[Fic] Post hoc, ergo propter hoc (‘After this, therefore because of this.’) - derryere
Pairing(s)/Character(s): Merlin/Arthur, Arthur/OFC, Arthur/OMC, Gaius, Uther, Morgana, Gwen, Geoffrey of Monmouth
Warnings: Underage porn that meets the age requirements in the UK. Action, violence, temporary character death.
Spoilers: Blink-and-you’ll-miss-it-spoiler for 2x08, general spoilers for season two.
Word Count: 95,000 (wait, you mean this WASN’T the sign up to do a Big Bang fic!?)
Summary: History books would not remember Gaius’ death precipitating the greatest war Albion had ever seen. That blame lay entirely with an inexperienced sorcerer and the Prince whom he’d betrayed a hundred times over. Future!fic with a time travel twist. Inspired and loosely based on The Sword in the Stone.
Author's Note: If the length of this fic represents how much I love you derryere, then I must be in the running as your #1 stalker :D Thank you mods for putting together this wonderful project, and for your patience with my psychomaniac writing habits. And last but not least, my firstborn goes to J for being an awesome beta and a supportive ear, for actually finding some redeeming nuggets of plot among all of my ramblings, and for not killing me when I did a complete 180 on this whole assignment. You’re a better person than I am, that’s for sure. Wikipedia was my VERY good friend during the writing of this story, along with Nyxie’s guide to Old English, plus all the awesome vid-makers out there that gave me something to watch when I needed inspiration. Did I also mention this is my first Merlin fic? WHAT A WAY TO BREAK GROUND.
Disclaimer: This is a work of fanfiction – none of this ever happened. No copyright infringement is intended. No profit is made from this work. Please observe your local laws with regards to the age-limit and content of this work.
The great hall of the abandoned church was perpetually damp and susceptible to the northern winds that were coming through with a fiercer arctic chill the closer it drew to the end of the season. Great pieces of the roof were missing (wonderful for viewing the stars at night, less so while it was raining), sections of the walls were crumbling from time and weather, and Merlin often had difficulty keeping candles alight in the vast room even with the use of magic. A raised dais had been erected in the center of the main chamber, and Merlin well remembered how difficult it had been to levitate the slab of granite through one of the holes in the western wall, which was no doubt to blame for why it was larger now than it had been before he’d begun redecorating. Upon the stone platform he’d erected a crude but sturdy stone archway big enough for a man to pass through; yet another feat only magic had made possible (how the Romans had built them by hand, Merlin couldn’t fathom to guess), and over the past ten months the plain columns had acquired a twisting design of runic markings, some carved and some painted on the unblemished stone.
It was a bit of a crowning achievement for Merlin, who up until a few years ago hadn’t seen a single rune in his life, let alone known of spells that could be spoken as well as written to give them power. How greatly the wizards of old, in their dusty tomes and the ancient spellbooks he’d studied extensively, had underestimated the determination of a man in Merlin’s position. How soon the impossible had become something that could be experimented with, manipulated, checked and verified and repeated and adapted to progressively more complicated trials (and there was Gaius’ influence upon his work), until it had occurred to Merlin quite suddenly one night that he’d somehow surpassed his predecessors in both ability and ingenuity, and he was not yet twenty-four winters this year.
The preparations for his final spell were nearly complete, and Merlin was having a fit of the nerves. Of course he’d checked and rechecked everything thrice over already, thrown a few more things through the arch just to reassure himself that he wouldn’t come out deformed and possibly dead on the other side, which had included one very indignant owl that hadn’t taken kindly to being awoken so early in the day. But working obsessively over the past year with as few interruptions as possible seemed to have paid off, and Archimedes only hooted stiffly at him when he’d reappeared on the other side, flying off to sleep on one of the rafters of the great hall. Merlin had barred himself from the hall afterwards, deciding to spontaneously clean the chambers he’d claimed after taking refuge in the abandoned church (by hand, no less!), transport every spare scrap of food he’d had left to some poor farmer’s cottage near Camelot’s borders (with magic, that time), and go over his limited wardrobe with the kind of critical eye he’d not had reason to employ for several years, when appearances had been an important part of everyday life while living at court.
During his search he’d found a dark smear of dried blood at the hem of his only set of robes, one of his shirts had been attacked by a rat and was sporting holes along the neck and under the arms, and his favorite pair of trousers had split the seam along the inner thigh. Merlin was beginning to regret his careless attitude toward things like having proper fitting clothes or trimming his hair more than once every six months, especially when appearances would be everything from this point on, down to the last intact thread on his tunic and the gray hairs he planned to glamour at his temple. Of course all were easy fixes, simple spells that didn’t even need words for him to wave his hand and return the clothing to their normal state. His boots were old but still fit well, and he’d replaced the heel not half a year earlier. His neckerchiefs were long gone, absent in favor of the high collared robe he’d been gifted by the druids, a symbol of their good-will toward the sorcerer, and it had survived all of the fighting remarkably intact. Merlin knew that there could be no fault, no detail unchecked, and certainly no stains soaked into the hem of his clothing; blood, dirt or otherwise.
The blood was not new, and for a brief time that morning it had rested uneasily on Merlin’s mind that it had taken him so long to take notice of it. He’d been wrapped up in his research to the point of ignoring the outside world and the kind of personal hygiene that he’d grown used to taking for granted (but had still been an adopted habit, one that years spent in the service of a fastidious prince had wormed into his daily life) . It had been well over a month since he’d last been in battle against Camelot’s forces, a full turn of the moon he’d been carrying around the blood of some fallen soldier like a badge of war. It said much for his current state of mind that he was only grateful that he’d caught it before his journey, when a year ago, three years ago, such a thing would have turned him sick at the sight of the reminder of battles gone past.
