Summary: Though he was chosen as sorcerer for Camelot's court when Arthur became king, Merlin can't trust in his abilities. Shifting into animals has never been accomplished before, but Merlin sets out to prove his worth to the kingdom, knowing that no kingdom, however great, can last with a gap between the two most powerful people in the land.
Notes: Mention of (mild) torture, very, very brief mention/suggestion of rape, death of minor character (opposing king). The title comes from folklore that suggests sparrows herald death and to catch one is to defeat death itself.
To Catch a Sparrow
Merlin never felt that he'd quite earned the title of Camelot's court warlock. He knew he was powerful, yes, and that he was a good choice for the fact that he was friends with the king, but there were a lot of things that Merlin knew other people weren't aware of, and surely that was the reason you elected someone?
When it came down to a choice, Arthur had called for the strongest sorcerers willing to serve him to come forward. The position was to fall back on tradition, with whoever gained the title being a most trusted member of court and acting as the king's right hand man, even above almost all of the knights.
Of course, Arthur's system worked a little differently in that the Round Table came into play. This meant than the sorcerer would join them at the ever-expanding table as a trusted person.
Because of that, Merlin never really considered asking Arthur for the position. Arthur knew of his magic now, yes, but Merlin didn't really consider asking for such a position, happy to work for Arthur as a manservant-come-advisor when need be. It would be nice, yes, to be able to explore his magic, but it had genuinely never crossed Merlin's mind to change jobs.
From all over the kingdom, men and women had arrived, some hopeful to gain position at court and others simply there for the spectacle. Arthur held the welcoming ceremony outside in the tourney field, shaking hands with everyone who had come forward.
It wasn't until the afternoon that Merlin had been able to see the other sorcerers, having been held up copying some parchments for Arthur, and had been surprised by the sheer number of magic users. Magic was still somewhat new and the people were still a little skittish nowadays and it warmed Merlin's heart to see so many.
It was Merlin who was asked to give the competitors their second task, but it was then that the competition ended. Not a single one of the sorcerers took the scroll Merlin offered, a list of objects to find. They shook their heads and smiled at Merlin, shaking his hand and clasping his shoulder.
That evening, Arthur had been furious, calling each of the sorcerers to the hall to hear what they had to say for their actions. Every single one had replied that they stood no chance against Emrys and that Arthur was a fool if he thought anyone else would be better in position, a statement both Merlin and Arthur had blinked stupidly at, looking at each other in surprise.
So it wasn't a story of glory or excitement, or even on his own merit, but it was how Merlin became Camelot's warlock. He worked hard, speaking to druids over the kingdom to learn spells that would boost harvests, smoothing negotiations with hostile groups and helping Arthur secure victories as Camelot spread her hands, welcoming more and more people under the banner of peace that Arthur brought.
There was still a sense that Merlin didn't deserve his position though, even after five years of holding it. He was untrained in many aspects (though there were fewer and fewer people nowadays who had something to teach Merlin, considering the amount of time he'd taken to learn from others) and sometimes wondered if he really was so powerful. Arthur had simply taken others' words for it and believed them, but was it true?
Before the times of powerful sorcerers such as Sigan, Merlin discovered that witches and warlocks would often try to turn themselves into animals. It was why many kept a familiar, to help them change shape and form, to become that animal too. In all the books that Merlin searched through, no magic user had ever been successful in changing their shape.
And so Merlin knew how he could test himself. If he could change into an animal – any animal it didn't matter – then he knew he was deserving of Camelot. If not… then he'd need to seek the druids, get them to test him and prove that he wasn't just an empty name.
His extensive research drew Merlin away from Arthur more and more and the easy relationship they'd held for years began to fray. Still, Merlin needed the proof, needed to be able to do this so Arthur could see he was useful and powerful, that he deserved to be there.
They drifted apart, but Merlin began learning and cultivating his knowledge. He kept it secret, not telling a single soul even as he drew closer to testing out what he'd learnt.
He was to start out small, with a little animal that was simple and easy, or at least in Merlin's eyes. He'd chosen a mouse and kept the image of one in his mind, trying to think about what life as a mouse would be like.
It took three weeks before Merlin benefited from his experiment. The first few attempts drew nothing but sweat and aching bones, but as he drew closer to the three week mark, Merlin could feel parts of him shift. One day he'd even gone around with slight whiskers – on the one trip he'd made when he needed food that is.
Yet on the third week, Merlin felt pain like no other and clenched his jaw, arms jerking as he changed form. When it was over, he ached like nothing he'd ever felt before, but he'd done it. This elation coursed through him, blocking out any pain as he tested out his new body.
He was small, tiny even, but could see everything in the room and hear even more. He could hear sounds a human would never be able to and sniffed the air, scuttling over to the side of the room and resting against the wall.
Merlin couldn't keep the form for long and after he changed back to a human he lay on the floor, exhausted, but it was a start.
In the following months, Merlin mastered a mouse form and moved onto others, becoming more adventurous as time moved on. He didn't tell anyone, but that was because he wasn't done yet. There were so many more animals Merlin wanted to try before he told Arthur and he was only just getting started.
It was midsummer that Arthur was called to the coast. A lord on the edge of Camelot's territories wanted to play host to the king and had graciously invited him to Land's End. Arthur had accepted and selected a large group to accompany him.
Merlin rode beside Arthur as they led the procession of knights and noblemen. Ten noblewomen were also joining their party, pulled along in carriages and as a mark of respect to the lord hosting them. The women had been free to join and Merlin knew it was likely one of them could become the new lady of the coast.
A marriage to a noblewoman born in Camelot would have great advantage for the lord himself as well as the lady. The man was very wealthy – he'd have to be to want the king to stay for a week and explicitly stated for him not to bring any food – and the coast was renowned for their strongholds and amount of wealth. The women on the trip knew that and had come for that exact reason.
"We're lucky it's summer," Arthur said as they began their last day's journey. Everyone was tired, but they'd been assured that they'd reach the lord's house in good time today and so spirits were high.
"And why's that?" Merlin muttered, shifting in his saddle. He was restless, wanting to try out the animal forms he could change into. He wanted to join the seabirds in the air, cruising on the sea winds.
"It's warm. We'll even be able to swim, the sea won't be too cold." Arthur sounded pleased and turned in his saddle, smiling lop-sided at Merlin.
"I've never seen it properly," admitted Merlin, nudging his horse until he was beside Arthur fully, able to talk in private. "I mean aside from the time with Anhora and the unicorn."
Arthur made a noise of agreement and clapped Merlin's thigh, the only part of him he could reach, with the flat of his palm.
"You'll love this. Land's End is beautiful, jutting out into the sea… you'll love it." Arthur moved his hand off of Merlin's leg, smiling again and Merlin looked down at his hands, nodding.
"I'm sure I will," he muttered, trying to focus on the journey and not the way Arthur's hand had slid across his covered skin.
The lord was out in full pomp, with music drifting over them from a troupe of minstrels and dancers. Food was waiting and they were all sent off with a handful of sweet fruit and thin slices of meat before they were allowed to freshen up, the lord insisting they must be famished from their journey.
Likewise, the horses and pack donkeys they had brought were taken to a large stable and brushed down, watered and fed. Merlin shouldn't have expected anything less, but it was still odd to see this amount of attention. When Arthur had been a prince, things were organised, yes, and he was doted on, yes, but there had never quite been this amount of bowing down and boot-licking.
Tradition in Camelot was clearly known here and Merlin's rooms were adjacent to Arthur's. Typically speaking, the court sorcerer was the most trusted member of court. Before Uther and the purge, Nimueh had been the most trusted member of Camelot's court, only overshadowed by Ygraine. But the queen had been an oddity, choosing to immerse herself in politics, so her situation had been uncommon.
