In the end, it was Arthur.
Somewhere deep inside him, Merlin had always known that would be the way of things. And if he had known where events would lead?
Well, he probably wouldn't have changed anything, ironically enough. Because the things he would have needed to change – like basic human nature of friends and foes alike – were too far out of his reach.
Of course sometimes, during long nights when he remembered the end of Nimueh, and to just what places anger could take him, he knew that wasn't quite true. It wasn't out of his reach, in a literal sense.
It was in a moral sense though, and that was enough. He could still remember right from wrong. Generally speaking, right was what got him into trouble.
It all started with a trickle of reports from the northern border country. They spoke of unease and unrest, fear and dissent. Of raiding parties regularly crossing the border. Of theft of food and livestock. Of violent assaults and rapes.
The King had held Council for several hours, before issuing Arthur with the order to gather some men and investigate.
In turn, Arthur had selected five of his strongest knights, then informed Merlin that he would travel as well, alongside Owain's man Steven, the pair of them tasked to carry out the necessary duties for all six of the party.
Merlin had been relieved, because it was a lot easier to keep an eye on Arthur when he was nearby than from halfway across the kingdom. Certain overbearing entities did not appreciate that rambling on about destiny at any and all available times was all well and good, but that given half a chance, practicalities could smother destiny without it even putting up a fight.
It took them nearly three days to reach Tillbany, where they saw the first body. Another day to reach Alderled, the origin of several of the most disturbing reports Uther had received.
It was quickly obvious that they had not been exaggerated. The approach to the village wound along a path between fields of what should have been crops, and instead were patches of burned earth. When they arrived at the village itself, evidence of the trouble was everywhere. More than half the buildings had damage, and Arthur's jaw tightened a little more with each one they passed.
Not just the buildings, either. The people that greeted them were a jarring mix of fearful and terribly, pathetically grateful for the arrival of armoured knights in their midst. Women wept, men sank to their knees, children stretched out a hand and tried to touch some part of the newcomers, crowing excitedly when they were lucky.
And that was all before they began talking to the villagers.
It quickly became apparent that everybody had lost somebody close – if they were lucky, just the one.
Everybody had been hurt.
Everybody was afraid.
Arthur's face, and that of each one of his men, darkened with each new shred of evidence brought before them.
Merlin wished with everything he was that he could do something to alleviate the horror and the suffering, but he had nothing.
All he could do was listen; to air that was full of souls calling out, of people and animals, trees and earth, all blended together in one horrible howl of pain that he would have given anything to run from, to hide from.
It was part of the curse of his gift that he would never be able to.
They spent that first day reassuring, and helping mend some of the worst of the damage done. Knights, servants and villagers worked side by side without complaint, and by the end of the day Merlin felt as tired as he had ever been.
He didn't think they had worked nearly hard enough.
There was a darkness around this border, a creeping hum of foreboding and threat that Merlin saw at every step. It was one that Arthur felt, even though he had no idea what it was that set him on edge.
It left the Prince more short-tempered than usual, and Merlin more distracted, and rarely an hour went by without raised voices and hard words. By an unspoken agreement not to spread further discord, they tried to keep the worst of it out of earshot of the general population.
Arthur had many virtues, and almost as many faults, and Merlin hoped fervently at least half a dozen times a day that by the time change inevitably rolled through Camelot and the Prince stepped into the role of King, that he would have more of the former and less of the latter.
Unfortunately, to date patience had not yet made it onto the strengths list, and it showed painfully clearly. Unwilling to sit at Alderled and wait for the raiders to come to them, he left three of the Knights to protect the village, and took the other two with him, into the forest.
Looking for trouble, Merlin thought to himself, as the foreboding grew and danced in his mind, all shadows and fear.
He himself had been instructed to remain in the village.
"No excuse for laziness Merlin. Help wherever you can. Whoever needs you."
Which made sense, as the villagers needed all the help they could get, and taking a manservant out on patrol would be ridiculous.
Or it would be, if Merlin wasn't Merlin, and Arthur wasn't Arthur – and trouble wasn't trouble.
Three men had gone out into the forest looking for an enemy who would kill, or worse, without thought. Highly trained men, yes. Camelot's best, yes. The raiders had mostly been arriving in threes and fours, with strikes quick as lightening, when no-one was looking. Not a match for Arthur.