Merlin had come to the realization a long time ago that out of everyone in this bloody and senseless war he was probably one of the few, if not the only one, to have any hope left. It was easy to sympathize with the despair and the anger felt by those that followed the Old Religion, but equally easy to understand the fear felt by those that marched under the flag of Camelot when did they did not comprehend the invisible forces they were fighting. And maybe that made him able to stand outside of the conflict, even if he was one of the few present on the battlefield every time their forces came to clash – he’d often hoped that it gave him the ability to search for solutions when others were only devising the next way to destroy the enemy.
There was something to be said for what self-imposed isolation did for his concentration, despite what rumors it generated of his eccentricity among his allies. Merlin thought he’d heard them all: that he sacrificed the blood of virgin women on an altar of brocade and black velvet, that he’d gone mad with grief and locked himself away in the church’s deepest basement, that he’d disfigured himself so horribly in a spell gone wrong that he couldn’t bear to face the outside world (never mind that people still saw him, rarely yes, but not to the extent to earn him that kind of gossip), and there were always those who seemed content to defend his isolation, perhaps hoping that in his absence he was devising the next great tool in the war, a terrible weapon or a way to defeat the enemy in one swift blow. In a way the latter were correct, though Merlin was sure that his unconventional solution would not be well accepted, not when so many were entrenched in the routine of battle and beating each other bloody and senseless.
It was pure happenstance that he’d chanced upon the decrepit church almost a year ago, following a lark and an interesting leyline that he’d been curious to find out the source of (it also conveniently took him in the opposite direction of the war council he’d been ordered to attend). He hadn’t minded the lack of a roof in many places or the broken mortar and loose stones that carried the great and real risk of tumbling loose upon his head, and the place held a certain kind of charm, cold and old and lonely as it was. Merlin hadn’t been able to help feeling a deep affinity for the decrepit ruin and its state of collapsed walls and tumbled towers. Until that point, short of making his camp on the Isle of the Blessed (already the site of too many skirmishes, ground so blood-soaked and thick with death that it was a far more appropriate place for the dark magic of necromancy now), the lines that ran under the ruins were the richest Merlin had found for harnessing the magic of the Old Religion. It was the perfect place for a warlock to conduct his research.
Merlin had spent a long time pondering the problem of the conflict, for years after all-out war was declared between Camelot and the supporters of the Old Religion, and in all honesty he’d probably begun even before that as well. Things had been strained for months before he’d fled Camelot, tension escalating between Uther and the sudden resurgence of magic aimed at toppling him off his throne and taking the kingdom with it, and the attacks had increased with a rapidity that implied something more cunning and more organized was at work. At its worst, Merlin felt like a week couldn’t go by without someone or something attempting to cause mischief in Camelot, and those ranged from the kind of annoying spells that might cause the entire court to behave like five year old children, or to violent attempts on both Uther and Arthur’s lives that Merlin had been forced to step in and prevent at the last second with greater and greater risk of exposing his own secret.
It was inevitable, really, that he would be discovered eventually.
The fall out of that event had been horrible, and on reflection Merlin knew that he’d never truly realized just how far the extent of retribution would extend once the truth of his identity became known. He hadn’t run far away, stupidly, not at first, some part of him still hopeful that things would turn out better than Gaius’ dire predictions and warnings, that Uther might be more reasonable in the light of Merlin having saved Arthur’s life yet again, that Arthur would accept Merlin and his magic and the deeds he had done in the prince’s name.
But nothing had turned out all right. Gaius had been arrested and tried for harboring a magic user, for allowing a sorcerer to enter Uther’s court and practice his forbidden art right under the king’s nose. Gaius’ quarters were ransacked, his property confiscated, and upon the same pyre that fell all of the old physician’s worldly possessions, careworn books and carefully collected medicines and precious keepsakes, the man was lashed to a stake and burned in the central courtyard for all of Camelot to witness. Merlin, hiding in the nearby woods and trying to avoid capture, had only risked returning to the city after seeing the column of ominous smoke rising from the castle, drawn by a numb pain in his breastbone that left no room to speculate or fear for the worst. It seemed appropriate that a sudden storm had blanketed the castle and surrounding town that night, releasing a deluge that turned the streets to muddy rivers and washed clear every bit of soot that still stained the flagstone courtyard.
History books would not remember Gaius’ death precipitating the greatest war Albion had ever seen. That blame lay entirely with an inexperienced sorcerer and the Prince whom he’d betrayed a hundred times over. That fateful night, while rain sheeted with ferocious grief against Camelot’s glass windows, Merlin had snuck into Arthur’s chambers, soaking wet and torn from the inside, hoping to find solace with the man he’d come to consider a friend. A man who had looked upon Merlin with such cold hate that Merlin had known, knew immediately then and there that as deeply as he’d loved Arthur and been loyal to him, the exposure of the truth had destroyed them in a way he could not have foreseen. Arthur had changed like a sudden glacial wind, bittered by the betrayal of his trust in Merlin, twisted by the lies Merlin had told with good intentions while unaware of how much they were damning his own cause. And therein lay Merlin’s greatest guilt, that in his blind fumbling and awkward missteps through court life and attempting to save Arthur’s life, that he’d naively thought that Arthur could grow up with Uther as a father and in that castle and with that much malevolent magic around him and not come to hate magic.
Arthur had drawn a sword on him that horrible night, his rage and his pain so clear on his face that Merlin had stood dumbly by, numb with shock, not even flinching as the sword arced through the air. He still bore the scar of that encounter, a long thin line that traveled from his shoulder down his arm, not a killing blow but perhaps only so because Arthur was too blind with fury to aim clearly for Merlin’s head. Merlin hadn’t stuck around to find out, and he’d disappeared as quickly as possible into the night, bleeding and cold and sick with the knowledge that’d lost his purpose, his friends, and nearly everything he cared for in the world.
