“Rise and shine!”
Arthur groaned and hid his face in the pillow as Merlin flung open the curtains. The sun was far brighter than it had any right to be this early in the morning, in his opinion.
“Come on, up you get, lazy daisy! Busy day today!”
“Merlin,” Arthur grumbled. How could the man be so cheerful?
“Hurry up! You’ve got the scheduled review of the castle’s defenses with Leon, and then Lord Glover is arriving, and then there’s the knighting ceremony—” The blankets were flung off of him suddenly, leaving him shivering, but before Arthur could react he found himself being pulled off the bed by his ankle.
Arthur managed to get his feet under him just in time; he whirled on Merlin, who was already on his way to the wardrobe, still talking.
“—and of course, the feast in the evening, and we all know how much you love those, don’t we? Might need to get some new feasting attire soon—”
“Merlin,” Arthur growled. “I am not fat!”
Merlin looked at him innocently. “Who said anything about fat?” He held up a belt. “This is getting a bit old and frayed, don’t you think?”
Arthur shook his head and moved behind the changing screen. A moment later a tunic and a pair of trousers appeared over the top of it. Arthur pulled them on, wondering what extra chores he could saddle Merlin with in retaliation for his abrupt awakening.
“Why does Lord Glover have to come here, anyway?” Merlin asked. “It’s clear he doesn’t like you. Although I don’t know why anyone would, honestly—”
“The lords must see that I am fit to be king,” Arthur said. “Glover hasn’t seen me since my father died. We must show the lords who contribute to our armies that they are serving a worthy man.” He came out from behind the changing screen to frown at Merlin. “We’ve had lords visiting every few weeks for months, and yet I think you’ve complained about Glover ten times more than about anyone else. Why do you hate him so much?”
Merlin looked away and mumbled something under his breath. Arthur rolled his eyes. “What was that?”
“I said, I don’t appreciate being treated like a walking saddlebag.” Arthur didn’t have a chance to point out that he’d definitely heard the word “ass” somewhere in there the first time, before Merlin added in an affronted tone, “And, he’s always—”
Merlin stopped abruptly, a second of startled surprise crossing his face before his expression smoothed.
Arthur raised an eyebrow. “What is it? Tell me.”
Merlin glanced at him, then went back to making the bed. “It doesn’t matter.” His tone was suddenly much more subdued.
When Merlin didn’t answer – didn’t even look at him – his cheeriness suddenly and abruptly gone, something cold flooded Arthur’s chest. “Merlin,” he said carefully, “he hasn’t… he hasn’t mistreated any of the servants, has he? Or behaved… improperly, in any way?”
Merlin’s eyes snapped up, shocked. “What? No. No, Arthur, nothing like that. I only meant… he and your father saw eye to eye on a lot of things, that’s all.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Nothing!” Merlin spread his hands in a placating manner. “Just… you know, Glover doesn’t really think of commoners as people worth his notice. Your – your father could be like that, sometimes.”
Arthur exhaled slowly. He knew it was true, had fought with his father about it time and again, but somehow it still hurt to hear it coming out of someone else’s mouth. Even though Merlin had every right to have that opinion.
“Fine. That’s all, then?”
Merlin nodded slowly, and Arthur took a seat at the table. He could still feel Merlin’s eyes on him as he reached for his breakfast.
The walk around the battlements was refreshing, the cool wind doing wonders at waking Arthur up fully. Leon reported on the state of the castle’s defenses as they walked, and Arthur was pleased to hear they’d successfully filled some blind spots they’d had previously.
“I believe it might help to shorten the guards’ shifts by two hours,” Leon said. “Especially overnight. If the men are too tired, they are more likely to let something or someone slip by unnoticed.”
Arthur nodded. “Work out a schedule for the adjustments and tell me if we don’t have enough men.”
“Already done. It should work with the guards we have, although as you know we’re always looking for more recruits.”
Arthur clapped Leon on the back. “In that case, implement the changes immediately.”
Leon grinned. “Yes, sire.” His attention caught on something behind Arthur. “I believe our guests are here.”
Arthur turned to look out over the city. A small retinue was emerging from the forest, distant still, but they would arrive in the courtyard within the half hour.
“Well then,” Arthur said. “Let’s go greet them.”
Merlin was, for once, already in Arthur’s chambers when he arrived to don the attire he would wear to greet Glover and later to perform the knighting ceremony.
He was also unusually quiet.
“What’s got you in such a foul mood?” Arthur prodded him. “I know it can’t be Glover, seeing how much you were prattling on this morning.”
Merlin shrugged. “Maybe I’m preparing myself for having to sit around listening to the two of you pretend to respect each other.” He stepped back after fastening Arthur’s cloak. “Why do you want this man’s support, again?”
Arthur sighed. He had never particularly cared for Glover, but the man provided a not-insignificant portion of Camelot’s army and was easily offendable besides. The last thing Arthur needed was a rebellion, particularly when he hadn’t even been king for six months and was still considered relatively untested. He said as much to Merlin, who wrinkled his nose in distaste.
“I thought being king meant you’d be able to choose your allies. Hold them to a higher standard.”
“Lord Glover is not just an ally, he’s a subject. He sets an example for the other lords. It’s not just his support I’d be risking by offending him.”
“Hm,” Merlin said, and went to retrieve Arthur’s crown from its box. “Agravaine seems to be excited to see him.”
“He and Agravaine are old friends. It’s hardly surprising.”
“And that makes him trustworthy?”
Arthur frowned at him. “It certainly helps. And I didn’t realize we were talking about trust.”
Merlin looked at him for a moment, then shook his head. “Sorry. Never mind. I must still be a little paranoid after what happened with Gaius.”
Arthur sighed. It had been several weeks since that debacle, and they still didn’t know who the traitor was.
“It’s understandable,” Arthur said. “But Glover’s only going to be here a few days, and then we have two weeks before Lord Balder arrives. Plenty of time to find the traitor.”
Merlin scoffed lightly and rolled his eyes, which was what Arthur had been aiming for. In truth, he didn’t want to make another mistake such as the one he’d made with Gaius, and was sorry to admit he didn’t have any further ideas about the traitor’s identity. Whoever they were, they had been cautious so far. Unless they slipped up, there wasn’t much Arthur could do at this moment to uncover them.
So, for the next few days, he was going to focus on keeping Glover happy with his new policies and tax codes.
Merlin raised the crown in silent question. Arthur stepped forward, and Merlin lowered it gently onto his hair. Their eyes met for a fraction of a second, and Arthur thought he saw a flash of deep pride in Merlin’s as his hands fell away. And then Merlin was stepping back, glancing down and then back up.
“Just… be careful, Arthur. Either way, he’ll be testing you.”
“I know,” Arthur said as he slid his sword into its scabbard. “That’s the whole point.”
“Lord Glover,” Arthur greeted.
“Your Majesty.” Glover bowed before grasping Arthur’s outstretched arm. “How long has it been?”
“Must be three or four years now,” Arthur replied.
“Indeed. And you were still a prince then! Your father always seemed the type who’d live forever.”
“Yes, well, we are all but mortal men.” Arthur turned slightly, and Merlin appeared just behind him. “I am sure you and your men are tired after your journey. This is my personal manservant, Merlin. He will be glad to show you to your chambers.”
Glover smiled at Arthur, but he didn’t give Merlin even a cursory glance. Arthur had told Merlin he could find someone else for the job, but Merlin, to his surprise, had steadfastly refused. He’d said he understood why it was important the king’s personal manservant be seen serving the visiting lord, but Merlin had never cared much for politics. Arthur thought this must be about something else – Merlin’s paranoia again, maybe.
“Your hospitality is well appreciated, sire,” Glover said, inclining his head once more.
“We have a knighting ceremony in an hour. If you are well rested by then, I would be honored if you would join us for the occasion.”
“The honor is all mine. Always good to see the stock of men rising through the ranks, eh?” Glover smiled, but Arthur heard the hidden slight in his words at the commoners he had taken to knighting. It was more now than those who had sat with him at the round table; in fact, of the three men being knighted today, Geraint was also not of noble blood.
Arthur forced a smile. “They are good men all, loyal and true of heart.”
“I’m certain they are,” Glover agreed jovially, all trace of disapproval gone from his voice. Arthur was left feeling slightly wrong-footed. Had he imagined the insult in Glover’s words, based on his last impression of the man? It was possible. He had always felt he had something to prove to his father’s lords, had taken their every word with a grain of salt, but he was king now. That title meant a great deal to men like Glover. He would respect the authority that came with it.
“If you’ll follow me, my lord,” Merlin said, breaking the silence before it could become awkward, and turned to lead the way up the steps. Glover went to exchange a quick greeting with Agravaine before following, and Arthur didn’t miss the way Merlin’s jaw clenched as he watched them.
He sighed. He’d rather not be subjected to catching Merlin glaring holes into the back of Glover’s head for the duration of the visit. If Arthur could get him to set aside his overly eager suspicion, he’d have achieved a minor miracle.
“And then your father said, ‘Off with his head!’” Glover laughed, a wheezing, raspy sound that Arthur was growing quite tired of, after the ceremony and the council meeting and now partway through the feast. “Oh, it was such a splendid end to the whole mess.”
“I’m sure it was,” Arthur said mildly. In truth he was slightly perturbed by Glover’s story, or perhaps more by the glee with which he told it.
“That’s why we must rid ourselves of this evil scourge,” Glover continued. “Sorcery brings nothing but corruption and disease… and barking chickens!” He burst out laughing again, and Arthur gave him a facsimile of a smile. Agravaine was doing a better job laughing along with Glover than Arthur was, and Arthur felt slightly stuck between them.
He glanced at Merlin standing against the wall next to them, hoping for a distraction, but Merlin’s face was stony. His jaw twitched as the two lords laughed, and he started slightly when he realized Arthur was watching him. His expression cleared quickly, however, and he tilted his head at the doorway in question. Arthur sighed and shook his head slightly before bringing his mind back to the conversation.
“You know well, sire, that your father and I disagreed on many things. But sorcery… well, Uther had the right idea about that. Stamp them all out, that’s the only way to deal with it.”
“Mm,” Arthur acknowledged. Glover was a bit bloodthirsty for his taste, but saying anything to contradict him would only serve to prolong the conversation. Arthur decided to change the subject instead. “You must send your son to compete in our next tourney, Lord Glover. I have heard he’s become quite the jouster.”
Some time later, Glover finally set down his goblet, though Arthur noted that he hadn’t drunk all that much. “If you’ll excuse me, sire. It has been a long day and I am looking forward to retiring.”
“Of course.” Arthur stood to clasp hands with Glover, who inclined his head before taking his leave.
Arthur took a sip of wine. Overall, the day had gone better than he’d expected; Glover, despite his sometimes uncouth manner, had been surprisingly generous with his praise of how Arthur was running things. Perhaps that was because of Arthur’s recent change in status. Arthur wanted to be respected for his actions, not his position, but he hadn’t sensed anything disingenuous in Glover’s words. The lord hadn’t even complained about Merlin. Merlin, on the other hand… Arthur had caught him watching Glover with suspicion several times over the course of the day.
“My lord, I believe I will retire soon as well,” Agravaine said, interrupting Arthur’s thoughts. “Unless you’d like me to stay?”
“Of course, uncle,” Arthur replied. “I believe the feast is winding down in any case.”
Agravaine smiled. “It has been a productive first day of Lord Glover’s visit,” he said. “I believe you’ve shown yourself capable to him, as to all the others.”
“I wish it wasn’t necessary,” Arthur sighed. “If I didn’t need to waste time making sure none of my lords were planning any revolts, I could get on with governing.”
“Arthur, you must present yourself to be strong and unyielding. The lords will not respect you if you do not take the time to show Camelot’s power.”
“Of course,” Arthur said, but it had indeed been a long day, and he didn’t want to think about politics any longer. “Good night, uncle.”
Agravaine inclined his head, taking the dismissal for what it was, and stood. “Enjoy yourself a while longer, Arthur. You deserve it.”
Arthur said nothing as Agravaine left. He watched idly as Merlin’s head seemed to follow his uncle’s path out of the room, and then suddenly Merlin was at his side.
“I’ll go start the fire in your room, shall I?”
Arthur looked at him. “That’s strangely useful of you. Are you feeling all right?”
Merlin smirked. “You say that, but you’d be lost without me.” His eyes flickered back to the doorway.
Arthur snorted. “Right. Go on, then.”
Merlin was gone in moments. Arthur turned to beckon Leon over and saw that he was already coming towards him.
“Is the new shift schedule for the guards in place?”
Leon nodded. “It is, sire.”
“Good. Always good to be extra vigilant when we have visitors.”
Arthur stood. “Good night, Leon.”
“Actually, there’s something you should know.”
Arthur took in Leon’s serious expression and nodded. “Walk with me.” He waited until they had gotten well away from the feast and were partway back to his chambers before he gestured for Leon to speak.
“It’s about our carrier pigeons,” Leon began. “Rhys noticed that there seems to be an extra one.”
Arthur stopped in his tracks. “An extra one?”
Leon nodded, and Arthur released a measured breath as they continued slowly up a staircase. “Is he sure it’s not just a wild bird looking for some food and warmth?”
“He’s sure,” Leon said grimly. “It appears to be well-trained, but there hasn’t been a message received to account for its presence.”
“Do we have any idea where it came from? Or when?”
“No, but Rhys only just noticed it today.”
“Find out. If someone is sending messages to an unknown person here in Camelot, it could be our traitor.” It was troubling news, but it could also be useful. Arthur hadn’t thought the traitor would be so sloppy as to nest their own method of communication with an enemy of Arthur’s right under the nose of the royal falconer, but perhaps they’d hoped to be less conspicuous sending a message from the dovecote than from anywhere else in the castle. Not to mention the trouble of keeping a bird hidden in their chambers… No, this could be good indeed.
“And set someone – maybe a few of the knights, only those you trust – to watch the dovecote. If anyone comes at a strange hour, or while Rhys isn’t there, they’re to apprehend the sender and shoot down the bird.”
“Of course.” Leon hesitated. “This could be nothing, you know, perhaps Lord Glover simply brought his own birds.”
“Rhys would have told you if that was the case, wouldn’t he?” Arthur pointed out. “And besides, we have birds here that are trained to fly to Glover’s keep. There wouldn’t be a need—”
Arthur stopped at the sound of an angry shout and something crashing against the inside of a door. They had just turned the corner into the corridor that Arthur’s chambers were on. Whatever was going on, it was happening there.
Arthur ran forward, Leon on his heels, and wrenched the door open. He was just in time to see Glover and Agravaine go flying in different directions. Glover’s head hit the mantle and he fell in an unconscious heap to the floor; Agravaine hit the table, which went skidding backwards under his weight. Merlin stood with his back to Arthur, his arms outstretched.
Arthur didn’t have time to try and make sense of the situation before Agravaine was pushing himself up. The shock on his face quickly transformed into a strange combination of apprehension and relief. “Arthur!”
Merlin spun, dropping his hands. The terror on his face was palpable; Arthur didn’t think he had ever seen anyone turn that pale that quickly.
“Arthur—” Merlin began, his voice pleading, but he was cut off by his own gasp. Arthur flinched.
Agravaine stood behind Merlin, holding him up even as he shoved the knife deeper into his chest. Merlin gave a little “oh” of surprise. He coughed, once, twice, blood leaking from his mouth.
And then he fell.
Agravaine stepped away with a look of disgust, wiping his dagger on his cloak.
Arthur didn’t realize his knees had nearly gone out from under him until he felt Leon steadying him. He wanted to run to Merlin, to stop the bleeding, to save him, but the impossibility of what he had walked into rendered him immobile. He stared at Merlin, whose every breath was growing shorter, the words traitor and friend and sorcerer running circles through his head.
“Arthur,” Agravaine said earnestly, coming toward him. “I am sorry, Arthur, truly, I am, but it seems Merlin was the traitor. And a sorcerer to boot.”
Arthur was falling, the world a blur around him. Everything had flipped on its head, turned inside-out. He blinked to clear the fuzziness from his vision and realized with a start that Merlin’s chest was no longer rising and falling.
Merlin was dead.
Arthur stumbled backwards, shoving Leon away from him. “Arthur—” Agravaine began, but Arthur shook his head.
“Don’t,” he managed hoarsely. “Just… don’t.”
And then he did something he’d never done before. He turned and fled.
He found himself on the ramparts, leaning on the stone and trying to breathe through the nausea that had risen inside him.
It was Merlin.
It couldn’t be Merlin.
But it was.
Merlin was a sorcerer. Merlin had just tried to kill Glover and Agravaine. Merlin was in league with Morgana—
Merlin was dead.
That thought superseded all the others, and Arthur wanted to rage and scream and punch something. Merlin was dead, and Arthur would never know the whole truth. Merlin was dead, and Arthur would never trade insults with him again. Merlin was dead, and Arthur… Arthur was alone.
Arthur dug his fingers into the stone, willing himself not to scream in – in anger, in frustration, in grief – even he didn’t know which. But then, if Merlin was a sorcerer, if Merlin was the traitor… then Arthur had always been alone.
Arthur turned and slid down the wall. The image of Merlin’s face, pale and terrified, kept flashing before Arthur’s eyes. He had been about to plead – for what, Arthur didn’t know. Forgiveness? Mercy? It didn’t really matter. The sentence for treason was always the same.
Traitor. Merlin. Magic. Merlin. Traitor. Friend. Sorcerer. Merlin.
The words seemed to lose their meaning the more Arthur tried to make sense of them, bleeding in and through each other like ink dissolving in water. The only fact he knew to be true – absolutely, permanently, irrevocably true – was that Merlin was dead.
He couldn’t be.
Arthur watched it over and over again in his mind’s eye; Merlin’s small gasp of pain and surprise, the blood dripping down his chin, his collapse, his chest rising and falling in shorter and shorter intervals before stopping altogether.
Merlin was gone.
Arthur’s head spun at the suddenness of it. It had been less than half an hour earlier that Merlin had walked away from him at the feast, that Arthur had teased Merlin about being useful.
And now, Merlin was gone.
And a traitor.
The question hit him with all the force of a stampeding horde, and Arthur gasped. His head was starting to throb with the senselessness of it all.
Why would Merlin betray him? Had they not been friends? Had Arthur wronged him in some way? Merlin had proven his loyalty again and again, year after year. Had it all been a lie?
Sorcerers are treacherous, his father’s voice reminded him. They’ll stoop to any level of trickery to destroy what we have built.
Arthur couldn’t believe it. For someone to go through all that – to become his servant, to befriend him, to save him time and again only to… what? Kill him when the time was right?
Or perhaps Merlin had never meant to kill him, Arthur thought somewhat hysterically. Perhaps he had enchanted Arthur to do his bidding, as a puppet king.
But Merlin was dead now. Arthur certainly didn’t feel as if he’d been freed from any enchantment, which surely would have broken with Merlin’s death.
He pushed the thought away. Nothing made any sense. He felt as if he had drifted outside of himself, somehow, and that maybe when he came back nothing would have happened. He’d still have Merlin. As a friend, not as a sorcerer and not as a traitor, but just… Merlin.
He had to go back. He had to deal with this, as a king should. He had to…
He had to tell Gaius.
He had to tell Gaius that Merlin was dead.
How could he tell Gaius that Merlin was dead? The task felt surreal, impossible. And yet, it was his responsibility. Whatever Merlin may have done, Gaius deserved to hear it from Arthur.
But not yet. Arthur wasn’t ready to face anyone else just yet, let alone Gaius. He hoped Leon and Agravaine would have the sense to keep this quiet until Arthur could figure out what to do.
Not very kingly of him, to be sure. Cowardly, even, to hide up here when such a treason had taken place and nearly killed two of his lords.
Arthur couldn’t bring himself to care.
Merlin was dead. Merlin had betrayed him. Arthur didn’t understand, didn’t know if he would ever understand, so instead of trying he closed his eyes and did his best to think of nothing at all.
“Rise and shine!”
Arthur groaned and hid his face in the pillow as the curtains were flung open. Why was it always so damn bright?
“Come on, up you get, lazy daisy! Busy day today!”
“Merlin,” Arthur grumbled. Memories of the previous day came flooding back to him. He sat bolt upright. “Merlin!”
Merlin raised an eyebrow at him. “Congratulations, Arthur, you’ve remembered my name for another day in a row. Don’t strain yourself.”
“But you – you…” Arthur trailed off, uncertain. Had it all been a dream?
“Are you going to get out of bed, or do I need to drag you out?” Merlin asked as he opened the window. “You’ve got the scheduled review of the castle’s defenses with Leon, and then Lord Glover is arriving, and then there’s the knighting ceremony. Then the council meeting, and I’m sure Glover will be certain to make his opinion heard, and of course, the feast in the evening, and we all know how much you love those, don’t we?” He was picking clothes out of the wardrobe now, and Arthur couldn’t stop staring at him, trying to decide if he was going insane. “Might need to get some new feasting attire soon, this is all a bit—”
“Merlin,” Arthur interrupted. “What are you talking about? Glover arrived yesterday.”
