The dead of night in the castle was interrupted by a group of knights and their King, leaving the training grounds after a friendly duel challenged by Gwaine and issued to them all after he had drank a bit too much.
"My swing wasn't off, you just moved without anyone seeing it!" Elyan tried to reason, which simply caused the rest of the knights and King to laugh.
"Is this one of those times when you want me to lie to protect your delicate emotions?" Gwaine asked, wrapping an arm around Elyan's shoulder.
"What I want you to do-"
Their laughter was cut off by a grunt as a man was thrown from an upcoming hall, landing against a wall and sliding it down.
"What...?" Arthur slowly pulled out his sword, his trained eye trying to discover if this man was a threat or not. He had never seen him before, and he wasn't wearing typical servant clothes. An intruder?
Before Arthur or any of the knights could voice their concern, the man's head snapped to their direction, a devious smirk forming on his lips. He glanced back down the hall that he had come before quickly getting to his feet and holding a hand out to them, his eyes flashing gold.
The men around him all gasped as they quickly stood on guard, bracing themselves for whatever spell was launched their way. But nothing noticeable happened and the sorcerer turned back to the hall as steady footfalls were heard.
"I must say..." The sorcerer said, same devious smirk in place, "I completely underestimated you. Who would have thought that you of all people would be so... dangerous."
Arthur's heart hammered in his chest, wondering who could possibly be the person walking down the hall. The sorcerer's accomplice? Another sorcerer? They had to be ready for anything... Arthur's grip tightened on the sword's hilt as he widened his battle stance.
Except... it wasn't another enemy that was walking down the hall. A dirty and worn brown jacket and red neckerchief made it fairly obvious that it couldn't be an enemy. But that damn fool servant didn't immediately turn around and run away when he saw the enemy, though Arthur didn't know how much good that would do him when Merlin ran into whatever type of man had beaten this sorcerer so...
"Merlin!" Gwaine called, waving a hand at the boy, "Get away from him!"
Strangely, Merlin didn't turn to look at them nor showed any sign of hearing Gwaine; he just stared at the sorcerer with a strangely dark look. It was a look that Arthur had never seen on Merlin before, eyebrows narrowed and a firm frown on his face. Merlin almost looked dangerous.
"Don't worry," Merlin smirked, "Many make the same mistake; many regret it as well." His smirk left as he took a step forward, nearly sending Gwaine into a panic.
The rouge knight pushed his way through the other knights and King, making his way to stand by Merlin - which Arthur was grateful for, someone had to protect the idiot from getting himself killed. However, Gwaine suddenly came to a stop not far from Arthur, almost as if he had slammed into an invisible wall.
"What is this?" Arthur came forward, placing a hand up carefully and feeling that there was indeed an invisible wall.
"A magical wall...?" Leon asked, stepping next to Arthur to inspect it.
"I guess we figured out what spell was cast earlier," Elyan frowned, "Merlin can't see or hear us..."
"The idiot's going to get himself killed if he doesn't leave to get help..."
A silent agreement passed through the group as they helplessly watched, being able to do nothing more than pray that Merlin came to his senses soon.
"Your power..." The sorcerer started, looking Merlin up and down, "Who would have thought? You hide in plain sight, the threat of death hanging over your head every day... Tell me, how many times have you almost died while secretly protecting that oaf of a king? How many times has he called you useless and insulted you, yet you still protect him? Why not just let him die? Your life would be so much easier."
Merlin rolled his eyes, rocking back on his heels slightly before crossing his arms and laughing a bit. "And then who would rule? You?"
"Why not?" The sorcerer shrugged, "You'll be safer with me as king."
"Two-hundred and twenty-three."
"What?" The sorcerer frowned, blinking in confusion at the servant.
"That's how many times I've heard that line, two-hundred and twenty-three."
"Only proving my point," The sorcerer's smirk returned. "You should join me; you'll never have a moments peace if you don't."
Merlin's head tilted slightly, his eyes calculating but a dark humor to them. "Why? Will your ghost haunt me after I kill you?"
