All was dark in the room except for the moonlight pouring in through the drawn curtains. A single beam of pale light landed on the slumbering man in his bed. All was still until he started twisting. It started with his face scrunching up with some unnameable emotion, but then his movements became more violent. He struggled against the heavy royal blankets, as they were too confining and his nightmare too real. Then, with a short gasp, the man woke up. Blue eyes met the darkness, and he stayed how he was for several long minutes before his breathing had calmed down. When Prince Arthur had relaxed, he lay back down in his bed, his eyes trained on the dark canopy over his head for the rest of his sleepless night.
When Merlin stepped through the gates, he had been taken in by the splendor of the city, though it wasn't all just glory. Camelot was much different from his quiet farming village of Ealdor, something that was then beaten into his head as he witnessed that man being beheaded for magic. It left Merlin feeling disgusted and even scared to see someone like him die for something they might have had no control over. If they were to ever find out that he had magic, it would be Merlin's head on the chopping block and Merlin who would become another victim of the Great Purge.
And yet here Merlin was in the heart of the Great Purge, the kingdom of Camelot. He was so far from home and only had the guidance of his uncle now instead of the protective love of his mother, whom he missed very much. Merlin had barely been here for a day, and already his magic had been found out by one person. He was just lucky that it had been Gaius who had seen him react and not one of the guards who had directed him to the chambers in the first place.
Merlin continued to act as Gaius' errand boy as he delivered medicines and draughts. To save time, he decided to cut across the training field, but he didn't know that it was such a thing until he saw a pompous blond man throwing knives at a smaller man with a shield. Merlin had been on the victim's side of bullying many times before in Ealdor with only Will to defend him. Here, this servant had no one. Merlin decided to change that.
"Hey!" he called out as the servant's shield was dropped and Merlin caught it with his feet. "Come on, that's enough."
The blond knight started to look up and looked like he was going to say something, but then, something changed in his attitude. His amused, prattish laughter faded away as he stared Merlin in the face like he had grown two heads. Merlin's nerve faltered, having expected some form of retaliation. Instead, all he had was silence and this bully of a man looking at him with an unreadable expression. Confusion? Dismay? Horror?
"Hey," Merlin said again, no longer smiling. "What are you looking at? Has someone ever given you a scolding before?"
There was more laughter, but this came from the other knights as the blond ignored them and continued to stare Merlin's way. If Merlin had to put a name to it, it was like the other had seen a ghost, but Merlin didn't even know who he was.
"Come on, Arthur, say something," one of the knights called out tauntingly, and this was followed by more laughter. "Don't let a peasant tell you what to do."
Arthur's, his name was, nostrils flared, but he kept his face guarded. Even Merlin couldn't tell what the other was thinking, and Merlin stared back with some confusion of his own.
"What are you playing at?" he found himself asking the other. He didn't know what he was expecting, but then the blond knight dropped the rest of his knives to the ground as though they had suddenly turned hot to the touch. They landed with a loud clatter at his feet, and Arthur stepped over the pile to walk back to the other doors into the castle.
"We're done for the day," Arthur announced, tearing his eyes away from Merlin, but it was obvious to the warlock that he wanted to keep staring at him. Maybe he would have done so if it weren't for the rest of the knights watching him.
Speaking of the other knights, their confusion was easily readable. At what, though? Arthur backing off from a fight with Merlin? Merlin did not know who this man was, but there was one thing that felt obvious to him as the blond disappeared inside of the castle, aside from how troubled the man was. Arthur seemed to recognize him, a man whom he had never seen before in his life. Merlin scratched his head, now completely alone inside of the training field. Everyone had gone inside.
Well, not completely alone. When Merlin looked up, he saw a woman in the window of one of the towers overlooking the courtyard, watching him as she folded laundry. She was too high up for him to make out her face, but when he waved at her, she moved away from the window like she was embarrassed.
Now Merlin really was alone. The servant had made his escape during Merlin and Arthur's standoff, so even if he wasn't around to keep Merlin company. His foot was still on the shield from where he had stopped it from rolling away. Merlin released it and stared at the circle of wood for a long moment before turning to go back inside.
"There was a man in the field today," Merlin started up at the dinner table, wanting to make dinner conversation with his new guardian. Things were still awkward between the two, so Merlin wanted to break the ice. "He was acting strange, though."
Gaius glanced up with his eyebrow raised, an action Merlin had noticed the physician often did with him. "Strange how? You're new to Camelot. Of course things are bound to be strange for you."
