A dog walker found the first body in a park, buried under a thin layer of dirt and leaves. Several meters of intestine had been pulled free of the corpse; the dog, a Jack Russell Terrier, had been off its lead.
The victim's name was Alison McDonald, she was twenty-three years old. She had green eyes and long dark her; the picture on her driver's license showed that she had been pretty, before.
The duty pathologist said that the cause of death was most likely blood loss, or internal injuries caused by the victim being stabbed with a long edged weapon.
"A knife, you mean?" asked Detective Inspector Sandy Carlyle.
"Something longer," said the pathologist, turning the body. "There's an exit wound in her back, you see? I'd guess that it was a sword of some kind."
DI Carlyle had joined the police force straight out of school, nearly twenty years ago now, and she hadn't thought that there was much left that could shock her.
"Who the fuck goes around stabbing women with a sword?" she wondered aloud.
Arthur had woken up with Merlin's lips wrapped around his cock; his entire world had narrowed down to Merlin's mouth, Merlin's hands on his hips, on his arse.
He could hear Merlin brushing his teeth in the bathroom, and Arthur padded through to the living room and turned on the television.
"The woman's body was discovered at--"
Arthur flicked past the morning news, looking for Sky Sports or the History Channel; he couldn't get enough of football and documentaries about World War II.
Merlin didn't watch much television - he'd said that he'd been around when it was invented, and half a century later he'd realised that there was nothing on - he was forever trying to get Arthur to read more novels.
He'd convinced Arthur to read Moby Dick by telling him that it was a tale of the hunt, and afterwards he'd taken Arthur on a fishing holiday.
On the end table sat Arthur's favourite photograph of Merlin, which had been taken on that trip: it showed Merlin sopping wet after having been pulled into the river by an overgrown trout; he was grinning at the camera, at Arthur behind the camera.
Next to the wet trout picture sat their wedding - civil partnership, technically, Merlin said - photograph. In that picture Arthur was the one grinning gormlessly, he'd spent most of the day in a state of happy shock. He was marrying Merlin, it was the first time since he'd awoken that he'd thought that maybe the future was the land of dreams after all.
Merlin wandered into the living room wearing only his pyjama bottoms. He was loose limbed and relaxed, like he was the one who'd started his day by coming down his husband's throat, and not the other way round. The tension that had been gathering in his muscles the last few days was gone, and he pressed a kiss against Arthur's tousled hair and said, "Tea and toast, love?"
The second victim was older, in her late thirties; she was a mother of three. She was dark haired too, but you could only tell because of the dark roots coming in at the base of her blonde dye job.
Her name was Laura Taylor and she was found on some waste-ground off a ring road; not even a cursory effort had been made to conceal the body. DI Carlyle might not have connected her murder to Alison Mcdonald's, except there had been no dogs this time, and the fatal stab wound was perfectly preserved.
Forensics had consulted with an expert in historical weaponry at the university, and come to the conclusion that both victims had been murdered with something akin to a mediaeval broadsword; some kind of replica or imitation, maybe?
Dozens of constables had already poured over hours upon hours of CCTV footage trying to piece together the victims' last hours of life, and even the slowest plod would have been hard-pressed to miss someone toting a broadsword down the high street.
Now all that footage would have to be reviewed by officers higher up the food chain. But even watching grainy security camera footage would make for a more enjoyable weekend than that of the family liaison officer, stuck drinking endless cups of tea in the Taylor house with the victim's husband, mother, and two of her red-eyed and sniffling children... at least the baby was too young to know what was happening.
The dummy was made out of scraps of wood, mostly bits of an old wardrobe - it had a mop in place of a head.
There was no need for Arthur to practice every day, there was no one to fight but the mop, but when he had first awoken in this brand new world Merlin and Excalibur had been the only familiar things left to him, and all the more precious because of it. Even after all this time, he felt most like his old self when he was swinging Excalibur or fucking Merlin deep.
