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Things Behind the Sun, Part IV

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Chapter Four

Merlin


Morgana's voice was usually a gentle, melodic thing, even when she was shouting at Uther. Even when she was commanding an army of the undead. When it woke Merlin up, however, it was a ragged, broken yell.

"You don't! You never did! Why else would you forsake me? Why else would you refuse to acknowledge me? Even if you had I'd be ashamed to be your daughter!"

Something about the words – or perhaps the way they were screamed – spoke of familiarity, as though even this fake version of Morgana was growing tired of Merlin's guilt-ridden dreams. Merlin pulled himself into a sitting position, and was surprised to see Uther facing off against her in the distance: surely Merlin hadn't wronged him as well?

A gust of wind buffeted him, nearly knocking him over. Its strength awoke Merlin to the fact that he was – well, that he was awake: he could think properly; he had control of his muscles; he could feel the heat of whatever strange land he was in. This was no ordinary dream.

If this isn't a proper dream, he thought, and the nymphs have drained Morgana too, then this could be very bad news indeed.

Uther was backed up against the weather-worn side of the boulder upon which Merlin had woken, and Morgana advanced upon him with her filthy hands raised like claws.

"Ah, hello," said Morgana, lowering her hands and extending one to Uther, who'd shrunk into a crouch on the ground. "The traitor awakes. Come, father. Emrys and I have much to discuss."

Merlin blinked, and Morgana loomed above him. He quailed away, but she didn't attack him, choosing instead to smooth her torn skirts and sit opposite him.

"Hurry up, father!" she shouted to the ground. "Torturing warlocks is your speciality, after all!"

"I'll have no part in it!" the king called, "You've grown up so much like your dear old dad that I'm sure you can handle it yourself. Back in the days of the Purge I used to kill six impossible things before breakfast; can you—"

Morgana gave Merlin tight-lipped, apologetic smile, and inclined her head his way.

"Do excuse me," she said, before leaning over the edge of the rock – so far she nearly toppled off – and screaming at Uther. "Get up here, father, or I swear by the gods that the next time I kill you will be the slowest, most painful—"

There was a slow, sickening creak-crunch of splintered bone as Uther appeared, standing directly on top of Merlin's ankle. The pain was intense, but through it Merlin heard Uther say, "Ah, sorry about that," step off his injured leg, and heal it with a wave of his hand.

"I know," said Morgana, reaching over and patting his knee, a sympathetic expression on her face. "This place is full of surprises. Speaking of which, Merlin, you sly dog! When were you going to mention your world-ending magical powers? Or did they simply slip your mind?"

"I—"

"Mordred told me," she said. The too-bright smiles were cracking at the edges, and she looked half-ready to kill him right then and there. "Emrys, hmm? It's got a ring to it, I must admit. And you have quite a life ahead of you, if the prophecies are to be believed. Uther takes the kingdom, I break it, and you remake it. Only it's not all like they said it would be, you know," she continued, tone conversational. "Mordred was supposed to be our child: can you imagine? Gwen was supposed to be a princess, not my servant, and she certainly wasn't supposed to be my friend."

"Morgana, I'm sorry I never told you, but I have to get out of here. It's important. Camelot is in danger, and I'm the only one who—"

"There you go again," said Morgana, baring her teeth. Uther's head snapped from Merlin to Morgana, hands fidgeting in his lap. He looked twitchy, like an animal ready to run. "Is your destiny so important that we can barely carry on a conversation? Honestly, Merlin, you're a guest in my home. Have some manners."

"It was my home first," said Uther, his voice little more than a whisper. Morgana slapped his face and watched him reel backwards.

"And it's my home now," she spat. "Anyway, Merlin – sorry for the interruption – I have a few questions for you, after which you can focus all your attention on returning to your precious Camelot, not that it'll do you any good."

Merlin scrambled away from her.

"I should have talked to you," he said. "My heart said I could stop you, but the prophecies said otherwise. I didn't have faith in you, Morgana, and I didn't trust you. I'm sorry."

Her expression did not change, and she made no move to stop him as he made his way to the edge of the boulder.

"Everything I did, I did for Camelot," he said, "and I need to get back to it. The rains, they were from naiads – nymphs – and they will destroy all five kingdoms unless I do something."

