Movie Prompt: 'Cinderella'
Warnings: Genderbending; emotional abuse of minors; one mention of physical abuse. Also, a character who is actually insane.
Summary: Merlin, Gwen and Morgana have been "apprenticed" to Nimueh since they were small, but when Merlin falls into disgrace, he's forced to work as a servant in the house where he was previously a favoured son. When the three of them find out about Nimueh's desire to revenge herself upon King Uther of Camelot, they decide to do everything they can to make sure her revenge fails, and they can escape from a home which feels increasingly lie a prison. And if that means Merlin has to turn up to the ball every night as a girl and disappear at midnight, well - so be it.
A/N: This fic became a sprawling, emo monster when I wasn't looking, the little bastard. Written for reel_merlin 2009, and with much thanks to acetamide and wickednotevil for their help and support during the writing ~process. ^_^
Once upon a time, in a kingdom far, far away, there lived a little boy called Merlin.
When Merlin had been very little indeed, his mother, his only parent, had died, and instead of being taken in and looked after by the rest of his village, a great lady, who called herself Nimueh had swept down upon them and 'taken a fancy' to the young Merlin.
"I've always wanted a little boy," she said, one hand on Merlin's head, and he looked up at her, sensing the lie in her words as children often do. "And Merlin will be like a son to me. The little son I have never had."
Unable to protest against a lady, the villagers had reluctantly agreed to her demands, and when Nimueh left the village, she took Merlin home with her.
The home she took him to was a huge, forbidding castle, surrounded by a thick, dark forest, high in the northern mountains which formed the border between Camelot and Ghent. To Merlin, all of seven years old, it was terrifying. Lady Nimueh gave him a room ‘all of his own’, with a smile she meant to be reassuring, and actually made Merlin think she was going to eat him (some people did that, he knew – his mother had told him that they would come for him if he was bad).
Just thinking about his mother made his lip tremble, and tears well up in his eyes, and he didn't hear the lady tell him she had to leave him ‘for a little while’. He didn’t hear her say that she would be back soon, or tell him that she had to make sure she stayed in his room, so he couldn’t wander off and get lost exploring the castle by himself. He didn’t hear any of this; all he wanted to do was to tell her that he didn't want to be a lady's son, and that he wanted his mother, but by the time he found his voice, Nimueh had already swept out of the room. The enormous door shut behind her, and then - the worst sound of all - Merlin heard a key turn in the lock.
That was it. He was going to get eaten.
He didn't mean to cry - he was a big boy now, all of seven and terribly grown up - but he couldn't quite hold back his tears. By the time he started to weep in earnest, great heaving sobs he couldn't have kept back even if he wanted to, the castle was empty.
As he cried, the castle itself, steeped in magic, shook in sympathy. Lost in grief, Merlin never even noticed.
A little while later, he sat up, completely cried out, and examined the room around him. It was large - about the same size as their whole house back in Ealdor, Merlin thought, awed - and furnished with big heavy pieces of furniture in dark wood. In the middle of the room stood an enormous four-poster bed, hung with thick drapes in dark blue. Merlin couldn't imagine anyone actually sleeping there. It looked like the sort of bed you laid people on when they died.
That set his lip trembling again, but he was too tired to do much more than stare round the room from his little corner. The door, made of the same thick, dark wood, had a heavy iron handle on the same level as his head, and there was an enormous fireplace. Big enough to roast children in, he thought, and shivered.
Tired, frightened, and worn out by the excitement of the day, Merlin curled up in his corner. He desperately wanted his mother, but he knew – in the way that children instinctively do – that she wasn't going to come back. By the time Nimueh returned, he was fast asleep.
Nimueh didn't return alone. When Nimueh fetched Merlin from his room and ushered him rather firmly down the main flight of stairs, he saw two little girls - girls! - huddling in the hallway.
The taller of the two, pale and dark-haired, had her arm around the other little girl, whose dark eyes were huge as she watched Merlin and Nimueh approach. The taller girl was watching them too, a baleful look in her large green eyes. Only the smaller girl smiled back when Merlin offered them both a rather nervous smile of his own.
"Merlin," Nimueh said grandly. "This Morgana and Guinevere. I expect you to get on well with each other."
Morgana straightened her already-ramrod-straight back a little further, and held out her hand to Merlin. Merlin noticed, with interest, that it shook a little. He took it, not entirely sure what to do with it, but after letting it rest in his hand for a few seconds, Morgana took it back, much to Merlin's relief. "I am Lady Morgana," she said, "and this is my handmaid, Gwen."
"I'm Merlin," he said, with a shrug. "I don't have a handmaid."
"You wouldn't, you're a boy," Morgana told him rather scornfully. "Don't you know anything? You'd have a manservant."
"Well, I don't have one of them, either," he said frankly. "I don't think I'm ever going to."
Nimueh, who had been watching them with interest, smiled mysteriously. "We shall see," she said, still sounding grand. "Now-"
"I don't believe you're my aunt," Morgana told her, managing to sound equally grand. Merlin looked at her with new respect – he was going to have to get her to teach him that trick. "I don't believe you have any more right to look after me than King Uther. At least he was a friend of my father's."