Merlin frowned at him. “No,” he said slowly. “I’d have noticed. He’s arriving today.”
A laugh bubbled up out of Arthur’s chest; he couldn’t help it. When Merlin gave him a questioning look he only laughed harder.
It had been a dream. It had all been a horrendous, sickening nightmare. A vivid one, to be sure, but a nightmare nonetheless. Merlin wasn’t a sorcerer. Merlin wasn’t a traitor. Merlin was – and Arthur’s chest wanted to burst with relief – alive.
“I didn’t realize you were so eager to see him,” Merlin said, bemused.
“It’s not him I’m glad to see,” Arthur replied as he jumped out of bed. He grinned at Merlin’s puzzled expression, and moved behind the changing screen. He pulled on the tunic and trousers that Merlin threw over the top and pushed the dream out of his mind.
“Well, in any case, I’m not looking forward to this. Why does he have to come here, anyway? It’s clear he doesn’t like you. Although I don’t know why anyone would—”
“The lords must see that I am fit to be king,” Arthur said. “Glover hasn’t seen me since my father died. We must show the lords who contribute to our armies that they are serving a worthy man.” He knew Merlin had heard him say versions of those same words often enough, even though he always failed to listen. “We’ve had lords visiting every few weeks for months,” Arthur went on, “and yet I think you’ve complained about Glover ten times more than about anyone else. Why do you hate him so much?”
Merlin mumbled something under his breath.
“What was that?”
“I said, I don’t appreciate being treated like a walking saddlebag. And, he’s always—” Merlin cut himself off.
A strange sense of déjà vu settled over Arthur. He knew he’d dreamed of waking up the morning of Glover’s arrival, but he didn’t remember every word dream-Merlin had said to him. And yet…
“Something to do with my father?” The words were out of his mouth before he could stop them.
Merlin’s head snapped up. “How did you – I mean—”
Arthur shook his head. “Nothing. Lucky guess.”
As Leon reported on the state of the castle’s defenses, Arthur’s unease grew. He felt that he knew what Leon was going to say before he said it, as if he’d heard it all before.
But that was impossible.
So he nodded in the right places, asked the same questions and gave the same orders he would have if he were hearing the report for the first time. He kept waiting for something to be different to what he expected, to surprise him, but it never did.
“I believe it might help to shorten the guards’ shifts by two hours,” Leon said as they came to a stop on the northern wall. “Especially overnight. If the men are too tired, they are more likely to let something or someone slip by unnoticed.”
Arthur nodded. “You’ve worked out the schedule already?”
Leon looked pleasantly surprised. “I have. It should work with the guards we have, although as you know we’re always looking for more recruits.”
“Implement it immediately, then.”
“Yes, sire.” When Leon’s attention caught on something distant, Arthur already knew what it was. “I believe our guests are here.”
Arthur turned to watch the retinue as it emerged from the forest. “Time to go and greet them, then.”
Merlin was, once more, unusually quiet as he handed Arthur his ceremonial garments.
Arthur watched him, wishing he knew what was going on in Merlin’s head. He wished he understood what was going on in his own head. The day had been uncannily familiar so far, and there was still a long way to go before evening. Even the rearing horse he’d seen on the way back to his chambers just now was the same as he remembered from his dream.
All of which meant… Arthur didn’t know what it meant. Did it mean that Merlin really was a sorcerer? A traitor? That he’d end up dead in several hours’ time in this very room?
Arthur’s eyes flickered to the spot Merlin had fallen. He could see the blood seeping into the stones. He could see himself standing in the doorway, frozen in shock and fear and despair.
No. It had to have been a dream. Nothing else made sense.
He forced his eyes away as Merlin fastened the cloak around his neck. Something was troubling Merlin, that much was certain, but Arthur couldn’t sense any ill will. Then again, he hadn’t noticed when Morgana began working against them, and he’d known her much longer than he’d known Merlin.
“Merlin,” Arthur said brusquely, “what’s the real reason you’ve been complaining so much about Glover’s arrival?”
The stiffening in Merlin’s shoulders was there and gone in an instant, and Arthur was sure he’d have missed it if he hadn’t been watching for something like it.
Merlin shrugged. “Like I’ve said before, he’s an ass.”
“What? I know you don’t enjoy sitting there pretending you respect him, either. Why do you want his support, again?”
Arthur hesitated. Merlin hadn’t really answered his question, had in fact rather deftly deflected away from it. But he had asked about Glover’s support before, and now maybe Arthur had a chance to figure out what was happening. He answered slowly, trying to remember what Merlin’s next words had been.
“I thought being king meant you’d be able to choose your allies,” Merlin said, wrinkling his nose in distaste. “Hold them to a higher standard.”
The same answer. Word for word, Arthur was sure. How could he have dreamed that up?
“I need the support of my lords, Merlin. And besides,” Arthur added, watching Merlin carefully, “Agravaine’s been looking forward to seeing him. They’re old friends.”
Merlin didn’t answer right away, fiddling with the clasp on the box that held Arthur’s crown. “That makes him trustworthy?” he asked finally. This time, Arthur had the strange impression that he wasn’t talking about Lord Glover.
Merlin looked up and met his eyes, searching for… something. Clearly, he didn’t find what he was looking for, because after a moment he looked away and said, “You should get to the courtyard, sire. They’ll be waiting for you.”
Arthur bit back a groan of frustration. Merlin had never liked Agravaine. Agravaine had always been indifferent to Merlin, as far as Arthur could tell. If Merlin was the traitor – and if he did have magic, it would make sense – was this his way of trying to sow distrust between Arthur and Agravaine?
No. Arthur could understand how the morning could feel familiar to a dream; none of it had been particularly unexpected or unusual. And it had only been a couple hours; there was still plenty of daylight remaining. But the part where Merlin attacked Glover and Agravaine, outed himself as a sorcerer and a traitor, and was killed… it was a ridiculous concept. He didn’t know why all the conversations he’d had had been exactly as he remembered them, but the idea of Merlin betraying him made even less sense than that.
Merlin held up the crown, interrupting his thoughts. Arthur stepped forward, and Merlin lowered the crown onto his head with the same deep pride in his eyes as Arthur remembered. No, Merlin couldn’t be a traitor. Not with that expression on his face.
“Just… be careful, Arthur,” Merlin said quietly. “He’ll be testing you.”
“I know,” Arthur said, sliding his sword into its scabbard. “That’s the whole point.”
Arthur’s resolution began to crumble again as the day wore on. Glover greeted him the same way as before. At the council meeting, the same two counselors got into the same exact argument with Glover that Arthur remembered. By the time they were sitting down to the feast, a strange sort of anxiety was galloping around Arthur’s chest, as if the end of the day was a looming threat beyond which lay the destruction of everything Arthur held dear.
When Glover took his leave, Arthur took a large swallow of wine, trying to calm his nerves. It couldn’t happen. Merlin wasn’t a traitor. He wasn’t about to attack Arthur’s uncle and one of his lords. He wasn’t about to die.
Agravaine leaned over to him. “My lord, I believe I will retire soon as well. Unless you’d like me to stay?”
Arthur’s grip tightened around the goblet. “Of course, uncle. The feast is winding down in any case.” He didn’t know what else to say, how to stop them all from barreling into what he didn’t want to believe was coming.
Agravaine smiled. “It has been a productive first day of Lord Glover’s visit,” he said. “I believe you’ve shown yourself capable to him, as to all the others.”
Arthur nodded and didn’t reply. Agravaine hesitated, as if he wanted to say something more, but Arthur didn’t look at him. He could feel Merlin hovering somewhere off to the side, a constant presence.
“Enjoy yourself a while longer, Arthur. You deserve it.”
Arthur watched as Agravaine left, as Merlin tracked his movements.
“I’ll go start the fire in your room, shall I?”
Arthur looked up at him. He opened his mouth, but no sound came out.
Merlin smirked. “Had enough to drink, then? Maybe I’d better – ah, Leon!” Merlin waved. “Make sure he doesn’t go wandering off in the wrong direction, will you?”
Leon snorted as he neared. “I’ll do my best.”
“No,” Arthur forced out. “No, I’m not drunk, Merlin.”
“You’ll be fine, then,” Merlin said, and was gone before Arthur could stop him. Dread curled in Arthur’s stomach.
“Sire?” Leon asked.
“I’m fine, Leon. I did… er.” He knew it had been him, and not Merlin, who’d called Leon over before. He couldn’t remember for what purpose now; the strangeness of the day had driven anything more mundane from his mind. “You had something to tell me, I believe,” Arthur said instead.
Leon looked surprised. “I did. It’s important, but it can wait until morning if it needs to—”
“Come with me.” Arthur led the way out of the hall. He waited until they had left the noise behind them before gesturing for Leon to speak.
“It’s about our carrier pigeons,” Leon began. “Rhys noticed that there seems to be an extra one.”
Arthur’s stomach sank. Whatever last threads of hope he may have had that this wouldn’t continue to play out as it had in his dream were gone now.
As Leon described the situation with the carrier pigeon, Arthur turned most of his focus on listening ahead, straining his ears for any sign of a struggle. He asked questions and gave orders without really hearing the replies; how could he care about an extra carrier pigeon when he had a pretty good idea of what he was about to walk into? He quickened his pace, forcing Leon to speed up as well.
“We have birds here that are trained to fly to Glover’s keep,” Arthur said distractedly. “There wouldn’t—”
And there it was. The angry shout, the rattling of the door – Arthur ran forward and wrenched it open just in time to see Glover crumple to the ground, to see Agravaine hit the table.
It was happening again. It was really happening again.
Merlin really had betrayed him.
Merlin whirled, and Arthur met his terrified eyes, trying to think, to act, to say something, anything. But he was frozen once more.
“Arthur—” Merlin began in that pleading tone. He was again cut off by his own gasp. Arthur watched as Agravaine pushed the knife in, heard Merlin’s surprised “oh,” saw the blood drip from his mouth. He couldn’t hold Merlin’s gaze, was looking past him when he fell.
“Arthur,” Agravaine began earnestly. Arthur realized Leon had put a hand under his elbow; slowly, he pushed Leon away and steadied himself.
“I am sorry, Arthur, truly, I am,” Agravaine continued, “but it seems Merlin was the traitor. And a sorcerer to boot.”
Arthur closed his eyes. He still didn’t understand. And Merlin was dead once again, for real this time.
He felt Leon leave his side, and opened his eyes to see him kneeling by Lord Glover, who was still out cold. Agravaine was watching Arthur expectantly, but Arthur’s eyes were drawn to Merlin’s still body.
“What happened?” he asked hoarsely.
Some of the tension in Agravaine’s shoulders loosened.
“I had come to discuss some urgent business with you,” Agravaine began. Arthur looked up at him. “Concerning the traitor,” he added seriously.
Arthur rubbed his eyes. “You’d discovered him?”
Agravaine glanced at Glover. Leon had failed to rouse him. At Agravaine’s questioning look, he rose and said, “He’s out cold, my lord. It appears to be a superficial wound, but perhaps Gaius could take a look to be sure…” Leon trailed off. They all looked at Merlin.
“Arthur,” Agravaine said, “Lord Glover was involved in the treachery.”
Arthur stared at him. So it seemed Glover’s newfound respect for him was even less genuine than it had appeared.
“He’s not badly injured, in your opinion?” Arthur asked Leon. “It can wait a few minutes?” Leon was no physician, but they had all seen their fair share of head wounds. They could tell when one was dangerous.
“It can wait,” Leon said quietly.
Arthur stepped into the room and closed the door behind him. “Cover – cover him,” he said, gesturing to Merlin. Leon quickly found a thin old blanket in Arthur’s wardrobe and hid Merlin’s body from view. Arthur stared at it for a long moment before he nodded at Agravaine to continue.
“I called upon Lord Glover this afternoon just as Merlin was leaving after having shown him to his chambers. He was an old friend of mine, as you know.” Agravaine hesitated.
“Go on,” Arthur prompted, wondering how much worse this was all about to become.
“While I was there,” Agravaine continued slowly, “I noticed a letter on the table, written in Glover’s own hand to someone here in the castle, though it wasn’t immediately clear who. I took the letter while Glover was distracted, because it seemed strange to me that he would be writing to someone in the castle without the council’s knowledge.”
That was strange indeed. Any official correspondence with lords, sent usually by carrier pigeons instead of with envoys on the road because it was faster and had a better guarantee of privacy, was typically shared among the council.
“I read the letter once I had taken my leave,” Agravaine continued. “It mentioned no names, and the positions of those involved were vague, but it clearly outlined a plan for the traitor and for Lord Glover to work together to assassinate you.” Agravaine paused, his eyes flickering around Arthur’s face. “I believe Merlin had received this letter from Lord Glover, and left it with him when he arrived so that it could not be found on Merlin’s own person. Perhaps Lord Glover meant to destroy it after they confirmed their plans, I do not know.”
“That would explain the extra carrier pigeon,” Leon said, looking at Arthur.
“Rhys noticed an extra pigeon this afternoon in the dovecote,” Leon told Agravaine. “We didn’t know what message it had delivered or where it had come from. Our falconer keeps good records, as you know. It was very strange for there to be an extra bird without explanation.”
“Ah.” Agravaine pulled at the neckline of his cloak, loosening it slightly.
“You have the letter?” Arthur asked. Agravaine took it from where it was lying on the table and handed it to him.
Any information on the people involved was vague indeed, with phrases such as “your position in the castle,” or “your access,” which could refer to any of the counselors. Or Merlin. But the plans to kill Arthur were quite the opposite – the letter very clearly detailed a plan in which the writer – Glover – and the traitor would come to Arthur at a private moment, ideally in his chambers. Together, they believed they could kill him.
Arthur rubbed a hand over his face. Just because Merlin had been with Glover just before Agravaine discovered the letter didn’t mean it was he who had left it there. Except Agravaine had said he’d passed Merlin leaving. There wouldn’t have been time for anyone else.
“Why didn’t you show me this immediately?” Arthur asked.
“I – my lord, I know Merlin has long been a trusted servant of yours. I didn’t wish to cause any undue hurt if I was wrong.” Agravaine hesitated. “I do, of course, greatly regret what happened with Gaius several weeks ago. I was too quick to judge, then. I did not wish to make the same mistake again.” He glanced at the letter in Arthur’s hand. “After all, it is possible that Glover had only just written the letter, and meant to pass it on to the traitor here. I wanted to get true proof of my suspicions before coming to you.”
There were things that didn’t make sense to Arthur about what Agravaine was saying, but he was too exhausted to try and unravel them just now. There was a dull ache in his chest, throbbing like the tide, alternating waves of denial and heartbreak.
“What happened here, then?”
Agravaine brought his hands together. “Ah. Well, you see, after Lord Glover left the feast, I caught up to him. I told him there was some private, official business I wished to discuss with both you and him, and suggested we wait for you in your chambers. In reality I knew you and Merlin would most likely come back together, and I didn’t know precisely when Merlin and Lord Glover meant to implement their plan. I thought it best to confront them sooner rather than later, and with you there, so you could see their treachery first-hand.”
“But then Merlin came back before I did,” Arthur said.
“Indeed,” Agravaine agreed. “He grew angry when he saw that I was here with Lord Glover. I think he knew I suspected him. Glover realized that as well. He got cold feet, told Merlin he didn’t want anything more to do with this. I told them I had found the letter and that I was sure you would show Lord Glover mercy if he confirmed that it was indeed Merlin he had been writing to. Lord Glover agreed.” Agravaine cast a look of disgust down at the unconscious lord. “I do not expect you to truly give him any mercy, Arthur, for his own role in this treason, but it is thanks to him that we have finally revealed the traitor in our midst.”
Arthur stared down at Glover. Was this why the lord had been acting so kindly towards him that day? Because he soon planned for Arthur to be dead anyway? How many other lords were planning insurrections against him? How many other lords believed him unfit to be king?
“All right,” Arthur said finally. He’d interrogate Glover when the man awoke. “So then what?”
“Merlin attacked us, my lord,” Agravaine said. “I did not know he was a sorcerer, but if he is working with Morgana you must admit, it does make some sense. You know the rest.”
Arthur leaned his head back against the door. His thoughts felt shaky, like their foundations had turned to mud. “Why would a sorcerer work with someone who hated magic?”
“I will not pretend to understand the minds of sorcerers,” Agravaine said disdainfully. “Perhaps it was merely convenient.”
“Perhaps.” He didn’t think that was it. If Merlin was a sorcerer, he could have killed Arthur at any time.
Slowly, Arthur let his gaze slide over to Leon. “What do you think?”
Leon glanced up at him, then at Agravaine, before meeting Arthur’s eyes. “I did not believe Merlin to ever be capable of betraying you, sire. It seems he had us all fooled.”
There was a heavy sense of resignation settling in Arthur’s bones. He didn’t know why Merlin had taken to studying magic, he didn’t know why he had pretended to be Arthur’s friend, and he didn’t understand how he could have missed all of it. But he had, and this was the result.
The sense that he had lived this day twice felt unimportant in light of all of that.
“I need to…” Arthur cleared his throat. “I need to tell Gaius.”
The blanket Leon had covered Merlin with was stained with blood. Flashes of Merlin’s grin flitted through Arthur’s mind, of Merlin’s teasing, Merlin’s laughter, of Merlin charging headfirst into danger at Arthur’s side. It had all been a lie.
He was reminded painfully of Morgana.
“I can stay and keep watch on Lord Glover,” Agravaine offered. “Make sure the snake doesn’t wake up and run off.”
“I’ll take care of – of the body,” Leon said quietly.
Arthur nodded numbly. Leon bent to pick up Merlin, and as Arthur turned away he thought he saw the flash of a smile that was almost… triumphant cross Agravaine’s face.
“Rise and shine!”
Arthur jerked upright, staring. Merlin was flinging the curtains open.
“Are you just going to sit there all day? Busy day today, isn’t it?”
“Merlin,” Arthur began weakly.
“What? Did you forget? You’ve got the scheduled review of the castle’s defenses with Leon, and then Lord Glover is arriving, and then there’s the knighting ceremony. Then the council meeting, and I’m sure Glover will be certain to make his opinion heard, and of course, the feast in the evening—”
“Merlin,” Arthur said. “Shut up.”
Merlin rolled his eyes. Arthur climbed out of bed and cautiously approached Merlin, who regarded him warily.
“Are you feeling all right?”
“Is this a curse?” Arthur asked. “Have you put some sort of curse on me?”
Merlin stared. “No,” he said slowly. “How would I even do that? Are you sure you’re feeling all right?”
Arthur honestly didn’t know. He’d woken up to the same day for the third time in a row. Perhaps Merlin really had trapped him here with some curse, to drive him insane; he had already lived through the day twice and didn’t know how much more of it he could take. Perhaps, Arthur thought wildly, perhaps it wasn’t even the true Merlin he was seeing die at all, but some construct of him, and the real Merlin was watching from somewhere, laughing at him. Arthur let out a nervous laugh at the thought.
Merlin looked slightly disturbed. “All right, stay there. I’m going to go fetch Gaius.”
“No – no, Merlin, don’t. There’s no need.” Merlin stopped and turned back to him. “Not like you care anyway,” Arthur muttered under his breath. If he had been placed under some sort of curse, well, at least he already knew that Merlin would soon show himself to be a traitor. There was no reason to keep up any sort of charade of friendship.
“What was that?”
“Nothing,” Arthur grumbled. He moved towards the changing screen. “Well? Get my clothes!” he snapped when Merlin didn’t move.
He had to figure out the best way to confront Merlin. If he was a sorcerer, and planning on killing Arthur besides – and Arthur still couldn’t quite reconcile that with the man in front of him, even having had Agravaine lay out the evidence – then it might be a good idea to have backup. Perhaps he’d wait until Agravaine discovered the letter, then ask for his help.
Though Merlin tried to engage him in conversation, Arthur didn’t speak another word to him, and Merlin soon took the hint and went about his chores silently. Arthur watched him discreetly as he ate breakfast. Merlin kept throwing him sullen looks, tinged with something Arthur might have called concern, once, before he’d known the truth.
It wasn’t until he was on the battlements, not taking in a word Leon said to him, that it occurred to Arthur to wonder how he was going to break the cycle he found himself in. If it was indeed Merlin who had trapped him inside this day, then confronting him probably wouldn’t work; after all, his death certainly didn’t do anything. The thought he’d had earlier, that that wasn’t the true Merlin, seemed strange now. Everything and everyone else seemed perfectly real. Perhaps Merlin had even created the cycle as some sort of failsafe to save himself. Did that mean Merlin remembered as well, and was merely playing along?
But then, why had he not avoided the exact same fate the second time around? Perhaps it wasn’t him. Perhaps Morgana was involved somehow and didn’t want to lose her spy inside Camelot.
Arthur didn’t know. He tried to remember how the previous days had ended. The first time, he’d been up on the battlements, trying to clear his head. It was possible he’d fallen asleep, but he was fairly certain he’d been alone. The second time… the last thing he remembered was leaving his chambers and beginning the walk to Gaius’. He certainly hadn’t been asleep then, and no one had been nearby save Leon and Agravaine. What had triggered the reset?
