We really ought to stop referring to these as "Author's Notes" and just admit that this is where you can read the obligatory "Author's Apology and Bad Excuse". Well, I suppose working long hours at a new job is a fairly good excuse, but there's definitely an aspect of "buhhhhh I 'on't wannaaaaa..." in there. In any case! I have not abandoned this story, and am determined to see it through to the end. So with luck these updates, however spread out, are still working toward some manageable goal and are hopefully at least marginally entertaining.
Also can I just say that the Merlin fandom is a-maz-ing? I love that it's still so strong and I'm still seeing so many new and creative stories and readers reviewing. You guys rock! Thanks again for all of your encouragement and lovely reviews and compliments and ponderings of things to come. Always delights me to read them!
Back to it!
Tell Arthur the truth. Tell him the truth. Tell him... the truth.
Naturally, Merlin was in the midst of forming an elaborate lie.
Hedwynn had sent a servant with word to Arthur that Merlin was awake and stable. Each moment that had passed since had felt like the swift, cold countdown to his execution. Arthur would ask about the brands, naturally. Merlin had to give him an answer. And despite having rehearsed this exact scenario so many times in his mind over the past several years, despite his attempts to formulate plans and back-up plans and plans to back-up the back-up plans, despite every magical being knowing about and believing in Emrys and Arthur and their great and indisputable destiny, Merlin could not, no matter how frantically he scrambled through years of preparedness, find the words now.
It would be so easy to make something up. He was so good at it. Merlin had been doing it for years and Arthur was just the sort of noble, trusting, merciful cabbage-head to believe him.
But did that make it okay, or even worse?
Merlin groaned, grabbing at his throbbing head. The physician scurried over to his bed as a knock sounded on the door. His heart froze.
"I can't do this."
"You'll find the words."
"He's going to chop my head off."
Hedwynn squeezed the boy's shoulder and made his way to the door. "That would make for a rather uninspiring end to the prophecies." The latch clicked and the door squeaked. "Ah, Prince Arthur, please come in."
Merlin kept his head down. He couldn't bring himself to look Arthur in the eyes. It would be so easy... so easy to tell him a different story. An encounter in the woods with a mysterious beast—one that was now so difficult to recollect; perhaps it had been toying with his memories? Yes, can't even remember what it looked like...
"You really are starting to make a habit of this," Arthur said. Merlin knew there was a frown on his face, but there was a smile in his words. That was a good sign, wasn't it?
Or maybe, something had happened in Ealdor. He'd already lied about the magic he'd used to heal Gwaine. Someone else had already taken the blame. That someone else was now dead. There were no loose ends. Yes, Liaddus had enchanted him to get to Arthur. It would work. It was so easy.
"I'm beginning to think you're just doing this to get out of work." Merlin could hear a tension in the prince's voice now. He was uncomfortable with these sorts of intimate situations. Situations where he had to make it evident that Merlin was someone he cared about. Would that really change if he knew the truth?
Ignorance. Complete ignorance. It would be easy to feign. So easy. He had no idea what the brands were. These terrifying symbols—where had they come from? Oh no, they were making him sick! If only someone could help. Maybe the druids? Maybe...
Arthur waited. Hedwynn excused himself. Merlin bit his lip and took in a quavering breath.
Terrified blue eyes lifted to see the prince standing there, looking concerned and scared but always brave. The prince of Camelot. The Once and Future King. Arthur. His friend.
Merlin's face drained of what little colour was left and the lies flooded out of his head.
Once he opened his mouth he knew there was no turning back.
Merlin told the prince everything.
Arthur's face had been passive at first. The honesty in Merlin's words and the terror in his eyes had kept him from smiling at what had to have been one of his servant's worst jokes to date. Merlin, a sorcerer? No—a warlock. He'd never even heard of such a thing. A man born with magic? That was absurd. And the punchline was even worse. The most powerful sorcerer to ever live, tasked with fulfilling some mystical destiny. Arthur's destiny. The man was clearly delirious. Where was Hedwynn?
