As they crested the last ridge, the land sloped away below them. And there, nestled like a white jewel amid the heavy green of the forest, the gold of ripening grain, and the white smoke of midday fires in the surrounding town, was Camelot.
Nothing had changed. Of course nothing had changed. They had not been gone a month, not even long enough for the harvest to begin or the leaves to change. Still, it felt wrong. So much had happened, how could it all still be the same? Panic spiked in Merlin's chest as Llamrei carried him closer and closer, and his breaths drew short and tight, like he was being strangled from within.
"Merlin?" Arthur said, quiet but concerned. He brought Hengroen up close, so that their legs brushed against each other. "Remember what I said. It will be all right."
Merlin nodded, tried to calm himself. "Good thing we weren't gone longer," he said, straining to make a joke. "I might not have wanted to come back at all."
Arthur gave a start of mock offense. "Then as your master, I would've had to order you back."
Merlin wanted to reply with a joke about how insolent and useless a servant he was, how he never followed Arthur's orders. But even as a jest, the words felt false and wrong on his tongue. His insolence had been born of necessity, for when his duty to protect Arthur conflicted with his duty to serve him. And he didn't want to be useless again, not now that he knew what it was to be valued. What he wanted was to be Arthur's knight, brave and determined and loyal, but that was the one thing he could no longer be.
"You should order me back, then," he said, glancing at Arthur and then away, the quiet admission leaving him bared.
He would go back, for Arthur. He would walk willingly to his fate, and submit himself to Arthur's judgement. But he needed something. He needed the order, he needed Arthur to need it. He could always be brave for Arthur, when he couldn't for himself.
Arthur didn't say anything at first, and when Merlin glanced sideways at him, he saw that Arthur was giving him a considering look. Measuring him up, perhaps, or seeing that Merlin was not the same as he had been, when they left. Seeing what was left of the knight in him, now that the armor and position were stripped away.
"Merlin," Arthur said, with deliberate care, "I order you to return with me to Camelot, and to remain at my side until you are released from my service. Which will be, at current estimation, roughly never. Is that clear?"
"Yes, sire," Merlin said, relief dulling his panic. It wasn't much, in the face of all that awaited him, but it would have to be enough. His breathing eased.
Arthur guided Hengroen back into position, rather pleased with the persistence of their new dynamic. No doubt he was enjoying the idea of Merlin being as faithful and obedient a servant as he had been a knight. Merlin could only hope that when he placed his secrets into Arthur's hands, that persistence would be reassurance enough that Merlin would never lie to him again.
And he wouldn't. Once he'd told Arthur about his magic, he would tell him everything, all the secrets that were his to share. And once it was safe, once he had permission, he would tell Arthur about Morgana and about Merek and his family, and about all that magic was already doing to preserve and protect the kingdom. And perhaps they could visit Gedref again together, this time without bringing an army with them. Lord Wichard and Lady Helewisa could teach them both what they knew about magic, as they must already be teaching Merek. And Morgana could come, too, so they could help her with her nightmares.
Yes, he liked the sound of that. He and Arthur and Morgana, and Gwen, too. Gedref would be good for all of them. The prospect of returning there calmed Merlin's fears another notch. Merek's family would have answers and guidance, and Arthur could work with them to make Camelot as safe and bountiful as he dreamed it could be. And from there, their future would be wide open with possibilities.
Merlin relaxed his grip on the reins and straightened his posture from his anxious hunch. Arthur was looking ahead, sitting tall and proud, glad to be nearly home after the long road and everything along it. Merlin did his best to match him, to share the gladness he saw. He knew now what it was to be in harmony with his King, and he would hold on to that memory as the road brought them down.
It seemed that the entire population of the town was there to welcome them, lining the streets, cheering and waving brightly-colored flags. The way to the courtyard was similarly decorated, with swaths of bright fabrics that transitioned to Pendragon red and gold as they made their way into the castle proper. Merlin couldn't help but grin, and he grinned even wider when he saw that Arthur actually looked bashful beneath his calm, noble posture.
"You're a hero," he teased Arthur, as they rode into the courtyard.
"I'm their Prince," Arthur said, unruffled. "I did my duty. I have no need for all this… fussing."
"Admit it, you like a fuss."
Arthur shrugged. "It's not unpleasant."
Even if his own victories had to be hidden, he still shared the larger victory of the battle itself. He shared it with Arthur and the whole army. And even though army was about to break apart, in this last moment together, he and they were celebrated as one. They had won a good victory in Gedref. Many lives were saved, just as Eduard said. That was what mattered. And he did not have to be a knight to continue to save lives. He had been saving lives for a long time, for far longer than he had been Arthur's knight. And he would keep on saving lives as Arthur's sorcerer. They would have new ways to fight side by side, protecting Camelot together.
As the streets had been full of commoners, the broad steps to the castle were spilling over with nobility and castle servants. With perfect timing, Uther strode out to greet them as they brought their horses to a halt.
"Welcome home, my son," Uther said, bursting with pride and relief.
"Father," Arthur nodded. "It's good to be home." He dismounted in one smooth motion, and stepped forward to meet his father's embrace. They shook arms and patted each other's backs.
"You must be tired from your long journey," Uther said. "You must tell me everything, but formalities will wait until tomorrow. In a few days, we shall have a feast to celebrate your splendid victory. Absolutely splendid!"
