of the city, but none appeared suspicious.
This didn't necessarily mean the traveler was wrong, however. This sorcerer could have been residing in Camelot for years and they might have just not known. In fact, he could have arrived long before Arthur was even born with what little they had to go on, and with the lofty title this Emrys had been given by the Druids.
The wording still made Arthur's skin crawl. "Greatest sorcerer to have ever lived" did not sit well with him. The idea of sorcery in general made him uneasy, as he knew it to be dangerous, unpredictable, and inherently evil. But he'd come to accept its existence, one way or another. He would not let himself fear it.
But the greatest sorcerer? A magic above all other magic? A sorcerer above all other sorcerers? Everything about that screamed disaster for his people.
Arthur wondered if he were to find this sorcerer, what he'd even do. He had been trained how to handle combat with sorcery, but what match would he be against such power? What match would his kingdom be?
The thought hung over his head like a storm cloud, and despite how many times he ran over the possibilities in his mind, he still couldn't understand it. From what the traveler—Oliver—had seemed to believe, Emrys hadn't been in Camelot for some short amount of time. But if this was true, why hadn't he struck? What more could he be cultivating, if he already held so much power? Surely he had a grand plan. It was possible he was lying in wait for the right moment to strike, but somehow Arthur felt that wasn't it.
He hadn't proposed the question to any of the knights, or his father. Only Merlin, and the servant's answer still played on repeat in his head.
"He must have a reason."
Yes. He must. And that's what worried him.
Arthur lie awake, unable to sleep. He had spoken to his father following the completion of his report, and the conversation had been grave. Uther was just as concerned as Arthur, but in a different way. The king seemed to hold no qualms in wondering why this great sorcerer was hiding in Camelot. He only cared about how to destroy him. Contrarily, Arthur thought the motive to be extremely important in the question of how to stop him. How were they supposed to defeat him if they had no idea what he planned to do?
But his father was being decisive on the whole issue, boiling it down to its roots. The sorcerer must be found and eliminated, and that was that.
Arthur wished he could share his father's straightforward conviction. It was one of the most troubling things about his future ascension to the throne. It scared him that when the time came, he might not be ready to make these decisions with the confidence the kingdom called for.
But he wanted to know the why. Why would this enemy, whose existence had not been known to them, want to hide within their walls without striking? To gain trust? Hear secrets? Make plans? Initiate a revolt? All were possibilities, but all of them rang untrue to Arthur for some odd, inexplicable reason. It just didn't add up to his previous encounters with sorcerers. They were conniving, yes. Patient? Certainly. But they were always up to something—always striking when the iron was hot, or manipulating their will on others. There was usually some sort of disturbance in Camelot before a sorcerer struck, or the slightest of telltale signs. Something stolen. Someone kidnapped. Horses killed, attacks reported, but recently Camelot had been... quiet. Peaceful.
It didn't add up.
He must have a reason.
With a small sigh, Arthur sat up, fumbling for his comb. It was no use trying to sleep…
And his worry had only found reflection in one other person.
Arthur had never snuck around to someone's window before, let alone Merlin's, but he was already on his way so there was no point in going back. Besides, despite being an absolute lazy, clumsy, idiot of a servant, Merlin was usually pretty competent when it came to listening and trying to understand. Arthur just wanted to know his worries weren't unfounded... or maybe he just wanted someone he trusted to tell him he was being stupid. Either way, maybe then he could get some sleep.
However, he hadn't even made it to the physician's quarters when the door opened, and a figure slipped out.
Arthur immediately stashed himself away, peering at the figure from the shadows in an effort to identify them.
It didn't take much effort. It wasn't like he wore much else.
Merlin looked around for about half a second before leaving his home behind and heading toward the lower town. He took long strides, setting a pace Arthur hardly ever saw when the bloody servant was supposed to be doing something important, such as his chores.
