"Something's bothering you, Arthur," I built up my courage to say at last. "What is it?"
Still watching the campfire to avoid my eyes, Arthur didn't respond, instead busying himself about straightening his bedroll beside him.
"Arthur," I tried again, growing anxious for an answer. To see him quiet and brooding was one thing, but cold? That was cause for worry.
"We should get some sleep," Arthur said stiffly, pulling back the blanket and uprooting his work.
I wasn't about to let him so easily hide what was on his mind, and moved around the fire to sit closer across from him, stopping my master with one hand firmly around his wrist.
The glare I received was disturbing to say the least. "Release me," Arthur demanded.
Faltering under that look, I obeyed without further question, returning to my side of the fire.
From sheltered glances, I noticed that Arthur's stare had dropped to the ground, where it remained for a long while. When he next spoke, it sounded distant and abrupt to my ears, though that was not all due to the preceding silence.
"I saw what you did."
Gradually, I met his eyes, ready to deny what I knew I wouldn't be able to escape. "What?"
"Don't pretend to not know what I'm talking about!" Arthur answered with a scowl. "Fire doesn't start by itself, Merlin; don't think you can trick me into thinking otherwise."
"…I wouldn't think of doing that," I replied quietly, my own gaze downcast; suddenly understanding the anger and hurt that had entered the prince's demeanor, making it all the more painful to observe. It was too late to realize that I should have waited longer after he'd left to collect firewood.
It was strange how, after all that I'd gone through to keep this hidden, it had slipped out all the same- and on account of something so trivial as this very campfire. I would have guessed for this moment to feel much more horrible and frightening than I could have imagined, and yet, I found myself almost numb to it. Except for my reaction to Arthur's anger, I'm not sure that I knew how to feel.
"How long have you hidden this?"
I winced at the harsh tone. I suppose I'd initially hoped for more understanding on his part, foolish though that was. "Arthur-"
"How long have you been lying to me?"
"Listen, I never wanted to lie to you, or anyone. It's hard to explain, but- if I'd not kept this secret, I would be dead now."
"Is that so far from what you deserve?" Arthur ranted. I hoped he didn't mean what he was saying, but hoping was a precarious business. "Sorcery was outlawed for a reason, Merlin," he went on, "and if you don't live by the laws, you will end up paying for it."
I hated the way that he sounded just like his father when he said that. "I was born this way, Arthur; I can't help who I am- nor do I want to." I couldn't stop myself from going on- for how else to make him understand? "This… ability was given me for a reason. I've never used it to corrupt, or to gain power for myself, and I never would." I sighed when Arthur's distrusting scowl only deepened. "How can you consider me evil for that?"
"Merlin, it's against the laws of Camelot," the prince answered sternly. "It doesn't matter how you were born, you are not allowed to practice magic."
I shook my head with a grimace. This was even more difficult to explain. "Arthur, magic isn't just something I was born with, it's… it's a part of me; it's who I am."
I swallowed hard as I thought of what I was about to ask, for I had to know- what would Arthur's course of action be, now that he'd learnt the truth?
"I know that you're the king's son," I began, "and I don't ask that you lie to him, but… you know that he'd have me killed if he were to find out about this." I felt a bit of hope when I saw how conflicted the prince appeared to be about that.
"No one has to practice magic, Merlin," he said in a voice of steel, which I hadn't expected. He was speaking to me almost as he did to an enemy. "You didn't have to."
"But would it have made a difference, whether I used my powers or not? Not to your father. That's not what matters to him. You know the kind of bitterness he has against sorcery; it clouds his judgement. The sentences he gives to sorcerers are nearly always so unfair and unreasonable-"
"Who are you to challenge the king's judgement, Merlin?" Arthur questioned. It was one thing to dislike the glare he bent on me- but I was also coming to fear it.
"…I'm not challenging him, or you," I said gently, holding his gaze despite the toll it took on the composure I was doing my best to maintain. "All I want is… just the chance to be who I am. And that's against the law. But- …Arthur, I know I have no right to ask this, but if you were to not tell anyone…" I trailed off, my hope diminishing. Arthur's scowl hardened, so much that I barely recognized him anymore.
"So you would have me betray him," he suggested, beneath his breath, though I heard him perfectly well.
"No," I insisted, frowning with hurt by what he must be thinking of me.
Arthur shook his head, briefly rubbing his temples with his forefingers. "It's funny really," he said, sounding anything but amused. "All these past years, you've been hiding under our very noses. How many sorcerers have we caught and killed during then- the whole time missing the one masquerading as a simple, idiotic servant?"
There was a difference in his voice just then. I'd grown so used to hearing him call me an idiot, but the way he said it that time- it stung. And it never stings.
"I'm sorry it had to be like this," I whispered, realizing that I hadn't a right or reason to hope anymore.
"So am I," Arthur answered promptly, in a tone that was oddly light for the conversation.
I just slightly inclined my head, afraid to ask… "What do you mean?"
It encouraged me that he appeared almost sympathetic when he said, "If you hadn't given yourself away, Merlin… well, we might have gone on being- whatever it is that we were."
He had nearly said 'friends'- I was sure of it, but even more clear was his use of the past tense.
