Characters: Merlin & Arthur
Spoilers: All of series 2; set after 2x13.
Length: ~9,300 words
Summary: Deprived by circumstances of anything else to do, Arthur asks a great deal of questions. Eventually, Merlin answers.
Note: With massive thanks to briar_pipe for beta duty. &hearts !
I've spent many moons trying to tackle some of series 2; this is the result of that, and also a plot I've been wanting to write for ages.
A few weeks after the dragon, when things are not back to normal but close enough that they can pretend otherwise, Arthur invents a story about a beast in the woods. He needs to get away for a few days – away from the scorched and crumbling masonry, away from the fresh graves in the cemeteries, away from Morgana’s empty room and Uther’s hollow eyes. So he invents a story, gets leave to investigate the creature, convinces the king that he needn’t take any knights with him, and goes.
Honestly, he needs to get away from Merlin’s quiet demeanour and wounded-dog expression, too, but it never occurs to him not to bring Merlin along. Maybe a few days’ peace in the woods will do the man good, convince him to talk to Arthur rather than continue to wallow alone in whatever’s troubling him.
They set off in the morning and walk at a leisurely pace most of the day, stopping for lunch and for dinner, and Arthur’s about ready to look for a place to camp for the night when it happens. They’re picking their way down a steep hillside when suddenly the ground beneath Arthur’s feet starts shifting and sliding away, and before he knows it he and Merlin are crashing down, down, down.
“Here, are you-”
“Bruised, but, yeah. Fine.”
They’re at the bottom of a deep pit, surrounded by loose stones, clumps of dirt, bits of plants, and not much else. The hole is maybe nine or ten feet across at its widest, and extends for about twenty feet before the crack in the stone narrows at either end. At the edges, the relatively flat floor joins sheer, curiously smooth walls that reach upwards at least twenty or thirty feet. (It’s weird, really, that they aren’t hurt beyond some aches and scrapes, but Arthur has other things on his mind at the moment.)
“Bugger,” Arthur says, heartfelt.
“Yeah,” Merlin agrees.
The stone walls are far too smooth and slippery to be climbed. Arthur tries anyway.
He does not look like a drunken kitten when his efforts prove futile and he slides straight down the rock face to land in a heap, thank you very much Merlin.
At least Merlin seems amused by Arthur’s attempts; the smirk he’s wearing has been rare enough recently that Arthur is disinclined to tell him off for it.
“Come on, give it a rest,” Merlin urges him when the light begins to fade from the sky, and Arthur huffs but assents.
The pack with most of their supplies for the expedition failed to arrive in the pit with them; they have only Arthur’s sword and armour, the latter brought mostly for the sake of appearances, and the smaller bag Merlin had been wearing looped across his neck and shoulder when they fell.
“What’s in there, then?” Arthur asks, nodding at the bag.
“Skin of water, knife, loaf of bread, some bandages and things,” Merlin reports, digging through it, “Couple of apples… Flint, we could start a fire?”
“Should save the fuel,” Arthur says, eyeing the small collection of branches in the hole. “There isn’t much to burn, and the smoke’s more likely to be seen by daylight.”
“Right, yeah. Not that cold anyway.”
“No. Help me with the armour?”
Merlin peels it off him, tutting at the dents from their tumble down, and then they clear the rubble from the flattest area of the floor, and then it’s too dark to do much of anything else.
“Just go and sleep, Arthur,” Merlin says; Arthur can’t really see him, but he thinks he’s wearing that weird, sort of distant look that – now Arthur thinks of it, that often comes out just before one unlikely rescue or another. It’s bizarrely reassuring, given that they are trapped in a pit in the woods and not expected back for another two days at least.
“We should keep watch,” Arthur says anyway, and raises a hand to still Merlin’s protest. “In case anyone happens by, whose attention we could attract.”
“Oh. Yeah, okay,” Merlin agrees. “I’ll take the first, you should rest. Things will look better in the morning.”
Things do not look better in the morning. Merlin wakes Arthur shortly before dawn, bleary with exhaustion and pale with – it almost seems like fear. Like he’s scared in a way he wasn’t before, which doesn’t make any sense. They’re no more trapped now than they were last night, and an undisturbed night is hardly cause to give up hope when no one will even have thought to look for them yet.
But there’s no question that Merlin looks frightened, and deeply unhappy. This sad, fragile Merlin has been appearing far too frequently lately; not for the first time, Arthur wishes Merlin would just talk to him rather than keep it all bottled up inside. It isn’t as though Arthur would make fun of him for whatever he’s feeling. (Much.) Arthur misses the idle chatter and easy smiles, the way Merlin used to natter on about any old thing as Arthur pretended disinterest while secretly revelling in such bizarrely casual conversation. Merlin used to talk to him, like no one else has ever really done, and Arthur became accustomed to it, and now he feels the loss keenly.
“You could have woken me sooner,” Arthur admonishes as Merlin yawns. “A sleeping watchman is a useless one.”
“I wasn’t asleep,” Merlin says, and there’s such a strange wounded quality to his tone that Arthur can’t bring himself to argue.
“Well. You can sleep now.”
Merlin nods, and curls up on his side with his back to Arthur, but he doesn’t sleep. Arthur watches him shift and settle and shift some more; Merlin’s never this fidgety when they have to sleep rough, and there’s something very discomfiting about his restlessness now. The sun is well up before he stops moving and his breathing goes slow and steady, and even then his body looks like one big ball of tension.
It makes Arthur uneasy, makes him jerk at every small sound from above even though it’s obvious they’re caused by nothing more than birds and other small animals.
After it’s fully light, Arthur starts a small fire, which does not give off nearly as much smoke as he had hoped.
