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What I'd Have Done

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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 a 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 such a powerful sorcerer clearly energised him enough to be imagining plunging his sword into the man...

Into Merlin. 

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.

"Emrys."

~O~

"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.

~O~

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.

~O~

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.

~O~

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.

~O~

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 idioticeven 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. 

No.

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.

"Who's there?"

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.

Chapter Text

Arthur didn't go back to his chambers when he eventually stumbled back into Camelot.

His emotions were still a tangled mess. Part of him had hoped if he'd stayed there long enough, slumped against that tree, they'd have straightened themselves out and he could wrap his mind around all this.

But of course he wasn't that lucky. If anything, he was even more conflicted about what course of action to take. The only thing he'd known for sure was that he couldn't stay in that forest anymore. Everything kept switching from blue to gold and he felt like he was going mad.

He'd thought maybe returning to Camelot would clear things up a bit, releasing him from the elemental woods. Trees that used to seem benign to him now felt magical. Every gust of wind emanated from Merlin somehow, and every leaf twisted as if it were going to mystically transfigure into something else. Here, in the city, magic was outlawed. Everything before him in the dark marketplace was supposed to be grounded in reality. Everything was under his father's control, and, eventually, his.

Tonight, however, it didn't seem to be so. Every home harboured a sorcerer. Every bed of straw hid a magical talisman. Every walking staff an instrument of magic.

Certainly, sorcerers had infiltrated Camelot before, but never, never had one gotten so close to Arthur. Merlin was his manservant, standing by his side every day since the scrawny boy from Ealdor had saved him from—well, from one of the infiltrated sorcerers. Arthur may not have been happy about it at first, but he had never questioned the act. Merlin had saved his life and before long, the servant had become one of the few things Arthur could rely on. Knights came and went, but Merlin was fiercely loyal and all his own. Despite being a simple servant, Merlin treated Arthur like an equal, and Arthur hadn't realised how much he'd needed that before then.

Now all that had been flipped on its head. Merlin was not a simple boy from Ealdor, nor was he just a manservant with a knack for banter. And here Arthur had thought Merlin couldn't keep a secret for his life.

Clearly, he was more than capable. Merlin was a sorcerer, and not just that, but a sorcerer the Druids held in high regard. Emrys, supposedly the greatest sorcerer to have ever lived. How could Merlin, Merlin, be Emrys? What could he possibly hope to gain by lowering himself to the status of a servant?

The obvious answers flipped through his brain. Secrets. Surely, Merlin had heard plenty of court secrets, but no matter how hard Arthur tried, he couldn't force himself to believe Merlin would sell him and Camelot out. Somehow, the idea of Merlin having magic seemed much more believable than such a straightforward plot. There was nothing straightforward about this.

But if not secrets, then what? Arthur didn't see what Merlin hoped to do with his knowledge of Camelot that he didn't already have at his fingertips. He had full access to the citadel, Arthur's chambers, everything. He had the full trust of the court, the staff—even Uther, for the countless times Merlin had proven his loyalty to the crown. If even his father hadn't questioned Merlin's loyalty, the naysayer to end all naysayers…

It didn't add up. None of it did. It seemed as if Merlin, Emrys, was more than content with living in Camelot as a servant. The greatest sorcerer ever, polishing Arthur's armour for the rest of his quiet, secret life. It sounded ridiculous even in his head. Sorcerers didn't put themselves below regular people like that, not without some superior agenda. They were powerful. Magical. Near inhuman and living on a different plane of reality.

But Merlin didn't seem to fit that mold. Arthur had seen frustration at the class system, yes. General disagreement toward the execution of magic users, which made sense. Arthur, too, had had his misgivings on it in the past, as well as Morgana and Guinevere. But Merlin seemed to genuinely enjoy life in Camelot. He was always there if Arthur needed him, prattling and all.

That was the part Arthur still couldn't seem to grasp. The whole thing was making him dizzy, and one question sent him spiraling into disbelief and confusion.

If Merlin is Emrys, why is he here?

He couldn't let it rest. Everything he'd been taught about magic thrashed around in his mind. Arthur knew his training required him to report Merlin to his father immediately, but he pushed his voice of reason aside. This was different. This was Merlin.

This was personal.

Before long, Arthur was at Merlin's window, ironically the place he'd set out to be originally. It seemed like ages ago. He'd been another person then. Merlin had been a different person then—in Arthur's head, at least.

To his surprise, Merlin was still awake, perched on the edge of his bed and mindlessly sharpening one of Arthur's swords by hand. As Arthur pressed himself to the cold stone wall, peering up through the window at his sorcerer manservant, he was surprised Merlin wasn't using magic to sharpen it. Did Merlin really do his chores by hand, even when he could do them magically?

Arthur had seen him use magic to create the paste back in the forest. Supposedly, Merlin was an incredibly powerful sorcerer, and yet, here he was, sharpening Arthur's sword as if it was a completely normal routine for him—even when alone.

It just kept getting more and more befuddling, but Arthur didn't have any more time to dwell on it. Merlin's door opened with a creak and Gaius entered.

Merlin looked up at the noise. He smiled at the physician before going back to the sword. "The guard all right?" 

"Yes," Gaius answered, and he pulled up a chair, settling at the foot of Merlin's bed. "The paste is healing his rash well. Thank you for that."

"My pleasure." Merlin help up the sword to the light so he could inspect it. He didn't look at Gaius, clearly hoping the "thank you" was all he'd come to say, but Gaius wasn't finished.

"Merlin," the physician began, and his tone shifted from pleasant to serious.

Merlin grimaced, shutting his eyes. "What?"

"On my way back, I ran into Uther."

Pressed against the wall outside, Arthur flinched at the mention of his father. He watched Merlin critically, and the servant's expression shifted in the smallest of ways. His eyebrows furrowed. His neutral expression turned darker, and his posture grew stiff. 

There was a small pause before Merlin responded. "What's the king doing up at this hour?" 

"He couldn't sleep." Gaius' gaze flickered to the sword instead of Merlin. "He's worried."

Merlin frowned. He placed the sword on the bedspread, continuing to stare at himself in the blade. "About Emrys?"

Gaius nodded, his mannerisms not unlike how he acted with sick patients—calm and honest, but a little too grim to be comforting. "He asked me if I thought it would be wise to send Arthur out to find the Druids and see what they know. I can't say I didn't expect the question." 

Merlin wrung his hands like he suddenly didn't know what to do with them. "What did you say?"

"I said it would be dangerous and I'm not sure what good it would do, as we don't even know if this sorcerer means any harm."

"I don't."

Gaius gave a thin smile. "Of course not. You and I know that. But Uther will never see it that way."

Merlin picked up the sword again and ran a rather strong stroke down the blade. It made a distinctive schink sound, and from the shadows, Arthur flinched once more. "Do you think Arthur might?"

Gaius' smile faded. "You can't tell him, Merlin. Not now."

Merlin groaned, dropping the sword again and falling back against his pillow. "I know, Gaius, but this... this is what I was worried about! This is why I summoned Kilgharrah. The Druids know I am Emrys, and they know the prophecy. Kilgharrah said the Druids would lay down their lives to protect it, but I don't see why they would. I find it hard to believe an entire magical race thinks I have any hope of turning this kingdom around."

"You don't know that," Gaius argued. "You can't know that."

Merlin shook his head, slipping off his bed and pacing. "I'm just being realistic. I've met my fair share of sorcerers who think what I'm doing is nothing short of betrayal. They'd probably like to run me through just as much as Uther."

"Those sorcerers are narrow minded. Consumed by hatred after years of persecution." Gaius' voice hinted at deep-rooted frustration. "They don't see the future you do, and they don't have the patience to wait for its time."

Merlin went to his windowsill, clutching the worn wood in a death grip. "Maybe," he whispered, but he didn't sound too convinced. "But Kilgharrah did agree if Uther gets his hands on the prophecy, it would be disastrous."

"Yes." Gauis sighed. "Yes, there I must agree. If Uther were to hear you are destined to unravel everything his regime has built, he would go mad trying to find you and kill you. It would consume the rest of his reign, and possibly Arthur's, too."

Merlin returned to his bed, retrieving the sword and running his thumb over the smooth hilt. "I'm not unraveling everything," he murmured. "I'm just trying to turn around the parts that need to change. The hatred of magic. The needless bloodshed and conflict. The distrust. But that can't be done with magic. It's diplomacy. That's what the other sorcerers don't understand. Turning Camelot around is something only Arthur can do."

"And only with you at his side," Gaius insisted.

Merlin sniffed, lying back. "So everyone keeps telling me."

"You know it's true."

Merlin closed his eyes. "Maybe," he said again, and this time with more conviction. "Either way, Uther mustn't get his hands on the prophecy. I'm assuming he's going to send Arthur out after the Druids tomorrow?"

"That is the way it's looking, yes."

Merlin turned his head to look at the window again. "Maybe there is still something I can do," he whispered. He picked up Arthur's sword one final time, checking the sharpness of the blade before sheathing it.

Gaius studied his charge's face critically. "Get some rest," he decided. "You need sleep. And maybe try not to worry so much. It's not good for you."

"I feel like half of my destiny is worrying," Merlin grumbled, but he obediently curled up in his blankets. "Kilgharrah is right. No one ever told me it would be easy. I'm lucky to have you, Gaius."

Gaius smiled, and he shook Merlin's foot affectionately. "And I you, Merlin. Good night."

"Good night."

And with that, Gaius left. Merlin let out another long sigh, scrunching up his pillow and staring up at his ceiling like maybe it might provide him with answers. Eventually, his eyes fluttered closed and his grip on his pillow lessened.

Arthur watched him carefully, both waiting to see if Merlin was actually asleep and also processing. Like before, the mass amount of information he'd just heard swirled in his head like a tempest. He felt more like slamming his brains out against the wall than dealing with it.

And yet, something about this conversation differed from the one Arthur had heard before. This one had mentioned other sorcerers, and not in a friendly way. Arthur bit his lip, trying to make sense of it all. He couldn't find any way to twist what Merlin had said to paint sorcerers in a good light. Apparently, the other sorcerers Merlin had met did not agree with whatever it was he was doing. "Turning Camelot around," as he'd put it. If anything, these sorcerers seemed to label him a traitor. Merlin feared they'd kill him if given the chance. It was ironic, really, as Arthur's father definitely wished for the same thing.

Merlin seemed to be straddling some sort of dangerous line, working an agenda that didn't align with any other sort of party but his own. Gaius was in on it, and it involved him—Arthur. Merlin had said that only he would be capable of "turning Camelot around." It was a diplomatic matter, whatever that meant.

Normally, the thought of being wrapped up in a sorcerer's plan would make Arthur's blood curdle, but not this time. Instead, he felt cold. Something he'd hadn't been able to put his finger on had hit him full in the face. Pieces were falling into place. Merlin was worried about Uther getting his hands on a prophecy—a prophecy that spoke of Merlin unraveling everything the king had done in his rule. Or, not everything, as Merlin had insisted, but the parts that required unraveling.

Arthur could take a wild guess what those were. The ban on magic, first and foremost. Of course Merlin would want that. He would want his own freedom. But past that, Merlin talked of bloodshed. Distrust. Conflict. All of which were issues right now. Was that Merlin's other aim? Achieving peace?

Slowly, Arthur shook his head, feeling the back of his skull scrape across the stone wall. It served as confirmation he still stood there, braced underneath Merlin's window. It made no sense. Peace between the kingdoms was a far-fetched fantasy. His father said war was inevitable and Arthur had always agreed, but he had to admit, the idea of achieving peace stirred something within him. Up until this point, all his father had done was prepare Arthur for the continuation of his rule. Rarely was Arthur's opinion taken into account. Arthur tried not to think much of it. After all, one day he'd be king, and until then, he obeyed. Such was the system.

