So sorry for keeping you folks waiting so long. If you're still following this story it's probably a lot more than I deserve but thank you. Depression can be very tough for me at times. The next chapter was supposed to be longer and wasn't supposed to end up solely Merlin and Arthur again, but due to my temperamental muse I decided to post what I had. This just about still works within the time-line I have planned, but I absolutely can't postpone the other stuff further than that. Sorry if this chapter is not completely up to scratch but I thought you deserved something. I've been going mad with manips this last month also (links on profile). Thanks so much for all the lovely feedback I've been receiving for this, especially those of you who continue to review every, or virtually every chapter. I can't tell you how much it's appreciated.
Though it should be fairly self-evident, this story diverges from canon after series 2. There may be some conflicts with my future ideas going by the spoilers I've read. Even so, squeee for series 3!
Three pairs of feet shuffled across the forest floor. The tension that hung thick in the air could have been cleaved with a knife, but neither Merlin nor Arthur dared to break it for fear that once snapped, it would fly back at smack them painfully in the face. The recent revelations were weighing heavily on both of them.
The warlock didn't know what else to say. Apologies seemed inadequate. Explanations sounded smug. There was plenty he hadn't told yet, plenty he wasn't sure how to tell, but Arthur was already overwhelmed. Merlin was still in one piece, he was with Arthur and he was being tolerated for the most part. This was good, though had circumstances been different he still wasn't sure whether his view would have been the dank stone walls of a prison cell, as opposed to a horse's rear end. His future lay in Arthur's hands and only time would tell if things could be mended between them. The way Arthur was constantly blocking him out was becoming increasingly agitating and his face was unreadable. If he would only speak to him; the issue couldn't be ignored forever.
Merlin raised his hands and massaged his temples. To make matters worse he was developing a throbbing headache, which he could only attribute to their growing proximity to the source. He hoped he would start getting used to it soon. Sometimes an over-sensitivity towards magic was more trouble than it was worth. If Arthur had noticed this discomfort he'd said nothing.
The young prince, his sight fogged by his father's hatred and a naïve trust, now broken, was still trying to work things out. How could a companion of two years turn out to be a perfect stranger? How can a force, supposedly malevolent at it's core, manifest itself in such a person as the boy behind him? Outside influence was one thing; this was quite another. How could Merlin have hidden this from him and what else was he hiding?
Eventually it was Arthur who disturbed the deathly silence in an casual manner, quite unbefitting, whilst trying to hide his internal struggle from the outside world and to add some small shred of reassuring normality to the situation.
"That was a bit of luck, finding the horse again so quickly," he commented from atop the steed whilst Merlin trudged, woe-ridden, along behind.
"Yes of course, luck," came the muttered reply.
"What did you say?" said Arthur accusingly as he wheeled round.
"Nothing, Sire," Merlin answered.
"Yes you did. If you've something you want to say then spit it out. I'm not a mind reader." Merlin gave a half-hearted laugh.
"Just once, a couple of words of credit wouldn't go amiss. Even now, you completely miss the obvious."
"I suppose I should have known."
"And by the way, I don't read minds," Merlin added for Arthur's future reference. "I do occasionally overhear telepathy," he added self-consciously, "but I don't read minds."
"Oh," Arthur remarked, uncertain of how to react. Uncertainty summed up just about everything Arthur was feeling right now. Every thought he had contradicted another and added to his confused state. There was only one person who could allay that confusion, but he refused to stoop to that yet. He wasn't about to start asking questions when he appeared ignorant enough already. He would deal with this in his own way – by locking his feelings away as securely as inside any vault. Maybe his father was right; they only made him weak and vulnerable to deception from those he let close to him. Only anger was allowed to occasionally seep out, warding off anything which might penetrate these defences. He may be left as a dull shell, but if he let his emotions overwhelm him he would surely crack.
Merlin was a liar.
Merlin was a sorcerer.
Merlin had betrayed him.
Magic was wicked; end of story. Wasn't that what he had always been told? He'd often had doubts but never more so than now. Magic had been used to save both him and Camelot so it couldn't be all bad. He had proof of that. And hadn't he been apprehensive but willing to accept Merlin mere hours ago – though it felt like a lifetime – even before he knew any of this?
Not now. How could he accept him now?
So much had changed.
