Arthur could barely see Merlin through the smoke, as if he were already a ghost. That was the thing with a burning; the moment of death was so often — perhaps mercifully — obscured by the gouts of smoke that poured from the fire, asphyxiating the victim long before the flames licked at their lungs. Arthur leaned forward, trying to see more.
Smoke didn't obscure sound.
"Arthur! Arthur…" Merlin broke off, coughing.
"Save yourself, sorcerer," demanded the King, and Arthur gripped the railing in front of him so tightly that his hands ached. Merlin tried to speak again, his voice inaudible above the crack of timber and hiss of flame, his coughing weakening, until it stopped altogether. Arthur strained to hear something, anything, a wheeze of air or magic words or something, but all he heard was the crackle of heat and the harsh, sharp breaths of his father beside him.
Arthur watched, eyes burning with the smoke, throat tight and irritated, trying to see if Merlin had done what he always did; got himself out of an impossible situation. He'd go back to his chambers, and Merlin would be there, beaming stupidly, with yet another insane story about his survival. Merlin's stories made a lot of sense, now.
A gust of wind blew the smoke clear, and suddenly Arthur could see everything. He closed his eyes, tightly, and then forced them open again, blood pounding through his body, making him feel like he'd shake apart. The corpse twitched in the heat, sinews curling, skin cracking and the fat liquefying and running freely. Its eyes were open, sightless. There was no sense of anything there, just dull lifelessness; somehow worse than a reproachful glare, because it was just death. Ignoble, inglorious, death. Arthur felt his stomach turn.
No, he thought, as matter-of-fact as any other order. Merlin, you were supposed to magic yourself away.
"I need to go," he said, the smoke stinging his eyes until they watered.
"Sit down," said Uther.
"That was not a request."
Arthur sat, and let his father place both hands on his shoulders, holding hard enough to bruise; a warning that to the casual observer might look like comfort. He could feel himself trembling. There'd been rumours of witches, rumours tumbling through the countryside and down to Camelot, where they'd stuck until Uther went hunting, and Uther always found what he was hunting for.
"You will stay here," Uther said, softly, so softly. "You will stay here and you will watch and ensure that he tries no tricks. He has lived a long time in the court, Arthur; he must be devious."
"He's dead," said Arthur, his eyes scratchy with smoke, ashy tears threatening to spill over. He blinked to clear his vision. "He can't try anything. He's dead."
"You will not question me," Uther replied, squeezing Arthur's sore shoulders. "Not about this. Not if you wish for me to believe that you honestly knew nothing."
Arthur bowed his head, and his father stroked a gentle hand across Arthur's hair, pulling his head up again to watch the scene play out before him. He could see, across the courtyard, Gaius and Gwen; Gwen's head was buried in Gaius's shoulder, Gauis holding her as a father should. He stood tall, expression unreadable at this distance, and Arthur looked away, his gaze settling on the men who stoked the pyre, building up more tinder so that the fire would roar again, quickly consume what was left of Merlin, end this.
"Thus we see the insidious rot that is sorcery," said Uther, his hands heavy. "It does not just attack at the gates, Arthur. You should have been more vigilant."
"Yes, Father," he said, even though the words tasted like soot.
"You will not be so lucky next time."
Arthur swallowed another lungful of smoke, felt his father's grip tighten, and knew that even if Merlin had escaped, if that were some sort of trick on the pyre, that this did not end here. The flames climbed higher, hotter, and the skin on his face grew tight with the heat, like sunburn. He couldn't see Gwen anymore, and his eyes were dry, sore. There was a crack as the stake collapsed, and a cloud of embers flew toward the sky, the men yelling and jumping back, the fire finally settling into a mass of ash and a dark red glow of embers. Uther's hands twitched so tightly that Arthur thought his collarbones might break under the stress, their cracking barely audible above the noise and light of the scene. There was nothing there, now, no human form, no smell of anything but smoke and tinder.
"It's done," said Uther. "The men shall rake over the coals, and tomorrow that creature will be nothing but air."
"Yes," Arthur replied, his body empty.
"Get ready for the feast tonight," said Uther, releasing his grip on Arthur's shoulders. "You will be in attendance. You will enjoy yourself, and I will not have cause to suspect my only son of colluding in sorcery."
"Yes," Arthur said, as the burn of blood rushing to his sore arms kicked in, kept him upright. He stood, and his knees buckled a little, but not enough to make him fall. Barely enough for anyone to see, if they were not looking. He had little doubt that his father had seen everything.
They didn't speak as Arthur left, accosting a servant in the hall as he went to his rooms, telling him to ready a bath when it was seven glasses past the midseason. He needed some time, time to see if Merlin was waiting for him, pleased as punch. Gwen and Gaius passed him, ignoring him; unlike earlier, it was not Gwen who was in need, but Gauis. Arthur stepped forward, about to offer assistance, but an angry gesture from Gwen sent him reeling back. Of course. Of course. He stumbled up to his rooms, shoving the door open and then shutting it behind himself, closing his eyes, bracing himself for Merlin's inevitable ire. You let me burn, you prat! I had to save myself!
His rooms were empty, silent. He opened his eyes.
"Merlin?" Arthur called. No answer. "Oh, come on. I know you're upset with me, but what could I do?"
He checked the alcove. No sign of Merlin. Hands shaking, he went to the little room where Merlin had stayed sometimes on cold nights, the door propped open so that some of the heat from Arthur's fire made it in there. He half expected to see Merlin on the bed, curled up, trying to heal himself, but instead he saw dull sunlight on an empty pillow.
"Merlin, this isn't funny," Arthur said, his throat dry. "I mean it."
The garderobe. Merlin would think it was hilarious to hide in there, and pounce when Arthur needed to attend to…things. He opened the door, recoiled a little at the smell, and then realised that aside from the wooden seat and a pungent odour when he raised the lid, it was empty. Merlin was gone. Merlin was a pile of ash in the courtyard, being swept and blown and taken to the cinder track, or the caverns under the castle, or worse, the midden. Arthur closed the door to the garderobe and then leaned against it, taking stock of his room, his fine, empty room, with its rich furnishings and gilt edgings and its silence, deep and thick as the night.
He'll be back, Arthur thought. He always bounces back. But his room was silent, and he'd seen Gaius in the corridor, shoulders tight with misery. Merlin — surely Merlin would have said something, if he was going to return?
Arthur curled up on his bed, on his side so that his back was to the door. He could still smell the smoke; it lingered in his clothes, his hair, on his hands. He didn't cry; he just stared at the creases on his quilt until it got too dark to see, and then he stared at the darkness, alone.
No servant would speak to him. Even Gwen, who looked upon him with something approaching affection, was silent and sullen. His breakfast was too hot, his bath too cold. He was woken early, hangover still pounding in his ears, by a man with a loud, obnoxious voice.
Even the knights were being strange. They fought with a strength that Arthur hadn't expected, and when he'd barked an order at Gawain, the boy had burst into tears. Leon had taken him away, let him dry his eyes, and Arthur hadn't had the heart to berate him. Not anymore. Not when Leon had whispered in his ear, later, "Merlin gave him a potion to help our mother overcome sleeping sickness, Sire."
Merlin was everywhere, and Merlin was nowhere, and it was driving Arthur up the wall.
He threw his mail off, and it puddled in the corner of his room, no servant there to tut and pick it up, to run it through his hands as if it were a coat of gleaming fishscales, heavy and slippery-smooth. Arthur stretched, his shirt fluttering a little, and he looked at it. Oh for the love of…he'd torn his shirt. Must have been when he'd failed to dodge a particularly hard blow. He'd fallen on his bad shoulder, and the pain had rung through his body like the clanging of a noisy gong; he'd not noticed anything but his own breathing and the struggle to stand.
He put it into the mending basket; he'd have Merlin… he'd have his new servant take care of it. When he got a new servant. He'd been served today by an addle-headed boy called Lucan, and Arthur couldn't say that he was planning to keep the lad in his life. Lucan hadn't even come up to check on the prince after what had been a rough fight. Eventually, there was a knock at his door.
"Sire?" Lucan said, and he didn't just barge in, he waited like an idiot outside the heavy wooden door. "Sire, if you'll be letting me in, I've your lunch."
Arthur opened the door, letting Lucan in. "It's full three glasses past the midseason. Maybe later; well into the afternoon," he said. "Why do you have lunch?"
"Your father was cross, Sire, that you were training through lunch," said Lucan, cheerfully. "He said you could eat in your room, if you were going to be absent for lunch."
"I…" Arthur was almost entirely certain that his father would not say such a thing, and that there'd been some subtle, coded message in his words meant to strike fear into Arthur's very marrow, and that it had been completely lost in translation. Lucan was grinning like a lunatic and setting plates out; Arthur thought about pressing him for details, but he didn't much feel like trying to get blood from this particular happy rock. Instead, he pulled on a shirt, lacing it neatly, fastening his swordbelt around his waist. Arthur felt better when he had a sword within reach; the smooth grip and steady slide from sheath at hand should anything happen to go wrong, anything at all. He wasn't hungry, but Lucan was fluttering around like a bedraggled moth, and the thought Merlin would have made you eat made Arthur reach for some bread.
"My shirt needs mending," he said. "See to it."
"Um…" said Lucan. "Dunno."
"Would you like to re-phrase that?" asked Arthur.
"Well, dunno if there's anyone in the castle what will mend it," said Lucan, gormless, and Arthur took a long draw from the cup of weak beer Lucan had brought up with Arthur's late lunch.
"Why is there no-one to mend my shirt?" asked Arthur, leaving unsaid I want Merlin to mend it.
"Because none of us know how," said Lucan, scratching his head like a simpleton.
"Get Guinevere to do it," said Arthur, casually.
"Haven't you heard, Sire?" Lucan asked. "She's leaving."
He didn't run. No; he walked briskly, quickly, even. Peasants got out of his way — seeing, probably, the sword at his belt, the fire in his eyes. He didn't knock; he knew that there was no lock at her door. He'd be able to get in easily. He shoved the door open, hard enough to dent the wall behind it, and stood, watching her. She was busy; she spared him a glance and then scowled, turning away. She looked ill, eyes puffy, her forehead lined by a frown.
"Guinevere," he said, throat tight.
She was folding dresses, putting them into a bag. She didn't look up.
"Gwen," he tried.
"I have nothing to say to you," she said, busy. "And you have nothing that you could possibly ever say to me."
"It wasn't…" he began, and she looked up, furious.
"Don't you dare," she said, voice dangerously low. "Don't you even dare, Arthur Pendragon. It was entirely your fault, and you know it. The whole castle knows it."
"He was a sorcerer!" Arthur snapped. "What else was I supposed to do?"
Gwen drew the string that held her bag closed tight, and tested the weight.
"Don't you think that he would have killed you by now, or bewitched you, if he was going to?" she asked, and she didn't sound angry. She sounded tired, and sad, and Arthur realised that she'd been crying.
"I couldn't take that chance," he said, shifting from foot to foot. He'd found himself examining all his reactions, lately — checking for odd behaviour, odd thoughts, and then wondering if they were odd, or normal, or something else. Was it magic? Was it Merlin? Arthur didn't know.
"Don't lie," she said, hefting the bag onto her back. "You took the chance for years."
"Why the grand gesture?" Arthur asked. "Why leave like this?"
"Arthur," said Gwen. "Don't you understand? If Merlin…Merlin wasn't safe and loved, then what hope do any of us have to hold a place in your heart?"
"Merlin was…" Arthur's voice stuck in his throat. "He wasn't who he said he was."
"He loved you," she said. "He loved you more than perhaps a servant should, and you killed him."
"It was not…" Arthur said, searching for words. "Honourable."
"What is honourable is not always right," Gwen said.
"Oh, very clever," Arthur said. "I suppose you're going to tell me that what is right is not always honourable."
She looked at him with pity, then. "No, Arthur. What is right is always honourable."
He stood, awkward, wanting to reach out to her. He loved how she kissed, how she fitted into his arms just so. He'd entertained fantasies, lazy afternoon dreams of Gwen to his right, Merlin to his left, lovers and loved. Gwen put a hand to his cheek, and he kissed her palm.
"Where will you go?" he asked.
"Away," she said. "Lancelot sends me letters. I know where to find him."
"You'll marry him?"
"I don't…" she said, and blushed. "I don't think he's the type to be tied to one place."
"So why go?" he asked.
"There's nothing left in Camelot for me," she said, and by all the gods, that hurt. "Be wise, Arthur. I may see you again some day."
"Guinevere," he replied, and she shook her head, pressing a kiss to his cheek.
"Goodbye," she said.
"Goodbye," he replied. "But at least let me send a knight with you as far as Green Hills. I'll go with you…"
"No," she said.
"Leon?" he asked. She nodded.
"Leon or Gawain," she said. "But not you. Never you, Arthur. Never again."
He stood, in the mud of the main thoroughfare, staring at the white stone of the gates, for a very long time once Gwen had left, her cloak caught by the wind, Gawain keeping a steady pace beside her, his mail shiny new and gleaming in the sun.
"Sire," said Leon, startling him from his reverie. "Who else shall we lose?"
"I don't know," Arthur replied, not really expecting Gawain to return.
"If I may speak frankly…"
"If you're going to tell me that I should have done something, then no," said Arthur.
Leon was silent, then, and Arthur sighed.
"I thought so," he said, and turned on his heel, returning to the castle, ignoring the glares that seemed to burn into his back wherever it was that he went. He slammed the door hard enough to rattle the shelves in his room, and pointedly did not go to the window to see if he could use his spyglass to spot Gwen and Gawain along the road.
Gawain returned by first light, eyes wide and stories from the pub in Green Hills spilling from him like an over-full jug. Lancelot had been there, and Arthur tamped down the nasty little thought that maybe Lancelot had been waiting patiently, just one town over, to take Gwen from him.
"They say there's a Sorcerer-King massing the druids," said Gawain, in the stables. "They say he's going to attack Camelot."
"As if we couldn't defend ourselves," Arthur snorted. "You've been consorting with fools, Gawain."
In retrospect, though, he ought to have told Gawain not to speak of it again, because by the time it came for the afternoon training, the knights were restless, the peasants talking. Geraint even went so far as to ask how to parry a magical attack, as if Arthur should know, like it was something that he could just hold forth on. He supposed that he'd been the one with the magical manservant, but he hadn't known, hadn't known for so long, and then things had all moved rather too swiftly for any sort of tactical advantage.
He dressed his own sword, after training. If Merlin…Merlin had been a sorcerer in disguise, then Arthur could trust no-one. Merlin, whose cramped, neat hand labeled the bottles of oil and the places for Arthur's things in the armory, almost as if he'd known that he'd be gone some day.
Of course he'd known. A sorcerer in King Uther's court had a limited lifespan, after all.
Swallowing against a hardness in his throat, Arthur pulled his own mail over his head, hung his shield on the wall. He'd order a bath, a good, hot bath, and maybe that would soothe the ache in his gut, the tightening of his throat. There were heavy footsteps, a larger man than Merlin had been walking to the other wall. Arthur turned and saw Leon, rotating his shoulders to get the tension out. His squire had gone on ahead, presumably.
"Sire," said Leon, when he caught Arthur staring. "Gawain told me that Gwen has gone for good. I thought it was…"
"She has," Arthur replied, the hardness back in his throat. He didn't want to hear what Leon thought.
"I'm sorry," said Leon. "If you need to speak with someone, now that…now that you have no…"
"Now that I know Merlin was a filthy liar?" asked Arthur.
"Now that Merlin is dead," Leon replied.
Arthur wanted to grab the sword and swing it, do something to stop this hot, sick feeling that struck him every time that he thought of Merlin. Leon took a step back, seeing the murderous expression on Arthur's face.
"I'll go," said Leon, haltingly. "I meant no offense, Sire."
He turned, holding himself straight and proud, as a true knight should. Arthur's ploy to miss the most of the day in training had worked; twilight was starting to colour the world, and Arthur could only just make out the lines of Leon's body as he walked away into the evening air. Arthur's blood heated and rushed in his veins. He'd be alone in the dark. He was a fool.
"Leon!" Arthur demanded. "Where are you going?"
Leon turned. He looked for all the world like a deer, still and frightened in the sights of an arrow. "Erm. The tavern, Sire. That is…the knights…that is…"
"I'm coming with you," said Arthur.
"Sire," said Leon, strangled. "I'm not sure that…things will get rowdy, by the end of the night."
"You think I can't handle rowdy?" Arthur asked.
"Just…with all respect to you, Sire, this is when the men unwind. They won't be guarding their tongues."
Arthur pinched the bridge of his nose. "And did it occur to any of you, to the men, that perhaps this has not been a relaxing week for me, either?"
"May I speak…without influencing you?" Leon asked. Arthur nodded. "This will not be held against anyone? If they are not...discreet?"
"It will not," said Arthur. "I give you my word."
"Sire, Merlin had friends amongst the knights. He brought salve after training; stitched wounds after battle. There are some who think…" Leon trailed off.
"Right," said Arthur. "Yes."
"So you see, it would be a bad idea for you to…"
"I'm coming," said Arthur.
And thus he found himself in the tavern, peasants skittering nervously around him, his men already set up for the evening. It was warm for the time of year, and Arthur found himself laying coin on the table to cover the drinking debt of the party that night; just a fraction of his riches. Sometimes he felt guilty about being so wealthy, but tonight it was smoothing over the raw edges of his relationship with his knights, making uncomfortable conversation more comfortable.
"Thanking you," said Bors, raising his glass along with Galahad. "This is a good turn to us, Sire."
He'd not told anyone in the castle where he was going; the rumours hadn't died with Merlin, and the King was growing itchy with the need to destroy, the need to find the sorcerers who were eating through the foundations of his kingdom. Arthur doubted that he'd have been allowed out of the thick walls of the inner sanctums, out of his plush rooms that were empty and cold without Merlin curled by the fire at night, chattering incessantly until it was time for bed.
"Gawain, help me fetch in the next round," said Arthur, getting up, drawing the boy aside for a very distinct talk about what it was wise to say in public, and what it was not. Gawain looked a little scared, but he followed Arthur anyway. As they got near to the rough wooden counter, Gawain spoke.
"You're angry with me?" Gawain asked.
"You seem to have seen a lot in your brief trip to Green Hills," said Arthur, wondering if the boy had enough sense of self-preservation to know that he'd done wrong. He turned to the barkeep. "I want the ale for my men to keep coming. We seem to have run out."
He slapped a few more gold coins onto the bar, and the man nodded. "Sorry. Didn't realise."
Didn't realise my arse, though Arthur. Didn't want to serve the knights, didn't recognise the future king. He sighed, and turned back to Gawain.
"Well?" he asked. "Thought of why I might be displeased with your conduct?"
"Oh!" Gawain said, his face falling. "Sire, I forgot. I'm sorry."
Arthur's stomach churned for a few seconds as Gawain gave him a crumpled note, sealed with wax, a signet ring pressed blurrily into it to make a stamp. This was unexpected. Arthur ripped it open, breaking the wax, reading the cramped hand of a man who did not write much, did not write at all.
She will be safe with me.
Arthur crushed it in his hand, stuffing it into the pouch at his belt.
"Is it…good news?" Gawain asked. Arthur put an arm around his shoulders, leading him back to the table.
"It is news, of a sort," he said. "Did you speak with Lancelot?"
"A little," Gawain replied, his eyes wide. "Do you think he means to take Gwen as his wife?"
"Did he say anything about why he returned?" Arthur asked, sick to his stomach. "About why he was staying so near?"
"He didn't say much," said Gawain. "He kept saying he was late. That he'd been too late…I think…I think he meant to save Merlin, my lord."
"Too late," said Arthur, swallowing. So he hadn't been there for Gwen; not directly, at least. "Indeed. Now. Tell me more of this beast with the teeth the size of a man's arm. Do you mean your arm, or my arm?"
The men had pulled a few of the large pub tables together to create a square large enough to fit them all. No man sat at the head; all turned to Arthur, deferred to Arthur, but Arthur sat on one of the long benches, shouder-to-shoulder with Bors and Gawain.
"It's said to be a serpent," said Gawain, making a slithery motion with his hands, slithering between empty mugs. "It slithers through windows, and then it bites people," here, he snapped at Arthur's hand, almost Merlinesque, "and then they die."
"A serpent with teeth the size of a man's arm?" asked Arthur. "I'd hope they'd die, if they got bitten by something like that. It'd be a pretty rubbish giant serpent if it couldn't eat a few people."
"I heard it prefers blonds, Sire," said Leon, and Arthur laughed, because he knew Leon, and he knew that the man was giving him a chance to prove himself again. I am your prince, Arthur thought, but I know when to laugh, and what to laugh about.
"I shall have to be sure to wear my helmet when I kill it, then," Arthur said.
"Gawain can kill it! It'll run at the smell of him when he's pissed in his drawers!" said Geraint, and the men laughed, Arthur laughed, even Gawain gave a bruised smile.
"I never did!" said Gawain, gamely playing along. "And I went to Green Hills with the Lady Guinevere yesterday and I didn't get eaten by any sorcerers or anything!"
"Don't be stupid," said Bors. "Sorcerers don't eat people. That's snakes and dragons."
"And your mum!" said Galahad, and the men laughed again, the sort of table-thumping, unrestricted laughter that Arthur had only ever seen at the end of a long campaign, where men laughed because if they stopped laughing, they'd cry. Knights, as he was fond of reminding the youngest squires, didn't cry.
Knights did drink, especially when the Prince's purse paid for the ale. There were only a few of them still upright by the end of the night; Arthur, because he'd been drinking unwatered wine since he was old enough to hold a goblet, Bors and Leon. Gawain was gently snoring, his cheek pressed against the slightly sticky wood of the big table. It was the end of the night, the time for conversations that could never happen by daylight. Arthur had dreaded this part and wanted it in equal measure.
"They said that all the animals in the land faced the castle when Merlin died," said Bors, gulping at his drink. "What do you think?"
"I was in the courtyard," said Arthur, feeling his spine twist at the thought. "I had other things on my mind."
"Do you think," Bors said, slurring a little, "do you think no-one would have been behind you, Sire? Do you think we'd've stood by and watched you burn, like you did Merlin?"
"I didn't know," Arthur replied, and he thought he'd be sick.
"You should've known. You should've bloody known," said Bors, and he was old enough and tired enough that a bit of drink made him unwise in his speech. "That poor lad. You ever stood too close to the fire at night, Sire? You ever walked back into the dark to your bed, and your skin is tight, lungs burning? I heard he called for you, before the smoke choked him."
These were Arthur's men; the only people in Camelot who could speak to him like this. Arthur should have struck him, accused him of treason, but for the voice that mocked him in the back of his mind. He'd always wanted to know what his men really thought.
Bors put a hand on Arthur's arm. "We'd never stand by and watch you burn. Not even now, my lord."
"Thank you," Arthur replied, and he felt like he was rotting from the centre of his body out, his heart a great dead lump in his chest that poisoned his blood. Bors offered him a smooth gesture of deference, and then fell backwards off his chair.
"That's enough," said Leon, picking Bors up off the floor. "Come on."
Gawain was snoring loudly, now; Arthur propped his head up on his hand, lest he follow Gawain into sleep.
"My lords, it's late," said the barman, and Leon nodded.
"All right, you lot," he said. "Get up."
Yes, thought Arthur, this is why I made you first knight. He stood, the room spinning around him as if he'd been turning on the spot, and then rested his hands on the table to stabilise himself.
"Will you be all right, my lord, to make your way back to your rooms?" asked Leon, shaking Gawain awake. Gawain looked at him, blearily, and then leaned heavily on Leon's shoulder.
"Fine," said Arthur, feeling the burn of jealousy in his gut as Leon ran a brotherly hand over Gawain's short hair. He'd never had a brother, never wanted one, but he missed Merlin's affectionate touches, Gwen's shy brushes against his hand, even Morgana's rough coddling. She'd have kicked him up the stairs, but instead he walked alone, trying his best to keep his course straight and true, his stomach rebelling against the simple matter of standing and walking.
Arthur was sick into a rosemary bush, the big one outside the stables, and he staggered upstairs, using the walls to help himself make his way to his room. The room was cold; no servant had set it to warming, and there was no cheerful fire in the grate. He looked at it, blinked blearily, and then decided that he was warm enough, kicking off his boots and climbing under the covers fully clothed, only remembering to take his sword off when he rolled onto the pommel and nearly did himself a nasty injury. He closed his eyes.
I heard he called for you.
Arthur pulled the pillow over his head, and tried to sleep, the fuzzy taste of bile still on his teeth. He woke, just off dawn, shaking and headachey, a sound in the back of his mind that could have been someone crying.
It was a week after that night that the stories reached a fever pitch. If you listened to the scullery maids, it was a serpent as big as a train of oxen. The boys who tended to the sheep said that it had stolen six sheep the night before last, and eaten everything, even the bones. The young shepherds were put into the stocks for lying, but it didn't help any — the stories were there now, winding their way through the corridors and around the battlements. Someone killed a snake in the marketplace, and someone else said that sorcerers were disguising themselves as snakes now, and all in all Arthur was so thoroughly sick of snakes that he started asking about the druid army just for something else to do.
Lucan seemed to have been assigned to him permanently. It felt like new boots that rubbed and blistered and hurt; Arthur was itchy under his skin, waiting for someone who would never come back. Adding to the list of simple things that Lucan was useless at, he seemed to have no stories to tell about druids. He was able to expound at length about snakes, and about how Tilde-in-the-kitchens had seen a man get swallowed whole by it, Sire, really, but he was utterly useless when it came to armies of druids.
"What if, but," said Lucan, "them snakes are just a distraction? The druids want us so scared of snakes that we don't notice them sneaking up to steal the crown?"
Finally, thought Arthur, but that little piece of insight seemed to exhaust Lucan's brain for the day. He gave up, and went to the training field, catching Leon in a quiet moment.
"I don't like all this talk of snakes," said Leon, when they sat on the grass, watching the new squires learn how to run in armour. "Good boy, Aberforth!"
Another squire tripped and fell flat on his face, but Arthur called out to him anyway. "Get up and keep running. You don't want to be fodder for a druid's spell!"
"Why'd you say that?" asked Leon.
"What?" Arthur replied.
"Druids. You didn't say snakes, you said druids."
"There's something Gawain said," said Arthur. "In between all this nonsense about serpents. He said there's a druid army."
"Druids?" asked Leon. "Nah. Druids can't organise their way out of a rotten old sack, let alone mass an army."
"So what do you think it is, then?" asked Arthur.
"I don't think…druids aren't the only people that use magic, are they?" asked Leon. "Was Merlin a druid?"
"I don't think so," said Arthur, but the truth was that he didn't really know. How would he know if Merlin was a druid? He'd never wandered around with a staff, but he'd also never really seemed to be a sorcerer until one, spectacular, blinding incident. Leon didn't seem to realise that he'd hit a nerve, continuing blithely on.
"We could go to the lower town," said Leon. "Ask people what they've seen."
"Do you really think the people of the lower town are going to tell me what's going on?" asked Arthur.
"They might if we say we're looking for the cause of the snake problem," said Leon.
Arthur sighed. "There are no snakes in Camelot," he said.
"Yeah," said Leon, winking. "Shows the snake patrols are working, doesn't it?"
The lower town always smelled like chicken shit and cabbage; Arthur only went there when he needed something, like information about who had stolen the second-best sword from the armory, or when his father wanted to round up some people to use as examples. The people there worked hard, though, their desires bound up with their difficult lives. Arthur always felt awkward in the lower town. It was his kingdom, but there were places within it where Arthur didn't feel like he belonged.
The head man of the lower town was pleased to see Arthur. He was a nice enough man, although he carried the wariness of one who'd been burned too many times by royal decisions and taxes and fights that were not his own. He had a distinctly scrofulous look to him, and Arthur ached not to have to shake his hand in greeting.
"Thanking you kindly, my king," he said, as he shook enthusiastically. Arthur sighed.
"I'm not king yet," he said.
"Never any harm in trying," said the man, cheerfully. "Will you have a drink, Sire?"
The lower tavern was what Gwen would have primly called a den of iniquity and what Uther would have called bloody horrible. Arthur was inclined to agree with the latter thought — smoke from the poorly-ventilated fire clung to the ceiling, and the floor was mysteriously sticky. It was the work of mere seconds to get the man talking once he had a mug in his hand.
"There's some," said the head man, "what say there's a man who calls himself the Sorcerer-King of all the land. That he's trying to get people to do his bidding. And there's others what say there's two men, a dragonlord to the North and a thief of life to the South."
"Sounds charming," said Arthur, trying not to shake his head at the absurdity of it. "So which do you believe in?"
"I have cousins in Ealdor," said the head man. "They tell me that a man came there, a man who made the fields bloom in one night, gave them a full harvest in a week. You know that there was some…trouble in Ealdor these last few years."
He had Arthur's full attention now. "A man? What did he look like?"
"Old," said the man. "Tall, with ash-grey hair and golden eyes."
Arthur frowned. Not Merlin, then. But suspicious, all the same, that a powerful sorcerer should go to Ealdor. He should have Gaius use natural philosophy to test the place, make sure that they weren't all getting tainted with sorcery by the land.
"You think he was the Sorcerer-King?" asked Leon.
"He could have been a druid," said Arthur. "They like…flowers and things. Dead animals."
"With all respect to you, Sire, this's not like druids. They're more…country folk. Don't really mess with the lives of the people in the towns," said the head man. "I think this is something different. People are getting more…bold. There's talk that there's sorcerers coming into town."
"To what end?" asked Arthur.
"No-one knows," said the head man. "They're just coming."
"Can you name one?"
"No," said the man, "they're sorcerers. They don't use their real names."
Arthur knew, rationally, that any such sorcerers were probably figments of the over-active imaginations of the townsfolk, but it was like the snakes. Start believing snakes were everywhere, and you'd start to see them. Start to see snakes, and you'll believe they're out to get you.
"So, to sum up," he said. "There's sorcerers and they're trying to fight each other, but no-one knows who they are and no-one knows where they are."
This earned him a look that seemed to say although you are my Prince, you are also exceptionally slow.
"They're sorcerers," said the man, spelling out each syllable. "If you knew who they were and what they were up to, they wouldn't be sorcerers."
Arthur's brain was starting to hurt. He sighed.
"Let's imagine for a minute that they're just…normal people with special abilities," he said. Leon raised his eyebrows, and Arthur was glad that he could trust Leon to keep his mouth shut. "If they were…normal…what would they be doing? Why would they do this?"
"Why would someone fix a field?" asked the man, and Arthur frowned. "Well, if it were suspicious…maybe they're trying to amass support. There's a lot of people who'll eat this winter because he helped them."
"And the Sorcerer-King? Where is his kingdom?" asked Arthur. "Could they form an alliance?"
"That's not for me to say," said the head man. "I don't know."
"Who would know?" asked Arthur.
He gave up, getting the distinct feeling that he wasn't going to get to the bottom of things this way, and eventually the man got the hint and let them finish the watery ale in peace.
"Sire," said Leon, as he drained his mug. "I feel like I should apologise."
"For what?" Arthur asked.
"I…" Leon began, looking a little panicked. "Nothing."
"Good," said Arthur. "Come on. We'll go and see if that idiot in the kitchens knows anything."
The light was fading fast, the last days of summer giving way to an autumnal chill. The heat fled from the air as soon as the sun was no longer staining the buildings pink and yellow. They walked in companionable silence, shoulder-to-shoulder, until Arthur saw something move in the shadow of a building, and he froze. Leon was alert in an instant, his hand going to his sword.
"Don't think about it," said someone, stepping out from the shadows. "There's more of us than there are of you."
"You're going to rob us?" asked Leon, surprise staining his tone.
"We're going to ask you some questions," said another voice, from the street. Arthur's gaze flicked over the scene. Yes, a small group of men were crowding them in, slowly but surely.
"You don't look like you live here," said one of the men, his dark cloak flapping in the wind. "You look like a nob."
"Haven't you heard?" asked another. "There's sorcerers invading."
"Or perhaps you know," said the first, slowly, menacingly. "Perhaps you know. I've never seen you down here before, nob."
Arthur didn't dare look at Leon. He thought he might laugh.
"Do you know who you're talking to?" asked Leon, his hand shifting to the hilt of his sword.
"Someone what doesn't know where he is in this town."
"Don't be an idiot!" called a man from the door of the pub. "That's the Prince, that is!"
It was too late, the punch already thrown by the time the word prince was uttered. Arthur still had time to catch the horrified look on the man's face as he recognised Arthur. Arthur ducked, rolling with the blow and feeling more alive than he had in weeks. The man fell heavily, the air knocked from his lungs with an audible oof. Arthur unsheathed his sword, putting a foot in the middle of the man's chest.
"Tell me about the sorcerers," he said, the tip of the sword nudging the man's throat. He could lean forward and press it through to the ground, if he so wished. The man seemed to realise this, and he quailed.
"They're coming into town," he said, frightened. "They're coming in and they're taking people away."
"Taking people away?" Arthur asked, leaning back, pulling the sword up. "Do you know anyone?"
"My…my son," said the man. "He was prenticed to the swineherd."
"Swineherds keep apprentices?" Arthur asked, before he could stop himself.
"Yes…yes. He didn't like the work, said it was too hard. And they came," said the man. "They came and they told him that they could help him, make it easier."
"And he went with them," said Arthur, sheathing his sword. "Have you seen him since?"
"No," said the man. "It's been more than a week. He'd never run away."
"Too loyal?" asked Leon.
"Too lazy," said one of the other men. "He'd sooner go to the tavern than to a fight. "
"It's suspicious, is what it is," said the third. He had a high, reedy voice, and as Arthur took in the three men, he realised that they were nowhere near as menacing as they'd appeared when they'd slipped out of the darkness. They were portly, dirty, old. The lower town was not a place where the truly menacing lived — they'd come into the upper reaches, inside the castle walls, if they could. Bullies and tricksters didn't stay where their best prospect was to be a pig-herder's apprentice.
"Shall I…buy you a drink?" he offered.
"Saving your grace, Sire, but we're not asking for charity," said his assailant, as he got up off the ground. "I just want my son back."
"I want to know everything that you know about the sorcerers," said Arthur. "I would think that a drink will make it more…pleasant."
He'd managed to escape the tavern for all of about three minutes, he calculated later. Leon fetched the drinks, keeping a wary eye on everything that went into them, and Arthur sat on the hard bench, facing the men.
"Where did your son meet them?" he asked. "The sorcerers, I mean."
"There won't…" the man said, "there won't be trouble about this, will there?"
"Do you mean will I have your son killed for consorting with sorcerers?" Arthur asked. The man nodded. "What's your name?"
"Ewan, Sire," he said.
"Then, Ewan, let me assure you that I have no intention of having your son killed," said Arthur. "All I want is whatever information I can get about the sorcerers. In the upper town, inside the castle walls, people are jumping at the sight of snakes. Down here, old men are attacking strangers because they think that they're sorcerers. Which problem do you think is more worthy of my time?"
"Both, if the snakes are poison," said Ewan, and Arthur grinned broadly. He liked the man; he reminded Arthur of the hero of an old story, the swineherd who turned out to be a prince.
"Do you think they're after followers?" Leon asked, quickly.
"If they wanted followers," said Ewan. "There's not just my Iofur missing. There's a girl who lives in the street-with-no-name that's gone off, too. Folk said she went off with a new man."
"Not an old one!" said one of the others, and the men laughed, breaking the tension a little. This was clearly an elderly joke, and Arthur nodded.
"So. There's more people missing."
"Well, not missing, really. Just…gone."
"Gone is different to missing?" Leon asked. Ewan looked distant, for a minute.
"Gone is…gone," he said. "There's lots of reasons why people go. Missing is…someone tells you where they are."
Arthur nodded. Leon was more sheltered, had grown up in Camelot, grown up the son of a nobleman. He'd been to war as a leader, never a footsoldier. Arthur had…
Arthur had been to Ealdor, where people died in the dirt for the stupiditiy of noblemen, and where you had to sleep on the floor. Where he'd heard Merlin crying in the night for Will, who'd never been further than the next village. Who might have been a sorcerer but Arthur didn't know; he didn't know anything any more.
He didn't think that sorcerers were supposed to cry. They were like princes, in that respect. He sighed.
"I will send someone here tomorrow," he said. Leon looked like he'd just announced that the King was actually a serpent. "Tell him what you know about missing people; he'll be wearing my colours. Don't mention sorcerers to anyone else but him — if someone asks, just say they…went away."
"Thanking you, Sire," said Ewan, picking up his drink to toast Arthur. "We shall."
Meg the cook had caught a snake in the kitchen next morning, and hit it with one of the heavy pans. The squashed serpent was being flashed around the castle, people going to look. Arthur had spared it a cursory glance, mindful of the bad rap that snakes were getting right now. He felt strangely sorry for it.
"Your father wants a meeting," said Lucan, when he'd finished gawking at the sad little corpse. Arthur sighed. He wondered how long it would be before people went around hitting other people with cast-iron pots.
"You need to tell me things sooner," he said, quietly. "And you need to learn to call me Sire."
He went to his father's rooms after breakfast, pausing at the door. He'd not talked much with Uther after Merlin's death, and Arthur wondered if the relationship between them was broken forever. He knocked on the door apprehensively.
"Enter," said Uther, and when Arthur did, his father was sitting by the window, surveying the bright walls of Camelot, the forests and hills beyond.
"I don't think it's snakes we should worry about," said Arthur, before his father could talk. "I went to the lower town yesterday. There's rumours of an army of sorcerers massing; young people are going missing. The men there mentioned a Sorcerer-King."
"There is only one king in Camelot," said Uther, dismissively. "And you are not to go to the lower town for information — those people are thieves and liars. They're probably practicing sorcery themselves."
"But…" Arthur began, trying to get him to at least listen.
"Our snake problem has…increased," said Uther, his dark eyes alive with excitement. "You will need your men."
"Don't tell me someone has finally proven that there is some enormous snake that's swallowing people?" Arthur asked, fascinated. Before Merlin, he'd have questioned whether such beasts existed. Now he knew for sure that they did.
"It was seen on the road to Green Hills," said Uther, steepling his fingers. "A giant snake, come from the sea. They say its teeth are as large as a man's forearm."
"Surely this is just peasant superstition?" Arthur asked. Uther shook his head.
"Even if it is, we must be seen to be taking it seriously, Arthur. A king must protect his people, first and foremost, no matter what personal risk or loss that brings."
And that, Arthur knew, was as close to an explanation for Merlin's death as he'd ever get. He doubted that Uther had even been thinking of Merlin, but Arthur was thinking of Merlin. Arthur seemed to think of Merlin a lot, now, at grossly inappropriate times.
"So you want me to ride out there," he said. "Do we know anything other than it has gigantic teeth? Is it venomous? If I take Cook's pan, will I be able to flatten it?"
"Don't be facetious," Uther snapped. "I've been displeased with your attitude of late, Arthur."
"Are you really surprised?" Arthur replied. "I've been displeased with my servants of late, father. I seem to recall you having something to do with that."
Uther sighed. "Did that boy have you under a spell, then, that you mourn his death?"
"I don't need to have been under a spell to miss having an efficient servant," Arthur said. His father was silent. Arthur sighed, standing. "I'll go."
"That would be a good idea," said Uther, his voice a dark rasp. Arthur swept from the chambers, not bothering to go via his own room. He went down to the armoury instead, Lucan trailing in his wake, the men surprised to see him there so early in the morning. True to his word, he sent Bors to the lower town; the man was tall and broad, his capacity for alcohol legendary and his accent indicating that he came from a country kingdom, not a metropolis. People liked Bors; he was friendly and open. He returned after lunch — after a marathon hunt through the forest nearby to the castle for a snake that definitely wasn't there — and confirmed Arthur's worst fears.
"There's definitely talk of an army," said Bors, as Arthur stood on a rock and surveyed his men. "There's talk of an army and generals, and we're looking for snakes."
"It seems to add up, doesn't it?" asked Arthur.
"You think that the sorcerers sent the snakes?" Bors asked.
"I do not know how a snake could grow so big, if it is really so big, by natural means," said Bors, slowly. "And I do not know why a snake would want to harm Camelot specifically. Wouldn't it just want to sun itself on a rock?"
"Where are they coming from?" asked Arthur, and bless him, Bors was quick enough to work out that he hadn't meant the snakes.
"The South, Sire. They're amassing to the South-East. There's a rumour of a Northern power, but no-one thinks that they're coming after Camelot."
"My father wants us to hunt out this snake," said Arthur, and the words tasted bitter in his mouth. "So we shall. But tell the men to prepare to ride south once the beast is killed. How many have vanished from the lower town?"
"Twenty, maybe more," said Bors. Arthur sucked in a breath.
"How did we not know about this?"
"We were hunting for snakes?" asked Bors, without a trace of irony. "And people don't talk about it. They don't want the King to know, because reporting people going missing might mean more people going missing, if you get my drift…"
"I do," said Arthur, feeling his stomach tighten. He could see, here in the forest, how a man could prefer the rule of no-one to a rule where they could be killed for the least suspicion of sorcery. Where even those closest to the Prince could be killed. His thoughts circled around Merlin more often than not, these days, like water spiralling from a hole in a bucket. He couldn't help the thought that Merlin might have known what to do, in that silent, subtle way he'd sometimes managed.
He shook his head. No, that was stupid. Merlin had been a clod. Merlin would have…
"Sire?" asked Bors, quietly. "Are you all right?"
"I'm angry that we haven't been on our guard. We swore we'd be on our guard after…after Merlin," said Arthur. "Yet twenty people have gone missing from the lower town. This is not vigilance." He jumped down, frustrated. "Men! We camp here tonight!"
The last of the summer warmth was fading from the night, and so Leon lit a fire, the men setting up camp close by. They'd sleep with their shields, taking watch by turns. Not that Arthur thought there'd likely be a snake — not at night, not when serpents grew sluggish from the cooling air — but he had to do something, anything to fix the growing ache in his chest. He sent Gawain to the castle for food, and they camped out in his own kingdom, Arthur's whole body thrilling at the delight of being outside again. He wished that he could do this more often; escape the bounds of the stone walls and the responsibility that they carried. He resolved to sit up all night.
After dinner, they didn't put the bones on the fire like they normally would — they wanted to attract wild beasts, not repel them. The talking grew quieter as the night grew long; Gawain was drooping a bit by Leon's side, but Bors was sitting, alert still. Arthur listened to the hum of their gossip — who was seeing whom, bargains they'd got in the marketplace, the correct way to clean a sword. All talk of snakes was barred under unspoken agreement, and Arthur wasn't stupid enough to ignore the fact that no-one spoke about their servants. He didn't know if he should be grateful, or unspeakably angry.
It was late when there was a swish and rustle from the bushes. Arthur paused, his heart thudding. Yes. This was it, the thrilling part of the chase. There was something in the bushes, and whether it was a deer or an owl or a whacking great snake, Arthur would find it.
"What was that?" asked Bors.
Arthur gestured for quiet, hoping someone with a bullseye lantern would come forth and help them pinpoint it. There was another rustle, a few feet away. Whatever it was wasn't frightened by the people or the fire.
"Light," Arthur called, keeping his voice clear and calm. Don't spook it. Let it come out, let everyone see what it was. It was Gawain who stepped forward with the lantern, raising the hood and scanning the clearing. A glittering stretch of scales rumbled past, impossibly huge in the half-light. Bors drew in a sharp breath.
"What the sodding hell is that?" asked Gawain, trembling.
"I suspect that is our snake," Arthur whispered. "It must want the heat of the fire."
It wasn't really a snake, per se. Not unless the average little snakes that used to sun themselves on the back flagstones had suddenly grown, and grown nasty. Arthur had tried to trap them, when he was a child, until he'd been allowed to join the knights' training and there were suddenly far more interesting things to do.
"We'll have to spread out into the clearing," said Arthur, quietly. "Men, swords at the ready."
"How'd you reckon we kill it, then?" asked Leon. "Hack off its head?"
"Seems to kill most things," said Bors, and there was a nervy chuckle from the others, the sort of gallows-humour that precedes a battle, rippling through the knights. There was a sudden swish, and then the snake was outlined by the fire. Arthur's blood sang in his veins — it wasn't just big, it was bloody enormous, easily large enough to swallow a man whole. He moved forward, and the beast stuck out its tongue, testing the air, swinging its great, ponderous head around to stare not at Arthur, but at Gawain.
"Gawain!" hissed Leon, his eyes wide with terror. Arthur used the distraction to get closer, softly, softly, ignore the branch that snapped when he stepped on it, ignore everything but the gleam of scales in the firelight, the soft spot on its neck that would have to snap under a sword. The snake hissed, tongue flickering, head weaving in front of Gawain's. Don't panic, Arthur thought, it's only staying calm because you're not panicking.
"Gawain," he said, level and measured. "I want you to listen to me."
"Sire," said Gawain, his voice a few octaves higher than normal. "I think I can get it."
"The minute you move, that thing is going to strike," said Arthur, still level, raising his sword just a little higher. "So I want you to roll on my count of three. Do you remember how to roll onto your shoulder?"
"I…I do," said Gawain, as the snake got so close as to almost taste him. Arthur tensed.
"One," he said, and he felt the knights move closer more than saw them. "Two." The snake fluttered and hissed. Arthur got ready to run. "Three!" he called, as the snake struck. Gawain rolled, but the thing was too swift, and it struck after him, hitting the ground as he tried to scramble away.
"Sire!" Gawain cried, and the beast was snapping, snapping…
Arthur sprang. He raised his sword high, and he had enough power behind the blow to break the animal's skin, to start to get to its innards. Arthur took no pleasure in the kill. He hacked with the sword, scales crushing under the blows, cursing under his breath at the tough hide of snakes. The creature roared its displeasure and turned on him, bringing sharp teeth down on his sword arm. Arthur roared too, pain spiking through his wrists, but he managed to keep hold of his sword.
He felt the movement of someone at his shoulder, and Leon was beside him, flanking the snake, his broadsword still sharp, hacking and slashing where Arthur's sword had shattered the scales. Arthur tried to wrench his arm free, stabbing up, meeting Leon's sword on the downstroke and both men working together until the beast was beheaded, its fangs withdrawing in death, leaving the men panting in the gloom of the night.
"Is it dead?" Leon asked, as Arthur sank to his knees beside the head. It hissed, eyes going dull and milky as the last of its lifeblood flowed away.
"Yes," Arthur said, the world tipping and spinning a bit. His hands were slippery with gore, and it took him long, slow seconds to realise that the blood was dripping from his own arm — his sword arm — running freely down his fingers from the hideous wound of the snakebite. "Do you think it's poisoned?"
"Don't know," said Leon, crouching beside Arthur and taking his arm, prodding gently at the wounds. He looked up. "Bors! Gawain! The Prince is hurt!"
"I'm fine," said Arthur, leaning on Leon's shoulder with his good hand to help himself stand. "We need to take this corpse back to the castle. Put paid to these snake rumours once and for all."
"You don't think there's more?" asked Gawain, nervously. "Like…a breeding pair?"
"Don't even start with that," replied Leon. "Sire…you're hurt."
"I'm fine," Arthur said, almost a growl. "Gawain, get the head."
Gawain triumphantly held the head over his own head, as they tramped up to town, Leon taking an increasing amount of Arthur's weight as they went, and as Arthur lost more and more blood. He was seeing stars by the time they got to his father's chambers, Gawain reverently laying the disgusting head on the side table, Leon bodily supporting Arthur.
"It's dead," said Arthur, as Uther stood, moving to him with a swiftness and grace that belied his years. He took Arthur's shoulders.
"You're injured," said the King, and Arthur shook his head.
"Flesh wound," he said, and Uther gave him a tight, proud smile before he looked over from Arthur to Leon.
"Take him to Gaius," he instructed. "Well done, Arthur."
"Better tell the kitchens we're having snake stew for a week," Arthur mumbled, before he swayed, everything going black for a few seconds. Leon held him up, carefully.
"I'll take him right away, Sire," he said, and Uther nodded.
He'd not seen Gaius since Merlin died. At first it had been deliberate, hiding because Gaius would have known why Gwen left; because Gaius had cried, and Arthur wasn't prepared to deal with that, not ever. Gaius was pale, thinner than he had been, but his hands were steady as he applied the poultice and bandages to the bite on Arthur's arm. He'd made Arthur rest until dawn, sleep off the fight and the blood loss before he dressed the wound proper.
"This is a nasty bite," said Gaius. "You're lucky that it wasn't poisonous."
"Was it magical?" Arthur asked.
"I would say so," said Gaius. "I've never heard of a snake that size occurring naturally."
"Do you think it was evil?"
"I don't think animals are evil, no," Gaius replied, wrapping bandages.
"But it was magic."
"Not all magic is evil," said Gaius.
Arthur couldn't resist prodding. "Merlin…Merlin could have stopped it, couldn't he? Is that what his magic was?"
Gaius stopped wrapping the wound, just for a few seconds.
"Sire," said Gaius, as calm as he ever had been. He met Arthur's eyes, and Arthur realised how old Gaius was, how worn and tired he seemed. "I am doing my job, and you shall be in no pain. I would ask in return that you please do not speak to me of Merlin."
He bent his head and began to wrap again. Arthur swallowed hard against a thick lump that hadn't been in his throat seconds ago, and looked around the room for a distraction. He had little luck. There, on the shelf, was Merlin's stupid neckerchief; there was a fat, smooth river rock from Ealdor. Arthur had been there when Merlin had picked up the rock, claiming it would be a better substitute for Gaius's worn pestle. The room was filled with pieces of Merlin, and Arthur scrunched the sheet under his hands, throat tight.
"I'm sorry," he said, his voice not his own.
"Merlin was as a son to me," said Gaius, almost inaudible. "He could have stopped the serpent as easily as he stopped everything else that came for you, these past years. It was his destiny to bring you to greatness, and mine to assist."
"That's treason," said Arthur, aching.
"Kill me, then," said Gaius, picking up a sharp, bone-handled knife from the table and handing it to Arthur, fitting the handle into his palm. It was warm, easy.
Arthur turned his head away. "No!"
Gaius's voice was calm, steady. "You killed Merlin."
"I didn't," said Arthur, closing his fingers around the handle of the knife. "That was my father."
"You sat by and watched," said Gaius. "And now Camelot will fall, because you were too blind to see destiny when it stared you in the face."
"Camelot won't…" Arthur began, and Gaius tightened the bandage. "Ow!"
Arthur let the knife fall from his grip. It clattered when it hit the flagstones, ringing lightly, a disappointingly gentle sound. It should fall with a thud, a heavy weight that matched the seriousness of the action. Gaius fastened the bandage, turning away.
"You were…two sides of a coin," said Gaius heavily. "And now Merlin is dead, and destiny is at a loose end. The world doesn't like empty spaces. Look at how fast moss rushes to fill the gaps between flagstones."
"You think that moss will try to fill the void here in Camelot?" Arthur asked. Gaius gestured to the bandages.
"You think it hasn't already tried?" he asked, and Arthur shivered.
The moment was lost when his father swept in, not bothering to knock. He was, as he was fond of reminding people, the King. He didn't need to knock.
"How is he?" Uther demanded.
"It was not a deep wound," said Gaius, "and I do not think that the bite was poisoned. This was a warning, Sire."
"A warning? Of what?" asked Arthur. "Do you think that…" Did Gaius believe the stories too? Was this some sort of test? It was an unpleasant thought.
"Don't be ridiculous," said Uther. "This was simply some overgrown snake."
"Yes, Sire," said Gaius. Uther gave Arthur a cursory glance.
"Arthur will be fighting fit again tomorrow," said Uther, and Gaius nodded.
"He will be as well as it is in my power to make him, my lord," he said, with a warm smile, and Arthur wondered just how many people in the court routinely lied to the King; not about great things, treasonous things, but about how they felt and who they were. Gaius seemed happy, looked happy, and Arthur ached for him.
"I feel a lot better now," he said, adding to the lie because he couldn't bear to be part of the truth. "I'll…I shall go back to my rooms until it is time for dinner, Father."
"I think it best if you just rest tonight, Arthur," said Gaius, his voice gentle. "It's not a simple injury."
"Very well," said Uther. "I will have your food sent up. I will expect to see you in council tomorrow."
