Characters: Merlin and Arthur, pre-slash.
Summary: Merlin forgets. Arthur doesn’t.
a stranger in a strange land
“Who are you,” was the first thing he said when he woke up – well, it’s what he would have said, if he’d been able to say anything at all.
Instead, he ended up reaching his hand out towards the blond boy beside him.
The boy was about his age, perhaps a year or so older. He was just sitting there, with his head in his hands, and when he saw the hand outstretched towards him he jerked upright.
“Oh good,” the boy said dully. “You’re alive.” His voice sounded hoarse, like he hadn’t spoken for awhile. And then – “Oh God,” - and he rested his head back in his hands.
He tried to talk, but his throat made a rusty sort of sound. The blond boy looked at him, puzzled.
“What did you say?” the boy asked, and then – “Would you like some water?”
He nodded – and then there was the feel of a musty wineskin pressed to his lips, and he felt the welcome moisture trickle down his throat. He shut his eyes for a moment, and when he opened them the other boy was staring back at him. His eyes were very blue.
“Thanks,” he choked out.
The boy looked sad, than. “The least I could do,” he said. “Besides, you’ve served me a drink plenty of times, haven’t you, Merlin?”
“Who’s Merlin?” he said.
The boy stared at him. “Oh God,” he said. “Merlin. You’re Merlin.”
“Merlin,” repeated Merlin; and then “Am I?”
The boy nodded jerkily. “Yes,” he said. “You are.”
“Oh,” said Merlin. “Who are you?”
The boy looked paler – or perhaps it was just the dim light.
“My name’s Arthur,” he said. “Pr – just Arthur.”
“I should have known that, shouldn’t I?” said Merlin.
“Yeah,” Arthur said. “You should have.”
Merlin stared at his hands.
“Sorry,” he said – then – “Are we friends?”
Arthur didn’t answer straight away, and when he finally did all he said was “Yes,” but the sincerity in his voice reassured Merlin.
“So,” said Merlin. “Where are we?”
Arthur snorted. “Look around you,” he said.
Merlin sat up properly then. He’d been so focused on Arthur that he hadn’t paid any attention to where they were.
They were in a cage, in the middle of the forest. “So,” said Merlin, “this is pretty much the weirdest thing ever.”
Arthur looked straight at him, then. “You really have forgotten, haven’t you?” he said, and
his voice was gentler. “We’ve seen a lot weirder than this.”
“Our lives must be pretty strange,” said Merlin.
Arthur began shaking his head, and then stopped himself. “Stranger than some,” he admitted.
Merlin decided that Arthur had a very nice smile, really.
“So you don’t remember anything?” said Arthur.
“That’s what I’ve been telling you!” said Merlin. “What happened?”
“We were out in the forest,” said Arthur. “And we were attacked by eight bandits.”
“Cor,” said Merlin. “Eight men! We didn’t stand a chance, then.”
“We should have,” said Arthur, tightly. “I’ve fought off more than that before. But they ambushed us, and three of them went straight for you. You were unarmed, and I was distracted.” Merlin wondered if it was just his imagination or if distracted was just another way of saying afraid, but decided to let the matter drop.
“Anyway,” Arthur continued. “They knocked you about pretty hard as I was fighting my way through to you. I guess your head isn’t as hard as I’d always thought. Does it hurt?” he asked abruptly.
Merlin tentatively reached up towards his head. He could feel the swelling there, dried blood crusting on his lip.
The skin under his eye was very tender.
“A bit,” he said honestly. “I’m okay, though.”
“I should have been quicker,” Arthur said.
“You did well. We’re both still alive, aren’t we?” said Merlin.
“For now,” Arthur said darkly. “They dragged us here, locked us in and said they would return in the morning.”
“Isn’t it a bit weird,” asked Merlin, “them leaving us here in this cage in the middle of
“What’s it matter?” said Arthur. “We’ve no way of getting out. While you were unconscious, I tested the whole cage. There’s no way out without a key - it’s just a cruel game. We must await their return, and then die like men.”
“Whoa,” said Merlin. “Whoa. Who said anything about dying?”