The finality of his father's beliefs didn't sit right with him and certainly not when applied to Merlin – whoever he was. On the other hand, he'd seen what magic could do. His thoughts flitted back home and he prayed that those he cared about were safe. Magic was violent, destructive and the cause of so much pain and suffering, it was unforgivable. Then again, the same could be said of the unrelenting campaign against it. The swish and dull thunk of an axe reverberated in his mind terminating the lives of so many and tearing families apart. Magic was a choice; that was how he justified all those times he'd carried out his father's wishes, whilst his conscience whispered complaint from the back reaches of his mind, gradually becoming more and more silent with time and experience. Could it really be true that some of them couldn't help possessing magic, that some, perhaps a great many of them, had been completely innocent? If so, then everything he believed was wrong. Oh God. He swallowed against the taste of bile which crept into his throat as the head rolling into the basket suddenly became Merlin's. Blinking, Arthur shook aside this horrifying image. Liar or not, his sorcerer servant didn't deserve that.
He found it difficult to look Merlin in the eye – knowing he was more than he appeared on the surface. His foolish persona was, in a way, just another illusion and he was sick to death of those.
He thought back three days to when he'd almost killed Merlin in a surge of grief and anger, believing him to be a magical imposter. A smirk curled bitterly at the corner of his mouth at the irony. So he'd got it half right. "And if I was dangerous sorcerer wanting to kill you, I would've probably done it already and saved you a lot of fuss," Merlin had said. He had a point. Merlin was certainly the exception to the rule in that respect. If he'd wanted him dead he would be – unless Merlin had surpassed himself phenomenally in the field of incompetence. Once upon a time he might have believed that were possible. On the contrary now, all evidence pointed to him having a lot more competence than he'd previously been given credit for. Whereas it should have been a comfort, thatmade Arthur uneasy too. It wasn't that he necessarily thought Merlin a bad person, but Arthur didn't know what he was and that not knowing was deeply unpleasant. Merlin was a stranger of the strangest variety. He eyed him up and down, trying to get the measure of him, with little success. For such an innocent-looking individual to bear so much power and to be able to wield it with mere words – or less – it boggled the mind. How could he have been such a poor judge of character? Who was he? Arthur couldn't trust Merlin. He couldn't. In the end it bottled down to one important fact: he'd been deliberately deceived. Merlin hadn't trusted him.
"To be fair, he's hardly much use now anyway – the horse," Merlin said. "After all, we should be out of the forest soon. We're very close."
Arthur gave Merlin a puzzled expression at this uncharacteristic grasp he suddenly seemed to have on his surroundings.
"Everywhere looks the same. How can you possibly know that? No. Forget it!" he said, holding up his hand. "I don't want to hear it."
"The source of magic, I'm beginning to feel it," explained Merlin anyway. "What's more, since I've had that same magic inside, I'd recognise it anywhere." He was met by an inquisitive frown.
"What does it feel like?" Arthur asked curiously and immediately reprimanded himself for doing so.
"To tell you the truth," – Arthur scoffed at that concept – "at the moment it's giving me a pounding headache," Merlin answered.
"I can't feel anything."
"I wouldn't expect you to."
Arthur huffed, his face a backdrop for contempt.
"I always knew you weren't normal," he said.
"Well, being a prince could be considered out of the ordinary," Merlin noted. "It all depends on how you define normal."
"Not some freak magical oddity," Arthur clarified.
"In that case, yes, I'm very abnormal. Then again, I don't know any different."
"You were really born with it?"
"Really," the warlock confirmed.
Arthur mumbled something vaguely, spun the horse back around and rode off briskly leaving Merlin straggling behind.
"Don't mind me then," Merlin complained. "I'm sure I'll catch up eventually."
Arthur continued on without so much as a glance to his rear, but his pace did markedly relax.
"Come on then, Merlin!" He yelled. "Are all you sorcerers this slow or is it yet another of your natural attributes?"
"I guess it must be," said Merlin, resignedly.
Gradually the crashing sound of water could be heard drifting towards them and the darkness of the forest began to ease as the soft glow of sunlight filtered gently from ahead. Arthur avoided eye contact with Merlin as they emerged from the tree-line in case another 'told you so' was on the cards or at least about to be implied, but Merlin remained obediently silent. Must you be so bothersome, Merlin?
Immediately in front of them a river barred their way. To the left the bank continued downstream and to the right the water thundered relentlessly out of a steep rocky gorge, carved into the imposing stone walls which towered above them. Directly ahead, they saw a narrow pass winding its way to the former town: their destination. The formidable crags wrapped arms around the site, protecting it. In the end they had also made the perfect trap for magical vermin. At least vermin was how some saw them, but Arthur knew that the people that had dwelt their were not animals. They had been people – unordinary yes, but people. . . like Merlin. Arthur also knew what people were capable of, and with magic, much much more. That's what made him wary.
