Title: One More Turn
Pairing: Gen, but with some Arthur/Merlin scenes that could be taken as pre-slash.
Summary: Merlin is forced to reveal his magic to save Camelot, but falls off a cliff and is assumed dead. However, he manages to assume a different appearance so that he can still look over Arthur.
Notes: Takes place after season three. I haven't yet seen anything from season four, and so it's obviously going to be AU.
Aside from the spells that I took from the show, I used an Old English translator, so I'm sure they're not properly put together. If someone wants to fix them, that's fine, though I won't be providing list of translated words. I'm hoping it's obvious enough what each spell does without knowing what the exact wording is.
I own nothing.
The beast had been terrorizing the lands of Camelot for weeks while a messenger had rode out to plead with the king for assistance. Upon hearing that the beast was fuelled by magic, Uther had wasted no time in ordering Arthur and the knights to exterminate the monster. Morgana's betrayal was still fresh in their minds, and there was no question that the creature needed to be dealt with immediately.
The messenger had guided them to a sparse forest overlooking a cliff, the air cold with winter's bite. Arthur had sent their guide back to his home with promises that they would kill the beast or die trying. Lancelot had given Merlin a glance, but the servant ignored him. He knew he had to be careful. The beast had been described as a many-headed serpent – a hydra, Gaius had informed him – that was next to impossible to kill.
They had set up camp for the night, and Merlin found himself settled next to Gwaine, who was stoking a small fire. He and Lancelot had been the only ones of their round table collection that had been able to come. Leon was needed to train the new knights, and Percival still needed training, in Uther's eyes. Elyan had been preoccupied with repairing weapons, so Uther had seen to it that some of his other knights went with them. Ansley and Garrick, whom Merlin couldn't say he knew very well.
"Fun little outing, isn't it?" Gwaine mumbled, shooting him a quick glance and a grin. Merlin snorted and rolled his eyes, focused on unwrapping their dinner for the night. The crackling of the fire was loud in the silence, and every little movement the knights made resonated throughout the forest. They had barely encountered any animals for the last league, apparently scared off by the beast, and it hadn't done any good for their nerves.
"Merlin," Arthur beckoned, motioning him over from where he was patrolling their campsite. Merlin sighed and handed the food over to Gwaine, who popped a piece of bread in his mouth before working on cooking the meat. Merlin stood up and walked over to Arthur.
"What is it, sire?" he asked, standing a few feet away from the tree Arthur was reclined against.
"I want you to stay close," Arthur said, stressing the last words. "Lord knows you can't take care of yourself."
Merlin snorted. "If that's the case, why'd you bother bringing me with you?" he asked, a playful smile on his face.
"Isn't it obvious? I needed someone to carry the supplies."
Merlin rolled his eyes. "Yes, because none of your big, strong knights are capable of carrying some food and bedding."
"Glad you understand," Arthur said, a smirk on his face. Merlin shot him another eye roll and walked away, seating himself next to Gwaine again.
They had planned on resting for the night and setting out to find the monster in the early morning, but almost as soon as the sun began to set, Merlin felt the presence of strong magic. His eyes darted around the campsite, trying to find the source while trying to hide how twitchy he felt. But he didn't have to hide it for long.
A roar travelled through the forest, the sound of a dozen voices crying out in animalistic fury. The knights sprang to their feet trying to locate the direction the sounds came from. No more than a minute later, a deer ran by, completely ignoring the men as it dashed out of sight.
They deployed quickly, sneaking through the trees and keeping a wary eye out. There were occasional squawks from startled birds and shuffles as squirrels dashed from tree to tree, but there were large bouts of silence that magnified the sound of clinking chain-mail
It wasn't hard to tell when they got closer to the beast. Its weighty footsteps thudded against the hard ground, even scratching against solid rock, and it hissed and spat with distinctive volume. The knights split up, hoping to surround the beast, but the hydra surprised them all by charging. Arthur yelled at Merlin to run as he dodged three heads swiping their long fangs at him. Merlin dashed to the side, one of the heads catching his jacket in his mouth and ripping the fabric away.
He spun around and stopped when he was out of range, watching Arthur try to fend off the monster. The hydra was easily three times his height, though the long, serpentine necks certainly helped that aspect. The body of the monster was a little more lizard-like, with four small – though strong – legs with hooked claws digging into the dirt.
Arthur's sword shone in the orange sunlight as he arced it over his head, severing one of the hydra's necks. The head flopped to the ground, still hissing and spitting venomous blood, as the neck wavered before splitting in two. A new head grew from both halves of the neck, luminescent yellow eyes staring down at Arthur before lunging.
"Forbærne firgenholt," Merlin whispered, his hand outstretched and pointed towards a heavy tree branch above the hydra. The branch broke and fell upon the hydra's back, causing its heads to rear up and roar in pain.
"Don't cut off its heads!" he shouted to Arthur. "They'll always grow back!"
"Yes, tell me now! That's incredibly useful!" Arthur yelled back, backing away from the hydra and giving his sword a quick inspection. The acidic blood of the creature had already begun to corrode the metal, making the edge jagged.
"I told you before we even left Camelot!" Merlin squawked indignantly, then froze as the hydra's heads all swivelled to stare at him. It shook the branch off, rolling the heavy log onto its tail as each head hissed and bared their fangs. Arthur swore and dashed forwards.
"Merlin!" he shouted. "Run!" He drove his blade into the body of the beast, but the hydra ignored him, instead leaping towards Merlin. The warlock yelled and followed orders, running as the hydra realized the tree branch had pinned its tail. It buckedand kicked it off, slamming a hind leg into Arthur's chest as he did so, quickly giving chase. It wasn't the fastest of creatures, and Merlin had been given a head start, but he could still feel every rumbling step. He wondered where the knights were, if they had heard the fight, and he thought he had seen Lancelot – or maybe Gwaine, they looked very similar when running at top speed – but he couldn't slow down.
Then he reached the cliff. He had plenty of time to see it, so he stopped a few yards away as he looked around wildly. He was alone for just a few seconds before he could see the hydra crawling towards him, shoving rocks and plants out of its way.
Merlin was beginning to suspect magical creatures were always drawn to him, whether for better or worse.
Not seeing anyone to arrest him, Merlin began firing spells at the monster. Fireballs, branches, and force fields shot the beast backwards, keeping him at a distance, but they weren't doing much damage.
"Ástríce," he cried out, and the spell pushed the hydra back, breaking one of its fangs. "Abréoðe! Ic i ábrice se eoten eac mánbryne!"
The hydra hissed as smoke rose from each mouth, a fire roaring in its belly. It flailed and snarled and Merlin backed up from its swinging heads. "Ofhæcce!" he said, his voice loud and clear as the spell cleaved a long slash in the monster's back. Licks of flame spurted out of the chasm, scorching the scales black. "Ofhæcce, ofhæcce, ofhæcce!" He cast the spell, eyes burning as gold as the sliver of sun behind him, as cut after cut appeared across the monster's body. He opened his mouth for another spell, knowing the beast was in its death throes, when he heard a snap. His eyes shot away from the hydra and landed on the edge of the trees.
Arthur stood there, his eyes wide and betrayal written clearly across his face. Merlin froze as the situation was made clear.
He was doomed.
The booming voice of Garrick only solidified that belief. "Sorcery!" he cried out, and Merlin glanced all around him quickly, realizing that the other knights had caught up with the beast fast enough to bear witness to his magic. The hydra hissed in pain, flailing again, and Merlin wasn't sure if he was backing up because of the monster, or to try and get away from Arthur.
"No," he said, his voice too soft. "This isn't what it looks like. Arthur! Please, believe me, I'm-"
"Silence, traitor!" Ansley growled, his sword pointed towards him. Merlin was sure that the hydra's movements were the only thing keeping the knight from advancing upon him.
"I'm not a traitor! Please, Arthur, I've only ever protected you, I promise, please, please..." His voice tapered away to a barely-there whisper, apologies and prayers murmured to a silent Arthur.
Suddenly, the hydra got to its feet, heads snapping at everybody at once. Merlin, realizing there was no point in holding back, held his arm out and yelled at the monster. "Ofhæcce!" Another cut across the hydra's back, intersecting with every other cut he had given then beast. "Bærne!" The flames from inside the beast grew in intensity, a plume of black smoke rising high into the sky. The hydra was burning, just like Merlin knew he would.
It flailed, snapping mouths turning and twisting as its feet stomped along the ground. Merlin stumbled backwards at the vibrations, the back of his heel almost sending him tumbling into empty space. He had run out of room.
Quick as lightning, one of the hydra's heads shot out at him, and Merlin cried out as he tried to dodge. The sharp fangs wrapped around his body, trying to trap the warlock in its final moments, raking against his back. The pain sizzled across his skin as he instinctively shot another spell right down the monster's throat. He was flung through the air as the creature's screams died off, and it took him a moment to realize he had not landed yet.