“Why?” asked Arthur, tilting his neck up towards the sky. Dawn was breaking on the horizon, smearing the sky with a dusky glow. “Are you afraid?”
“Well, I’m certainly not looking forward to it!” Merlin said.
“Neither am I,” Arthur said. “When I say we die like men, I mean we go down fighting. Which will be hard without my weapons, but I hope to still make them hurt. If only I had my knife, or my sword,” he added.
“Wow,” said Merlin. “Are you a knight or something like that? I’ve never met a knight before.”
“Or something like that,” Arthur said. He sounded as if he were amused, although Merlin didn’t know what was funny about a simple question. “And you’ve met plenty of knights before, back in Camelot.”
“Are you any good?” asked Merlin, interestedly. “You look awfully young. You can’t be much older than me.”
“I’m very good,” said Arthur – and although the words were boastful, the matter-of-fact way he said it was as if he was just announcing an indisputable fact, like the colour of the sky.
“Am I any good?” said Merlin. “At swords and that, I mean.”
“You’re learning,” said Arthur. “You’ve got a lot to learn, but you’re making progress. And,” he added, “you have an excellent teacher.” He sounded smug, as if that was somehow his doing.
“So what’s my family like?” asked Merlin. “Do I have any brothers and sisters?”
“I don’t think so,” said Arthur, but his voice lacked its usual confidence.
Merlin’s jaw dropped. “I thought you said we were friends!” he exclaimed. “Shouldn’t that be the type of thing a friend should, y’know, know ?”
“I’ve met your mother,” Arthur added hurriedly.
“Oh,” said Merlin. “What was she like?”
“She’s kind,” said Arthur. “Brave. And she loves you, very much. I could tell she missed you.”
“Missed me?” said Merlin. “Why are we apart?”
“Well,” said Arthur, “you live in Camelot, and she lives in Ealdor, a small village - you grew up there, you know.”
“I don’t know, obviously,” retorted Merlin. “You don’t know what it’s like, not to remember.”
“I don’t remember my mother, either,” said Arthur, in a hushed voice. “So I know what that’s like, at least.”
“Oh,” said Merlin. “Sorry. It’s just - frustrating not to remember anything. I appreciate you telling me these things, I really do.”
Arthur shrugged. “It’s fine,” he said shortly, turning his face away.
“Arthur?” asked Merlin hesitantly. “What’s wrong?”
“Oh, you mean, apart from the fact that we’re stuck in a cage awaiting our deaths?” retorted Arthur.
“What happened to all that ‘we die like men’ rhetoric?” asked Merlin.
“I still believe it,” said Arthur, turning to face him. “I just – I wish I could have said goodbye to all the people I’ll miss. Like Morgana and Gwen, and my father.” His jaw clenched. “And you,” he said. “I want to say goodbye to you, which is stupid because you’re right here.”
“But I’m not him,” Merlin said, because Arthur wouldn’t – but Arthur didn’t deny it, and somehow it made Merlin feel hollow too.
They didn’t say much, after that. Suddenly there wasn’t much to say.
And then the men were back, and they’d bought even more men – there were at least a dozen of them, now – all heavily armed.
Arthur rose to his feet, and hissed at Merlin: “Stand up, idiot!” and Merlin rose as well, and tried to look them in the eye.
“What have we here?” crowed one of the men, obviously the leader of the bandits. “Two boys from Camelot – and one is more than a common boy, if you make my meaning.” Arthur pressed his lips together tightly, but did not say a word.
“You’re a fighter, lad,” the man continued. “You killed three of my men yesterday. That’s why I’m going to kill you first.”
“Get him,” he said, and two of the men opened up the cage door. That’s when Arthur struck, coming out fists swinging and Merlin barely had time to blink before Arthur had taken a man’s sword and had felled two men, and was making his way through the third, fourth and fifth – and Merlin thought with a rush of blind optimism that maybe, just maybe they had a chance of getting out of this alive – and then he felt the pinpoint of a dagger pressed against his back as the bandit leader called out “Stop, or he dies,” - and Arthur whirled around, teeth bared and sword held aloft.