Another question to which Arthur didn’t know the answer. He didn’t even know how to go about answering it. There was something he could do, however, and that was to confront Merlin. Then perhaps he could finally understand why Merlin had gone to such lengths to deceive him, and why he had pretended for so long to be Arthur’s friend.
“My lord! Are you not meant to be preparing for the knighting ceremony?”
“I wished to speak with you. It’s an urgent business.” Arthur pulled Agravaine out of the hall and into a little-used council room. After making sure it was empty, he crossed his arms and turned to his uncle. “I understand you have uncovered some concerning correspondence regarding the traitor in our midst.”
Agravaine paled. “Correspondence? I – Arthur, I’m afraid I don’t know what you mean—”
“Uncle, there is no need for you to try and spare my feelings, I already know who the traitor is. I only wish you would have come to me directly instead of attempting your own investigation.”
“My own—” Agravaine exhaled before spreading his hands and asking, “What have you discovered?”
Arthur wondered at the diversion, at why Agravaine hadn’t simply shared his own findings. Perhaps he understood more of Arthur and Merlin’s friendship than Arthur realized.
“Merlin has been plotting with Lord Glover to assassinate me,” Arthur said bluntly. A flicker of surprise crossed Agravaine’s face. Arthur frowned. “I believe you discovered the letter that proves it just now, did you not?”
“I – I did, yes. Yes, of course, you’re right.”
“Good. I’ll need the letter as proof when we confront Merlin, and then Lord Glover.”
Agravaine stared at Arthur’s outstretched hand for a moment, then began slowly, “Sire, I have only just found this letter, as you said. How is it you know the contents already?”
Arthur paused. He couldn’t very well tell Agravaine he was stuck reliving the same day. “A king must have his spies, must he not?” he said instead. It wasn’t true, but he knew Agravaine would approve. Arthur preferred to maintain his relationships with trust and openness, not lies and deceit. Perhaps that was naïve of him, but then he could see where all of Merlin’s spying had got him.
“He must,” Agravaine agreed, more neutrally than Arthur had expected.
“So, the letter?”
“Ah,” Agravaine swallowed. “I am sorry, but I appear to have misplaced it.”
“Misplaced it?” That was impossible. “Check again.”
Agravaine went through his pockets, but found no letter. Arthur stared at him.
“I am sorry, Arthur, I don’t know what could have happened to it. I knew of its importance the moment I saw it—”
“But you only just… never mind. Find it,” Arthur bit out, and turned away. “We have no proof without it.” He swept out of the room, leaving a contrite-looking Agravaine behind him.
Arthur didn’t want to confront Merlin without the letter, without some way to ensure Merlin couldn’t wriggle out of the accusation. He didn’t bother with Glover; he could imagine well enough the reasons one of his senior lords might want to betray him. And he already knew the man would do no damage between now and the end of the day.
Arthur resigned himself to waiting until after the feast once more. Perhaps, if he could get back to his room more quickly this time, he could stop the confrontation. Meanwhile, in an effort to avoid him, he ordered the chamberlain to saddle Merlin with tasks in preparation for the feast.
During the council meeting, Arthur’s thoughts kept drifting to Agravaine. Had he lied about losing the letter? Why had he seemed so stiff when discussing Merlin and Glover’s treachery? Even now, he seemed to fidget slightly under Arthur’s scrutiny, and wouldn’t meet his eyes.
Perhaps there was even more going on here than Arthur knew.
Arthur didn’t make much conversation at the feast. Glover was once again boisterously loud, full of false comradery, and keeping himself from challenging the man then and there was an exercise in restraint. Arthur needed that letter. He could only hope Agravaine had found it by now.
Merlin hovered at Arthur’s shoulder. Arthur’s frigidity towards him, which had at first made him sullen, now seemed to make him anxious.
“Arthur,” he whispered when he went to refill Arthur’s goblet. “What’s going on? If you’ll let me—”
“You know perfectly well what’s going on,” Arthur snapped.
They stared at one another. Merlin’s gaze was searching, Arthur’s hard. But after a moment Merlin only shook his head.
“I don’t, actually. It looks to me like you’re acting like a prat for no reason, which, granted, isn’t that unusual, but this is just a whole new—”
“Merlin,” Arthur ground out, looking away. “Shut up.”
Merlin muttered something under his breath but backed away. He didn’t try to say anything more to Arthur for the rest of the feast.
Eventually, Glover turned to Arthur to bid him good night. Merlin watched him go before turning to look at Agravaine. Arthur caught his eye instead, and, unexpectedly, Merlin held his gaze. His eyes flickered to Agravaine, but when Arthur turned to look at his uncle, he found him engaged in conversation with one of Glover’s counselors.
Arthur didn’t know what to make of it, except to come back to his previous thought that Agravaine wasn’t giving him the entire truth. But what was the entire truth? And how was he meant to find out, if no one would talk to him?
It was longer than Arthur remembered before Agravaine took his leave.
“My lord, I believe I will retire soon as well.” He didn’t offer to stay this time.
“Of course, uncle,” Arthur replied. “I believe the feast is winding down in any case.”
Agravaine smiled. “I will order some of our own guards to keep watch on Lord Glover,” he said quietly. “I can do the same for Merlin, if you wish.”
“That won’t be necessary, uncle, thank you.” He didn’t need guards coming in and completely changing how the evening went; right now, Arthur knew where he would find Glover and Merlin – and Agravaine, for that matter – and he needed them all in one place. He’d bring Leon along as he had been, for a little extra backup.
“Very well then. Enjoy yourself a while longer, Arthur. You deserve it.”
Yet again, Merlin watched as Agravaine left before he darted over to Arthur.
“I’ll go start—”
“Yes, yes, go,” Arthur waved him off. Merlin narrowed his eyes at him. He opened his mouth to say something, but then, with an anxious glance at the doorway Agravaine had disappeared through, he merely nodded and left.
Arthur stood as Leon came towards him. “Walk with me,” he said.
“Sire,” Leon began as they left the hall. “There’s something you should know.”
“No need to tell me, Leon, I am aware.”
Leon glanced at him. “You – you already know?”
“If you mean the news about the extra carrier pigeon that turned up out of nowhere, then yes, I know.”
“Oh,” Leon frowned. “Rhys only just informed me.”
“Leon,” Arthur said urgently, “The traitor is Merlin. He’s been conspiring with Lord Glover. They’ll be in my chambers – we need to get there before Agravaine kills him, because I want some answers.”
Arthur walked several more steps before realizing that Leon was no longer with him. When Arthur glanced back at him his mouth was hanging slightly open.
“Are you sure – I mean, Arthur, it’s Merlin. He’d never betray you.”
Arthur looked away. “That’s what I once thought as well.”
“Wait – kills him? Why would Agravaine—”
“I can’t explain right now, but if we make it past this night I will tell you all I know.”
“If we make it past this night?” Leon took a step toward him. “Arthur, what’s going on?”
Arthur looked seriously at Leon. “There isn’t time. We’re about to walk into a volatile situation. I’d like your help containing it.”
Leon still looked dubious, but nodded, and Arthur was grateful for his trust. “Of course.”
“Good.” They hurried together up the last few sets of stairs and around the corner.
“Then you leave me no choice,” came Agravaine’s voice. Arthur reached the door and pulled it open in time to see Agravaine lunging at Merlin with a knife and Merlin leaping backwards with an angry yelp, crashing into the other side of the double doors. Agravaine went for the kill, and Merlin instinctively threw out his hands, sending Agravaine and Glover flying backwards.
Merlin turned. He met Arthur’s eyes, his own full of – and perhaps Arthur could see it more clearly now that he knew what to expect – terror and regret and dread. Arthur moved forward as Merlin said his name, meaning to demand an explanation, to ask why, but before he could stop him Agravaine had driven the knife between Merlin’s ribs.
Arthur swallowed painfully, and this time he didn’t break eye contact with Merlin until the man fell. There was sorrow in Merlin’s eyes, and regret. And something else, almost like… almost like worry.
Arthur’s head spun. Slowly, he forced himself to lift his gaze to Agravaine.
“We could have questioned him.” Arthur was surprised when his voice didn’t shake. He did his best to avoid looking down at where Merlin lay dying.
“I am sorry, Arthur,” Agravaine said. His voice was earnest, but Arthur wondered at the slight pull of his lips – he hadn’t noticed that before. “Truly, I am. He meant to kill you. I was only trying to protect you.”
Arthur could see Merlin’s blood staining the stones from the corner of his eye. It would be fine, he told himself. He was going to get another chance to find some answers.
Wouldn’t he? A sudden terror swept through Arthur at the thought that he wouldn’t get another chance, that this was it, that tomorrow really would be tomorrow. He didn’t know how this curse – for that must be what it was – he was trapped in worked. The Old Religion liked things that came in threes, didn’t it? It was possible this was it.
No. He pushed that thought away. Nothing had significantly changed between this day and the last. Whoever had done this to him, they must want him to do something. He would have another chance.
“Do you have the letter?” Arthur asked.
Agravaine’s eyes widened. “Yes. Yes!” He turned and snatched the parchment from the table and handed it to Arthur. “It appears Merlin had stolen it from me, sire, perhaps he knew we suspected him—”
“I need to speak to Gaius,” Arthur said, and hurried from the room.
He’d been dreading this for some time now, trying to figure out what he was going to say, how he would explain, what he would ask. He tried to comfort himself in the thought that this would be temporary, that soon enough the day would start again, and Gaius would be none the wiser.
It still didn’t change the fact that Merlin was a traitor.
Or at least keeping secrets from him. Regret might be a common emotion to see on a dying man’s face, but sorrow? Concern? Not for himself, but for Arthur. And the pleading tone in which he’d said Arthur’s name, asking not for mercy or forgiveness, as he’d first thought, but understanding. He thought of Agravaine’s shock and anxiety when Arthur had spoken of the letter, about his strange loss of it, of the flash of a triumphant smile as Arthur left the night before. Of the fact that he had lied, clearly and irrevocably, in claiming that Merlin had attacked first, rather than the other way around.
The idea that his uncle…
Well. It was no more preposterous than the idea that Merlin could betray him. Perhaps even less so.
Merlin is a sorcerer, Arthur reminded himself forcefully. He’d have every reason to despise Arthur.
Why Merlin had taken to studying magic, however, Arthur could not fathom. He had always been strangely quiet on the topic. Arthur had always assumed he was afraid of it. Unless he had been a sorcerer all along, and what Arthur had taken for a fear of magic had really been a fear of being found out?
Arthur hesitated outside the door. He wasn’t sure how much time he had, assuming the day did reset itself again. Still, this was not going to be easy.
He took a deep breath, raised a hand, and knocked.
Arthur pushed open the door to find Gaius putting away bundles of herbs. “Ah, sire,” he greeted, looking up. His smile disappeared at the expression on Arthur’s face. “What’s happened?”
Arthur shut the door. “Let’s sit.” He crossed to the table and did so. Gaius stared at him for a moment before looking at the door. Arthur shut his eyes and forced himself to take another deep breath. He opened them again when he heard the bench scraping along the floor and looked up to see Gaius watching him warily from across the table.
“Merlin…” Arthur began, “did you know he was a sorcerer?”
Gaius stiffened, and Arthur nodded to himself.
“What do you mean to do with him?” Gaius asked. There was a dangerous undertone to his voice that Arthur had never heard before.
Arthur searched his face. Gaius’ expression was beseeching, but also fiercely protective, defensive. Arthur understood then that Gaius would throw all of Camelot away for Merlin, if he had to.
“It doesn’t matter now,” Arthur said quietly. He forced himself to hold Gaius’ gaze, to look him in the eye when he told him. “He’s dead.”
For a moment they were frozen, suspended as the words rang in the air around them. Then Gaius squeezed his eyes shut and took a ragged breath. “Oh, my boy,” he whispered.
Arthur stared down at the table. Gaius’ grief was infectious, layering onto his own, and he took a shuddering breath. Tomorrow, he told himself.
“What – what happened?” Gaius asked hoarsely.
“Agravaine…” Gaius raised his head, his eyes burning. “It appears,” Arthur continued carefully, “that Merlin had been conspiring with Lord Glover to kill me.”
Gaius sat up straighter. “No, Arthur,” he pleaded, “you must not believe that. Merlin has always been loyal to you. He would never betray you.”
“Someone received a letter from Lord Glover detailing a plan to kill me.” Arthur placed the letter on the table. Gaius looked at it but did not move to pick it up. “And he practiced magic, Gaius. Why wouldn’t he want me dead?”
Gaius sighed. “Merlin did not practice magic,” he said softly. “He was born with it. Using it is as natural to him as breathing.” He put a hand to his chest suddenly, his face filling with pain anew. “Forgive me, sire.”
It was hung heavily between them.
Arthur stared at the table, willing himself not to fall apart. Merlin would be alive again the next morning. He could fix this, but only if he got some answers now. He didn’t know how much time he had left.
“And yet he came to Camelot,” Arthur prompted, looking back up at Gaius.
“He wanted something more than what a small village like Ealdor could offer him,” Gaius said quietly. “His mother wanted that for him as well. Camelot is much more stable than many of its neighbors, as you well know. Despite the ban on magic, they decided this was the best place for him.”
“But that does not explain why he would not despise me, and my father. Magic has brought us nothing but suffering, but would he not wish to reverse the ban and punish those responsible for it, being a magic-user himself?”
Gaius smiled sadly at Arthur. “Think through those words, Arthur. You already understand far more than your father ever did.”
Arthur was too tired to muddle through Gaius’ riddles. “That doesn’t explain—”
“Merlin saw that in you, Arthur. He believed in you. He knew you would make a great king. I know he hoped you would learn his secret one day, and accept him for who he was. A good man, and a loyal friend.”
Gaius’ earnestness was a torch, fighting off the shadows that were Arthur’s doubts. But he didn’t know how he could trust anyone now. Morgana’s betrayal still pained him every day. And now, if it wasn’t Merlin, then it was… but Arthur’s mind skittered away from the idea that yet another family member could wish him dead. Either way, at least one of the two people he’d trusted above almost all others had been manipulating him.
Merlin had magic. That gave him the perfect reason to wish Arthur harm, as so many other sorcerers seemed to. What reason could his uncle have for wanting Arthur dead?
It couldn’t be Agravaine. It had to be Merlin.
He thought about Merlin’s face as he died. It couldn’t be Merlin, either.
“Who is the traitor, then?” Arthur asked, his voice small. “You must – you must have some thoughts on the matter.”
Gaius’ lips narrowed into a thin line, and he looked down at the table. “You will get angry, sire.”
“Please, Gaius. I am asking for your counsel. Who do you believe it to be?”
Gaius looked up. Met his eyes. Arthur already knew what he was going to say, and something inside him died at the thought.
“Rise and shine!”
Arthur exhaled slowly into his pillow.
“Come on, up you get, lazy daisy! Busy day today!”
Arthur sat up. “Merlin,” he began.
“Hurry up! You’ve got the scheduled review of the castle’s defenses with Leon, and then Lord Glover is arriving, and then there’s the knighting ceremony. Then the council meeting, and I’m sure Glover will be certain to make his opinion heard, and of course, the feast in the evening…”
Arthur let Merlin prattle on as he climbed out of bed. He didn’t think he had ever felt more lost; his suspicions buffeted from one possibility to the other with every second that passed, as if by an ocean storm. Merlin had always been strange. Agravaine had made some miscalculations in the time had been in Camelot, it was true. But they had both always been supportive, pushing Arthur to be a better leader.
Unless Merlin’s strangeness had been indicative of something darker. Unless Agravaine’s mistakes had really been attempts to weaken Camelot.
Arthur tried to clear his head. It would do no good to keep guessing, not without more information. He needed to think about this as a king, not as a nephew and not as a friend. He needed to focus on the facts.
He had Agravaine’s detailed account of what he had – allegedly – uncovered. He had Agravaine’s strange behavior, the inconsistencies of the previous day, and his lie about his confrontation with Merlin. Then there was Gaius’ faith in Merlin, his certainty that Agravaine was the traitor. There was Merlin’s apparent hatred of Lord Glover. There was the solemn, proud way Merlin placed the crown on his head, as he did every time it was brought out. There was the regret and sorrow and worry in his eyes as he died.
There was Merlin’s sorcery.
Arthur made up his mind slowly; perhaps he could use this cycle to his advantage.
“Hm?” Arthur looked up as he came out from behind the changing screen.
Merlin rolled his eyes. “Do you actually listen to anything I say? I feel like I’m a piece of furniture sometimes.”
“You’re not a piece of furniture, Merlin. Pieces of furniture don’t trip over themselves while standing still.”
“Well, we can’t all be gifted with air-headedness just to keep our balance.”
Arthur refrained from shooting back another insult. Merlin certainly didn’t seem like he was up to no good, or planning to betray the crown. But then, Agravaine hadn’t either.
“I was asking why Lord Glover has to come here, anyway,” Merlin continued as Arthur sat down to his breakfast. “It’s clear he doesn’t like you—”
“I’m not particularly keen on seeing him either,” Arthur muttered.
Merlin raised his eyebrows. “Really? I thought you were going to say that you have to impress him for political reasons.”
“Perhaps usually,” Arthur agreed. “But not today.” Merlin frowned at him. Arthur cut him off before he could ask. “You’re to help set up for the knighting ceremony while I review our defenses with Leon, I believe?”
Merlin nodded, still looking at Arthur strangely, but Arthur was thankful that he didn’t press. He didn’t need to get himself caught up struggling to answer unanswerable questions.
Merlin left after he finished making the bed. Arthur waited one heartbeat, two, and then he followed.
Merlin went down to the great hall, where the ceremony would be taking place. Arthur slowed as they approached, and the crowd of servants and knights grew thicker. He stopped a page and had him take a message to Leon that Arthur wouldn’t be joining him on the battlements.
Arthur watched the entrance to the hall for a little while, waiting for Merlin to come out. He tried to be unobtrusive, but many of the servants noticed him anyway, and greeted him with a short bow, a respectful “Sire,” and the occasional curious look. He realized his plan may have fallen apart before it had even begun; surely the servants going in and out of the hall would mention to the others that the king was standing outside, for seemingly no reason. If Merlin was up to something, he wouldn’t try it if he knew Arthur was likely to see him.
Arthur turned sharply and walked to one of the lesser used entrances to the hall. It wouldn’t be in use now, but if someone wished to sneak out unnoticed, that would be the place to do it.
He didn’t have to wait long. The door opened scarcely five minutes later, and Arthur pressed himself back into an alcove as footsteps echoed down the hallway. He leaned forward to see Merlin’s red neckerchief disappearing around the corner.
Arthur hurried after him. Merlin was walking back toward Arthur’s chambers, and Arthur didn’t know whether to feel relieved or anxious. Was Merlin going to complete a chore, or something more nefarious?
Merlin slowed as he reached the top of a staircase. Instead of turning in the direction of Arthur’s rooms, he went the other way down the hall, toward Agravaine’s quarters. Arthur followed as stealthily as he could, thanking the heavens that most of the castle staff were busy with preparations for Lord Glover’s arrival and the knighting ceremony.
Merlin went around the last corner cautiously. Arthur followed, and, peering out, saw that Merlin had walked right up to Agravaine’s door. He had his ear pressed against it, his hand hovering over the handle. A moment later he jerked back, tucking himself into an alcove partway down the hall just as the door opened.
Agravaine stepped out of the room, looking down at a familiar sheet of parchment, a pleased expression on his face. A cold feeling went through Arthur’s chest.
With a small smirk, Agravaine folded the letter and tucked it into his pocket. Arthur saw Merlin flick his fingers, and the small square of parchment floated from Agravaine’s pocket and into his outstretched hand. Agravaine didn’t notice, had already begun walking in the other direction, but Arthur was stunned. Was it typical for Merlin to use magic that openly? It was a wonder he hadn’t gotten caught.
Merlin read the letter with a look of intense disquiet on his face. After a moment, he folded it and took off back the way he had come, forcing Arthur to turn and duck quickly into the nearest room. He waited for Merlin’s footsteps to pass before he sagged against the door.
So it really was Agravaine. Agravaine, and not Merlin.
Arthur exhaled heavily. He had thought he could trust Agravaine, because… why? Because he was his uncle? After Morgana, he should have known that that wouldn’t have been reason enough.
What was it about him that turned those closest to him against him? When had Morgana decided she’d rather he was dead than alive? What could he have possibly done to wrong Agravaine so badly? Even Merlin…. Merlin may not have been plotting Arthur’s murder, but he had been lying about who he really was every day that Arthur had known him.
It stung. Arthur hadn’t realized quite how strongly he had come to believe that Merlin placed as much trust in him as he did in Merlin.
He forced himself to push it aside. Agravaine’s treachery was the more immediate issue. That felt more clear-cut; even though Arthur didn’t know why Agravaine had betrayed him, he at least knew what to do about it. Merlin, on the other hand…
Well. That issue would have its reckoning as well. It was simply a matter of time.
