Arthur (And Mordred)
It was hard to tell the dream world from reality; Arthur felt at once light as a leaf on water and heavy as a sinking stone. Or at least, his eyelids did, acting as two hazy curtains that fluttered flashes of first a forest and then his chambers, Merlin's face and then . . . Merlin's face, eyes on him, still.
He was holding one of Arthur's hands in a strangely tight grip, looking spooked as an animal. Arthur looked down from where his head had been propped up by pillows blearily, eyes settling and then widening at the sight of their connected hands with his own kind of alarm. The image of Merlin's clean hand holding out Arthur's bloody one, just like a moment before, injected like a poison into his brain.
Arthur wrenched his hand back, sitting up with such force his brain nearly collapsed in on itself from the warning shoots of pain running straight through his skull. He groaned and drew up his knees to settle his compromised skull against, reality tilting on an uneven axis even with his eyes shut tight. Arthur took a heavy breath, trying to make sense of everything, trying to determine if he was out in the forest still or truly here, in his bed, and was about to release it slowly when he felt something warm against his back.
Arthur's spine stiffened. "Take your hand off me," he gritted out, shuddering when immediately the warmth disappeared.
"Merlin," he interrupted, not daring to lift his head and meet his servant's face. "Please. I just need you to—go."
There was a pregnant silence, one in which Arthur could only wonder if Merlin would obey. There was never a surety, when it came to him.
Arthur would have laughed at the irony. He'd always thought that was the biggest mystery of his manservant—whether the next order Arthur barked at him would be obeyed or ignored. There never seemed to be a pattern, really. One day Merlin would groan and bellyache through the announcement of each of his chores and yet have them relatively done by the day's end; the next he smiled and cheerfully listened through the list only to have disappeared off to the tavern, as Gaius had always excuse. Then vice versa. All along the true lack of surety should have been where Merlin's real loyalties lied.
And yet. Those had always been sure, from the moment Merlin pulled Arthur out of the path of Mary Collin's knife.
When Arthur finally dared lift his pounding head from his knees, Merlin had left.
"I had to. They would have killed me."
Arthur couldn't get the thought out of his head. Gaius soon appeared, checking over him and asking questions the king little more than shook his head aye or nay about.
"Is he awake?" He heard someone inquire, and Gaius turned away from him finally. Arthur couldn't really identify the voice, though it was clear the physician did, saying, "I'm not sure, your Highness."
The other voice said something else, it must have. But Arthur felt himself pulled in deep once again as the glow of firelight melted into a warm sunset, Merlin dissolving entirely. The bedposts grew branches and sprouted leaves and he was left to dream, for the Gods' knew how long.
"This is not on my hands.
It's on yours."
Natural dreams usually faded against the light of the morning. Arthur blinked against it, finally feeling a bit more himself, but still the image of tarnished, bloody hands seared like the remnants of a flashing light against his vision. Rolling over to the cooler side of the bed—then immediately feeling the effects that movement caused on his spinning head—Arthur groaned.
"So are you actually awake this time, sire," a very cheeky, Merlin-ey voice snapped him back into reality, "or still trying for more beauty sleep?"
Arthur raised his head a fraction, just enough to see his manservant standing sternly by the bed, arms crossed, wearing a smile that curved not with cheek—but more like relief. It was as if the night before hadn't happened. Usually when Arthur spoke to him so harshly the man would sulk for days.
"Merlin," he grunted, and the servant's grin widened as he let his head fall back against the pillows.
"Because I'll tell you now, it's not going to work," Merlin continued brightly, voice not nearly muffled enough by Arthur's pillows for his taste.
"Please tell me this is merely the morning after the sentencing," Arthur said slowly, dreading the absolute unendurable idea of all those talks of 'retirement' and 'stress' being made actually relevant by what very well could have been a week of unconsciousness, for all he knew.
"It is," Merlin confirmed, and Arthur sighed.
"Good," he nodded, and made to swing out of the bed. Only to be barred by Merlin, blocking him with arms out.
"Oh no you don't," he pushed Arthur quite easily back down into the bed things. "Gaius specifically told me last time he came that you are to stay off your feet. At least until he confirms otherwise."
Arthur huffed, barely managing to swallow down his urge to strangle the impertinence out of Merlin and get out of his bed that way. "Go and fetch him then, so he can confirm I'm not some fainting damsel in need of salt stimulants," he grumbled, making a shooing motion.
Merlin smirked. "He tried those on you; didn't work."
