Chapter 1: Light of Arthur - Prologue
Title: Light of Arthur
Author: Venivincere (venivincere at hotmail dot com)
Word Count: ~63,000
Warnings: Character death, not Merlin or Arthur. Spoilers through season two. Religious themes.
Summary: An epic tale of gods and man, destiny and choices, darkness and light, and eternal love that's fixed as the stars to the celestial sphere.
Author's notes: To Lamardeuse: this story, although changed somewhat since, would not be recognizable as the thing that it is without your initial insightful ideas. I can't thank you enough for your outstanding thoughtfulness and thoroughness in betaing my outline. To Itzcoatl: that you took my story and gave it serious attention, that you gave me your brilliant and thoughtful insights and made me think, not only about what I didn't know but also about what I thought I did know and believe, just blows me away. I can't thank you enough. And then, to take these ideas and make the most breathtaking art - I am your servant. To Metal_dog5, you have outstanding patience and a keen eye for all my thoughtless mistakes; you have taken this beast and cleaned up all its messes and made it company ready, and in short order. I humbly beg your pardon for any mistakes still in here, because your hard work deserves better than my poor efforts. And last but not least, to my cheerleader Binglejells: you knew instinctively what I needed and gave it to me when I needed it. Knowledge of rivers and terrain in England? Old English references for spells? You knew it. And how do I thank you for kicking my arse when I needed it, and kissing it when that was what I needed? You played me like a fine, old instrument, and I can't thank you enough for that. Please see fic post for notes on the text and end notes.
Art link: Itzcoatl did three extraordinary works for this fic. Please let her know how much you enjoyed her work here at her post: http://switchsword.livejournal.com/1394.html?mode=reply.
Disclaimer: Merlin belongs to BBC/Shine. No profit intended or realised.
If you would like to read this story on Dreamwidth instead, here are the URLs to the two posts:
The crowning feast was at once triumphal and gracious: the Great Hall, bedecked with garlands of flowers, its stone floors strewn with a carpet of luminous green reeds, seemed muted and dull against the foreground of Lords and Ladies of Albion, regal and sparkling in their jewelled gold and their velvet finery. At the head of the hall, Arthur Pendragon, King of Camelot and crowned this day high ruler of all Albion, sat at the centre of the Kings and Queens in Albion, shining like a god and haloed in the last light of evening filtered through his golden hair and crown. Merlin sat on his King's left side and watched him as the tables were cleared of all but the tiny cups of usky, unaware that the glow lit his smile and turned his angular features soft. Arthur's hand reached for his under the table and clasped it in a familiar and beloved embrace as he nodded to someone across the hall. Merlin squeezed back and sat forward in his chair: he'd been waiting for this moment ever since Galahad had revealed what Taliesin had been working on so feverishly these last few months. Taliesin approached the High Table and spoke:
"For as long as mankind has been in Albion there have been dragons," said Taliesin, projecting his voice to the edges of the hall. "They have ruled the skies, terrorized the lands, enraptured the young and enraged the old, and man knew no differently than that dragons had always been part of their world. But the gods knew they were not always there: that before mankind ever set foot in Albion, there was no need of dragons, for the destiny of animals meant nothing to the gods (save, perhaps, to Herne the Hunter). Before man, the gods kept dragons for themselves, for dragons were lithe and lovely and full of vigour and grace. They kept them until such time as man came to be. Then all but one of the gods, in the fulfilment of their vision, loosed the dragons into Albion and charged them upon pain of death with seeing that the destinies of the men who came into their care would come to pass.
"Theirs should have been an easy task, had mankind not been given the ability to choose. But Choice they had, and the dragons perforce were not always gentle in affecting the destinies of their charges. Man came to see them as brute dangers to their lives and complained bitterly to the gods that it seemed their true fate was to wrest their lives and livelihoods from the teeth and claws and fires of the dragons. And the gods, not being completely capricious, sent the dragon lords as intermediaries, and they compelled the dragons to listen to the dragon lords and do their bidding. Thus was the task of the dragons made even more difficult, for they were not released from ensuring the destinies of those in their charge. And yet the gods were not cruel to their creations, whom they loved: they gave mankind the dragon lords, but they took away from the rest of mankind the knowledge that their destinies were in the dragons' control. This, they believed, would restore balance, would allow the dragons to do their work and allow mankind to be blissful in their ignorance.
"And so it came to pass that the goddess of fate and retribution, the silver Lady who envisioned the need for dragons and breathed life into them at their start, Arianrhod herself, gave in charge to the dragon Kilgharrah the mutual destinies of Arthur Pendragon and Merlin in Camelot: that he must ensure, without lasting harm to Albion, that Arthur and Merlin join together and unite all Albion under Arthur's rule. Yet even gods can make mistakes. The balance which they thought restored was more delicate than they had foreseen, and indeed rested upon a fulcrum made of one man. For even as the great dragon Kilgharrah saw to it that Uther begat Arthur, he unwittingly cracked the fulcrum and upset that delicate balance, setting in motion the downfall of all but one of the gods' vision.
"All but one god: the god who dissented with Arianrhod's vision was a selfish god who wished to control directly the fate of his people and be a god for all the peoples of the entire world. This new god did not send dragons into Albion with the other gods. So when Kilgharrah caused Uther to call upon the magic of the Old Religion to get his wife with child, this god, whose followers called him Light of Light and very God of very God, saw his opportunity to cause the downfall of the dragons and bring the peoples of Albion under his protection."
Here, there were murmurs around the great hall, and the rapt gazes of not a few of the royals at either side of Arthur and Merlin grew uneasy.
"The Old Religion calls for balance: an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a life for a life," Taliesin continued. "Since Choice was given to man, it was up to man to decide whose life would be given for another. But this new god interfered, and took away the choice of death from the sorcerer Uther chose to help his wife conceive. This new god chose the life of Arthur's mother, Ygraine, as a lesson to Uther and to spite the other gods. As soon as Ygraine had given birth to Arthur, she died. And as this new god knew would happen, Uther rebelled against the Old Religion and sorcery. In the madness of his loss, Uther took up with this new god and renounced the Old Religion. At every turn Uther fought the powers of magic and destroyed those whom the gods of the Old Religion awakened to use it. And he deceived and destroyed the dragons in Albion. All but one: Kilgharrah himself, whom Uther imprisoned in a cave deep below Camelot's castle.
"Yet even in the midst of the tragedy of his kind, in the midst of his personal anguish and anger at Uther Pendragon, still Kilgharrah was bound to ensure Arthur and Merlin's mutual destiny to see Albion unharmed and united under Arthur's rule. Twenty years of solitude under Uther's castle gave Kilgharrah plenty of time to choose his course. Plenty of time to choose a path that would ensure the destiny of Merlin and Arthur, and perhaps accomplish something more. But what of the consequences of the great dragon Kilgharrah's choice? Well, that is a very long tale, indeed, and I will sing it to you tonight."
Taliesin gestured to the back of the hall. "May the servants bring the wine!" he said, picking up his harp. He turned to the royal table, and seeing that there were some hard stares directed his way, bowed low, then touched his knee to the ground. "Your Majesties of the kingdoms of Albion, united here this glorious day under Arthur, son of Uther Pendragon, I pray you, please listen as I humbly present to you, 'Alban Arthuan: Light of Arthur.'"
Chapter 2: Light of Arthur - Chapter 1
"I don't know, Gaius," said Merlin, daubing more of the sweet-smelling oil on the cracked and oozing burn, wincing at the back and shoulders of the farrier's apprentice in front of him. "I've not seen much improvement in the new formula. Look at him."
Merlin gestured at young Pip hunched over the back of the chair, one of two set up in the early dawn light for the past two weeks in the Courtyard to assist the people with the burns and injuries received in their struggles with the dragon.
Gaius examined the boy and sighed. He teased aside a small, charred flap of skin and looked underneath. "I fear you're right, Merlin. Even increasing the calendula, the new skin is only just beginning to form."
He took a clean, oiled cloth, rewrapped the seeping wound, and sent the boy off with a pocketful of chestnuts from the fire behind them, along with a vial and a warning, "Three drops in the evening before you sleep, no more! And tell Master Grayson you are not to do more than half-duty for the next three days, and no reaching above your head. Come and see me Friday, my boy."
"D'you think there might be magic involved," asked Merlin a short time later, pulling the bandages off the old man in front of him and tossing them in a basket heaping with more of the same. The man drew a hissing breath, and Merlin wasn't sure if it was from the sticking cloth or because of the mention of magic.
"It's possible," said Gaius, gently daubing the burn on the arm in front of him. "Dragons are very powerful creatures. Their breath can do many things, if they will it."
Which Merlin knew. He was a little embarrassed to think of the sword in the bottom of the lake and wondered if the dragon's tempering would be enough to keep it from rusting, too. "Well, he certainly was bent on destruction," said Merlin, looking around the Courtyard. Rubble still lay in the corners, dusted with snow, and there were masons trooping over to the scaffolding, taking it in turns to climb up to the platforms high above, and blowing on their hands to keep them warm.
"I suppose we should be thankful for the gloomy weather, at least," said Gaius, looking up at the dim and cloudy sky. The faint outline of the sun could be seen, as though the sky were covered with a thick veneer of dust instead of clouds. "If the sun stays hidden and it's too cold to do the spring planting, at least these poor people won't add sunburn to the ills they're already suffering."
"I can't see how chilblains are any better," said Merlin, shivering despite the fire behind him as he dripped clean water over the wound in front of him, rinsing out particles of char and grime. "It's Ostara in two days, Gaius. Shouldn't it be warming up by now?"
"That it should," said Gaius, "though I do recall other winters that took longer than usual to make way for spring." He smiled up at Merlin. 'Never fear. We will celebrate the Lady, in whatever form she decides to take. Even in the snow, if we have to."
"That sounds… chilly," said Merlin, and he grinned when Gaius chuckled. Then winced. "Gaius, here's another one."
The morning of Ostara dawned – if Merlin could even call it dawn, a misting of purples and reds that quickly died out to a grim bluish grey – in a frenzy of bone-chilling wind and a veneer of ice in the well. Merlin set the bucket in front of the fire to warm a bit before washing and made a hasty breakfast with Gaius.
"I think the gloom is here to stay," said Merlin, shivering on the bench. It had yet to lift; if anything, it was deeper, though not as bad as the day before. Yesterday had been truly cloudy, grey wool rippling and pluming through the sky like clouds regularly did, sleeting all over everything. Merlin thought it was rather a spooky continual dusk, and the castle torches remained lit the entire day.
Merlin shoved the last of his cheese into his mouth and scraped back the bench. "I'll take the bandages down and check on the fire," he said, but got no further when there was a pounding on the door.
"The Prince wants Merlin," said the voice.
"I'm coming!" said Merlin. "Sorry, Gaius."
"It's fine, my boy."
"I'll set these down by the fire outside for you on my way."
"Make sure you take some chestnuts from the fire for yourself, Merlin. It's very cold today."
Merlin grinned. "Thank you!"
Crossing the Courtyard wasn't as slippery as yesterday, Merlin noted; the stones were dry, though the wind was just as icy. Few people were out, and it looked more like a winter evening than a spring morning. He drew his thin coat tighter around his shoulders, stuffed his icy fingers into the hot chestnuts in his pocket, and ran the rest of the way to the kitchens to pick up Arthur's breakfast.
He cast a gentle warming spell on Arthur's food just before opening his door. Someone had been in to stoke the fire and Arthur's chambers were warm enough for Merlin to think he might actually thaw out. He resolved to take as long with his chores as it took him to warm himself thoroughly. "You're up early," said Merlin, spotting Arthur at the window, fully dressed, sword belted on, and wearing his long leather coat. "Are you going out?"
"I called for you ages ago, Merlin. What took you so long?" said the Prince, turning from the window and spotting his breakfast. "At least you had the presence of mind to stop for food."
Merlin rolled his eyes.
Arthur settled down to eat. There was ham and grouse, and a withered apple, a heavy oaten stew that steamed in its bowl and a whole pitcher of hot cider, also steaming. "Did you run with this to get it here hot?"
Merlin poured cider into his goblet and tried not to smile. "When was the last time I served your breakfast cold?"
Arthur ignored him and said, unsmiling, "At least you're capable of doing something right."
Merlin put the pitcher down. Arthur almost sounded serious. But a good look at the faraway expression on Arthur's face told Merlin that Arthur wasn't paying attention to a word he was saying. Merlin wondered what had captured Arthur's thoughts so thoroughly.
Merlin left him to his food, picking pieces of his discarded clothing off the floor and hanging them away in the wardrobe in between shelling the chestnuts and popping them into his mouth. The silence stretched on, Arthur spooning his oats without a word, and that was never normal. He didn't think it was a matter of state bothering Arthur, or he probably would have heard about it already, the castle gossip network being a most efficient machine. Maybe it was something about a girl. About Gwen? Or maybe Morgana? She hadn't spoken much since her return…. Merlin really was curious, now.
"Sire – what's wrong?"
Arthur surfaced slowly from his thoughts, and took a good, long look at Merlin, as if he'd just noticed him. "It's cold," he said.
Oh, for— "Yes, Arthur. It's often cold in the winter," said Merlin, rolling his eyes. Though by rights, it really was supposed to be spring. When Arthur didn't answer, he decided there really must be something wrong. He crossed to the bed and began making it up. "Shall I fetch you a heavier coat?"
"It's dark, too," said Arthur, once again very far away. He picked up his goblet and took a great gulp of the steaming cider.
Oh. Fair enough. "Gaius says it's happened before," offered Merlin, "unusually stormy and cold weather at Ostara."
"And did Gaius have to patrol in it?" asked Arthur, sounding rather more like his regular self – tetchy.
"You've put up with patrol without complaint all winter and you're whingeing about it now?" said Merlin, fluffing the pillows and putting them in place with rather more force than necessary. Arthur rode out for several hours almost daily and had done since Merlin first met him; there was nothing new about patrol.
"The King has ordered us out to patrol the border with South Pennines," said Arthur. "Since their King fell in battle to Mercia, there have been many refugees crossing the border. We'll be out there for at least a week, helping them set up camps. Starting tonight."
Merlin did have it in him to feel a bit of sympathy for Arthur, then. It was a gloomy prospect: cold and grey, and no Ostara feast. He was heartily thankful he would not be requested to attend the Prince. At least, he hoped he would not be requested.
"Will Camelot let them stay?"
"If they've brought what they need to start a settlement and are willing to pay the tax," said the Prince, "then they are welcome to stay. But they were forced to leave quickly. They will likely go back when the battle moves elsewhere or stops." He wrapped the fingers of both hands around the warmth of the goblet. Merlin stopped fussing with the bed, fetched the pitcher and poured more cider for Arthur.
"Then why do you have to go? Do you have to go?" asked Merlin, wrapping his hands around the pitcher to warm them.
"Merlin, are you that much of an idiot?" said Arthur, sounding more than a bit disgusted. "I don't wish to go, but I will go because it's my duty to go. But I will also go because someone must go and set limits," said Arthur. "Camelot only stands to gain by helping them. South Pennines is in no condition to fight another war right now, not on two fronts, not without a ruler. By helping those people, we build allies, and if they look to us for protection later when they're back in their own lands and we continue to help them, we've gained land and resources without the cost of war to win them. While they're here in Camelot, they need to know where they can go and where they can't, what they can hunt and what the King forbids them to hunt, and what the conditions are for staying. But mostly, since they don't have resources right now, they need to know that we won't tolerate banditry. Or sorcery."
Merlin's stomach sank just a bit. "Do you think there are any?"
"Bandits?" said Arthur. "Not yet, but privation will make many men do what they never before would have considered. Sorcery… well, to hear those who've confessed tell it, it's a natural trait." He looked Merlin in the eye. "I don't know if we shall encounter any or not."
Merlin's hands began to tremble and he quickly put the pitcher down, clearing the empty bowl from in front of Arthur, instead. "And what about battle? Are you likely to encounter that?" he asked, as much to change the subject as because he wanted to know. If there were a chance of battle, perhaps he ought to consider going; better to be hanged for magically protecting his prince and future King than for succumbing to mere suspicion.
"Not likely, no," said Arthur, taking another gulp and looking away. "It is not in Camelot's interest to become involved. Mercia can't expand south for the fens, and South Pennines has access to the Severn, which I expect is what Bayard really wants: access to the Western Sea."
Arthur set down the goblet and stabbed a chunk of ham on the tip of his knife. He'd got it halfway to his mouth when a clatter and shout rose up from the Courtyard. He leapt out of his chair to the window. Merlin took a shaky breath and followed him, thanking the gods for the distraction. Several of Camelot's knights had a small party of men surrounded, all but one of the men with painted faces, leather trews and tartans, and furs strewn about their shoulders like barbarians. The other…
"Lancelot!" said Merlin, smiling.
"Warriors from South Pennines," said Arthur, grabbing Merlin's arm. "Come on; I expect my father will be calling for me soon, anyway."
Chapter 3: Light of Arthur - Chapter 2
This being the most exciting thing to happen in Camelot since the festival of Alban Arthan (Imbolc being a quieter affair, at least in the castle), the great hall was filled to capacity with every member of the Court not still asleep, members of the King's household, and every knight left in Camelot proper who wasn't on duty elsewhere. Merlin spotted Gaius across the hall and wormed his way over to him. Arthur already stood next to Uther, who sat on his throne, eyes fixed on the great oaken doors. Merlin scouted around for Gwen… ah. She was here watching the door like everyone else, straining to see over taller shoulders in front of her, and her face looked terrified and hopeful all at once. Merlin thought that was a sight better than the depressed-and-worried-but-remaining-cheerful look she'd worn since Morgana's unexpected reappearance.
There was a pounding at the great doors and they were pushed apart; the party were escorted in and marched in front of Uther, who looked wary at finding warriors of the neighbouring kingdom in his audience chambers.
One of the guard came forward. "If I may, Sire…"
"Approach," said Uther.
The guard spoke quietly to the King and Prince, and only because Merlin knew the subtleties of Arthur's every expression as well as he did, did he know that Arthur, at least, was surprised at the guard's quiet announcement.
The guard stepped back, and motioned the leader of the strangely-clad band forward. Uther said, "Who are you and what business do you have in Camelot?"
The leader spoke, and at first, Merlin did not know what language he was speaking. But it soon became clear that it was English, though with a heavy, lilting accent.
"Hail Uther, son of Ambrosius, King in Camelot!" said the man, descending upon one knee. "I am Loarn, son of Alan, of the clan Mac Domangairt in the Kingdom Dalriata far to the North. I am sent as a messenger of King Comgall mac Domangairt to his brother, Conall mac Domangairt, the King of South Pennines. As God as my witness, we have no quarrel with Camelot, but ask only safe passage to our brother's kingdom."
A murmur set up in the hall, and Merlin sought Arthur with his eyes, but Arthur was staring intently at Lancelot, as was Uther.
"One of your party is known to us," said Uther, staring intently at his subject. The murmuring stopped. "Lancelot du Lac, what is your business with these men?"
"Sire," said Lancelot, coming forward and bowing low. "Loarn found me far north of here on the border of Deira, lost in his journey. He hired me as guard and guide, that he might reach South Pennines and its ruler in time."
"In time for what?" asked Uther, wary. Arthur's expression hadn't changed, standing there as he was, with his jacket wide open; he was interested, Merlin knew, by the set of his hand: near, but not on the pommel of his sword.
Loarn spoke. "It is the reason, my lord, for our journey south." He paused, and his expression seemed troubled, if Merlin could tell correctly underneath all the paint on his face. "I will tell you what you ask, my lord, for the borders of Dalriata lie hundreds of leagues to the north with many kingdoms in between, and because, my lord, you are known to be able," he glanced at Lancelot, who bowed his head.
"For many years, our King has held the clans of Dalriata together in harmony and growth. Since the beginning of his reign we have gained substantial lands from the Picts and our kingdom has prospered. Because of this, King Comgall sent his beloved brother and a small band of warriors along with several monks to bring word into the southern lands of Jesus Christ our Lord. A few years later, we heard news that Conall had achieved the kingship of a small kingdom in the south, wrested from a ruler whose people had become divided in their beliefs. He took up rule over the area where his monks had done good work in the service of our Lord, over people who would see their King a servant of Christ, not of the pagan gods."
Murmuring and exclamations sprung up much louder this time.
"Silence!" said Uther, frowning out over the Court. When the hall quieted, he said to Loarn, "The reason for the splitting of Pennines is not unknown to us, messenger. Come quickly to the point of your story."
"My lord, Comgall our King is ill, ill unto the death. He has the wasting disease, and we do not expect he will live to see Christmas. It is his wish, having sired a child late in life, that his brother Conall return to his home and clan, and rule Dalriata in his stead, until his son is grown into his inheritance."
If Merlin hadn't been watching Arthur as intently as he was, he might have missed the brief moment of distress that crossed his face before he leaned in toward his father and spoke privately with him. Uther, too, much to Merlin's surprise, had the grace to look troubled.
Uther stared at Loarn for a time, then spoke. "It brings me some measure of distress to tell you the news which I am about to impart," said Uther. "Conall mac Domangairt, King these many years of South Pennines, is recently dead in battle with the kingdom of Mercia."
There was a moment of silence throughout the entire Court, as though everyone assembled were holding their breath.
Then Loarn gave a shout of distress and sat down upon the cold, hard flags where he knelt. "Ach no, this will kill him," he said, his hand over his face. Loarn's men surged forward and pulled at his elbows, helping him to stand. To a man, they were distraught, and Merlin understood in that moment that both Conall Mac Domangairt and his brother, the King of Dalriata, were well-beloved in their homeland.
Uther had more compassion than Merlin (quite understandably he thought), gave him credit for; he waited a decent interval for Loarn and his men to pull themselves together before offering, "Please, stay with us as our guests, and join us for the Ostara feast. You undoubtedly have need of rest and time to decide what you will do." Uther gestured to the guards. "Escort them to suitable chambers and provide for their needs."
"My lord, we are grateful for your hospitality," said Loarn, bowing low. He rose and followed his men through the doors, his face chiselled with misery. Much of the Court filtered out after them. Merlin noticed Gwen was one of the first to follow the visitors out. He looked at Arthur, and saw him watch her leave, too, his face expressionless. Which could only mean that he had something to hide, which meant that he was upset. Merlin cursed. As much as he wanted to, if only to observe and offer what reassurances he could to Arthur later, he couldn't follow Gwen and witness her reunion with Lancelot. In any event, he was curious to know what the King had to say, so waited unobtrusively behind a pillar for Arthur to finish, and listened as hard as he could.
"Keep your ears open and your countenance friendly," said Uther. "This is a perfect opportunity to hear news of the north kingdoms, and the kingdoms these travellers encountered on their journey south. It may be that we hear something to our advantage. Arthur, send others of your knights on patrol to the border to deal with the refugees. I will have need of you here."
Vaguely, he heard the King, Prince and the counsellors take their seats at the table under the tall windows lining the hall, as he considered the King's words. This was something Merlin knew that Arthur already understood intrinsically: knowledge meant advantage. Arthur read English, Latin and Greek, and in addition to English, spoke Latin, Scottish, and a little of that Gaulish that people along the Eastern Sea sometimes spoke. Much to Merlin's surprise the first winter he served him, Arthur read constantly during the long evenings when it was too dark to train or patrol. Merlin's mother had been as thorough a teacher to him as she knew, but still he could only read English and Latin, and he never read for pleasure. Arthur read everything he could get his hands on: from a copy of the Annals of Ulster, rescued from the spoils of some battle he'd fought and won and read quickly and furtively before instructed by his father to turn it over to Geoffrey of Monmouth, to a slim volume with Ecloga and Publi Vergili Maronis stamped into the wood and red leather covering, penned in a tiny hand on sheets of vellum, that Merlin had watched Arthur's hands clench tightly, his face red, and his mouth open and panting as he read. That one, Merlin knew, was kept locked in a drawer next to Arthur's bed, the tiny key hung on a chain around Arthur's neck.
In his lazier moments, Merlin often found himself replaying that scene in his mind; he can't recall ever seeing Arthur's face so open, his emotion so unguarded. Of course, Arthur would have thought himself unobserved, sitting as he was in his chambers in the window seat, overlooking a truly ferocious winter storm that had the Courtyard ankle deep in snow within an hour of starting, and hadn't let up until it was as high as the axles on a cartwheel. And really, Merlin should have looked away, should have left the room altogether, but there was Arthur, removing his right hand from its tight clutch on the book, reaching down to his lap and squeezing, and Merlin remembers his knees buckling and himself sliding silent and unseen to the floor inside Arthur's door, because an entirely new world had opened up to him, one which he, whether in ignorance or natural modesty, had never before considered: Arthur's desire, and what piqued it.
And, as he watched Arthur unlace his breeches and delve inside them, taking himself in hand and jerking, knees shaking, mouth gasping, passion singing from his very skin, Merlin learned something about himself, too, something alarming, and yet inevitable and comforting: that Arthur's desire piqued Merlin's own. That it should feel so much like home, that so much of his existence over the last two years should take that quarter turn into the light and illuminate, worried Merlin enough to shake him out of his desperate desire, for Arthur must not know . And yet Merlin, in that moment, felt obliged and grateful to have discovered that Arthur meant as much to him as his mother did, and maybe more. He took that realisation and buried it deep down in his heart, somewhere safe. And with that realisation came two others, as well: he must find out what was in that book, and, really, he must leave Arthur's room immediately or he would witness that to which only a lover or his future wife should be privy. Merlin doesn't remember for certain, but thinks he crawled out of Arthur's chambers and pulled the door to with his fingers on the kick plate.
The sound of scraping chairs roused Merlin from his musings, leaving him blinking and wondering for a moment where he was and what he was doing in the great hall. Yet memory struck him soon enough. He must have been gathering wool for quite a long while; the sun was about an hour along, and the prince and the King's advisors had all stood and were taking their leave of the King. Merlin stared long and hard after Arthur, feeling very close to the Prince's desires in that moment, venial and profane, and followed him out the door. At the very least, this evening would be interesting: Arthur did love a good tale.
Merlin followed Arthur, though it was clear right away that he was not returning to his rooms. "Where are we going?" asked Merlin.
"We are going to inquire after our guests," said Arthur. "Weren't you listening, behind that pillar?"
Merlin could hear Arthur smirk at him and felt his face turn bright red. He was completely thankful Arthur was so intent on his destination as to not turn around to poke fun. Since he had no safe answer for Arthur's question, he said nothing. Arthur, for once, didn't press the issue, and within moments they had arrived at the West Tower, where guests of the realm were usually housed. The area wasn't one Merlin visited often, not having the need; he'd been here once to deliver a potion to Lady Meredith during her confinement, but otherwise the place was foreign to him.
They were let in to an airy set of rooms that would have been bright had the day been any less dim. Merlin briefly looked out the window of the main room to find it had begun snowing. On either side of the room were high, arched entryways into two identical chambers that contained a blazing hearth with curtained beds to either side of it. The curtains were pulled on all but one bed. Loarn himself had opened his door, and gestured Arthur to be seated at the table. Merlin stood behind.
"My lord, is there something I might do for you?" asked Loarn. He stood before them in nothing more than a leather tunic and trews, his furs and tartan airing with the others' before the fire. He wore the Christian cross hammered out of copper on a chain around his neck. It hung to the middle of his chest.
"I trust your needs have been seen to?" asked Arthur. "Is there anything more you might require?"
Merlin looked to the tray of viands and oaten stew, the scarce remains of which identified it as the same the Prince himself had had for his own breakfast. Two pitchers and four goblets – yet there were five men in the party, including Lancelot. Merlin thought he knew who was missing, and where he might be. Merlin looked at Arthur. If Arthur had noticed, he wasn't letting on.
"My lord, we are well taken care of, for the moment," said Loarn, "though it may be in the coming days that we will have need of provision to return to our home."
"What you need, you will be given," said Arthur. "We seldom have the opportunity to welcome guests from so far north."
"We have little of value that we may trade for your generosity, Sire," said Loarn, and to Merlin, it seemed as though he were genuinely troubled by this.
"Consider your news and tales of your country and your journey to be payment in full," said Arthur, and Merlin knew that even had the King not said as much, Arthur still would mean his words just as much.
"Surely, Sire, there must be something we can give," said Loarn, distressed. "Some service we could perform for you, perhaps? It hardly seems fair trade."
"Not at all," said Arthur.
"You and your King are good Samaritans, indeed," said Loarn, relieved.
"And what is a Samaritan?" asked Arthur, gesturing Loarn to sit with him. Merlin recognised Arthur settling in for a tale, and took this as his cue to clear the table and stand somewhere unobtrusive and watch.
"I will tell you the tale as the monks told it to me in my youth," said Loarn. "This is a tale that Christ himself told, and it comes from the book that Christians call the Bible. Do you know of this book, Sire?"
Merlin thought Arthur was looking keen enough that even Loarn could tell. "I do not," said Arthur.
"It is a codex that contains the teachings of Christianity and the words of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ the son of God."
"I have heard of this god," said Arthur, "but he is not known here. We look to the gods of the Old Religion. They grow our lands green in the spring, and put enough fruit and grain in our harvests to keep us fed through the winter. They care for us quite well."
"Once, we thought the same way, too," said Loarn, "but in my country, we have seen the light and everlasting life through Christ. Be that as it may, this is a story from the time our Lord walked as a man in this world.
"Long ago in the time of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, there were a people whom the Jews and the Levites despised, my lord, called the Samaritans, living in Samaria. They were considered unclean and were shunned by all, and most everyone thought they were bad business all around. Now, the road between Jerusalem and Jericho, which the Jewish priests travelled often to attend at temple, ran almost eleven leagues and passed right through Samaria. One day, a man walking along this road was badly beaten and robbed, and left lying on the side of the road. There was a priest on his way home to Jericho from serving in the temples, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side of the road. Then a Levite approached, and he too passed on the other side of the road. Then there was a man from Samaria, a regular traveller on that road, who came upon the man, but he did not pass. He cleaned and bandaged the man's wounds and put him on his horse, and took the man with him to the inn where he stayed on his journeys. He nursed the man, and when he left in the morning, he gave money to the innkeeper to look after the man until he was well, telling the innkeeper that he would pay any excess on his next trip through the town." Loarn sat back in his chair, and waited for Arthur to respond.
Merlin watched Arthur, could see him turning the story over in his mind, wondering how he himself may have acted. "The Samaritan was no warrior, was he?" asked Arthur.
"It isn't known, Sire," said Loarn simply.
"Any warrior would not stop. He would be wary of a trap," said Arthur. "But he was a good man to help," he added. "Or, perhaps it was his destiny to help."
"Not just a good man," said Loarn. "It wasn't just anyone he helped, but a man he knew despised him. He helped an enemy. At the least, he helped someone who would have left him to die if their situations had been reversed. And I believe it could not have been destiny, excepting that every man's fate is subject to the will of God."
"All men have a destiny," said Arthur, a pronouncement that Merlin suspected was the truth. Kilgharrah himself had confirmed Merlin's and Arthur's many times. He considered himself fortunate enough to know something of his own, and even more fortunate to welcome it.
"The Samaritan also had great generosity of spirit," Arthur continued. "He acted like a magnanimous ruler."
"As did you, Sire, and your King," said Loarn. "Little did we expect such treatment, especially since we trespassed in your lands without leave. You have no reason at all to care for us in any way. Yet you expect nothing in return." Loarn paused, and he looked Arthur in the eye. "Your generosity is that of the Samaritan, my lord. Completely unexpected and without expectation."
Merlin noticed that Arthur did not mention the tactical advantage he hoped to gain for Camelot by listening to the news and stories of his visitors. Merlin wondered what Arthur, and by extension, Camelot, would glean from Loarn's tale.
"Do you have many such tales, Loarn?" asked Arthur.
"As many as there are in the Bible, my lord."
"And you do have other tales, as well? Tales of your lands, and your travels?" asked Arthur, gaze piercing and mouth unsmiling.
"We have many of those, as well, my lord."
"Perhaps you would like to share them with us this evening after the feast," said Arthur.
"Of course, Sire," said Loarn, looking troubled. "I hope my tale did not offend you."
Arthur looked at him. "It did not. Though I confess I do not understand the Samaritan's motives."
Loarn frowned, but then a light seemed to bloom in his face. "My lord, are there members of your Court who read Greek?"
"Yes," answered Arthur, giving nothing away about his own abilities. He followed Loarn with his eyes as he went to his pack and pulled out a codex bound in wood and fastened with leather buckles. He presented it to Arthur.
"My lord, this is a copy of the Codex Sinaiticus. It is a Bible that was copied out by the monks of the monastery in Argyll," said Loarn. "I was to bring it to Conall Mac Domangairt, for the edification of his people in his absence. I would like you to have it."
There was no doubting the delight in Arthur's eyes at the prospect of reading a new book. Books were rare and precious, and although Camelot was wealthy and had many books, it did not yet have this one. Merlin didn't think this one would be making its way to Geoffrey any time soon, if ever.
"I think you will find in it the motives of the Samaritan, Sire. And it is my fervent hope that you find the words of the Lord Jesus Christ compelling to you and to your people."
