Fandom: Merlin (bbc)
Pairing: Merlin/Arthur (pre-slash)
Word Count: 8,000
Warning: Takes place right after 1x13 La Morte d'Arthur.
Summary: Merlin's life in Camelot is anything but easy. Especially when rampant magic and a homicidal mask become involved.
Note: Written for merlinarthurfqf's prompt 163: "In which the metal bunny mask on Gaius' desk is possessed by an evil spirit."
Beta: nyx_nox, who not only gave me tons of helpful suggestions but is awesomesauce. Thank you so much!
Merlin's back hurt.
And his hands and head and legs and arms and shoulders. But especially his back.
Considering he had held Gaius steady on a horse for the past several hours--the entire journey back to Camelot--then dragged him to his chambers, this pain was unsurprising. Gaius was, after all, pretty heavy. Somehow, this didn't comfort him in the slightest.
He eased Gaius onto the cot, then stumbled towards the shelves for some potion or salve to ease his own pain enough so he could check Gaius. He passed out before reaching the shelves, hitting the table on the way down.
He woke to shouting.
Blinking blearily, Merlin eased himself into a somewhat upright position and glanced around the room. Gaius was still out cold, Arthur was pounding on the door and yelling, "If you're in there, Merlin, you bloody well better open this door, or I'll put you in the stocks for a month!"
Merlin made to stand but his hands landed on something sharp and pointy.
Merlin cried out. He looked down to see splinters impaled in his flesh.
"Bugger to hell!" Arthur yelled, the door rattling in its frame. The door wasn't stronger than Arthur; Merlin didn't understand why it hadn't shattered.
That's when he noticed the splinters weren't only in his hands. They were all over the room, alongside all the random herbs, potions and random objects that usually sat on the table.
The table that wasn't there, but that reformed the instant he noticed, drawing the scattered wood chips into a dust storm not unlike the ones that ran across the fields in summer.
Stunned, Merlin rested his throbbing hands palm up on his lap and looked at the door. It flung open, sending Arthur sprawling inelegantly over the threshold. Merlin hadn't even been aware that he was keeping it shut. Then again, he hadn't tried to fix the table either.
"What happened in here?" Arthur demanded, picking himself up off the floor.
Arthur looked at him, then over to Gaius (still asleep), and back to Merlin again. He laughed shortly. It was actually a rather ominous sound. His brows drew together and he stormed over to Merlin, snatching his hand roughly and yanking him up.
Merlin yelped, cradling his hand, bloody if no longer filled with splinters, closer to him.
"What happened?" Arthur demanded again, voice low. He glanced down at Merlin's bleeding hands. His own hands reached out, nearly touched Merlin, then fell back to his sides.
Merlin tried really hard not to whimper, because everything hurt, but some kind of gurgle escaped anyway.
"It can't be that bad," Arthur sneered, casting a look down at Merlin's hands. His lips twitched. "How did you manage that?"
Merlin glared at the table. "I don't know?"
Arthur stared incredulously. He grabbed Merlin's hand in his own and pulled him to the shelves lining the wall. He picked out a cleansing salve, shoved Merlin's hands into the nearest bowl of stale water, and rubbed the tender skin. Merlin bit down on his cheeks and did not whimper. Too loud, at least.
"I'm only going to ask one more time," Arthur said, his voice drifting in and out of Merlin's consciousness. He was a little busy watching Arthur turn the water red with his hands, and not twitching. "Because, really, I'm the Prince, you're supposed to answer me the first time and not third. Now come on, what happened? Guinevere was beside herself, blubbering all over Morgana."
Merlin paled. "Gwen?"
"Yes, she was watching your mother, or something." He paused, squeezed Merlin's hands in a way he supposed was intended to be comforting, but was really just painful. "I'm sorry about your mother, by the way. I liked Hunith, she was a real…person. She…a real…"
"No, my mum's fine. She's better." Except he'd never made it far enough to check on her. He looked at the closed door to his room. Why hadn't she woken from all the noise? Case in point, why wasn't Gaius waking? He couldn't really be that out of it.
What if--what if he was dead?
Merlin jerked his hands away from Arthur and dashed to Gaius' side. The glass jars lining the walls clinked and rattled together. Merlin bent over Gaius' face, and the glass bottles quieted. Gaius' steady breath beat upon Merlin's cheek.
"Is he okay?" Arthur asked, moving to stand next to him.
Merlin hoped so; he shook Gaius' shoulders. "He's just really tired."
"Yes, and what happened that was so very tiring, Merlin?"
"Uh." Merlin offered him a blinding smile. Luckily, Gaius chose that moment to groan and lift a hand to his face. Merlin ignored Arthur in favour of helping Gaius to sit. "Are you all right?"
Gaius nodded slowly, gaze roving around the room. "Sire," he croaked, and Arthur stopped staring.
"I'll get you something to drink," Arthur said, but there was no water in the quarters, aside from the bloody bowl. Merlin and Gaius waited to talk, until Arthur snatched the bucket, casting Merlin a slightly peeved look, and walked out the door.
"What happened?' Gaius asked.
Merlin refrained from rolling his eyes. "I brought us back to Camelot, we slept, and that's about it really," he explained, as he walked towards his room. "Are you all right? You just collapsed back at the Isle."
