Once upon a time, when the old magic was to be revered and not hunted, the Queen was gifted with a tree. It was the only one of its kind.
And so when King Uther has it torn from its roots, the whole world mourns its loss.
But none more than her child.
Merlin doesn't think that the prince's foul mood is his fault. At least this time. So he watches and waits for an indication, a reason, while armoring his body against the barbed, venomous words that Arthur hurls his way. The smirk of which Merlin has grown so fond has drooped into a sneer, the teeth bared, a cornered wolf.
He stands in the doorway, holding the helmet that Arthur had ordered to be polished thrice already, and studies the tense line of Arthur's shoulders as the prince gazes out of his window, bare fingers like claws in the stone of the sill, white with repressed anger and what Merlin can only decipher as sorrow.
Arthur does not turn, but his shoulders – if possible – stiffen further. "Did you polish my helmet?"
Merlin nods, even though the gesture can't be seen. "Yes."
"Do it again."
"But –" There are times when he can push, when he can press his hands over Arthur's heart and shove, shove, shove without fear of reprisal or of being thrown into the stocks. This isn't one of those times. And yet. "I already did it three times!"
There is a flash of gilded rage, and Arthur spins on his heel, cheeks flushed. "I'm sorry, but did I hear a servant questioning his crowned prince? I have killed for lesser offenses. When I ask you to do something, you do it, without question, or have you forgotten your place? What do you think a sufficient punishment would be? Twenty lashes? Thirty?"
This isn't one of those times. Merlin ducks his head and fixes his gaze on his boots, at the haphazardly-tied lacings and the faded toes. "No, sire. Forgive me, sire."
"I am to leave in the morning for a hunt. Have my horse and sword made ready before sunrise. Now get out." The words are low, dangerous, and Arthur turns back to the window, eyes searching the kingdom for the one thing that is no longer there.
He leaves to find Gwen. And then he asks about what it was Uther had destroyed not one day ago.
For all there is magic in the world, there is also math. There is something beautiful, symmetrical, about a tree. It's ostentatious, sometimes almost dull in its simplicity, but its angles and sloping lines are perfect math, all numbers and cosines that leave him dizzy with humility. Sometimes he sits, even when Gaius is in the castle waiting for the herbs he'd sent Merlin to pick hours before, and just stares, memorizes, because he's the only one who appreciates it, who will remember it when it's torn down to make way for something new. Everything's always torn down for something new.
It was a tree, Gwen had told him, her eyes soft and sad. A tree given to Uther Pendragon's bride to celebrate her swollen belly, to honor the continuation of the bloodline. A sorceress's gift to the happy couple, the only one of its kind, long before magic was outlawed and lives were lost in the name of misguided vengeance.
He stares at the place where something majestic once stood, naught but a hole in the ground now, and feels the loss keenly.
What happened to the sorceress, Merlin asks, and knows the answer even before Gwen's lips part to give it to him. He listens anyway.
Killed, she says, voice barely above the hum of a whisper. She was the first.
He sinks to his knees and touches the place where the soil meets nothing, runs his fingers over the outline of the hole, and knows the suffering that took place when steel and hatred met as one and devastated. It had felt pain, so much, as the King's men tore it asunder; their axes and mallets breaking and snapping whatever spells had been imbued into the timber, as it burned in the town square.
The others clamor to speak, the tallest ones; the skinniest ones; the fattest ones; the greenest ones; the barest ones; all want to be heard, all want to tell their stories. The forest that surrounds Camelot is very old, and there are ages of tales to be told.
It was different, mutters an Ash.
But beautiful. Different, but beautiful, chimes in a Blackthorn, its blossoms sighing open at the memory.
But it is a Grand Fir, its branches reaching up as if to pluck the clouds from the sky, that tells him of the Lady Igraine, who used to sit under the enchanted branches of the solitary tree that is no longer there, who would read poetry to the son resting inside of her, who would pluck undying blossoms and make necklaces of them for her lord and husband. It tells him of the son, the boy who never knew the mother who loved him, the child who would go to the tree and sit under it the way she used to, and never know why.
The Grand Fir speaks of the sorceress, a kindly old woman with the very wind in her laugh. She tended us all, it says. Her name has long-since been forgotten, but her affection for the young queen and her hope for the unborn prince are the makings of legend, and Merlin listens to every tree, every flower, and every blade of grass as they tell their variations.
The stories all differ in some way, but the message never strays.
It had been a gift of love.
Merlin closes his eyes and reaches. After a moment, he smiles.
"There you are."
