Pairing: Gwaine/Merlin, Merlin/Arthur (friendship... mostly)
Word Count: 7,969
Warnings/Spoilers: Spoilers for all of season 3. Death, blood, gore, references to torture.
Disclaimer: Not mine.
Archive: Archive of our Own
Summary: "To see Merlin standing there, his blue cloak in tatters and his eyes shining golden made Arthur's heart stop in fear for the man. Felt his stomach twist at what Merlin was doing in the name of Camelot. What he was doing in the name of duty."
Note: Thank you so much to kyoudai_koibito for knocking out my html kinks. I owe you one. :)
Blood and Bloom
The rain that fell to the battlefield of Celidon pounded the earth, creating pools of mud and rivers of blood from the slain. The eyes of a dead warrior, clad in the emerald tunic of the Fey, were dead and glazed, staring sightlessly at the iron grey sky above his corpse. A knight of Camelot, his crimson cloak sodden with blood and filth, dragged his wounded body toward his sword, only to be run through with a dagger wielded by a man, clutching his neck where an arrow protruded from it.
The sounds of battle merged with the hammering rain. It was disharmony born of thunder and desperate cries of the dying. Of swords clashing, of spell casting, and the agony of murder and death.
The sounds of Excalibur, that singular weapon, resonated throughout the field. Its blade sung like a chiming bell, its enchanted metal slicing through the rain and the gore to strike deadly and true. Its king moved like a man possessed, his blond beard stained red, his cloak half ripped from his shoulders, the links of his hauberk dented and some missing altogether. He tore down those men that dared to attack him. Sliced through their bodies like they were mist.
To his right, Lancelot, a deep gash slicing his face from the top of his brow to the corner of his lip. He thrust his dagger into the leg of a charging enemy, using the sword in his other hand to behead him.
To his left, Gwaine, blood flowing freely from his nose as he deflected a ball of green fire with his red shield, emblazoned with the golden pentangle. The fire flew back into the face of its spellcaster and the man cried out as the flames audibly sizzled his flesh away.
Arthur's chest heaved with exertion, blood dribbling from a split lip, an eye blackening vividly. The enemy kept coming, kept charging, and the king knew his men were as exhausted as he was.
Morgana's army was immense, blanketing the land in those green standards, crying out for their Queen. Their eyes glowed a pale, unearthly viridian, infused with an unnatural magic. A magic born from breaking the laws of nature with no regard for the consequences. Of destroying the life of the land, its very essence, to bring magic to those who should never have wielded it.
The more they fought, it seemed, the less ground they took. They were outnumbered, and Arthur knew it. But he could not fail his men. His kingdom.
Their only hope was standing on a sloping hill, his long black hair whipping around his face in the gales of wind, gasping for breath with arms outstretched in front of him. Arthur watched for a fleeting moment. To see Merlin standing there, his blue cloak in tatters and his eyes shining golden made Arthur's heart stop in fear for the man. Felt his stomach twist at what Merlin was doing in the name of Camelot. What he was doing in the name of duty.
Ribbons of blinding gold light shot from Merlin's palms, tangling with the shock of green light that blasted forth from Morgana le Fay, queen of these warriors, mother of this unnatural magic.
"It's all for you, Merlin," Arthur heard Morgana shout over the electric crackling of their clashing magic, a fierce and terrifying grin on her lips. "If not for you, I would never have realized the power of my magic! The power of using it against you!"
"Magic is meant for good!" Merlin shouted, sounding exhausted, voice hoarse. "It is a part of this earth, Morgana, and you can't expect to escape that!"
Morgana snarled and lunged forward, pushed all the force of the combined magic against Merlin. Merlin, face contorted in pain, sank to his knees, struggling to control the power between them.
"I was good!" she screamed at him. "I was the best of us all! But it was you, Emrys, you who hid behind your lies, your prince, you who showed me what had to be done!"
With a voice too deep to have come from within her body, Morgana chanted something dark and deadly. It made the hair on Arthur's neck stand on end, the magic between the two rippled and exploded. Merlin was thrown across the ground, head colliding with the ground and the craggy rocks of the hill beneath him. He clenched his teeth and stifled a cry.
Arthur began to run toward them. Merlin would not last much longer. But the distance that separated them could have been miles, for all the time it would take to reach him. He sensed Gwaine next to him, running with him and hearing his harsh, gasping breaths, his pounding footfall.
If there was anyone in this world who cared more for Merlin than Arthur, it was Gwaine, the sorcerer's champion. His heart.
Morgana then raised her head high and her eyes began glowing a blinding green. She advanced toward Merlin, a sense of finality in every step she took.
Arthur's heart pounded against his chest and his legs burned, but he felt like he was in a nightmare. He could not cover ground fast enough, and it felt like Merlin was growing farther and farther away. Gwaine grasped his arm, dragging him to try and propel both of them faster.
She sank to the ground, just next to Merlin's head and rested a hand on his forehead. If this had been a decade ago, it would have looked like a comforting gesture, the smooth brushing of hair from the brow of an exhausted friend.