Arthur took the book into his hands, and though his hands roamed possessively over the buckles on the cover, his face was once again schooled and expressionless. "I thank you for your gift, Loarn. A book is kingly payment indeed for what little help we can give you." He rose and made his way to the door, which Merlin opened.
"I hope you find it more valuable than any other in your library, my lord," said Loarn, bowing.
And with that, Arthur and Merlin took their leave.
As much as Merlin just knew Arthur was itching to curl up in a corner somewhere and start reading his new treasure immediately, it came as a surprise when the first thing Arthur asked when Loarn's door closed was, 'Where is Lancelot?"
Merlin really didn't want to answer that question; he had his suspicions that Lancelot was in the very fine and personal care of Gwen, and that was not a hornet's nest he wanted to stir. So instead, he answered, "How could I know that, Sire? I was in the council chamber with you when they departed."
"Well then," said the Prince, rounding on Merlin, impatient, "perhaps you should go find out."
"I'll be in my rooms," said Arthur.
"Yes, Sire," said Merlin, grateful that that Arthur had once again turned around so that he couldn't see Merlin's eyes rolling.
"And while you're out, see if you can wheedle me a ginger cake from the kitchens, will you?"
"Of course, Sire," said Merlin, thinking he might very well ask for two. It was a feast day, after all. Maybe the cooks would be lenient. Maybe.
They passed the tower wall and came to the corridor junction, and before Merlin could slip off to the left toward the kitchen, they heard voices in one of the smaller guest chambers off the right-hand corridor. Arthur looked at Merlin and raised a finger to his lips, looking through the open door on his right, Merlin crowding over Arthur's shoulder to get a look.
And then he clapped a hand over his mouth to keep from gasping aloud. For there, in the middle of the room, stood Lancelot and Guinevere, faces flushed, and standing in each other's arms. Merlin was close enough to Arthur to hear his throat working as he swallowed, then breathed a quiet puff into the air. As they watched, Lancelot and Gwen came together in a kiss as sweet as honey, and when they broke, and Merlin could see the expression on Gwen's face, he realised he'd never before seen her this happy. He didn't have time to wonder if Arthur had ever seen her that happy, because Arthur was off without time for forethought, pushing wide the door and marching into the room.
Gwen gave a startled exclamation and pulled away from Lancelot, her face a picture of delight and pain. "I'll just be going, then," she said, "Sire," and curtseyed, and made to duck past them both and hurl herself out the chamber door.
But before she could pass, Arthur said, "No." His voice cracked; he cleared his throat and tried again, "No. My business with Lancelot can wait."
Arthur gave them both an intense, unreadable look, turned on his heel and walked out the door, and Merlin could see it, could feel Arthur's heart breaking just a little more. What was once a shadow between Arthur and Gwen now seemed, to Merlin, to be a great, uncrossable gulf. He didn't want to leave Arthur in this state, but there was nothing he could say as he closed the door behind them. Arthur took a great, heaving breath and walked off down the corridor toward his rooms.
"I'll just get your ginger cake, then, Sire," said Merlin, standing in front of the door and never feeling more inadequate in his life. Then he ran off to the kitchens as fast as he dared.
Chapter 4: Light of Arthur - Chapter 3
Merlin, in his two years having the privilege of helping Arthur with his bath and dress, had never known Arthur to be as completely silent as he was that afternoon while he prepared for the Ostara feast. The entire time, all Merlin saw him do was purse his lips and stare at nothing. He held his arms out to be dried; he held them over his head when it was time to slip on his tunic. He rested a hand on Merlin's head for balance when he stepped into his trousers, and forgot to remove it while Merlin laced him up.
"Sire?" said Merlin, looking up the long line of Arthur's arm from where he knelt on the floor. "Is there anything else you need?"
He was almost sorry to have pulled Arthur out of his reverie, because Arthur ruffled his hair and said, "What are you doing down there, Merlin? Hurry up and get changed, and meet me in the Hall."
"Get changed – Arthur!" said Merlin, pushing himself to his feet and finger-combing his hair back into place, "You're not seriously going to make me wear that silly outfit again, are you? These aren't official guests, or anything!"
"No, but it's Ostara, and it's the fanciest set of clothes you have," said Arthur, obviously cured from his sour humour, for he was smiling and meaning it for the first time that afternoon.
"I've been to every other feast wearing exactly these clothes, and you've never said anything about it before," argued Merlin.
Arthur stared at Merlin for a moment, the shine going out of his eyes and his smile disappearing. He sighed. "Fine. You may omit the hat."
Merlin, thoroughly astonished that Arthur would give in at all to his arguing, felt a small pit open up in his stomach. The only smile Arthur had managed to find in himself this afternoon, and Merlin had to go and squash it. He made his way to his room feeling rather more ashamed of himself than he had in quite some time, and he wasn't halfway there before resolving to wear the hat, anyway.
With the cold, dark weather, salad greens, strawberries and asparagus were missing from the Ostara feast. But the kitchens made up for it in roasted lamb and eggs, great rounds of tender white bread with butter, and crocks and crocks of fruit preserves with the beeswax cut off the tops. Merlin, on his way to the hall, stopped in the kitchens, feathers bobbing all over the place and poking the kitchen servants if they came too close, and was immediately conscripted to take a platter to the hall.
"It's for the King's table," said the cook. "You serve there, you should take it."
"Wait!" said Merlin, recognising the cook as one who was partial to the Prince, and could, Merlin knew, be persuaded to add a treat to the Prince's tray with regular frequency. "May I please get a bit of last year's honeycomb for the Prince?"
Merlin staggered into the hall and up to the head table, placing his platter directly in front of the King: it held a roast lamb and eggs boiled with onion skins and beets, which dyed their shells a delicate yellow and pink. Merlin then pulled a small, covered dish out of his pocket and placed it in front of Arthur. "For your bread, Sire," he said, trying very hard and probably failing to keep the smile off his face. He took off the lid.
"Merlin!" said Arthur, his face, the sole source of sunshine in the whole of Camelot, momentarily shining on Merlin. He quickly toned it down in light of their visitors, but even as Merlin, feeling very warm and satisfied inside, finished pouring his wine, he could see the shine was back in Arthur's eyes and the tiny smile-lines at the corners of his mouth were just that much more pronounced. He watched Arthur dip his finger in the pot and swipe it briefly over his tongue, trying not to attract his father's attention. Arthur closed his eyes and Merlin could almost hear the "Mmmm!"
The King welcomed the guests, spoke a short prayer to the goddess Ostara, and in short order the lamb was carved and everyone was eating and talking. Arthur's good mood seemed to last through dinner; Merlin, standing against the wall, couldn't hear much of the conversation between the King and Loarn, but he could see that Arthur was listening intently. He caught snatches when he refilled Arthur's cup; flooding in Strathclyde, wyverns from the coast in the very north of Rheged encroaching upon the wolds and stealing sheep, cold beyond its season everywhere. And when he wasn't close enough to hear, he watched Arthur dip his bread in the little dish of dripping honeycomb then suck it off, biting into the soggy bread only after the sticky, golden sweetness was all gone, face flushed with pleasure. Merlin sighed, and thought briefly and a little wistfully about Arthur's book.
"And what of the news of your country?" asked Uther, as Merlin placed a tray of sweet oat cakes and puddings in front of him and began unloading it. Merlin looked in Arthur's cup but he hadn't taken a sip since last Merlin had filled it; Merlin didn't think Arthur had taken his eyes off Loarn once while he was talking about the wyverns.
"We have had war, even through the winter," said Loarn. "The Picts are fighting to take back lands we won from them generations ago. This is why we came for Conall. We need a strong ruler to keep the clans united. The battles… have not been easy. We have lost many men."
Merlin took the tray back to the wall with him and watched as Arthur contributed something to the conversation, stopping only to make a complicated movement with both hands that reminded Merlin of one of Arthur's favoured sparring moves. They spoke like that, ignoring all others, until it was time to clear the platters and call forth Taliesin to entertain them with a tale.
Merlin approached with the tray in time to hear, "…and it was the strangest thing, your Majesty, for if it were lightning, how could there be no thunder? And what lighting causes smoke to rise after it for days, in a clear sky? It came from the great sea, too; it was visible over the horizon , to the north and west of our shores. And when we left, a full week after the flashing appeared over the edge of the world, the smoke was still rising from that quarter, in a great swath, blotting out much of the sky. Sire, have you heard of such a thing?"
"I have not," said Uther. "This is most strange. One would almost suspect sorcery."
"We have not ruled that out, your Majesty," said Loarn, "but we have no resources to explore right now, with the war. Our people who trade with the Celts and Gaels in Airlann, that you call Hibernia, have heard tell of a strange land far in the north that the Romans call Thule. They tell us some of the people of Airlann tried to settle there. They sent monks, but the land was empty and cursed, and they were never heard from again. We think the smoke's coming from there, but unless the Hibernian traders go there, we may never know."
"That smoke – is that then what's causing the dark here in Camelot?" Arthur's eyes were wide and he pointed out the tall chamber windows, "Like now, though the sun shines once again, it is dim," said Arthur. "As though the entire sky were under a pall. But when it rains, the pall doesn't go away. And when cloudy, it's almost as though it were night."
"It is the same dark that has been over all the land our whole journey here," said Loarn.
"But why doesn't the rain drive it away?"
"I do not know," said Loarn. "Perhaps this is a judgment of God."
Merlin took one last look at Arthur, hoping for a glance, and got a dismissal, instead. He balanced the tray full of decimated platters on his shoulder and staggered back to the servant's table. He found a place to squeeze in on the bench, and poured himself the last of Arthur's wine, and had just begun eating when Taliesin began his tale.
After, Arthur begged the pardon of Loarn and his father, claiming an early start in the morning, and left. Merlin half expected it; he had seen Lancelot, who had sat with the others in Loarn's party, leave only a minute before. Gwen was attending the Lady Morgana and had not slipped out behind him. Merlin took a deep breath and let Arthur get ahead before he followed. It's not that he wanted to be there, but… well, he did want to be there. For Arthur. Because this afternoon had been unnerving enough, and he couldn't (or didn't want to) imagine the state Arthur would be in after speaking with Lancelot. And he couldn't help Arthur if he didn't know what was going on with him, now could he?
At the end of the corridor, Merlin watched Arthur announce himself; the door opened and he went into Lancelot's room. Merlin stole up to the door, which was only closed over, not latched. Settling down on the icy floor, back against the wall, he hugged his knees to his chest to keep warm and listened in. Lancelot offered Arthur a seat by the fire.
"You are well, then?" Arthur asked. "You look it, at least."
"I am, Sire," said Lancelot, obviously waiting.
"How long have you been guide to Loarn and his party?" Merlin recognised Arthur's determined voice, which meant he was trying very hard not to approach the topic most on his mind at the moment. Merlin rolled his eyes out of habit; Arthur could be so very predictable.
Lancelot definitely hesitated before answering. "Sire, this was spoken of earlier, before you and the King. What is it you truly need from me?"
Merlin heard the scrape of a chair on the stone floor and then boot heels clicking and shuffling along the floor. The soft sounds stopped. "Are you free?"
"Are you free, Lancelot. Have you discharged your duty to this Loarn?" asked Arthur.
"I am free to leave at any time, my lord. I am under no bond or obligation to him, now that his quest has proven futile." Merlin heard another chair creak and the scrape of mail on wood. A footstep. "My lord?"
"I asked before, Lancelot, and you refused," said Arthur. He sighed. "I would have you with me as a knight of Camelot."
Merlin quietly gasped. This was not what he thought this meeting was to be about. But Arthur was continuing.
"There is war waging on our borders, likely to become worse with the death of King Conall," said Arthur. "Bayard of Mercia will annex South Pennines and may attempt to avenge us for taking in its refugees. I need men like you, Lancelot. You have shown yourself to be a man of honour and you are a strong fighter. You know you are welcome here—"
There was a heavy breath during the pause; Merlin hardly dared imagine that Lancelot could see Arthur's face. Merlin knew from the tone of Arthur's voice that he was strained to the limit.
"But am I, my lord?" said Lancelot. "You must know why I left. It nearly broke me to do so, but I would not compete with you for Guinevere's affections. Your will first, my lord, and then my own, as ever it should be."
"She chose you," said Arthur, quietly.
Merlin held his breath, and didn't let it go until Lancelot spoke.
"You are her Lord and liege, Arthur. You love her and she does not deny that she loves you."
"She chose you!" Arthur shouted, hurt and anger and disappointment bleeding into his voice. Merlin heard a gloved hand land on a padded shoulder. "Guinevere chose you! If I have a care for her happiness at all, if I have any respect for her, Lancelot, if I love her, I must let her make her own choice! And make no mistake, I do love her."
Two breaths panted into the silence. After several moments, there was a shake of chain mail.
"I have no doubt that she holds no small affection for me," Arthur continued, quieter. "But in the end, I see how she looks at you, Lancelot. She no longer looks at me in that way. Do not make a mockery of her feelings."
Boot heels echoed off the stone floor, coming to the door and stopping.
"When you are ready, come to me for the livery of Camelot."
Merlin had just enough time to scramble around the corner before the door was opening and Arthur was striding down the corridor.
In his heart, Merlin knew Arthur would not leave a job unfinished, especially when it pertained to something as important to him as this: Gwen's heart. Merlin just hadn't expected to be made privy to it without a little duplicity. The next morning after treating the dragon-burned in the Courtyard with Gaius, Merlin rushed a late breakfast to Arthur, only to find him dressed and restless.
"Leave it, Merlin, and come with me on an errand," said Arthur, which was unusual enough that Merlin put the tray down on the table and followed Arthur out the door without a word.
He wasn't surprised to find themselves at Morgana's chambers a minute later.
"May we come in?" asked Arthur.
"Of course, Sire," said Gwen.
They entered Morgana's chambers to discover her sitting amidst an explosion of richly-coloured and glistening yarns jumbled over Morgana's bed. There were a few strands separated and lying on the table in neat rows. It wasn't until Merlin got closer that he realised that the strands of yarn were actually skeins of glass beads! He was immediately fascinated; beads were a rare wonder indeed, and he was curious where Uther might have got them in trade. No one in Camelot made them, nor anyone near Ealdor, either, and Merlin had never seen any in his life until he came to Camelot and saw them on Morgana's gown. The play of the torchlight over the beaded bodice of her dress had so captivated Merlin that Arthur cuffed him on the ear and told him off for indecency, "though she is quite beautiful," he had said.
To which Merlin had replied, "Arthur, are those beads?"
Whereupon Arthur had given him an exasperated look and said, "You really are an idiot, aren't you?"
Merlin yanked his attention back to the present. Arthur was asking Morgana, "With your leave, may I please speak with Guinevere?"
Gwen shot a nervous glance at Morgana, who gave a nod of encouragement. "You may speak to her in her antechamber, as long as I may borrow Merlin."
"Very well," said Arthur, none too pleased, but it was apparent to Merlin he wished to finish what he came for instead of waiting for more privacy.
Gwen had already entered her chamber when Morgana said, "Arthur. If you hurt her, you will rue the day you ever set eyes upon her. Gwen is—"
"Morgana," said Arthur, blanching white, though Merlin didn't know if that was because Morgana seemed to know or because he was worried about Morgana's intended consequences. Arthur shook his head. "I only want the best for her. I wish only for her happiness."
Before Morgana could say another word, he pushed through the antechamber door and closed it to behind him. Merlin was just debating whether or not to cast a spell to amplify his hearing, when Morgana touched her finger to her lips and gave him a mischievous smile. She handed him a hank of beads and they sat there, very quietly teasing strands of them out of the tangled skeins and listened as Arthur said, "Guinevere, I release any claim I may have engendered in your heart."
"What – Arthur!" they heard Gwen gasp, just as Morgana's expression turned to thunder.
Morgana was about to rise and march into the anteroom when Arthur continued, "I wish only for your happiness. If it is… no, I know it is Lancelot whom you truly love."
Gwen burst into tears, and Morgana did rise this time.
"My lady!" Merlin whispered, frantic waving his arm, and it was enough for Morgana to pause. "Please – trust him." Morgana stared at Merlin for a long moment and slowly sat down.
Gwen's tears subsided into brief stitches and sobs.
"You must have him, if he will have you," said Arthur, as gentle as Merlin had ever heard him speak. "I couldn't wish for you a man more worthy of your love."
"Sire," said Gwen.
"He is able, and—," Arthur stopped, and Merlin understood he was unable to continue. Merlin looked at Morgana, who looked at once both terrible and hopeful.
"Sire," Gwen tried again, "Please believe: I am truly torn. You are a great man. You are my Lord and liege, and I love you for it, as I love you also for the man you are."
"Yet I do love Lancelot, your Majesty, and his is an attainable love," said Gwen, her voice quivering. "Yours may never be." She began to sob once more.
"Guinevere!" said Arthur, and Merlin could just imagine him taking her shoulders and gently shaking her. "I release you. I release you," and Merlin could hear Arthur's voice shaking, too. "Now, you must release me."
Quiet, hitching breaths and sniffling from both of them this time; Merlin and Morgana looked at each other and Merlin was surprised to find tears in Morgana's eyes, as well. He pulled his handkerchief (clean that morning) out of his pocket and handed it to her.
Arthur and Gwen both emerged from the antechamber red-eyed. Merlin was at a loss what to do about Arthur; generally, when he was upset, he banished Merlin from his rooms, wishing to be alone. But he said, "Come, Merlin," and headed straight for the door.
Merlin followed, and only just heard Morgana say, "Go to him, Gwen. I can manage here," before they rounded the corner out of earshot.
If he had expected to be dismissed outside of Arthur's chambers, he was mistaken. Arthur said, "Call for wine."
Merlin was startled; Arthur never drank wine so early. "Sire, don't you have… training, or something?" he said, even as he made his way to the door and flagged down a passing chambermaid.
"There is no training today. I was to have been on patrol, remember?" said Arthur, and now Merlin was really worried because not only had Arthur answered, he had not mocked Merlin for asking. Merlin cast about for something to do while Arthur brooded, staring out the window. This was very unlike the Prince, Merlin knew, and he wasn't quite sure how to handle Arthur like this, an Arthur who did not look to the violence of training or hunting or just the pure, physical joy of riding to distract him from his feelings.
"Arthur, come and eat your breakfast," said Merlin, arranging the untouched tray in front of Arthur's chair. The oat and leek stew had long gone cold and congealed in the bowl, but Merlin gave it a look and it heated just enough to stop it from looking and tasting like oniony glue.
Arthur said nothing but came to the table and ate silently, not remarking at all upon the state of his food. He left most of it untouched, and wandered back to the window. Merlin didn't feel any compunction about finishing it off; he'd hardly had time for anything himself this morning, having lain awake long after returning to his chambers, tumbling over in his mind what he'd heard outside Lancelot's rooms. Arthur, very uncharacteristically, said nothing. He handed over the tray to the chambermaid when she brought the wine, poured a generous cup and took it to Arthur at the window. "Arthur?"
He accepted the cup but didn't turn around. "It's for the best," said Arthur unexpectedly, voice scratchy. "There is much to be considered with war on our borders. This will no longer be… a distraction."
Which was as much an admission of friendship as Merlin was likely to know, that Arthur considered Merlin close enough to him to share this. Shaken, Merlin stood by and watched the bleakest expression he had ever seen cross Arthur's face. Merlin's gut clenched with the terrible understanding of how lonely and difficult Arthur's duty was. How could Arthur stand it— without thinking, his heart aching for Arthur, he asked, "Sire, if Lancelot stays, will he not be a constant reminder—"
Arthur snorted. "I should have known you would eavesdrop, Merlin." For the first time that day, Arthur really looked at Merlin. And even though his tone was as scathing as it ever was, Merlin was nevertheless glad to see that at least, Arthur had been drawn out of his morosity.
"Lancelot is first and foremost a knight, whether he takes up the livery of Camelot or not," said Arthur, with less 'Merlin-you-are-such-an-idiot' in his tone than Merlin would have expected, "and so am I. You will trouble yourself to remember that."
"I'm sorry, Sire," said Merlin, and for once, he meant it.
Chapter 5: Light of Arthur - Chapter 4
"It is sorcery!" said Uther, sounding as angry and cold as the dark, wintry weather outside the chamber windows. It was two days to Beltane, the herald of summer, and just this morning, Merlin had complained to Arthur, who lay burrowed deep under the covers, that there was ice in the well yet again.
"Father," said Arthur, rubbing his fingers on his forehead. The council had been meeting since breakfast, and Merlin could tell Arthur was tired of it, and more than a little concerned at the increasingly agitated tone of the King's arguments. And as far as Merlin could tell, still no useful discussion had taken place. "You are likely right. But the people of Camelot are not helped by laying blame. We must realise a solution to the problem."
"The only solution is to find and kill the one responsible for our suffering!" shouted Uther, with a face like granite. "I have taken counsel with all of you for days, and we have not prevailed! Every night, I have beseeched the gods for their favour, but they do not listen! We must rid ourselves of this sorcerer! There is no other course, Arthur!"
"Do you have any idea who the sorcerer might be, your Majesty?" asked Gaius. Merlin hoped Gaius' quiet query would instill some calm into the King.
"For a certainty? I do not," said the King. "But I have been thinking through the events of the last few months since the end of winter, trying to piece together the moment the weather turned from natural winter to unnatural sorcerous treachery, and I think I have pinpointed the time."
"When, Sire?" asked Arthur.
"At Ostara," said Uther, stopping his pacing and facing the counsel full on. "I believe it was the messenger, Loarn, who brought this evil down upon us."
"He told us the darkness started right before his party left their home," Uther interrupted. "He told of the darkness spreading down during his journey. His people saw the origin of it, so his people must have begun this sorcery! Either he, himself, is the sorcerer, or he was cursed to spread this evil upon us! For that, he must die!"
"Father, I don't understand. What motivation would Loarn and his people have had for doing this?"
"He said so himself. They are at war with the Picts. Perhaps the war is not going as well as they would like and they are looking for more lands to flee to. Perhaps this darkness they are spreading was meant to drive the people out of the lower lands so that Loarn's people could take them over without war."
"Enough, Arthur! I will hear no more of this. You will prepare your knights. In three days' time, the day after the Beltane celebration, you will ride North and you will find this evil sorcerer and stop him."
Merlin managed to remain utterly baffled the rest of the afternoon.
"How is it reasonable to assume they would undertake such a complicated plan?" he asked later, when he was serving Arthur dinner in his chambers. He was glad to take a break from organizing and packing, during which he had nothing to distract him from remembering Loarn. As the prince's servant, he had plenty of opportunities to observe men both honest and crooked, and their dealings with Loarn had not left him feeling as though Loarn or his people were dishonest or devious in the least. "A plan such as that would take years to accomplish, wouldn't it? If they were truly in danger of losing their lands to the Picts, would they not need a safe haven sooner rather than later?"
"That's very observant of you, Merlin," said Arthur, sounding for all the world as though that were the end of the matter.
"Arthur!" said Merlin, more than a little annoyed at being dismissed out of hand. He was cold and tired and hungry enough to let his irritation show, and damn the consequences.
"Merlin," said Arthur, in that tone of voice that said 'you had better not press this issue because the consequences could be dire', "you're not questioning the orders of the King, are you? Because if I answered you, Icould be seen to be questioning the orders of the King, and I will not commit treason to appease your curiousity."
Merlin sighed. "I'm not questioning the King's orders, Sire, I'm asking you where the sense of it all is. If I questioned those orders, would I be packing?"
Arthur looked back down at his plate and forked a piece of roast pork into his mouth and chewed thoughtfully; Merlin realised that Arthur, as he had been doing more and more frequently lately, had only made a token attempt at turning Merlin's curiousity aside and was actually considering his question. The realisation made Merlin feel warmer than the blazing fire in the hearth.
After a time during which Merlin watched him considering how to answer Merlin's question, Arthur said, "It is possible that we will not find what my father thinks we will find."
"How so, Sire?" asked Merlin, for once not sounding the least derogatory.
"I do not believe that if we find Loarn that he will be a sorcerer," said Arthur, "nor do I believe that his people are responsible."
"And if you breathe a word of what I just said to anyone, Merlin, and I mean anyone, I will deny it, and I will not throw you in the stocks or make a public punishment of you, because that would be as much an indication of my guilt as if I had announced it in Court. I will, instead, insist you muck out my stables daily. I will assign you to the slaughter house for offal disposal, and I will put you in charge of my personal chamber pot and require you to be my piss boy until the end of time. Do I make myself clear?"
Merlin rolled his eyes in plain view of Arthur. "Yes, yes, Sire, I understand. You are the prince, and I am merely a lowly servant who deserves to be bullied, even when I've never given you reason to believe I would ever tell your secrets to anyone," said Merlin, the vehemence of his words softened by their tone and the surprisingly unclumsy and gentle service of a fresh cup of wine. "Now please, Arthur, what is the use of travelling months in this dim, icy weather to get there? Who or what do you think is responsible?"
Arthur stared at him for a long moment, his expression almost pleading. "Merlin, my people are going to starve. Camelot's crops cannot be planted in the frozen soil. There are no greens growing, the flowers on the fruit trees have died in the bud. Without warmth there will be few insects and the chickens and wild birds will starve. There will be no eggs. Without sufficient pasture, the cows and goats will not give milk." Arthur returned his gaze to the fire.
"I do not know who or what is causing the dark and cold to linger," continued Arthur, "but it is true that the darkness comes from the North, and I think it must have something to do with the continued winter. It's the only lead we have," said Arthur. "I must find the cause, or my people will starve. They will die." He looked back at Merlin, his expression open and vulnerable. "Without its people, Camelot is nothing. There will be nothing for my father to rule."
The bleak expression from a few days ago had come back to Arthur's face, and that was not at all what Merlin had intended. A pang of regret settled in his stomach, and before he knew it, he had taken a step forward, his hand held out before him. He had no idea what to say, but felt he must say something. "Arthur—you are a good man, and you will be a good King."
Now Arthur rolled his eyes.
"No, really, Sire," said Merlin. "I know. In Ealdor… well, we have known starvation there." He thought back to those times, and shuddered. "Have you known it?"
"No," said Arthur. "It's not something that my father— he would feed his household before—" Arthur looked bleakly at Merlin and pointed at the chair next to him. "Tell me about it?"
Merlin settled uneasily into the chair and turned to face Arthur. "It happened when I was young," said Merlin. "I didn't know it at the time, but the winter previous had been warmer and wetter than most, and rot had set into Ealdor's seed grain. There was very little left to sow when the time came. We sent a delegation to the King to ask for assistance from the royal stores, but the King either could not or would not assist."
Merlin lost himself in the memories. "The cold bites harder when you're hungry," he remembered. "There were times I was so hungry I didn't feel hungry any more. Everything feels unreal, like a dream, and it's hard to think about anything. The grain ran out and there was no bread. We ground everything we could get our hands on to make do. I remember my mother sending me out before the snows to gather acorns. I chased the squirrels away and took their food from them," he said, frowning. "Without grain to add to it, it would not sour and rise, so we ate them whole. The chickens stopped laying in the fall, as they usually do, but with nothing else to eat, they never started laying again midwinter. The snows were heavy that year. The cows could not find pasture. The milk dried up. There were no root vegetables to spare to bait the rabbit traps with."
A great sadness overwhelmed him, and he looked down at his hands clasped tight to one another in his lap. "My little cousin died. Then his mother, who was with child. And then a cow died, and I remember my mother cursing the beef that might have kept our family alive had it come sooner." Merlin looked up from his hands, a single tear rolling down his cheek, and looked Arthur briefly in the eye. "When I ate the beef it made me ill. I hadn't had anything but water for days… my mum – she was so worried. I think she thought I was going to die, too." He gave an empty chuckle. "And then there was Roderick. They caught him stealing. I never saw him after that; mum told me they'd banished him."
He heard Arthur's breath hitch, but didn't look up again. "Spring finally came…" said Merlin, but he trailed off. He could not tell Arthur what happened next; that the moment his mother had smiled in anticipation of the spring greens which were then just beginning to shade the hillsides, Merlin crept out to the glade by the stream and wished hard for the cress to grow – and it did. It grew copious and tangled, and he grabbed handfuls of it, laughing; he stuffed it in his mouth, he packed it in his shirt, and ran home to his mother with his treasure. She burst into tears and said 'never again!' and 'thank you, Merlin, thank you baby boy'.
"How old were you, Merlin?" asked Arthur, startling Merlin out of his reverie.
"Five. I was five that winter."
"Only five, and you can remember so clearly…"
Merlin looked at him. "Arthur, we all do. It was a matter of life and death."
Merlin watched Arthur turn this over in his mind and end up with a slightly shamed look on his face. Merlin wondered what he could have said that caused that.
Arthur pulled himself out of his thoughts and shoved his plate at Merlin, looking him up and down. "You're too thin. If you don't eat enough, you won't have the energy to survive this trip," said Arthur. "Circumstances will get worse before they get better."
"Arthur," Merlin protested, a little because this was Arthur's food and he needed to eat, too, but mostly because this was the first confirmation from Arthur that Merlin would, indeed, be travelling with Arthur on this journey.
"No – I will not hear another word, Merlin. Eat," said Arthur. "Or do you need help?"
That sounded much more like the prince he knew, and Merlin smiled, genuinely and deeply, even if he had just been consigned to serve several months in the dark and cold. "Yes, Sire. I mean, no, I don't need help. I'll eat it." He took up the fork and thought, even as he took a bite of the tender pork, that perhaps Arthur's stubbornness was as much a blessing as a curse.
Beltane dawned no brighter than morning's first light and as chill and blustery as any winter day in Camelot. Ice crusted the edge of the streams, and Merlin had a great deal of difficulty that morning finding dead wood for the Beltane need-fires, having to go much farther into the forest than usual to gather what was needed. At least they had finished with the clinics in the Courtyard; almost all of the dragon-burned victims had healed enough to dispense with regular bandaging (though they had taken weeks longer than expected to do so and the few remaining who needed attention sought it in Gaius' chambers, which were far warmer than the Courtyard even with the fire behind them, anyway), so he could take a little extra time to gather dead branches before he had to attend Arthur.
This was the worst Beltane in living memory, and not only because in addition to preparing for the rituals and feast, Merlin was also frantically packing up the last of the supplies for their journey, which had been hastily ordered from stores and the merchants in the lower town. He also could not see how they were going to have any kind of festival at all; the May Dew was frozen to frost, so no one was bathing in it. Few danced around the May pole, which made a sad sort of sense to Merlin: how could the dancing bring any kind of new life into the earth, frozen as it was? It was certainly too cold for any of the earthier celebrations of fertility that usually took place out of doors, either, hidden in copses of trees or the tall grass in the meadows. There were no flowers to fill the cauldrons or to weave in the maidens' hair. The talk of the kitchens was that for the first time in memory, there would be no handfastings that evening. People muttered that the future was too uncertain for people to wed, and Merlin agreed with them.
Nevertheless, the kitchens were still preparing the feast for Camelot's Court that evening. It would be far sparser than years gone by, by the King's order, and end early so that he could meet with the knights of Camelot before they set forth the following day for the lands to the North.
When Merlin had finished dressing Arthur for the feast and they had entered the hall, Merlin was surprised to find that all those leaving in the morning were to eat at table together with the King, and that this included the servants who were going, as well. To the table was given a whole roast pig stuffed with rosemary branches, swimming in a sea of roast carrots and turnips. The wine flowed, and even though Arthur insisted Merlin's be watered quite thoroughly, much to his embarrassment Merlin found himself well into his cups after the first one. He sat next to the prince and served him even as he served himself, and matched Arthur plate for plate. He was feeling quite overstuffed and content and was about to wave care away to the wind and indulge in another cup, when Uther rose to address the feasting Court.
"People of Camelot!" The King's frenetic tone startled Merlin. He looked up to find a mad gleam in Uther's eyes. The knights were surprised, as well, and glanced uneasily at one another. "Your Prince and his chosen companions seated before you ride tomorrow at dawn to rid Camelot of the oppression of this cold, dark sorcery!"
"Camelot will never suffer the interference of sorcerers! I have pledged to eradicate it wherever it occurs! I will keep this kingdom safe from its ravages," Uther continued, spitting with every word, his face red.
"We will end this darkness for Camelot!" he thundered.
As one, the hall erupted into a chant, "For Camelot! For Camelot!" And as warily as the knights had treated Uther's words at first, they were among the loudest to cheer, and it was only his proximity to Arthur that allowed Merlin to see that while Arthur cheered with the rest, his eyes were not happy and his expression was thoughtful. And perhaps it was that the King understood this about his son, because while the people cheered, he leaned close to Arthur and said, "You will bring me that sorcerer's head, or you will return a traitor."
Merlin watched Arthur close his eyes and swallow. "Yes, father."
When the chanting dissolved into disorganized cheers, Arthur gathered his knights with a look. Then the King left the table and the Court dispersed, and the knights and their servants gathered close around Arthur. Arthur looked around for stragglers, and said, "Merlin, tell the servants to stay out until they are invited back in, and shut the doors. Merlin did so, and hurried back to the group. He was surprised to find that Arthur had waited to speak until he'd returned.
"You saw your King just now," said Arthur, "And I watched your reactions. No – do not worry," he said as the knights' expressions became strained. "Because I am the Crown Prince, I will dare to say what you dare not."
