Merlin (And Gwen)
"Merlin, did you—"
"Yes, Gaius, I was there. Witnessed everything, actually," Merlin quipped in quickly as he shut the door, crossing the chamber hastily and making a beeline for his room. Almost there, almost there, almost—
The aforementioned sighed and turned around, bracing himself for Gaius's next inquiry.
He didn't. Ask anything else, that is. No, the old man just gave his ward the eyebrow, pursing his lips and clasping his hands together. Imploring silently, what Merlin didn't even want to think about right now.
Of course it was all he could think about.
"I'm really very tired, Gaius," he said, jabbing a thumb at the door behind him, "think I might have an early night in. Long, tedious meeting, you know." Then, though Gaius opened his mouth probably about to say something along the lines of, "When are you going to tell him?" Merlin had already scrambled the last few steps into his bedchamber, breathing heavily with his back pressed against the closed door.
Wondering the same exact thing.
103 days into the discussion, a midwife had been arrested for sorcery.
She was turned into the guard by a carpenter, whose wife had delivered a baby under the midwife's guidance and assistance. Over the cradle he'd caught the woman waving her hand over the child, muttering strange words with glowing eyes.
It became apparent the question of magic hung in the balance of this woman's trial; every single councilor showed up the day the woman was brought in front of the King, muttering conspiratorially as she was dragged before the throne.
Merlin felt sick to his stomach. He hadn't eaten a thing that morning, nerves making the idea of food utterly repellant. It was as if he were on trial, this morning, made to kneel before his King and be judged for the sorcerer he was. He always thought it would come to that, Arthur's decision—to Merlin's life, held in the balance. Instead it was to be this nameless woman.
Arthur looked as if he hadn't slept at all, as usual. He motioned the guards to bring the woman forward, sighing when they threw her to her knees. Merlin couldn't help but wince.
"Mara Asby, of the Lower Town, citizen of Camelot, formerly a midwife," he began, voice as kingly as ever, looking down at her not unkindly. Merlin held his breath. "You have been arrested for the use of magic, casting a spell over a babe you had helped deliver two nights previous. Do you deny these accusations?"
"I-I was, I was giving it a blessing, nothing more, your Majesty," she pleaded, hands clasped together. "Please, he says I'd of been cursin' the babe, but I swear it, I weren't, my lord, I swear . . . "
"But it was magic?" he said slowly.
She hung her head, whimpering. And nodded.
"My lord—" One councilor stepped forward, but the King raised a hand for silence.
He slowly stood from his throne, eyes sweeping across the assemblage. They seemed to remain an extra moment, meeting eyes with Merlin, and his stomach flipped. Could Arthur . . . ? He dared not finish the thought.
"Should she be condemned, executed? Would any say it just? To kill this woman, when we know not if she has indeed cursed or blessed the babe? Is magic so condemning?"
A few cleared throats; a few mutterings. Areth took a step forward and said, "My King, that is the disadvantage of magic. There's no way to know, truly, what she has done to the child. And because she chose to do such, on the child of parents who in no way asked for it—"
"—An excellent point. Not so broadly the use of magic, but the lack of permission expressed, to use it on another. That is where the real crime lies. Magic itself—is, not," Arthur said, hands raised. A few gasped, a few shook their head. Merlin stared in shock at his friend, who continued, "If the parents had willingly permitted the midwife to bless their child, as this woman says she did, and blessing a child is as we know not against the law: there would be no crime."
The midwife raised her head then, staring at her King wide-eyed when he continued, "As she did it without permission, I think a fitting punishment should still be administered. I will speak with my Council on the matter. But the time for magic being enough for execution, is over. A new law, in accordance with this trial, will soon be in order."
21 days later the law, complicated as it became to sort out, was shortly thus: Magic was not illegal.
Merlin leaned against his door, head still spinning with the news. The meeting had been long, the last-minute finalities to be dredged out finally, finally concluded, and Arthur had sent him away early, saying he looked dead on his feet.
But Merlin couldn't sleep. He walked restlessly through the corridors, out on the battlements, not even noticing the stars that usually were so calming in his distraction. He made it back to Gaius's chambers, late.
The light inside told him it was over; Gaius had returned and it was done. Merlin could perform magic if he wished now, here in this room, without any kind of repercussion if someone walked in.
Though there might still be some consequence of a different sort, if Arthur was that someone.
But Merlin couldn't perform it on Gaius or his property. Not without express permission, in writing or declaration in public. Nor could he do a different spell than the one Gaius had consented to, or change the weather without permission of the King himself, or summon a magical beast on any condition. Any deed perpetrated by magic that broke the law would still break the law. The list went on.