Merlin sighed and dropped the spoon back into the bowl, allowing some of the soup to splash back out again. "Strange as in he was looking at me as though he were seeing a ghost. I don't know, but everyone else in the training field acted like you'd expect them to: like pompous idiots, but this one man, Arthur... I don't know."
Gaius's incredulous look intensified, and, for a moment, Merlin was worried that he had said something wrong. Then the physician spoke, his voice carefully controlled. "Arthur is to be the Crown Prince of Camelot, and he is not known for stopping to stare. Are you sure that you heard his name right?"
"I'm positive," Merlin affirmed, his mouth set in a tight line. He hadn't expected for the knight to be a prince of anything, and Merlin hadn't seen anything you'd expect of a prince in the man's actions. Arthur just seemed to act like the other knights, a self-righteous, arrogant idiot. "Why would a prince be looking at me like that?"
Gaius frowned, as though trying to solve this riddle himself. "I'm not sure," he murmured distantly.
There was some silence between the two as Merlin shoveled some of the foul-tasting gruel into his mouth, but he didn't have much of an appetite, anyway. He was just thinking of that day's earlier encounter. Going into Camelot, he knew things would be different from his former life in the small farming village of Ealdor. Merlin thought that it would only be because of his magic and the law. He didn't know the half of it.
Merlin clutched the vial Gaius had given him to give to the Lady Morgana. The king's ward, Merlin ended up hearing. He didn't know who she was, but a few guards directed him in the direction of her chambers, just as they had done when he went to find Gaius the day before. Merlin had to dodge all of the servants fervently cleaning the castle and putting up decorations for the coming feast. Merlin knew that he would not be attending, nor would he want to celebrate the deaths of magic users. Thankfully, he was just a peasant and was not expected to go.
Merlin should have knocked on the door, especially since the room belonged to a noble lady of the court. However, being the foolish young boy he was, he opened the door... And stopped.
"It was him, I know it was him," a distressed voice sounded, carefully low in volume so as not to be heard throughout the entire castle. Merlin stood in the doorway, unnoticed by the two people in the room.
The first person he saw was Arthur, who was no longer wearing his training clothes. Actually, he was dressed rather normally in a simple (or as simple as nobility could get) tunic and only had an untouched sword at his side. In contrast, the other person in the room was a beautiful woman with long dark curls who was dressed in an exquisite gown. Just like a princess, Merlin thought.
He should have left. Two royals conversing, this was not a conversation for Merlin's own big ears. But curiosity took over, and he tuned in on what they were saying. The only precaution Merlin took to avoid being caught was ducking behind the wall out of sight should the two look his way.
"That's impossible, Arthur," the woman said, not unkindly. "He was just a dream, he only ever was. Surely this is your mind playing tricks on you."
"And how can you be sure Morgana?" There was a thump as the prince whirled around so fast that Merlin jumped back behind the doorway. He still remained unnoticed, though Merlin had to consciously calm his breathing to keep from being caught.
There was a long, feminine sigh, and Morgana's voice was gentle and soothing. "I've listened to your dreams for years, and they don't always come true."
Arthur mumbled something, but Merlin couldn't make it out, and he didn't dare press his large ears against the wall. More likely he would stumble and reveal that he was eavesdropping. Merlin had never been good at minding his own business, his mother could attest to that, and this certainly wasn't his own business. However, anything that he overheard could answer the question he had been thinking about all day.
So it was true, Arthur seemed to know who he was, but there was no explanation as to how or why. There was just something about dreams, but... That was impossible. Despite all of Merlin's magic, even his dreams were normal. He never saw into the future, never mind the son of King Uther, enemy to all magic. It was impossible for the prince of Camelot to have magic, so why was Merlin even entertaining the thought?
But the seeds of doubt were planted, and he backed away, shutting the door in front of him. Merlin couldn't be caught now, especially since the conversation so obviously pertained to him. Merlin didn't want to know how Arthur would react to being overheard, especially in this state of vulnerability Merlin had not witnessed in the courtyard just the day before.
Merlin stood there for a few minutes longer, trying to decide on what to do with the potion in his hand. Gaius had instructed him to deliver it, but Merlin couldn't do that so soon after hearing what was said. He didn't want to ever face the blond man again, especially with what he had learned.
To Merlin's luck, it was then that a serving girl perhaps a few years older than him rounded the corner with a laundry basket in her arms. Her dark curls were tied up like how Merlin's mother often did, but, unlike the rest of the servants Merlin had seen around, the girl did not cover her hair. She approached Merlin curiously, who stood there with a boyish and awkward smile as he tried to hide the fact that he had been eavesdropping.