What this meant, though, was Merlin needed to be there at all times. Arthur could traditionally consult him on everything (and he did now, but it was less because he needed to hear Merlin's view and more to irritate him) and with Merlin next door, it could be done in private, away from prying eyes.
A gaggle of servants hauled their luggage up the stairs, even though Merlin had offered to carry it himself. His magic could have made quick work of the bags, but the servants had insisted, wanting to prove their worth to the king and Merlin didn't have the heart to stop them.
Inside of his room was spacious, brightly coloured and with a wide window. From the window, Merlin had an amazing view down the cliffs the castle stood on, down the shore to the sea. It was extraordinary the way the sea stretched beyond Merlin's sight. It was vast and wide, greater and wilder than anything Merlin had seen before and he took a deep breath of air in as he opened the window.
High up above a gull called and Merlin knew he needed to join it. He'd never attempted anything larger than a robin before now and he grunted with pain as his body changed, holding in a louder shout in fear that Arthur would rush in, thinking he was under attack. It was hard, but Merlin managed to keep the screams down as feathers sprouted through his skin and his face elongated, pulling and stretching until he saw the glistening world of the ocean in greater clarity and stood with a heavy weight around him.
Balancing precariously on the window ledge, Merlin spread his wings and launched into the air, pushing up shakily until he caught an air current. Gulls called out to him playfully and he joined them, coasting through the breeze and dipping down to the waves.
Instinct broke Merlin to fly into a v-shape, low above the water. Other gulls plunged down, grabbing squirming fish from the sea and Merlin took a dive, wetting his beak and snapping wildly at the fish. He caught one, but it struggled down his throat, sticking until there was nothing else it could do, falling into his stomach. Though slightly unpleasant, Merlin cawed with the rest of the birds, satisfied with his catch.
Then something caught Merlin's eye. He let his wings swoop him upwards, breaking from the squawking mass of birds fighting for food. A shape broke the surface of the ocean again, water sprouting upwards in a huge stream.
The creature remained at the surface, but began to dive back down. There was only one thing Merlin could do now; he needed to follow.
Knowing that if he changed to a fish now he'd only be caught, Merlin tucked his wings to his side, letting his body fall head-first into the ocean. The impact hurt, but the pain was nothing compared to the magic shift he put himself through a second later, bird shifting into fish, folding and compacting as Merlin screamed. Of course only a jet of bubbles streamed from his mouth and by the time any predator would see them, Merlin was away, swimming towards the huge monstrosity he had seen peeking through the waves.
He was grateful the sea was calm and clear for if it had been any darker, Merlin would never have seen the whale. He'd seen them n story books and in the volumes he'd studied, but Merlin had never fully comprehended the sheer size of a whale.
Its eye was easily bigger than the fish form he'd chosen. For its bulk, the whale moved gracefully through the seas and Merlin suddenly found himself wanting to know what it was like.
Pushing away from the whale, Merlin concentrated his magic again. It hurt, like it always did when he wasn't used to the form he was taking, but it was a good hurt, a productive hurt. Merlin could feel his fish form growing, and suddenly he needed air. Whales were different to fish and Merlin used a huge flipped to push upwards, sucking in air as he hit the surface.
Life was slow as a whale. He moved through the waters with very little effort, opening his mouth just a little to let water and food in. He felt weighed down by the water, but it didn't cause him trouble. In fact, Merlin realised, the water was helping him, sloshing around inside and around him. He was part of the very ocean itself and it was wonderful.
A deep rumble sounded and Merlin perked up a little. Instinct kicked in and he called back, eager to meet another whale. The other whale came up to his side, faster than Merlin would have thought, and rolled to its side, giving out another rumbled call.
When it was clear that Merlin was a bit of a strange whale, the other one soon lost interest and began its voyage out to the open seas. Merlin knew that he shouldn't follow, not when his absence would be missed soon, but he couldn't help but let curiosity win. When else would he get the chance to explore the ocean? There were so many amazing animals here that Merlin might need to know about them one day. It was research, he told himself, justifying the swim.
With eyes closed, Merlin let the ocean guide him, leading him on and on until he could hear nothing but the calm ocean. He barely noticed the sun dropping in the sky, instead focused on swimming across the waters, inspecting what he could and covering what must be furlongs of distance.
The water of the seas cooled a little and a prickle developed under Merlin's skin. Something was wrong and he knew exactly what that something was. He'd stayed out here too long and someone was looking for him.
With a hint of regret, Merlin turned smoothly through the waves, heading towards the shore. He heard other whales noticing his direction and calling out in warning, letting him know the dangers of being beached on the shore. Merlin couldn't reply, not knowing the right whale-song for one thing, because he knew they'd never understand that he wasn't a whale at all.
As he drew closer to the shore, Merlin could hear who had come to search for him. He could hear Arthur's voice calling to him, stomping through the sandy beach, almost frantic with worry. Perhaps it had been a little too much to simply slip away without a single word and knowing no one had seen you, but Merlin hadn't thought it all the way through. He'd needed to come out here, it was a primal instinct.
The need for air became pressing, but if Merlin surfaced as a whale before he changed, Arthur would notice and link it together. He couldn't let Arthur know just yet – he hadn't perfected any useful forms to make his case. If Arthur could see the pain it put Merlin in, he'd forbid the practice, something Merlin didn't think he could bear.
He began the change, lungs starved of air. It hurt more than usual, but Merlin broke the top of the sea with a mighty gasp, arms splashing up water as he broke surface.
"Merlin?" came an incredulous voice, floating on the white horses of the waves. "What the hell are you doing?"
Merlin kicked towards the short, the waves eager to help him return to Arthur. He clambered out of the sea, wishing for the cloak he'd packed in one of his bags to manifest before him. He wrapped himself in its warmth, stepping onto the beach and letting sand coat his feet as Arthur stared at him across the shore.
"I went for a swim," Merlin replied simply, teeth chattering. "I wanted to freshen up a bit after our ride."
Arthur raised his eyebrows.
"The whole household has been looking for you for hours. Castle gossip has already insinuated you've been murdered or kidnapped by twenty different people, myself included, and instead you're out here frolicking in the sea?" Merlin didn't look at Arthur, recognising the angry tone in his voice.
"Well it sounds bad when you put it like that," he mumbled after a moment, startling a little as Arthur sat down heavily beside him.
"I was worried," admitted Arthur a moment later. "I mean I know you can defend yourself, but you're also Merlin and goodness knows what might happen when you wander around alone."
Merlin shoved him with an elbow, drawing a laugh from Arthur.
"Sorry," he apologised lightly, not meaning it at all. "But I really was worried," he added quietly, looking sideways at Merlin.
They never spent that much time together anymore. At least, not in the way that Merlin would have hoped. Their lives revolved around Camelot – and quite rightly so. Merlin was a warlock of the Court and Arthur the king, but still Merlin couldn't help but wish sometimes, just sometimes, he and Arthur could go off for a night, eat half-burnt rabbit and laugh like they used to.
"Merlin, I-" Arthur began, but that was all he struggled out before he gripped Merlin's shoulders, kissing him on the side of his mouth.
Tilting his head for a better kiss, Merlin's heart began to race. They hadn't done this in a long time, and this time Merlin could tell it was more than casual sex.
Arthur kissed him with meaning, and Merlin drank it in, wanting it and needing it. He didn't care for anything but Arthur then, clinging to him and feeling his heat, relishing in pleasure. It was sandy, the ground uncomfortable, but nothing else mattered. Merlin didn't care if hundreds of crabs suddenly rose to grab him, he had Arthur in his arms and that was all that mattered right now.
Merlin sucked in a breath, unbuckling his belt as Arthur moved to his own, shaking hands catching on the metal. Merlin let Arthur push them down into the sand, rubbing their cocks together with such beautiful friction that Merlin couldn't help but arch up, push back into Arthur and move.