Gaius, too, is in dour spirits when Merlin returns. He putters absently around, pulling books from the shelves and never opening them, tinkering with vials without any intent to use them, sighing sadly as he brushes his fingers over herbs that cannot be held by human hands lest they be stained with oil from the skin. Merlin, seated at Gaius's bench, frowns as he watches the man mishandle the Viridian Breath that had taken Merlin over two days' time to find.
"I don't understand," Merlin breaks the sorry silence, drawing Gaius's attention away from the now-defunct Breath. "Why now? The King killed the sorceress right after the Queen's death – why not the tree, as well? Why wait all this time?"
Gaius takes a seat next to Merlin, mouth turned down at the corners, sadness eking from his very person. "The edict against magic is much more extreme now. Perhaps the King simply forgot – he has had other things on his mind, you know." Gaius sighs, and Merlin watches as his shoulders sag. "Such a pity. It was a beautiful gift."
Nodding in agreement, Merlin excuses himself, taking with him his satchel, and disappears into his room. Curling on his bed, he clutches the fabric of the bag close to his face and closes his eyes, breathing out slowly.
"You will grow," he whispers, all exhalation and barely words. "You will reach down into the earth and reach up to the sky, and you will stand forever as a reminder until the end of all things." Punctuation in the final sentence of recorded time.
His mother planted gardens, ever since he could remember.
"Talk to them, Merlin," Hunith would say, bent over red blossoms and smiling. "If you talk, they will wake up."
His presence is requested by Uther, and for a moment he is sure that this is it. He has grown too cocky, too sure of his place here at Camelot, too complacent in his bond to the prince. The debt the King wished to repay, the one forged by the hands of an enchantress with a stolen voice and son, has been repaid several times over. To house a sorcerer under his own roof… Uther will not be lenient, even less so with the perjury.
Merlin swallows hard before entering, thanking every deity in the sky and sea that Arthur is on a hunting excursion with his knights and will not have to see this. Merlin will not have to seek Arthur's gaze out amongst the crowd, will not have to be laid bare to the hurt and betrayal and loathing he would most assuredly find as his neck was forced to kiss the wood of the chopping block.
The King is seated at the far end of the room, comfortable and severe on his throne. His lips thin as Merlin draws near, but he says nothing, even as Merlin bows so low to the floor there is a nearly-audible snap.
"My lord," Merlin says, hating himself for the appalling way his voice cracks.
Uther regards him silently for a moment and then chuckles. "Calm yourself."
Merlin thinks he'd rather not.
"I must admit, I was… rather hasty when I bestowed upon you the honor of serving my son. In those first days, you proved to be… Well. I'm sure I don't have to tell you." There is a smile on Uther's face, the deadliest lance in the kingdom, and it is pointed at Merlin's heart. "But these past months… you have been quite loyal, perhaps almost to a fault. Such a trait is rare to find in a man, these days. I give you my gratitude."
He stutters a moment before bowing his head. "N-Not at all, your highness. The prince is a kind and generous –"
Uther snorts in a rather undignified manner and holds up a hand. "Please, do not."
Merlin's ringing endorsements fall short and he remains silent.
"All I ask is that you continue to serve the prince, as you have been, until he no longer requires you." There is a pause. "And one last thing."
Merlin swallows and lifts his head, meeting the King's gaze, dizzy. "My lord?"
"There is a…" Uther's gaze hardens. "Once upon a time, the Queen was gifted with a tree. It was the only one of its kind. That tree was destroyed. My son is never to return to where it once stood. You are his manservant and are to obey his every command, but before his you are to obey mine. He will never go back to that place. Do you understand?"
Unsure of how Uther intends to keep Arthur from visiting the resting place of his mother's tree, Merlin nods. "Yes, my lord."
He takes it for the dismissal is it and quickly bows once more and leaves. Once he shuts the doors behind him, he rests against the wall and waits until the fear leaves him. It takes a little while.
A new place, then, where Uther will never know. He arrives in the night and lowers his precious parcel, whispering to it, telling it of the things it will see, the things it will do. Everything has a purpose in life, big or small, and there is no difference here.
He kneels, gathering soil and water and maths into his hands and pushes down. He will come every night. From there, it can only grow.
Arthur calls for him the moment upon his return from hunting, lounging on his fresh sheets in mud-caked clothes, boots on the bed. Merlin stands in the doorway, gauging the prince's mood, a bowl of warm milk in his hands.
"Honestly," Arthur says, eyes closed in bliss, the kind one finds after sleeping in a tent for three days in the woods and coming home to lie in their own bed. "You are the worst manservant ever. And I do mean ever. In the history of the world, Merlin, there has never been a worse manservant than you."
