"What would you do? In my place?"
The question hung in the air more heavily than any words that Merlin had ever heard uttered before, the shock of hearing his king ask for his opinion causing blood to rush into his brain, making all his senses light up ablaze even more strongly than this sacred place had made them before. The sound of the fire cackling between them turned almost painfully loud, each crack of the embers making something inside the secretive warlock twinge in response. He hadn't been ready for such a question, and his heart was beating wildly in his chest from the surprise and knowledge of how important this was.
"Me?" he asked, his mind in an overdrive as he tried to think of the right answer to give, "I'm just a lackey, a maker of beds."
He was quite obviously trying to get more time to think or, if he was lucky, even deflect Arthur's question to the side so he wouldn't need to respond. How could he give an answer when inside his own head were swirling millions of questions? He knew, without a doubt, that Mordred had to die. And he knew, without a doubt, that this was the perfect opportunity to make that happen. But was he prepared to do it at the cost of ruining the one opportunity he had to convince Arthur to accept sorcery? To finally take that one, most important step there was towards the world that he was fated to create?
On the other hand, did it even truly matter what he said? Merlin knew that by now Arthur had accepted that his manservant's opinion was important to him, even if he would never really admit it. But would he truly agree to lift the ban on magic only because Merlin had advised him so? Was the trust that deep between them?
Or did he only ask because he expected Merlin to scoff at the mere idea of agreeing to the condition the Disir had raised? Maybe he just wanted validation for the truths he had been taught since childhood? Because he was desperate for confirmation that he was leaning towards the right choice, and because he couldn't actually imagine that Merlin could have a different view than that?
"Lackeys can be wise," was the blond knight's answer to the servant's words, and Merlin's breath hitched for a moment. No. Arthur was asking him this for real. His eyes showed that the king was truly at a loss of what to do, they sparkled in the campfire's light with the need to hear his friend's honest thoughts.
The warlock looked away from the other man and shook his head slightly, deep in thought. Kilgarrah had warned him not to miss the next opportunity he had to get rid of the young druid that was fated to play an important role in Arthur's demise. And it was Merlin's duty, above all else, to protect his King. But it was also his destiny to guide Arthur into acceptance of magic, so why... why was he being made to make a choice that would doom either one of those goals or the other? Was fate really so cruel as to play such a terrible trick on him? Was there truly no way to get both? How could such a conflicting choice even exist, or was he not seeing something? Some hidden meaning behind the words of the Disir, some small niche where salvation hid?
But he could not find anything like that and his silence was becoming too long; Merlin could see his King getting impatient. There was, however, one thought in the servant's mind that rung louder than the rest. He was being forced to make an impossible choice between two things, both of which he knew should come true. The once and future king had to be protected, but the battle in which Mordred could strike him down was still some time in the future. There might be other opportunities, better ones, to get rid of the druid boy. But if he said now (as he knew he would have to if he wanted Arthur to abandon a man who had saved his life) that he shouldn't let magic return to the land, no matter the cost... If he told him as strictly as he needed that magic was evil, that it could not ever be redeemed... Then he would close off that path forever. For how could he expect Arthur to take him seriously in the future, once he thought it was time to "change his mind"? How could he ever hope to make his King believe that his opinion wasn't just fickle and untrustworthy, and convince him to change his view after sacrificing someone for it before?
"It's not like you to be silent," Arthur urged him further, sounding almost honestly confused at his normally chatty manservant's lack of response by this point, and Merlin knew he could hesitate no longer. He had to make the decision. And so he did.
"The Kingdom's future is at stake," he started reluctantly.
"And a man's life," the King wasted no time reminding him, and Merlin nodded.
"You must protect Camelot, you must protect the world you've spent your life building: a just and fair kingdom for all," the warlock continued, little by little gaining strength in his conviction that he was doing the right thing. After all, he had decided to speak as honestly to his royal friend as it was possible, and there was no better decision than that, ever.
"You'd have me sacrifice a friend," Arthur stated somberly, not really a question, but to his surprise Merlin disagreed.