Arthur fought very hard not to sigh, and he decided he'd succeeded when he was released into Lucan's somewhat idiosyncratic care. He'd wondered — he had to admit that he'd wondered — if Merlin had tried to disguise himself as an even less competent manservant, but Merlin would have revealed himself by now. Or Lucan would have mysteriously been there when the serpent attacked, looking innocent and smelling a little like a thunderstorm. He sent Lucan away as soon as he could. Normally Merlin would be there, tutting and fussing and adjusting his sling. Making him drink vile potions of Merlin's own devising that — now that he knew the truth — had probably been magical. Arthur wondered why magical potions couldn't taste like strawberries.
Arthur wondered why he'd let his father kill Merlin.
As far as he knew, they either swept the ashes from the pyres into the midden, or let them loose into the the caverns at the bottom of the castle. It would be an ignoble fate — no marker, nothing to say here was a man who was loved. He got up, itching inside his bones, and paced. It made sense that they'd have spilled the ashes from Merlin's burning under the castle; Uther loved pomp and ceremony, and it had a certain…completeness…that made sense. The dragon had been held under there. Even though Merlin was dead and gone, it was still somewhere that he could be contained, somewhere where he wouldn't see the sunlight in death.
He took a torch from the corridors, holding it in his good hand, trying not to slip on the damp floor of the caverns, empty and lost without the dragon there. He slipped the torch into a wall bracket, letting the light flicker across the stalactites. How long had this place been here? Morgana had sworn that once she'd gone into the furthest reaches of one of the tunnels, and there'd been strange pictures on the wall; cows that ran, men with sticks who chased them. She'd come upstairs in a rush, wearing borrowed britches, but when they'd run back down together, his father's guards had stopped them.
There were no guards today. No-one would bother to come to an empty cavern; even if they had, they wouldn't bother to stop the crown prince. He looked out at the stream that ran at the bottom of the cavern, the light gleaming and catching, reflecting onto the ceiling. It was pretty, in a closed-in way. He scanned the ledge, and there, that was what he was looking for. Someone had placed some flowers there, tied with one of Merlin's stupid scarves.
It was so tiny, and futile, and stupid. Arthur blinked heat away from his eyes, tears that blurred the torchlight and turned the cavern into a shimmering blur. This was Merlin; the one who'd been there every night, drawn Arthur's bath, held a blade to his neck and shaved him. He'd thought that Merlin…thought…
The tears fell, finally. He crouched, picking up a handful of the thick ash that was piled at the ledge, letting it slide between his fingers and dust over into the cavern, raining down impossibly. It was damp down here, the sound of his unsteady breath tiny in the huge space. He picked up another handful, letting it slide, letting it cover his hands with a stain that would last, that would see him leaving his fingerprints everywhere.
"I'm sorry," he said. "Merlin, I'm sorry."
He'd almost expected an answer, and he ran his fingers through the ash again, letting it fall. It was inconsistent, uneven, and as it fell he felt something hard and round between his fingers, and stopped, looked. There was a glass bead in the ashes — a tiny, shimmering thing. It was blue and red by turns — probably expensive. It might have been lost from some lady's tunic, but if it had been, why would it be here? Arthur picked it up, dusting it off on his sleeve. No, it wasn't a bead — it was a rock, a polished crystal. Odd.
"Why didn't you save yourself?" Arthur asked, eventually. He slipped the rock into his pocket, letting it fall from his fingers into the soft folds of the fabric. "If you were so strong, and so good, and so vital, then why didn't you douse the flames and save yourself?"
No reply. Arthur kicked the ash-pile, scattering stones everywhere and making a white cloud puff up around his boots, the body dispersed, the pieces no longer fitting together the extraordinary way that humans did; joint to sinew, blood to heart, alive and warm. He kicked and he kicked, rocks pinging and twanging off the walls, yet nothing he did stopped the chasm opening in his chest, or a few more pieces of his heart falling through.
They came by night.
Arthur was well-schooled in warfare, made paranoid by an increasingly frightened King, and he knew well the advantages and disadvantages of night combat. Many a conquest had turned to disaster when a loosely placed torch had rolled and caught. An invading army would not have the advantage over men who knew their home, who had stumbled lost and drunken down these corridors a hundred times before.
Still, two weeks after the great snake, the sorcerers came by night, no torches to light their way. Globes of light, heavy and unnatural, hung about the ceiling as Arthur's fingers closed around the hilt of his sword. He had no armour in his bedroom — why would he; it was his bedroom — but he had this sword. He got up, the thrill of the chase winding down his spine as he made it to the door. This was his castle — his castle! — and no-one was going to take that from him, not these silent sorcerers, not anyone. He crept into the corridor, sticking close to the wall. He'd make his way to the armory, first, and then get the knights and…
It was Lucan. Lucan was belting up the corridor, running with the loose gait of a man terrified. Arthur looked at him.
"Shut up!" he hissed. Lucan stopped, wheezing, resting his hands on his knees as he caught his breath.
"There's sorcerers all downstairs, sire," he said, panting. "They're all downstairs and everywhere and the king has been roused but no-one knows where anyone else is and it's all going to shit, Sire."
"Calm down," said Arthur, knowing as he looked at the boy that he couldn't make his servant fight. He couldn't have another death on his conscience; he looked around, and forced the door behind him open. Morgana's old room.
"What…what are you doing?" asked Lucan.
"Getting you somewhere to hide," said Arthur, grimly.
"I'm not a coward!"
"Good! I want a servant once I've won my castle back, and I don't want you killed. Get in there."
Lucan reluctantly stepped into the room, and Arthur checked the corridor again. Good. No-one was there yet.
"What about you?" asked Lucan, as the warning bells clanged.
"I'm the prince," said Arthur. "Defeating invaders is my job."
"But…" said Lucan, worrying at the hem of his shirt.
"Get into the cupboard and don't come out until I fetch you," Arthur said, almost a growl, shoving Lucan backwards.
"But…" Lucan began again, and Arthur slammed the doors, hard. He ran down the corridor, trying to make his way to where the key fight was happening. He could hear the clang of sword against plate amour as he passed knights trying to fight men who attacked with fire, attacked with ice, attacked with the bodies of the knight's fallen comrades, grotesquely animated. There was no getting through the melee and down to the main battle, it seemed; every corridor that he went down had a new fight.
"Sire!" called Bors, and Arthur turned to see him sheltering behind an upturned table. "Over here!"
Arthur ran, climbing in beside him. "What happened?"
"I don't know," Bors replied. "We got reports of a disturbance in the lower town, so I sent out a patrol to check…then everything seemed to happen all at once. There's got to be a hundred of them, maybe more."
"A hundred?" Arthur asked, his palms damp and cold. "Sodding hell, where do you find a hundred sorcerers in Camelot?"
"Right now?" asked Bors. "In the castle."
That was it, then, the moment that Arthur knew that Camelot would fall. Bors, who didn't laugh about death, who didn't make light in battle, offering him a sad, wry smile and a bad joke. He pushed himself up, looked over the edge of the table. He could see a familiar silhouette standing in the doorway, and his veins flooded with relief.
"Geraint," he said, sheathing his sword. "How does…"
"Arthur!" Bors said, scrambling up to his feet. "We have to go."
"What?" Arthur asked, as Geraint stepped into the light. He had a gash in his neck, a gaping sword wound that trickled blood onto his mail. His skin was pale, a blue-ish hint to it that spoke of too much blood lost and no heart beating in his chest.
"Geraint was the leader of the party I sent to the lower town," said Bors, as they backed away. "I don't think…I don't know…"
"Geraint," said Arthur, in a loud, clear voice. "Geraint, can you understand me?"
The knight took another step forward, and then he fell flat, his face crushing against the flagstones. Arthur warily drew closer, feeling for the beat of his pulse at his neck.
"Dead," he said, and he could hear footsteps in the hall. "Come on. I know a shortcut out to the courtyard. Let's go."
They ran, silent, Arthur's thoughts spinning. Sorcerers. Sorcerers who used their own dead against them. He looked out the windows as they went, surveying the scene from on high. He could see into the courtyard by virtue of the sorcerer's lights, and there was his father, fighting a knight. It wasn't one of the knights of Camelot; Arthur knew them, knew their bodies, even if they were being made to fight, puppet-like, for the sorcerers who controlled them, the sorcerers who wore no armor and attacked from the back of their army.
"The king," said Bors, next to him. "What is that?"
The knight that Uther fought was dark-clad, tall — taller even than Uther himself. Arthur tore his eyes away.
"I have to establish a new front in the throne room. If we can hold it, Camelot can hold on," said Arthur. No matter how much he wanted to help his father, help push the dark knight away, he knew that he couldn't. He had to lead on his own, he had to help by thinning out the numbers of the damned sorcerers.
Bors exhaled. "I'm with you, sire."
They pushed through the surge of the crowd; word was passing like fire on thatch that the King was fighting in the courtyard. A good tactic, Arthur thought — if the invaders could make a scene in one place, then they were free to seize the throne itself, free to seize the symbols of the monarchy. He didn't underestimate the effect of symbols; there was a reason why his men kept their armor shiny, the bright Pendragon crest there for others to see. The doors were open, the people around still straggling out to the courtyard, and Arthur offered a quick prayer to any god that would listen for his father to be all right.
There were people in the room. A man and a woman, sitting on the twin thrones of Camelot. Arthur felt his stomach turn — not to see someone on his throne; that could be amended — but to see someone on his mother's throne. Ygraine's seat had sat empty — even Arthur or Morgana had never sat there — almost exclusively for as long as Arthur could remember. He felt anger rise hot in his throat at such hubris.
"Who are you?" he demanded. He didn't recognise them. He'd been half-expecting Morgana, half-expecting some grotty little sorcerer or druid that he'd met before, half expecting even a bloody troll. This wasn't anyone he recognised.
"The King of Camelot," said the man, with a wicked grin.
"That's treason," Bors said, hotly. Arthur realised that the pair wore no armor, carried no shield — so they were sorcerers, or supremely confident. Or both. Bors unsheathed his sword. "In the name of King Uther, I demand you…"
The man raised his hand, palm flat, as if in greeting. Bors froze, mid-word, and the man looked at Bors the same way a child might look at a flea.
"No," he said, and lightning twisted around the chamber, wrapping swiftly around Bors before sliding back into the man's grasp. Bors fell, shockingly slowly. He crumpled, his armor wrecked, his eyes blank and dead even before he'd hit the ground.
"No!" Arthur yelled, swiftly moving to Bors's side. "No, you don't have the right…you don't have…"
The blast caught him as he ran, raised his feet off the ground so that he twisted helplessly. The man's hood had fallen back, and he laughed as Arthur struggled. He was tall, about the age of Uther, and the power that arced from his fingertips glowed red, like fire. He could see the blood of Bors staining the stone where he'd fallen, and that wasn't fair, either — it was supposed to be clean, sorcery. Sorcery was supposed to kill without leaving a mark.
"So," said the dark-cloaked man. "This is the great Arthur Pendragon."
Arthur wondered how the man knew his name; how he could recognise Arthur so quickly. He'd not had his portrait painted since he was a child, and in any case it wasn't as if a book of portraits was handed out at every instance of a town meeting. There were twin snakes on the man's breastplate, and the pieces fell into place with stunning horror.
The snakes had been a bluff. Arthur knew it for certain now, and it didn't make it any easier. The woman simply sat in her throne — in his mother's throne — and watched impassively as Arthur writhed.
"Who," Arthur ground out, "who are you?"
"I am your King," said the man, with a faintly quizzical expression on his face. "I thought that I made that quite clear."
"You are not my king," said Arthur, and he could taste iron in the back of his mouth. The snakebite on his arm had opened again, was oozing slow drops of blood that ran down his fingers and onto his sword. "I will fight you to the death. Camelot will fight you."
The woman laughed. Arthur felt a chill breeze, an unnatural movement of air indoors. Outside, there was shouting and clapping, noise from the corridors and the streets. People were celebrating. He could hear movement, footsteps on the stone, and even though he struggled to see what was happening, all he could see were the imposters, the pretenders to Uther's rightful throne.
So this is what he was afraid of, Arthur thought, all these years. This is what he was afraid of.
"Little prince," said the woman — the sorceress — "We are not the only ones that you will need to fight."
His feet hit the ground, and he could move. It was sudden and glorious, and Arthur wheeled around to see spectators lining the walls, people waiting to see what the Prince would do. Tactically, he wasn't sure about launching himself against the thrones — if they'd stopped him before, they'd stop him again.
There was a terrible, slow grinding behind him. Arthur turned, his heart hammering as Bors sat up. Arthur took a step backwards, swallowing hard against the fear that suddenly threatened to choke him. Bors got to his feet in one jerky movement, no bending, a sweep of limp limbs that reminded Arthur of a child's doll made to dance.
"Monsters," said Arthur, as Bors took a step towards him. "You're monsters."
He knew what he had to do; Arthur wasn't an idiot. And yet his heart was betraying him, calling into mind feasts and hunts, minor battles and skirmishes where a very young prince had been guided and helped by the older knight. This was one of his men — his friend. Bors was becoming more graceful as he moved, and Arthur raised his sword to block a blow. He'd trained against Bors hundreds of times; his body knew what to do, even if Arthur didn't.
Bors swung, a mighty blow, showering flecks of blood across the carpets and tapestries from his ruined corpse. Arthur ducked, managing to get to the other side of him before the man could turn, before he could move further. He had the advantage, he realised. The sorcerers didn't know how to fight. They thought they could just make a dead man swing a sword and it would work.
"I'm sorry," said Arthur, as Bors turned. He put all of his power into the blow, tears streaming down his face. This wasn't Bors, it was a…it wasn't Bors. The sword was sharp, and Arthur was strong; there was a gasp from the watching crowd as Bors's head fell, rolled on the floor, eyes open but unseeing.
The body took a step forward. Arthur kicked it, hard.
"Go to hell!" he said, blood on his face. "Fight me like a man, sorcerer. Don't hide behind puppets and trickery."
There was a stir in the hall, a stir that had nothing to do with Arthur. It was coming from the corridor, from the back of the room. The lights ducked and wove, and Arthur turned to see the knight that had been fighting his father. He wore his helm even in the castle, and Arthur raised his sword again.
"I've defeated creatures like this before," he said, as he felt a cold swirl of magic twist around his body. He gritted his teeth, trying to resist. This was an unfair fight, Arthur thought. That's how they wanted it. Make it look like surrender, make it public and humiliating. The knight was advancing, and Arthur struggled to move.
"On your knees," said the sorcerer. Arthur fell to his knees, hard, and the knight raised his gauntlet high. "Take him."
Arthur's world went black.
Arthur woke in a cold room, alone but for a guard who snorted in his sleep as he dozed next to the crown prince. There was a distressing smell of horseshit, and he realised with a slow, horrible realisation that he was in the cells. In his own cells. He sat up, head aching. There was something tight around his throat, and he put up a hand to touch it.
There was a collar there. Someone had put a sodding collar around his neck.
"Hey!" Arthur said, standing. "Hey! Guard!"
The guard snorted himself into wakefulness, looking at Arthur through disinterested eyes. "What?"
"Don't you know who I am?" Arthur asked. "What's going on?"
"I know," said the guard, wiping his mouth on the back of his hand, "who you are, princeling. D'ya think you'd be down here if no-one knew who you were?"
Arthur could remember bits of the night. He could remember bodies rising, the bluish glow of the witch-light, the pain as he'd fallen to the ground. He didn't want to remember all of it; he didn't want to know where Bors was, or the other knights. Didn't want to know how things had ended, if he was here in a cell, because the chance was that they had ended very badly. His head hurt. His head hurt so much, and he wondered just how hard the black knight had hit him.
"No," he said. "I suppose not."
"His majesty wanted to see you when you woke," said the guard. "So I reckon you'll be standing right now."
Arthur felt his knees snap to attention, locking, and he was suddenly standing. Before he could protest, he was dragged upstairs, and he learned why there were no shackles, no chains. They didn't need them. Even the guard, as sluggish and stupid as he'd seemed, could hold Arthur with the press of a hand into the air, could make him stumble and walk. He tried resisting, and his knees bent anyway — it was at the risk of breaking his ankles that he stumbled ahead and up the stairs. He was pushed into the throne room, and there on the throne he saw the man who'd killed Bors, the same sorceress by his side.
"Arthur Pendragon," said the man, with a sweeping gesture. "Kneel before your king."
Arthur couldn't resist. Tried to resist, but his back snapped upward and his knees locked, crashing down onto the flagstones. He bit his tongue to stop himself crying out — he'd have bruises on his knees come evening.
"You are not my king," he said, his voice a scrape of pain. His father. Suddenly, his thoughts were scrambling around his father — where was Uther? Arthur struggled to breathe.
"You will find this easier if you acquiesce," said the woman. She was willowy, copper hair curling down her neck and back, her clothing embroidered with gold and gems. Arthur wondered where she'd got the dress from — had she magicked it? Where had they come from?
Deep, deep under everything, a tiny voice asked: Could Merlin have done this? And if he could, why didn't he?
"It is time that you learned your proper place," said the Sorcerer-King, and Arthur could feel his body reacting, even though his mind was screaming and staging some sort of revolt. "You will be serving from the kitchens. And don't try anything, boy. Don't think we're fools."
His feet carried him to the kitchen, the Sorcerer-King stalking along behind him. Arthur struggled, to begin with, but there was a lance of pain that tumbled through his body, and he decided it was better to go with it, better to be alive than dead, because alive he could work out what to do about all of this. He got there, and stood awkwardly in the doorway, watching people bustle about and move deftly between steaming pots, the roaring ovens. The cook was yelling orders, and Tilde was scurrying to keep up. She stopped when she saw Arthur and the Sorcerer.
"My lord!" she said, bobbing her head. "Um — Cook is…"
"Right here," said the Cook, from behind her. "I'll see that he knows what to do, Sire."
"What?" Arthur asked, but it was swallowed up in the noise of the kitchens.
"Very good," said the Sorcerer-King. He put a heavy hand on the back of Arthur's neck. "I will expect you to serve me my lunch yourself."
He left, Arthur still standing in the doorway. Cook sighed. "What do you know about serving food, then?" she asked, and Arthur shook his head.
"I—I don't even know what happened, really," he said, a little weakly. "Why are you preparing for a feast?"
"There's a new King," said Tilde, not meeting his eyes. She ran her hands through her hair. "It was — fast."
"Extremely bloody fast, if this is anything to go by…" Arthur said, and then he felt his muscles seize.
"You've got one of them collars on," said Cook, and Arthur remembered her name was Meg. "You have to do what they tell you, or you'll hurt. There's no use fighting it."
"What—" Arthur said, through his teeth, "—what do you want me to do?"
It was strange, serving food in a castle that had been overthrown so quickly. It was so normal; the kitchen operated as it always had, great ovens baking bread, the smell of meat cooking and the barrels of beer being rolled out for a meal. Arthur drifted, aimlessly, helping to put out plates and goblets, wondering if anyone would notice if he were to slip a knife into his pocket. He tried, and his fingers twitched as if they were burning. Yes, then. They would notice.
He snuck off to the storeroom once the meal was in full swing. The collar around his neck was too tight, and when he looked at his reflection in a shiny tray, he couldn't see any way to get the damn thing off. Gentle probing with his fingers didn't work; there was no clasp, no buckle. It felt like leather, smooth, black leather — but hard, as if it held a line of metal under it. Arthur sighed, shutting the door to the storeroom and trying through dint of strength to remove the damn collar. His back arched in pain, the ache lancing down his spine, feeling as if it were snapping each bone and sinew, each taut muscle shattering into brittle pieces. The pain abated, a little, but left him on the flagstone floor, gasping for breath. He rested his forehead against the cool stones, and when he heard the shuffling of feet, he saw Lucan standing there, damp eyes betraying his concern.
"Sire," he said, and the pain arced again. Lucan jumped back, frightened. "Arthur!"
The pain stopped. Arthur caught his breath. "Help me get this thing off," he commanded, disliking the weak crack in his voice when he spoke.
"Sire…I…" Lucan said, and then he yelped when Arthur cried out, feeling like his bones were burning from the inside.
"Don't call me that!" Arthur yelled, and it stopped. His back dropped to the floor, welcomely cool. "If you call me…me…then the pain starts again. Just…get a knife and…"
It was no use. Every time they tried, the ache started again, and Arthur was left wheezing for breath, Lucan tearfully afraid that the Prince would kill him, distressed that he was causing Arthur pain. In the end, Lucan fetched Gaius, because Arthur couldn't get up even if he'd wanted to, and they couldn't just leave him on the floor of the storeroom. People would wonder; they'd think he'd escaped. They'd make the collar burn again, and Arthur wasn't quite sure that he could take that. He thought his heart might explode into wet, messy pieces from the strain.
Gaius was a whisper of robes, a gentle hand who fed him a potion that was warm down his throat, the heat radiating out through his chest and relaxing his taut, sore muscles.
"Arthur," said Gaius, and he held out a hand. "Shall you get up?"
"I have a collar on," Arthur said. Behind Gaius, Lucan qualied.
"So I see," Gaius replied.
"Aren't you going to…do something?"
"What would you have me do?" Gaius asked.
"Take it off," Arthur replied. Gauis looked at him, oddly.
"And be executed for treason? Both of us? Is that the most helpful thing I could be doing, my lord?"
"You've only ever looked after yourself, haven't you?" Arthur asked, bitter.
"Don't you say things against Gaius!" said Lucan, and Arthur went to berate him, but a warning twinge made him fear pain.
"Hush," Gaius said, holding up a hand to Lucan. "Arthur, use your brain. I do not have the power to help you in this. I will do what I can, but I cannot work miracles."
"No-one else has a collar," said Arthur, his voice hoarse. "Why?"
"Because no-one else can afford to lose their job," said Gaius, as the bells rang. "You'd best go."
"But—" Arthur began. Gaius put a gentle hand on his shoulder.
"Find the lay of the land before you try to invade it, my boy," he said, and Arthur nodded.
Dinner was hell. He was dragged from table to table, the place full of strangers in strange garb — golden gowns, long robes. Worse though, were the people who had once been allies. There was the apocethary; there, the seamstress, a silver goblet in her hand, laughing like a queen. His people, Arthur thought. Where were his people? The servants scuttled miserably, and Arthur welcomed being able to escape to the kitchens once it was over. Meg looked at him, a little sadly.
"I'm sorry for you, Master Pendragon," she said, passing him the heel of a loaf. "This should tide you over. Don't you try too much with that horrible thing round your neck."
"You've seen them before?" he asked. She shook her head.
"They put one on the stable lad when he refused to saddle a horse," she said. Arthur offered her a weak smile — so the control of the sorcerers wasn't total. "Go and eat that in the courtyard. You look like you're about to fall over."
"Thank you," he said, and she smiled at him. He went to the kitchen door, closing it once he'd made it outside, taking a few deep breaths. Camelot was lit by magic, breathtakingly so, and Arthur hurt to see it at once so beautiful and so ugly. He touched the collar around his neck, wondering how long his leash was. He tried walking into the courtyard. Yes. Yes, he could —
Pain flared. No. It seemed that he couldn't. He wondered how far from the castle he'd be allowed to go, and he gasped for air, trying to get closer again before his knees gave out on him. He crashed to the ground in the doorway to the kitchens, and there was a squeal.
"Oh!" It was Tilde. She was a pretty girl, her golden hair tied up at her nape. She leaned down, and offered him her hands to get back up again. The aftershocks were running through Arthur's muscles, but he'd be okay. He'd be fine. "However did you get there?"
"I was…I needed some air," Arthur lied, as she helped him stand, helped him limp back to the doorway. She nodded.
"Can I ask you something?" she asked.
"Go ahead," he said, rolling his neck to try to get rid of the pain, to no avail.
"Is it true?" asked Tilde.
"What?" Arthur replied, wearily. "That I'm stuck as a servant? Yes."
"No," she said, wiping her hands on her apron. "Are you the one that opened the Lady Morgana's old rooms so that the servants could seek shelter during the battle?"
"I…" Arthur frowned. "I remember telling Lucan to stay in there."
He suddenly had an armful of Tilde, and she kissed him on the cheek, hugging him tightly. "Oh thank you!"
"What?" Arthur asked, as she squeezed him. "I didn't…"
"You saved so many people!" she said, into his ear. "We all hid up there until the noise was over, and then…then when they came, they asked us who we were and you should have seen it Lucan was so brave and…" She took a huge gulp of air. "And they said we could stay on, because no-one cares about the servants, really, no-one cares as long as we keep shining their boots and making their tea. Oh Sire."
His back twinged, as if someone had turned his spine into a branding iron. Arthur gasped for air, and Tilde let go of him. He slumped.
"Arthur," he said. "I can't…you need to call me Arthur."
She beamed, kissing him again. "Oh Arthur."
Oh god, thought Arthur, but she pulled free quickly. It didn't seem she meant anything sinister by it — it was an entirely novel experience to be hugged just because he'd done something like open a door, without an agenda. She bustled off, cheerfully, and Arthur stood, wondering what on earth to do. It turned out that he didn't have to decide. He should have known — he shouldn't have been surprised — when the guard from that morning sought him out, shoving him downstairs with little ceremony.
"I'll be fetching you in the morning, princeling," said the guard, and a thin thread of agony wrapped itself around Arthur's gut. "You're to be locked up at night. S'only safe."
He was thrown into a cell, rolling on his bad arm. Arthur got up, wincing, every bone in his body aching.
"Arthur?" asked a voice, a cracked, soft voice.
His father was in the cell. For a brief, stunning moment, Arthur wanted to crawl to him, curl up in his arms and sob — but he knew that Uther wouldn't, couldn't. Not here. Not now. Maybe when Arthur had been a child — he remembered being a child, the Castle under siege, a storm brewing on the horizon. The torches below had looked like stars fallen to earth and he'd been frightened, thinking that the sky was trying to steal the Castle, steal his father like death had taken his mother.
Uther had let Arthur sleep in his bed that night, the small boy curled up on the far side of the bed, listening to the ringing of the warning bells and the drumbeat of footsteps below, waking when his father came in and out, checking on his son, checking on the fortifications. Come morning, the storm had destroyed the stronghold of the enemy, and Camelot had proclaimed victory, red-clad knights riding out into the ruined fields. Arthur had wanted nothing more than to be one of them, brave and tall on their horses.
Leon was in the cell, too, a hunched shape in the darkness. Arthur's heart thudded — Leon would be a wreck without Gawain. He saw looking after Gawain as some sort of divine duty. Arthur had let Gawain join the knights earlier than usual, seeing how happy Gawain was to have Leon nearby, and vice versa. Their mother had died young, but they'd had each other.
"You're alive," said Uther, and he stood, moving to embrace Arthur. "They…I thought they might have been lying."
Arthur hugged back, feeling the strong beat of Uther's heart, the warmth of his body. He'd not been thinking about it all day, and Arthur felt tears burn at the back of his eyes. He blinked them back down. The last thing that Uther would want was for his son to cry. He held Arthur at arms length, by the shoulders.
"Are you injured?" he asked, and then, quickly. "What is this?"
Arthur swallowed. The collar was uncomfortably tight, too tight. "It's how they're keeping me in check," he said, realising as he said it that Uther was shackled, but not collared. "I'm to be a servant."
"Ridiculous," said Uther, examining Arthur's head. "Who hit you?"
"A…knight," said Arthur. "He never raised his faceplate."
"Black armour," said Leon, dully. "I saw him. I don't think…I think he was a ghost. Or something. He didn't move like the…the…"
"Bodies," said Uther, as Leon trailed off into silence. "How many dead, do you think?"
"Most of the knights," said Leon. "We didn't stand a chance. Maybe if we'd had warning…but they were too powerful."
Arthur moved to sit by Leon. Leon was holding on admirably, but he'd break. Every man had his breaking point.
"Gawain?" he asked.
"He was in the crowd," said Leon, quietly. "I told him to stay back, but he's a fool. Ridiculously brave, but he's young. He thinks he'll live forever."
Arthur rested a hand on Leon's shoulder. "He'll be all right."
Leon offered him a sad smile, and Arthur sighed. There was a creak and a clang, and a man swore.
"Get in there!"
"Let go of me!" It was Gawain. Leon stood, expectant.
"Gawain!" he called, as the struggling young knight was dragged down the corridor and tossed unceremoniously into the cell. Gawain buried his face in his brother's shoulder, hanging on for dear life.
"I thought you were dead," said Leon, hugging him tightly. "Where were you?"
"Hiding," said Gawain. "I thought…I thought…but there's so many of them. There's so many, Leon. I don't know where they're all from. I don't."
"It's the army," said Arthur. "The army of sorcerers we thought was massing. It's not a war, it's usurpation. They don't mean to destroy Camelot. They mean to take control."
"I don't think mean is any part of it anymore," said Gawain. "They're…in all the rooms. Using the things."
"And my people?" asked Uther.
"They bury the dead, sire," said Gawain, as Uther paced. "They're burying Camelot."
The kitchens were the best place to work, Arthur quickly discovered. He was getting used to scrubbing pots, keeping as calm a face as his dignity would allow him to. He knew, really, that he could give in, lie down and just stop, taunt the sorcerers until they killed him, but Arthur wanted to live. He was going to make it through this; reclaim his kingdom, protect his people.
Meg had requested his presence in the kitchens all afternoon before the feast of the hunt. Arthur kneaded bread, because he had strong hands and was good at it; he liked the repetitive motion and the way that he could fill his mind with nothing but his hands, and the stretch and press of flour beneath them.
"Arthur," said Meg, dinner well underway. "Chop me those onions, will you?"
Arthur froze, stricken. If he picked up a knife, he would hurt. If he refused an order from a senior member of the household staff, he would hurt. Meg had a smudge of flour on her forehead; she'd been cooking all day. She needed him to help. He picked up the knife.
"How are things?" he asked, his knuckles going as white as the bone handle of the knife.
"We're getting through, love," she said. "Them upstairs don't have to know you're not being beaten down here, do they?"
"They don't," he said, slicing though an onion. "I'm surprised, really, at how much goes on here that upstairs don't know."
She laughed. "Oh, you should have been so lucky to know some of the things that your Merlin got up to."
"Yes," Arthur replied, slicing. The smell of onion was strong, and his eyes burned with it. "I...wish I had."
"Do you miss him, then?" she asked, as Tilde tottered through with a basket of bread that was bigger than she was.
"I do," said Arthur, and it was a relief, in some ways, to have something else to think about, something else that wasn't his aching hand, white hot sensation up his arm. "I should have..." He wiped off the onion tears with his sleeve. "He would have hated this, you know. He'd've done something outrageously pig-headed, and ended up being fed to a dragon, or something like that."
She smiled at him, knowingly. "I bet he would have, love."
"Soup!" Tilde announced, loudly, "I'll take it up ready, if you've got it."
"You'll need Lucan or one of the girls to help you," said Meg, and their conversation blurred as Arthur focussed on the onion. He could do this if he just kept his attention on the clear chop of the blade through the onion, if he kept his attention on his watery vision, the onion tears mixing with real tears. The onion was hard and soft, and he inhaled through his nose, out his mouth, feeling the way with his tingling fingertips, blinking away the water from his eyes. He sniffed.
"Turn away, if the vapours are getting too much," Tilde called. "Onions'll do that to you."
"I'm all right," Arthur replied, because it was like fighting, or riding; if you gave up when it started to hurt, then you'd never make it through. "I'm all right," he repeated, just to himself, and chopped through the last translucent shell of the onion. He blinked furiously, itching with embarrassment, wiping more tears onto his shirt as Tilde left. His hand was hurting, and his fingers trembled, dropping the knife with a loud clatter. Meg swirled around.
"Arthur?" asked Meg. "What is it, love?"
"The knife," Arthur said.
"What do you mean?" she asked, as he was drawn to pick up the knife. The push and pull of pick it up/don't pick it ripped at his already frayed nerves.
Arthur gave up. "I can't disobey you, but I can't hold a knife," he said, steeling himself and picking it up. She clapped a hand over her mouth.
"I didn't even think," she said. "You can put down the knife, Arthur."
He dropped it gratefully, flexing his fingers, feeling the roughness in his bones smooth a little. She picked up the knife, cutting the last of the onions, Arthur's eyes watering, his skin hot and cold all over with the humiliation of all this. Meg turned to him, and then dragged him into a rough hug. She held him, and he thought about pulling away, but she was stroking soothing circles on his back, and so he leaned into the touch.
"You poor lamb," she said. "Oh, you poor thing. It's not right, what they're doing to you. It's not right people just exchanging one sort of fear for another."
Arthur would have protested, some time ago, about being a lamb, or poor, but she was patting him on the back and letting her stand with him, holding him tightly. It was extraordinary to feel the press of a warm body against his own, and it made him ache for someone to stay with him.
"They're saying that—" Tilde said, as she walked into the kitchen. She stopped. "Oh. Sorry; I didn't realise..."
"It's all right," said Meg, pulling away. "What is it that they want?"
Arthur wiped his nose on his sleeve — disgusting, but he was sick of sniffing — and straightened up. Tilde nodded.
"The steward wants the bread on the table before the start of the night," she said. "And there's three goblets missing, and I've been sent to find them. Oh, and apparently the Sorceress doesn't like hogflesh, so we're to cook some geese as well."
"Now?" Meg asked, all attention back to the kitchen. "I'll need a bloody sorcerer working the kitchens, at the rate this is going."
Arthur wondered if the kitchenhands would tell anyone about his tears, but he didn't think so. People melted down a little all the time; Meg threw a ladle at him when he nearly disturbed the cakes before they were risen, Tilde screamed at Lucan when he spilled hot mead on the floor, and everyone sniped at everyone else when the goose got burned in the ovens. It reminded Arthur of a long campaign in close quarters, the smell of metal and sweat and ash, and the constant jibes and shoving. He escaped by taking the breadbaskets up to the hall, and the cool air of the corridors dried the last of his tears.
Arthur ached all over. He suspected that it was partly from the work and partly from the shocking pain of the collar; the punishment that seemed to get worse every time it happened. The idea of sleeping in a cell wasn't welcome, but he'd do anything to avoid the pain again, to stop it from making him feel like his skin would split open and his bones would crack under the strain. His father was always there, pacing like a caged animal.
"What did you discover?" Uther asked, his voice soft in the moonlight.
"That I hate this collar," Arthur replied.
"What useful information did you find out?" Uther asked, contemptuous. He'd not been allowed to leave — the humiliation of his only son was prize enough, it seemed.
"That we are indeed trapped," said Arthur.
Every day it was the same questions. What did he find out? Who were the sorcerers? What were their tactical weaknesses? The answers were there, depressing, real. He found out little. The sorcerers were people from their own lands, led by a barbarian from the south. A well-spoken barbarian with a penchant for snake symbolism, granted, but one of the southern barbarians. Their tactical weaknesses were…
Their only weakness seemed to be that they'd let Arthur and his father live.
The first time that Arthur got to go outside after the takeover was the day that they beat the rugs clean of dirt, just before the Lammas feasts. His first, uncharitable thought was why can't the bloody sorcerers do it themselves — his second was good grief these rugs are heavy. He was dreadful at it. He kept looking at the sky, at the sun that was dappling the gardens, at the blue depths that outlined the clouds; Arthur didn't know when he'd see them again, and that was a sad, lonely little thought. Lucan gave him a look that said, without words, Are you slow?, and Arthur felt like a complete idiot for not being able to do something so simple as beat the rugs without getting covered in dirt.
"We're gonna hafta teach you how to do everything, yeah?" asked Lucan. Arthur sighed. He'd barely got his head around how to help in the kitchens.
"I don't know. I pick things up quickly," he said, mindful of the pain of the collar. He wasn't sure how Merlin had ever done all this; for that he'd teased the man, Merlin must have been a quick study as well. A cold breeze caught the clouds of dirt as Lucan beat the heavy rug that had lined Uther's chambers, dust rising in clouds. The heat of summer was well gone and soon it would be winter. Soon, the men in the cells would have to curl close for warmth, or risk death. Arthur sighed.
At least the servants weren't angry with him anymore. The story of Arthur opening Morgana's old chambers had grown, until it almost seemed that he'd personally ushered most of the staff in there and then guarded the door himself with a flaming sword. He wondered if that was all it took to erase a bad memory — a little kindness? In that case, things didn't bode well for the Pendragon legacy — people would soon forget the battle between the knights and the sorcerers, if the sorcerers gave them good governance. There were signs that people already were — girls curtseying in the corridors when a wizard strode past, boys coming back from the markets with love potions that probably had more in common with soup than sex.
That night, Arthur curled on his side, every muscle in his body burning with fatigue, and tried to sleep. In his dreams, Merlin laughed at him when he dropped a rug into the mud, too fixated on the warmth of the sun that seemed to suffuse his bones with its liquid light.
"Shut up," said Arthur.
"Don't be like that," Merlin replied, reaching out and running his hands through Arthur's hair. "A bit of hard work won't kill you, Arthur."
"You act like I've never done anything difficult in my life," said Arthur, crossly. "You really think that battle is all that easy?"
"Why are you acting like this has to be difficult?" Merlin asked.
"Because it does," Arthur replied. "Merlin…"
"Is that an apology about to pass your lips?" Merlin asked.
"Shut up, Merlin," Arthur said, and Merlin vanished.
Arthur woke with a start, just a little flinch, and he could feel something hard between his fingers. He looked, in the half-light of the cell, and there in his hand was the pebble he'd found in the dust at Merlin's grave. He looked at it, gleaming bright, and then put it back in his pocket, wondering at the impulse that had led him to draw it out in the first place. He was so cold, the fire in the guard's grate doing nothing for him.
Arthur developed a wet cough, shivering as he went about his duties. As the days grew shorter, the guards would set a fire on the cold nights, just beyond the reach of the bars, where no man could use it as a weapon but the meagre heat made the place warmer, almost bearable. More often than not, now, they had a fire; Arthur was still shivering and miserable, but there usually was enough heat to warm his aching hands.
"They say," Leon said, as they huddled by the bars closest to the fire, "that there's someone even more powerful than the Sorcerer-King."
Arthur tried to imagine that; it would be impossible, surely? Wouldn't such a man have to rain fire from the sky?
"It's not Morgana, or something like that, is it?" he asked, because if he couldn't be safe, then he'd be sarcastic.
"It's a man," Leon said. "Tilde from the kitchens said he's old; she reckons he was in hiding while…" He trailed off. "Yeah."
"All the time we thought that we were lancing the boil, but the rot was deeper than that," said Uther, his voice dark with promise of vengeance.
"They say," Leon continued, "that he drove back the northern barbarians by raising a mighty wave that swept them from the shore."
"And so what now, then?" asked Arthur. "Is this person planning to come and take over Camelot too? Why is Camelot important?"
"Because we were feared," said Uther. He made no move to get closer to the fire. "We were feared, and we were strong. It's like the dogfights in the yard; no-one pays to see two weaklings tear each other apart. They want to pit their dog against the strongest, the best, and watch the faces on the idiots when their animal bites out its throat."
"But there is always a new champion," Leon said, his eyes stained yellow by the fire.
"Yes," said Uther. "There is."
They were silent, then, staring at the fire until the clatter of footsteps on stone broke the moment. Gawain was thrown in the door of the cell, and he rolled painfully, ending up near Leon. Leon helped him up, brushing down his wounds with the gentle efficiency of a true knight.
"What happened?" asked Arthur. Gawain examined the gash on his elbow, prodding it experimentally.
"You know, I thought great mad magical beasts would have stopped attacking the kindgom once there were sorcerers in the place of kings," said Gawain. "But there was this thing today…it had big flappy wings, and a tail that really bloody hurt, and we were just out…out getting things from the market, and it attacked."
"How deep is the wound?" Arthur asked.
"Not deep," said Leon. "Looks like you took a tumble on the flagstones, but no more, Gawain."
Arthur and Leon treated the wound, as Uther paced, his steps fast and alive with a purpose that he hadn't had in weeks. Arthur waited until Gawain was asleep before he discussed it.
"What?" said Arthur, quietly. "What are you thinking?"
"Don't you understand, Arthur?" asked Uther, as Gawain snored. "If there are beasts still attacking the kingdom, then the power of this little lordling is not absolute. We could still overthrow him."
"With what, an army of rats?" Arthur asked. "Or maybe some dungeon slime? I'm sure if you stay down here for long enough it'll start talking to you."
"Stop that," said Uther. "They've made some basic tactical mistakes. They should never have allowed us to be here together — they should have split us up."
"Unless they wanted to raise false hope," said Leon. "I…I don't think they see us as a threat."
"I agree," said Arthur. Uther hadn't been paraded out in front of visiting nobles, he hadn't been made to kneel and scrape and bow. Uther didn't know what it was like up there.
"Weakness is what they hope for," said Uther. "You're giving up before even trying. I thought better of you."
"It takes months to mount an attack," said Arthur. "Where do you suppose we'll get the people from? Where will we get people who are willing to fight their own dead? Everyone remembers the battle, father. No-one wants to submit to that."
"All that we need is to get out," said Uther, looking through the bars, to the fire. "I can raise a mighty force, given time. All we need to do is get out."
Arthur reached up to touch the collar at his neck, almost reflexively, and he didn't dare say what he knew — getting out would be impossible.
The Great Hall shone with baubles of magic; bright orbs that floated and ducked, every colour in the rainbow and then some. Arthur stared. The Sorcerer-King, for all that he was a murderous lying sorcerer, put on a bloody good show. Arthur put the food out onto the tables, stomach growling at the sight of the gleaming roast pork and the hot vegetables, the rest of him too sore and too tired to fight and try to steal food, or resist the orders that came from the sorcerers who commanded him. He'd go back to the dungeons tonight, to the disappointed gaze of his father, and sleep in the straw until exhaustion countered the cold and made him comfortable again.
His cough had lessened, eventually, leaving him thinner and out-of-breath when it came to stairs. Gawain had caught it from him, and Arthur had woken one night to the sound of sobbing — the sound of Leon comforting his brother. He'd lain awake in the darkness, not wishing that someone was there to soothe his fears, but wishing that he didn't have them. He wasn't weak; he was the crown prince, titled or not.
Idiot, said Merlin, when he finally dreamed. You're not taking care of yourself.
"Get me some wine!" ordered a Lord, with a flick of his wrist. Arthur's spine arched, but he kept control of the bottle.
"More?" he asked, pre-empting orders, pre-empting pain. Goblets were raised, and he went down the line, filling them, satisfying the new lords and ladies of Camelot. He'd have laughed, six months ago, if anyone had told him that he'd be doing this, and doing it willingly.
He'd just managed to sit when the King started to speak.
"There are rumours," he said, grandly, "rumours of a power greater than that of Camelot." He paused, looking at the hall. The assembled mages looked back, clearly seeking a signal of how they should react. He thumped the table. "Lies!"
The rabble made noise, then, approving of Camelot, disapproving of others.
"They say that a man to the North is amassing strength," said the Sorcerer-King. "I say that they lie. Nowhere is as strong as Camelot, nowhere has such a deep, grand destiny."
Cheering this time, loud and with that slightly hysterical edge that a drunken crowd can bring.
"I have decided," the King said, "to send to this man. He is nothing more than a man, and Camelot shall use him to our own ends. He shall find out the key to Albion's magic, and increase my reign tenfold."
And there it was, euphemism and implication. There was something going wrong with the magic. Even the buoyant globes that bubbled excitedly near the roof had mates that were darkening, cracking in the corners. Arthur had seen a maid drop a platter not three nights before, but instead of hovering in the air, as it would have when the reign of sorcery had begun, it had shattered, food spattering the feet of the witches and wizards at the table, a shocking silence descending on the hall.
It had been but a snap of the fingers for the King to clean it up; a further snap to force the frightened girl from the room. Arthur's fists had balled, and he'd stepped forward, only to find the ground as sticky as a honey-trap, and the knowing eyes of the court sorceress upon him.
He'd rattled the bars when he'd been put back downstairs, until his father grew tired of his noises and told Arthur to stop it.
Lucan told him later that the girl hadn't returned from the King's chambers. Arthur was given meat stew for the first time in months, and he was about to sup it down when a truly horrifying thought occurred to him, and he put it aside, his hands shaking. Rat stew or girl stew, he didn't want to eat it.
Uther ate it. Uther ate anything, lean and hungry, pacing like a caged lion. Arthur knew that he hadn't been made a servant because he was tough, tougher than Arthur, tricksier than Arthur. He'd find a way to escape, and then the Sorcerer-King (not the King, never the King) would be overthrown. This was…Arthur knew this, like a fact that had wormed its way into his brain. Arthur, instead, was more pliant, more easily led — he helped Gaius with his herbs, shoveled shit in the stables. Worked hard enough that he was exhausted enough to just fall asleep on the rough stones, to ignore the cold and the angry stares from his father.
Arthur liked the kitchens best. He hadn't been assigned to any one person — perhaps the thought of an enemy to the King being manservant to one of his allies was too much to bear — but he had to be visible, noticed during the day, or else he'd be punished. He liked the smell of the yeast, and he liked being in the warm. There wasn't much magic in the kitchens; not much other than that common, everyday magic of bread rising, and meat cooking, and cakes and bread being made from liquid into solid in the ovens.
He hated the practice fields. They were the worst of his duties — the new knights of the realm, their armour made of leather, not metal, because metal made the magic harder to control. And it was getting hard to control in any case — the squires in their drills hit targets only occasionally, and a few boys had been sent away, humiliated, when their powers had run dry. It was cold on the fields, and the servants had to run across and pick up the targets, no matter what they'd been turned into. He'd had a nasty run-in one morning with a target that had been transformed into a large and angry stoat, which bit him before turning back into a wooden hoop.
The reply from the Northern Wizard arrived in the evening, carried by a falcon. It took about ten minutes for everyone in the castle to know what it said, the letter having been intercepted by Tilde, and everyone knew that Tilde could carry on a conversation underwater.
I am coming, the letter read, and Pendragon is mine.
It was all the talk the next day. They said He was more powerful than anyone, than even the great magicians of old. They said He had fire for eyes and his fingers were old tree branches. Arthur got sick of what They were saying by about three glasses after sunrise, but he still had a full day of work ahead of him, and he was bound to get more theories and questions before the end of the day.
"I heard he's the one that sent the snakes!" said Lucan, in the morning, and then at lunch, "I heard he was the one who got rid of the snakes!"
Tilde was determined that the sorcerer was going to come and rescue Camelot because "it's not that Them's bad, it's just that Them's not…not good". The only one not discussing sorcerers was Gaius, and Arthur cleaned out the leech tank for preference to being surrounded by the swirl of gossip. He still had to return to the kitchens for the evening meal. The Sorcerer-King and his Sorceress liked to be served dinner by the former crown prince. Lucan was still going strong on theories about the Northern Wizard.
"He's called Emrys because he can't be killed," said Lucan, as they shuffled back from the great hall, arms laden with dirty plates. Arthur's stomach growled at the smell of the food, but there was nothing worth scavenging in the leftovers.
"And you know this because…?"
"The farrier told me in the tavern," said Lucan.
"Next thing you'll tell me he can walk on water," said Arthur. "Don't you get sick of being wrong?"
"They were right last time!" said Lucan, and there was a clatter of pots behind him. "Don't you get it? You're not listening to the gossip, A...Arthur. Stories might change but they still have a grain of truth in the middle of them."
That was it, there in a nutshell. If Lucan was right, and the stories did have a grain of truth to them, then Arthur was completely lost. He didn't know if Pendragon was himself or his father, but right now either option seemed to be more than just a little horrifying. He didn't even want to think about what this strange sorcerer might want with either of them.
Uther knew what he wanted to do. He'd found out — probably from the guards — and his pacing was so swift that Arthur wondered if he'd wear a hole in the flagstones going up and down, up and down.
"This changes everything," he said, as soon as Gawain was asleep.
"What?" Arthur asked, starting to drift off himself. He'd found an errant leech on his stomach when he'd reached to scratch, and he was a little fearful of how many more he might have picked up when doing Gaius's errands.
"This man asked for Pendragon," said Uther. "That means we're still of value. That means they'll want us alive."
"And this is relevant because…?" asked Arthur.
"Because then they won't kill us both," Uther replied, his face half-lit. Leon stopped scuffing at the dirt that was collecting between the flagstones.
"You really mean to do this, then," he said, quietly. "You mean to make a break for freedom."
"Somehow, Arthur has managed to ingratiate himself with the servants," said Uther, a note of distate in his tone. "If we can convince them to stand with us…"
"No," said Arthur. "That's not right — they don't know how to fight. I won't have us endanger the servants for our cause."
"Then it seems that collar and chain that the sorcerers have put on you has stripped away your dignity as well as your spine," spat Uther. "That's what they're for, Arthur."
Arthur thought of Lucan, and Tilde, and the men in the stables and Meg the cook and everyone, everyone who'd helped him work out how to knead the bread, and carry twelve plates at a time, and the tricks to washing up without getting your hands chapped and raw, and the right way to beat out a rug. They didn't deserve to be put up as straw targets before the sword, or the magician's fire.
"I won't," said Arthur. "You are my father, and I will be proud to fight alongside you, but these people are not knights."
"Then if you won't, I will find someone who will," said Uther. Arthur closed his eyes briefly, and then opened them to see Leon staring at him.
"The letter said Pendragon," said Arthur. "Why do you think they want one of us? Why do you think the Kin—the Sorcerer-King kept us alive, anyway?"
"For some, it is better to see your enemies humiliated, Arthur," said Uther, coldly. "Get some sleep. Perhaps you'll see sense in the morning."
"And if I don't?" Arthur asked.
Uther pulled his thin blanket closer around his shoulders. "Then you'll find out exactly why this letter-writing fool wants a Pendragon."
The fight came sooner than Arthur had been expecting. He'd expected weeks of rumbling from Uther, weeks of doing drills in the cramped cell, weeks of guilt and responsibility and burdens until he eventually weakened and gave over to his father's demands. Instead, it was a bright, cold day, and Arthur was dawdling a little on his way to bring Gaius some lunch, standing in the patches of sunlight that streamed in through the windows, looking at the perfect, blue sky.
He missed the sky the most; he could lean out of any window, certainly, but there wasn't that great sense of boundlessness that had accompanied hunting trips, the way that the sky could stretch from horizon to horizon without anything to break it, without anything to contain him at all. Tilde understood; she was a busybody and a ne'erdowell, but she would sit with him in the courtyard and hold his hand as the pain from the collar streaked up and down his spine, and he blinked away tears to see the stars.
Gaius's rooms were freezing. Arthur stuck his hands under his own armpits, wandering across to stand in the sunbeams. He looked out, seeing a pair of young sorcerers run by, being chased by something that looked like a bespelled kite.
"I do apologise," said Gaius. "I set my fire to replenish itself, but it seems to have gone out some time before dawn. It won't stay lit."
It had been a strange shock, realising that Gaius could do magic, because Arthur felt that he should have known. Like with Merlin; Merlin who haunted Arthur's dreams. Arthur should have realised that no man could be so good at healing without using other powers. Arthur shrugged. He'd dreamed of Merlin again the night before, Merlin with wings made out of fire.
"It's your rooms," he said.
"Nonetheless, Sire," said Gaius, and then his expression grew pained. "Arthur, I'm sorry."
Arthur touched the collar. "That…" he said. "It didn't hurt. When you called me Sire. It didn't hurt. Do it again."
"Sire?" said Gaius, his food half-way to his mouth. Arthur sucked in a breath. No pain.
"I have to try something. Excuse me," he said, and he ran out of the castle, down corridors and out past the walls, out into the sunlight and onto grass still damp with the meltwater from an earlier frost. There was no pain. Arthur gasped, huge lungfuls of air that ached in his chest and threatened to burst him open. No pain. He laughed, laughed until he coughed, his lungs rattling but the joy undiminished.
He turned back then, running through the castle to the armory. If he was lucky, Leon wouldn't have gone down to the training grounds for the afternoon yet; he could catch Leon, they could work out how to use this. Maybe even break out Uther. Leon was a good fighter, and he'd kept a brave face, working the training grounds. He was a superb tactician, too — every day, he learned something new about the way that the sorcerers fought. He hated the black knight, the creature made of air and armor that fought for the Sorcerer-King. No-one could defeat it; on the days that it was brought out onto the field, Leon returned quiet and pained, his movements stiff and tentative.
