Merlin's memories of childhood are of a time charmed. Of the smell of bread baking in the mornings, of wheat and hay being farmed in the fields, of the sweet smell of dirt; playing with pigs and shrieking through lines of linen, running free and wild in the forests and splashing in the streams.
There were few children in the village born the same year as Merlin; of the seven born, only he and Will would grow to adulthood.
Children were a precious commodity, and because they were the first two to survive in so very long, they were both adored. Will was the son of a knight of the realm, which made him better, but less beloved.
And Merlin, though he is a bastard son of a woman who is not native to Ealdor, was coddled and cooed at by the women and great things predicted for him by the men.
He was a strange baby, and a stranger boy, and even still he is a stranger man. But he survived, and it made things- the strange things, the inexplicable things- easier to dismiss.
Merlin's first act of magic was, in fact, spectacular. It was big, the way only children can be, before they learn to be hemmed in by expectations; by society. His first act of magic was when he was six months old, and his mother is weeping over a lost crop because of the incessant rain.
When the roosters crowed the next morning, the crop wasn't mold or rotted, and the sun shone the rest of the season.
"Unusually mild" was the explanation- it still is, if you ask the right people.
No one said "witchcraft"- no one wanted to.
When good things happen it's not witchcraft; it's a blessing or good luck.
Merlin learned that people are very willing to look the other way in the name of fortune's smiles.
His mother never taught Merlin to read. Widow Gorringe, who lived in a hut on the hill, caught him in one of her trees. She pulled him in with a gnarled hand and sat him in front of vellum books, teaching him letters and words.
When Merlin was 13, she died.
It was just as well: people were talking about how the old widow "fancied a younger set". His mother was starting to look worried again.
He never asked her where she had learned to read and write: she was the only person in their village who could after Will's father died. He only knew that she hid the talent- he only knew she could because she looked at his name inside a book and snapped at him for writing his name inside Ecclesiastical History.
"Do you want them to talk?" she'd demanded, waving it at him. "What else do you have, Merlin? Beowulf? Confessions?"
He'd stared at her, at her dear, familiar face with it's premature worry lines, her kind brown eyes and the smudges of dirt that were worn deep into her skin. He'd seen in her a stranger, someone who must once have been a great beauty- who knew books well enough to call them by name, to inflect into their names reverence and longing and love that no one who had never read them could ever do.
He'd quietly given her all the books, and she'd taken them. He'd woken in the witching hours to see her burning them, tears streaming down her face and her hands trembling as she laid each one somberly into the flames.
She was furious for a week, barely speaking to him at all until one night, as they ate turnip stew (watery- everyone is stocking up for the winter and conserving what they could), she told him quietly of King Uther in Camelot. Of how Camelot wasn't like Alcase- the people there lived in relative peace, able to take from the land what they could without fear of it being ripped from their weary, callused hands. Of how the name Pendragon is like a cloak all the people of Camelot could pull around their shoulders as protection from the forces outside their borders.
Camelot sounded like a fairy world to Merlin.
"Reading," his mother said, wrapping her hands around her mug of weak tea, "is dangerous because you are not monk, nor a priest, nor healer, nor scholar. You are not a noble, you are just Merlin, and my son. They will not believe you are reading poems and histories. They will believe you read witchcraft, and spell books. And because they cannot read, and you can, they will fear you."
They never spoke of it again, but when Merlin practiced writing in the dirt, careful to smudge it out with his boots when he was through.
That was the first time he'd realized his mother existed outside the confines of his experiences- that she had once been her own person.
He never learns all of her secrets.
The secret is that Merlin never learned to be hemmed in- was never handed a scythe by a father or uncle, was never taken into the fields or forests to hunt. His mother was no native to the village, and so he never was taught normal village ways- his hands were clean before he ate, and he never learned to dip his head and shut his mouth when his betters were talking.
He learned to pretend that he knew these things- and then only sometimes, when it occurred to him. Sometimes the villagers would stand and stare at the boy who shouted back at the knight's son, and murmur quietly about how he never knew his place. Later, they will watch as a prince of a foreign land sits outside Hunith's hut in the earliest hours of the morning, shoulder brushing against Merlin's, and wonder at it. They never look at Hunith the same way, after that.
What Merlin learned from growing up in Ealdor, more than anything, is that acting a dolt or a bit of a clod is enough, when paired with a smile, for the world to forgive him anything.
And even when he's in Camelot, being thrown in to the stocks, he knows that the punishment could be much worse- and that, all things considered, he still leads a charmed life.
When he said "they never do" when his mother warned him about anyone learning his secret, he wasn't being arrogant.
He had grown up in a place where rising with the sun and setting with it is commonplace; where tasks were so difficult that sleep came swiftly, and sometimes plagued the eyes throughout the day.
