[personal profile] hitome_bore
Title: Post hoc, ergo propter hoc (‘After this, therefore because of this.’)
Author: [livejournal.com profile] hitome_bore
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, graphic violence, temporary character death.
Spoilers: Blink-and-you’ll-miss-it-spoiler for 2x08, general spoilers for the first half of season two.
Rating: NC-17 overall
Word Count: 6,437
Summary: History books would not remember Gaius’ death precipitating the greatest war Albion had ever seen. That blame rested entirely on the shoulders of an inexperienced sorcerer and the Prince whom he’d lied to a hundred times over. Future!fic with a time travel twist. Inspired and loosely based on The Sword in the Stone.

Author's Note: You could call this the “director’s cut” version of this story – it’s got the extended opening that didn’t made it to theatrical release, the gratuitous sex scenes the censors didn’t want, and all those moments that were left on the cutting room floor just to bring it down to a reasonable view-time length. In reality this just means the fic-exchange deadline kicked my butt and I was denied the time to edit properly and expand the story to match my grander plans, so with some creatively applied duct tape and a lot of luck I may have managed to reshape this into a better piece of storytelling. I’ll let you guys be the judge!

Still entirely dedicated to [livejournal.com profile] derryere because her stuff is made of AWESOME ♥ Last-minute editing and cheerleading thanks go to [livejournal.com profile] dria_uesugi :)

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 battle ended much the same way every other one had; not with a quiet calm or a collective sigh of relief, but with the wailing of the wounded and dying rising over the fading roar of the wind. Camelot’s forces were retreating as quickly as the unnatural gale battering their backsides could spur them, putting as much distance as possible between their beaten soldiers and the remaining Druids who stood on the ravaged battlefield. The dark clouds that had collected low overhead were gradually lightening toward a more neutral shade of white, dispersing on the wind that was similarly herding their enemy away, and though no rain had fallen the air was sharp with ozone and the pungent scent of smoke and burnt flesh. Those who stood on the ground knew that it was only thanks to the sorcerer at their backs that the site had been spared from being washed away in a deluge, and a few eyes turned cautiously to regard the lone figure atop the hill behind them; long robe sleeves flapping in the wind, hands lifted toward the sky and with eyes glowing brighter than the shadowed sun, the wizard known as Emrys was a sight that could inspire even the hardiest of men to turn and flee.

When the gold finally faded from Merlin’s eyes Camelot’s army had fled out of sight beyond the trees on the horizon and the first shafts of yellow light were breaking through the smoky haze. He couldn’t help the shiver that ran through him as his senses returned within the frame of flesh and bone, feeling the shockingly warm touch of sun on the chilled skin of his stubble roughened face. For the first time since joining the battle he looked upon the field with eyes no better than a common man, and the panorama from atop the ridge of flattened boulders was a sight that made the combat scenes he’d seen depicted on the ornate tapestries hanging in Camelot’s stone halls tame by comparison. Dismembered bodies and murdered horses lay heaped over toppled battle standards and crushed plate armor, trampled flesh and broken bone and exposed entrails tangled together into an indistinguishable mess. Dozens of uprooted trees lay among the fallen, gnarled roots rigid and exposed to the air, their naked branches speared through enemy soldiers as if their chainmail had been no thicker than parchment. Three neck-deep muddy trenches were gravesites for those who’d been unfortunate enough to fall into them, and blackened patches of smoking soil marked where the earth had been left burned beyond recognition by the heat of a fire that only a sorcerer could conjure. The lingering echo of so much destructive magic was like a bitter taste on the back of Merlin’s tongue, a reminder of the power he’d wielded to crush bone and hurl trees across the field and tear limbs from their sockets. Under the sleeves of his robes goosebumps raced from neck to wrist as the sun emerged fully through the dissipating clouds, shining benignly upon the site of another heated clash in a long and bloody war that was tearing at the very core of Albion.

