Arthur forced a smile, trying to mask his irritation as Bayard roared in laughter at his own joke. This was diplomacy at its ugliest; two kings entertaining each other, all for the sake of celebrating a friendship that was just for show. The peace with Mercia had been steady for several years now (ever since that treaty when Merlin had drunk poison for him) but war had raged for many more years before the treaty was signed, and there was still an underlying tension to every exchange between the two kingdoms, especially since Uther's death. Bayard had sent his condolences, and he had not taken advantage of the kingdom's most fragile times, but he had watched on and waited, and Arthur was certain he had been more than a little disappointed when Camelot had pulled through. Mercia was no longer an enemy of Camelot, but neither could it be counted on as an ally.
There was no love lost between the two kings. Bayard was a man of his word and a good swordsman, but he and Arthur rarely saw eye to eye about anything, and any further attempt to sign a new, more binding accord had failed. In fact, Arthur couldn't understand how his father had managed to negotiate the initial peace treaty, as Bayard seemed inflexible about his own laws and didn't hesitate to criticise Camelot's. Magic was legal in Mercia, and that alone could have been enough for Uther to never agree to peace with the kingdom, but his worry for the welfare of his people had overridden his hatred of magic. Uther had been a strong king, and sometimes when Bayard spoke almost mockingly of Camelot, Arthur wondered whether he lacked that strength.
He had chosen to ride to Mercia in a show of friendship, and Bayard had welcomed him with open arms. The delegation he had chosen to accompany him was deliberately small but not unintimidating – five of his nobles, five of his knights. Dressed in red and firmly seated on their horses, Arthur knew they struck an imposing figure, but couldn't be construed as an affront or a threat. When they'd arrived, Bayard had looked at them as though he understood the choice, and had given Arthur an amused smile. And his gaze had gone immediately to Merlin, who sat on his horse directly behind Arthur, and a flicker of recognition had crossed his face, the smile becoming more genuine.
"It is a wise decision to keep such a loyal servant by your side," Bayard had said after greeting Arthur. "From what I remember, it would be a mistake not to have him always with you. It is not every man who would drink poison for his prince."
Arthur had nodded curtly, because if there was one thing that he couldn't fault Merlin for, it was his loyalty. The memory of Merlin, raising a hand to his throat as the poison took effect, and then crumpling to the ground and letting the goblet roll across the floor... It had been the first time that Arthur realised that if Merlin wasn't there, it would matter.
They had stayed for three days, long enough for his men to rest from the trip, and for Bayard to diplomatically refuse Arthur's newest attempt to strengthen the bond between their kingdoms.
"Camelot would be a valuable ally, but our politics are too incompatible," Bayard had said. "I am glad I can always count on peace with your kingdom, but I fear anything more is impossible."
At least Bayard had the tact not to ask a sorcerer to entertain his guests. Arthur had felt his spine go rigid the first time the lights in the banquet hall had all been lit at once at a word from a servant, but Bayard had arched his eyebrows as though daring him to say something, and Arthur had let it slide because this was Mercia, not Camelot.
"It is convenient," Bayard had said later, when Arthur was watching the servant – a woman, her eyes downcast and with nothing extraordinary about her – refill Percival's goblet. "There is no harm in a little show of lights."
"How can you trust them?" Arthur had asked despite himself, forcing himself to look away from the witch.
"Uther always overestimated magic," Bayard had said. "She has little power, certainly not enough to destroy my kingdom. There are restrictions on the types of sorcery allowed, and she would be executed if she broke the law. She is certainly no more dangerous than one of my swordsmen, and I trust my swordsmen not to slit my throat while I sleep."
After that, Arthur had kept seeing the witch everywhere. He wasn't sure whether Bayard intentionally put her on his path just to irritate him, or whether it really was a coincidence, but at every meal she was there, serving one of his knights. In the corridors he found her walking with a pile of laundry in her arms. Once, he caught her rearranging flowers in his chambers, and though she bowed and left immediately when he entered, the encounter left an uncomfortable feeling in the pit of his stomach. And now, during this last banquet in Mercia, she was there again, standing at the other end of the room, her back to the wall. Her eyes flitted in Arthur's direction at least as often as his own fell on her, and though Arthur quickly glanced away every time, her gaze was heavy and insistent.
It was only when Merlin stepped forward to refill his glass, and then returned to his position, that Arthur realised it wasn't him she was staring at. It was his manservant. Her eyes followed his every move, and since he shadowed Arthur, the mistake was easily made. But now that Arthur had realised it, he saw her gaze was actually focused on a spot slightly behind him, and when Merlin moved away to serve Gwaine and use the occasion to speak to him, the witch turned slightly and looked at them.
The combination of blue eyes and dark hair was rare in Mercia, but not that rare, and it seemed absurd to Arthur that the woman could have taken a liking to Merlin. She had to be at least five years older than him. Then again, maybe they had become friendly over the past few days; Merlin tended to be good at socialising with servants from other kingdoms. But Merlin knew she had magic. He had seen it as clearly as Arthur said. Surely he wouldn't want anything to do with her, even out of politeness.
Arthur watched, feeling strangely irritated, as she slowly began to move around the large table and made her way to where Gwaine was sitting. She served a new goblet of wine to the man beside Arthur's knight, and still her eyes were on Merlin. She said nothing, but her hand reached out to brush against Merlin's sleeve almost furtively, so lightly that Merlin didn't even notice. But Arthur did.