Gaius said something in return, but Merlin was too busy staring in mounting dread at his bare room to hear anything. "Where's my mum?" he asked blankly, cutting Gaius off.
"Look who I found," Arthur announced, striding back into the room with a dripping bucket of water dangling from his hand.
"Mum," Merlin gasped, and went to her, relief making his knees weak. "Where were you?"
She returned his hug, whispering furiously into his ear, "I was with Gwen, the poor dear. Don't you remember? You and Gaius stumbled in, you blew up the table, and Gwen panicked. You told me it was fine, so I spent the whole morning comforting her."
Merlin blinked at the deluge of information. "Thank you?"
"You need to talk to her," she hissed, placing a kiss on Merlin's cheek, before pulling him back and noticing his hands. "What did you do?"
Merlin grinned sheepishly.
"Yes," Arthur drawled, while giving the water to Gaius. He didn't even grab a cup. "What did you do?
Merlin handed a cup to Gaius, pretending not to notice the small smear of blood he left on it. "I'm clumsy."
"We all know that." Arthur crossed his arms, but no one else said anything. Eventually, Arthur let his arms fall to his side. "You can have the day off," he replied stiffly, casting a look at Merlin's mum. "You stink anyway. Bathe before tending to me tomorrow."
"I'm sorry we can't all have servants to warm and haul bathwater whenever we fancy," Merlin snapped, because apparently he didn't know when to let something go.
His mum gave him that look she always did when she was going to swat the back of his head. Luckily he was across the room--Gaius' looks didn't work half so well as his mum's.
"Forgive my son, he hasn't any manners," his mum said. "You may stay if you'd like, Your Highness."
For some reason, Arthur's face reddened. "Thank you, but I have business to take care of. I hope you're feeling better?"
"Much, thank you."
Merlin tried not to gag at the inane quality of their conversation. He busied himself with helping Gaius scoop water into the cup.
His mother made breakfast. No one had yet mentioned the herbs and potions strewn about the room, and as much as Merlin wished to know Gaius' verdict, he hadn't the heart to bring up even more problems right then.
He couldn't help it, though, when Gaius and his mum sat at the (newly reformed) table, eating porridge Merlin felt too queasy to even attempt consuming.
"Is it sturdy?" he asked, staring at the table. It suspiciously looked like it was shining.
He inclined his head, and they all looked at the table. His mum reached out, grasped the edge, and shook it. "It seems so," she said, taking the same hand and giving his wrist a reassuring shake. He could feel the magic; it sparked on his skin, stinging and bitter cold, which didn't make any sense because it was his own magic. Wasn't it?
"Merlin," Gaius started, his eyebrow rising in that way Merlin so hated to see. "What did you do?"
Merlin resented that. "I didn't do anything!"
His mum and Gaius just looked at him, in that way parents (and not-parents who really kind of were parents) had, which made him feel like he was eight again and had spent the day skiving off chores with Will.
Merlin sighed, reaching out to touch the table for himself. It prickled, so very cold, stronger than the transfer from his mum's hand. "Can't you feel that?" he gasped, retracting his hand and cradling it against his chest.
His mum just shook her head, returning to her breakfast, but casting him concerned glances. "Did you fix it incorrectly?"
Gaius closed his eyes, hands palm-down on the table. "What happened to it?"
Merlin shrugged. "I kind of blew it up last night, but I put in together this morning. By accident. I mean, um, yeah." He touched the wood again, running his finger down the side and under, careful of the rough bumps that had been there before, only weren't anymore. It was just as smooth as the top. It felt a bit like the silk garments Morgana had received the other month from some visiting nobleman who'd hoped to tie her into marriage.
Only, the magic crackled. He could practically hear it. He could definitely feel it, lingering on his fingers and burying itself under his skin, in a way that felt wrong and sinister. He wondered if it was some type of residual from Nimueh.
"Do I have Nimueh's magic?" he blurted, eyes wide. At their questioning looks, he elaborated. "I can't control my magic today. With the table, and I made bottles rattle when Arthur was here."
Gaius nodded thoughtfully. "Your magic might just be acting up because you used so much of it last night. But, yes, that might be a possibility. I'll have to look into it,"--he was already starting to eye his books--"but Nimueh's magic may have passed onto you when you killed her. She was a very powerful sorceress, you know, wielding the power of life and death, and that would be a great surge for you to--"
"You killed who?" Merlin's mum paled. She set her porridge down. "What were you doing last night?"
"And you had to kill someone to do that?"
"She killed Gaius, so I had to stop her and bring him back to life." He had no regrets. Except causing the crushed look on his mum's face.
"How long are you staying?" he asked, because a subject change was desperately needed. He could speak with Gaius later. He was much too exhausted and overwhelmed to deal with his mother’s notions of his lost innocence. He wanted to sleep, and eyed his room. His mum looked well enough to not need it in the next couple of hours.
"I was thinking of leaving in three days." She reached out, smoothed a hand down Merlin's arm. "The house will go to shambles if I leave it. I asked Simmons to keep watch over it, but you remember how easily distracted he gets."
