It was a sunny morning. For some reason this vexed Arthur. It just felt wrong that it should be such bright weather on the day he had to execute his own uncle for treason. He hid his head under a pillow to block out the sunlight, as if he could avoid having to get up and do what he needed to do.
Because this was necessary. He did not have a choice in the matter. Agravaine was a traitor, plain and simple, and Arthur could not, would not allow a traitor to walk free. And as a king it was his duty to oversee executions. To not attend would make him look weak and that was something he could not afford. He would have to be there and he would need to keep his eyes on the execution. The very thought made him sick.
He had broken all bonds with his uncle the previous day. He had seen for himself that Agravaine was not the kind and caring uncle he had made himself out to be. He was a "bloody bastard" to phrase it with Harry's words. Arthur could not deny it and he could not deny feeling angry either. But most of all it just hurt. Betrayal after betrayal. First Morgana, now his uncle. Both were his family and yet both had tried to kill him, overthrow the kingdom for reasons far beyond his comprehension. And for the sake of his own sanity, he hoped they would remain like that.
'Rise and shine!' The voice of his manservant interrupted his musings, even under his pillow.
Normally Arthur would think up some kind of scathing but humorous put-down, but today he was all for just the scathing bit. What did he think Arthur was going to do, having a nice day picking daisies? The king of Camelot was fully aware that in the short time he had known the spooks he had picked up an awful lot of their sarcasm and cynicism. Normally this would have bothered him, but at the moment, with so many other things going on, his servant's returned sunny optimism bothered him, a lot.
'Merlin?' he growled, still from underneath his pillow.
'Yes?' By the sound of things he was somewhere near Arthur's wardrobe now, selecting the clothes for the day.
'Shut. Up.' To emphasise the words he removed said pillow and propped himself up on his elbows to send a withering glance in the warlock's direction.
The tone of voice got Merlin's attention. 'You're…. tetchy,' he observed.
It was just the last straw, Arthur supposed. He had never been a morning person and the very fact that Merlin was being so overly cheerful on the day Arthur had to execute his own uncle did nothing whatsoever to improve his mood. 'Yes, Merlin. I have to execute my own uncle for betraying me. That tends to put people on edge.' Oh dear, he had really spent far too much time around Harry and Ros. It may have been his most grumpy tone, but it were their words coming out of his mouth. 'So stop being so… happy, will you? You have no idea what this feels like!'
Something about this put the younger man on edge. 'Don't I?' The words came out in a snarl that took Arthur completely by surprise. 'Are you really as stupid as you look?'
Arthur's eyebrows shot up. It would seem that he had not been the only one to copy spooks phrases. 'Merlin?' he said in a warning voice. Whatever it was that his servant had on his mind, the king was not in the mood to hear it. He was just too preoccupied with his own problems right now. There was no room in his head to deal with Merlin's on top of that. Besides, he still wasn't certain what to do with the sorcerer. What had passed in London was not something that was easily forgotten or forgiven. There had been things that perhaps would have been better left unspoken, yet they had been said and they had caused a rift Arthur did not know how to mend. Worse, he did not even know if he wanted to mend it at all.
'Yes, you're going to tell me to shut up again.' Merlin sounded both annoyed and angry, a combination of emotions not often seen on him. Come to think of it, neither of those emotions was often seen on him, apart or together. 'But just for once can you stop being such an arrogant prat and listen to me?'
This wasn't like Merlin at all. He had never tried to order Arthur to do anything. Until recently Arthur had believed that his servant had been quite happy being bossed about, had thought it amusing for some stupid reason. At least this struck him dumb for once, giving Merlin the opportunity to say whatever it was that he had on his mind.
'You are going over every other possibility in your head to try and find one that just might work,' Merlin began. 'Because you're desperately hoping that there is somewhere, somehow an option you just may have overlooked. You're only doing what you're doing because those options don't exist and you have to go through with it, because it's the best for the kingdom and destiny and duty demand it of you. And you really do not want to do this, because the person you're about to kill is someone you really care about and you're not ready to even accept that they have betrayed you.' All this seemed to come out in one single breath and by the end of his little speech, Merlin was panting.
And his king was staring at the other man as if he had never even seen him before today. What Merlin had just said was summing up Arthur's thoughts and emotions to perfection. 'How do you know?' It wasn't the most intelligent thing he had ever said, but it was the only thing he could possibly ask now.
Merlin, surprisingly, bit his lip. 'I had to do it once, a few years ago.'