After that, he couldn't focus on the meal, or even on Bayard speaking beside him. He watched the sorceress intently, and though she didn't try to approach Merlin again, her eyes were always on him, and there was an expression on her face that Arthur couldn't begin to decipher.
Arthur was glad to be leaving. Bayard's castle was grand, but it couldn't compare to the beauty of Camelot, and there was something about being in Mercia that set Arthur's teeth on edge. Even travelling to Queen Annis' kingdom never made him feel like this, despite their past. So when one of Bayard's stable boys came to Arthur and told him their horses were ready, he wasn't sure he managed to conceal his relief.
Merlin led Arthur's horse out and waited while he mounted, then disappeared back into the stables to get his own horse. Arthur watched him leave, thinking he'd be glad when they were back in Camelot and Merlin wouldn't be spending his days silently doing his bidding just to make Camelot look good. Arthur had long since come to terms with the fact that he actually liked Merlin's incompetence and irreverence, and seeing him do his best to act like a perfect servant, even for just three days, had been unsettling.
When Merlin came back, he fumbled with his saddle girth for a moment. As he was about to swing up into the saddle, a soft voice rose up from behind Arthur and they both turned to see a woman fall to her knees and bow her head.
"My lord," she said, her voice hopeful and questioning. "My lord, it is you, isn't it?"
"There's no need –" Arthur began, shifting uncomfortably in the saddle, but the woman continued as though she had not even heard him.
She tilted her head, and there was an expression of awe and bliss on her upturned face, and it was that more than anything which allowed him to recognise her as the servant who had been looking at Merlin during the meal. The one who had magic.
"My lord," she repeated with a a fervour in her voice that Arthur had never heard in any of his subjects, and it was then that Arthur saw that her eyes were again focused on a point somewhere behind him, and also then that he realised that a servant of Bayard's castle would not kneel like that before the king of Camelot. "I am your faithful servant."
He turned slowly, but no Mercian lord had appeared behind him. There was only his knights. His knights and Merlin, who looked stricken as he stared down at the woman, and she stared right back, her eyes bright. A strange feeling of foreboding crept over Arthur, and he slid down the side of his horse and stepped closer to the witch.
"What –" he began, but again she woman interrupted him, as though he simply did not exist.
"My name is Lucia, my lord," she said, eyes still on Merlin, which made no sense at all. "I am a follower of the Old Religion."
Arthur's fingers closed around the hilt of his sword, and he had to remind himself that Camelot's laws were not applicable here before he could unclench his hand. Leon stepped up until he was standing on Arthur's right side, perhaps intending to back him up; Arthur could not find the will to smile at him.
"If there is any way in which I can serve you, you only have to say the word, sire," Lucia said, and that was it, the last straw.
"Sire!" Arthur repeated, incredulous; he felt Leon tense beside him. "What on earth are you talking about, woman? Merlin is a servant."
She turned the full force of her stare on him, and Arthur almost stepped back. She had green eyes that were large and unblinking and really rather unsettling. Her pale hair was held back from her face by a thin leather strap knotted at her nape, and all in all she looked too calm, too regal, too powerful for someone wearing a servant's clothes and kneeling in the dirt.
"I am not mistaken," she said. "I have dreamt of this moment, and I do not need to lay eyes on him to recognise Emrys. As you have, so has he been foretold. And his destiny is not to be a mere servant." She spat the word out, as though Merlin being a servant was a personal offense to her. "I have watched you these past three days, and I have seen what you think of him." She looked at Merlin. "Why are you silent, my lord? Why do you not defend yourself?"
Arthur turned to his manservant, who seemed to be fighting an interior battle with himself. Conflicting emotions crossed his expression, until finally he shook his head. Arthur felt a tension he had not known was there depart from his shoulders, and he relaxed.
"You have the wrong man, Lucia," Merlin said, but his smile was forced at best. "I've never heard of whoever it is you're talking about."
A shadow passed over Lucia's expression. "I would recognise you anywhere, my lord, in any disguise."
"Have you met her before?" Arthur asked.
"I've never seen her in my life," Merlin said, and Arthur believed him.
"Nor I you," Lucia said. "I am blessed to have chanced upon you on this day. Your magic is the –"
Several things happened at once.
Gwaine let out an angry, incredulous cry, effectively silencing Lucia, and sprang forward so that he was beside Arthur, his hand already going for his sword. Lucia raised one hand as though about to cast a spell, and Merlin moved quickly, pushing his way past Arthur to place himself between Lucia and the knights, facing Lucia.
"Don't!" Merlin said, and he sounded scared out of his wits. "Stop it, please, don't say anyth –"
"This is ridiculous," Arthur said, setting his jaw in anger, because who did this woman think she was, accusing Merlin like that? He stepped forward, his hand closing around the hilt of his sword once more. "This wickedness may be legal in Mercia, but I will not tolerate this sort of insinuation about one of my subjects –"
"Emrys is not your subject. He is no one's subject but his own, and magic's," Lucia retorted instantly. "He chooses to follow you, but you do not have any hold over him that he does not allow you to have. If there is to be a hierarchy, then it would be just as fitting to say that you were his subject, sire."
Gwaine laughed, though it was tense, and he didn't sound like he really thought it was amusing. Arthur didn't miss the complete absence of reverence in Lucia's tone when she spoke to him. However mad this woman seemed, she was completely convinced that she was in the right. That Merlin was deserving of her deference and her defense.