But Merlin had challenged that. More than once. "When you're king, things will be different." He said it often. So did Guinevere, but Arthur was not about to speculate her involvement in this. His heart could only handle one betrayal at a time.

Was this what Merlin believed this prophecy foretold? Staring at Merlin, he'd never felt like he was looking at more of a stranger. Somewhere within his warped sorcerer brain, did he... did he really think he could serve as some sort of undercover advisor to Arthur? Encouraging Arthur to defy his father? Twisting his thoughts in the hopes that when Arthur was crowned, he'd follow Merlin's advice?

It seemed like an incredibly undermining and slow undertaking for a sorcerer, especially since Arthur couldn't imagine Gaius or Merlin assassinating his father to speed up the process any. They'd had chance upon chance to do it if they wished, and Gaius had always been loyal to Uther, even when it was obvious he disagreed with him. Perhaps he was being naive, but Arthur couldn't picture the physician aligning himself with any sort of plan that boded ill for the king.

But the possibility still gnawed at the back of Arthur's brain. He didn't want to believe it, but if Merlin was half as powerful as the Druids claimed, he could easily enchant Gaius into joining his backward crusade. He could easily have enchanted Arthur himself.

Arthur didn't feel enchanted. He'd been enchanted before and he knew what magic felt like, but at the same time, he couldn't discount the possibility. Merlin was the closest person to him. Whenever Arthur had defied his father, it was usually at Merlin's urging, but... Arthur would be lying if he said he hadn't had rebellious thoughts before Merlin voiced them. He did disagree with his father often...

But he couldn't be sure his ideas were his own. Merlin could have planted them in his mind. In fact, Arthur couldn't rule out anything when sorcery was involved and—and by God, why hadn't Merlin told him?

That's where the stab really lay, he realised. That Merlin had lied to him. All this time. If Merlin really wanted to bring peace to the kingdoms, or—or just strike out what he believed to be black in Uther's rule, why hadn't he told Arthur? Some little part of him screamed the answer—would he have listened?—but he still felt so utterly betrayed by the lies that he couldn't bring himself to care. If Merlin really meant no harm, if he wasn't enchanting anyone, and if he really trusted Arthur to accomplish this wild plan of his... why hadn't he just asked?

It was the hurt that finally took hold of him after a good ten minutes of standing there. With red cheeks and twisted features, that sense of betrayal compelled him to draw his sword and bring his fingers to the cold latch of Merlin's window.

It didn't take much to pull it all the way open. Some latent part of Arthur's mind wondered why it wasn't protected by a magical shield. Was Merlin just that confident? He supposed he had every right to be. No one would suspect powerful magic to be locked inside such a scraggly figure. No one had.

Swinging the window open with calculated force, Arthur crossed the sill and came to a rest on the worn floorboards. Blood beat in his ears in tune with his racing heartbeat.

He hated it for speeding. But his heart be damned. After all, it had been Merlin who had told him to listen to it. Right now, Merlin himself had messed it up so bad Arthur could no better understand what it was telling him to do than he could understand the person before him. A sorcerer? A servant? A friend? An enemy? All four? Did Merlin even know the answer to that? Because Arthur sure didn't.

He did know one thing. What his head was telling him. The logical part—the part that had trained as a knight and a prince long before Merlin sauntered into the picture. That part of him told him everything he'd heard from Merlin tonight was nothing more than a confession of guilt. The man before him was Emrys, a dangerous, hunted sorcerer, and the best thing under the law for Arthur to do right now would be to strike him through the heart where he lay. 

Fair trial be damned, Arthur's father's voice said inside his head. A magic above all magic? Strike him now, Arthur. Strike him while this great threat can still be squashed.

Latching onto his burning sense of betrayal, the only feeling that made sense right now, Arthur raised his sword like he'd done countless times before. Both hands wrapped around the grip, the tip facing down, the bulk raised over his head. Balanced and graceful, sharpened and cleaned just that morning by...

He couldn't allow himself to think about it. It wouldn't be the first sorcerer he'd killed, unconscious and unarmed. But not really unarmed, right?  He'd always thought that. Justified it. A sorcerer had no need for a sword. Certainly, Merlin had never asked for one. His mind, his hands, his eyes were his weapons, and Arthur had always thought it was a kind, merciful death—caught unawares. It spared the sorcerer from the morbid anticipation of execution.

But staring down at Emrys... no, Merlin God, this was not some random sorcerer strewn unconscious in the woods. This was his manservant, the closest thing Arthur had ever had to a friend tucked halfway underneath his covers with one toe poking out at the corner. His breathing even, his hair tousled even from the mere half hour he'd been asleep. As Arthur watched, he rolled over with a groan, dragging his blankets with him in a great heap.

"Stop," Merlin murmured vaguely, and despite his ungrateful tone, a ghost of a smile was visible on his lips. "Stop it, you... you dollophead…"

Arthur's hands began to shake. The blade was before him, held directly over Merlin's vulnerable chest, but wavering, visibly shaking in a physical manifestation of his weakness. 

Arthur took one step back and almost tripped flat on his back over another one of his swords—the one Merlin had been sharpening for him. For him, without complaint and without magic, just before bed.

That did it. Any resolve Arthur had held crumpled back into a dark hole of uncertainty. His sword slipped from his grasp and it was a miracle above all others he was able to catch it before it clattered to the ground. 

The failure served as an answer to himself. He couldn't kill Merlin. He couldn't do his duty, not like his father would wish him to.

But it didn't excuse anything. It didn't bring any sort of closure to the confusion swirling within him. By the law, he should skewer Merlin right now, but he couldn't do it. By the law, then, he should drag Merlin straight to his father, or, at the very least, tell Uther all he had learned, but he couldn't do that either. His father cared little for the "why." Merlin would be executed by the king's hand, completing what Arthur couldn't do, and Arthur would be left with greater uncertainty than before. Uncertainty and guilt and grief, because he was lying to himself if he said he wouldn't grieve.

Merlin had confessed. He'd said more than enough for Camelot to pass judgment. In the eyes of the law, Merlin had already seen trial, but that wasn't good enough. With a sudden rush of resolve, the only true resolve he'd felt since the moment Merlin had opened his mouth in the forest, Arthur reclaimed a hold on his sword and pressed the tip to Merlin's chest.

The fabric of Merlin's thin nightshirt bent from the force of his blade. Its touch instantly stilled Merlin, as if even in sleep he sensed what was becoming of him.

"Merlin," Arthur whispered, his voice wavering at first before growing decidedly steely. "Emrys. By the power invested in me as Crown Prince of Camelot and by the power invested in me as your Master, in the light of such abnormal circumstances, I hereby put you under a trial of my own design. You've already failed in the eyes of my father, if he were to hear what I've heard. However, if you truly are the sorcerer the Druids say you are, then as future King of Camelot, I want to know just... just why you're here. I want to know why."

The last word came out with true venom. With practiced grace, he retracted his sword and stepped back to the window.

"It'll be a fair trial," Arthur promised, and in that alone he was sure. "If anything you have ever said to me is true... don't fail it."

And with that, Arthur slipped back out the way he had come, shutting the window behind him and sheathing his sword with a schinck that rang through the still night.

He didn't look back, but if he had, he would have seen Merlin starting awake from a vivid nightmare, clutching his chest because he was sure there had been a sword there.

In the thin light of the moon slashing through the window, his shaken blue eyes shimmered with the slightest, defensive tendrils of gold.

Chapter Text

Arthur didn't manage to get any sleep that night.

He still crawled into bed. He’d paced for a bit, but it hadn’t done him any good. Instead, he just lay there, the three phases of his trial cycling in his mind as he waited for Merlin to come wake him up in the morning.

Merlin did, of course. He didn’t knock—he never did—and he entered Arthur’s chambers as if it were his own, whistling and sauntering over to Arthur’s window. He sounded carefree, but that was quite far from the truth. The manservant—sorcerer—spread Arthur’s curtains wide with two hands, showering the room in sunlight.

Arthur snapped his eyes shut before Merlin turned back around, but the manservant must have seen his eyelids flicker. Arthur could hear his footsteps approaching before slowing.

Arthur went rigid with apprehension. He’d been imagining this moment all night, the moment he would face Merlin again, but Merlin didn’t utter a word. The covers were not thrown off of him, and Arthur's heart beat like a charging horse. He knew, knew, Merlin’s face was right next to his, but he cracked his eyes open a fraction anyway.

Merlin’s blue eyes stared back at him, very close and very clearly not tinged with gold. As Arthur stared, he smiled that kooky smile of his—the one that lit up his entire face and usually meant he was about to trip over something. Innocent. Pure. Unsuspecting.

“Now hold on,” Merlin whispered. His voice sounded chipper and playful. In fact, his whole demeanor hung in stark contrast to his disturbed, serious self last night. The difference sent chills down Arthur’s spine. “Are you awake already? This is truly revolutionary. We should call in the knights and have a ceremony. A momentous occasion.”

“Ha ha,” Arthur murmured. He was gripping his pillow in a death grip. He’d promised himself he would do his best to keep up appearances. He'd been worried he wouldn’t be able to do it, but it was already quite a bit easier than he’d thought. Merlin practically set him up for responses.

He sat up slowly, still clutching the pillow, and Merlin laughed, giving the prince his space. He attended to the stacks of paper occupying Arthur's desk instead, and as Arthur continued to stare, it occurred to him this was what every day must be like for Merlin. Keeping up appearances. Talking. Joking around. Answering in his normal patterns. It had probably become routine for him, as had so many other things.

Yes. He had to have it down to a science, because there he was. Normal Merlin, wearing his dumb blue neckerchief and cleaning up the pool of spilt ink on Arthur’s desk. If Arthur hadn’t seen what he’d seen—if the image of Merlin’s golden eyes hadn’t scarred him forever—he wouldn’t have had the slightest idea Merlin had summoned a dragon the night before.

No one would.

It took Arthur a full minute to realise Merlin had stopped organising and was now looking at him strangely. Arthur jolted, startled to find Merlin's gaze back on him so soon, and the servant's eyes narrowed suspiciously.

“What is it?” Merlin asked, setting down the quill in his hand. He crossed his arms in a very Merlin way, signaling he was about to bother Arthur about something and not shut up about it. Wonderful.

“I’m sorry?” Arthur managed.

“What’re you staring at me like that for?” 

Arthur scoffed, slipping out of bed. He gave a very pointed stretch. “I wasn’t staring.”

“Right.” Merlin shot Arthur an unconvinced look, but he went back to the papers. “Are you feeling sick? First, I walk in here and you’re already awake. Now you’re oddly quiet and staring at me like I’ve grown a second head.”

Arthur snorted. “Now there’s an idea," he said, and he was relieved to find his tone sounded normal. His heart was still beating loudly in his ears, but at least he didn’t feel like bolting every time he looked at Merlin. “My idiot of a servant, with two heads? Camelot would surely fall.”

Merlin rolled his eyes, and thankfully, any concern left his face. “Funny. Now, I take it by the state of these—" He held up several parchment pages of unfinished speechwriting and waved it in Arthur’s direction. “—that you did not finish your speech for today?”

“Oh… yes.” Arthur stared at the speech pages, suddenly remembering abandoning the effort not long before heading out to find Merlin. He hadn't been in the right state of mind to go back to them afterward. “I wasn’t feeling… inspired.”

“Inspired,”  Merlin repeated in a mock impression of Arthur’s voice. “I see. Well, lucky for you, I suspected as much and stayed up writing a draft for you. Here it is.”