Merlin was no seer, but he did not have to be. He was well versed in listening to voices no one else knew existed. He could hear the forest singing out for the men of Camelot to stop, to take care, to know they were not the only ones to move through the shadows, looking for prey.
Mostly threes and fours. Occasionally ten, or twelve, or more.
Arthur would have no idea. Merlin had seen him in moods like this often enough before. He was furious inside that armour and rank, furious at the violations and the damage inflicted on his people. He could see only one thing – that these attacks had to be stopped and that it was his duty to do so.
As ever, when he was confronted with feeling like a situation was out of his hands, he wanted twice as badly to be doing something about it. And for a man in Arthur's position, wanting something was just the same as getting it.
In short, single minded was not always in the virtue column, either. In this mindset Arthur would walk into the jaws of hell backed by pride alone, and take on all comers in a fight to the death.
Incredibly noble of him, if not necessarily practical. He was good, very good… but good wasn't always enough.
Arthur called Merlin idiot on a daily basis, but it would never occur to the Crown Prince of Camelot that there may be other ways than leading from the front, sword first. Better ways. Less noble ways, maybe, but also less dangerous. But Arthur only saw the right way, and chivalry was all well and good, but only worked when both parties fought by the same code.
This enemy did not.
Death waited in that forest. Death and pain. The voices sang of it, the strong deep voices of the trees, and it found an echo in the wood under his hands as he tried to repair a fence, a lighter, shivery note that stirred unease in his belly.
When he felt the wood quiver in his hands, as if struck by a blow a long way away, and just a couple of seconds later was almost bowled over by the wave of sheer wrongness that flew from the forest, he gave up all hope of concentration.
Something was amiss.
Which gave Merlin a dilemma. He couldn't go to Owain and tell him that Arthur was in trouble, because he had no way of explaining that that wouldn't end with him set ablaze for his very nature.
Not that that alone would have stopped him with Arthur's life in the balance, but the village needed the protection that remained. He couldn't take that away, even for something like this. Arthur may be the most arrogant man to grace all Albion, but he had a real issue with other people losing their lives to save his.
No. The remaining Knights were not an option.
Not when there was another way.
Decision made, he checked around, saw nobody, and spoke a few soft words to the fence he held, not watching as it set itself. Instead, he turned and ran straight into the forest.
He made his way by ear, listening as the trees pointed him in the right direction. Five minutes in and he found himself in a small clearing, empty but for a fox, which looked him right in the eye, painting a picture of fighting and hurry.
The fox turned and ran, and Merlin followed it. He twisted and turned, racing as fast as he could, heedless of the terrain. The forest simply moved out of his path, and where it could not, it caught him before he fell, sending him on his way again.
He gave no mind to time, or direction, only slowing when the fox did. Then there were the sounds of voices, and he had to listen a moment, hard, before he could understand they were human, and switch himself accordingly.
They spoke in words that made his blood boil, of prizes, of spoils, of ambush. They spoke of making Camelot pay, of turning her arrogance against her.
Merlin stepped forward, concealed behind low hanging branches and waist high brush, and the foreboding shrieked loudly in his ears, until he asked without words for the ability to think.
The forest fell silent for him.
He looked through the green, and saw Sir Kay on the ground, too much blood around him, flowing freely from a wound to his side. His breath caught on his fear, and he spoke a few words softly, praying he was in time, praying he could find something that would slow the bleeding enough to give the man a chance.
Sir Kennet lay further away, on his back, weaponless. It was no matter, because Kennet was no longer there. He would not dip his eyes and blush readily whenever Morgana walked by anymore, and Merlin felt a stirring deep inside of anger at the loss of something so pure.
Arthur was between the two, held on his knees by two swords – one at his throat, one at his back. His own lay uselessly to one side, out of reach. He bled as well, from a wound to his temple, and possibly… Merlin cast his self forward to feel, and was hit by burning lungs, and hot, slicing pain in the left shoulder. The head wound had been the one to disarm him, as Merlin took in the nausea, and the unsteady vision.
None of it showed. Arthur still held himself as a prince. The fury, the hate, were leashed there in every bone and sinew, but nothing else was betrayed. No fear, no pain, no defeat. If these raiders lowered their guard Arthur would strike again, for he was not lost yet. Merlin could see that, if their enemy could not.
