A/N – This is a standalone. It's set sometime after season 4.

Pairings - Mostly Gwen/Arthur, with some bromance. No slash.

Warnings - None really. It's just a bit dark.

Historical interest - An oubliette is a specific type of dungeon that is usually only entered from a small hatch in the roof. There are no windows, and there's no way to escape. They had them in some English, Scottish, Welsh and French castles.

Disclaimer – Merlin and all its lovely characters belong to the BBC and Shine. No infringement is intended, and certainly no financial benefit is being made.

Years later, Arthur would still wake at night, the terror of feeling trapped tightening around him like a noose. His eyes would startle open, and seeing nothing but darkness, it would take him a while to recognise reality, slow the speed of his thumping heart, and bring himself back to the security of his bed, and the wife at his side.

The dreams were not his own, that is to say, they were not the result of his own recollections of fear and darkness. He recognised them instead as guilt, an acknowledgment of culpability that would linger and trouble him, probably for the rest of his days.

But at the time, he knew that he'd done what he believed was right. Magic was wrong, it corrupted, and people who used it were evil. He'd been taught that his whole life, he'd seen the truth of it in the world around him.

But it was Merlin.

It wasn't like he'd particularly helped his cause either, by telling Arthur at a good time. In fact, he hadn't told him at all, which had really been a substantial part of the issue. Gwen had told him, and in her defence, she'd probably had reason to believe that Arthur might have been more sympathetic than subsequent events proved.

He'd almost been asleep before her quiet voice had brought him back to full awareness.

"Do you think you could ever trust someone who had magic?"

"Mm?" Arthur had breathed deeper suddenly as he was snapped back from his journey to unconsciousness. He wriggled deeper under the covers.

"Could you ever trust someone who had magic?"

"Could I trust someone who had magic? I don't know." He yawned. "Most people I know with magic are either dead or have declared they want me dead. Either way, I'm pretty sure I won't be trusting them any time soon."

Gwen didn't speak again for a bit, and Arthur felt himself drifting off. He was tired after all. The responsibilities of leading his kingdom through its birth pains left him little time for proper rest.

"What if it was someone good who had magic?" she said quietly.

"Gwen," Arthur muttered. "I think it's been established that people who use magic aren't intrinsically good."

When she didn't say anything else, Arthur felt once more the calming fingers of sleep beckoning him down deeper and deeper and deeper into peaceful….

"Gwen?" he asked, suddenly very much awake. "Are you suggesting that you know someone who you think is good who has magic, and you're trying to subtly find out whether I'll trust this person by surreptitiously interrogating me as I fall asleep?"

"Don't be silly," she turned over, and he could see her smile in the dim firelight as she put a hand on his chest and burrowed closer.

"No no no," he shifted up the bed a bit, putting his elbows behind him and sitting upwards. "You've been acting strange all this week, and that's about the third time you've brought up the subject of magic. Don't think I don't notice these things just because I'm distracted by, you know, being King. I do occasionally pay attention to you."

Gwen sat up as well, her smile fading slightly. "I know you do. But it's nothing. Please don't worry about it."

Arthur sighed. "Gwen if it's important to you…"

"It's not," she assured him. "I just wanted to know what your current thoughts were about magic. Now I know."

He considered her. "You think me wrong to retain such views, given the kingdom I grew up in, and the things we have both experienced?"

"No," she shook her head. "I understand completely."

His eyes narrowed. "Understanding someone and agreeing with them are two entirely separate things," he pointed out.

"True. But forced to chose, I would say that understanding is more important."

Their gaze locked for a few seconds, while behind them in the grate, a log popped and shifted with a soft crackle.

"Who is it?" he asked.


"If it's that important to you, what promise can I make that you will believe in?"

"It's nothing."

"Gwen please. Would it help if I promised not to execute whoever it is?"

"Always a good start," she admitted.

"And… and not to banish them?" He looked rather guilty as he said the last, but her expression didn't change. Nor did she speak again.

"Gwen, you've started this now. I can't deny that I feel very strongly against magic. But I do trust your judgement. If it's someone you know, if it's someone who needs amnesty or help, then I will try and give it. I trust you. Please, trust me."

He could see her struggle, surprised that whatever this was, it was big enough to cause her such distress. Patiently, he took her hands and waited.

"If I tell you," she said eventually. "It will change so much Arthur. It will change everything."

He squeezed her hands. "Who is it?" he said.

"It's… it's Merlin."

Arthur had been off the bed and calling for the guards before Gwen even knew what was happening.