Arthur was trying to determine whether this explained things or only made them more complicated. 'You had to execute someone?' he questioned, incredulously. 'Merlin, you're not a king. How on earth did you get the authority to order someone's death?' This was just ridiculous.
'I didn't order,' Merlin clarified, pointedly ignoring Arthur's eyes. 'It was Morgana,' he added. 'I had to poison her.'
If there had been last remnants of sleep left, they fled instantly. 'You poisoned Morgana?' It was louder than he had meant the words to be. And it was only when they had already left his mouth that his brains caught up with his mouth, providing him with the memory of a heated meeting in Thames House.
'Is it true?' Lucas had demanded.
Merlin had been studying his cup of coffee with a devotion not often seen. 'Is what true?'
'You poisoned her.' Lucas's words had been more of an accusation than a question. There had been anger in them.
It had been silent for quite a while after that. Merlin had avoided the stares and the shocked gasps coming from all around the room. 'That's beside the point,' he replied stiffly in the end, eyes still on the coffee cup.
The memory came back to Arthur clear and strong now. They had all taken Merlin's evasive answer for the confirmation it no doubt was. But things had escalated rather quickly after that and Arthur had banned the conversation to the back of his mind, deciding to save it for another moment in order to focus on the operation. It would seem that today was the time it would all get cleared up. And maybe that was a good thing too.
Merlin nodded. 'I had to.'
Just like you had to thwart Lucas? He may have decided to work together with Merlin once again, but it didn't mean that everything was back to normal. Arthur was still doubtful of Merlin's motives and methods and even though Morgana now was his mortal enemy, he could not approve of anyone poisoning her. 'Explain,' he commanded icily.
'It was some years ago,' Merlin began. He seated himself, in the best of spooks' tradition, on the edge of Arthur's desk. 'We were on a patrol to check something out. Morgause approached Morgana and asked for her assistance in bringing down Uther. I think she used Morgana's fear of persecution as a way to get her on side, but I'm not really sure.' He was silent for a while, ordering his thoughts, Arthur guessed, so he did not interrupt. 'Morgause cast some kind of spell on Morgana that made everyone in the castle fall asleep…'
Arthur remembered. He remembered that frightening day when he had come back to Camelot with just Merlin, the other knights and guards having found their end in a dark castle at the hands of what appeared to be undead or immortal knights. He remembered riding into the courtyard, finding all of Camelot asleep. Somehow that had been far more scary than any other danger he had ever encountered. Something about that had scared him. Maybe it was because he was up against an enemy that no sword could help against. How was one supposed to fight off sleep, and a magical sleep at that? Because the fact that there was magic at work was obvious. No illness could have possibly caused this.
He remembered walking through the castle, searching for people that by any chance just may have escaped the spell and were still awake to tell them what had happened, what was still at work. The only one they had found was Morgana, who had appeared scared out of her wits.
'Morgana was the source?' Arthur found that hard to believe. 'But she was scared?' It came out as a question.
Merlin nodded. 'I don't think Morgause had told her what she was doing, so Morgana didn't understand at first what was happening. She was alone and she was scared. I don't think that was really what she wanted at the time. But she could not tell anyone of what had happened, because she feared she would be killed then, so she said nothing.'
How Merlin had all found that out was quite beyond Arthur, but he just went with it in order to get the rest of the information out of the other man. 'How did you know?' he demanded, one of the few questions he had not heard answered yet. 'That Morgana was the source?'
'I asked the Great Dragon,' Merlin confessed.
'The same dragon that tried to burn this city to the ground only days later?' Arthur questioned sharply. If Merlin knew that monster, then that opened some possibilities Arthur did not even want to begin to consider. 'Merlin, are you saying…?'
'He told me Morgana was the source of the spell.' Merlin went on so quickly that Arthur did not even get the chance to finish his question, thus confirming every suspicion Arthur had. 'And he also said that the only way to break the spell was to kill her, because it was tied to her life. I still don't understand how that worked exactly. It was a very complicated charm Morgause had used and I could not remove it myself.' He was starting to ramble now, trying to justify his actions. 'I didn't want to, Arthur, but then we were starting to get drowsy and those undead knights showed up and…' His voice trailed off and his eyes dropped to his boots, obviously ashamed of his own actions.
Arthur knew exactly what the situation had been like. He had thought that the only way they would all be able to live through that was if a miracle would happen. But miracles seemed to be in very short supply. When the knights suddenly had fallen apart and the castle had woken up, that had been the miracle he had been hoping for. The mystery of how it had come to be that way had never been solved. Now he was close to finding out the truth, but it was a very ugly truth indeed.