While Merlin sleeps, Arthur works his way around the pit, trying every spot where he could possibly find a hand-hold, but to no avail. Finally he flops back down, defeated, and just watches the clouds pass over the patch of sky he can see. So much for a nice break wandering through the woods. This place might as well be a cell in the dungeons, complete with the faint odour of piss from the corner they’d designated for relieving themselves.
Things don’t improve when Merlin wakes up some hours later. He’s even quieter than he has been for the last several weeks and still looks small and scared, which doesn’t help Arthur’s mood at all. Merlin also completely fails to rise to any comment Arthur can think to make, giving the shortest possible replies when Arthur tries to prod him into sociability and totally ignoring the jibes that would once have had him sputtering with indignation.
“We’ve nothing better to do, so I think this would be the perfect time to tell me what’s come over you lately,” Arthur tries, after they’ve each eaten an apple for breakfast.
“Nothing to tell,” Merlin says softly.
“Not true. You’ve been acting strangely for some time now.”
“No I haven’t.”
“Yes you have!”
“’M just. Dunno. The dragon, you know? And Lady Morgana.”
“You were off before any of that.”
“Haven’t you said I’m always off, sire?”
“Ha. Ha. Very funny.”
And so on. Normally Arthur would have stomped off to beat up a practice dummy by now, or to pester Morgana, or do – anything at all else, really. But there’s nothing to do down here apart from periodically feeding some more twigs to the fire, so they just sit, and occasionally Arthur throws a leaf or a bit of dirt at Merlin, or tries to strike up a conversation, and Merlin doesn’t cooperate, and Arthur gets even more annoyed with everything.
Arthur gets up once to exercise because at least it’s something to do, something to drain the restless energy dancing under his skin. He’s never this idle save when he’s ill or injured, and it’s no less intolerable then. He’d like to run but there isn’t enough space in the ditch, so he jumps instead, up and down, legs apart with his arms above his head, then legs together and arms down, repeat, repeat, repeat. He’s always hated this exercise because it seems so pointless, and now the motion irritates a muscle in his shoulder that he must have wrenched as they fell, but the annoyance feeds the adrenaline so he doesn’t stop. Jump, jump, jump, jump, over and over again, senseless repetitive motion that makes him sweat, makes his head buzz, eventually makes his lungs and muscles burn until finally he can’t push himself any more and he collapses on the ground, panting. (Merlin observes all this without comment.)
“Would you just tell me what’s wrong with you?” Arthur snaps when the sun is high overhead.
“There’s nothing I could possibly say that you’d like to hear,” Merlin says, dull and level, “Trust me.”
“I do trust you!” Arthur shouts, frustrated. “So why won’t you trust me?”
Arthur didn’t think it would be possible for Merlin’s expression to go any blanker, but it does. Blank and stiff and cold, like ice slicking cobblestones in winter, and with the same promise of hurt.
“I’m fine, Arthur. Just leave it.”
“I’ve been leaving it for days. Weeks, even. You are not fine.”
“Why do you keep asking about this?” Merlin demands. “Are you that bored already?”
“I’m not – I’m asking because I care.”
“No you don’t. You care about Gwen. You care about your father. Morgana, probably. Your people. I’m not him, I’m certainly not her, and I’m not them.”
Arthur isn’t sure which her Merlin means, and isn’t sure he wants to know. But he’s sure that it twists something painful in his chest, hearing that Merlin thinks this way.
“You’re – look, I know I’m not always exactly – I care about you,” Arthur insists. Merlin doesn’t react. “I’m the prince and you’re my servant, I’ve never had a – I’ve never had someone like you in my life before, I don’t know how to – but I do care about you. I’m sorry if you can’t – if I haven’t made that clear. But I do care.”
Merlin’s eyes go soft for a moment and Arthur feels a lick of something like satisfaction teasing at him, but then Merlin just sighs and grinds the heels of his palms into his eyes.
“Then believe me when I tell you it’s best you stop asking,” Merlin says, and Arthur has to try very hard to suppress the urge to groan.
No one comes, and nothing happens. Arthur’s been staring blankly at the walls so much he imagines he could easily reproduce a detailed map of all the tiny cracks and slight changes in colouring. Here’s where I was looking when I asked Merlin for the fourteenth time to talk to me, and here’s where I was looking when I told him for the fifth time to answer his prince’s questions, and here’s where that pebble hit when I threw it for the nineteenth time, and here the twentieth, and here’s where I was looking as I jumped, and here is that spot that resembles the creases in Father’s forehead when he’s angry, and here is the place I bruised my knuckles when I couldn’t take it any more and hit the wall…
They portion out a bit of their bread to eat after the sun’s moved out of sight, sinking their hole into shadow. Arthur does his best not to despair, but it’s difficult to do otherwise when he’s bored, bruised, hungry, and unlikely to be rescued before it’s too late. The prospect of ending his life this way is simultaneously surreal and remarkably offensive. After all that he has managed to survive, dragon and questing beast, poisoned goblets and weird enchantments and all manner of other stupid dangers, this, expiring in a pit for no good reason, is just unacceptable.
“I’m a prince, a warrior,” Arthur complains. “I’m supposed to die bravely in battle, not starve to death in some stupid ditch.”
“You won’t starve to death,” Merlin says sullenly. “We haven’t much water. It’ll be thirst, first.”
“Thanks, Merlin, that helps a lot.”
“Could always fall on your sword instead. Probably more dignified.”
Such negativity isn’t like Merlin, not even recent sad-and-quiet Merlin, and Arthur isn’t quite sure how to handle it. Normally he’s the one being realistic, and Merlin’s babbling optimistic nonsense that, somehow, always seems to turn out to be right. Arthur opens his mouth, closes it, and then opens it again to say, “It might rain. It will rain, I’m sure of it.”
“And then any trail we may have left will be washed away, and they’ll be sure not to find us.”
Arthur groans. “Stop that.”
“What, being logical?”