"I would have you become the king you are destined to be," he said, knowing fully well just how two-fold his words could still be taken. The man before him was now getting a little confused, frowning his displeasure at the riddles his servant was speaking in.
"If I do save Mordred," he spoke again, sitting up straighter now to look Merlin in the eyes better, "All my father's work will be for nothing. Sorcery will reign once more in Camelot. Is that what you'd want?"
This time Merlin stayed quiet on purpose, waiting for Arthur to continue himself, to think further on his own.
"Perhaps my father was wrong, perhaps the old ways aren't as evil as we thought," the King did, indeed, continue after a second's break, making Merlin's heart tremble at just how open to the idea he sounded, maybe for the first time in his life. "So what should we do? Accept magic? Or let Mordred die?"
Here it was - once again, the ball was in Merlin's court and it was finally time to give a direct answer. Not only that – the King actually just inferred that it was them making the decision, not just him alone. The warlock swallowed, and took a deep breath, exhaling it again to try and calm himself before he talked further. He still struggled with the decision and his eyes even started to water slightly as he was overwhelmed by the knowledge what kind of future he might be dooming them all to. This time Arthur didn't push him, however, waiting for his answer patiently, seemingly all too aware of how strongly Merlin was struggling, even if the reasons for it were the opposite of what he assumed them to be.
"There is no black and white," the warlock said in the end, his voice trembling just a little as he looked up again and met his King's eyes, "About anything. You should know that better than anyone by now, Sire. I do not think magic is any exception. However, I do think it can be only you who decides what your, not your father's, "just for all" Kingdom should encompass. Only you who should decide if "all" includes those with magic as well... but you must hear how ironic that sounds yourself, van you not, Sire?" he asked, blinking his tears away now that he finally made his opinion clear. Arthur leaned back and furrowed his brows as he took in what he heard. Merlin, however, wavered a little as he wondered if he should truly add the next bit.
"I do not trust Mordred," he did say, in the end, witnessing Arthur's eyes widen at the unexpected statement, the King's face snapping upwards again, mouth half-open with an obvious question. But Merlin didn't let him voice it, "I cannot tell you why, just as I cannot tell you whether he, of all people, is worth you going against your father's will," he continued almost wistfully, glancing at the fire while he spoke, "What I can tell you is that you are destined to become a great King and perhaps, that does mean making some changes. Or maybe it means making some sacrifices," he added almost as an afterthought, but by now it was no secret between them which he actually believed, "It is your decision, Arthur."
Here it was. He had revealed as much of his honest thoughts as he could and now it was out of his hands again. Maybe he was making a mistake by gently pushing Arthur towards accepting magic and, in the process, saving Mordred's life. Perhaps Kilgarrah would be disappointed in him, but Merlin also knew that the Great Dragon wished for magic's return perhaps as much as he wanted the druid boy to be out of the way. At least, by voicing his doubts about Mordred, he was, hopefully, also making sure that solving that problem would be easier in the future as well. At the very least, it didn't seem that Arthur was in a hurry to question that statement currently, far more urgent matters taking priority at least for now.
"Idiot," came an unexpected insult from the other man, and it was Merlin who widened his eyes this time in surprise. He looked at the King, thinking that perhaps Arthur simply chose to dismiss his words as foolish after all, not taking advice from a mere servant seriously. But the look on the royal's face revealed he was just desperately trying to lighten the mood by slipping back into his old habits for a second, "Only you would think that telling me to decide myself could be called proper advice," Arthur finished his thought, and Merlin snorted, brushing the insult away as easily as ever. They both knew the truth, after all.
Arthur stared at his servant for a few moments more, as if considering him, before looking away and lying back without another word. It seemed that the King was about to have a sleepless night, and Merlin knew that his would not be any different as he waited for the other to think it through and come to his own, final decision.