They didn't last long, but Arthur was in no rush to get them back to the house. They stayed outside for a while, reacquainting themselves for the first time in month, pledging to bridge the gap between them in kisses an intimate touches.
They made their way back to the castle where Merlin offered his apologies to the household, head bowed and explaining he'd wanted to go for a swim and simply lost track of time.
He and Arthur had thought everyone accepted the lie for what it was until a few days later when Merlin caught some chambermaid's laughing, commenting on the way Merlin had come back with sand in his hair – the king too, someone had added – and how the warlock's bed was mysteriously neat and tidy every morning, almost as if he'd slept elsewhere.
The party returned to Camelot in high spirits. The trip had been a wonderful summer and though Merlin would have to let Arthur slink back into his throne and away, he knew he hadn't lost him. Merlin had nothing to fear; he'd gotten Arthur's confession and though they might not spend every moment together (and Merlin suspected they'd hardly spend any time together once they reached Court again), it didn't matter. What needed to be said had been and Merlin was more than content with it.
Besides, he still needed to perfect his transformations and to find a proper use for them. Curiosity wouldn't win over the council and Merlin couldn't let them ban the spells. He'd find a way, but he needed just a little more time.
It wasn't often now that Merlin called Kilgharrah down from the heavens, but this was different. Kilgharrah was the only one who knew the answers to Merlin's questions and the only one who would be able to help him now.
As usual, the dragon bowed his head as he landed, waiting for Merlin to speak with a gleam in his eye. Merlin had first noticed the gleam after Arthur had been crowned king and he had earnt his title as Camelot's warlock, but it was still hard to digest it. In Kilgharrah's eye glimmered something akin to pride and love and though they were kin, such emotions were more than Merlin could bear. To have such an ancient creature not only bow down to you because of your blood, but respect and even love you was too much. For now, it was far too much.
"Can I ever become like you?" he asked without preamble.
For a moment, Kilgharrah frowned and looked taken aback, before he caught Merlin's meaning.
"You were given the power over dragons," he began, eyes widening. "A dragon is a creature of myth and enchantment, a creature of magic. You are also such a creature, but you will never be able to change into a dragon."
Merlin nodded. He'd suspected as much, but everything he'd been working for had been to turn into a dragon, yet now he'd been told it was impossible.
"Why?" he asked, unafraid to seek wisdom from the dragon now.
Kilgharrah sighed, the sound rumbling through his body and through to the very earth itself.
"The magic that shapes me does so in the form of a dragon. Likewise the magic that shapes, say, a unicorn does so in the form of a unicorn." Kilgharrah blinked slowly, waiting for Merlin's understanding nod.
"And the magic that shapes me-" he began, but was cut off once more by the dragon.
"Yes," he said. "The magic does so in the form of you. If you try to reshape that magic into the form of another creature that magic shaped, it would bring pain and terror." The dragon frowned again, narrowing his eyes.
"Merlin," he said sharply. "You must promise me never to try such a transformation. If the change itself did not kill you then trying to sustain the form would burn even your magic to dust."
Of course Merlin understood what was being said. Kilgharrah was warning him and he'd be a fool not to take that warning seriously. Still, he could never promise that he wouldn't try. One day Merlin knew he would try – and most likely fail. Even if he failed then he knew beyond doubt that he couldn't do it, but he needed the freedom to try.
"I can't," Merlin admitted and Kilgharrah sighed once more, a sad sound escaping him.
"Very well," he said, knowing that Merlin wouldn't be shifted from his decision. "But remember this; magic works in strange ways. Trying to force its path will do you nothing but grievous harm. Sometimes magic will rise to help you."
With that, he surged upwards and away, long grass rustling in his wake as Merlin began his walk back to Camelot, mind reeling with what he could do next.
In all honesty, Merlin didn't think about shifting to a dragon for a long time after that. There were other things he had to do, such as make sure Arthur kept to all of his appointments, not just the ones he was interested in. Of course, hearing council about pigs wasn't everyone's interest, but Arthur needed to be there whether he liked it or not.
Between making sure Arthur was where he should be and his own court duties, Merlin was left with very little time for experimentation. Occasionally he'd venture down to the kennels to sleep in a pile of warm fur and wet noses, or venture out to one of the fields and keep watch over the horses as they slept, marvelling at how calm the world was, but these times were few and far between.
Besides, it was easy to shift to a hunting hound or a horse now, so easy that Merlin could do it with only a mere thought and pinch of magic. He needed something different, something that only posed a hint of a challenge.
It was nearing dusk when Merlin left the council chambers and he decided to take a walk through the lower town. The market sellers were packing up when he got there, but a few smiled and asked if they could sell him anything, a few even stopping to have a full chat. But Merlin needed to be on his way and he excused himself, heading to the edge of Camelot, through the town and to the outer gates.
"Merlin?" a voice asked, and Merlin turned with a smile to face Gwaine.
"How are you?" asked Merlin, giving his friend a hug. They'd been too busy for anything than a brief talk in a while and Merlin could spare a few minutes.
Gwaine shrugged. "Same old. No threats really, though we've had more people coming in from Mercia. Seems that Bayard's trying to start a war though he hasn't any ammunition."
It wasn't old news, but Merlin wasn't aware that it had caused people to flee Mercia itself.
"Best speak to Arthur," he muttered, rubbing his eyes with the back of his hand. "You're switching off soon?" was the next question, and Gwaine nodded, rolling his eyes.
"And not a bloody second too late." He clapped Merlin on the shoulder. "Fancy a drink?"
Though he would have loved nothing better than to say yes and turn on his heel, Merlin was restless. He hadn't been able to transform properly in a while – even into a horse or dog and shifting in his room was too hard when anyone could summon him and Arthur would just walk in – and he could feel his magic tingling with want.
"Raincheck?" he said, wincing as Gwaine smiled, the smile not quite reaching his lips. "I'll be gone all night," he added, nodding to the path that led from Camelot to the surrounding forests, ignoring the strange look Gwaine gave him.
"Do I dare ask?" the knight ventured, but Merlin simply offered him a small smile, shaking his head.
"Have a pint on me and we'll go to the tavern next time." With that, Merlin carried on, letting the darkness wrap itself around him as he headed for the closest forest.
The trees loomed in the darkness, hidden shapes jutting out and leaves rustling in the breeze. Merlin took a deep breath, stepping through the lines of trees until he was surrounded by the night, surrounded by the forest and bathed in moonlight.
The decision was easy. An animal jumped into his mind and Merlin reached for his magic, letting it coat his skin as he forced his body to change.
As he began to shift, Merlin's body shuddered and he screamed out, bones popping and skin stretching. Fire and ice burnt along his body, shivers wracking through him and sweat dripping off of his skin. He stretched and changed, skull becoming wider and eyes shifting to the side, hands and feet shrinking as his spine elongated, forcing his body to curl over.
Merlin's scream echoed around the forest before changing, becoming deeper as two tines split from his head, pushing up and thickening. He bellowed out into the still air of night, startling a few nearby animals as he thudded to the ground.
The magic suddenly stopped as hair coated Merlin's body and he opened his eyes, snorting as he shut his jaw. The world was sharper than before, eyes able to see almost in every direction. He could hear clearer and if not for the impressive weight on his head, Merlin would think that he'd changed into a horse again.
He walked forward, testing out his new legs and cloven hooves, pausing only when he became caught on a tree. His antlers – a stag, he'd managed the stag! – were relatively easy to set free and he continued his walk through the forest, pausing to graze every now and again.
There was an odd sound off to his side and Merlin tensed, feeling powerful muscles tense at his flank. The bushes parted and a doe, long-eared and wide-eyed, stepped out, fawn at her side. She paused, staring at him, but Merlin didn't dare move. The fawn took a step away from its mother before she let out a warning bark.