The river's surface was a seething, churning mass of white foam as it gushed past deafeningly. Arthur leaned forward in the stirrups and looked out across the vicious torrent, assessing the width, depth and strength of the river and whether there was even the remotest possibility of crossing without being instantly swept away. A broken branch was being buffeted about wildly and it snapped in two with the force of the water as it rushed past them, alarmingly fast. He sighed. Whilst the last couple of days had been fine with regards the weather, the effects of the torrential rain prior to that were clearly still evident here. It was useless; they'd never cross, at least not in this place.
This is going to be a problem, Arthur thought.
No problem, thought Merlin. At least it wasn't now his gift was out in the open.
"I'm going to follow the bank to see if there's somewhere else to cross," Arthur shouted over the river's roar. "You, stay here," he ordered, looking at Merlin severely.
"Arthur, I..." Merlin began, trying to explain the simple solution.
"But if you'd just list–" Merlin yelled back as Arthur galloped off downstream.. . . "Or not."
Sighing, he turned to face the tree-line. He didn't need words and it took no effort at all. In a flash one of the smaller trunks lay flat on the ground and seconds later had been stripped of branches. It was a simple task then to levitate the log so it hovered across the rapids and position it so the river was traversed.
Arthur was out of sight but he would surely return soon. He crossed over to the far bank. It didn't matter what Arthur thought about this; what mattered was the task at hand.
Merlin perched himself on a boulder to wait beside the churning waters. He rubbed his forehead with his fingertips. Magic was so strong here and the cliffs were a dominating presence at his back. He couldn't ignore this constant sensation and it only served as a reminder of the danger they faced. Time was gradually running out and it was imperative that they succeed. If only Arthur would listen to him, but he did understand his reaction even if it ate him up inside. He decided that there was no point begging for complete forgiveness – he wasn't sure he even deserved it – and as much as he wanted to tell him more, the last thing Arthur needed at the moment was another spiel of revelations about how magic had saved his life time and time again. It was a lot for anybody to take in let alone the Crown Prince. Until Arthur was ready and willing to learn more there was the possibility it would only push him further away until he'd had time to mull things over. Merlin didn't want to take that chance. Also, if the only thing that swayed Arthur was a sense of debt to be repaid, what was that actually worth? His life maybe, if he was back in Camelot with his neck on the line, but that wasn't the case. Surprisingly, he realised he didn't want gratitude or recognition any longer. Maybe he was been selfish and unrealistic, but more than anything, he just wanted the old Arthur, his friend, back.
The best thing he could do now, Merlin decided, was to be himself, his complete self, and hope that Arthur would be able to see him through the haze of betrayal and deceit and accept him again for who he really was, magic and all. But could that ever happen? Blinking away a hint of moisture, he lowered his head in his hand. It was no small thing to ask. Would Arthur, a man so driven by a sense of loyalty and honour, not to mention a lifetime learning of the evils of magic, ever be able to trust him after this. Every look received now growled 'traitor'.
Arthur needed him. He needed Arthur. However unlikely a pair they may make, the whole was far greater than the sum of its parts and without each other they were lost. Their relationship wasn't completely broken. . . yet, but it had been shattered and badly. Cracks wound their way throughout their entire history, slicing savagely in half pleasant memories of playful banter, petty bickering and shared victories. Those cracks ran deep.
The crashing and gurgling of the current was growing monotonous as Merlin waited for Arthur's return.
"Éafiscas," Merlin muttered and his irises blazed as he stared without looking into the furious flow of the river. A shoal of fish leapt from the foam, glistening. On close inspection each tiny scale was an individual droplet of shimmering silver water: a sparkling spectacle. The faintest trace of a smile graced Merlin's features as they danced before him for his amusement. It was quite beautiful even though he said so himself. If only Arthur could see that side of magic.
Several minutes later and the prince came cantering back up the riverbank. He drew the horse to a halt and dismounted.
Merlin discreetly rubbed his reddened eyes and tilted his carefree mask in Arthur's direction.
"There's no way we're going to get across this river without making a serious detour," Arthur said. "There's just been too much rain." He did a double take. "Merlin! How–? What are you doing over there?"
Merlin glanced to his left, Arthur's right, at the makeshift wooden bridge which now spanned the torrent that roared between them.
"Where did that come from?"
"We are next to a wood," Merlin said, pointing out the obvious.
"You actually felled a tree and moved it here by yourself?"
"You used magic. Again." Arthur glowered at him.