"For Camelot?" Morgana echoed. "Everything you did, you did to protect Camelot – to protect people like Uther and their legacies of death and oppression. Are you proud of that, Merlin?"

Merlin wanted to argue with her. He wanted to point out that Arthur was a good man, and that Merlin had to help him become an even better king. He wanted to remind Morgana of the horrors she'd committed in pursuit of power, and the ones Merlin had helped prevent. There was no time for that, though; he had a kingdom to save.

"I'm proud of who I am," he said, and jumped.

~

When he woke up, Uther was tied to a tree, staring at him with an unreadable look in his eyes. The remnants of his clothes, which were made from dark brown burlap, bunched together in stiff folds around the rope, swamping his skeletal frame. Morgana sat to his right, a shard of stone in her hand.

"Dying means nothing here," she said, "but pain has a place anywhere."

Merlin moistened cracked lips with his tongue, and gestured to Uther.

"Won't he want to join in the fun?"

"Oh, father's become boring over the past few months. He swears he likes a clean death now; after experiencing all the pain he's inflicted on others, multiplied tenfold, I can understand why he's lost his appetite for torture."

Merlin glanced over at Uther, and his eye was once again drawn to the odd way in which his clothes wrinkled under the ropes, as though they weren't soft at all. As he studied him, he noticed the dirty grey patches on Uther's shirt that revealed its original colour.

"You're a monster," he told Morgana, who flinched.

"They've been fair fights," she said, gesturing to her own clothes, which were also cracked with blood. "Half the time, I think he's letting me win. Anyway, that's enough about us. It's time for me to pick your brain."

"Did you ever wonder why you're here?" said Merlin, making no effort to move away. No matter their powers in reality, here they were evenly matched. Here, even Uther had magical powers. "Everyone with a sliver of magic is having it drained, and you're powerful enough to have it affect you significantly. You're in a coma, and so am I, and for some reason we're trapped in Uther Pendragon's mind."

"If you're proud of who you are," said Morgana, ignoring him, "then why have you never revealed yourself to Arthur? If you're so sure he's a better man than Uther, then you have nothing to be afraid of."

"I don't have time for this. I have to get back. There's a ritual I need to complete, and it's a last-ditch attempt to save the five kingdoms from everything the naiads will throw at them. Every second you keep me here is a second closer to the deaths of everyone you used to care about."

Morgana shook her head, Merlin's words seeming to roll off her like water off a dragon's wings.

"Arthur," he said. "Gwen, Mordred, Morgause, Gaius—"

"That old fool," she said, but her fingers had tightened on her skirts.

"Leon, Lancelot—"

"Stop it," said Uther. "Morgana isn't keeping you here. You said it yourself; you're trapped. You may be a powerful wizard, and you may have evaded my notice, but you're still a fool. Is Camelot truly in danger?"

No, thought Merlin, this is all an extremely hilarious jape.

His incredulity must have been clear in his expression, because Uther swallowed and continued:

"And my son? Did you place Arthur under an enchantment?"

"No," said Morgana, answering for him. "Although he hasn't told him of his magic, Merlin trusts the idiot far more than anyone's ever trusted me. Isn't that right, Merlin?"

Again, the answer must have been clear in his eyes, because her mouth twisted bitterly.

"I knew a Hunith, once," said Uther. Of all the bizarre things that had happened that day, Merlin found it hardest to believe that the king was trying to engage him in small talk. "Her husband helped me capture the last dragon. Was that Hunith – the beautiful woman who smiled at my lies – was she the haggard old crone that came to beg for my aid? Are you the son of Balinor?"

With that, Merlin saw red. The ground began to shake and crack beneath them, and the sky, which had been a deep, clear blue mere seconds before, blackened and began to rumble. The last thing he saw before he disappeared was Morgana's grasping hand reaching for his legs.

~

Morgana

Her blood was up; she wanted to kill something, and for real this time, not the pathetic half-homicide that was all this place afforded her. She'd had him, angry and defiant, but captive, and now he was free and she was still trapped. Uther seemed more composed, as he should be; he'd merely been relieved of a predator, rather than robbed of a victim.

