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Frayed

Chapter Text


The Great Hall was filled to the brim with guests wearing their finest outfits. Decorations festooned the walls while sunlight poured in through the open windows, as if the very heavens were celebrating along with everyone else. The cheers of the people soared out into the summer air.

The woman on the throne next to the king smiled and waved at the mass of people. The crowd called out, “Long live the Queen! Long live the Queen!” The deafening chants spilled out the windows, floated on the breeze, and carried all the way to the Valley of the Fallen Kings, ready to torment her…

A hand settled upon Morgana's back, and she jerked awake with a start. She whipped her dagger out of her dress and thrust it towads the intruder's neck.

“My lady!” It was only Agravaine, come to beg for scraps of attention, no doubt.

“You better have a good reason for scaring me like that!” She slowly returned the dagger to its hiding place and settled back in the rickety chair in front of the fire. It was early spring, and this dump of a hut that she lived in was always chilly and damp.

“I'm afraid I do.” Agravaine pulled up a chair, making himself at home in a way that completely grated on her nerves. If only she didn't need him still…

“Arthur is to make Guinevere his queen.” He sounded as if he wanted to vomit.

“It's just like in my dream. I will not see that woman upon my throne!” Morgana was always angry, but now it boiled over.

“I don't see how we can stop her.”

Morgana racked her brain for ideas. She had heard of something once. . . . Yes, that might work.

“I have heard tell of a way to poison the bond between soulmates, to cause the one to hate the other. I will have to make some inquiries. But I will need something of Arthur's, something that he wears all of the time.”

Agravaine tipped his chair back precariously, a sneer etched across his face. “He wears my sister's ring. How I long to rip it off his unworthy finger.”

Morgana couldn't help but smirk at the irony of using the queen's ring to get revenge on the son who had killed her. “And if that ring could be used to keep a servant from sitting on Ygraine’s throne?”

“That would be poetic, my lady. Sweet Ygraine would turn in her grave if she knew that the son she was sacrificed for lowered himself to consorting with garbage.”

“Bring me that ring before the next full moon. I have a journey to make, but it should not take long. The Dochraid will know the answers I seek.”

Morgana rose and began preparing for her trip, growing happier as she did. “This should be very painful for Gwen—both physically and mentally.” She was stuffing food into a pack when she came up with the most delicious thought. “And if Arthur executes her, as is likely, the spell will break and he will realize what he has done. The guilt and despair will destroy him!”

As she followed Agravaine out the door, him to return to Camelot, her to seek the Dochraid, delight settled all the way into the marrow of her bones. It was just unfortunate that she hadn't thought to do this sooner.

Chapter Text


The air grew chilly as the spring night settled over the land. Arthur stood in front of the fire, absentmindedly cracking nuts and watching Merlin prepare the room for bed time. Merlin was dawdling, as usual. Arthur always said it was laziness, but the truth was that Merlin just didn't want to be sent home. As long as there was still work to do, he could justify staying late into the night.

Things had been tense between him and Arthur ever since Gaius had been kidnapped and Arthur had assumed Gaius had been a traitor. No, check that. Things had been tense ever since Agravaine had showed up at the castle, pretending to be the loving uncle, but sabotaging Arthur at every turn. If only the prat would see it…

A knock sounded at the locked door. Merlin looked to Arthur, who nodded, so Merlin went to open it. Of course it would be the treacherous snake, come to interrupt one of Merlin’s few moments of relative peace.

Agravaine pushed roughly past Merlin, paying him no heed. Merlin backed into the wall, trying to avoid being elbowed, and hit his head on a sconce attached to the wall. He would have protested, but Agravaine was already speaking to Arthur, evidently in a rush to complete his errand.

“My Lord,” he said, in his oiliest voice. How Arthur didn't notice was a mystery to Merlin.

“Uncle,” Arthur replied shortly, clearly not pleased by this interruption.

“I wished to discuss the preparations for the celebration of your mother's birthday.”

Arthur sighed. “It's hardly a celebration, Uncle. There will only be a dinner for some of those in the castle who knew her, a time to share stories about her. My father would have me not know them, but now he is gone, I would like to know about both of my parents.”

This had actually been Merlin's idea, though he would never get credit for it. But it seemed a shame that Arthur knew so little about his mother. It was also a liability, as Morgause had so clearly shown, back before everything had started to go so badly wrong.

So Merlin had suggested a dinner on Ygraine’s birthday, with guests invited to tell stories of the former queen. He knew there were many in the castle who still remembered her with love. Indeed, both Gaius and Geoffrey had been excited for weeks now, discussing which memories they would like to recount for their new king.

Agravaine nodded his head. “I think it's a wonderful idea, Arthur. My sister has been too long forgotten. She was an amazing lady, deserving of remembrance and honour.”

Arthur turned away from his uncle and gazed back at the fire. Merlin could see the sadness weighing down on his body, the regret that he would never know the mother who had sacrificed everything for him. Merlin knew that Arthur clung to his uncle as a last connection to his lost mother.

“So what can I help you with, Uncle?”

“I've taken care of all the preparations. I just had noticed. . . . You wear her ring. I see that it is appearing dulled and sullied with age. I was wondering if. . . .” Agravaine trailed off, as if uncertain. Merlin wondered what he was playing at.

“Come, Uncle, don't be shy.” Arthur sounded impatient, and Merlin couldn't blame him. On some level, Arthur had to dislike his uncle's company. He certainly tried to avoid it often enough.

“I was wondering if you would let me take it and have it polished for you. It seems . . . disrespectful to her memory, to let it be so tarnished.”

Merlin frowned from where he was standing in the shadows by the door. He had thought that he had done a decent job keeping Arthur's rings and crowns polished, along with all the armour and whatever else Arthur was always throwing at him. Apparently Arthur thought so too, because his forehead wrinkled in confusion.

“Merlin has already polished that ring. It is perfectly fine, though I thank you for your concern.”

A brief flicker of panic crossed Agravaine’s features, though Merlin wouldn't have noticed if he hadn't been studying him so closely. “Come now, Arthur. I'm sure the boy does a tolerable job polishing your armour, but the queen's ring requires a delicate touch which he would be quite unable to provide. You know how clumsy and blundering he is. . . .”

Arthur turned back to his uncle, a dangerous look in his eyes. Agravaine seemed to realize that he had gone too far and adopted a placatory tone. “My Lord. Arthur. I know a jeweller in town who works miracles. The ring will sparkle as if it were brand new. Please. Let me do this for you, in memory of my dear sweet sister.”

Arthur twisted the ring on his left index finger, clearly not wanting to give it to Agravaine. Merlin wondered if he wasn't as fond of his uncle as it appeared. Finally, Arthur pulled it off his finger.

“I expect it back before her birthday.” He pressed it into Agravaine’s palm.

“Yes, my Lord. Thank you. It eases my heart to know that you will help me honour her memory.” Agravaine bowed, before scuttling out of the room. Merlin thought he looked like a beady-eyed insect, perhaps a black beetle in search of its next meal. He held the door open for him, then closed it with extra gusto.

“Did you just slam the door on my uncle, Merlin?”

Merlin turned and blinked at Arthur innocently. “Me? Slam the door? I would only do that for someone who deserved it.”

Arthur shook his head, then began stripping off his clothing in preparation for bed. Merlin gulped at the sight and looked away. He went to the bed, pulling back the covers, then went to blow out the candles.

Merlin knew he was on thin ice when it came to his suspicions, but he had to try. “You have to admit that was strange, though. Since when does Agravaine pay attention to jewelry?”

Arthur balled up his trousers and chucked them straight at Merlin's head. Merlin merely caught them and moved to put them away. “It's his dead sister's ring. Of course he cares. He probably misses her much more than I ever could. How could I, when I never knew her?”

Merlin knew he would get nowhere when Arthur was feeling maudlin over his mother. Instead, he waited patiently for Arthur to crawl into bed, before blowing out the last candle and heading home.

“Good night, Arthur,” he said softly.

He shut the door before he could hear a response.

Chapter Text


It had been a busy week for Merlin. Between the preparations for the queen's birthday dinner and Arthur's secret plans to propose to Gwen, on top of all his regular duties, Merlin was run ragged. Arthur had seemed to sense his exhaustion, because he dismissed him right after dinner. It was a sweet gesture (though Merlin had a difficult time trying to reconcile “Arthur” and “sweet”). Merlin couldn't help but be disappointed, though. The quiet time with Arthur before bed was his favourite of the day. And now, instead of puttering around in a warm and peaceful room, he was being sent through the chill of the evening to attend a birth in the lower town. Gaius had declared Merlin ready to assist at routine births, as long as he promised to call for help should complications arise. This was great for Gaius, who could now sleep more than he had in years. It was not so great for Merlin, who had no aspirations of midwifery and many aspirations for rest.

Merlin arrived shortly after sunset. The labor was progressing well, and Merlin wondered why he even needed to be there. But it was Mary's first child, and both she and her husband John seemed nervous and overwhelmed. There were neighbour women in attendance, taking care of everything fine on their own. So Merlin let them do it and sank down onto the floor against the wall, closing his eyes but keeping his ears open, in case he was needed.

Several hours went by in this fashion. No one could relax, as the groans of the mother-to-be were loud and insistent. It was nearly bedtime when the baby’s head finally crowned. The neighbour women exclaimed over the amount of hair they could see. They promised Mary that she would be done any minute now. Mary pushed and screamed, screamed and pushed, but the baby's head did not budge. The women grew nervous and begged for Merlin to come do his job.

Merlin remembered other times with Gaius when the child had been stuck. He knew that it could result in the death of both child and mother if not resolved. He sent one of the women to fetch Gaius. Then he tried to do as Gaius had taught. He worked his hands into the birth canal and around the baby's head. He pulled gently as the mother screamed through her next contraction. Merlin had a brief moment of terror that he was going to kill them both, but then the child’s head finally slipped free. The cord was wrapped round the baby’s neck multiple times, and the baby was very blue. Merlin yelled frantically for a knife, which one of the women quickly provided. It was still hot from being placed in the fire. He cut the loops of the cord rapidly, then yelled at Mary to push again. The baby's body slid out, and Merlin reached to make sure that the newborn was breathing. As he did so, he grew extremely light-headed and hot. Strange, as he'd never reacted poorly to blood before. He shook his head, trying to clear it without dropping the baby. There was a piercing pain in his chest, a terrible burning. His vision grew dim, and he tried to thrust the baby at one of the women standing nearby. He wasn't sure if he managed before he hit the floor.

Chapter Text


The sun was streaming in through the window when Merlin woke up. He looked around, confused, finding that he had been sleeping on the floor of a strange house. The sound of a baby crying jerked him up into a sitting position. He was still in the hut from the night before, where he had obviously been left to sleep on the floor. He felt dizzy and saw strange flashes of light that he knew were not actually there. His head hurt horribly, and he felt like vomiting. He groaned and covered his eyes with his hands.

John, the new baby's father, heard him and came over to say good morning. He chuckled at him. “Didn't take you for the type to faint at the sight of blood. Think you might be in the wrong profession there, lad.”

Merlin tried to look up at the man, but felt too ill to manage. “Definitely the wrong profession,” he croaked. Not that the sight of blood was a problem. He was just too busy running around after Arthur to take up a career in medicine, no matter how much Gaius might wish it.

John sounded concerned. “You feeling all right there, son? You don't look too good. The physician said you were just tired and to let you sleep on the floor, but you don't look much better.”

Merlin swallowed down the nausea rising in his throat. “I'll… be okay. Probably just ate something funny.”

“You want some breakfast? We don't have much, but I think the porridge is still warm.”

The idea of food made Merlin's stomach churn. His mouth was painfully dry.

“May I have some water?” he whispered, barely able to get the words out.

“Of course!” John seemed eager to help him. “You know, that doctor of yours said that if you hadn't been so quick-thinking, both Mary and the babe could have died. If there's ever anything we can do for you, you just let us know.”

He returned shortly with a clay cup filled with water, which he placed into Merlin's hands. Merlin still hadn't opened his eyes and was startled by the sudden presence of the heavy cup. He almost dropped it. John helped him catch it, and to Merlin's embarrassment, he helped him lift it for drinking. Merlin would have protested, but he felt so miserable and weak that he didn't see any way around it.

After he had drunk as much as his stomach would tolerate (which was only a few sips), he lay back down on the hard floor.

“I'm just . . . gonna . . . rest here a while. If you don't mind.”

John was muttering something about getting a blanket, but Merlin’s mind was far away, following the thread of magic that always connected him to Arthur. He tugged on that cord often, loving the reassurance of knowing that Arthur was nearby, that the two of them had a destiny together. It was a reassuring constant in the chaos of his life.

As Merlin felt sleep coming over him again, ready to chase away the misery of his sudden illness, he searched for the thread. It took longer than usual to find. And when he did, it was to feel that it had somehow diminished from its normal state. It felt brittle, almost ready to snap. Merlin could barely sense Arthur's presence at the other end of it. The thoughtful part of his head sounded an alarm, insisting that this was something Merlin should be worried about. But the rest of his brain vetoed any such concern as it sunk out of misery and into sleep.

Chapter Text


When Merlin woke up again, it was dark. He was still on the floor, but someone had laid a blanket over him. He felt better than he had before, but was still miserable. It was just at a more tolerable level now. He took a moment to feel for Arthur, but the thread between them had decayed even further. Merlin began to panic that something had happened to Arthur.

He sat up with a groan, pushing the blanket off. There was no light in the house, and he heard the soft breathing of people asleep. He longed to ask them if anyone had come looking for him. Surely Gaius would have been worried? And if something was wrong with Arthur, wouldn't someone have come to find him right away?

But Merlin thought it would be rude to wake them, especially knowing how little sleep new parents got. So he stood up and walked silently to the door. He still felt nauseated and his head was pounding, but at least his body seemed mostly functional now.

As he eased his way out of the small house, he wondered if perhaps his illness was the reason the connection to Arthur felt so frayed. Arthur was most likely perfectly fine, the smug prat, tucked up warm in his bed and dreaming of Gwen.

Halfway home, Merlin vomited in the dirt. It was gross having to wipe himself up with his neckerchief. But he felt better afterwards and made it the rest of the way to Gaius’ chambers without incident. He expected Gaius to be asleep, but when he opened the door, Gaius was sitting at a table, a lamp lighting up a book he was reading.

“Merlin!” he said. “Where’ve you been? Arthur went ballistic after you didn't show up for work today. He swore up and down that you were in the tavern again—” Gaius paused, looked at Merlin, then sniffed the air. Merlin knew that he smelled of sick.

Gaius’ eyebrow quirked. “Have you been in the tavern? You look like you've a bad case of alcohol sickness.”

Merlin collapsed into a chair. “No, Gaius,” he rasped. His mouth was so dry he could barely talk. Gaius looked worried and hurried to get him some water. After a few sips, Merlin continued. “I must have eaten something bad. I'm sure it's not serious.”

Gaius didn't look convinced. “You've been at John and Mary's house this whole time?”

Merlin nodded, then took another sip of water.

“Have you had anything to eat? I have some bread and cheese left for you.”

Merlin shook his head. “No thank you, Gaius. I really just want to sleep some more. Has Arthur had any trouble while I was gone?”

Gaius pursed his lips. “Nothing to report, really. He’s just seemed more agitated than usual, somehow. . . .”

“You didn't tell him I was in the tavern again, did you?” Merlin asked sharply.

Gaius shook his head. “No, no, but when I said you were doing medical errands for me, I don't think he believed it. He really seems determined to think the worst of you sometimes.”

Merlin yawned, too used to Arthur's belittling attitude to worry about it much. No matter how harsh he could seem, deep down Merlin knew that Arthur was fond of him. Just like Merlin was fond of Arthur, despite the arrogance and condescension.

“I'll deal with the prat in the morning. Do you think you could wake me up, Gaius? My body is so out of sorts I'm not sure I'll get up on time.”

“Of course, my boy. I do hope you feel better tomorrow.”

Merlin beamed a smile at him. “I'm sure I will, Gaius. Goodnight.”

Chapter Text


Merlin did not feel better in the morning. But when Gaius woke him, he dragged himself out of bed. He was getting used to the constant nausea and headache, or so he told himself. Nothing to worry about. He refused breakfast, aside from some sips of water, and headed off to wake the royal prat. He hoped Arthur wouldn't be too mad at him for not showing up yesterday.

He nodded to the guards outside of Arthur's door, summoned up as much energy as he could muster, and threw open the door to the king's chambers. “Up and at ‘em, lazy daisy! It's a beautiful day!” Merlin couldn't actually remember if it was a beautiful day, but no matter. Nothing irritated Arthur like being chipper before breakfast.

Merlin yanked open the curtains to see that the sun was, in fact, shining. Then he turned to make sure he had successfully awakened the prat. What he saw made him take a step backwards.

Arthur had sat up in bed and was glaring at him in a way Merlin had never seen before. If he didn't know better, he would have said there was hatred shining in Arthur's eyes. His jaw was clenched tight, and his hands were balled into fists.

Merlin swallowed down some nausea, gulped, then asked, “Is there something the matter, Arthur?”

“Where were you yesterday? I needed you, and you never sent word.”

That had happened multiple times before, but Arthur had never reacted quite like this.

“I was helping with the delivery of a baby. Didn't Gaius tell you?”

Arthur snorted in disbelief. “That was two nights ago. Where have you been since then? Celebrating in the tavern?”

“Of course not! There was just . . . a lot of stuff to take care of before I could go. . . .” Merlin worked to find a rationale that Arthur would accept. “The baby almost strangled at birth and needed some extra monitoring.”

All this was true, of course, though Merlin had been in no position to actually do the monitoring. But Gaius had told Arthur that Merlin had been helping with medical errands, so best to keep to that story.

Arthur rose from the bed and stalked towards Merlin. His bare chest glistened with sweat, even though the room seemed rather chilly. His face was flushed, but whether from anger or illness, Merlin couldn't tell.

“You want to know what I think?” Arthur said dangerously, advancing towards Merlin till he was backed up against a wall. “I think you were at the tavern. Drinking. Again.” He pressed one hand up against Merlin's neck thoughtfully, as if deciding whether it'd be fun to strangle him or not. “Ever since Lancelot died, you've just been a whiny baby, crying for your lost love, drinking your pain away and completely neglecting your responsibilities to me!”

Merlin felt a stab of fear at the insanity of Arthur's accusations. “Arthur! Yes, of course I miss Lancelot, but he was not—”

Arthur's other hand rested gently on Merlin's cheek, his thumb pressing against his lips. Merlin noticed that Ygraine’s ring was back in its place on Arthur's first finger.

“I bet you wish that I had gone through the veil, instead of him. He always was the perfect one, wasn't he? After you recovered from the dorocha attack, why did you even come back? You two could have run off together and left me to my fate.” Arthur was pushing harder on his throat with each word. Merlin knew he could use magic to throw him off at anytime, but was hopeful that Arthur would come to his senses soon.

It was very hard to speak now, but Merlin tried anyway. “Arthur! You know it was not like that!”

“I saw the way you looked at him, as if he were the only star in the sky. . . . Of course, he only had eyes for Guinevere.”

“Arthur. This isn't like you.”

Arthur leaned in, till their faces were very close together. “Did you long for him to kiss you . . . ? Is that what cured you from the dorocha? A good shagging to warm you through?”

Arthur's sharp blue eyes were boring into Merlin's as if they could actually cut into them. Merlin tried to pull back farther, but there was nowhere for him to go.

“I suppose it was his idea to come back to the Isle of the Blessed and go through the veil. He knew that he could never have Guinevere and was disgusted with himself for having been with you. Death was preferable at that point.”

Merlin's head was pounding, and he felt nauseated and faint. Everything was surreal. This was not Arthur. . . .

Arthur leaned in all the way and kissed him as if he were a wolf tearing into a freshly-killed deer. It was feral, and painful, but Merlin couldn't help relishing it, wishing he could respond even though Arthur was so fierce there wasn't much Merlin could do.

There was also the fact that Merlin knew this wasn't right. This was not his Arthur, no matter how much he may have day-dreamed of similar situations. Something was definitely wrong.

Arthur pulled back slightly. His eyes glinted. “You liked that, didn't you? So quick to forget Lancelot, then? So fickle? Are you even capable of love, Merlin?”

Arthur slammed his lips into Merlin's again, pressing their bodies together so tightly Merlin's chest couldn't expand. Arthur bit him on the lip, then stepped back with no warning.

As soon as Arthur let go of him, Merlin leaned forward and vomited the little water he had drunk for breakfast all over his shirt. He took a frantic breath for air and collapsed into a hunched position on the floor.

“You have been drinking.” Arthur sounded thoroughly disgusted. He called loudly to the hallway. “Guards!”

Two guards came in, looking around as if they expected trouble. Arthur paid them little heed, instead staring down contemptuously at Merlin, who was still on the floor, gasping for air.

“Take this drunkard and put him in the stocks until nightfall.”

Merlin looked up at Arthur. “I haven't been drinking, you prat!”

When Arthur spoke again, he didn't even deign to look down at Merlin. “I expect you back in time to serve dinner in the Great Hall. I'm sure some time out in the cold will help sober you up.”

Merlin could only stare at him in disbelief. What on earth was going on?

Chapter Text

Merlin had been too overwhelmed by everything that had happened to protest when each of the guards grabbed an arm and dragged him away. What the hell had all that been about?

It was a horrible day in the stocks. Although there had been that brief period of sunshine in the morning, clouds had moved in. Rain developed and showered down intermittently for much of the day. The wind whipped past him, wicking away any warmth he managed to generate. Of course no one had bothered to let him bring his jacket. At least the weather kept away any spectators wanting to pelt him with rotten food. He still felt ill and was surprisingly upset by Arthur's accusations. Yes, he had admired Lancelot, but not in the way that Arthur had suggested. Lancelot's knowledge of his magic had brought the two of them together, but there could only ever be one person for Merlin. And since that person was getting married to someone else, he had resigned himself to a fairly solitary existence.

As the day wore on, Merlin had to reach for his magic to keep from falling asleep. He was worried he'd choke to death if he did, and he felt so ill he wasn't sure he'd be able to keep himself awake. It was worrying that the food poisoning hadn't receded by now.

He felt around for his magic, willing it to banish his headache and warm up his limbs. It was hard to find. He spent quite awhile with his eyes closed, drawing it forth. When it did come, it felt like a bedraggled kitten that had been injured and was trying to hide. He coaxed it into helping him stay awake and moderately warm, but it did nothing for the headache and nausea. Once he had settled himself the best he could, his thoughts turned again to Arthur. He felt for the link that always drew the two of them together. When he finally found it, it had frayed beyond all recognition. He feared it was on the verge of dissipating entirely. Was this the cause of his illness?

It was a horrible day. At times it felt like it would never end. He panicked in the middle of the afternoon, suddenly afraid that the day never would end, that time had stopped somehow and Merlin would be stuck hunched over, freezing, ill, and in pain forever. He thrust a burst of magic at the chains holding him in place, but nothing happened. He grew a bit hysterical. It came out as laughter, cold, humorless laughter that sounded crazed even to his own ears. The guard shot him a funny—possibly sympathetic—look, but did not move from his post.

As soon as the sky, which was filled with ugly grey clouds, began to darken, the guard let him out. From close range, Merlin could see a definite sympathetic look on his face.

“You might want to run along home, Merlin. Tell Gaius to fix you a warm bowl of soup. You look like you're about to fall over.”

Merlin tried to smile at him, but couldn't find the energy to manage it. “I've got to go back to Arthur. Though I should probably change first.” Although he had been spared the rotten food, he was still in the shirt he had vomited on that morning, and it reeked.

Merlin hurried back to Gaius’ rooms, tripping over the cobblestones in the courtyard a few times. He realized he was too tired to lift his feet. When he arrived home, Gaius took one look and sent him straight to bed.

“I'll send word to Arthur. But you're in no state to attend him. Sleep.”

It was a testament to how awful Merlin felt that he did so without a single argument.

Chapter Text


He woke to the sensation of someone running their hands all over his body. First on his chest and shoulders, then down his legs, underneath his loose sleep pants. A warm hand stroked down past his knees and then back up, up, past his hips and back to his lower belly. Although it hadn't been touched, Merlin's cock was waking up faster than he was. The touch was gentle, and it took him a moment to break free from his grogginess to realise that there was something not right about this situation. He opened his eyes to see almost complete darkness. There was just enough moonlight shining in the window for him to see the outline of someone sitting next to him on the hard mattress.

“Wha—?” he tried to ask, but a hand pressed firmly against his mouth.

“Shhhh.” The voice was familiar, beloved even, but something about the way it sounded now made the hairs on Merlin's neck stand up.

He tried to sit up, but a strong arm pushed him back down.

The voice spoke, barely audible. “You weren't at dinner tonight. I thought I had ordered you expressly to attend me.”

Merlin tried to answer, but the hand over his mouth didn't allow for it. He made a sort of mumbling noise, and the hand pressed down harder over his mouth and moved to block his nose, too.

The voice calmly said, “Now, now, let's not wake Gaius. It might scare him, to hear a ruckus in the middle of the night. And at his age. . . . You know what fright can do to an old man. . . .”

Merlin held extremely still, working hard to breathe through his mostly obstructed nose. It was definitely Arthur. Under normal circumstances Merlin might have thought he was having an almost-pleasant dream. But there was something wild and cold about this Arthur, despite the heat of the body pressing into his side.

The voice murmured, “If you make any noise, I will have you flogged. Do you understand?”

Merlin nodded gently, and the hand pulled away. He could see the moonlight reflecting off of Arthur's eyes, painting them an icy blue.

Arthur's voice was a chilling imitation of a lover's whisper. “Were you not under orders to attend me?”

Merlin nodded his head the slightest bit.

“And did you do as your king commanded?”

Merlin stared at Arthur, trying to decipher what was going on. He felt for the magic link between them. It pulsed with more energy than it had the last time he'd checked, but the energy felt twisted, somehow. Like the warped sort of energy that fueled a virulent plague.

He shook his head no. He dearly wanted to defend himself, to say that Gaius had forbidden him to go, that Gaius had sent a messenger to tell the king that Merlin was ill. But he dared not.

“If you can't even manage the simplest of servant duties, I think I'll have to find something else for you to do for me.”

It must be a spell or curse of some sort. But what the purpose was, Merlin couldn't fathom. Make the king cross with his manservant? Seemed a strange sort of thing to want. Unless someone knew he was Emrys and was trying to tear them apart, to rid Arthur of his protection. . . .

“Do you know what I decided, Merlin? I've decided that you'll do for me what you must have done to keep Lancelot with you, although he so clearly loved another. Tell me. . . . Did you beg for him to take you? Did you throw yourself at him, even knowing that you could only ever be second-best? Did he call her name when he was buried inside of you?”

“No!” Merlin hissed, quietly as he could while still infusing his words with anger. He would not sit here and listen to Arthur spew such poison against Lancelot. “I told you it wasn't like that!”

Arthur slapped him across the mouth, hard. It stung like frostbite. Merlin stared at Arthur. Despite the threats, he hadn't thought Arthur would actually strike him.

Arthur didn't say anything. With the hand that was not still holding Merlin down he felt around on the floor till he found an abandoned stocking. He balled it up and stuck it in Merlin's mouth, then picked up a neckerchief Merlin had left on a chair, pulled it across his mouth, easily flipped him over onto his stomach, and tied it painfully tight behind Merlin's head.

Arthur lay down on top of him, pressing his arousal into Merlin's arse. He put one hand next to each of Merlin's shoulders and leaned down till his mouth was right next to Merlin's ear. He whispered straight into his ear, “Do you need me to tie you down? Or will you be a good boy and behave? Did Lancelot have to restrain you? Surely not. I bet you were such an eager little whore for him.”

Merlin tried to shake his head no, but Arthur put one of his hands to the back of Merlin's head and pressed it firmly into the mattress, completely cutting off Merlin's ability to breathe.

“I told you to hold still!”

Merlin was frightened. He knew Arthur couldn't hurt him unless Merlin allowed it. But neither was this the ideal time for his magic to be discovered. Arthur seemed in the mood to run him through and not ask questions till after his body had been burnt and his ashes mixed in with the cow manure.

He was feeling faint from the lack of oxygen before Arthur released his head. Merlin lifted it just enough to gulp in air, as quietly as he could.

He held as still as he could while Arthur sat back up, all his weight pressing into Merlin's thighs. His hands began running up and down Merlin's bare back, gently, almost lovingly. Merlin had fantasized about situations a lot like this one. With the feel of the gentle touch, fingers stroking over back and neck and arms, he could almost pretend that this was one of those fantasies come to life. But the dirty sock in his mouth told him otherwise.

“You have always seemed so delicate. . . . I would wonder about what your skin must be like underneath those ugly clothes you wear. I must say, it's even smoother than I imagined. And so very pale in the moonlight.”

Without warning, Arthur raked his nails down Merlin's back, from his neck to the top of his legs. Merlin grunted from the pain. It stung as if he had been burned. He wouldn't have been surprised if the scratches were bleeding.

“Beautiful,” Arthur whispered.

That was the point when Merlin seriously started considering his options. Perhaps he could use magic to escape without Arthur being any the wiser? Get away so he could figure out what the hell was going on? He was frantically searching for options when he felt something cold get poured over his arse.

He couldn't claim to be surprised. It was obvious that this is what Arthur had wanted. But it was still startling when fingers began rubbing the oil into his crack, and then pressing abruptly into his body.

It was not gentle. Merlin had never been touched this way before, and it was more intrusive and painful than he would have imagined. He couldn't help jerking his body, trying to escape the fingers pressing in farther than should have been possible.

“I told you to hold still!” Arthur scraped his fingernails inside of Merlin's body. Tears sprang to his eyes. He would have screamed if he weren't terrified of what Arthur would do.

The fingers pulled out abruptly. “I was going to try to prepare you more, but since you clearly can't follow directions, I don't think you deserve it.”

There was a rustling of fabric, and then something blunt and thick pressed into Merlin. It was impossibly large to fit in such a small space. Merlin could barely breathe for it. Then Arthur pulled back slightly, before slamming in again, and again, and again.

Merlin couldn't help the scream that fought its way past the gag in his mouth. But as soon as Arthur heard the noise, he reached one arm up to squeeze a hand round Merlin's throat. He couldn't scream, he couldn't breathe, he was going to be split in two….

His magic wanted to burst out in all directions, burning this nightmare into ash. But one last, tiny part of Merlin's mind held on to the fact that there was something wrong, something wrong with his Arthur. This wasn't his fault, and Merlin would have to endure it in order to be able to help him. And another tiny part knew that all that Merlin was, was Arthur's. That was the last thought he had before his body grew lax and his consciousness faded away, Arthur still pounding into him all the while.

Chapter Text


When Merlin woke up the next morning, he was alone in his room. He might have thought it had all been a dream, except that he hurt all over. His neck constricted painfully with each breath, and it was agony to move. He opened his eyes and saw the sock that had gagged him lying next to his head. When he managed to roll out of bed, he found blood on the sheets. It repulsed him, and he scrunched all the bedding up into a messy ball and threw it into the corner of the room. There was no way he would use it again until it had been scrubbed clean.

The room was chilly, and he was completely naked. He searched for clothes, wincing as his tunic rubbed against the scratches on his back. He gently tied his neckerchief, glad of its ability to cover the bruises he knew must be there.

It was the early twilight before the approach of dawn. Merlin looked out his window. Servants were starting to move around the courtyard, preparing for the day. It seemed so incongruous to see Camelot carrying on as if all were normal. As if her king were not in the clutches of some evil, as if Merlin's life weren't falling apart around him.

After a moment, he noticed something else: he was hungry. Quite hungry, actually. He felt only slightly nauseated and his headache was mostly gone. He felt for the tendril of magic that stretched between him and Arthur. It seemed somewhat stronger today. It was still a sickly green color, but there were flashes of its original gold colour underneath.

Why would that be? Shouldn't the bond between them be more ruptured than ever? Merlin was having difficulty imagining a worse breach of trust than what had occurred. Though it was clear that Arthur was not himself. . . . Did it count as a breach of trust if the person couldn't be accountable for his actions?

And Merlin had decided to respond out of love: he would not harm Arthur for that which he could not control, not unless death was imminent. Merlin didn't quite believe that Arthur would be capable of killing him, no matter how bad things got between them. Of course, that could be a big gamble to take. . . .

Feeling suddenly ravenous, Merlin snuck into the main room without waking Gaius, who was still snoring gently. He found some bread and apples, which he washed down with lukewarm water. He dreaded returning to Arthur, but dared not be late. He would go and pretend that nothing had happened. Because it certainly wasn't Arthur who had done it, right. . . ?

But his heart still beat faster as he approached the king's chambers. Sharp pangs of anxiety pierced his chest and breathing grew more difficult. Yet he would not stop. He needed to be with Arthur in order to find out what the hell was wrong with him.

He paused in front of the door. The instinct to run away was strong. But Arthur needed him. There was no other possibility. Something was wrong, and Merlin couldn't abandon Arthur now.

Normally he would barge right in, but he didn't want to press his luck. He lifted his hand and knocked tentatively. Perhaps too tentatively, because there was no answer. He took a deep breath, then knocked louder. This time he heard a voice say something that sounded like, “Come!” Reluctantly, Merlin entered the room.

Inside he found Arthur.

Arthur was sitting at his desk, reading over some papers. He was already completely dressed. Merlin sighed, some of the tension in his body draining out a little. It was replaced with confusion. Since when did Arthur get up without being pestered relentlessly?

Arthur barely acknowledged his entrance, eyes but briefly flicking in his direction. Merlin closed the door behind him, but didn't come any closer. He clasped his hands together behind his back to keep them from trembling. His knees felt like jelly, and it was hard to keep his legs straight. He was taken aback by his body's reaction. He thought he could handle this, endure it for Arthur's sake.

When Arthur spoke, his voice was business-like. He sounded as if he were discussing the knights’ rotations or preparations for a minor council meeting, not as if he were breaking Merlin's heart.

“From now on, you will no longer be my manservant. You are not fit for the position. Instead, you will work in the kennels, for you are no better than my dogs. But in the evening, you will attend me. I will require your services before retiring for the night. Do you understand?”

It was as if Arthur had kicked him in the chest with cleated boots, sharp pain stabbing all around his heart. There was a strange tingling sensation above his nose; it took a moment to realise that he was on the verge of tears. He was surprised that being dismissed from Arthur's service felt like a worse violation than whatever had passed between them last night.

“Arthur—”

“You dare to use my name?” His voice grated like a wagon wheel out of alignment, scraping, on the verge of breaking.

Merlin's voice trembled. “Sire. Please. Have I—”

“You will not speak to me. You have nothing to say that I could ever want to hear. You will report to the kennels. Now. You will report back to prepare me for bed. You will not speak then, either. If you cannot restrain yourself, I will cut your tongue out. Now go!”

Merlin inhaled, as if to speak. Arthur pulled his knife out of its case with an exaggerated scraping sound. His breath hitched, he pivoted on his heel, and fled. He closed the door gingerly, afraid to take his distress out by slamming it and risking Arthur's wrath. Well, more wrath than he already suffered.

Merlin made it round two corners before he felt safe enough to collapse in a huddle on the floor. The tears suddenly burst forth, and he felt powerless to stop them. There was a somewhat hidden alcove nearby. He crawled the short way to it before someone could stumble across this little mental breakdown. He curled into as small a ball as he could and tried to keep quiet. There was not much to be done for the tears.

After a few moments, he saw George striding down the hallway carrying the king's breakfast tray, a smug look on his face. He was probably crowing like a rooster, now that the king had finally seen reason and dismissed the miserable excuse for a servant that he had been saddled with. Well, George was welcome to the position. He could see how well he could deal with that arrogant prat. The thought made Merlin smile through the tears. The memory of not-crazy Arthur reminded him that this was not Arthur's fault, and that it was Merlin's duty to fix it.

He wiped his sleeve across his face and decided that was enough self-pity. He got up and went out to the kennels, as instructed. He kept his head lowered as he passed by people in the hallways. He didn't want anyone questioning his red eyes or bruised face.

The kennel consisted of two stories, so that if the ground was too hot or cold the dogs could go upstairs for relief. Several young boys were on duty, cleaning and caring for the dogs. Sometimes fights would break out and the boys would have to break them up, trying not to be bitten or clawed in the process. Some of the boys slept with the dogs at night, too. They claimed it was warm and just as good as where they would otherwise sleep, but Merlin couldn't help but be glad that Arthur hadn't demanded that of him. The kennels stunk and were prone to loud outbreaks of barking and fighting at any time, day or night.

Then Merlin remembered what Arthur wanted him to do instead. Perhaps the dogs were the better choice. If Arthur had been himself, it would have been delightful to taunt him with this fact.

Merlin would fix him, and then spend many happy hours elaborating on how sleeping with the dogs was preferable to attending Arthur.

It would happen.

Chapter Text

The kennel master had looked baffled at Merlin's appearance in his demesne and insisted he had no use for a hoity-toity royal servant.

“Just look at you! I can't believe you've done a day's worth of honest work in your life. Are you sick? A child could push you over.”

Merlin dearly wanted to protest this accusation, but he rather thought the man might have a point. Not about the working part—Merlin knew he normally worked harder than anyone—but it wouldn't be too surprising to find more than one youngster stronger than he was. The longer he stood there, acutely aware of how poorly he must look—eyes and nose still red from crying, body hunched over in misery—the more ill he felt.

“What was the king thinking? Why don't you run along home, boy. You'd be more hindrance than help today.”

Although this would normally have been an excellent plan, Merlin remembered the last time he had not done the work that Arthur had demanded of him. That certainly hadn't ended well. He didn't want to risk any further escalation of Arthur's wrath.

“The king won't be pleased if I leave. Is there nothing here that I could do? I'm stronger than I look.” Normally true, though right now Merlin was lying through his teeth. He felt the weight of his sickness and grief crushing him, making every move difficult, as though his bones were made of stone.

The kennel master wrinkled his nose and stroked at his greasy beard. Through the haze of sadness, Merlin wondered if the man used his beard to clean his face. The thought surprised him: despite his misery, the world continued and his brain would insist upon taking notice.

“It's not like his Majesty to send me untrained, unsolicited help. What was he thinking?”

Merlin sighed and rubbed his forehead. The longer he stood there, the more exhausted he became. He had no idea what Arthur had been thinking. . . . Well, he had some idea, but none of it made any sense. And he certainly wasn't going to start blabbing to the kennel master about how the king was (most likely) enchanted.

Gods, it had better be an enchantment. What if it weren't? If this were really Arthur. . . . No. No way. His Arthur would never—right? Unless . . . was something wrong between him and Gwen? Was Merlin merely a convenient scapegoat? Did he not mean more to Arthur than that, after at all these years?

And the first seeds of doubt were planted in Merlin's brain.

“You can follow the lads around then, see if they need any help. They're not too keen on outsiders, though, so watch yourself.”

And Merlin did his best. He followed the boys around as they fed, groomed, walked, and trained the dogs. He mostly stayed out of the way, but occasionally was asked to assist with something or other. His smiles lacked their usual brilliance, but must have still been friendly enough, because, despite the dire warnings, the kennel boys proved to be welcoming and kind. Perhaps they could see how miserable he was and took pity on him.

Midway through the morning, Merlin and a boy named Tom were sent to the castle kitchens to collect the food scraps that were set aside for the kennels. On the way back through the courtyard, the two of them ran into Sir Gwaine.

“Merlin! Good to see you, mate. I wondered where the princess had stashed you.” Gwaine gave a friendly pat to Merlin's back. Merlin yelped and jumped back as if stung. The vehemence of his reaction surprised him. Yes, the scratches on his back had hurt where Gwaine had hit them, but it wasn't nearly painful enough to warrant such an extreme response.

Gwaine looked uncertain as to what had just happened. “Whoa, you all right there? Didn't think I got you that hard.”

Merlin realised he was breathing much too quickly and his heart was pounding. He closed his eyes and willed his body to behave. Then he pasted on a smile—totally fake, but better than nothing—and nodded.

“Yeah, I'm fine. I was just startled. Sorry ‘bout that.”

Gwaine had a strange look on his face, almost as if he were . . . thinking. That could be bad news. Merlin didn't want any of his friends to worry. Nor did he want them to be mad at Arthur, because none of this was his fault. (It couldn't be his fault—right? His Arthur wouldn't have done that—couldn't have done that. The alternative was too painful to imagine. . . .)

“Sorry I startled you. How come you're not running around after the princess today? He's in a right foul mood without you. And that toady George is just obnoxious.”

Merlin was exhausted. His illness was returning, and between the nausea and the headache it was hard for him to think of an adequate response.

“Er. Well. Arthur's just being a bit more of a prat than usual. I'm sure he'll get tired of having a proper servant soon.”

Gwaine shook his head, as if in disbelief. “Gods, I hope so. I don't know how much more of the toad's fawning I can take. I'll see if I can have a word with that prat of yours, see what's going through that tiny little brain of—”

“No!” Somehow Merlin knew that that would just make things worse. The less Arthur thought about him, the better. “No,” he repeated, calmer this time. “Everything is fine, Gwaine. Don't worry about it.”

Gwaine stepped closer to Merlin, who reflexively stepped back, crashing into the cart of scraps that he had been helping to push. Tom, who had been waiting impatiently, yelled, “Watch it!”

“Sorry!” Merlin hurried to pick up the scraps of meat that had fallen on the ground. Gwaine tried to help, but Merlin stopped him. “I got this, Gwaine, but thanks. Just go keep an eye on the prat for me, would you? Make sure he doesn't get into too much trouble without me?”

Tom was making aggravated motions with his hands, signalling Merlin to hurry up already before they got in trouble.

Gwaine looked at him, a frown marring his normally handsome face. “You sure you're doing okay, Merlin? You don't look too—”

“Fine, Gwaine. But I have to go now. I'll—talk to you later.”

Merlin took a deep breath and turned away from his friend. He realised that he was shaking and wondered when that had started. The sooner they could get back to kennels, the better. At least there no one would pester him about Arthur. He had been so tempted to tell Gwaine the truth. . . . But that would be disastrous. Merlin needed time to fix the problem. If Gwaine did something rash like challenging Arthur to a duel. . . . No. This was Merlin's problem to fix. He wouldn't allow anybody to get hurt on his behalf.

 

 

Chapter Text

As the day wore on, Merlin's illness grew worse. It was apparent to everyone that he could barely stand. The kennel master wanted to send him to Gaius, but Merlin refused. At last they sent him to rest in one of the piles of rags that the kennel boys used when staying the night.

Merlin begged to be woken before dusk. He was too tired to wake on his own, and if Arthur found him sleeping again . . . who knows what the prat would do. Right before he fell asleep, he reached out to his magic, pulling at it, coaxing it to help fight this illness, to give him some energy, to help him get through the rest of the day. It wouldn't respond—it was as sick and exhausted as he was. He fell asleep before he could think about how worrisome this should be.

***

Merlin woke up to fire on his back, impossibly hot, so hot he was going to disintegrate into nothingness and yet burn forever. . . . Magic burst out of him, a giant wave—and immediately withered away into ashes, just like the rest of him, nothing left but ashes that still shuddered in pain—

He screamed, but choked on something in his mouth. . . . He began dry heaving, but when he did, the movement pulled on something wrapped round his neck. He thrashed his limbs, trying to escape the searing fire in his back, but could not move any of them. He was going to die—

Desperation gave him the ability to hold completely still, despite the fire that incinerated his flesh. His body shook as if suffering from great cold, but all he could focus on was the pain, moving farther down his spine, down to his bum. . . .

“Yes, I figured that might wake you up. Naughty boy, sleeping on the job.”

Gods, it was Arthur. What could he possibly be doing that could hurt this much?

“You're so beautiful, Merlin. How is it that a dog like you can be so beautiful? Sleeping in my kennels like a bitch—of course I had to mark you as my own. . . .”

There was a clanging noise as something heavy and metallic was dropped to the hard floor.

Merlin wanted to struggle, but he had no energy and any movement he made pulled on his neck, strangling him. Tears poured out of his eyes. At least he was face down, so that Arthur couldn't see them.

“Now everyone will know who you belong to.”

Merlin had always belonged to Arthur, since the moment they had met, since the moment he was born, maybe since the dawn of time and the advent of prophecy. . . . But this—this was not how it was supposed to be. Arthur must be enchanted—he must be!—and yet Merlin felt his heart shattering.

“And since you're mine. . . .” There was a rustle of clothing, a cool dripping of oil… His arms and legs had been tied to what must be bedposts, leaving him easily accessible for when Arthur thrust in. It hurt, of course it hurt, though he hurt so much already he wasn't sure things could get any worse.

His back burned with each thrust, and his awareness drifted away into pain, only pain. He would die of it soon—

Arthur thrust and thrust, and—after an eternity—groaned out his completion. Merlin tried to appreciate the stillness, the lack of harsh friction across his tortured back, but instead he was disappointed that he hadn't managed to pass out and escape this nightmare. . . .

Without warning, magic flared inside of him, a burst of energy begging for escape. At the same instant, Arthur yelled, “Merlin! Gods, no. No no no no!” His voice was strangled, tormented. There was a sudden flurry of movement as hands began undoing the ropes that held Merlin down.

The cord that Merlin could sense with his magic, the cord that bound the two of them together, blazed with golden light, quickly overpowering the sickly green that it had dwindled into. There was a brief moment of purity, of gold as bright as the sun, before it started dimming.

Arthur sounded near to sobbing. “Oh gods oh gods no no no.” By this point Merlin had been completely untied, including whatever had been around his neck, and the gag had been removed. He didn't roll over though. His back was still on fire, and there was no way he was going to move it. And there was no way he could face Arthur.

Then hands were pulling at him, gently, but still they made his back feel like it was being punctured with knives. He couldn't help but scream and was abruptly dropped back onto the bed, which didn't help anything. He screamed again. The magic inside of him flared up again, but this time it knew what to do. The pain began to lessen, dulling to bearable levels. Merlin kept his eyes shut tight, fearful that the golden light in them would give him away.

Merlin fell quiet, screams reduced to gasps for breath, tears eking out of his clenched eyes. The hands grasped at his shoulders again, trying to turn him over. “Get the fuck away from me!” he yelled with a renewed burst of energy. Surprisingly, the hands let go.

“I'm so sorry, I'm so sorry, what do I do?—gods, Merlin!” The voice sounded so broken and devastated that there was no way it could still be Arthur there.

All Merlin wanted at this point was to be left alone. He knew something was wrong, that it couldn't be Arthur's fault, but this—this was too much. “Get the hell out!”

“Yes, yes, I'll go get Gaius—”

“No! Just get the fuck—out—right—now!” Merlin screamed with all the energy he had left. The magic inside of him was dying down already, the burst that assuaged his pain the last flare up of a dying fire.

There was a sound like a sob—but perhaps it was Merlin's own. Then the door opened and shut, quietly, delicately, as if whoever had shut it were afraid it might shatter. The room fell still.

Merlin listened for any sign of activity, but heard nothing. He had to get out of this place, right now, while he could. For the first time since he had woken into this nightmare, he opened his eyes. It wasn't a huge surprise to see he was in Arthur's chambers, but at the same time it filled him with despair: it emphasized the fact that it was Arthur who had done this, that it was Arthur who was hurting him so very much.

He pulled at the last vestiges of magic still swirling inside and willed them to heal his injuries as much as possible. The magic settled into the spots where he had been on fire, curled into his ripped up passage, soothed the torn skin where the ropes had cut. Physically, he felt somewhat better, but his emotions were in a tailspin. He had to get out of here. Now.

Merlin carefully sat up on the bed, ashamed of his lack of clothing in a way he never had been before. Looking around he saw his clothes piled in a heap next to the wall. Feeling a rush of desperate energy, he eased himself off the bed (despite all the magic, his body still ached) and rushed for his clothing. It hurt to put on, like sandpaper scrubbing against his skin, but he had to get dressed, had to escape this place, now, now, now. . . .

Once dressed, he headed towards the main door, but stopped abruptly. It was surprising that no guards had appeared when he had screamed. Perhaps Arthur had sent them away to assure his privacy? But Merlin didn't want to chance meeting any, so decided to attempt to slink unnoticed out the servants’ entrance. There would be guards in that corridor, too, but they wouldn't be glued to the door and would most likely not think anything was amiss even if they did see Merlin coming out of the king's chambers. They weren't kept up on Arthur's whims when it came to his serving staff the same way the main guards would be.

When Merlin poked his head out the servants’ door, the corridor was, thankfully, empty. He moved quickly, not knowing where he was going, just knowing he had to get away. Away from Arthur, away from this nightmare, away. But where to go? He couldn't go to Gaius and risk questions. Gaius would take one look at him and know something was wrong, and Merlin just couldn't deal with that right now.

He needed a place to think, to recover, to make a plan, a place no one would find him. . . . He thought of the dragon’s cave, but wasn't sure he'd make it that far. His feet kept moving him farther through the castle, but he'd stopped paying much attention to them in his growing panic about where he could go. Which was probably why he was so startled when a familiar and friendly voice called his name.

“Merlin! Good to see you!”

Merlin jerked backwards, startled. His body trembled slightly, though he had no idea why. He frowned, urging himself to get his act together. No one could know anything was wrong.

The voice came from behind him, so he slowly turned around. He didn't want to, but it would be more suspicious if he didn't.

“Gods, Merlin, what's wrong?” Percival was standing there, tall and strong, healthy and at peace . . . everything that Merlin wasn't.

And so much for the plan to avoid suspicion. Now he was going to have both Gwaine and Percival on his tail.

He must have stood there too long not knowing what to say because Percival stepped towards him, even more concerned. “Merlin? Does this have to do with Arthur?”

Gods be damned. What could he possibly say? He shook his head once, jerkily, and stepped away from Percival. The tall knight was looming over him now, and Merlin's heart started pounding faster, skipping beats as it sped up.

“I'm fine. Just . . . tired.” His voice came out scratchy, raw. It certainly wouldn't help alleviate Percival's worry.

Percival stared at him intently. “Can I take you to Gaius?”

“No! I'm fine, I swear!” His voice broke on the last word. Tears sprang to his eyes, and he blinked rapidly to try to keep them at bay.

“You look like you could use a friend, Merlin. Would you at least. . . . come to visit awhile?”

In the back of his mind, Merlin noticed how unlike Percival it was to talk this much, to be this forward. He must be a pitiable sight to provoke such a response.

Merlin wanted to say no, to run away and hide from everyone. But Percival looked so genuine in his desire to help, and Merlin was so very lost . . . maybe it would be okay. For a short time. While he thought of what to do. At least it would be a place to go. Away from Arthur. Safe.

Chapter Text

Arthur closed the door to his chambers gently, so so gently. His hands were shaking, his heart was pounding faster than it ever had, he was dripping with sweat, tears were pouring out of his eyes…but he had to be gentle with that door, the way he hadn't been with—

After he shut the door, the reality of the situation hit him with full force. No no no no no no no…. This couldn't be real, this couldn't be happening… He could never have done that to Merlin, his sweet, idiotic Merlin… Oh gods, no! Fuck fuck fuck.

His breathing was getting out of control, but his feet didn't care. They took off running, running, faster, faster—they could outrun this nightmare. Arthur barely noticed the people he passed in the corridors, though he thought he might have knocked over more than one. He just had to run run outrun it all…

He took the secret shortcuts to the secret passages to the secret exit to the forest. No one could see him, no one could know… No one could know what he had done, what he was… Oh gods, how had this happened? How could he have done that…?

It had seemed so justified at the time, and that memory horrified him. It had seemed so right to brand him… repeatedly… He remembered the line of dragons burnt into the spine, from neck to tailbone. Gods be damned, but Arthur didn't even treat his worst enemies that way… And then what had come after—

Arthur's stomach churned in sickening distress. He abruptly stopped and spewed his guts out into an unlucky bush, then collapsed onto the hard ground, panting for breath. Tears streamed from his eyes, making it difficult to see his surroundings. Arthur had seen many terrible things in his life—had done many terrible things—but this was entirely different: how could he betray his values this badly, and to the person he… er… respected most? What had he been thinking?

It was hard to discern what he had been thinking. The last few days were murky. He remembered things that happened, but it was like remembering something from a dream. Had he really hired George? (He knew that, of all the things he had done, this was the most trivial. but the rest was just too painful to think about…)

Time passed in uncertain increments. The sun rose and moved across the sky, and Arthur had calmed down enough to know it was time to return and face the consequences of his actions. For they were his actions, certainly. He had been the one to… gods, he couldn't even think the words… How on earth would he ever be able to fix this?

He stood and examined the forest around him. The way back to Camelot was clear, and he probably ought to go before the knights came looking and found their leader snivelling in the forest like a little girl.

Arthur started walking back the way he had come and wondered why he had been snivelling at all. Sure, he'd done some awful things, but he was king, wasn't he? Kings didn't go around weeping over their misdeeds. And hadn't his father taught him to never admit guilt, to never apologise?

And, it's not like Merlin was faultless. Always so insolent, questioning his every move… Disappearing for hours or days without explanation, late if he actually showed up for once. And the way he treated Agravaine! Anybody else would have been thrown in the dungeons for such disrespect. Merlin was lucky to still be walking around freely!

Plus, the way Merlin always looked at him, as if he had hung the stars and mapped out the constellations… Always looking at him, with those beautiful eyes, making him feel like a fucking god. Of course the fool desired him. Who wouldn't? Arthur was just doing him a favor, bestowing him with his attention.

And wasn't Arthur the king? Didn't he deserve anything he wanted? Anybody he wanted? And for a scrawny idiot, that manservant of his was strangely appealing… with those full lips, sharp cheekbones, sparkling eyes… and that smile. Fuck, that smile. That smile was too perfect for a world like this. If Arthur managed to take it off his face for awhile, so much the better, right? No one else deserved to see that smile anyway…

Arthur was back to the tunnels now, ashamed that he had used them for such an ignominious purpose. To run away like a coward! All for the sake of some nobody who deserved what he got. Well, not again. Arthur would not be humiliated in such a fashion again.

And what about the little fool? What was he doing now? Lounging around in the king's chambers without a care in the world! Probably sleeping again… That's all he ever seemed to do. Unless he were off drinking somewhere. Probably too lazy to make it to the tavern. More likely pilfering from Arthur's private stash. The royal wine was much too fine for his unworthy lips. Lips like those only had one purpose, and it wasn't for drinking wine.

Arthur was so lost in thought that he barely realised that he was back in the castle again. Leon approached down the corridor and stopped abruptly when he saw Arthur. “Your Majesty! You're safe! We were worried about you! George said you weren't in your chambers this morning, and there was blood on the bed. We've searched the castle and have sent out patrols to look for you. Are you injured?”

Arthur stared at Leon blankly. More time must have passed than he'd realised if the knights were searching for him. Though it had been foolish to leave the blood and ropes… Now there would be questions, and despite his dominion as king, there would be some among the court who might stir up problems if they knew. He might have to get rid of them, sooner or later, starting with that meddling old fool Gaius…

Guinevere might prove to be a problem too. Arthur still planned to marry her, but… if she fussed too much he might have to take action. He liked her: she was a lovely girl. But there were, no doubt, many beautiful princesses who would marry him instead. Gwen had two strikes against her now: she was a peasant, and she was friends with Merlin.

And wasn't Agravaine always complaining about her? She might be more trouble than she was worth. He would wait and see for now…

“Sire? Are you all right? You don't seem well… Was the blood yours? What has happened?”

Arthur startled back to reality. Somehow he'd forgotten he was talking to the knight.

“I'm fine. Nothing's wrong. I just had Merlin helping with some tasks in my chambers and he cut himself. You know how clumsy that idiot is.”

Leon's forehead wrinkled in confusion. “I thought you had dismissed Merlin, sire? Have you changed your mind then? I have to say I'm glad to—”

“Oh, he's dismissed from his normal duties. But shouldn't you be worrying about calling off this needless search? As you can see, everything is fine here.”

Leon's frown deepened. “Yes, sire. I am glad to see you are well.”

Would he never leave? Arthur had more important things to be doing than dawdling around in corridors.

“Just go, Leon. No—wait. Could you have the knights search for Merlin instead? It sounds like he wasn't in my chambers this morning?”

“No sire, I haven't seen him.”

“Well, have the knights find him and escort him to me.”

“Escorted, sire? Are you sure?”

“Yes, yes, the clumsy fool can't be trusted to show up on time on his own. But it's really none of your concern. Now go!”

“Yes, Your Majesty.” Leon turned and hurried away the direction he had come.

Arthur followed at a more leisurely pace. If that naughty little bitch hadn't had the audacity to yell at him—the king!—to get out, he would have stayed and cleaned up the chambers… or maybe just not have let anyone in for awhile longer… There was so much fun left to be had. What had he been thinking, letting that whore go? And now there would be questions raised…

Maybe he had been enchanted. It's not like this was the first time he'd suspected him of magic. He would have to be a complete idiot to not have wondered by now… What a little worm, wriggling into his presence, trying to get close to him. What had his plan been? Well, no matter. Arthur would put an end to it.

Not the pyre, though. That would be too easy. No, Arthur had a much better plan for that treasonous little snake…

Chapter Text

Percival was, in general, a good-natured, easy-going bloke. Sure, life had a way of shitting all over your boots, but at least boots were washable, right? Give ‘em a little scrub and move on. No use dwelling on it.

He had often admired Merlin for his similar outlook. Percival was no dummy. He knew that despite Merlin's near-constant smile and sunny attitude, the lad had experienced great sadness that he endeavoured to keep hidden. Percival could see it, though, in the tension of his body, the frown lines on his face, the despair he let show in his eyes when he thought no one was looking. Percival could tell that Merlin had suffered, but he still greeted the world each day with a smile so warm it could melt entire snowfields at midwinter. He could always be depended on for a cheerful word, a helping hand, or some good old-fashioned mischief.

But the person Percival found in the corridor was not that Merlin. This person was so unlike that Merlin that for a moment Percival thought he had mistaken him for someone else. This Merlin was slouched over like someone four times his age, hunched in on himself as if ready to protect himself from an assailant that might attack from any direction at any moment. When Merlin finally turned and faced him, the look of despair and misery on his face took Percival's breath away. As Percival came closer, he could see that Merlin's clothes were askew, as if donned in great haste. His boot laces weren't tied, his neckerchief was crumpled, and his shirt appeared ripped. There were slight streaks of blood around the cuffs of his sleeves. Instead of light shining in his eyes, there were tears on the verge of spilling. As for his face… it was sunken, hollowed out, almost skeletal.

Of course Percival had wanted to take him to Gaius right away. There was clearly something terribly wrong, and Percival was out of his depth. Gaius would know what to do. But Merlin had refused with such desperation that Percival feared he would bolt if his wishes weren't met. Actually, Merlin looked ready to run away and disappear forever as it was. Percival couldn't allow that to happen: Merlin needed help, and he needed it now.

He was a little surprised that Merlin had accepted his invitation. As they traversed the distance to Percival's chambers, he noticed that Merlin limped as if in pain, walking hesitantly, stepping gingerly. Percival had the intense urge to wrap his arms around him, to comfort and protect. But the boy’s body language screamed, “Don't touch me!” So Percival kept his hands to himself.

He didn't ask questions until they arrived at his chambers, and then all he asked was if Merlin would like a chair or would he prefer to lie down? The boy had taken one look at the bed, shuddered, and walked to a chair by the fireplace, lowering himself into it gingerly, no words spoken. He sat there, hunched in on himself, rocking his body sightly forwards and backwards.

There was only one thing Percival could think of that might explain why Merlin was so distressed. He didn't want to ask about the magic now, afraid it might make things worse. But—it would be helpful to know what to expect. Were guards going to be looking for him? Was he going to have to sneak the boy out of Camelot? He always knew that day might come, though he had hoped to avoid it.

On their trip to close the tear in the Veil, shortly after Merlin's miraculous recovery and return, Lancelot had spoken to Percival privately. He had entrusted him with Merlin's secret and begged Percival to watch over Merlin and to protect him should he ever be discovered. Looking back on it, Percival understood that this was Lancelot’s way of saying goodbye. Percival hadn't known then that to repair the Veil would require a human sacrifice, but he would forever blame himself that he hadn't realised what Lancelot had intended.

Percival had never told Merlin that he knew about the magic; it had seemed a severe invasion of privacy. But he needed to know now if he should be planning a get-Merlin-out-of-Camelot mission.

“Merlin?” He kept his voice as gentle as possible.

There was no response.

Percival took a deep breath, then continued, “Did Arthur find out about the… you know…”—why was this so hard?—”er… the magic?”

The fire seemed to blaze up higher for a brief moment, but quickly returned to normal, and Percival doubted whether it had actually happened. Merlin himself barely moved, except to rock back and forth on the chair, trembling. There was no response.

Percival cautiously approached, wary of any sudden movements. If Lancelot were to be believed, Merlin's magic was strong, and he didn't want to risk being on the receiving end of it.

He settled into the chair opposite Merlin's and stared at the fire. “Merlin? Do you need help? I can get you out of Camelot…”

Merlin shook his head ever-so-slightly. He whispered something, which Percival strained to hear.

“No… It isn't that.” The whisper was so faint it was almost inaudible.

Percival was flummoxed. Something was so wrong that Merlin had completely ignored the acknowledgement of his magic as essentially inconsequential. What on earth was going on?

Percival tried again. “Is something the matter with Arthur? He has seemed a little… off… lately.”

The tears that had been threatening to fall suddenly gushed out. Merlin buried his face in his sleeve and refused to move, even when Percival held out a handkerchief. Percival was on the verge of panicking when a knock sounded loudly on his door. He rushed to answer it before the person could bang again.

It was early enough in the day that Percival wasn't sure who it could be. Turned out it was only Gwaine.

“There's my Perce! Just the man I wanted to see.” Gods, but Gwaine sure could be chipper in the morning. Kind of like Mer—

No. No time for dwelling on how things ought to be.

“What is it Gwaine? I'm a bit occupied right now.” Percival's voice was tight, clipped.

Gwaine shot him a suggestive sort of leer. “Why, Perce, you sly old dog! Got yourself a lady friend at last, have you?”

Percival groaned. “This really isn't a good time, Gwaine. What do you want?”

“Whoa, no need to get your panties in a twist. I'm here on official business. It seems the Princess has gone missing. Guess there were some traces of blood and ropes on his bed. Personally, I think the Royal Prat finally pulled that stick out of his arse and had a little fun with one of the lasses. But you know how Leon is. All in a tizzy and won't rest till Her Royal Highness had been found. We're under orders to begin a search.”

Percival frowned, thinking. Merlin turning up like this… Arthur missing… Blood? Ropes? What the fuck was going on?

Gwaine bounced on his heels. “C’mon, Perce. The Princess can't find herself!”

But there was no way that Percival was going to leave Merlin to search for the king. There were plenty of other knights and guards who could do that. Arthur had probably just gone for an early-morning walk or something. The gods knew that Percival would want to escape the constant circus if he ever had the misfortune of being king.

“I can't come, Gwaine. I've something more important to take care of.”

“Oh, c’mon, Perce. I know it’s a miracle that you managed to get someone between your sheets—and I know it's not likely to happen again—but, as much as it pains me to admit it, the Princess really is more important.”

It was becoming clear that he would not get rid of Gwaine without a fuss. Percival made a decision, then stepped all the way out into the corridor and shut the door. He looked both directions to make sure no one was coming, then began to speak in a low voice.

“I was on patrol last night. I went off duty about an hour before dawn. On my way home I encountered Merlin in the corridors. He looked awful. Something's wrong, Gwaine. Seriously wrong. And I don't know what it is.”

Gwaine fell still as soon as he heard “Merlin.” His forehead wrinkled, and he pressed his lips into a thin line.

“Did you take him to Gaius?”

“He wouldn't let me! I wasn't sure if I could even get him to come home with me. But he's in there now. I think he's in shock, Gwaine. I told him I knew about the… you know… and he barely even blinked.”

Gwaine's countenance shifted as dramatically as if clouds had rolled in to blot out the sun before a storm. There was no trace left of his jovial, irreverent attitude.

“Where is he? I need to see him.”

“I don't know that he wants to see any—”

“Nonsense. He's my best mate.”

Gwaine pushed right past Percival, opened the door, and strode into the room. Percival rolled his eyes before going back in. Gwaine located Merlin by the fire and loudly greeted him.

“Merlin, my man! How are you?”

Merlin had gone back to rocking slightly and staring into the fire. He didn't say anything, nor seemed to acknowledge Gwaine in any way.

Gwaine crouched down next to him and patted his back.

Without warning, Merlin jerked back and yelled, “Get the fuck away from me!” As far as yells go, it was fairly weak and unenergetic, but still shocking in its unexpectedness.

Gwaine fell backwards onto his bum, then held his hands up to show he meant no harm. “Merlin, it's just me. What the hell happened?”

Sure, leave it to Gwaine to show all the delicacy of a charging Wilddeoren.

Merlin seemed to have pulled himself out of whatever daze he had been in. He still hunched in on himself, but shook his head slightly and actually answered. His voice was tiny, strained, barely more than a whisper.

“Just leave it, Gwaine. Just leave me be.”

Percival could see the shock on Gwaine's face. He looked just as perplexed as Percival felt.

“You know we're your friends, yeah? We’re here for you.”

But Merlin just shook his head and refused to say more.

Percival gestured silently to Gwaine, who followed him to the door. Gwaine turned his back so that Merlin couldn't hear, though he didn't appear coherent enough to pay attention.

“What the hell, Perce?” Gwaine snarled. Percival wasn't sure he'd ever seen him quite this angry before.

“I don't know! I found him like this. He won't say anything. You got through to him more than I could.” Percival managed to keep his voice down, then held a finger to his lips to encourage Gwaine to do the same.

Gwaine's fingers clenched and unclenched repeatedly, and Percival knew he was straining not to punch something. “But he said he hadn't been discovered? All right.” He spoke quietly, but ruined the effect by kicking the door. The bang was startling. It worried Percival that Merlin didn't flinch at all. “I would put money on it being the Princess’ fault. He's been even prattier than normal lately. You know he sent Merlin to work in the kennels? And hired that obnoxious bootlicker? Now he's disappeared right when Merlin is like this? Something's not right. I'm going to get to the bottom of it.”

Percival agreed, but said, “Yes, but we need to help Merlin first. I don't know what to do. I'm going to get Gaius. You stay here—he responds better to you.”

Gwaine nodded, and Percival left as quietly as he could. Whether Merlin approved or not, Gaius would hopefully know what to do.

Chapter Text

Gwaine was going to kill someone, and he was pretty sure he knew who it was going to be. He didn't even rightly know what was wrong, but it didn't matter. Whoever could make Merlin look that defeated deserved to be run through first and questioned later.

Now that they were alone and Gwaine had a better idea of the situation, he decided he'd try once more to get through to his friend. This time he approached cautiously and sat down in a chair out of reaching distance.

Merlin still wouldn't acknowledge his presence in any way. But Gwaine had a plan.

“So, Merlin, did you hear about the trouble Elyan got into with the butcher's daughter? No? And the baby bird? He owes me big time after that fiasco! Now I know what you're thinking…it should be Gwaine getting into trouble with the birds. But no, no, no, my friend, let me tell you all about it…”

Gwaine spent the next ten minutes regaling Merlin with all the details of Sir Elyan’s unfortunate day. Merlin barely moved apart from rocking, but he seemed to relax a little: his muscles looked less like planks and more like living tissue. His trembling lessened, and Gwaine counted it a victory. Time to begin step two of the plan: trying to get a response.

“Can I get you some water?”

Gwaine held his breath. The fire crackled. A log shifted with a whoosh. Nothing else happened. He had just about given up on receiving an answer, but then Merlin nodded once. Gwaine poured a glass, left it on the table next to Merlin's chair, and launched into another story, this time about how Percival had gone to break up a brawl down at the tavern and had come home more drunk than Gwaine had ever seen him. He was so far gone he didn't even notice when he stuck his foot into a full chamberpot and left a trail of footprints behind…

Towards the end of the story Merlin snaked his arm out for the water and drank a few sips. Gwaine considered that an even bigger victory. But he couldn't restrain his impatience forever. On to step three: figuring out what the hell was going on.

“What’s happened, Merlin? Was it Arthur? Cause I swear if he's done anything to hurt you…”

So that was more blunt than he had planned. He never had been one for subtlety. Surprisingly, he got a response anyway.

“Wasn't his fault…” Gwaine strained to hear the whispered words.

Gwaine was worried. That had been an agreement, an admission that Arthur had done something. Gwaine wasn't quite sure what yet, but he was sure of one thing: he was going to kill him.

“May all the gods damn it, Merlin! What did he do?”

Gwaine was certain the vehemence of his outburst would have chased Merlin back into his protective shell. Instead, he sat up straighter and, instead of whispering, actually spoke, albeit quietly.

“It's not—it's not his fault. It can't be him. It can't.” Merlin’s voice cracked and tears leaked out of the corner of his eyes. “Something's wrong…with…with both of us.” Merlin sucked in air, a clear attempt to avoid sobbing. His thin frame shuddered, though he made no sound apart from gulping air.

Gwaine longed to put his arms around him, but for once listened to his internal voice of reason and didn't. He crossed his arms firmly and pressed them to his chest, lest they do something unsanctioned, like hugging. Or breaking things. Or grabbing his sword and running a certain clotpole through.

The door to Percival's chambers opened and closed very quietly. Gwaine assumed Percival was back, but didn't want to distract Merlin now that he was talking. Merlin, for his part, seemed oblivious.

“What happened, Merlin? Did he hurt you?”

Silence. But then…

“There's a…bond, a connection, between us. I can feel it when I try… But—it's sick… I'm sick… He's—”

“He's what, Merlin?”

“He's… not right. Oh gods, what if it is him? What if he really…hates me that much?” The last part was said quickly, in a broken, high-pitched voice. Merlin curled back in on himself, head in his arms, shoulders shaking.

Gwaine held still, lest even too deep a breath cause more distress. He was grateful that whoever else had entered the room did the same. Hopefully, if given a moment to recover, Merlin might share more. But the silence stretched uncomfortably, and Gwaine wondered if perhaps that was all Merlin would say. Should he ask more questions? He decided to try.

“How are you sick, Merlin? You said you were sick?”

A couple dozen heartbeats passed before a muffled voice began speaking, eyes still pressed into sleeves. “I can't eat, can barely drink, feel so sick to my stomach…and my ma—” The voice stopped abruptly.

Gwaine's heart was breaking, piece by piece. He worried this next question might make things worse, but it was important to know.

“It's all right, Merlin. I know about your magic. Your secret is safe with me. I will protect you. What's going on with your magic?”

Gwaine wasn't sure he'd ever heard such distress in a voice as he heard when Merlin next spoke. “It's… It's…gone. I am…as worthless as he says. But…it came back…I felt a little better…after…after he…”

Gwaine tried to keep his voice as gentle as possible. “After he what, Merlin?”

But Merlin wouldn't say more. The tears that he had kept to a minimum thus far overcame him. He flopped off the chair onto the goat-hair rug Percival had in front of the fire, curled himself into a ball, and let the sobs rack his body. He was still quiet, almost inaudible, and Gwaine wondered how many times he had hid such sadness before, to be able to maintain such control in the face of obvious despair.

Someone moved, and Gwaine saw Gaius come close and attempt to crouch down next to Merlin on the rug. It proved difficult for his old, stiff body to manage, and he fell backwards into a sitting position. “Blast it!” he hissed under his breath. Gwaine would have had quite a laugh if the situation had been different.

“Merlin?” Gaius’ voice was soft, peaceful in a way that Gwaine wouldn't be able to emulate.

“Merlin? It's Gaius.”

There was no response. Gaius waited a while, sitting close but not touching. Eventually Merlin's breathing evened out, and he fell mostly still, apparently asleep, with only the occasional shudder.

“Oh, my dear, dear boy,” Gaius muttered to himself. Then, after surveying the room, he said, “Percival, would you mind carrying him to the bed? I would like to examine him.”

Percival picked Merlin up as if he weighed nothing. It was uncomfortably like the time after the dorocha attack. Back then Gwaine had thought he'd lost his best friend forever. When Merlin had come back, miraculously alive and well, Gwaine swore that he would keep Merlin safe. Never again would he allow harm to come to his friend. But he was doing a piss poor job of it. First when they had lost him during that skirmish…and then that whole thing with Lamia. Gwaine's memory of that incident wasn't the clearest, but he knew he had not been a good friend. At all.

And now this…whatever this was. Gods, Gwaine was a shite friend. He had seen Merlin with his own eyes just yesterday. He had seen that he wasn't doing well, but he had let it go. He hadn't done anything to help at all. If Merlin weren't currently asleep, he would be tempted to storm around yelling and breaking things. Percival ought to count his blessings.

Gods, but he could really use a drink right now.

Gaius removed Merlin's neckerchief, which hadn't even been tied, just sort of twisted into place. He hissed at what he saw there. Gwaine came to look. When he saw the bruises all over Merlin's neck, he reached for the nearest object—a clay cup on the bedside table—and hurled it against a wall. It shattered, sending jagged shards of clay flying dangerously close to Gaius and Merlin. The crack of the breaking cup caused Merlin to flinch, though thankfully he did not wake.

Fuck, fuck, fuck. He had one job to do right now, and that was to stay calm and help Merlin. Gods, he was such a failure. Get it together, Gwaine!

Percival came over and said quietly, “He was walking like he was injured, Gaius. Though I was unable to see where.”

Gaius unlaced Merlin's shirt so that it was loose enough to peek in. “Much too thin, but nothing worse than bruises.” He felt his arms and legs carefully through the fabric of his clothing. “Nothing seems broken, at least. Percival, could you help turn him over?”

The two of them did, gently. There were immediate gasps, and Gwaine hurried closer again to see why. On the back of Merlin's neck, where the skin had previously been hidden by the neckerchief, there was a livid red dragon, the symbol of house Pendragon marked clearly for all to see. It wasn't quite a scar, still in the later stages of healing… But from what…?

“Was that… burnt into him?” It was Percival who spoke, voice quiet and laden with disbelief.

Gaius looked stricken, eyes wide, mouth dropped open. His hands were shaking as he reached out towards the mark. It was a puffy, painful looking red, but the skin was dry and healed over. “I know this wasn't here a few days ago. I saw him without his scarf and he was fine. But with this level of healing…”

Gwaine felt light-headed. But he had to hold it together, for Merlin's sake. “Could he have healed it with magic? Might it be…recent? Maybe…last night? That's why he was so upset?”

Gaius had an intense frown on his face. His forehead was wrinkled and his eyebrows were scrunched together. “Yes, it is possible… Though it'd be a huge risk if he were discovered. Unless he'd been discovered already?” Gwaine could see the colour drain from the old man's face as he considered the possibilities.

Percival spoke, voice strained. “He said he hadn't been discovered, before you got here. Though if he did heal himself, it might not be long before he is.”

Gaius nodded, then went to check under the shirt, where the bottom of the dragon was hidden from view. He peered in, gasped, then moved quickly to look under the waist line of his breeches. After he had done this, he abruptly turned away, walked to a nearby wooden chair, and collapsed into it, face in his hands.

Gwaine felt his heart beat faster, speeding up with a thrum, thrum, thrum, rattling around in his chest. He stepped forward with grim certainty and looked where Gaius had. There was an unbroken line of angry red dragons, all the way down the spine… He peeked under the waistline, followed burnt-in dragons down, down to the tailbone… And then when he saw the dried blood there and realised what it meant…

He bolted upright, fury fizzing through his bones. Percival called after him as he stalked to the door, but Gwaine was too incensed to answer. All his awareness dwindled down to a single understanding: he needed to rejoin the search for the king. The sooner he found him, the sooner Gwaine could kill him.

Chapter Text

Gwaine had never been so furious in his life. He raced through the corridors, wanting to smash everything he saw. Here was a portrait of some long-dead Pendragon to shred with his sword. There was a suit of armour just begging to be pushed over. Stained-glass windows offered a tempting target, promising to shatter easily under his fists, so delicate, so fragile. But then Gwaine thought of Merlin shattering instead and yanked his thoughts back to their proper focus: the only thing that would be shattering today was Arthur-bloody-Pendragon's nose. And face. And head… Well, Gwaine wasn't too picky, as long as bones were broken and a prat was pummeled.

In his fury Gwaine had instinctively headed towards the king's chambers. Now, though, he recalled that Arthur had been missing. He passed by the first few guards, too incensed to speak to them without screaming. But after a few minutes of near-running through the halls, he calmed enough that he thought he could manage a conversation. He could do it. He could rein his temper in long enough to collect the information he needed.

At the next intersection he looked down the adjoining corridors. A pair of guardsman were approaching, and Gwaine hurried to meet them.

“Sir Gwaine!” one of them called. “Sir Leon has been looking for you.”

Gwaine examined the guard who had spoken, a scrawny, freckle-faced kid in need of strength-building exercises. His partner looked just as weak. How would Camelot ever defend herself with guards like these? Yet another sign of the prat-king's failures. He didn't deserve the title. He didn't deserve the air he breathed.

“Thank you. Has there been any progress searching for the king?”

“Yes, Sir Gwaine. He's been found safe and sound. Just out for a walk or some such. But now we are under orders to search for his former manservant, Merlin.”

Gwaine bristled when he heard “former manservant”. That was another offense the king would have to answer for. And there was no way in hell that Gwaine was going to help the king with that particular task.

“Where is he, then? The king?” He spit the words out, but tried to keep from taking his anger out on the wrong target.

“I believe he is in his chambers, sir. But Sir Leon said—”

That was all Gwaine needed to hear. “That will be all.”

“Yes, sir.”

So the bastard had decided to torture and violate Gwaine's best friend and then had gone out for a merry little walk somewhere? No. It would not be borne.

While Gwaine fumed, his feet kept walking. He arrived at the door to the king's chambers. Out of habit, he raised his hand to knock. Then he lowered it and threw the door open, pleased when it slammed into the wall with a resounding crash.

Arthur was sitting at his table, eating. He stabbed viciously at the meat with his fork, jaw clenched tightly. No food actually went into his mouth, though Gwaine didn't stop for more than two seconds to assess the situation. He had a mission to complete, a challenge to issue, a friend's honour to defend.

That was the moment when Gwaine realised he had no gauntlet to throw. Since he had been off-duty when called to search for Arthur, he wasn't wearing his armour, only a tunic and breeches. At least he still had his sword to run the bastard through.

Though if Gwaine were going to avenge Merlin, he ought to do it right. He looked round the room to see if any of Arthur's gauntlets were readily available.

“Sir Gwaine? What is the meaning of this? Have you found Merlin?” Arthur's voice sounded… off. Strained. Unhappy. And well it should, after what that scumbag had done. He better have regrets. And Gwaine was going to make him regret it even more.

Gwaine's eyes continued to scan the room until… there! A set of armour was laid in the corner. It looked as if someone had been polishing it but had been called away in the middle. A bit unorthodox to use Arthur's equipment to issue the challenge, but it would do. Gwaine ignored the king's increasingly agitated questions but went straight to the armour, grabbed one of the gauntlets, turned around, and hurled it at Arthur. It skidded across the plate of food in front of him. Bits of meat and vegetables sprayed into the air, some splatting on Arthur's face. Gwaine was pleased with the drama of it all.

Arthur bolted to standing. “What is the meaning of this, Sir Knight?” His voice was sharp and loud, echoing around the chamber even after he finished speaking.

Gwaine's voice was iron. “I challenge you. A duel to the death. For the grievous wrongs you have committed against my friend.”

Arthur’s face scrunched into a sneer, before carefully adopting a look of confusion.

“I don't know what you're speaking of. I have committed no wrongs against any of your friends. I've disciplined a dog, but dogs have no friends.”

A growl ripped out of Gwaine's chest of its own accord, startling him in its intensity. Focus, he reminded himself. He's stalling. Trying to get you upset. Focus on what needs to happen next.

“Pick. It. Up.” He tried not to yell, not to let the taunting get to him, but wasn’t successful.

Arthur did no such thing.

“Perhaps you are also a cur in need of discipline? You sound like one. You fancy yourself friends with one…unless it is more than that? Did he lay down for you the way he did for Lancelot? Has he whored himself out to all my knights?”

Gwaine pulled his sword out when Arthur began speaking. It was almost impossible to not launch it straight at the bastard’s head.

“Pick up the glove, Arthur.”

But Arthur ignored the command. “No. You do not deserve the honour of a proper duel. I will kill you where you stand, for your depravity and insolence. I will spit on your dead body, then feed it to the dogs. Maybe Merlin will like some, since he's naught more than a beast…”

Arthur was wearing his sword. He yanked it out of its scabbard with an inelegant jerk. There was none of his normal grace, but then Gwaine wasn't at his best either. The anger, the fury, the shame, the indignation… His arms were shaking, and the duel hadn't even started yet.

Arthur moved around the table till he was facing Gwaine, nothing between them. They raised their swords—poised, frozen in the air, a grim tableau—Arthur twitched—then Gwaine charged, a slashing, furious attack, nearly out-of-control. Get it together, Gwaine, he yelled at himself. Calm the fuck down. The only way to win is to stay calm. Stay calm. You got this.

The battle was furious, a clash of two elite fighters who intimately knew each other's strengths and weaknesses, the result of many long hours training with each other…guarding each other's back in an untold number of skirmishes…facing off in tournaments… Arthur always won in the tournaments, when something important was at stake, when ego was on the line. Gwaine couldn't afford any mistakes, lest his former friend and king (no longer my king!) slaughter him where he stood.

What had happened to cause things to go so awry? How had they come to this? It bothered Gwaine, now that he had time to think. The clash-clank-clang of their swords, the monotony of the rhythm—which stood in stark contrast to the tension of the situation—served to focus him. An unexpected peace filtered in. His body went through the motions of slice, parry, strike, defend, but his mind started to drift elsewhere…

How could this be the Arthur whose vision of justice, of mercy, of equality Gwaine had fallen in love with…? What had Merlin been trying to tell him…?

Sweat dripped down Gwaine's temples. It slipped down his nose and into his mouth, where its salty taste reminded him of blood. Arthur was methodical, never letting up, never giving way, pressing the attack but still in control. Almost—but not quite—like his normal self—

And didn't that mean that this wasn't his normal self, that something was wrong…? Gwaine thought Merlin had been in denial, in shock, when he claimed it wasn't Arthur's fault. But what if he were correct? Was Gwaine making a terrible mistake?

Gwaine let his attention focus on Arthur's face. It was Arthur, yes, but—something was off. The facial expressions were wrong. Gwaine had fought against him often enough to recognise now that something was different.

And what if there were something wrong? What if Gwaine killed his king when he was most in need of help? What kind of knight would he be then?

But Merlin… Didn't he need to protect Merlin?

Gwaine’s thoughts spun around and around, a growing whirlwind of uncertainty and indecision, gusting in rhythm with the fight…crescendoing even as Gwaine's muscles tired.

Gwaine had one final vision of Merlin, of the despair that would be etched on his face, should Arthur be killed…and in that moment, Gwaine stumbled, a tiny misstep born from uncertainty. It was not much—no ordinary knight would have been able to press his advantage from such a slight error—but Arthur was no ordinary knight. He was the best. Only perfection could withstand his furious assault…and Gwaine was not perfect. For an instant of time—the blink of an eye, the flap of a hummingbird's wing—he left himself unprotected. He didn't register the fact that something was wrong until he had swung his sword a few more times, wondering desperately where his control had fled to. His hands grew weak, his fingers limp, and his sword slipped from his grasp and crashed to the floor. What the hell? Not even a novice would drop their weapon like that… Then he fell to his knees, fighting desperately to keep from falling all the way to the floor. Vaguely he heard an incongruously cheerful voice speaking.

“That's a good look on you, Gwaine. Did you learn it from Merlin, when he was whoring himself out for you? Too bad he would never get on his knees otherwise, the insolent little whelp. But no matter. I'll teach him. I'll even let you watch…”

Gwaine could no longer hold himself up and collapsed to the floor. His hands fell on his stomach and felt a strange, sticky mass there. That was when the pain finally hit, a sickening, overwhelming wall of pain that smashed into him with the force of a charging boar. He screamed then, but that made things so much worse… He bit it off with a strangled moan that quickly faded into nothing. Breathing was hard…sweat poured off him, though he was racked with chills…he was going to vomit. Breathe in. Breathe out. In. Out.

All the while that damned voice kept talking.

“You wanted a duel to the death. And yet you're not quite dead yet, are you? I guess the duel isn't over. But I'm in no hurry. I'm not quite sure when your so-called friend will make an appearance, but I wouldn't want you to miss out on his lesson. He's been so very naughty, working magic on me—did you know he was a sorcerer? Were you plotting together? And Lancelot—yes, of course, I see it now. Was that trip to the Isle of the Blessed all part of some nefarious plan to overthrow me?”

So Arthur knew about the magic? Is that why he had turned so utterly against Merlin? Out of disgust and betrayal? Was he truly this rotten under that noble exterior?

Gwaine's eyes slipped closed. He barely hung on to consciousness, and yet that voice clawed at him, demanding to be heard, insisting that he suffer.

“I’m not sure why my father wanted to kill sorcerers right away when they are ever so much fun to play with. He screams so beautifully… No one else has ever been nearly so enthusiastic for me…”

There was a loud thumping, and, mercifully, the horrid voice stopped slithering into his ear like a venomous snake. There were muffled sounds, voices—please don't let it be Merlin… gods, don't let it be Merlin.

“Gwaine!” A familiar voice yelled.

Oh that was a relief, then. Just Leon. Leon should be safe from snakes, even if they were tiny little evil things that squirmed into your orifices and clawed all around just for fun…

“Arthur! He needs Gaius!”

No, that was no good… The snakes would know that Gaius was close to Merlin. They wouldn't like that. No, Gaius should stay far away from snakes. Gaius and Merlin both.

The horrid voice was back, speaking again, but Gwaine couldn't understand all it said anymore. Something about challenges and duels to the death… Oh yes, Gwaine was meant to be dying, wasn't he? It was so hard to keep track of these things with all those snakes hissing in his ear.

“Your Majesty! You can't do this!”

Oh yeah, Leon was still here. Didn't he know it was dangerous to argue with serpents?

Other words filtered into his consciousness… insubordination… dungeons… find Merlin… death… Actually, death was sounding like a solid option at this point. It would be better to die than be consumed by the pain, eaten alive by poisonous vipers…

Gwaine's last thought before letting himself relax into pain-free, hissing-free darkness was a violent, horrible epiphany: he had completely and utterly failed Merlin.

Chapter Text

Merlin woke up to pounding. At first he thought it was just his head, but slowly became aware of the incessant thumping at the door that echoed the pain pulsing through his temples. The nausea that had receded after… after Arthur…. No. He wouldn't think of that. But the nausea that had gone away was back again, a cord of misery running through his torso from throat to belly.

He lay on his stomach, but wasn't sure where, a fact that induced a shudder of anxiety. Despite the headache, he forced his eyes open to see that he was in Percival's chambers. Oh. Yes. He remembered that too. Percival had wanted to bring him here, and for some foolish reason Merlin had agreed. Which meant there were other people involved in his mess now. How could he have been so selfish?

Someone had placed him in Percival's bed. Without moving his head, Merlin had a clear view of Gaius and Percival huddled together, talking quietly, ignoring the knocking. After a particularly fierce volley of bangs, Leon's voice yelled from the other side of the door, “Gaius! Are you in there? Gwen said she saw you coming here… I need you!”

Percival and Gaius murmured to each other again, and Merlin was confused as to why they didn't open the door. After a brief moment, Percival pulled out his sword. “Is Arthur with you?” he yelled back.

“No! But there's an emergency. Damn it, Percival, let me in!”

Gaius nodded jerkily, and Percival went to unbar the door. He opened it only a crack and peered out before standing back and letting Leon in. Gwen slipped through the opening after him. Percival quickly shut and barred the door, then spun around, sword at the ready.

“There's no time for foolishness!” Leon's voice was sharp, angry, but also—scared. Yes. That was it. Scared. Merlin’s head was a big muddle of emotions, but even through that miasma he could hear Leon's fear reverberate around the room.

Percival must have sensed the same thing, for he lowered his sword, though he did not resheath it.

“Gaius! You must come. Gwaine challenged Arthur to a duel, and now Gwaine's been badly injured. He’s dying.” Yes. Leon was definitely afraid.

“What?!” Gaius’ attitude completely changed: whereas he had been hunched over, looking weary and old, he now jerked upright, then started hustling around the room, gathering materials and stuffing them in his medicine bag.

“Arthur? How could—?” Percival stammered. “I know Gwaine was furious with him… but for Arthur to seriously injure him?”

“Wait—you knew Gwaine was angry?” Leon's voice was sharp, cold. “And you let him, what? Go off to challenge the king? What were you thinking?”

Merlin listened to this, feeling as confused as Leon sounded. Why would Gwaine do something so foolish? And why would Arthur—

Oh. Memories flooded in, of Percival, of Gwaine, of Merlin being weak and breaking down… Oh gods, did they know? Is that why Gwaine… oh no oh no. Panic pierced Merlin's body like a needle stabbing a hundred places at once. But also, there was shame: his cheeks burned and his eyes watered. He quickly closed his eyes. No one had seemed to notice that he had woken, and that was for the best. In fact, it might be best if Merlin could just disappear forever, leave this nightmare behind for always.

“I was thinking that I couldn't leave Merlin unprotected! And that Gwaine is perfectly capable of taking care of himself!” Percival answered loudly. Merlin hadn't ever heard him quite so flustered.

“Wait, Merlin's here?” Leon asked, sounding confused. “Arthur was looking for him.”

“And Arthur is not going to find him. He tortured him, Leon!”

“Tortured?”

“And worse! I know he's our king, but it's our duty as knights to protect, not harm.”

There was a strange sound, almost like a groan, before Leon said, “Something's not right. Arthur threatened to send me to the dungeons for insubordination if I brought Gaius back to help Gwaine… I thought he must have still been in a battle fury and would see sense by the time we came back, but—”

“Maybe I should go with Gaius.” Percival's voice sounded determined, resolute. “We can't send him alone, and Arthur hasn't threatened me yet…”

“I know the way to the king's chambers just fine on my own.” Gaius’ voice was tense and angry.

“There's no way you're going without protection,” Leon said. “Not after—”

“I want to go too.” Gwen's sturdy voice startled Merlin. He had forgotten she had come into the room. “If anyone can get through to Arthur, I can. He'll listen to me.”

“Are you sure, Gwen?” Leon asked. “I've never seen Arthur anything like this before.”

“Yes. He'll listen to me. And Gaius will need help with Gwaine. I must go.”

Gaius spoke, a tone of resignation in his voice. “She would be a great assistance, if Gwaine is injured as badly as you say.”

No one spoke for a moment. All Merlin could hear was the clinking of glass, probably from Gaius still packing his bag. Then Gwen asked, “What about Merlin? You said Arthur… tortured him? Is he okay?”

How Merlin wished he could disappear into the bed. The thin blanket that covered him helped, but was insufficient protection. Though his eyes were closed, he could feel everyone in the room looking at him, beholding his weakness and his shame. And for Gwen to know… Sweet Gwen, who was practically engaged to Arthur…

Maybe Merlin could keep the details of his shame private. Maybe she wouldn't have to know.

“Physically, he should be okay,” Gaius answered. “He's sleeping now, and we should not disturb him.”

“You need to stay with him, Leon.” Percival had a very uncharacteristic commanding tone to his voice. “Especially if Arthur's looking for him, he can't be left alone.”

Leon, when he answered, was quiet, uncertain.