In their odd stalemate, Merlin could do nothing. Even though he was able to shift into an animal, the natural behaviour of that animal only taught him basic instinct – such as fight or flight, what was poisonous and how to move – but it didn't teach him full etiquette. He had no idea what to do if the doe decided he was a threat (and would a doe even attack a young stag? Merlin didn't know).
With a shake of her head, the doe bend down to butt her head against her fawn, stepping towards Merlin and ignoring him completely. The fawn trotted alongside, gazing up at Merlin as it trotted past, curious but not enough to leave its mother.
The night proved to be uneventful and Merlin lay down, curling up in a thicket and sleeping. He woke, still as a deer, just after dawn, joining the morning chorus with a hearty bellow. Now that the forest was alive, the sounds were even more amazing and Merlin felt his spirit lift in ways it hadn't for weeks, not since the news on Mercia had drifted into Camelot.
Passing through a hilly area, Merlin came across a stream. He paused to drink, enjoying the cool, earthy water and flicking his ears around, taking in the sounds of a forest at dawn.
Later, Merlin would connect the dots, but he paid no real notice to a rustle in the bushes. He did jerk his head up as a twig snapped underfoot, but by then it was too late and a crossbow bolt was planted in Merlin's side.
Bellowing in pain, Merlin felt the animal instincts overtake him and he ran, sprinting through the forest, hardly caring where he was going. He needed to get away from the hunters as soon as possible and then he'd be able to calm down enough to shift again and deal with the bolt in his side. It hurt, but thankfully it didn't seem too deep or too harmful. Whoever the marksman had been, he had a piss poor shot, something Merlin was grateful for for once.
One thing Merlin hadn't bet on, though, was the dogs. The hunters had brought dogs on the hunt and set them loose. They were crashing through the forest, trailing Merlin as he breezed through the trees, kicking up mulch as he sped onwards. In the peace of the forest he'd forgotten that the deer here were prized hunting tokens and that he, being a stag, was an ultimate prize for his antlers.
The wind shifted and Merlin knew what he had to do. He needed to head for Camelot, get out of the forest and into the open. He didn't care any longer about letting the hunters see his magic, but the dogs at his heels were getting snappier, teeth grazing his heels as he ran on.
Another bolt fired off, a loose, cheap shot, but it brushed Merlin's flank. It spooked him more than anything, but did leave a trail of glistening blood in its wake. He was evermore determined now and Merlin surged forward, bounding over logs and bushes, running faster than he ever had before in his life.
Merlin could feel Camelot now, the people and his home, and he ran on, breaking cover of the forest and skittering across the cobblestone path. He galloped along it, panting from the exertion as the crossbow bolt shifted, digging further into his skin, and almost slowed when he reached the guarded entrance.
There was no reprieve though, for the knights at the gate scattered, one man drawing his sword and frowning and the others presumably fetching crossbows. Panic surged up, but Merlin's own instinct was too strong this time. He needed to be home, so he simply pushed past the knight, barrelling him over and almost falling on the cobblestones.
As he righted himself, Merlin felt another bolt sink into the muscle of his hind leg. He bellowed once more, the sound echoing through the lower town, but he carried on, trying to put distance enough between him and the knights so he could shift.
The lower town parted like a sea before Merlin as he charged on. He was bleeding freely now and his deer instincts were outraged that Merlin was inside of Camelot. He thundered on though, only falling to his knees and scraping the caps as he entered the courtyard, exhausted and wounded.
On his side, Merlin threw his head back and reached for his magic, wheezing as he struggled against the pain. Relief flooded him as he felt the push-and-stretch of his magic, a searing pain that tore through him like a knife. It was the pain that marked his transformation and, for once, Merlin was grateful for it.
He rolled onto his back, kicking his legs up in the air and screaming as he shifted, shrinking on himself and shedding his hair. His hands scrabbled at his face, nails digging into skin, as his skull rearranged itself, compacting and sucking in the antler protrusions.
There were people watching him, Merlin knew, but he couldn't care less about them. He was back in his human form, but the pain hadn't faded yet and two bolts were still lodged in his thigh and by his hip.
"No," Merlin whispered, shaking his head with wide, shocked eyes. His magic was drained from his own exhaustion and the pain overtook him completely, even as he pressed a hand to the wounds, trying to stop the blood flow.
And then everything became spotted and grey, the world shrinking until there was nothing left but darkness and pain.
When he woke, Merlin realised that he'd been moved inside. The pain was tolerable now, a dull thrum that he recognised as Gaius' apprentice's handiwork. Gaius was fully retired now – and even he was surprised at the ripe old age he'd lived to – and his apprentice took lessons each week, soaking in the endless wisdom Gaius seemed to have.
In fact, it was probably only Merlin who still called him an apprentice, but the man was a good hand at medicine and was reserved in adding magic to his potions, as a physician should be. Merlin had explained on more than one occasion the dangers of constantly using magic to heal and how the body could become too dependent on it.
With his eyes open, Merlin looked around the room, expecting to be on the physician's treatment bed. So it was to Merlin's surprise that he opened his eyes to see a room more familiar then his own, swathed in red fabrics and light streaming through the large windows. It was Arthur's room and, unless he was very much mistaken, he was in Arthur's bed.
Merlin tried to push himself up, but a voice halted his progress.
"You shouldn't be awake." The disapproving tone came from the side and Merlin looked over slowly, taking in a table-full of food and Arthur's slouched form. He sat in his chair adorned in furs and cushions, looking oddly small, simply staring at Merlin.
"Timothy said he'd sedated you with enough potion to keep down a couple of hunting dogs for the night," Arthur commented lightly.
Well that would explain the light-headed feeling, Merlin supposed, but he wasn't completely human. When he'd shifted, his physical shape had changed, but some of the stag's basic mentality still remained. The sleeping draught would have had to contend with an odd mix of human and stag which explained why it had run dry.
Not for the last time Merlin was relieved Timothy absolutely refused to use magic of any means on him. Adding a foreign magic into the mix of human and deer would be disastrous. Merlin didn't need to experiment to know that one.
"Eye witnesses claimed they saw you change from a stag, screaming down the courtyard with two crossbow bolts in your side." Arthur's voice was quiet and Merlin could practically feel the fury hidden behind the words. "Gwaine approached me shortly after you were placed under the physician's care. He said that you left the city late last night and no one saw you return."
Though he didn't pose the question, Merlin knew what Arthur wanted.
"I'm fine," Merlin assured, dodging the look in Arthur's eyes. "It was an experiment."
Apparently that was too far to go, for Arthur stood up, slamming his hands on the table.
"An experiment?" he hissed, leaning forward. "You could have died Merlin. Those hunters were out for blood and the only reason you're alive is because they were green and had a poor aim. Any seasoned hunter would have been able to cut you down in one strike and then what? What would your experiment have achieved then?"
Arthur gritted his jaw, stemming his words and looking down.
"Why? Why would you need to be a deer?" he asked softly, picking at a bundle of grapes on a platter. He looked so lost and unsure of himself that Merlin looked away, wondering how they'd created this wide space between them.
In truth it had started before Arthur was king, when Uther's health was declining and Arthur had more responsibilities. Merlin had had his own duties and then he'd told Arthur of his magic. Perhaps they'd never fully recovered from the lies Merlin had been telling, perhaps they'd rushed into filling boots far too big and perhaps they simply turned to each other now because it was comfortable, familiar and easy.
At the moment, Arthur blamed himself for not being able to see what Merlin had been up to. At this moment, Merlin blamed himself for not being there for Arthur, under all of his stress and all of his titles. They had slipped from being friends and sometimes-lovers to two people who used each other. It wasn't a nice place to be and Merlin had to change that, starting with the truth.