But the tendrils of green magic that snaked around Merlin's body betrayed this, and Morgana's fierce grin deepened.
"I thank you, Merlin," Morgana whispered into the sorcerer's ear, his body convulsing as the tendrils pressed against his body, burning him and searing his flesh. "And I hope this hurts as much as when you failed to kill me."
Clenching Merlin's black hair in her fist she chanted something terrifying toward the skies and his body arched and spasmed in agonizing pain. He clenched his teeth to keep in his cries, but to no avail.
The wizard's bloodcurdling scream spurred Arthur and Gwaine on. They were close now, so close. If they could just reach Morgana and-
But they ran straight into an invisible barrier. Both men were flung to the ground with such force that they turned over the dirt and stones beneath them as they skidded backward. He heard Gwaine whisper, "No," before turning to see his eyes widen in horror.
They could not reach him. Morgana had made sure of that.
"They won't save you today," Morgana whispered, smoothing a hand over Merlin's jaw as the man's body contorted and writhed.
Gwaine found his feet and charged toward the barrier again, shouting and slamming his sword into it. He was thrown back, again and again, until Arthur grabbed him around the shoulders and wrestled him away, his own eyes wide as he watched Merlin dying.
Blood started to seep from Merlin's mouth, the sounds of his agony cut off by the gurgling of blood in his throat.
Morgana wrapped her arms around Merlin's body, a mocking form of comfort, as his legs spasmed wildly. "Hold on to this, Merlin, hold onto these last moments of lucidity."
Arthur fell to the ground when Gwaine sunk to his knees, watching the golden light flickering from Merlin's eyes.
"Hold onto the knowledge that, when you die, I will murder Arthur and place my Mordred on the throne. And I will torture Gwaine until he can't even remember who you are," she breathed into his ear. "And I will rip apart Gwaine's son, little, by little, so you will know, beyond the grave, what it is like to lose your family."
Merlin, his weak and tortured body arching against Morgana's cradling hold, cracked open his eyes, the golden light in them illuminating. Brighter than before.
"No," he choked out, thick blood spilling down his chin, "you won't."
Merlin dug his fingers into the wet earth around them, eyes shining blindingly now. Through his pained gasps and struggling against Morgana's hands, he began to chant.
The world shook.
The ground beneath Arthur and Gwaine shuddered so violently that they fell flat to their stomachs, watching rocks tumble from the hill.
All the men fighting in the field of Celidon crashed to the ground, green and red armies alike. The very sky above them shattered into bursts of gold lightning, slicing down through the rain and piercing the earth.
Morgana's army let out a collective scream of shock as each of them were snuffed out by bolt after bolt of lightning.
Morgana let go of Merlin, letting him drop to the ground as she watched the scene unfold.
"No..." she whispered, green eyes wide. "No."
The world continued to shake as Merlin rolled to his side and grasped Morgana's arm. "This is the magic of nature, Morgana," Merlin coughed out. "It demands recompense for what you've done. For all that you have destroyed. And it will take it."
Morgana felt the cool earth begin to sink in around her feet and she gasped. Wrenching free from Merlin's hold, she tried to stagger away, only to be knocked down by the shaking of the world and a bolt of lightning. The very grass began to surge up and over her body, the water of the storm filling her lungs and blinding her eyes. Mud sucked her limbs into the earth.
It was nothing like anything Arthur had ever seen before. The shaking ground below them consuming his almost sister, his greatest enemy.
She was sinking into the very earth she worked so hard to master. Being eaten by the very force she tried to command.
Merlin placed a hand on her cheek as her body almost disappeared completely and whispered, looking his once friend into her fearful eyes, "I'm sorry."
With that, Morgana's body merged with the earth beneath her.
Arthur tried to struggle to his feet as he saw Merlin collapse to the ground, but a sudden, blinding flash of white light ignited the sky, and he could think no more.
Woodsmoke from the the cook-fires of the camp drifted up into the dusk sky. The grey smoke mingling with the grey clouds, making the world hazy and soft. Throughout the barren plateau of craggy land, small tents were erected, their vivid reds and yellows dulled in the dark light. Knights free of their hauberks and cloaks wandered, some drinking, some singing, others just watching the sky.
Arthur stood by his horse, Hengroen, feeding her an apple after a hard day's travel. It was the third week of their patrol of the border between Camelot and Celidon. The men grew frustrated, the horses exhausted, and Arthur knew he must appear as confident as ever, lest the men lose morale.
This search for Morgana's ever growing army, for her druid princeling, was taking its toll. Celidon was a massive kingdom without a leader, and the longer it took to find her, the longer she had to raise her army and to plan its conquer.
They could not afford to battle Morgana with an entire kingdom at her disposal.
Hengroen huffed against Arthur's palm as she searched for more food, but he only smiled, shaking his head. "No more tonight, Hengroen," he said, petting her mane.
He watched his knights gather around their small fires, eyes ringed with dark circles, but still able to sing their boyish songs. He sighed.