"Thank you, father," Arthur said, and Merlin could see that he took pleasure in Uther's praise in a way that he had not from the festive crowds. It was something quieter, deeper, and Merlin was happy to see it in him, even if he would rather Arthur not be taking pleasure in anything from Uther. But of course, Uther had no idea that Arthur had so utterly undermined his precious First Code. Merlin could not deny that he took a viciously personal satisfaction in that.
Merlin heard his name called, and he turned to see Gwen and Gaius waving to him and walking over. He dismounted and was immediately pulled into a tight, tight hug by Gwen.
"I'm so glad you're all right," she said, grinning ear to ear as she released him. "The messenger Arthur sent barely told us a thing!"
Gaius was next, holding him close and sighing with relief. "It's good to see you home, my boy," he said, warmly. "You and Arthur both. I imagine you've had quite an adventure."
There was so much to tell, so much say, that Merlin barely knew where to begin. He wasn't even sure what he should tell. But then, Gaius and Gwen and Morgana all knew that Arthur had taken him into battle as more than just a servant. And when he could get a moment alone with Gaius, there were things he needed to talk to him about that even Arthur didn't know about yet. And then there was Morgana...
"Where's Morgana?" he asked, looking around to find her, thinking that perhaps she would greet Arthur before anyone else.
Gwen's grin faded. "Resting," she said, though her concern indicated that there was more to it than any sudden desire for a nap. "But she said to pass on her welcome and that she would absolutely be better in time for the feast."
The feast that was days from now. Merlin grew even more concerned, but before he could inquire further, Arthur had returned. "Ah, Gaius, good. I need you and Merlin to take care of the injured."
"Of course, sire," Gaius said, with a bow of his head. "And Arthur, it's good to see you home."
Arthur nodded his reply.
Merlin wanted to help Gaius, but he also wanted to stay with Arthur. "But you need me to take our bags. Stable the horses." He was aware that Gwen and Gaius were both looking at him with surprise, but it was only Arthur's reaction that mattered.
There was understanding in Arthur's eyes. He didn't want things to go back to the way they were, either. He didn't want to have to give Merlin up to anyone else, just as Merlin didn't want to leave him. But things couldn't stay the same. They were home now, and things were different here. They would have to adapt and try to fit themselves into their old lives again, no matter how tight the squeeze.
"I need you where your skills are most useful," Arthur said, giving him a gentle order. "And right now, that is with Gaius. Even a prince can carry a few bags."
Arthur gave him a soft, fond smile, and Merlin wanted to live in it forever. He recognized the gesture for what it was, and it warmed him. Even if Merlin was only a manservant again to everyone else, he was still a knight in Arthur's heart. Not everything had to go back the way it was. Not everything had to be taken away.
"Sire," Merlin said, softly acknowledging. The word earned him a quiet approval that was as close to a hug as he could get in the middle of the courtyard.
When Merlin forced himself to turn away from Arthur, he found that if Gwen and Gaius had been surprised before, now they had matching eyebrows of astonishment.
Gaius cleared his throat. "Well, then. Shall we?"
"Yes," Merlin said, a blush heating his cheeks.
As the afternoon faded into evening, Gwen abandoned them briefly to check on both Morgana and Arthur. She made up for her absence by bringing them dinner, which Merlin hurriedly devoured, and the news that Arthur was still in his long meeting with Uther, giving him his private report on the battle. Merlin wished he was there to hear what Arthur was saying. But then again, what was there that he didn't already know? He had been by Arthur's side every step of the way, more or less. And if he was honest with himself, he could, in fact, live without hearing all his actions attributed to Geraint. He would no doubt hear enough about that once word got out to the rest of Camelot
As he dug into his dinner, he wondered if any of the food in Camelot was harvested from a Gedref-tended field. There must be, since the Lords paid most of their taxes in grain. So some of the bread would have magic. And then the chickens and other animals that ate the grain would have magic. It would be weak, because all the grain was mixed together in the silos, but it must be there. If Merlin had felt a vicious satisfaction about the First Code, he was almost gleeful at the thought of Uther Pendragon choking down his food in the knowledge that it had magic in it. For a man who insisted so much on having the best of everything, Merlin doubted he could resist Gedref grain.
How it must sting, for a man who so utterly devoted himself to the annihilation of magic to be forced to suffer it as a lesser evil. It was an act of breathless hypocrisy to burn a pregnant woman alive for daring to use a single protective enchantment to protect her husband's life, and then to turn around and allow the south of Camelot to be seeded with magic. But if what Arthur had told him was true, the alternatives were mass starvation or the exhaustion of Camelot's gold through the purchase of grain from its neighbors. And the latter would be such a sign of weakness that it would be the invitation of an invasion, especially from Cenred. Uther had choked down his pride along with his food.
Merlin supposed that in a way, it meant that Uther couldn't be as mindlessly against magic as he seemed to be. In the choice between the caretaking of his kingdom and his hatred, he had shown at least a reluctant wisdom. That did not mean, however, that if push came to shove, he would not go against that wisdom and set himself against Lord Wichard. No wonder Merek didn't want him to tell Arthur about it. It was a delicate balance between them, cloaked in careful deniability. To bring it into the light could result in mutual destruction.
"Thanks," he told Gwen, his cheeks full of food. "How's Morgana?"
Gwen looked down at the table between them, obviously worried. "The nightmares are back again. Everything was quiet for so long, I'd really hoped they'd stopped. But now every night seems worse than the last." She bit her lip, not wanting to speak the worst of her fears.
"What about the sleeping draughts?" Merlin asked, swallowing his mouthful.