There were another five armoured men still alive in that clearing besides those who held Arthur. Alongside three dead, which was good, but nowhere near enough. If Arthur fought again, he would lose again, and he would be hurt further.
Hurt, but not killed. They knew who he was. Merlin could feel that every man in that clearing knew just what their captive was worth. Six of them knew in gold and jewels. The last knew in power and prestige and politics, and he scared Merlin more than any other, because he would use Arthur in whatever way he could to get what he wanted.
Merlin noticed the wind beginning to blow up, and belatedly realised it was his own doing. It had distracted the raiders briefly, just enough for Arthur to dive for his weapon, just enough for the uneven, unwinnable fight to be on again.
Arthur came up with his sword in his hand, and by some miracle defended against the first blow, and the second, and the third.
But the fourth took him off balance, staggering back towards a fifth he only saw swinging at him when it was too late.
In the end, it was Arthur.
It was Arthur who knew in the split second before the blow landed that this time he could not defend himself, and held tall and strong and proud, looking his attacker in the eye and waiting for the blow to connect.
It was Arthur who watched the man's eyes widen, and then close, as he and the rest of them fell to the ground in unison, as if struck by a massive, invisible hand.
It was Arthur who saw the still threatening sword change direction in its flight, to fall harmlessly at his feet.
It was Arthur who saw Merlin, just inside the treeline, eyes golden, hand outstretched, green sparks still flying, and a swirling expression of fear and fury on his face.
It was Arthur who found out that Merlin was not entirely what he seemed.
The silence stretched and stretched, disturbed only by the heaving breaths of both men and the sudden outbreak of birdsong from above. Arthur watched Merlin, and Merlin watched Arthur, and the wind died and the sun shone.
Then Arthur lifted his sword, straight at Merlin, and it was steady and true, even though Merlin could feel how badly that arm wanted to quiver.
"What are you?"
The voice was all Prince, emotionless and sharp, and now Merlin wanted to quiver. He had had no choice, none at all, and now…
…and now the world hung in balance.
"You expect me to believe that?" Arthur took a step forward, sword gleaming clear and red, and Merlin knew exactly what the other man wanted to believe.
One more faith to shatter.
"I'm Merlin, Arthur. Same as always."
Heart in his throat, life in the hands of the man in front of him, he waited, waited until he saw the moment where the disbelief ebbed away, to be replaced by a brief flash of pain, of betrayal, of anger.
Then the flash was gone, and there was nothing but the Prince left. Merlin suspected he might never see Arthur again.
"Don't dare to use my name again. That is a privilege reserved for people I trust." Another pace forward. The sword had dropped slightly, but he was well aware that that didn't mean Arthur was any less dangerous.
"How long have you been…this?" Arthur gestured around him with his free hand, and the movement was uncharacteristic – jerky and uncontrolled. It was a sign in and of itself as to how off-balance Arthur was. He would never normally allow any unpractised, unplanned gesture to escape.
"All my life."
"You knew when you came in to my service?"
"Yes." He kept his answers plain, simple. No room for dissembling or embellishing. Not with Arthur's lack of patience problem.
Which was irrelevant. Even had he been inclined to try, his mind had frozen, and he would never have found the words.
"You lied to me."
That one was not a question, but he answered anyway.
The birdsong was gone now, and the forest remained silent, both to human ears and to magic. Merlin's anger was gone, and his panic, and all that was left was him.
He'd hoped to have years yet, before it came to this.
He'd hoped it would never come to this.
He would have made the same decision again; he knew that now, standing alone in a forest clearing facing his mortality.
He was afraid. For himself. For Gaius, and his mother, both damned by association. For the purge of Camelot that would surely follow the discovery of a hated sorcerer so close to the heir to the throne.
"You lied to me."
The inflection was soft, and light, and hurt. Another couple of quick paces forward and Arthur was an arm's length away. Now Merlin had the sword at his throat, and he didn't need his gift to feel the anger in the man who held it.
Arthur was an honourable man. He trusted his death would be quick, if not painless.
"I knew you for many things, Merlin. Lazy. Insolent. Clumsy. An idiot. But I never once thought you to be a betrayer, or a liar, or my enemy."
The sword trembled, once, and Merlin didn't dare breathe.
"More fool me." This time he took a pace back, and Merlin swallowed. The sword dipped again, then rose.
Arthur glared back, angrier than Merlin had ever seen him.