Merlin pulled out a complete stack of parchment, holding them out to Arthur. Arthur stepped forward and took them, looking over the neat handwriting he’d come to recognise as Merlin’s. He also vaguely remembered seeing the stack on Merlin’s side table last night. Merlin had truly written them, then. Arthur supposed the best liars dealt in half-truths.

He skimmed over the first few lines and was not disappointed to find them written in his manner of speaking, not Merlin’s. Merlin was indeed an excellent writer and Arthur was reminded of how he’d once marveled at the mere fact Merlin was literate. Most of the common folk could hardly write their own names.

But Merlin had always been different than the other servants. An enigma if Arthur ever saw one. As unpredictable as he was predictable, and Arthur could never quite put his finger on what it was that set Merlin apart.

Now he was pretty sure he could. He had to be able to read his spell books, didn’t he? Write them, even. Who knew? There were many possibilities—many aspects of sorcery that could very well apply to Merlin. A whole new realm of truths concerning his manservant. Arthur was only just now scratching the surface.

But he couldn't let himself dwell on that. Merlin was staring at him again, and once again, it had taken Arthur far too long to notice.

He cleared his throat, giving the speech papers a nice tap. “Looks readable,” he managed, hoping to pass this emotional slip by as he had the last one.

Unfortunately, this time Merlin didn’t seem to be buying it. “There is something bothering you!" he exclaimed, much to Arthur’s dismay. “You never read the speeches I write. You just toss them aside until you need them.”

“Well, maybe that’s been a mistake now, hasn’t it?” Arthur snapped, a bit more hotly than he had intended. “Maybe… maybe you wrote something in here I wouldn’t say. Something—I don’t know. Something harmful to my image.”

Merlin made a face. “Why would I ever write something like that? That’s not even funny. If I wrote anything in there you wouldn’t say, it'd certainly be humiliating, but it wouldn’t be anything harmful.”

Well. He’d done it now. Let his tangled emotions shine through. Arthur’s cheeks grew hot and he knew he was talking himself into a corner, but the words wouldn’t stop coming. The thought—the horrid possibility—that Merlin was only here to manipulate him was a bit too much. Merlin had so much control and Arthur had trusted him unconditionally. If Arthur were king here and now, Merlin could write a law making magic legal and Arthur wouldn’t have noticed until he was speaking it aloud. Arthur had granted Merlin so much influence over him and it scared him like nothing else ever had.

“I—why should I trust anyone but myself to do such important things?” Arthur exploded, the worries tumbling out of him. He waved the speech in Merlin’s face. “What if they only wanted to lead me astray?”

He regretted the words the moment he said them. Merlin looked hurt, and that was everything Arthur had hoped to prevent. He’d wanted to keep up appearances, keep things normal, so that he could administer his trail without arousing Merlin’s suspicion.

Perhaps he 'd given himself too much credit. He was more emotionally conflicted about this whole situation than he cared to admit and just talking to Merlin made his stomach twist and turn. The urge to run away had never burned so strongly.

“Lead you astray?” Merlin echoed. Pain and confusion shown in his every feature. “Arthur, where is this coming from? Do you not trust me to write your speeches?”

“I—I’m not sure I should trust anyone with anything,” Arthur stumbled, his voice thick with emotion. He lowered the speech with a shaking hand. “I can’t afford trust.”

Merlin stared at him for a moment, his expression much closer to the one he'd worn last night. Concerned. Steely. Calculating. 

“I think I know what this is,” he said.

Arthur’s heart leapt to his mouth. “Do you?”

Merlin pursed his lips, and he leveled Arthur with a look of pity—an emotion Arthur hadn’t expected. “It’s your father, isn’t it? Gaius mentioned last night he was sending you after the Druids. Did he talk to you before I woke you?”

Relief instantly flooded Arthur's system. Merlin still didn’t know he knew.  “Ah, no,” he recovered, turning away. He headed for his chair, happy to not look at Merlin for a moment. “He didn’t, but I overheard him.”

"Right. For what it’s worth, I think it’s a good plan, going to the Druids."

Arthur stopped in his tracks. “Really?”

“Well, it makes sense." Arthur heard Merlin shuffling papers at his desk. "The information on the sorcerer came from them. They might tell us more, if we ask. But I don’t think angering them is a good idea, and I’m worried that’s what the king will ask you to do.”

Arthur turned back around very slowly. “We?”  he repeated.

Merlin’s expression morphed into one of disbelief. “Were you going to seek out dangerous sorcerers without me?” 

Arthur abandoned the path to his chair completely. He thought through his next words carefully. “The Druids are sorcerers, but I’ve heard them to be peaceful, usually."

“Peaceful doesn’t mean they aren’t dangerous,” Merlin countered. “I’m coming with you.”

Arthur crossed his arms. “I have a feeling my father will order a subtle excursion," he pointed out. "A discrete team."

He was aiming for a jab, and it struck true. Merlin’s ears went red. “I can be discrete!” 

Normally, Arthur would laugh at his indignance, but instead his mind flew to Merlin’s less-than-discrete display the night before. Clearly, Merlin wasn’t that discrete...

And yet, he must have been, however thinly. Merlin had hidden himself well, all this time.

Arthur managed to shrug. “Very well. If my father allows it.”

Merlin's shoulders slumped in relief. “It’ll all work out fine,” he assured, but his words were not assuring. “For all we know, this Emrys could be long gone from Camelot already.”

And with that, Merlin made to leave and Arthur watched him go. “I doubt it,” he muttered to himself before lifting his chin ever so slightly. All his thoughts—all his planning from the night before—came rushing back to him. “Merlin?”

Merlin stopped, his hand on the door handle. “What?”

Arthur took the last couple steps to his chair and lowered himself into it. “Can I ask you something? Man to man?”

This was it.

Trial number one had begun.

Merlin’s fingers slipped from the handle. “Of course. What is it?”

Arthur gestured to the seat opposite him. “Sit,” he said.

As expected, Merlin appeared flabbergasted by the request—Arthur never asked him to sit—but the sorcerer approached the chair cautiously. He hovered over it for a second, as if waiting for Arthur to announce he was joking.

He didn’t, and Merlin eased himself into the chair in silence. His features had taken on the look they’d had last night. Thoughtful. A bit on edge. “What is it?” he repeated.

Arthur leaned forward, placing his elbows on the table and lacing his fingers together. “All right, Merlin,” he began. “I admit I’m more conflicted about this Emrys predicament than I’d liked to be. It worries me, the idea of a sorcerer more powerful than any other. Especially here. My father cares little for the why, but I do. I want to know why such a sorcerer would ever decide to hide here, of all places.”

Merlin raised an eyebrow, clearly mulling over how to address the question. For once, Arthur knew exactly what was going on in his tiny head, even if Merlin didn’t know he knew. A whole new part of Merlin’s brain had been opened to him. It was as fascinating as it was jarring.

“Why do you suppose I would know?” Merlin asked finally. It wasn’t a fearful question, or even a defensive one. Normally Arthur would think nothing of it. This was not something he normally did—flat out ask Merlin for advice. Usually, the servant gave it to him without prompt, but this... none of this was normal anymore. “It's not like I've met him."

“No,” Arthur agreed, sitting back and trying to put Merlin at ease. If he became too guarded, he might not receive clear answers from him. “None of us have, because none of us know who he is or what he looks like. Of course, he could be here under a different name and we would have no way of knowing, but that’s not what really worries me. I just want to know why, and I want your opinion, Merlin, because of what you said to me yesterday.”

Merlin brow furrowed. “What did I say yesterday?”

“That he must have a reason,” Arthur reminded. “I asked you why a great sorcerer would ever come here, and you said he must have a reason. You’re the only one I’ve talked to about this whole thing that gave me any sort of answer. I agree, he must have a reason. But what? What do you think his reason is?”

Merlin's eyes grew unfocused. Arthur could practically see his thoughts running wild. He crossed his arms and Arthur read it as a defensive motion.

“Sorcerers don’t do anything without a reason,” Merlin explained. “That’s why I said that yesterday. Every sorcerer that has attacked Camelot has had a reason for it, one way or another, and they were all different. So this sorcerer must have a reason, too. If his aim isn’t to harm Camelot, then it must be something else entirely. I don’t know what.”

Arthur took a moment to process this. His heartbeat droned in his ears, but he forced himself to remain flippant. Merlin’s words rang true and he didn’t think he was lying. “Well, if his aim isn’t to harm Camelot, do you think Emrys wishes to help it?”

Merlin’s face betrayed a flicker of a smile. “Would that be so impossible?” His voice had grown a little hoarse. “A sorcerer that wishes to help Camelot? Help you, for whatever reason?”

Arthur crossed his arms, trying to keep his expression neutral. “I can’t imagine why. Between me and my father we have done nothing but persecute sorcerer kind.”

“That’s… true,” Merlin agreed, and he sat back. He was no longer quite meeting Arthur’s eyes. “But maybe… maybe this sorcerer isn’t blinded by hatred like all the others. Maybe he just wants peace and to live his life without fear and maybe... maybe he sees something in you like I do.”

Arthur’s heart skipped a beat. Adrenaline shocked his system and he let his arms fall to his lap. He hoped Merlin hadn’t seen them shaking. “Something in me?  What do you see in me?”

Merlin’s mouth quirked into the slightest of smiles. “A good person?” He said it almost in question, as if he wasn’t sure Arthur would like it as an answer. “A man, a—a prince and future king who cares very deeply about his subjects and understands the want for peace. I see that in you and I believe you will become the greatest king this land has ever known. Sorcerers are humans, too, and it’s—well, it's possible there are some who think the same as I do.”

The servant slouched in his chair, as if saying that had taken a lot out of him. “It’s possible,” he said again.

Any words Arthur had prepared left him in a rush. His mind went blank, his mouth agape.

“I… hm.” Arthur cleared his throat to buy himself some time. His chest felt very tight. “Didn’t know you felt that way, Merlin.”

Merlin smiled a little. “Is it that crazy I believe you’ll be a good king?”

“Well, no. I just… I don’t know. I don’t know what I expected you to say. Not that.”

“Hm.” Merlin rested his hand on the table, tapping his fingers on the edge of the wood and staring off into space. That was lucky. Merlin's quick movements made Arthur flinch, and a rush of fear washed over his body. Arthur hated himself for it, but he definitely feared Merlin's magic. “Well, it’s all true, and if I believe it, maybe this Emrys does too.”

Arthur eyed Merlin very, very carefully as he ran his final question through his mind, testing the wording. The final level of trial one. “Merlin, if you think this sorcerer is really just here to help me, do you think he believes I’ll bring magic back to Camelot?”

Merlin ceased his tapping and locked eyes with Arthur. His expression was serious. Rigid. “You mean, do I think he wants you to make it legal?”

“No." Arthur paused, trying to find the correct phrasing. “I mean, do you think he expects me to bring it back. On my own free will.”

Merlin exhaled through his teeth. “Well, I can’t speak for him,” he began, although he could, and Arthur well knew it. “But if he’s been here long enough to see your good heart, I bet he’s optimistic. You see the good in people, Arthur, and maybe… maybe not all sorcerers are evil.”

Arthur’s hands shook like leaves in the wind underneath the table. “You really believe that?”

Merlin’s eyes held Arthur's gaze with confidence, a bit of the true Merlin sinking into his features. A stony sort of conviction.  “It doesn’t matter what I believe,” he said, and his voice was so sure, so unshakable, Arthur could never believe he was lying. “It matters what you believe. I can’t decide that for you.”

Arthur’s next breath came out as a gasp. He sat back, hard. Merlin looked alarmed by the reaction, but Arthur was so relieved he could hardly bring himself back to his senses.

