The news came to Camelot with the arrival of spring; gruesome stories of men disappearing into the woods only to be found days later, their face frozen in a scream of agony and their insides stolen. At first it was believed to be the work of some wild beast and was ignored but for the new air of caution carried by those who went traveling near the deep forests.
Uther himself, still reeling from Morgana's betrayal and barely fit to perform even half of his duties as King, ignored these rumors. No matter how much he may have wanted to help, Camelot was still devastated by the invasion and was weak; they could not spare any of their Knights for such a reason. And as much as Arthur hated it, he was inclined to agree.
This held true until the ice had fully thawed and the snow had melted away to reveal muddy green. The raining had been near constant for days when a messenger reached the castle, soaked to the bone and begging an audience with his Majesty. As soon as the words left his mouth, all gathered in the Throne Room knew without a shadow of a doubt that these rumors would go ignored no longer.
"It's sorcery, my Lord."
"Foul, filthy thing," Uther spat as he paced before his throne. The room had been emptied but for the Prince, his manservant, and Gaius. He stopped and glared toward his heir, "I want you to take a group of your best Knights. I want you to hunt this filthy sorcerer down. I want him burned for his crimes!"
And it was so that on a chilly gray morning, before the sun had even peaked above the trees, Prince Arthur set out of Camelot, followed by the Knights of the Round Table and Merlin.
"Really, Merlin, can't you do anything without complaining?"
A twig hit his ear and Merlin resisted the urge to talk back. "I'm so sorry I don't have a great big bloody cloak to keep me warm, sire." Well, almost resisted.
"It wouldn't be so bad if you weren't made of skin and bones," the Prince shot back without missing a beat, far too used to his loose-lipped servant to even pretend to be offended anymore. At least in this company.
Leon stood by the horses, checking their tethers as he unloaded his bedroll. Gwaine sat near Merlin, his ever-present grin firmly in place as he munched on the bread he had just swiped from the distracted manservant while Lancelot looked on at him disapprovingly. Across from them on a log sat Percival and Elyan, chattering quietly to themselves about something or other. And in the middle of it all stood Arthur, his gaze falling fondly on each of his men. No, he had no judgment to fear in this company.
"It wouldn't be so bad if you weren't such a prat." No judgment to fear, but that didn't mean it wasn't fun to tease anyway.
"You can't talk to me like that, I'll have you in the stocks for a week."
"I'd rather the stocks than here any day. At least there the only thing I have to worry about is rotten fruit. Not some crazy sorcerer who likes to empty out peoples' insides."
"Oh, don't be such a girl, Merlin, honestly."
"Besides," Gwaine cut in, his bread now safely eaten, as he slung an arm companionably over Merlin's shoulders, "you have us to protect you. No one, sorcerer or otherwise, is gonna get through us, mate."
Merlin didn't look very much relieved by this proclamation; in fact he looked decidedly unimpressed. Shrugging, Gwaine flipped his hair out of his eyes before grinning at the boy once more.
"So, when's dinner?"
"After all that bread you ate?" Merlin asked in a sugary sweet voice that didn't have any of them fooled for a second. "You should be plenty fine until breakfast."
Gwaine's groan was drowned out by the laughter that filled the clearing.
It took two more weeks before they finally picked up a trail. Though this was hardly the longest he'd ever been from home, Merlin was starting to tire of nights on a muddy ground and couldn't wait to get back to his warm bed. He could see that, much as they tried to hide it, the others were just as anxious to see this quest ended as he was.
They had followed the tracks to a clearing, on the other side of which was the mouth of a cave. Signaling to Percival, Elyan and Leon, Arthur commanded them to circle right around the clearing as Gwaine, Lancelot, Merlin and himself went left.
All was quiet for many minutes as they sat and observed, waiting for any sign of life from within the cave's dark depths. After twenty had passed, Arthur could see Gwaine beginning to get antsy and as much as he knew charging in blind would be a fatal mistake, he had to admit that he, too, was becoming impatient.