“It's treason, you know… hiding him from the king. But after what Arthur did to Gwaine… There's something strange going on. Do you think Arthur's been enchanted?”

Merlin heard someone sigh. “It does seem likely.” It was Gaius who spoke, and Merlin could hear the “damn it, not again” that Gaius left unsaid.

Leon's voice shook with anger. “Will magic never stop harming this kingdom? Is there no end to its evil? Will we never be rid of sorcerers?”

This statement reminded Merlin of something that he had forgotten in the chaos: they knew. Oh gods, they knew about the magic. Gwaine, Percival… they knew. But… maybe not Leon?

No one had hauled him off to the dungeons yet, at any rate, though at this point execution seemed preferable to his current reality. He had the tiniest impulse to pull himself out of bed, proclaim that he was a sorcerer, and let Leon use his sword to end Merlin's agony. In Leon's current agitation, it seemed likely that he would oblige.

But no—Merlin was not going to give up that easily. No. He couldn't. Gwaine needed him. Arthur needed him. At the rate things were going, all of Camelot needed him, for how could she prosper if her king—the heart and soul of the kingdom—were rotted through?

“Maybe Merlin knows something,” Percival said. “He has been much closer to Arthur”—and, oh, how Merlin's guts recoiled at the thought —“through this whole thing. We should ask—”

“You will not wake that boy!” Gaius spoke so sharply that Merlin’s heart skipped a beat and his torso jerked in surprise. “He has been through hell, and he is going to rest. No one is to disturb him, understand?”

Merlin was grateful. It was tempting to let himself think that it was over, that he could rest. They would let him sleep and keep him away from Arthur. He could pretend that nothing had ever happened. His head throbbed and waves of nausea washed over him, but Gaius would help him feel better. Right after Gaius helped Gwaine. Gwaine would be fine. Gaius would take care of Gwaine and fix Arthur and then make Merlin feel better.

And Merlin could sleep… Sleep and never wake up…

“There's no time for this!” Leon snapped. “Gwaine needs you now, Gaius, if he's to have any chance.”

Yes, Gaius would go and take care of things. Gaius and Gwen and Percival. They could fix everything. Merlin could rest. Yes.

There was the sound of armour clanking, boots stomping, voices murmuring. Then the door to Percival's chambers opened and closed with a thump. The room fell silent.

Merlin dozed off when the others left. But part of the previous conversation started bugging him. What was it that Leon had said? That Arthur must be enchanted? Well, yes, of course. But why would they think Merlin would know something about it? Did he know something about it?

Merlin had been so distressed by everything that had happened that he hadn't paused to think. What kind of protector was he, if at the first sign of adversity he just shut down? Idiot. He heard Arthur's voice calling him that, with that heartwarming—now heartbreaking—mix of fondness and exasperation. But it was so true: he really could be an idiot sometimes.

All right then. Think. Arthur was clearly not himself. And no, he was not going to listen to the doubts in his head, the ones that said that Arthur was himself, that he hated Merlin, that maybe… oh gods, had he found out about the magic? Is this how an unenchanted Arthur would treat Merlin if he realised Merlin had been betraying him since the day they met?

No. That line of thought wouldn't help. Even if it were true. Merlin must assume there was a problem. There was a problem to solve, and he was going to solve it.

So. An enchantment. How might Arthur have been enchanted? A spell or a curse? But what magic user would be able to get that close to the king without Merlin noticing? Maybe an object? Something like the medallion that had been found around Uther's neck, the medallion that had reversed the effect of Merlin's spells and turned healing into death?

And Merlin had his suspicions about how that medallion had gotten there. He didn't quite have proof, but all his instincts screamed to him that it had been Agravaine, and Merlin's instincts were usually correct.

And then it hit him. The ring. Arthur's mother's ring. Damn it, he had known there was something strange about Agravaine wanting to have that ring polished. To honour his sister's memory? Or to destroy Uther's son?

A rush of self-hatred overcame him, dancing around with the nausea and the pain. How could he have been so stupid? How did he not see right away what was going on? Now that he looked back at it, it was so obvious.

He groaned, then vomited onto Percival's bed. Not much came out, only the small amount of water that Gwaine had given him, but it was still gross. He opened his eyes to see Leon coming towards him with a cloth.

“It's all right, Merlin. I'll take care of it.” Leon worked quickly to clean up his sick.

“Thank you,” Merlin rasped, horrified at how weak his voice sounded. He started coughing and couldn't stop. Leon helped him sit up and brought a cup of water to him. Merlin could barely lift it, so Leon helped him take a sip. But only one. If he had any more, it would just come right up again.

Merlin sank back into the bed, closing his eyes again. He was grateful that Leon let him rest and didn't pester him with questions. Merlin's illness was getting worse. Just like it had before. The headache, the nausea… it had only been relieved when… when Arthur had…

Merlin thought of the bond between them, the cord he had always been able to sense, now frayed beyond recognition. Feeling for it now was an exercise in futility. He thought he located it—and then it slipped away in a haze of poison. Yes. Poison. It felt poisoned, almost completely destroyed…

But it had flared back to life, briefly, after their… coupling. The second time it had been more noticeable: his magic returned, the illness abated. And Arthur had seemed to recover his senses. The first time was less clear: Merlin had passed out and hadn't woken for several hours. But even then, now that he thought about it, he remembered feeling somewhat better.

It's just that Arthur's actions had caused such misery that he hadn't paid attention to what was right in front of his nose. He was so stupid. No wonder the dream of Albion had not yet come to pass. Merlin was no Emrys. He was no saviour of magic. Arthur was right. Merlin was such an idiot it was amazing that he managed to get out of bed in the morning. For a brief moment, he wondered what that made Arthur, then, since it was even more difficult to get Arthur out of bed. He wanted to tease Arthur about it, watch him get all worked up… And then reality came crashing back down.

There was no Arthur to tease. Only an Arthur to fear.

His thoughts were interrupted by a woman's voice yelling, “Leon! Leon! Let me in!” There was pounding, a fist hitting against the wood.

Merlin's eyes popped open in time to see Leon run to the door and let in a hysterical Gwen. She was panting, shoulders heaving, and tears streamed down her cheeks. She must have run the entire way back.

Leon had an arm around her immediately, then led her to a chair. “Easy, there, Gwen. I've got you.”

He kept his arm around her shoulders and murmured things that Merlin couldn't hear. After a few moments, Gwen had calmed down enough that Leon was able to ask, “What is it, Gwen? What's happened?”

Gwen sucked in a large breath of air, then said, “It's Arthur. He… he had Percival and Gaius arrested. For treason. They tried to get in to see Gwaine, but there were so many guards in the corridor that they couldn't get close. Percival yelled for Arthur, pushed through to get to the door. Arthur came out then. He wouldn't let anyone in. Percival and Gaius protested, and Arthur had the guards arrest them both. Percival might have fought, but— but Arthur grabbed Gaius… He threatened to snap his neck if Percival didn't stand down.”

“Arthur— He saw me then… I tried to talk to him, but he told me to leave unless I wanted to be thrown in the dungeons too. I might have tried even then… But I thought you would need to know what happened right away. We couldn't even find out if Gwaine was still alive…”

Merlin heard this with a mixture of alarm and relief. Maybe in some twisted world, Arthur might accuse Gaius of harbouring Merlin as a sorcerer… but Percival? Gwen? He loved Gwen. He was going to marry Gwen and make her his queen and they were going to have lots of pratty little babies and live happily ever after. Merlin might be a bit regretful about this, but it was destiny. Gwen's kiss had broken the enchantment when Arthur had been under that love spell. You couldn't have a clearer sign than that!

Arthur must be enchanted. It was a relief to know for certain.

Gwen’s face was crumpled in misery. Merlin hadn't seen her look so distraught since her father had died. It was as if all her certainties in life had disintegrated into a pile of ashes.

Leon had been kneeling next to Gwen in the chair, but now he stood and checked his armour and sword. When all seemed to be in order, he walked to the door.

“Don't worry, Gwen. I'll take care of this. Would you stay here with Merlin? Arthur doesn't know he's here, so it should be fine, but just in case, bar the door behind me.”

“Sir Leon—” Gwen called, but he was already gone.

Gwen must not have noticed that Merlin had been awake, for she ignored him completely, sitting in her chair by the fire. It was very quiet, but occasionally Merlin could hear her breath hitch, as if she were fighting tears or perhaps crying silently.

And oh, how Merlin felt for her. It was easier to feel for someone else than to examine his own emotional turmoil. Gwen was his first friend in Camelot, his sweetest friend, and she did not deserve to suffer. Nor did Gwaine… And this was certainly Merlin's fault. He should have known something was up as soon as Agravaine had asked about that ring. He should have realised Arthur was not right as soon as he had confronted him about Lancelot. Merlin should have known.

But that's okay. He could fix this. He had a plan. A plan that required magic. And there was only one way for him to get his magic back.

He would have to go find Arthur.

Merlin pushed himself back up to sitting, feeling wobbly and shaky and about as sick as he ever had been. He had no clear memories of the aftermath of the time he drank from the poisoned chalice, but he imagined it couldn't have been much worse than what he was enduring now.

Gwen was over by his side immediately. She had definitely been crying: her eyes were red and puffy, and tear trails ran down her cheeks. “Merlin!” She opened and closed her mouth a few times after that, as if struggling for words.

That wasn't right. Gwen should always have words ready to fly off her tongue. Yes, Merlin needed to fix this. Now.

“Help me up, Gwen,” he rasped.

But Gwen looked confused and shook her head. “What do you need, Merlin? Do you need some water?”

No, he did not need any water. He needed to get up. He needed to make things all better. He needed to find Arthur.

“Gwen. I have an idea. To fix things. But I need to get up.”

Merlin was so very shaky, but he pushed ahead, through the nausea, through the pain. His legs swung off the bed and to the floor.

“What could you possibly do?” Gwen asked. “You need to rest. Look at you, you can barely move. You need to lie down! Not go traipsing around on a fool’s errand!”

“If you're not going to help, at least get out of my way.” Merlin was already regretting his decision and didn't need someone else doubting it too. The nausea was rising up, threatening to spill out. But it gave him incentive to start moving. He staggered over and directed his sick into a tureen that had once held soup. It had probably been meant for Merlin, but someone had eaten it while Merlin was in bed. Probably Gwaine. Oh gods. Gwaine. Who was dying.

Merlin wiped his mouth on his sleeve, then staggered the last few steps to the door. Gwen stood by the bed wringing her hands together. She looked torn, mostly wanting Merlin to come back to bed… but there was a bit of hope shining in her eyes, that maybe Merlin could actually fix this. It was probably a testament to how often he had helped to remedy Camelot's problems that she would have any hope in him at all when he was so sick he could barely walk.

He turned his back to her. There was no time to be tempted into resting. He had to go now, before he lost his nerve, before Gwaine died… assuming he hadn't already. Oh gods. He had to go now.

The bar across the entrance was heavy, but his worry for Gwaine gave him an extra boost of energy. The wood fell to the floor with a thud, then Merlin pulled open the door.

The walk to Arthur's chambers was impossibly daunting. But he must. He dragged himself along, balancing against the wall, panting, wondering if he were dying… and then he saw a glorious sight: two guards, coming his direction. That would work.

“Hey! Are you looking for me?” He tried to yell, though the words came out as more of a squeak. But the guards were close enough now that it didn't matter.

“There he is!” said one.

“Yes, that's him,” said the other. “We're to bring him straight to the king.”

They rushed over, each grabbing him by an arm and hauling him down the corridor. Merlin let himself relax into their grip. It hurt, but not as much as walking had.

And then, before he was ready—but really, when could you ever truly be ready for something like this?—someone opened the door to Arthur's chambers. They threw him in, them slammed the door behind him.

Chapter Text

Merlin was surprised that the guards hadn't accompanied him inside Arthur's chambers. He thought they would want to preen and be rewarded for their dangerous endeavour, apprehending the weak, dying servant who had let himself be found. But perhaps Arthur's mood was such that everyone knew to stay far, far away. Everyone except for Merlin.

Merlin groaned as he lay on the floor in a sprawling heap. He pushed himself up to hands and knees, lifted his head to get his bearings, and gasped at what he saw. A short distance away, lying in a mess of blood, was Gwaine. He looked dead: there was no movement, no sound.

“Gwaine!” he rasped, then crawled towards his friend as best he could. The blood had come from a slash across Gwaine's lower torso, and a bulge of entrails had emerged. The blood loss had slowed to an ooze, though by the amount on the floor, the flow had, at one point, been much stronger. Merlin was in a panic to know if Gwaine were still alive: it was impossible for him to bring the dead back to life.

Merlin reached Gwaine and placed his hand over his chest to search for a pulse. He held his breath, anguish already blooming in his heart. There was nothing at all. Nothing! There was nothing. Silent tears streamed down Merlin's face. His breath caught, and he held it in, determined to not allow his sobs to escape. There was a moment of utter stillness—the universe frozen in its moment of grief—and in that vacuum (devoid of life, devoid of happiness, devoid of hope), the tiniest of flutters quivered against Merlin's hand. He allowed himself no breath, but held completely still… Yes, there it was again. And again. A faint heartbeat. Not dead. Not yet. Not dead! Oh thank the gods!

There was the high-pitched scraping sound of a wooden chair being pushed against a wooden floor. And then heavy footsteps, boots deliberately stomping their way across the floor. Across the floor to Merlin.

Merlin sat up so that he could face Arthur with whatever dignity he could muster. It wasn't much, but he was not going to back down now.

When Arthur reached Gwaine's body, he pressed his boot into Gwaine's chest. He lifted, then stomped down hard. There was the cracking sound of bones breaking. Gwaine jerked and screamed. Merlin sucked in a huge breath of air, not even trying to stop the tears any longer.

“How could you?” he whispered, just loud enough for Arthur to hear.

“Have you whored yourself out to all my knights? Who else? You belong to me, Merlin, only to me. You understand? You are mine. To do with as I please. Anyone who has so much as even looked at you deserves to be shredded into bits and fed to my dogs. Gwaine is lucky to still be alive. I did hope he'd be able to enjoy watching your punishment today… I'll have to wake him.”

Gwaine was groaning, the pain having revived him. Arthur bent over and slapped his face, hard. Then he grabbed Gwaine's head and slammed it back against the floor.

“Wakey, wakey! Good news! Your little boyfriend has come to play!” Gwaine's eyelids fluttered, and he groaned again. His head flopped to the side, and his eyes remained partially open. They looked red, watery… Gwaine's whole face was flushed. A detached voice in Merlin's head assessed it as fever. Infection. As if the situation weren't dire enough. But Merlin's heart was far beyond clinical assessment. It was screaming in grief, and it would never stop. All of his existence had been reduced to endless sadness, eternal pain.

Gwaine saw him then, because he mouthed Merlin's name, though no sound came out. Arthur noticed. A horrible, grotesque smile destroyed his normally handsome features. “I did so hope you would wake. You seemed to have illusions that this dog over here was somehow yours…? I don't care if he threw himself at your feet and begged for you to take him like the harlot he is. He is mine. I see I need to teach that lesson to both of you.”

Merlin had been sitting frozen in shock. Arthur stood and kicked Gwaine in the chest again, and Merlin pushed himself to his feet. He wasn't sure where the energy came from, but he threw himself at Arthur in fury, arms flailing, trying to hurt him, destroy him… How dare he treat Gwaine like that? Brave, strong, loyal Gwaine? He pelted Arthur with more strength than he ought to have had. Being cruel to Merlin was one thing… but Gwaine! Gwaine was all that was good in the world, and he did Not. Deserve. This.

He screamed, he yelled, he kicked, he bit. Tears poured out of his eyes. And Arthur—

Arthur just stood there laughing at him, completely unaffected by this outburst. After a moment he grabbed one of Merlin's flailing arms in each of his, wrapped him up, and reeled him in. Merlin's back was pressed firmly against Arthur's chest. Arthur's chin rested on his right shoulder, and he started whispering into his ear.

“You're like a kitten when you're angry. If I were one of the ladies I'd want to keep you in my lap all the time. Actually, that could be quite good… though I might have to pull all your teeth first out so you don't get any bad ideas…”

Without warning Arthur bit down on the shell of his ear, hard enough that Merlin was surprised it didn't detach.

A loud knocking broke through the tension in the room. Agravaine’s raised voice penetrated the door easily. “Arthur? Are you there? The guards said you'd been found? May I come in?”

Arthur let go of Merlin's ear, but squeezed the rest of him tighter, so tight that breathing was painful. Merlin was certain that Arthur would send his uncle away, that he wouldn't want anyone witnessing this. But instead he yelled, “Yes, Uncle, do come in.”

Agravaine entered the room. His eyes bulged as they glanced from Merlin to Gwaine and back to Merlin again. His face took on a suspiciously triumphant smirk; Merlin was surprised that he didn't run straight off to Morgana to gloat. Agravaine assumed a rather calculated expression of servility before looking at Arthur.

“Is everything all right, Arthur? Have these two been causing… trouble? I can have the guards called in…”

Arthur squeezed Merlin so hard that he truly could no longer breathe. His head grew fuzzy, and he would have fallen straight to the floor if Arthur weren't holding him up in this strange parody of a hug.

“No, I've got everything taken care of, Uncle. Would you inform the Council that Gaius has been removed from his position? You may fill his seat with anyone you like.”

Agravaine smiled, and Merlin wanted to kick that smarmy grin right off his face. “Why, of course, Arthur. It will be my pleasure.”

“I will also be ceasing any further Round Table meetings. It has come to my attention that there is a serious canker spreading amongst my knights, and I will need to take measures to remedy the situation. Could you make sure to cancel those meetings for me?”

Agravaine bowed his head as if in respect, but Merlin knew it was to hide his delight. “Certainly, Arthur. If you have need of better advice in the future, I have some advisors I have come to trust. They would be a great asset for you.”

“Yes, I'm sure they're fine. I must say your judgment is proving to be excellent. I know you've had your concerns about the peasant knights, about Merlin and Gaius, and about Guinevere. I didn't put much stock in it, but I can see now that you were correct.”

Agravaine’s smile grew so wide that it was amazing it fit on the snake's face. “Ah, Arthur, I'm so glad you've finally come to realise the truth. They've been plotting against you, but I couldn't say so outright, because I didn't feel that my proof was strong enough. I couldn't hurt you with this knowledge about your… er… friends. It's such a relief that you finally see the traitors for what they are. Would you like me to arrest them?”

Merlin was about to pass out by now. He squirmed for air, using whatever energy he could muster. In response, Arthur squeezed harder, and a popping sound followed by a wave of pain came from Merlin's chest. He could barely concentrate on the conversation anymore.

“I've already had Percival and Gaius thrown in the dungeons for treason. But now that you mention it, it might be a good idea… arrest Leon, Elyan… Gwen as… Now please, excuse… Uncle, I… business to attend….”

Merlin’s vision went black and his head drooped. He could no longer make out any words. The darkness was enticing, but Merlin held on to his plan: he had come to Arthur for a reason, and all would be lost if he passed out before he followed through.

Without notice he was thrown to the floor. His breath came back to him in great panting sobs.

Silence. Agravaine must have left. Then Arthur's mocking voice came at him from somewhere overhead.

“You think you can escape from me that easily, little whore? You will just pass out and escape your punishment? I'm so sorry to disappoint you…”

Merlin still couldn't see clearly, but he didn't need to in order to know that the barrage of blows to his chest came from Arthur kicking at him repeatedly. Merlin coughed up liquid, and his mouth tasted salty, like blood.

The blows stopped, but Merlin stayed where he was, curled up into a defensive ball on the floor. He commanded himself to breathe through the pain, through the illness, through the misery… in, out, in… but fuck it hurt to breathe… fuck it hurt so bad… He cried, but no more tears came out. Probably too dehydrated.

“Your bones are so delicate. So easily broken, like a bird's. How I loved to snap the necks of the waterfowl we caught when hunting… Your name was very well chosen. I should congratulate your mother…” Arthur made a humming noise, as if considering a plan. “Yes, yes, that is a great idea. I should send for your mother… She is deserving of her own special… rewards. Mmm. Too bad Agravaine already left. No matter. It will wait.”

“Don't you touch my mother!” Merlin yelled. At least, he tried to yell. It came out more as an incomprehensible whisper.

“What's that, little bird? You want to see your mother? I'm sure she'll be so pleased to see you. It's been such a long time…”

Arthur's voice receded and footsteps clunked across the floor. How Merlin had the wherewithal to pay attention, he didn't know, but he noticed Arthur moved with none of his normal grace. There was the sound of a key jingling, a trunk squeaking open, and then the slam of a lid. The heavy footsteps reapproached, and Merlin curled tighter into his protective ball.

“If you would just behave, little bird, I wouldn't have to treat you so. But you've brought this all onto yourself. And did you think I wouldn't figure out your secret? How else could you have convinced me to let you go, if not through enchantment? It's a good thing my father invested so much into capturing sorcerers… I was able to have George retrieve the most useful artifact from the vaults, an artifact that my father kept just for creatures like you.”

Merlin's thoughts were so slow, so muddy. It was hard to understand anything that was going on. He fluttered his eyes open to try to see what Arthur was talking about. The king carried a handful of metal, but what it was, Merlin couldn't tell. Arthur dropped the objects on his bed, then swiftly grabbed Merlin around his torso, causing more crackling and popping sounds, and threw Merlin on the bed too.

“These are designed to keep naughty little birds in their cages where they belong. And they're all spiky on the inside… to help remind you of your transgressions.”

Arthur loomed over him, and Merlin braced for a blow, but instead a piece of metal was wrapped around his wrist and snapped into place. There was immediate pain: the manacle, for that is what it must be, had something sharp, needles or studs of some kind, pointing inwards, gouging into his flesh. There was another click, and Merlin's other wrist stung too. Then Arthur leaned over, a deranged look in his eye, crazy in a way that Merlin had never seen before. He placed his hands gently on Merlin's neck, brushing the skin gently.

“For being such a disgusting little thing, you do have a lovely neck. How I would like to snap it, like those birds at the lake… But then I wouldn't be able to play with you anymore. So I'll have to restrain myself.”

But Arthur's fingers began to press harder, harder, till Merlin wondered if this was to be the way he would end, killed by the man he was trying to help…

“Oh, how I wish… Maybe when your mother comes… I'm sure her neck is not nearly as fine as yours, but I'll have to make do.”

Arthur let go, then pulled one last bit of round metal from the blankets. He snapped it onto Merlin's neck. Immediately, there was pain all around his neck where the spikes dug in. Every inhalation drove them in more.

“How appropriate, a collar for the bitch. It suits you.”

Merlin had expected something dramatic to happen. Something more than spikes ripping into his skin. But he couldn't tell any difference.

“Those should keep you from using your magic to escape me, though I do still need to make sure you don't run away…”

Keep him from using his magic? Wouldn't Merlin feel something if that were the case? But his magic had already deserted him. The only thing Merlin could think to check was the cord that ran between him and Arthur. He had always been able to sense that… but no. Not now. It was gone. Not just destroyed or shredded, but completely absent, a gaping chasm of nothingness. It was likely true, then… His magic was probably bound.

And what would happen to Merlin now? And to Gwaine? The plan depended on having use of his magic… Arthur would have to be convinced to let him out of the shackles. Wouldn't he be returned to his normal self, if this time was like last time? But what if he didn't? Was this all for naught?

Merlin was so tired, so sick, in so much pain… It was hard to think. But he could still save Gwaine. He would, even if he died in the attempt.

Because Gwaine didn't deserve any of this.

Merlin had stopped paying much attention to Arthur in his concern about the magic. He was certainly not expecting the horrible smash of his knee being hit by the spiked ball of a mace. He screamed, much louder than he ought to have been able to.

“That ought to keep you from running away… But just to be safe…”

Merlin's other knee exploded in agony, and the world blinked away into nothingness.

Chapter Text

He was flying high, soaring up to the very edge of heaven. Everything bent to his will; anything he wanted could be his. He held the power over life and death: if someone deserved to die, he would make it happen. He controlled all his people… their pain, their pleasure, their freedom. Whatever whim he felt, for whatever thing—or person—he desired, would be fulfilled. It was glorious. He felt like he was waking from a bad dream, previously constrained by foolish notions of duty and honour. Understandable when his father was still alive… but now? Now he was the goddamned king, and he deserved whatever he wanted.

And what he wanted now was to fuck this naughty little bird so hard that it split in two. Its wings had been clipped: there would be no running away, no matter what evil sorcery it might try. He didn't understand what had occurred last time, but it would certainly not happen again! Afterwards, he'd lock his little pet in its cage and keep it for always. He could treat it well, if it didn't insist on being naughty all the time. He could make it happy… he wasn't sure if he wanted to, but the idea was strangely appealing. Maybe if the birdie was happy, it would sing for him…

He moved away from the bird on the bed, planning to hang the mace in its spot on the wall. It had been a crude weapon, but effective: bones were so very fragile. And now his little pet would never leave him. He didn't quite understand why it was so important that it stay, but it was. This little merlin-bird had crept into his thoughts, into his mind, woven itself into the fibers of his soul… All the time, he was brooding about his little merlin-bird… What had it done to him? Why couldn't he think of anything else?

It made him so angry: Stupid bird. Get out of my head! But no… no, don't go… don't leave me… I couldn't bear it….

No. I am the one in command of everything. I am in complete control. I am not a snivelling child crying for her dolly. I am not!

The wave of anger that overcame him then took his breath away. Instead of hanging up his mace, he swung it into his furniture instead. I am not a child! Whack. I am in charge! Crash. The world is mine! Thump. My pet will never leave. Wham. He is mine.

On the last swing of the mace, one that shattered his favorite chair into dozens of pieces, he bellowed like an injured bull: he yelled out all of the anger, screamed out all of the anxiety.

There was immediate pounding on his door. “Are you all right, Your Majesty? Do you need assistance?”

Silly fools. They had no idea what it was like to be in charge of the universe. They had no idea how he felt. He was tempted to go out and swing the mace at their imbecilic faces. That would show them.

But no, it was time now to punish his naughty little bird. Dealing with the dunces that served as guards could come later.

“Everything’s fine!” he shouted. “As you were!”

The idiots may have called to him again, but he no longer paid any heed. He had much more important business to attend to.

Instead of hanging his mace, he tossed it carelessly in the direction of that boorish lout, the one he had, for some mysterious reason, knighted. Maybe he was a sorcerer too? Had he been enchanted? Were all his knights and servants magic-users? Did he need to execute them all? He was tempted to pick up the mace and swing it into the brute’s skull. But it would be poetic justice for him to die watching the little whore being fucked into oblivion.

And oh, was he ready to do that! He tingled with excitement, heart racing with joy at the prospect.

He returned his attention to the pet laid out for him on his bed. Such a pretty little thing, lying still like that. The skin so pale… showing off the bruises so vividly, a glorious display of blues and purples all over its body.

Speaking of that body… He needed to see it, unimpeded, no clothing in the way.

There was a knife in his boot that he pulled out with a schwick. It was well-sharpened and would work nicely. He started at the neckline of the little birdie's tunic, pressed into the skin ever-so-slightly, and cut his way down to its groin. The ugly blue cloth fell to the sides, and a beautiful red line beaded up where the knife had severed through that delicate, white skin.

Not all the skin was pale, though. Great purple bruises spread over the bird's ribs, mottled with blue and green. It was a gorgeous array of colours. They took his breath away. If the colours ever disappeared, he would enjoy bringing them back.

Next he cut the sleeves from shoulder to wrist, pressing just enough for the blood to well up, a mesmerizing Pendragon red. He took care to keep the lines straight, to not mar their perfection, to not taint his pet’s ethereal beauty. He had thought it to be a disgustingly low animal, ugly, no better than a flea-ridden, mangy mutt. But now that he looked, he could appreciate the birdie's charm. It was weak, delicate, so easily broken… but lovely in its own vulgar way.

He was ready to cut off its trousers now. It would never need clothing again. But he was irritated that his little merlin-bird wasn't awake to appreciate these attentions. It would be much more satisfying if it were.

He slapped at its cheeks, saying, “Wake up! It's time to have some fun together, Little Bird!”

But there was no response.

Now that wouldn't do. He was in charge of the universe. How inappropriate for his own little bird to disobey him.

He slapped it harder, causing its head to loll to the side. There was absolutely no movement whatsoever. Even the blood from the lines carved into its skin had completely stopped flowing, though there had not been time enough for cuts that deep to heal.

“Birdie?” he asked, suddenly filled with doubt.

Nothing.

Anger gripped him, and he slammed his fist into the little bird's ribs. Nothing. Panic started to battle with the anger, to slip its cold, insidious fingers around his heart, squeezing it tighter and tighter, till he thought it must burst.

He balled his hands up into fists, ready to strike out again… but something stopped him. The panic insisted on being heard.

Instead of punching, he reached forwards with his hands. It took great restraint, but he forced his fists to unclench, then laid the palms of his hands over his birdie's heart. He knew where the pulse should be, what it should feel like.

But there was nothing.

He stared at that beautiful, bruised chest. So, so lovely. But no movement. Was his pet not breathing? Or was it just a naughty little bird, trying to make him worry for no reason?

He held his breath, held himself as still as he could. All was still. He was still. The bird was still. Nothing. Nothing at all.

Was it… dead?

Had he killed it before they had even properly played together?

A horrid sensation cut him in two, a burning line of agony from neck to entrails. What… what the fuck? Was that… sadness?

His eyes teared up without his say-so. All his muscles tingled with weakness. Grief was ablaze inside him, trying to consume him alive. How could this be? A king did not cry… certainly not for an animal!

But it was his birdie, his delicate little birdie… He had known that those bones were fragile… He had known that his sweet little bird was weak… It was no knight, no fighter… It was the runt of the litter, the tiniest little bitch… only good for one thing. But how sweetly it had filled that purpose… How deliciously pliant… how delightfully stubborn… how delectable when it screamed…

No, no, no! He wouldn't let this little birdie be dead! There was no discernible reason why, but his heart would break. Perhaps that made him a five-year old girl, crying over a dead kitten. So be it.

But. He didn't know for sure that his little bird was dead. That irritating, meddlesome old man—the one he'd thrown in the dungeons—he was a physician. Maybe he was worth keeping around. If he could revive the poor, dead birdie, maybe he wouldn't have to be executed… Maybe he could live in the dungeons and come out when needed… Take care of the little merlin-bird if he ever proved to be too delicate again in the future…

His face felt strange. Putting his hands to his cheeks, he found them wet… He snatched at a cloth and wiped himself clean. A king would never let anyone see him cry over an animal. So what if his heart was breaking? No one needed to see.

Course of action decided upon, he threw open his door, startling the dunderhead guards that stood there half-asleep. He kicked at the closest one, but reminded himself not to get distracted. It was more important to haul that old crackpot out of the cells.

When he finally arrived in the dungeons, he was greeted with the sound of crying. It was that girl, that one he had thought to marry—what had he been thinking? She was sitting in a corner, snivelling and blubbering. How had he ever found her attractive? Compared to his bird, she was like a carcass full of maggots.

Once the other prisoners noticed him, they cursed and yelled and spat. He would have to tell the guards to flog them… one at a time, in front of the others. Starting with the girl. That ought to teach them better manners. That ought to teach them not to disrespect their king.

“Release the old man,” he ordered. The guards jumped to do his bidding, a look of fear on their faces. Good. That's how it ought to be.

The old man refused to come, so the guards dragged him. For that, he would be flogged every day for a week. That would teach him to disobey. Voices yelled and screamed, begged and pleaded. They could all be flogged for a week. But now he needed to fix his little bird.

The guards dragged the old man all the way to his chambers. How he longed to beat him, pound him into the floor for his insolence. But no, no, remember, he needed his help. He needed to fix his birdie.

Before they entered, he grabbed the crackpot by his robe and pulled him close.

“Now, you listen carefully. If you fix my merlin-bird, I will suffer you to live. Otherwise, you will be executed at first light. Do you understand?”

At the mention of the merlin-bird, all the fight left the old man. Good. That was how it should be.

“Do not touch the cur on the floor, or I will kill you both. He is being punished in the way I see fit.”

The old man’s eyes were shining, wet with tears. What a baby.

“I'll need my medical bag, Your… Your Highness.”

Fury spiked in his gut. How dare this man dictate terms to the king? How dare he delay fulfilling the king's command? It would feel so good to break that ugly old face of his. Soon. He would do it soon. But for now he would have to tolerate it. The fragile little merlin needed him.

He slammed the palm of his hand into the wall, right next to the old man's head, then relieved the rest of his anger out by kicking the nearest buffoon-guard instead. “You heard him! Go get it!”

“Where should I look for it, my Lord?” The buffoon was such a disgrace, what with his voice quavering in fear like a child in a thunderstorm. Ridiculous.

He scowled at the physician, demanding answers now, or else.

“The guards took my bag when I was arrested, my Lord. I do not know where they put it.”

He was incensed. Was everyone working against him? His knights, his physician, his guards? Would none of them do as he wished? He was about to explode: his face was hot, his heart was pounding, his muscles clenched tight. He needed a release. He needed his little bird.

He screamed at the guard, “Don't just stand there, you idiot! Go find it!”

Gods, he was out of breath. His heart was pounding faster than if he'd been in the midst of battle. What the hell was wrong with him? He was the best warrior in the Five Kingdoms. He was the fucking King of the Universe. He was not winded by reigning over his incompetent subjects, no matter how angry they made him.

If he didn't break something soon, he might start killing people. Though most of them deserved it.

“Listen, old man. You get in there now. Someone will bring you your fucking bag. When I come back, my birdie had better be alive and ready to sing. Go!” He screamed this last bit so loudly that echoes could be heard bouncing off the stone walls of the corridor.

He pushed the old bat roughly into the room, feeling somewhat satisfied when he saw that he had fallen to the floor. But now—

But for now, he was the fucking King of the Universe, and if he wanted to break things, he was damn well going to break things.

Chapter Text

Merlin woke to the chanting of a familiar voice. It was hard to understand what was being said. Instead of making the effort to listen, he was tempted to drift back to the world where he knew nothing, felt nothing, worried about nothing.

The voice kept chanting, though, and after awhile he paid attention to the words, finding them familiar, comforting. Healing spells, he slowly realised.

“Gestepe hole! Þurhhæle. Ic þe þurhhæle þin licsare mid þam sundorcræftas þære ealdaþ æ! Ic þe þurhhæle þin licsare. Ic ðe ðurhhæle ðinu licsar mid ðam sundorcræft ðære ealdan æ. Drycræft ðurhhæle ðina wunda ond ðe geedstaðolie!”

The words repeated over and over, intonation rising and falling, cadence speeding and slowing, volume increasing then fading away. All the while the voice sounded more and more desperate.

At last Merlin realised who it was that was doing the chanting.

“Gaius?” he croaked without opening his eyes.

“Merlin? Merlin! Oh, thank the gods! You're alive!”

There were arms touching him then. Arms on his chest, his upper arms… Merlin couldn't help it. He screamed. It was just Gaius, his dear, beloved Gaius… but he still couldn't stop.

The touch was withdrawn immediately.

“Oh, Merlin! I'm so sorry! My dear boy!”

And then there was the sound of a sob, muffled, but definitely a sob. Though he was curious and concerned, Merlin couldn't deal with anyone else's grief right now. He kept his eyes closed and listened to the pounding of his heart, faster than he had ever noticed it before. Perhaps that would be his new normal, a heart determined to race faster than any other heart ever had. Maybe it would win a fucking medal.

Silence fell. All he could hear was the beating of his heart and the occasional hitching breath of someone trying not to cry. It would have been nice to fall back into sleep, but Gaius’ distress was like a thorn, poking at him and keeping him from being comfortable.

He did notice that, although he was exhausted and nauseated, panicked and trembling, he did not feel the severe pain he would have expected. Merlin didn't think Gaius would have had sufficient power, but perhaps he had managed to heal him?

After an unknown stretch of time, Merlin felt calmer. He was alive—unfortunately—but felt better than he should, and Gaius would take care of him. It took awhile to summon up enough energy to ask, “What happened Gaius? How are you here?” For he remembered clearly all that had happened: Gaius ought to be in the dungeons, and Merlin ought to be dying.

“Oh, you stupid, sweet, wonderful boy.” Gaius’ voice hitched and broke, making it difficult for Merlin to understand. “I thought you were dead… Your heart wasn't beating… I feared the worst.”

There was the sound of muffled crying again, but it was hard for Merlin to feel sympathetic when he had no fucking clue what was going on. And after the day—no, the week—that he had had, he was not feeling patient.

“Gaius! Tell me.” His voice was still damaged, but he was pleased with the level of irritation he managed to convey.

“It was like the time with the poison… I had thought you dead then, too. I'm starting to think you are a cat with lives to spare.”

Being compared to an animal made Merlin feel ill. There had been way too many comparisons to nonhuman creatures lately.

He reluctantly decided it was time to pry his eyelids open. The afternoon sunlight caused his headache to spike. This was surprising mostly because it reminded Merlin of how relatively well he felt. Gaius sat on the edge of Arthur's bed, looking haggard, diminished, an old man drooping—nearly collapsing—under the weight of an impossible burden.

“How are you here, Gaius? Where's…?” Merlin couldn't even bring himself to say the name. “And… Gwaine?”

Gaius sighed. “Gwaine's mortally injured, Merlin. I don't think there is anything I can do. And Arthur said if I tried to help him, he'd kill us both. But he wanted me to heal you.”

Anger sizzled in Merlin's veins, commingling with hatred and despair… He tried to sit up, but when he pushed with his arms, sharp pangs pierced his chest. So. Whatever Gaius had done hadn't healed him fully then, despite the respite from the pain.

He collapsed back onto the bed, but his anger did not abate. His voice was still weak, but he wasn't afraid to use it.

“And you listened to that bastard? How can you be such a coward? Gwaine would give his life for any of us—is giving his life”—Merlin sucked in a huge gulp of air, desperate to finish his sentence before breaking down—”for me! And you let him lie there? Left him to die, abandoned, on the floor? Because a monster told you to?”

Merlin seized up with sobs, although no tears fell. Still dehydrated then. Each heave of emotion left him feeling weaker than the last, but he would not back down now.

“Get over there and do something!” The yelling lacked its normal impact, because it came out as more of a heated whisper. But he figured his message would still get across.

Gaius leaned over him, a deep frown etched upon his face. “I’m tired, Merlin. Weak. I haven't used magic much in years. And—you were almost dead. Of course I would pick you first. You are my heart, my life. You were given no choice in your destiny, unlike Gwaine, who freely chooses to risk his life. But you—you must live. Not just for your sake, and not just for mine, but also for Arthur and for Albion. So of course I had to heal you first.”

Tears were dripping from Gaius’ eyes, but that didn't stop him from speaking. “And though I freely admit to being a coward, I had hoped that if you woke up, you would be able to heal Gwaine.”

Merlin’s anger fizzled in the face of Gaius’ sadness. The sudden vacuum left room for his own grief to return: it crashed into his heart like an ocean wave breaking upon a rocky shore. Tears burst out—but no, no tears, too dehydrated. Just the reflexive sensation of crying.

Crying, because he had no magic, no way to save Gwaine. Gwaine his friend, Gwaine his champion.

Though dry, his sobs still interfered with attempts at speech.

“I… I can't. I don't… have any magic…. It… it disappeared, when… when this began. And now…”

He couldn't speak anymore, but pointed to the collar round his neck. Gaius would understand. Then he closed his eyes and let the sobs wrack his body.

Gaius sounded even more despondent than he had previously. “Oh, Merlin. So he knows?”

Merlin didn't answer, too busy trying to catch his breath and regain control of his body. Did the king know? Arthur had called him a sorcerer, but his evidence had been that Merlin must have enchanted him in order to escape. And Merlin had done no such thing. Did Arthur know what he was for sure? Or was it just a fabrication of his crazed mind? Had he seen the healed wounds on his back? Would he think that Merlin had fixed himself with magic?

Gaius sighed, then pushed off of the bed to standing. Merlin could hear his bones creak and muscles pop as he moved. He really was getting old.

“I will do what I can, Merlin. But I'm afraid I used up all my strength on you.”

There were footsteps, then the sounds of Gaius chanting. Merlin stayed where he was, eyes closed, trying to get himself under control. But his thoughts betrayed him. Gaius had used up all his energy healing Merlin, and it had been pointless. Merlin had begun to suspect, after the poisoned goblet incident, yes, but also after Nimueh’s fireball, after the serkets, after the dorocha… that maybe he had died. Several times. But couldn't stay dead. Or maybe he was incapable of death. It was an idea that plagued him when he thought of it, so he kept it tucked away, safely hidden behind all of his other concerns.

Now it struck him a painful blow: had Gaius wasted all his energy saving Merlin, who was incapable of dying? Could he have saved Gwaine instead? Was Gwaine doomed now, because Merlin had never shared his suspicions with Gaius? Was it all his fault?

After that thought, he could not stop the sobs that set in. They shook his weak frame, causing pain all over, especially in his ribs. Probably still broken, despite Gaius’ best efforts.

Would Merlin ever be able to do anything right? Was he destined to only bring pain and heartache to all those he touched? Would the gods never let him end his suffering, forcing him to always live on, hurting those around him?

Perhaps he might try to ingest poison someday. To see if his fears were true. To see if he was the reason Gwaine would now die, because Gaius had wasted all his energy trying to heal an immortal…

An unknown amount of time passed with Merlin lost in his anguish, unable to escape, shackled as firmly to grief as he was to these blasted magical restraints. And then—

Then Gaius was back, whispering in his ear. “I've done all I can, Merlin. Stomach wounds are a slow and painful way to go. I've eased the pain and tried to reduce the fever. But there is nothing that can be done for him without magic much stronger than mine.”

Merlin was shaking, torn by sobs and hiccoughs. But he made an effort, gulped in great amounts of air, and forced himself to calm enough to talk to Gaius.

“I've—I've always been t-t-terrible… with healing spells. But… I swear… I will heal him. Can you… Can you find any keys?” He gestured to the manacles on his wrists. Gaius nodded in understanding.

“I will look. But you said your magic had vanished before the restraints?”

Merlin took a long, painful breath before responding. “Yes… but I have an idea… It might work…” He felt violently ill just thinking about it. But for Gwaine—for Gwaine he would endure anything.

“I'm not sure what you think you can do, Merlin, but I need to get you both out of here before Arthur comes back. I did not heal you just to leave you with that monster again.”

Merlin finally opened his eyes again, turning to look at Gaius. “No, Gaius.” And damn, if this didn't hurt to say. “I must stay here. It's the only way.”

Gaius’s arms reached out to grab Merlin, but stopped just before touching him. Merlin flinched back anyway.

“I can't allow this, Merlin. I thought you dead once today… There is no way that I'm leaving you here.”

Merlin tried to sit up again, but couldn't manage. “Help me up,” he rasped. He needed to be upright to feel strong enough to say what he needed to say.

Gaius was reluctant to touch him, and Merlin was reluctant to be touched. But Merlin was not going to take no for an answer, neither from his body nor from his guardian. Gaius was weak, but between the two of them, Merlin managed to prop himself up to sitting. From this vantage point, he could see the room clearly. He gasped at what he saw.

It looked like a whirlwind had been given free rein to do as it pleased to the contents of the king's chambers. Chairs and small tables had been reduced to splinters. Papers and objects were strewn around the floor. Items that had been hanging on the walls had been thrown across the room. Curtains and carpets had been ripped to shreds.

“What—what happened?” Merlin's voice trembled. He told himself it was from exhaustion, pain, grief… but he knew that it was also from fear.

“Arthur,” Gaius said grimly. “Were you not awake then?”

Merlin shook his head, carefully, so as not to hurt his bruised neck and broken ribs. “He's cursed, Gaius. It… it isn't his fault. Agravaine took Arthur's ring—the one that belonged to Ygraine—to be specially polished. He said it was to honour her memory before the memorial dinner, but he's never cared about that kind of thing before! I'm almost positive he did something to it. It… it has to be Morgana behind it…”

Gaius looked thoughtful. “His mother's ring, did you say? Hmmmm. Yes. That would make for a strong enchantment, since Arthur is connected to his mother both through blood and through love, despite having never known her. Sometimes it is easier to love the idea of someone that you haven't met… you aren't constantly having to work to love them despite their flaws and imperfections. Yes, that ring would be able to hold a powerful enchantment. But—how will we get it off? All of our friends are in the dungeon…”

“Could you not use your magic somehow?” Merlin tried to keep the hope out of his voice, because hope would inevitably lead to disappointment. But the hope snuck in anyway.

“I've used up all my magic, Merlin, trying to heal you and Gwaine. I'm old, out-of-practice. Maybe in a few days I'll be strong enough again…”

Damn it. Merlin knew he shouldn't get his hopes up. But for one brief, glorious moment, he had thought Gaius would be able to use magic to remove the ring from Arthur's finger. Then they could all move along, live happily ever after, pretend nothing had ever happened.

He knew, though, deep down, that there was no going back from this. Whatever happened now, things had been irrevocably changed forever.

Merlin took a deep breath. He knew what he needed to do. Nothing had changed from his original plan. He shivered slightly, then realised that he wore no shirt. Looking down, he could see the scraps of his blue tunic at the foot of the bed. There were blood stains all over them. That puzzled him, for he didn't remember any reason why that should be. Frowning, he examined his body and saw a thin, pink scar that trailed down the centre of his torso. That hadn't been there before. He touched it carefully, then noticed similar lines on his arms. Glancing up, he saw Gaius peering at him, wrinkled skin hanging even lower than normal, pulled down by grief and exhaustion.

“I think he decided to remove your tunic with a knife.”

“Oh.”

“That's why I have to get you out of here. He will come back to finish the job, and my heart will break even more—”

“Too late, Gaius. It's already happened. And—and it must happen again. It's the only way.” It would work. It had to work. Merlin would save Gwaine or die trying.

“No! I refuse to let you indulge in this stupidity. I will find a way to get you out of here—”

“Gaius! Do you think I want to do this? Don't make this harder for me than it already is!” Merlin's voice broke. He was on the edge of a complete breakdown.

But Gaius showed no mercy. “Merlin! Why would you think this a good plan? How will letting him… do that… make anything better? Are you insane?”

The tearless sobs were taking over Merlin's body again, his thin frame shaking, each one causing pain to stab at him everywhere… his knees and ribs burned as if on fire.

He opened his mouth to try and explain, to get Gaius to understand that he wasn't being stupid, that this would work… but the words wouldn't come out.

“Forget the keys. Forget your stupid plan. I'm going to get you out of here. The servant's entrance has fewer guards. Maybe they can be persuaded to help. The guards can't all want to follow an insane king blindly. I'll be back, Merlin. I promise I'll come back for you…”

Merlin was still shaking, groaning through the reemerging pain. The pain-reducing spells must be wearing off already… Could nothing go right for him?

There was a loud rattling, the sound of someone unlocking the main door.

“I'll be back for you!” Gaius whispered, then moved as quickly as he could behind the tapestry that hid the short hallway to the servants’ entrance. The tapestry had been torn during whatever rampage Arthur had been on, but still did a decent job to obscure the entrance.

Merlin stayed upright, trying to calm his out-of-control body. What was it thinking, sobbing and shaking without his permission? It was maddening to feel so helpless, so incompetent. He wanted to lie down again, but wasn't sure he could without simply flopping backwards and injuring his ribs even more.

He was also freezing, with gooseflesh all over his arms and torso. All he wanted was to climb into some bed—but not this bed—cuddle under some blankets, and sleep for all eternity.

But instead, the door to the king's chamber was thrown open. Arthur appeared in the doorway, a manic look upon his face. A wave of panic and adrenaline coursed through Merlin's body, but he would not allow himself to shrink away. Instead, he took a deep breath and braced himself for what was to come.

Chapter Text

Arthur stepped into his chambers, slamming the door behind him so roughly that a dinner plate that had been left hanging off the table during the earlier rampage gave up the fight against gravity and fell to the floor, shattering. It was startlingly loud, and Merlin's heart, already racing, missed a few beats entirely.

Arthur turned his head, frenzied, yelling, “Where are you, old man? If you've failed me—”

But then he spotted Merlin. Merlin, who sat upright as defiantly as he could. Merlin, who was not going to let a single enchanted item destroy all that he cared for. Merlin, who had a plan.

The look on Arthur's face changed immediately: muscles that had been rigid and strained relaxed; bulbous veins on the forehead smoothed away; his jaw dropped open; and his eyes stared straight at Merlin without blinking. Merlin noticed that Arthur's hands were covered with blood.

Silence.

Merlin wasn't sure he could endure the tension much longer before his heart gave up completely. But he would not back down. He would not look away. He would not be defeated.

Arthur took a breath, two, three… “Birdie?” Merlin could barely believe that voice had come from Arthur's mouth. He sounded like a lost child, a child that had given up all hope of ever finding his lost mummy and couldn't believe what he was seeing.

Merlin didn't say anything. Breathe, he told himself. Breathe. You can do this. You are strong enough. Breathe. For the love of all the gods, keep breathing!

“Birdie…? You're alive?” It was barely more than a whisper. Arthur took a few halting steps towards Merlin, then paused.

“Is this just a trick?” he yelled. “Where is that old man? I'll kill him!”

Adrenaline coursed through Merlin, but he knew he had to do something to get Arthur's attention away from Gaius, to give more time for his guardian to attempt escape.

“It's—” Merlin coughed, fear making it nearly impossible to speak. “It's not a trick.” His voice was broken, quiet. But it was enough.

Arthur's face flickered in a barrage of emotions, difficult to understand: a brief smile, then a frown; a scrunched up nose, as if smelling something disgusting; forehead that wrinkled, smoothed itself out, and then tightened up again; and, incongruously, tears. What did Arthur have to cry about?

Then Arthur rushed across the room towards him. He sat down on the bed, pulled Merlin into his arms, and squeezed him tight. It was almost a hug—except there is no way Merlin would allow himself to call it that. He reflexively pulled away. Panicked yells burst out of him, even though he tried hard to rein them in. It would be hard to keep up his façade of strength if he was acting like a terrified child. No matter that he felt like a terrified child.

Arthur squeezed, both arms around his rib cage, too hard, too hard… Merlin's yells stopped because he couldn't catch his breath. Pain lanced through his broken ribs; light flashed in dancing patches in his vision, and a wave of nausea caused him to dry heave. But Arthur didn't seem to notice anything. He started rocking the two of them together, forwards and backwards, forwards and back, like a mother consoling a child. All the while he spoke, voice soothing, peaceful.

“You're alive! My little birdie. I was so worried. So, so worried. It wasn't nice of you to scare me like that! Not at all. Why do you have to be such a bad little bird? I could treat you so well, you know, if you were a good little pet. I'd get Cook to bring you the best treats. You could live in a pretty little golden cage. I would put jewels on it… It would be the best little cage. All the other birdies would be so jealous… It would be on wheels, so you could go wherever I go, all day. You'd never have to be alone, Little Bird. And at night you could stay with me. I could make you so happy…”

Merlin could barely breathe. Along with the flashes of light, his vision was darkening around the edges from lack of oxygen. Hopefully Arthur would realise what was wrong if he passed out. For whatever reason, he didn't seem to want Merlin dead.

Arthur suddenly stopped rocking and squeezed him even harder. “But you have to stop being so naughty, Little Bird!” he yelled. “You can't leave me! And you must do what I say! You understand? It makes me so angry when you— Argh!”

Arthur abruptly threw him back onto the bed, stood up, and ripped at his own hair. Merlin sucked in great gasps of air.

“It makes me so angry, just thinking about it! I want to squeeze till your bones grind to dust. But— When I thought you had died… something in me broke. What have you done to me? What enchantment is this? Take it off, you filthy sorcerer!”

Arthur loomed over Merlin. Merlin felt horribly vulnerable and unprotected. He crossed his arms over his bare torso, a feeble attempt to shield himself. Arthur's fists were clenching and unclenching, as if fighting a battle with himself. Merlin fervently hoped that the side of Arthur that didn't want him dead would win out.

Then Arthur kicked repeatedly at the mattress, letting out a roar of anger each time. Merlin, already shivering from cold and fear, shook along with the bed frame.

Arthur stopped kicking long enough to yell at him. “Why can't I stop thinking about you? What have you done? Undo it now, you evil little shit!” And then a fist flew through the air, catching Merlin in the cheekbone.

Merlin howled in pain and shock, tears springing to his eyes. He couldn't help it: he lost all dignity and words came pouring out of his mouth without his permission.

“Please, please… please don't hurt me… I didn't enchant you, I swear! I swear on my mother's life! I haven't done anything… please, I’ll do whatever you say, just don't hurt me anymore…”

His body broke into the reflexive action of crying, though no tears fell. He shook so hard he wondered if he were having a fit. He had tried to be brave, he had tried to hold it together, but—he just couldn't. He rolled onto his right side, turning his back to Arthur, and sobbed.

Merlin was too busy losing it to notice what Arthur was doing. There was suddenly a warm hand on his shoulder blade. It rested there gently, then started to rub his back. Merlin was too worn out to try to fight it.

“There, there, Little Bird. I believe you. Hush, hush… It will be okay. Just do what I say, and all will be well. It will be okay. I will take care of you.”

These words didn't help Merlin any. He shook, panting rapidly, too tired and ill and scared to care about anything except not hurting anymore.

“Look at you. You're shivering. Don't worry. I'll make it better.”

The hand on his back was removed. Then the mattress sank as Arthur settled down into it. There was a movement, and then a blanket was pulled up to cover Merlin. Arthur slid his body closer till they were pressed together, Arthur's front up against Merlin's back. This caused Merlin to panic even more. He jerked, trying to escape, to get away, but strong arms wrapped around his chest, and he couldn't separate their torsos. His arms were free, but from this angle it was difficult to use them to fight off Arthur. But he tried. In his panic, he flailed and scratched and clawed at the arms that held him.

“Bad Birdie! I'm trying to help you, and this is how you repay me? Stop, or I'll have to punish you!”

Merlin knew he shouldn't have fought, but panic had taken over. Arthur squeezed him tighter in warning, and he forced himself to hold still. It was one of the hardest things he had ever done. If he had had use of his magic, he would have blasted the arms that held him, would have burned them to ashes. But he didn't. Oh gods, he didn't, he didn't, there was no hope for him no hope no hope…

The blanket had fallen away with his flailing. Once Merlin managed to stay still for a moment, Arthur used his top arm to pull it back over the two of them.

“Shhhh, Birdie, don't be silly… don't fight me… I'll take care of you, but only if you're good. Can you do that for me?”

Merlin couldn't stop himself from nodding frantically, even as his rational brain scolded him for his weakness. “Yes… yes…” he whispered.

“I knew you could do it. Now, since you've been so sweet, I'll help to warm you up. Now what do you say, Little Bird?”

What was he supposed to do? It was so hard for him to think.

Birdie. Don't test my patience. Be a grateful little pet and tell me thank you.”

Oh. He could do that.

“Thank you,” he whispered.

“Thank you, Master.”

“Thank you, Master.”

It should have been humiliating, but he didn't care. Just don't hurt him, just don't hurt him.

“You're a good little pet. I'll take care of you.”

They lay there, pressed together, without moving, for a time. Merlin slowly grew warmer and had to admit that the heat from the body against his back wasn't completely horrible. As he warmed up, he shook less. His heart rate slowed, his breathing calmed, and his muscles relaxed a little. He still pressed his teeth together hard enough that they hurt, but at least his muscles weren't so tense that they were in danger of cramping.

“You're so beautiful, you sweet little thing. I always thought so, but now—now I realise you're breathtaking.” Arthur pulled his body—and its precious warmth—away, and Merlin couldn't help the little whimper that burst out at the loss of the heat.

“Now, now, be patient. I just want to admire you…”

The arm that was not wrapped underneath him began tracing shapes on his back, a finger following imaginary lines… and then Merlin remembered: those lines were actually there, burnt into his skin.

“I love these dragons… I love that they tell everyone that you're mine. If anyone ever so much as looks at you wrong, I'll have them flogged. I swear it, Little Bird.”

The finger traced the entire row of dragons, from nape to waist. Merlin didn't mind. It didn't hurt. He was still mostly warm. This wasn't so bad.

“Though I think that old man must have used magic… unless it was you, Birdie?… These have healed much too quickly. I don't care that he did save you. He should burn for his crimes… But that's a worry for another day.”

Then the hand was at his neck, tracing the skin above the iron collar. As long as Merlin held relatively still, the spikes on the inside of the collar didn't hurt much. Lying on his side, he was able to keep his weight balanced between shoulder and head, avoiding pressure on the collar. Gaius must have healed the initial punctures caused by the collar’s spikes, for the skin there felt relatively intact.

But then Arthur pressed on the collar, pressed down firmly, pressed at it from all angles in a slow circle. Merlin could feel the spikes pressing in, one by one. It was slow enough that he managed to endure it without screaming, without fighting… Fighting would only make it worse… don't fight don't move please stop hurting me…

Merlin nearly bit his tongue off in the attempt to keep from making any noise, to keep from squirming.

“Blood is such a beautiful colour…”

He could feel Arthur's hand sliding over something smooth on his neck and knew it was his blood. Arthur’s fingers ran through the blood, then traced lines down his shoulders, onto his collarbones, up to his jaw. When the hands neared his face, he could see they were covered all over in dried blood, but dripping fresh from the fingertips. What had Arthur done? Had he hurt someone? Please let everyone else be okay… Oh please…

The finger eventually stopped tracing lines of blood over him. Arthur let out a sigh, which in any other circumstances, Merlin would have have called contented. Then he slid back next to Merlin, bodies completely pressed together from chest to feet. Both arms wrapped around him, pulling him close.

“You make me so happy. Such a good little pet, perfect for playing. You deserve a treat.”

Arthur's free arm, the one not pressed against the mattress by Merlin's body, yanked at the waistline of his trousers. Even though this was why Merlin was here, panic still blossomed in his chest. Arthur pulled several times, but the fabric didn't slide away. “Fuck,” Arthur said, then freed his other arm, sat up, and pulled Merlin's trousers off. Everything was removed with surprising speed, and Merlin yelped in sudden fear and pain. As the fabric was pulled down his legs, it jostled his knees, his poor shattered knees… Oh gods, he didn't even want to think about his knees. If Gaius hadn't managed to heal his ribs, there was no way that he had fixed his knees. The healing spells had reduced the pain, but when the cloth pulled at his shins, his knees exploded in agony. He screamed. His arms instinctively batted at Arthur, trying desperately to get him away.

There was a moment of chaos, and then all his clothing was completely off. He was completely naked, shaking in pain, breath coming in short, agitated pants. His vision clouded and dimmed.

There was a sudden stinging on his bum. Arthur had slapped him there. Hard. Then he slapped again, and again. Merlin was being spanked like a naughty child, and it hurt.

“I thought you were going to behave, little one. That was not the way to do it.”

Slap. Slap. Whack. Each hit shook his knees, shook his ribs… would this nightmare never end?

“I'm sorry, I'm sorry!” His voice was small, but desperate. “Please stop! I didn't mean to! I couldn't help it! Please stop!”

But the blows didn't stop until long after Merlin’s skin had gone numb and he had resigned himself to death by spanking. Oh, how Morgana would laugh if she knew.

At last… finally… Merlin found himself bracing for a blow that did not come.

“Such a naughty little pet. But you'll learn.”

Then the hand was back on his arse, but this time it was stroking gently. “You're so lovely like this. Skin so pale. It shows every mark I leave on it so clearly. Now you're all red, nearly Pendragon red. You look so good in my colour.”

Merlin held still. The pain receded, lingering healing spells reasserting themselves. He tried to pretend he was lying in bed alone, not being caressed by a madman, but his brain wouldn't believe it. So he tried instead to will himself to stillness. Hold still hold still, oh gods he's touching me, oh gods… But this is why I'm here… it could be worse, at least I can breathe this time, hold still, hold still, oh please I'm holding still don't hurt me anymore…

Little huffs of breath escaped his mouth, aborted sobs that he couldn't quite contain. He shut his eyes and focused on breathing again, in, out, hold still, hold still… There was a shifting on the bed, and then Arthur returned to his former position, pressing his still-clothed body against Merlin's entirely naked one. Arthur settled the blanket over them again. Then he squirmed one arm under Merlin's neck and wrapped it up across his chest, pulling him close. The other arm wrapped over his exposed side, the hand placed on his stomach. After a moment, it started moving. It rubbed, gently, across his belly, up to his ribs, across the sternum, along his side.

Merlin remained as stiff as a statue: don't move, don't move, don't hurt me. Please…

“See, isn't this nice, sweet Bird? There will be no more trouble between us, I'm certain….”

The hand returned to his ribs, feeling their way up and down the bones, occasionally pressing at the broken ones, causing Merlin to gasp. But he forced himself to stay still. “Such a fragile thing you are. So easily breakable. Do you not eat? That won't do. I wonder what little birdies like to eat best…?”

Merlin did not answer. He did not squirm, even when the touch tickled or burned. He tried to keep his breath steady, no gasps, don't move, be quiet, hold still…

Sharp fingernails suddenly scraped across his chest. “Aaaurgh!” he yelled, a strangled grunt of pain.

“You didn't answer me, Birdie… I thought you were going to be good? Why must you test my patience so? Maybe if I showed you how nice I can be, you might try harder to please me.”

The hand that had scratched him returned to petting, but now it worked its way down his torso till it arrived at his hips. It cupped the bone of the left hip gently, circling around, then slowly expanding out till it touched the tender skin under his navel, then down, down… all around the base of his cock, down to the right hip, and back again. Then the hand began fingering at his limp member, which did not twitch in the slightest.

This is what Merlin wanted, was it not? He wanted this, it was all part of the plan… but—

But every muscle screamed at him: fight, kick, bite, run away! It took all his determination, all possible effort, to hold still, to let himself be fondled, to not attempt to blast the universe into oblivion with his non-existent magic… Because at that moment, he thought that he might: without discrimination, he would blast away the entirety of existence, himself included…

But keep breathing. Hold still. You can do this.

Arthur growled, then spoke plaintively into Merlin's ear. “I'm trying to make you happy, my sweet, but—what is wrong? Does this not please you?”

Merlin said nothing, having no idea what to say.

And then pain, bursting out from a place on his shoulder… Arthur had bitten him, chomping down with his teeth, then pulling viciously away without letting go, ripping the flesh. Merlin fought to remain quiet. Stay quiet, don't move, maybe it will be over soon.

“Answer me!” Arthur yelled straight into his ear, causing the ear drum to vibrate painfully.

Oh gods, what could he say?

The plan, the plan. He must try to get in with the horrible plan. “I— I am more interested… in making you happy… Sire.”

“Master. I am your Master.”

“Yes… Master. It would… please me… if I could… please you.”

“Ah, you're such a lovely little thing, aren't you? Just for that, I'll make sure to treat you right.”

Then Arthur pulled away, leaving a sudden cold spot along Merlin's back. For some bizarre reason, he felt bereft, as if something vital had been torn away from him. It was so confusing… What the hell was wrong with him?

Merlin remained hunched in on himself, lying on his side, curled into a fetal position, eyes closed. But strong arms grabbed him and pushed him onto his back. The spikes in the collar pressed back into the broken skin painfully. But he would not scream. Merlin let his own arms flop to the sides, not offering the slightest resistance… don't fight don't fight I'm not fighting don't hurt me…

He knew he ought to open his eyes, to be aware of what he needed to protect himself from. But he just… couldn't. Close his eyes, stay in the dark, in a safe place where none of this was happening, it was only a bad dream…

Fingers stroked along his cock, but it did not respond. Merlin was absurdly proud of it. Then the fingers were removed and something warm and wet enveloped it completely. It was astounding and horrifying in equal measures.

Then there was the gentle lapping of a tongue, small squeezes, and then… sucking. At first it was weak, but grew in strength. A hand was placed around the root of his cock, and a mouth (he tried very hard to forget that it was Arthur's mouth) sucked in the entire upper half. They began pulling in rhythm, pull, suck, pull, suck…

To Merlin's horror, his body began to respond. His cock hardened, elongated… He groaned, half in despair, but half at the intensity of the sensation. Stop, stop, stop…! He had to stop this now! But there was a small part of him that said: this feels good, I’ve been hurt so much I deserve to feel good, I promise I'll behave, just don't hurt me, let me feel good, please…

The sucking and pulling went on and on. Merlin didn't dare move or speak. Instead he was stuck inside his head, eyes still closed, hating himself, but wanting more, disgusted, but enjoying the feeling of need that grew by the minute. He started bucking his hips in time to the strokes. Arthur's rhythm was slow, painfully slow, a torturous agony of a different kind. He needed more. It was a horrible feeling… to participate in the madness, to let this monster control him so… but—

Sweat began to bead on his face, and he moaned. Arthur placed a hand on each hip and used only his mouth, pressing in so far Merlin could feel himself hitting the back of his throat. Oh gods, how could he be going along with this? Enjoying the warmth of a body next to him when he was freezing was one thing, but this—

But the feeling took over, the feeling of fire, of needing relief… it was such a contrast to how he felt before. This was also pain, but pleasure-pain, leading towards something… For a moment, he could pretend: pretend that nothing hurt, pretend that nothing had happened, pretend that he was with someone sane…

The feeling rose and rose… please let it end, please… please, more, more, just a little bit more… He didn't realise he was begging out loud till Arthur stopped. Where before there had been warmth, there was now cold air.

Merlin should be pleased. He should be happy that this unasked for intrusion had ended. He had no business wanting the attention to continue. But—

But it had been so nice to drift away to a world where everything had been reduced to such a simple need, something that could so easily be satisfied. It had been nice to pretend. For a moment.

“You must be patient, my little merlin-bird. I long to make you sing for me, but not too soon…”

Merlin abruptly shut his mouth, realising he was whispering a soft litany of entreaties. Arthur had completely stepped away from the bed, and Merlin curled back into a fetal position, back again turned away, trying to hide his shame.

He heard the sound of boots thudding across the floor. It reminded him of what else was in the room. Gwaine, motionless, dying, while Merlin begged for pleasure. It was disgusting, and he loathed himself. Nausea overtook him, and he pressed his face into the bedsheets to try to stem it. His cheekbone throbbed as he pressed it into the mattress, reminding him of Arthur's earlier anger. He pressed his cheek in harder, feeling the stab of pain. He deserved much more than that for this terrible betrayal. His plan was a failure, he was failure. Viciously, he pressed his face into the bed even harder.

When Arthur came back, he carried a goblet. “Come, sit up, sweet bird, you need to drink something. I promised I would take care of you.”

Merlin couldn't sit up unassisted… he was too injured, too weak. But he had to, he had to keep Arthur happy. He could punish himself for his sins later.

Merlin struggled against his body, his terrible, traitorous body, trying to get it to sit up, but it would not comply.

Fearful of being punished, he rasped, “I-I c-c-can’t. M-master.” That last word came out without his conscious permission. At least some part of his brain seemed to still be actively working towards his survival.

Merlin collapsed onto his back, giving him a perfect view of Arthur's face. He looked incongruously sad, mouth frowning, eyes drooping. It worried Merlin. An unhappy Arthur could be a violent Arthur… and Merlin was trying his best to behave, he was, he was, he had tried to sit up, but it was just so painful… and he was so tired…

But for once luck seemed to be on Merlin's side, because instead of lashing out at him, Arthur set the goblet down and carefully lifted him into a sitting position. Merlin flinched when touched, but immediately clamped down on the reaction. I'm sorry, I didn't mean to move, please don't hurt me…

Thankfully he managed to keep his mouth shut.

“Oh, you poor dear. You've had such a rough time of it. Of course you need help. If only you had been this sweet all along, I wouldn't have had to punish you. Here, let's get you something to drink.”

The metal goblet was lifted to his lips. It was filled with red wine, most likely of very fine quality, but to Merlin it tasted like watery mud. There was no way he would refuse to drink it, even though he was afraid he would vomit it up in the very near future.

After a few moments in which more wine was spilled than consumed, Arthur set down the goblet, then patted his head. “That's better, isn't it? Are you ready to have some more fun?”

Merlin gulped. Time to work on the plan. Gwaine had suffered long enough.

“M-master. Thank you. B-but, I want to make you happy, t-too.”

A smile broke out on Arthur's face, though it lacked its usual quality of being brighter than the sun.

“Truly, you're the sweetest little bird. But I promised to make you sing for me. After that I will take what I want.”

Fuck it all. What would he have to do to get the plan going?

The time for thinking passed, however, because then Arthur was back, sucking on his flagging erection, sucking, pulling, swirling his tongue, then stroking with his hands. This time it did not take long before Merlin was on the verge… but Arthur sensed it and pulled away immediately.

Merlin tried not to let it show how this affected him. He attempted to wipe his face clear of all emotion: no desire, no fear, no pain. But his mouth betrayed him, whimpering in dismay.

“Soon. Soon, my sweet. It will be better this way.”

And then he did it again. When Merlin would surely burst, all touch was completely withdrawn. And then Arthur did it again. Eventually Merlin's cock had been rubbed and sucked on so much that it was painfully sensitive. The stimulation hurt, but neither did he want it to stop. He was whimpering uncontrollably, then begging, “Stop, stop, please, let me… more, oh gods, I need more!”

At long last Arthur said, “I think you're ready now, Little Bird. You've been so patient. This time I'll be gentle. This time you will sing for me.”

And then Arthur removed all touch again. It hurt. Merlin impulsively reached for himself, desperate for relief at long last. All he could think was make it stop, make it stop.

Arthur's hands grabbed at both his arms, right above where the manacles circled his wrists, and squeezed. The manacles pressed together, just a bit, and Merlin hissed as the spikes poked into his wrists. “And you'd been so good, Birdie.” Arthur sighed dramatically. Merlin tensed, bracing himself for a blow. “I should punish you, but it's been a long day. I'm sure you'll do better tomorrow. But since you can't control yourself…”

It was a matter of a few seconds for Arthur to locate some rope, loop it through the manacles, and have both Merlin's hands tied to a bedpost. The pressure on his wrists caused the spikes to cut right through his skin, cruel, unforgiving.

“I was going to treat you well… you'd been so good. But I guess a dog like you is too stupid to learn.”

Without warning, Merlin's legs were pushed into the air roughly, held in place against his torso… He screamed at the agony of his knees moving, pulling… gods, were they falling apart? Were his legs going to fall off?

At this point, Merlin didn't even care what indignities Arthur heaped upon him. Just get on with it, please… the need, the pain, the tension—he was completely overwhelmed, adrift in a storm, lost, waiting for death to creep up on him… If only it would happen sooner than later… What was he even waiting for? He couldn't quite remember… but relief, he needed relief… Death would be welcome.

The only blessing, if it could be called such, was that he was beyond caring about the intrusion into his body. He couldn't think of anything beyond the pain in his knees, which pulsed in time to a frantic rhythm, uneven, but fast and getting faster…

Hands yanked at his legs violently, in time with the pounding rhythm. Merlin was on the verge of passing out, but he must not, he could not: the plan, the plan, he had to be awake to enact the plan. But the pain threw him towards the very edges of oblivion.

There was screaming, then: horrified, terrified screaming, the scream of someone burning alive, or the scream of someone doomed to witness the murder of their beloved…

It wasn't until the scream died out completely that Merlin realised that he hadn't been the one to scream. It had been Arthur.

Chapter Text

Oh gods what the fuck this isn't real this can't be real no. No no no no no. Oh gods no. Merlin? No! What have I done I don't even–how? How how how? I wouldn't! But… I did? I did. Oh gods oh gods I did. No. No no. I— no. What to do what to do I can't be here anymore. Where's my knife? Where the fuck is it? I couldn't have— I did I did I did. Noooooooo. I— no. No no. I wouldn't? But. And—it felt good. So good! How can that be? How? How could I enjoy— no. No no no. I thought I was…. I thought… oh gods I did it I enjoyed it oh fuck fuck fuck.

Where's that fucking knife? What the hell was I thinking? Using it on Mer— no. No no. No no. Oh gods oh gods oh no. Not Merlin! And Gwaine—how could I how could I how could I it's not possible not possible not possible. This can't be real it's a bad dream… yes a dream only a dream but it must end end end

Wake up wake up wake up I've gotta wake up the knife will help why can't I find it? Quick quick quick it hurts so bad I need this to end… maybe the sword? But—end end end. I must end

This must end.

Oh thank the gods I found it. Oh fuck it's covered in blood, my poor Merlin's bl— noooooooo! Do not think of it it's not real. Can't be real. Just a dream. If I wake up, maybe my mother will be there—Father—did you two wake up out of the nightmare? Will you be waiting for me? Mother, I'm scared— I— I might have done a terrible thing… it wasn't me it wasn't it was it was it was, oh Mother, what have I done?

No forgiveness no redemption nothing nothing nothing for me… but I can handle this. Just make it end. The wrists are good. Make sure to get both. Must do it right. For Merlin's sake. For Merlin.

Oh Merlin oh Merlin oh gods how I love you Merlin. I know I never showed it—how could I?—but you were everything everything all of everything. I can never forgive my— I don't have to. My mother will love me anyway that's what mothers are supposed to do love you love you love you no matter what.

All right all right it's time I must. Goodbye Merlin I'm sorry I'm sorry I'm sorry this happened. I know you will never forgive me but but but… And Gwaine—are you going to haunt me? I'm sorry so so sorry but— But but but. I didn't mean—

I deserve to be haunted. For all eternity and always.

Friendly knife, sweet knife, you will help me. I can rely on you. Take me to see my mum. Wake me up wake me up wake me up…. Now! Now now now now.

Now!

Chapter Text

It was all too much. That scream still echoed in his head, knocking about in the rawest corners of his mind. He might have cared, once, about someone in so much agony that they could produce a sound like that. But his heart had failed him, utterly and completely. There was no room for empathy, no room for anything other than his pain. His knees were on fire; the rest of his body throbbed and shook, protesting every feeble breath he tried to draw in. He was on the edge of oblivion and longed to cross over to that sweet place. Fuck the plan. It has been a stupid, stupid plan. Fuck everything. Just let him die in peace.

His ears rang with the remnants of the scream, but the sound morphed into a fuzzy roaring that increased the fainter he felt.

Merlin's eyes were closed, and he felt no need to open them. What was the point? He was done. Completely done. With everything.

A moment passed. Two. His lungs kept breathing, however he might wish they wouldn't. The frantic panting of his breath slowed. The racket in his ears quietened. If he weren't going to pass out, it would be nice of his body to calm down enough to sleep, at least, if not die…

But no, of course not. No sleeping for him. The ringing and roaring subsided, though he was not greeted with the silence he longed for, but with a chaotic cacophony coming from somewhere far away. The longer he lay there, the closer it sounded… Where? Not quite in the room? But maybe?

As he became more aware of the noises, Merlin's heart sped up again, each beat thumping painfully against his damaged rib cage. How idiotic of it. Didn't it know that Merlin refused to care anymore? About anything? He was done. Finished. Through. Whatever was going on out there could take care of itself without him. There was no reason for this anxiety, no reason for more adrenaline. No more. Never again. He refused to be anxious; he refused to care. He was done.

But his traitorous brain started listening to the noises, deciphering the sounds that splattered against his ear drums. It sounded a lot like… shouting. Banging. Crashing. Voices yelling. Muffled, as if coming through a door. What were they saying? Merlin didn't give a damn. They could all just yell themselves into the abyss. Not his problem.

But his ears kept listening. The traitors.

The voices faded in and out.

“…Lord! Are you…”

“…going on? Your…

“…get in! It's locked! What…”

“…for Lord Agravaine! He will…”

There was more banging, more crashing, coming from multiple directions. Eventually Merlin realised guards must be at both the main door and the servant's door. Had Arthur been sane enough to lock that door after Gaius left? Would Arthur ever be that sane again?

With his brain distracted pondering the mysteries of locked doors and Arthur's sanity, his curiosity managed to get the best of him. What was crazed Arthur doing now? Did Merlin need to worry?

But Merlin was done worrying. He was done caring. Couldn't he be left alone to die in peace?

There was a sudden gasp, much closer than the voices yelling at the door. And then another gasp, louder; and damn it all, he needed to see. He opened his eyes then, cursing himself as he did so. Light stabbed into them like knives, penetrating straight through to the interior of his skull. He groaned, and his eyelids slid shut. But Merlin could not stay sightless for long. There was one, tiny, irritating, imbecilic part of him that still wanted to know. One idiotic part of him that still cared.

He opened his eyes again. There, standing right next to him, was Arthur. Merlin instinctively jerked away, which caused his neck to pull against the spiked collar. The pain was immediate. He couldn't get away, the collar was tied down, it hurt so much, oh gods, just please let him get away. Oh please, enough, hadn't it been enough, please just let him get away. Enough!

Merlin squeezed his eyes closed and waited for horrible things to occur.

He held as still as possible, trying to minimize the hysterical panting of his breath, trying to keep the spikes from impaling him in his panic. After a moment, when nothing terrible happened, he looked again. And there was Arthur, still standing frozen by the bed. This time Merlin noticed an important detail: Arthur's hands were covered in blood, fresh blood, oozing, dripping, nearly gushing to the floor. As Merlin stared, he noticed the deep slash marks going from the wrists up the arms. This time, the blood covering Arthur’s hands was most definitely his own.

Good. Serves him right! Merlin’s only regret was that he hadn't been the one to use the knife.

But there was another voice, a voice that rose from the depths of Merlin's soul, a voice that screamed in horror at the sight: Arthur was Merlin's destiny, the Once and Future King of Albion. He couldn't be allowed to die.

And that was when Merlin remembered the plan. Oh gods, the plan. How did he forget about the plan? How could he have given up on it? He could save them all… He had to try.

If only he had his magic: he still couldn't feel the tiniest drop. It had to be the manacles binding it. He refused to consider that his theory had been wrong, that… being with Arthur… had not worked to bring it back. He refused to believe that he had endured all this for naught.

“Arthur!” he rasped. Merlin wasn't sure his voice was audible over the banging on the doors, but Arthur looked at him anyway. Tears streamed from his eyes.

“Merlin, Merlin, I'm s-so sorry… so sorry… I can n-never— You were s-so— I'm sorry…”

Merlin tried to speak, but could not be heard over Arthur's verbal barrage.

Arthur peered at his hands, then straightened. “See the blood, Merlin?” His voice was suddenly stronger, more certain. “Blood on my hands, so much blood. It is a coward's death. I deserve nothing more. You are well rid of me.”

“Arthur!” Merlin yelled. The sound ripped painfully out of his throat, but at least it was loud enough to get Arthur's attention.

“Shut up, Merlin! I will not hear it. I know my sins.”

A blood-covered knife was on the table nearest the bed. Arthur picked it up again, then pointed it at his throat. “This will be faster… you'll be rid of me at last… goodbye Merlin…”

No! There was no way that that obnoxious clotpole was going to interrupt Merlin by offing himself. He was damn well going to listen to him first.

Merlin yelled out his words as loud as he could… which was not very loud, but it was enough.

“Arthur Pendragon, you arrogant, self-centered prat! You will listen to me right now! You owe me that much!

A strangled laugh burst from Arthur's throat, but he did not move the knife.

“I owe you? I owe you? After all I've done, you think me listening to you could in any way make this better?”

“It's not your fault! You've been enchanted!” Merlin's head went fuzzy with the effort of being heard. He needed oxygen, he couldn't breathe…. Breathe, breathe, keep breathing…

“No. No. I haven't—.”

“You have! It's the ring, your mother's ring! It’s been cursed!”

“No!”

“Arthur, gods, listen to me! It's the ring!”

“Noooooooo!” Arthur’s scream was so visceral, so crazed, that Merlin couldn't help but jerk away from it. He howled as the spikes stabbed into his skin yet again.

“Gods, Merlin… No, no, no…” Arthur suddenly lunged towards him, waving the bloody knife wildly in the air. Was this the end? Was Merlin going to be killed now, by the other half of his coin, spectacularly failing to fulfill his destiny? Fuck the prophecies anyway. Death would be welcome. And if he couldn't die… well. Maybe if he were chopped into enough pieces, he'd be far enough gone that he wouldn't be aware of anything anymore.

Merlin shut his eyes, unwilling to see the crazed look on Arthur's face from point-blank range as his supposed destiny sliced him to pieces. There was pressure pulling on the collar… it hurt like hell… and then… nothing. Arthur had cut the rope fastened to his collar. Merlin was no longer in imminent danger of strangling or being stabbed in the neck by the collar’s spikes. A small part of him regretted it, thinking that strangling wasn't too bad a way to go, all things considered.

“The k-keys… in… vault... I'm… s-sorry— So, so…. sor—”

Merlin had never seen Arthur hysterical like this… He could barely talk. Sweat poured off his face, mixing with tears and blood.

“But… it is t-time. I will… end this.”

Arthur pulled back the knife, gearing up for a final thrust—and a part of Merlin was relieved, for it would all be over soon—when there was a great splintering sound. Merlin jerked, startled. In the stress of the situation, he had forgotten about the pounding at the doors. Arthur let the knife drop slightly as guards poured into the king's chambers.

“Your Majesty!” yelled one. “Stop!”

Arthur did not stop. He thrust the knife at his throat again. Multiple guards sprinted across the room. By the time they reached him, the sharp edge had just begun to cut through flesh. Merlin could see a slice of red bloom just as a guard tackled the king to the floor.

Arthur screamed, frenzied, trying to escape. But there were too many guards, and he was clearly weakening. The blood loss was taking its toll. It was not long before he ceased his struggles, exhausted. His breath came in great heaving sobs. He groaned, an anguished, wrenching sound, then passed out.

Merlin had watched all of this from his position lying on Arthur's bed. His own vision had dimmed, and the fuzzy ringing sounds in his ears had returned. But he wouldn't let himself fall into the welcome oblivion—not yet. He managed to snag one of the bedsheets that had come undone and drag it over himself. So far, no one had seemed to notice him, tucked as he was into the mounds of mussed-up bedding, which meant that he had been left alone. But they would find him soon, and—despite not caring about anything, because he most definitely did not care!—he wanted the flimsy protection a sheet could provide.

His vision had grown so dim that he didn't bother with his eyes any longer, but let them rest. Instead, he listened to the chaos of the room.

“Where is the physician?”

“I thought he was in here with the king!”

“No, he was caught sneaking out the servant's entrance. His Majesty didn't wish to be disturbed, so we sent Gaius back to the dungeons.”

“Well someone needs to get him now! The king is dying!”

A new voice slithered its way into the conversation. “Oh, I'm sure it's not quite that bad.” Agravaine’s oily voice made Merlin want to retch. “It looks to me like these wounds are merely superficial.”

There was no fucking way that was true. The amount of blood Arthur had lost was copious. Did Agravaine actually think anyone was stupid enough to believe that?

“He needs Gaius, my Lord. We can bandage the injuries, but his condition is grave.”

“Gaius was imprisoned for a reason. He shouldn't be able to escape the dungeons just to tend a scratch. Send for the physician in the lower town.”

“My Lord! These are not mere scratches. He needs immediate treatment, or he'll die!”

There was a loud, overly-dramatic sigh. “Fine, fine, I'll humour you. Run along and fetch Gaius. While you're at it, find someone to get this flea-ridden body out of here. It's a disgrace.”

Body? Was Gwaine no more than a body? Had Merlin failed him? Oh Gwaine. Strong, loyal Gwaine.

The ringing in Merlin's ears grew even louder, making it easier for him to ignore the voices and wallow in his grief. But he could still hear the oily snake saying, “Call an emergency meeting of the Council. Tell them the king has gone mad and we will need to select a regent.”

“Yes, my Lord.”

“I am certain he will be fine, physically, but his mental state is in serious question. And put him on his bed, you idiots! Do not leave my dear nephew on the floor.”

“Yes, my Lord. Right away.”

Merlin should have been prepared for what happened next. He had heard what the guards were going to do. But being half unconscious and three-quarters dead made his reactions slow.

“My Lord! There is someone in the bed. It's that boy, Merlin.”

“Then get him out!”

There were hands on him then, strong hands, not-letting-go hands… They hurt they hurt oh gods oh please don't hurt him let go let go let go. Let go!

Merlin's legs were worse than useless, but he lashed out with arms and hands the best he could. He yelled and flailed, but the arms wouldn't let go. And then he was being set upon his feet, but that was no good, didn't they know his knees were ruined, ruined, ruined, everything was ruined… Destiny destroyed, prophecies smashed, hearts broken, everything gone.

A sudden blow to his chest brought him back to his senses. He became aware that he had collapsed: his limbs were sprawled out haphazardly on the floor, and someone had just kicked him. He pried his eyelids open to see that Agravaine was crouched down right next to his head.

“Well, Merlin, I must say, I'm pleased my nephew finally realised what you were good for.” Agravaine’s unctuous voice was too quiet for anyone else to hear but slithered its way into the dark recesses of Merlin's skull. “Finally treated you how you deserved. I wonder… would he mind sharing with his dear, devoted uncle? Oh, yes… Once I'm regent, I won't even have to ask. We'll have such fun, you and I. Though, dear, dear, it does seem like the king hasn't been too careful with his toy. Won't be as much fun breaking something that's already broken. I guess Gaius can try to patch you up a bit, and then I'll just have to make do. You've been a thorn in my side for too long. Revenge will be sweet.”

Agravaine stood and kicked him again, but this time directly hit a broken rib. The pain was immediate, blinding, and Merlin welcomed the unconsciousness that finally came up to greet him.

Chapter Text

What a glorious day! The sun had shone brilliantly all through its waking hours, and now it gently laid itself to rest in a bed of rose-tinged clouds and golden light. The aches and pains that normally plagued his body, the price paid for years of experience and wisdom, had faded away. All around him, Camelot Castle sparkled with its splendour and riches. And by morning, it would all be his. True, he would eventually have to share it with the Lady Morgana—but what a lovely companion she would make. For he knew that even as she was crowned Queen, he would be crowned King. It was inevitable. His devotion to her was unparalleled, and she could not help but love him for it. And if he let his façade down now and then, just to revel in the power of wearing the crown without being subject to her every whim, who could blame him?

The Council was meeting now, considering the urgent need to appoint a regent to rule in the stead of Camelot's deranged king. Truly, it was unfortunate that insanity had claimed him at such a young age, but like father, like son, you know. Can't deny that madness ran in families. Look what had happened to Dear Old Dad! And who better to step in and guide the kingdom than devoted Uncle Agravaine, the king's trusted uncle, brother to the former queen herself? Besides, who could doubt him? His charisma and powers of persuasion were unmatched. Look how he had played that misbegotten nephew of his. Look how that idiot clung to his advice, blindly following him straight off the precipice and into damnation. How the fool had escaped war and death after that Caerleon incident, Agravaine could not fathom… though he suspected, as he always did when his plans went awry, that that weasel of a manservant had had something to do with it.

And oh, wouldn’t it be fun to teach that meddlesome boy a lesson! He was, perhaps, a bit old for Agravaine’s tastes, but still, he appeared so young, so innocent. Of course, he'd probably lost much of that innocence over the past few days. Agravaine was torn between crowing at the fact that Arthur himself had destroyed the boy and being disappointed that he himself hadn't been the one to do it. But Gaius would do his best to put his poor little ward to rights again. Perhaps it would be good to let the boy recover some of his strength, some of his beauty—for there was no denying he was beautiful. His bones, so finely shaped, entirely too delicate… That skin, so pale and smooth… Those gorgeous eyes and that bewitching smile… Oh yes, Agravaine had noticed the way the boy's face lit up when looking at the king. As if a Pendragon could ever deserve such looks of adoration!

That nephew of his had had no right even being born. He was a parasitic leech whose only accomplishment had been to drain the life from his mother, the exquisite Ygraine.

Agravaine would never forget the day his beautiful sister had married that Pendragon worm, the day that bastard had stolen her away from him. He would never forget, and he would never forgive. From the moment the engagement was announced, it had been his greatest desire to cause the untimely and grisly demise of the man who had defiled his sister. In her grief, Ygraine would have turned to her beloved brother, the only one able to comfort her in her distress. She would have been such a lonely queen, breathtaking in her despair. She would have needed a strong king, someone to love her, to guide her, to protect her from the stresses inherent in the throne. She would have been so lovely, so pliant, so ripe for the taking…

But she had gotten with child before his plans had come to fruition. The baby could have been dealt with… babies were so very fragile, after all. So easily shaken. How simple to blame an untimely death on a frustrated nurse maid.

But then…! But then the baby had drained the life of his precious Ygraine, like a vampyre feasting on the innocent, sucking the goodness from the world along with the blood from her veins.

That child was an evil abomination, brought into being by a putrid king, a king so corrupt he had willingly sacrificed the most perfect creature in the world just for the possibility of passing on the Pendragon name. Agravaine’s lovely, brilliant sister had been sacrificed for a name!

Agravaine had been devastated by her death. After the funeral rites, he had fled the city. Every Pendragon crest he saw made him want to vomit his entrails. The pain was so intense that he could not stay, not even to enact a plan of revenge. There would always be time for that later.

The hatred had simmered in his heart, festering, putrefying… but it had become easy to wallow in that hatred instead of doing something about it. For when it came down to it—and it pained him to admit it—he was a bit of a coward. No, no, not a coward. Let's not be too hasty. He was merely practical. What could one man do against the Pendragon regime? It was much easier to live the easy life on his estate, enjoying all of life's pleasures… and most especially the pretty young things that came to curry favour. And they were so very young…

When he heard of the supposed accomplishments of the accursed Pendragon heir, it was convenient to use his current plaything as an outlet for his rage. And if they didn't all survive, well. There were always more, clamouring for his attention.

It was a shame that he had to keep his appetites hidden in Camelot. His dear nephew acted so very noble… Like that sort of prudish behaviour could make up for the depravity of his birth. But if the slightest whiff of impropriety got out, Arthur might become suspicious… Perhaps benevolent Uncle Agravaine wasn't quite as perfect as he seemed.

But now… Yes, soon it would be time to have some fun. Starting with that meddlesome serving boy… Oh, how wonderful it would be to show that boy a thing or two about the meaning of revenge. And after that, he'd partake of the serving girl who fancied herself a queen. Agravaine would be happy to teach the girl her proper station in life. She was clearly a whore, for how else could a girl like that capture a king’s attention? And what a hypocrite the king was, frowning on Agravaine’s fun while clearly engaging in some of his own! But no longer. And the only way that little whore would ever come anywhere near a throne would be if she were chained and naked, kneeling before him, waiting to be fucked.

He was confused, though, as to why it hadn't been that girl in Arthur's chambers. Instead it had been the boy… Strange. Had Morgana miscalculated somehow? Whatever the case, the results of the enchantment couldn't have been more spectacular. The girl would never become queen, and, by morning, Agravaine would essentially be king.

Everything was falling Agravaine’s way. Why would Morgana have to bother with Helios for an invasion when Agravaine could simply order Camelot to surrender and invite her in? And now Agravaine wouldn't have to deal with any competition for the Lady's affections. Though why any woman would choose a savage warlord when she could have an esteemed nobleman like himself was a mystery. Besides, Helios didn't stand a chance: no one could outplay the Lord Agravaine, master of manipulation and champion of charm.

Not that Morgana was without her own persuasive talents. When she had first approached him with a plan to put the rightful queen on the throne of Camelot, he hadn't been very eager about the idea. Truthfully, he'd grown complacent, savouring the simple pleasures of fruit and flesh. Yes, he wanted the Pendragons eradicated off the face of the earth. But he also didn't want to risk the likely result of engaging in such a plan. Agravaine was—sadly—no spring chicken. He'd seen a thing or two in his time. And one lesson he'd learned was that attempts to dethrone a king came with a high likelihood of death, even for the victors. Sure, Agravaine wanted to be king, or at the very least, get revenge against those who had murdered his sister. But he was also fond of being alive. It would be difficult to sate his many appetites if he were dead.