And then he saw Merlin, and something in his expression faltered.
“What’s it matter,” Arthur said, “you’re going to kill us both anyway,” and he looked so determined – and then the dagger was suddenly at Merlin’s side, and he felt a sharp pain. He couldn’t hold back the cry, and Arthur flinched. “Stop,” Arthur said. “Stop it,” and he sounded defeated, even though he was still holding a sword, and obviously knew how to use it – and Merlin wondered why he didn’t just keep fighting, why Merlin was worth all of this.
“That’s what I thought,” said the bandit leader. “Drop the sword.”
“Don’t,” said Merlin at the same time, “You can take them, Arthur, don’t worry about me,” and then the blade twisted at his side, and the pain heightened, and he collapsed to one knee.
Arthur looked at him with fond exasperation, even now. “Merlin,” he said, “I never stop worrying about you,” and with that, he threw his sword to the side.
Four of the men pounced on him, and held his arms – but Arthur wasn’t resisting anymore. He looked resigned – and the expression on his face hurt worse than the dagger. “That’s right,” the bandit leader crooned, dropping Merlin and walking over to Arthur; circling him like a predator circles prey. Merlin made an abortive movement towards him, but another man quickly gripped his shoulders, pressing him back down.
“You’re a fighter, that’s why we’ll kill you first,” the bandit leader said. He made a curt motion to one of his men, and they pulled Arthur’s head back by his hair, baring his throat.
Arthur stared at Merlin, clear and unafraid.
“I’m going to make you bleed, boy” the bandit leader sing-songed, and he stretched his arm back, knife poised. No , thought Merlin, you’re not – and although he didn’t speak the words aloud, he felt them with the same unassailable certainty, knowing that they were true - like the way Arthur had said he was good with a sword, like Arthur had said his mother loved him.
“You will not touch him,” said Merlin, in a voice that sounded nothing like his own, and everyone looked at him, then, as he shook off the man holding him and rose to his feet; raised his hand and held it out for all to see. And everyone did see, because no-one could look away. There was something glowing in his palm, and he felt the same spark alight in his chest – coiled power, taut and ready and at his command. He pushed , then, and the light shot out from him in a pulsing wave and the men all fell to the ground as if their legs had been cut out from under them, blank eyes and faces twisted into a rictus of horror, and in the midst of it was Arthur, the only one left standing.
When he stared at Merlin, his eyes looked as blank as the men felled on the ground. “What just happened?” asked Arthur.
“I think… I think I happened,” said Merlin, and his voice was shaky and awed, and Arthur was looking at him agape.
“You…” Arthur began.
Merlin flexed his fingers. “Yeah,” he said. “It felt natural, you know?”
Arthur shook his head. “No,” he said. “I don’t know. This must be some sort of bizarre side effect from knocking your head, or you’ve been ensorcelled or something .” He began striding away, faster than Merlin could follow.
Merlin hurried along behind him. “So I take it your Merlin couldn’t do magic?” he asked.
“You’re my Merlin,” Arthur responded automatically; and then “Blast, that came out wrong – but no, he – I mean you - couldn’t. Or at least, not that I knew about.” He pursed his lips, and there was a sour twist to his voice when he continued, “but perhaps there was a lot I didn’t know.”
“But you said we were friends!” protested Merlin. “Why wouldn’t he, I mean, I , tell you?”
Arthur shook his head. “Well,” he said, “in Camelot, where we live, the king has decreed the use of magic to be punishable by death. Merlin obviously mustn’t have trusted that I would keep his secret.”
Merlin felt as if he’d hurt Arthur’s feelings, although he hadn’t meant to; and it was almost impossible to apologise for something you had no recollection of. “I’m sure that’s not true,” he said. “I mean, you two were friends. I’m sure he trusted you. He probably just didn’t want to put you in that position.”
“Maybe,” Arthur said, voice tight.
Merlin decided it was time to change the subject. “So this king of yours sounds like a bit of a prat,” began Merlin, conversationally. “Have you ever met him?”