Percival, Elyan, and Leon stood near one fire, talking animatedly white Percival gesticulated wildly. Elyan had to duck to avoid being struck in the chin, laughing.
Lancelot wandered the edge of the camp, looking a thousand miles away as he surveyed the dark brush beyond. Arthur felt his heart constrict and understood exactly how he felt. He ran his fingers over the thin, purple ribbon he wore on his wrist, remembering how it looked in Guinevere's hair. Thought of her brilliant smile and her smooth hands on his jaw.
He thought of the child she bore in her body that he would not see born, if they could not end this campaign soon. Even if it was not his child to welcome.
Arthur closed his eyes and took a steadying breath.
Looking around the camp again, patting Hengroen's neck one more time before leaving, he could not see Merlin or Gwaine. While he knew they were probably fine, he wanted to make sure all his men were accounted for. And, if he were honest with himself, he had not had the chance to speak with Merlin all day and it... frustrated him.
Merlin had seemed lost in thought during most of this campaign. While it was not unusual for his Court Sorcerer to contemplate problems or focus single-mindedly on new spells for days on end, the pure lack of talking disconcerted Arthur. Often, he would see Merlin lagging at the back of their caravan, eyes staring at nothing, brow furrowed in concern.
What did he see? Arthur wondered.
He made his way through the camp, nodding to his men, smiling as he listened to their bawdy singing.
On the edge of the camp stood the Merlin's blue tent, the flap in the doorway swaying gently in the evening breeze. The orange light of a fire within the tent peeked out from the space between the edge of the fabric and the ground. Arthur could make out the shadows of Gwaine and Merlin within.
He approached the tent, ready to pull back the cloth and step into the structure, until he heard the soft conversation happening within. He stopped, listening. Merlin was speaking more than he had heard in days.
"He's fine," he heard Merlin say, softly. There was a rustle of fabric as Merlin removed his cloak, his tunic. A light thump as he sat down on his cot to remove his boots. "Gwen is probably watching him like a hawk and feeding him far too many sweetmeats."
He heard Gwaine chuckle as he sat down next to Merlin, and Arthur could not help but look through the gap in the threshold, watching as Merlin slid a hand up the nape of Gwaine's neck, tangling his fingers in the long hair there.
"Galin is a very independent boy," Merlin whispered against Gwaine's cheek, closing his eyes. "Just like his father."
"And terrifyingly clumsy, like his Merlin," Gwaine said, with a smirk. Merlin chuckled and bumped their shoulders together.
The pair sat there for several easy moments, just watching the other. Meeting eyes, fingers brushing over hands, cheekbones, lips.
This, Arthur realized, this was what he envied, what he wanted more than anything. The easy domesticity that Gwaine and Merlin had found in each other. It was free of jealousy, free of distrust. It was simple and genuine. Reliable. Merlin loved Gwaine's son and, for all intents and purposes, Galin was the sorcerer's own, too.
He wondered if he could ever feel that way about a child who was almost certainly not his own, born from a woman he was not sure he loved.
It was comforting to see Merlin and Gwaine like that, as Merlin placed a gentle kiss to the knight's neck, undid the laces of his tunic. Gwaine had the most contented smile on his face, looking down at Merlin with such fondness, it stole the breath from Arthur's chest.
Gwaine smoothed a hand over Merlin's bare collarbone, coming to rest on the silver chain with the half moon pendant and ring that, at one point, had never left Gwaine's neck. It settled easily into the hollow of Merlin's throat, looking like it had always been there.
"Will you sleep tonight?" he heard Gwaine ask, running his other hand over Merlin's thigh. "You look exhausted."
Merlin huffed out a laugh. "I'm fine, Gwaine." He kissed him, deeply this time.
Arthur stepped away as Merlin leaned over to blow out the candle, knowing that he had intruded into their privacy enough, his face burning a little in embarrassment and... something else. As he began to walk away, he stepped on a twig that cracked loudly in the quiet night.
He heard Merlin ask softly, "What was that?"
"Probably just a pheasant," Gwaine replied, and Merlin let out a snorting laugh, most likely muffled against Gwaine's neck.
Arthur shook his head, knowing that there were some things he would never understand about the knight and his wizard.
The afternoon was dismally grey, the whole world around them washed out and decaying. This land was dying, the foliage of the trees was gone, the grass dead beneath their feet. Celidon, a once proud and beautiful land, was being sucked dry of everything that gave it life.
Arthur stood on a tall hill of rock over looking a long, winding river that flowed sluggishly through the valley. Still no sign of Morgana or her men.
"Damn it," he sighed.
Behind him, he heard a steady footfall ascending the rocks, and he turned to see Gwaine climbing to meet him.
The knight's face was haggard, circles under his eyes from lack of sleep, mouth set in a thin line. It was an unusual look for the normally jovial man.
"Sire," Gwaine said, inclining his head.
Arthur gave a weak smile. "What is it, Gwaine?"
The knight ran a hand through his hair, Arthur noticing the subtle streak of silver that ran through it for the first time. He set his hands on his hips and looked off into the distance, as if searching for the right words.