Just before dusk, Arthur spends the better part of an hour shouting at the top of his lungs to anyone who might be passing by. No one seems to hear, apart from the birds that squawk in irritation and flap away. Arthur stops when his throat aches and his voice is hoarse; Merlin spends the time stripping the bark off a branch, and doesn’t even make a fuss when his knife slips and he nicks his thumb.
They take shifts sleeping again, but neither watch is fruitful. Arthur didn’t think it possible, but somehow Merlin looks even more unhappy when Arthur wakes the next day. He feels the pessimism creeping up again. It’s only been a day and a half, but he deliberately chose a little-travelled part of the forest for their jaunt, and he honestly has no idea how they could possibly get out of here if someone doesn’t find them.
Strangely, the fire seems to be creating far more smoke than it was yesterday, but the incongruity just irritates Arthur instead of reassuring him.
He tries climbing the walls, again, with no greater success than he had previously. He does the stupid jumping exercises again too, but stops sooner this time, because the sweat makes his skin itch and he’s stiff from another night on hard ground, and there hardly seems to be a point.
Merlin sits very still, and Arthur scowls at him for it.
“I should never have left Ealdor,” Merlin mutters late in the morning, after they’ve shared the last apple.
“Probably not,” Arthur agrees, feeling maudlin and rather hopeless. “Still, I – I’m glad you did.” Merlin looks up at him, surprised, and Arthur wants to stop talking, but it seems foolish to hold onto his dignity now. “I... There isn’t…. There’s no one I’d rather have at my side, in the end.” Merlin’s expression is startled but happy, and Arthur doesn’t even think about it when he adds, with a small stupid laugh, “Maybe some benevolent sorcerer who could get us out of here.”
And at that, Merlin’s face abruptly crumples. Arthur sees tears spilling over his cheeks before he manages to bury his head in his arms.
“Don’t – Come on, Merlin, don’t cry,” Arthur says, bewildered. “It will be all right, it – someone will find us. How many times have we thought ourselves doomed? It always works out somehow, doesn’t it? Where’s that obnoxious optimism of yours?”
Merlin’s sobs increase their volume, his whole body shaking with them. Arthur is not good at crying. He has no idea what to do with crying people. Normally at this point, he would make an excuse followed by a tactical retreat, and maybe flag down Morgana or some sympathetic-looking maidservant to deal with it in his stead. Unfortunately, there’s nowhere to
“Merlin…” Arthur tries, because there isn’t enough space in here to pretend this isn’t happening.
Merlin ignores him, and Arthur sighs. Nothing for it, apparently. He picks himself up and moves to sit beside Merlin and then, after a moment’s hesitation, pats Merlin’s shoulder awkwardly.
“Look at it this way,” he tries, when this doesn’t get a response either. “If we do die here, you’ll never have to muck out the stables again. Or clean Gaius’s leech tank. That’s something, isn’t it?”
“It’s not fair,” Merlin says, and Arthur’s certainly heard him say that many times before, but never with quite such a depth of passion.
“I know,” Arthur agrees, for lack of anything else to say.
“You don’t,” Merlin snaps, and it’s like a damn bursting. “You have no idea. You’re supposed to – I – it’s your stupid destiny. Ever since I got here it’s all been your big stupid destiny to be a great stupid king and my big stupid destiny to help you, never mind what I have to do, never mind everyone thinking I’m just some idiot because I can’t – because I have to pretend so I don’t die and you don’t hate me and send me away and I… Gods, Arthur, you have no idea. And it’s all for nothing. It was all for-” his voice cracks and he starts laughing, horrible hiccupping sounds tumbling out between his words. “Will and, and Freya, and my fa – and Balinor, and – and – I should’ve just – I thought it was all for something, somehow it would be worth it when – when you – but it’s not. It was all a waste because we’re just going to die in this stupid hole and no one will ever even-” he breaks off, the laughs stopping, his voice going very small, “My mother won’t even know.”
Arthur feels strangely hollow, and slightly sick, as though his empty stomach is twisting and trying to crawl away at the same time. It’s a bit like he felt after seeing his – after seeing the illusion of his mother, though now there’s fear and confusion rather than anger. He’s been asking Merlin for answers for weeks, and while it’s become increasingly apparent that it’s no small thing bothering his servant, this is… he still has no idea what this is, but he has the overwhelming sense that he’ll find out, and he won’t like it, and things won’t ever be the same after.
And Merlin’s still shaking, still muffling the sounds of weeping behind his arms.
“Merlin,” Arthur says, quietly, once he finds his voice. “When you say you’re pretending…”
“Don’t ask,” Merlin says, his voice so tiny Arthur can barely hear the words.
“Why not?” Arthur asks. He won’t like it, but he can’t not know, not now it’s undeniable that there is something to know. “You said it yourself, we’ll most likely die here, so why not tell me?”
Merlin makes a dissatisfied noise into his sleeve and says nothing.
“What have you got to lose, Merlin?” Arthur asks gently.
Merlin looks up, then. His face is a mess, tears and smudges of dirt all scrubbed together, nose red and runny, eyes redder and puffy. He stares at Arthur for a long moment, his expression unreadable. When Merlin takes a deep, shuddering breath, Arthur realizes that he’s been holding his.
Merlin opens his mouth and closes it a few times, like he wants to say all sorts of things and won’t. Arthur’s about to prompt him again, when Merlin shrugs off Arthur’s arm, stands abruptly, and stalks to the other end of the pit, his back to Arthur. Then he takes another breath, draws himself up straight like a condemned man, (Arthur bites his lip,) and then Merlin says,
“I’m a sorcerer.”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Arthur says, after a long, shocked moment. The words come out automatically, though he couldn’t say where from, because the inside of him feels all emptied out.
