Disclaimer: I do not own Merlin nor do I make any profit from this piece of fiction.
Summary: AR. Several years have passed in Uther's court since Merlin first arrived and many things have changed Merlin least among these. When an attempt on Arthur's life is made in full view of the court, Merlin must expose himself or risk losing the prince to death. This is a fall-out fic. Season 2 didn't happen, mostly. (This is NOT slash, btw.)
To the Future
Blood pounded in Arthur's ears and his vision kept swimming in and out of focus. Terror kept his heart racing and limbs tense. He couldn't breathe, couldn't move, couldn't calm down. He clenched his shaking hands into fists, an involuntarily reaction. What he truly wanted to do was grab his manservant and make a run for it before Uther called the guard.
In perfect contrast to Arthur's panic-driven state, Merlin stood calmly in the center of the room. He stood straight and tall. His hands did hang not limply but were poised elegantly at his sides now that their purpose had been fulfilled. His gaze was level, almost empty of expression, but hauntingly different. Merlin's eyes had returned to their normal deep blue, the shining gold of magic had bled away minutes ago, but the sense of power had not faded with the magic. If Arthur didn't know better he might have looked upon Merlin and seen a king, despite the worn clothes and ridiculously large ears.
Out of the corner of his eye, Arthur could see the rest of the high table. Morgana had turned pale. She gripped her dinner plate and table knife like a miniaturized shield and sword, still on edge from the earlier attack. Had they been in any other situation, the sight might have made Arthur smile. But he could also see his father, Uther Pendragon, king of Camelot, and hater of magic. Uther's face was tinged both green and purple, as if he could not decide to be furious or ill. He appeared to be gathering his wits though, thereby scattering what few remained of Arthur's.
No, no, no, he thought desperately at his manservant, wishing however so treasonously that Merlin had the power to read minds. Run, Merlin, you idiot. Run, before he kills you.
Merlin smiled. It was a sweet, sad smile and so terribly old that Arthur felt his heart break at the sight of it. Merlin would not leave, would not runaway, would not even save his own life. Arthur burned to know why and all the same was afraid of the answer.
"Seize him," barked Uther. It was a harsh, hoarse sound that made Arthur jump.
A few brave knights picked up their swords where they had fallen and surrounded Merlin, but they were careful not to get too close. They glanced uneasily from one to the other, not quite sure what to do with their captive. They were all fairly young, none from the early years of Uther's reign, and any truly dangerous magic in the last few years had been put down by Arthur and Merlin.
"Merlin, you stand before the court guilty of treason against the crown for use of magic," intoned Uther. He had apparently decided to forgo any of the usual formalities in this situation. "The punishment for this crime—
"Why don't you run, you idiot?" pleaded Arthur, cutting straight through his king's speech. "The doors are open."
All of the assembled noblemen, servants, and knights turned their attention to the heavy oak doors set in the farthest wall. All except Merlin and Arthur, who had delved into some sort of impossible staring contest that the prince was going to lose because of the burning in his eyes.
The doors had not been open ten minutes ago. Ten minutes ago, a band of angry sorcerers had invaded the castle and trapped in the entire court, barring Merlin, who they had apparently tried to drown given the wetness of his clothes, in the banquet hall. They were preparing to kill Arthur. The leader was in the midst of a speech about Uther suffering the pain of a lost son, when the heavy doors, sealed tight by magic, had shuddered.
The sorcerer had paused mid-rant and turned a shocked stare on the doors, which shuddered again. Two more violent upheavals and the doors were gone, blasted to pieces by some terrible force. Merlin stood in the remnants of the doorway, looking terribly wet and unhappy. There was an expression on his face that Arthur had never seen before. It was angry, more terrifying than a thundercloud, or even the maw of a raging dragon, and was made all the more awful by shining gold eyes clear for the world to see. Then Merlin walked, step by careful step into the chamber.
The leader had whispered something then, a strangled "Emrys," some sort of word of sorcery or perhaps a prayer. He looked from the slowly approaching Merlin to Arthur and back. Finally, he turned toward the head table and, with a terrible look of fear on his face, began to chant. He vanished with a cry in a blaze of white heat not even two syllables into the spell. His twelve compatriots, scattered about the room, met similar fates freeing the court to move again.