"Your final chance, sorcerer. Defend yourself." He accompanied the order with a lunge forward, and Merlin side stepped, heart hammering, fear thick in his throat.
"No, Sire. I won't raise my hand against you."
"Damn you, Merlin!" Arthur roared it to the heavens, and then lunged forward once more. Merlin sidestepped again, and whiteness caught his eyes.
"Sir Kay does not have time for this."
After a long moment the fire banked back down, and Arthur's gaze flicked across the clearing. "And if I take my eyes off you to help him?"
Every shred of the contempt cut deep, and Merlin swallowed again before continuing.
"Then watch me. I can help him."
"You could kill him."
He couldn't answer that. Not without angering Arthur further, and he was alive only by a thread as it was.
But Sir Kay's thread of life would not last. Taking a deep breath, Merlin turned his back on man and sword, and moved across the clearing.
"You trust I would not stab you in the back?"
The question was heavy with a double meaning, and Merlin had to take a moment to steady his voice before answering.
"More fool you." It was whispered soft, but every muscle in Merlin's back tensed up without thought, as he waited for the blow to land. Instead, after a brief pause, more words followed.
"All men are capable of deeds well beneath their station with sufficient provocation."
Sir Kay was still, and too pale, and Merlin poured all his attention onto the wound rather than onto the words Arthur spoke.
"He's still alive."
He felt the wound, long and deep, through muscle, and looked around for anything that could be used. Coming up with nothing, he rose, moving across to one of the men lying just paces away.
"Are they dead?"
"I…" he turned, catching the cold of Arthur's stare. The sword was just a short distance from him, and followed him wherever he moved. For a moment he closed his eyes and concentrated.
"Three are. Two more soon will be. These two are merely unconscious – they should recover."
"You killed three men. With no more than a few words."
The tone was incredulous and accusatory both, and Merlin felt his own self-control waver in the face of what he had done, and of Arthur's reaction. It took a monumental effort to pull himself back in, and he had little doubt that if Sir Kay's life hadn't been on the line, he would have failed.
He had killed three men, with barely a second thought.
He stripped off the dead man's shirt, and then rifled through his pockets.
"And now you add looting the dead to your talents?"
He shot a look back at Arthur then, venom and anger, and was met with a cold smile. His heart sank further.
The third body yielded reward, in the shape of a small jar. He sniffed at it, and then nodded. That would help. He pulled off that man's shirt as well, and returned to Sir Kay, every nerve more than aware of the sword shadowing him every step of the way.
He knelt down, using one of the shirts to clean the blood away as best he could, and looked at the wound.
There was too much damage.
"I am sorry." He closed his eyes and breathed it aloud, and distantly heard a catch in Arthur's breath. Then he lay both hands to the wound, and pulled words from somewhere deep within, ignoring Arthur's command to stop as he had ignored so many others in the past.
He opened his eyes and looked down at where his hands still rested on Sir Kay's side. They shook.
"Merlin!" Arthur's voice was less cold now, threaded through with a note of something very like fear, and with an effort he forced his attention on to it
"Sire?" His own voice dipped and trembled, and he looked up to see Arthur's sword resting on the ground, as his eyes, wide and uneasy, swept the clearing.
"What did you do?"
What had he done? He wasn't sure. Everything was… fuzzy. It took a moment to pull himself together enough to look around, but when he did…
Everything was dead. The grass, the flowers, one or two of the trees at the edge of the clearing. "Oh."
"Oh? This is oh in your world?"
That, Merlin thought, was a fair question, and another one he didn't really have an answer for.
"Sir Kay will live a little longer. Long enough for you to get him help." He noted his own tone of voice, added it to the list of dead things.
It would appear that Arthur, for once, had nothing to say. Merlin carried on. "For your count - five dead now, Sire." He couldn't look at him. Couldn't see the realisation of what he had just done appear in Arthur's eyes.
"Five…" It was there in the timbre of his voice, though, and Merlin didn't think he could stand to hear it for another word. The decision to take their lives had not been a conscious one, but it was one that he had made nonetheless.
"You can't make life where there isn't any. It has to come from somewhere. Just enough to keep him going. He still needs a physician though. And the poultice." Belatedly, he pulled bloody hands from the hole in Kay's side, and waved one at the jar on the ground. You need to put that on him. Use the other shirt as a bandage."
"I need to?"
