Word Count: 2200
Spoilers: None to speak of.
Notes: Thanks to unadrift and tacitus_3 for fine and speedy beta work.
Summary: To take someone out of their alloted time, and let them live in another, one must let the world break.
"Things fall apart; the center can not hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere The ceremony of innocence is drowned; The best lack all conviction, while the worst Are full of passionate intensity" -- William Butler Yeats
The old man in the forest twisted the faded silk scarf between his hands, first one way, and then the other. He was not a cruel man. He reminded himself of that, when the younger men spoke of vengeance and rebellion. He was not a violent man, nor a revolutionary.
But he wanted something. He wanted, with such intensity that he swore he felt the world shiver with it. And he held the key.
The magic that he'd hoarded and nurtured for twenty years began to coil around him, following the twist of the scarf -- first one way, and then the other.
He could change everything, he thought, in awe. So easily.
In the dream, he lay in a bed wider than his arms could stretch. Above him, a red canopy hung, heavy with shadows in the firelight. A muscled weight pressed him deep into rumpled blankets, as the heat of calloused hands burned against his hips; branding his ribs, the line of his spine, the hinge of his jaw. He dreamt of a smile, sharp as a blade; of burnished skin, slick with sweat.
He felt, under that smile, as if he would catch fire.
And as he burned, a name tore its way out of him.
The impassioned cry woke him. He could feel it, raw and urgent in his throat.
He sat, blinking, as his heart began to slow from its frantic pace. In the spill of moonlight through his window (so cool and distant after the golden heat of the dream) he could see that his hands were shaking.
It felt real, he thought, and frowned. Less like a dream than a memory. But he was not a seer, like the Lady Morgana -- he didn't dream true dreams. And the name that still echoed in his head was not one he recognized.
Something was wrong with the world. Or something was wrong with him. Merlin wasn't sure. But wrongness -- there was definitely wrongness somewhere.
He dressed in the dark and slipped out of his quarters, careful not to wake Gaius. He felt a tug, and he followed.
It wasn't a spell, this pull he was following -- he may only be an apprentice sorcerer, but Gaius praised his skill. He'd even been rewarded by the Queen Igraine, when he'd driven the griffin away. He knew magic, deep in his bones, and this didn't feel like any spell he knew.
But the world seemed to shift when he wasn't looking at it -- colours fading and gone at the edges of his vision. The magic in him was ringing as if it had been struck.
Down the winding stairs, he followed the tug. The guards at the bottom nodded to him and kept most of their attention on their dice.
"Little early for your lessons, isn't it?" Harold asked, sleep blurring his voice.
Merlin shrugged. "Gaius likes me to practice," he said. He ducked his head and smiled, looking harmless, and the guards waved him on.
"Try not to knock down too many rocks," Harold called after him. "It echoes something fierce down there."
The dungeons were empty, all the doors unbarred. At the end of the old wall he took a torch from its sconce and ducked past to the cavern.
Deep and wide, the cavern's native shadows loomed over the light of the torch. Merlin murmured, and the light flared, pushing back the dark. The cavern was immense and empty -- exactly as it had always been. The scorch marks, where Gaius sometimes had him fling spells in practice (down here so the castle walls will be safe from your aim, Merlin), were undisturbed, dark against the stone.
But here, the wrongness seemed to pool, and Merlin found himself holding his breath. It felt like the world was straining, all in silence, like it would tear at the seams and let something huge fall through.
And then Merlin heard, not a voice, but something like a voice.
Merlin, it roared through his head. MERLIN!
He dropped the torch, and nearly went after it, tumbling into the abyss below. Hardly noticing, he clutched his head and gasped.
Insistent, and horribly angry, the not-voice bellowed, Merlin!
"Yes, yes, I hear you!" he cried, voice cracking with pain "Please, just stop yelling!"
He felt then as if a great claw had hooked around his ribs and was pulling him to the edge of the cliff. Do you see me? he heard.
"How could I see you?" Merlin protested. "There's no one here!"
Merlin, SEE ME. And a pale light rose from the extinguished torch.
In the light that wasn't really there, he began to see, not truly, but in flashes nearly as transparent as air, a chain stretching down into the depths, its links scraping against stone. Wings spread as far as the rocks allowed, there but not there, beating furiously. And there were teeth -- teeth longer than his face, inches away from him. A smell like cinders and scorched steel wafted over him.
The cavern was empty -- but there was a dragon in his mind.
Quieter now, though no less insistent, the dragon asked, Now, Merlin. Do you know me?
But Merlin could only shake his head. "I don't . . . I've never . . . You're a dragon!"
The dragon roared. This time, for all his head felt about to explode, Merlin thought the sound more desperate than angry. But then the beast settled, coming to rest on the stone, and pulled its head back, so Merlin could see more than its massive teeth.
Merlin could, to his horror, see the far side of the rocky outcrop through the dragon's head.
. . . sten to me. The not-voice pulled Merlin's attention back. Don't you feel it? The world is breaking.
"Yes, and you're breaking it!" he protested, because that's what it felt like. "You shouldn't be here!"
NO. But I am here. I must be here! Feel it, Merlin? Feel how the world's been wrenched out of it's true path!
"I don't know what you're talking about!"
The dragon growled, and its wings quivered, as if it were about to take off. With a patience that even in his panic Merlin could tell was forced, it explained.
