Chapter 4 – Hard Truths
He had watched them for days now, he was fairly certain that the small dark haired boy knew he was there but he never said anything to alert the others so he wasn’t completely sure.
Arthur Pendragon, watching the prince try to appear so strong in the face of losing everything he held dear was a sweet balm to his tortured soul, because he knew, he knew that no matter how composed he may be on the outside on the inside the fool was breaking. Just like he had been for the past twenty years. Soon though he would be as broken on the outside as he was on the inside, just like him.
Merlin felt eyes on his back yet again. The first few times he’d just assumed it was the petulant prince again. Arthur had taken to glaring at him sometimes for hours on end for some reason, he’d already made it more than clear that he didn’t trust him at all, but eventually he began to detect a difference in the feelings.
One, the one cause by the sulking royal was intense but without any true malice behind it, at the moment anyway.
The other would come and go, presumably as whoever it was tracked their group, and it was so full of hatred it was nearly toxic.
At first he’d thought it might be one of his enemies, not that he had many, but there were a few.
Then yesterday he’d realized why the feeling would come and go. It wasn’t because the person causing it kept losing sight of them as he’d first thought; it was because the hatred behind it wasn’t focused on him. No, as with most of the people they encountered this person seemed to hate Arthur.
Honestly if he didn’t know any better he’d think that everything in existence hated the prat.
At first he’d thought about maybe mentioning it to someone since none of the others had seemed to notice, but then he’d thought better of it. Not only was his royal highness liable to not believe him, but whoever it was might have a valid reason for whatever it was he was trying to do.
No he’d decided he would let it play out and only step in if he absolutely had to. He had to find a way to amuse himself after all and watching the royal with his head up his ass have to deal with the real world was all that was available at the moment.
Other than Gawain of course but he found he was easily bored and he needed more than one diversion at a time.
Gwaine had just finished telling a joke he’d heard in a tavern once, which was completely unappreciated; when he noticed that something was wrong with his new friend. He’d been becoming more and more distracted by something. Usually he would just assume that his friend was just thinking more and more about other things, but with Merlin’s magic it could be just about anything, and for some reason he didn’t think whatever it was pulling his friends attention away was a good thing.
He’d tried everything he could think of to maybe get Merlin to open up about whatever it was that was bothering him. He tried jokes which were his main way of communicating with people and barely got so much as a smirk of recognition.
Hell, he’d gotten a greater reaction from the princess who had launched into a long winded speech about propriety and what was not appropriate to say when ladies were present. Which as far as he could tell from the list was nothing at all, apparently when around a lady you should just remain silent and have as little fun as possible.
Internally shrugging to himself he gave up trying to identify the danger they were in, and in it they were of that he was certain, and instead he’d decided to just stick close to Merlin when whatever it was finally let everyone else in on what was happening around them.
Gaius could feel eyes on him and he wondered not for the first time who it was. He didn’t think anyone else was feeling it, other than Merlin, because he could feel the light touch of magic used to conceal someone’s presence from prying eyes.
Every time he looked to the younger magic user for a hint of whom or what was following them all he got was an arrogant smirk in return. He’d watched the ruffian Gwaine move closer and closer to Merlin for the past hour almost as though he feared for his life without the reassuring presence of the young warlock.
He knew that this Merlin didn’t particularly care for any of them and that he and Arthur were vying for last place on his list of people he gave a damn about. All he could do was hope that that apathy and borderline hatred would not stop the boy from helping them with whatever trials came next on their journey. He had a feeling that none of them would ever get very far without him.
Sir Leon did not like this situation not one bit. While he understood the necessity of having the magic user among them he for one didn’t trust him in the slightest. It didn’t help matters that for most of the morning he had the feeling that Merlin was being untruthful with them.
No, it wasn’t so much that he was lying to them so much as the feeling that he was holding something back, something they desperately needed to know. It was his duty and honor to protect the prince but that was becoming harder and harder by the day and he feared that maybe he would fail in his duty to get his prince back to Camelot safely and to help him reclaim his throne. The only comfort to be had was that his prince seemed to share his distrust for the sorcerer.
Gwen stayed near to Morgana trying to make herself small and invisible. They had been talking for over an hour now and they were in agreement that something was terribly wrong. All the men were beyond tense, well all except Merlin who seemed almost smug, yet none of them were speaking.
