AN: Characters might be a little OOC! This story is finished, so I should update fairly regularly. The time line is after Arthur becomes King, but I am leaving it slightly ambiguous as to when and what events have taken place.
The drumming of blood echoed through his ears as a wave of nausea slammed him. Vertigo followed. He blinked twice, a slow controlled motion, to clear his vision as it blurred around him. He could make out a voice, but as if it spoke to him underwater. He swayed a few times, grasping something to help him stand still. Moments later, he found himself gazing into the eyes of Arthur.
"What happened? Did it work?"
"If this hurts him princess, I swear I—"
"It WILL help, Gwaine. Enough. Give the curse time to leave him."
"Is it gone? Merlin?"
Curse? The curse? Oh.
Then, awareness returned. Memories ebbed forward.
Merlin never considered dependency on Arthur and the Knights. When he stayed with his mother, he helped care for her and worked in the village. During the winter, the whole village depended on one another to make it through the cold season. It was something they had to do to survive.
In Camelot, things worked differently.
In the big city, the citizens mostly relied on themselves to make it through the winter, canning and storing goods for the cold season. Each household fended for themselves. In serious situations, the castle would distribute grain to the people as needed.
Not much changed for Merlin when he moved. As it was in Ealdor, Gaius and Merlin depended on one another to keep the house warm, prepare hot meals, and survive the dreary days that kept them inside the walls of the citadel. For Merlin, the nights by the fire with his mentor were enough to starve off the winter blues or anxiety that plagued the people of Camelot confined indoors for most of the winter season. In the later years of his time in Camelot, he could further count on visits from Gwaine or the knights to chase away the long hours and especially Arthur, who tried to find quests or any measure of entertainment and always kept Merlin around throughout the days.
But this winter was not the same as the others.
A sickness swept through one of the settlements in Arthur's lands owned a man of nobility. An honorary member of the court and a good friend to Gaius, he sent a messenger to Gaius directly asking for the aide of the only physician he knew and trusted. With the promise from Merlin that he would keep out of trouble and send for Gaius immediately should he need help for any reason, Gaius gave the messenger his word he would aid the noble and his people. Gaining Arthur's permission, he rode out in a covered wagon sent by the noble carrying as many concoctions and herbs he believed would be need to aide his friend and his people. Merlin stayed behind, knowing Arthur would need him if things went amiss.
Arthur's new reign as King brought a flurry of excitement from neighboring kingdoms and nobles. To pay homage to the King, an entourage of Nobles, Princesses, Knights and Princes filled the citadel for the winter. They presented glittering jewels and works of fine stone and metal to celebrate his reign of peace. Knights came bearing signs of their valiant deeds, presenting the heads of magical beasts and swearing loyalty to the crown. Prince Philip, the oldest of five brothers, received personal favor from the King as they had once played together when both men were young. Several years younger than the Pendragon King, Philip looked up to his friend greatly and Arthur savored the connection to one of the few people left from his time with his Father.
As the days grew colder, the round table knights kept busy training the new recruits and tending to the visiting knights who traveled with Prince Philip, his sisters and the other nobles. Gwen found herself surrounded by the visiting women and the grand excitement of the princesses who had come to honor the King and Queen at almost all times. Arthur seemed more than happy for entertainment in what would have probably been a very boring winter. Even Merlin was swamped with work from the extra guests in the citadel and the increased demand Arthur placed on him.
When he felt the beginnings of winter blues sink their teeth into his mind, he tried to starve it off with his and Arthur's usual banter. What he had not counted on was the new attitude Arthur started to show him. Different from before, Merlin had a hard time brushing off the harshly given orders and swift rebuts Arthur barked out about his lack of performance and unacceptable treatment of his King. He blamed it on the company, Arthur's displeasure at being stuck in the citadel for most of the winter and did his best to ignore his friend's new found grumpiness.
Unfortunately, Prince Philip picked up on how Arthur made Merlin work a little harder than the other servants. He also picked up the constant insults that passed between the two. Although Merlin felt the Prince failed to notice the friendship between Arthur and Merlin, even if it appeared to be stretched thin the past week or two, how Merlin could tease Arthur when no one was around or put laundry water in his glass to get back at him for making fun of him with the visiting knights even if it landed him in the stocks for an hour.
Most Kings would have executed him.
Prince Philip idolized Arthur. Everything Arthur did, he tried to imitate. When the Prince started to insult Merlin, making fun and adding more work to the overworked servant, Arthur encourage it. Prince Philip's band of Knights picked up on their Prince's game and joined. In a way, it started to feel like Arthur reverted back to when Merlin had first met him, although he told himself the King must be under pressure from having so many visiting nobles and royals, more than Uther ever had in his royal halls for years.