He heard Gwaine shout his name, and Lancelot's face appeared over the edge of the cliff, but Merlin was falling, the wind roaring in his ears and his limbs flailing about without any kind of self-control. He tumbled through the air, watching the ground come closer and closer.
Without thinking, time slowed down and Merlin's mind raced, trying to come up with something to save his life. "Hæghál lending," he murmured, the wind carrying away his words. "Hæghál lending, hæghál lending, hæghál lending, hæghál lending!"
He felt his descent slow as though he was passing through several soft cushions of air, his speed slowing with each hit, though they jarred his wounds. He reached the bottom with a force that knocked the wind out of his lungs, but was far from a deathblow. Merlin smiled softly into the dirt under his face, almost laughing in his relief. He was alive. His secret was out, his life as he knew it was over, but he was still alive.
This called for a much deserved nap.
Up atop the cliff, Prince Arthur remained rooted to the spot, staring in barely-guarded shock at what he had seen. His other knights had gathered near the cliff, past the charred corpse of the hydra that finally lay still. Lancelot was silent, but Gwaine was yelling at Garrick, looking just a hair's breadth from punching the man.
He knew he had to get in there, organize the situation, and stop Gwaine from assaulting anyone.
He knew what he had to do.
He just had to make his body respond.
Slowly, he managed to stride forwards with a confident air, every bit the leader he was supposed to be. Arthur stopped a few paces away from the group, who had stopped talking and were looking at him. He glanced down at the hydra beside his foot.
"The monster's dead, then?" he asked, stuffing his voice full of confidence.
"Yes, sire, there doesn't appear to be any sign of life," Ansley replied, bowing his head.
Arthur swallowed, keeping his eyes on the hydra as he forced himself to say his next words with an even manner. "And Merlin?"
"He looks rather dead to me, sire," Garrick said, thinly-veiled anger in his voice. Gwaine glared at him, but Arthur could understand. He and Ansley had been raised in Camelot, and had been some of the few knights that survived Morgana's betrayal. It would be a great shock to find out that a sorcerer had been living under their noses for years, so close to the prince.
Someone he had trusted.
Arthur forced himself to go to edge and see for himself. Lancelot stood up as he grew closer, inclining his head while looking away, but Arthur caught the sorrow in his gaze. He looked down into the chasm, and even though the light from the sun was waning fast, he could see down to the bottom. Face down, his back covered in a violent red, Merlin lay in the dark dirt, unmoving.
He paused for a moment, remembering flashing golden eyes, a look of fear and desperation. Then he back around and looked at his knights. "We'll return to the campsite and rest for the night. We ride for Camelot in the morning."
"What?" Gwaine shouted. "You can't just ignore this! Merlin's dead!"
"Well, what do you want me to do about that?" Arthur snapped. "Even if he were alive, you saw what he did!"
"I saw him protecting us, you ungrateful arse!"
Garrick looked ready to run him through, but Arthur shot him a look to restrain the other man's anger, and Lancelot placed a hand on Gwaine's shoulder. The man's body slumped, anger slowly being replaced with a resigned sorrow.
"At least let us collect his body," he pleaded, but Arthur shook his head.
"There's no safe way down this cliff. I'm sorry, Gwaine. I know how you feel, but we have to leave him here."
Gwaine swore and stomped off, Lancelot trailing after him. Arthur lingered behind to make Ansley and Garrick swear that they would not antagonize Gwaine any more. The last thing they needed was the knights killing each other over this incident.
Incident was a good way to describe it. It let Arthur detach himself from the situation, as though his world hadn't just been shaken to the core by the secrets that had been revealed. Vague terms, vague names, as though it hadn't been his best friend, a trusted ally, that had been a liar, a sorcerer. Dead.
He looked over the edge of the cliff once more. A small pool of blood was peeking out from under his body, barely visible as anything more than a splotch of darker dirt in the faded light. His throat locked up, a heavy bulge blocking everything but air. How was he supposed to feel? Should he act like Gwaine, caring about nothing but the fact that Merlin was dead? Should he feel justified that a sorcerer was dead? He could just feel relief that he didn't need to kill Merlin himself.
Arthur turned away and walked back to the campsite. Gwaine and Lancelot were huddled together at one end of the campsite, conversing in hushed tones. Ansley was positioned at the edges of their site, taking first watch of the night. Garrick was already buried underneath his cloak, falling asleep. Arthur chose to follow his example and settled himself on a dry patch of land, keeping himself as still as possible as he willed himself to sleep.
Lancelot woke him in the night when it was his turn to keep watch. Arthur considered discussing what he might think about the whole Merlin incident, but Lancelot tucked himself into his cloak before Arthur could speak, so he gave the other knight his rest.
When the sun broke the horizon, Arthur roused the rest of the knights and they made their way to the nearby village where they announced that the beast had been slain. If their guide had noticed that Merlin was not with them, he said nothing. They did not stay in the village for long, choosing to ride back to Camelot so that they would return before night fell.
The ride was silent and the air was heavy, growing worse as the stone walls of Camelot came into view. Arthur could see Guinevere walking by a window, pausing with a relieved smile on her face when the clip-clop of the horses' hooves reached her ears. She hurried outside, the brightness of her smile doing nothing to ease his heart this time.
He saw her eyes roam over the knights, and he knew the moment when she realized Merlin was not with them, his horse empty and simply tethered to another. Arthur ducked his head as he slowed his own steed to a halt, refusing to meet her eyes.
"Arthur," she said, her voice soft and trembling. "Where's Merlin? Nothing... nothing happened to him, right?"
There was the lump in his throat again. Arthur dismounted, his eyes firmly on his horse. He tried speaking for a moment, shoving his voice past the lump in his throat before he could finally get the words out. "I need to report to my father," he said, walking past her and into the castle.
His father was in a meeting at that time, so Arthur told a servant to inform his father that he had returned from the mission. He wasted time returning to his chambers, changing out of his armour and giving his face a quick wash. He didn't think he'd have enough time for a proper bath, and he was proven right when only a few minutes after he had freshened up a servant had knocked on his door and informed him that his father wanted a full report on how they had killed the beast.
The walk down the corridors was long and tense, but not nearly as bad as when he entered the throne room, where crowds of knights and servants had gathered along the side. He saw Gaius standing alongside Lancelot, his eyes red-rimmed and weary in their sorrow. He stood silently and bravely, a steady rock next to Guinevere, who was sobbing openly. She was quieting her voice, but fat tears rolled down her cheeks.
His father greeted him and urged Arthur to relive their journey, and Arthur did his best to remain impassive as he spoke. "We set up camp in the forest, but before we could retire for the night, we heard the beast. We split up when we got close, in an attempt to flank it, but the beast charged at me. Merlin managed to divert its attentions, and the beast chased him to a cliff. Myself and the knights regrouped as we gave chase, but when we reached the cliff..." He trailed off, not sure what to say next. He couldn't lie, not about this, not to his father.
"What happened?" Uther asked, prompting him to continue. Arthur pursed his lips and continued.
"Merlin was attacking the beast, father. With magic."
"What!" Uther's outrage was loud as he jumped to his feet, eyes frantically searching the room as though Merlin was hiding in a corner.
"Yes," he said quickly, trying to regain his father's attention before he did anything drastic. "There were numerous cuts across the monster's body, and it seemed to be on fire from within. It took a while for the monster to die, and in the process, the beast bit Merlin and sent him falling off the cliff."
"So the boy," Uther spat the word out like it was poison, "is dead?"
"Yes. There was no safe path down the cliff, so we could not check up close, but his body was visible from the edge." There was the lump in his throat again. "There was no way he survived."
His father dismissed him, muttering to himself about the evils of sorcerers and how they were tricky beings, and Arthur turned to walk away. He sent a glance at Gwen and Gaius, the latter of whom had his arms around the other, stroking her hair comfortingly as she cried into his shoulder. He felt a pang of guilt. They deserved to know the truth, but now Merlin's name was tarnished. Had he done the right thing? He could have told the knights to keep Merlin's magic a secret for his father's sake. The man had been damaged enough by Morgana's betrayal. Finding out that his son's manservant, a position he had given the boy himself, was a sorcerer was sure to shake his mental stability.
But the deed was done. Merlin was dead, and life would go on.
Somehow, life would go on.
Merlin awoke in the middle of the day from the sudden shot of searing pain that scorched its way across his back. His vision was muddled for a moment, but that just gave him the time he needed to gather his thoughts and try to figure out a course of action. By the time his gaze had sharpened and he had pushed himself up into a sitting position, Merlin had decided a few things.