Unease circled in Arthur's chest. What was Merlin doing, slipping out at this time? Several answers—including collecting herbs for Gaius and the tavern—ran through his mind, but Arthur wasn't about to let speculation satisfy him. He was not blind to his manservant's tendency to find trouble instead of lying low, and the idiot didn't seem to have any weapons on him. With a powerful sorcerer hidden away within these walls, Arthur certainly didn't want Merlin getting himself hurt, or worse.
He soundlessly began to follow.
To Arthur's further concern, Merlin beelined straight for the forest and his length of stride didn't change. He seemed to know exactly where he was going, although he was not following any of the hunting trails. The only explanation Arthur could think of was that he was heading to pick a specific herb he needed often, and that's how he knew where to go.
Again, the explanation did not sit right with him. He continued to follow.
As they pushed deeper into the forest, Merlin appeared completely unaware of Arthur's presence. While Arthur didn't plan on being discovered, he did find it disconcerting Merlin didn't even check to see if he was being trailed. Either the manservant was far too confident sneaking about at this hour, or he wasn't very observant. Or he was distracted. Probably all three, but the last one seemed most likely, as Merlin was clearly muttering to himself in a distracted way—a way that mirrored how Arthur had been feeling lately.
In fact, the more they walked, the more Arthur wondered if Merlin may be trying to catch this sorcerer on his own. He couldn't fathom how, but it made sense. Merlin's behaviour earlier, the lack of banter, the sneaking about. Arthur knew Merlin was fiercely loyal to him and Camelot, but trying to take down a sorcerer on his own was flat out idiotic, even for him. Arthur set his jaw in preparation to intervene if he needed to.
After some time, they came to a large clearing: an open, grassy patch that allowed the moon to shine its glare over the hills. It provided a spectacular view of Camelot beyond the trees, and Merlin walked into it without hesitation. He strode to the very centre of the space and planted his feet, looking to the sky.
Arthur's nose crinkled in confusion. What the hell was he doing, star gazing? He wasn't sure what he'd expected Merlin to do, but he had half wondered if there would be someone in the clearing waiting for him—maybe another traveler with information, or even a Druid. While consulting with sorcerers still meant condemnation in Camelot, Arthur would be lying if he hadn't considered going to the Druids himself to learn more about Emrys.
But the clearing showed no signs of life, and Merlin's gaze was focused on the heavens, not the tree line. Arthur was beginning to wonder if he'd misjudged Merlin's intentions and the other man was just being an oddball, as always, and he liked to stargaze now and then.
But then Merlin opened his mouth.
A noise unlike any sound Arthur had ever heard escaped from it. Loud and rumbling and guttural, inhuman, and in no way, shape, or form could actually be coming from his manservant.
But it was. And Merlin was speaking.
"O drakon, e male so ftengometta tesd'hup'anankes! Erkheo!"
The roar seemed to die in his throat once the words faded, and Merlin's shoulders shook with the effort of whatever the hell he had just screamed.
For a minute, there was complete silence—a silence in which Arthur just stared from behind a tree in an incomprehensive daze.
Then there was a sound. Both loud and forceful and... and familiar.
The sound of flapping wings.
Arthur watched in a stupor as a dragon—not just any dragon, the dragon—came soaring down into the clearing. Its giant claws sank into the grass before Merlin and its giant tail swung powerfully. The tree branches around Arthur whipped around from the generated gust of the beast's leathery wings.
Arthur gasped and all but collapsed against the tree, but Merlin didn't look in the least bit surprised. "Kilgharrah," he greeted.
"Merlin," the dragon replied, its deep voice rumbling like an amused drawl. It bowed its head in Merlin's direction. "What is it this time, young warlock? Another threat to the Crown Prince of Camelot?"
No, no, no, no.
Arthur could hear his heartbeat. He could feel it, could feel it charging. His mind was whirling with the inability to understand what he was witnessing. Too many things were clattering around in his system, trying to categorise themselves into something that actually made sense.