Merlin forced a smile. "Remember when that tree fell on his house?"
Gaius snorted. "I'm glad to know it's not only here he gets into trouble."
The subject change seemed to be working like a charm. Merlin nearly sighed, but started to wonder if it was a charm.
His mum sat back in her seat, still looking at Merlin. "You could come with me, you know. Just for a little while."
"Um." Merlin rubbed the back of his neck; Gaius' and his mum's bowls of porridge rattled on the table. "Well, Arthur. He." He glared at the table.
"Calm down." His mum rubbed her face while Gaius scrutinized him.
His mum pointed towards the bedroom. "Get some sleep. We can't have you exposing your magic just because you're tired."
Gaius brightened at the suggestion. "Maybe after a rest you'll be more in control. I'll research while you sleep."
Merlin nodded and trudged to his room, dragging his feet on the floor. He was asleep before he even reached his bed.
He tried speaking to Gwen the next morning, on the way to Arthur's chamber, because apparently he was needed, when all he wanted to do was sleep and pore over books with Gaius. Besides, all the other servants were still falling over themselves to tend to the "injured Prince who was so brave, holding up so very well."
Gwen bustled past, eyes on him, and it wasn't until she rounded the corner that he registered it. "Gwen!" he gasped, turning and running to the corner, and straight into Arthur.
"You took your sweet time getting here," Arthur said, arms crossed over his chest. Merlin craned his neck. "You really are the worst manservant I’ve ever had."
"Right, I know, I need to talk to Gwen."
Arthur shook his head. Merlin blinked and looked at him.
"No. No you don't. You need to service me."
Gwen round another corner. Merlin looked askance at Arthur.
"With your duties. That you've been neglecting. And you need to get all those bloody servants to leave me alone--they won't believe that I'm fine. Merlin, are you even listening to me? What's so important that you need to shirk your duties and talk to her?"
Merlin glared some more, crossing his own arms. "It'll only take a few minutes." He side-stepped Arthur, only to have Arthur grab his arm, yanking him roughly back.
"I have just as much of a right as Guinevere to know what's going on." His grip tightened, enough that Merlin gasped, but Arthur didn't relent, gaze sharp and pointed.
The air between them crackled, like static, and Arthur yanked his hand back. Merlin licked his lips. "Do you, erm, need help getting undressed?"
Slowly, so slowly Merlin started to fear Arthur had caught onto that tiny display of magic, Arthur nodded. "That would be a start."
Gaius was ninety percent sure Merlin had absorbed some of Nimueh's magic. This alarmed not only Merlin, but his mother, who'd taken to asking Gaius questions such as "Will this change his personality" whenever she thought he wasn't around.
They had come to the conclusion (after hours and hours of staring at plants, and rodent innards) that Merlin didn't possess the power of life and death (which he really thought he deserved if he was to be stuck unable to control his magic).
The other ten percent was Gaius thinking the level of magic Merlin had used to kill Nimueh had scrambled his magic so badly that he lost control of it.
Neither of his theories gave Merlin a solution.
"Gwen!" Merlin called. He eyed Arthur, yelling--or advising, if you asked Arthur--at a knight's sword-holding form, before skittering away, to the edge of the grassy field. "Gwen, hi, um. So."
She just stared at him, clutching a bucket of water against her dress. She pressed her lips together, and Merlin tried to say something. A few long seconds, and she leaned closer, dark hair curling around her eyes and drawing him into their wide-eyed worry. "Did you hear?" She coughed, clearing her throat, and looked away.
"About what?" This wasn't the conversation they needed to have.
"The sorcerer. Butcher. He got caught magiking his shop clean." She looked at him, straight in the eye, and Merlin looked away. "I saw, I, you--"
"I trust you." She nodded a few times, solemn. "I do."
It sounded like she was trying to convince them both. Merlin didn't mention it, he just reached across the distance and rested his hand on top of hers, clutching the water pail, and squeezed. It felt like the right thing to do. "I'm still Merlin," he said, giving her a warm smile.
Her half-smile grew to a whole one. "I know, of course you are, still Merlin. I was just…I'm worried. Um, about you. Being safe, not being evil, I know you're not evil. You're not evil, Morgana even says so, and I know you're not, because you're Merlin, and your mum spoke to me, and…"
"Morgana knows?" He'd suspected as much. "Has she said anything?"
Gwen smiled, sure and warm, and turned her hand palm-up, lacing their fingers and squeezing him back. Somehow, he was sure her reassurance worked better than his had. What with her being a girl and all. "That you're not evil. I know you're not."
Merlin nodded. "Did she say anything else? About the future? Um, did she have any bad dreams recently?"
Gwen tilted her head. Opened her mouth, and Arthur shouted, "Merlin! Stop courting and do your job. The saints know you need all your concentration just to make a bed."
Merlin blushed, his whole face heating. Sometimes he really hated Arthur.
Gwen laughed uneasily, high and breathy. "Don't worry, I know you're not courting me, that's silly. Er, not that your form of courting is silly. I mean, I don't even know how you court, but I'm sure you'd be brilliant at it. Really."
Gwen lowered her head demurely, whispering, "You shouldn't make those faces, most servants would get put in the stocks for that alone."