A sudden downwind brought the stench of blood and ash with it and Merlin held his breath as he swallowed past the urge to gag, immensely grateful that he hadn’t eaten yet that day. After more than two years of conflict some things could still turn his stomach and the carnage spread below was a nauseating reminder of his worst nightmares, the ones that came often and had been denying him a full night’s sleep for more months than he cared to count. Though the Druids’ victory was clear in the number of red and gold flags that littered the ground the reality of the aftermath always looked the same no matter who emerged victorious, and their own losses were heavy enough to warrant little reason to celebrate the victory. Even with the advantages of sorcery their finite numbers were dwindling at a frightening rate, and trustworthy allies were difficult to find in a country so tightly controlled by fear and hate of magic. It was a constant struggle to limit these clashes to more defensible locations, with the trees at their backs and archers hidden among the foliage, and the Pendragons had been given more than enough time to grow wise to their methods of warfare. More and more often they were being drawn out into the open, forced into battles where not even magic could hold up against the might of sheer numbers pressing against them. Today’s victory had given Camelot the heaviest losses in the end but Merlin knew better than to hope for a turnabout in the war – this was merely a scratch against the beast, one that was only bound to anger it further.

He could see in the distance that there were men and women moving across the field, some of the wounded walking of their own accord or stopping to help others, and many more being carried on make-shift stretchers toward the trees where the encampment of Druids had taken refuge. Up until yesterday they’d been hidden from the Pendragons’ contingent of determined spies and trackers but that brief respite had been shattered by the ranks of soldiers they’d found marching upon their doorstep before dawn. It was their call for aid that had brought Merlin to the moor before the morning fog had fully dissipated, and it was the overwhelming numbers sent to slaughter them that had set his teeth on edge as he cast protective spells and unleashed his magic on the enemy. It was the same story taking place in so many other places all across eastern Albion, with small camps forced to flee or face the armies being sent to raze them to the ground. They had managed to hold out for so long only thanks to the Druids’ defiance of using magic despite Uther Pendragon’s horrific attempts at purging the practice from his kingdom two decades earlier; a campaign that two years ago had been taken up once more, but this time by the tyrant king’s only son.

Uncontrolled fires still dotted the field and Merlin lifted a hand to extinguish them with a push of power and a flash of gold in his eyes, granting passage to the reinforcements that were attempting to get through to more of the injured. Farther out, men with blood stained swords patrolled through the muddy and overturned earth, searching through the corpses for enemy survivors. The occasional scream and shout for mercy could be heard wherever they found a subject of Camelot still alive, and they were merciless as they drove their swords through unprotected flesh or simply decapitated the soldiers where they’d fallen. It was a brutal but necessary measure, or so their leader claimed, as the Pendragons had no interest in ransoms or exchanging prisoners when their numbers were great enough to hardly mind the loss of a few men. The Druids in turn abhorred the idea of keeping alive soldiers who were only too glad to run their spears through women and children and raze camps until they were nothing more than ash and dust, save for those that retreated or fled in terror from the battlefield.

Now that he was no longer distracted by the heat of battle Merlin let his eyes drift skyward and sent a silent prayer to the gods for the lives that had been lost to the conflict, wishing them a quick journey to the Old Country. He could feel each death as the bonds between body and soul were severed, faint bursts of energy that skipped across his senses before melting into the ether. It was calming after the torrent of magic and volatile energy that had surrounded him earlier, and Merlin took comfort in the knowledge that this was simply another turn of a greater cycle. Those that had perished were renouncing their spirits to an ocean of much larger potential, a power that he’d come to know as the same essence that all magic drew from. Creation and destruction were two concepts that were almost redundant in the archaic school of the Old Ways, and in all honesty even Merlin sometimes had trouble distinguishing the two anymore.

Whether this was due to Nimueh’s machinations or simply a result of digging into his own powers, Merlin’s understanding of the Balance had come a long way since his earliest bumbling attempts with magic. There were few if any of the Druid sorcerers that seemed to have as deep an appreciation of the Old Ways as Merlin did, and as his abilities had manifested he’d come to accept how closely intertwined life and death truly were. There was a time when he had balked under the weight of that knowledge – to know that for every life he restored another was cast into the ether, that magic would always demand a price – but where there had once been incredulity was now sensible acceptance. It was difficult and pointless to resent something that operated on the basis of equilibrium, a power that moved without maliciousness or any sort of bias except for what the caster fed into it. Each death brought on by the Pendragons’ Second Purge was a certain promise that nature would find a way to reassert the balance, a fact he sometimes wished he’d known prior to his arrival at Camelot five years earlier. Gaius had believed that one’s moral duty to do good and useful things would produce results just as equitable, but Merlin was certain that he may have been better off living those years without the overwhelming guilt brought on by his ignorance. Some truths were indelible regardless of whether the intent was good or bad, and the reality of warfare meant that using his magic to take human lives was a skill he had to be very good at; despite what his old mentor might have had to say about it.