And yet, as he prepared for Glover’s arrival, Arthur could not help but prod.
“Merlin,” Arthur said as he fastened the cloak around his neck, “if you knew someone had lied to you, what would you do?”
Merlin hesitated, his fingers fumbling the knot slightly. “Lied to you about what?” he asked, moving away.
Arthur waited until Merlin had set the box with his crown on the table before continuing. “About something that’s quite a big deal. Something that affects the well-being of Camelot.” He cleared his throat. “And affects me, personally.”
Merlin fiddled with the clasp on the box. Then, to Arthur’s surprise, Merlin looked up and met his eyes, his gaze steady and clear. “Does this lie put you in danger? The kingdom?”
Arthur studied him. Merlin could have stayed far away from the castle when he came to the city, could have kept himself well-hidden. Instead, he’d gotten close to Arthur. Who knew what he got up to behind Arthur’s back? He may not have been working with Glover and Agravaine, but that didn’t mean he didn’t have his own agenda, whatever it might be. “I don’t know yet.”
“Hm.” Merlin opened the box and withdrew the crown. “Perhaps that’s something you should determine before you make any rash decisions.”
“Perhaps.” This time when Merlin lowered the crown onto his head, there was a calculated relaxation to his movements. All it did was betray his anxiety, but Arthur thought he saw a flicker of something in Merlin’s eyes that hadn’t been there before.
Arthur blinked. If he wasn’t mistaken, it looked almost like hope.
Merlin stepped back, looked him up and down. “Ready?”
Arthur nodded. He knew what he had to do.
Arthur’s attempt to sneak after Merlin as he showed Glover to his chambers was foiled by a voice at his side.
Arthur turned. “Sir Leon.”
“As you were occupied this morning, I thought I could take the time now to report on the castle’s defenses?”
Arthur glanced at the entryway to the castle. Merlin and Glover had already disappeared, and if Arthur followed them now he might run into Agravaine on his way there. Then there’d be no conversation to eavesdrop on in any case.
He had, however, already heard the report three times.
“That’s all right, Leon. Perhaps in a few days, when Lord Glover has left.” Assuming he could break this damn cycle, anyway.
“There was one other thing,” Leon began.
“Yes, of course. Implement the new shift schedule that you drew up.”
Leon’s surprise was plain. “Sire? I only just did that yesterday. I haven’t mentioned it…”
Arthur cursed himself silently. “You must have.” He frowned, as if he didn’t remember precisely. Unanswerable questions, indeed. “In any case, it’s a good idea. Implement it immediately.”
Leon bowed his head, confusion still evident on his face. “Yes, sire.”
Arthur debated with himself as he walked slowly back to his chambers. The guest quarters weren’t far, he decided, he could make a small detour. When he got there, however, he was thwarted by the servants running from chamber to chamber making sure the guests were comfortable. There would be little chance of lingering outside a door to eavesdrop, especially for him.
The day proceeded much as it had the last few times. He half wished he could cancel the knighting ceremony or the council meeting, but that would fall into the ‘unanswerable questions’ category, and might cause Agravaine or Glover to grow suspicious of his reasons before Arthur was ready to reveal them.
So instead, he decided to once again wait until after the feast. This time, though, Agravaine would not get away with his treachery. Merlin was not going to die. If that didn’t break this loop, Arthur didn’t know what would.
Arthur felt Merlin’s eyes on him as Glover laughed about the sorcerer he had caught and brought to Uther. He made noncommittal sounds when Glover’s pauses required it, then quickly changed the subject. Merlin was looking away, expressionless, when Arthur chanced a glance at him a few moments later.
Was this why he had accepted Agravaine’s explanation so easily? It wasn’t often that Arthur came across magic he could trust. Was Merlin one such exception?
Not that he really trusted Merlin, not any longer.
Arthur forced his focus back on Glover, who was now praising his son Martyn’s leadership skills.
Eventually, Glover left, then Agravaine, and then Merlin was darting out of the room. Arthur pretended he didn’t see Leon crossing the hall towards him and followed.
Merlin must have moved very quickly; Arthur didn’t catch up until they were nearly back to his chambers. He heard hushed voices ahead of them as he slowed, straining to hear the words while being careful not to come up too close behind Merlin and reveal himself.
“—will be no trouble to dispatch him. The fewer people know our plans, the better, wouldn’t you agree?”
Glover made a reluctant-sounding noise of assent. A moment later Arthur heard the door to his chambers open and close. Merlin disappeared around the corner. Arthur took his place and peered around it cautiously.
Merlin was pressing his ear against the door. Arthur wished he could hear what Merlin was hearing, but a moment later Merlin stepped back, his fists clenched. He took a deep breath.
Then he pushed open the door and stepped inside.
Arthur darted forward.
“Merlin!” Agravaine. “Is Arthur still at the feast?”
“He is,” Merlin said evenly. “Was there something you needed, my lords?”
“Ah,” Agravaine said, “some urgent business came up which we must discuss with the king. A private matter, you see, we did not wish to take it up with him at the feast.”
“Right. What is this concerning?”
Arthur marveled at Merlin’s audacity. He had never spoken so boldly to Agravaine before, at least not to Arthur’s knowledge.
Glover scoffed. “I don’t see why it should matter to a servant.”
“Hm.” Arthur recognized the sound of fabric shifting, someone reaching into a pocket. “You see, I take any threats against the king very seriously. So if this business has anything to do with treason, it absolutely concerns me.”
There was a long silence. Then the sound of paper unfolding.
“This is a serious accusation indeed,” came Agravaine’s quiet voice. “But this letter mentions no one by name here in Camelot. It could just as easily have been meant for you.”
“I know you’re working with Morgana, Agravaine,” Merlin snapped. “I know you have attempted to kill Arthur multiple times now, or to get him killed. I know you’re looking for the sorcerer known as Emrys.” Wood creaked. Arthur pictured Merlin leaning on the table. “I know a lot more than you think I do, including the fact that you received this letter sometime in the last day, and that you visited Lord Glover just after he arrived to confirm your plans for assassinating Arthur. I now have the evidence I need for Arthur to see you for who you truly are. Do not test me.”
Arthur put a hand over his mouth. Merlin – Merlin sounded almost scary. How could Merlin – bumbling, idiotic, hopeless-with-a-weapon Merlin – be scary? Threatening, even?
He’s a sorcerer, one side of Arthur’s brain supplied. He hasn’t even used any magic yet, another pointed out.
Arthur’s thoughts were interrupted by the sound of a chair being kicked backwards, and fast strides forward.
“Show me this evidence,” Agravaine hissed. “It’s my word against yours, servant, and who do you think Arthur will believe? I can ensure you will die a very slow and painful death indeed, Merlin. Morgana will be very happy to get her hands on you, you can be certain of that.”
“You are working with Morgana,” Glover hissed before Merlin could reply. “With the witch! Have I not made my stance on witchcraft and sorcery clear?”
“She is a much more worthy ruler than me, or you,” Agravaine shot back.
Glover scoffed in disbelief. “You meant to betray me, didn’t you? You wanted to use me to kill the king, and then take the throne for your beloved sorceress!”
There was a beat of silence. Arthur understood immediately why Merlin had not simply shown him the letter, why he needed to confront Glover and Agravaine first.
“Lord Glover,” Merlin said pleasantly, and Arthur thought he sounded almost smug, “you agree that it is in your best interests to admit that you wrote the letter to Lord Agravaine, don’t you?”
Arthur almost felt sorry for Glover in that moment. The man probably knew where this was going, that no matter who Arthur believed, he was implicated either way.
“You told me you’d destroyed the letter,” Glover snarled. “Instead, you let the king’s personal manservant get his hands on it!”
“You can say you wrote it to him,” Agravaine offered weakly.
Glover scoffed. “After what you planned? No. It will make no difference to my punishment in any case. I should never have let you talk me into this.”
“Not to mention,” Merlin chimed in, and Arthur wanted to groan at the cheeriness in his voice, “Arthur won’t believe it.” There was a pause, and then Merlin continued, “Do you really think Arthur would believe that Lord Glover would stoop to working with a servant? And even if he did, how would we have made contact? The pigeons in the dovecote are reserved exclusively for official correspondence. But you two are old friends. And, being lords, you can send messages with less scrutiny than us common folk, can’t you?”
There was a long, dangerous silence. Merlin was right. Merlin was absolutely right. If Arthur had taken even a moment to think about it, he should have realized the letter couldn’t have been written to Merlin, not if it was carried here by that pigeon, and it would have been too much of a risk to send it by road. He’d been blinded by the shock of the apparent betrayal, and the magic, jumping to the simplest conclusion instead of focusing on the manner by which it could have happened. That was probably the only reason Agravaine had risked going ahead with that story, the revelation of Merlin’s magic giving him the opportunity to press on Arthur’s shaken trust.
It seemed Merlin had more faith in him than he deserved. But it still hadn’t been enough for him to share his secret.
“Then you leave me no choice,” Agravaine said finally, his voice deceptively calm. There was the sound of a knife leaving its sheath, followed quickly by Merlin’s angry yelp. Arthur jerked backward as the door rattled. A moment later he heard the table skidding across the floor, and the sound of Glover crumpling.
He almost opened the door right then, at the moment he had always opened it, but something stopped him. It was his entrance that allowed Agravaine to distract Merlin in order to kill him.
And he was curious about where the conversation would go next.
“You have magic!” Agravaine exclaimed. Merlin was silent. “It’s you, isn’t it?” Agravaine said suddenly, some sort of dawning understanding in his voice. “You’re Emrys!” He laughed. “It seems I’m not the only one who keeps secrets from our dear king.”
“It’s you who wishes him dead,” Merlin said. “You’ve allied yourself with Morgana, of all people.”
“Why do you work against us?” Agravaine challenged. “Magic will never be welcome in Camelot under Arthur; Morgana knows that. Uther killed my sister when he tried to bind magic to his control – he was arrogant and he was foolish. Morgana could give you a place at her side once she corrects his wrongs! Instead, you side with Arthur. You betray your own kind!”
“It is Morgana who does that, raining death and destruction on Camelot time and again. What is Arthur supposed to think of magic, if that is all he ever sees of it?”
“And yet you continue to hide your true identity. Tell me, Merlin, do you think Arthur will forgive you all your lies and falsehoods? That he will welcome you with open arms? No. You hide because you know he will have you executed, along with every other sorcerer that crosses his path.”
“He won’t,” Merlin said, but his voice sounded small. Arthur closed his eyes. Would Merlin have ever trusted him?
Agravaine let out a short breath. Arthur could imagine him smirking. “So I suppose you have a choice now,” he said. “We can wait for Arthur, and you can take your chances as I tell him all I’ve learned about you this night. Or you can kill me, and attempt to explain to Arthur why his uncle is dead at the hands of his manservant. If Glover here doesn’t attempt to deny all involvement with this scheme if I am dead, I would be very surprised indeed.”
Merlin didn’t answer. Arthur could almost hear him thinking, trying to find a solution. What would Arthur have done, in either of those situations? He didn’t know. The only thing he did know was that he would never have ordered Merlin dead for his magic. He wanted an explanation, yes. He wanted an apology, perhaps. He wanted to know why Merlin thought him worth protecting, but not worth trusting.
But he didn’t want Merlin dead.
“Arthur! There you are!”
Arthur looked up, startled, but the door was still closed. Why had Agravaine said his name?
There was a small gasp of pain and surprise. “You cannot win,” Agravaine hissed.
No. Arthur wrenched the door open in time to see Merlin collapse, bleeding and dying once more.
“What did you do?” Arthur yelled at Agravaine. He fell to his knees next to Merlin, trying to staunch the blood flow, but it was much too late. Merlin had coughed up blood, and Arthur knew from experience there was no way to fix a punctured lung. His eyes were unfocused, half-lidded, glimmering with reflected firelight.
“For Ygraine,” Agravaine said. There was a sudden, sharp pain in Arthur’s chest, and he registered with shock that Agravaine had stabbed him.
No. Arthur’s hands moved to the wound. Between his ribs, just like Merlin’s. He coughed, and saw red drops hit the stone floor. His lung punctured, just like Merlin’s. No, it can’t end like this. Give me another chance. Please.
Arthur felt himself fall. He saw Merlin’s pale face, still and unmoving. His vision blurred, then faded, and Arthur had no choice but to let the darkness claim him.
“Rise and shine!”
Arthur gasped. Tentatively, he raised a hand to his ribs. No wound, no blood, no scar. It was as if it had never happened.
“Arthur? You all right?”
Arthur threw back the covers to find Merlin looking at him with some concern. “Fine,” he managed.
Agravaine had killed him. Agravaine had actually, had well and truly killed him.
Something inside Arthur snapped.
“Well, hurry up, then! You’ve got the scheduled review of the castle’s defenses with Leon, and then Lord Glover is arriving, and then there’s the knighting ceremony. Then the council meeting, and I’m sure Glover—”
“Merlin,” Arthur said, standing. “Do you really think I’d have you executed?”
Merlin stumbled into the table. He swallowed once, twice; his face had gone deathly pale. “What?” he said hoarsely.
“I know about your magic,” Arthur said. In hindsight, there probably could have been a gentler way to introduce the subject, but at that moment Arthur didn’t really care. “I also know you don’t want me dead, or you’d have killed me a long time ago. You probably wouldn’t have even had to use magic. So. Do you honestly think I would have passed judgement without hearing you out?”
Merlin gaped at him, his mouth opening and closing with no sound coming out.
“It doesn’t matter how I know. Answer the question.” Something inside Arthur was seething, roiling, an angry wave threatening to crest. His own uncle wanted him dead. His closest friend didn’t trust him. Arthur wanted to rage at the both of them, to demand explanations, apologies. He didn’t think he’d get the latter from Agravaine, but Merlin was greyer, somehow, so Arthur forced his anger down.
“I wanted to tell you,” Merlin whispered. “I’ve wanted – gods, for years now I’ve wanted to tell you. But I couldn’t… it was never the right time.”
“And when would it have been the right time?”
Merlin shook his head. “I don’t know. It got harder with every day that passed. I knew you’d… I knew you’d be angry.”
Arthur snorted. “You got that right.”
“Arthur.” Merlin moved toward him cautiously. “My magic… I use it for you. Only for you. To protect you. To defend the kingdom. I would never hurt you. You must – you must know that.”
Arthur realized with a shock that Merlin was afraid that Arthur might be scared of him. Of him! The idea was preposterous, and yet Arthur had seen Merlin blast Agravaine and Glover off their feet as easily as he might swat a fly. But after everything he’d learned, everything he’d heard the previous night, the thought of Merlin hurting him was once again as ridiculous as it had been before all this insanity had started.
“But you thought I’d hurt you,” Arthur said, unable to quite keep the wounded tone from his voice.
Merlin looked away. “I don’t… I don’t think so. Not really.”
“And yet still you lied to me. For years.”
“I didn’t want to,” Merlin said, his tone hard. “I had no choice.”
“There’s always a choice!”
“There’s always a choice?” Merlin repeated incredulously. “What do you want me to have done? Oh, yes, brilliant, I’ll just go and confess to having magic to the crown prince of bloody Camelot, whose father would then have me burned at the stake for merely existing!”
Arthur spluttered. “I wouldn’t – I can see why you couldn’t tell me immediately, obviously, but I wouldn’t have told him!”
“And how was I to know that?”
“Because you’re – you’re you!”
“What the hell is that supposed to mean?”
Arthur threw up his hands. “You’re different!”
Merlin’s expression became very dark very fast. “That’s why I didn’t tell you,” he said in a low voice, and the sudden change of tone unnerved Arthur. “You’re not ready.”
“It’s much bigger than me, Arthur. You think I’m the only person with magic who isn’t…” Merlin shook his head in disgust. “This was never just about me.”
Something slimy twisted in Arthur’s gut, and the words came out of his mouth before he could really think about why he was saying them. “Well – you were born with it, weren’t you? That makes you different.”
Merlin looked at him strangely. “Where did you hear that?”
“Gaius told me.”
Merlin’s eyebrows climbed higher even than said physician’s. “Gaius told you.”
“Well, no, I mean—” Arthur sighed. “He didn’t tell me about your magic. He doesn’t know that I know.”
Merlin stared at him. “I was born with magic,” he said finally, “but that doesn’t make me different in the way you seem to think it does.”
The uncomfortable slimy feeling returned for a moment, but Arthur’s anger smothered it. Merlin had been born with magic. Which meant he had lied to Arthur about something fundamental, lied when Arthur had trusted him, and thought himself trusted in return. Arthur had crossed a bridge that only went one way, and had been stupid enough to be surprised when it collapsed beneath him.
“Fine,” Arthur bit out. “I don’t care.” If Merlin wasn’t offering any additional information, well, then Arthur certainly wasn’t going to go chasing after it.
“So I take it you’re not going to arrest me, then?” Merlin said testily.
“No, I’m not going to arrest you, Merlin.” However angry he was, he could still hear all of Merlin’s words from the previous night echoing in his head, his pleading expression, his dying breaths. Merlin was not his enemy, but Arthur wasn’t sure he could still count him as his friend. Whatever he was, throwing Merlin in the dungeons wouldn’t help him figure it out.
Merlin studied him for another moment. “I didn’t want to put you in a difficult position, all right?”
“You’d have been duty-bound to tell your father what you knew. Or you’d have sent me away. Or you’d have made an exception for me, and you’re – it wouldn’t have felt honorable to you, bending the law for one person – never mind the fact that I’m not an exception. But… that’s why I didn’t tell you. There were no good options, so I saw no point in burdening you with them.” Merlin looked away, suddenly finding the wall next to Arthur’s bed inexplicably fascinating.
So Merlin didn’t think he could handle it, did he? Didn’t trust him to find a solution. Well, he was wrong. Arthur didn’t know what he would have done when he’d been a prince, at least not in the first year or two of knowing Merlin. But later, and especially after he’d become king – knowing what he did now, if Merlin had just explained to him… but that was a pointless thought. Merlin hadn’t, and so here they were now.
He snatched up the clothes Merlin had dropped and changed quickly. “I need to speak to Gaius. Are you coming?” He strode out the door without waiting for a reply.
It was several moments before Merlin caught up. They made the walk in stony silence, Merlin just slightly ahead of Arthur. He increased his speed as they went – Arthur half expected him to burst into a sprint at any moment. When Arthur stopped a passing servant to deliver a message to Leon with his apologies, along with an order to implement the new guard schedule, Merlin kept walking. Arthur grit his teeth and caught up with him just as he reached Gaius’ door.
“Merlin? You’re back – Good morning, sire.” Gaius looked between them, expression growing wary as he caught sight of their faces.
“Good morning, Gaius,” Arthur greeted, and glanced at Merlin.
Merlin had gone still, a look of nervous apprehension on his face. Gaius noticed it too and raised an eyebrow.
“What have you done now, Merlin?”
“It’s not – I haven’t – why do you think I’ve done something?”
“You have that look on your face. There’s something you don’t want to admit.” Gaius looked at Arthur. “Is this related to what you’re here for?”
“I imagine it is,” Arthur said, wondering if Merlin was worried about Gaius learning that Arthur knew about his magic. “But – and I cannot believe I’m saying this – it really isn’t his fault this time.”
Merlin looked at Arthur, surprised. “I still don’t know how you found out.”
Gaius’ eyebrow rose even higher at that. Arthur decided to get to the point. They didn’t have all that much time before Glover arrived.
“There are several things,” Arthur began. “First, I know that Merlin’s a sorcerer.”
The change was instantaneous. Gaius’ face grew hard, his eyes guarded. He drew himself up. “What do you mean to do with him?”
Arthur sighed. “I won’t arrest him. I know Merlin doesn’t mean me any harm. I am upset he’s lied to me for so long—” Arthur scowled at him, and Merlin looked stonily at the ground, “—but that’s not the issue right now.”
Gaius studied him for a long moment before looking at Merlin. They seemed to have a silent conversation, and another spasm of hurt passed through Arthur’s chest. It seemed Merlin wasn’t the only one who hadn’t trusted him as fully as Arthur had believed.
He pushed it away. It didn’t matter right now.
Finally, Gaius looked back at Arthur. “Thank you, sire,” he said, inclining his head. “I did always tell him to be careful—”
“Merlin didn’t slip up,” Arthur said. “That’s not how I found out. That’s actually what I want to speak to you about.” He paused. “I’ve been living the same day over and over again. I don’t know how, or why, or who caused it. That’s how I know about Merlin’s magic, and about Agravaine and Glover’s plan to kill me.”
Both Merlin and Gaius’ eyes widened at that. “You’re living the same day?” Gaius said at the same time as Merlin repeated, “Agravaine and Glover are planning to kill you?”
Arthur frowned at Merlin. “You mean you don’t know about their plan?”
“I thought I’d keep a close eye on both of them while Glover’s here, considering Agravaine’s been looking forward to seeing him, but no, I don’t know about any plan!”