They were dark memories of a time when Merlin had been naïve enough to dismiss the consequences of his actions, had been ignorant enough to think that he was saving a kingdom from ruin each time he nodded and held his tongue when magic was proclaimed to be manipulative and the root of evil. He’d thought he was saving Arthur by preventing him from killing his father in cold blood, by swearing on his life that Arthur had been wrong to trust magic, to question his father’s beliefs. Whatever tolerance and faint hope of battling prejudice Arthur had fostered on his own, they had been swept away by Merlin’s own actions, stamped down and snuffed out by his silence and the trust he’d abused each time he’d shied away from the truth. And in just two years at Arthur’s side, Merlin had successfully sown the seeds of hate and mistrust that his father had failed to do for all of the twenty years prior.
It was his most bitter regret, and the guilt that had always gnawed away at him little by little had transformed into an all-consuming remorse, a hollow ache that grew ever larger the more he saw the world around him suffer for his actions. With every battle fought, every life lost, every village razed for attempting to protect one of its own, every solider that fell and every suspect child that was ripped from its mother’s skirts, Merlin knew that he had failed in his destiny, and that the cost of that failure was higher than any price he’d been prepared to pay. And perhaps the shame had made him desperate, had given him a reason to look beyond conventional spells or battle tactics, but Merlin had realized somewhere along the way that the fault was his to correct, and that the world would be broken if he did not act to change its fate.
The war that would come to be waged between Camelot and the supporters of the Old Religion had not begun immediately after Merlin’s departure, but Merlin only knew this because it was what he was told by those that watched it unfold. Somehow, despite blood loss and no sense of direction, he’d managed to stumble into one of the Druid camps, half-dead and ill with grief. There he’d spent feverish nights battle his own demons, wishing he had died at Arthur’s hand, sure that death would be more merciful than living with the memory of Gaius’ burning, of Arthur striking him down in cold hate, of knowing that he’d completely messed everything up. Merlin’s depression had made his road to mending that much longer and more difficult, and in retrospect the Druid’s willingness to leave him to his own recovery became clear when he’d realized how completely their attention had been diverted elsewhere.
Merlin doesn’t know exactly when it begun, but sometime between his escape from Camelot and healing from his wound, the armies of Uther Pendragon, led by the Prince Arthur, had begun to mobilize once more, marching on villages and through forest encampments, searching ruthlessly for any signs of magic, of anyone suspicious of having ties to the old ways or harboring sympathies for sorcerers and witches. It was one of the worst kept secrets that the Druids had established scattered camps in the forests of Ascetir, and Merlin only has hazy memories of being transported abruptly and frequently with the rest of the camp as they fled farther into the forest, dodging the persistent hunting parties of soldiers bent on finding their whereabouts.
There had been lots of narrow misses in the beginning, the Druids relying more on their intimate knowledge of the forest and their ability to disappear within it, rather than turning their magic on the soldiers to defend themselves. It had been nearly two decades since Uther’s last purge, and no one seemed to want to believe that this was a repeat of the most terrible period in their history; that another massacre could be happening so soon after hundreds, thousands of lives had already been lost. But the confrontations grew more frequent, more dangerous, and when Merlin was well enough to lend his aid he did what he could, caught up in the same thrall of fear and confusion that kept them on the run and up through restless nights. His instinctual magic was nothing like what the Druids were familiar with, and rather than turning to fight, Merlin employed his abilities to breaking down the camp in a matter of seconds, to creating fog banks that obscured their trail and distracted their pursuers, and locating safe shelters for the refugees as they were chased across the mountainside. He became a pariah, a mysterious power in their midst that earned him respect and maybe even a little fear, looked to for guidance and yet clearly not one of their own. Those who knew he came from Camelot gave him wide berth, and those that didn’t seemed to wonder why he did not use his magic to fight, to decide the battle and end their terror.
Merlin hadn’t asked or wanted to be a leader of any sort, too depressed to do little more than give his magic free reign to help speed their escapes, too shaken by the events that had forced him to leave Camelot in the first place. He’d shied away from any efforts they might have made to beseech his help to a greater degree, and several times had even contemplated abandoning the camp to give their pursuers a more interesting trail to follow without risking the lives of the peaceful druids. It was sorely belated when he finally realized that the trackers that were chasing them were not solely after Merlin, but part of a much larger force that was sweeping across Albion with the intent to purge and destroy.
It happened quite suddenly, the change from being part of a group on the run to being part of an organized army sworn to stand in opposition against King Uther and Prince Arthur’s plans for genocide. They’d been running for weeks when the messenger came, a druid under the cover of darkness covered in tribal tattoos that mapped his loyalty for all to see. He told them of the atrocities being wrought across the kingdom, how the number of dead were rising rapidly, how those who used magic, those who were suspected, and those who only wanted to protect their loved ones were being murdered alike. He told them of a meeting place and of a leader that was urging every camp, every tribe and every magic user to come to his side and aide him in battle.
They’d gone of course, Merlin tagging along more for lack of anywhere else to go. He was magic, as they all were, but the truth was that his loyalties still sat with the man who wanted him dead. Merlin felt more personal guilt for each death than anyone else, but pledging to fight against Arthur, to standing opposite from him on the field of battle, to aiding in plotting the downfall of Camelot and its armies, felt like too much of a betrayal. He couldn’t easily discard thinking of Arthur as a good man, as a prince he’d been happy to stand beside and protect until his death. The hate Uther felt toward magic users seemed not so foreign after all, not right or even anywhere near reasonable either, but understandable after seeing Arthur similarly turned. And Merlin hated to think that he’d been responsible for pushing Arthur over the edge, for transforming a man that would have been a good and just king into a general that zealously marched the armies of Uther Pendragon across Albion in the hopes of wiping out all traces of magic.
