A Growing Suspicion
The attack was unexpected, but not a complete surprise. Arthur and the rest of the patrol had been, well, patrolling, to make sure no bandits or mercenaries were taking advantage of Camelot's people. The knights, it seemed, weren't exempt from such attacks.
Arthur would've preferred to be on his horse, but they had all just jumped down from their steeds to set up camp when the bandits attacked. And there were a lot of bandits. Arthur slashed and stabbed and blocked anyone that came his way, hardly able to spare a glance for the rest of his men, who were all busy fighting off their own enemies.
He glimpsed Merlin dodging out of the way of a mace before his attacker tripped suddenly, knocking himself out. Arthur didn't even have time to think lucky arse, before someone knocked him on the head with the hilt of their sword. Arthur saw stars on the way to the ground, and his vision went slightly blurry. He saw Merlin turn around, he saw the bandit's blade hovering above him, saw Merlin throw out a hand and shout something he didn't understand before the blade was gone suddenly, along with a gust of wind. He thought vaguely that a trick of the light made Merlin's eyes look golden, before darkness crowded in and took him.
Arthur woke on his cot, Merlin leaning over him, a big smile on his face. Arthur groaned and pushed himself up, head pounding painfully.
"Morning sire!" Merlin said brightly. "I didn't think that head of yours could get any bigger, but I guess I was wrong."
"Merlin," Arthur said through gritted teeth, "Shut up and tell me what happened."
A flicker of concern, but also… was that relief? passed over Merlin's features. "You don't remember? Bandits attacked, and you got a good knock on the head."
Arthur remembered. He remembered something else, too, something to do with his manservant, but he pushed it away, telling himself he was assuming too much. He didn't want to consider the implications of that memory right now.
"How are my knights?" Arthur asked, sitting all the way up and looking around. Gwaine was favoring his arm, and Elyan sat slightly hunched over his ribs, but other than that everyone seemed ok, if slightly scratched up.
"They're fine. Gwaine sprained his wrist, as far as I can tell, and Elyan has a few bruised ribs, but other than that, everyone's ok."
"Good. Now get me some dinner, will you?"
Merlin nodded without talking back, which was unusual, and went to get Arthur a bowl of stew.
Arthur watched Merlin closely over the next few weeks. Well, as closely as he could without looking like he was watching him. Which was a challenge, to say the least. After the first week, Arthur was ready to give up and decide that he really hadn't seen Merlin using magic, because he had seen no other evidence to suggest Merlin was a sorcerer. Either that, or Merlin was much better at hiding his magic than Arthur had anticipated.
A week and a day after the bandit attack, though, Arthur went to the armory in search of gloves he believed he had left there. He would've sent a servant (seeing as Merlin was nowhere to be found), but he had training with the knights in half an hour anyway, and so decided to go down early.
The door was very slightly open. Arthur pushed through it in time to hear what sounded like everything in the armory clatter to the ground. He watched his shield wobble before becoming still, and Arthur looked up to see Merlin gaping at him, his eyes wide and terrified.
Arthur brushed off the unease that was creeping down his spine and said instead, "Is this what you call polishing, Merlin? Are you even capable of not making a mess?"
Merlin visibly relaxed, the relief almost palpable. "I was trying to organize everything in here so there'd be some semblance of order, sire! You should be thanking me!"
Arthur rolled his eyes. "Why should I thank you when all you do is make a mess of everything? You have got to be the worst servant Camelot has ever had."
"At least I'm not an arrogant, pratty, clotpole of a king!"
The banter was easy and comfortable, but still Arthur felt that little twinge of unease. If Merlin had magic, and it seemed like he did… Arthur would – well, he didn't know what he'd do. He certainly didn't believe Merlin to be evil, but if Merlin could lie about magic for this long what else was he hiding? Arthur sincerely hoped he was wrong about the magic, and it seemed so unlikely that Merlin, bumbling, clumsy, idiotic Merlin, could be a sorcerer.
Arthur decided to say nothing and to try and continue seeing Merlin as he always had – as a loyal and courageous friend. Merlin couldn't have magic – the idea was preposterous.
Two weeks later had Camelot readying their defenses against the attack they knew was coming. Morgana and her army had been spotted on the southern border, heading straight towards Camelot.
As night fell Camelot closed her gates, preparing for the army that would surely reach them within the hour. Arthur, Merlin, and the knights stood in the courtyard, waiting for the oncoming storm. There hadn't been enough time to send an army to meet Morgana's; the fighting would've been practically on top of the city anyway. Arthur had double the arch men posted on top of the walls, and had sent groups of men to wait outside the citadel, hoping to surround and trap Morgana's army once it came through.