Someone was taken out of Time and put on a path that was not meant for them.
The forces of Time have warped the world trying to adjust, and the strain is increasing. I know you can feel it, warlock! If you can remember him, you can follow the spell and keep the world from failing under it.
The clawed foot that held him snapped tight and pulled him straight up to the dragon's face.
And Merlin fell apart.
"Are you listening to me, Merlin?" Arthur's voice was sharp, but the hand tracing the curve of Merlin's back was gentle.
"Not at all," Merlin yawned, and arched under Arthur's touch. "You were saying?"
With the dragon's magic coursing through him, Merlin could see the way the world twisted around Queen Igraine (Igraine, who should have died. The lovely queen, who had kissed him on the cheek for killing a griffin with magic.). He could see the way Time itself shook loose in her presence. Merlin groaned as he felt dark things looking at the world through the widening cracks, things older and darker than the dragon, things that smelled of old blood and decay.
Merlin rolled his eyes, and Gwen sighed, as Arthur let Morgana bait him into boasting about his skills as a dancer. As she tugged him out to prove them, he looked helplessly at Merlin, realizing he'd be stuck in the hall for at least another hour now.
"Prat," Merlin mouthed back at him, and settled in to wait.
Merlin wanted to hide his face. His breath came in broken sobs, as his mind followed the altered flow of Time to the forest, where an old man with tired eyes held a child on his knee and showed the girl how to hear the trees singing.
A faded silk scarf was loosely tied around the old man's neck. Merlin was pained to recognize it as one that the queen often wore, covering her long golden hair. Gwen said that Uther had given it to her. And he knew, because the dragon knew, that the queen had been buried with it.
"No, Arthur, that thing will eat your knights for breakfast! You need me."
"And if my knights see what you can do, you'll be killed." Arthur's eyes were wild, his grip painfully tight on Merlin's arm. "And I do. Need you."
"Don't go!" Merlin groaned, coming back to himself in the dark, on cold stone. He shuddered, hooking his arm over his eyes. "Arthur," he said, "don't go."
As if the name were a catalyst, Merlin scrambled to his feet. There was no dragon. The cavern was as empty as it had always been (as it never was). His head felt as though it would split apart, with two sets of memories warring for space.
Merlin felt like screaming. Like flinging all of his magic into the not-there where the dragon was, to bring the whole cavern crashing down. Because he knew what the wrongness was now. And to fix it, he'd have to destroy so much. So many people would die (were already dead).
He didn't know what would happen if Queen Igraine lived out her borrowed time in Camelot. Perhaps Time would warp too much, and the world would crack open far enough for those dark things to make themselves known. Or perhaps it was only the dragon's chosen destiny that was threatened. He didn't know. He thought that if it were just that, he'd let the world take its chances.
But it wasn't just that.
He knew, because the dragon knew, that so long as the queen lived, Uther would have no heir. Arthur would never be (have been) born.
And now that he remembered him, Merlin would have to destroy the world to keep him.
He took a horse from the stables, while a yawning groom bobbed his head in a makeshift bow. A sorcerer's apprentice (a prince's manservant) was not to be questioned, riding in haste before sunrise.
The bright moon was far below the tree line now, and in the starlight the trail Merlin followed was as insubstantial as spider-silk. A thread of magic so tenuous, so fragile, that Merlin marveled at it. Such a simple thing, to pull the world out of shape.
Such a simple thing, to change everything.
He pulled the horse to a stop where the oldest trees stood gnarled and hoary with moss. The old man from his vision stood waiting.
"The trees told me you were coming," the old man said calmly. He looked around at them. "You know, I can't quite tell if they approve of what I've done."
"Would you undo it, if you knew the trees objected?" Merlin sat his horse as still as he could manage.
The Druid's eyes were clear as they met Merlin's. "I have grandchildren. If I undid this spell, they wouldn't exist."
"But you have to reverse the spell." Merlin's voice shook. The horse tossed her head as his hands tightened on the reins. "I'll make you. Can't you feel the world breaking?"
"The world broke twenty years ago," the Druid said. "I only fixed it. Think of it. Because of what I did, magic belongs in Camelot -- Uther is in love and so his kingdom is happy. My children live. You yourself have freedom -- enjoy it, Emyrs. Leave me in peace."
And Merlin, because he thought he probably agreed with the old Druid, except for one vital thing, gave him that truth.
"This world is empty. Your spell took him from me."
The forest seemed to lean in towards the Druid as he gathered his magic. "You'd bring back the fires and the executions? You'd make yourself a killer, Emrys? For one man, who doesn't even exist in this world?"
Merlin's eyes glowed gold.
"Yes," he said, his heart breaking, "because he doesn't exist in this world."
Merlin lay pressed under Arthur's body, the long sweep of the prince's skin hot and slick against his own. He dug his fingers into Arthur's back, feeling the muscles pulse and stretch. His breath hitched.
Arthur slowed, murmured in his ear. "All right?"
Merlin screwed his eyes shut to trap the tears, and pressed his head against Arthur's chest. Wrapping his legs higher over Arthur's hips, he said, voice raw, "Don't stop. And don't ever let go of me."
For a moment, Arthur was silent, his body still. Then he swore, voice rough, and bit Merlin's shoulder, hard.