It was none other than Mordred calling them together to fight, a young man full of despise for the Pendragon line and with eyes like living ice, standing taller than Merlin remembered him. He was deadly and charismatic, full of enough passion to buoy the hopes of those who had come to him seeking answers and guidance, and his army was growing by the day to a size that would soon be a sizeable presence against Camelot’s forces. Seeing the druid boy was not Merlin’s most memorable moment of the reunion however, because standing alongside him was Morgana, wearing leather and chainmail and armed with a sword, her hair cropped short and her eyes glassed with so much empty hate that Merlin feared to ever know what had transpired between her and Uther once his secret was discovered.
With every group of refugees that joined their camp, with every straggler that had managed to avoid capture, every broken family that had narrowly escaped the burning of their village, Merlin watched the bright future of Camelot crumble before his eyes. He had been drafted into service with Mordred’s army, too powerful to be allowed to roam free, too haunted by his mistakes to walk away from those that needed his protection against a war he’d been responsible for starting. Merlin remembered every battle, could recall how their small incursions against Camelot’s forces turned larger and more deadly, how sticks and spears proved futile weapons against the shields of Camelot’s knights, and how Mordred and his elite guard would throw their power across the field, flinging away bodies like paper caught in the wind. And Merlin remembered when the combined gaze of Uther and Arthur turned upon their army, and how war was well and truly declared between Camelot and the defenders of the Old Religion.
Merlin had never considered himself to be much of a fighter, and he was certainly not trained enough to stand up against an impassable wall of soldiers armed to the teeth in chainmail and deadly looking pikes and maces. With how sick at heart it made him to consider lifting a hand against Arthur and his men, he’d turned his practice to protection rather than violence. His shields protected their poorly armed soldiers from volleys of arrows, his charms turned blades from landing fatal blows, and his cloaking spells allowed their scouts to move easily behind enemy lines. He rarely used his powers to harm, though there had been a few memorable occasions when the situation was dire enough to warrant intervention, and he was aware that those impressive displays of skills had stuck in people’s memories. He was viewed as a strange recluse that avoided fighting in battle, but also ultimately as their strongest warlock, more powerful even than Mordred and his secretly trained sorcerers, probably to the Druid leader’s great annoyance.
Merlin didn’t particularly favor the title or think it rightly deserved, not when he still had trouble locating a fresh pair of socks to wear and had twice already fallen down the well on the south slope of the ruins. His ability to misplace things and sidestep even the most straightforward of linear thoughts had grown worse with time and the further he’d delved into his research, and Merlin had known he was in trouble when even Archimedes had started leaving him dead rodents as a reminder to stop his work and eat. He’d begun resorting to spelling some of his possessions with harmless mimicries of sentience, as it made things much more convenient when his shoes were wiggling impatiently at the foot of his bed in the morning, a cup of hot tea was waiting for him at his workbench, and a freshly nipped quill sat in the ink pot when he’d lost his last one the day before. (He’d had to modify that spell slightly after casting it the first time around, when he’d discovered that it was causing Archimedes to spontaneously molt to keep up his quill supply. The poor tawny owl had not been happy, and Merlin had found regurgitated pellets in his bed for a week.)
It was late afternoon by the time Merlin figured he’d wasted enough time avoiding the inevitable (as though he could really walk away from a year’s worth of research and planning, but the whole prospect was still intimidating), and he gathered up his satchel from his room to enter the great hall one last time. He didn’t have much to take, and in all honesty he was wary about bringing anything more than the clothes on his back, even though the first time he’d gone to Camelot he’d arrived with just that. His tools and workspace had to be abandoned but he refused to part with his quills and books and clean parchments, and his research notes were too dangerous to leave laying about where anyone might find them after he’d left. Merlin had a vain hope that one day, if everything went to plan, he might get to publish his own findings (severely edited of course, it wasn’t exactly something to be used carelessly), and it would be nice to see his name go down in the history books as more than just a dotty sorcerer known for keeping in the company of owls.
When he’d finished collecting everything of value and some things that were more sentimental than anything else, shrinking the larger items that wouldn’t have fit in the shoulder bag otherwise, he surveyed the room one last time. The signs of human habitation in the space were clear, if not slightly unusual, with an assortment of mismatched tables shoved against one of the intact walls of the hall, their surfaces littered with bits of broken crystal, feathers and stone cutting tools, the occasional puddle of melted wax or ink stained on the surface. The stone dais with its empty doorway was the only eye-catching feature in the room, solitary and significant with its twisting helixes of runes along the sides and the arrays of geometric lines Merlin had scratched painstakingly into the granite base. He almost hated to leave it behind, for as much of a headache as it had given him to construct it was still a feat that no magic user before him (to his knowledge) had ever managed to successfully create.
Merlin stepped onto the platform, wiping his sweaty palms against the fabric of his robe, and he chuckled aloud humorlessly at his own anxiety. The sound was lost in the depths of the darkening room, with the early evening light breaking through the open sections of the room to illuminate the floor below, ruddy and sharply orange. A long arched shadow had stretched itself across the floor from the base of the archway in Merlin’s absence, and it too looked as impossibly large as the task he was about to undertake.
Merlin drew out the final component from a pocket in his robe, an angular piece of white quartz he’d had neither the luxury nor expertise to cut into a more polished shape, the biggest crystal he’d been able to find which he’d saved for last. It was fist sized and rested familiarly in his palm, his thumb stroking a thoughtful stripe across the surface as he stared into the cloudy depths.