"It's not just a stag," Merlin said softly, pushing the covers back a little. Though he was still recovering, he wasn't the most powerful warlock ever known for nothing. Merlin could push himself to extortionate lengths and turning into an easy animal such as a mouse would be simple, even with his injuries.
As he changed, the world swam in and out of focus, changing perspective and size. Merlin could feel his nose twitch, whiskers sensing around for danger, and he forced his tiny, frightened body to stay still as Arthur practically launched himself across the room, falling to his knees at the edge of the bed.
Up close, Merlin's mouse-eyes could see every part of Arthur's face in absolute detail. He could see how tired Arthur looked, the slight-wrinkles on his forehead and the corner of his eyes and even the light coating of stubble over his jawline. Even as a king faced with multiple issues and opponents, Arthur was beautiful, dishevelled state and all.
A finger poked Merlin's side and he squeaked, moving across bed linen to bump against Arthur's chest. He'd overridden any mouse instinct that was telling him to flee from Arthur and instead fixed on him, recognising him as safe.
With gentle hands, Arthur scooped Merlin-mouse up, raising him to eye level. He was smiling, inspecting every inch of Merlin with his mouth open in disbelief.
Merlin smiled to himself, gathering his magic once more and shifting. Arthur, to his credit, kept his hand still as the mouse grew, a robin now perching on the flat of Arthur's palm.
"Merlin…" Arthur began, pausing in amazement as Merlin called out, singing his song in the dark room. "This is…" again, he couldn't finish his sentence and Merlin hopped off, under the covers and returning to his human form.
"I kept it from you until I knew that I could do it." Merlin smiled. "It was a curiosity at first, I just wanted to know what it was like."
"Merlin," Arthur said simply, voice full of reverence and pride, an odd combination for Arthur to give to Merlin. "It's amazing," he admitted then and merlin looked at him in surprise.
They stayed like that for a while, Arthur at the side of the bed, his arms on the bed itself while Merlin lay propped up. It was just a slight movement of the hands to slip his fingers against Arthur's, but the effort needed to do it was monumental to Merlin. And for a moment, Arthur made no move to entwine their hands properly, causing Merlin's heart to sink.
"Tell me about it," he asked softly, gripping Merlin's hands and standing slightly, slipping into his bed beside Merlin, as if it was the natural order of things. They moved down slightly, shifting down the bed until they were lying facing each other, bathing in each other's presence, hands still connected between them.
"At first it hurts," Merlin had to say, because he was being honest. "But when the pain goes away and you're actually that animal… it's unlike anything I've ever experienced before."
Arthur was warm and welcoming, alive and so wonderful. Merlin closed his eyes for a moment and could feel the life running through Arthur's veins, feel how strong he was under his hands and knew why this man, this one man, would be the only one to unite the entire kingdom of Albion.
"One day I'll show you," he muttered sleepily, tucking his head against Arthur's side, burrowing into his neck. "I promise, one day I'll show you what it's like."
And with that, Merlin knew that they were good, that whatever boundaries came up against them that they would survive them. Even if they were separated, Merlin would never love another and he knew it was the same for Arthur.
And one day, Merlin would take Arthur into the sky, pour all of his magic and love into Arthur and show him exactly what it felt like.
Though he'd been a cat before, Merlin had finally connected the pieces and knew there was one animal he had to perfect before he could discuss his plan – and by proxy reveal what he'd been doing – with Arthur.
A merchant from far south had once brought a huge, shaggy cat to Camelot, along with his dancing bears and other animals. Merlin had felt pity for the creatures and so left the feast early, feigning stomach ache. Arthur had let him, but the point was that he at least knew what a lion looked like. He'd be able to mimic it better than any book, something that was important considering what the lion shape would be used for.
Pain concentrated around Merlin's neck as his body grew shorter and stockier. A cascade of rough hair fell from his neck and Merlin gasped in pain, grappling at the skin, trying to claw at it and (thankfully) unable to reach.
Merlin had never felt his teeth change before, even though they had, but he could feel them shifting and growing now, along with his nails. It was an off feeling, uncomfortable, and he slumped to the floor when it was finished, glad this shift was relatively easy and pain-free.
The only way Arthur would believe him would be for Merlin to shift before his eyes. Changing into the animal always hurt more than the other way around and Merlin knew the next time he'd take this form it would be just as painful as the first. He wouldn't be able to muster up the heart to keep trying after that, so it was better to simply change from a lion to human in front of the king. Merlin needed this plan approved as quickly as possible if they were to prevent the slaughter of hundreds of innocents.
As he walked, Merlin needed to get used to the massive bulk at his neck. He shook his mane out, closing his eyes for a moment, before stretching his neck and continuing his journey.
Thankfully, the halls were mostly empty. Merlin kept his eyes open, huge tongue lolling slightly from his mouth as he sucked air in. He managed to scare a servant into screaming, but he'd run onwards, fleeing the area before knights could be called. The last thing Merlin needed was to be attacked.
The door to the council room was open, where Merlin knew Arthur would be pouring over documents alone ahead of the council meeting later. For once, Merlin was glad that the doors were kept open, Arthur insisting that anyone could ask for help at any time, and was only barricaded by the guards.
Opening his maw widely, Merlin squared himself and let out a mighty roar. He could see the young knights quake a little, but they held firm, one glancing over his shoulder to the king, clearly asking what they should do.
"What on earth…?" Arthur said, looking to the commotion.
Merlin looked at him, trying to send the message that he meant no harm. It wasn't as if it was the first time a strange creature had run through the castle and demanded audience with the king – Merlin remembered when Arthur had tried to cut down part of a wood only to find that it was a magical wood and some of the inhabitants – nymphs and centaurs to be exact – were more than disgruntled.
"Let it pass," Arthur said carefully, moving a hand to Excalibur's hilt all the same.
Stepping forward carefully, Merlin strode to place himself before Arthur, letting out an odd bellow as he came to a rest. To his credit, Arthur didn't even flinch, narrowing his eyes and scanning Merlin with a trained eye, looking for weaknesses.
Gathering his magic once again, Merlin focused on the shock blooming in Arthur's eyes, trying not to call out in pain. He twisted and had to gasp out a breath, but rose from where he was crouched on the ground, looking at Arthur with a curved smile.
"Merlin?" Arthur asked incredulously, looking over Merlin's shoulder to check that he wasn't just seeing things. "But how could you…?" Arthur couldn't finish the question, instead shaking his head in disbelief.
"I thought it was just woodland creatures you'd taken a fancy to," he muttered, shaking his head and pulling a chair out, sitting down heavily. "Go on then, explain yourself."
Merlin shot a look to the guards at the door and then back at Arthur. Arthur nodded and the doors shut, Merlin pulling out a chair to sit beside Arthur.
"You said that we need a way to determine where Bayard is going to strike and what villages he'll be attacking first, right?" Arthur nodded and Merlin continued. "And we can't attack Bayard because all we have is hear-say. We need a clean attack, to get to Bayard directly rather than the coward's approach he wants of using defenceless villages as buffers."
Again Arthur nodded, adding, "Merlin I know all this. It's what the council session later is about, what all recent council sessions have been about. I don't see how a lion is going to help us." Arthur sighed, shaking his head.
"A lion, given as a gift of goodwill to Bayard by a passing merchant will give Camelot access to the castle." Merlin placed his elbow on the table, resting his cheek on his palm. "I can change into a mouse to get around the castle, gather information and then send reports back. You'd know what villages Bayard was going to go after, where he'll be concentrating his forces and where you can meet him head on and fight this battle fairly."
For a moment, Arthur seemed to consider Merlin's words before shaking his head.
"It's too dangerous," he snapped back. "You can't do it."