Next to Arthur, Merlin shifted his stance anxiously. Arthur didn't say anything. Tonight, he hoped to confirm his servant's true allegiance. He felt guilty for doubting Merlin, but his father's ministrations against magic raged in his head, and he couldn't just throw off a lifetime of ingrained hate and loathing.
Arthur heard one of his knights yell at the archers to hold fire just as he began to hear the army storming its way through the town. All the citizens had been evacuated to some of the surrounding villages that were out of the way, to stay there until the battle was over. Many villages didn't have that much extra space, and Arthur didn't want to burden his people, but they'd make do. Hopefully it would be for only a short while, anyway.
Arthur could hear Morgana's army more clearly now, shouting and insults and threats. The firelight from their torches flickered on the corners of homes and taverns, and Arthur readied his sword. Morgana came around the corner first, and before any of the knights could do anything, had blown the gates straight off their hinges.
The courtyard burst into battle as Morgana's army stormed in. Arthur found himself surrounded by ruthless fighters, all clamoring for blood and death. He lost sight of Morgana and realized as he put his sword through yet another man that Merlin was nowhere to be found, either. Not that he really had time to look for him; more people were coming at him with swords and maces.
Even as he fought, though, Arthur could tell the battle was not going well. Morgana's men were gaining, and the knights protecting the entrance to the castle were almost overwhelmed. Where were the reinforcements he'd sent out to trap the army? Perhaps Morgana has taken a different path than the one he'd expected her to take, and evaded the hidden soldiers?
Above all the din, Arthur heard an angry shout, and turned, knocking aside a boy who couldn't have been more than sixteen. Merlin was standing at the top of the stairs that led into the courtyard, a few fallen knights lying around him. Morgana stood just beneath him, her arm stretched out at him. Even from this distance Arthur could see her shoulders heaving; she was angry and surprised, and Arthur realized what she was about to do just before she did it.
"MERLIN!" Arthur screamed, and began fighting and slashing his way towards his servant and his sister, knowing there was no way he could reach them in time. Morgana squeezed her hand shut as if she was trying to choke someone, and Merlin fell to his knees, his arms clawing at his throat. Morgana began walking up the stairs to him, her hand still a deadly fist, and Arthur felt his blood run cold. He couldn't lose Merlin. Not now. Not after everything.
And even though it was Merlin he wanted to reach, it was also Merlin who stopped him short. Arthur's manservant thrust out his arm, fingers splayed, and Morgana went flying backwards, landing in a groaning heap at the base of the stairs.
Arthur froze. He stared at Morgana's slowly-moving form, and then raised his eyes to Merlin. The manservant was still on his knees, gasping for breath, one hand rubbing his throat. Arthur stared at him, unable to organize the thoughts swirling through his head. This was evidence. This was pure, undeniable evidence. The battle raged around him, but Arthur stood untouched.
Merlin seemed to feel someone's eyes on him and raised his head. Arthur could see his eyes were red, probably from the chokehold. He waited for Merlin's eyes to find his, not sure he wanted them to. He could look away, he could pretend he hadn't seen, he could ignore everything…
Too late. The moment Merlin's eyes settled on Arthur's, his eyes widened in fear and regret. And now Arthur was trapped, he couldn't look away even though he wanted to run as far as he could. He wanted to be free from this, from the prejudices with which he had been raised, from the responsibility of having to deal with Merlin's magic, from the possibility, the likelihood, that everything was about to fall apart.
Merlin looked away from Arthur, towards the gates. He stumbled to his feet in surprise. Arthur turned as well, and felt relief flicker through him as he saw the groups of knights he had sent out earlier converging on Morgana's army from the back, taking them by surprise. Morgana was on her feet once again, but she seemed unsteady; Arthur doubted she'd be able to do too much strong magic after that fall. She looked up at Merlin, who stared down at her with a clear warning in his eyes, a sort of rage and hatred that scared Arthur. Morgana turned away from Merlin, an uneasy expression on her face. When she saw Arthur watching the exchange, she smirked slightly before starting through the battle untouched, towards the gates. Her men realized she was leaving and made to follow. The knights looked around until they found Arthur, who signaled to let them go. Arthur followed the last of the men to the gates, then called out his sister's name.
Morgana turned, her men clearing an aisle so she could see Arthur. "Don't think this is the end, Arthur," she cooed. "I'm only just getting started."
"We'll be more than ready for you. I suggest you stay away."
Morgana scoffed and turned away. As she began walking she called back, "Tell me how your conversation goes. Get back to me then." Her men closed ranks around her as she walked away.
Arthur turned and looked at his knights, motioning for Leon to come closer. "Take a patrol after her. Make sure she reaches the border." Leon nodded, and he and a few other knights set off to the stables.
As the after-battle cleanup began, Arthur glanced back up to the top of the stairs. Merlin was gone.