The sword was stored in the cupboard under the stairs, next to the ironing board. It was always well cared for, kept sharp and oiled, and when Arthur unwrapped it he was struck by the strong smell of polish.
"Merlin, have you been playing with my sword again?"
Merlin looked up from the tea he was steeping, he arched his eyebrow at the double entendre. "Are you complaining?"
"Of course not, in Camelot polishing my armour was the only thing you were ever good for."
"What about here?" Merlin asked, he was perched awkwardly on the edge of one of the kitchen stools.
Arthur smirked at the memory of exactly why Merlin couldn't sit down properly. "Now you're good for two things."
"Keep your shirt on if you're going to practice in the back garden," advised Merlin. "I think Mrs. Jones next door is perving on you."
"Lucky Mrs. Jones," said Arthur, heading out back and tugging his shirt off as he went, not for Mrs. Jones, but because he knew that Merlin would be watching him from the kitchen window.
Niamh Kelly was a recent arrival from Ireland. She'd only been on the mainland a week before turning up dead in a skip behind a supermarket, run through by something not unlike a mediaeval broadsword.
"She was twenty-seven years old," DI Carlyle told Alec Pritchard, the forensic psychologist attached to the investigation. Normally she would have resented being given some Sherlock-wannabe to babysit, but with this case she would take any help that was offered. "Another brunette, blue eyes this time. Does any of this sound like a pattern to you?"
Pritchard frowned. "And none of the victims were sexually assaulted?"
"No, but couldn't the stabbing be, I don't know, a substitute for that?"
The psychologist snorted. "I think you've been watching too much television, Detective Inspector. No, these women weren't tortured, they weren't killed for sexual gratification. One smooth stab wound between the ribs, and they all died quickly. It's almost like the killer was targeting these women in particular, as though he had some personal reason to want them dead."
"We've been through this, there's no connection between the victims. Niamh Kelly was still in County Cork when Alison McDonald and Laura Taylor were killed."
"There is the possibility, of course, that there is a connection between the victims, but that it only exists in the killer's mind."
"Thank you, Alec," said DI Carlyle, "I feel so much better after talking to you. My DCI wants to release the fact that they were killed with a sword to the press, maybe even get a replica of it onto Crimewatch or something."
"Do you think it will help?"
"It can't bloody hurt, can it? How many people in this day and age even own swords?"
"I'll tell you something else for free," said Pritchard, "I'd be very surprised if Alison McDonald was his first victim."
Arthur missed horses.
Merlin took him riding at the weekends. He rented horses from a stable, and they rode through the biggest of the city parks, surrounded by dog walkers, cyclists, and picnicking families.
He was also teaching Arthur how to drive a car. "Check your mirrors, put the car into first gear, and indicate. Now release the clutch, gently -" Merlin squeezed Arthur's knee, gently too "-and pull out."
Arthur manoeuvred the car out into the quiet street. "Arthur!" Merlin shouted, and Arthur slammed on the brakes. A boy - maybe twelve or thirteen - had walked out from between two parked cars right in front of them.
Arthur's shoulder stung where his seatbelt had cut into into him. The boy had a mop of dark curls, he seemed dazed by his near miss, and he blinked through the windscreen at Arthur and Merlin before turning away and loping off down the street.
"Merlin?" Arthur turned his head to make sure he was okay; Merlin was whole and intact and staring after the boy. He had one of his hands thrust out and he was clenching and unclenching his fist in the way that he did when he was trying to force his magic to work in this unpredictable new world. "Merlin, it's all right, I didn't hit him."
"No," said Merlin, not taking his eyes from the road. "No."
Mark Waters was thirteen years old, the only child of a single mother who wasn't available to answer questions because she'd had to be sedated by her GP; she'd been inconsolable, tearing out her hair and taking wild swings at the officers who'd broken the news.