Next to him, Arthur heard a few of his knights suck in a breath. He would have as well if his body hadn't been frozen to the spot. Who would have thought that such an expression was capable on Merlin's face and actually instill fear...? Merlin, the clumsy fool of a servant that couldn't do anything right was facing off against a sorcerer and seemingly winning.
"Something like that..." The man glanced to where they were again, his smirk growing. It caused a sinking feeling to grow in Arthur's stomach, his gut telling him that something wasn't right. Would he try to enchant him and the knights to attack Merlin?
Merlin followed the sorcerer's sight, an eyebrow quirking up at whatever it was he saw. "What's this?" He walked towards them, a hand raised and skimming over the barrier curiously. "What are you hiding behind this, Declain? An army? Will you have me attacked?"
"Something far greater, actually. I don't think even the great Emrys will be able to defeat it."
Merlin's eyes flashed with an emotion that Arthur couldn't read as he turned back to the sorcerer, Declain. "So you know who I am and you still chose to attack Arthur? Don't you people realize by now that I won't let anything happen to him? That Camelot is under my protection?"
"You're a traitor!"
"And you're impatient! Why must you need to have magic legal now? Can you not wait a little while longer? Albion is coming, but foolhardy idiots like you, that try to kill Arthur, you keep preventing it! It's a wonder that he even tolerates the Druids and their peaceful magic with all the sorcerers that keep trying to kill him! Can you blame his hate? All his life, he's only known dark magic! No one's ever had the chance to show him the light of it because of people like you!"
"Is that why you hide?" Declain's quiet question had Merlin straighten, standing guarded. "If you trust Arthur so much, why not tell him? Or are you afraid he will kill you like the rest of us?"
"I won't make him choose."
The two stared off with each other, though even if they would speak Arthur wasn't sure that he would hear them. Because what Declain implied couldn't be true... But Merlin wasn't denying it. And it would explain so much... Declain was thrown against a wall with magic, and yet only Merlin had entered the small passageway since. Merlin was able to see the magical barrier when they couldn't. All the times where Merlin seemed to know that something was off or going to happen... The way that he passionately defended Arthur's name and his views on magic.
Merlin had magic.
Merlin had magic and used it in the castle.
That was treason...
As if to further solidify his thoughts, Declain seemed tired of the staring and shot a hand out to attack Merlin, his eyes flashing gold as he chanted in a language that Arthur couldn't understand. Merlin, who's back was still to them, raised his own hand in return and easily blocked a stream of fire.
"Oferswing...!" Merlin called, Declain flying back once more into the wall. The single word was simple, and yet powerful enough that even Arthur felt as if the breath had been knocked from his own lungs.
The silence returned for a while as Declain tried to regain his breath, though Arthur's eyes were on Merlin's back. So many emotions ran through him then; the hurt of betrayal, the fear of magic, worry for a friend which fed into the anger of being lied to by that friend, and so many more that he couldn't even hope to understand. Staring at Merlin's back, Arthur realized that he truly didn't know who this man was. They had known each other for a little under a decade, and yet Arthur felt as if he was staring at the back of a stranger.
Merlin's tense shoulders relaxed as he let out a breath, his head tilting upward to the ceiling. "Why can you never just wait... or leave? There are other kingdoms where magic is not banned. Would it not be easier to move?"
"You'd have me leave my home land just because it's easier?"
"I did." Merlin's reply was immediate, his tone almost emotionless. It didn't fit his manservant at all... "I was one accident away from being found out in my village and dragged to Camelot in chains all for the reward money. All of you sorcerers think my power is so great, so covetous." Merlin scoffed as he turned away from Declain, "You don't ever think about what growing up with instinctual magic is like, the risks that come with such power. The fear and ridicule you go through since you can first remember. You think you know, all of you think you understand my pain, but you weren't born with your magic! The threat of Uther was not hanging over your head since the cradle!"
"Do not lecture me about the threat of Uther when you're the one that served under him!"
"My loyalties were never with Uther! I serve my King, I always have served him!"