"They help, but..." Gwen began, lowering her voice. She glanced across the room to where Gaius was busy changing the bandage on a man's arm. "Gaius is giving her something new. Something stronger. And he keeps giving her more of it, because she's still suffering. But it's taking so much from her. This morning, I worried she might not wake at all."
There were shadows under Gwen's eyes, and Merlin wondered if the cost of Morgana's sleep was the loss of Gwen's. Merlin could not imagine being forced to watch Arthur suffer and suffer and slowly slip away. It would be unbearable, unthinkable. He would do anything to stop it, but he also had the option of using his magic. Gwen had to rely on Gaius and Morgana, and both seemed set on their course.
"What if…" Merlin lowered his voice to a whisper. "What if she stops taking the draughts? Just… lets the nightmares happen?"
Gwen shook her head. "I can't imagine how ill she would be if not for Gaius. When her nightmares started, it was so awful for her. Gaius' draughts were the only thing that helped. At least with the draughts, she doesn't remember her dreams, even when she wakes up screaming." She grimaced. "Except the worst ones. And then she's so afraid..."
"Maybe I should go talk to her," Merlin said, torn between helping Morgana and telling Arthur. If he could convince her not to take another dose...
But Gwen shook her head again. "Maybe tomorrow?" she offered. "The nightmares will stop soon, I hope. They always have before."
Morgana was a seer. Her nightmares were frightening because they were premonitions, warnings about terrible things, and they only stopped once the danger was past. She had dreamed about Sophia and the Questing beast, and both times Arthur had come incredibly close to death. If she was having premonitions again, did that mean Arthur was in danger? If she was still having them, it couldn't be about Gedref. It had to be a threat that was still to come. Merlin needed to find out, and soon, so he could warn Arthur of the danger and protect him.
But once he told Morgana about her magic, there was every chance she might realize he had magic of his own. And then not only would yet another person know before Arthur did, but Morgana might just take matters into her own hands and try to tell him herself. No, Gwen was right. Tomorrow would be better. And it was one more reason to tell Arthur tonight, once he was done helping Gaius and Arthur was done speaking with Uther. Tonight, when they were alone in their chambers. It was only a matter of hours, now.
"Let me talk to Gaius," Merlin said, reaching out to give her hand a reassuring squeeze. "There was a physician in Gedref, and he helped me when I hurt my head. In fact, he probably saved my life. I'm certain he could find some way to help her."
Gwen's relief was immediate. She had been caring for Morgana on her own for so long, the first helping hand must feel like a lifeline. "You really think so?"
Merlin nodded, and knocked on his own head. "See? Mine's working just fine. And you would not believe how much it got banged around." He wondered now if the physician was also using magic. It certainly seemed likely. Merlin wondered if he would be able to learn healing magic from him, when they brought Morgana to Gedref.
Gwen's focus shifted from Morgana to Merlin. "Then Arthur let you fight? Come on, Merlin, you haven't told me anything about what happened!"
Merlin opened his mouth, mind racing as he tried to decide where to begin.
Gaius loudly cleared his throat. "You can eat or you can work. Gossiping is neither."
Merlin shut his mouth with a click, then rolled his eyes, much to Gwen's amusement. "It'll take hours anyway," he said, shovelling the last of his food into his mouth. "Tomorrow. I'll tell you and Morgana the whole story. I just have to pry myself away from Arthur first."
"It looked like he was having trouble prying himself away from you," Gwen said, with a blush. She had often told him that they were adorable together, what with the way they gazed into each other's eyes all the time. Gwen was just as incurable a romantic as he was himself. But she did tend to grow shy about the physical side of their relationship.
Gwen ate the last of her food and went to help Gaius, leaving Merlin to finish his.
Merlin wondered if she had ever been with anyone. There had been a bit of a flirtation between Gwen and Lancelot, and in hindsight Gwen had even flirted with him, though he had been too focused on Arthur even then to notice such things. Well, there had been that kiss, but he'd nearly died, and she had been hugging Gaius before that, so he didn't think it counted. But she hadn't so much as mentioned Lancelot since he left, and there had certainly been no one since then. Only Morgana. But he didn't know if he was simply projecting his own relationship with Arthur onto the two of them, or if there was truly something more. And it wasn't the sort of thing he could just ask about.
The love of women was hardly unheard of. But like the love of men, the acceptance of it varied greatly. Arthur was still expected to marry, after all, and Merlin would never be a princess. But as a king, it would not be considered unusual for him to take a consort. As a knight, he could lie with other knights without fear of censure, as long as it was not flaunted -- though Gedref had shown Merlin that Arthur was not above defying convention in that. There was a pair of old women in the lower town who the gossips said had left their husbands for each other decades ago, but all young girls were expected to find good husbands, and all young men good wives. Mostly it seemed to be about ensuring the birth of lots of children, because Camelot never had enough, what with all the wars.
Morgana was the King's ward. She would be expected to marry soon, just as Arthur was. And Gwen did not have prophecy or destiny to tie her to Morgana. He could understand if she was reluctant to give her heart openly, knowing that at best she would never be more than a consort. Without her family, she had to support herself, and a husband would make her life easier. Of course, now she had the chest of gold, so perhaps she did not have to worry about that so much. He wondered what her dreams were, beyond simply looking after Morgana. What she would choose, if given the choice. What he would have chosen for himself, if he had been like her and not born with magic, with a destiny. If he had never found Arthur.