"Hunith is perfectly lovely," she said, to irritate him.

Morgana focused on her surroundings, and began to heal the cracks in the landscape. Above her, the clouds blurred into blue. Although this was her prison, she couldn't deny the satisfaction which suffused her; her powers in this world were extremely well-controlled. There, she thought. Everything's back to normal.

And everything was, until Uther cleared his throat and told her that he had to go back home.

"What?"

"I have to go back home," he repeated. "If what Arthur's manservant said was true—"

Nothing Merlin ever said was true.

"—if he's right, then my people are in danger. I don't have magic," he said, as the ropes tying him to the tree dissolved, "not there, anyway. There might be nothing I can do, but I should at least be there."

He wanted to leave? Morgana thought she would have gotten used to feeling betrayed by now, but the shock of it was like a dagger to the chest. Granted, killing him every other day hadn't exactly created the friendliest atmosphere, but he'd seemed to appreciate it.

"You're listening to the sorcerer? To some lying little toad whose family you broke? He hates you and everything you stand for – he's just better at hiding it than I was!"

A crevasse opened up between them, and Morgana found herself teetering on its edge. She couldn't see the bottom of it, and for a second she was reminded of the time Gorlois had taken her into the woods and they'd taken turns dropping coins into the old well.

"How do you know it's not a trap?" she tried. "How do you know I didn't conjure him up to trick you?"

The crevasse widened, dragging Uther further away from her.

"I'm still sorry," he said, as the ground crumpled beneath her feet.

~

Alone again.

It was so long since she had been in weather like this that she shivered involuntarily. Morgana drew her cloaks around her, and stared into the distance for an unforgivable time before she remembered Morgause.

In the dream, or the coma, or whatever she should call it, she had needed neither nourishment nor sleep. Here, she was weak and frail, and Morgause was worse. Her sister had never been as pale as her, but now they both looked positively bloodless. Morgause had been a fighter, and now her skin was stretched tight over her bones, her muscles withered away to nothing.

The water had cut Camelot off from the rest of the world, and it was the only citadel that remained open to peasants and nobles alike. Mercia, for instance, was gone; the king and his closest men were trapped atop the one mountain in their kingdom, hoping the water ran out before their meagre supplies did. As such, Camelot was the naiads' biggest target, and their biggest threat.

Morgana blinked. They'd always told her she had an overactive imagination, and she repeated the lie to herself. Visions meant nothing, anyway; the future could always be changed.

She trailed her fingers down one of Morgause's cheekbones, which was as cold as a blade and nearly as sharp. Morgana could feel her sister's shallow breaths puffing against her palm, and found herself shocked to realise that she was still alive. Perhaps her magic wasn't entirely useless.

They tortured Mordred until his feet were charred and weeping lumps, but still he would not betray the city she'd forsaken. Their first path a dead end, the naiads regrouped, and amassed their powers like they were gathering kindling.

Merlin tried to stop them, but he was too small, too alone, too weak. He perished before he could see Arthur's chest ablaze, and flames stroking the walls of the castle into a white-hot glaze.


Morgana wondered whether the Merlin in Conorgia was real. She wondered whether Mordred had been telling the truth when he spoke to her in the cave, or indeed whether he had been any more than a fevered dream. If Merlin truly were Emrys, why had Morgana never had a vision of him saving the day? For if he were a sorcerer, the sorcerer, then it had to have been him at Ealdor, with the wind, and him who saved Arthur from Sophia, and the Court from Mary Collins' vengeance.

If Merlin had magic, and very powerful magic at that, why would he waste it saving the spawn of a Pendragon? Morgana loved Arthur – had loved Arthur – but when Merlin had first arrived in Camelot Arthur'd been nothing more than an arrogant young man with a birth-right steeped in slaughter. If Arthur had started having dreams which came true, Morgana knew that Merlin would not have let him think he was going mad. He would not have poisoned him.

There was no time for burials, and the stink of the dead formed a foul cloud over Camelot. Merlin's body was laid out atop the tower where it had fallen, despite Arthur's instructions. There was no time for mourning; those that were alive were spending their time tending to the living. Arthur himself lived for longer than anyone thought he would, but eventually he succumbed to his injuries.