Merlin watched his friend's back uneasily as he followed Arthur through the forest back to the ominous cave of the Disir. The king hadn't said a word (apart from "Let's go" this morning) to him since he sunk into his thoughts last night, and Merlin himself did not try to prod the older man from his silence either. The King had obviously made his decision, but was in no hurry to share it with his servant, and the warlock respected his silence, not that it mattered anyway. From how unwaveringly Arthur strode through the forest and from the determined look in his eyes, Merlin could guess very well that nothing would be able to change Arthur's mind anymore, whether he chose to speak about it or not.
The knowledge that nothing could be changed anymore did nothing to quell how feverishly the servant's heart was fluttering in his chest, however. He was nervous, he was expectant, he was… hopeful. Yesterday, it had been all about making a decision that was the most practical, that was in the best interest of both his king and of the future of all of Camelot. But now that it was all done and after the sun rose that morning, his own personal emotions were coming out in full force, stirring within him hopes that the warlock usually held pushed away to the very bottom of his mind as he figured it was completely impossible for any of them come true any time soon. But Arthur had listened to him yesterday and even didn't dismiss his words outright afterwards. The fact alone that the king entertained the idea of fulfilling the Disir's condition at all was already more than Merlin could have expected in any other situation.
Perhaps, this would turn out for the better in the end. Maybe the Disir would accidentally make a mistake and wouldn't be able to heal Mordred, for example, Merlin joked in his own mind. But of course, that was a fool's hope considering the power the three sorcerers held, not to mention a dangerous one. If Arthur made a deal with those of the Old Religion, and they wouldn't then fulfil their own end of it, whether by their own design or otherwise… Merlin didn't even want to imagine what that would do to the King's belief that magic might be good after all.
The young warlock was pulled out of his thoughts suddenly by the sound of a sword being planted into the ground as Arthur, for the second time, acknowledged the sanctity of the place he was about to enter by leaving his weapon behind. For they had reached the cave of the Disir, Merlin was almost startled to notice. But he was quick in following his King inside nevertheless. Both of them ducked their heads as they stepped into the gloom, to avoid running into all the charms and sigils of the Old Religion hanging down from the ceiling in the cave, and soon were standing in front on the three cloaked figures again. Arthur stood tall in before them, even as Merlin fidgeted nervously behind him. The moment of truth had come, and he could do nothing but wait and listen.
"You have returned," one of the figures spoke, soon followed by another as they continued to talk as if they were one entity instead of three, "Is your decision made?"
"It is," Arthur answered, his voice as perfectly steady as could be expected of a man ruling a kingdom. Merlin held his breath and felt as if the whole country did it with him – or should have done it with him – with anticipation of the words that would determine the path that all of their future would take, "I cannot do as you ask," the King announced his verdict after a mere moment of hesitation, and Merlin felt his heart plummet to his feet, all blood draining from his face, his mind bursting into millions of thoughts instantly.
He had hoped… No, he had been almost certain, in fact, that Arthur had taken his trusted friend's (for Merlin hoped that this was what the King thought of him by now) words to heart. Subconsciously, he had already started making plans of what he would do once magic became free in the Kingdom, already started celebrating for all the innocent souls with magic that would be saved from the fires… And now all those hopes lay broken before him, as Arthur's words echoed in his ears.
The servant tried to compose himself, tried to convince himself that this wasn't as terrible as it could be, because Mordred would be taken care of and at least he had tried to convince the King to choose otherwise. At least in the future, when he would be in a situation where he would have to try to convince Arthur to change his mind again, the King would not think back to this and think that his servant was at least as uncertain about the issue as he himself was. There would be continuity.
But the bare second it took for all these thoughts to flash through his mind had passed, and Arthur continued talking, apparently not quite finished.
"At least, not immediately," the King added, and Merlin's eyes widened impossibly, as those four words changed the situation again instantly. Even the Disir who had seemed to freeze with disappointment at the Pendragon's first words now became more animated again, though their voices sounded suspicious as they spoke up again.
"What is the meaning of those words, Arthur Pendragon?" they asked, and Arthur took another step forward as he started to explain. Merlin still stood frozen in his place, unable to do anything but listen attentively.