He could not even imagine such a life. If there had been other paths open to him, and at some point there must have been, something in him had closed them. Even the story he had spun for Idriys, which had been viscerally real at the time, now felt dim and distant. He had been born, and he had found his King. Without Arthur, whatever life he lived would not be his life. It would be incomplete. He didn't have any way to explain the feeling, but there it was.
Gwen accepted a fresh dose of sleeping draught for Morgana and bid them goodnight. Merlin waved to her from his bench, then let his arm flop back down.
"What's this about your head, then?" Gaius asked. Merlin didn't know if he been told about it by someone, or if he had overheard Merlin's conversation with Gwen. For an old man, Gaius had ears like a bat. Merlin thought that unfair, since if anyone should have ears like a bat, it should be him.
"I used it to hit things," Merlin said, blithely. "Walls, the ground."
"Head injuries are a serious matter," Gaius said, giving him the eyebrow. "Come on, let me have a look at you."
Merlin rolled his eyes, but sat up so Gaius could peer into his eyes and prod at his skull for a bit. He was familiar with the ordeal from when he'd hit his head on the stairs, and of course from the many times that Arthur had limped back to Gaius after a bout with unconsciousness. He considered suggesting that Arthur wear his helmet more often. Arthur's head was rather important to him, and he didn't want it to end up all scrambled like an egg, either.
"Hm," Gaius said, which was the sound he made when he was annoyed that he hadn't found anything wrong, because it meant he wouldn't be able to deliver an appropriately grave lecture.
"See?" Merlin said. "I'm fine, Gaius. Really. If I hadn't been, Arthur would have left me in Gedref with the others."
"More likely, he would have sent the army on ahead, and waited to bring you back himself."
Merlin tried not to smile at the idea, and failed. "Maybe," he admitted.
"At least he took care of you. And I see that you took care of him, as well. Shall I take it that you were responsible for the unusually fast victory?"
Merlin's smile grew, despite his attempts to control it. "Maybe."
Gaius gave a despairing look. "Please tell me that you were careful. The fact that you still have a head on your shoulders at least tells me that Arthur hasn't found out."
"I was careful," Merlin said, though he stopped smiling. He had been eager to tell Gaius about Merek and the temple and even Idriys. He wanted to tell Gaius about being ready to tell Arthur. But he wanted Gaius to be happy for him, and it was already obvious that that was something he was not going to get.
Gaius wanted him to be the way he had been when he had left. But he wasn't. Gedref had changed him, and it had changed everything. He knew what it was to be seen, to be valued, to be known. In Gedref, he had stopped hiding, and the world hadn't ended. He had been accepted. He had been a knight, even though a servant could not be a knight. Arthur had been so proud of him, and told him that he loved him, and wanted him to be his grain of sand. How could he explain all of that, how could he explain the way he felt, the way his magic felt calm in a way it never had before?
And who was Gaius to judge him? What right did he have to decide what was best? He was fatherly, but he was not Merlin's father, if he even had a father at all. But if he was a wandering spirit, he was Arthur's wandering spirit. If he was a monster, he was Arthur's monster. Arthur loved him, and accepted him, and he would accept his magic, and Gaius had lied to both of them about so many things. Gaius had made Merlin lie to Arthur, had insisted on it again and again, no matter how much Merlin had wanted to tell him. Because of Gaius, Morgana couldn't even get out of bed, when all she needed was for someone to help her with her magic.
Merlin had had enough. He'd had enough of being cautious, enough of lies, enough of standing by and letting other people suffer because he was too afraid to trust them with the truth.
"If you want to worry about someone's head, it should be Morgana's," he said, not hiding his anger. "Drugging her like this, it's wrong, Gaius. She needs to know about her magic. That she's not alone. That's what will help her."
"Merlin," Gaius cautioned, frowning with disapproval.
"We can help her," Merlin continued, insistent. "And she can help us. What if Arthur's in danger again? What if her warning is what we need to save his life?"
"Whatever knowledge her premonitions provide, it is not worth the risk," Gaius said, sternly. "Uther cannot find out."
"But I don't want to tell Uther," Merlin said, annoyed. "I want to tell Morgana. I want her to know that she isn't alone. How can you want her to suffer this way?"
"If there was any other way," Gaius began, and then held up a hand when Merlin tried to interrupt. "A safe way, that would not endanger her life. Of course I would not let her suffer."
"How could the truth be a danger?" Merlin asked bewildered. He stood up so he could yell at Gaius properly. "What good does it serve to feed her nothing but-- but lies and potions? Why have you done this to us? To both of us?"
Gaius gave him a sharp look. "Merlin. What happened in Gedref?"
"Everything," Merlin said, swallowing. "I know, Gaius. I know you've been lying to me. Keeping things from me, things I need to know. Like you've lied to Morgana and Arthur and-- and everyone else. About magic and Camelot and why I'm here. About my destiny."
"What happened in Gedref?" Gaius asked, again.
"The time of fire is upon us," Merlin began, reciting the prophecy. "The time of retribution, brought about by our own pride. But when we are humble, the time of magic will return. The Emrys and the once and future king will rise. And all of Albion will bow to them."
Gaius paled, and sat heavily on the bench. "Who told this to you?"
"I read it, from a wall," Merlin said, defiant. "In a temple of the Old Religion that escaped the Purge. And that was not the only magic I found in Gedref. There are others, Gaius. There are others like me, like Morgana, who have magic. Who are using it to help the kingdom, just like I am. But you knew that, didn't you? Because Uther tells you everything."
Gaius stared at him, and his stunned silence was answer enough.