“I’ve never heard him called a prat before,” said Arthur. It sounded as if he was trying very hard not to laugh. “And yes, we’ve met.”
“Cripes!” exclaimed Merlin. “If you ever see him again, you’re not going to tell him about… well… you know, are you?”
Arthur looked at him steadily, and there was no trace of mirth in his voice when he answered. “’Course not,” he said. “Your secret’s safe with me.”
But something had changed between them, Merlin could tell – there was a charge of tension in the air, even as Arthur ripped a corner off his own cloak to bandage Merlin’s side. His hands were deft and surprisingly gentle as he treated the wound with practiced ease. “You’ll live,” was all he said, but the words warmed Merlin, and Arthur was smiling.
They walked in silence after that, with Arthur setting the pace and Merlin hurrying to keep up.
“We’re only a half-day’s journey from Camelot,” announced Arthur. “It’s not far to go.”
“Good,” said Merlin, half-stumbling over a tree root.
Arthur paused and really looked at him, for the first time since the clearing. “You’re pale as a ghost,” he said, not unkindly. “Sit down before you collapse.
We’ll camp the night here.”
Merlin sank to the ground thankfully. He hadn’t liked to complain, but the events of the last few hours had been wearing on him, and his head had been throbbing doubly ever since the scene at the clearing.
“Here,” said Arthur, passing him the wineskin.
“You have some first,” Merlin insisted, thrusting it straight back at him.
Arthur sighed, and raised it to his lips – although when he handed it to Merlin, it didn’t feel any lighter. Merlin drank gratefully, but made sure not to drain it completely, in case Arthur ever realised that self-sacrificing heroes got thirsty too.
Arthur was trying to fashion a fire from a bundle of sticks and twigs. He’d spent the last few minutes trying to get it to catch, flushing when he noticed Merlin watching him closely. “You do this, usually,” he said. “You’re uncannily good at it.”
“Here,” said Merlin, “let me try.” He tried, but the twigs were dampened and no matter how much friction he applied, there was no resulting spark. “This is impossible,” he said, “nobody can do this.”
Arthur shook his head. “I’ve seen you make fire from wood damper than this,” he said, “so it can be done. Let me have another go.”
Merlin shook off his hand. “Wait a second,” he said, and stared at the place he wanted the fire to be, and thought of spark and heat and the dance of flame – saw it for a moment in his mind’s eye – and then watched as a tongue of flame appeared, and the wood caught alight.
Arthur was looking at him, measuring him up, and Merlin was acutely conscious of his gaze.
“That’s probably how I usually do it,” Merlin said, in an attempt to fill the silence.
“Yes,” said Arthur, “I suppose it must be,” and his voice sounded as weary as Merlin felt.
“What’s Camelot like?” asked Merlin.
They were lying there, staring into the flames.
Arthur’s face shone, illuminated by the witch light of the fire. “It’s everything ,” he breathed. “Or it will be, one day.” And he proceeded to tell Merlin the history of Camelot – its battles, its kings and queens; of a legacy to be proud of and a future worth fighting for – a kingdom much, much more than the sum of its parts.
As he spoke, Merlin imagined he could see the spires of Camelot– and he wondered if that was a true memory, or just the power of Arthur’s voice bringing them to life inside his mind.
“I think I’d like Camelot,” he said, sleepily.
“You will,” said Arthur. “You do.”
As they walked through the gates and into the cobblestoned courtyard, Merlin realised that people were staring at them – which, alright, he supposed they looked a bit odd, bedraggled and beaten down from the past few days. But this was more than just a reaction to their appearance - people were parting to make way for them, and everyone was staring.
Merlin tried not to make eye contact, but couldn’t help looking around curiously as a girl gave a low curtsey, and then everyone else began to bow in deference, forming a wide circle around them, with Arthur and Merlin as the focal point. Arthur was looking increasingly uncomfortable.
A knight rode up towards them, on a white horse. His armour gleamed in the sun as he dismounted and bowed low before Arthur. “Your father has been beside himself,” he said. “I go to bring him the news of your return. It is good to see you, my prince,” he added, as he departed.
