Warnings/Spoilers: brief mention of 1x10
Author's Notes: Been lurking here for a while and finally decided to actually contribute, haha. A ton of love to moonythestrals who looked this over~ <333
Summary: But, Merlin thought desperately as his hands strained to hold together the seams of magic, if there was a way for him to find out, there was no better way.
He wasn’t supposed to find out like this.
He wasn’t supposed to find out at all.
But, Merlin thought desperately as his hands strained to hold together the seams of magic, if there was a way for him to find out, there was no better way.
It starts with a war.
On a frosty morning, a wagon comes back from the kingdom of Eliandor. It bears the two diplomats that Camelot had sent in effort to peacefully settle the border dispute.
Eliandor has butchered them.
Their bodies are nowhere to be found—but the faces cannot be mistaken. Eliandor has left the hands and feet scattered in the bloodstained hay.
Four hands, four feet, two heads. It is all that is left of peace.
Arthur watches the scene unfurl from his window, a frown turning the corners of his lips.
“We go to war with Eliandor,” Uther announces before noon, “Mobilize the army immediately. I will send all regiments.”
The knights mumble their assent. Arthur can see the thinly veiled anger in each of their faces. He can see it in the tightness of their jaws, the taut lines of their shoulders.
He can feel it too, the fury of vengeance and wrongdoing that thrums in the atmosphere, the anger that shifts under his skin.
“This evening we will establish our attack strategy. Go to your men.”
It is raining.
Arthur is leading the men, of course. Uther is a day or two behind gathering reinforcements from the soldiers stationed in outlying villages.
Merlin rides alongside Arthur. Water slides down the back of his neck and the dampness clings to him like a second layer of armor.
He thinks about casting a spell to make the cast iron waterproof but nothing comes of it.
Nothing ever does.
A few days later, they are attacked.
It is a trap.
They should have known, of course. Arthur should have been more vigilant. He should have seen the signs.
When they set up camp for the night, it wasn’t long before Eliandor’s troops had them surrounded.
Eliandor had been planning a pre-emptive strike all along. After all, how else were they expecting Camelot to respond? Arthur had warned his men to be wary of an ambush, but he hadn’t been expecting one so soon.
The enemy comes through the trees, swords flashing in the campfire light. They sound like desperate men, their cries melting into the sudden roar of battle. It’s like an old piece of parchment that suddenly catches fire. A spontaneous combustion of flesh and willpower. It is ugly, Merlin thinks, opening his eyes. For a brief second it feels like déjà vu.
Arthur’s men sleep in their armor. Arthur sleeps with his sword in hand.
When Merlin opens his eyes, he is already gone. Merlin scrambles to his feet, grabs his own sword and leaves to join the fray.
Around him, men are hacking at each other, broadswords swinging with little expertise. Few of them have the finesse that Arthur does—they look like great lumbering idiots with too-big weapons.
Sidestep, parry, thrust. Basic maneuvers. Merlin has gotten better. He’s no Arthur but at least Arthur doesn’t feel compelled to fight near him any more. He used to—just in case Merlin faltered.
This is not his first war, Merlin thinks numbly as his eyes swept across the chaos of the battlescene, he shouldn’t be so surprised.
He has killed men before. He has killed them with steel. He can only handle one at a time with a sword. Arthur likes to fight three at a time, he likes having a challenge. They gravitate towards him like answering moths to a flame.
It’s fitting, Merlin supposes, he is their destruction after all.
He searches for Arthur anyway.
Just in case.
It isn’t until the second attack that their luck turns around.
Arthur’s men aren’t fully recovered from the first attack. Arthur himself has sustained a gash on his sword arm—an ugly looking cut drawn jaggedly along his forearm. Merlin had torn the bottom of his shirt and wrapped it around Arthur’s arm in effort to stop the bleeding, wishing that he could do more. Arthur had looked at him with something like frustration but he hadn’t said anything.
They are caught in the low ground. The fog has rolled in during the early morning. Arthur stands with his sword in one hand and his shield in the other. He stares resolutely ahead, hard blue eyes scanning the mist for the enemy that he can hear but cannot see.
In that moment, he looks every inch the king that he is destined to be.
The enemies emerge from the mist.
Arthur becomes a whirlwind of action, his sword cutting graceful arcs through the fog. The dim light catches a halo in his hair. He is a beautiful killing machine. Merlin can only watch for a few moments before they are on him too, before he has to turn and sidestepparrythrust.
This is the part that Merlin hates most about war: the sound of soldiers falling and crying for help and the smell of blood, acrid in his nostrils—and knowing that he cannot help them. He cannot do anything at all except to watch Arthur’s back and hope that he will survive long enough to see the end of the battle.
Before long though, there are just too many of Eliandor’s soldiers mowing through Camelot’s men. Arthur wonders blankly when Eliandor had grown so large, when they had become so powerful. He moves with practiced ease as long as he moves with the flow of his balance. He wonders how many of his men will survive.