He was there, alone, polishing the front of one of the mirrored shields that the sorcerers used. They deflected spells; wooden shields absorbed them. Leon didn't look up.
"They're all in the hall," he said, still polishing. "There's an emergency council."
"Leon," Arthur said, gasping for breath. "Leon, pick up a sword."
"Arthur…what?" asked Leon, looking up. "How…what are you doing here?"
"Leon," said Arthur. "A sword, pick one up!"
"You know what happens if you pick up a weapon."
"Trust me," said Arthur. "Just…trust me."
Leon closed his eyes, and closed his fingers around the hilt of a broadsword. He tensed as he picked it up — probably against the anticipated rush of agony — and then he swung it upwards, yelling defiance. He opened his eyes.
"There's no pain," he said, shocked. "Arthur…"
"The collars aren't working," said Arthur. "I don't…I don't know…"
Leon frowned. "Something — something's happened overnight. There's little things gone wonky all over the castle; that's where the knights are. The King has called a council."
"It's getting worse," said Arthur, "isn't it? The magic is starting to fail."
"Arthur," said Leon. "Arthur, your father…"
They could hear footsteps in the corridor, running quickly. Arthur reached for a sword, almost reflexively.
"Leon!" It was Gawain. "I tried to stop him, I…I didn't know what to do…" Gawain ran into the room, almost tripping over his own feet. "Leon!"
"Slow down," said Leon, grabbing his shoulders. "Slow down, Gawain. What happened?"
"It's Uther," said Gawain. "I tried to…I tried to stop him, but the lock on the cell just…failed."
"Is this a trick?" asked Arthur. "A set-up?"
"It's an elaborate one if it is," said Leon. He shook his head. "No. I see a lot on the field — I think, maybe, today is our day. The magic fails almost arbitrarily some days — almost luckily on others."
"You think this is…luck?" Arthur asked, tightening his grip on the sword.
"Arthur, your father," said Gawain. "He's gone! He was running for the courtyard — he said I had to tell you all to go too."
The warning bells started to ring from the tower. Arthur felt cold fear stab at his gut — they weren't ready, none of them were ready. A shout went up from the Castle walls.
"Run," Arthur whispered.
"My lord…" Leon said. Arthur grabbed his arm, tight enough to bruise.
"They will hunt me down like an animal," Arthur said. "You…you can hide. You can prepare the people. If I don't make it out of the castle, find Lancelot."
"How will you get word to me?" Leon asked. Arthur shook his head.
"I will. Now go."
Leon took one last look back, Gawain by his side, and Arthur glared at him before setting off to find his father. He ran through the castle's secret passages, and he could see glimpses of the scene unfolding as he tried to make his way outdoors; windows and arrow-slits affording him a narrow view. People were running for the courtyard, the new knights spilling from council, shouts of "The old king has escaped!" driving them on. Arthur ran, keeping his head down, thankful that people didn't notice him anymore. People never saw servants.
Finally, he spilled out into the courtyard, caught in a tide of people, and there was his father, standing brave and alone, trapped in the circle of onlookers like a fly in amber. Uther was magnificent in the sunlight, the sword in his hands gleaming. He wore no armour, but if you'd asked Arthur, in that very second, he'd have said that his father shone like a true King of the land. The Sorcerer-King made his way out and through the crowd that parted around him, watching Uther like a snake about to strike.
"I challenge you," said Uther. Arthur's heart sank. What was he doing? Uther stood tall and proud, his expression defiant. He'd torn the shackles off from around his legs, made do with a sword from the walls, and now he stood, ready to defend his kingdom. He held the sword aloft, but with a gesture from the Sorcerer-King it shattered, falling into a thousand glittering pieces that jingled on the flagstones as they fell.
One nicked Uther's cheek, but he did not flinch, did not look away; he simply adjusted his stance to fight unarmed.
"Parlour tricks," he said. "Come here and fight me like a man."
"Men fight with whatever it is that gives them power," the King replied, slowly descending the stairs. "Your power was fear, and now it is gone. How does that feel? That the people who once trembled in your wake laugh at the great Uther, the bold king who ignored magic so long that he cannot even defend himself against the simplest spell."
"My people have never left me," Uther said. "My people will fight for the restoration of Camelot, a Camelot not ruled by sorcery and fear."
"Then where are they?" asked the King, throwing his arms wide. "I see people in their hundreds, and not one is rising to help you."
"You can bespell the clouds to stop a storm," said Uther. "I have little doubt that you can cast a spell on a courtyard to keep people back. But if it is that simple…if all you have done is…"
He ran for the King. Uther was still strong and tall, his muscles hard planes under his clothes. Arthur broke through the crowd, scanning the people around him for anyone friendly, anyone who might be an ally. It was a battle he was sure to lose, he knew, but he couldn't let…
There was an eruption of light from the stairs, brighter than the sun, so bright that Arthur stumbled backwards and had to cover his eyes against it, falling to his knees. People were shouting, suddenly, and he forced himself to look up. The King stood, palm outstretched. Uther had never made it close, had never had a chance. His father fell, untouched by human hands, a scorch-mark torn into the front of his jerkin. Arthur stood, shocked, unable to think, the sword dropping from his suddenly slack fingers. He didn't pick it up. Instead, he ran to his father, kneeling and not recoiling even though the wound still burned, the flesh tearing and sinking into the ruined cavity of his father's chest.
The Sorcerer-King clapped, slowly. He turned to the crowd.
"Long live the King!" he called.
"Long live the King!" they replied as one, and Arthur blinked away the tears that threatened to blind him. Not now. He didn't have time now.
He'd cry later, when such luxuries could be undertaken in private. When the kingdom was his again, and it was safe to mourn. The Sorcerer-King unsheathed his sword, advancing on Arthur, and there, there in the line of the crowd, Arthur could see Gawain, readying to run. Arthur had no weapon, but if he shoulder-charged the King, then he might be able to get the man to drop his sword. He made a frantic motion in an attempt to get Gawain to stay where he was; he wasn't good enough to fight a man such as this. Better to live another day.
The King raised his hand, and prepared to strike him down, make him little more than a damp stain on the flagstones. Arthur swallowed, hard. No. No. This could not be borne. Even when stupid idiots didn't have enough sense in their tiny minds to just follow orders.
"No!" Arthur said, standing from his place beside Uther. He'd seen enough death. Enough. Gawain was frightened, trembling under the upraised sword. "You're a sorcerer, aren't you? Why do you threaten a boy with a blade?"
"Arthur," said the Sorcerer-King. "So nice to see you remembering your former station."
"Let him go," Arthur said, furious. "He is young, and he does not deserve this."
"Then, perhaps, there is another who does?"
"Get out of here!" Arthur said, a half-whisper to Gawain, who was still cowering on the ground. "This isn't your fight anymore."
He should have trained the boy better, he knew; he'd been busy, and then things had gone terribly, horribly wrong. He stood firm, reaching for his sword and then remembering that he'd dropped it when his fingers grasped empty space. Arthur sighed. At least Gawain was running, making his way to the edges, being held and received amid the gathering crowd. He was young, and likeable; he was sure to slip through the cracks. Arthur had no desire to cause any more deaths.
"Bring forth my champion!"
Oh, thought Arthur, oh, so this was going to become ridiculous. It would become some sort of performance. Arthur hated the King, hated him for everything that had happened to Camelot. He swallowed, knowing that he'd be an example, hoping that Leon was smart enough to take his little brother and run fast and run far. The knight that came was dressed in black, his helm ever fixed. The crowd moved away from him as he walked.
"Kill him," said the Sorcerer-King, and the black knight nodded assent. Arthur contemplated running, but quickly dismissed the idea; where was the nobility in that? Even Merlin had died with his eyes open, facing his destiny. He scanned around for a rock, but couldn't find one, so he rushed the knight, hoping to tip him off balance.
It was like hitting a stone wall. Arthur felt his breath get knocked from his lungs as he reeled, trying to make this look good, look acceptable. He pulled back, and saw the huge sword that the knight wielded. A block with his arm wouldn't work, and as Arthur paused to take stock the knight shoved him with the butt of the sword, knocking Arthur to the ground. The knight raised his sword high, and it gleamed wickedly in the sunlight; all sharp edges and heavy balancing. The blade swung, and Arthur braced himself for the blow. He'd seen men killed by the sword before; held a blade as it tore sickeningly through bone and sinew. This would not be a swift death.
Someone moved in his peripheral vision, dressed in black, like a crow or a bird, shifting from place to place until they was above him, and it was with a creeping shock that Arthur watched the dark shape hold out an arm, stopping the sword as if it were a soft touch with a feather. The black knight shuddered. His hands shook, and then began to shed links from his mail, like hot nuts popping at the bottom of a fire. He staggered backwards, one step, two, three before he collapsed into a pile of metal and sparks, no human body there, just nothing. There was silence, not even a whisper.
"What is this?" asked the stranger. "I did not think to return to Camelot to see sorcerers killing for sport. It seems every cheap trickster in the land now has an animated suit of armor to fight for them."
He pulled his arm away, and turned to Arthur. The stranger was tall, probably about Arthur's height, his body obscured by a deep black cloak that hung about his shoulders, the hood casting his face into darkness. His voice was familiar, although Arthur couldn't place it, not yet. He'd need to see the man's face for that.
"Get up," said the stranger. Arthur stayed at his feet, defiant. "Get up."
Arthur didn't want to get up. Wasn't going to get up. Whoever this was, damn them, he was not going to go gently. He spat, instead, and was rewarded with a chuckle.
"Your spirit is not broken, then," said the man. "I would be very upset if that were the case."
Arthur's body wouldn't obey him anymore, and he dragged himself to his feet, arms helplessly out by his sides. He could see, from the corner of his eye, men taking the body of his father away for burial.
"Who are you to interrupt my justice?" asked the King, standing. He held his hand out in front of him — a gesture of aggression in this new kingdom. The stranger held a hand up, a wave of greeting.
"I am Emrys," said the stranger. "I believe that you sent for me."
The wind caught his cape and Arthur caught a flash of red; bright, Pendragon red. The stranger put a hand on Arthur's shoulder, a gentle pressure, a clear statement of ownership.
"I believe that I stipulated my price, too," said Emrys, and Arthur thought of the letter, and wondered what this strange, tall figure wanted from him. He was the only Pendragon who remained.
"Your price is too high, wizard of the north."
"Yet you were willing to kill him," said Emrys, and Arthur knew that voice, but it couldn't be. It was just his mind, wishing and wanting things. "This tells me you do not set much store in your valuable goods."
"And what would we gain, for such an extravagant price?" asked the King.
"I calmed the seas when they threatened to swamp the land," said Emrys. "I cannot be killed. I destroyed towers and towns; I brought Canen to his knees and made him repair what damage he'd done. I flew to the top of the clouds, where the air turns to ice in your breath, and I saw the land spread out beneath me in patches of green." He stepped forward. "You sent for me. I assumed that you knew what you were getting when you cast that spell."
Arthur's heart was dancing, beating so fast it surely must be visible to everyone. It was, it was. He'd know that tone, that voice that had called him all manner of names and been rude and loving by turns.
"I agreed to come here on the condition that the Pendragon boy belongs to me," said Emrys, power glowing golden around him. "I will not be satisfied with anything else."
"I fought hard to win this kingdom. Stand against me, Emrys, and you will not win," hissed the Sorcerer-King, his eyes black as pitch, sparks like stars within them. Emrys laughed. He pulled back his hood, and Arthur gasped; Merlin's hair was ash-grey, a rough beard lining his cheeks, but Emrys was Merlin, Merlin, returned and whole.
Judging by the rustling and murmuring, Emrys was not who had been expected. He held out a pale hand to Arthur, brushing the backs of his knuckles over Arthur's cheek. Arthur met his eyes and then pulled away, heart hammering, a thrill of recognition burning through him that had nothing to do with collars, spells or magic.
"Have him brought to my chambers," the man — Merlin — instructed. "You do have chambers for me, don't you?"
Arthur stared, reminded strangely of himself, when he was younger and could afford to be so presumptuous. Merlin, his heart was beating. Merlin, Merlin.
"No agreement has been made," the King said, standing, hands raised. Arthur watched Merlin, watched the stand-off. He'd seen men stand against a King before; he'd seen Merlin stand against a King before. It hadn't ended well.
"Try me," said Merlin, turning to the King, the wind lifting his cloak. "Go on. Strike me down where I stand, and then you can do what you want to him."
Merlin was really very magnificent; his cloak fluttered around his shoulders like the wings of some great bird, and he was gold-tinged with power. Arthur wondered how much of this was newly-acquired, and how much Merlin had simply hidden in his time at Camelot. The King lowered his hand.
"How rude of me," he said, and the murmur that went through the crowd was loud, louder than before. "I have invited you here, and yet I have not been hospitable."
"I have said what I require of you," said Merlin. "I require chambers, and the basic amenities for life; and I require Arthur Pendragon as my assistant."
Assistant, Arthur thought. Not a servant. Merlin didn't want him as a servant.
"He is not magical. He is fit only to be your servant."
"Then I am happy with him as my servant," said Merlin coldly. "Show me to my chambers. I have traveled far and I wish to see the lay of the castle before it is mealtime."
"And so you shall," said the King, almost simpering. "Pendragon! Show our guest to the Prince's chambers."
"I thank you," said Merlin. "Arthur, with me."
The crowd parted for them, no-one willing to stand too close to Merlin. Arthur wondered how Merlin had done it, done all of it; cheated death, returned to destroy the knight. They made it to the corridors, their footsteps echoing on the flagstones.
"You defeated the Black Knight," said Arthur, his pace matching Merlin's. "You just put out your arm, and he melted away."
"He was never human to begin with," said Merlin. "It was simply that my magic was stronger; the binding spell holding the golem together broke when he tried to hurt me."
"You put your hand out to stop him," said Arthur.
"And he hit my shield and shattered," Merlin replied. "It's really no different to you and your stupid swords."
Arthur recognised his own old quarters with a growing sense of dismay. He'd not been up there since the castle had been overthrown; clearly, no-one had. Everything was covered in a thick layer of dust, and Merlin waved a casual hand to be rid of it.
"The Pendragon boy?" Arthur asked, as soon as Merlin shut the door behind them. "Are you out of your mind?"
"Arthur," said Merlin wearily, "please draw me a bath."
"Are you back to help me defeat the Sorcerer-King?" asked Arthur. "You're back to help me defeat the Sorcerer-King, aren't you?"
He could feel the victory rising, a tightness to his chest that had him breathing like a lion. Merlin was back, and Merlin would help Arthur to take power again.
"I'm not strong enough," said Merlin, bluntly. "Arthur, please. I'm freezing."
"What do you mean you're not strong enough?" Arthur demanded. "You just challenged him to a duel and he backed down."
"And if he hadn't have backed down, then I'd be a sooty mark on the floor," Merlin snapped, his anger quick to rise, eyes flashing gold. Arthur stepped back, and Merlin's expression softened, as sudden as his anger had been. "Arthur. I'm cold and I've travelled a very long way. Draw me a bath. I've requested you as my servant; if anyone suspects that I am not using you as such, then it will not take long for you to be taken from me."
"Fine," said Arthur. "I suppose you'll be wearing my old clothes, then, too?"
"I have clothes," Merlin replied. "Don't be cruel, Arthur."
"Cruel?" Arthur asked. "You let me think you were dead!"
Merlin looked at him, then, a deliberate, slow look from his burning golden eyes. He smiled.
"I was," he said.
Arthur froze, barely able to get himself to speak the words. "You were dead?"
"Please," Merlin said, in the same slow tones, "draw me a bath."
It was almost a relief to go to the kitchens, leave Merlin to his peculiar pacing and strange golden stare. Arthur vanished quickly, letting the others moving around him calm his racing heart and get him back to normal again. Tilde told him that his father had been taken to Gaius's rooms, at the request of Gaius, and Arthur swallowed, fighting the urge to run up there. At least he may have some dignity in death. His collar chafed as he did the heavy work of filling buckets, and people bustled around him, trying to eke out information about Merlin. It was Lucan who finally broached the subject.
"Is it really Merlin? Is he back?"
"I…I think so," Arthur replied. It was Merlin, he knew, it was Merlin staying in Arthur's old room like the prince of the land. Lucan scowled.
"How'dya know he's not a wraith or sommat, then?" asked Lucan, and Arthur shrugged, heaving the tin.
"I don't," he said. "But I think a wraith might have more important things on its mind than taking a bath."
It was hard work, fetching the water for a bath. He'd probably have been more sparing with his baths, had he realised, when Merlin was his servant. Arthur was stronger than Merlin had ever been, and his back still ached when he dragged the water upstairs to warm on the copper that sat over the fire in Merlin's room. Merlin was sitting at the window, staring out at the sky, when Arthur returned.
"I brought your water, my Lord," said Arthur, and Merlin looked up at him as he filled the copper.
"Thank you," he said, and patted the seat beside him. "Sit down while it warms up."
"I don't need to sit," Arthur replied, folding his arms.
"I know…" Merlin said, and he frowned. "I know it's been a trying day for you."
"Trying?" Arthur asked. "My father…"
"…Balinor was my father," Merlin said, and the wind in Arthur's sails dropped sharply. "Believe me, Arthur, it's easier to get through the days when you're busy."
"You're just…going to say that?" Arthur asked, sick to his stomach.
"I don't know what else to say," Merlin replied.
Arthur considered all of the questions that he wanted to ask — least of all how are you even here? — and he just left them. There'd be time; time when Merlin wasn't extraordinarily sitting across from him, close enough to touch, real enough to touch. The whistle blew on the boiler, telling him that the water was hot. Little curls of steam reached up from it towards the roof when he poured it into the great tin bath, the bath he'd used so many times in the past. Merlin wasn't even undressed yet, and Arthur swallowed hard. Happy as he was to see Merlin, he wasn't sure that he was ready to see all of Merlin.
"Thank you," said Merlin. "You may go."
"Aren't I supposed to stay in case you need anything?"
"I can summon you with a thought," Merlin replied.
"But…" Arthur said.
"With a thought."
"I'm your lord, don't you forget," Arthur tried, and Merlin looked at him, his eyes pure blue.
"I won't," he said. "Now go and get some rest."
Arthur made it out the door before the weight of the day started to catch him, started to nip at his heels and hurt him. He was tired, and dizzy, and even though he was unsupervised in the castle (oh the secret passages he could hide in), he wanted nothing more than to sleep. Perhaps he'd been drugged, to limit escape? No, Merlin wouldn't even know where to find drugs, even if he knew what to do with them. He rested against the wall for a second, just a second, to get his breath back and carry on. He realised with a sick little twist that he'd have all the blankets tonight; the cell would be cold and lonely without anyone else there, but he'd have enough blankets to keep properly warm.
He saw someone running up the corridor, and as they grew closer, they resolved into Gaius, his expression tight, eyes red as if with tears. Arthur stopped.
"Is it true?" Gaius asked, taking Arthur by the shoulders. "Is Emrys Merlin?"
"Yes," said Arthur, his throat dry.
"And your father...Arthur, I took the liberty of..."
"Dead," said Arthur, and he could feel his hands shaking. "Gaius, he's dead."
"Arthur," said Gaius, very gently. "Oh Arthur."
Arthur hadn't stopped all day; hadn't stopped to think, hadn't stopped because he knew that when he stopped, he'd break apart. He'd been expecting to be sent back to the cell; he realised with growing horror that he'd been wishing that he could head back to a prison cell to sleep. He had nowhere else to go.
"Arthur," said Gaius. "Arthur, are you all right?"
"I'm fine," said Arthur, straightening as the world tipped and plunged around him. "I'm totally fine."
The last thing he saw was Gaius's worried expression as Arthur pitched forward, fainting into the old man's arms.
When Arthur looked back, he didn't remember the days that followed Merlin's arrival. He remembered a blur, like being underwater; he remembered how cool and dry Gaius's hands were against his skin, remembered someone soothing him with gentle words. Someone bandaged his arm, someone rubbed salve into his wounds as Arthur drifted, delirious, through three days, waking on the fourth. There was something cool at his brow, a gentle hand wiping away the fire that threatened to burn him from the inside out. He opened his eyes a crack, and saw Gaius there.
"Arthur," said Gaius. "You're awake!"
"Gai's," Arthur slurred. The cloth really was blessedly cool.
"Yes," Gaius replied. "You're all right. Do you remember anything of the last few days?"
Arthur concentrated. It was like trying to grab onto an eel — it kept slipping away. Finally something took hold, and he choked on the words.
"I'm sorry," said Gaius. "I'm so sorry."
Arthur closed his eyes, feeling the last few months squirm in his gut. He put his hands to his throat, almost feeling the tightness of the magic before it…
His hands touched bare skin. Arthur poked experimentally at his neck. Yes, bare flesh; there was no collar there, just the raised welts where it had cut into his skin.
"Collar?" he asked. Gaius shook his head.
"Merlin removed it."
"Merlin?" Arthur asked.
"He was here this morning. He had something that he needed to take care of," said Gaius, and Arthur tried to sit up, but he failed. "Arthur, you're unwell. You need to get some more rest."
"I used to make Merlin clean my armour when he was unwell," Arthur said. Gaius sighed.
"You're not magical," he said, and he smoothed Arthur's blankets. "Get some sleep. Merlin said that he wants you to sleep. He's worried."
"And you defer to Merlin, do you?" Arthur asked, his eyelids heavy.
"Arthur," said Gaius. "All of the wizards in the world will one day defer to Merlin. He's sort of…the point."
"Of what?" Arthur yawned.
"Of everything, dear boy," Gaius replied, smoothing Arthur's fringe back. "Now sleep."
He fell into a deep, almost-dreamless sleep. Hours later, he woke, thinking for bare, glorious seconds that he was in someone's arms, but when he opened his eyes properly he realised that the pillows had propped up behind him as if they were the warm embrace of another. Arthur was feeling better — he drank the water that Gaius had left him by his bed, and then he got up, staggering to the door. He could hear voices in the next room, and he paused, quickly; it was Merlin. Perhaps he'd be less guarded with Gaius; perhaps Arthur could learn what he needed to know. Merlin and Gaius were talking, secretive.
"…I don't know," Merlin was saying.
"Why didn't you say anything?"
Arthur pressed against the door, looking through the crack between the door and the frame. It was wide enough for him to see the room — the grotty old bunches of herbs near the ceiling, overstuffed shelves, books open on tables, and Gaius and Merlin working at the main bench.
"I was shocked enough when I woke up," Merlin replied, grinding herbs with the flat rock from Gaius's shelf. "I decided — for worse or for better — that it was best if I stayed dead. You didn't have to lie anymore; Arthur didn't have to feel betrayed. No-one would be looking over their shoulders."
Gaius nodded, his shoulders tight and drawn. Merlin must have seen something in him, because he reached out and brushed Gaius's arm with his fingertips.
"Okay," he said, with a little grin. "So maybe I was terrified of being burned at the stake again."
"Who looked after you?" Gaius asked. "Someone must have helped you."
Merlin shook his head. "No, no-one. I stole some clothes from the laundry and I left the same night I woke. I wasn't really…going anywhere. I was just going. I ended up in a village, for a while. Kept moving after the Druids."
"And I suppose you just ended up in this finery?" Gaius asked. Merlin chuckled. He was still wearing his cape and gloves, even though the castle was warm enough.
"No," he said. "It was a reward."
"A grateful king?"
"A grateful dragon," said Merlin. "It lived at sea, and it was in pain, and I helped it. It didn't want to come onto the land. It just wanted to be free again…" He paused. "Sometimes, I realise that I don't understand the world at all."
"That is a story that I must hear," Gaius replied, and Merlin's grin was enormous. "Does this have anything to do with some of those flights of fancy I've heard about you stopping the waves engulfing the land?"
"Maybe," Merlin said. "I don't know what stories you've heard. Have you heard the one about the peach tree and the glass shoe? That one's not true."
"And you found the Druids?" Gaius asked. Merlin nodded. "Did you find what you were looking for amongst them?"
"No," said Merlin, and the smile dropped from his face. "I didn't."
"Another story?" Gaius asked. Merlin shook his head.
"If it is, it's one that's never to be told," he said, softly. He picked up something long and slimy out of a jar. "Hullo, little fellow. Who's a good leech, then?"
Arthur nearly snorted at such a blatant, stupid attempt to change the subject. Gauis sighed.
"And you came back here," he said. "Knowing that we'd been overrun, you came back here."
"I missed people," said Merlin, the leech twirling in his grasp, seeking out blood for its supper but finding nothing in Merlin's gloved hands, and Arthur ached to touch him. "I missed you, and Gwen, and everyone; even the stablehands and the squires. I missed Arthur."
"And now he is to be your servant," said Gaius, in that voice that seemed to indicate that he knew whatever sneaky trick it was that you were up to.
"And now he is my servant," said Merlin, slowly lowering the leech into the bowl of ground-up herbs. "I wish…" He paused. "No. Never mind what I wish. Not important."
"Merlin," Gaius said, and his voice was very soft, very gentle. "What you wish is always important."
"What I wish is impossible," said Merlin, "and so I don't want to talk about it."
He passed his hand over the bowl. There was a squeak and a puff of smoke, and Merlin's head snapped up, looking straight at the door, straight at Arthur. Arthur decided now was the time to sneak away; his head was hurting again, and he was tired. He made it back to bed, pulling the worn blankets up to his chin and closing his eyes, adrift in seconds.
Next time he woke, Merlin was there.
"I've made excuses to the King for nearly a week now," said Merlin. "Are you going to be delirious today, or are you going to sit up and eat something?"
"You don't need to make excuses for me," Arthur grumbled. "I'm not your responsibility."
"I don't think you'd survive long if you were left in the dungeons," Merlin replied. "And you're my servant, so you are my responsibility, Arthur."
"Where am I now?" Arthur asked.
"My old room," said Merlin. Arthur nearly said something about that — he didn't want to stay with Gaius, didn't want to stay with a traitor, but the old man had been kind to him, and there was a neat kind of symmetry about staying in Merlin's old room. Plus, it was warm. For all that Merlin was infuriating, he was also right — Arthur wouldn't last long in the dungeons, not feeling like this. Merlin gave him some bread; a soft loaf, still a tiny bit warm in the middle. Arthur luxuriated in it.
"And I'm to be your servant," Arthur said. Merlin nodded. "Very cute. I bet you can't wait to make me polish your boots."
"For someone who nearly died, you're awfully ungrateful," said Merlin. "I'll need you to be seen with me tomorrow. I told the King that I'd flogged you, and so you were sick."
"Oh," said Arthur. "Thanks."
"Any time," Merlin replied, with a broad grin. "Now, about your uniform. There's this hat…"
Being Merlin's servant was better than being a servant of the state. It still grated on Arthur's nerves, the idea that he was meant to serve someone, but the thought of disobeying made the skin along his spine crawl, made his stomach cramp. Realistically, he knew that Merlin wouldn't hurt him. Well, he thought that Merlin wouldn't hurt him.
But then there was the whole I did nothing while he was burned alive thing, and Arthur just wasn't sure anymore.
He'd been angry. So angry, and when he thought about it now he just felt sick, and tired. He'd been angry but at the same time so sure that Merlin would save himself. It was ridiculously affirming to know he'd been right, but Merlin's words while Arthur had been recovering haunted him. Had Merlin been dead? If so, how had he come back?
Merlin had looked at him that morning, critically, and then picked up a scarf, knotting it firmly around Arthur's neck.
"Let's not let them know that you're not collared before we strictly have to, yeah?" said Merlin as Arthur touched the fine fabric. He wanted to spit. Merlin couldn't have marked him more effectively, and Arthur thought gloomily that he'd just exchanged one collar for another.
"My transformation is now complete, Sire," said Arthur. Merlin shook his head.
"Don't," he said. "Just…don't. Come on."
Arthur had known that the Sorcerer-King presided over great councils in the hall, but he'd never been in there while the lords and ladies talked. Not surprisingly, Merlin was to attend. Their footfalls echoed off the stone walls as they clattered downstairs.
"Arthur," said Merlin, as they walked to the Great Hall, Arthur one step behind Merlin. "I want you to stay by my side."
"What?" Arthur asked.
"During the meeting. You don't leave me," said Merlin, as Lucan scuttled past, giving him a wave and a grin. "I won't have you more than five feet from me. Pretend it's the collar, pretend it's anything."
"I'm not your dog," said Arthur, offended.
"No," said Merlin, as they approached a group of people. "You're my servant. Do as you're told."
Affronted, Arthur stopped dead, only to be swept along by people moving into the room. It was no use. He wouldn't get far if he tried to run, and at least Merlin had taken off his collar. Reluctantly, he followed Merlin into the hall. It reminded him, obscenely, of the councils they'd had when his father was alive — the lords clustered around the table, servants darting to and fro with water and wine and whatever their masters wished. Arthur pulled out Merlin's seat, and stood behind Merlin like a good, patient servant should. Merlin was seated in an honourable place — at the King's side. The court Sorceress was perched at the King's other hand, and she leaned across the empty chair to speak to Merlin. She wore a heavy necklace, the curls of her copper hair sitting soft against the pale skin of her neck.
"It's good to see that your servant isn't a total failure, Emrys," said the sorceress, with a bright smile. "We were beginning to wonder."
"He is to my liking," said Merlin, and Arthur felt a little thrill at that, which he tamped right down. What on earth was that? He wasn't happy that Merlin liked him as a servant. "And did he not serve you well, before I arrived? I hear only positive reports amongst the kitchen staff."
She snorted. "And you speak with the kitchen staff?" she asked, raising a hand. "Arthur…"
"No," said Merlin. "I've changed his orders. He won't obey anyone but me, my lady."
She raised an eyebrow. "Really? Arthur, get me some wine."
Arthur almost moved to get her a goblet, but there was no twinge, no impulse that plucked at his breath and made him walk away to do it. He felt something brush his wrist, gently.
"Good," said Merlin, looking up at him, hand on Arthur's arm. "You know I don't like to share."
That statement was so ridiculously unMerlinish that Arthur wanted to laugh and press Merlin's hand in his. Merlin shared everything. Merlin shared stupidly. Merlin cried about unicorns and made Arthur ride out on moronic quests to save a village that he'd had no stake in — no stake but Merlin, stupid, brave Merlin.
Merlin was looking at Arthur with eyes that had suddenly gone gold.
The moment was broken when a servant cried out, "Rise for the King!"
The sorcerers rose as one, and Arthur pulled gently on Merlin's cloak, arranging it so that he wouldn't sit on it and half-strangle himself. The King swept in, and he took his seat, waving his permission for the sorcerers to sit with a grand sense of theatre. Arthur was surprised that he hadn't included a bit of sparkle, just for the look of the thing. He scowled as Merlin sat.
"So," he said. "Syrancos. Tell me about the magic. Is it still holding strong for you and your knights?"
The master of the knights stood. He was short, stocky, a man more used to muttering an incantation than speaking in public. Arthur felt almost sorry for him.
"It is worsening," said the man, heavily. "More of my men report spells going awry."
"Is there a pattern?" asked the King. "Do some spells go more than others?"
"Not…not really," said the man. "It's the weaker boys that fail first. The ones who want to be knights, but they don't have the power yet. Other than that…it's not one type of spell, or one type of situation. It's almost random."
A knight. Arthur hated the thought — hated the idea that there might be knights out there who fought with spells, not swords. He sighed.
"The tourney," said a bearded sorcerer, his paunch almost a solid barrier between himself and the table. "Will it still go ahead?"
The tourney? Arthur thought. Sorcerers had tournaments?
"Of course," said the King, dismissively. "What better way to raise the prestige of Camelot? And, naturally, we have the best in the land fighting in our place." He turned, slowly, to look at Merlin. Merlin shook his head.
"I fight for myself," he said, "not for Camelot. And I have not agreed to fight in this petty display, anyway. I rather think I have more important things to do."
"We shall see," said the King, and he turned back to the table. Merlin was sitting stiff and furious — Arthur recognised the way he went pale when he was angry. He put a surreptitious hand on the back of the chair, just letting his fingers brush against Merlin's shoulder. Merlin leaned back into Arthur's touch, just subtly, and Arthur felt warmth coil in his stomach.
It was after dinner by the time Arthur got a chance to talk with Merlin about the council — properly talk. They'd spent most of the day in the Library, poring over old scrolls and things, Merlin silent and cold in response to Arthur's attempts at talk. After dinner, though, Merlin's cheeks pink with wine, Arthur figured that he might be a better chance for some discussion.
"Do you know what's happening?" Arthur asked. "I mean — are you keeping it from them? Do you know why Camelot was chosen…why the magic is acting so strangely…all of that?"
Merlin was sitting at the table, his spell-book out in front of him, looking through it with the air of a man who had no idea what he was looking for. Arthur pulled up a chair.
"I'm confused," said Merlin. "I don't think that this loss of the magic is deliberate."
Arthur sat up. "You think it was some sort of grotesque accident?"
"Yeah," said Merlin. "I mean…who would bother to steal power from everyone but me? I'm not anything special."
You came back from the dead, thought Arthur, but he didn't say it. He was too uncertain — Merlin was still too much of an unknown quantity. Merlin had been patient with him, organised himself, dressed himself, and was nowhere near as demanding a master as Arthur had been, but he was, still, a master. Arthur had still fetched his breakfast that morning, Arthur had still warmed the water for his ablutions, Arthur had still made his bed (never mind that he'd needed to grab one of the maidservants — Catrin — from the corridor and ask her how one properly made a bed). Arthur huffed out a long-suffering sigh.
"There is so much magic," said Merlin, quietly. "There is so much magic out there in the land that it's like trying to build a dam to hold back the sea. It can't be done. As soon as one part is fixed, another will break. It doesn't matter which upstart king began the rush this time…there will always be another. The only thing that's keeping Camelot safe right now is that the dragons won't fly here, the Druids can't come."
"Why?" asked Arthur, fiddling with the scarf around his neck.
"There's something here that's sucking the magic out of the world," said Merlin. "Who wants to rule a kingdom that's rotting from the inside?"
"Why do the others come, then?"
"They don't…they don't feel it," said Merlin. "They learned magic. They might have some power of their own, but they don't feel it."
Merlin tucked his hair behind his ears, and Arthur watched him, watched him lick his fingers before he turned the page of the great tome in front of him, pink tongue darting out, high cheekbones picked out in the lamplight.
"And you?" asked Arthur. "Why do you stay?"
"I would have thought that was obvious, Arthur," said Merlin, turning another page. Arthur felt his entire face prickle with an enormous blush — and then he realised that no, no, that's not what Merlin meant. That couldn't be what Merlin meant. Merlin had come back to find the cause of the magic failing, to find the answer to it all. Arthur coughed to cover his embarrassment.
"So why isn't the King's magic going, then?" asked Arthur. Merlin shook his head.
"His magic is different," he said, with a little hum. "He doesn't create magic. He manipulates it. As long as there are powerful sorcerers in Camelot, he'll be fine."
"You?" Arthur asked.
"He can't touch me," said Merlin. "Not…not yet."
"In the future?" asked Arthur. Merlin shrugged.
"I make a habit of not trying to see the future," he said. "Enough questions, Arthur. I'm sure Gaius could do with your help."
"You don't want me to…" Arthur said, at a loose end. He'd always insisted that Merlin undress him at the end of the day, that Merlin run his warm hands down Arthur's back, that Merlin stoke the fire before bedtime. Merlin shook his head.
"I'm fine on my own," he said. "I managed for a while, after all. Turn down the bed and you can go."
Merlin jumped up, moving to the mantle, getting something. Arthur ruffled the sheets, hoping that Merlin didn't notice how dreadful he was at it.
"Done," he said. "I'll…yeah."
"Arthur," Merlin said, as Arthur turned to go. "You need to take this. A few drams each evening, or whenever you feel you can't breathe."
He produced a little blue bottle, knobbly and strange like Gaius's liquids and potions. Arthur scowled. It would probably taste beastly.
"Why?" he asked. Merlin shook his head.
"Because I can hear your lungs rattling every time that you breathe in?" he asked. "I worry about you, Arthur."
"Why?" he asked. "I…" He didn't know how to finish that thought. "Thank you."
Arthur left, furious with himself. Merlin must have noticed something — Merlin must have known that Arthur had hoped he'd come back just for Arthur, just to help Arthur. He slammed the door when he got back to Gaius's rooms, and he was rewarded with a raised eyebrow — but Gaius must have seen something in his expression, because he said nothing.
Merlin sent Arthur away after breakfast, with strict instructions to make sure that Gaius ate properly. Arthur went back down to Gaius's rooms, stopping by the kitchens to fetch some porridge, and he set one bowl in front of Gaius and took one for himself. When he looked at Gaius, looked properly, he realised why Merlin had asked him to make sure the old man was eating. He was pale, thinner than Arthur ever remembered seeing him, but the dullness that had characterised his demeanor these past months was gone. He had a smile on his face when Arthur set the bowl down.
"You didn't have to do this, my boy," he said, and Arthur felt a twinge of nostalgia curl in his chest.
"Merlin sent me back. I'm to make sure you eat," said Arthur.
"Ah," said Gaius. "And I suppose I am to make you eat in return?"
"He sends me away a lot," said Arthur, stirring his porridge, making little patterns in it that filled back in as soon as the spoon stopped moving. "I'm not sure."
"I think he's uncomfortable," said Gaius, gently. "He's never had a servant before, Arthur."
"He doesn't have to have one now," said Arthur. "I could just help you."
"You don't want to be king?" asked Gaius.
Arthur hadn't even thought about it. He dropped the spoon with a clatter, feeling like something had just walked over his grave.
"I don't…" he said, suddenly cold. "I don't know that's an option, is it?"
"Oh Arthur," said Gaius, shaking his head. "You mustn't give up hope."
"Are you telling me that you haven't?" asked Arthur, quietly. This was treason; if someone else overheard, then they could be sentenced to death. He'd be taken away from Merlin, whether he liked it or not, and Arthur wasn't sure if he did like it or not. Merlin felt like a flame — too close, and he'd get burned, but being apart from him made Arthur ache to see him again.
"I've seen a lot of change here in Camelot," said Gaius. "Anything, no matter how stable or permanent, can be broken if you hit it in the right place."
Arthur nodded, eating the rest of his porridge in silence. Gaius ate quietly, respecting Arthur's space, letting Arthur speak once he'd finished the food.
"My father," said Arthur, eventually. Gaius looked at him. "I never found out what happened to him."
"He was laid to rest," Gaius said.
"What?" That wasn't the answer that Arthur had been expecting.
"Merlin had him lain in the vaults," he said, absently.
"Merlin had the power to…"
"Merlin pointed out that, as far as ghosts go, Uther would be a particularly noisome one," said Gaius, his voice quiet. "So he had them lay him to rest properly."
"I wasn't…" Arthur said. "Gaius, I didn't know. I wasn't there."
"Arthur," said Gaius, gently. "Your father knew in life that you loved him. He didn't need some great gesture in death to tell him that."
"He fell in battle," said Arthur, picking at the hem of his shirt. It was raggy, and he'd tried to mend it when it got a hole, but he wasn't exactly one of nature's menders. "I didn't say goodbye."
"That doesn't take away from your ability to do it now," said Gaius. The lump in Arthur's throat burned. It wasn't fair; he'd expected to be unable to say goodbye, to be able to just close the door on that complicated knot of feelings that tied him to his father, and now the door was open and the knot was rolling out and back into his life.
"Is he…" Arthur asked. "Is he in the place we set aside for him?"
"It is unmarked," said Gaius. "Do you wish for me to tell Merlin where you are?"
"He'll find me," Arthur said. "He always seems to know where I am."
It was quiet, in the vaults, cold and quiet and dry-dusty. It didn't take long to find the grave, to push back the lid just a fraction. It didn't smell; Arthur had expected his father's body to smell, but perhaps the cold was keeping it. He was grey-skinned, the sharp lines of his face made slack and blurred by death. Coins rested on his eyes — an odd gesture, but a deliberate one. He didn't dare to disturb them.
Uther was smaller in death; Arthur had always thought that to be an expression, but the coffin had looked barely big enough to take a man, especially not Uther Pendragon, whose footsteps had ranged so broadly on the land, had trod so deep. This was not the man he remembered, not at all. Arthur sat by the unmarked stone coffin — unremarkable, unnamed. He heard the quiet footsteps on the flagstones and didn't look up. He deserved this time, this time alone, and no-one had any right to intrude upon it. Nonetheless, the intruder cleared his throat, a warning to Arthur that his reverie was about to be disrupted.
"I should have returned to Camelot sooner," said Merlin, gently. "I'm sorry."
And if that wasn't the most ridiculous thing he could have said; as if Merlin should be sorry. Arthur looked up at him, over his father's grave. Merlin was not the boy who'd died writhing on the stake; he was tall, confident. He'd almost have been tempted to say that this was some imposter if it were not for Merlin's clumsiness; for the fond grins that he offered Arthur every time he met Arthur's eyes; for the in-jokes and gentleness that met Arthur at every turn. This was still Merlin, but a polished Merlin, the rougher edges hidden under a golden clasp.
"He died alone," said Arthur. "I know you…I know it might not seem like much. But he died alone."
"So did I," said Merlin, without ire.
"You were mourned," Arthur replied, trying not to let the bitterness creep into his voice. He suspected that he'd failed when Merlin rounded the coffin to put a hand on Arthur's shoulder.
"People mourn Uther," he said, gently. "They are not vocal, perhaps, because now is not a time to be seen as a follower of the old king. But they mourn, all the same."
"I don't know why," said Arthur. "He was an absolute bastard."
"But he loved his kingdom," said Merlin. "He loved you. He didn't always…he wasn't always right. But he tried, which is all I suppose we can say for anyone."
"He killed you," said Arthur, swallowing. "If you tell me you forgive him for that, I'll tell you you're a liar."
Merlin laughed, and it echoed a little. "No, I've not forgiven him for that," he said. "But he was the king. I know now why he did it."
"Why?" asked Arthur.
"Because he thought it was right," said Merlin. "There are no good deeds, only good intentions."
Arthur frowned. No, Merlin was wrong. Good intentions mattered little when the outcome was so poor.
"So what was your intent, then, in requesting this burial?" asked Arthur, more harshly than he'd intended.
"I didn't request it for him," said Merlin, waving a hand. The lid of the coffin slid easily back into place. "Come on. Get up. We've got work to do."
Arthur followed Merlin, expecting to turn back to go upstairs, but instead, Merlin turned left and went further down into the bowels of the castle, down to where the caves were. It was almost possible to imagine that nowhere else existed, once you were in the caves — it was still and quiet, the air warmer than it was on the surface, the drip-drip of water underscored by a distant stream. Arthur hadn't been into the caverns below the castle since that one day visiting Merlin's ashes. The ashy midden was still spread from one wall to the other, testament to Arthur's destruction of the original pile. Merlin ignored it, going right to the edge of the ledge.
"It used to fly up," he said. "Up into the ceiling. So it stands to reason that if it left something, it's up in the ceiling."
"It?" Arthur asked, his voice echoing.
"The dragon," said Merlin.
"And we're going to get into the ceiling how?" Arthur asked.
"Like this," said Merlin, and his eyes glowed gold. Arthur suddenly found himself rising, his feet no longer on solid ground. When he kicked his legs he met no resistance. He swallowed a yelp before it escaped — Arthur Pendragon did not yelp — and reached out to grab Merlin's arm as they rose.
"What are you doing?" Arthur demanded, terrified. Merlin wrapped a hand around his forearm, holding him safe and steady as they rose. "Merlin!"
"Sssh," said Merlin dismissively. "I need to concentrate."
They lit on a ledge, and Arthur made the mistake of looking down. He wondered where they were, relative to the rest of the castle; it looked like they were hundreds of feet into the air. He swallowed, and then looked around, realising as he did so that Merlin had brought the ball of light up with them, and it was bobbing gently in the centre of the space. They were standing on a ledge that had been carved out into the wall, no — scratched out of the wall. Arthur wondered just how long the dragon had carved, scratched itself a nest made of shavings of rock and bits of things dumped down under the castle. Some of the rocks were shiny, iridescent with soot and heat. Arthur crouched by one, examining it. It had been blasted over and over again with fire, until it was glazed like a pot, beautiful. Merlin looked at him.
"Dragons do that," he said, with a brief smile. "They like being warm, so they heat up rocks and sleep on them."
"And you know this because…?" Arthur asked, and what he'd thought would be sarcastic came out a bit thin and reedy in the cavern, the rocks glittering under the light that Merlin had conjured.
"I talked to a few," said Merlin, absently, as he looked at the walls. "Here, come and look through the rocks."
"You think there's something here?"
"No," said Merlin. "It doesn't feel right. But we may as well search, while we're here."
There were bits of bone amongst the rocks, and scraps of fabric. There was nothing there. Arthur wondered at the life the dragon had lived; flying up and heating up the rocks, flying down and up and down. There was a groove in the edge of the ledge, where something had run against it over and over again. A chain, or a rope. Arthur's own hands went to the scar on his neck where his collar had cut into his skin, and he shivered. Merlin was picking through the rocks, putting scraps into his pockets, but nothing big, nothing interesting.
"How long was it down here?" Arthur asked, hearing the slight echo on his words.
"A long time, I think," said Merlin. "At least as long as you've been alive."
"And it's not come back," he said.
"Would you?" asked Merlin. Arthur shook his head.
"Really," said Merlin and Arthur flushed.
"I would…I'd come back to Camelot. But not to somewhere that I'd been so badly…badly treated. Not if I didn't have ties there."
"Mmm," Merlin replied. "No. I'd hoped there'd be something here, but I suppose it was too much to ask for, that it would be as easy as all that. There'd be something very neat about being able to track all this trouble back to that damn dragon."
"Merlin?" asked Arthur, standing near the ledge. It was a long way back down; dizzyingly so. "How are we going to get down?"
"Same way we got up," said Merlin. He stood, dusting off his knees. "Come on; you're right. We won't find anything else up here."
He grabbed Arthur's arm, holding him steady and very judiciously not saying anything about Arthur grabbing at his cloak. It wasn't that Arthur didn't like heights — it was more that here, in this cavern, illuminated by magic, he was reminded of another time he'd almost fallen. Had that been Merlin? He didn't want to ask.
"There," said Merlin. "Solid ground."
"Good," said Arthur, leading the way up and out, his heart slowing (and when had it got faster?) when the slimy stone path beneath him was replaced by flagstones, solid, reassuring flagstones.
"Were you showing off?" Arthur asked, feeling a lot more safe out in the corridors of Camelot.
"Yes," said Merlin, with a huge grin. "Did it work?"
"No," Arthur replied, and the bell from the kitchens tolled. "Excuse me. I'll go and get you your lunch."
"Bring it to the library," Merlin said, and Arthur rather fancied he could feel Merlin looking at him as he walked away, but he didn't look back to check.
Magic, Arthur was quickly coming to realise, was a lot more boring than he'd ever thought it would be. As a child, his father had painted pictures in his mind of sorcerers on mountains, calling down lighting, raising the sea. Men who could raze an army before them, bring others back from the dead.
Merlin's sorcery seemed mostly to be sitting in the Library until Arthur started to cramp from the sedentary cold. Merlin had a warm cloak, but Arthur had nothing — only the clothes he'd been able to scrounge, and there was no way in the world that he intended to ask Merlin for more clothes. Merlin seemed to realise, though, asking Arthur to carry a pile of books back to Merlin's rooms, where it was warmer and the fire could be banked as much as they liked.
The heat as they entered Merlin's room was delightful. Arthur banked the hearth with another few logs, and Merlin settled on the rug, spreading the books out around him in the glow of the fire. It wasn't evening, yet, but the days were wintery-short, the sunlight going early. Arthur sat nearby, trying to surreptitiously warm his aching feet at the grate.
When Merlin opened the first magic book, he dropped it in surprise.
"Arthur!" he said, and Arthur felt his heart thud, afraid that something had happened. "Look at this!"
When he looked, he frowned. There were letters everywhere. Letters all over the page, jumbled and mangled, making lumps and waves and making absolutely no sense whatsoever.
"How is that possible?" he asked. Merlin shook his head. "It wasn't like this when you were looking through the books the other day, was it?"
"All the magic must have gone from the book," he said. "Pass me that one. And one of the ones that's in another language."
They opened book after book, to see the same result in most of them. Big, knotty clumps of letters, all meaning and sense gone. They tried the translation that Gaius said was from the lands of the east, and the book was fine. Well, it looked fine. It was hard to tell. In English, it was all over the page. Arthur frowned. Weird.
"This is not good," said Merlin, quietly. Arthur swallowed.
"How not good is not good?" he asked.
"Not good in that it doesn't affect just people. It's magical artifacts, too," he said, flipping through pages covered in messy ink. "These are just — minor. Like, books that have a tiny bit of folksy magic in them. Nothing important. The big grimoires aren't touched."
"How can you tell the difference?" Arthur asked. Merlin shrugged.
"How can you spot the difference between a good sword and a bad sword?" he asked.
"Well, it's in the weighting, and the construction, and the length from…" Arthur looked at Merlin's face. "Oh. Right. Point taken."
Merlin jumped to his feet, impatiently pacing, expanding with huge hand gestures as he thought. He was still wearing his gloves, Arthur realised. He still had the soft black leather gloves on; it must have been awkward turning pages in them. Even though they looked tough, gloves made it very tricky to do even some of the most basic human impulses.
He couldn't ask, though. That would be — it would be worse than rude. He sighed.
"So bad books are going first."
"The good books are strong enough to withstand the attack," said Merlin. "Like the sorcerers. The weakest ones are losing control of their magic first, but the best, the strongest, are holding onto it and they will continue to hold onto it, unless something drastic comes to change the balance. We need to go downstairs and check everything."
Arthur thought longingly of Merlin's fire, and sighed. Of course they did. Merlin opened the door, and a rush of cold air came in from the corridor. He bustled off, cloak bouncing against his shoulders with his swift gait, and Arthur muttered a silent curse as he had to follow, the stone corridors not holding the heat. Merlin swept into the library, and Geoffrey was there, looking forlornly at a book.
"That was fast," he said. Merlin shook his head. "I only sent the boy to fetch you a few minutes ago."
"We only just realised when we got the books upstairs," he said. "How many?"
"It's odd," said Geoffrey. "The largest herbal is entirely unaffected, but this one of spells to make a lover true is ruined. Do you…?"
"Know what caused it?" Merlin asked, running his finger down the edge of a scroll to break the seal. "Maybe."
Arthur had been surprised at the sheer quantity of Camelot's magical literature, the first time Gaius had sent him to the library to get a book. There, on a new shelf, were tomes and scrolls and even clay tablets scored with strange, arcane marks and legends. Geoffrey of Monmoth, who had probably survived because no-one else knew the key to his somewhat idiosyncratic system of filing books, had explained. He probably thought that he owed the former prince an explanation.
We're the finest library in all Albion, he'd said, looking like he'd practiced the speech many, many times. It would have been a crime to burn so many books.
Merlin was probably committing a heinous crime in Geoffrey's esteem, the way he was flicking through the books like a rat in a midden.
"Ruined," he said, tossing one left. "Good." That one went right. "Ruined, ruined, good, ruined…maybe our magical library wasn't as good as the scholars who collected it thought it was?"
"What do you mean?" asked Geoffrey, stepping closer. Merlin looked up, a troubled expression on his face.
"Oh, nothing," he said, putting a book down. "Can you please put the good books aside, and check them each hour? Keep a record for me of which ones go, and when they go?"
"You think that more will…will…" Geoffery went pale and quavery. Huh, thought Arthur. He really did love his books. "Will spoil?"
"Spoil is probably a good word for it," said Merlin. "I'll do what I can. I promise." He turned to Arthur. "Arthur, when we were in the caves yesterday — you said that there were drawings on the walls, down in the lower caves. I want to go and see them."
"Surely you don't believe in those sorts of tales," said Geoffrey. Merlin blinked.
"So you know about them?"
"When the prince — when Arthur was a boy, he and Morgana said they found some, but when the guards went down to look, all they found were stalactites," said Geoffery. "There are stories that the first people of the land drew in the deepest caves; no-one knows why."