"You're the boy who stood up to Prince Arthur yesterday, aren't you?" she asked, smiling warmly at him.
Merlin chuckled dryly. "You know about that, then?" So much for forgetting about the royal prat of Camelot.
The girl laughed, but not unkindly. "I think everyone does. I watched from the window of this room, actually." She bit her lip, and Merlin could easily tell that she was getting nervous. "What you did was very brave, you know. Prince Arthur is a big bully."
A bully? Merlin definitely saw an arse the day before, but with what he just overheard, he wasn't sure anymore. "It was more stupid than it was brave."
"It wasn't," she assured him before shifting the laundry basket to rest on just one arm. "I'm Guinevere, but most people call me Gwen."
Merlin laughed again, unsure if he needed to shake her hand or curtsy or do anything at all. "I'm Merlin, but Gaius calls me an idiot." Because of Merlin's foolish uses of magic, and Merlin had never had a proper conversation with anyone else to warrant being called anything else.
"Well, Merlin, it's nice to meet you." Gwen's chocolate eyes spotted the vial, and she reached out to take it from Merlin. "I could take this to Lady Morgana, if you would like me to. I work for her, she's my mistress, you see." Merlin had already noticed Gwen's tendency to stutter, but she seemed to do more of that once she took the potion from him. Like she knew what it was for.
"Thank you, Gwen," Merlin replied, feeling a sense of relief nonetheless. He could keep from talking to Arthur. Why would he want to now, anyway, after what he had learned through eavesdropping on the royals. As much as he would like to talk to her, he did not know when Arthur would leave the rooms. Merlin wanted to be as far away from him and these chambers as possible. "I should get back to Gaius."
Gwen looked crestfallen, but she nodded. "Of course, don't let me keep him waiting on you. He's a good man, Gaius. Tell him I say hello." Gwen smiled at him again and slipped the potion in her pocket before raising her hand to knock on the door. "If you are ever in need of anything, I live in the Lower Town with my father, the blacksmith. Though I suppose that I'll be seeing you around, since we are in the same castle and everything."
Merlin laughed at her again, though not trying to be mean. He headed back the way he came, the sooner he was out of here, the better. "Of course! I'll see you later, then!"
It was only when Merlin was completely out of sight that his smile fell completely, and he continued on to Gaius's chambers.
"Merlin. Merlin. Merlin."
It was the same voice again, the same one that kept calling Merlin in his head. With a groan, Merlin accepted defeat and got out of bed. It was so dark in his room, and he didn't even know a spell to create light. His bare feet dangled over the side of the cot Gaius had given him, and they plunged in a mess of dirty clothes. No doubt the fruit of Merlin's uncontrollable magic making a mess everywhere.
He dressed himself in his jacket and his boots completely in silence so as not to disturb the old man downstairs. Once Merlin was ready, he sneaked out of his room, still making noise but not enough to wake Gaius.
Merlin allowed the ancient sounding voice to be his guide and followed it all the way into the dungeons. Instinctively using magic to distract the guards, he moved further along the tunnel, grabbing a torch from the wall as he did. The walls were worn and cold as though no one has been here for years. He nearly tripped upon walks, but the voice calling Merlin's name beckoned him to come nearer, so he did. He came to a dimly lit cavern. Merlin stood still on the ledge, looking out over the massive space beneath the castle. There were some stairs at his feet, and he noticed the links of a chain stretched along the walls.
Merlin heard some laughter from somewhere in the cave. It echoed off of the walls, and he couldn't call it evil. However, he couldn't also call it good-natured, and it did nothing to appease Merlin who was already regretting his decision to come down here. He stared down into the black abyss, but the light of his torch was feeble against the sheer expanse of the cave.
"Where are you?" he called out, half expecting to be met by silence and that he was going crazy all along.
There was no silence or stillness. Chains rattled from the depths of the caves, and wind rushed as something large beat its... wings? Were those wings? Merlin's heart pounded as he stood at the ledge, a torch in his hand providing the only light in the cavern. He felt like he should run, but all of a sudden something flew into his face and caused the farm boy to jump backward.
"I'm here," it said, the same voice that had been calling to Merlin all of these nights. It smiled at Merlin curiously as it (he? she?) surveyed him. Yes, Merlin should definitely run by now, he didn't fancy being a dragon's dinner. But the beast only laughed and continued, "How small you are for such a great destiny?"