“I was born magic, I’ve been this way all my life, I’ve been hiding it all my life, I-”
“You are not a sorcerer,” Arthur says, as if this is in any way constructive, as if this is a normal argument. As if, in the space of a sentence, his world hasn’t been shaken to pieces like a puzzle and reassembled into a new shape that’s wrong and frightening and yet. And yet seems to fit in a way the old one never quite did. Merlin should be lying about this, but Arthur knows – knows it deep in his bones – that this is, finally, the truth. Still, his mouth runs off without the consent of his marrow. “You cannot be a sorcerer.”
Merlin doesn’t look at him, just holds his hand out to his right. Arthur’s chain mail, discarded along with his armour in a heap, rises into the air. It pulls itself up in an approximation of Arthur’s shape, then drifts from one side of the pit to the other and hangs there, waiting.
The mail collapses. Merlin still won’t look at him. Arthur tries to think of something to say, anything, but he can’t, he just. He can’t. Can’t speak, can’t reach for his sword as perhaps he ought to, can’t move from where he’s seated. Can only think Merlin and sorcerer, and all the things that little fact explains.
“I told you not to ask,” Merlin says, his voice quiet and flat. Then he props his arms against the wall of the hole and leans his face against them.
“You saved my life,” Arthur manages, eventually.
“Repeatedly,” Merlin agrees without moving.
“And you – why are you – look at me!”
Merlin doesn’t turn right away; when he does, Arthur braces himself, expecting – he doesn’t know what he expects. Something different. Not just Merlin, same as ever, still wrecked from crying and his cheeks freshly wet. The part of Arthur that operates independently of his rational mind wants to tease, to say something stupid, punch him in the arm, anything to get a smile, to banish the pain written across his face. (Arthur isn’t sure if he finds that impulse reassuring or worrying.)
“I don’t understand,” Arthur says.
“If you wanted to kill me, or destroy the kingdom, or – you saved my life, and you clean my boots, and you – you say you’re a bloody sorcerer and you’re crying and I don’t understand!”
“I was meant to protect you,” Merlin says.
“Well I’ve failed. Obviously.” He flaps his hands, indicating the pit around them.
“You’re meant to protect me. You.”
“I’m not as useless as you think I am!” Merlin shouts suddenly, and it’s the first hint of emotion in his voice since he made his revelation.
“I never said you were-”
“Yes you did! You say it all the time! ‘How is it you’re still alive, Merlin? You’re so thick, Merlin! The only thing you’re good at is nothing, Merlin!’ You’d be dead a dozen times over if it weren’t for me and you can’t even fathom that I could possibly be the one keeping your royal arse safe!”
“Well I didn’t know, did I! How was I to know you’re supposed to be some – some sort of magical bodyguard when you’ve been lying to me since the day we met?”
“Couldn’t very well look after you with your father cutting my head off, could I?”
“You could have trusted me!”
“Why? You don’t trust me, you were ready to replace me with Cedric, you laughed at me when I tried to tell you about the troll, you-”
“Don’t be such a baby, I was never really going to replace you-”
“You threw me in the dungeons!”
“And you hate magic, and you have a miserable temper, and you-” Merlin deflates, just a little, and Arthur almost wishes he hadn’t because the anger was better, the anger was so much easier to handle than this wounded look he’s wearing now. Arthur knows how to deal with anger. Maybe not well, maybe not smoothly, but he knows how to deal with it. He doesn’t know how to deal with the fact that his manservant is a sorcerer and his manservant is still Merlin, still looking like he needs his mother to wipe his eyes and reassure him that everything will be all right.
“And I what?”
“And you just think I’m an idiot, and I suppose I must be because I have got more power than I know what to do with and still we’re going to die in this damn hole in the ground.”
“You can’t-” Arthur waves his hand toward his chain mail.
“No. I’ve tried. Both nights, while you were sleeping, I was trying. I can’t. There’s something – I don’t know what it is, but there’s something, like a wall, blocking me, I can’t – I can’t.” He closes his eyes and leans back against the stone, shoulders slumping. “I can’t save you this time.”
“But you have, before. More times than I know about. Haven’t you?”
“Yeah. You’re sort of peril-prone.”
“I’m – You! What is wrong with you?”
“You’re a sorcerer! And you came to Camelot. Of all the places in all the world you came to Camelot to, what? To polish my armour and be extremely irritating at me when you aren’t trying to throw your life away for mine? Why?”
“I didn’t know when I came here, it was just – Gaius and my mother go way back, that was why I came, and then you – you happened.”
“What’s that meant to mean, I happened? If anything you happened to me!”
“The dragon told me-”
“Yes,” Merlin says. He sinks down to sit against the stone, looking tired to the bone.
“Was this before or after it tried to destroy Camelot?” Arthur demands, voice dripping with sarcasm to cover the hysteria that threatens to creep in.
“Before. Long before I – He told me –” Merlin shakes his head and hides his face in his hands again. “Gods, Arthur, do we really have to do this? In a few days we’ll be dead in this stupid hole, do we really have to air every unsavoury thing I’ve ever done for you before that happens? You already have more than enough to hang me with if by some miracle we do escape.”
“I won’t hang you.”
“No, right, no rope for sorcerers, so what’s it to be, the axe or the pyre?”
“Shut up! I won’t execute you.”
“No?” Merlin looks up, and there’s something hard and brittle in his expression, like steel that hasn’t been heated properly, ready to shatter on the first blow. “The sorcery not enough? How about releasing the dragon, then? Poisoning Morgana? Protecting the bastet? Letting my father die because I couldn’t give myself away? Letting Will, and Matthew, and-” He looks on the verge of tears again.
“What are you talking about?” Arthur shouts. “You didn’t – Morgause kidnapped Morgana, and I don’t even know what a blasted-whatsit is, and the dragon – why would you –”
And then something of what Merlin said really sticks in Arthur’s brain, and how strange that this is what should finally make the bottom of Arthur’s stomach drop out. This lie – not about the magic, but about a minor personal fact, shared, he thought, freely – that should make him cold and angry and able to forget for a moment how wretched Merlin looks.
