Refined by Fire

A/N: Begins five minutes prior to the opening of ep.3.5 "The Crystal Cave", and will run through the end of ep.3.7 "The Castle of Fyrien".

Also, btw, the how of the reveal is meant to be yawn-ordinary. Commonplace setting, both in series and in the fanfic world. It's what comes after that I hope will be unique…

Chapter 1: Revelations and Reactions

It began, as any shift in destiny does, with a choice.

So happened, this time it was a choice made by Merlin. On the spur of the moment, and possibly entirely on instinct. Or, contrary to instinct…


Arthur bellowed the order, shoving away from one incapacitated opponent and spearing Merlin – half-hidden by a tree trunk, that he might have no need to spare a thought for his own physical safety, and concentrate entirely on the surreptitious use of judicious magic to aid the prince, and the knights of the patrol also – with a fierce glare, before spinning to engage another.

Half a heartbeat. To obey or to disobey.

They could run. Just the two of them, the crown prince escaping relatively unscathed, Merlin the last line of secret defense guarding his back, sprinting like flushed jackrabbits through the underbrush over rough ground. Mounts and guard left behind to their fate.

Perhaps it would end with them sauntering through the sun-drenched fields of ripe wheat, leisurely returning to the gleaming white towers of the citadel to still the worry of those awaiting their return, to gather the acclaim – in Arthur's case – of extraordinary good luck and matchless skill.

Perhaps it would end with pursuit, and a stray arrow taking Arthur in the back, despite his chainmail. And Merlin dragging him to some tiny filthy desperate refuge, where his few physician's skills or sorcerer's spells would not be sufficient. And with Arthur's blood on his hands and tears in his eyes he would helplessly watch his prince – his friend – fade toward death.

Or they could stay.

With the horses that would make a quicker getaway possible. With the knights that fought to reduce the threat and protect Arthur. Giving their lives in the proven loyalty of bloodshed. Fulfilling oaths. Just as true to their purpose as Merlin.

"Merlin, run!" Arthur shouted, again momentarily free, head up and searching for the best and freest direction of escape.

But he knew, Arthur would not run until he was sure of Merlin's safety.

Even as Sir Arrok, the second-in-command of the patrol, bellowed a command of his own. "My lord, go! We will hold them off!"

Run. Go.

Hold them off.

Hide. Win. Save.

Arthur's life. Always the ultimate goal. Others had to die for that, for him. It was a fact, much as Arthur always hated to admit it. Merlin had to kill for that, much as he hated doing it. Had to let others die for that, keeping his secret that he might continue Arthur's invisible shield.

A choice. Go or stay. Run and hide and hope. Or stay and risk and hope.

And destiny took an abrupt right turn, by one man simply standing still.

Three bandits charged Arthur, who whirled to run – and checked, seeing Merlin unmoving. A sword lifted – further away, a crossbow. Arthur spun back to the fight, his own sword raised to meet the attack.

Wordless magic. Determined magic.

One man tripped, taking down his fellow- the crossbow bolt soared through the air in an impossible arc, slamming into the body of the third.

Merlin slipped to the other side of the trunk. Had Arthur seen? He never was completely sure, until the prince teased him for cowardice or remarked upon their ridiculously good luck.

Still outnumbered. And so little time. More roots, more heated metal, more dropped branches or deflected weapons. Merlin panted like he'd been running, or fighting physically. Arthur surged into his view again as the tides turned –

Hadn't Gaius once spoken of Sigan's power over the tides? Merlin grinned to himself, allowing his feet to stray forward, emerging from cover, the knights attacking with renewed vigor and resolve. How's this for tide-turning? he thought. This sort of tide I'll turn any day.

And the last enemy – as the fighting men of Camelot staggered through their final opponents – sprang unexpectedly at Arthur's back.

Merlin, at once triumphant and irritated, let his hand move with the intent of his magic. Not completely necessary every time, anymore, but sometimes the action was an unconscious addition to his spell-work, spoken or silent, a habit of youth.

The bandit drew his blade back over his head to strike at Arthur's back – and the blade kept going, yanked from his grip by Merlin's magic as he clenched his fist over empty air.

The prince turned a split-second later, reacting to the threat of the man's presence and posture by spitting him right through the middle. His bewilderment over the attacker's unarmed state was a flash of expression, swiftly and casually dismissed; Arthur pushed the dying bandit off his sword and – giving Merlin a there-you-are and you're-all-right sort of glance – bent to clean his weapon.