I can’t decide that for you… I can’t decide that for you… I. Can’t. Decide. That. For. You.

Merlin wasn’t enchanting him. Those words were no lie. Arthur could not believe they were anything less than the cold, hard truth.

Trial one was complete.

Merlin had passed.

Chapter Text

Merlin looked more than a little horrified at Arthur’s emotional display.

Arthur should have expected that. He rarely lost it, and if he did, it was usually for an obvious reason. Instead, he sat slumped in his chair, blinking back tears. So much for subtlety. 

Two more trials awaited Merlin. If he was honest with himself, Arthur had been petrified Merlin wouldn't pass the first one. The trials replaced dragging his servant to his father—a scenario that made him shudder—and he still hadn’t recovered from finding out Merlin had lied to him in the first place. He wasn’t sure if it could handle discovering Merlin only wanted to use him.

Merlin opened his mouth, probably to ask what the hell had come over him, but just then Arthur’s door swung open and the king strode in, dressed for ceremony and glittering in his many pendants.

Merlin, smartly, leapt out of the chair. He caught it before it fell over and executed a clumsy bow, mumbling “sire.” He looked frazzled and frightened, but that was normal.

In fact, it was very normal, and suddenly, Arthur wondered just how normal. How often did Merlin fear for his life? Did his heart skip a beat whenever Uther entered a room? 

Did Arthur himself scare him sometimes?

Arthur had always thought Merlin was a little too brave for his own good, but the thought carried new weight now. Merlin never took any of Arthur’s threats seriously and often stumbled his way into other trouble. The king had been convinced for years that Merlin was mentally ill and Merlin hadn’t done anything to disprove it. 

Arthur’s breathing grew shallow. Maybe he purposely hadn’t tried. It occurred to him then that all the idiocy was actually Merlin’s greatest shield. If the knights were scouring the castle for sorcerers, they wouldn’t think twice about a servant who fell over himself half the time.

Unpleasant realisations were surfacing—little things that hadn’t occurred to him the previous night. Arthur had often overlooked sorcery where Merlin was concerned. His servant had come under fire many times when magic was questioned. Each time, Arthur had scorned the thought. Merlin was a wonder all right, but a wondrous idiot, not a wondrous wizard.

But in the end, did this make Arthur the wondrous idiot? Him, and his father? Perhaps Merlin was a breed of sorcerer Camelot hadn’t been prepared for—a powerful idiot. 

Unless the idiocy was all an act?

Arthur didn’t like that thought. He wanted some part of the man he knew to be real.

“Arthur, did you hear a word I just said?”

“I—hm?” Arthur jolted back to reality, almost falling over as his chair veered backward. He caught himself, gripping the edge of the table for support. “Yes, terribly sorry, father. I’m a bit drowsy. Merlin woke me late.”

Arthur thought that was a decent excuse, but unfortunately, the disapproval on his father’s face didn’t fade. “I see. And can that be why you haven’t dressed?” 

Arthur’s eyes widened. He glanced down at his bare chest, realising that with everything he’d never asked Merlin to dress him.

Merlin’s eyes widened, too. “Oh! Er—” he blubbered, vaulting to the wardrobe and whipping out one of Arthur’s fancier tunics. The sleeves flew around wildly. “M-my fault, all my fault, sire. I distracted him. Don’t mind me, he’ll be dressed before you know it.”

Uther levelled a stern look—one that said Merlin might get chucked out the window if he didn’t move quickly. 

The look was not lost on Merlin. His ears went red in stressed embarrassment as he moved behind Arthur, motioning for him to put his arms up. Arthur complied, and Merlin slipped the tunic over his head.

“Apologies again, father,” Arthur said. He tucked the tunic around his torso as Merlin moved to retrieve his belt. “To what do I owe the visit? Is it about my speech?”

He knew the answer was “no,” but feigning innocence was much easier with his father. Where Merlin was concerned, he was conflicted. Confused. But the king didn’t confuse him, and Arthur was accustomed to this type of conflict: the familial kind.

Not the betrayal kind.

“It’s not your speech,” Uther answered distractedly. He watched Merlin as the servant bustled clumsily around the room. “It’s another matter entirely. I’ve postponed your speech for today.”

Merlin stopped short. A ceremonial coat dangled from his arms as he gaped at the king. “Postponed?” 

Uther’s forehead crinkled. “Are you deaf and dumb?”

Merlin’s ears turned a darker shade of red and Arthur snorted. The servant muttered “possibly, sire,” before hurriedly putting the coat away and pulling out a hunting jacket to replace the ceremonial one.

“I’d like to put both our minds at ease,” Uther continued. “I spoke to Gaius and he confirmed your worries match my own. This Emrys must be found and the Druids know of him. I have long awaited their capture, but they have eluded me. No longer. Oliver, our new informant, has no loyalties. His information can be bought, and he will lead us to the Druids for the proper price.”

Out of the corner of his eye, Arthur saw Merlin’s shoulders tense. For the Druids? Maybe himself.

“A steep price, I imagine,” Arthur answered.

His father hummed in agreement. “Gold is worth much less to me than Camelot’s safety. The traveller has already been paid in full. You will gather your best knights and ride with him at once.”

Arthur flinched. Gaius’s words from the previous night swam in his mind. I'm not sure what good it would do, as we don't even know if this Emrys means any harm

I don’t, Merlin had answered. Arthur wanted to believe him.

“Of course,” Arthur muttered. He stood and gave a bow, strapping on his sword. His fingers tapped the pommel restlessly. “Although I doubt the Druids will offer such information voluntarily.”

“No,” the king agreed. “Gaius voiced a similar worry. The Druids are religious fanatics. They will gladly die to protect their secrets, but on this occasion, the danger at home may outweigh the danger from afar. If the Druids are promised a safe haven in return for their knowledge, they might be persuaded.”

Behind Uther, Merlin perked up. His expression betrayed a mix of surprise and hope. 

Arthur mirrored it, but mostly the surprise. “A safe haven? You’d consider such a thing?”

“Gaius has argued for it in the past,” Uther admitted. He leaned against the table, studying his signet ring. “He believes the Druids are a peaceful group of sorcerers. He argues if I grant them such a haven, they will prove this to me in time and grant Camelot priceless knowledge—wisdom that can be used against our true enemies.”

Merlin bent over to retrieve a pair of boots, but that didn’t hide the soft smile of wonder on his face.

Arthur remained sceptical. “Does this mean you’d like me to offer them this bargain? In your name?”

“Yes, my name—but primarily Gaius’s. If they refuse, take some captive for questioning and kill the rest.”

Merlin’s smile faltered. Arthur grimaced. 

“Of course. And if they accept? When will they receive this haven?”

His father barked out a laugh. Arthur, unfortunately, recognised its meaning. “Receive it? Never!”

Merlin’s shoulders slumped. Dismay crossed his features and he turned away again, shuffling to make the bed. Arthur held back a sigh.

His reservations must have been evident, because his father frowned. “We do not bargain with sorcerers, Arthur. I appreciate Gaius’s well-meaning, if not misguided, suggestion. It will bring us the information we need. If such an agreement comes to them in Gaius’s name as well as my own, the Druids will consider my proposition sincere. He was a friend to them before he put their ways behind him.”

“I see,” Arthur said, picking the closest word to ‘disagree’ he could voice without consequence. “And does Gaius know you don’t plan on upholding this proposition?”

“He will understand.” Uther gave a dismissive wave of his hand, and Arthur didn’t need to look at Merlin to know his revulsion. “That is not the point of this. I want a face to pin to this Emrys. By now he will know we are coming for him.”

Arthur did steal a glance at Merlin at this. The sorcerer-servant kept innocently fluffing Arthur’s pillows. How right his father was. How would the king react, he wondered, if he knew Emrys stood before him this very moment? 

Perhaps he should know.

Arthur swallowed. “I’ll gather my men and ride at midday.”

His father smiled, clapping Arthur on the shoulder. It was a familiar gesture. He only did it when he was transferring the pressure of duty onto Arthur’s shoulders. “Wonderful. I expect your return in a fortnight.”

He left. Merlin shot a worried look Arthur’s way, but when it wasn’t returned, he turned back to the pillows.

Arthur studied the back of his head, mulling over his second trial.

“Do you still want to come?” he asked finally.

Merlin scoffed at the question. “What? Yes! Of course.”

“Good. Prepare my horse.”

And with that, Arthur shoved on his boots and followed his father.

He needed a break from Merlin.

~O~

It wasn’t premeditated, but Arthur gave Merlin the cold shoulder all the way to the Druid camp.

He couldn’t help it. Every time the servant tried to strike up a conversation, Arthur wanted to pelt questions at him like crossbow bolts. Why this, why that—there were so many “why’s” in his head swimming about, and he wanted answers to them all.

He had no means to ask them yet. Not until his trials were over and Merlin—hopefully—passed. Then Arthur could confront him. Man to man. Knight to sorcerer. Only then could he have his mind put to rest before Merlin left Camelot forever.

After all, that was how this all ended. Merlin would have to leave. Arthur had thought about it, and that was the only outcome he could foresee. The favourable one, anyway. The one where Merlin remained breathing. 

He wondered where Merlin would go. Ealdor? It was part of Cenred’s kingdom, not Camelot’s, although Arthur wasn’t entirely sure if his father would care… not anymore. Oliver had explained that the Druids resided just out of Camelot’s reach and within Cenred’s borders, all in an effort to avoid conflict with Camelot. 

This was a little detail he’d shared after they’d left the castle behind. It seemed Oliver had worried Uther wouldn’t pay him if he’d known the risks involved.

He was probably right. The location left Arthur in a predicament. While it did strengthen Merlin’s second trial, leading knights into Cenred’s kingdom—no matter how small the distance in—could be seen as an act of war, if discovered.

Arthur didn’t plan on being discovered, and even then, he wondered if his father would have risked war for this. Where magic was concerned, his father’s reasoning definitely leaned reactionary.

Arthur was no better. He was risking war for his own piece of mind. He’d opted not to execute Merlin. Now the Druids might pay the price instead.

A deep unease settled in Arthur’s gut. With a kick of his heel, he urged his horse forward, leading his raiding party out of Camelot’s territory and into Cenred’s. There was no other way to frame it. He was being selfish. There were many, many ways this could go terribly wrong, and yet, nothing seemed more wrong than what was right—turning Merlin in.

 The hazards be damned. He needed answers, and he’d get them.

“How much further?” he asked Oliver, and the traveler clicked his tongue, pushing for his horse to catch up with Arthur’s lead. 

“Not much further, now,” the man reported, his foreign accent thick and slurred on the “R.” “There’s a bit of a slope with a cave nestled ‘round the bend.”

“Ah, wonderful,” Arthur muttered, tone thick with sarcasm. “Love caves.”

They continued on, pushing deeper into Cenred’s lands, and it wasn’t long before the path dipped and the trees thinned. Early evening fell upon them, and a cool breeze lifted the leaves around Arthur’s horse’s hooves.

With every flutter of a branch, Arthur’s discomfort deepened. He wondered if Merlin sensed it, because he trotted up next to Arthur, his bright blue eyes thoughtful in the growing gloom.

Arthur didn’t acknowledge him, but Merlin spoke anyway, his voice low. “Are you sure this is a good idea, Arthur? Cenred’s not exactly your biggest fan.”

“It’s not like I have a choice,” Arthur answered. A lie. He kept his gaze focused on Oliver, not wanting Merlin to notice his guilt. He’d been presented with a choice. He’d made it. “We need this information. If even half of what Oliver said is true, this Emrys is a danger to Camelot. We must find him.”

He didn’t look at Merlin directly, but he did see the servant squirm a little. “Right,” Merlin mumbled, falling back as Arthur kicked his horse again, trotting to catch up with Oliver.