The nymphs, though female themselves, underestimated the power of women. Mordred and Gaius had been targeted along with the knights of the Round Table, but Gwen had survived unscathed. Gwen had been many things: blacksmith, handmaiden, spy, princess-in-waiting, fighter, and friend. As she waited out her days, she drew on the years she'd spent holding Morgana's nightmares at bay. As she waited for the naiads to make their final move, Gwen became a queen. She gave what comfort she could and she rallied what people there remained.

She died, too.


Morgana screwed her eyes shut tight until the images disappeared, and when they had she opened them and looked at Morgause.

Innocent people, all of them. Dead.

The nymph from Mordred's ordeal, Caliadne, ran across the water that covered the kingdoms, her oversized mouth a large laughing crater in her face. She came across some corpses and used them like stepping stones.


Morgause, too, would be dead in a matter of days, and Morgana after that.

Merlin said that all he'd done, he'd done for Camelot, but to listen to him one would think they'd had the same end in sight. Even in the years before she'd learned of her powers or her parentage, Morgana had only wanted justice for Camelot's subjects. With a right to rule, she had the opportunity to protect them and to forge a better future. What's more, if there were anything she'd learned from her father it was that a king could conquer and rule. Merlin, meanwhile, had knowingly come to a kingdom that outlawed magic, and had worked for years in the service of the prince and his bigoted king. Merlin had made the choice to come to Camelot, and even if he had changed Arthur for the better he'd made no practical difference.

Law should be the great leveller, but in this world the duty fell to death and time.

Months passed, and the corpses bloated and hardened in the water. The nymphs frolicked and laughed.


Morgana told herself that she needed to go back because she could only save Morgause if the naiads were stopped. If the nymphs were stopped, she reasoned, then the kingdom would merely be vulnerable and shaken, wide open for her rule, but if they weren't then there would be no throne to steal.

In reality, though, she wasn't focused that far ahead. Merlin's words had hit home, and they sat like an anchor in her stomach. If she'd tried to take the kingdom so that she could make a new, better Camelot, one where its people weren't persecuted for their magic, then why would she be content to sit here and wait for everyone to be killed?

~

Leon

Gwen entered the room with a clatter, half-dragging Arthur in with her.

“Where's Geoffrey?” she asked him, eyes wide and more than a little frantic. “You know, for that really urgent thing he was talking about.”

"Guinevere."

"You know, he looked really worried. He said it was very important. Leon?"

Arthur removed his hand from hers, and placed one on her shoulder.

“Guinevere. Gwen. Why would Lord Monmouth come to you and Sir Leon, when he could come directly to me?”

Gwen expression faltered, but she rearranged it quickly.

“Lord Monmouth knows better than to interrupt—”

Arthur, apparently, did not know as well as Lord Monmouth.

“I'm not an idiot, you know,” he said. He walked to the narrow window and stared out at the water, expression inscrutable. “Gaius has enlisted your aid to remove me from the room, so that he can talk to Mordred about using magic to defeat the nymphs.”

Gwen shot Leon a look; he shrugged. This was not in the plan. In the silence, Arthur managed a weak chuckle.

“I'm more perceptive than you think,” he said.

If Sir Leon knew anything about anything, he knew that was his cue.

“Then,” he began, “you'll know that Merl—ow!”

As he fought the urge to hop about on one foot and curse, Gwen glared at him.

“And what do you think about that?” Gwen asked, walking up behind Arthur and nudging him over so that she could look out of the window as well. “Is using magic something you're prepared to allow?”

“I can't see that I have a choice,” said Arthur. “Magic is a weapon, and weapons are dangerous, but they're not evil. I've seen magic used for good before.”

Arthur rubbed a hand across his face, and, not for the first time that week, Sir Leon wondered how much sleep he'd had.

“I've only got a few minutes until Council,” he said, and made to leave. “I should probably – my father—”

“Your father is not going to wake up any time soon,” said Gwen, “and there's something I've been thinking we should talk about for a while.”

Arthur turned on his heel and gave her a look that Leon couldn't define. Whatever his expression, it made Leon want to disappear. Sir Leon had a clear idea of his relationship to Arthur: he was his knight, not his friend, and even a friend shouldn't be hovering in the background whilst Arthur got his heart broken.