The midwife's punishment was determined; she would serve the family, without any use of magic, for two seasons. Gaius confirmed the magic performed had indeed been a good fortune charm. So, then, after . . . she would be free to use it, under those conditions. Along with any other sorcerer in Camelot.
Merlin's heart wouldn't stop beating against his ribcage, his sight wouldn't stop blurring. Why didn't he go to Arthur, march up to his room this instant, and tell him the truth? By law the king couldn't, wouldn't punish him for it. Yet he hid here, still if not more afraid, of the look that would be on his friend's face.
He was, to put it plainly, a coward.
"I've been thinking," Arthur started, rather forebodingly in Merlin's opinion.
"Imagine that," he teased, polishing a boot. It was late evening, the remainder of Arthur's supper spread out on the table before them, Merlin just finishing some last-minute chores.
"Imagine having a brain to do so," he countered, smirking.
Merlin sighed, putting down his brush. "All right then. What clever musings, oh great and wise King, do you wish to impose on me?"
"I've been thinking about the trials, actually," Arthur replied quite seriously, frowning down at his dinner plate. "It's been a year now, since the law, and I've slowly begun to realize how taxing it is to discern wrong from right, as far as magic is concerned."
Over thirty cases of illegal uses of magic had been held since. Merlin could see exactly what Arthur was saying. Magic was neither good nor evil, but when it was abused the guilty party had an elusive advantage. 13 cases Arthur had condemned, and given lawful punishment according to the crime. But the trials had lasted for weeks at times, drawn out until the guilty party had been confirmed and filling up the King's already burdening schedule. As well as, it seemed, wearing him down.
"Gaius has been a help," Merlin put in, and Arthur nodded.
"Indeed. When he's not busy teaching healing spells, on top of all of his normal duties on the council and being Court Physician, he has been a source of essential wisdom. But I can't expect Gaius to take on a whole other position on top of everything. The man should be retired from his duties by now, Merlin. Not made to bear even more." The king sighed, rubbing his eyes, which Merlin half-noticed were in their usual drooped, blood-shot state.
"Perhaps you need retirement from a few duties as well," he commented lightly.
Arthur scoffed. "A king never tires, Merlin."
"Though he seems still to be haunted by dreams."
Arthur's tight-lipped expression at Merlin's words confirmed it.
Eventually his stubborn face fell. "Yes. I thought they would disappear after the law. I thought I'd . . . reversed what the dream was telling me," Arthur said resignedly, shaking his head.
"What was it telling you?" Merlin asked in spite of himself, watching Arthur closely as he struggled for an answer.
Finally he said, "You know, the boy reminded me of you Merlin. The features at the least, but also his countenance. Like how you were your first year or two in Camelot."
"Strange," Merlin said lightly.
"Yes," Arthur's eyes narrowed. "Strange. Considering he had magic in the dream, I mean."
Merlin gulped, glanced down at his lap quickly. He ordered his face into nonchalance, schooling his voice before looking up and saying, "Do you think someone has enchanted you? Put those dreams in your head?"
Arthur's strange expression didn't waver. "If they did, they don't seem to be pleased with the result enough to stop. The dream has changed, but not like I expected. Now when I chase the boy he runs off into the woods. No matter how hard I try, I never find him. Just follow a never-ending trail of butterflies till I wake from the dream."
Merlin puzzled over this, biting his inner cheek. If the dreams indeed were a message, and the first one was to convince Arthur magic was not evil, what meaning could lay behind this?
He would look into it. Gaius had a whole shelf of text dedicated to enchanted dreams, out in the open with all other magical history, information and spell-books now allowed in Camelot. Of course not all of them—Arthur also had Gaius working on a list of books to ban still, full of dark enchantments and means for the malcontent. Now that Merlin thought of it, Gaius probably was as dead on his feet as Arthur was.
"I think I'll turn in—unless there's anything else you require?" Merlin asked quickly, a plan already working through his head on how to identify whether Arthur was truly enchanted or not.
"No, Merlin, there's nothing," Arthur answered, rather forlornly Merlin half-noticed, before he was out the door, racing down to Gaius's for an immediate start on puzzling this out. It was something to keep his mind busy at the least, Merlin thought, instead of running in circles about the same topic like his mind had been wont to.
That topic being how, how on this good earth, was Merlin, the idiot manservant, to tell his best friend, the King of bloody Camelot, the truth?
Eventually Merlin turned to Gaius, after having realized exactly how incapable he was at interpreting dream symbols, zodiac signs and the like. Eventually as in the next morning.
The old man was frowning down at a piece of parchment at his desk, peering at it crossly with his magnifying glass. Merlin had just found a moment between preparing Arthur for training and tending to him after it, eager to again be of use further to his king than helping his arms through his sleeves.