“You told me you never knew your father,” Arthur says, low and sharp. “Just the vaguest memory, you said.”
“That was – it was true when I said it,” Merlin mumbles.
“Is there anything about which you have not lied to me, Merlin?”
“I didn’t lie about that!” Merlin yells. “It was true when I said it, I only met my father when - Balinor was my father, all right? Balinor was my father. I didn’t know before.”
(There’s a tiny part of Arthur that isn’t angry, and that part feels (even more) ill at this revelation. But it remains a tiny part, for now.)
“You didn’t tell me.”
“How could I?”
“What is a blasted – whatever you said?” Arthur asks, because he does not have an answer for that, and he doesn’t think he is quite ready for the other questions yet.
“Bastet. Freya. The druid girl? The one who escaped from the-” Arthur nods, curt, and Merlin continues, “She was cursed. At night she turned into this creature and she couldn’t – it killed people. You tried to hunt her down. I freed her and I loved her and I – I wanted to help her. I meant to run away with her and help her.”
“Run away with her. With this creature.”
“With this girl who I could – I had no need to lie to her.”
“No, of course you hadn’t,” Arthur says, sarcastic again. “Why not tell the truth to her, after all, you’d only just met and you were already prepared to – why didn’t you run off with her, then? Couldn’t take all that honesty?”
“She died,” Merlin says quietly. “You and your knights, you hurt her that last night, and I couldn’t help her, and she died.”
“Oh, well, glad to know my service is a suitable fallback for you,” Arthur says, and a (not so) small part of him knows that’s cruel, crueller than he should be, but it’s difficult to care when there’s this man with Merlin’s face and Merlin’s voice telling him he never knew his Merlin at all.
Merlin doesn’t respond. They sit in silence for a long time.
Arthur wonders vaguely if he ought to be frightened, trapped as he is in a pit with a sorcerer. He isn’t; can’t reconcile the idea of an evil magic user with the immediate reality of Merlin, slumped and despondent on the other side of the pit. Arthur’s hurt, and unhappy, and hollowed-out, but he is not frightened. Not of Merlin.
Arthur wishes fiercely that they were anywhere else. Anyplace at all where he could order Merlin out of his sight so he could feel betrayed and bitter in peace, so he could work up a righteous fury without having to look at the miserable lines of Merlin’s body, the grief and regret written clearly across all his features. (Arthur wishes they were anywhere else, so they did not have to die like this, broken and alone.)
The nervous energy that had Arthur jumping up and down yesterday is all gone now, drained away with everything he thought he knew about his, his… About Merlin.
There’s a noise above them; Arthur can’t even bring himself to stand up, just shouts because he feels obliged to make some effort, and then they hear the distinctive sound of a startled deer charging through the undergrowth. Arthur has too little emotion available to experience much in the way of disappointment. Merlin doesn’t say a word.
“Morgana,” Arthur says, late in the afternoon, when his need to know has won out over his desire to pretend that there isn’t anything to know or talk about. “You poisoned Morgana.”
“Morgause was using her. I had to. I had to kill her. It was the only way to save Camelot. But then she – Morgause said she would stop the spell if I told her what the poison was. I don’t know if she was able to help Morgana. Maybe.”
Merlin speaks in a dull, flat voice. Arthur receives the information without any particular shock. None of this feels real, anyhow.
“The only way.”
“Everyone was falling asleep. Except Morgana. And the knights were coming, they would have – If there had been any other way-”
Arthur cuts him off with a gesture.
“And the dragon?”
“He used to… He would tell me things. Things I needed to know. He made me promise to free him, finally made me – I had to swear on my mother’s life to free him so he would tell me how to save you. How to save everyone. He was always on about Camelot and our destiny and how you’ll be a great king; I never thought he would attack us like that.”
Several minutes pass as Arthur ponders this, and then shoves it all away in his head, because even now some things are too much to contemplate as they require.
“Why should I believe a word you say?” Arthur asks eventually.
“Little point in me lying now.”
“You didn’t want to tell me. Even now, you didn’t want to.”
“I didn’t want to die with you hating me! I used to think if I could only tell you the truth everything would be wonderful but it just – it got more and more and I – I thought, if I couldn’t save you, at least I could die at your side, not-” He raises his hands, flaps them wildly to indicate their pit, the gesture so familiar to Arthur that it makes that small unscathed part of him want to smile. “Not like this,” Merlin finishes, dropping his hands again.
“Why do you care?” Arthur demands. He knows, probably – a part of him does, at least, but there’s so much of him feeling duped and foolish and furious at all that’s been kept from him that he has to hear it.
“How can you even ask me that?” Merlin asks, his voicing shaking. “All of this – everything I’ve done, hiding who I am, making these horrible decisions, staying and polishing your damn boots day in and day out – it’s all for you. So I could keep you alive and safe. There were days – there were days I wanted nothing more than for you to know, and look at me like something more than your idiot manservant. Just that.”
“Well. You certainly are, aren’t you,” Arthur says, at a loss. He can’t look at Merlin like anything right now, instead staring down at his sleeve and tugging on a loose thread where the hem’s torn. “More than that, I mean.”
“Shut up. If I want – if I want to hear any more from you I’ll tell you.”
They sit in silence again. After a few minutes Arthur thinks he hears quiet sniffling from Merlin’s side of the pit, but he doesn’t look up, can’t. He finds himself curiously convinced that if he just sits still enough, just keeps his breathing shallow enough and his mind empty enough, that all of this will go away. That he’ll wake up in his comfortable bed back in Camelot.