“What’s going on, Arthur?” asked Merlin, a horrifying possibility only just occurring to him. “Why are they calling you a prince?”
Arthur met his eyes, for a moment, and had to look away. “Because I am,” he said.
“You couldn’t have told me that earlier?” Merlin hissed
“I didn’t think it mattered,” said Arthur. “Does it?”
Merlin glared. “Anything else I should know?”
“You’re my manservant,” Arthur admitted.
Merlin frowned at him. “You’re a prat.”
“I know,” agreed Arthur, sounding relieved. “And you’re a hopeless manservant.”
“Just so we’re clear,” muttered Merlin, under his breath.
“Merlin,” said a man with white hair – his father, Merlin wondered? – who was rushing towards them.
Arthur nudged him. “Merlin,” he said. “This is Gaius, the court physician,” and the man –
Gaius – stopped himself and stared.
“Merlin?” Gaius enquired hesitantly.
“He doesn’t remember anything,” Arthur said. “Anything .”
Gaius looked shaken. “Allow me to take him to my chambers, your highness,” said Gaius.
“I’m coming too,” Arthur said, and Gaius looked as if he wanted to argue, but then Arthur said, “Unless you want to discuss this in the middle of the street,” and Gaius stiffened and then stared at Arthur with apprehension.
“Of course,” he said, and his voice was guarded. “This way, your highness,” he said, guiding them through the crowd.
Gaius checked Merlin over thoroughly, at Arthur’s insistence – and Arthur, as well, although Arthur complained loudly the whole time, even as Gaius bandaged his ribs, declaring two of them broken – and Merlin wondered why Arthur hadn’t said anything; why he hadn’t noticed. Apparently Arthur was every bit the soldier he sounded. He thought of Arthur’s vow to die like a man and realised that Arthur could say these things so casually because he was already living like a man, every day – no, Merlin corrected himself, a prince - and he felt the stirrings of something that he couldn’t quite explain.
Gaius had ordered him to rest, and Arthur had shoved him unceremoniously into his room. He could still hear Gaius and Arthur outside his door, talking in hushed voices that he could only make out if he concentrated very hard. Gaius said, “So you know?” and Arthur said, “Why didn’t he tell me?” and he sounded lost; like a child, not a soldier. Merlin wanted to hear the rest of what they were saying, but he was so very tired, and his head was so very heavy.
His last thought before sleep claimed him was that he wished he had known Arthur was the prince; and then he wondered why, what that would have changed. Why he cared so much, to begin with.
Merlin awoke to hear a voice calling his name. Merlin he heard, reverberating through his head. Merlin merlin merlin merlinmerlinmerlin .
He didn’t know whose voice it was, or what it wanted from him, or what any of this meant - but it didn’t matter, because he was already following it.
When he stumbled through the castle’s foundations and emerged to find a dragon he wasn’t surprised, because as soon as he saw it he realised that of course it was a dragon, a dragon’s voice – although he had never heard a dragon’s voice before. Or maybe he had, he corrected himself, and just couldn’t remember it.
Something in the dragon’s eyes reminded him of the light he had seen in his hand at the clearing, the flame he had pictured in his mind when lighting the fire – and he realised with a start that the light was magic; that he was magic – but before he could dwell on that, he realised the dragon was speaking, had been speaking all along.
“You have lost something important,” intoned the dragon. “And because of that loss you have found something important, also.”
“I’ve lost my memory,” said Merlin. “And I want it back. Can you do that?”
The dragon looked sad, then. “I can restore what has been lost, boy,” he said. “I can breathe memory like fire, but it will consume what it replaces.”
“Are you always this cryptic?” asked Merlin, although he knew perfectly well what the dragon meant; wished he didn’t. Merlin sat down, and rested his head on his knees.
“What’s there to decide?” asked the dragon, eyes staring at him unblinking.
Merlin sighed. “Oh,” he said, “of course I want my old memories back. I just – I like the new ones too. Can’t I keep them both?”
The dragon said: “Everything comes at a price, Merlin. One thing must be sacrificed in order to obtain something else.”