Mark had left a meeting of his drama club, he made the same walk twice a week and it took a little over fifteen minutes. He'd bought a bag of crisps in a corner shop -- and then he'd been found in a patch of scrubby woodland, hacked almost in two.
DI Carlyle almost wasn't involved, her DCI said that the MO was too different. Mark Waters had been a child, a boy, and he hadn't been killed quickly with a single blow; whoever had killed him had felt uncontrollable rage towards the boy. But he'd been killed with a sword, so his murder was provisionally part of Carlyle's investigation.
The investigation was moving forward, albeit slowly. The tip-line had been ringing off the hook ever since a replica of the murder weapon had been shown on the evening news. A terrifying number of people owned swords, so it seemed. Most of the calls were cranks, or people reporting their neighbours for owning a set of kitchen knives; but a Mrs. Ann Jones had called in swearing that her next door neighbour owned a sword very like the one she'd seen on television, and that he seemed to know how to use it, too.
The neighbour was a man called Arthur Pendragon who lived in a semi-detached with his husband, Merlin Emrys; they were by all reports quiet men who kept themselves to themselves.
God save me from quiet men who keep themselves to themselves, thought DI Carlyle.
More than that, Mr. Pendragon and Mr. Emrys were caught on CCTV in the same train station as Alison McDonald, and security camera footage showed Mr. Emrys exiting a supermarket mere minutes after Niamh Kelly.
Arthur didn't sleep, not properly, he'd slept enough at the bottom of that lake. But he could doze in the security of Merlin's arms, with Merlin's pulse beating against his skin, and Merlin's breath tickling his ear. And he dreamed, always the same dream, of Camelot.
The sun was just creeping in under the curtains when there was the heavy thump of the front door flying off its hinges, and the clump of booted feet coming up the stairs. Ancient instincts took over, and Arthur rolled out of bed, positioning himself between Merlin and the door, and reaching for a sword that wasn't there.
There were shouts of "Police! Freeze!" and two of the police officers - Arthur's sleep befuddled mind labelled them black knights - dragged Merlin from bed. Arthur swung at one of the men who'd dared to lay hands on Merlin, he went down, and Arthur tried to tackle the second man.
Something struck Arthur in the chest and he went to his knees. Sorcery, he thought as the world went blurry, then grey, then black.
Later, Arthur discovered that it wasn't sorcery that had stunned him, but something called a taser. But by that point he was shut in a concrete cell while an older woman, who reminded him disconcertingly of Queen Annis, showed him photographs of three women Arthur didn't recognise. She claimed that they were dead by his hand.
"I haven't killed any women," said Arthur. That was a lie, but it had been long ago, they had been enemies of Camelot, and this woman who was not Queen Annis wouldn't understand.
"Alright," said the woman, producing another photograph, this one of a boy. He was obviously dead, but Arthur recognised his mop of dark curls; he also recognised the work of a swordsman who'd lost control. "What do you know about this boy?"
Arthur traced the edge of the picture with his fingernail. "Him. I-- He walked out in front of our car. I didn't hit him, and he walked away. I never saw him after that."
"That's odd, because our forensics team found his blood on your sword. Do you care you explain that?"
Arthur didn't know how that could be true, Excalibur was always clean. "That sword was a gift from Merlin, it's precious to me, nobody touches it but us."
"Hmm," said the woman, "is that a fact?"
"Let me get this straight," said DI Carlyle, "you're confessing?"
"Yes," said Merlin Emrys. He had an eerie blue stare, and he compulsively clenched and unclenched his fists.
It had been one of the easiest - and strangest - confessions of DI Carlyle's career. Merlin hadn't even been their main suspect, his husband had been. Carlyle had been playing good cop, and saying that she'd consider dropping the accessory charge if he cooperated against Arthur, when he blurted out-- "I did it. I killed them. Arthur doesn't know. He never has to know."
"You admit that you killed Alison McDonald, Laura Taylor, Niamh Kelly, and Mark Waters?"