Another twenty minutes later he was on the verge of saying 'damn the consequences' when there was a sharp intake of breath followed by a blinding light. And then he sank into darkness and knew no more.
The first thing he was aware of was the pounding in his skull. The second was that it was far too cold and the surface he laid upon was far too hard for this to simply be the morning after an ill-advised night of drinking. And then there were the shackles that encircled his wrists, keeping his arms trapped above his head. Now that the drumbeat in his head was beginning to quiet a bit he could feel the dull ache that spread from his shoulders to his fingers and down his spine.
Slowly, Arthur opened his eyes. What he was faced with made him cringe. All five of his Knights along with Merlin were in states similar to that of himself, chained against the same wall. From what he could see, they were probably being held within the cave they had been watching before they'd been captured. He couldn't understand how they had all been taken by such surprise until the answer hit him and he felt like smacking himself.
'Sorcery, of course,' his mind hissed at him, 'how could he have been so bloody stupid?'
Slowly, he nudged his leg toward Merlin who was closest to him. It only took a few kicks before the boy's eyes shot open only to be closed instantly against the flickering torchlight that surrounded them. He let out a pathetic sounding whimper as he tried in vain to curl into himself. Had it been any other situation, and had Arthur not been worrying sick over possible injuries, he would have mocked him relentlessly for the sound. As it was though, he only made sure to keep his voice quiet as he commanded, "Merlin? Are you injured at all?"
"No," the answer came just as quietly, but his face was still pinched in what had to be pain. Probably the same aching head that was plaguing the Prince. "No, I'm alright. I think."
"Can you reach Leon? With your foot? Try to rouse him, will you?" Arthur turned away, not doubting for a second that his command would be carried out, as he focused on the man to his left. Percival lay sprawled out beside him and he couldn't help but wince when he saw the dried blood coming from the man's temple. Head wounds were a very tricky thing and he could only hope to all the gods he knew that the hulk of a man would even awake. It took three times as long jostling his leg but eventually the man's eyes fluttered open.
"Perce? Percival, can you hear me?" Keeping his voice the same quiet tone as before, he kicked out once more as he saw the man's eyes sliding closed. They popped right back open instantly. "No falling asleep. I need you to wake Lancelot; I can't reach him from here. We need to get out of here."
Percival was slow to react, but never let it be said that he was a quitter. He pushed through the fog that fought to take over his mind and did as his Prince, his King, commanded of him.
On the other side of Arthur, Leon had been awakened, as had Elyan who was now working on the ever stubborn Gwaine. Arthur could feel hope begin to fill him; they were all alive and in well enough condition. And cuffs, no matter how well made, could never stand a chance against Gwaine.
Of course that was when four figures entered the room, one leading and three following meekly behind. The leader looked like nothing but a common bandit; his hair cut short and his clothes a tattered mess. The only thing that screamed other were his eyes. They were pools of deep crimson, like congealing blood, and seemed to look right through to the very soul.
"Ah, I see you're all awake." A smile twisted his face, revealing stained and half-rotted teeth. "You'll have to excuse my manners. Usually I am much more hospitable than this. But when I heard the King had sent men out to investigate, his own heir at that, there was no way I could pass up such a chance."
"A chance at what?" They all knew the answer already but Arthur needed to stall and these evil types always did so love to talk.
"At killing you, of course. What other purpose would one such as myself have for a Pendragon?" The man's smile twisted even further as he spit the name like a curse. "But, oh, it won't even be murder, not really. By the time I'm done you will be begging for your life to end. Death will be a gift."
The three followers fanned out to stand in a triangle around the group. Each wore dark hooded cloaks, their faces hidden, their hands the only thing visible about them. Each possessed a large ring with a dark red stone that glinted off the torchlight as they began weaving their fingers together in odd patterns.