He was caught off guard by the sting of two sets of claws digging into his right shoulder, and Archimedes hooted reproachfully as Merlin’s head swiveled around to glare at the bird. "You can’t come," he said, and then more softly, "It won’t be safe for you."
Archimedes only dug his talons in deeper, making Merlin wince and nearly drop the crystal. "Alright! Alright. But you’ve never liked this very much, so I don’t see why you’re all keen on going through now."
The owl only seemed to settle more firmly on his perch, brown wing feathers brushing Merlin’s ear, and he couldn’t stop the swell in his chest from the loyalty he didn’t deserve.
"Alright," Merlin repeated, gripping the crystal with purpose. It was maybe the best part of the spell, that in the end no words were required at all to make the portal work (Merlin still hated learning the horrible pronunciation); just a key and the will of the sorcerer, the desire to squeeze as much magic as possible into the stone. The more magic you gave, the farther you traveled.
Merlin could feel the heat in the back of his eyes a moment before the piece of quartz began to glow, and he felt Archimedes shift on his shoulder warily, feathers ruffling against the sudden surge of crackling magic being fed into the crystal. The stone grew brighter, filling with an unnatural blue light that washed through the room and illuminated the walls in unearthly fluorescent tones. The crystal was cool to the touch but growing brighter by the second, until Merlin had to squint against the light or risk going blind from the shine.
His hand was trembling from the sheer force of the magic coursing through and out of his body, and still he pushed. He had to go farther – farther than he’d ever dared to send anything before. He could feel the crystal beginning to strain, as if sensing his determination to squeeze as much raw power inside the tiny space. It seemed to lose its crystalline shape before his eyes, transforming into a blazing star of intense blue light, and with his muscles shaking from the strain, Merlin pushed it out into the space between the two pillars of stone and let go.
The blazing orb hung suspended for a moment before exploding out from the center in a wave that expanded to fill the space under the arch, leaving behind a flat, crackling vortex, arcs of white and blue energy snaking across the runes that were now pulsing shades of green and yellow.
Merlin braced his shoulders, feeling the sheer magnitude of the portal’s power, the hairs on his arms and neck rising at the touches of fleeting energy that licked his face and clothes. Whether a year’s worth of research and preparation proved correct or not, with this final step he would be leaving everything behind; every mistake and every needless death, every regret for his actions and every decision that had caused this world to go so horribly, completely wrong. He was setting out to change history, to defy destiny and change the fate of a nation, and Merlin only hoped that wherever, whenever he ended up, it would be enough to make a difference. He adjusted his satchel, patted Archimedes on the head, and with a loud gulp stepped through the arch.
Merlin emerged breathless on the other side; gasping, skin on fire as if being pierced by countless icy needles. He stumbled forward into a patch of sunlight and shivered as the pain rapidly dissipated, leaving him light headed for a moment, stomach wrenching at the sudden sense of displacement. When he could bear to lift his head and take in his surroundings he saw the great hall looking much as it had a moment ago, but behind him the stone dais and portal were gone, along with his workbenches and any trace of his presence in the vestibule.
Archimedes shook himself off Merlin’s shoulder and took off flying, leaving through one of the wide holes in the roof of the building. "Good idea!" Merlin called after him, and began making his way to one of the missing sections out of the western wall. The squeeze to get outside was a bit tighter than he’d anticipated, but he emerged after a moment, blinking against the warm sunlight. Archimedes was wheeling overhead on a thermal and he watched the owl for a moment before taking in the familiar view of the hilltop ruin.
The panorama was ripe with green hillocks and a few paler fields of grass, the narrow silver stripe of a tributary meandering in the distance before it disappeared behind a dark forest that stretched across several hills and beyond. The sky was cloudy but the air was warm and sticky, rich with the smell of sun baked earth and the sound of birds and insects. A wide smile spread across Merlin’s face and he lifted a hand to shield against the summer sun, Archimedes coasting through the gaps between his fingers. "We made it," he said softly, feeling the gravity of the moment and the knowledge that it had worked. They’d made it to the past.
Merlin set out for Camelot immediately. It was a three day journey from the northern corner of the kingdom where the abandoned church was located, and he was restless with the need to find out how far he’d managed to send himself. A decade had been the best he’d hoped for, but there was the very real chance that he’d somehow mistakenly wound up sending himself back a hundred years, if not more. The ability to specify the when had always been unpredictable with the portal, especially in regards to the past, though his experiments with pushing items through to the future had been consistent with his predictions more often than not. He would come up with a more solid plan of action once he found out exactly when he would be arriving. Or that was the intent, at least. Merlin had tried not to think too hard on the fact that he was embarking with only the notion to ensure that the future played out differently this time around. Using himself as the final experiment and for the attempt to make the furthest jump might not have been the smartest decision, but the chance to make a difference had been worth it.
He entered a modest sized settlement that night, steering clear of the inn and main road and choosing instead to use the cover of darkness to acquire a set of tack from a barn on the edge of town. He gathered a few apples from the local grove, filled his water skin from a rain barrel, and used his magic to coax a chestnut mare to jump the wall of her paddock and follow him a short distance into the woods. Merlin saddled the horse quickly and took off riding at a brisk pace, Archimedes screeching overhead as he flew above the trees.
Merlin stopped to make camp a few miles away from the town, with dawn several hours away and the night air still warm with the memory of the summer sun, the heat such a stark contrast to the weather he had left behind that he still felt disoriented at times from the strangeness of it. He built himself a small fire and ignited the branches with a soft bærne, eating one of his pilfered apples while his calves and the soles of his boots warmed from the heat. Archimedes made his appearance a short time after, silent on the wind and dropping the carcass of a rabbit on the ground next to Merlin’s leg. That night Merlin ate his food in peaceful silence, throwing scraps of cooked meat to the owl, and eventually fell asleep on a bed of moss with grease stains on his lips and fingertips.