Arthur waited, patiently, knowing that this could only be about one person.
"Merlin's been having... nightmares," Gwaine said, rubbing his temple. "Not normal ones. They're... I have no idea what exactly they are, but I'm certain that..." He sighed, frustrated. "I shouldn't be telling you this, but I'm certain that they're the work of Morgana. Like she's taunting him about something."
Arthur looked at Gwaine, saw the concern that had slowly found a home in his face, in the circles under his eyes, in the worry lines on his forehead.
"What has he said about them?" Arthur asked.
Gwaine threw his hands up. "That's the problem. He won't tell me a thing. He's being damned stubborn about it. I've never seen him like this, even at the worst of times."
Silence descended between them as they both considered the situation. Arthur knew that they could not make Merlin tell them anything. He was intensely private about anything that caused him pain or discomfort. So much so, that it often took working himself into exhaustion before anyone realized something was wrong.
"I will talk to him," Arthur said at last, after watching a lone hawk circle the valley before them, disappearing off into the distance.
Gwaine bowed his head, gratefully. "Thank you, Sire."
Arthur reached a hand out to grasp Gwaine's shoulder. "Keep an eye on him?"
Gwaine smiled. "Two of them. Even when I sleep."
The knight inclined his head again and left.
He found Merlin wading through a stream, some ways off from the camp. His breeches were rolled up to his knees, tunic discarded and hair pulled back low behind his neck. He bent down to collect handfulls of smooth river rocks, sorting through them until he found what he was looking for, discarding the rest back into the water.
The washed out light of the day made the man seem even paler than usual, the pink scars on his chest from battles that happened years ago stood out starkly.
"Looking for gold, Merlin?" Arthur asked, stepping to the edge of the stream.
Merlin looked up, slightly startled, but relaxed as he recognized his king. "Well, you know, have to find a way to feed myself when you finally realize how worthless I am." He grinned.
Arthur shrugged, sitting down on the rocky bank of the shallow stream. "Oh, I realized that long ago. I just keep you around for levity. Better than a court jester, really."
Merlin laughed at that, slowly making his way back to the shore.
He really did look exhausted, Arthur thought. He was thinner than normal, and his prominent cheekbones were sharp, his blue eyes lacking their usual luster.
"Morgana's men have been here," Merlin said, tossing a handful of rocks onto Arthur's lap.
Arthur picked one up and turned it over in his palm. It shimmered with that same, sickly viridian that the eyes of Morgana's warriors did.
"This magic she's created destroys everything it touches. It changes the land," Merlin says, sitting down heavily, like he was catching his breath. "But they could have been here months ago, for all I know."
Arthur threw the rocks back into the river, one by one. "Are you alright, Merlin?" he asked, getting straight to the point.
Merlin looked to him out of the corner of his eye, but still faced the stream. "Gwaine's spoken to you."
"And it's obvious to everyone how terrible you look. You're beginning to remind me of a scarecrow."
Merlin huffed out a laugh and lowered his head to his hands. "You know that Morgana has the ability to forsee the future, right?"
Arthur nodded, feeling something dark cross his expression.
"I have never had that ability," Merlin said, looking off into the distance. "And I've been thankful for it. The one time I did see the future, it didn't end well."
"Taliesan," Arthur said, recalling the story.
"Yes. Well, Morgana has seen the future and has decided to... share it with me." Merlin closed his eyes. "The visions just fester in my mind like a rotting wound. They aren't even enough to really gather any relevant information from. Just... impressions. Feelings."
Arthur looked at Merlin and wondered what he must have seen to cause such anxiety.
They sat in silence for a long while, and eventually, Merlin stretched out on the bank, watching the clouds in the overcast sky.
"I wonder if Galin will be a knight, someday," Merlin said, not really to Arthur at all. His eyes drift shut, his lack of sleep overpowering him. "It would have been nice to know."
The sounds of the wind brushing over dead grass, through barren tree branches, lulled Merlin to sleep.
Arthur felt something very much like fear curl in his gut.
The quiet of the night was shattered abruptly in the early, inky dark hours of the morning.
Arthur's eyes flew open as he heard the shouts of his knights carrying from the camp outside, the clashing of swords, the explosions of magic slamming into tents and causing them to burst into flame.
The king rolled from his bed with practiced efficiency, grasping Excalibur and running out of his tent, barely noticing the chill of the air.
The camp was illuminated by burning green fires, indicative of Morgana's followers. The sickening stench of burning flesh filled his nostrils and the cries of men permeated the air. He could see a small skirmish near the edge of the forest and charged straight for it.
"Don't let them get away!" he heard Leon shout.
"Keep one of them alive!" Arthur ordered, arriving just in time to knock one sorcerer to the ground before he could blast Elyan in the chest.
It was a small band of Morgana's men, and they clearly realized that they were outnumbered. The wizards began to retreat back into the forest, their green lights glowing off into the distance.
Arthur pressed his blade against the neck of the sorcerer beneath him. What he saw startled him.