"I have a destiny," Merlin told him. "And it is more than hiding in the shadows and killing my own kind. I'm certain of that, as I'm certain that my future lies with Arthur, and I will not let anything stand in our way. I'm telling him the truth, and there is nothing you can say that will stop me."
Merlin stood there, chest heaving, and waited for Gaius to come up with yet another excuse, another reason for him to keep his silence.
"Tell him, if you must," Gaius said, with a coldness that was shocking. "But understand that if you do, it will destroy everything."
"If anything will destroy us, it will be the lies you've made me tell," Merlin said, furious. And he turned and stormed out, slamming the door behind him. He didn't stop, but headed directly for his second confrontation of the night, down below the dungeons. It was time to face the dragon.
The wavering light of his torch guided him past the piles of rubble and crumbled masonry that had blocked the way when he made that first visit. Curiosity about the voice in his head had compelled him to use his magic to clear a path, and it had been well-trodden ever since. Uther had chained the dragon up and sealed him away him to rot, and for once Merlin was in agreement with him. For all that the dragon had helped him, that help had been merely a means to an end, to persuade and then blackmail Merlin into freeing him. For the spell to stop Sigan, the dragon had secured that promise, and could not deny that it weighed on him. It was one that he would have to keep eventually, but at least he would not have to keep it alone.
Merlin stepped out onto the ledge and peered out into the vast, dark cavern. There was no sign of the dragon, but he was there, somewhere.
"Dragon!" he yelled, his voice resounding as it echoed off the jagged stone. "Dragon! Show yourself!"
There was the distant rattle of heavy chain, and the rush of air as the dragon swooped out from whatever shadow he had been lurking in. The earth shook as he crashed his weight against the mound of stone that he so often used as his perch, and his claws scraped as they curled, sending shales of rock skittering far below. Grip secured, he leaned his huge head forward. His great nostrils flared, and his golden eyes shimmered with magic.
"Merlin," he growled, and bared his teeth in a subtle threat. If anything a thirty-foot dragon did could be called subtle. "Have you come to fulfil your promise at last? I have been waiting." He held his wings aloft, as if eager to leap to his freedom.
Looking at the dragon now, with what he knew, it was obvious that he would do anything to gain his freedom. Of course he had lied to him, tricked him, manipulated him. The question was not why the dragon had done so. The question was, why had Merlin believed him? The dragon had called him kin, and Merlin had denied it in his anger. But even on their first meeting, Merlin had felt... something. A connection, a faint call of belonging, of protection. Having been away for so long, it seemed stronger now, as too much cold in the body made a lukewarm bath feel close to boiling. He looked at the dragon and saw a terrifying monster, a scheming liar. He looked at the dragon and felt an echo of the same harmony that he had felt in the temple, that he felt with Arthur. It didn't make sense.
The dragon tilted its head at him, and sniffed deeply. His eyes widened, then narrowed. "You have been to the south."
"I'm here for answers," Merlin said, not wanting to get sidetracked by whatever the dragon was up to.
"Free me, and I will tell you anything you wish," smiled the dragon. There was promise in such a smile, but it was not a friendly promise.
"When you first called me here, you told me I had a destiny," Merlin continued, ignoring the distraction. "That my magic was given to me to protect Arthur, so he could live to become king and unite Albion. That my destiny was to protect him."
"That is what I said," said the dragon, settling back on its haunches with a disinterested air.
"Why did you lie to me?"
"I did not lie."
"The half-truths you gave me were no better than lies," Merlin insisted. "You and Gaius, you both want me to protect Arthur. But you've done everything you could to keep me from telling him the truth."
The dragon riled, snorting out licks of fire. "Never compare me to that traitor," he snarled.
"Why do you call him that?" Merlin asked, confused.
"How many times have you saved Uther's life? Gaius has used you far worse than I. All I seek is my freedom. Through Gaius, Uther would crush his enemies, and turn the power of the Old Religion against itself. Gaius... and your mother."
Merlin stepped back, wary. "You have no right to speak of my mother."
"Did you never question why her life was made forfeit for Arthur's?" the dragon asked. "She and Gaius have always known of your path. That is why you are here. I admit that I have not always been entirely honest, but I am your kin, Merlin. I am your blood."
Was any of it true? Had his mother known the reason for his magic, and sent him to Gaius not to harness his magic for himself, but for Uther? What about Arthur? What about the the prophecy? Uther knew about Gedref's magic, and tolerated it. What else did he know? He searched his memory of every time Uther had stared at him, desperately trying to figure out if his eyes had not been filled with simple disdain, but knowledge and disgust.
"No," Merlin said, rubbing at his head. "No, you're lying to me again. If Uther knew, I would be dead."
The dragon gave an annoyed rumble. "Believe what you will. If you intend to break your promise, it will make little difference to me."
"I didn't say that," Merlin said, because a promise was a promise, even one made to a lying dragon. Camelot still stood, and Arthur was alive, and they would not be this way without the dragon's help.
He had to think. He had to think like Arthur, tactically. He had to put himself into the mind of his opponent. What would the dragon gain in planting so much doubt in him now? What good would such poison do? It would isolate him. If he could not even trust his mother, if he could not be certain which Pendragon he truly served, it would break his trust in Arthur. He would have no one else to turn to but the dragon. It might all be lies and it might be half-truths, but Merlin was done with both.
"Why am I so important?" he asked, playing along for now to see what it would gain him. "I'm not the only one in Camelot with magic. I'm not the only one who could be used for protection. If Uther is willing to harbor a sorcerer, then why me?"