Even if Gaius would only have disparaging things to say about his uses of magic, it would probably be better than the solitude Merlin was forced to endure thanks to his uneasy friendship with the Druids and their vaulted leadership. He was accepted unconditionally on the battlefield as an ally because his abilities were extraordinary but his unconventional approaches to warfare, coupled with his seemingly limitless powers, had gradually ostracized him from the rest of the Druids. He’d gained a reputation for being reclusive and eccentric, a fault of his own as he’d sought to remove himself from being overly abused as some kind of trump card – he refused to only be seen as the final weapon brought forth to eradicate everything before him, never mind what consequences would arise from such a gross misuse of power. Even if he had been willing to comply with the Druids’ demands for victories at any cost his talent for commanding the forces of nature had always been suspect to them, with their necessity for years of dedicated training to master even the simplest of spells. Their inability to comprehend his magic had left him branded as an outsider from the beginning of their alliance, and it was a small blessing that none could imagine what depths his powers truly held. There was enough rumor and speculation already that questioned whether he was even fully human, and his greatest deeds were spoken around camp fires with equal parts hushed awe and horrified wonder. Many seemed to believe to some degree the same propaganda that the citizens of Camelot had been spoon fed since the war had begun – that the wizard in red was a devil in human guise, no less evil than the right hand of Death itself.

Uther Pendragon’s court had always been extremely efficient at turning the common people against magic and its practitioners, and the unbridled powers of the Druids and their sorcerers had cemented every fear building in Camelot’s citizens for over two decades. The name of Emrys was spoken warily on both sides of the field, as if invoking it would somehow call forth the wizard who stood as the embodiment of every wicked thing Camelot was attempting to wipe from the world. He was the Great Betrayer, the sorcerer that had fooled a kingdom and nearly brought it to its ruin, and in some minds directly responsible for bringing about the greatest war that Albion had seen in decades. Disobedient children were told he would visit them in their dreams and steal their souls, women feared every cough and ill omen as a mark of Emrys’ making, and men fleeing the battlefield told stories of seeing the wizard’s eyes glow blood red and how no sword or spear could touch him. Merlin had long passed the point of being bothered that no one was interested in knowing the truth behind the most hated wizard in history. The one person that might have come to his defense was hidden so well that neither magic or army could ever hope to discover them, and the other had left the world of the living so long ago that their name was little more than a memory.

Carrion birds were circling the field in the early afternoon when Merlin received his first visitor atop the ridge of earthfast boulders he’d claimed at the start of the battle. He stood with his back to them as the rush of wind delivering the other sorcerer stopped buffeting the edges of his robes, listening to the soft footfalls against the spongy moss as they approached from behind. They came to rest far enough away to be respectful but close enough that Merlin knew it wasn’t one of Mordred’s fledgling initiates sent into the lion’s den; the sound of their knees knocking in fear was easy to hear even at a distance. This one simply stood by and waited while Merlin’s hands made broad, sweeping motions in front of his eyes, like a painter smudging away the ugly mistakes on his canvas. Once the field had been cleared of the wounded he’d set about slowly and carefully coaxing the earth back into some likeness of its original state, as he’d done at so many other battle sites, directing waterways and replanting trees and pushing damp soil over every shallow grave. It was a pastime that Mordred viewed as a waste of time and energy, and Merlin was certain that the sorcerer who stood silently near him now would find this worth reporting once they returned to their master. It was one more thing in a long list that Mordred had been finding fault with Merlin for years, starting with his stubborn refusal to serve at the boy leader’s side like an obedient lapdog.

Merlin sent out a silent apology to the field of graves he’d been responsible for creating as the last of the atrocities were wiped clean from sight. He allowed his hands to drop and inhaled a steadying breath, letting the gold bleed from his eyes before he turned to face his visitor. He didn’t recognize the man who had appeared behind him, but it had been many months since he’d last visited any of the Druids’ camps. This sorcerer was pale skinned and freckled, with auburn hair that looked like copper in the sunlight, and he wore a close trimmed beard that matched the color of his hair and made him look older than he probably was. His robes were immaculate, green and blue and loose on the shoulders with a large hood in the style the Druids favored, similar to the crimson one Merlin wore. The man’s stance betrayed no impatience with being forced to wait, but there was a tightness around his mouth that could have hinted at any number of things; fear of the sorcerer in red possibly being one of them.