But Morgana had been rather persuasive, hadn't she? And now he was fully committed to the plan: return to Camelot and insinuate himself into the court, ingratiate himself to his nephew, safely perform some high-reward, low-risk espionage, then luxuriate in the fall of the Pendragons and the power and riches that Morgana would bestow upon him.

The plan had been a smashing success. Agravaine had been instrumental in the death of the man who had stolen and killed his sister. True, subterfuge and the use of magical amulets hadn't been quite as fulfilling as running the bastard through with a sword would have been. He would have liked to crow about his victory, let Uther know just who had caused his downfall. At least there would be another chance to gloat when he killed his dear, sweet nephew.

Morgana had promised that he could be the one to destroy the child that had stolen his beautiful Ygraine away from him. If the miscreant didn't die from his self-inflicted injuries, Agravaine had plans for him, the most delightful plans. And Morgana had been the one to suggest some of them! Morgana truly was a marvel. She had stormed into his life and thoroughly bedazzled him with her beauty and passion. From the moment he met her, he knew he had to have her. What a magnificent queen she would make! Agravaine hadn't proposed an engagement yet, though. She… might not be quite ready for such a permanent step. But once she saw how invaluable he was, how desirable… Well, she'd come around.

But first, there was this Council meeting to get through. He had to play his cards carefully. All had not yet been won. The king still wasn't dead, and there was no way Agravaine would risk being caught finishing the job himself. Before he could indulge in such pleasant endeavours, he needed to convince the Council that he was the only logical choice to take over for the ailing king.

In the end, it was laughably easy to be given the title of regent with all the powers inherent therein. During his time in Camelot, Agravaine had inveigled favour from the more fickle councillors, and with Arthur allowing him to appoint a replacement to the Council for Gaius, well… When it came to a vote, Agravaine nearly had a majority without even trying. Plus who could deny him, the closest relation the poor, afflicted king had left? With his experience running his own estate and now serving as the chief royal advisor, there could be no better option.

The vote was unanimous. Agravaine was selected as King Regent of Camelot. It was done.

There was only one hitch in his perfect plan. It came in the form of Geoffrey of Monmouth, who up to this point hadn't been too much of a problem. But before the meeting adjourned, the old windbag brought up one more item of business.

“Gentlemen,” he had said with unexpected authority. “We have agreed to install Lord Agravaine as King Regent because of King Arthur's current incapacity.

“As discussed earlier, we based the assessment of the king's mental state on his behaviour over the past week. While today the insanity was obvious, it is likely that it began several days ago, as that would explain multiple uncharacteristic behaviors, such as the dismissal of his longtime manservant. Do you agree, my Lord Agravaine?”

What was that blithering old man trying to get at? Agravaine was regent now, and he ought to be celebrating, not stuck in a pointless meeting. He had a pretty little thing waiting for him back at his chambers. With the king indisposed (and soon to be deposed), there was nothing to prevent Agravaine from indulging a little.

But first, to finish the meeting quickly.

“Yes, yes, we’re all agreed.” His voice was too snappish. He needed to calm down, project the aura of a dignified leader. He didn't want anyone questioning his authority.

“Then we can also agree that anything strange the king did during those days was caused by his poor mental health?”

“Of course. Can you get to the point?”

“The king had many people arrested for frivolous reasons. They are still in the dungeons, unfairly imprisoned by a madman. The Council should rescind their arrests.”

Another councillor, someone not yet in Agravaine’s pocket, asked, “And what were the charges?”

“Treason. Because Gaius and Sir Percival attempted to treat a wounded man. And then anyone suspected as being close to either Gaius or Percival was also arrested, merely by association. They should all be released immediately and given restitution for false imprisonment. I propose the Council call a vote.”

The vote had been close. Once Agravaine voted against releasing the prisoners, the rest of his pawns did too. But some of them had voted yes before they knew Agravaine’s wishes, making it impossible to reach a solid majority. As King Regent, he could have insisted on overturning the vote but thought it wise to pick his battles, to not abuse his power too recklessly quite yet. He might raise suspicions. There could be no wrinkles in his plan to hand a gift-wrapped Camelot over to Morgana when she arrived.

So for now the king's friends were allowed to go free. It shouldn't be too much of a problem. The most meddlesome of the king's allies had already been tortured half to death and would be unable to cause any more problems. As for the rest… he could deal with them. And soon enough Morgana would arrive. Agravaine could have them all imprisoned without cause, and wouldn't they have some fun together then?

Morgana would come soon, her army behind her. Until then, Agravaine fully intended to sit back and enjoy all the pleasures his new title brought. And once the rightful queen sat on the throne, the path towards being crowned the true King of Camelot was free and clear.

What a fucking glorious day it had been!

Chapter Text

Cold. So bloody cold. Why the hell was he so cold? Blankets pressed down on him but didn't stop the shivering. Damn it. Where was that irksome bootlicker of his? Had he not lit the fire? Arthur only put up with him because of his impeccable service. The brown-noser wasn't nearly as amusing as his pet had been...

It was a shame that the little merlin-bird had been unfit to continue as his servant. But now Arthur would get to keep it with him always. It had been wasted before: the naughty thing had been off lazing about, more often than not, somewhere out of Arthur's reach. No longer. He had made sure that the little birdie would stay with him. For always.

But where was his birdie now? He should find it, make sure it hadn't wandered off despite all of Arthur's precautions. But fuck, if he didn't feel too weak to open his eyes. And that wasn't really the kind of thing he could order someone else to do for him. Maybe the little pet would do it anyway… stay with him always, keep his eyes open, always be right there for the taking…

Despite freezing, a drop of sweat slid down his nose. It prickled uncomfortably, like an insect creeping across his skin. Then there was another drop, and another. It was intolerable. How was it even possible to be sweaty when he was this damn cold? When he tried to wipe the offending moisture away, his hands wouldn't move. He yanked at them, and pain shot up both arms, a sharp flash that quickly receded back into a dull throb. What the—? There was pressure on his arms, he realised now, squeezing from all sides. Had he been restrained?

A brief flare of panic seized him then, and the resulting adrenaline managed to do what Arthur himself had not: get those pesky eyelids open.

This was not his room. He was in bed, yes, but this was a simple chamber, the kind used to lodge minor nobility when they visited the citadel. Although the bed was comfortable, it was small. He was covered with rough blankets of rather poor quality, though there were enough of them that he was confused as to why he felt so cold. Yes, the spring nights were still chilly, but this was ridiculous.

The furnishings in the rest of the chamber were plain: a small wooden table, an unadorned wardrobe, a single portrait hanging over the blazing fireplace. Anger seized him. He was the king of this castle, and he would be treated with respect! There was no excuse for this, none. Where was that blasted manservant of his?

But then his anger fizzled some as he was overtaken by a fit of shivering coupled with exhaustion. Why the bloody hell was he so cold? He finally looked to see what the problem with his arms was. They were laid out over the blankets, meticulously wrapped in bandages from elbows to hands. It was the sort of neat work that Gaius would do. Gaius… There was something about Gaius…What was it?

Oh, yes. He despised Gaius! What a treacherous old man. Running away…

Running away from what? Arthur couldn't quite remember.

He returned his attention to the room. The light coming in through the single window was dim, lacking the slightest hint of gold. Early morning twilight, then. Or late evening? Hadn't it been evening when he… when he had—

Ohhhhhhh. That had actually happened. He had… why? Why would he do that?

He must have been enchanted. He would never do that to himself of his own volition. Never! There was no way that he would ever choose a coward's death. And why would he want to? The world was his oyster. Everything was his for the taking.

Somehow that naughty little pet of his must have managed to enchant him again, even with the iron bindings. What other explanation could there be? It was a dangerous little bugger, wasn't it? Arthur did love a challenge though. And hadn't that little merlin-bird been a challenge from the beginning? Daring to address the prince as “friend”? Having the audacity to correct his behaviour?

And yet… there had always been something about him, from the very beginning.

Something… different. Something… confusing, yes, but refreshing too. Captivating. Alluring.

Why had he waited so long to take advantage of his position as its master? Why not years ago?

Wasn't that a mite strange? Now that he thought about it?

No matter. He'd take full advantage from here on out. Hadn't the little bird itself promised to serve him till the day it died? The memory surfaced unbidden, such a strange conversation. His pet had demanded that they talk, and he had acquiesced. Since when would a prince give in to an animal? No matter how dear? It was perplexing. And what had it called him? A prat. It had called him a royal prat.

Why had he let it get away with that? What had he been thinking? Even then, he had known the little bird was his, his alone… his to command, his to care for, his to use. But he should not have put up with such insolence. It was practically treason.

And then what had it said? “I'm happy to be your servant. Till the day I die.” Well, that was only right. Though recently the little bird hadn't seemed too happy about serving him. What a little liar. But still… the gesture had been surprisingly sweet at the time.

It had then acknowledged his greatness, as well it ought, calling him a great warrior, a great king. That's how a good birdie ought to behave. None of this “royal prat” business. Then… more advice: “You must learn to listen as well as you fight.” And wasn't that stupid? A king didn't listen, and certainly not to a pet. But he had. He had. Gods damn it, he had! He had listened to it. Why? What had he been thinking?

Arthur was tired. Too tired to deal with this. He needed to sleep. But he was so cold. So thirsty. Where were his servants? Where were the attendants to satisfy his every whim? Where was his pet? Was he or was he not the king of this gods-forsaken castle? He tried to sit up, but found himself too weak to manage. Instead, he asked the empty room, “What the fuck is going on?”

“Your Majesty,” said an unfamiliar male voice, unnervingly close. “You're awake.”

Arthur absolutely did not jump, despite the voice originating from right next to him. Instead, he turned to see that instead of a wall on that side of the bed, like he had assumed, there was a small open space with a chair. In the chair sat one of Camelot's guards, fully dressed and armed, as if ready for battle.

Arthur's temper spiked. “What a brilliant observation, you nit wit. Keep up the good work, and you might give that manservant of mine a run for his money.” He stopped, panting for breath, unable to continue on with his rant. What the deuce was wrong with him?

The guard stood and walked to the table. He came back to the bed with a vial filled with dark-coloured liquid. “The physician said you should drink this if you woke. Would help you to recover.”

Arthur tried sitting up again, and this time the guard helped him. He wanted to argue, but he was thirsty. Despite how foul that concoction looked, at least it would wet his throat. He reached for the vial, then frowned. The bandages on his hands would make it difficult to lift the potion without spilling. It grated at his pride. Kings should not be helpless. He should not be helpless. He was power-made-flesh, the strongest warrior in all the five kingdoms. He did not struggle to lift a glass.

He covered his embarrassment with more anger. “Why are you just standing there, fool? You think it's funny to laugh at your king? Do you find this amusing?”

The guard snapped to attention, an anxious look on his face. Good. Let him squirm. Arthur nodded imperiously, and the man helped him to drink the potion. Gods, it was vile. But not as vile as being helpless as a blubbering infant.

After he finished drinking the medicine, he felt a bit better. At least his mouth wasn't as dry as death. It pained him to admit to the guard that he was was confused, but… he was confused.

“Why am I here? I am the king and ought to be in my own chambers! These ones are insulting!”

The guard stood back, head bowed respectfully. “Your chambers were deemed not suitable, my—”

“And these are?” Arthur screeched. “Where is—” He stopped abruptly. Who is it that he should be asking for? Gods, but he was confused. Agravaine would know what was going on. He could depend on his Uncle Agravaine.

“Where is Lord Agravaine? Have him sent to me at once!”

The guard cleared his throat uncomfortably. “I'm sorry, Your Majesty, but Lord Agravaine explicitly asked that he not be disturbed till evening.”

“I don't care what he told you. Go get him.”

“I cannot.”

“As your king, I command you to go and fetch him for me now!”

“I'm sorry, my Lord, but you no longer have the authority to make such demands. You've been declared mentally unfit, and the King Regent has assumed your authority.”

“The King Regent? Who the hell has the fucking nerve—”

“The Council elected Lord Agravaine to the position in light of your incapacity, my Lord.”

“They can't do that! I am the King of Camelot, the only son and heir of Uther Pendragon. They can't just—remove me from my birthright!”

“I'm sure it's only temporary, my Lord, until you have been fully restored to health. But until that time, I cannot overturn the King Regent's orders, not even at your request.”

What was this idiot blathering on about? Anger sizzled in Arthur's veins. How he wished he were strong enough to beat some sense out of this clod. There was no way his uncle would do any of these things he was being accused of.

“I don't give a rat's arse about what your little pea-brain thinks it heard. Go get him. Now! Or I will have you flogged!”

“I'm sorry, Your Majesty, but I cannot. I will relay the message to him this evening.”

It was maddening! But fine, Arthur could play this game. He could be patient, bide his time. And then how he would love flaying the skin from this idiot's back, lash after excruciating lash.

But he had other pressing matters to consider.

“Fine. Then fetch me my pretty little bird.”

“You want a bird?”

For the love of all the gods. This idiot was really something else. Arthur couldn't wait to be rid of him. But focus. He needed to focus. It was so hard to keep his thoughts in line. This should bother him, but the desire for his little birdie was suddenly all-encompassing.

“Not a bird, you moron. My little pet.”

“I'm sorry?” The guard was looking at him, his face scrunched up in confusion. And was that a sneer on his lips? Did he think Arthur was the idiot here? What an imbecile.

“My little merlin-bird! Send me my merlin!”

“You mean the boy?”

Was he a boy? Yes, yes, of course. A boy. His boy.

“Yes! The boy! Send him here at once!”

“I'm sorry, Your Majesty. But you're allowed no visitors. Lord Agravaine’s orders.”

Agravaine’s orders? His uncle Agravaine? He wouldn't do that.

“Why the hell not?”

“You're not in your right mind, my Lord. It was feared that you would be a danger to others.”

“I can't even lift a bloody vial by myself, and you think I'm a danger? Absurd. Now go get me my pet!”

The desire to have his pet was quickly becoming overwhelming. He needed it like he needed air. Soon he would suffocate…

“I cannot.”

“What the fuck are you good for, then? Get me my pet right now!”

“You need to calm down, Your Majesty. Or I'll have to call for the physician.”

“At last! A sensible idea. Call the physician! Maybe he won't be as useless as you!”

If he had to throw a fit to get some competent attention, then he would damn well throw a fit. He still wasn’t feeling that energetic but was definitely improving. Whatever was in that potion was clearly helping. He might even be able to get up. If this moron needed him to throw a fit, then so be it. With a burst of energy, he kicked the blankets off of his legs (which he immediately regretted; shit, it was cold). His effort to swing his legs off the bed was only half-successful. One foot got stuck in the bedding, throwing him off-balance. The rest of his body splatted onto the stone floor with a thump.

He grunted at the shock. Pain lanced through his arms, and he realised his throat was aching too. He moved his hand up to investigate his throat, but couldn't feel anything through the bandages.

The guard was there at his side, reaching for him, trying to lift him up.

“Get away from me!” Arthur ripped at the bandages on his hands. He wasn't going to accomplish anything wrapped up like a corpse.

The guard was eager to comply, jumping back and darting to open the door. Finally. He'd better come back with someone competent. As the idiot left, there was the jangling of keys, followed by a clicking sound. He had been locked in? Was he no more than a prisoner in his own castle?

There were muffled voices on the other side of the door, then footsteps. After a moment, silence fell. He looked back at his arms, bandages half ripped off. Time to finish the job. Now without an audience, he felt freer to proceed carefully. No need to hurt himself unnecessarily.

Once he uncovered his fingers, he frowned. They were covered with deep scratches, mainly on his knuckles, but which were, to a certain extent, scattered everywhere. How had he acquired those? He could remember—though not understand—using his knife. But these were not made by a knife.

He looked carefully at his fingers, and this time noticed small, careful stitches on a few of the deeper lacerations. What had happened? Had the little minx worked some other kind of magic? Though it seemed bizarre, had it used a spell to cause Arthur's knuckles to bleed? Wasn't that a bit pointless? Of course, his pet was an idiot. But still.

And then he remembered. How he had thought his little birdie was dead. How he had smashed the stained glass windows in the Hall of Ceremonies in a hailstorm of brightly coloured shards, not caring at all about the way it sliced up his hands.

How he had felt the way a lightning bolt must in the split second before firing, so incandescent with rage that the only option could be to flash, to strike, to destroy.

For he could not live without his little pet. He saw this clearly now. He had been so incautious before, not fully understanding just how fragile—and just how indispensable—the merlin-bird was.

As he continued to examine his fingers, his eyes strayed to his mother's ring. It was one of the few things he had of her. The ring… and her brother. It had been such a relief when his uncle had shown up, ready to support him, to assist him… perhaps to love him. A little bit of his mum had to be in her brother, right? Even if only in his memories of her.

It was painful to admit, but Arthur had always craved any scraps of love that were thrown his way. He had done everything to please his father, terrible things, atrocious things—always hoping to be found worthy, to be deserving of affection. He supposed Morgana had loved him, in her own sardonic way, but she was too much of a harpy to ever truly show it. And look what good that love had done him: now she would just as soon eviscerate him if given half a chance. And there had been Gwen, dear, sweet Gwen. She was so free with her affection that it had been hard for Arthur to resist. Her position as a servant had made her even more enticing: what better way to say ‘fuck you’ to his father than by marrying someone so dreadfully ignoble? But had she truly loved him? Or had she merely loved the idea of him? And the possibility of being queen?

Perhaps Arthur clung to Agravaine more than was wise. But if there were even the slightest chance of knowing his mother's love vicariously through his uncle's memories of her…

His mother's ring sat dully on his finger. It had been polished recently, at his uncle's insistence, and had been returned glittering like a ray of sunshine. It had almost seemed to glow with some mystical light of its own. Now, though, it was smeared with a film of dried blood. It reminded him of the blood that had covered his little pet’s collar. His sweet little pet.

And his pet had had such a lot to say about Arthur's ring. What had that been about? Why would it care?

Truthfully, though, the birdie had been almost the only one to ever show him unconditional love. The two of them had barely known each other during that incident with Bayard, yet it had still insisted on drinking poison for him. Would anyone else have ever done such a thing? Not Morgana. Certainly not his father. Would Uncle Agravaine? The man who had taken over his kingdom, locked him up in this room, and refused to see him? The man who was keeping him away from the merlin-bird?

The man who had taken his ring to have it polished.

The merlin-bird hadn't been very affectionate lately, but deep down, Arthur knew that it still loved him. Just as he couldn't live without it, it couldn't live without him. He could feel it, a connection between them. It had been present since the beginning. Lately… lately it had felt off, true. His pet had been so reluctant, so contrary. But—deep down, he knew his pet loved him unlike anyone else ever could. Would it lie to him? Might it have spoken the truth?

Had Arthur been enchanted by the ring? It's true he didn't feel quite himself lately… No, no, it was the birdie that had enchanted him. Why else would he have ever taken a knife to himself? Though the birdie had been all bound up in the strongest magic restraints to be found in Camelot's vaults. And oh, they had looked good on him. But his pet was surprisingly fetching, no matter what it wore… but best of all naked, bound, showing the evidence of Arthur's ownership, Arthur's dominion.

Oh, his pet, he needed it! His uncle could not keep it away. A wave of longing crashed through him, so intense that his muscles went rigid and he had to blink back tears.

Hadn't he been thinking about the ring? Why was it so hard to focus? Why couldn't he keep his thoughts in order? Damn, but it was hard. Something was wrong.

What if his birdie had been correct? What if the ring was enchanted? Maybe it hadn't been Agravaine to do it… maybe it had been someone at the jeweller’s. Things had certainly gone strangely since it had been returned to him. Hadn't he been… planning a dinner in honour of his mother's birthday? Fuck, had her birthday passed already? What day was it? How did he not know? His bird had always kept track of that for him… what a good little helper it could be when it wanted! Oh, how Arthur needed it. Now. He needed it now!

He looked down at his blood-covered ring. It wouldn't hurt to take it off, just for a minute. Just to prove to himself that his pet had spoken nonsense. Its words from so many years ago echoed in his head: You must learn to listen. Fine. He would listen. He would take off the ring, and then put it right back on again. Nothing would happen. And then… when he was reunited with his pet, he'd have such fun disciplining him, punishing him for spouting such nonsense.

But enough about the bird. Get out of his head already! He was thinking about the ring. Focus. He could focus. Yes.

He apologised to his mother… I still love you, Mum. This is just for a second. I promise. You know I still love you. I just have to try this one thing. There's a bird in my head, constantly chattering away, nattering on about listening and serving and dying, and I just need it to shut up! It will be just a moment, I promise.

Eyes scrunched up with unexpected anxiety, he inhaled deeply. For some unknown reason, his pulse started fluttering, almost like the wings of a frightened butterfly, desperate to escape the predator that was about to eat it.

And then with one smooth motion, he pulled the ring off his finger.

Chapter Text

When the guards had come to retrieve Gaius from the dungeons for the second time since being arrested that morning, he hadn't known what to expect but figured it was nothing good. But he was completely astounded to find that it was Arthur on the verge of death—and that he had inflicted the wounds on himself. It was baffling. Gaius had believed the king to be lost in the thrall of an enchantment. But to attempt suicide… Had he come back to himself and couldn't face the knowledge of what he had done? Had the spell been broken somehow? Had Merlin managed to remove the ring?

A quick examination of Arthur's hand had shown the ring still in its place. Gaius decided he would remove it, even if the spell had already been broken. Better not take any chances. But when he reached for it, Agravaine had stopped him.

“Leave it!” he had snapped.

Damn it. In his fluster, he hadn’t noticed the presence of the king's uncle. Gaius’ heart pounded against his rib cage. An excuse. He needed an excuse.

“My Lord, I must remove it to apply stitches to the finger.”

Agravaine lifted his top lip in a sneer. “That finger looks fine to me. And you will not dishonour my sister by removing her ring.”

That was when Gaius became certain: the ring was enchanted, and Agravaine knew. Gaius dallied, waiting for Agravaine to leave. But he would not. He stayed, vigilant, watching everything Gaius did and occasionally giving orders or taking messages from the castle staff.

Agravaine must have grown impatient with his dawdling, for he said, “Oh, yes, Gaius, your boy was taken back to your chambers. He seemed in rather a bad way. You might want to hurry up and run along home to see him.”

Gaius knew he had lost that round. He could have argued that he needed to remove Arthur's ring for cleaning the wounds and applying the stitches, but he did not want to push the matter, lest he give away his suspicions. Agravaine already distrusted him, but if the snake realised that his plot had been discovered, he might take more immediate action, and Gaius wasn't prepared for that.

As for Merlin… yes, he had to go take care of his boy. So he had finished stitching up the still-bleeding lacerations, left various potions to combat extreme blood loss, and hurried home. He found Merlin wrapped in a bloody sheet, sprawled on the floor next to a nearly-dead Gwaine, whose clothing was now more blood than fiber. Several guards milled about the room, nosing their way through books and papers. When Gaius entered the room and saw them, he snapped.

“You left two dying men on the floor?” he screamed, waving his arms in frustration. “Are you completely heartless? Or just incompetent imbeciles?” Perhaps this wasn't appropriate physician behaviour, but it had been a horrid day and an even worse night. At least one of the guards had the decency to look ashamed. Well too bad for him. Gaius wasn't done yelling.

“What are you standing there for? Put Sir Gwaine on the patient's cot! Now! Before he dies on the floor!”

There was movement then, people doing something helpful for once. Gwaine was lifted—”carefully, you idiots!”—onto the cot, where Gaius went immediately to work, cleaning, sewing, wrapping, medicating. It was too little, too late, but he had to hold out hope that Merlin would recover his magic and be able to work a miracle.

Merlin was placed on the bed in his own room. Gaius hadn't been in there for a few days and was horrified to see the scrunched-up ball of sheets in the corner, spots of blood easily visible among the wrinkles of the linen. That such a violation had occurred here, in their home, where Gaius ought to be able to keep his ward safe… It made him sick to his stomach. He had been oblivious, completely blind to what was happening right under his nose. What kind of guardian was he?

He tried to make up for it by doing his best to care for his boy now. It was difficult to look at his injuries, proof of a cruel, cruel spell. Proof of Agravaine’s treachery. Proof of Gaius’ failure to see what was going on in front of his eyes.

Gaius would do his best. Simon, one of the guards, assisted him in rolling Merlin over for cleaning. He sent Simon out while he worked—trying to preserve Merlin’s dignity as much as possible—until he needed his assistance again. Gaius gently wiped away the blood and semen, the sweat and urine, the puss that had accumulated over the brands and lacerations. The bruises he smeared with ointment. Ribs and knees he wrapped. The ribs could heal, but the knees… they were shattered, and it was uncertain if even magic could help his boy walk again.

Once finished, Gaius found Merlin's sleep clothes and Simon helped put them on. Then they laid him on his bed, over the softest fresh linens Gaius could find. Then he closed the wooden shutter to block the light from the window, left the door ajar, and returned to the main room.

He tried to dismiss the guards, only to find that he was under house arrest. Two left, but Simon said he'd been instructed to stay and keep an eye on things. This irked Gaius to no end. He was about to give him a piece of his mind, but Simon interrupted.

“I truly am sorry, Gaius. I'll wait in the corridor. But if I left— The Lord Agravaine has informants among us. He would know, and the consequences would be severe. I just… need you to know. Something strange is going on. We had orders to take Sir Gwaine to a storage room to await burial, despite my insistence that he was still alive. And this business with the king and his servant… It just doesn't sit right with me. There's some of us as think the Lord Agravaine doesn't have the king's best interests in mind.”

Gaius nodded and sighed, exhausted. Simon was just a pawn. Gaius ought to be grateful he wasn't being babysat by someone more loyal to Agravaine. And he knew there were quite a few of Agravaine’s goonies running around. He had overheard some of them speaking in the dungeons, gloating about how the king's uncle had granted them new positions, better weapons, more money. Gaius was shrewd enough to know that those things didn't come for free.

But now… Now there was nothing for him to do. He was much too wound up to sleep. His neck and shoulders ached, and his muscles were stiff and tingled with tension. So Gaius did what he did best in such situations: he paced.

Back and forth, back and forth, restlessly, without ceasing. Past the patient's cot bearing the nearly-dead Gwaine, up the stairs, through the door, into Merlin's room, where his boy slept on the uncomfortable bed. Then down the stairs, to his potions, check the brews, drink a sip to test their progress. Wash his mouth out with the stale, lukewarm water he had in the pitcher. Then back to Gwaine. Check heartbeat. Check breathing. Still alive then. Across the room, up the stairs. Check Merlin. Still asleep? Any sign of waking? Try a spell on the collar, try a spell on the knees. Nothing. Sigh. Then down the stairs, back to the brews. Then on to Gwaine, check the heart. Too slow, too slow, he was losing him. Pull out the last wisps of magic he still possessed. “Gestepe hole! Þurhhæle!” It was barely enough. He was so tired, so out of practice. He was a failure in this as in so many other things. One depressing failure of a person.

He had thought that, with the arrival of Merlin, he might have been able to atone for some of his previous sins. Here was a chance to do right by magic, after so many years spent hiding like a rat in a filthy little hole, staying safe while he watched other people's lives destroyed, futures smashed, families obliterated. And it was not just sorcerers that suffered, but anyone even suspected of having the slightest bit of sympathy towards them.

Gaius had scurried out of his hole for scraps of favour from the mad king, but always hiding what he was, scraping away in the feculent dark…

Oh, he knew well enough how to disguise his true nature. He let his magical self slip out on occasion, pretending to do some noble deed, scuttling quickly to and fro, trying to escape notice…

He should have followed after his beloved Alice when she had fled, but he had stayed in his little rat’s nest, surrounded by insects and excrement, dirt and bones, haunted by the ghosts of the Purge’s victims.

True, he had saved a few from the flames. Alice. Balinor. Morgause. (And hadn't that had mixed results?) Several others. But it wasn't enough, it was never enough. He, whose job it had been to take care of Uther, to heal him and keep him healthy. How easy it would have been to slip in some poison when he was ill. How easy to just not do his best to cure him from a winter fever…

The king would certainly have seen him dead if he knew his true activities. The incident with Aredian had left no doubt about that.

And yet, Gaius had done nothing. He said it was because Arthur wasn't yet ready to be king. But was that truly the case? Or was it more that Gaius couldn't face the evil he had been complicit to? If he killed Uther, he would be acknowledging the man as worthy of death. And if the mad king deserved death, what of his sane followers? Those who saw clearly, eyes wide open, yet stood by and condoned the evil?

Whatever else could be said for Morgana, at least she had not stood by, complacently watching the slaughter of her kind. She had spoken up, made a stand, taken action. It was just unfortunate that the anger had petrified in her heart, turning it to stone.

Morgana was yet another one of his failings. He could have helped her, guided her, the way he did Merlin. But Gaius had been scared. Scared that she would reveal him, scared that Uther would have discovered his perfidy and have him tortured to death. For wasn't betrayal by a friend the very worst kind?

Gaius felt the weight of the entire Purge on his shoulders. He had known that using magic to create a child had been a bad idea. But when Uther and Ygraine had asked him to petition Nimueh, he had gone with only minimal protest. He was half in love with the both of them. So young, so brilliant, so powerful. How he longed to make them happy and gain their favour and gratitude. He had known that asking for a child would carry a steep price, but he would not deny them.

And even then he might have been a bit of a coward, afraid of the consequences of angering an impetuous Uther.

But Merlin was his chance to redeem himself. He would help Merlin to help Arthur become the legendary king of prophecy.

And look how well that was turning out!

It was hard to keep track of all the times that he had failed Merlin, times when he hadn't been there when needed or had demanded too much of his overworked boy. And then there were the more serious failures, such as when Gaius had betrayed Merlin’s secret to Alator, too weak to resist the methods of the Catha. Thank the gods that Alator turned out to be loyal to Emrys.

And now… Now his ward lay half-dead, body ravaged, magic bound, knees destroyed. He had been violated in unfathomable ways by the man he loved most. Gaius wasn't blind—he could see love when it was right in front of his face. And if—no, when—Merlin woke up, he would be emotionally traumatized and likely unable to carry on with the brutal destiny that had been thrust on his too-young shoulders.

And now Arthur was mad and Agravaine was King Regent. Who would stand up against Morgana when she next tried to strike again? For she would, that was certain. She was tenacious and determined and would never give up until she was queen.

If only Gaius could have seen what was going on sooner… If only he had paid more attention when Merlin had gotten sick… He should never have left him to sleep at John’s house. He should have known then that something wasn't right. Maybe he could have prevented this whole thing…

Gaius paced and paced, revelling in the self-flagellation. Gods, but sometimes it felt good to beat yourself up. Especially if you deserved it. Which he most certainly did.

A loud knock at the door startled him. Being the middle of the night, with everything so uncertain, he had no idea what to expect. He just hoped that no one else was suddenly dying.

“Gaius! Wake up!” That sounded like Leon. Wasn't he still in the dungeons? There was more knocking. “Gaius!”

Gaius rushed to the door and threw it open before Leon woke half the castle. Besides, no need to alert Agravaine to anything.

“Come in! Quick!”

Leon entered, followed by Percival, Elyan, and Gwen. Leon and Percival both wore frowns and looked as grim as Gaius had ever seen them. Elyan had his arm around his sister and a vicious look on his face, as if ready to tear apart anybody who hurt her. Gwen looked miserable, eyes puffy from crying, cheeks dirty where the filth in the cells had stuck to the tears that had run down her cheeks.

Gaius sighed, then went to gather cups for water. “Agravaine let you go, then?”

“I don't think he wanted to,” Leon said. “I heard we have Geoffrey to thank.”

“Thank the gods for Geoffrey!” Gaius would have to make it up to his old friend.

Percival spoke up next. “Does Gwaine yet live? And what of Merlin?”

Percival walked over to the patient's cot to look down at Gwaine. His face drooped, eyes barely containing his tears. Gwaine appeared more dead than alive, skin colourless and no sign of movement anywhere. His breaths were so shallow and infrequent they were almost invisible. Looking at Percival's visible grief broke Gaius’ heart all over again.

“He lives, but just. If we can't get that collar off of Merlin, I fear there is no hope for him.” Gaius’ voice broke, and he had to stifle down a sob. Why could he manage his own grief, but when faced with someone else's sadness, he fell apart?

Percival wiped his eyes surreptitiously on his sleeve, then sat down on the bench next to Gwaine's cot. “And Merlin… how does he fare?”

It took Gaius a moment to answer. He had to regain his composure.

“I don't think Merlin is in danger of dying. But… he might never walk again.”

There was a gasp from Gwen, who was sitting next to Elyan, squished into Gaius’ armchair. She tried to stand, but Elyan gently wrapped his arms around her and pulled her down again.

“What— What happened Gaius?”

But Gaius couldn't answer, suddenly overcome with grief. He turned away from everyone, then walked to a window to stare into the night. It felt like darkness was pressing in on him from all sides, slowly extinguishing all the lights in his life, big or small, one by one.

Elyan was murmuring something to Gwen. Percival was breathing heavily, and Gaius guessed he was trying not to cry. It was Leon who spoke next.

“What do you mean by needing to get a collar off of Merlin?”

Oh gods. Leon didn't know. He didn't know that Merlin had magic or that he used it to protect Arthur. Nor did Elyan or Gwen. Gaius didn't worry about them quite so much, but Leon… He had been one of Uther's right-hand men, arresting and executing sorcerers daily. Just yesterday he had been railing against the evils of magic. How would he react to a sorcerer in their midst?

“Gaius? What did you mean?” Leon's voice took on a sharp tone.

Gaius turned his back to the window and surveyed the room. Percival looked up from Gwaine's bedside and nodded his head. He subtly fingered the pommel of his sword, indicating that he was willing to defend Merlin if it proved necessary. Though if Elyan also entered the fray, Percival would be outnumbered.

That's all they needed right now. How would they ever uncover and stop Agravaine’s plans if they were fighting amongst themselves? A strange “prophet” had come through town preaching once, claiming that evil was anything that interfered with harmony between men. Gaius felt the press of that evil closing in now, tearing them apart. It had destroyed the bond between Merlin and Arthur, and now, if it divided the knights… there would certainly be no hope for Camelot.

“It's because of his magic, isn't it?” Gwen sounded weak and exhausted, a tone of resignation in her voice. “That's why I let him go back to Arthur. I could have stopped him, but… I thought he might be able to—”

“Magic?” Leon pushed himself off of the rickety stool he had been perched on. “Merlin has magic?”

“He's only ever used it to protect us,” Percival said, a warning tone in his voice. He did not stand, but his muscles were tensed and ready for trouble. Gaius held his breath, knowing it was a pivotal moment.

“You knew, Percival? And you too, Elyan?” Leon's voice grated, as if he were roughly pushing his words out between clenched teeth. Gaius felt his own muscles tense even more in response.

“I didn't,” Elyan said. He hadn't let go of Gwen, but his eyebrows were furrowed and lips pursed as he looked at his sister. “How did you know, Gwen?”

“I just… figured it out?” she said slowly. “Wasn't it obvious?”

“No,” Elyan said. “I didn't suspect anything.”

“Well, you're not exactly famous for being observant, Elyan.” Gwen's voice had taken on a slight teasing tone, and it was a welcome relief. Maybe they could get through this.

“And you didn't think to tell me?” The hurt in Elyan’s voice was clear for all to hear.

“It seemed… not my secret to tell? You know I love you, Elyan, but… you've always had a talent for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, and… I just…”

Elyan sighed. “I understand, Gwen. You don't have to say it.” He squeezed her gently, and she lay her head on his shoulder.

Leon started in on Gaius’ favorite activity in times of stress: he paced. After a few passes of the room, absentmindedly stepping over piles of books and baskets of medical items, he stopped. “And none of you are concerned that the man closest to our king is a sorcerer?”

Percival stood then, letting go of Gwaine's hand so that he could give his full attention to Leon. “You know Merlin. You've seen him try to throw his life away if it might save Arthur. You were there for the poison. You were there for the dorocha. You know there isn't an evil bone in that boy's body.”

Leon let his head droop forward and rubbed at his face with his hand. He pinched the bridge of his nose, as if trying to fend off a headache.

Percival sat down again and looked to Gwaine. He frowned, then felt for a pulse. “Gaius? I don't think he's breathing!”

Damn. And Gaius was so tired. And with Leon here… Well, one more shock couldn't do too much more damage, right? He rushed over to the bed, placed both hands over Gwaine's heart, and shouted, “Gestepe hole! Þurhhæle!” Nothing. He shouted the spell again. Still nothing. His arms trembled, and he felt abruptly hot as a wave of panic washed over him.

Percival stood next to him. He leaned over and started speaking into Gwaine's ear. Phrases like “don't you dare give up” and “come on, who else will keep the Princess in line?” filtered into Gaius’ awareness, but he was distracted by his panic: what to do, what to do, he couldn't fail Merlin by letting Gwaine die… He'd failed him so atrociously already…

“Gaius!” It was Gwen, who had somehow crossed the room and appeared at his side without him noticing. “What’s wrong?”

“I'm—” He collapsed back onto the bench next to the bed.

“No! Gaius! You have to try again!”

He was so tired. It wasn't working. “I can't.”

“Yes. You can.” Gwen grabbed both of his hands and placed them back over Gwaine's heart. “Say the spell.”

“Gwen…”

“Say it. Do this one thing, and then you can rest.”

He couldn't deny her. She was the closest thing to a daughter he had ever had, much more so than Morgana. There had always been a distance between him and Morgana, a distance that had been exacerbated once he decided to hide the existence of her magic for her protection. But Gwen, sweet Gwen, always so willing to help with a smile and kind word. She was a ray of sunshine in his life, and he could not deny her. She believed in him. He would try again.

With all his remaining energy, he shouted, “Gestepe hole! Þurhhæle!” He felt the warm glow of magic pass through his hands into Gwaine's heart but then collapsed back onto the bench before he could see if it worked. Percival caught him and helped him to sit. Gwen went to work examining Gwaine, checking for breath, feeling for a pulse.

“Is he—” It was Percival who asked. Gaius had no energy left to wonder with.

Gwen's eyes were shining with tears again, but she said, “You did it, Gaius. He's still alive. Thank you!” And then she was hugging him. He let himself sink into her embrace, just for a moment. He was always the one taking care of others. Just this once, it was nice to let someone else support him.

Percival whispered, “Thank you, Gaius. I am in your debt.”

There was a moment of stillness. Gaius was half-asleep in Gwen's arms when Leon finally spoke.

“Magic. You saved him with magic.”

Gaius straightened and took a breath to speak, but Percival beat him to it. “And we should be grateful, Leon. Both Merlin and Gaius have used magic for the benefit of this kingdom, a kingdom that would see them killed.”

Leon shook his head, slowly, almost as if in disbelief. “I suppose it would be hypocritical of me to begrudge the use of magic for the benefit of others. If the druids had not saved me with magic from the Cup of Life, I would not be here today.”

The tension in the room lessened noticeably. Leon sat down again, Gwen returned to her brother, and Percival went back to holding on to one of Gwaine's waxy-looking hands.

“So,” said Elyan. “Am I to understand that Merlin is a sorcerer, but his magic has been bound by a collar? And if we removed it, he might be able to save Gwaine?”

Gaius nodded, too weary to open his mouth unless it was absolutely necessary.

Elyan continued. “Putting aside the question of why it's there in the first place, how do we get it off?”

“Arthur put it there, so he would be the one to ask about how to remove it. But the king is currently unconscious.”

Gwen interrupted then. “What has happened, Gaius? Please, tell us what is going on.”

There was a potion on his table, an infusion of herbs that promoted blood circulation but which also increased one's alertness for a short time. It could be addictive, but Gaius was desperate enough that he'd chance it.

He reached for it and drank the whole thing before speaking. Then he told them everything he knew. How he suspected that Ygraine's ring had been enchanted. How it seemed to affect both Merlin and Arthur: Merlin and his magic were both ill, and Arthur was crazed and obsessed with Merlin.

“I don't understand,” Gwen asked. “Why would a curse on Arthur’s ring affect Merlin? That doesn't make any sense.”

Gaius sighed. “I'm guessing, of course, but Merlin and Arthur have a destiny: they are meant to work together to bring about the golden age of Albion. Prophecies have foretold their coming, and it is said that they are like two sides of the same coin. There is a powerful connection between them, and if magic were involved, what happens to one very well might affect the other.”

“Arthur and Merlin… are destined?” Gwen asked, voice tremulous. “Like… soulmates?”

In all his stress and anxiety, Gaius hadn't thought about how this might affect Gwen. Everyone knew that Arthur had been about to propose to her. It wouldn't be pleasant to find out that her beloved shared a prophesied bond with someone else.

“Soulmates?” Elyan asked.

Gwen's voice broke, but she forced the words out. “A connection. Between two people. Their souls were essentially made for each other.”

Elyan shook his head. “You know that's an old wives’ tale, Gwen.”

“Is it? Gaius himself says there are prophecies about the two of them. What if… what if they…” And then she could speak no more, tears once again trailing down her cheeks.

Gaius felt for her, but Gwen's broken heart was the least of his worries. “It might explain why Arthur has been so obsessed with Merlin, why the obsession has such a strong sexual component… If they had a soul bond and if it had been warped somehow, poisoned. But why would someone do that?”

“Can you think of no one who has benefitted from this situation?” Percival asked, voice acidic with disdain.

“It certainly has proven an effective way for Agravaine to gain power,” Leon said.

“And if Agravaine is working with Morgana?” Gaius asked. No one blinked at Gaius’ accusation. Thank the gods. That was one less battle he would have to fight.

“Agravaine would be able to open up Camelot's doors and invite her in.” Leon stood up and began pacing again. “What are we going to do?”

“We need to—” Whatever Percival was about to say was lost in a barrage of bangs on the door.

“Open up, Gaius! You must come. The king has need of your services.”

Leon went to open the door to the physician's chambers to let the guard in while Gaius fished around for supplies. There was another vial of that energy-inducing potion on the shelf. A little more wouldn't hurt anything. He had to keep going. He started spewing out orders to the others, despite his lack of authority.

“Gwen. Keep an eye on Gwaine. If anything happens, send for me immediately. Maybe if Arthur is awake, he can tell us where the key to that blasted collar is and Merlin will be able to heal him.

“Elyan. Can you stay and help Gwen? And check on Merlin too? I think he'll just be sleeping, but I'd feel better knowing someone was watching out for him.

“Leon—”

But Leon already had plans. “I'm going to do some investigation, Gaius. Send out some scouts to see if Morgana is up to anything. Keep an eye on Agravaine.”

Gaius nodded. “Thank you. And Percival, would you mind coming with me? I'm not sure I can even make it to Arthur on my own. And if Arthur tells us how to get the keys to the collar…”

“Of course, Gaius. I'll be happy to fetch them. Anything to help Merlin and Gwaine. Are you ready to go?”

He was. Percival carried his supplies, and the two of them left to find the king. Simon still stood in the corridor but did not stop him. He must have been informed that Gaius was no longer under arrest but wouldn't leave his post, afraid of the potential consequences.

As they made their way across the castle, Gaius made an effort to keep breathing. He was feeling strange, a bit like there was static electricity running along under the surface of his skin. It was probably an effect of that potion. But soon… soon he would sleep. He had to hope for the best.

When they arrived at the room where Arthur was staying, the guards outside explained how the king had been having a fit, and would the physician please go in and see if there was anything that could be done to calm him down? Gaius was too numb to do anything but nod and head towards the door.

Percival entered first, just in case Arthur proved dangerous in his insanity. Gaius followed behind, then stopped perplexed.

The room was completely empty, no mad king in sight.

Chapter Text

When Arthur removed his mother's ring, an intense burning sensation coalesced in his finger, then rushed up his arm to encompass his entire body. It was a stark contrast to the cold that had wrapped around him like a blanket. Gooseflesh erupted on his arms and legs; sweat dripped from his face. His vision dimmed, and he grew light-headed. Thankfully he was still sprawled on the floor from where he had tumbled out of bed, so at least if he passed out he wouldn’t injure himself.

The heat grew and grew, unnatural in its intensity. Magic. It had to be magic. He knew this was an important revelation, but he was too busy burning to death to care why.

And then— Just when he was convinced he would literally burst into flames, the heat rushed back to his heart and burst from his chest in a fiery blaze. He gaped at what he saw: a splashing fountain of golden light which kicked up a veil of sparkling mist like it was a godsdamned waterfall or something.

That was when Arthur realised his eyes were closed. He could see the fountain of light as plain as day, but at the same time was entirely incapable of lifting his eyelids. His exhausted brain slowly considered it. Magic. It was magic. Would he be able to see anything unusual if he were able to open his eyes? Doubtful.

The fountain splashed higher while the heat buildup in his chest grew intolerable. But he was transfixed by the sight. The heat and pressure intensified until the golden motes of light imploded in a chaotic swirl, spiralling around each other, tighter and tighter, weaving themselves into a thread. The thread stretched ever farther away from him, out, out, out… farther than he could see. It clearly lead somewhere. He felt his consciousness slip away from him, sliding along the golden spiral, following the thread to its eventual destination. It made perfect sense in the way that dreams did when he was stuck inside them: he was here and elsewhere equally. He coursed and surged with the light before slamming into something. The shock of it sent him back to his own body, eyes bursting open in alarm.

What had that been? Looking around the room, he saw nothing out of the ordinary. No sparkling fountains or golden threads. No hint of magic. His body was cooling now, most of the heat having run off with the burst of magic. He started shaking. No matter. That would not stop him from trying to understand what the hell was going on. He closed his eyes again, expecting to see the golden cord, but nothing was there. But it was too soon to give up. Be patient. Wait.

He lay on the floor, shaking more violently as time went by, but determined to find that cord again. After a long moment he saw the faintest glimmer. It slowly brightened in his mind’s eye. Somehow he had known it would still be there, that it had not disappeared. It was like starlight, wiped away by the brightness of the physical world, but faintly visible if he concentrated and searched it out.

The thread was dimmer than it had been. Now that he looked carefully, he could see that it was not pure gold. There was a sickly green tinge to it, as if it were tarnished. Or poisoned. The cord pulsed with life, but it was feeble, struggling, possibly even dying. Yes, poisoned.

The thread was anchored in his heart and stretched away to somewhere else. This time, instead of haphazardly launching his consciousness along the cord, he sat and listened. It wasn't hearing with his ears, but rather with his heart. He listened to the magic's vibrations, to the frequencies, to the cadence… and he knew. He knew what—or rather who— was at the other end of the thread. It was Merlin.

The idea of a magical cord linking Arthur's heart to Merlin's was less disturbing than he would have expected. There always had been something about Merlin, something with their interactions, that was intense beyond what was reasonable for two people, even if they did spend an inordinate amount of time together. Despite clearly being made of magic, the link between them felt natural, right. But something else was clearly wrong.

Arthur let his senses return to the mundane world where he was still lying on the floor, once again freezing, though now covered with a layer of dried sweat that cracked as he moved. He felt more energetic and was able to push himself to sitting. Gaius’ potions could work wonders, of course, but there seemed more to it than that. The golden fountain that had dripped like a shower of sunlight over his chest had left him with a feeling of rightness, of health, even of joy.

He stood then, taking in the scenery. As soon as he saw the lit fireplace, he moved to soak up its warmth. He was so cold. Why was he so bloody cold?

Once he was as close to the hot flames as he could get, he settled down onto the floor again. It was time to figure out what the hell was going on.

He tried to review what he remembered: There was a magical link between him and Merlin, but the link was damaged. He was freezing. His hands were covered with lacerations, several of them stitched. There were long slashes that ran from his wrists up his arms, also stitched. He frowned at them. Blood loss could certainly lead to him feeling so cold and lethargic. But he felt much better now. There was a cloth wrapped around his neck. More bandages. He had been injured there, too.

His memories were cloudy, but if he could catch ahold of one detail, he knew he'd be able to unravel the whole mystery… How had he been hurt? What had—

Oh. Oh yes. He had done it to himself. But why? And then all the memories rushed at him in a torrent. The suicide attempt. Smashing the windows. Being told he no longer had authority as king. Merlin.

He remembered. Gods how he remembered. Tears sprang to his eyes, quickly overflowing. They cascaded down his face like raindrops.

But for some reason he felt different about it now. Yes, he had done awful things. He wiped his face on the fabric of his shirt as the tears increased in speed. But now that he had felt the link he had to Merlin—and what the hell was that, anyway?—he intuitively knew that killing himself wouldn't help Merlin in any way. It would only make things worse by completely destroying the bond between them.

When he had removed the enchanted ring, the thread linking them had flared to life. It was refreshing, rejuvenating. To destroy such a thing, to deprive Merlin of that life-giving connection, would be an atrocity, a violation worse than anything Arthur had done so far.

Though it's not like Merlin deserved to be treated like a princess or anything. No need to coddle him. He was a rather useless thing most of the time anyway.

Arthur shook his head violently. Where had those thoughts come from?

But it was just like something Merlin would do: barge into his thoughts and make himself at home. Make Arthur have feelings. Feelings were a liability, a weakness. Not something to be indulged in. Hadn't his pet learned yet that it was his job to serve Arthur? Not distract him with dangerous emotions?

Arthur jerked up to standing. What was that? Had he actually just called Merlin his pet?

He leaned into the warmth of the fire, then closed his eyes, searching out the link between them. It was hard to find. He wondered if he might have been able to see it before, if he had tried, back before all this business with the ring…

The ring. Agravaine. Agravaine had taken his ring. Agravaine was now in charge of Camelot. It couldn't be a coincidence.

But Arthur brushed that thought aside for the moment. He needed to check on the golden thread. Eyes closed, he waited patiently, letting his sight recover from the harshness of the physical world, searching for a tiny glimmer. And at last—there. Yes. He found it. A fragile tendril of spiralling light, mostly golden, but with a sickly green twined between the strands. There seemed to be more green than there had been when Arthur had looked before.

With the ring removed from Arthur's finger, wouldn't any damage it had caused be undone? Wouldn't the enchantment be lifted? Shouldn't everything go back to normal?

And yet… it clearly hadn't.

Gods. As if things weren't bad enough.

At least he was aware, now. At least he could try to fight it.

Though why should he? Wasn't it his right as king to do as he pleased? Why would it matter if he caused harm to one of his subjects… Their only purpose was to serve him, was it not?

Arthur slapped himself on the cheek. Violently. Fuck, this was bad. Very, very bad. He wasn't going to let some insidious residual enchantment destroy his mind. No. He was stronger than that. He had trained all his life for strength, endurance, discipline. Now the battle was mental instead of physical. But he would be victorious. It was his gods-given right…

No! He would not let those thoughts win. No.

He needed to think. Who was the enemy here? How had this disaster come to be?

Agravaine. It had to be Agravaine, though his soul screamed against the idea. Only Agravaine had had access to the ring…

Unless it was the jeweller? Or anyone who had stolen the ring along the way? Why would his uncle do such a thing? Wasn't Arthur family? The only son of his only sister? He should want Arthur to reign victorious, right? Arthur was a brilliant star sent down to earth, destined to shine over all of Camelot. His uncle must know that. His uncle wouldn't work against him.

So perhaps it was someone else. Though why would anyone ever work against Arthur? Was he not practically celestial? Should not everyone bow down and worship him?

Though his pet never had…

Maybe it was his pet. Maybe the little merlin-bird had done this to him.

No! No. Not that. That was the spell. Gods, that was the spell.

The effort to fight it was exhausting. He was panting with the effort, crying again. Like a baby. Like a baby merlin-bird. It was disgusting.

Arthur closed his eyes as beads of sweat built up on his brow. The thread, the thread… Maybe if he found the thread… Maybe that would help. A connection to Merlin. It had already helped him to feel better before.

It took awhile, but he found it, more sickly green than it had been. Time was running out. Eventually it would be more green than gold, and then where would Arthur be? And Merlin, his loyal, sweet Merlin…

Who he had left bound. In manacles that tortured. Spiked, magic-restraining manacles that could only be removed with a key. Which Arthur himself had hidden in the darkest corner of the vaults.

Whether Merlin had any magic to restrain or not didn't matter. Arthur suspected he must, if only because of this ethereal connection between them. And then there were all the times that he had felt the intervention of a mysterious guardian angel… All those incidents would make so much more sense. But even if Merlin didn't have magic, the manacles were still a cruel fate.

Arthur needed help. He needed help to fight this spell. Eyes closed, he gazed at the golden-green thread, then tried to reach for it with immaterial hands. He could not grab it… it was made of light. But even as his hands passed through it, he grew stronger. More capable of fighting. Aided by the very thing that needed aid.

Arthur knew what he had to do. He must go to Merlin. With the key. He must make things right. Perhaps Gaius could help; perhaps there was a way to break this enchantment’s hold upon his mind. Maybe Merlin really was a sorcerer, and if Arthur freed him, Merlin could magic everything right again.

But first he had to escape this room.

He knew there were guards outside. Arthur might be able to beat them in a normal fight, even without a weapon, but he was weak. The magic had helped, but he could not take on a hall full of guards alone without a weapon.

Luckily, though, Arthur had spent many hours roaming the castle as a child and even more as an adventurous youth. He knew the system of ledges and eaves on the walls of the citadel outside the guest rooms. It wouldn't be hard for him to navigate. He would not be able to reach the ground, but should be able to make it to another chamber with an unlocked window, one which would hopefully be empty. From there he would be able to navigate the castle without being detected. He knew all the secret passages, all the guard rotations, all the keys hidden away in secret places in case of emergency need.

He would go to the vaults. He would find the key. He would unlock Merlin. And then he would hope for a miracle.

If only the enchantment didn't overpower him first.

Chapter Text

Gwen was busy doing what she always did in times of stress: she cleaned. She flittered around Gaius’ chambers, haphazardly cleaning everything in her path. She scrubbed out pots, swept the floor, organized stacks of books, and folded piles of cloth, bandages, and garments. She wiped windows and dusted shelves, then mended a few articles of clothing that had ragged hems or holes in the pockets.

Elyan occasionally pestered her to sit down and rest, but she wouldn't. She couldn't. She might start to think then, and if she opened up even the tiniest chink in her emotional armour, she wasn't sure she would be able to close it up again. If she let herself think about Arthur… and Merlin…

No, damn it. Stop thinking. Scrub. Scrub the floor, make it shine. Scrub the wall, remove the residue from some long-gone exploding potion. Scrub the pot, think about cooking. When would everyone be back? Would they want to eat? Did Gaius have any food around? Had he sent Merlin—

No. No thinking about Merlin. Quick, back to scrubbing. But even as she scrubbed, the idea of Merlin creeped into her head. Merlin, her best friend. Merlin, who had been brutally tortured, because she had allowed him to leave her care. Merlin, who was Arthur's soulmate.

Gwen blinked her eyes viciously, trying to stave off the tears that were on the brink of falling. She had already cried enough to last a lifetime, and there was no need to add to it. It was not like it would do any good.

But there it was, laid out in front of her, the ugly truth laid bare for her perusal: Arthur was Merlin's soulmate, not hers. And not only that, but the two of them had some extra-special prophesied magical destiny together. What a fool she had been, to ever think there had been something between her and Arthur. What a laughingstock. Everyone would look and see her disgrace: shunted aside without a moment's pause because some prophecy demanded it.

It stung. The tears dripped from her eyes now, but she was too lost in the world of emotions to care. How dare Merlin come in between her and Arthur? He was supposed to be her best friend! Friends wouldn't do that to each other. Arthur was going to be a great king, and Gwen was going to help make it happen. Theirs was a fairy tale love: had not her kiss broken the enchantment when Arthur was under that love spell? Hadn’t Merlin himself said that only someone Arthur truly loved could break the curse?

Arthur loved her! How could anyone deny it? He was willing to risk death to save her. He was going to propose! Merlin had hinted as much more than once; Merlin, who had been the biggest champion of their relationship. How was it possible that he could be the one to break it?

Gwen gave up on cleaning and sat on an overturned bucket in a dark corner. She tried to remain silent, so that Elyan would take no notice of her little breakdown, but her breath was coming faster now, and it was hard to keep from bursting into sobs.

How was it possible that Arthur was bound to someone else? How had she not realised? True, Merlin had always followed after Arthur like an over-eager puppy dog. Gwen had rather fancied Merlin, back when he first arrived in Camelot, but even then he had been too focused on Arthur to notice anyone else. She had merely thought him eager, trying to make a good impression. And who wouldn't, being thrust into a job working for royalty?

But there clearly was more to it than that.

She had kissed Merlin, that time when he had been poisoned. She had let her guard down and kissed him. But she should have known even then: Merlin let himself be poisoned because he had been willing to die to protect Arthur. What clearer sign of love and devotion did she need? And Arthur had risked himself equally, to find the Mortaeus flower that would save Merlin's life.

How had Gwen not seen it? How had she not realised? It had been right in front of her.

Gwen allowed her thoughts to float along where they wished. They swirled around chaotically, brushing up against memories and scurrying away again. Eventually they settled on a single, painful recollection: that dark day when she had asked Lancelot a favour, to look after Arthur, to bring him home. She shivered at the memory and the vision of the dorocha that it brought to mind.

It had been a heavy thing to ask of the knight, and in the end he had paid for it with his life. But Gwen had always felt comfortable with him, intrinsically knowing that he would do anything she requested. His love for her had shown through in everything he did. And there had always been something about him, from the very beginning. Lancelot would have been so easy to love, except… Except she could never quite forgive him for having abandoned her after her ordeal with Hengist. Lancelot alone had decided that he knew what was best for her, assumed that an unattainable prince was somehow better than a man she could actually be with, and left. He had not consulted her in any way. Thinking of it made her angry all over again. So self-sacrificial, as if suffering made one holy. Gwen didn't need a holy man, but she did need one who was actually around. Gods, but men could be infuriating.

Well, if Lancelot had wanted to wear martyrdom around his shoulders like a cloak, that had been fine with her. She had felt few qualms about asking him to protect Arthur. It was rather satisfying, actually. A bit like revenge. So you think you know what's best for me? You think that Arthur is better for me than you are? Well then, why don't you take care of him for me, because he's more important to me than you are. Why don't you give your life for him? You decided he was my happy-ever-after, so you had damn well better make it so.

Now, though, she felt the loss keenly. Yes, Arthur would be a great king and needed to live. But maybe Gwen had needed Lancelot to live, too. Maybe if she had seen the truth about Merlin and Arthur sooner, maybe if she weren't so prone to self-deception, she would have found it in her heart to forgive Lancelot and build a life with him. Heaven knows she had been willing to forgive Arthur for his many instances of prattitude.

Had it been possible that she was blinded by the fantasy of being queen? She worked so hard to help others, and being queen would have certainly made it easier. She could have helped Arthur become the amazing king she knew he could be, and together they would have built a prosperous, righteous kingdom.

But she loved Arthur! She did. She was not just in love with the idea of him. She wouldn't have fallen prey to the glamour of royalty, would she? It must be possible to love someone truly, even if you weren't soulmates, right?

Gwen's tears dried up as she pondered the truth of her feelings. She should get up and check on Gwaine again, see if there was anything she could do for him. Merlin would need checking too, but the idea of going up to his little room made her ill. Elyan could go instead. There was no way that Gwen was ready to face Merlin and the horrifying array of emotions that he represented. Even with him sleeping, the guilt and jealousy were too much for her to endure.

Before she rose to check on Gwaine, though, the sound of loud voices penetrated from the corridor into Gaius’ chambers. Elyan was on his feet immediately, sword drawn and ready. Gwen stood back, but her brother went to the door and listened. After a moment there was knocking.

“Who is there?” Elyan called, making no move to open the door.

The voice that answered was loud and exasperated. “Let me in, Elyan. I mean no harm.”

Gwen's heart did an unsanctioned skip when she heard that voice: it beat unevenly, spurred on by both love and fear. Arthur was here. Arthur was here, sounding like himself again.

Elyan was wary. “How can I know that, Your Majesty? You've shown yourself—”

Arthur didn't wait to hear any accusations against him. “It was the ring, Elyan! It was cursed. I've removed it now. You can ask the guard that's out here with me.”

Gwen frowned. That's right. Simon was still standing guard outside Gaius’ chambers. He hadn't wanted to get on Agravaine’s bad side and had remained at his post.

Simon's voice came through the door, less loudly but still audible. “It's true, Sir Elyan. He no longer wears any ring upon his fingers.”

“Please, Elyan,” Arthur called. “I've brought the key to unlock the shackles. I can get the key to Gaius’ room myself, if I have to, but it would be faster if you let me in.”

Gwen stood abruptly when she heard about the key to the shackles. If they could release Merlin and he could use magic to help Gwaine…

“Open the door!” she yelled to Elyan. “It's Gwaine's only chance!”

Elyan looked at her uncertainly, but then nodded. He unlocked the door, and Arthur burst through.

Arthur looked terrible. His skin was colorless and covered with specks of blood; his hair was damp with sweat and sticking up at unnatural angles. There must have been bandages on his wrists and lower arms at one point, but they had been ripped off. One hadn't been entirely removed, though, and dangled to his waist. It was stained with swaths of blood. His clothing was rumpled and covered with dark red spots. The outfit must have been put on recently, but without bandages, the blood that oozed from Arthur's hands quickly sullied the garments.

There was a sword hanging at his side. It was not one of Arthur's; Gwen could recognize all of those immediately. It looked like it had been taken from one of Camelot's guards. Gwen was relieved to see it still clean.

The look on Arthur's face was one of a madman: eyes open too wide, mouth twisted, forehead wrinkled, eyebrows askew. Fear raced through Gwen's muscles, tightening them up in a rapid succession.

“Where is he?” Arthur yelled.

Elyan must have also been concerned by Arthur's appearance and behaviour, for he raised his sword and said, “Why don't you give us the key, and we'll go unlock the shackles.”

“No! I must do it! You can't keep him from me!” Arthur's voice had a strange quality, like that of someone calling out while trapped in the midst of a nightmare.

Elyan tensed, prepared to fight. It was clear that he was not going to let Arthur go past. Arthur raised his sword as if to strike, and then—

The sword clattered loudly to the floor. Arthur collapsed next to it, sitting hunched over himself, hands on his face. It was startling. Gwen had never seen Arthur look quite so defeated. He mumbled incoherently to himself. Occasional words filtered through his fingers, words like “help me” and “fight” and “Merlin”. His shoulders juddered and he shook his head occasionally, as if having a great argument with himself. Gwen had no idea what was going on, but it broke her heart to see. She longed to run and put her arms around him, but kept still. Arthur was clearly unstable now, prone to violence. And besides, what right did she have? She wasn't his soulmate. What place did her mundane affection have, when compared to a love so great it had been prophesied?

It was galling.

Gwen sniffed, holding back her tears. Otherwise, she held completely still. Elyan also remained frozen, alert in case of trouble but willing to let Arthur be.

A candle on the table guttered and died. Awhile later another followed, and then a third. Eventually Arthur straightened slightly and lifted his head so he could be heard. His voice was hysterical.

“I— I need help. I need Merlin. To help me. I can't fight it much longer. Please — let me go to him.”

Elyan spoke calmly, but Gwen could see the tension radiating through his body. His normally serene face was wrinkled and creased.

“I can't allow that, sire. It's my duty to protect him.”

“I don't want to harm him, damn it! I just need— I need—” Arthur sucked in a large amount of air, as if it might help him finish his thought. “I need him. To help me. With his magic.”

Gwen couldn't help moving closer. “You know? About the magic? How—”

“It doesn't matter! There's no time. I can't fight it much longer.” Arthur hauled himself to his feet, looking stronger. Gwen and Elyan both instinctively stepped backwards.

“Let me through, Elyan. I don't want to hurt you, but I will if I have to.”

Elyan kept his sword raised, though his voice betrayed none of the tension he must feel. “I'm sorry, sire, but I can't allow it. I swore to protect the weak and defenceless from harm. I must uphold my oath.”

Arthur stepped forwards, and Gwen cringed. But she was proud of her brother for not standing down. “Gods, Elyan! I'm not going to harm him!”

“I'm afraid I can't take your word for that. My answer is no.”

“Elyan!”

“Throw the key to Gwen, and she will do it.”

Arthur turned his head, looking for Gwen. He must not have noticed her presence in the room, too concerned with getting to his precious Merlin. Would the reminders of Gwen’s fall from grace never cease?

Arthur closed his eyes again and waited a long moment. He was clearly struggling with something. Gwen fervently hoped that whatever the battle was, the sane version of Arthur would win it. Although he looked half-dead, Gwen did not want to see Arthur fight against Elyan. Elyan would most likely win, considering Arthur's state, but it wasn't a risk Gwen wanted to take. Nor did she want Arthur to be injured either, no matter how conflicted she felt or how horrible his behaviour while enchanted.

Gwen held her breath as Arthur opened his eyes again. What would he choose?

He moved as if through treacle, each muscle visibly straining with effort. Slowly—painfully slowly—he moved his free hand to his trousers. Then in a sudden jerk, as if afraid he'd change his mind, he yanked a set of keys out of his pocket and threw them at Gwen's feet. She snatched them up, clutching them to her breast.

“Go, Guinevere! Quickly!” Arthur's voice was ragged, desperate, chilling. A wave of terror stabbed through her heart. She looked to Elyan for confirmation, and when he nodded grimly, sword still in hand, she raced up the stairs and through the door into Merlin's room.

Gwen had avoided going to see Merlin up to this point. Gaius had said he was just sleeping, and Elyan had been willing to peek his head in and check that nothing had changed. Gwen didn't tell her brother why she was reluctant but knew that he could guess. She was grateful that Elyan let it remain unspoken.

Now she burst into the darkened room without hesitation. She opened the wooden shade that covered the window, then turned back to the bed. The instant she set her eyes on Merlin, her heart broke all over again. As she took in the full extent of his injuries, all her previous conclusions fell away like dust.

How could she have resented him? How could she be jealous of his destiny when it had led to this?

He looked nearly skeletal, bruised skin stretching painfully over too-prominent bones. His face was a startling assortment of colours, yellow, brown, blue, and purple. His ear had been torn and stitched up, though whatever bandage Gaius had tried to cover it with had fallen off, being in a difficult place to secure properly.

Most of his injuries were hidden underneath the light blanket that had been draped over his still form. But the iron manacles and collar were clearly visible, a gruesome testament to the ordeal that Merlin had endured. Gwen had put it from her mind just how cruel such devices were, spiked on the inside to ensure great pain every time the victim moved. If not careful, the spikes might draw enough blood that the victim might bleed to death. The skin on Merlin's wrists under the manacles was raw, puss and blood oozing out from under the iron. Gaius must not have even tried to bandage it, perhaps fearful of pressing the spikes in more. Instead, Merlin's wrists rested over cloths, which had probably started out clean but now were splotched with watery brown and pink stains. Merlin's neck looked even worse, as there were many deep lacerations where someone must have pressed the spikes into his skin deliberately. There were also bruises covering the rest of the exposed skin of his throat in overlapping layers, as if he had been strangled on several different occasions.

It was sickening. Tears sprang to Gwen's eyes, which had embarrassingly become her new normal state lately. She wiped them away on her sleeve, but more kept falling.

“Guinevere! Have you done it yet?” Arthur's shout was angry and desperate.

Damn, how much time had passed with her standing there gawking and crying like a child? Come on, Gwen, you've got a job to do. So do it.

But it was hard to reach out to the iron bindings. They were so grim and cruel that she balked at the idea of even approaching. Nor did she want to cause any distress by pressing the spikes into the damaged skin, even with Merlin asleep and unaware.

“Guinevere! Hurry up!”

She could hear Elyan speaking to Arthur, though she could not make out the words being said. He would try to calm Arthur, to keep him from doing anything rash. But Arthur would soon run out of patience (or perhaps it was something more fragile than patience, such as an ability to fight off an evil curse). She had better hurry.

Gwen grit her teeth and got on with it. She started with the wrists, because it was easy to turn them over to reach the locking mechanism. She did so gingerly, supporting the iron so that its weight didn't cause the spikes to press in to the damaged skin. Arthur had thrown her two keys on a small ring, and she guessed that one was for the manacles and the other for the collar. Her first attempt at undoing the lock didn't work, nor did her second try with the other key. A flare of panic shot through her chest. Breathe, she told herself. Keep breathing. You can do this. Try again.

The first key still wouldn't work, but she wouldn't give up. When she tried the second one again, she felt around carefully, hoping it was merely a stubborn lock that the key could slide into if angled just right. And this proved to be the case. Yes! She did it!

She did not look at the skin under the iron but quickly laid the wrist back on the cloth and folded it over the top, so that the injuries were loosely covered. It was not something she wanted visible to distract her from her task.

The second wrist went easier, now that she knew which key to use and how to manipulate it. Once that manacle came off, she threw it onto the floor next to the first, then covered that wrist with cloth too. Now to do the collar.

But this task proved to be difficult, as the lock was behind Merlin's neck pressed against the mattress. She couldn't twist it around to the front without gouging the skin deeply. She would have to lift his head, but he was so injured that she was hesitant to touch him, not knowing if there were anywhere that wouldn't hurt.

Elyan might be able to help, but Gwen didn't want to interfere with whatever fragile truce Arthur and Elyan had right now. Instead she positioned herself so that she sat next to Merlin's head. Whispering apologies under her breath, she lifted the head and began to twist it away from her, hoping to expose the lock. It was hard to get his head to move in that way, so she pressed forcefully. Merlin groaned in his sleep, a pitiful sound like that an injured kitten might make. It broke her heart all over again, but she had to continue. She had to get this blasted collar off of her friend.

Gwen was surprised by how genuine her feelings of friendship for Merlin were. Earlier she had thought she might never be able to look at him again without feeling sick. But now his good qualities fell upon her memory in a deluge. His kindness and willingness to help anyone who needed it; his good humour and near-perpetual cheer; his loyalty and devotion to not only Arthur, but to his friends and to all of Camelot. Merlin really was a sweetheart, and Gwen felt wretched that she had had such horrible thoughts about him. Gods, but she was an ungrateful wretch. Merlin had always been the best of friends…

Except for how Arthur had always been the only star in his sky… How Merlin had no care for anyone if it was a choice between them and Arthur… Stop it, Gwen. Your friend needs you, and you are not going to let him down just because you're jealous. Concentrate.

Arthur was yelling again, but Gwen ignored it. Time to finish her job. She pushed Merlin's head farther until she could finally fit the key in the lock. It was a struggle to get it to slide in correctly. She jammed it in, perhaps not quite as carefully as she could have, and Merlin moaned as the spikes dug into his skin. Part of Gwen—only a small part, mind you—felt the tiniest bit of satisfaction, as if Merlin's pain was a just repayment for destroying her life…

Stop it!

Her emotions were charging around like a runaway horse, going from one extreme to the other so quickly it made her ill. Just stop thinking and finish the damn job.

With one final effort, she managed to turn the key, and the iron collar cracked open at the joint. It was resistant to her efforts to pry the two halves apart, as if unwilling to release its victim. But at last she managed it, and the collar was dropped unceremoniously to the floor next to the manacles. She laid Merlin's head back over the cloth it had been resting on, then folded it over his neck to cover the injuries there. They would need to be cleaned and properly bandaged, but Gwen didn't trust herself to do it right now. Besides, Arthur was yelling up to her from the room below, and she had better let him know that the job was done.

She wiped her hands on a damp cloth, then left Merlin's room. At the top of the stairs she called out, “It is done.”

Arthur stood by a window with his arms wrapped around himself in a sort-of hug, though Gwen suspected it was mostly an effort to keep himself under control and not do anything rash. At her words, his face lost some of the tense lines that marred his normally-handsome features, but he did not let his arms relax.

“It's done? It's all off?”

Gwen nodded. “Yes, your Majesty. All the parts have been removed.”

Arthur didn't seem as relieved as Gwen thought he would be. “And what happened? When the bindings came off?”

What happened…? Was something supposed to happen? Had she not noticed something important?

“Er… I didn't notice anything happen, sire. He just remained asleep.” No need to mention the groans of pain… On the one hand, they indicated life and responsiveness, but on the other… Arthur might not be pleased to hear that she had caused his beloved soulmate any discomfort. Though considering that Arthur was the one to injure him in the first place…

Arthur unwrapped his arms and ran his hands through his hair, agitation clearly written on his face. “He didn't wake up? There wasn't—”

He groaned, a twisted, strained sound that echoed strangely around the quiet room. Arthur’s face contorted, as if with effort, though Gwen had no idea why. A handful of heartbeats passed before he was able to continue speaking.

“There was no magic?”

She shook her head. “No, nothing happened, sire.”

Arthur snatched a nearby vial off a table and threw it at a wall. It shattered, leaving a gooey mess of potion laced with glass shards dripping down the wall.

Elyan jerked in surprise, then stood alert, hand ready to reach for his sword, if necessary. Gwen’s heart raced, and she wondered what she should do. In days gone by, she might have been able to reason with Arthur, to calm and placate him. Now she felt like a ship lost at sea, fearful that at any moment she might hit a boulder and sink.

“I have to see him.” Arthur's voice was resolute.

Elyan was as reasonable as always, but there was iron in his words. “I can't allow that, Your Highness. I promised to keep him safe.”

“Damn it, Elyan, I'm not going to hurt him!”

“No.”

Arthur groaned again, and Gwen felt her own heart constrict with sympathy. Her poor heart was having a confusing time of it, vacillating between anger at Arthur, fear of him, and compassion for his plight.

Perhaps Gwen could lighten the tension by offering food. As she walked down the stairs to rejoin the main room, she asked, “Is anyone hungry? I could fix us something to eat.”

Elyan smiled at her, so she began to scrounge around for the food she had seen earlier. After a long moment, Arthur nodded and came over to sit at the table while she laid out plates and bread and clay cups filled with water. She found some cheese and apples and brought those over too. Everyone would feel better after eating. It never failed.

As Gwen walked around the table passing out items, she tentatively laid a hand on Arthur's shoulder. She couldn't quite help herself from offering that tiny bit of support to the man she loved, even if he wasn't her soulmate.

And then—

Arthur grabbed her wrist, spun her around so that her back was pressed against his chest, and whipped out a knife that he held to her throat. She yelled in shock, but immediate shut up when the blade pressed into the tender skin of her neck. In the process, the bench Arthur had sat on was overturned with a deafening crash. Elyan stood up immediately, sword raised and ready to strike.

Gwen could feel the sweat that had soaked through Arthur's shirt starting to dampen her own dress. Her head was tilted back at an angle. Arthur's breaths blew out over her ear, hot and moist. They came so quickly that Gwen was surprised that he hadn't passed out yet. His heart was racing; the pulse was strong enough that she could feel it in his chest as well as in the hands that held her.

“I don't want to hurt her, Elyan. But I will if I have to. You can't keep me from Merlin.”

Elyan’s mouth hung open. He then brought his lips together a few times, as if ready to speak, but no words came out. Then, at last, he nodded. “Just don't hurt her. Arthur. You don't have to do this… We can help you.”

“No! No one can help me! Only Merlin… only Merlin…”

Arthur squeezed Gwen more tightly, making it difficult for her to breathe. He then dragged her with him towards the stairs that lead to Merlin's room.

Elyan stood between them and the stairs. “Arthur… please…”

“Get out of my way, Elyan!”

Elyan hesitated, sword raised, sweat beading up on his temples. “Arthur…”

But Arthur's patience had run out. He pressed the knife into Gwen's neck, just breaking the surface. It stung, but the true pain was that Arthur had actually injured her. Up to that point she had clung to a perhaps-naïve belief that he loved her and wouldn't cause her any actual harm.

The shocked look on Elyan’s face made it clear that he had thought the same thing. He quickly stepped away from the stairs.

Arthur nodded. She could feel the stubble on his cheek scrape against her hair. He turned the two of them around so that they faced Elyan, then slowly climbed up the stairs backwards. It was a slow process, and Gwen was grateful for it, as there was an extremely sharp knife pressed into her neck.

At last they reached the top. Gwen had left Merlin's door partially open. Arthur stepped backwards over the threshold, then abruptly pushed her down the stairs and slammed the door behind him.

Chapter Text

After Arthur slammed the door, reverberations from the bang echoed through the tiny room. The wooden window shade swung with the force, squeaking as it did. Arthur locked the door, then stuck the lone chair under the handle just in case someone had a key. It wasn't the sturdiest, but might slow someone down. As he did this, he spared a thought for the girl. A small voice berated him for the way he had treated her. It wasn't too many stairs though. She'd be fine. Probably. He had needed her out of the way. Besides, the smell of her had infuriated him. Her scent was vaguely floral—nothing at all like his little bird—and it represented someone who would try to come between Arthur and his pet. No one could be allowed to interfere.

He took a deep breath and realised he was shaking. Perhaps he should have eaten some of that irritating girl's food before making his move. Too late now. He had finally made it back to his sweet bird, and he was damn well going to do right by it this time. His bird was fragile and broke too easily and Arthur was going to take care of it. And he was going to—

What had he come here for? He was here for the merlin-bird. And he was going to… do something. With the keys. Yes. Unlock the shackles with the keys. That would help somehow. He couldn't quite remember how…

No matter. Time to do it. He turned and strode to the bed. And there was his little merlin, sleeping…

But he had no keys. And there was nothing to unlock.

That's right. The girl had already done it. He had been so mad when her brother had gotten in his way. The bastard was lucky Arthur hadn't run him through.

Now what was he supposed to do? He couldn't recall. Instead, he sat on the bed next to his sleeping bird. It was a shame it wasn't awake. But it was a peaceful moment, and Arthur would appreciate his treasure. Once it woke up it was likely to cause trouble of some sort. Chaos seemed to follow it like iron filings to a lodestone.

He reached out and laid his hand on his pet’s forehead. It was soft, though unpleasantly cold and clammy. He tried to rub it, but his palm stuck to the sweat-dampened skin. If he pressed harder, his hand overcame the resistance and moved along. When he arrived at the spectacular bruising over the cheekbone, his pet moaned despite remaining asleep. The sound caused tears to spring to Arthur's eyes. Now why would that be? Why did he care if his pet was sad? Oh yes, wasn't he going to take care of him?

Arthur squeezed his eyes firmly shut in an attempt to stop more tears from welling up. He took some breaths, wiped his face on his sleeve, and just for a moment allowed himself to relax into the darkness. It felt hopeful there, for some strange reason. What an idiotic thought, though! Why would he think such an inane—

Then he saw it. And remembered. There was a dim glimmer of something, barely visible. But he allowed himself time to be patient, and slowly it appeared: the magical cord that stretched from his heart to Merlin's. He could see it in its entirety, traversing the short distance between them, starting inside of his ribcage and disappearing into Merlin's. But now, instead of being golden, it was almost entirely green. Arthur reflexively grabbed at it with his fingers, but they passed straight through. Startled, he opened his eyes to see… nothing. No magic thread was visible in the physical world. Yes, that was right, he knew that. He had already figured it out. It was the cord that had helped him before. If he closed his eyes, maybe it would help again.

His eyelids slipped shut, and he held still, hands clenched together in his lap, nails digging into his skin. He made an effort to relax his hands and breathe deeply. Slowly, the thread brightened. It retained only the slightest hint of gold. Arthur reached again with his hands but knew they would pass through. Instead, he followed the thread to the point where it entered Merlin's chest. He laid one palm there and placed the other one firmly on top of it. Merlin groaned. Shit. He'd been pressing down on broken ribs.

Arthur felt strangely detached from the situation. Hurting Merlin wasn't good, but he didn't care like he should. He was tempted to push harder but didn't. Nor did he ease up on the pressure. Touching him felt… comforting. His hands warmed and tingled pleasantly. The gold in the thread flared slightly, just enough for him to notice. As it did, a wave of sadness hit him, sudden despair about hurting Merlin. He jerked his hands up into the air. The thread lost the extra golden tinge and settled into the sickening green.

Anger blazed in his heart. He slapped his hands back down over Merlin’s ribcage. A little gold flickered like the last whispers of a dying fire. His emotions skittered around like leaves in a windstorm. Sadness, anger, comfort, hope, despair… Gods, he needed help. That's right. Merlin was going to help him. But Merlin needed to wake up!

Arthur's eyes popped open, and the thread disappeared. Suddenly desperate, he shook Merlin carefully—but not too carefully. Damn it, Merlin, now was not the time to be lazy and sleep the day away. I need you, you idiot! I don't know what's wrong with me… Well, I was a right dollophead and allowed myself to get cursed, that's what's wrong with me, but I barely even know who I am anymore… Come on you turniphead, wake up, wake up, I need you to fix me, please I need you. Help me— I can't do it on my own. Stop being the most useless servant in the history of servants and WAKE UP!

Arthur continued shaking Merlin. Merlin groaned again but did not wake. What the hell was wrong with him? The magic restraints had been removed… shouldn't that help? Eventually Arthur gave up on shaking and rested his hands over Merlin's heart. Despite his urge to scream and cry at the feelings of sadness and despair that accosted him, he still felt more clear-headed—as long as he kept his hands in the place where he knew the thread to be.

Arthur had hoped that unbinding Merlin's magic would somehow make everything better. He remembered now: get the key, unlock the manacles, get help. But he had failed. Gods, how he had failed.

He dropped his head to Merlin's chest, moving his hands away so that his forehead could rest there. Tears oozed out of his eyes without permission; they soaked into the thin fabric of Merlin's nightshirt. Arthur was exhausted, completely worn down, hopeless. Loud voices came from the other room, probably people making plans to lock him away for the rest of his life. As well they should. He couldn't let go of Merlin without being caught in the grip of a terrible curse.

If the situation weren't so dire, he'd love to tease Merlin about his girlish magical heart… but— Damn it. It felt wrong to smile in such a situation, but he couldn't pull his mind away from the idea. Arthur was a fierce warrior, and Merlin? Merlin had a magical heart. Leave it to Merlin to be the envy of little girls everywhere. The ends of Arthur's lips curled up even as tears leaked from his eyes. It reminded him of Merlin's silly ways. Oh, how he missed his goofy, good-natured servant. Not a useless servant, no. The most loyal and dependable one, who somehow managed to always make everything better, no matter how dark things got.

What would Merlin do in Arthur's shoes? Despite his frequent whining, Arthur knew that Merlin would never back down from a problem. Think, Arthur, think. You've already conquered this curse, albeit temporarily. That must be why you tried to kill yourself—you couldn't face what you'd done. Yes, yes, what had he done? What had happened?

And then he remembered... some of the worst moments of his life… when he had assaulted the person he cherished most in all the world. That was so easy to admit now that it had all gone to hell. He loved Merlin. Before he had been too blind to see it. Now that he had ruined everything, his love for that big-eared idiot was horrifyingly obvious. He had destroyed the best person he had ever known.

Damn it, no. No self-pity. He needed a solution. The obvious one was horrendous, and there was no way he could do it. He couldn't. No way could he do that to Merlin again. There would have to be another way.

But what if there were no other way? No, there had to be. But what if Merlin were suffering from the curse too? Hadn’t he been ill? Hadn't Arthur thought him drunk? It felt like another lifetime when Merlin had vomited on his shirt and Arthur had sent him to the stocks. What if he hadn't been drunk, but rather cursed? The curse wouldn't kill him, though, would it? What if it did? Was it better to let Merlin die than to just do this and get it over with? And if he were sleeping, he wouldn't even notice, right?

Arthur turned his head and pressed his cheek into Merlin's chest. The heartbeat pulsed right beneath the surface, lub-dub, lub-dub. It should have been reassuring: here was his Merlin, still alive. Instead, Arthur imagined it slowing down, slower, slower, struggling to beat, then stopping altogether. He felt his own heart breaking at the thought. Arthur couldn't live without Merlin. If Arthur were a plant, then Merlin would be the sun, completely essential. Without him Arthur would wither and die.

Merlin, Merlin, I need you. I don't know what to do. I can't hold it in much longer… even now I feel it sneaking up on me, tearing at my soul with its poisonous claws. What should I do, Merlin? There is a way, but— It's just that— I love you, you know. Or, you probably didn't know. How could you? With the way I treat you, and how I mooned over Gwen, how could you know? I always call you the idiot, but it's me, truly, I'm the idiot. Such a dunderhead.

What should I do, Merlin? I don't want to hurt you—gods, I don't want to hurt you—but I am not sure you'll wake up again if I don't fight back against the curse. It's so cruel, that an action that should be a testament of love is such a degrading violation. But—

I'm afraid, Merlin. So fucking afraid. I'm lost in a hellish sea, evil wrapping round me, pulling me down, down, down into the murky depths…

I would die for you, you know. No question. I know you're always trying to throw your life away for mine, but if you ever succeeded, I'd die right along with you. I would kill myself now if I thought it would help. I already tried, but I failed. I'm such a fucking failure at everything. My uncle is right: I'm not ready to be king. I'm never going to be ready. Just look how many times Camelot has almost fallen since I've come of age.

Fuck, Merlin, I don't want to do this, but you deserve to live. You deserve a life full of happiness and love, far away from me. I taint everything close to me.

You deserve to be happy. You deserve to be free.

I'm so so sorry, Merlin. I wouldn't do this if there were any other way. But you must live. And I will spend the rest of my life trying to atone for what I have done. I promise I promise I promise!

I can't… no. I can't do it.

You must!

Arthur groaned. Even with his cheek pressed against Merlin's chest, he could feel himself slipping. He needed to let go all the way, let the poison consume him. Then he could do the terrible deed. Then he would show himself as the horrible creature he truly was.

The strident tones of the warning bells slammed into Arthur as painfully as if someone had smacked him. He reeled from the shock of the noise. His head jerked up from Merlin's chest, but he quickly replaced it with his hands. Had the guards discovered that he was missing? Were the bells sounded because his uncle worried that he was in danger? Or did his uncle think he was the source of the danger?

Unless—might the bells have nothing to do with him at all?

Whatever it was, it wasn't good. No time, he had no time. He needed to fix the poisoned bond now.

But he couldn't, he couldn't, he physically couldn't. He unfastened his trousers and grabbed at his cock, pulling on it with desperate strokes, but it didn't respond. It didn't want to do this anymore than he did. It was impossible.

And yet—he had done it before. Several times, under the influence of the curse.

He would have to let the curse consume him completely. Let it take hold now, instead of fighting it off as long as he could. It would return no matter what, he knew, until the bond recovered from the poisoning.

What if the thread never recovered? What would he do then? No. Don't think that way. There is hope. There is always hope.

He would embrace the curse now. Because there was no time for anything else.

Arthur left his hands where they were but leaned over so that he could kiss Merlin on the forehead. “I'm so, so sorry,” he whispered. “Please forgive me.” A tear fell from Arthur’s eye onto Merlin's temple, and he watched it drip off the side of his face. Another tear fell, and another. They were mesmerising to watch, at first clinging stubbornly to Merlin's skin but eventually giving in to the call of gravity.

He would give in, too.

One last kiss on the forehead, and then— He let go. Lifted his hands away from Merlin, stepped over to the wall, slumped into a huddle, and cried. He rubbed his tears on his sleeve like he was a child. Like a snivelling child crying over its broken dolly.

But really, why should Arthur worry about anything? If he broke or lost something, couldn't he just get a new one? He always had before. Even as a child, all his whims had been granted. If he saw something he liked, it was his. If it broke, it was immediately replaced, often with something better. Other kids had their mothers, but what good was a mum? They just told you no all the time. But Arthur's father gave him whatever he liked.

His tears dried up, and he tried to remember why he had been crying. Why was he sitting on the floor in some filthy servant's room? Gods, were those cobwebs behind the table? Who would even live that way?

As he jumped up to get off the dusty floor, his eyes fell upon the figure in the bed, lying still as death under a thin blanket.

“Birdie!” he cried, surprised by the joy he felt. “I've missed you, Little Bird! You were so naughty to hide away from me. Don't you love me, Little Bird? Why would you hide? That's not nice.”

He sat next to his merlin-bird, giddiness welling up in his chest. “I love you, sweet little bird. I love you so much! You must stay with me for always and I'll take care of you, I promise. Just be a good little birdie and I'll treat you like a princess. Because you're my whole world, Birdie. Why won't you wake up though?”

He frowned, then yanked the blanket off his sleeping pet. His little bird was dressed in loose night clothes with bandages peeking through in several places, especially around his ribs and knees. How Arthur yearned to run his hands across its body without impediment. But with all this cloth in the way…

A vague memory of his birdie almost dying creeped into his head… No, no, he would be careful this time. Gentle. He wouldn't be like a kid crying over its broken toy because he wouldn't break his toy. True, he could find another birdie if he broke this one, but it wouldn't be quite the same. For some reason, this one was extra-special.

So he tore at the clothing carefully. No knives, no blood, see, he knew how to be gentle. The bandages around the ribs looked difficult to unwrap, so he did get out his knife then. He frowned when he realised it wasn't his knife at all, being both plain and of terrible quality. Why did he not have his own? Why was his memory so spotty? But he could still use this knife. It would cut off the bandages easily enough. He wouldn't cut his bird though, no no no, especially not when it was such a beautiful, peaceful, sleeping bird.

At last his pet was laid bare for him. Arthur had debated about the bandages on the knees, but in the end decided nothing should be obscured. This little bird was his, and he deserved to see it in its entirety. It was covered in so many pretty colours, like a rainbow had shattered over its body. The knees were the most peculiar, so much red and bits of hard white and yellow and…

And he doubted his birdie would ever be able to walk again. Wasn't that what he had wanted? A pet that couldn't escape?

This was perfect. So why did his stomach churn unpleasantly at the thought?

His merlin-bird was beautiful. He reached down with both hands and trailed his fingers along both sides of his torso till he arrived at the soft cock lying in its nest of dark hair. Even unaroused it was beautiful. Someday soon Arthur would have to lavish it with the attention it deserved. But that would be better done when his pet was awake to enjoy it. How his pet managed to stay asleep through the racket of the warning bell was a mystery.

Arthur was perfectly awake, though. He'd be happy to use his bird for its intended purpose. It wouldn't be as fun as if it were awake… but it might not wake up, and how he longed to partake of this delight. His merlin was the sweetest thing, and he would take full advantage of this opportunity.

Arthur's cock was fully erect. He looked around briefly for oil, but saw nothing. The bird wouldn't notice anyway, since it was sleeping. Turning it on its stomach might work best. This was easy to do, it being such a light and fragile thing. He tried to take extra care with its knees—look how careful he was being!—but they still contorted at gruesome angles. He pushed a blanket under its hips to position the limp body more conveniently.

At last, he was ready. He had expected the entrance to be dry and unwelcoming, but there was ointment there that eased the way. Probably a healing balm. The thought of someone touching his pet there, in that place, of applying such a thing… It infuriated him. Arthur was the only one allowed to touch the little merlin-bird. Whoever had done it would regret it, once he found them…

But for now… ah! The sensation was delightful. Thrusting into that warm, tight heat, in and out, in and out… it felt like he was being rejoined with a missing part of his soul. And wasn't that a strange thought? Probably just nonsense, but he enjoyed the fanciful nature of it as he kept thrusting, in, out, in, out. The little bird groaned into the mattress. Arthur took it as a good sign: his pet was alive and capable of feeling. Maybe it was even enjoying this. Arthur wouldn't begrudge it that.

He thrust in time to the warning bells, in, out, ding, dong, in, out… He was floating ever higher as the rhythm advanced. It was glorious. The little merlin-bird was delicious, the source of the most exquisite pleasure he had ever felt.

In, out, ding, dong, bang, bang… What was that? In, out… bang, wham… Arthur felt his climax approaching even as he wondered about the noises. Was someone trying to get in the room?

Well, they wouldn't keep him from his pet. He pounded into his bird harder and faster than before, in defiance of anyone who might try to take it away from him. No one would separate him from his bird. No one.