While their lack of communication wasn’t surprising it did make things harder for them, since they had no idea which direction the threat would be coming from if indeed there was a threat at all. She hoped against hope that all the tension was just nothing more than male posturing around a new comer, but for some reason she seriously doubted it. She couldn’t quite put her finger on what, but something had been putting her seriously on edge for the longest time.
Arthur was beyond annoyed. No one seemed to be listening to him any more these days, other than Leon of course who still followed orders thankfully. He was just thinking about how to go about reasserting his authority when he felt himself flying through the air. He landed hard jarring all the bones in his body. Looking up from his new place on the ground found everyone else stretched out in the dirt as well, almost everyone anyway, Merlin was the only one still standing.
He had just opened his mouth to demand answers of the little bastard when the ground nearest his outstretched hand burst into flames. He watched transfixed as the flames spread and danced around him and all his companions until they had all been encircled in their own ring of fire, effectively separating them all.
The only ones not alone in their circle were Merlin and Gwaine who seemed to share one. The fact that Merlin was trapped as well had him jumping to his feet and searching the surrounding area for the threat. What he found was a man standing just outside his ring of flames wearing a long heavy robe with scars marring most of his face.
Staring at him he tried to place him, wondering if he to thought he had a grievance against him like Mary Collins before him, but he could not put a name to the face. So this one had no cause for this attack, as he suspected all magic users were corrupt and would attack and kill with the least provocation. He never should have doubted that, it shamed him now to realize that he had.
Edwin stared at the prince of Camelot trapped in a circle of fire and didn’t even try to hide his smile of glee; finally he would have his vengeance. Finally after all these years Pendragon would know how it felt to lose a loved one to the flames.
Merlin stood next to Gwaine and tried to come to a decision about what to do. He didn’t want anyone to die, but he was sure that Pendragon needed to hear this as much as the man needed to say it. He could see the rage and grief rolling off the man in waves like a choking miasma. If something didn’t happen soon he would be forever lost to the darkness and he just couldn’t let that happen, not when he had a very good idea about what needed to happen to prevent it.
A low muttering under his breath and a flash of gold in his eyes and the stage was set for the air to be cleared and the past to be laid to rest, at least for one poor soul.
Gwaine was close to demanding Merlin do something when he saw his friends eyes light with his magic. His friend had done something alright, now it was just a matter of waiting to see what that something was.
The flames were still high all around them so whatever he had done he personally wasn’t sure that it was nearly enough but he knew better than to voice such an opinion out loud. Never be the distraction in a fight, not unless it would help your side to win, and in this case it would likely only hasten his own demise which was something he dearly wished to avoid if at all possible.
“I demand you cease this action at once!” So Arthur was going to be the one to start the conversation. While that wouldn’t have been his first choice as an opener he wasn’t royal so he doubted his opinion on the matter would be welcome.
“You demand? Oh, well then I’m so sorry let me just wander off and leave you in peace. I didn’t realize you would demand to be set free.” Snark and sarcasm now they were speaking his language and he couldn’t help but agree that it had been a poor choice of words.
“Why are you doing this?” He whipped around to stare at Merlin beside him. The young man wore an expression that clearly said that the prat wasn’t moving anywhere near fast enough for him so he just thought he’d speed things up a tad and get directly to the heart of the matter.
“Why? Why! How can you even ask that! Look at my face the reason is there to see plain as day for any who care to look.”
“Edwin? Is that you?” This from Gaius, apparently this was going to be a group effort. Opening his mouth to join in, he didn’t like feeling so left out, he quickly closed it again thinking better of it. Better to wait until he had something useful to add.
“Gaius you know this man?” Way to be observant your highness. What gave it away? The look of shocked recognition on the old man’s face or the use of his name? Honestly sometimes he really was just thick.
“Yes, well I knew him when he was a boy. I was the one who treated the burns that caused those scars.”
“Well, go on; continue tell them how I got these scars that you so kindly treated. I should really thank you by the way if not for you I would have died.” His tone clearly said that he would have preferred it that way.
“His… his parents had been accused of using magic at the start of the purge. They didn’t have much power, just hedge wizards really; they would concoct the odd healing potion or lift heavy stones for the masons, harmless. They had been well known and respected before Uther began to persecute magic, rounded up the first day they weren’t even given the option to leave their home to save their lives. They just went to sleep the night before and woke in the morning to find themselves facing execution.