"Once upon a time, I was a friend of your father's as well," Nimueh retorted, sounding a little less grand now, and a little more snappish. "And when you are older, we will all be like sisters."
"That doesn't make sense," Merlin said, frowning a little. If he couldn't have his mother, he at least wanted to live in a place that made sense. "How can you be her aunt now, and her sister later? And how will I be like anyone's sister?"
Nimueh frowned. "You’ll understand later."
"I don't think I will. Not unless you explain it now," Merlin said, and Morgana nodded firmly. Gwen still hadn't said anything.
"We need to know everything before we decide anything," Morgana said, in a recycled sort of voice. Merlin knew that she was quoting something she had heard before, because she sounded like his mother used to when she said things like ‘least said, soonest mended’ or ‘too many cooks spoil the broth’ – but he had to stop thinking about his mother and bite his lip again to stop it from trembling.
Nimueh drew Morgana to her, though the little girl was evidently unwilling to go, and stroked her hair. "Such thirst for knowledge," she said fondly. Merlin hardly heard her - without Morgana, Gwen was stood shivering on her own, and he sidled over to her to take her hand. There were no other boys here to tell him that girls were disgusting, not even Will, and if the three of them were going to be living together, they needed to get along.
"Don't worry," he whispered, inexpertly comforting, "it'll be alright."
She gave him a wan little smile, but Nimueh spoke again before she could say anything. Merlin was a little relieved – he wouldn’t have known what to say if Gwen had asked him any questions. "I will take you two to your rooms, and leave you all to get to know each other."
Gwen and Morgana's rooms were as grand as Merlin's, but only Gwen seemed as frightened by it as Merlin. Morgana seemed to think that such rooms were her due, and accepted it with equanimity - so it was a unanimous decision that they should stay in Morgana's room. Morgana treated it with such calm, both Merlin and Gwen felt far more confident around her.
"Gwen and I already know each other." She told him, still sounding rather grand. "So really, we just need to get to know you."
"And I need to get to know you," he objected.
Morgana looked rather taken aback. "Well, yes, I suppose so," she agreed. "But where are you from? Who are your parents?"
"I'm from Ealdor," he said, as calmly as he could manage. "And my mother's name was Hunith."
"I haven't heard of a fief called Ealdor." Morgana said, slowly.
"No - it was a village." Merlin explained, quickly.
Morgana seemed thrown by this. "Why are you here?" she asked, quietly. "Didn't your mother get angry that Nimueh was taking you away?"
"My mother died," he said, very quickly. If he said it slowly, he would start crying again, and you couldn’t cry in front of girls. "Lady Nimueh said she wanted a son."
"Yes. She told me she wanted a daughter." Morgana lifted her head. "I told her that she would have to have two. Gwen and I stay together." She slipped a hand into Gwen's, just as Merlin had.
"Are you sisters?" Merlin asked, curiously.
"No, Gwen is my maid," Morgana said, suddenly sounding rather grand again. "But I wouldn't leave her."
"Won't your parents miss you?" Merlin asked Gwen.
Gwen spoke for the first time, shaking her head. "My dad died of the sweating sickness," she said very softly. "And Lady Morgana said she needed a maid of her own, so I went to work for her."
"And my father died a few days ago. I was going to go to live with the king, but then Nimueh turned up. And she knew," Morgana glanced at Gwen, looking suddenly unsure. "She knew that I dream."
Merlin frowned. "So do I."
"But when I dream, they come true." She bit her lip. "I know it's not normal," she added, suddenly savage, "But I don't mean for it to happen, and I can't stop them. But when I'm older and grown up, I'm going to stop the horrible things in my dreams from ever happening again." Her chin came up, and her mouth set firmly. "Go on, then," she said, grand once more, but her voice shook a little. "Tell me how unnatural I am." Her hand was gripping Gwen's tightly.
Merlin shook his head. "When I get angry or upset, things move, or fires start, or it starts raining." he said. "And if I think really hard about it, time slows down."
Morgana stared. "Really?" she whispered. He nodded, and after a pause, she held a hand out to him. "Then we're the same," she decided.
Gwen spoke up. "I suppose that's why Lady Nimueh wanted you," she said, very quietly, her voice as wobbly as Merlin felt. "But why does she want me? I'm just - a handmaid."
Morgana looked suddenly guilty. "It's my fault," she said, turning to her friend. "I - Nimueh knew about my dreams. I told her I saw you as a great and powerful lady one day. It's not a lie!" she added, quickly. "But I - added stuff."
Gwen laughed, but it spilt the tears in her eyes. "What will she do to me if she finds out?"
They found out exactly what Nimueh would do only three short years later.
All three of them colluded in the deception, eager to make sure Gwen didn’t get found out; although she’d never been anything but sickly-sweet to them, none of them could find it in themselves to trust Nimueh. There was something dangerous about her, an off-note which rang discordantly in Merlin’s head whenever she smiled. Gwen and Morgana were the only bright points of living in the castle; forced together the way they had been, the friendship between them – even though it was started in the worst of circumstances – grew fast and strong, and Merlin sometimes thought vaguely that there was nothing he wouldn’t do for them, and no one he wouldn’t try to protect them from. If that included protecting Gwen from Nimueh, then so be it.