"You demand me to hurry and accept magic in the name of my whole Kingdom, but change is a difficult thing to achieve," the royal knight spoke, holding his head high, "I understand your impatience after almost thirty years of persecution, but my subjects won't listen if I were to suddenly tell them that magic is allowed. No matter how loyal any of them are. I would ask you give me time to honor your request. And not a month, or two. Three years, one for every decade that your ways have been outlawed - I would use the time to approach the change slowly, cleverly. But if you agree to save my knight despite this condition I must raise, I would give you my promise," the King stated loudly, the words echoing in the cave in a striking rumble, "I would swear on my own life that by the end of this period, not one sorcerer would again be punished in my name, unless fair trial proved their deeds to be truly despicable. I would swear that there would be new laws, saying that magic is free to be used, as long as it is for good."
Silence stretched out after the King had finished his part, the three women seemingly deep in thought, considering the proposal.
"The Disir are not here for you to bargain with," one of them stated strictly after a minute, but that didn't fluster the man standing tall before them.
"And I am not trying to bargain, I am trying to reason," he answered instantly, "Even if I disagreed with you completely, and even if your threat held true and denying the Old Religion would cause my doom. Even if you managed to put someone on the throne of Camelot who would agree to do as you wish and pronounce magic to be allowed immediately, the people would protest. The law would not be upheld as the Kingdom would rise against that which some of them had been taught from birth was evil. Your best bet is to let me do it as I proposed."
Silence fell once more as The Disir considered the King's words once more, but this time it lasted shorter.
"Be that as it may, Arthur Pendragon, but what about you?" The old women spoke again, "Changing the opinion of your people might take time, but as you stand before us, do you accept our ways? Do you bow before the Triple Goddess?"
As silence stretched for the third time, it was Arthur that everyone waited to speak up this time. The King's shoulders slumped slightly as he showed insecurity for the first time after entering the cave.
"I have suffered a lot at the hands of that which you advocate," he spoke, his voice slightly quieter than before, "But I admit I've seen it used for the sake of good as well. If there was no doubt within me that my father's conviction might not have been completely right, I wouldn't have even considered making the promise," he stopped for a second again, swallowing and then, unexpectedly, lowering himself to one knee before the three women once more, "I bow before your Goddess. Not because I believe in her as you do – I would not shame this place by lying like that here. But because I respect the power she holds over you and the old ways of this land."
"Very well, King of Camelot," The Disir spoke again as Arthur stayed in that position unmoving, waiting for the verdict, "We shall accept your proposal, and as you've been completely honest with us, so shall we be with you," they announced, and the man kneeling before them frowned in slight confusion at those words, lifting his eyes to look at them directly while they continued, "Had you not given us a favorable answer, Arthur Pendragon, we would have granted your request and healed the knight that jumped in front of you to save your life regardless. But that would not have been because we took pity, but rather because the knight's continued existence beside you would have ensured that the fate we threatened you with would come true," they explained, causing the King to feel even more confusion, as well as a prickling sense of dread in his heart as he realized what the Desir might mean to tell him about Mordred with those words, "But rise now, man who must decide his own fate! Ride back to your home, and you shall be met by the one you asked us to have mercy on. He shall be healthy and strong. But you would do well to remember our warning!"
The three witches remained standing in their place, not making any grand exit after their last dramatic words as would have been almost fitting, Merlin thought with some (out of place, perhaps) amusement. But it was obvious they meant to dismiss the King out of their presence by those words, and Arthur wasn't slow to catch on to that. As loathe as the King usually was to be ordered around, he was clever enough not to try the patience of the Disir and rose back to his feet, nodding his head at the three statue-like figures for the last time and turning around. Merlin's heart jumped to his throat nervously when he saw his Sire throw him an unreadable, but nothing good promising glance, before walking out of the cave slowly, the servant following him dazedly.
Despite having heard the whole conversation with his own ears, the young warlock could not quite believe he had heard right. It felt more like a dream. Even if the glance that Arthur had thrown at him afterwards caused very realistic anxiety well up inside him.