"I can't." It was no more than true. He felt like he was clinging on to consciousness by sheer determination. "That kind of magic isn't meant to be easy. I don't have the… I couldn't be a threat to anyone right now if I tried."
"You expect me to believe a word you say?"
Merlin didn't really, but this was important. He was exhausted, and afraid, and hurt all over. He knew he would struggle to stand, let alone attack anyone, and Arthur was being so… Arthur, that he thought the frustration alone would send him over the edge. In the last few minutes he had killed men, ruined lives and lost everything, and he was more ready by the second to give into the fear and despair, and curl in a ball and cry.
"I'm sorry, Arth-" he saw the furious look, and cut himself off before the name escaped fully. "For pity's sake, come on. Stop being such an idiot. Beheading me will wait, but Sir Kay still needs help, and I can't."
He held his breath, expecting the deliberate insult to get him backhanded at the very least, but after a long glare, Arthur moved around him and picked up the jar. He knelt opposite Merlin, jaw tense.
"Yeah. Cover the wound fully."
Arthur did so in silence, constantly stealing glances at Merlin, as if he would disappear if he took his eyes off him.
That would have been a useful trick.
Once Sir Kay was tended and bandaged, Arthur rose again. Merlin didn't even bother to try.
"Put some on your own wounds. It will stem the bleeding and dull the pain."
Arthur frowned, and then did so, dropping the half empty jar back at Merlin's feet. "Stay there."
Merlin had no intention of doing anything else. He watched idly as Arthur bound the two raiders still alive hand and foot with their own rope. There was plenty left over, and it trailed in Arthur's wake as he came back over.
"Stand up." Another command, and he did his best to obey, although he swayed alarmingly when he finally made it. A strong hand gripped his arm, a little too tight, and he stumbled across the dead grass behind it until Arthur leant him against a tree.
"You lied to me."
"The use of magic is banned in Camelot. My father will have you executed for this."
"I know." He did, and he wished Arthur would drop the subject before his self control snapped.
"You've taught me a valuable lesson about trust, Merlin."
There was a hitch in his own breath this time, and he couldn't manage to push a response out through his teeth. After a minute he raised his head and met Arthur's eye, and the weight of the anger and the betrayal there nearly sent him back to the ground. He wanted to apologise, but he knew that it would be worse than useless, thrown back in his face by Arthur's ire.
There was a long silence, as he waited for Arthur to decide whether he would kill him here, or take him back to the castle.
"There can be no forgiveness for this. There are no excuses. You know that, don't you?"
"Look at me."
He did, and the anger was tempered with regret and loss. Arthur once again peeked out through the Prince's aura.
"You saved my life, and Sir Kay's." Blue eyes held his, and then Arthur spoke again very deliberately. "I need to get Kay back to someone that can help him, and then get the prisoners back to my father. You will be gone before I return. The border is not far."
Merlin looked back in disbelief, and Arthur's jaw set before he carried on. "I will inform everyone that you died at the hands of the raiders. Do you understand?"
"I…" he caught the look thrown at him, and thought better of that comment. "Yes Sire." Merlin watched as Arthur turned his back on him, raising Sir Kay to a sitting position, and then turning back.
"There will be no second chance, Merlin. If I see you again, if I hear of you again, I will obey my duty. Clear?"
"Clear." His voice husked and cracked, and Arthur looked away.
"I have no idea what these men have on them. I won't know if anything goes missing."
Merlin nodded once, and remained still as Arthur lifted Sir Kay and left the clearing.
In the end, it was Arthur.
Arthur who finally saw him for what he was, not what he appeared to be. Arthur who in one short interlude used Merlin's own decisions to bring everything crashing down.
Still weak from the magic, and dazed from events, Merlin didn't retreat far – just enough that he wouldn't be seen. The forest closed around him to keep him hidden as men returned, and he watched them, watched Arthur, watched until his old life walked away from him.
It was many hours later and long since dark when Merlin rose to his feet and started to move towards the border. His hands still held a tremble, and his legs felt heavy, but he resolutely ignored both as he pushed himself forward.
He refused to think about anything before the now. Not places, not people, not partially glimpsed and dreamed of futures. If his eyes were damp and his soul hollow, then that was simply the way things were. There were many miles in front of him before he could find somewhere to rest. He needed his strength to find a new future, not fight off an old past.
He kept walking, and refused to look back.