Nimueh’s madness – because Merlin was sure, deep down, that she was mad – centred most strongly around magic; their lessons with her were like walking along a very high, narrow ledge, never sure whether you’d make it through to safety, or go tumbling down into the abyss. Once she was angry, there didn’t seem to be an end to it, until the next time she called them down to her, and met them with another sweet, mad smile. Both Merlin and Morgana, though, took to magic like ducks to water; it was only Gwen who struggled with the spells. Merlin and Morgana learnt early on to back her spells with their own magic, making them seem more powerful than they were, but it always felt dangerous, as though Nimueh might find out any minute and give in to the anger always lurking below the surface.
It made Merlin cross sometimes, because it wasn’t as though Gwen was a bad sorcerer. She would always be a learnt one – she didn't have anything like Morgana's power, strong and subtle, and not even Nimueh had anything like Merlin's, but she wasn’t bad, and he knew that Nimueh would be so angry if she found out, and it was so stupid. Sometimes, when they were alone in Morgana’s room, Gwen would curl up and cry about it, and Morgana and Merlin would be left looking at each other over her head, trying to understand why Nimueh couldn’t see that Gwen was special anyway. The thought that anyone could dismiss Gwen – kind, lovely Gwen – for something so silly made Merlin want to curl his hands into fists and shout at someone.
For Merlin, magic was a delight and a source of fear, almost as much as for Gwen. The first time they tried a spell that Merlin understood, when he knew how to call the magic to him and shape it, the magic released with an enormous, ringing sound, and the windows shattered. When he looked up, in the aftermath, there were scorch-marks on the great stone flags of the floor.
Nimueh had been staring at him, something almost like fear on her face. Deeply shaken, Merlin stammered out an excuse – he’d been frightened, it had built too quickly, his legs felt weak, could he be excused? He couldn’t help feeling that if an angry Nimueh was something to be feared, making her scared wouldn’t help at all either.
But really, the power was humming through his veins, and he felt he could have done anything, been anything, could have flown. Holding the power back when it wanted to do things was making his hands shake and his head hurt, and when Nimueh excused him, it took several tries before he could climb the stairs up to the room he shared with the girls.
Over the next few years, he learnt to hold most of it back, but it was like holding back a dam – and he just didn't know what was going to happen when it burst.
After three years, though, they began to relax – in increments, at first, being sloppy backing up Gwen’s spells, talking about it in voices louder than a whisper. They’d managed for three years, and they hadn’t even known what they were doing when they started. Surely they couldn’t get caught now. Surely they were too good now.
Gwen had smiled and gone along with it, a tower of shy strength, because whatever other magic she didn't have, she had a gift for knowing when either of her friends needed comfort, and both Morgana and Merlin could sometimes lose themselves in grief; missing family, missing friends, missing home – missing everything about a life that didn’t include walking on eggshells every day. Perhaps that was why she had let them become so comfortable in their deception; Gwen more than anyone knew the value of stability in life.
What little stability they had managed to carve out for themselves, however, came tumbling down horribly fast.
Nimueh had been teaching them mind-magic, the most basic kind – "When you've mastered this, I'll show you how to plant images and thoughts there, how to make people do what you tell them with a snap of your fingers," though Merlin wasn’t sure he wanted to know how to do that – how to worm their way inside someone's mind and search their thoughts. And she had chosen Morgana to demonstrate on.
When she left Morgana's mind, she was dead white. "What a thing," she said, very, very quietly, "for you to lie to me. And for you,” her voice was still barely a whisper as she turned to Merlin, “to help her." Finally, she turned to Gwen, advancing on her, seeming to grow as she moved, her voice getting louder and louder with every word. "And you, palming yourself off on me, making me teach you, a useless, magickless little grub-" She raised a hand, clearly intending to slap Gwen, and instinctively, Merlin threw up his hands, freezing her without even meaning to. But it was Morgana who spoke.
"Stop!" She said loudly, shaking, even paler than normal. "Just stop it!"
“What have you done?” Nimueh’s voice echoed through the room, though her mouth didn’t move; she was still frozen in place. Gwen, sobbing, was taking step after step backwards, and Nimueh’s eyes followed her, magic turning them a still more unnatural blue, clearly desperate to hurt her, harm her, get rid of her. Merlin's magic hummed through him, begging to be allowed to do something about this injustice, his two best and only friends in the world cowering in front of someone his magic could only see as being less powerful than him. He could do something about this...
No, he told himself, firmly. He was only ten, and what he made up for in raw power, he lacked in knowledge and finesse. He would never manage it.
“I said, what have you done?!” Nimueh demanded again, still without moving. Merlin let his hands drop, releasing the magic, as Morgana began to sob with Gwen.
