- -o- - Part I - -o- -
One unthinking comment, innocently spoken in memory of a beloved friend, shattered the illusion of acceptance that had existed since Arthur's reconciliation with Guinevere, his new wife and queen.
"Lancelot loved roasted boar, even if he wasn't so good at hunting them," Gwaine chuckled fondly. "Remember that time he…"
The hapless knight trailed off with a look of dismay, visibly cringing as the conversation around him screeched to an abrupt halt. Throughout the great hall, which had been filled with the sounds of joyful revelry only moments before, the crowd grew deathly still, holding its breath as it waited for the newly wedded king to react to the painful reminder of his traitorous former friend.
They were not disappointed. Arthur's features twisted, displaying a rapid succession of anger, betrayal, disappointment, and grief. Beside him, Queen Guinevere's eyes lowered in helpless shame, as the knights surrounding the couple cast their gazes about awkwardly, desperately searching for something, anything, that might relieve the tension.
"I'm sorry, sire, I didn't mean to…"
"Enough," Arthur whispered, and the quiet word echoed through the silent hall.
The reverberations called out to Merlin like a scream, setting fire to emotions he'd tried to bury deep within himself in a futile attempt to pretend that all was well… that he hadn't been mourning a friend's tarnished memory since the day he'd lain him to rest. Upon Gwaine's guileless words, however, he could no longer deny his grief, nor the way his heart ached for the king and queen and how much they both still suffered under false pretenses.
Lies, so many lies… Merlin was sick to death of lies. He couldn't do much to change the necessary deception in his own life, but what of his friends? Who was protected, what harm was prevented, by carrying on with the illusion that Lancelot had been aware of his actions, and that Gwen had acted of her own free will when they'd betrayed the king?
On the contrary, it seemed to Merlin that the hearts of those he loved would never fully heal unless the truth were known. Their pain wouldn't simply fade with time, as Gaius had promised, and the innocent man who lay silent in a watery grave would never be given the chance to redeem himself if Merlin didn't act on his behalf.
Overwhelmed by grief and remorse, the young warlock slipped away from the wedding feast, never noticing the elderly man who politely excused himself and followed in his wake.
Enough… Merlin's footfalls seemed to pound out the word in frantic repetition as he raced up the stairs and through the long corridors of the palace. Enough… I have to make this right.
He threw the chamber door open with a crash, panting heavily as his eyes took in the sight of heavy, unused furniture that was covered by a thick blanket of dust. Agravaine's former quarters now lay empty, silent and untouched since the day they'd been abandoned by their former occupant.
Without hesitation, he dropped to his knees and searched beneath the bed, giving a satisfied grunt as his fingers brushed against the box that had contained the traitor's secrets. He pulled it out into the light, and with a whispered word and a flash of gold, the lock came free.
"Merlin, what are you doing?" hissed a familiar voice behind him.
He jumped, then bit his lip as he braced himself for a confrontation he'd desperately hoped to avoid.
"Nothing, Gaius," he said, trying to affect an innocent expression as he turned to meet the accusing stare he knew all too well. "Just checking for woodworm, that's all."
"Those flimsy excuses might work on Arthur, but they don't fool me, my boy. Now tell me the truth!"
He sighed in surrender. "All right. I can't leave things this way. I can't let Arthur continue to believe that Lancelot and Gwen betrayed him. I can't stand to see his pain, Gaius. He needs to know the truth."
"No," Gaius said firmly. "We've already discussed this. It's too dangerous! Leave it be, and it will heal with time, I promise you. Come now, let's return to the feast before Arthur notices your absence."
"And what about Lancelot?" Merlin asked him quietly. "Gwen might have earned Arthur's forgiveness, but he has no chance to do the same if the truth is never known. He doesn't deserve to be remembered as a traitor, Gaius, you know that."
"It's an unfortunate thing, but there's no changing it now. You'd be risking your own safety if you tried. I think Lancelot would have understood that."
Merlin felt a rush of sudden anger building inside him. "That's not good enough! What use is all this power if I can do nothing to help my friends?"
"You've saved Arthur, many times," Gaius pointed out with an arched eyebrow. "You're living your destiny, Merlin. You mustn't put that at risk for…"
"Arthur isn't the only person I care about!" he shouted in frustration, hating the resentment behind the words, yet unable to control his feelings any longer. He'd had enough.
Suddenly, all the years of helplessness, of suffering and of loss, boiled up inside him, threatening to overflow like a pitcher that couldn't hold another drop of cider. Faces appeared before him then – first was Lancelot, the dear friend he'd had to watch die not once, but twice, utterly powerless to prevent his demise in either case. Fainter, but still sharply painful when he conjured up the memory, he saw Freya dying in his arms in the wake of sweet, unselfish promises.
He hadn't been able to save her. So much magic, useless, because he hadn't been able to save her…
And then there was his father, the man who'd shared so much of himself in the short time they'd had together. Merlin had known only a taste of the precious bond that had been denied them both… snatched away not only by death, but by the lifetime they'd been forced to spend apart due to Uther's tyrannical ban on magic.
"No man is worth your tears," Arthur had said, and for a fleeting moment, Merlin had hated him for the words. Despised him, because the lifeless body he'd held clutched tightly to his chest should have been the man that mattered most of all, and it had been beyond his power to help him.
Will's face rose before him, too, gentle, honest features twisting in pain as his life had slipped away. And all because Merlin hadn't been able to save him.
He couldn't admit that it had been himself, not Will, who'd used sorcery in Ealdor all those years before. No, he couldn't tell Arthur that Balinor had been his father, a good and honest man who had been persecuted by an unjust king who'd hunted him like a criminal. And he could never reveal that Freya had been only an innocent girl, a victim who'd suffered from a curse that had been beyond her control.
But Lancelot… there might still be a chance to act on his behalf, without revealing his magic. And if he could do that, maybe it would be some small vindication for them all.
"I'm going to do this, Gaius," he said quietly, with steel in his voice. "There's nothing you can say that will change my mind."
"Merlin, didn't I tell you…?" the older man began to protest.
"You were wrong," he responded in a flat voice, even though it hurt deeply to see the disapproval on the kind, careworn face he knew so well. "I'm sorry, Gaius, but I have to follow my conscience."
"But the risk. You can't…"
"I don't care about the risk," was his determined reply as he turned to his task. "It doesn't matter to me anymore. But if it does to you, you might want to leave so I can get this over with before I'm caught in here."
Gaius's mouth opened and closed several times, before he finally shook his head and reluctantly left the room.