'So you poisoned her.' How he managed to sound as calm as he did was beyond him. He just was. Maybe he was beyond anger for Merlin's actions now that Morgana had turned out to have betrayed him in the way that she had.
Merlin nodded. Were those tears in his eyes? 'I poisoned the water in the waterskin, then pretended to drink from it myself to take away her distrust.' He bit his lip so hard it started to bleed. 'And then I offered it to her. She didn't want to drink, but I insisted and she drank.' It was silent for another moment. 'I held her in my arms while she lay choking and then Morgause barged in. I made a deal with her. She would lift the spell and I would give her the name of the poison so that she could try to save Morgana.'
The silence lasted longer this time, a lot longer. So many things started to make sense now, including Merlin's harsh and snappy remarks about knowing exactly what Arthur felt like right now. Merlin and Morgana had been friends before Morgana had changed her allegiance. Arthur had even believed that there had been something more going on between them. And judging by Merlin's expression it had broken his heart to do what he had done then, no matter what he himself thought about it.
It explained so many things and at the same time it spoke again of Merlin's attitude. He had shown that he had no limits when it came to protecting Arthur in London. He had rather given up Lucas, even though he had been innocent of the things he had been accused of. Morgana had been a friend, unsure of what was even happening to her. She might even have been looking to Merlin for help and guidance, if their bond really had been as tight as Arthur suspected. And yet he had let her down. He had let her down in favour of saving Arthur and Camelot. Arthur could not even begin to think how much it had cost him.
But even though he would never say this, the king of Camelot took Merlin's behaviour then – his determination, his sense of duty – as a good example. It wasn't easy, but running this kingdom was never easy. It did not mean that Arthur would be able to look at his uncle's execution without difficulty, it didn't even mean that he approved of what Merlin did and had done, but it did remind him of the responsibilities he had. And they had to come before any personal concerns he may have. That was what it took to be a king.
So hardly two hours later he stood on the balcony as two guards marched Agravaine to the centre of the square. He managed to keep his face neutral and his voice calm as he told the assembled people what the nobleman was accused of and what his sentence was.
Agravaine looked up at him, hate sparkling in his eyes. But he didn't say anything and in Arthur's opinion he did not have to. Anything he may have wanted to say had been spoken in the dungeon the previous day. And Agravaine's words still rang in his head as clear as if they were spoken that very moment. In the end it were the cold words – It was necessary, said in reaction to Arthur's accusation that the Dorocha had killed so many innocent people – that enabled him to do what needed to be done.
'Proceed with the execution,' the king of Camelot ordered. He did not look away as the axe came down.
There was a small chance, Merlin pondered as he saddled his horse, a small chance of this plan actually working, but it was mainly very small and very unlikely. He had followed the proceedings with growing shock, not actually able to believe that this was not some kind of sick joke. They were actually planning on doing this.
When Lucas had first mentioned his plan, Merlin had wanted to protest, only to find that his tongue didn't seem to be in working order anymore. He had come to respect the spook for what he had done, enormously so, even if he could hardly bring himself to say so. He could hardly bring himself to talk to the man. It wasn't like him, he knew. Merlin had become known for his sharp wit and quick tongue in Camelot, but he could simply not bring himself to talk to Lucas, not anymore. And he knew what caused it. He had failed the man. He had accused him of being a traitor, had been ready to do whatever it took to keep him away from Arthur and had eventually let him do the dirty work when he had not felt up to it. And Lucas had paid the price for that failure. Merlin could hardly bring himself to face the man. He was too ashamed of himself.
Naturally Gaius suspected that there was something off. He had told his ward that he could talk about it if he wished, but Merlin had declined and pretended to not notice the hurt in the elderly physician's eyes at apparently not being trusted enough to relay the entire tale to him as he was used to doing whenever something troubled him. He just could not talk about it, not yet.
It was bad enough that he had failed to kill Morgana twice now, but he also had to deal with the additional weight of Ros's scorn and Arthur's obvious resentment. They had set their differences aside for the duration of the operation, but now they were not in some form of immediate danger, true feelings were clearly allowed to resurface and Merlin could not even blame them for it. He had failed, spectacularly.
And now here they were, about to try and pull off the most dangerous mission Merlin had ever embarked on. There were so many things that could go wrong here and he feared that. And mostly he feared that this time it would lead to Lucas's death. It had been so close the last time and no matter what the spooks thought, this would be just as dangerous, maybe even more so.