“I-I don’t know,” she said, through her tears. “I don’t know, I didn’t – I didn’t, we-”
“You lied to me – you deceived me, you wasted my time, when I have given you a home and taught you – I, High Priestess-”
“I don’t see,” Merlin said very quietly, “that we did anything so very bad.” She rounded on him, but borne up by his magic, he met her gaze squarely. “Gwen might not need to have magic of her own. She could learn to be the greatest sorcerer in the world.”
Nimueh’s laugh was shrill and cold and mad. “Don’t you dare try to teach me about magic,” she snapped. “I know all there is.”
A little part of Merlin wanted to tell her that she knew nothing, because she didn’t understand anything of how it felt to be around Gwen and Morgana when he was happy, and he bet she couldn’t even remember what it felt like to be so sure that you were loved, no matter what, like Merlin had around his mother, and none of her cold power could ever make up for that. Instead he shook his head. “I don’t think you should be teaching us like this,” he said. “You’re angry. We’ll go away for a bit.” She stared at him for a long, tense moment, and Merlin stood straight and as tall as he could manage, and looking every bit as grand as Morgana sometimes became.
Finally, Nimueh jerked a hand, and the doors to the hall swung open with a crash. “Get out,” she said, sounding choked, and they went.
The doors slammed behind them, and an unearthly shriek shook the castle; all three of them ran from the magical temper-tantrum happening behind him, up to Morgana's room, which had been their safe-place ever since that first night.
They were huddling on the bed, Gwen sobbing into Morgana's shoulder, while Morgana stared ahead, her mouth very set, a militant look in his eye, one arm round her smaller friend. Merlin stood by the edge of the bed, one hand on Gwen’s ankle, which was the easiest part of her to reach. His heart was hammering, his magic felt like it was boiling inside him, and he felt very strange and solemn. “It will be alright,” he said, mostly for something to say, but inside he was sure of it. He would make it alright. This was his and Morgana’s fault – they’d got careless – and he would fix it, or they would.
Morgana scoffed, but Merlin knew by now that she was angry because she was scared. She might say terrible things now, but she would deflate and be sorry later, and Merlin was mostly very good at forgiveness. "How could it possibly be alright?" She asked acidly, her arm tightening about Gwen.
Merlin shook his head helplessly. He didn’t know how it would be better, he just knew that he would make it so any way he could. If he had to change the world to suit him, he would. He was pretty sure he could do that. “I don’t know,” he admitted, and Morgana huffed. “I suppose we’ve – we’ve just got to find something that will distract her. Get her angry about something else so she forgets about it."
Gwen raised a tearstained, woebegone face. "What could do that?" she asked miserably. “She’ll never forget, she’ll send me out into the forest and I’ll d-die, and never see you again, and-” she buried her head in Morgana’s shoulder, sobbing, while Morgana rubbed her back and glared helplessly at Merlin. Merlin patted her ankle absently for a long moment, mind racing.
“One of us, Morgana,” he said very slowly, “needs to stop learning magic.”
She stared. "What?"
“One of us needs stop learning magic,” he repeated excitedly. It was all so clear in his head now, just how it would go. “She'd be so angry about it, if we had magic but wouldn’t use it.”
Morgana shook her head. "I can't stop," she whispered, her eyes shadowed. "I have to know." They all knew why. Morgana still had her dreams, ones she woke from screaming for Merlin and Gwen, and she didn't yet have the power to prevent what she saw.
“Then it will have to be me,” Merlin shrugged; he preferred that. If it was him, he didn’t have to feel guilty, though he was pretty sure his mother would have told him off for being selfish. “I don’t mind. And – and maybe,” he added, his mind racing ahead of him, “we could just give a little of our magic to Gwen, so it looks like she always had it?"
Gwen looked up again from Morgana’s shoulder, her breath coming in deep, hitching gasps. “B-but she – she knows now. We can’t just make her not know,” she said, and Merlin’s heart sank for a second. Then he squared his shoulders and looked at her.
“Do you want to stay here?” he said, and she paused, looking away.
“I want to stay here if you and Morgana are here,” she said finally, ever loyal, and Merlin couldn’t help but reach out and hug her, hard. “I d-don’t want to leave you!”
“Then maybe we don’t have to make her not-know,” Merlin felt buoyant and scared, torn between elation and terror. They could make things right, they could, he could. “We just have to make you think that what you’re saying is true.”
“What?” Gwen’s tears had really stopped now, but she still looked miserable and scared, and Merlin would do anything to make sure she never had to look like that again.
“If we can give you magic, then you could-” he broke off. It was probably best that she didn’t know, or Nimueh would see the deception in her head if she glanced in.
Gwen gave a miserable little hiccup. "But how will you - give me magic?" she asked.
"I don't know," he said honestly. “But I’ve got an idea?” He held out a hand to her and Gwen, trusting as always, took it. Merlin took a deep breath, concentrated, and pushed.