"Behind you, my lord!" The warning was shouted by one of the knights approaching in a still-wary half-circle.

Arthur and Merlin both startled and turned, tensing for the threat – but there was no one.

"Sorcery, sire!" Sir Arrok exclaimed, pointing his sword. "He used magic!"

Merlin froze, feeling at once heavy as iron and incorporeal as smoke. Their eyes were on him, the red-caped, chainmail-clad knights, as they prowled closer.

A nightmare come true.

But they didn't concern him as much as… He watched the realization come to Arthur, slowly as the prince once again searched the clearing for the stranger who'd used forbidden magic – unsuccessful, follow the line of the focus of his men – stare incredulous at Merlin.

He had never felt so vulnerable in all his life. This moment, the culmination of years of worry and hope, always expected but somehow sudden as an arrow in the back and just as heart-stopping.

Sir Arrok added, To disarm the last bandit, my lord, his voice faraway and vague and meaningless. Merlin was lost in the turmoil of emotions in Arthur's face – disbelief… unwilling acceptance… anger.

Sword still in hand, he stalked Merlin, who couldn't move.

"Is it true?" he demanded.

Merlin's knees sank him into a deeper crouch, through nervous fear or wary readiness for self-defense, he didn't know. Maybe an odd new instinct to kneel to his king, maybe a boneless weakness…

"Did you just use magic?"

Two dozen times he'd lived through near-exact repetitions of this circumstance. Now he found he preferred the accusation of cowardice, to the truth. But… no more lies.

Merlin nodded.

…..*….. …..*….. …..*….. …..*….. …..*…..


The very word kicked Arthur's relaxing heart-rate right back up to mid-battle pace.

But no one was behind him save Merlin, as terrified in the open as he ever was cowering behind a tree to watch the skirmishes annoyingly regular for these patrols.

To disarm the last bandit. The inexplicably empty-handed one that had surprised Arthur from behind. Lying there now in his own blood and gore, a scant pace from Arthur's feet.

Not Merlin. It just wasn't possible. Not his hopelessly clumsy, impudent, perpetually tardy servant.

But the truth was there, in Merlin's wide blue eyes, and Arthur believed, even as he opened his mouth to say, somewhat stupidly – who confessed to sorcery after all, and why would he want such a thing from Merlin – "Is it true? Did you just use magic?"

Merlin nodded.

Fury rose, hot and swift and almost choked him.

Because Merlin was also incurably curious, and a bit obsessed with Arthur's safety, and he'd been born and raised outside Camelot's borders and his best friend there in Ealdor had been a sorcerer.

Damn him. Didn't he know better? Didn't he know better than to get caught?
Arthur stalked closer to Merlin – further from the knights - and growled, "Run."

Again, and wished with all his might that his servant had listened to him the first time. Merlin didn't move; he looked to be frozen with fear. Had he even heard Arthur?

"Run!" he gritted out again, putting out his left hand – his right still holding his bared blade, but unthreateningly down at his side – as if he could push the idiot into a sprinted escape.

The knights obeyed their training. Led by Arrok – but including Leon - in a rush they surrounded Arthur and Merlin, swords all leveled at the skinny, terrified servant. Who stood mute and did nothing but stare wide-eyed at Arthur.

Idiot, he fumed.

"What are your orders, my lord?" Arrok said, actually prodding Merlin with the tip of his sword.

"Arrest him," Arthur spat wrathfully. There was nothing for it, anymore.

"Are you sure?" the knight dared question. "We have witnesses, and a confession. You would be within your rights, and it would be safer for us to –"

"We're not going to execute anybody!" Arthur growled, feeling nausea rise thick at the back of his throat at the thought. "Just – arrest him." Unwilling to watch – hadn't he performed this same absurd process before, and every time Merlin gave him that same innocent-hurt look, that Arthur had to deny pierced him right to the heart.

Only this time, the accusation had been admitted to...

A few minor considerations of injury sustained by the group were given the temporary attention of clean water and bandaging. He didn't announce it all at once, and risk the sort of respectful disagreement that might undermine his resolve or authority, but gave a handful of orders to individuals to begin setting up camp at a distance from the scene of the fight.

Deliberately he kept his attention away from Merlin, choosing to leave the handling of his fr- their captive – to his men. But the second time he turned his head without thinking, his lips already forming the M of the name of his most constant companion… then he seated himself where Merlin was in full view, across the campsite, and he wouldn't forget the bizarre and catastrophic sequence of events that afternoon.

