Title: Give Me a Word, I'll Give You My Worth
A/N: Inspired by 4x12 (The Sword in the Stone - Part 1) episode summary. Written before 4x11 (The Hunter's Heart) aired.
Summary: Arthur expected a pep talk from Merlin, but this was not how he saw it going.
Give Me a Word, I'll Give You My Worth
Arthur sat, forlorn, near the mouth of the cave, stripping the leaves absentmindedly from a twig, his shoulders tense, his mind inward and far away. The others were settling inside, hustling against the dying grey dusk, but he just needed a moment to be alone, a moment to let himself feel the dread and hopelessness that had been gnawing at the seams of his sanity; feelings that he didn't allow himself to give into when his people depended on him to lead.
Morgana had driven him and a handful of knights into exile, Camelot overrun by the Southron army at the command of Helios. As brave and as well-trained as Camelot's knights were, they were unprepared for the barbaric onslaught and against Morgana's frighteningly powerful magic. So after a courageous stand against the unexpected siege, he sent most of his knights to evacuate the city and lower towns, the rest to warn the outlying villages. Gaius and Gwen (loathe as he was to let her out of his sight) he sent to care for the townspeople relocated to a hidden refuge in the White Mountains. The maze of caverns was kept secret for just such an emergency, but then, so many of Camelot's secrets has been compromised as of late.
First Morgana, now Agravaine.
Agravaine, who had shown up after his father passed, a godsend, a steady guide in the rough political waters that Arthur now found himself navigating. Who knows what hold Morgana has over him or what worldly lust drives him to betray his own blood?
And Morgana. He used to blame magic for her corruption, could trace her treachery back to her kidnapping. But in hindsight, it might have started earlier, back when she had met first met Morgause. It was impossible to know exactly when it had all gone wrong. He hadn't seen it coming, was completely blindsided when she forcefully took the crown from his father's head—her father's head—and declared herself his enemy. She had been so passionate, so terribly and foolishly brave in her defense of people who practiced magic. When—how—does a person willing to defy Uther in the name of justice, tolerance, and mercy become so ugly, a twisted perversion of her former self? What darkness festered in her heart as they dined and laughed side by side?
It would be simple to attribute her metamorphosis to magic, but he was king now; he doesn't have the luxury of naiveté anymore. His brief brush with the sorcerer, Dragoon (the Great, ha!), his simple and earnest plea to just be granted the right to live, had smeared black and white into a messy grey. Giaus himself had dabbled with magic, as did Merlin's friend who had used magic and sacrificed his life to protect Ealdor. No, Arthur doesn't believe that magic is innately evil, hasn't for a long while now.
Needless to say, Arthur was in a particularly contemplative and self-indulgently wretched mood, so who but Merlin would fill his field of vision and have the gall to interrupt his thoughts to bring him fo— hm…no food.
Still, this felt familiar. Only a year ago they were in this very cave (and has it onlybeen a year?) after Morgana had overtaken the castle, kidnapped his father, and declared herself queen. He was starting to think of this crop of rocks as his Moping Corner. Well, if history was going to repeat itself, Arthur welcomes the part where Merlin's prattle stumbles onto something profound and manages to give him hope. Arthur could always depend on Merlin's faith in him even when he has lost it all for himself.
Arthur glanced up expectantly.
Merlin, the git, just looked at him, thoughtfully, warily, and, by the way his fingers twitched and his legs bounced slightly, nervously. It was getting a little uncomfortable craning his neck up.
Merlin took a quick glance back towards the others inside and, satisfied that no one was paying attention, crouched down to Arthur's level.
"Arthur, have you got a strategy?"
This wasn't what Arthur needed. "I'm working on it," he said, mustering up his exasperated voice. "Why do you think I'm over here?" He gestured at his throne of rocks. If not comfort, then Arthur would gladly welcome a little levity. A jibe. Some banter. 'Mmmm, not thinking of a plan?'Merlin might say.
"Arthur," Merlin got in low and very serious, "have you ever thought about fighting back with magic?"
"What!" Arthur nearly choked. He scrunched his face together as he does whenever Merlin says something particularly incomprehensible or ridiculous.