Suddenly interested in twisting the ring on his finger, Arthur's eyes didn't stray from it as he continued. "You could have gone on fooling everyone- if you hadn't been… such an idiot."
His grim tone made my blood feel cold. "What are you going to do?"
Seconds passed slowly; still he didn't respond.
"I would… understand… if you were to turn me in," I told him, painful though it was. "I mean- you seem to think that I've deliberately hurt you, but please, believe me when I tell you, it was never my intention to do that. Still, I wouldn't blame you if-"
"I can't just watch you die, Merlin!" Arthur exclaimed. His expression had never been more unbearable, because now, pain and concern overruled the anger. "…But I will not betray my father," he finished.
"I'll accept whatever sentence you decide for me," I said finally. Forcing myself to meet his troubled eyes and adopting a quiet solemnity to secure his full attention, I went on. "But know, Arthur, that whatever happens, my loyalty has always been to you, and that won't change."
Arthur snorted, raising his eyes. "How can I trust a man who's lied to me?"
I didn't know what I should say to that; but I did have to wonder whether this was angry rambling, or truly how he was coming to look on me. The person who'd lied to him; not the servant who'd become a friend, or even the boy who'd saved his life- more times than he knew. It had been a long, hard road, getting him to respect me for who he thought I was. Now what was that worth, considering that he couldn't even accept who I really was?
"Why did you ever have to come to Camelot, Merlin?" Arthur asked, his voice casual, almost disinterested. "You could've just saved everyone the trouble."
"Are you saying that you wish we'd never even met?" He couldn't mean that.
Only a brief hesitation preceded Arthur's nod as he stared me down once again.
I took to fiddling with the hem of my sleeve as I gathered the will to speak. "Are you going to turn me in? …Will you at least tell me what's going to happen to me?"
That time he didn't hesitate to shake his head. "No, I won't- I can't because, I'm not sure myself."
It was a rare thing that he ever looked so uncertain, and on the occasions that he did- well, he'd taken to seeking my advice, and usually took it. But torn between the role of confidant and that of captor, he shook his head.
"I need some time to think," he said, got to his feet, and walked away. I remained sitting for some time before laying out my bedroll and trying to get some sleep.
…Seeing that I wasn't totally resigned to my fate, one can understand why I didn't catch a wink.
I paid no heed to where I was; just walked in a straight line until I reached a place where I was no longer touched by the firelight. When that happened, and I did stop, my thoughts became more functional.
Of all the things I could have imagined of Merlin, this was not one of them. And because of this new revelation, I held his life in my hands.
However, still getting over the surprise of the thought, I wondered- how could I make the decision of whether he would live or die?
In the back of my mind, I knew I could never turn Merlin in to be executed, no matter what he'd done, because- harmless fool that he is- I knew he could never do anything to deserve such a heavy sentence- nor would I be willing to give it to him.
But then there was my father- the king to whom I'd sworn my allegiance. If he ever found out that I'd covered for a sorcerer- never mind that this sorcerer was a comrade to whom I owed my life- he might dismiss me from the royal court altogether. Not to mention that I'd never forgive myself for disobeying him behind his back.
…Yet I would have had more trouble forgiving myself for standing by and letting my servant be killed; my personal fate wasn't so horrible as what would await him were the truth discovered. Allowing his death was something that I knew I couldn't do… but to send him away, alone,- was that really what he deserved?
He'd been lying to me all this time, I remembered. I reminded myself what a liar he was; a sneaking, lying, fraud…
And I just couldn't bring myself to truly hate him for it. He told me he'd been born with magic, and I believed him- throwing caution to the wind, I suppose, but it was just so natural to trust Merlin, even in spite of this. Perhaps it was foolish to trust him, but if having magic had happened to him- rather than him choosing to practice it entirely of his own accord- then how guilty was he? …And how could I send him away?
Quite simply. I can tell him that he should be grateful that I'm turning him out, instead of turning him in.
Then there was the thought that I might simply do as he'd asked. I might keep his secret, and act as if I'd not seen a thing.
But that would mean lying to my father. Not that it wasn't doing so to let him get away, though it wasn't the same. To allow him to continue to fool the king would be as good as betraying him, and that was another thing I could never do.
The place where my loyalty lay was in question. Would I help Merlin- because he was much more than just a servant; because he was my friend- or go by my father's rules- because he was the king, and I'd sworn on my life to obey him?
One way or another, this wouldn't be easy on Merlin or myself.
It was at least an hour later when I returned to our campfire. I didn't overlook the fact that its making was the accidental cause of my troubled mind tonight.
Merlin lay with his back to it- unmoving, though I doubted he was asleep. I imagine that his state of mind was even more troubled than my own. Some time after I'd lain down in my own bedding, I heard him move, but couldn't bring myself to turn and face him when he began to speak.
"I am sorry that I lied, Arthur," he told me softly. "I'm really sorry. For so long, I have wanted to tell you. And now I just wish that you could understand. …No matter what you decide, I do want you to forgive me, if you can."
I shifted, lying flat on my back where I could turn my head slightly, just enough to look at him.
"I never wanted to lie to you," he whispered, desperately searching my face.
I looked away again. "But you did, Merlin," I replied simply. No sooner did I ask myself, Why do I always choose the words that I know will cut the deepest?