Below him, a young man, no older than sixteen, stared at him with wide, unearthly green eyes. His lips twisted in a wretched sneer and his fists clenched together, fire beginning to flicker from them.
Behind him, Arthur felt Merlin's unmistakable presence, his powerful magic crackling in the air.
"Do not try it," he heard Merlin say, low and dangerous. Arthur knew that if he turned his face away from the boy to look at his sorcerer, he would see his eyes blazing gold.
The boy relaxed and scowled, looking away from Arthur.
Percival and Gwaine ran to restrain the boy, using the magic chains Merlin had enchanted himself for just such an event.
"I want him placed in the prisoner's tent," Arthur ordered, standing up and sheathing Excalibur. "Two guards on him at all times. Do not let him out of your sight."
Arthur's men nodded. Gwaine and Percival led the boy off as the other knights began to extinguish fires and reassemble fallen tents.
The air felt heavy around him as Arthur turned to face Merlin. Merlin, face somber and eyes dark, stared at him.
He looked as though he had seen a ghost.
But Arthur was exhilarated by the opportunity presented to them, feeling too victorious to understand Merlin's fear.
Finally, one of Morgana's own, right within their grasp. Someone who knew where she was, where Mordred was. They could corner her, trap her, end this nightmare once and for all. Put an end to the years of anguish and heartache that had followed them ever since Arthur had become king and Morgana had sworn to destroy his reign over the united Albion.
An end and a beginning.
Arthur let out a deep breath and ran a hand through his hair. He began to walk back to the camp, and Merlin fell into step on his right, saying nothing.
"The boy must know something," Arthur said after a moment, watching some of the squires round up horses that had gotten loose. The camp physician tended to the wounded knights, bandaging their burns. "They would not have risked an attack on our camp if they didn't think we were a threat."
"They were probably sizing us up," Merlin interjected, stepping into Arthur's own tent. "They were scouts." He waved his hand, distractedly, and the candles within the tent all flared to life.
"Then Morgana's army must be close," Arthur said, moving to the large wooden table that was strewn with maps of Celidon. "Probably hiding within a valley or caves."
Merlin nodded but his brow furrowed. "She'll have some kind of magical protection surrounding them. That's why it has been so hard to find her. The only way to locate them is to learn what spell she's using to conceal them, to figure out how to counter it."
The two men fell back into silence and Arthur looked at the wrinkled maps below his fingertips. He tapped his fingers before standing up straight, crossing his arms.
There was only one thing to be done.
"You have tried to discover this concealing spell on your own?" he asked Merlin, watching as his sorcerer nodded, looking tired.
"There are too many variables. Her magic is so different from my own at this point that I just can't... I can't guess or make a reasonable assumption about it." Merlin shook his head.
Arthur considered for a moment. He watched as Merlin, this singularly gifted and inherently loyal man, ran his fingers along a river on the map. He had changed so much in the ten years of Arthur's reign. Transformed from a gawky boy with too many secrets to a powerful man, a trusted advisor, a dear friend.
Merlin, who had stood with him on the precipice, overlooking so many battles in the journey to unite all of Albion. Who had never lost the sincerity that Arthur admired. Who could defeat legions of men with a flick of his wrist in a bloody battle, but could care for little Galin so tenderly, so humanly.
Never in his life had Arthur ever known anyone so ethereal and so human.
Taking a deep breath, Arthur steeled himself for what he was about to say. Hoped that Merlin's kind heart could forgive him.
"The only way to find her is to figure out what her enchantment is," Arthur stated, calmly. He picked up a small pewter figure of a knight. He turned it over in his fingers. "And we have just captured one of her own soldiers, who must know... something."
The candles flickered as Merlin looked Arthur straight in the eye. Something uncomfortable flashed in his eyes. "Yes," Merlin agreed, warily.
"But, knowing the fierce loyalty Morgana's followers possess, it is... unlikely that he would volunteer any information without some kind of," Arthur paused, searching for the best words. "Some kind of persuasion."
Merlin's lips thinned into a rigid line, realization dawning in his eyes. "No."
Arthur met Merlin's frigid gaze. "Merlin, it must be done-"
"No," he continued emphatically.
"Merlin," Arthur said, voice even, "I have never asked this of you before-"
"For good reason! You know I will not do it-"
"It is the only way to get the information we need-"
"I will not-"
"This is not a request, Merlin!" Arthur shouted, voice deep and booming.
Merlin stared at him, eyes wide and furious.
Arthur stared back, levelly. He felt his heart constrict in his chest, but betrayed nothing in his face. I'm sorry, he wanted to say.
Merlin glared, anger welling up, fists clenching.
For a moment, Arthur believed Merlin would flat out refuse. Say no and leave the camp, leave Arthur. He was not sure he could bear the loss.
"Fine," Merlin agreed, abruptly.
Before Arthur could say anything, Merlin had swept out of the tent, blue cloak billowing behind him.
It was duty, Arthur thought. For the love of Camelot.
But as he looked out into the dawn breaking beyond his tent, he had never hated his duty more than at that moment.