"You see," the leader nearly purred as he sauntered forward, "I feed on emotions that mortals like to keep hidden. Your pain, your sorrow, your absolute agony is what sustains me. Along with a few of your entrails, of course, but you needn't worry. That part is saved until you're far too gone to feel physical pain anymore. And you, your Highness," again, the title was spat as the being kneeled down, his face contorting even more as fangs descended from rotted gums, his mouth becoming larger, "will be the first to be dinned upon this evening."
Arthur began working even harder at his restraints, becoming desperate to get away. Around him he could hear his Knights pleading and spewing profanities in turn as they too fought harder for freedom. He knew that if he allowed himself to be captured by this thing's magic, then what had been said would come to pass. He would beg for death and to receive it would be a gift he would gladly accept. He couldn't let that happen. He had people depending on him, a kingdom depending on him; he couldn't die now, not now—
"No!" The roar froze all motion as it echoed off of the walls around them. Slowly, Arthur sucked in a breath he hadn't even realized he was holding. The man/demon/sorcerer/whatever it was oh god it wasn't human, was far closer to his face than he'd imagined but slowly it withdrew all while cocking its head toward Arthur's right.
"Well, well, isn't this interesting?" The thing seemed to be talking to itself as it gazed at Merlin who was now sitting silently all the while staring defiantly back.
'Stupid, stupid idiot!' Arthur wanted to rage at him but didn't seem able to find his voice.
The thing slid closer to his manservant but the boy didn't move away. Through the fear that was paralyzing him Arthur couldn't help but feel a bit proud. Even he, himself, had shied away like a frightened child. As much as he may joke otherwise, Merlin really was one of the bravest souls he had ever met and he was proving that to still be true, even now in the presence of such an otherworldly creature.
"It seems I must apologize, Pendragon," the thing finally spoke, it's head still swiveling back and forth slightly as it seemed to drink in the sight of Merlin, "but it would only be rude to deny the great Emrys, would it not?"
At that name Merlin finally began to look afraid, though what significance the title could hold when Arthur had never heard it before in his life, he couldn't even begin to guess at.
"You're mistaken," Merlin gritted out, his voice shaking along with his limbs. The creature, whose skin had begun to look less human and more reptilian, hissed out a laugh.
"Oh, I don't think I am. I can sense it in you; it sings in your blood, the magic, oh, the beauty of it. I cannot wait to taste it. And your emotions, dear lords, your humanity is killing you."
All movement had stopped once again, trying to process this information that they had been just given.
"Magic?" Leon finally whispered before looking toward his Prince for guidance. Merlin was a good man. But he would do as he was commanded.
"That's not true," Arthur looked just as lost as Leon and the others. "He can't have magic, I would know!"
"Don't be so arrogant," the beast narrowed its eyes towards Camelot's heir as it lifted a hand to caress Merlin's cheek. Much as the boy tried to flinch away the shackles held him fast. "You know nothing of magic but what your ruler spews into your ears. Not all that are magic are blood and death. Sickening as it is, some are life and goodness. There cannot be one without the other and only fools would ignore such a fact."
"Liar!" Arthur raged against his bonds, not wanting to listen to this thing, not wanting to doubt in his father. But Merlin had yet to object to the accusation and was instead looking as if his whole world had crashed and burned. It couldn't be true. It couldn't. Merlin was big ears and goofy smiles. Late breakfasts and cold baths. He was brave and loyal to a fault and he was a friend, even if Arthur would never admit it aloud and this couldn't be happening.
"And, oh, the pain in this one. Soul deep. You've lost so much, child," the thing was back to purring as it ignored Arthur's inner turmoil, it's tongue elongating to resemble that of a snake's. Merlin's chest had begun heaving as his breaths became more labored, tears beginning to run unchecked from his eyes. It was clear that whatever he had planned to do to Arthur he was already unleashing upon his manservant.
And fight as they might against their bonds, there was nothing they could do.
Merlin was afraid.
He was well and properly afraid. To have his secret announced in such a way was bad enough but as things were now he didn't think he'd be living long enough to even begin to worry about burning at the stake. Regardless, he knew he would never forget that wounded look Arthur had shot his way, the one that screamed denial all the while knowing the truth. That face would be forever branded into his soul.