"Arthur," said Merlin, speaking frankly. "I can change into any animal at will. No one will be able to catch me. Animals have keener hearing and getter sight than any human, I'll know when it's safe and not." He moved off of the table, leaning forward to grasp Arthur's hands.
"Think of all the lives we can save. I am the most powerful magic user in the land, I can't just sit about spelling embroidery or tidying fires. My magic is a tool that I use and I need to do this." Merlin gritted his jaw, looking down. "Please," he added, not looking up.
"How will you report back? Bayard will surely notice if his pet vanishes." Arthur's voice was low, as if he really didn't want to be having this conversation.
"I can use a spell to send you information. I can write it down on parchment and transport it straight to you." Merlin looked up again, catching Arthur's eyes. "I can do this. You just need to trust me and we can save all those people."
Arthur hung his head, rubbing his forehead with a hand. From what he could see, Arthur looked years beyond his age, tired from the rumours of Bayard's warmongering. Merlin knew he'd been staying up late – practically all night – for days, weeks even, trying to find a solution. Now that one was here, though, Arthur was hesitating.
"Arthur please," he repeated. "We all have to take risks sometimes so let this be my risk. What have I done for Camelot so far?" Arthur opened his mouth to speak, but Merlin rushed on, effectively cutting him off. "Compared to the knights. Compared to you. Compared to all of you, I have done nothing worthy of my title."
Merlin tilted his chin slightly, looking Arthur in the eye as he raised his head.
"I was chosen as Court Sorcerer. Let me show you what I can do." Merlin nodded and he could see the decision sway in Arthur's eyes.
"When?" was the only word that passed the king's lips, and Merlin broke into a smile, nodding his head. He had a chance to show Arthur exactly what he could do, how well his magic could save people. With Merlin they could avoid a crisis and Arthur could learn to be more dependent on him and magic.
"As soon as possible," was Merlin's reply, and Arthur nodded, setting a steely gaze at the door.
"Two days," he muttered. "Two days before I'll send you out." He narrowed his eyes, scanning Merlin over. "I want this kept between us as well. Nothing can go wrong with this plan."
Though his mind wandered to the Round Table and what the others would say when they learnt that Arthur and Merlin had kept this from them, he knew why it was needed. This wasn't a war plot, it was a solo mission that held Merlin's life in a dangerous hold. If he failed, he had no army to help him out. If Merlin failed then he died. Simple as that.
"Thank you," Merlin said as he stood, leaning forwards to boldly kiss the crown of Arthur's head, knowing they'd have no more time alone together before he left. He could feel the life and energy of Arthur under his lips, quivering with indecision and worry, and left knowing that he would change that.
For too long Merlin had been a burden to Arthur and the kingdom. Now he'd show them exactly how resourceful magic could be as a weapon, far deadlier than their swords and crossbows. Bayard had threatened innocent women, men and children without remorse and that was enough to send Merlin flying with the winds. To say that he could do this for Arthur was just a lucky happenstance, one that would show his friend how much he'd grown.
In his cage, Merlin paced. His tail flicked against the bars as he waited for his guards to fall asleep, courtesy of a spell he'd mingled into their drinks.
The past week had been a rush of preparation and action. Merlin – along with a man Arthur had hired to take the lion to Mercia as an act of trade, no strings to Camelot of course – had arrived a few days before, miserable and grouchy. It turned out that Bayard didn't supervise his kingdom in the same way Arthur did and Merlin had become a town spectacle for a day, before a commander of Bayard's army finally saw the potential in the lion and took him to Bayard.
Still, despite the few bruises he'd suffered, Merlin was unharmed. He'd even managed to sneak from the cage a couple of times, using a mouse's body until he was safe inside Bayard's commanders' rooms, rooting through papers with human fingers.
His search hadn't uncovered anything of importance – yet – but Merlin had been able to send off information containing numbers. Arthur had received documents containing information on army size and how much that could swell to with conscription, grain rations, details on routes to take to Camelot and the dangers… everything you could ever need to plot a successful campaign against another kingdom.
The guards slumped, necks bent awkwardly, and Merlin wasted no time in slipping into a mouse shape. The change was fluid and there was only a mild discomfort as Merlin's magic adjusted to the compact form. His body had forgotten the pain and Merlin was able to scuttle on, off and away across the castle.
His flight was quick and Merlin darted into the closest room he could as guards stomped down the hall, patrolling the castle. Though they could very well just ignore a mouse, Merlin couldn't take the chance that they would see him and kill him. He had a promise to Arthur to keep and he'd see that through before all else.
Merlin scurried through the room before fluttering up onto the table, taking the form of a sharp-eyed kite. He tilted his head, looking through the documents on the table, before realising he'd finally discovered Bayard's room.
For the past few days, Merlin had noticed increased action in the castle. He'd been unsure whether to send Arthur a warning to be prepared, but decided against it at the last moment. For all Merlin knew, Bayard could be preparing an army of men to tackle a crisis in his land. Doubtful, but Merlin couldn't just assume he was setting out for war without concrete evidence.
Yet now he was in Bayard's room, there had to be evidence somewhere. Under all these papers, there had to be something with a deadline, something that would cement Bayard's hand in the rumours that said he wanted a war.
It was a while before Merlin managed to find the collection of papers he was looking for, and his eyes widened in surprise. He shifted back into his human self, sitting down in Bayard's chair, staring at the information.
It contained everything. The route Bayard's army were to take, when they'd be setting off (three days' time), how many men were to go and even the plan of attack. From the quick scan Merlin could see, Bayard wanted to destroy as many of Camelot's smaller villages and hamlets as possible, hoping to cripple Arthur's pride and begin a war.
Merlin, still with the hearing of the animals he'd been shifting into, could hear someone approaching the room, down the corridor, and knew he had to hurry. He gritted his teeth and willed the information in his hands to form on the waiting parchment he knew Arthur had laid on his table for this exact reason.
He was barely finished when the door opened and Bayard stormed in. He didn't notice Merlin at first and, for a moment, Merlin wondered if he could just slip into a mouse form. He paused for a moment too long and Bayard shouted for guards, pointing a jewel-laden finger at Merlin.
Though he could have fought his way out, Merlin let them take him down to the dungeons. Fighting Bayard's men, provoking them further, would only rush plans for war. Arthur needed time to muster up a counter attack and so Merlin needed to make Bayard think Camelot was unaware of what had happened.
"How the hell did you get in here?" Bayard hissed as he entered the cell Merlin was in. He'd been chained to the wall a few hours before, left alone in the dark. It was miserable, but easy to deal with.
In reply to Bayard's question, Merlin said nothing.
"Your Camelot's sorcerer," Bayard said, not bothering to phrase it as a question. They were beyond questions at this point and, right this moment, Merlin would be an idiot to think that he held any power in this situation.
"So I'll repeat my question. We know who you are, but how did you get inside the castle?" Bayard's eyes were narrowed and fury danced in them.
"You might find yourself short a lion," Merlin muttered, constructing the lies to keep Bayard here and not attacking in panic. "A risky plan, especially considering the amount of effort it took to keep hidden from Camelot even."
He looked up, eyes wide in faux fear.
"Shit," Merlin swore, shaking his head. "You weren't supposed to know that." His voice rose in pitch and a wedge of satisfaction lodged itself in his chest as Bayard tilted his head back with a smile, eating down the lies Merlin was feeding him.
Stepping back, Bayard called out to the guards at the door.
"Get whatever information from him you can. We've caught the second best person to bring about Camelot's downfall and I want you to drain him of every inch he's got. Camelot will fall at our hand and he," here Bayard pointed at Merlin, eyes glinting in the dim light of the dungeon. "He will lead us to our victory."