Something loosens in Merlin's chest, allowing him to smile. "Welcome back. I take it the hunt went well."
There is a smile there, small but proud, and Arthur finally looks at him. Yes, Merlin wants to say, I have accepted your peace offering, you gigantic prat. "I got an elk."
"Congratulations." He ventures in and hands the bowl over, smiling at the pleased sound Arthur makes as he takes it and drinks it all in one go, Adam's apple bobbing merrily with every gulp. The honest pleasure on Arthur's face is so palpable that Merlin can nearly feel the milk sliding thick and warm down his own throat. He can't help but make a face. "You know, you're the only person I've ever met who can look at a situation and say, 'you know what would make this better? Milk.'"
Arthur grins rakishly, studying the leftover milk that clings to the bottom of the bowl before lifting it to his lips to catch the rest. "You still seem to be operating under the impression that I won't kill you with a rock."
"How very princely of you," Merlin murmurs, as warm and happy as a bowl of milk in Arthur's hands.
"What happened in my absence?" Arthur inquires softly, stealing a glance at Merlin from under the golden fringe of his bangs, and Merlin recognizes it for the apology that Arthur thinks it is. Close enough.
He wants to tell Arthur of the meeting with Uther, but such a confession will only end in classical torture. Arthur will act out in anger, the way he always does, wreaking havoc in his own household and leaving Merlin to pick up the pieces. He simply cannot, because his prince is so easily broken, and Merlin will not be the one responsible for wrapping Arthur in a tight, thorny thread.
Instead, he smiles, shakes his head. This kind of perjury – perjury that is not perjury at all – is not borne of fear, but of love. It is a gift of love that Merlin bestows upon Arthur, perfect and beautiful as any crown.
"Nothing. You didn't miss much." But I did miss you.
He passes Morgana in a hall, and she smiles at him in a way that he's never seen.
"There will never be another like you, Merlin."
The dragon said as much once.
He continues to go, cloaked in night, as often as he can and as inconspicuously as he can attempt. There are moments, of course, when he is in Arthur's chambers, the candles burnt out and the moonlight pressing desperate, passionate kisses to Arthur's skin, when he cannot tear himself away. And how could he, with Arthur so open and relaxed, laughing about the day's happenings at court, at the men who so desperately wish to gain his favor, at the women who will never have him.
Merlin teases him about the women who flutter their lashes, about his unnatural love for milk, about the way he looks as though he is dancing – badly – during matches with the other knights. And Arthur will feign anger and hurt, eyes shining, as he falls back to rest his head in Merlin's lap, catching Merlin's hand in his, linking their fingers loosely together.
"I will be a good king!" Arthur announces, and bursts into laughter, drunk on mead and milk and the company, comfortable in Merlin's space and breathing Merlin's air. And Merlin says nothing, just smoothes back the hair from Arthur's eyes.
The world knows your name, he wants to say. It knows everything that has happened, everything that happens, and everything that will. You are your father's son, but you are not your father. You will be greater, better. They call you the once and future king, but you will be great. The only one of your kind, the first and last. The first and last of the great kings.
Those are the nights that he stays, the nights when he looks at Arthur and sees everything that will be.
But on the nights where he slips away, he goes to the place untouched by Uther's reach and buries his fingers in the soil, closes his eyes against the feeling of fledgling life that curls around his knuckles, reaching up as it ought to, reaching out, until he cannot touch the earth.
One night, Arthur follows him and knows.
"You're so stupid." The words are harsh, riding the hysterical breath of Camelot's crown prince, disbelieving and hurt. There is fear on Arthur's face and something that cannot be named, fierce and devastating as any beast, as any warrior. "You're so stupid, Merlin."
The penalty for using magic in Albion is death, but Merlin can't taste that sort of promise in the air. Not tonight, and perhaps never. He reaches out to Arthur anyway, hand buzzing with another sort of promise, eyes aglow.
"Arthur." He smiles, Arthur's fingers curling around his own, reaching up and out, and brings his prince forth to the towering testament that stands tall against the Western sky.
The others clamor to listen, the tallest ones; the skinniest ones; the fattest ones; the greenest ones; the barest ones; all want to hear. There will be new stories to tell by the night's end, and the whole world will know the truth of the first and last of the great kings, and the gift given to him one night while nothing and everything bore witness.
Once upon a time, when the old magic was to someday return, the Prince was gifted with a tree. It was the only one of its kind.
And so when Arthur kisses him beneath it, the whole world inhales and opens its mouth to sing.