"Kara is sentenced to die in the morning!" Mordred's voice was anguished, his expression desperate.
He had already begged, on bended knee, for the king to spare Kara's life, but there was nothing Arthur could do – this was not only about upholding the law, this was about protecting the citizens of Camelot. Kara was dangerous. She was ruthless and remorseless, she had killed and she would kill, she was a threat to Arthur and she was a threat to the kingdom.
Mordred was blind to her faults, though. Of course he was. Mordred loved her.
"What would you do?" Mordred asked.
Merlin would not answer the question, but he knew what he would do. He knew what he had done.
"You can't," he replied.
"Tell me you wouldn't do the same," Mordred pressed. "For the woman you love."
Memories flashed before his mind's eye; he tried to force them back down, struggled to maintain his composure. He didn't need this right now. He needed to stay calm.
"Don't be foolish."
But Mordred could read him, somehow, read what he was hiding, what wasn't said. "You see. You cannot."
Mordred began to walk away, and Merlin couldn't let him. But this moment rested on a knife's edge; one wrong move and Mordred could be turned against Arthur forever. Threats, magic, cold logic – none of these would turn him from this path.
Merlin could see only one course open to him.
He sucked in a breath, and tore open an old wound.
Mordred stopped. "What?"
"The woman I loved? She died."
Mordred turned, and for once Merlin did not try to hide the raw emotion in his eyes.
He would not make the same mistake that he had with Morgana. He could tell, now that his judgement was not clouded so much by fear and suspicion, that Mordred needed someone who understood what he was going through, who could empathise and offer meaningful support.
He just hoped that his heart could take it.
"What happened?" Mordred asked. The hostility had faded from his tone.
Merlin did not talk about this. He had kept the grief to himself for years, but now he was dragging it out into the open, about to share the story with someone who was not even a friend.
"Her name was Freya. She was…" His voice wavered. He tried again. "She was the most beautiful girl I have ever met. She was kind, and gentle, and selfless... She understood me better than anyone. I could be myself around her." He smiled wistfully, remembering the details that were private and would remain unspoken; the feel of her smooth skin, the soft press of her lips against his own.
"She sounds wonderful," Mordred offered quietly.
Merlin nodded slowly, the smile slipping away. "She was the one. I… I loved her. If things had been different, I would have been happy to spend my whole life with her. But there were – circumstances, beyond either of our control."
"She had a secret," Merlin said heavily. "Freya was afflicted by a terrible curse. By choice, Freya would not hurt another living soul, but at night the curse turned her into a bastet."
Mordred's eyes widened – Merlin figured he did not have to explain what a bastet was, then.
"She killed people, Mordred. She didn't want to, she didn't mean to, but she did. I helped her to escape from the bounty hunter who had caught her, and as a result, five innocent people in Camelot died."
"You can't blame her for-"
"Of course I didn't," Merlin said. "I loved her, Mordred. But lives were at risk."
He let those words sink in, for (inasmuch as he hated to compare them) they were not only discussing Freya, but Kara, too.
Keeping a tight hold on his feelings, Merlin continued the tale. "So I was going to run away with her. I was going to take her somewhere beautiful, somewhere far away from harm and from people she could inadvertently hurt when she changed."
"Why didn't you?"
Merlin sighed. "She didn't want to take me away from my life here. So she tried to leave on her own, but she never made it that far."
He closed his eyes, the grief crowding in close. He knew that he had to say the next words, because this was the whole purpose of his story. Mordred had to know that he truly understood what he was going through.
"Arthur killed her."
Mordred inhaled sharply. "Arthur?"
His voice was flat as he explained what had happened in the most clinical way he could. "Arthur has a sworn duty to protect the people of Camelot. The bastet was a threat. His men were out searching for it… Arthur dealt her a mortal blow."
The memories struck him hard, then. Finding her in the catacombs, not knowing a spell that could heal her, realising that he was going to lose her forever. Taking her to the lake… their final goodbye.
Tears slipping silently down his cheeks, his words came out in a choked whisper. "She died in my arms."
A few long moments passed before Mordred dared to speak. "Merlin…"
He took in a deep, shuddering breath. "You asked me what I would do for the woman I love. But now I must ask you a question in return. What will you do if Kara dies?"