In the morning Merlin erased all traces of the fire pit, fed the mare two of the apples he’d gathered, and set off to find the nearest body of running water. He located a ravine with a sluggish moving brook at the bottom about a half-hour’s ride away, and with no other sign of human habitation in sight he gratefully shed his clothes and left them and the horse on the bank. The stream was clear and warm but only waist deep in the middle, and Merlin let the current catch him and carry him downstream while he floated on his back, enjoying the sun on his skin and the caress of the water that washed away the sweat, ash, and a year’s worth of uncertainty and anxiety.
Once he’d paddled his way back upstream and located his things, he redressed and sat down at the stream’s edge to gather his thoughts, twirling a stalk of tufted grass between his fingers. He’d realized early on that whatever plans he hoped to set in motion would have little chance of succeeding if he didn’t have a part to play, and while it would be easy to pass himself off as an unheard of noble, or attempt to integrate himself into the city as a merchant of some sort, he disliked the risk that came with impersonating nobility, and hated the idea of being far away from the royal court where he could do the most good. Obtaining a position as a servant within the castle would be ideal, but Merlin had found himself balking at the thought of voluntary servitude again, especially when he’d been so horrible at it the first go around. And for whatever foolish, sentimental reason, Merlin still thought of himself as loyal to Arthur, and taking upon the duties of another master seemed like an act of personal betrayal.
In the end he’d decided that he needed a trade, and Gaius’ teachings had given him enough background to pass himself off as a physician, or failing that, to seek a scholarly profession that might give him access to Camelot’s libraries or a place within the court. The only problem was that Merlin knew he looked far too young to call himself any sort of academic, and there was always the danger that he might be easily recognized when, or if, his younger counterpart showed up in Camelot. He would need a disguise, and magic had readily offered the solution.
The incantation was somewhat complex (illusion spells often were) and he’d practiced many times with varying degrees of success (once memorably time turning himself into an old man with a long white beard), and this time he spoke the words of the spell carefully, familiar at that point, picturing the desired changes in his mind. He felt the effects immediately, the scruff of his unshaven beard thickening and the hair on his head thinning and shortening, the flesh on his hands toughening and spotting with age just below his knuckles. Merlin rose from the bank with a grunt, surprisingly stiff and feeling a joint or two pop at the movement. At the stream’s edge he stilled the running water with a wave of his hand, producing a clear reflection of his appearance. He’d aged a good twenty years, beard thicker and dark down the column of his throat, the hair at his temple streaked with lines of premature gray, and there were laugh lines around his eyes and mouth where he always got dimples when he smiled. His eyes were still clear and blue and his ears were still as ridiculously large as ever (they’d never changed in size, no matter how many time he’d tried the spell), and on the whole he thought he’d done well. Not too old to be considered decrepit, not too young to be dismissed outright as young and inexperienced.
Merlin remounted the mare and continued toward Camelot at a brisk pace, eventually encountering a road that curved to the southwest which he hoped would bring him closer to the kingdom’s capital. He stopped occasionally to speak to other travelers he met along the way, spinning vague stories about coming from the north and sometimes adopting a poor accent to give his story more credence when the looks he got back were more skeptical than curious. Most were only sure in what direction Camelot lay, but some were able to give him more detailed directions to reaching the city, and fewer still were willing to offer him any information about the current king and the duration of his reign. It was an odd topic to be so taboo, but Merlin learned rather quickly that while the people respected their sovereign, they were also extremely wary of doing more than speaking his name – His Majesty Uther Pendragon – (what a relief it was the first time he heard it) but soon it became more of a nuisance when that was the extent of the knowledge they offered. He eventually discovered that thickening his lazy speech and earnestly denying that he was any sort of secret agent for the king did wonders for people’s willingness to talk, which led to the discovery that Uther Pendragon had been on the throne for eighteen years, and that it had been thirteen years since the ban on sorcery was imposed throughout the kingdom. Give or take a few months, he’d managed to send himself twelve years into the past.
The realization was equally daunting and exciting, because hoping the spell had worked and having confirmation that it was successful were two different things, and the reality of his situation was becoming more clear the closer Merlin came to his goal. He could barely guess what he would find different in Camelot with over a decade between the present and his initial arrival – Gaius would be alive (and that was a joyful thought all on its own), Arthur would be monumentally younger, Uther would no doubt be just as hard and cold toward magic as he had always been, and the great dragon would still be chained up beneath the castle’s foundations. But beyond that, he was a stranger venturing into the city for the first time all over again.
Merlin rode hard while he could and rested the horse often, as it gave Archimedes a chance to catch up with them while the bird was flying. Sometimes the owl would give in and rest on Merlin’s pommel or saddlebag and sleep while the horse cantered on, and Merlin took pity on his friend and made sure to charm his chosen perch to feel none of the jostle and wobble of being on horseback. They passed near and through numerous villages and a few towns, the size of the settlements growing larger the closer they ventured into the heart of the kingdom. It was high noon on the fourth day when they came in sight of the familiar, gleaming white turrets, and Merlin brought the mare to a stop on a rise which offered the best view of the castle and its surrounding city and farmland.
The upwelling of emotion he felt at the sight of the place he had called home for almost two years was unexpected. In the course of his life he had lived in Camelot for much less time than he’d lived out of it, and yet the memories of the city, of the people and Arthur and Gaius and Gwen and Morgana, the vivaciousness of life present on every street and in every building, were some of the brightest in Merlin’s mind. His time as Arthur’s manservant had impacted his life so suddenly, so completely, that it had given him his destiny and his reason for returning for a second chance. Camelot was the center of his world, even when he’d been forced away from it and exiled from its walls; everything he had worked for, even alongside the Druids as their ally, had been toward finding the means to one day return. In his wildest dreams he would never have thought it would be under circumstances quite like these.