First things first, he was dying. He had saved himself from splattering across the ground, but the hydra had still wounded him. His body felt stiff and weak, the poison working its way through his system. Since he had not been bitten – the fangs had scraped across his back and stomach, exposing flesh and gashing deeply, but nothing as bad as it could have been – there was less venom in his body. He was weak, and he guessed he only had a few days left to live, but that was still plenty of time to try and heal.
Next was realizing that the knights probably thought he was dead. He could feel the sun's warmth tickling his skin, he was right where he had landed, and he couldn't hear anybody making their way towards him. So he had been left for dead, which, really, was better than being beheaded.
Third was that he had to get back to Camelot. He had to survive and find some way to disguise himself, because there was no way Arthur would survive without him. The prince would last for a while, sure, but Merlin could barely remember the sheer number of times there had been some horrible magical threat that Arthur stood no chance against and he had to save the day. Morgana and Morgause were still out there, plotting their revenge. There was no way Merlin could leave Camelot alone.
"Þurhhæle," he murmured, just stopping himself from leaning his back against the cliff face. His eyes flashed as he ran through every magical healing spell he could remember. "Ahlúttre þá séocnes. Þurh-hæle bræd. Þurhhæle dolgbenn. Licsar ge staðol nu. Wel cene hole. Ge hailige."
He winced and lifted up the hem of his tunic, watching in fascination as the gash across his stomach began stitching over, leaving an angry red scar in its place. The strange sensation across his back let him hope that the same was happening there, though there was more pain.
He stayed where he was for a few hours, occasionally whispering the healing spells again. He felt his back at one point, when he felt something warm trickling down his back, and found his fingers dripping with pus. Not only was he poisoned, but his wound was infected, too. Merlin cursed his luck.
While he still felt weakened from the hydra's venom, Merlin found the strength to walk along the edge of cliff until he came across a small cave where he took shelter. He had no food or water, but he didn't have the strength to go find some. He simply curled up at the back of the cave, cast a quick warming charm upon himself, and fell asleep.
When he next awoke it was much darker, but there were a few rays of sunshine out. He had enough strength to walk, so Merlin decided to go in search of food. A light snow had started, so he wet his mouth with a small handful of snow that quickly melted in his mouth. As he walked, the day got brighter and his stomach got emptier. There was little to no vegetation, and Merlin was beginning to think he would have to use a spell to conjure some food for him when a hare hopped into view.
Merlin murmured a quick apology to the animal before slamming a magical barrier into its path, stunning the creature. With a few more spells, the hare was dead and Merlin carried its carcass back to his cave. He had a knife strapped to the inside of his boot – "You need whatever protection you can get," Arthur had teased him – and he used it to cut out the meat he could eat from the body of the animal.
Another spell and a fire was struck, though Merlin noted that he was feeling even more tired than before. He'd have to keep the spells to a minimum, just in case. Though it wasn't like he had anything very useful on him. Just his bloody, tattered clothes and a tiny knife.
He stayed in his cave for the next few days, gathering his strength and healing his wounds. When it had stopped hurting him to do so, he craned his neck around to peer at his back, finding two rows of bright pink skin stretching from the tip of his shoulder to the bottom of his ribs, crossing over his spine. But the wounds didn't look like they were infected anymore, so Merlin took that as a good sign.
He had managed to find another hare, as well as some edible plants. During that excursion, he had noticed a more sloped part of the cliffs that, if he looked at them sideways, almost looked like stairs. When he felt well enough to attempt it, Merlin began climbing, uttering spells for balance and safety and durability in between grunts of effort. It took a while, and it was not without a few mishaps, but he got up the cliff safely. He took a few minutes to rest, then looked around to make sure there was no one around.
"Myne mec togeagnes Camelot," he whispered, holding his palm up level with his chest. A blue light glowed from his hand, a swirl of colour rotating quickly before slowing down and pointing forwards and to his right. He quickly shook the light from his palm and began walking in that direction.
He had to stop for numerous breaks, and stopped when the sun fell. He arranged himself a makeshift campsite near a stream, seizing the chance to take a quick – if very cold – bath. He made sure to carefully scrub his back, and dried himself off using magic as soon as he exited the water. His clothing was thin enough in the chill weather, he didn't need to make anything worse.
Once he had settled down and eaten some plants from his reserve, Merlin got to work. He had a plan on how to return to Camelot. He just needed his book.
"Sundorspræc eac Gaius," he murmured, concentrating deeply. He had never used this spell before, and he knew his track record with new spells. He had to repeat the spell enough times that he started to get dizzy, but then a translucent orb appeared in front of him. An image of Gaius' workshop appeared within it, the old man working with his back to the orb.
"Gaius," Merlin hissed, not wanting anyone else to hear. It appeared the man was alone, but who knew if anyone was just outside the door? "Gaius?"
The physician stilled for a moment, but returned to grinding herbs. Merlin huffed and raised his voice a little. "Gaius, turn around. It's me, Merlin!"
The other man heard him that time. He spun around and his eyes bugged at the sight of the orb with Merlin's face in it.
"Merlin?" he asked, his voice cracking. Merlin grinned and nodded.
"I don't know what Arthur told you, but I'm alive."
"He told us about your magic, said you had been bitten by the hydra and fell off a cliff."
"Yeah," Merlin said, scratching the side of his cheek. "That all happened. But I managed to stay alive."
There was a moment of silence as Gaius looked at him, studying his face, then his face softened in a heartfelt smile. "Oh, my boy..." he murmured, looking close to tears. Merlin smiled at him.
"Listen, I need to come back to Camelot, but I know I can't go as myself anymore."
"What will you do then?"
"I think there's a spell in my book that'll disguise me, so I need you to bring it out to the forest so I can get it. I'll transform myself into someone else, and you can hire me as your new assistant! That way I can make sure Arthur doesn't get killed by the things that keep coming after him!"
Gaius smiled softly at him, a sense of nostalgia apparent in his face, but he took on a stern tone. "You do realize how dangerous this is? If anyone finds out..."
"I'm always careful!" Merlin squawked, and Gaius raised an eyebrow. "Really! Arthur finding out was a complete fluke!"
Gaius sighed. "I won't really be able to stop you," he said. "I'll have the book hidden in the batch of holly across from the west wall. No one will find it too odd that a physician needs to gather some plants."
Merlin grinned lopsidedly. "Thanks, Gaius. I'll see you soon."
Gaius smiled at him. "You had better."
Merlin ended the conversation and dissolved the floating orb with a flick of his fingers. He curled up under a large tree, cast a warming charm on himself, and fell asleep.
He awoke at dawn and immediately continued walking towards Camelot, stopping only a few times to re-orientate himself. It took hours and Merlin barely stopped to eat, but he eventually made his way into familiar forests. He had crept through these woods before, with Arthur, watching small animals run for their lives. The walls of Camelot weren't visible at the moment, but he had seen them from a distance, his heart aching at their familiarity.
It was dark now, but Merlin had planned for that. There was too great a chance of being seen during the day, and he knew the location of the holly his book was under by heart. He sneaked through the forest, head snapping around at every crack of a branch, even if they were under his own feet. He made his way around the curve of the forest, until he saw a familiar, snow-tipped area. There was a set of footprints here, and short sweeps from a robe brushing at the powdery snow. Merlin smiled and knelt under a holly bush.
The book had been covered with stray branches and leaves to further disguise it, but Merlin found it. He brushed the filth away from the cover and opened the pages. He conjured a small light in order to read, and flipped quickly through the pages, desperate to find the spell he was looking for before someone chanced upon him. His hand stilled as his eyes stopped upon exactly what he wanted.
"Forsciep mín ansíen into se sylfum mín gehlott," he whispered, pouring his magic and his will into those words. He repeated the words, the glowing light disappearing as he focused all of his magic on transforming himself. He created a clear image in his mind, something not too difficult or far off from his own body, but definitely different enough.
After a few minutes, he could feel his body changing, his skin shifting and rolling and stretching out. He grit his teeth as his bones elongated and thickened, as new muscles layered themselves upon his frame. His skin tanned and grew freckles as his cheekbones sunk and his hair grew, changing colour as it fell. He was left breathing heavily as the last changes crawled under his skin, curled in a ball on his side and sore all over.
When he regained the strength to move, he cracked open his eyes and looked at the hand in front of his face, slowly opening and closing the fingers. It was broader than his own, without the callouses that Merlin had worked so hard to get. There were a few moles, one below his palm, where it met his wrist, and another on his ring finger, just above his knuckle. A light dusting of freckles, barely visible in the moonlight. He was a different person now. It had worked.
After a moment's rest, Merlin crept into the city walls, easily slipping past the guards that stood at the entrance. He spotted a large cloak hanging by an open window, and silently used his magic to bring the fabric to him, along with a satchel that he emptied back into the house. He slipped his book into the bag and fastened the cloak around his shoulders, easily covering his torn and bloody clothing. He hid in a dark corner of an alley, curled up so he was just a mound of fabric as he waited for day to break.