"You've lost so much, child," the beast, once resembling a human but now looking more like a giant reptile, continued to stroke his cheek gently as it's elongated tongue began flickering out of its mouth, as if it were tasting the air. "Oh, you poor thing. Will, your best friend. Freya, your first love. Even your father. All lost, all gone. Because of what? Your destiny?"
"Shut up," the words slipped from him without any thought. How could it know those names? How could it know any of this? He felt like he couldn't breathe, like his heart was being ripped from his very chest. He could see their faces in his mind's eye. The ones he'd loved and lost. He felt like he was losing them all over again. They were gone, gone, gone, dead and it was all his fault, all his—
"It was, wasn't it? You chose to protect your Prince instead of them. You could've protected them, Emrys. You're supposed to be so powerful, why couldn't you protect them?"
He was though, right? Even the Dragon had said how powerful he was, the most powerful, in fact. And he still couldn't save them. He still had lost them all.
"You protect the one who killed Freya. You protect the son of the man who tore your family apart, who chased after your father and forced him into a life of isolation, only to what? Expect him to come back and clean up Uther's mess? Or your mess, I should say. After all, it was you who released the Great Dragon, wasn't it? Those deaths are one your hands."
So many deaths were on his hands, oh gods, how many had died? Men, women, children burnt and bleeding and dying and he couldn't do a thing he'd caused this it was his fault he'd done this—
"Even Morgana, your so called friend. You could've helped her, Emrys. That's all she wanted. And yet you lied and turned her away and poisoned her, that's on you, Emrys, her hatred is on you; the twisted version of herself she's become is because of you. You're selfish and cowardly. Anything to protect your Prince, though, correct? Everyone else is just timber for the flames. You should really just die here. Once you're dead you can no longer hurt anyone else. It isn't fair for you to live while they all die. "
He had to protect Arthur it was his destiny he had to. He hadn't meant for this to happen, it had never been meant, he only wanted the peace he knew Arthur would bring. He would do anything for Arthur kill anyone for his Prince, his King, Arthur was and would always be his King he would die for him but he hadn't meant for so many others to die had never meant had never wanted he deserved to die he should just die I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry—
"It's okay." The words were spoken softly and Merlin could barely hear them over the sounds of his own sobs—when had he started crying?—and the shouts of the Knight's he could hear around him to stop, please, just stop, leave him be but he would always hear Arthur's call, no matter what. "It's okay, Merlin. I don't blame you. I could never hate you. It's okay."
"No," the creature still stood before him, its face now merely centimeters from his own, its eyes burning so brightly they were practically orange. It was growling now, as if it were losing control of the situation. And it was because Merlin could feel his mind clearing, his guilt being packed away back into the depths of his thoughts to wait for long dark nights alone. "It isn't okay; those sins can't just be washed away with a single word."
And he was right. They couldn't be washed away, not ever. So many had died and there was nothing he could ever do to change that fact. But.
"Your death won't wash them away, either, Merlin. You know it won't. It's okay. I forgive you." And just like that it almost felt like Merlin was free. The guilt would always be there. The pain would always be there. But Arthur was there too, and Gwen and Gaius and the Knights and his mother. He had so much still left to do, so many still left to protect and to live for and he'd be damned if he'd die here like this, while his friends still needed and depended on him.
"It's not that easy, Emrys, you know it isn't," the creature gripped his throat, trying to gain his attention, trying to take back control, to force Merlin under its spell once more. It was beginning to sound increasingly desperate. "They're still dead, Emrys!"
"My name," the words were growled out as fists became clenched and blue eyes bled to gold, "is Merlin!"
There was a flash of warm golden light and then silent darkness. With barely a thought, Merlin relit the torches that surrounded them to reveal all five Knights and their Prince completely unharmed. In place of the creature and its three followers, stood fours piles of blackened ash. For a moment they all just breathed, not really quite sure what had just happened.