The road continued along at a leisurely decline into the valley where Camelot was situated, wide and cut deep with wheel ruts and bordered by slopes of golden grasses and the occasional novelty of a wooden signpost pointing the way to adjacent villages. The thoroughfare took him along the outskirts of a darkened wood that shielded the castle from view once he reached the valley floor, one side bordered by trees and thick brush, the other descending sharply toward a hamlet dotted with buildings and square plots of wheat. Archimedes had decided to move to his shoulder in his quest for a comfortable place to sleep during the day, and Merlin was doing his best to not jar the bird and still smile at anyone passing by that gave him and his unusual companion bewildered second glances. He didn’t think it warranted some of the outright slack-jawed expressions he’d seen, but he did suppose it was a little odd to see an owl in broad daylight.
Still some distance outside of the city, Merlin slowed the horse when an odd sound came from the woods on his left. It was vaguely animalistic and coming closer to his position, though hard to tell if it was a creature in pain or in the middle of searching for a meal. The sound grew louder as it approached, a feral kind of grunting accompanied by the crash of brush and snapping branches. Merlin gripped the reins tighter, wondering if he was about to come face to face with yet another horrible beast come to plague Camelot’s outlying towns, and licked his lips to prepare for a spell. He prayed there would be no one nearby to bear witness as he felt the horse under him begin to back away nervously, the creature now almost upon them.
A moment later a child came tumbling out of the forest, dirty and leaf covered and running at full sprint in the opposite direction from Merlin. Merlin almost laughed aloud in relief and chided the horse for her skittish behavior with a pat on the neck, when a massive boar charged out of the woods on all fours, squealing in rage and with a spear shaft still lodged in its flank. Merlin pulled hard on the horse’s reins as the mare threatened to balk, and with a kick of his heels spurred the horse forward as the boar continued in pursuit of the child. The boy let out a cry when he realized he was still being chased, and about to be overtaken.
Merlin didn’t realize he’d made a sound until Archimedes took off from his shoulder, swooping low to the ground and colliding feet first with the head of the boar. The beast squealed in pain as the owl’s talons clawed and tore at its face, and Merlin saw that the young boy had stopped running to turn around and stare in shock at the sight. Merlin dismounted and hurried to where Archimedes and the boar were snapping and screeching at each other, ready to lend assistance if needed. It quickly became clear that the boar was worse for the battle, already exhausted and bleeding profusely from its wounds and missing both eyes. Soon after it fell to its side, legs kicking futilely in the throes of death, blood pooling on the road and face almost mauled beyond recognition.
Archimedes remained perched victoriously on the boar’s head, picking with satisfaction at the warm flesh, and Merlin left his companion to approach the boy who was now inching his way back along the road, understandably wary of what had happened.
"It’s alright," Merlin said, lifting his hands and waving toward the bird. "He was just protecting you, there’s no reason to be frightened."
The boy, blond and dirt covered, seemed to draw himself up with an odd tilt to his chin. He was a little taller than Merlin had guessed on first sight, and even though his clothes were dusty and decorated with leaves and bits of twigs, he was better dressed than Merlin thought any common village boy might be. Clearly the son of a wealthy merchant or a nobleman, but to be out alone during the day and hunting boar no less was unusual, especially for a child his age. Even as a grown man, Arthur had never hunted boar without at least a party of trackers and a knight or three to aid in case things got out of hand. It would have been dangerous to do otherwise.
"Thank you, sir," the boy said as Merlin approached, wincing as he made an effort to brush some of the worst debris from his clothes. Merlin didn’t miss that he was hobbling with a pronounced limp to his left foot. "Your aid is to be commended… I shall have you rewarded. Upon my… my-"
The boy was in reaching distance and Merlin sprang forward to catch his arm just as his foot gave out. He had no chance to ask the boy’s name or see to the extent of his injuries, because that was the precise moment when the knights of Camelot poured out of the woods and surrounded them.
"I should have you hanged for touching my son," Uther Pendragon said, and Merlin hated to think that he knew the angry expression on the king’s face all too well.
It was just his luck that the child he’d rescued outside the forest would be none other than Prince Arthur, recklessly abandoning his guard to go hunting a boar all on his own, and only managing to survive in the knick of time thanks to Merlin’s intervention. Some things, honestly, never changed.
The council chambers had been cleared of all present save for the king and Gaius when Merlin had been dragged in between two guards, followed by a petulant and surly Arthur hanging off the arm of one of the older knights, who had been glad to hand the boy off to Gaius once his injury had been noticed by the physician. They, Merlin, King Uther and the group of guards who had probably been charged with accompanying Arthur on his hunt that day, were the only ones left in the room.
The knights had been quick to tell the king in what state they’d found the prince once he’d been tracked down, dirty and scratched up and lying helplessly in the strange man’s arms (that had made Merlin scoff inwardly), but it was entirely Merlin’s fault that he’d appeared reluctant to release the boy even after swords, knights, Pendragon crest had registered. It hadn’t even occurred to him that he was manhandling the prince, so used as he was to the sight of Arthur being much taller and far more adult.
Regardless of whatever good intentions he might have had, Uther was not pleased.
"You will explain yourself and your actions upon the road this day," Uther continued, and Merlin couldn’t help quailing a little inside at the fearsome tone. He’d never been good in direct confrontations with Uther, ever.