A few last, desperate thrusts, and then Arthur cried out with the overwhelming sensations of his release. If he had been floating before, now he was soaring, riding the wings of his little bird into the height of ecstasy. What a glorious little bird it was! So sweet to take him to places he could never go on his own…

All too soon he crashed back into his body, desperately sad and not knowing why. And then several things happened all at once: in a seizure of agony, Arthur remembered who he was; Merlin's eyes blazed with fiery gold; and the door to the room splintered open with a ear-splitting crash.

Chapter Text

Merlin woke in a rush of magic that scoured his insides in a piercing agony. It was the pain of frostbite held to the fire: he was burning, freezing, shivering, sweating. The magic was right and natural, but yet, it hurt. The ferocity of it took his breath away. He was ebullient and distraught both, confused utterly by what was happening. How was this possible? Hadn't he been bound and cursed?

As the intensity of the magic permeating his body grew tolerable, Merlin became aware of another sensation: a warm and heavy mass squishing him. It felt right, somehow, until he pushed up with his arms, turned his head, and saw that it was Arthur.

It was as if a bolt of lightning had struck him. The terror was immediate and visceral: the pain of adrenaline electrified his entire body. His magic panicked just as Merlin did. It rushed out in a powerful wave of energy. Arthur flew off of Merlin's body and smacked the far wall with all the speed of a charging horse. He crumpled to the floor and didn't move.

But that was not the only thump. Merlin jerked his head towards the unexpected sound. The door to the room had been forced open, breaking his wooden chair in the process. And one of Camelot's guards lay sprawled in the doorway, half his body draped down the stairs.

There were shouts from the main chamber, followed by the thudding of booted feet running. Another guard appeared on the stairs to check his motionless comrade, then pulled him away, while yet another stepped past them and into Merlin's room. He stared at Merlin, confusion clearly written on his face. As soon as he saw Arthur slumped on the floor, he drew his sword, clearly seeing Merlin as a threat. And perhaps he was, because the instant the man stepped closer, the panic raging through Merlin's body burst out and threw the man away. He tumbled down the short stairway, chainmail jangling. His helmet hit the stone floor with a discordant clank.

“Sorcerer!” an unknown voice screamed. Footsteps ran, people yelled, breakable items crashed to the floor and shattered. Merlin heard Gwen yell, “Leave him alone!” and someone else cried, “Alert the King Regent!” There were voices speaking frantically, but he could not make out what they were saying. His panic increased by the second. The magic swirled and raged, looking for a place to strike.

The stairs were narrow enough at the top that only one guard could come up at a time. As soon as the next one did, Merlin's magic pounced. But this time it didn't stop with the confines of Merlin's room, but exploded outwards into the main chamber. The sounds after the shock wave hit were deafening: glass shattered, metal clattered, furniture scraped along the floor or tipped with a bang. The echoes slowly diminished to leave only silence. All that was left was the far away clanging of the warning bells.

Oh gods, oh gods, what had he done?

His breath came in great, juddering gasps while his heart pounded so fiercely that his body shook with the force of it. He shook and shivered and frantically tried to pull in enough oxygen. What had he done? What had he done?

He collapsed back onto his bed. The pillow pressed into his cheek and soaked up the moisture that rolled off his face: sweat, tears, tiny drops of saliva. His head grew fuzzy, his ears rang, and for a moment he thought he would pass out. Get yourself together, Merlin! You can't do this now! Calm the fuck down and figure out what the hell is going on. Now.

As the buzzing in his ears lessened, the silence from the main chamber grew more disturbing. Was anyone there still alive? He had heard Gwen in there—was she injured? Dead? Had he killed his dear friend? Up, up, he must get up, he must go… The bells kept ringing, why, why? A distant shouting sound trickled through his window… Were they coming for him? Would they burn him alive? Not only as a sorcerer, but as a murderer, a friend-slayer…

And what of Arthur? Was he dead as well? Was Merlin a king-slayer too?

He tried to sit up in bed, but his ribs and legs screamed with the pain of it. The rush of out-of-control magic had lessened, and he became aware of his own injuries. Closing his eyes, he pulled at his magic, summoning it in, in, into his heart, and then shoved it out through the arteries, out, out, out to all the tissues: muscles, skin, organs, bones, healing-fixing-mending everything the magic encountered as it raced through the branching vessels, spreading into capillaries, magic mixing with plasma, permeating through everything until he wondered if he were more magic than physical flesh now.

Only one place resisted the onslaught of magic: his knees would not put themselves back together. The pain lessened, the bleeding stopped, the skin healed… but the bones, the ligaments, the tendons… they would not reassemble… They remained a smashed mess, completely incapable of function.

The rush of healing ended, and Merlin took a moment to catch his breath. He could sit up now, and did. The return of his magic felt like the sun shining after a terrible storm: it was warm and welcome, but the light of its presence made the damage and destruction left behind all the more apparent.

The air was chill on his sweat-covered skin, and he broke out in gooseflesh. He knew exactly why he was naked but diligently avoided thinking about it as he scanned the room for clothing. It seemed such an inconsequential thing when the world was collapsing around him, but he needed to be dressed. He needed that symbolic armour between himself and whatever awaited. He knew his tunic and trousers would not truly protect against the dangers he might face… but he had to have them. Even if Gwen were dying, he would take the time to put the garments on. And then he would never take them off again.

Magic brought him the outfit, and magic helped put it on. When he tried donning his trousers, he looked at his knees and almost vomited. He couldn't lift his legs, so used magic to pull the cloth past his injuries and into place.

They would be coming for him, the guards would be coming, Agravaine would be coming… He needed to go, go now, be anywhere but here. His legs wouldn't work, he would have to use more magic, and he was already feeling tired. But he had to be able to move. Maybe if he directed his magic to his knees…

A strangled groan startled him from his worries. Then Arthur sat up and pressed a hand to his head, a dazed look on his face.

Panic slammed back into Merlin as if it had never abated. His heart thumped so hard it hurt. He had to get away NOW. Get away, get away, now!

“Merlin?” that terrible voice asked, the horrible voice that would mock and demean, cruel and heartless.

“Stay back!” The words were torn from Merlin's throat almost against his own volition, but he meant them, he meant them, gods how he meant them.

But Arthur didn't seem to listen, for he slowly stood, using the wall for support. “Fuck, Merlin, I'm so—”

But Merlin didn't want to hear it. “Stay the hell away from me!” he screamed so raggedly he was surprised the words were understandable at all.

“Mer—”

“Shut the fuck up!”

Away, away, Merlin had to get away, away from Arthur, away from Camelot, away from his supposed destiny. What a naïve fool he had been to ever believe in it.

“Gods, Merlin, let me help you!”

The magic reacted of its own accord, flinging Arthur back against the wall and pinning him there. He was still awake, but no longer spoke, either of his own volition or because Merlin's magic made it so.

Don't look there, don't look, just get away, leave, go!

In an attack of desperation Merlin jammed magic into his legs, no finesse, no moderation, nothing but willpower and determination. He smashed it all in, then crammed in even more. Work! Legs, you must work!

And they did.

He slowly moved them off the bed, feet dangling against the floor. Then slowly he transferred his weight, and he was up. Despite the immense amounts of magic running through his legs, each step was still agony. And it was exhausting, both physically and magically. But he forced himself: another step, another, and then another.

He made it to the top of the stairs and could see the room clearly. There were many bodies, but none of them stirred. There was Gwen, collapsed near the patient's cot, Elyan right next to her. Around the chamber were a handful of Camelot guards, sprawled in various positions. Merlin could only hope that they weren't dead.

Going down the few steps was even worse than plain walking, and he fell before making it halfway. He screamed with the pain of landing on his knees, but quickly pulled himself back together. Get up, get up, go! Get away, come on, don't stop, keep moving!

It was intolerably slow, but he got himself standing and progressed towards the door. He veered a little to check on Gwen: please be breathing, please be alive, please don't say I killed you… He hunched to the floor and put his hand to her neck to feel for her pulse, and it was still there, thank the gods, thank all the gods! Relief was felt as a prickling of his eyes, but no crying now, he had to keep moving, go go go, get away…

He used the patient's cot to help push himself back up to standing. As he leaned into it to get his legs underneath him again, he noticed another body sprawled on the far side of it. Was that—

Merlin worked his way around the cot—so slow, so painfully slow—and let himself collapse on the floor next to the motionless body, a body that had been flung from the cot in the wave of magic. Next to Gwaine.

There was no time to stop and consider. Merlin placed both hands over Gwaine’s torso. He screamed for his magic to obey him… You shall LIVE!

Magic poured in, unhindered, pulling at Merlin's life force and letting it seep straight into Gwaine. Damn it, he was Emrys. What good was it being the most powerful fucking sorcerer ever to walk the earth if he couldn't even save a friend?

The magic flooded out of him like rain from a thunderstorm. As it did, Gwaine’s face turned from corpse-like to healthy, and at last, Merlin knew: Gwaine would live, at least for now. He remained asleep, but it was sleep, not death, thank the gods. Thank all the gods.

Exhaustion settled on Merlin, an iron blanket weighing him down. But he couldn't stop now. The bells kept tolling, and the sounds of activity grew closer. They were coming for him, coming to arrest him, perhaps kill him… He had to go now.

It took a moment, but he corralled all of his remaining magic into his centre, and then jammed it back into his legs. Hold on just a little bit longer… Pulling up to standing was even harder this time, but he used the cot and somehow managed. He looked around for Gaius, but he was nowhere to be seen. Not that it would change anything. It was just that—

It was just that Gaius, the closest thing he had to family in Camelot, had abandoned him in his hour of need. Instead of his surrogate father, he had woken to Arthur’s unwelcome presence. At least that would explain why his magic wasn't cursed, at least for the moment. That didn't explain the absence of the shackles, but the how of it paled in comparison to the fact that he was free.

As Merlin stepped away from the cot towards the door, he had to constantly fight for his balance. It was painful, and his anxiety levels grew with each step. Would his magic endure long enough? Would it fail him when he needed it most?

He wondered about the curse and about the illness it had inflicted upon him. Was it still present? Or had the enchantment been broken while he slept? He would have checked the thread that bound him to Arthur, but the idea was repulsive. But Arthur's presence in his room and the damning position Merlin had found himself in made it clear that nothing had been fixed. His magic would grow weak again over time. He must hurry.

The door that led from Gaius’ chambers to the main corridor was open. There was a guard in the hallway that had collapsed against the far wall. Merlin was shocked by the reach of his magical outburst. He hoped no one was seriously hurt—they were just doing their jobs, after all—but he had no time or energy to check. The sound of men running in heavy gear, with occasional shouts and the clanging of weapons, drew ever nearer. It was time to go now.

He made quicker progress by holding on to the passage walls to keep him upright. It took intense concentration to keep the magic focused in his legs, and every step was torture. Sweat ran off his brow, and he panted from the exertion. He had hoped to make it to a hidden alcove to rest and assess the situation, but before he could reach it, a group of five soldiers appeared down the hallway.

“There he is!” one yelled. “The sorcerer!”

“On me!” yelled another, and the entire group sprinted towards him. As they grew close, the leader raised his spear and—

Magic tore out of his body and slammed into the soldiers, throwing them backwards as if they had each been struck straight on by a lance on the jousting pitch. Merlin fell to the floor as his legs collapsed underneath him, no magic left to hold him up.

Farther away he heard a voice shouting, “He's here! Tell Lord Agravaine!”

At the mention of Agravaine, memories of the man pummeled Merlin's consciousness. Agravaine, gloating. Agravaine, kicking his broken bones. Agravaine telling him just how he would use his body in the future…

Agravaine was coming for him. He would know about the magic now, he would guess that he was Emrys, he would tell Morgana; they would come for him and they would hurt him and no! He couldn't do that again. He had to get away, away, far far away, away from the pain, away from the evil. Away from Agravaine. Away from Arthur. Away from all of Camelot. Away.

His desperation made it easier for him to smash all the magic back into his legs. He moved faster than before, panic pushing him on. It felt like a miracle when he made it to a door that led to the courtyard without encountering any other guards or knights. The moment he was outside, he turned his face to the sky and let the magic pour through him.

"O drakon, e male so ftengometta tesd'hup'anankes!"

After he finished, he was surprised he had not fallen over. The magic had not been pulled from his legs and sent out to the sky. And then he remembered: the magic of the dragonlords was unlike that of human sorcerers. Using one kind had little effect on the other.

He focused on the magic in his legs anyway, commanding it to hold on just a little while longer. After he did, he realised that people in the courtyard were pointing at him and yelling. His reactions were slow, his instinct shot, ability to respond to the situation nearly destroyed by his enervation. Just a little longer… he only had to make it a little bit longer.

Guards and knights appeared in groups at different locations around the courtyard. They were wary and did not approach him, but more appeared each minute. Merlin did not want to fight them—they were just doing their duty to protect Camelot from a perceived danger. But he would not allow them to injure or apprehend him either. He held his hands up warningly, and that single action was enough to keep the soldiers back.

More kept arriving. More still. Their weapons were raised, and Merlin was alert for the release of arrows. He could stop them, of course, but any lapse in his concentration and he would be in trouble.

Where the hell was that bloody dragon when you needed him?

An unexpected and unwanted voice yelled out his name. Hadn't he left Arthur behind in his room? Hadn't he got the message that he was not wanted? And shouldn't he be more amenable to Merlin's wishes now that he had fucked the curse out of the both of them, at least for a little while?

“Merlin!”

Merlin struggled to fight off the panic that creeped into his awareness from all sides. Don't panic, stay alert, just a little longer now… He worried that his concentration would waver just when someone decided to release their arrows.

“Merlin! Let me help you!” The voice came from the door he had just exited. It wasn't loud enough for anyone other than Merlin to hear. A quick glance back showed nothing. Arthur must be staying out of sight for a reason.

Merlin's heart pounded with growing terror, and he fought his magic’s intense urge to lash out in that direction.

“You can't help me,” he called back. “What can you do? You will be first in line to execute me. I attacked you. With magic.” Merlin's muscles trembled with the strain of keeping the magic in his legs instead of blasting people with it.

“The magic doesn't matter. The attack was in self-defense. I'll help to make everything right again.” The voice sounded surprisingly earnest, but Merlin's faith in Arthur had been shattered.

“You can't, Arthur. Agravaine knows about me now. He'll tell Morgana.”

It was surreal having this conversation with a man who had recently raped and tortured him half to death. It was also disturbing having it while more and more soldiers assembled in the far edges of the courtyard. Why didn't they attack him? Were they waiting for Merlin to make the first move?

“My uncle wouldn't tell—”

“Agravaine has betrayed you. He told me himself.” He was starting to feel dizzy and lightheaded now. Damn it, Kilgharrah, hurry up.

“I… I believe you. Just—come with me. We always… solve problems better… together. I can help—”

“If you want to be helpful, call off the soldiers.”

Arthur's voice hesitated before answering. Merlin couldn't see him, but could clearly imagine the expression of betrayal that would be there. Arthur must trust Merlin as little as Merlin trusted Arthur.

“I— I can't.”

Merlin let out a huff of air and nodded his head in resignation. Even though he wouldn't have changed his plans to escape this hellish place, it would have been nice to believe that maybe Arthur actually wanted to help him, to make amends for his terrible deeds.

Merlin laughed, a bitter, lifeless laugh. “Your plan to help me was to have me arrested? Were you going to helpfully tie me to the pyre in the morn? I'm sorry, your Highness, but I'm afraid that's not going to work for me.”

“No, damn it, Merlin, you idiot! It's not like that! It's—”

But whatever it was, Merlin never heard. A voice shouted, “Fire!” A barrage of arrows flew at Merlin. He deflected them with magic, but as he did, his legs gave out and he fell roughly to the ground. Damn it. Where the hell was Kilgharrah?

Another voice yelled, “Charge!” and multiple groups of soldiers rushed his position. Panic caused his magic to roar with desperation, and Merlin embraced it. He let it flow through him, then pushed it out out out in a tremendous gust of energy. Nothing in the courtyard could stand in the face of such a blast: people, animals, and various objects all flew away from Merlin, hitting the surrounding stone walls in a sickening series of thuds and crashes. Merlin lay huddled on the the edge of the courtyard, gasping for breath, chest heaving and limbs shaking. His knees burned in agony: any magic that had been used for healing or pain relief had been stripped away, leaving only raw pain behind. Tears streamed from his eyes, clouding his vision. He would have to trust that his out-of-control magic would protect him, for he was too far gone to pay even the slightest bit of attention to events around him.

The warning bells were still ringing, and the sound rattled around in his head, echoing ceaselessly, till his world was reduced to pain throbbing in time with the clanging racket of the bells. He thought someone called his name. Perhaps someone else was yelling about a dragon? Please let it be a dragon. But mostly he just concentrated on away: stay away from me, stay away. Away, away, I must get away…

“Dragon!”

That time he heard the scream clearly. Thank fuck. The dragon was here. Kilgharrah better understand what he had been called for, because Merlin wasn't sure that at this point he'd be able to make him obey. But there was no pause for maddening dragon-speak, incomprehensible riddles, or a contemptuous “I told you so.” Instead, a claw gently scooped him up. “Take me home,” Merlin whispered. “Please.” He wasn't sure if Kilgharrah heard him, but it didn't matter. His stomach lurched and his ears popped as they launched into the air, climbing rapidly through gusts of freezing wind. He thought a heartbroken voice screamed his name, but if it did, the call was whipped away, left behind with the rest of Merlin's troubles. Now, at last, he was safe. He relaxed into the the dragon’s grip and let Kilgharrah carry him away.

Chapter Text

Agravaine was in a horrible mood. Despite his strict instructions to not be disturbed no matter what, people kept knocking on his door demanding attention. It's an emergency, they said. We desperately need you, they said. What Agravaine desperately needed was to fuck his little treat till it broke and then do it again. He'd chosen a tall, slender thing with pale skin and dark hair. It was satisfying to imagine it was Gaius’ whelp. That obnoxious brat had caused him too many problems, and Agravaine couldn't wait until he healed enough to tolerate a little fun. He was horribly broken now, of course, a fact which was both delightful and unsatisfying. That boy had deserved all that he had got—but it was a shame Agravaine hadn't been able to do it himself. At least it was some consolation that Arthur had done it, that Arthur had been the one to destroy his greatest supporter.

But Agravaine couldn't wait to get his own turn.

In the meantime, it was easy enough to imagine his current delectable delight was someone else. The gagged mouth helped the effect, no voice to ruin the illusion.

If only the damn door would stay as quiet. Agravaine was ready to eviscerate the next person who interrupted his fun, no matter how dire their feeble little mind thought the emergency was.

Since he had dismissed his manservant for the day, he had to answer the door himself. Not that Alfred minded Agravaine’s activities, but it was a distraction knowing someone might judge his performance, no matter how loyal and discreet the man might be. When the first interruption happened, loud banging and shouted voices, he had still been fully clothed, and answering the door was more irritation than true difficulty. But it was the principle of the thing. Agravaine was King Regent. How dare they disobey him?

Outside the door had been two guards. One insisted there was an emergency that the King Regent must address, while the second tried to convince the first that disturbing the Lord Agravaine was a Bad Idea. Which it was. So what if his beloved nephew was in the midst of a crazed fit? It was only to be expected. Agravaine had both guards sent to the stocks for disturbing him over such trivialities. Honestly, the first one was lucky he hadn't been flogged, but Agravaine was so delighted with life at the moment that he was in a benevolent frame of mind.

After doling out punishment earlier, Agravaine was surprised to be disturbed yet again. His toy was all tied up and ready to go… and at last, Agravaine was too. It wasn't always the easiest for him, anymore, as he got older, but a healthy amount of bloodplay usually did the trick. The boy couldn't talk, but the tears that ran out his eyes as the sharp knife cut through his skin were such a turn-on. He liked it when his toys were afraid of him. It made him feel powerful, like he could do anything.

He was finally ready, and… More insistent knocking and yelling at his door. Damn it. As he hastily fastened his trousers, he wondered if his dear nephew condoned this sort of behaviour. Uther certainly wouldn't have. For all his loathing of the man, Agravaine had appreciated how the late king had maintained strict discipline.

This interruption merited lashes for sure. Except… the message was vaguely important. Now his beloved nephew had gone missing. The physician had come with one of the knights to attend to the king’s mental breakdown. Awhile later the two had tried to leave, claiming that the patient was asleep and everything was fine now. But a guard had returned to duty next to the sick bed, as the Lord Agravaine had commanded, and found nobody present. The guards assumed that the physician and the knight had helped the king to escape, so had taken them both into custody. But what should they do about the missing king?

“Find him, you idiots!” Agravaine yelled, face hot with irritation, not sure if he was angrier that his nephew had disappeared or that he had been disturbed. He took a moment to calm his temper, then added, “My dear nephew is unwell. There is a significant chance that he will injure or kill himself if he isn't found immediately. He also poses a danger to others. Sound the bells and call everyone possible to find him now.”

But the fools came back an hour later to say they couldn't find him. Agravaine exploded. At least this time he had managed to finish the first round with his toy and was taking a bit of a breather. His stamina just wasn't as good as it had been when he was younger. “Did you check in Gaius’ chambers? He's gone to see his manservant, of course! Am I the only one with any brains around here?”

He paused for breath, since he was still winded from his earlier exertions. Then he yelled, “The next person that disturbs me is going to the dungeon!” and slammed the door.

But the news that his nephew hadn't been found yet irked him. What was he up to? He was discredited as king and ought to have no followers. He must have gone to see that boy. Unless he had broken the enchantment somehow…

Had Gaius removed the ring? Fuck, fuck, fuck. Had the guards let Gaius be alone in the room with Arthur? Was Arthur back in his right mind? That could be problematic, even with him discredited and Agravaine installed as King Regent. It might be wise to not let Morgana know about this little detail…

Agravaine expected an update on his nephew's whereabouts soon, despite his threat about the dungeons. He took the moment to drink some wine and have a tray sent up from the kitchen. A snack would help gear him up for round two. He decided to hang his toy up by the wrists—he'd had a hook installed in the ceiling just this morning—so he could better admire the effect of gravity upon the blood. The red lines were so vivid. The boy’s occasional struggles only added to the effect, causing the drops to twist and meander their way down his body. Occasionally they dried up, and Agravaine sliced just a little more skin… no need to bleed him dry before all their fun was finished. But the blood needed to stay fresh to keep his arousal biddable.

No one came with news about his nephew.

Had they finally taken Agravaine’s threats seriously? Or were they just this incompetent? Maybe he should fire all the guards and hire new ones. Well, Morgana would be here soon enough, and she would certainly know how to manage a castle staff better than that fool nephew of his. His beautiful Morgana would make everything better… Sometimes it seemed a wonder that the people of Camelot hadn't embraced her during her first stint as queen. How could they prefer a bastard like Uther to such exquisite perfection?

Exquisite perfection that would soon be his. Just think how delighted Morgana would be to learn that he was King Regent and could hand both Camelot and her king over on a silver platter! She had tasked him with stealing the map that showed the secret entrances to Camelot's siege tunnels. He had easy access to that, now, but doubted it would even be needed. Everything was going better than hoped for.

Except… what of his missing nephew? He certainly couldn't have gone far? Well, fuck. He wouldn't be able to relax until he knew where he was. It was like a tiny pebble that had slipped into his shoe: it poked and chafed relentlessly.

He looked regretfully at his toy. The boy couldn't endure much more blood loss before passing out, and where would be the fun in that? Perhaps Agravaine should let him rest while he investigated what had become of Arthur. No more slicing until they were ready for round two, after his nephew had been found.

But for now… time for another glass of wine. It was the best vintage available in the royal cellars. Arthur had probably been saving it for a special occasion, but that occasion would never arrive. And Morgana wouldn't know the wine had ever existed, so wouldn't miss it. This was the perfect time to drink as much as possible. Maybe he could get a few of the barrels transferred to his own personal cellar. What Morgana didn't know certainly wouldn't hurt her!

He relaxed into his most comfortable chair, helping himself to foie gras and pastries, sipping the dark red wine and admiring the lines of blood criss-crossing his toy’s young, lithe body. The only things marring the moment were the incessant clanging of the warning bells—they were giving him quite the headache—and his worry about Arthur. What if he really had escaped? It would be fine. No one would follow him… they all thought he was crazy. What could one man do, even if he were sane? And Arthur was very clearly not. Even if the curse were broken, he'd be out of his mind with grief. Right?

Damn. Those bells needed to stop ringing before they drove him crazy. One lunatic in the family was plenty. Time to go yell at the incompetent imbeciles who couldn't find one misplaced king. If Agravaine couldn't be fucking someone, screaming at morons was a pleasant alternative. Maybe he could think of some creative approaches to the discipline of the Camelot Guard. The current punishments were clearly not sufficient to guarantee any standard of competence.

At long last there was more pounding on his door. It had better be news that his nephew was found. This time Agravaine would have justification for locking Arthur in the dungeon. Even the Council wouldn't be able to naysay him, now that his poor little nephew had run away. It would be for his own safety.

Someone was shouting from the hallway. Yelling frantically. Something about the tone of voice gave Agravaine a bad feeling. What horrible display of incompetence would these fools have managed now? Morgana's army couldn't arrive soon enough.

It sounded almost as if… but that wouldn't make any sense—

He opened the door.

“Sorcerer!” A guard stood there, panting for breath, face dripping with sweat. “Sorcerer! In Gaius’ chambers. Attacked… the guards…. Took out the whole room…“ He stopped to catch his breath.

A sorcerer? That didn't make any sense. Could it be Gaius? He had dabbled in magic long ago. But to Agravaine’s knowledge, his skills had been minor, mostly limited to a few healing spells. Besides… hadn't Gaius been detained for helping Arthur escape?

What was going on?

“Did anyone get a look at him?” he asked.

“No one dared approach, my Lord.” The man looked discomfited to admit it. Good. He ought to be.

“Call the knights!” he yelled, completely exasperated. “Raise the guard! Stop being a bunch of cowards and do your job!”

The guard nodded frantically. “Yes, my Lord. We already have, my Lord. We just wanted to alert you to the situation.”

Agravaine had the sudden urge to hit something. He didn't consider himself a violent man, but there were times… “Yes, yes, thank you. Keep me apprised.”

“Of course, my Lord.” The man bowed and left.

Agravaine returned to his goblet and refilled it with wine, shaking his head in confusion. Then he sighed. He clearly wasn't going to have any more fun with his toy. Since Agravaine chambers were anything but private today, it might be best to send him back to the whorehouse before too many people with curious eyes and wagging tongues came around. He cut the boy down and threw a copper penny at him.

“Run along now, little whore. If I hear you've mentioned a word of this to anyone, I'll cut your entrails out with a dull knife. Understand?”

The boy threw on the rags he called clothing, nodded, and fled. Blood stains oozed through the fabric, growing quickly as he moved. He'd be fine, though. And if not, there were always more where he came from.

Though hopefully Agravaine wouldn’t need to resort to whores for much longer. Once Morgana came, he would get to play with anyone he desired, no questions asked.

But what was this about a sorcerer? Could it be one of Morgana's allies? Agravaine had heard nothing about any other spies in Camelot. Unless Morgana didn't trust him? That was ridiculous, though. Why wouldn't she?

Or could it be… Emrys? Camelot's mysterious defender? There to help the king escape? Would Emrys know about the curse? Would that old man be astute enough to realise that Arthur had been the victim of an enchantment and was not actually crazy? That could be problematic…

There was more clamouring, the sound of armoured soldiers running over stone. The knock at the door was welcome: hopefully there was news. Agravaine worried what Morgana might think if he couldn’t keep her fully informed of the situation.

A knight stood at the door, Sir… Something-or-other. It didn't matter. He wasn't one of Arthur's favourites, so that was good enough for Agravaine.

“My Lord. The sorcerer—it's Arthur's manservant. He was in the hallway leading to the courtyard. We saw him toss multiple guards through the air without uttering a spell.”

“What?” This was big—astounding, even. Agravaine felt his pulse speed up precipitously and hoped it wouldn't lead to any health problems. His father’s heart had given out after suffering too large a shock. Agravaine was on the verge of greatness; now was not the time for his body to fail him.

“That boy—Merlin. He’s fled to the courtyard, my Lord. The troops are gathering even now, but—he's strong. Stronger than I've ever seen. We await your orders, sire.”

Merlin? A powerful sorcerer? Emrys. It must be. Who else would be close enough to Arthur to protect him so well? And the fact that they were soulmates… it made a horrifying kind of sense. That old man act had been a clever misdirection. How had he not seen it?

But if he were such a powerful sorcerer, why had he let Arthur torture him so? Something didn't make sense.

“Bring him to me, dead or alive. If he's attacked others with magic, his life is forfeit.”

“Yes, sire. But—”

“Go!”

The knight bowed and left. Agravaine’s window afforded a view of the courtyard, and he decided it would be a safe vantage point. If Merlin truly were a sorcerer, he would have no love for Agravaine. Better let the knights handle this without him.

And there the boy was, standing on his own two feet at the edge of the courtyard. That in itself was definitive proof of his magic. Agravaine had seen those shattered knees. There was no conceivable way that boy would ever walk again—unless aided by magic. Powerful magic.

There was also the fact that Merlin's eyes glowed gold continuously. That was another clue. They must be incredibly bright for Agravaine to see them from this distance. He had never seen anyone’s eyes stay gold for more than a second. Even Morgana’s only flashed briefly before returning to their normal colour. But to hold on to the magic constantly like that… he must be powerful indeed.

But why was he just standing there? What was he waiting for? Every minute more and more soldiers filtered into the courtyard. They looked nervous; Merlin must have spooked them. What had that boy done? What was he capable of?

Agravaine wanted to yell at the soldiers to get on with it. But he also didn't want to call attention to himself. Finally—it felt like ages had passed—the soldiers made their move. Archers took aim, arrows flew, and—

Chaos. A shock wave ripped out of Merlin’s body and crashed into everything in its way. Men and objects all went flying, slamming into the courtyard walls with surprising strength. Thankfully, Agravaine was high enough above the scene that he was not affected. His jaw dropped at the sight, but he abruptly shut it. No need to look like a moron just because he was surrounded by them.

At least the boy looked tired now. He had fallen to the ground and lay in a heap. The bells kept ringing, but nothing in the courtyard moved. Agravaine waited for more soldiers to arrive, but before they did… a dark shape appeared in the sky, growing larger at a frightening pace. Was that… a dragon? The Great Dragon? Hadn't it been killed? What on earth?

As the giant dragon approached, Agravaine moved away from the window. No need to offer the beast an easy target. The knights would regroup soon; they could handle it. Agravaine didn't need to take any risks.

He had expected the dragon to spew fire and toast the fallen soldiers alive. But it didn't sound like that is what happened at all. The dark shadow dropped into the courtyard, then immediately flew away. His room grew dark as an immense shadow blocked the light of the sun; then everything quickly grew lighter as the creature fled. What the…?

He ran to the window, safe now that the dragon had moved away. It was speeding in the direction of Essetir, something bulky clutched in its claws. The courtyard below was scrambling with life again… knocked out soldiers awoke, others streamed in prepared to battle a dragon. But of the sorcerer, there was no sign.

So. Let's get this straight. A dragon that had last been seen trying to destroy Camelot, the last dragon in existence, the dragon supposedly killed by his most beloved nephew… that dragon had refrained from roasting an entire courtyard full of helpless soldiers in order to give one beleaguered sorcerer a lift? It boggled the mind.

Could that boy have called it? It seemed to be rather convenient timing to be plucked from danger when the odds were overwhelmingly stacked against him. Hadn't Morgana claimed that the last Dragonlord was dead? But then… Unless…

The battle against the Great Dragon was now more folktale than truth, the retellings veering wildly into the realm of fantasy. But one thing that all the tales had in common was that the prince and his knights had not gone to face the dragon alone. They had been accompanied by the prince’s clumsy, helpless servant. Some held that the boy was a good luck charm, others claimed he must have made a deal with the devil in order to have survived the encounter. But what if—

Dragons had their own kind of magic. Emrys himself ought not to be able to control one. Morgana had been very clear on the subject. She had wanted to find a dragon and tame it, but couldn't depend on her magic to help her. Truthfully, Morgana had all sorts of half-baked ideas that would never work. But some of them did. The poisoning of the soul bond had certainly had brilliant results. And her collusion with Helios looked promising. All seemed ready for the invasion on Beltane…

But back to the current situation. Could the boy speak the language of the dragons? Might he be a Dragonlord? It seemed inconceivable, but Agravaine would have said the same thing about him possessing magic, and he had just witnessed scores of men thrown about like dust in the wind.

Whatever the case, Morgana needed to be informed. He had planned to wait a few days before asking to meet her, so that he could enjoy being King Regent without her spoiling it for him somehow. As much as he adored her (and the power she promised), she did have a way of interrupting his fun. But this news couldn't wait. Besides, she might find it so valuable that she might reward him. Perhaps if they managed to subdue Emrys… Just think of all that power… If he had wanted the boy before, it was nothing compared to the desire he felt now.

A large, wooden chest sat at the foot of his bed. He opened it, lifted out the many layers of heavy winter clothing stored there, then removed the chest’s false bottom. Inside was an enchanted amulet. Wearing it would lend him just enough magic to summon a raven to carry a message. He put it on—it always felt uncomfortably heavy upon his shoulders—and said the spell Morgana had taught him:

“Cume mec, hræfn wann... bebuge me. Nim bod min þissere nihte þinum dryhten. Geðo hit his agendum handum.”

He grabbed parchment and ink from his desk to draft the message. It needed to be vague enough that if it were intercepted, it would incomprehensible, but it also needed to let Morgana know the seriousness of the situation.

A shiny, black bird pecked at the window, and Agravaine tied the parchment to its leg. The message he had decided on would be simple and effective:

“Meet after dark. I've found the one you're looking for.”

Chapter Text

Arthur watched the Great Dragon carry Merlin away with a strange sense of unreality and disbelief. His eyes told him one thing (giant dragon, flying away), but his brain told him another (the dragon is dead, you're hallucinating). Then his heart threw off the paralysis of shock and screamed the loudest of all: “Meeeeerliiiiiin!”

Arthur slapped his hand over his mouth. He had not meant to make any noise, let alone scream loud enough for the whole castle to hear. Shit, they'd be coming to look for him now. He had to get somewhere safe. Then he could think about what to do next. Then he could try to understand what the hell had just happened.

He was not going to turn into a little girl and cry. There had been too much of that already. And where had it got him? Declared insane and locked up by his treacherous uncle, that's where. He could not afford to wallow in his emotions. He had spent most of his life (until Merlin came—no! Don't think of him!) pretending he didn't have any. It shouldn't be hard now. Shut them down, don't let them through, enough is enough, enough!

Move, move, you have to move, they're coming to get you, go!

But where should he go? Who could he trust? Would anybody believe he was in his right mind? And for that matter, was he? For how long? Perhaps he should just turn himself in. Sooner or later, the curse might come back, and what then?

He needed to think. He needed allies. He could hear soldiers coming. Go!

The courtyard was full of activity—he couldn't go that way. He took off in the opposite direction, ducking into side passages, once hiding behind a tapestry and holding his breath as a group of servant girls went by. He worried they would raise an alarm if they saw him, and he couldn't in good conscience fight to keep them quiet. They might believe him, but they might not. That was the problem: he had no idea who might support him. What he really needed was to find Leon.

Leon had known Arthur since he was a tiny thing trying (and failing) to heft his first sword. His first knight had been there through all his failures and all his triumphs. Leon knew him better than anyone except Merlin (don't think of him, don't!) or maybe Gaius. But Arthur didn't really want to face Gaius at the moment, not after what had happened with Merlin.

But Leon—he would know Arthur. He would be able to tell if he were in his right mind. He would be able to convince others as to his sanity. He would know what to do if the curse overcame him. Leon could be his salvation.

If only he knew where to find him.

Arthur finally made it to the entrance of a secret passage and ducked in. It was filled with cobwebs and dust, but it ought to be a safe place for him to rest and plan a strategy (and not think about Merlin).

No! He was not thinking about Merlin. Damn it. Stop! Stop thinking about it. Stop.

He took a deep breath and then sank down to the crumbling floor. The secret passages were secret, and thus never repaired, lest someone discover the secret. Over time the stones had grown loose and many were disintegrating. It would be easy to lose his footing, especially since he had no light. Even sitting was prickly, akin to relaxing on gravel.

Focusing on the ragged edges of rock jabbing into his bum helped to focus his thoughts away from— It helped to focus his thoughts away. Away from— No. He was thinking about Leon. Not anyone else.

Leon. If he found Leon, they could… convince the Council that Arthur was sane? How would they prove it? And what if Arthur wasn't? What if—

Damn. He needed to know. Was he going to stay sane? The only way to even begin to guess would be to look for the cord that connected him to—

To Merlin. He couldn't avoid the thoughts any longer. Merlin had stood there in the courtyard, straight and tall despite his broken body. He had radiated power from every pore of his body. How had Arthur not seen it before? How had he not noticed someone who had the capability of taking out dozens of soldiers without even uttering a spell? Merlin had gone around cleaning his boots and mucking out the stables. Why would he do that? He clearly had power enough to overthrow the king and rule in his stead, had he desired. Why would he chase around after Arthur, enduring the many indignities heaped upon him?

It was dark in the narrow passage, but Arthur closed his eyes anyway. Why it made a difference, he wasn't sure, but it did. He relaxed into the quiet darkness, trying to keep his emotions from breaking out of his control, waiting for the tiny golden thread to appear. And… what if it didn't? His heartbeat accelerated in a flurry of panic. It had seemed like Merlin had been waiting for that dragon, that he had expected it to carry him away. But what if… What if…

No. He could not be dead. Arthur would know. He would know! Somehow… he would know. So why was he panicking about a golden cord? It would be there. It would definitely be there. Just be patient. Breathe. In. Out. Breathe.

And there it was. Dim like starlight, but there. Gold, beautiful, sparkling gold. And shouldn't it be? He had removed the ring… All should be better. It had to be better.

The cord seemed tenuous, though, almost as if it were stretched too thin, stretched to the point of breaking. As if it had been stretched out over a great distance and barely remained intact. But it was there.

If he held still and did that strange thing that was almost like listening with his heart, he could feel the actual physical direction that the cord extended. He knew that if he followed it, he would eventually reach his Merlin…

It was comforting, and he let the peace of the connection wash over him. Despite the terrible things he had done, despite the fact that Merlin had fled far away, he still had that little piece of him. He let it fill him up with energy and…

And love. That's what it was, pulsing through the fragile threads… It was love. That was the answer to his mystery, that was why Merlin had stayed. Because of love. Of course Arthur loved Merlin… It was so obvious now. Merlin was the one who made him flourish, Merlin was the one who made him laugh. Merlin helped him to grow, to smile, to play, to triumph. He was the one always there behind him, helping Arthur to shine like the brightest of stars without ever seeking credit.

Of course he loved Merlin.

It was more surprising to realise that Merlin loved him too.

He could feel that love pulsing through the thread like blood through his veins. It was playfulness and affection, exasperation and pride, it was magic, it was life—it was Merlin, and Merlin was Arthur's. How had he not seen this before? Too blinded by royal duty and parental expectations? Too arrogant and proud to admit how much he needed someone else? Now that he could see more clearly… it was frightening to realise how much he depended on Merlin, how empty his life would be if that clumsy, mouthy boy had never stumbled into his life.

It made the truth of the past few days all the more heartbreaking.

Despite clinging to the golden cord and feeling the echoes of happiness and love that came through, tears formed in his eyes. The first one dripped, and the next, and the next… And then he was sobbing like he never had done, sobbing like a two-year old, sobbing as if the world had ended and there was no hope for anything ever again. He cried and cried, burying his face in his sleeves, panting for breath… The pain was indescribable, as if he was about to rip into pieces and melt in the flames at the same time.

Terrible memories attacked him in flashes: the cruel words… the branding… the repeated violations. The biting and the cutting and— And the knees. His poor, poor knees. It was a devastating injury, and the fact that Merlin had somehow managed to use magic to walk again didn't make the reality of it any easier. Besides… Merlin had completely collapsed after his outburst of magic. Had he only been able to walk out of desperation? Had Arthur hobbled him forever?

There was no way that Merlin could ever forgive him. There was no way that Arthur could ever forgive himself. There was nothing to be done, and it hurt. He hurt like he never had before and, gods willing, never would again. How it was possible to hurt this much and still be alive, he had no idea.

He had no sense of the passing of time, sitting there in the musty darkness. Grief seized him and would not let go. He cried until no more tears came. After that, his body was still racked with sobs, seizing up in agony despite the lack of tears.

He spent an eternity stuck in a prison of misery and grief. But eventually, he had no more energy. The heaving sobs lessened into mild shaking interspersed with a few more violent tremors. He tried to catch his breath. He tried to regain control of his body. He tried… oh how he tried… Maybe if he could calm down… pretend like nothing had happened…

No. He couldn't deny what had happened. He would not. It would be with him for the rest of his life, however long that might be. He would spend the rest of all time trying to fix the evil he had let work through him. It didn't matter that he had been cursed, it didn't matter that it wasn't technically his fault… He hadn’t been strong enough, and he had allowed it in. He should have fought more, but—

But truthfully, he hadn't tried very hard. There was something about it that had felt… right. He wanted Merlin—oh, how he could see it now. He wanted him, he needed him, how could he live without him? Now that he had opened himself to it, the desire to possess Merlin fully was intense, extreme, almost unbearable. Merlin was his, damn it. It was as if they had been made for each other… The idea of him not being there was intolerable. It was barbaric, yes, but there had been a sense of relief after he had crushed his knees: now you will stay, you will stay with me, you will stay with me forever!

No! Stop it. That wasn't right. That was… that was… Was that him? Was he so used to getting everything he wanted that his natural instinct was to completely possess another human being? Oh gods, please don't let it be so… He wasn't like that, surely? It was only the curse, right? Right?

Oh gods, please let it just be the curse.

He needed the thread, the connection to Merlin… it would help center him. Please, please, let it help. He really needed some help.

He had lost track of the golden thread during his emotional meltdown, but tried to relax enough to find it again. It was there, and reaching out to it helped him feel better, just as it always did. Just as Merlin always did.

But this time when he looked, he saw the faint tint of green. It was barely noticeable, but it was there. And would it keep growing stronger like it had before? Would he be victim of a monstrous curse forever?

Despite the cool air in the dusty passageway, his face grew hot as a wave of panic rolled through him. It was a jolt to his system, a jolt that allowed him to throw off some of the grief and try to finally make a plan. There was no time for guilt, no time for self-recriminations, no time to dwell on the horror of what he had done. Instead, he had a series of problems in need of solutions, and he was damn well going to see it through. He owed it to everyone he had hurt… and most especially to Merlin.

Merlin would never give up. Despite Arthur's propensity to tease him for laziness, he always found a way… even if Arthur didn't like it. No food? Let's eat rat. Falling asleep because Camelot's cursed? Nothing a smack across the face can't fix. Need a dumb excuse? How about checking for woodworms? He always kept going, no matter how outrageous his solution might be. And if Merlin could do it… well it couldn't be that hard! Arthur could certainly manage.

So. He needed to find Leon. He needed to convince the Council that he was sane and Agravaine was a traitor. Of this he was suddenly sure: Merlin said so, and Merlin wouldn't lead him astray. Even with how much Arthur had hurt him, he implicitly knew that he could always trust Merlin with the truly important things. If Merlin believed that his uncle had betrayed them, then his uncle had betrayed them.

This ought to be devastating: did everyone in his family mean him harm? But he was numb now. The world had changed drastically in the past few days, and this was just one more alteration to the scenery. What did it matter if one apple was rotten if the rest of the tree was on fire? You wouldn't stop to examine the fruit before dousing the flames with water.

It was time to douse the flames.

It was tempting to follow the golden thread, follow it to Merlin… But Merlin had refused his assistance, and Arthur couldn't blame him. He would be the last person on earth that Merlin could possibly want to see. Arthur knew he was still alive; he could sense it. The dragon hadn't eaten him, which meant that it was probably under his control somehow… The displays of magic Arthur had already seen were incredible. Why wouldn't he be able to control a dragon? (Arthur steadfastly ignored the doubtful voice that said if that were true, why hadn't he protected Camelot from the Great Dragon? But he knew, without doubt, that Merlin loved Camelot and would do everything he could to keep her safe.)

And if the curse were still present—and the green tinge to the golden cord suggested it was, if perhaps not as aggressively strong as before—Merlin should be the last person to go to. Arthur must stay far, far away from him. It broke his heart to consider, but then, his heart was already so smashed, what harm did one more fracture cause?

He must stay away from Merlin, for both their sakes. He must do his duty to Camelot, to protect her from whatever plot his uncle might be orchestrating. He must eradicate the remnants of the curse and then clear his name. He must find Leon!

But where would he be? Arthur needed to find him and meet with him in a place where they wouldn't be observed. But everything was in an uproar, between the upheaval Arthur had caused and Merlin's dramatic flight… Where would he be?

The only place that Arthur could think of was Leon's chambers. He'd probably not be there now, but would eventually return, once the chaos had settled down. Arthur could get there. He knew where Camelot's skeleton key was hidden and could easily use it to let himself inside. And if he were going to make a habit of slinking around his own castle, having that key in his possession would be damn useful.

So at last he had a plan: get the key, sneak into Leon's, wait for his return, and then hope that Leon would be able to see him for how he truly was. Together they could try to ameliorate this ongoing disaster.

He forced himself to stand again. His joints ached from the long stretch of inactivity. The pain of it helped him to focus back on the world around him. Instead of emotions and magic, it was time to deal with the physical reality of darkness, dust, passages, keys. It was time to move into the much more comfortable world of action.

The trip to Leon's went smoothly, no problems at all. It was surprising—and a great relief. He had never felt so exhausted, physically, mentally, or emotionally. If there had been any problems, he wasn't sure he would have been able to handle them.

As expected, Leon wasn't there. Arthur settled in to wait for the long haul. He felt more comfortable hiding under the bed, just in case someone else entered. And if he fell asleep while lying there in the dark, so much the better.

He felt less anguished somehow… perhaps the tears had helped to wash away some of the misery inside of him. It was a relief to embark on a plan. And soon Leon would come.

Leon would be able to help. Leon would know what to do. Arthur just needed to be patient. Leon would come.

Arthur lay on a stone floor, hiding under a bed, dust and cobwebs for a blanket. He had had the worst day of his life, and his heart was damaged beyond repair. But despite all of that, he felt the warm whisper of hope fluttering in his chest. He drifted off to sleep clinging to the comforting peace of the golden thread, revelling in its message of love.

Chapter Text

Merlin didn't remember much from the time he spent clutched in Kilgharrah’s claws. He let his mind drift off into nothingness, straying further and further away from reality. The air was cold and Merlin was cold and all of existence was reduced to cold: cold wind, cold body, cold mind, cold heart. Cold—and numb. Blessedly, blessedly numb.

Nothing to feel when you're numb. Nothing but the cold.

They finally landed in a relatively open place among some scraggly trees. It was technically a clearing, but there were thorny bushes and overgrown weeds everywhere. As Kilgharrah lowered his great weight to the earth, numerous branches splintered in a series of sharp cracking sounds. Merlin expected birds to shriek and flee, but no animals stirred. Perhaps they had sensed the dragon coming and long since scrambled to safety.

When Kilgharrah released him from his claws, Merlin tumbled into a particularly cruel bush, sharp thorns tearing at fabric and skin. But he didn't care. It was just nature minding its own business. It wasn't trying to hurt him, and for that he loved it. He breathed in the smell of green things mixed with dirt and felt… almost at peace. Is that what he was feeling? Peace?

“Is this home?” he whispered, mostly to himself. He fought to sit up, adjusting the plants till nothing was poking at him too sharply, and looked up at Kilgharrah. “Where are we?”

The dragon didn't speak immediately but instead regarded him. Merlin would have said he had a grave look upon his face, but that was ridiculous for two reasons: Kilgharrah was fairly incapable of facial expressions; and what reason did he have to look unhappy? Wasn't he free? Hadn't Merlin given him Aithusa, so he wasn't alone? What else could he want?

Eventually Kilgharrah spoke, his voice a deep, comforting rumble. “Your mother's house is not far. But it won't be safe for you, not for long. My arrival in Camelot was widely seen. The witch will look for you.”

Merlin nodded wearily, not agreeing so much as acknowledging he had heard. He knew he ought to ask Kilgharrah for advice, for assistance, but he was so tired. All he wanted was to go to his mum and stay with her forever.

But first he had to get there. Of course Kilgharrah couldn't take him all the way; everyone would see the giant dragon and panic. Merlin sighed. He'd have to walk, and he wasn't sure he could manage it. But if he could just get home, his mum would make everything better. Just like she always had.

He gathered up his remaining energy, pulled the last vestiges of his magic into his centre, and prepared to jam it into his legs. Hopefully it would be enough to get home. He took a deep breath and—

“What are you doing, young warlock?”

Kilgharrah’s deep voice took Merlin by surprise. Then a wave of irritation washed over him.

“What does it look like I'm doing? Thank you for your help, but I'm going home now.”

“Merlin.” Kilgharrah’s voice rumbled around the clearing. “You are deeply injured. Let me help you.”

Oh. That would be nice. But he really needed to get home… everything would be better at home. If he could just get there… All he needed was to go home. His mum… she'd know what to do. Mothers always did. She'd make him all better. All he had to do—

“Merlin!” the dragon roared.

“Huh?” He looked up, startled. Oh yes, the dragon was here. But Merlin didn't want to talk to the dragon. Merlin wanted to go home. Yes, he was going straight—

A golden light coalesced around him, glowing brighter than the afternoon sun. A warm gust of air accompanied it, settling around him, sinking into his skin like rain into a parched field. After the light faded away, Merlin felt as clear as a newly-washed window. He looked up at Kilgharrah and wondered why he hadn't thought to ask him for help before. Thoughts came much easier now, and they weren't going to lead him straight into a breakdown.

Now when Kilgharrah spoke, Merlin found it easier to listen.

“I am sorry about your knees. I fear they are beyond my power to heal.”

Merlin sighed and nodded. “Thank you for trying. I can manage.”

“Merlin. The bond between you and the Pendragon King has been nearly destroyed. The witch knew not the damage she would cause, but she will soon learn. The future has become cloudy, but I fear that your destiny is as damaged as you.”

Merlin ripped a dead branch off of the bush he was sitting on, then started peeling the bark off, one strip at a time. He wanted to get up and walk away, or at least start pacing, but he needed to save his magic for when he needed it.

“I don't care about destiny anymore. I was a fool to ever listen to you. What I am going to do is go home to my mother and forget that Camelot ever existed.”

Kilgharrah growled. It was more an expression of displeasure than true threat. Merlin ignored it.

“You cannot simply disregard your destiny. As I told you before, your gift was given to you for a reason. You cannot ignore it.”

Merlin slammed the stick into the ground. It broke in the middle, sending splinters flying. He dropped the mangled wood, grabbed for another small branch, and continued to strip off bark. He refused to look at the dragon.

“I don't want this gift anymore. Whoever thought it a good idea to give it to me can take it back. All it has done is cause me sadness.” He aggressively ripped off a stubborn section of wood, causing his fingernails to throb. But at least his eyes stayed dry.

“You cannot turn away from your destiny, Merlin. No matter how much you may wish it. To do so will only bring disaster.”

“Watch me, Kilgharrah. I am done.”

Merlin would no longer listen to Kilgharrah and his prognostications of doom. Listening to that nonsense was what had gotten Merlin into this situation to begin with. If he had ignored the dragon and trusted Morgana from the beginning, none of this would have happened. He was convinced. For years he had pondered it and had come to the only possible conclusion: he had let Morgana down. The guilt ate at him, mixing in with all his other regrets: the lies he had told, the people he had killed, the people he had failed, the ones he had let die.

But he was finished. No more destiny, no more lies, no more prophecies, no more pain.

“Merlin…” Kilgharrah growled.

“No. I am done. If you think these prophecies are so important, you can go do something about them. Now I am going home. If you bother me again, I will order you away.”

He threw the stick across the clearing, then closed his eyes and searched out his mother. She was always easy to find. Her love for him shone bright and clear like a beacon. Thankfully, she wasn't far.

Merlin fizzed with angry, desperate energy. He focused it into his knees: Work! Work, you blasted things! And then he pushed himself up. It was easier after whatever healing Kilgharrah had managed. But it was still not pleasant, and he did not relish the idea of walking far. It was even trickier navigating the tangle of underbrush, but a quick push of magic cleared the path. His knees momentarily gave out, but he quickly thrust the magic back into them. Anger had made him reckless. Instead of merely pushing plants aside, his magic had forcibly uprooted them. A shower of dirt and leaves and roots and branches pelted Merlin and Kilgharrah. The dragon growled again. Once upon a time this would have been intimidating. Now Merlin couldn't give a fuck about what made the giant lizard happy.

“You cannot do this, Merlin.” Kilgharrah swung his head back and forth and stamped his hind legs.

“Goodbye, Kilgharrah. Feel free to go protect Camelot on my behalf. I hope to never see it—or you—again.”

Gritting his teeth, Merlin trudged down the path he had made. Some villager would probably come upon this clearing with its giant dragon imprint and unnatural path and there would probably be panic. But when nothing bad happened, the villagers would eventually forget about it. If they associated the clearing’s peculiar damages with Merlin's arrival, he didn't really give a shit. If anybody tried to bother him, he'd blast them without remorse. If Morgana tried anything, he would tear her limb from limb.

Despite his bravado, he relaxed once he reached the tree line and passed through to spaces too small for Kilgharrah to follow. Not that the dragon couldn't destroy the whole forest to get to Merlin, but he wouldn't. He was letting him go. It would be nice if Merlin never saw him again, but he knew he would not be so lucky. That dragon seemed determined to ruin his life. Couldn't he see it was already ruined?

The journey was short but exhausting. Once he reached Ealdor, there was also the problem of his eyes: they glowed constantly while he used magic to strengthen his knees. He wasn't quite ready to reveal himself as a sorcerer to the entire village so stayed away from the main path and snuck up to his mother's house from behind. If someone recognised him from a distance, so be it. They would know he was home, but his secret would still be safe.

He wanted to rush straight into the house, but instead knocked on the door so as not to frighten his mum. She answered with a confused look on her face, but as soon as she saw him, her arms opened wide and he was smothered in her warmth. His magic buzzed with feelings he thought he might never experience again: peace, safety, acceptance, love.

He had made it to his mum. He had made it home. Everything would be all right now.

Chapter Text

Morgana's head spun. She hadn't felt this off-kilter since her days in Camelot, back when her own father would have killed her had he known of her magic. Magic that she hadn't asked for, magic that was frightening and out-of-control. Oh, how she had needed help and support then! But did anyone help her? Ohhhhhhh no, of course not. But now… to learn that Merlin, of all people, had magic all along… that he must be the one called Emrys, the one who was supposed to be her destiny and her doom…

It was appalling. He—her friend, despite their difference in station—had magic. He not only had magic but had immense amounts of it. He had magic, and he hadn't helped her.

The first shock of Agravaine's revelations had resulted in the spontaneous destruction of the hovel where she met with her spies. Her magic instinctively protected her, but Agravaine hadn't been quite as lucky. He'd acquired multiple cuts and bruises from flying debris. In other circumstances she would have laughed. But how could she with such grief welling up inside? It mixed with anger and raged like a flooding river striving to wash her away. A tear leaked from her eye, and she swiped at it furiously.

She had not been prepared for this. Her plan for the evening had been to meet Agravaine at the hovel, scoff at his incompetence, threaten him for disturbing her without cause, then teleport back to Helios’ camp and enjoy herself, perhaps have a little fun with her new guest. One thing that could be said for the warlord was that he treated her like the queen she was. Her tent was outfitted as richly as a royal residence. She appreciated the step up from living in squalor and would be certain to reward the man once Camelot was hers. He could indulge himself as he wished. Perhaps he would take a liking to Gwen… That would certainly be a more fitting fate for her traitorous maid than being queen. She could serve Morgana by day and Helios by night. Oh, how Morgana would relish it. But she ought not get ahead of herself.

But now there could be no quick teleportation back to luxury. She was so livid she was liable to fuck up the spell and disintegrate into a thousand pieces. Her body shook, and her magic was out of control. She would have to walk, at least until she calmed down. Until she figured out what to do about Emrys.

A thick pine tree that stood in her way abruptly exploded. Wood splinters flew like arrows in every direction, but her crazed magic easily brushed them aside. The trunk of the tree lay before her, smoking as if it had been destroyed by lightning. She wished it had been Merlin vaporised to a pulp. The thought of him kicked her anger up even higher. Screaming her fury to the gods, magic burst out of her body, pulsing out in every direction, incinerating everything within a hundred paces. The forest was left a charred, smoking pile of debris.

She normally had no quarrel with nature, but at the moment it was a convenient outlet for the emotions that threatened to overwhelm her. When her magic had first manifested, it frequently escaped her control, toppling objects or sparking fires. That was back when she had been a frightened child, back when she had desperately needed guidance. Back when Merlin should have helped her. How dare he try to conceal knowledge from her? How dare he try to keep her in the dark? How dare he do these things while pretending to be the sweetest and truest of friends?

She couldn't forgive him for poisoning her, back when she had been the unwitting vessel for the sleeping spell. But she understood why he had done it. Due to his shameful lack of creativity, he had thought it his only choice. But to hide his magic? To lie to her constantly, about his magic and her own? They had been friends! Arthur had always had too much of a stick up his arse to allow friendship with the lower classes, but Morgana had none of the same compunctions. Merlin’s idea of “help” had been to send her to the druids and get them massacred. What great assistance that was! And all along he could have taught her… or at least commiserate with her. She wouldn't have been so alone.

Well, she wasn't alone now! She had followers by the legions ready to invade Camelot. All she needed was to say the word. Agravaine had successfully sabotaged the scheduling of the knights’ patrol routes for weeks now, leaving a large section of the forest near Camelot completely overlooked. A few simple shielding spells, and an entire army was in place and battle-ready with no one in Camelot any the wiser.

And as for her guest… Somehow he had not been fooled by her precautions. But when she had found him sneaking around the outskirts of the camp, she had pounced like a cat on a bug. She had such plans for him. Delightful plans. What a lovely gift she was preparing for her dear brother. And what a gift for herself!

Her original plan had been to invade Camelot during the feast of Beltane. The festival marked the beginning of the season of light, the season of hope. Morgana was determined to be the light that Camelot was missing, the hope for all of the kingdom's oppressed magic users. The timing would have been a good omen, and the irony of incinerating the town while the Beltane bonfires yet burned was delicious.

But now… The news that lascivious fool Agravaine had brought was nearly incomprehensible. She wasn't sure she could fully believe that Merlin was Emrys. Not that she doubted Agravaine. It all made a sickening sort of sense. It's just that— How could he? How could he be Emrys and not have helped her? How? Hadn't she been a friend to him, even risking her life to fight for Ealdor? How could he do that to her?

Her eyes pricked with tears again. Damn it. It was much easier to be angry than sad. Blasting a few more trees helped to move away from the grief. It was surprising, though, how much sadness there was. There had been a time, long, long ago, when Merlin had been a light in her darkness. If she hadn't been the king’s ward, she might have liked to—

No, she would not dwell on it. That time had been a lie, as fake as Merlin had proved to be.

She paced relentlessly through the forest. Several bushes burst into flames as she passed by. Spring blossoms wilted, and the earth cracked beneath her feet. She had never before been so out-of-control. Time to focus all that destructive energy in a more beneficial direction. Time to focus on revenge.

As she travelled, she considered how Agravaine’s news would affect her plans. It was hard to judge with so much left unknown. Emrys, despite his immense magic, had allowed her dear brother to torture him nearly to death. Why would he do that? Why had he not defended himself? Had he been rendered impotent somehow? Agravaine had mentioned a collar, but why would the most powerful sorcerer of all time allow himself to bound?

However it had happened, one thing was crucially important: Emrys had been so traumatised that he had fled from Camelot and abandoned his soulmate. And the fact that he was Arthur's soulmate… it boggled the mind. And what of the curse? It was an incredibly powerful spell that she had bargained with the Dochraid for. It was on par with the level of enchantment that could summon a shade from the spirit world. She could not fathom the effects of such a curse on a soul bond rooted in such powerful magic.

And what effect would the poisoned soul bond have on the nonmagical partner? Arthur was so distraught by events that he had tried to kill himself while still wearing the cursed ring. What was she to make of that? Shouldn't a guilt-ridden suicide attempt only occur if the ring had been removed, breaking the enchantment? It was puzzling.

And then there was the matter of the dragon. Merlin had called a dragon to rescue him, and from all reports, it had been the Great Dragon. Morgana knew (to her chagrin) that normal sorcery would have no effect on such a creature. This meant that, in some inconceivable way, Merlin was not only Emrys, but a Dragonlord, too. It was horrifying that all that power had ended up in the hands of someone so treacherous. To think—the little worm had been actively working for an anti-magic regime while containing the very power he outwardly condemned. She knew of several occasions when Merlin had protected both Arthur and Uther. He must have used magic to save people who would have seen him dead had they known what he had done. The hypocrisy was sickening.

She had thought that her greatest desire was to stamp down the Pendragon tyrants and rule Camelot—and eventually all of Albion—in their stead. But she now had a very close second goal: to grind the traitor Emrys to dust as painfully as possible. A quick death would be too merciful. She wanted him completely broken, mentally, physically, emotionally. Unlike Emrys, she had plenty of creative imagination. She was certain to find the most delectable punishments for him.

Nothing had turned out as she had expected when she had first hatched the plan to poison Arthur's bond with his soulmate. Despite her raging emotions, she was beginning to see that everything was much, much better. The Goddess had richly blessed her: Camelot's king was insane, Morgana's greatest enemy had fled, and Agravaine could literally open the castle doors and invite her in.

There was no point in waiting. By tomorrow night, Camelot would have a new queen.

As for Emrys, she knew just the thing. He might be her destiny, but she would be his doom.

Chapter Text

Arthur woke to the incessant ringing of the warning bells. Did they never stop? He was groggy and confused, not quite sure of reality yet, still half-stuck in a twisted dream. There was a dim orange light filtering in from somewhere, but it was not strong enough to illuminate his surroundings. He sat up to see more clearly but immediately crashed his head into something hard and immobile.

Only years of intense self-discipline kept him from yelling out in pain and shock. What the hell had that been? He tried feeling with his hands. They collided with a rough wooden board a scant few inches over his body. Had he been buried alive? He was still half-stuck in the dark dreams that tried to pull him back into a nightmare world. Or was reality the nightmare? Panic rose swiftly, stampeding through his body, but quickly died down again. That had been a silly thought, and he knew it. For one, if he had been buried alive, there would be no light at all, however dim and unhelpful it might be.

He took a deep breath, searching for calm. As he inhaled, large amounts of dust were sucked up into his nasal passages, causing a fierce bout of coughing. Damn it! So much for stealth. But nothing nearby stirred. He was alone.

After that he took only shallow breaths. The one benefit to the coughing fit was that it had shaken the last clawing tendrils of dreamland away. He was fully awake now, and his location was obvious. After an unsuccessful trip to find Leon, he had decided to wait under his bed. The decision seemed poor now, what with the dust and the head thumping and the stony hardness of the floor. And was that a spider crawling on his cheek?

He brushed at his face and rolled his stiff body out from under the bed. The room was dark, only an uncanny orange light emanating from the open window. The shades had not been drawn, no fire had been lit, the bed had not been slept in. Everything appeared unchanged. Leon had not returned.

Arthur frowned, a frisson of worry running down his spine. He needed Leon, he needed him now, he shouldn't have waited, he shouldn't have fallen asleep, he should have chanced it and gone out to look for him… the council needed to be warned, Agravaine was not to be trusted, and damn it, where on earth was Leon? Didn't he know that Arthur needed him? Unless—

Maybe he did know and was out looking for him. Loyal, trustworthy Leon. Of course he wouldn't rest if he were worried about Arthur. Dumb, dumb, dumb. What had Arthur been thinking? He hadn't been, that's what. Even now his thoughts were fuzzy, as if the surrounding dust and spiderwebs had moved into his brain while he had been asleep.

He had to find Leon. Leon wouldn't be fuzzy. Leon would help. If Arthur could find him.

But first—the strangeness of the light was starting to unnerve him. It was not the colour of dawn nor dusk. Rather, it reminded him more of…

He ran to the window and there it was. Fire. The lower town was burning, flames lunging upwards: not content with the earth, they would also attempt to incinerate the sky. He threw the window open, and hot, smoky air rushed in. Flakes of ash settled on the window sill. It was hard to tell since the bells were so loud, but he thought he heard screams floating to him on the hellish breeze. Were his people burning? Were they trapped, hopeless, dying painfully while waiting for help that didn't come?

Beyond the walls of the city there was a sea of scattered lights, some larger, some smaller. Bonfires, torches… an army.

As he watched, large balls of flaming material were launched from outside the walls. They landed on the dry, wooden buildings, which were engulfed with unnatural speed. Magic.

There was no doubt: Morgana had come.

Of course that was who it was. His sister had always had the most impeccable timing. She unerringly knew the precise instant to deliver the cutting remark, the most advantageous time to make an entrance, the perfect moment to thrust the knife.

Arthur was no fool. Morgana would have spies in Camelot. She would know about the cursed king, the new regent, the magical servant that called a dragon and flew away. And if Agravaine were that spy, they would be dangerously compromised.

And who else could the spy be? If Merlin had said so, it must be true. There might be more spies, but the one that would be by far the most damaging, the most emotionally hurtful… Morgana had always been an excellent strategist. She was no doubt gleeful about the painful irony of this betrayal by his mother's brother.

Who else would she corrupt? Who else would turn on him?

Arthur took a deep breath, then stood straighter and lifted his chin. His sister thought she had won, but he would not go down without a fight. The sight of his city burning made him feel more like himself—more like a king—than he had in days. He felt more like the man that Merlin had believed in, the one that could accomplish anything if it were for the benefit of his people.

Merlin had always had such faith in him, even when Arthur had been little more than an arrogant bully. That faith had been shattered now, of course… And if Merlin didn't believe in him, how was Arthur supposed to believe in himself? But what did it matter? Confidence or not, he would go down fighting. He owed it to his people, to his knights… to Merlin.

Merlin had been his strength. How could he do this without him? But Arthur still had a tiny piece of him. Closing his eyes, he tried to relax into the darkness, to check on the thread, to see if it were still mostly golden. Would the curse return? Would it seize him in the midst of battle and destroy his mind? Would he run away to assault Merlin again, leaving his people to be crushed without him?

He tried—he tried—he tried! Oh, how he tried! But he could not relax; he could not find the thread. When he closed his eyes, all he saw was the cruelty of orange flames burning. There was nothing else. Nothing but terror and destruction.

So be it. Let the curse come, then, if it would. If he were embroiled in battle, he would not be able to run. And perhaps the battle fury would prove stronger than the enchantment’s evil call.

Even as he mourned the ability to connect to the bond he shared with Merlin, he knew he must go on. Camelot needed him.

Was the rest of Camelot aware of Agravaine’s treachery? Was he still in control of the kingdom? Arthur would have to trust that with the town on fire and Morgana's army at their doorstep, no one would be concerned with his sanity and try to lock him away.

If only he could find someone he trusted to apprise him of the situation. Leon's absence grated. Thinking of it made him anxious and angry and irritated all at the same time. Was he all right? Was he busy protecting the people? Did he not know how much Arthur needed him? Did he think Arthur crazy? Was he serving Agravaine and unwittingly quickening their destruction?

Hopefully Arthur would find someone knowledgeable to speak with along the way. But first he must return to his chambers and don his armour. The situation he headed into was perilous and uncertain; he needed as much protection as he could get. Then he would search out Agravaine and the senior knights.

Arthur took one last look out the window. Another ball of fire crashed into the lower town, exploding in a fountain of sparks and flame. In another spot, the fire momentarily died out. It took a moment of staring to realise that this was because a building had collapsed, briefly denying the fire its source of air. But the flames quickly rebuilt until they blazed as savagely as before.

Arthur swallowed painfully, then turned away and raced out of Leon's room. The dark dreams that accosted him while sleeping were nothing as compared to this: reality was the nightmare, and the nightmare was reality. If he didn't stop dawdling and hurry, there would be nothing left of Camelot for him to save.

Chapter Text

Arthur strode towards his chambers, steps pounding the floor to the rhythm of the bells sounding their message of danger and despair. The trip went smoothly, hastened by use of the secret passages. Arthur figured everyone would be too preoccupied with the imminent invasion to try to halt his progress, but it was best to minimize the risk. The main corridors were filled with soldiers and servants, all rushing in a preternatural silence. The only sounds were the clatter of feet and armour and the endless tolling of the bells. It felt as if they rang out a death knell, just as they had when his father had been killed.

But Camelot was not dead. They had not been defeated yet. This kingdom would not fall because Arthur would not let it.

He entered his chambers through the servant's entrance. On the other side of the door was a short hallway that ended at the opening to the main chamber, an opening concealed by a tapestry hung sightly away from the wall. It was designed so that the castle staff could slip in and out without disruption. A well-trained servant could essentially vanish into thin air.

Merlin had never been that servant. Merlin entered the room with all the stealth of an over-excited baby deer lame in one leg, doomed to a life spent tripping over its feet and running around in frantic circles. Adorable, but useless.

Unless that had all been an act? Though why anyone would want to act like that on purpose was beyond his ken.

And of course Merlin wasn't actually useless… It had just been fun to tease him. Now that he thought about it, Merlin had probably been much more useful than Arthur had realised, what with all that magic. Perhaps those talents would have come in handy at a time like this. It was just like that little coward to run away when he was needed. No wonder he had deserved to be—

Stop! No, no, shit, no. Arthur would not let that damned curse win. Not now, not ever. He jabbed his fingernails into the palms of his hands, relishing the slight pain. It helped him to refocus his thoughts: Camelot. In danger. Your armour. Find it. Now!

Arthur jerked out of his daze and hurried the short way to the tapestry-covered entrance but then stopped abruptly. The image woven into the cloth was not visible from the back side; it was only a mess of tangled stitches and hanging threads. But… the colours were visible, and they were all wrong. This was not his tapestry. What…?

He walked through the slight opening between the tapestry and the wall, then stared at the room in shock. Most of the furniture was different; tables, chairs, and even the bedding had been replaced. A few things remained untouched, but so much had changed that it felt like a different room. Why would anyone—

He was seized by a flashback, then, overpowered by memory and emotion. How he had been so angry, how he had thought he could pound the anger out of his body with that mace. How he had destroyed so many of his things… How he had destroyed Merlin…

What a terrible idea it had been to come here, back to this place where he had wrought such evil. His breath came in short pants, and he grew dizzy. But there was no time for this. Camelot was in danger; Camelot needed him. He needed to accomplish his mission and go, not get sucked into an emotional cesspool. Feeling even more desperate for speed than before, he ran to his armour. He had planned to put it on here, but there was no way he would stay in this room a second longer than necessary. He tried to hurry, but the armour was clunky and awkward, difficult to carry all at once. It reminded him of how clumsy Merlin could be when—

No, no thinking about that. He shook the image out of his head then exited back through the servants’ entrance. Part of him hoped that he never entered that room again. How could he ever stay there without reliving a continuous barrage of harrowing memories?

He ducked into an unoccupied guest room to put on his armour. Despite what some people (don't think of him, don't think of him) said, he could dress himself. He just shouldn't have to. That's what servants were for. Mer—er, the castle staff needed something to do lest they fall into laziness. As he embarked on the slow process of strapping the protective covering to his body, it dawned on him that he was unlikely to ever return to his chambers, anyway. He might be the best fighter in the Five Kingdoms, but he was weak, compromised; and what good would armour do against magic? The chances were low that he would return to any bedchamber, ever again.

If he had only known of Mer— er, magic sooner… think of all the fun they could have had developing strategies to combat it. Well, Arthur would have found it great fun. Mer—some other people might think it more like torture. That would have been hilarious too.

But those days would never be.

Because his lazy sorcerer had run away… Why didn't Arthur chase after him? Teach him the consequences for running from—

No!

He shook his head, hard, then finished donning the armour. Once it was on, he felt more like himself and less like someone vulnerable to attacks of sick, sick thoughts. He grabbed the sword that he had swiped from an unoccupied guard post when retrieving the key to the shackles from the vaults. It would be better to have one of his own, but they were locked in the armoury. This one would be good enough. His instincts told him he didn't have enough time to fetch another; he needed to hurry.

If Arthur knew his uncle—and he was starting to get a better idea—Agravaine would be in the throne room, revelling in his power even as Camelot burned down around him. And how had Arthur not seen this before? He had known his uncle had enjoyed his privileged position at court; how had he not seen how he coveted so much more?

Arthur would go to the throne room to confront his uncle, reassert his position as the kingdom's primary defender (or try to, at any rate), and then go destroy his sister and her borrowed army. Or, more likely, be cut down in the midst of battle. But at least it would be an honourable death, his life given for the sake of his people, not ended by his own hand as a way to escape the overwhelming guilt and pain. He may have also wanted to kill himself to keep from harming anyone again, but it would be the height of self-deception if he didn't acknowledge that he had welcomed death's sweet mercy, an escape from the overwhelming darkness that had swallowed him whole.

On his way to the throne room, he passed many people. Most of them nodded their heads to him respectfully, murmuring “My Lord,” but all he could see was the fear in their expressions. They were scared, frightened of what was to come, and it set Arthur's protective instincts on fire. This was his kingdom, and he was damn well going to save it.

None stopped him until he was met by Sir Vidor halfway to his destination. Sir Vidor and Sir Caridoc had been knighted just before Morgause had issued her fateful challenge to Arthur. Seeing either of them always reminded him of that evening, of the duel he had not wanted to fight against a woman he had no quarrel with, and of the appearance of his dead mother. Arthur had learned his lessons well: women could be as dangerous as men, and sorcery was not to be trusted. Though now that he knew about Mer—

Now that he had new information, he might have to reassess. But later. Now he had to protect Camelot.

“Your Majesty!” Vidor bowed briefly, catching his breath as he did. “You must come. Lord Agravaine has declared that we will surrender immediately, but many of the Knights are determined to defend Camelot. I fear the situation could turn violent. You must come!”

Arthur nodded and kept walking. “And has my uncle any supporters?”

“Yes, many of the nobles agree with him, and most of the guards and some of the Knights are ready to support his decision. But the rest of the Knights are ready to rebel, my Lord. They will not be cowards and let their city be overrun. Nor do they believe that Lord Agravaine has the kingdom's best interests in mind.”

So. Arthur would have supporters against his uncle. That would help. He wasn't sure what he would have done if they had all been against him, taken in by Agravaine’s machinations and believing him crazy. He would have gone down fighting… but this way he had an actual chance.

The doors to the throne room were wide open. Inside there stood a tense tableau, nobles, knights, and common soldiers standing breathlessly, eyes focused to the throne where Agravaine sat, arguing with… Was that Gwaine? It was! It was Gwaine, with Elyan by his side.

Hadn't Gwaine been dying? Hadn't Arthur killed him? How could this be?

But he knew the answer to that question. Magic. It had been magic, Merlin's magic. Even after all that he had been through, Merlin had been strong enough to save a dead man's life. Arthur would have marvelled at this had his uncle not noticed him just then.

“Arthur, my boy! What are you doing here? You ought to be in bed. You've given us all quite the scare. I was so worried—”

I bet you were. Don't you dare try that crap with me.

“Worried I'd find the truth about you, Uncle? Worried you'd lose the power you managed to gain by cursing me?”

Agravaine shook his head, an overly-affected look of confusion and concern on his face. Everyone in the room shifted away from the two of them, leaving a clear, unobstructed view between Arthur and his uncle.

“My dear boy, it's obvious you're still ill. Your crazed behaviour is why I was chosen to rule in your stead. I'll call the guard and the physician to accompany you back to your room.”

Arthur snorted. “Would that be before or after you raise the white flag and invite Morgana into the castle?”

“Arthur, Arthur… None of this concerns you. You needn't worry. I have been chosen King Regent, and it is my solemn duty to protect Camelot as I see fit.”

Arthur had to hand it to him: his uncle was good. Quite the manipulative smooth-talker. He sounded so reasonable and sincere. No wonder Arthur—and almost everybody else (but not everyone, a guilt-ridden voice reminded him)—had been so completely fooled.

Arthur studiously tried to keep the memory of the one person who hadn't been fooled out of his thoughts. He could afford no weakness now.

“You're opening the door for her! How is that protection?” Arthur’s gaze swept the room, encompassing all who were present. If there were ever a time when he needed to ooze kingship out of every pore, this was it. “Can't you all see? My uncle is working with Morgana! He cursed me so he could take control and invite my sister in! Do you think she will let you all—”

Agravaine laughed, an ugly, twisted sound. Though how could anyone laugh with the city burning and Morgana at the gates? Unless they had been hoping for that very thing. How had he not seen it before?

“He's barking mad!” Agravaine announced to the room. “My dear nephew has his father's lunacy and must be confined in order to keep him from harming himself or others. Guards!” A few guards that had been standing off to the side behind Agravaine stepped forwards. “Please accompany my nephew to the dungeons. We haven't time to arrange a more secure location so will have to make do for now.”

A dozen guards now rushed towards Arthur. Perhaps each hoped to be the one to apprehend the raving king and curry more favour from the new regent. But Arthur would not go without a fight. He raised his sword, prepared to protect himself, and…

A wall of red capes materialised in front of him. Arthur had been so intent on his perfidious uncle, he had dismissed the presence of the Knights. Until this moment, he hadn't been sure that they would follow him. He knew how convincing Agravaine could be; had not Arthur himself been completely taken in for months? Who knew what lies the snake had been spreading about him behind his back? Or what stories he had told about Arthur's incapacitation?

In the end, it was probably Arthur's insistence that they not invite Morgana into the citadel that swayed them. The Knights of Camelot were loyal and fierce, strong and brave. They would not surrender without a fight, nor would they respect a leader that asked them to do so.

“Stop!” It was Agravaine who yelled. The guards who had been ready to restrain Arthur paused. The Knights settled into a more defensive position and then also stilled their movements.

“I have been chosen as the leader of this kingdom!” Agravaine bellowed. “You would commit treason to follow a madman?”

Gwaine's voice rang out louder than all the others. “We will follow the one who will defend this kingdom. If you will not, you are a coward and a disgrace!”

It was difficult for Arthur to see his uncle's face with so many knights and guards between them. He probably wore that constipated look he got whenever something didn't go his way. It had entertained Arthur on many occasions. He had sometimes delighted in causing his uncle trouble in petty matters just so that he could see it. That he had allowed the man so much leeway in the more important decisions rankled. Had Agravaine been sabotaging him all along? Is that why he had given him the spectacularly bad advice to kill Caerleon and nearly start a war?

Arthur would never let something like that happen again. Merlin had warned him. Merlin had always given brilliant advice, despite Arthur's frequent dismissal of it. Now Arthur would listen to his instinct, to his gut, and to his heart. And if he ever found Merlin again, he would listen to everything he ever said. Well… maybe not to all of the silly prattle, but—

Focus, Arthur. Now is not the time to be distracted.

The problem was that nothing was happening. Everyone in the room was waiting for someone else to make a move. Enough of that. Agravaine had to go. It was time for Arthur to regain his kingship. Time to make his move.

“Knights of Camelot!” he yelled. “We are besieged by a cruel enemy outside our walls, an enemy that has planted her spies well. The Lord Agravaine is an enemy to Camelot and must be contained. Any who protect him will also be declared traitors. Arrest him! And then let us defend Camelot against the enemies that would tear us apart!”

Agravaine screamed at the guards around him, “He is a lunatic! Can't you see? Protect me, and you will be greatly rewarded!”

Most of the Knights advanced towards Agravaine. They were met by several guardsmen who stood in front of the King Regent with their swords raised. They were common soldiers who lacked the training of the Knights. Arthur wondered if they had been enticed by promises of privilege or safety if Morgana won? Or did they truly believe they were doing what was best for the kingdom? How was Arthur to judge them?

Most of the guards surrounding Agravaine had backed away, not willing to fight. The few that did were quickly overwhelmed by the Knights’ superior expertise. Agravaine screamed and hollered at the non-combatants all through the confrontation, a steady stream of, “What are you standing there for! Help them, you idiots! I'll have your heads, just see if I don't!”

He never shut up, which made it easy for Arthur to pinpoint his location even through the fighting. Then Arthur scoured the room, searching out any of his Round Table Knights. Were they willing to support him now, despite the ease with which he had fallen prey to a terrible curse? Would they ever be able to trust him again?

Arthur first made eye contact with Gwaine, who was still across the room. Gwaine was the only knight not dressed in armour. Instead he wore simple breeches and a tunic. He was horribly pale and looked about ready to keel over from exhaustion. Though healed, he was clearly weak, possibly still suffering. Gwaine scowled at him, and that look told Arthur everything he needed to know. Despite his brave words to Agravaine, he had not forgiven Arthur. All that could be said was that Gwaine was not a coward and would not go down without a fight. He was willing to lay down his life for the people he loved (and already had, for Merlin's sake). Gwaine would fight, not for Arthur, but for the kingdom he had learned to call home.

Arthur could live with that. For now, at least.

Next to Gwaine stood Elyan. Elyan nodded to him, but that was all. It was enough, though. At least for now, Arthur could count on him in the battle against Morgana.

He looked around for Leon and Percival, but there was no sign of them. Arthur's worry kicked up another notch. He had thought for sure that he would find Leon here.

But for now, what of Agravaine? Where was he? What would he do, now that his minions were losing?

Most of the nobles had fled when the fighting broke out, clearing much of the throne room. It was easy for Arthur to skirt the perimeter and reach Gwaine and Elyan. From that vantage point, he could see Agravaine cowering behind the few guards still fighting for him. His uncle had drifted back to the wall and was edging his way towards an exit. Arthur looked to Elyan, who, unlike Gwaine, was fully armoured and prepared for battle. Elyan nodded. Arthur gestured to three other nearby Knights to wait for his signal.

And then they pounced, the five of them together. It took no longer than the space of time between a flash of lightning and the end of its thunder. Two Knights circled around from one side, two from the other, and Arthur quickly had his uncle at sword point against the wall.

Once Agravaine was detained, the guards still fighting quickly surrendered, swords clanging jarringly as the metal blades were thrown to the stone floor. The reverberations slowly lessened and mixed in with the warning bells. All other sounds died away.

Arthur pressed the tip of his sword into Agravaine’s chest as hard as he could without drawing blood. His uncle looked frightened—as well he ought. But his voice was filled with bravado.

“Arthur! My dear nephew. You know I would never turn against you. I made a promise to your mother that I would always be there for you. You know I care for—”

But Arthur was done listening to Agravaine’s lies and manipulations. He had listened for far too long, but no more.

“Then where have you been, Uncle? I've been here for over two decades, and you only appeared when my father fell ill. You never cared for me, only for the chance to seize power.”

“Arthur, Arthur, listen to yourself. You're not sane, my dear boy. Your illness has caused paranoia; you see enemies where there are only people who care for you. Of course I came when your father was ill. That's when you needed me! I came here for you.”

“No, you didn't. Merlin saw right through you—”

“And you would believe the word of a lying sorcerer over that of your uncle? A sorcerer who deceived you, all this time. Was he just waiting for his chance to seize the throne? You claim that I am in league with Morgana, but wouldn't it be more likely that someone with magic—”

“THAT IS ENOUGH!” Oh, it felt good to yell at the man. “You will not interrupt your King, and you will not spread any more lies or slander. Elyan!”

Elyan didn't move from where he held his sword out towards Agravaine. “Yes, Your Majesty?”

“Please take several Knights and escort my uncle to the dungeons. As much as I would love to run him through, he must be granted a fair trial. Take care that he makes it there without too many mishaps.” Arthur squinted at his uncle's face. Up this close, he could see that it was littered with bruises. “Though it looks like you've already had a mishap, Uncle. What happened? Was Morgana not pleased you let Merlin fly away? Was she upset that I was still alive? Do tell.”

“That is none of your concern,” Agravaine snapped.

“And yet you don't deny that it was her. Interesting. Well, enjoy the dungeons, Uncle. Elyan!”

Elyan grabbed Agravaine roughly while several other Knights stood by, swords at the ready. Arthur longed to go with them and devise some extra-special punishments just for the treacherous snake. But he had a kingdom to save first. If the gods were willing, Arthur would survive and have plenty of time with which to address the Agravaine problem. But for now it was time to organise Camelot's soldiers and defend the city.

Gwaine stood next to Arthur, looking as if he were about to pass out. Arthur wanted to tell him to go back to bed, but Gwaine was stubborn even at the best of times (and this was anything but that), and he clearly had something to say.

“Don't think that just because you arrested Agravaine everything is forgiven. Because it is NOT. There is no way you can ever atone for what you did to Merlin. You hear me? I might follow you into battle, but you are not my king. I don't care if you were cursed, enchanted, drunk, sleepwalking, or gone crazy. And if you ever touch so much as a single hair on his head, I swear to all the gods that I will cut out your entrails and hang them like a garland in the Great Hall. Understood?”

Arthur stared evenly into Gwaine's face as he spoke. When Gwaine ended his speech, Arthur realised that he had stopped breathing somewhere in the middle of it. He forced himself to inhale, then slowly blew the air out. He deserved this censure, he knew he did, he deserved this and so much more. But—

But how dare Gwaine talk to his king this way! How dare he? All this treason, and for what? For a mouthy little bi—

No!

Arthur crossed his arms against his body and held them there, ignoring the intense urge to reach for his sword. He backed away from Gwaine until he bumped into the wall. Then he pressed himself against it, silently asking it to support him, because he needed support, he needed help, he couldn't do this on his own, he needed Mer—

“Arthur!”

It was Gwaine, who had somehow appeared right in Arthur's face, too close, too close, stay back, stay away, I'm not safe to be around, I'm not safe….

“Arthur?” Gwaine sounded almost… concerned?

Arthur took several deep breaths. Sweat beaded up on his forehead, and he was trembling. Shit, shit, shit. He didn't have time for this. Morgana was coming, Morgana was here, he needed to go to battle, not stand here having evil thoughts about his best friends.

“You're still fighting it? Fuck, Arthur, how are you going to lead—”

“I don't know! But I have no choice. I have to. I will. Now. It's time.” Arthur's voice shook with the effort of keeping himself under control. “But first, tell me: where are Leon and Percival?”

Gwaine’s forehead wrinkled. He looked worried. Oh gods, had something happened to them?

“Percival and Gaius were sent back to the dungeons on suspicion of helping you escape. What did Lord Aggravating say? Oh yes, for ‘assisting in the release of a crazed lunatic who was a danger to himself and to others.’ I'll send someone to release them.”

But that didn't help Arthur find out what he desperately wanted to know.

“And Leon…?”

Gwaine grinned. “He was here earlier, running around like a chicken with its head cut off, looking for you. He seemed rather desperate to find you, actually. But once the lower town caught fire, we sent him to organise the castle defenses, since he’s your First Knight. Not that Agravaine agreed to it. That creep wouldn't support anything other than immediate surrender. ‘To minimize loss of life in the face of overwhelming forces,’ he said. Yeah, right. Your uncle has always been shady as fuck—”

Gwaine stopped abruptly, as if suddenly remembering who he was talking to. Arthur knew full well that Gwaine cared not a whit for his status as King. Instead, he had momentarily forgotten that he wanted nothing to do with Arthur, which meant zero engagement in needless chit chat.

Arthur might have laughed if the situation weren’t so dire. Gwaine would talk the ear off anyone, anytime. He was a lot like Mer—

No. No time for that.

“Are you saying Leon is fine, just busy defending the city?” He had to be certain. He had been so sure that something was wrong.

When Gwaine nodded, eyebrows knit together in confusion, relief streamed through Arthur like a bucket of cool water, quenching some of his burning anxiety.

But not all of it.

His city was still under attack. The lower town had been destroyed by fire. Who knew what damage to their defenses Agravaine had caused? Morgana was ruthless, and the person that he now realised had been Camelot's hidden magical protection had fled far, far away. It was going to be a hell of a battle, but one thing was certain:

Arthur would defend Camelot unto his dying breath.

Chapter Text

When Hunith opened the door and saw the young man standing there, all messy dark hair and glowing eyes, looking haunted and desperate, it was suddenly two decades earlier, back when another man had stood in that exact same place. Her emotions flared wildly. Joy mixed with panic as old instincts sprang to life: Love! Danger! Flee! Protect!

But no, this was not Balinor, but his son, her beloved Merlin, looking so much like his father that she thought her heart must break.

She pulled him into the house gently and wrapped him in her arms. It always took her by surprise to remember how tall he had grown. She could no longer bury her face in his hair as she had done when he was younger, but only press her cheek into his shoulder. He was no longer the innocent little boy that had given her so many headaches. Now he was fully grown, and from the heavy feel of him in her arms, was weighted down by responsibility… or was that sorrow?

She pulled away, hands still around his neck, and gazed into his face. He looked back, and what she saw broke her heart. His eyes still glowed, a constant magical effort. Unshed tears glistened through the gold, and every muscle in his face was tense, probably with the effort of not breaking into sobs. It must be exhausting.

“Merlin?” Her voice squeaked as anxiety coursed through her. Damn it. She needed to be strong for her son. She needed to pull herself together. “What's wrong?”

He closed his eyes and a tear spilled out. “Mum,” he whispered in a broken voice.

She could come to only one conclusion. “He knows? And he condemned you?” She would have sworn that if Arthur ever found out about Merlin, he would accept him, magic and all. They were like two sides of the same coin. This was true years ago, and time had only strengthened their bond.

“It's… complicated. I just— I can't.” His breath came in ragged pants, and her heart broke all over again.

“It's all right, dear boy, shhh….”

She just held him, then, trying to pour in all her love and care. Soon she was struggling to stay upright as exhaustion pulled him down.

“Come, let's put you to bed.” She led him to her mattress, and he collapsed onto it gratefully. She offered water and bread; he drank a little, but refused to eat.

Once he had settled on the hard bed, his eyes returned to their normal blue. She wanted to ask what was going on but knew it was not a good time. Instead she pulled the quilt over him.

“Stay with me?” he croaked.

“Always, love.”

It was hard not to panic, not to demand answers. But she knew her son well enough to know when to press, and now was not the time.

It was perhaps a bit early for sleep, but twilight was settling over the land and she would not be separated from her son when something was so clearly wrong. So she blew out the candles and squeezed into the bed too. It was tight, but they had done this when Merlin was younger, back when she had feared the discovery of his magic and her fear had become his fear. How hard it had been to teach her gifted child to be always afraid, to hide, to constantly doubt everyone, no matter how trustworthy they seemed. How hard it had been to teach him to always be but a shadow of his true self.

Tonight she craved the closeness they had once shared, the ability to reach out and touch him, to know he was still there… to know he hadn't left her like his father had. To know that no one had stolen him away for something he had been born with. Her child was not dead but was here with her, perhaps broken but still alive. And whatever was wrong—she would fix it. Because that is what mothers did. Because she loved him more than life itself. She would fix it.

She lay next to him in the growing darkness, one hand on his chest, over his heart. It pulsed beneath her fingers as if to say, “I'm here, I'm here, I'm here…”

What was wrong, though? It was impossible to sleep; a million questions swirled through her mind. Why had his eyes glowed constantly? Had the king found out his secret? Was anyone chasing after him, as they had his father? Arthur knew exactly where she lived. He would suspect Merlin had come here.