"That would-be King is just as bad as his father!"
"You're wrong! He's so much better! And if you don't believe me, then tell me how many have been executed under the possession of magic? How many Druid camps have been mercilessly slaughtered for just existing? How many times has this city been turned upside down on the hunt for a sorcerer when one of its citizens made a miraculous recovery that everyone thought would be the death of them?"
"None of that matters-"
"Then how are you any different from Uther's prejudice that killed hundreds?"
The question was heavy, Declain's eyes widening and mouth opening in surprise. He obviously wasn't expecting that accusation, neither was Arthur for that matter. In some part of his mind, he had known that his father was not as just a ruler as Arthur once believed. But after all that Merlin had just pointed out, he couldn't help but notice the differences between himself and his father... Differences that wouldn't have been there had it not been for Merlin's involvement with his life. The part of him that was still influenced by his father wondered if Merlin had been controlling and conditioning him, like a secret ruler from the shadows. It was no secret in his inner circle that Merlin, though holding the official role as his manservant, also doubled as his most trusted advisor. Arthur held Merlin's opinion above everyone else's, sometimes to a fault. It was in rare moments that Merlin showed his pride in Arthur, and the King treasured such moments more than the gold in the castle vaults. It was that look that had him changing, had him abandoning his father's brash way of thinking; had him seeking peace with his citizens instead of hunting them down. Could all of this be just a part of Merlin's master plan?
No... While he was hurt that Merlin hadn't told him of his magic and lied all this time, Arthur knew who Merlin was. He knew that his servant was peaceful and kind, those parts of him weren't a lie. And from what he told Declain, it sounded as if Merlin didn't have any control over gaining his magic, as impossible as he was taught to believe.
"I will not live under a Pendragon's rule," Declain's voice brought Arthur out of his thoughts. "And I will not leave my home."
Merlin's head drooped, his shoulders sagging in defeat. "What of your family? Your friends? Can't you leave for their sake?"
"Family and friends?" Declain scoffed as he glared at Merlin. "You murdered her last week."
Merlin's head shot up to look at him, some of the knights stifling their gasps. Merlin had killed someone? Such a statement didn't seem right... There had to have been some misunderstanding. Perhaps one of them had killed her and Merlin was accused by association.
But then Merlin leaned his back against the wall, the remorse in his side profile all the confirmation that was needed to know that it was the truth. "The witch with the enchanting magic..."
"Analise." The sorcerer sighed, though his glare never left. "My little sister, rushing off to kill the King against my judgment because she couldn't stand to live like this anymore."
"She was kidnapping children and livestock."
"She was using them to lure the King out!"
Merlin shook his head, a bitter smile on his face. "She didn't see the problem with that either..."
"She took care of them! Until you showed up, by yourself with no King and no knights! Her entire plan was destroyed by a servant!"
"I gave her the same chance I gave you."
"You murdered her! You betrayed your own kind in favor of serving a King who doesn't even know you!"
"I'll tell him one day!"
"You're a monster, a plague that destroys everything it touches! How many have died by your hand now? How many have you killed of your kin in the name of Pendragon?" Spit flew from Declain mouth as he continued to yell, slowly rising back to his feet as Merlin turned to face him. "You side with the enemy, you traitor! On the behalf of our kind, we renounce and reject you from us! You have no kin, no place with the sorcerers that still walk this land! I may die here, but we will keep coming for your King and you!"
It was silent except for the man's heavy breathing, his shoulders rising and falling rapidly. Arthur couldn't see Merlin's expression, but he could imagine the masked hurt in his eyes.
Gwaine's fist slamming against the barrier broke the silence faster than what any of them had expected, judging by the way the others jumped. "Who needs kin like you when he's got us, you crooked-nosed knave!"
Merlin's head turned to look back at them, and for a moment Arthur's breath caught in his throat. The completely blank and disinterested look on his face easily distracted one from the pain that was in his eyes, but Arthur saw it. Those words hurt Merlin more than the young man was willing to admit.