Gaius looked up as he entered, surprised. "Yes, Merlin? You're usually never back here until late evening."
"I had a moment to spare," he said, walking to the man's desk. "And I need your help with something. For Arthur."
"Do you mean you've finally come to your senses about telling him?" Gaius said, sounding surprised.
"No!" Merlin said, horrified. "Of course not. I mean—my sense is completely fine, Gaius. It just isn't . . . the right time now."
The old man huffed. "You're quite right. The right time has long since passed, my boy."
"I came to ask you about enchanted dreams," Merlin continued, deciding to ignore that last bit. "Arthur keeps having dreams—"
"About you as a child, or so he's said," Gaius nodded, un-phased when Merlin's mouth popped open. "Yes. He told me all about them, how it had influenced his perspective on magic." He pursed his lips, staring at Merlin shrewdly. "It hasn't been you Merlin, I'd hope, giving our king such restless nights by enchanting such dreams."
An eyebrow rose as Merlin sputtered, "Oh-of course not, Gaius, why would I—? Well, yes I know why, but, no, no of course not!"
"Good," the old man said shortly, nodding once. "I do think it may be magic behind it, Merlin. But I'm not sure what a sorcerer's motives truly would be. Has Arthur been influenced by these visions as they planned, or just as he himself sees fit? I've been meaning to research, however . . . " Gaius looked down at the list with a heavy dissatisfaction. "It seems my time has bogged up considerably. Especially with the most recent case. An old man who used to terrify and provoke the village he lived in once. He's stopped since the ban ended, but there's crop failure and sickness and all the death that those wrought to account for . . . "
"I'll continue looking into it," Merlin promised, "if you'll give me a brief lesson on some of those terms. I've been completely out of luck at finding an identifier, to find any traces of magic involved."
A good hour later Merlin felt at least a little more comfortable searching through the ancient text, and resolved to finish the book Gaius had recommended for a spell identifier that night.
If only it had worked out like that.
Guinevere had very little to say for her new maidservant, except that Reida had not proven to be a traitor to the Crown quite yet. Yet.
At least Sefa would try to hold a conversation, no matter how she'd often stutter. No matter that she'd been responsible for the death and capture of a large quantity of knights. Now Gwen found herself in solemn silence much too often these days, waited on by Reida without a word exchanged between either of them. She'd tried in the beginning, stayed friendly and open to learning more about the girl, but when the maidservant's single worded answers eventually degraded into mere nods or shakes of the head the queen gave up hope for amiable company in the evenings.
Which meant, if she was not to retire for a time after luncheon like most of the court, she was to sit at Arthur's side during trial. Which meant, Guinevere sat, very much present when Arthur coolly interrogated the old sorcerer for the third time in court. And for all that happened immediately after.
"I was protecting myself," the sorcerer was arguing angrily. "If they didn't fear me enough they would try to kill me, burn down my home again. Self-defense was necessary."
"Self-defense does not extend to the yearly outbreaks of disease you inflicted on the village, nor the destruction of crops that left many starving through winter. That is murder," Gwen cut in, and Arthur nodded curtly in approval.
"I cursed the land," the old man said, "so they would not kill me. It was the only option left. Should I be executed for simply who I am? I warned them—I told them to leave me in peace, or their families would suffer the consequences. They would not see sense. I . . . did not want to."
Arthur stood. "You have admitted your guilt. By the order of the court of Camelot, you are condemned to death."
It was over. Guinevere gave him a small twitch of the lips as he reached for her hand, the council exiting silently as the man was dragged from the room. She took it, standing.
And watched in mute horror as her husband crumbled to the floor.
Merlin ran from the stables, still covered in horse dung, the second he heard.
His relief at seeing Gaius already there, tending to Arthur, was short-lived when he saw Arthur. A bloody gash on his head, where apparently he'd hit against the arm of the throne. Eyes sunken in, shadowed in exhaustion Merlin hadn't truly taken full notice of till now. There was a paleness about the king as well, an unhealthy sallowness that must have come from so little sleep and piing stress. He even looked thinner, skin clinging tightly to his face in a drawn, ashy way.
How Merlin had not noticed any of this about his King, his friend, baffled him.
Then again he was so caught up on the forever-burdening secret of his magic, ironically heavier somehow now that the ban had been lifted, that Merlin must have just over-looked what once was his primary concern. Meaning, Arthur.