If he had guessed correctly, Gaius would be making his rounds around town that morning, checking on the townspeople. Merlin crept out of the alley, his hands keeping the hem of his cloak firmly closed as he scanned the crowd of people performing their morning duties. After a long while of tense waiting, he spotted a familiar head of gray hair and his face broke out in a lopsided grin.
He strode forward, dodging people as they milled around, and came to a stop beside the physician. "Hello," he said, his changed voice bursting with barely-restrained glee. Gaius spun around to look at him. "It's me."
"Merlin?" Gaius whispered, eyes looking for anyone listening in on them. Merlin grinned at him.
"Call me Emrys," he said, adopting the tone of a man who was meeting another for the first time. "I hear you're looking for a new assistant?"
Gaius chuckled and drew Merlin into a hug, which the other man eagerly gave. The new height difference made it a little odd, but they were relieved to have the other in front of them again, flesh and blood right there. When they drew back from each other, Merlin tried to quickly cover himself again, but judging from the sharp intake of breath from the older man, he had seen the state of his clothes.
"It's not as bad as it looks," Merlin assured him. Gaius raised an eyebrow, then steered him across the dirt road.
"Well, there's no way I can bring you into the castle with those clothes. We'll find something to fit your... growth spurt."
Merlin snorted in amusement, but let the man lead him to a stall filled with racks of clothing. Gaius pulled out clothes, holding them in air and trying to guess how well they'd fit before either putting them back or draping them over one arm. Eventually he settled on two tunics, two pairs of trousers, a few sets of undergarments, a new pair of boots, and a thick wool cloak that would replace the one he had stolen. The shopkeeper graciously allowed Merlin to change behind a screen while Gaius paid.
He kept the cloak around his shoulders as he shimmied out of his clothing, pulling on a pair of black trousers as quickly as he could. The boots were a little big, but his toes were less cramped than in his old ones. As he pulled off his shirt, he stopped in shock. When he had cast the disguise spell, he had intended to cover all his scars, but he could clearly see not only the hydra's bite, but also the burn from Nimueh's spell, and where the serket had stung him. He could see that some of his more mundane scars had disappeared, but the ones fuelled by magic were still there.
He shivered and pulled on his gray tunic before he got any colder, then latched his new cloak around his shoulders. He looked at himself in a nearby mirror, turning his head to the side to inspect his new face. His hair was a sandy brown, almost blonde in the sunlight, and fell in clumpy waves to the bottom of his chin. His eyes were dark brown and there was a bit of stubble on his angular chin. He was handsome, he supposed. He looked stronger and more intimidating, which had been what he was going for, but still friendly looking. It wouldn't do him any good to look suspicious.
He stuffed his old clothes into his satchel and draped the stolen cloak over his arm, stepping out from behind the screen. Gaius had bought some bread rolls while he was changing, so he handed one to Merlin, who eagerly scarfed it down. He followed Gaius as the man made his rounds, carrying the physician's medical kit as they walked. When they stopped near the house Merlin had stolen the cloak and satchel from, he transferred his book, wrapped in his bloody clothes, into the spare room of the kit and returned the items he had taken.
He watched people's faces as he was introduced as Gaius' new assistant. Some of the people he didn't even know, and some of the people he did know hadn't heard about his 'death', but he felt guilty every time he saw a look of sadness pass over a person's face.
"Emrys," Gaius said, and Merlin snapped to attention. The older man nodded his head towards the castle. "We're done here. Let's go home."
Merlin smiled and trailed after him, pleased that he would be able to see his friends again, though he knew the guilt would eat at him. They walked past the training grounds, where Merlin had to hold his tongue between his teeth to keep himself from speaking to the knights training.
They made it to Gaius' chamber without talking to anyone, passing only a few guards and servants that only gave him a glance. Merlin quickly pulled out his magic book and stashed it away, then tucked in his new clothes. He wasn't sure what to do with his old clothes, though he supposed that if he cleaned them enough they might make good rags. His neckerchief was clean, but he knew he couldn't wear it. It would be strange, so he put it away.
'Perhaps if Arthur ever finds out,' he thought, but he didn't dwell on it.
"Now, Emrys," Gaius called out to him. Merlin took off his cloak and trotted out of his room. "I want to look at your wounds."
Merlin wrinkled his nose. "I told you I'm fine."
"Indulge an old man," Gaius replied, his eyes pleading. Merlin shrugged and sat down, taking off his tunic. Gaius' trained fingers prodded along his back, and Merlin felt muscles twitching and seizing in protest. After a moment, the fingers disappeared, and Merlin turned to watch his mentor pull a jar of salve from a drawer. He rubbed it along his wound, leaving a tingling sensation after he had finished.
"You did a good job," Gaius said, handing Merlin his tunic back, "considering your resources. Make sure to rub some of this salve over your wounds every morning for at least a week. I can tell you had a nasty infection."
"Yes, but I-" Merlin was interrupted by a knock on the door, so he hastily pulled his tunic over his head, dragging brown hair over his eyes, before the door opened to reveal Gwen standing there.
"Hello, Gaius," she said, smiling at him. Her eyes stalled over Merlin, who was fixing his hair, then returned to Gaius. "I was wondering if you needed anything."
"No, my dear," he replied, a comforting smile on his face. "I'm fine for now."
"Alright then," she said, sounding almost disheartened. Then she smiled. "I'm sure there are some sheets somewhere that need washing, so I can always find something to do."
Merlin had stood awkwardly off to the side, wanting to talk to Gwen but not knowing what to say now that he was a complete stranger. He froze when her eyes landed on him again and she smiled. "Hello," she said. "I haven't seen you around here."
"Uh, no," he said, trying to quell the nervousness in his throat. "My name is Emrys, I'm Gaius' new assistant."
"Oh," she replied, her eyes suddenly going sad. Merlin winced, but she quickly shook it off and put on a brave smile. "Well, I'm Gwen. If you need any help, just ask."
Merlin smiled at her. "I will, thank you."
She smiled and nodded before leaving, and as soon as Merlin guessed she was out of earshot he groaned. "I feel bad," he told Gaius, his expression guilty. The old man just sighed and patted his arm.
"You'll get through it. It's for the good of Camelot, remember?"
"Yeah," Merlin said, sighing. He ran a hand through his long hair, combing the strands absentmindedly He was in for a journey.
The next few days were spent in quiet. The very first morning, Merlin used the same spell he had used to communicate with Gaius so he could tell his mother he was safe and alive. He had caught her weeping openly, but the reasons for the tears quickly changed when he showed his face.
He did chores for Gaius and helped him create various potions and tonics, but he realized that without Arthur to attend to, he had much more spare time. He used that spare time to endear himself to the castle servants, who he used to gather gossip and facts. He knew when Arthur had taken a few knights out on a hunt, and so was able to 'conveniently' be in the area, gathering herbs. Nothing horrible happened, but he knew he could never be too careful. Danger swarmed in Camelot like locusts.
It wasn't until two weeks had passed that Merlin came into contact with Arthur. The prince had gotten hurt during training, and so had came to the physician's quarters for some bruise balm. Merlin was in the middle of grinding some bark when the door swung open. He looked up sharply as Arthur's voice called out.
"Gaius, I need-" He stopped when he saw a strange man looking at him. "Who are you?"
Merlin resisted the urge to wrinkle his nose at the accusatory tone in Arthur's voice, instead giving him a small bow. "My name is Emrys. Sire," he added, trying to not make it sound like an afterthought. "I'm Gaius' assistant."
"Oh," Arthur said, his voice quiet and distasteful. "I did hear about you."
Merlin raised an eyebrow, but refocused on his task. "Is there anything I can help you with, sire?"
"Yes," Arthur replied, his voice regaining a haughty tone. He strolled casually into the room, but Merlin could see from the corner of his eye that he had a slight limp. "I've run out of medicine for my bruises, so I'll need some more."
"Just one moment," Merlin said, giving the bark one final grind before wiping the dust from his fingers. He shuffled around the vials in a cupboard before finding one that Gaius had made not too long ago. He held it out for Arthur to take. "Here you are," he said, flashing Arthur a smile.
The prince paused, his hand slowly retrieving the balm. Merlin turned back to his bowl of bark, adding a pinch of herbs to it. He ground those in with the bark for a few moments, then realized that Arthur was still standing there. Merlin stopped and glanced at the other man, seeing him staring at him with an unreadable expression on his face.
"Was there something else you needed? Sire?"
Arthur seemed to snap back to attention and he levelled an irritated stare at Merlin. "No," he said. He paused for a moment, then turned around and strode out of the room, slamming the door behind him.