Merlin watches Camelot fall.
There are not enough men, Merlin realizes almost desperately. They are not strong enough.
Arthur is fighting near him again and Merlin isn’t blind to his concern. Arthur knows it too. Unless by some miracle, Uther were to arrive within moments with reinforcements—
—they will die here.
His destiny has always been to protect Arthur. He owes allegiance to nobody else.
He takes a deep breath and begins to chant words. He is certain of their strength, their clarity. After all, this is for Arthur.
(Arthur isn’t supposed to find out like this—
—but then again, Arthur isn’t supposed to find out at all.)
A coin spins.
It flickers in the dull light; a spark of yellow flame against the dark backdrop. The dragon lifts his great head and watches its progress with vague interest. It drops and misses the ledge, spinning into the abyss. The dragon pauses a moment (maybe surprised) before hefting his weight off the stone and spiraling lazily down after it.
With one great claw the dragon catches the coin and brings it up to eye level.
With a rumbling laugh, the great beast throws the coin into the air again. It is a bright twinkle in the emptiness of the great cavern.
It lands on the ledge this time. Between the two sides it lands dragon side up—the Pendragon crest.
Third time and the coin lands sun side up. The engraving seems to glow in the dim light as if this side had been infused with magic.
The dragon scoops it up and throws it into the air.
He knows the destiny of every person who walks the halls above his cavern. He knows every intertwined future, every word spoken and unspoken.
Pendragon crest. He sends the coin spinning into the air again.
But sometimes, even he can’t help but play with chance.
The few remaining men huddle around the single campfire they have built. They stay on the other side of the fire, tending to their wounds and trying discreetly to stare at Merlin with wide eyes.
Only Arthur sits with him. Only Arthur who rubs wearily at the back of his neck, staring into the fire. Merlin doesn’t dare look him in the eye.
“You’re a sorcerer,” Arthur finally says, and it’s a quiet sort of recognition—not the fury or disappointment that Merlin had once imagined. It’s just a simple statement.
“Yes,” Merlin answers, scrambling to think of words to express the terrifying anxiety that has seized him.
He remembers the rush of magic that accompanied his words, the startled cries of the enemy and the sheer power of it all. He had leveled the playing field with a single spell. The light had been so intense that Merlin could close his eyes and still see the silhouettes of men burning behind his eyelids.
They had screamed. Merlin had numbly continued chanting until a pair of hands descended on his shoulders, shaking him lightly and the enchantments fell in a stutter from his lips.
He cannot think of anything to say. Instead he fails miserably at meeting Arthur’s eyes.
“I have a duty,” Arthur says carefully, deliberately measuring every word. He cannot meet Merlin’s eyes either, “I have a duty to Camelot. I have a duty to my father.” He finally looks up and tries to catch Merlin’s eyes, “Do you understand Merlin.”
“Yes,” Merlin repeats, feeling numb.
“He will kill you when he finds you, Merlin,” Arthur’s voice has changed now. It is low, it is urgent and Arthur leans forward as he speaks, grasping Merlin by the shoulders, “He will hunt for you until he destroys you.”
Merlin’s mouth moves in imitation of words but nothing comes out.
“He will find out,” Arthur breathes and it’s barely audible, “Eliandor will not remain silent.”
Merlin searches his eyes.
“You have to run,” Arthur orders quietly in his authoritative tone.
Merlin wants to say no, he wants to shake off Arthur’s hands. He wants to stay at Arthur’s side in Camelot, he wants to ask Arthur to come with him. He doesn’t want to leave.
Instead he swallows and grins a little lopsidedly, “At least let me win this war for you.”
The next battle, Arthur stands next to Merlin and kills anyone who comes too close to the warlock. Merlin lifts his hands, enchantments sliding over his tongue, golden eyes staring into the distance. He conjures up everything he can think of: fire, thunderstorm, earthquake, flood, sandstorm. He pours all of his energy and devotion into every syllable and the elements respond in kind, stirring like a great tamed beast.
Arthur cannot tear his eyes away from Merlin.
When it is all over, when there is nothing left except the damaged landscape and dead men, when there is nothing left except the silent drift of smoke from burning fields, corpses, trees—Merlin drops his hands. He turns to Arthur, blue eyes wide with desperation.
He is shaking, Arthur realizes. Whether it is from the exertion or the realization of his own powers, Arthur does not know. He is still standing, though, and he stares Arthur in the eye a little wildly.
“I meant to tell you,” he says. His voice is weak. “I swear to god Arthur, I was going to tell you.”
Arthur shakes his head and sheaths his sword. He doesn’t need to hear this, doesn’t want to hear this, no matter how much Merlin thinks he does.
“I swear,” Merlin begins and he chokes on his words, reaching out, “I just—killed—don’t—Arthur—”
Arthur steps forward and catches his wrist. It is hard to imagine that just moments ago, this hand was orchestrating a morbid symphony of shifting elements. Merlin just looks at him, terrified.