Merlin hugged his knees tight to his chest. “I know that,” he said miserably. “I know what I have to do. I just – I’m not ready to forget yet. I’ve lost so much already, it feels like.
Can I just,” he paused. “Can I just keep them a little longer?”
The dragon’s eyes were almost unbearably wise. “Of course,” he said. “I can wait.”
“Why didn’t you tell me?” said Merlin, bursting into Arthur’s room, not caring that it was the middle of the night. “That you were the prince, I mean. And that I was your manservant.”
Arthur was still fully clothed, sitting upright in his chair. Perhaps it hurt his ribs to lie down, Merlin thought, with a pang of guilt. He didn’t seem surprised at all to see Merlin – perhaps Merlin often burst into Arthur’s room at odd hours demanding answers. Merlin somehow liked that thought, that this much at least would stay the same.
Arthur’s face revealed nothing. “It was – simpler,” he said. “Not to tell you, I mean. I thought we were going to die. Clarifying titles and social classes seemed irrelevant, given the circumstances.”
Merlin plunged ahead. “What about after,” he said, “when we weren’t going to die, and we were making our way back to Camelot?”
“What does it matter?” He sounded very tired.
Merlin looked at him, steadily. “You said we were friends,” he said.
“Aren’t we?” said Arthur, although he didn’t give Merlin time to answer. “I know you don’t remember this, but when we first met, you didn’t know I was the prince then, either. You stood up to me, and you are the only one who’s ever done that. You’ve always been by my side, and I’ve never known why. You’re always so loyal, and I hoped we were friends, but I didn’t know - how could I know? And then I thought we were going to die, and then we didn’t and I found out you can do magic and everything made sense, and I’d only just been sure we were friends.” Arthur bowed his head. “I didn’t want you to be afraid of me,” he continued, in a voice so low Merlin wasn’t sure he was meant to hear it.
“I’m not,” said Merlin. “Afraid of you, that is. I’m sorry I didn’t tell you about the magic. I don’t know why the old me didn’t tell you, but I’m sure he had his reasons. And I’m sure they had nothing to do with not trusting you.”
Arthur’s voice was grave when he finally replied. “Thank you,” he said.
Merlin held out his hand. “Friends?” he said.
Arthur only hesitated a moment, and then clasped Merlin’s hand and pulled him into a half-embrace, patting him on the shoulder roughly. “That’s what I told you, you idiot,” he said. His voice was muffled through the fabric of Merlin’s coat, but Merlin heard the words, heard what lay beneath them.
Merlin pulled away first. “I have to go,” he said.
“Where are you going?” asked Arthur.
“I’m getting him back for you,” said Merlin. “Just – take care of him, okay?”
“I’m ready,” said Merlin – and then the dragon breathed a spark that became a flame that lit his whole mind. He saw flashes of his mother, of Will, of the children at the harvest, he was climbing a tree, he was the tree, he was the whole world and a child of earth and rain and sun and wind. He saw Gwen blushing into her apron, saw Morgana tossing her hair regally, saw Gaius poring over his books. He saw a magician executed, saw Uther bow his head beneath his crown, saw his whole time at Camelot unspool before his eyes, flickering images that danced behind his eyelids.
Most of all, he saw Arthur: in a courtyard, in a tournament, in battle, in training, by his side – and underneath it all, he heard echoes of destiny; the thunder of prophecies falling into place.
He saw the future too – flashes so bright they hurt his eyes – and Arthur was his future, as well as his past, and somehow that didn’t surprise him as much as it should.
When it was over, he leant back against the rock face, panting. “I remember,” he said, and the dragon smiled; and another chink of destiny slid into place.
“I remember,” said Merlin. “At least, I remember everything except the last few days. But Gaius said that before that I didn’t remember anything except the last few days, so I suppose it’s an improvement. I tried to ask Gaius exactly what happened, but he said that I’d have to ask you. I can’t imagine how I must have sounded, forgetting everything. Hopefully I didn’t say anything too daft?”
“No more than usual,” Arthur replied - and his voice was grave but his eyes were dancing, and Merlin knew that they were going to be okay.
They were going to be okay.