Sir Arrok and another had bound him in a seated position at the base of a large tree, his hands behind him. Gagged, and blindfolded. Which Arthur hadn't ordered specifically, but in the case of a captive able to use magic, a necessary precaution, and part of him recognized and approved of that detail of initiative. For their own safety.

Which was illogical. They didn't need protection from Merlin.

And. They'd used a torn strip of his shirt around his eyes, and stuffed his own neckerchief into his mouth. Red and blue. Arthur had wondered before, if the one color was worn as a token of his new home, but the younger man kept the other as he kept his irreverent personality, utterly unique as the neckerchief itself was.

Arthur leaned forward over his crossed legs and began to stroke a finer edge to his knife with a sharpening stone, keeping his movements slow and controlled, as the others moved about preparations for the night's camp – most of which would have been done by Merlin, under other circumstances – and Arthur and Merlin just sat.

He didn't initiate any conversation with his men, but responded to politely worded queries with forced calm. Yes, I'm shocked. I never would have thought – that Merlin could actually make a useful contribution to a brawl. Yes, I am very angry – that he twice! disobeyed my order to run.

But that was Merlin. Never very good at following orders, now it seemed he'd trespassed into breaking laws. And this one, to choose to break…

The third time one of the men approached to ask, "Are you all right, my lord?" he recognized the reason. What they were really asking.

Not, did you know?

But, has he done anything to you? Feeling well, there, sire? Not – enchanted, or anything?

Merlin didn't move.

And if dinner hadn't interrupted Arthur, he might have ground his knife steadily into a tool better used as a toothpick. He'd gradually recognized the precarious balance of the situation; immobilized and handicapped, Merlin was by no means safe. And that was without thinking what might happen upon their arrival in Camelot.

Arthur ground his teeth in pretending to chew. One word out of place, one look or action more sympathetic than condemning, and it might be ten times worse for Merlin on just the suspicion of such an enchantment. And Arthur might lose what little freedom his authority gave him, to look after Merlin's wellbeing. If he were suspected – of enchantment or just sympathy – he would be watched, at the very least.

Either way, his authority would end when they reached Camelot, and Uther was informed of this development.

No. There had to be another way.

"My lord?" Leon sat on his heels to one side of Arthur.

He lifted his head fractionally to grant the knight permission to address him. Sir Leon hadn't come to question him before; he felt a faint disappointment that this knight had succumbed to the temptation to make sure of Arthur, too.

But Leon said only, "Rations for the prisoner?"

Silence but for the pop and crackle of the fire between him and Merlin, forty feet away from him, beyond the circle of knightly camaraderie, however subdued or forced on this occasion. Everyone waited to hear his response, evaluate his reaction for the level of appropriately rabid anti-magic rhetoric.

"No," he said evenly, and a flicker of disapproval passed briefly through the older knight's eyes.

Arthur understood. He felt that way himself – this was Merlin, who'd never hurt anyone, who didn't deserve to go hungry and thirsty no matter what laws he'd broken… Arthur was angry again. He felt that his hands were tied as tightly as his serv- as the sorcerer's.

"We don't need to waste provisions on him," he added. More than implying the result of bringing a proven magic-user back to Camelot.

It was exactly the right thing to say. More than one of the men nodded approvingly, though the dissatisfaction was clearer in Leon's face as he conveyed understanding and the intention of obedience in a single terse jerk of his head.

And it made Arthur sick to his stomach.

The sky faded to darkness. Shadows drew closer, reaching with chill fingers as far as they dared. The fire burned brighter, hotter, snapping and sparking merrily, fuel added periodically by one of the knights.

And if Arthur raised his eyes from the charring branches, coated with whitened ash and searing orange-yellow heat at the heart of it, he could see Merlin through the leaping crimson tongues of flame.

He was so still. And quiet.

And if he was sentenced to burn at the stake… Arthur would look upon this vision again. Only, Merlin not so quiet. Screaming and writhing, like others Uther had forced him to watch…

Arthur turned aside to his bedroll, arranging himself carefully. Pillowing his head on a combination of his bundle and Merlin's – both packed by the younger man only this morning. Staring up at the fire-lit undersides of the leaves, tossing lightly and distantly against the deep blue of the sky. Whispering.

…..*….. …..*….. …..*…..