But something else might have happened. In the morning she would ask; she refused to wake Merlin up now. He had been exhausted, broken. There was no way she would disturb him unless his life were in danger.

Which, as far as she knew, it wasn't.

She pressed her hand gently against Merlin's chest. His pulse fluttered against her fingers over and over, “I'm here, I'm here, I'm here…” Eventually the comforting rhythm lulled her to sleep.

*

She woke to the sound of someone calling her name. All was dark, only a sliver of moonlight sneaking past the curtains to illuminate the tiny house. The figure next to her lay still—she tried not to think “deathly still” but couldn't quite help it. A jolt of fear woke her quickly.

“Merlin? What's wrong?”

He didn't stir. Her hand had fallen away from his chest in her sleep, but she replaced it and felt for his pulse. It beat peacefully beneath her fingers. “I'm here, I'm here, I'm here…”

If Merlin hadn't called her name, who had? Perhaps it had only been a dream. She closed her eyes to return to slumber when she heard the voice again.

“Hunith…” The voice was deep and resonant but somehow didn't seem quite real.

She sat up gently, so as not to wake Merlin—though she would if anything proved dangerous. Her eyes adjusted to the dim light, but there was no trace of anyone in the house.

“Hunith…” the voice called again. “Come to the eastern clearing…”

“Who is this?” she asked in a hushed voice. She understood enough about magic to know that volume wouldn't help, and she still hoped for Merlin to sleep.

“Do you not know me?” the voice asked with a gentle chuckle.

“Kilgharrah,” she said, completely certain. Balinor had told her about the dragon, about his propensity for telepathic speech in the middle of the night. And after the strange and unexpected way in which Merlin had shown up, she couldn't say that she was surprised.

“Indeed, my lady. We have much to discuss. Please, come to the clearing. Alone.”

It was probably the height of stupidity to go out to meet a giant dragon prone to murderous rampages by herself in the middle of the night, leaving the one person that could control that dragon behind, asleep. But something in her heart told her that this was important.

“I will come.”

*

The moonlit trip to the clearing went smoothly. She knew the way well as she had often visited it when she was missing Balinor. When he had stayed with her, they had gone on frequent walks together. Whenever they had passed the clearing, he would get a wistful look in his eye. He had said it was the perfect place for a dragon to land. She knew he had missed Kilgharrah fiercely, was torn apart with grief about what had happened to the dragons, although he tried not to show it.

The clearing was also a great place for thinking. It was there that she had come to the counter-intuitive decision that it would be safer for Merlin to hide his magic in Camelot. It had been agonizing to send her boy straight into Uther Pendragon's lair, but she had hoped that Gaius could teach him control. And… something about that decision had just seemed right. Call it a mother's instinct—or perhaps the pull of destiny—but the feeling was strong. Just like tonight: visiting Balinor’s dragon, the one imprisoned and then presumed dead, was something she had to do, no matter the consequences. It was vital, though she had no idea why.

Balinor had spoken to her fondly about Kilgharrah. Before the Purge, he had been an irritable but generally kind old dragon with a propensity for puzzling speeches. She would never have expected him to attack Camelot the way he had. The years of captivity had changed the dragon, though she couldn't blame him. If she had been imprisoned for twenty years while all the rest of her kind were slaughtered, she'd be vicious too. And if anyone ever touched her son, she would move heaven and hell to make them pay.

She had brought no torch, not wishing to reveal herself to any prying eyes that might yet be awake. The way ought to have been difficult, but the path had been recently—and violently—cleared. Was that bush upside down with its roots pointing up towards the moon? Had Merlin caused this? The villagers would certainly wonder, and if they saw that her son’s arrival coincided with this oddity, they would start to draw unfortunate conclusions. But at least the clear path made it easy to travel quickly in the dim light.

Kilgharrah was waiting for her in the clearing. In the dark he loomed as large as a mountain. She had never seen a dragon before, despite her ill-fated relationship with a Dragonlord. The stories that had reached their village about the dragon's attack on Camelot described him as a fierce and frightening beast that would rip a man apart just for the fun of it.

But that is not what she saw. All that she saw was great sadness. The creature in front of her was bowed down with grief. The giant reptilian eyes blinked at her slowly. They looked tired.

“Lady Hunith. You have come.” The deep voice felt reassuring even though she knew reasonably that talking to dragons was not normal and she ought to be running for her life.

“Kilgharrah.” She nodded, mostly to herself. Yes, she could do this. If she could face down marauders and thugs; if she could travel to Camelot to petition the fearsome king who could have executed her for harbouring a sorcerer; if she could travel to Gaius while dying from a magical curse, then she could talk to a dragon. He wouldn't harm her; he would never dare anger Merlin so.

“I have come to warn you. You are not safe here. You must take your son and leave.”

She hadn't known what to expect, but that was not it. And she certainly wasn't going to blindly follow such drastic advice, no matter who had dispensed it.

“Why? This is my home. I trust Merlin to protect me.”

Kilgharrah growled, but she did not back away. He would not hurt her, and she would not show weakness. Balinor had said more than once that despite their fierce intelligence, dragons were not unlike dogs: they respected those they viewed as strong. She would stay calm and be assertive, not quail.

“The young warlock is compromised. He suffers from a curse that drains away both his energy and his magic. Without his presence, Camelot is doomed to fall to the witch. She will search for him, and this will be the first place she looks. You must leave. Now.”

She heard the words, but it felt like hearing someone talk underwater. The meaning was hard to come by.

“Cursed? A witch? What?”

So it wasn't the most eloquent she had ever been. More flustered than anything. It probably didn't help her attempt to be calm and assertive either.

“Has Merlin told you nothing? The foolish child. He thinks he can ignore destiny as he wishes.”

Something about the way the dragon said this infuriated her. She stomped her foot and forced a large breath out from between clenched teeth before making an effort to pull herself back together. Her anger helped her to be brave; otherwise she would never have dared to say what she did next.

“That ‘foolish child’, as you call him, has saved Camelot many times over. He has suffered too much for someone his age. If anyone deserves to cut themselves free from the dictates of destiny, it is Merlin.” Her voice was sharp, unforgiving. She was pleased with how strong she felt.

Kilgharrah’s head drooped lower, though whether it was from respect or exhaustion, she couldn't say.

“If only it were that easy to escape one's fate. He can choose to meet destiny on his own terms, but if he does not, it will find him in ways that might not be to his liking.”

“But—”

“My lady. We only waste time by arguing. The witch Morgana—”

“Morgana! She would never—”

“—knows about Emrys.”

“Emrys?”

“Your son. Merlin. She knows he is destined to be her doom—”

“But you just said you can't escape destiny?”

“There is no time for this!” The dragon roared, not quite in her direction but close enough to be frightening. A few dry weeds lit on fire before being snuffed out by the cool night breeze. “If you love your son, you will take him and leave. If he is unable or unwilling to fight the witch, he must hide, or she will destroy him.”

“Why are you telling me this? Why not tell him? You share a bond with him, do you not?”

The dragon let out a long breath. Was that a sigh? Did dragons sigh?

“His mind is damaged. He will not listen but instead threatens to order me away forever. He thinks he can defeat the witch, but without the young king, he has no chance. Their destiny lies together. Alone he is weak. You must convince him. Nor are you safe, my lady. The witch will not hesitate to use you to get to Emrys. You must leave.”

As the impact of these words settled in, her pulse quickened. She reached out to grab a droopy branch on the bush next to her, as if it would help to hold her up. It was a fruitless endeavour; the bush was barely strong enough to hold itself up. “But where can we go? I assume Camelot is not an option?”

The dragon snorted and clawed at the earth. “Merlin has run from his destiny. He will not go back there willingly.”

“Then where?”

“There is a clan of druids that live nearby. Emrys is known to them; they will help you.”

“But why would they—”

“They can explain it to you, my lady. But you must convince your son to go there with you. I fear he will not want to. He is stubborn like his father that way. You must convince him.”

“I— I will… I will think about it.” She had been about to agree blindly, but something held her back. Balinor had had no reservations trusting Kilgharrah, but from the little Merlin had said in the few times she had seen him since he left Ealdor, she knew that he was less trusting of the dragon and his motives. She could make no promises until she had spoken with her son.

Kilgharrah made a noise, almost like a cat purring but not nearly so content. As if trying not to scare her with his anger but not quite able to hold it all in.

“If you do not flee, you will perish. I owe it to Balinor to protect those he loved, which includes you, and though he knew him but briefly, I could feel his joy when he met his son. But I cannot force you, nor can I go against my Dragonlord’s commands. I pray for both your sakes that you take heed of my warning.”

And with that, he lifted his wings, ready to spring into the air.

“Please, wait!” she cried, suddenly panicked to be left behind in a world that had suddenly become much larger and uncertain.

Kilgharrah turned his head to look back at her. She could not read any emotions on his face, and it was disconcerting.

“How will I find them? The druids, I mean… I've lived here many years and have never seen them…”

“If you take Merlin with you into the forest due east of here, they will find you. If you go by yourself, they might not come. Choose well, Lady Hunith.”

And with that he leapt into the sky, leaving a blustery wind in his wake. Leaves rustled, branches creaked, and the cold air rushing against her body made her shudder.

She wrapped her shawl tighter around her shoulders, pleased that she had remembered to bring it. Considering the fact that a giant dragon had been speaking to her telepathically in the middle of the night, she could easily have been too frazzled to grab it.

The trip home happened in a blur of anxiety and thought. Now that she had seen Kilgharrah, she had to assume that he had brought Merlin to that clearing. She followed the unnatural path that her son must have created with magic. She hadn't known him to be so destructive before, especially not to the nature he loved.

Most of the trip she replayed the dragon’s words in her head, committing them to memory while also trying to believe that she had actually heard them. She had spoken to a dragon—but struggled to convince herself it had not been a dream.

It was still dark when she arrived home. She hadn't slept enough, but there was no way she could rest now. She lit a single candle and set it on the table. It cast eerie shadows around the room. What might be hiding in those shadows? Had a witch sent evil creatures to kill her? Were they just waiting for the right opportunity? No. That was silly; she would not be afraid of the dark. But what if—

No. This was no time for fear. It was time for decisions. Did the dragon speak true? Did they need to leave? Would Merlin be able to protect them, or was he, in fact, cursed?

Her son could be so closed off from others when he wanted to be. Based on his mood last evening, she wasn't sure she would get much out of him. She might have to make the decisions by herself.

But it was so hard to make those decisions without all the necessary knowledge. And despite Merlin having visited her several times over the years, she suspected that he had kept a lot hidden from her. Perhaps to protect her, perhaps to protect himself. And what was this about Morgana? She had heard the dragon say that she was the witch that would kill them… but how could she believe it? The Lady Morgana had been such a strong defender of what was right. Despite her noble upbringing, she had been a great help and delight when she had come to protect Ealdor from Kanen’s thugs. Hunith would have been proud to call her a daughter.

What would Merlin say when she asked him? Would he divulge to her what she needed to know? Or had she taught him to hide his secrets and his self all too well?

Without realising it, she had started putting the house in order, making sure everything was in its correct spot. She always did this before packing for a trip. It was so difficult to plan for a journey when her life was in chaos. She always organised and cleaned first.

It wouldn't be easy to travel away from Ealdor now. The arrival of spring had brought a great increase in work as the villagers rushed to plant the fields and replenish their supplies after the long, cold winter. She would be missed, and when she came back she would have to depend on the generosity of her neighbours to get her through the next winter.

Though how would she know when it was safe to come back? Might she have to leave her home forever? She would, of course, if it would help keep Merlin safe. But she didn't relish the idea. This was her home now. Besides, where else could they go? She was no druid… And why would the druids help them anyway? Because Merlin had a mysterious second name? It made no sense.

She swept the floor by the light of the solitary candle and then folded her clothing carefully. She hadn't meant to put any supplies in a pack but looked down to see she had done just that—

A groan startled her from the mess of chaotic thoughts. She looked over to the bed to see Merlin tossing and turning, a sharp contrast to how still he had been earlier in the night. There was more groaning, and his breath sped up until he was audibly panting. She moved to the bedside, just to check on him—

A scream ripped from his body. It was horrifying, agonising, the worst thing she had ever heard. It slammed into her with such intensity that her heart stopped for a few beats. Then it raced faster than it ever had, so hard she was afraid it might give out. After the scream died away, she could hear dogs bark and chickens squawk throughout the tiny village. There would be questions asked in the morning.

She reached for Merlin, to try to wake him, but then he screamed again, this time with words. They were difficult to make out but she clearly heard “Don't touch me!” and “Get the fuck away!” It sounded like he was being tortured, and she hurried to shake him awake.

His eyes burst open, glowing intense gold, highly visible in the darkness—and then she was flying away from him. She smacked into the far wall of the house. It was painful, yes; she was much too old for this. But what hurt the most was that her Merlin had done it… That something was so wrong that his magic was out-of-control in his sleep. Even as a scared child he hadn't lashed out in dreams… What on earth had happened to her son?

“Merlin!” she tried to say… but nothing more than a whisper came out. The wind had been knocked out of her. She lay there on the floor, stunned both literally and figuratively. Merlin kept moaning and yelling in his sleep.

“Leave me alone! Get away! Go!”

The pain and fear in his voice squeezed at her heart and gave her the strength to sit up again. “Merlin!” she yelled. This time her voice worked, thank the gods.

He didn't answer, so she tried again. “Merlin! Wake up! Merlin!”

And at last he did, jerking up to a sitting position in a panic. She was relieved to see his eyes were no longer glowing gold.

“Merlin!”

“Mum?” His voice sounded weak, strained, nothing like it had while he was dreaming. “Where are you?”

There was a slight pause, then she heard him mutter, “Leoht.” A ball of blue light sprang to life in his hand, illuminating the room more fully than a single candle ever could. The eerie light reflected off of the sweat droplets that covered his face. He turned his head several times, scanning the room, until finally he saw her.

“Mum? What's going on?” His voice reminded her of how he had sounded as a child after a bad dream, weak and shaky and scared.

She wasn't certain what to say. There was no reason to cause Merlin to feel any worse than he already did. He didn't need any guilt about hurting her. Time to put on a happy front.

“Oh, you're awake, my boy. I must have woken you when I fell. Sorry about that.”

His brow wrinkled and his lips drooped. “What happened? Are you all right?”

Was she all right? Everything hurt, and she knew that tomorrow she would feel like hell. But she didn't think anything was broken. She pushed herself back to her feet, cringing at the creaking sounds her body made. Getting old was not for the weak.

“I'll be fine, love. I'm just a little shaken up.”

When she crossed the room to sit next to Merlin on the bed, she was startled to realise that getting close to him made her nervous. But her son was awake; he would not harm her. Not knowingly. She did not want to think of what he might be capable of doing unknowingly.

They lay back down together on the bed. She gingerly laid a hand on his shoulder, vividly remembering how he had yelled that no one touch him… and how he had flung her across the room. But she refused to be frightened of her own son. She would not fear him.

They lay close to each other until the faintest hints of twilight began to illuminate the room. She spent that time thinking—well, worrying and thinking. She needed to address the topic of the dragon—or at least the dragon’s advice. But she sensed that Merlin and Kilgharrah were not on the best of terms and knew to tread carefully.

“Merlin… My sweet boy. Why have you come home to me? What has happened?”

She could feel his body tremble under her hand. Oh, her poor, dear son.

“I… I… I can't. I'm sorry, mum. I just—”

Merlin had sent his ball of blue light up to the ceiling, and it shone gently down on the two of them, allowing her to see the tears forming in his eyes. It broke her heart and her resolve.

“No, no, I understand. It's okay, love. I just— Well, I wanted to know if it was safe for you here. Is anyone going to come looking for you?”

He shook his head slowly, more as a gesture of thought than as a true negative answer. There was a long pause before he finally said, “Let them come. I will blast them to smithereens.”

He would… blast them? To smithereens?What had happened to her boy? What had made him so eager to resort to violence?

“Merlin. Do you really think that wise? What if the villagers get in the way? What if—”

“I won't let them be hurt, Mum. But if anyone comes to bother me or anyone else in Ealdor, I will blast their heads off.”

What? What was going on here? She had never heard him speaking even remotely like this. She tried to pry gently, but it was hard.

“You seem… not quite yourself, love. Are you sure you feel quite up to, er, blasting people? And do you not care about secrecy anymore?”

He sighed, looking forlorn. The angry look on his face melted into something softer, sadder.

“It doesn't matter, Mum. My secret is out. But anyone who comes for me will regret the day they did. There is nothing holding me back anymore: no secrecy, no honour, no kindness.”

It was painful to listen to him speak this way. Without his kindness, without his honour… what would keep the power he wielded from going to his head? She trusted him, of course—well, she trusted the Merlin she had known, but… this wasn't quite the same Merlin, was it? He couldn't have changed that much, right?

“Just so that we're on the same page, love… are you expecting anyone to come? Not any… formerly lovely young ladies who may or may not want to kill you?”

“Why would you say that?” His sharp voice cut through the peace of the room with all the finesse of a blunt axe. “Who have you been talking to?”

Damn. That could have gone better. Oh well. Time to press on.

“Is it true, Merlin? Does the Lady Morgana want you dead?”

His silence was all the answer she needed.

“Why wouldn't you tell me this? Don't you think I have a right to know that the woman I accepted like a daughter now wants to kill my son?”

He sighed, loudly. “I… I wanted to… protect—”

Her face grew hot with a wave of sudden anger. “Don't you dare say you were trying to protect me. Keeping me in the dark like that? What if she had come here? I needed to know, Merlin! The only person you were trying to protect was you!”

Tears spilled from his eyes without warning. Why was this the comment that set him off? It was almost as if—

“Do you feel responsible for her? Do you think that whatever happened was your fault?”

There was no answer beyond an increase in tears. He used his hand to wipe them away, but more immediately followed.

She felt tears spring to her eyes, too. “Oh Merlin. I don't know what happened, but I do know that you are a good person. You are a most wonderful person, kind, considerate, helpful, compassionate, brave, loyal. I know that too much has been laid on your shoulders, but I have seen you rise up again and again, despite the world constantly working against you. There is no way that a good man like you could be responsible for corrupting another person. Whatever happened, you need to know: It was not your fault.”

His tears had turned into silent sobs that racked his body. When he spoke, she could barely understand what he said.

“But… but… I should… have been there. For her. But… I…” He closed his eyes, panting for breath.

“You what?” she asked, as gently as she could. She didn't like to press but felt this was important.

“I… poisoned her. I had no other choice.” The words poured out of him quickly now, as if he were racing to speak them before his courage failed. “She was the vessel for the spell and everyone was sleeping and dying and if I didn't do anything everyone would have died and I couldn't think of anything else to do and I poisoned her. I held her in my arms and watched her choke until she couldn't breathe… I chose that, mum, I chose that. She was never the same after that and it's all my fault and I will never forgive myself…”

She held him while he cried, tried to use her arms to gently squeeze peace and forgiveness into him. She could not bear to bother him about anything else, at least not now. There would be time later to discuss the rest of it… to ask about Emrys and the druids and a possible curse.

But for now her boy just needed time and space to heal. She would trust that he could protect them if need be. They would worry about fleeing for safety later.

After all, Balinor always had said that dragons loved to exaggerate. They saw things in black and white and were prone to grand pronouncements of doom and gloom that often failed to materialise.

She would just have to trust that that was the case this time, too.

Chapter Text

After the altercation with Agravaine, the only people that remained in the throne room were knights and soldiers ready to follow Arthur into battle. They stood at attention, awaiting instructions. The incessant ringing of the warning bells continued but couldn't quite cover up the sound of screaming in the distance. Were those battle cries? Or last pleas for help before being burnt alive?

It was time to assess the current disaster: the lower town was on fire; his uncle was a traitor; Morgana lurked outside the city walls with twenty thousand Southron warriors; and all of Arthur's most stalwart supporters hated him. But despite all that (or perhaps because of it) Arthur felt… alive. Aware. Ready to defend his city, his people. They could do this.

(He wouldn't let himself think about how the battle had probably been lost the moment Merlin flew away on that dragon.)

Had the odds ever been so against them? Maybe that one time with the Knights of Medhir. Or perhaps when the immortal army had invaded. But— Now he knew that Merlin had been his secret weapon. So secret even Arthur hadn't known about it. And wasn't that just like the little sneak, always running around behind his master's back, doing whatever the hell he felt like, no consideration for what Arthur might suggest?

No! Stop thinking that way. Now.

But he had been such a manipulative little—

His twisted thoughts were interrupted by stomping boots and clanging armour. Percival entered the throne room, followed by several other knights. Percival’s face and arms were filthy; his mail was dull. There were dark circles under his eyes, and his hair was caked with dirt. Under the filth, his skin was too pale, and he struggled to catch his breath. Arthur remembered imprisoning Percival and Gaius for trying to assist Gwaine (and, oh, how the remaining shreds of that memory burned). And then Agravaine had almost immediately locked them up again. The time Percival had spent in the dungeon had clearly affected him. Had he been treated poorly? Would his uncle stoop so low?

Gods, Arthur hoped Percival would forgive him someday. Percival and everyone else. If there was a someday in the future which didn't consist of burning on a funeral pyre.

“Sire!” Percival gulped in air desperately. “We're under attack! They're within the castle walls!”

That got Arthur's attention. Inside the walls? How was that possible? Camelot was nigh impregnable; its walls should not have been breached this quickly.

A knight behind Percival called out, “They entered through the siege tunnels, my Lord!” That was Sir Brennis. Percival had once broken his wrist in an arm-wrestling match. Brennis had forgiven him right away. Knights were a forgiving bunch, right? They might forgive Arthur too, right?

Damn it, now was not the time to be lost in guilt. Focus. There would be time for that after the battle was won. (The opposite outcome was too unbearable to think about.)

Something else bothered him, though. How had the siege tunnels been opened?

“But— Wasn't Agravaine here, in the throne room? Could someone else have opened the tunnel gates?”

“It doesn't matter how it happened, Sire! The enemy is upon us!” The panic in Brennis’ voice spurred Arthur to action. It was time to do what he had been born to do: step up and lead.

“Percival, gather all those who are unable to fight and get them to safety! Take Gwaine with you.”

“Yes, sire!”

“I can fight—” Of course Gwaine would protest. He would want to fight even if he were dying. No. Don't think about the last time Gwaine had been dying. Don't fret about almost killing the most passionate knight he had ever known. Now was not the time. But it was a struggle: guilt and hot anger assaulted him in alternating waves.

“Gwaine. You will fight. Fight to protect our people. Help as many as possible get to safety. I entrust them to you.”

Gwaine hesitated, looking as if he wanted to argue. Then he gave a curt nod. “Yes, sire. Will you be all right?”

He must mean the curse, and truthfully, Arthur didn't know. “I'll have to be. Go!”

Then he addressed the other knights. “Brennis, secure the armoury. Vidor, Caridoc, gather up any knights you can find and organise a defense of the citadel. Elyan, with me!”

Just then, Sir Geraint appeared in the doorway, face red from exertion, armour dripping with blood. “The enemy has breached the city gates! We are overrun! Cador called a full retreat!”

Oh gods, how did that happen so quickly? Could the fighters that infiltrated the siege tunnels have made it to the city gates already? Wouldn't they have had to battle through the majority of Camelot’s army?

And why had Cador called the retreat? Hadn't Leon been in charge of defending the wall? Was his first knight injured? Or… worse? A dreadful prickling sensation burnt through Arthur, followed by the chill of fear.

But no time to worry about that now. The enemy was upon them.

He ran out of the throne room, Elyan close behind. If they were to mount any sort of successful resistance, they would need to find Cador or Leon (please, please, let him find Leon) and organise Camelot’s main fighting force.

They had not gone far before encountering opposition. The Southrons streamed through the castle corridors in great numbers, weapons raised, faces determined. Reaching the rest of Camelot’s army might be impossible now, but he could try to delay the enemy and give his people time to escape.

Arthur ran to the closest fighter and sliced right through him. But there was another, and another, and yet another after that. The rhythm of the fight was exhilarating: step, swing, slice, stab, repeat. The cadence reminded him of an old dancing tune.

Step, swing, slice, stab, repeat. A strange happiness grew within his chest, the joy that comes with doing what one has trained for, doing what is necessary.

Step, swing, shove… and stumble. Wind from an enemy sword brushed his cheek. Damn it, that was close. Too close. Arthur was the best fighter in at least five kingdoms. He should be able to take on such measly, second-rate fighters, no matter how many there were.

Step, swing, slice, stab, repeat. That was better. He could do this all day.

Step, swing, slice, stab, repeat. He could do this forever.

Step, swing, slice, stab and… miss. The lack of expected resistance to the thrust caused Arthur to stumble again, this time into a wall. The impact dazed him for long enough that he should have been gutted by the massive brute of a man headed right at him. Thank the gods that Elyan jumped between them in the nick of time.

What the hell was wrong with him? Why was he making mistakes? He thought the golden connection to Merlin had healed him. Was he still suffering from blood loss? Something was off. He was clearly not in his best fighting shape. Shit, shit, shit, he couldn't have any weaknesses now! He had to save his people.

A tiny voice—the one that sounded like Merlin at his wisest—reminded him that he had suffered much in the last few days, physically, mentally, emotionally. How could he possibly expect to be at full strength? But he would not accept any excuses. He had to be his best right now.

The Southrons kept coming. Elyan stayed close, fighting in his shadow. With that support Arthur managed to avoid any catastrophic missteps. Until—

Until Elyan was pulled into a fray a short distance from Arthur, just far enough to be out of reach. Arthur maintained the rhythm of the fight: step, swing, slice—but this time he wasn't strong enough. His sword bounced off his opponent's armour, and Arthur lost his balance again. The other fighter pressed his advantage and struck a vicious blow to Arthur's chest. The mail that Arthur wore kept the blade from piercing his skin, but there was a popping sound. Pain flared in his left ribs, and when he tried to inhale and catch his breath, he almost passed out. Broken. At least two ribs, maybe more.

He kept his breath as shallow as possible. No minor injury would stop Arthur Pendragon from defending his people. He would battle to his dying breath.

Step, swing, slice, stab, repeat. Step… swing… slice… breathe… then… stab. Keep… going… come on… don't… be… a baby…

He had long since lost both Elyan and his sense of direction. All the world was reduced to the rhythm of the fight, but he was tiring, slipping, hurting… The corridor around him was a spinning mass of blurred colours and rushing shapes. Black spots danced in his vision, and despite the exertion, he shivered with cold.

Step… breathe… swing… breathe… lift arm… Too slow. The current fighter thrust at Arthur…

…who was abruptly yanked out of the way by strong arms. “Wha…?” he managed to ask as he was pulled quickly down an empty corridor. A hand clamped over his mouth to warn him to silence but then let go when Arthur nodded that he understood. He turned to see who it was, and there at last, finally, thank all the gods, was Leon. It was tempting to throw himself into Leon's arms, let his oldest friend support him. (For yes, they were friends; it was acceptable to admit such things when death waited for you just around the next corner.) How Arthur wished to let go and drift away. But he couldn't. Not now. Not with a kingdom to protect. He must be strong, no matter how close to collapse he got.

Luck seemed to favour him for a moment. First Leon saved him just in time, and now all the Southron warriors continued down the main corridor instead of chasing the two of them. Leon pulled him along, farther from the fighting.

“Stop!” Arthur whispered. He needed to catch his breath and make a plan.

“There's no time, sire. The enemy—”

“I will not abandon my people!”

Pain rocked his ribs with every step, every breath. Logically, he knew that he would not survive much longer if he returned to the fight. But he couldn't run away. He wouldn't abandon Camelot.

Leon stopped. Arthur groaned. He was shaky and lightheaded, and his torso was on fire.

“You're injured. We have to get you to Gaius. After he treats you, we can return to the battle.” Leon's voice was even and strong; just the sound of it helped Arthur to feel better. He could trust Leon to lead the defense. If Arthur fell in battle, Leon would still help as many people to flee as possible.

“But, the fight—”

“Will wait. Now is not the time to be stupid. You need medical attention. Gaius is in the throne room, tending to the wounded. Other knights are there, too. We will get you fixed up and plan our next steps.”

Of course Arthur wanted Leon to help with a plan. Leon was good at plans, and Arthur was… about to pass out. Maybe a strategic (and short-lived) retreat was the best option.

Arthur's energy flagged. He could barely keep himself upright. Leon helped support his weight, and they hurried in the direction of the throne room. The corridors in this part of the castle were surprisingly empty; the main battles must have shifted location. They had to step around an occasional blood-spattered body. Arthur longed to stop and check if the fallen Camelot soldiers were still alive, but he knew there was no way he could help them at this time. Once he got to the throne room, he would send some knights back to see if there was anything to be done for them.

They arrived outside the grand doors that led into the throne room. Leon pulled Arthur up to them and called through, “It's me! I've got the king! Let us in!”

There was an answering shout, and one of the doors slid open just enough to allow the two of them to pass through. The door shut immediately after.

The room was quiet and still, swathed with darkness. Like a tomb, a morbid voice in his head added. Arthur made the effort to lift his head and look around. Despite the low levels of light, he could see that there were no wounded here. He shook his head in confusion.

“Where is everyone? Where is Gaius? We must have come to the wrong place.”

“On the contrary,” said an unnervingly familiar voice. “You've come to exactly the right place.”

A light flared into existence, a small but brilliant sphere held in the hand of someone sitting on the throne. His throne.

Leon grabbed him roughly, dragged him towards the throne, and threw him onto the floor in a heap. Arthur's ears rang from the crashing sound his armour made, but he could still hear Leon speak, no matter how much he wished he hadn't.

“My Queen, I have done as you commanded.” Leon's voice was stilted, but it was definitely his. What was he on about? “I opened the siege tunnels and sabotaged the city gates. Now I bring you Arthur Pendragon.”

Leon? How could Leon— He couldn't! He wouldn't!

The familiar voice spoke again. “Well done, Sir Knight. You have pleased me greatly.”

Arthur struggled to lift his head and see the figure on the throne. It couldn't be who he thought it was because Leon would never—

“Welcome, dear brother. I'm so pleased you could join me. And I have Sir Leon to thank for it.”

It was. It was Morgana. Leon had brought him straight to Morgana.

Chapter Text

Arthur tried to stand, but someone pushed him down again. A dozen Southrons had materialised from the shadows of the dark throne room. They surrounded him, and one spat. “Kneel before your Queen!”

Arthur fought to stand, but he was tired, injured, exhausted, weak… There was an embarrassingly short scuffle before he found himself flat on his stomach, a heavy boot grinding into his back. His broken ribs shifted and buckled under the pressure, and he hissed with pain. His vision nearly blacked out completely.

Morgana laughed, a lifeless, bitter laugh, nothing at all like the joyful peals of her youth. “It pleases me to see you grovelling in the dirt like the worm you are, brother dear.”

Arthur struggled to look at her, though his vision was fuzzy and wasn't improving. He squinted and craned his neck to see… was that? Yes. Yes it was. Leon was standing just behind and to the left of Morgana.

“Leon?” he asked, but the foot on his back pressed down harder. He could say no more.

Morgana smirked at him. It was almost the same smirk she had used whenever she had out-manoeuvred him when they were children, whether it be in a horse race, sword fight, or biting conversation.

“Leon always did like me best. But then, everyone else did, too. You were such a self-centred arrogant arse; why would anyone ever prefer you?”

Arthur dropped his head back to the floor. She wasn't wrong. Even their father had always preferred Morgana; nothing Arthur did was ever good enough. His father always wanted him to be faster, stronger, smarter, better.

“And when you finally got a person who could tolerate you, how did you treat him? Like dirt. You tormented him at every opportunity. He only stayed with you because he needed a job.”

Arthur shook his head reflexively, but couldn't move it far without jamming his face into the floor.

“But where is he now, dear brother? Abandoned you in your hour of need?”

Arthur tried to speak, but the boot in his back pressed in harder. He could barely breathe, let alone say anything.

“Don't you see? Your knights only follow you out of necessity: you are their ticket to power, nobility, wealth. And even your own mother's brother prefers me to you.”

She stood up, more fully revealing the tattered black dress she wore. “Leon, dear, come here please.”

Leon stepped forwards until he was standing in front of Morgana, angled to the side so he did not block Arthur's view of his sister. Morgana reached for his hands, pulled him close, and kissed him long and deeply on the lips.

Arthur couldn't help inhaling sharply. The misery of watching Leon betray him was worse than the stab of pain in his ribs. How could this be true? Was there something about him that just screamed “betray me” to everyone?

Even Merlin had betrayed him, had he not? Practicing magic in the very heart of Camelot, where sorcery was forbidden on pain of death? If Merlin was willing to disregard that law, what was to guarantee that he would not break others? That he didn't act above the law whenever he felt like it? Honestly, did someone like that deserve freedom? But he wouldn't kill him, no, what a waste that would be… all that power… in that fuckable, breakable body… Arthur knew the way to punish that particular traitor…

Something stomped on his back, and his entire world was reduced to agony. The severity of it diminished slowly, and as it did, he remembered himself—the real Arthur, not the cursed one. The Arthur that didn't need to forgive Merlin for any treachery, because there was nothing to forgive.

The Arthur that was currently at his sister's mercy.

“Answer the Queen!” a rough voice yelled from somewhere overhead. Had Morgana asked him something? Had he been so lost in the curse that he hadn't even noticed?

The curse… such a dark enchantment…

“You've enchanted him!” Of course Morgana had enchanted Leon. Why had he ever thought otherwise? Arthur had first-hand experience with mind-controlling magic.

The boot stamped on his back again, and this time he thought he heard more bones pop. But he wouldn't give in now.

“Can't find any friends of your own, Morgana? You have to enchant everyone in order to get them to follow you?” And then he had a horrible thought. “Did you enchant Agravaine too? Is that why—”

Morgana laughed. The sound was an unnerving blend of hatred mixed with insanity.

“Oh, poor, naive Arthur. You think I had to use magic? That man hated you from the moment you were conceived. I did him a favour by suggesting he come here. And he was beyond delighted when I gave him the chance to ensure the death of our dear old dad. He just about wet himself.”

“That was you?” Arthur gasped. “You killed the king?”

“Oh, don't sound so surprised, brother dear. Who else would have as much motivation?”

“But that old sorcerer—”

“Oh, he tried to heal Father, just as he claimed. But Agravaine placed an amulet that reversed all healing magic around the king's neck.”

“But! I almost killed that sorcerer! And—I had agreed to accept magic!”

“Alas, I wish you had killed him. That ‘old man’ was nothing more than Merlin in disguise. Watching you kill your loyal servant for something I did would have been a sweet pleasure. And you both certainly deserved it.”

“What did he ever do to you? He was always a good friend to you, no matter how inappropriate it was! And you both have magic—”

“We both had magic, but only one of us knew it. Emrys is a traitor to magic. He does not deserve the incredible gifts he was given. It's unfortunate that he ran away, but I have plans for him. But first… to deal with you once and for all.”

Morgana’s voice rang throughout the throne room, just as Uther’s had during official pronouncements.

“For your crimes against magic, for the torture and death of sorcerers over the course of many years, I will now sentence you. Arthur Pendragon, former King of Camelot, you are stripped of all your titles and possessions. Tomorrow at sunrise you will be flogged in the courtyard, fifty lashes. You will hang there for a day and a night as an example to the people of Camelot what happens to those who defy me. And the following morning, you shall burn, just as so many sorcerers burned during the Pendragon Reign. I will burn out the rot and start a new era of peace and justice. And should any oppose me, they will meet the same fate.”

It was nothing that Arthur hadn't expected, but it hurt just the same. How had he failed his sister so utterly that she could think this was the path to peace and justice?

“And as for Merlin… Oh, how I will enjoy tormenting him. Did you realise that he poisoned me? Back when we were these supposed ‘friends’, as you say? Does that sound like something a friend would do? Does it?”

Merlin… another person he had failed utterly. How had Arthur got it so wrong? He'd tried so hard, his entire life, to do the right thing. He'd studied, practiced, strived to please his King in every way possible. Sure, he'd been a bit of an arrogant arse, but once Merlin had come into his life, Arthur had improved there, too. Something about his too-loyal manservant made Arthur want to be the absolute best man that he could be.

But it had all gone so horribly wrong…

Pain burst through him as the boot stomped down on him again. “Answer the Queen!” But he couldn't, he couldn't, he couldn't breathe, it hurt too much… The boot stomped again, and Arthur was going to die, he was going to die now, at least no one would have to see him burn…

And then he was being pulled up to standing by two of the Southrons. “Morgana—” he tried to say, but nothing came out. Everything burned; he couldn't get enough oxygen. His vision turned fuzzy and the already dim room faded to nearly pitch black. This was it, this was the end, he was going to die from being stomped to death…

And then a soft voice muttered, “Ic ðe ðurhhæle ðinu licsar mid ðam sundorcræft ðære ealdan æ. Drycræft ðurhhæle ðina wunda ond ðe geedstaðolie.” Arthur's vision cleared, and he could breathe again. His ribs still ached, but he no longer felt like he was dying. As his eyes regained their focus, it was to find Morgana standing right in front of him.

“Don't think you'll escape that easily, brother dearest. I promise you will be fully aware when the flames eat you up inch by painful inch. And I will be there to rejoice in your pain, thrill in your shame… I will celebrate your death with a grand feast every year, a celebration of my triumph over the evils of the Pendragons and the beginning of a golden age of magic.”

“Morgana—”

She slapped him with her bare hand. Hard.

“I have no further desire to hear your excuses or apologies. Gag him.”

A foul-tasting cloth was stuffed into his mouth, then more cloth was wrapped around his head so tightly he thought he might suffocate. But no, of course not; someone pulled the cloth down to leave just enough room to breathe through his nose. How very kind of them.

“And now to strip you of all your possessions. Remove his armour.”

There were four or five Southron warriors around him now. They yanked at his armour violently. More than once Arthur thought they would rip a limb off along with the metal. Not that it mattered… What did anything matter, now that he had failed so completely?

They did not stop with his armour. A knife materialised from somewhere, and soon his clothing lay in shreds upon the floor.

He stood as straight as he could, considering there were filthy, clawing hands all over him. He would not be ashamed, no matter how they pawed and pressed. Heavy manacles were clamped onto his wrists and ankles, but he did not allow then to pull him down.

“So noble, dear brother. Where was that nobility when you were murdering my kind? You claim that bravery and honour, not nobility, make one worthy for knighthood. But where was that bravery and honour when you let women and children be slaughtered?”

The memory of that day hurt as much as anything else…

“I do not see a king—I see filth. And Camelot is glad to be rid of you. Enjoy the dungeons. I imagine they'll be much more comfortable than the pyre.”

She nodded, and multiple sets of hands clamped onto him. He tried to stand tall, stiff and unmoving, but they dragged him. He refused to walk—he would not go to his doom willingly, no matter how much guilt about certain things he might feel. He would not go, so they dragged him. Everything below his waist scraped against the floor, and Arthur was grateful that his arse was down and his more sensitive bits weren't being ground into the rough stone. A small mercy when the world was falling apart around him.

They dragged him through corridors lined with dead bodies. Arthur could hear thumping and sliding sounds, as if men were kicking the corpses aside to clear a path. But areas of sticky blood were left behind; he could feel himself sliding through it, and red smears and speckles appeared on his legs. He was pleased that the majority of the bodies were Southron, but many were not. Arthur was spattered with the blood of the people he had failed, a gruesome justification for why he deserved to be punished. He should have protected his kingdom; he should have saved them.

They encountered no living residents of Camelot along the way. Were they all dead? Hiding? Had any escaped?

Or had they all betrayed him? Like his uncle? Like Leon?

No. Not Leon. He must be enchanted. Just like Arthur had been enchanted. Arthur would never have turned on Merlin so thoroughly otherwise. Right? Not that he had never dreamed of it… of making Merlin his…But not like that. Never like that.

They tossed him into the tiniest, filthiest, darkest cell. The one he had instructed the Camelot guards to never use, but which Uther had sent sorcerers to. Of course Morgana would know that and send him there out of spite.

The cell had originally been a natural hole in the rock encountered while digging out the dungeons. Someone had thought it expedient to just place a heavy door across the opening. The floor was covered with gravel mixed with a few larger, sharper rocks. It was freezing; the warmer air of the growing spring was not yet strong enough to melt the frozen ground, so his little hole felt like winter.

They chained the manacles from both his ankles and wrists to a single iron ring sticking up out of the rocks in the middle of the hole, but it made little difference: there was no room to stretch out in any direction. And the ceiling was so low that he wouldn't have been able to stand.

Once they shut the door, it was completely dark. There were no windows, and even the crack under the door did not help, for the guards had removed all the torches from the outside corridor. Nothing felt quite real, there in the frozen, inky blackness.

He shifted, trying to get into a more comfortable position, but it was useless. The manacles held his wrists near his ankles, so he was bent over and forced to lie on the sharp rocks. If it weren't for the pain of his ribs and the cutting edges of the stones, he might have thought himself already dead. The cold led to a painful numbness that settled into a complete lack of feeling, and nothing existed but darkness and pain: the pain of failure, the pain of horrible loss.

There would be no sleep tonight. Or, it seemed, ever again.

His thoughts drifted to all those people he had failed, starting with his mother, whom he had killed with his first breath of air. Even now he failed her… he had planned that dinner to honour her memory, and he still didn't even know if her birthday had passed or not. At least once he was dead, he could cross the veil and be with her again.

And his father—Arthur would see him soon, too. Though perhaps he didn't want to. His father would not be pleased with the changes Arthur had made, nor would he approve of the changes Arthur would have made going forwards. It was obvious now that the restrictions against magic were cruel and unjust, themselves a thing of great evil. How it stung to realise that he had been a party to terrible deeds, just as Morgana had claimed. The raid he led on the druid camp came to mind. It should never have happened. He had always despaired over the deaths of the women and children. But now he could see that even the men should have been left in peace. If he assumed that magic was not inherently evil, it was obvious that the druids had harmed no one. They had kept to themselves, conducted their affairs peacefully; it was Arthur who had performed horrible deeds.

Perhaps Arthur wouldn't get to see his mum after he died. Perhaps he would be found so completely unworthy that he would be cast into the darkness. Perhaps he was there already… He would spend all of eternity freezing, hurting, immobile in an endless night. Alone, wracked with guilt, shrouded in sadness.

What had led him to this point? What could he have done differently? Should he have listened to his doubts when his father asked him to do things he thought were wrong? Deep down he knew some of his father's commands were… not ideal. But he had idolized him, always tried to please him, in a vain attempt to make up for the loss of his mother. If only Arthur could be perfect, his father might look upon him as a worthy substitute. Hell, who was he kidding. He could never have been good enough. If he had just accepted this, maybe he would have listened to his conscience. Maybe then—

But what's done was done.

Merlin had come and got him thinking about right and wrong. That idiotic boy was terribly wise, of course, but Arthur was prideful and stubborn and it took him much too long to learn to listen. He had been sent a wonderful gift: someone who loved him and wanted the best for him, even if the way to achieve it was uncomfortable. It was a shame it had taken him so long to realise the true gem hidden underneath the awkward and irreverent exterior.

Oh, Merlin. I'm sorry I didn't recognise your worth until it was too late. I'm sorry you had to live in fear of being executed. I'm sorry I hurt you so badly. I'm sorry.

Thinking of Merlin helped to calm his rapidly-beating heart. He hadn't even noticed his racing pulse until that bit of peace slipped in. It reminded him of the golden thread. Despite the horrific ways that Arthur had treated him, he still dreamed of Merlin's comfort and support. But Merlin was not here, so Arthur clung to memories instead… “I'll be your servant till the day I die.” But where are you now, Merlin? Where are you? I need you. It will be the day I die soon, and then you can be free of me. Free of the ungrateful prat that took pleasure out of making your days more difficult.

His eyes were closed—it was easier to pretend it was all just a nightmare when he wasn't confronted with the actual pitch blackness. His body was stiff with cold, no longer shivering (a bad sign, he knew), but he imagined warmth flowing into his limbs, willing them to relax, to be at peace. He pictured Merlin in the sunshine, wearing his most delighted smile—the one reserved just for Arthur (and how had he never appreciated that for the gift that it was?). He watched motes of sunshine settle around him, as if light itself was attracted to his brilliance. A golden aura radiated away from Merlin, mixing with the sunlight and bathing Arthur with encouraging warmth. How it was possible, he could not say. But he warmed and calmed and settled into a meditative state… and there it was, the golden thread that connected him to Merlin. It was half-golden, at any rate; the venomous green was obvious, though, pulsing in a sickening parody of a heartbeat.

It seemed to be progressing slower than it had been when Arthur still wore the enchanted ring. What would happen to Merlin once Arthur was gone? Would he be free of the curse’s effects? Or might there be permanent consequences?

(Arthur knew if Merlin were to die, the sense of loss he felt would be devastating. Logically, the reverse ought to be true; but he couldn't imagine it. What blessing had he ever been to Merlin?)

Perhaps—

Perhaps he could try now. Perhaps he could reach out through the thread, let him know how very sorry he was for everything, for this recent debacle, yes, but for so much more than that: for the times he didn't listen, the lack of appreciation, and for Arthur's dreadful lack of vision. He should have seen Merlin for all that he was, magic included. He should have seen the fear, the stress, the heavy responsibility of carrying such a dangerous and powerful secret. He should have seen, and he should have helped—not make his life more difficult.

Arthur concentrated on the link, focused on sending all of his regret and all of his appreciation through, to let Merlin know. And… his love. He could not deny how much he loved him. Loved him with an intensity that was frightening. No wonder he had pushed it out of his awareness. Love was not for the likes of him. He did not deserve it. He could never make up for the pain he had caused, by being born, by following his father, by being blind to the truth about magic.

He did not deserve to love, or to be loved. But— Merlin did. And Merlin deserved to know just how much Arthur loved him.

Arthur let his mind drift, following the partially-golden cord away, away from this miserable cell, away from his impending torture and execution, away from the horrific way in which he had failed his people.

The thread stretched long, long, so very long. It was thin and frayed, marred with poisonous green, but it had not snapped. Not yet. That would wait until his death two days hence.

At last, at last, he reached the other end. He could feel a presence there, faint but alive. Arthur brushed against it, gentle and insistent. The thread ended in a warm pulsing, Merlin’s heart beating. The heartrate seemed elevated, unsettled. But it wasn't racing out of control, and Arthur took some comfort in that.

Arthur willed his thoughts to reach through the bond and be heard. Merlin. I'm sorry. I'm so sorry. Thank you for all you did for me. I love you.

It felt safe there, as if he were cuddled in the warmth of Merlin's heart. He knew he didn't deserve it; he was an interloper here, essentially violating him in yet another way. Gods, Arthur was such scum. But—damn it, he was racked with despair, he was scared, he was going to die… and he just needed to be here. I need you, Merlin. I need you so fucking much. You are my heart, you are my soul, without you I am nothing. I have no right to love you, but I do I do I do…

I do not deserve your forgiveness, but know that I am so so sorry. So sorry. And—I see more now. I see more of what you did for me, all the ways that you lifted me up. Thank you so much, so very much. I'm sorry that as you lifted me I sometimes pulled you down. You deserved to be the one to fly, not me, never me.

Arthur clung to Merlin's presence the way a terrified child clings to its mother. He poured in his message of regret, sorrow, appreciation, and love. Arthur didn't deserve to love… but he needed to love. So he did.

He could feel Merlin's presence, neither accepting nor rejecting. It was just there. Arthur took comfort in his presence. He nestled into it, despite knowing he did not deserve it. He nestled into it and let himself rest.

There were sounds… something was touching him… his consciousness was violently ripped away from Merlin and crashed back into his own body. He could see light coming through his closed eyelids. And… were those gloved hands? On his arse?

His eyes burst open and he jerked his body away, away, away from the fingers intruding into his crack. He screamed in anger, a battlecry to alert the enemy that they were about to be gutted alive. But—he could barely move, and he choked on the scream. The chains and the gag did their work well.

“Arthur, Arthur, Arthur. You don't seem your best at the moment. And I am so pleased to see it.”

Agravaine.

Arthur kicked his feet in the direction of that voice, but all it did was cause the manacles to cut into his ankles. But Agravaine’s hands kept touching, pressing, feeling… One stroked his hips and grabbed at his cock—which remained completely still—and the other pressed gloved fingers into his hole. There was physical pain, but it paled in comparison to the mortification he felt.

“You really are a handsome boy, but of course you would be, with your mother being my beautiful Ygraine. She was more perfect and pure than the loveliest spring blossoms. But then your father stole her from me. Even then I could have managed, but you… you killed her. You took my precious sister away from me forever.”

More fingers were being pushed inside of him now, and Arthur didn't see how he could prevent it. He was still lying on his side on the rock-covered floor, wrists and ankles chained to a single hook in the center. Besides squirming on the rock-covered ground, which was inadvisable, there was nothing he could do.

If only he had magic, he would blast the man into dust. Magic certainly had its uses.

“I have always struggled with your existence. I wish you dead, of course, but at the same time I realise you are all that remains of my sister. And you are so very like her… I can see her looking at me through those gorgeous eyes, speaking to me through that luscious mouth. Somedays I daydreamed about what I would do to you before I killed you…”

Was Agravaine implying he would have… with his own sister? Even without magic, Arthur thought he might be able to pulverise the man through the strength of his anger and disgust alone.

The first hand had left his cock. It grabbed at his sack roughly, then pressed along the muscles in his stomach. When it reached Arthur's broken ribs, it pressed down. The pain was sharp and disorienting; it took a moment to recover. By then the hand had traced its way back to his arse and on to the muscles in his thighs, poking and prodding.

“In your own way, you are every bit as lovely as she was. I begged Morgana to let me keep you awhile. But, oh, no—she wants to make an example of you to the people. That boy of yours, though… She's really got something against him. The things she is going to let me do to him… while she watches…

“But I just had to feel you, one time before you go… To hold that last connection to my beautiful Ygraine… To touch her one more time…”

The free hand was all over him, touching, petting, pinching everywhere. The pain in his arse increased as the other hand pushed farther in. Why would he even want that? To ensure Arthur's degradation was complete?

“If only Morgana would let me… Just once…”

Arthur felt a vicious satisfaction at his uncle's whiny tone. He sounded like a castrated dog. Good. Impotent Agravaine was a pleasant vision. And if he thought Morgana would ever let him anywhere near her, he was going to be a sad, sad man. The Morgana he knew would sooner incinerate such a boorish cur. He would find out soon enough. Arthur was just sad that he wouldn't be there to see it.

Agravaine muttered, “Though what Morgana doesn't know…” Arthur tensed—gods, this was bad enough already.

But then another voice yelled, “My Lord! The Queen is ready for the prisoner!”

“One moment!” Agravaine called back. He pulled his fingers out with a painful jerk, and then grabbed Arthur's face with both his hands. Arthur was reluctant to look but couldn't help himself. His uncle gazed into his eyes, face dark in the dim light, inscrutable.

“You are so very like her in so many ways. I thought I wanted you dead, revenge for killing her, but now that the moment has come, I find myself regretful. Such a shame I can't keep you… But at least Morgana has granted me the honour of executing your punishment. I won't be gentle.”

And then Agravaine kissed him on the forehead. Arthur tried to pull away, but there was nowhere to go. His uncle kept going, kissing both eyes, one at a time, and then both cheeks. Arthur suspected the only thing that kept him from planting a kiss on his lips was the gag.

“My Lord! It is time!”

Agravaine sighed reluctantly, and then backed away from Arthur. He had to exit the space crouched over, as the rocky ceiling was so low. As soon as he left, another man came in, this one an armoured Southron warrior. He spit on Arthur, then went to unlock the manacles. Arthur struggled and squirmed, but there was not much to be done. The man hauled him out roughly, and then two more grabbed onto him. Agravaine stared at him thoughtfully. Arthur stood as tall and as regal as he could. If the man wanted to see his dead sister, let him. Perhaps he would feel some remorse after all was said and done.

“Bring him,” Agravaine said. The men lifted him off the floor, hands grabbing at him everywhere. Enjoy it while you've got it, perverts. You and my uncle and that evil witch of a sister. My knights will come for revenge, and when they do, your entrails will be fed to the pigs and your hearts will be tossed to the dogs. They will string your bodies up along the city walls and let your eyes be pecked out by the birds. All of Camelot will rejoice in your downfall.

As they carried him out of the dungeon and towards his doom, Arthur's biggest regret was that he would not live to see that day.

Chapter Text

It was comforting to be home. Home, with his mother. Home, where everything was safe. Home, where he was loved. Home.

And yet—

He still hurt, so damn much. He'd cried in his mother's arms for an eternity, then let her cuddle him for another. Had he ever been so babied? Even as a small child, back when he was terrified of the bogeyman king of Camelot, back when he had no friends, back before Will—even then he had never needed so much coddling. It was ridiculous, but he couldn't help clinging to his mum as if he were a newborn babe.

Eventually he must have fallen asleep again, for he came to realise that he had lost track of reality and was now alone in the bed. His thoughts kept charging along in never-ending circles of self-deprecation: he was a failure, he was a disgrace, he deserved to be miserable. But eventually he pulled himself out of the torturous muddle that was despair mixed with dreams and entered fully into the waking world. When he opened his eyes, truly awake at last, it was such a relief.

The sunlight outside was strong, slightly slanting into the house from a south-facing window, lighting up motes of dust hanging in the air. It was around midday. The bright light, although comforting, stirred up a headache. He felt nauseated, but even so, his stomach growled, longing for food.

When he sat up he could see his mum sitting on a rickety chair, staring out the window. She was hunched in on herself, looking significantly older than Merlin recalled her being.

She must have heard him shifting in the bed, for she turned her head to look his way. Her eyes and nose were red, as if she had been crying. The sight caused Merlin's guilty feelings to spike precipitously. He was making his mum miserable by being here. He should never have come. But where else was he to go?

“Merlin. You're awake.” She smiled, but it looked out of place on a face stained with tears. Why had he come here? Why had he brought such misery to his mother? He loved her; why would he burden her with his pain? He should leave.

“I know what you're thinking, Merlin. Don't.”

But how could he not? He could see how much it hurt her. He should—

“No. Stop. Here is what we are going to do. First, you are going to eat. Then when I'm satisfied you've had enough, you are going to wash. And then we are going for a walk in the sunshine, to clear our heads.”

A walk? No, he couldn't.

“Mum, I can't—”

“You can. You will. Now come to the table.”

Merlin sighed and nodded. He was hungry, though he didn't think he could eat much without vomiting. He directed his magic into his knees but was dismayed to see his power was not as responsive as it had been. The curse was again taking its toll, both with illness and magic loss. What would happen if his magic failed again? If he couldn't use it to walk?

He plopped out of the bed. Everything was stiff; it was more waddle than walk, but he made it to the table. His mum set a bowl of porridge in front of him.

“Why did your eyes glow just then? When you crossed the room?”

Oh. He had been naive to think he wouldn't have to tell her. Of course she would see his eyes; of course she would know something was wrong.

Instead of answering, he spooned porridge into his mouth. It was lukewarm and tasted like ash, but he knew that was only because of the nausea. His mum’s cooking, while nothing near the quality of the royal kitchens, was never this bad.

“Merlin?” She sounded equal parts irritated and worried.

He forced down another spoonful.

“Merlin. Stop protecting me. If anything, it's my job to protect you. Now tell me—what is wrong?”

He took his time swallowing the porridge and washing it down with water. But he had to tell her. She needed to know.

“I was—injured. My knees were broken.”

His mother’s frown deepened, highlighting the wrinkles on her brow and making her appear even older. He could see white hairs peeking through the black.

“Both of them?”

Merlin's head drooped without his consent. He had meant to put on a brave face for his mum, but the memory of that day…

“Yes. Kilgharrah cannot fix them. So I have to use magic to… to walk.”

And for how long would he still have magic? What would become of him then? But he would worry about that when the time came. Though—would he be a burden on his mother? A crippled son for her to support? And if he had no magic to help her with… Why had he come here? He needed to go, now, before he couldn't.

But where would he go?

The druids would help him, but how could he face them? What kind of legendary prophetic figure was he? A complete failure. He would end up a magic-less cripple, unable to contribute in any way, a living reminder to the druid people that Emrys was nothing more than a cosmic joke.

Merlin didn't relish the idea of death, but it might be better for everyone. He could leave now, while he still could, try to make it on his own. Maybe he could go to the lake. Maybe Freya would welcome him. Maybe he could row himself out on a boat and wait to die… Then he could join her in Avalon.

He loved her, of course, though it was an entirely different kind of love than he had felt for Arthur. But they would have been happy together, had Merlin not had this torturous destiny. They could have run away to a lake by the mountains. They could have been at peace.

Perhaps now was the time for that fantasy. In death, they could be together. Two spirits at rest.

His mum was kneeling on the floor next to his chair, hugging him. How had she gotten there? Was he so lost he wasn't aware of reality? Would he let an enemy sneak up on him so easily? Though—did it even matter anymore?

She was whispering sweet words into his ears, things like, “It'll be okay, I promise,” and “I'll take care of you,” and “I love you and am so damn proud of you.” Then she wiped a tear off his face with her hand, and he wondered when he'd started crying.

He clung to her for ages before letting go.

“Merlin. I don't know what happened, and I can see you don't want to talk about it. But I will always be here for you. You understand me? No matter what you did, no matter what has happened to you, you can always depend on me.”

Merlin nodded, not trusting his voice. He knew he could depend on his mum. He just—didn't think he should. His burdens had always been meant for him to carry alone. No one could ever know about the magic, about the destiny… Anyone who did know tended to wind up dead: Lancelot, Freya, Will, his father…

But for now he would soak up his mother's love. Later he would make a plan. Go to the lake, maybe. It would be as good a place as any to die.

“So… is going for a walk a bad idea?” She squeezed him gently as she asked, letting him know she would support him either way.

Was it? He could manage a short one, right? The spring sunshine would be nice.

“No, it's okay, I can walk. We just need to avoid people.”

“If you don't think it's safe—”

But Merlin got up, eyes blazing with magic, and carried his dishes over to the wash basin. “Let's do it, Mum. Just let me clean up a little.”

***

The air outside was moist and warm and smelled of growing things. When inhaled, it filled him with a sense of peace: his life might have been destroyed, but nature would continue on as it always had. The fresh air helped lift his spirits. His mum prattled on about village affairs. Merlin listened, content to let her talk. They stuck to isolated paths away from the fields where the villagers worked on the spring planting. The pace was slow, as much out of a desire to relax as to make things easier for Merlin. A few times Merlin sensed other people nearby. Then they would step off the main path and find a place to sit. They tried to stay out of sight, but Merlin wasn't up for long tromps through ragged underbrush. He couldn't make it fast enough away from the village to avoid all people. But so what if someone recognised him? He would leave soon anyway. He just—

He just needed his mum. For a little while longer.

Nothing shameful in that! Everyone needed their mother sometimes. And think of the poor people who didn't have one. Like Arth—

Actually, it would be better to not think about that.

They reached a tiny stream and sat on the grassy bank side-by-side in the sunshine. He let the magic go and lay back to soak in the warmth of the day. Flowers bloomed nearby, bees buzzed between them, and everything smelled so delightfully like fresh earth and clean water and new grass. It smelled like spring. New beginnings, life after the despair and death of winter. If the world could do it, maybe he could do it too. There was a stirring of hope inside his chest, a tiny flutter of excitement that maybe—just maybe—he could survive and bloom again.

He closed his eyes and focused only on the sounds of nature: the drone of the insects, the trickling of the water, a couple of chattering birds, his mother breathing beside him.

There was a crunching sound somewhere nearby.

“What's that?” His mother sounded alarmed.

Merlin was not. “Probably some animal. Or maybe a kid. It's fine.”

“But what if—”

“I'll blast them to bits, Mother. You don't need to worry.” She didn't need to worry for now, at least. He wasn't ready to discuss the potential effects of the curse on his magic.

She placed a hand on his arm and rubbed it a few times. “I'm your mother. It's my job to worry about you.”

He grabbed her hand in his own and held it gently. “I know, Mum, I know. Just like it's my job to keep you from worrying.”

***

By the time they returned home, Merlin was exhausted. His mother had jumped at shadows so often that even he was starting to see lurking figures behind every tree and bush. But he would protect his mum if there were trouble now, and he would leave before he lost his magic again. If he weren't here, his mother wouldn't be in any danger.

The relentless pounding in his head had worsened, so when they got home in the late afternoon, he drank a tisane that contained willow bark and fell into bed. His mum fretted over him, trying to get him to eat, but he wouldn't because he was too nauseated. She tucked the blankets in around him four times, just to make sure they were perfect.

As soon as she left, Merlin yanked and rearranged the blankets so that he was in a little nest, then gratefully drifted off to sleep.

Dreams claimed him immediately. They were filled with dark shadows and evil creatures that wanted to destroy him. Agravaine was there, slashing through skin with a knife; Morgana laughed like a child; Arthur loomed over him with a sword, ready to strike… Iseldur shook his head and said, “We were fools to place our trust in Emrys.” Druids laughed and threw rotten vegetables at him. Kilgharrah swooped down and roared, “Leave! Leave while you can!”

Something small and dark chased after him, and he sprinted through the forest to get away. It came closer, closer, closer… Its breath hit Merlin’s neck, hot and putrid. It chased him without legs, without wings, overtaking him all the same. It was too close, it was going to strike, any second could be his last—

And then he was splashing in a lake. Freya’s lake. He was alone. No creatures stalked him, no druids taunted. The shore was empty. The only disturbance was his own splashing.

“Hello, Merlin.”

He whirled around, suddenly frightened that he had left his back unprotected. His heart pounded painfully, even though his logical brain knew that enemies usually didn't greet you by name—though the few exceptions were the most worrisome. His hands had lifted into an attack position without him being aware of it.

But it was no enemy there in the deep of the lake, but a girl, standing on the water.

“Freya! You're here!”

He tried to walk closer to her, but his legs wouldn't move. It was like he was trapped in one of those dreams where enemies lurked and nothing he did helped him to move away. But this wasn't a dream, was it? He must have travelled to the lake. His memory was all fuzzy.

“Where is here?” she asked, smiling. “Maybe you are there?”

“I—”

“Merlin. Neither of us is anywhere.”

“But—”

Now he seemed incapable of finishing a sentence. Maybe he was dreaming. Everything always went strange in dreams.

“You will have a visitor. You need to listen to him.”

Merlin stamped a foot into the sticky, muddy lake bed. The water splashed all around him, but somehow he wasn't wet.

“I want to stay with you. I don't need a visitor.”

Freya laughed, but the sound was so sad it made him want to cry.

“How can you stay with me when neither of us is here? But your visitor needs you. You must listen.”

She started to fade, growing more difficult to see at an alarming rate.

“Freya! Come back! I need you!” But before he had finished yelling, she was gone.

Something clawlike grabbed at his ankle and jerked. It was sharp, and he thought his foot might get sliced off. But no, all it did was pull him underwater. He kicked and scrabbled with legs and arms, to no avail. Then he summoned up his magic and threw it all at the claw. But still he sank, deeper and deeper into the darkness of nothing.

He couldn't help but take a breath, and air rushed into his grateful lungs. It must be a dream, it must. Though he didn't feel like he was sleeping.

The darkness was warm and strangely comforting. He drifted around through nothingness, content to rest and breathe. But then someone started calling for him. The voice came from nearby. When he looked, he could see the brightness of twilight swelling into morning.

“Merlin!” called a familiar voice. He was used to answering that particular voice, so he rushed to respond its call.

He moved into the light, neither by walking nor swimming—he was just somehow there. But he felt as if he were nothing, no body, no senses. All that existed was the light—and Arthur.

Fear seized him.

There was no one there, and yet Merlin knew Arthur was present. Merlin let himself float away, a single particle of water in an ocean—and Arthur came too.

They rushed and swirled, drifted and flowed, and always Merlin could feel Arthur right with him. But that wasn't right—he needed to get away, get away, run run away forever. But Arthur stayed with him. As if they were tethered together. No matter what he tried… Arthur was there.

He was tiring. He couldn't do this, he couldn't run forever. He let himself slow down, to glide along on the current of nothingness and let it take him where it would. And all the while, Arthur stayed with him. Not hurting him. Just there.

After a time, Arthur spoke, though he had no body to speak with. Merlin had no ears to hear with, yet he understood what was said anyway. It was a message of remorse, of sorrow; but also a message of appreciation. And love.

Merlin floated in nothingness and heard the message. There seemed to be no deceit, no cruelty, no evil in the wordless voice; but Merlin would not relax and let himself believe. Nor did he try to push Arthur away. They floated along, side by side, seemingly for hours. He was not comfortable with being so close to Arthur, but he grew accustomed to it. It reminded him a little of days gone by, back when they were happy, back before Morgana had destroyed them.

The longer they drifted together, the more at ease Merlin felt. He told himself he wouldn't believe them, but even so he soaked up the messages of appreciation and love like he was a plant starved for water.

It was just a trick, just a trick, just a way for Arthur to get him close before pouncing… And yet, it was nice. He could almost believe Arthur was sincere. There was a constant undercurrent of sorrow, but the message of love—oh, how Merlin’s heart wanted to believe it.

But then the message changed abruptly. One moment Merlin was flowing along, tentatively happy…. And the next he was bombarded with fear. Anger. Disgust. Despair.

Was that meant for him? He rushed away, despite knowing that Arthur would immediately follow. Only—he didn't.

Merlin was alone. Alone with the anger and fear, the disgust and despair. Alone.

*****

He jerked up to sitting, sweat pouring from his face. Breathing was hard, as if air had become water. His heart raced and his limbs trembled. He had never had such a vivid dream before. The intensity of those feelings at the end…

It wasn't real, right? Just a dream. Arthur would never have loved him, not like that. Merlin was worthless—hadn't that been made abundantly clear lately? He was nothing but a body to abuse—

He jammed the magic into his knees and got out of bed. His mum had gone to sleep in a bedroll by the fire, not wanting to disturb him. She suffered too much for him. He should leave, take his worthless self and go.

But no… Arthur had been cursed, they had both been cursed… It was hard to truly believe, but it had all been caused by an enchantment. Arthur hadn't really meant all those things he had said, right? Merlin walked to the window and looked out at the moonlit village. It was filled with dark shadows that contrasted with places that were lit almost as brightly as in the day.

His brain could say that Arthur had been cursed—but his emotions didn't believe it. Maybe with time… or evidence… but what did it matter, anyway? Merlin needed to go somewhere far away; he needed to go before the curse seized him.

He yawned, exhausted again. The night was only half gone, and he ought to sleep now so he could help his mum in the morning. Most of the stress of his dream had subsided, so he should be able to rest. He turned away from the window and took a few steps towards the bed.

A dark mass flew out from under the bed and landed on his face. It clung and burned. Fire raced from his face through the entirety of his body. He screamed and struggled, ripping at the creature with his hands, though he could not see it because it covered his eyes. The fire was everywhere now, burning, eating, devouring him. How was he not dead? He would be soon.

The magic in his knees wavered in strength… flickered… and extinguished. He screamed again as his legs collapsed underneath him. And then the fire was too painful to endure. It burnt away his consciousness until he knew no more.

Chapter Text

Leon had served the Pendragon family since he was a small child. After becoming a page at the age of seven, he had worked his way up to squire and then knight. Now he was First Knight, Arthur's right-hand man, loyal, trustworthy, always dependable. He would never fail his king.

But when he had met with the others in Gaius’ chambers and discovered the things that Arthur had done to Gwaine and Merlin, his heart burned with treasonous thoughts. Even once he knew that Arthur had been enchanted, the rage inside was hot and frothy, ready to boil over. Gwaine was a good man, trying to protect a friend—and Arthur had just stabbed him in the gut without a second thought? And Merlin… Yes, Merlin was a good man too, despite the magic. Or perhaps even because of it. To stay in a kingdom that would have him killed, but still constantly strive to do the right thing… That took guts. That boy had laid down his life for Arthur, and to be treated like that in return? It was horrendous.

But Arthur was enchanted. Leon had to remember that. The king had been enchanted.

There was a part of Leon that still doubted. Arthur was a highly-trained knight. The knights trained their minds, too, to endure torture and overcome brainwashing. He should have been able to withstand such an enchantment. A true knight would never—

But that wasn't fair. It's just that Leon had put Arthur up on the highest of pedestals, a great man who represented all that was good and honourable in the world. It hurt to have that vision shaken. It hurt to see his idol fall.

And the fury kept building inside of him.

When he learned that Agravaine was behind the enchantment, Leon jumped at the opportunity to stalk him, to catch the rat at his game, to bring an end to this nonsense. It would give his anger a more appropriate outlet. (It wasn't Arthur's fault, it wasn't Arthur's fault, it wasn't… Maybe if he repeated this enough times, his heart would believe what his brain knew to be true.) But chasing after Agravaine would also give Leon the chance to get away, away from Gwaine and Merlin, away from the sadness, away from the disillusionment. His anger would go with him, though. It was too potent to leave behind, and it might come in useful when he finally caught Agravaine in the act of treason.

But it was this anger that led to his downfall. It made him careless. He realised that Agravaine had been diverting the patrols away from a certain part of the forest, so he had investigated the area. But when he discovered the enemy camp, he should have returned straight to Camelot, not sneak around the camp's edges trying to find out more. Leon should have known Morgana would have magic at her disposal. He had known, really, but her magic was much stronger than in days gone by. All his stealthiness was for naught—she caught him as easily as a cat might catch a lamed baby mouse stranded in the open.

It was embarrassing. But beyond that: it was disastrous.

He had expected torture or death. Not a vicious black snake thing. It looked nasty, yes, but what could it do? Poison him?

In the end it was so much worse. How he wished he'd been poisoned. How he wished he’d been tortured to death. All of that would have been preferable to what actually happened. He would rather have died than betray his king.

It was ironic that after questioning Arthur's ability to withstand an enchantment, Leon would so quickly fall prey to one. There was no struggle at all. One moment he was Leon, prepared to die rather than betray his people. The next he was a paralysed visitor in his own body.

Something else was in charge of his muscles, his mouth, even his heartbeat. If it desired, it could stop his heart as quickly as blinking an eye. But it didn't. It had other plans.

Morgana approached. He wanted to flinch, to turn away; or at the very least, it would be nice to spit on her feet. Instead, he found himself leaning towards her as she lay a hand on his cheek.

“I was always half in love with you,” she said, voice purring like… like the cat that had successfully eaten the lamed baby mouse. “The brave Sir Leon, devoting his life to king and country. You never had time to look my way, always jumping to fulfill Uther’s every whim, always running around after Arthur.”

She put her other hand on his chest and rubbed back and forth. His armour was on, but he could see the intent in the motion. He longed to say, “Fuck you!” but what came out was, “Everything I am is yours, my lady.”

“Mmm, yes. I have an important job for you. I want Arthur to feel the pain of betrayal. It haunts my life, and I want it to haunt the few remaining days of his. Agravaine’s treachery will be a blow, yes, but for you to turn on him, a man he has looked up to his entire life… you would be the nail in the coffin. I want him to die completely alone, unloved, betrayed on all sides. I want him to feel as much pain as I did.”

Leon's consciousness recoiled in revulsion. How could the Morgana he had known, that kind, caring girl, have become so bitter? How could she wish so much pain on the one who had been like her brother? How had they failed her, so very badly?

If he had paid her more attention… if he had opened his eyes and looked… if he had truly seen her struggles… could he have helped? He had never paid her much heed, for despite his knighthood, she was the king's ward, an exquisite lady, high above him. She was destined to be a queen, either by marrying Arthur or some other prince. He had no chance with her.

But now his time had come. They went into her tent together, and no matter how he railed against it, his body did as she commanded, massaging and petting, stroking and sucking. It would have been straight out of a fantasy had this happened years ago and of his own free will. But now each motion made him despise her—and himself—more.

As he pleased her, again and again, she spoke to him of all the tasks she had for him. He cursed and yelled and raged, but it was all in his head… His body would not obey. She whispered to him how much she wished for Arthur to see them together, how positively delighted her dear brother would be…

Before she left him alone in her tent, several hours later, she kissed him deeply and gave his cock a playful squeeze. Up to this point, it had not responded to any of the sights nor to the feel of her under his hands and mouth. The snake only did as its mistress commanded, and that had not been part of her wishes. But with direct physical stimulation, it jumped eagerly, as if excited to have been noticed. It felt good, even as he hated himself even more for it. “You do this for me, and I might give you a suitable reward. I can make this pleasant for you, Sir Knight, so very pleasant…”

He wanted to vomit all over her flawless skin. He wanted to parade her naked in front of the troops and let them have their way with her. He wanted to—

It didn't matter what he wanted. The creature was in control. Leon was a failure, a traitor, a gods-damned literal snake in the grass. He was being used in all the worst ways, and there was nothing he could do to stop it.

“Now be a dear and stay here for me. I have someone to meet with before I send you home again.”

Morgana had left and he had stayed, nothing holding him in place besides the creature inside of him. He sat completely still in a highly ornamented chair inside of her richly-appointed tent—and fumed. Inside his head, the tent had been torn to shreds many times over. But his body remained at peace. Even his heartbeat plodded along, slow and steady, nothing at all like the way it would normally race when he was angry.

The compete lack of control was humiliating. He tried to move a finger, bat an eyelash, breathe slightly faster. But nothing. If he could cry in frustration, he might. But of course that wasn't allowed either.

It was several hours before Morgana came back. The sun had set, but morning was still far away. She stormed into the tent, gusts of wind accompanying her and toppling many of the fancy ornaments she had on display. It had been a calm night before this, and Leon instinctively knew her magic was out of control. He would have shrunk away from her, had he been able to.

She whirled around and screamed at him, “Did you know? Did you know about Merlin?” A vase of flowers still stood on the dressing table next to the bed. It was made of silver and not light enough to topple in the gusts of wind. She grabbed it and hurled it at him. A burst of magic gave it strength, and it hit in his ribs. Nothing broke, but the pain was significant. The white daffodils that had been in the vase scattered all over the tent floor.

“DID… YOU… KNOW?”

Leon could not respond, but he could sense the snake barging into his mind, harvesting the relevant memories as fast as it was able.

His body stood without his consent. “My Queen,” the creature said. “The human… he did not know until today. The information was so newly acquired it hadn't settled into his long-term memories. I— I apologise. I did not consider that such an insignificant creature would have any knowledge of such importance.”

Morgana screamed, a maniacal sound enhanced with magic. Leon thought his ear drums might crack; the mirror on the dressing table actually did.

A horrible stillness followed. She stood in one place, face bright red, entire body quivering. Nothing else moved. Even the sounds from the outside camp died away, as if no one out there wanted to risk attracting the crazed witch’s attention. He wasn't sure if Morgana would strike him, burn the tent down around them, or possibly pulverise all the stone within a hundred leagues through the mere strength of her anger.

In the end, none of that happened. Instead, she laughed. It was giddy, hysterical almost. The kind of laughter usually followed by tears. It was so very out of place in the Morgana that Leon had once known.

“But this is good news! The traitor has run away… probably home to cry in his mummy's lap. Camelot has lost her secret defender, so we shall invade now, before morning.”

She came over to him, pushed his body back down in the chair, and then sat in his lap. His arms wrapped around her of their own accord, a gesture of protection, a gesture of care. “You have much to atone for, Sir Knight.” Then she leaned into him and whispered into his ear all the new tasks she wished him to do. Though he strived to throw her on the floor, all he could do was listen.

And he had done as she commanded. The thing inside him had complete access to his thoughts and knowledge. It knew just how to go back to Camelot and insinuate itself among the knights. It knew how to get away from the other Knights of the Round Table, the ones that might recognise that something was not quite right. It was so easy to volunteer to defend the walls, delegate the responsibility, and sneak away to sabotage the city gates.

It knew the way to the dungeons, and it knew just how to order the dungeon guards to go defend the castle so that it could release Agravaine. It knew how to unlock the siege tunnels and signal the enemy soldiers.

And it knew just how to manipulate Arthur to walk straight into Morgana’s clutches.

The look of horror and disgust on Arthur's face was the worst thing Leon could remember seeing. He felt as violated then as he had in Morgana’s tent. Arthur was right to hate him: Leon had completely failed his king. He should have been smarter and not let himself be caught; he should have been stronger and not let some abominable snake creature take over his body.

But despite the feelings of self-loathing and anger, his face remained expressionless, entirely incapable of sending any messages of sorrow or remorse to his king. Instead, he stood behind Morgana, making his betrayal appear complete. She kissed him, and he wished to bite her lips off. But the snake… oh, the snake inside him was pleased. He could feel its satisfaction at having successfully accomplished Morgana’s tasks. He could feel it, and it disgusted him.

Leon had listened in utter horror when Morgana had announced Arthur's sentence. It was, to Leon's shame, a relief once Arthur was led away. Despite Arthur's insistence that Leon was enchanted, it was hard to be sure that Arthur really believed it, and the devastation Leon felt when seeing the despair on Arthur's face was intolerable. Once Arthur had left, it was easier to pretend that this was not reality. And perhaps now that the snake had finished its tasks, maybe he could be left alone?

But no, he could not be so lucky. Morgana stepped close to him. She looked unhappy, which was strange. Hadn't she won? But all was not yet to her liking.

“Now that I am Queen of Camelot, I desire my old maid servant back. Preferably in time to watch her ticket to queenhood go up in flames. Be a dear and fetch Gwen for me.”

Morgana wanted Gwen to watch Arthur burn? Did her cruelty know no bounds? But hopefully she had escaped, if Morgana didn't currently have her? Hopefully she was far away, far beyond Morgana’s reach.

The snake inside him seemed eager for the new task. “Where shall I find her, Your Majesty?”

“I imagine that your old friends will be looking for you. If you wander around trying to find them, I'm sure it won't take too long. Bring me Gwen and the location of their hideout.”

“Yes, my Queen. As you wish.”

Leon closed off his mind, eradicated all memories of the knights’ secret meetup points in case of emergency. Over the years they had developed several contingency plans, but it was imperative that the creature in his body not find out about them. Leon's actions had already condemned Arthur to a horrible death; he could not also betray Gwen. He wasn't sure what Morgana had in store for her, but it couldn't be good. It had been common knowledge that Arthur had been on the verge of proposing to Gwen, and Morgana clearly had issues with that. Was it that Gwen would have been queen, instead of Morgana? Or was it even more fundamental than that: was Morgana jealous that her maid and former best friend had chosen her brother over her?

Either way, Leon would be doing Gwen no favours by delivering her to the castle. If he could just manage to shield his mind, just this once…

But no. He could feel the snake's contempt for the feeble effort Leon had made to block it out. Then it dove straight into all the contingency plans the knights had developed for situations such as this. It pulled out all of the meetup points one by one, discarding the ones that seemed most unlikely. Since the siege tunnels had been compromised, the knights would not use the nearby rendezvous site. Nor would they head in the direction of the Southron camp. But they were likely to be close, as there would no doubt be a foolhardy attempt to rescue the king.

Leon snuck out of the city—if anyone were watching, the snake wanted to appear like a fugitive trying to escape the conquered town. It was easy enough to do, and he soon was tromping through the forest, searching out the hidden locations where any escaped knights might be. They would know more information about what had happened to Gwen.

The first location he checked was an old watch tower. He had thought it a likely spot, as it was more comfortable than the other locations and contained a large amount of supplies hidden in a secret basement. But no one was there.

Night was falling as he trudged on to the next possible location, a fairly large cave with a small, hidden entrance. He ought to be exhausted, not having slept or eaten for nearly two days now. But the creature inside kept his body in motion, apparently not noticing the needs of its host. Perhaps the intruder would treat its host body so poorly that he would die. At least then he wouldn't betray his friends anymore…

The moon lit his path. It would have been much easier to travel in the daylight, but the snake wanted to make its mistress happy. It would not rest till its mission was accomplished. It was so focused on finding Gwen that it wasn't as aware of the surroundings as Leon would normally be. It didn't notice the man with the sword until the tip of the blade was digging into his chest.

“Declare yourself!” called a familiar voice, a voice that sounded almost like Gwaine. But… no. That was impossible. Wasn't Gwaine dying? Shouldn't he be dead?

The snake didn't recognise the voice right away. “Unhand me, you brigand!” it yelled, while quickly jumping back and drawing Leon's sword. “I will cut your head off if you come one step closer!”

“Leon? Is that you?” Yes, that was Gwaine. But—how was this possible? Gwaine was alive? And well enough to wield a sword? Leon wanted to laugh with the sheer joy of it. But the snake had other ideas.

“Of course it's me!” it snapped. “If you weren't such a drunken fool, you'd not have to ask such inane questions!”

Leon cringed, but Gwaine took it all in stride. “Hey, mate, sounds like you've had a rough go of it. Haven't we all? Let's get you back to the others… I managed to bring along some ale and apples that might—”

“I don't need any of your damned apples. I need Gwen. Is she here?” The snake brushed past Gwaine and headed in the direction of the cave entrance, not waiting for a response. Gwaine had to scramble to keep up.

“You shouldn't be bothering Gwen right now. I think she's finally sleeping. She was distraught that Elyan didn't make it out with the rest of us. And I'm sure she's upset about the princess too, though she hasn't said anything. And no one knew what happened to you… But thank the gods you're here!”

Leon's body strode as fast as was possible in a darkened forest. His feet caught on roots, clumps of weeds, and tangled vines sprawling out from dense bushes. He tripped several times. Silently, he encouraged himself to fall over and break a leg. It would be harder to betray his friends with a broken leg.

Gwaine kept up easily, perhaps because his body wasn't fighting a battle against itself.

A battle that Leon feared he was losing. “I don't care if she's sleeping. I have to see her. Where is she?”

When Gwaine spoke again, his voice was guarded, almost… suspicious? Come on, Gwaine, you know this isn't like me… Figure it out, figure it out!

“Let's talk to the others first, yeah? Without the princess, you're our leader. We need to—”

“Yes, fine. We'll have a fucking meeting.”

Leon could see the rock outcropping that obscured the entrance to the cave. The snake hurried his body along, eager to find its prey. Sir Vidor was on guard duty at the opening. He greeted Leon enthusiastically, pleased to see he was still alive, but the snake passed by without a word.

The inside of the cave was murky, lit with only a couple of torches. It was hard to make out faces in the darkness, but there seemed to be a couple dozen people huddled together in small groups. There was a tunnel in the rear that led to other chambers, though no light came from that direction.

Perhaps that's where someone might go to sleep…

The snake headed straight in that direction. It had to know, to see with its own eyes that its quarry was here. He was almost to the tunnel when a large hand clapped him roughly on the back. “Leon!” a voice yelled. Then the hand spun him around abruptly and he was engulfed in arms that crushed him. Leon could feel the creature panic… It had been caught, they were on to its plans, it needed to get away! Leon's body punched and kicked, efficiently extricating itself from the grasp of its captor.

The man who had grabbed him threw his arms up in the air, rapidly backing away. “Shit, man, it's just me! It's Percival!”

The snake was still on guard. It had drawn the sword from Leon's belt and was ready to attack.

“Damn, remind me to never hug you again! I don't want my arms sliced off; I'm rather fond of them!”

Leon felt his body relax as the creature inside him realised that it had not been discovered. Leon himself was trying to scream to Percival that something was wrong, that he wouldn't act that way… By all the gods, do something to stop him!

The snake merely grunted before pushing past a confused-looking Percival.

“Leon!” Gwaine said. “What happened to you?”

“Nothing!” the snake yelled. “Nothing happened to me, you tosspot! I'm fine!”

“I meant in the battle… You were supposed to defend the walls, but Cador said you disappeared?” Gwaine stepped closer—too close for the snake. Leon found himself stepping backwards away from him.

“Oh, I got caught up in the battle… I was pulled into the lower town…”

“But the lower town was on fire,” said a new voice. Gaius. Leon was relieved Gaius hadn't been left behind for Morgana to torment. The snake was just irritated at the old man’s interference. “Are you sure you're all right? Smoke inhalation can cause—”

“I told you, I'm fine! Now if you don't mind, I'd like to get some rest. I'm just going to go sleep now.” The snake was getting antsy, ready to escape this conversation before it gave itself away.

Gwaine stepped closer again. “I thought you wanted to see Gwen? Wasn't that what you wanted?”

“Yes, yes, I need to see her, make sure she's safe. I promised her brother before he was captured—”

Percival loomed next to him now. “I thought you were in the lower town? But Elyan was in the citadel with Arthur.”

Leon was cheering for his comrades: they were asking all the right questions; they would figure it out. The snake seemed to realise this too, because it raised Leon's sword again, ready to strike. It was prepared to battle, if it needed to. It would go out fighting to complete its task and make its mistress happy.

Leon didn't cheer nearly so exuberantly when someone smashed a sword hilt into the side of his head. He was pleased, but fuck, that hurt! The blow knocked him into the rocky wall of the cave. Both he and the snake were dizzy, stunned, confused, and his body toppled to the floor. As he stared up into the gloom, he saw the worried faces of his friends staring down at him. He smiled—the first action he had performed of his own volition since this nightmare had begun—but the smile fled his face when he saw Sir Cador lift his sword. He heard someone mutter, "Sorry about this, mate.” The hilt rushed down at his temple, and then—nothingness.

Chapter Text

The procession through the castle was surreal. First came Agravaine, followed by two Southrons carrying Arthur, and many more enemy soldiers surrounded them. Instead of focusing on their mocking faces, Arthur imagined that he was alone. He took one last look at the castle that had shaped his life. Familiarity had led to complacency, and the castle’s furnishings and ornamentations had blended unnoticed into the background years ago. But now that it was his last time to see the home that he loved, he noticed everything clearly. Here was the finely-painted portrait of a long-dead noble, and he could see how the dust had settled on the golden frame. They passed an imposing suit of armour, and he noticed how it had dulled with the years. Next came a grand statue, and the sunlight glinted off a long hair stolen from a lady that had passed too close. When they carried him past the stained-glass windows, he noticed both the brilliant colours and the tiny cracks highlighted by the sunshine.

His home was beautiful and imperfect both—much like the kingdom he had inherited. How he had tried to serve Camelot and her people, but in the end, he had failed. He had been blind to the truths of magic and its place in his life… and that had turned into a fatal flaw. If he had seen Morgana and Merlin for who they truly were, right from the start—if he had seen that magic was not inherently evil—maybe all of this could have been avoided. It was too late now, anyway.

The corridors they carried him through were cleared of dead bodies, though there were still blood stains visible on the floor. They passed many Southrons who laughed mockingly as he went by. They taunted him, saying things like, “Not so high and mighty now, are you, little king?” and “I hear roast Pendragon is on the menu for the feast tomorrow!”

Arthur ignored them as best he could, instead focusing on the lines and colours of the castle he loved. He would not let them get to him.

But when they reached the door that led outside, it became impossible to pretend that he was alone. The courtyard was packed with people standing shoulder to shoulder, a press of humanity come to watch his shame. Perhaps half were Southrons, dressed in full battle gear. The rest seemed to be citizens of Camelot, although there were many faces he did not recognise—possibly sorcerers that had come out of hiding? The crowd was remarkably still for its size, as if made up of statues instead of living, breathing bodies. Except for a baby’s cries echoing off stone walls, it was completely quiet when he appeared in the doorway.

The two men that had carried him each lifted him by an arm for the crowd to see. Arthur figured he made for a rather pathetic sight, stark naked and gagged, manacles on ankles and wrists. But he held up his head and stared at the crowd proudly. He wanted his people to know that he would do his best to be strong for them, no matter what. And to all the enemy soldiers in the crowd, he hoped they saw his message as a big ‘fuck you’.

A man nearby hooted at him in derision. It set off a loud roar from the crowd, mocking laughter, cat calls, the stomping of feet. Someone spit at him, and someone else threw a handful of mud. It hit his leg with a splat, but Arthur didn't let himself flinch. Instead, he tried to distract himself by surveying the scene.

In the middle of the crowd stood a wooden platform with a thick pole erected in the centre. At the top of the pole were chains, ready to attach to manacled wrists. In front of the platform was a large pile of firewood, a grim reminder of the fate that awaited him.

He looked up to the balcony where his father had always observed executions. Morgana stood there, still dressed all in black. Next to her was a swarthy, muscular man Arthur had never seen before but immediately knew to be Helios, the warlord that had thrown in his lot with Morgana. Helios was laughing along with the crowd, but Morgana was motionless. The features of her face were distorted… a wrinkled nose, a contemptuous smile… a very clear mix of loathing and pleasure. She locked eyes with Arthur; after a long moment of staring, she smiled broadly, as if finally acknowledging to herself that she had won. Then she nodded her head to signal that it was time.

Of Leon there was no sign. Nor did he see any of his other knights. Arthur had no idea if they had been killed or captured—or if they had, gods willing, escaped.

The arms holding him up for the crowd jerked his body forwards, down the stairs, into the mass of people. Hands grabbed at him, fingernails scratched, and saliva and mud were smeared on his body. It was impossible to tell who was doing what. Arthur hoped that it was the enemy having a little fun, or perhaps sorcerers who were rightfully angry. He clung to the hope that the citizens of Camelot didn't despise him this badly; he had spent his life trying to do right by them. Their hatred would be intolerable.

Though he had failed them. Camelot had fallen, and many of her people had died in the unsuccessful defense of the kingdom. Camelot had fallen because Arthur wasn't strong enough, not smart enough. Perhaps they did hate him.

He couldn't bear to see which people were grabbing at him. Someone yanked at his cock, laughing cruelly, but Arthur would not look at them. Instead he let his eyes drift up to the sky. The early morning sun had risen a fair way above the horizon. There were a few puffy clouds drifting through the sky, and the sunlight leant them a rosy tint.

Focus on the clouds, don't look, don't look. Don't flinch, don't let them know it's getting to you. Keep your head up, don't acknowledge that Morgana has won, don't look at the person who just slapped your arse, just look at the clouds. Merlin always loved to look at the clouds. He was always rabbitting on about all the different shapes he saw…

The thought of Merlin, of never being able to see him again, to never be able to make up for all the terrible things he had done—both while enchanted and when he was fully himself—caused tears to well up in his eyes. He quickly blinked them away, but somebody had seen.

“Oh look, he's crying like a baby!” someone taunted. The crowd laughed.

“Maybe he wants his mummy,” said a second voice, once it was quieter again.

“Too bad he killed her when he was born!” said a third voice.

“He'll get to go see her soon!” said someone else.

Arthur couldn't help but notice that the accents were thick… It must be the Southrons. But still he refused to look. Instead he searched the clouds for shapes he recognised. One looked like a dragon, and Arthur shuddered, recalling the immense beast that had come and taken Merlin away. Gods, he hoped Merlin was somewhere safe, somewhere he could heal; somewhere far away from Morgana.

At last they reached the wooden platform. Arthur's body stung from the abuse he had suffered, but he knew it would be nothing as compared to the bite of the whip. He had spoken with men who had been flogged, and their descriptions of the intensity of the pain were brutal.

At least with the gag in his mouth, it would be easier to not cry out. He would bite down on it and be strong. Arthur would not let himself break.

The men dragged him to the pole and fastened the manacles around his wrists to the chain at the top. It was too high up for him to put weight on his feet. His toes barely brushed the wooden platform. Great. As if this weren't going to be uncomfortable enough already.

The crowd yelled at him, laughed at him, mocked him. Arthur still didn't want to look at the people, but his face returned to Morgana. He would not back down from her. After a moment, she raised her hand. The crowd immediately fell quiet. She began to speak.

“We are gathered here today to witness the victory of justice over evil. Arthur Pendragon, this man who stands before you, murdered many people during his time as Camelot’s prince. He killed innocents only for the suspicion of being—or merely knowing—a sorcerer. He was complicit in the genocide of an entire people: those who have been blessed with magic.”