The Great Dragon, very much alive and speaking to Merlin respectfully, not threateningly.
Merlin, referring to the dragon by name and calling for it in... in whatever the hell that language had been.
The dragon referring to him, Arthur, in a casual tone, as if to discuss rescuing him from some scalding bathwater.
Plus the word "warlock." The dragon had called Merlin "young warlock."
An infernal ringing growing in his ears, Arthur could no longer feel the tree he was clutching. It was like his brain had somehow been disconnected from the rest of his body. He could only look on and listen.
Merlin was speaking again. "For once, it's not Arthur. It's me. A man came to Camelot today. He said he'd spent time with the Druids, and warned Uther that they believe the greatest sorcerer to ever live may be hiding within Camelot."
The dragon made a low, grumbling noise reminiscent of Merlin's chanting. "Well, he is hardly wrong," it replied. "Did this man give Uther a name?'
Merlin lowered his gaze. "Yes. Emrys. The whole of Camelot is on alert now. I know it all could be much worse, but it worries me."
"You are right to worry," the dragon agreed. "The king may not know who Emrys truly is, but even knowing your Druid title may hold grave consequences for your destiny. The Druids will protect the prophecy with their lives, but if Uther were to get his hands on it, he will do everything in his power from letting it come to pass."
Your true name... your true name... YOUR true name… Arthur's vision grew fuzzy and it suddenly become very hard to breathe. He felt like he was going to pass out, but immediately, ironically, it made perfect sense why no one had heard of Emrys.
Some men lived by two names.
Merlin exhaled. "I know," he said, rubbing at his eyes. "I know. But what should I do? Uther will not just forget what he's heard. He won't stop until he finds Emrys, and I fear Arthur will not rest until he discovers why Emrys would want to come here in the first place."
The dragon hummed a deep guttural sound, like water running over rocks. "Yes, I suppose the prince would be curious. But you would be unwise to reveal your true self to Arthur now. He is still young, untested, and unfit for the throne. The time for the change you hope to bring is not yet upon us."
Merlin huffed. "Yes, I know. Sometimes I wonder if it'll ever come. But maybe there is still something I can do? I could disguise myself in some way. I could—I could make up some reason for being here and let them think Emrys has left Camelot."
"And what good do you suppose that would do? Putting a face to Emrys should be avoided at all costs. You would only become more hunted than you already are."
"So, what, you expect me to do nothing?" Merlin's voice cracked as he spoke. He sounded extremely frustrated. Frustrated, and sad.
"Yes, young warlock," the dragon answered, and it appeared equally exasperated. "Although you have failed to heed my words in the past. Do as you see fit, but the consequences are on you and you alone."
Merlin fidgeted, his arms crossed and struggling.
The dragon hummed again. "Did you expect it to be easy? Carrying a burden such as yours."
"It's not like I chose it," Merlin snapped. "I was born with magic, and that prophecy was written long before I was a part of this world."
"That does not change the fact that your power was given to you and you alone for a reason," the dragon reminded. "Many would kill thousands to wield what was inside you from the beginning, and that is why it was given to you."
"You say that with such confidence." More sadness had crept into Merlin's tone. "How can you be so sure? I am supposedly the most powerful sorcerer to walk this earth, and yet I feel trapped at every turn. How am I supposed to protect Arthur if I have to constantly fight from the shadows?''
"It is necessary," the dragon rumbled. "This you must know. Yours and Arthur's destinies are intertwined. Neither of you can escape that. Succeed or fail, Albion will rise or fall by yours and the young prince's hands."
Merlin frowned. "Comforting."
"This world is not designed for comfort. And especially not for creatures of magic like you and I."
"Of course not." Merlin's shoulders slumped. "But you're right. As much as I hate it, there isn't much I can do. I'll lie low."
"You're learning," the dragon said, and it chuckled. The ground shook from the force of the sound. "I may be able to teach you something yet. Until next time, Merlin."