He’ll yawn and stretch, and Merlin will arrive with breakfast and a smile, carefree and easy. They won’t be trapped in a hole in the middle of nowhere; Camelot won’t be full of corpses and ruins; Morgana won’t be gone god knows where, maybe alive, maybe – No. No. He cannot think about Morgana, about Merlin poisoning – or Merlin knowingly releasing the – No. He will wake up in his bed and none of that will be true, none of that will be stuffed away into a corner of his mind, denied for now but sure to crawl out and demand that he acknowledge it before too long. Merlin won’t be a secret sorcerer, not a liar, not a man who risks his life daily for Arthur’s sake, not a man who lost a woman he professed to love, not a man who found and lost his father in the space of a few days and just. Just carried on. Not …
Arthur pulls viciously at the thread and it gives, opening up several more inches of the cuff to fray. He swears under his breath and throws the thread aside.
Merlin says something – Arthur can’t tell what, it sounds some kind of foreign – and the sleeve mends itself.
“I’m sorry,” Merlin says, when Arthur stops staring incredulously at his sleeve and shifts his gaze to Merlin.
“For fixing my-”
“For all of it. I never wanted to lie to you. I didn’t have a – I didn’t think I had a choice. Not if I wanted to stay with you. And that was always the most important thing.”
“Except when you were running away with-”
“That really bothers you so much?” Merlin asks. He doesn’t sound harsh or defensive, like Arthur expected. He sounds curious, a softness in his tone that hasn’t been there for hours.
“Of course it does! Were you even intending to say anything to me? Or just disappear without a word?”
“You’d not exactly given me much cause to suppose I’d be missed,” Merlin says quietly.
Arthur sighs. Surely, as the deceived party here, he should not be the one to feel guilty. He isn’t the liar, isn’t the one breaking the law just by being in the kingdom, isn’t the one committing treason to mend a shirt sleeve that no one else is likely to ever even see –
“You would have been missed,” Arthur grunts. “Rather a lot. Not that I wouldn’t have found you, I’m an excellent tracker and you’re useless at stealth, even with a few hours’ head start…”
Merlin cracks a grin at that, small but unmistakable. The sight makes something tight and aching in Arthur’s gut loosen, just a little.
“I really am sorry,” Merlin says.
“I believe you,” Arthur says, the words falling past his lips without waiting for him to approve them. “I don’t – I’m not saying I forgive you, and I don’t know why I should – how I’m supposed to trust you any more, but. I believe you.”
Merlin nods, and they lapse into silence again.
“Never thought it would end this way,” Arthur says after a while, unable to take the quiet. “When the dragon-” He stops, considers, frowns. “I did not kill that dragon, did I?”
“Um. No. You didn’t.”
“You killed the dragon?”
“I didn’t kill him. I – when Balinor died, his, his powers passed to me. I spoke to him, to Kilgarrah, the dragon. I told him to – to go away.”
“You told the dragon that was trying to burn our city to the ground to go away,” Arthur repeats, disbelieving.
“He’s the last of his kind! And he’d been trapped down there for years, I couldn’t –”
Merlin stops talking, because Arthur’s laughing, can’t stop himself, all his emotion pouring out unbidden. He’s laughing at the top of his lungs, laughing loud enough to make his sore throat ache, laughing with so much force he flops over onto his side and clutches at his stomach, shaking with it.
“You told – my god, my manservant’s a – you’re a sorcerer and you – you steal my sausages and you – you told a dragon to go away,” Arthur gasps, when he can find enough air to speak, and after a stunned moment Merlin cracks and then he’s laughing too, the both of them rolling on their backs, barely able to breathe, cackling like madmen.
After all the writhing and shaking, they end up with their heads a few feet apart near the centre of the pit, bodies splayed out in opposite directions. They remain like that when the tension and hysteria finally fade away, and for some time after, staring at the smoke rising from the fire into the sky.
Arthur considers things as the high ebbs from his blood; considers all the times he’s thought himself doomed, only to wake up confused and whole and with Merlin spinning some outlandish tale of how they survived; considers how wretched Merlin has seemed the last several weeks, and how much his unhappiness has weighed on Arthur’s heart; considers conveniently falling branches and Merlin’s inconvenient insistence on accompanying Arthur everywhere and offering up his own life without a second thought. Considers that Uther is not always right, that in truth, Arthur himself is not always right. Considers all that Merlin has endured for Arthur’s sake when he could have left at any time. Considers that Merlin’s lies hurt and deeply, but maybe not quite so much as the sound of Merlin’s genuine laughter helps.
“The dragon,” Arthur says, finally. “If you’d not needed to wait until I – if you’d not needed to hide yourself, my men-”
“I’m sorry,” Merlin says; Arthur tilts his head to look at him, finds that his expression has gone taught and pained again, and almost regrets speaking. “If I could have gone alone-”
“I would never have allowed it,” Arthur tells him firmly. “No, my point is – if we get out of here, you won’t. Have to hide yourself from me. I’ll keep your secret, and I’ll – we’ll find ways. You’ll be able to do what you need to, and I’ll protect you. From my father, from whomever. Just – just promise me you won’t lie to me any more.”
Merlin scrambles upright, eyes shining – whether with tears or with passion, Arthur can’t quite tell – and nods, a single, fierce, sharp motion of his head.
“I won’t. Arthur, I swear to you, I won’t, you can trust me, I’ll-”
Maybe passion too, Arthur thinks as Merlin babbles his assurances, but those are definitely tears in his eyes, threatening to spill over onto his still-smudged cheeks. Arthur has the horrible suspicion that if Merlin gets to crying again, he’ll start in himself, too raw to control it, and they’re probably going to die here and Arthur is not about to let one of his last acts in this world be sobbing like little girls with his manservant, so Arthur does the only other thing he can think of.
He sits up, and scoots in closer, and pulls Merlin into his arms. Wraps one around his waist and the other higher across his back, fingers threading into Merlin’s hair so he can tug Merlin’s head down against his neck; Merlin goes stiff and silent with surprise, but doesn’t resist, and when Arthur lays his cheek on Merlin’s shoulder and murmurs, “All right, Merlin, I believe you,” Merlin lets out a shaky sigh and hugs Arthur back so hard his ribs ache. (Arthur doesn’t mind.)