Merlin just grimaced some more, and turned the grimace on Arthur when he stepped up beside him. "Guinevere," he greeted.
"My lord." She bowed then bustled off, slopping a bit of water on her dress. Merlin didn't try it, he really didn't, but her dress dried instantly. She looked over her shoulder at him, and he smiled sheepishly.
"Merlin," Arthur murmured, right in his face, and Merlin jerked back, trying to put some serious distance between them. Arthur shook his head, taking a step back. "Are you all right?"
Merlin nodded. "Yeah, why wouldn't I be?" He tried for one of his bright smiles that Arthur insisted made him look even dumber than usual, but only succeeded in making Arthur narrow his eyes.
"Your eyes. They looked funny."
"Isn't everything about me funny?"
"If by funny, you mean odd, then yes," Arthur quipped. They walked back to the knights, who'd apparently decided that Merlin's insubordination meant they could stop practicing. Out of the corner of his mouth, Arthur hissed, "Next time I call, you listen. I can't have you acting like…you in front of people. Just look at them."
Merlin smiled. "They've got the right idea."
Then one surreptitiously picked his nose.
"Do they?" Arthur asked, and Merlin stuck his tongue out, earning him a whack in the back of the head. He decided it was worth it.
Except then Arthur started ordering Merlin to do stupid, pointless things. Like fetch all the flying arrows, by himself. Well, until one grazed his back, then Arthur spent the rest of the session yelling at the unfortunate knight to pay attention to where he aimed. Merlin pouted; he couldn't even guide an arrow properly.
"Are you all right?" Arthur asked gruffly, once the knights had cleared.
Arthur narrowed his eyes and reached for Merlin' tunic. "Let me see."
"Um, no." He wrenched away, holding his tunic down. He smiled again; his face was starting to hurt. "I'm fine, really, thanks."
Arthur sighed and stomped off. Merlin followed at a slower pace, slipping his hand up under his shirt to feel that, yes, the graze had healed. They needed to find a solution straight away.
"Have you heard about the sorcerer?"
Merlin groaned. "You too?"
Arthur stopped in the middle of the courtyard, a strange glint to his eyes. "Me too what?"
"Nothing. Gwen told me about it is all." Only Gwen had meant it as a warning and Arthur didn't, because Arthur didn't know. Even though he should have figured it out by now, only proving that he really was dumb. The thought made Merlin chuckle.
"And now you find executing sorcerers amusing?" Arthur crossed his arms; Merlin wanted to shove him.
The laughter died. "No, I--"
"Then you can watch it with me."
"Oh, no, no thank you, I'm good. Lots to do. Still need to clean your chambers--wouldn't you rather have clean chambers?"
They walked past the execution platform, workers sweeping it, the scritch-scratch of the brooms loud. A crowd had already begun to gather.
"We can watch it from my chambers, so you can get started with the cleaning, then take a break from it." Arthur smirked, and Merlin understood that this was supposed to punishment for not keeping Arthur informed of everything he did.
He sulked. All the way through cleaning Arthur's chambers. It didn't help that Arthur sat in his chair, watching.
And then the horn sounded, and Arthur stretched, moving to the window. "Merlin," he commanded, and Merlin trudged over.
"I'd really rather not watch, Sire."
Arthur pressed his lips together, body stiff and eyes on the scene below them. "And why is that?"
"I'm just not into murdering innocents who've done nothing."
"Yes, I've seen you during hunting trips."
Merlin nodded. He wanted to say something about not taking him on the trips anymore, but Uther's voice boomed across the courtyard, up to Arthur's window, yet another testimony that magic would not be tolerated in Camelot, and the poor butcher was corpse-pale--Merlin could see that even from Arthur's chambers--and shaking.
"I don't want to watch." He turned away, but Arthur grabbed his shoulders, yanking him back and pushing bruises into his arms.
"Why? They're just sorcerers."
"Not all sorcerers are bad," Merlin hissed. He writhed under Arthur's grip. He could feel the magic rising in him, panicked and strong, raring to leave the confines of his skin. "Let go."
"Not all sorcerers are Will."
"You can't trust sorcerers. Magic is evil, and you'd do well to remember that--"
Arthur did. But it was too late. The whole castle shook, or Merlin wavered, he wasn't sure. The butcher, under the guards' tight grip, disappeared, flickered and was gone.
He ran all the way to Gaius' quarters, magic flying from him in bursts. It caught some servant in the corridor, but Merlin didn't pause long enough to register who or if they were injured. His whole body ached with tension, tingled with magic, and it just kept rolling off him in waves.
The door slammed shut behind him, and he just let the magic loose. It tumbled out of him, like the night with Nimueh, only he wasn't focusing it. He only wanted it out, wanted it gone. This magic wasn't right, and if it was Nimueh's magic in him, corrupting him, then he needed it gone.
The table blew to pieces again, everything on it flying through the air. A few glass bottles slammed into Merlin, soaking his clothes in medicine, that stupid metal bunny mask whirled right for his face but he caught it just in time, and he quickly burnt the parchment to a crisp before it could cut into his skin.