If it had been anyone else, he reasoned, anyone, even Gwen herself, he wouldn't have reacted as he did.

But it was Merlin.

He'd trusted him with everything, everything. This was a man whose advice he'd come to value over all others. This was a man he considered his greatest friend in all the world. And all this time he'd been using magic?

He felt… tricked, deceived to the core, and sullied somehow for the association. It was worse than when Morgana had turned, worse even than when he'd seen Agravaine join his sister in her march on Camelot. How could he have done this?

"Bring Merlin from his chambers to me now!" he ordered the guards, as he pulled on a shirt, Gwen behind him in the bed, protesting loudly. "No wait!" he paused, changing his mind as he realised that he didn't want to see his servant. He didn't want his stupid excuses, or to be reminded of their time together. He didn't ever want to see him again.

"Order him to get dressed," he corrected coldly. "Then take him to the dungeons. Put him in the oubliette. The orders are that no one is to see him – under pain of death."

Gwen had screamed at him, but he'd ignored her. She'd hit him, but he'd taken it without rebuke.

"You said I could trust you!" she exclaimed, tears pouring down her face.

"I promised I would not kill or banish," he reminded her. "I have not broken that pledge."

"Arthur you've just ordered your best friend to be locked in a dungeon! How is that right? He's done nothing but proved his loyalty to you! You're not even giving him a chance to defend himself!"

He'd taken her arms firmly. "Magic is against the laws of Camelot, Gwen. Merlin knows that more than any other. If I cannot trust one who is so close to me, then who can I trust? Morgana was 'loyal' too before she betrayed us with her magic, have you forgotten that? It corrupts, it eats your soul. If Merlin is using magic, then he is biding his time to turn on us all. Better that we deal with this immediately and move on with our lives. I will not have him killed, but neither will I give him the opportunity to wheedle his way out of this with excuses and lies. You were right to bring this to my attention."

He'd walked away from her then, and she'd dropped to the cold floor, resting her hands upon it as she'd lost herself in the misery of her betrayal.

Gaius had protested the actions loudly, but Arthur sent him away, and told him he no longer wished his council. He guessed the old physician had long harboured his servant and knew his secret. There was no place in his court for such lies, though out of respect for his long service, he took no direct action against him.

Gwaine had threatened him, until he too was arrested and locked up overnight to cool off. The other knights were upset, the court unsettled. But Arthur was unapproachable on the matter. He wouldn't talk about it, didn't want to think about it. As far as he was concerned, it had been dealt with.

Gwen moved out of his quarters, taking instead a less-sumptuous room in the east wing of the castle. She refused to speak to him or to go anywhere near him except when it was required of her at formal state functions. At these, she would sit with frosty dignity, as far away from him as was socially acceptable, and say little.

And so the weeks rolled on.

Arthur's mood didn't change, if anything it became worse. He was mistrustful, convincing himself that everyone had known his closest friend was a sorcerer, and that no one had told him. He would sit at court barely listening, his mind full of memories and images of all the things they had done over the years. How many of his decisions and actions had been swayed and corrupted by magic? How much of himself had he lost to those dark arts that he'd always been taught were pure evil?

Camelot suffered as its king lost himself in dark imaginings, and as the weeks became months, still Arthur refused to talk about what had happened, refused to even broach the subject of Merlin's release, or change the conditions of his isolated captivity. He'd made sure Merlin was getting food and water every day, it wasn't like he was starving him to death. He wanted only to forget him, to forget what he'd done. He was lucky not to have been executed, Arthur told himself, at least he had Gwen to thank for that.

As for the Queen, eventually they had reached a sort of uneasy calm (through great effort on her part) whereby they could talk without her bursting into tears, or calling him a liar and a traitor.

And then one night, as they ate a meal together privately, she'd managed to get him to listen long enough to explain that she'd found out about Merlin's magic when he'd saved her life. It had been a mundane situation, an accident that could have happened to any. They'd been together in the woods just outside Camelot, a simple ride that she took as often as she could, with one maid and one knight for company. Merlin had ridden out with them that time, and while not far from the castle, the horses had been startled by a boar. It was an injured animal sporting a broken arrow left by a careless huntsman, and driven mad with pain. It had gored the knight's horse, while Gwen's had startled and bolted. She'd gripped the saddle in terror as the animal raced through the forest, leaves and branches tearing at her clothes and hair and skin.