“What is it?” Merlin asked, not bothering to make the effort for politeness as he folded his hands into the voluminous sleeves of his robes. They were still trembling from the aftereffects of using so much of his power and he preferred not to make such a visible sign of his exhaustion shown to a young upstart with eyes and ears trained for his master’s use. He would have liked to depart then and there but it would be a while longer before his nerves felt capable of summoning the magic to whisk him away, and it was entirely possible that Mordred had counted on him being delayed by sending this apprentice so late in the day. Mordred’s spies were everywhere and Merlin knew that it was pointless to think that his appearance on the battlefield today had gone unnoticed; he had hoped to be left alone, but considering how long he had been able to avoid encountering one of Mordred’s brood up until now the meeting had an air of the inevitable.

“Emrys,” the man greeted formally despite Merlin’s frosty reception, bending into a low bow. “Lord Mordred has bid me to bring a message to you.”

This was hardly surprising. Merlin could probably recite from memory most of it, as Mordred had been trying to coerce Merlin back into his inner circle for the better part of a year and a half. Since the day Merlin had loudly voiced his opinions against their long-term plans and walked out of the war council the leader of the Druids had been searching persistently for ways to ensure his return. At times his methods tested the limits of Merlin’s patience, but sheer stubbornness seemed to be at least the one trait that he and Mordred shared in spades.

“I don’t wish or need to hear it,” Merlin informed the nameless man. “Tell your master I have other things to attend to, and I bid you good day.”

To his credit the sorcerer didn’t look bothered by such an abrupt dismissal, and Merlin had to at least admire the man for that. He’d either already been briefed on Merlin’s history with messengers or was the obstinate sort when it came to carrying out his missions. “My master only asks for a moment of your time. You would be most welcome at his camp, as he has important things he wishes to discuss with you.”

Publically, and in front of the rest of the council no doubt. Merlin had no desire to be paraded around like a disobedient hound brought to heel, to listen to Mordred take credit for his successes and then rebuke him for the small mercies he showed the enemy. Merlin had already learned that lesson during his first year with the Druids, and the blatant politics and petty power struggles had soured him enough to the council’s presence that he’d sworn off allowing them direct involvement in his actions from then on. It had estranged him from the favor of those in command, as well as many of the Druids who knew of his opinions on how the war was being handled, but Mordred remained tenaciously undaunted by Merlin’s refusals to be bridled and wielded like a tool at his disposal.

“But not important enough for him to come make the plea himself? That doesn’t instill a lot of faith in his word or the request. My answer is still no.”

“Emrys,” the man said imploringly, and that was something Merlin hadn’t expected to hear. “Please reconsider my Lord’s offer. The people need you now more than ever. Times are growing darker for all and they need to see that you stand with us. It would raise their spirits to know that the wizard Emrys has not abandoned them.”

“Abandoned?” Merlin repeated, a spark of anger twisting the word into a sneer. He gestured with one arm toward the restored field of mud and dirt that had been the site of a terrible battle not hours earlier. “So the things I do here – they’re so easily forgotten? Or all the battles I’ve stood in before? Where was your master today while his people died?”

The sorcerer’s face went stony and Merlin took his brief pleasure in the petty jab. “Lord Mordred is the greatest wizard to ever live and he will guide our people to victory, free of the tyranny of the Pendragons. He alone would protect you from the punishments the council have called for your disobedience. He only welcomes you with open arms yet you shun his kindness. I was told to warn you that his patience is not infinite.”

Merlin barely resisted the urge to roll his eyes. It was amazing how little the lies seemed to change with each one that was sent to try and bring Merlin back to the Druid’s side. The honest truth would have shocked these men and women were they to know where in the hierarchy their leader and master truly stood. Merlin knew without a doubt that he was the more powerful wizard of the two, and it was likely the sole reason that Mordred had never challenged him directly despite what lengths Merlin went to in his insubordination. Mordred’s leadership of the Druids depended upon their belief that he was their strongest sorcerer, and maintaining his position would always mean more to him than forcing Merlin to submit to his authority. It was this that Merlin counted on to keep the younger man from forcing his hand, at least until the day that Mordred’s well-worn patience finally snapped.