"Seems like whatever you have hidden isn't happy," Merlin sighed, turning back to face Declain. "So... no chance it's going to leave peacefully after I'm through with you?"
A wicked grin distorted Declain's face. "It's going to kill you."
"Not a serket, is it? Got stung by one once, hurt worse than you can imagine but I still lived. It would be a little embarrassing if that's what you brought..."
"Oh, I didn't bring this... It was a nice little accident that worked in my favor."
That caused Merlin to pause, looking back to the barrier with calculating eyes. "You... You didn't come here for Arthur... not really. You used that as a way to lure me out, didn't you? You were after me all this time... But you know who I am, about the prophecy, you know you wouldn't stand a chance fighting me." Arthur could see the wheels in Merlin's head turning, his eyes growing wider with each piece that clicked. "Unless you could destroy me another way..."
Fear became the prominent emotion in Merlin's eyes as he backed away from the barrier. "Who's behind there...?"
Arthur's eyes widened just as Gwaine started pounding against the wall again, the knights behind them all yelling out warnings as well. But Merlin must have taken it the wrong way, almost tripping over his own feet to back away faster and right into the awaiting Declain.
A chain wrapped around Merlin's throat just under his jaw, glowing bright red as it touched his skin. Merlin's eyes widened more as a strangled scream came out of him, his hands reaching for it but burning as well. They all pounded on the invisible wall then, shouting and trying to break through. Merlin sent a look to them, a pain in his eyes that had nothing to do with the chain. Could he tell it was them behind here? Could he tell they wanted to help him?
A tear streamed down Merlin's cheek before his eyes closed, his pained scream stopping. Arthur could see Declain's confusion for a second before he was blasted back against the wall for a third time. Merlin fell to his knees, one hand on the floor and the other gingerly touching his neck as he wheezed.
Merlin's eyes flashed, pinning the man against the wall while he continued to try to catch his breath.
"If you- If you kill me now, the wall will drop...!" Declain squirmed, his eyes fearful as he stared at Merlin. "They'll kill you! But if you let me go, I can ensure that you'll have enough time to get out of the castle! You'll be free!"
Arthur watched as Merlin took several more deep breaths, his eyes closed and hand slowly curling into a fist before he pushed himself up. Moments like these were when it became glaringly obvious to Merlin's normal slouch in his day-to-day life, how he appeared to be some inches shorter than what he truly was. But as Merlin stood, his shoulders squared as he rose to his full height, there was no denying the power that came from his appearance. He turned to Declain, who flinched under his gaze.
"If I was worried about that, I would never have spent years of my life working to protect Arthur. If he wishes my death, then I won't fight it. If he wants me banished, I will leave without a word. But no matter who is behind that wall, I will not abandon my duty until I am forced."
Arthur stared at his servant's back, mouth opened slightly. What had he ever done to deserve such devotion - such loyalty? There was no doubt in Arthur's mind, knowing Merlin's character and hearing the surety in his voice, that the younger man wouldn't hesitate to do whatever Arthur commanded. Whether death or exile, Merlin would carry out his wishes with no complaint. It was idiotic! He should at least try to pretend to fight back!
"Enough." Merlin silenced, his hand raising toward the man. "It's been a long night, and it will be longer still thanks to you."
As Merlin's fingers spread and he inhaled to start the spell, Arthur's fist slammed against the barrier. Merlin's breath hitched, his fingers twitching. It was only a fraction of a second, but Declain latched onto the hesitance.
"He wants you to stop. Do you think anyone would accept you if you kill me in front of them?"
Merlin's shoulders pulled back once more, his head high and fingers spread. "I'm no longer the naive farm boy that used to think I'd be accepted here. I gave you a way out, Declain, you refused. This is the option you chose...! Gewseorc-"
The servant went rigid, the spell dying on his lips. In a last ditch effort, it seemed that Declain dropped the barrier in hopes of stopping Merlin. For all their sakes, it seemed to have worked.
"This isn't how you judge someone, Merlin!" Arthur stepped forward, his hand reaching out for Merlin's shoulder. "You can't just kill him without a trial - you're the one that taught me that!"