She'd been thrown at the top of a steep incline that dropped down into a river, the rocks dripping with mosses and precariously perched trees and shrubs. Miraculously, the horse had managed to save itself from going over, and with the loss of its rider, dove off again into the undergrowth. Gwen was not so lucky, and a firm and fortunate grasp of a tree branch was all that saved her from immediately plunging to her death. But the branch gave way as she tried to struggle to safety, and with a lurch of terror, she knew that she was falling to her death, and closed her eyes against the inevitable.

But it never came. And opening her eyes again, she found herself floating not far off the ground, and in no danger of fatally colliding with it.

Looking up she'd spotted Merlin, sitting a sweating horse, his hand raised and his eyes golden with magic, and wide with fear.

To her disgust, her story changed nothing. Arthur had heard of these events before of course, but not the ending, having been told only that she'd been lucky, and that Merlin had pulled her to safety (by conventional methods). He'd thanked his servant sincerely, praising him publicly for saving his queen. Those thanks felt sour to him now, like a bitter taste than no amount of wine could remove from the mouth.

In any case, he knew that Gwen's feelings, and her efforts to change his mind, were as much to do with guilt as they were to do with anything else. She felt that she had betrayed Merlin's trust – which she had done. And she would have to live with that, as far as he was concerned. Locking the traitor up, had been right for the kingdom, and he wasn't going to start feeling any sort of remorse about it. Merlin had used magic, and magic was banned for a reason. Whatever the results of his actions, he wouldn't change the law for a servant.

Gwen had left the meal early, saying she was tired. He hadn't watched her go.

By mid-summer, Arthur convinced himself that a bit of spirit was entering back into his kingdom. He'd pushed the unfortunate matter of his servant to the back of his thoughts, and felt that he was once more able to concentrate on the legacy his father had left him, and the important role of his birthright. He had commanded a feast, and ordered that all should attend.

The hall was richly decorated with garlands of flowers and tables laden with early summer produce, and the early evening celebrations were lit with bright sunlight flooding through the windows. Arthur found himself laughing at something Leon was telling him, ignoring the subdued face of Gwen by his side, and not even noticing the small and hunched figure of Gaius at an end table.

It was during the entertainment that it happened, as a fire breather, sent out a particularly large burst of flame. A figure appeared before them all, and Arthur recognised his sister before she'd even raised her head. He'd known Morgana was still eager for revenge, and daily his knights had been bringing him news of her army, and rumours of attacks, to which he'd only half listened. But he never imagined that she would be so bold as to directly threaten him like this.

As it happened, it was Gwen she targeted, dropping the queen screaming in agony to the floor with one curse. And that's all it took, a smile the last thing that Arthur saw of her as she vanished from the hall.

He threw himself to his queen, all thoughts of arguments and bad feeling disappearing. He heard his knights throwing tables to the side behind him, scattering plates and food in an effort to give them more room and access, and then Gaius was at his side.

"Save her Gaius. Please."

The old man put his hand to her head, gazing into eyes that were wide and full of a terror known only to those who feel the cold fingers of death around them, pulling them from the world with every shuddering breath.

"I'm sorry sire," he said quietly after a few moments of inspection.

Arthur's face was pleading. "Please. You must try. There must be something."

"This is no ordinary curse sire," Gaius explained wearily. "This is sorcery of the blackest kind. A spell with only one purpose. Only the strongest magic could hope to defeat it."

Arthur's grip tightened, but it was unclear whether that was from the fear of losing Gwen or the fear of just the mention of the word magic.

"I can't lose her," he stated softly, his eyes fixed on his wife's, seeing the black veins of his sister's magic trickling under her dark skin, up onto her face. She cried out in pain, the noise echoing in the hushed hall.

His grip tightened further, and he looked up at Gaius once more, almost as if checking to see if that scream had spurred him into action, and made him reconsider his earlier words. But his face remained sad and resolute. There was nothing he could do, and no reason for him to give false hope with pointless attempts.

Queen Guinevere was dying.

She cried out once more, and the sound went through Arthur, as though someone had stabbed him in the chest. Better to feel that pain himself than watch her suffer it.

Then he looked up, a thought striking him potently and sharp, his skin prickling. "What about Merlin?" he asked.


"He has magic, you've told me he has strong magic. Is his magic strong enough to counter Morgana's?

"I – I'm not sure sire," Gaius looked aghast.

"Could he cure her?" Arthur was determined now that the thought was in his head. "Answer me!"