Underneath all of the words and the posturing, Mordred might have harbored secret fears that Merlin coveted his role as leader of the Druids. But Merlin had no desire for the rank or to shoulder the politics it entailed. When it came to dealing with the armies of Camelot, Merlin could understand the contempt that Mordred openly had for his methods and his habit of letting the enemy retreat rather than slaughtering them to the last man. Mordred’s hatred for the Pendragons – compounded by the events of his childhood and by the years of watching his people slaughtered simply for embracing the Old Ways – had hardened him into a single-minded and ruthless leader. For all that Merlin did to protect the Druids from the crush of Camelot’s vendetta, he lacked the bitter hatred that fueled Mordred desire to see his people emerge overwhelmingly victorious. Mordred’s long-term plans involved not only eliminating Camelot’s army, but also its sovereign and heir and any kin tied to the royal court that might oppose the Druids or their practices. In Merlin’s eyes this made the boy-leader no better than Uther Pendragon himself, but that was the sort of vocal sentiment that had expelled him from the council in the first place.

Few knew the entire truth of how Merlin had come to side with the Druids or what events were responsible for precipitating the start of the Second Purge, and Merlin’s private shame would never fashion him into the leader these people needed. Besides, there were far more important things at stake than simply winning a war, and Merlin was already looking beyond the battlefields to the much larger picture. The conflict had become much more than simply another volatile collision between the Pendragons and magic; it was another symptom of a disease that had taken hold of Camelot more than two decades earlier, and until that festering source was rooted out Albion was doomed to fall into civil war in a never-ending cycle. The price would continue to be paid in the deaths of thousands falling victim to hate and fear, and that was something Merlin simply couldn’t accept, not when he’d been gifted with the power to do such incredible things. He had worried over the problem until an irrational but tempting solution had finally presented itself, and it was a plan so foolish, so unusual, that Merlin was sure that had he been younger or a little saner he would never have given it a second thought. But the idea had panned out unexpectedly into a means that had the potential to change everything. All that mattered now was keeping Mordred ignorant of his plans. Though monumentally irritating, the appearance of yet another bootlicking acolyte was the surest sign Merlin had that Mordred and his council had yet to discover his true goals. He knew that were this not the case, he would find himself facing something much worse than just another messenger spouting empty threats.

It was time to send this man on his way in the same manner he did all such messengers. Merlin unfolded his arms to spread his hands, their trembling having subsided, and dredged up a false smile of good will. “My apologies then. Please tell your master his concern is appreciated but unnecessary. My answer remains the same as it’s always been. I’m more useful fighting on the field than stuck in some tent debating strategy, and he knows this. I have my duties and he has his – I only ask to be left in peace.”

“Peace is not something any of us have. You should know this better than anyone,” the sorcerer said. He looked momentarily unsettled by his candor but continued on after a moment, something bright with a hint of desperation in his eyes. “Though our forces are great and my master trains us daily, we are losing too many to the armies of Camelot. The people grow frightened, uncertain of our future, and our hope dwindles with every life that is lost. The face of Emrys is known to only a few, yet you are legendary among our people and anathema to the Pendragons. Your name inspires terror and hope alike – only imagine what your presence among our ranks would do to bolster our spirits if you would allow us to train under you. My master only wishes you to see these things as he does, as we all do. Will you not return to us?”

Merlin had to praise the man for his appearance of sincerity, for the way he seemed to genuinely believe that Emrys was their singular hope for winning a war that had already gone on for too many years. If he had been less certain of his own plans this plea might have been the one to undo him. It seemed that the Druids were feeling the drag of too many battles as well, the creeping despair of watching so many of their people die fighting or burned alive in their camps. It was a pity that they had taken so long to open their eyes to the truth of where their rebellion stood, but Merlin’s heart had become made of much harder stuff.

“It won’t change my mind,” Merlin replied with more care than his previous answers, and it was the closest to a real apology he’d ever come to. “Please go back and give Mordred my answer. I’m already where I’m meant to be, standing on the front lines and helping people, saving lives when I can. I’ll just have to wait for him to accept that, too.”

The man looked ready to say more but the sharp cry of an owl’s screech pierced the air, and Merlin turned gratefully toward the bird that was swooping toward them from the west. The tiny speck of brown gradually grew into the shape of a tawny owl and Merlin stretched out his arm to provide a landing perch as his companion approached the hilltop. The thick sleeve of his robe afforded some protection against the owl’s sharp talons, but the sound of tearing fabric as the owl landed was all too familiar. Merlin smiled as he brushed his free hand down the bird’s backside, smoothing feathers and offering a little bit of magic to the weary muscles that had to be tired after flying for so long.