It had been three days since Merlin had been captured. Throughout it all, he'd remained tight lipped, something his captors hated. Before now, there hadn't been any cause for major torture, but Bayard was becoming increasingly frustrated. The day he wanted to march was fast approaching and Merlin knew he'd do everything except grievously harm him in order to get his information.
His magic had been sealed by a sorcerer, an old man who had written the seals on the walls and over Merlin's arms, containing his magic to stop him slipping into a mouse's body and running. The man hadn't been outwardly regretful, but Merlin could feel the magic in the seals weakening. Bayard's sorcerer wasn't as loyal to Bayard as the king thought and he'd purposefully sealed Merlin with the intent that the spell would weaken.
Merlin hadn't eaten since he'd arrived and though the guards had started a coal fire, he doubted it was for food. A brand had been brought in earlier and Merlin knew that it would be used on him later unless he could do something.
Though he'd prefer the brand to selling Arthur short and would take what he knew about Camelot to the grave if he had to.
"Bayard summons you!" A voice suddenly shouted down the corridor, drawing the guards of Merlin's cell away for a moment. "Camelot has been sighted, led by the King himself!"
Merlin's head snapped to the door, eyes wide. Arthur couldn't have come all the way just for him, surely not? He was supposed to protect the villages. Bayard would go for them still, no matter what.
As the day progressed, Merlin was left alone. He struggled against the seal, but it was still too strong unless he wanted to gather a large amount of magic, which would then alert Bayard. He could hear the sound of an army gathering, hastily in a way that would lead to a shoddy attack, but better than nothing. So instead of struggling, Merlin listened.
Bayard's army left in dribs and drabbles, moving out when men were ready as opposed to organising themselves. He let the magic that could get through reach his ears, listening to conversations metres above, of how Camelot's attack was said to be composed of a small group, hardly meant to take Bayard's kingdom.
Some muttered that perhaps Camelot thought they could get their sorcerer free and that was why they'd been so bold. Others said that they'd been careless – they'd never meant to be scouted by Bayard, arrogant and assuming in their victory.
Merlin wasn't sure what the truth was. If Arthur had received his information then it was possible he'd deployed parts of the army to the named villages and wanted a small party to try and infiltrate Bayard's castle to get Merlin back.
He wasn't an idiot. Even if Bayard hadn't been openly bragging he'd captured Camelot's warlock, the silence on Merlin's part would have been a warning to Arthur. As it stood, Merlin knew word of his capture would have reached Camelot and it was entirely possible that Arthur had coordinated an attack.
The day passed and the castle began to grow quiet. It seemed that everyone was expecting a full-blown war, something Merlin couldn't begrudge them. Arthur had a ferocious reputation and before now, Bayard had never been on the receiving end. Camelot had the best knights in the land and even a handful of them posed a threat.
"The king's moved his men into the valley," a voice suddenly said, echoing down the dungeon hall. "Camelot might have seen them gathering, but they won't be expecting such a sudden attack." There was a snort of laughter.
"Kill them off quick," another man muttered, toes scuffing the floor as they drew nearer to Merlin's cell. "They won't know what hit 'em. It's a shame though," he continued. "I mean Pendragon now rules over a lot of the land. Seems a shame for him to die in such a pathetic fight."
Merlin closed his eyes and gathered his magic, preparing to rip himself from the seal if need be.
"Bayard knows they've gone to the other villages. When he's killed Pendragon he'll attack the city direct." There was another snort of laughter. "And I hear he's got his eyes on a few Camelot women for his seed. Willing or not, Bayard needs an heir and once you get Camelot, you practically own the land."
Merlin clenched his fists in their bindings, trying not to react too much as the two men stood outside his cell. Let them think he was weak and asleep. Let them be lulled into a false sense of security.
"Not much to guard is there?" one of them asked. "I mean even if Pendragon got through and came down here, what's the use? Bayard's sealed him up good and proper."
"You could say he's broken," the other agreed, opening the cell door and entering.
"Still, I won't let it be said I didn't do my job. Grab the rods, we need to make sure he stays put." It was then that Merlin knew he couldn't afford to wait any longer and needed to leave now.
The only problem was that the seals were still far too strong. Without food and very little water, Merlin's magic hadn't regained the right strength, the strength that the sorcerer sealing him had assumed he'd get to. He was too weak for the seals to break, but there was another way.
He had never quite forgotten his ambition to shift into a dragon, no matter what Kilgharrah had said. If Merlin could change the nature of his magic – turn human magic into that of a dragon – then breaking the seal would be easier than breathing.
The magic available to Merlin began to change. It was more painful than any of the transformations Merlin had ever done and he shouted out, body jerking as pain coursed through him. He could hear the two guards drop whatever they'd picked up to attack him and shout out, but there was nobody to call for back up. They'd been entrusted with a task to keep Merlin away from the others and they were the only two who stood between Merlin and freedom.
That thought made it easier somehow to command his magic, and Merlin pushed beyond a reptile shape, pushed beyond anything he'd ever tried, gritting his teeth as the strain took its toll.
There was a barrier. Merlin was so close that he could feel his magic boiling under his skin, changing under his whim, but there was something blocking him. Just as Kilgharrah had said it would, it hurt and Merlin knew that this change would kill him if he carried on like this. Changing of magic wasn't something any creature could do, but he was so, so close now.
And then Merlin remembered a short sentence, a parting gift one could say, that Kilgharrah had said. He'd spoken of magic rising of its own accord, of helping instead of hindering, as if he'd believed that is anyone could change it would be Merlin.
With that knowledge, Merlin knew what he had to do. It was a dragon form he wanted and yet it was magic stopping him from achieving that form. With a normal animal, the barrier was weak and Merlin could push the transformation, but with a dragon he needed to command it.
Ignoring the pain, Merlin threw his head back, roaring in the language of dragons, commanding the barrier between himself and his dragon to break. He was a Dragon Lord, the last of the Dragon Lords and he'd been entrusted with the wisdom of dragons before. He'd spoken spells only dragons knew, he'd fought enemies only dragons could and so he could become a dragon. He had to.
With one terrible wave of pain, Merlin felt his magic flood and swell, swamping the barrier and breaking it down. The pain wracked through Merlin again, but it was lessened, a shifting pain and one that was designed to change.
In delight, Merlin could feel his body lengthen and harden, skin becoming scaled and shoulder blades giving rise to thick, leathery wings. His magic bristled, filling his new form and twisting, connecting to the dragons of old. Before now, Merlin had only been able to guess how Kilgharrah had felt, but he could feel it honestly now and wondered how the old dragon could cope with this much sadness and joy, how he could stand the beauty and the horror of the world as it turned.
Though, a part of Merlin wondered, perhaps that was a simple human perspective.
The seals holding him snapped easily as Merlin continued to grow. He knew he was longer and slimmer than Kilgharrah and around half of his size. He was built, appropriately, for speed rather than the bulkier fighting form of the Great Dragon, and speed was exactly what he employed.
Merlin pushed past the guards, scrambling out of the cell. He knocked them with his tail in the escape, but he was too preoccupied to worry whether he'd hurt them. Some things and some people you couldn't change, and Merlin had come to accept that much.
The castle was easy to manoeuvre through and soon Merlin found himself outside. It was evening, the sun falling back behind the valleys and hills that marked Bayard's land. Merlin knew the attack to be coordinated near the west and so he would use the sun to his advantage, staying in the shadows as his dark scales would allow him to hide.
Dragons were built to fly, Merlin especially, and he took to the air with a single bound, unfurling huge wings and catching an up-current. He rose on the wind and his magic sang, even in its dragon form. It was still Merlin's magic, just changed a little to be compatible with his current form.