And with that, reason gave way to something else. Merlin was still shaking as he approached the dragon slowly. His legs wouldn't allow him to leave the cave. Instead, he watched the beast with some curiosity of his own as he had never seen something like this in Ealdor. "Why?" he answered, practically yelling to match the voice of the dragon speaking to him now. "What do you mean? What destiny?"
"Your gift, Merlin." There was a pause filled with nothing but the sound of Merlin's breathing. The dragon was now settled on the rocks before the boy, peering down at him with beady golden eyes like Merlin's whenever he used magic. "Was given to you for a reason."
The pounding in his heart slowed as the pain he had felt all of his life faded away. "So there is a reason?" He wasn't a monster, and, although Merlin shouldn't trust this dragon, he had long since been hopeful for a sign that his magic didn't make him into the monster King Uther had always called people like him.
The dragon inclined his head, seeming to note Merlin's sprout of relief. "Arthur is the Once and Future King."
With those words, Merlin was confused again. "Right."
"But he faces many threats from friend and foe alike." There was something else in how the dragon was acting, as if there was more to be said. There probably was, but, from the dragon's riddles, Merlin couldn't tell.
Arthur? What did that blond-headed man who knew who already knew who Merlin was had to do with anything. Wait... Although Merlin could not see what this had to do with him, a mere peasant from across the border, there was something inside his chest. A purpose. Something connecting him to the prince he had met in the courtyard. Arthur had definitely felt it to. "Does this explain why he knew who I was before I ever met him?"
The dragon studied the young man carefully, and Merlin felt himself wilt under the creature's gaze. There was something so strong and peculiar about it, and it made Merlin feel so uncomfortable... intimidated, even. The dragon was so daunting in itself, but he also seemed to know so much about him... and Arthur. "So you already know."
"No!" Merlin yelled, but no one else was nearby to hear him. "I don't know. How does this explain why he knows me? It's not like he can... see the future or read minds or anything, never mind me."
The dragon laughed. "But that is precisely what he is. Arthur has magic, too."
The silence that followed came from Merlin's being stunned. Nothing, not even the tiny pieces of rock falling further into the cavern, could break this silence. Merlin still believed it to be impossible. When Merlin came to Camelot, he was alone. No one could know his secret, not except for Gaius, the guardian his mother had entrusted him to. It wasn't even as though Gaius shared these powers. There was no one else, just Merlin and his fears of being discovered.
"No, no, you've got it wrong," he denied finally, his voice sounding weak even to his own years. "Not the son of someone who kills people like me."
"There is no right or wrong, only what is and isn't." Anger flashed in the dragon's eyes, making them appear almost amber. "Just as you did not choose your magic, he did not choose his. Arthur was born with it, just like you, only with him, it will bide its time, festering like a dormant disease and growing until it will eventually consume him. Only you can save him from himself. Without you, Arthur will be lost down a dark path of fear and destruction. Without you, Arthur will destroy Albion and everything else he could have achieved."
The hope was gone. Merlin found it impossible to believe that the golden prince had magic, never mind would someday bring about Camelot's destruction. That was what Albion was, was it not? He couldn't think of anything else to explain that word. "No," Merlin said numbly. "No way. No. No. There has to be another Arthur because this one's an idiot." Surely this Arthur wasn't capable of magic or of destroying his home. Surely not.
The dragon laughed again as he straightened his back. "Perhaps it is your destiny to change that." Then he used his wings to lift off again. Rushes of air pushed against Merlin's face as he rose upward into the cave.
The dragon did not respond to Merlin's cries as he called it back down, wanting to know more. It seemed to Merlin that this would be the only information he would receive.
No, it couldn't have been him. It couldn't have. Arthur tried to tell himself that repeatedly ever since he saw the boy in the training field. When he saw him in the Lower Town he turned the other way. Arthur pretended to have not seen the boy because he didn't want to deal with it. Not like he did every night since he was eight years old.
Dreams, they had always been dreams. Well, more like nightmares, but Arthur could handle them. He had to. As Camelot's prince and heir, he had to. He could not be afforded any weakness, especially any from his father who was already so hard to please. Arthur couldn't admit to anyone that he was still terrified of going to bed at night despite coming of age in just a few months.
The nightmares had started shortly after Morgana came to the castle, so, naturally, it was she he went to. It wasn't because he wanted to get to know her or anything, far from it, actually. Something felt so wrong to him every time he overheard a castle servant talking of marriage.