"This Emrys, it's supposed to be Merlin?" Gwaine said.
"Oh for the love of – there's really no way to salvage this, is there?" Merlin asked, except it wasn't really a question.
It sounded and tasted and felt more like an admission of guilt, and Arthur wished he could say Yes, there is, just shut up and let me handle it, but a part of him already knew that this was broken beyond repair.
"You couldn't have chosen a better time," Merlin muttered. "Brilliant. This is just brilliant. Oh – would you just get up already? It isn't making things any easier."
Merlin took Lucia's hands in his and helped her rise.
"Don't ever kneel to me again," he told Lucia. "And stop talking about me like that. I'm not anything special. I'm a servant, just like you."
"You are magic," Lucia said simply, as though it explained everything.
And, in a way, it did.
Those three simple words shattered Arthur's world, sending it flying in a million tiny pieces, each like a shard of glass with the potential to pierce his heart. They were shards of glass suspended in mid-air, waiting for confirmation, unsure whether to destroy him or release him, and –
"Well, so are you, aren't you?" Merlin said. "That's how you know who I am."
Beside him, Gwaine inhaled sharply, and that was what grounded Arthur. He hadn't misheard, he hadn't imagined it; Merlin had confessed. Arthur felt something in his throat tighten, and he squeezed his eyes tightly shut. No. Impossible. Of all people, Merlin couldn't – wouldn't – lie to him. He couldn't believe the word of this woman against Merlin's, Merlin who had always been by his side, never failed him, been there for him when it seemed like the entire world had turned against Arthur. Merlin who had time and time again risked his life for Arthur, Arthur, not for Camelot, not for the king, not for honour or anything that actually made sense but for Arthur.
"I have magic," Lucia admitted. "But you, you are magic."
There was no malice in her tone, which just made everything a hundred times worse. She was lying, she had to be. Because Merlin wouldn't.
And yet Merlin was not looking at Arthur, not looking at anyone, in fact, and there was a strange set to his jaw, as though he were struggling to hold back tears.
"The world has never known one such as you. Emrys, he who holds the power over life and death, he who will restore the balance in this world, he who is and will be the most powerful sorcerer to ever grace this land. Your magic burns bright. I can sense it here." She raised a folded fist to her chest, over her heart. "It is how I recognised you. He who stands at the right of the Once and Future King and wields such power can only be Emrys."
"How can you be so sure?" Gwaine asked, but there was no challenge in his words.
It was a genuine question, expecting an answer, and that was how Arthur realised – Gwaine believed. He had taken all of a minute to be convinced, and his first reaction was not anger or fear. It was curiosity. Merlin half-turned, and looked up at Gwaine, the smallest of smiles playing on his lips.
Arthur looked away.
"I was born in Camelot," Lucia said, and it was then that Arthur realised that there was no trace of a Mercian accent in her voice. "I am from Camelot. I was born before the Purge, and my mother possessed a small bit of magic. She sensed my potential when I was still very young and brought me up in the ways of the Old Religion. At the time, it was not illegal or even uncommon."
Lucia hesitated, darting a doubtful glance at Arthur before continuing.
"I was six years old when the Queen died," she said, and the words woke a deep, latent ache in Arthur that could not even hope to compare with the fresh pain of Merlin's betrayal. "When the first whispers of the Purge reached us, my mother gave me into the care of a druid camp that was fleeing Camelot, because she strongly believed in the Old Religion and wanted me to be able to live that faith freely. She stayed behind to gather our belongings and try to convince our relatives to come with us. She promised to find me again, but –" Lucia swallowed. "I never saw her again."
Merlin shifted. "I'm sorry," he said, but he was saying it to the wrong person for the wrong reasons and Arthur wanted to hit him for it.
Lucia shrugged. "It happened years ago," she said, as though time could heal that sort of wound; Arthur knew firsthand that it couldn't. "I hardly remember her. I grew up with the druids who had taken me in, and in some ways it was the best thing that could have happened to me. I recited the rhymes and heard the tales and learnt by heart the prophecies that speak of your coming."
"The prophecies," someone echoed, and it was Arthur. He hardly recognised his own voice. It sounded exactly like he felt – tight and strained and broken. "What prophecies?"
"Arthur –" Merlin started, but Arthur silenced him with a movement of his hand.
He couldn't bring himself to look at Merlin. "Not you," he said. "Her."
Lucia did not seem to fear looking at him; her gaze was solid and unflinching, almost a blessing when everything else in Arthur's world felt like it was about to break. Or maybe like it had already broken, and nothing could put it back together in exactly the same way.
"The prophecies that speak of Emrys and the Once and Future King," she said. "Both of whom have great destinies. Together, they will build a new world." She half-closed her eyes, and a faint smile tugged at the corners of her lips. "Would you like to hear one?"
Arthur did not answer, thinking yesnoyesIdon'tknow. Lucia swayed slightly, as though the words required a great physical effort. Her mouth opened, and when she spoke her voice had deepened somewhat, and it seemed to Arthur as though she were breathing magic.
"When high is the need and higher still the death toll,
Two will rise above the rest, two halves of the same whole,
One full of magic, to preserve the balance of the world,
The other with a sword and a crown of gold.
The Once and Future King will rule Albion with a gentle hand;
And by his side, Emrys will bring magic back to the land.
His wisdom will stay the king's sword, and his love will temper his own power.
Together they will achieve what they would do for no other.