The first time that 'Emrys' got to save Arthur's life was almost a month later, where a young noble lady had requested shelter from the heavy snowfalls and blistering cold. She played the swooning damsel in distress well, charming Uther into letting her stay for a while and convincing both him and Arthur that she was as innocent as undisturbed snow. Merlin had met up with Gwen at one point, helping the woman carry the mounds of clothes the lady had deposited on her.
"I don't want to be mean," she said, already sighing in relief from her lighter burden, "but she is horrid to the servants. I know it's our duty to do nobility's bidding, but there's no need to be so cruel about it."
"Have you told anyone about her?" Merlin asked, half wondering how this lady was going to try and take over Camelot, half wondering how she got that stain on her dress.
Gwen smiled up at him. "I'm telling you," she said, her tone suggesting the hopelessness of the endeavour.
"What about Prince Arthur?" he asked, continuing at her strange look. "I've heard that you're friends with him."
Gwen shook her head sadly. "We haven't been as close as we used to... after Merlin died."
"Oh." He wasn't sure what else to say. Gwen just sighed and shrugged her shoulders.
"Some of the knights made a sort of grave for him," she said wistfully. "They couldn't bring back his body, but we have a small space to... pay our respects."
Merlin nodded, inhaled sharply, and turned to ask Gwen a question that had been on his mind for a while. "Did you mind? When you found out about his magic? G-Gaius told me about him, and I was just wondering..."
Gwen smiled at him. "It's okay. I mean, I was shocked that he was a sorcerer, and I was certainly feeling angry and confused for the first while. I had seen another friend fall to darkness, but I had time to think about it. I don't think I've ever thought Merlin could have become evil. He had some darkness in him, yes, who doesn't? But he never let it overtake him." She gave a breathless laugh. "That was a bit of a speech, wasn't it?" Merlin grinned and shrugged, chuckling alongside her. "I'm just trying to say that I don't think magic is as evil and corrupting as the law suggests."
Merlin smiled softly. "Well," he said. "I'll make sure not to let the King know of this particular speech."
They washed the lady's clothing together and brought them back to her room, where the lady berated Gwen for requiring outside help. Merlin narrowed his eyes at her, but kept his lips shut. He wasn't to draw any attention to him this life. After their apologies were done, Merlin ushered Gwen out and they shared a giggle over how ridiculous she was.
Merlin found out about the lady's evil plans no more than a day later, where he 'happened' to be wandering around the castle and overheard her talking into a mirror. A sneaky glance showed another face in the mirror, and a quiet voice held a conversation with the lady. They discussed their plan to punish Uther for his sins against magic by trapping Arthur in the mirror, swapping places with the person already inside it. Merlin sneaked into the lady's room while she was at dinner and broke the mirror.
The person inside it was freed, but there was a quick magical battle that Merlin emerged victorious from. He was worried about what the lady would do, but upon finding out that her magic mirror was broken, she quickly excused herself from the castle, having no magic of her own.
"Problem solved," he told Gaius at breakfast. The old man congratulated him for not getting caught and they shared their meal in peace.
While Merlin was able to interact with Arthur on occasion, it was usually nothing more than handing him a balm he needed, or quick courtesies as they passed each other in the halls. He didn't have a chance to really talk to him until he decided to check out his grave site.
Gwen had shown him where his grave was, and he had awkwardly placed a flower against it and paid respects to himself, but he didn't go back for a while. It was odd, to see a small cross made of sticks tucked away just outside the castle walls with his name carved in the wood.
When he wandered over there, he saw that someone had already left a few flowers on his grave. He leaned on the wall next to it, watching the flowers out of the corner of his eye. They were small and white, barely visible over the light dusting of snow on the ground, but definitely placed down with care. He wondered who they were from.
A twig snapped and his head swivelled around. Arthur had come around the corner, looking shocked to see him. Merlin gave him an awkward wave. "Sorry," he said. "Did you want to, uh?" He gestured hopelessly towards the grave. Arthur shrugged, slowly walking forwards.
Merlin stood beside Arthur as the other man stopped in front of the grave. It was strange, he realized, being so much taller than Arthur. He slouched a little, before realizing he was trying to make himself closer to Arthur's height and straightened his back.
He wondered what Arthur thought of him now. He had been too scared to even think of asking Gwen, and every time he tried to think about it, all he could see was the look of utter betrayal on Arthur's face before he fell. But he looked at Arthur now, and all he could see was a silent sadness.
"I shouldn't have told them..." Arthur said after a long moment of silence.
"About Merlin's magic. I could have found some excuse to silence the knights, but instead I just... let everyone believe he was some kind of traitor... And he wasn't... He wasn't like Morgana..."
"Oh?" Merlin prompted, trying to suppress his relieved grin.
"Everyone's been hit by his death. Most everyone here loved him," Arthur added with a sad chuckle. "I can't tell you how many fights I've had to break up when an argument about Merlin had come up. In the last month, Sir Gwaine's been in at least half of them."
Merlin smiled softly and laughed. "Sounds like him."
Arthur laughed, tipping his head back to stare at the sky. There was another lull in the conversation, time passing sluggishly. Tiny snowflakes began to fall from the sky.
"I haven't been able to keep a manservant for longer than a few weeks anymore," Arthur said, his lips tight as though he wasn't sure whether it was funny or not. "They're just not the same. I want to throw things at them every time they address me."
Merlin just barely stopped himself from asking how different that was from before, instead flashing him a lopsided grin. "What, not fond of boot lickers?"
Arthur looked at him out of the corner of his eye, pausing for a moment before scoffing. "A little boot licking is fine, but a little spine is preferable."
Merlin's grin widened and his voice rang with barely constrained giggles. "I'm proud of you," he said in response to Arthur's questioning look. "You're learning to be a good judge of character."
Arthur stared at him for a moment before shaking his head and laughing. Hearing Arthur let loose, Merlin couldn't help but laugh alongside him, their shoulders shaking with mirth as a bond was formed. When they parted, Merlin couldn't stop smiling, doing his chores with a jubilant skip to his gait. Things were looking up.
Since that moment, Arthur seemed open to starting an actual conversation with 'Emrys', usually stopping him in the hall to ask how Gaius or Gwen were doing. A few times, when Arthur had nothing to do and the knights were busy, he would rope Merlin into training with him. While Merlin had learned enough about the sword that he could hold his own before, his new body was definitely more suited to sparring with the prince. He still never won, but he could put up a decent fight.
Their friendship seemed to blossom quickly after that, almost mirroring what he and Arthur had shared before the hydra incident. At one point, Merlin had to stop himself from walking to Arthur's room and waking him up in the morning; he was so distracted by the deja vu of it all. It was strange. Had he and Arthur become friends so quickly before? They'd had to spend more time together because of his job, but it was so long ago that Merlin couldn't remember when he had actually started thinking of Arthur as a friend.
When the chill of winter was just beginning to wane, Arthur invited him down to the tavern to drink with the knights, and he spent the first few minutes awkwardly hovering behind Arthur as the prince drank and interacted with the knights. But eventually it was Gwaine who reached up and looped an arm over his shoulders, pulling him down to the bench and handing over a half-empty mug of ale. The man had obviously been drinking for a while before Merlin got there.
"Sit 'ere!" he said, slurring the words so they were almost one. His arm stayed wrapped firmly around Merlin's shoulders, so the warlock just shot him a lopsided smile and took a sip from his mug. Gwaine smiled vacantly back and squeezed his shoulders tighter.
Merlin wasn't sure what to do. He had contemplated long and hard about whether or not to tell Gwaine or Lancelot about his survival. He knew that they wouldn't betray his trust, that they would never dream of telling anyone (though if someone had plied Gwaine with enough ale, who knew what might slip out) but he was still too scared to. The fewer people that knew about him, the safer he would be. All it would take was one unconscious reaction, and suspicion would be instantly laid upon him. He felt bad about it, and only prayed that he could eventually be safe enough to tell them. He hoped they took it well.
"So how's your day been?" he asked Gwaine, hoping for some lighthearted topics they could distract themselves with. He had chatted with Gwaine as Emrys a few times before, usually when Gaius sent him to deal with the knights' injuries.
The knight eagerly jumped on the topic, telling Merlin all about the training session they had earlier where he had managed to give some solid revenge to Garrick, which, he added, was never going to get old. He downed another ale in between sentences, guzzling down the drink like the expert he was. Merlin nursed his half mug, knowing that he never had much tolerance for alcohol. He didn't want to risk spilling any secrets this evening.
He sat there, sipping his ale and half-listening to Gwaine's stories, until an unexpected word in. "Youuurrr a great lisss'ner," Gwaine slurred, the arm around Merlin's shoulder pulling him close enough that the knight could let his head flop down upon it. "I luffyou, Meeerrrlin."