His magic baulked, bright with protest, fighting and breaking away from him; it didn't want to leave. Grasping it tightly, he explained – and though it hurt unbearably for a few pain-hot seconds, he gritted his teeth and rode it out. While he was already in Gwen’s head, he tapped back into his magic, the part he’d just given her, and tried to plant a picture of how this had happened. You’ve been so nervous all these months, he whispered into her mind, you suppressed your magic. This isn’t my magic, it’s yours. When Nimueh was so angry, it broke free; it thought you needed to protect yourself. This is your magic, yours.
For a moment their hands glowed , then Gwen looked up at him. Her eyes, tear-damp, were golden dying back down into brown.
"What did you do?" Morgana breathed, sounding awed.
"I don't know," Merlin said, still a little bemused himself. "Gave Gwen my magic, I think." He didn't add anything about how it was a small part of it, that he could still feel magic humming under his skin, and neither of the girls pushed him to elaborate. They'd all grown up a lot in the last couple of hours, and had seen just how dangerous it was for each other to know too much. Merlin wouldn't endanger Gwen or Morgana any more than was absolutely necessary.
Morgana came over to him and hugged him tight. “Thank you,” she whispered into his hair, and he wrapped his arms around her, drawing comfort from her for a long moment, before wiping her memory of the magic-transfer. He could feel bad about it in private.
It was two days before Nimueh summoned them again, giving each of them an icy glare as they stood in front of her, in a neat row, hands behind their back. Gwen looked frightened; Morgana, defiant; Merlin just stared at her, neither afraid nor rebellious, though a little apprehensive.
“You can stay,” she said to Gwen coldly. “You will cook our meals and clean our clothes; you will earn your keep, do you understand?”
Merlin swallowed and took a deep breath. “I won’t learn,” he said, his voice rather thin but firm. He could deal with whatever Nimueh threw at him, but she still made something small and childish in him panic a little when she glared at him like that.
“What did you say?”
“I won’t learn,” he repeated, his voice a little thinner, a little less resolute. “You can’t make me.”
“Oh, but I can,” she breathed, catching his eyes with hers. Merlin felt the intrusion like an iron bar against a locked door, banging inside his head, and desperately shored up his defences, throwing up wall after wall around his secrets. “What is this?” she demanded, after a long, horrible minute, turning on Gwen and Morgana. “What is this? Let me see!”
Gwen flinched as Nimueh threw herself into Gwen’s head, none of Merlin’s shielding there to hide anything.
And she found exactly what Merlin had wanted her to find. “Oh, Guinevere,” she pulled back, gentle again, one hand coming up to cup Gwen’s cheek, tilting Gwen’s head up, and all Merlin could remember was how quickly she would have slapped Gwen not two days ago. “Oh, my dear. I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry. You should have said.”
Gwen gave Merlin a half-look. Play along, Merlin thought, desperate, don’t ruin this. “I – was scared,” she tried, and Nimueh nodded.
“I can see that,” she said fondly. “You needn’t be afraid, not of me.”
Morgana was looking at Merlin, and he nodded. “I told you,” Morgana said, a little truculent, playing the part Merlin had hoped she would. “I told you, Gwen is going to be great.”
Nimueh’s laugh was a bright, silver thing, and neither Merlin nor Morgana would trust it. “I will never disbelieve you again, Seer,” she said sweetly.
“What about Merlin?” Gwen asked, and Nimueh shot him a poisonous glance over Gwen’s head.
“I have no time for time-wasters,” she said, her voice cracking out like a whip. “Merlin can do our chores. Maybe that will teach him the value of magic.” She glared at him for a long moment. “When you're ready to learn again, I will accept your apology."
And make him rue every minute of his defiance, Merlin could tell, and vowed she would never hear an apology from him.
The minute they were alone, Morgana turned to Merlin. “What did you do?” she demanded. “Merlin, what did you do?”
Merlin shifted miserably. “I can’t tell you,” he said unhappily. “One day, I will, I swear, when things are – are better. When this is over. But I can’t, not now.” Just now, it was difficult to see whether any of it would ever be over.
Things changed subtly after that. Morgana and Gwen continued on with their lessons, and Nimueh praised them and petted them and treated them like much-beloved pets; but Morgana in particular held herself wary and aloof, unable to trust anything Nimueh said. Morgana didn’t forgive betrayal easily.
In many ways, Gwen saved their lives several times over; Morgana’s deep-seated distrust would have caused things to come to a head with Nimueh much faster than when Gwen was present, pouring oil on troubled waters and keeping the peace between them. Merlin kept to his resolution – once everything with Gwen blew over, and Nimueh returned to her sweet, coaxing ways, he had long since decided that he didn’t want to be taught anything by anyone like her, and held himself deliberately aloof. Leaving Gwen and Morgana was anathema to him, he couldn’t have done it, so he stayed on, living (as far as Nimueh was concerned) in the background of their lives, cooking and cleaning and sneaking up to their rooms at night. In front of Nimueh, Morgana and Gwen were careful to be cold and distant, feigning disdain for the nobody who cooked their meals and cleaned their clothes, but they welcomed him as warmly as ever at night, teaching him the spells of the day from Morgana. Their friendship was the most stable part of all their lives, the one reliable source of comfort and reassurance, and they clung to it with a fervour which would have surprised Nimueh.