"I – it's possible, though I'm not sure that…"

"Guards!" Arthur spun, as much as he could whilst kneeling and clinging to Gwen's hand still. The knights around him were looking uncertain, ineffectively clutching the hilts of their swords, as a pair of household guards pushed their way forwards between them towards the king.

"Bring me the sorcerer from the oubliette," he told them without preamble. They looked at each other questioningly. "Fetch Merlin to me," Arthur rephrased it. "Now, you fools! The Queen's life depends on it!"

With that the men turned and fled, pushing the crowd out the way roughly, and making for the doors at a run.

Arthur turned his attention back to Guinevere.

"Keep talking to her sire," Gaius said softly. "It may help to keep her with us." Then as Arthur leaned forwards and started mumbling quiet words into his beloved's ear, stroking a hand down her check with such care and tenderness, the physician reached into his bag. Fumbling around, he eventually drew out a bottle, and read the label, then turned back to the king and queen. "Here, Arthur," he said. "Help me get her to drink this."

Arthur looked confused. "But I thought you said…"

"It's a stimulant, nothing more. It may prolong her life, not save it."

Eagerly, Arthur reached round and lifted Gwen's head so that Gaius could pour the liquid into her mouth. She shuddered, but swallowed, and after a few moments, it did appear as though her breathing eased slightly, though her muscles were still clenched with pain.

Time passed with aching slowness as they waited for the guards to return. Arthur continued to stroke Gwen's cheek and whisper nonsensical words in her ear as slowly she began to deteriorate once more, clutching at his hand as she struggled to find breath.

An eerie quiet surrounded them in the hall, the fifty or so people muttering to each other in hushed whispers only, whispers that muted instantly with the sound of footsteps marching outside.

It was a small contingent of guards that appeared at the doors, hurrying along between them a figure who clinked with chains. They stopped in the middle of the hall, and only the slightest of pushes brought the figure to his knees.

At the gasps around him, Arthur looked up from Gwen.

His mouth went dry. The sight before him was like looking at his worst mistake made manifest; his most terrible deed laid bare for all to see and for him to face in front of his peers and his knights and his councillors.

He got to his feet.

Merlin's hair was too long, hanging past his ears in thick, lank, tangled clumps that stuck out at odd angles. What could be seen of his skin was filthy, scuffed with stripes of black, and flecked with grime. A messy, three-month old beard darkened his face, while his ripped clothes hung from his shoulders like autumn leaves. He was thin, tired-looking, sagging as though barely able to hold the weight of himself up. The crook of one arm was thrown up awkwardly over his eyes, presumably to shield them against the evening sunlight streaming into the hall, and bouncing chaotically off a hundred pieces of well-polished armour. His nails were broken and black.

Arthur's disbelief slowly turned to horror. How could he have done this?

He started to walk towards him. He wanted to run, wanted to start blurting out apologies, asking for forgiveness, throwing himself on the floor and telling Merlin that he was sorry, that it was one of the worst decisions he'd ever made, and how could he ever make it up to him.

But he didn't. Kings didn't. And anyway, what difference would it make now? The deed was done, and however powerful, Arthur didn't possess the ability to reach back in time and correct his mistakes.

So instead, he walked straight towards him, and stopped a short distance away.

"Merlin?" he asked, fighting not to recoil and gag at the smell of three months in a dank dungeon wearing the same clothes day in and day out and never once seeing water for washing.

Merlin didn't speak, but he stiffly lowered his arms, and opened his eyes. Just a slit, squinting. It was in fact entirely possible that most of the room was beyond his visual range. But whatever his limitations, he still managed to fix his gaze on Arthur.

"I…" Arthur didn't know what to say, driven by his concern for Gwen, but horrified by the tangible results of his decision.

"I need your help," he came out with eventually. "Gwen's sick," he was speaking faster, encouraged, and spurred on by the lack of response. "Morgana was here, she cursed her. She's in pain, screaming, there's this – this thing in her. Gaius thinks she's dying. It's magic."

At that, Merlin gave his first reaction, his head moving up a fraction so that he could look over Arthur's shoulder to where his uncle still kneeled beside Gwen.

"Will you help her?" Arthur's voice brought Merlin's gaze back to him. "Please. Please."

Merlin looked at him. He seemed to be thinking. It seemed to take him a long time. Too long. Arthur even started to think that somehow his servant could no longer understand him, that three months of silence had robbed him of the ability to recognise words and decipher their meaning.

But then he gave the smallest of nods, and held out his wrists. Arthur looked down stupidly as though he had never seen anyone in chains before, then realised suddenly what the gesture meant.