Huh. That meant Merlin had had only vague suspicions until he discovered the letter. How often did he sneak around after Agravaine like that with only vague suspicions?
“Well, you will, once you steal a letter from Agravaine.” Arthur paused. “Or I suppose you won’t now, since you’re here instead of sneaking after him.”
Merlin stared at him. “And how did you know I was planning to… er, keep such a close eye on him?”
“I’ve lived this day four times now, Merlin. I’ve learned quite a bit.”
“Right.” Merlin’s tone turned grim. “Arthur, it’s not just this time. Agravaine – he’s the one working with Morgana.”
“I know,” Arthur said shortly. He turned to Gaius. “Have you ever heard of a spell, or a curse, or something of the sort, that can trap a person inside a single day?”
Gaius frowned. “No, I have not. Magic to do with time is extremely fickle and prone to mishaps, and that sounds far more complex than anything I have ever heard of.”
Arthur’s stomach sank. “Really?” he pressed. “In all your books, you’ve never come across anything even remotely similar?”
“I’m afraid I don’t keep any books on magic—”
Merlin failed to suppress his snort. It was Arthur’s turn to raise an eyebrow. “Let’s have no more lies between us.”
Gaius sighed the sigh of the long-suffering. He turned and pulled a large tome out from a cubbyhole hidden behind one of his medicine shelves. It landed on the table with a dull thump before Gaius hefted it open. “What do you mean exactly, sire?”
“I’ve been waking on the day of Glover’s arrival for the past five days now. Everything proceeds in the exact same way it did the first time, unless I interfere to change it. I seem to be the only person who remembers that the day already happened. I have no idea what could be causing it, or how to stop it.”
Gaius flipped a bit farther through the book before shaking his head. “I don’t think there will be anything in here. To manipulate time in such a way…” He glanced at Merlin. “It would take an immense amount of power.”
Merlin looked taken aback. “But I’m not – I mean, I haven’t done anything—”
“No, but you don’t know what happens later, Merlin, perhaps you will.”
“I would have no idea where to even start with something like that! Do you really think, if I could just reset an entire day, I wouldn’t have gone back and fixed things? Saved people?”
Arthur wondered at the pain in Merlin’s voice, about everything he had failed to tell Arthur. His anger flared up again, at the thought that Merlin had been running around behind his back, had not thought to come to Arthur for help. But it was quickly smothered by his curiosity. What mistakes did Merlin think he had made? Who had he failed to save? He thought of all of Merlin’s strange, brushed-off absences, his apparent tavern visits. Those must all have been excuses for something else.
“Hold on,” Arthur said, focusing instead on what Gaius had said. They would have time for the rest later. “Are you telling me Merlin is an immensely powerful sorcerer?”
“Warlock, technically,” Merlin muttered.
“Really? Merlin?” It hadn’t seemed quite as far-fetched when he’d thought Merlin a traitor, somehow, but now… what sort of all-powerful sorcerer didn’t seek vengeance on Camelot?
Gaius smiled slightly. “The most powerful sorcerer to ever live, according to the prophecies.”
Merlin shot Gaius a dark look. Arthur stared. “What prophecies?”
Merlin sighed. “The Druids have prophecies about me. About us. You’re the once and future king. I’m a warlock, who they call Emrys, who’s meant to protect you and help you bring about the golden age of Albion.”
Well. A golden age didn’t sound so bad. “And you’re meant to do all this behind my back, are you? I’m not supposed to know about it?”
Merlin looked away. “It wasn’t time yet.”
Arthur only just refrained from contradicting him. Instead, he asked, “So you’ve been trying to fulfill this prophecy, then? What exactly does that entail?”
Merlin shrugged. “It comes down to keeping you alive, mostly. Do you have any idea how hard that is, by the way? There’re so many things that want to kill you.”
“Oh, and I suppose you’ve thwarted them all?”
“You’re still alive, aren’t you?”
Arthur let out a slow breath. Well. This explained why Merlin stayed, why he listened to all of Arthur’s doubts and fears, why he seemed to be the only sorcerer alive who didn’t want Arthur dead.
Arthur turned away from them. He wanted to scream and rage, but they simply did not have the time. The last thing Arthur wanted was for the day to restart and for him to have to do this all over again.
After, he told himself. After all this was over, and tomorrow had come, then he and Merlin could have it out properly. But until then, they would have to work together.
Arthur turned back around to find that Merlin had taken several steps toward him, his brow furrowed. “Arthur—”
“So, how do we figure out about this loop?” Arthur asked Gaius.
Gaius glanced at Merlin, but Arthur was grateful when he merely answered the question. “It may help to know the specifics. What happens each evening?”
Arthur rubbed at his forehead before crossing his arms. He moved forward so that he was standing next to the table. Merlin approached cautiously and hovered behind Gaius.
“All right. Agravaine and Glover’s plan is to ambush me in my chambers after the evening feast. But in all the other… todays, Merlin already knew about the plan, because of a letter you should be stealing from Agravaine right about now.” He looked up at Merlin. “So you came back before I did. You confronted them. Agravaine attacked you, and you were forced to defend yourself with magic. That’s… that’s how I found out. The first time, I came in just in time to see you blasting Glover and Agravaine off their feet.”
“Well,” Merlin said, exhaling slowly. “That’s not how I’d have chosen it.”
“No,” Arthur agreed. “Anyway, you didn’t get a chance to say anything. Agravaine stabbed you. He – he killed you.”
Merlin and Gaius stared at him. Arthur looked away. “That – it happened every night, in some form or another. I – I couldn’t stop it.”
Merlin’s jaw clenched and he looked away, blinking a little too rapidly. Did he think Arthur had let him die? And even if he did, what did Merlin care if Arthur showed him concern or not? Arthur wasn’t the one who had pretended to be his friend.
“The day always restarted soon after that,” Arthur finished.
Gaius looked toward Merlin first, but Merlin still had his head turned away. Arthur couldn’t meet Gaius’ eyes when the physician turned to him. But Gaius only asked if the day always restarted at the same time of night.
“No,” Arthur realized after a moment of consideration. “The third day, I had – well, Agravaine had reason to think himself very close to coming under suspicion. He didn’t leave the feast as soon as he had the other nights.”
“But everything else proceeded more or less in the same way?” Gaius asked. Arthur nodded. “And how soon after Merlin – how soon after that did the day restart on that night?”
That had been the night he’d gone to speak to Gaius. He didn’t think he’d had any less time than on the other days.
“Maybe twenty minutes,” Arthur said. “The same as the other nights.”
Merlin slowly turned back to face them, his expression carefully blank. Gaius looked at him at the same time Arthur did. It seemed to take Merlin another second to process Arthur’s words, and then his mouth opened in surprise. “But if I was killed… what are you saying?”
“You didn’t die immediately,” Arthur told him. “You were still alive for a few moments.”
Merlin shook his head in bewilderment, but Gaius was looking at him thoughtfully. “You really remember none of this?” he asked Merlin. “Not even as a dream?”
“No! You think I wouldn’t have avoided being killed if I did?”
“Hm. It may be connected. In any case, I think we should do our best to keep you alive.”
Merlin snorted. “That would be preferable, yes.” He glanced at Arthur before quickly looking away again. For what felt like the thousandth time that day, Arthur bit his tongue.
A knock sounded at the door. All three of them looked up, suddenly tense. “Yes?” Arthur called.
Leon opened the door, and Arthur relaxed slightly. “Ah, sire, there you are. Hello Merlin, Gaius. Lord Glover’s retinue has been spotted approaching the city.”
“Thank you, Leon.”
“I will see if I can find anything of use on this spell,” Gaius said as Leon left.
Arthur nodded. “Thank you, Gaius.” He made to look toward Merlin, but Merlin had already turned and was striding out the door. Arthur stared after him, his chest tight.
“Arthur,” Gaius called, bringing his attention back. “Remember who your friends are. He meant you no harm by concealing himself.”
Arthur looked away. Was Merlin his friend? He didn’t know anymore.
“I’m sure he didn’t.”
He closed the door on Gaius’ disappointment.
“Merlin.” Arthur stopped in the doorway to his chambers, almost surprised to find Merlin there. “Whatever you’re thinking, out with it. You can sulk later.”
Merlin slammed the wardrobe door shut and tossed Arthur’s ceremonial garments onto the bed. Arthur grimaced inwardly.
“Were you glad that I died?” Merlin demanded. “When you found out I had magic. Were you relieved?”
“No!” Arthur took several steps toward him, stopping when Merlin tensed. He swallowed, and said, more calmly, “No. It all happened very quickly. I didn’t understand what was going on. Agravaine… he made it seem as if you were the traitor.”
Merlin closed his eyes briefly. “And you believed him.”
“I…” Arthur ran a hand over his mouth. “You had just proven you were a sorcerer. It… it made sense, considering past experience.”
Merlin looked away. His arms were crossed over his chest, his hands curled into the fabric of his sleeves. He was so tense he was almost trembling.
“I’m sorry,” Arthur said. Merlin’s head snapped back to him. “I shouldn’t have believed him. I’d just never…”
“You’d never seen a sorcerer who wasn’t trying to kill you,” Merlin said dully. He rubbed his hands over his face. “If you hadn’t known about my magic, and Agravaine told you I was the traitor, would you have believed him?”
Arthur clenched his jaw. “It’s… Morgana betrayed me too.”
Merlin’s expression hardened again. “I’m not her.”
Arthur watched him for a moment. “No,” he said. “I suppose not.” He moved toward the table, kept his eyes on the back of a chair as he spoke. “But you didn’t think I could handle it, either.”
Merlin frowned at him. “What are you talking about?”
“Putting me in a difficult position? Burdening me with bad options? I am the king, Merlin. Much of what I do is choosing between bad options. You cannot simply go over my authority on something that affects me so closely!” He began to pace. “If you can’t trust me to help you, or maybe even possibly to think of something you might have missed, then how can you trust me to help anyone else? How can you say you believe in the kingdom I want to build? How can you say you believe in me? Or were those all lies too?”
Merlin gaped at him. “Of course I believe in you! I was—” and here he stopped, and Arthur watched as something complicated passed over his face.
“I didn’t mean it that way,” Merlin said finally. “I… I didn’t want to lose you. And I didn’t want to add something else to your plate. Not because I didn’t think you could handle it, I just… you’re my friend, Arthur. I didn’t want to give you any more problems if I didn’t have to.”
His friend. Merlin believed what he was saying, of that much Arthur was certain. But did Merlin consider him a friend simply because of this damned prophecy? Because of his idea of who Arthur should be? Had he ever really seen Arthur at all?
“And when I became king?” Arthur asked.
Merlin grimaced. “Do you remember what you said, when your father died?”
There had been a haze of grief and pain over everything after his father had died. But he could guess the gist of what Merlin was getting at.
“You said magic was pure evil. And that you would never lose sight of that again.” Merlin met his eyes. “What was I supposed to do?”
Of course Merlin wouldn’t have told him then. It still felt raw, the guilt, the anger that had exploded when the sorcerer had killed his father. Arthur had assumed any other sorcerer would have done the same, would have taken the same opportunity. And yet hadn’t Merlin just said he would not have wanted to cause Arthur pain? He was a living, breathing contradiction.
How much else had Arthur been wrong about?
The clatter of horse hooves jolted them both out of their thoughts.
“I have to get down there,” Arthur said, moving quickly to change. He caught a flash of deep sorrow on Merlin’s face as he passed, but when he looked again Merlin had turned away.
Perhaps it didn’t matter if Merlin had originally come to Camelot because of the prophecy. Perhaps it only mattered if he stayed because of it, and that – that was an answer Arthur wasn’t sure he wanted to hear.
Merlin was staring at the crown in his hands when Arthur came out from behind the changing screen. A sense of loss washed over him, and he moved to fasten his cloak himself.
“Merlin,” Arthur said quietly. Merlin jumped. Arthur sighed. “Look. I know you don’t mean me harm. But there’s so much I don’t understand.”
Merlin regarded him. “But you want to, don’t you?”
Arthur nodded. He needed an end to all the questions chasing each other around his head, to untangle the knot that was Merlin, and then, he suspected, to look beyond him. But he couldn’t think about that yet.
“I’ll tell you everything,” Merlin promised. “I’ll explain as much as I can. There’s a lot you won’t like, and I know you’ll be angry, but—”
“There you go again, putting words in my mouth.” Arthur looked hard at him. “You can’t make my decisions for me, Merlin. You’ll tell me everything, and we’ll see where we are then.”
“You’re right. I’m sorry. It’s just… there’s a lot I regret. So I don’t expect you to be perfectly all right with all of it.”
“You speak,” Arthur said simply, “and I’ll listen.”
Merlin nodded, then glanced toward the window. “Glover’s probably arrived by now.”
Arthur shook his head. “Considering he’s a traitor, I don’t really mind making him wait around.”
Merlin smiled slightly, and raised the crown. Arthur allowed him to place it on his head. There was a sort of reverence to the action now, something holding them both in the tentative peace they had established. Arthur swallowed. He felt certain that whatever Merlin had to say would only hurt him further, but it was possible he was wrong. He’d been wrong about so many things in the last several days, it seemed.
“All right,” he said, checking his scabbard. “Let’s go.”
Arthur watched as Merlin led Glover up the stairs, then pretended not to notice as Agravaine followed shortly after. He only hoped Merlin could retrieve the letter without being discovered, which Merlin had assured him would be simple enough.
As soon as Agravaine was out of sight, Arthur spotted Leon and Gwaine and waved them over.
“Princess,” Gwaine greeted cheerfully.
“Sire,” Leon said, shooting a slight frown towards Gwaine.
“Come with me,” was all Arthur said, and turned to lead the way back to his chambers. He saw them exchange curious looks before following.
“We have a problem,” Arthur said as soon as the door was closed behind them. “It seems Lord Glover means to betray me.”
Gwaine’s expression darkened, while Leon blinked in surprise.
“Lord Glover? What makes you think that?”
“I don’t think it, I know it. Agravaine’s been plotting with him to assassinate me.”
The knights stared at him. “Your uncle?” Gwaine asked uncertainly. “Arthur, are you sure?”
Arthur sighed. “I’m sure. A letter arrived from Glover late last night or possibly very early this morning confirming it.” He nodded at Leon. “That’ll account for the extra pigeon in the dovecote.”
Leon looked confused. “What extra pigeon?”
“The extra…” Rhys must not have told Leon yet. Or perhaps he was yet to even notice. “Never mind. I’ve sent Merlin to steal the letter from Agravaine, and then we’ll have our proof.”
Gwaine shifted uneasily. “Are you sure that’s wise? If he’s caught…”
“He won’t be,” Arthur said. He wasn’t going to tell them about Merlin’s magic; for one, it wasn’t his to tell, for another, he didn’t need to make things any more complicated than they already were. “He should be back soon.”
“If this is true,” Leon began, “why don’t we arrest them now? Before they have the chance to do anything?”
“I’d like to go ahead with the knighting ceremony as planned,” Arthur said. “They won’t do anything before then. But I need proof to show to Martyn that his father has indeed betrayed the crown.” He didn’t need an angry son marching his forces to Camelot and accusing Arthur of tyranny.
“Wouldn’t Agravaine destroy this letter?” Gwaine asked. “Seems dangerous to keep.”
“I don’t think so.” Arthur considered what he’d heard the previous night, the unpleasant conclusions he was beginning to draw. “Agravaine means to betray Glover, perhaps plans to show the letter as proof and claim Glover had been writing to someone else. It wouldn’t matter who, he could even say he didn’t know. That way he could keep himself from getting arrested.” Agravaine had probably meant to kill Glover that second night after Leon and Arthur had left, to preserve the story he’d told. No one would have been the wiser.
“He’d become regent,” Leon realized. “Arthur—”
The door opened and Merlin came in. He grinned when he saw them, and triumphantly held up a folded square of paper.
“You got it!” Arthur strode forward and snatched it from his hand, scanning it to make sure it was the same letter he remembered.
“No need to sound so surprised.” Merlin closed the door and moved forward to join the knights.
“Didn’t know you had such sticky fingers, Merlin,” Gwaine said appraisingly. “What are you doing slumming it as Arthur’s servant? You could make a fortune at a single council meeting.”
Merlin smiled easily. “I’m not a thief, Gwaine. I just have many underappreciated talents.”
Arthur pursed his lips and looked away. The resentment and hurt flared back up again, briefly. Lying clearly came naturally to Merlin. Arthur wondered lowly whether he enjoyed it, being able to fool people so easily.
Merlin seemed to realize what he’d said then, and his smile vanished. The expression that replaced it was a strange mix of remorse and anger.
The knights looked between them in consternation, and Arthur quickly cleared his throat before they could ask.
“Did you take so long because you were eavesdropping on them?” he asked Merlin, trying not to let anything other than his usual irritation seep into his voice.
Arthur rolled his eyes. “Ignoring how stupid that was, with all those servants running around, I’ll ask if you heard anything useful.”
To Arthur’s disappointment, Merlin shook his head. “Not much. Agravaine just asked if their evening plans for after the feast were still in place. Glover said they were, and asked about the details. Agravaine said they were gone to the fire.” Merlin paused. “Which was a lie, obviously.”
“Obviously,” Arthur agreed. A letter eliminated the risk of being overheard plotting, especially in detail, but was also much more likely to be intercepted. Agravaine had set Glover up quite nicely, which meant either Glover was much more stupid than Arthur had given him credit for, or Agravaine much more cunning. Neither option was particularly appealing.
“Agravaine’s the one working with Morgana, isn’t he?” Gwaine asked. “The traitor we’ve been looking for.”
Arthur nodded. “He is.”
Gwaine’s expression was sour. “I did wonder, sometimes.”
“Really?” Leon frowned at him.
“Nothing concrete. Just once or twice he would say something…” Gwaine met Arthur’s eyes. “I would have told you, if I thought there was anything to it.”
The and if I thought you’d have believed me instead of knocking me on my arse went unsaid. Arthur had been desperate for someone to trust after Morgana’s betrayal, and, with his father unwell, Agravaine had been the closest family he’d had left.
He’d misjudged Agravaine. He’d misjudged Merlin as well. One wanted to kill him. The other wanted to save him, though not for the reasons Arthur would have preferred. What else had he been wrong about? Who else wasn’t who they appeared to be?
Arthur pushed the thought away. He gave Gwaine a nod. He couldn’t fall into paranoia, couldn’t stop trusting himself now, couldn’t let himself think about just how much of his life was a lie. That way lay madness.
“If he’s working with Morgana…” Leon began. Arthur met his eyes. He nodded.
Merlin had gone slightly pale, and Gwaine looked between them all. “What?”
“Agravaine wouldn’t be regent for very long,” Arthur said. “In that position, he’d be free to let Morgana in to take the throne for herself.”
“None of us would stand for that!” Gwaine retorted. “Unless she planned on fighting an entire army—”
“She wouldn’t have to,” Arthur said, “if she brought her own.”
There was a ringing silence at this pronouncement. Arthur had been turning it over in his head, trying to figure out how likely it was, but now, saying it, he knew it must be true.
“Agravaine could have divided my men,” Arthur went on. “Martyn would be angry about his father’s arrest, and if Agravaine sent men to his keep to stop them from taking up arms against us, our forces here would be reduced. Morgana would have an even easier time taking over.”
That, Arthur could see now, was why they needed a visiting lord involved. To take the fall for Arthur’s death, and to start an internal conflict in the kingdom, weakening Camelot from within. It was smart, Arthur could admit that. Even those times Agravaine hadn’t killed Arthur, it had worked. Because Merlin had been dead. Because Agravaine would have counseled him to send forces to keep Martyn in line anyway, and maybe Morgana would have attacked either way.
Because, for all his multiple opportunities, Arthur had failed to act.
Well. That couldn’t happen again.
“Will she still attack if you’re alive?” Gwaine asked.
“She might,” Arthur said. “Which is why we need to question Agravaine.”
“You said you wanted to continue with the knighting ceremony,” Leon said.
Arthur nodded. “I’ll cancel the council meeting. Maybe ask them both to meet me in the audience chambers instead.” More than questioning Agravaine about Morgana’s plan, he wanted to know why. Why had his own uncle turned on him? What possible reason could he have to betray everything Arthur held dear?
“Won’t they be suspicious?” Gwaine asked. “If you cancel the meeting and then summon just the two of them.”
“Perhaps,” Arthur conceded. “But they can’t refuse me without casting suspicion on themselves, and they were planning to kill me anyway. They won’t know any of you will be there as well. Perhaps they’ll even think this is exactly the opportunity they need.”
Merlin turned to Arthur. “I can let them know.” When Arthur frowned at him, Merlin clarified, “After the knighting ceremony. I can tell them that you need to speak to them about something important. I’ll lead them to the audience chambers; that way they can’t plan anything with each other on the way.”