He paused until all eyes were on him once more. "For the past several days and as you saw tonight, the King would appear to be descending into madness."
This set a fearful murmuring amongst his men, and Arthur spoke over it. "Do not misunderstand!" he said. "I fervently hope that I am wrong."
Merlin looked sharply at Arthur, looked at the flickering eyelids, and the swallowing throat, and it was obvious to Merlin, if no one else, that it cost Arthur quite a bit to admit that out loud. Arthur continued.
"When we ride tomorrow, our quest will be similar but not exactly what my father requests. I cannot in conscience bring back the head of a man I believe to be innocent of the King's charges."
"Arthur, that's treas—"
"Merlin, one more word and you will not attend me on this journey but instead, spend the time we are away in the stocks!" said Arthur, not even looking at him. Merlin cringed.
"As I was saying, we are not going to kill Loarn or his fellow countrymen out of turn," said Arthur. "We are going to follow Uther's last command literally. That is our mission, however it must be accomplished. Because of that, this will be a quest for information, not of war or assassination. We will seek out Loarn and ask him what he knows, what his people have been able to find out. We will seek out the true meaning behind this darkness, and we will eradicate it."
"Go now to your rest, and may sleep find you soon. We ride at dawn," said Arthur. He left at a determined pace, with Merlin trailing along behind. Arthur didn't look at him or talk to him the entire way to his chambers.
He remained silent and simmering as Merlin undressed him and drew on his nightshirt and sleeping pants. Even with the fire, the room was icy; the Prince went straight to the bed and burrowed under the covers without a word, and Merlin feared he had upset the Prince even more than he thought.
"Arthur – I'm sorry for speaking out of turn," he said, not knowing what more he could do to resolve the Prince's tension.
He heard a great sigh from under the blankets, and Arthur turned over to lie on his back. "Merlin, come here."
Merlin drew close to the side of the bed, and Arthur patted the empty area beside him. Startled, Merlin hesitantly climbed up and sat next to Arthur. This was a new and unexpected intimacy. Arthur's bed was softer than anything Merlin had ever before sat upon, and he felt an irrational moment of jealousy. Arthur turned on his side and braced Merlin with a very serious look.
"I am not yet strong enough to fight my father for his throne," said Arthur. "Yet I cannot follow his orders blindly. Merlin, I am asking you to have faith in me," said Arthur.
"But I do have faith in you, Sire, Arthur," answered Merlin, immediately.
Arthur stared at him for quite some time, his expression unreadable. Merlin didn't dare blink or turn away, for fear Arthur would not believe he was as sincere as he was in that moment.
Arthur's expression turned troubled. "Merlin – you don't have to go on this journey. It would be unfair of me to demand it." He sighed. "It will be dangerous…. It is likely we may never return."
Merlin was immediately indignant. "Of course, I'm going! All the knights' squires are going. Taliesin gets to go, doesn't he? Pip from the stables is going, too! If they get to go, why not me?"
"Taliesin was Galahad's squire long before turning bard. He hasn't found a new squire yet."
Merlin recognised the answer as incomplete, and wondered what it was that Arthur wasn't saying.
"Arthur – I belong with you, and nothing you can say will stop me from going," pronounced Merlin, thinking two sides of the same coin, we are two sides, and when do the sides of a coin ever separate from one another? How can I protect you if I'm not with you? And there it was, out in the open, I belong with you; it was more than Merlin had ever before tried to tell Arthur about their destiny, and as soon as he said it, he realised how it must sound to Arthur, Arthur who had not spent the last two years listening to the pronouncements of destiny from the great dragon that still and forever echoed loudly in Merlin's head.
Arthur raised his head from the pillow and rested his weight on one elbow. "Merlin?"
"You belong to me." Arthur settled back down, rolled over onto his back, and shut his eyes. Then he said very low, "And I'd like you to belong to me for a very long time."
Chapter 6: Light of Arthur - Chapter 5
As tired as he was, Arthur's quiet admission kept Merlin awake far longer than it took him to pack the many potions Gaius pressed upon him, his one change of clothing, extra socks, and (against Gaius' advice) his magic book wrapped in the remains of one of Arthur's shredded and blood-stained summer cloaks. He laid out his jacket and a pair of thick, woolen mittens, a large swath of cloth from Gaius ("it's to wrap your head and neck, under your hood," he had explained), and the very fine and warm ankle-length fur-lined cloak Arthur had gifted him with only that afternoon. It was a deep Camelot red with a golden yellow border and a clasp crafted into the shape of the Pendragon itself, with tiny luminous green stones that Arthur had called emeralds for eyes. Merlin knew the cloak to be far too fine for a servant and secretly suspected it to have been commissioned for Arthur himself, but Arthur was right when he said that Merlin's thin jacket and the plain, woolen cloaks that the servants were issued would not be enough to keep him safe from prolonged exposure to the biting cold. And indeed, when the party assembled in the Courtyard in the pre-dawn dark, Merlin hurrying to go over every last pack to make sure they had everything they would need, he noticed even Pip had a thick cloak lined with fur (though it was nowhere near as fine as the one Arthur had given him).
The torches were lit around the entire Courtyard; by the time the cart was packed and hitched, and the horses were saddled, led into the Courtyard and laden with tents and packs and food and equipment, the King and his household were assembled on the steps to see them off. Merlin thought the King looked dreadful; his eyes were sunken and his cheeks grey in the half light. He looked as though he hadn't slept in weeks. Morgana, clutching Gwen's arm, looked nothing other than wild-eyed and frantic. Merlin searched the steps and found Gaius standing near the King. They had said their goodbyes last night, and while Merlin was not happy to be leaving him, Gaius let him know that the King would see to it that he was not without assistance if he needed it.
Arthur jogged up the steps to his father and turned to address the travellers.
"Knights and servants of Camelot!" Arthur's voice rang throughout the Courtyard. "We ride today on a mission to redeem that which we hold most dear – the lives and livelihoods of our family and friends, and everyone in this great kingdom. We ride to rid the world of this everlasting winter night, and may the gods speed us on our journey and make us successful in our goal!" Merlin heard the warning in there to Arthur's men, even as he knew the King would suspect nothing of Arthur's true purpose.
"Each of you were chosen for your skills and prowess and your dedicated service to Camelot and its King. It is your duty to do all you can to see to the needs of Camelot and its King. But I hope, too, that you find in this journey a calling: a calling to do right in all things along the way, and to show by example the values for which Camelot stands. Ours will not be an easy task. We will be long away, in foreign lands and amongst people whose ways are strange to you. I ask you to never forget who you are and where you come from: mighty warrior Lords and servants of the finest, fairest kingdom in all of Albion.
"My brothers in arms, let us ride!"
And with that, he bowed low before Uther and his Court, loped down the steps and mounted his horse.
They rode out the gates and over the moat in formation, the knights with the Prince two abreast, the servants on their mounts behind, each leading a pack horse with their master's armour and equipment. Merlin lead the cart horse behind them, Arthur's things packed on it amongst the food stores. In company they were eight: Arthur, with Merlin to serve him, Galahad with Taliesin, Gawain with his squire William, and Kay with Pip the farrier's apprentice to care for the horses, his forge and tools stowed in Merlin's cart.
Camelot's gates faced west; when they reached the meadow beyond the lower town, they took the track that ran to the right, which eventually curved around to the north and led to the forest where Arthur most liked to hunt. It was well after dawn, though Merlin found it difficult to tell. The clouds were lowering for a rain (or possibly a snow; it was cold enough) and that on top of the dark pall that had become a constant over the last few months made for a very dim morning, indeed. Once they drew under the eaves of the forest, it was dark as night, and as difficult going. The track was wide enough to ride two abreast, and just wide enough to accommodate a cart, which Merlin was very thankful for, as he did not fancy having to dismount, hitch his own horse in tandem to help pull, and walk behind.
They rode much of the day in silence, dismounting and jumping up and down to get the feeling back in their fingers and toes whenever they found a stream to water the horses. Before the first hour was up, Merlin was beginning to feel himself solidify from the cold. Even with the extra socks and his mittens, his fingers and toes felt like ice. Toward the end of the afternoon they passed out of the forest and onto a rolling grassland, the grey, broken stems of last year's growth cracking beneath the hooves of the horses whenever they left the path. Arthur called a halt almost at once, turned off the track on the ridge and rode down into the middle of a dale, ordering the tents assembled before the last of the meagre light faded out of the sky. They camped that night with only a half a day's ride to go before they reached the border of Camelot. Merlin remembered this road; if they kept along this same track, they would pass within two hour's ride from Ealdor sometime tomorrow evening. He wished he could stop and visit his mother, though he knew it to be impossible.
Being the Prince's servant, it fell to him to organize the other servants to set up the camp. By Arthur's order the previous day, Merlin was in charge of food supply and cooking: 'I trust that you will see to the careful rationing of our supplies', the Prince had said, with a hand on Merlin's arm, and Merlin wondered if he were remembering what Merlin had told him about Roderick.
Tents they set up in a circle around a central fire; supper that evening consisted of leek and oat stew and roast rabbit, which the knights had hunted and brought back as soon as they'd picked their camping spot. The poor things were scrawny; there was barely enough meat to go around.
"Arthur, please have mine," said Merlin, when Arthur had taken his last bite and was scraping the sides of his plate for the juices and dregs of his stew.
Arthur frowned long enough at him that Merlin was beginning to wonder what he'd said to irritate Arthur this time, before Arthur eventually said, "Don't be ridiculous, Merlin. Eat it. I don't want you or anyone suffering the cold any more than they have to."
Merlin thought Arthur's concern was rather more warming than a few bites of rabbit, but he said nothing and ate the rest of his food with a smile on his face.
Later that night, they crawled into the tent set up for them a small way apart from the others. There was little room, but Merlin did his best to set up their bedrolls next to each other. They overlapped halfway.
"Merlin, you are an idiot, aren't you?" said Arthur, pushing him out of the way. He moved his bedroll, unfolded Merlin's across the bottom of the whole tent, then unfolded his own on top of it. "We may be months with no reprieve from the cold. We must keep warm any way we can."
"Are the others…"
"Of course they are," said Arthur, wasting no time removing his boots and cloak and sliding under the blankets. "Why do you think I have my men sleeping with their squires? They're used to that situation, on the battlefield."
"I wonder how Pip's taking it?" asked Merlin, snickering. As far as he knew, the only warm body Pip had ever slept with was a horse. The farrier lived next to the stables, and Pip had roomed with him ever since he took his apprenticeship.
"Kay is Pip's uncle; I'm certain they'll manage."
For all Merlin's complaining, in his secret heart of hearts, he wasn't unhappy at having a snug little space to share with Arthur. He took off his boots and cloak, and slid under the blankets next to Arthur. Arthur sat up and threw Merlin's cloak over them. Merlin made to do the same with Arthur's, but Arthur said, "Don't – fold it in half inside out and roll it up like this—" he put action to words, creating a bolster, "and now we have something soft and warm to lay our heads on.
Arthur settled down on his side, facing away from Merlin, and tucked the blankets up under his chin. Merlin lay down, and wiggled until his back was touching Arthur's, pulling the blankets tight about him. To Merlin's over-chilled body, Arthur was hot like a furnace; Merlin must have been much colder than he realised. He let himself relax in the heat radiating at his back, and tucked his toes back into the bend behind Arthur's knees. He fell asleep almost immediately.
He woke the next morning to the odd sensation of being gloriously warm everywhere except his face. His forehead felt like a block of ice and his nose must have been red as a beacon, but he quickly forgot about it once he realised that the heat at the back of his neck was Arthur breathing deep and slow in his sleep. Sometime during the night, Arthur had spooned himself up behind Merlin, tucking in close enough that they were touching shoulders to knees, their ankles tangled up together, with Arthur's arm thrown around Merlin's waist and his hand curled up under Merlin's arm on his chest.
He couldn't ever remember being this comfortable sleeping out of doors, even in the dead of summer. The last thing he wanted was to move, but really, the last last thing he wanted was for Arthur to wake and have nothing to eat.
Easing out of the bedroll was more difficult than Merlin thought it ought to be, but he quickly dressed and was surprised to find that spending the night with Arthur wrapped around him had prepared him very well for the cold morning. He quickly built up the fire and boiled barley and rye for breakfast. There was very little fruit to be had, but the King had very generously allowed a quantity of dried plums, apricots and raisins to go with them, so Merlin added a heavy double-handful of raisins into the porridge. He roasted chestnuts to heat people's pockets, which they could then eat for lunch later. He thought that ought to hold everyone until supper.
While everyone rose and struck camp, Merlin did a quick estimate of their stores and what they'd used so far, and how long it would take to get to their destination. He'd seen the maps spread out over the table in the council chambers; it was no less than two hundred seventy leagues to the shores of Dalriata, which, with luck and pressing ahead every day, they would take forty days to get there. But even Merlin knew that no journey such as this ever progressed that quickly. He estimated a full seven weeks to find Loarn in Dalriata to ask for his help. There was no way the supplies would last that long, and with the never-ending winter, Merlin didn't think they would be able to find anyone interested in trading for food.
Merlin did have a secret plan that he had researched in the book of magic before they left, however, which he planned to implement immediately. While everyone was busy packing up their bedrolls and tents and eating breakfast, Merlin placed his hands over the bags of grain, raisins and chestnuts, whispered, "Áfyllan ," and some of the slack in the bags disappeared. With any luck, he could continue this for quite some time without it being noticed.
That done, he turned to his own breakfast, and very soon they set off again.
Merlin spent his time on horseback that morning composing a letter to his mother in his head. Even if he weren't going to be able to see her, it was more than possible that he might find someone willing to give him a small piece of parchment and ink for him to write his letter, then take it to her. He was in possession of five denarii, given him at one time or another by Arthur for meritorious service (for as much as Arthur complained, he was fair) and one of them would be far more than acceptable payment for the cost of running a letter a couple hours west of the track they were on.
By mid-afternoon, the grasslands had given over to a hard, scaly ground covered in pebbles and the occasional remains of a scrubby bush. Merlin was as cold as he could possibly be and still stay on his horse, and to make matters worse, it had begun to snow.
He supposed he should be grateful it wasn't sleet or a cold, soaking rain, but it nevertheless made the way difficult to follow. Several times, one or another of the squires was asked to dismount and sweep the ground in front of them so they could spot signs of the trail. The snow was cresting ankle deep, and causing enough trouble for the cart that Merlin was seriously considering turning around and riding his horse backward. That would be far better than straining his neck to keep a better eye on the wheels so he could lead the cart horse past the worst of the ruts. But then they topped a rise late in the afternoon and halted when they spotted a small village.
Merlin looked at it, not seeing – and then the pieces resolved into place. Merlin's lips were so cold that it hurt to grin as wide as he was. He dropped the cart lead and rode up the ranks to where Arthur was speaking with Gawain. "You've brought us to Ealdor!" he said.
"Yes, Merlin, I have," said Arthur, unable to keep an answering grin from his face. "I…," he started, then looked down and away, starting afresh. "We should take advantage of shelter when we can. We are not unknown here, and are more likely to be willingly assisted here than elsewhere."
"Of course they would help you. My mother – the whole of Ealdor! – would do anything for you, you know that, don't you?" said Merlin, unable to keep the grin off his face.
"Get Pip to take care of your horse and the cart, and come with me, Merlin. Gawain, gather the company and lead them onto the commons and wait for us."
Merlin followed Arthur down to his mother's door. They made it halfway when Merlin's mother ran out of her hut and ran straight into Merlin's arms.
"Mother!" Merlin swept her into his arms and held her tight, laughing.
"Oh, Merlin! I wasn't expecting—it's so good to see you!" She pulled away, laughing, with tears in her eyes. "And Arthur!"
She smiled at them both as though she were drinking them in. "You both look well."
"As do you, Hunith," answered Arthur. "Thank you."
"What errand brings you to Ealdor?" she asked, her arm still around Merlin's waist and looking at the company gathered on the common. As they spoke, others were beginning to come out of their huts, wary, but breaking into smiles as soon as they saw Merlin and Arthur.
"It's a long tale, Mother, one which perhaps Arthur should relate."
His mother said, "Come inside, then! You must be frozen through. I have cider warming on the hearth."
A few hours later, after the horses had been squeezed into any available shelter, the cart covered and the company settled in the huts and crofts of Ealdor, half the village (and all of the elders) crowded into Hunith's hut to listen to Arthur's tale.
Arthur had been right: once the people of Ealdor understood what it was Arthur meant to do, they pressed what food and feed for the horses they could spare upon the company and prayed to the gods for their success. Their support and goodwill were a bit overwhelming both to Merlin and Arthur too, judging from his reaction, but it was plain that Arthur brought them a reason to hope, and after their shared experience getting rid of the bandits, Arthur already shone in their eyes as a great leader. They would probably follow him anywhere.
After hours of discussion and frank admiration that unnerved Merlin, who was far more used to having his efforts ridiculed on a regular basis, Merlin found himself behind a curtain on the floor of his mother's hut once again pressed up against Arthur in their bedroll. Neither were tired, but they were chilled, even though Hunith's hut was warmer than their tent the night before.
"Arthur?" asked Merlin, thinking of the unalloyed awe in which the people of Ealdor held Arthur after explaining their quest and what that said about Arthur's natural (and probably also learned) ability to lead, "What will you do if we can't find the source of the cold and darkness?"
Arthur sighed and rolled over on his back. Merlin turned round and raised up on his elbow to look at him. He stared at the ceiling, eyes shining dark in the flickering light of the fire. "We'll keep looking until we do find it," he said, eventually.
"But… I mean, what if a year has passed and we still haven't found it?"
"I don't know," said Arthur. "If we can't plant any crops, in a year's time we likely all will have starved. In any case, we keep looking. We enlist the help of anyone who may know how to undo this sorcery."
"Anyone?" Merlin wondered if that were really true. "Even if that someone were a sorcerer themselves?"
Arthur turned and raised himself on his elbow, until they were eye to eye, faces inches apart. "Merlin," said Arthur, staring very intently in Merlin's eyes, "You must know that I do not share my father's hatred of sorcerers and sorcery."
Merlin blanched, and was thankful for the half-light so that Arthur wouldn't see, because Merlin knew no such thing. Which made him wonder, was this Arthur telling Merlin, I know about your magic, and it's OK? That Arthur might know, as much as Merlin would have liked to have Arthur know and accept his magic, left him feeling a bit sick.
Not that he was prepared to show Arthur that, however. "Arthur," said Merlin, leaning back a bit so he could look Arthur directly in the eye, "the last time you spoke to me about magic, you said something like, 'I am indebted to you Merlin. I had become confused. It's once again clear to me that those who practice magic are evil and dangerous, and that is thanks to you.' So this change of heart – does it mean I can't collect on your indebtedness?"
Arthur smirked. "Idiot," he said, with what Merlin thought sounded like a great deal of affection, and shoved Merlin's shoulder.
Merlin fell off his elbow and landed on his back. He put his hands behind his head and let his elbow fall onto Arthur's side of the cloak-pillow. "So does that mean you would? Use a sorcerer, I mean. Maybe if Loarn has a sorcerer or knows of one, would you ask them for help?"
Arthur dropped down on his back again and tucked his head in the crook of Merlin's outstretched elbow. The sudden weight and warmth sent a liquor-like tendril wending down the centre of him to settle in his groin. Merlin did his best to ignore it.
"I might," said Arthur, after a long pause. "But this has been going on for awhile, now; if Loarn or anyone knew of a sorcerer they thought might be able to help, don't you think they would already have been approached?"
Merlin bit his tongue. No one had approached him, but there was no use being unreasonable and sulking about it; he knew very well why that was and, really, he was profoundly thankful that that was the case. He wasn't sure he could fix this problem; it was almost too large, and it felt as though, when he thought about the problem, it became as hazy and insubstantial as the sky had gone.
"What if the cost were too great, though?" argued Merlin. "I mean, what if the sorcerer charged too much, or what if fixing the skies and seasons required a sacrifice somewhere else that was unacceptable?" he said, thinking about the cost for a life being a life in return, and maybe changing the seasons back and clearing the sky meant that the seasons were distorted elsewhere or the skies went dark in another place.
"Perhaps we could find a way to pay it, then," said Arthur. "Anyway, this is useless speculation, Merlin. It's early days and we won't likely know much until we get there. Let's get some sleep." With that, he turned on his side facing Merlin, and, his breath blowing warm in Merlin's ear, molded himself tight to Merlin's side. Merlin used his other arm to tuck the blankets tight over them both, but still couldn't sleep.
"Arthur?" He whispered, barely louder than the pop and crackle of wood in the fireplace.
Arthur sighed, a warm gust, sounding resigned. "What is it, Merlin?"
"Why did we really come to Ealdor?"
Merlin felt the press of Arthur's cheek on his arm grow briefly harder; he had grinned. "I couldn't pass so close to your home without letting you see your mother," he whispered, barely audible even as close as he was to Merlin's ear. "This journey will be long and likely fruitless. It may be… I didn't want...," he said, trailing off. "Just go to sleep, Merlin."
"Arthur," said Merlin, turning his head until their noses were touching, "thank you."
Cocooned in warmth, Merlin lay awake while Arthur pretended to sleep soundly at his side. But it had been a long day, and eventually the tension in Arthur's body relaxed and his breathing became slow and audible, and smelling of sleep. Merlin thought about his mother, how much she'd sacrificed for him, how he was glad to have the opportunity to sacrifice for her, and lay there, reaching up with all his magical senses, trying to clear the way to the ceiling of heaven.
Chapter 7: Light of Arthur - Chapter 6
The next day dawned rude and early for Merlin. He was loathe to leave the comfort of his mother's hut and the warm, hard length of Arthur laying half on top of him, but Arthur was hard everywhere. And that being all he wanted to know about that right then, with his mother clattering and humming around the fire on the other side of the curtain, he kicked off the blankets, winged Arthur accidentally-on-purpose in the shin, and staggered over to the wash bucket.
"Whazzat for?" Arthur groused, but in the tone of voice that Merlin recognised didn't actually require an answer. Merlin scrubbed at his face and most carefully did not watch Arthur drag himself to his feet and stride proud as a Lord out to the stream to relieve himself.
They ate a hasty breakfast of porridge, and Merlin left the table to stow their gear and pack up the gifts they were given while Arthur and Hunith were still talking. At one point, while Merlin was cinching Arthur's saddle, Arthur came out and rummaged through the cart until he found a large packet of something and took it back to Hunith. Her eyes lit up and she hugged Arthur hard, planting a kiss on both cheeks. She was smiling, but Merlin thought he could see tears in her eyes as she placed a hand on Arthur's cheek and said something that Merlin could tell she truly meant. In return, Arthur ducked his head and very clearly Merlin saw him mouth the words, I promise.
After a very public and hearty farewell on the common (and a rather painful leave-taking from his mother in private, ('Take care of him' his mother had said, 'And Merlin… let him take care of you'), they set forth once again for the north in the diffuse morning light, which, as the days of their journey passed, became a hallmark of Merlin's general mood: diffuse.
And, as the days of their journey passed, the tasks of setting and breaking camp were established and the company settled into an efficient routine. They worked their way into an easy camaraderie during their rides. Arthur kept books in his saddle bag; on easy stretches he would drop back to ride next to Merlin and read aloud to him, while Kay or one of the other knights took the lead. Others played "Spy," ('I spy a kestrel,' said Galahad, pointing off somewhere behind Merlin, 'That's a merlin!' Gawain laughed, pointing lower. 'Oi!' said Merlin). But Merlin, for the most part, watched Arthur or talked to him when he wasn't reading.
"What is that book?" he asked one day, when Arthur looked up from its pages. They were travelling on an empty stretch of an old Roman road that ran straight and wide through a shallow valley. Both the land and the sky where dark grey and it was difficult to tell where one left off and the other began.
"It's the Bible that Loarn gave me," said Arthur.
"You've been studying it quite a bit, then?" asked Merlin, who had seen Arthur pull it out by the campfire on occasion, in addition to reading on the road.
"It's… interesting," said Arthur, after a pause. "I don't know quite what to make of this god. He's not like any of the gods we know."
"What makes him different?" asked Merlin.
"Well," said Arthur, and then he didn't say anything for awhile. The horses clopped along in a discordant rhythm and Merlin let himself be rocked in the saddle. He wondered if Arthur had forgotten him, so he was startled when Arthur continued, "He's a god of forgiveness and mercy. This book says, 'His mercy is upon generation after generation'. But that's only if we fear him. Otherwise he's vindictive and, frankly, horrifying," said Arthur. "With one breath, this Christ is saying, 'suffer the little children to come unto me,' and in the next, he's saying, 'Ye serpents, ye generation of vipers, how can ye escape the damnation of hell.'"
Merlin didn't have to think too long to realise, "This god is clearly mad!"
Arthur stared at Merlin, then smirked. "As much as it pains me to admit it, Merlin, I think you might be right."
Merlin snorted. "What is he going to do with those children. Eat them?"
"Idiot," Arthur laughed.
"Prat," said Merlin, grinning, but then he turned serious. "I like the thought of a god who forgives the sins of his followers and shows mercy," he said. "But how could anyone trust this one enough to petition him?"
Listening to Merlin, Arthur was vividly reminded of something Uther had told him long ago after a particularly contentious audience with his subjects: strong people needed strong leaders. But the strength of madness… there was no foundation to it. Threats were not a sign of strength; they were a sign that whatever lay behind them needed shoring up. And yet, "Apparently there are compensations," Arthur eventually replied. "If we believe in him, if we repent our sins, if we serve him, our prayers will be answered and we will know eternal life."
Merlin snorted. If the dragon is right, he thought to himself, we already have that. But he said nothing about that, and instead, asked, "How is that even possible?"
"I don't know," Arthur answered. "I'd have said sorcery, but it doesn't seem this god holds with magic any more than my father does. Do you know, this god says, 'Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live'? Ha! I should think my father had caused that to be written." He held the book from him and stared at it, as though it were unclean.
"There are miracles, but they come from this god and only at his whim, not from ordinary people. From sorcerers, I mean."
Merlin gulped, and was very glad Arthur was looking at his book. "Who's to say sorcerers aren't ordinary people?"
Then Arthur did look directly at him, and Merlin's breath caught in his throat. "I'm certain some of them are," said Arthur.
Merlin refused to look away, afraid that doing so might convey guilt. "Is that so?"
Arthur took his time answering. "You've seen them tied to the pyres in the rags they lived their lives in and were gaoled in, Merlin," he said. "You've heard the cries of those Uther has executed just as I have. You've heard their pleading and the pleadings of their family and friends. The only extraordinary thing about them was their magic."
For the moment, Merlin was distracted from his suspicions about Arthur's suspicions, and realised what the Prince was telling him. "The day I came to Camelot from Ealdor," said Merlin, slowly, "there was an execution in the Courtyard of a man who was accused of sorcery. He looked like an ordinary pig farmer. It was… horrible to watch, his beheading. But," Merlin admitted, "hearing the wailing of his mother was worse…." He didn't want continue. He had mixed feelings about that witch of a woman; she would have killed Arthur, but in the end she was responsible for bringing Merlin and Arthur together, as much as neither of them had appreciated it, in the beginning.
"What does it take to get this god to perform a miracle?" asked Merlin.
"Aside from his son Jesus calling one down from the heavens, I don't know," said Arthur.
"Then what good is petitioning that god?" asked Merlin, thinking that at least he could petition the Lady and Lord directly. Anyone could.
"I don't know," said Arthur, and he put the book away and took out another.
They camped most nights, mostly wherever they could find a sheltered dell, though sometimes they sheltered in a hamlet, where the people were usually as suitably impressed as the people of Ealdor that Arthur planned to bring back the light, though (understandably) more skeptical than grateful. They were fortunate in their journey through Rheged not to have encountered any of King Urien's knights, for their company could easily be seen as a cadre of spies or assassins; Uther had not managed a treaty with Rheged, for they lacked nothing that Camelot regularly traded, and Uther was of the opinion anyway that Cumbrians were a surly lot and best left to themselves. Merlin knew Arthur well enough to know he preferred to form his own opinions, but for the last three weeks they had painstakingly struggled through the mountains, there were many places to hide, and really, it didn't do to forget that prudence was the wiser sister to courage. For the most part, too, they had good weather through the mountains (if he could call freezing temperatures and little light at the end of May good), so Merlin wasn't surprised when the day came that their luck changed for the worse on that score.
That day dawned as dark as night, and very soon after the company broke camp, it turned terrible with snow and sleet. Merlin was certain that at any moment, the cart was going to fall off the narrow mountain track they were descending, when they rounded a bend and found a cave. The entrance was wide and low, and as soon as they approached the mouth of it, the horses shied away. Even Merlin could understand why: the place stank of bear.
Arthur looked at the cave, and then looked at the company. "Well… there's likely only one."
Arthur dismounted, and drawing his sword, motioned for his knights to do the same and follow. Merlin grabbed a torch from the cart and whispered "Forbærnen!" as he struck at the flint. The torch sprang to life, and he followed Arthur and the knights into the cave. It went back relatively straight and spread out wide; Merlin saw a pool of black water at the edge of the torchlight. Opposite, in a little wallow, lay the bear.
With the cold and darkness, Merlin almost expected the bear to be hibernating, but the bear apparently knew what time of year it was, even if the weather seemed not to. It was awake and staring, and looking very, very hungry. And if Merlin got any closer to it, he thought the stench might make him lose his meagre lunch. He backed away and held the torch high aloft just as Arthur engaged, and in short order with only two terrifying swipes at Arthur's head as he distracted the bear, Sir Galahad shot an arrow into its mouth and the great beast collapsed.
Later, after they'd persuaded the horses to shelter in the cave and dragged the cart in, and after what felt like hours of hacking at the dead carcass, Merlin still wasn't certain he wouldn't vomit the moment he opened his mouth. Which is, of course, why Arthur spent the time merrily hacking away at the bear with his hunting knives alongside Merlin and trying his best to goad him into conversation. Merlin was aware of everyone listening in, and wouldn't have put it past the knights to be taking bets on whether or not, or ever, Merlin would reply.
"Come on, Merlin! You weren't scared, were you?" said Arthur, finally, which, even as Merlin was stung out of his thoughts, he recognised as his last-ditch effort.
"Oi!" he replied. "I fought a great, huge fire-breathing dragon with you!"
The knights burst out laughing and Merlin saw Gawain hand Galahad something small and copper out of the pouch at his belt.
At last, the bear was butchered and the meat packed in some of the salt they'd brought for gifts and trade, and with the help of the other squires, Merlin cleaned and stretched the bear pelt to dry. He had taken to saving the pelts of every animal that was hunted, cleaning them carefully and pegging them to the sides of the wagon until they were properly dried, which served them well in trade in the larger towns. By the time he was finished, the large fire had managed to warm the cave enough to cause the smell to be truly horrendous, and the entire company, even those not covered in bear gore, were of a mind to dip in the pool, no matter how frigid, and have a bath.
Which is exactly what they did. Merlin jumped in ahead of Arthur and rose to the surface momentarily unable to breath with the cold of it. He couldn't touch the floor of the pool, but there were plenty of handholds and the water came close to the top edge, so it was easy to grab hold of the edge, reach up, and topple Arthur into the pool with him from where he stood, shivering naked and laughing with his knights.
"Muh – Merlin," he spluttered, when he'd got over the initial shock and managed to draw breath, "I will whip you for that!" But this proclamation was drowned in the laughter coming from knights. So instead, he swam over to Merlin in one strong stroke and pushed him under. Merlin twisted away easily, but Arthur grabbed him and pulled him up again, clinging to him with his teeth chattering.
"Quick, scrub me down and let's get to the fire," he said, and proceeded to rub his hands strong and hard down Merlin's body as Merlin dunked him and scrubbed at his head. Within moments they were thoroughly frozen and the rubbing left them feeling bruised and abraded. They quickly climbed out of the water, and as others took their place, they stood as close to the fire as they dared. Once they were dry, they donned their outer cloaks, which they had cast off to dress the bear, and went to scrub their clothing in the pool.
This was a different Arthur, thought Merlin, one he had never fully seen before, even though he had caught glimpses of it during other long outings. For all Arthur let as much as possible be done for him in the castle, out here, he took much more responsibility for his own care than Merlin could ever remember him doing before. If Merlin didn't know better, he'd have thought that Arthur had something to prove. But Arthur had nothing to prove, at least not to Merlin. He was a leader, and a fair one, and a strong one, and he was fast on his way to losing his prattishness and gaining wisdom in its place. His men followed him without question, his people loved him, strangers rallied behind him when he came to their aid. He had nothing to prove to anyone.
The storm had only worsened by evening, and what bare light the day had brought had disappeared hours before the sun ought to have set. That evening, after they had hung their damp clothing on sticks near the fire to dry and gorged themselves silly on roast bear and dried apricots, the company sat close around the fire wrapped tight in their outer cloaks, and passed around a skin of unwatered wine. The tales grew longer as the skin flattened, and if they didn't stop talking about giant beasts rampaging about the countryside, Merlin wasn't going to get a decent night's sleep. He'd encountered enough scary stories with Arthur to fuel a lifetime of nightmares.