“Do we really need to?”

“I'll just, uh,” said Leon, almost diving for the door, but Arthur took a step forward and effectively barred his exit.

Over Arthur's shoulder, Leon could see Gwen's expression soften.

“We're fine?”

“Look, I'd better go,” said Arthur, sighing. “It's a big meeting today. Sir Leon?” he asked, and turned towards him.

Prince Arthur was halfway down the corridor, Leon following at a respectful distance, before Gwen hurtled after them and caught up.

“Wait! Um, do I – that is, Lancelot, I—”

“You don't need my blessing, Gwen,” said Arthur, and his voice was fond.

Leon wasn't quite sure what he'd just witnessed, but he had the feeling that it wasn't any of his business anyway.

~

From the moment he walked into the Council meeting, Arthur changed. The tense line of his shoulders became the commanding posture of a leader. Gone was the man who'd been red around the eyes over Merlin. Gone was the man who didn't know how to defeat their seemingly all-powerful enemy. In his place was a king.

“I wish to hold an amnesty,” he said, sweeping a map of the five kingdoms from the table and crumpling it in his fists. “Your sons – my knights – cannot help us. This is not a traditional war, and I have no use for your stratagems or plots.”

Baron Stoke, who had been poring over the map before it had been torn away, straightened to his full height.

“Now is the perfect time to seize the resources of other kingdoms,” he said. “The other kingdoms are powerless, and if we act now—”

“The other kingdoms are submerged! Are you really so dim, Baron Stoke, as to prioritise territory over lives? One can as soon own a slice of ocean as trap sound in a jar,” said Arthur. Baron Stoke was a gaunt, elderly man who looked as though he had spent time on the rack. Somehow, Prince Arthur succeeded in looking down his nose at him regardless. “I have manservants more intelligent than you,” he said.

Arthur tossed the map into the empty hearth, before turning to the rest of council. Since the Round Table, Arthur made a point of including his knights in council meetings, so that decisions were not made by the prince and Court alone. It also meant that the barons, who had held office since long before Uther had taken the throne, would be outnumbered by knights and nobles who were loyal to Prince Arthur, something Leon only comprehended at that moment.

“As I was saying, I propose an amnesty. My knights and I cannot fight this battle alone. Everyone who has the skills to help others – builders, healers, sorcerers, farmers, smiths – will be instructed to report to the throne room on the morrow.”

“Sorcerers? You are no king,” spat a noble whose name Leon did not know.

“He bloody well is,” said Gwaine. “Who d'you think's been running this place since we won it back from Morgana?”

“I'm making the decisions that I have to,” said Arthur, ignoring the interruption, “and the decisions that I know are right.”

He'd been pacing round the table, but he paused for a second and surveyed the council.

“I said this isn't a traditional war, and I meant it. Wars tend to be fought for thrones, so you noblemen can ride the tide with little worry, so long as you declare your banners for the winning side. Even then, your neck is likely to be spared by whoever conquers your kingdom. We're not fighting insurgents or pretenders; we're fighting naiads. Naiads believe that we are a stain upon the earth, and wish to use the other elements to cleanse us from it. They don't care about the lands you hold or the benefits you could offer them. Your future is as perilous as mine.”

“Well, that was uplifting. What the king is trying to say,” said Gwaine, rising from his seat and clapping Arthur on the back, “is that your talents, such as they are, are not required. We need druids, healers, and artisans, magical or no. We have to fight fire with fire, and we have to make the city believe that the naiads – whatever the hell they are – can be beaten. They can be beaten, right, Arthur?”

“Of course they can,” said Arthur, plastering on something that passed for a smile. “If you all follow my lead.”

“I will,” said Elyan, pushing his seat back and standing.

“And I,” said Lancelot.

The rest of the Round Table knights followed, and a few who had not sworn their allegiance at that table. Sir Bor, Baron Stoke's son, was among them.

“Then it is settled,” said Arthur, “and you are dismissed. I have a speech to make. Elyan, Percy— alert the citadel and have all who are able gather in the courtyard.”