Some people in the crowd screamed at him then. “You killed my daughter!” someone shouted above the rest of the chaos. “Monster!” yelled someone else.

Morgana raised her hand, and the crowd quietened.

“Some might argue that as Prince of Camelot, he was bound to follow his father's dictates. But once he was crowned King, did he try to make amends? Did he consider lifting the ban against magic? No! He has continued in his father's ways.”

The crowd hissed and booed. Someone threw a small rock that bounced off his brow. Morgana stared at him intently, seeming to enjoy the moment. A twisted smile adorned her face.

“Therefore, as Queen of Camelot, it is my duty to administer justice. Arthur Pendragon has been sentenced to fifty lashes. He will stay here on display as a reminder of what happens to those in this kingdom who perpetrate injustice and evil. And then tomorrow, he shall burn, just like the sorcerers that he spent his life trying to eradicate.”

The crowd thundered in response to this speech. Arthur hoped that somewhere, amidst all the jeering and booing, perhaps some people were shouting in protest on his behalf. Unlikely though… If they did, they would most likely face immediate repercussions from the Southron soldiers widely distributed through the crowd. Morgana had set this up perfectly.

Agravaine had accompanied Arthur to the platform. He stood there, beaming at the crowd as if he had achieved something great and deserved the people's adoration. Arthur had tried to ignore him, but now his uncle came over and patted his cheek, as if he were a favoured child. The crowd still roared, so Agravaine had to speak directly into Arthur's ear in order to be heard.

“You stole my beloved sister from me; at last I shall have my revenge. I am going to enjoy this, my boy.”

Arthur kicked at him, hanging by his wrists and lifting both legs together since his ankles were chained. He just missed a direct hit on the rat’s most sensitive areas. The crowd roared with laughter. To Arthur's satisfaction, Agravaine's face turned red. Good.

But then Agravaine gestured to one of the Southrons, and the man forcibly moved Arthur to the far side of the pole. The man positioned Arthur so that his back faced outwards (which allowed him to still see Morgana’s twisted smile) and then tied his ankles to the pole with a rope. Now he couldn't reach to put any weight on his feet, and his wrists screamed with the pain of it. But he knew that would soon be the least of his problems.

Arthur thought that this would be a convenient time to spontaneously develop the ability to call a dragon. A dragon that would come and chomp his uncle between those giant, razor-sharp teeth and swallow him in one gulp. And then the dragon could grab him and they could fly away together, perhaps to wherever Merlin was… Gods, how he wished he could see Merlin again.

A grey-haired man dressed all in black, an elaborate collar around the top of his cloak, stood next to Agravaine at the front of the platform. He was neither a Southron nor a soldier, and Arthur wondered what his purpose could be. But then his attention was drawn away by another man who was now presenting Agravaine with the whip.

It was not the standard whip that had been occasionally used for corporal punishment. This one consisted of five leather strips attached to the handle. Bits of metal had been woven into the leather at regular intervals. At the end of each strip was fastened a sharp metal hook that would tear away chunks of flesh. It was a cruel design. Arthur had heard of these kinds of whips. It was generally said that one hundred lashes was a guaranteed death sentence that would kill the victim while still attached to the pole. For lesser sentences, death was usually caused by infection. Apparently Morgana was serious about wanting him to stay alive until the morning.

Morgana raised her hand, and the crowd fell silent. In a calm and pleasant voice, she announced, “You may begin.”

Agravaine raised his arm high before delivering the first stroke onto Arthur's back. Agravaine was still a strong man, despite his increasing age, and the pain on impact was immediate and severe. Arthur could feel the skin tearing open in multiple places. The feeling of wrongness was so horrifying that he would never wish it on anyone—except, perhaps, the man currently inflicting this unbearable pain with a smile on his face.

Or, maybe, the “sister” who had destroyed his life.

The second lash came, quickly followed by the third. They struck his upper back, burning like fire, freezing like ice. The next few went lower, down his back, to his buttocks. He could feel the bits of metal gouging into his skin, the hooks ripping out bits of flesh. It was unbearable, but he fought to hold still, to not jerk away, to not scream through the gag. It was stuffed in so deeply he worried he would choke on it, possibly vomit, potentially suffocate… Though that wouldn't be a bad way to go. Much quicker.

The lashes moved down his legs. Often the ends of the whip curled around to the front of his body. His legs were narrow enough that the leather strips wrapped entirely around his calves. There was a moment where Arthur thought the entirety of his lower legs had been sliced off, for it felt as if an actual blade had done an amputation.

Even his feet were not spared. If by some miracle he were to survive this ordeal, he doubted he would be able to walk again. The metal in the thongs hit with such force that some of the bones in his feet broke. He could feel them shatter with a crunch at the same time as chunks of skin were yanked away by the hooks.

Agravaine worked his way back up Arthur's body, but this time made an effort for the whip to reach around to the front. The pole protected him minimally, but not enough. On one stroke the hooks caught at his genitals. The pain was so intense he wouldn't have been surprised to find they had been ripped off his body. He couldn't help screaming then, but nothing came out except a low grunting sound. He didn't need to wait for tomorrow to be burnt alive… He was burning now, sizzling with the fire, and soon he would melt into a charred pile of destroyed human being…

Suddenly he jerked back into awareness. He must have passed out, but sadly hadn't stayed that way. He could hear a voice close by clearly chanting next to the side of his head. “Þurhhæle licsar min,” the voice said. “Ic ðe ðurhhæle ðinu licsar mid ðam sundorcræft ðære ealdan æ. Drycræft ðurhhæle ðina wunda ond ðe geedstaðolie.”

Arthur turned his head to look at the person speaking. It was the unknown man, the one dressed all in black. His eyes were glowing a brilliant gold colour. When the man saw Arthur looking, he stopped mid-chant, then said, “There you are. The Queen demands you be awake for the entirety of your punishment.”

Agravaine said, “Thank you, Ruadan,” as the man stepped away. Arthur noticed that the pain was not as severe as it had been. There was a pause, and in that moment he grew aware of the crowd again. He had been so overcome by the agony that he had lost awareness of the people watching the spectacle. They still called out insults and accusations, but behind the louder voices, he could hear the sounds of weeping and wailing coming from multiple directions. In normal circumstances he would have felt for anyone suffering so greatly, but this time he could spare no thought for them. Instead, it was a consolation to know that he was not alone, that there were people out there who did not think him a monster, people who—possibly—cared for him.

He hoped they would not face repercussions from Morgana or her henchmen.

Agravaine was apparently making use of the pause to rest his arm. Arthur hoped it would cramp up and bother him for days. After his uncle realised that Arthur was staring at him, he set the whip down and came right up behind Arthur. Fingers touched his upper back, then dragged—no, slid through blood—all the way down his spine to the top of his crack. Then the fingers were removed and Arthur could hear the sound of someone licking and slurping dramatically. Someone in the crowd yelled, “Does he taste as sweet as he looks?” Agravaine ignored the voice, but continued to slide his hand over Arthur's back and then suck the blood off his fingers. Then he murmured in his ear, “You do, you know; you do taste as sweet as you look.” Then Agravaine pressed his very hard crotch into Arthur's naked, bloody, ripped apart arse.

Arthur had always dismissed the stories he had heard about Agravaine's fetish for blood. It had seemed like the idle wagging of jealous tongues. But in that moment, he knew that everything he had heard had probably been true.

There were hoots and jeers from the crowd, but Agravaine only pressed his bulge more firmly into Arthur's arse. One thrust, two—the pain of rough clothing rubbing into his torn up skin was almost as unbearable as the violation—and then Arthur felt a faint pulsing through the cloth that separated them. Agravaine groaned in Arthur's ear. “You truly are as sweet as your mother. It's a shame Morgana won't let me keep you.” Then he pulled away.

Arthur wasn't sure what the crowd had seen, but he had little time to wonder. The sorcerer Ruadan stepped over and said, “My Lord, the Queen would like you to continue, if you're, ahem, ‘finished playing.’” The gibe would have been more satisfying if Agravaine hadn't immediately called a Southron over with the instructions to “Turn him.” The man pulled out a knife and cut through the ropes that had fastened Arthur's feet to the pole. Then he spun Arthur around so that the front of his body faced outwards, and retied his ankles. Now Arthur had an unimpeded view of both the crowd and Morgana.

The noise from the crowd swelled as Agravaine lifted the whip and took aim at his chest. The leather thongs impacted with a cracking sound, and Arthur was lost to the world of pain. The bits of metal and the hooks tore into the soft flesh of his belly, ripped at his arms, and once curled around his neck so violently he thought it would decapitate him. Only after the fact did he slowly realise he was still alive. But oh how he wished he weren't.

A few strikes hit his face, and he could feel the blood dripping down… He could no longer hold his head up, nor his eyes open… Nothing mattered anymore, not pride, nor strength, neither love nor revenge. All that existed was pain. Endless, relentless pain. He let himself fall into it, drift on its currents, rise and fall with its tides. There was nothing else.

Occasionally he thought he heard chanted words that tried to pull him out of the endless ocean, hook him like a fish and yank him out into another reality. But he was not asleep; they could not wake him up and pull him out of the darkness, for he was not in any darkness, only in an endless world of pain.

It was almost pleasant there, floating in that relentless sea. There was nothing to worry about, nothing to accomplish. There was no guilt nor despair about not being good enough. All was pain, and it lit up his body with an electric sort of energy—as if he had been thrust inside a lightning bolt that would encase him for an eternity. He need not struggle, he need not strain: all he had to do was exist.

Time passed, unknown amounts ever rushing, carrying his life away with it. And eventually… Eventually physical sensations beyond the world of pain returned to his awareness. His body was shaking, shivering with both cold and stress. The chanting words sounded clearer; perhaps they were succeeding in their attempt to pull him back into reality. Beyond those words there was the sound of a crowd, but it was not very energetic. Perhaps the people had grown bored with the spectacle.

Nausea attacked, because obviously he wasn't miserable enough already. He refused to open his eyes… He would stay alone in this prison his body had become, not acknowledge any existence beyond this broken shell. All was pain and nausea, but nothing else could ever bother him again.

Occasionally sounds tried to break into his cocoon… men speaking, voices chanting, people yelling. But he only focused on the pain and refused to let them in. It felt as if things might have been thrown at him, but how could he hurt anymore than he already did? It made no difference. There might have been hands touching his body, but that wasn't Arthur anymore. Arthur was far away, floating in the peaceful, agonizing ocean, where no one could bother him ever again.

The idea of being bothered reminded him of the person who had always had the knack of bothering him… but in the funniest of ways. Whenever Merlin had been his most ridiculous, bothersome self, Arthur usually ended with a smile on his face and happiness bubbling in his heart. But where was that bothersome boy now? Now that Arthur could use a bit of happiness? Where was he now that Arthur was lost?

It was such an effort to think when everything was pain, and when thinking of anything beyond the pain threatened to send him back into reality, the world where hurting him physically wasn't enough, the world where nothing less than his complete and utter humiliation was sufficient. But he slowly managed… slowly, slowly, he had to go slowly, lest he lose the concentration and be thrust into awareness. Was that a woman hissing in his ear? No, no, no woman existed, only the ocean, only the pain, only his plodding path towards Merlin. Weren't they connected? Hadn't there been a thread between them? Hadn't it helped?

He drifted in the ocean, searching for a golden thread. Sometimes he looked too actively, and reality threatened to intrude… were those fingers? Was someone—no, no, float away, back into the safe arms of endless pain.

But it was harder and harder to stay there as his anger mounted. Where was that damned thread? Had Merlin broken it? Had Merlin hated him so much that he had abandoned him to this fate? How dare he! Didn't he know Arthur had been enchanted? Hadn't he said he would serve Arthur until the day he died? How dare he remove the one solace that Arthur could cling to? How dare he? Merlin belonged to Arthur. Clearly, Arthur hadn't made enough of an impression on him. If only he could escape this ocean… he needed to more thoroughly imprint the lesson on that boy. Arthur was swimming in pain; he had plenty to spare. It would be easy to share some with that selfish little—

No! No! He would not let the curse claim him!

Arthur jerked back into awareness, back into the terrible real world. His eyes burst open to see darkness—night had fallen. Only a few torches lit the courtyard, and he was unable to see anything about his surroundings, but everything was silent. His heart was racing with the horror of the curse, which tried to destroy him, even now that he was already lost. But escaping the curse came with a terrible price: he was now fully, horrifyingly awake.

Reality was pain, of course—pain, and intrusion. Hands were on him, gently probing his wounds, patting at the hanging chunks of skin. Despite the care taken, Arthur jerked away, but there was nowhere to go.

“I thought you couldn't be anymore beautiful, but I was wrong… so wrong… You are so like her. She was so… delicate. So… vulnerable…”

A hot mouth licked at his neck, tracing the lesions left by the whip. Despite the sting, it was almost soothing—a gentle human touch wholly unexpected in this nightmare. The hands stopped poking at his wounds, and just for a moment, Arthur allowed himself to relax, to pretend that someone was with him, that he had not been abandoned completely by everyone he had held dear. He relaxed into the feel of something lapping at his skin the way a mother cat would lick her kitten.

“That's my boy… Yes, you are so sweet, so good… So like your mother. Oh, how I loved her…”

Arthur realised that he was freezing, but where the man stood, pressed up against him, it was warmer. The contact hurt, but everything hurt, and this touch was not without benefits: not only did it provide some protection against the cold, but it helped to anchor him to this world where he was not abandoned, not alone.

He still hung by his wrists from the top of the pole. His arms had long since gone numb, making it hard to adjust his position at all. But the warmth of the other body called to him, and he instinctively pressed towards it as well as he was able.

“Oh, you are such a dear. I'll take care of you…”

And the person did. He pressed against Arthur's torso from chest to crotch. Despite the sting of it, the fabric was soft and warm. The man was warm too, and Arthur longed to throw his arms around him. Here at last was someone who cared, someone who could make everything better…

The man petted the top of Arthur's head, stroking his hair. It was, perhaps, the only place on his body that hadn't been ripped apart. Arthur let his head lean into the touch.

And then the warmth pulled away and icy air rushed in, making the endless pain seem even worse. Arthur groaned… though in reality it was probably more like a kitten mewling.

“Be patient, my boy. Be patient…”

There was movement, but Arthur couldn't tell what was going on… just that he hurt and he was freezing and the one person who might help him had pulled away. Tears leaked from his closed eyelids.

Fingers came to brush the tears away. “No, sweet, no, I'm not leaving you. I'm just getting things ready… Don't cry…”

There was more movement, and a tugging at his ankles. Chains rattled, and something clicked. And then his legs were on fire—something was moving them, but how? He had thought he would never move again, would be frozen in this world of agony forever. He would have kicked at whatever was lifting his legs, but he had no power to move… his body was so weak and injured that he couldn't get a foot to twitch. Pathetic. So much for being a mighty warrior. So much for being a powerful king. He was nothing… weaker than a babe… Incapable of doing anything… His death would be a blessing for the world.

“There, there, I know that hurts, but it will be worth it, you'll see, you'll see. Just let me… Yes, like that. That's it. You're so good for me. So, so sweet.”

It was difficult to understand what was happening. The other person was pressed against him, and Arthur's legs had somehow been placed around the man’s hips. There was movement, and everything was pain. He thought there might have been something thrusting deep inside him, but the rest of his body hurt so much that he couldn't trust his awareness. He screamed through the gag, and then he was choking, gagging, vomiting… He couldn't breathe, he was going to die…

The gag was abruptly ripped off his mouth. He panted for breath and spit out the bile that had been the only thing for his stomach to purge. Tears reformed in his eyes, but the thrusting and the terrible pain did not stop.

“Oh, my sweet, you're doing so well. Just a… little… longer…”

He wanted to beg, “Please, please…” though he did not know what he would be begging for. Please, let the pain stop… but wasn't he making this man happy? At last, Arthur was doing something right.

It didn't matter anyway, for he found himself completely unable to voice any words.

He tried to focus on the idea that he was making this person happy… Someone cared for him, despite Arthur being such a miserable failure. Someone cared, and Arthur was making him happy. What did it matter if he hurt so much he felt like dying? Finally, finally, he had gotten something right.

Maybe if he got it right, maybe if he did what the man wanted… maybe he would make Arthur warm again… maybe he would take him away from this nightmare…

The man groaned, and then the thrusting stopped. Why had it stopped? Hadn't Arthur been doing a good job? The other person let Arthur's legs flop back down; the rush of pain he felt when the backs of his legs hit the pole gave him goosebumps.

“Oh, you are so exquisite. That was everything I had dreamed it would be… Perhaps even better than your mother would have been. No, no, sweet, why are you sad?”

Fingers wiped at Arthur's cheeks; he must have started crying again. What a baby… he wasn't good for anything… Even this man didn't seem to need him anymore.

He tried to speak, to say that he was so sorry he wasn't good enough, he was such a failure… Of course he was a failure, everyone had abandoned him, only this man stayed, but Arthur couldn't even please him, and he was just so, so tired, tired of hurting, tired of failing, tired of being alone, tired of being sad…

But his mouth wouldn't work. He was so useless he couldn't even talk anymore.

“Oh, you sweet boy, of course this has been hard for you. Here, here, I have some water…”

A skin of water was lifted to his lips, and he lapped at it eagerly, trying desperately to get some. He was parched, but the bile had left such a horrid, acidic taste…

“Slowly, my boy, you don't want to be sick again.”

Arthur tried so hard to slow down, to make the voice happy… If the person were happy, maybe he wouldn't leave him all alone, in the darkness, in the endless pain… But he was so thirsty…

The moisture in his mouth helped him to speak again. “Please…” he whispered, though he had no idea what he was asking for.

“Oh, you're so sweet like this. I always knew you just needed a firm hand, some proper guidance. It's such a shame Morgana means to make an example of you. No—I really can't let that happen. You are too lovely—too sweet—all that I have left of my beautiful sister. You stole her from me… but I see her here, in you… and—I can't let you go.”

The man leaned his entire body against Arthur's, and the warmth was heavenly. Arthur hurt too much to really understand what the man was saying, but it didn't matter. The man was with him, the man had given him water, the man helped him to feel warmth, the man must care, even if just a little…

But then the man pulled away, and freezing air stung the places where he had been. Arthur whimpered, but the man patted him on the head. “Don't worry, my sweet… I'll get you out of here. I just need to take care of some things first. I'll be back for you…”

And then he walked away. Leaving Arthur alone again, abandoned by all, alone and in pain, all alone in the dark, freezing and forever cursed. Alone. The tears fell again, and there was no one there to dry them. But Arthur was a failure, he didn't deserve anyone, he deserved to be lost in this darkness forever… Justice had been carried out at last.

Chapter Text

A scream ripped through the quiet fabric of the night. Hunith bolted awake, heart pounding as panic hit her with the force of a rampaging boar. The scream lingered awhile, ebbed away, and then abruptly increased in intensity. She scrambled to get out of bed, but when she swung her legs off the mattress, they immediately smacked against the floor. The unexpected impact caused her to topple backwards, wondering what the hell had just happened.

The room was swathed in darkness. The fire had died, so the only light was a tinge of moonlight sneaking through the curtains. She let her eyes adjust to the murk and then realised her shameful stupidity. She had given Merlin the bed while she slept on the floor by the fire. Panic had knocked common sense right out of her head.

The scream had died away into nothingness. She couldn't see where it had come from so ran to the window and threw open the curtains. The moonlight revealed a harrowing sight: Merlin, lying lifeless on the floor, an indistinct black blob writhing on his face. She grabbed a spade and smacked the creature, sending the thing flying across the room. Gods, she hoped she hadn't hurt Merlin when she did that.

The creature thumped against a wall and fell to the floor. She gripped the spade tensely, prepared to swipe at the slightest movement. But the thing blended into the shadows. Hunith stood over her son, ready to protect him. She ached to lean over and check if he were still alive… Oh gods, what if he were dead? She would die too, oh gods, oh gods. She would die of a broken heart. But if she let down her guard, the thing might attack again. She had to stay alert.

There was only silence in the house. Hunith could hear dogs barking outside, disturbed by the screams, but the noise only obscured any sounds the creature might make. She wished she could light a lamp, but she dared not move. What should she do? What should she do?

A violent pounding sound broke through the stillness. She spun wildly, looking for the creature, ready to smash it to bits.

“Hunith! What's goin’ on in there?”

Only once she heard her neighbour Robert yelling through the door did she realise that the pounding had been only knocking.

“I need help!” she yelled. “Help me!” The door was locked, but Robert must have kicked it, for it popped open with a crunching sound.

Torchlight poured into the house, creating a flickering confusion of light and shadow. She had difficulty focusing and squinted to try to make out where the creature was hiding.

“Gods, Hunith, what the devil’s wrong?”

She took a deep breath to calm herself enough to speak. “There's… There's a… a thing! It attacked Merlin. It's here… Somewhere…”

As she scanned the room, she noticed that while Robert was still in night clothes, he had brought an axe with him. At least he would be able to defend himself should the creature strike.

He strode through the house, using his torch to light up all the hidden corners, searching for anything that shouldn't be there. When he looked under the bed, a dark blob flew out and clamped onto his face. He yelled and dropped both axe and torch to pry the thing off with his bare hands. This time Hunith was ready: the torch allowed her to see, and she was spurred on by desperation. She swiped at the creature with her spade and managed to slice through it as she flung it away from Robert. The thing landed on the floor and tried scuttling into the shadows, but it was dripping a dark liquid and struggled to move. Hunith felt no pity. She rushed over and smashed it repeatedly with her spade. Her heart was racing, her blood was boiling, and she was going to pound that thing into the floor until it was nothing but a smear of tarry slime.

“Hunith! Enough! It's dead!”

Gentle hands stroked along her upper arms, trying to get her attention. When her panicked brain finally made sense of the message, “It's dead,” she let the spade crash to the floor. The clanging sound startled her back into an awareness of the world beyond the mangled blob on the floor.

Awareness brought anxiety… and guilt. “Merlin!” How could she have forgotten about Merlin?

She dropped onto the floor next to her son and tried to find his pulse. Her hands shook so much it was a difficult task, and for a long, terrible moment she thought him dead. She examined his face and thought there was a faint movement as air trickled out his nose. It had to be air; any other alternative was unthinkable.

Another pair of hands traced along Merlin's neck. She was grateful; she couldn't trust her own judgment. Instead, she stared at her son's face. It was as clean and untouched as it had been before the creature attacked. Whatever that thing had done to him had left no physical trace.

“He's alive, Hunith. The pulse is weak, but it's there. Let's get him to bed.”

Thank the heavens that her neighbour had come. Without his help, she would never have been able to lift Merlin off the floor. Provided they had managed to survive, of course. She sat next to her unconscious son on the bed, petting his forehead, willing her panic to die away so she could think. It was so hard to think!

Robert stood over the creature's corpse, poking at it with the tip of his axe. It looked like a giant mangled slug. “What the hell is that thing, Hunith? That’s no ordinary beastie. It was like fire on my face.”

Hunith had been so panicked and worried for Merlin she had forgotten that the creature had attacked Robert too.

“Are you all right? Did it hurt you?”

Robert looked up from his examination of the slug. “Don't you worry ‘bout me, Hunith. I'm fine. For a moment there, I thought my face’d burn right off my head. Thank the gods you got the little devil!”

That was a relief, at least. She'd never forgive herself if someone was injured coming to her aid. And if Robert was unhurt, maybe there would be nothing seriously wrong with Merlin, either. Hopefully he was just sleeping.

But—

Merlin had been found. It could be no coincidence that this unnatural creature had come so soon after the dragon’s warning. This attack had failed (assuming Merlin woke up and was as unharmed as Robert, oh please, oh please, oh please), but there could be more on the way.

Hunith was foolish to have stayed, foolish to have let her heart make the decision. It had all just been so surreal—Merlin's sudden appearance, the dragon, the unfathomable warnings. Leaving meant abandoning the home she loved, and with Merlin in such distress and barely capable of walking, it had all been too overwhelming. Her home wasn't much, but it was hers.

She looked around the small space, still lit only by the torch that continued burning where it had been dropped on the hard dirt floor. The furniture was simple but functional. It had originally been made from rough wood but had grown smooth from years of use. Dried foods and herbs hung from the ceiling, and the few possessions that she owned were carefully stored on shelves and in cupboards. This was where she had spent her time with Balinor; this was where she had watched Merlin grow from tiny child to nearly-grown man.

As she thought of her lost love, she instinctively looked to the small shelf over her bed. A carved, wooden dragon sat there, strong and fierce. It had been left on the shelf the morning that Balinor had left, the morning that she first woke to find herself alone. But not entirely alone—he had left her a dragon standing vigil over the bed and a baby in her womb. She liked to imagine that the wooden dragon watched over their home, keeping them safe, a little piece of Balinor left behind to protect them. But that had only been a foolish fantasy. It certainly hadn't protected her from loneliness and heartbreak.

This home was the place where she had been left behind, first by Balinor (and to this day she was angry that he hadn't taken her with him) and then by her son. She had chosen to send Merlin away, yes, but it hadn't been much of a choice at all. His magic had strengthened at an alarming rate. If he had stayed, he would have inevitably lost control and given himself away. Gaius was his best chance to learn to use the “gift” of magic that was such a double-edged sword.

Merlin had needed to leave Ealdor; she could see no other option. Sometimes she felt a bit resentful about that, too. How could Balinor have left her alone with this incredible, impossible child? Why did Merlin have to be different? Why couldn't she have a husband that worked hard, drank often, and hadn't had a drop of magic in him? Why couldn't she have had a normal child, one whose eyes didn't have an alarming propensity to turn golden when other people were nearby?

Why had she stayed behind when the men she loved had left?

Balinor hadn't given her a choice. But she could have tried to find him, to follow him, had she been brave enough. At least before the pregnancy illness left her too weak to travel. She hadn't felt quite ready to venture out into the world, to leave the safe, familiar home she loved. But when Merlin left… She could have gone with him. There would have been a place for her with Gaius. She had said it was good for a young man to head out into the world on his own… and it was! But the main reason that she had stayed behind was that Ealdor had always been her home, and she had sacrificed much in order to stay there. She hadn't wanted to leave it.

But she was not willing to sacrifice her son's life. Merlin was in danger, and he needed help. She had to get him away from Ealdor. Somehow she knew—call it intuition, or perhaps it was only her anxiety talking—but whatever it was, she knew that if she left her home now, she would never come back.

But with Merlin in danger, there was no choice. They would leave. Immediately.

Though how could they if Merlin didn't wake up?

She looked down at her son and shook him gently. “Wake up, Merlin.” There was no answer, no movement. She pushed on his torso a little more firmly. “Let's have you, lazy daisy!”

Nothing.

Robert came over and watched her attempts to wake her son. “I'll fetch Susan to help you with your boy.”

The idea of Robert leaving her alone when there might be other monsters lying in wait caused the muscles in her arms and legs to tense and prickle. If only Merlin would wake up, he could protect them.

Not that he had done such a great job of it against the slug, a cynical voice in her head added.

But we weren't prepared. We'll be on guard, now. Ready for the next attack. It will be okay.

If only Merlin would wake up!

She looked up into Robert’s face. The wrinkles on his brow seemed much deeper than usual. “Would you— Would you stay just a little longer? I… don't want to be alone yet.”

He made a humming sort of noise, as if in thought. “You ‘fraid somethin’ else is a’comin’? D’you think—”

“I don't know what to think!” Hunith immediately regretted her acidic tone of voice. Robert had risked his life to save her son, and she ought not treat him this way. “I’m sorry. I don't know what's come over me.”

He placed a hand on her shoulder and patted it gently. “It's fine. You've had quite a shock, and you’re worried sick. I'll just get my Susan to come help. And if you don't feel safe here, you’ll stay with us awhile. There's bunches of room on the floor to sleep.”

She nodded her thanks but didn't say anything. While that would normally be a great offer, she worried that nowhere in Ealdor would be safe. They would have to travel, and soon. If only Merlin would wake up!

Robert picked up the torch. Hunith quickly lit a few lamps before he left. Through the window she could see dawn approaching, but the light was still weak.

“I'll be back with Susan. We'll figure out something for your boy, Hunith, don't you worry!”

And then he was gone.

As soon as he left, the shadows seemed to darken into menacing masses, any of which might hide a creeping slug. How did she know that there weren't any more? Why hadn't she searched the house before Robert had left?

She armed herself with the spade again, just in case. It was probably ridiculous, but she felt safer that way. She stayed next to the bed, ready to guard Merlin with her life, should it come to that. Robert would be back with his wife soon, and Hunith would explain to them as much as she could. Her neighbours knew Merlin worked for the King of Camelot. They would believe her if she said his position at the castle had put his life in danger. There was black, slimy evidence all over her floor. They wouldn't need to hear about the magic.

A rooster crowed to welcome the dawn. Several songbirds started up their early morning chatter. Hunith had always loved the recognisable pattern of the mourning dove’s cry. One sat right outside the window now, singing tooloooo, woo woo woo. It was calming to listen to the normal sounds of the world waking up for the new day.

If only Merlin would wake up too.

A couple of dogs began to bark wildly on the edge of the village. Several others quickly joined in. That was unusual. Soon everyone in the village would be awake, whether they wanted to be or not. Stupid animals.

“Mum? What happened?”

Oh, thank all the gods! Her boy was awake. She immediately felt safer. If another creature came, his magic would protect them. They were awake now; they would be prepared. She lay the spade down on the floor and sat on the edge of the bed to check over her son.

“Merlin! How do you feel?” She couldn't help running her hands over his face and through his hair. She had been so worried, so very worried.

“I'm fine, Mother. I had the strangest dreams… What's wrong? Why are you looking at me like that?” He hadn't lifted his head from the pillow. His face was pale and he looked half-starved to death, but besides that he seemed all right.

She sat on the bed and willed herself not to cry. “There was… a thing. It attacked you. You don't remember any of that?”

He frowned, closed his eyes, and rubbed at his forehead with his fingers. “That was real?”

“It's dead now. But—you're sure you're all right?” Of course he said he was fine, but she knew her son. When he was younger he had said he was fine while sporting a broken bone. She couldn't trust his assessments.

“I'm perfectly fine. I feel a little peculiar, but that never killed anyone. There were just so many strange dreams… I'm not dying, so you can stop fretting so much. But what about you? Are you hurt? And— Why are the dogs making such a racket?”

The yapping and yowling of the hounds had grown louder. It drowned out the birds’ chattering. Maybe there was a boar nearby. The dogs always wanted to chase after them. Or maybe there was another creature—they had better be alert.

“It didn't hurt me, sweetie. Robert heard you scream and came to help, thank the gods. Otherwise—”

There was the sound of boots crunching through gravel. “That must be Robert. When you wouldn't wake up he went to get Susan.”

When Robert had kicked at the door to get into the house, the latch had broken. Now the door swung freely on its hinges. There were quiet voices on the other side. She would have to thank Susan for coming, but Merlin was awake and seemed unharmed, so Hunith didn't need the support anymore. What she did need was to start packing.

The voices reached the door. “Come in!” she called before anyone had knocked.

The broken door swung open with a grating sound. Perhaps the whole thing would need to be replaced. But no, they were leaving, she shouldn't be worrying about things like—

The man at the door was not Robert. Nor was he alone. Five other men followed him into the small house. They were clearly soldiers, dressed in mail and carrying swords.

She had waited too long.

The tallest of the men was an ugly brute with uneven features, making it appear like half his face was sliding off. He scanned the room and nodded curtly when he saw Merlin.

“Get the boy.”

That broke her out of the paralysis of shock. She snatched the spade off the floor and brandished it at the men coming towards them. They laughed, but she didn't care. She would not back down. Behind her, she could hear Merlin sit up in bed.

“I’ll take care of this,” he murmured to her. “I just need to…” His voice trailed into silence as his concentration focussed elsewhere.

The first soldier was within striking distance, and Merlin still hadn't done anything. She held the spade up, ready to swing it at the man's head. What the hell was taking Merlin so long? Despite her bravado, she knew there was no chance she could stop six armed soldiers. Sweat dripped from her temples and fear rose in her throat. But she would not back down.

The man reached to take the spade from her, and she whacked him with it on the shoulder as hard as she could. She had been aiming for his face and was disappointed to have missed. The man grunted, and the other soldiers laughed.

“Feisty thing, innit she?” said one.

It would be helpful if Merlin would blast them, as he had assured her he would. She raised the spade for a second blow, but a gauntleted hand grabbed the handle and yanked it away. Someone else grabbed her around the waist. She flailed and kicked and even tried knocking her head against the man, but he was an immovable mountain, completely immune to her pathetic attempts to defend herself.

“Merlin!” she screamed. A hand was clamped over her mouth. The man had maneuvered her into a more secure position, arms pinned to her sides. She still tried kicking back with her feet, but it was pointless. Her feet were bare, as she had been asleep and was still dressed only in her night clothes.

The man holding her chuckled. “I like this one. She's got spirit.”

Hunith was more angry than scared. How dare these men come into her home! How dare they come and bother them! She hadn't really approved of Merlin's whole blasting plan, but at the moment she was ready for her son to give it a go.

Except… He didn't.

She could see him on the bed, face white as a sheet, muttering spells one after the other, endlessly. His voice grew louder, more desperate, but still—nothing. No glowing gold eyes, no flying men, no blasting of any kind.

Nothing.

Another soldier went to the bed and pulled her son out. The man set him on his feet, but Merlin’s legs immediately collapsed beneath him.

“Get up, boy!”

But he couldn't. Hunith watched him try, but his legs would not cooperate. They only worked with magical assistance. And that was when she understood what had happened. Merlin had lost his magic. That creature hadn't been sent to kill him. It had been sent to make him defenseless.

Horror roiled in her gut. These brutes were going to take Merlin, and there was nothing she could do to stop it. Her beloved son had come to her in a time of need, and she had failed him. She had been warned… she knew something was coming… And she had done nothing.

And now they would take her son away and do unspeakable things to him, and it was all her fault.

“Aww, the little birdie’s wings were clipped. Carry him. We need to go.”

Someone threw Merlin over a shoulder and made for the door. The man holding her didn't move.

“What should I do with this one, boss?”

The tall, ugly man looked her over, a thoughtful look on his face. “Bring her. She might prove useful. And if not, we could always have a bit of fun.”

The soldier let go of her just long enough for her to scream and try to run. “Help! Help!” He grabbed her again, but this time he had rope. She kept screaming the entire time he tied her ankles and wrists. Then a cloth was stuffed in her mouth, and a gag tied round it.

“That's better. You shriek like a banshee, woman.” This was not said unkindly; there was almost a tone of respect in the man's voice. He was gentler than he had to be, and she appreciated it.

Not that she forgave him for anything.

He picked her up as if she were naught more than a sleeping child, easily tossing her over his shoulder. She wanted to struggle, but it wouldn't help anything. The man hadn't been cruel, but she didn't want to tempt him.

Outside the sun had just lifted itself over the horizon. Hunith tried to see what was happening in the village, but it was difficult from her position. There were other soldiers outside her house, a score or more. They were all armed, and many were already mounted on horses.

There were villagers gathered together at a distance… most of the men, she noticed, and a few of the women. They stood there and watched as she was carried to a horse, draped over it, and tied on.

No one said a word. No one came to help.

Merlin was tied onto a different horse, but she couldn't see how he was faring.

The leader then addressed the villagers, voice booming through the village. “Should any of you wish to follow us, I will come back and raze your village to the ground. I leave you with a token of my sincerity.”

There was a pause. She couldn't tell what was happening. And then several soldiers surrounded her house, each carrying multiple torches.

“Burn it.”

A torch was thrown on the roof, another held to the wall, yet another tossed through the door. The flames spread reluctantly at first, but soon the entire building was engulfed. Tears sprang from her eyes unbidden. She blinked them away, and when that was unsuccessful, she wiped them against the side of the horse that carried her. This was not the best idea, as horsehair came loose and plastered itself to the tear tracks on her face. This just made her cry all the more. She had wanted to be stoic, strong for her son if not for herself. It was yet another thing she could not get right.

Amidst the fear and anger, there dwelt a great sadness. As the horses walked away from Ealdor, away from her home, she could see the villagers standing motionless while her dear house burned.

Her intuition about leaving Ealdor had been correct: she would never again be able to return to the home she loved. In the end, her fantasies about Balinor’s carved dragon protecting them had proven to be just that: fantasies.

Chapter Text

Leon woke to a massive headache. It reverberated around his skull and narrowed into a cold sort of burning on the back of his neck. He tried to focus his eyes on something, anything… but all he could see were dull, flickering colours amidst darkness. He closed his eyes to block out the confusing images and groaned.

Gaius’ voice came from somewhere close by, though Leon still couldn't see anything.

“Sir Leon? How do you feel?”

Honestly, he felt like vomiting his guts out and then dying. But that's not the kind of thing he would willingly admit to.

“Gods, did Gwaine finally convince me to go to the tavern with him last night? I haven't felt like this since that time he challenged me to a drinking contest…” His voice trailed off into another groan as the pain in his head protested the effort of speech.

“That sounds like him,” said a voice that probably belonged to Percival. Unless it didn't. The ringing in his ears made it hard to tell.

“Sounds like who?” he wanted to say, but instead he turned onto his side and was sick all over the… rocky ground? What? Where was he?

“You didn't have to hit him that hard,” another voice said. Who it was, he couldn't tell, being too busy losing the contents of his stomach. “Heads are delicate things. He might end up as crazy as Gwaine now.”

Ugh. Gwaine. Gwaine was definitely crazy. And if he was the reason Leon felt like this, he would challenge that troublemaker to a duel and smack him around the field. It would be a chance for pretty revenge masquerading as honour. Wasn't knighthood grand? The idea struck him as hilarious, and he tried to laugh, but that made his head throb with pain. He moaned instead. His weakness was mortifying, but he was too ill to care.

Someone gently wiped away the sick from his face, and then arms around his shoulders propped him into a more upright position. A clay vessel was lifted to his lips.

“Drink this,” Gaius said. “It will help you feel better.”

But it certainly didn't help his mouth feel better! Damn, that stuff was wretched. He would have spit it out if he didn't trust Gaius implicitly.

After he drank the foul concoction, whoever was holding him lowered him back down to the ground. He tried to make his eyes focus, and slowly they complied. He realised the flickering was from torchlight, and the dull colours hovering over him were faces.

He was getting the idea that something more than an ill-advised night out had happened. “Where the hell are we?”

No one answered for a moment, then Gaius said, “What do you remember, Sir Leon?”

What did he remember? Why would Gaius ask him that? Shouldn't Leon be the one asking questions? Though… What did he remember? Huh. His brain felt remarkably empty. That was strange. He had just been—

Shit, why couldn't he remember? He had… Errrr…. Something with Arthur?

Gaius’ voice was muffled, clearly not directed at Leon. “Merlin didn't remember anything from the time when he had the fomorroh in his neck, either.”

Leon had no idea what any of that could mean.

Gwaine answered back, “That might be a kindness. I’m not sure what all Morgana made him do, but none of it would be pleasant.”

Percival spoke, voice almost too quiet to hear. “And we know he was coming for Gwen. He would never forgive himself if anything had happened to her.”

Morgana? What did Morgana have to do with anything? Had that witch gotten her claws in someone? And what was this about Gwen?

Gwen… Wait, wasn't he supposed to do something for Gwen? No, that's not quite— Oh! He was supposed to get Gwen? But why? There was a jumble of images in his head… swords, perfect white skin, a small black snake, Arthur…

Morgana. That… that had been a dream, yeah? It was a dream, only a dream… He hadn't—

As memories rushed back, his muscles seized up, petrified by the horror of what he had done.

“Arthur!” Leon shook off his paralysis, panic propelling him to sit up. But when he tried to stand, he found a sword tip pressing into his sternum.

“Hold up there, mate.” Gwaine's voice was tight and unfriendly in a way Leon was completely unfamiliar with. “If you think you can just—”

Leon pulled away from Gwaine's sword, but it followed his movement. “Gods, Gwaine, she's going to burn Arthur! We have to do something!”

The sword was immediately withdrawn.

“I thought Merlin didn't remember anything?” Percival asked. “So how do we know the snake isn't saying this to distract us?”

Free from sword point, Leon struggled to his feet. His head pounded and he felt dizzy, but he needed to be convincing, and that would be easier if he could meet his friends eye-to-eye.

“Morgana is going to execute Arthur!” He tried not to yell, but a little passion wouldn't hurt his cause. “Someone needs to save him. If you don't trust me, fine, but please, I beg you—”

Leon hadn't cried in years, not since his mother died, but he could feel the tears threatening now. “You have to go! I led Arthur straight to Morgana. She's going to torture him and execute him, and it's all my fucking fault! Please, I beg you… let me go. Let me save him. Please…” His voice broke as the horrible guilt of what he had done washed over him. He pressed his hands to his eyelids, willing himself to not fall apart now. He had to convince them. And then he remembered something else.

“And Merlin. She's sent soldiers to bring him back to Camelot. Someone needs to—”

“I think Merlin is fully capable of taking care of himself,” Gwaine said. “I hear he's capable of calling a dragon to roast anyone who so much looks at him wrong.”

Fear shivered its way up and down Leon's spine. If he didn't get his friends to understand, to believe him, terrible things would happen. And so much of it would be his fault. He couldn't bear it… He'd committed the worst kind of treachery: he'd betrayed his King, he'd betrayed his kingdom… He had to make them see!

“No, no, she's sent some creature. To Ealdor. It eats magic, destroys it. I watched her test it on some poor soul. It will suck every last drop of magic out of Merlin, and he'll be defenseless. You know nothing in that village can stand up to Morgana.”

There was a long pause. Leon used it to catch his breath. His eyes had finally adjusted fully to the flickering torchlight. He could see Gwaine, Percival, and Gaius nodding to each other, as if trying to have a conversation without him knowing. The rest of the cave held pockets of dark shapes, bodies huddled together for warmth and comfort. It was too dark to tell if he knew any of them. Who all had escaped? He knew Elyan had been captured right after Arthur, completely overwhelmed by the Southrons in that corridor. He assumed Gwen was safe, sleeping in the back cave, maybe. But he dared not ask, lest they think he was still possessed by that… that… thing.

The memory of when that creature had sliced into his neck was suddenly at the front of his mind. He rubbed at the spot gingerly. It was damp, and there was a large bump where the snake must be. Part of him wanted to rip the thing out with his bare fingernails.

There must have been some unspoken communication, because Cador came to stand next to him, sword drawn and ready for use, while Gwaine, Gaius, and Percival moved to the far side of the cave. They looked to be in a fierce debate. Leon wanted to run over and beg them to listen, to plead with them to go save their friends. He bit on his tongue. Patience. Be patient. Trust in your friends. After all, you're the one who is a failure, not them.

Cador did not speak, but eyed him with a stony look on his face. Leon didn't even try to talk. Instead, he ran through his options: what would he do if they didn't believe him? He couldn't let his King die thinking that Leon had betrayed him. Even if Arthur did suspect Leon had been enchanted, Leon had still failed him.

Eventually Gaius, Gwaine, and Percival returned. Leon couldn't help himself. “Please, please, we have to go save them… Please say you believe me.”

Gaius sighed loudly, then jerkily lowered himself to the cave floor. His body drooped, almost as if it were trying to melt into the ground. Leon wasn't sure he had ever seen anyone look quite so exhausted. He sat down nearby, hoping to look less threatening if he weren't towering over the old man. Percival sat, too, but Cador didn't move and Gwaine paced next to them, six steps forwards, abrupt turn, six steps back. He looked ready to whip out his sword at a moment's notice.

“We believe you,” Percival said. “Gaius claims he paralysed the creature inside your neck. And you seem yourself again, and not some obsessed maniac.”

Much of the tension that had gripped Leon flowed out of his body when he heard this. “Oh, thank the gods! How ever did Gaius know?”

When he spoke, Gaius’ voice was weak. “You were acting a lot like Merlin that time Morgana enchanted him to kill Arthur. And we had suspected something was wrong. First you disappeared overnight. Then you showed up but abandoned your post. No one had seen you; no one knew what had happened to you. And then when you finally made it here, you were so focussed on Gwen… It was obvious something wasn't right. When we fled Camelot, I was able to bring several bags of supplies, which luckily included the ingredients for the paralysing potion.”

Paralysing potion? The creature wasn't dead? Leon's heart beat faster as he imagined the snake taking over his body again.

“How— How long? How long do I have?”

“Twelve to twenty-four hours, most likely. But I have more of the potion. It can be reapplied several times.”

“And how do I kill this thing in me?”

Gwaine stopped pacing. His fists clenched and unclenched, as if he were trying to convince himself not to punch something. “There's a fucking mother beast somewhere that will have to be killed and burnt. You have to hand it to Morgana—she sure knows how to be dramatic. You couldn't have gotten yourself caught by some hedge witch, could you have, mate? You had to go whole hog and get strung up by the best?”

Leon gaped at Gwaine, not quite certain how to take those words. Was he angry with him? He certainly ought to be. But it was… almost humourous? Gods, how he missed the days when they would take the piss out of each other just for the fun of it. He almost responded instinctively and asked Gwaine if he were jealous; but then he remembered the pain, the shame, the horror of watching his body do someone else's will. No one could ever be jealous of that.

A painful silence stretched out instead. Perhaps they felt it, too, the loss of their easy-natured camaraderie. It was the least of their worries, but it stung in a way that knowledge of Camelot’s fall didn't. Perhaps because this loss was both immediate and unexpected. Leon knew he'd feel horror at the thought of Arthur burning to death. But he hadn't emotionally steeled himself for the inability to joke with friends.

Eventually Percival said, “So we need to plan. Quickly. So who has any ideas?”

Gwaine said, “I think—”

“I meant, any good ideas,” Percival interrupted, a sly grin on his face.

Leon couldn't help the laugh that escaped his mouth. Even Gwaine smiled and looked somewhat less tense than he had.

Maybe they weren't as damaged as Leon had feared.

Chapter Text

There had been much discussion, but in the end the knights and Gaius would not let Leon go alone. Leon had argued that he would be the safest choice, since Morgana assumed he was enchanted and expected him to return. Anyone else would be immediately captured or killed if discovered. But his friends worried about the snake. Leon was taking a vial of the paralyser potion with him, but there was concern that the snake might reassert itself sooner than expected. Someone else would need to go with Leon, just in case.

Gwen had wanted to go, but Leon had flatly refused. Morgana wanted Gwen, and there was no way that Leon would let that happen. Gwen had pouted, but he had promised to bring back her brother.

“Gwen, I need to know that you're safe, that Morgana can't get to you. She resents you greatly, perhaps because she knows you would be ten times the queen she could ever be. Our people know that you are practically betrothed to Arthur. They love you, and they will follow you. Please, stay here. If we don't come back, you should flee to Nemeth. Lead as many as you can. I will tell Vidor to follow you as he would me. I trust you, Gwen.”

She had nodded jerkily, eyes overbright. At least Leon had done this one thing right. Gwen would stay safe. She would care for their people who had escaped. If he failed in all else, this, at least, would ease his heart.

In the end Sir Cador had been the one to come with him. Both Leon and Cador carried a vial of the paralysing concoction, just in case. They hoped to be back before the snake reawakened, but Leon had strict orders to dab more on his neck after ten hours, just to be safe.

The siege tunnels and the other secret ways into the city had all been compromised when Agravaine had given Morgana the tunnel maps. They were all guarded, impossible to penetrate.

Instead, they planned to enter through the side gate. Cador dressed in clothes borrowed from one of the town merchants who had escaped to the cave. Leon would pass through the gate first, since he was allowed free passage in the city as one of Morgana’s henchmen. He would scout out the situation, and if all seemed well, he would signal to Cador to follow. They assumed that there would be some movement of people in and out of the city. As a merchant, Cador could pretend to be returning to his family after a trading journey abroad.

Leon had not expected a greeting party at the gate. As soon as he appeared, the Southron standing guard called, “He's here!” Then the man looked at Leon and said, “The Queen's a’lookin’ for yeh. Move along, now, ‘afore she gets all fired up.”

When he walked through the gate, there were four Southrons there ready to escort him. Damn it. Leon had hoped to have free rein of the city, at least for awhile. He needed to make sure Cador got in; they needed to find Arthur and Elyan; they needed to plan the rescues… Shit.

Instead, Leon found himself led straight to Morgana’s bedchamber. She was lounging in settee next to a window that gave her a view of the courtyard. There was a nearly-empty bottle of wine and a crystal goblet on the adjacent end table. She held a gold-edged porcelain bowl in her lap, from which she drew out strawberries and nibbled at them with tiny bites.

Strawberries were not yet in season. This use of magic was subtle and benign, but it still struck him as unnatural. Leon tried not to think of it as evil—rationally, he knew that magic could be benevolent. But… it was going to take some getting used to. Gods, he hoped he lived long enough for that to happen.

Leon's escorts had announced him, and now he stood silently, waiting to see where this was going. Did Morgana suspect him? Or was she just impatient to get—

“Where is my servant, Sir Knight? I sent you to retrieve her a full day ago, yet I do not see her anywhere. How do you explain this?”

Ah, so it was impatience. That was the better option, but Leon still needed to tread carefully. He thought it would be easy to imitate the snake’s mannerisms, but now that he was here in the belly of the beast, doubts crept in. Stay calm, keep it together. Don't let your nerves show. Slow down, heart beat. Stop sweating, damn it. You are as serene as a babe nursing at his mother's breast.

“My Queen, I bring news.” Did he sound properly respectful enough? He tried to envision that he was talking to a lady he actually respected—Gwen, perhaps—and not to a cruel, traitorous witch. “Your servant, the girl Gwen. She is dead.”

Morgana dropped the strawberry she held back into the bowl and placed it on the table. Were her hands shaking? Why would they? Leon wanted to stare and find out for sure, but he forced himself to keep his head bowed respectfully.

“Dead? Are you certain?” Her voice shook. Something about this news upset her.

“Yes, my Queen. She was shot through the heart with an arrow when she fled Camelot.”

“And her body?”

“Burnt. The men burn all the corpses they find.”

Morgana stood and looked out the window. Her body was stiff, nothing like the relaxed posture of before. Was she… unhappy? Had she, on some level, still cared for Gwen? Or was she just annoyed that she wouldn't be able to torment her, to get revenge against the girl that would have usurped her position at court?

“Come here, Sir Knight.”

He did as bid, keeping his head bowed and breathing even.

“Look out the window and tell me what you see.”

Leon feared what he would see. He made sure that Morgana couldn't observe his face, in case an unsanctioned emotion slipped through.

The sun was low in the western sky. Its rays bounced off the underside of a large sheet of clouds, lighting the sky in a swath of magenta. The colour reflected onto the earth, tinting everything with the colour of blood.

The courtyard was filled with people, a great mass of people, all tinged red in the eerie light. They were mostly still. Had they been forced to stay there all day? Forced to watch the humiliation and destruction of their kingdom with their king? Many faces focused on the platform in the middle of the courtyard, but many more did not. Leon had the feeling that they did not want to look, and truthfully, neither did he.

But he had to. He had to know.

He forced his eyes to settle on the platform, to see the figure tied to the pole in the centre. It was Arthur, of course, as he knew it would be. But even from here Leon could tell Arthur would never be the same again (assuming Leon even managed to rescue him). The extent of damage was horrifying. The red light of the sunset blended evenly into the blood that covered his body. Thankfully, Arthur appeared to be unconscious.

“What do you see?” she snapped, impatient with his lack of response.

What Leon saw was heartbreak and disaster. Damn, what would the snake see?

“I see your Kingdom, my Queen, and your victory.”

She stood next to him and gazed at the scene before them. “I see that they still defy me. My dear brother defies me even now. He has escaped into dreamland despite my attempts to keep him awake. I even healed him partially, but he still eludes me. It should be impossible! I am a Priestess of Old Religion. He should not be able to escape me thus.

“And the people… they grieve for him. For that monster! Do they not know what he has done? Do they not know what he is? He is a demon upon this earth, sowing death and destruction to the innocent and pure. And yet… They weep for him!

“I have won, yes, but I have not won their hearts.”

Gods, what would the snake say to that? Would it try to comfort its mistress? Just the idea made Leon want to vomit all over Morgana’s silky black dress.

“My Queen. I am certain they will grow to love you. They grieve for the past, but you will show them the way to a brighter future.”

As Leon said this, he pondered if there were any truth to it. Could Morgana lead Camelot to a brighter future? Would she be able to create a world of peace and prosperity for everyone, whether they possessed magic or not?

Because (and it stung to admit this) Uther Pendragon had been wrong. Magic was not inherently evil—look at Merlin, look at Gaius. Look at the druids who had saved Leon's life. None of them deserved death. Morgana was not wrong there.

But—Arthur was a good man. If he had been given a chance… If someone like Morgana or Merlin had showed him the truth of magic… Leon believed that Arthur would have listened. Arthur would have done what was best for all the inhabitants of his kingdom.

But Morgana hadn't given him the chance. She could have spoken to him, she could have tried to work something out. But instead she went straight to betrayal and murder. Betrayal, murder, and the complete mental and physical violation of other people. The snake was an unforgivable offense, and she had used it more than once: on him, on Merlin, and who knows how many others.

Morgana could have tried for a peaceful solution, but instead she brought war and horror to Camelot. There was no way that someone like that would be able to create a prosperous kingdom. Any little problem would be met with anger and violence. Peace would be naught but a dream.

Morgana turned away from the window, grabbed the bowl of strawberries, and threw it across the room. The porcelain dish shattered into hundreds of pieces, and the berries spattered and skidded along the smooth stone floor, leaving bright red streaks along the way. They reminded Leon of the bloody stripes on the body of someone who had been flogged.

Gods, he needed to get out of here and rescue Arthur.

“If they will not love me, I will make them fear me! I will have their respect!”

Could he say something? Could he do something to shield the people of Camelot from Morgana’s wrath? Would Morgana believe that the snake could give advice? Its command had been to serve its Mistress in all things.

“They stood there all day… I will have them stand there all night till their king burns in the morning. I will have any who falter beaten, any who protest whipped…”

If he could not offer advice without giving himself away, could he offer something else?

“My Queen.” He tried to sound deeply respectful despite his revulsion. “The people have experienced a great shock. They will learn to respect you. They just need time. And mercy. If you sent them home, let them rest, they might sooner understand that you are fully deserving of their love.”

Morgana stared at him, speechless. Had he gone too far? Did she suspect him? He remained still, head bent in respect, heart pounding with anxiety even as he strove to appear calm.

At last she asked, “And what would you know about love?”

He inhaled deeply, giving himself a moment to consider what the snake would say. “My Queen. This human has many passions that he would call love. He is the sort of creature that would be willing to die for the sake of such love.”

Morgana snorted, returned to the settee, and picked up her wine goblet. “Well, then, do go on. Tell me what the brave Sir Leon knows about love. He certainly never had a lady friend, so I'm not sure what wisdom he could give.”

And what did Leon know about love? What could he say that might make some impression on Morgana? Despite the darkening twilight, Leon could still see Arthur hanging from the pole. To Leon, Arthur was a symbol of love. To love was to care more for someone or something else than for your own selfish desires. To love was to want what was best for the beloved, whether it be a person or a kingdom. Arthur had spent his life trying to make Camelot a better place. He had been willing to sacrifice that life for the sake of his people (and if Leon didn't get his act together, Arthur would, in fact, die for his kingdom).

“This human believes strongly that love is not confined to romance, my Queen. Instead, love flourishes in all manner of situations, between friends or siblings, parents and mentors. The clue that it is love is that love desires what is best for the other. So parents might be strict with their children, but it is still love because it is what is best for the child's welfare.

“And for this human, the greatest love of all is for King and kingdom. He devoted his life to serving the King because the King laid down his life to serve his people's best interests. And that is why the people love their King.”

He paused, attempting to judge how Morgana was reacting to this little speech. The room had grown dark as night settled in, and it was difficult to tell. But she had not interrupted nor stormed off in a temper. Perhaps he was amusing her.

“So this human would say that the people will love a monarch who loves them by caring for their best interests. In which case, you would be best served by sending them home to bed. My Queen.”

She didn't respond, but sipped the last of her wine and spun the goblet fitfully in her fingers. Was she considering it? Might there still be a bit of reason, of compassion, amidst all the anger and pride?

They stared out the window, side-by-side, Leon standing, Morgana in the settee. Leon couldn't take his eyes off of Arthur. Morgana stood without warning and stepped out into the corridor. Her voice carried back into the room, though Leon couldn't tell what it said. Then she came back to stand next to him. He had dared not move.

It took several moments before anything happened. But slowly there was a shift in the crowd as townspeople returned to their homes, soldiers to their barracks. Leon sighed with relief. Soon the courtyard was nearly empty, dark underneath the starlight. The great sheet of clouds from earlier had moved on, leaving a clear night behind—the kind of early spring night where the temperature could easily drop below freezing. Leon ached for his King, hanging there, alone, completely exposed to the cold.

Eventually only Arthur and an unknown number of guards were left in the courtyard. There were a few torches lit around the edges, but mostly it was dark. The guards would be a problem, but the lack of light might help. Now if only he could leave this place and get on to the business of rescuing people: Arthur, of course, but nor could he forget Elyan in the dungeons. He had promised Gwen that Elyan would not be left behind. Hopefully Cador would not need to be rescued as well, though Leon would remain alert to the possibility.

There was a knock at the door. “Get that,” Morgana said. When he opened the door, he was surprised to see Agravaine. How Leon wished he could run him through then and there. Though why was the impulse to stab this worm so much stronger than the urge to stab Morgana? They had both betrayed Arthur. Maybe it was because Leon still remembered the kind girl Morgana had once been. Arthur's uncle had only ever been a snake.

Agravaine carried a tray laden with fruit tarts, cut tulips, and a bottle of wine. “Please present this to the Queen with my congratulations on her victory.”

Leon bowed, accepted the tray, and said, “Of course, my Lord. Is there anything else I can do for you?”

Agravaine chuckled. “No, no, that's all. Do tell her that the wine is the finest vintage I have in my possession. And I do hope she sleeps well. It is an exciting day tomorrow, after all.

Leon closed the door too abruptly, practically in Agravaine's face. He feared that his temper had given him away, but Morgana didn't seem to notice. “My Queen. The Lord Agravaine wishes to congratulate you on your victory.” He set the tray on the end table, heart beating with anxiety. But he needn't have worried.

Morgana laughed, scoffing. “More likely he wants to get into my bed. He never does seem to learn. But since he was so kind as to send me this…”

She poured the wine into her empty goblet and sipped at it. “Mmm, this is excellent. I'll have to send Agravaine my compliments.”

He stood a ways back, head bowed, mentally urging her to dismiss him. Night had settled in, and time grew ever shorter. What if Morgana never sent him away?

But Morgana had no inclination to let him leave. Instead, she wandered to the dressing screen. “I desire your help. Come.”

Leon had no experience with undressing women, but he somehow managed. He removed her garments, piece by piece, hanging each carefully over the screen before continuing to the next. The slow pace was deliberate, giving himself time to control both his emotions and any inadvertent physical reactions.

The room was chilly, but when the last of the clothing came off, her eyes flared with gold and heat rushed in between their bodies. It was yet more magic, innocuous magic, magic that could even save lives on a cold winter's night. Despite knowing this, his first reaction to the spell was disgust.

It was so hard to separate the magic from the user. He imagined Merlin doing the same spell and relaxed a little. Just because Morgana was evil, it didn't mean that all the tools she used were. Guilt by association was something Uther had believed in that Leon had never fully supported.

His mental battles helped distract him from the sight of Morgana’s nude body. It was, of course, exquisite, which hardly seemed fair considering the state of her soul.

She led the way to her bed and lay stomach-down on top of the covers. “My muscles are tense. Rub them for me.” So he did. Slowly, deliberately, trying not to think about what he was doing.

As his hands worked their way from back to shoulders to neck, it was easy to imagine what it would feel like to strangle her. He dared not try, for her magic was strong. It was still early enough in the night that he wouldn't take any foolish risks. But the temptation was great.

Leon rubbed rose-scented oil into every bit of her skin, inch by painstaking inch. When he eventually reached her right leg, she began asking questions.

“I don't understand. How is it that Leon could love Arthur? They grew up together. Leon knows as well as anyone what an arrogant arse Arthur could be.”

It was true. Leon did know what an arse Arthur could be. He had lived through the worst of it, back in the days before Merlin had arrived. But he had never doubted that goodness dwelled in Arthur's heart.

“My Queen. The human believes that you can love imperfect people. That no one is perfect, but everyone is deserving of love.”

Her hands clenched into fists. He kept rubbing at her leg as if he had not noticed.

“Your human is lying to himself. He does not find everyone worthy of love. He would kill me in a heartbeat.”

She wasn't wrong.

“My Queen. The human believes that you were once compelled to righteousness. You fought for the weak; you cared for the poor. He saw you as a shining star in a dark world. But—you allowed fear and anger to turn to hatred. And now…. he pities you. He mourns for the person you could have been.”

Morgana rolled out from where he was still stroking her calf muscle, sat up, and glared at him.

“He lies!” she yelled, breasts heaving, nostrils flared.

Leon stepped away from the bed and bowed his head. Shit, shit, fuck. He had pushed too far. Any moment now she would flash those golden eyes and snap his neck.

But nothing happened. At last he dared to look. She hadn't moved, but a few tears had dripped down her cheeks. The sight stirred something deep in his heart. There must have been such sadness, such despair, for her to have undergone such a drastic transformation. What would it have been like, believing that everyone you knew would kill you for the accident of having been born with magic?

“My Queen.” What could he say? He needed to salvage this. Could he perhaps still get through to her? “Love… creates love. When you… loved your people, they couldn't help but love you back.”

“No!” She jumped off the bed, her long, dark hair trailing behind her. The room was dim, lit only by a few lamps, but he could see the anger clearly in every line of her naked body. All that passion could have been beautiful, had it not been so twisted.

“No!” she said again as she paced in circles around the room. “They did not love me. They would have killed me without a second thought. You are lying!”

She grabbed a small wooden box from her dressing table and threw it towards his head. He instinctively jerked out of the way, but at the last second let the box hit him. The snake probably wouldn't defend itself against its mistress. It hit his mail and splintered; golden chains and sparkling jewels scattered everywhere.

“They would have burned me! My own father would have seen me roasted alive!”

Tears streamed from her eyes now, and her entire body shook. She carried so much pain, so much unresolved anger. Was it any wonder that it had changed her? Could Leon have done any better in the same situation?

In that moment he felt for her, he truly did. But he couldn't forget why he was here. “The same way you will watch your own brother roast in the morning?”

Morgana could barely speak as her body fully engaged in weeping. She collapsed back onto her bed and huddled in on herself. But at last she managed.

“Who… are you? You are no fomorroh.” The tears kept falling, but her body behaved strangely. Her muscles grew weak and she slowly melted into the bed. Leon could not understand what was happening. One minute she had been so full of fire, and now all that energy was gone.

“Leon?” she gasped, even as she struggled to lift her head and look at him. He figured there was no point denying it now. She had discovered his ruse; he had allowed his passion to get the best of him.

“Yes, my Lady?”

She gasped for breath, struggling to take in enough oxygen, fighting both the sobs and whatever strange thing was happening to her body.

“What did you do to me?” Her voice sounded… scared. In a way he hadn't heard since the nightmares had tormented her, so many years ago.

But what had he done to her? Nothing. He hadn't done anything! What was happening to her?

Her breathing slowed, and her body had completely relaxed into the mattress. Her eyes fluttered closed, but she took one last gasp of air.

“Could you… could you have… loved me?”

Then she lay still. She was breathing; her chest steadily rose and fell, shaking her breasts gently. But this was no ordinary sleep. It was almost as if… could she have been drugged?

He recalled Agravaine's visit. It had seemed a poor attempt at flattery. But—could he betray Morgana as easily as he had Arthur? To what purpose? And why tonight? Could he want something with Arthur before he was executed?

At that thought, a frisson of fear ran up Leon's torso. He needed to go. Now. Arthur was waiting, and if Morgana had been drugged, the way would be more clear. Unless Agravaine was up to something?

And what if Morgana woke?

That was when Leon realised what he needed to do.

Morgana’s nude body had crumpled into a heap; he took a moment to lay her out properly on the bed covers. She was as stunning as she had ever been, despite the passage of time and descent into evil. Her skin was flawless, her features perfect. All that she lacked was the goodness in her heart that had once shone through in all that she had done.

Leon's sword was still in its scabbard, hanging around his waist. He drew it reluctantly but then replaced it. This would go against everything he believed about attacking the defenseless. He would not use a symbol of his knighthood for such a deed. Instead, he located one of Morgana’s own swords in an armoire.

“I did, my Lady,” he whispered. “I did love you. I could have loved you still, had there been any room left for love in your heart. But hatred overfilled those spaces long ago.”

He took one last look at Morgana, resting peacefully at last. And then he lifted the sword and plunged it into her chest, right through the heart and into the mattress. He did not withdraw the sword, but left it there pinning her to the bed. Blood slowly oozed out where the blade met skin. It was as red as the strawberries she had been eating, as red as the sunset that had long since passed.

The sight was captivating, horrifying; it took a long moment before he was able to pull himself away. When he did, he realised he was shaking. Not just his hands, but all his muscles. His palms were sweaty, and he wiped them on the bed covers before turning away.

Leon had done what he had to do. He knew he shouldn't feel guilty, and yet… this would haunt him for a long, long time.

But for now— It was past time to rescue Arthur. He just hoped that Agravaine wasn't planning to get in his way.

Chapter Text

As far as comfortable ways to travel went, this current method left a lot to be desired. He'd been slung over a horse’s back, stomach down. His ankles and wrists had been tied and then fastened to each other with rope strung under the belly of the horse. His head hurt from hanging upside down, and he'd been tied so tightly that there wasn't much room to inhale, making breathing difficult.

His feet were bare, as he’d not had a chance to put on his shoes after having been in bed. The morning spring air made both hands and feet so cold they soon went numb. At least the sunshine left a warm spot where it hit his back. Watching the ground pass by in a flurry of horse legs was unsettling. He knew he ought to stay alert, search out opportunities to escape. But he felt less dizzy with his eyes closed. It was easier to pretend this was just another bad dream, something like the one he had had before the creature attacked.

Besides, it's not like he could escape anyway. Even if he got loose, without magic he couldn't walk… couldn't do anything. He was useless. Worse than useless. He had brought this disaster to his mother, and now he could never forgive himself. It probably wouldn't be long before he was dead, though, so at least the misery wouldn't last forever.

Occasionally, when he opened his eyes, the horse was turned in such a way that he could glimpse his mother, still in her night dress. She was tied to a horse, but unlike Merlin, she had been gagged. The soldiers must have been completely certain that his magic was gone; otherwise, they would have also gagged Merlin to keep him from verbalising spells. He didn't want to speak up and remind them of this potential oversight, so he kept quiet. Better save his voice for a time when it might be useful.

Honestly, he was beyond caring about what happened to himself anymore. But his mother…His fear for her ate away at his insides like acid. When that bastard had threatened her, Merlin had thrown all the power of the universe at him. And—nothing. That was when he knew that the creature hadn't just weakened his magic, as had occurred in the first stages of the curse. The magic was completely gone. If even the tiniest drop remained, there would have been nothing left of the man but ashes and cinders.

This was not the first time Merlin had thought this. Once he would have been horrified by this realisation, but now he was simply resigned. The idea of blasting everything in his way was rather appealing.

The day passed in an endless monotony of hoof beats. The sound clopped around the empty places in his body where his magic had once been, hammering away from the inside. He tried to stay aware, to keep his wits… but the endless movement and noise mixed with the illness and discomfort, all exacerbated by the loss of the magic, was too much. After awhile all he could do was close his eyes, focus on the sun's warmth on his back, and try not to be sick.

For the most part, the men ignored him. It didn't seem like they bothered his mother either, but Merlin's vision was blocked and he wasn't always within earshot. No one said much; they all just plodded along, following the road that led to Camelot. It seemed like there were fewer horses travelling with them than there had been at the beginning. Perhaps now that the mighty Emrys was reduced to nothing more than a bug in a jar, they had decided not as many fighters were needed. He would normally be pleased, since fewer enemies meant escape would be easier. But without any magic and completely unable to walk, there was nothing he could do. He wouldn’t be able to escape from even one man, let alone a dozen.

Eventually he found himself reliving the scene in Ealdor, when the villagers had all stood and watched as Merlin and his mum were dragged away. It was easy to be angry that they hadn't done anything to help—perhaps they thought Merlin a bit odd, but his mother was one of them. The villagers shouldn't have just let her go… Hadn't they learned to fight back against Kanen and his men? He burned at the shame of it, that no one had lifted a finger to help, even as he recognised that these soldiers had been both numerous and highly trained. The villagers had not been prepared, and many could have died in the fight to save them. But how it had stung when they had just watched them go, without even the slightest protest.

As the day stretched on, Merlin’s thoughts strayed to Arthur. He briefly wondered about the thread between them. Was Arthur there, still, on the other end? If Morgana had found Merlin in Ealdor, did that mean that Camelot had fallen to her? Was Arthur even still alive? Merlin was reluctant, but the curiosity ate at him until he tried to reach for the thread between them. But—there was nothing there. No bond, no connection, either poisoned or otherwise. Whether it meant that Arthur was dead or if it was just a result of the loss of magic was impossible to say.

In the mid-afternoon they stopped for a break. Someone pulled Merlin off the horse and dropped him in a heap in the stiff, weedy grass, wrists and ankles still tied. Someone else set his mother down next to him. She seemed well enough, all things considered. No obvious physical injuries, at least, though she looked exhausted and ill.

The man that had carried her out of her house came over. He was nearly as tall as Percival but had dark hair that was long and tangled. “No screamin’, yeah?” he said conversationally as he untied the gag around her mouth. Then he offered her a skin to drink from. Despite her wrists being tied, she managed to bring it to her mouth and drink. Also like Percival, the man seemed fairly gentle. For the most part, he had been kind—for a bad guy. But then he probably didn't consider himself a bad guy, just a soldier earning a living.

Merlin drank next. It was water, not at all fresh, but at least it was wet and soothing on his parched mouth. Not-Percival let him have as much as he liked, which was unexpected. After a few minutes, the group prepared to continue on. Merlin hadn't spoken to his mother, not wanting to risk angering their captors, but he could see the look of misery and despair on her face when Not-Percival came to pick her up.

Merlin couldn't help the words that flew out of his mouth. “Please. My mother is not well. Let her ride the normal way. Please…”

Not-Percival opened his mouth to speak but was interrupted by the leader of the group, the bastard that had threatened his mother, the one who had half his face sliding off. Maybe that side of his face was trying to escape from the rest; Merlin couldn't blame it.

Droopy Face’s voice was so slimy Merlin longed for an immediate bath. “She can ride with me. I won't mind a little company.” The man leered at her. His mother looked terrified, and Merlin felt nauseated. Fuck, fuck, fuck, why did he have to open his big mouth? Could he never do anything right?

Droopy Face stood right behind his mum, then reached each of his hands around to cup one of her breasts. He pulled her roughly against his body and squeezed viciously. His mother yelled out with the pain of it. Droopy Face covered her mouth with one hand but let other paw all over her body.

“Stop!” Merlin screamed. “Leave her alone!” He couldn't stand up, but he tried to imbue all the authority he had once had as Emrys into his voice. He was as weak as a kitten now, but he had the memory of power and knew how to act the part.

“O ho, so the bitch’s little puppy wants to play, does he? You offering instead? Well, sorry, kid, but you're not quite my style.”

Fury coursed through Merlin's veins, burning him from the inside out. He had to do something. There was no way he could let that monster keep his hands on his mum.

“How do you know?” He tried to be strong, but his voice just sounded broken. “You leave my mother alone, and I'll do everything in my power to make you happy. Willingly. Just—please…” He blinked back the tears that were ready to fall. “It's my mum. I can't let anything happen to her. I'll… whatever you like. Please…”

A teardrop landed on his cheek. So much for putting up a brave front.

“Oh, don't be too willing, little pup. I like ‘em feisty.” Droopy Face laughed loudly. “You do seem like a passionate little thing. Well, since you asked so prettily, you can have a chance to convince me. Show me what you've got.”

What, now? What was he supposed to do here, in front of everyone? Since his experience was limited to kissing Freya and the horror with Arthur (he'd always been too busy hiding his magic to allow himself to get close to anyone else), this was going to be tricky—to say the least.

“Let go of my mother first.” He had to get her away from him. Now.

“I'm not impressed, whelp. And I'm not a patient man.” He deliberately ran his hand over his mother's thin nightdress and started fingering at her crotch. She yelled out in protest, words inaudible through the hand covering her mouth. Droopy Face removed the hand from her mouth and slapped her. “You make another noise, bitch, and I'll break your jaw, you hear me?” A few of the men laughed. She nodded slightly. Merlin could see she was trembling. Droopy Face put the free hand back on her breast while the other continued fingering between her legs.

For some unknown reason, Merlin turned his head to look into Not-Percival’s face. He wasn't laughing; instead, his forehead furrowed and his lips pursed. He nodded at Merlin, solemn and encouraging, almost as if he understood: mothers needed protecting, no matter the cost.

Merlin looked to his mum, but her eyes were closed, as if pretending she were somewhere else. Knowing her, she was probably hoping Merlin would just shut up and not draw attention to himself. Hadn't that been the message all through his childhood? Stay quiet, stay hidden, keep out of trouble. But that wasn't going to happen this time.

Merlin couldn't stand, and Droopy Face knew it. His wrists and ankles were still bound with rope. But he had to do something. If that meant wriggling like a worm through the dirt and thorns, so be it. He had long since lost his pride. It may have only been a week or so since the curse had destroyed his life, but it felt like so very much longer.

It was painstaking, terribly slow, but he pulled himself through the vegetation. He mostly used his arms but could also move his thighs and pushed along with them as best he could. There was residual pain in his knees, but nothing terrible: they had been healed… just not returned to functionality.

He focused his attention on moving and tried to ignore the laughter that showered down on him like rain. If he could amuse them, so much the better. Maybe he would prove to be more interesting than his mother. He could do this.

Slowly, slowly, ever so slowly, he creeped across the clearing till he arrived at his mother's feet. Merlin would not look up at her, for he knew that all he would see was sorrow. He was doing this for her; she ought to be pleased. And yet, deep down, he knew she wouldn't be. He couldn't bear her disappointment but refused to leave her to her fate. So it was best not to look.

“I called you a pup, but you're more of a worm, boy. At least you know where you belong: crawling in the muck.”

Merlin sat up and glared at the man. “You'll have to let her go now. She's in the way.”

A smile of amusement flitted across the bastard's face. “This better be good, little worm, or you'll wish you'd held your tongue.”

There was movement, then, and someone came and took his mother. He hoped it was Not-Percival (and that Not-Percival would take her somewhere she couldn't watch), but Merlin was still staring at Droopy Face, unwilling to look away, lest the man lose focus and decide Merlin's mum was the better choice.

Merlin had no experience with what he was about to do, but he'd heard plenty of stories from the knights. And he could imagine what he might have liked… once upon a time, before everything was ruined. He doubted any form of physical intimacy would have any meaning for him any longer, either positive or negative. It was just a thing, no different than polishing armour or mucking out the horses: a service provided to others, no feelings involved.

He had to grab on to the man’s trousers to pull himself up to a sort-of-kneel. Chain mail was hanging down, making everything nearly impossible. But damn it, he was going to do this. He was going to be the best little whore he could be.

Wasn't that what Arthur said? That whoring was all he was good for? Especially now that Merlin didn't have any magic at all. It was gone, gone, completely gone. Not restrained, not cursed—just gone. He had been a terrible servant, and without magic… he was worthless. Except for this.

He could whore himself out and accept his mother's relative safety as payment. It was only a job, just like any other.

It didn't help that Droopy Face kept laughing at him. The movement made it harder to undo the fastenings. If Merlin hadn't helped dress and undress Arthur so often, he might not have managed. But he did it. And the man's already erect cock popped out. Droopy Face obviously got off on having power over others… Was that the way of it for most people? Merlin had never felt it, the thrill of dominance. Not that he was unfamiliar with physical desire… but it had been aroused by the sweetness of Freya’s smile, or Arthur's strength and nobility, the mischief in his eyes when he teased Merlin.

But Merlin could see more clearly now. Men and women both (for he could not forget Morgana, Morgause, or Nimueh) lusted after power, craved dominance over others. Was this why magic had been persecuted? The Old Religion was about balance, but humans longed for control… over nature, over other people, over life and death. How could magic flourish in such a world? A world so lacking in love?

Even Arthur had drawn pleasure from Merlin's pain… but no. He had been cursed. If Arthur had always been sadistic that way, Merlin would have known long ago. Wouldn't he have? Maybe?

But this was no time to contemplate whether the curse had merely uncovered Arthur's inner monster. Now was the time to face the monster currently in front of him.

Kneeling was extremely difficult, a balancing act completely unaided by his lower legs. It was difficult with his wrists still bound, but he clutched onto Droopy Face’s trousers to keep himself upright, took a deep breath, and then closed his mouth over the exposed cock. It stank and tasted vile—must not be a lot of bathing in a monster's life. Perhaps he was afraid it would wash away the evil?

Merlin tried not to vomit as he got to the business of sucking and pulling. He needed to do a good job, needed to convince Droopy Face that he could be better than his mother (and gods, he never wanted to think about his mother's sexual prowess again). He wasted no time on being gentle or cautious, but stuffed the man's cock into his mouth as far as he could straight away. It was so hard not to gag, but he had to do this, he had to get it right. He established a rhythm, suck-slide-suck-slide, and focused only on that. Men were hooting and hollering—laughter threatened to overwhelm him—but all he let himself think was in-out-in-out, don't vomit, don't vomit, in-out-in.

Without warning, Droopy Face grabbed his ears, squeezed his head, and then began thrusting into Merlin's mouth at a rapid pace. He pushed in farther than ought to have been possible. Breathing was difficult, and he had to struggle to suck air in through his nose. If he died now, Merlin had no doubt that the man would go straight back to his mum. Death was no longer an option.

The thrusting sped up before abruptly stopping. There was a warm liquid in the back of his throat, too far back for him to taste. He was choking, choking, he was going to vomit all over the man's prick and let down his mum… And just when Merlin thought it would happen, Droopy Face withdrew his cock and Merlin could swallow. Swallow and breathe, swallow and breathe, keep living, you've got this, it's all over.

At least for now.

“Atta way, little worm, not bad. You'll get better with practice, o’ course.”

Merlin had fallen back to sitting on the ground, but Droopy Face leaned over and tilted Merlin's face up. “That’s a fine mouth you got there, boy.”

He stepped away and yelled, “Play time’s done, lads. Let's move!”

Everyone jumped into motion. Someone grabbed Merlin, lay him stomach down over a horse, and tied him as he had been before. But as for his mother…

“Congratulations, worm. You earned your dear old mum a saddle.” Droopy Face rested his hand on Merlin's bum and gave a little squeeze. “I'll see you tonight.” He slapped Merlin’s arse and walked away.

Merlin had to crank his head at an awkward angle to see, but sure enough, there was his mother, riding in a saddle, wrists and ankles untied. Her horse was tied to the one that Not-Percival was riding, and Merlin breathed a sigh of relief. For some reason, he trusted Not-Percival to be a halfway decent sort.

As they continued along the road to Camelot, Merlin dearly wished he had been able to rinse his mouth out. It was a battle not to vomit just from the residual taste of the man. But he couldn't help but feel a tiny bit satisfied: he had protected his mum, at least for now. He had done something, something meaningful, and he felt the slightest buzz of happiness. It was a strange feeling in such a horrible situation… but he had at least done this one thing right.

They travelled until the sun went down. Once twilight had settled over the land, they stopped to set up camp. It was an efficient process. Droopy Face, as the leader, got a tent, and a couple other tents were erected as well.

Not-Percival came over to where Merlin was still tied over the back of a horse. “That was a brave thing you did today,” he said. “I'll watch over your mum tonight, make sure nothing happens to her. If it were my mum, I'd hope someone would do the same.”

Not-Percival vanished into the darkness, leaving Merlin alone, still draped over the horse as if he were an animal carcass after a hunting trip. And wasn't that all he amounted to, a piece of meat?

The sounds of clanking dishes and rowdy men disrupted the calm of the night. He was exhausted and might have slept, had it been quieter—and if he weren't currently dreading the reappearance of Droopy Face. It was one thing to pretend it had been just a job—and when he had been caught unprepared this afternoon and desperately needed to protect his mother, it was easy enough to believe it. He had no other choice. But now that he was alone and miserable in the dark, waiting for something he did not want… it was so much harder. Images of Arthur intruded into his thoughts, memories of the brutal nature of the only sexual experiences he had ever had. The pain had been physical, yes, but it was the emotional betrayal that had been so devastating.

At least Droopy Face couldn't hurt him that way. Unless… No. Merlin would prefer not to dwell on the possibility that the man would regain interest in his mum.

An hour passed, and then another. The air had cooled with the setting of the sun. He was trembling with the cold. Every muscle was stiff, nearly frozen. His bare feet had long since gone numb, and he wondered if it were cold enough to develop frostbite. Not that he could walk, anyway, he reminded himself.

He couldn't tell what had happened to his mother. The longer he waited, the more he worried that Droopy Face had changed his mind. Nausea was a constant state for Merlin anymore, but there was an especially awful feeling in his stomach when he thought about his mum. His sweet, wonderful mother, who had only ever tried to do her best for him. She deserved to be a princess… Gods, he had been the almighty Emrys, and what had he done for his mother? All he had done was bring her heartbreak and despair. What a fantastic son he had turned out to be.

Footsteps approached, and Merlin didn't know whether to be grateful that the agonising wait was over or fearful of what was to come.

“So here's the brave fool that wanted to save his mummy. You better please me well, worm, or dear old mummy will come and join us.”

Hands untied him from the horse and tossed him over a shoulder—upside down. Again. The walk through camp was quick—a flash of firelight, a chorus of laughter, a few legs rushing by. And then they were in a tent and Merlin was dropped roughly onto the ground. There was a flash of metal, a tug at his wrists and ankles… and then the ropes binding him fell to the ground.

As he rubbed at his wrists, trying gently to get circulation into his hands, he looked at his surroundings. The tent was large enough to stand in, but that was about it. There was a cot and not much else. Still, it was a far sight better than what the knights usually used on missions. It seemed that Droopy Face demanded some special treatment. In Merlin's experience, that tended to mean the man thought himself better than he actually was.

“What are you waiting for, boy?”

Droopy Face sat on the cot. He was lit only by the light of a candle set on the floor. Even in the dim light, his lopsided face was unnerving. And what did he want Merlin to do? What if Merlin guessed wrong? He gulped.

“What… would please you? Sir?”

The man sneered at him. “Not very good at this, are you, worm? I can always go get your mother. I'm sure she'd spice things right up.”

No, no, he couldn't mess this up. Get a move on, Merlin.

He started by crawling to the cot as quickly as he could. It was painful after having been motionless for so long; his muscles cramped and flared with pain. As he went, he tried to come up with a plan. He could always start the way he had before… it was something that had seemed successful enough at the time. But when he reached to undo the man's clothing, a hand grabbed at his wrists, stopping him.

“No, no, that won't do. Not this time. First, let me see you.”

Of course. It was easier for the man to feel dominant when the other person lacked even the slight defense of clothing. It's not like he would think Merlin attractive.

Merlin removed his clothing, piece by piece. It was cold, and goose pimples erupted on arms and legs. A glance at his torso showed that he appeared more skeleton than man. The bones stuck out in such high relief, he wondered how they didn't accidentally cut through his skin. If they didn't give him something more to eat and drink soon, he doubted he'd last for much longer. He wouldn't mind, except that he worried for his mum.

“Not much to you, is there, worm?”

Merlin didn't know how to respond to that, so just waited while the man examined him in the murky light. He looked thoughtful.

“They say you were supposed to be the strongest sorcerer of all time. That even Morgana herself was afraid of you. I'm not sure how that can be true. You're such a pathetic little thing. They say the king kept you as his catamite. I'm not sure why he would… You're certainly nothing to look at.”

Merlin knew he wasn't attractive. Even at full strength he'd never been strong and handsome like the knights. But if his appearance helped Droopy Face to feel better about his own poor ego, couldn't that work to Merlin's advantage?

“Well, if you're good enough for the King of Camelot, I suppose you're good enough for me.”

Droopy Face picked him up from the floor, then, and tossed him on to the cot. He threw Merlin a small flask of what seemed to be cooking oil with the brisk instructions, “Prepare yourself.”

And here was another thing Merlin had almost no experience with—he really didn't think that what had happened with Arthur counted. But he knew the general principle of it, and hurried to cover his fingers in the stuff… but when it came to inserting them, he stalled. Physical memories of the previous pain accosted him; the horror of the past intrusion caused an overwhelming paralysis.

“You a stupid little worm? Fine by me. I like a bit a’friction.”

The flask was yanked out of his hand. Then Droopy Face flipped him into his stomach. The reality of the situation settled in, and terror burst out of Merlin's mouth in a strangled yell. He flailed his arms, instinctively trying to roll off the cot, get away, not stay here… He'd done this before—it had almost killed him—he couldn't do it again.

The man laughed. Why wouldn't he? Merlin was pathetic, he really was, a pathetic little worm; he deserved what was coming, he deserved to be torn apart and thrown out with the refuse. Just look what he'd done to his mother…

His breath came in shallow, quick pants, and his heart pounded frantically against his rib cage, as if it wanted to escape its prison and flee, since Merlin wasn't capable enough to do so.

“I do like a little fight. Makes it more exciting, yeah?”

At sometime during his panic, the candle had blown out. The nearly-complete darkness leant an even more nightmarish quality to the situation. Droopy Face sat on Merlin's legs, pinning him to the cot. It felt like the bones in his knees rearranged themselves yet again, but at least they didn't hurt too much. Hands probed at his arse, spreading it, preparing to split him in two. He couldn't do this, he couldn't, he couldn't…

Something blunt pressed at his entrance. He stopped flailing and held his breath, preparing for the torture…

There was a rustling sound, a stifled grunt… any second everything would be burning pain, fire inside.

Droopy Face suddenly collapsed onto Merlin's torso. Merlin's breath was forced out in a sudden rush of air. The man weighted him down like an iron blanket, and it was impossible to roll out from underneath. Merlin waited for the man to move, to start ripping into him—but all was still. This was all right then… this was tolerable. He'd happily lie here squished half to death if it meant he could escape being split in two.

“Merlin?”

The voice was quiet, near his ear, and entirely unexpected. And yet—instead of startling him, it soothed. It was a lovely hallucination… sounding so much like an old friend… It would be nice to not be alone. He'd tried so hard to protect his mum, and he wasn't sure he could do it anymore. If he could just have one person on his side, to help him through…

“Merlin? You awake?” The voice was very quiet, which made sense, since it wasn't real anyway. Gods, he had gone so crazy that he was inventing imaginary friends to come and visit him.

“You're going to be fine, mate, I got you. Here, let me get rid of the garbage…”

And suddenly Merlin could breathe again. Nothing pressed into him, nothing was tearing him apart… This was such a pleasant hallucination.

But then someone was grabbing him, turning him over, sitting him up… No, no, no, don't touch him, don't touch him, friends wouldn't touch him…

“Let me go!” he yelled, clawing with his hands, scratching and gouging.

The voice hissed in his ear. “Stop it, Merlin! It's me, it's Gwaine, I'm here to help you!”

Gwaine? Wasn't Gwaine dying, dead, killed trying to defend Merlin, what seemed to be so many lifetimes ago? Tears sprang to his eyes.

“You're not Gwaine; Gwaine's dead, he's dead, he's gone, and it's all my fault…” The sorrow that rose up threatened to overwhelm him with its intensity.

“No, no, Merlin, it's me, it's Gwaine. Shh, shh, we need to be quiet. I'm here. You saved me, remember? You saved me. And now I'm here to help you.”

Merlin's heart was racing and he wanted to fight, but he made himself be still and listen. The voice kept murmuring, “It's okay, Merlin, I'm here, it's Gwaine…” The arms that had lifted him from the bed had laid him back down and were no longer touching him. All there was in the darkness was the voice—Gwaine's voice—whispering and soothing and pleading with him. Merlin rubbed the tears from his eyes… they seemed real enough, at least.

“Gwaine?” he asked, feeling foolish for speaking to hallucinations. But maybe—

“Yes, Merlin. I've come to get you out of here. But you have to stay quiet.”

It seemed too unbelievable. “You're… actually here? Not a dream?”

Possibly-Gwaine leaned his head close to Merlin's, still not touching, but near enough that Merlin could feel his warm breath on his cheek. It was surprisingly comforting, and the warmth of it highlighted how very cold the rest of Merlin was.

“I’m as real as those plates you were throwing with your mind, that first time we met.”

Hope blossomed, warm, glorious hope. “You're not dead? And you'll take me away from here?”

“Yes, my friend. Will you let me? We will need to be quiet.”

Merlin fought the impulse to sob. He was exhausted, he was relieved, he was still not sure if he were dreaming. But he controlled his breathing and managed to say, “Yes, please, let's leave this place.”

“I'm going to light a candle, all right? Just to assess the situation…”

Merlin nodded, which was ridiculous because no one could see him. A tiny light flared into existence. And there… there was Gwaine. If this was a dream, it was so realistic that Merlin was willing to embrace it.

At the foot of the bed Droopy Face lay, blood seeping out from his chest. When Merlin looked back to Gwaine, he could see blood all over his sword.

Gwaine frowned when he looked at Merlin. Merlin found himself shrinking away, wondering if this was the point where everything went wrong and he woke up. But Gwaine merely said, “We need to get some clothes on you. Yours seem”—he squinted at the pile of rags on the floor—”a little worse for wear. Would you mind borrowing some from this lout here? I'm afraid you'll freeze to death in yours.”

Merlin stared at him. “I— I can't do it. My knees—”

Gwaine smiled, but it was the saddest looking smile Merlin had ever seen from him. “Don't you worry about a thing. I'll take care of everything.”

Panic struck at Merlin's chest as he suddenly remembered something important. “My mother! She's here too! You have to save her!”

“It's okay, Merlin. Percival is getting her. Let's just get you ready, yeah?”

Gwaine found some extra clothing in a pack stashed under the cot and helped put it on him. It was much too large, but it was warm. And what did it matter if it fit, if Merlin couldn't walk anyway?

Gwaine laughed, a quiet, gentle laugh. “You look a bit like a bandit there, mate. You could start a new career, since the Princess—” He stopped abruptly, leaving Merlin with no indication of what he was going to say.

Once he was dressed, Gwaine lifted him up into his arms. “You really ought to eat more, my friend. I'm afraid if it gets windy, you'll blow away.”

Merlin had feared they would have to fight their way out of the camp. But there was a long cut in the back wall of the tent. “These thugs were pretty stupid, if you ask me,” Gwaine said under his breath. “Not only did they set up tents on the edge of the camp, leaving the backs unguarded, they also left their food unwatched. Do you know how easy it was to slip in a sleeping potion? Almost everyone in camp had some of Uncle Gwaine's Special Soup. I think they're getting cocky, now that Morgana has won.”

This last sentence ought to have bothered Merlin more than it did, but he was just too tired to care. Instead he asked, “You didn't poison them?”

“Naw, mate, I was worried you might eat some. Sorry it took so long to get you out. We decided to wait till most everyone was asleep.”