"The wolves were nothing," said Taliesin, about Galahad's latest offering. "At least, nothing compared to the time we were out on patrol and startled a nest of harp—"
"Never mind that, now," said Galahad, turning bright red and tackling a madly giggling Taliesin to the ground next to him. Gawain, Kay and Arthur were laughing and falling about like fools.
Gawain recovered first and said, "But I do remember a time – Galahad, Kay, you'll remember this," he said, sneaking a quick look at Arthur, "and Arthur, too. We were out on a hunt, and Arthur, this was one of the first hunts the King let you go on with knights of your own choosing.
Merlin had the distinct pleasure of watching Arthur's face go an extreme shade of red from the top down, spreading across what Merlin could see of his chest in the gap of his cloak. If Gawain hadn't been on the other side of the fire, Merlin thought he might have ended up wrestled flat on the ground like Taliesin.
"I should never have chosen you, I see," said Arthur, smiling.
"We were in the forest, and it was dusk," recalled Gawain, grinning. "We'd been chasing this huge twelve point buck for miles and had just entered a grove of new maples, when we decided to call it a night and try again on the morrow. But we heard an odd bleating"
"You really are going to tell this story," said Arthur, "aren't you? It wasn't as if I could help it." He buried his head in his hands for a moment, and when he reemerged, he looked as composed as he ever did whilst suffering fools.
Gawain grinned. "I am, Sire," he said, meeting the challenge, and then he turned serious. "And besides, what you did about it… and how well you bore the pain," he smiled again, briefly, "well, that took a great deal of courage. That's when we knew you to be a man we could follow, Sire, instead of a boy."
"Very well," said Arthur, resigned. Merlin could see Arthur was doing his best to be the man Gawain was talking about, and ignore his embarrassment. Merlin looked around at the company; everyone was watching Gawain with a great deal of interest and varying levels of humour in their gazes, from the madly adoring gaze of Pip and William, to Taliesin and Galahad's shared quiet smile, to Kay's smirk. Merlin wondered what his own face looked like; he was so aware of Arthur sitting perversely still as stone beside him that he had no idea if he looked keen and eager, or mortified on Arthur's behalf. He was certainly feeling both.
"So, here we were in this new maple grove in high summer, unable to see much at all unless we bent down to waist level and peered between the trunks. Since this was Prince Arthur's first hunt to lead, he was first to crouch down and look for this bleating animal. We thought it might be someone's goat gone out because of the smell and because it let us get right up close to it, but just as quick as he'd bent down, the Prince shot up again and clapped a hand over his mouth, turning about as red as he is right now."
Arthur rolled his eyes.
"Well, that was all it took – the rest of us were down on our haunches faster than you could say 'goat', peering between the trunks, and there it was, right in front of our eyes: in between furry legs with backward knees, and the hooves of a goat stood the biggest, hairiest tarse and cods I've ever seen, to this day, even, standing straight and proud as any knight, and dripping like a piece of honeycomb."
The company broke into gales of laughter, and Merlin sneaked a quick look over at Arthur, who possibly wasn't breathing.
"Now, the thing to know about fauns," said Gawain, looking around to Pip and the younger squires, "is once you see them in a… shall we say excited state, it affects you likewise. So when we'd all done looking our fill, we stood up to find Prince Arthur with his sword in hand, hunched over, like, face all sweaty and looking peaked. And in a short moment, the rest of us were none the better. We hadn't a clue what to do.
"Now, back in Anglia when I was a young boy, we had a nasty infestation of fauns roaming the countryside and causing trouble in the villages. They'd run in all excited, cause havoc, and then disappear again. They had raped several women and even a couple of young men, but so far the band of 'em hadn't been found. Now, a party of Lords and Ladies riding out for a picnic stumbled upon them one day in a meadow, in the midst of a saturnalia. Well, one thing led to another and they couldn't get home without, er, taking the bull by the horns, as it were, and getting rid of the charm. See, that's what happens when you see a faun in all his masculine splendour: once he infects you with his desire, it can't go down until you lie with someone. Making yourself will work, too, but it takes hours and hours and lots of tries to get it to go down and stay down.
"The Lords, now, knowing of the trouble the fauns were causing in the villages, cut down the rutting fauns easy enough, for they were so far gone in seeking their pleasures that they weren't much aware of what was happening around them. But the Lords and Ladies were dismayed to find that killing them had no effect upon their desperate desires. While the Ladies had no trouble and indeed seemed eager to straddle their horses like men and ride home, going so far as to mount and rock back and forth in their desire for haste, the Lords were disinclined to mount at all. In the end, the desires of the Lords won out, and it wasn't hard to talk the Ladies into a saturnalia of their own. So they lay down amongst the picnic baskets and fucked and fucked until the sun ran down the sky, and when the spell of the fauns was finally broken, they mounted their horses and refused to look one another in the eye or speak to one another.
"Now, the King had been planning a big feast for that evening in celebration of something, I can't remember what, any more. But when the time for the feast came 'round, the King was almost the only member of the household in attendance. The rest of the Court were deep in the final throws of their liaisons about an hour and a half's ride from the castle. The King, suspecting treachery of some dastardly sort, sent knights out to find the party. Well, they did, and quite the worse for wear. In the end, the Lords and Ladies were returned, and the next day, once the gossip mill had had a chance to grind the truth to dust, they were flogged for unseemly behaviour on the public road.
"Now, Prince Arthur had heard this story from me no less than four times before this fateful trip, and there was no way he was going to give into the temptation the Lords and Ladies had given in to, and risk disappointing his father the King or letting down his knights who were suffering with him. Instead, the Prince wasted no time at all charging forward and killing the beast so that he might not infect any others or worse yet, rampage through some unsuspecting village and wreak havoc amongst the virgins. With a fair amount of difficulty, though he tried not to show it, mind, he mounted his horse and said, 'We're cutting short the hunt,' and that was that. We mounted and began the long ride back to Camelot.
"I needn't tell you the excruciating pain we all went through getting home. It took four hours, what with all the stops his Majesty kindly required. I've never felt a harder saddle. And even when we'd returned safely, the prince insisted that we take proper care of our mounts and report to the King before we took refuge in our chambers.
"It was by far the worst hunt in the history of Camelot, but we came home with our dignity intact. The next day we had Prince Arthur to thank for being able to hold our heads high in Court and in front of the King."
"I do remember a bit more grumbling about my decision," said Arthur, poking the fire and smiling genuinely for the first time since the story began, "especially on the training fields the next day."
"Aye, and well-deserved, too," said Gawain. "My cods were bruised blue for a week afterwards."
The company burst out laughing.
The skin of wine was long emptied, refilled with the clean, clear water of the pool and emptied again by the time the company rolled into their blankets to sleep. Their clothes were still drying next to the fire, so for the first time, Merlin slid in beside Arthur, skin to skin. Merlin was surprised Arthur didn't seem to notice or care and wondered who else Arthur may have slept with like this to make the burning warmth everywhere they touched, from shoulder and arm to thigh and calf and foot, be unworthy of note. Either that, or he had the willpower of a eunuch. And, in fact, perhaps he had, Merlin thought, if Gawain's story were anything to go by.
Merlin fell asleep with the memory of Arthur's hard length pressed tight against him on the floor of his mother's hut and wasn't at all surprised when he woke again to the same hot, sticky brand on his thigh, Arthur's head on his shoulder and Arthur's arm slung loose over his chest.
He was even less surprised that neither of them said a word about it.
"We should reach Hadrian's Wall in two days' time," announced Arthur, while he pored over the maps with Kay during a hasty breakfast Merlin prepared of leeks and leftover bear cut into boiled oats, "and we should reach the ford of the river Llwyfenydd by midday."
Merlin cleaned up the breakfast mess and watched Arthur and Kay, heads bent over the maps and a calendar, both looking anxious. There were three weeks until Alban Heruin and Merlin had no idea how they were supposed to celebrate with no greenery or flowers to be found anywhere. Not for the first time did he wonder what had happened to the Lord and Lady, and vowed that no matter where he was, even if he did not have a spray of vervain at his throat, that he would at least burn some pine and some oak, and renew his vows to them.
Merlin emerged from the cave to find the storm had broken during the night, the clouds drawn away to reveal a spongy sky; the dim rays from the diffuse disk of the sun colouring everything a dim, dusky orange in the gloom. It was the brightest it had been since they had set out, and when Arthur and Kay scrolled away the maps and calendar with a renewed purpose, Merlin could tell that Arthur was prepared to have them make the most of what little light there was while they could. Merlin quickly stowed the cart, taking a brief look at stores. They were low on almost everything (except bear!), but Merlin was already doing too much to try and extend their stores; any more, and it would be a grand declaration of his sorcerous ways.
The fresh snow, however, was a problem. Getting out of the mountains was surprisingly easier than they anticipated, because the road was well defined and the ancient Roman berm built high. But when the slope evened out and they entered the broad valley that, according the map, would lead to the firth and then the sea, the berm disappeared and the edges of the road were lost under the drifting white powder. Several times Merlin had to dismount his patient bay mare and guide the cart horse back onto the track whilst the knights dismounted and pushed the cart from behind. And because the snow had drifted so deep on the plain, it took a toll on the horses' stamina. They were forced to rest longer and more often than Arthur had anticipated, so it wasn't until the meagre light was about to leave the sky that they reached the ford.
"We should cross while we still have light," said Arthur, and while no one complained, Merlin caught Pip's eye and found his same exhaustion reflected back. And yes, crossing now would save them time in the morning, but Merlin was feeling his energy slip away from him in measurable chunks, and wasn't sure he could stay awake long enough to prepare supper for them all, let alone ford the shallow river, rub down the horses and knock the slush off the axles of the cart so it wouldn't freeze the wheels in place.
Which is why, Merlin thought later, when he was capable of taking stock, he was totally unprepared when his mount lost her footing midstream and toppled sideways into the water. Merlin, flung free, plunged head first into the icy waters. There was a brief moment of the worst pain he had ever known blossoming like searing heat in his head, then he knew nothing more.
Chapter 8: Light of Arthur - Chapter 7
When he first rose to the surface of his thoughts, there was nothing but soft voices. No feeling, no pain – they spoke quietly over his head, saying… something….
The second time, he came awake coughing, and there were knives in his chest, stabbing and stabbing until his head split open, and he slipped back into that quiet place with no sense or pain.
The third time, he opened his eyes.
He recognised the inside of his tent just as the feeling crashed back into his body, pushing a groan out of him, deep and hoarse, and sending him into another fit of coughing. He would have been concerned about the cutting, bubbling pain in his chest, were it not for the explosive pain in his head.
"Here, drink this," said a voice, and then Arthur loomed over him with a skin in his hands, and asked, "Ready?"
Merlin nodded and then cried out – the pain burst through his skull and for a moment he wavered between awareness and numb, dark retreat.
"Don't try to move," said Arthur.
"Really?" Merlin croaked, but he held still. Arthur tipped the skin to his lips, and he drank icy water until the dank, weedy taste washed out of his mouth.
"Better?" said Arthur, looking strained.
"Yeah," said Merlin, just as he was taken by a fit of violent shivering.
"You've got a fever," said Arthur, "and I don't think we were able to get all the water out of your lungs. Plus you've got a nasty bump on your head. You hit a rock at the bottom of the river."
Events were beginning to take shape in Merlin's mind.
"You're lucky, Merlin," said Arthur. "The water dragged you quite a way downstream. I didn't think—" he took a deep breath and expelled it. "I couldn't believe we got to you in time."
It wasn't until he felt the squeeze on his hand that he realised Arthur had burrowed under the blanket and captured it in one of his own.
"What time is it?" asked Merlin, the appalling, gruff resonance of his voice shaking his brain.
"The morning of the second day since you were thrown."
Oh, no. "Where are we?"
"Still at the ford," Arthur sighed. "Galahad said we shouldn't move you."
"He's right. Gaius—" Gaius! Just the thought of him sent a crippling wave of homesickness washing through Merlin. "Gaius always says to keep watch and not move someone who's hit their head. And keep them awake for a bit."
"A bit late for that," said Arthur, smiling and staring at Merlin's face like he hadn't seen him in ages, "but I think you'll be all right."
The tears gathered in Merlin's eyes and rolled silently into his ears. As much as Merlin wished he wouldn't, Arthur continued looking at him, but there wasn't anything Merlin could do to stop his tears.
"My head hurts," Merlin interrupted. "That's all." He worked to keep his breathing slow and even and silent. He felt his lungs might crush from the effort.
Arthur sighed and squeezed his hand again. "Are you hungry? William's turned out to be a decent cook. Well, he's dreadful, but probably less dreadful than the rest of us."
William's mum was Lainey, from the castle kitchens; he'd wanted to turn squire instead of cook and Gawain, recognising a tie to the kitchens could only work in his favour, had picked him up a few months before they'd set off on the quest. But Merlin didn't trust his voice not to waver just yet, and the thought of food made him feel ill, so he whispered a tight "No," and closed his eyes. Oh, but, "William – in my pack, there is a powder of feverfew. Have him heat a cup of water and add a pinch to it."
"Anything else?" said Arthur, a bit archly.
"Sorry, Arthur – Sire – just, if—"
Merlin opened his eyes, squinting against the pain. Arthur was smirking. Prat.
"Thank you, Arthur," he said, managing a small smile himself before he closed his eyes again. The tent flap rustled as Arthur left.
William sat with him while he drank the feverfew potion and promised to make more twice a day until Merlin was well.
He hadn't meant to sleep, but when he woke, at least his head didn't feel as though it were about to split open. Galahad and Taliesin were sitting in the tent with him, Galahad stretched out in the space next to Merlin with Taliesin's head in his lap, while Taliesin worked on a new ballad about Urien of Rheged. Merlin found the quiet talking and occasional snatches of song quite soothing, and said nothing for quite a long while until the pressure from his bladder could no longer be ignored.
"We'll help," said Galahad, and they took an arm apiece and walked him shaking and shivering out to the sand at the river's edge. It looked to be evening by the light, but any more it was difficult to tell. When he got back to his bedroll he was exhausted and shivering so hard he thought he might vomit.
"You're not hungry, then?" asked Taliesin.
"No," said Merlin, trembling violently. He didn't think he could even keep down a sip of the feverfew potion, which William brought in to him as soon as we was settled. And if he didn't focus on something else, he thought he might dry-heave.
"Who pulled me from the water?" he asked, because he had no recollection of anything after the fall, and he desperately needed a distraction from his roiling stomach.
Galahad and Taliesin looked at each other. "Prince Arthur," said Galahad. "He was quite – well, let's just say I've never seen him move that fast."
It was probably a good thing he was so very cold; there was no danger of his face heating up and turning red.
"He ordered a fire and rode off down the middle of the river," continued Taliesin. "He managed to block your progress with his horse, then he jumped down and dragged you up onto its neck. He mounted again and rode you back to us, stripped you down to nothing, rubbed you all over with a sheet of linen and wrapped you head to toe in his own cloak and bedroll. He held you tight to him until the fire was blazing high, then lay you down with your head near the fire. Your hair was still wet."
Galahad looked at him. "You're a lucky man, Merlin, to serve a man like Prince Arthur."
That he was lucky, he'd realised the first time Arthur had saved his life. And if he were honest with himself, Merlin would admit he liked taking up space in a part of Arthur's heart. Whether or not Arthur would admit it (and he hadn't, not yet, and probably never would, in words) they were friends. But this – putting himself at such a terrible risk when the success of this whole journey was so tenuous, this was humbling in a way Merlin was not used to feeling.
"Thank you," he managed, wrapping up tight in the blankets facing away from the two men, shivering hard and not wanting to see any more of Galahad's slightly pitying look or Taliesin's private smile. After they left, he sat up and risked a weak heating charm on the feverfew potion, and drank it down. He was soon asleep. When he woke later, it was pitch black in the tent and he was finally warm. Arthur lay wrapped around him shoulders to toes, and he relished the break from shivering.
Arthur folded Merlin's arms into his chest rubbed his hand up and down Merlin's forearms.
"Arthur… are you OK?" asked Merlin. He didn't know what to expect and didn't really want to explain, but it was plain from what Galahad had said that Arthur was frightened, in his own way.
Arthur took a little while to answer. Then, "I'm fine, Merlin," he said, giving the wrist in his hand a brief squeeze. "Get some sleep. We move on tomorrow."
"Arthur?" said Merlin, his hand wrapping around Arthur's and squeezing back, "Thank you. For everything."
"Yes, well, it's hard to find servants as ridiculously incompetent as you are."
Merlin let slip a quiet snort, and leaned a little heavier back into Arthur's embrace. It wasn't until he had drifted past the point of no return that he thought he heard Arthur say, "And I don't know what I'd do without you."
Merlin's head felt much better in the morning, just a dull, lingering ache, but the bubbling tightness in his chest every time he drew breath was far worse, and he could barely catch his breath. He crumpled to his knees by the river and coughed and coughed until he spewed the water he had just drunk all over the sand in front of him. His face was on fire but his body shivered fit to shake him out of his boots. He made his way to the fire where the clothes and winter cloak he'd worn when he fell into the river were finally dried. He was so cold he put the clothes on over the ones he was wearing and wrapped the cloak tight around all.
He turned to the tent, but someone had already taken it down and stowed it. He looked for—
"Pip, is that my horse hitched to the cart?" he said, barely recognising his own voice, it was so deep and full of gravel. The bay mare huddled in the traces behind the roan.
"She's been trained to it," said Pip, "most of 'em here have."
"But where – oh, no," said Merlin. He found Arthur repacking his knives in his saddle bag, but was too winded to sound angry when he said, "Tell me I am not riding with you."
Arthur smirked. "You're not riding with me."
"Merlin," said Arthur, putting a hand on his arm. "We need to move on, but you're not yet well enough to ride. I had the cart restowed to make a place for you to lie down. You need to rest."
"We will take turns leading the cart horses in your stead," said Arthur. "Your bedroll is already laid out for you. We put it on the last few sacks of grain, so it shouldn't be too lumpy."
"No more buts, Merlin," said Arthur, dragging him by the arm to the cart and hoisting him in. There was a little nested area toward the front, and Arthur waited until Merlin was settled in, facing forward so he could see where they were headed. And once he was settled, he was grateful for it; he had so little energy that his morning jaunt left him trembling and exhausted. A coughing fit soon after left him wrung out, as well. He wouldn't have lasted a quarter of an hour on horseback.
"Here's a skin of fresh, clean water for you, and William left you two oat cakes and this" said Arthur, pulling a tiny stoppered flagon from his pocket and handing it to him, along with the skin and one of Merlin's kerchiefs tied up in a bundle. "We'll check on you often, but if you need anything, call out. Oh!"
Arthur trotted back to his horse, dug out a book, and brought it back with a smirk. "If you feel well enough, I think this is something you've been wanting to read," he said, placing the book into Merlin's hands. He was almost back to his horse before Merlin recognised the wood and red leather of the cover.
On this side of the river, the road had a berm, and had not been maintained for years; the paving stones were covered over with dirt packed hard and smooth by many rains and few feet, and all of it carried a fluffy layer of snow where the winds hadn't blown it drifting over the berm. This meant Merlin didn't rattle around the cart as he might have done. The dirt and snow served to muffle the steps of the horses and the noise of the cart wheels, too, so all in all it was a peaceful ride. For a long while, Merlin did nothing but lay wrapped and warm from his ears to his toes and watch the dusky sky, thankful for the cold breeze on his hot face and the top of his head, which felt as though it might blow off every time he coughed. But eventually, he lifted the comfortable weight in his lap and opened its pages. His desire to find out what Arthur had been reading that day was about as intellectual and far removed from carnal curiousity as he could get, never feeling any kind of desire other than for rest, as was usually so when he was ill, but it was better than contemplating the sky for another hour.
Two hours later, as the company were stopping by a stream to refresh the horses, Merlin put the book down. It took him a very short amount of time to realise that his shaking was no longer from the cold.
In his career as a servant to the Prince, he had heard of certain… letters that had been written. Secret letters from a knight in the wars to his intended back home, or of a travelling merchant to his good lady wife. Intimate words, from one lover to another, that had been gathered and told as tales by the bards, in only the latest part of the evening after a feast. Stories they waited to tell until the Ladies of the Court had all retired. The Ecloga were not these kinds of letters. But there was a song… at first, Merlin was hard put to understand that the one Corydon was aflame for was a boy, a boy likely as old as Merlin himself. And while that was a little unusual, it wasn't that Corydon was talking about how to take the boy. To use him. Corydon had said, 'You scorn me, Alexis, and ask not what I am.' And he said, 'Yet love still burns in me; for what bound can be set to love'?
Merlin, for all that the lewd stories had only made their way into the evening's conversation a few times since he came to Camelot, had never seen the prince react with anything other than propriety bordering on indifference. But this, this tale of a man whose love for another man was strong enough to set him aflame, to invoke poetry but not be returned, brought Arthur to his knees. Was it simply the existence of desire? Was it shame? Merlin hoped it wasn't shame that motivated Arthur's lust. Did he allow his lust to express itself because, like Corydon, his desire was chaste – because somewhere, deep down, he understood that he was free from the expectation of his love ever being requited, even as he was sorely disappointed by that? What could this mean?
Perhaps it was simply that Corydon desired another man, that there was the possibility of true love between men… though tales of a man lying with another man for love were not unheard of in the wee hours, either. Could it be that what moved Arthur, what acted as the source of his longing and desire, was the possibility of the strength of love between two men?
Merlin wasn't stupid, and he wasn't prone to looking a hard truth in the eye and giving it a miss. He understood very well that he himself must be whom Arthur considered to be his Alexis, and not simply because Arthur had given him the book to look at in the first place. All the times Arthur had saved him…. As for Merlin, it wasn't difficult at all to admit that he loved Arthur very much, and had for quite some time. Not that he knew what to do about it. Should he question Arthur? Should he hint around it, and see what admissions the Prince might make on his own? Should he let it go, or simply revel in their relationship as it stood, taking every day and every challenge as they came without much in the way of personal acknowledgement?
His mind was too foggy to even consider more. He talked to no one during their brief stop except Arthur himself, who asked Merlin how he was doing but was preoccupied enough not to notice Merlin's turmoil. Merlin began coughing again just as the party started up, and by the time he could stop and wrap his scarf around his mouth and breath in the warm air (which helped), he was so exhausted and his mind so roiling that he shut his eyes to the world and sought the escape of sleep.
Chapter 9: Light of Arthur - Chapter 8
Merlin drifted in and out of sleep for the next couple days, occasionally looking at the book, sometimes just staring into the dark, blank sky as though it were a piece of dirty parchment that he couldn't remember what to write on, and only truly roused again in the faint shadow of a very large wall.
"Hadrian's wall," said Arthur that evening, as the company gathered around the fire set in the lea of the great wall. They were in a corner defined by the wall itself and what looked to Merlin like a miniature castle turret. Arthur called it a guard house, but it hardly looked larger than the back half of his mother's hut. At least it was out of the worst of the wind, and the corner was big enough for the horses to have a bit of shelter, as well.
"The Romans used these to house the centurion commanding the wall guard. The centuria would patrol at intervals along the wall and prevent people from crossing the stiles who did not have permission from the local governor," he said, helping Merlin over the side of the cart.
Merlin, shaking from the cold, crouched under his blankets next to Kay, who was striking at the flint to start a fire. He was awake enough to wonder at Arthur; still so much a commander and leader, but also very much able and willing to do everything the rest of the company did. He wondered what Arthur's motivation was for doing so. Most of the tents had been erected and Merlin was about to step into one, just so he could get out of the remaining wind for a bit, when Arthur said, "No. Come with me."
He led Merlin into the guardhouse and had him sit on a wide, stone berth set into the wall above the floor and out of the draft. Merlin wrapped his blanket tighter about him and lay down, put his pack under his head, and promptly broke into a horrible coughing fit. His throat felt like knives were making mincemeat of it, and at the end he was wheezing so badly he was beginning to worry if he would lose the ability to draw breath. He lay on his side and watched Arthur sweep out the hearth, lay a fire, and strike sparks at the brittle, brown leaves underneath the branches.
"We will stay in here tonight," he said. "You need to get warm and stay out of the wind."
Merlin glanced at the rotting wooden door and latch, and the shutters in the windows, which Arthur was pulling to and fastening. It didn't take long until the room was as warm as they'd managed to make the cave, which is the warmest Merlin had been since the last time he was in Arthur's chambers. Arthur went out eventually to get food, and Galahad and Taliesin came in to check on him, bringing more feverfew potion with them.
"Thank you, I'm feeling better," he lied, in response to their question, and started coughing again. Taliesin gave Galahad a worried look and squeezed his hand, which Merlin wondered if he was supposed to see. And if he was, what that meant.
"We'll bring you more potion in the morning, with breakfast. William's got quite good with breakfast," said Galahad, "but he's still not as good as you." Taliesin snickered.
Which wasn't surprising, because Merlin, whether consciously or not, secretly suspected his magic of helping to make better the things he truly cared about. Meals, perhaps also not surprisingly, being one of them.
They left when Arthur brought back food and his own pack and bedroll. After a hasty supper, Merlin barely able to eat for the pain in his throat, they readied themselves for sleep.
After sleeping much of the day, Merlin wasn't quite ready to sleep again right away. As Arthur curled up behind him in the berth, Merlin decided to test the waters and said, "I think Taliesin and Galahad are bed partners." He tried to breath as quietly as possible while he waited for Arthur's response, and could feel Arthur grinning behind him.
"I would imagine so. They have been lovers for years."
"Oh," said Merlin, trying to decipher any meaning from Arthur's tone and coming up with nothing. And when there wasn't any more information forthcoming, he said, "Thank you for lending me your book."
Arthur breathed a little laugh into the back of his neck. "Did you enjoy it?"
"I… learned from it," said Merlin, judiciously.
Arthur snickered. "Come now, Merlin. There wasn't that much to learn, was there?"
Merlin thought carefully before he answered this; there was an element of gravity in Arthur's words, despite the light tone. "Perhaps more than you cared for me to learn."
Arthur was quiet, but then answered, "If you learnt it, I meant for you to learn it."
Merlin turned around in Arthur's arms, saw the firelight reflected in his eyes, glowing as though he had magic of his own. "Arthur…" he rasped.
Arthur slid his arm up Merlin's back and pulled him close, until his lips brushed Merlin's forehead. "Sleep, Merlin," he whispered against his skin, and sealed the words with a slow and gentle kiss.
Arthur lay down with Merlin under the willow overhanging the brook, and tucked him into his embrace. The sun shone hot on the tall grasses surrounding their bower. The birds called to one another, and the insects droned a sleepy buzz in the dense afternoon air. There was a wood fire burning nearby; he could smell the pungent smoke as it mixed with Arthur's spicy scent. Arthur was kissing him, drugging him with each press of his lips to his forehead, his eyes, his face, his lips, and without quite realising how it happened, Merlin found himself naked, his erection pressed tightly into the warm and sweat-glazed skin of Arthur's hip. He stared into Arthur's eyes, watched the dappled sunlight momentarily change the gold in Arthur's hair to glowing flame, and his heart flung love through his arms, wrapping around Arthur's neck and tugging him down into more drugging kisses.
Merlin gasped and found his bottom lip captured between Arthur's teeth and gently sucked on. With a shiver at the sensations skirling along his nerves, building, he thrust into Arthur's hip, the curve of the bone caressing into the dent on the underside of his very hard cock. He licked Arthur's lip and Arthur's mouth opened to his, and he sucked Arthur's tongue into his mouth. With a groan, Arthur pushed his erection hard into Merlin's thigh, and Merlin fell apart; shuddering, shaking, breathless, feeling the quivering, wet pulse of Arthur's release on his thigh, even as his cock slid loose and still hard through the slick he made on Arthur's hip.
They lay quiet in the heat of the day, and when Merlin opened his eyes a short time later, face buried in Arthur's armpit and his leg hitched over Arthur's groin in the warm dark, he actually wondered for a moment if they had slept away the afternoon together. Until the reality of stone underneath him, of blankets over his head, and the soft hiss of low flame and ageing coals brought him back to the present.
With a sudden, great pang he missed the sun, missed it glowing gold in Arthur's hair.
And then the discomfort of the situation hit him – it wasn't just a poignant, beautiful and confusing dream. The front of his braes were soaked and sticky, and his cock was soft – never a normal occurrence after sleeping wrapped around Arthur all night, even in illness. And as if that weren't bad enough, there was an answering wet and sticky mess where his thigh lay flung over Arthur.
Merlin was glad for the low light and for the fact that Arthur seemed to still be dead to the world, because he could feel his face heating up to what must be a very bright shade of red. He took a good look at Arthur's face in the dim light, making sure he was asleep, and muttered a spell to clean them both up, because, if anything, Arthur would be even more embarrassed than Merlin to know he came all over him in his sleep. And then he lay back down and breathed in the smell of the smoke from the glowing coals and the spicy, comforting smell of Arthur, and wallowed in an unexpected sadness that lasted until Arthur woke.
Crossing the stile proved to be a difficult business with the cart; in the end, they fashioned a yoke of sorts to have the horses pull side by side instead of in tandem; the path was wide enough for two, but the switchback at the top was too sharp to accommodate the length of two horses and the cart together. Merlin struggled over on foot to keep the cart as light as possible, and with the rest of them, slipped and slid down the other side, twice as lengthy and angled outward in order to cross the deep, wide ditch on the other side of the wall. It reminded Merlin of a moat, and in the extremity of his effort to cross the wall he thought briefly what that might be like, a moat around all Albion.
He climbed into the cart as soon as it hit level land, had another fit of coughing that left his lungs burning and his head pounding, and as soon as he was swathed in the blankets tumbled into a sleep so deep that he did not wake until camp that evening. The sounds of the tents being raised and the fire being started roused him, but even with the sleep he was exhausted, breathing fast and shallow to keep himself from coughing, and feeling scared, for the first time, at his weakness. He lay there, as comfortable as he could be with his body warm in the blankets and his nose dripping with cold, unmoving, when he heard voices approach the cart.
"But Arthur, he doesn't get better. This morning, he could barely make it over the stile, and when we tried to wake him to eat, he didn't respond." Galahad sounded worried.
"The feverfew has helped his fever," said Arthur, his voice tight "I checked him twice today."
Merlin remembered none of it; not the attempt to wake him, and certainly not what must have been Arthur's hands on his bare skin, feeling the heat of him.
"Nevertheless, Arthur," Galahad paused. Merlin felt the cart tilt a bit as they grabbed the sides and climbed on the wheel-spokes to look over the edge at him. Merlin stayed still and kept his eyes shut. "Taliesin thinks he has the lung fever. Listen to how he breathes."
That was—bad. Really bad. To himself, his breathing sounded as though he had just run a race. He constantly felt as though he couldn't get enough air. The air bubbled and wheezed in his lungs every time he drew breath. When he was out visiting patients with Gaius, these were the same symptoms victims of lung fever reported.
And most of them died.
Merlin heard Arthur's breath hitch in his throat before he answered, "We must find help for him."
"I know, Galahad!" said Arthur, sounding pained in a way that Merlin had only heard once before, when Arthur had suspected his father of sacrificing his mother in cold blood. "I know."
"Everything that can be done is being done."
"I know." Arthur took a deep, shuddery breath. "Help me carry him to the fire."
For the next fortnight, they pressed on early and rode late; the road on this side of the wall was little more than a track, but the snow was well-packed and the wheels of the cart did not sink in. It seemed even darker on this side of the wall; the skies directly above them darker than it seemed at the horizon, with a constant cloud cover, though it hadn't snowed or rained in several days. They passed few people; tiny villages of five or six huts apiece, a few cattle, some chickens and very little in the way of trade.
Or, maybe it was that they passed great cities, but that Merlin slept through them. As time wore on, Merlin's awareness of goings on became more peripheral. His condition worsened; his lungs felt like knives and bubbling fire. He had taken to heaving the blankets over his head in order to keep the cold out of his lungs, which seemed to keep them from seizing. And in some part of himself, he realised that if he didn't start improving soon, he may very well never fulfill his destiny.
There was a spell… but. He'd never tried it before, and it wasn't an easy spell. Almost none of the healing spells were, and prudence had goaded him to learn a book full of them just in case, though he knew he'd never be able to practice any of them in Camelot.
"Normally, that sort of spell you practice only on the sickest," Gaius had said. "That way, if you get it wrong… well, they would have died anyway."
"Getting the spell wrong could kill them? It wouldn't just… not work?" Merlin had asked, shuddering.
"It's a difficult spell, Merlin. The lungs are delicate organs. But you are not to try, my boy. It would surely be noticed if a patient on the brink of death were to miraculously recover."
The evening of the fifteenth day from Hadrian's wall, they encountered another wall.
"Antonine Wall," he heard Arthur telling the others from where he lay in the cart, but he didn't hear much more because he began coughing again. His chest flared with pain; the muscles screamed over ribs that felt bruised and broken from the force of his coughing. This one was bad, too. The coughing turned to choking, and he couldn't catch his breath, it felt like he was going to drown, and when he finally could get a big enough breath to begin coughing again, he coughed so hard he vomited.