"I learned a little about the paintings, when I was away," said Merlin, and the euphemism made Arthur's throat tighten. "It's…the Druids think that they may be an early form of writing. Pictures to show what you mean, instead of words. Spells that were drawn on the caves to ensure that the hunt was good, to make the place safe."
"Writing is magic now, too?" Arthur asked, unable to keep the disbelief from his voice. Would it never stop, sorcerers claiming everything that made the world worthwhile?
"Tell me," said Merlin, "when one first learns to write, what is it called?"
"I…I'm not sure what you mean," said Geoffery.
Arthur shook his head. "Spelling," he said, and Merlin nodded. "But that doesn't mean anything, Merlin. It's just a neat word trick."
"So is most magic," said Merlin, flipping through a book of melted letters and twisted marginalia. "If I give you a potion made of warm milk and tell you that it will help you to sleep, then you will believe it and you will sleep better. It's that sort of thing, the sort of thing that's just this side of the mundane, that's wearing away first. I want to see how strong the cave-drawings are, because that might help me to work a few things out."
"You think this will work by degrees?" asked Arthur. Merlin shrugged.
"It's like a candle-flame," he said. "At first, the smallest insects get sucked towards it, but leave it for long enough with an open window and even the largest moths will go."
"That's a flawed analogy," said Arthur. "And you're playing wordgames."
"Magician," said Merlin, pointing at himself and raising his eyebrows. He took Geoffery's hand. "Take consolation in the fact that the best tomes, the most valuable, won't be the first to go. Come on, Arthur."
Arthur gave Geoffery a quick nod, and followed after Merlin. They wound down the stairs, past the halls and the kitchens (and dinner smelled good) and into the caverns below the castle. Arthur cast about for a torch, before remembering that Merlin would just make light.
"Do you remember the way?" Merlin asked, his voice echoing.
"I think so," said Arthur. It was warmer in the caves than the castle, the drip-drop of water echoing off silent walls as Arthur led the way. He didn't know what to say, so he didn't — just offered Merlin a hand when the path became slippery, looked at the flowing limestone as it made strange shapes in the light that emanated from the ball that Merlin had conjured. They got to the old King, and Merlin stopped in amazement.
"That looks like a man," he said, his fingers digging into Arthur's shoulder. It did, a little, a man outlined by the flowing rock.
"We used to call it the old King, when we came here as children," said Arthur. "And there's his servant — look."
He looked, and with adult eyes saw what he'd been unable to understand as a child — the stone shape beside the old king wasn't close by in deference. The other formation was being held near, an arm around its shoulders. Merlin smoothed his gloved palm over the stone.
"I think these used to be statues," he said, casting a quick spell. A chunk of limestone came away in his hand. "They did! Look!"
Arthur looked at the face of the servant, looking sightlessly at the King, a soft smile on his stone face. He wanted to see the King's expression, then, and he pulled at the brittle limestone, to no effect. Merlin's eyes glowed, and a curved slab came away in Arthur's hand.
The King was looking back with the same fondness, the same smile. Arthur stared.
"Please tell me those are just statues," he said, terrified at the thought of being frozen in one place for long enough to be covered in a thin shell of rock.
"They are," said Merlin, pulling away more stone. There were unfamiliar letters on the statue. "The Once and Future," he read, tracing them with his finger. "I don't understand. Does it mean anything to you?"
"No," said Arthur. "I'll…do you want to see the paintings?"
"Yes," said Merlin, with a long, strange glance at the statues. "I do."
Arthur tracked along half-remembered corridors, trying to work out if it was the right-branch or the left, if that particularly phallic stalagmite was the one that they turned at. They walked in silence until the cave opened out into a little cavern, smooth white walls better than paper for holding messages that had lasted.
"Oh," Merlin said, wonderingly. "They're beautiful."
They were, in a way. They didn't look anything like real beasts, or real people, but they ran across the walls, chasing each other. And they weren't harmed; there was none of the sticky clumping of the books. Either this was old magic, strong magic, or else it was entirely non-magic. Arthur sort of wanted it to be the latter, but everything in him screamed that it was stronger than any other magic except perhaps for…
There was, high in a corner, where he must have missed it as a child, a drawing of two of the stick men. One had lightning coming from his fingertips — Arthur assumed it was lightning, because otherwise the people who had drawn the figures were completely pathetic at drawing spears — and the other stood close to him, a hand on his shoulder, possessive.
He knew he should tell Merlin, but instead he stepped away. Once and future. What if…the stick-drawers didn't seem to be the type to make statues. So maybe the statue came later? In which case, there was a pattern forming, and Arthur wasn't sure that he liked what that implied.
Merlin was brushing his fingers against the paintings, gasping amazement. He turned to Arthur, face lit with a huge grin.
"Arthur. This is amazing," he said, voice high with emotion. "Amazing."
"I didn't paint them," said Arthur, sitting on a rock. Merlin pored over the paintings, but he didn't seem to notice the stick men. Arthur stuck his hands under his arms, fingers getting cold in the damp air. He could feel the dampness of the rock under his backside, and he sighed, waiting for Merlin to finish.
He scanned the floor, listless, surprised when his gaze lit on something small that didn't seem to be natural. Arthur bent down and picked it up. It was carved from the smooth stone of the cavern, a little figure with wings and claws. A dragon. Inhaling quickly, he put it into his pocket.
Merlin eventually gave in, when Arthur's stomach was growling from hunger and his backside was numb and his lungs were hurting again from the cool air, and he was well sick of caves and stick men and magic. They tramped upstairs in silence, Arthur stopping quickly by the kitchens to get Merlin's dinner sent up. They'd spent hours down there, he realised; he'd be lucky to get anything to eat when he got back to his rooms. He got back just as Merlin was stoking the fire, putting fresh logs in. He looked up at Arthur, and smiled.
"Can you believe that?" Arthur asked, announcing his presence. "The stone people? Do you think they're…old?"
"Maybe," said Merlin. "I don't know."
He stood, brushing his gloves clean on his knees. Arthur moved close.
"I just can't…there's too many things that I didn't know about," said Arthur. "I can't believe it. It has to be a trick of the dragon, or some sort of sorcery."
"I've seen things you wouldn't believe," said Merlin, calmly. "When I was gone, I saw more than you could ever imagine."
"So," said Arthur, as he pulled Merlin's cloak from his shoulders, "where were you, to see things I wouldn't believe?"
"I went North," said Merlin, and there was a knock at the door. "Enter."
"Your dinner, sire," said the servant, bowing low. Merlin looked slightly irritated at the interruption, but quickly shook it off.
"Leave it on the table," he said. "Arthur, sit at the table, please."
Arthur didn't sit, and the man who'd brought in the plate dithered until Merlin waved him away.
"You may go," said Merlin, sitting at the head of the table, plate in front of him. The servant squeaked — squeaked, for Merlin — and dashed away. Arthur folded his arms.
"Sit," said Merlin. "I'm curious, Arthur. Tell me what happened when I was gone."
"Not until you tell me," said Arthur, and Merlin shrugged. His gangly gestures seemed to have been replaced by mostly smooth movements, although he'd dropped a book in the Library today, caught it with magic, and then looked up at Arthur, offering him a brilliant, sly grin.
"I went North," Merlin said again, and Arthur sat. Merlin carefully transferred one of the shanks of meat from his own plate to another plate, broke the bread, divvied up the vegetables. He slid the plate across the table to Arthur, and Arthur wanted to refuse, push it back to him and tell him that he didn't need Merlin's charity, but his stomach took on a mind of its own and staged a coup. It had been weeks since he'd had decent meat.
Arthur's stomach growled, a pacing lion, but he was damn well going to wait for Merlin to start.
"It'll get cold if you don't eat it," Merlin said. He picked up a knife, hands still gloved. "And I went North, to the tribes of the Druids. I found Morgana."
"Oh," said Arthur. "Is she…?"
"She said that Uther and the toadies of Camelot had got everything they deserved," said Merlin. Arthur choked on a mouthful of potato. "She didn't know he'd be killed, Arthur."
"I gather she doesn't plan to interfere, then?" Arthur asked. Merlin nodded.
"She has a kingdom of her own, and no love for Camelot anymore," he said, sipping his drink. "I was not exactly…welcome."
Arthur wondered what that meant. Had Morgana tried to kill Merlin? What of these stories of Merlin holding back the tide, or crushing invaders from over the sea? How strong was Merlin?
"Thinking of Morgana," said Merlin, casually. "Can you go through the trunks of things that she left here? I want to check that this disturbance isn't the result of an artefact that she left."
"How will I know what I'm looking for?" Arthur asked.
"You'll know it," Merlin replied. "It will…it'll hum, or something."
"Or something?" Arthur asked, scowling. "Sounds like a pretty rubbish magical artefact, then. Or a pretty rubbish sorcerer that left it."
Merlin put down his cup. "Arthur, what's this about?"
"What?" Arthur asked.
"This petty sniping," Merlin replied. "I don't know what it is that you want, Arthur. Do you want me to give you back to the King? Is that why you keep rolling your eyes; why you keep making comments under your breath?"
"You'd hand me back, for one instance of calling whatever this thing is pretty rubbish?" Arthur asked, feeling anger burn. "Do you know what they did to make me obey?"
"Was it worse than being burned at the stake?" Merlin snapped.
"You can't bring that up as a comparison!" Arthur replied. "You ask me what I want? Fine. I want my kingdom back. I want my father back. I want my life back."
"I can't perform miracles," said Merlin, and he sighed. "Arthur, you aren't the only one who lost everything."
Arthur looked at Merlin. The anger had drained from him as quickly as it had risen, and Arthur felt his heart skip. No, of course he wasn't. And Merlin had come back, returned from the grave and from other places that had given him fine clothes and an even more fine reputation. Arthur swallowed.
"You died in the fire," said Arthur, quietly. "You said that you died."
"I burned," Merlin replied, and he sounded like he were a million miles away, looking back at Arthur. "I remember burning. I remember asking you to save me."
Arthur felt his skin prickle with shame, terror. What would it be like to burn? To choke and roast like a fattened hog; to feel your skin tighten and split, to ask for help and receive no reply? He swallowed.
"How are you alive, then?" he asked, and Merlin shook his head.
"I don't want to talk about this now," Merlin said.
"I'm sorry," he said, the apology trite and inadequate. "I'm so sorry." Merlin looked at him, sad-eyed, and stood; a clear indication that Arthur should go.
"I know," he replied. "I'll see you tomorrow."
Arthur closed the door behind himself with a little click, and made it about twenty feet towards his rooms before the raging tide inside his chest broke, and he punched the stone wall, hard enough to hear something in his hand crack.
His entire wrist felt like it was on fire, and he bit down on the impulse to cry out, shoving the injured hand under his arm to hold in the pain. Shit. Shit, shit, shit. He'd been angry and he hadn't meant to, but that didn't really matter when the pain was radiating through his entire arm. Arthur clasped his hand close, hobbling down the corridor, hoping that the injury didn't interfere too much with his duties. Much as he hated it, if Merlin asked for a new servant, Arthur wasn't entirely sure that he'd cope.
Arthur was left alone to go through Morgana's things. He tried to think about her with the Druids, but it was an uncomfortable thought, prickly and lonely. His first reaction was to wonder about her in the woods, but of course she'd come to Ealdor with them, worn clothes like a man, fought alongside him. She'd be fine.
He wondered if she knew that Uther had died. If she cared.
Merlin had unlocked the trunks with a wave of his hand, and he'd gone downstairs to an official meeting of the Wizard's Council. Arthur had asked if he'd be missed; if it would look strange if Merlin were to be unattended, but Merlin merely shrugged.
"I don't want you near them today," he'd said, enigmatic. "I'll tell them I've tasked you with this, if anyone should ask."
So Arthur was on his knees, unpacking trunks onto the floor, trying as he did so to not bump his injured hand. Morgana had left with practically nothing, he realised. He'd known that Uther had maintained her rooms, had made Gwen pack Morgana's things as if she intended to return, but he hadn't known just how much Morgana had left behind her. He pulled one of her old cloaks around his shoulders as he worked; winter was coming in, the cold air of Morgana's old chambers biting more than his pride did. He'd take the cloak, if he thought that he could get away with it, but if he were caught with it by anyone but Merlin, he'd probably end up with that horrible collar again.
The things in the trunk were tiny pieces of a life lived in the gilded cage of the castle; a half-finished embroidery of a large and angry dragon; a book with a dried flower pressed between the pages; a doll with dark wool for hair and a long blue dress, the colours of her father's house. Arthur sighed, and opened another chest, favouring his injured hand. There were more clothes in here, fine silks and beading, and laid across the top were six wooden circles, neatly placed in a line. Arthur picked one up, wonderingly.
The toy was light, made of wood. Arthur remembered the set of them, leftovers from Morgana's childhood, toys for a princess. It was a disc that had holes punched in each side. There was an image on one side of a tall tower window, and on the other of a lonely princess. Tighten the lacings, and let it spin between your outstretched hands, and the image flickered before the eye, the princess trapped in the tower. He could see the lacings of another, and so he reached for it, turning it in his hands. Yes, he remembered this story — the princess was saved from the evil wizard who kept her captive. On this disc, there was an evil wizard on one side, a questing knight on the other.
He spun the disc, and the knight's sword was raised against the wizard, ready for battle, ready to defeat. Knights saved princesses and kingdoms. That's what they did. There was no point in being a knight, if not for the requisite saving of princess and kingdom.
"What's that?" Merlin asked, softly.
Arthur dropped the disc in shock, and the thin wood clattered on the floor, but mercifully it didn't crack. Arthur scrabbled for it with his good hand, but couldn't get a grip. Finally, Merlin reached and picked it up.
"You spin it," said Arthur. Merlin twisted the laces in his hands, looking at Arthur rather than at the spinning picture.
"Why are you wearing Morgana's cape?" he asked. "You look very fetching in it."
Arthur felt his face get hot as he blushed, scrabbling out of the damned cape. "I was cold. It's very cold up here, Merlin. You shouldn't allow your servants to work in such conditions."
"No, I suppose I shouldn't," said Merlin, twirling the toy. "This is very clever. It's not magic, but it looks like it could be."
"I used to think it was, when I was a boy," said Arthur, tasting days where he was too short to even sit on the big, broad trunks that filled the castle rooms, too young to understand that the eye can play tricks more potent than those of any sorcerer.
"I'm surprised your father let you keep it," said Merlin.
"My father's dead," Arthur said, and the thought made his chest ache.
"I'm sorry," Merlin replied, crouching close. "There was nothing I could do."
"He died a warrior's death," Arthur replied. "All I can do is cower in your service."
"I don't think I've ever seen you cower in my life," Merlin replied. He picked up the cape, and wrapped it back around Arthur's shoulders, just to drive the knife in further. He let his hands run over Arthur's sleeves, smoothing the fabric under his gloves. Arthur flinched with pain when Merlin took his hands. He was obviously trying to make Arthur feel a little warmer.
"What happened to your hand?" Merlin asked, and he unwrapped Arthur's makeshift bandage.
"I hit a wall," Arthur said. Merlin looked at him and grinned.
"You idiot," he said. "How can you hold a sword when you've broken your knuckles?"
"How can I hold a sword when I'm not permitted to have one?" asked Arthur, sticking out his lower lip.
"I'm probably not the best person to give you advice on that," said Merlin, the leather of his gloves soft and warm against Arthur's aching skin. "Arthur, you must have hit that wall hard."
Of course, Arthur realised, Merlin had lived hiding his secret weapon for years — years and years, until Uther had found him before he could act on it.
"What would have happened?" Arthur asked.
"Hmm?" Merlin stretched out Arthur's fingers, one by one. Arthur could feel the icy hotness of pain lancing through his hand, going right up his arm, even though Merlin was gentle.
"If you'd used your…abilities," said Arthur. "And taken control, before the Sorcerer-King. What would have happened?"
Merlin stripped off his gloves and took Arthur's hand between both of his own. Merlin's hands were cold under the heat of the leather — freezing — but they didn't seem to be scarred, or scaled, or any of the thousands of crazy ideas Arthur had entertained when he wondered why exactly it was that Merlin wore those stupid gloves.
"Control on my own was never my destiny," said Merlin. "It was supposed to be ours, you stupid prat."
"And is that dead, then?" Arthur asked, as the coolness of Merlin's hands soothed the ache in his own. It was blissful, the sudden bloom of cold that snuffed the heat of pain.
"You're the one who killed it," Merlin said, tracing Arthur's hand, the lines of bone under skin. "There. Flex your fingers."
Arthur flexed. The skin felt tight, like after washing his face with caustic soap, but whole, and his bones didn't ache that hot, deep ache that had kept him awake all through the night before.
"Why didn't you stop your father?" asked Merlin, taking Arthur's hand again, still tracing the lines of his fingers. "Why did you let me die?"
"I was scared," said Arthur. "I thought…I didn't know what to think. I went to my father, and he — we talked. He convinced me that you'd bewitched me, convinced me that I'd be on the pyre too, convinced me that anything I felt for you was not from my heart, but from your magic. And then I thought you'd escape. You'd always escaped before."
"Sometimes only by the skin of my teeth," said Merlin, with a wry grin. He squeezed Arthur's hand. "Come on. You're freezing in here."
They walked to Gaius's rooms in companionable silence, and Arthur looked as banners were bespelled, vines dripping from the internal walls like they'd always been there. The King's standard — intertwined snakes — made a prominent appearance. The sorcerers were preparing for the tournament as only wizards knew how — but there, there was a man trying to raise a banner that was already turning black; there was a sorceress who couldn't get a vine to grow. It was like painting over rot. Eventually, the rot was breaking through.
Gaius had a pot on every free space on the benches; Arthur surreptitiously tried to warm his hands by the fire, as Merlin ordered him to fetch up comfrey, and heartsease, and even a handful of coals from the hearth.
"What's this all for?" Arthur asked, as they worked together; Gaius stirring a pot, Merlin chopping herbs.
"The dueling," said Gaius, as if it were obvious. "Ah. You've never seen a dueling tourney, have you?"
"Not since magic was banned in the kingdom for my entire life, no," said Arthur, trying to keep the hint of sarcasm from his voice and, he suspected, failing spectacularly.
"There's no need to be like that," said Gaius, decanting the hot liquid into little glass bottles. "There'll be plenty of people after this tomorrow, you wait."
"Arthur, could you go to the kitchens and get some eggs?" Merlin asked. "Fresh ones; tell Cook it's for Gaius."
"Your potions need eggs?" Arthur asked. Merlin shrugged. "All right, then."
Meg sent him back with food for the three of them too, and an admonition that they'd missed dinner, and that sort of thing would be noticed. He ate close by to the fire, as Merlin cracked eggs into the potion, rejecting one for not being fresh enough, too absorbed in what he was doing to even acknowledge Arthur when he took the empty plates back to the kitchens.
The corridors were quiet, in the evenings — especially so close to an event, especially when the magic was failing, seemingly at random. People were holed up in their rooms, fires crackling, resting. Servants would be shining shoes, making sure that buckles and jewels glittered, because even magic couldn't outstrip the beauty of a job well done. Arthur returned from the kitchens with an apple in his pocket, and as he passed the hall, he couldn't resist sneaking a look in.
He knew this place. This was still his castle — he knew every nook and cranny and passage, every place that one could hide. The hall was dark, quiet, the places at the table ready for new occupants in the morning, banners bespelled ready to go. Arthur traced his fingertips along the tabletop, sitting in the throne. His rightful place, he thought, but it felt too big and too hard, now.
He flinched when he heard voices outside.
"…and then?" said the harsh, clear voice of the sorceress.
"Wait," said the King. "I want to see if I left it in here."
"It'll be in your rooms, you fool," said the Sorceress, and Arthur was already scrambling to hide, because he didn't know what else to do. He wasn't really — up to meeting with any of the sorcerers, not when he wasn't really supposed to be in here as a servant. He dashed to the throne, hiding in the little alcove behind the tapestries there, and he shivered a little as he did so. He'd hidden here sometimes as a child, spying on his father and the knights, eager to know what was happening in the kingdom — in his kingdom. He'd never really understood what was happening; it took an adult's hindsight to understand why border runs to Mercia were important, or how two men talking could decide the fate of a whole town.
"It's not," said the King, as Arthur huddled. "It preys on my mind, my love. Did you have any luck today?"
"I spoke to Emrys," said the Sorceress, and Arthur could see the magical light coming through the weave of the tapestry. Emrys. Merlin. Arthur's fists clenched; this was his chance to find out why Merlin had come back. "He said no. Again."
"Not good enough," said the King. "I've given him the Pendragon boy; I've given him leeway — good quarters, no demands. There must be something he wants."
"He seems to want to work with that disgusting old man, making potions," said the Sorceress. "And to make his former master wait on his every need."
"Former master…?" said the King, and Arthur wished he could see the man's face. The woman laughed.
"Oh yes," she said. "It seems Emrys isn't as new to Camelot as he pretends."
"Do you think he's likely to try anything with the Pendragon boy?" asked the King. The Sorceress laughed, a pleasant sound.
"Even if he did, it would only give us a way in," she said. "No. The prophecy was clear — and you are King, not any murdering, non-magical idiot."
"We need to find that way in," said the King. "And we need to find out what he hopes to gain from a return to Camelot. Have him watched. Work out if he is still loyal to the Pendragon house, and if so, to what end."
"I already am," said the Sorceress. "And it seems that he is enjoying the position of his new…servant. From what I've been able to ascertain, they didn't have a good relationship before the fall of Camelot. And people seem to think something very interesting indeed — word is that dear Emrys was burned at the stake for sorcery."
"So he's a good illusionist. What of that?" asked the King, with a grunt.
"Men remember seeing his body burn, handling the corpse once it had finished," she said. "I am not so certain, my love. We must find out more. Come with me — we'll see if the fool in the library has stopped crying about his books, and has anything useful to tell us."
"Well," said the King, "remember that…"
Arthur heard the creak of the door as it opened, and then the voices became patchy as the King and his mistress moved into the corridor. He leaned against the wall, trembling. Merlin. They were going to watch Merlin, find out why Merlin hadn't agreed to — what, exactly? What prophecy? He listened carefully, but all he could hear was his own breathing, and so he slipped out from behind the tapestry and into the room; he all-but-ran back to Gaius's rooms. Gaius was alone in there, the potions perfectly bottled, lined up in a neat row.
"I was about to send out a search party," said Gaius, raising an eyebrow. "Are you quite all right, Arthur?"
"I…is Merlin upstairs?" Arthur asked.
Gaius smiled. "As you are his servant, it is customarily your job to know these things," he said. "Yes — he went up only a few minutes ago. You'll catch him if you're quick."
Arthur nodded his thanks, leaving again for Merlin's rooms — his old chambers. He was about to barge in, when he remembered a conversation that he'd had with Merlin about knocking. He knocked.
"Enter," Merlin called, and the door swung open, pushed by an unseen hand. Merlin looked up. "Arthur." He frowned, taking in Arthur's appearance. "Is everything all right?"
Arthur closed the door behind him, and shook his head.
"Merlin," he said. "I…I overheard the King talking about you."
"Was he saying I had refused the position of Sorcerer to the court of Camelot?" Merlin asked, gesturing that Arthur should take a seat.
"Ah…pretty much?" Arthur said. "He also said that…he wants to find a way in. To get you to do as he wants. He…knows you used to live here."
Merlin shrugged. "It was always going to come out. And what does he think of you and I?"
"That you're enjoying having me as a servant," said Arthur, with a little smile that was meant to be encouraging, but he feared probably came off as disingenuous and self-deprecating.
"I…" Merlin said. "I like having you around, yes."
"We'll be watched," said Arthur. "They're watching, to make sure nothing funny happens."
Merlin sighed. "Nothing funny is happening," he said. "Arthur, why are you worried?"
Arthur felt a hard knot in his throat, like someone had tightened their hand around his windpipe. Of course nothing was happening. Merlin hadn't — Merlin had taken off his collar, but Arthur was still a servant. Merlin hadn't made any hints that he was planning to restore Arthur to his rightful place.
"Oh," said Arthur. "You're…you're right."
"Arthur," said Merlin, softly.
"I'm sorry," said Arthur. He'd said it himself, to Merlin. Servants weren't friends. "I'll let you turn in for the night."
"Arthur," said Merlin, again. "I…"
"I understand," said Arthur, nodding. "Good night, Merlin."
Merlin reached out to catch Arthur's fingers. He squeezed, gently. "Goodnight."
Arthur left, quickly, before he could say anything else stupid. His chest ached. He stopped to catch his breath, taking a swig from the little bottle that Merlin had given him; he'd never have had to, before. He tried to keep fit, in his rooms, and heavens knew that he kept fit enough running up and down stairs, but his breath had never recovered from that first, indignant start of winter and the horrible wheezing that had settled on him in the cell. He sighed, heading back downstairs, padding through Gaius's chambers to his own. Yes. Nothing funny was happening. Gaius kept the door between his chambers and Arthur's closed; Arthur could understand it — a man needed his privacy — but sometimes he wished that Gaius would just leave it open and let a little of the warmth from the fire drift into his own chambers. He lit the candle-end that he'd judiciously removed from Merlin's rooms the night before, letting the light cast the room into flickering shadows and dancing highlights.
Someone had left a cloak out in his room — gallingly, one of his old cloaks. He picked it up, the fur lining soft against his hands. Well, if people were going to taunt him with what he used to be, Arthur was going to take advantage of their stupidity. He spread the cloak over the bed; it wasn't a brilliant extra blanket, but it would cover enough. It was getting cold enough in the castle now that he didn't really want to take his boots off to sleep, but did because he didn't really fancy his feet going rotten from sweat and lack of air. He climbed into bed, and with a sigh, Arthur pulled the cloak over himself, resting against the lumpy pillow.
When his hand slid idly under the pillow, his fingers found something smooth and hard. He pulled it out, squinting at it in the dim moonlight. Oh. It was the toy — someone, presumably the idiot who'd left the cloak, had left him the toy, too. And they'd drawn on it. One side still held the lonely knight, fighting against everything and nothing, but the other now had a second figure. A man, his silhouette blobby but still recognisable, a hand stretched out in greeting to the evil wizard. Merlin. Arthur's throat tightened unexpectedly; Merlin had never been particularly subtle when he was a servant, and he clearly wasn't now. They belonged to two different worlds, they always had, and Merlin was sending the message loud and clear — I stand with the wizard, not the knight. Arthur threw the thing aside, and bunched up the pillow under his head, trying to get comfortable, trying to stop the sudden tightness that stuck in his throat and burned at the back of his eyes. He pulled the fur cloak tighter around his shoulders, and closed his eyes, trying to recall in his imagination when he'd slept under fine linens, on a mattress of goosedown.
"Arthur!" said Lucan, when Arthur went into the kitchens the next night to fetch up Merlin's supper. Lucan was cheerfully pulling cakes from the oven, arranging them on an exquisite silver platter, flapping his hands a bit when they were still too hot to handle. "How are you? I barely see you anymore."
"I'm good," said Arthur, looking around. "Good, better than I was. You're not down here much either…?"
"I'm to be on the personal staff to the King," said Lucan, and he pulled a face that suggested he'd rather swallow slugs. "He wants me to bring his meals. And taste them. He's a strange man."
"What's the King's name?" asked Arthur, idly. "I've never known."
"And you never shall," said Lucan. "He believes in certain…powers that are granted with names. He believes that people can't reveal their true name, or a sufficiently evil sorcerer can gain power over them. That's why he made us all tell him our names."
"Is that why they call Merlin Emrys?" Arthur asked, and Lucan nodded.
"Emrys is like… a title," he said. "I think he's a bit scared of Merlin, because Merlin uses his real name and none of that lot do."
"Scared of Merlin?" asked Arthur. Lucan raised an eyebrow.
"He did come back from the dead," he said, completely straight faced. "Rumour is he's going to take the top spot in the tourney."
"No," said Arthur, as Lucan tossed him an imperfect cake. "Thanks. But no, Merlin's not competing in the tourney. Why would he bother?"
"For someone that used to be a nob, you're bloody clueless," said a voice from behind him, and Arthur turned to see Tilde. "Come here, you!" She hugged him tightly. "Arthur, you idiot, the only reason why Merlin has the free run of the castle is that he's supposedly the most powerful man in all the land. If he doesn't defend that…"
"…there'll be questions," said Lucan, nodding. "There's already questions about why the sorcerers aren't doing more to help."
"Help?" Arthur asked, as Lucan threw Tilde a cake. He bit into his own, blowing on it to cool it down.
"It's been a bad winter so far for bandits," said Tilde. "My cousin in the lower town reckons they're even making it into the city walls."
"Isn't that how the sorcerers got in?" Arthur said, through a mouthful of cake. Tilde shrugged.
"Only place that's not considering a curfew is Green Hills. Rumour is that there's a band of men out there who are protecting the town," she said. "At least somewhere's organised, hey? The butcher-boys reckon that's where our knights went when Camelot fell."
"Really," said Arthur, and his heart gave a little flutter. He'd hoped, hoped like crazy, that Gawain and Leon were all right. Having no word from them was disheartening; he supposed he'd have been told if they were caught, but there were plenty more ways for a man to vanish. "Tilde, could you do something for me?"
"Depends," she said, looking at him from under her lashes.
"Could you — next time you're talking to people in the market — could you find out if there are any names for the men at Green Hills?" he asked. Lucan laughed.
"Arthur, you're not going to try anything stupid, are you?" he asked. "I mean, the sorcerers flattened you once…"
"No," said Arthur, crossing his arms, huffy. "No, you idiot. I just want to know if they're all right."
"Oh," said Tilde, clasping her hands. "Oh Arthur."
"Shut up," he said, feeling a hot blush burn across his cheeks. "Please, Tilde."
"I'll find out for you, sweetheart," she said. "Lucan, cake me. I need to take these up to the ladies in their chambers. Some of us have to take care of more than one sorcerer, you know."
"Fine, fine," said Lucan. "I think we can count these to be officially tasted, yes?"
"Officially tast-y," said Arthur, finding a tray for Merlin's supper. "Where's Meg?"
"Her son's still sick," said Lucan. "I'm doing this so that she can bunk off for the evening."
"She hasn't gone to Gaius?" Arthur asked. Lucan nodded.
"She has, but it's not like — his stuff takes time," he said. "You'd think Them would just be able to snap their fingers and people'd get well again."
"Mmm," said Arthur, putting together the tray. "Thanks, Lucan."
He went up to Merlin's rooms to find them empty, the door hanging a little open, the fire dying down. Arthur rolled his eyes.
"You could've put another log on the fire before you left," he said, putting the tray on the table. "It's not like you don't know how a fire works." And oh, oh that wasn't a good thought. He was glad that Merlin hadn't been there in that moment. He put a log on the fire, shuffled through the ashes with the poker, and closed the door behind him. There were only a few places that Merlin could be, and Arthur could bet that he'd be in the most obvious one — the Library.
True to form, Merlin was closing the Library door behind him when Arthur arrived. "Arthur," said Merlin, a bright grin on his face when he saw Arthur. "I was just checking something."
"Your supper's upstairs," said Arthur, feeling warm all over at that smile, and Merlin nodded.
"Thank you," he said. "How's your cough?"
"Better," said Arthur, as they walked together. "I don't want to know what's in that potion you gave me for it, do I?"
"Hmm," Merlin replied, taking Arthur's arm as they shuffled out of the way of a retinue of the courtly ladies, the Sorceress behind them. "Probably best if you don't."
Merlin didn't let go of his arm as they continued, just curled his gloved fingers around Arthur's wrist, holding tight. Arthur could feel his own heart beating — wondered if Merlin could feel it thrumming through his body.
"Arthur," said Merlin. "I've been wondering…"
There was a squeal behind them. They turned as one to see the woman clustering around someone — someone on the floor. Oh. This. The Sorceress had crumpled elegantly, falling into a heap on the floor. Merlin dashed to her, and Arthur followed.
"Your excellency!" said one of the women, as Merlin knelt beside the sorceress. He waved her away.
"My lady!" said Merlin, and he looked up at Arthur, "Arthur, help."
Arthur didn't feel overly inclined to help, but he did to show willing. He wasn't sure if Merlin would get into trouble if his servant wasn't helpful, and he didn't really want to find out. Merlin very gently rolled the woman onto her side, checking her breathing, checking that she was all right. Arthur knelt on her other side, and she woke with a gasp. The ladies stepped back.
"Another vision?" asked Merlin, and he rested a hand on her shoulder. "Arthur, fetch the King; bring him to her ladyship's chambers."
Arthur will bloody well not, thought Arthur, as he got up to go and fetch the King. He sighed, inwardly.
"Arthur, to her chambers," Merlin called. "Hurry. He likes to know when there's another vision."
Everyone knew about the visions. They'd strike her at any time of the day — usually the times when she was surrounded by convenient arms to faint into — and they were ridiculously specific, often detailing down to the very decisions that the court was making at the time. Arthur suspected a rat. A big, fat, smelly rat that kept on dramatically fainting and having visions.
"Oh, Emrys," she cooed. "It was lucky that you were here."
"Oh Emrys," Arthur mouthed, as he trotted up the corridor. He could think of few things he wanted to do less than go and fetch the King and tell him that his mistress had just collapsed. He slowed as he reached the door to the King's — his father's — chambers, his stomach knotting up in anticipation of what might come. He hadn't been up here since — since long before the Castle had been overthrown. Too much had happened in the intervening time. He raised his hand to knock, and then lowered it again. No. He was stronger than this. He knocked again.
The door swung open. "Arthur?"
"Lucan!" he replied, relief flooding his body. "Is your master in?"
"I am indeed," said a rich voice from behind Lucan. "And, Arthur Pendragon, what is it that you want?"
"It's—" Arthur said, his tongue suddenly thick. "It's the Court Sorceress. There's been another vision. Mer—Emrys has taken her to her chambers."
"Very well," said the King. "I shall be there presently."
Lucan mouthed an apology as he shut the door, and Arthur leaned against the wall, his scalp cold with sweat, palms sticky. He shouldn't be afraid. He should not be afraid. He wiped his palms on his trousers, using the walk to the Sorceress's rooms to calm his racing heart, get his reactions under control again. The door was open when he got there — Merlin was clearly aware that being alone in a room with a lady (and possibly her maids) was not the situation that he wanted to be caught in. Arthur listened as he padded in.
"…there is nothing that the King can give me that he has not already," Merlin was saying. "And besides, it seems that this role — this place in history — must be taken by one not interested in monetary gain. It must be for the love of his King and country. I am not suitable."
"You do not love the King?" asked the Sorceress, and Arthur's throat tightened.
"I do not wish him ill," said Merlin. "I fear that I do not have the capacity for love; my heart was broken, my lady, and it was never mended."
Arthur twisted his fingers in his sleeves. Merlin had loved — loved and lost — and Arthur suddenly wanted to meet this woman, this girl who had been so foolish as to reject Merlin's love, and ask them why. He coughed, trying to alert Merlin to his presence.
"You will not reconsider?" the woman asked, her hand on Merlin's arm. "There will be no Albion without a great king and a great sorcerer."
"With all respect to the King, I am not to be that sorcerer," said Merlin, and then he looked up at Arthur. "Arthur. You did as I asked?" Arthur nodded. "Thank you."
"It was a pleasure," said Arthur, his tone dripping with sarcasm. Merlin shot him a brief, amused look, and then he patted the woman's arm.
"I would not be concerned about this vision, my lady," he said, as Arthur filled her goblet. "Sometimes, these things do not come to pass."
"You speak as if you know for certain," she said. Merlin glanced up, and quickly caught Arthur's eye before he looked away again.
"I do," he said. "I'm sorry."
There was a silhouette in the doorway; the King was there. "My love," he said, moving to sit beside her. "What did you see?"
"I saw…" she said, clutching his arm. "The duels. A great champion, one fighting for your glory, will rise; I don't know. I felt — felt that if he does not rise, then Camelot itself will fall again."
"That will not happen," said the King. "So. A great champion."
Arthur didn't like the way he looked at Merlin — predatory, strange.
Merlin shook his head. "Not all prophecies are true, my Lord," he said.
"You are known for your disdain for seers," said the King. "Do not let it blind you to what might be important."
"I'll write instructions for the maids," said Merlin. "Now that you're here, there is no need for me to stay. She will be fine — she just needs to sleep."
Merlin called forth a quill and paper from the air, and sat at the table. Arthur hovered, uncertain, by his shoulder. He still felt that faint cold thrill of fear whenever he saw the King — irrational, stupid. He didn't want to spend more time here than he needed to. The scratching of the quill on the paper was loud, louder even than the murmured conversation by the bed. From the corner of his eye, Arthur saw the Sorceress settling back against the pillows. He watched as the King moved to the side table, carefully and deliberately meeting Arthur's eyes with that black, hole-into-nothing gaze before he looked down at Merlin.
Merlin had his tongue out, between his teeth, concentrating. He finished with a flourish and a happy little huffing sound.
"You will be in attendance at the duelling, of course," said the Sorcerer-King, and Merlin looked up.
"I said no," he replied, his brow knotting. "Here's the instructions for keeping her well tonight. I'll be up tomorrow."
His shoulders had gone tight, the sense of accomplishment — something finished — abruptly fled. Arthur wanted to put a hand on his shoulder, soothe the tension away.
"I would have thought that you should desire to prove yourself," said the King. "Surely you don't want some upstart taking your place. Your rooms. Your…" he looked at Arthur again, "…things."
"Some things are not up for negotiation," said Merlin, and his eyes flashed golden, sudden and fierce. Arthur swallowed. He didn't like being a bargaining chip, particularly not one that was being used to secure petty points like this. Merlin was making a mistake, too — a beginner's mistake. You never let on what is important to you.
Unless, Arthur realised, there was no mistake, and Merlin was running an elaborate bluff. Arthur wasn't important — he really was just another thing that Merlin could swap and trade to help his standing. The thought was like ice water down his spine. Merlin had no home, no castle that had taken him in as court sorcerer. He'd come with barely more than Arthur's least traveling outfit — well, Arthur's old least traveling outfit — and he had little money, no title. The only thing he had was the name Emrys, and that seemed to be currency in this brave new world. He'd seemed to accrete things, though — new clothes had appeared, as if by (actually, probably indeed by) magic.
"Then I'll see you on the field," said the King. "I've called together the most powerful sorcerers in the land. It would be a shame if you were not represented."
"Sire," said Merlin, his voice low and angry. "As you wish."
Something was nagging at Arthur, something that Merlin had said a few days ago. As long as there are powerful sorcerers in Camelot, Arthur thought. The man was a genius. This would be how he'd win the country — he'd bring the sorcerers here, they'd fight to come here and prove that they were the best in the land, and there, skimming the magic like a cheesewright skimmed cream from milk, would be the King.
"Arthur," said Merlin. "I think we're done here."
Arthur followed Merlin without even a bow to the King and his mistress, striding after Merlin. He was glad that they were of a similar height — they could match each other step for step.
"What just happened then?" asked Arthur. Merlin made a growling noise in the back of his throat, glaring at Arthur. His eyes were bright gold.
"You're going to need to be ready for tomorrow," he said. "You're attending me on the field." He held out his hand, and the door to his chambers flew open.
"What?" Arthur asked, as Merlin walked in, the door slamming behind them.
"You heard me," he said, as a decanter on the table raised, pouring itself into a cup. Merlin held out his hand, and the cup flew into his grip. "You're attending me on the field."
Merlin walked to the window, practically glowing with rage. Arthur folded his arms. Right. Because Merlin's life was so hard, now that things had changed. Because Merlin's life was so bloody difficult.
"I'm going to have to fight," said Merlin, staring out of the window. There were bobbing balls of light illuminating the servants setting up for the tourney. "Dammit, Arthur. I'm going to have to fight."
"Don't look at me for advice," said Arthur. "I'm just one of your things."
"Don't you start," said Merlin, turning to stare at him.
"Yes, your excellency," said Arthur. "I'll bring my collar, shall I?"
"Arthur, just go," said Merlin, closing his eyes. "I'll see you tomorrow."
Arthur wanted to say something, but there was something in Merlin's stance that reminded him of long ago, long before this had ever started, ever happened. Merlin had this way of pulling his shoulders in, of pushing on despite all odds, despite any pain — Arthur had seen it when they'd marched together through the rain, had seen it when the dragon was set free, had seen it countless times. He didn't want to see it now, because he didn't know why Merlin needed to dig in.
He slunk back to his rooms without further comment, without further dragging himself into an impossible hole. Gaius had the door closed again — the man was a madman, or just needlessly cruel — and Arthur opened it, trying to let the warm air circulate. He wondered how Merlin had managed, as his breath fogged and his chest hurt. He took a swig from the bottle — the couple of drams that Merlin had said to take, and then he put it safely on the mantle, wrapping his old cloak around him gratefully as he curled up to go to sleep.
The duelling tents were set up like a tourney — the colours of the knights clear, their servants bringing food and water to the tents that flew the standards of the wizards. Arthur took in the sight, astonished. These weren't noblemen, and their symbols weren't noble. There were purple gryphons, a chimera, and one — a woman — had a unicorn picked out in silver on a background of blue. He hadn't know that there were so many sorcerers in all the land; not sorcerers with finery and servants, sorcerers of noble birth or newfound wealth. All the sorcerers who'd come to Camelot in the days of Uther had been poor, scraping things, hiding in the darkness and striking like wounded cats. These were peacocks, lions, people proud of their heritage. He went to Merlin's tent, ensuring that everything was set up just so as Merlin walked slowly down the hill. He was wearing all black again today, the red underbelly of his cloak flashing and fluttering in the breeze. Arthur felt his heart beat faster, his insides turn to liquid.
"Arthur," he said, fondly. "You came."
"Of course I came," Arthur replied, rolling his eyes. "I'm your servant, Merlin."
"Oh," said Merlin, and he sounded a little distant. "If that's what you want."
Arthur wanted to shake him. What I want, he thought, is to know where I stand with you. You light up like a candle when you see me here, and then two statements later it's like talking to a lump of ice. One of them has to be an act, and I'm really scared that it's the one where you actually like me. They trudged from Merlin's tent in silence, to the edge of the arena. People were already waiting, anticipatory.
"Merlin," said Arthur, as they walked. "I…good luck."
"It's not down to luck," said Merlin. "It's skill."
"Have skill, then," said Arthur, and in a fit of stupidity, he pulled out the little carving of a dragon that he'd found in the caves. "Here."
"What is it?" asked Merlin, looking at it. "A dragon?"
"For luck," said Arthur, desperately trying to pretend that he hadn't just given Merlin a token of his affection. "I found it in the caves under the castle."
"Do you know what it is?" asked Merlin. "I think it's a spell." He paused. "Thank you, Arthur."
"No problem," said Arthur, as Merlin left him, walking out onto the field. He wondered what Merlin had meant by naming the toy as a spell, but then the crowd were cheering and clamouring as the first opponent of Merlin's joined the field, too.
"Emrys of the North," said the Sorcerer-King, nodding at Merlin. "Are you prepared to fight Ceffred of the Vales?"
"I am," said Merlin.
"And Ceffred of the Vales, will you fight Emrys?" asked the King.
"I will," said Ceffred, looking for all the world like he was going to piss his pants. Merlin slipped a hand into his pocket, and smiled, turning to look at Arthur with a huge grin on his face.
"Then we shall begin!" the King announced, and Merlin took his place, his partner being awarded the ability to start the match.
The first shot was a bolt of magic that Merlin ducked. It whistled and crackled, burning off all the green when it hit the grass. If that had hit Merlin in the chest, Arthur got the feeling that he'd have been going to Merlin's second funeral. He couldn't help but watch Merlin — the graceful dance of the fight — and he couldn't help but feel frightened, afraid that Merlin wouldn't be quick enough to dodge, wouldn't be capable enough to fight off some random blast of magic from a mad sorcerer.
Trying not to watch the field, Arthur's gaze lit on the Sorcerer-King, who was sitting in Uther's old place on the dais. He was applauding Merlin's whirlwind (whirlwind, thought Arthur, Ealdor), his eyes dark black and his expression predatory. He was watching Merlin's young opponent — the boy who was valiantly calling up all manner of things, only to have them rebuffed by Merlin. There was a clash of sound, and a lightning bolt dashed down out of the blue. Arthur cried out as it wreathed Merlin in white-hot fire, but Merlin merely spread his arms wide and took it all, standing firm on the ground. Ceffred stepped back, arms held up protectively to shield his face and Arthur recognised that stance from tourneys and training — Merlin's opponent knew that he couldn't win. This was an unfair fight, had been since Merlin walked onto the ground. Merlin drew in his hands to himself, concentrating, head bowed, and then he let the lightning go.
There was a noise like the striking of some great bell, and then there were ripples of light emanating from Merlin's body, almost like the ripples from a rock dropped into a pond. His opponent fell, and as the wave passed over the crowd, shawls and hats were ruffled; hair blown back from faces. The ground rumbled, and even the birds fell silent.
Merlin looked up, and sound rushed back into the world. Ceffred was on the ground, yielding to Merlin.
The crowd applauded, and as Arthur saw Merlin give his opponent a hand up out of his peripheral vision, he saw the King watching Merlin intently. Almost — like he wanted Merlin. Anger swirling in his chest, Arthur walked out to the edge of the field, determined to get to Merlin before anyone else did. Merlin offered him a broad grin.
"Water?" he asked. Arthur nodded.
"In your tent," he said. "Come on."
They padded back to the tent, and Arthur noticed how stiffly Merlin was moving, how he was holding himself straight. He flopped onto a chair as soon as they were in the tent, and Arthur brought him a cup of water, watching him drink.
"He was watching you," said Arthur. "Like he wanted you to fail."
"The King?" Merlin asked, holding out the cup. Arthur refilled it from a waterskin.
"Yes, Merlin," he said, rolling his eyes a bit. "Who did you think I meant? I think he's annoyed that you refused his offer."
"There's only one person I'll serve," said Merlin, meeting Arthur's eyes. "And I'd do so—"
The tent flap opened, and Merlin was silent. There, in the doorway, was the Sorceress. Arthur swallowed, wondering how long she'd been there for.
"Well done," she said. "My king has told me to bring his congratulations."
"Then tell him I thank him," said Merlin, draining the cup again. "And that my answer is still no."
"Oh," she said, sitting beside him, stroking his arm. "I did not come to talk of that."
Arthur felt a brief, hot flash of jealousy — how dare she touch him — but he took the cup like a good servant should, and simmered in the background. Merlin stood.
"I am grateful, my lady," he said, opening the tent flap, a clear motion of it's time you left. "And your dreams?"
"It's odd," she said, tapping her lip with her finger. "I dreamed of Albion, one Albion, ruled from the seat of Camelot."
"I'm sure you did," said Merlin, stepping out into the sunlight. "And who held the throne?"
"I did not see," she said, stepping out beside him. The ground was being cleared by others, leveled with rakes to make the playing field fair. There'd be more rounds, lots more rounds, and Arthur could see the tents and standards filling the field, sorcerers determined that they'd be in for longer than the first round.
"Emyrs," said the Sorceress. "You fight under no standard."
Arthur looked — she was right. Merlin had no colours, no flags, just his normal robes, his normal cloak, his soft black gloves that Arthur ached to strip away from his fingers.
"Oh," said Merlin, surprised. "Should I?"
"It is customary," she said.
"Right," said Merlin, looking at the tent. "My standard."
He clicked his fingers and his eyes flashed gold, the tent changing colour, his standard unfurling by magic. There was a rustle of movement in the crowd, and people turned to look at the powerful Wizard of the North, see what flag he flew. Merlin flew a red flag, bordered by gold, a golden dragon twisting in the middle of it. Arthur stared. Merlin couldn't be more obvious if he was trying.
"You fly a strange flag, Emrys," said the Sorceress.
"No," said Merlin, his eyes gold. "It was a dragon who awoke me to my destiny; I am a dragonlord. Why would I not fly a flag of the dragon?"
"You are unaware of what it signifies, then?" she asked. "On this ground, this land?"
"I know what it used to signify, my lady," he replied, and Arthur dug his nails into his palm. "I do not believe that family exists anymore, do they?"
"You jest admirably," she said.
"I assure you, I do not jest," said Merlin, softly. "The Pendragon legacy is no more. Why should we not claim those symbols to which we are entitled?"
Arthur couldn't look at him. Didn't look at him. The Pendragon legacy is no more. Merlin was gone from the tent in an instant, his cloak billowing behind him. Arthur heard the sound of the crowd roaring approval as Merlin no doubt won again, but instead he sat with his back against the centre pole of what should have been his tent, hearing the fabric flap.
"What is it?" Merlin asked, as soon as he came back in. "You didn't come out for that, and I know you like tourneys."
"It's nice to know what you really think of me and my chances of reclaiming what I'd lost," said Arthur.
"God, you idiot," Merlin replied. "Arthur, do you really think I'm stupid enough to tell her that I'm flying the flag because that's where…Arthur, you idiot."
"You try my patience," Merlin snapped, flushing deep red.
"I try your patience?" Arthur asked.
"You are," said Merlin, crouching in front of Arthur, "the thickest man I have ever met. Do you really think that the people of Camelot are so fickle that they won't recognise the Pendragon standard?"
Arthur was sick of this, sick of the mixed messages. He wanted things to be clear again.
"Round Three, your honor!" called a man outside the tent. Merlin shot Arthur a helpless look.
"I have to go out there," he said, gently. "Are you coming with me?"
Arthur closed his eyes. "I don't want to see you fight under the standard that should be mine, win the tournament that should be mine. I'm not…I just can't."
He knew it was selfish — knew that Merlin had suffered under his reign, knew that Merlin had sublimated his desires for a long time, so long. Merlin sighed.
"Fine," he said. "I want a bath tonight, and I want my dinner in my room. Go and help Gaius — he'll have to have some poultices and things ready for when people come up from the dueling."
"Can't you just magic the injuries away?" asked Arthur, crossly.
"You get the injuries when you're too tired to magic anything," Merlin replied, shifting uncomfortably. "That's how you lose a duel, Arthur."
He turned, sweeping out of the tent to a clatter of rapturous applause. Arthur sighed. This was probably what Merlin had wanted all along — all those mysteriously easy victories, all those times when things had worked out as if by magic, and Merlin hadn't bowed, hadn't taken the credit. This was probably what Merlin had desired, being lauded, cheered, in the spotlight. There was a roar from outside as something happened, and Arthur stepped out, unable to resist a glance at the field before he turned back for the castle. He stopped, for a second, gobsmacked. Merlin had raised from the ground, cloak spread like wings as he called forth a lightning bolt onto the ground in front of his opponent. Arthur frowned. If he were duelling, he'd call down the lightning bolt onto his opponent, not beside them. The other sorcerer was thrown backwards by the force of the bolt, and Merlin lit on the ground again, standing over the unfortunate man.
"Well," said Arthur, mostly to himself. "You didn't hit him, but you won anyway."
Then he turned, and made his way back to the castle, resisting every urge within him to turn back and watch.
Gaius was doing a roaring trade in potions and poultices, just as Merlin had predicted. He looked utterly relieved to see Arthur, putting him to work immediately. Arthur patched burns, huge great blistered things. Something in him had been believing that a magical fireball was just like — a battering ram, or a punch, not a fire, not something that could really burn you. He held the salve bottle as Gaius pressed his fingers along the line of a young man's ribs.
"Yes," he said, shaking his head. "You've broken one. Do you know how to fix a bone?"
The man shook his head. "I'm only just learning," he said. "Thought it might help, doing the duel."
"Very little in life is helpful if we are not adequately prepared to meet its challenges," said Gaius, looking up and directly at Arthur. Arthur responded by squeezing the salve bottle a little vindictively, a huge glob of green blobbing out and onto the young man's burn. "Good, Arthur."
Arthur scowled, turning away. He didn't want to see gloopy green stuff massaged into a sticky burn. There were others waiting— a sorceress with no eyebrows, and an elderly sorcerer who looked like he had a broken arm. Arthur gingerly felt along the arm, felt the break, and he knew it would be a long day.