Merlin shifted his feet under him and tried again. "Look, Morgana probably has Helios convinced that Camelot doesn't stand a chance against them because they've got magic and we don't. And that they're justified in invading us under the banner of overthrowing your father's rule against magic."
"So," Merlin said slowly, as if trying to be patient with a particularly dense child, "if you fight back with magic and with magic users by your side, then they'll see that they don't have a guaranteed victory andtheir excuse for attacking Camelot falls apart. It'll expose Morgana for what she really is: a vindictive child trying to take something that she doesn't deserve." Arthur noted curiously the unexpected anger coloring Merlin's voice. "They'll have to withdraw or risk being seen as hostile warmongers in the eyes of the neighboring kingdoms," Merlin concluded.
Arthur blinked at Merlin, wondering if he really was hearing his simple, sheltered, slept-on-the-floor-all-his-life man-servant actually suggesting a battle strategy. Nay, a politicalstrategy. A strategy that could very well be a game changer...if it weren't for...well, several gaping holes to his plan. He told him so.
"Not that I don't appreciate your attempt at war games, Merlin" Arthur gave him a look that clearly said Merlin was out of his depth, "but even if I condoned the use of magic, where are we going to find our own army of sorcerers in the middle of nowhere anytime soon?"
"So you don't object to using magic?" There was a sudden hopefulness to Merlin's voice and he seemed to have missed the part where Arthur thought this whole conversation was ludicrous. In fact, Merlin looked dead serious.
"Merlin, you know how I feel about magic."
Merlin deflated a little but he must have been drinking from Gwaine's water skin, because instead of dropping the subject like Arthur had expected, Merlin grew bold.
"No, actually, I don't. Not really." Arthur drew his brows together, puzzled at how Merlin, who spent nearly every waking hour with him and often knew Arthur better than himself, could possibly not know. Merlin misreads Arthur's confusion. "A lot can change, over time," Merlin said haltingly, his eyes shifting away and back, his confidence cut with sudden uncertainty.
"Look, I'll admit that it's possible not all magic is inherently evil. But I do know it is dangerous, and unlike a sword, it's not something you can trust not to turn on you. Aaand…" Arthur signaled Merlin to not interrupt with a gesture, "considering that I am Uther's son, how can I trust any sorcerer to truly be loyal to Camelot? How can I know they aren't secretly supporting Morgana? Because I'll be honest, I haven't exactly earned their loyalty."
Arthur thought that was the end of it, but Merlin wasn't deterred. "But if it wasn't just anyone, if it was someone you trusted, someone you knewis loyal to Camelot. Would you allow them to use magic to fight for you? To defend Camelot?" Merlin said in a rush.
"I don't see how any of this—"
"If it were Gaius—" Merlin barreled forward, "or it were someone like, me. Merlin." Merlin took a breath and said slowly. Deliberately:
"Arthur, if I could use magic, would you persecute me, or would you let me fight at your side?"
Merlin looked at Arthur expectantly.
"I hardly trust you walking around with a quarter staff, let alone wielding magic," Arthur ribbed, hoping to end this uncomfortable conversation.
"What if I were good at it?"
"Why are you pressing this?"
"Because it's important!"
Merlin's sudden and frustrated exclamation reverberated off the cavern walls and a few others glanced at their direction briefly in fleeting interest. Merlin collected himself and said again:
"Because it's important to me."
Any other day, if the situation weren't so grave, if this was just one of Merlin's inane questions and hypotheticals posed in the hours and days they used to spend in Arthur's chambers or out in the woods, Arthur would have easily dismissed the ridiculous notion of Merlin mastering something as unknowable and dangerous – something as old – as magic. Any other day, if Merlin wasn't looking at him in such intense anticipation, fearful and desperate, his eyes shining like he would shatter with a word. He thought about the question and the question beneath the question and looked his dear friend in the eyes.
"Merlin, if you were good at it – and you wouldn't be, so don't get any ideas," Arthur warned. "If you could use magic, I don't think you'd leave me be even if I wanted." Arthur replied with a serious but open expression, hoping against all hope that he didn't have to spell out his complete and utter faith in Merlin's loyalty. That would be embarrassing.
"You didn't answer the question."