Merlin stopped then, in the center of the hall, eyes still glowing gold, having never uttered a sound. The fury was fading from him, and as Merlin reached what Arthur recognized as a state of relative calmness, the bits of oak that had made up the doors flew back together. The gold light went out from his eyes, leaving Merlin standing there with all his regular features looking not quite like Merlin.
"I will not leave while you still need me, Arthur," said Merlin quietly, drawing every eye in the room back to him. "Not even if you order me away."
Arthur tried to ignore the wonderful warmth that statement caused inside his heart. It wasn't terribly hard given his head was struggling to manage the facts that 1) Merlin really was a sorcerer and his luck really had not been luck these last few years, 2) Merlin was likely a very powerful sorcerer, 3) Merlin had just saved their lives by condemning his own, and 4) Merlin really was the greatest idiot in existence for not running away when Arthur really, really wanted him to. His fear for his friend was really was making his heart to all sorts of funny and unpleasant flip-flops.
On the other hand, Uther was not so easily overcome by Merlin's reply and looked more than a little peeved with Arthur for talking out of turn in the first place, much less encouraging a convicted felon and magic-user to run from the law.
"Warlock," corrected Merlin sharply with something akin to a pout on his face, making him look terribly more ordinary than he had before.
Uther looked as if someone had slapped him with a fish. His face was definitely sliding more toward purple-rage.
Merlin continued striving to explain himself before things got any worse, as if things could get any worse, "I'm a warlock. Not a sorcerer. There's a difference. I wouldn't want you to have improper records."
The king actually rolled his eyes. "And what exactly is a warlock?" Uther demanded as if Merlin was still just Arthur's manservant and not a sorcerer-warlock-thing.
Merlin grinned. Stupidly. Arthur was struck by the idea that this was how Merlin's conversations with Uther usually went when he was covering for Arthur. Merlin would make an excuse. Uther would question it with a good deal of incredulity. Merlin would come up with crappy reasons for said excuse. Uther might or might not send Merlin to the stocks. And the day would proceed as usual. Except, this time the stocks weren't even an option.
"I'm magic," said Merlin with his stupid grin. And now that Arthur was looking closely, memorizing his manservant's face in these last few hours granted to him, he could see that Merlin's stupid smile had a devious edge to it as if he were being rather clever about something no one else could understand. Which was moronic because everyone in the entire banquet hall knew Merlin used magic. He was being put on trial right there.
Uther had had enough of this nonsense. "The warlock Merlin will burn tomorrow at dawn. Take him to the dungeon."
The circle of guards around Merlin tensed even more. Arthur would have knocked their heads in for showing fear to a sorcerer and not staying loose, except that he was pretty tense himself and quite possibly in shock. But the group finally started to march, two knights to each side of Merlin, who had that sweet, sad look about his face again. Then they were gone and the courtiers, who had held witness to the strange event, fled like snow in the spring leaving Arthur, his father, Morgana, and faithful Guinevere.
"My lord," said Morgana very, very softly.
"Say nothing, Morgana, not on this matter," said Uther.
The king moved, stiffly at first, then more smoothly, building up speed until he had stormed from the hall. Arthur watched him go with a weary heart and sunk into his chair. Morgana finally placed her knife and plate back on the table. Gwen hovered by her side looking at once both filled with nervous energy and so utterly dead inside that Arthur feared for her sanity. But then he thought of Tom, Gwen's father, and how much time Gwen now spent with Merlin and Morgana and absolutely no one else. He did not think he could stand to lose Merlin either and wondered how much his own expression resembled hers.
"Someone should tell Gaius," said Morgana eventually.
Arthur felt his heart sink. There was no way Gaius could not have known about Merlin's magic, even Arthur had been able to guess from time to time though he had never sought to confirm his suspicions. Uther would have to execute his oldest, most trusted friend for harboring a warlock.
Arthur laughed. It was a high-pitched, frighteningly maniacal sound, but it was still a laugh.
"What could possibly be funny right now?" demanded Morgana.