“We’re here,” Oliver said before Arthur could ask the question. The traveller pointed, and Arthur could just make out the rocky bend he had described. Slices of moonlight cut through the open spaces in the tree canopy, but even with the added light, the drop was still difficult to make out. If Oliver hadn’t pointed, Arthur would not have spotted the half-hidden cave entrance resting at the bottom of the slope. 

Grimacing, Arthur swung his right leg out of the stirrup and dismounted. His boots fell heavy on the uneven ground, suctioning in the thick mud. His band of fifteen knights copied the movement. 

Oliver was the only one who didn’t dismount. “This is where I must leave you, sire,” he announced, offering a hand in farewell. 

Arthur smiled thinly, accepting the gesture and grasping the traveller’s forearm at the elbow. “Camelot is grateful you chose to come forward,” he said. “I hope the gold was enough compensation for your troubles.”

Oliver gave a chuckle. He let go of Arthur’s arm to pat his waist instead, jingling the many coins in pouch. “More than sufficient, I’d say. I’ll be stopping by again if I stumble upon anything else of relevance.”

“You’ll be more than welcome,” Arthur assured, and with that, Oliver was on his way, galloping deeper into Cenred’s kingdom astride one of Camelot’s best horses. 

Arthur watched him go with a critical eye, his forced smile slowly slipping into a frown. 

To his further discomfort, Merlin trudged up beside him, his arms crossed tightly against his thin jacket. Worry dominated his features. “What’s keeping him from reporting us to Cenred?” the sorcerer asked, and at his words, a cold dagger twisted its way into Arthur’s heart. “He turned on the Druids within a day.”

“The Druids didn’t give him gold,” Arthur pointed out, but as he said it, he wondered if it was a worthy answer. “My father paid him much more than he deserved. That should keep him living comfortable for quite some time.”

Merlin’s expression voiced his disagreement, but Arthur ignored him, putting his back to the forest and facing the cave. “Regardless,” he said, raising his voice a tad to address everyone. “We shouldn’t linger here more than necessary. The sooner we are out of Cenred’s lands, the better.”

He drew his sword. His raiding party copied him and Merlin, thankfully, fell back as Arthur led the way down the slick slope.

Darkness swallowed them as they left the moonlight behind. Arthur waited for his eyes to adjust before pushing forward and entering the cave, his boots slick with mud and water from a shallow stream. He was just beginning to wonder if a torch was needed when he spotted the telltale signs of firelight flickering against the cavern walls.

A small part of him was disheartened. Deep down, he’d hoped Oliver’s intelligence was misinformed—that, or perhaps the Druids had wised up and moved on. 

He never got so lucky. Setting his jaw, Arthur kept his sword parallel with his cheek, his knees bent as he shuffled toward the light. He would have to handle this delicately. Unlike his father, he held no personal quarrel with the Druids. Too many sorcerers had attacked Camelot for him not to place those who hadn’t in a separate category. But, unfortunately, this did little to change what danger they could pose. 

That danger was how his father justified this excursion, but Arthur couldn’t help but feel he was overstepping his bounds in more ways than one.

Movement. Arthur struck on instinct, drawing from hours of practise and strength. The point of his sword swung to a stop centimetres before the throat of a Druid.

A small Druid. A boy. No older than ten.

Arthur froze. The boy didn’t scream, but he looked up at Arthur with calm, clear blue eyes—eyes that sent Arthur tumbling into a terrible memory. Another Druid camp. Another Druid boy. Screaming—far too much of it. Children drowning...

“Are you going to kill me, sir?”

Arthur flinched. The Druid boy didn’t sound overly concerned by the question, but Arthur lowered his sword all the same.

“I’d—I’d prefer not to,” he managed to answer. “I’m here to speak with your leader.”

The boy nodded knowingly. He turned, hurrying deeper into the cave. Arthur hated himself for it, but dark, entrapping dread snaked up his spine.

He motioned to his knights with two fingers. Follow. As one, they trudged after the Druid boy.

Arthur’s worst case scenario awaited them around the bend. The Druid cluster was large—a good thirty or more adults and many children. Their fearful stares made Arthur cringe, along with the setup of the cave itself. Symbols he did not recognise littered the cavern walls. Candles lit up the space, accenting small twig-and-flower shrines atop the larger boulders. Tattered, colourful ribbons swung from the tips of tent poles, fluttering in the cave’s chilly draught.

While Arthur had seen Druid camps before, this one felt especially foreign to him. Other kingdoms held other castles—other armies, other knights. Although they flew different banners and practised different feast customs, they still fell within Arthur’s realm of understanding. 

The Druid culture, however, possessed nothing Arthur understood, nor did he have the means to understand. The symbols on the cavern walls were a mystery to him as a young knight and were a mystery to him now. The small shrines depicted gods and goddesses whose names and powers he didn’t worship. The Druid beliefs and customs were rumours and scary bedtime stories for the children of Camelot. Arthur had no idea if they were true.

In the end, these people were not his domain, and like any good future king, Arthur’s loyalty belonged to the citizens of Camelot. They were his kind, his people, but they were not Merlin’s people.

No. These were Merlin’s people. Sorcerers. Tricksters and charlatans, practising a religion that dwindled on extinction. Men, women, and children whose minds and hearts housed and served the magic of the Old Religion. They were not the worst of their kind, but that did not excuse them. Not in the king’s eyes. 

In his first trial, Merlin had convinced Arthur he wasn’t enchanting him. That, and he’d indirectly confessed he hoped Arthur would bring magic back to Camelot. It was a foolish hope, but it was definitely the type of scheme a romantic like Merlin would conjure up.

And yet, there was still a large gap between a foolhardy wish and blatantly betraying his own kind. 

This was the gap Arthur planned on testing.

He hoped Merlin was ready. Trial two had begun.

“Arthur Pendragon.”

The voice that spoke was unfamiliar to him, and its tone did nothing to help his unease. Arthur had heard his full name spoken by sorcerers before, and always with that tone… as if he possessed the name but didn’t truly own it.

The Druid who’d spoken it fit the bill perfectly. Tall and old with a watery smile that didn’t reach his eyes. A twisted staff occupied his right hand, and he let it rest against a large rock, much to Arthur’s further disquiet.

Arthur cleared his throat, stationing himself at the forefront of his men. “I am Arthur, yes,” he confirmed. “And who are you? The Archdruid?”

“You could think of me that way.” The Druid fold his arms behind him. Somehow, the move made Arthur even more nervous. He liked a sorcerer’s hands in view. “Not that the title matters.”

“It does matter. I asked to speak to the leader. Are you him?”

“I suppose that depends on how you define a leader.”

Something akin to anger bubbled in Arthur’s stomach. An emotion he couldn’t afford. If things escalated too quickly, Merlin’s trial would be useless.

He clenched his sword a little tighter regardless. “Fine. May I at least have your name?”

“Again, I don’t see how it matters.” The Druid sounded amused. Was he purposely being provocative? “Names and titles mean little. It is the soul behind the name that counts.”

Right. Arthur resisted the urge to throw Merlin’s trial to the wind in favour of slapping the Druid in irons. Was this how all sorcerers talked? He rarely had conversations with any. 

Well, he regularly had conversations with one, but Merlin talked nonsense, not poetry.

He really didn’t want to hold the Druid at sword point. Not yet. Not until the proper moment. “Please,” Arthur tried again, his voice terse. “If we are to talk, I’d like a name to address you by.”

The sorcerer hesitated, his expression unreadable, but he nodded. “Very well. You may call me Cian.”

“Cian,” Arthur repeated, more than a little happy to make some progress. “Well, then, Cian, I have a few questions for you. If you’re a wise man, you’ll answer them.”

“I’m a wise man of a sort.” The old man’s small smile faded, although the hint of amusement in his pale eyes still unnerved Arthur. “I can tell you it was not wise to come here. You and your men are not welcome in Cenred’s lands.”

“I am aware.” 

“Good. You are a wise man yourself, Arthur Pendragon. Or, at least, you have the potential to be.”

Arthur didn’t bother keeping his annoyance off his face. “I’m not here for career advice, thank you. In fact, I’m here with a proposition from a friend. Gaius. Have you heard of him?”

“The physician? Yes, I’m familiar.”

“Excellent.” Arthur sheathed his sword, prepared to administer his father’s proposal. Its outcome would decide how Merlin’s trial would progress. “My father, the king, has spoken with him. Together, they have decided upon a course of action. A haven, crafted for you and your people within Camelot’s lands. While we do not condone sorcery, we have certainly seen you and your people’s distaste for violence. It’s a quality we’d like to reward.

The Archdruid cocked his head, and behind him, the other Druids stirred. “For a price?”

“Not a steep one,” Arthur assured. “One you could easily pay.”

Cian did not appear convinced. “And let me guess. That price is information. You want us to act as your spies.”

“‘Spies’ is not the word I would use,” Arthur refuted, although he could feel any hope of an agreement slipping away. Unsurprising. He hadn’t counted on this going well. “We aren’t sending you anywhere. We simply want to know what you know. If I am properly informed of threats, I can better protect Camelot and its people. Is that so terrible?”

“Protect Camelot and its people,” Cian repeated, ignoring Arthur’s baited question. “I see. And protect them from what? Anything in particular?” 

“As a matter of fact, yes,” Arthur answered, and his heart rate began to escalate. This was the important bit. He had to watch Cian carefully. “It has come to our attention that a powerful sorcerer has entered Camelot. Possibly some time ago. Possibly very recently. Call me curious, but I would like to know more about him."

There. He'd said it. As Arthur watched, hawk-like, he spotted what he’d counted on. Something shifted in Cian’s eyes. It was small and subtle, but he'd seen it. 

Recognition. 

Arthur couldn’t help but grin a little. “You know of this sorcerer, don’t you?”

“I do,” Cian admitted, and Arthur glimpsed the second thing he’d bargained on. A brief glance away.

Cian’s gaze flickered beyond Arthur.

To Merlin. 

 “Good,” Arthur managed. His heart was charging in his ears now. He wanted it more than ever now. He wanted to know everything Merlin was keeping from him. “Then I hope we can come to an agreement. The Druid haven can be constructed within months, and I’ll see to it that—”

“See to what, exactly?” Cian snapped, and Arthur flinched, his hand flying to his sword. “We are slaughtered in our sleep? Spare me, young Pendragon. Lies are not becoming of a future king.”

“This isn’t a lie,” Arthur insisted.

“But it is, isn’t it?” Cian said, and his pale blue eyes seemed to peer straight through Arthur’s armour and into his soul. “Although you are trying to lie as little as possible. I do appreciate that. Unfortunately, my people have been burned by Uther’s promises before. Quite literally. Forgive us if we decide not to repeat our mistakes.”

As Cian spoke, his hand lingered by his staff. His fingers grazed the wood and Arthur let himself react, unsheathing his sword and aiming it square between Cian’s eyes.

“Don’t touch it,” he growled.

Cian deflated, obediently pulling away and holding his hands up in surrender. “Forgive me,” he murmured. “I’d forgotten. Your kind always resorts to steel when it comes to ‘asking’ for information. Some things never change.”

“Spare me the condescension,” Arthur said. “Your kind is not without blood on its hands, whether you meant it or not. We do not possess the ability for destruction you do. We’ve learnt to protect ourselves. You can execute someone with a thought and a look.”

Cian arched an eyebrow. “And would you say we are the ones doing the executing?”

Arthur floundered, at a loss for a response, and Cian knew it. He stepped forward, eliminating some of the space between them before Arthur had a chance to shift.