It took an hour to set the break properly — to drug the man, and then manipulate the bone. Gaius was not strong enough to drag it back into place, so Arthur did it, feeling the uncomfortable grate of bone on bone as he did so, trying not to think about Merlin down there on the tournament field. These injuries were rough; he could see Merlin, in his mind's eye, torn in half by a well-placed fireball. Arthur shivered.
Merlin returned at sundown, his eyes ringed with fatigue, a red burn-mark on his cheek.
"Merlin!" said Gaius, and he bustled, spreading preparation on the wound. "You look exhausted."
"I am exhausted," Merlin replied. "I went for six rounds."
"So you won, then," said Gaius, disapprovingly. "I told you to just throw it, my boy."
"I can't," said Merlin. "I can't, because then I'll no longer be the most powerful sorcerer in the land. I'd lose my claim to be here. I'd lose my claim to…to Arthur."
Arthur felt something hot and squirmy in his stomach, at that; he didn't want to belong to Merlin, to be property that could be claimed, but equally, he didn't want to belong to anyone but Merlin. Merlin looked at him from eyes dark with fatigue.
"Sorry," said Merlin, gently. "I don't…it's just the way they refer to it, yeah?"
Arthur snorted. "I'll believe that when I'm not carrying loads of your books, or turning down your bed."
Merlin sighed, but he didn't say anything to rebut Arthur. Instead, he started picking through the shelves.
"You were very successful, or so I'm led to believe," said Gaius, faux-cheerful, his warm smile devoid of any actual emotion.
"I've duelled before," said Merlin, picking up a bottle full of green liquid.
"When?" Arthur asked, incredulous. "You never duelled when you were my servant."
"As always, your grasp of the obvious astounds me," Merlin replied, rolling his eyes a little. "It's surprisingly common, out of Camelot. Like your knights and their tourneys — it's a way to prove your worth to a foreign king."
"And why were you trying to prove your worth?" Arthur demanded.
"Because I needed to eat," said Merlin, picking up a purple bottle. "I'll replace these when I have time, Gaius."
Gauis smiled, folding his hands around Merlin's. "Take them, Merlin. We wouldn't have any of the one that stops bruises if you hadn't made it."
"Oh," said Merlin, picking up a blue bottle. "Arthur. This is for you. Have you used up the other?"
Arthur had, because it stopped his chest feeling like it was going to explode. He took the bottle gratefully.
"Why me?" he asked. Merlin shrugged.
"I think I'm going to turn in," he said, stretching.
Arthur swallowed. He'd have to reply to Merlin's carelessly thoughtful gesture — a night without his lungs aching was like a night between silk sheets — with a disappointment.
"I…I didn't have time to draw you a bath," said Arthur.
When he was prince, if Merlin had tried that one on, he'd have clipped Merlin over the ear and told him to go and get it done. Instead, Merlin looked at him wearily.
"Tomorrow, then," he said. "I'll…see you all tomorrow."
He looked small, for a few seconds, his shoulders slumped with exhaustion, but when he caught Arthur looking, Merlin straightened up and smiled. Gaius shook his head.
"You're doing too much," he said. "Go and get some sleep, my lad."
He took Merlin's shoulders, and Merlin nodded, hugging Gaius tightly. "You're the only one who would call me that, these days," he said. "You get some sleep, too. We've got a few more days of this garbage."
"I shall, Merlin," he said, and let Merlin go. Merlin looked at Arthur.
"Goodnight," he said. Arthur nodded.
He sort of wanted to run after Merlin, chase him down and find out how he'd fared in the duels, and if he had any injuries, and if not hitting the boy with the lightning bolt had been deliberate, or some sort of crazy strategy. Gaius cleared his throat.
"Merlin might have been fooled," said Gaius, "but I'm not. Clean up before bedtime."
Arthur was going to complain — was about to complain — when he realised how pale Gaius was. It had been a long day for more than just Arthur. He washed out the empty bottles, his hands red with the lye that Gaius used to clean things, and then lined them up to dry as Gaius swept up the remaining herbs, looking sadly at his depleted supplies.
"We'll have a busy day or two replacing that lot," said Arthur, with what he hoped was good cheer. Gaius, filthy rotten traitor Gaius, did what he could for who he could, no matter their lot or choices in life. He couldn't help but respect that, even just a little. It seemed less fearful, now, and more honourable. What could Arthur hope for, now, except to help people?
"Best get some sleep," said Gaius, and Arthur nodded. "What's this?"
"Uh?" Arthur asked. Gaius picked up a wooden disc from the floor. The old wooden toy. It must have fallen from his pocket; he'd forgotten that he'd even put it in there, this morning, to remind him whenever Merlin got too chummy that Merlin had sent a completely clear message. "Oh, that's mine. It's…old."
Gaius twirled the laces.
"Clever," he said, looking over the top of the spinning disc. "Alone, the good wizard can't defeat the evil sorcerer, but with the knight…they're invincible. A team; a wizard and a knight."
"What?" Arthur asked. A wizard and a knight, like the stick-men, like the statues. He swallowed.
"This belongs to you, doesn't it?" Gaius asked. Arthur nodded. "What did you think it meant?"
"I don't know," Arthur said, reaching out and stopping the disc between Gaius's hands. Gaius let it go, and Arthur looked at both sides, twisting the laces and then letting it spin. There. There was the picture, flickering, wavering, but painfully obvious now — the good wizard, hand outstretched, standing alongside the knight, blasting magic to defeat the evil wizard. Arthur felt like an idiot.
"Two different sides…" he said, as the disc swung to a halt, "but when we stand together…"
Merlin had left him the cloak. Merlin had made him potions, and had looked at him with sad eyes, and had said that it was Arthur that killed their destiny; not the fire, not Uther, not anything but Arthur. Merlin had flown his standard. Oh god, Arthur thought, I really am the thickest man in the entire world.
"I have to go," said Arthur, pulling on his boots and running upstairs, uncaring that it was the middle of the night, that Merlin had gone to bed early, because he had to see Merlin, had to see him right now. He ran through the quiet corridors, past flickering torches and plush tapestries, the Castle bedded down early against the cold, all eager to see the duel on the morrow.
He paused outside Merlin's room. It had been his own room, once, and Arthur knew the trick to the lock, knew that it was a little faulty and that pressing hard against the door could open it, even if it were snibbed on the inside. He pressed, and the door creaked open slowly. He stood, then, and darkness filled the space in front of him. Merlin hadn't been lying — he'd genuinely wanted an early night.
Arthur padded into the room, locking the door behind him, bright moonlight illuminating his way. Merlin had cast off his clothes onto the floor, no sense of order in it, just got undressed and presumably then crawled into bed. Arthur felt a faint stab of guilt at that, at the fact that he'd not drawn a bath for Merlin when his own favourite thing after a match was a hot bath to melt the tension from his muscles. He approached the bed, cautiously, quietly.
Merlin was asleep, curled tightly under the covers, one hand on top of the blankets. Arthur stared. He could see the blanket through Merlin's hand; he could see the weave, the texture, the colour muted a little but still entirely visible. Merlin's hand was invisible…his entire arm was invisible, well, mostly invisible. Merlin stirred, and looked at Arthur, and then flinched, visibly, his eyes widening in horror. He stuffed his hand under the blankets.
"Arthur," said Merlin, his voice cracking a little.
"Merlin," Arthur replied, sitting on the bed. Merlin sat up, and Arthur quested under the blanket to see if he could find Merlin's fingers. "What happened? Is it from the duel? Did one of them get you with a spell?"
"No!" Merlin said, and Arthur took his hand under the covers. It was so cold, ice cold. Cold like the grave. "No, nothing like that. It's sort of the result of the duel. I think. But it's not a new thing."
"Make sense, Merlin," said Arthur, drawing Merlin's hand out, looking at it. Where he drew his thumb in a slow sweep across the back of Merlin's hand, there were little sparks of gold that followed it, like wavelets in the wake of a boat. Merlin sighed.
"When I…woke up, I was like this," he said, not meeting Arthur's eyes. "I mean…yeah. I thought I was a ghost at first, but sometimes I'm completely…me. Solid. So…I don't know."
"Is that why you wear the gloves?" Arthur asked. "You feel solid enough."
"I didn't mean for you to see it," said Merlin, quietly. "I suppose I'll just fade away, eventually. Just becoming air, like I should be."
"You shouldn't be just air," Arthur replied. Merlin shrugged.
"I died," he said. "I'm dead."
"You're here, though," said Arthur, squeezing his hand. "That means you're not dead. When does it happen? Is it something we can prevent?"
"It's worst when I use my magic too much," said Merlin. "Best I can work out is that when I burned, my body burned but my magic didn't. Magic doesn't burn. That's why dragons don't set themselves alight; why phoenix birds don't burn."
Arthur looked at Merlin's hand. Merlin's now-entirely-visible hand. He couldn't see the faint outline of his fingers through Merlin's anymore; there were no more tiny golden sparks skittering across Merlin's palm. Arthur stared.
"Does that mean every sorcerer that my father burned has come back like you?" he asked, horror creeping up his spine, making the hairs stand on end.
"I don't think so," Merlin replied. "I think…my magic was so much a part of me that it's…like blood."
Arthur was smart enough to pick up a hint when it was dropped. "You didn't learn it? It was just there?"
"Always," said Merlin. "I was learning to control it."
"Does it hurt?" he asked. "The magic vanishing around you? Is that why they called you?"
"They don't know," said Merlin. "They learned, most of them. Some have natural, wild talent, but it's unpolished. They don't know how to feel when someone else is so raw with magic that it burns."
"And you do?" Arthur asked. Merlin looked away.
"What did you come up here for, Arthur?" Merlin asked. "I'm pretty sure that watching me sleep isn't on your list of duties."
"I…" Arthur felt stupid, admitting it, but he sighed. "I didn't realise what you meant. With the toy. I thought you were telling me we were only and ever on two different sides."
"Oh," Merlin said, and he pressed his hand to Arthur's cheek. "You idiot."
"Yeah," Arthur said, rubbing his cheek against Merlin's hand. "Though could you be any more enigmatic, you prat?"
"Doubtful," Merlin replied, leaning forward and pressing his lips to Arthur's. He pulled back almost right away, and Arthur leaned forward, kissing him again. "Arthur."
"Do you want...?" asked Arthur, running his fingers across Merlin's neck, giving him the chance to pull back.
"I do," Merlin said, between kisses. "Oh, I do."
Arthur climbed onto the bed, leaning over Merlin. "Me too," he said. He kissed Merlin, slow and soft, and Merlin took his face in both cold, pale hands.
"Arthur," Merlin said, into his mouth, and Arthur let Merlin kiss him. "If I weren't about to fall asleep, I'd...mmm."
Arthur laughed, quietly. "Merlin, you idiot."
"I'm not the one who took his time working it out," said Merlin, tucking Arthur's hair behind his ear. "Stay."
Arthur toed his boots off, so that he could keep kissing Merlin, kept kissing even as Merlin unlaced his shirt, but eventually Merlin stopped, letting Arthur clamber under the covers. He wrapped himself around Merlin, tight and warm.
"Sorry," Merlin mumbled. "Timing."
"Is terrible," Arthur agreed, nuzzling the soft skin below Merlin's ear.
"You're so warm," Merlin said, with a little sigh. Arthur held him close, staying awake until Merlin's breathing evened out and he slept, and then Arthur closed his eyes, and let himself drift off.
Arthur woke, tangled around Merlin. They'd not really -- well, not really shared more than a few shy kisses -- but then Merlin had told him to stay and he had, curled up close. It was warm and the quilt was soft, and the hot press of Merlin's skin against his own was delightful.
"Oh no," said Merlin, as soon as he opened his eyes, which as far as morning conversation went, was pretty dire. Arthur wriggled, offended. "Not you…I like having you here. Just…oh no. It can't be morning."
"I used to be unable to sleep the night before a tourney," Athur said, partly to encourage the filthy look that Merlin had just given him.
"I can't win," said Merlin, rolling over and huddling against Arthur's side. "I'm not strong enough from yesterday. You do it."
"I would, except I think I'd be destroyed by the first fireball," Arthur replied, pressing his fingers against Merlin's ribcage. Merlin snuggled a bit, and Arthur kissed his forehead.
"I wouldn't let you be destroyed," Merlin said, comfortably. "'m good at that."
They lay in comfortable silence, still half-asleep, Merlin's head resting on Arthur's shoulder, Arthur's hand lazily running over Merlin's side. It was only when the first bells rang to summon the castle servants to breakfast that Arthur sighed and wriggled out from under Merlin. Merlin sat up as Arthur dressed.
"I'll go via Gaius's rooms," said Arthur. "He'll be up and making potions, I bet."
Merlin nodded, and Arthur realised that Merlin was entirely visible again, from the tips of his fingers to the dusting of dark hair on his chest. Arthur sat back on the bed, and leaned in for a kiss; Merlin immediately pulled his hands up to cradle Arthur's face as he slipped his tongue into Arthur's mouth, wet and satisfying.
"Go," said Merlin, when they parted. "They'll wonder where you are."
Arthur practically skipped downstairs, only stopping when he realised that he must look like a complete pillock, bouncing along with a grin on his face. The kitchens were quiet — Meg was subdued and tired, and when he asked, she told him that her son was still sick. She didn't seem to notice Arthur's good mood, but Gaius certainly did.
"I gather you stayed with Merlin last night," he said, with a wry, knowing smile.
"It's warmer up there," said Arthur, and then realised what that might imply, and went bright pink. "I mean…"
"Relax, Arthur," said Gaius, putting a hand on his shoulder. "I trust that you and Merlin know exactly what you're doing."
"I…" Arthur said, and then he realised that Gaius thought they were plotting, or something. "Yes. Yes, we do."
"Good lad," said Gaius, squeezing his shoulder. "I'll let you take Merlin's breakfast up before it gets cold."
"Oh," said Arthur, taking a few steps backward to the door. "Gaius?"
"Yes, Arthur?" Gaius took off his eyeglasses, looking up at him with a faint look of exasperation. "What now?"
"It's…Meg in the kitchens," said Arthur, frowning. "I know you're busy, but her son is sick…I was wondering if…" He didn't know how to ask. It wasn't really like he had anything to offer Gaius, not anymore. "If you'd be interested in helping her?"
"Does she know that you've asked me?" asked Gaius.
"Erm, no?" Arthur hazarded, wondering if he should have lied and said yes.
"All right," said Gaius. "Give me a day or so, and get upstairs before Merlin's breakfast gets cold."
Arthur almost felt like humming as he walked back up to Merlin's rooms. Merlin had got up in the meantime, dressed himself (which was a bit of a shame, Arthur felt, as he'd been looking forward to smoothing the black leather and silk of Merlin's preferred shirt down the long, pale line of Merlin's torso), and was watching the preparation for the dueling from the window. He turned to look at Arthur and grinned a broad, brilliant smile.
"It might be a little cold," said Arthur, and Merlin waved a hand over the tray.
"Not anymore," he said. "Did you get anything?"
"Not yet," said Arthur, and Merlin sighed, cutting up the bread, allotting it equally.
"Sit," he said.
"You don't have to…" Arthur replied, acutely aware of how he'd treated Merlin, back when Merlin had been Arthur's servant.
"Arthur, you seem to be continually operating under the idea that I do anything because I have to," said Merlin, pushing a plate across the table. "I am the most powerful sorcerer in the land. If I do something, it's because I want to."
"Oh," said Arthur, sitting. "Good." He was starving. Merlin sighed.
"Okay, well, that's mostly true," he said, and Arthur felt his heart fall.
"You don't do things because you want to?"
"I'm…if I over-stretch myself, I'm failing," said Merlin. "It's happening more and more. It's not like the way that others are losing theirs. It's more like I have a certain amount I can use in a day, and once that's gone, that's it."
"That's…not good," said Arthur, taking a mouthful of bread. Oh ye gods it tasted good. He'd never appreciated good food so much before it had become a luxury.
"If it…if something goes wrong," said Merlin, cracking the top off an egg. "If something happens out there on the field, bring me back here."
"What sort of something?" asked Arthur, warily. "I mean, are we talking explosions? Burns?"
"If I start to vanish," Merlin said, "or if I'm injured. I don't do too well with magical injuries. I'll need you to protect me if I'm injured."
"And what can I do?" Arthur asked, because out of the hierarchy of the castle, he was definitely down on the lower rungs, now.
"Be as officious as you can," said Merlin. "You're good at being an officious prat."
"Oi," Arthur grumbled, but Merlin slid his ankle along Arthur's, rubbing their feet together under the table. They'd fallen together so easily, as if all they'd needed was one good push. Merlin wasn't wearing his gloves this morning; he wasn't afraid of Arthur seeing his secrets, seeing him fade away.
There was a knock at the door. Merlin flinched a little, pulling away, and Arthur got up to answer it. There was another servant there — Bill, the man who'd replaced Leon and Gawain in the armory — and he bowed to Arthur.
"If it pleases your master, we're starting in half an hour," said Bill. "I'm told to rouse all of the participants."
"Thank you," said Arthur, and as the door closed, he realised that he'd thought of Bill as another servant; one of his equals. He swallowed. "We need to get down to the field."
"Gloves," said Merlin, wiping his hands clean. Arthur found the gloves beside the bed, and instead of letting Merlin put them on, slid them over Merlin's hands himself, sliding his fingertips over the curve of each of Merlin's fingers, tracing his palm. Merlin flexed his hands.
"Come on," said Arthur. "Let's win you a tourney."
It was warm inside the tents, the smell of the canvas filling the little space with a sense of nostalgia; Arthur remembered his first tourneys, where he'd been allowed to squire and he'd fetched water and sharpened swords, watching the men with interest bordering on obsession. His father had indulged him — hadn't made him climb up onto the gilded chairs to watch the men fight. Instead, Arthur had been where it smelled of canvas and sweat, learning about tactics and swordplay.
Merlin was bouncing on the balls of his feet, his eyes shifting from gold to amber to copper and never once back to normal. Arthur supposed that this was the equivalent of stretching, rolling a sword between your hands, making a few practice lunges. Merlin looked at him.
"I've forgotten something," he said, with a frown. "Arthur?"
Arthur looked around. There were no shields in a wizard's duel, no swords, just the man and his power. About the only thing that the wizards did have was a…
"Your standard," said Arthur. "You're not flying a standard."
Merlin waved a hand, and everything inside the tent changed--even the insignia on Arthur's own tabard. Arthur shook his head.
"You're mad," he said. "They'll work it out."
"Let them," said Merlin, flush with his power. Arthur wondered what it felt like to practically glow with magic. "I'm tired of this secrecy."
"You're drunk on your magic," said Arthur, and Merlin smiled.
Merlin leaned in, kissing Arthur. As he did so, Arthur could feel Merlin's magic bubbling so near to the surface that he could taste it; it was like that first mouthful of a good wine, heating him from the inside, making him feel golden as the tension from his shoulders melted away. He didn't want to let Merlin go, digging his fingers into Merlin's upper arms, grabbing at him. Merlin finished the kiss with a final soft press of lips to Arthur's, and he pulled away.
"Thanks," he said. The crowd was chanting, the tabor beating. Merlin would have to go out there.
"They're calling you," said Arthur, letting go reluctantly.
"Arthur," said Merlin, turning back for a few bright seconds before he walked out onto the field. "You do understand now, don't you? You are my king. You have always been my king."
And then he was gone, faster than Arthur could respond; Arthur could only dash to the tentflap and watch Merlin walk onto the field, the crowd applauding him even before he'd done anything. There were only a few battles today — Merlin would advance through the final three rounds, if all went well. Arthur didn't want to think about what he'd do if all went badly.
He watched the field, the beautiful sorceress who Merlin was facing down. She was the woman with the unicorn standard, and Arthur hoped for Merlin's sake that the battle was over quickly.
She was good. Arthur watched in horror as she called up the ground under Merlin's feet, shoving him high, higher into the air; threw down a handful of seeds that turned into vines that wrapped around his arms and legs, crowding him with leaves. The leaves burned brightly as Merlin destroyed them; he stepped off the high, disturbed ground as if he were going down gentle stairs. Merlin had barely raised a sweat; he hadn't even tried to hit her with anything. Arthur was reminded of an inexperienced swordsman coming up against a tried and battle-hardened knight — there were no flourishes in Merlin's responses, no wasted effort. He called the wind into being, a swirling column of dust and glass that cut a line across the ground and then picked the sorceress up, surrounding her in a prison made of air. She broke through, and the winds died back.
"Is that the best you've got?" she sneered. Merlin laughed.
"I don't want to hurt you," he said.
"You can't come near to me," she said. "You can't touch me."
Merlin smiled. "I don't need to," he said. "You can't hit me if you can't catch me."
He left the ground without any further ado, cloak spread like wings but moving fast, faster than any bird could fly. She chased him even more quickly, the shapes of their bodies getting smaller, smaller, until they were like birds, then like specks, and then — nothing. Arthur held his breath. It was a long way to fall, if one was going to fall, and where he'd been expecting drama and thunder and noises from high in the sky, he didn't see anything.
"Look!" yelled someone in the stands, and then people were up on their feet, eyes shielded against the glare of the sun, watching as the specks became the size of birds, and one was falling; a limp body tumbling from on high. Arthur's heart beat so loudly that he thought the people on the field must be able to hear it, thought it was shaking his whole body — please let it not be Merlin, let it be the woman — but that was no good, either, because she'd be destroyed hitting the ground at that speed.
The specks moved together at speed, both of them merging into one, both of them slowing down until the fall was gentle, and blurry figures resolved into Merlin and the woman, Merlin holding the woman in his arms. They sank gracefully to the ground, both of their hair and clothes rimed with ice that was rapidly melting with the heat of their skin. Merlin looked up.
"Assistance!" he called, and Arthur moved to the field, as did the woman's servant. She was pale, wringing her hands, kneeling by her mistress.
"Is she dead?" asked the servant, her bottom lip trembling.
"No," said Merlin. "She'll be all right. It's just — cold up there. Very cold."
People were cheering and clapping, and the woman opened her eyes, shivering as warmth flooded through her body again.
"Damn," she said. "Melusine, help me up."
"It is an honourable defeat," said Merlin, shaking her hand. "I have never yet met anyone who flew as high as you did."
"Except for you," said the woman. Merlin shrugged. "Good luck in the other rounds. You'd better win, if you beat me."
"I will," he said, with a little smile. "So you can say you nearly had me."
Merlin helped her up, and together they bowed for the audience before retiring to their tents. Merlin's ice wasn't melting as quickly as the woman's had, and once they were in private, Arthur brushed it off his shoulders, dusted it out of his hair.
"How did you do that?" Arthur asked, pressing Merlin's icy hands between his own. "So it's cold, up there in the sky?"
"I can't die from the cold," said Merlin, leaning forward to press his nose against Arthur's neck. "I like to be warm, though."
Arthur wrapped both arms around Merlin, holding him close and warm. "It's an…interesting tactic."
"Dragons do it," said Merlin, as Arthur hugged him. "The big old ones don't ice up as easy, and it's a way to conserve their breath; the bigger they are, the longer their recovery time. They'll fly very high, or swim very low, if they live in the sea, and let their opponent's pride do it for them."
"I thought," said Arthur, as the last of the ice in Merlin's hair melted, "that there were no dragons anymore."
"There's different kinds," said Merlin. "Your father killed all of the ones on the mainland, but there's other dragons; some of them are as small as cats, and others as big as castles. They just don't come here."
"Seems anyone with any sense avoids Camelot," said Arthur, pressing his cheek to Merlin's. Merlin snuggled a little, but then pulled away.
"Someone's coming," he said. There was a rustle at the tent-flap, and Lucan stood there, holding it back.
"Rise," he said, clearing his throat, not even looking into the tent. "Rise for the King."
Arthur stood behind Merlin, as the King entered, nodding that Lucan should guard the door. The flap closed, and Arthur stepped back into the shadows.
"Emrys," said the King, glancing at Arthur instead of Merlin. "Have you not dueled before? Here we are rapidly approaching the last match of the tournament, and you have yet to land a blow."
"I haven't needed to," said Merlin, calmly. "I've defeated every opponent without any problems; why do I need to hit them to do it?"
"Because you're perverting the course of the tourney," said the King. "If you refuse to fight properly, you dishonour the people competing."
"I'm not refusing," said Merlin. "Or perverting. I'm fighting in the way that I prefer. My final opponent — who are they? Will it be the Lady Andromeda? Or the boy who won his fights yesterday? Either way, would you have me harm them?"
"It is the boy," said the King. "He bested the Lady in combat. In combat."
"And I shall best him," said Merlin. "But I won't try to hurt him."
The King stepped in, putting a hand on Merlin's shoulder, squeezing hard. Merlin looked coldly at him.
"You will fight. Properly," said the King, "or else the boy will be dishonoured. Give him the satisfaction of losing in a fair competition, rather than a battle where only you can win."
"No," said Merlin.
"Or I shall take that servant of yours," said the King. "I shall take him, and he will be mine."
He swept out in a grand gesture of sweeping cape, the crowd outside roaring, Merlin left looking at the doorway in helpless fury.
"Merlin," said Arthur. "It's an empty threat; I'm not a cape, or a hunting dog. I still have my own free will." Merlin said nothing. "Besides, you're making a basic mistake."
"What?" asked Merlin, his voice low. "Come on, Arthur, tell me what basic mistake I'm making?"
"You never let on what's important to you," said Arthur, taking a step towards Merlin. Merlin gave him a frown in return, but then his expression softened.
"I will never tell anyone that you are unimportant," he said. "Even if it takes the last of my power to protect you. If that's a mistake, then I'll be mistaken."
Arthur took another step forward, meeting Merlin for a brief, soft kiss. Merlin's lips were cold, his cheek icy under Arthur's fingers. Arthur sighed, and leaned his forehead against Merlin's.
"I just want you to be careful," he said. "I can't lose you, either."
Outside, there was the sound of the tabor and pipes, and Merlin smiled. "You won't," he said, and then pulled away, exiting the tent with a dramatic swirl of cape and canvas. Arthur followed, watching the pomp as the final was announced. Merlin's opponent was young — probably the same age as Gawain — under his heavy velvet cloak and expensive clothing. He looked more frightened than confident; hardly surprising, with the crowd cheering for Merlin, and Merlin so tall and fine as he walked across the field to shake hands. The pair exchanged a few quiet words before they pulled back, and the bell was struck for the duel.
Arthur realised that there would be no messing around with trickery this time when the boy threw a fireball at Merlin.
Merlin was more agile than Arthur had thought, diving out of the way and jumping up to reply in kind. The boy threw himself flat, and the fireball roiled over the top of him, burning the feather off his hat. This time he threw a line of fire, that Merlin easily avoided, and Merlin threw back hoops and rings. Arthur frowned. What were they doing? It was almost like children playing at a game, testing each other's strength, neither pushing hard enough to hurt the other. He looked at the King; the King was whispering something to the Sorceress, his expression thunderous. The crowd was starting to laugh, starting to take it as sport. Merlin was the one who broke the game, throwing a fireball that hit the boy, throwing him backwards and onto the grass. He got up, casting a line of light at Merlin. Merlin caught it around his wrist like a whip, tearing it free, where it dissipated into the air. He was about to cast something back, when the boy drew his hands together and threw a massive gout of fire right at Merlin.
The fireball hit Merlin full in the chest, the flames licking at his face, at his arms, at everything he was made out of. Arthur was on his feet before he'd even realised he'd stood, ready to run, ready to save Merlin from this new threat. Merlin staggered backwards, a few halting steps.
"Merlin!" Arthur gasped, but Merlin had already straightened, and he threw a fireball with such force that it knocked the other wizard to the ground, his body crumpling like a doll. Merlin drew in a swift breath.
"Oh no," he said, running to the young wizard. "I didn't hurt you, did I? You just…I was just…"
Before Arthur could step in and tell Merlin that this was not how one acted in a duel, Merlin was at the boy's side, checking his breathing, feeling for broken ribs. Arthur stared, caught between desire and laughter — Merlin, the idiot, helping a man he was supposed to have bested in a duel — but this was his Merlin, his Merlin who sulked about unicorns and desperately tried to save orphaned animals. It was comforting, in a way, to know that his Merlin was still there under the cape and gloves, under the strangely ashen hair and molten eyes.
"Arthur, get some water!" Merlin commanded, and Arthur did what he was told without thinking, without questioning; just handed Merlin a wooden cup. He was aware that they were a spectacle, that people were watching from the stands with interest. Merlin, intentionally or not, would win this battle not on the strength of his magic, but on the strength of himself. The wizard stirred.
"What…" he said, and then looked up at Merlin, eyes widening in horror. "You're not going to kill me, are you?"
"Oh, hush," said Merlin. "Drink this. It's water. I'm going to check you for burns."
"Ow," said the young wizard, when Merlin's fingers pressed against his ribs.
"I'm so sorry," Merlin said, babbling. "I thought you could hold it off."
"I thought I could, too."
Merlin helped him to his feet, and Arthur realised as they stood that the crowd was completely silent. So Merlin had been testing the boy's strength — making sure that the fireball wouldn't kill him.
"I don't think that's how duels are supposed to work," said Arthur, as they helped the boy to his tent. "I'm relatively sure that one of you is meant to stand over the other one once he's been vanquished, shaking your fists and making thunder come out of cloudless sky."
"Ow," said the boy, as Merlin helped him sit.
"I can do that. Thunder's not hard," said Merlin, passing a hand over the boy's chest. "I don't think this was your fault. I think this was the magic going."
"No," said the boy, suddenly pale. "No…my magic can't go. It can't."
"I'm sorry," said Merlin, and his eyes flashed gold, the burned skin glowing under his hand. "There's nothing I can do."
"It can't," said the boy. "It…it happened to one of my friends." He looked at Merlin, eyes wild. "You know what it would be like. You know."
Merlin crouched in front of him, taking both of his hands. "Listen," he said. "Listen. I gave my word that I'd find out the cause of this, and I will. I will."
Arthur watched, as Merlin comforted his opponent. It was extraordinary, and so much like Merlin of old that it made Arthur's heart sing. The moment was broken when the tentflap was shoved aside, and Lucan stood there.
"Rise for the King," he said, and Arthur almost didn't recognise him. He rose, and Merlin helped the boy up, and the three of them stood as the King and the Sorceress strode into the tent.
"You will be at the feast tonight, to claim your prize," said the King, to Merlin. "Although I am surprised that you are not in your own tent."
"I did as you asked," said Merlin. "I aimed to hit him, and because my power is so great, I did what I feared and I hurt him. It is the honourable thing to do, my lord, to help one who is hurt through your own carelessness to recover."
"What is your name, boy?" asked the King, turning away from Merlin.
"Perceval," said the boy, and Arthur caught Merlin's wince. Ah. Names that gave power.
"And are you, indeed, hurt?"
"Not anymore," he said. "Emrys helped me."
The Sorceress turned to Merlin, her smile condescending. "Why, Emrys," she said. "I fear that you really don't have much idea how a successful duel is accomplished, my sweet boy."
"I knocked him down," said Merlin, brusquely. "I think that's success."
The King put his hand on Perceval's cheek. "Perceval," he said, and perhaps it was Arthur's imagination, but his voice sounded sinister, more menacing than it usually did. "Perceval, I see that you shall go on to great things."
"T-thankyou, Sire," said Perceval.
"I will make you one of my first knights," said the King. "And you shall wear my standard."
"Your standard," said Perceval, as if that were the most wonderful thing in the world. The King drew his thumb over Perceval's cheek, and Perceval inhaled sharply, swaying a little on his feet. "I feel…dizzy, Sire."
"Just the after-effect of the battle," said the King. Arthur looked at Merlin's face; if Merlin's dark looks could kill, the King would be long dead. Perceval sat, his face suddenly chalk-white.
"Your standard is the snake, is it not?" Merlin asked, turning to the King. "Why?"
"It's an ancient family tradition," said the King. "The image of the snake is inherited along with other…talents."
"Seems to me," said Merlin, "that snakes aren't much trot until they've gone and sat in the sun. All that power, soaking into their scaly bodies, before they can move for the day."
Arthur looked at Merlin. There was something going on here, something between Merlin and the King that passed over the top of this seemingly innocuous conversation.
"Snakes are often venomous," said the King. Arthur's hand went, almost reflexively, to the scar on his arm where he'd been bitten by the great snake. "You should be wary around them, even if they seem slow to strike at first."
"Yes," said Merlin, "we should be vigilant. Arthur, come on. Time to go."
Arthur got up, having only the most minimal idea of what had just happened. Merlin wasn't usually this rude to the King — this rude about the King, certainly, but very rarely to his face. Arthur gave Merlin a little bow, and then strode after him, trying to keep up. People wanted to see Merlin, wanted to speak with him, but Merlin kept his head down, ignoring the people that called out "Emrys!" and, disturbingly, "Did you take him out of the public eye to kill him?" When they got back to Merlin's own tent, Merlin paced and Arthur tried to catch him.
"Merlin," he said, grabbing for Merlin's arm. "Merlin. Stop."
"The King just took the last of that boy's magic," said Merlin, still pacing. "He took the last of it and I'm not powerful enough to stop him."
"What?" Arthur asked. "How do you know?"
"I can feel it," snapped Merlin. "And I don't know why he doesn't just take mine."
"Maybe he thought that he could disguise taking it under the magic going anyway?" asked Arthur. "Wait, what if the magic going is linked to him? He's the one causing it to go?"
"Do you think I haven't thought of that?" Merlin asked. "No, it's not. He's not that powerful; it doesn't make sense."
"Maybe he doesn't want yours because he wants someone to fight for him?" asked Arthur. "You won. Aren't you happy about winning?"
"You don't understand," said Merlin. "This isn't about winning. Perceval defeated seven of the best sorcerers in the land before he came up against me; he was clearly powerful. It's getting worse, Arthur, and it's getting worse in proximity to me. It's not just the King taking from people. It can't be. There has to be something else happening."
Arthur sighed, sitting on the little camp stool. "Well, I don't know, then."
"I don't expect you to," said Merlin, softening. "It's just…frustrating."
The tent flap opened, and Arthur shut up. Playing the dutiful servant was easier, now, much easier.
"Merlin!" called a familiar voice, and a man appeared in the doorway. "Merlin!"
Arthur peered around Merlin, and he saw Gawain. His heart leapt — Gawain, beaming at Merlin. Merlin looked at Gawain, and his dour expression cracked into a brilliant grin. "Sir Gawain!"
Gawain paused. "It's true, then," he said, before hugging Merlin. "Everyone in Green Hills has been saying it, but you know how people talk."
"I do," said Merlin, patting Gawain's back. "I do. So what are you doing here, then?"
"No-one notices me," said Gawain. "I'm here to deliver a message." He pulled out a somewhat creased letter from his pocket, and handed it to Merlin. "I was told to give it to Lucan, but I thought that since you're here…and that was bloody brilliant, Merlin. I didn't know sorcering could be like that."
Merlin cracked the seal on the envelope, as Arthur got up.
"What, no hello for me?" he asked. All the blood seemed to drain from Gawain's face in one go.
"Arthur," he said, and he bowed his head. "They said you were dead."
"Who said I was dead?" asked Arthur, irritable. "If it was Tilde, she's a bloody liar. Come here, Gawain." He pulled Gawain into a rough hug, patting his back.
"No," said Gawain, his shoulders shaking. He clung to Arthur, as if he didn't quite believe Arthur was real. "Everyone. The…the King made a proclamation."
Arthur turned to Merlin. "Did you know about this?" he asked, and Merlin shook his head.
"I spent the week after I came here sitting at your bedside, under the pretense that I was re-training you," he said, with an easy shrug. "It would explain a few things, like why no-one tried to attack the castle on your behalf."
"I think we should perhaps go on a trip into the near woods to survey the lay of the land," said Arthur, quickly. "I mean, who knows if that's where the magic is leaking out from?"
Merlin caught his eye, and nodded. "You're right," he said. "We should go right away. I mean, poor Perceval came from the village beyond the woods, did he not?"
"I believe he did," said Arthur, lips quirking into a smile, putting a fraternal arm around Gawain's shoulders. "So, sir knight. Lead the way."
They waited until they were a good few miles from Camelot before they started to talk. Arthur was itching with curiosity, desperate to know what had happened in Green Hills — was Gwen all right? Leon? Lancelot? Had Tilde asking about them tipped them off that there were still friends in Camelot?
"So you escaped, then," said Arthur, once they were in deep cover. Gawain nodded.
"Leon said we couldn't stay — that we had to find Lancelot and then work out what to do as a united front."
"And you did?" Arthur asked, nimbly hopping over a fallen log, offering his hand to Merlin. Merlin gave him a soft look.
"I can climb over logs without injuring myself," he said, but took Arthur's hand anyway.
"Fine. I'll stop being chivalrous," said Arthur, and Merlin laughed.
"We did find them," said Gawain, offering them a brief smile. "There's a few people out there — Leon, and Balin, and…um, Gwen."
Arthur wasn't sure about the tone with which Gawain had said Gwen. "What happened?" he asked.
"What do you mean?"
"Gwen," said Arthur. "You paused before you said her name. What happened to Gwen?"
"Oh," said Gawain. "Nothing bad. Nothing — um — you know how she fancies Lancelot?"
"We do now," said Merlin, and Arthur shrugged.
"People change," he said. "They might think that their first love is their only love, but then things can happen and you find someone who just — fits. The other side to your coin."
The trees were thinning out, giving them a little more light; Arthur remembered from when he used to hunt in these woods that there was a big clearing here. The men had called it a fairy grove, but he'd never seen anything particularly magical about it. It'd be a good place to stop and work out plans.
"Gawain," said Merlin. "Tomorrow. Do you know the lake where the white flowers grow? Up on the mountain?"
"Yes," said Gawain. "I used to go up there with—um. Yes. I do know it."
"See that everyone comes there on Thursday," said Merlin, as Arthur looked forward to the clearing. "In the morning, just past sunrise. There's something I want to—"
"Stop," said Arthur, holding up a hand. "There's someone in the clearing up ahead. Go quietly."
They crept, then, and Arthur noticed how much better at moving silently through rough terrain Gawain had become. He wondered how much Gawain had learned in his time as an outlaw knight. Merlin stuck close to Arthur, both of them approaching the clearing carefully. The figure wasn't moving much; it was sat on a boulder, rocking itself slowly.
"Oh no," said Merlin, his voice barely a whisper. "Arthur."
The figure in the clearing wasn't menacing, or even dangerous-looking. It was small and hunched and snivelling, alone in the woods. Arthur recognised the boy from the dueling with a start. He was crying in earnest, now, great hacking sobs that made his whole body shake.
"Oh," said Merlin, softly, and he stepped out into the clearing before Arthur could stop him. "Hello?"
The boy — Perceval — flinched, and then looked up. Arthur felt sorry for him, perched on a rock in the middle of the forest, all on his own.
"H-has he sent you to make sure I'm gone?" asked Perceval.
Merlin shook his head. "We're looking for unicorns," he said. "Sure sign that there's trouble with the magic, unicorns acting strangely."
Perceval looked at him like he was some sort of idiot, and then broke into a round of fresh sobs. Merlin sat next to him, putting a fraternal arm around his shoulder.
"Tell me what the problem is," he said, and Arthur recognised that tone of voice. It was Merlin's voice for when Arthur was exhausted from jousting and just wanted a bath, or when he'd spent the day in meetings with the high council and he was so bored he'd rather eat a corner off the table than listen to another speech. Arthur didn't hear it very much anymore; he felt a twinge of nostalgia as Merlin folded Perceval into a hug.
"He said—he said I could be one of the first knights," Perceval hiccoughed, "but then I didn't have my m-magic, and they told me to—to—"
"There," said Merlin, as Perceval sobbed into his shoulder. "You'll be all right. You'll be all right."
"How can you say that?" wept Perceval. "I'll…I don't have my magic. I can't even go home! The shame would be— "
"I told you," said Merlin. "I'm going to work this out. And in the meantime, you can join me in looking for the source."
"Don't," said Perceval, with a hearty sniff.
"What?" asked Arthur. "Researching not good enough for you?"
"Don't you know what happens when you lose your magic?" asked Perceval. "They make you go. Or they make you…you…like him! Just a servant!" He pointed at Arthur. Arthur felt vaguely affronted, but a pointed glare from Merlin said not now without saying any words. Perceval took one look at Arthur and burst into a fresh round of sobs.
"They what?" Merlin asked, still patting Perceval. "Arthur, is this true?"
"Didn't you know?" Arthur asked, and he was about to berate Merlin for having his head in the clouds, but he remembered then all of the things that he hadn't known, like how disgusting it was to prepare a pig to be roasted, or how much it hurt doing the bath run after a long day. How poor the people who tended to the castle really were. Besides which, Merlin looked so horrified by the thought that Arthur thought he'd learned his lesson, if there was a lesson to learn.
"I can get you back in," said Merlin. "If I request you…"
"My lord," said Perceval, bright red and still sticky with tears. "People would talk."
"Erm," said Gawain. "Can I…I mean, may I say something?"
They all looked at him. He was a little timid, true, but beneath that, Arthur could see the making of a great knight in him. He cleared his throat.
"He could come with me to Green Hills," said Gawain. "There's work there, and we can teach him to handle a sword, even if his magic doesn't come back." He paused, frowning. "Come back right away, I mean."
"Good idea. Gawain, take him to Green Hills," said Merlin. "Tell Lancelot that I ask that he is treated kindly."
"And me," said Arthur. "I ask that too."
Perceval looked at Arthur as if it was almost an affront, that Arthur would ask for anything. Arthur sighed, remembering his place at court. Once demoted, never the same again — and very few of the new arrivals looked long enough at the servants to realise that one of them was their rightful king. He felt Merlin shift a little so that his back was against Arthur's legs, and Arthur was happy with that, satisfied. Gawain was much stronger than the boy, if anything funny happened on the road.
"My lord," said Perceval. "When you are king, don't forget me."
Merlin chuckled. "I won't be king," he said.
"They're saying—they're saying that you'll take over. Because he didn't compete in the duels. Because he's—" Perceval floundered. Merlin shook his head.
"I don't want to be king," he said. "There is a true king in hiding in the kingdom, and it is my destiny to bring him to his throne."
"A true king?" asked Perceval. "Like, some little baby who'll grow up into greatness?" A baby, Arthur thought. Right.
"Something like that," said Merlin. "But if we don't work out the cause of the problems with the magic, then that will be it for all of us." He looked troubled, and Arthur realised how much the magic was worrying him. He wondered how much Merlin would be able to feel — would he feel things change around him, or was he immune? "Gawain. Do you remember the message for Lancelot and your brother?"
"Thursday. The lake," said Gawain. Merlin nodded.
"Bring Perceval," he said, and Arthur wanted to shake Merlin. He seemed to have the self-preservation instinct of a moth, sometimes; there was every chance that the King would using Perceval to spy on them. "If you go now, you'll be home before nightfall. Do you have enough money?"
"Plenty," said Gawain. "We — we've been working to fight the bandits, but with no legitimate authority in Camelot, there's nowhere for the spoils to go except in the service of the Prince. Since he's not there, we've been spending it as we needed to. Gwen takes care of it."
"Gwen?" asked Arthur, unable to stop himself.
"She's the daughter of a blacksmith. She knows a good sword, and she ran his household since she was a little girl," said Gawain, loyally. "You should've seen when Lancelot tried to buy a sword in the marketplace on his own."
"Oh," said Merlin, and he grinned hugely. "I'd've liked to see that."
"And you shall, I hope," said Gawain. "Thursday."
"Thursday," Merlin echoed. Gawain bowed to him in obeisance, and then knelt before Arthur.
"My lord," he said, reverent. "Seeing you alive is like spring after a long winter."
It was a flowery statement, certainly, but heartfelt, and Arthur crouched to take Gawain's shoulder.
"The feeling is mutual," he said. "Tell your brother and the others that I miss them."
"I shall," said Gawain, as Perceval bowed low to Merlin, a fine show of deference. Gawain hugged Arthur quickly, impulsively, and then pulled away. "Say farewell, Perceval — we have many miles to cover before nightfall."
"Good bye," said Perceval, looking a little stunned as Gawain led him into the forest, climbing over boulders and down an almost-invisible path. They vanished into the thick undergrowth, and Arthur and Merlin turned to return to Camelot.
"You think that Perceval was telling the truth?" asked Arthur, and Merlin sighed.
"I think it's very likely, yes," he said, and he reached out for Arthur's hand. "He's young. And as much as I hate to say it, even if he's a spy for the King, the others will be watching him all the time. They're not idiots; the second Gawain explains who he is, Gwen and Lancelot will make sure he's watched."
"Don't tell me you spent time with them when you were…" Arthur swallowed, "away?"
"I wish," Merlin replied, slipping a little as he climbed over one of the larger rocks. Arthur steadied him by catching him around the waist, and then dragged Merlin so that their chests touched, settling against each other. Merlin smiled at him.
"I think you're right," said Arthur. "He's too obvious to be a spy; he kept looking back at us when they were moving through the trees."
"You noticed that too?" Merlin said, tilting his head a little.
"It was hard not to," Arthur replied, with a smile. It was tempting to just stay here in the forest, set up home in a cave and never worry about anything but hunting and each other. Merlin pressed his palms against Arthur's back.
"I seem to be missing something, Arthur," he said.
"Tell me what it is, and I'll get it for you," swore Arthur, even though it was a ridiculous promise. Merlin chuckled, and Arthur felt the laugh reverberate in his chest.
"I seem to recall that I won today," said Merlin. "Isn't that worth a kiss?"
"Oh yes," said Arthur, his mouth close to Merlin's. They kissed, unhurried, lips giving way to tongue and fingers curling in each other's hair, Arthur's broad palm tracing a warm path from Merlin's neck to the small of his back, as Merlin gasped a little into Arthur's mouth. "That I can do."
The sun was low in the sky when they got back to Camelot, and Merlin and Arthur ducked through the corridors that were least-used, trying to avoid well-wishers and hangers-on. Merlin led the way, and Arthur was somewhat surprised when a disused staircase brought them up right near Gaius's chambers; it seemed he knew the secret passages, but not all of the old servant's routes.
"I'm moving Arthur up to my chambers," said Merlin, without ceremony, as he walked through to Arthur's room. Gaius hopped up and followed them into Arthur's room — Merlin's old room. Merlin turned to Gaius. "I used to keep it warm enough in here with magic, but it's too cold for him."
"He told you this?" asked Gauis, as Arthur flashed Gaius a helpless look.
"Of course he didn't," Merlin said. "He's far too manly and heroic to admit to basically freezing to death each night. He's showing up in the mornings blue with cold, and it takes him half an hour to warm up enough to cramp."
Arthur felt his face get hot; he hadn't realised that he was quite so obvious. Merlin ignored him, sweeping into his room, starting to gather things.
"Merlin," said Gaius. "What happened at the duel? No-one seems to know whether you forfeited or whether you won."
"He did both," said Arthur, as Merlin rummaged through his things. "Hey, leave that alone!"
"Arthur, if I'm going to make it to the feast, then you'll need some help," said Merlin, an amused expression on his face. "This room is a disaster area."
"It's all right," said Arthur. "I know where everything is."
"I think I'll leave you to it," Gaius said, with a heavy sigh. "I'll see you at the feast, Merlin." He backed out, clearly avoiding getting roped into cleaning the place up.
"How can someone with almost no possessions have made such a mess?" Merlin asked. "Give me that bag."
He waved his hands over the bag, eyes flashing, and then sat down abruptly on the edge of the bed. Gaius raised his eyebrows.
"Everything all right?" he asked. Merlin nodded.
"Yeah. Just — the day catching up with me," he said. "Arthur, you grab that pile, and I'll look for things over here."
"Will they all fit?" Arthur asked, looking dubiously at the bag. Merlin nodded, picking up Morgana's old toy from Arthur's pillow. It felt like a lifetime ago that he'd last been here, but things were moving with that same flashing speed that had accompanied the takeover of Camelot; that had accompanied Merlin's death. At least this was bringing him happiness, a sort of warm happiness that curled in his chest and threatened to burst out in a ridiculous and soppy declaration every time he looked at Merlin. Instead, Arthur busied himself picking up the bits of paper and mismatched clothes he'd scrounged for himself, putting them into the bag and trying to avoid thinking about what Merlin might find over by the bed.
"Arthur?" asked Merlin, checking under the bed. "What is this?"
"Erm," Arthur said. "I don't know. Possibly food? What are you looking at?"
"Possibly food? No wonder you got sick."
"I'm not good at cleaning. Never had to before," said Arthur, crossly, as Merlin got flat on his stomach and wriggled under the bed. "What are you doing?"
"There's something under here," Merlin said. "Something really, really interesting."
Arthur failed to see what could be interesting under there — perhaps an old pair of socks — but he humoured Merlin for old times' sake. Merlin hummed to himself, dragging something out, an expression of triumph on his face. Arthur stared. It was the bead that he'd found in the caverns, only it wasn't really a bead anymore. It was about the size of a large pumpkin, and Merlin lifted it in both hands. Somewhere in the depths of it, power swirled.
"What is that?" Arthur asked.
Merlin sighed. "That, my idiot, is what I was asking you," he said.
"Not an idiot," said Arthur, crossly.
"But mine?" Merlin asked, arching an eyebrow.
"Of course," Arthur replied, just as crossly. "It's a bead. I found it…I found it in the caverns. Where I thought they'd dumped your…your…you."
"That's where they did dump me," said Merlin, frowning at the bead. "It's enormous. A bead?"
"When I found it, it was the size of a bead," Arthur replied, resting his chin on Merlin's shoulder so that he could get a good look at the bead. Merlin nodded.
"All right. We need to get it out of here, in any case," he said, passing it to Arthur. "I'll need to study it, but I think it's what we're looking for."
"Add it to the bag," sighed Arthur, putting it in on top of his things. He'd once had whole wardrobes, trunks of fine clothes and warm blankets, but now he had only a little. Merlin hadn't needed to make the bag bigger on the inside, really. Although Arthur had a tendency to let his clothes lie where they fell, he had so few that it wasn't really a problem. He gave Merlin a hand up, and together they went out into Gaius's rooms.
"Can I look through these?" asked Merlin, walking to the shelf of teetering books and scrolls. Gaius waved a hand.
"Feel free," he said. "If there's anything of use, there…"
"There is," said Merlin. He opened a book. "Ah. Maybe not this one, though."
Arthur sat, clutching a bundle that represented the entirety of his own worldly possessions right now, as Merlin went through the books, making two piles. One was considerably smaller than the other, and eventually Merlin picked up a book from the smallest pile.
"The rest are ruined," he said. "Only these remain untainted. The rest might be useful as kindling."
"Ah," said Gaius. "Useful to know."
He stroked a hand across the cover of one, gently. Merlin nodded.
"I'll take this one. It's — it's my old book. From when I started."
"You had your magic book here in Camelot?" Arthur asked. "Good grief, you actually do have a death wish. I'm going to be sharing a room with someone who has an active death wish."
"You get to carry it," said Merlin, passing it to Arthur. "See you tonight, Gaius."
Arthur bumped Merlin's shoulder with his own on their way back to the rooms. Merlin nudged him back.
"That's cruelty to servants," said Arthur.
"I'm allowed to be cruel when servants are clumsy," said Merlin, as Arthur dug his elbow into Merlin's ribs.
"And who told you that?" asked Arthur.
"A very wise man," Merlin replied, pushing back as good as Arthur was giving, "who also happens to be an enormous prat."
Arthur laughed, and Merlin grinned back, and they practically tumbled in the door of his chambers together, Arthur kicking the door shut behind him as he walked Merlin backwards to the bed. They didn't touch yet; Arthur dropped the magical bag onto the thick rug, pushing Merlin back onto the velvet of the bedspread so that he could lean over Merlin. He marveled at how Merlin seemed so thin and delicate from a distance, yet up close, Merlin's build was well-proportioned, not wiry, his hands firm and strong where he grasped Arthur's shoulders, holding him close enough that their noses and breath touched, Merlin's fingers pleasure-painful where they bit into Arthur's arm.
"Thank you," said Arthur.
"My pleasure," said Merlin, his voice rough. "Arthur, please…"
There was a knock at the door. Merlin closed his eyes, flopping his head back against the mattress. Arthur sighed.