A few knights and councilmen watched worriedly from the sides of the room as the physician checked over the king, stitched up his wound and dabbed something on it. Merlin stood right by the door, biting his lip worriedly over the whispers: Just collapsed, fell, out of nowhere—perhaps a sudden illness, would explain a lot—he's been looking tired for weeks, hasn't anyone noticed—it must have all caught up to him at once—
One by one they left, Leon clapping Merlin on the shoulder as he went, till only Gaius and Merlin remained in the room with their unconscious king; Merlin hovered anxiously at the foot of the bed, watching the physician pack up his things. "Stay with him," Gaius ordered not unkindly, giving Merlin a pointed look, and he nodded quickly. "If there's any change, have me called for. I believe it is mostly a case of exhaustion—but his head wound may complicate things. We will wait and see."
"Where is the Queen?" Merlin wondered aloud just as Gaius opened the door.
The old man looked older than usual as he answered, "Busy. She will be in later, I expect, and then you can change."
Merlin looked down at himself, quickly re-realizing he was covered in horse dung still. "Perhaps if I get close enough the scent will shock him awake," he joked quietly, and the two half-smiled at one another before Gaius shut the door.
A good hour Merlin literally spent just staring, shocked at the state of Arthur. How still he looked in sleep beside the steady lifting and caving of his chest, how his eyelids fluttered. His eyelids were really a thing to behold, dark and veiny and all-together frightful. Merlin again wondered how he'd missed that.
Cautiously he leaned forward, touching the soft, dark half-circle of skin below one of Arthur's eyes, worry flooding into his stomach. What if the dream was an enchantment, one to exhaust the king and slowly drain more and more of his energy—till he was dead? Or to drive him mad. Considering Arthur's reaction to this future if he could have seen it, the king would have thought he had gone mad. So what if to Merlin, the law seemed wise and just?
A sudden, crushing grip on Merlin's resting arm jumped him from his worries, and he realized Arthur had grabbed him in his sleep. His eyelids fluttered even quicker, face contorting into a pained expression Merlin could only guess the result of a dream.
He was still dreaming.
Merlin slowly retracted his arm from the painful grip, instead allowing Arthur to crush his hand, his whole body twitching in his sleep. Whatever was happening, it was distressing him. Merlin gripped back, hoping his presence would help.
Then again, maybe Arthur was just reacting to Merlin's smell.
A moment later Arthur gasped, some vision of horror making him cling tight enough for the bones in Merlin's hand to ground together, and suddenly a zing of what was most definitely magic shot from his hand up Merlin's arm. The servant froze.
The king's dreams were of magic, then.
This revelation disappointed Merlin for some reason. He couldn't fathom why he would want it to just be Arthur, considering an enchantment would be an easier fix. He rose a hand, hovering it over Arthur's forehead, and closed his eyes. Concentrating.
The spell made itself apparent, though it seemed a strangely intimate one. Specifically designed for Arthur, clinging to him in places most magic would not stick. Merlin felt for the root of the enchantment, the purpose of its existence—
And instead got himself pulled in.
He was in the forest surrounding Camelot, and the light had already waned. Why anyone would be out here alone, this time of day, Merlin should wonder at and yet understood. It was often when he crept out of the castle to do his destiny's bidding.
Arthur suddenly came crashing through, taking no notice of Merlin as he stumbled past. His eyes were intent on a point before him—an insect, Merlin could see just barely, and hurried to follow the king on his mad dash.
They crashed through the forest till dusk, the shadows black and the sky red. Arthur was slowing, like he could not keep up much longer with the insistence of the wings fluttering above him. Merlin was about to give up the chase himself when all at once they arrived at their destination: the butterfly had disappeared.
They'd stumbled into a clearing; what once was a camp, it looked like, though no longer. Now it was a grave. Bodies strewn this way and that, their entrails glittering in the dark, tents ripped to shreds. It was no bandit camp, nor a patrol. It was families, men and women and children, littered across the forest floor like fallen leaves.
Arthur only fell to his knees at another sight, the one Merlin almost heaved seeing for himself. One lone figure, still standing. It must have been an image of Merlin. Not but a child it seemed, yet even Merlin could see what Arthur clearly did. Merlin the child blinked at Arthur innocently—eyes molten gold.
"I had to," his small voice told the king. "They would have killed me."
Then Merlin the child morphed, shifting and growing in a blur that hurt the real Merlin's eyes, until it was just another of him standing there. The other Merlin, now grown and tall with the same burning eyes, approached Arthur and knelt in front of him.
"It's not on my hands," the other Merlin said, and showed his clean, dry palms. And then gently took either of Arthur's hands, holding them out for both Arthur and Merlin to see.
Dark, flaky blood, dried up his wrists; thick, sticky blood, clinging to his palms; wet, dripping blood, fresh on his fingertips.
"It's on yours," the dream finished simply, before every edge smeared and the image collapsed in on itself. Merlin reeled back, once again in Arthur's chambers, and blinked away the vision until his head stopped pounding so hard.
Then he noticed Arthur looking at him.