"Father," Arthur said, pushing off Gaius’ hand when the physician moved to help him step forward. "This man saved my life. It wouldn’t be fair to punish him."
"Is this true?" Uther demanded, not taking his eyes off Merlin.
Merlin nodded, opened his mouth and cleared his throat before finding his voice. "Yes, sire."
"There was a boar, my lord," one of the knights offered. "Dead when we found it, but it had the Prince’s spear in its flank. He claims the man killed the beast when it tried to attack him, sire."
"It seemed very angry," Merlin added unhelpfully.
Uther’s gaze swiveled slowly between Arthur, the gathered knights, and Merlin, ending the scrutiny with a pointed glare at the man still flanked by two guards. "Very well then," he said, taking a seat in the high backed chair at the head of the table. "I thank you for your bravery and for rescuing my son. What is your name and what brings you to Camelot?"
The guards stepped back and Merlin couldn’t help darting a quick glance in Gaius’ direction, which the physician answered with an unimpressed lift of one eyebrow. "My name is Merl- um, Emrys, sire. Merlin Emrys. From Ealdor. I’ve come to Camelot seeking employment."
"Ealdor?" Gaius echoed. He looked much more interested in Merlin. "Merlin, you said?"
"Do you know this man, Gaius?" Uther asked as a servant appeared from the side to pour the king a goblet of wine.
"I know of a Merlin, sire, but he is not yet eleven this summer. It was Ealdor, you said?"
"Yes," Merlin replied, stretching his smile until it was nearly uncomfortable. "That’s the son of Hunith, I know them well." Oh the lies he was being forced to spin already! Merlin could feel a giddy sickness attempting to overtake him, no doubt a case of the nerves compounded by standing in front of Uther and Gaius, two men who had always had a natural ability to reduce Merlin to babbling. "We’re practically neighbors, really. You could say I’m an old friend of the family. She named him after me, Merlin, that is. Her son. It’s a bit unusual, or so I’ve been told, that’s probably why she liked it so much. Um, in fact, she’s the one who told me about Camelot, and about Gauis. Her dear old friend. Said if I wanted work I should come to Camelot and speak to him."
Gaius still looked skeptical, with one eyebrow perched low as if he hoped to see straight through to all of Merlin’s secrets. Merlin almost expected him to piece the whole story together just from his half-cocked ramblings with an, ‘Ah ha! You’re from the future!’. Merlin had a feeling that all that time spent learning spells could have been better spent learning to lie better.
"I’ve never heard her mention you in our letters."
"Well that’s because, er… I’ve been… traveling. I left when Merlin was just a baby. He probably wouldn’t even remember me, so no good asking me about him. Or him me. But I do know Hunith! She always spoke highly of you, Gauis, and how often you praised King Uther. You said Camelot was a city of opportunity and she thought it best I come here."
"Really, Gaius, I had no idea!" Uther exclaimed, sounding pleased.
"Sire," Gaius replied with a bow. But the look he shot Merlin told him that he hadn’t gotten off the hook. Not by a long shot.
"And what is your trade, Emrys?" Uther asked with a tilt of his cup.
Merlin swallowed. "A scholar, your highness."
"I see," Uther said slowly. Judging by his expression, it seemed he did not. "You are a historian then, like our Geoffery?"
"Ah, not quite, sire. I am an academic. I can read and speak Latin, Welsh, Frankish, Ogham, some Greek and Arabic, and I can read and translate many other languages and old texts. I’m versed in arithmetic, geometry, astrology, biology, and I’ve been studying philosophy in my efforts to learn more of the Greeks. They were, after all, the model upon which even the Romans fashioned themselves, your majesty," Merlin finished, unable to hold back the note of superiority in his voice. Uther had a gleaming, thoughtful look on his face, and he’d never looked at him like that before – like Merlin was intelligent and had a thing or two in his head that even the king didn’t know about.
"Arthur," Uther said, standing abruptly. Merlin had almost forgotten about the sullen boy standing off to the side, balancing on one foot while Gaius kept a steady hand on his elbow. "How long has it been since you ran off your last tutor?"
Arthur looked uncomfortable and a bit cross at the reminder, but answered dutifully. "A while, sire."
"Then we are in luck. It seems your chance meeting has proved fortuitous on this day. Emrys, you shall become Prince Arthur’s tutor. You will educate him in all of his studies, and you will not want for compensation or lodgings while you stay here in Camelot. What say you?"
It was such an unexpected proposal that Merlin could only nod dumbly. "Yes, of course, I would be honored, sire." He struck a hasty bow and heard Arthur groan quietly over his shoulder.
"Then you shall have use of the northwest tower. I am sure it will be… suitable accommodations."
Merlin thought he heard one of the guards snicker quietly, but he was too busy being stunned by the fortunate turn of events. How strangely similar things had played themselves out! And this time he hadn’t needed to kill anyone to earn a place in the royal household either, though being Arthur’s teacher was definitely a step up than being the prince’s all around dog’s body and source of bullying amusement. He’d be on decidedly more equal footing this time around, able to oversee Arthur’s studies, assign him reading material, open his eyes to a whole world beyond Camelot’s prejudiced borders, expose him to science and philosophies and old religions stretching far, far into the past. And if Arthur did poorly, he could give him demerits.
"If it pleases your highness, I will see to your son’s injuries," Gaius said, jolting Merlin out of his fantasy of red ink and a weeping Arthur. The physician led a limping Arthur out of the chambers as Uther waved them off.
"Someone will see to your arrangements," Uther told Merlin, a hint of a smile turning the corner of his mouth that Merlin wasn’t entirely sure he liked the look of. The king turned his attention back to the scrolls and documents on the long table that had been put aside with his arrival, and as the council members began filing back in, Merlin knew he’d been dismissed.