“I’m sorry too,” Arthur whispers. Merlin makes a small sound and keeps clutching at Arthur, hands fisting in the back of Arthur’s shirt. Because it seems more than warranted, Arthur adds, “Thank you,” and feels Merlin shudder. Arthur holds him even more tightly, and for all the warmth and pressure and grip of the embrace, Arthur feels freer and lighter than he has in ages.
Much later – when they’ve separated, when they’ve gone through the grunting and posturing and random insults necessary to reassert the normal order of things after spending the best part of an hour curled around each other being soppy and emotional – Arthur flicks a twig at Merlin, and Merlin freezes it in mid-air.
Arthur stares, first at the twig, until Merlin lets it fall, and then at the unnatural bright colour fading from Merlin’s eyes. Merlin returns his gaze, unblinking.
“Does it always do that?” Arthur asks.
“Oh. I guess so. I can’t-”
“See it, yes, of course. Merlin… when you said there’s something blocking you…”
Merlin extends his hand, and the twig rises into the air, above their heads, until it’s maybe twelve feet up, at which point it stops abruptly and hovers.
“It’s like there’s a wall that my magic can’t get through,” Merlin explains. He almost sounds embarrassed. “I can’t move anything past there, and I can’t affect anything above it. Can’t do anything to the stone down here, either. I tried to make it so we could climb out-”
“You tried that when I was sleeping? What were you planning to say, ‘Good morning, Arthur, look at these convenient handholds that mysteriously appeared overnight’?”
“Wouldn’t be the strangest thing that’s happened,” Merlin says, grinning a little. “I was intending to be a bit more subtle about it, but it didn’t work anyway.”
“Why is this here?” Arthur asks. “I mean, the pit, fine, though the depth and smoothness of the stone are a bit unnatural, but the barrier?”
“I think it’s a trap for magic users,” Merlin says, grin fading. “Something your father had put in at the start of the purges. Gaius told me there used to be a sacred grove near here, where the Druids would come for some of their rituals. Alone, usually.”
“Used to be?”
“The king ordered it cut down a few years ago, I guess the trap wasn’t enough of a deterrent,” Merlin says. Then a horrified look comes over his face, and he scrambles away from the pile of rubble he’s sitting on. Arthur rolls his eyes.
“Relax, Merlin, if it was a trap there wouldn’t be any – my father wouldn’t have left them here to rot. He’s always preferred to execute sorcerers in full view of the crowd, as an example,” he says, and half a beat later realizes that this is not exactly likely to make Merlin feel better.
“Right,” Merlin says, sitting down again.
“Sorry,” Arthur offers. “But how would – you need magic to do something like this, don’t you? How would-”
“He probably still had a sorcerer working for him,” Merlin says. “Or, I don’t know, captured someone, made them do it. Threatened their family or something.”
“My father would never-” Arthur begins, affronted, but that idea of his father using magic brings up a memory and – “My mother,” he says carefully. “Morgause, and-”
Merlin closes his eyes, shoulders slumping.
“I don’t know,” Merlin says. “I said what I said because I – because you couldn’t just kill your father like that. You couldn’t, and I didn’t know how else to –”
“But you think it was true.”
“I don’t know. I think – I think magic did have something to do with your birth, Gaius said – but I don’t know if that was really your mother, or if anything she said was true. Arthur, I’m so sorry, I-”
“He – I mean, he was here when-”
“Right,” Arthur says, feeling numb and clinging to that because this is no time to break down. “Right. Merlin, we will not die here, because I refuse to die when I have only just learnt the truth about you and still don’t know about – about that. You’ve told me what you can’t do with your magic in this place. Tell me what you can do.”
“Um. Well, I made the fire give off more smoke, I can- ” He mumbles something and the smoke thickens further, turns a darker grey. “I can move things? But that doesn’t really… well, hmm. I don’t know if the barrier is physical or just magic, when we were falling in I was too busy trying to make sure we didn’t break anything to really notice. I mean, obviously it lets the smoke out and air in, but – if it’s only magic, maybe if I could get up high enough, get past it, I could do something?”
Arthur frowns, peering above them. There’s no visible sign of the barrier; the stone looks exactly the same above the still-hovering twig as it does below, and the air is perfectly clear. He picks up a pebble, stands, and throws it straight up as hard as he can, then watches it sail past the twig before arcing back down to land a few feet away. He looks at Merlin, who’s already staring at him, eyes wide and excitement twitching at the corners of his lips.
“Arthur,” Merlin says, breathless with what sounds like hope. He jumps to his feet.
“If you stand on my shoulders?” Arthur suggests, eyeing the height of the twig.
“Yeah,” Merlin agrees, bouncing a little. “Yeah, I think that would be enough.”
“Let’s – up against the wall, in case you lose your balance. You’re useless to me if you fall and crack your skull open,” Arthur says.
“I’ll be fine as long as you don’t drop me,” Merlin retorts.
“I would never-”
And then Merlin smiles at him, really smiles, one of those big teasing, face-splitting smiles Arthur’s missed so much. Caught off his guard, Arthur can’t help but return it.
“Anyway, better safe than sorry,” he says, and moves to crouch down in front of the wall. Merlin comes up behind him, and after an awkward bit of climbing and grunting and shuffling, they get his feet settled onto Arthur’s shoulders. Arthur reaches up and grasps his ankles firmly.
Slowly, carefully, Arthur forces his knees to unbend. When he’s fully upright, he shuffles as close to the wall as he can, and leans his elbows against it to help keep them steady. Then he glances up to see Merlin slide his hand up the wall, above his chest, above his head. Arthur can’t see where the twig is now, can’t see how close they are, but then Merlin hisses and snatches his hand back.