Mordred stared at him, wide-eyed. "I…"
"Freya was a victim of circumstance. Kara-" Merlin had to bite back harsh words about her character; she was nothing like Freya, she was a murderer by choice. But still, a part of him could understand the reasons for her actions. "Kara lived a hard life, I'm sure. But she has killed people, Mordred. She is allied with Morgana, and if she goes free she will work to see the downfall of Camelot. She has been tried and found guilty. Justice must be done; Arthur has no choice in the matter. Her execution is tomorrow morning."
Mordred flinched. "I can't-"
"You can't break her out of prison, Mordred. What do you think would have happened if I had taken Freya away like I planned? Of course I would do everything in my power to keep the bastet contained, but if I had slipped up, if I had let my guard down for even a moment the creature could have escaped to wreak death and devastation upon the land. And if you take Kara away now, she will go back to fighting for Morgana."
"But I'll talk to her, I'll convince her to change…"
Merlin pinned him with hard blue eyes. "Do you really believe that?"
Mordred looked away.
"You can't," Merlin repeated, gently. "Deep down, I think you know that. She is not the same person you once knew. She has grown harder, more ruthless. She will not be persuaded to turn from this path she has chosen. Mordred… you are a loyal knight of Camelot. More than that, I believe you are a good man. You cannot break her out."
"But I can't let her die."
"I know," Merlin said softly. "The pain is devastating, and the deep ache of loss never truly fades. But if she dies, Mordred, will you lose your morality? Will you turn against the man who took you in and accepted you as a friend, because his duty as king meant he had to sentence Kara? Will your love turn to hatred? Will you be blinded by rage and consumed by revenge?"
Mordred's expression was tormented. "She can't die. She just can't."
"Don't you think I felt the same about Freya? She is the only woman I have ever loved – the only woman I will ever love. There is no one who could ever take her place. Her death nearly killed me. God, it still hurts so much. I miss her. She's gone, and she is never coming back, and it hurts."
Mordred looked at him. "And Arthur was the one who killed her."
Merlin could only nod.
Mordred seemed stunned, shocked anew.
"…How? How can you still be here? How can you still serve and protect him? He killed Freya. How could you forgive him for taking her from you?"
Merlin straightened. The gaze he levelled at Mordred was still filled with pain, but it was also calm. "Because Arthur did the right thing. He protected Camelot."
"You… you put your duty to him and to the kingdom above your own personal feelings."
"Yes. Arthur is going to be a great king someday. As king, he has to make tremendously difficult decisions. I don't always agree with his choices, and sometimes they are especially hard for me to live with, but I know that he always strives to act for the good of the people. Arthur is a good man."
There had been the cold beginnings of hatred in Mordred's eyes before, when he left Arthur's chambers, but now he did not contest Merlin's statement. "I know he is."
Merlin could tell he truly believed that. But he had to know.
"And if Kara dies?"
"But I can stop that from happening."
Merlin nodded slowly. He did not doubt Mordred's power. "Yes, you can. But is that really the right thing to do?"
Mordred hesitated, clearly torn. After a few moments, tears welled up in his eyes. "I love her, Merlin. I can't… I can't…"
"You're a good person, Mordred. Please prove to me that you can let reason rule your heart. I know it's hard. I really do."
"But if she dies…"
"Will Arthur be to blame?"
The reply was a long time coming. "No," he whispered finally. "Kara… she condemned herself."
"Then you know what you have to do."
Mordred nodded. "But Merlin, I don't know if I can. I don't think I'm strong enough. I need… I need your help. I need you to stop me… from doing something foolish."
Merlin moved closer, and placed a hand on the young knight's shoulder. "I'll stay with you," he promised.
In a more private location, Mordred's composure broke. He cried, and Merlin held him long into the night until well past morning.
His magic felt the jolt of unbridled agony at the same moment that Mordred let out a broken wail.
Merlin knew that Kara was gone.
"I'm sorry. I'm so sorry."
And he was.
But a horrible, selfish part of him was desperately relieved. Because at least, for now, Arthur was safe.