Merlin circled around the wizard chained up by his wrists in the center of the tent. The light in the tent was low, the only light from the sun, peeking between the seams of the fabric. One ray of light fell diagonally across the boy's face, distorting his sneering lips, his haunting eyes.
There was nothing outright threatening about Merlin's appearance, Arthur noted, standing out of the way, watching. The same simple blue tunic and black boots, silver buckles polished and shining even in this rough terrain. In fact, he just seemed... resigned.
Merlin fingers played with the necklace that rested on his neck, before realizing what he was doing and moved both hands to clasp behind his back. His eyes focused on the floor, where his feet kicked up little puffs of dirt with every step.
"What is your name?" Merlin asked, quietly, without command. Simply a question.
The boy barked out a laugh. "Like it matters to you."
Merlin stopped circling and met the boy's eyes. "It does."
The boy looked at him, calculating momentarily, before responding, "Haelan. My name is Haelan."
Merlin nodded, continuing to walk around the room.
"What price did she make you pay?" Merlin asked, blocking the light from Haelan's face. "What did you have to sacrifice to earn your magic?"
Haelan scoffed. "Wouldn't you like to know?" He spat at Merlin.
Merlin, unaffected, simply watched the boy. "I ask because I know you were not born with magic. None of Morgana's followers were." He leaned in close. "That's why she picked you. Took advantage of you, Haelan."
The boy jerked his head back, scowling at Merlin. "You don't understand, Emrys. My Queen believes that everyone should have magic. Should be powerful. Not just people like you, bastard sorcerer."
"Haelan," Merlin said, sadly, shaking his head. "Magic is a responsibility far greater than anything you can imagine. It's meant to be used for good. It should never be born from pain." Merlin took Haelan's chin in his hands. "What did you sacrifice?"
The boy's eyes narrowed. "My parents," he said with no repentance. "They deserved it."
Arthur could see what the sad look on Merlin's face said. So young, those wide eyes said. So young to be a murderer.
"Haelan," Merlin continued, stepping back, "I can make this very easy for you. If you tell me where Morgana and Mordred are, we will let you go. You can leave this camp and go wherever you please. Anywhere."
Haelan, leaning forward against his chains, moved in close to Merlin's face. "I would rather die." The boy leaned back. "I killed my parents with my own hands to receive the greatest gift in the world." The boy's eyes surged with power for a moment. "Everyone has the right to magic, now, Emrys! Not just a chosen few! We are all as powerful as you now!"
Arthur felt the magic swell in the room and stepped forward to grab Merlin, but there was no need. The force of the magic tried to shove Merlin off his feet, but he simply held up his hand and the force dissipated, like smoke in the air.
The boy threw his head back and laughed. "You think you can intimidate me? I would never betray my Queen, you spineless pet. You're Pendragon's pet sorcerer, bends to his every command and whim. You betray the magic in your blood by serving him, you worthless bastard," the boy shouted, rattling his chains.
"Where is she?" Merlin asked again, voice dropping low.
The boy simply smirked. "I'll never tell you. Besides, you don't have the time. Morgana is moving on and it will be impossible to find her, then."
Merlin stepped even closer. "Where is she?" he asked again, voice barely above a whisper.
"You're running out of time," the boy practically sang. "Running out of time!"
"Arthur, leave us," Merlin said, voice sharp, commanding. "Now."
Arthur, with slight hesitation and a backward glance, exited the tent, leaning close to listen to what unfolded inside.
"Running out of time!" the boy shouted.
He heard Merlin move to stand directly in front of the boy, and the air around them began to thrum with energy.
Suddenly, the world stopped.
The sun in the sky ceased to move, Arthur's heart stilled in his chest, and the trees of the forest ceased to grow. The world, to everyone outside the tent, was nothing but a pretty picture.
"I think you'll find," Merlin whispered, one strong hand wrapping around the boy's delicate neck, "that we have all the time in the world."
Hours passed in seconds, and Merlin stumbled out of the tent barely moments later.
"Merlin-" Arthur began, reaching an arm out to grab him, but the man kept walking, eyes fixed on a single point in the distance. As he walked away briskly, Arthur could see that his hands were drenched with blood.
Eyes wide, Arthur swept into the tent, summoning two guards and the camp physician. He looked around in the dim light for a moment. The boy was no longer hanging from the center of the room. Instead, he was huddled in the corner, curled in on himself, sobbing. His hands hid his face, but he could see one of Haelan's eyes staring at him, possessed by fear.
"Gods..." Arthur whispered, his stomach churning at the sight of the blood soaking the ground, its metallic smell thick in the air.
The guards and the physician hurried in, and Arthur gestured to the boy, running a hand over his face. "Help him."
He stepped out of the tent and ran after Merlin.
He found him, doubled over on his hands and knees at the edge of the forest, retching. The acrid stench of bile was unmistakable, and he saw Merlin's hands clenching the thick layer of dead leaves on the forest floor, as if trying to ground himself.
Gwaine kneeled next to him, rubbing a soothing hand over Merlin's back. "Merlin, Merlin..." Gwaine whispered.