And he could just not understand why Lucas wanted – because that was what this was – to do this. He had almost been begging of Harry to let him go in and deal with Morgana. It wasn't for some sort of noble reason. The warlock would not make the mistake of thinking that. These were spooks. They may be the good guys, but Merlin often found himself questioning their motives and their methods. They were not after Morgana because they wanted to rid Camelot of her presence and they were certainly not doing it out of the goodness of their hearts. It was vengeance, plain and simple. Calling it something else would be a lie. Harry, Lucas and Ros were only so determined to put an end to Morgana because they felt it necessary to kill her as a punishment for what she had done to one of their team.
It was a questionable moral code they operated under, if it could even be called that, but was he really in a position to question their actions when said actions would rid them of the greatest threat Camelot had seen in years? Did their motives matter when the end result could hopefully not be argued with? Did it really matter why they were doing it, as long as it was done?
Common sense told him that he could and had to overlook those things. The operation was far more important, but deep down it didn't sit well with the warlock. Because if they stooped to the enemy's motives and methods – revenge and violence respectively – then what right did they have to call themselves the good guys? If they practically became like the people they were fighting, what difference did it make then? It was a question he did not have an answer to, but he knew that he could not voice his concerns. His relationship with Arthur was already shaky at best and he would certainly not take kindly to his servant questioning his actions, especially when said servant's own actions had not exactly been a shiny example in the past week. But at least I've done what I did for the right reason. That was a comforting thought. He had never acted out of a desire for revenge. He had only ever used violence to protect Arthur and Camelot.
'You're deep in thought, mate,' a relaxed voice observed and when Merlin swivelled around, he could see Gwaine leaning against the stable door. He was one of the few knights that had been chosen to accompany them on this mission, to Ros's endless annoyance. The Section Chief had not made it a secret that she thoroughly disliked the friendly knight for reasons only known to Ros Myers herself. It would be a fair guess though that Gwaine's jovial attitude towards women and life in general had something to do with it.
'Shouldn't you be with Arthur?' Merlin asked. Arthur was currently overseeing Agravaine's execution, after which their small group would leave for the Isle of the Blessed. The warlock had, after a night of study, figured out a way that would shield every member of their small company from Morgana's spying gaze as well. It had been an exhausting process and at the moment he was feeling close to exhaustion as a result. What he really wanted was to be left on his own so he could get some rest. He supposed that his chances of getting any were slim to none though.
'Nah, never fancied the whole execution business.' Had Ros been here, she would have favoured him with a glare that by all rights should have made him drop dead. 'Anyway, I was wondering about why Morgana apparently is so scared of you.'
Merlin instantly froze into place. 'She isn't.' The reaction was automatic, but it sounded like an excuse, a lie, even to his own ears. It was just something he said to protect himself. Arthur may know about his magic, but he had no idea if the king was even planning to officially allow it, never mind that he wanted other members of the court to know about it. And even if that would have Arthur's seal of approval, Merlin did not know yet and lying about his powers had become second nature to him. Years and years of keeping his magic a secret had made lying about it as easy as breathing. And if he revealed to Gwaine why Morgana was scared of him, that might have consequences he did not want to face. The knight was a good friend, but he was at least wary where it came to magic. He, like every other person in Camelot, had seen magic used for all the wrong reasons and all the wrong ends. Merlin could hardly blame his friend for rapidly turning into an enemy the moment he learned that Merlin was a sorcerer himself and had lied about that on top of that.
'Secret, eh?' Gwaine took an enthusiastic bite out of an apple he had probably taken from the kitchens without the cook's permission. 'Come on, mate, that lady said Morgana would run if she saw your face. I reckon that's got nothing to do with your very not-dangerous looking appearance.'
Merlin conjured up his most dazzling smile. 'It's secret,' he told his friend, even as he despised the need to lie to his friend.
'I've been thinking about it, though.' At the moment the knight strongly reminded the warlock of the spooks, sinking his teeth not only in that apple, but also in the problem at hand, trying to work out what the matter was. The terrifying thing was that Merlin thought that Gwaine's thinking might have turned up more results than he would be comfortable with. The knight's manners left a lot to be desired, but he was not a fool, not in the slightest. 'Morgana isn't really the woman to be scared of any manservant,' he went on. 'And last I checked she didn't have a problem flinging knights out of the way either. The only people she would really fear were the ones who had magic themselves.'