No, there was something about her that Arthur could trust, something that he felt comfortable with confiding in, so, after the third night, he had come to her with the nightmares. They were the only children in the castle, unless one counted the girl brought in from the Lower Town who was close to Morgana's age and acted as her maid.
The two of them grew close, and she was the only one Arthur could talk to about his nightmares... well, her and sometimes Guinevere, whom Morgana had blathered to once Gwen grew suspicious.
But Morgana didn't really understand, especially now that the worst of Arthur's nightmares was starting to come true. The boy who was such a prominent figure in Arthur's dreams was real.
He caught himself staring at the boy again, but this time, he was looking his way as well. The boy was dressed in rags despite the formal setting of the feast and said something to Gaius. He, too, looked troubled, but probably because of the way Arthur had treated him in the courtyard. He had every right to be.
Arthur tore his gaze away first. He had to because he was the prince. He couldn't be caught staring, least of all at a mouthy peasant. What would his father ever say to that?
Thankfully, Lady Helen was about to begin her song, and it gave Arthur an excuse to shuffle back to his seat... Far from Merlin. He was never a fan for song, it was too girly for him. Was he allowed to just sleep through it?
As if on command, his eyes started to droop. Arthur yawned as he suddenly grew very tired... Why... This wasn't natural, there wasn't anything about this. Through his eyelids he could see that everyone was sleeping, buried beneath cobwebs and layers of dust as time went and stopped. Completely asleep. However groggy he was, Arthur... He didn't know why, his mind was so slow, but... Why wasn't he asleep?
He stirred ever so slightly when he heard Helen's - the witch's - voice pause. His heartbeat was a dull thump, but he was too tired to react when there was instead a crash. Arthur was the first to wake. The chandelier had crashed to the ceiling on top of her, and her face was morphing... Sort of familiar now that he thought of it... Didn't his father say that Mary Collins was the mother of the man who had been executed days earlier?
Then her knife was coming towards him, and his legs were lead as they refused to let him move. He couldn't... Arthur was petrified as the dagger spun through the air towards his heart. Then something was pushing him out of the way, shoving him to the ground as the knife embedded itself into the wood. Arthur drew deep breaths, looking at his savior…
The boy. Of course.
He stared at the peasant with... It wasn't awe... Disbelief? That must have been it? Though how did the scrawny boy from his dreams manage to save his life? To get there in time to push him out of the way of the dagger? Arthur had been sitting far away from the boy, he had made certain of it. Arthur wanted nothing to do with him, especially not after the dreams. To get close to him... He couldn't let any of it happen.
"You saved my boy's life." Arthur's father was standing there now, gratitude shining in his usually cold grey eyes. He must have been just as shocked as Arthur that this peasant had saved him. "A debt must be repaid."
The servant met his father's eyes for a moment before remembering his place and looking down again. "I-" he stuttered uncomfortably. "Well..." Arthur's mouth was hanging open, but he couldn't close it. Not with how close to death he had been.
"Don't be so modest," his father chastised, though he was smiling at him. "You shall be rewarded."
"No, honestly, you don't have to, Your Highness..." The boy was smiling, yet... Arthur didn't believe that he had only saved him for a reward. Not after the things he had seen.
"No, absolutely, this merits something quite special." Good, then. Give him his gold, just get the boy out of his father's presence.
The peasant shrugged, sounding happy about something. Probably happy to get his coin for his efforts (not that Arthur thought that this was his reason for saving him. However, he still didn't know why.) "Well..."
His father was still beaming, even if it made Arthur squirm restlessly. His father, the king... "You shall be rewarded a position in the royal household. You shall be Prince Arthur's manservant."
And one look at the boy, and Arthur knew... This was by far the worst thing that could have happened to him. But everyone was watching, he couldn't panic now. He met the peasant's eyes and looked away immediately. How could things go so terribly wrong? True, Morris had since quit his services (Arthur had a knack for making servants quit, which was not entirely accidental). That did not mean that he wanted another servant. He certainly didn't want the boy from his dreams.
"Father," Arthur protested vehemently. Because this couldn't be happening. It wasn't allowed to be happening. The boy needed to be as far away from him as he could get. Just as Arthur was in some way drawn to him, he was also afraid. His dreams were never too clear, but some of it was... And he couldn't let this boy get involved.
Because of all of the images that flooded Arthur's head every night, Arthur knew. He knew who the boy was. In the images was a flash of gold in the eyes.
He had magic.