The dragon's hesitation was all the confirmation Merlin needed. He would not have to hesitate if he was telling the truth. He could trust nothing that the dragon said.
"The time of fire is upon us," Merlin began, reciting the prophecy again. "The time of retribution, brought about by our own pride. But when we are humble, the time of magic will return. The Emrys and the once and future king will rise. And all of Albion will bow to them."
Like Gaius, the dragon stared in surprise. "Where did you learn of this? Was it in the south?" He leaned forward with interest.
Merlin couldn't help but laugh. They were both the same, no matter what their motivations, no matter if they hated each other. He had trusted both of them, and they had abused his trust. Well, he was done with them. There was only one person he could trust now, and it was Arthur.
"I'm not like you," Merlin said, taut with anger. "I gave my word, and I'll keep it. But I will only use my magic to free you if it is by Arthur's command. My magic is for him, not you."
"No!" the dragon snarled, and snorted bright flames. "I will not see the Old Religion bound to a Pendragon ever again. Never, to that butcher, that slaughterer!"
"Arthur is not his father!" Merlin shouted.
"All who bear a single drop of his blood deserve my wrath," hissed the dragon, eyes blazing with golden light. "A Pendragon slaughtered my kind, and he slaughtered yours. Tell Arthur of your magic, and you destroy the very future you wish to create. Free me, and we will restore the Old Religion together. You feel the bond between us. With time, it will become more than you can imagine."
"Magic is already returning to Camelot," Merlin said, and he was so glad that he knew that now, so glad that he had been to Gedref and seen it. "I won't suffer your lies anymore. Was there a single thing you told me that was true? What about Morgana, what about the Druid boy?"
The dragon glared at him, furious, silent. Caught in his own web, just like Gaius.
"Whatever is between us, it is nothing against what I have with Arthur. He is my King, he is everything to me, and I love him! He deserves the truth, he deserves my magic, and I will give him both!"
"No!" the dragon howled, and brought his head back to breathe out a pillar of flame.
He was still shaking as he stumbled out into the courtyard. His heart was pounding in his chest, in his ears, racing so fast that it hurt.
It was done. Everything that had ever stood in the way, everyone who had ever tried to stop him from telling Arthur the truth. It was all behind him now, and none of them could stop him. The way was clear. He looked up at the window of Arthur's chambers and saw the flicker of candlelight, and it was a beacon calling him home.
He was ready. It was time, and he was ready.
When his heart had calmed again, he made his way towards Arthur's chambers. He knew Arthur would be waiting for him. He walked up the stairs, the same stairs he had fallen on all those months ago, and went to meet his destiny.
"Why don't you go get cleaned up?" Arthur said, glancing up from his papers with a smirk.
Merlin looked down at himself, and realized that he was still filthy from the road and from treating patients, not to mention the slight smell of smoke that clung to him from the dragon's fire. "Good idea," he said, with a bashful smile. He wanted to do this right. He didn't want to be caught out as he had been when he'd brought Arthur his sword.
He took the pitcher and washbasin into his room and stripped down, and washed himself off as best he could. A proper soak would be ideal, but a good scrub could do the job almost as well. When he finished with his body, he washed the dust and smoke from his hair and face, and then went to his bags to pull out clean clothes. He found the outfit that he had worn at the feast, which Arthur must have had laundered and dried sometime in the early hours the morning after. There were certainly perks to being the Crown Prince.
He touched the favor Arthur had given him, brushing the fabric tied around his arm. He had not taken it off since they had left for Gedref, not even in his darkest moments. He decided that he would never take it off, that he would find a spell that would preserve the fabric and keep it from becoming dirty or unravelled. As Arthur's knight or his sorcerer, his fealty could not be taken back or given away. It was Arthur's forever, the way his magic would be.
He dressed himself in the fine trousers and shirt, leaving the jacket and his boots. If things really went well, he might be undressed again very soon, and there was no point in having too many things to remove. He rubbed his hair dry and brushed it neat, and angled his small mirror about until he judged himself presentable.
"Well, well," Arthur said, leaning in the doorway. "There's hope for you yet."
Merlin grinned. "I can't wear it all the time. It wouldn't do to get such fine clothes soiled, when I'm polishing your sword, or on my hands and knees on your floor." He walked over to Arthur and leaned his arm on the frame. "But if my King enjoys such things in private..."
"Your King very much does," Arthur murmured, and kissed him quite thoroughly.
Merlin's whole body went pliant as they tangled together, and he had to forcibly tear himself away. He took a step back, almost undone by the sheer want in Arthur's eyes.
"Where do you think you're going?" Arthur asked.
"I just... have to tell you something," Merlin said, pulling on his shirt to straighten it, after Arthur had pulled it all askew in seconds.
Arthur raked him with his eyes. "It can't wait?" he asked, with a hint of impatience.
"I think it's waited long enough," Merlin said, regret leaking into his voice. He shook it away. It was the future that was important, not the past. "When we talked, before the battle. I made a promise to you, to tell you everything."
"I was hoping you'd say that," Arthur said, looking very pleased indeed. And he reached into his pocket and pulled out a ring.
Merlin felt himself go pale, and his chest snapped tight, shock like a band around his chest.
"Merlin, it's all right," Arthur said, guiding him to sit down on the bed and looking utterly calm. "I'm sorry, it was cruel of me to do that to you. I know you asked me to stop surprising you, but I couldn't resist." He held up the ring. "Especially after you took this from right under my nose. Very sneaky."