The people of Ealdor were not stupid, they were simply too busy surviving, too busy staying awake, to notice the oddities of Hunith's son.
The people of Camelot; the people of the palace, they have the time.
Gaius notices on the first day, before he even knew Merlin's name. There is no convenient explanation, and if Merlin had been anyone else, a touch more cunning, a touch more cynical, he may have learned something from it. As it is- it is Gaius, whom his mother trusted, and it turns out for the best.
No lesson is learned.
The fact that his magic is used to save Arthur aids him. Even those cynics of Camelot are happy to praise providence that Merlin is there at that moment, or relieved enough at Arthur's success not to notice Merlin's presence or absence.
Luck has played no small role in Merlin's life.
Arthur himself is a different story. He has no use for luck, and no allegiance to providence- what inclinations he'd had were erased young by Uther. Arthur believes in the merit of hard work, of duty- Merlin suspects Arthur would believe magic would be cutting corners, somehow, even though he expects the impossible.
Arthur is smarter than he seems, and Merlin eventually learns that Arthur is not smarter than he seems, he's smarter than he chooses to appear, which is far more frightening of the two.
Arthur is far better at playing games than Merlin; far better at objectively assessing a situation. Arthur rarely rushes into anything without first considering it from all angles.
With months of hindsight Merlin can understand that Gaius' suspicions about Sofia and her father came from Arthur's sudden attachment: Arthur doesn't have a bone in his body that makes him align himself to people so quickly. Merlin thinks, of all he's seen, that he's the only one whom Arthur has decided to like and trust fully within a month.
Arthur jealously guards his space and privacy, and is very careful especially with the ladies of court not to favor any above the others.
Arthur is a man keenly aware of his responsibilities.
Sometimes, when he is sitting in his chambers with his favorite red shirt on, open at the neck as he ponders harvest yields for the last three years, mouth wine-kissed red, Merlin wants to reach out and brush his hair away from his eyes. Whisper against his skin that he is sorry for ever doubting him.
Sorry for not believing one day he will be a great king.
But never sorry for calling him a prat.
When Arthur finds out, Merlin isn't precisely sure. It may have been as early as Sofia, or as recent as Ealdor. It may have been the snakes, come to think- Arthur did have the best vantage point, and Merlin was being ridiculous. Perhaps it was with Tristan- Arthur's bedroom window overlooked the courtyard, and perhaps he'd been standing and watching as Merlin had tried to burn the undead knight.
But Merlin doesn't know, because Arthur never says, and when he does intimate that he knows, it's clear he's known for some time. But Merlin never notices a sudden shift in Arthur's behavior- Merlin is never interrogated, asked pointedly if there's something he can do, never brought along without complaint.
And to be honest, Merlin had expected some grand scene. Arthur is very good at grand scenes, he has them at least once a month just to keep his hand in, though lately they have been more private. If not a scene, then a sword, a shove- Arthur has never minded about Merlin's space, acting as entitled to it as he is to Merlin's waking hours.
Merlin sometimes wishes Arthur felt entitled to other things.
The first time they tumble, Merlin is going stark raving mad because Arthur will not stay in bed. It is only two days after Sofia, and Gaius invented a story about Arthur's delirium- assuring everyone he has no memory of the events of the last few days due to a fever. They are both caught off-guard when Arthur actually collapses when he tries to get out of bed.
It turns out that Sidhe magic is a bit vindictive, and takes a while to work its way out of the blood.
But Arthur hates being bedridden- he is a terrible patient, and he reads and reads until he has a headache, but Gaius says not to let him read histories or philosophies because it makes him edgy and too thoughtful, and he'll wear himself out faster.
By day three Merlin wants to go down and as Geoffrey for a complete war history of Albion, just to wear Arthur out.
He expects Merlin to entertain him, and so Merlin tells him stories from Ealdor, stretched out on the bed beside him because he's tired, and Arthur has given up on even protesting.
They wake up late at night, internal clocks completely thrown because of Arthur's odd sleeping habits when he's sick.
Someone kisses someone else, easily as anything, and Merlin will never know who started it.
Arthur's hands slide down his sides, and Merlin should stop, but Arthur's hands are clever and his tongue is wicked, and Merlin is incapable of really saying no to him.
Gaius would not approve.
Arthur tries to smother him when Merlin mentions the healing power of his cock.
No one notices that outside, an apple tree has blossomed out of season.
It should trouble him. In some distant way, he can see that he should be concerned about the power he has, and it does worry him- for a brief moment.
When Nimueh is nothing, just a scorch-mark in the grass soon washed away by the torrential downpour that will last a week, it doesn't affect him. When he gets Gaius into bed, he feels nothing, just relief, and a bit damp. When he stokes the fires, there is nothing but appreciation for the heat licking against his skin.