"You have to let me go if I'm going to answer that," said Arthur.
"You could stay here," said Merlin, with an affectionate squeeze. "Okay. Go on."
It was Lucan. He was wearing the livery of the King, and he stood stiff, like someone had tied strings to each joint, like a marionette. Arthur could have killed him right then, because he was a little aroused and a lot in need of some time alone with Merlin.
"The King demands your immediate presence, my lord Emrys," said Lucan.
"Demands?" Arthur asked. "That's a little rude, isn't it?"
"Immediately," said Lucan.
"What is it about?" Merlin asked, from behind Arthur.
"I cannot tell you, my lord," said Lucan. "Only that you are to come right away."
He turned on his heel without even so much as a by-your-leave, and left down the corridor. Merlin looked at Arthur. Arthur shrugged.
"We may as well see what he wants," he said, and Merlin nodded.
"That we may," he said.
Arthur pulled the bead from his bag before they left. He weighed it in his hands; it was heavier than a helmet or a vegetable. It felt like it should be too heavy to hold, but at the same time it was easy to handle.
"It's more like an egg, isn't it?" he said. "Not a bead."
Merlin shivered. "Ugh, don't say that," he said. "I don't even want to think about what sort of thing comes out of an egg like that."
Arthur hid it in the garderobe, because no-one went in there if they could possibly help it at all. He shoved it under a spare cloak, and then followed Merlin downstairs to the King's receiving room. Sometimes his own castle felt like a foreign land; the receiving room had once been the domain of his father, complete with the rich red draperies of the household. Now the King had redecorated, keeping the old weapons and tapestries, but magically replacing dragons with serpents and rich red with black and gold. Instead of one of the knights, it was Lucan who minded the door, and Arthur stood awkwardly nearby him. It didn't take a genius to work out that something was wrong with Lucan; that he wasn't the same man who had passed Arthur cakes in the kitchens.
The King was waiting for Merlin, sitting at the table, tapping impatient fingers against the wood top. Merlin stood, waiting to be asked to sit, but he didn't bow.
"You summoned me," said Merlin.
"I did," said the King. "I need a sorcerer."
"What about Perceval?" Merlin asked, still standing. "He is a sorcerer, is he not?"
"He has lost his magic," said the King. "So he is useless to me. And besides, I need your…expertise."
"Expertise?" Merlin asked, as Arthur clenched his fists at the casual way the King flicked the boy aside from the conversation. "In what?"
The King leaned back in his chair. "My beloved tells me that you know of the wisdom of dragons."
Arthur nearly snorted — wisdom! — but Merlin nodded.
"I have spoken with them," he said. "I am the son of Balinor, and my power comes from that line."
"Ha," said the King, "perhaps that is then why Pendragon follows you around as if you placed the sun in the sky."
Merlin glanced at Arthur. "It's a name," he said. "If Arthur were a dragon, I think we'd all know by now. What was it that you wanted to know?"
"Prophecy," he said. "Dragons…interpret prophecies, do they not?"
"I've known dragons to make predictions," said Merlin, doubtfully. "I'm not sure about the interpretation. Is this something that you have had interpreted, or you want to have interpreted?"
The King put a piece of paper in front of Merlin. It was covered in tiny, cramped handwriting, some words bigger than others. Arthur looked at it as he pretended to adjust Merlin's collar. There, in the cramped writing, were the words YOU WILL BE KING IN CAMELOT, and there, bigger than the rest EMRYS and then THE KING IN CAMELOT WILL UNITE ALBION. He stared. Merlin was linked to the King in Camelot? Merlin tapped his fingers against the table.
"I…" he said. "This is not recent, but it hasn't vanished. That means it's…true." He looked up at the King. "What sense did you make of it? Did you get it from a dragon?"
"I…asked a dragon what it meant," said the King. Merlin's eyes went gold, bright gold, and his expression dark. "The Great Dragon. The last of its kind."
"Kilgarrah," he said, hoarsely. Arthur wanted to put a soothing hand on his shoulder, rub the tension from his bones. "Beware, then. He is a trickster, and will tell you false just because he likes to laugh at humans."
"You've had dealings with him, then?" said the King, sitting forward.
Merlin laughed. "He has lied to me," he said, bitterly. "He told me of things that have never come to pass."
"I thought that a dragon couldn't lie to a dragonlord," said the King. Merlin shrugged.
"He broke his promises to me," he said. "I call that lying."
"When?" asked the King.
"He used to reside here in Camelot," said Merlin. "Many months have passed since that was the case." He paused, chewing on his lip. "Did he seem — angry?"
"He is the one who said that Pendragon must be allowed to live until Emrys came to Camelot," said the King. "That once Emrys was in Camelot, it would not matter what happened to Pendragon. You owe him that much — your best beloved servant."
Merlin nodded, the insult sliding off his shoulders. "And he undoubtedly had a reason for that," he said, calmly. "I will need some time to interpret this work."
"I will wait," said the King. Arthur swore under his breath. He had questions to ask Merlin — questions that needed to be answered now, right now, because they were desperately important.
"It will help if I know where it is from," said Merlin.
"The Sorceress," said the King. "She is a powerful seer, but sometimes she is not permitted to see all of the truths in her visions."
"I understand," said Merlin. "It is not unusual, if that is any consolation."
"Just work it out," said the King.
"You should leave," Lucan said, abruptly. "It is dusk, and I must ready my lord for the feast."
Arthur looked at Lucan — royal servants didn't decide when visitors came and went — but the King was nodding and gesturing for them to go.
"I shall see you tonight, then," said Merlin.
"Yes," said the King. "You will speak of this to no-one."
"I understand," said Merlin, picking up the prophecy. "Arthur, door."
Merlin led the way out with smooth arrogance, waiting until they got back to his room to toss the prophecy on the table and then throw himself onto the bed.
"I could feel him snuffling around my aura," said Merlin, as Arthur shut and locked the door. "Arthur, this changes everything."
"What, a prophecy?" asked Arthur, moving a chair in front of the door for good measure. "Why?"
"It hasn't melted, but it's magical," said Merlin. "That means it's true. I have to work out what it says…" He sighed, frustrated. "If he'd shown me this before! And why is he only showing it to me now?"
"Maybe it's to convince you to take his side," said Arthur, looking at the pages. They made little more sense than they had in the quick glance. "Maybe they just made them up then, and they're entirely non-magical?"
"No," said Merlin. "I can feel it. It's powerful." He propped himself up on his elbows. "What's wrong?"
"Nothing," Arthur lied, tracing the words EMRYS WILL COME FOR PENDRAGON.
"Really," Merlin said, "you'd think you'd've got better at lying to me."
"Am I alive by accident?" Arthur asked, shifting from foot to foot. "The King said that I was bait, didn't he? That once you were in Camelot, it didn't matter what happened to me?"
The idea was somewhat galling — that he'd prepared all his life to become the king, but that he was expendable once he'd been bait to lure in Merlin.
Merlin laughed. "It doesn't matter," he said, "because nothing they do can touch you whilst I'm here. I wonder what the old worm is playing at?" He sat up, and Arthur frowned. "Arthur. Believe me when I tell you that you are important."
Merlin held out both arms to Arthur and Arthur moved to him, letting himself get drawn into a tight embrace. Merlin tucked their legs together, tangled around each other like vines on the velvet. Merlin closed his eyes.
"I'm sorry," he said, sleepily. "I do care."
"I know," Arthur replied. "Rest, and I'll wake you for the feast."
"Thank you," Merlin replied, and he pressed his lips to Arthur's. "You're a lifesaver."
Merlin tripped, on the way back up the stairs from the feast. It had been interminably boring, full of men making grand speeches and people currying favour with Merlin, hoping in turn to gain the favour of the King, unable to see how tired and bored Merlin was. Merlin stumbled again, and Arthur caught his arm. Merlin let Arthur steady him.
"How bad is it?" Arthur asked. Merlin pulled aside his collar, and Arthur could see clear through his neck.
Merlin leaned against him. "I think I'm going."
"No," said Arthur. "I'm not going to let that happen. I lost you once; I'm not losing you again."
"I'm not sure any of us get a say in it," Merlin replied, and his voice was hoarse with the effort of speech. Arthur shifted, slipped his arm around Merlin's waist to hold him upright. He would've carried Merlin, lifted him in his arms like a child, but Merlin would probably murder him if he even tried. They made it back to Merlin's room, and Arthur pulled the heavy key from around Merlin's neck, unlocking the door and pushing it open before them. Merlin made for the bed as soon as they were inside the room, wrapping the blankets around himself.
"I'm so cold," Merlin said, and Arthur nodded. Right, then. There was a pattern to this; Merlin got colder as he faded, curling into cloaks, wrapping himself in a nest of blankets. If he could get Merlin warm again, then perhaps the idiot wouldn't fade out and into the air.
Merlin's eyes were closed, and he was shivering. He looked the picture of misery, sitting on the bed, curled into a little ball.
"Get out of your clothes," Arthur said. "I'm going to draw you a bath, and you're going to sit in it and get warm. All right?"
"All right," Merlin agreed, muffled by the blankets. Arthur nodded, despite the fact that Merlin couldn't see him, and he made it to the door before a horrible thought struck him.
"Merlin?" he asked. Merlin stuck his head out of his blanket coccoon.
"You're not…you're not going to…" He stammered a bit, returning to the bed because it was easy to say these things in close quarters, where he could almost-whisper. "Merlin, you're not going to leave me if I go and get water, are you?"
He sat on the bed, and Merlin reached out from under the blanket with cold hands to clasp Arthur's. Arthur closed his eyes, feeling Merlin let go momentarily, his hands relocating to Arthur's cheeks, guiding their mouths together. Merlin's lips were cold, too cold, but he tasted familiar, and his skin heated under Arthur's touch.
"No," said Merlin, punctuating with kisses. "I'm not going to leave you. Not if I can help it."
"Good," Arthur said, one last, lingering press of lips before he got up again. He left Merlin curled under the covers as he went downstairs, moving quickly, not wanting to return and find the cocoon of blankets hollow, Merlin gone again. He saw Lucan, and the boy came and joined him, voice low. He was sniffing out gossip; Arthur didn't mind. He'd always ignored gossip when he was in power, always had to — he'd never understood that the grease that kept the wheels of the house running smoothly was rumour and innuendo. He wasn't above using it to his advantage, either. Arthur was nothing if not capable of preserving himself.
"What're you doing?" asked Tilde, when Arthur walked past her to fill buckets from the copper.
"Merlin wants a bath," said Arthur, shrugging. "I obey."
"I heard Merlin stopped the fight," said Tilde. "He was going to win, but he stopped it because he didn't want to hurt Cheesewick."
"Cheesewick's not a very good name for a sorcerer," said Arthur, frowning. Perceval Cheesewick. Not exactly a knightly name. "I'd go with Ravenfeather, or Thundernight."
"You're avoiding my question," said Tilde.
"You didn't phrase it as a question," said Arthur, handing her a pail. "Help me carry this." She nodded, picking up another pail.
"So?" she asked, trotting to keep up. "Did he?"
"Yes," said Arthur. "He stopped the fight, because he'd hurt the poor boy enough already. He felt bad about it."
"I'm looking forward to when Merlin's the King," said Tilde, cheerfully. "He's scary, but he's nice about it. I've never heard of a future king yielding in a tourney before."
"It wasn't a…" said Arthur, and then the implications of that sentence sunk in. "You think he's going to be the king."
"Well," said Tilde, "he's the only one whose magic isn't firing off at random. Sort of makes sense. And then you'll be the servant to the king."
"That's not really a comforting thought, you know," said Arthur, crossly. The water was heavy — when he'd been prince, he'd had the knights lug water buckets to help their strength.
"Sorry," said Tilde, cheerfully, not sounding sorry in the least. "But you've got to like him, don't you? He likes you."
"What?" Arthur asked.
"Well, it's pretty obvious," said Tilde. "I wouldn't put up with you, if you were my servant. You're all…you don't like to do anything."
"I do a lot!" Arthur said, indignant.
"Yeah," said Tilde, meaning completely the opposite. Arthur sighed.
"You're an idiot," he said, taking the stairs two at a time. Tilde followed, the water in her buckets sloshing about.
"Wait," she said.
Arthur stopped, putting his own buckets down. "What?"
"Arthur," said Tilde, quietly, resting her buckets against the step and pulling something from her apron pocket. "I was…I was supposed to give you this, earlier, but I didn't catch you at dinner. I hope it's not too late."
She handed Arthur a crushed letter, sweaty from her pocket and his palms. Arthur took it, recognising the seal. Leon. He took the letter, cracking the wax seal with his thumbnail.
Thursday. We'll be there.
Leon's hand was careful, steady, the hand of a man who did not write much, and wanted to get it right when he did. Arthur nodded at the page, and Tilde grinned.
"Tell me you didn't break the seal," said Arthur, shaking his head.
"I…didn't," said Tilde, completely unconvincingly. "I know why you don't think Merlin will be king."
"I'd happily serve Merlin," Arthur snapped. "I'd serve him until the day I die."
To prove the point, he grabbed the buckets and charged up the stairs — this would be a bad conversation, nothing he wanted to get involved with. It wasn't until he reached the doorway that the weight of what he'd said hit him, and he had to lean against the stones. This was his kingdom — Arthur's kingdom — but he was willing to give it over to another. The thought made his spine twitch.
"There," said Tilde, when she finally caught, up, panting as she put her buckets in the doorway. "That'll be enough, for the small bath, once the others get up here."
"Others?" Arthur asked. Tilde shrugged, effectively conveying I took some liberties and asked the others in one small gesture. And Arthur could hear conversation drifting up the stairs. He sagged a little with relief. He'd not been looking forward to the trek up and down to get buckets of water.
"You're a good man," said Tilde. "You're a lousy servant, but you try. People want to help you, Arthur. If Merlin can seize power, then things will get better in Camelot."
"I don't think Merlin sees himself as a revolutionary," Arthur tried. Tilde shrugged again, turning to go back downstairs.
"It's not so much what he sees himself. It's what he is," she said, as the others arrived, setting buckets outside the door. Arthur lugged them inside and set the water to heat, reserving some lest the bath be too hot. Eventually, he filled the bath one bucket at a time, trying not to disturb Merlin. Merlin hadn't moved since Arthur had left. Arthur exhaled a long breath, relieved to see him still sleeping there, but worried at the stillness of Merlin's body, the complete disregard for the outside world. Arthur realised — too late, he supposed; he was a dreadful manservant — that Merlin was still wearing his boots.
"Merlin," he said, touching Merlin's shoulder. "Merlin, I've just warmed the water. Sit up for me."
Merlin mumbled something, but he obediently tried to sit. Obedience was another bad sign — Arthur was extremely unaccustomed to Merlin being obedient about anything. He helped Merlin to sit, his legs dangling over the side of the bed, and then he knelt, unlacing Merlin's right boot.
Merlin shook his head. "No, no, you're not my servant…"
"I'm taking off your boots because I'm your friend," Arthur replied. "Stop wriggling."
"'M not…" Merlin mumbled, and Arthur pulled his boot off, starting on the next one.
"They think you're going to be the next king," said Arthur.
"Not…" Merlin muttered. "Too tired to be king."
Arthur chuckled, then, and he helped Merlin up, divesting him of shirt and trousers, letting him lean heavily against Arthur as he did so. Arthur's hands trembled as he pulled off Merlin's undershirt. Merlin was like a ghost, almost completely invisible in places, and he was so cold under Arthur's hands.
"Come on," he said, guiding Merlin into the bath. Merlin climbed in, curling up as soon as he hit the safety of the warm water. He was upset; Arthur could hear the hitch in his breathing, even though he had no idea how to help to fix it. Merlin settled in the tub, and Arthur ran his hand over Merlin's shoulderblades, feeling the skin warm under his palm. He could see straight through Merlin, and Merlin was staring at his transparent knees, shivering a little.
"Sssh," Arthur soothed. "Are you still cold?"
"I can feel your hand," Merlin said, and there were tiny sparks under Arthur's fingers. "Arthur."
"Merlin," Arthur replied, pressing his lips to Merlin's shoulder. "Relax. I want you to relax."
"I'm fading away," Merlin said.
Arthur kissed to his jawline. "No you're not. I see you just fine."
"Liar," Merlin replied, but his tone was warm.
"I'll get some more hot water," said Arthur, running his hand through the tub to feel the temperature. "You're obviously warming up; all your cold is leeching out into the old water."
He changed some water in the old copper that he'd hung over the fire, the act of service instinctive, refilling the thing in case Merlin needed more. He settled it near to the fire, but not on it; he'd heat it once he knew. There was the rush of wind and light behind him, and Arthur turned to see Merlin looking a little sheepish, but the bath twice the size that it was.
"Did you just…?" Arthur asked, and that was a stupid question, because of course Merlin had just done magic. "Merlin, what are you thinking?"
"I'm thinking that you're the only thing that can get me warm," said Merlin, leaning forward, his knees transparent again. Arthur dropped the towel.
"You want to share a bath?" he asked. Merlin nodded. "Merlin, you idiot. I could have just got the larger bath from downstairs."
"No," said Merlin. "Now, Arthur."
There was something urgent in his tone, a faint note of fear that drove the demand. Merlin thought he was fading, too; Merlin wanted Arthur to anchor him, drag him back to himself. Arthur pulled his jerkin over his head, the chill of the winter air catching his skin as he stripped under Merlin's watchful gaze. He stepped into the bath, and Merlin sighed softly, leaning back into Arthur's arms as soon as Arthur had settled himself in the warm water.
"You only like me for my body," said Arthur, letting his hands slip easily around Merlin's waist.
"My evil plot is revealed," said Merlin, sleepily.
"Completely," Arthur replied, kissing his temple.
Merlin closed his eyes, resting his head against Arthur's neck. It was warm, here in the water, and Merlin was a comforting weight against his chest. Arthur ran the flat of his hand over Merlin's bare stomach, up to his chest, Merlin's cold skin warming with the heat of the bath and the proximity of a bath-mate.
"Has it been like this before?" asked Arthur, keeping his voice low, brushing long, gentle strokes across Merlin's skin.
"No," said Merlin. "Never this bad."
"Even when you…woke up?"
"Oh," Merlin said. "No. It's not as bad as that."
"What was that like?" asked Arthur, lips close to Merlin's ear.
"I remember dying," said Merlin. "I remember because I'd always thought I'd just magic myself away, and then I got there and they put me in iron chains, and the smoke made it impossible to speak, and I was scared…and everything was broken between us. I've been primed to go with my destiny since I was a little boy and then I didn't have a destiny any more."
"Did it hurt?"
"You're not an idiot," Merlin replied, the water slopping as he shifted a bit, curling closer, putting a hand on Arthur's knee. He drew little circles with his thumb. "Don't pretend to be one."
"Why did you come back?" asked Arthur.
"I don't know," Merlin replied. "I can't work it out either. I thought I might be destined for great things, once I wasn't tied to you, but it turns out I'm still tied to you."
"Do you regret that?" Arthur asked, and Merlin shook his head.
"No. Even though you're going to get a big head, you great prat."
"I don't…" said Arthur, clearing his throat. "I'm glad you're here, Merlin."
Merlin hummed in agreement and settled, the space between them too comfortable to fill it with unanswerable questions and reminders of all that had gone wrong before. Arthur kept the pace of the gentle sweeps of his hand, over Merlin's arm, his neck, his side, liking the feeling of skin and the closeness of touch. He'd never really touched, as a prince — servants got to touch, got to be touched, whether it was a quick tumble or huddling for warmth, but princes had to stand apart. Every motion had meaning, when one was a prince.
It took a while, but eventually their bodies were warmer than the water, and Arthur shook Merlin awake, moving his pliant body so that he could step out and dry off, then grab a towel for Merlin. He'd brought a few up, intending to wrap Merlin in them, keep him warm and dry, and now they were useful.
Merlin stepped from the bath, and Arthur dried him. He'd loved this, when he was Prince — skin still sun-warm from the hot water, and the gentle hands of his manservant, smoothing over his skin. Merlin swayed, bodily exhausted, and Arthur caught him just before he tumbled to the cold stone of the floor.
He helped Merlin to bed, and Merlin didn't complain; didn't complain when he was tucked into bed, didn't complain when Arthur snuffed the candles, lazily leaving the bath standing full and cooling, didn't complain when Arthur dried off and got into bed beside him; he just snuggled into Arthur's embrace and went to sleep, as Arthur let himself do the same.
It was brisk, this morning, and Arthur wrapped his old fur cloak around his shoulders as he tramped after Merlin, their footsteps bright and green on the frosty ground. They'd shared a horse to get out here — not ideal, but no-one without magic was allowed to ride — and now they had to wait. Merlin had gone up to the lake already — he wanted to prepare — and Arthur was hence stuck down on the road, waiting for the others.
It was bright and cool, his breath fogging a little if he tried, and he snuggled a bit into his cloak. He was sleeping better, in Merlin's rooms; Gaius had made a few sly remarks, and Tilde had bruised Arthur's ribs she nudged him so hard, but most people hadn't noticed. Lucan hadn't. Arthur was surprised by how much he missed Lucan's company in the kitchens, or the surreptitious eyerolls they'd given each other at feasts. He'd slowly been rebuilding his network of friends, and while he'd never have been able to count Lucan as a friend before, he did now.
There was the sound of hooves on the road, and Arthur drew back into the undergrowth. Trust in destiny, as Gaius said, but row away from the rocks. There should be no-one else on this path at this hour, but he wasn't going to put his trust in speculation. Too much had happened for that to be the case anymore.
There were two people on the horses; Arthur recognised Lancelot immediately, but the other figure was smaller, in a hooded cloak against the chill of the morning. He stepped out onto the road, and Lancelot pulled in to a walking pace, the other rider doing the same. It was only when the other rider dismounted, handing the reins to Lancelot, that Arthur recognised her.
"Arthur!" Gwen called, and she ran to him, hugging him tightly. He hugged her back, laughing for the joy of it, lifting her feet off the ground as he kissed her cheek. "It's so good to see you; you have no idea."
"It's good to see you, too," he said. She smelled of lavender and metal, her armour shiny in the sun. "You planning to be a knight?"
"Not planning," said Lancelot, as the horses grazed where he'd tied them to a stump. "Is."
Gwen pulled free of Arthur's arms, and took Lancelot's hand, twining their fingers together. There was a little twinge of something deep in Arthur's chest at that, a tiny voice of envy, but it was quickly silenced by the happiness of seeing them both again.
"Is it true?" Gwen asked. "Is Merlin back from the dead, too? Gawain said he was, but he was different…?"
"No," said Arthur. She bit her lip. "I mean, no, he's not different. He's still Merlin. He's just…seen a little more of the world."
"As have we all," said Lancelot, gripping Arthur's shoulder. "It's good to see you, my King."
"Lancelot," said Arthur, nodding. "Likewise."
"And you know why we're here?" asked Lancelot. Arthur shook his head.
"I'll take you up to the lake," said Arthur. "Merlin wants to show us something, and I'm afraid he's given me no more information than something."
"I'll wait here for the others," said Lancelot. "Someone should keep watch on the road, make sure that no-one spooks the horses."
"The others?" asked Arthur.
"Gawain, Leon and Percy," said Lancelot. "We don't travel as a group; that way, if one party is ambushed, then the other still has a chance to escape. We left Pellinore and some of the new recruits in Green Hills; in any good conscience, we can't leave the town undefended."
"Are things that bad?" Arthur asked. Lancelot nodded.
"Worse," said Gwen. "There's no knights coming out to the further reaches of Camelot's territory — Cendred has already claimed back whole towns, and there's new gangs of bandits raiding all the time. A few of us were going to make a move for one of the Northern kingdoms — Lancelot knows people — and then we heard that Merlin had come back to Camelot."
"You have to understand that we thought you were dead," said Lancelot. "I would…we would never have gone to leave had we known that you were still alive, and in Camelot. We thought that there was no hope, but there is, now. We can regain the kingdom, Arthur."
Arthur nodded. It was strange, the way that hope had almost left him, and now it was flooding back, making his veins sing. You will be king again, sang his breath. You will rule this land, said his bones, and his blood said, yes, with Merlin you will rule. He was starting to entertain daydreams again, little, pathetic dreams of sitting on the throne with Merlin at his side, of being the one to share his food at feasts, of sharing his chambers, sharing himself.
"We should go and see what Merlin is up to," he said, his thoughts brimming with Merlin, so full that he barely noticed Gwen kissing Lancelot farewell. The forest smelled of pine needles, deep and rich and green, and Gwen kept pace with Arthur despite what had to be some heavy armour.
"You look like it's been a difficult year," she said, and he laughed.
"You could say that," he replied. She caught his elbow.
"Arthur, I'm sorry I left you to that," she said. "Gawain and Leon told us about what they made you do. I—I was a servant. I could have helped you."
"No," he said. "I'm not sorry you weren't there; it looks like it's been hard enough for you."
"I had Lancelot," she said, with a smile. "You're not angry, are you?"
"You made it clear when you left that you didn't want to see me again," said Arthur.
"You didn't chase me," she said.
"Did you expect me to?" he asked, and she shrugged.
"I didn't know. You were acting so strangely," she said. "You just let your father take Merlin. You weren't yourself."
Arthur shook his head. "I was myself," he said. "I was stupid. I was wrong."
Gwen stopped, regarding him appraisingly. The morning sun gleamed on her armour.
"You actually mean that," she said, "Arthur, I think that's only the second time I've ever seen you apologise for anything. So things between you and Merlin are…?"
"Complicated," said Arthur. It was so easy to talk with her, and he realised that he'd missed this — the camaraderie that he'd had with his knights, with Gwen. It wasn't the same talking with Tilde or Lucan; they hadn't known him before.
"Oh," she said. "I suppose it's a hard thing to forgive, being killed."
"It's not that," said Arthur, and the words wanted to flood out of him, but he kept them at bay. It wasn't that, not really — he didn't think Merlin held a grudge, but part of him wanted Merlin to; part of him still felt sick and guilty when he saw Merlin's fingers flicker after a long day, or the way that Merlin stalked warily around any non-magical fire, even now.
He could see a figure up ahead — Merlin — and Gwen held up a hand.
"Someone's coming," she whispered.
"Yes," said Arthur. "It's Merlin." He clambered up the slope, Gwen following him, and joined Merlin in the trees. As soon as she reached him, Gwen hugged Merlin tightly. He wrapped both arms around her.
"You're alive," she said, as if she hadn't believed it before then. Merlin nodded.
"Pretty much," he said, with a warm, genuine smile.
"You're so…" Gwen said. "Grand."
Merlin made a noise that seemed to suggest he was just as much a mulish peasant as he'd ever been.
"There's somewhere I want to take you," said Merlin, looking at them. "All three of you. This is something that needs to be witnessed."
"Lancelot waits for us on the road," said Gwen, quickly. Merlin shook his head.
"He's on his way to join us," he said. And sure enough, when Arthur turned to look, there was Lancelot making his way through the trees and up the hill.
Lancelot waved at them, jogging up. "I left the others to keep watch," he said. "I…I got this feeling, this weird feeling. Like there was a lodestone in my chest, and it was pulling me up here."
"It was," said Merlin. "This moment must be witnessed."
Merlin was acting strangely — Arthur thought that he was the only one who'd seen it until Gwen raised her eyebrows at him, the look she gave him seeming to say Not changed, right? There was a sense of gravity about Merlin, as if the world was bending to let him pass through it, golden-eyed and astonishingly powerful.
"Why?" asked Gwen. "What is it? Why does it need witnesses?"
"It needs witnesses because history must be seen," said Merlin. "Come on."
He walked to the edge of the lake, and looked back at them, a clear motion that they should follow. Feeling stupid, Arthur moved to Merlin's side, Gwen and Lancelot following him. Merlin held out a hand, and Arthur took it. Merlin held his other hand out over the water, saying something with altogether too many vowels, his eyes flashing. Gwen took a step back, and even Arthur was impressed — he'd seen Merlin cast spells plenty of times, but not ever anything that made a lake look as if it were a pool of molten metal.
There was a movement on the surface, like a rock dropped into the water. Merlin dropped Arthur's hand, using both palms to shape the light on the surface. It swirled and gleamed, and something raised, just a little. Arthur heard Lancelot gasp as a golden head raised from the water, followed by shoulders. It was a woman; she was made of light and water, little fishes swimming through her hair, the sunlight glistening on the planes of her body as she rose. Merlin nodded, smiling as she looked at him.
"My love," said the woman made of water. Merlin stepped forward, reaching out to brush his fingers along her glittering cheek.
"You kept it safe," he said, tenderly.
"The magic is changing," she said. "The world is changing. Can you stop it?"
"I think so," said Merlin. "Arthur Pendragon. Come forth."
Arthur stepped forward, shoulder-to-shoulder with Merlin. The woman looked at him, and drew from the water that cascaded down her body a sword, a bright, clean sword. Arthur reached out a hand for it. It had been months since he'd grasped a sword, felt its comfortable weight against his palm, against the flexing muscles of his forearm. His fingers closed around the hilt, and yes, this was right. It was like slipping into an old pair of shoes — ridiculously comfortable.
"This is for you," she said. "It is only for you, Arthur Pendragon. It was made for you, and it is given to you now with love. Rule wisely."
"I…" said Arthur, the heavy import of the moment weighing on him. "I will."
She looked at him, and reached out a damp palm to take his hand. "Arthur."
"Yes," he said. He could see little fish swimming through her chest, darting to and fro. She leaned close.
"Care for him," she said. "Love my Merlin."
"I…" Arthur said, and he felt his clammy palms shaking. "I do. I will. I mean…I'm sure you…but I do."
She pressed a kiss to his lips, and then there was the slapping splash of water as she collapsed into nothing more than rainbow droplets that hung in the air as Arthur stepped back, his fingers tight around the hilt of the sword.
"What is that?" asked Lancelot, the first to gain the temerity to speak.
"It's a sword," said Arthur, feeling stupid as he said so. Of course it was a sword.
"I know that," said Lancelot, with a thank you, King Obvious look. "I've just never seen a sword glow like that before."
"I've seen that sword before," said Gwen. "It was…it went…" She seemed to struggle for a moment to get the words out, too many words tipping and tumbling over themselves. "My father made it."
"And it was tempered with dragonfire," said Merlin, still glowing. "It was made for you, Arthur Pendragon."
Part of Arthur wanted to laugh at Merlin's seriousness, the full names, the import of this moment, but then he saw Merlin's expression and he swallowed. No. This wasn't a time to laugh. He swung the blade, testing the balance, testing the hand. Yes; he could believe that it was made for him, only for him. It felt so right.
"We will fight," said Merlin, "and we will win. The false king in Camelot will be allowed to stand no more."
They walked back to the road in silence, no-one willing to speculate about what they'd just seen, not when Merlin was so obviously flushed with power and stunningly terrifying. Arthur was watching him, watching the lithe lines of his body as he led the way over slippery pine needles and rocks. That's probably why Arthur fell, stepping awkwardly onto his ankle and then sliding away down the hill, remembering his training as a knight and pulling in his arms so that he wouldn't break a wrist trying to stop himself from rolling.
Merlin barked a strange word, and Arthur stopped falling, landing gently on the ground. He looked up at where he'd slipped to, and there were stones, very regularly shaped, sticking out of the ground like odd teeth, or a garden arrangement. He suddenly realised what they were, leaning to brush the lichen off one.
"What is it?" asked Lancelot, crouching beside him. He let Arthur drag himself up on his shoulder.
"I think it's a graveyard," said Arthur, brushing off more lichen. "Does anyone read runes?"
"I do, a little," said Merlin, and he moved close. "This may be a portent."
"I thought you didn't believe in fortune-telling?" asked Arthur. Merlin shrugged, tracing the lettering with a finger, saying a few words under his breath. He stopped.
"Oh," he said, turning to Arthur. "It's sad."
"What is it?" asked Gwen. "What does it say, Merlin?"
"My king fell in this place," Merlin read, "so here shall I stay, until we may be together once more."
"The grave of a knight?" asked Lancelot.
"A queen?" Gwen asked. Arthur shook his head, taking a wild guess.
"A sorcerer," he said, because only sorcerers really used runes. The look on Merlin's face confirmed his suspicion. Merlin pulled his cloak around his body, tightly.
"That won't happen again," he said, and he reached for Arthur's hand, not speaking again until they farewelled the others on the road, the glowing sword heavy at Arthur's waist, glorious and portentous and terrifying all at once.
That night, Arthur did sword drills while Merlin studied the Sorceress's prophecy, scrolls and books spread all over the table. They'd got the sword back in by concealing it in Merlin's cloak, and now Arthur was practicing, practicing, lunging and ducking and hurting all over from the physical work. His arm ached where he'd been bitten by the snake, even though the scar was long since healed.
Merlin was watching him, Arthur realised, when the night-bells rang.
"How did you end up in love with a girl who lives in a lake?" asked Arthur, because it had been bothering him all day.
"I what?" Merlin asked.
"The girl. The one who gave you the sword. She called you my love," said Arthur. Merlin frowned.
"Arthur, are you jealous of a supernatural being that lives in a lake?" he asked.
"…no," said Arthur. Merlin sighed.
"I adore you, you know," he said. "Now go and find something for supper. I'm starving, and you've had an entire evening training."
Arthur got halfway down the corridor before he realised that Merlin had entirely avoided the question. He stuck out his lower lip, cross, and barely noticed someone keeping pace beside him.
Arthur turned. It was Tilde. She looked pale, tired. He wondered what had happened to make her so tired.
"Tilde?" he asked. Her bottom lip wobbled, and she hugged him tightly.
"Oh Arthur," she said, burying her face in his shoulder. "It's Meg. Her son's got worse, and Lucan's too busy with the King and you're too busy with Emrys and…"
"Oh," he said, little more than an exhalation of breath. "Tilde, it'll be okay. I promise."
He sat with her and let her cry, Arthur stroking her back and trying to soothe her. He'd always cared about what happened to Gwen, certainly, but this was new, this was something different. He didn't desire Tilde — which was not that she wasn't desirable, it was that he was happy with Merlin — but he wanted her to be happy. He'd never felt like that about a servant.
"I went to see you in your rooms," said Tilde, "and Gaius said you weren't there."
"No," Arthur said, slowly. "I've — Emrys needs me upstairs."
"Not like the King needs Lucan?" she asked. Arthur shook his head.
"How does the King need Lucan?" he replied. Tilde sighed.
"It's like he's someone else," she said. "He's — cold. I think something's happened to him."
"I'd been thinking the same thing," said Arthur. "All right. I'll see what we can do about that. And as for Meg's son…I'll talk with Merlin about maybe doing something."
"You're very close," said Tilde. He looked at her, and she raised her eyebrows. "What?"
"You're being very coy," he said, mimicking her.
"It's like you're leashed to him, or something," she said. "Is everything good between you? Be careful. You're not the first servant to be…cared for…and I've never seen it end well."
Arthur didn't really know how to reply to that; he was Merlin's servant, but he wasn't. He didn't really know who he was — was he the heir in waiting, or a trump card, or would he have the kingdom back, one day? He sighed.
"Thank you," he said, because she meant well. "I'll keep that in mind."
She kissed his cheek when he finally managed to extricate himself from the conversation. He'd always be grateful to her for those few first painful months of captivity and the care she'd taken with him. She and Lucan both — he'd have to work out what was happening and how to help Lucan, before things got worse. Arthur helped himself to food and bread from the silent kitchen, the smell of the woodsmoke from the ovens hanging about stronger now that there was no food in there.
Merlin was asleep on his notes when Arthur returned from the kitchens, the little carved dragon weighing down the end of a scroll, stopping it from rolling back up and off the table. Arthur had a pitcher of milk and a plate of honey and bread in his hands, his intent being to warm the milk over the fire. It looked for all the world like Merlin had just rested his arms on the table and slept; his fingertips were transparent, as were the edges of his ears.
"You can't keep going like this," said Arthur, and he sighed, setting the milk on the table. He put both hands on Merlin's shoulders, stroked him into wakefulness.
"Arthur?" Merlin asked, sleepy. "I think I've found something."
"Can it wait until the morning?" Arthur replied. "You're exhausted."
Merlin nodded, and stood, his fingers flickering a little where he was using the table for support. Arthur stepped close.
"Come to bed," he said. "Come on."
Merlin stepped closer, closing his eyes and leaning against Arthur. "Yes," he said, tangling his fingers in Arthur's shirt.
Arthur walked them backwards to the bed, and once Arthur had stripped off Merlin's outerwear, found them each a nightshirt, Merlin curled in Arthur's arms, tucking his head against Arthur's. Arthur pulled the furs over them both, trying to keep Merlin warm. Merlin snuggled.
"It was in my old book," said Merlin. "My stupid old book. I think I know how to stop this."
"And then it will be over?" Arthur asked.
"I don't know if I can make you King again," Merlin said.
"That's not what I'm asking," Arthur replied, because curling up with Merlin as the rain tapped against the window was entirely better than anything he'd had as Prince. Merlin opened his eyes, and put his head up.
"Oh," he said, and he kissed Arthur, very lightly, and then all the lights went out. "I'll be with you for as long as I exist, Arthur."
He twined his fingers through Arthur's, and Arthur noticed as he started to drift off that Merlin was solid, comfortingly solid, and very, very warm. He didn't dream — well, he didn't think he was dreaming, because he didn't remember anything. He woke in the middle of the night, to the sound of nothing. Merlin was breathing fast, too fast. Arthur touched his shoulder.
"Merlin?" he asked. Merlin grunted. "Come on, you're dreaming."
Merlin flinched a little as he woke, and Arthur could feel his heart racing in his chest. He pulled Merlin closer, pressed his lips to Merlin's temple.
"It's all right," Arthur said, quietly. "Do you…do you dream a lot?"
Arthur was used to nightmares. Sometimes, he'd hear his father's voice, as clearly as if Uther was still alive. He'd wake with the sound still ringing in his ears, his breath fast. He never woke like Morgana had used to from her sleep — sitting up in a grand gesture, with gasping and flailing. There wasn't really any point. Before Merlin, there'd been no-one there to cosset Arthur, to gentle him back to sleep. Merlin stretched in Arthur's arms.
"It's not dawn yet," said Merlin, his voice rough, heart still thudding where Arthur's hand lay warm against his chest.
Arthur kissed his neck, just below his ear. "You're not going to melt at dawn, are you?" he asked, lips close to Merlin's skin. "You're not fairy gold?"
Merlin shuddered. "Don't even joke," he replied, as Arthur kissed his shoulder, just where the bones jutted out, were covered smoothly by flesh. He rolled over onto his back, and Arthur could see his face, outlined by the moonlight. "Hello."
"Hi," Arthur replied, and Merlin reached to brush his cheek. Arthur turned his head to run his lips along Merlin's fingers, and he felt happy; happy for the first time in months, in what felt like years. He leaned forward, lightly touching his lips to Merlin's, feeling for Merlin's answering movement before he deepened the kiss. He liked the feeling of Merlin's mouth against his own; it was easy, easy to curl his tongue around Merlin's, like they'd been doing this forever. Merlin leaned up, pushing Arthur onto his back, straddling Arthur's hips.
Arthur had been going to say something, but it turned into a sort of undignified groan when Merlin's hips crushed against him, shifting. Merlin wriggled, getting himself happily into a position that pleased them both, Arthur's hands running over the sides of his abdomen, feeling the flutter of muscle beneath his palms. Arthur spread his fingers, trying to cover as much of Merlin's skin as possible.
"It's not dawn yet," said Arthur, rubbing a lazy hand up Merlin's thigh, through the coarse dusting of dark hair. "However shall we occupy ourselves until then?"
"I've a few ideas," said Merlin. "If you're interested…"
"Do you think I'd be in your bed if I wasn't?" Arthur asked, as Merlin dipped his head to nuzzle at Arthur's neck, Merlin's soft, hot lips sending sparks of warmth that settled in Arthur's stomach, anticipation running high in his blood.
"Point," said Merlin, and he leaned closer, kissing along Arthur's jaw until he reached Arthur's lips, and Arthur tangled his fingers in Merlin's hair, pressing their mouths together in a slick slide of lips and tongue. Merlin's teeth clicked against Arthur's, and he pulled away, his smile bright in the moonlight as he wriggled out of his clothes. Arthur brushed his fingers along Merlin's cheek in apology, and Merlin turned his head, sucking each of Arthur's fingers in turn, watching Arthur shiver beneath him. Arthur ran his fingers down Merlin's chest, when he was finally released -- tracing the muscle, the hard line of his sternum, the softer skin of his stomach. Merlin's abdomen fluttered under Arthur's palm, and then his hips rolled when Arthur finally curled his fingers around Merlin's cock. It was heavy against his palm, hard like steel but soft like the velvet of the bedspread. Merlin's breath stuttered, a desperate gasp.
"Arthur," he managed, but that seemed to be enough words, because he was leaning down again, pulling at Arthur's body in desperation, his hands rough and unstudied. It felt like Merlin was trying to get under Arthur's skin, and they rolled, Arthur possessed by the same lust, pushing Merlin down under his body and taking, licking and kissing, Merlin's short nails raking down his back and making his body sing.
"What do you want?" Arthur asked, close to Merlin's ear, close enough to feel his own breath.
"You," Merlin managed. He tried to roll them again, but Arthur held him down, had him pinned. "Arthur." Merlin mouthed at his collarbone, nipping and then drawing back, licking it better. "Arthur, fuck. Just. I want you."
"How?" Arthur asked, and Merlin grabbed his ears, forcing him to make eye contact. Arthur wondered if he looked as sexy as Merlin did; eyes dark with lust, lips swollen and red.
"I want you," Merlin repeated, predatory. Arthur moved his hips, just a little, and Merlin's hands tightened.
Arthur kissed him, all teeth and tongue and desperation, Merlin's fingers pressing between their bodies to run along Arthur's cock, Merlin's hips shifting under Arthur's own. Arthur leaned up a little, letting Merlin open wider for him, feeling the slip of Merlin's hand, each finger as it ran over the head of his cock. He realised that Merlin's palm was wet with more than spit, his eyes more gold than blue, his magic curling up and around Arthur, passing through skin to the bone and muscle beneath. Merlin bit his lip, concentrating, and his questing hands stopped moving, stopped exploring and were still between them, holding Arthur in his two hands. Merlin's fingers brushed against Arthur's balls, not exploring the clench of his body, just holding there for long, unbearable seconds.
"All right?" Merlin asked, and Arthur nodded.
"All right," he said, the brush of Merlin's skin against the tip of his cock ticklish, inviting. Merlin's fingers pressed, then, and the clutch of Merlin's body was almost too much; Arthur let them sink together, let the heat of Merlin's fingers guide him, let their bodies fit. Merlin gasped, panting under Arthur, flushed and glowing. Arthur pulled him into a kiss, hot and tight and surrounded by Merlin, the smell of him, the feel of him, the roiling magic that threatened to break over him, sweep him away.
"Move," Merlin said, voice stuttering. "God, Arthur, move."
"Like you like this," said Arthur, drawing out a little, licking Merlin's lips. He pushed back in, Merlin's thighs shoving up to wrap around him, drag him closer. Merlin's eyes closed for a second, and then opened, heavy-lidded, oscillating from blue to gold to bluegold and Arthur was drawing back again to feel the friction, pressing forwards, the bed knocking against the wall like the drumming of his heart.
"Yes," Merlin was chanting, and then Arthur's name, as Arthur kissed his humming throat where his voice vibrated, as Arthur sucked a bruise below his ear, as Arthur shoved his body against Merlin's own, Merlin's magic sparking under Arthur's hands, under his lips.
"That's it," Arthur said, his breath close and hot, the delicate shell of Merlin's ear so close to his teeth. He nipped, gently, exploratory, and Merlin's magic quivered, like ice and then heat all over him. "Come on, Merlin. Come on." He took Merlin's earlobe between his lips, teased with his tongue. Merlin tasted of salt-sweat, and he writhed under Arthur, every movement making Arthur's hips twitch, making the hot place in his chest grow, making the tension building inside him expand. Merlin scrabbled at his back, strong fingers scoring lines in Arthur's skin, their bodies impossibly close. Merlin stiffened beneath him, his thighs shaking, panting out short, hot breaths as he came. Arthur followed him, the sparking touch of Merlin's magic and the feel of Merlin's body against his own enough to push him to the edge.
He came, his release sweet-hot and needy, Merlin's hands on his back, his thighs cradling Arthur's, murmuring nonsense into his ear; that's it, Arthur, that's it, my Arthur. He let the movement of their bodies slow, the desperate drag of flesh a luxury, finally resting his forehead against Merlin's, their chests touching, eye to eye.
The air smelled like sex, Arthur's body damp with Merlin's sweat and with their mutual release. He caught his breath slowly, the weight of his body holding Merlin to the bed, the weight of Merlin's limbs holding Arthur close, even as Arthur's cock softened inside Merlin. He was over-sensitive, the slightest movement making his body thrum like a tightened string. Merlin made a soft, disappointed sound when Arthur withdrew and rolled off Merlin's sated body, pulling off his nightshirt to wipe them both clean. Merlin curled up, catlike, and Arthur dragged him near, falling asleep curled close and warm.
"It's bigger," said Merlin, when Arthur brought the tray with breakfast up. Bloody Merlin, since winning/not winning the dueling, had apparently merited both first and second breakfasts with fresh bread and eggs. Arthur would have been jealous, had Merlin not been in the habit of sharing. He scowled.
"The egg!" said Merlin, with a wild wave of his hand. "Bloody hell, Arthur. Try to keep up."
"I thought you said it wasn't an egg?" Arthur asked. "It's not a dragon egg, is it?"
He put the tray down on the table, taking some of the bread without asking. Merlin shot him a fond, exasperated look, and shook his head.
"It's not a dragon egg," he said. "I know what those look like. They're sort of — leathery. Dragons like eggs that don't break easily. They're not really nurturers. No, I think it's a spell. Something ridiculously, stupidly powerful that's going to unleash itself upon Camelot."
"Doesn't everything stupid and magical try to attack Camelot, eventually?" Arthur asked. "And why are you grinning?"
Merlin had got the egg—thing—whatever out, and it was sitting on the table, glistening. It was beautiful colours, swirling and dancing, and Arthur reached out to pet it.
"Don't!" said Merlin, and Arthur drew back. "I don't know if it's dangerous."
"It doesn't feel dangerous," said Arthur. "It feels — familiar."
"You too?" Merlin asked, with a little smile. "I thought it was just me being strange."
"You're very strange," Arthur agreed. "It's a good thing I'm your servant, because I'm good at keeping secrets like your oddness."
"Not as good at keeping secrets as me," said Merlin, and then he went bright red. "Sorry."
"Give it a few years," said Arthur, reaching out to touch the orb on the table. "You were my servant a lot longer than you've been my master; you haven't won yet."
His fingertips made little circles of light where they touched the smooth, glassy surface of the thing, and Arthur was reminded of the little trails of sparks that followed his fingers whenever Merlin was so exhausted as to be invisible. He squashed the thought, because somewhere in there was something huge and frightening, and he wasn't sure he was ready to think it yet. When he looked up, Merlin was staring at him like he'd dropped from the moon.
"I—" said Merlin, his eyes wide. He broke eye contact. "We should take this to Gaius and see if he agrees."
They wrapped it in an old shirt, and Arthur carried it, puzzling over why Merlin had suddenly gone skittish. It couldn't be about the lying, could it? If there was any penance to be done, Arthur rather thought that burning at the stake covered that, and then some.
Gaius was busily making potions when they got to his rooms, and he put up his work when Arthur put the egg in the middle of the table, unwrapping the shirt from it. It was strangely beautiful when the sunlight hit it, making it glow and sparkle. Merlin shut the door.
"What is that?" asked Gaius, reaching out a hand to touch it. The ripples that had moved over the surface earlier in response to Arthur's fingers didn't react — clearly, moving it hadn't been a good idea. "It's warm."
"I don't know," said Merlin, sitting at the table, chewing on his lip. "I think it's an egg."
"An egg of what?" Gaius asked.
"Don't know. Phoenix?" asked Merlin. "Do you think unicorns lay eggs?"
"Unicorns are essentially horses," said Arthur, with a little eyeroll to cover up the horrible image of a horse trying to lay an egg. "It'd be something with wings, like a gryphon or a wyvern."
"Are you sure it's an egg?" Gaius asked. He tapped the side of it. Arthur had been expecting it to ring like a struck goblet, but it sounded solid. Heavy. "I think it might be something else. Something — wait."
He bustled to the bookshelf, and Arthur noticed that the sad little pile of unmelted books had been re-shelved lovingly, the shelf considerably less full than it had been. Gaius pulled out a red-bound volume, muttering as he flicked through it — yes, yes, no, page 60. Arthur tried tapping the egg again, and the ripples like waves in a pond flowed out from where his finger touched it.
"Stop that," said Merlin. "If it is an egg, we're angering whatever's in it."
Arthur raised his eyebrows at Merlin, and Merlin smiled, sudden and sweet. Arthur smiled back, and then—
"Right," said Gaius, and the moment was broken. "It doesn't look like any of the eggs in this book."
"No?" Arthur asked, feeling a little disappointed. He'd been rather looking forward to helping hatch some mad magical beast.
"I'm certain," said Gaius. He paused, frowning. "Wait."
He went through the pile of books again, discarding a few more, and then flicked through one that looked very tiny, and very, very old.
"Magic attracts magic," said Gaius, reading a dog-eared page. He looked up. "Do you know how pearls are made?"
"Pearls?" asked Arthur. "They're not made. They just happen."
"No," said Merlin, eyes bright. "I know what you mean. See, when an oyster gets a bit of something in its shell that it can't get out, it covers the thing with sort of…well, not slime, really, like, shiny rock. But that doesn't get it out, so it keeps covering it with more and more rock, until it makes a pearl."
"So that's a bit of grit that's attracting magic?" Arthur asked. Merlin nodded gravely.
"Sort of," he said. "It makes sense. That's why it's growing — it's not an egg, it's a pearl."
"So the question becomes not what is it?" Gaius said, "but what is at the centre of it?"
"I think I know," said Merlin. They looked at him. "I mean… I think I'll be able to find out."
"Merlin, if there's anything—" Gaius began. Merlin shook his head.
"I don't want to say anything," he said. "Not until I know for certain."
"Merlin," said Arthur. Merlin shook his head, taking a few steps back.
"No," he said, holding up a hand. "I might have to look outside the books for an answer to this one, but I have to be certain. I think this is big, Arthur. Bigger than anything we've ever faced."
"Bigger than you dying?" Arthur asked, before he could stop himself. Merlin sighed, turning away.
"I think it might be," he said, and a horrible thought seized Arthur, until he couldn't breathe. If this was linked in some way to Merlin's death, then what might — what could happen? He wasn't sure that he was ready to lose Merlin again.
"Merlin," he said, getting up and moving to Merlin's side. "Tell me."
"I can't," said Merlin, putting his hand on Arthur's hip. "Because I want to be wrong."
"Well," said Gaius, awkwardly cheerful, "what are we going to do with it in the meantime?"
"We'll keep it," said Merlin, as there was a brisk knock at the door and it opened without any delay. The Sorceress strode into the room, without a care for any confidentiality that the court physician might need to hold with one of his patients.
"Is it ready?" she asked. Gaius stood, offering a faint bow. Arthur scowled at the intrusion — she was nobility, certainly, but there was no need for rudeness — and he caught Merlin's eye. Merlin looked similarly unimpressed, and he moved to cover the pearl again.
"It's just here," said Gaius, rummaging through the lines of little bottles. "I assure you, your dreams will be as prophetic as ever, my lady."
Merlin smiled, just a little, and the Sorceress moved across to the table where he and Arthur sat before Merlin had managed to wrap up the pearl again. It sat, glistening and iridescent, like something stolen from the gods. Arthur bit his lip, lest he look too guilty.
"What's that?" asked the Sorceress, looking at the pearl.
"It's an experiment," said Merlin, quickly.
"It's beautiful," she said. "I'd like to take it."
"With all due respect," said Gaius, as Arthur felt as if a bucket of cold water had been thrown over him. "If you move it, it might be — unstable. I would not wish for it to explode in your hands."