After all, to the visitors, he remained only a servant.
The thought failed to chase away the bitterness the young warlock did his best to ignore, preferring to pretend nothing changed between him and his closest friend. Arthur was constantly surrounded by glittering women and regally dressed men eager to entertain one another, chasing away the dreary winter days. The many parties and dance songs filled the halls late as deer roasted over a large fire with crackling spices. There was little room for Merlin in the peace filled days that followed.
Merlin did not hate Prince Philip.
It was probably good that Arthur kept good relations with the Altantia's next heir. Hell, the man was not trying to take over Camelot or murder Arthur so he should be thankful enough for that. For the first time in years, everyone in the halls truly had come in peace. He did not hate the knights that came with the Prince either or all the glittering princesses and nobles even if being shoved into the dirt or stables became more regular than he would have liked. After all, they were all really only carrying on what Arthur had started.
That was what Merlin really hated. That all the visiting Knights had been kind to him, respectful even, until they noticed Arthur's treatment of him. His thoughts of befriending the Knights vanished the second they turned from friendly to devious at the drop of a sword, shoving him into the stables or drenching him with the buckets he was carrying back from the well in the cold winter air.
He could definitely get by without the daily ridicule too.
What he hated more than all of the ridicule was the way Arthur started to send him away every time he was with Prince Philip or one of the visiting nobles. Arthur never dismissed him before he became King, even for important council meetings he kept the servant at his side. But now, even during meetings with the round table knights, he found the door slammed in his face. The mornings, Arthur spent dinning with the visiting royals. In the evenings, he dismissed Merlin early to spend time with Gwen whether he ended up seeing her or not.
Merlin relied on magic more and more to finish the insane list of tasks that grew each day. Most of the time, he slowed time so he could finish everything and catch a few hours of sleep. To make matters worse, the townsfolk self-appointed him as the temporary palace physician now that Gaius was gone. Before he even rose to wake the King, people would knock on the door in the dark calling for help with ailments or sicknesses. There would almost always be someone waiting outside the door for Merlin when he returned from the castle after Arthur dismissed him. He would have sent them away, but where could they go?
Although doubt for his skills plagued him, and he made mistakes more than he knew he should, he discovered he had learned more from Gaius than he realized. When presented with a difficult case, he tried asking Kilgharrah for help. Although the dragon had not advised him, he encouraged the young warlock to succeed which did more than enough to fuel Merlin's good spirits. In the days that followed, Merlin started a small habit of speaking to Kilgharrah through the link they shared, almost desperate for some kind of company in the fury of lonely days. Although he mostly told Merlin to leave him alone and focus on Arthur, every now and then he would humor the boy with slight conversation. It helped, but the loneliness that crept on him like a disease did not go away.
When the loneliness grew sharp enough to keep Merlin awake at night even after long hours at work, he started practicing spells and learning more about magic from the confines of Gaius's quarters, shoving a table in front of the door for good measure. He had promised Gaius he would be careful after all.
In the new days of solitude, though he saw many of his friends daily, most of his thoughts drifted to magic and learning spells. Once he memorized almost every page from his spell book, he lifted the key to the magic vaults when Arthur drifted to a heavy sleep, drunk from the feast one of the Princesses insisted on having that night. He crushed down the guilt creeping up his throat as he unlocked the doors to the vaults and slipped inside. Arthur always reverted to his old self when he was drinking, treating Merlin much more like a younger brother than a Servant. It made the guilt harder to ignore as he stole from his friend, even if the items in the magic vault did not truly belong to the King anyway.
He pushed it down and focused on the task at hand. He remembered a book Gaius described once that would tell him more of his ability as a Dragonlord if only Uther had not locked it away. If he knew I was sneaking into the vaults to find it, he would scold me for days. He shut the door behind him and restarted time before gazing around the room with a shudder. The power from the room overwhelmed him. The pulsing magic surged through his veins like ecstasy. Other than the magic caves, being surrounded by so much magical energy was an unfamiliar and beautiful feeling. Overwhelmed, he basked in the sensation before traveling down a large corridor. With a jolt, he shook his head back and forth as if trying to chase out the humming the magic sung to him and focused on his task.