The next morning found Arthur sitting at his dinner table, picking at the wood with a dagger. Gwen had left a few minutes earlier to help Gaius tend to the wounded. Arthur hadn't told her about Merlin. He needed to think through the situation for himself first.
Arthur hadn't seen Merlin since the previous night, and wondered, with a somewhat sick feeling in his stomach, if Merlin had ran away. He wanted Merlin to stay, he wanted everything to be alright, to be normal again, but he just didn't know what to think. He didn't believe Merlin to be evil – after all, he had been fighting against Morgana. But he had used magic. He had used magic, a tool Arthur knew to be dangerous and destructive.
Arthur was startled out of his thoughts by a knock at the door, and looked up as is was pushed open. To his surprise, Merlin walked in, looking shaky and exhausted. Arthur guessed that, like himself, Merlin hadn't gotten any sleep that night.
Neither manservant nor king said anything for a few moments. Merlin shifted from foot to foot, Arthur kept glancing between him and the dagger he was fiddling with. They never quite made eye contact, one's eyes flashing away just as the other's looked up.
Finally Merlin spoke. "Arthur, I'm sorry I didn't tell you before. You can do whatever you want to me, but please, let me explain."
Arthur didn't say anything, staring at the dagger but not really seeing it. He could feel Merlin's eyes on him, waiting, anxious. It wouldn't do any harm to let him talk, right? Besides, he was desperate to understand. Arthur gave a short nod without looking at Merlin.
Out of his periphery, Arthur could see Merlin relax slightly. It was a moment before Merlin began talking.
"The first thing you need to know, Arthur, is that I would never do anything to harm you or the kingdom. Never have, never will." This wasn't a surprise to Arthur. He had seen what Merlin had done yesterday, and how he'd saved him that first time Arthur saw him using magic. He had seen Merlin's loyalty plenty of times before then, he just hadn't realized that magic was involved.
Merlin took a deep breath. "The second thing you should know is that I'm not a sorcerer." Arthur looked up, eyebrows raised, and met Merlin's eyes for the first time. He could see regret and sorrow there, but no fear. Merlin didn't care what Arthur did to him, he just wanted Arthur to be healthy and happy. That struck Arthur more than anything else.
Merlin hurried on, "I mean I'm a warlock, not a sorcerer. I didn't learn magic, like most people do, I was born with it. It's a part of me, just like your arm or leg is a part of you. Using it is as natural to me as walking or sleeping or eating. It's not something I can just throw away."
"Why didn't you tell me?" Arthur asked quietly.
"Well, your father-"
"And after my father died? Why didn't you tell me then?"
"The way your father died… You were weighed down with grief for a long time, Arthur. I didn't want to put something else on you. And then as time went on… I don't know, it just never felt like the right time. I wanted to tell you, I swear I did, I just couldn't figure out how or when. I didn't want to hurt you."
Arthur could see the sincerity in Merlin's eyes, but he didn't know what to think. He had seen multiple examples of magic being used for good, and was starting to doubt his father's claim that all magic was evil. But he had grown up believing that magic was evil, and he couldn't forget all the times he'd seen it be used for wicked purposes.
Almost as if he could tell what Arthur was thinking, Merlin said, "Magic isn't evil or good, Arthur. It's just a tool, like a sword. You can use it to kill or you can use it to defend. Everything depends on the person who uses it."
"Then why have I seen so many more instances of magic being used for evil?"
"Your father's laws angered a lot of people. But only some wanted revenge. So they revolted, violently, and that's what you see every time you see a sorcerer. But there are so many good people out there, people who live in hiding. They don't use their magic in public because they'll be killed for it. It won't matter if their hearts are pure! They don't want to kill anyone, they don't want to rule the kingdom. They just want to live in peace. So you never see them."
Arthur didn't say anything. He was staring at the dagger in his hands again. "You've never used your magic for evil?" he asked finally.
Merlin shook his head. "I swear I haven't. I've done some things I'm not proud of, but they were only to protect you."
Images flashed through Arthur's mind; Merlin running off somewhere and returning, declaring the problem solved; Merlin rarely in Arthur's line of sight when an enemy fighter was inexplicably incapacitated; Merlin always insisting on going with Arthur on missions; Merlin doing a thousand other things that Arthur now realized must have been to help him, to help the kingdom using magic. How had he not realized it before? It seemed so obvious now.
"Arthur?" Merlin asked hesitantly.
Arthur looked up at him. He had already made his decision. His tone was clipped because he was still angry with Merlin for lying. "Is there anything else I should know?"
Merlin looked away for the first time since he had begun talking. "A… a few things." He looked back up at Arthur. "They're not small."
Arthur sighed. "You'd better start talking, then."