"Well done, Merlin, for finding a way across the un-crossable river. You're welcome, Sire," Merlin said, a little more tetchily in tone than he'd intended. "Now, are you coming over or not?"
"Hmmm." Arthur was clearly apprehensive; his wariness of magic and his unwillingness to trust the young man who had lied to him the entire time they'd known each other was vying against the necessity of reaching his destination and basic common sense. "Is it safe?"
"You're absolutely certain? It is magic."
"It's a log!" Merlin exclaimed. "Regardless of how I put it there, it's not going to come to life and bite you." Arthur remained unconvinced.
"I'm sure there must be another way."
Merlin sighed, again.
"Please listen to me," he said reassuringly. "Whatever you might think of me right now, I promise I'd never do anything to harm you."
"Perhaps not intentionally," Arthur said. "If you've done your job correctly – which may be wishful thinking – we should have a rope packed somewhere. If I could only find. . . ."
"What is it Mer-lin?" Arthur snapped, a touch of venom in his voice.
"Just cross the log!" Merlin yelled across the river.
Arthur was taken aback by Merlin's abruptness. They stared at each other across the multitude of barriers that lay between them. The river was the least of these and the simplest to overcome. So why was he holding back? His hatred for magic was peeling away to uncover a buried fear, now bared to the world, and he cursed himself for it. This wasn't him. It was true that no amount of rational thinking could overrule a lifetime's upbringing in one day, but he couldn't live like this. Oh for a life or death split-second decision, a battle based on speed and skill and strength with no time for thinking – something easier than this. He steeled himself. Well, he was Arthur Pendragon not a coward and he certainly wasn't about to let himself be deterred by mere sorcery, least of all Merlin's. He tied the horse securely to a low-protruding branch near the water's edge as there was little point in taking it any further; what little remained of the town of Heolstor, lay just out of sight behind the rocky boundary. With a look of resignation he stepped out onto the felled trunk and crossed tentatively. It certainly looked like a log, it felt like a log and as he reached the other side without incident he couldn't deny it had acted as completely un-magically inert as he expected a log to act. He looked back the way he'd just come. Anticlimactically he was forced to conclude, that had been embarrassingly easy. It was only a tree-trunk over a river – of course it had. He turned to Merlin, feeling a desperate need to vent his frustration somehow.
"Never speak to me like that again!" he warned. "And I want no more magic behind my back."
"I did try and tell–"
"Enough is enough," he stated.
"I just assumed–"
"You assumed, did you? Well from here on in, it's probably best if you don't assume anything – except perhaps an air of intelligence on the odd occasion. And will you quit gawking at the river like an idiot. Don't tell me you've never seen a fish before."
Merlin regarded his magical creation and raised his eyebrows. Trust Arthur to be as observant as ever.
"You're very welcome," Merlin muttered as they set off along the narrow passage to the remains of the old town.
Rugged grey walls encroached on either side of them, however Merlin's eyes were fixed firmly on the floor as he stumbled step-by-step along, holding his throbbing head in his hand. Power surrounded them, why could Arthur not feel it? He groaned. How did other people actually live here? Maybe it was something you could get used to, or maybe he was just different. "No-one's like you Merlin," Gaius' voice spoke to him in his mind. His uniqueness had never been a weakness before, but he had to overcome it. Like it or not, Arthur needed his skills.
"Just a minute," Arthur said, turning suddenly in front of him and causing Merlin to step on his foot. Surprisingly, Arthur made no comment on this. "You can walk in front where I can keep and eye on you."
"Who's going to watch your back?"
Slowly, Merlin began to stagger forward ahead of Arthur.
"The fate of Camelot rests on our shoulders, surely you can move quicker than that."
"Wait a minute," Arthur stopped him.
"Make your mind up."
"What's this?" Arthur pointed to a series on runic inscriptions etched into the stone to the side of him. They could be found dispersed all over the rock and each one was different. "Enchantments."
"I don't think–"
"And what would you know about–" Arthur began. Merlin stared back in disapproval. "Oh, yes, right. Can I suppose you're actually capable of reading this then?" Merlin squinted at the text.
"Some of it. It's mostly trivial stuff, things people have written for fun. 'Bevan was here', 'Keira and Dale: one heart, one soul'," Merlin recited. Seconds later he swallowed a hard lump in his throat, when it occurred to him that these people had probably been caught in the slaughter. From the look on Arthur's face, he was thinking the same. He resumed sombrely. "That one's a spell, a ward to deter dangerous beasts. So is that one over there," Merlin said, passing over several rather coarse comments, unworthy of translation. "That's to promote fertile crops. . . . These are more meaningful," Merlin said, turning to the opposite wall. "Ác tól áncyn gestreónþ ingehygdnes mid se mann gewealende hit."