“What is it?” Arthur grunts.
“It’s the barrier, it just – it burns. It’s okay, I can-”
He raises his hand again. This time he makes a small noise of discomfort, but keeps it there, and starts muttering again in that weird foreign language. Out of the corner of his eye, Arthur can see something crawling down the wall of the pit a few feet to their left. It’s – well, it seems to be a rope, of sorts, made up of leaves and small branches and the odd vine, all twined together.
“That will hold us?” he asks, dubious.
“Yes,” Merlin tells him, sounding supremely confident. “Trust me.”
But then the vine-rope-thing hits the barrier, and the end abruptly dissolves into a shower of debris. Merlin swears, then says something else in foreign, and the thing ceases its descent.
“I guess it blocks magic in both directions,” he says, disappointed.
“I guess so,” Arthur agrees, shifting his weight a little. Merlin may be skinny, but he’s also a fully grown man and bearing him like this is not exactly easy.
“We’ll have to – if I can get up on your shoulders over there, I can grab the end above the barrier. And then,” Merlin sighs, resigned. “Then you’ll have to climb me to get to it.”
Arthur laughs. “Brilliant plan, Merlin. You really think you’ll be able to hold us both?”
“Your optimism is ever so contagious,” he says dryly. “No. Just climb out yourself. Go and find help. A proper rope, or something. I can wait.”
“I am not leaving you here!”
“I’d rather wait another few hours than see both of us fall and break something.”
“We won’t fall. Trust me, Arthur. Once I’ve got my hand on the vine, I can use my magic, make sure it won’t drop me.”
Arthur hesitates, looking up again to see the earnest determination on Merlin’s face.
“You’re certain?” Arthur asks.
“Fine. Fine, we’ll try it. Just – come down, let me get my armour on-”
“Um, no. You are not climbing me in full armour.”
“I won’t just leave it here!”
“Oh for – fine. Just, just wait a minute.”
With a few strange words, Merlin makes the armour and his bag float to him, then, one by one, he plucks the objects out of the air, raises them above the barrier by hand, and with another few words, makes them drift from his hand up and out of the pit.
“Impressive,” Arthur admits, grudgingly.
Merlin looks down at him, beaming.
“Right, I’m going to move over to the vine,” Arthur says. “Nice and slow, keep your hands against the wall –”
He covers the distance in a few sideways steps.
“Okay?” Merlin asks.
“Yes. You can reach it?”
“Yeah. Just – let me – got it, you can let go –”
Arthur tentatively releases his grip on Merlin’s ankles, and feels the weight lift off him. He takes a step back, rolling his stiff shoulders, and eyes Merlin’s body, trying to figure out where he’ll be able to get a solid hold. His clothes are out, the trousers will slip off him before they’ll take Arthur’s weight, and his shirt will likely just tear…
“Merlin, I don’t think this will work. I’ve nothing to hold onto-”
“Just, just take my feet, yeah? And then, if you can climb the wall enough to reach my hand, that’ll work, we just – Just need to get you on my back, then I can make the vine pull us up, sort of walk on the wall.”
“This is ridiculous,” Arthur announces.
“You have a better idea?” Merlin asks. He mutters a few words and the vine twines around one of his arms so he can lower the other, reaching down towards Arthur.
Arthur sighs, and grabs Merlin’s feet. Merlin grunts when Arthur bends his knees, putting his weight on Merlin instead of the ground, but his grip on the vine seems solid enough.
It’s incredibly awkward, and there are a lot of groans and hisses and hands in improper places, but between Merlin bringing his legs up and Arthur kicking off the wall, they manage to get Arthur’s hand into Merlin’s, and from there it isn’t too hard for Arthur to scramble up onto Merlin’s back. He locks his legs around Merlin’s hips and his arms around Merlin’s shoulders, and tries not to think about how silly all this must look.
“All right?” Merlin asks, sounding strained.
“’M fine,” Merlin says, which isn’t terribly believable given the tension in his muscles and the sweat beading on his neck, but Arthur isn’t inclined to argue.
Merlin braces his legs against the rock face, and then, with another phrase in foreign, the vine starts pulling them up. Arthur can feel Merlin’s pained shudder when the bulk of him passes through the barrier, though it doesn’t do anything to Arthur. Once they’re clear, Merlin breathes a sigh of relief and picks up the pace a little.
Up, up, past the strange smooth stone to more normal rock, several feet of it, and then, finally, they’re over the edge of the cliff, flopping onto relatively flat ground at the base of the hill they were on the other day. Arthur releases his hold on Merlin, and Merlin lets the vine collapse back into a random collection of foliage, and he’s panting a bit from the effort but it doesn’t stop him letting out a delighted laugh.
“We’re not going to die,” Merlin says, sort of wondering.
“No,” Arthur agrees, grinning at him, a little disbelieving himself.
“And – you know. And you don’t hate me.”
“I do. And no. I don’t hate you. I don’t believe I could.”
The happiness on Merlin’s face is such that Arthur suspects hugging may commence again at any moment, and while deep down he would maybe not be averse to such a development, it wouldn’t do to let it become a regular occurrence. So instead, he lays a hand on Merlin’s shoulder, gives it a gentle squeeze, and then says sternly,
“Though that might change, if you ever take it into your head to tell anyone that I was forced to ride out of a pit on your back.”
Merlin laughs again.
“Your secret is safe with me, sire.”
“And yours with me,” Arthur promises, serious again. The moment lingers, Merlin reaching up to touch Arthur’s hand, Arthur making no move to pull away.
“We’ll find out, about your mother,” Merlin says softly. “The truth.”
Arthur nods, swallowing. Doesn’t really want to think about that yet. Soon, but not yet. There will be time for that later, and for all the other questions that still need asking. For the moment, though, he just wants to enjoy the fact that they’re free and whole and, secret sorcery aside, he has his friend back.