"You're not..." Merlin pressed a hand against his chest, trying to breathe properly again. "You're not upset?"
"Well, I wish you'd trusted me enough to tell me, but I do understand the importance of secrets. Especially something like this. I expect Gaius made you promise not to tell me."
"You know about Gaius?" Merlin gaped, not sure if he was going to faint or laugh or cry. Arthur knew? "How long?" he asked, his voice strained with shock.
"Since Terit," Arthur said, putting the ring on the side table.
Merlin was floored. Arthur had known for months?! "You never said anything," he croaked.
"I was hoping you would be honest with me," Arthur said. "I wasn't entirely sure of your motives, at first. For all I knew, you were working for my father. It wouldn't be the first time he's spied on me, and he and Gaius are always conspiring."
"Your father?!" Merlin squeaked, wide-eyed.
"Are you just going to repeat everything I say?" Arthur said, laughing. He sat down beside him on the bed. "Don't worry, I have no doubt where your loyalties lie. I've known that for months, too."
It was too much to take in. If finding out about Gedref's magic had turned his world upside-down, this had crumpled up all his maps and thrown them out the window.
"I don't know all the details, of course," Arthur continued. "Exactly how you helped Lancelot, or what you and Gaius did to cure me from the Questing Beast. And I've been absolutely dying to know what you did in Gedref. Merek was very tight-lipped, I was thinking he might make a good captain one day." He finally stopped, apparently because he'd noticed that Merlin was very close to passing out. "Are you all right? I thought you'd be relieved."
"I am," Merlin said, dragging in breaths to stop the grey from fizzing at the edges of his vision. "I am... incredibly relieved. Arthur..." He shook his head, barely believing what he was hearing. "I thought you'd hate me. I was so afraid..."
"Why should you be afraid?" Arthur asked, resting his hand in Merlin's hair and stroking it. "This is even better than you becoming my advisor. I don't know why my father feels the need to hide Gaius away the way he does, but once I'm king I'll want everyone to know what you can do. I'll need to come up with a title, though. Not Witchfinder, that's just awful, and Morgana would argue that it was unfair to women. First Knight Against Sorcerous Attacks? Court Advisor on the Location and Destruction of Magic?" He scrunched up his face. "Rather a mouthful either way. Don't worry, we have plenty of time to think of something snappy."
Merlin went cold all at once. "Arthur?"
"Arthur," Merlin said, swallowing. 'What did you think my secret was?"
"Isn't it obvious?" Arthur said, giving his 'don't be an idiot, Merlin' face. "Gaius used to be a sorcerer. The only reason my father would keep him around was if it served a purpose. I don't know why they've been hiding it from me, because it seems perfectly sensible, but I expect they don't think I'm ready yet." He chuckled. "No wonder Gaius kept giving me those looks when I moved you in here. It was only a matter of time before I figured it out. The two of you have been fighting against sorcery in secret. You're Gaius' apprentice, so he's been teaching you. You certainly haven't been learning to be a physician. After you came back from the castle, I knew you'd learned enough to identify and destroy enchantments all on your own."
He took his hand from Merlin's hair and turned to face him directly. "That's why it's so perfect. Gaius is an old man, and I'm going to need someone who has that knowledge in order to protect the kingdom. And that's you. Together, we'll keep the whole kingdom safe from magic."
Merlin swallowed again, his mouth suddenly parched dry. "That wasn't my secret."
"What?" Arthur said, smiling and confused.
"What you said, it's... it's true, but it's..." Merlin gave a nervous laugh. His magic stirred in his chest, suddenly restless. "It's not the whole truth."
Arthur was trying to hold on to his smile, but it was wilting at the edges. "What's the rest of it?"
"Arthur... there's no way to defeat magic without magic."
"Of course there is. We killed Palaemon together, with sword and sinew alone."
"Not exactly," Merlin said. He had been so jolted from his expectations that he was having trouble working himself back up. Best to take things one step at a time. "Your sword... it isn't just a sword."
Arthur leaned back and stared at him. "Are you a complete idiot?" he said, bewildered. "You gave me an enchanted sword?! Are you trying to get yourself executed?"
"No," Merlin said, shaking his head. "It's safe. Your father used it, and he couldn't even tell."
"You gave an enchanted sword to my father?!" Arthur gaped.
"He just took it!" Merlin protested. "He wasn't supposed to use it. That's why I had to hide it in the lake."
"In the-- In the lake?!"
"Now you're the one repeating things," Merlin said, crossing his arms.
Arthur rubbed at his head. "All right, let's just... What about the griffin?"
"Enchanted lance," Merlin admitted.
"It was your enchanted sword that my father used to defeat the Black Knight," Arthur said, nodding towards the main room where it rested by his desk. "What about Cedric? There were no marks on his body."
The conversation was getting distinctly off course again. "Magic," he sighed. "I did all of it with magic."
"Like wearing enchanted mail, or using an enchanted sword," Arthur said, with a certain force behind his words, like he was trying to make that be the answer. "That is not using magic, Merlin, that is using things that happen to contain magic. That is not the same as spells. Tell me that you are not using spells."
Merlin bit his lip.
Arthur launched himself off the bed, and paced back and forth like a caged beast. "Gaius is responsible for this. He of all people should know how incredibly irresponsible, how dangerous--" He stopped and ran his hands through his hair, huffed out a breath. "He wouldn't have let you risk your soul that way unless he knew a way to reverse the corruption." He grabbed Merlin's arm and pulled him off the bed, hauling him out of the side room and towards the door. "We're going down there right now and he's going to fix you. I don't care what it takes, there has to be a way to get it out of you."