Merlin choked on his ale, spitting droplets on the table in front of him as he tried to clear his airways. Leon glanced down at him from across the table, but he didn't see anything wrong happening, as he returned to gathering empty mugs. Gwaine giggled beside him, though he had retracted his head and arm and looked a little more sober now.
"W-what-" Merlin said, his coughing reduced to a minimum now, "-did you call me?" Gwaine shrugged, his laughter all gone now.
"Sorry," the other man said, his voice quiet. "I know you're not 'im. Jus'," Gwaine waved his arm in an almost frantic manner, try to convey something he couldn't put into words. But he stopped and took a long pull from his mug. "You remind me of him. Just a little. It's your smile," he said, tilting his head to smile sadly at Merlin. "You got the same dopey smile, jus' fulla kindness an' good an' shit."
"Oh," Merlin said, wondering if that was it. If all his friends saw Emrys as a replacement for himself. He was glad that the only physical clue he had given them was a smile, but he supposed he could only do so much to change his demeanour
"Is he being a bother?" Lancelot asked, having appeared behind him without Merlin noticing. He flashed the other man his most reassuring smile, trying not to think about what Lancelot thought about the resemblance.
"No, no," he said, tossing in a small laugh. "Though I'm wondering if he's had too much to drink."
Lancelot chuckled and tugged Gwaine up. "Most of the knights have left anyway," he said. Gwaine huffed in annoyance and Lancelot flinched from his breath. "Go stand over there with Percival."
"Yes, mother," Gwaine sulked and staggered off towards the bigger man.
Merlin watched him walk off and nearly collide into the other knight with amusement. Briefly, he wondered just how much Gwaine had drunk.
"Sorry about him," Lancelot said, fond humour in his voice. Merlin smiled.
"No problem," he said, finishing off the bottom of his mug and standing up. "It's a nice thing to hang out with good men."
Lancelot smiled. "And you're a good man too, Emrys. Don't worry about being seen as Merlin's replacement."
Merlin shrugged, not really sure how to reply to that. He decided to go for the joking route, and flashed Lancelot a grin. "I think I'll take it as a compliment. From what I'm experiencing, he must have been quite the charmer."
Lancelot laughed and patted him on the back before leaving to help Percival walk Gwaine home. Merlin stayed behind to chat a little with Leon and Elyan, leaving when Arthur announced that he was going to leave. He walked alongside the prince as they left for the castle, giggling every time Arthur would stumble and grip his arm.
"Did you have fun?" Arthur asked. Merlin thought for a second he sounded almost anxious, but the drawl the alcohol gave the other man's voice could just be messing with him.
"Of course," Merlin said, giving the prince a joking scoff, as though it was stupid to think otherwise. Arthur snorted and jammed his elbow into Merlin's ribs. Merlin grinned and shoved Arthur's shoulder, catching the other man's arm when his balance decided that was the last straw. He half walked, half dragged Arthur back to his room, where he promised he'd have a hangover cure waiting in the morning.
Gaius was beginning to have a large stockpile of herbs and various potion ingredients building up in his workroom, due to the many times Merlin would use gathering herbs as an excuse to watch over Arthur while hunting.
"Maybe we should have done this before," Gaius joked. "Though you might pluck Camelot clean at this rate."
"Ha ha ha," Merlin said sarcastically, fastening his cloak. "If you're quite done, I have to go stalk a prince."
In his time as 'Emrys', Merlin had defeated four magic-users and seven magical beasts, including another hydra. There had been rumours that the one from before had been part of a family, so before Arthur had a chance to ride out, Merlin learned a teleportation spell that enabled him to get there, kill the rampaging beast, leave the corpse where it would easily be found, then get back home in time for dinner. A few of the threats he was sure came from Morgana, but at least she seemed to be lying low enough that he never had to face her directly.
He had gotten used to being Emrys. Sometimes he thought he wouldn't react if Gaius called him by his actual name, though Gaius never risked it anyway, so he couldn't be sure either way. But he had stopped missing his old clothes and his old job. He never visited his grave again, and he focused on keeping Arthur safe.
When a number of lords and ladies flocked to Camelot to renew their allegiances to Uther, Merlin was recruited as a server. He thanked his lucky stars that there was no prat making sure he was wearing that silly hat this time. He thought for a second that he saw Arthur looking at him like he was thinking it, but the prince didn't say anything.
He made small talk with Gwen as they refilled goblets and brought out meals, watching the various nobles chat each other up. The actual fealty ceremony had already happened without incident, and now everyone was relaxing and enjoying themselves.
So, really, it was the perfect time for an assassination attempt.
Merlin started feeling like something was wrong a little after the first hour, where all the nobles were getting a little tipsy. His eyes darted around as he acted calm, until they finally landed on an innocuous-looking servant secretly pulling out a blade carved with runes. He slipped through the crowd, depositing his tray of drinks onto a table as he walked closer and closer to Uther.
Merlin ducked so he was mostly hidden by a column, then whispered a quick spell. An empty goblet rolled right under the man's foot, tripping him. His knife clattered out of his hands and the noise gathered attention. A roar of chaos erupted as nobles saw the knife that the man was diving for, and a number of swords were being drawn.
The assassin hissed and roared, sending all the nobility around him flying away. Angry eyes focused on the king as he spoke. "Do not think you can simply get away with your crimes, Uther Pendragon! You shall pay for your assault against magic!"
He looked ready to throw the knife at the king, so Merlin acted quickly. Whispering a spell to make it fly fast and true, he threw his serving tray. It hit the assassin in the neck, making him stumble and wheeze and giving the nobles a chance to swarm him again. Uther yelled at them to get the assassin, which Merlin found rather redundant, but he supposed the man wanted to regain some kind of authority after almost getting killed.
The assassin managed to slip away, however, and Merlin saw him dashing out of the room. He groaned and ran out of the room himself, just barely hearing Uther ordering his men to find the sorcerer. The sound of armour clanking echoed down the hall, but he focused on trying to figure out which way the assassin would go.
He dashed around a corner and saw the assassin running towards him. The man swore and turned around, but Merlin raced forwards, running after the man as they turned a corner. He swore as he ran right into a barrier, the assassin standing on the other side.
"Emrys," he hissed, and Merlin groaned. The assassin was a Druid, one who knew him by his magical name. "Why do you chase me so? Do you not realize what a better place this world would be without Uther Pendragon? We would live in a golden age, without fear of prosecution!"
"You know, I'm really tired of sorcerers thinking that," Merlin said, scowling at the man. He settled himself on his feet, eyeing the barrier. "Let me guess, you've heard stories about me?"
"Great prophecies have been foretold!" the assassin said, boasting as though Emrys was his own child. "You shall unite with the Once and Future King and bring magic back to all of Albion!"
"Do you know who the Once and Future King is?" The barrier was solid, but he could sense that it only stopped physical attacks.
"All of our great minds have come together, and we believe it is Arthur Pendragon. So we must kill Uther, so that his son might bring about our golden age!"
"What makes you think that having a sorcerer kill his father will make him even want to give magic a chance? The people are terrified of magic, and having all these sorcerer attacks is not making it any better!" At those last words, he shot his hand forward and sent a blast of power at the assassin, throwing the man off his feet. His concentration on the barrier broke and Merlin easily stepped forwards.
"I won't kill you," he said, glaring at the hopeful look on the other man's face, "but you won't get away with this. I'll make sure you're arrested."
"I can always escape."
"Maybe," Merlin crouched down and gripped the assassin's arm, wrenching his knife away with his other hand. "But I will tell you this: if you or any of your friends try to kill Uther again, I will kill you."
He enchanted a nearby curtain rope to bind the assassin. The man struggled as his chest was squeezed, but he managed to speak once more. "You would save a man who would have you killed in the blink of an eye?"
Merlin stared at him, eyes flashing. "I care about Arthur, and Arthur cares about his father. So yes, I will protect a man that would kill me."
He heard footsteps coming from behind him, so he hefted the assassin up, debating how he should do this. He didn't want the assassin to reveal his magic, though the man seemed to idolize Emrys and didn't seem to want him dead, and he didn't want any attention upon himself, even of the heroic kind. For all he knew, Uther would award him with Arthur's manservant position again.
His thoughts stalled as he saw Arthur slowly walk out from behind the corner, the expression on his face making it obvious that he heard everything. He looked surprised, yes, but more determined. The assassin struggled in his bonds and smiled at Arthur.
"You got all that, Your Highness?" he asked, laughing madly.
Arthur, his sword already unsheathed, stabbed the assassin in the gut, twisting his sword until the man was dead. Merlin flinched from the shock, then began fidgeting with the hem of his tunic. Arthur inhaled sharply, then wiped the blood off his sword and re-sheathed it. He knelt down to untie the cord from the assassin before it could get stained with blood and held it out for Merlin.