“When… hmm, when it was their turn to face the pyre Edwin, their son, was in the crowd. Uther wanted everyone not accused to watch the executions back then, even friends and family of the accused, to instill fear and respect for the new laws. Someone had a hold of him at the beginning but when his mother began to scream, as the fire found her skin, he broke free and ran to her. He threw himself into the flames with her trying to untie her, to save her, when we managed to drag him free his clothes had already caught fire and his face was badly burned from where he’d clung to her. We barely managed to save his life.” Gaius voice never once wavered as he recited the events of the past for all to know, but his eyes told a different story. A story of pain and sorrow, of tears barely held back.
“And what a life it was Gaius. Not only did I have never ending nightmares and the sound of my mother’s screams echoing in my mind every night. No, if that wasn’t enough, I was reminded every time I looked in a mirror, every time someone cringed from me in fear or disgust that not only were my parents gone but the man who took them probably doesn’t even remember them at all. I bet if you were to ask him about my parents Uther would just give you that vacant stare and shrug them off as beneath his notice.”
He was probably right about that, looking around he saw many expressions. Sorrow, fear, pity, even resignation from the citizens of Camelot what he didn’t see from anyone other than Arthur was denial. They all knew he was right, the only one who didn’t see the king for the monster he was seemed to be his son, and wasn’t that always the way.
He watched as Arthur opened his mouth, likely to call the man a liar, only to close it again and look bemused when no sound came out. He was confused to until he remembered who he was standing next to, turning to ask Merlin why he wasn’t allowing Arthur to speak he found he was alone. Turning around in a circle desperate to find his friend he saw him walking steadily towards their flaming barrier. Holding out a hand as all the air seized in his chest he tried to call out to him, to call him back, he should have known he needn’t have worried. Merlin not only walked up to the barrier he walked though it without so much as singeing his clothes.
Merlin had heard enough, it was all out in the open now, the healing had begun. Now all that was left was to send Edwin somewhere peaceful where he could heal completely. He thought of the best way to go about this, he wasn’t likely to see reason and repent as Mary Collins had, but he didn’t feel right just arbitrarily deciding something like that for someone else. He would give him the choice none the less.
“Edwin was it? Well, Edwin, I understand your anger and you would be perfectly justified in taking it out on Uther, but Arthur and his friends here, apart from Gaius, were all children when your parents died. Now I know a place where you can go where you can find peace and come to terms with the past, would you allow me to send you there?” He already knew the answer before he asked the question, rage and hatred had festered in his heart for too long for there to be any other way for him now.
“Never! Uther will pay for what he’s done. He took my life and now I will take the only thing in his life that has any meaning for him. His son.”
He watched him raise his hands to direct the flames to engulf Arthur with a wave of sadness. When the flames didn’t do as he bid he looked confused for a moment before he began to blink rapidly trying to bring his vision back into focus unsuccessfully of course. When he finally understood what was happening he turned to look at him with such a look of betrayal on his face it nearly broke his heart.
“You…” He never go to finish what he meant to say before his eyes rolled back and he fell gracelessly into a lump on the ground. He had given him peace the only way he could, by reuniting him with his family.
The group was eerily silent, Arthur wasn’t used to that, usually after a battle where everyone on your side survived there was a lot more noise. Boasting, joking, laughter, but now there was only the sound of the wind in the trees as they moved steadily forward.
Questions were burning in his mind, where were they going, why were they going there, how was Merlin going to help them, but for once he held his tongue not wanting to upset the group and knowing they still had some time to find those answers. Merlin was at the head of the group leading the way, he’d expected him to be upset or to have some sort of reaction to what had happened before but the boy was devoid of reaction. For the first time in a long time Arthur didn’t know what to do, and he hated it.
Merlin could feel the weight of Arthur’s emotions and silently dared him to open his mouth. Gwaine stood next to him providing his silent support, he appreciated it even though it wasn’t necessary, this was not the first time he’d been forced to do this, to take a life. He was so caught up in his own thoughts he didn’t immediately realize it when the mood of the pouting prince behind him changed from confusion to determination, not until he opened his mouth anyway.
“What exactly is your plan sorcerer?”
Wow he really was thick wasn’t he.
“To help you gain back your home and your throne of course.” He knew his voice dripped with sarcasm but he couldn’t keep it back. It was always me, me, me with these people. What are you going to do for ME?
“Yes, I know that, but how? Is Balinor going to meet us in Camelot, because that is where we’re headed. Without a plan I might add.” He could tell by the prince’s tone that he was starting to doubt his word about Balinor.