"Perhaps you do have a smidgen of intelligence after all."
Arthur watched him go; waited a whole minute just in case the idiot was hoping to catch him in the act of disobedience. Then, very stubbornly the king heaved himself out of bed, ignoring the way his entire body felt too wobbly and his temple felt too tight.
By the time Guinevere came in, her new maid trailing behind her, Arthur stood at his favorite perch; sipping wine and staring down at the courtyard below. She looked in surprise at the empty bed, finding him across the room a second later.
"You're up," she said, shock giving way to gladness. "For a moment, when you hit your head, I feared . . . "
"My head," he frowned, reaching to find the injury. A nasty, gutting pain hit him as he brushed over the wound at the side of his temple, no doubt the source of that initial dizziness and the current tightness in his head. "Did someone—?"
"Your head hit the arm of the throne as you fell, after you fainted. But as for whether there was someone involved remains to be seen, unfortunately." Her face hardened, betraying subtext to the word 'unfortunately.'
"What's happened?" he asked, frowning.
"You've been enchanted," she said, moving to him and placing a hand on his shoulder. Arthur put a hand over it, though he shook his head in confusion. "Gaius says you've mentioned experiencing strange dreams, ones that continually plague you at night. After yesterday, with you fainting from pure exhaustion, he says it is likely now more than a case of exhaustion. Someone is enchanting you to see what you see." Gwen looked entirely convinced, and by her words apparently Gaius was as well.
"I see," he said slowly, seeing anything but. He'd told Gaius time and time again he didn't believe it could be magic; the dreams felt too personal, too close to his heart to have been inflicted on him by some outside force. It didn't make any sense.
"Merlin is fetching him this moment," he continued, managing an encouraging smile down at her, "and I will of course help him in any inquiry he has. But I do not hold much confidence in finding the culprit—what could be more elusive than a dream-giver, after all?"
Her face hardened once more. "They're found easily enough, Arthur. The old man you sentenced—I immediately questioned him, and he confessed to having given them to you. A host of other things besides, mind you, but that was all I needed to sentence him to death. I told the guards to do it right then, so as quicker to end the spell over you; yet just as I spoke he vanished. Shrunk, straight out of his clothing, into thin air."
"He confessed to giving me the dreams?" Arthur said doubtfully, and Guinevere frowned at him.
"Yes. Is it so hard to believe?" she said with a sad smile.
It was, he wanted to say. He wanted to flat out refuse any more of such talk, that the dream which incited him to bring the ban on magic to an end had been incited upon him.
Instead he shrugged; took another sip from his goblet and let the wine sit on his tongue as he thought.
"I'm sure he'll turn up somewhere again soon," Merlin said confidently, pulling the armor off Arthur's sore head, and he winced.
"Not you as well," Arthur groaned, tired of the past week that had been spent by practically the entire council intent on tracking down the whereabouts of the old sorcerer. He wished everyone could be enchanted to forget he'd ever fainted in the court room; it was by far more unbearable than the recurring dreams had ever been on his nerves.
"Don't you want to find the sorcerer?" Merlin asked, staring at him as if he'd sprouted donkey ears again. Arthur scowled.
"If you truly wish to know, no, I do not," he said through gritted teeth, and the servant stilled his fingers undoing the buckle of his breastplate.
"Why?" Merlin asked, frowning at him as he leaned back to fully assess the king's face.
Arthur rolled his eyes. "I'm tired of the entire court hedging on about it. I've been living through this for the better part of two years, Merlin; if it was so encumber-some I'd have searched out a sorcerer long ago. As it is, I've never felt enchanted, by the dream or in it."
". . . clinging in places most magic would not stick . . . " Merlin said under his breath, eyes all at once distant, and Arthur raised a questioning eyebrow as he blinked back into reality. "Oh—it was something Gaius said, uh, he sensed about your dreams. Or at least, the enchantment causing it. A strangely intimate one, specifically designed with you in mind."
"Someone made up a spell just to specifically give me dreams about you?" Arthur asked in amused disbelief, though the amusement faded as soon as the words left his tongue and Merlin's eyes widened. "I mean—" he started, but sighed in resignation. Why shouldn't the world know the whole of it then?
"The boy I mentioned once, in my dreams—I think it's you as a child, Merlin," he said in honesty, and Merlin looked down at his feet uncomfortably. Arthur continued anyway—maybe this was the moment, the way the truth would finally be acknowledged between them. "And that night I, well, collapsed, you as an adult as well. I think I replaced the old sorcerer with you in my head—or at least his circumstances. Though I'm not entirely sure why."