Arthur’s gut reaction was to refuse him, to assign someone else to the task. He had lost his belief in Merlin’s reasons; knowing Merlin didn’t mean him harm wasn’t the same as trusting him. Even with such a small task. But he could see that Merlin knew what he was asking. The tiny seed of hope in Arthur’s chest grew, just a little. Slowly, Arthur nodded.
Merlin exhaled and stepped back. Arthur looked away. “All right,” he said. “That’s the plan, then.”
“We’ll bring Percival and Elyan too?” Gwaine asked.
Arthur nodded. “No one else.”
Gwaine grinned wolfishly. “Let’s go catch ourselves some traitors.”
Even though Arthur was the one leading it, the knighting ceremony seemed to drag by. Agravaine and Glover stood in the front row, separated by several other lords, and looked on amiably. As had been the case the previous four times Arthur had done this, he couldn’t detect any disdain on their faces.
Arthur resisted the urge to rush through the ceremony. He may have done this four times, but his newly named knights hadn’t. Hopefully, this would be the version they remembered. They didn’t deserve for Arthur to be distracted.
Finally, it was done. Arthur congratulated his new knights once more as people began to make their way out of the hall. Gwaine caught his eye and jerked his head toward the door. Arthur gave him a nod and glanced around. He saw a few of the servants darting from lord to lord, informing them that the meeting had been cancelled, and then Merlin himself as he lingered near Glover and Agravaine, who stood speaking with another council member. Merlin nodded at him when he saw Arthur watching, and Arthur breathed out slowly. Merlin would give him and the others time to get into position before he led Agravaine and Glover to them.
With difficulty, Arthur turned and left the hall.
Gwaine caught up with him on the way to the audience chambers, and they walked together in silence the rest of the way. When Arthur pushed open the doors, he saw that Elyan, Percival, and Leon had already arrived.
“Sire,” Elyan started forward. “Your uncle. Is it really true?”
Arthur sighed. “I’m afraid so.”
“I’m sorry, Arthur.”
“Me too.” He looked around at his knights. “Thank you all for your help in this matter.”
“Of course, Arthur,” Leon said. “You know we’re always here for you.”
Arthur nodded. This was his family now, his knights and… well. He didn’t know what Merlin was. But it was clear that Agravaine hadn’t been his family for quite some time.
They settled in to wait. It was long enough that Arthur began to wonder if something had gone wrong, if Agravaine and Glover had realized they’d been found out. Or if perhaps Merlin had taken the opportunity to run for it.
No, Arthur told himself forcefully. Merlin had said himself that he couldn’t have taken the chance of Arthur exiling him. That he was here to protect him. For the first time, Arthur’s anger flared toward the Druids. Had he not treated them with civility in recent years? Why had they too kept this prophecy from him? Was he meant to be merely a pawn in his own destiny?
They all jumped when they heard Agravaine’s voice drifting down the hall. The knights retreated into the shadows as Arthur took his seat on the throne and did his best to appear relaxed.
“—what this is about?”
“I’m afraid you’ll need to wait for the king to explain, my lords,” Merlin answered demurely. A moment later the doors opened, and Agravaine and Glover came striding in, followed closely by Merlin.
Arthur released a slow breath.
Agravaine and Glover both inclined their heads respectfully. “My lord,” Agravaine began. “Merlin here tells us you have something important to discuss with us.”
“I do,” Arthur agreed. A strange sort of calm settled over him. He looked at Agravaine, but he no longer saw his uncle. Somehow, the man before him looked like a stranger, a snake that had slid into Arthur’s court and inserted himself as if he belonged. He’d fooled them all for so long.
He’d fool them no longer.
The sound of wood on metal startled the two lords, and they turned to see Elyan and Percival closing the doors before taking up position in front of them. Merlin moved so he was standing by a column near Arthur.
Agravaine and Glover turned back to him, and both visibly startled when they saw Gwaine and Leon standing on either side of Arthur’s throne, having appeared seemingly from nowhere.
“Arthur? What’s going on?”
“Why don’t you tell me, Uncle?” Arthur asked. His eyes moved to Glover. “Or perhaps, you, Lord Glover, would care to explain?” He took the letter from his pocket and held it up, made sure they recognized it. “Because it appears to me that you were planning on assassinating the king.”
Glover’s face contorted in anger. Agravaine went pale.
“Assassinating you? Arthur—”
Arthur was out of his seat so fast that Agravaine took a step back in surprise, but he addressed Glover instead. “This letter is in your own hand, Lord Glover. We have previous correspondence to compare it to, so I wouldn’t waste time attempting to deny it. If you cooperate with our investigation, perhaps I will be more inclined to show you leniency.”
Glover’s face had turned an ugly shade of puce. His eyes flickered between Arthur’s face and the letter, clearly searching for a way out, before he finally turned his glare on Agravaine. “You told me you’d destroyed it!”
Agravaine, if it was possible, turned even paler. Arthur waited, wondering how he was going to try to weasel his way out of this one.
“Destroyed – Arthur, I swear to you, I have never seen that piece of paper in my life. I don’t know what Lord Glover’s—”
“Really?” Arthur interrupted. “Lord Glover, you agree you wrote this letter to Lord Agravaine, then?”
Glover only seemed to realize his blunder then. But it was too late now, and Arthur had already told him the only way forward was to cooperate. He gave Arthur an angry nod.
“Arthur—” Agravaine began.
“Silence,” Arthur snapped. “I’m sure Lord Glover here won’t feel as bad betraying you when he learns that you meant for him to take the fall for my death.”
Glover’s head snapped up to look at Agravaine. Agravaine stared at Arthur, his mouth opening and closing with no sound coming out.
“And then planned to lead Morgana in to take the throne,” Arthur added. Agravaine’s mouth snapped shut, and Arthur turned away, disgusted.
“Arthur,” Agravaine began in a low voice,” whoever’s told you this, whoever’s framed me—”
Arthur whirled on him. “Framed you? Framed you? I should have known you were the traitor from the start, uncle. You never showed much of an interest in my life until my father was barely well enough to recognize you, and I was forced to act as king after having suffered a terrible betrayal. Everything you’ve done – it’s all been an attempt to weaken me, to weaken Camelot, hasn’t it? It was you who encouraged me to kill Caerleon. It was you who gave away our secret routes. It was you who framed Gaius.” He could see Merlin stiffen in his peripheral vision, and wondered how much more there was to that story – to all of them, really.
He couldn’t get answers from Merlin directly, not now. But he could get them from Agravaine.
“I want you to be honest with me now, because it’s your last chance to be.” Arthur paused. “Why did you do this? Why would you betray your own nephew?”
The room was deathly silent. Arthur could feel Leon and Gwaine’s presence at his back, strong and steady. He could see Elyan and Percival out of the corner of his eye, guarding the door and listening raptly. He could see Merlin too, gaze fixed unerringly on Agravaine.
Agravaine searched his face, and Arthur watched as he came to the slow conclusion that there really was no way out of this, that this really was the end of his treasonous career. Slowly, Agravaine let the mask of the caring uncle slip, until it was replaced by something far nastier, far crueler.
“Uther killed my sister,” Agravaine snarled. “And when my brother challenged him over it, he killed him, too. All he cared about was having an heir, and he sacrificed Ygraine for it. And when she died he turned not only on the witch who helped him make that sacrifice, but all magic-users.” Agravaine shook his head. “He was arrogant and a hypocrite. I’m glad he’s dead. I’m glad I helped kill him.”
The floor rocked beneath Arthur’s feet.
He was back in that ruined castle, with the vision of his mother before him, explaining the truth of his birth. He was back on his horse, riding back to Camelot, anger simmering beneath his skin. He was back in the council chambers, holding his own father at sword point, seeing Uther and his hypocrisy clearly for the first time.
It was true. It was all true. His father had taken out his guilt and anger on an entire group of people. Agravaine had even mentioned it when speaking to Merlin the previous night, hadn’t he? Arthur had let it slide by, had been so focused on Merlin and his magic, but this…
And Arthur had helped. Arthur had stood by and watched and done nothing.
Agravaine smirked. “Didn’t know that, did you?”
Merlin’s voice cut in, urgent. “Arthur—”
“Quiet,” Arthur snapped. Merlin took back the step he’d taken, lowering his eyes at Arthur’s glare in his direction. He would explain this, too.
Arthur looked back at Agravaine, who was watching him smugly. “You helped kill him?”
“Morgana finally achieved her goal of killing Uther,” he sneered. “I placed an enchanted pendant around his neck, to reverse any healing magic. That sorcerer you found? He was always doomed to fail.”
Arthur almost wanted to laugh at the irony of it. The one thing all the sorcerers he’d ever faced seemed to want above anything else was Uther’s head on a spike, and Arthur’s beside it. And yet this one… this one had tried to save him. It was Morgana’s tampering that had set Arthur even more firmly against magic.
“Where is Morgana now?” Arthur asked.
Agravaine scoffed. “Do not expect any answers from me.”
“You planned to kill me here, in my own castle, surrounded by men loyal to me. You intended for Glover to take the blame while you assumed the role of regent. How long would it have been before Morgana arrived here with her forces to take the throne?”
Glover turned away, shaking his head. Arthur didn’t take his eyes from Agravaine’s face, which was going through a complicated cycle of emotions, from shock to anger to defiance, and, finally, to a slight twinge of fear. Arthur felt a perverse sense of satisfaction at having scared him.
“I will tell you nothing,” Agravaine said in a low voice. “Kill me if you wish. Morgana will win in the end no matter what.”
“What happens to you then?” Arthur asked. “Once I’m dead and Morgana sits on the throne. You expect to be her advisor, is that it? Her trusted right hand?”
“We will rule Camelot the way it’s meant to be ruled!”
Arthur raised an eyebrow. “After all your failures here today? Morgana is not as forgiving as I once believed. What use would she have for you?” Agravaine spluttered. Arthur stepped forward, leaning into Agravaine’s space. “Tell me where she is.”
Agravaine squared his shoulders. “No.”
Arthur knew then that he would get no answers from Agravaine. His hatred ran too deep.
“Fine.” He nodded at Leon. “You can listen from the dungeons as we defeat her for a second time, and face your punishment knowing you have failed.”
Leon came forward to take Agravaine by the arm. “I wouldn’t try anything, if I were you,” he warned. Arthur rarely heard him use a voice so cold; he felt a surge of gratitude for Leon’s faith in him. He sat back down as the knights led Glover and Agravaine out. Percival gave him a solemn nod, and a slightly more commiserating one to Merlin before closing the door behind him.
And then they were alone.
Arthur stared down at his hands. “You knew,” he said quietly. “Didn’t you?”
Merlin took a shaky breath. “I knew,” he said. “Gaius confirmed it.”
Arthur nodded to himself. “Was this before or after you stopped me from killing my father?”
“Before,” Merlin replied quietly.
Arthur looked up at him sharply. “You must have been tempted,” he said. “I was ready to do away with all my father’s laws, to bring back magic. And still, you stopped me.”
Merlin was quiet for a long moment, searching his face. Arthur wondered what he saw there. Then, finally, “I couldn’t let you kill your own father, Arthur. You would never have been able to forgive yourself.”
Arthur sat back. The words clung to his throat, and his voice was hoarse when he finally forced them out. “Why are you here, Merlin?”
Merlin frowned. “What do you mean?”
“Are you here to fulfill a prophecy? Guide me to my destiny? Make me into this once and future king of yours?”
“Of course,” Merlin said, and Arthur closed his eyes. His hope fizzled in his chest. “That’s not the only reason I’m here, though,” Merlin went on, and Arthur’s eyes flew open. “Is that what you think? You really are thick, aren’t you?”
“Merlin,” Arthur growled, leaning forward. “Say what you mean.”
Merlin rolled his eyes. “How many times do I have to say it? You’re my friend, Arthur. You truly were a prat when I met you, and when I heard that prophecy, I thought it must be about someone else. And then I got to know you, and I saw that you were honorable, and true to your word, and that you listen to those around you. You care about your people, all of them. That is what makes you a great king. The prophecy didn’t make who you are. The prophecy exists because you are who you are.”
Something was swelling in Arthur’s chest, something wide and warm and overwhelming. “So you…”
“I’d be here either way,” Merlin said firmly.
How could Arthur have ever thought anything different? He’d been an idiot.
“Merlin,” Arthur said hoarsely. “Thank you. And I’m sorry. My father…”
Merlin grinned. “Wow, a thank you and an apology. Never thought I’d see the day.”
“My father,” Arthur pressed, ignoring him in favor of getting through the rest of his apology, “took out his anger and fear on everyone like you. I always thought… it always seemed justified to me. I… the way I reacted, even today, was wrong.”
Merlin sighed. “It’s not wrong to be cautious,” he said. “Magic is power. And power can corrupt. Power can be dangerous, depending on how it’s wielded. Morgana is one example.” He met Arthur’s eyes. “Your father is another.”
Merlin was right. Arthur was constantly considering how his actions would reverberate through the kingdom, who they would affect, and how, and whether he was doing something because he wanted to or because it was the right thing to do. Perhaps this was why Merlin had always been able to understand him so well. They both carried an enormous responsibility, and they both had the potential to take advantage of their positions. And they both always strove to do what was right, and no more.
“Much of the magic I’ve seen,” Arthur began quietly, “has been in pursuit of hurting people. My father condemned us to that, I can see that now.” It was like a self-fulfilling prophecy, a vicious cycle that only deepened the divide. “But there have been times I’ve seen it used for good. I took them as exceptions when I shouldn’t have.”
Merlin’s expression was sad. “Can you see now why I didn’t tell you?”
Arthur rubbed a hand over his face. Of course Merlin hadn’t felt that he could tell him. How could he have been so blind?
“Maybe I was wrong too,” Merlin went on. Arthur looked up at him. Merlin shook his head. “What you said earlier about me not trusting you to do your job. It was never that. I didn’t want you to struggle any more than you already were. And I was scared of losing your friendship. I’ve made so many decisions I’m not proud of.” There was a far-away look in Merlin’s eye, the hints of a deep, long-held grief. Multiple griefs, maybe. “Maybe if I’d shared some of that with you, given you the chance… maybe you’d have seen that your father was wrong a long time ago.”
“Letting my father live, when I was ready to kill him… You protected me at the cost of… so many others.” He felt he was being pressed on from two sides; the force of his own guilt, for being complicit in his father’s continued persecutions, and the force of Merlin’s regard for him, that had saved him from committing patricide.
Merlin’s face cracked then, revealing an anguish so deep Arthur flinched at the sight of it. “I think about that every day,” Merlin whispered. “Every single person your father had executed since then… every day I wonder if they’d still be alive, if I had let Uther die. If I had let you kill him.”
Arthur stood. He had never felt less worthy of his throne, of Merlin’s unending loyalty.
“Merlin,” he began, “you are not to blame for my father’s crimes. And I swear to you, you will never need to make that kind of choice again.” Merlin looked up at him. “But you need to promise me something as well.”
Merlin nodded. “Anything.”
“You need to come to me. If something happens, if there’s an issue, no matter what it is. All the things you kept from me all these years. We’ll make a decision together, even if you think it will hurt me. I need to know what’s truly happening within my own borders.”
Merlin looked down. “I know. It’s just easier sometimes…”
“I don’t care,” Arthur said. “I need – we need to be able to trust each other.”
Merlin met his eyes. “I will. There were times I wished I could have told you. I’m glad I can, now.”
“Good.” They looked at one another for a long moment, before finally Arthur huffed a laugh. “You’re an idiot Merlin, you know that?”
Merlin grinned slowly. “And you’re a clotpole.”
“You can’t call me that,” Arthur said, striding past him to the doors.
Merlin followed him out into the hall. “No? How about dollophead, then? Prat? Turnip-head? I could go on.”
Arthur pulled him into a headlock, evoking a surprised yelp from Merlin. “Go on then, I dare you.”
Merlin laughed. There was a sudden pressure on Arthur’s arm, there and gone, but it was enough for Merlin to slip away from him. He was still smiling, but there was something nervous in his eyes, and Arthur realized that Merlin had used magic on him.
Something jolted in Arthur’s stomach. He understood what Merlin was trying to do, knew that it was necessary. He had to make an effort, too.
“Cheater,” Arthur growled, and the smile that split Merlin’s face was worth the sun.
“Come on,” Arthur said. “We’ve still got an army to prepare for, or did you forget?”
“Of course not. I’m not the one who’s a cabbage-head.”
Arthur rolled his eyes, and pulled Merlin after him.
It wasn’t long before the entire castle knew of the impending battle. The air quickly became suffused with a nervous energy that wiped anything but grim apprehension from everyone’s faces. They all remembered what had happened the last time Morgana attacked. Arthur didn’t think she had an immortal army this time, but even so. She had failed to take Camelot before. She would be better prepared this time.
The very first thing Arthur did was dispatch scouts to the places along the border he thought Morgana would be most likely to place an army. There may well be a patrol returning now with news, but single riders were faster.
Next, he wrote a letter to Martyn. He explained what his father had done, and that he might consider leniency if Glover continued to cooperate. He also invited Martyn to come and see the truth of the situation for himself, if he so wished, but with no more than twenty men with him as escort. Anything larger would be considered a possible move against Camelot, and would be dealt with as such. He had Merlin send it by messenger pigeon, hoping that this letter would solve more problems than it caused.
News of Agravaine and Glover’s arrests had spread. No one knew what they were guilty of precisely, however, and the rumors had gotten quite extreme by the time Arthur gathered Glover’s retinue and the captain of his forces to tell them. They took the news about as well as could be expected, grumbling and muttering among themselves and throwing Arthur suspicious looks. Arthur wasn’t concerned; it was clear it was all talk and would remain as such. The captain, at least, who had been stationed in the citadel for years, assured him that his loyalty lay first with Camelot. Arthur was grateful. He would have been able to cause the most damage if he’d decided otherwise.
Much of the rest of the afternoon and evening was spent in war council, debating whether they had time to prepare for a siege or if it made more sense to meet Morgana on the open field. It was, Arthur discovered, frustratingly difficult to plan anything when they knew neither the size nor the direction from which her forces would approach.
The entire time, anxiety simmered in Arthur’s chest. He hoped they had stopped Merlin’s death with Agravaine’s arrest, and he hoped that meant the day would not repeat, that he would not have to do this all over again. But that was all they were – hopes. Gaius hadn’t found anything substantial about magic such as this. Perhaps changing as much as they had would be enough, or perhaps they’d need to perform some spell of their own.
As the night gathered, Arthur’s apprehension grew. When he looked up as the counselors and knights streamed out, and saw that Merlin was nowhere to be found, his anxiety spiked.
“So we’re riding out, then?”
Arthur jumped, and turned to see Merlin standing in the doorway. He let out a slow breath.
“In two days, if the army can be ready in that time.”
“You want to meet her on the open field.”
“We don’t have time to prepare for a siege,” Arthur said. “She’ll likely cross the border within a day or two, no matter where she is.”
Merlin watched him for a moment before turning to close the doors. “I, er, I should have told you,” he said, not meeting Arthur’s eyes. “Asked you. It’s just, you were in the middle of council and I couldn’t interrupt and I didn’t see the point in waiting—”
“What are you talking about?”
Merlin met his eyes. “I’ve been putting defensive wards on the castle walls. They’ll be – well, it’ll be clear we’re using magic if an army tries to get through them, but I’d been reading about them, and I thought, since you know now…”
Arthur leaned back. “You should have asked me. This is – Merlin, this is exactly what I meant.”
“I know. Force of habit. I’m sorry.” He sounded sincere, and Arthur believed he was.
“How do these wards work?” Arthur asked. He’d never heard of such a thing, only of offensive magic used in battle, and he was curious. “They’d give us additional protection in case of a siege?”
Merlin nodded. “They’ll act as a barrier, so the enemy can’t actually touch the walls to climb them. I’ve only done one layer so far, so I’m not sure how long they’ll last if Morgana starts dismantling them, but it may buy us some time.”
Arthur marveled at him. He may not know much about magic, but this… Merlin must be powerful indeed if could erect defensive magic around an entire castle with so little effort.
“How much time?”
Merlin shook his head. “Not much. A few hours. I’ve never done anything like this.”
Arthur looked back down at the maps littering the table. They’d withstand a siege for a few hours more than they might have, but it didn’t give them any additional time to prepare.
“There’s still the issue of supplies. This time of year, we don’t have enough for the entire town for very long. It would take too much time to gather more.” Arthur paused. “And Morgana will not spare the surrounding villages just because we’re cooped up here.”
Meeting Morgana in the open field was an only marginally better option. Arthur knew that her forces couldn’t be very large – the neighboring kingdoms were also not particularly friendly towards magic, and though they might set aside their prejudice for opportunism, they’d never give Morgana their armies if she hadn’t promised them something in return. Herself on the throne of Camelot wouldn’t appeal to them. Which meant that her forces were likely largely composed of mercenary groups she’d paid to fight for her. Arthur liked his chances against them, for the most part, but the issue of possible magic-users among them evened the odds.
“Well,” Merlin said, “I always thought I could be more useful if I could work out in the open.”
Arthur’s head jerked up. “What?”