Albion will be united in a golden age of peace and prosperity,
All will live under the same law in equality.
Two will listen to the call of their destiny,
And their reign will stretch out into eternity."
When she was finished, her words seemed to echo eerily in the air, adding a depth and seriousness to them that made the moment almost unbearable. Arthur had to fight not to look at Merlin to see how he was taking this. Had he ever heard the rhyme before? Emrys will bring magic back to the land.
"And this – this king," Arthur said finally, tasting something sour in the back of his mouth. "It's supposed to be –"
"You," Merlin said, despite Arthur's order. His voice was soft, almost pleading. "It's you, Arthur. It's always been you. My king –"
"Shut up," Arthur said, because he couldn't hear this now; each word was like a dagger thrust straight into his heart.
He could remember things Merlin had done with his magic, as though someone had lifted a veil from his memories and he could see clearly for the first time. This was true magic, powerful enough to have saved him, to have stopped immortal armies and dragons and magical beasts, and the idea that it could be Arthur's if he said the word was –
"I share your dream." Lucia's eyes were bright with silent but certain devotion; she was looking at Merlin again. "You are the one who will build the world I wish to live in. A world where we will not have to live in fear or oppression. A world of freedom and equality in all things. Some of the Old Religion have turned against the Pendragon line –," she bowed her head to Arthur, though it was nowhere near as deep as her bows to Merlin – "but in our hearts, we all share your dream and we all follow you, my lord."
"I follow Arthur," Merlin said firmly, but the words no longer held any meaning.
He didn't. He had betrayed Arthur in the worst possible way – growing close to him before revealing his duplicity after so long.
"Then the Once and Future King has my allegiance," Lucia said, "for if he is chosen by you his destiny will burn brighter than the sun."
Arthur closed his eyes briefly, feeling the ground sway beneath his feet. He felt Leon's hand on his shoulder, gripping tightly, and felt grateful for the touch which helped ground him again.
"My lord," Leon said, but whatever else he might have wanted to say was lost because Arthur heard My lord and thought Emrys and said:
"Be quiet, Leon."
Leon fell silent, not without shooting his king a hurt, reproachful look.
"I will serve you," Lucia said, "and I will serve your king, for if you –"
"Shut up," Arthur said. "Damn it, would you just leave? You've done enough harm for one day, don't you think?"
Lucia ducked her head in the semblance of a bow, then bowed much more deeply to Merlin before moving back to stand several steps away, which only served to irritate Arthur even further. It wasn't that he was that petty, really, but every mark of respect from this witch reminded him of Merlin's betrayal.
Merlin. Arthur finally looked at him.
Merlin was still standing in the exact same spot, and still looking at Gwaine, but only because he seemed unable to bring himself to look at Arthur. Merlin who had not uttered a single word in his own defense, Merlin who still looked as though he might cry at any second, as though his world had just been shattered as surely as Arthur's had.
"Merlin," Arthur said, his voice rough; Merlin's eyes shot to his, startled. "Tell me it isn't true."
There was a moment where all the knights appeared to be holding their breaths, and it seemed like everything might change again. Arthur stared at Merlin, knowing that despite everything, if his manservant looked him in the eye and told him it was all a lie, then Arthur would believe him. Because he desperately wanted to believe him, to trust him like he always had. He needed a reason to hold on to that trust, to their friendship. But Merlin only stared back at him, helpless and speechless.
By this point it wasn't a surprise, but it still knocked the breath out of Arthur. He shielded his eyes with his hand and swallowed with difficulty, but his eyes did not water even though he felt the pain of betrayal in his gut as sharply as if Merlin had stabbed him.
"You –" Arthur said, advancing on Merlin, his hand going to his sword.
This time, it wasn't Leon's steady presence at his side that stayed his hand, but Gwaine. Gwaine who suddenly appeared between Arthur and Merlin, sword unsheathed and in hand. And it wasn't Merlin he was facing.
"Try it, and maybe we'll have a chance to find out who really would have won that fight," Gwaine said with a small grin.
It sounded like a joke, it looked like a joke, and Arthur desperately wanted to believe it was a joke. But beyond the light tone and the smile, Gwaine's eyes were dark and utterly serious, and Arthur knew he meant every word. Arthur was not afraid, but neither was he stupid enough to test his knights' allegiance by fighting one of them while the others watched. And now that Gwaine called him on it, he realised that whatever he had been about to do to Merlin was not a good idea, either.
Arthur stepped back and let his hand drop to his side again. "We'll talk about your insubordination later, sir Gwaine," he said, and it was more of a threat than a reprieve.
Gwaine's smile faded, and he inclined his head in acknowledgement, his spine rigid and his shoulders stiff. "Sire."
And still he didn't sheathe his sword.
Gwaine's selfless, reckless, stupid stand had tears pricking at Merlin's eyes, if they hadn't been there already. He wanted to hug his friend, or maybe yell at him for being such an idiot. Because Merlin didn't deserve this – Gwaine putting his life on the line for him, throwing away everything he had just to choose Merlin over Arthur. That was, essentially, what he had just done. The aim hadn't even been to defend Merlin, because there was little Arthur could do to Merlin if Merlin wouldn't let him, and Gwaine had to know. It had been Gwaine's way of saying Arthur, you may be my king but Merlin is my friend, and if it comes down to a choice between the two of you, this is what I choose. As though Merlin hadn't lied to Gwaine just as much as he had lied to Arthur.