He wasn't aware that Arthur had stopped talking until a piece of cloth appeared and wiped his mouth, and strong arms lifted him out of the mess he had made of his outer blanket and carried him to a pallet so close to the fire it was practically blazing itself. There was a guardhouse, here, too, but it was little more than a dugout. Merlin was barely conscious of time passing; instead of being measured in minutes, he measured it in the number of times people came into his circle of consciousness to bring him things. First, Pip brought a hot draught with feverfew for him, and the hot sting of it soothed Merlin's raw throat and settled his stomach. The aches slowly receded into something dull and less insistent, and then Galahad and Taliesin brought him another steaming cup, this time of wine with boiling water in it, which went far toward relaxing the sore muscles in his chest, and his ribs. Afterwards, Pip brought him some bread soaking in hot bear broth, but Merlin was only able to eat a few bites before he was too exhausted to do more than just lay there.
He was aware of nothing but the heat of the fire for a long, unmeasured time until Arthur said, "Can you rise?" Merlin became aware enough to understand Arthur was crouched at his side. He tried to rise, but after a couple weak attempts, he shook his head. Arthur gently lifted him, keeping his cloak tight around him, and carried him into the guardhouse. It was much warmer than the outside air, but cooler than the flames of the fire had been. Arthur set him down on the bedroll and left, coming back moments later with his saddle bags and some food for himself.
The comfort of his bedroll, the effects of the wine and the warmth of the fire conspired to send Merlin off to sleep again, and for another immeasurable time, he floated and dreamt of nothing more than laying where he was, watching Arthur eat and the flames dance high in the grate, as though he were keeping watch in his sleep. He only really knew he had been sleeping when he woke to flames that were lower in the grate. The bread and broth must have done him some good; he was feeling a bit stronger and more aware of his surroundings, which included Arthur, sitting next to the fire with his back to the wall so the light could shine on the book he was reading. Merlin couldn't see the cover properly.
"What are you reading?" he asked, into the stillness of the room.
Arthur startled. "You're awake?"
Merlin smiled. "For the moment," he said, his voice managing barely more than a whisper. "What are you reading?"
"The Bible Loarn gave me," said Arthur.
Merlin stretched, then curled back under the blankets, shivering. "I thought you weren't so interested in that god?"
Arthur didn't immediately answer. Merlin could barely make out Arthur's features against the light, but he looked strained; troubled.
"Arthur, what's wrong?"
Arthur gulped, and then he seemed to make a decision. The pained look on his face resolved. He took a breath, and said, "Kay has been hunting, lately," he said.
That wasn't quite what Merlin was expecting, but he'd known Arthur long enough to know he'd get around to what was really bothering him, eventually. Merlin hoped there wouldn't be yelling involved. "Why does this worry you?"
"He's hunting, because we are very low on food, Merlin," said Arthur, patiently, and not at all with that tone that said, really, you ought to have figured that out, Merlin, that he usually used when Merlin asked too many questions. Which meant he was really worried, if he was too distracted even to needle Merlin as he usually did.
"We've not been able to trade for supplies as much as we had hoped," Arthur continued.
And I haven't been up and able to extend them, Merlin realised. He wondered if Arthur had caught on to his duplicity, but Arthur didn't make any indication that that was so.
"We will have to supplement what we have left with wild game," said Arthur, "but even game is scarce with this weather."
"So why are you reading this Bible, then?" Merlin asked. He tried to turn and winced – his ribs were very painful, and lying on the stone floor wasn't helping much. He gave it his every effort and managed to sit up, and then prop himself against the wall opposite the fire with his blanket around his shoulders. The room was small enough that their feet almost touched as they sat there with their legs extended.
Arthur rose and came to lean against the wall next to Merlin, the book held up in his hand.
"Listen," said Arthur, and he began to read. "When Jesus had finished saying all this in the hearing of the people, he entered Capernaum. There a centurion's servant, whom his master valued highly, was sick and about to die. The centurion heard of Jesus and sent some elders of the Jews to him, asking him to come and heal his servant. When they came to Jesus, they pleaded earnestly with him, 'This man deserves to have you do this, because he loves our nation and has built our synagogue.' So Jesus went with them.
"He was not far from the house when the centurion sent friends to say to him: 'Lord, don't trouble yourself, for I do not deserve to have you come under my roof. That is why I did not even consider myself worthy to come to you. But say the word, and my servant will be healed. For I myself am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. I tell this one, Go, and he goes; and that one, Come, and he comes. I say to my servant, Do this, and he does it.'" Arthur looked away from his book and down at Merlin with a mock scowl, and Merlin, for the first time in weeks, laughed. Well, almost; he went into a coughing fit the moment he started, which ended with Arthur thumping his back and fetching him a cup of water. Then he continued his story.
"When Jesus heard this, he was amazed at him," Arthur looked down, again. "The centurion, remember?"
"Of course, Arthur. I'm ill, not stupid," Merlin whispered.
"Fine, then," said Arthur. "When Jesus heard this, he was amazed at him, and turning to the crowd following him, he said, 'I tell you, I have not found such great faith even in Israel.' Then the men who had been sent returned to the house and found the servant well."
Merlin was beginning to have a suspicion where this might be leading, and he was just so weary the anger did nothing but make him bitterly sad. "So that's it, then? You're just going to have faith in this god, and ask for a miracle of healing?"
"I was thinking of it. And for provisions, too," said Arthur, frowning. He closed the book and held it loose at his side. "What of it? Speak plainly, Merlin."
"Arthur, there is no humanity in that god," said Merlin, barely loud enough to be heard over the popping of the flames. "If there were, he'd be insulted to be asked to heal a man yet not be invited to his house to do it. That's not faith, that's rudeness. What kind of man or god or whatever this Jesus is that doesn't recognize a slight? How's someone like that even approachable? He is not even here any more, anyway, and he's mad! I wouldn't trust him as far as I could throw him. And anyway, how can you keep two faiths at once?" Merlin craned his neck to look up at Arthur where he stood. He was winded, and panted where he sat, a thin sheen of sweat building on his forehead.
Arthur took awhile to answer. "I don't know that I could," he said, finally. "I suppose I would have to convert."
Merlin's jaw dropped. "How can you even consider that?" he asked, his voice wispy and raspy and so very out of breath. "How can you turn your back on the magic that made you?"
Arthur's eyes flashed.
"You told me to speak plainly, Arthur," said Merlin, barrelling on. "There are people you love, your people, who, despite Uther's madness where all magic is concerned, would have to give up every belief and ritual they know and hold dear for the cold promise of this new God with its rituals of death. For make no mistake, Arthur. If you convert, your people will have to convert, as well. Everywhere I've heard about. South Pennines, Arthur! It only took months and the people there had thrown away the old gods and were worshipping this new one."
He stopped, and breathed as heavily as he dared without tempting another coughing fit. He must have looked horrible; Arthur put his free hand on Merlin's shoulder and clasped it tightly. But Merlin wasn't finished.
"Why should we worship a resurrected God when our Gods never died in the first place? Why should we settle for a god who tells us we will suffer eternally in hell for believing in and performing our rituals that revere and affirm life?"
"Where are the old gods now, then?" Arthur asked, and for the first time, Merlin heard bitterness in Arthur's voice. "Why are we being punished with all this cold and darkness? Where are the signs of life we hold dear? Why are you ill, when—. Maybe we should pray to this new God, have hope and faith in him that we may be delivered from this darkness and cold. Who's to say we won't be given manna from heaven such as were Moses' followers in the desert?"
"Who's to say we will?"
"Merlin!" said Arthur, sounding desperate and crouching down next to Merlin. He looked in Merlin's eyes, and Merlin saw nothing but entreaty. "Merlin, maybe if we pray to this god, he will heal you." Arthur moved the hand on Merlin's shoulder to rest flat on his chest.
Arthur was so earnest – something inside Merlin wanted, tried hard to crack, to give into Arthur -- but he couldn't let this go. It would be too big a lie to try and live on Arthur's behalf.
He decided to take a chance. "Look." He took as deep a breath as he dared, and let it rattle out of him. If this didn't work, he was doomed. But he wasn't getting any better, and he was realistic enough to know that he was probably facing death in the very near future. This chance – it was worth it. "Look, Arthur. Why must we wait on the whims of a god we do not know when magic is available to us directly through the Old Religion, so that we may help ourselves?" he panted as quietly as he could and waited for Arthur to answer.
"What do you mean?" Arthur looked at him, almost eager.
"I mean, what if we took a sorcerer into our midst?"
Arthur looked at him strangely, almost expectant; stared him straight in the eye and asked, "Where are we going to get a sorcerer in these parts, Merlin?"
Merlin panicked. Did Arthur know about his magic? But maybe that was just hopefulness he was seeing in Arthur's eyes, and nothing else. After all, Arthur wasn't making any other move. The hand on Merlin's chest was a steady, warm presence, fingers splayed and firm and unmoving.
"I… don't know," Merlin finally replied, troubled, and he sighed. And then he started coughing again. He rose to his hands and knees as spasms wracked his lungs and Arthur thumped his back, until he was so out of breath he was seeing spots dance across his vision. When he was finally able to stop, there was a small puddle of blood on the floor under his mouth.
And there was Arthur, staring at the blood and then staring at him, face frozen with fearfulness, and his hands shot out and tugged Merlin frantically to him, clasped him in his arms and held him tight and trembling to his chest.
Oh. Arthur must think that he was— "No, no, Arthur," whispered Merlin, resting his head on Arthur's shoulder with his mouth to Arthur's ear. He ran his arms up Arthur's back and grabbed tight to his trembling shoulders. "No, Arthur. It's OK. I'm not going anywhere yet. It's going to be OK. Shhh."
"How? How is it going to be OK?"
Merlin had never heard that quavering before in Arthur's voice, had never felt him tremble on the verge of falling apart. Couldn't even imagine it.
Right, then, he thought, as Arthur scooped him up and tucked him into the bedroll. He couldn't afford to wait for the results of any prayer Arthur might try, and Arthur – he was terrified, and that scared Merlin.
He resolved to try the healing spell that very evening, even though he'd never tried it before. Even though he knew things could go horribly wrong with healing spells gone awry. Even though Gaius would skin him alive if he found out Merlin had cast a spell on himself with which he was unfamiliar.
Because the alternative, it seemed, was death.
He waited with his back to the fire, shivering with cold, trembling with exhaustion, until Arthur put the book away, stoked the fire, and crept into bed, pulling Merlin into his arms and the covers tight around them both. And finally, after an interminable wait, Arthur's trembling receded, his breathing evened out and the firelight ceased to glow in his eyes.
Merlin quickly whispered the spell to himself, over and over, reaching inside himself with his magic to guide the spell, to set it on the right path and not endanger himself any more than he already was. He remembered halfway through his litany to shut his own eyes against their golden glare, until he finally stopped shivering himself, and fell into a deep slumber.
Chapter 10: Light of Arthur - Chapter 9
In seven days time, Merlin was back on his horse and once again in charge of stores and preparing meals, much to everyone's deep surprise and eternal thankfulness, especially William's. Arthur's too, it turned out.
"Really, Merlin," said Arthur, "you're supposed to be serving me, not the other way around."
"Prat," said Merlin, rolling his eyes and cheerfully tearing into a strip of dried bear meat. Arthur hadn't gone ten minutes without searching Merlin out with his eyes since that night under the Antonine Wall. He thought he knew what that might mean.
Arthur may have been more serious than Merlin thought, however, because his first day riding, Kay came to him while he was strapping his pack to his saddle and said, "Pip will be leading the cart from now on, at the Prince's command."
"What?" Why was Arthur taking away—
"Arthur's asked you to ride in the front with him."
Oh. A signal honour, and an embarrassing one, to boot, unless— "Sir Kay – did he say why?"
Kay grinned. "I think he missed you."
"Got tired of doing for himself, more like," Merlin smirked.
"I see the prayers worked," said Arthur, a short while later as they were picking their way side by side across a highland ridge.
This troubled Merlin more than he'd like to admit. He himself knew very well that it was the spell that kept him from death, but as increasingly certain as he was that Arthur knew something about his magic, Merlin still was not ready to admit as much to him. He was stuck without anything to say against this Christianity muddling Arthur, and he wanted – no, needed – to make Arthur understand that belief in a god removed from his people didn't solve anything. The Old Ways were old because they worked. They were the truth. There was the Lord and the Lady in all their aspects, fertile land and harvest, birth and death; the Oak King gave way to the Holly King gave way to the Oak King as nature intended, in a living, breathing, never-ending cycle. And through it all, the old magic woven into the rock and dirt, the air, and fire, and water, animated it, keeping the cycles alive. And commanding it all, the gods that they all knew and loved and sometimes feared, and who would appear to you personally if you knew the right way to approach them.
So he was stuck, and it must have showed.
"Merlin, what's wrong?" asked Arthur.
Crap. He'd best get as good at hiding his feelings as the Prince was, or he was going to be telling all before he was ready.
"Nothing, Arthur," he said. "Just tired." Which wasn't true at all; he couldn't remember feeling this full of vitality since, well, ever, possibly. Even though he was severely underweight and Arthur kept pushing the plumpest bits of rabbit onto his plate and giving him the remainders of his own meals. This would have been much more embarrassing to Merlin had the others not treated it as a matter of course and paid Arthur's odd attentions no mind. Which made Merlin wonder just how much more the Prince took care of during Merlin's illness that Merlin didn't know about. "And anyway, it was probably the feverfew. I'm glad Gaius insisted we bring so much of it." With any luck, Arthur would drop it, with the change of subject.
Which he appeared to do, after giving Merlin a long stare with one eyebrow raised, which he must have learnt specially from Gaius so he could terrorize Merlin with it. As the morning wore on into the afternoon, a giant rock became evident in the gloom in the middle of the faint track they were following. The light was so dim that Merlin and Arthur had to ride right up next to it to realise that it had some sort of design carved into it.
"Merlin, a torch, if you will?"
With so many eyes on them, Merlin didn't dare do anything other than take a flint to the one tied to his saddle and hand it over to Arthur.
"What a strange design," he said, looking at the three sets of swirls that glowed golden in the torchlight.
"I've seen that before!" said Merlin, then quickly shut his mouth; of course, it was a pattern explained in his Magic Book.
"Uh… I don't remember," said Merlin, thankful that Arthur was still staring at the rock and not his face. "But that's a sign of the Picts!"
"Then we must be near to Dalriata," said Arthur. He turned his horse to continue down the track. Merlin, wishing he'd spent more time looking at the maps, followed along with an eye toward the dim valleys on either side.
In a few short hours they made camp in a craggy hollow that showed signs of having been used as a resting place. There were no trees up this high, though Merlin could see shadows lower down in the valley that he thought might be trees. There was a tiny rill of fresh water flowing out of the rocks, and there were the ageing remains of a campfire. They must have brought their own wood, as we have, thought Merlin, laying a small fire among the old char with a little of their dwindling supply of wood, then setting the dry tinder alight. Kay and Gawain returned from the valley with two brace of hares apiece, and as much as Merlin would have preferred to roast them, he would have needed a much bigger fire. Kay and Gawain cleaned them and Merlin butchered them into the pot, filled it with water, and added salt, leeks and herbs once he had it braced over the fire.
The tents were set up and everyone was gathered round the fire eating and telling stories, when Merlin looked behind Galahad across the fire from him and saw a shining blade slowly emerge out of the gloom. And then several more – Merlin looked around and saw they were encircled with swords and crossbows.
"Arthur," Merlin grabbed the arm next to him.
Arthur was immediately on his feet with his sword drawn, his knights only a moment behind. Merlin moved closer to the fire, intending to turn and stand next to Arthur, when he saw a familiar face. "Arthur – it's Loarn!"
"Prince Arthur?" said a familiar accented voice across the circle. One of the swords flashed its way around, and a man shoved between the two who had their swords pointed at Arthur's heart.
Merlin did not see Arthur's sword hand relax, but Arthur sounded relieved when he confirmed, "Loarn?"
And suddenly, all the swords were lowering and Arthur and Loarn were clasping arms.
"What a strange and wondrous thing to see you here, my friend!" said Loarn.
"One hundred-fold strange," said Arthur, studying Loarn's face, "for it's you whom we were seeking."
"Me, my Lord? But why?" Loarn smiled and did not let go his grip on Arthur's arm, which told Merlin everything he needed to know about Loarn's motives. He watched Arthur flick a glance down at their joined arms and knew that Arthur understood the same thing. Loarn was truly glad to see them.
Arthur smiled back and gave Loarn's arm one last squeeze. "That story is long in the telling, my friend, and we have just sat down to supper. Please – will you and your company join us?"
"We would be honoured, my Lord." Loarn signalled to his men, and they sat down among the company as close to the fire as they could. There was plenty of the stewed hare to go around; Merlin filled their bowls and then picked up his own.
But he was startled out his bite when Loarn's men crossed their hands over their chests, and Loarn bowed his head and said, "We give Thee thanks, our Father, for the Resurrection which Thou hast manifested to us through Jesus, Thy Son; and even as this bread which is here on this table was formerly scattered abroad and has been made compact and one, so may Thy Church be reunited from the ends of the World for Thy Kingdom, for Thine is the power and glory for ever and ever. Amen." It was only after he had finished speaking that his men began to take great, boiling bites, sucking air through their teeth to keep from burning their mouths.
Merlin noticed that Arthur had stopped eating, too.
"Your prayer—" said Arthur, "is this something you always say?"
"Yes, my Lord," answered Loarn. "It is a prayer Christians say before bread. Do you not have similar custom?"
"We do;" Arthur replied, "it isn't as common. We might say a prayer to the earth in thanks for providing our bread. Or we might say a prayer thanking the animal for its meat."
"But not to God who provided it?" asked Loarn.
"Sometimes we say a prayer to the Lord and Lady to bless us and bless the food we eat," said Arthur. "And even if we – I – don't always say one, I am always thankful. At least, I have learned to always be thankful." He glanced briefly at Merlin.
"This is a fine meal," said Loarn. "Better than we usually manage. You have salt and herbs."
"We would be happy to give you some, if we could negotiate some help in return."
"I am guessing this has something to do with your visit?" asked Loarn, smiling out of one side of his mouth.
Loarn hesitated. "I do not have the power to negotiate for our king," he said, finally, "but for the hospitality you showed us in Camelot, I would assist you in return, here in Dalriata.
"However," he continued, "we are on patrol, by order of Comgall mac Domangairt, our King. The Picts are harassing our outlying villages. We are only one of many border patrols circulating." He sighed. "By rights, I should not be treating with you at all, but capturing and binding you as prisoners of war until you can be brought in front of the King and your intent judged."
"We will gladly go before your King," said Arthur. "You must know we hold no ill-will toward him, or Dalriata."
"This, I know. You are far from home, and there is little you could accomplish to our detriment with such a small company." He paused and looked Arthur directly in the eye. "I am very curious what errand you consider so important that you travelled two hundred leagues in the cold and dark to find me."
"We come seeking information," said Arthur, "so that we may accomplish our goal."
"And what is your goal?"
Arthur looked up to the sky then back at Loarn. "We have come to bring back the light."
As Merlin expected from Arthur and Loarn's conversation in Camelot, King Comgall mac Domangairt was emaciated and exhausted, and clearly very ill from the wasting disease. He had seen several cases, working with Gaius. In Merlin's experience, they didn't last much longer when they looked as ill as this King did. But his physician was there, an ancient Druid stooping more than standing by the King's side, as he sat at the council table. Merlin noticed that Arthur, too, had seen the Druidic tattoo on the physician's arm, faded and stretched on aged, wrinkled skin, but he gave no indication that it held any meaning for him.
Merlin wondered about the physician. There were healing spells for the wasting disease, not that Merlin was ever allowed to use them, but surely the Druid would know them? Surely, the Druid physician wasn't under the same constraints that Merlin himself was in Camelot, was he?
Despite his frailty, after Loarn's introduction, King Comgall warmly welcomed them to his Hall. It was low and large, but cozy with fires lining the walls. The King ordered a feast prepared for them that evening, the thought of which made Merlin's mouth water. He was heartily sick of dried bear.
"But come, there will be time for business and stories later," he said, in a papery voice that held an echo of strength in its past. "You shall be given rooms and baths and time to rest, and we shall speak after meat."
Eventually, Arthur and Merlin found themselves in a small room that held a large bed, a wide, shallow hearth with a blazing fire, and in short order, a long, narrow bath of thick leather in a wooden frame filled with steaming water, fragrant with a drift of juniper berries floating in it.
Merlin hadn't had a bath since his ill-fated dunking in the river Llwyfenydd. He hadn't had a proper bath since the bear cave. His very skin itched for one. He stared at the hot water and longed for it with a deep, abiding desire.
Ah well. He rolled his eyes, took a deep breath and turned around. "Yes, Arthur," he said, and began tugging up the hauberk from under his arms. Arthur obediently raised them, and didn't complain when Merlin dumped it on the floor and started in on his gambeson.
Merlin paused and looked at him. Arthur's hands clamped around Merlin's hips and pulled him just the tiniest amount forward.
"The bath is big enough for two," Arthur said, smirking, and he fisted the edges of Merlin's tunic in his hands and whipped it up over his head, pulling Merlin's arms half off with it.
"Ow! Arthur, you can't be ser— Oi!" But as much as Arthur was laughing at Merlin, he was obviously quite serious, because he gestured to Merlin to hurry up with his breeches and commenced removing his own kit himself. In short order, they were facing each other easing into opposite ends of the bath, sighing and groaning at the exquisite clean wet heat.
The serving girl had left a nubbly scrubbing cloth, two large bath sheets, an earthenware crock of soft soap, a ewer and two sets of clean clothes that bore little resemblance to anything Merlin had ever worn before: leather trews, a knee length, thick woollen tunic open all the way down the front, and a great tartan swath of cloth that Merlin had seen others wear as a belt. Merlin stared at it all as he soaked, letting his mind drift and the tightness ease out of his limbs. He startled at Arthur's splash.
"We had better not fall asleep," said Arthur.
Merlin sighed and rose to his knees, the water at mid-thigh, then filled the ewer. "Turn around and tip your head back," said Merlin.
Arthur faced away from Merlin and tipped his head, hanging onto the wooden framework of the tub for balance. His hair hung back in greasy, gritty chunks burnished bronze by oil and dirt. Merlin carefully tipped the ewer over Arthur's head, blocking the water from his eyes with his hand, smoothing the water deep to the roots. Then he rubbed the soap between his palms and ran them through Arthur's hair, scrubbing his fingertips into Arthur's scalp and massaging out the dirt and oil.
"Tip back." Merlin scrubbed his fingers through the hairline on Arthur's forehead. Arthur whuffled and sighed, which pleased Merlin. But Arthur kept doing it, and ha, that one sounded like a cat's meow, and Merlin couldn't contain it any more and burst out giggling. Arthur twisted around to face Merlin, so fast that Merlin almost poked him in the eye with a soapy finger. "Tell no one about this," he said, his eyebrow raised, grin threatening to break into a full-blown smile.
Merlin unsuccessfully tried to stifle his giggles, and said, "Tip back, Your Highness," And when he'd finished rinsing Arthur's hair, Merlin soaped it through again, just because he could.
Arthur's increasing forays into egalitarianism should have prepared Merlin, but he was still surprised when Arthur said, "Your turn." They turned around so Arthur faced Merlin's back. He half expected Arthur's touch to be teasing and a bit rough-and-tumble, but was surprised by Arthur's firm and gentle hands. The feel of them on him sent shocky tendrils curling along his nerves to his cock. Merlin felt it slide from it's quiescent state resting on his leg to a position of power over his navel, but he was too far gone in the relaxing feel of Arthur's fingers massaging his scalp to do much about it. And why should he be embarrassed? He'd caught Arthur in a state more than once before, in his bath.
"Time to rinse," said Arthur. Merlin tipped his head back and listened to the splash of the ewer in the water. Then a hand descended on his forehead, just as Merlin had done for Arthur, and the water sluiced through his hair, rinsing it clean, not a drop running into his eyes.
After everything Arthur had done for him during their journey to take care of Merlin, he had no idea why, now, he felt his throat get thick and his eyes well up from feeling so very cherished.
Merlin swallowed around the lump in his throat and said, "Time for the rest of you."
They reversed positions once again, Merlin taking care to let Arthur turn first so he wouldn't see Merlin's arousal. They both stood on their knees; Merlin picked up the nubbly cloth, dunked it in the water then ran it through the soap. He scooted forward, slotting his knees between Arthur's ankles, and started rubbing Arthur's neck and shoulders in little circles, working his way down Arthur's back. Arthur was sighing and moaning again, but somehow it wasn't funny, any more; it made Merlin a little proud to know he could ease Arthur's stress this way.
Merlin moved in a little closer, careful to keep his hips back, and lifted Arthur's arm. He reached around and ran the soapy cloth over Arthur's chest. Arthur's breath hitched – and suddenly the sighing and moaning took on new meaning. Merlin felt the flush rush over his face and down his chest, but even as he was as embarrassed as he'd ever remembered being, his cock jumped, too, and before he could stop it, his own breath was hitching in the back of his throat.
He drew the cloth back and scrubbed the strong, spicy scent out from under Arthur's arms. Merlin licked his lips and was so close to Arthur's skin he could almost taste him, and that was when he realized that his left hand gripped Arthur's shoulder for leverage. He worked his way down from Arthur's armpit to his waist, then took a deep breath and ran the cloth around to Arthur's belly.
The cloth slipped; the flat of Merlin's hand continued in its course, running firm and low over the rippled muscles of Arthur's stomach. Merlin's legs began to shake. It took two tries to pull the cloth firmly into his grip once more.
He sat back on his heels to keep his leaking cock away from Arthur's arse and rubbed the soapy cloth down over the tops of Arthur's thighs. He eased the cloth between Arthur's legs, scrubbing gently around his balls, and Merlin realised from the utter stillness that Arthur was holding his breath. Merlin drew the cloth up gently, and he found he was holding his own breath as it slid without any pressure from his hand over Arthur's cock. It was hard and huge, and Merlin let out the breath he was holding, one hot, hard puff against the skin over Arthur's spine. His cock leapt, the head brushing sticky over the skin of his stomach.
He pulled the cloth back to run between Arthur's cheeks but found them clenched tight. Merlin teased his cloth-covered fingers underneath the curve of Arthur's buttocks and made a beckoning motion once, again, and Arthur heaved a breath and relaxed his clenching grip. Merlin slowly dragged up the soapy cloth. His fingers brushed the wrinkled patch of skin around Arthur's hole. Arthur trembled and gave a quiet, breathy moan and then his buttocks were clamping tight again, closing fast around Merlin's fingers, and that was it – Merlin's legs shook violently and he gasped, his fingers clamping tight around Arthur's shoulder as he came, streaks shooting up his chest.
When Arthur muttered a strained, "Merlin," he realised his forehead was resting between Arthur's shoulder blades and his fingers in the cloth were still embedded between Arthur's buttocks, and that his other fingers were still clenched around Arthur's shoulder. He released Arthur's shoulder, hoping he hadn't left bruises, took a deep breath and drew his other fingers up and the cloth up and out from between Arthur's buttocks. Arthur turned clumsily around, breathing noticeably, but not saying anything about… noticing anything.
But it was clear he had; Arthur saw everything, understood everything, and he wasn't speaking, but he was waiting, waiting for something… and Merlin lowered his eyes and saw a similar streaky path up the ripples of Arthur's stomach.
He had no idea what to think about that. His mind, or whatever was left after spurting half of it out of his cock, was paralysed, thoroughly incapable of thinking beyond the moment, beyond the borders of his own shock and shame, his own wisp of hopefulness against the impossible.
He clenched his fingers around the wooden frame of the tub, unable to raise his eyes to Arthur's.
"It happens," Arthur said, voice soft and breathy. "Sometimes… it just happens."
Merlin's face heated, and for the life of him couldn't figure out why he suddenly felt so angry. He rubbed fresh soap into the nubbly cloth and scrubbed hastily at his neck and under his own arms, and refused to look at Arthur.
A few minutes and fewer words (none, actually) later, they were dried and dressed. Merlin was buckling on Arthur's sword when Arthur's hand landed on Merlin's shoulder, and he said, "Merlin," and waited until Merlin looked up.
"Let it go," he said.
Arthur was merely expectant: there was no sly smirk, there was no anger, there was, thankfully, no pity. Just a command, a gentle one, at that, and one that Merlin was accustomed to following even though it had never been Arthur voicing it before, and even though he'd had something else entirely to let go. He let out the breath he'd been holding, and muttered, "I'm sorry."
The long tables in the hall had been set end to end, and the entire household sat down to eat together. The King sat at the end with his guests lining the table to either side of him, knights, and servants after them. Merlin sat across and down from Arthur, and after the third course and half a cup of mead, he had pretty much followed Arthur's command and let the whole incident slip away from him. It didn't stop his heart from lurching every time he looked up to see Arthur's hair gleaming in the firelight, or whenever he heard Arthur's bell-like laugh ringing out over the conversation.
Merlin wasn't much in the mood to talk, so he spent a good deal of the time listening to Arthur and the King trading tales and eating to his heart's content. He had no idea what most of the food was; Camelot had very little like the strange but excellent-tasting haggeis or the tiny roasted birds that everyone got on their plate. The bread, too, was different, and when he asked Merlin found that it wasn't made of wheat or rye, but oats and barley. By the end of the evening, Merlin was as full as he'd ever been and was rounding out the corners with the last of his ale, when his attention turned back to Arthur. He had his head bowed close to the King's, and Merlin was going to stop trying to hear them, when Arthur raised his head and said, "Perhaps Merlin could be of assistance to you, your Majesty."
"He has assisted Camelot's finest healer in many of his works," said Arthur, giving Merlin a piercing look. "Perhaps it is possible he knows some herb lore that is unknown to your good physician."
Merlin had no idea what Arthur was trying to tell him with his eyes, but he did understand enough to respond, "It would be an honour and a privilege to help your Majesty in return for such generous hospitality."
Judging by the approving look Arthur gave him, it had been the right thing to say. Nevertheless, after they had eaten and Arthur was about to settle down with the king to explain their presence in his kingdom, Arthur approached Merlin as he was leaving to consult with the King's physician, took him aside, grasped his shoulder, stared him straight in the eye, and said with a great deal of gravity and not a little bit of warning in his voice, "I know you can help him, Merlin. Do your best." Arthur's eyes lingered on his before he turned his attention back to the King.
So it was on shaking legs that he walked behind the King's physician, happy, for once, to be forced to walk at a very slow pace. Because no matter how he turned it around in his mind, there was no way Arthur couldn't know about his magic.
The uncertainty of his feelings about the events earlier in the bath combined with the events of his illness and the uncertainty and flashes of terror of the present, and for the first time in a very long time, Merlin questioned what he was doing in the service of this man, this Prince. He questioned who he was to Arthur, and was quite unsettled to find that he had no clear answer. Was he servant? Friend? Sorcerer and criminal? Or sorcerer and ally?
He knew what he himself wanted to be to Arthur. For Arthur.
His breath quickened and he gulped. And he wondered if this was something else to which Arthur would say, "Let it go."
Chapter 11: Light of Arthur - Chapter 10
The first thing Merlin learnt about the healer was his name: Drust. The second thing he learned was that his workroom wasn't as big or as well-furnished with books as Gaius'. In fact, he only had three books, and they were all on herb-lore.
Merlin, as uncomfortable and agitated as his thoughts had made him, wasn't in the mood for a lengthy discovery. He wanted answers. He wanted nothing more than to make haste solving this problem; to cast the spell that would save this King, so he could get back to Arthur and work out what was really going on between them.
"You're a Druid, aren't you?" he asked, the moment Drust's workroom door was closed.
The old man didn't answer right away, but made his way over to a high table with a lamp on it, and lit it. "Come, sit down," he said, his words heavily accented.
"You are, aren't you?" said Merlin. "What illness does your King have? Is it the wasting disease? Why don't you use magic to heal your King?"
"And why do you address me with disdain, Emrys, you who do not know me?" answered Drust. "You are a guest of my King and a guest in my quarters. But you do not have to be either."
"Emrys! Then you know—" Merlin plunked down on the stool across from Drust. "I – I'm sorry. I've just got – I'm worried." Merlin put his elbows on the table and rested his head in his hands.
"Your power is as evident to me as your turmoil," said Drust, and then he reached over and put his hand on Merlin's shoulder. "But please don't be worried on my account. Your secret is safe with me."
Merlin looked up to see the old man smiling, and for the first time in ages, felt free in a way he couldn't be with anyone else except Gaius and his mother. He smiled back, and gulped. "Please – I really am sorry. What can I do to help your King?"
"Now, now, there is no hurry," said Drust. "Certainly the King does not expect a new treatment tonight. I will answer your questions, all of them. And then, perhaps, you can help us."
Drust raised his gnarled hand to the fire and it leapt up high from the glowing coals. "Yes, I am a Druid." He looked back at Merlin. "I am one of a small band who yet live in Dalriata, despite the King's pronouncements against magic these thirty years past."
"What – is Dalriata like Camelot, then? Why is magic not allowed? Why have you not been executed?"
"Oh, Dalriata is not like Camelot," explained Drust. "We do not hunt down or kill magic users here. But the Old Religion no longer holds sway. The people here are mostly Christians, and have been since the monks came from Airlann many generations ago and converted them.