He did not wait for an acknowledgement, and left, his boots echoing on the flagstones. Leon followed him out soon after, unwilling to wait around and hear the grumbles of the noblemen, his father no doubt included.

He soon became just another red cloak in the sea of peasants that had saturated the castle; no matter where Leon went, he always seemed to be moving against the flow. The corridors were messy and smelly, but no one gave him a second glance. Earlier, for instance, when Gwen had been speaking to him and Prince Arthur, none of them had batted an eyelid, let alone tried to listen in, which is more than could be said for the usual occupants of the castle.

Navigating the crowds took no small effort, and it had become almost calming – something to do rather than think. On his way back to Mordred's room, though, Leon was startled by a crash from behind a door. One hand on his sword, he reached for the handle. The castle was cramped and everyone was in close quarters, on low rations; fights were not unheard of.

All that sword-training in the empty rooms might finally be put to some use, he thought, but did not draw his weapon before entering. The room was all-but empty, but nevertheless Leon wished he had something with which to defend himself. Morgana stood, as dirty as the makeshift bedding which covered every surface, and, graceful as a reed, swayed on the spot.

“Sir Leon,” she said, and of all things, he had not expected her to know his name.

He drew his sword.

~

Merlin

When Merlin woke up, it felt as though he hadn't slept for days. His eyelids drifted closed if he stopped putting effort into remaining conscious, and although he was covered in quilts – goosefeather-stuffed, no less, if he was any judge – chills ran from the nape of his neck to the back of his spine.

His eyelids fell shut as he tried to organise his thoughts. Merlin didn't know how he escaped from Uther and Morgana, or why, or if his dream was even real. A sick sense of horror dripped through his mind, like blood from a wound, as he realised he could no longer open his eyes or move.

Perhaps he was dead.

The instant of panic that thought gave him was enough to shock him into waking up properly. Blinking rapidly, he became aware of a low rumble of sound washing over him, and shrank away from it.

“—fast asleep, so obviously that was a dead end. I don't know if we can win, Merlin: in the past the dragons and the, you know, fairies or whatever kept them at bay, but my father put paid to that line of defence. Gaius says that the naiads appear to be far stronger than at any time in the past. Maybe it's because they have a greater power over water than fire or wind, or maybe they have a larger magical reservoir to feed off of, but I … I don't think we're going to make it.”

Arthur sat straight, as a king should, but his hands were shredding a square of red silk into individual threads, and he stared at the wall opposite with unseeing eyes.

“Gwaine was right, though. People need to think we can do it,” he said, “or it'll be anarchy. I'm trying to get things together, and I have a few ideas, but they might be horseshit for all I know. No one's criticised them, but then I am the acting king, and everyone knows that kings execute anyone who dares disagree with them.”

Arthur paused and looked at the mess of fabric in his hands.

“I call you an idiot, but if you are then at least you're an honest one. Damn it, Merlin,” said Arthur, somehow remaining completely oblivious to the fact that Merlin was both awake and listening, “I miss you, and—”

“Uh,” said Merlin, deciding that the potentially amazing blackmail material did not outweigh the sheer embarrassment of hearing Arthur prattle on about how amazing he was, “Hi?”

Arthur nearly fell off his chair, and once he'd steadied himself he sent it screeching backwards along the stone, rising to his feet as it toppled over behind him. It took a supreme effort of will for Merlin to sit up, and even then everything was groggy and distant, as though he were under water.

“Merlin. Merlin, are you okay? Stupid question, of course you're not.”

A warm hand came down upon his shoulder and pulled him forwards. Vaguely, Merlin was aware of pillows being plumped behind him. I could get used to this, Merlin thought.

“Lie down. Sit back, I mean. Here,” said Arthur, eventually realising that in order for Merlin to obey him he was going to have to let go of his shoulder. Merlin fell back onto the pillows and had the air knocked out of his lungs. He felt dizzy and nauseous, and Arthur's face was far too large in his vision as he leaned forwards and said, “I'll fetch Gaius. Stay there.”

Merlin tried to deliver one of the five retorts that sprang to mind upon hearing that instruction, but his body seemed unwilling to obey, and Arthur was running out of the room as though he were being chased by a griffin. Good. Arthur was a distraction, anyway. Merlin dug his nails into his palms – he had to stay awake, no matter what – and tried to work out what had happened.