It took a short while to get to the valley where Bayard's army was camped and Merlin craned his neck down, searching for any signs of Arthur and his group. He circled the camp a few times and noticed that the army was preparing to set off, most likely towards Arthur. It took a few more circles, shaded by the approaching night, for Merlin to locate Arthur, journeying up towards Bayard's valley, weapons ready but clearly not expecting a full-scale attack.
Merlin's dragon's eyes picked Bayard out, entering a tent as his men went, prepared to die for him. Merlin bellowed in anger, hovering in the air and snorting smoke from his nostrils. Unlike Arthur, Bayard was a coward who would bring nothing but waste and devastation to the land. Enough was enough, and Merlin knew that today would be the day when Arthur took yet another piece of Albion for himself.
With another roar, Merlin swooped down, letting the air curve his body down, the wind a caress to a creature born upon it. He was in his element and fire blossomed from his maw as he isolated Bayard's tent, meaning no harm to the others but needing Bayard alone.
As Merlin struck down, the ground quivering under his talons, Bayard kept inside. Merlin could feel the weight of a dragon's anger, so much more violent and volatile than his own, and only just managed to refrain from burning the tent there and then.
He growled out Bayard's name, spitting it like filth from his mouth. The tent opened as the dragon-fire around them burned higher, a warming comfort to Merlin and yet terror to Bayard. The man stepped out, armour-less and so confident in his victory, though he did have a sword clutched in his hand.
Merlin's magic bristled and he knew he didn't have long in this form. Magic wasn't supposed to be commanded in the way Merlin had commanded his and it was a true testament of his strength that he'd lasted this long.
Still, he had one last thing to do. Bayard, the old, lazy king who was prepared to commit mass-slaughter just to lure Arthur out, had to die. There was no place in Albion for kings like Bayard anymore and he had lurked too long under the fringe, switching allegiance when it suited him and when it was best.
No more. Merlin would end this. For Arthur, for Camelot and for Albion.
Bayard, like every other man, fell with a simple swipe. He died with fear in his eyes and a plea coming from his mouth, and that was when Merlin knew what Kilgharrah had said was true. To become a dragon was to bring pain and terror and Merlin had become exactly that.
Dragons would die out, as all things must at some point. Uther had sped up their decline, but the race of dragons was now bitter and far too angry for this world. Merlin would die one day as the last man who could tame the dragons, and after that? If madness didn't take the few left, they would live their lives away from humans, dying out peacefully and with grace.
Like with almost every magical being, there was too much past, too much blood spilt and too much pain. One day they would be able to rest away from it, but for now they needed to battle on.
With his goal completed, Merlin rose once again on the wind, letting Bayard's men put out his fires. The army was in uproar, confused about how to act and unsure now that their leader was presumed dead. No one had gone after Arthur yet, but Merlin wasn't taking any risks.
He cut the army off, landing on the ground and roaring. It sent those who had begun the climb back down, fleeing to safety at the sight of an angered dragon. There was likely no doubt who the dragon was either, for it was common knowledge that Merlin was powerful and able to talk to dragons. The mind could easily see a connection and with the rest of the army in a panic already, those who had stayed to carry out orders were easy to shrug off.
"Merlin!" shouted a voice and Merlin turned, looking behind him as Arthur's men began to crest the hill.
In delight he shot into the air, letting his magic burst around him as he let his dragon form slip away. He'd had his time as a dragon, but Merlin was still a mortal man. He belonged with the creatures of the earth, those who were born without the aid of magic and had covered the earth. Those were creatures that would thrive, free of the legacy that dragons carried.
Merlin let out another cry, this time a higher-pitched one. He flapped his wings, shooting with speed through the air. He fanned his tail out, slowing and curving his wings as he saw Arthur raise his arm. Recognition burned in Arthur's eyes and Merlin let out another caw, talons locking around Arthur's forearm as he, in falcon form, settled on his king's arm, turning his head to watch the defeated army below.
"Merlin," Arthur said in relief, his horse snorting and wheeling around as Arthur pulled him to a halt. "What did you do?"
Merlin let out a croak from deep in his throat, closing his eyes as exhaustion began to wrack his small body. He didn't bother to change, instead letting Arthur cradle him in his current form. He'd done his job and Arthur had sounded proud, amazed even, that he'd done it all by himself.
And it was okay now for Merlin to sleep, so sleep he did.
In the days that followed Merlin's return from Mercia, Arthur spent half his time in negotiations who would become Lord over which parts of the kingdom and the other half at Merlin's side. Though he wouldn't remember it later, Merlin remained in a falcon form, hunched on one side as he recovered. Arthur, when free, would rush to his side, stroke his feathers and worry – or so everyone liked to tell Merlin.
But Merlin did get better. When Arthur returned from a council session one day to find Merlin in a human form, he couldn't help himself and kissed Merlin deeply, crawling under the covers of the small bed and calling the rest of council sessions to a stand-still.
He berated Merlin, of course, called him names and hit him gently, but Merlin could hear the worry and relief. They clung tightly together at night, when Merlin was healed and Arthur was free to commit himself to Merlin. They never mentioned how close they'd both come, how they could have both died if Merlin hadn't forced his magic, but they were both aware of how close they'd come this time.
"Never alone," Arthur had muttered one evening, nose tucked against Merlin's neck. "Whatever we do, we do it together."
Merlin had found no fault with those words.
Before they returned to Camelot, Merlin spoke with Kilgharrah, answering a summon from the dragon as opposed to their usual way of communication. They didn't talk much, the dragon simply looking at Merlin, knowing what he'd done, and Merlin understood. Kilgharrah had never wanted him to know the pain of being a dragon, but Merlin was thankful. He understood more now and though he'd never do it again, he was glad for the experience.
Camelot welcomed them with open arms, the whole lower town filled with people cheering at the hero's welcome. Though it wasn't much that they'd done – or seemed that way at least – Merlin had helped to save entire villages from destruction. Camelot was a prosperous kingdom and people were grateful for her protection, even amongst some outcry.
Life continued, but for Merlin and Arthur it was different from before. They were closer, spending meals together, Merlin sitting outside as Arthur ran through training with the knights, researching in the open air and with his people.
Of course they spent time apart, sometimes days without seeing each other. But their bond was strong, uniting an entire kingdom through its hardships. They were surrounded by the people they loved and it was in this way that they could forge a new era, a Golden Era of Albion.
"Arthur," Merlin said one morning as the rest of the castle lay awake. "Get up, I want to show you something."
The sun was barely touching the sky as Merlin led Arthur to the window, hurling it open. Birdsong filled the room at once and Merlin smiled, watching as Arthur woke fully, the spark of the sun catching in his eyes.
"What is it?" he grumbled, rubbing his eyes with one hand. "If you woke me just to hear the birds-"
"Here," Merlin interrupted, taking Arthur's hand with a smile and letting his magic cover them both. "Just stay still and trust me."
The transformation was nothing like Merlin's usual ones and the shape flowed easily. They were nothing fancy, no sleek fox or elk, no impressive eagle or swallow. Merlin fluttered to the window, looking back down at Arthur, still trying to find his feet in his new sparrow form.
Merlin chirped, a bountiful sound that spread through the room. Arthur joined in, mustering his knight's courage and testing out his wings. He landed beside Merlin, wobbly but getting used to it. The magic that sustained his form was still Merlin's and knew how to behave inside a sparrow body, supporting Arthur so that they could fly.
They left, joining the morning chorus with their own song, dancing around each other and welcoming the day in celebration.
From now on, Merlin knew he'd never be alone. He had Arthur by his side and still had so much to show him. This was just the start and Merlin finally felt that he'd achieved his destiny, after all this time and all this hardship.
It was more than destiny though, because Merlin would never have thought of a future with Arthur when he'd arrived, yet now? He couldn't imagine it any other way and opened his wings, taking Arthur higher into the sky and showing him the beauty of the land that humans often forgot.