“You’re Merlin,” Arthur says in a coaxing tone of voice, “You’re still a completely incompetent sparring partner. You’re hopelessly clumsy and generally fail at most aspects of horsemanship. You’re still just Merlin.” His voice drops to a whisper, thumb tracing circles on the inside of Merlin’s wrist, eyes trained on Merlin’s face.
Merlin takes a shaky breath and he closes his eyes.
“This is a war,” Arthur says quietly because these are the words that Merlin needs to hear, “You saved us. We would all be dead without you.”
Merlin doesn’t speak, just listens to the crackle of fire burning away. A heavy guilt settles over his shoulders and his conscience won’t let him forget that he killed—
“Merlin,” Arthur says commandingly. Merlin opens his eyes to look at the prince. Arthur is dressed in his chainmail. Crusted blood paints sections of the dull metal a dark brown. Merlin thinks about how he will never be able to clean Arthur’s chainmail again—how he will never see Camelot again.
“Merlin,” Arthur repeats—sadly this time—and he is cupping Merlin’s face with a rough palm. Merlin stares him in the eyes and he moves closer until their breaths mingle. Merlin’s fingertips graze along Arthur’s cheek, jaw, neck, until they finally settle on his shoulder.
“Yes,” Merlin agrees and then Arthur is kissing him. Arthur’s lips are chapped and he tastes like sweat and metal—like the stinging power from the enchantments he whispers. Arthur kisses him with intense focus, his tongue sliding against Merlin’s lower lip before pressing into his mouth. Merlin curls his hand into Arthur’s hair.
It is all they have left.
The dragon is omnipresent.
There is perhaps, a part of him that finds vague amusement in the way that the tiny humans fumble their way through life, blindly bumping into one another with muttered apologies and muted anxiety.
He watches them like he is rereading the ancient pages of an old tome. He knows every plot twist, every new character introduced, every hardship overcome—past, present, or future.
There is, perhaps, a part of him that finds it amusing even dare play with the strings of fate. It is this part of him that had once called a young boy down into his cavern. It is this part of him that had spoken of destiny and power—of two sides of the same coin.
He had never spoken of tragedy. It was not his place.
Merlin wakes tangled up in Arthur.
“How many more days do we march?”
It is the first question that he asks. It isn’t very subtle, and Merlin is sure that Arthur catches the question unasked.
“Maybe two,” Arthur answers truthfully, and his voice takes on the tone of a clipped military commander, “We will continue into Eliandor and search for any regiments not yet destroyed.”
Merlin seems unaffected—if he is listening at all. He runs a hand along Arthur’s side, feeling the bumps and grooves from past battles, past mishaps. He looks into Arthur’s face and his voice is curiously flat when he speaks, “We could have had this.”
Arthur’s expression tightens and when he kisses Merlin this time, it is full of pent up anger and it speaks of dominance.
Merlin kisses back because he can.
(He wishes desperately that they had never met at all.)
They part in a clearing just on the Eliandor border.
“It’s been a pleasure. Except you know, the part where you were the worst manservant I have ever had,” Arthur says with a smirk—and it sounds like he is echoing words from eons ago. Except this time he will not follow Merlin into the forest—this time Merlin is truly leaving.
Merlin grins and turns, familiar words coming to his lips, “Thank you sire.” A pause and then, “Goodbye Arthur.”
Arthur watches him walk a few paces before calling out again, “Merlin.”
Merlin stills but he does not turn around.
“When I am king,” Arthur says and he wishes that Merlin would look him in the face, “I will send for you.”
Merlin smiles a smile that Arthur cannot see. He merely nods his head and continues into the heart of the forest.
On a cold afternoon, Arthur returns to Camelot. Uther sends for him immediately and he barely has time to discard his armor before he is swept to the throne room.
“Where is he?” Uther demands, “Where is your servant?”
Arthur’s expression is unreadable, “Gone.”
Uther’s eyes narrow, “What do you mean, gone?”
“He has left Camelot.”
“Send a search party after him immediately,” Uther commands, “I will not have a sorcerer terrorizing my people.”
“Father,” Arthur says, his voice taking on the hard edge of determination, “I refuse to look for him.”
Uther’s expression hardens, and his words hiss between his teeth, “What is this disobedience?”
“If you send me on a search party,” Arthur continues wearily in his most diplomatic tones, “I will not be able to find him.”
“Arthur,” Uther says warningly.
“My duty is first to you and the kingdom of Camelot,” Arthur says tiredly—and this sounds like something he has repeated many times (to himself), “But I have another duty as well and that is to Merlin—my friend. I cannot go.”
He turns and leaves. Behind him, he hears his father order for a search party.
He hopes they will not find Merlin.
A coin spins. It misses the ledge and the dragon throws his weight into the air to chase after it. His wings spread and he lets out a spout of fire.
He knows, of course, on which side it will land.