He watched Arthur tense as the old language slipped effortless from his tongue. The prince's fingertips twitched at his sides as he fought the ingrained instinct to defend himself; clearly he was under the impression that Merlin was practising more magic.
"A tool only gains purpose with the one wielding it," Merlin explained. He saw Arthur let down his guard slightly. "It means–"
"I'm aware of what it means," Arthur interjected dully. "It's an analogy for magic, isn't it?"
"Yes. It is."
"What about that other one?"
"Hit sy éaðelice to féogan hwæt þú ætéorest to ongietan," Merlin read. "It is easy to hate what you fail to understand." Out of the corner of his eye, Merlin saw Arthur lower his head self-consciously. It snapped back up when he looked at him properly.
"Actually, I meant that." Arthur nodded to a long, thick score in the wall. Merlin looked, his aching head a few inches from the stone.
"It's just a line," he replied.
Arthur grabbed the collar of his jacket and yanked him back a few steps to reveal the bigger picture. Merlin's eyes widened as they traced what he thought was just a vertical line and saw it angled down at the top: a letter L. At either side, more runic letters could be seen, towering over their smaller counterparts. They were very recent judging by their lack of weathering. He scanned the stone expanse from left to right. Wé þéodwricaþ híe and Camelot áforhtaþ. Nú þæt ríce of Pendragon endaþ. He was sure it was just a statement, but he avoided saying the threatening words out loud just in case.
"Well?" asked Arthur sharply.
"'We avenge them and Camelot trembles in fear," said Merlin softly. "Now the reign of Pendragon ends'."
Arthur stood in silence, his face blank and emotionless.
"Not if I have anything to do with it," Merlin asserted.
Merlin's voice, filled with confidence he didn't share, stirred something inside Arthur. He couldn't quite put his finger on it but it was not unlike admiration.
"Or me. We end this outrage here," he firmly agreed.
Comrades-in-arms: it was a start.
A/N: It's so hard to write the gap between Arthur and Merlin when normally I end up getting carried away with banter. I wanted to write a situation where Arthur can't physically distance himself from Merlin while he mulls things over so I hope this comes across emotionally. The eventual reconciliation is pretty much written but it occurs at a specific place which I won't alter so bear with me. Hopefully it will be worth the wait. Once again, the Old English is probably inaccurate especially gramatically. I know at least one person is bothering to translate my spells so I thought I should re-emphasise that.
I'll update when I update, but I will update. I really should be job hunting. Merlin is too addictive.
Unsigned review replies (hopefully I managed to reply to everyone else individually)
Becky - Thank you so much for your reviews and I'm so sorry for keeping you waiting for so long. My muse has been somewhat temperamental of late. "You paint beautiful pictures with your words" - gee, wow, thanks! Given my complete amateur status at writing stories that means a lot to me. I'm also glad you feel I'm being authentic to the show. It makes me really happy to know that you're enjoying this.
Ann Nonomus (chapter 2) - Thanks, I'm glad you liked the round table bit. So many people have commented on it. I'm glad it went down well.
Orion1432 - Thank you very much. I'm so pleased that you liked the reveal. I didn't want to have Arthur accept Merlin straight away, but I still wanted his attitude to be understandable. I'm glad you felt sorry for him and I hope you don't hate him too much after this chapter. I guess I'm kind of writing a ye olde satellite delay between Arthur's thoughts and his behaviour and actions. Arthur is in full prat mode at the moment but I hope it is still reasonably in character for him.
The reconciliation has been in a draft state for months, which is more than can be said for the rest of this story, I'm ashamed to admit. It might be a couple of chapters yet because I know exactly where I want it to be and it's now mostly written bar a few inevitable last minute tweaks. I'm quite pleased with it. Hopefully it will be nice but still Arthur and Merlin, so sweet, yes, but not saccharine. Sorry about the waits for updates.
Anonymous Fan/AwesomeFan55/1person/Me12345 – Erm, I hope I'm correct in assuming you're one person :D If not, embarrassed apologies. Thank you so much for taking the time to read and review this story as you went along. I really enjoyed all your comments. I have had it in for Merlin quite a lot haven't I? Perhaps a little more than I'd intended. Maybe I should injure Arthur in the near future to balance things out *grins evilly*. Glad you've been enjoying this story (and Hexing can be Vexing too)! Be warned, my update speed can be shockingly slow at times.