Merlin hated the blindfold.

His hands were tied. And he'd been threatened – by Sir Arrok, he thought he recognized the voice – that he'd be run through if he so much as flinched in the wrong direction. Though which direction was the wrong one, he didn't know. And couldn't ask, because of the gag. But it felt like his hearing was the only sense he had left, and that was muffled by the painful pounding of blood through his skull – and more specifically, the knot he was sure was forming, though he couldn't feel for himself.

The blow to the back of his head was maybe another safeguard to prevent him using magic, or a test to see if he would – and he couldn't, not against the knights, not if he wanted to someday persuade Arthur magic could be good – or possibly even to soothe resentment over his habitual lack of proper respect shown to superiors. Sir Arrok again, if he had to guess. Though maybe it was unfair, since he'd been hit with a sword-hilt from behind. After he'd been blindfolded.

Theoretically, Arthur should be as safe in the midst of a troop of knights as sleeping in his own bed. Only, because Merlin couldn't see this, he couldn't quite convince nerves and muscles to relax.

Merlin's thoughts were like an extra hammer-blow to his brain, but this one he clung to. Arthur hadn't run him through.

The prince had been clearly furious – but he'd told Merlin to run. One moment he'd given him, before they'd both been surrounded by Uther's finest – only Merlin couldn't. Couldn't leave Arthur now. Another thought he clung to through the exhausting ebb and flow of pain.

There was a second reason he hated the blindfold, though. Contemplating this moment for years, since the axe had fallen in the courtyard on Merlin's first day in Camelot, over the months and years as he'd gotten to know the prince – his prince – he knew that Arthur was only dangerous when his temper got the better of his judgment. And that moment had passed.

But the others. With the blindfold on, Merlin wouldn't be able to see if one of the knights might just decide to end the potential threat he posed with a blade between his ribs or through his throat. Magic put everyone on edge, that way, it was difficult to tell how any one person might react to unveiling a sorcerer. That was not the way he wanted to die – he wasn't ready to die. He wanted to live – didn't everyone? – but his life in danger always made him worry about Arthur, without him. Yeah, he'd managed almost twenty years before they'd even met, but – Arthur would be dead a dozen times over, if not for the protection of Merlin's magic.

His magic was necessary, for Arthur's life. Therefore, he was necessary, and must continue to live. That was only logic.

Merlin's heart thudded whenever he heard footsteps approaching through the fallen leaves and the coursing of his pulse through his head, whenever he felt the vibrations in the ground beneath him. He flinched, occasionally, at a sudden noise. And someone was sharpening a knife – across his stretched nerves, it felt like.

No one spoke to him. No one touched him, not to hurt or to help. It was as if he'd ceased to exist.

Muscles cramped and he worked them surreptitiously, squeezing his fingers to keep sensation. His neckerchief pulled moisture from his mouth and did not taste pleasant, and he resolved to keep them cleaner…

But things would never be the same, would they. There would be no excuses this time, no last-minute explanations of why he wasn't a sorcerer, after all. He wouldn't be allowed Gaius' hug – or a smack on the back of his head; at the moment, the thought made him wince instead of grin – a short night on his hard bed and a long list of Arthur's worst chores to assure him that all had gone back to normal. He wouldn't be washing this neckerchief along with the rest of the laundry, tomorrow.

What would he be doing? Good question.

Did he have a plan? He rarely had a plan. Plans got fouled up and situations deteriorated unrecognizably. Reactions and excuses were what he was good at. So – did Arthur have a plan?

A twig cracked, and he flinched, suddenly attentive to his physical senses rather than the sore throb of his thoughts. The twig had alerted him, because all else was silent. Not the waiting silence of every knight on edge due to danger, but – restful silence. Was it that late al-

A hand touched him, and he yelped into the gag of his neckerchief.

"Shut up, idiot!" Arthur growled, so close in his ear that he felt the prince's breath.

He couldn't help collapsing back against the tree in rather limp relief, as Arthur's fingers removed his gag and blindfold simultaneously – one up, and one down. He blinked at the small but painfully bright spot of the campfire as his eyes tried to adjust, tried to work some moisture back into his mouth. A glint of sharp metal showed in Arthur's hand as he turned his attention to the side; Merlin flinched before he felt the cool flat of the blade slip between his fingers.

"What are you doing?" he hissed at the prince.

"What do you think?" Arthur returned. "Helping you escape."