When he goes to find Arthur- to make sure that it's not all just a cruel joke, and that Arthur is still alive, color returned, breathing- it hits him.
He is still soaking wet, but he sits on Arthur's floor beside the bed, and shakes apart silently, too full of magic, with all of Albion inside his head shrieking triumphantly at him until he thinks he will break or go mad.
And then there is a hand, soft and sleepily clumsy, brushing the side of his face and tucking two fingers under the hem of his scarf, tugging on it, imperious even half-asleep.
"Come here," Arthur says, voice rumbling the command like he knows Merlin will do it; as though there can be no question of this.
Merlin does, and Arthur observes him with a blue tired eye cracked open, half his face hidden in a pillow.
"Lie down," he says. Merlin lies down beside him, stupidly, impossibly grateful.
"Pull the covers over."
And Merlin does. And then he just lays there, stiff and unfamiliar and desperately wanting to reach out but so incapable, feeling absurd under the covers in his sopping clothes and muddy boots. He doesn't have- he doesn't have command over his own body. Not really. Things he knows he should do seem like insurmountable tasks.
"God, you're useless," Arthur groans, rolling over and slinging an arm over Merlin, and Merlin curls into him, buries his face in the curve of Arthur's neck, and shakes against him until he can't anymore.
He is distantly aware that Arthur's goblet is waging war with the fire poker, and that the chest is gossiping with a tapestry, and the curtains are shivering around them and the door is bolted tightly shut, but Arthur doesn't move, just strokes his hair idly, calluses catching on his skin every so often.
Arthur doesn't flinch as the rain slams against the windows in sheets.
And then it dawns on Merlin: Arthur knows.
Merlin never says the words that would sentence him to death, and Arthur doesn't ask for them. They don't speak of it, and Merlin thinks that it is because he cannot bear to have Arthur look at him the way Gaius or his mother have; with heartbreak and guilt. He thinks Arthur says nothing because he is guarding plausible deniability- that if Uther finds out Arthur can truly say that he doesn't know that Merlin's a sorcerer (he would merely be inferring or suspecting it- Arthur is quite good with words).
It doesn't matter.
Merlin never learned not to take an inch when given a mile- he take leagues.
Arthur knows, and Merlin is released.
There are monsters lurking in the forests of Camelot, beasts Arthur is determined to drive away.
He stops protesting when Merlin comes along.
Things change- Merlin can use it openly, and it is a shuddering release, like coming after hours of sweet torture.
Sometimes, after a beast is felled, he catches Arthur watching him speculatively, but then he always grins and tells Merlin to collect their things, and Merlin rolls his eyes and does so.
Merlin never uses his magic on Arthur- not in the field, and not in bed. It may be all around them, but somehow, Arthur is untouchable.
Eight months later, Merlin cannot take it.
Arthur knows, and they never speak of it.
Morgana is less frequently coming from her chambers, and Gwen is too busy attending to her to spend much time with Merlin, not that he begrudges her the time.
But it leaves Merlin with Arthur, and only Arthur.
Arthur, for whom Merlin almost killed his own mother.
And his magic is pouring from him, and Gaius is becoming ever-more worried and afraid for him, because he cannot stop. It is inadvertent, and no words can control it anymore. Merlin has merely to think of a thing and it is done.
And Arthur now reaches up idly to take his goblet from midair, or runs a hand over his quivering curtains to quiet them.
And it feels like Arthur running his hand over Merlin's arms, down his back. It sends shivers through him. It makes Merlin want, and even though he can have, he is nervous about the extents he will go to to please Arthur.
Arthur would never hurt him, and Merlin knows that, but it unsettles him that whatever Arthur suggests, Merlin acquiesces to without thought.
There is nothing he will not do for Arthur.
This realization comes full force after Nimueh has been dead for a year, when a band of sorcerers descends upon Camelot, desperate to keep another Pendragon from the throne.
They are well-cloaked, and Merlin only feels the hum of magic when they are in the council room, where Arthur is bent over a table with his closest circle of knights.
They are unofficially looking to see what roads need patrolling, but Merlin has heard Gawain say, "Cendred is an old man" and Lionell offer the insight that, "They are stronger at the sea, chipping away at the country will be no big thing."
The thirteen men fan out, and swords are drawn. Two of them are just boys- perhaps twelve.
"Leave me," Arthur snaps immediately, and the knights look at him as though he is mad. "See if there are others in the castle, and warn my father that we are under attack. Go!" They believe (or choose to believe) his reasoning and reluctantly withdraw, and Arthur slides his sword from his scabbard.
Merlin stands beside him.