Merlin was shaking violently. He gasped in breaths like he was drowning, and Gwaine could do nothing but make soothing sounds as he turned his glare upon Arthur.
Arthur steeled himself and did what he had to do as king, but not what he wanted to do as Merlin's friend.
"What did he tell you?" he asked, wanting to run himself through with his own sword.
Gwaine shot to his feet, looking for all the world like he wanted to murder Arthur himself, but Merlin grabbed his wrist to still him. He steadied his breathing a little more before standing shakily, bracing himself on Gwaine's shoulder.
"She's in Celidon," he said, voice breaking. "She's in Celidon, the Coit Valley." Merlin swayed and Gwaine wrapped an arm around his waist. "She's using a protection spell fueled by the blood of her followers. The blood I took from the boy will let us in." He squeezes his eyes shut. "She will be leaving in three days time. Mordred is not with her. He doesn't know where he is."
Arthur nodded, his eyes suddenly going soft with concern. "Is he-"
Merlin shook his head. "He won't be a problem. Let him go."
Gwaine began to lead Merlin away, but Merlin stopped and turned back to his king.
His face was set in an expression Arthur had never seen before and would never forget. It was the look of a man decades older than Merlin, like someone who had seen too much for one lifetime.
A man who had seen his own future.
"I will never do this for you again," Merlin said, looking as if some part of him, something deep inside, had died. "This is not what my magic is for."
Arthur lowered his head.
Gwaine led Merlin away, silently. He listened to the shuffling of Merlin's feet against the leafy ground until it faded off into the distance.
If anyone had told Arthur when he had first met Merlin that his manservant would be leading an army of Camelot's finest knights into a battle with a vial of sorcerer's blood dangling from his neck, Arthur would have laughed in their face and thrown them in the dungeon for their sheer stupidity.
But, in the early dawn hours following Merlin's interrogation of Haelan, that is exactly what happened.
A sea of crimson cloaks flooded the barren forest of Celidon, crossed under the dead trees' branches, waded through its rivers. At the forefront, a single figure draped in deep blue, shoulders drawn back and head held high.
Arthur glanced at Merlin's pale, drawn face, but there was no expression there. Nothing to betray the feelings that haunted him.
Gwaine was more transparent. Arthur knew that the man would die for his king, but he would not forgive his abuse of Merlin's power so easily.
Merlin, the strongest of them all. The kindest. The bravest.
For the love of Camelot, Arthur repeated, watching as Gwaine reached over from his own horse to brush his fingers against Merlin's arm, an unreadable expression in his eyes.
For the love of Camelot, he thought, watching as Merlin's face remained stony, but his hand reached out to grasp Gwaine's own.
Or maybe, Arthur thought, staring at the misty valley unfurling before them, where Morgana's army awaited their fate, maybe just for love.
"For Albion," Merlin whispered, looking toward Arthur as he dismounted his horse. He stared at him, long and hard. "It has been an honor, my king," he said, slipping the blood vial from around his neck to pour it over the invisible barrier.
Arthur watched as the view of the world before them flickered and shattered into a million pieces of green glass. As it rained to the ground, he saw Gwaine watching Merlin, watching him like at any moment, the wizard would disappear. Evaporate into nothingness.
The army of Camelot marched onward.
The world faded back into focus after the blinding flash, and Arthur found himself staring up at a clear blue sky. His eyes burned at the brightness of the light, squeezing them shut before trying to sit up.
In the distance, he heard birdsong. The rustle of his men climbing to their feet to survey their surroundings. Arthur opened his eyes to see that, yes, they were still in the battlefield of Celidon, the carcasses of their enemies still bleeding openly onto the green grass, but Morgana's influence of decay and death had disappeared. Celidon had fallen into its natural spring, full of blooming flowers and leafy trees.
Suddenly, Arthur remembered at what price this beauty was bought.
He staggered to his feet and ran toward Merlin's crumpled body. He looked broken in every sense of the world. His clothing hung off his body in shreds, most of it charred around the ripped edges. His face was a mess of cuts and scrapes, his mouth still dripping blood. The scent of it almost overwhelmed Arthur as he knelt down next to him.
Gwaine was already there, pressing his forehead against Merlin's, one hand resting over the other man's heart. There was no beating of his heart, no soft intake of his breath.
"Breathe, Merlin! Dammit, breathe," Gwaine hissed. His face was pale and his eyes were red rimmed. The dirt and gore of battle was caked into his skin and smeared down his face as tears escaped from his eyes. "Merlin."
It did not seem right, Arthur thought, moving to grasp Merlin's hand in his own, as the sounds of Gwaine's voice and the echoes of his men grew far away. It did not seem right that Merlin should die here, on this green hill that was bursting with life. Lush with rebirth.
The magic of the earth was satisfied, it seemed. Morgana and her entire army, sacrificed to restore the balance that she had disrupted so terribly. The only green that glowed now was that of the grass, shining vivid in the sunlight.