"Uther called Merlin a warlock after he corrected him," said Arthur with a giggle.
Guinevere let out a nervous little titter, not quite steady enough to feel true mirth at the mocking of a royal. Morgana's lips twitched, she might have even smiled, but suddenly Arthur could barely see anything.
His eyes were burning and his shoulders were shaking in silent heaves. He could not make himself stop crying, and the last time he had felt so vulnerable he had at least had Merlin there to comfort him. A swirl of something in the air felt maybe a little bit like magic, easing and intensifying the pain in his heart. Then Morgana was sitting on the arm of his chair and was pulling him against her and letting him hide his face while he cried. He could feel the hot drip of her tears on his hair and thought inanely that he was going to ruin her dress. But if he raised his head he would see white skin, dark hair, and blue eyes and cry all the more harshly.
Eventually though, Arthur cried himself out and pulled away. He gazed up at Morgana and felt nothing but pure grateful affection for his near-sister and her maidservant, who had been weeping just as much on Morgana's other shoulder. He stood and kissed her on the cheek. He even found the strength to give her a wan smile, which she returned.
"Gwen and I will go to Gaius," said Morgana. "You go to Merlin, before Uther bans you from the dungeons. Maybe you can convince him to leave before tomorrow."
Arthur nodded; filled with new purpose but little hope. Merlin had chosen to stay of his own volition. And Merlin, Arthur had noted from time to time, could be more stubborn than a mule or a rock or a mule made of rock that one had to squeeze blood from. He walked to the doors with the two women, then parted from them and raced to the dungeons.
When he arrived, the guards snapped to attention but made no move to bar his way. Arthur continued past them, deeper and deeper until he found himself in front of what the smallest cell in the entire dungeon but also the best warded against magic.
"Merlin," he breathed when he arrived. "Merlin, you stupid, stupid, idiot. What were you thinking?"
Merlin's head popped up from his knees at the sound of Arthur's voice. Even lanky, skinny Merlin barely had enough room to sit and draw his legs to his chest in the tiny box of a cell. It didn't help the situation that half the floor space was taken up lengths of chain. Arthur recognized the chains made specifically to hold magic.
"You've been crying," said Merlin, looking distressed. "Are you okay?"
For a moment Arthur didn't know what to say. His mouth opened and closed. Blood roared in his ears again, but this time from rage.
"Am I OKAY?" screamed Arthur his voice cracking. "You're going to be killed in the morning, Merlin! KILLED! I am NOT OKAY!"
Merlin blinked and perhaps wilted a bit. Concern, thoughtfulness, and guilt raced across his face, but then were replaced by the bright light that was Merlin's grin.
"It's going to be fine, Arthur, you just have to trust me."
Arthur swallowed; thankful he had no more tears to shed. Trust Merlin to stumble from one sore spot on to another. He knelt on the cold dungeon floor, so that he could really look at Merlin.
"Why didn't you tell me?" he asked.
"Oh, Arthur," Merlin's eyes were large and gentle and impossibly blue, suddenly focusing intently on him as if nothing else in the world mattered or even existed, "Arthur, you love your father. How could I possibly ask you to choose?"
And that was Merlin all over, looking out for Arthur before anything else. It would have hurt him to have to keep such a thing secret from his father, but Arthur would have done it for his friend, for Merlin. Uther might have considered it treason, and Arthur had to put Camelot before anything else, but he was sure that Merlin would never bring any harm to his people.
"Please, leave, I know you have the power," pleaded Arthur.
Merlin's face fell. "Arthur, you overestimate my strength if you think I could leave you unprotected."
Arthur wasn't quite sure if he wanted to hug Merlin or throttle him. Surely the idiot understood what it meant to be dead. No one had the power necessary to protect him beyond the grave, not even if Merlin was the most powerful warlock in the world.
"Why does it have to be you?" demanded Arthur.
He wasn't quite sure what he was asking. It felt a little bit like saying it's not fair, except Arthur had never said such a thing in his life. He was the Prince of Camelot. He knew nothing was fair. But something painful flickered across Merlin's face, and suddenly Arthur felt like he was on the cusp of a revelation.