“You could have so much more from us than our knowledge, Arthur Pendragon,” the Druid whispered, his unfocused gaze adding to Arthur’s unease and uncertainty. “Think of it. You could have a far greater gift—our undying loyaltybut you are too overshadowed by your father’s shortcomings. His inability.”

"What inability?” Arthur snapped. He dropped his arm, levelling his sword with Cian’s side. One swing and he could fatally injure the Druid.

Cian didn’t seem concerned. He smiled, but the motion was laced with melancholy. “The fact that you stand here now says it all. How much did Uther pay that silver-tongued traveller to sell us out?”

Arthur didn’t answer, and Cian shook his head, backing down. “This is the inability I refer to. You cannot purchase loyalty, young Pendragon. Not true loyalty. Gold has its limits, but that has not stopped your father from testing its boundaries.”

“My father has hundreds of knights that would gladly lay down their lives for him.”

“No, your father has hundreds of noble-borns who were blindly raised to obey the law. His law.” Cian’s laugh was hollow. “What common man of Camelot would lay down their life for their heartless king? I reckon not many. The people of Camelot are not loyal to Uther, Arthur Pendragon. They are loyal to you.”

Arthur’s sword arm wavered. He hadn’t expected that answer, and before he could respond, Cian placed a hand on his wrist. His sword wrist. Arthur flinched, nearly stabbing the Druid on instinct, but Cian’s blue eyes—focused now—met his gaze.

“You are an anomaly, Arthur Pendragon,” the Druid said, and his voice had adopted a wispy, almost looney tone. “It does not take magic to see it. But the longer you hide your face from the hard truths, the harder they will slap you… if they haven’t already.” 

He spoke that last part so only Arthur could hear, and as he did, his gaze flickered away once more—looking over Arthur’s shoulder. 

To Merlin?

Arthur didn’t turn to find out. He clenched his jaw, ripping his arm out of Cian’s grasp and securing his sword. “Enough!” he seethed. “You talk of loyalty, and I am loyal to my father. The king of Camelot demands answers. I suggest you give them, or I will be left with no choice.”

Cian’s intensity faded. He stepped back, his shoulders slumping like his age had caught up with him. “Then I suppose you are left with no choice. I’m afraid we cannot help you.”

Arthur’s lip quivered, but he threw his sword back to strike all the same. He slowed the action, giving Merlin time to process his decision. Then he spoke the words he’d crafted just for the sorcerer’s second trial.

“So be it.”

Arthur took his swing, waiting for the outcry he knew would come.

And came it did.

“Arthur! Arthur, wait!”

Chapter Text

Arthur’s sword swung to a halt inches before Merlin’s Adam’s apple.

The reality of the image felt like a nightmare come true. Merlin’s blue eyes, locked with Arthur’s, made it all much worse than anything that had come before.

He hated every bit of his inevitable reaction. He hated his heart for racing. He hated his lungs for feeling breathless. He hated his mind for still registering the sharp sting of betrayal. He’d expected this—calculated it—but part of him wondered if Merlin would be more passive. Reluctant, when it came to it.

It was a foolish thought from the beginning. Merlin was never passive.

And Arthur’s steely expression was not an act. “Out of my way, Merlin,” he said. He pronounced it like a command, but he didn’t expect it to be obeyed. 

It wasn’t. Merlin didn’t move. His chest was heaving—struggling for air after he’d thrown himself between Arthur and the Druid. His arms were spread in a loose defencive motion, and his wild expression conveyed a conviction Arthur hated more than anything. It was a decision rooted against Camelot, and Arthur could only imagine how Merlin truly viewed his kingdom. 

“You know this isn’t right, Arthur,” Merlin was saying. He was still short of breath, but Arthur despised how genuine he sounded. Once again, he found himself reminded how this would be far easier if it was anyone but Merlin. “I saw it. I saw it in your face this morning. You don’t want this. At the very least, it’s a betrayal to Gaius and his trust.”

“Gaius shouldn’t be protecting sorcerers,” Arthur reminded coldly. He still hadn’t lowered his sword. He wasn’t going to. He wanted Merlin to feel the cold touch of his blade.

“I know, but Gaius is the only one who can talk reason into Uther where magic is involved.” Merlin’s eyes sparkled with intensity, and for the first time since Arthur had met him, the other man became an open book to him. A struggle raged in his blue eyes—not a new one, but one Arthur could now read. There was pain simmering there, and a desperation Arthur hadn’t expected. “This is your call, Arthur. Not your father’s.”

Arthur swallowed. Merlin was right on one account. It was his call. 

For now.

“My call, is it?” 

He said it so softly, he wondered for a moment if Merlin had heard, but he had. The sorcerer’s confidence faltered. Confusion crept into his expression. He clearly hadn’t expected that answer. “Well, isn’t it?” 

“It doesn’t have to be.” Slowly, Arthur retracted his sword from Merlin’s throat. He faced the point to the ground and brought it down hard, wedging the tip amongst the pebbles with a loud chink. His gaze lingered on Merlin’s befuddled expression, giving the sorcerer a second to process before turning to Cian.

He prayed the Archdruid wouldn’t spy any of his true emotions. He couldn’t afford that. Merlin was failing his second trial, but Arthur had predicted as much. Fortunately, it was not yet over. 

 “Well, Cian,” Arthur began, snidely stressing the Druid’s name and also drawing on any sort of regality he had left. It was time for a little bit of drama. “You don’t seem to think much of noble-borns, or our loyalties. Fine. I respect that. You want someone more like you, and today, you’re very much in luck. I happen to have a non-noble for you.”

He gestured to Merlin at this, who had lost much of his initial gusto and was standing awkwardly between them, his buckled boots unbalanced on the rocks. He opened his mouth—probably to protest—but Arthur pushed on before he could. “Merlin was born near here,” he explained. “A place called Ealdor. Simple place. Farming community. He has his mother, no father. I currently employ him as my manservant. Is that common enough for you?”

The Archdruid cocked his head. His pale eyes, slightly narrowed, studied Arthur, as if not sure what to think of him now. He also did not seem to have expected this turn of events. 

Good. Arthur kept his expression frozen, unreadable. If the Druid surmised this was premeditated on his part, he had no idea in what direction this standoff would go.

But to his relief, Cian nodded. “I suppose,” the Druid relented. “Although I do not see why it matters.”

Arthur smiled a little. Despite himself, he was enjoying this—however minutely. “You will,” he said, and with that, he pulled his sword out of the ground and chucked it at Merlin.

Merlin, to Arthur’s little surprise, fumbled it. The steel clattered to the cavern floor, the sound reverberating throughout the chamber. “What’re you—” Merlin sputtered, struggling to maintain his balance. He dropped to the cavern floor, retrieving the blade and squinting up at Arthur in the half-light, but Arthur ignored his confusion. 

“I was thinking about our little conversation earlier, Merlin,” Arthur began, speaking to everyone in volume and not really looking at the manservant. Instead, he focused his attention on undoing the large clasp on his cape—two metal circles that only a royal’s cape displayed. In one fluid motion, he pulled it off and stepped forward, draping the red fabric over his servant’s scrawny shoulders. 

“There,” he declared, clapping Merlin on the shoulder like his father had done to him countless times over the course of his life—transferring the burden of responsibility. He stared at Merlin pointedly for a moment, showing the servant he was not at all kidding before turning back to the Archdruid. 

“Earlier today, Merlin told me he believes his humble little servant opinion does not matter,” Arthur said, speaking with a bit of flair as he hopped down several large stones, pacing regally before the Druids. “He believes only the thoughts of the prince should count in important political situations. But Cian! You seem to disagree.”

“Arthur.” Merlin’s voice wobbled as he straightened, holding the sword incorrectly. Arthur’s bright-red cape nearly swallowed him. “Arthur, that’s not what I meant when I said—”

“And fair is fair,” Arthur pushed on, speaking over Merlin’s panic. “I’ve decided it’s Merlin’s call now. As of this moment, I transfer all my royal authority over to him. The decision is his and his alone.”

With a sarcastic twirl, Arthur twisted away from Cian and graced Merlin with a mocking bow. He straightened from the motion very slowly, giving everyone present time to understand the implications of this decision. As expected, muttering quickly broke out both amongst the Druids and the Camelot knights.

Arthur didn’t care about their reactions. He only cared about one person. “So, tell me,” he said, studying every semblance of fear growing in Merlin’s traitor face. “What are we to do, Common Man Merlin? Kill some Druids, and capture the rest? Or disobey the king and return empty handed? The choice is entirely yours.”

It was fascinating, really, to watch all the colour drain from Merlin’s already pale cheeks. “Arthur, I—you—” the sorcerer garbled, Arthur’s sword clinking against the stones as he almost dropped it. “You can’t—I-I can’t—”

His words failed him, and he swirled to Cian, obviously begging the old Druid to object. But, as Arthur had hoped, the sorcerer didn’t appear angry. If anything, he appeared properly surprised.

His major deed done, Arthur used this opportunity to fade into the background. He pulled back to his knights, effectively abandoning Merlin in the centre of the cave. What happened next was up to him. The stage had been set. It was time for the actors to dance. 

The manservant's lack of words hung heavy in the air. Cian, too, appeared thrown for a loop. For once, both sorcerers seem unsure of what to say. Good.

Does he expect Merlin to protect him? Arthur couldn’t help but wonder. After all, Arthur wasn’t entirely sure Merlin would. It appeared the secret sorcerer had never truly sided with anyone. Not wholly. And he wouldn’t, not until Arthur made him. Merlin could not live between a rock and a hard place forever. 

It was time for him to pick a side.

Cian was the first to come to a conclusion. He chuckled, and the sound confirmed Arthur’s suspicion. He was, to some degree, confident that Merlin would choose the Druids’ safety over Camelot’s law. And perhaps he was correct. 

Or perhaps he was dangerously wrong.

“Well,” Cian murmured. “So be it.” He laced his hands behind his back and bowed his head in Merlin’s direction. “Manservant Merlin, it appears our fate rests in your hands. What, pray tell, is your verdict?”

Arthur clutched the boulder beside him, watching Merlin intently. He hated to admit it, but part of him feared what came next. 

But, to his relief, as Arthur watched Merlin's face, the man he understood overtook the scary sorcerer version. Terror quickly replaced any semblance of Merlin's confidence. His posture loosened, growing hunched within Arthur’s cloak and from the weight of a sword he did not wish to yield. Gone from his eyes was the stony-faced wizard who had summoned a dragon and turned on Arthur in Camelot’s woods. Gone for now, at least. 

Arthur relaxed somewhat. It was a comfort to him that the bumbling, humble side of Merlin was not all an act. Despite his magic, Merlin was no leader. Arthur had been faced with the burden of leadership long enough to recognise someone caving under its pressure. It only took seconds for Merlin to crumble, proving he was partly what Arthur had always thought him to be: a reactionary. Merlin was uncertain until conflict smacked him in the face. He was not the kind of man who would ever lust for the throne of any kingdom.

This was good. But it was also bad. Good because it meant Merlin wasn’t the ambitious, cold-hearted, and terrifying leader his father feared would one day rise up against Camelot. 

Bad because it meant Merlin was, to some extent, still the person Arthur had come to love and trust. And Arthur still didn’t know what to do about that.

Merlin made a noise that sounded like a cross between a distressed sigh and a wounded gasp. “Can... can I think about it for a moment?” 

He addressed the question at Arthur, but Arthur merely shrugged. He gestured to Cian. “Up to him.”

Cian scrutinised Arthur at this, but Arthur had no trouble keeping his face a passive mask. He was growing rather good at it.

Desperation swam in Merlin’s features. He swiveled back to the Druid.