He watched, feeling far away from his body, as the blood seeped down from Merlin's body, and into the ground below. The ground that now trapped Morgana's body. The ground that demanded her.
Merlin had seen this all, he knew. Foresaw that the torturing of Haelan was the beginning of the end for him. He knew that he would meet his death on this stretch of land in Celidon, so far from his home. Knew that, when the knights began to move out that morning, he would kiss Gwaine for the last time. He would never see their son again.
Arthur wanted to scream.
He, the least worthy of all, would be allowed to return to that shining city of Camelot. He would greet Guinevere and the child she would bring into this world with open arms. He would continue to draw breath, to exist, to live.
The thought was too much to bear and he doubled over, slamming his fists into the ground.
Then, quite suddenly, something began to happen.
The earth beneath Merlin's fingertips began to tremble, little sprouts of saplings beginning to burst forth. The saplings began to grow and grow at such a furious pace that Arthur and Gwaine found themselves pushed backward, away from Merlin's body.
Gwaine struggled to run back, but the trees had grown so huge, so quickly that by the time he made it to his feet, Merlin's body had been completely enveloped by this thick cluster of towering trees. Their trunks merged, creating an impenetrable wall, their branches soared higher and higher, faster and faster. The leaves burst forth in a beautiful spray of color, like a spark catching on kindling.
The other knights began to gather at the fantastical sight, watched as the trees grew wider and taller, until one massive tree stood proudly in the center of that grassy hill.
The magic of the earth, Arthur understood. It dissolved Morgana into it, destroyed her bit by bit, but Merlin... The magic rewarded him with creation. With the growth of something living.
Life from death.
A moment passed, and Gwaine stepped forward as the other knights watched, awed by the beauty of it all.
This faithful knight, honest and loyal to his core, tentatively pressed his fingers against the soft bark of the tree. He closed his eyes and leaned his forehead against it, shoulders slumping.
"Goodbye, Merlin," Gwaine whispered, fingernails pressing into the bark.
The tree seemed to waver for a moment, in Arthur's vision, as if it were nothing but a mirage. It flickered once, twice, then stopped, completely solid again.
But instead of Gwaine leaning against the bark of the tree, he was embracing a very alive, very physical Merlin.
Arthur's eyes widened and he took an aborted step forward, shocked.
There was not a scratch on him. His clothes were restored, his face free from bruises, his body no longer contorted in pain.
Gwaine, seemingly realizing that something had changed, opened his eyes only to be met with Merlin's own. They stared at each other, dumbly, for a moment before Merlin gave that infuriatingly shy half smile of his. Gwaine sobbed out a laugh and kissed him, both hands grasping his face.
The knights began to cheer and shout for the victory of Camelot. Arthur began to smile, the sounds of his men's celebration, and the sight of Gwaine and Merlin restored to each other made his chest swell. His hands shook and his legs felt like they might give out at any moment.
"It's lucky you came back," Gwaine said into Merlin's temple, arms still wrapped tightly around him. "Galin would have killed you himself if you'd died before his birthday." Merlin gave a gasping, hysterical kind of laugh.
His eyes turned to see Arthur, who was walking toward them purposefully.
"Arthur-" Merlin began, gently extricating himself from Gwaine's arms, only to be swallowed up by Arthur's own. "Arthur, what-"
"Shut up, you idiot and just let me hold you," he whispered into the other man's dark hair, fighting back a surge of emotion.
"Prat," Merlin replied, fondly, burying his face into Arthur's neck.
They stayed like that for a long while, only separating when Merlin reached to hold on to Gwaine's hand.
"I don't know what happened," Merlin began, looking up at the massive tree. "One minute I was dying, the next..." He hesitated for a minute, considering his words. "It was like the earth was telling me I wasn't finished." He shook his head. "I had seen it all happen. I knew I was going to die. I just didn't realize..." Merlin chuckled a little. "I guess it's just destiny again."
The trio lingered there a moment longer, before turning to assess their losses, looking to see how many of Camelot's men lay dead across the field of Celidon.
"Arthur, Mordred is still out there," Merlin said, somberly as Gwaine left to help his fellow knights. "I'm sorry I couldn't find him. I'm not even sure if Morgana's death is permanent, let alone-"
Arthur turned briskly, grasping his sorcerer by the shoulders. "Merlin, stop." He stared directly into Merlin's eyes, face deadly serious. "I don't care. You've done enough in the name of Camelot." He closed his eyes, pained. "More than I should ever have asked from you."
He felt Merlin's warm, living hand rest upon his cheek and he opened his eyes. Merlin looked back at him, eyes soft. "I will not be a torturer, Arthur. But I promise you, we will find Mordred."
Arthur watched him for a moment, reveling in the feel of Merlin's presence so close to his own. He moved his hands to cup Merlin's jaw, and leaned his head forward to kiss his temple.
"Yes," Arthur murmured against him, "we will."
Beyond that hill, the knights of Camelot began to gather the bodies, building great pyres on which to burn them. Discarded swords and shields littered the battlefield, shining bright in the sunlight. The great tree on the hill towered above it all.