Merlin was exhausted, but there was one more thing to say. “I'm glad you didn't kill ‘em. Not-Percival wasn't so bad…”

Gwaine made an agreeing sort of noise but was too focused on his task to respond. He carried Merlin through the slit in the back of the tent and into the darkness of the surrounding forest. The moon had just risen over the horizon, a waning half-moon that signalled the midnight hour. Merlin felt utterly safe there, in Gwaine's arms.

“You shouldn't have come for me…” he murmured, half-asleep. “You could have been killed.”

At first there was no response but the crunch of footsteps through the underbrush. Eventually he thought he heard Gwaine say, “It's okay to lean on your friends, Merlin. You don't have to do everything on your own.” Merlin was too tired to argue. Instead, he rested his head against Gwaine's shoulder and allowed the steady rhythm of his pace lull him to sleep.

Chapter Text

The agony was endless… He would hang in the freezing darkness forever. Hadn't the man said he would come back for him? That must have been a trick, just another part of the torment. For a moment he had hoped that maybe—just maybe—there was hope, a chance to escape this hell on earth. But why would there be?

He had been shivering in the icy air, but a wave of heat tumbled over him… and then another. And another. Sweat beaded up on his skin and his muscles trembled. The heat increased, but somehow it didn't alleviate the cold. He was still freezing, even as his face was burning.

Weren't they planning to burn him? Was that what was going on? They were trying to burn an icicle. He laughed out loud at the idea. Good luck with that! Icicles wouldn't burn. But—was he melting? Was that why his skin was covered in moisture? The flames would turn him to steam, and he could float away, up with the wind, following its eddies and currents. Maybe it would take him to Merlin, and he could swirl all around the idiot, ruffle his hair, sneak under that neckerchief… It would probably be pleasant there; that neck always looked so smooth and warm. Arthur could nestle into it. Wouldn't that be nice? And every time Merlin spoke Arthur would feel the vibrations of that beloved voice. There would be no freezing nor burning, just safety and comfort and love.

Except—the flames must really be getting to Arthur, for him to think such a crazy thing. Merlin must hate him, and rightfully so. Merlin had abandoned him to his fate, and Arthur would never see him again. Because he was burning, burning, burning from the inside out. Strange that these flames didn't glow, that all was darkness. Maybe they had scorched his eyes already. Maybe his eyes had expanded in the heat like rolls in the oven, increased in size until they popped. If only he could touch them, feel if they were there. But he didn't have limbs anymore, nothing he could feel or move…

It was as if the very air around him were boiling. Perhaps they were cooking him in a pot of seething water and he was just too stubborn to realise he was dead. But honestly, why cling to life if it hurt so very much? Better to let himself float away into the arms of death.

And so he tried— He struggled to let go and float away into the relief of darkness, but he could not escape the icy fire.

***

As Leon walked away from Morgana’s chambers, he realised his arms were shaking. He had never done anything so cold-blooded and brutal before, and to have done it to a woman he could have loved… His heart felt like a shredded chunk of rotten meat. It had been the right thing to do—there was no denying it—but it still was wrong, wrong, WRONG.

He needed to get his act back together; he needed to do what he had come for.

No one impeded his trip to the cells. The Southron soldiers patrolling the halls knew he was possessed by a creature and was now the Queen's favorite; whenever he looked one in the eye, fear stared back at him. The soldiers let him be.

Leon decided to be brazen. He strolled into the dungeons and simply informed the Southron guards that the Queen wished for Elyan to entertain her, as was her wont. The men were eager to comply. Perhaps they feared that Leon would take one of them instead if they failed to please him. The soldiers’ fear of Morgana translated into fear of him, and he was quick to take advantage.

There were many people being held in the dungeons: knights, nobles, guards, servants, even Geoffrey of Monmouth. Leon wished he could take them all away with him, but that would arouse too many suspicions. Now that Morgana was dead, the prisoners ought to be safe enough in the dungeons for awhile longer. Even though the guards worked for the enemy, Leon didn't think they would torture or kill anyone without good reason. But if he tried to instigate a massive jailbreak without planning or backup, his efforts would likely end in violence and death.

Leon would come back for them soon. But for now, he had a promise to a lady to keep.

Elyan looked at him strangely when the Southrons answered to his bidding. His face was screwed into an expression of both suspicion and hope. The guards tried to put manacles on Elyan’s wrists before he left the cell, but Leon wouldn't have it.

“Are you implying I can't control one starving, weaponless man?” He raised his sword threateningly, noticing in the dim light of the dungeons that it was stained red with blood. Morgana’s blood.

The guards must have noticed too, for their eyes focussed on the sword for longer than necessary, as if assuring themselves of what they saw; and then they nodded slightly and stepped away.

Leon pounced on the opportunity. “You can see how I've already dealt with people who disobey the Queen. I will be happy to demonstrate again.” He tried to keep all hints of fear or uncertainty off his face and out of his voice. I am a snake. My only desire is to please my Queen. Don't let them suspect anything else.

It must have worked because the guards nodded their heads and stepped away from Elyan. Elyan stared at them before looking back to Leon, eyebrows furrowed. Leon longed to wink at him, to let him know that they were not actually going to see Morgana, but even in the dim light, someone might see. There could be no doubt about him, or the plan would fail and Arthur (and likely Elyan and Leon) would die—or worse, if Leon's suspicions about Agravaine proved correct.

Leon grabbed Elyan by the upper arm and jerked him roughly towards the stairs. He had to make it look good. Elyan tried to pull away, somewhat half-heartedly, perhaps not sure if he wanted to. Leon used his free hand to punch him in the cheek. He tried not to be too violent, but it had to look good. Elyan would forgive him later. Hopefully.

Elyan hissed and tried to back away, but his efforts were feeble, stilted. Was he injured? Nothing major was visible, though there were bumps and bruises aplenty. But that didn't mean he wasn't. Leon would need to be more careful with him.

Guards had come running when they heard the commotion. Leon was acutely aware of all of the eyes on him and Elyan. They needed to leave before anyone grew suspicious and tried to stop them.

Leon snapped at Elyan. “Do that again and I'll cut your arm off. Now let's go.” He dragged him towards the exit, and this time there was no resistance. When they made it to the main corridor, Leon pulled Elyan in the direction of the courtyard. They needed to find a private corner to talk and make plans.

“Aren't the Queen's chambers that way?”

Shit. Leon spun around to see the captain of the dungeon guards, a burly man with sword drawn, grinning at him. It was not a friendly grin, but the look of one who sensed imminent triumph in the wake of another's defeat. He was reminded of the Great Dragon, all calculating intelligence and razor-sharp teeth.

Leon mentally flailed, trying to come up with a good excuse as to why he was going the opposite direction. He stuttered a moment, and triumph shone in the man's eyes.

“Wouldn't want you two lads to get lost, now would we? I'll just make sure you make it to the Queen's chambers without incident. I'm sure she'll be most delighted to see you both.” Damn, the man’s teeth seemed almost pointier than the dragon’s. How was that even possible?

Leon jerked Elyan around to go with the captain. If he didn't, the man would call for help and the two of them would be left in dozens of pieces on the floor. It was impossible to tell what Elyan was thinking. His movements were jerky and uncoordinated as they walked along, but whether it was from anger or injury, Leon couldn't tell.

No one spoke as they moved through the corridors, the captain following right behind them, sword ready for stabbing. When they reached Morgana’s door, the soldier standing guard there gave them a quizzical look.

“The Queen wished for the prisoner to come provide her with some entertainment,” Leon announced to the soldier, more confidently than he felt. “She is expecting us.”

The captain behind them snorted, but the guard merely stepped aside. Leon entered the mostly dark room, pulling Elyan in with him. The captain followed close behind and shut the door.

Leon had hoped to never come near this place again. His heart sped with nerves and ached with sadness, and the combination made him ill. He hardened his resolve and prepared to move.

The captain stood respectfully near the door—perhaps nervous to offend a queen with such a notorious temper—and scanned the room. “Your Majesty,” he called. “Are you here? This man claims that you wished to see the prisoner but I don't—”

Squelch.

Leon knew the precise spot to run a man through in a way that caused the quickest, quietest possible death. It was not a skill he used often, but he was damn pleased to know how. He impaled the captain on his sword. The man yet stood, supported by Leon’s sword slicing upwards through his torso as gravity pulled the man down. The room was dim, but even so Leon could see bulging, terror-stricken eyes and blood leaking from the man’s mouth. Leon gently lowered his sword—with the man still on it—to the floor. This way he fell quietly, without alerting the guard outside that anything was wrong. It had been almost completely silent, and Leon was thrilled that for once, something had gone right.

When Leon had noticed that the captain’s focus had shifted to searching out Morgana, he had let go of Elyan and pulled his sword. Elyan had raised both hands in self-defense and backed away. Leon turned to him now, uncertain what to expect. Would Elyan think him a traitor?

But instead of looking at him, Elyan was staring at the bed, which was just as Leon had left it. He turned back to Leon, a genuine smile on his face. “Err… is there a reason you don't seem surprised by the fact that Morgana Fucking Pendragon is dead? Oh, and nice move there, mate.”

Leon grinned at him, his worries about being called a traitor forgotten.

“Elyan, my man, I have lots to tell you. But we better hurry…” As Leon launched into an ultra-fast retelling of what had happened, he grew increasingly aware that this detour back to Morgana’s chambers had wasted even more time. They needed to get to Arthur, and soon, lest someone else get there first.

***

All that could possibly be left of him were ashes and cinders. He had burned so hot and so long, nothing else could remain. If only a wind would come and blow him away from this place. He could scatter into thousands of ashen flakes and drift out in every direction. Perhaps he could settle onto the petal of a flower and bask in its sweet perfume. Maybe a bee would come along and take him for a ride to its hive, and he could stay there and eat honey and life would be sweet forever.

(But how could it be sweet if Merlin weren't there?)

Maybe another piece of him would ride the wind like a steed at full gallop. He could sail far and wide. He'd cross the sea and visit all the places he'd never seen, settle in one spot for a short while and then move on. It would be the life of adventure of which he'd ofttimes dreamed.

(But it wouldn't be half the adventure if Merlin weren't there.)

One of the specks of dust might remember the way it used to be connected to Merlin. The thread was gone now… disintegrated entirely… Merlin must have felt such hatred to have abandoned Arthur to this fate. But perhaps a whisper of a memory would remain, and the smallest flake of ash could follow it home to Merlin… And maybe the speck would be so small that Merlin wouldn't notice it, and Arthur could cling to him forever…

(It wasn't home if Merlin weren't there.)

***

Agravaine had long ago mastered the art of manipulation. It didn't matter whether it was Camelot’s guards or Southron warriors. They all were slaves of greed. Flash a few shiny coins and promise some women, and they were as malleable as pudding.

When he had wanted one last chance to play with his beloved nephew, it had been easy enough to have the guards give him some privacy by moving to the far side of the courtyard. It would be harder to get them to leave entirely. But perhaps he wouldn't have to. If he brought his pet sorcerer, it wouldn't be too difficult. No one would suspect a sorcerer of helping the Pendragon to escape, certainly not now that Emrys had fled. The Southrons would be alert for knights but not for traitors.

Multiple sorcerers had answered Morgana’s call to assist with the conquest of Camelot. Agravaine made it his business to know all of them. Even before the invasion, he had sought them out when Morgana had met with him in the Southron camp. Later, she had preferred to meet him alone. Perhaps she hadn't quite trusted him and wanted to limit his knowledge of her plans. But the few times he had met the sorcerers had been quite fruitful.

It was not hard to pick out who might feel underappreciated. There were always those who thought they deserved more, who desired more power and prestige than they currently had. Osgar had been one of these.

It had been simple to impress the man with Agravaine's close connection to Morgana. He could promise to put in a good word for him, manipulate his responsibilities, provide him with extra gold… Soon enough Agravaine had his own spy to keep him advised of the happenings in the Southron camp. Osgar wasn't overly useful, as he was not in Morgana’s inner circle. But it was still good to know there was someone in Agravaine's pocket.

It was time to make use of that advantage now. The non-magical soldiers would never dare go against one of Morgana’s sorcerers, and certainly not one as powerful as Osgar seemed to be. Why he wasn't in Morgana’s inner circle was a mystery… unless maybe she didn't trust him? It would be ironic if that lack of trust was the very thing that caused the man to become untrustworthy.

Agravaine wasn't quite ready to test Osgar’s loyalty to him in something that was the direct opposition of Morgana’s known wishes. It was doubtful that Osgar would be willing to steal his nephew away from Morgana. But he would be willing to go along in something less drastic. Something like convincing the guards that Agravaine needed complete privacy to have one last farewell with his nephew. This would be tricky as he’d already done that once tonight… but oh! How intoxicating that had been. He had been drunk on the thrill of finally possessing Ygraine… or at least what was left of her. And to see that arrogant nephew of his begging… It had done things to him that he had never imagined possible. And to hold the boy’s life in his hands… That boy had stolen his sister from him, and to know that he was the only one with the power of life and death over the brat…

He could tell Osgar just enough of the truth… that he wanted to enjoy his nephew from a more comfortable position, and that Agravaine didn't think the Southron guards, even the ones he was bribing, would allow him to cut the whelp down. Agravaine had already sent home as many of the guards as he could, the ones that Osgar had signalled out as the laziest and most susceptible to bribery. Agravaine had not yet had time enough with the Southrons to know them all, yet, but Osgar had.

The few guards that remained in the courtyard could be spelled to sleep… and he knew just the sorcerer for the job.

Agravaine could even ask Osgar to heal the boy before leaving them alone. He had been healed multiple times during and after the flogging, but the injuries had been so severe he was likely still in danger of infection and death. Another attempt at healing wouldn't go amiss; besides, the stronger the boy was, the more liberties Agravaine could take with him. He would tolerate much rougher play without passing out and spoiling the fun. If he died, it would be like Ygraine dying all over again. There was no way in hell Agravaine was going to let that happen. When the boy had whispered that word to him, please, Agravaine had felt like the gods-damned king of the entire fucking world. Fuck Morgana and her short-sighted views of her brother's worth. Agravaine had found the true diamond, and he was determined to keep it.

Once everyone was sleeping and Osgar was dismissed, Agravaine had a man who would come and carry his nephew into the town. (Despite his confidence, it was still safer for Agravaine to be involved as little as possible.) There was a brothel there, one whose owner was deeply in debt to him. Agravaine had provided the majority of the financing, whores, and clients. It was discreet, hidden in and below one of the rich merchant's large homes. While not a complete secret to all, its existence was not general knowledge.

But deep under the home, in a cellar below the cellars… there were the rooms that truly were secret. The dungeons, they were called, and for good reason. Agravaine had enjoyed them greatly, on those occasions that he had left his chambers in order to find something a little more… adventurous. And just think how much more delightful it would be with his dear, sweet nephew. He could visit at night, serve at the castle during the day, and no one would be any the wiser. It would be easy enough to blame the whelp’s disappearance on the knights who had escaped the invasion, and Morgana would never suspect anything different.

It was a perfect plan.

***

How could someone be touching him, if he had already burnt into nothingness? And yet—those were definitely someone's hands, stinging like poison with each touch. How could his body keep hurting when it was already gone?

His eyes were open—but how was that possible, when they had already burnt away? Even if his eyes remained, he still could not see. Voices mumbled things, but he could not hear what they said. The world tilted onto its side, and then something was wrapped around him, rubbing so roughly it felt like being encased in gravel, sharp little rocks that pressed through his skin and into the fire that had already burned him alive.

There was a rush of air, the sensation of being abruptly lifted, a squeeze as the pain of the rough thing became everything… Hadn't he already burnt and floated away? Wasn't he everywhere and nowhere and with his Merlin at last? Wasn't he home? So why did everything hurt so much?

He groaned at the agony of it all, but if any sound came out, he wasn't aware of it. His mouth must have already burnt into ashes… all that he could feel was the dry, dry dust.

There was swaying and moving and the endless torment of being squeezed… Perhaps someone had come to bury him at last. Death was proving to be just as painful as life. That was a horrid disappointment.

Or… if someone had come for him… was it that he was not yet dead? Could the man have returned for him, like he promised? Could someone finally be taking him away from this eternal torment?

If only he could get away from the burning, the infinite pain. He tried to groan again, but where his mouth should have been was only a desert. Something pressed down on his head, then—somehow his head hadn't actually burnt away yet. He thought he heard someone say, “He's burning up,” but the pain building in his head exploded like a lightning strike. And all that was left of him was darkness.

Chapter Text

Merlin woke feeling peaceful, as if sliding out of a pleasant dream. It was in stark contrast to the memories of recent events, which were filled with cold, brutal horror.

When he opened his eyes, the light of the waning moon filtered down through a shuddering canopy of small, teardrop-shaped leaves, the first of the spring, dancing in the wind. The moving shadows lent an eerie quality to the scene—but it was also beautiful. Merlin was captivated by the silvery patterns shivering on the rough trunks and the smooth dirt of the forest floor.

He was alone. There was no sign of human life in the clearing, neither person nor object left behind. It was just Merlin in a sea of shifting moonlight. A creeping panic slid into his veins as he considered the implications of this.

Hadn't Gwaine taken Merlin away from that awful man? So where was Gwaine now? Had something happened? Had Droopy Face got his slimy hands on him? No, no, that bastard was dead. But what then? And where was his mum? Was she… No, no, she had to be all right. If anything happened to her, Merlin would tear the world apart stone by stone seeking the ones who had dared touch her.

But—how would he manage? He was abandoned, alone, unable to walk, entirely helpless. There was no way he could crawl his way to safety—and why even bother? Without his mother, without Gwaine… he would truly have nothing to live for. Better die than have someone like Droopy Face find him.

His heart sped up at the thought of that scumbag. Merlin was not so innocent as to be unaware that men like that existed. But to experience it… It hadn't even been very violent, but knowing that he was just a thing to debase was somehow worse than when Arthur had— Well, it was worse. Arthur had at least done it out of a twisted and warped interpretation of love. (And he was enchanted, a tiny voice whispered in his head; it wasn't Arthur… It couldn't have been Arthur…)

What if one of Droopy Face’s men found him now? Would Merlin’s only worth be as someone else's plaything? And then… would they take him to Morgana?

He would spend the rest of his life violated and tortured. No, no, he couldn't. He had to be worth more than that. He was worth more than that, wasn't he? Even without the magic…

Or was this punishment for all his sins? There were so many. Perhaps he did deserve this fate.

The quiet of the silvery night was interrupted by the sound of someone in armour pushing past branches and drawing closer to Merlin. His heart sped up even faster; panic massed in his throat like an over-large chunk of meat choking him.

Gods, what if it were Droopy Face? What if Droopy Face had found him? He couldn't endure it, he couldn't… Sweat built up on his forehead as hot terror chased away his rational thoughts.

The man appeared, a dark shadow dressed in dancing slivers of moonlight. Maybe if Merlin held still the man wouldn't notice him. But no, he came straight to Merlin, crouched down, and lifted him off the ground.

He'd been found, he'd been found, oh gods he'd been found, they would take him and do terrible things to him and delight in his misery.

Merlin couldn't help it—he screamed.

“Shit, mate! I didn't know you were awake.”

He was gently lowered to the ground, and the shadowy figure stepped away. Now that the man held still, Merlin could make out his features. Slowly, slowly, comprehension worked its way through his brain. This was no enemy. This was his friend.

“Damn, I'm sorry! I didn't mean to startle you.”

Merlin lay on the forest floor, panting for breath. Despite the sound of a friend's voice, he still trembled from the rush of fear. He was hot and cold at the same time; blood throbbed through the veins in his temples.

Beyond the chaos of his body, all was at peace. The man—Gwaine, Merlin's tired mind reminded him—sat on the ground, a good distance away, not moving. It was just Gwaine, his sweet friend Gwaine, who had rescued him. And here Merlin was throwing a fit like a child afraid of a ghost lurking under a bed.

Ridiculous. If Arthur were here, Merlin would never hear the end of it.

Feeling foolish, Merlin pushed himself up to a sitting position. In the moonlight, Merlin could see the worried look on his friend’s face, half smile, half frown.

“You okay there, Merlin?” Gwaine asked, voice subdued.

Merlin tried for a confident smile but feared he looked more like a frightened child. “Yes… ‘m fine.”

He shook his head and tried again. “I'm fine, Gwaine. Right as rain.”

A loud snort greeted this assertion. “And I'm Tilda the barmaid. Which would be great, ‘cause then maybe we'd have some ale. That would really hit the spot.”

Gwaine paused. When Merlin didn't say anything, he continued his chatter. “It's thirsty work trudging through the forest. And just think, if Tilda were here—she's got all those curves—”

“You'd molest yourself?” Merlin interrupted. “Have you no shame?”

Gwaine grinned like the devil he was. “Nope, none. I wonder if Percival would appreciate—”

“Gwaine!” Merlin groaned. “There are some things I don't need to know.” But there was no stopping Gwaine once he got started.

“I could serve him ale with my large jugs, if you know what I mean.”

“Gwaine! Gods, you're incorrigible. Honestly, the worst.” Merlin shook his head in mock despair, and the briefest of smiles crossed his lips.

“That's better,” Gwaine said in his matter-of-fact voice. “You keep talking like that and I might actually believe you're fine.”

“I am fine,” he protested, knowing full well that Gwaine saw through his lies. “At least I will be once I find my mother. Where is she?”

He tried to hide his desperation, though Gwaine wouldn't be fooled. There was a stick on the ground next to him; he grabbed it and started stripping off the bark with his fingernails.

“Percival was supposed to get her. Just now I went to the rendezvous point. It's close, but up a steep hill. Sorry I left you. It would have been hard to get there carrying someone.”

Merlin's heart jumped when he heard that Gwaine had gone to meet his mother. “So you've seen her? Take me!”

Gwaine shook his head. “Sorry, mate, but no one was there.”

No. No, no, no. She had to be okay, she had to! If anything happened to her, Merlin would search out the ones who did it and boil the meat off of their bones. He would feed it to the pigs and collect all the excrement and smear it over their skeletons and throw it all into the rubbish heap. And then burn it. Let them burn the way that the anger burnt him—

There were hands on his, gently holding them, rubbing lightly with the thumbs. Merlin jerked away as if stung. That's when he noticed that there were tears streaming down his face.

“You back with me now? I don't think you've heard a word I've said…”

Merlin looked up to see Gwaine sitting right next to him, arms folded and pressed against his body, almost as if he were trying to keep them still. Gwaine had always been a touchy-feely sort of bloke. It must be a struggle to hold himself back.

“My mother,” Merlin whispered, wiping his face with the sleeve of Droopy Face’s extra shirt. “Where is she?”

Gwaine inhaled sharply. “I don't know, but it's likely she's fine. Percival was supposed to meet us at the rendezvous point, but if anything happened we agreed to continue on and join up again at the caves. I'm sure we'll find them there. Percival is too much of a man to let those incompetent fuckers stop him.”

The knight seemed confident in his assessment, but dread stabbed Merlin through the chest. Nothing had gone right for him lately; why would it now? His head felt fuzzy, and his ears rang.

“Merlin. I need you to listen to me. Can you do that?”

Of course he could do that. Wasn't that what he was doing? He nodded.

“It's just I don't think you've heard half of what I've said.”

“‘m listening,” he snapped. Why couldn't Gwaine shut up and leave him to his misery?

“She's fine. And if for whatever reason anything happened, I'll fix it. You hear me? I will not let you down ever again. You have my word.”

Some of the fear that was running amok in Merlin's body changed back into anger. How dare anyone swear such things, things that couldn't be? Here Gwaine was making foolish promises that he could never fulfill while Merlin's mother was missing and probably in trouble and Merlin was supposed to be the strongest sorcerer ever but he was as helpless as a baby and after all his life of trying so hard to do the right thing and be everything to everyone and sacrificing his own needs for the good of everyone else… after all of that he was left completely unable able to help his mum and it wasn't fair! Why did the gods hate him so? Hadn't he tried? Hadn't he struggled and strained and tried everything possible to bring about the gods’ wishes for Albion? What more did they want? Now they would steal his mother away and leave him as a worm crawling in the dirt and laugh? And he would be stuck with someone who would just feed him platitudes and and false promises and fuck fuck fuck! Didn't Merlin deserve more than this? Didn't he? Didn't he?

As the ringing in his ears grew, his vision turned grey. He fought against it—no way was he going to give up and go to sleep now! Not when he was so fucking angry—

A scream rent the peaceful night air. Merlin tried to yell with the shock of it, at which point he realised he couldn't because he was the one who had screamed, who was still screaming.

“Shh! Shh!” Gwaine said, putting a hand over Merlin's mouth. “They might find us!”

That made Merlin pause—for a second. Then the despair washed over him again. What did it matter if they were found? What did anything matter? His mum was gone and Merlin was useless and why wouldn't Gwaine just shut the hell up? But he kept talking and shushing him and Merlin couldn't take it anymore.

“Shut up!” he screamed. Gwaine's hand was over his mouth, so Merlin bit it. Then he screamed at him again. “Shut up! Shut the fuck up! I don't want to hear one more word about how everything is going to be okay!” Merlin flailed at Gwaine, throwing pathetic little punches and trying to scratch at him. “Nothing is okay! Nothing will ever be okay again! You don't know anything. You're just a lecherous drunk—and a failure! Without me, you'd be dead! Who has taken care of who? I'm always the one bailing you out and now I can't and you just sit there telling me everything will be okay! Stop lying to me! Stop! Just shut—the fuck—up!”

Tears streamed down Merlin's face, but he didn't stop to wipe them. He flailed and slapped and scratched and punched. He threw everything he had at Gwaine until he had nothing left. Eventually he collapsed into a sobbing, shaking, panting mess of a human being on Gwaine's chest. He cried then, cried for all he was worth. He cried for his missing mother, his smashed knees, his stolen magic. He cried because he was a failure. He cried for his father, for Freya and Will, for Lancelot. He cried for Morgana. But most of all he cried for Arthur. Arthur who he loved; Arthur who he had failed.

Arms wrapped around him, resting lightly in a tenuous approximation of a hug. Merlin nuzzled his way into Gwaine's chest, tacitly accepting the embrace. Gwaine's arms tightened, wrapping Merlin up in strength and love. Merlin stayed there, motionless, tears leaking from his eyes.

Gwaine murmured to him, things that Merlin didn't believe, things like you aren't alone and we'll get through this. He pressed his cheek against the top of Merlin's head, and oh, how Merlin wanted to believe him when he promised everything will be okay, I swear it.

The forest shifted from silver to gold as the moon set and dawn approached, and still Merlin clung to Gwaine, burrowing into his warmth, wishing he could stay there for always. Gradually, though, his breath evened and the tears dried up and yawns threatened to overwhelm him.

At last he pushed away from Gwaine and sat up. He sucked in the cool morning air, trying to clear away the sadness and exhaustion. The tree tops glowed bright yellow now as the sun lifted over the hills, and the sight lifted Merlin's heart, too. Not everything was darkness; there was still some light in the world.

He didn't believe Gwaine's assertions that everything would be okay. How could it? But he could believe that Gwaine was with him and would do his best to make things better. Gwaine would give it his all. So how could Merlin do any less?

Merlin might be helpless, but he would endeavour to not be a hindrance.

He looked over at Gwaine. His friend smiled back cautiously. “All right, then?” Merlin nodded in response, though his lips remained pursed in a frown. Of course he wasn't all right, but he could pretend. He could be strong. He could go on despite his world having disintegrated. At least Gwaine was here. At least for now, Merlin wasn't truly alone. He could be strong for Gwaine.

“Sorry,” he whispered. “I—”

But Gwaine shushed him with a hug. “Don't you dare apologise,” he murmured in Merlin's ear. “None of this is your fault. You hear me? None of this.”

“But I—”

“No. Things have gone to hell, but it is not your fault. You have done the best you can. If you need to get mad at me, I'm sure I deserve it. I know I haven't always been there when you needed me, and when I have been, I've screwed it up. I should have known something was wrong with Arthur instead of charging in there. I should have protected you. But you know me—”

“Gwaine! Stop—”

“No, Merlin. I need to say this. I'm impulsive and reckless. It's gotten me into trouble, but I didn't care. I could just move on. There's always another town, another girl, another apple.

“But now… Now I've found something worth staying for. And… I almost let my temper cost me everything. I was meant to be helping you, but instead—”

Gwaine's breath hitched, caught in his throat. Merlin knew not to interrupt. He had never heard such raw emotion in his friend’s voice. For some reason he found it comforting: he wasn't the only one struggling with weakness; he wasn't the only one to have regrets. Merlin relaxed into Gwaine's embrace, relishing the physical reminder that he wasn't alone.

At long last Gwaine spoke again. “Thank you, Merlin. Thank you for saving me with your magic. And more than that, thank you, dear friend, for showing me that my life is something worth saving, something worth living.”

And if they clung together for rather a long time after that, tears in both their eyes, no one would ever say anything against it.

Eventually the sun rose high enough for its light to filter down through the trees and hit Merlin in the eye. It was enough of an irritation that he pulled away from Gwaine and scanned the forest around them. He had no clue where they were.

“What do we do now?” he asked. He was reluctant to face the bleakness of reality, but he would do it. For Gwaine. And for his mother, who was hopefully out there waiting for him.

“Now we go to the caves. If something happened and he couldn't rendezvous with us, Percival was going to take your mother there. And Leon and Cador should return with Elyan and the Princess. They had better, or I'll have to have some serious words with them. We will meet up with Gwen and Gaius and the rest of the Camelot evacuees and figure out a way to send Morgana and Agravaine straight to hell.”

Merlin didn't listen to much beyond the word, “Princess.”

“Arthur?” he said, voice high-pitched. Damn it. He hadn't meant for his voice to squeak like that.

Gwaine sighed and frowned. Merlin noticed wrinkles on his face for the first time. It was disconcerting. Someone like Gwaine should remain forever young.

“You know I never thought the Princess quite worthy of all the devotion you bestowed upon him. But I'm certain that he would never harm you if it were at all in his power to avoid it. He never meant to hurt you. I firmly believe that.”

Merlin knew that, he did. Logically he knew it was an enchantment. But there was always that one part of him that wondered if the curse had just brought out Arthur's true nature. And even with the curse broken, having to be near him, after all that had happened…

“No! Please— Don't make me see him again…”

“My friend. I promise I will keep you safe. If you don't want to talk to him, you won't have to. But we need to meet with our people.”

Merlin nodded. Of course they did. And he was going to be strong for Gwaine. How quickly he had failed in that resolution. But now he would just have to try again.

“Yes, okay. It's fine. I'm ready to go whenever you are.”

Gwaine smiled at him, a brilliant expression that chased all the wrinkles away. “That's the way. I’ll take care of you, I promise. And when has Uncle Gwaine ever broken a promise? Wait, don't answer that.”

Merlin couldn't help chuckling as Gwaine lifted him up and began their long journey. It wasn't going to be pleasant, but the sun was shining and the forest was peaceful. Warmth settled in his heart. He was both scared and hopeful of what he would find at journey's end. His mother? Arthur? But no matter what might happen, just for this moment he allowed himself to laugh. Gwaine was with him, and for the first time in ages, Merlin truly felt that he was not alone.

Chapter Text

Arthur woke feeling the way a forest might after a violent storm. Everything was damaged, ripped, twisted; but underneath it all, there was an intuition that the worst had passed. It was nothing so dramatic as the sun coming out—more like the first puff of the south wind after the hard freeze of winter, carrying hints of warmth from sun-drenched lands along with hope that the ice would melt and green things could grow again. Not now, but eventually. The world would not stay dead forever.

Everything hurt… but it was tolerable. He shivered and sweat both, but it was no worse than that time he'd been sick with lung fever. It was unpleasant, but compared to the excruciating dream (for if that were reality, he ought to be dead) he had just escaped, this was a happy improvement.

He lay on a hard surface, clearly not a bed despite the cloth wrapped around him like a blanket. When he cracked his eyes open, dim light revealed few details beyond the fact that he wasn't outside, despite the smell of damp earth. When he moved his head to see better, a wave of pain and dizziness washed over him. His shivering abruptly increased, and he had to close his eyes again. Maybe more of the storm lingered than he had realised.

A few minutes passed as he attempted to regain control enough to try again. This time he fought through the illness. His heart sped with the effort, sweat dripped from his nose, and strange coloured lights floated in his vision. But he could see.

The ceiling overhead was in severe disrepair. It was made of wooden planks, but many were decayed and several were missing, allowing flickering light to penetrate the gaps. The main source of light, however, came from a torch beyond the open trapdoor at the top of some steep and rickety stairs. A man sat on the bottom step. Arthur thought he should recognise him but struggled to summon the necessary memories. It's not that he didn't know who he himself was—he was Arthur, of course—it's just that details were blurry. Faces floated through his mind, but he couldn't remember who they belonged to with any sort of clarity.

There was one face, though, with bright blue eyes that crinkled when they smiled… Merlin. That's right. He could never forget Merlin.

Someone called down from the top of the stairs. “Just a second!” the man on the step replied. The voice was familiar, but at the same time it gave Arthur the creeps.

When the man stood, he was fully illuminated by the light. Arthur stared at the face, trying to remember who it belonged to. The sight struck him with feelings of both comfort and dread. How could that be? It made no sense.

And then, with an intensity that took his breath away, memories of betrayal overwhelmed him. This man was a traitor.

The traitor climbed the stairs, blocking out the light from the open trapdoor when he passed through, and disappeared.

Arthur's breath came in small, short huffs almost as rapid as his pulse. He needed to get ahold of himself, or he would pass out. And how would he protect himself then?

Protect himself… He needed to protect himself. But how?

Arthur struggled to sit up. The nausea was severe. He held his breath as long as he could and then slowly expelled air, an attempt to keep the sick at bay. His stomach revolted and tried to flee his body, but Arthur would not let it. No matter how sick he felt, he would not be defeated. Not by illness, not by injury—and certainly not by any bloody traitors.

When he sat up, the cloth around him fell to his waist, leaving him bare chested. Chilly air brushed against his sweat-covered skin, worsening the shivering and increasing his trepidation. Where were his clothes? It was much too cold to be without. Where the hell was he? What the fuck had happened? That dream couldn't have— No. It wasn't.

Arthur needed a weapon. He could worry about the rest of it later.

There were no actual weapons within his reach, nor any that he could see in the dim light. But the stone wall next to him had crumbled and chunks of masonry littered the immediate area. That would explain the smell of damp earth—they must be underground.

He found a stone small enough to fit in his hand but large enough to be effective. It would be best to hide at the bottom of the stairs and wait for the traitor, but Arthur didn't trust himself to walk. So he lay back down and pulled the fabric loosely over his torso. His “weapon” was in his hand. As soon as the traitor got close enough, Arthur would strike.

The plan wasn't ideal—there was the whole matter of escaping when he was weak and ill and lost—but it was better than nothing.

While he waited for the traitor to return, he attempted to make a better plan. But it was impossible: he was so miserable that all his energy went to resisting the siren song of sleep.

At last he heard footsteps followed by creaking as someone came down the stairs. Arthur peeked through squinted eyes to make sure that it was the traitor. Satisfied, he feigned sleep. He was ready. But then the man sat on the bottom stair again. And did nothing. Damn it. If Arthur waited much longer, he'd fall asleep whether he wanted to or not.

Nothing happened. All was still. Maybe he would have to trick the man into coming over. Perhaps if he acted like he was dying? Considering how he felt, it wasn't far from the truth. The traitor had brought him here for a reason so should want to keep him alive. Right?

Arthur had seen patients with high fevers have violent fits before. He wasn't nearly that ill, but the man wouldn't know. Course of action decided, he steeled his nerves and began.

He moaned, doing his best to make it sound pained. It wasn't that hard; he was nauseated and feverish. He moaned again and then started exaggerating the motion of the shivers that already racked his body.

“Arthur!” the treacherous voice called. The sound of boots on stone approached. He moaned and shook and blinked his eyes rapidly, allowing him to see while maintaining the semblance of having a fit.

The traitor knelt down next to him… Almost close enough… almost… just about… get ready… and…

Crunch. Arthur smashed the rock against the man’s head with as much force as he could muster. It was nothing like his normal strength, but, gods willing, it would be enough….

The man cried out in surprise and pain. Arthur panicked and hit him again. This time he was successful. The traitor crumpled to the floor, motionless.

Footsteps hurried across the floor above him; the wooden planks creaked and cracked as if on the verge of collapsing. A shadowed figure appeared at the top of the stairs, blocking the light. Shit. So much for silence. Arthur reached out and pulled the traitor's sword out of its scabbard; at least he would have a weapon, even if he wasn't confident he was well enough to use it. If anyone came close, though, they would be in for a surprise.

“Hey, is everything all right down there?”

The voice was familiar, though Arthur couldn't quite place it. He gripped the sword and debated whether standing up would be helpful or make him pass out.

“Leon? What's going on?”

A wave of dizziness washed over Arthur, and he decided it would be safer to remain seated.

The man disappeared from the doorway but quickly returned with a torch. The flame revealed short hair and dark skin. He was dressed like a peasant. It didn't seem quite right somehow—like this person should be wearing something else. Maybe something more… knightly? He was certainly no peasant.

Tension dissipated from Arthur's muscles. He knew this man—he was certain of it—and wasn't he a friend? If only Arthur's head weren't so muddled…

“Leon! Arthur! What—”

The not-peasant hurried down the steep stairs, torch in hand. Arthur gripped the sword tighter. His brain was so muddled he couldn't be sure of anything, and he would not leave himself unprotected based on a mere feeling.

“Stay back!” Arthur yelled as the other man approached. His sword was lifted and ready to strike as best he could manage from his place on the floor.

“Sire! What happened?” The not-peasant held his torch over the traitor—Leon, had he called him? The light revealed a nasty gash; blood welled from his temple onto the floor. Only one wound was obvious, although Arthur had hit him twice. Perhaps the first impact hadn't been strong enough to draw blood.

The man laid the torch down and rushed to a bundle near the stairs. Now that it was better lit, Arthur could see the chamber was more ruin than room. The stone walls had mostly crumbled, and half of the planks that remained in the ceiling had splintered. The floor was packed dirt and littered with loose rock. Tree roots had pushed through the gaps in the stone wall and were probably the main reason for their decrepitude. A few barrels and crates sat against the opposite wall. The place seemed familiar, as if Arthur had been here before, but his memories were so muddled he couldn't be sure.

Arthur still gripped the traitor's sword, but the other man paid him no heed. It was confusing. Instead, he rummaged in the bundle and came back with a dark shirt and a water skin. He carefully pulled a strip of fabric off the garment, poured water over it, and crouched next to the injured man to clean and examine his wound.

He was within easy reach of Arthur's sword. Why the hell wasn't he afraid? Even if he hadn't betrayed Arthur himself, he was assisting a traitor, which made him equally culpable. Wasn't that what his father always said about sorcerers? If you assist a sorcerer, you also burn. Right? Arthur should strike him down, no matter that he was unarmed and helping an injured man. Traitors did not deserve to be treated with honour.

But something stilled his blade. The sensation that he knew this man, that they were friends, grew stronger the longer Arthur watched him. The not-peasant continued to clean the wound. He pressed another folded strip of cloth against it to stem the bleeding, oblivious to the potential danger.

At last Arthur could bear the confusion no longer. Talking to the enemy would perhaps take away the element of surprise, but he wasn't sure this was an enemy.

“Who are you?”

The man’s head jerked up, dark eyes searching out his. “You don't remember me, sire?”

“Should I?” As far as questions went, that was pretty stupid. Obviously the man thought Arthur should remember him. And here Arthur always called Merlin the idiot. Merlin—yes, he remembered Merlin. That sweet and loyal fool. The one who was wiser than Arthur. Merlin.

This wasn't Merlin. But he did seem familiar.

“I’m Elyan. Gwen's brother? One of your knights?”

His knights? That's right. He led the knights. In Camelot. He knew that. It seemed like the tale of some other man’s life, but now that he considered it, of course it must be his. It's just… the terrible dreams… those weren't real… they couldn't be real…

Arthur didn't want to believe this man. Elyan. He didn't want to believe Elyan. He was… damn, he didn't want to admit it, but yes… he was afraid. If that other life was actually this life… what else would prove true? He needed to find out. He needed to know what was going on.

“Why are you helping a traitor?”

“A traitor? Leon? Leon is your most loyal knight. He's no traitor. He’d sooner cut off an arm than betray you.”

But this was one thing Arthur knew for certain. He shook his head in thought, trying to reconcile what Elyan said with what Arthur knew. Dizziness crashed over him, and he fiercely regretted not holding still. He placed Leon's sword between himself and the wall, and then slumped back onto the ground, pulling the cloth around him to stave off the cold. In the torchlight he could see that it was a knight’s cape.

Elyan continued speaking, each word pounding against Arthur's consciousness like a clapper into its bell. “Is that what happened here? You did this, Your Highness? Hurt Leon? Because you thought he was a traitor?”

The adrenaline faded away as Arthur accepted that Elyan had no desire to hurt him. As it left, it took Arthur's energy with it. The illness returned full force (or perhaps he was just noticing it again). His teeth clacked together as shivers ran loose over his body.

“Because he is a traitor.” Arthur tried to sound authoritative but was too miserable to do a good job of it.

Elyan looked at him, an expression of something that might have been pity in his eye. Or perhaps Arthur only imagined it; his vision wasn't trustworthy at the moment. “If Leon were a traitor, why would he risk his life to rescue you?”

“He what?” If Arthur knew one thing, it was that the traitor hadn't rescued him. There had been someone else… someone who had promised to take care of him… someone who loved him.

“Who do you think got the both of us out of the castle?”

Out of the castle? Arthur had been rescued. From the castle. This veered perilously close to the dreams he would rather not remember. His heartbeat accelerated and sickening prickles of fear welled up in his muscles. Breathe. Breathe deeply. I can handle this. Yes.

Arthur inhaled deeply, tensed his muscles, and then blew out and forced himself to relax. He had trained all his life to remain cool and collected no matter what the situation; it would be poor repayment to his teachers if he abandoned the lesson when he needed it most.

“But— It wasn't you. There was… someone else. With magic. I remember the magic. It—” Arthur physically recoiled at a sudden memory of intrusion, forces magical and mundane pressing onto him, into him, doing as they willed. Sweet death had been calling for Arthur, but even that had been denied. A war had been waged in his body, a battle of the physical against the magical, pain versus oblivion, but none of the combatants had been his ally. He had been neutral land on which bitter enemies had clashed, leaving nothing but pain and destruction in their wake.

As he pulled himself out of the memories (and damn, damn, damn it all, they were memories and not dreams), he became aware that he was shaking. He crossed his arms tightly across his chest, an attempt to lessen the tremors running through him without permission. It was Arthur's body, and it was about time he took charge of it again.

There had been that one voice, though… Someone who had offered him water in the midst of the burning desert, someone who had wrapped him in sweetness, someone who had rescued him with love.

And it wasn't this traitor Leon.

“Yes, Your Highness. There was magic. Agravaine had his sorcerer heal you, and then some of his goons took you out of the citadel and into the town. I don't think they were expecting any resistance. Leon and I made short work of them as soon as they left the main road for a back alley. They really weren't the brightest. Though now that I think about it, maybe we should have followed them longer, see where they were going… It couldn't have been anywhere good. Well, now the only place they're going is into the trash, the scum.”

Elyan grinned, but the smile evaporated when Arthur said nothing. He lifted his eyebrows and rocked his head forwards and back in the signal the knights used to indicate “come on,” clearly wanting acknowledgement that Arthur remembered this, or at the very least agreed.

Agravaine? Who was that? The name sounded familiar… But even as he wondered, a wave of nausea rolled over him, and this time he couldn't hold it in. He leaned towards the wall, away from Elyan, expelling the vomit into a pile of rocks. His stomach was nearly empty, as all that came out was a mouthful of water tinged yellow with bile.

After he caught his breath, Arthur wiped his mouth with the cape wrapped around him. Then he grimaced. “Is this yours?” he asked, nodding to the red fabric.

Elyan shook his head, frowning. “It's Leon’s. Those louts wrapped you in some flea-infested rags, but Leon wouldn't stand for it. He's not a traitor, sire. I promise.”

Elyan’s face brightened. It was not quite a smile, more a look of satisfaction at having solved a mystery.

“Ohhhhhh! Your Highness! I know why you think Leon a traitor. He's not, I assure you.” Elyan had finished bandaging Leon while Arthur had been lost in thought. He now carefully lay Leon flat on the ground, just out of reach of Arthur's sword.

Arthur's impatience flared up. He gripped the sword handle, even though he had no energy to wield it. “Tell me. Now.”

Elyan sounded almost cheerful as he spoke, a stark contrast to the current situation. “Morgana enchanted him. But Gaius figured out a remedy. And now Morgana is dead! Leon stabbed her. I saw the body.”

Morgana? Morgana. As soon as Elyan said the name, Arthur remembered her. Dark hair, brilliant smile, wicked sense of humour, heart of gold, practically his sister… His sister— His sister!

Memories of Morgana—his sister—engulfed him: her passion, her rigid sense of justice, her betrayal and descent into madness. For despite the cold, sharp intelligence that made her a formidable enemy, she had gone mad. And what had led her to the calculating insanity? Grief? Anger? Betrayal? Despair? Whatever it had been, it had destroyed the girl he had once known from the inside out.

She had done this. She had been the one to burn his city, destroy his army, scatter his people like dust in the wind.

She was dead? The woman who had destroyed his life was dead?

He ought to feel relief, of course. But all he could see was the girl he grew up with, and it was like she had been ripped away from him all over again. Sorrow welled deep in his heart.

Elyan seemed not to recognise Arthur's ambivalence. He grinned like a man pleasantly tipsy making the most of an unexpected feast.

“Of course, Helios and Agravaine still live. Helios will have control of Camelot, and that army of his will put up quite the fight. And there are the sorcerers. But without Morgana, they will be beatable. I'm certain of it. We just need to meet up with the others. Leon said they’d fled to the caves.”

Arthur didn't say anything, mind still reeling. Elyan must have taken his silence as doubt, for he continued, “Don't worry, sire. Leon says the knights sent messages to our allies. They will back us up. We will retake Camelot; have no fear.”

Retake Camelot? The idea was like smoke dispersing in a brisk wind, not something he could grasp, not something that could hold its shape long enough for him to focus on. The very idea of such a thing was ludicrous: he was damaged in both body and mind, sick and heartsore, naked in a crumbling ruin, with only a traitor and his accomplice for company.

Recovering his kingdom was as likely as getting Merlin into that hat again… and considering that he suspected Merlin of having burnt it, that would be rather difficult. Impossible, really.

Well, if he were going to make a go of it, a good first step would be to get dressed. At least that part shouldn't be too hard. Assuming there were clothes somewhere.

Perhaps they could do this, one step at a time.

“I'd like to dress before planning an invasion.”

Elyan exhaled, and Arthur could see the tension run out of him along with the air. Perhaps he wasn't as sure of things as Arthur had assumed.

“We ‘borrowed’ some clothes from the servants’ quarters before we left the castle. We thought it would be better to wait until you woke to put them on.”

Arthur nodded, and though the idea of sitting up again was miserable, he was determined. Elyan brought some garments from the bundle he had rummaged in earlier and tried to help Arthur up. But as Elyan’s hands reached for him, Arthur jerked away and rolled towards the wall.

“No!” he yelled. Then he paused, surprised by his own reaction. “Sorry, sorry… just… I'll do it myself.”

A memory flickered into existence, more of a feeling, really, a recollection of hands and intrusion and so much pain, more than he thought possible. The sensation of strips of fire across his body, all over… but that couldn't be real. He would not still be alive if that had been real. There was no way.

He looked at his bare chest, just to make sure the skin there was not flayed off. It wasn't, it wasn't, thank the gods that it wasn't. But now that he looked… he could see it wasn't normal, either. He lightly ran a hand over his chest. It was not at all smooth. Instead it was covered with numerous strips of swollen, puffy skin that stung when touched. He had a horrible intuition about what had caused this.

“Agravaine’s sorcerer healed you, sire, but the injuries were so severe that he couldn't fix it all.”

Agravaine? There was that name again.

And a sorcerer? Yes, yes, there had been magic. To heal his injuries. But—

Deep down, he hadn't believed it. Deep down, he had denied the darkest of his dreams. For if the injuries were real… then that nightmare of how he got them… gods, no, no, that couldn't have happened.

Was Elyan lying? Why would he?

Arthur let his head fall back to the ground, exhausted. His hand stayed on his chest, though, worrying the lines of raised skin that crisscrossed his body. They were mostly, but not quite, parallel, resulting in small diamond shapes. It was fascinating, horrifying, unthinkable. Damning.

The evidence was there, inscribed over his body like a court decree. This happened, the lesions proclaimed. It wasn't a dream. It had all been real.

All right. He could deal with this. Hadn't he trained his whole life to lead a kingdom through all manner of adversity? So he didn't have a kingdom anymore and the adversity was overwhelming. But Arthur would fix it. He would.

Gods, who was he kidding? What hope did he have?

None. None at all. Even with Morgana dead. Arthur was broken. His army was broken. His people were broken. There was no hope.

He had grown up knowing that his death would likely not be of natural causes. As an adolescent, he would have been mortified if his death wasn't in battle, defending his people. After Merlin came, his perspective changed. He was still resigned to the fact that he would not make it to old age, but the the thought no longer brought him joy. What had changed? Was it the fact that with Merlin around, Arthur was happier and less eager to throw his life away? If he died, think of all the years of Merlin-teasing that he would miss out on. (His memories of Merlin were becoming clearer, but something about them didn't seem quite right. There was a negative pall over the happiness Arthur remembered. He was forgetting something, and he suspected he preferred it that way.)

So his situation was hopeless. So what? It was no excuse not to fight. And if he died in the attempt, it was the fate he had always expected. Though it would be better to live, of course, for who would liberate Camelot if Arthur were dead?

“Would you like some help, sire?”

Help? Arthur was going to need a whole army's worth of help. If he had an army. Were they all dead? Or traitors? And what about Leon? Arthur knew that Leon had betrayed him. No matter what Elyan said, Arthur was certain this was true.

“Your Highness? You still with me? Can I help you dress?”

How was he going to save his people if he couldn't even get dressed by himself? Or pay attention to a simple question?

“No! I'll do it. Just—leave me be.”

Elyan stared at him, brows knit together. He was kneeling, arms reaching out to help.

“It would be no prob—”

“I said I'll do it!”

Elyan stood and bowed his head. “Of course, sire. If you don't mind, I'll move Leon into a more comfortable place. Hopefully he'll wake up soon, so we can meet up with the others.”

Arthur nodded and went about the work of dressing. It was painful, both physically and mentally. His body ached and illness weighed him down. And the ignominy of dressing in peasant rags… The clothes were too small, on the verge of falling apart, and not at all warm enough for the weather. But they were better than nothing.

After he dressed, exhaustion stole over him like darkness at the end of a stormy day. He lay back and curled up in the knight’s cape, determined to take but a moment to rest and fight back the nausea. But when Elyan offered him water and told him to rest, as it might be many hours before Leon woke, Arthur decided to trust Elyan to keep him safe. Arthur let his thoughts wander hither and yon, thinking and considering, working through memories, trying to make plans… until he fell asleep to the memory of brilliant blue eyes and an impertinent laugh.

***

Something ripped Arthur out of his troubled dreams, woke him as abruptly as the warning bell. Instinct formed by many years’ training forced his eyes open even as he reached for the sword he knew was lying beside him. A dark shadow loomed over him—and the sword was gone. Something raised above him caught the light, something metallic, something dangerous.

Arthur rolled straight into the shadow with all his strength. Metal hit stone with a violent clang right where he had just been. Arthur shouted with effort as he slammed into a pair of solid legs. The man they belonged to grunted at the impact and stepped backwards to compensate for his loss of balance. Arthur took the opportunity to jump to his feet, grabbing another of the plentiful stones that had crumbled from the ruined walls. It would not do much against a man with a sword, but Arthur had made do with worse.

A single torch burned by the stairs. In its light Arthur could see his attacker was Leon. Of course it was; who else would it be? Leon's features were twisted with rage and possibly disgust. His lips curled in a snarl more akin to that of a rabid dog than a man. He panted and shook, and a trickle of blood leaked from the improvised bandage wrapped round his temple.

They glared at each other. Arthur wasn't quite sure why Leon didn't attack; he had the clear advantage. He had his sword lifted, and Arthur's only hope would be to fend off the strike with a too-small stone.

“I will present your severed head to my mistress, Pendragon. She will dip her fingers in your blood and feast upon your brains.”

And yet, Leon didn't move to attack but stood still, trembling.

“Your mistress is dead, just as you will soon be.” Arthur's voice exuded more confidence than he felt.

Leon laughed. “My mistress, dead? Impossible. No mortal blade can kill her.”

Arthur thought he should feel some sort of emotional reaction to this declaration, but instead merely filed the information away for later. Whether true or not, it wouldn't make a whit of difference if Arthur were hacked into pieces like a hunting trophy.

He waited to be struck down, but when nothing happened (other than Leon looking more furious and crazed as time passed: mouth open, teeth clenched, drool dripping from the open mouth), Arthur lost his patience and went on the offensive. He threw the stone in his hand straight at Leon's head. Leon was slow and unsteady but managed to step aside just in time.

Arthur reached down for two more stones, one in each hand, never taking his eyes off Leon. His mind was busy calculating angles and trajectories, how best to defend himself from the sword that would slice through the air and cut him down. But Leon hesitated—and hesitated still. He groaned, as if in pain, and the blade drooped.

Arthur threw both stones at Leon's head, one after the other, and then lunged for the sword, hoping to get it while the man was disoriented from dodging projectiles. He reached, and—

And Leon spun around and fled up the stairs. He stomped with such force that one of the steps collapsed, but it didn't deter him.

Should Arthur follow him? And where was Elyan? Was Elyan complicit in this betrayal, despite all his pretty words? Was he just trying to keep Arthur complacent while planning even worse treachery?

Damn. Arthur was tired, still dizzy from fever, barefoot, and weaponless. But these excuses would only serve to get him killed. He ran to the bundle of supplies, hoping that since the knights had brought clothes for him, there would also be shoes.

Though why bring him clothes if they only meant to kill him? Why carry him all this way? It didn't make any sense.

He found the shoes and threw them on. Just that much effort left him lightheaded and panting for breath. It would be foolish to try and catch Leon. He'd pass out in the middle of the fight and get himself killed. Death might be inevitable, but it ought to count for something.

He had to leave, though. It was not safe here, wherever here was. Arthur scanned the ruined cellar and gathered all the supplies he could find: the pack, the cape, the torch. The lack of weapon was worrisome, but he put a stone into the pack and carried another in his pocket, ready to use it should he run into trouble.

What had happened to Elyan? Had he run off with the traitor? Was he lying in wait, ready to surprise Arthur as soon as he ascended to the chamber above? Or might he possibly still be loyal to Arthur?

Arthur crept up the stairs as silently as possible, though they creaked and groaned with his weight; he carefully skipped the broken step. The chamber above was another cellar filled with a few empty barrels and crates, completely devoid of people. More stairs rose steeply into the darkness. At the top of these he found a room with a wooden door left ajar; beyond that was a long passageway that led outside. It had a distinctive arched ceiling that Arthur immediately recognized. While his memory was still spotty, he knew this place: it was the abandoned watchtower in the forest outside of Camelot. His father had established it as one of a series of meeting points in the event of trouble. It had once been stocked with supplies for emergencies, but if the cellars were any indication, nothing much was left.

Arthur clutched his own supplies close as he walked through the arched passageway into the inky darkness of the outside world. The thick forest blocked any illumination from stars or moon. Without the torch, he would have been completely blind. The light announced his presence to any who might be looking, but he decided to risk it. Speed was more important than stealth: the traitor was out there and knew where Arthur was. It was imperative that he leave before Leon came back with reinforcements. Better to be lost in a forest than chopped into bloody bits. Despite the utter blackness of the night, he would search for the caves. Hopefully he could find some refugees from Camelot, ones that he could trust.

Decision made, Arthur plunged into the lightless forest and ventured onwards as fast as his broken body would go.

Chapter Text

The journey to meet up with the refugees hiding in the caves was difficult. Merlin’s anxiety rose along with the sun all through the morning and into the afternoon; it became impossible to keep the worries for his mother at bay. It didn't help that the physical strain of being carried for hours wore on him.

Despite that, it was a brilliant spring day, bathed in golden light that lay over the fresh green of leaves sprouting from every branch, twig, and stalk. The air was warm without any of the oppressive heat of summer, and it carried the perfume of new blooms deep into the lungs, where it tried to spread a warm aura of happiness into the rest of the body.

It was hard for Merlin to resist the gorgeous perfection of the day. It was the kind of day that was almost painful, for it was not the kind of beauty that could be packaged up and taken away to hoard forever. It was a gift, a temporary blessing, and it ached to know that such perfection could not last.

It ached all the more, because it stood in such stark contrast to Merlin's emotional landscape. When he closed his eyes, fear and darkness assailed him from every side. But when his eyes were open—

When his eyes were open, he could see Gwaine's dear face, right above his own. He could see the lines of tension that creased the skin in unfamiliar ways. He could see in the clench of his jaw and the beads of sweat on his brow that it was a struggle for him to carry Merlin, and yet he kept on at a steady pace, one step after the other, never complaining. He chatted about frivolous things or broke into song, and whenever he looked down at Merlin in his arms, he smiled his sweetest smile. It was not the grin of a flirt or troublemaker, but the genuine smile of the most devoted of friends. Whenever Merlin saw it, he warmed up from the inside out. For a time after a Gwaine smile, even the perfume of spring could work its magic on him.

But the closer they got to their destination, the less effective Gwaine's magic was. What of his mother? What of his friends? And… what of Arthur? Merlin had thought he never wanted to see him again, that it would be too painful. And now that there was a chance he would… maybe it wasn't the worst of things. Perhaps the sunshine and the smiles had affected Merlin with their optimism. There was a part of him that remembered his king with… not love, no, not love. But… compassion. It felt wrong to be angry with someone who had just lost a kingdom, lost everything that made up his life, no matter how much he had hurt Merlin.

The bright daylight was slanting from the west when they finally reached the caves. Merlin clung to Gwaine hard enough to leave bruises, and Gwaine never said a word against it. He seemed to intuitively know how Merlin felt and was determined to be strong for him. It brought to mind Grettir at the bridge to the Perilous Lands. He had called Gwaine “Strength,” and never had there been a more accurate description. Gwaine was Merlin's strength; Gwaine would carry Merlin through the darkest of nights and most anxious days.

And Merlin was utterly grateful.

As they approached the stone outcropping that hid the entrance to the cave, an unfamiliar voice shouted in greeting. Merlin could hear the man yelling to others and was suddenly afraid. What would he find here? More misery? Or hope?

He closed his eyes and pressed his face into Gwaine's chest, willing himself to soak up some of the strength that coursed through his friend like blood through the veins. He imagined it flowing into him, filling him up; and when he opened his eyes again, the anxiety had lessened. Whatever he would find in this cave, he could handle it. A great weight lifted from him, a weight that had been pressing him down like an iron blanket.

Laughter floated towards them on the warm spring breeze, a joyful song that was the most beautiful thing Merlin had ever heard. It was more lovely than this most perfect of spring days, more precious than his own heartbeat.

“Mother!” he cried, so overcome that his voice croaked. “Mother!”

And then she was there, arms around him, pressing kisses to his brow, stroking his hair, and doing it all with tears in her eyes. Gwaine set him down in the silky smooth grass, finally free of the snow, and his mother sat with him. Together they stayed throughout the rest of that perfect afternoon, whispering and clinging to each other, soaking up both sunshine and love.

***

As the afternoon wore on, Hunith told Merlin of her escape from the enemy camp. They had run into trouble when a soldier came to her tent and had discovered Percival untying her. A fight had broken out, a fight which had woken the soldier who had been guarding her.

“The really tall one?” Merlin asked, remembering the man who had promised to look after his mother.

“That's the one.”

“I called him ‘not-Percival’. He said he'd watch over you.” Fear crept through the joy, darkening the brightness of the late afternoon. What if not-Percival had proved as slimy as Droopy Face?

His mother put her hands on his cheeks, and an understanding look flitted across her face. “He treated me well, Merlin, have no fear.”

Another soldier had heard the commotion and come into the tent; Percival had had to fight his way out. He had been outnumbered three against one, but not-Percival had smiled warmly at Hunith and then stabbed one of the enemy fighters right through the gut.

Hunith smirked as she recounted the tale. “Said the man was a ‘right bastard’ and deserved it.” Her face quickly darkened, though. “The remaining soldier managed to slice your ‘not-Percival’ across the chest right before the actual Sir Percival killed him. ‘Not-Percival’ fell down and didn't move and I thought for sure that he had been killed trying to help me.”

But it turned out he was merely stunned and that the cut, while bloody, was shallow. “I was so relieved. I know he's working for Morgana, but—”

“Yeah, Mum, I know.” On the one hand, it was hard to feel sympathy for anyone who worked for Morgana; but in the other, he knew that most people didn't have the luxury of fighting for a cause. They spent most of their energy scraping together enough resources to survive, struggling every day to put food on their family's table and a roof over their heads.

And Merlin couldn't help but feel grateful that not-Percival had fulfilled his promise to take care of Merlin's mum.

“He was happy to claim that he was injured trying to stop my escape. Seemed to think a battle wound might get him special treatment for awhile.”

Gwaine and Percival had succeeded in drugging most of the enemy to sleep, but obviously not all. The fight had caught the attention of those still awake. Several soldiers had been on their tail, and in the process of losing them, Percival had strayed far from the rendezvous point he had set with Gwaine. They had decided to go straight to the caves as quickly as possible, knowing that Gwaine would follow.

“I'm so sorry we worried you, love. By the time we would have reached the meeting place, you would probably have been gone anyway.”

Merlin had nodded, suddenly ashamed of how anxious he had been, crying for his mother like a child. Something of his mood must have shown in his face, for his mother tsked at him. “None of that now, sweet boy. You had every right to be worried. Do not doubt yourself. I cannot promise that the future will bring us happiness, but for now we are together. Let us appreciate the peace of this moment, for no one knows what is yet to come. Be here with me, love, and let us delight in what we have.”

Merlin breathed in the scent of nearby crocuses and listened to the drone of honeybees making their first rounds of the spring. He soaked up the warmth of both the sun and his mother, and he felt something frozen inside of him melt.

Gaius hobbled out to them just before the sun went down. He had been sleeping and looked more fragile than Merlin had ever seen him. Despite the sleep he appeared exhausted, and when he reached down to hug Merlin, the skin on his hands felt like a withered peach, almost like parchment that could be easily torn to shreds.

Gaius didn't stay long, retiring back to the cave to rest more. Merlin worried for him, but it was but a pebble in his shoe as compared to the boulder barrelling downhill towards him.

When evening fell, they moved into the cave. There were about a dozen people there: Percival, Gwaine, Gaius, and a handful of Camelot’s guards and soldiers. Gwen and Sir Vidor had led the rest of the refugees towards Nemeth. The knights had sent a messenger to King Rodor, and he had responded to their plea for help. He was sending soldiers to assist the evacuation, and the majority of Camelot’s refugees had left under the cover of darkness the previous evening to reach them sooner.

That night Merlin curled up between Gwaine and his mother. The ground was hard, but he was warm and safe and wrapped in love, and sleep came easily.

***

He woke to the sound of men calling to each other. Their voices were calm and controlled, but they were clearly concerned about something. When Merlin sat up, he could see Gwaine and Percival talking animatedly with several of the guards.

Merlin's impulse was to run over and join them. For years now he had stood among them, playing the part of helpless servant, but really listening for the information he would need in order to save the knights or Arthur or the kingdom without anyone being any the wiser.

But then he remembered: the lost magic, the broken knees. He was useless. Why did Gwaine even bother to rescue him? All he could be was a burden…

Merlin was reminded of some of the elderly patients that Gaius had cared for. Occasionally Merlin would visit them in the lower town, bringing both tonics and his company. One shrivelled old woman had been confined to her bed. She suffered from incessant pain that Gaius’ remedies did little to assuage. By all accounts she was worthless, a burden on her children who cared for her.

And yet—

Every time Merlin visited her, he came away smiling. She had a razor-sharp wit and a contagious laugh. Perhaps it was only because she had nothing else to do, but she was the best listener Merlin had ever had the fortune of knowing. He poured out his troubles (at least of the non-magical variety) and by the end of his visit, he would feel lighter, happier, more capable of dealing with all the crap that life would throw at him. It was rare for Merlin to arrive and find her alone; the neighborhood children flocked to her bedside, constantly badgering her for stories and songs; young men and women would ask for advice regarding matters of the heart; parents would come with concerns about their children.

She could have been a useless burden, but she had chosen a different path. Instead of giving in to pain and sadness, she did what she could to support the ones around her.

If she could do that, Merlin could too. It would not help anyone to sit around pouting and depressed. If he had to be a burden, at the very least he would not drag anyone else down with him. And maybe—maybe there would still be something he could offer… even if it was only polishing bits of armour or mending clothing.

He still wanted to know what was going on. Even if he couldn't magic the problem better, he might know some way to help. Percival and a few of the guards left the cave, but thankfully Gwaine came back to talk to Merlin.

“Someone is wandering around in the forest. We don't think it's one of ours, because whoever it is doesn't seem to know where they're going. The boys are just going to check.”

It wasn't too long before Merlin could hear them returning. Gwaine immediately went outside. The knights’ voices were animated, and then Percival came in the cave, carrying someone… someone fairly large… someone with blond hair…

“Gaius!” Percival said. “I need you!”

Gwaine had followed Percival in but then rushed ahead to spread out his cape on the cave floor. Percival laid the person on the cape, and Gaius crouched over the figure.

The noise in the cave swelled with murmurs as those present watched the scene. Merlin couldn't bring himself to speak; he could only stare at the person on the cave floor and will his heart to not pound itself right out of his chest. For there, lying not more than twenty paces away, was the man who had destroyed his life. There, unconscious and possibly dying, was Arthur.

***

Arthur looked nothing like Merlin's memory of him. His strength and energy were gone; all that was left was a feverish, disfigured wreck of a person. Merlin could only stare, transfixed in horror, though whether the horror was from seeing his attacker again or seeing what had become of him, he wasn't sure.

Percival helped Merlin to move to a place where he could watch the proceedings from a safe distance. “We found him wandering in the forest; I think he was trying to come here but was too sick and disoriented to find the way.”

Merlin didn't answer, but simply stared as Gaius administered tonics to lower fever and diminish pain. Arthur was wearing a tunic and breeches, both too small for him, and his skin was exposed at his stomach, calves, arms, and upper chest. In the past Merlin would have struggled to resist the urge to reach out and stroke the hair on the soft belly. But now he just looked on in despair, for all the skin was covered with angry red lines, raised and swollen and covering almost every last bit of visible skin. Even his face had not been spared. This was no simple flogging, but a cruel torture that would have killed him if not for a sorcerer's intervention.

It was clear that he had been healed, but the magic had been unable to repair the damage. It made Merlin feel sick just looking at it. All his protective instincts were shocked out of their hibernation, electrified into undesired waking by the sight. And it was undesired: Merlin had had every plan to renounce Arthur forever. But to witness such cruelty, the evil that someone could inflict on another human being—and not just any old human being, but Merlin's king, his destiny, his soulmate… It lit a fire in his heart. It didn't matter if Arthur should have fought the enchantment more; it didn't matter if maybe he really had thought all those things about Merlin; it didn't matter if Arthur was the vessel for the evil that had destroyed Merlin's life… Merlin knew in that moment that he would serve and protect Arthur to his dying breath.

Chapter Text

After Gaius had finished caring for Arthur and things had settled down, Merlin's mum brought him a bit of bread and sat next him. They both watched Arthur sleep while Merlin ate. She didn't say anything, for which he was grateful. He was full of too many strong emotions to be able to hold any sort of rational conversation.

Eventually he grew tired, as he was still weak. He slumped into his mother's arms and let himself rest. His dozing was about to turn into sleeping when his mother finally spoke.

“I know you haven't told me everything that happened between you and the king, love. But I can see in the way you look at him that you are conflicted. Sir Percival told me some of it, that the king was cursed… Just— The pair of you have always been like two sides of the same coin. Don't let this be what splits you apart. That's exactly what the enemy wants.”

Merlin groaned, half in distress, half in grudging agreement. He wasn't sure he was ready to hear this right now.

“You need time, love. Time and rest. Things will get brighter, you'll see. Now come, you'll feel better after a nap.”

She nodded to Gwaine, who was never far, and together the two of them put him to bed like he was a tiny child. He wanted to complain, be offended by such treatment, but he couldn't. It was comforting and made him feel safe, something he thought he might never feel again.

***

After the nap, Merlin asked to return to Arthur's side. Gwaine frowned but carried him there as requested. Merlin was determined that he would not be afraid, that he wouldn't let Morgana come between the two of them. He would take his mother's words to heart.

It wasn't that easy, of course. How could it be? Merlin watched Arthur sleep, and his heart burned with a fiercely protective instinct. Merlin's king had been severely damaged, nearly killed, and if Merlin had been smarter, stronger, more astute, he could have prevented it.

And then Arthur opened his eyes.

It was just a peek of clouded blue, nothing like the usual vibrant colour. But it was enough to send Merlin's heartbeat rushing pell mell towards a precipice of fear and pain. It dragged the rest of Merlin along with it. Away, away, he had to get away! The impulse to flee pounded through his consciousness to the rhythm of his out-of-control heart, fast and getting faster.

“Gwaine!” he yelled, but his voice was strangled and had about the same volume as a mouse’s squeak. Arthur blinked at him, slowly, and Merlin couldn't look away. The adrenaline coursing through his body made him feel like he might fly to pieces at any minute if he didn't move, but Arthur's eyes pinned him in place like a spear pierced through his heart and into the cave wall.

“Merlin.” Arthur's voice was barely a whisper, but it reverberated in Merlin's ears like armour dropped on stone. Merlin stared, paralysed, transfixed.

Arthur’s arm lifted and stretched slightly, as if to reach out to Merlin, but then he let it drop. Merlin's body tensed even more than it had been; he was ready to squirm away like a blind grub if he needed, to get away however he could.

“Hi,” Arthur said simply.

Merlin realised he was holding his breath and slowly let himself exhale.

“Hi,” he whispered back, startling himself by responding. His heart kept pounding, but no longer seemed in danger of pulling him off a cliff to his destruction.

“I'm… glad you're here,” Arthur said, voice stronger.

Why? Why was Arthur glad? A shock of remembered pain coursed through Merlin's body. Was he happy to know Merlin was in easy reach so that he could—

No, no, it had been an enchantment. An evil enchantment. Arthur would never…

And the ring had been removed…

And Merlin had his friends here. Gwaine would chop Arthur’s arms off if he tried anything. Everything would be fine.

Arthur pushed himself up from the bedroll. He was sitting, right there, so very close. If he stretched his arms out, he might snap Merlin's neck like it was a piece of kindling too long to fit in the grate. Arthur would snap him and burn him—and as Merlin thought this, the scars on his back stung from the mere memory of when the fiery iron brand had been repeatedly pressed into his spine.

A frightened yell burst from Merlin and reverberated around the cave before he even realised he'd opened his mouth. Gwaine was next to him in an instant.

“Merlin!” he called as he came. “What is it?”

The cave was dim, even in the daytime, so Gwaine didn't see Arthur was awake until he had reached Merlin's side. It was obvious the moment that Gwaine saw Arthur sitting up in the darkness. He immediately moved his body between Merlin and Arthur.

Merlin said nothing but spent all his energy trying to quell the sudden panic that overcame him. His body was yelling at him to get away right now, but he couldn't without help. Besides, Gwaine was here to be Merlin's strength. So his mind fought against his body's desire to flee, saying things like calm down, you idiot and knock it off already.

Gaius rushed over as fast as his old, worn-down body could. Hunith came, and Percival, and everyone else in the cave hovered nearby or at least looked over. Merlin wanted to shrink away, mortified that he had acted like a scared child in front of so many people.

Gaius interrogated Arthur as only he could. “How do you feel, sire? Are you in pain? When did you last eat?” and on and on like that. Merlin wanted to ask Gwaine to take him away, but Gwaine was just as caught up with staring at Arthur as everyone else.

So Merlin forced himself to calm down, to not lose his shit in front of everyone. He remembered his determination to not be a useless burden. That meant now. He had panicked for a moment, yes, but he would move past it.

At last Gwaine noticed his discomfort and offered to take him outside for awhile. The idea of fresh air and sunshine—away from Arthur—lifted his spirits immediately.

The afternoon was dwindling into evening. The air was warmer than it had been, as if spring were making an extra effort to kick out the remnants of winter just to make Merlin happy. He sat in the same place as he had with his mother—was that just yesterday? It felt like a week ago that Percival had carried Arthur into the cave, not just that morning.

Hunith came out shortly and sat next to him. She held his hand and rubbed at it. Merlin remembered that she had been through a hard time as well, and he felt ashamed for having soaked up all her love and support without giving any in return.

“How are you really?” he asked, pulling her hand into his lap so he could rub at it with both of his. “I should have asked earlier. I'm sorry.”

She batted at his hands playfully, but the tone of her voice was serious. “Don't you be sorry, young man. You've had plenty to be worrying about. I'm perfectly fine.”

He didn't believe that for a second. His mother was strong, but she'd been through a lot. Merlin showing up in Ealdor the way he had would have been enough to upset her, but then with the arrival of the soldiers and the burning of their house and the threat of violence… not to mention the fall of Camelot and the sad state of her people and king… There was no way that she was perfectly fine.

They sat quietly awhile. Then she sighed. “I'm fine, truly. I… just feel guilty. I was warned that my home wasn't safe, that Morgana would find you there. But—you were so broken, I just couldn't force you away right then. And you were so convinced that you could protect us… I just— I acted wrongly, and I feel terrible about it. I can't help but think about how things could have been different if I had listened to the dragon.”

“Dragon?” Merlin felt his mouth go dry. “What dragon?” A tiny gnat hovered right by his face, and he swiped at it in irritation.

“The night you arrived in Ealdor, I heard a voice calling me to go out to the forest. I followed it and ended up meeting your dragon, Kilgharrah.”

“You what!” How had he not known this? His mother had gone out by herself to meet the Great Dragon? Merlin didn't know whether to be angry at his mother's disregard for her own safety or impressed by her courage. “Why didn't you tell me?”

“You were sleeping, and I refused to bother you. And then when I heard what Kilgharrah said, I didn't want to scare you. You weren't well enough to travel; what difference would it have made?”

And truthfully, it wouldn't have made much of a difference. Merlin had sent Kilgharrah away and hoped never to chance upon him again. He had no inclination to heed the dragon ever again. Merlin had tried to follow his advice, and look where it had got him. Nowhere good, that's where. Crippled, magic-less, living in a cave. He kind of doubted his sanity, if his reaction to Arthur had been any indication. But hopefully that was just a fleeting aberration. Maybe.

He supposed that his lack of mental clarity could be why he had not been prepared for Morgana’s attack. Any rational person should have known there would be trouble sooner or later. He'd just been so tired. And idiotic. It certainly hadn't been his mother's fault.

“Please don't feel guilty, Mother. You did the best you could. I should have known better…”

The two of them spent the next little while sitting in the grass, soaking up the last of the day's sunlight, each arguing about how the other held no guilt. Eventually they came to a peaceful agreement that sometimes life was a fickle lady that would fuck you over as easily as kiss you with good fortune. They spent rather a long time thinking up outrageous invectives for destiny. By the time they got to that point in the conversation, Merlin was able to smile and lambast fate as a shortsighted onionhead with bad breath and a propensity to cause tears.

Sir Cador passed by them, nodding as he did so. He was on patrol around the cave, ready to alert everyone should the refugees’ location be discovered. It was somewhat surprising that Morgana hadn't found them yet. With her magic and abilities as a seer, it shouldn't have been that difficult.

Cador had returned from the trip to rescue Arthur alone. Whereas Leon had made it into the city, Cador was unable to make it past the soldiers guarding the gate. They had detained him awhile outside the wall, but they weren't the most competent of guards and he had been able to slip away. He worried that trying to get into the city again would only draw attention to the fact that there was an ongoing rescue mission. Since soldiers were searching for him, he had snuck off into the forest, made sure to lose the enemy, and then returned to the caves to let the others know what had happened.

Merlin was beginning a diatribe about the quality of their current abode (because sometimes it just really helped to vent about the crap in one's life) when Cador, who had completed a circuit of the environs and was now near the cave entrance, drew his sword. There were several others in the clearing, enjoying the sunshine instead of being holed up in the cave. They looked up, startled, just as Merlin did. Cador put a finger to his mouth and gestured for everyone to move back to the cave. Perhaps this was the moment they had been fearing, the moment when Morgana found them.

Percival rushed out to carry Merlin inside. The cave at least provided some protection in case of attack, though Merlin couldn't help but think they could easily be trapped and slaughtered.

Inside they waited, tense, wondering if someone was coming, if they would have to fight for their lives. Merlin wished he had a weapon on him. He might not be able to stand, but he could at least try to inflict damage upon the enemy before he died. At least that way he wouldn't be useless.

But there were no extra weapons around, and the knights were all outside. Merlin could see Arthur sitting up on his bedroll, looking curious and concerned. He must really be exhausted to not be outside with the knights.

They waited in strained silence for much too long. At last, someone whistled out the all clear signal. Shortly thereafter, Percival and Gwaine returned with Elyan between them.

“Elyan!” Arthur shouted eagerly. He hurried to stand up but was visibly wobbly and seemed unable to step away from the support of the wall.

“Sire!” Elyan called, rushing over. “I'm so glad to see you! When I came back to the watchtower and no one was there, I feared the worst!”

Arthur nodded. “As you can see, I'm perfectly fine.” He paused a moment to breathe and then let himself slump back to the ground. “Well, I might not be one hundred percent, but I'm sure with Gaius’ care I'll be there soon.”

“And Gwen?” Elyan asked, voice changing from joyful to anxious. “Is she here? Does she live?”

“Yes, your sister was here, perfectly healthy.” Gaius came over to the group of knights, a calming presence amidst the excitement. “She and Sir Vidor are leading our people to Nemeth, where they should be safe. The rest of us were waiting for the stragglers of the group to arrive.” He looked pointedly at Arthur and then at Merlin. Merlin felt heat rise in his cheeks. Although grateful that Percival and Gwaine had come to rescue him and his mother from Morgana’s men, he was ashamed that it had been necessary.

The knights gathered around Arthur, and Gwaine made sure to bring Merlin close enough to participate in conversation. Everyone wanted to know what had happened to Elyan.

Elyan told the story of how Leon had rescued him from the dungeon under the guise of doing Morgana’s bidding from the influence of the fomorroh. After being coerced into the queen’s chambers, he had witnessed her dead body personally.

“Leon didn't hold back!” Elyan said, smiling.

“Morgana is dead?” Gaius asked sharply. “Are you sure?”

“I saw it with my own eyes!” Elyan was practically beaming with happy relief.

“But this is great news!” Percival said.

“Calls for some ale!” added Gwaine.

“Stop!” said Arthur. His voice was weak, but everyone heeded it immediately. “I'm not convinced she's dead. Leon said that no mortal blade could kill a high priestess of the Old Religion.”

“Is this true, Gaius?” Elyan asked. “Because she looked pretty damn dead to me.”

Gaius didn't speak right away, and Merlin could practically see him going through all his mental files looking for relevant information.

“It was said that the strongest of the high priestesses were practically immortal. I wouldn't think Morgana has had enough time to develop to that level, but it might be possible.”

Gwaine’s smile dropped away as if it were a live coal in his hand. “Well, fuck. But it's not like we had any ale left anyway.”

“So for now we can't be sure one way or the other,” Percival said. “Elyan, please continue your story.”

Elyan spoke about how when he and Leon had arrived at the pyre, Agravaine’s men were already there. A sorcerer was healing Arthur, but, luckily, he left and two regular goon-type ruffians had taken Arthur into the town. It was simple work to dispatch the both of them in a back alley. Elyan and Leon had snuck out through the hidden tunnel system, taking turns to carry Arthur, who was unresponsive but thankfully alive. They wanted to stay away from the refugees’ cave until they knew that no one was following them. It was not an easy journey to the abandoned watch tower. They went slowly in order to escape notice, and Arthur wasn't the lightest of men to carry long distances.

“See, I always told you to watch what you ate for br—” Merlin bit his tongue, horrified that that had been spoken out loud. This was no time for jokes, and it certainly was no time for Merlin to be teasing Arthur. Honestly, it probably wouldn't ever be time for Merlin to tease Arthur again. How could it? They were broken, horribly broken, and nothing could ever be as it was.

But everyone else in the group broke into smiles, and Gwaine chuckled. Even Arthur had a tentative grin on his face, as if delighted to be mocked. It was perplexing.

“It's good to see you joking again, my boy,” Gaius said fondly.

But Merlin had been wrong to let that out. Everything was ruined, and it would never be time for teasing again.

There was a pause, as if everyone expected a response from Merlin, but he held his tongue as he should have done to begin with. So Elyan continued the story.

They hid in the secret cellar under the watchtower. Arthur slept while Leon and Elyan watched for anyone tracking them. Then a strange thing happened: Arthur woke up, thought Leon a traitor, and knocked him out.

“He was a traitor,” Arthur interrupted, a note of anger in his voice. “Leon took me straight to Morgana.”

“Leon had been enchanted, sire,” Gaius said calmly. “Morgana implanted a fomorroh in his neck, just as she had with Merlin—”

“With Merlin?” Arthur asked, incredulously. “Is it still in him? Why didn't anyone say?”

“Oh, this was a couple of months ago now… It's not in him anymore. We took care of it, sire.” Gaius tried to look confident, but Merlin could see his posture slump.

“Are you telling me that Morgana enchanted my servant with some sort of creature, and no one thought that I should know?” Arthur's voice grew higher and louder as he spoke.

“We just thought—”

“We?” Arthur's voice was dangerous and brooked no disobedience.

“Gwen and I, sire. And Merlin, once we neutralised the fomorroh and he came back to his senses… Merlin and I thought hiding this from you would be the best way to keep his magic concealed.”

Arthur sighed and leaned back against the cave wall. “There are going to be many stories like this, aren't there? Am I going to like any of them?”

Merlin stared at his knees with great fascination, studiously avoiding Arthur's accusatory gaze. At least he assumed it was accusatory; since he refused to look, he couldn't be sure. The old Merlin would have glared right back. But things were… different… now.

Uncomfortable silence settled upon the group. Then Gaius said, “You might be happy to know that Merlin didn't actually knock you out when you tried to elope with Sophia?”

Unexpectedly, Arthur laughed. “It never did make sense to me how a string bean like Merlin could do something like that. Fine. Someday you two will have to tell me everything. Because there will be a someday where we have time to relax and recount past stories. And after that, Merlin can spend a month in the stocks and polish all the boots in the army.”

The attempt at normalcy was… disconcerting, even though Merlin himself had let out that crack about Arthur's weight before his conscious mind could yell at him not to. Perhaps old habits died hard, even in catastrophes.

Perhaps they could pretend that everything was as it always had been, that nothing awful had ever happened. Maybe they could cling to the illusion and avoid the pain of reality.

Elyan laughed too, though it held none of his normal joy and instead overflowed with nervous energy. He continued his tale.

Leon had been under the influence of the fomorroh, yes, but claimed that Gaius had given him an antidote. And since he acted normally, Elyan had no concerns.

When Elyan confronted Arthur about why he had hurt Leon, Arthur had been confused and disoriented. Elyan helped Arthur to understand the situation before he fell asleep again. While both of his companions unconscious, Elyan scouted outside the watchtower to ensure they hadn't been followed. He found evidence that men had been in the area recently, so he delayed his return until he was certain they were alone.

When Elyan had finally gone back to the hidden cellar, both Leon and Arthur had disappeared.

He had been horrified. There were signs of a struggle: their supplies were left in disarray, one of the wooden steps had broken. He assumed his companions had been captured, but when he went outside, there was no sign that anyone had been there besides themselves.

He found tracks that led in two separate directions. Whoever had gone in the direction of Camelot had left a very obvious trail, one that almost appeared to be made by someone running for their life. Elyan decided that that person was in more obvious danger, so he had followed them.

The path eventually led to a small clearing in the forest. It looked as if a large animal had taken up residence there, but Elyan didn't recognise its tracks as belonging to any kind of animal he was familiar with.

Two sets of tracks left the clearing, one human and one very much not. He followed them all the way to Camelot, but when it became clear they had entered the city, Elyan had stopped.

“I couldn't rescue anyone by myself. The whole situation was confusing: either Leon or Arthur had voluntarily returned to Camelot, and I couldn't fathom why. Had Leon somehow been enchanted again? I hurried back to the watchtower and followed the other trail here. But I don't understand what happened.”

“Did Leon take the antidote?” Gaius asked sharply.

Elyan frowned. “He must have because he wasn't enchanted when I was with—”

“Did he take another dose of the potion after you met up with him?” The anxiety in Gaius’ voice was enough to raise the hairs on Merlin's arm.

“I… didn't know he needed to. I thought he was cured. Wasn't he?”

“No. The potion was just a temporary way to numb the creature controlling him. He needed to take take another dose every twelve hours or so…”

“Maybe he forgot in all the excitement?” Elyan asked, but Arthur clapped his hand to his forehead and groaned.

“Oh, gods. I knocked him out, thinking he was a traitor. That kept him from taking the potion. Shit. By attacking the man I thought was a traitor, I ensured that he would be.”

Gwaine, who had been uncharacteristically quiet during Elyan’s story, spoke up abruptly. “It's not fair to blame yourself, Princess. You know I'm one that loves to place blame where it's due, especially if it's on you. But you couldn't have known. You did the best you could. Damn, I'm just impressed that you managed to knock a healthy knight out in your condition.”

“I was healed, Gwaine,” Arthur said rather tetchily.

“We can all see just how ‘healed’ you are, and I think we can all agree that it's not very.”

“Can we focus for a minute, gentlemen?” Gaius asked. “If Leon didn't take the paralysing potion I sent with him—”

“He didn't,” said Elyan.

“—then he's being controlled by the fomorroh again—”

“He is,” Arthur said. “He tried to kill me.”

“—and now he's gone straight back to the enemy. With knowledge of where we're hiding.”

“He'll lead them straight to us,” Percival said.

Gwaine, as eloquent as always, added, “Well, fuck.”

“But we knew that they would find this hideout eventually,” Gaius said, once again acting as the calming influence of the group. “That's why we sent most everyone on to Nemeth with Gwen and Vidor. And now that our stragglers have returned, we should join them.”

“Are Arthur and Merlin well enough to travel?” Percival asked. “We can take turns carrying them, of course, but—”

“I am perfectly capable of walking on my own, Sir Percival,” Arthur said, tone biting. Merlin rolled his eyes at this predictable display of Arthur's pride.

“Of course, sire,” Percival said. “And we can take turns carrying Merlin so we don't lose too much speed from…”

Merlin stopped listening to what he was saying. Shame burned through him, heating his cheeks and coiling in his gut like a venomous serpent. Only Merlin was helpless; only Merlin was useless. How he wished he could slink away to hide… but he couldn't even do that without being assisted.

His resolution to be useful despite his utter uselessness was going to be rough sailing. If only he could get his magic back. There had to be a way.

Suddenly exhausted, he slumped back against the cave wall and let his eyelids flutter shut. Once upon a time, he had been able to close his eyes and sink into an awareness of his connection with Arthur via the golden thread that always bonded the two of them together. No longer. The beautiful gold had been tarnished by Morgana’s evil, frayed beyond recognition just like the relationship between Merlin and Arthur. And then when Merlin had lost his magic, it had disappeared entirely.

Unless he just couldn't feel it without magic. Maybe it was still there, poisoning them. Arthur didn't seem hateful towards him, though. In fact, when Percival had spoken about carrying Merlin, Arthur had adopted a rather sad and apologetic look on his face.

It was strange to be here, so close to Arthur again, and not feel a thing when his eyes were shut. Out of old habits, he let his mind drift. The knights were still talking, planning out details of the trip to Nemeth, but Merlin couldn't be bothered to listen. He would just be a piece of baggage. But if he could get his magic back…

How could he get his magic back? There had to be a way.

Gaius had said there wasn't. The creature that attacked Merlin was undoubtedly of the Old Religion and extremely powerful.

But Merlin couldn't accept that answer. He couldn't accept being a helpless burden for the rest of his life.

He let himself drift in the quiet of his mind. Perhaps the magic was gone, but that didn't mean that he couldn't solve problems. His thoughts floated from half-formed idea to half-formed idea, brushing into them, bouncing off, continuing on. The ideas were not clear to him… just tiny sprouts of possibility that were discarded before he was aware of what they contained.

It was peaceful, his mind floating along in a tranquil sea. Sleep was stealing over him, ready to claim him for the realm of dreams, when his mind brushed up against a memory he had, a scintillating recollection of crystals flashing in a cave.

Merlin remembered that cave. He had been there before. That was the Crystal Cave. The birthplace of magic.

And that was when he knew what he had to do. If there was any place where he might seek his lost magic, it was there.

“Merlin, mate. You still awake?” Gwaine’s voice murmured quietly in his ear. He popped his eyes open to see that the knights’ discussion was over. Everyone had left except for Gwaine and Arthur. Arthur was staring at him with an unfathomable look in his eye. Merlin glared back at him, and Arthur broke the gaze, ducking his head. It was very un-Arthur-like, and Merlin might have wondered about it more if Gwaine wasn't talking to him. Gwaine stood up again once he realised Merlin was awake, and his voice settled down on him from above.

“We're going to pack and leave before the enemy finds us. I thought you could rest until we're ready? It's a long trip to Nemeth.”

“I'm not going to Nemeth.” The words left his mouth in a rush, surprising even Merlin with their certainty.

Gwaine frowned at him; Merlin didn't dare look at Arthur.

“Of course you're going to Nemeth. You don't think we would leave you behind? Because that ain't gonna happen, mate, no matter what crazy shit you're thinkin’ in your head.”

Merlin gulped and tried to moisten the dryness of his mouth. He hadn't planned this well; hell, he hadn't planned it at all. “Gwaine! I have an idea about how to get my magic back. But I need you to take me to the Valley of the Fallen Kings.”

Gwaine didn't respond for a long while, just stared at him with a pitying look in his eye.

“Mer—”

“No, listen!” Merlin’s heart accelerated abruptly, and despite swallowing his mouth only grew drier. “The Crystal Cave is the birthplace of magic. If there is anywhere that I can get my magic back, it will be there!”

Gwaine’s face drooped, and if there had ever been a twinkle in his eye, it was certainly gone now. “I know you're hurting, mate, and desperate, but wild goose chases won't help.”

Gods, how he wished he could stand on his own two feet. Stand tall and speak confidently and have his friend listen instead of pity him.

“It's not a wild goose chase! I have a feeling that I have to go there.”

“And what gives you this feeling? Magic? Isn't that what's given you all your ‘funny feelings’ before? I hate to break it to you, but you yourself are the one who said that creature ate all your magic.”

Damn, damn, damn it all! How could he get him to understand? If even Gwaine wouldn't listen, what hope did Merlin have with anyone else?

“Trust me, Gwaine! You have to listen—”

Merlin grabbed at Gwaine’s hanging sleeves like a child begging for a parent's attention. But instead of listening, Gwaine scooped him up like he actually was a child and carried him to his bedroll.

“Rest, Merlin. Don't you worry about anything. We'll take care of it.”

Merlin refused to lie down but sat rigidly where Gwaine had placed him.

