Disclaimer, I do not own Merlin.
This story is finished, all the chapters are written, but they just need to be edited, and tweaked a bit before posting.
I would like to thank Caldera32 for being such a wonderful Beta again and Veilwuarrah, for all her support and advice – Thank you both! Caldera very kindly did the cover art too.
This piece is set after the end of season 4, but before season 5, it is a sequel to my other story, Burning Amidst an Ocean, but I think it is possible to enjoy it on its own. I hope you like it. As always, feedback is greatly appreciated.
Chapter 1 Prologue: The vial
Appearances can be deceptive. It was hard to believe such a great power could hide in such an innocuous form, and that the victims of such a force would not even know they had been duped and manipulated.
A small vial was held between his thumb and index finger; he rotated it repeatedly and watched the air bubble rise and fall as he manoeuvred the little bottle between his digits. It rolled back and forth over his knuckles, into his palm, and back again; over and over. Occasionally the glass would chink against his silver thumb ring but the vial continued on its journey, never stopping. It was mesmerising, the power he held in his hand – and he knew exactly whom he was going to use it on.
He was proud of his wife, her independence and how she had grown into her role; he discussed almost everything with his love and valued her clear-headed counsel. The queen was away on state business and it couldn't have been at a worse time. He needed her calming presence right now because if she were here he probably would not even consider the course of action he was currently pursuing.
Arthur could not ask Merlin for advice as he usually would since the servant was the very cause of the anguish. Gaius was hardly objective in this matter and, as king, the knights looked up to him as their leader. In reality he knew Gwaine would gut him rather than agree to this plan and Leon had become much more protective of his servant lately so they would be no allies. Arthur's spouse was absent so he was left to brood and scheme alone - which was most unbefitting of the king who had created the round table. The royal would argue he'd been driven to it, that he had no choice. As soon as the monarch thought about it in those terms, Merlin's fate was sealed.
What the royal did not know was that his actions would result in something far more terrible and tragic than he could ever have imagined. Unfortunately the king was not blessed with second sight, for if he were he would have gotten rid of the tiny vial as soon as it came into his possession. He didn't understand what he was dealing with and his servant would pay the price of the king's ill-informed decision.
Three months ago there had been another failed attempt on his beloved Camelot. Nothing unusual in that, there were no shortages of enemies queuing up to try and have a piece of his glorious city or dislodge her monarch. None had been successful save for Morgana, and she had been dethroned relatively quickly - although not without losses. It amazed the king sometimes how they had been victorious in light of such unfavourable odds, but time and time again the seemingly impossible was achieved – almost like an invisible force was keeping them safe. Arthur did not want to dwell on that and what it meant; it was something he could not make sense of, just a feeling he got sometimes.
It was the method of attack that placed this attempt apart from the others, thus setting the wheels in motion for the events that would follow. Gaius had frowned upon it and said that even in the days of the Old Religion such practices had been considered unethical. Unfortunately, despite his misgivings, a seed was planted that day. It took root, then grew and prospered in the fertile ground of Arthur's mind. It became a poisonous weed whose tendrils worked their way into every corner and crevice, choking the king's reason until the royal saw no other way.
In truth, the doubts began long before then - after his best friend had nearly died. A quest to a neighbouring kingdom across a vast ocean had almost ended in disaster when Merlin fell in the sea, almost drowned, and developed a life threatening fever. In his delirium the servant had disclosed a forbidden but ultimately tragic relationship with a druid girl. It was Arthur's hand that had stolen her life, but miraculously his friend had held no grudge -had even forgiven the heinous deed. As his servant was nursed back to health scars and mutilations were revealed that covered his frail body, gained protecting loved ones and serving his king. It astounded Arthur that despite the burdens the young man carried (pain that would crush a lesser man) his friend could take such simple pleasure in the world around him, could be optimistic in the face of danger and seek goodness where others saw a pit of despair. Why pursue this if Merlin is so seemingly wholesome? Because I know he's lying to me and has done for quite some time.
Things were supposed to be different when they got back to Camelot, and they were, but when Arthur tried to sit Merlin down and reopen their discussion other things got in the way; chores that needed attending, strange bangs that must be investigated. In desperation Arthur had even tried to loosen his friends tongue with alcohol, but Gwaine had also been at the tavern and his antics had caused such a commotion that they'd been forced to flee, their merry friend in tow. This debacle left the royal's opportunity for questions squandered yet again. The king had learnt much about Merlin over the years and had discovered some startling revelations on that fateful voyage but there were still gaps in his knowledge and all his servant offered was an impenetrable wall of silence and deflection.
At first, Arthur accepted some things were hidden; there were secrets he was just not meant to know. It irked him, though; a darkness that got under his skin and itched. Once that black mark was scratched it became a wound; a weeping chasm that could not be ignored and would offer no peace until that final truth was known.
Thus the doubts began the uncertainty, the suspicion, and finally the knowledge that Merlin kept a grave secret. What could it possibly be? What could be worse than the things I have already discovered? Why will he not tell me? We are friends, aren't we? He knows everything about me, but sometimes I think I know nothing -that I have only scratched the surface. That's not how friendship works.
The monarch braced himself, dug deep, and grasped his wavering resolve. With a harsh sigh he broke the wax seal, uncorked the tiny vial, and poured the contents into a water-skin. The warrior's hands shook as he performed the task, but not a drop was spilled. Now all he had to do was get Merlin to drink the potion, and wait. This was the right thing to do; he had no choice. Then why were his palms slippery, his mouth dry, and his skin crawling at the wrongness of what he was about to do?
The king had good instincts, if he had listened to them all that would follow could have been avoided – but he was deaf, stubborn, and thought he knew best. That was his bane and Merlin would pay the price for it - with his life.