Oh hell. Arthur sighed in resignation.
"I trust you Merlin. I trust you to use magic for good. For Camelot."
Time seemed to hold its breath in the silence that stretched between them. For someone who had been pressing Arthur for an answer he knew he wanted, Merlin seemed to be having a difficult time understanding what Arthur just gave him. Arthur waited, ready with a response for when Merlin would inevitably suggest that they go find sorcerers and convince them to fight for Camelot. In the next few days. In the woods. Without being hunted and caught first.
Instead, Merlin lets out the breath he was holding with a bark of relieved laughter that sounded suspiciously like a sob and stood up pacing, his hand running through and pulling at his hair like he suddenly couldn't contain all the energy rushing out his body. He dragged a shaking hand down his face.
"Okay. Okay good, that's good. Okay. Okay..."
Merlin's relief and eagerness was almost endearing. "Don't tell me you already have a sorcerer lined up for the job? Is Old Man Dragoon hiding right around the corner?" Arthur couldn't help but smile.
Merlin beamed brightly down at Arthur. "Close," he said. He looked so pleased.
Arthur once again found himself marveling at how Merlin could still manage to surprise him. "Oh really? Are you going to tell me that you're a sorcerer now?" Arthur said in jest.
Merlin froze, as if suddenly afraid Arthur was serious in his accusation. It's happened before. Honestly, Merlin's inconsistent attitude on magic over the years has been nothing short of baffling. "Merlin, I don't actually—" Arthur stopped.
Merlin was looking at him guiltily. Then his jaw tightened and Merlin looked at him meaningfully.
Arthur could only blink as it hit him that Merlin wasn't joking.
"Oh, you've got to be joking."
Merlin checked over his shoulder again, stood tall, and with a deep breath and a sweep of his arms said: "Arthur, I'm a sorcerer."
Then, Merlin laughed.
"Wow. I'm a sorcerer. I'm a sorcerer. God, it feels good to say it out loud." Merlin trembled, couldn't stand still, as if something was trying to burst through his skin. Relief. He shook out his hands. "I'm a sorcerer. I'm magic. Ha! Wow! It's like, it's like this burden has been lifted clean away. It's—"
Merlin paused when he noticed Arthur's pinched face—the face that usually means he's completely confused and thinking very loudly that Merlin-Has-Gone-Completely-Mental.
"Yoooou...don't believe me."
"Well, can you blame me?" Arthur asked with an exasperated laugh. Denial. "You don't look like you've got a single magic bone in your body."
"You mean I'm not old and warty and scheming and plotting to kill you?"
Merlin made a sudden movement kneeling down and it was all Arthur could do not to flinch...too noticeably.
He gathered the loose leaves and kindling by Arthur's feet and raised an open palm.
And gently, a flame flickered to life.
Arthur's eyes widened.
Later, after Arthur had sufficiently calmed down and wrapped his head around the fact that Merlin has magic, had always had magic, and had apparently used it on more than one occasion to help defeat magical creatures and maladies, they agreed that the best way to convince the Southrons that Arthur Pendragon had magic on his side was to make a show of it. Make it seem like they had a lot more firepower than they had; Merlin was still just Merlin after all. (Hey! I can, you know, move things, and set things on fire, and … make fog...and stuff…)
They deliberated around the magically-lit fire (good God!) in low voices while the others slept.
"Would...a dragon be showy enough?" Merlin suggested.
"Merlin, dragons are extinct. You were there when I—" Arthur stopped at the sight of Merlin's mischievous smirk, looking downright devilish in the firelight, and an awful thought dawned on him. "You didn't," Arthur deadpanned.
"I convinced him to go away and promise never to return."
Arthur had no words, his expression twisting between incredulity and personal affront.
"You weren't going to beat him!" Merlin explained. "And besides, you were unconscious! You're lucky he listened to me."
"Okay, fine. I'll worry about my wounded pride later. You're saying you can get us a dragon?
"I can get you two."
A/N: Because some readers are wondering what spoilers inspired this fic, all I knew was that Arthur and Merlin were driven out of Camelot by Morgana and Helios, who apparently led the Southrons.
Thanks for reading! Comments appreciated.