All limbs were present and correct, and nothing hurt. He was wearing nice nightclothes: palatial, and definitely not his own. The last Merlin could remember was falling asleep under the hounds after attempting to scry for Morgana the night before.

So the nymphs had sucked too much of his power, and he'd ended up gods-knew-where with Morgana and the king; that seemed to be the only explanation available, but if it were true, then why had he woken? Had his rage at the mention of Balinor propelled him from that strange desert land, or had he been plucked from Morgana's clutches by some unseen force?

Gaius arrived, trailing behind Arthur and carrying a basket full of clinking potions. Both of them were out of breath, chests heaving; instead of simply speaking to him Gaius appeared to be attempting to communicate with him through eyebrow movement alone.

“You look terrible,” Gaius said, eventually, and placed his basket on the bed. Peering at its contents, he selected a bottle filled with a particularly swampy-looking substance, and uncorked it carefully. A pungent smell filled the room, and Merlin began to cough.

“Nice to see you too,” he managed, beating his chest.

“He needs food,” Gaius told Arthur, who made to rush off again. Merlin caught his eye, and though he couldn't manage another sentence if he wanted to, Arthur understood him anyway, and smirked.

“Don't get used to it,” said Arthur, “You have a lot of work to do. It's the end of the world, you know, and my chambers are filthy.

He sounded terribly cheery about it, though; Gaius looked Merlin in the eye and smiled.

“There may be hope yet, sire,” he said.

~

“Uther—I was speaking to Uther, and Morgana. We were—”

Gaius's brows furrowed, but he waved a hand to dismiss the revelation.

“We don't have time for that,” he said. “Mordred brought you back, because his power grows enough to elude the naiads – for a short while, at any rate. You're living on borrowed time, Merlin.”

Merlin couldn't imagine Mordred wanting to save him, let alone doing it. Still, he lay on the couch near them, bone-white and trembling. It isn't supposed to happen like this, Merlin thought. Was he supposed to derive some satisfaction from the fact Mordred didn't die killing Arthur? Was he supposed to be grateful that Mordred was sacrificing himself for whatever destiny they might salvage from the floods?

“I'm living on his time,” said Merlin, and Gaius didn't deny it. “He'll die if I don't complete the ritual soon.”

Again, Gaius did not tell him otherwise. His lips were pressed together tightly, and he watched Merlin with solemn eyes.

“How long have I got?”

“We're treading ground no one's ever explored before, Merlin,” said Gaius. He sighed heavily. “I can't tell for sure, but given the rate of his deterioration, I'd say a day or so. Maybe less.”

Merlin looked about him. He'd lain in the bed for so long that he almost couldn't remember what it was like to stand. He felt adrift in a sea of pillows and quilts. Though his strength was returning with every minute he spent awake, he was still weak; there would be no sneaking off to attempt the ritual alone.

In fact, he realised, as Arthur strode in with a platter of food, there was only one thing he could do. It would cost him Arthur, and possibly his head, but Merlin knew that paled in comparison to what the kingdom faced. If Mordred thought Albion was something worth dying for, then Merlin was damn sure that he felt the same.

“Sire,” he said, suddenly giddy and off-balance.

“What is it? You're not going to collapse on me again, are you?”

“He's fine,” said Gaius, nodding at them both and taking his leave.

Merlin had told Morgana that he trusted Arthur, but he'd lied. Every time he'd thought about Arthur discovering his magic, he'd never been able to engineer a mental scenario in which Arthur did not hate him – either for the magic itself, or for hiding it for years.

There was no use preparing a script; time was running out, so Merlin had better do what he'd done on the flood relief mission, and simply jump straight in.

“Mordred healed me,” he said, trying to gauge Arthur's reaction.

“I know.”

“And do you know why?”

If Mordred had already made clear that Merlin was vital in the fight against the druids, then—

“Because I asked him to,” said Arthur, as though it were obvious.

“You think Mordred is spending all his strength on keeping me alive just because you wanted your manservant back? Arthur, I—”

The words stuck in his throat, and in the silence that followed Arthur looked from Mordred to Merlin with a frown.