The magic stopped and everything fell. Merlin turned, half expecting and wholly hoping it would be Gaius, ready to chastise him, or his mum all worried, but Arthur stood in the doorway, his gaze alternating between Merlin and the obliterated table.
Shame he'd killed the table again.
He heard it reassemble behind his back.
Arthur face hardened, but Merlin didn't give him a chance to say - or do - anything. He ran past, shoving the mask and parchment ashes into Arthur's chest.
"Merlin!" Arthur shouted. The door wrenched open behind Merlin before slamming shut in Arthur's face. Merlin shrugged guiltily and ran. He couldn't deal with this. Not now.
"I didn't know you wanted to get rid of me so soon."
Merlin sighed. "I told you, I need to leave Camelot for a bit."
She nudged her horse into a trot. "I didn't even get to exchange goodbyes with Gaius."
Merlin dropped his head to the horse's neck. It whined. Merlin's sentiments exactly. "Look, I--"
"Did something stupid?" She crooked a smile at him. "What was it this time?"
Merlin stared at her, willing her to understand. "Mum."
She winced and snapped her head forward. "You are not going back there. You're staying in Ealdor with me. It was foolish to even send you there. With that ban."
"Mum, I have to go back. I need to get my magic under control."
They rode for a long time, trudging through the undergrowth, and keeping close to the path. Neither spoke, but if she thought her worried glances at him were furtive, she was sorely mistaken. Each one made the heavy lump in his stomach sink further.
"Arthur saw," he finally said, when they stopped at a creek to let the horses drink.
She closed her eyes. "And what did he say?"
Merlin shrugged. "I didn't let him say anything, I ran out. Um, he looked really mad though."
She abandoned her spot against a tree, and pulled him into a hug. "You care about each other. Do you think he'll execute you?"
"I don't know," Merlin mumbled into her shoulder. "Right before he was saying how all sorcerers are evil."
"You have the worst timing." She rubbed his back, the same as she would when he was a child and had a stomach ache. "I don't want you to go back. It's too dangerous."
Merlin snapped his head up, waiting until him mum looked him in the eye to see how serious he was, before he answered. "I have to. I have to give Arthur a chance. I shouldn't have run away."
One of the horses whined, tossing its head, as if in agreement. Merlin gave it a rueful look.
"But it's dangerous. Why do you think you have to go back?"
Merlin looked at the creek, the water rushing past in the steadily darkening evening. "He's my destiny."
"Is that the only reason?"
"Yes. He's a prat."
His mum sighed. "If that's your only reason, your life is not worth the risk."
"I--I have to go back. To explain. He's my destiny." Merlin lowered himself to the ground and plucked a strand of grass from the earth, running it through his fingers. They'd left in too much of a rush to pack bedrolls or food. He thought about building a fire, but felt too lazy. Almost before he finished the thought, wood stripped from the trees and was flung into a pile before him, catching light and flickering. "You don't understand."
Gingerly, she sat down beside him, and stroked his hair. "No, Merlin, I think I do."
He got lost on his return to Camelot. Then his magic, which had elected to answer his every passing whim, burst from him, flattening the undergrowth to form a path. Merlin grudgingly decided that his misfiring magic wasn't all bad.
Then a deer crashed through the trees, colliding with his head and knocking him out.
Because he'd thought about how nice it would be to have deer for lunch.
Morgana awaited him when he returned. She was in the stables in a dark silk dress, Gwen nowhere to be seen. She looked imposing; Merlin feared what she had to say. What she had seen.
"You have to stop it," she said, before he had even dismounted.
"Um, okay?" Had Arthur taken the news worse than Merlin had expected?
Morgana took a deep breath. "It's not right." She glared at him. Her glare was something else. Merlin resolved to never disappoint or anger her again.
He hazarded a tentative, "What happened?"
"The castle's under attack. Stop it." She gave him a significant look. "Do you want me to spell it out? I figured we weren't talking about it. You and Gaius have been very particular about not talking to me about this."
"I, um…" He pointed towards the stable door; Morgana nodded crisply so he gave her a timid smile and ran. Under attack? Naturally this would happen the moment he left Camelot.
It wasn't until he reached the courtyard, panting, that he realized he'd seen no signs of an attack. The peasants and servants mingled in the streets, going about their own business, and it was sunny. Merlin felt it should at least be cloudy for an attack. In fact, he could see Arthur training the knights off in the field.
Maybe Morgana was losing it. All those dreams had to be stressful, Merlin figured. Seeing what others couldn't and being able to do nothing about it without getting your head chopped off would drive anyone starkers.
Except being unable to control your showy magic, and having the Crown Prince know about it kind of topped any problems Morgana had.
He turned to go to Gaius' chambers--maybe he'd have an idea on how to control Merlin's magic, and he was probably worried about them disappearing so suddenly--when he noticed a crowd forming around Arthur and his knights.
They really weren't interesting enough for that. Aside from the boys who keenly observed the mock tourneys or the girls who giggled and swooned over the knights, hardly anyone ever watched them. Merlin crept closer to look, careful to avoid Arthur's eye, in case he decided to have it all out in public.
At least he hadn't been arrested on sight. And Morgana hadn't said anything about him being a wanted man. Merlin was going to take those as good signs.