Merlin blinked, as though the names meant nothing to him. "Those aren't their names, they're not who you think they were. They would have hurt Arthur. I couldn't let them hurt him, not again."
"This is your husband Arthur?" Carlyle asked with a frown. "The bloke built like a rugby forward, who knocked out an officer in full riot gear with one punch. You're telling me that he needs you to protect him from women and teenaged boys?"
Merlin stared at the tabletop for a long moment before he met DI Carlyle's eyes. "Yes," he said evenly, "he always has."
Carlyle bit the inside of her cheek; she would have to get Alec Pritchard in here, she could already see the words not fit to stand trial approaching from the very near future.
They were finally allowing Arthur visit Merlin, for the first time since they'd moved him to his new prison. He wasn't being kept in a dungeon, thank heavens, it wasn't even a prison, not really. It was something called a secure hospital.
They weren't going to let Merlin out, though. Arthur had given commands; he had been a king once, and Merlin swore that he would be again. He had said that he'd fight any enemy, complete any quest; he'd even begged to have Merlin back.
Arthur didn't understand the rules of this new world, or how to live by them.
Before his visit Arthur sat on a bench in the hospital grounds looking at an inside page of last Sunday's newspaper; it showed a picture of Alison McDonald, one of the women Merlin had...
Arthur had been staring at her picture on and off for days, willing her features to morph into Morgana's, which they had stubbornly refused to do.
Merlin was already in the visiting room when Arthur was allowed inside. "Arthur," he breathed, like everything was somehow, miraculously, impossibly well with the world.
Arthur seized Merlin's hands across the visitor's table. He'd always loved Merlin's hands; they were large and strong, with long elegant fingers.
Arthur swallowed, and before he could change his mind he forced himself to say, "The boy, Merlin... that boy...?"
"He was Mordred, Arthur. He came back. He betrayed you, he put a sword through you. He took you away from me for so, so long. I couldn't let him take you again."
Merlin was holding Arthur's hands so tightly that Arthur could feel his bones grinding together, and he was looking deep into Arthur's eyes, willing him to believe, willing them both to believe. "Are-- are you sure? Merlin, he had a mother."
"Mordred was my biggest failure, Arthur. Morgana didn't matter, she never mattered. It was always Mordred, I should have killed him when he was a boy back in Camelot, then you-- But I had a second chance, don't you see, and I won't fail you again."
It would have been easy, so very easy, to fall into Merlin's brilliant blue eyes and agree that the boy, who'd had unruly brown curls and a mother, had been Mordred; to believe that every one of those women Merlin had cut down with Excalibur had been Arthur's mad sister or her ilk come again.
But Arthur had ignored the madness and creeping paranoia when they had been Morgana's; it had been a mistake then, and would be a mistake now.
Although it was the hardest thing he had done in two lifetimes, Arthur pulled his hands free of Merlin's grasp. "I have to go."
"You'll visit me again, won't you?"
"No-- I mean, I have to go back to sleep. I don't belong here."
"No, Arthur, please."
"You said it yourself, I was supposed to awaken when this land needed me most; I can't believe that this is it."
"I need you," said Merlin, his voice and Arthur's heart both breaking.
"I need you too, I've always needed you," replied Arthur. The only difference between Camelot and this world was that here Arthur knew exactly how lost he was without Merlin. "But, Merlin, at least four people are dead."
When Arthur walked away he could hear Merlin screaming his name until long after he should have been out of earshot.
It took a long time for Arthur Pendragon to be reported missing; it seemed like he and his husband had no one in their lives but each other.
The missing person report eventually landed on DI Carlyle's desk; she tracked Arthur's car to the side of a lake in south Wales, the driver's side door was open and the keys were in the ignition.
DI Carlyle judged it a suicide and didn't waste too much time looking for Arthur Pendragon, and strapped to a bed in the ward of a secure hospital Merlin Emrys waited for his king to return.