It had taken Gwaine about a minute and a half to accept that and just get past it, like it didn't really matter. Merlin cast a swift glance at the rest of the knights still standing behind Arthur. They all looked unhappy at this outcome, but not particularly angry; Merlin could have sworn he saw one of them rolling his eyes at Gwaine and whispering something that made the knight next to him grin.
That just left Arthur, then. Arthur who had been about to – to do what exactly, Merlin would luckily never know, thanks to Gwaine's intervention. Arthur whose opinion, ultimately, was the only one that mattered, and not just because he was the king. Merlin met Arthur's gaze as steadily as he could.
"So it's true, then," Arthur said flatly. "You're a sorcerer."
"Yes," Merlin said.
He didn't even want to deny it. He had always wanted Arthur to know, but not like this. He knew that Arthur deserved to have Merlin tell him himself, and that it had happened like this – not by choice, but because someone else had decided for him – made a lie out of everything they had ever shared. It had already shattered Arthur's trust in him, and it might yet destroy other, more precious things.
"A powerful one?" Arthur asked, and his expression was guarded, revealing nothing.
"And you've been using magic in the heart of Camelot," Arthur said, sounding very calm, but he wasn't, he couldn't be. "Ever since we first met."
"You've used it on me."
It wasn't a question, but Merlin heard the note of uncertainty in Arthur's voice, as though he were still hoping that this was all a dream he could still wake up from. Merlin hated to have to extinguish that hope.
"Yes," he said again, watching Arthur's expression closely.
It may have been his imagination, but he thought he saw Arthur's eyes darken and his shoulders drop almost imperceptibly. It was as subtle as the faint sigh that fell from his lips, and just as painful. Merlin wanted to say, Never against you, never to hurt you, but he had a feeling Arthur wouldn't care, would still see it as the worst kind of betrayal.
"Gwaine," Merlin said softly, "could you – step aside, please? I'll be fine."
Gwaine smiled. "Never doubted it."
He sheathed his sword and retreated, proving that he did know that Merlin could defend himself just fine.
"Did you know?" Arthur asked him.
"No," Merlin answered, even though the question wasn't meant for him. "No one knew, Arthur. I wouldn't have told one of your knights."
He caught Gwaine's eye, and was pleased to see no blame or hurt there, just calm acceptance, like he understood that Merlin could never have told him, because Merlin hadn't even been able to tell the one person who most deserved to know.
"Right," Arthur said, his jaw clenched. "You didn't tell them, and you didn't tell me, either. All these years, and you never once thought to tell me that you have magic and that you're some kind of – of magical royalty."
"Of what? I'm not!" Merlin said. "I'm really not."
"Well then what are you? This woman, Lucia, she worships you like you're some kind of god. I'm a king and I've never seen anyone kneel like that, Merlin. Or should I call you Emrys now? You even lied about your name!"
"I didn't," Merlin insisted. "My mother named me Merlin, that is my name. Emrys is just a title."
"Oh, a title," Arthur said heavily. "Just a title. Like 'King.'"
"Yes!" Merlin said, relieved, and then: "Wait, what? No!"
"It is not a title," Lucia said from where she was standing a few steps away.
"I thought I asked you to leave!" Arthur said, and Merlin thought he knew how he felt.
"Emrys is the prophesised warlock, destined to revive the Old Religion and bring magic back to the land," Lucia went on, calmly ignoring Arthur. "It has been your name among those of us who practise the Old Religion for decades, my lord. I grew up hearing it."
Merlin shot her a look that he hoped conveyed the message, This is really not helping. She only smiled back, and then – there it was again, that light in her eyes which spoke of longing and trust and devotion. It scared Merlin, that the weight of such hope should rest on his shoulders, when he was making such a mess of it all.
"Stop calling me that. I'm not a lord," Merlin said, a little desperately, because it was the only thing that sprang to mind.
Lucia smiled. "It is only a title," she said gently, parrotting his own words back to him. "Do not read anything into it but the deep respect we have for you."
"Oh for God's sake," Arthur said, pressing the heel of his hands to his eyes. "Can you – can you leave us, please? Really leave us?" He lowered his hand and looked around at his knights. "All of you."
The knights hesitated, but eventually they all turned and walked away. Even Gwaine, though he waited for Merlin's nod to move off. Lucia, however, did not move from her place.
"Are you sure –"
"Yes," Merlin said firmly.
"Merlin, come on!"
Merlin jumped and glanced at Arthur, who was already several feet away, obviously heading for the forest beyond the castle. He motioned for Merlin to follow.
"Does he treat you fairly, my lord?" Lucia asked worriedly.
Arthur yelped from behind him, and despite everything, Merlin couldn't not be amused.
"Yes," he said, darting another backwards glance at Arthur, who had turned a very interesting shade of red. "Really, Lucia, it's all right. You don't have to worry about me. I can take care of myself."
Lucia's cheeks pinkened. "Of course, my lord."
Merlin sighed. "And you have to stop calling me that. I'm the son of a peasant."
"The son of a dragonlord," Lucia corrected.
Merlin's blood ran cold. He was so stunned he couldn't speak. How could she know?
Lucia smiled gentle. "Dragon's kin and dragon's name, to unite the land only they can claim," she recited, not so quietly that Arthur wouldn't hear. "Emrys and Arthur Pendragon, dragonlord and dragon's name."