Eight long, difficult years passed. The knife-edge between Nimueh’s good and bad side never got any easier to navigate, though Merlin got quite skilled at drawing her anger onto himself – he was always an easy target. Sometimes it felt as though they would never be able to leave this place, and sometimes they were all just so tired, weary of never knowing when the veneer of sweetness would break again.
When Merlin and Gwen were eighteen, however, and Morgana just a few weeks shy of her eighteenth birthday, Nimueh called both of the girls down early. Morgana left the door open, and Merlin listened from the hallway as Nimueh explained in hurried tones.
"King Uther Pendragon is looking for a sorcerer for his son’s retinue," she said, the grand note that meant she was planning something devious and awful back in her voice. "And it will be one of us."
Morgana risked a question. "Why?" she asked curiously.
“This is what I have been teaching you for,” she said caressingly, “to stand up against tyrants and murderers. To defend the rights of magic against all who would traverse them.” It didn’t sound much like the sort of thing Nimueh had taught them for, but both Morgana and Gwen kept silent; there was no point making her angry. “And Uther Pendragon,” her voice rose a little, “has wronged me, and has wronged magic, and I will defend it.”
"Through us?" Morgana raised an eyebrow. At eighteen, she was taller and far more regal than Nimueh, but even she didn't dare push her too far.
The veneer cracked a little. “After all I've done for you, all I've taught you,” Nimueh snapped, “I am sure you would not begrudge me this.” Neither of them dared say that they had never asked for her to do anything for them. “I am going to strike at the very heart of Camelot. I will be revenged on Uther through his son, the prince. Let him deal with the loss of something he holds dear.”
Morgana said nothing, but Merlin could read her defiance in the set of her shoulders, and Gwen was twisting her hands together behind her back. Merlin could tell that if he could see her face, she would be biting her bottom lip, her eyes dark and worried. Nimueh might not be able to tell, but Merlin knew his sisters. Even if they couldn’t stop it, none of them would be party to the kind of revenge Nimueh had in mind.
“Uther is hosting three balls to choose the sorcerer who will serve his son and become court sorcerer when the prince ascends to the throne," Nimueh was saying. "There will be displays of magic, and the prince will choose his sorcerer from among those who attend. He will have to choose one of us; there is no one like us the length and breadth of the land.”
Gwen frowned and skirted round the awkward point. "We're a long way from Camelot here,” she ventured quietly. “How will we get there?"
Nimueh's smile – Merlin could see it in his mind's eye – was vicious. "I have organised a house for us. We will be long gone before its owner realises that his rent was paid in fairy gold."
“I suppose we will be taking Merlin,” Morgana said distantly.
There was a snap to Nimueh's words as she replied – if there was one thing at which Nimueh excelled, it was holding a grudge. “Why would we?”
"We must maintain a presence," Morgana said, with all the assurance of the lady she would have been. "A page boy is only appropriate. And even as sorceresses, it would raise eyebrows if we lived without any servants."
“Far-sighted as ever, my Morgana," Nimueh agreed, mollified, snake-sweet.
“But how are we going to get there?” Gwen asked, worried.
“The trick, my dearest Guinevere, is easier than blinking.”
The house Nimueh had reserved for them was large, grand and as near the palace as it was possible to be; the moment they arrived, mere seconds after they had left the castle in the mountains, she set Merlin to airing beds and shaking out their gowns. The gowns they had travelled in were as crisp and clean as they were when they had put them on, since the four day journey had taken less than a minute, and they had barely been in Camelot five minutes before Nimueh swept the girls out into a waiting carriage to register at the palace, without so much as a backwards sneer to Merlin.
Merlin rather enjoyed being left alone in the house. It was so different to the huge, draughty, gloomy castle, and much more convenient. Merlin set his magic – bored after an hour or so of inactivity – to opening windows and unpacking clothes, while he made up the beds. A thought stocked the cupboards, a flick of his fingers smoothed the few wrinkles out of Morgana and Gwen's clothes, half a word set fires burning in all the grates, and Merlin headed up to his room to wait to be called to prepare supper.
It felt like hours and hours after supper before Nimueh disappeared for the night and it was safe for Merlin to appear in Morgana’s room, where they congregated out of sheer force of habit. They had a day to formulate a plan and come up with some way to stop Nimueh from doing something truly dreadful to the poor Prince.
“But we're strong, that's why Nimueh chose us," Morgana said hopelessly. “One of us is bound to win this stupid thing. And we can’t throw it, or she’ll know!”
Gwen frowned, biting her lip. “But if we win, she’ll make us – hurt, or, or do something awful to the Prince.”
Morgana went over to the window and stared down at the city streets, before glancing up at the castle. “I should have grown up there, you know,” she said without looking back at them. “The castle. King Uther was going to take me in after my father died.” She laughed, brittle. “I suppose I was the first part of Nimueh’s revenge.” She turned back to them, her eyes very bright. “I won’t do it,” she said. “If I have to throw it, I will, but I won’t – they could have been my family.” She stood straight, hands clenched into fists at her sides, and dared them to say anything; it was the most open defiance any of them had offered Nimueh in years, the most openly they’d ever dared speak, even to each other.