"Re-tie this around the curtain," he said, a slight tremor to his voice. "I'll say that I caught up with him and killed him."
"You heard everything, didn't you?"
"Yes," Arthur said, his voice a little stronger. "Now tie the cord around the curtain. Others will be here soon."
Merlin quickly obliged, wondering what this would mean. Arthur had confessed to him that he didn't think of Merlin as a traitor, but it was easier to be at peace with somebody when they were dead. Would the same thoughts apply to the still-living 'Emrys'? He finished tying the cord and slowly walked back to Arthur.
"We'll discuss this later," Arthur said softly, looking straight at Merlin. "Wait in my room. I'll be there once everything has calmed down, and then you can tell me your story."
Merlin nodded and hurried away. He walked down the corridors, ducking into an alcove when a troop of knights jogged by, not wanting to explain why he was wandering the halls when all the servants were still in the main hall. He reached Arthur's room and slipped inside. He lit a fire and sat down on the floor, running his fingers through his long hair and scratching his scalp nervously. Arthur had sounded calm, almost reassuring, but that didn't do much for his nerves. This time he didn't have a cliff to fall off of.
The minutes seemed achingly long, but finally Merlin could hear Arthur's footsteps making their way up the corridor and the creak of the door before the familiar blonde head popped up. The prince gave him a soft look and a nod of his head as he carefully closed the door, almost setting Merlin at ease. He gave Arthur a nervous grin back.
"You can sit in a chair, you know," Arthur said with a joking smile.
Merlin shrugged. "I didn't want to presume," he said as he stood up. He stretched his stiff legs before sitting in an armchair. Arthur perched himself on the edge of his bed, leaning forwards so his elbows rested on his thighs.
"So," he began, "you have magic? And you're fairly well-known amongst the sorcerers?"
"Well... yes. I've been doing magic since I was born." Merlin twitched and fidgeted, wringing his hands and playing with the edge of his tunic, incapable of staying still for a moment. "But really, I'm only well-known amongst the Druids. The whole prophecy thing..."
"About the Once and Future King?"
"Yeah... That's you, by the way," he added. "You're prophesied to bring magic back to the land, and I think you'll make a really great king either way, so I've been protecting you. Because a lot of things try to kill you. It's not easy!" He gave a little laugh, staring at his fidgeting hands.
"Emrys?" Arthur's voice was soft, almost non-existent. Merlin looked up to see Arthur staring out the window at the setting sun, a sad and contemplative look on his face. "Do you think Merlin knew about the prophecy?"
Merlin froze. Here was a chance. He could reveal himself to Arthur, tell him everything. He could tell all his stories, about Sophia, the Questing Beast, about Dragoon the Great, and the whole business with the immortal army. He could live with one less lie, completely clear his name in Arthur's heart.
"Maybe," he said instead, his gaze dropping back to his hands. "It's likely."
They sat in silence, until Arthur dismissed him, swearing that he would take his secret to the grave. Merlin gave him a smile at that and slipped out the door. He left feeling like a coward.
"It's for the best," he whispered to himself all the way back to his room. "It's for the best." He wasn't sure if he believed it.
After that, Arthur went out of his way to ensure 'Emrys' was invited along whenever he went out hunting or on a trip. He had initially argued that when he was simply hunting he didn't need help, but Merlin had stared at him until the prince relented. So far, all he had done was make a lot of noise (despite his best efforts) and carry Arthur's kills around, but he could never be too careful.
He had told Gaius about Arthur finding out about his magic, though he made it clear that the prince had no idea about his true identity. Gaius nodded and was sympathetic, but had asked Merlin why he hadn't told him. Merlin shrugged, having no proper answer.
It was much easier protecting Arthur when he was actually able to tell the truth about the various beasts and sorcerers that flocked to Camelot. When a man had come to Camelot, wanting to be a knight, Merlin had found out that he was poisoning the other knights with small doses of a potion that would eventually paralyse them. He told Arthur immediately, and they were able to get the necessary evidence to expel him from Camelot.
After they had rode out to deal with a griffin, the two sat by the fireside. Merlin was reclined against a log, his head tipped back lazily, while Arthur sat beside his ear, cleaning his sword. Without moving, Merlin saw that the fire was dying, so with a flash of golden eyes he moved another log into the pile. The fire flared up for a moment, gaining Arthur's attention. He glanced down at Merlin as the gold receded from his eyes.
"Do all sorcerers have golden eyes?" he asked, and Merlin raised his gaze to look back at Arthur. He shrugged.
"I'm a warlock, actually."
Arthur scowled. "What's the difference?"
"A sorcerer is born with the potential, but has to learn spells in order to do any magic. Warlocks can do it since they're born, and by instinct."
Arthur rolled his eyes and sheathed his sword. "Alright then. So sorry for the mix-up," he drawled out, leaning closer with his elbow on one knee. "But about the golden eyes?"
"Well, from what I've seen, yeah. It's generally a trait I've seen in magical beasts, too."
There was a silence. "Can I see it again?" he asked.
Merlin raised and eyebrow and smiled. "What trick would you like me to perform, Your Highness?" he replied, a smirk in his voice.
Arthur rolled his eyes and waved his hand. "I don't care, just something."
Merlin hummed for a moment, then smiled and stretched his hand towards the fire. "Fýrcynn, álæde se ansíen ic gebene." The flames rose up as his eyes flashed, forming a tiny dragon that wheeled around them. Arthur chuckled softly, watching as the fire-dragon flew inches away from Merlin's hand.
"How... frivolous," he said finally, and Merlin laughed, letting the dragon fly back into the flames.
"Magic is fun," Merlin said, tipping his head back. "When you're not worried about whether or not you're going to be executed, at least." Arthur gave him a sour smile, so Merlin decided to turn the conversation away from that grim topic. "And it makes doing chores so much easier. I've had fantasies where I can just animate brooms and dust rags and let them clean my room while I'm away."
Arthur laughed at that, and they shared the fireside for the night, chatting lightly about taboo subjects, safe outside the borders of the city.
Springtime rolled around, though it was still just cold enough that Merlin continued wearing his cloak. Gaius had sent him out to gather herbs, having almost run out of a few particular ingredients for Uther's medicine. He gathered the items without any problems, but by the time he had gotten back, he noticed the guards acting agitated.
He saw Gwen worriedly wringing her hands off to the side and dashed over to her. "What's happening?" he asked, and she looked up at him.
"Emrys," she breathed out. "There was a pair of sorcerers! They just popped into the throne room, started yelling at the King and Prince Arthur, and locked all the doors! No one can get in!"
She burst into sobs and Merlin pulled her to his chest, rubbing her back and murmuring about how it would be okay. Of course someone would attack when he had left for only an hour. The prat couldn't do anything by himself. When Gwen had calmed down, he handed her his basket of herbs, telling her to get them to Gaius.
"What are you doing?" she asked, watching him worriedly. Merlin grinned as he backed away.
"I'm gonna do my best to save that prat's life! Again," he added, not quite under his breath. He didn't watch Gwen's face change as he spun around and dashed down the corridor, cloak flying behind him.
His mind raced as he ran, trying to think of how he could get in, who the sorcerers were, if he could protect all the people inside the throne room without blowing his cover. There was a huge pile-up of knights at the door to the throne room, so there was no chance he could try anything there. Instead, he found a secluded corner and cast a spell.
He looked through the floating orb, scanning the room. There was Arthur standing in front of Uther on his throne, the king bound by ropes. There were a smattering of knights, including all of their Round Table, all frozen in place, and in the centre of it all were the two sorcerers. They both had long black hair, and they appeared as though they were brother and sister. Merlin silently thanked they weren't Morgana and Morgause, but for all he knew, these sorcerers could be just as bad.
He muttered a quick spell, teleporting with a swirl of his cloak into the darkest corner of the room, easily hidden by a column The sorcerers hadn't noticed him, and instead continued to posture grandly. The brother had his eye on the knights, keeping them frozen, while his sister yelled at the Pendragons. There was nothing new to her speech, just the same drivel about how they would pay for their crimes against magic, how they would raze Camelot to the ground for revenge.
Merlin decided that his first course of action would be to break the spell over the knights. He prodded at the spell itself, analyzing it with his instincts, but just when he thought he could reverse it, the brother noticed someone trying to break his spell. He roared, his eyes swivelling and locking onto Merlin's position. He raised his hand and yelled some words, and Merlin barely had enough time to duck before the column he was behind exploded.
"Jaggar!" the woman yelled, trying to muffle her surprise. "What-"
"There is another magic-user here, Luella," he said, eyeing the rubble with disdain. "He tried to break my spell."