"Tell me," he said.
"No one else powerful enough to protect you would be willing to help Uther's son," explained Merlin.
That was probably true, but Merlin was still fumbling, which meant it wasn't totally true. Now that Arthur knew what to look for, all of Merlin's previous attempts to hide his magic were terrible and probably wouldn't have worked had anyone not thought of Merlin as a bit of an idiot. But Arthur needed to concentrate on what Merlin was saying, or not saying, now, when he only had a few hours left to live.
So Merlin was powerful, he knew that from the display upstairs. But for all his idiotic fumbling, Merlin had never used much magic or else he surely would have been discovered. Surely anyone with decent observational skills and a judicious use of magic could protect him the many attempts on his life. Except, there were just so many attempts on his life. Maybe a weaker sorcerer would not have had the strength to continue.
"Tell me the truth, Merlin," said Arthur.
Merlin froze; eyes wide and full of fear. Then he pulled back, slamming his head roughly into the cell wall, and shook his head once, twice.
"It will hurt you to hear it. I don't want to."
Something in Arthur's tone must have changed Merlin's mind. He sat up, wincing a bit at the pain in his head, and lifted a manacled wrist. In Arthur's mind it was too pale, too thin, to bear such heavy chains. No doubt Merlin had accomplished the impossible number of chores assigned to him using magic and that was why he had no muscle mass to speak of. Merlin slipped his fingers, through the bars of his cell, unheeding of the fact that no sorcerer had ever managed to touch the iron rods, much less pass them. Arthur took Merlin's hand in his own and twined their fingers together. For one brief moment, Merlin glanced into the shadows over Arthur's shoulder, but then his expression became so severe and somber, even more so than when he sacrificed his life for Arthur's time and time again. Arthur could not even think to look away.
"You are an aberration of magic." Arthur jerked back, all the air rushing from his lungs, like he had been hit by a javelin square in the chest, but Merlin's fingers grip had tightened like a vise, refusing to let him go.
"Your father wanted an heir, so he called on magic he didn't understand and traded his queen's life to create yours. But her life wasn't enough, not to bring you and your destiny into this world. The magic of the old religion is seeking to correct this imbalance. The longer you live, the greater the force set against you.
"I'll try to protect you, do as much as I can for you, but you will die young and heirless. You will unite the lands of Albion under your banner, and Camelot will become a legend. But the Saxons will destroy everything you made in the wake of your death. And I can't do anything to—
Merlin cut himself off. His voice had remained steady while reciting the bleak future he saw to Arthur, but tears had streamed down his face the entire time. For some strange Arthur couldn't bring himself to care about the horrible things Merlin had said, now that the idiot was crying. He wished desperately to offer some comfort, but Merlin had spoken as if he knew, the way Morgana sometimes knew—Arthur carefully pushed that thought to the back of his mind—and no words of his had ever helped her.
"Idiot," said Arthur gently. "Why stay then? Why not go away?"
Merlin had the temerity to glare at Arthur. "You prat!" They both ignored the way his voice cracked in the middle. "I love you! I'm not going to let you face fate alone."
And, oh, if that didn't make Arthur feel wonderful and horrible at the same time. His love for Morgana went unsaid. He knew it. She knew it, and likely felt the same for him, but they never breathed a word to each other. Arthur could count on one hand the number of times he had heard his father say he loved him and still have plenty of fingers left. He loved Camelot and his people, and he wished that one day they would come to love him as a good ruler, but that was a distant sort of love, something more akin to hope than anything else. But Merlin loved him. He risked his life, not because of duty, but because he thought Arthur deserved it. The thought was enough to make a man giddy with happiness…only to come crashing down because tomorrow that support would be ripped away from him.
Before Arthur could make any sort of intelligent response, a hand came crashing down on his shoulder and ripped him away from the cell. Arthur clutched at Merlin's hand, quite possibly crushing some of the fingers with his strength, but Merlin let his hand slip away. Arthur looked up and saw his father wild-eyed and harried.