Merlin turned toward him, which only served to hinder Arthur's efforts at the binding rope behind him.

"Your pack is there – rations and water." The dark lump just beyond Merlin's left boot. "Leon's got the watch for another three hours," Arthur continued, and Merlin squinted at the figure of the older knight, studiously not noticing his prince releasing a magic-user. "And we won't be able to track you in the dark, so you've got six hours – seven if I can delay the rest convincingly. We'll be faster than you on horseback, but we're closer to the border here than the citadel – if you cross it before we catch you up, then we'll have to –"

"No," Merlin blurted, twisted his tied hands further out of Arthur's grip. A sudden indefinable fear shot through him at the suggestion, increasing the beat of his blood in his skull almost unbearably.

Arthur pushed to reach his bonds again. "If you're worried about getting me in trouble, don't be. Your escape will be easy enough to explain. Magic." Merlin glanced up to see Arthur's mouth twist as if the word tasted foul to him.

"I'm sorry," he said.

"You're an idiot," the prince told him, and he thought – though in the uncertain light he could've been wrong – that Arthur was trying not to smile. "How many times did you think you could use that spell before someone caught you at it? Didn't anyone ever teach you that using magic corrupts your soul?" Merlin gaped at him, sure that he'd heard wrong, though the fog of his headache. "Go home, Merlin, back to Ealdor – and don't use it again."

So Arthur didn't know. Not exactly. Not fully. Arthur didn't understand… about magic… about Merlin.

If he obeyed his prince, escaped Camelot – would he go back to waiting? to farming? – to hoping not to receive the news of Arthur's death? What about his destiny?

And what about Morgana? She'd be furious to learn even so much as Arthur believed. She'd be even more furious if Arthur told her of his part in Merlin's escape – he could see the prince even now, confiding in the girl he thought of as a sister, expecting her relief to match his own at Merlin's safety and freedom, beyond Uther's reach. Arthur would be unprotected, from threats magical and physical, unaware of the danger the king's ward posed from within, enemies like Morgause from without.

And Arthur would keep believing that magic corrupted.

He couldn't be Arthur's invisible shield, beside him as his manservant, any longer. But he also couldn't just run away. He couldn't think any further than that; those two thoughts alone were clear – Arthur hadn't run him through; he couldn't leave Arthur now.

"No," he said again, more insistently, and both of them froze as the nearest slumbering knight muttered and shifted. Leon twitched as if he'd stopped himself glancing over.

"Are you really this stupid?" Arthur growled.

It wasn't his intelligence he needed to prove. That wouldn't convince the prince – the once and future king – to change the laws, lift the ban, bring magic back. Someday.

No, he needed to prove the nature of magic itself. Not dark and dangerous, not corruptive. Just, a force of nature, like flowing water or blowing wind or warming sunlight. Useful, and beneficial, if governed wisely, like any other skill.

Merlin struggled against Arthur, determined to cut him free. He didn't want anyone to wake, either, to discover Arthur himself breaking his father's law – though it wouldn't be the first time for that, either.

"I'm not leaving. I haven't done anything wrong!" he said intensely. He'd raise his voice if he had to, he thought.

"Breaking the law isn't –" Arthur cut himself off as a second knight shifted, rolling awkwardly in his bedroll to a more comfortable position. "What makes you think you'll be acquitted at a trial?" Arthur demanded in a lower voice, sitting back on his heels. "What's so important in Camelot that you can't just –"

"You," Merlin said simply. "I said I was happy being your servant til the day I –"

"You want that day to be tomorrow?" Arthur interrupted. "And how on earth do you think you'll serve me by that?"

"It'll be all right, I'll think of something," Merlin said tiredly. He kind of wished Arthur would go away and let his head ache in peace, so he wouldn't have to argue. Or think.

"You? Think?" Arthur looked like he wanted to hit him.

Merlin only watched him. Arthur could believe in a stranger's guilt, watch a stranger's execution with nary a twinge. But he was ready to forgive Merlin's single use of magic, ready to save his life… after only a few short years. Uther had been ready to send Gaius to his death last year on the witchfinder's word – regretfully, maybe, but still without pause – after decades of loyal service.

Arthur was different. Merlin couldn't leave him, now. The punishment – the execution – he'd figure something out.

"Trust me," Merlin said softly.