"There shall be no bloodshed of our kind under another Pendragon," the eldest of the sorcerers says, and that is all the words they seem willing to spare Arthur.
The great brute force of their combined magic is like a tidal wave or a wall brought down by grappling hooks all at once.
Merlin feels sweat trickle down his neck, and is vaguely aware that he is keeping Arthur pinned to his chair- that the tapestries are smothering one of the sorcerers while the candlesticks attack another, melting into his nose and ears and open mouth until he smothers, writhing on the ground.
How the others die Merlin does not know. Some explode to nothingness like Sofia and her father, and he has no lightening but he has the fire which burns merrily in both the hearth and on a corpse.
"Enough, Merlin," Arthur says finally. "They are all very dead."
And Merlin stops.
Arthur is hard-eyed with anger, and he clips Merlin sharply over the ear as soon as Merlin releases him.
"Could you even pretend?" Arthur demands, surveying the bodies. "How am I going to explain these, Merlin?"
"I- " Merlin says helplessly. It hadn't occurred to him.
Lionell and Gawain walk back into the room, their sharp eyes taking in Merlin and Arthur- who are remarkably whole, and the remains of thirteen sorcerers.
"They destroyed each other in a fit of rage," Arthur says. The timbre of his voice dares any to question the words he's saying. "They each wanted the honor of my death."
Gawain and Lionell are good men, and devoted to Arthur to a fault. They will accept this as truth, because Arthur has said it is truth.
Arthur looks at Merlin after he returns to his chambers.
"My father is under the impression you were knocked out, and lay insensate on the floor," he informs him. "I trust there will be no rumors to the contrary."
And Merlin says no, and then, "I couldn't let them- I don't care. Arthur, I don't care." And he cups Arthur's cheeks though he has no place to do so, smoothing his thumbs over the line of Arthur's cheekbones and thinking that the only thing that keeps him is Arthur. That the power that curls liquid-hot under Merlin's skin is only contained by Arthur never asking Merlin to use it, and the thought is terrifying.
And he wonders where that power lies- the power to turn villagers into armies and inspire such devotion that people spend a month's wages on candles to burn for him in the hopes that their prayers might give him strength.
Arthur is attractive, with blond hair and blue eyes straight from a fairytale, and he is competent and brave, but there is something else- something intangible about him which promises greatness.
Merlin wonders if Geoffrey's replacement will have scrolls dedicated to the story of Arthur- if he will surpass even Beowulf in Albion's history.
Arthur's hands wrap around his wrists, thumbs resting over Merlin's pulse-points.
"I'm magic," Merlin says, because it has to be said, because he has to.
"I know." Arthur is steady, calm, and his eyes are a touch bemused, as though he wonders if Merlin's mental condition is resurfacing.
"I can't let anything happen to you."
"No, Arthur- I can't. I am- it- " he struggles for the words. "I would do terrible things for you, if you asked it of me."
"I won't," Arthur replies simply.
Merlin wants to say, Yes, you will. You'll be tempted.
"You wouldn't anyway," Arthur observes, taking Merlin's hands from his face and studying them. "If I told you to magic Cendred's castle to the middle of the ocean you'd say…"
"I'd say what about all the people inside who just work for Cendred- they've never done anything, just stuck like my mother behind some boundary line that kings have- " he breaks off.
Arthur grins, still looking at Merlin's hands. "You're absurd," he says. "You won't turn me to a tyrant, Merlin. You are incapable of it."
He leans in for a kiss, and Merlin gives it to him, tries to lose himself into it.
Merlin will never fully believe Arthur's words, though- he killed two boys today, for Arthur, and he has killed many others without so much as a thought.
The fear takes root and begins to grow.
It will be the death of Arthur- Merlin's fear of what he might become; his fear of them.
Arthur will never ask Merlin to do the impossible, even though they both know he can.
Mordred will rise, angry and bitter, bringing with him foreigners and bandits and northern kingdoms hungry for Camelot's riches.
Mordred will be slain, and the armies will perish, and Camelot will be protected, and will thrive, but Arthur will die- will never see Camelot again. Mordred will not be stopped by Merlin- he will be stopped by Arthur.
And when Merlin lifts Arthur in his arms, carrying him to Avalon and kissing his wounds, laving his tongue over them until they close; his penance, Merlin will promise Arthur's still form that he won't fail again.
That next time, if Arthur wants the world, Merlin will give it to him, children and mothers be damned. That if Arthur will just come back, just once, Merlin will rend universes, won't ignore warnings. If Arthur wants it, Merlin will make him a throne on the bodies of his enemies, and even if Arthur does not, Merlin will ensure that there are no enemies who can touch him.
And then he will set his shoulders, kiss Arthur's still lips, and leave.
And he will wait.