"The Christians do not love magic when they recognise it. The practice of magic is banned, and has been for the thirty years mac Domangairt has been King. When Comgall ascended the throne, he ordered that all books relating to the practice of magic be banned and that all practices be immediately stopped. He ordered that the knowledge of spells be withheld and not passed on to future generations. There were some who would not comply – they took their books and their children, and they left Dalriata for more tolerant lands."
Merlin puzzled over this for a bit. "The rest of you. How did you survive?"
"We have had many years since to find ways to be part of society and still serve the Earth. When Comgall mac Domangairt became King, I became a healer in his court. I have learned to work with the magic the Earth offers up naturally, through the roots and flowers and leaves of its plants. The magic in these natural elements is weaker than drawing it straight from the Earth, but it can still be of service. I've spent the last thirty years learning how."
"But it's not enough help to save your King." Merlin paused. "This ban – is this why you don't use magic to help him?"
"Young Emrys, I do not practice magic to heal my King because I no longer remember how. I know there is magic that could cause his body to heal. But I do not remember the way of it, and there is no one here who does. If there were, I would have healed him, despite the ban."
Realization bloomed. "You love him. Your King."
"He is a fair and just ruler, and has worked tirelessly to bring the clans of Dalriata together in peace. He has driven back the Picts time after time, and kept our lands safe. Dalriata has never known the kind of prosperity he has brought us. I would see his reign continued, until his son comes of age and has grown into his own wisdom."
Drust looked earnestly at Merlin. "Will you help us?"
So wrapped up in his thoughts about the healing spells he would need to cast over the potions that would kill the King's disease that it wasn't until Merlin got back to their room that the events that occurred there earlier came back to him. The bath had long since been removed and the fire tended, so that the room was warmer than even the hall where they had feasted. He should really research his spells in his spell book before Arthur got back, but there was no way he could know when he would, and besides, he was so tired….
He had just enough energy to unlace the strange leather trews and remove the tartan and tunic before he fell into the bed. He rolled over to the side farthest from the fire, snuggled under the heavy blankets, and fell immediately to sleep.
He woke briefly later to delicious heat along his back and the weight of Arthur's arm tucked over his own. But he was still exhausted. The soft sounds of Arthur breathing into the nape of his neck lulled him back to sleep, and he knew no more until the morning, when the serving girl came in with a tray of food. He kept still under Arthur's arm and didn't let on that he was awake while she laid new logs on the fire and stoked it; Arthur was still draped over him in the same position he was when Merlin had awakened earlier in the night, which meant Arthur was just as exhausted as Merlin had been.
As tempted as Merlin was just to lay there soaking up the heat and puzzling over what had happened last night in the bath, Arthur asleep meant the perfect opportunity to study the spells he would need that day. He carefully slid out of bed and tucked the blankets back around Arthur, and in short order had refreshed himself on the spells he would need. He was just tucking the book down to the bottom of his pack when he heard Arthur stir and stretch.
"Here, Sire," said Merlin, rising and bringing the breakfast tray to the bed. "Hungry?"
"When am I not?" Arthur dug in and Merlin crept onto the bed and sat beside him, shoulder to shoulder. "Here, this is for both of us, you know."
Merlin angled a leg and took half the tray onto his lap, and grabbed a withered apple and bit off a huge, sweet chunk. He said around it, "I will go to Drust this morning and help him with a new preparation for the King."
Arthur stopped eating and turned to Merlin, hopeful. "You can help him, then?"
"Of course I can. I said I could yesterday, didn't I?"
"You did," Arthur admitted, "but I wasn't sure if…" he trailed off, then shovelled a huge spoonful of barley stew into his mouth, obviously thinking hard about something. Merlin saw his opportunity and grabbed a sausage from the tray. They were Arthur's favourite and it was rare he got a chance to eat one. Arthur didn't even notice.
"Arthur, what's bothering you?" He bit into the sausage and warm, rich fennel and boar burst over his tongue. He finished it off before Arthur answered.
"Comgall mac Domangairt received word last night while we were talking that the Picts were planning an attack here in his stronghold five days hence. He said this is a very bold manoeuvre for them, and that they must be very strong in numbers to feel confident of a victory. His scouts have only just taken account of their army. It is more a very large band of men. They are armed with spears and bows and daggers, and their faces are painted blue in strange symbols. When the messenger described them, they put me in mind of the symbols we saw carved on that rock."
"He's worried, then?" Merlin picked up another sausage and bit into it.
"Very. His army is prepared, but his people are prepared to support a war far away, not here in their stronghold." Arthur stabbed three slices of ham on his knife and pulled them off with his teeth.
"Could we help them?" asked Merlin?
Arthur chewed and swallowed. "We shall have to, if we're to hope for any assistance getting to the Isle."
Merlin dropped his sausage. "What Isle?"
"The Isle from where the darkness is spewing forth."
It took most of the morning to teach Drust the spells he would need to say over his potions as he prepared them. Merlin was thorough; Drust would have to make them on his own when Merlin was gone, for the King would have to take them every day for a month, even if he was feeling in perfect health. Merlin went with him when he delivered the King's first dose. His skin looked waxy and pale, and he moved gingerly from pain when he turned in his chair to face them. His servant, a man as old as the king himself, made a despairing gesture over the bowl of warm, hearty broth with oats that the King had obviously refused to touch, judging by the skin that had formed over the top of it.
"Come in, come in!" said the King, motioning them toward his table and making a face at the broth. "Have you eaten?"
"Thank you, Sire – we have," said Drust. Merlin was happy to let him answer for the both of them; he was a little unnerved by this King, who was so jovial and close to his people, even though he was obviously suffering with his illness.
"Is this the new potion, then?" said the King, pointing to the small, stone flask in Drust's hand.
"It is," said Drust. "Merlin has taught me much in these few hours, your Majesty. I am in his debt."
"Oh, not at all!" said Merlin, embarrassed. "I mean – I'm happy to help. I'm always happy to help." He looked up to find the King smiling at him. Merlin was shocked that he would or even could spare a smile for him, with the pain he must be in.
"Let's just see what your help has wrought, then, shall we?" He beckoned Drust over, took the flask from his hands, and tipped it into his mouth.
"It may take a few minutes to affect you," explained Merlin, "and it won't be immediate. You'll not be completely well for a month."
"I will be well?" The King put a hand over his stomach and looked for a moment as though he might be ill. He looked at Merlin, and at Drust, and said, "But I had only thought to extend my life but a little, to see this Kingdom win this war. I never thought…"
Merlin was all at once nervous about what he had done; though saving a life was not a matter of trading a life, like in Camelot, a cure would be suspicious. Well, it was too late now, and what he had done for the King did not endanger anyone else. He would never have undertaken to help, if that were the case. But knowing how the King felt about magic, Merlin wondered how it was that this was the first moment he worried about getting caught. Perhaps he was stupid. Time to get smart, then.
"It's – it's a remedy we know of in Camelot, Sire," said Merlin. "It doesn't always work, but…" only if you do not take the potion as directed, he did not add. Drust understood the importance of not missing a dose; he would see to it the King was compliant.
The King's hand fell away from his stomach, and the waxy sheen left his face.
"Leave me," he said, staring at the table.
"It's fine, Drust," said the King, and finally turned his puzzled expression on Drust. Then he smiled. "I think I'm hungry."
The next two weeks were the most frightening of Merlin's adult life, and after the adventures he'd had since coming to Camelot, that was saying a lot. The first five days he spent assisting Drust and two others to prepare not only the King's potions, but crock after crock of healing salves. There were ones for cuts and gashes, burns, bruises – all similar to what he'd learned to prepare under Gaius, and all smelly.
"We could add mint leaves or rosemary," said Drust, "if we had the time to harvest any. Not that we'd likely find either in this gloom."
The sixth day he woke early under the weight of Arthur's arm, and stayed perfectly still – the past five days had been such a whirlwind of planning and preparation for battle that he had not seen Arthur at all to talk to him about that night in the bath or indeed anything, and really, he'd been too busy to think about it much. And strangely enough, he missed Arthur; missed the camaraderie, the teasing, the simple, gentle acts of service. He lay under Arthur's arm and relished the peacefulness, knowing it for the fragile thing it was. He threaded Arthur's fingers between his own and pulled them up to his mouth, and while Arthur slept, his slow, even breaths heating a patch of Merlin's shoulder blade, he kissed the tips of Arthur's fingers and whispered spells of protection over him.
He was vaguely aware of pounding on the door to their room a short time later.
"Sire! Sire, come quick! The King calls you!"
They're early, thought Merlin, stretching until Arthur jabbed him in the ribs with his elbow.
"Get up, Merlin, and help me into my kit."
Merlin roused fully and realised what was happening. He gulped air into the sinking pit of his stomach and flew to Arthur's armour. Their clothing had been washed and left for them; Arthur stood before him with his arms poised for sleeves. Breeches, tunic, gambeson, pause while Arthur grabbed a sausage from the plate and stuffed it in his mouth whole. Hauberk. Gorget. Buckles, and Merlin shovelled a spoon of porridge in Arthur's mouth. The next minute saw the rest of the armour on and buckled, Merlin finishing with the last vambrace, and Arthur drawing on his gloves.
"Let's go," said Arthur, and Merlin was unaccountable grateful that Arthur should include him in his summons.
The great hall thrummed with activity, a hundred people in organized chaos, preparing the men to fight, until Loarn appeared at the head of the hall and said, "The King! The King!"
The men arrayed for battle took up the cry, and there were shouts and surprised whispers when the King strode into the Hall looking hale and hearty, leapt upon his throne and shouted, "Listen now to my words!"
The hall quieted; Merlin looked around to find the King's men astonished and excited.
"The Picts have come and are outside our walls! They have come to take back the lands that we won from them generations ago! We will not let them have it!"
Merlin startled at the cheer that went up.
"Our families, our clans, have made their homes on these lands for six generations! And with the help and strength of our Lord to guide us, we will hold these lands for sixty more!"
"Yeah!" Merlin found himself shouting and raising his fists with the rest of the men.
"To your formations!"
Arthur made to leave with the warriors, and suddenly Merlin was filled with apprehension. He did not have his sword, not that he would have been anything more than useless with it. But he had to be there – what if something should happen? Why had Arthur not arranged for Merlin to be there with him? Though if he thought about it, he ought to have guessed. He made up his mind, and caught up to Arthur as he was leaving the hall. "Arthur! I'm coming with you."
Arthur stopped briefly to look at Merlin, but turned back and followed the men. "No," he said.
"I said no!" said Arthur, marching on, not bothering to turn around. "It's too dangerous. Even if weapons could be had at this late hour, you are not skilled enough. It would be senseless slaughter!"
Merlin ran to catch up. "I'm not as helpless as all that."
Arthur hooted. "We'll talk about that, later."
"What if something should happen to you? Arthur, you are the only heir to the throne of Camelot!" You are the Once and Future King, and I need you, he thought. "You need me!"
Arthur stopped dead in his tracks and whirled around. "That's right, Merlin. I do need you." He stabbed his finger into Merlin's shoulder. "I need you alive and preferably with the healer, so that if anything does happen to me, you will be there to fix me up." He turned and stalked away once more.
"But Arthur –"
"Let it go, Merlin!"
Merlin's anger wrongfooted him just long enough for Arthur to get away, but it didn't stop him from shouting after him, "Maybe I don't want to let it go!"
The next several days were a horror of sick anticipation, longing to see Arthur and fear that he actually might. He slept when he could snatch a few hours in the wee hours of the morning in the infirmary with Drust and other Druid healers who had come to assist him.
Merlin was careful not to show his magic; whenever he went back to the stores and fetched a jar of salve, he laid spells into it to speed healing, then went back to the benches and blood, cleaning wounds, applying salve, unrolling bandages over great gashes and burns.
News of the fighting trickled in with the injured. As much as Merlin wanted to hear, he dreaded it. "We've pushed them back to the ridge," came one report. "We ambushed them on the pass," came another. But there were far more that ran towards, "It's just too dark to see where they're coming from." "By the time we could see them, it was too late." "We extinguished the fires in the camp, but still they find us."
Fighting in the dark meant it barely mattered if they were fighting in the day or night. So they fought until exhaustion set in, until they couldn't stand on their feet any more, and retreated to the cold comfort of pallets and animal skins on the high, hard rock. The injured came in at all hours to be treated. Those who could be moved, that is.
Merlin was curled in a corner by the hearth, wrapped in his cloak and sleeping hard when Drust woke him.
"Merlin, come – it's one of your knights."
Merlin rose so fast he felt his stomach rise, too, and it was all he could do to hold in its meagre contents as he ran to Kay where he lay.
"Merlin! Am I glad to see you," said Kay, grasping his arm in a bruising grip as he lay writhing on the table. Merlin looked at the wound on his leg, and called up every bit of strength he had to keep looking. The leg was bleeding out of a long, deep gash that ran down his inner thigh. Merlin wondered how he had got it; his hauberk ran to his knees. One glance at the mud caking his back, however, and he realized Kay must have been down when he was struck.
"We'll get you fixed in no time," said Merlin, trying hard not to sound as nervous and panicked as he was. He would have to use magic to heal him, and there was no question that he would, but he had to figure out quickly how to do it without raising suspicion, in either Kay or any of the other injured, or the helpers.
The tourniquet applied on the battlefield would need to be tied tighter; Merlin could see the one already on there stretching from the damp seepage of blood. There were woollen strips set aside for bandages; he chose a long, thin one and as he pulled it as tight as he could, he whispered a spell to pull it even tighter around Kay's leg and hold it while he tied it off.
The blood only oozed out the gash, now, and Merlin could see that the cut was clean, thank the Lady, but there was no way it would heal if the blood vessel wasn't sewn shut. And he had no other implements for that but a spell.
"Drink this," he told Kay, and handed him a large goblet of a draught that would take away some of the pain and allow him to rest. With Kay's exhaustion, Merlin hoped it would put him to sleep so that he might cast his spell without witnesses. And it would be painful – so painful – the howling of his first patient still haunted him. Best he should sleep through it.
Kay drank it right down to the bitter dregs without complaint.
"How are Arthur and the others?" asked Merlin, hoping to distract Kay while he cleaned the debris out of the wound. He picked up the pitcher.
"We're fine, mostly—Aaagh! Merlin, for the love of the gods!—" Kay stopped to catch his breath, looking grey, then continued. "But we lost a horse— and Arthur's," Kay blinked slowly, once, and then again. "Arthur's gone down—"
"What?!" Merlin shook Kay's shoulder. "Kay! Sir Kay! Where?" Whispered Merlin, in a panic. "Where did Arthur go down?" But Kay didn't – couldn't – answer. His eyes glazed over with pain, and very soon after, they dropped shut.
Merlin let go of Kay's shoulder to find he was trembling violently. He had to get to Arthur, but – Kay moaned and writhed, uneasy in his slumber, and it drew Merlin back to his task. He shoved Arthur out of his mind for the time it took to turn away from the room, keep his head tucked down over the wound, and whisper, "Áséowan". He let his eyes follow the line of the oozing blood vessel and watched it come together and heal in a clean line. Well, it would have to be good enough. With shaky hands he poured more clean water from the ewer through the wound, and knit together the layers of muscle with another spell, then bound all tight with a great, wide bandage. He would live. But Arthur—
No one would take him into battle.
"We can't spare you, Merlin," said Drust, as exhausted as anyone could be and still be awake. "They have healers on the battle field amongst the warriors, and they will be taken care of as best they can until they can be brought here."
Merlin asked every warrior he patched up for news, but none had heard anything about Arthur's condition. So Merlin watched over Kay, unsleeping, hoping he would awaken soon, and tell him where Arthur went down. He sponged the fever sweat off of his brow, he poured more healing draughts down his throat when he woke moaning in pain. He piled more blankets on when he trembled.
And so it was that a day and a half later, he was awakened from a deep and unintended slumber at Kay's side by a hand on his shoulder and someone calling his name. Someone persistent, and annoying. But he was too far gone to wake; it had been three days since he had slept, and he was exhausted. He was only vaguely aware of someone picking him up off the floor and carrying him like a babe in arms, then setting him down somewhere warm and soft, and then he was blissfully unaware once more.
He woke an unmeasured time later warm and relaxed to the soft crackle of a fire and an even, measured scraping. He sat up fast enough to make himself dizzy.
"Arthur!" There he was, sitting at the table in their room, whole and well, laying down his sword and a sharpening stone. "But I thought – Kay said—"
Arthur came round and sat on the side of the bed. "I know," he said. "I heard from Drust."
"But then – how?"
"I did go down," said Arthur, smirking. "I went down to the valley to lead the clean-up of the battlefield. Kay was hit in the last skirmish, which I gathered he didn't tell you before he succumbed to the draught you gave him. The Picts have retreated, and a treaty's been signed. They will not attack Dalriata again."
Merlin couldn't help it – he flung his arms around Arthur's neck and hung on, not saying anything, just trembling with relief and so very thankful that Arthur was alive.
"Oh, Merlin. You're such a girl," said Arthur, but Merlin paid him no mind – Arthur's arms were wound just as tightly around Merlin.
"Anyway, up, laze-a-bed!" said Arthur into Merlin's ear. "There is food at the table and a celebration planned for this evening, and in between we are to speak to the King about our journey to the Isle."
"The Isle! I meant to ask you before," said Merlin, "but there wasn't time. Where is this Isle? How do they know that the darkness comes from there?"
Arthur stood and pulled Merlin out of bed by his arms. "Dalriata has close ties with the northeast of Hibernia, through trade and tradition," he said, seating Merlin at the table and shoving the breakfast tray at him. "The traders who take their boats north have seen the narrowing of the darkness. This," Arthur waved his hand toward the sky, "is not everywhere. It lies mostly over Albion."
"But that would mean—"
"That would mean that my father was partly right," said Arthur. "There is something cursing not just Camelot, but the whole of Albion."
Merlin shoved a piece of bread in his mouth and chewed. "But this Isle – where is it?"
"Far to the north, far past where the traders usually sail. But they followed the trail far enough to know where it must originate from. I expect we will hear more later. Comgall mac Domangairt has offered his help."
"Because the war is over?"
Arthur looked at him strangely. "Even with the war being over, his people and his stores are drained. It's Alban Heruin today – did you know? Not that anyone but the Druids care, though there will be celebration tonight for the ending of battle. But even though it is not the solstice they celebrate, how can this darkness herald any comfort for them?"
"Oh. But then I don't understand. Why would he help us?"
"Merlin," said Arthur, oddly, "you saved his life. Can you not see that he might be grateful for that?"
Chapter 12: Light of Arthur - Chapter 11
Merlin was startled that afternoon to see that the King was looking as though he had never been ill at all. When Merlin walked into the council chamber that afternoon with Arthur, the King bade him sit on his left, with Arthur on his right, and before he addressed any business at hand, he presented Merlin with a large wooden cask circled with iron bands, and a large chest fitted with bronze hinges and latches.
"Please," said the King. "You must accept these gifts. There is nothing I can do to repay you for my health, and I will do anything to help you and your company on its mission. But this is for you, just a token, so you understand that whenever you are in need you may come to me and your needs shall be met as best as I can provide," said the King.
He pointed to the cask, and said, "Inside this cask is usquebaugh, but it is more commonly known as usky. It is a strong, distilled spirit, and should only be taken in small amounts. Just a mouthful will warm you, or quiet a cough, or ease what pains you, but much more than that and you will suffer the next day as if you'd drunk a flagon of mead without help. Enjoy it in good health," said the King.
"And this," he said, gesturing to the guard to open the chest, "is for your comfort."
Merlin drew out the blood red item on top to discover it was an enormous pillow, almost as long as he was tall, covered in the softest fabric he had ever felt. He hugged it to his chest, and it compressed, then bounded slowly back to shape when he released it. It was stuffed full of down. His jaw dropped. Not even Arthur had a pillow like this. But that was not the only thing in the chest. He pulled out the next item to find that it was made of the same lurid red material that covered the pillow, and that it, too, was filled with down. It unfolded, and Merlin discovered it was a quilt. A very large quilt, large enough to cover even Arthur's bed back in Camelot, with room on the edges to spare.
"Merlin, look," said Arthur, pointing to the other side of the quilt. Merlin turned it around.
There was a white field framed by the same red of the other side, but in the white field, "It's – it's a dragon!" Merlin exclaimed. "Arthur—" he looked up to see Arthur marvelling along with him. It was unlike any dragon he had ever seen, unlike the pendragon on Arthur's crest, and certainly not like Kilgharrah, who was a mossy greenish brown and far more stodgy than the sinuous, jewel-toned creature on the quilt. This one shimmered with the brightest greens and blues, accented with silver and gold, as vivid as the colours in a peacock's tail.
Merlin was utterly speechless.
"The cloth is silk," said the King. "It comes from the Sino people far, far East, and it is said the threads are harvested from a worm that sews webs like a spider does."
"Your Majesty—" said Merlin, and then his words failed him. He went to his knees in front of the King, and with his eyes to the floor, said, "This is too much, your Majesty. These – they were meant for a king. Not me."
"Merlin, you have brought me the greatest comfort I could know. By a miracle of God you were brought here and you saved me. God willing, I will live to see my son grow to manhood and take my throne. You have spared my life, and my son his father, and you have saved my kingdom from the ruin it would surely face in the fight for a new King. These are minuscule rewards, a mere token of the gratitude I have for you. These gifts are yours.
"Now come, let us discuss the preparations for your journey to the Isle before the celebrations begin."
Merlin put the gifts out of his mind and tried hard to pay attention to the details of their journey, but he was a bit overwhelmed. At the end of their planning session, he was vaguely aware that it would take two weeks to reach the shore, hire passage and provision for the journey, and then another week's journey by boat to the Isle, which the King called Thule.
"We shall have need of haste," said Arthur, when they were returning to their rooms for a bath before the celebrations. "It is now Alban Heruin. I estimate between a week and a fortnight spent on Thule. With luck, we may make it back here, to the King's keep, by Lughnasadh."
"Lughnasadh. Lammas! But that would mean…"
"That would mean that the earliest we could expect to return to Camelot would be Samhain," said Arthur. "If we cannot rid the land of this darkness, the end of our journey may be a bitter one."
Merlin opened the door to their rooms and was very happy indeed to find the long, leather bath steaming with juniper berries, and their freshly-laundered clothes warming by the fire.
"It will be bitter even if we bring back the light," said Merlin, pulling off his boots. "It's too late to plant or harvest. The people will starve."
"It may not be so bad," said Arthur, removing his own tunic and breeches. "If my father has not already done it, I will open up hunting in the kingdom so that the people may count on game. And I will allow fish to be taken from the streams and lakes without tax."
They stepped into the bath, and suddenly the events of a week or so before flooded back to Merlin.
He still had unanswered questions.
But today was a day of celebration, and he was very hungry indeed, so he left Arthur to his own devices, made as quick and thorough a bath for himself as he could and before long they found themselves in the Hall sitting with their entire company next to the King, with roasted songbirds and haggeis on their plates.
"Let the games begin!"
The King rose from his throne, and led a procession out the doors at the other end of the hall.
Merlin didn't know what to make of that, but he found himself running after Arthur for his cloak and following everyone out of doors. It was full-on dark outside, but the meadow in front of the Hall which, when they had ridden up the day they got there Merlin had thought was just an area loosely defined with stakes, was really a field ringed with tall, wooden torches, with the field inside completely lit up. Over on the other side of the meadow was a huge bonfire, with old aunties handing out tankards of heated mead and children roasting chestnuts.
"Have you ever seen a game of shinty, Sire?" asked Loarn, who had just come up with an armload of straight ash sticks that were curved on the end. "Come and watch!" He ran off to join the other men on the field, tossing down the sticks and throwing his cloak on a pile with many others.
"They're going to freeze," said Merlin, who was shivering despite the heavy cloak.
"Come on, then," said Arthur, and he led Merlin to where the knights were standing, listening to an explanation of the game by one of Loarn's band.
"It's a game played with camans and a ball," he was explaining. "The object is to hit the ball with the caman and get it past the other team and into the hail."
Merlin looked at the field and noticed a frame of posts on either end with a bar atop them.
"You can't stop the ball with your hands unless you're the keeper of the goal, and there's no throwing, excepting when the ball goes out of the field, and then one of the players goes out, throws the ball up, and hits it back into the field with his caman. But you can block the ball with your body as long as you don't do it with your head. The King made that rule after Gavin died from a blow in the new year game my fourteenth winter. Come on, then – the King is choosing captains!"
They all walked into the ring of lights to the centre of the field, where the King was saying, "The teams will be a dozen men each, and we'll have four of them. Two and two will play, and then the winners of each will play, and then we will celebrate the summer champions!"
Their shinty guide said, "Usually we only play in winter, but with the weather so cold... well, there's more than one way to keep the dark at bay."
"Loarn! You are a captain! Bran! Eòghann! Cailean! Torradan! Murchadh! Choose your teams!" said the King.
The captains came forward to stand with the King, and Merlin half listened while they called out names until he heard Loarn shout, "Arthur of Camelot!"
Merlin turned to Arthur just in time to see Arthur's cloak sailing toward him in midair. By the time he caught it and folded it in his arms, Arthur was already bounding up to Loarn with a wide smile on his face. The teams were quickly chosen, and Merlin wasn't surprised to see all the knights but Kay eventually chosen for a team.
Loarn's team, consisting of himself, Arthur and most of his band, played first against Cailean's, which had Gawain on it and a collection of men Merlin had seen at table in the Hall, but fortunately not in the infirmary. The teams took sides, and the captains raised their camans in the middle over the King.
"We will play for half of the hour! If, after that, there are no goals scored or if there is a tie, we will play until the next team makes the goal. Captains, are you ready?"
The captains nodded to their King, who tossed a small, white ball high in the air between them, then ran for the torches.
Loarn smacked the ball with his caman and after that everything became a blur. Merlin had never seen a game that played so fast. The ball streaked through the air, and the players ran for it with their sticks raised, trying to bat it further down the field to the hail. Arthur, Merlin wasn't surprised to see, seemed to be a natural at it.
After a few minutes of play, Merlin began to see a strategy to it. Loarn would pass to a teammate, then get himself clear of the members of the other team, then the teammate would pass it back to him. Sometimes one of them would be rushed by players of the other team trying to smack the ball, so the player had to find someone quick to pass it to.
They were nearing the half hour mark. Loarn's team was behind two goals, and Merlin refused to admit he was nervous enough about the outcome to be biting his lip, though he'd probably feel it in the morning. They were most of the way down the field toward Cailean's goal. Loarn's second in command got control of the ball, only to look up and find half of Cailean's men running toward him in a wall to wrest the ball away from his control. At the last second, he swung the caman and the ball sailed high into the air toward Arthur, who had his eye on the ball, running to meet it. At the perfect moment, he swung his caman in the air and it connected with the ball in a mighty whack, and the ball catapulted past the keeper's head and into the hail.
"Yes!" shouted Merlin, and he pummelled the shoulder next to him.
"Ouf," said the man, staggering. Merlin looked up.
"Kay?" Merlin was shocked to find him out of bed, though he wasn't surprised to see him leaning heavily on a crutch. "What are you doing out here?"
"Enjoying the match just like you," said Kay. "He's pretty amazing, isn't he?"
Merlin turned his eyes toward where Kay was looking. Arthur was running full tilt toward the ball, his caman held out in front of him, fierce concentration writ large on his face.
"He is," said Merlin, probably more fondly than was wise.
"He's lucky to have you," said Kay. "We all are, Merlin."
Merlin turned and looked at Kay, not really knowing what to say.
But before he could think of anything, Kay said, "Thank you. I – know what you did for me. My wound – I saw it on the battlefield."
"I didn't—" began Merlin, suddenly terrified of what Kay might say if he didn't cut him off.
"I won't say anything, you know," Kay cut in. "Just – you should know that anything I have is yours, and that includes my trust. You saved my life. I won't forget it."
Kay's heavy hand fell on Merlin's shoulder and squeezed. "You're a good man, Merlin."
A resounding cheer broke the moment, and Merlin turned to find Arthur loping off the field with Loarn at his side, both of them laughing and grimacing.
"Kay!" said Arthur, as he approached, looking genuinely delighted to see him. Merlin held out Arthur's cloak and the Prince shrugged into it with ease and turned around for Merlin to do up the lace. "You look much improved since the last time I saw you."
"I'm feeling much improved, Sire," said Kay, "thanks to Merlin. He has healing hands."
"That, I know," said Arthur. "In fact, Merlin, I need you to rub out a kink in my shoulder. That caman is solid ash and heavier than a sword, if you can believe it, Kay."
"Not for an instant, Sire," said Kay.
"Come on, Merlin, I'm starving," said Arthur, tilting his head toward the bonfire.
"What – Arthur, you just came from a feast," said Merlin.
"No, I just came from a very demanding game of shinty, and I need to restore my energy," said Arthur, giving Merlin's shoulder a little push. "Let's go. You can serve me."
Merlin rolled his eyes. They made their way over to the old auntie handing out tankards of hot mead, took one and a basket of roast chestnuts from a scrubby boy of about ten who stared in wide-eyed awe at Arthur, and found a deserted pallet on the rise behind the bonfire. Merlin set them up, tankard of mead beside him, basket of chestnuts in his lap, and in short order they were soaking up the heat shoulder to shoulder, sipping contentedly at their drinks as Merlin stripped the chestnuts from their shells and handed them to Arthur.
"Eat some yourself, too," said the Prince.
Merlin gave him a pointed look and said, "We just ate, Arthur. I'm not hungry."
Arthur laughed. "You're still too skinny. We have to fatten you up." He elbowed Merlin in the ribs.
"I think you're doing a good enough job for the both of us," said Merlin.
Arthur pushed Merlin over with his shoulder, rolled over and tackled him, grabbed his wrists and pinned them above his head.
Merlin squirmed and giggled, toppling the basket of chestnuts from his lap, but then Arthur lay full on top of him and no matter how he wriggled, he wasn't going anywhere.
"You are not calling me fat again, are you, Merlin?" said the Prince, giving him the same eyebrow Gaius managed on a regular basis but he was laughing, so the effect was completely ruined and only made Merlin giggle harder.
"Oh, no – Sire," said Merlin, between giggles. "I would – I would never—"
Arthur pulled Merlin's wrists into one hand, and used the other to dig into Merlin's ribs. Merlin's giggles dissolved into gales of laughter, tears of mirth running down his face, and he flailed so hard he managed to knock over the tankard of mead, as well.
Arthur released him and looked around at the ruin of their idyll. "Honestly, Merlin, you are the worst servant in the history of… of servitude." And then Arthur was laughing, laughing hard, carefree in a way that Merlin had seen – well, never, his head tipped back, eyes crinkled, and without a second thought, Merlin leaned up, put his hand on Arthur's cheek, and kissed him.
And Arthur – Arthur stilled, but only for the smallest moment, and then he was kissing Merlin back.
An unmeasured time later, after Merlin had opened his mouth and discovered the rough chap of Arthur's lips, tasted the salt on his upper lip and the sweet remainders of chestnuts and mead, after Arthur searched out the corners of Merlin's mouth, mapped the boundaries and the interior with all the intention of a commanding general prepared to conquer, after Merlin silently pledged his mouth, pledged all of himself and Arthur accepted him, Merlin pulled away.
And just as he was reading the surprise in Arthur's gaze as it changed to astonishment, and then to joy, the world came crashing in. For even though they were fated to be the other side of one another, for longer than this lifetime, if the dragon could be believed, with love came duty, and Arthur's duty, his duty to the crown was to….
Merlin blinked: once, twice; the third time, he kept his eyes closed and swallowed around the lump in his throat, and contemplated the bitterness of having the long-desired, freely-given thing snatched away at once, and forever.
A hand rested on Merlin's cheek and Arthur asked, "What's wrong?"
Merlin sighed. Like a bad tooth, best to yank it out quickly rather than let it fester. "Arthur," he said, turning to face him completely and taking Arthur's hand in both his own, "you are my Prince. Truly, you are my King, and my world. You are my life. I could never serve another."
"Merlin!" said Arthur, sounding completely surprised and astonished.
"And there is no one else—" Merlin continued, squeezing Arthur's hand and taking a deep breath, stomach quaking with the intensity of his feeling, "there is no one else I could ever – love—" his eyes welled, and a single tear ran down his cheek.
"Merlin!" said Arthur, again. He ran his thumb across Merlin's cheek and wiped the tear away, moved in and dropped a kiss in its place. "What is it?"
Merlin sniffed mightily and shook his head violently. "Nothing."
"If it's nothing," said Arthur, "then let it go. This – doesn't become you." Arthur dropped his arm around Merlin's shoulders and pulled him in, ruffling his hair.
Good advice, thought Merlin, as he batted at Arthur's hands, and the actions were so familiar, so much himself and Arthur, that the truth stood up and refused to be thrown away.
Merlin pulled himself away and sat up, facing Arthur. He took a wavering breath and blew it out, then said, "Arthur. I can't let this go." He took another unsteady breath and said, "I just can't. I've made a lifetime of letting so much of what I cared about, so much of myself pass me by so that I could – so that I had the opportunity to serve you. To – to be your friend. But I'm selfish, Arthur. I – I want you. All of you." He took Arthur's hand in his, and shook it. "I can't let this go." Two fresh tears ran down his face, and his heart squeezed down into a compressed ball of pain in the middle of his chest.