"What?" Arthur said. "How is that– oh God, Balinor was your father. Your father!"
Merlin cast him a stricken look, because perhaps Arthur was too trusting, but he was anything but stupid, and there was a terrifying note of dawning comprehension in his voice. Now that he knew Merlin was a dragonlord, it was only a matter of time before he realised that he hadn't killed the dragon. That Kilgarrah was still alive. He might even figure out that Merlin was the one who had released him in the first place, causing all those deaths. And from there he would go on to doubt every single thing he'd ever accomplished, every impossible stroke of luck and every unforeseeable betrayal, and he would realise that every last one had been Merlin's fault.
Merlin shoved Lucia away from him. "Why don't you just disappear? You've made a mess out of everything. Do you even realise what you've done? You've just single-handedly destroyed everything I've fought for for the past five years."
She stared back at him unflinchingly. "Have I?" she said calmly, her voice pitched low enough that Arthur wouldn't hear. "Or was that your own doing, when you did not trust the one whose destiny it is to have you by his side? You would have as king above all others a man whom you cannot even trust. How is that any man's fault but your own?"
He winced, thinking of the betrayed expression on Arthur's face. Lucia looked at him pityingly, but there was no gentleness in her tone when she said:
"It is his destiny to rule Albion, and rule well. It is written in stars that he will bring magic back to his kingdom. But he can do neither without you. He will never realise how much he needs you if you do not let him see it for himself."
"Oh, just go away," Merlin said, but his anger had deflated and his tone lacked bitterness.
Lucia smiled faintly, and this time, she did leave.
Merlin watched her walk away. He braced himself and turned to follow Arthur, who was walking away without looking back, as though he knew that Merlin would always follow him if he asked.
Green leaves hung overheard, casting dancing shadows across the dirt and half-shielding them from the golden sunshine. Arthur's face was shadowed and unreadable, and he wasn't saying anything. The silence seemed interminable, and it was Merlin who broke it first.
"What are you going to do?"
"I think a better question is, what can I do that you wouldn't be able to prevent?"
Merlin winced. "I wouldn't stop you with magic."
Arthur raised his eyebrows.
"I know I haven't been honest with you, but if you ever trusted me at all, then believe this. I can give you this one thing, at least. If you want to exile me, I'll go, I swear. If you want to imprison me, I won't escape."
"And if I wanted to have you executed?" Arthur asked, his voice like a chill down Merlin's spine. "That's generally the punishment applied for practising sorcery in Camelot, you know."
Merlin shook his head, his throat tight. "I wouldn't stop you, but Gwaine probably would."
Arthur smiled, but his expression held no warmth, and Merlin could see that was another betrayal he was struggling with. "I'd like to see him try." He looked out into the distance. "Why should I trust you?"
It was more of a plea than a question, as though Arthur were begging Merlin to give him a reason.
"Because I've never done anything to harm you or Camelot," Merlin said. "I may have lied, but everything I've done since I came to Camelot has been for you, Arthur. There's so much you don't know –"
"I can see that," Arthur said sharply.
"– but I'll tell you, if you want to know. All you have to do is ask."
"How do I know you'll tell the truth?"
"I swear –"
"I don't trust you," Arthur said. "You could promise me the world, Merlin, and I wouldn't believe you."
"At least trust that I'm yours," Merlin said desperately. "I've never harmed you, I've never wanted to, and I never will. I'm your servant, Arthur."
"You were supposed to be my friend," Arthur shot back.
Merlin froze, his spine going rigid. He wasn't mistaken; that slightly off note in Arthur's voice was hurt, not anger. And Merlin wasn't sure how to deal with hurt. He wanted to say, I am your friend, I'm a hundred times more than that, I'm anything you want me to be, but what use would it be if Arthur didn't believe him?
"I don't want to fight with you," he said instead. "Tell me what you want, and I'll do my best to give it. But let's not do it like this, Arthur. I can't."
Arthur opened his mouth to retort, then shook his head as though clearing his thoughts. He breathed out a little sigh.
"I wish I could say no to you," he said, and he sounded calm and very, very tired. "I wish I could hate you –" Merlin's heart leapt – "but even after this, I'm not sure I'll ever be able to. You've lied to me about everything for years. You're not who I thought you were, we're not what I thought we were, and still I –" He shook his head again.
"You what?" Merlin asked, his heart in his throat, because for a moment there, he'd almost thought –
"Why are you still my servant?" Arthur asked. "You could be free somewhere else. It can't be worth it, being a mere servant in Camelot –"
"Your servant," Merlin interrupted. "It's not just my job, Arthur. It's who I am. Beyond the magic, beyond the lies – that won't ever change. I'm your servant, and if you'll let me, I'll serve you until the day I die. "
"Because I'm the Once and Future King."
"Because you're Arthur," Merlin said. "To me, you –"
"I'm destined to bring magic back to Camelot, aren't I? Or at least that's what you think. That's why you follow me, that's why you've stayed with me for so long, because of my destiny –"
"Were you disappointed?" Arthur asked. "When you saw I wasn't all I was meant to be, were you –"
"You are," Merlin said. "You're everything you were meant to be and more, a thousand times more, and I'm not your servant because of destiny, I want to be your servant."
"Why would you want to serve a man whose laws order the execution of your kind? You've only lasted this long because you think you can change my mind."