Luella snarled, then snapped her hand when Arthur made a motion to try and charge her. The prince flew backwards, his back slamming into his father's knees. Luella kept him pinned there as Jaggar walked towards the rubble.
Suddenly, he was thrown back, and Merlin crawled out from beneath the stone. While he had tried to keep his hood up, it had fallen over his shoulders, exposing his face and the bloody scratches the explosion had left. He could hear Uther growling out orders to have him arrested alongside the other sorcerers, but all the knights were still frozen anyway. Only Arthur could move, and he was dazed. He had managed to struggle to his feet, staggering out of his father's field of vision, but he wasn't in any shape to attack.
Jaggar rose to his feet, glaring daggers at Merlin. "A traitor to our cause. You would rather protect these weak fools, blinded by their hate?"
"You're as blind as they are," Merlin retorted. Jaggar simply narrowed his eyes at him and summoned a sword. It floated in mid-air and Merlin tensed, ready for the weapon to come at him, but when Jaggar flicked his fingers the blade flew towards Arthur.
Merlin yelled and ran, time slowing as he dashed forwards. His hands gripped a hazy Arthur's arm and shoulder, pushing him down as the sword passed over them. He cradled Arthur's head in one hand, keeping it from slamming into the stone floor, and was struck with how similar it was to the first time he had saved Arthur's life.
With that thought in mind, he turned around and looked up. The metal chandelier was poised above Luella, so with a flash of gold he separated the chains holding it up. The fall of metal was unexpected and Luella cried out as the heavy structure struck her head, slamming into her body as she crumbled to the floor.
Jaggar roared out in rage and Merlin sprung to his feet, quickly summoning a fireball to attack while the other man was distracted. But the sorcerer was able to extinguish it. He snarled at Merlin, prowling amongst the frozen knights, always keeping at least one of them between himself and Merlin. "So you kill your own kind to protect these people?" he asked, using Gwaine as a shield. "You choose their lives over the lives of those they have prosecuted unjustly?"
"I choose the lives of my friends," Merlin replied, his hands twitching as he moved closer to the centre of the room, trying to figure out an angle where he could get Jaggar.
The sorcerer scowled, then paused, looking at him. Merlin stopped, warily watching what he was doing. Then, Jaggar smiled.
"You say they are your friends," he said, his voice almost purring in its smugness, "yet you wear a false appearance."
Merlin stiffened, eyes wide.
"You lie to them everyday, but you still claim that they are your friends?" Jaggar laughed, and a slow glow came to his eyes. "Let us put that friendship to the test. Abir æt mec éow geséðung ætíewednes!"
Merlin had barely any time to react before his body erupted in pain. He screamed and hunched over, the feeling of his bones squishing down to his original size spreading fire over every inch of his skin. He gasped for air as his lungs changed shape, feeling his heart beat violently against his thinner skin. He could hear Arthur calling out Emrys' name, but the roar of his own blood in his growing ears nearly drowned it out.
It was quick, though Merlin's body was sore even after he knew the transformation was over. He groaned from his prone position on the ground, thanking his lucky stars that Jaggar was too arrogant to attack him while he was like this. Slowly, he opened his eyes, looking at the hand that was nearest his eye. It was pale again, slender fingers covered in callouses and tiny scars. He was Merlin again.
He could tell that some of the knights saw who he was, judging from the shocked intakes of breath he could hear from a few of them, but Arthur was still at his back, his hunched and cloaked back hiding his identity. But he couldn't lie his way out of this one.
Ignoring his body's protests, Merlin struggled to his feet, the large cloak falling off one shoulder. His clothes were too big for him now, but a quick tightening of his belt kept anything embarrassing from happening.
"Merlin!" Lancelot was the first to shout, nothing but shocked joy. Merlin gave him a weak smile, then turned his head around to look at Arthur. The prince stared at him, surprised. He looked like a startled deer, which just made Merlin's smile a little larger.
"Hullo," he said, then turned back to Jaggar. The sorcerer wasted no more time in trying to blast him away, but Merlin responded in kind, the resulting shock waves cancelling each other out. There was a flurry of spells, but Merlin found his resources drained with the many shielding spells he was erecting, protecting the people in the room that Jaggar had no care for.
They danced through the crowd, until Jaggar turned around and sent a fireball spiralling in Arthur's direction. The sorcerer stood in between Merlin and Arthur, so Merlin created a translucent blue shield in front of Arthur for the fireball to explode harmlessly against. And while Jaggar was distracted with that, Merlin yanked the sword from Gwaine's hand, flashing the knight a quick smile as he did so, and swooped forwards. He thrust the blade through the sorcerer's chest, slicing through flesh and organs and cracking through ribs.
Everyone knew the moment he was dead, as the knights found themselves capable of motion once more. Merlin yanked the sword out of Jaggar's body and was instantly swooped up in a crushing hug.
"Merlin!" Gwaine cried out happily. "I thought you were dead!"
"Y-yeah," Merlin said, struggling for breath, "sorry about that."
The knight looked ready to babble on again, but it was that moment that Uther had shaken free of his bonds and stood up to his full height. "Guards," he bellowed at the same moment that the doors flew open. "Arrest that sorcerer!"
Merlin froze, staring up at the king as Gwaine snarled and adopted a protective stance. He saw Arthur giving his father an incredulous look.
"Father, you can't be serious!" he cried out, and Merlin felt relief at just the tone of his voice. "You saw what he did! You saw him save us!"
"He used sorcery! He has been hiding amongst us for years, and when he was found out he faked his death so that he might regain the chance to harm you!"
A lot of the knights, not even just the Round Table men, were looking confused and hesitant, but Merlin found himself seized by someone who would obey Uther's orders without question. Gwaine punched the man in the face, but more came for Merlin. He was outnumbered, and he didn't want his friends being punished for his deeds.
He gave Arthur one last smile before roaring and blasting everyone back. Before they could regain their sense, Merlin began chanting. "Forþlæte mec oferfæreld geruma. Forþlæte mec æt se incofa sylfum se holtwudu. Forþlæte mec oferfæreld geruma."
His cloak swirled around him, the hem flayed out across the ground beneath him like a pool of darkness. As though a hole had been opened up under his feet, Merlin fell through the darkness, his cloak closing up behind him, leaving no trace he was ever there.
Arthur stood in his room, gazing out his window at the rising sun. He had a lot to take in these last few days. Emrys was Merlin. Merlin was alive. Merlin was on the run from the law, now that his father knew all these facts. Gwaine had taken to sulking that he had never been told the truth and that he only had enough time for one relived hug before Merlin had spirited away, but Arthur thought he should be glad he had gotten that much. Hell, the man was lucky Uther hadn't banished him again for trying to protect Merlin.
Lancelot, now that he knew Arthur was totally okay with Merlin's magic, had begun sharing stories of Merlin's heroism. Arthur was surprised by how much Merlin had done for him, but, he later thought, it really shouldn't be so shocking. Merlin had always been there, even when he thought he wasn't.
There was a short, strong knock on his door before it opened and Uther walked in. Arthur resisted the urge to scowl and simply turned away from the window.
"I've been informed you've fired your manservant," Uther drawled, looking disapprovingly at his son. Arthur shrugged.
"He wasn't good enough," he said simply, not wanting to add that no manservant other than Merlin would ever be good enough.
"Hmm, clearly," Uther said, almost sarcastically. "I've found another for you. Try and keep this one for at least a month."
Arthur rolled his eyes, but tilted his head in a slight nod. Uther nodded back to him and walked out of the door. Arthur could hear his voice barking an order to someone – "You, boy, get in there!" – and he leaned against the wall, waiting to see his new manservant.
The boy that walked in had mousey brown hair cut about his ears and almond-shaped green eyes. He was a little shorter than Arthur and thin, and altogether quite unremarkable.
But Arthur's eye was drawn to the red neckerchief tied around the other man's neck.
He saw the man's smile grow wide at Arthur's fascination with his neck, and oh dear Lord, the gap teeth can't hide that exact same smile, and how did his father not notice this? But Arthur didn't care. He grinned, looking into the green eyes, almost seeing the blue hues that were originally there.
Arthur stepped forwards and punched Merlin in the arm, smirking at the expression on the other man's face.
"Ooww, what was that for?" he whined, rubbing the spot on his arm. The motion loosened his collar, letting Arthur see a sliver of a pink scar on his shoulder. He huffed.
"Really, Merlin, I'm sure you're just smart enough to figure that out."
"Merlin?" he asked, and there was a split second that Arthur worried he'd gotten it wrong, but the brown-haired boy smiled. "Who's this Merlin you speak of? My name is Ambrosius!"
Arthur raised an eyebrow and Merlin grinned stupidly, and he was just so relieved to have his friend alive and well and standing right in front of him that there was really only one thing he could say.
"That's a silly name."