He cringed when he felt dark power radiated from the wooden boxes surrounding him. He focused on the books lining the walls on large ornate shelves, ignoring the presence of the dark artifacts in the room. A blue orb of light bobbed up and down to light the dark room. The vaults were a lot bigger than he imagined. Corridors branched off into rooms and halls which housed more items sealed with pulsing magic. By the looks of it, no one had been in the vaults for many years. The wood looked old and warn, but only the first room was coated in a thick layer of dust.
Any chance you could tell me a spell for locating a specific book?
He thought to Kilgharrah as he looked around the third room in wonder, suppressing the chill of dread the artifacts created in his spine.
What mischief are you getting into now young warlock?
Nothing! I just thought it would be useful! In case I ever need to find something…in a large cave or room or something. And if you knew an easy way then maybe…
And what would you do with this book if you found it?
Learn more about the Dragonlords and about how they lived before magic was outlawed. Perhaps there is a way to help Aithusa with his injuries somewhere? …A new spell book would help me protect Arthur too.
He added almost as an afterthought.
Many of those books in Camelot have been destroyed, little more than children's stories and legends are likely locked away now. Do not go searching for something so frivolous compared to endangering your destiny.
The dragon scolded loudly in his mind. He jumped as an image of a large bush being cast into flames jumped into his mind then tried to suppress a gleeful laugh. Had Kilgharrah just send him an image of a burning bush somehow? Clearly, the dragon was not happy with this line of conversation. But unlike Arthur, he knew there was no malice in his anger.
Would you rather I bug you for tales and stories every night? I could find a way to ease Aithusa's pain. He might return to you then instead of Morgana. And I need a new spell book. I have the one Gaius gave me memorized already…I think.
It is not worth the risk. Should you need a spell, you need only ask and I will teach it to you. Do not do something so reckless.
I am already here.
He thought dismissively as he moved further down the corridor, glancing over various titles lining a dusty bookshelf. Most of them sound like something that belongs locked away, he thought as he skimmed over a title on human sacrifice and blood incantations.
Does Taming of Wild Beasts sound useful to you?
He snorted when Kilgharrah ignored his jib. Nevertheless, he considered the book questionable before moving on. It would take more than a book to get him to understand Kilgharrah's quirks.
His nerves played on his conscious, making him feel as if someone would rush through the closed doors to take him down to the dungeons at any moment. He stepped carefully to a closed cabinet and opened it to reveal shelves of finely used books. Most of them sounded dark and foreboding, but one stood out as useful, so he pulled it off the shelf and placed it into his bag. He jumped when Kilgharrah's voice boomed in his head.
Touch nothing that is in chains. And do not open any books that appear to be corrupted. Many of the artifacts in those vaults were locked away long before Uther came to power. They were once kept safe by the court sorcerer whose duty included the removal of evil artifacts from the lands. It is dangerous for a warlock to be in those vaults alone, especially one who is not aged with wisdom and restraint.
I thought this was where Uther placed all the magic artifacts he failed to destroy or wanted kept?
Those were kept in the front room and were few to none. You likely passed through the door. To you and the King it is a corridor, but to others it would appear to only be a large mirror.
He looked around surprised and back to the corridor he had passed through.
There are many spaces in the citadel that have not been touched since before Uther's reign. If you will not leave, then be cautious Merlin. Do not pass through the mirror.
Not knowing what to say, he looked around warningly. I can come back? He thought as he hurried out of the corridor and back to the first room. The hum of magic left him as he entered. He looked behind at the corridor and caught what he had missed before, the golden frame surrounding the hallway, thick and covered in runes. His eyes flashed gold to reveal his own reflection staring back at him in the mirror. He looked down at his hands. Everything feels normal, he thought. He looked at the books on the shelf again, some of which were in the old religion. After searching through a few crates, he found one of red leather with the Camelot crest leafed in gold on the cover. He flipped it open and glanced at the contents as a grin spread across his face.
Although it appeared to be an illustrated child's book, stories of the old Dragonlords and their companion's adventuress sprawled across the pages. The art was beautiful, leafed in gold like the cover. He slipped the book into his herb bag. Freezing time, He snuck away into the night, locking the door to the vaults and replacing the key in Arthur's room. He let out a large sign of relief as he started the journey to his room. I will return these when I finish them. He though distractedly, glancing at the floor. I can make this my own personal library as long as Arthur never finds out. It will only keep him safer the more I know of magic. I need something to stop me from going mad anyway.
Too absorbed in his thoughts, he slammed into something warm and soft.
"AH!" He heard a girl cry in surprise from the impact.
Was it a visiting noble?
He was done for.