And with that, the massive creature spread its wings and took off into the night sky.
Merlin watched it go and Arthur watched Merlin, heaving from shock and horror.
Words tumbled through his head—a mix of the dragon and Merlin's voices running together like they were one. More than you are hunted already... burden... born with magic... prophecy... inside of you…
Yours and Arthur's destinies are intertwined. Neither of you can escape that. Succeed or fail, Albion will rise or fall by yours and the young prince's hands.
Most powerful sorcerer to walk this Earth.
It couldn't be true.
And yet, there he was. Merlin, heading back toward the forest like he hadn't just summoned a dragon and held a casual conversation about the fact that he was Emrys, the prophesied greatest sorcerer to have ever lived.
It shouldn't ring true. It should feel all wrong and make his skin crawl and his head spin, and to an extent, it did, but at the same time it all seemed to make sense. The way Merlin had answered him earlier, when Arthur had asked why Emrys would ever hide in Camelot. He must have a reason, Merlin had said. Because of course there had to be some bloody reason.
There had to be a bloody reason why his servant was a sorcerer.
Arthur got up, suddenly back in control of his own limbs. Merlin had slipped back into the forest, trekking back to Camelot in the moonlight, and Arthur followed... but this time with his hand on the hilt of his sword.
He had to be sure. Calling a dragon was evidence enough that Merlin was not the person Arthur thought he knew, but he hadn't actually performed any magic, and suddenly Arthur just wanted to see it. If Merlin really was Emrys, he wanted to see it. The most powerful magic in the world, locked inside this... this man he'd come to trust. Hell, a man he'd been in the middle of seeking out to console his overreacting.
Arthur hadn't been overreacting. Clearly, he hadn't been reacting severely enough.
He continued to follow, but at this point he was basically on automatic. His emotions were bubbling in a mixed melting pot, fighting with one another and messing with his system. He felt angry, confused, and deeply sad all at the same time, and he was shaking—shaking like a leaf. Above all, he felt betrayed. Several lengths ahead of him walked a man he had trusted with his life on more than one occasion. A man Arthur himself had saved in countless incidents, and a servant that waltzed into his chambers every morning and spread his curtains, telling him to start his day. Before him was his friend.
But this wasn't him. Not really, was it? No. Walking before him, all innocent in his buckled boots, leather jacket, and lanky, clumsy form was a person Arthur had just been indirectly told was the most dangerous sorcerer to ever be born, and that he could just not bring himself to believe.
He wanted to scream, but he settled for clenching his teeth instead, sweat—or maybe tears?—staining his face. He couldn't even bring himself to think of Merlin as a threat to Camelot at this point. He knew it to be true, as any magic was a threat, but Arthur still couldn't begin to imagine it. The image of Merlin opening his mouth and roaring still cycled in his head, over and over, but that wasn't testament enough. Arthur wanted to see this "true self" the dragon had warned Merlin not to reveal. The true Merlin, because clearly the man ahead of him was no man.
It took him far too long to realise that Merlin had stopped and the servant's—no, sorcerer's—eyes were trained on the trees behind him.
Arthur immediately froze, pressing himself to the nearest tree trunk. A stroke of fear he hadn't expected rocketed through him. Arthur had never feared Merlin before.
But the look on Merlin's face right then was not the Merlin he knew. Merlin's hands were still at his sides, but he was scanning the forest with a stony look on his face. It was a look Arthur had seen many of times before... on opposing knights bent on killing him.
There was silence for a long moment. A dead silence in which Arthur tried to keep his breathing even and Merlin stood still, his blue eyes watching carefully.
Eventually, he opened his mouth, and Arthur hated himself for flinching.
Arthur sucked in his breath, holding it.
It was still his voice—Merlin's voice—but for some reason, it sent chills down Arthur's spine. He sounded... confident. Commanding and foreboding. All qualities Merlin had never showed. Qualities Arthur hadn't thought he'd had.