"Shh, shhhhh," said Arthur, pulling him close again, arms around his shoulders and hand holding his head. "You have me. Honestly, Merlin. you've had me for a long time, and – and I think that – I hope that you will always have me."
He put his fingers under Merlin's chin and tipped Merlin's face up to his own. "You're a fool if you think I could let this go, either." He tipped his mouth down and captured Merlin's with it, ran his tongue over Merlin's bottom lip and sucked it briefly between his own.
Oh, how he wanted to believe. He opened his mouth to Arthur's and let his tears seep into the collar of Arthur's cloak, and Arthur held him in the kiss until they stopped flowing.
"Want to tell me what this is about?"
"I can never have you utterly, can I?" he said. "You need a queen. An heir."
"What – Arthur, I'm serious!" said Merlin, shoving at Arthur's shoulder, a fresh tear running down each cheek.
"I can see that," said Arthur, putting his arm around Merlin's shoulders and squeezing. "Shhh, stop. I don't know what we can do about my heir. But that is not a problem for today." Arthur lifted Merlin's head in both his hands, and stared into his eyes, held him there, and Merlin finally understood what he read in that gaze. "I can give you no less than you give me," said Arthur. "My world, my heart, my life – they're yours."
And then his mouth was on Merlin's once more, sealing his pledge in the salt on Merlin's lips, and his eyes, his forehead, every touch an oath, and oath that Merlin understood and accepted.
And suddenly, Merlin was overwhelmed with contentment: contentment and gratitude, for this life, and for everything in it.
"Arthur, it's Alban Heruin," he said, just remembering, "no matter what these people believe. I want to go burn brands and thank the Lady." He raised his eyes to Arthur, suddenly shy. "Do you want to come with me?"
Arthur's smile lit Merlin's heart. "I know the perfect place," he said, rising and pulling Merlin up with him. "Come on."
Arthur kept hold of Merlin's hand, took a torch from one of the posts, and pulled him away from the light of the bonfire, over the rise and down the other side into the glen. There was a dell there, a place protected from the wind, where water seeped out of the rock. When they reached the trees, Arthur cut for them a pine brand and an oak brand from fallen branches.
"There's a path just here," said Arthur, starting in and led Merlin a short way in until they entered a glade. There was a large, flat rock in the middle, almost like an altar, with fractured rocks below. They picked them up and set them on the rock, and pressed the brands in the crevices.
Arthur held the torch to the oak brand and set it alight, then handed the torch to Merlin. Merlin touched it to the pine brand, and it crackled alight immediately. He put the torch on the ground and snuffed it out so that the only illumination would come from their offering to the Lady.
They stood there, quiet, shoulders touching, and let the light and heat play over their faces. Merlin suddenly felt too covered, too occluded from the air and water, earth and sky. He wanted the blessing of the light and heat closer to his skin. He unfastened his cloak, and let it drop behind him. Arthur looked at him, startled, but accepting; Merlin unclasped Arthur's, too, and let it drop.
The night was quiet. There was no wind in the dell. The birds had retired for the night. There was only the gentle crackle of the flames, and the rich smoulder of burning pine and oak.
Merlin took Arthur's hand in his own and said, "Thank you, my Lady, for letting me be whole."
Arthur squeezed his hand tight, and bowed his head. "My Lady, thank you for helping me see that to get everything I need, I must give everything in return. For helping me know that the cost will never be too much to bear. Help me to always be worthy of his devotion."
And as they stood together in prayer, a silver mist descended before them and coalesced around the flames into the shape of a woman with a pale, round face, dressed in silver, and glowing like the moon, and Merlin knew this apparition for who she was: the Moon Mother Arianrhod. Merlin thought he ought to feel scared, but he had room in his heart for nothing more than devotion and joy. He looked at Arthur – he was staring at her with wonder.
"Arthur Pendragon," she voiced, and it was the whispery sound of mist, "Merlin: the gifts you thank me for tonight are yours forever. Never will they fail you, and by your faith, you will not fail to be worthy of them."
She turned to Arthur. "Arthur Pendragon! You are the Once and Future King. Your faith and that of your consort will unite all Albion as it unites the both of you."
She lifted their joined hands, and it was the soft, cool brush of a breeze in the moonlight touching them. With her other hand, she removed her silver belt, and wrapped its glowing length around their hands and wrists and arms, until they were bound to their elbows. It felt cool and soft as the silk of Merlin's gift, but the binding was tight and sure.
"You are two sides of the same coin," she proclaimed. "Not even death will tear you asunder." And if Merlin thought it odd for her to echo the words of the great dragon, it was forgotten in her next words.
"I will give you both this final gift, as well: I have fixed your destiny as the stars are fixed to the celestial sphere, for eternity. Together, you will always be whole."
And with that, she and their bond dissolved into mist, blew through them both, instilling in their bones the truth of her words, and rose above the flames and away, as the smoke, leaving them joined as one.
There was nothing left to say. What was there to say when they both knew the truth as though it were born to them? And so they did the only thing that was left for them to do: they drew together, and with their kiss, claimed each other and the true promise of eternity for themselves.
The Hall was quiet; the revellers still celebrated outside. The fire burned steady in the grate, and the room was as warm as a late spring day. The logs crackled. The coals hissed. Merlin laid their cloaks over the chair and latched the door behind them. They were alone.
Arthur turned to him from the middle of the room and held out his hand, expectant. Merlin went to him, and took it into his own.
Arthur stared into his eyes and drew him in close, rested a hand on Merlin's shoulder, hot and light, and the fingers of his other hand fluttered at Merlin's neck. He leaned in close, close enough that Merlin could smell chestnuts and wood smoke, close enough that his world became the peaks and valleys and plains of Arthur's face, glowing golden in the light of the fire. And then Arthur pulled him in, precious and tight. His lips brushed the lobe of Merlin's ear and his breath tickled and warmed it.
"I'm going to make love to you now," whispered Arthur, toeing off his boots. Merlin moaned and his knees trembled as he kicked his own boots off.
Arthur held him tight and walked backward with him to the bed, and it was only then that he noticed his gifts from the king adorned it: the pillow, which spanned the entire width of the bed, and the jewel-toned dragon quilt. Arthur fell back with Merlin held tight in his arms, then rolled them over.
"Merlin, kiss me," Arthur breathed.
Merlin uttered a cry and lifted his mouth to Arthur's, licking his lip and sucking it in between his own, biting with the barest pressure, then licking it away, then biting again. Arthur groaned and thrust his tongue deep into Merlin's mouth, seeking and duelling with Merlin's own. Merlin tasted sweet chestnuts and the sour mead, the heady fruit of Arthur's breath, the salt of the haggeis, the char of the songbird, but as foreign as all those tastes were, they were Arthur, and that meant home.
Arthur's fingers lit soft on Merlin's cheek and ran down, down, tracing patterns on his neck, pushing promises into the hollows behind his ears. His elbows anchored Merlin, framing his sides and taking the brunt of his weight, but Merlin could feel Arthur trembling. He threaded his arms under Arthur's, rested them on the crest of his arse, and pulled him down flush, his weight resting heavy and sure on Merlin, his legs spread wide over Merlin's own.
It was then that he felt the intensity of Arthur's desire. Arthur thrust the tiniest bit with his hips and smiled at Merlin, and Merlin gave in utterly, and took Arthur's mouth with abandon. He licked and sucked his way in, forging a path he could follow time and again, trying hard to get to the other side of Arthur by going straight through. But soon the drugging kisses and the restless weight of him weren't enough: he needed skin. Where was Arthur's skin? Merlin never so much wanted to see and touch and taste and feel the hot velvet of Arthur's neck, the fine fur of his chest, the pink peaks of his nipples. He wanted to run his tongue over everything, claim it for his own, mark him and make him, and never let go.
His fingers moved to the laces on Arthur's tunic, and he took care to brush his knuckles against the hollow of Arthur's throat that for so long he could only admire with his eyes and never touch, never pay homage to with his own skin, the way he had longed to. But it was his, now, if he wanted, if he….
"Skin," Merlin pleaded. "Please, I want your skin."
Arthur gasped, and before Merlin quite understood what was happening, Arthur was straddling Merlin's lap on his knees, ripping off his tunic. With trembling hands he unknotted the laces on Merlin's tunic, slipped one arm underneath him, the flat of his palm a brand on the skin of Merlin's back, and lifted him; the other hand he fisted in the tunic and pulled it clean off Merlin in an instant, then collapsed down upon him once more, skin to skin, the hair on their chests crackling together.
It was a revelation.
Every thump and retreat of Arthur's heart Merlin felt with his own; every surge of heat, every drift of cool air that breathed between them a milestone, a marker of love and discovery. Arthur drew his elbows in closer, the rough skin whispering over the silk, and rubbed his chest against Merlin's, the nubs of his nipples catching on Merlin's sending shivers through his skin and causing his cock to quake under the hard velvet heat of Arthur's hip.
Merlin let his mouth nip down from lip to tongue to lip to the rough sandpaper of Arthur's chin, touching first with tongue, then lips, then sucking bites, tasting the day, the salt of his efforts. He wriggled down the soft cloud of quilt far enough to touch his tongue to Arthur's throat, the points of his collar, the swell of muscle in his chest. He nosed his way into the fresh spice of his arm, the living male scent of him mixed with the faint remembrance of juniper and oak and pine. He buried his nose there, drew Arthur's identity into his lungs, opened his mouth and knew Arthur's flavour on his lips, his tongue, the skin of his face.
Arthur huffed a breath above him and drew his arm tight to his side. "It tickles," he said, and Merlin could hear him smile. He pressed his grin into the crease of Arthur's arm for one last open-mouthed sniff, then drew his mouth across Arthur's chest to rest upon the nub, tracing its shape, tasting the blood underneath that manifested in a carnal heat upon his tongue. Arthur pressed the long heat of him hard into Merlin's hip and balanced there for a brief, shocking moment before collapsing back. Merlin looked up and saw the heat suffuse Arthur's face, his mouth wet and open in a flush of red.
Again, his own cock quaked. His hips pressed up without volition and his mouth fell open on a gasp. Before he could recover himself, his arms were clamped to his side, and he was rolling once again, landing on top of Arthur. His legs tumbled between Arthur's and his length lay atop the long, hard line of Arthur's. Arthur's throbbed and again Merlin gasped, and then again when the warm brush of Arthur's hair on his chest heralded the hot wet suction on his own hard nub.
Merlin panted, and again before he knew what he was about, his hips had canted hard into Arthur, his buttocks clenching tight, and very suddenly he knew he was close to the edge.
"Arthur," he breathed, "Arthur…" he pressed his knees into the mattress to relieve the unrelenting pleasure of pressure tight and hot upon his cock.
"Are you close?" Arthur whispered, his grip on Merlin's arms betraying his needy trembling.
"Are you?" asked Merlin, nodding, dropping his head to kiss Arthur's hair, his forehead, the bridge of his nose.
"Yes," gasped Arthur, his hips canting up again, again.
"Arthur, stop. Wait," said Merlin. He tore himself away from Arthur's heat and sat up on his knees between Arthur's legs, and with shaky hands attacked the laces of Arthur's breeches. Arthur, looking drunk and dazed, let it happen, let Merlin take charge of his own when Arthur's came undone. Merlin skinned out of his and kicked them to the floor; he grabbed the front of Arthur's and with a lift of Arthur's hips, his trousers, too, were on the floor.
And then Merlin hovered over him, for the first time since knowing Arthur as his own, looked upon this golden man, perfect in his imperfections, and let the enormity of their union engulf him, conquer him.
He fell upon Arthur, pressed his lips to Arthur's ear, and murmured, "I love you, I love you, Arthur, gods how I love you."
Arthur slipped his hands between them and took both of them in hand, and stripped the length of them once, then again, the hard calluses pressing and dragging the fragile skin up and down over the head of his cock and into the hot, hard heat of Arthur's.
Merlin gasped and bucked, buried his face in Arthur's neck and came, shooting hot and wet into the gap between their stomachs.
Arthur wrapped his hands around Merlin's hips and crushed them together, thrusting into the slick between them and shuddered, spurting, gasping, "Mine, Mine!" then falling still underneath him, trembling and spent.
They lay together for an unmeasured time, Merlin sprawled over Arthur with his head tucked under his chin and his hair falling in Arthur's mouth, breathing, discordant and stertorous, until the trickle of sweat ceased and the air grew cool around them once more. Arthur raised a lazy arm and rested it on Merlin's head, stroking and stroking the hair behind his ear.
"We might stick to each other," he whispered, eventually, when they grew cold enough to want to burrow under the soft cloud of quilt.
Merlin groaned. "Yes," he said, and dragged himself out of the bed, dipping a cloth directly in the ewer but wringing it out in the bowl. He wiped Arthur off, then turned the cloth around and cleaned himself. He let the cloth drop to the floor and said, "Up," and he wrangled the quilt out from under Arthur, lay down and draped it over the both of them. Arthur's head lay on the silken pillow, Merlin's lay on Arthur' shoulder as he tucked himself into the crook of Arthur's arm. Arthur tucked the soft, cool silk around his shoulders, and he fell into the most contented sleep he'd ever known.
Chapter 13: Light of Arthur - Chapter 12
Arthur was right: it took exactly two weeks to reach the shores of Dalriata, find boats to sail them to Thule, and get them provisioned, but it was a close call.
"No stars," said Loarn, who, at the behest of his King, travelled with them. "There are five days at sea with no land in sight, and with this darkness, no stars to navigate by."
Arthur was genuinely distressed with this news. "But trade still continues? How is it that this can happen?"
"They follow the swells of the sea, and the direction of the winds and currents. To those who know the path to where they are going, these signs are clear. But there are few mariners who know the path to Thule."
In the end, though, they found two. Merlin learned from them that their boats were called currachs, and that some were made of wood and some were made of woven leather. He also learned that Murchú and Oilithir's boats were larger than most. They were both made of wood, and each had a mast with a thin leather sail. Merlin was in awe. Each boat could hold eight men and provisions for a month, or two hundred stone of goods in trade.
Merlin loved the water, but he'd only once before seen a body of it so vast. The Western Sea then was a crashing, swirling force of blue and white. But now, under the perpetual deep grey of daylight, the water turned black, the sky barely a contrast with it. Once, the salt spray cooled his sun-heated face. Now, it settled on the hood of his cape and froze in a salty rime. He still loved the sea, the sheer, wild power of it, but after five days of cramped quarters and the rancid, musty smell of the oiled cloths and leathers that protected them and their supplies from sea spray and the two short squalls they encountered along the way, he was ready to stretch his legs on land, again.
And, selfishly, he wished for some time and space alone with Arthur, and not just for sex. They still had a matter outstanding between them, and as much as he knew that Arthur would eventually understand, the fact of Merlin's magic lay between them like an ageing debt. It was the last significant thing that stood between them undiscussed, and Merlin burned to get it out of the way as soon as he possibly could. He resolved to try and find a way to tell him once they reached land, because it ate at his heart like a chancre and he knew that the longer he waited to tell Arthur, the angrier Arthur might get.
The morning of the sixth day dawned to a stiff wind; Merlin woke to the heavy weight of Arthur, rolled atop him due to the heel of the currach under sail. The sacks he'd slept on that night had compacted down, and his spine threatened to break over a rib of the ship, but it was warm and wonderful under Arthur, and the light… of… day gods preserve them.
"Arthur, get up! Get up! There's light in the sky!" Merlin shoved at Arthur's shoulder and finally wiggled out from underneath him. He threw his hands over the starboard wale and pulled himself up. There on the horizon was a strip of the rose and orange of impending sunrise. He scrambled up to the port wale and pulled his head over the top to find a similar strip on the port horizon that was the washed-out violet of the tale end of night. He held tight to the wale and looked straight up: there was the same grey night they had known since Camelot. He heard shouts carried across the breeze; those in the other boat had seen it, too.
He slid back down to the starboard side of the boat next to Arthur, who was blinking and staring at the first sliver of sun they had seen since winter. Arthur's little finger crossed over his own where their hands gripped side by side on the wale. As the others woke and exclaimed around them, they watched, squint-eyed and blinking, as the sun rose over the edge of the world, a glowing orange ball growing yellow with flame and then disappearing into the dense grey above. The strips of light on the horizon were now the faintest robin's egg blue, and it was all Merlin could do to rouse himself and pass out the cracker and wine.
"With this wind, we should be there by the end of the day," said Murchú, so the rest of the day, since the wind remained steady and stiff and they didn't have to take turns at oar, they spent watching the strips of light grow higher and higher in the sky, till at last the deep grey was like a large roof over an open-walled pavilion, and at last, the visible world unfolded to its proper size. Even the air warmed up around them; not much, but more like a cool spring breeze than an icy, insinuating blast.
At the first site of land, Murchú scanned the shoreline, then angled the boat West and travelled along until a small island came into view.
"Almost there," he said, and not long later, he was angling the boat back toward land again. The shore was a dark line. It wasn't until the waves pushed the boats onto the shore that Merlin could see that it wasn't rock or dirt, but coarse, black sand, unlike anything he'd seen before.
They hauled the boat up the beach and over a ridge that marked the high tide line, then emptied their gear and set up camp. Merlin was exhausted, but the day was still light, with only a narrow V of sky directly above that was the dark grey they were so familiar with. Merlin followed it with his eyes to where it came to a point: the peak of the mountain in the distance.
"That's our goal," said Arthur, in Merlin's ear.
They fell into the same routine setting up camp that they had during most of their travels. They had brought most all of their gear with them, with the exception of the horses, cart, and Merlin's treasures, which Comgall mac Domangairt kept safe for them at his keep. Pip and William took up a net, and finding a promontory of rock into deeper water, cast it in and pulled it out a short while later wriggling with fish.
They feasted on the freshest fish Merlin had ever had the pleasure of eating; great chunks of a mild, white-fleshed fish that grew to the size of his arm. There was more than they could possibly eat, so the remainder they packed in salt to take with them inland. When they were finished, Merlin was exhausted.
"It's late," said Arthur. "We should sleep. We have a fair distance to go tomorrow, and we will have to carry all our own gear."
"Arthur, don't be ridiculous. It's still light out," said Merlin, still revelling in the day.
"This far North the days are very long indeed in the summer," said Arthur. "There will only be an hour or two of darkness. In the winter it's reversed; there is only an hour or two of light."
"But how can that be?" asked Merlin, holding up the tent flap for Arthur.
"I don't know," said Arthur, entering their tent and stripping down to his breeches. "A tutor told me, when I was young. Just as in Camelot, though, the longest day is Alban Heruin and the shortest Alban Arthan, and day and night are of equal length at Alban Eiler and Alban Elued."
He climbed into the bedroll and made room for Merlin, who said, "That's very strange."
"At the top of the world, it is thought that there is no night at all at Alban Heruin and no day at Alban Arthan. But no one has been there so it isn't known for certain."
"If there is a greater difference between the length of night and day the farther North we are, does that mean if we travel far south that the difference becomes less?"
"Merlin, there is more to you than meets the eye, no matter how well I think I know you," Arthur whispered in Merlin's ear. "You are a treasure, and I may have been wrong to call you an idiot all this time."
Merlin curled up under Arthur's arm and tucked the cloak under his neck, grinning. "May?" he angled his elbow back into Arthur's ribs.
Arthur hooked his arm around Merlin's elbow and pulled it in tight to his chest. "Fine. Definitely wrong."
"Thank you. I will remember that," said Merlin, twisting his arm and pulling Arthur's under his arm. "Now, answer my question."
"Yes. It is said that in Nubia, the days and nights are almost of equal length the year round."
"What about further south?"
"Hmmm. There was a Greek geographer, Ptolemy, who said that day and night were always the same in the land of the Mountains of the Moon. It is there in the middle of a vast inland sea that day and night meet as equals, and it is there that the world is divided North from South."
"Where are the Mountains of the Moon?"
"At the very beginning of the Nile River."
"And what happens beyond the Mountains of the Moon in the South of the world?"
"The seasons run opposite our own. When it is winter here, it is summer there. The celestial sphere shows stars that we can never see in the North. I would suppose that when our days are long in the North they are short in the South, and when they are long in the South they are short in the North. Certainly when it is summer, the sun moves lazy in its course compared to the winter, when it flies through the sky."
"Everyone knows the sun does not like the cold. But lately, it has not been moving at all. I was beginning to think the sun had forsaken us altogether, or died, until I saw it today. It's with us, still, in Camelot, but hidden."
"And if it is alive but hidden, then it is something of this world that is causing the darkness."
"And if it is something of this world, then we have a chance of righting it or defeating it."
"Exactly," said Arthur, yawning and settling down a little further under the blankets. A bit later he said, "I'm relieved to know it. Now, sleep."
Merlin gave a great yawn and leaned back until he was resting in Arthur's embrace. "Good night, Arthur."
"Good night," said Arthur, his lips pressed soft into Merlin's hair.
The sun dawned again, but Merlin was not awake to see it rise. None of them were. It was well on its way around the sky when the company woke. They ate a hasty breakfast of fish and made up their packs, and soon were off to the mountain.
"I estimate the distance to the peak at five leagues," said Arthur, and then pointed slightly right of the peak. "There is a watercourse that runs up the valley between the arms of the mountain there. Let's make toward the watercourse, and follow it up."
They trudged along, and it tired Merlin more than it ought, though it made sense once he realised he'd had very little physical activity sitting in a boat the past week. And also, they were hiking a steadily increasing slope. And the terrain grew less grassy and meadow-like and more rocky with outcroppings the higher they climbed.
"Arthur, can we rest here?" he said, finally.
Beside him, Pip muttered "Thank you!"
They rested and drank from the icy clean waters of the stream, soaking some of the cracker in it and supping it like soup. By mid-afternoon, they had climbed up into the arms of the mountain against a steadily increasing wind, the V of the pall solidly in front of them, and began to think about setting up camp.
They rounded an escarpment, and stopped cold: not a half mile in front of them stood a large, stone building with an area beside it fenced in stone. It seemed as though it were built half in the side of another escarpment. They were still too far away to determine if there were any people. But when they made their way to the meadow directly in front of the structure, it became clear that there was no one left: the structure had once been whole, but something had half buried it in rock.
They made their way to a door in the high fence, and went through. From inside the yard, they could see that the rock that buried half the building looked half melted, as though it were tallow poured down the side of the mountain and that had caught up on the side of the structure and cooled.
They left the yard, and climbed around to the front, which is where they saw above the great wooden door, a cross.
"A church?" asked Merlin.
"No," said Loarn. "It was a monastery. Look!" He pointed to the stone plinth beside the door, and there, laying beside the door, was a slender metal pike the height of a man with an large, circular emblem affixed to the top. "It's a crozier," said Loarn. "When the Papar came to Dalriata to set up the monastery in Argyll, they came with these, and with little iron bells. They would walk through the village on their way to the building site in the morning, and ring the little bells."
"Come on," said Arthur. Let's eat, then set up camp. There'll be plenty of opportunity to explore later."
Over supper, they discussed how they would ascend the mountain and reach the source of the pall.
"The peak is treacherous and there are no paths," said Kay. "We aren't equipped for such a climb."
"We should also be wary of the snow," said Loarn. "In the Highlands in the winter, one false step or a loud noise sets the snow sliding. Many good men have been buried alive, never to be seen again."
"There are caves," said Oilithir.
"Murchú and I were here once before, which is how we knew the way. We apprenticed on a merchant ship that came to explore new markets, twenty years ago this Roodmas past."
"It was cold, so early in the year," said Murchú. We made landfall about ten leagues east on a large tidal plain. There was no protection from the wind so we made our way to higher ground, where we took shelter in a cave."
"We spent some time exploring while the tanner repaired a hole in our hull," said Oilithir, and he and Murchú shared a nervous glance. "The mountains east of here are riddled with caves. They go back far into the mountains and cross one another many times. But we should warn you. Mostly, once you get far in, the temperature in the caves is chilly, but comfortable with a light cloak. There was one cave, though…"
"We'd followed it back almost half a mile, and for awhile it was cool like any other cave. But then the cave angled up a bit and we felt a warm breeze begin." Murchú took a deep breath and expelled it. "We thought we be approaching a different exit, and that the temperature had warmed that day. But then we saw a red light when we went around a bend, and the air became hot as it does inland in summer."
"Any normal summer." Oilithir snorted.
"We followed the light, and when we rounded the corner, the cave opened up into a great cavern. The floor of it glowed red and cast a searing heat, and… and it flowed. It flowed like a river in the mountains flows, fast, faster than a boat can run before a storm."
Murchú and Oilithir looked at each other again. "I don't mind admitting we were terrified. We ran all the way back to our starting point, and I prayed God the entire way that we might be spared. And He did, and that was an end to our explorations. We told our captain, but he was more concerned about reaching the Danes before summer so we could make it home before the autumn storms."
The company sat quiet and Merlin could almost hear Arthur thinking it through. He wasn't surprised when Arthur said, "As dangerous as it sounds, I think locating a cave to the inside of the mountain is our best option." He looked around at all of them. "But you are not required to accompany us, and there will be no stain upon your character should you choose to remain here. Is that understood?" he said, looking more closely at his knights than anyone else.
"That's settled then," said Arthur. "Let's set up camp, then rest early. Tomorrow will be tiring."
They raised their tents and lined the fire with a circle of stones. Then everyone went to the meadow below the monastery and lay about in the sun on the grass. The bright day shone brilliant and warm, and suffused Merlin with exhilaration and energy as though he were a flower turning in its day to face the sun. He flopped down next to Arthur in the sun-warmed grass and relished the green growing scent in the air. And the lack of insects! There were none of the blood-sucking flies whose stings left welts all over him whenever he found a moment to slip away to the pond to swim. He did miss their lazy buzz, which in this place was supplanted by the steady wail of the wind.
As wonderful as it was to sit shoulder to shoulder with Arthur, not talking, but definitely aware of him in a tugging, visceral way that was new and more welcome than he could ever have imagined, he just had to get up and move around.
"Come on, Arthur," he said. "Let's go look inside the monastery."
"I don't suppose we have to worry overmuch whether the structure is safe," said Arthur. "Or do we?"
"No," said Merlin, grinning, quite confident that he could catch falling rocks and put them back as easily as a pail of water in Gaius' chambers.
They made their way to the door in the fence and walked through the yard. There were some small stone sheds that proved to hold tools for planting and harvesting. But though they could see that beds had been laid out in stone, there was nothing more than grass growing in each one.
"Arthur, look!" said Merlin, bending down, and looking at a stone with a flat face that had been placed next to the door into the building. The face was carved with text, but the characters weren't cut deep and appeared to be put there in haste. "It's in Latin. 'Annals of Thule,'" he read.
Arthur crouched down for a look. "Year of our Lord five hundred ten month seven Thule attained. Year of our Lord five hundred ten month eleven died Crunathan son of Ceallachan head of mission. Post assumed Brendan son of Niall. Year of our Lord five hundred fourteen month nine blessed by God the Father Almighty achieved this monastery."
They looked up at the stones, the arched windows filled with rows and rows of square glass panes, the high stone wall and garden beds, then continued to read silently, side by side. But at the end, one hastily scratched entry, longer than the others, Arthur read aloud: "Year of our Lord five hundred twenty one month six this day the world did open and spill its fiery blood died all but seven who prepare to flee this day for Hibernia and home may God have mercy on our souls."
Merlin found his hand and squeezed, and whispered, "Oh, Arthur!"
"Shall we go in and see?"
"It may be a tomb."
They entered, and it took some moments for their eyes to adjust to the dim light indoors. The first thing they noticed was the billowy intrusion of rock that seemed to have eaten right through half the building and poured in, only to freeze in place halfway through. There were no remains of men that they could see. But as they crunched over the debris on the floor they saw that whoever remained had left in great haste. There were more croziers and dozens of little bells scattered over the floor. There were silver chalices and plates, and on a wall that had not seen damage hung a great cross.
They exited from the door they entered; the front doors were sealed and they couldn't get them open. Merlin paused in the yard to take one last look.
"It is a strange God that shows his mercy thus," said Arthur. "Coming?" He headed for the door in the wall.
Merlin turned to follow and his boot struck something that jingled. He looked down to find one of the Papar's bells. He picked it up; it made a forlorn and lonely sound, ting-ting, ting-ting in the unbroken lament of the wind.
Merlin dreamt. The mountain heaved and gushed out its life, ran down the mountain toward them, and Arthur was not there. He called out to him, he could hear him…
Calling, calling, but he couldn't find Arthur, couldn't find anyone, and in the end, he had to run…
Merlin woke with a start, breathing hard, and it took a moment before he realized he was safely wrapped under Arthur's arm in the twilight of their tent and the dream – the dream was—"
He gave a violent start, then held completely still and cast a terrified glance at Arthur, but Arthur didn't awaken. Merlin sucked in a breath to try and slow his racing heart. That voice – it wasn't any of the company's. It sounded like – but it couldn't be – it couldn't.
The Great Dragon?
Merlin eased out from under Arthur's arm and sat up, tucking the blankets back around Arthur's shoulders. If it was the dragon, then Arthur was in danger.
He dressed as quickly and quietly as he could and left the tent. He had to get to the dragon before it got to Arthur.
There was no direction to the sound, only the gravelly voice in his head. He had no idea where the Great Dragon might be, but a cave would be a logical place for it to make a home.
Merlin looked up; directly above, the dark V obscured the sky, but off to the sides, there were constellations of diamond-bright gems scattered across the celestial sphere. A puff of shadowed violet peeked above the horizon just west of south; the last breath of day lingering in the sky. And just to the east of south, glowing at the edge of the violet haze, rose the biggest moon Merlin had ever seen, pale and round, the face of the moon mother Arianrhod touching the horizon in a farewell kiss.
He stopped to take it all in, to breathe it, to bathe in it. He felt the power of the moon and stars as a benediction of his magic, never realising that he had missed them so much he wished he could pluck them out of the heavens and don them as a mantle, wear them as a crown.
He sighed and turned back up the hill, made his way to where the stream splashed hard in its course and followed it upward. The path steepened. He found himself testing the ground in the dim light as he'd done when they were marching out of Camelot, afraid he might twist his ankle, or tumble down the mountain and break his leg with such a little more to go. And he was close; he could almost taste the inevitable culmination of this months-long journey coming in the hours ahead, felt the relentless pull of destiny just as he did the first time he heard the dragon calling him. None of us can choose our destiny, Merlin, and none of us can escape it, the dragon had said, and in his bones, Merlin knew that to be true.
The boulders he passed grew bigger and more frequent the closer he came to the vast, solid wall of rock that sprang out of the top of the grassy valley. And then, he was there: the great, grooved wall looming above him, a darker presence against the dark pall in the sky. The stream issued forth from a crevice, in a fall of water about waist high. There was no way to follow it any longer; at least, no way Merlin was comfortable with. He was not the climber Arthur was. But he doubted even Arthur could climb through that powerful fall of water.
He followed the great wall around the top of the meadow, walking around the great vertical grooves that looked as though they had been gouged with the claws of a giant beast. He came upon a groove that ran deeper than any other he'd seen, and this one curved around out of sight before the wall came back. There was just enough width to touch each side with his outstretched arms, and so he climbed onto the rocky floor of the groove and followed the wall around the curve. The width narrowed until his shoulders brushed rock on either side. The way became difficult with the litter of little stones and rocks increasing under his feet until they were thick like a layer of gravel and crunched under his boots with each step. There was another sharp bend in the crevice. Merlin negotiated it turned sideways, and then discovered that even as the walls at his height widened quite a bit, just a little way above him, they leaned together, until, far above, they grew together as one. The little grotto he had discovered was the entrance to a cave.
He called forth a globe of light and asked it to show him a safe path, trusting the magic to lead him down the path to his destiny. The little ball of light bobbed into the opening, and Merlin followed.
The path twisted around itself, and crossed other dark passageways; there was the sound of water dripping, and the occasional whisper of air and plink of sliding pebbles that almost sounded as though there were others in the cave with him. At one point the ball of light led him toward a thundering noise that got louder and louder until it led him out of the cramped passage into a vast, black cavern. He heard the water rush from high above him and thunder far below him, echoing and amplifying in the vast, enclosed space, but he could not see anything beyond the mist and the narrow path the little ball of light illumined.
Beyond the cavern, the air began to warm. His stomach quaked with the memory of Murchú and Oilithir's story, but he continued on, following the light as it descended a steep, narrow passageway. The passage turned and opened out level, and Merlin's breath caught in his throat – there was the red glow. The ball of light led him to the entrance of another cavern, and stopped.
Merlin looked at it. "In there?" he asked, dreading the answer.
The ball dipped in the air, then disappeared. Merlin gulped.
Then he took a deep breath, and walked into the cavern.