"Yes!" Merlin said. "Yes, that's true, I do want you to change your mind about magic so you can accept me. Do you have any idea –" he hesitated, then continued – "any idea how hard it was to lie about who I am, because if you knew you'd have me killed? To look you in the eye and pretend everything was fine when it was killing me inside? To listen to you tell me all magic was evil and you would never accept it, when all along I – I –" He choked on his last words, knowing he couldn't say them.
"Then you should have just left!" Arthur said. "If it was such a chore being with me, you should have left! I never asked you to come to Camelot."
Merlin gasped at the unexpected pain the words brought. Arthur hadn't said You should have said something, but I wouldn't have wanted you there.
"You would have died a hundred times without me!"
The words hung in the air between them, strangely loud in the sudden silence, like an echo of Merlin's hurt.
"A hundred," Arthur repeated, his voice hollow in a way that sent shivers up Merlin's spine.
"I meant –"
"A hundred," Arthur said again. "Every time when I wasn't looking – when I was knocked out – that was you?"
"I don't –"
"I didn't kill the dragon, did I? Lucia said you're a dragonlord."
"Arthur, I promise I never –"
"That's a no, then." Arthur closed his eyes. "Damn you, Merlin."
"I'm sorry," Merlin said quietly. "I know I lied, but –"
Arthur snorted. "The lies. It's not even the magic, for you, is it? The magic is nothing to you."
"It's everything," Merlin said. "It's like the air you breathe – you can't live without it, but you don't spend every minute of the day thinking about it."
"Yeah," Arthur said, "except I've never killed anyone by breathing air."
Merlin stared at him, stunned beyond belief that Arthur could say anything so cruel, so callous to him. The pause lasted just a second too long, and Arthur's eyes widened.
"Oh God – you have, haven't you? You've killed people with magic."
"It's not like that –"
"How did you manage to keep this a secret for so long when you're such a lousy liar when it comes to everything else? You're lying, Merlin. You have."
"Yes," Merlin said, "but –"
"But it was all for a good cause? All for the sake of – of what, exactly? What have you been doing in Camelot all this time? Plotting –"
"Oh please," Merlin said, feeling his temper rise for the first time in this conversation. "It's been years, Arthur. I could have done anything I wanted to Camelot, to you, but I've been too busy saving your arse every day! Do you have any idea of the amount of near-death experiences you've had? I've spent every waking hour serving you so I can be by your side the next time you get into trouble. That's what my magic is for, Arthur. To protect you."
"So that the Once and Future King can bring magic back to the land," Arthur said dully.
"So that you live long enough to actually do something! You can't seriously think that I wanted to harm you, when all I've been doing all along is saving you. You would have died before you were even of age if it wasn't for me!"
"You knew of the prophecy when you became my servant, didn't you? That's why you saved my life that first time – that's why you stayed, why you've always stayed, because of what I'm destined to do. And all that talk about believing in me – it was because some fortune-teller told you we were destined, that I would save your skinny arse from execution, that I would make magic lawful again –"
"That's not true," Merlin cut in. "When I was told that –"
"Don't interrupt me!"
"– I didn't even believe it! I thought you were the Once and Future Prat, destined to be the most stupid and annoying king the world has ever seen."
Arthur opened his mouth to protest reflexively, but Merlin raised his voice and spoke quickly.
"And even now, you're not just the Once and Future King. You're Arthur, and you're still a prat sometimes, and I serve you because I want to, because you're my king, and because I wouldn't want to be anywhere else but here, by your side, and that's where I'll always be. I have magic, but it's yours, Arthur, it's always been yours. You can do whatever you want with it, with me."
That, there, was all Arthur needed to know, and all Merlin had to say.
Arthur's expression was conflicted, like he wasn't sure whether he ought to feel flattered or insulted, and knew that neither was really an option if he wanted to stay angry.
"Why?" he asked. "If it's not destiny, then what?"
Merlin shook his head tightly, thinking Don't make me say it.
"You know why," he said thickly. "You've always known."
It wasn't something they talked about. Arthur had never let it come between them before, had never even hinted that he knew, but how could he not? Merlin had thrown himself in front of a Dorocha for Arthur, he had taken a mace to the chest and almost died, he'd even drunk poison. And he hadn't done it just because of destiny.
"I thought –" Arthur said, hesitant, because he did know. "I used to think you might –"
"Yeah," Merlin said.
"His wisdom stays the king's sword..." Arthur recited slowly, his voice trailing off meaningfully.
And his love tempers his own power.
Arthur looked at him, and the air between them was suddenly charged with something more, not just tension and anger and hurt. There was a new current of understanding, and doubt, and regret. Arthur's eyes softened, becoming gentle and open and inviting, and just like that Merlin found the words rolling off his tongue.
"It's you," he said. "Not destiny, not the stupid prophecies, nothing. Just you. It couldn't be anyone else for me."
It didn't sound bitter or resentful, just open and honest. He stopped there, because there was nothing to add. And he waited.
Arthur looked away, his throat moving as he swallowed. "You might have said something."
"About what?" Merlin asked. "The magic, or..."
A dark flush rose to Arthur's cheeks. "Either, I suppose."
"What good would have come of that?" Merlin asked, and this time there may have been a little bitterness. "It's not like we could ever –"
Arthur kissed him, harsh and impulsive, cutting him off. It was anything but gentle and romantic, but even when their teeth clashed together and their noses bumped painfully and Arthur backed him up into a tree hard enough to hurt, Merlin was too taken in by the feeling of Arthur to care. Arthur, warm and soft around him, pressed against him and melting into him. Arthur's hands in his hair and Arthur's mouth against his. Arthur who tasted of heat and anger, but who felt like love and bliss and what could have been.