Still, he couldn't help but remember the promise he'd made to his mum: at the first sign of trouble he was to leave for Ealdor and they'd escape together, make a new life for themselves.
Then he saw something as large as his head glittering in the sun and charging at Arthur, and he decided to forget about the promise.
The thing slowed enough for Merlin to see that it was some kind of metal, and he raised his hand, ready to blow it to smithereens, when Arthur's hoarse voice ground him to a halt.
"Don't you dare!"
Startled, Merlin stared at Arthur, who stared right back at him. "Don't," he said, much quieter, and even though the knights were shouting, swords clanking and swooshing in an attempt to knock their metal assailant into submission, and the crowd was shrieking, Merlin could still hear him.
He dropped his hand to his side. And the metal flew straight for Arthur's head.
The magic burst from him, hissing, and singed the people gathered next to him. A knight swiped his sword over Arthur's head, knocking the metal hunk off track, so that it careened into the forest. A group of yelling knights set off after it.
Merlin wasn't sure if he had made the knight act, or if it had been free will; either way, he looked shocked, staring at his sword, and Arthur's head, which he had apparently come dangerously close to detaching.
Heeding nothing else, Arthur stalked through the crowd, his hand hard and searing hot on Merlin's wrist, pulling him briskly into the castle, through the halls and past a wide-eyed Gwen. Upon reaching Arthur's chambers, he slammed and bolted the door before shoving Merlin against it and hissing, "Where the bloody hell have you been?"
"Um, taking my mum home. Sire?" He tried not to wriggle, really.
Arthur sighed, his eyes still pinned on Merlin, wary and watchful. That hurt more than anything else.
"Make the mask stop."
Merlin gaped. "I was going to, but you yelled at me!"
Arthur narrowed his eyes. "Not in front of everyone, you idiot. Have you no sense of self-preservation?"
"…Wait, so, it's a mask?"
Arthur let go, taking a step back, and giving him a withering look. "Don't play stupid, Merlin, I know you cursed it. It's the very same mask you threw at me before running off like a scared little girl."
"No, no, I didn't curse it. I didn't do anything to it." He tried moving closer to Arthur, but Arthur took another step back, his hand on the hilt of his sword. Merlin's face fell. "I would never hurt you. Arthur, believe me, I use my magic to save you. Or do your chores. Really, like ninety-five percent of the time I'm using it for you. I wouldn't hurt you."
In the ensuing silence Arthur just stared at him, hand still on his sword, before forcing a scoff. "I know. You're hopeless, probably as incompetent a sorcerer as a manservant. If I thought you were trying to kill me, I'd turn you over."
A bright smile took over Merlin's face. "So you won't?" He didn't even mention Arthur's hand still on his sword.
"No, and we'll speak no more of it."
Merlin opened his mouth, because they really couldn't stop talking about it now; there was so much to explain. But Arthur glared at him, face stony, then walked stiffly to the table and sat down. "I could use some mead."
"Right. Okay. Um. I'll go then, yes?" He reached behind him for the latch, slipping out when Arthur just gave him an impatient look.
Morgana and Gwen intercepted him along the way to the kitchens. "Did you stop it?" Morgana asked.
Merlin flushed. "I tried but Arthur stopped me."
"Does he know then?" Gwen asked, her face pinched in worry. "We weren't sure, but he's been acting strangely ever since you left."
Merlin nodded. "He says he's not going to tell."
Gwen sighed, visibly relieved, but Morgana just plunged on ahead, because she probably already knew and could have just told him and spared him a lot of trepidation. "You have to stop the mask, okay? Right now."
"Now?" Merlin cleared his throat. "I need it to be here to stop it."
"Fine, but see to it as soon as possible." She turned then, walked through the nearest door. Gwen offered him a delicate half-shrug before following her lady. Merlin walked the rest of the way to the kitchens, feeling as if he'd missed something, only to return to a tense, silent lunch with Arthur.
The next week had to be one of the most stressful of Merlin's life. The mask kept attacking Arthur and only Arthur, because life liked to torture Merlin like that. It might have been funny watching a metal bunny mask soar through the air, except for the attacking part. Arthur was on the receiving end of a lot of bruises.
Every time Merlin tried to stop it, Arthur shouted at him. Even that one time it attacked Arthur in his chambers. Afterwards Arthur had been suitably abashed, blathering on about habit and Merlin's inability to do anything right.
Also, his magic kept spiking in front of Arthur, and once in front of Uther. Luckily there'd been a full court at the time, so no one knew where it had come from. After that Arthur decided Merlin could spend his days cooped up in Arthur's chambers.
Oh, and Gaius had many solutions on how to bring his magic under control, none of which seemed to be working. His current method of choice was meditating and "becoming one" with the magic (Merlin would really rather not if it was Nimueh's magic he was merging with), but it was kind of hard to meditate in Arthur's room with servants slipping in to carry out various tasks, Arthur constantly bursting in to see if he'd been caught yet and yell at him, and right outside in the courtyard innocent people being beheaded for attacking the Crown Prince. Though none of them had, in fact, attacked him.
And every time he saw Morgana, she gave him an accusing look, like this was entirely his fault. Somehow that was the worst.
