In which Gwaine is suspicious. Lancelot is protective. Gaius is the sorcerer. Hunith has a secret. Merlin gets hurts; twice. Freya returns. Morgana is evil. Arthur is not too much of a prat anymore. And Agravaine has a plan to end all magic. No slash. Season 4.
Disclaimer: Don't own BBC's Merlin.
Author's note: I want to apologise for not making a sequel to Dawn of the Dragonlord. I guess I read too many spoilers and got carried away. If some of this story comes true in Season 4, then I will be deeply honoured, but please don't sue.
THE LONELIEST HOUR
Chapter One: In which Merlin and Lancelot are secretly protecting Camelot
Merlin fell on his knees, panting. The enormous two-headed beast lying in front of him was slowly dying and the young warlock could not bear to look at it. Instead, he kept his eyes on the ground, waiting for the creature's final breath. The pool of blood underneath the monster was steadily growing. The brown fur was dark and wet on the spot where the spell had hit it. The effort of killing the beast had been quite substantial yet Merlin felt no pride, only a deep sadness. The air around him was stirring with old and powerful magic and in his head he could almost hear a painful moaning. As the creature let out a last growl of pain, its front leg unfolded and reached out towards him with three curved black claws. He saw them as though in slow motion; one claw reaching out further than the other two. It wanted to grab him, and for a moment he was going to let it. Why shouldn't he? He had killed another one of his kind. It was only natural that it was looking for revenge. How many of this creature's brothers had he killed in the last year alone? When had it been decided that his destiny would include blood on his hand?
"Merlin, what are you doing?" cried out a familiar voice that was close to him.
Suddenly, Lancelot was before him, his long sword aiming to cut the creature's claws.
"No, Lancelot!" Merlin said forcefully.
He grabbed the knight's forearm before it could strike. Just then, the beast let out a long last sigh and stopped moving altogether.
Lancelot glanced down at him. His face was full of questions and concern.
"There was no need for that," said the young warlock.
"And what about you?"
Merlin merely shrugged, mumbling a barely audible "I'm fine" as he struggled to his feet. He felt so drained and exhausted that he had to lean on Lancelot for support.
"You don't look fine to me, " said the knight.
He did not like to be scrutinised. Gaius was doing enough of that already. Everytime he came back late or bruised or covered in mud (or worse), the old physician had a look on his face that strangely reminded Merlin of his mother. It always came as a surprise that someone could be so unequivocally supporting, yet worried beyond measure, all at once. The result was invariably a pat on the back, an awful-tasting tonic, bandages when necessary, and a few hours of troubled sleep. Perhaps he wouldn't be so tired if he didn't have those nasty nightmares every time he closed his eyes.
"Still can't sleep?" asked Lancelot as they started to walk out of the forest.
"No," said Merlin. He was avoiding glancing too much at Lancelot's concerned face.
The sky was of that white color just before rain high above their heads. The forest was thick with green trees, but also wet and chilly. Merlin could feel the wind blow right through him. It would be so easy for him to conjure a small flame in the palm of his hand, just to keep warm; yet he couldn't. Sometimes he had that strange feeling as though his magic did not really belong to him, that it had fallen upon his shoulders, quite by chance, to be a burden but nothing more. It could be used to protect Arthur, but for no one else, not even himself.
This was the reason why he hadn't been able to save her. Freya. But that wasn't really accurate. He had possessed the power to save her, he just had not dared to, for fear that her curse might hurt Arthur in the end and fear that the dark magic around her would somehow bring Camelot's downfall, or his. How could he have been so stupid and selfish? It had been a year since he had seen her face in the water of the cave, and he had missed her every day ever since.
"They're getting strangely accurate, aren't they, your dreams?"
Merlin replied nothing. Instead, he turned back and erased their footprints with a quick spell and secretly wishing that his dark thoughts could vanish just as easily.
It was becoming almost a routine for him and Lancelot to sneak out of the city walls together and cover their trails on the way back so that when some creature of magic was discovered dead, nobody could link the event to their absences. At first, Lancelot had followed unbeknownst to Merlin. Later, he had admitted that it was only because he couldn't bare the look on Arthur's face if Merlin did not return. In truth, however, Merlin was glad for the company. He found those special hunting trips hard on his nerves. Killing a creature of magic always brought back into his face the fact that he was actually one of them; but he wasn't, not really. He wasn't a knight either. He wasn't a physician, or even an apprentice; Gaius had not shared his plans about that with him yet. He was barely managing being a servant, and being a sorcerer would only get him burned at the stake. So what was he really?