"What are you experimenting on?" she asked, stepping closer but not touching it.
"I—It's a bit of vanity, really," said Gaius. "Do you own any opals, my lady?"
"I have a bracelet," she said, with a little smile. "It was costly."
"Ah, yes," said Gaius, and Arthur was astonished, and more than a little suspicious of things that Gaius had told him before, given what a good liar the man was. "You see, there are those who seek out the means to make gold from base metals. I believe that the Captain of the Knights has a particular interest in alchemy and natural philosophy. But there are stones that are precious like gold, are there not?"
"You're making opals?" she asked, fascinated. "What's the process?"
Gaius tapped his nose. "I'm afraid that's my secret," he said. "But sadly, they're rather more explosive than ordinary opal at the moment." He pulled a bottle out of the shelf. "Here. Take this, and take three drams before bed. It's proven."
"Good," she said. "And I want that opal, when it's done."
"As you command," Gaius replied, and Arthur felt his skin crawl. The thought of the woman getting hold of the pearl was repellant, almost a violation. He stopped. He'd been fine about the pearl when it was in his room, nestled in under his bed. He'd been fine with it earlier, had tossed it about like a toy. He hadn't even noticed that it was missing. So what was going on now?
She stalked out, and Gaius ferreted amongst the bottles again as Merlin wrapped up the pearl. Arthur didn't try to catch Merlin's eye, just sat with a wobbly spot of indecision and nervousness in his stomach.
"She's not dreaming prophecies anymore," said Gaius absently, and Arthur was smart enough to read between the lines. Her magic is gone. He wondered if the King was callous enough to send his own mistress into servitude. He supposed it depended on how convincing she made the lie. "I made something for Meg's son, too. Someone keeps sending her to me." He gave Arthur a fond look. "I am trying, Arthur. There are just some things that magic can't fix."
"Thank you," said Arthur, taking the little bottle. "I'll give it to her."
"Now, unless you're working, you two need to get along," said Gaius. "I have a lot to do today, some of which will include researching pearls made out of magic, and unless I'm entirely mistaken, there's a council this afternoon, and Merlin will be reporting on the state of the kingdom's rapidly vanishing magic."
"I shall," said Merlin, shaking his head. "I need to have some time to think. Do you want me to leave this here?"
"No," said Arthur, quickly. They looked at him. "I mean — if we leave it in our, um, Merlin's rooms, then people are less likely to stumble across it."
"All right," said Merlin, amused, "but you're carrying it."
The Hall smelled of spice and meat, and the unwatered wine that they were using at the high table. Merlin waved for Arthur to fill his cup, and Arthur obliged, leaning low so that his shoulder brushed Merlin's, feeling the warmth of Merlin's gaze on the back of his neck.
"You spoil him," said the Sorcerer King, as Merlin tore off a chunk of bread and gave it to Arthur. "He deserves unkindness."
"No-one deserves unkindness. We are not those that were overthrown," Merlin said mildly. "He's doing a much better job tonight than he has previously. He has learned to serve me to my liking."
"And, I hear, he is serving you in your bedchamber," said the King, through a mouthful of pork. "You speak gently, but you enjoy using him for all of your needs. Is it good, owning your former master like this?"
Arthur bristled; if the King knew, then the entire castle knew. And there was a probable source of the information getting out there to the castle at large, and he knew that said source wouldn't have meant any harm by talking. Merlin put a possessive hand on Arthur's arm.
"I did not think you were so vulgar, my lord," said Merlin, calmly. "Or is this another of your tests?"
Arthur took a mouthful of bread, because he was hungry, and because then he wouldn't say anything stupid. He chewed slowly.
"I don't know what you mean about tests," said the King. "It was merely an observation."
There was a sorcerer juggling flame on the floor of the hall, flames that turned into birds and flew up. One bird was flying slowly, though, and it suddenly dropped, fizzing out into nothing. The applause was lukewarm; no-one liked to see magic fail. It was this heavy, oppressive thought that tainted social interaction, that tainted the energy of the people.
Merlin had gone to the council without Arthur, and Arthur didn't know what it was that Merlin had said, but he'd come upstairs tired and angry, and offering to spar against Arthur. That had lasted for all of about five minutes, until Arthur hit Merlin with the flat of his sword, Merlin had fallen over, and Arthur had decided to kiss any wounds better.
They had, at least, made it from the rug to the bed.
Merlin preferred to use a sword to fight — he seemed to use magic sparingly, and Arthur wondered if it was from some ludicrous idea of fairness against a non-magical opponent, or whether his magic just wasn't particularly martial. His swordsmanship was passable — not brilliant, not terrible. He'd be able to hold off a normal opponent, but against a trained knight he'd be useless. Arthur wondered if Merlin would use magic, in that case. He hoped so. They'd talked about taking the castle back — about his knights waiting, and striking when the magic was faltering to the point that the King was defenseless. People were discontent, the worry rumbling through the streets and up into the corridors of the castle. The bandits were getting worse; last year's poor harvest had meant that there was little seed to sow this year; there were illnesses and agues that went untreated. His father may have been ruthless where certain matters were concerned, Arthur thought, but at least under his reign the people were safe and fed.
Merlin put his cutlery aside, and Arthur took his plate, went along the row taking plates, carrying the wobbling stack back to the kitchen. There, that was the other affront — while people in the lower town scraped for food, the sorcerers left great lumps of meat and vegetables. Too tough, one woman said. Or too mushy. Or just didn't feel like it. Arthur dodged through the doorway, heading for the kitchens.
People were looking at him; Arthur could just feel it. Looking at him and thinking about him warming Merlin's bed — thinking about Merlin as if he were some idiot noble who liked to use his servants as whores as well as slaves. The thought made Arthur's jaw clench, though he didn't really know who he was angrier for, himself or Merlin. He stalked into the kitchens, putting his load of plates down with a clatter.
"Oi!" called Tilde. "I'm semi-sort-of-running this kitchen now, and if you break a single plate, I'll break your head!"
Just the person he'd wanted to see. Arthur felt anger run hot and then cold. It was Tilde. He couldn't be angry with Tilde.
"Tilde," said Arthur, and Tilde looked at him from behind the countertop, her hands red-raw with the lye from the dishes. "Did you say anything about me not sleeping in my bed?"
"Ah…no?" said Tilde. Arthur folded his arms. "Oh. Um. Yes."
"Right," he said, and then dragged her over to the door. "What is out here?"
"Snow," she said, clearly confused.
"Where is my bed?" asked Arthur.
"And how warm is it in there?" asked Arthur. She relaxed.
"Oh, it's bloody freezing," she said, with a grin. "So you've been camping on the rug in front of Emrys's fire."
"Yes," Arthur lied. Merlin had curled up against him last night, resting his head on Arthur's chest to listen to his heartbeat. Arthur had tried to kiss him, but the angle had been too awkward, and he'd ended up kissing Merlin's forehead. Merlin had made up for it later, though, when he'd straddled Arthur's hips and leaned up for a proper kiss.
"He's a good man," she said. "He's so kind. I think he's not forgotten his time as one of us."
"I think you're right," said Arthur, unable to stop a huge grin that hurt his cheeks with its hugeness. He could breathe easily again, handle stairs again, and he had Merlin to thank for that. "But could you — I don't know. People are talking."
She laughed. "People always talk," she said. "You know, just the other day, I heard a rumour over in Green Hills that you were still alive."
"You went all the way over there?" asked Arthur. "Why?"
"Someone had to go to the seamstress to get the new dress that our lady ordered," said Tilde. "And the others were scared to — there's bandits in the woods, now."
"Are there?" asked Arthur, guilelessly. Tilde grinned.
"There are," she said. She fished about in the pocket of her apron, found what she was looking for, and then handed him a letter. "Good thing the men and women of Camelot are protected, then."
"Very good indeed," Arthur agreed, cracking the seal on the letter, unable to hide a smile.
We are ready, and await your instructions, it said, and it was signed not by Leon but by Gwen. Arthur folded the letter neatly, slipping it into his pocket.
"I'll try to keep mum about your sleeping habits," said Tilde. "I'm sorry. I didn't think."
"It's okay," said Arthur, nodding. "These things happen. I'll swap with you." He got out the little bottle of elixir. "It's for Meg's son."
She hugged him. "Thank you," she said. "Let me know when you want me to return. I might have, um, accidentally forgotten to pick up her ladyship's new wimple."
"I've worked out what that little dragon is for," said Merlin, after a full day of books, books, books. "I thought it would have been destroyed when I died, but there must have been some magic put into it to keep it safe, and that's how you found it."
"You knew about it beforehand?" Arthur asked, raising his sword and bringing it down on the target that Merlin had magicked up for him. He could feel himself getting stronger, feeling his muscles remember what to do, how to stand. How to fight.
Merlin nodded. "Balinor carved it. I didn't know what it was when I got it, but now I do."
"Right," Arthur replied.
"So," said Merlin. "How'd you like to come talk with a dragon?"
"Now?" Arthur asked, looking at the lengthening afternoon light.
"Tomorrow," said Merlin. "Don't worry -- you can keep playing with your sword this afternoon."
Arthur stabbed at the air, ignoring the innuendo. "I like this sword," he announced. "It's a good sword."
"It was made for you," said Merlin, and Arthur turned the sword in his hand, feeling the balance on it, the weight. "And you're getting better with it."
"Been watching, have you?" Arthur asked, and Merlin nodded, smiling as he stared at Arthur's bare chest. Arthur hadn't bothered to put on a shirt — it would just get all sweaty, and they were up in Merlin's chambers, anyway, door locked and spelled shut.
"We should get you to fight with no armour," said Merlin, turning a page of his book. "The enemy will be so distracted that they're easy to beat."
"You're a terrible flatterer," said Arthur, flopping down into the chair opposite Merlin. "I've sent word to the others. We're all ready — when the full moon is high, that's when we'll strike." His skin was warm, sweat cooling slightly. "How is the research on eggie here coming on?"
He patted the orb. It was bigger than it had been — almost impossible to move — and the sparks that followed his fingers were so familiar.
"I know what it is," said Merlin. He paused. "I still hope I'm wrong."
"That bad?" Arthur asked, swinging the sword lazily in one hand, still cheerful. Merlin didn't say anything, and Arthur turned to him. His face was pale, his body still. "Oh. That bad."
"Mmm," said Merlin, nodding.
Arthur moved beside him, putting the sword down. "Tell me?" he asked, and Merlin sighed.
"It is like a pearl," said Merlin. "It's a bit of magic — a bit of my magic — and it's got loose in the world. The world's trying to contain it before it destroys everything; it's building up a shell around it and it's going to keep on getting bigger until all the magic that there is makes its way in there."
"A bit of your magic will destroy everything?" asked Arthur, putting a hand on the globe. He wasn't sure whether to laugh or to bundle Merlin into a swift embrace.
"I think…" Merlin said, passing his hand over the globe, fingers brushing Arthur's. "I think it's the thing that kept me alive all those years. I think it's all the things I never wanted to think about. The part of me that hid in the armoury when a sorcerer was burned. The part of me that slaughtered Nimueh."
"Is it such a bad thing to lose, then?" Arthur asked. Merlin shook his head.
"Without it, I'm fading to air while it destroys the land; order has been disrupted. The true King is not king, and he has no chance to rule."
Arthur bit his lip. Things were suddenly serious. "Don't you like living without it, though?"
"I feel so light," Merlin said, and he smiled the most beautiful smile in the world. "I feel so light. Like this anchor has been taken away. I don't have to think about what it was like to fear for my life every day. I used to sleep in my boots, when I first came here. Did I tell you that? In case I had to run in the middle of the night."
"No," said Arthur. "You didn't tell me anything. I could have protected you."
"That didn't seem to work so well when I tried it," Merlin replied, and Arthur felt his gut clench.
"So," he said, biting at the edge of his thumbnail, "what are we going to do about it?"
"I don't know," said Merlin. "I think it might need to be split open."
"This is a bad thing?"
"Well, let's put it this way," Merlin replied. "I think it might split Camelot apart when I do it."
"And you know this for certain?" Arthur asked, sceptical.
"I have an idea…and it might help to stop everything being wrong. I'm sort of…sort of hoping that a new wise man will rise."
"A wise man?" asked Arthur. Merlin was as enigmatic and confusing as ever.
"Here," said Merlin, sliding the book across the table. "Read."
"There bee a legynd," Arthur read aloud. "Good grief, whoever wrote this was clearly standing behind the door when the ability to spell was handed out."
"It's ancient. That's how they spelled then," said Merlin, patiently. Arthur looked at him, and Merlin managed to keep a straight face for about thirty seconds before he laughed. "Okay, so I think the author might have been a bit of a prat. Keep reading."
"There bee a legynd of thee once and future king and he bee great and good," Arthur read. "You're not telling me you're the once and future king, are you?"
"Keep reading," said Merlin, rolling his eyes.
"Thee king and thee land must be one, and too vouchsafe thys, from thee land shalt come a mage of grate — they could bloody spell great a minute ago — power. He shalt bee the other side to thee coin of thee king, and united, all who stand against them shalt fall. Fore one may as well wound the sea, or plunge a blade into thee earth…"
Arthur trailed off, looking at Merlin. Merlin's eyes were golden again; Arthur had meant to talk with him about how bloody unnerving it was to suddenly be faced with a gaze of molten gold.
"Is that saying…that the king and the man of power are invincible?" Arthur asked, swallowing.
"If they stand together," said Merlin, "then yes, I think so."
"This bodes well for the battle, then," said Arthur. "Merlin, you're a genius. Where was this book from?"
"Funnily enough, it was my old magic book from when I was Gaius's apprentice," Merlin said. "Sometimes you can't see the wood for the trees."
"I'll inform the others," said Arthur, standing.
"Arthur," said Merlin.
"Can we bring the timeframe forward? Probably not. It would be too risky — people might not be prepared. Is there more? I'll have to look at it some more."
"Arthur," Merlin said.
"It's a prophecy, right? All prophecies have lousy spelling."
"That's as may be," said Merlin, "but whatever it is, we've already failed."
Arthur paused. "What?"
"United," said Merlin. "The book said — and understand that it's a pretty big leap to think we're the chosen ones or whatever it says — we had to be united, and we wouldn't fall."
"But we are united," said Arthur, puzzled. "More than we ever were."
Merlin tugged at the fingers of his left glove, pulling it off. His whole hand was fading; the tips of the fingers entirely gone.
"We were tested," Merlin said, as Arthur felt his chest clench. Oh. "We failed. That's what that pearl is. It's thing that will cause the kingdom to fall, if we let it keep growing — it needs to be destroyed. You didn't keep reading. When we were not united in one single purpose, we doomed the kingdom to destruction." He pulled the book across the table. "If, though, thee king bee not wise and he stands agaynst thee wise man, knowing not what aught come, then thee kingdom bee doomed to misrule and division; like a spoilt pot in thee kiln, it shall crack."
"No," Arthur said. "I can't believe that. History can be rewritten."
"You were excited about prophecies a moment ago," said Merlin, pulling the glove back on.
"Well I was wrong," Arthur said, and Merlin stood. "Can't pottery be re-cast, before they fire the damn stuff? We could make a new pot. Lots of handles. Easy to hold. No great wobbly lumps of whatever that thing is."
"That's what…" Merlin said. "That's what the world is trying to do. Re-cast the pot, before it's too late. But you need to destroy the old pot in order to shape it into a new one. You might keep the base clay, but the shape will change." He stepped close to Arthur. "You will always have magic to protect you. Of this much I am certain. But it might be in a different shape."
"No," said Arthur, quickly. "No, there is no other shape that I want."
"The time for that decision has passed," said Merlin.
"Oh, shut up," said Arthur. "Be quiet. I refuse to believe that. I made a mistake; a terrible mistake. But I am doing all I can to fix it, and you have been nothing but…It's unfair! It's unfair that you should be punished for my mistake."
"And would you have made that mistake, had I been honest with you in the first place?" Merlin asked. "If I had told you everything, and not let you work it out for yourself? You were angry, Arthur. You had every right…"
Arthur grabbed his shoulders, then, because he was sick of this; he was sick of Merlin being so bloody nice; refusing to fight for what mattered, refusing to acknowledge that he was human, and he was allowed to want, and allowed to hurt, and allowed to be selfish.
"I did not have the right to let you burn," said Arthur, fiercely. "I should have acted. I was a coward. And you should not have allowed yourself to be burned. You shouldn't have had faith in me, Merlin, because I let you down."
'I lied to you," said Merlin, burning bright with anger. "I lied to you for years."
"And I killed you," Arthur replied, dragging Merlin close, pressing their mouths together. Merlin's kiss was hot and dominating, but Arthur took his face in both hands, made him slow, made him relinquish control. When their lips parted, Merlin's breathing was soft and hot against Arthur's lips.
"So are we even?" he asked.
"Don't…" Arthur said, swallowing against a hard lump in his throat. "It's not about being even."
Merlin cocked his head to the side. "So why are you trying to insist that you were a coward?"
"You deserve more than me," said Arthur, and Merlin kissed him, slow and soft this time.
"You don't think you're more than you were when I died?"
Arthur inhaled, shakily. "You seem convinced that you're not, you know. Fair is only fair."
"Unfair is only unfair," Merlin corrected. "Arthur…I…I forgive you. I forgave you a long time ago; I don't think it was your fault."
"Then let me forgive you, too," said Arthur, and Merlin pressed their foreheads together, gently stroking his thumbs just under Arthur's ears.
"Yes," said Merlin, and they fell into each other, neither willing to let go until the bells rang to announce dinner.
Talking to a dragon, it seemed, meant a trek out to the middle of bloody nowhere. Arthur supposed it was the smart thing to do — they didn't exactly want the damn dragon showing up in the courtyard and everyone seeing it — it was just a long walk. He doubted they'd be back before midnight at this rate. They went to a place where there were more rocks than grass, and Arthur marveled at how little he'd known of his own kingdom. Merlin sat on a rock, pensive.
"They say that this is the place of a great battle," said Merlin. "That hundreds of years ago, the old king died here."
"Is it just me," Arthur asked, "or is this land surrounded by kings?"
"Kings and sorcerers," Merlin agreed. "I think that this is — another place. Where — where we were once."
It was a sticky, uncomfortable thought, thinking you might not have lived your life according to your own will — that you were part of some re-shaping of destiny. Arthur shifted close, so that he could wrap both arms around Merlin, pull Merlin's back to his chest, kiss his neck.
"I don't want to forget again," said Merlin, hoarsely. "It's obvious we've forgotten."
"It's only a theory," said Arthur, pressing his chin into Merlin's shoulder, holding Merlin and wishing he could protect him from everything. "It might not even be true."
"One way to find out," said Merlin, wriggling free. Merlin moved so that he stood on the highest rock, alone, and Arthur felt warmth bloom in his chest.
Merlin threw the dragon figure to the stones, and looked at the sky. "Kilgarrah!" he called, as the tiny carving shattered into pieces, wings breaking off, tail cracking on the hard ground.
There was a distant rumble of thunder, but the sky was clear; it took Arthur a few seconds to realise that it wasn't coming from the sky at all — it was coming from the ground. Animals were moving, birds wheeling overhead, getting away from the sound. Merlin stood strong, and Arthur ran to his side. Merlin took his hand.
"Kilgarrah!" he yelled again. There was a feeling like the air before a storm; the hair on Arthur's arms was standing on end, and he felt the power trickle down his spine. The feeling dissipated all at once with a whumph as what had been empty hillside was suddenly filled with large and very, very real dragon. Arthur's hand tightened against Merlin's — he remembered this dragon, remembered people dying, the castle burning. It was laughing.
"Merlin," said the dragon, lowering its snout. "I did not expect to see you so soon."
"You are the cause of all this, aren't you?" asked Merlin. The laughter of the dragon was hot breath that stank of rotting meat.
"No," said the dragon. "I had some fun; can you begrudge me that?"
"And this fun would be the creative interpretation of prophecy?" Merlin asked. "Tell me why the magic is going. I gave you clemency once; I would like this answer."
"If humans make surmises that are not true, then I am hardly to blame," said Kilgarrah. "And do you think that I have not given you anything, Merlin?"
Merlin dropped Arthur's hand. "Arthur," he said, his voice soft. "No. You knew that for the prophecy to be fulfilled, Arthur had to live."
"No," said the dragon. "This destiny is too great, and part of it is already broken. All I did was buy you some time. If you do not act, then you will lose each other." It ruffled its wings. "If it is some consolation, you will not remember. Just like you do not remember when you were the chieftain and his shaman, or the old high king and his faithful mage."
"Are you saying that we've never got it right?" Arthur asked. "That destiny can be shaped?"
"You fool," the dragon said, and then it hissed. "This is your fault. All of this is your fault, and you do not ask me how to mend it."
"How, then?" asked Arthur.
"You must promise me something in return, little King," said the dragon.
"Don't," said Merlin, warningly. "Don't agree to anything."
"A little uncharitable, aren't we?" said the dragon, as Arthur stepped forward.
"Tell me what it is," he said, "and I'll decide."
"No," said Merlin, folding his arms. "It will find some way to trick you."
"You must remember me," said the dragon. "When you re-write the books and the histories, when you restore the spells, you must remember my name and write it down."
"Yes," said Arthur. "I will. What must I do to fix the land?"
Merlin put his head in his hands, and Arthur wondered why — why this was so important?
"You must destroy the pearl that was wrought of magic," the dragon said. It yawned, when Arthur gave it a look that he suspected was more stunned than angry. "Your sword will do it."
"If I do that, I'll save Merlin, won't I?" Arthur asked. The dragon laughed.
"In a manner of speaking, yes," he said. Arthur looked at Merlin, suddenly feeling as helpless as he had all those months ago, when Merlin had died for the first time. How did the dragon even know about the pearl? Merlin was giving Arthur a hopeless look.
"What do you know about the king and the sorcerer?" Arthur asked. The dragon put its head on the ground, so that he was level with one huge, amber eye. "They're everywhere. I never noticed before, but now I see them everywhere."
"Destiny is more powerful than you think," said the Dragon. "But for the land to have a true king, that man cannot be divorced from magic."
"Then the Sorcerer-King should be perfect," said Arthur. The dragon laughed, and it took all of Arthur's self-control not to step back.
"No-one who is so tied to the land can make sensible decisions about its future. It's like — day and night. Two sides of a coin. You need both to make a whole," it said. "And you failed, like you've failed before."
"I could mend it," Arthur said. "If you tell me how…"
"The warlock's magic is bleeding," said the dragon. "Can't you smell it? You must make a sacrifice to mend such a grievous wound."
"Tell him what will happen to him if he destroys the pearl," said Merlin, angrily.
"The magic will rip him limb-from-limb," said the dragon, and oh, thought Arthur, it had enjoyed saying that. It licked its great tongue over its teeth. "Anyone too near will die when the magic is released. And then it will begin again. Perhaps next time you'll get it right."
Arthur sucked in a breath. "And if it isn't destroyed?" he asked.
"Then the magic will keep draining from the world until it is all gone," said the Dragon. "None of you who rely on magic will be safe; there will be no more sorcerers, no more spells. No more dragons."
"You really think that could happen?" Arthur asked, as Merlin shivered, a loose movement like someone had walked over his grave.
"In some worlds, it already has," said the Dragon.
Arthur swallowed. "Fine. I don't suppose it's as easy as me being able to give my sword to someone else, and let them smash the pearl?"
Saying it made a hot worm of guilt twist in his gut. No; he couldn't do that. He couldn't send someone else to their death, knowing that they'd be killed. He sighed.
"That sword was not made for anyone else," said the Dragon. "No-one else can wield it, Arthur Pendragon. The choice will be yours."
"Stop," said Merlin. "Just — stop. That's enough."
"Was it worth it?" asked the dragon. "Did you use this chance just to find out what you already knew, little warlock?"
"I needed it confirmed," said Merlin, wretchedly. "And this is not the last time we'll meet, you and I."
"Correct," said the dragon. "I look forward to it."
Merlin went a funny colour of white, and Arthur wondered if that meant there was more prophecy — if, indeed, he ever got anything right. The downdraft as the dragon took to the sky stirred up dust, made him cough as it flew away into the distance, dropping and skimming over fields to pick up a meal, and then flying high, higher, so high that he couldn't see it anymore. Merlin kicked a little stone, and it tumbled and clattered over the rock field.
"Spelling," said Merlin, angrily. "Arthur, words are power. He'll use those words like — like I used that dragon that you gave me. One day, some day, a dragonlord will read the words and call him forth, and then there will be no stopping him."
"There will be," said Arthur, "there'll be you."
Merlin shoved Arthur away, hard. "It's not that easy!" he said.
"Why not?" Arthur asked. "It's a whacking great lizard with an authority problem. It's not going to be a stain on your conscience."
"Kilgarrah lied," said Merlin, trembling. "He lied so that you wouldn't be killed by the King. They would have killed you before I even arrived."
Arthur scowled. "That's rubbish," he said. "How would the stupid thing know that you were coming back, or that I was imprisoned? How did it know about the pearl?"
"They can see things," said Merlin, "they can see everything. The world and time and everything." He stopped, taking Arthur's face in his hands. "Arthur, I'm so sorry."
"Wait, what?" Arthur asked. "Why?"
"You're alive because the dragon thought he was doing me a favour," said Merlin. "All that pain, all those lost opportunities. All of it is because a stupid dragon thought that he was doing me a favour." He swallowed. "You could have been re-made at any time."
"I don't want to be," Arthur said, turning his face so that he could kiss Merlin's palm. "But it was worth it, wasn't it? We know how to fix this."
"Not at the cost of you," said Merlin, running his thumb over Arthur's jawline. "There has to be some other way."
"We'll think of something," said Arthur, with more confidence than he felt. "We always do."
They lost the pearl three days before the battle.
They'd taken it back to Gaius's rooms because Merlin wanted to try dripping various caustic things onto it (to see if it melts like a real pearl, Arthur!), and he'd determined that the antechamber of Gaius's rooms was private enough to experiment in, and far enough away from the rest of the castle that if there were any explosions, then they'd probably not kill anyone. Well, anyone that wasn't Merlin and Arthur, because Arthur insisted that he be in the room with Merlin just in case.
Serendipity, or perhaps some very keen spies in the servant population, meant that they were there when the guards of the court burst into Gaius's chambers, demanding to see the cursed opal. Arthur had to think for a few seconds before he realised that they meant the pearl, and then the King was entering, Lucan bowing and scraping behind him, the Sorceress being supported by her retinue of courtly ladies. She looked around, as the guards disturbed the shelves, ferreted through Gaius's belongings. For his part, Gaius simply looked coldly at them, betraying very little hint of any emotion. The man was damned impressive, Arthur thought. He'd always taken Gaius for an old fool, a relic from the past that his father had held onto for some unfathomable reason. There was a shout from the antechamber.
"We've got it!" said a guard. "Come and look, m'lady."
They crowded in, guards and retinue and nobles, looking at the pearl where it sat on the table.
"That's it," said the Sorceress, fanning herself with one hand. "Oh, I feel faint just looking at it."
"Is this thing of your doing, Emrys?" asked the King, looking at the orb. "Is it, perhaps, what is stealing the magic away from the good subjects of Camelot?"
"No," said Merlin, and damn if he wasn't a good liar, too. "Is there something wrong? Have you had another vision, my lady?"
"It was terrible," she said. "Terrible. The things that are contained inside that ball are too horrible to even speak of." Arthur frowned. Things inside the ball? That didn't sound like a pearl. She continued. "The process—the process of creating it, you don't know, you didn't know, the things that were trapped in there. Ghosts from the past."
The penny dropped. If there was a prize for obfuscation, she got it — she'd entirely invented a vision so that she could get her hands on the pearl. Merlin nodded, smoothly.
"Did you see any specifics?" he asked.
"I don't think that you need to know that," said the King. "If you were not so — beloved — then I would have you in the dungeons tonight. I still could."
"You can't lay a hand on me," said Merlin. "I'm still more powerful than you."
"You are but one man," said the King, crowding Merlin in. "No matter how lucky. You are one man."
No, thought Arthur, because I'll fight for Merlin if you try anything.
"Seize the opal," said the Sorceress. Arthur looked to Merlin — should he interfere? — But Merlin seemed to be quietly accepting, as if he knew that this was the way that destiny would go. Arthur didn't want them touching it — it was a part of Merlin — but they grabbed it before he could even do anything. He tightened his fists a little, and then followed Merlin's line of sight. Merlin wasn't looking at the King. Merlin was looking at the guards. There was one ruffling through Gaius's papers, trying to put them to rights. The one that was grabbing the orb looked wretched, and others were — well, had Arthur been their captain, he'd have disciplined them for not paying attention.
Had Arthur been their captain, he thought, he hoped he'd be good enough to keep men interested when you were confiscating a large magical artifact.
The man with the papers slid them guiltily onto a table as the retinue left, debris all over the room, thinly veiled threats still hanging in the air. Arthur sighed, and started putting beakers and ingredients to rights.
"Well," said Merlin. "That could have gone better."
"You seem to have angered the King," said Gaius, raising an eyebrow. "More than usual, I mean."
"He didn't like how I interpreted the prophecies he gave me," said Merlin, heavily. "He insisted on bringing them up in Council."
"And?" Arthur asked, picking up a pile of papers, shuffling them neatly between his hands.
"It's — there's nothing there that says that he is destined to be king," said Merlin. "He claims a dragon interpreted it for him, but we know Kilgarrah lied. Or at least, let them believe something other than the truth. It was more of the same — more about the king in Camelot being important to the future of the land, more about the king being tied to magic. No names."
"So he's taken this prophecy to mean that whoever is king will be important, not whoever is destined to be king?" Arthur asked, as a toad, displaced from its vivarium, waddled under the table. He caught it, and put it back into its home.
"Got it," said Merlin. "He thinks that it's the title that makes the man."
"And the pearl," said Gaius. "Do you think he'll manage to crack it?"
"No," said Merlin and Arthur at the same time. Arthur looked up, met Merlin's eyes, and then looked away with a smile. Gaius laughed.
"You seem rather certain," said Gaius. "And I don't doubt that you'll mount some harebrained scheme to get it back."
"Sort of," said Merlin. He had a strange look to him, as if he was gazing at something on the far horizon. "Events are falling into place. I'm starting to believe that some things can't be changed."
Arthur picked up another toad, and only realised that his grip was tightening when he squeezed and it croaked indignantly. He put it back with its fellow, and the toads crawled onto each other. His hand was slimy.
"How many more of these toads are there?" Arthur asked, as he fished another one out from behind a pile of ruined books. "Are you planning to farm them or something?"
"No, just an experiment," said Gaius, as Arthur scooped up another toad. "I'd suggest you wash your hands, though. No sense in ending up with warts."
"Oh, urgh," said Arthur. Merlin still looked like he was in a dream world, so Arthur snapped his toady fingers in Merlin's direct line of sight. Merlin shivered. "What? Are you all right?"
"What?" Merlin asked. He shook his head, as if he were shaking off a bad dream. "I'm all right. And if you think you're touching me when you've been petting toads, then I'm afraid you're mistaken."
There was one final toad that had industriously burrowed under the bookcase, and once Arthur had fished it out, he went down to the laundry in search of soap and hot, hot water to wash his hands. The laundresses squealed when he told them what he'd been up to, laughing at him when he chased them, hands outstretched, mumbling "Warts, warts, must spread warts!" They were much more complimentary once his hands were clean.
"So," said one — Elaine, the baker's wife — handing him a towel to dry off with. "We hear you've stepped up in the world, warty."
"I have no idea what you're talking about," Arthur replied, loftily.
"You're looking well, though," she said, and her smile was kind, this time. "Is he good to you, then? Emrys?"
Arthur grinned, ducking his head. "Wouldn't you like to know?" he asked, and escaped before he had to say anything difficult. He took a few of the secret passages back up to Gaius's rooms, but it was when he heard voices in a disused stairwell that he stopped to listen.
"It'll be all right," said a woman, and Arthur knew that voice. She'd shouted at him enough times. Tilde. He snuck a look around the corridor, looking down the stairs. She was sitting there with Lucan, one arm around his shaking frame. Lucan had pulled off his servant's livery, was just there in his undershirt and there, there on his neck, was a collar. Arthur felt bile rise. He'd been busy with Merlin — well, not even always busy, just preoccupied and selfish. He should have done something earlier than this. Tilde was rubbing a circle in the small of Lucan's back, very gently.
"It'll be all right," she was saying. "Emrys will be king soon, and he took Arthur's collar off."
"He'll never be king," said Lucan, hoarsely. "You don't know what I know. He'll never be king."
Arthur coughed. They both turned, expressions worried, and then relaxed.
"You scared me half to death!" said Tilde. "What're you doing, creeping around corridors like some sort of ghoul?"
Arthur walked down to them. "Sorry," he said. "I, uh... There were toads."
"Okay," said Lucan, as Arthur moved to sit next to him, meaning I'm going to pretend to understand that.
Arthur reached out, brushing his fingers against Lucan's collar. "I'm so sorry."
"It's not that bad," said Lucan, brave face firmly on. "I mean, you had one for months, and you're a total tit. And it — it comes and goes. Himself must be using his magic; the collar doesn't work when he is."
"He's losing his magic too?" asked Arthur, and Lucan shook his head.
"It's like — he's more like a leech," he said. "He sucks up power from other people."
Tilde gasped. "That's terrible."
"And the other people are getting weaker," said Lucan. "About the only one who isn't is Emrys, and that's why the King's frightened of him."
"And when those people run out of magic?" asked Arthur. Lucan shrugged.
"Who will know?" he asked. "All I can hope for is that I can escape before they do."
Tilde tucked an errant lock of his hair back behind his ear. "We'll do what we can," she said. "I promise."
"Me too," said Arthur. "I promise too. I owe you better than this."
"No," said Lucan, "no, you really don't. There are things — terrible things — afoot, and you'll have me to blame."
"It wasn't your fault. Not if you've been wearing that thing," said Arthur, remembering how the pain had lanced down his spine, shaking him from the bones out. He needed to remember to thank Merlin for taking it off him. Lucan shivered.
"I have to tell you—I have to tell you—" Lucan stammered. He spat. "I can't. I'm sorry. Just be ready, Arthur. Things are going to get tricky." His back arched, and he sighed a cracked little sigh of pain. "I'm being summoned. I should go."
"You take care of yourself," said Tilde, hugging him close, kissing his cheek.
Lucan nodded. "I'll try," he said. "And Arthur?"
Arthur looked at him, was surprised to see Lucan's eyes were a little teary. "Yes?" he asked.
Lucan looked away. "I'm sorry."
Arthur couldn't help fretting. He told Merlin about Lucan, and the enigmatic warning that the boy had given, and Merlin's only response was to offer to spar with him again. This time they fought hard, Merlin pushing Arthur, giving his own sword a little more accuracy with his magic, stepping right into Arthur's personal space, fighting like Arthur had never taught him to fight.
"It's only a little longer," Merlin kept saying, when Arthur woke in the depths of night, shaking. "You'll be king."
But still, Arthur fretted. He'd sent a letter back to Green Hills, but had no response from his little band of knights. He hoped it was for security, so that no-one else knew what was happening. He hoped that they'd still come, that they wouldn't decide that this wasn't a battle worth fighting. He hoped, most of all, that they'd be successful.
The bells woke Arthur on the day of the battle. The sorcerers had come by night, and so the knights would come by day, they'd decided. Tactical disadvantage, perhaps. But Gwen and Leon knew the lay of the castle; Gawain was young enough and difficult enough to distinguish from the boys in the stables that he could sneak in unnoticed. Arthur tensed, when he heard bells, but it was just the normal morning chime, time to get up, get on with the day. Merlin had an arm around him, holding Arthur against his chest. Merlin stirred, stretching.
"For a minute there, I thought—" Arthur said.
"No," said Merlin, sleepily. "I think we'll know when they arrive."
It was strange, this pantomime of a regular day. Arthur got up, dressed, went to the kitchens, got breakfast. Took the plates back when they'd finished. Tried to ignore the gleam in Merlin's expression, the little thrill of excitement, of perhaps they'll arrive now that was running up Arthur's spine and nesting in his stomach, keeping him on edge. Tried to do normal things, but when he sat at the table to read over Merlin's shoulder, his legs were restless and jiggling. Merlin put a hand on one of Arthur's knees to hold it still, but then the other one started up.
"What?" Arthur asked, when Merlin sighed. "I can't help it."
"Arthur, things will be dangerous soon enough," said Merlin, with a little smile. "You've always been impatient. Let things run their course."
"Impatient," Arthur scoffed, and Merlin shifted his hand to Arthur's other knee, trying to stop him tapping his heel on the floor.
"Yes," said Merlin. "Or don't you remember taking me on hunting trips where you shot everything that moved?"
"Do you think…" Arthur began, and he didn't really know how to finish the thought, "maybe, things will be better, when we take the throne?"
"Are you worried they won't be?" Merlin asked.
"If you'd asked me a year ago, I'd've told you that of course I can rule," said Arthur, slipping his hand over Merlin's, curling his fingers around to tuck under Merlin's palm. "I don't know."
Merlin tightened his hand, trapping the tips of Arthur's fingers. "Of course you can rule," he said, quietly.
"You'll be my advisor," Arthur said. "Sage and wise and things."
"Try to stop me," Merlin replied, and Arthur would have kissed him but for the thunderous knock at the door. He flinched, his nerves close to snapping from the anticipation. He got up, answering the door for Merlin with his most officious, prattish grin. It was Lucan. Lucan looked tired, his eyes ringed with dark circles.
"You're required by the King," said Lucan. Arthur sighed.
"Merlin," he called. "Where are your shoes? You've been summoned."
"Not him," Lucan said. "You."
"What?" asked Arthur, and Merlin echoed "What?"
"The King. Wants you. Arthur Pendragon. In his chambers," said Lucan, with exaggerated slowness. "I'm to escort you down."
"Why?" Merlin asked, getting up from the table. "I'm coming too."
"With all respect, my lord Emrys, it was only Arthur that was requested," said Lucan. "I'm sure you would not wish to suggest that you are overly attached to him."
Merlin met Arthur's eyes, and Arthur knew that they were thinking the same thing. This wasn't right. Something had changed; the King must know something. There was no way Arthur would be able to grab and conceal the sword before he had to go downstairs. He heard a shuffle and a grunt from the corridor, and realised that Lucan wasn't alone. There were guards. Arthur nodded.
"I'm sure he wants to know about an item from my father's things," said Arthur, with a bright confidence that he didn't feel, his skin alternatively running hot and cold as his gut clenched. Merlin nodded, slowly.
"Don't take too long," he said, turning away, and Arthur swallowed.
"I won't," he replied.
Lucan silently motioned him out of the room, and they walked shoulder-to-shoulder, flanked by the guards.
"I'm sorry," Lucan mouthed, and then he winced. Arthur sucked in a hard breath, listening to his footfalls on the flagstones, trying to think about something — anything — that wasn't why he'd been asked to go downstairs. They couldn't have been ambushed already, could they? Caught before they'd even begun? And if that were the case, what of Merlin? Would there be guards waiting in Merlin's room? Arthur swallowed the thought before he could let it fester. No. Merlin was too powerful for guards to worry him.
Lucan left him at the door to Uther's old chambers, letting Arthur in and closing it behind him. A wave of nostalgia swept over him as he took in the room — the draperies were still the same, the displays of old weapons still there. Even the bedspread hadn't changed, the curtains still the same colour. Some things were different, though; where it had once smelled of rosemary and the thick beeswax polish that they used on the wood, it now smelled strange, almost metallic, like armour when it was close to the skin. The King stood by the window, and he turned to Arthur with a wide, welcoming smile.
"Arthur," he said, brightly. "I do hope you're well."
"Right," said Arthur, tensing a little. Yes. Something was definitely wrong. "Um. Sire."
"Something interesting was passed to me a few days ago," the King continued. "A letter."
Arthur felt his stomach drop so low that it hurt. He thought for a second that his knees would give him away, that he'd shake and be obvious, but instead he concentrated and met the King's odd, black eyes.
"And do you know what it said?" the King asked. "It was from a little group of bandits, informing someone in the castle of their little bandit invasion. You really need to be more careful, Pendragon."
Arthur straightened, his gut churning. So that's what Lucan had needed to tell him; they'd forgotten to tell Gawain or any of the others that Lucan had changed, so it was logical that they'd—shit. He should have planned for this.
"There are men waiting for them," said the King. Arthur thought longingly of the sword, up in their room, tucked safely in under the mattress upstairs. "They'll be slaughtered in the first rush. It's almost pathetic, really, Prince Arthur and his vagabond army."
He flicked his wrist, and Arthur felt the snakebite on his arm burn. He clutched at the place where it tingled and spat, and tried to concentrate.
"They're not fools," Arthur said. "They won't ride into a trap."
There was a shout from the courtyard below, the ring of steel on stone. Oh, oh, the man was clever. He'd waited until the time of the battle, separated Merlin from Arthur. Arthur could feel his heart beating, and he swallowed down any fear — his men weren't fools. They would be all right. Arthur swallowed.
"It seems as if some are fools, my boy," said the King. "Would you care to watch? Wait until their bodies are cooling, and then see them rise again, watch them fight for me?"
"You're a monster," Arthur spat, and his arm twitched with pain. He gritted his teeth, trying to pull back, but another flick of the King's wrist had him stumbling to the window, grazing his hands as he fell against the wide stone sill. The King placed a hand on his shoulder, almost paternal.
"And now watch as they die for you," said the King, close to Arthur's ear. "There aren't many, are there? Not a great army to sustain a future king."
"There's enough," said Arthur, hoarsely. The courtyard was laid out before him like pieces on a game board — a line of sorcerers facing a huddle of knights, only ten or twelve men against twenty or so sorcerers. The air was thick with magic, shimmering in the sunlight, but no knight had fallen. Not yet.
He knew his men, knew their colours, knew their moves. He could see Leon at the fore, carrying a strange shield. The sunlight caught it momentarily, and it shone into Arthur's eyes, blinding him. Mirrored. Leon had a mirrored shield! He ducked behind it, letting the spell aimed at him glance off from the surface, the magic too weak to burst through.
There were others, too, all of them with polished shields. Gawain was darting between the front line of sorcerers, using his size and agility to get through — and there was someone else, someone that Arthur didn't know, firing arrows at the man who turned his attention to Gawain. The archer scurried after Gawain, reloading almost supernaturally quickly. Leon had dispatched his man, now, and Lancelot had waded into the battle beside him, the two men fighting for each other's lives.
The first of the dead sorcerers sat up with a sickening lurch, jerking to its feet like a puppet. Arthur swallowed, and the King's hand gripped more tightly. This was too much. This was too reminiscent of the first battle. Gritting his teeth, Arthur tensed, and then dug his elbow into the pit of the King's stomach. He twisted away from the man's grip, as he heard noises from the courtyard below, and he risked a glance, casting about for a weapon. The dead knight had fallen, and the people who'd been stabling horses, buying wares, were getting involved in the fight.
And the people swamped one of the sorcerers, the throng obscuring him from sight, as months of living in misery while the sorcerers had plenty took hold.
His father had loved to have weapons mounted on the walls — often they weren't much trot as weapons, but they looked very showy — and they were still there, despite the slight redecoration in the time since Uther's death. Arthur thanked his stars, wrenching a sword from its hanging, and then freezing. It was like the sword was made of red-hot iron, fresh from the forge. The King laughed.
"What, did you think I'd leave myself totally unprotected?" he asked, as the sword clattered to the floor, Arthur clutching at his arm. "Interesting things, snakes. Once you've enchanted them, you can do all sorts of things with their venom."
He didn't call the guards. Arthur swallowed. He was secure enough, confident enough not to have called the guards. Shit. Arthur bent, scrabbling for the sword, his fingers tingling if he even got with it. There was a deep shine of red in the King's eyes, and Arthur felt a shock run up his arm as he made contact with the metal.
"Why not just kill me, then?" he asked. The King laughed.
"Where's the fun in that?" he asked, taking a step towards Arthur. "Go on. See if you can wield it."
"Bastard," said Arthur, as his hand twitched away from the sword. The King crouched so that he was level with Arthur, looking at him from under heavy lids.
"I'm going to make you watch," he said, his voice low, almost seductive. "I'll make you watch while they die."
"That's a cheap threat," said Arthur. "Next thing you'll be trying to convince me to bargain with you, like some villain out of a story."
"Then I won't—" the King began.
There was a clamour at the door — a woman's voice yelling, a man yelling back. Arthur recognised the female voice — Tilde — but not the man. The King's head snapped to look at the doorway, standing, and the pain building in Arthur's body relaxed a little, became enough that he could breathe, could concentrate on something other than holding his arm steady. He scrabbled for the sword, holding it in his off-hand (as if that would help), using the momentary distraction to bring it around. He didn't have a good grip, but it still thudded heavily against the King's leg. The King kicked him, viciously, and Arthur tried to grab for the man's foot, but he missed as the King stepped away, opening the door with a wave of his hand. Arthur had never seen him do so much magic — he wasn't afraid of it running out, clearly.
A knot of people burst into the room as Arthur scrambled to his feet, trying to bring his breathing back to normal. It felt like someone had stabbed him in the side, cut out part of his lung. He couldn't get a whole breath in, and he was glad for the momentary disturbance, and then when he looked — Lucan was at the centre of the little group, and Lancelot had the point of his sword at Lucan's neck, ready so that if the boy even moved, it would nick his throat.
"No!" Arthur wheezed, trying to get enough air in to form the words. "Let him go!"
"He's the one who we sent the letter back with, my Lord," said Lancelot. Arthur shook his head.
The King laughed, his voice deep like the voice of the dragon. "And now you want to kill him? You made him lead you to your prince, just so that you could butcher the boy in front of your liege? Bravo."
"Stop this!" Tilde cried. "Arthur, tell him to stop this!"
"I know you sent the letter back with him," Arthur replied, "and he had no choice. Let him go."
Lancelot let him go, and Lucan staggered forward, gasping for breath. "Arthur," he said, panting. "Arthur, the servants — they're fighting the sorcerers."
"What?" asked the King, and Lucan arched as if someone had grabbed his spine and twisted. "You imbecile. You didn't rally them?"
"You think I could?" Lucan asked, the words forced out through gritted teeth. Arthur met Lancelot's eyes. Yes, if the two of them — if they rushed the King at once, they'd be able to…
"What do you mean? Explain yourself!"
"It's chaos down there," said Lucan, stumbling over next to Arthur. Arthur helped him to stay on his feet. "There's people fighting all over the place. The people are fighting the sorcerers, and the sorcerers are losing their magic." He didn't look even remotely upset about this turn of events.
Tilde turned to him and put it much more succintly. "You're losing."
"Very well, then," said the King, raising one hand. "There are people I don't need, if I'm to win."
Time slowed, as Arthur realised that the King meant him. Lancelot had clearly come to the same conclusion, but he was across the room — there was no chance of him making it on time. Arthur saw the red flash in the King's eyes, saw Lancelot spring, and tried to duck. It was too late — it was going to be too late.
Lucan shoved Arthur, hard, and even though Arthur rolled into the blow, his shoulder still stung where he hit the ground. There was a terrible smell of burning, and Tilde screamed. Arthur grabbed for the sword with his left hand and then pulled himself to his feet, staring at the Sorcerer-King. He didn't want to look down — didn't want to see what he could smell, flesh blackened and blistered by the blow of magic.
"That was unfair," Arthur said, and he swung the sword in his off-hand, getting a better grip. "You fight like a coward."
"You cheat," said the King. "You shouldn't be able to wield a sword."
"I'm stronger than you think," Arthur replied, lunging forward, working out what had happened. The King took a step back. "And you're almost out of magic."
Behind him, he could hear Tilde sobbing as he stepped forward again. He wasn't as good as he could be, and pain was radiating out of the scar on his other arm, but he could do this. He could take the King and stop everything. He'd take the King, and then destroy the pearl, and then the world would be back to rights again. There was movement in the doorway.
"Gaius!" sobbed Tilde. "You have to help, he's…he's…"
Gaius. What on earth had persuaded the old man to come up here? Arthur pressed forwards.
"Get out!" called Arthur. It was too late. He could see the King's eyes flash red, and Gaius stumbled. "You have magic, you fool!"
"Not anymore," said the King, and he sprang onto Arthur, throwing the sword from his hand, wrapping long fingers around the scar on Arthur's neck. Arthur struggled, trying to push him away even as the man's touch burned with cold fire, even as little pinpricks of light and dark started to cloud his vision.
There was a bright, hot light that seared into Arthur's flesh, warming him, pushing the King back. Arthur knew it instinctively, knew the magic, loved the feel of it. Merlin. Arthur staggered backwards, Merlin's eyes dark gold and his expression thunderous.
"Get away from him," Merlin snarled, and Arthur realised with that strange, out-of-body clarity that one can have on the battlefield, that Merlin was quite possibly the most dangerous man he'd ever met in his life. The King hissed, snake-like, running to the window.
"Stop him!" Arthur yelped, trying to grab for him, but the man was too swift, had escaped. Arthur made it to the window just in time to see him on the wall, crawling down it like a spider. "What the hell is he? He's not human, is he?"
"He has dabbled too long and too hard in the arts of stealing life from others," said Gaius. "Help me here. This boy is still alive."
"We have to get to him," said Merlin. "He's going for the pearl."
"What happened down in the courtyard?" Arthur asked, and his heart was beating so hard he thought that it might shake him apart.
"We knew an ambush was likely," said Lancelot, moving to Gaius's side. "Here, I'll help."
Tilde had stopped crying, a slight hiccup in her breath but a determined look on her face. "His feet won't touch the ground," she said. "I'll make sure of it."
Arthur crouched beside her, looking at Lucan. Lucan was out cold, his breathing shallow. Tilde's face was pink with tears, and she met his gaze with a watery look. He brushed her cheek. "He'll be all right."
She hugged him, tight. "Arthur, what's happening? Is Merlin finally taking power?"
"No," said Merlin, unruffled. "Arthur is. Come on."
Lancelot and Tilde carried Lucan between them, as Merlin and Arthur ran for the stairs. There was a knight at the end of the corridor, still masked by a heavy helm, wielding an impressive sword.
"Arthur!" called the masked knight. "Merlin, this way!"
He recognised the voice, and when he looked carefully — the shape of the knight's mail was unmistakeably female.
"Gwen?" he asked.
"Hi," she said, and he could make her out through the helmet. He was running out of breath, and Merlin grabbed his wrist, just where the old bite mark was.
"What is it?" Arthur asked, his arm aching.
"What happened when you tried to fight him?" Merlin asked, urgent, still goldeneyed.
Arthur leaned against the cool stone of the wall, ribs aching. "I can't—" he said, swallowing. "He did something to me. Made me act strangely…I couldn't grip the sword."
"Damn," said Gwen. Arthur looked at her. Raised his eyebrows. She shrugged. "We've got to work out how to stop that."
"I'm not that important," said Arthur, with a little smile.
"You are," said Gwen, tightly. "You really are."
"The sword," Merlin said, fingers tightening around Arthur's arm, the ache throbbing in time with his heartbeat. "The sword from the lake! You can wield it no matter what."
Merlin closed his eyes, and the sword was suddenly there. It clattered to the flagstones in front of Arthur, and he picked it up in a swift motion, the pain fleeing immediately. Merlin smiled at Arthur, and then pressed a kiss to Arthur's lips.
"Take care," he said, and then he vanished.
Arthur reached into the empty air for him, but he was gone. Tamping down his disappointment, he tightened his grip on the sword.
"Wow," said Gwen. "That, I wasn't expecting."
"Neither was I," said Arthur, and he clenched his jaw. "He's using up all his magic. He thinks this is either going to be outright victory, or outright defeat."
"I didn't think you could use up magic…" Gwen began, as Arthur ran.
"Come on!" he called. There was a shadow on the stairs, someone coming up from the bright sunlight below; Arthur sprang, and hit, and then kept running, leaving the sorcerer stunned on the stairs behind him. He remembered how to fight, was a little astonished that he could just slip easily back into it. Gwen was only a few footfalls behind him, but she pulled up short when they saw a woman at the foot of the stairs. The Sorceress. She had a sword, was shifting her grip on it nervously.