Until one night, Arthur returned late, spread his arms out for Merlin to undress him, and announced he and some of the knights were going hunting for the mask in the morning.
"I'm coming with you," Merlin said, pulling Arthur's tunic over his head.
Hair mussed, Arthur replied loftily, "You didn't let me finish. You will be staying here, controlling your magic."
The bed burst into flames. Arthur raised his eyebrows, and Merlin waved his hand at it, returning it to its previously unmade and unmarred state.
"You spend all day in here, you could make the bed," Arthur pointed out.
"Yes, but then I'll mess it up two seconds later. Where do you think I sit?" He shook his head; he would not be deterred. "And I'm coming with you, whether you like it or not."
"Are you?" He pulled away, resisting Merlin's attempts to get at the laces of his trousers. "How? Are you going to make me?"
Merlin snorted. "I never listen to you." He paused, realized what Arthur had meant, and stuttered out, "No, no, no, no. I told you, I won't use magic against you. Don't you believe me?"
Arthur looked away from him, fumbling with the laces himself. "We're going to trap it then melt it. So hopefully it's not enchanted to resist fire."
Merlin clenched his hands into fists at his side, as a steady breeze built in the room. Arthur just kept rambling about their stupid plans, ignoring that fact that his hair was whipping around his face, and clothes trying to blow from his hands. Merlin stormed from the room, ignoring Arthur this time and his commands to get back in the room.
He wouldn't be stopped.
Gaius patiently stirred his potion, some mud-green goopy stuff Merlin would never put in his mouth. It smelled like moss and horse shit. Merlin wouldn't be surprised if those were the ingredients.
"I'm going to destroy the mask," Merlin announced, after he spent too many minutes watching the potion swirl, globs disrupting the easy path. "But I need to figure out who cursed it."
"It's not your business," Gaius mumbled, leaning over and squinting at the open book before him.
Of course it wasn't. Only his stupid destiny was being attacked. "Don't you care? Whoever enchanted the mask is trying to kill Arthur."
"You think I'm not worried about it? The king wants to know why it's my mask that is attacking his son."
Merlin sniffed; he hadn't thought about that. All the more reason to find and turn in the enchanter. "It's an ugly mask."
"Be that as it may, my greatest concern right now is you, Merlin. And you need it, seeing as you refuse to worry about yourself."
"But Arthur's being attacked! By a mask!"
Gaius raised a single eyebrow, finally looking up from his potion. "And Uther is executing everyone who so much as speaks the word magic. Or have you failed to notice in your concern for the Prince? The villagers are frenzied, turning over neighbours they don't like or who have slighted them."
Merlin sobered. "That's nonsensical. They should be sticking together."
"Yes. I don't want you getting involved. You've already got enough to worry about; your lack of control, Arthur knowing about your magic. Any hint of suspicion and Uther will have you on the chopping block quicker than you finish whatever spell it is you're saying."
"I hardly need to say spells anymore," Merlin groused. "They just fall out of me."
"All the more reason for you to stay away. Have you been meditating?"
"Om," Merlin mocked, closing his eyes and breathing deeply.
Gaius scowled. "Hand me the wormwood behind you, would you?"
Sighing, Merlin plucked it from the shelf and sat it next to Gaius' hand. The table still tingled, cold and sharp; he didn't linger, escaping for his room and the magic book under his bed.
Unless there was a sorcerer revealing spell in it, Merlin figured only one option remained.
He really didn't want to.
But Gaius was no help, too concerned about Merlin's lack of magical control, and he was too intimidated to ask Morgana if she'd seen anything. Arthur was now being attacked an average of four times a day and Merlin was never there when it happened due to being stuck in Arthur's chambers. He was desperate.
"I see everything that goes on in the castle."
The dragon's lofty voice floated out to Merlin. It cracked one eye open and gazed steadily at Merlin, who started to wonder if dragons could see in the dark. He wasn't about to ask though, because the question bordered on friendliness and if Merlin had learned one thing from the dragon it was that they were no great friends.
"That's why I came to talk to you." He paused. "Well, if you can make sense this time."
"The pendulum of the mind oscillates between sense and nonsense."
Merlin blinked. "So, not making sense then. Goodbye." He shouldn't have expected any less.
"What is your question, young warlock?"
"Why is the mask attacking Arthur?"
The dragon sighed, and if Merlin had cared to look, he'd probably have seen the great thing rolling its eyes. Which was a bit rich, considering he spent his days under the castle and had no life to speak of. Even if he did see everything.
"You killed the great sorceress Nimueh."
"What? No. Just tell me who enchanted the mask. Okay? A name, none of your cryptic muck." He offered half a smile, because he hated taking orders as much as the dragon probably did. "Please?"
The dragon just laughed.
He followed Arthur and his knights. There were only three of them, so Merlin wondered if Arthur just assumed he'd follow anyway. If he thought otherwise he really was stupid.
Still, Merlin didn't fancy getting yelled at again, so he kept hidden, creeping through the bushes and trees. This lasted half an hour, before one knight, Breunor, mistook him for an animal, or the bunny mask, and shot an arrow at him.
Though how an arrow was supposed to harm a metal mask, Merlin couldn't fathom.