"Free him," he demanded, looking up at the guards. They rushed to obey, but Merlin paid them no heed. His eyes were fixed on Arthur, dark under his dark fringe of hair. The restraints fell quickly away, and Arthur leaned in to assist one of the guards in hoisting Merlin back to his feet. It was only then that Arthur realised his feet were bare.

Once upright, although clearly not steady, Merlin pulled away from them both and stood on his own for a moment, before taking on the short distance to Guinevere without assistance. He walked with a dignity and pride that belied his appearance, taking shaky, but determined steps past men and knights as familiar to him as the nose on his face, but who now drew no flicker of recognition. He did not raise his hand in greeting, never once turned his head in their direction, or smiled, or acknowledged anyone in any way.

And they, many of them, looked away, and lowered their eyes.

Once Merlin seemed to falter and stumbled slightly to the side, sending people reaching out for him. But he ignored them all, corrected his path, and took the last few steps towards the Queen, Arthur at his heels.

Carefully, Merlin lowered himself to the ground as the King and some of his knights crowded around. Excruciatingly aware of them, Merlin moved his head slightly to the side, and spoke for the first time.

"Move back, Arthur," his voice was little more than a whisper.

"I'm not taking one step from my wife," Arthur countered. He had already lifted her hand again, and was stroking it with concern. Sir Leon was standing at his shoulder, ready to assist, perhaps, if the 'sorcerer' did anything untoward.

"It was not a request," Merlin's eyes flared gold at his words, and Gaius' widened in shock, as Arthur, the knights, and indeed anyone standing close to the trio on the ground, were thrown backwards. Not violently, but with enough force to stumble them off their feet.

The hall erupted into noise, as people started to shout or scream in fear and anger, and those on the floor pushed themselves upwards. But the noise ceased abruptly, as with another flash, the world slowed around them to almost no movement at all, Arthur's face comical as he expressed his outrage in infinitesimal slow motion. Comical, that is, were anyone present who had the heart to have a sense of humour.

Gaius looked around, eyes wide, unsure what was happening.

"It's so good to see you, Gaius."

The quiet words brought him back to Merlin. His nephew was sitting on his heels, emotion clearly overwhelming him, a smile struggling to break through his cracked lips.

"Merlin…" he didn't know what to say. What did you say when you saw someone you loved after so long and looking as Merlin did? He wanted to gather him up and take him home and feed him and cut his hair, and care for him and tell him all the things that had happened while he'd been locked away in the darkness, and keep him safe from anything ever happening to him again.

But there was no time for any of that.

Gwen cried out in pain. Whatever enchantment had slowed time in the rest of the hall, clearly had no hold over the three of them, and the young Queen's suffering continued its relentless march.

Merlin's eyes snapped down from his guardian's to his friend's face, and he reached out to take her immaculate hand in his grime-encrusted fingers.

"What happened to her?" he asked quietly, searching her features for clues as to her ailment.

"Morgana happened," Gaius answered quickly. "She enchanted her, a spell so vicious and dark that I can't even begin to understand it: and certainly too powerful for me to cure."

Merlin put his hand on Gwen's forehead. Her eyes blazed open at his touch, but she was half blinded and muddled with pain. It took a while for her to focus on her companions.

"Merlin," she gasped, clearly scarcely believing what she saw in front of her.

"Rest easy Gwen," he took his hand from her forehead, and rested it on her shoulder. "We're doing everything we can to help you."

"No – no you shouldn't! Not after what he did to you. What I let him… Merlin I'm so sorry." She squeezed her eyes shut for a moment, then sought his face again. "It was my fault. All of it. I thought him different. I thought your friendship would…"

"Shhh," he said. "It's okay." He forced another smile onto his lips. "Please save your strength. I don't blame you for anything. I just want to get you well."

She shook her head. "I don't deserve it. Not from you. Just let me be." She gasped then suddenly, her eyes going wide as a new pain hit her, and they could clearly see the tendrils of whatever black poison it was spreading beneath her skin into her neck and up towards her face, then across her eyes. Her body convulsed slightly under the onslaught, her hand gripping his tightly, as she slipped away back into unconsciousness."

He replaced his palm on her forehead quickly. "Ge hailige!" His eyes glowed, but nothing changed at his words. He tried again. Nothing. Then a different spell. The black continued to spread.

"Gaius," he looked up. "What can I do? There's nothing that will stop it!"

"It may be that nothing can," Gaius intoned soberly. "That Arthur is clutching at straws."