Stopping he turned back to the group who were all looking at him with such wide innocent eyes, silently begging him to make their lives all better. Only Gwaine seemed to share his thoughts about this entire conversation, but if they wanted to have it now so be it.
“Balinor is dead, now you need the help of his son the last Dragon Lord. Don’t worry about that you already have his help and once we get to Camelot the Great Dragon will be dealt with. Any more questions or concerns?”
“Why are you so angry? Anger is for when you lose a fight not when you’re the victor.” Arthur sounded truly confused, like he couldn’t fathom why he wasn’t jumping for joy over his victory.
He felt his rage let loose at that. He recognized that he’d been holding on by a thread before but that comment snapped it.
“Victor? You think I was the victor! I killed a man.”
“You killed an enemy.”
“I killed your enemy!”
There he’d said it the one thing that had been eating at him since the entire thing happened. He’d killed a magic user to save a Pendragon.
“You don’t seem to understand the situation very well so I’m going to speak slowly and enunciate so that even you won’t be able to misunderstand me. You seem to think that all these people, all these creatures, just woke up one morning and decided that the world would be a better place without you in it for no reason. Look around you, use your head for something other than fighting for a minute, and you will see that they have a reason and a damn good reason at that. It is your anger that is not understandable.”
He watched them all, save Gwaine who was smirking on the sidelines as he watched him lay into them all, open their mouths to protest. He didn’t give them the chance.
“Let’s start at the beginning shall we. Nimueh the woman who took your home, also the woman who’s spent the last two decades running from Uther a man who was once her friend. She was the court sorcerer of Camelot one day and the next her friends and neighbors were hunting her down like she was an animal.
“The Great Dragon that you’re all so afraid of and see as an unreasoning beast what do you know of his history? Did you know that when Uther declared war on magic he held off on telling people, so that he could still use them until they figured out what he was doing. He called the Dragon Lords, like Balinor, to him and requested that they summon all the dragons to Camelot. This wasn’t an unusual request for Uther the dragons had been his advisors for the entirety of his rule until that day.
“Once the Dragons landed Uther ordered both them and the Dragon Lords slaughtered in mass. The Great Dragon was injured badly and was forced to lie there unable to move as his family and friends, as his species, was wiped from the face of the earth. Then once they were all dead and their bodies lay on the blood soaked ground around him Uther didn’t even have the mercy to kill him, no instead he was chained up under the castle of his enemy in a dark cave and forgotten just like all the rest.
“Mary Collins the woman who attacked you after you left Camelot. You all stood by as Uther executed her son for nothing. She lost everything and she was in so much pain she wanted you to feel even a fraction of what she felt. It wouldn’t have brought her son back but at least then she wouldn’t be hurting alone since like all the others before him the moment her sons heart stopped beating he was forgotten by you.
“Oh and let’s not forget about Edwin the man I killed for you. Did you not listen to Gaius as he spoke of his life? Can you imagine what that feels like? Losing not one but both of your parents suddenly and over something that was legal the day before. To have them die without even the chance to leave or recant their ways. What it’s like to wake up every morning and for just a second when you’re in that place between waking and dreaming to think for just a moment that maybe it didn’t happen. Maybe it was a nightmare and when you open your eyes your life will be as it should again. The people you lost will be alive again and you won’t be so alone any more.
“Did you know that most magic users who seek revenge actually don’t do it right away? No, when they lose that person it hurts too much to even breathe let alone do anything else. Then one day something happens that triggers it. That person’s birthday comes around or you see that someone’s getting married and it hits you that that person who meant so much to you, that person who was your whole life, is gone and they won’t get to have any more birthdays, anymore happy days. Then you start to think about why they’re gone. What had they done to deserve to die? It’s when they get that answer, when they realize that their loved ones had done nothing to deserve death, that’s when that seed of darkness takes hold and the need to hurt those who hurt you becomes overwhelming.
“So don’t you ever stand there like you have the moral high ground and tell me to be happy to have killed for you. I will regret what I’ve done for the rest of my life, and unlike you I will remember him just as long.”
Not wanting to look at them anymore he turned and walked away telling himself with every step to remember why he was doing this. The Great Dragon needed his help and he wouldn’t turn his back on him, not now not ever. He would do what his father would have wanted him to do; he would help Kilgharrah find peace one way or another.