Merlin had turned his back on his friend again, pretending to strap some more luggage to the saddle. That would at least hide his expression of absolute shock. He felt like he had swallowed a glacier whole. He turned all cold on the inside and for once he had no idea what to say or do. Against such an accusation he had no defence, no logical argument. Boldfaced lies would not do him any good either, not if Gwaine had truly worked out the truth. There was nothing he could really say now.
The silence dragged on endlessly. In a strange way it reminded Merlin of the absolute silence after the market bombing. He could even almost hear the accompanying ring in his ears, as if Gwaine had dropped a bomb not only in the figurative, but also in the literal sense. The comparison was appropriate somehow. The only noises breaking it were the horse and the sound of Gwaine still merrily working his way through his apple. He had not yet called the guards, had not yet shouted abuse at him and Merlin did not know what to make of it.
'It's true, isn't it?' Gwaine insisted, not a thing he often did. The knight was more the type to let things go if it was obvious people did not want to discuss it. It was the kind of person he was. Not today, though.
Merlin forced himself to turn around, fully prepared to beg if that was necessary. He just could not allow his secret to get out, not yet, not without Arthur's explicit permission. But he didn't want to physically harm Gwaine or force him to keep his mouth shut. The knight was a friend, at least that was how Merlin saw him. What Gwaine thought of him was harder to determine.
'I can understand if you don't want anything to do with me anymore,' he began. Actually that was a lie, but that was what was expected of him to say, wasn't it? And maybe, if he had been in Gwaine's place, he would have condemned the lying about this subject. And Merlin could not blame him for that. He would not like to be lied to either. So if this was to be the end of their friendship, then so be it, but Merlin would bitterly regret it should it come to that.
Gwaine stared at him as if he had grown a second head. 'What are you talking about, mate?' he demanded.
Now it was the warlock's turn to be confused. 'You want nothing to do with me anymore,' he said. 'And I can understand that. I should not have lied to you, I know. All I ask is that you keep my secret. Please?' The panic he felt at the mere idea of his secret getting out made him plead without him wanting to.
There was a short silence for a few seconds and then Gwaine let out a bark of laughter. 'You're a bit exaggerating, Merlin,' the knight remarked casually. To Merlin's surprise there was no anger in his voice, no contempt, no hatred. Could it be…? 'Friends don't do that.' He seemed to think about it for a moment. 'Does the princess know?'
Arthur's ridiculous nickname brought out the barest hint of a smile. 'You're not angry?' Heaven knew Arthur had been. It had not been right away, but the king of Camelot had been furious later, about the magic as well as the distrust Merlin had displayed. It felt like something of a dream that one of his closest friends took the news as well as he did.
'It's brilliant,' Gwaine said, casually throwing away the remnants of his apple, which were promptly swallowed by Merlin's horse. 'Does Arthur know?'
Merlin nodded. 'He accidentally found out.' Kind of. It was close enough to the truth anyway. The full story would be a bit difficult for Gwaine to understand. Come to think of it, the knight of Camelot would probably love the twenty-first century, see it as one big adventure. Maybe it was for the same reason that he did not fly off the handle about Merlin's magic. That was the only sane explanation he could come up with. 'He… ehm… took it not as well as you did. Not at first anyway.' What Arthur's current ideas about magic were only heaven knew. The Pendragon had at least not shared them with either his allies or his servant. Merlin even doubted Gwen would have been told.
Gwaine let out a bark of laughter. 'Princess was a little shocked, wasn't he?' After Merlin's confirming nod his face split into a massive grin. 'Can you show me something then? Magic?'
At first he wasn't sure he had understood this right, but Gwaine looked at him expectantly and Merlin began to think that on second thought Gwaine's request was exactly what he had thought it would be. 'You want me to perform magic in a kingdom where it is punishable by death?' he hissed.
His friend was still wholly unconcerned, still leaning against that stable door as if for all the world they were discussing nothing more interesting than the weather conditions. 'Wouldn't be the first time,' Gwaine pointed out. 'You have done it before, haven't you?'
The thought came to mind that Gwaine was not all that stupid when there was no alcohol in him. 'Yes…' he replied carefully. Oh, why not? his more rebellious side thought. The cat was out of the bag now anyway and they were alone. He might as well show off a little. 'Forbærnan,' he whispered, watching with satisfaction as Gwaine's jaw dropped in astonishment when the small flame appeared in Merlin's hand. But it turned quickly in a smile and the warlock realised with relief that he had not lost a friend after all. It made him happier than he probably any right to be in the given circumstances.