Merlin’s lips twitched. “You don’t really think your sword is a match for her, do you?”
Arthur looked at him. On the surface, Merlin appeared calm, unruffled, relaxed, even. And yet, there was a slight hitch in his breath, a forced stillness to his body.
“You don’t have to do that,” Arthur said.
“Who else is going to?”
“No. You need to stay safe. If you die—”
“Then I die,” Merlin said. Arthur stared at him. “Look,” Merlin continued. “I don’t know if your day will repeat again if I die. If it does, we can do it differently the next time. But for the record, I think I can beat her. I know I can beat her.”
“How do you know?”
“I’m more powerful,” Merlin said simply. “And Emrys – she doesn’t know he’s me. But she’s terrified of him. That will help.”
“None of that ensures you’ll win,” Arthur argued. “Morgana’s smart. She could find a way around you.”
“I won’t let her.”
“You send your knights into battle with nothing but a sword.” He tilted his head. “If you think about it, I’m much better protected than any of them.”
Arthur knew Merlin was right. He hadn’t seen Merlin’s magic in action, didn’t know the extent of what he could do, but he’d be a poor strategist indeed if he didn’t allow his most powerful man to fight.
His most powerful man. Merlin. Part of Arthur wanted to laugh hysterically. The other part wanted to double check that Merlin had no aspirations to the crown.
“All right,” Arthur heard himself say. Red blood on gray stone flashed through his head. He pushed the image away. “But only if we’re losing. We don’t need our own army attacking you.”
Merlin nodded. Arthur wished he could tell his forces to expect they might receive magical help, and that it would come from Merlin, but he knew it wouldn’t go over as smoothly as he wanted it to. It would only put an additional target on Merlin’s back.
“You should get some rest,” Merlin said.
Arthur glanced up at the window. It was dark outside, and he realized with a jolt that it was later than it had ever been, the previous four days. He huffed a relieved laugh.
“What is it?”
Arthur strode forward and clapped Merlin on the shoulder, then continued out of the council chambers. Merlin followed. “I think perhaps we’re past the danger of the day repeating.”
Merlin frowned. “Are we? We still don’t know what caused it…”
“Well, you’re alive, and we’re still here, so if that’s the trigger, then I suggest you do your best to keep it that way.”
“Oh, yes, only to spare you the inconvenience, sire.”
“Shut up, Merlin.”
Merlin snorted. They walked the rest of the way to Arthur’s chambers in silence, Arthur’s mind drifting to what a magical battle between Merlin and Morgana might look like. But he quickly discovered that his imagination was sorely lacking.
“Merlin,” Arthur said once they’d closed the door behind them, safe from any prying ears. “Would you – can you show me?”
Merlin turned slowly to look at him. “Show you what?”
“I’ve only seen you use magic a few times,” Arthur said. “But it was never when I asked. So. I’m asking now.”
Merlin looked at him for a long moment, then took a steadying breath. “All right. What would you like to see?”
Arthur waved his hand. “I don’t know. Anything.”
Merlin looked around the room. Arthur wondered how he saw it, how many possibilities were contained just within these stone walls. How many possibilities existed out in the world.
“All right,” Merlin repeated quietly.
He whispered a word, and Arthur saw his eyes flash gold a second before every flame in the room went out. They were left in an eerie darkness, with only faint moonlight streaming in through the window.
Merlin whispered another word, the gold of his eyes bright in the darkness this time, and the candles and hearth burst back to life.
Arthur exhaled slowly. Even that innocent display had set his heart racing, had tensed his muscles. But there had been something beautiful about it too, about how the world molded at Merlin’s fingertips.
“Well, this explains your knack with fires,” Arthur said dryly.
Merlin affected an offended air. “Are you implying I regularly use magic in front of the king and his knights without their knowledge?”
Arthur raised an eyebrow. “Yes, I am. Have you always been so reckless?”
“No, definitely not. I learned it from this royal prat I know.”
“Oh, did you?”
“Yeah, I did, actually. He’s constantly running into danger, no regard for his own life. Drags his poor manservant along with him. No idea how he isn’t dead yet.”
“Well, that’s thanks to you,” Arthur said quietly. Merlin’s face softened.
“I meant what I said, you know. I’ll fight for you. Until the end, if I have to.”
“Merlin…” Arthur was still in awe, still unsure how he had earned Merlin’s loyalty. “Thank you. I—”
The clang of the warning bell broke the moment.
Arthur and Merlin looked at each other. “Do you think—” Merlin began.
The sound of weapons clashing reached them. Arthur pulled Merlin away from the door and drew his sword.
A moment later the door crashed open, and Agravaine came rushing in.
He looked wild, a mad glint in his eye, a determination that unsettled Arthur.
Agravaine lunged. He had gotten a sword from somewhere – Arthur blocked and pushed him off. “Don’t reveal yourself,” he hissed at Merlin before moving forward.
“Uncle,” Arthur greeted. There was nothing familial remaining in the word; it was simply a statement of fact.
“I’m going to kill you, Arthur,” Agravaine snarled. “I’m going to kill you as I meant to do all along, and then Morgana will accept me back into her good graces. I’ll rule at her side, and the Pendragon tyranny will finally be over.” Agravaine lunged again, and Arthur parried easily. His uncle had never been the most skilled of swordsmen, but his mania made him dangerous.
“Morgana is my sister,” Arthur said calmly. “She’s as much a Pendragon as I am.”
Agravaine gave an angry roar and swiped at Arthur. Arthur dodged to the side, turning, but Agravaine kept coming, relentless. Arthur didn’t want to kill him, not like this, not while he was half-crazed with fear, knowing he had no options left. There was only one way back into Morgana’s good graces. He wouldn’t stop until Arthur was dead, or he was.
Having failed to land a hit on Arthur, Agravaine let up on his attacks, and they began to circle one another.
“I intend to be a better king than my father was,” Arthur said. “I would ask to be judged on my own actions, and not his.”
“Oh, it is far too late for that. You are weak and small-minded. Only Morgana can bring the change Camelot deserves.”
Arthur thought of all the wrongs he had committed in the name of Camelot. All the ways he had been wrong about the world, about what it meant to protect his people. He thought of Merlin, and how a simple fact about how he’d been born had nearly broken Arthur’s trust in him.
“You’re wrong,” Arthur said. “I have learned more than you could possibly know these past few days, uncle, and I intend to correct the mistakes of the past. There has been far too much suffering in this kingdom. I think we can agree on that much, can’t we?”
He could see Merlin over Agravaine’s shoulder now, watching with tense shoulders. There was something gentle in his eyes as he met Arthur’s gaze, and Arthur had the sense that, slowly, he was being forgiven.
Agravaine leapt forward, and Arthur only just got his sword up in time. Agravaine turned their crossed blades toward the ground, but before Arthur could back away, he smashed the pommel of his sword into the side of Arthur’s head.
Arthur wasn’t sure what happened next, but when the world came back into focus he was on the ground. Agravaine was across the room, his posture cautious. Merlin stood between them, his back to Arthur and his hand slightly raised in readiness. Arthur saw it all as if it was underwater, muted and dim.
“Morgana only rains death and destruction on Camelot,” Merlin was saying, his voice icy. “I will have no part in that.”
Arthur breathed deeply, attempting to focus through the pounding in his head.
“What will Arthur think of you now, I wonder?” Agravaine sneered. “He’ll treat you no differently from any other sorcerer.”
Merlin raised his head. He stood up straighter. “I don’t want to be treated differently. I want to be treated like any other person. Arthur can bring that change. He will bring that change. But not if you don’t give him the chance.”
Arthur blinked rapidly, trying to clear his dizziness. Was he bleeding? With a great effort, he groaned and pushed himself to his knees.
“Arthur?” Merlin’s voice was closer, and Arthur opened his eyes to see that he’d turned to look at him. A shape leapt toward Merlin, but Arthur couldn’t find his voice fast enough. Merlin must have seen something in his eyes, though, because he turned, his hands coming up, but it was too late. Agravaine’s sword pierced Merlin in the side just before he was blasted backwards into a column.
Arthur couldn’t find the breath to scream. He wrenched himself to standing, surprised to find his sword still in his hand. Agravaine was struggling to regain his feet; Arthur saw the fear leap across his face as he saw Arthur, as he realized that this time, he would not be able to escape. Arthur plunged his sword into Agravaine’s chest. There was one final gasp of shock, and then the man who should have been Arthur’s uncle fell and was still.
Arthur’s sword clattered to the ground. He collapsed to his knees at Merlin’s side, four previous versions of the same thing running through his throbbing head. He swayed slightly, pushing through his panic and his pain, forcing himself to focus on Merlin.
“Arthur,” Merlin gasped, hands pressed over his abdomen. “You—” He grit his teeth in pain, shutting his eyes. Arthur tore off his doublet, pressing it to the wound.
“Can you do anything?” Arthur asked urgently. “Heal it?”
Merlin gave him a painful smile. “I’ve never been much good at healing spells.” He looked at Arthur for a moment, then raised a hand to Arthur’s temple. His eyes flashed gold. The pain in Arthur’s head lessened significantly.
“Not me, you idiot! Heal yourself!”
“It’s harder,” Merlin muttered, his eyes fluttering shut.
“No, no, Merlin, stay awake,” Arthur ordered. “Don’t die on me now.” His thoughts were running wild with panic, with the idea that he’d had five chances now, and squandered all of them. That he wouldn’t get another.
Merlin forced his eyes open, and they seemed to be flecked with shimmering, shifting gold. Arthur could only hope that meant Merlin had listened and was trying to heal himself.
“Hold this.” Arthur took Merlin’s hand and pressed it down on the fabric; Merlin’s grip was weaker than he’d have liked, but it would have to do. He slid his hands under Merlin’s knees and back and lifted him, eliciting a pained groan, and Leon appeared in the doorway just as he turned.
“Sire!” Leon’s eyes fell on the scene before him. “What—”
“Come with me,” Arthur instructed, and they took off as fast as Arthur dared for Gaius’ chambers. A glance down at Merlin showed he had lost consciousness; Arthur pushed away the tendril of fear and tried to move a little faster.
“Is Glover still in the dungeons?” Arthur asked in an effort to distract himself.
“Yes,” Leon replied. “But we caught a young boy trying to sneak into the castle. He let slip that he was looking for Agravaine.”
Arthur clenched his jaw. That couldn’t mean anything good.
Gaius paled when he saw them. He instructed Arthur to lay Merlin down on the patient cot. Arthur continued to hold his now bloodied jacket down on Merlin’s wound as Gaius hurried to gather supplies. He set Leon to grinding ingredients for a tincture before taking his place opposite Arthur, bandages in hand.
“Was it Agravaine this time as well?” Gaius asked.
Arthur nodded tightly. Merlin’s face was pale, his breathing shallow. “He’ll be all right, won’t he?”
Gaius didn’t answer. Instead he finished bandaging and went to complete the tincture Leon had started, then had Arthur help him give it to Merlin. Finally Gaius sat back, his shoulders dropping, but Arthur still felt wound as tight as a bowstring.
“Sire,” Leon said quietly.
Arthur stared at Merlin for another moment before tearing his eyes away. “Gaius?”
Gaius looked up at Arthur. His face was worn, tired, old. “Merlin is strong,” he said quietly. “We shall have to wait and see.”
Arthur managed a shuddering breath. Leon was right. He had to go and find out what this boy they had apprehended knew about Morgana’s plans, and he had to go now.
“If you die, I’ll put in you the stocks for a week,” Arthur threatened softly. He squeezed Merlin’s shoulder, nodded to Gaius, and followed Leon out the door.
“He’ll pull through,” Leon said as they hurried through the corridors. “He always does.”
Arthur wished he could have the same certainty Leon seemed to. He had already seen Merlin die four times. He tried to tell himself that the injury was different this time, that Merlin had already lived much longer than any of the previous days, but it didn’t really make him feel any better.
“Who’s this boy you caught?”
Leon shook his head. “I’m not sure. The guard had just changed; a patrol caught him moving suspiciously along the castle walls. When they questioned him he said he had an urgent message for Lord Agravaine. That’s when they arrested him.”
Arthur nodded. It seemed Leon’s new patrol schedule was paying off already. “Is he in the dungeons now?”
“The audience chambers. I was already on my way to inform you when the warning bell rang and I realized Agravaine or Glover must have escaped.”
Leon had picked up Arthur’s sword from his chambers when he’d come in; Arthur slid it back into the scabbard at his belt. He felt slightly more secure with it.
When they entered the audience chambers, it was to find a boy kneeling in the center of the room, his hands tied behind his back. Several guards surrounded him. Gwaine, Elyan, and Percival were there as well.
“Leave us,” Arthur ordered the guards.
“What happened?” Gwaine asked as they left, staring at Arthur’s bloody tunic.
“Merlin’s been hurt,” he said shortly. Gwaine’s eyes widened, and the others tensed. “Gaius is taking care of it.”
It was clear Gwaine wanted to ask more, or maybe to take off running, but he restrained himself. They had an audience, and even Gwaine probably knew he’d be more of a hindrance than a help to Gaius. Besides, Arthur needed them here. He did his best to push his thoughts of Merlin aside and focus on the boy.
He hadn’t moved once since Arthur had entered. He sat with his head bowed, his faded cloak pooling around him. Arthur considered him for a moment before striding around so he was in front of him.
“Who are you?” Arthur asked bluntly.
The boy flinched but raised his head. Arthur was surprised to see that he was so young; likely no older than sixteen. He swallowed visibly at the state of Arthur’s clothes.
“Bryn, my lord.”
“And what were you doing looking for Lord Agravaine at this time of night, Bryn?”
Bryn fidgeted, looking back down at the ground. Arthur waited, even as his heart hammered, as his mind kept being thrown back to what might be happening in Gaius’ chambers, how Merlin’s heart might stop beating at any moment.
“You are young, so I am prepared to offer you leniency,” Arthur said when Bryn remained silent. “I think you’ll find I know more than you think I do. Are you working with Morgana?”
Bryn’s head snapped up at that, his eyes wide. He was terrified, Arthur could see that – terrified of Morgana, and terrified of him.
Well. One of those he could fix.
Arthur knelt so he was level with the boy. He could see his knights shifting slightly out of the corner of his eye, but he ignored them. Bryn stared at him, unsure, his breathing shaky.
“I won’t hurt you, Bryn,” Arthur told him quietly. “I just need to know what you know. I won’t let Morgana hurt you, either.”
Bryn swallowed and finally, finally, began to speak. “I was meant to take Lord Agravaine’s message back to the Lady Morgana.”
Arthur nodded. “And what was this message regarding?”
Bryn bit his lip. “He was meant to confirm that you – that you had been killed, my lord.”
Arthur’s mind began to turn, considering. “Please, stand,” he said to Bryn as he rose. Bryn looked uncertainly around at the knights, then climbed slowly to his feet.
“Where were you meant to meet him?”
“In the – in the dungeons, my lord.”
Arthur stopped. “Did you free him?” Bryn was looking at the ground again. “I need you to be honest with me, Bryn.”
“I – yes.”
Arthur let out a slow breath. “How?”
“I – I picked the lock.” Arthur narrowed his eyes. Bryn was still staring at the ground, but there was more to it than simple anxiety. He thought of all the excuses Merlin must have made over the years, all the funny explanations that Arthur had never questioned. He took in Bryn’s faded green cloak, his manner, his utter terror.
“Did you use magic?” Arthur asked.
Bryn gasped, taking a few steps back. His breathing was coming in short pants now, his eyes blown wide with panic.
“Bryn,” Arthur said calmly, holding up a hand. The knights had all tensed at the mention of magic, but everything would be ruined if any of them made an aggressive move now. “I won’t hurt you. You’re a Druid, aren’t you?”
Bryn stared at him, and slowly, seeing that Arthur hadn’t made any motions toward his sword, his breathing evened out. Finally, he nodded.
Arthur nodded back. “All right.” He made a quick calculation. He needed to know what Bryn knew about Morgana and her army, but he also needed to build his trust. The army wasn’t ready to march out yet in any case, and if Morgana had gone to the trouble of sending a messenger, she would wait at least until morning for his return. They had a little bit of time.
“How did you end up working for Morgana?”
Bryn looked away, and when he spoke his voice was wet. “My – my family. They were killed – a few years ago now. By – by your father’s men. I was all alone. She found me. She said I could help her build a world that welcomed magic. So that – so that no one had to die for who they were ever again.”
Arthur closed his eyes. It was so obvious. How had his father not seen it? How had he not seen it?
“I am sorry for my father’s crimes against your people,” Arthur said. “And for my own. I am sorry that they have made us into enemies so needlessly. I cannot bring your family back, but I do not wish to rule as my father did. I am sorry that it has taken me quite some time to realize that.”
Bryn looked at him uncertainly. “The – the Lady Morgana said you were like him.”
“I failed her,” Arthur admitted. “In that she felt she could not come to me when she needed help. But her methods… they will only breed more fear and hatred. They will only deepen the divide. I want to build a kingdom where people can trust one another, and where they are treated fairly. We are not there yet, but I hope that in time, we will be.”
Bryn’s mind seemed to be turning. “Is – is Emrys helping you?”
Arthur managed to stifle his surprise, but only just. Of course. Bryn was a Druid. “He is,” Arthur said vaguely.
Bryn nodded. “Morgana – she said that Emrys was a traitor to his own kind. But he’s meant to help unite the land of Albion and bring about a golden age. It was just… nothing was changing, so I thought she might be right.”
“She’s not,” Arthur said. “It will take time, but there is change on the horizon. I promise you.” But you have to live, Merlin. You have to. Arthur couldn’t imagine trying to do any of this without him.
Bryn nodded, and there was something like wonder on his face. When Arthur looked away from him it was to see his knights staring at him. Leon looked slightly disconcerted, Elyan uncertain, and Percival thoughtful. Gwaine was watching Arthur with a shrewd sort of suspicion, which Arthur was at a loss to explain. It didn’t matter at the moment. There would be time to explain to them and hear their thoughts later.
“Cut his bonds,” Arthur said to Elyan. Leon looked like he wanted to protest, but kept his silence. Elyan looked slightly apprehensive as he obeyed, but it was abundantly clear to Arthur that Bryn meant none of them any harm. If he wanted to change people’s minds, he would have to start with those closest to him.
“Now,” Arthur said, “you said you freed Agravaine from his cell?”
Bryn nodded, more confident now. “I only know a few small spells. Fire spells, mending charms. And – and unlocking charms as well.”
“That’s how you got into the dungeons.”
“I was meant to meet Agravaine at the gate. But when he didn’t show up, I went in myself. I found him locked in a cell. He told me to free him, so I did.”
“And what did he tell you then?” Arthur asked.
“He told me to wait in the Lower Town, so I wouldn’t look suspicious. I was out in the forest all day, waiting for evening. I was scared that if I came into the city someone would know…”
That he was a Druid, and therefore a likely magic-user. “But that’s not how you were caught,” Arthur said.
“I – Lord Agravaine didn’t return for a long time. I knew the Lady Morgana would need to know what had happened, so I tried to sneak in to find him. That was when they caught me.”
Bryn’s story seemed genuine, and the boy was clearly eager to be honest with Arthur after the safety Arthur had promised him.
“What about Morgana’s forces? Where are they?”
“Directly east of here, on the border. I heard her say that was the fastest way for an army to reach the citadel.”
Arthur considered. Bryn was right, if one thought only in terms of distance, but wetlands, though on the drier side this time of year, still weren’t the easiest land for an army to cross. His first guess had been farther to the north, but perhaps Morgana’s magic could help with the impassability.
“Do you know when she expected to march?” he asked.
“Er… a day or two from now? I think that was what some of the soldiers were saying.”
It was as Arthur had suspected. If Agravaine had succeeded in killing him, two days would have been enough time to send part of Camelot’s forces to deal with any uprising Martyn might stage, and therefore divide them effectively.
“Is there anything else you can tell me?” Bryn shook his head. “All right. Thank you, Bryn.”
Arthur turned away, thinking. Their army was scrambling to make ready. It was highly unlikely they’d leave the citadel as fully prepared as Arthur would like, whether that was the morning after next or even several days from now. Readying for a siege was now an even worse idea than it had been, with Merlin in his condition and unable to reinforce those wards. There would be casualties either way, on both sides.
Arthur glanced at Bryn. He’d assumed that most of Morgana’s army would be comprised of mercenaries, but how many boys like Bryn were there? They would be forced to fight as well. If there was some way to avoid all of this…
An idea began to form. Arthur was tempted to dismiss it out of hand for its boldness, but forced himself to consider. How well did he know Morgana? How would she react? Slowly, he turned to Bryn.
“I’m going to ask you to do something,” Arthur said. “It may be dangerous, and I won’t force you. But I want to avoid bloodshed, if at all possible, and I think this is our best chance.”
Bryn looked nervous at that, but when he spoke his voice was steady. “I can do it. What is it?”