The arrow veered left just in time. Merlin hoped it wasn't an obvious swerve.
"Merlin!" Arthur bellowed, and Merlin slinked out of the bushes. "I thought I told you to stay behind."
The knights tittered in amusement. Merlin just gave him a significant look. He was smart enough to know Arthur wouldn't appreciate the "I did say you couldn't stop me" comment he wanted to give.
But Arthur let out a strangled "Oof!" and fell to his knees, clutching at his head. The mask came back for a second hit, the knights struggled to get their swords out, and one opened up a net. "Go 'way, Mer," Arthur managed, staggering to his feet. His hand came away red.
The same knight that almost speared Merlin swung his sword at the mask, connecting with a resounding clang. The mask strayed off course, right to Merlin, who held up his hands to catch it, because he didn't know what else to do.
It knocked him to the ground, and he hardly got a hand around an ear before it bounced back up. But he'd felt the magic coursing through it. Tingling, stinging and bitter cold. He stared up in horror at it, and it flew off again.
"Arthur!" he gasped, struggling up. "Arthur, it is me!"
"What?" Arthur slashed through the air, missing the mask, and turned his head to glare at Merlin. "This? I told you so!"
He sounded more triumphant than the situation called for.
"I can stop it," he said, even though he'd most likely have been able to stop it even if it wasn't his own doing. Before Arthur could argue again, Merlin flung his hand out, the magic already rolling off him, and yelled the spell.
The mask blew up; as did the net a knight had just managed to throw over it.
Merlin grinned. He felt rejuvenated--that hadn't taken a thing out of him. Not an ounce of strength. In fact, he felt like he could blow up the whole of Camelot, hell, all of Albion, if he so wanted to.
Until Sir Lucan spat "Sorcerer." The other two jumped to attention, all three with their swords pointing at Merlin and awaiting Arthur's edict.
Arthur inhaled and held it for so long Merlin started to wonder if he was alive, when he let it rush out with the command, "Lower your swords."
The knights all stared at him. They probably thought he was enchanted, Merlin realized with a start.
"It's--it's okay," he said, because as much as he wanted his head attached to his body, he'd brought this on himself. Arthur shouldn't suffer because of it.
"Stay out of this, Merlin," Arthur growled. He drew his sword against the nearest knight, who instantly lowered his own blade. "Listen to me: this will not leave the forest. You are not to tell a soul, and if you intend to, speak now."
Merlin swallowed and side-stepped the other two swords still pointed at him. The knights were too busy gaping at Arthur to even notice.
"Arthur," he said, touching Arthur's arm and holding fast when he tried to wrench his arm away. Arthur looked a slight ways away from murder. "Arthur, it's fine."
Arthur whirled on him, the sword almost piercing the knight's neck. He grabbed Merlin's hand and threw it off. "No, it's not fine. Just--don't do anything! Let me deal with this, you only bollocks everything up."
Practically spitting, Arthur rounded on his knights again.
"Sire?" the one hazarded, but didn't follow it up.
"If you tell anyone I will consider you enemies of the crown. And you know what Camelot does to traitors." He stood there, sword straight in front of him, turned against his knights, cutting a very intimidating figure. "And if you think you'll get away with it just because I'm not King, think again. I will be King, and then you'll be dead."
"I think that one pissed himself," Merlin offered, glancing over his shoulder to the three knights trailing after them, their expressions somewhere between offended, chastened, and confused. "You think they'll tell?"
Arthur didn't so much as grace him with a look. Merlin could feel the anger rolling off him. He wisely kept silent the remaining distance to Arthur's chambers.
"That was incredibly stupid of you," Arthur growled the moment Merlin shut the door. "I cannot believe you did that."
That hurt. Merlin frowned. "I'd die for you," he said, because did Arthur seriously still not understand?
"I know!" He flung a hand out, pointing it accusingly at Merlin, like that wasn't what all masters wanted their servants to be willing to do. "I know. But I don't want you to. I--I forbid it!"
Merlin choked on a laugh. Especially since Arthur looked so serious. He pushed away from the bed post and stopped directly in front of Merlin. "You're forbidden to sacrifice yourself for me."
Merlin let a nervous laugh escape his lips. He could feel Arthur's breath ghosting over his face. "I didn't know you cared."
"I shouldn't. You're a sorcerer. You set metal bunny masks on me, you’re the worst, most incapable servant I've ever had the misfortune of meeting--and you've got magic, how does that work?" He looked away, then back, pining Merlin with the intensity of his gaze. Merlin's mouth went dry; he couldn't speak.
"But I do, Merlin. Care. I do."
"Oh." Feeling uncomfortable, Merlin shifted towards the door.
"Where are you going? You're still staying in here until you have your--magic under control."
Merlin gaped. "But that could take weeks, months, I don't even know!"
"Then I guess you're going to become very acquainted with my room," Arthur said amiably. He was taking too much delight in the situation.
"But you should hear what the servants say!" Merlin protested. "Every time they come in I'm in your bed."
A slight flush stole across Arthur's face. "Ah, well, stop laying in my bed, and actually do something then."
Merlin grumbled, "Maybe that's why you want me in your room all the time."
Arthur just hit him.