"I'm not a seer," he said to Lancelot, rather more sharply than he had intended.
"What does your dragon say?"
Merlin couldn't help letting out a long sigh. "I don't know why I keep going to him with this question because he only makes it more confusing." He did his best to take Kilgharrah's low rumbling voice and meaningful stare. "It is unclear whether or not you have the gift, Merlin. What is clear is that the darkness is gathering around Camelot and the world of Albion needs you to be exactly where you are now. Honestly, I've grown so tired of this speech about my great destiny that I actually prefer listening to Gaius snore, or Arthur giving a speech."
Lancelot did not seem satisfied with the dragon's answer either. It had not escaped his notice that they were running into dark and dangerous creatures more and more often. The random occurrences were becoming a weekly exercise, even forcing Merlin to neglect his servant duties. The young sorcerer was stretching his magic to the limit of his abilities and he knew it. He wasn't worried that his magic would fail him; in fact, it was quite the contrary. When he was lying awake at night, it was to allow his mind to ponder on how powerful his magic was becoming. Kilgharrah had been elusive on that matter as well with a comment about how he should broaden his mind and condition himself to feel rather than think. Awkwardly enough, Gaius was training him to do exactly the opposite: to think about his actions first, and then trust his knowledge and judgement. The more he thought about it and the more it seemed that being a sorcerer and being a physician could not be compatible. How, then, had Gaius ever managed it?
"What about that gathering darkness? What do you think it means?" Lancelot asked again.
"I'm not sure." An evil thought crossed his mind and his lip turned into a smirk. "Maybe some dark creature is going to eat Agravaine up?"
Any other knight, except perhaps Gwaine, would have sent him to the dungeons for saying that, but Lancelot merely joined in with a wide grin; or perhaps he was just glad to see a change in his friend's mood.
"You don't like him much, do you?"
Merlin smiled mischievously. "How could you tell?"
"Maybe it was in the way you made his goblet spill when he said that Arthur was too young and naive to rule; or maybe how you made him fall into a puddle of mud on his first day of training with the knights; or how his cloak got caught up in the straps of his saddle."
Merlin was glad that Lancelot's tone was conspiring otherwise he could be in trouble, especially with Gaius. Maybe his magic was a little bit his after all.
"Honestly, the cloak, it wasn't me, I swear it."
"Don't get me wrong, I think he's an arrogant fool." Lancelot's opinion of Agravaine had been settled immediately after the new knight had called Gwen an average maid.
"But, Merlin, aren't you taking a lot of risk just to make his life more difficult than it already is?"
"His life? What about mine? I imagine it must have been very difficult for him, growing up in such poor conditions," Merlin said sarcastically.
"You're mistaking Agravaine for Arthur," Lancelot said wisely.
Merlin merely snorted. "But they grew up in the same way, didn't they? Arthur became a prat and Agravaine became a prat's uncle. Arthur is growing out of it, but Agravaine treats everyone like dirt, unless they're of noble birth. Arthur never makes me feel like a servant except when his uncle is around and now that I think of it, he's always around. It's like I've suddenly become invisible. All he says to me now is 'fetch this Merlin', 'clean that Merlin', and 'get out of the way Merlin'. I have to admit that I even miss having things thrown at me. So I guess I'm compensating by pestering Lord Uncle Prat. In any case, what's life without a little risk?"
Lancelot threw him a sceptical look. "Aren't you taking enough risk as it is?"
Merlin took a moment to stare at the outline of the castle as it appeared before them at the edge of the forest.
"It's all supposed to be worth it, isn't it, in the end?" he commented, more to himself than for Lancelot.
And then, an afterthought hit him. He hadn't confessed it to anyone, not even to Gaius, but Lancelot was there now and he had been a true friend so far. He had proven beyond doubt that he could be trusted. He had even accepted to tell a few lies to protect his secret, and that was more than anyone had ever done for him.
"What is it?" Lancelot asked in a low tone, grabbing Merlin's arm as they were going to exit the forest.
"My magic," said Merlin. "It's becoming harder and harder not to use it. It's like... I don't know... it's like it's growing, and it's taking more energy to keep it under control. But what if I fail? What if I loose control?"
Lancelot pressed a comforting hand on his shoulder.
"You won't. You're the bravest man I know."
Merlin smiled. "Brave enough arrive this filthy to Arthur's diner with Agravaine?"
"Maybe not that brave," agreed Lancelot with a grin.
And then Merlin took off at a run.