Arthur scrambled to feet. He had not heard the king approach and wondered how long the man had been there. At least long enough to hear Merlin's prophecy, possibly even longer, maybe even the whole time. Uther said nothing, but reestablished his grip on Arthur's arm and started to drag him away.
Arthur would have none of that. He was young and full of rage at his father, the like of which he had never felt before. He planted his feet firmly on the ground and refused to budge. Uther grew pale and hissed at him, losing any sense of words. Arthur prepared himself to yell himself hoarse at the king's injustice and took a moment to glance at Merlin. All the breath rushed out of him again at the sight of Merlin's frown and the little shooing motion he made with his hand.
This time when Uther jerked on his arm, Arthur stumbled after, all his balance gone. He looked back at Merlin as long as he could, which wasn't very long given the size of the cell and the length of the dungeon, then he was following his father on the familiar path to Arthur's rooms. They stopped at the door. Two guards stood outside waiting for them. Uther turned to Arthur, the maniacal gleam in his eyes having lessened somewhat.
"You are to remain here. I will have you escorted to the balcony before the execution."
That said, Uther ripped open the door and hurled Arthur inside.
Before Arthur could right himself, the door slammed shut with a finality that sounded far too much like the clash of prison gates. For a long time, Arthur stood in the middle of his room staring at the door. He could remember a situation like this, when his father had barred him in his quarters to prevent the rescue of the druid boy. That time, Merlin had burst in with rope that ended up being much too short by several paces but had nonetheless allowed for Arthur's, and the boy's, escape. There would be no rope bearing manservant now.
Arthur collapsed onto his bed without even removing his boots and learned just how much more a man who had shed all his tears could cry.
Well before dawn the next morning, Arthur heard a knock on his door. For one inane moment he thought that Merlin had somehow managed to bungle things by waking him too early for a change, then reality caught up with him and he stumbled over to the door. Gwen was standing outside his room holding a breakfast tray and looking wretched. Arthur stepped aside and she set the tray carefully down on the table. Then she stood back and looked at him.
"The king says to make yourself presentable. It shall be dawn soon. Lady Morgana has said she will wear her finest dress for the occasion," said Gwen numbly. She hesitated, but continued in a slightly stronger voice. "On the matter of Gaius, apparently Merlin cast a spell to keep him from passing on any knowledge of Merlin's magic to anyone. This has proven to be true, and so Gaius will be spared any punishment for knowingly harboring a sorcerer."
For a moment Arthur's heart was torn between relief and outraged jealousy. His father was allowed to keep his friend, but Arthur was not; yet another case of the world proving itself unfair. Then Arthur's heart settled, remembering that Gaius was like a father to Merlin and an uncle to Morgana and himself. He dismissed Guinevere and made for his dresser, by-passing the food he was too heartsick to eat. He, too, would wear his finest clothing in honor of Merlin's passing.
When the guards came to escort him to the execution, Arthur looked resplendent in Pendragon red and gold. When he stepped out on the balcony next to his father, he refused to meet the man's eyes but instead nodded to Morgana and Gwen, who stood behind her, and turned his attention to the courtyard. It was full of people, so many that not all could fit and spilled past the gates. The entire court, castle staff, and population of the lower town had turned out to witness the execution of Merlin. Every window that opened to the courtyard had a head sticking out of it. The knights keeping the crowd away from the pyre all faced inward to watch. For all the massive numbers of people gathered in the pre-dawn light, there was not a single sound, not even the dull murmur of people trying to be quiet.
The sun slipped over the horizon, striking the golden Pendragon crest fluttering over the castle. Uther raised an arm, breaking the stillness by sheer force of will.
"Bring forth the accused!"
Merlin walked into the courtyard, escorted once again by four guards and the executioner carrying a torch. The clanking chains were loud in the quiet morning, but the echoes died almost instantly. The guards secured Merlin to the stake at the center of the pyre then stepped back. The executioner stood nearby.
"For the crime of sorcery, Merlin of Ealdor is to be burned at the stake," intoned Uther. "Do you have any parting words?"
Arthur succeeded in not gaping at his father. Uther had not allowed a sorcerer parting words in years. Ordinary criminals were supposed to repent of their crimes and caution others not to take the same path. But magic-users had a nasty tendency to try and curse Uther despite the magic-binding chains, so he had wisely banned the practice. He wondered what had made the king change his mind.