Merlin nodded, swallowed, and began. "Remember when the dragon was attacking the city, and we went to find that dragon lord?" At Arthur's nod Merlin continued. "Well, I didn't know this until right before we left, but Balinor… Balinor was my father."
"Your what?" Arthur spluttered.
"My father." Merlin pulled out a chair across from Arthur and sat down. "Gaius… Gaius told me. He helped Balinor escape during the purge."
"Gaius knows you're a sorcerer? Or warlock or whatever? Of course he does, that's just wonderful, Merlin, is there anyone else who knows?"
"Just Lancelot. He knew, when he was… but he's gone now. Only Gaius knows."
A heavy silence had settled over the room. Arthur tried to push away his thoughts on Lancelot. "Just… continue your story, with the dragon."
"When a dragon lord dies, he passes on his powers to his son. So now… I'm the last dragon lord." Arthur's eyes widened in shock. "I was the one who told the dragon to leave. You didn't kill him, Arthur."
"You let him go! Merlin, that beast was destroying Camelot, I thought you said you wanted to protect the kingdom!"
"I did! I do! Of course I do! The dragon can't attack the city; he's under my orders. I thought it best to show some mercy. Besides, he's become… nicer. Not as destructive. Actually he's been quite helpful. He's helped me save your life multiple times."
Arthur stared at Merlin, his thoughts flying. Merlin let the dragon go, a creature that had been bringing death and destruction to the city. But at the same time, he'd shown mercy. He had used his power to stop all further deaths, including the dragon's. That was probably one of the most Merlin things Arthur could imagine Merlin would do.
Arthur rubbed his temples. He was starting to get a headache. "All right, fine. Anything else?"
Merlin dropped his head, and Arthur could tell that what he was about to say would be far from easy.
"I can transform into an old man you know as Dragoon or Emrys. My name is Merlin, but the druids… they call me Emrys."
Arthur smirked. This couldn't be what Merlin was scared to tell him. "That was you? I should've guessed. That old crackpot always looked familiar…"
Arthur froze. A memory, a horrible, painful memory came itching at his mind. It couldn't be. Merlin, responsible for his father's…?
Merlin seemed to know what Arthur was thinking. "Arthur, please, you have to understand, it was an accident. Morgana ordered Agravaine to put a cursed object on your father, so that any healing I tried to do would backfire and be ten times worse! I didn't know anything was wrong until it was too late!"
Arthur couldn't seem to catch his breath. He didn't know what to think. He wanted to believe Merlin, but his father had never been kind to sorcerers. Merlin would have every reason to kill him! He looked up at his servant, whose eyes were pleading and honest. "How can I believe you? My father hated sorcerers, you'd have every reason to get your revenge!"
"Ask Gaius of my intentions. I understand if you can't trust me any longer, but trust Gaius, Arthur, please." Merlin paused. "If you want to kill me, kill me. I won't run, and I won't hate you, and no matter what you do to me you cannot betray me. I will protect you until my last breath."
Merlin held Arthur's gaze for a moment longer before tearing his eyes away. Arthur watched him blink back tears and realized he was holding back his own. Then, rather abruptly, Merlin stood and made to leave.
"Merlin, wait." Arthur voice came out more steady than he'd expected it to. "Sit down. I believe you, and still I trust you." Merlin stared at him, and sank back into the chair, slowly. Arthur could see the hope mixed with the disbelief in his eyes, but Arthur had spoken from his heart. "I've been suspecting you for a few weeks, Merlin. You're not as careful as you'd like to think."
Merlin's brow furrowed. "What?"
"We were on patrol a few weeks ago. I saw you save me from a bandit, using magic. Then when I walked in on you in the armory, well, I may as well have seen everything drop. I tried to ignore it, I didn't want to believe it… but with yesterday I guess I see I don't have anything to worry about, do I?"
Merlin smiled for the first time, that big, stupid grin that only Merlin could manage. "Arthur, thank you, I-"
"Shut it. I'm still upset you didn't tell me. You'll be mucking out the stables every day this week, and polishing all my armor by hand, and if you are so much as a second late to anything there will be very dire consequences. Understood?"
Merlin jumped up, seemingly unable to stop smiling. "Of course, sire."
Arthur's tone became a little softer. " You realize I can't keep this from Guinevere. And the knights should know as well."
Merlin's grin faded slightly. "Of course. Just… can we tell them together?"
Arthur nodded. He stood and began walking to his desk. Then, almost to himself, he added, "And I'll have to take a look at some of those magic laws. They are quite strict…"
"Arthur, would you really do that?"
Arthur waved him away. "You didn't hear anything, Merlin! Now get back to work!"
Arthur had never heard quite such an enthusiastic "Yes, sire!" as Merlin rushed out. Arthur grinned to himself. This was a new age for the kingdom, and he was glad Merlin was there to help him build it.