Arthur's face had turned sour when Merlin began to detail specific accounts of times he'd used his magic to save the prince. Too specific for a man in a state of feverish hallucination. Too afraid. Too desperate. Merlin's voice quavered with more than just exhaustion. These were the words of a man baring all. Baring a terrible and damning secret. These were the words of a man facing his demons after too long a lifetime spent running in fear.
Arthur's face wrinkled with a mix of concentration and indignation when Merlin's story turned to the existence of actual demons. This was following the truth behind Gwaine's miraculous recovery. An evil entity disguised as an old fortune-teller, a distraught and guilt-ridden warlock. An easy fix. Arthur's mind had been racing at that point; filling in the gaps as quickly as Merlin's tale spilled from his lips. Secrets, lies, dragon lords, close-calls, and death, death, death—sudden realizations of the stomach-turning truths surrounding all of it.
Arthur's face was unreadable when Merlin finished. The servant's face was streaked with tears. His body shook with the sheer effort that the confession had taken. The dark-haired young man stared at his master with an urgent energy, waiting for the axe to fall. Waiting for what was sure to be anger, hate, shouting, cursing—a raging discourse that would lead to his inevitable dismissal as servant, citizen, counsellor... friend. Merlin's adam's apple bobbed and his wasted muscles tensed.
Do it. Do it, Arthur. I can't take another second of this.
Arthur stood, silent and stern. Merlin stilled his shaking, frozen in place.
And he watched the prince leave the physician's chambers without a word.
Arthur remained silent on his trek back through the palace corridors. If the shadows and figures and collaged, frivolous faces had waved cheerful regards in his direction, they'd gone unnoticed. The prince felt as though he were in a dream. He wished it were a dream. Magic. Magic. Merlin. Never had the two felt even remotely connected in his perceptions of the world. He felt betrayed. Not just by Merlin, but also by the world itself. This wasn't how it was supposed to work. This wasn't the reality he'd chosen to accept. He felt a rebellious urge to deny this new world and reaffirm the old one. How dare the fates pull on him such a cruel trick. He was the crowned prince of Camelot! He made the rules! Merlin was a dundering idiot. I command you to go back to being nothing more historically important than the world's most useless manservant, Merlin!
Arthur crumpled into his chair, only somewhat alarmed to be back in his chambers. He wasn't prone to losing himself utterly to his thoughts. That was Merlin's job. And it was remedied most effectively by a goblet to the back of the head.
Goblet-to-the-back-of-the-head in human form suddenly appeared in front of him, causing Arthur to jump.
"Gwaine!" The prince blurted, but composed himself a second later, rubbing his temples and breathing an enormous sigh. "Does no one in this castle knock?"
"The door was open," Gwaine nodded to the hinged menace. "And something was clearly amiss, princess. You passed Gwen in the hall without a second of puppy-dog-eyes or that weird ducky thing you do with your lips—"
"You looked like you'd seen a ghost, mate."
Arthur frowned. He did not want to deal with any of this right now, much less in the presence of his sometimes drunken, always smart-alecky knight.
A second voice came from his other side. "What happened, Arthur?"
"God!" The startled prince finally saw Gwen standing there and got to his feet. "Look, I appreciate your concern. Truly. But I'd prefer to be alone, if you both don't mind."
"And if we do?" Gwaine raised a brow.
Gwen was a little more tactful. She approached Arthur and put her arm around his, feeling the abundant tension and wanting only to ease it. "We just want to help, Arthur. Please. Is it Merlin? Is he all right?"
At the mention of his servant's name, Arthur's expression shifted to one of intense defeat. Gwen brought a hand to her mouth, fearing the worst.
"Oh my god. He's not—!"
Arthur quickly shook his head, taking her hand and rubbing his thumb along the slim fingers. "No, he's all right. For now. I've just come from the physician's chambers. He's... I just... It's all so..." The prince pulled free of Gwen's hold and staggered back to his chair, a suspicious mist in his eyes. "It's complicated."
"Tell us, mate."