“I’m glad to see you return, Archimedes. What news of the army?” Merlin asked, addressing the owl.

There were no words exchanged as such, but the owl let out a short string of chirps and warbles, his head cocking and swiveling to the side. The bird’s luminous golden eyes blinked briefly at Merlin’s visitor when he finished his message, before he walked up the length of Merlin’s arm to find a perch on his shoulder. The expression on the sorcerer’s face only registered shock and surprise, and Merlin was left with the feeling that the owl’s presence was another element to the legend of Emrys that not all had thought to be true.

“My friend tells me that Camelot’s forces are retreating to Bemshire,” Merlin relayed. “With the losses they suffered they’ll need at least a few days to recover and assemble reinforcements. It would be best to move the injured to a safer location and set up wards, somewhere more fortified where their spies can’t reach. This forest can’t hold the camps we have here indefinitely, and now that they know we’ve taken refuge here they’ll only come back with greater numbers. They will need to move again.”

Merlin was glad to see the sorcerer nod in understanding, though his gaze continued to drift away to the owl on his shoulder before coming back to Merlin’s face. It was growing increasingly bothersome, and the beard didn’t make him look nearly as old as Merlin had originally thought. “I will report this information to Lord Mordred at once.”

“Thank you,” Merlin said, and Archimedes echoed it with a trilling hoot.

When he didn’t depart immediately, Merlin folded his arms and waited. It seemed out of place now, given his verboseness earlier, but the young man seemed to be considering his next words with some hesitation. “And the Pendragons… what should I tell my master?”

If there was any indication on Merlin’s face that his chest had tightened uncomfortably at the mention of Camelot’s royal family, he could only hope that the sorcerer hadn’t noticed. “Neither was on the field today. It’s doubtful that either of them will make an appearance with only a camp or two at stake.”

The sorcerer looked askance at Archimedes with no effort to hide his skepticism. “Is this information entirely reliable?”

“I would have known,” Merlin snapped irritably. The man’s attitude and the ill-timed mention of his former master were peaking his frustration beyond the point of feigned niceties, even though a small voice of reason cautioned against revealing so much emotion to one of Mordred’s emissaries.

Merlin knew from firsthand experience that he would have felt Arthur’s presence on the field whether consciously seeking him or not, and Uther’s storming hatred had always been like a black smear on his senses when the man was nearby. Such small campaigns rarely involved the presence of one or the other, and two battalions sent to raze another encampment hardly warranted either Camelot’s King or Crowned Prince to lead their men when the orders were always the same: burn everything, take no prisoners. Kill everyone.

The sorcerer bowed quickly and apologetically, showing the first bit of sense that Merlin had seen out of him. “Thank you, Emrys. I will deliver your report to Lord Mordred. But before I depart, there is one other message I was tasked to bring you. If I may?”

Merlin frowned in consideration before nodding, more curious that he’d been asked rather than simply told, which made Mordred or one of his council members a less likely source. “I’ll hear it, then.”

The man reached inside his robe and withdrew a folded slip of paper, a square less than the size of his hand, and walked the short distance between them to pass it over. Merlin took it but did not open it.

“Lady Morgana only instructed me to give this letter to you. She did not tell me anything more, only that if you were to read it you would know what to do.”

“You speak for Lady Morgana?” Merlin asked in genuine surprise. He might have wondered at the strange connection between an unknown sorcerer and Morgana, but his annoyance with the wary gaze the man kept slipping over to Archimedes snuffed any inklings of curiosity. Nothing but rumor and tall tales, and an owl that could speak to a human was something to be fearful of. And they wondered why Merlin was in no hurry to rush back into their circle of bone casting and anachronistic god worshipping.

“Yes, sir. I’ve had the privilege of spending some time under her tutelage. Shall I send back a reply?”

“No, that’s not necessary,” Merlin said, fingering the folds of the letter. There was magic in the parchment, subtle, enough that he could feel the charge beneath the tips of his fingers. It was a practical spell, bonded there for some particular use and harmless in nature, but it piqued Merlin’s interest anyway. A letter from Morgana was unusual enough. Over the years she’d become a woman who was perhaps even more mysterious and revered than Merlin within the inner circle of the Druids, and Mordred was fiercely protective of his witch and the visions she provided him. The last time they had spoken she had already been a shadow of her former self, prone to speaking in riddles and tongues, and Merlin had fled from her nonsense with his ears ringing and his stomach colder than a winter storm. He did not care for a repeat of that encounter.