Something twinged in Arthur’s chest. In some ways, Bryn reminded him of himself, desperate to prove himself, to right his wrongs. He thought of Merlin, and the pain in his eyes at the choices he’d had to make. He thought of his own guilt, the people he’d hurt in an effort to please his father.
It had to end. All of it.
“I need you to take a message to Morgana.”
Arthur stood outside Gaius’ chambers, swaying slightly on his feet. He was exhausted, and anxious, and most of all scared of what he would find if he opened the door.
But there was nothing to do now but wait, and he had to know.
The room was quiet when he stepped inside. Gaius was cleaning up his workstation. Merlin lay in his cot, still far paler than was healthy, but Arthur could see his chest rising and falling. He let out a slow breath.
“How is he?” Arthur asked quietly.
Gaius’ head jerked up. “Sire,” he greeted. Arthur moved slowly to stand at Merlin’s feet.
“Merlin is strong,” Gaius said. “He has always been a fast healer. I believe his magic helps in that regard. Unless there are any unexpected complications, he’ll recover.”
Arthur stared at Merlin’s pale face. How badly had he gotten hurt in the past, that Gaius knew that his magic aided in healing him? How many times had Arthur failed to notice?
Arthur sank slowly into the chair next to the cot. He needed to hear everything, every time Merlin had had to go behind his back, every time he’d done something he wasn’t proud of, all for Arthur. He didn’t feel deserving of that kind of loyalty.
“What else has happened?” Gaius asked.
Arthur leaned forward and explained that Morgana had sent Bryn, that he’d used magic to break Agravaine out, that he’d gotten caught. That he’d told Arthur all he knew.
“The boy used magic to break Agravaine out of his cell,” Gaius said when Arthur paused.
“He did,” Arthur agreed.
“What will be done with him?”
“Right now, he’s taking a message to Morgana for me. He’s done more good than bad. His only crime was doing what he thought he had to to survive. I won’t reward him with punishment.”
There was a long pause. “Will he be an exception?”
Arthur looked up. Gaius’ eyes were on Merlin.
“No. Things… things will have to change. I can see that now.”
Something like pride flickered in Gaius’ eyes. Arthur hid a small smile.
He told Gaius what the message he’d sent with Bryn contained. “Do you think it will work?” he asked.
Gaius looked thoughtful. “We shall have to wait and see. But I don’t believe there is anything else you could have said that would have a better chance of working.”
Arthur nodded, and they sat together in silence. Gaius’ support allowed his mind to slow down, to finally release the stress and adrenaline he’d been carrying all day. His worry about how Morgana would respond to his message remained, but he couldn’t do anything more about it now. Gwaine or Elyan would return tomorrow with news. He’d know then.
Tomorrow. It seemed such a strange concept, after five days of not making it there.
“I’m going to get some sleep,” Gaius said eventually.
Arthur glanced up. “I’d like to stay, if that’s all right.”
Gaius nodded. “Of course. But Arthur, you need to rest too.”
Arthur nodded, and said nothing.
Gaius checked Merlin’s bandages once more before retreating to his bed. Arthur blew out some of the candles around the room, leaving them in a state of flickering semi-darkness. It must be convenient, he mused, to be able to extinguish all the candles in a room with only a word.
Merlin’s skin looked waxy in the dimness. He was so still; sometimes it was hard to tell he was breathing at all, and Arthur kept leaning forward to check, the image of Merlin bleeding out on his chamber floor flashing through his mind.
He didn’t want to go into battle without Merlin, Arthur realized with a shock. Even when Arthur hadn’t known that Merlin was actually involved in any of the fighting, it had felt right to have him riding out by his side. It would feel strange to have to leave him here.
How many times had Merlin saved his life? Saved Camelot? There were times Arthur could guess at – from fallen branches and rockfalls and bandits tripping over thin air, to city-wide curses lifting and dragons disappearing and immortal armies failing. How many more were there that he didn’t even suspect yet?
He’d never sought any credit. He’d smiled when Arthur had thanked him for reminding him of the evils of magic, after stopping Arthur from committing patricide. If Merlin had only been here for a prophecy, he’d have let Uther die. Instead, he’d gotten in his own way, for Arthur’s sake.
But he’d hurt others by making those sorts of choices. He’d hurt himself. Arthur didn’t want to be the reason for that, didn’t want to come above all those people.
He sighed and sat back.
The night drifted. Slowly Arthur’s mind began to wander, exhaustion causing tangents of thought to spin out into murky inconclusiveness. Time seemed to stretch, until he no longer had any sense of how long he’d been sitting there. He found himself continually jerking out of a doze. The last time it happened, he opened his eyes to find the night outside the window had transformed into a pale blue dawn.
He blinked down at the cot to find Merlin watching him.
“Merlin!” he exclaimed, before remembering Gaius was asleep. “How are you feeling?”
Merlin shifted. “I’ll be all right, I think.”
Arthur cleared his throat. “You’re lucky. I thought for sure…”
Merlin flashed him a small smile. “Can’t get rid of me that easily.” His grin faded. “Agravaine… you killed him.”
Arthur nodded, looking away. He hadn’t really reflected on the fact that he’d killed a man who just a few days ago he’d loved like an uncle. There had been too much else going on.
He turned back when he heard wincing, and saw Merlin trying to push himself into a sitting position.
“What are you doing, you idiot?” Arthur hissed, steadying him and adjusting the pillow behind him. “You’ll pull the bandages free. I should wake Gaius.”
Merlin shook his head. His face had gone pale, and his breathing was slightly unsteady. “No, don’t. I’m fine.”
“You’re not,” Arthur said. He glanced down at Merlin’s tunic, where he knew the wound was, and was alarmed to see blood dotting the fabric. “You’re bleeding again!”
“It’s fine,” Merlin muttered, closing his eyes and putting a hand over his side.
Arthur stood, intending to wake Gaius, but when he looked Gaius was already sitting up, clearly stirred by the noise.
“Merlin,” Gaius began as he made his way over to them, “what exactly do you think you’re doing?”
Merlin gave him a pained smile. “Just wanted to sit up, I swear.”
Gaius sighed and sat down to inspect the injury. “These bandages would have needed changing soon in any case. Although…” he peeled away the dressing. “This actually looks much better than I expected. Even so, I’d rather you didn’t go undoing all my good work so quickly.”
“Sorry,” Merlin said. As Gaius went to gather some supplies, Arthur watched Merlin carefully. Merlin glanced at him. “I’m not doing anything, all right? I’m just sitting here.”
“You’re worse than a piece of furniture, Merlin. Remember that.”
Merlin’s lips pursed. Arthur’s brain caught up to him a moment later. He opened his mouth to explain what he was talking about—
“Yeah,” Merlin breathed. “I do remember, actually.”
“You – what?”
Merlin looked at him. “I remember everything now. There’s something you should know.”
Gaius had returned to Merlin’s other side. He exchanged a look with Arthur before he began peeling back more of Merlin’s bandages. Merlin hissed.
“What is it?” Arthur asked, both in an effort to distract Merlin and to satisfy his own curiosity.
“Gaius was right,” Merlin said, looking up at him. “It’s because of me you’ve been living the same day multiple times.”
Arthur leaned back. Gaius’ eyes flickered to Merlin’s face before returning to his work. “How?” Gaius asked.
“I didn’t mean to do it,” Merlin said, glancing to and away from Arthur guiltily. “I think it was as I was dying. I remember thinking that it couldn’t end like that, that if I had a chance to do things over again I could fix everything. Agravaine knew that I was Emrys, which meant Morgana would know that Emrys was gone, and her path to killing you would be clear.” He met Arthur’s eyes. “I was just thinking that I had to save you somehow.”
Arthur didn’t know whether to laugh or try and shake some sense into Merlin. “You idiot,” he scolded instead. “You were the one dying.”
Merlin hissed again as Gaius dabbed some ointment onto his wound. “Sorry, my boy,” Gaius said as he began to apply fresh bandages. “It sounds like your magic acted instinctually, then.”
“I suppose it knew Arthur wouldn’t last a day without me,” Merlin said, smiling slightly. Arthur shook his head, but it was probably true. Especially as events had unfolded those first couple nights, with Agravaine plotting his imminent assassination and Arthur still none the wiser. “It’s weird, though, isn’t it?” Merlin continued. “My instinctual magic, it’s not usually so advanced, it’s just moving things, or—”
“Or slowing time?” Gaius asked, an eyebrow raised. Merlin shifted. Arthur was going to have to ask for that story as well. “Perhaps it’s not so far-fetched that you could do such a thing. In some ways, this reminds me of what happened while you were poisoned.”
Arthur looked between them. “When I went to retrieve the Mortaeus flower?”
Gaius sat back and wiped his hands on a rag. “Yes. Merlin… it was almost as if he could see what you were doing. He spoke in his sleep, and conjured a ball of light in his palm.”
Merlin shook his head. “I don’t remember any of it.”
But Arthur did. Arthur remembered the ball of light that had appeared, sent by some invisible guardian to guide him out of the darkness. He’d known it was magic even then, but it had helped him, had lit his way, and so he’d trusted it. Another thing he’d taken as an exception, and conveniently forgotten when it suited him to.
“You saved me,” Arthur said softly. “It was you.”
Merlin and Gaius looked at him, and Arthur realized with a shock that the only person he’d ever told about that had been Morgana. “Your ball of light,” he clarified. “It lit my way. I would never have been able to climb out of that cave without it.”
Gaius’ eyebrows rose in interest at that. “I believe this supports the idea. Your magic knew that Arthur was in danger, and did whatever it could to help him.”
“Why was I the one who remembered, then?” Arthur asked. “If Merlin was the one doing it, shouldn’t it have been him?”
“You say you were focused on saving Arthur?” Gaius asked Merlin. Merlin nodded. “Perhaps something went wrong,” Gaius theorized. “Perhaps your magic put too much focus on Arthur at the cost of focus on yourself, which resulted in his memories being preserved instead of yours. Your magic is not separate from you, as you know, even when it acts on instinct.”
“I think it was starting to do the same thing again,” Merlin said. “That must be why I remembered this time.”
“Your eyes were flashing gold,” Arthur remembered. He looked up at Gaius. “Why didn’t the day reset again, then?”
Gaius leaned back. He didn’t answer immediately, simply looked at Merlin for a long moment. “There is power in life and death, as you know,” he said finally, his voice soft. “You didn’t die this time. Perhaps there simply wasn’t enough power to complete the spell.”
Merlin and Arthur both stared at him. That magic could use human lives in such a way… Arthur repressed the shiver that threatened to run through him. Merlin hadn’t hurt anyone. In fact he’d saved both himself and Arthur, again and again, and likely countless others as consequence.
“So this isn’t something I could do any time, then.” There was a strange mix of disappointment and relief in Merlin’s voice. For the first time, Arthur wondered what Merlin thought of his own power.
“I’m not sure that would be a good thing,” Arthur said, watching Merlin carefully.
“No,” Merlin agreed quietly. He stared down at his hands.
“Why the delay?” Arthur asked Gaius, hoping to steer them away from the subject. “I had twenty minutes afterwards, each time except the last.”
Merlin’s eyes narrowed, but Gaius spoke before he could. “There have been some documented cases of extremely powerful spells that take time to work, because they must first gather enough strength to be successful.” Gaius gestured to Merlin. “Such as your wards, Merlin. They did not solidify instantaneously, did they?”
Merlin shook his head. “They took maybe a minute or two after I finished casting.”
“I believe wards on that scale are the most common example, though still quite rare because they require a very powerful sorcerer. From what I remember the longest such a spell has been documented to take is ten minutes. For a spell to need so much magical energy that it takes twenty minutes to work…”
Merlin stared at Gaius. “So then…”
“We always knew you were the most powerful sorcerer, Merlin,” Gaius said, not unkindly. Merlin’s throat worked.
“Merlin,” Arthur said gently, and waited until Merlin looked at him. “It’s thanks to you that we’re still alive. It’s thanks to you that I’ve been given chance after chance to change things. And I don’t just mean these last few days. You’re powerful, yes. But there’s no one else I’d trust with that power except for you.”
Merlin exhaled shakily. “But I can’t control it. I never meant for any of this to happen.”
“You were dying,” Arthur reminded him. “Do you often lose control of your magic?”
“Well, no, but—”
“Then I don’t see that there’s anything to worry about. We would both be dead and Camelot would likely be in Morgana’s hands if your magic hadn’t done what it did. This was an extraordinary circumstance. Your magic wouldn’t let you die, yes, but that doesn’t mean you don’t have control. I trust you. Trust yourself, too.”
Merlin still looked uncertain, but he didn’t say anything more. Arthur squeezed his shoulder.
Merlin took another deep breath before fixing Arthur with a sharp look. “Why not the last time?”
“Why not the last time?” Merlin repeated. “You said you had twenty minutes every time except the last.”
Arthur sighed. “I – Agravaine killed me too, the last night.”
Merlin stared at him. “You didn’t come in at the same time. You were listening outside the door, weren’t you?”
Arthur nodded. “I didn’t think Agravaine would try attacking you again, not after knowing you had magic. I was wrong. I tried to save you, but I didn’t have Leon with me that time, so he took his opportunity.”
Merlin’s eyes were sorrowful. “I’m sorry, Arthur.”
Arthur shook his head. “It’s done. He’s gone.”
“He was still your uncle,” Merlin said. “Or he was meant to be, anyway. You’re allowed to grieve that.”
Arthur looked at him, at this wonder of a person who had always been unfailingly supportive, and dependable, and who had sacrificed so much for him. How could he have ever doubted Merlin’s loyalty, Merlin’s friendship?
“Is it your magic that makes you so strangely wise?” Arthur asked gruffly.
“Oh no, that’s just another part of my charm,” Merlin said with a grin. Arthur rolled his eyes.
They were interrupted by an urgent knocking. A breathless Elyan appeared in the doorway, Leon just behind him. They were both smiling widely.
Arthur stood. “It worked?”
Elyan nodded eagerly. “It worked. Morgana’s forces are disbanding. She is retreating.”
Arthur let out a disbelieving huff of laughter. It had worked. It had worked.
“I’m not sure. I left as soon as it was clear what they were doing. Gwaine stayed to see if he wanted an escort back here.”
Arthur moved forward to clasp his hand. “Well done. And thank you.”
Elyan nodded, then looked past him. “All right, Merlin?”
Merlin shrugged. “Could be worse. What are you all talking about?”
The room suddenly felt oppressive, stifling, drenched in the anxiety and worry Arthur had spent so much of the night mired in, the air stale with the faint lingering scent of Merlin’s blood. This wasn’t the place to tell him.
“I’ll tell you in a minute,” Arthur promised. “Are you up for a short walk?” He turned to Gaius. “Is he up for a short walk?”
Gaius double checked that Merlin’s bandages were secure. “I suppose some fresh air wouldn’t hurt. How are you feeling?”
Merlin pushed himself further upright eagerly. “I’m fine. I’m great. Fresh air sounds brilliant.”
“Go slowly,” Gaius warned.
“We will,” Arthur promised, and let Merlin put an arm around his shoulder as he helped him stand. “All right?”
Merlin had gone slightly pale upon getting vertical; he took a breath before nodding. Leon and Elyan hovered uncertainly. Arthur asked Leon to halt the army’s preparations before thanking and dismissing them.
They took their time getting to the battlements. Arthur chose a spot that wasn’t along the outer wall, and had more decorative than defensive architecture, so they could sit comfortably. The sky had taken on a red tint that blended softly into blue, and cast a peaceful light over the slowly waking town below.
“So what was all that about?” Merlin asked once they were settled. “Sounds like the war has been averted?”
Arthur nodded. “Around the same time that Agravaine was attacking us, the guards apprehended a young Druid boy sneaking into the castle.” He told Merlin everything that Bryn had told him. “I took a bit of a risk. I sent Bryn back with a message for Morgana.”
Merlin frowned at him. “Alone?”
“He thought he was alone,” Arthur conceded. “It was necessary. I don’t think Morgana would have taken kindly to it if she suspected any knights of Camelot of accompanying or following him. But I had Elyan and Gwaine ride after him to keep an eye on him, and so that we could have word as soon as possible about Morgana’s response.”
“What did you ask him to tell her?”
“First, that Agravaine and Glover had been arrested, and her plot uncovered. Secondly, that I had Emrys here at my side, and that he did not wish to fight her but would if she pressed her attack.”
Merlin exhaled shortly. “Well, that’s all true enough.”
“I wasn’t going to let you fight in your condition,” Arthur said sternly.
“If she had attacked—”
“I’d hoped that knowing you – or Emrys, anyway – were here would stay her hand.”
“Scare her off, you mean.”
“You did tell me she was terrified of Emrys.”
Merlin tilted his head in acknowledgement. “Looks like it worked.”
“Maybe. There’s one more thing I told her.”
Merlin raised an eyebrow when Arthur paused. This was the thing to which Arthur had been least sure of how Morgana would react. She might have believed him. Or she might have thought it was a trick, and attacked with an even greater fury.
He’d likely never know the true reason she’d retreated; if his knowledge of Emrys had convinced her that he meant what he said, or if Emrys’ mere presence had simply scared her enough to abandon her plan.
“I asked for a ceasefire,” Arthur said, meeting Merlin’s eyes. “I told her that my father was wrong. I told her that I plan to repeal the ban on magic.”
Merlin inhaled shakily. He searched Arthur’s face, something bright and complicated swirling in his eyes. “You’re serious about this.”
Arthur nodded. “There has been enough hatred in this kingdom. Continuing to make the same mistakes or doing nothing will only trap us with the violence that has plagued Camelot my entire life. I want to make a kingdom that is fair to all its citizens. This is how we do that.”
Merlin laughed then, a stunned, teary-eyed laugh. “Arthur—”
“It’s going to take work,” Arthur said. “I’m going to need your help.”
“You – of course I’ll help, you great prat. Arthur, this is, this…” The grin slid slowly off Merlin’s face. “I’ll have to tell everyone, won’t I?”
Arthur frowned. “I thought you didn’t want to hide.”
Merlin shook his head. “I don’t. I’ve kept this secret all my life. I’m not sure I…”
Arthur remembered the way Merlin had paled every time he had walked into his chambers, the way he had gone hoarse when Arthur finally confronted him about his magic.
“I’ve been living with an axe over my head since before I was even old enough to truly understand the danger,” Merlin went on. “I’ve barely had time to get used to the idea that you know. I’ve longed for this freedom my whole life, but now that it’s here…”
Arthur understood. Merlin had been living on the edge of a cliff since he’d been born, and was now being told it was safe to leap. That wouldn’t take away the fear of jumping. “I’m not asking you to reveal yourself to anyone else, if you don’t want to,” Arthur told him. “Like I said, this will take time. We need to draft a whole new set of regulations for which kinds of magic are allowed and which aren’t. I’m sure there will be plenty of complications that come up as we go. You’ll have time to adjust.” Arthur paused. “For the record, I think Gwaine might already suspect.”
Merlin’s head snapped to him. “What? How?”
Arthur shrugged. “Just the look on his face when I told Bryn I planned to legalize magic. Maybe he was only putting it together just then, I don’t know. Either way, I don’t think he’ll have any problem with you. And the others accepted the idea fairly quickly as well.”
Merlin let out a slow breath. “I’ll tell them. Just… not yet.”
Arthur looked out over the town. The sunlight made everything look new, like the Camelot that had gone to sleep last night was not the same Camelot that was now waking.
“I know you’re not ready,” he told Merlin. “And like I said, this wouldn’t happen for some time in any case. But once you’re more comfortable telling people… I think we’d benefit from having an advisor who understands magic on the council.”
Merlin looked at him cautiously. “What about Gaius?”
Arthur met his eyes. “Gaius can speak to magic as well, but from what I understand you’re much more adept at actually using it. That’s a perspective we need. I need.”
Merlin watched him for another moment before finally, he nodded. Arthur nodded back, and something in him loosened.
A slow grin spread across Merlin’s face. “Does this mean I don’t have to wash your socks anymore?”
“Careful. I won’t have you slacking off your chores early.”
Merlin shrugged. “That’s all right. I already do most of them with magic.” Arthur scoffed. “You know, this also means I can tell you what I really think.”
Arthur rolled his eyes. “You already tell me what you really think. More thoroughly than anyone else, I might add.”
Merlin smirked. “So you admit it then? You do think I’m wise.”
“I’m beginning to doubt that particular conclusion now.”
“Well, I don’t suppose my new job as magical councilman will change much. I already spend most of my time saving your life, I’m not going to stop now.”
“That’s not your job, Merlin.”
“Well, I don’t see anyone else doing it. Don’t know why I bother sometimes, but I suppose you have your moments.”
Arthur shook his head. Merlin grinned at him. The sun had climbed higher now, painting streaks of golden light across the sky. He felt the anticipation shivering in the air, as if the stones beneath their feet, the life in the forest, the very land of Albion knew that change was coming. He was on the precipice of something vast and new and unknowable. But he had Merlin at his side, closing his eyes and soaking in the warmth of the rising sun, and for the first time, Arthur was not afraid of what the future might bring.
It was, finally, a new day in Camelot.