He might not have. He might have locked himself away and brooded over the whole ordeal. He might have liked to stew in his anger and confusion and guilt and distrust because, damn it, he was the victim here. Wasn't he? He was the one who had been blissfully living in ignorance. He was the one who had been tricked into trusting. Merlin had betrayed him! Oh for god's sake, it was spilling from his mouth before he could grab hold. Merlin had—Merlin has—
"Merlin has magic."
He recounted Merlin's tale almost word-for-word with the stories still so fresh in his mind. It wasn't until he was finished and saw the same mixed expressions that the words hit him again. The same mix of butterflies and daggers swirled in his stomach.
"Our Merlin?" Gwaine shook his head. He looked more impressed than angry and Arthur found it maddening.
The prince rounded on him. "Is a traitor. A liar! He's been practicing magic all these years behind our backs. Behind my back. In my father's palace!"
Both Gwen and Gwaine returned the accusation with looks of concern. This angered the prince even further. How could they not see? This was the ultimate act of treason! And he'd called Merlin a friend, no less...
"I called him a friend!"
Gwaine's brows furrowed. "He used his magic to protect you all these years, even under the threat of Uther burning him at the stake, because he's your friend, mate."
Arthur shook his head. Stop. Stop it. He had a right to be angry. Stop it with your damn sense and reason.
"You said he was born with magic?" Gwen asked.
A non-committal nod.
"And he's used it for good—"
"Magic is not good!"
"He had his magic painfully removed because he feared it ever becoming evil, Arthur. He was so terrified of hurting you or anyone else that he did that to himself. Merlin is anything but evil. He's watched out for you at every turn!" Gwen took Arthur's chin and looked him in the eyes. The eyes were red. There was a battle raging behind them. For a moment, the knight inside faltered.
Arthur choked back a sob. "He's dying."
Gwen's lips curled downward as she too fought back tears at seeing her stoic prince so emotionally conflicted. She pulled him into a hug.
"And you'll save him."
Arthur pulled away, face back to its state of calm indifference. Save him? By law he was now supposed to kill him. If Uther found out, Arthur was sure within minutes his father would shirk his catatonia, find the nearest torch, and summon an angry mob where he stood. "I need to think this over," he said, voice now devoid of affectivity. "I thank you both for lending me your ears."
He stood, which was a courteous means of telling his friends to leave. Gwen and Gwaine took the hint and rose to exit the prince's chambers. At the door, Gwen grasped the wall and glanced back.
"I know you'll make the right decision."
It was both a loving encouragement and a explicit warning and it agitated his butterflies all the more.
Laughter. Laughter. Crazed, sadistic, malicious—Ha-ha! Ha ha ha ha!—No, no, no, no, what is it? Who's there? Won't it cease? Will it never stop!?
Morgana laughed back, her voice cracked and shrill and tinged with madness. The room was dark, or maybe bright, but she could never tell now. The darkness penetrated everything. Her mind was shadows. The world was shrouded. And the laughter. Oh how they laughed! Hysterical and jovial and sad. Only in hell could lost souls travel rivers of torment and emerge again on shores of fire laughing. Laughing in eternal anguish.
Morgana's overgrown fingernails had raked bloody trenches in her temples, flowing their own little rivers of torment. Soon. Revenge would come soon. Emrys would die and Camelot would be hers and the end—it would be the end she wanted. The end. Soon. Soon it would end.
"Yes, Morgana Pendragon."
The mad witch glanced up at what might have been the ceiling. "Demon! Slave! Is it time? Please, tell me it's time! I've waited long enough!"
"It is time. Ride to Camelot. Emrys waits, powerless and abandoned."
"Ha! Yes! Ha-ha-ha ha haa!" Morgana shrieked as her vision cleared and she made for the door.
"It will all be yours, Morgana."
"Mine," she grinned, eyes wild. She found a black horse in a clearing and spent not a second questioning how it came to be there. "Camelot!" she demanded of the sleek creature. "Ride for Camelot!"
The laughter followed her through the trees and swirled high on the cold night air.
"And all the power of hell shall follow at your back."