Merlin pulled against him, resisting. "Arthur, I'm not corrupted."
Arthur rounded on him and grabbed his arms painfully tight. "Merlin, you've been using spells. There's magic in you and we have to get it out before it's too late. Forget about everything I said before. After this, you are banned from ever seeing Gaius again, from even thinking about magic. I should never have let this go on so long, I can't believe I trusted him."
"No!" Merlin cried, wrenching himself free. He backed away from Arthur, rubbing at one arm and then the other. This was madness and it had to stop. "This has nothing to do with Gaius. This is about us. It's about our destiny."
"Destiny?" Arthur said, baffled. "Merlin, this is not the time for one of your bouts of nonsense."
Merlin had to fight not to flinch from that. It was almost a like a physical blow, like the slap Arthur gave him in the temple. His magic stirred again, as agitated as the rest of him.
"It is not nonsense!" Merlin said, angrily. "We were destined to be together. We were born for each other. Even if half the things the dragon said were lies, he was still right about that. It was in the temple, right on the wall! I'm the Emrys and you're the once and future king, and we're meant to unite Albion and bring back magic."
Arthur stared at him, and then sorrow crumpled his featured. "It's too late," he breathed, covering his mouth with a hand. "I waited too long. All this time..." He shook his head, on the verge of tears.
"No!" Merlin said, moving towards him, to comfort him. "I realize that sounded slightly insane, all at once like that, sorry. But I'm not corrupted, I swear, I'm fine. I'm me. I've always been me." He took a sharp breath in. "I've always been magic."
But when Merlin reached for him, Arthur flinched away, stepped back.
"Your father is wrong," Merlin said, realizing now that he'd gone about this whole thing entirely backwards. Arthur still believed all the things his father said about magic. Just because he wasn't afraid of some enchanted mail, that didn't mean anything. "Magic isn't evil. It's good. I was born with magic so I could protect you, so I could protect the kingdom. So we can fix Camelot together. Just like you dreamed. A fair and just kingdom, where magic is accepted, where I... where I don't have to be afraid." He was on the verge of tears himself, now, as Arthur continued to look at him as if he was a stranger, as if he didn't recognize him at all. Arthur knew him, Arthur loved him, how could he be afraid of him?
But Arthur had never seen magic help him. He had seen sorcerers and magical creatures attack him, but not the magic that defended him. He didn't see the magic that made the crops grow, that kept the people fed. He didn't see the magic that was in the earth and the water, in air and in fire. He couldn't feel how wonderful and safe the temple had been, with its old, worn magic, layers and layers of it pressed together until it was smooth as riverstone.
"Let me show you," Merlin asked, pleaded. "Please, Arthur, magic can be so beautiful. You just have to see it." He held his hand out at the nearest candles, and said, "Upastige draca!" Sparks flew from the flames, and a fiery image of the Pendragon crest shimmered in the air, blazing his fealty loud and clear. When he turned back, Arthur was still frozen, staring, so Merlin lifted his hand again, towards the candles behind him. "Upasti--"
Arthur slammed into him, knocking him to the floor and forcing all the air from his lungs. Merlin wheezed and gasped as Arthur pulled his arms painfully back and pinned him with his weight.
"Sorcerer," Arthur snarled, his face twisted with grief and terror.
"Let me go!" Merlin gasped, trying desperately to wriggle free. "Arthur, stop! Listen to me! Listen, I'm not--"
Arthur's hand pressed hard across his mouth, silencing him. The panic that had been rising inside him burst free, and he bucked and writhed with all his strength, terrified and horrified because Arthur was hurting him and his eyes had gone cold and Arthur was looking across the room at his sword, his dragon-forged sword, and Arthur had gone mad and if he got his hands on it there were awful, awful things he might do.
Merlin couldn't speak, but he didn't need words for this. His magic flared as he flung the sword into the side room and slammed the door. Arthur made a desperate sound, like some kind of wounded animal, and his arm was across Merlin's neck, strangling Merlin as his knee jammed into his back, pressing painfully into his spine.
Merlin's magic went wild. The papers flew off the desk and swirled around the room. Everything light enough was blown to the floor, and the candles blazed with tall flames that threatened to catch the curtains alight.
"Please," Merlin mouthed, a tight, airless rasp as he struggled desperately. He couldn't breathe, he couldn't breathe, and the harder he struggled, the harder Arthur's arm pulled against his throat. He couldn't let it end this way. His vision started to fade, and he felt his destiny rushing away from him. He knew he had only seconds left to stop this, to use his magic to make Arthur stop. But he couldn't do it. He couldn't hurt Arthur, couldn't use his magic against him. He loved him, all of him loved him, all the pieces and why couldn't Arthur see?
His magic flared with grief and retreated, and the candle flames lowered, the papers fluttered to the floor. The shimmering crest dissipated into smoke. Arthur's breath was hot against his temple, fast with panic, with fear. It had all gone wrong, just like at the siege gate, and if he closed his eyes, he might never wake up again. If he died, Arthur would never recover, and Merlin would never be able to fix what he had done.
His struggles grew weaker and weaker as his lungs burned, as blackness closed in and swallowed his sight. He went limp, imprisoned in Arthur's steel embrace as he clung to the last threads of his awareness.
He had fallen asleep in Arthur's arms so many times. Perhaps it would be all right, just once more. Maybe when he woke up again...
Maybe he would wake up...
He closed his eyes.