Arthur's jaw was set, hard. He didn't respond, only toyed with his knife for a moment. Then gave Merlin a heated glare which he read instantly – the prince hated the feeling of helplessness Merlin's evident stupidity gave him. He pushed to his feet and prowled back to his bedroll on the far side of the fire where he threw himself down with his back to Merlin. And didn't look at him again.

I'm sorry, Merlin thought at him, bending forward to try to rub one temple against the side of his knee, in a fruitless attempt to ease the throbbing. Hopefully he'd get a chance to say the same to Gaius – and maybe Morgana, though she'd made her own choices and probably his words meant less than nothing to her. But I'm not giving up. Not leaving Camelot, not leaving you.

Where there's life, there's hope.

After a moment, Leon turned, and made his way soundlessly to Merlin's side. He didn't ask what had been said, what either Arthur or Merlin was thinking or feeling. Leon only checked that Merlin's hands were securely bound behind him, then picked up the torn hem of his shirt that had served as a blindfold.

"Sorry," he whispered to Merlin. "No one should know he spoke to you. And if anyone thought you could remove these with magic…" He didn't have to say more. Merlin could guess what restraints might be used, if the other knights thought gag and blindfold ineffective. He'd probably be lucky if all they did was knock him out and sling him unconscious over the saddle.

Leon paused, set the blindfold across his knee, then picked up the abandoned water-skin to position for Merlin's use. Merlin gulped it gratefully, though warmish and tasting faintly of leather, it felt wonderful in his dry mouth and down a dusty throat.

"Thanks," he managed.

The knight looked at him unsmiling, a wrinkle of uncomfortable uncertainty between his brows, then lifted the blindfold to replace it as Merlin dipped his head in cooperation. A moment later the neckerchief was tugged up over his jaw and between his lips also. Merlin heard Leon pick up the pack Arthur had brought for his escape, to return it to its place and conceal the evidence of Arthur's attempt.

Merlin's stomach growled, and his head thumped. It was going to be a long night.

I've had worse, he reminded himself.

It wasn't much comfort.

…..*….. …..*….. ….*….. …..*….. …..*…..

It had been a calculated risk, sending Sir Arrok back to Camelot as a messenger, last night. But the knight had seemed the most – unpredictable – of the lot of them, when it came to the question of Arthur's servant. Well, he'd gotten the man away from Merlin. And Arthur hadn't woken to Merlin's bloody murdered body and Arrok's excuse of attempted escape.

But, the first version of events that the king had heard, had been Sir Arrok's.

Arthur probably shouldn't have been surprised to find his very own reception party waiting on the palace stairs in the front courtyard, midmorning, when the horses' hooves rang across the cobblestones. Uther, stern and cold, and Gaius, also stern to cover any other emotion – even Morgana with Guinevere behind her, the girls' expressions a mix of scared and curious.

"Arthur," the king said, with a repressive flash of relief, coming two steps downward as Arthur dismounted to meet him, though the king's eyes flicked almost immediately over his shoulder to their captive, still restrained as he had been all night. "You're all right."

"Yes, Father, I'm fine," Arthur said. His stomach was in knots – he had to play this right. "The bandits were no match for us. The men fought bravely, and even Merlin-" He gestured behind him, the knights dismounting, Leon assisting Merlin with apparent indifference.

"Yes, the sorcerer," the king interrupted coldly. "Take him immediately to the cells, Leon – and Brenner. Gaius, as we discussed?"

Arthur was not the only one to glance at the old physician in surprised query, but Gaius – hands hidden in the sleeves of his blue robe, the strap of his case over one shoulder - merely bowed acquiescence.

It never worked to argue with his father, and certainly not in public. "He's had neither food nor water," Arthur stated evenly, raising his voice to include Gaius as well. Not going behind his father's back. Not showing sympathy for a sorcerer, whoever he may be, merely mentioning a fact.

Uther would be watching him closely; he could do Merlin no good if he was confined to his chambers or escorted by constant guard like a naughty child. Any hint of anything that might be labeled enchantment, and his servant's life was as good as ended. Just… wait for an opportunity. Make an opportunity.

And hope to all the gods there be that the boy would hear sense, for once.

His father gave him a mildly sardonic look. "He won't need them," he said. "He'll be executed as soon as we can erect a pyre."

Arthur's stomach lurched. Morgana was white, Guinevere's hands covered her mouth, but not the horror in her dark eyes. He hoped Merlin was far enough away that he hadn't heard the king's judgment.