"Did you… did you just incinerate them?" Gwaine, of course, was the one who finally broke the silence.
"Uh, yeah… a little…." Merlin's voice came out hoarse, his eyelids drooping. His limbs had gone limp the second he'd seen his friends safe. He just couldn't hold himself up anymore.
"Bloody brilliant," Gwaine muttered with a shake of his head as he slipped the cuffs off. "Bastard's had the things spelled. Probably what the three lackey's were doing while the head honcho worked."
Within minutes all seven of them were free. Lancelot kneeled down next to the warlock and ran a hand fondly through his hair. "I am sorry that it has happened like this, my friend."
Merlin sighed, "I hadn't wanted him to find out like this. I had wanted to tell him myself."
Lancelot smiled gently, "Though perhaps it is for the best. Arthur is a great man. We must have faith in him."
Merlin could only nod at his friend's hushed words. His energy was leaving him by the second and he didn't know how much longer he'd be able to last. He could feel his eyes sliding shut.
"What's wrong with him?"
"Is he okay?"
"Merlin, answer me this instant!"
And the world faded away.
By the time they exited the cave daylight was breaking once again. They found their steeds as they had left them five miles north by a small creek. They saddled quickly, bundling Merlin up in front of Gwaine while Lancelot took the reins of the extra horse.
They quickly fell in line behind Arthur and all rode in silence, none ignorant to their Prince's mood. It was only to be expected after all. They had just found out their friend was a hidden sorcerer. None in their party was feeling quite up to chatting.
Gwaine could honestly say he didn't really care whether Merlin was magical or not. In his travels he had met many a sorcerer who could do magnificent things. He knew magic wasn't inherently evil. What hurt the most was that he hadn't been told. He viewed Merlin as his first, and closest, friend. He owed nearly everything he had to the boy. Did he honestly think Gwaine would reject him? Did he not trust him? But Gwaine knew that was rubbish. Of course Merlin hadn't told anyone. He was a bloody sorcerer living in Camelot, shining the Prince's boots for god's sakes! Gwaine had done many a foolish thing in his lifetime and even he had to admit that was beyond stupidity. Shooting a look at Arthur's blank face, he tightened his grip on his unconscious friends. He wouldn't let Merlin die. To hell with his vows, he would take Merlin and run if Arthur decided to execute him. He wouldn't even hesitate.
Elyan didn't know what to think. Merlin was a good man, was a close friend and meant quite a lot to his sister. But at the same time, his father had been put to death because of sorcery. But Merlin wasn't that type of person. Elyan knew this. Even under that thing's spell, he had expressed no ill will towards any of them. He had only expressed remorse for his actions. And Elyan knew a thing or two about longing for forgiveness. Not too long ago he himself was begging his sister to forgive and give him a second chance. And Merlin was a part of why he was granted such leniency. He couldn't forget that. As much as he wanted to uphold his vows, he didn't think he could stand by and let Merlin die.
Leon didn't want Merlin to die. He had been there when Merlin had been named Arthur's manservant, had seen the boy save Arthur's life time and time again all the while putting his own at risk. Merlin had gone above and beyond his duty, had followed them into battle without a moment's hesitation, had faced down monsters and dragons and had come back with the Prince victorious and smiling. He had the heart of a true Knight and Leon owed him a great debt for watching over Camelot's heir. But he also knew that he could not go against his commander's orders. He would not break his vows in such a way, no matter how much he may believe in Merlin. He would hate himself for it for the rest of his life if the boy was to be killed but he would not break his vows. He couldn't. He owed Arthur so much more than that. And so he would keep his peace and believe in his Prince and hope and pray to whatever gods might be listening that Merlin be granted leniency.