Merlin pulled sharply at the chains, drawing every bit of attention to him. He looked neither angry nor fearful but terribly sad. Arthur realized that Merlin truly had no intention of running away, and some little bit of his heart that was holding out hope proceeded to die. He felt like crying again.
"Nimueh made these," said Merlin referring to the chains, "I can feel her power in them, her sorrow, and what must have been a great purity of purpose. Perhaps, if she had retained such feelings, the outcome of our encounter would have been different."
That made no sense to Arthur, but it sent his father reeling. Then he was too busy watchin to care because Merlin's eyes flared gold and the iron links—which had bound hundreds of sorcerers, witches, and druids—burst apart, embedding themselves in the courtyard. The crowd recoiled, pressing back, but not one person made to leave. None of the chain had passed the circle of knights or even come close to hitting the executioner. Merlin stood unmoving on the branches that made the base of his funeral pyre.
"Kill him!" roared Uther. Not one person moved. He pointed at the executioner. "Light that fire or you will be next to die."
The executioner gulped visibly. He threw his torch onto the wood and scuttled away. Arthur tried to stifle his cry of dismay. It escaped his lips as a low keen. Merlin looked to him then but refused to move as the fire spread through oil-soaked wood. The flames grew higher and higher. The wood snapping and popping under the heat was the only sound to be heard. Merlin's pant leg caught fire, then the other, and suddenly he was wreathed in flame. Yet he made no sound and never attempted escape.
Hours later, Arthur could smell cooked meat and burned hair and strove not to gag. Morgana and Guinevere had both turned dreadfully pale, but neither they nor Arthur retreated from their vantage point. Arthur imagined he could still see figure standing among the flames, but that was ludicrous for Merlin's body had collapsed ages ago.
The sun was high in the sky before the pyre burned itself out. Arthur finally closed his eyes and briefly entertained the notion of burying the ashes. Uther would never allow such a thing. A shout from below forced his eyes open, and he peered down into the courtyard along with everyone else.
Hovering over the ashes was something that might have been heat-haze. But rather than dispersing, it grew more and more solid. Hope sprouted in Arthur's chest as the haze became golden mist that lengthened to the size of a man. The mist wavered slightly so that its substance resembled the flame that had so recently burned away. The flame became more definite until they were looking at a man of fire clothed in fiery garments and shod in fiery boots. Then the fire-man was gone, and there stood Merlin looking quite real, if somewhat shiny.
Sound filled the courtyard. The conversation that had been so lacking earlier in the morning bloomed into life. Children cheered. Women wept. Men argued. The noise was deafening.
"How is this possible?" whispered Uther so quiet that even Arthur could barely hear him.
Down below, among the ashes of his funeral pyre, Merlin grinned. "I told you before, I'm magic."
Arthur was quite positive that if it hadn't been so un-kingly his father would have fainted. As it was, Uther did very nearly swoon. Arthur felt a bit like swooning himself, so great was his relief.
Then Merlin looked at Arthur and said, "I'll be waiting."
Before Uther could do something as foolish as ordering the knights to try to capture a super-powerful warlock, Merlin vanished much like a burst bubble, his presence suddenly gone. Something rather like wind but not quite rushed out of the courtyard. The not-wind tugged at men's cloaks, ruffled women's dresses, and snapped taut all the pennants and flags around the castle. At the same time, warmth settled on Arthur's shoulders easing away his tension, soothing his aching heart, and making him feel safe.
He stepped forward and addressed the multitude. "Return to your duties."
As speeches went, it was less than spectacular. But it served its purpose. The crowd dispersed, rumbling with excitement. Arthur glanced at his father then held an arm out to Morgana. She took it and they gracefully walked inside. Arthur had responsibilities to attend to, things that needed doing. He had to occupy his time somehow.
After all, the Prince of Camelot should be infinitely more patient than his idiot manservant-turned-warlock.
Cheers. That was so aggravating to write, I don't know what to say. It sounded much more epic in my head. I hope you liked it.