"Forgive me my Lady! I was not—I beg you to ac—"
"Ow! Merlin, it's ok. It's only me. Since when did you get so formal?"
He looked up in surprise to see Gwen smiling at him sympathetically and smoothing her dress. He breathed a sigh of relief and nodded to his friend nervously—when did Gwen make him nervous just because she was a Queen?—unsure what to do. The book weighed heavy in his bag as his mind flicked through scenes of her discovering him practicing sorcery and stealing magic books in the dead of night.
"Are you just now going home for the night?" She asked.
"Er….Yes?" Merlin said hesitantly.
He felt bad for lying, but it could not be helped. He could not tell Gwen he broke into the magic vaults to retrieve a spell book to help a dragon and a story book to satisfy his own curiosity. If only she could listen without the threat of death handing over him, and most of all over her if she choose to accept him as a warlock. He tried to shake the feeling of sorrow off, knowing he was just foolishly feeling sorry for himself as he lied to her. When did he become such a brood? An angry look crossed his friend's face. She shook her head.
"That's horrible Merlin. I'm going to have a talk with Arthur! He cannot keep treating you like this."
Merlin shook his head in protest.
"I'm only doing what is required as service to the crown. He is always more of a Clotpole when there are visitors in the kingdom. " He spoke with a wince as the phrase service to the crown passed his lips. Maybe he took Arthur's scolding to heart more than he thought.
"That's ridiculous! You are not the only servant in this palace. Many of the visiting nobles brought their own servants to care for them. Merlin, the only reason Arthur forces you to work so much is his stupid insecurities and who knows what else goes on in that pig head of his! You should at least be able to get some sleep at night!"
One of his lips quirked upward.
"That's okay. I'm not sure I would even if you did speak to him."
He blushed. I did not mean to say that. Gwen's face creased with worry.
"I just mean that as a new Queen, a new royal, I know your hands are full right now. You know I can handle that Prat no matter how grumpy he acts. Why do you think he has kept me around so long? He would need a new servant every other week otherwise." He flashed his signature smile before changing the subject. "What are you doing wandering around so late anyway?"
She started to wring her hands a little, a nervous habit from her early years. "Thinking I suppose. I'm just…you know the girls talk a lot and well not that I don't enjoy their company but…with everyone from a noble background and everything…and all the nobles and the prince and not that I'm complaining but I feel—"
A gentle smile ghosted across his face.
"None of them come close to you when it comes to kindness to your kingdom. You are a great queen Gwenevire. Your background means nothing. Arthur chose you for a reason."
"I know. I know. But hearing how they grew up—I know it doesn't matter—but for some reason sometimes it bothers me. Not that I have anything against my upbringing. I would never change it, but for Arthur. If I could have been someone more for him…maybe then…"
"Then you wouldn't be as fair, nor as kind or perhaps loyal. And you probably would have never even considered speaking to me all those years ago when I arrived in Camelot. I'm not sure what I would have done without you. And you might be out of a friend."
"Nor I you. Thank you Merlin. I am so grateful we met all those years ago. Arthur tries his best, but sometimes he doesn't understand."
Merlin nodded and stepped to the side, planning to return to his rooms as he graced her with a bow.
"Goodnight My Lady."
She crossed her arms in front of her chest and listened as his steps echoed on the stone past her. His shoulders hunched forward as if a great weight rested on them.
"Merlin, please get some rest. I will speak to Arthur tomorrow. I really do not care what he thinks. He had been too hard on you for no reason. I haven't forgotten you; please know this. "
Merlin nodded. It had been maybe days, weeks since he had spoken with Gwen. He missed his friends. Are we really that different that they felt the need to avoid me when visitors come? The ache in his chest flared, but he did his best to beat it down. I am only a servant to the visitors. It is just until they leave. Then my friends will return to normal.
He frowned at his own reasoning.
Why does it have to wait until they leave? Are we not friends? Is it that hard for the Knights and Arthur to-He pushed it down, swallowing the chunk of bitterness rising from his heart. I should not be thinking this way. It's selfish.
When he reached the door to Gaius's chambers, he noticed a young boy with a note clenched in his hands and an older man, hat in his hands, waiting outside his door. Weariness sunk into his bones. He stayed out of view for a few moments to rest. A large gush of cold air entered his lungs. He exhaled slowly. Putting what he hoped was an amiable expression on his face, he crossed the corridor to inquire about his newest patients. As he came into view, the two men rushed towards him; their plead for help struck him. He would never turn anyone away who needed help, even if half the time he hardly knew what he was doing without Gaius's help.
He could always do just enough to get them by.