Merlin was distracted enough that he didn’t notice when the sorcerer stepped back to take his leave, only looking up after the man had lifted his hands and spoken the incantation to carry him away. The whirlwind that churned beneath his feet formed quickly and was gone in a matter of seconds, the man gone along with it. Merlin and Archimedes were left alone on their hill with only the sound of the wind in the trees and an empty field of heather that was now a gravesite for the dead behind them. There was nothing left but the sunlight on his head and the note in his hand, and something that felt like the hand of Fate once more reaching out to clasp him by the shoulder – a touch he had been struggling to shrug off for years, with what felt like little success.

Merlin unfolded the note and found only a few lines scrawled in shaky penmanship; it resembled nothing like the elegant longhand Morgana had once been capable of.

You must STOP this path beyond
only emptydarkness lies I have Seen
NOTHING you bring the end of times

Merlin read the note twice more before his eyes left the paper, and when they did he slowly folded the letter but did not put it away. He couldn’t deny that among the garble and scrawl a few words had jumped off the page, and they were more telling than anything else of what exactly Morgana was claiming to have Seen. Merlin shifted his shoulders uncomfortably, aware that though Morgana’s mind was lost her eyes had always remained remarkably all-knowing, and he could feel the weight of them settling with acute attention upon him. It had always been a risk that her abilities might uncover his plans for ending the war, but it was also much sooner than he’d anticipated needing to deal with the threat of discovery. Merlin couldn’t deny the cold churning in his gut as anything but dread, and it was sorely tempting to simply burn the letter then and there, more for the satisfaction of the act than it being a means of diverting her.

Morgana was not the true threat to his scheme, but rather Mordred’s inevitable involvement in preventing Merlin from winning the war on his terms. And if Morgana knew (before even Merlin himself could have said with absolute certainty that his efforts would be successful), Mordred would not be far behind. Morgana’s loyalties had long ago shifted away from the Pendragons, perhaps before Merlin had even stepped foot in Camelot, and her relationship with Mordred left few secrets between them. Merlin’s greatest chance for success had always rested on the assumption that he would have the necessary time to perfect the spells he’d painstakingly drafted and researched, which was ironic given that Time was the very thing he’d set out to control.

Whatever Morgana had Seen, it had left her rattled enough to try and keep him from continuing his research. In a strange twist of irony, it was Merlin’s first confirmation that his plans were not destined for failure. The uncomfortable knot in his stomach loosened at the realization, giving way to a small kernel of hope that he may have discovered a way to toss free the shackles of Fate after all.

Even if Morgana was aware of his efforts to change the past, he’d spent too many long months searching for answers, devoted too much of his magic and his soul to turn back on the path he’d set. Abandoning his efforts would be no different than letting the Druids win in their conquest of revenge or letting the Pendragons complete their mad designs for genocide. Stopping now meant leaving Morgana at the mercy of her insanity, forsaking Gaius to obscurity, and condemning Arthur to his grief; they were concessions that Merlin could not accept.

“It isn’t madness if it saves us all,” Merlin declared to the note in his hand, squeezing the edges so that it crumpled into a ball. “Maybe this time is meant to end.”

The magic in the parchment warmed suddenly under his fingers. Not expecting the sudden change, Merlin sent the wad of paper sailing through the air with a flick of his wrist. It traveled through a gentle arc and, at some mid-point between his hand and the ground, disappeared with a quiet pop. Merlin watched the space where it had disappeared for a moment, attempting to probe the void for an explanation, but nothing was forthcoming. The note’s disappearance did not bode well, as objects belonging to a sorcerer tended to return to their master, and Merlin had as good as outright refused to heed Morgana’s warning.

“Archimedes,” Merlin said to the owl perched quietly on his shoulder. “We have to move quicker than I planned. I think our time is running out.”

The soft edge of a wingtip brushed the collar of his robe and Merlin sighed and shut his eyes briefly at the reassuring touch. When he opened them the irises were golden and bright, and with little more than a brief gust of air the hilltop returned to being empty once more.



August 2011

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