"I hate this," Arthur whispered against Merlin's lips, "I hate it, I hate it, I hate you."
Merlin clutched at him, holding him close, pretending he couldn't hear.
"Have I done anything alone, since you arrived in Camelot?" Arthur asked afterwards.
Merlin opened his mouth to reply immediately, and found he couldn't think of anything. He remained silent for a few beats, and Arthur sucked in a breath.
"Right," he said. "Always, always you –"
"For you," Merlin said quickly, trying to deflect a new wave of anger, "it was only ever for you."
"I know," Arthur said. "That doesn't make it right."
"You could stay in Mercia," Arthur said. "If you wanted to. Magic is legal here, and Lucia would probably be overjoyed. Bayard would probably even have you in the castle – he knows who you are."
"I could," Merlin said. "I will, if you ask me to."
He waited, eyes on Arthur. Arthur opened his mouth, and closed it again. He swallowed, and shook his head.
"Arthur," Merlin breathed, and if there was more hope and joy and reverence in his voice than in Lucia's when she had called him lord, well, he didn't really care.
"You're mine," Arthur told him, a plain statement of fact.
"Yours," Merlin agreed. "Always yours, Arthur, you have no idea. Whatever you want."
"And you're magic," he said, eyes on Merlin, trying the word on for size.
"It's yours, too," Merlin promised, but he saw the way Arthur's expression darkened, and knew he wasn't forgiven just yet, that this was too complicated for Arthur to accept so quickly.
"Tell me," Arthur said, sounding so genuinely lost that it clawed at something in Merlin's chest, "what I'm supposed to do now. I don't know, I can't – I don't know, Merlin. What am I supposed to do with you?"
"Whatever you want," Merlin said, and meant it.
"But what do you want?" Arthur asked, like it mattered.
"I want – I want to stay with you, to be at your side like I always am."
Arthur looked off into the distance, at where the trees gave way to plains again. "And the law?"
Merlin swallowed. "Whatever you want," he said again. "You're the king."
"And you're my servant," Arthur said, looking at him again, "but it's never that simple, is it?"
Merlin shook his head.
"I don't think I'm meant to make this decision alone," Arthur said. "That's why you're here, isn't it?"
"I don't want you to think this is all because of destiny –" Merlin began, but Arthur waved at him to be silent.
"But it is, isn't it? All of this – it's destiny. You are destiny."
He didn't sound annoyed, or even angry anymore, just contemplative and slightly awed, like someone had removed a filter from his vision and he was seeing everything in colour instead of shades of grey for the first time.
"This is our destiny," Arthur said, reaching out to grip Merlin's left wrist. "And I'm not meant to face it alone. So you tell me, Merlin – what should I do?"
Merlin felt the wetness on his cheeks before the pricking in his eyes even registered, and he raised his free hand to wipe the tears away, smiling. The serious look in Arthur's eyes didn't fade, though his lips quirked up into a mocking grin.
"I sometimes think you were destined to be a girl," he said, and Merlin gave a tiny, choked laugh.
"Wouldn't be the first time destiny screwed up."
"You have a lot to explain," Arthur told him. "All these years –"
"But first..." Arthur's thumb rubbed reassuring circles against the inside of Merlin's wrist. "Tell me what we'll do when we return to Camelot."
Merlin's heart skipped a beat; Arthur probably felt it.
"We," Arthur confirmed, and the teasing grin became a full-on smile, warm and affectionate and glorious, and if there was any hesitation in it, Merlin chose not to see it. "You and I and the knights of Camelot."
"You'd let me come back."
"I would. If you chose to."
Merlin tried to swallow past the lump in his throat. "To Camelot. With you."
"Are you sure?"
"Do you want me to change my mind, Merlin?"
Merlin shook his head quickly. "No! No, I can't think of anything I'd rather do."
"Not even lift the ban on magic?"
Merlin looked up at Arthur, then down at Arthur's warm fingers gently wrapped around his wrist, and there was no contest. He didn't even have to think about it. For years and years, he had been choosing Arthur above the right to practise magic freely, every single time.
"Not even that. It doesn't even come close."
"But the prophecy –"
"The prophecy," Merlin said, "isn't what's kept me by your side this long."
"But if I did –"
"Arthur," Merlin said. "I'm never going to ask anything of you. I don't have to. I believe you'll always do what you think is right. That's all I need."
Arthur shook his head, looking amazed. "Bayard was right," he said. "Your loyalty is valuable." He hesitated. "Not just your loyalty."
Your friendship, too, Merlin almost heard. It was an invitation, and he closed his eyes and stepped forward, leaning into Arthur's warmth. He could feel Arthur's breath hot against his neck and his touch at his wrist, just above his pulse point.
"Trust me," he said into Arthur's hair, so low Arthur wouldn't have heard him if his lips hadn't been so close to Arthur's ear. "I'll never let you fall. Trust me again, and I swear I'll never let you down again."
Arthur said nothing, but Merlin heard the hitch in his breath and knew he had heard. He didn't dare move to look up at Arthur, didn't want to shatter this moment. He wanted to stay like this forever, leaning against Arthur, not moving, not breathing, just standing there with Arthur surrounding him.
It wasn't forgiveness, but it was something.
A new beginning.