As his hand gripped his shoulder, Merlin wheeled around, eyes wide as he stared at Arthur before darting to the other knights. "You were the ones behind the barrier...?" His voice was barely above a whisper. Arthur gave a solemn nod, watching as Merlin's face grew paler. "I-I thought it would have been a guard or servant..."
"With your luck, did you really believe that?"
Merlin shrugged slightly, his eyes downcast, "Can always hope..."
Arthur sent him a look before turning to the sorcerer against the wall, motioning behind him, "Percival, Elyan, take him to the dungeon, where he will be properly tried for his crimes in the morning."
The two knights stepped up to Declain, though paused near him as they stared. "Uh... Merlin?" Elyan called, "A little help?"
Merlin didn't move from his stance, but the force holding Declain to the wall vanished and the man fell to the ground. The two hauled him up and led him away, passing by Merlin. The two sorcerers locked eyes for a moment, and Arthur watched as Merlin's stare darkened - a silent threat clear to all that Declain shouldn't try anything.
Merlin's eyes stayed on them until they turned down the corridor and were out of sight, Merlin's head ducking low again.
The silence that dragged on was almost suffocating, though Arthur couldn't think of anything to say... What could he say? He just found out his best friend was a sorcerer that had been fighting for him in the shadows for who-knew how many years... What could he say to that?
"Whatever you decide," Merlin interrupted, "I'll follow through with your wishes."
"I know..." Arthur sighed, brushing a hand through his hair. "And it's stupid."
That caught Merlin's attention, his eyes wide as he looked up at him. "Sire?"
"It's stupid that you would just blindly follow my orders without trying to defend yourself! Why do you have to be so damn loyal? I can't even be mad at you for lying to me for what? Four years? When did you even start learning this? Why on earth would you learn it while in Camelot?"
The look in Merlin's eyes caused him to pause for a moment, his mind going back to what he said to Declain before. "You... You grew up with it. In Ealdor... But... How? You were so young when you came to Camelot before."
"I was born with it, with magic... I didn't choose it or learn it or anything... It's just always been there."
Arthur fought a sigh as he brushed a hand through his hair, "So you didn't learn it in Camelot, but that doesn't mean you weren't still in danger. You could've gone anywhere, why Camelot?"
Merlin looked conflicted, tears building in his eyes as he glanced around him. "My mother... She thought I'd be safer here..."
It took Arthur a moment to understand, unable to fight the sigh that left him then. "Giaus. He used to practice magic and she thought that he would be able to help you. Did he?" When Merlin hesitated again, Arthur frowned. "You don't have to fear for him, Merlin. I'm not going to hurt Giaus."
As the younger man opened his mouth, a sob escaped him. His hand flew to his mouth to hold it back and closed his eyes to fight it, the tears leaking over. Gwaine rushed to him, a hand on his shoulder for support. "It's alright, mate, it's alright."
"Giaus-" Merlin took a gasping breath, his fist going up to rub at his eyes. "Gaius helped me control it. He taught me how to stop it from reacting on instinct."
Arthur nodded, taking in the implications of what that meant. Drawing in a breath, he closed his eyes. "Alright... Let's take this to somewhere less open. Gwaine-" Seeing the look sent his way, Arthur quickly turned to the knight next to him. "Leon, go tell the others to meet back in my chambers once they're finished."
The First Knight nodded, rushing off to the dungeons with a parting pat to Merlin's shoulder. Arthur nodded to Gwaine and the two led Merlin, crying mess that he was, back to Arthur's chambers.
Arthur watched from the corner of his eye as Merlin tried to compose himself, knowing it would be a long night learning all the secrets and lies his servant kept. But watching the blubbering fool next to him, Arthur knew that he wouldn't be able to stay mad at him for long - especially after learning that he used his magic to protect everyone. Whatever punishment Merlin received would be decided until after Arthur and his knights heard the whole story.
But sparing another glance at him, Arthur couldn't help but wish this was all a dream...