“Oh, don't look so stricken. Mordred isn't still healing you, you idiot. You were ill, he healed you, and then he fell into a long sleep again—because he's ill too.”

“Um,” said Merlin. “Actually, Arthur – and this is going to sound ridiculous, so don't laugh or, you know, execute me, but—”

Arthur placed the platter on Merlin's lap.

“Eat something,” he said, “and I'll continue to humour you.”

Merlin wanted to laugh. He'd miss this. He wasn't a complete fool; Merlin doubted that Arthur would truly order him executed, but a life in exile was one to which Merlin was not looking forward.

“What is it?” Arthur asked, his tone impatient. Merlin had clearly gone too long without responding or eating something. “Merlin, Are you all right?”

Merlin could not explain or offer excuses for who he was or why he'd hidden. Wordless, he raised a fist, palm-upwards, and slowly began to uncurl his fingers. Arthur's face still registered nothing but confusion, and Merlin watched it with a sick sort of fascination, waiting for the moment that bemusement would turn to shock.

“Merlin's our only hope!” cried Morgana, throwing open the door and brandishing a sword.

Well, that would do it, Merlin supposed.

~

Mordred

Mordred had worried that, when he surrendered his power to Merlin, he'd end up trapped at the whim of the naiads. He was glad to find that his body was unharmed.

In fact, he was hardly dreaming at all. Mordred could feel his limbs resting on the couch, but he could not move them. Heavy with more than mere sleep, they sat immobile like boulders; it was almost as though they were not a part of him. All he was was his power, and that was deserting him in waves.

His vision, he thought, was black and empty, but as he concentrated he realised that was not the case. In fact, his sight spanned a greater horizon than it ever had before. Magical signatures were sprinkled like stars upon his mind: Mordred recognised the familiar silver pinpricks of the brownies, and the more unsettling ribbons of blue light that represented the sidhe. As the water had risen, and Camelot's lake had burst its bounds and mingled with rivers and ponds to form a new sea, the sidhe had spread like a fungus, and now they permeated Mordred's consciousness.

The longer he looked, the clearer the imprints became. Mordred half-believed he was staring at the whole of Camelot, if not the five kingdoms themselves: nebulas of people, most possessed of no magic bar the drop that gave them life, were sparse blue-gold sparks in the blackness, with the occasional tongue of purple or white for a half-decent witch or a mere hedge-wizard. Eventually, he came to see the emptiness as solid: there were the mountains to the north, and there was the peak in which Morgana had tended to her sister. Both their signatures had been erased, and in the midst of such massive loss of life, Mordred still managed to feel a pang for their fate.

As he reeled his consciousness back in, though, focusing on the vibrance of Camelot itself – which as a bonfire to the other humans' candles must surely stick in the craw of the nymphs – he noticed Morgana's familiar imprint, a snarled mess of different-coloured threads, practically on top of the warm gold blossom that was Merlin's.

Was all lost, then? Was his choice for nothing?

If he concentrated, Mordred could hear crashes and shouts, but the very effort sent pain shattering through him, so he stopped trying. If he got too nosy, he would perish, and then his decision most certainly would be worthless.

Mordred rested, and let his mind wander.

~

Kilgarrah, the Great Dragon, the last dragon, flew above all of them. He soared above the sinister turquoise of the nymphs, untouchable. Kilgarrah was a red and gold explosion that should have looked painful and ugly, but didn't. The dragon veered from place to place, and though Mordred had no sense of time like this he'd guess that Kilgarrah had been flying for hours, searching for a place to land.

As he watched, Mordred realised that although the dragon was almost wholly made of magic, he was not, as Mordred had assumed, invincible. The dragon's signature had faded since Mordred had noticed it, and the pulses of the nymphs' had only grown stronger. If Kilgarrah didn't find land soon, he would die.

Mordred didn't see it as a good deed; it was just something he had to do, given the massive destruction the nymphs had already wrought. He was fed up of death. He reached out, communicating in the same way as he had talked to Morgana, and Merlin before her, and pointed it towards the mountains in Escetia.

Help us, Kilgarrah, he tried, but the dragon was already winging its way towards sleep and rest, and did not respond.



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