“We wouldn’t know Merlin then,” Gwen said softly. “And I’d just be your maid. This whole – this is all awful, everything’s been awful for years, but we wouldn’t even know each other, none of us.”
Morgana paused, and lost a little of the iron in her posture. “I know,” she said very quietly. “You’re the only ones I can trust in the whole world.”
Merlin and Gwen joined her at the window, Gwen slipping an arm around her waist, and Merlin leaning into them both a little, framed in the window. “It’s the same for us too, you know,” Merlin said, nudging her a little, and she managed to breath a quick laugh. “We’ve only got each other.”
“Maybe this could be the end,” she said very quietly. “Maybe we could be done with Nimueh and mistrust and everything. Maybe we could stay in the palace forever. See if Uther will have me, and you could stay with me. I’d-” she broke off, looking down. “I’d give anything for that.”
And I’d give anything for you to have it, Merlin thought, his heart so full it felt like it was going to burst out of his chest.
To cover himself, he cleared his throat. “I- I could disguise myself,” he offered, and the two girls looked at him. “Send a golem with you to the ball and disguise myself as someone else. If I win the competition, but Nimueh doesn’t know it’s me-”
The hope in Morgana’s eyes looked painful. "But everything you’ve learnt, you’ve learnt through us,” she said slowly. “I don’t think it will work.”
“And you gave me your magic,” Gwen reminded him, and Morgana stared between them, genuinely taken aback for once.
“What? When?” She demanded, and Merlin gave her an unhappy glance.
“I couldn’t tell you,” he said apologetically. “Not with Nimueh looking through your minds all the time. I wasn’t even sure you remembered,” he added, looking at Gwen, who shrugged.
“I remembered,” she said simply. “And I buried it, so Nimueh couldn’t find it, so she’d never find it. I knew she’d try to hurt you if she found out, and maybe me too, so I just let her think...” she trailed off and shrugged again. “It wanted to get out,” she said after a short pause. “It wanted to be doing things.”
Merlin flushed a little; that sounded like his magic. “It was you shaping it,” he said gruffly, and Gwen shook her head.
“I don’t think so,” she said thoughtfully. “I think – it wants to get out because it’s not where it’s supposed to be. It comes back,” she went on, “but it doesn’t feel right, like an itch right down in my bones.”
Since that was how it had always felt to Merlin, he could only look at her helplessly. “I’m sorry,” he said uselessly, and Gwen laughed at him.
“Don’t be silly,” she said, “it saved me. I just wish it could have saved you.”
“If we did things right, it could save all of us,” Merlin pointed out, and Morgana frowned.
“Even if you get your magic back – and please, please don’t think we won’t be having words about that, Merlin,” though she looked bemused rather than upset or angry, so Merlin felt totally justified in giving her a rather wicked grin, “you still don’t know much, and Nimueh’s had years doing this. She could flatten us.”
Time to come clean, Merlin thought, and shook his head. “I could flatten her,” he said simply, and Morgana stared.
“Give me your hand,” he said, because it was always easier when he was touching them, even though he could pick Gwen and Morgana out of a crowd of thousands with his mind alone. “I’ll show you.”
She took his, and waited while Merlin took a deep breath, and opened his mind up to her completely.
Sinking into himself and his magic like this was different with Morgana there. Normally he felt like he was flying, like everything he was had been thrown up into the air and didn’t need to come back down again; elated and powerful but so, so careful, because he could do real harm to people, and ending up like Nimueh was never an option. With Morgana here, with half the people in the world he most wanted to protect, it felt solemn and heavy, like a cloak, but stretching on and on forever.
Merlin, Morgana said, her mental voice soft and clear, awed, oh, Merlin, gods in heaven, I didn’t even know.
Merlin pulled away, a little embarrassed; Gwen was watching them with a fond smile in her eyes, and Morgana was still staring at him. “I couldn’t tell you,” he repeated, “and you need to bury that where Nimueh can never find it. Everything we’re planning now, you have to hide it, with every shield you know so that she doesn’t find out, or we’re done before we even started.”
“You could kill her,” Morgana said, sounding scared.
“I don’t want to kill her,” Merlin said quietly. “I don’t want to hurt her, I just – I just want to make sure she can’t hurt us.”
Morgana nodded, withdrawing a little to think. Gwen and Merlin shared a long look before following her back to the window.
“You can do it,” Morgana said, thinking out loud. “But she expects you to be with us at the ball, or she wouldn’t have brought you from the castle. How will you manage?”
“I’ll disguise myself,” Merlin said quickly. “I’ll disguise myself and keep out of sight; I’ll send a golem to the ball with you, and come as someone else. If – when, when she tries something, I’ll know, and we’ll stop her.”
“Magic?” Morgana asked, a gleam in her eye, and Merlin nodded, answering the gleam with a grin.
Gwen pulled Merlin to one side the next day, a few hours before the ball. “You’ll need your magic back,” she told him, and Merlin fidgeted for a moment before nodding.