"But I have defeated her magic before," Merlin insisted.

"My boy, you've been in a hole in the ground for three months!" he said. "You're not strong enough for this challenge. It is unfair for the king to place the burden on you."

Merlin shook that off. "His fault is not Gwen's," he insisted. "There is no reason for her to suffer." He sighed, frustrated, desperately seeking in his head for a way to cure her, to force the curse from her that would surely be her death before much longer.

Then he blinked. There was one way.

He felt his heart pound as his brain took in the implications, but acceptance came easily, and he looked up at Gaius from under heavy lids.

"There isn't time," he said.

Gaius' face creased. "Merlin?"

"I wanted to – all the time I've been away – I wanted to tell you it wasn't your fault – that I was grateful for everything you've done. I wanted you to know that. And please, tell my mother that I was happy here. I don't want her to worry, or think my death was without honour."

"What do you mean?" Gaius asked sharply.

But Merlin didn't answer him, instead he looked back down at Gwen, and quickly placed both hands over her body. "Bebiede þe arisan diegol. Curs cume mec. Bot ond tile!" he said, his voice ringing with authority.

Gaius' shocked cry at what he'd done, was drowned out by the screaming rush in his ears as the black poison dragged itself from Gwen and flew to its new host without pause. He felt it slam into him, force its way through his pours and skin and enter his bloodstream like a pack of dogs on the scent of a injured hind. He gasped at the sensation, the pure evil, the blackness that was rejected by everything in his being. His magic flared instantly in response to the intrusion, losing all other focus, the combined strength of both forces so colliding, sending him tumbling over backwards, rolling and landing hard to lie gasping and scrabbling on the floor a short distance away.

A shock of noise resounded around the hall, as the spell holding everyone in place cracked instantly, and a flood of voices and movement returned. Arthur and his knights surged forwards on their original intent, not even seeing the body lying in their midst and stepping over it unthinking in their rush to protect the Queen: a Queen who was now lying with eyes open, gasping in breaths of air into her clean lungs.

There was a moment of supreme confusion as Arthur grabbed Gwen and hugged her to him, only to quickly realise that she no longer appeared to be dying; the knights stumbled around with drawn swords looking for something to fight that was no longer where they had left it mere seconds before; and Gaius looked between them all, unsure what had just happened, and feeling dread grow within him.

"Where is that wretched traitor?" Arthur demanded of him. "Trust him to take advantage of our weakness and seek to escape!" he had tears in his eyes, as emotion got the better of him.

Then Gaius finally managed to drag his senses back together, and caught a fleeting glimpse of his ward lying on the ground, almost hidden by the legs of knights and courtiers that were crowding around.

"He has not tried to escape sire," he said harshly over the noise, struggling to his feet. "He has cured her by taking the sickness on himself. He would give his life for Gwen, as he would for all of you. Not that you deserve it. Now move aside," he pushed a knight out of the way with as much strength as he could muster, and hurried to Merlin.

Bewildered, Arthur looked down at his wife to see that indeed, she no longer appeared to be in any pain. Tears filled her eyes, but they appeared to be of sorrow. "Arthur, how could you!" she was saying. "After what you'd done! How could you do that to him."

"But what are you…?"

He broke off and looked over as he heard Gaius say: "Merlin?" What he saw froze him with shock.

The warlock was shaking violently as his body fought the terrible magic he'd absorbed from Gwen. Breath was catching harshly in his throat, eyes staring fixedly at the cracked ceiling far overhead.

Slowly, noise in the hall dropped right away as people realised what was happening, and a rough circle gathered around Merlin, all looking down on him, with varying expressions of sympathy.

Gaius was at his side.

"My boy, what have you done!"

"No – other – way," he stuttered out, fighting to breathe. " – rather – die here – than go back..."

Gaius took his hand as the black magic surged under his skin suddenly, causing him to shake and shake, and eventually cry out in pain as it became too much.

But then suddenly, instead of overwhelming him, the black magic seemed to rush through his body, but almost as though it were being pursued. And Merlin began to glow with an unearthly light, brighter and brighter and brighter until those closest had to shield their eyes. Then with a whoosh and an explosion of air, the black tide flew out of his body up, up into the air, the light chasing it and driving it screaming into the nothing. Everyone fell back in horror at the sight, covering their faces as the blackness hit the roof and burst outwards into a million tiny pieces that fell away and dropped around them as gentle rain.

While at the epicentre, Merlin lay gasping, exhausted, all the fight gone out of him, barely able to move.