"I won't let you pass," she said. Arthur steeled himself. He didn't want to fight her. "I'll use my magic."
"Really," said Arthur, taking one step closer. She stood her ground, but her pretty face was frozen in fear. "All right. Use it, then."
"Arthur," said Gwen, warningly.
"No," said Arthur, with another step. "Come on, my lady. Use your magic."
"Don't come any closer," said the Sorceress, raising the sword. She wasn't a swordsman; she'd wrench her arm out of the socket if she even tried to hit either of them.
"You're not using your magic because you can't," Arthur said, slowly, trying not to frighten her. "That's why you're using swords. That's why you're putting on this show. You're totally defenseless!"
"No!" said the Sorceress. "I'm not…I'm not…I'll…"
"Do you know what he does?" Arthur asked. "The King? Do you know he's been taking your magic — everyone's magic?"
"Lies," she hissed, but he could see the defeat in her face. He could also see, from his peripheral vision, Gwen moving very slowly and very calmly towards her. The Sorceress could see it too, because she turned, still brandishing the sword.
"Please," said Gwen, not stopping. "This will be easier if you yield. You're shaking."
"What will happen to me if I yield?" she asked.
"You will be prisoner," said Arthur. "If you don't yield, we'll have no choice but to stop you."
Her dress wasn't made to fight in. He wondered why, if the King had known that battle was imminent, that she hadn't been better prepared, that she hadn't known? She made a half-hearted lunge at Arthur, but he parried the blow as quick as thinking.
"Yield," he said, point to the centre of her chest, and she dropped her sword.
It was a little sad, Arthur thought, that the reign of sorcery was like this. It shouldn't be like this — it should be the sort of golden openness that Merlin reveled in, that worked with the land and the people, not against them. He shifted his stance.
"Tie her," he said, and Gwen nodded.
She pulled the sash from the Sorceress's waist and used it to tie the woman's hands tightly. Arthur swallowed. He'd never expected to see Gwen fight for him, obey his orders as a knight. She looked up at him, glowing with the heat of this little victory. For her part, the Sorceress yielded, her head hanging low.
"Take her to the dungeons," said Arthur. "She's not dangerous. Don't—don't hurt her."
He was surprised at himself, a little, about how much he wanted people to be all right. He'd fought before, killed men, hacked at bodies until the spark of life was gone — but he didn't want to, anymore. He wanted peace, quiet, time for men to be civil to each other. Time to curl up entwined with Merlin, and not worry that the world was going to come crashing in on them.
He must be getting old, he decided.
"I'll meet you in the Throne Room," Gwen said, and Arthur nodded.
Arthur used the secret passages to get downstairs. He ran past rooms, past spyholes, and everything he saw spurred him on — the laundresses trapping a swearing sorcerer in the linen cupboards, Tilde leading a charge up the stairs, a gout of magic blasting down a hallway and catching a steward off-guard. He winced, running as fast as he could. There was an exit near the kitchens; Uther had bricked up all of the passages to the throne room, making it impossible to get in there covertly. When I am king, Arthur thought, I'll have the bricks removed, and Merlin can set some sort of magical trap for any unwary assassins.
He scanned the corridor before stepping out. It was quiet — all of the staff were fighting, the entire castle, where it had lain dormant during the invasion of the sorcerers was up and armed now. Arthur padded down the hall, footfalls silent on the flagstones, and scoped out the next room. Men were battling there, bolts of magic sizzling through the air and rebounding from mirrored shields. Some enterprising combatants had pulled a mirror from the wall, and Arthur didn't blame them — he'd've done the same. His men were there — Gawain and Leon fought, back-to-back, and then apart, and Arthur braced himself, ready to run into the fray.
He rounded the corner, leading with his sword, falling into the fight as easy as breathing. He ducked a spell aimed at his head, and then swung around, his blade connecting with the ribs of a man who was about to cast a lightning bolt or something equally ridiculous at Arthur's head. He looked up, and shouted — there was a guard in the process of grabbing Gawain, using his size against the young knight, lifting Gawain from the ground.
"Gawain!" called someone, a strangled yelp, and out of the corner of Arthur's eye he saw an archer nock an arrow. Arthur threw the man he was fighting to the floor, knocking him out in the process, and then turned, ready to help Gawain, but the archer was firing, despite the confined space.
The arrow flew, straight and true, and the guard who had grabbed Gawain fell with a groan. Arthur looked up and saw the archer; he was about to be clobbered by a sorcerer who'd snuck up behind him. A bow was a lousy melee weapon, and even though this one looked like it had modifications to make it more dangerous in close quarters, it was still clumsy, unwieldy.
"Percy!" Gawain yelled, and the archer ducked, just in time for Leon to knock the sorcerer aside. The archer ran to Gawain's side, turning and bowing a little to Arthur.
"Perceval?" Arthur asked, surprised at how well the young sorcerer had scrubbed up.
"Percy's been brilliant!" said Gawain, with a broad grin. "He trained with them — he knew where they'd set an ambush site, so we ambushed them!"
"My lord," said Perceval, quickly. "It would seem I am in your debt." He glanced at Gawain, and then back at Arthur. "I mean…I'm willing to fight for you."
"Good," said Arthur, clapping him on the shoulder. "All right. We need to get to the throne room."
"Arthur," Leon said, wiping sweat from his brow as he got up from where he was checking the unconscious men. "Are you sure? That's where…" He looked at Perceval, and winced. "That's where those lot are gathering."
"Not all of them are bad," said Arthur, "and Merlin's in there. We have to get to him."
"My lord," said Leon, tipping his head to acknowledge Arthur's orders.
There was a roaring sound, like thunder. The walls rattled, tapestries and weapons falling onto the ground. It was hard to keep his feet, and Arthur thought for desperate, heart-stopping seconds that he was too late — that the pearl had broken open, but then there was an answering roar and this time the burst did knock them from their feet.
"They're duelling," said Perceval, the colour of chalk. "Remember, if a sorcerer is casting a spell, he has to concentrate! Sorcerers are open when they're casting."
"Come on!" Leon roared, and they ran, struggling to stay upright as the castle reverberated with huge shocks of magic, and as people ran for their lives from the throne room. Arthur shouldered through a crowd of people fleeing away from the thunder and the massive shocks that rocked the ground under them, that made dust cascade worryingly from the ceiling and onto their heads as they bolted like frightened rabbits. They reached the point where the corridor widened, and it was full of people, some standing strong, but most fleeing.
There was a burst of light from the charred door of the throneroom, and Arthur shoved his way through the throng to get in there. The tapestries were gone — the great table, gone — everything was charred and splintered, Merlin and the King circling each other like fighting cats.
This was dueling, but this time they were dueling for real. The fireballs were enormous, leaving smouldering debris in their wake, making the flagstones melt under the heat. There was no showmanship — it was all raw magic, huge and hot and terrible. Arthur could feel the pressure in the air, oppressive, like before a thunderstorm. The pearl sat on the remains of the table, a great lump of magic quivering on the flagstones. It seemed bigger even than when Arthur had last seen it.
Something hit him, right between the shoulderblades, and Arthur turned, winded. It was like a punch from the air, he decided, gasping for breath, trying to get his head right. There were men there, a phalanx of wizard guards, drawing him back and out of the room even as the need to help Merlin pushed him forth.
"No time," he said, by way of explanation. "Things aren't as they seem."
"Can't you feel it?" he heard Perceval call. "The King is taking your magic! He's ripping it away from you, like he took mine!"
One of the sorcerers faltered, pulling away. Arthur saw his chance. There was a crack of magic behind him, a rain of sparks as Merlin darted out of the way of a hissing ball of lightning, throwing back a huge wind that whistled and ripped through the room.
"Tell your fellow sorcerers to stop," he said, grabbing at the man's arm. "This is madness — they'll lose their magic, and gain nothing."
"I saw Emrys in the duels," the man said. "It was only a matter of time before he tried to take the throne; we swore to protect it."
"This isn't only about the throne," said Arthur, "it's about the magic. The magic is draining out of the world, and we know how to stop it."
The sorcerer dragged himself free. "Then why haven't you?"
Arthur swallowed hard. Because I'll die when I do, he thought. "Because the King has the means to stop it," he said. "I want to take it from him, and then I'll make it stop." He gestured to the pearl. "See that? There's your magic. There's every bit of incantation and illusion that you've all lost. And I can make it go away."
A sorcerer fell to Leon's blade as a squealing bolt of ice lanced over Arthur's head. The walls were shaking harder, now, as if the Castle were shivering with pain and fear.
"No!" yelled a sorcerer, as his magic failed. "Dagonet! I'm gone!"
"And me," said another, putting his hands up as Gawain approached. "It's getting worse."
"Let me help," Arthur said, and where he once would have used the sword that was in his hand, he swallowed the fear that was burning in his throat and spoke instead. "Stop fighting and watch him. Watch what he's doing — feel your magic." This was a gamble, he knew, and he remembered the dragon's words. "Is your magic bleeding away?"
He turned, just in time to see Merlin enveloped by a dark wreath of smoke that tightened and swirled, and Merlin push it back, away from himself, lines of light breaking through the smoke, burning it away until it was gone.
"Yield," said the King, as Arthur took in Merlin. He was shaking, his once-fine clothes burned. Even a mighty sorcerer couldn't hold back a flood of magic, magic that wouldn't run dry until there were no more sorcerers left to steal from.
"No," Merlin replied, and he raised both hands to shape a fireball. Arthur had to shield his eyes from the brightness, but it washed over the King like water. He stepped through it easily, tossing a lazy thunderbolt. Beside Arthur, the sorcerer twitched, and Arthur raised his sword, ready to fight for Merlin's life.
"Did you feel that?" asked one of the men.
"Stand down!" said the sorcerer, loudly. "Stand down, men; stand down or you risk your magic!"
"Too late," said another, his voice a painful rasp. "It's gone. I can feel it."
There was a commotion, and this time the light that Merlin threw was dimmer, a little less brilliant than it had been. Merlin's hands were invisible. He was losing — going to lose — and the King drew back, ready to tear a death-blow through Merlin's failing body. Arthur was running, then, his body reacting before his mind did, his need to protect Merlin strong, stronger than anything he'd ever felt before. It tore through him like white fire, and he was shouting, and the King turned just as Merlin ducked out of the way.
"No!" Arthur yelled, and he swung the sword, pushing through the cracking bone and sinew. It wasn't easy; the man gasped and gurgled his surprise, his flesh hard to pierce. The King looked at him, eyes shocked wide, and Arthur stepped back, using his foot to get enough leverage to shove the body of the King away from his blade. The fighting had stopped, the room trapped in a hush like a fly in amber — everything frozen, still, slow. Knights and wizards alike watched Arthur and the King, Arthur standing over the man who had held Camelot so tightly.
"There's no more magic left," said the King, and he sank to his knees, bleeding from the wound in his chest. "It's all gone."
Arthur risked a look over his shoulder at the pearl, and it was shaking, enormous, frightening. It hummed, making little crackling noises. He wasn't sure he could bear to look at Merlin — couldn't bear to see if Merlin was gone too, faded into the air.
"It's almost gone," said Merlin, weakly, and Arthur turned. "Arthur, get them out. I don't know that I can stop the last of the magic from sucking in there, and I don't know what'll happen when it does."
Arthur spun about to look at it, apprehensive. The pearl was rocking from side to side, like an egg just before it hatches, as if something were going to burst out, some great beast made of all the magic in the world, unstoppable, unshakeable. Arthur nodded.
"Wait for me," he said, getting up. People were milling about, uncertain; no-one wanted to challenge Arthur, not now that his sword was slimy with gore, not when the sorcerers waved useless fingers, when the knights were trying to corral them all. He scanned the crowd for someone he recognised. Ah. Leon. He strode over, pretending to ignore the people who stepped back from him.
Arthur grabbed Leon's shoulder to get his attention. "You have to get out," he said, pointing to the orb. "See that thing?"
"Yeah," said Leon. There was blood on his forehead, dirty with the fight. "Dangerous?"
"It's going to explode," Arthur replied. Anyone too near will die when the magic is released. "And when it does, it's going to bring down half the castle — you have to get the people out."
Leon's gaze flickered from Arthur to across the room where Gawain and Perceval were helping a wounded Balin to stand.
"Half the castle," he said. "And where will you be?"
"Merlin and I know how to stop it," Arthur lied. "Just do it, all right?"
"My lord," said Leon. "Gawain! Percy! Get everyone out! You've got five minutes!"
"Less," said Merlin, and Arthur moved to his side. "You heard him! Everyone, out — this place is unstable!"
They left, and Arthur heard the warning bells ring as if in some distant dream. There were the sounds of people running outside, yelling, and the distinctive call of one-two-three, and then silence from the bells that meant that it was time to leave. All he could see was Merlin — Merlin, who was nearly invisible, holding himself together until the room cleared of people. Arthur ran his hand over Merlin's shoulders, slowly. Merlin was shaking, a slight movement that might have gone unnoticed by another — but Arthur knew everything about Merlin; knew when he was happy, sad, lonely, excited, scared — and Merlin was frightened, hurt.
"Arthur," Merlin said, and curled closer to him. The sparks that arced over Merlin's skin were more obvious now; they lined every crease, every movement of muscle.
"I'm here," he said.
"You can't stay with me," said Merlin, quietly.
"I'm not letting you go," Arthur said, hot and furious. "Not like this. Not ever again."
"I don't think we have a choice," Merlin replied.
Arthur glanced around, his eyes settling on the pearl. It shook, fat and glistening on the stone floor.
"If I destroy that, then all of this goes away, doesn't it?" he asked. Merlin closed his eyes. "Merlin, answer me!"
"Arthur, please," said Merlin, his voice breaking. "It's too late. It won't help — you need to save yourself."
"Merlin," Arthur replied, his heart aching. He wrapped both arms around Merlin. "God, you idiot. Even if you do fade…I…"
Merlin leaned into Arthur, and they kissed, hands grasping for purchase, as if they were trying to crawl under one another's skin, climb inside one another and be safe there. The room was getting warmer, Arthur was sure of it. The heat coming from the pearl was like a bonfire, making his skin tight and pink. The orb was growing, getting bigger and bigger even as he watched, as Merlin faded and the King's body cooled.
"It's time," said Merlin, and his fingers curled around the pommel of Arthur's sword. "I'm sorry."
Merlin got to his feet, struggling with the weight of the sword.
"Now go," he said, stepping towards the orb. Arthur shook his head.
"No," he said. "I won't let you. Not on your own. Besides, you can't wield the sword — only I can. The dragon said."
Merlin straightened, preparing to strike until Arthur moved to his side. Arthur wrapped both arms around Merlin, holding him tightly.
"Don't," Merlin said, his voice hoarse, his skin sparking under Arthur's touch.
"It's better," Arthur whispered, into his hair. "At least we'll be remade together."
He could feel the heat spreading, radiating out as more of Merlin vanished, and he pushed Merlin behind him. Merlin grabbed his hand.
"Then I won't let you do this without me," Merlin said, and Merlin wrapped an arm around Arthur's waist to steady them both before they swung, both hands clasping the grip of the sword, both bodies working as one. The blade hit the orb with a sound like a clanging bell, and then Arthur felt the light, pushing through every fibre of his being, hot and fierce, and he clung to Merlin and knew nothing more.
Arthur burned. Half-remembered dreams tugged at him, trying to pull him out, but there were the flames and he couldn't breathe, couldn't get air in because he was burning, burning from the inside out. He tried to gasp, tried to get away, tried to struggle but his hands were tied, the kindling at his feet starting to catch and he could see himself, sitting across the courtyard, his father's hand on his shoulder.
There were tears on his face.
He sucked in a lungful of smoke, and coughed out a breath, feeling the heat of the flames licking at his feet. He could still see himself, blurry through the haze, but he threw off Uther's hand, standing, drawing his sword. It gleamed through the smoke, a line of light as Arthur jumped the barrier, shoving past the guards who tried to stop his progress. One guard turned, and then another, and then all of them were destroying the pyre, kicking the logs away, and Arthur was face-to-face with himself, in another life. The crown he wore was light, and he cut the ropes that dug into Arthur's wrists with a sweep of his sword.
"You're free," he said, and took off his crown, offering it to Arthur. Arthur stretched out his hands, feeling the blood rush back into them, and he reached out for the crown and took it.
There was something over him, and for a second he thought it was a shroud, and he struggled with it, trying to kick it away.
"Oi," said a muffled voice, and Arthur blinked, orienting himself. It wasn't a shroud, it was a quilt, and when he touched his forehead, he wasn't wearing a crown. He was in bed, and there, blinking slowly as he raised his head from the other pillow, was Merlin. Merlin smiled, and there was something different about him. Arthur propped himself up on one elbow, reaching out to run his fingers through Merlin's dark hair; this man looked like the Merlin that Arthur remembered, the man from so long ago. Merlin smiled, turning his head so that Arthur's fingers trailed along his cheek.
"Did I die?" Arthur asked. Merlin shook his head. "Did you?"
"I've never felt more alive," he replied, shifting up and onto his elbows.
"So what happened?" Arthur asked. Merlin leaned close and kissed him, soft lips that brushed his, ticklish. Wonderful.
"We got it right," said Merlin, close to Arthur's mouth. Arthur knew he shouldn't think through kisses, but the thoughts were there, bubbling to the surface, even as he stroked his palms down Merlin's smooth side, leaning back and trying to pull Merlin's body onto his own. They got it right. The King and the Sorcerer.
"Seriously?" asked Arthur, as Merlin rolled onto him, straddling him. He ached all over, from the bruises on his knees to the graze on his shoulder. Every muscle yearned for a long stretch, for the pleasure/pain of being pulled out and drawn in again.
"Yes," said Merlin, leaning over him. "We got it right."
"How did we end up here, then?" Arthur asked, sweeping the pads of his fingers along Merlin's bare collarbone, tracing down the line of his sternum, soft over bruises. Merlin looked just as sore as Arthur felt. "Last thing I remember, we were in the throne room."
"You were carried up here," said a soft, amused voice, and Arthur looked to the doorway to see Gwen standing there. "How long have you been awake for?"
"Not long enough," said Merlin, shuffling off Arthur, seemingly content to sit curled at his side. He patted the bedclothes. "What happened?"
Gwen shut the door behind her, sitting on top of the covers. "I don't really know," she said. "I thought you were both dead when I heard the explosion. Half the castle is ruined."
"Are people all right?" Arthur asked. "Was anyone — anyone hurt?"
"A few people," said Gwen, tracing patterns in the rough pile of the velvet bedspread with her fingertips. "Some were killed in the initial rush of the fighting; it looks like most people got out of the building before it came down." She shivered. "The Sorcerer-King is dead. He was on the floor of the throne room, like you were."
"The Sorceress?" asked Merlin. "Is she…?"
"Alive," said Gwen. "But fled. I was — we were trying to work out what to do with her when the castle went up. She used her magic on me, and then she ran."
"Ah," said Merlin. "That's not good."
"Is Lucan…?" Arthur asked, swallowing. "The boy who Lancelot took to Gaius. Is he all right?"
"He will be," said Gwen. "He was one of the worst hurt." She tucked a tuft of Arthur's hair behind his ear. "I thought you were both dead. Again."
"Seems to happen to us a lot," said Arthur, sitting up. He caught Gwen's hand between his own, realising as he did so that she was shaking. "It's all right. We're both fine." He pressed her palm to his chest so that she could feel his heartbeat. "Look. Alive."
"I know," she said, a little wobbly. "But when we went into the room…you were just on the floor together, so still and so…" She blinked a bit, offering him a weak smile. "If you ever try that again, I'll hit you with my sword."
Merlin tucked his chin onto Arthur's shoulder. "You won't have to worry," he said. "I'm not going to let that happen either."
Gwen shook her head. "Same goes for you too. Two fake deaths is quite enough."
Merlin's body was warm next to his own, and Arthur felt him shiver a little. Not quite fake deaths, he thought, but there was little sense in telling anyone else that. He nodded.
"Where's Lucan?" he asked. "Is he somewhere that I can go and see him?"
"Gaius's rooms," said Gwen. "We put the two of you up here so that you weren't so much on display. Gaius said it wouldn't be good to separate you, so we didn't. I got Leon and Lancelot to bring you up here; some of the staff said that Merlin had been staying up here in Arthur's chambers."
Arthur's chambers rang in his brain, and he realised with a little jolt that it had been too long since he'd thought of them in that way. Arthur nodded.
"All right," he said. "We'll get dressed and go to see Lucan." He looked around. "Ah. Clothes?" He was wearing trousers, he thought, but he didn't have his shirt. When he shuffled the covers off, the trousers were charred. Merlin's clothes were similarly damaged, and Arthur wondered what they'd looked like when the others had found them, if his clothes were this bad.
"Your old things are still in the cupboard," said Merlin, as Arthur got up. Arthur turned to look at him, his hair sticking up, covers pooled at his waist, and a bright blush starting to form over his cheeks. "I mean — I um — didn't have the heart to throw them away, or use them myself."
"I'll wait for you outside," said Gwen, getting up. "I'll take you downstairs, if you like."
"Take us?" asked Arthur, opening a drawer. "Why?"
"You're in a bit of demand," said Gwen, with a wicked smile. "Come on, hurry up."
They didn't hurry. Merlin caught Arthur staring at one of his old, fine shirts, running his fingers over the fabric, trying to remember what it was like to just throw on something like this and then hurry downstairs. Merlin took the shirt from him, helping him into it, pulling out a jerkin to wear over the top. He tightened Arthur's belt, the clothes sitting differently, Merlin's fingertips nimble and gentle where he brushed Arthur's skin.
"I'll just—" Merlin said, clicking his fingers and his ruined clothes were replaced by fresh, clean garments. Arthur blinked.
"Can you not do that, next time?" he asked.
"Why?" Merlin asked. Arthur reached for Merlin's cloak, which was still hanging on the back of a chair.
"Because I'd rather like to dress you, too," he said. "You never let me."
"I didn't want you to see my invisible bits," said Merlin, as Arthur fastened the cloak around Merlin's shoulders. "Well, back then I didn't. I suppose it's habit."
"Will you still…?" Arthur asked. Merlin shrugged.
"I don't know," he said. "I suppose I won't until I really push my magic; use it for something big. I don't feel like I will."
They used the back way to get to Gaius's rooms. There was glass in some of the corridors, the windows shattered when the pearl had been broken, and Arthur picked his way around it, looking out at the rubble in the courtyard. The castle had always seemed so permanent, so solid, but there were chunks of masonry on the ground, people moving around them, trying to work out what needed to be done to move them, to get life back to normal.
He'd expected there to be a line at Gaius's door, but instead it was open, people coming and going as they needed to.
"Gaius," said Gwen, and Gaius looked up, his frown of concentration softening into a huge grin.
"My boys," he said, getting up. "You're up and about!"
Arthur returned the enthusiastic hug that Gaius gave him, patting him awkwardly on the shoulder. Uther had never really been one for paternal hugs, and Arthur felt a little twinge, knowing, though, that this could never have come to pass under Uther's reign.
"And you're all right?" Merlin was asking. "Did he strip away your magic? Is it back?"
"It's back," said Gaius, flexing his fingers. "It feels different, though; stronger."
"And Lucan?" asked Arthur. Gaius nodded.
"In your old room," he said. "He'll be all right."
They went through, quietly, in case Lucan was asleep. He wasn't. Tilde was sitting on his bed, her knees across his, telling him all the things he'd missed. She beamed when she saw Arthur.
"Arthur!" She hugged him, kissing both his cheeks. "You're okay! They said you were still alive, but no-one knows and it's been — it's been a bit of a weird few days."
"Few days?" Arthur asked, astonished.
"Yes," said Gaius, from behind them. "It's been days. We were a little despairing of you waking up."
"Good thing we did," said Merlin, quietly. "Gaius, there's something I want to check…will you help me?"
They left, and Arthur sat beside the bed, taking in Lucan's bandaged arm. "Are you all right?" he asked.
"I will be," said Lucan. Arthur nodded.
"You saved my life," he said, his throat suddenly tight.
"You saved mine," Lucan replied, "when they first attacked. And you — are you…?"
"I'm fine," Arthur said.
"There," said Lucan, to Tilde, "if Arthur can run around, then I'm well enough to get up and out of bed. Seeing's I've been stuck here for days, you harpy."
"On your own head," Tilde replied, rolling her eyes. "I'm going to go help Meg in the kitchens, if that's the way you're going to be."
"I'll let you get dressed," said Arthur, because he wasn't good with talking. Lucan nodded. "Thank you."
"My lord," he said, softly, touching his hand to his throat and Arthur realised that Lucan shared the same scar as he — a raised line where the collar had cut into his neck. Arthur closed the door behind him, and Tilde vanished off to the kitchens as Merlin went through books.
"The ruined ones are still ruined," said Merlin, looking up at Arthur.
"Geoffery was most upset," Gaius added, flipping through pages. "I think this one might have what you're looking for in it, Merlin."
There was a shocked sound from the doorway. "My lord!" Arthur turned to see Leon there, mouth open, hanging onto the door frame. "I was given to think you were at death's door!"
"Apparently I wasn't," said Arthur. Merlin shook his head.
"No, I think we were," he said, biting his lip. "I just think we might not have walked through."
"I came to see if I could find Gwen," said Leon, shaking Arthur's hand. "I…you were so still and cold, and everything around you was burned."
Arthur looked at Merlin, and Merlin gave him an I don't know look in return.
"A sorcerer," said Gaius, reading from the book, "a true lord of the Old Magic, must know both life and death for himself. When the once and future King rises, then the last lord of the Old Magic will rise as his protector. Together, they will face eternity unbowed and undefeated—"
"That's a children's story," said Leon, but he didn't let go of Arthur's hand.
"Once and future king?" Arthur asked, and Gaius nodded.
"That's stupid," said Arthur, pulling away from Leon. "I mean…I'm not some sort of great king."
"Look around you, Arthur," said Gaius. "There are a number of people who fought for you who would beg to differ. And there's already rumours about your sword."
"My sword?" Arthur asked.
Gaius shook his head, looking away with a giant grin. "Oh, you have to see your sword."
"I'll take him," said Leon. "Gwen, Lancelot is looking for you; he's in the armoury. Wants some help working out what can be fixed, and what needs to be melted for scrap."
"Good," said Gwen, with a little nod. "Gentleman, I'll see you later."
"I'll catch up to you," said Merlin. "There's one or two more things I want to read."
"You're sure?" Arthur asked. Merlin hummed, not looking up.
"I'm sure," he said.
Leon took the more regularly used corridors, and most of the glass seemed to have been cleaned up from there; tapestries were re-hung, although a suit of armour was still a muddled pile on the floor. People shied away from Arthur and Leon, scurrying about their duty, about making the castle a homely place again. No-one was meeting Arthur's eyes, and he couldn't work out why — it wasn't like he'd exploded part of the castle deliberately.
There was a distinct draught as they got nearer to the throne room, the hall filled with rubble. Miraculously, the main walls of the room were still standing, but the ceiling had been blown off, huge blocks of stone littering the ground, a blasted circle in the middle of the floor, opalescent and shining like the burned rocks in the dragon's cave had been.
"Oh," said Arthur. "That's — inconvenient."
His sword was stuck in the floor, right in the middle of the burned circle. It explained why the other servants had skittered around him a bit, as if they were frightened he'd hit them, and when he got close, he realised that the sword itself wasn't damaged, but the stone under it had melted in the fire of the escaping magic. He flicked it with a fingernail, and it hummed.
"No-one really knows what to do with it," said Leon. "We didn't really want to pull it out."
"You won't be able to," said Merlin, and Arthur turned to see him in the doorway, long lines of sunlight dappling the floor of the ruined hall, coming in through the holes in the roof. His smile made Arthur feel like being warm and cold all at once, and he resisted the urge to move back to Merlin's side, grab onto his hand to make sure that he was real.
"You're right," said Leon, scratching the back of his head. "It's in there pretty deep."
"That," said Merlin, moving to Arthur's side, pulling back his sleeve to check the old scar from the snakebite, "and the fact that the only person who can free the sword is the true king." Arthur stared at him.
Merlin's fingertips along the line of white scar tissue were half-ticklish, half-soothing, and he returned Arthur's stare with a mischevious smile.
"Right," said Leon. "And no-one seems to know if that's you or Arthur."
"Idiots," said Merlin, taking Arthur's hand. "Of course it's Arthur."
"And the sorcerers?" asked Leon. "Will they follow a servant king? I've been listening to people talking."
"They will when his consort is the great wizard Emrys," said Arthur, and Leon coughed.
"Right," said Leon. "Right. I — well — we all knew, but you're going to — right. Times will change; you've no idea how pleased Gawain is going to be to hear that."
"Merlin," said Merlin, gazing at Arthur. "I'm Merlin. I've always been Merlin."
Arthur suspected that if Merlin kept watching him like that, he'd have to do something outrageous, like kiss Merlin in the middle of the hall.
"I'll just — check the fortifications, shall I?" asked Leon.
"Wait," said Merlin, "I'll come with you. I want to see how the sorcerers are faring. Arthur?"
"I think I might stay here," said Arthur, and his voice felt a bit distant, like he was looking at things from the outside. Merlin paused. "No, really, I'm fine. I just want to — take a few minutes to think."
They left him, their footsteps ringing on the stones, the sounds of people working in the yard drifting in through the open roof. Quietly, Arthur looked around, pacing up to his sword. He looked around — didn't want anyone else to see him. He put his hand on the hilt, and pulled, and his hand slid off the hilt, the sword refusing to budge.
Well, it's not as if it wasn't worth a go, Arthur thought, his heart beating so fast that he thought it might shake him apart. Only the true king could free the sword, Merlin had said, but Arthur couldn't make it budge. What if Merlin had got it wrong — if someone else was the true king. If Merlin was, or anyone or—
He had to get out of there. If Arthur wasn't the king, would Merlin still—no, that was a stupid thought. What would happen? Would the kingdom fall again? Had they actually got it wrong, was the world still waiting for everything to fall back into place? He walked, not knowing whether to go and find Merlin, or whether to go and hide.
The kitchens smelled like fresh bread as he paced past. The kitchens. He slipped in the door, resting against the wall, trying to calm his hammering heart. He closed his eyes, feeling the cool stone of the wall through the back of his shirt.
"Arthur?" asked a voice. He opened his eyes.
"Meg?" he asked, and worry caught his attention. "Are you—is your son—?"
"He's fine," she said, smiling at him. "And look at you, you lovely creature. Come here." She hugged him tightly, pulling back to hold his shoulders. "What is it? You're trembling."
"I'm all right," he said, and she shook her head, turning back to the cooking. "You're on your own?"
"Everyone else is out shoring up the castle," she said. "They've got to eat."
"Here," said Arthur, as Meg tried to knead the bread and check the pots all at once. "Let me."
His hands were strong, and kneading was good, honest work. He could take all of the worry that was quaking in his chest and push it out, push it down into the bread.
"Oi, it's not some sort of fight," said Meg, when he beat the dough hard.
"Sorry," Arthur said, looking up at her. "So what happened with your boy? Was it that last potion that worked?"
"No," she said, stirring a pot. "It seems — it seems he's a sorcerer. Gaius thinks he was so sick because his magic is strong."
"There's sorcerers everywhere," said Arthur, shaping a loaf. "You'd think they were like iron to a lodestone — I don't know if they're popping up because of Merlin, or if they're just more obvious."
There was a shuffle of footsteps in the doorway, and Arthur looked up to see Lancelot there.
"My lord," he said. "Thank goodness; if you'd care to come with me?"
"Yes," said Arthur. "One minute."
He could feel Lancelot's gaze on him. "I couldn't find you. Gave me a bit of a shock," he said, and Arthur nodded.
"Sorry," he said, and he could see Meg's barely-suppressed grin from the corner of his eye. "I'll just finish this."
He shaped the last loaf, putting it in to prove. "Good work, Arthur," said Meg. "I see you've come on from when I last saw you make bread."
"I have," said Arthur, proud of a job well done, the shaking gone, but the sick fear still at the pit of his stomach. "If you'll excuse me, Meg?"
She kissed his cheek, and Lancelot and Arthur fell into step beside each other easily, as if there weren't great holes in the walls, as if they were just ordinary knights on an ordinary day.
"You were working in the kitchens," said Lancelot.
"She needed the help," Arthur replied. "There's a lot of people missing or injured, including some of the regular staff."
"It seems to me," said Lancelot, "that Merlin isn't the only one who has changed."
They climbed up onto a crumbled bit of masonry to examine the cracks in the castle walls, the sorcerers who were trying to fill them with magic. Merlin was floating a little bit above the ground, trying to work out what needed to go where. He smiled when he saw Arthur, and floated back to the ground.
"Show-off," said Arthur. Merlin flexed his fingers.
"It's so good," he said, with a sigh. "I feel like I'm me again."
Arthur took a step forward. "And…?"
"Oh," said Merlin, closing the distance between them. "It feels marvelous."
Any fear that Arthur might have secretly harboured that Merlin wouldn't care for him once he fully came back to himself was swept away when Merlin kissed him in front of an audience of sorcerers and knights. Merlin stroked his fingers over Arthur's lapels, making sure his jerkin sat straight.
"How's it going?" asked Arthur.
"Slowly," said Merlin, with a faint smile. "You're feeling all right?"
"Sort of," said Arthur, and Merlin curled a possessive hand at Arthur's hip.
"What?" Merlin asked. Arthur swallowed.
"I couldn't move the sword," he said, all in one quick breath, as quietly as he could, lest Lancelot hear. Merlin kissed him again, this time soft and brief. Someone whooped from above them, and Merlin grinned, shaking his head.
"You will when you're crowned," he said. "Trust me."
"I do," said Arthur, leaning in to Merlin's touch. They both turned when there was a shout, ready to move, ready to fight. Arthur's hand went for his sword, but he grasped at the empty air, nothing at his hip. He relaxed when he realised it was Perceval and Gawain.
"Don't do that," said Lancelot, when Gawain reached them. "You nearly got a bolt of magic in your head." He gestured up to the men and women repairing the masonry, disturbed by the shout. "How is the lower town?"
"Better," said Gawain. "We've fixed the biggest hole, but more needs to be done. Balin's organising night patrols."
"Merlin!" said Perceval, ignoring everyone else. "Merlin, look!"
He waved his hand, eyes flashing bright silver, and bubbles danced from his fingertips, turning into brightly coloured butterflies when they popped. The flock of insects flew around them, some settling in Lancelot's hair, some on Arthur's shoulders, one on Merlin's outstretched finger.
"That's brilliant!" said Merlin, with a huge grin. "Is it all back?"
"I think so!" Perceval was practically bouncing like a ball. "When the Castle exploded…it just…"
"Came back with such a force that it knocked him flat," said Gawain. "I thought he'd died."
Lancelot chuckled. "What Gawain is not telling you is that he sat guard over Percy's bedroll all night until he woke up again," he said. Arthur nodded, pleased, and Gawain went bright, bright pink.
"It seems the more powerful you were, the worse the magic affected you," said Percy, with a little hint of smugness to his tone. "Except Merlin stopped both of you from dying."
"Merlin stopped it, did he?" Arthur asked, as Merlin tangled their fingers together.
"I might have had some help," said Merlin, squeezing. "Come on, then, Percy. Let's see how good you are at mending stone."
It was still relatively early when they retired, even though Arthur felt like it was close to midnight. Merlin was pale and tired, his eyes dark with fatigue. He rested his head against Arthur's, forehead to forehead, eyes closed. Arthur ran his hands through Merlin's hair, tucking the unruly strands behind his ears.
"Arthur," Merlin said, softly.
"Come to bed," said Arthur. "Come to bed, Merlin. You've done enough today."
"There's so much," said Merlin, his hands tugging at Arthur's shirt, fingers loose in their grasp. "Arthur, I can't rest. There's too much more to do."
"You can rest," said Arthur, as Merlin curled the fingers of one hand at his neck. "You are allowed to rest. I'm going to be the king, and I say you can rest."
"But the fortifications…"
"Can be taken care of by Lancelot," said Arthur. "Come on. Bed."
Merlin was easy to manhandle, easy to drag down onto the mattress. Sorcerers, Arthur realised, acted alone. Even the Sorcerer-King hadn't been able to work with others. Merlin didn't know about letting the men guard the borders, didn't know what it was like to have a First Knight, didn't know how to share responsibility. He kissed Merlin's neck.
"You don't have to do everything yourself," he whispered softly. Merlin exhaled, a hot line of breath, and he leaned in to Arthur's touch. Arthur caught both of Merlin's wrists in one hand, and Merlin let him, let Arthur stretch his pale arms above his head, holding them there while Arthur kissed Merlin, wet mouths and the taste of Merlin's magic passing between them. It was that wine-dark feeling, the way that the magic made Arthur's body hum, and he wanted more of it, wanted to press Merlin to the mattress and take and take and take.
"Consort," said Merlin, contentedly. "You could have asked me."
Arthur bent his head to suck softly at Merlin's neck. "Would you have said no?"
"I like Consort," said Merlin. "I like it better as a title than Court Sorcerer. I don't have to wear a livery, do I?"
"I rather think," Arthur said, the hard line of Merlin's cock pressing into the groove of his hip, "that part of the point of being a Consort is that you spend a certain amount of the day not wearing anything." Merlin laughed, wriggling his hand free so that he could reach between them.
It was like there was a presence in his body, that he was being controlled. Merlin slipped his fingers over Arthur's lips, and Arthur's opened his mouth to taste them, to suck on Merlin's thumb, the salt-sweat like the sea.
"I want to show you something," said Merlin, his voice hoarse, their bodies coming together and then parting for just the briefest of seconds, Merlin's other hand around both of their cocks, needy pressure where his fingers gripped. "Will you let me?"
"Anything," Arthur replied, and Merlin brushed his palm down Arthur's neck, flat, warm hand on his chest, his stomach, his thigh. Merlin let go of their cocks, the release from the pressure of his hand almost unbearable, and Arthur sucked in a breath when he felt the blunt press of fingers reach around behind him.
"Relax," Merlin said, as Arthur leaned into his touch. Merlin's eyes shimmered, and Arthur felt a change in the friction, felt Merlin's fingers slide across his skin, burning where he stretched. "All right?"
"All right," Arthur replied, barely audible, Merlin's cock sliding over his skin while Merlin's fingers worked him open. The air was heavy, the sound of their thick breaths filling the space between them. Arthur bent his head to suck kisses along Merlin's throat, nipping at the salt skin, gasping against Merlin's neck when he felt something larger than fingers, softer, more insistent, pushing. Merlin hissed, leaning into Arthur for a kiss that was wet and impatient, each breathing against the other's lips until Merlin was inside Arthur, huge and possessive and possessed.
"Sit up," Merlin said, into the breath between them, gentle hands now at Arthur's shoulders.
He raised himself up, feeling the long muscles in his thighs heat a little as he did, a pleasurable ache, as Merlin ran his fingers from where their bodies met and down Arthur's legs, and then up again, soft on his inner thighs, then his balls, then one thumb brushing over the head of his cock. It was so good it hurt, it made Arthur's hips shudder, and he felt the answering jolt from Merlin's body. He looked at Merlin beneath him, flushed and shining, lips parted in anticipation, goldeneyed. Merlin thrust up, and then pulled back a little, just tiny increments, just enough to push and pull and drag on Arthur's skin, just enough to make him burn with want, magic hot and cold on his skin, inside him, everywhere. Arthur lifted himself again, letting Merlin move further, and the rough sound that Merlin made as Arthur sank back onto his cock made Arthur's skin prickle with anticipation.
"Was this," Arthur moved, "what you wanted," Merlin grabbed Arthur's hips with both hands, directing him, "to show me?"
"Almost," said Merlin, and he pulled Arthur back down, fingers raking up Arthur's back to push him onto Merlin's chest, his cock trapped between them, Merlin's mouth hot on Arthur's. They rolled, and Merlin was suddenly pressing him into the mattress. Arthur opened his legs a little wider, encouragingly, trying to get some friction on his aching prick, Merlin's body strong against his own. Merlin drew out a little, further than he had, and then maddeningly slowly fucked back in.
"Merlin," Arthur gasped. "Come on. Anything."
Merlin thrust again, this time a little faster, and Arthur ached for him, ached to be shoved and pushed and pulled as he tried to change the pace, tried to get Merlin hot and fast and wanton. The magic was crackling around them now, and through Arthur's body, and it was heady and irresistible. He could see why men would fight for this — for the chance to have magic be a part of them, for the chance to feel this. Merlin was moving now, and Arthur's world got smaller, came down to this space that was Merlin's body against his own, the thrum of magic between them, the smell of sweat and sex and the hot metallic smell of sorcery. Arthur's cock was held between their stomachs, too close to push a hand in, but the magic was surrounding him, swirling like a feather, like the hard press of fingers, like a wet tongue tracing every vein and crease. Merlin kissed him as Arthur came, spilling hot over their skin, feeling his body twitch and pulse around Merlin's length, around the magic itself, and then Merlin was panting out endearments, hot inside Arthur, filling him completely. The tension went out of Merlin's body, and he collapsed onto Arthur, chests together, breathing in time as Arthur kept Merlin close, arms and legs wrapped around him, Arthur's broad palm in the small of Merlin's back, bumping noses, the magic shimmering over them and leaving tiny thrills of pleasure in its wake.
It felt like forever before either of them moved; a small forever before Merlin slowly withdrew, his hand on Arthur's stomach to catch the little shudders that wracked Arthur's body as he shifted.
"All right?" Merlin asked, stroking Arthur's hip.
"Brilliant," Arthur said, but anything else was probably a bit much effort. "You?"
"Mmm," Merlin managed, sounding at least as wrecked as Arthur felt. He wrapped loose, pliant arms around Arthur, arranging them both so that their bodies were comfortably entwined. The air was cold on Arthur's damp skin, and before he even had a chance to say anything, the bedspread twitched up and around their shoulders. He closed his eyes, tiny golden sparks invading the dark, lulling him to sleep as he listened to the steady thrum of Merlin's heart.
Arthur had always thought that feasts just happened, before he'd been a servant. You ordered a feast, and the staff scurried around, and then there was food. He'd learned otherwise; the days spent making dishes, sourcing the meat for the pantry, cooking and cleaning and decanting wine. So he was rather impressed with the fact that between them, the servants and sorcerers had organised a feast for the coronation at such short notice; Tilde and Meg had organised it between them, a battalion of servants cooking. Meg swatted Arthur out of the kitchens more than once; it was a good, safe space when all of the planning and the rumbling from the various sides of the coin made his head spin.
The servants were firmly on Team Arthur, whereas the sorcerers (for the most part) were on Team Merlin. Merlin was running himself ragged trying to explain that there were no teams, and that really, you didn't vote for a king in any case, and that Arthur was going to be crowned whether anyone else liked it or not. Arthur felt a little like a leaf on the surface of a river — he was going to be carried along downstream; events would unfold no matter what he did.
Things came to a head when those most faithful to each side gathered for the coronation. Merlin had insisted that it happen where the sword could be drawn from the stone in full view of everyone; the thought made Arthur squirm, even though he trusted Merlin. He'd tried to pull it out again, and only got a sore hand for his troubles; disappointing, and a little frightening. Arthur had trembled when Merlin dressed him, and Merlin had been no better, patting at Arthur's clothes, fluttering nervously, and not at all like the most powerful sorcerer in the land.
They lit a fire in the ruins of the room, huge and warm; Merlin stayed back from the flames, but Arthur reveled in the heat, feeling it sear along his cheeks, make him ruddy and warm. The flames danced, lighting the walls and flickering, balls of the magical light roiling just out of reach above them. Arthur looked through to see a few stars, their light faint but still making its way through to the floor. People were filing in, and Arthur listened, standing still and quiet.
"—There's no tables, why aren't there any—"
"—Once a Pendragon, always a Pendragon, I say."
"—Emrys says he supports the boy as king, but who knows what happened in here really."
The bells rang, chiming out into the night, and people stopped, looking around as Merlin took his place beside Arthur.
"Shall we begin?" Merlin asked, and the people were silent, standing around them. "You are here to witness this, those of you who are still loyal to Camelot, and to this kingdom. This is a sacred duty, and this is a deed that shall not be undertaken lightly. You must understand that by being here in this moment, you are pledging your fealty to the King, and to the land, and to the return of magic. If this is not your choice, then you should leave."
No-one moved. Arthur looked at the crowd, seeing Leon, standing near the back, and then Lancelot and Gwen. Gwen was smiling at him, Lancelot's hand on her shoulder, and Arthur grinned back despite his nerves. Merlin looked at him, and he cleared his throat.
"There are two forces," said Arthur, looking at the people he didn't know — sorcerers who'd been on the battlements, mending the stonework, sorcerers who he'd seen kneel for Merlin. Sorcerers who he'd served, at one dinner or another. "There are those of you who support Merlin as king, and those who are loyal to me." People cheered, and muttered, and Arthur opened his palms, taking in the audience with a sweeping gesture. "You do not have to be opposed. That's what's been wrong, all these years. When we ignore magic, the people and the land are not whole. When we rely only on magic, then what is mundane will suffer. We have to find a place for both."
"You're Uther Pendragon's son!" called a man wearing the robes of a sorcerer. "Why should we believe you?"
"Because I am not my father," said Arthur, at the same time as Merlin said: "Because I believe him."
Arthur turned to Merlin, holding out a hand to him. Merlin took it.
"I have just cause to hate and fear the name of Pendragon," said Merlin. "I was burned at the stake by Uther. So believe me when I tell you that this man is not Uther. If we cannot find a common ground in Camelot, where shall we find it? You have been working alongside the knights to repair the walls of the castle, have you not?"
"There must be proof," added a woman. "Let him do the impossible and raise the sword of the king. I will follow him gladly, if he is the one destined for this."
Merlin laughed. "Is that the proof that you want?" he asked. "Very well."
Arthur folded his fingers around the pommel of the sword. This is it, he thought. Time to see whether they'd got it right, once and for all. He pulled, expecting the resistance, for the sword to stay firmly and humiliatingly stuck, but the sword slid out of the stone as if it were cutting silk. He raised it above his head as the fire leaped high, a pillar of flame that billowed into the air. Merlin put both hands into the air, between them the air was glowing bright like a lantern. The assembled crowd were silent, deadly, frightened silence.
"You who are here will bear witness to this," Merlin said, his voice echoing. "You will bear witness, and this moment will be recorded throughout history."
Merlin, Arthur decided, had a very theatrical streak when he wanted to have one. He raised his hands, and between them a crown took shape — not Uther's crown, nor the crown of the Sorcerer-King. This crown reminded Arthur of something, and he searched his memory, finally working it out. It was the crown of the old limestone king, far below their feet in the bottom of the castle. Arthur smiled; it seemed somehow fitting.
"Arthur Pendragon, come forth," said Merlin. "I call upon you on behalf of this land and those who dwell upon it. Are you prepared to face your destiny?"
"I am," said Arthur, even though he wasn't sure what that destiny would be.
"Will you endeavour to rule wisely?"
"I will," said Arthur. He'd need advisors, he thought, one from every level of the castle hierachy. Maybe more.
"Will you love your people, and the land?"
"I do," said Arthur. "I…I mean, I will."
"Will you fear no man, and do what is right?"
Arthur thought of a day, a day that had to be nearly a year ago, when the flames had leaped for a different reason, and what could have been different had he done the right thing then.
"I will do what is right," said Arthur, "and I will fear no man."
"Then I give you this crown," said Merlin. "Wear it well."
He'd never seen a coronation like this. He'd only been to a few, in neighbouring kingdoms, and they were usually hours long and interminably boring. The crown settled upon his head, and it was heavy — heavier than he'd expected — but he supposed he'd get used to it. The fire died away.
"You who are witnesses to this deed," said Merlin, "you will be the first knights of the land." There was a little gasp from Lucan, and a few of the others; whispers about what they felt they were — not noble, not brave, not — Merlin waved a hand, but it was Arthur who spoke.
"You are brave," he said. "You are loyal, when given reason to be loyal to your people and your land. There will be call for men to be more than just fighters."
"We are loyal to the King, sire," said a familiar voice, and Arthur looked to see Gawain standing tall amid the assembled crowd.
"Yes," added Perceval. "We are loyal to the King."
"As are we," said Tilde, dragging Lucan to his feet.
"And I," said Gwen, and more people stepped forward. Merlin was beaming, and his broad grin was reflected on the faces of the crowd; Arthur looked up and into the stars, and he wished for a second that his father could be there, that Uther could see the man his son had become, the monarch he would be. His heart soared, his body feeling as light as air, as if the crown on his head was little more than ballast, keeping him steady as he moved into the future. The moment broke with a cheer, and with Merlin quietening the crowd.
"Come forth, King Arthur," he said. "May your reign be without end."
It was more cheers, after that, and people congratulating him, and Leon trying to shake his hand but ending up giving Arthur the most awkward hug ever, and Merlin standing barely a breath behind Arthur, close enough that Arthur could feel the warmth of Merlin's body against his own.
"Grub's up!" called a bright voice, and Meg appeared, ushering in servants with piles of plates. Gwen and Lancelot got up to help, Tilde on their heels. Arthur surveyed the room — people talking, shaking hands, helping to pass the plates around. He felt warmth bloom in his chest, and it was almost like something falling into place inside him; like finding the right grip on a sword.
"There's nowhere to sit," said Gwen, looking at the ruins of the Great Hall.
"Here," said Arthur, and sat near the fire. Merlin settled next to him, and Arthur put a warm hand on Merlin's knee, patting the space beside him. "Floor."
"I did not ever think you'd come into your power as king sitting on the floor," said Gwen, sitting on his other side. The fire was warm, turning what had been a cold and lonely hall into a cheerful meeting of equals. Taking Arthur's lead, others settled around the fire, a circle of knights, servants and sorcerers, bound together. Merlin leaned close to Arthur, his eyes on someone sitting on the other side of Gwen.
"Look," he whispered, gesturing to Perceval, who had lit a tiny flame between his fingers. Gawain was watching, fascinated. Perceval offered him a shy smile.
"Hold your hand out flat," said Perceval. Gawain did. "Okay, now stay calm."
Arthur watched as Perceval passed the tiny fire from his own hand to Gawain's, the fire lighting Gawain's face as he watched it, fascinated. Perceval was watching it at first, but then his glance flicked up to take in Gawain's features and he stayed transfixed by Gawain's smile.
"Do you think—" Arthur said, "if we'd failed, there were others waiting to take on the job?"
"I don't know," said Merlin, "but I think it might work, tactically. A knight and a sorcerer to fight together."
"Together, you say?" Arthur asked, feeling playful. Merlin nodded.
"Together," he said, twining his fingers through Arthur's, leaning in close and letting Arthur lean back.
Later that night, Merlin came and joined him on the battlements. There were celebrations in the lower town, the sound of distant yelling and singing drifting up on the still night air, even all the way to here. Arthur felt Merlin's arms slip around his waist, resting his chin on Arthur's shoulder, knotting his fingers over Arthur's stomach.
"The only reason I could move that sword was you, wasn't it?" Arthur asked.
"Mmm," said Merlin, close to Arthur's ear.
"Then it was a trick," said Arthur, his heart sinking. Merlin sighed.
"No," he said. "The only man who could move that sword was the man who it was made for, assisted by the most powerful sorcerer in the land. No trick; I wouldn't have moved it for anyone else, and I couldn't have moved it for anyone else."
"It's a new reign," said Arthur, as Merlin kissed his neck, sparks of desire blooming from the knot of Merlin's hands on Arthur's stomach, filling his whole body.
"It's not over," said Merlin. "Now that the magic is back, Morgana will come. And that damn dragon is still out there — and you will need to keep that foolish promise that you made. There's bandits to stop, borders to reclaim. The Sorceress, if she ever returns."
"It will never be over," said Arthur. "That's what ruling a kingdom means. The question is are you with me?"
"Yes," said Merlin, pressing his cheek to Arthur's. "I'm with you until the day I die. And even then, maybe longer."
"Longer," Arthur promised, turning his head for a kiss. "I promise you, much longer. I'm going to reign without end, don't you know?"
"I know," said Merlin, kissing him. "And I'll be right here beside you."