"Don't you think it would be wise to have a trial for him, Father," he suggested. Don't you think it would be wise to adjust the knights' training by this small detail, shorten this council meeting by half an hour… The king turned – so Arthur could also – to watch Merlin being hauled away by two knights, Gaius pacing behind them, his round physician's case over his shoulder.

"Arthur, with witnesses and a confession, of what use is a trial," Uther questioned with something so like amused boredom that Arthur struggled for a moment to breathe.

Merlin's life. Merlin's life, dammit. Keep your temper, and he might listen to you. Raise your voice, and you've lost him. Throw a tantrum and you might as well toss the first torch yourself.

"Well. He has been part of the household service over three years, now," Arthur pointed out. Show some compassion, some mercy… he wondered if he should mention the circumstances of Merlin's assignment to the post of his manservant.

Uther's eyes narrowed. Across the courtyard, Merlin stumbled over a threshold, disappeared into the dark throat of a corridor that led downward.

Delay, Arthur thought. Delay. Convince. Maybe one more night, another opportunity for escape. And if Merlin got a trial, got his chance to say, I didn't do anything wrong, and no one listened to him, maybe then he would listen when Arthur – when, for the love of Camelot, not if – when Arthur smuggled him to the freedom of the woods and ordered again, Run.

"I see your point," Uther said. "The access he's had - there's no telling what activities he's gotten up to since he's been here. What plots he's been part of."

Morgana inhaled, stiffening, and her eyes sparked green fire. Guinevere's expression, by contrast, softened toward contemplation.

"No, that's not what I meant," Arthur protested.

"His trial is set for one hour after the noon meal," Uther declared, turning abruptly to stride away.

Arthur took one step and stopped. No, can't argue. Can't shout. Can't kick something, or hit something, or –

"It's true, then?" Morgana demanded, stalking forward. She seemed more angry than worried; though Arthur at the moment felt both, anger with the king was easier to focus on feeling. "Merlin used magic?"

"Yeah, apparently." Arthur reached to rub his eyes, realized he was still wearing his riding gloves, and halted the gesture. "I didn't actually see, but it seems the last bandit attacked me from behind, and Merlin – disarmed him. From ten feet away. Saved my life, probably." He said the last in a mumble of chagrin – not only that he'd needed saving, but that doing so had put Merlin's life in danger. Much more so than if the servant had just picked up a sword to attempt using that.

"Of course he can save your life," Morgana muttered spitefully, but before Arthur could wonder, Guinevere had put her small brown hand on his sleeve.

"But you're all right?" she ventured, her dark eyes deep pools of warm concern. "Both of you?"

"Yes." For now. He gritted his teeth again, stripping off his gloves to give his hands something to do besides curl into shaking fists. He wanted to get to the privacy of his bedchamber and commit some destruction – and the thought that it would have to be cleaned and sorted by someone other than Merlin drained the desire right out of the center of his chest, along with most of his energy. He actually looked down to see if the hole might be visible.

"Arthur," Morgana said hesitantly, both girls following as he climbed the stairs wearily, headed for a wash and change, at least. "How – how long do you think he's been using magic?"

"How the hell should I know?" Arthur said flatly. "I didn't even know he knew a spell, much less that he was capable of using it effectively."

"To – disarm a bandit, you said?"

He glanced back at her; she wouldn't quite meet his eyes. Behind her, Guinevere gave him a quizzical look; she had no insight into the behavior or attitude of the king's ward herself, this time.

"Jerked the sword right out of his hand," Arthur said. And wasn't that just like Merlin, too? Risk his own life learning and using magic to save Arthur's in extreme circumstances – and it would have to be a spell that didn't actually harm someone else, only made it impossible for them to cause harm, even if an attack would have been far more efficient or useful or –

"Hm," Morgana said.

"Why, exactly?" He was tired and anxious; instead of a bath and some light-hearted abuse of his irreverent and quick-witted servant on his return home, he faced a battle of a different sort. Where the stakes were higher and the consequences of losing grim and the chances of victory slim to none.

"No reason. I guess… we'll just have to attend the trial, if we want our questions answered, right, Gwen? Come." Morgana swept down the corridor past him in a rustle of purple silk.

Guinevere bit her lip. "He'll be all right," she said to Arthur, as much asking for reassurance for herself as offering it to him. Another quick light squeeze of her hand on his arm, and she was gone as well, hurrying after her mistress.

Arthur took a deep breath and headed for his empty room alone.