But he displayed them now, and when something stirred to Merlin's right—Arthur's left—Merlin whipped around with a speed Arthur had never seen before, arms snapping up palms first.
Twigs cracked in the underbrush and Arthur pressed himself even further into the brush, watching as whatever approached Merlin came through.
Stringy white hair. A long brown robe and an awkward gait. Carrying herbs.
Merlin instantly relaxed. Arthur did too—somewhat.
"Gaius." Merlin laughed nervously. "You startled me."
The physician raised an eyebrow. "Going to curse me, were you?"
Arthur felt like a hand had reached through his chest and squeezed his heart. Any relaxation he'd experienced left him. Gaius knew.
Merlin scoffed, looking down at his hands and rubbing them together uncomfortably. "No," he said sheepishly. "I mean... no, of course not."
Gaius frowned at him. "You must be more careful, Merlin. Especially now. Uther is on the hunt for Emrys, and he will suspect anyone with magic of him."
"Yes, thank you Gaius, I have already gotten that lecture once today."
Gaius raised an eyebrow again. "Is that why you are out here at this hour? Have you been consulting with the Great Dragon?"
Merlin fidgeted. "I don't like just sitting around idly. I wanted to ask if there was anything I could do. Throw Uther off the trail, feed him a false prophecy. Anything."
"All of those would be reckless and foolish," Gaius chided.
"Kilgharrah said the same." Merlin sighed heavily. "It just worries me. It all worries me."
"You always worry." Gaius handed Merlin the herbs. "Now, make yourself useful. I still need sticklewort."
Merlin wrinkled his nose at the smell of the herbs. "Do you really need herbs at this hour?"
"Patient came in about an hour ago. He doesn't need immediate treatment, but soon. Are you to help me, or not?"
"I don't know where any sticklewort is," Merlin complained.
"Of course not. But I need those herbs crushed and mixed together in a paste. Here."
He handed Merlin a mortar, but no pestle. Now it was Merlin's turn to raise an eyebrow.
"Oh, really, Gaius," he grumbled. "You knew I was out here, didn't you? And you knew this paste would take a long time to make by hand, so you came out here to have me do it."
"No, I didn't," Gaius snapped, sounding offended, but he continued on, brushing the leaves around him in search of sticklewort. "But my patient is waiting, so I do suggest you hurry."
Merlin sighed. "All this talk of secrecy..." he murmured, but he obediently placed the herbs in the mortar and held his hand over it. Arthur finally let out his breath, clutching a tree branch and staring, fixated.
Merlin's fingers spread out. "Hwerfung æt slypa," he chanted easily, and as Arthur watched, his blue irises flashed gold.
There was a slight rustling, like a breeze had picked up, and the leaves swirled together in a whirlwind, glueing themselves to the bottom of the mortar in a thick, greenish-brown paste.
Merlin smiled down at the mixture. "Done," he announced. "Found your sticklewort yet?"
"As a matter of fact, yes," Gaius answered, straightening with a few more leaves in his hands. "We'd best be getting back. I trust you know your way in the dark?"
"I can see everything fine."
Gaius stared at him for a second, before nodding. "Yes, I'd forgotten," he mumbled. "Come on, then."
The physician began to make his way back to Camelot and Merlin followed. Neither looked back.
This time, Arthur didn't follow. Instead, he slumped against the tree in a dizzy stupor, head back against the bark, eyes squeezed shut, and brain trying to process what he had just seen... what he'd heard. His sword lay next to him, drawn at one point, but now fallen from his shaking hands.
The words wouldn't even come anymore. The thoughts. He had his proof. He'd seen it now, small and simple, but he'd seen it. Merlin's magic, but that was not what paralysed him.
All he could see were Merlin's eyes, sparkling molten gold, and even when Arthur pressed the heels of his hands to his own eyes and everything else went black, that was all he could see.
Blue becoming gold.