He waited, waited longer, until Merlin took a deep breath and looked back at him. "Me neither," his servant said with a strained smile.
The usual anger and frustration didn't hit; Arthur only felt a hollow sort of sadness. "Of course. I just don't feel the overpowering urge to go find the man, after seeing it so differently in the dream," he said, suppressing a shudder as suddenly the memory of Merlin's words, 'It's on yours,' echoed through his head.
Because it was.
"But don't you see?" Merlin said, suddenly animated once more. "That's just further proof. The first dream convinced you to end the ban on magic; the second to somehow take the blame for killing so many people. Both specifically benefited him, Arthur. He has to be the enchanter."
Arthur nodded slowly, allowing Merlin to take off the rest of his armor in silence. It was not such an amiable one as it was common to be, however; after years of assessing the man's body language, which said infinitely more than his carefully selected words and jibes, Arthur could tell Merlin was on edge. Perhaps even afraid.
He himself was deeply disturbed by Merlin's argument, blaming the old man. There hadn't seemed any relevancy between the dreams and the sorcerer before, but now that Merlin pointed it out . . . Arthur couldn't deny the evidence.
Which disturbed him even further. Because if all that everyone else assumed was to be believed, the legalization of magic had been the work of an enchantment.
Mordred wiped the sweat from his fringe, nodding at the small party of sorcerers and directing, "Keep your focus now. Be steady, like you want the flame to be."
The summer heat was ungodly. He was more than happy to be here, here in plain sight in the now-extended training grounds of the knights of Camelot, teaching commoners and nobles alike how to handle the gifts they'd been hiding their entire lives.
He just wished the faintest of a breeze would pick up.
"Sir Mordred," a formal yet familiar voice called behind him after he'd ended the training, sopping sweat from his hairline and down into the collar of his cooking chainmail.
It was the Queen. Regal as ever he took in as she approached, not a drop of perspiration on her brow, merely a shine over her exotic skin. Women. "Yes, your Majesty? How may I be of service?"
His smile was answered in turn, hers a grateful one. "I believe you are acquaintances with my new maidservant, Reida, yes?" Queen Guinevere asked pointedly, and he nodded. "She trusts you? Would speak to you, perhaps?"
"Yes . . . ?" he frowned and, done with toweling off, gestured for them to head out of the sun. The queen walked along beside him.
"It's come to my attention that I must again test the loyalty of my servant. I have seen her sneaking off in the night, not unlike how Sefa once did, and considering all that Arthur—" The queen paused, pursing her lips. "Well, you know. I cannot help but worry. Since she is a druid, after all."
Reida was one of the first druids, besides Mordred himself, to dare to live in Camelot before magic was legalized. Arthur had a reputation of tolerance toward the People, but his surname was still Pendragon. She was a brave soul, Mordred knew.
"She does not feel comfortable sleeping in walls of stone, my lady," he explained to the queen now. "That is why Reida leaves at night. She sleeps in the druid camp just off the forest-line. She's told me herself."
"She rarely opens her mouth, Mordred," Queen Guinevere argued, putting a hand on his arm as they entered the armoury. He stopped, looked down at her face to meet tightened eyes. "How can I know of her person if she never speaks a word?"
"Your highness . . . perhaps she's a bit shy—" Mordred tries, truly not wishing to delve into the thick of things. Reida would slaughter him with a single glance once she found out.
"A bit shy was me, Mordred. I stuttered so hard I almost bit my tongue off twice over trying to address royalty, but I'd be considered a stately speaker compared to her silence."
He winced. "That's just it, my lady."
The queen's brow frowned in confusion. "Sorry?"
Mordred swallowed down whatever was blocking his throat, starting to unbuckle his armour for something to busy himself as he explained, hurriedly, "A part of her tongue she bit off, as a child, my queen. An attack on her camp, the men were all slaughtered; she was beaten. It—it seems that's when it happened. So she rarely speaks. I think it troubles her still."
Queen Guinevere's mouth opened and closed more than once, her face a perfect expression of surprise. "An attack," she managed after finally composing herself. Her voice sounded—scared. "An attack . . . of Camelot knights?"
Mordred hesitated, and then nodded.
"Thank you for your time," she said in a clipped tone, leaving in a swish of skirts and hair. Her eyes were shining and wet.