“I hate to ask,” he said miserably.
“You need it,” she said simply. “And it needs you, it always has. I always knew I couldn’t keep it forever. I-I wish you’d never had to give it to me, but...” she trailed off.
“I wish we’d never had to do any of this,” Merlin said, and Gwen laughed, fingers curling round his wrist.
“We’ll get through it,” she said, and Merlin took confidence from her quiet certainty. Gwen had always been resolute for them when he and Morgana would have quietly given in to their unhappiness. “You’ll save us, Merlin, and we’ll help.”
Impulsively, he leant forwards and kissed her on the cheek. “There wouldn’t have been anything of Morgana and me to save if it wasn’t for you,” he told her, and she flushed, but squeezed her hand gently on his wrist before letting go.
“When will you need it back?” she asked, smoothing her dress down.
“Before you go?” he suggested, and she nodded. “Send me back in to fetch something you’ve forgotten, and I’ll send the golem back with it.”
"It's done,” Gwen said promptly, and smiled at him. “I suppose will be strange, not having magic anymore,” she added rather wistfully.
“You understand it,” Merlin said awkwardly, and met her sceptical look straight on. “No, really, you do. I can do it, Morgana sees it everywhere, but you understand it. Even if it’s not the same after this, you’ll never unlearn it.”
“I don’t really mean I’ll miss having magic,” Gwen corrected herself, though she looked pleased at what he’d said. “I mean it will be strange not having your magic. I knew you wouldn’t have given it to me if you didn’t think you’d get it back, so it was like a promise that things would end, even if it seemed like we’d be stuck with her, forever.”
“They’re ending now,” Merlin offered, not quite sure what to say. “How’s that for a promise?”
“When I give you back your magic,” Gwen said thoughtfully, “it won’t be a promise anymore.”
Merlin frowned. “What will it be, then?”
She smiled up at him, frighteningly assured. “A fact.”
They were barely at the carriage that evening when Gwen snapped her fingers and gave a silly little half-laugh. “Oh, I’m such a fool,” she said lightly, “I’ve forgotten my mask. You, go and get it, would you?” She barely gave Merlin a glance, offering Nimueh an apologetic smile instead. Nimueh returned the smile tightly, every line of her tense and on edge, and Merlin could feel Morgana practically vibrating with the tension in the air, while Gwen dealt with it by being even more calm and easy-going than usual, to counteract Morgana’s unease.
Merlin sketched a silent bow, and sprinted back into the house, summoning the little half-mask with half a thought, concentrating on the golem he had to create. A steady gold light burnt in his eyes, while an indistinct blur grew in the hallway, moulding to a human shape, features like Merlin's forming, clothed in his page's get-out, and carrying the mask.
He looked at it, critically for a moment. It was good, but it wasn't going to last very long at all - three, maybe four hours at the most. Still, three or four hours a night to study the prince and save him from Nimueh's scheming was no bad thing. It was lucky that things had fallen out as they had; they could never have done this if Merlin had been one of Nimueh’s students still, she would have known in a heartbeat. But she expected to see the silent, surly servant she believed Merlin to be, and it was easy to make a golem be that for her.
He sent it out to them, giving it just enough awareness to follow orders and respond to anything said to it, and braced himself for the hard part: regaining his magic.
He was sure he could do it through the golem – it was part of him, and it would act as a conduit for his magic, if he could only get the timing right. Taking a slow, careful breath, he sank into himself and followed the golem out to the group by the carriage. He felt it hand the mask to Gwen, and at the moment their hands touched, Merlin collected himself for a brief half-second, and pulled.
The magic he'd given Gwen years ago flowed back to him through it, with all the eagerness it had lacked when he had pushed it away, slotting back in neatly. Merlin barely had time to cut the too-strong connection with his golem. As Nimueh herded his sisters away, followed dutifully by Merlin’s creation, Merlin himself fell to his knees in the hallway, eyes glowing impossibly gold, bright and painful. For a few moments, it felt as though the world was going to explode. He could have flown, or raised forests, or put kingdoms to sleep for a thousand years. He could have lived for a thousand years, and never felt or looked a day older than he did now.
All he had to do was ask for it.
The safeguards he'd put on his magic, holding it back, burnt up like tinder under the sudden increase, and it pounded through him, burning as it went, branding itself onto him again. And though it hurt, though he would never get it under control the same way again – it felt wonderful. When he opened his eyes, they stayed gold.
His disguise was going to be a problem, though. What could he do to himself to make himself unrecognisable? With his eyes golden, that was part of him disguised, but what to do about the rest?
He would have a mask on, which was one bonus, and though most of the sorcerers would take them off before the end of this night, it wouldn't be too unusual if he kept his on all the way through the series of balls. But what even so, Nimueh was sure to recognise him. Sure to.
His magic answered the question for him, so eager to be doing something again that it didn't even wait for him to ask. Feeling his body change, he looked down in horror, watching as his sensible, worn shirt and trousers turned into a deeply impractical - and deeply cut - dress.
Well, that was unexpected.