Percival barely had to think on it at all. He was not from Camelot and thus did not have the same fear of magic as those in the kingdom did. He had seen many a man do great things with magic, from fixing the unfixable to healing the unhealable; miracles that could only be dreamed at brought to life with a few muttered words and a brilliant flare of golden eyes. As far as he was concerned, magic was no different from a blade. It all depended on the wielder. But he also wasn't worried about having to break his vows. He may be quiet, and he may look like nothing but a grunt, but he was very perceptive. The way he had grown up after the death of his family, he had had to be. And he knew how close the Prince and his manservant were. Never spoken in words but they were as close as brothers. And though Arthur may be hurting now he would never order the death of one he knew to be good. He would lie to his own father if that's what it took. Percival would not be following him so faithfully if Arthur was the type of man to strike down good men so spitefully. And he could tell by Lancelot's calm gaze that he was thinking the same.
Arthur's own thoughts were calm. Calmer than he believed they would be. It all just made so much sense, in a twisted sort of way, and he couldn't believe he hadn't caught on sooner. The bloody idiot had practically been waving his magic all over the place; it was a miracle none of those accusations of sorcery had stuck. As soon as he had given himself a moment to think about it, it had all clicked into place. All the narrow escapes, the branches falling on their own, the times he'd regained consciousness only for Merlin to be there smiling at him and the beast they'd been battling dead.
He had only entertained the thought of Merlin being evil for a moment—not even. There was no way the bumbling buffoon had a malicious bone in his body. He had had countless opportunities over the years to take the life of Arthur and his father both and make it look like nothing but an unfortunate accident. But he'd never made so much as an attempt to actually harm Arthur. In fact, he did quite the opposite, throwing himself in the path of all sorts of threats just to keep Arthur safe. And especially after what that… thing had dragged out of him earlier—and how the words would haunt him forever, 'I deserve to die I'm sorry'—he had no doubt left at all. And he knew that, no matter what, he could not let Merlin die.
With his mind made up, he slowed his horse to a calm gait so he could be heard by his Knights. "About what happened, what was said…." He didn't quite know how to make this request. They had given so much for him already and here he was asking for so much more. "I don't… that is to say I was hoping…."
"We won't tell a soul," Percival's voice cut through, strong and sure. Looking back, Arthur could see identical smiles of pride and loyalty and lovelovelove on each of their faces and he couldn't stop himself from beaming back at them, equally as proud.
"Thank you," the words were choked as they left his mouth; heavy with things he couldn't even begin to know how to express. And he knew it wasn't just their loyalty to him or even to Camelot but for the lanky black-haired boy with the big ears and the ready smile who would do anything for anyone and that meant so much more to him, that his Knights would feel loyalty like this towards a servant; could call that servant a friend. He didn't think he'd ever been more proud of his men than in that moment. And he could see the kind of Kingdom he could make if he had them, and Merlin, by his side.
Merlin awoke feeling warm and safe, though his mind was fuzzy and slow to catch up. He could hear the sounds of Lancelot and Gwaine playfully arguing about something or other, Percival, Elyan and Leon's laughter drowning out the words.
He could sense Arthur's presence at his side, just as he knew the Prince knew that he was awake. Slowly, the memories of what had happened returned to him. Being captured, the man/creature/thing outing him as a user of magic and almost killing him in the process, Arthur's words—'I forgive you'—and then nothing. Arthur knew. And yet he couldn't bring himself to panic, not here, not by Arthur's side with the sounds of laughter and joy and togetherness echoing around them.
"Arthur?" His voice was weak and slurred but he forced it out all the same as he drew his eyes open. Arthur was looking down at him, his eyes softened in an expression of rare fondness.
"We're going to be just fine."
And so they were.
A/N: It's been awhile since I've written anything and posted it on here. Yeah, sorry about that! I've been working on one of my original stories. But, seeing as how I've been in Merlin Finale Depression for the last couple of months, I decided I'd try my hand at writing something. Hopefully none of them were TOO ooc? Anyway, as always, review and let me know what you think! And thank you so much for reading!
*EDIT 8/21/2016* I finally went back and fixed those damn line breaks. Hopefully it's easier to read now!