Mordred took in a deep breath, holding back his own memories of Camelot's knights, slaughtering everyone around him. All of whom he considered family, all of his mentors and nurturers and playmates. He locked up the images of blood, of entrails littered on the forest floor, of pale faces and dead eyes time and time again, and the howl of hounds at his heels.
Then he blew out its release like a release of poison—thanking the goddesses twice over for these better days. These times of King Arthur and the Round Table.
It seemed, finally, after four weeks of relentlessly chewing through the topic Guinevere had grown quiet about the matter of Arthur's dreams. Mostly after one particular evening, of which she spoke hardly a word during their private dinner. Arthur could tell something was upsetting her; he assumed it still to be the threat of a sorcerer plaguing his head. That was until a few short days later, when another search for the sorcerer was reported unfruitful. She said to the rest of the council, "Perhaps we should focus more on the cure for the King rather than riding out vengeance for this elusive man. If you find, Gaius, that to acquire a cure we must find the sorcerer, only then should he be the priority."
In better spirits now that the sorcerer seemed forgotten, Arthur ruled Camelot with relatively little conflict. The cases of illegal magic were still as rampant as ever, but little else occupied his mind. Besides the dreams, of course.
Merlin had taken to glaring now, every time he arrived with breakfast only to find Arthur up and about, sometimes having already eaten. But the King simply couldn't go back to sleep after waking from them, head abuzz and nerves extra sensitive.
Merlin of the dream would lead him through the forest to a nearby brook, one he'd never seen before in these forests about Camelot. Its waters seemed not to only to reflect the brightening dawn of the new day as it came, but shimmered with its light almost from within. Merlin took him down its path, where it fountained over an outcropping of tors, and then held Arthur's hands with his own once more.
The dried blood flaked off bit by bit as Merlin, kneeling, washed his king's hands in the glowing water. His work-worn fingers rubbed every bit of grime from the crevices of Arthur's sword-calloused palm, so much so that by the time his hands emerged from the water they were a soft, healthy pink, no trace of blood to be found.
He always found himself helping Merlin out of his boots and washing the dirt from his manservant's travel-weary feet in turn, kneeling and washing with the fountain's healing waters. They spoke not a word, though an amiable silence settled like one Arthur hadn't felt with his manservant in more than a year, the one that spoke of true bond and friendship.
He woke up every time with tears pricking at his eyes.
Of all the dreams these ones could not be ignored by Arthur in the light of day, just as Merlin never could be. Even back when he was the simple, idiot peasant, Arthur always found himself listening, watching, paying attention to what Merlin said and did. Perhaps not enough, so it would seem. But now, with this dream an echo in his head as he went about his day, Merlin ever a presence at his side, it seemed to be bouncing back and forth from both the past and the future.
The past, when Merlin and he could share a moment of peace, of conversation, without Merlin . . . well, making an excuse and leaving.
The future, when someday, Arthur hoped with everything in him, there was a time both their pasts would be behind them. Perhaps, only if they helped each other wash them away.
The second time Arthur collapsed to the ground he felt it, the hard surface of the archive floor, where Gaius had sent for them to meet, slamming into him with enough force he could feel his brain jarred against the opposite side of his head.
The collapsing part had almost been enjoyable. The world slowly winding into a tight swirl of color and shape above him, warping as he floated into the pull of the earth and succumbed to the ground. Of course, the jarring impact woke his sense enough for Arthur to hear Merlin yelling at him, maybe even feeling at his neck for a pulse after he'd landed.
Arthur was sure it was there. Even if he couldn't feel it. Even if he couldn't rightly blink, which was odd. He felt himself in motion, distantly, Merlin rolling him over onto his back it seemed. Because his manservant's face now peered stricken above him, moving his mouth with words that didn't make much sense.
Perhaps they weren't supposed to. Probably not, for a second later the man's blue eyes flared a vivid gold, and that's when Arthur realized Merlin had a hand over his forehead. He probably would have gasped at the sight, if he could breathe—was he breathing?—because seeing Merlin's eyes light dimly from across the room, eyes already reflecting the fire, was nothing like the display he had just witnessed.
Of course, Arthur couldn't help but be one part awe yet also one part fear. Everything that had ever been taught to him told Arthur a sorcerer was above him, about to kill him.
But it was also Merlin above him, eyes shining wet and back to blue now, face twisted in hope and worry and absolute fear. The fear was quickly replacing all traces of hope, however, as a smudgey blanket draped over Arthur's eyes. He felt them roll backward, the world going dark, and registered last an echoing cry of "ARTHUR!" before that darkened into silence as well.