“I'm not a child! Just because I can't walk—”

Gwaine sighed, long and loud. He turned to walk away, shook his head, and then sat down next to Merlin.

“You have to listen!” Merlin begged.

“Mate, you know I love you, right?” Gwaine put his arm around Merlin's shoulders. Merlin stiffened and didn't lean into the touch. “You are my best friend and the brightest star in my sky. I would do anything for you. But you're not thinking clearly now.”

Merlin could feel his tear ducts firing and frantically blinked his eyes to keep the crying at bay. He wanted to say something, interrupt, get his friend to understand… but he couldn't.

“You've been through a lot, and its affecting you. There's no shame in it, my friend. It would probably happen to anybody who had endured the things you have. And I know how you want to be helpful. But for now, just let the rest of us take care of things, yeah? It's okay to lean on your friends.”

Gwaine tugged gently on his shoulders, and after a moment Merlin acquiesced and let himself be pulled into a hug. Once his face was buried in Gwaine’s chest, he let a tear fall, since no one could see it. Not that it seemed to matter if he acted strong or not: everyone was going to insist upon treating him like a child anyway.

“I have to help the others,” Gwaine murmured. “Rest, Merlin. I'll be back for you soon.”

And then he lay Merlin back on the bedroll so that he could sleep. Merlin refused to lie down though and pushed himself back up to sitting. He looked around the dim cave to see everyone hard at work. Elyan and Cador were caring for the knights’ weapons; Gaius was organising his medical supplies; Merlin's mother was packing their food. Everyone was doing something except Merlin—and Arthur.

Arthur sat on his bedroll, much as Merlin did. His gaze followed Gwaine as he moved across the room to help Percival with something. After a moment he turned to look at Merlin. The expression on his face shifted immediately, though Merlin was too worn down to know what it meant.

Had Arthur overheard him talking to Gwaine? Was he pitying poor crazy Merlin with the ludicrous ideas? Merlin couldn't bear to look. Instead he finally did as Gwaine suggested. He was exhausted, and so he lay back down and let himself drift off to sleep.

Merlin must have been extremely tired because he slept right through the departure from the cave. At one point he became aware of the fact that Percival was carrying him through a starlit forest. Percival murmured something about how everything was fine and go back to sleep, and so he did.

He didn't wake up again until someone yelled,

“They've found us!”

Chapter Text

Leon stumbled through the forest as fast as he could, tripping and bumping through the dark. He thought he had regained control of his body—until he realised the creature in his head wanted to get away as badly as he did.

For a short time back in the watch tower cellar, the fomorroh had lost its absolute control. Somehow Leon had been able to delay it, stall its use of his body. What had changed? He had betrayed his king once already under its influence—and had just tried to kill him again. But this time, the look of betrayal and fear on Arthur's face jolted him like a strike of lightning. Not again. Leon would not let the creature use his body to attack Arthur again.

Withstanding the compulsion to strike his king was one of the hardest things Leon had ever done. Truthfully, his head wound had helped. After Arthur, injured and unarmed, had knocked him out with a rock (impressive, if disastrous), Leon’s brain had felt… slow. Uncoordinated. It struggled to send messages to the muscles. There was a tiny delay between the brain's command and the body's response, and in that gap Leon fought the compulsion. The fomorroh ordered him to attack, maim, kill… but there was just enough time to prepare his muscles to resist.

Waves of foreign fear had swirled through him; the fomorroh had never been opposed by a host before and didn't like it one bit. When it saw that the battle was lost, it fled before Arthur incapacitated its host body.

For once Leon and the snake were in agreement. Away, away, they had to get away. But Arthur had not held back when he had knocked him out. Now Leon was dizzy and nauseated, and his head hurt like someone had tried to smash it in. Which they had.

Each step was torture; all was pain, exhaustion, and illness. Of the direction they travelled, he paid no attention. The fomorroh was in charge, and Leon just stumbled along the best he could.

It became harder and harder to keep going. The creature pushed him, desperate to arrive at whatever unknown destination it had chosen. Leon begged it to stop, but it paid him no mind.

He kept stumbling onwards—until he couldn't. His leg lifted to trudge ahead, and it just wouldn't go. He jerked at it, tripped, and fell to the ground. His head crashed into a rock, his arm crunched as he landed on it, and pain swallowed him whole.

***

He woke to chirping. Something leathery and slightly damp poked at his face. There was more chirping and a squeak-like sound. Both Leon and the fomorroh were instantly alert, anxious, ready to defend against whatever might threaten.

Dawn shed golden light across the new leaves of the springtime forest, revealing a creature, spindly, reptilian, entirely white with awkward floppy wings… Was that a fucking dragon?

Leon jerked away, scooting backwards on his rear, eager to put space between the two of them. The creature—dragon—squeaked mournfully. It was larger than a dog but not quite so big as a pony. It looked at him with large blue eyes, unblinking. Then it shuffled closer, slowly, as if trying not to scare him.

Now that he looked, he saw it was nothing more than a baby. When he tried to scoot away again, the dragon took up a plaintive cry, a long, quiet moan of distress. Leon held still and let it come. He put his hand out towards its head, and the dragon nuzzled into it. After a moment in which Leon thanked the gods for not being burnt alive, he gently stroked the top of the dragon’s head. The little creature chirped and purred and crowded in closer, desperate for attention. Leon placed his other arm on its back and found himself with a lapful of baby dragon.

Despite everything, Leon couldn't help but smile. The dragon was sweet and adorable, and even though it might decide to bite off one of his fingers at any moment, he felt happier than he had in ages. He also felt healthier. Nothing hurt. He did a quick inventory of his injuries—head wound, scratches, the arm he remembered landing on—and none of them hurt.

Unfortunately, the fomorroh was still inside—that hadn't changed. The snake was just as bemused by the dragon as Leon.

After a short time petting the dragon, the fomorroh retook control of his body. Leon spoke, but it was the fomorroh’s words coming out.

“You healed me, little dragon?”

The dragon chirped and squeaked, almost as if it understood.

“You are a creature of magic, just as I am.”

It felt wrong for those words to come out of Leon's mouth—he was certainly no creature of magic. He felt about as mundane as they come. A memory of the time he had drunk from the Cup of Life sprang to mind, but he banished it quickly. I'm not magical. I'm just me. Plain old boring, non-magical Leon.

The dragon nodded slightly. Then it went back to nuzzling at Leon, occasionally licking him with a sandpaper tongue. Leon stroked it, marvelling at its beauty. During his last encounter with a dragon, he had been too busy fighting for his life and almost dying to pay much attention to the creature’s beauty. The idea of cuddling a dragon, no matter how small and cute, would never have been appealing. But now that he was doing it, he found he didn't mind.

Leon kept petting while the fomorroh spoke more. “That is why you found me. You could sense my magic.”

Chirp, chirp, squeak. It was almost like assent.

“That's why you healed me.” It was said as a statement of fact, not a question. The fomorroh paused before continuing, “Will you come with me, little sister? My mistress needs you.”

Morgana. The fomorroh wanted to take the dragon to heal Morgana.

The dragon hummed and chirped, but Leon was too horrified to pay attention. He had known that Morgana was not dead. The fomorroh had gloated about that to Arthur back at the watch tower. No mortal blade could kill her. There was no deceit, only fatalistic truth. Even the snake wasn't pleased at the announcement, not really. Leon could sense the despair emanating from the creature. It had been given one job: serve its mistress. Instead, it had been overcome by the enemy and used as the instrument of its mistress’ demise.

Leon got the feeling that had Morgana actually died, the fomorroh would have impaled them both upon a sword as punishment for its failure. But as long as Morgana yet lived, it could still attempt to serve. And look how the gods smiled on its mission already: they had sent a dragon, friendly, powerful, and capable of great feats of healing.

The fomorroh pressed Leon's forehead to the dragon’s. It muttered something in a language that was incomprehensible to Leon, despite having been produced with his own vocal cords. He wondered if the two creatures were related beyond being magical. They both had reptilian, snake-like features; perhaps they had an innate understanding of each other.

The fomorroh set the dragon back on the ground and abruptly stood.

“Come, little sister,” it said. “We must go to my mistress. She will adore you.”

They moved off through the forest towards Camelot and Morgana. Their pace was much quicker now that it was daylight and Leon had been healed. He wished he hadn't been, if it meant that Morgana wouldn't be, either.

As they travelled, Leon considered his situation. He had, for a short time at the watch tower, kept some control of his body. Not enough to act freely, but enough to hinder the fomorroh. The head injury had weakened the creature’s hold. Perhaps other things might too? He would stay alert.

They arrived much sooner than Leon expected. The dragon had easily kept up with the fomorroh’s rapid pace. They stopped a short distance outside the city gates to examine the situation. The dragon jumped around, chasing after the insects that buzzed amidst crocuses and bluebells. The sun shone; the air was warm and moist and fragrant with the new life of spring. For a moment Leon let himself imagine it was just another day coming back home to Camelot—only this time, instead of a hunting dog, he brought an overeager baby dragon.

Because the fomorroh had opened Camelot’s gates during the very early phases of Morgana's invasion, they hadn't been destroyed. As they approached the intact gates—currently open but under guard—the soldiers on duty shouted and raised their weapons.

Oh, yes. The last time he was here, he had stabbed their queen. It would be foolish to expect a warm welcome.

“Stop!” a guard yelled. “You are under arrest for the assassination of the queen, by order of Lord Helios!”

The fomorroh didn't stop, and the dragon trotted right behind. Instead of happy little chirps, she made a low-pitched grumbling noise that raised the hair on the back of Leon's neck. For all the cuteness, she was still a dragon, and Leon knew first-hand the damage an angry dragon could cause.

More Southron soldiers poured from the gate, menacing with snarls and swords. Leon couldn't understand why they didn't shoot him down. Were they confident because they had him greatly outnumbered? Did they want him alive, perhaps to salvage the fomorroh? Or were they cautious because of the dragon? She was tiny, yes, but who knows what damage she could inflict?

The fomorroh walked straight towards the soldiers. “The queen isn't dead. This dragon will heal her. Let me through.”

When no one moved, the dragon growled and flashed her teeth at them. One stepped towards her, spear lifted. Orange fire burst from the dragon’s mouth, hot enough to wilt the grass, bright enough to cast shadows. The flames stopped just before reaching the man. He jumped away, face as white as the dragon’s skin.

“Lord Helios will decide,” the leader said, stepping back. “You may go to him.” Leon suspected that if a fire-breathing dragon hadn't been present, the leader would have been happy to make the decision. Coward.

The Southrons cleared a path for Leon and the dragon to enter the city. The fomorroh was bold and brash and propelled him forward without fear. The soldiers followed, not too close but menacing anyway.

The lower town was a shambles of burnt houses and crumbled stone. At least half of it was completely destroyed. A few stone structures remained intact, and from these Leon could see people furtively peek out windows and doors. He saw one face clearly as he passed by. It belonged to a middle-aged woman. Her skin and clothing were filthy, and one shoulder had a blood-stained rag clumsily wrapped around it. Her eyes shone with fear, and it pierced Leon's heart. What must life be like for those left behind? The people he had failed, the city he had lost... Leon himself had opened the gates to allow the enemy to pour into Camelot. True, he had been under the fomorroh’s control, but hadn't that been his fault too? He had been so cocky, thinking he could escape Morgana's notice. And oh, how he—and all of Camelot—had paid for it.

Similar emotions of guilt and horror leaked from the fomorroh, but for different reasons. Leon could sympathise with the creature’s devotion to duty, at least. What a pair we are.

Gaius had said that the fomorroh’s victim would go insane if it failed its mission. Leon wouldn't be surprised. The snake was somewhat pacified at the moment because it had a plan to save its mistress. But if it failed… As much as Leon wanted Morgana dead, he wasn't looking forward to the repercussions of going insane with the creature’s guilt.

As they progressed through the city, the conditions became better, though there was still evidence of the invasion: blood-stained streets, debris shoved into back alleys, broken windows, and doors that had been kicked off their hinges. Leon saw a soldier rush out of one home, fastening his armour; a woman peeked out after he left and gestured rudely after him. The Southrons had made themselves at home, and Camelot’s original residents didn't appreciate it.

Helios waited for them at the top of the castle stairs in the place the king would normally greet foreign dignitaries. The armour over the warlord’s torso was jet black and highly polished; his arms were bare and covered with tattoos; his bald head reflected the bright sunlight. He was flanked by a number of his men, but of Agravaine there was no sign.

Leon wondered at the formal greeting since he was supposedly under arrest, but attributed it to the presence of the dragon. She was a member of a powerful magical species thought to have been wiped out. The warlord would want to curry favour… at least until he had assessed the situation and could make his move. The fomorroh was as alert for treachery as Leon was.

The snake didn't give Helios the chance to speak before making its demands known.

“Take me to the queen. The dragon will heal her.”

The Southrons murmured at the disrespect, but the dragon growled and everyone fell silent.

Helios sneered at him. “Morgana is dead, as you well know. You killed her, and for this you will burn.”

“No. She is not dead,” the fomorroh said. The little white dragon curled around Leon's legs and snarled. “My mistress is not so weak as to be felled by a mortal blade. You dishonour her, and she will punish you. Now where is she?”

Helios raised his arm in preparation for something, though Leon didn't know what. The fomorroh and the dragon both tensed; Leon's muscles were so rigid, they ached. The snake itself didn't seem to have any special magic beyond a connection with the dragon. Leon's heart raced, and his stomach churned sickeningly. He really hoped the fomorroh knew what it was doing.

“Surrender, or die.” Helios’ strong voice rang out through the courtyard. Echoes bounced off the stones, clearly audible over the hush of the scene.

The fomorroh pulled Leon's sword out; the dragon stood to the side and arched her back like an enraged cat. That was all the answer Helios needed. His hand dropped; the soldiers drew their weapons and rushed him.

The dragon spun wildly, spitting fire in all directions. A few men were set ablaze, and horrible screams rang out louder than the Southrons’ battle cries. Leon fought off the soldiers that got too close, but most were kept away by the flames.

The fomorroh and the dragon seemed of one mind: they had to get into the castle, both for protection and to find the snake's mistress. The most direct path was straight through Helios.

Fire cleared the way, allowing Leon to charge right at the warlord. Helios did not flee the dragon as many of his men did; instead, he raised his sword and lunged at Leon. The dragon kept everyone else at a distance while the two of them entered into fierce combat.

The fomorroh let up the control on Leon's mind just enough for him to have more graceful control of his movements. His body responded to its years of training easily. Leon felt physically better than he had in quite some time. He had been magically healed just that morning; it had restored his energy along with his health. His sword flew with the grace of a hawk diving upon its prey: rapid, silent, swooping at just the right moment…

But this prey would not give up without a fight. It snarled and clawed and bit right back at him. Helios’ skill neared Leon's own. The battle was fierce, and Leon was fatigued. He'd already walked a long distance since his healing, and the stress and tension of hosting a fomorroh and worrying about the situation was affecting him.

The dragon growled and barked like a frightened dog. Leon needed to make his move before she tired out too much to protect them. In a last frenzied volley, Leon sliced into Helios’ sword arm, causing blood to spurt as his weapon dropped to the flagstones. Helios clutched the wounded limb to his chest and fled towards the nearest soldiers. Leon darted into the castle, the dragon on his heels. Shouts followed after him—he was pursued.

The fomorroh only thought of its mistress. It had to find her, right then. It was imperative. Where would she be? As they ran, the snake scoured Leon's mind for anything that might shed light on Morgana's whereabouts. These fools thought the queen was dead. Where would recently dead royalty be? The fomorroh rapidly sorted through the detritus of Leon's mind to find a pertinent memory: Uther’s corpse lying in state in the Throne Room. It was as good a place as any to look.

Leon fought several castle guards along the way, though most fled the second the dragon puffed fire in their general direction. He arrived at the throne room dripping sweat and panting for breath.

The doors were thrown open; the guards had been quick to run away from the dragon. He rushed inside—but there was nothing. No body, no casket, nothing of any kind… except a servant, kneeling on the floor, scrubbing.

She was young and might have been beautiful in other circumstances. Her hair was disheveled and her dress had been ripped in a way that had been no accident. There was a large bruise spreading across half her face. She was covered with dirt from scrubbing the floor and who knows what other things. Leon's heart clenched at the sight of her. He recognised her as one of the castle staff from before—but she had always been clean and happy, shedding smiles like a dog shed fur.

How Leon ached for his people.

The fomorroh only saw the girl as an opportunity. “Where is my mistress? Where is she?”

The girl jumped up and bowed her head but didn't say anything. The fomorroh stalked over to her, sword raised.

“I don't know!” the girl yelled, tears dripping from her eyes. “I don't know who you're talking about! Please, don't kill me! I can…”

She choked on her words and pulled at the place where her dress had been ripped along the neckline. Her breasts spilled out. They were plump but dirty and bruised, and something that looked like teeth marks made Leon sick to his stomach.

“I can make you happy, my lord. Please, just don't kill me…”

The fomorroh had no interest in such things. “The queen, girl! Tell me—where is the queen?”

The girl rubbed at her eyes with dirty hands, leaving her face even more sullied than before. “The queen… No one has seen her, not for several days. They say she's dead, that Lord Helios is in charge now. But no one has seen her since she went into her chambers”—the girl frowned, finally gathering the courage to actually look at who she was talking to—”with you, my Lord. At least that's what the servants say. Please, don't kill—”

“Shut up!” the fomorroh hissed at her, sounding much like the snake it was. The girl dropped to the floor, cowering, but the fomorroh had learned all it needed.

Helios’ men entered the throne room; the dragon spit occasional bursts of fire at them, threatening, but it would only be a matter of time before someone decided to risk the possibility of a rampaging dragon and shot him with an arrow.

The fomorroh rushed out a servants’ door, and the little dragon followed, though not as closely as before. Was she tired? She had done so much already.

They barrelled through the corridors until they reached Morgana's chambers, the place where Leon had stabbed his former friend seemingly to death. Had the Southrons left her body there, unattended? Where was the pomp and circumstance befitting a supposedly dead queen?

There were guards at the door, but as with the others, they ran at the sight of dragon fire. The fomorroh propelled Leon into the chambers, called the dragon in, and barred the door.

The room was not as Leon had left it. It was lit with many candles. There was evidence that someone had stayed there recently: food and wine left on the table, fresh flowers arranged in a vase, a fire still burning in the grate.

Morgana lay naked on the bed, motionless. It was impossible to tell at a glance if she were living or dead. The sword that Leon had stabbed through her heart was nowhere to be seen. The blood had been washed away and a bandage had been wrapped around her ribs, covering the wound while pressing her breasts towards the ceiling. She had been shifted to one side of the bed and was covered with fine linens up to her navel. A pillow had been added to the other side of the mattress, and the linens there were crumpled—someone had slept next to Morgana.

Had a healer come and stayed in the queen's bed in order to be readily available? If she ever found out, there would be severe repercussions.

The fomorroh ran to Morgana's side and dropped Leon to his knees so painfully hard he feared his bones had cracked.

“Mistress!” the fomorroh howled through the medium of Leon's voice. “I am so sorry I failed you! Please forgive me, I beg you. I have brought you something to help you recover.”

There was no response, of course. Leon wondered at the fomorroh. It was acting like a human, feeling guilt, expressing remorse. Had it always been like that? Or had it been affected by the time spent in Leon's head?

The dragon’s claws scratched along the smooth floor as it crossed the room and clambered onto the bed. It peered cautiously at Morgana and then chirped and squeaked happily as if greeting a friend. At the same time, people yelled in the corridor and gathered at the door. They were running out of time.

“Please, little sister,” the fomorroh begged, “you must heal her.”

The dragon looked at Leon and yawned. Sharp teeth and a long, rough tongue were clearly visible.

Leon pet the dragon while the fomorroh encouraged her. “I know you're tired, little one, but this is the last thing. Please, I wouldn't ask if it weren't necessary.”

The dragon nuzzled against Leon's hand and licked at his fingers. The fomorroh murmured to her in the same language it had back in the forest and gently pushed the dragon over to Morgana.

There was thumping at the heavy chamber door—not knocking, but the sounds of people preparing to break through forcefully.

The dragon squeaked in fear before turning to the prone figure. She inhaled deeply, and then exhaled as if to expel fire. Leon tensed, even though he knew it would be better for Morgana to roast alive than to be healed. Instead of flames, a golden mist flowed out of the dragon’s mouth. It covered Morgana’s entire body, wrapped around her like a blanket, coalescing against her skin until it was nearly opaque. It shone especially bright over her injured chest. The light dimmed momentarily before flashing so brilliantly it forced Leon's eyes closed. When he opened them, the golden mist was gone—and Morgana was awake.

She sat up and looked straight into the dragon’s face. Morgana's expressions were unguarded, and Leon could easily read the emotions that ran across her face. First confusion followed by an anger that twisted her delicate features into something menacing. Next came fear as she focused on the unknown white creature before her—and then an expression of rapturous joy as she recognised what she was looking at.

The dragon chirped happily at Morgana, who listened with the most genuine smile Leon had seen in years. Morgana's eyes flashed gold, and she pressed her forehead to the dragon’s, just as the fomorroh had done. Morgana never spoke, but the gold in her eyes intensified. It looked like the two of them were establishing some sort of deep connection that Leon could never understand. After a long moment, she said, “It is wonderful to meet you, Aithusa! Thank you for healing me!” and clutched the baby dragon to her chest. Leon's emotions were wildly conflicted: it would have been such a sweet and heartwarming scene, had Morgana not been who she was—no, if she wasn't who she had become. At this moment, she reminded him so much of the girl she had been… kind, happy, capable of caring for others. Or had that always been an act?

There was continued noise at the door, banging, thumping, yelling… Morgana turned to Leon and said, “Aithusa tells me that—”

The door burst open. But instead of soldiers entering, small caskets of oil were tossed into the room. They were not sealed, and the oil spread everywhere as they flew through the air. Immediately after, lit torches were thrown in.

Flames spread, moving quickly to the furniture and curtains. Leon stared in shock. Were they trying to burn him to death? Was this the plan for safely destroying the dragon? Or did they hope to chase them into the corridor? That would be a trap, of course; probably half the Southron army was assembled out there by now.

He rushed to the table where the meal had been laid out. There was a pitcher of water which he grabbed… but what could be done with it against that much fire? He hesitated, trying to decide how best to proceed.

The fomorroh was happy to let Leon have control of his body, trusting that he valued survival as much as the snake did. He thought briefly of letting himself burn to death; that would be one way to stop the fomorroh from using him to betray his people and his king.

But the dragon—Aithusa, Morgana had called it—squealed in fear, and Leon couldn't bear to see the creature burn, no matter how evil it might grow up to be. It was just a baby.

He stomped on the small flames and threw water at the larger ones. It was hopeless though. They'd have to exit into the corridor right now or it would be too late. The fomorroh would not leave its mistress behind. They ran to the bed where the dragon was still clutched to Morgana's chest.

“Mistress!” the fomorroh cried. “We must go!”

Morgana lifted her face from where it had been pressed against the dragon's neck and blinked. “Yes, Aithusa, I can do that.” She sat up straight, extended her right arm, and yelled, “Acwence þa bælblyse!”

The inferno vanished. All that burnt were the golden flames in Morgana's eyes, shining brighter than Leon had ever seen. Aithusa stood alert on the bed next to Morgana, back arched and teeth bared. She growled and snapped towards the door. A soldier (probably some unlucky sod who had drawn the short straw) peeked his head through the open doorway. The moment he saw Morgana, he dropped to his knees.

“Forgive me, Your Highness! I thought you were dead!”

Morgana wrapped the bedsheet around herself and stood. She looked like the drawings Leon had seen of gods and goddesses from far away lands: angry, vengeful, swathed in white and ready to rain fire upon her enemies.

Other soldiers were crowding to look in the door, and those who saw Morgana immediately lowered their heads and dropped to their knees in respect—or fear.

“Send me Helios. Now.” The words dripped from her tongue like acid, burning the ears of everyone that heard them. In the corridor feet pounded and armour jangled as someone went running for the Southron warlord.

Nobody else dared move a muscle.

Within five minutes, the sound of someone running in armour reapproached. Shortly thereafter, more sedate footsteps followed, and Helios strode into the room. His sword arm had been bandaged, but he was still covered in patches of splattered blood.

He looked like he had seen a ghost.

“My lady!” he exclaimed. “You are well!”

The hatred and contempt rolling off of Morgana was nothing like Leon had ever seen before, not even when she had ranted about Uther. There was a different quality to it, as if she had been personally injured, somehow. Helios tried to appear confident: chin raised, uninjured arm relaxed at his side, no slouch in his spine. He maintained constant eye contact with Morgana.

“I Saw what you did,” she hissed. “I felt it… your hands… your mouth… your…”

Morgana's eyes flashed, and Helios screamed. He doubled over, clutching at his groin desperately.

“My lady!” he screamed. “I was taking caring of you!”

Morgana stalked closer. “I saw the way you always looked at me. I know what you wanted. I hope it was worth it.”

Her eyes flashed again, and Helios fell to the ground, writhing. His legs kicked futilely, arms clutched his torso, and the howl he made was inhuman.

Most of the soldiers had long since fled, but the few that remained stood frozen, just as Leon was. Only Aithusa dared move; she nuzzled against the sheet draped around Morgana's legs and then turned to examine Helios with curiosity. She whined.

“It's all right, Aithusa. You can have a turn too.” Morgana’s eyes reverted to their normal blue. She reached down to pet the little white dragon at her side. Then she addressed Helios.

“You tried to burn me in my bed—”

“I thought you were dead!” Helios panted. His limbs were shaking, but he managed to push himself up to sitting.

“And yet you still…? You couldn't just importune the servants? You vile worm!”

Helios, apparently sensing he was already doomed, shot her a contemptuous glare.

“You were always such a high and mighty bitch, too good for anyone, thinking you were so fucking high above us all. I just used you as the whore you are.”

“Aithusa!” Morgana shrieked.

Aithusa jumped forwards, took a deep breath, and spit fire over Helios. He screamed as the flames enveloped his entire body, melting the skin, charring the bones. The heat was unbearable, and Leon backed away quickly, afraid he would melt along with Helios. Dragon fire was more powerful than the hottest flames a blacksmith could muster and proved a more effective weapon than anything that smith could produce.

When Aithusa finished, all that remained of Helios was a charred, misshapen lump on the stone floor.

No one said anything. Aithusa mewled and wrapped herself around Morgana's ankles. Leon was frozen; even the fomorroh worried that it might be next to experience the queen’s wrath. The few Southron soldiers that hadn't run away were on their knees, heads bowed.

Morgana turned and screamed at them. “Move, you fools! Clean this place up! And send me Agravaine. Now!”

One of the soldiers stood and addressed Morgana. His voice squeaked, and Leon couldn't blame him. “Yes, your majesty. Lord Helios—”

“Do not call him that!”

“Errr, yes. Errr, Helios had Agravaine sent to the dungeons, for conspiring to assasinate you and—”

Morgana snorted. “Helios just wanted him out of the way. Acwele!”

The soldier flew backwards, hit the wall, and lay still.

No one went to check if he were still alive.

Morgana addressed the remaining soldiers. “What are you waiting for? Go!”

They scurried away like rats fleeing a tomcat, leaving Leon alone with Morgana, the dragon, a possibly dead soldier, and the pile of Helios’ charred remains.

She turned around, looking as much like a queen as one could dressed only in a sheet. Leon’s heart pounded. This was it; this was the end. He was going to die having betrayed his people and his king. The fomorroh had similar thoughts about having failed its mistress. Leon wasn't even sure which of them had control of his body; they both fell to their knees in supplication.

“As for you… Aithusa says you brought her to me; you might have your uses, still. But I'll need to keep a closer eye on you. Perhaps if I chained you to my bed, you wouldn't get into any more trouble. Or kept you naked on a leash as my pet.”

The fomorroh wouldn't care one way or the other as long as its mistress was happy. Morgana said these things to humiliate Leon, to torment him for having stabbed her. Why he wasn't burnt to ashes already was a mystery. The fomorroh certainly would not be let out alone again.

“Now tell me everything you have learned during your little escapade, starting with the location of the refugees.”

“Yes, my Queen,” the fomorroh said, still kneeling, still not willing to look upon its mistress. “You should know that the former king is likely heading to their location even now.”

The window behind Leon exploded outwards in a hailstorm of jagged glass. “My dear brother escaped? You better explain everything. Now.”

The fomorroh spoke as if its life depended on it. Which it did.

Chapter Text

Arthur insisted on walking when they left the caves to head to Nemeth. He was nowhere close to his peak physical capacity, but he was capable of moving on his own two feet (even if he still felt exhausted and ill), and his pride would not let him do otherwise. Merlin couldn't walk (And it's all your fault! his conscience yelled. YOU were the one who injured him so fearfully. YOU are the one who let him down. You should have known Agravaine was betraying you. It's all your fault!) so the knights would have to take it in turns to carry him. Arthur was not foolish enough to think he should help no matter how much he deserved the burden. It would slow them down too much.

He could barely look at Merlin without feeling sick to his stomach. He had always known that Merlin was special but hadn't realised just how much until everything had been destroyed. Until he had destroyed it. Sure, Morgana had caused the enchantment. But Arthur had been at fault even before that, courting Gwen because she was a safe choice to be queen, not listening to Merlin's suspicions about his uncle, trusting Agravaine because he was family. Arthur himself had been the one to create an environment where such an enchantment was possible.

And that didn't take into account any of his culpability for Morgana betraying Camelot in the first place. That Merlin had not also turned against them, despite not even being from Camelot, was almost incomprehensible.

And so he trudged along through the forest with Gaius, Hunith, Percival (shouldering Arthur's burden by carrying Merlin), Gwaine, Elyan, and a half-dozen of Camelot’s guards. They were too many, too obvious, now that Morgana knew where to look for them. It felt as if they were marching towards their doom, and everyone knew it.

Although it was physically painful to see Merlin so helpless, Arthur tried to stay as close as possible. It was fairly easy to do. By unspoken agreement, the rest of the fighters had positioned themselves at the perimeter of the group, keeping the defenseless in the centre. It chafed horribly to be considered weak and in need of protection, but if it allowed him to stay near Merlin, he would tolerate it.

Merlin woke at one point, and Percival murmured to him gently. Jealousy turned Arthur's mouth sour, and he had to look away. He certainly didn't deserve to speak to Merlin that way, but he couldn't bear to see anyone else do it either.

The journey through the forest was not easy. It was dark, and only dire necessity propelled them forwards. There was no moon, so they made do with starlight, not wishing to make themselves more visible than they already were by lighting a torch.

Perhaps it was a faulty decision; perhaps with a torch they would have moved fast enough to outpace Morgana’s hunting party. Doubtful, but not impossible.

Instead they were overcome less than halfway to their destination.

“They've found us!” Elyan cried from the back of the group. Turning around, Arthur could see multiple lit torches in the distance, tiny glimmers of golden light amidst the oppressive dark. They were still far away—but clearly heading towards their direction. There was no way they would be able to outrun them, not with Merlin and Gaius… not to mention Arthur, who wasn't as fast as he normally would be.

But what if they didn't have to? Or… what if not everyone had to? It was dark; perhaps the enemy could be misled.

They all sped up, energy jolted into them by the presence of the soldiers. But the adrenaline wouldn't last for long, and then they'd be even more tired and slow than before.

Arthur hurried to the front of the group, where Gwaine and Percival were leading the way.

“We need to split up,” he said. “We can't outrun them.”

There was no time to stop for the conversation; they continued through the tangled underbrush as quickly as they could. A springy branch dislodged by Gwaine snapped back and whacked Arthur in the face. Gwaine had probably done it on purpose, but, then, Arthur probably deserved it.

“I'm not sure how that will help, sire?” Gwaine asked, sounding irritated. Yes, he most certainly had let that branch hit Arthur on purpose. “Then we'll be separated and all the weaker for it. If we're to make a stand, it would be best to work together.”

“But what if we didn't have to fight them? What if we could outrun them instead?”

“You know we can't. There's no way. We're much too—”

“Some of us could outrun them," Arthur snapped, irritated at being questioned even though he knew, deep down, that he had forfeited his right to leadership. "We should let them go ahead.”

“And you would leave behind the injured and elderly to be slaughtered?"

Anger caused Arthur's temper to flare. Maybe he had lost his authority as king when he had lost his kingdom; maybe he had lost Gwaine’s respect the moment he first touched Merlin. But he was trying, and Gwaine should know him better than that.

“Of course not! But we have a sorcerer with us, yes?”

“A sorcerer who can't use his magic, Your Highness,” Gwaine sneered. “Because you failed to protect him.” Left unsaid was all the rest of it, of how Arthur had caused so much damage in the first place. They both knew that Gwaine was thinking it.

“We also have Gaius,” Arthur replied, more calmly than he felt. “Maybe he could help hide a few of us, while the rest continued on? And the enemy would follow the trail as if nothing had happened.”

“He's an old man, Arthur!” Gwaine ranted, no longer bothering to hide his irritation. “Weak and out of practice in a skill that you forbid! How dare you—”

“You would ask someone to use magic to help you?” Percival interrupted, voice steady and neutral.

Did they really think him so anti-magic that he would risk all their lives as a statement against it?

Though that's what his father had done, over and over again. Risked the safety of Camelot out of a refusal to accept magic. How many times had Merlin, secretly helping behind the scenes, saved their kingdom after his father had essentially given it a death sentence?

“Yes!” Arthur said as emphatically as he could. “I realise now it's not evil… How could it be, if Merlin is a sorcerer? Have you ever met a more selfless person in your life?”

“And about time you realised it, Princess,” Gwaine muttered insolently, but Arthur ignored it.

“So a few of us could hide, and maybe Gaius could help to cover our presence? And the rest could go on just the same… only faster. Perhaps they could make it to Nemeth before being caught? The forest stretches all the way, so it would be a foot race, no horses involved.”

Percival said, “We could ask Gaius. A few of us might be able to hide, even without magic. I think it's worth discussing with the others.”

Gwaine snorted, but did not disageee.

Arthur knew it would be a long, hard journey to ever win back Gwaine’s respect, and chances were that neither one of them would live long enough to see it happen. But he was damned well going to try.

***

The plan was accepted. Gaius said he would try to conceal them as best he could, and perhaps it wouldn't be necessary anyway. They were travelling south through the Forest of Brechfa towards Nemeth, skirting the mountains of Isgaard. The terrain grew rougher. Hills rose from the forest floor with numerous rocky overhangs. Arthur knew there were occasional shelters formed from weathering under cliffs, slabs of stone that jutted out with a hollow cavity underneath. The space underneath was never very large, not like a true cavern, but if they could find one in the dark, maybe they'd have a chance…

Since they were already pursued by men following their trail, they risked lighting a torch to better search with. It didn't matter if they were seen—the idea was that the enemy would continue following the half of the group headed towards Nemeth anyway.

A suitable place was found. There was a slab of rough stone about a foot thick, under which the earth had been hollowed out. It was very low to the ground; they would have to crawl. Hopefully it was sheltered enough that if Gaius’ magic didn't work, they would escape detection anyway.

Merlin refused help entering the shelter, insisting that he was perfectly capable of crawling in the dirt like a worm. What was left unsaid but which everybody heard was that Merlin thought he had the self worth of a worm, and it broke Arthur's heart. Merlin went first, with his mother. Next went Arthur and Elyan. Arthur bristled at being relegated to “needs protection” status, or at least close enough to it, but now was not the time to argue—and deep down he knew it was for the best.

Percival, Gaius, and Gwaine were on the edge of the shelter. When asked if he could help to hide them, the old man had nodded his head gravely, then pulled a vial out of his pack and swigged it. “For energy,” he had said, not elaborating. “I'll need to be as close to the place of illusion as possible.” And so he lay right on the edge of the opening.

The half-dozen guards with them carried on towards Nemeth, torch still lit, leaving an obvious path. Their aim was speed, and gods willing, it would protect them.

It was cramped and uncomfortable in the confined space. There were jagged rocks pressing into Arthur, and no way to adjust them. The air grew stale. Waiting was painful, heavy with the anxiety of knowing whether their deception would work or if they would have to fight for their lives. The soldiers would probably not bother with capture but run them all through. Morgana would certainly not wish to chance any more escape attempts.

They held as still as possible, but the whoosh of their breathing screamed as loudly into the silent night as a wounded wildcat. It was a ridiculous thought, but everything took on exaggerated qualities when sitting in the dark waiting for potential death.

Just before the enemy approached their location, Gaius whispered something indecipherable to Arthur's ear. Nothing appeared to change. Whether the spell worked or not was uncertain.

Please, please, don't let them find us. I owe my people so much. I have so much to atone for, so much to remedy. I can't do any of that if I'm dead. Please, please, let us live so I can save my people. I might not deserve life, but these others with me are so noble, so worthy. Please don't find us…

The soldiers grew loud, pushing through the dark forest without regard to stealth. Sticks crunched, voices muttered, branches whipped, boots thumped. Hopefully all that racket would cover up their breathing…

Arthur knew he was being ridiculous but held his breath anyway as the men passed. And pass they did, one after the other… until one stopped. Right next to their hiding place. Shit, fuck, damn it all!

But the man didn't call out. There was no warning shout, no weapon drawn. Just rustling… and then liquid hitting dirt followed by a pleasant sigh. Arthur was as relieved as the soldier. The man quickly moved off, adjusting things as he went.

They remained frozen, listening to the men crashing through the forest move farther away until all was still. Thank the gods.

“Fuck. I'm lying in muddy piss!” Gwaine exclaimed, rolling out of the shelter, swearing violently.

“Couldn't have happened to a nicer bloke,” Percival said, voice mischievous. He rolled out next, but when Gwaine said, “Hey, man, let's celebrate with a hug!” he scooted away, laughing. Arthur couldn't help but laugh along with them. It wasn't even that funny, but just for a moment he felt giddy, so relieved, so ecstatic to have the chance to continue on another day and make things better.

And he vowed upon everything he had ever held dear that he wouldn't rest until he succeeded.

Chapter Text

Merlin pretended to be asleep. He feigned sleep often because he couldn't bear to see anyone look at him. Their expressions were filled with sorrow and pity, both of which scraped against his raw heart like sandpaper. So he closed his eyes, regulated his breathing, and let himself hang limply in the arms of whoever was the current lucky winner of the lug-the-useless-Merlin-across-Camelot-like-a-sack-of-wheat jackpot. (Honestly, a sack of wheat would be much more helpful. At least you could chew and grind the grains between your teeth. It was a gummy and time-consuming affair, but hey—food.)

In actuality, Merlin was plotting.

He had to get his magic back. He had to get to the Crystal Cave.

He was as certain of this as he had ever been. But of course no one would listen.

It was like that dream he would often get. There would be a large banquet in the Great Hall, packed to the brim with people. A candle would get knocked over and a table would go up in flames. But no one would notice; no one would care. No one but Merlin. He would grab pitchers of whatever liquid was closest at hand to toss on the fire. Help, help! he would yell. I need help! But no one would ever pay him any heed. Arthur would ask for more wine, and Uther would threaten him with the stocks. Gwaine would try to tease him about a kitchen maid, and Gwen would hover nervously and try to convince Merlin to get back to work before he was thrown in the dungeons. But no one would see the fire spreading through the banquet hall, growing larger and hotter and burning them all alive—

He always burst awake when the flames licked at his skin, drenched with perspiration, heart racing.

Sometimes the dream would be about something else, possibly something as severe as an enemy invasion; other times it would be more trivial, like the sudden appearance of a swarm of angry bees that no one paid any attention to. The theme was always the same: something was wrong, only Merlin could see it, and no one ever listened. Even worse, Arthur never listened. They were supposed to be two sides of the same coin, joined in a great destiny—but for some reason the coin always landed Arthur's side up.

There were seven remaining in their group: Merlin, Gaius, Hunith, Arthur, Pervival, Elyan, and Gwaine. They didn't dare follow the path their companions had taken that led straight to Nemeth. There was always a chance that the enemy pursuers would return the same way. Instead they followed a longer, more circuitous route through rougher terrain, pushing their way over the lower slopes of the Mountains of Isgard. It made for very slow going, especially considering that someone had to carry Merlin over scree-covered inclines and forest floors tangled with roots and underbrush. Nor had Arthur recovered his full strength, and neither Gaius or Hunith were used to strenuous travel. Even Gwaine wasn't as energetic as he once was, and Merlin recalled that just a few days ago he had been dying, almost dead.

The plan was to travel however quickly as they could manage (which was not very) through the night and conceal themselves during the day, and it grated. It grated to be carried like a child. It grated to hide like prey—because they were the prey and there was no hope of being anything other ever again. Unless…

Unless he could get to the Crystal Cave.

After the Southrons passed them by, Merlin had huddled close to his mum, trying to cling to the relief of escape as a way to distract from the constant, overwhelming despair. But the relief was fleeting, too weak to do much more than make the situation all the clearer: he was helpless, and because of that, they were all going to die. Painfully, horribly, having failed at everything they had ever been prophesied to do.

"Mum," he had whispered. "Mum. I know how to get my magic back. There's a cave, filled with crystals. It's the birthplace of magic. If I went there, I could—"

"Merlin. My love. No. A wild goose chase is the last thing we need now. You'll just get your hopes up and everyone killed. Rest, my love. You've done enough, endured enough. It's our turn to take care of you. We will go to Nemeth. Now rest."

But he couldn't rest. He needed to get to the Crystal Cave.

When Percival lifted him up to continue their journey in the wrong direction, Merlin tried again. "Please… I need to go to the Valley of the Fallen Kings. I need to get my magic—" but Percival had interrupted with an "I'm sorry, Merlin," and that was the end of it.

When next they stopped to rest (which they needed to do frequently), Merlin asked to sit with Gaius to plead his case. Of everyone, Gaius was the most agreeable. "Yes, I suppose it's possible that the Crystal Cave might help you. But even if it could, it's not a good idea, my boy. The chances that you could get there alive are infinitesimal. The forest is crawling with Morgana's men. We need to go to Nemeth, regroup with our people, make plans with our allies."

"By then it will be too late!" Merlin said, though he didn't quite know why. The need to hurry was overwhelming, but whether it was from true need or just his despairing emotions playing tricks on him, he couldn't say. If he'd had his magic, he would have trusted the intuition without question. But now… Now he was adrift in a turbulent sea, unable to see if that dark smear on the horizon was land—or a sea monster preparing to eat him alive.

It was so frustrating to not be able to see.

He asked Elyan during the grey murk that came before the dawn. But Elyan had already overheard his request addressed to others and stopped him before he could even get the full question out.

The only one he didn't ask was Arthur.

He pretended that he never looked at Arthur, that he didn't exist. But Merlin couldn't help peeking out from the corner of his eye when he thought no one would notice. He couldn't help but examine the man who had destroyed his life. No. No. Stop thinking that way. It wasn't Arthur's fault. Merlin needed to keep reminding himself. It was Morgana's fault, Agravaine's fault. Not Arthur's.

But—

No! Merlin smashed down the voice that suggested that if Arthur had just trusted him, or been stronger, or more astute and less gullible… or if he had accepted magic sooner… that he wouldn't have succumbed to Agravaine's trick. Nor would Merlin pay attention to the other voice that tried to say that the curse was just an excuse, that Arthur had enjoyed the opportunity to hurt him.

Instead of listening to the insidious doubts, Merlin snatched glances trying to assess Arthur's condition. He trudged through the night stoically, without complaint. But it was obvious his energy was flagging as it never would have before. He wasn't lifting his feet very high from the ground, which caused him to trip over rocks and roots several times. Once he fell and caught himself on the sharp gravel with his hands, causing Gaius to fuss with a bandage to wipe up the blood. Percival offered to help support Arthur, or carry him if needed, but of course Arthur refused. He always was stubborn when it came to his pride. At least some things hadn't changed.

In the darkness it wasn't possible to make out the details of the scarring on Arthur's face, but Merlin knew it was there. Once upon a time he would have been horrified at the damage done to Arthur's handsome features, but now he could not bring himself to care. That lack of concern was as big a sign as any that things had changed irrevocably between them.

Merlin didn't ask Arthur to take him to the Crystal Cave. Merlin didn't ask Arthur anything at all. Merlin planned to never ask anything of Arthur ever again.

When morning came, the rosy dawn reflected off the bare cliffs of the mountains and settled upon the valley, the colour of blood stains that hadn't come out in the wash. They found a small, rock-strewn ravine where they could spend the day, decently hidden. A small stream ran through it, swollen with meltwater as spring slowly warmed the frozen mountain slopes. The water was icy and chilled Merlin from the inside out. But at least it was fresh and clean. If only Merlin could be, too.

They spent the day resting uncomfortably amongst the rocks, sleeping as best they could with sharp points poking into tender skin. When the sun slanted low from the west, they all woke from whatever sparse sleep they could grab. Hunith and Elyan passed out some of the food rations they had packed before they fled. Merlin didn't eat more than a couple bites, finding it near impossible to force the tasteless food down when he felt so miserable.

As they ate, Arthur stood up, paced back and forth to the stream a few times, and then abruptly turned to address the group.

"I think we should go to the Crystal Cave." His strong voice echoed through the ravine.

There were multiple gasps and grunts of protest, but Arthur plowed on over them. Merlin jerked his head up to look straight at Arthur, who was studiously not looking at him at all. Merlin wished he knew more clearly what Arthur was thinking. When Merlin had had his magic… eaten, for lack of a better word… by that creature, the golden thread that stretched between them had disappeared as if it had never been. It seemed to have taken Merlin's uncanny insight into Arthur's psyche with it.

"No, listen," Arthur continued, undeterred. "You all saw how… effective… Merlin can be. If we are to have any chance of standing against Morgana, we need his magic."

Merlin felt an immediate punch of relief to his gut, so strong he physically recoiled with the shock. Someone had listened to him—Arthur had listened to him. It felt as unnatural as if one of his bad dreams had suddenly acquired a happy ending. And as welcome.

Gwaine jumped down abruptly from a large boulder he had been precariously balancing on, hands curled into fists. "Is Merlin nothing more than a weapon to you? How can you even think of asking him to fight?"

Merlin's brain was slow to recover from the shock of Arthur's initial proclamation, of having found a potential ally in a place he thought closed to him forevermore. But—was it an ally that he wanted? His magic, though—yes, he wanted that. Desperately.

Arthur glared at Gwaine. "You know Morgana isn't going to stop hunting us just because we've left Camelot. She will burn down Nemeth trying to find us. We need all the strength that we can muster."

True. Merlin hadn't really thought much beyond the desperate need to be whole again, to not be a burden, to be himself. If he could just get his magic back—

A tiny voice in his head scolded him, reminding him that there were some problems that magic can't fix. He swept that thought away like a bothersome gnat.

"Arthur." Gwaine stepped closer. His voice remained in control, but the rising anger behind it was obvious in the way his words came out like arrows shot from a bow. "You can't ask Merlin to fight your battles. You failed him. Camelot failed him."

"But he wants to go! He wants to recover his magic. Without that power, he's defenceless! How will he—"

Gwaine growled and put his hand on his sword. "I will protect him."

Arthur looked equal parts flabbergasted and appalled. "Against Morgana? She will tear you apart. Look how well you did against just me back at the castle. If Merlin hadn't been able to heal you—with his magic, I might add—you wouldn't even be standing here now."

A quick shudder ran up Gwaine's body, but he didn't back down.

"And you think a wild goose chase through enemy territory is a better option? Look at us. We can barely travel. If we are lucky and if we are not sliced to pieces along the way, we might make it to the Valley of the Fallen Kings. And then what will happen? There is no proof that cave there will actually do anything!"

Gwaine cut off abruptly and looked at Merlin. His face was red as a cherry, on fire with his temper, but the colour did not obscure his drooping features or over-bright eyes. He appeared exhausted and deeply unhappy.

"I'm sorry, Merlin. I just—"

Merlin turned his face away, staring intently at the rocky ground. He already knew what Gwaine thought about his plan—his last gasp of hope—but it hurt to hear it said out loud in front of everyone. Mortifying. Crushing. Merlin had one idea, one thing he could do, and it was to be publicly ridiculed. By his best friend, no less.

When Arthur spoke again, his voice resonated with power and leadership. But Merlin refused to look. As long as he kept his eyes down, he could pretend he didn't see the pity in his companions' expressions.

"You forget yourself, Sir Gwaine. I am your king. I will decide what we do. For too long I have ignored Merlin's ideas and suggestions. Always to my detriment. This time I will listen. We are going to the cave."

Merlin's eyes caught sight of a dull grey, heart-shaped rock. He picked it up and began worrying at it with his thumb and forefinger. It had been worn smooth by the passage of time, but as he rubbed at it, he felt tiny cracks in the surface catch at his rough skin.

"You're not my king." The contempt in Gwaine's voice could have burned through stone. "You lost that title the first time you lay hands on Merlin, and then again when you stabbed me through the gut and left me to die. You think you're in any position to give orders?"

Arthur made a strangled sound, pained enough that Merlin jerked his head up to see what had happened. Arthur had thrown his hands over his head, fingers grasping at his hair.

"I know. I KNOW! I know, and I'm sorry. I can never make up for what I've done, but at least I'm trying to move on—"

"And what gives you the right to move on when Merlin—"

"I can't just give up trying because I did terrible —"

"But you can't expect Merlin to—"

"Stop!" Merlin yelled. "Just stop!" He hurled the rock he was holding against the boulder Gwaine had been climbing on. It shattered into multiple pieces that skittered off in various directions. Everyone looked at him, stunned by the outburst, but no one moved, not even his mother.

"I am perfectly capable of making my own decisions," he continued, fighting the urge to quail in the face of so many people looking at him, at his weakness and his shame. At his complete and utter failure to fulfill his grand destiny.

"Merlin—"

That was Gaius, the always protective Gaius, overprotective, meddlesome, controlling, always-telling-him-to-do-the-exact-opposite-of-what-Merlin-thought-was-right Gaius.

"No!" he yelled back. "Don't you 'Merlin' me. My knees are broken, not my head, and you all seem to have forgotten. I can make decisions for myself, and I will. Stop treating me like a child!"

Everyone stared at him, unnaturally silent. He couldn't quite tell what they were thinking, but imagined it was something along the lines of look how broken Merlin is; we need to be even more protective because see how he throws tantrums like a child.

"Then tell us your decision, love," his mother said, voice clipped and tense. Merlin refused to turn and face her. Instead he gave himself a sort of half-hug and dug his fingernails into his arms. The pain was grounding, momentarily distracting him from the fact that everyone was still looking at him.

"You already know," he responded irritably. "Magic is like air to me, and I can't live without it."

"It's not safe," Hunith replied. "We wouldn't make—"

"Don't you lecture me about what is safe! You're the one that decided the best thing for a child with wildly out-of-control magic was to send him to a place where they killed people for the merest hint of sorcery. You were damn well happy enough to risk my safety when it suited you!"

It wasn't until something dripped onto his forearms that Merlin realised he was crying. And he knew right then that he had lost. Competent adults didn't yell at their parents and burst into tears. He had just proven himself to be as much a child as they thought he was.

He closed his eyes, tucked his chin down, and curled into as much of a ball as he could with smashed knees on rocky ground. People spoke, voices rose and fell, but he ignored them all. Instead he drifted upon his thoughts, riding the waves of self-loathing and despair. Someone touched his back gently, and he flailed, arms striking out blindly to remove the unwanted intrusion.

After that they left him alone.

No one would listen, no one would help, no one ever truly cared for him. They all wanted what they wanted, the selfish bastards. Arthur wanted to use him as a weapon; Gwaine wanted to be safe in Nemeth where he could drink his cares away; Gaius wanted to be in control; his mum just wished her difficult son would be easy for once, stop causing her so much grief. And he did: he was an endless source of grief, always trouble, always breaking her heart. What a poor substitute for his father he must be. Balinor wouldn't sit here crying like a baby. Balinor wouldn't snivel and whine. Gods, why was he even still alive? He should just be done with life and put everyone out of their misery. Now that his magic was gone, maybe he could stay dead this time.

Eventually Gwaine spoke directly to him, and he couldn't ignore it like he had all the other voices. "We need to get moving. I'm going to carry you now, all right?"

"No!" Merlin said, surprising himself with the vehemence of his response. The memory of Gwaine condemning Merlin's 'wild goose chase' played vividly in his memory.

"Merlin, we've all decided and agreed. Nemeth is the safest goal for us right now."

Gwaine tried to scoop him up and into his arms, but Merlin again yelled. "No! Not you. I don't want to go with you."

"Merlin, I'm not leaving you here to die."

"Then get Percival to carry me."

Silence.

Then footsteps trudged away.

Merlin refused to look. He refused to feel guilty. He loved Gwaine, but the betrayal stung. Percival had denied him the chance to go to the cave, too, but Percival wasn't as dear to him. But Gwaine—Gwaine had always been on his side, working together with him, helpful, indispensable. To have him turn on Merlin now, in his time of greatest need…

The tears poured out. He buried his face into his arms to hide them and pressed to staunch the flow. When Percival picked him up, Merlin turned his head inwards. No one would see him; no one would know.

Eventually the rhythm of Percival's steps lulled him into a calmer state. He would have been grateful, except for the fact that each step took him farther away from the Crystal Cave. Each step took him farther away from his magic.

Each step battered his already-cracked heart, and it was just a matter of time before it would shatter.

But as he drifted off to sleep, one tiny thought wormed its way in: Arthur had stood up for him. For once, Arthur had listened.

Chapter Text

Gwaine was lost: flung about in a raging sea where the swells curled so high over his head that he could no longer tell up from down. A giant wave towered above him, glowing an eerie blue-green, sea monsters of all sorts visible twisting and thrashing inside, ready to crash on top of him.

He needed a sturdy boat and a guiding star. He needed Courage to fight off the monsters. He needed Magic to calm the storm.

And what had he done?

He had denied them both.

Gwaine was no idiot. He knew that Strength, Courage, and Magic meant Gwaine, Arthur, and Merlin. Ever since the quest to recover the Fisher King's trident, he had known there was something special about the three of them. Together, they were something more.

He'd gone through his life never settling down, never finding anything worth fighting for. Until Merlin. Merlin was his northern star, his guiding light. Merlin showed him the way to go, the cause to believe in, the leader to follow—and that had been Arthur. Arthur and his dream of a better world.

And Merlin— Of course he longed to recover his magic. He was helpless without it.

Gwaine remembered how he had felt lying on the floor of Arthur's chambers, dying, nearly dead, completely powerless, forced to watch as Arthur—

He pulled his thoughts away from that scene as quickly as if he had touched the hottest of flames. The things he had seen that day would haunt his dreams for the rest of his life. No point in living through them in the waking world too.

But he knew intimately what it was like to be without strength during harrowing times.

And now Merlin faced the same situation: devoid of magic when he needed it the most.

If anyone should help Merlin get his magic back, it should be Gwaine—out of empathy if nothing else. But more than that: Merlin was his best friend, his guiding light, the glue that held Strength, Courage, and Magic together.

And Gwaine had denied him.

Arthur's courage was on full display: ready to take a ragtag group of people, barely able to defend themselves, through enemy-infested lands. And just the fact that Arthur was supporting Merlin, listening to him, and actively pursuing magic, of all things, ought to have gladdened Gwaine's heart.

But something about it just felt wrong.

In the past, Gwaine could follow Merlin without doubt, but now… His friend had suffered so much trauma. The loss of his knees may have taken his ability to walk, but the loss of his magic seemed to have stolen Merlin's soul. Without it, he was but a shadow of his former self—and Gwaine had long ago learned not to follow shadows.

And then Arthur—

As much as Gwaine wanted to despise him for what he had done, what he had allowed to happen, deep down Gwaine knew his anger was misplaced. Arthur had been cursed. He had suffered horribly, betrayed by family, tortured almost unto death. He'd lost everything: his family, his kingdom, his home, his dignity, his self-worth.

Honestly, it was a miracle that he was still functioning.

And yes, his courage was still there. But Gwaine knew there was a very fine line between bravery and stupidity, and he thought that Arthur couldn't tell the difference anymore. Too much had happened, to all of them. They were broken—their judgment was broken—and Gwaine would do what it took to protect them all.

Even if they hated him for it.

As they hiked through the rough terrain, inching ever closer to Nemeth, Gwaine stayed at the front of the group. He didn't want to see the king whose authority he had denied, nor the friend whose heart he had broken. When Merlin refused to let Gwaine carry him, Gwaine's own heart had shattered. He understood, of course: Merlin would see his actions as betrayal, even though Gwaine was convinced he had done what was best. Merlin's pain spread through the group like a dark storm cloud, and Gwaine longed to scoop him up and hold him close and make it all better.

But he couldn't.

He was glad that Merlin had accepted Percival. Percival would take good care of him. But it also meant that Gwaine couldn't talk to Percival now, and he really, really wanted to. Even if Merlin appeared to be asleep, he was usually faking, and Gwaine didn't want to bother him. He'd done enough damage for one night.

They crossed into Nemeth territory sometime before dawn. Everyone breathed a sigh of relief when the sun rose and they realised they'd left Camelot behind. They were somewhere between the Port of Gedref and the Stones of Nemeton. The land was evening out; the path was less tangled. Not that Morgana couldn't chase them this far, but the promise of safety drew ever closer.

The distant sound of horses neighing and armour clanging caused Gwaine to stop abruptly. He signalled the others to look for a place to hide, or at least find somewhere more defensible. But the trees had thinned, and there was nowhere ideal to make a stand. While most of the party hunkered down low to the ground to be as unobtrusive as possible, Gwaine took Elyan to investigate. His sword was ready: if it was any of Morgana's men, he would not go down without a fight. He'd need to take at least ten of the enemy with him if he wanted it to count as a worthy death.

Gwaine held up ten fingers to Elyan, followed by the motion of a finger cutting across his neck. Elyan grinned and held up the sign for eleven—which of course Gwaine couldn't tolerate. He held up the sign for thirteen (as it had always felt like a lucky sort of number) and the race was on. Elyan was in the process of flashing the sign for twenty-three when the first soldier appeared.

Gwaine had got himself so worked up about how glorious (if impractical) his impending death would be that he was a touch disappointed to realise that the soldier wore the uniform of Nemeth. Gods, it would have felt good to go down in a blaze of glory, slicing and dicing and hacking out all his frustrations. Now he'd have to continue on and actually deal with things.

Bugger.

He sheathed his sword and went out to talk to their allies.

The soldiers from Nemeth had been actively looking for them. After the fall of Camelot and the influx of refugees, King Rodor had moved a large part of his army to their shared border. There had been quite a few skirmishes between the Nemeth patrols and the Southrons, but it was clear that Morgana wasn't planning a full-fledged invasion. At least not yet.

The contingent of Camelot guards that Arthur had sent ahead to outrun the Southrons (while their group hid like frightened children under a bed) had been overtaken right at the border. The soldiers from Nemeth had rushed to engage the Southrons and overwhelmed them with superior numbers. The battle had been short and deadly, and none of the enemy had escaped. But there had been multiple casualties among the Camelot and Nemeth contingents as well.

It boiled Gwaine's blood to know that men had fought and died while he lay hiding. It had been necessary to protect the weaker members of their party, yes, but he much preferred an open battle any day. There would be plenty of time for that later. Patience. He must exercise patience. Wait for the right moment. A flash of memory stabbed across his mind, of that awful day when he hadn't been patient and had almost gotten himself killed.

He would learn. He would do better.

The Camelot guards who had survived had told their rescuers the direction that Arthur's ragtag group would probably take, and the Nemeth army had moved resources into that general area: soldiers, horses, carts, food, even a medic. Getting the King of Camelot out alive would be a major victory, and they had prepared well.

And so it was that Gwaine was soon tucked up in a cart, fed and watered—like a lady's lapdog, as if he couldn't take care of himself. Though hadn't he proven that to be the case? Camelot fallen, death chasing them all… Fine. Gwaine would be a good little pet, for now, and let himself be taken care of.

But not for long. Already his mind began to spin with ideas for evicting a certain megalomaniac witch from Camelot. He would be the Strength to get it done.

Gods willing, Magic and Courage would have recovered enough to join him. He had a feeling that without them, Camelot was lost forever.

But Merlin has suffered enough…You can't ask him to fight. Didn't you just berate Arthur for that very thing?

Gwaine groaned. He was riding in a cart with Percival, heading towards the capital city. Arthur and Elyan followed behind in another, and Merlin, Gaius, and Hunith brought up the rear. Soldiers on horseback surrounded them, smiles on their faces and laughter spilling freely. It was a gorgeous day, and their mission had been a success.

The sun was now high, shining with the brilliant intensity of spring on eyes used to creeping around in the shadows of the night. Couple that with exhaustion and the temptation to sleep was overwhelming. Gwaine settled down comfortably into the blankets the soldiers had provided and groaned again.

"Problems?" Percival asked.

"I hate this," Gwaine murmured. The air was warm against his tired body, its fragrance sweet. A gentle breeze stirred the growing leaves of trees waking up from the cold of winter, a peaceful sound that calmed despite the racket of men and horses and cartwheels creaking.

"You hate… sunshine?"

Gwaine cracked his eyelids open to look over at Percival, who had slouched down next to him. Percival had a wry smile on his face. Gwaine groaned again and gently punched Percival on the arm. Before he could retract his fist, Percival grabbed it and held it still.

"Better watch out. You might hurt yourself." Percival's voice was light, but Gwaine knew that statement was more than the trivial joke it seemed on the surface. He tried to pull his hand back, but Percival didn't let go.

"How can I get hurt when I've run away from the fight?" He tried to keep his voice as light as Percival's, but anger bled through. He spoke too loudly, and the driver of their cart looked back to make sure everything was all right.

Percival nodded gently, as calm as a lake on a windless afternoon. "I think this is what is called a 'strategic retreat'. You know, one of those things we do when we want to live to fight another day?"

Yes. But no. Everything inside of Gwaine longed to enter the fray, and never-ever-ever run away. "I should have gone with Arthur and Merlin. We should have gone to the cave."

The hand holding Gwaine's fist started to gently rub at the tense ball of fingers. Gwaine didn't let them relax.

"You know it was a fool's errand," Percival said quietly. "We would have all ended up dead."

"Better dead than a coward. Better dead than betray my friends."

Percival squeezed his fist, but Gwaine still wouldn't let it go.

"It's not a betrayal to stop someone from throwing their life away. They'll see it eventually. Sooner than you will, I think."

Yes, that was logical. But— But— What if there had been a chance of success? What if it had been their only chance of success? What if Gwaine had not only betrayed his friends and backed away from a challenge but had doomed them all as well? What if Merlin's magic was their only hope?

"I accused Arthur of using Merlin as a weapon. And you know what? I would do the very same thing! Even now I am making plans to eventually restore his magic so we can retake Camelot. I'm such a hypocrite."

"Keep thinking like that, and you really will hurt yourself."

They fell silent for awhile. Gwaine's eyes slid shut again, but it was hard to think while Percival kept rubbing at his hand. Maybe it was better that way.

"You did what you had to do. Everyone does things that they're not proud of, but—if you look closely, there's usually a reason why you would choose to act as you did."

"As if you've ever done anything shameful," Gwaine replied, bitter.

"You'd be surprised."

That was… unexpected. Percival always seemed the perfect model of knightly behaviour. What could he have ever done? But Gwaine wouldn't ask: his friend was being uncharacteristically open already, and he didn't want to push his luck.

Instead of pressing for the story, he listened to the thump of hooves against the packed dirt road they followed. They had a rhythm that was not quite in sync with the creaking of the cart. It unsettled him, and he found himself longing for the horses to go faster: speed up the cadence, speed up the pace, speed up the time it would take to get to their destination. The sooner, the better.

The sooner they got to Nemeth, the sooner they could turn around and head right back to Camelot again.

Patience. You must learn to be patient. You know that we are not prepared.

Stupid logic. Getting in the way of what Gwaine wanted. But he would do his best to listen.

Thwick thunk.

Gwaine jerked up. Was that—

Thwick thud.

Gwaine watched in disbelief as an arrow plunged into Percival's upper left arm.

"Eurgh! That stings!" Percival said as Gwaine shouted, "What the hell?"

"Ambush!" The Nemeth soldiers scrambled into action. Immediately the sounds of battle were upon them: the clash of swords, the screams of the injured, the thrashing of terrified horses trying to bolt while still attached to carts and wagons.

Gwaine whipped out his sword even as he checked on Percival. "How bad is it?"

"Barely a scratch. I've had worse in training." Percival eyed the arrow critically. "Not deep. I can get it." He twisted it carefully and pulled, grunting. The arrowhead hooked on from the inside and ripped messily through intact skin. That probably hurt more than the original impact.

Blood gushed from the jagged wound. Gwaine ripped a strip from one of the blankets in the cart and quickly and expertly bandaged Percival's arm, a skill born from much practice.

So fighting for honour and glory had a few downsides. Didn't everything?

Percival's face was pale and tense with pain. But he nodded his thanks, grabbed his sword (thankfully his non-fighting arm had been hit), and jumped from the cart.

Of course Gwaine was already on the ground. As if he'd let an injured man beat him into battle. His blood sang with the adrenaline and excitement of the upcoming fight.

The scene around them was one of structured chaos. The Nemeth soldiers were well-trained, but the number of enemy assailants was greater than they were prepared for.

The border with Camelot was guarded well enough that it should have been impossible for this many of Morgana's men to get through. Where could they have all come from?

They weren't dressed in the all-black uniforms the Southrons preferred. As he jumped into a duel with the nearest adversary, Gwaine examined his opponent closely. It was difficult to tell, as the two of them rapidly danced around each other. Was that a wolf's-head design on the helmet? Or maybe a boar?

A woman's scream cut through the cacophony of battle. Fuck, that was Hunith. She had been riding with Merlin and Gaius in the last cart. Where the hell were they? Gwaine had to get there now.

He sliced his opponent through the guts even as he searched for his companions.

Gwaine would not let Merlin down again.

But there was so much activity, so many combatants—he couldn't take two steps without having to hack his way through another enemy fighter or three. Even with Percival at his back, their progess was slow—too slow.

The cart which had carried Merlin, Hunith, and Gaius was completely surrounded. Arthur and Elyan were attempting to fight their way to them, but were as hindered in their attempts as Gwaine and Percival. The few Nemeth soldiers nearby were overwhelmed.

Several men climbed into the cart. One lifted Merlin up by the scruff of the neck, while another raised his sword, aiming to stab straight through Merlin's heart.

As the blade swung into motion, Gwaine immediately knew he was too late. He had failed Merlin. Again.

Chapter Text

It was with great relief that Gaius climbed on to the cart to Nemeth. He was exhausted from their flight from Camelot. His bones ached to the marrow, and his muscles shook constantly. He would have sat down and refused to budge long ago if he didn't have such a drive to protect his boys. They would not leave him behind, so he would do his best not to slow them too much. One foot after the other: that's all he could do. Step, step, take yet another excruciating step.

Truthfully, the only way he had kept going was with liberal use of his blood circulation potion. He had taken extra care to pack it before fleeing Camelot. In the midst of war, his services as a physician would be required. His body was old, failing, and he needed help. That potion had served him well at the castle. Without it, he wouldn't have had the energy to keep Gwaine alive until Merlin could cure him. Since then he had grown rather dependent on it. But what did that matter, when it kept them alive? It was the reason he was able to maintain the illusion spell to hide their group from the Southrons. There's no way he could have done that on his own. Long-term use was dangerous, but he couldn't afford to do without. He wasn't addicted—he was just doing his best to get by in a difficult time. He quashed the nagging voice that told him he'd already used way too much. It would be easy to stop when they got safely to Nemeth. No problem at all.

Gods, he was tired.

He sat next to Hunith at the front of the cart while Merlin lay curled up near the back, head propped on a crumpled blanket, pretending to be asleep. Again. Gaius was growing more and more concerned not just for the boy's physical health, but for his mental state as well. He understood the need to withdraw from the world when the pain became too unbearable. But it was worrisome. Merlin had refused the food the soldiers had offered and had only drunk a little water after his mother had cajoled him. If his boy kept on like that, he wouldn't live long enough to heal.

Perhaps Gaius should have agreed to Merlin's hare-brained scheme to go to the Crystal Cave; perhaps that would have given him enough hope to endure. If they had been successful, they could have—

He shook his head. No. Most likely they would have all been killed.

Merlin would just have to come to terms with the reality of the situation. Gaius would help him. His mother would help him. They would all help him. Gods willing, it would be enough. Gaius would never abandon Merlin the way he had abandoned his friends during the Purge, so many years ago.

He would not abandon his boy the way he had abandoned Alice.

In the meantime, they just needed to get to Nemeth. Everything would be better if they could just get to Nemeth.

Hunith was made of strong stuff. She held herself together, despite the loss of her home and the miserable condition of her son. She had tried to sit with Merlin on the cart and gently rub his back. He had literally shaken her off, twisting rapidly from side to side until she got the hint and left him alone. Now she sat watching him, biting her lip and clenching her hands together. But her head was still high and she in no way seemed defeated. Gaius was proud of her.

When they got to Nemeth, Gaius planned to fuss around after Arthur too. The king seemed to be enduring fairly well, considering the hell he had gone through. It was his training to be strong no matter what. But Gaius knew that he was struggling both physically and mentally, and Gaius would do his best to help. He'd do his best to help all of them. Just as soon as they got to Nemeth.

Most importantly, he planned to help Arthur and Merlin reconcile. If his boys were unable to work together, there would be no hope for any of them.

Getting ambushed was not in Gaius' plans. The scene went from tranquil to chaotic in the blink of an eye. He was caught completely off guard. The Nemeth soldiers appeared equally surprised. They were far from Camelot now; where had this assault come from?

"Get down!" their driver yelled as arrows whirred overhead in a deadly volley.

Hunith crouched low and pulled Merlin's blanket over them both, staying out of sight below the walls of the cart. Gaius dove for his medicine bag and pulled out the flask that held his potion, took a swig, and stashed it in his robes. Without it, he wouldn't have enough energy to defend himself. He was determined to protect Merlin and Hunith if needed, and he would be prepared. Cowardice would not hold him back when the ones he loved were in peril.

At first the enemy combatants engaged the Nemeth soldiers at the front of the convoy, leaving it fairly quiet at the back. Gaius searched for a weapon, something with which to ward off assailants, but there was nothing to be had but blankets and food. He was probably deluding himself anyway. The chances that he would last two seconds against a trained soldier were about nil, even if properly armed. But he would still feel better with a piece of steel in his hands.

"Gaius," Hunith called. "Get down here!" She pulled at his arm, but he ignored her. He needed to see what was happening. Their cart driver jumped out to calm the horse and tether it, lest it run wild and drag them away from the safety of the group. A volley of arrows flew at their cart, coming from the direction opposite to the main battle. One hit the driver in the neck, and he fell to the ground in a spray of blood, right under the hooves of the frantic horse.

Hunith screamed.

"Shhh!" Gaius urged, even as Merlin called out, "Mum! What's wrong?" His voice was high-pitched, wild with panic, and Hunith immediately sank down out of sight to reassure him.

Gaius wanted to check if the cart driver was still alive, if there was anything he could do, but knew it would be foolish. This time when Hunith yanked on his sleeve to pull him down, he allowed it. He would be no use to anybody pierced by an arrow.

A surge of harsh, unfamiliar voices approached; the archers had prepared the way for a new wave of fighters. The Nemeth soldiers were all engaged elsewhere. There would be no one to save them.

Gaius knew it would be up to him, could feel it with certainty in his gut. He would have to use the only weapon he had. For that he required more energy. He pulled the potion flask out and chugged the rest of the contents, gulping as quickly as he could. That much at once would dangerously increase the speed of blood circulating through his veins; his heart was beating faster already. Energy pulsed into his tissues. Energy, and magic.

Their cart was completely surrounded. No one was coming to help them; nobody could possibly get through the wall of enemy bodies. Gaius prepared himself mentally. He'd have to wait until the time was right.

A soldier climbed into the cart and pulled the blanket back, revealing Merlin, Hunith, and Gaius. He looked at Merlin with particular interest, almost greed. Perhaps he planned to claim a bounty. "Here he is!" he called to his companions. "Hiding with his mummy." The man sneered. "Come, little wizard, time to face your fate. Then I can go watch the boys run through that pretty king of yours. My master has long wanted him dead, and I don't want to miss the show."

He lifted Merlin by the scruff of his neck. The look on Merlin's face was one of resignation and acceptance, as if his imminent death was neither a surprise nor a bother. It was not until his eyes flicked away to examine the chaos of the ongoing melee that his features drooped. Gaius suspected he had been searching for Arthur.

Unlike Merlin, Gaius was neither accepting nor resigned. He felt magical energy stirring within his tired body. It had been scattered and fragmented like a handful of sand thrown into the wind. Now it was rejuvenating itself as the potion increased his heart rate and pushed the blood through his veins with urgency, scouring out grains of magic long abandoned in deteriorating cells, grains that had been stored and solidified and turned to inactive stone. But the blood came rushing through, pulling, prodding, sucking up the magic as a dry cloth soaks up tiny drops of water. Second by second, moment by moment, his power coalesced into a stronger, more unified force.

He could only hope it wouldn't be too little, too late.

Gaius sat quietly, examining the soldiers, delaying until the last possible moment to make his move. He needed as much magic as he could muster. As long as the man held Merlin but didn't attack, Gaius could afford to wait.

Hunith was frantic, begging at the feet of the enemy.

"Please, please, no, don't kill him! He's my son, please!"

But Gaius couldn't afford emotion, couldn't afford distraction. If he allowed himself to succumb to that temptation, all would be lost.

Wait, wait, hold on, just a little more….

And then the second soldier climbed on the cart, lifted his blade back and—

Gaius pulled all the power within him together and PUSHED. He pushed like he'd never pushed at anything before. The magic inside exploded outwards, bowling over everything in its path like a violent wind, blowing it all up like a lightning strike. More, more, more—more! His heart stuttered, but he aimed all his energy at the enemy, all his essence at those who threatened the people he loved. Bodies flew, weapons broke, people screamed, yet he still pushed, more more more MORE! It was exhilarating to feel such power, to have total control of everyone around him. Is this what Merlin had felt like all the time? No wonder the loss of his magic affected him so severely.

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw movement: more enemies coming to finish what their comrades had failed to do. With one last surge Gaius unleashed all the magic he had left. An excruciating pain ripped through his chest. It swelled rapidly, horribly, swallowing up the magic and Gaius with it.

And then relief stole over him in the form of icy darkness.

*

He awoke lying next to a campfire, facing up towards a star-studded sky. The tiny pinpoints of light reminded him of the way his magic had been distributed through his body, brilliant bits of power each disconnected from the others. When he had gathered them together and thrown them at the enemy, he had felt as powerful as if he had summoned all the stars of the heavens.

Gaius was wrapped in blankets yet still felt cold. His breath came in shallow, panting gasps, and despite the chill, perspiration beaded up on his face. The light of the fire was dim, but he could see the dark shapes of people nearby. He tried to call out, but his voice failed and he broke into a series of weak coughs instead.

"Gaius?" Hunith asked, sounding concerned. "Here, let me get you some water." Shadows darted and flickered as someone moved in front of the fire, and then a water skin was held to his lips. Since he couldn't sit up, he turned his head to the side and tried to suck the water in. He spluttered, but the moisture felt good on his parched mouth.

"I wasn't sure you would wake up again," Hunith said, laying the water skin down and reaching to hold Gaius' hand. It was a blessing to have that connection, a human touch that imbued warmth into his chilled fingers. It meant he wasn't alone, not yet lost in the darkness forever.

Gaius squeezed her hand. He wanted to reassure her that everything was going to be fine, but he didn't have the energy. It was so hard just to keep breathing. It took so much effort… in, out, in, out… He felt lightheaded and dizzy. His heart fluttered like a hummingbird's wings, light and fast, with only the strength to hold a tiny creature aloft. Gaius was neither tiny nor young, and he knew that his heart was running its last race.

He needed to see his boys before it stopped. He needed to know they were okay. He needed to tell them things.

He needed them. Now.

"Merlin?" he croaked.

"He's fine, Gaius. You saved him. You saved all of us."

Thank the gods. He had come through for his family, for the ones he loved most dearly. He could rest now, just as soon as he did one more thing.

"Arthur. Merlin," he wheezed. "I need to see them."

Hunith frowned. "You should rest. There will be time for that later."

But there wouldn't be time, and Gaius knew it.

"Now. Get them for me. Now."

It was clear that she was reluctant, but after some hesitation, she left him alone by the fire. While Hunith was gone, Gaius stared into the golden light of the dancing flames. They shone brilliantly against the darkness. The fire popped; burning logs shifted and glowing embers streaked outwards, tiny sparks that quickly faded into nothingness.

Hunith returned with Arthur; Gwaine followed carrying Merlin, whom he set down next to Gaius.

"Gaius, what's going on?" Arthur asked, sitting opposite to Merlin. "You should be sleeping."

Gaius reached out his hands, one to Arthur, the other to Merlin. Thankfully, they both allowed the touch. The human contact would hopefully keep him grounded for long enough to speak to them. He could feel his life draining away, but he would not succumb, not quite yet. There was one more thing to do.

"My boys," he said, taking a precious moment to look at each of them. Arthur's forehead was wrinkled with concern, his lips pursed in a little pout. Merlin's expression was impassive, and it broke Gaius' heart. "I love you both as if you were my own sons. You are as dear to me as if you were of my same flesh and blood."

Arthur tried to speak, but Gaius wouldn't listen. "Please, just listen."

He tried to take a deep breath, but it was impossible. He would just have to make do with the tiny amount of oxygen he could muster. It wouldn't be long now. Already he could hear the voices of the dead, calling to him from the far side of the veil. Already he could feel his soul loosening its tether from his aged, worn down body.

"My boys. I am sorry that I have failed you both. Through my cowardice, I made decisions I thought were well-reasoned, but I see now that their purpose was to keep me safe"—he gasped for breath and coughed—"often at the expense of others. It is with great sorrow that I look on my past and see the truth of my life."

His voice was little more than a whisper now, but he had to keep going.

"You are both strong. Together you have a great destiny, a glorious future. But you must be humble. You must work together. Forgive each other everything and act as one being, one flesh, two sides of the same coin. One side cannot exist without the other."

He was panting, desperately trying to inhale enough air to finish what he needed to say. Merlin tried to speak, and it gladdened him to see some life in his boy. But he was afraid that if he stopped talking, he would never start again, and he wasn't quite finished.

"I know things have been awful. I know that you both have resentments and hurts and despair. But look in your hearts and you will see what you truly mean to each other. You must do this, or you will be lost, and all of Albion will be lost with you.

"Forgive each other. Love each other. And, I beg, forgive me too…"

He stopped, exhausted. His breath came so rapidly and so shallowly that it brought almost no sustenance with it. His time was at hand. Unable to speak any longer, he summoned up the energy to do one last thing: he pulled Arthur's and Merlin's hands together, so that they each held onto the other. His dear boys needed each other as desperately as his starving lungs needed air.

"Gaius!" Arthur exclaimed, leaning over him. Gaius' heart spiked with joy when he saw that Arthur still clutched Merlin's hand. As long as they held together, they would be all right. "Don't speak like this. You're going to be okay, I swear it. Just hold on… We'll get the medic."

Gaius tried to smile at him but was uncertain if he managed. He turned to look at Merlin, his beloved Merlin, whom he had failed. Yes, he had helped and counselled him; and he had even gone to Nimueh to sacrifice himself so that Merlin would live. But so often Gaius had given advice to play it safe, not for Merlin's sake, as he had tried to tell himself, but for his own. What if he had trusted Merlin's instincts about helping Morgana? What if he had encouraged Merlin to share his secret with Arthur? What might be different now? How many times had Gaius failed to truly listen to what his boy said, refused to trust his instincts? It so often seemed safer not to. Had he done that very thing when he didn't support the trip to visit the Crystal Cave?

Tears dripped from Merlin's eyes. He could see that Gaius was dying; he knew there was nothimg to do except pray for a safe and swift trip to other side of the veil.

"I forgive you, Gaius," Merlin whispered. "Though there is nothing to forgive. You have been as a father to me. Thank you." He inhaled, more of a sob than any sort of controlled breath. "I love you."

Gaius let his eyes fall closed, able to rest now that he knew Merlin forgave him. Arthur seemed to understand the truth of the situation. The last thing Gaius heard was Arthur say, "I love you, Gaius. May your soul rest free of pain and sadness."

Death came upon him gently, like a butterfly alighting upon a flower. And like the blossom that knew that its pollen, its essence, would be carried off into a new life, he welcomed it.

Chapter Text

She sat upright over Leon's prone body, rubbing into him at the perfect angle to hit her most sensitive spots. Even with Leon possessed by the fomorroh and completely under her control, it just wasn't the same unless she took charge. No matter how many times she snapped at him to move this way or that—Lower! More! Not like that, you fool! —it just wasn't satisfying the way it could be when she did it herself.

Perhaps the idea of submitting to any man, even one forcibly devoted to her will and dedicated to her pleasure, was the problem. Perhaps the idea of ever being used again as Helios had done was so abhorrent that she couldn't stomach it, no matter that her current partner was under her complete command.

She took her pleasure quietly, controlled, never allowing her desires to turn her into an unrestrained animal. Long ago she had determined that most men were pigs and that their lust would be their downfall. Look what had happened to Helios. He had plunged into forbidden territory, but at least Morgana had had her revenge.

She knew that Agravaine too lusted after her. Though he thought to hide it, she was no idiot. It might have been wise to have let him keep Arthur as his plaything, to keep Agravaine's attention directed away from her. The man was a sleaze, but she still had uses for him.

The idea of Arthur humiliated by his uncle on a daily basis had been tempting. But she needed him dead. The old Camelot needed to be eradicated to make way for the new: there could be no going back.

It had been sheer stupidity to let her desire for revenge get in the way of Arthur's end. He should have been run through the moment Leon encountered him during the invasion. It was only her desire to punish and humiliate that had allowed him to escape. Never again. She would control herself. She would find him, and she would kill him. Camelot had a new queen, and nothing would change that.

The people, though… Many of them were against her. She didn't want to have to kill them all, but she would, if that's what it took. Anyone that rebelled would be dealt with harshly. There could be no going back to the past, to the time when innocents were killed for something they had no control over. At least those she executed had made a conscious choice to defy her. The people of Camelot had been misled for so long that there was no reasoning with many of them. The only way towards her magical utopia was to remove all opposition. Permanently.

Leon lay under her, naked and submissive, just the way all of Camelot ought to be. She relished the strength of his muscles, knowing that their sole purpose now was to serve her. It might have been more satisfying if he followed of his own accord, but she was practical. Anyone with free will was bound to be a disappointment eventually. She had yet to meet a perfect minion; they all secretly kept desires of their own, deep in their hearts, just biding their time until they forced their way out, defying her yet again. It was inevitable.

After, though, she would cuddle up to Leon, have him put his arms around her, and cling desperately. He was warmth and strength, and in the stillness of the night, his presence battled off the relentless attacks of excruciating loneliness.

When she had chosen Morgause as her family, she had relinquished her old connections forever. The Pendragons were evil and corrupt, and anyone who followed them deserved to share their fate.

But sometimes, she would find herself speaking to the empty room as if Gwen were there, just out of sight, faithfully working to serve her mistress as she always had. Or she would learn something that Arthur ought to be taught so he wouldn't turn out as abysmal a king as his father. She might gather her shawl around her shoulders and stand up in preparation of tracking him down before remembering where she was.

And sometimes, as much as she wished she didn't, she even missed Uther. He had had a way of smiling at her, eyes shining with pride and adoration and something akin to love (though it was hard to believe that a body filled with such hatred could also be home to something as beautiful as love). Not even Morgause could look at her in quite the same way.

Every time she noticed that residual urge to please Uther, even though she was the instrument of his death, she summoned up all her anger and hatred, letting it boil inside until her muscles ached with the tension of it all. But try as she might, she could never eradicate the feeling completely, and she despised herself for it.

She had given up her loved ones, her family and friends, in order to follow her half-sister on their quest for vengeance against unjust tyranny. But now even Morgause was gone, injured fatally by Gaius and sacrificed by Morgana herself in order to tear the veil and unleash the dorocha. It was only because Morgause was dying that Morgana had been able to stab her; even then it was the hardest thing she had ever done. She had killed her only companion, the only real family she had left, the only one who truly loved her as she was, who was not put off by her magic or intelligence or strength. How Uther had wished she would act the part of a delicate flower like the other ladies of the court. How he had wished she would follow him as if she had no mind of her own. Even when he had approved of her, he hadn't approved of all of her.

Remembering the past was an exercise in pain. She needed a distraction.

"Aithusa! Come."

The little white dragon had been asleep on the rug in front of the fire, the only source of light in the shadowed room. She awoke quickly at Morgana's call and skittered across the stone floor to hop onto the bed and into Morgana's lap.

The little white dragon was not as warm or cuddly as Leon, but Morgana loved her all the more for it. Aithusa practically purred as Morgana stroked her scales gently. It felt good to do something for no reason beyond making someone else happy.

Leon watched the two of them from has place on the far side of the bed. It was rare that Morgana sent him away, but now she instructed him to spend the night on the floor by the fire. His erection stood stiff and straining, but she had long ago forbidden him from touching himself. He served her, and her alone. The fomorrah wouldn't care; it was only the human host that would notice the discomfort. It was a bit of petty revenge. She might have sent him off to the servants' quarters but insisted on keeping a constant eye on him. She couldn't risk him turning on her again.

Tonight Morgana wanted to cuddle with the only being who truly cared for her—despite Aithusa's propensity to shed scales all over the bed. She needed the reassurance.

Morgana had won. Uther was dead, Arthur deposed. Camelot was hers. She had the perfect man at her side and a beautiful dragon to call her own.

Why then did she feel so empty?

Chapter Text

The camp was utterly still. The only movement came from the flickering flames, though even they seemed subdued, as if knowing that a great sadness had fallen upon them.

For Arthur, most of his awareness was centred on the hand held in his. He squeezed it gently and held on as if it were an anchor and he a boat tossed around in a storm. Gaius was dead, and in that moment Arthur realised just how much of a father the old physician had been to him. Always there to care for and guide him, even when Arthur's own father was too focused on affairs of the kingdom to notice anything about his son beyond his numerous failures.

Merlin didn't relinquish his hold on Arthur's hand, and they sat in silence together as the flames of the campfire slowly died, leaving only fading embers behind. For this moment, it was the two of them, Arthur and Merlin, united in grief. The thread that had connected their souls had been destroyed; their relationship had been shattered. But now they were creating a new bond, more mundane, more human, forged by shared emotions and experience. The road in front of them would be difficult, but Arthur truly had hope that they would be able to travel it together.

No one bothered them. Even Hunith stayed away, though she could see how her son was grieving. Perhaps they sensed the importance of the moment; perhaps they were showing respect. All that mattered was that Arthur and Merlin were together.

Arthur longed to wipe the tears from Merlin's eyes and pull him into his arms. He wanted to feel his warmth, the solidity of him, to know he was real, but Arthur didn't dare. Whatever they had was too fragile, a tiny seedling that could grow into a giant oak only as long as no one stomped on it. And Arthur, despite his occasional bouts of rash behaviour, knew how to be careful.

*

They arrived in the city of Nemeth the evening the day after the ambush. The end of their trip had been much subdued: no one said anything that wasn't absolutely necessary. It was a quiet and sombre group that entered the courtyard at King Rodor's castle.

Arthur hadn't heard Merlin utter a single word since Gaius had died, and Arthur himself said no more than was necessary to coordinate their trip with the surviving Nemeth soldiers.

Arthur's knights had fared well in the battle. Despite their exhaustion and recent adversity, the only injury was the arrow to Percival's arm, which shouldn't be serious, provided it stayed free of infection. The skill of the knights of Camelot had been excellent protection.

The same was not true of the men from Nemeth. There had originally been a score of them, but less than a dozen remained. Arthur couldn't help but wonder about the adequacy of their methods and resources. If he was going to count on King Rodor to provide military strength to aid Camelot, it needed to be competent. Arthur made a plan to discuss the training regimen with Rodor. He would not see any more men killed on his account, and certainly not as a result of sending unprepared soldiers into battle on his behalf.

Sudden doubts bubbled to the surface of his mind: Why should Rodor listen to you? Why would he listen to a man who had lost a kingdom? You're not even a king anymore; you're a nobody. Even your own men won't follow you. Just look what happened when you tried to take Merlin to the Crystal Cave. No one has confidence in you; no one believes in you. You're just a failure that lost everything because of your horrifying stupidity.

No one should listen to you.

No one.

He shook his head violently, trying to banish the doubts. It wasn't good to dwell on them; he knew that. But he kept remembering Gwaine say, "You're not my king." And now he wasn't a king at all. He was just a fool with a long history of making bad decisions and trusting the wrong people. Why should anyone ever listen to him?

When they arrived in the castle courtyard, King Rodor and his daughter Mithian were waiting for them. The castle staff hurried about, rushing to assist the wounded. But Arthur paid no mind to them; he needed to speak with the king. He climbed out of the cart and went to greet the waiting royals.

Rodor was near in age to what Uther would have been. His dark hair was streaked with grey, but his face still had a youthful vigour to it, an aura of strength that made one want to trust in him. He was dressed in dark, plain clothing, with fur trim and silver buttons the only adornments.

Mithian stood at her father's side, exquisite as the finest china. Her courtly dress was covered with a fur stole the colour of freshly fallen snow. She appeared ethereal, untouched by the troubles of the world, far away from the ugly realities of Arthur's existence.

"Arthur!" Rodor said, reaching to shake his hand. "Welcome to Nemeth. I am so glad to see you safe. We have heard terrible stories coming out of Camelot. I had feared you had been killed."

"Thank you," Arthur replied evenly. "I had thought myself dead for sure. My knights rescued me"—though truthfully, he couldn't quite remember how; the details of that time slipped through his mind like water through the fingers—"and for this they have my eternal gratitude. As do you, Rodor. Without your escort, we would never have made it here alive. And indeed, not all of us did."

"I heard about your loss, and I am sorry." Rodor frowned. "Nemeth will always aid her friends in their time of need, though I fear that going forward our resources will be stretched thin. The attack that killed your physician is an indication of harder times to come. But that is a discussion best kept for later."

Mithian stepped forward to greet him. "King Arthur," she said earnestly, smiling as if to a long-lost friend. "Welcome to Nemeth. If you will allow me, I will show you to chambers where you can rest. Strategising will be much more palatable with a full stomach and a fresh mind."

Despite the great weight of sadness pressing on his soul, Arthur smiled. He had expected the princess to be much as she looked, as rigid as china, as icy as snow. But her voice rang with warmth and purpose, and Arthur suspected there was much more to the Princess Mithian than met the eye.

"The staff will escort your people to chambers close to yours," Rodor added. "If they need anything, they need only ask."

But Arthur needed more information before he could rest. "Might I ask where the other Camelot refugees are? I would see that they are safe."

"Of course you worry for your people," Rodor said. "I would do the same. Most are staying in tents outside the city walls. We did not have near enough space to accommodate such a large number."

Large number? Arthur's heart lightened at the hope that perhaps more of his people had escaped than he had expected.

"How many? How many made it out alive?"

"Several hundred. We have provided them shelter and food, and we will find more permanent dwellings before the cold of winter returns. But please, you must be exhausted. Let Mithian take you to your rooms."

But Arthur couldn't rest yet.

"And what of Guinevere? Is she here in the castle?"

Rodor nodded. "Ah, the brave young lady followed even by the famed Knights of Camelot. I offered her accommodations in the castle, but she refused to be separated from the other refugees. Now come, let Mithian take you to your chamber