“Think on it,” Cian answered. His expression softened as he addressed Merlin, his tone growing smooth and soothing. It made Arthur’s skin crawled. “Discuss. I appreciate a man who does not act rashly.”

Merlin’s sigh of relief shook his whole body. Still loosely clutching Arthur’s sword, he hightailed it out of the cave with the red cape billowing behind him. Arthur pushed off his boulder to follow, but lingered.

Cian’s calm stare dissipated when Merlin fled. His now-frosty gaze settled on Arthur with disapproval. “For once, I don’t know what you are playing at, Arthur Pendragon.”

Arthur raised an eyebrow. “And does that bother you?”

“Perhaps.”

“Hm.” Arthur smirked just a little before turning and exiting the cave.

Merlin was busy pacing the top edge of the slope outside when Arthur emerged, dragging the sword carelessly in the mud behind him. “What was that?” he exploded as Arthur moved out of the cave shadows. He brandished the blade in Arthur’s direction, sending flecks of mud everywhere. “What is this?”

He gestured to Arthur’s cape at this, and Arthur sighed. He was not looking forward to this part. In their last one-on-one conversation, Arthur was very open with Merlin. This time, he could not be. This time, he was bolstering a lie—a situation Merlin could not know was of Arthur’s making.

With a deep breath, he stalked angrily up the slope. 

“Don’t look at me,” he snapped, ripping his weapon back from Merlin’s hands. He pointed the tip between Merlin’s eyes, but quickly lowered it. “You were the one jumping in front of my sword.”

Merlin’s face hardened. “We gain no information by slaughtering them.”

“I disagree. We gain a lot if we take a few captives.”

“Captives your father will eventually execute!”

“Maybe, but orders are orders, Merlin.”

“And your orders are to kill peaceful people—people who aren’t even living on Camelot’s land!” Merlin’s eyes were wide and wild with panic, and Arthur was strangely mesmerised by the thoughts whirling behind them. After all, Arthur was threatening his kin, and he was making Merlin an active participant in it. “This—we are on Cenred’s land. This could start a war, Arthur.”

“It could,” Arthur agreed. “But they are harbouring information that may outweigh that risk. They didn’t listen to our demands, and we warned them.”

“But what if Oliver lied?" Merlin looked like he was on brink of crying. "What if they really don’t know anything? What if—what if he’s gone to Cenred, and his men are on their way? Then what?”

“Then we’ll have to deal with it.” Arthur sighed, and his fatigue was not an act. “Merlin, as crown prince, I cannot just abstain from difficult situations. I try to think them through, but at the end of the day, a call needs to be made—and quickly. For better or worse, that decision is yours now.”

And with that, he tried to turn and leave, but Merlin made a sound like a strangled crow. “Arthur!”

“What?” Arthur roared, swiveling back to face him. Even his own anger surprised him. “I made my decision, Merlin! You stopped me from carrying it out. You decided on that. You made me look weak, and I had to act. Clearly, these sorcerers think nothing of me and my knights, but they seem to care about common folk, and you’re the only one I have on hand. Maybe you—I don’t know. Maybe you can get something out of them I can’t.”

Merlin’s lower lip trembled. He shook his head. “I don’t think I can.”

“Well, then you have your answer, don't you?" Arthur hated how harsh he sounded, but it was necessary. "It’s your verdict, Merlin. Try, or don’t try. It doesn’t matter to me. Not as long as we return to Camelot with something. Emrys needs to be found, and Camelot’s safety matters the most.”

“You can’t be serious.” Merlin’s voice cracked. “You can’t—you can’t seriously be putting this up to me.”

Arthur rubbed at his eyes. “Look, Merlin, I don’t like it any more than you do. But I made my choice. I’m not backing out now. That will look even worse, but please, take you time!” His tone, which had bordered on sarcasm, now leaned into it fully. “It’s not like the longer we stay here, the more chance we have of being ambushed by Cenred’s men!”

In the hour since they’d arrived at the cave, Merlin’s expression had gone from convicted to terrified to shattered. His shoulders slumped as he crouched on the slope, slowing sitting down on the edge. “Why can’t we just leave?” he asked, his voice almost at a whisper. “We could just… go. Uther doesn’t have to know we spared them.”

Arthur gave Merlin a weak smile. Wouldn’t it be nice if it were that simple?  “The knights are here, Merlin,” he reminded. “I am their future king. I must be seen to uphold the law, but you… I suppose you can do whatever you want. If you want to run away, go. I won’t stop you.” 

And with that, Arthur turned on his heel and slid down the slope, stalking back into the cave. He drew a rattling breath as the moonlight faded behind him, stopping for a second in the darkness of the cave entrance to recollect himself. 

There. He’d done it. Administered the trial. It wasn’t exactly how he’d imagined it playing out, but it had worked more or less the same. Merlin would be forced to make his choice between a group of sorcerers that trusted him and the clear commands of Arthur’s father, the king. 

Now all that remained was the fallout.

Chapter Text

Silence greeted Arthur as he returned to the cave. The Druids had retreated farther since he’d left, most of them pushing their backs against the cavern wall. All of the knights had drawn their swords, keeping them hovering at the ready. Cian was the only one that remained where Arthur had left him, standing tall like a wise, wizened statue in the middle of the cave. His fingers lay laced before him, his pale eyes watching Arthur’s every movement.

He didn’t speak, so Arthur didn’t either, resigning himself to perching on his chosen boulder while he awaited Merlin’s return.

If Merlin returned.

The thought shouldn’t bother him. After all, in Arthur’s best case scenario here, Merlin would never set foot in Camelot again. However, logic didn’t seem to prevent a smidge of sadness from striking him. The thought of never seeing Merlin again wasn’t one he’d had time to process.

Luckily, he didn’t have to confront that reality yet. Merlin had not fled.

Cian must’ve seen him first, because his attention shifted from Arthur to the cave entrance. Arthur turned to look too, spinning around just in time to see the forlorn servant-sorcerer trudging back, Arthur’s cape neatly folded in his arms. Everyone present, Druid and knight alike, watched silently as Merlin made his way across the uneven rocks to the centre of the cave, poised between Arthur and Cian once more. The servant placed Arthur’s cape down gently on one of the boulders before straightening to face the Archdruid.

“Thank you for the time to think,” he said. His voice was quiet. A little beaten down. He hated himself for it, but Arthur couldn’t help but feel bad.

Cian acknowledged Merlin’s thanks with a simple nod. His stance remained stoic, but Arthur could detect a bit of uncertainty in his expression now. 

Maybe Merlin did, too. His expression radiated sadness, and he wrung his hands like he wasn’t sure what to do with them now. 

“So, erm, while I was thinking,” Merlin began, and Arthur sat up a bit straighter. “I thought about my home. Ealdor. It’s not far from here, as Arthur said, and within Cenred’s kingdom. I—I guess what I thought is, I know what it’s like to live in fear.”

He took a deep breath, and Arthur cocked his head, unsure what Merlin was getting at. 

“Cenred didn’t—doesn’t—care much about his outlying communities, let alone the small farming ones,” Merlin continued. “My community didn’t feel we had much protection, as when attacks did come, our cries fell on deaf ears. We were often too scared to report anything. Living with fear… it takes on a life of its own, doesn’t it? It becomes a part of you, whether you want it to or not, and sometimes it feels like there is no other option than lying down, giving up, and dying.”

He paused, and as he did, a cold realisation washed over Arthur. 

Merlin wasn’t talking about living in Ealdor. 

“It took me a long time to no longer jump to that option. Just lying down. Giving up. Dying.” Merlin began to pace, and the noise of his boots on the stones marked the only sound in the space. “It took a father figure and finding something worth living for to knock me out of it, and I’m not sure if that’s something I can give to you.” 

He gestured to the assembly of Druids at this, before pausing once more, as if unsure if he should keep going. “After all, you are right that Uther had no intentions of giving you the haven he promised,” he admitted, and Arthur winced. That bordered on treason. “Uther sent us in Gaius’ name, but Gaius himself never gave him that blessing.”

Merlin crossed his arms tightly, almost hugging himself before looking back up at Cian. “But despite that, I can’t help but hope such lies can be forever in the past. Maybe it’s unrealistic to imagine peace can be achieved, but I can’t help but dream about it every day anyway. I hope that one day soon a king will offer a true haven.”

He gestured to Arthur at this and Arthur didn’t have time to process the motion before Merlin pushed on. “I hope that one day your secrets won’t need to be kept. But that day will never come if someone doesn’t take the first step towards a better future.”

He stopped for a moment, catching his breath, and Cian smiled weakly. “A touching story, and a wonderful sentiment, Merlin,” he said. “And while I appreciate your hopes, I do not know if it can be applied today.”

“And why not?” Merlin insisted. Even in the dim light, Arthur could see tears growing in his eyes. “The Druids place peace before violence, when possible. Arthur only wants to protect Camelot. You feel the need to protect this… powerful sorcerer Uther is hunting. I suppose my question is why? What has he done to deserve that loyalty? What hope do you have in him that you’re willing to die for him?”

With each word, Merlin’s voice grew more shrill and Arthur’s understanding of him grew more painfully clear. His thoughts swarmed, trying to categorise everything he was hearing, and he suddenly realised what Merlin was saying—what he was actually on about.

Merlin wasn’t anguished over Arthur’s threat. What he was anguished over was the Druids’ willingness to lay down their lives to keep his secret. Because why were they protecting it? And was it really worth dying for?

It was ironic, as these were questions Arthur had asked as well. What he hadn’t counted on was Merlin’s perspective on them. After all, every knight in Camelot’s army was willing to die for Arthur. It was an uncomfortable thing to know, but it was a reality he had grown used to. Clearly, Merlin was neither comfortable nor accustomed to that sort of fealty. 

And it also spoke of Merlin’s character. Truly, it was a comfort to Arthur to see Merlin did not crave power. If he did, he would be pleased by all this, and in that fact, Arthur took heart.

“Knowledge comes with a price,” Cian was saying, and Arthur crossed his arms, focusing back in on the conversation. “In the wrong hands, it can do far more damage than the sword. Prophecy is the most dangerous kind of knowledge. Some outcomes are inevitable, but how they come to pass can be manipulated.”

The Druid heaved a sigh. “There are many prophecies about the sorcerer Emrys,” he admitted, and Arthur flinched at the mention of the name. He hadn’t told it to Cian. Neither had Merlin. “Many writings that Emrys himself does not—and should not—know. Not yet. However, all the prophecies would do great harm in the hands of Uther Pendragon. He will not understand them, and he will not try to.”

“And why is that?” Merlin asked. His voice had grown soft now, the shrillness gone. It occurred to Arthur that Cian had just told Merlin new information. Prophecies—many prophecies—written about him. 

Prophecies he didn’t know.

Cian pursed his lips, clearly debating whether he wished to say more. Arthur sat forward, awaiting his decision with bated breath. He hadn’t really thought Merlin would get anything out of the old Druid. 

For once, he enjoyed being wrong.

“Emrys represents everything Uther fears,” Cian said finally. “Peace with magic users. Reconciliation. All you have said you hope for. But if it comes about, it will not be on Uther’s terms. There are many ways these prophecies can run their course, and several of them end with an Albion where my secrets are not needed and our safety is not a lie.”

A smile had wormed its way onto Cian’s lips—one of wonder and hope. It was not lost on Arthur, but it quickly faded. 

“There is not, however, any option where this future is achieved without magic,” the Druid continued. “And that is why Uther will cast it—and the good it allows—aside. Worse, he will try to prevent it.”

The Archdruid took a pointed step toward Merlin, and Arthur noticed the servant did not flinch. “You ask what this great sorcerer has done to deserve our loyalty,” Cian declared, and his expression turned scary in the flickering firelight. “Allow me to answer that with another question. What has this prince done to deserve yours?”

He gestured to Arthur at this, and Arthur’s eyes widened, unprepared for the attack—and certainly unprepared for Merlin to look at him. Their eyes met for half a second, both men processing different things before Merlin grimaced, turning back to Cian.

“Hope and loyalty are close friends,” Cian continued before Merlin could answer. “We are loyal to Emrys in the hopes of what he may achieve, just as you are loyal to a man you hope will be a good king. Let us hope neither of our loyalties are misplaced.”

Something had changed in Cian’s tone. His words now sounded suspiciously like a threat. Arthur didn’t think he was imagining it, and Merlin looked more uncomfortable than ever. 

He had been called out. That much Arthur knew, his brain struggling once again to translate what Cian was really saying. You know why we are willing to die to protect you and your secret? Because we believe you will help us, just like you believe this prince will help you. Let’s hope we aren’t both misled. If so, the outcome may not be pleasant.

A grim thought. Arthur could see Merlin’s laboured breathing. “That traveller,” Merlin blurted, and Arthur frowned at the mention. “Oliver. He came to us and said you believed Emrys to be in Camelot. Do you still believe him to be there today?”

Arthur’s brow furrowed. He wasn’t sure why Merlin would ask such a question.

Cian tilted his head, his narrowed eyes a mirror of Arthur’s confusion. “I am not sure what you mean by that. Are you asking do I believe he is there now?” 

“Yes,” Merlin confirmed. “We were told Emrys was in Camelot, but is he still there? Is he aware we are looking for him?”

Cian paused, clearly still deciding how to respond, but after a second, the corners of his mouth lifted somewhat—almost like a smirk. “I do believe Emrys knows of your hunt,” he informed. “What he thinks of it, I cannot say, but to the best of my knowledge, Emrys has left your kingdom. You can rest easy in knowing that. In fact, I have been told he is travelling back in the direction of his natural home, occupying someplace within Cenred’s lands. Whether he is fleeing or pursuing some other goal, I could not tell you, although I doubt Cenred would welcome an investigation.”

Natural home… Travelled back… It took Arthur a moment. It took him far too long to realise just what smart little trick Merlin was playing, and when he did, he had to resist the urge to roll his eyes. Roll his eyes, and slap him.

Yes, technically Emrys had left Camelot. Technically he’d gone to Cenred’s kingdom, and technically Cenred’s lands were his natural home. Technically Cian had been told as such—and just now, by Arthur himself.

How very clever.

Merlin laced his hands behind his back, his posture straightening. A bit of confidence seemed to have returned to him, emboldened by his own quick thinking. “The safety of Camelot is our only concern,” he said, and Arthur cringed. For some reason is bothered him to hear Merlin say it. “You know for sure Emrys has left Camelot? And you don’t believe he meant the kingdom harm?”

“I can confirm Emrys has travelled on,” Cian confirmed, and he did seem to be smiling a little. “And I do believe he had no intention of spreading panic amongst your kingdom. If anything, it’s the enemies of Camelot that should continue to fear Emrys. His is more their enemy than yours.”

Merlin’s confidence faltered a little. He opened his mouth to respond, but Arthur beat him to it. “And why’s that?” 

Cian turned his attention to him, and Arthur couldn’t quite decipher the look on the sorcerer’s face. Something between weariness and resignation. “I think you’ll find that Emrys has silenced many enemies of Camelot’s crown,” Cian explained, and at his words, Arthur’s blood ran cold. “If he hadn’t, I don’t believe you would be standing here today.”

Arthur pushed off his boulder with force. Something like fear rocketed through him. Fear mixed with outrage. “What are you saying, exactly?” he demanded. “He’s been killing Camelot’s enemies? Assassinating them?”

Cian pursed his lips. “Quite the contrary. I am saying he has been protecting you from assassination. You, and your father. By all accounts, you should have perished some time ago, Arthur Pendragon. You have Emrys to thank for your head.”

Something else bubbled within him. Something not unlike the outrage or the shock, but worse. Disgust. He felt objectified. Of course. Of course that’s how the sorcerers would frame it. Protection of their interest. He was like a delicate vase to them. A priceless chess piece. An object. 

Merlin looked extremely uncomfortable at the turn in conversation. He glanced at Arthur, who struggled to remain a face of impassivity in the face of what Cian was saying. It was a lot to digest, and it left Arthur with a new question.

How many people has Merlin killed?

He drew his sword. He did so without thought, but it prompted his knights into motion, forming ranks. Snatching his cape off the boulder, he stalked up beside Merlin and squared up with the Archdruid. He knew he was breaking the set up of his own trial, but he suddenly didn’t much care.

“Tell me,” he demanded. “Tell me who Emrys has killed in my name. And tell me the prophecies about him.”

Beside him, Merlin inhaled sharply, but Cian just laughed. “You speak of prophecies I am keeping from Emrys himself, Arthur Pendragon! Do you really think I will just impart them all to you? I am deeply sorry, but I would rather die.”

“That option is not off the table,” Arthur growled, but Merlin caught his arm, pulling him back. Arthur hadn’t even realised he’d stepped forward, his sword point an arms length from Cian’s chest.

“Arthur, please,” Merlin hissed, and Arthur hated having to look at him. His blue eyes had regained intensity and focus. “Your father sent us here to find out about Emrys’ wearabouts and learn his aims. If he’s gone, if he doesn’t wish to attack Camelot, then we have the answer we came for. We’ve obeyed orders. We’re done here.”

“No, we’re not,” Arthur snapped, and he ripped his arm out of Merlin’s grasp, turning his fury back onto Cian. “I wish to know these prophecies. Especially if they concern me. Do you not think I have right to know them if they speak of me? Or my kingdom?”

He took another step toward the Druid, leveling his sword with Cian’s heart, but Merlin stopped him short. “Prophecies are magic, Arthur!” he reminded, and Arthur’s heart skipped a beat. “You’ve said it yourself, we can’t trust magic. What’s stopping this sorcerer from telling you a string of lies and leading you to your death? If you listen to his prophecy, you are trusting in him and his magic first and foremost—and tell me, what would your father say to that?”

He said it forcefully, almost like a reprimand, and Arthur looked back at him. He stared at this sorcerer, his friend, long and hard. Despite everything, despite all he had learned about Merlin’s true nature, he was once again stunned by the sorcerer’s words. All this business with “technically, Emrys has left Camelot,” and now expertly turning Arthur’s own convictions against him. 

It was ridiculous. Ridiculous because he was right. Arthur didn’t believe he could trust magic. Certainly his father didn’t. And as much as Arthur yearned to know what the Druids believed about him and his future—and about where Merlin lay within all that—he could not trust any narrative given to him by a magic spell. Not publically. Not today.

Clever, clever, clever. It was a word Arthur had never attributed to Merlin, but he was forced to assign it to him now. Merlin was annoyingly and frustratingly clever—somehow managing to wiggle his way out of Arthur’s impossible trial. He hadn’t chosen. He’d protected the Druids without sacrificing the tenets of Camelot’s anti-magic laws, and he had acquired what Arthur had been sent to collect—information on Emrys. In the end, Merlin had gained enough reconnaissance to bring back to the king and put his mind at rest. The hunt for Emrys would end.

It was incredible, really, to look at his not-so-idiot servant and realise how this was his life. Wording things delicately. Finding the loopholes. Struggling to reconcile his heritage with his lifestyle. It must be terrible. Frustrating, and tiresome. The pain Arthur had seen shining in Merlin’s eyes earlier was still there, simmering below the surface—although now the sorcerer mostly expressed concern. Concern for Arthur. Fear for the Druids. He really did mean well, didn’t he? It felt wrong to think it, but Arthur did think Merlin meant well. 

It seemed insane, but then again, the truth often was. Trial two’s verdict was very clear. Merlin, for better or for worse, had passed. Only one trial left to go.

Arthur closed his eyes and took a big breath, trying fruitlessly to wrangle the hurt, the anger, and the frustration he possessed. He felt like a deer in the path of a hunter’s crossbow, but he’d acted out of anger too many times before. It never ended well. He needed to control himself. Now was not the time to pursue potentially useless prophecies.

 “You are positive Emyrs has left Camelot?” he demanded of Cian, trying his best to keep his tone civil.

Cian nodded solemnly. “I am.”

“Good. Fine. Fine.” Arthur hated how breathless he sounded. He felt tears forming, but he pushed them back. He was losing all composure and he needed to end this. “And will he stay away?”

“That I cannot say. However, if you believe in my foreknowledge at all, your kingdom has nothing to worry about from this particular sorcerer. You have plenty of other enemies to worry about instead.”

“How very comforting.” Arthur couldn’t keep a hint of contempt out of his voice, but he slowly lowered his sword. Glaring at Cian, he realised what he hated about the Druid. The old man seemed to stare right into his soul with a knowing smiling, sensing his true thoughts and feelings. Perhaps he could sense them, and Arthur didn’t like the thought of anyone wielding that kind of power. 

He took a step back. “In exchange for your life, then, I have one condition,” he decided, and he swung his sword in a loop just to see if Cian would flinch. He didn’t. “If you meet Emrys again, you must assure he stays away from Camelot. If he does return, or if he tries to do my kingdom any harm, he will pay for it with his life and so will you. Do you understand?”

Something shifted in Cian’s eyes, but he nodded. “I understand.”

“Wonderful,” Arthur said listlessly. He sheathed his sword with a reverberating shink, and behind him, he heard his knights do the same. “Then we will take our leave in peace.”

“Glad we could be of use, Arthur,” Cian drawled with a smile, and his dry sarcasm was not lost on Arthur. That, and that for the first time he’d referred to Arthur by only his first name. As if they were equals.

Exhausted and frustrated, Arthur ignored the jab. He swivelled on his heel and drew his cape around his shoulders, storming out of the cave. Merlin scrambled to follow, but Arthur didn’t acknowledge him, focusing on his exit. He just wanted to return home and crawl into bed. He had too much to think about, and for every question answered he had gained several more. Prophecies the Druid refused to part with. Some prophecies Merlin knew, some prophecies he was barred from knowing, and all of which Cian refused to reveal.

All this, and also a new thought to chew on. Merlin was quite a killer, apparently, and Arthur didn’t know what to make of that—let alone know what to do about it. An assassin in the night, using his magic to kill Arthur’s enemies? Or something far worse? What was Cian implying?

It was a lot to process, but before he could think on it further, he heard the splash of running feet behind him, crashing through the shallow creek of the cave.

He whirled around, hands on the hilt of his sword, but only to see the little Druid boy from earlier ducking under Merlin’s startled arm, his big blue eyes wide and innocent. “I’ll be praying for you!” he cried, giving Arthur a wide grin and showing off several missing teeth. In his chubby little hands swung a metal necklace of some kind, and Arthur stared at it, fixated, while the pendant twirled and glinted in the moonlight. The circular centre presented curved symbols Arthur didn’t recognise. “I hope you find peace and forgiveness!”

And with that, the Druid boy bounced back and ducked behind Merlin once more, disappearing into the cave darkness as quickly as he’d come—leaving Arthur frozen.

He stared. Stared unseeingly into the blackness of the cave where the Druid boy’s ragged brown cloak had vanished. He wasn’t sure how long he stayed there, standing and staring like a madman before Merlin moved into his line of sight.

“Are you okay?” the servant whispered, reaching for his arm, and Arthur swallowed, shaking himself out of it. He dodged Merlin’s touch, turning away and burying himself in his cape.

“Let’s go,” he said gruffly, stalking up the muddy slope with heavy footfalls. He’d never felt more tired and empty. Today, his only prayer was for this waking nightmare to be over.