The light was very bright, but when Merlin looked up, the ceiling was so high, he could barely make it out. There were great shelves of stone dotting the sides of the cavern, and areas that looked as though the stone had fountained up and frozen in place. At the far end of the cavern, there was a gap in the floor, and it was there that the light and a deep, bone-shaking rumbling was coming from. Beyond the gap, a great, grey wall tinged with the reflection of red wavered behind a wall of heat. He walked a little distance further in, dreading but desiring to see the scalding blood of the world. There was a great boulder towering at the edge of the gap and as he neared, the heat became unlike anything he had ever felt before. He moved into the lea of the boulder, to protect himself from the full force of the heat.
And then the boulder turned, and Merlin knew it for what it was.
Chapter 14: Light of Arthur - Chapter 13
"You are still so small, young warlock," said the dragon.
"And my gift still has a purpose," said Merlin, suddenly angry without knowing why, his heart beating high in his throat. "Was it my destiny to find you here?"
"And you knew this."
The dragon didn't answer. Merlin looked away, looked at the blood of the world, looked at the grey wall behind, which wavered and now had patches of black in it that moved upward with demonic speed. He followed the black patches upward with his eyes, and saw stars in them they flashed through the grey of the roof.
Which he realised wasn't a roof – and the grey was not a wall. It was the pall!
Command crashed through Merlin and flashed out his eyes: he lifted his head and spoke straight to the dragon's soul.
"Dragon!" Merlin thundered. "I told you once before, that if you ever harmed Camelot again that I would kill you!"
The dragon inclined his head.
"Camelot suffers the cold of winter and the dark of night even now because of you! There was no planting in the frozen soil! There will be no harvest! Camelot's people will starve! The whole of Albion will starve! Tell me now why you did this. Tell me now why I should spare you!"
The dragon crouched low and bowed his head. "That you might kill me, young warlock, is the risk I took to ensure your destiny of uniting Albion. But there is no need for you to kill me. In my desire to see Uther suffer, I have broken my vow to Arianrhod that no lasting harm should come to Camelot while ensuring its destiny. I shall die, young warlock, and soon. But not at your hand."
"Arianrhod!" The Moon Mother, the Lady who came to him and Arthur in the glade, who… spoke to them of their destiny, as the dragon had spoken so many times before. "What could make you break your vow to her?"
"Because I desired revenge," said the dragon. "I was charged with your destiny – yours and Arthur's – but then, young warlock, you sent me away. Yet that did not absolve me from my responsibilities. I chose this way of making you and Arthur grow together and become ready to assume the mantle of leadership and unite Albion both because I knew it would work and because I knew it would cause Uther agony."
Merlin looked at this creature cowering before him and for the first time knew pity for him. Here was one who was so damaged by Uther's betrayal that he broke. And how many had Merlin known over the years who had been broken by that man? So many – to know that the dragon succumbed to the fate of despising Uther like so many others before him made him understandable in a way Merlin had never thought possible before. Yet even broken, the dragon discharged his duty to Arthur and Merlin… or tried to….
"Do you think we're ready, then?" he asked. "With everything Arthur and I have gone through together to get to this place, I don't see how we can't be ready."
"Tell me, young warlock. What are your feelings about Prince Arthur? Once, you said, 'If anyone wants to go and kill him they can go ahead. In fact, I'll give them a hand'. Do you still feel the same way?"
Merlin remembered those words from so long ago -- from the first time he had ever spoken with the dragon. "No," he laughed.
And then he grew serious. "No. Not at all. Arthur is my everything. My all. My lord and king, my light, and I love him. I love him with all that I have, with everything that I am."
"Is that so," said the dragon. "And Arthur? Does he trust you as you trust him? Does he revere your love? But most important, young warlock, does he know of your magic?"
"I know of Merlin's sorcery," said a voice, directly behind Merlin. He whirled around and there – there behind him with his sword drawn, wearing nothing more protective than the breeches and unlaced tunic he'd fallen asleep in earlier that night, was Arthur.
"I know of it, and I guessed long before this day what it is for. I will strive every day until eternity to be worthy of Merlin's love and devotion, and I trust him with my life. This one and all the ones to come. Know this, dragon: if you hurt even one hair on Merlin's head, I will slay you where you sit."
"I am the last of my kind," said the dragon, "and Merlin is the last of his. He is the last dragon lord, and my kin. I would not see him go before his time."
And the last of Merlin's anger tumbled away into something intimately resembling shame.
"Then cease this pall," Arthur commanded. "Let the light return to Albion."
"It is clear to me, Arthur Pendragon, that while I have broken my vow to my maker, I have not completely failed in my duty to ensure your destiny," said the dragon. "You are both ready to assume the mantle of leadership and unite Albion. If my kin commands it," said the dragon, "I will make it stop."
Merlin reached inside himself and let the Command rush through him, and in the dragon tongue thundered, "Your duty to your destiny is fulfilled. This is my last command to you: release the pall!"
The dragon raised his wings and dipped his head to Merlin and said, "Goodbye, my brother." Merlin half-expected him to take off, but he did not – instead, he folded his wings and knelt down, his face between his paws, and said, "I am ready."
And then a mist descended in front of him, a mist that seemed familiar, glowing silver and twisting around itself, coalescing… and there before them stood Arianrhod, the Moon Mother, the Lady who came to them in the glade and joined them together in destiny.
Merlin felt Arthur take his hand and pull him to his knees beside him.
Then the goddess Arianrhod spoke to them all, and somehow her misty voice sounded clearly over the tumult of the blood of the world.
"We have come to the crux of change," said Arianrhod. "Never has the destiny of man gone unshepherded by dragons. Before mankind was made, I made the dragons; I made them on behalf of all the gods and goddesses, to be steadfast in the duty of guardianship, for as gods and goddesses we know ourselves to be capricious. The dragons were set to ensure the destiny of mankind, so that man would not fall into chaos and whither away in madness.
"And yet, aside from the great leaders of men, the provokers of great change and growth, the destinies of most do not require so much to ensure. This we did not understand about mankind when we made the dragons, for though we knew that man would soon arrive in the world, we knew nothing about them. But now we know this: that most of mankind seeks stability, seeks sameness in their days, and ease, and in so doing, their destinies do not exceed the bounds they have created in their lives.
"So while this experiment in guardianship has failed, we are not worried. Most of mankind will never sink into chaos and madness. Most will never know they are not guided in their moments. They will be free, and they will build their own paths and fences and be content with them. And if a time should come when they need guidance, the gods and goddesses they look to for guidance will judge them and give what help they will.
"And even though this experiment in guardianship has failed, we are not irrational in laying blame: it is not the dragons who are responsible for their failure.
"Arthur Pendragon, of all the great leaders of men, of all the provokers of change and growth, your father is adjudged most guilty and wrong among you, for he has killed off all but one of the shepherds of the destinies of men. He has brutally upset the order of the world, an order agreed upon by all the gods for the good of the world, before mankind was conceived. For twenty years he has endured the chaos of his choice. Even now, he begins to whither away in madness. Yet he has the audacity to look to one of us to guide him.
"I tell you that the god he has chosen is a punitive god."
Merlin looked at Arthur, and though he was trying to hide it, Merlin could tell by the working of Arthur's throat that he was shocked, and a bit out of his depth. Which made sense, thought Merlin, for Arthur was rarely if ever in a position of lesser power, in any encounter.
But as Merlin knew he would, Arthur pulled himself and tried to find the advantage in her words. He said, "Then if he chose, he could worship a god who is more steadfast and forgiving?"
"He may choose. But you must know that we have decided: none will help him. For his crime against mankind, he is forsaken."
The thought made Merlin sick. Uther – even now he must suspect that he is utterly alone… the thought of it terrified Merlin. For the first time since walking out of Camelot's courtyard, he wondered if there would be anything left when he returned.
"The rest of mankind – can we choose?" Merlin asked. "If we ask for it, will we find forgiveness and mercy?"
"You may choose, or not, as you will, and find anything you ask wherever you ask. We are gods. But in fact, it is a time of great change, such as many we have witnessed over the course of man's existence. Many think that they will find a steadfast and forgiving god if they follow certain rules and hold certain beliefs. Uther's new god is chief among laying claim to forgiveness and mercy, but I tell you both, that god is young and arrogant. For most of us, we are happy that you worship and you may worship whomever you choose, and need not forsake any. But Uther's God is not so magnanimous. Beware your return to Camelot.
"And now the time of dragons is at an end." She turned to Kilgharrah, and her voice became hard. "You dare come home to Caer Sidi where you were made after breaking your vow to me. Even when the world teamed with your brethren, you were the only one of my creations to break your vow.
"You are the last of my creations, and that you should be broken enrages me. Your time is at an end, and because your purpose has been taken up by those who wished you made, you have no purpose.
"And although you have helped ensure that these two men will meet their destiny well, you have done so at the cost of Camelot. This will make the destiny of that kingdom of men far more difficult to realise. Together, these two men before you will unite all Albion, but because you sought revenge, it will not last. Albion will fall, and it will fall in this lifetime. They were meant to rule in peace and prosperity. Instead, each generation there will be strife. Each generation, they will have to fight anew for an Albion united and at peace.
"For this great evil, and to fulfill your final command, you must know death. From the blood of the world you were created, and to the blood of the world you now shall go. Such is the nature of the Silver Wheel." She raised her arms.
"Wait!" cried Arthur. "You have said that this dragon is the guardian of our destiny. If you destroy the dragon, do you not then also destroy our destiny? By your words, it seems we will be counted among the great leaders of men and provokers of change. With this creature's demise, will you not be consigning us to chaos? Will we not also descend into madness?"
"You have already known my blessing, and it shall not fade," said Arianrhod. "You are the Once and Future King, Arthur Pendragon, and you are destined with Merlin to unite all Albion. Your destiny is fixed as the stars to the celestial sphere, and is eternal. Did I not already proclaim that to you myself?"
And then she turned back to the dragon and raised her arms once more, and said, "You are no longer."
The dragon reared up on its haunches and gave a heart-wrenching shriek, then broke apart; each part of him tumbled as a boulder into the blood of the world and was consumed, until there was nothing left of him.
Then, the blood of the world began to boil, and rise in its banks. Arthur stood in haste and pulled Merlin up beside him.
"You must leave Caer Sidi at once," said Arianrhod. "It is a magical realm, a realm of gods and goddesses. And though I rule here, I cannot keep you safe for long against the natural forces of my kin. This is not a place for mankind, and men cannot stay here for long and hope to live. Run, and do not stop."
And so they ran. Merlin cast a ball of light ahead of them as they pelted out of the cavern, and they raced as quickly as they could toward the light, through the twists and turns and inclines of the caves. Then the light grew bright, and Merlin realised they'd reached the grotto. They edged out of the crevice and ran flat out down the steep incline, bounding downward great distances with each step. Merlin's breath caught in his lungs, and still he ran on, Arthur a pace in front of him, and a short time later, they had raced their way straight into the camp.
Kay stood up from his breakfast. "Sire—"
"Get your packs and leave the tents!" shouted Arthur. He ran into the tent he shared with Merlin and began chucking blankets into their packs.
"But Arthur, we need the ten—"
"There isn't time!"
"Here, let me," said Merlin, shoving past him. He held out his hand and said, "Gadrian!" In a moment, everything loose had slithered into their packs.
"Is that how you do most of your chores?" asked Arthur, and Merlin was relieved to see that despite his worry, Arthur was still able to joke.
"Of course, Sire," he said, grinning, and they ran outside.
Arthur took one look up the valley and the smirk turned to fear. He shouted, "Move, move! "To the boats!" He ran past William, who was gathering the breakfast bowls and spoons into a sack, and said, "Leave it!" and pushed him toward the others, who were making their way downhill.
Merlin looked up the valley and choked back a scream. The blood of the world was running out of the mountain to meet them. He struggled into his pack. But there was probably still enough time—
"Arthur, take them with you down the hill."
"What? Merlin! What are you doing?" Merlin had never seen Arthur sound so panicked.
"We need the tents! We won't make it back to Camelot without shelter, Arthur, and you know it."
Arthur gave him a wild-eyed look and glanced down the hill to the company, who had taken off as soon as they had seen what was coming.
"Hurry," he implored, but he did not join the others.
Merlin let it go – they would do as they meant to go on, and an eternity together started now. He raised his arm and cast two spells, then ran with Arthur down the hill, the bundled tents floating obediently behind.
They didn't follow the stream this time, but cut a straight course toward where they stowed the boats. The meadow was short grass on smooth, packed soil, with the occasional boulder to make their way around. And though he was tired, he found the run exhilarating, with Arthur at his side. They ran flat out and caught up to the rest of the company who were going a little slower due to Kay's leg.
"Forgive me for this?" asked Merlin, and he didn't wait for a response, but raised his arm and cast the strongest healing spell he knew, now that it didn't matter any more if he were obvious about it.
"What? Merlin what did you – oh!" said Kay, picking up the pace "My debt of gratitude to you has just doubled!" he said, and clapped Merlin on the shoulder as he ran.
Arthur set a pace that even William could keep with, but that was fast – he was the youngest among them, but almost grown, and had the lithe energy of youth propelling him. The knights were in top form, and they could run for hours. And Merlin – well, there was much to be said for long, gangly legs. What took most of a day to ascend took exactly an hour to go down.
They reached the currachs on the edge of the black sand tidal flats and looked back up the hill. The blood of the world ran down the entire width of the valley. There was nothing left of the monastery and yard; their campsite was engulfed. The boulders they had passed on their way down were mostly gone. The valley was a hell of red and black, and the red continued to rush toward them.
"Merlin – are those our tents?" asked Pip, staring at the line of bundles in the air behind Merlin.
"We'll talk about that later," said Arthur, glaring at all of them. "Understood? Let's get the boats in the water. We have only a few minutes before it reaches us."
The job went much easier when Merlin had them stow their packs and get into the currachs. Then he raised them up with a command and set them gently down a safe distance out to sea, just as the blood of the world reached the shore and issued up a furious, great steam.
Although there wasn't any wind, Murchú and Oilithir raised the sails. The thin leather luffed gently as the current swept them out to sea. The company lay back and rested from their long run. Merlin lay down next to Arthur, and was surprised when Arthur pulled him into the crook of his arm. He rested his head on Arthur's shoulder, then reached up and held Arthur's hand in both his own, and rested them on his heart.
"Look!" he said, gazing upward. There was nothing to see but the bright, blue field of the sky. The sun angled down from the east, gently warm.
Chapter 15: Light of Arthur - Chapter 14
The journey back to Camelot ought to have gone much faster than the journey out, Merlin thought, given the sunny days of late summer and early autumn, the distinct and sublimely pleasurable lack of snow and ice, and a surprising and welcome dearth of insects. However, they were long guests in King Comgall's court, lauded and praised, hailed life-long friends, and they were burdened upon their departure with not only the gifts the King had given Merlin for saving his life, but the gifts the King had made to all of them for bringing back the light.
As they creaked along their journey with two additional heavily-laden carts, they found farmers frantically planting rye, in the hopes of a long, warm autumn and a harvest to stave off starvation that winter. Rye made a bitter bread, but it grew fast , and food was food, no matter how terrible it tasted. Even with their riches in tow, none of them were under any illusions about the frank possibility of hunger in the coming months. But it was difficult to focus on that, what with the beautiful, warm sunny weather that held for most of their journey, and with the easier ride, the timetable they discussed in the King's keep in Dalriata came to be, and they arrived in Camelot the evening of Samhain.
"Arthur," said Merlin, looking around in the dusk and beginning to feel uneasy as they rode together into the lower town, "there are no candles." Not that there weren't lights; people were at home, and their lamps and fires were lit, but there were no candles in the windows for Samhain; there were no lights to guide the spirits of their ancestors and loved ones home.
"I don't have a good feeling about this," said Arthur.
It was the same throughout the lower town. It was quiet in the deep dusk, and there wasn't much activity until they were spotted by the guard when they entered the courtyard. Then the bells rang out, and a scattering of the castle's occupants came out and stood on the steps. Across the way, the executioner's block stood big and bloody under the King's balcony.
Merlin gasped when the King finally came out to welcome them, the knights following behind, and he felt Arthur give a start at his side. The King looked wan and frail in the torchlight, but his eyes flashed with madness, and he leaned heavily on the arm of a man in long robes whom Merlin didn't recognise.
"Who is he," he whispered to Arthur.
"I don't know," said Arthur, and when Merlin looked at him, his face was blank in the way that Merlin understood he was hiding his feelings. "Be wary. Nothing about this feels right. Why are the people not cheering our return?"
Merlin looked at the rest of the company. The smiles were dying on their faces, and they were beginning to look as wary as Merlin felt. No one came forth from the crowd to help them dismount or care for their horses. No family came forward to claim their own in an embrace. And where were Gaius, Morgana and Gwen? None of them had emerged from the castle. Merlin looked to Morgana's window. There was light, but no one looked out. Merlin dismounted and went to assist Arthur.
"Father!" called Arthur, dismounting and handing the reins to Merlin. He took a few paces and stood straight and tall in front of the company as they dismounted, gleaming in the torchlight, every inch the Crown Prince of Camelot returned to his own. If the situation weren't as dire as it seemed, Merlin might have swooned from the combined effects of devotion and desire. "Over the course of our travels, we have solved the mystery of the cold and dark, and returned the light to the sky and the heat to the day. We come home—"
"Where is it?" interrupted the King, in a tone so fragile and papery and furious that Arthur actually recoiled from it.
But he quickly recovered. "Where is what, father?"
Merlin was acutely conscious of the castle's occupants on the steps, looking fearful and wary, and not making a sound.
"Where is the head, Arthur? Where is the head of that sorcerer, Loarn?"
"Did I not tell you that you and your merry band would return traitors did you not bring me his head?"
"Father, perhaps we should speak of this ind—"
"While you tarried, Arthur, you and your – your playfellows," spat Uther, "we eliminated the last sorcerers in the land. Loarn was the last threat to our sovereignty. Are you telling me, Arthur, that you let him live?"
Arthur was stunned to silence; when Merlin looked over, he could see Arthur's throat working. But before Arthur had time to prepare an answer, Uther screamed, "Knights, arrest them! Take them to the dungeons!" And then the guard was approaching.
Merlin quaked where he stood, as close to Arthur as he dared, and tried not to let Arthur know how hard his knees were knocking as Sir Leon approached, leading the knights.
"Sire, forgive me," he said, taking Arthur's sword and knives. And then in a lower voice, he said, "I will care for these as I would my own. We shall give you what aid we can. You need only ask."
As Arthur surrendered his blades, he said, "House the squires with their knights in the dungeon and leave us all our cloaks. Do not disobey the King, but send news of his plans if you cannot come yourself. Take care of our belongings in the carts yourselves. Store everything in my rooms and guard the door. Do not let anyone in."
"It shall be as you say, Sire," said Sir Leon.
"What news of the Kingdom?" asked Arthur quietly, as Sir Leon led the procession to the dungeons.
"Sire, there is great worry among the knights and the household. Since your departure the King has made it his mission to seek out anyone in the kingdom accused of sorcery and kill them. He – Sire – please understand I mean no treason," said Sir Leon, obviously troubled, "But he has not sought justice. He has simply killed them on suspicion. There – there have been over a hundred…"
Arthur looked at the executioner's block as they passed, and blanched. "That's one every day or two," he said. Merlin suddenly felt as though he were about to lose the contents of his stomach.
"Daily, at least, and often several a day," said Sir Leon. "The killings slowed a great deal after Maolciaran arrived."
"Who is that?" said Arthur, as they headed through the cellar doors and down the stairs.
"He is an Hibernian monk, Sire. A Christian from the monastery in Cluain Iraird."
"Is this the man who supports my father?" asked Arthur, and the tightness of his tone caused Merlin to look at him. Arthur's eyes were blazing.
"It is, Sire."
"What kind of a man is he?" Merlin could see that he was hoping for a man, a Christian, of King Comgall's kidney.
"He is liked, Sire," said Leon, guiding them through the cellars, "but people are wary. He speaks of the Christian god, and is here to persuade us to worship this god."
"And the King? Does he support this?"
They marched through the door at the end of the cellar and into the dungeons. Sir Leon sighed. "I should tell you the story in order, Sire, but let's get you set up."
Sir Leon lead Arthur and the company to the wing with the driest, warmest cells and saw that they were settled as comfortably as possible. He requested the guards send for fresh reeds and food, "Decent food, mind! This is for the Crown Prince, and knights of the realm!" and then sat down with Arthur and Merlin inside their cell to tell them the tale.
"The light came back to us almost two fortnights after Alban Heruin, Sire. But on its Eve, Bedivere and Gareth brought back a prisoner, captured on the border of South Pennines during patrol. He was travelling alone with a servant, who has since taken ill and died. This man was brought before the King and told to state his business in Camelot.
"The man barely spoke English, Sire, but he managed to get across to the King that his name was Maolciaran and that he was a monk from the monastery school at Cluain Iraird, and that he was travelling all Albion to spread the good news that Jesus Christ was risen from the dead and sits now with God the Father in heaven, and that because of this, we are saved from our sins.
"He went on in that vein for a bit, and as you might imagine, Sire, the King seemed not to think much of this man until he said that his god did not tolerate witches. The King sat up at that, and questioned the monk most thoroughly about it. And the next thing we know, he's given the man a room and a personal audience with the King and his advisors for the next day.
"It wasn't long after that that most of the killings stopped, though I don't know if it's because the dungeons were emptied of sorcerers by that time or because this Maolciaran suggested it wasn't right to kill like that. He's been saying much like that; show compassion, turn the other cheek. It's most unnatural.
"But the worst thing, Sire, is that he's gone and converted Uther, and Uther expected us all to convert with him. We weren't to celebrate Samhain, Sire. If we caught candles in the windows or the bone fires burning during patrol tonight, we were to give lashes."
"What of the people? Are they rising up?"
"Not yet, Sire. They're angry and scared," he said, shifting to find a more comfortable position on the stone floor of the cell. "Everyone in the lower town's lost someone to Uther's purges and some of them have lost many. No one dared protest for fear of being taken next. And now he's taking more of what's familiar away from them. People are unhappy, and they might be unhappy enough to rise up against the King, if things get any worse.
"But they're also scared of what's going to happen to them this winter, too, and because of that they don't want to upset things too much. I think they recognise that it'll take leadership to get through this winter, even if it's mad leadership. The order went out to plant rye as soon as the light came back into the sky, and just yesterday, Uther decreed that anyone who would come to the Great Hall and convert in front of the court would receive seven measures of grain from the stores and a chicken."
Arthur laughed, a sour thing. "And is it working? Are there converts?"
"Only a few of the poorest, Sire. Those who had nothing. The rest – well, people know a bribe when they see one."
Merlin secretly felt proud of the people of Camelot. Arthur must have felt the same, because he was smirking.
"What I don't understand," said Arthur, standing up and pacing the length of the cell, "Is how this monk was able to get so much influence. The King was doing a fine job ridding the kingdom of sorcerers on his own. What made him decide to listen to this monk?"
"Sire, it wasn't long after this monk appeared that he began speaking about miracles of god, and about how all things were possible if only we believed and were faithful to this god. Well, as you can imagine, that's when Uther started his campaign to convert people. The poor who came into the court to beg for assistance. Uther gave them help, like I explained, if they converted. Well, a good twenty of them had come through, and were praying daily with King Uther and the monk in the morning and then one morning, we woke to the sun shining.
"Well, the monk proclaimed it a miracle of god, and that's what really got Uther believing. He'd seemed happy to go along with it, before, saying prayers daily for an end to sorcery in Camelot on the chance that it would work, but I don't think he was truly convinced until the return of the light. That same night he announced a feast and at the feast declared that sorcery was finally defeated in Camelot." Sir Leon, looked up at Arthur, still pacing the cell. "Perhaps that is why he was so angry when you returned. You didn't have Loarn's head, so he thinks there's still a sorcerer loose. Someone who can threaten the light and his authority."
"You're likely right," said Arthur. He stopped pacing and leaned against the bars of the dungeon cell. "You have given us much to think on, Leon. Please come or send word on the morrow the King's intentions for us."
"That I will, and gladly. We – none of us wants to commit treason, Sire. We won't consider it. But we do understand that it would also be treason not to protect the Crown Prince. We will do what we can."
"Leon – thank you."
"Goodnight, Sire," said Sir Leon, and he left the chamber as the guards escorted the kitchen maids with their platters and the steward's men with large rakes and fresh rushes.
This may have been the twelfth time Arthur was taken to talk to the King; Merlin had lost count, but he'd disappear for a few hours once or twice a week. Every time Arthur came back, he looked a little less hopeful and a little more unhappy. Daily, it seemed, as the weather got colder and the light drew down earlier and earlier in the evening, Arthur sank in Uther's regard, until it was as low as Merlin had only known it to be once before.
"I'm worried he's going to strip you of your crown," said Merlin about seven weeks after they were gaoled, when Arthur came back that evening looking even more worn than usual.
"Sir Leon thinks so, too. I expect he'll tell me as much when he comes tonight," said Arthur.
But Sir Leon did not show up that evening, as he usually did, kitchen maid in tow with supper and the latest news from the counsels of the King. Merlin kept his eye on Arthur, and it was only the continual clench of his jaw that told Merlin that Arthur was worried.
"It's as though he doesn't hear the words I speak," said Arthur, finally, pacing the cell. "I have told him the tale of our journey, the truth of it must be obvious to him. Does he not know me? But Merlin," and Merlin sees the pain and confusion writ large on Arthur's face, "he believes nothing but that the story of our journey is apocryphal. We know why the light came back. We saw Arianrhod. Twice she was with us, Merlin, and still he will not listen. He said to me, 'there are no other gods before God the Father,' and accused me of idolatry. I wouldn't listen, and then he told me that there was only one god capable of miracles, and that is the god who brought back the light." Arthur sat down next to Merlin, disgusted, picked a piece of cheese off his plate and began to eat.
Merlin watched him quietly for awhile, not knowing what to say to comfort Arthur. What words could help, anyway? Short of a miracle of their own, there was nothing. But that didn't stop him from speaking his mind.
"Arthur, next time you see him, you should tell him this Jesus was a sorcerer. Then maybe he will listen to you."
Arthur pulled himself up from where he slumped against the wall and asked, "How do you reckon that?"
"Because what kind of god demands that we can only be saved through belief and faith, yet makes all that unnecessary by performing miracles?" said Merlin. "Those things Jesus did. Only a sorcerer has those powers."
"I don't understand," said Arthur.
Merlin, who had had a great deal of time to think this over when he was sick in the cart, said, "Performing miracles invalidates the idea of faith. If faith in that god is what's supposed to give us everything we need, then the god provides a miracle, it makes a fool of the believer, doesn't it? Or a vassal. Jesus wanted followers, and faith wasn't going to keep them with him, was it? But if he healed the lame and made the blind see, if he stretched the bread and fish to feed the multitudes, then the only power I understand that can do that is sorcery. Uther of all people should see his acts as that of a sorcerer trying to steal the hearts of the people away. And so I don't understand why Uther would be willing to cede power like that, even if he did somehow believe it to be that of a god?"
"Merlin, it is in the nature of gods to be greater than man."
"Fine. I suppose – I'm not explaining myself well. But you're right. I just… it doesn't sit right, being at the mercy of someone – something else."
"But the Lady…" said Arthur, sounding a little apprehensive, "what about – our destiny?" Arthur took Merlin's hands and pulled him up, then wrapped his arms around him. "You don't resent that she fixed our destiny, do you?"
"Of course not, Arthur!" He stared into Arthur's eyes, willing him to see the truth in his words. "I'm yours, you're mine, by destiny, but more important, by choice. I want nothing else than that we're together for all eternity. That my destiny is fixed with yours is nothing more than what I've wanted since almost the first day I met you. And I know you feel the same."
He ran his hands up Arthur's chest and wrapped them around his neck. "I mean, it doesn't sit right that Uther could make that kind of choice."
Arthur pulled Merlin close and whispered in his hair, "He's desperate. More desperate every time I speak with him. Merlin – he's not himself any more. It's as Arianrhod said: he's been consumed by madness."
"Oh, Arthur – I'm sorry." Merlin slid his arms down and wormed them under Arthur's, under the warmth of his cloak and tunic, and up the broad, strong plains of his back, buried his nose in Arthur's neck and breathed him in. Arthur held on and breathed in and out against Merlin's temple, held him close and tight and warm against him. He had lost his father after only a short time of knowing him, and his loss had been quick. It still hurt; he couldn't imagine what it must be like for Arthur, having known his father his entire life, been the focus of his father's eye for longer than Merlin had been alive. How he must be hurting….
He ran his hands further up to Arthur's back until his hands hooked around his shoulders, and pulled him down onto the cot they shared. Sir Leon made sure they were as comfortable as they could be; the cot had a hay mattress much like the one on Merlin's bed in Gaius' chambers, and they had blankets. Arthur didn't complain, though he must miss the layers and layers of feathers in his bed. And Merlin missed his beautiful pillow and quilt from King Comgall, and regretted having only had the use of it the month they were guests in his court. They had been too precious for Merlin to risk in their tent on their journey home.
"It's OK, Arthur. It'll be OK," said Merlin, and he carefully arranged their cloaks over them, and in the privacy underneath, tucked into Arthur's arm at his side, he ran his hand from Arthur's shoulder down his chest and over the front of his breeches in one long sweep, then back up, resting his fingers on the nubs of Arthur's nipples just beginning to peak under his tunic.
"Mmmmmm," Arthur groaned into Merlin's hair, turning toward him just enough to sling his free arm around Merlin's waist. Merlin ran his hand down Arthur's front and discovered that even in his upset, in his worry and bitter sadness, Arthur responded to Merlin's touch the way they both responded to the breaking light of day, as if they'd earned it, as if they owned a measure of it for themselves.
"Merlin," said Arthur, on an exhale, and Merlin felt Arthur's lips mouthing at his forehead and kissing the fine hairs there. "I love you," he whispered, "I love you, I love you…"
"I love you, too, Arthur," said Merlin, pulling his hand out from between them and running his hands over Arthur's arse and pulling them tight together. He felt the seriousness of Arthur's ardour match and throb against his own, and he held them there, tight, balancing on the brink of each other, ready to take hands and jump, lose themselves in each other once again as they had done so many times since they were joined. "No matter what happens, we will be all right. I promise you."
"As do I promise you," said Arthur, and he pulled Merlin even tighter to him. Crushed safe in his embrace, Merlin pressed his hips forward, and let the delicious rub of their lengths remove him from the worry of the days behind and ahead, and let him rest in the delicious present, the present that knew nothing more but the warmth and scent and strength of Arthur pushing into him and reassuring him with his insistent presence that Merlin was exactly where he was needed and wanted, and where he needed and wanted to be.
They moved together, the only sounds between them the creak of the cot and the breathy groans dragged out of them like the rub of the bard's fingers on the strings of his lute, until the heat between them blossomed in sweat and the sweet, sticky comfort of their release. And in the dying-down that followed, Merlin raised his mouth to Arthur's and opened it with his own, gave him his tongue and his breath, the gifts that beggars gave as well and as generously as kings, and for a time they were one in this way, too.
And when Merlin felt that he had given all the comfort and reassurance he had to offer and taken his fair measure in return, he rolled back from Arthur and his eyes flashed gold, and the damp discomfort of their breeches became clean and dry. Arthur rolled onto his back and Merlin sat up and reached for the ewer of water and the cup, poured out, and drank the cool water down. He turned to Arthur to offer him a cup, only to find him frowning in thought.
"How can we prevail against this god?" asked Arthur, turning onto his side to look at Merlin, and Merlin understood it to be the question of a tactician, not of a philosopher.
Merlin looked at the ewer of water in his hand, then put the cup down, held his hand over the ewer and his eyes flashed gold. He lifted the cup and poured out, and offered the cup to Arthur.
Arthur shuddered at the first sip, then drank down the entire cup, and when he lowered the cup, ruby wine stained his lips. He looked at Merlin in wonder, and a slow smile spread over his face, the implications of Merlin's actions unfolding, so that Merlin knew that Arthur understood what he was trying to say.
And Arthur did understand; eventually, he answered that singular bit of magic with three words that threatened to take the strength out of Merlin, cause him to open irreparably in front of Arthur for the taking: "You save me."
Merlin took the cup from him, put everything aside, and leaned down to kiss the ruby wine from Arthur's lips. Some unmeasured time later, after they had discovered anew the joy of wine-filled kisses, Merlin said, "You should finish your food, Arthur. It's scarce, and they give us much."
"I may actually have an appetite for it," said Arthur, smirking at Merlin and taking the plate. He lifted the bread and Merlin saw a flash of white underneath.
"What's this?" Merlin said, pulling it off the plate, and he tipped it toward the torchlight spilling in from the corridor. "It's a message!" he whispered.
Arthur leapt off the cot and leaned in over Merlin's shoulder. "It's Leon's hand," he said, whispering in Merlin's ear. "What does it say?"
Arthur stayed right where he was, warm against Merlin's back as Merlin read, 'King decreed executions for all at dawn tomorrow; knights on vigil. Prepare for rescue at the striking of the second bell. We will not see your departure.' Merlin twisted his neck around and whispered in Arthur's ear, "What does that mean, that they will not see?"
Arthur wrapped his arms around Merlin's waist and put his lips to his ear. "It means they will not be present so they cannot be accused of treason. If they saw our escape, they would be duty bound to report it to the King or suffer punishment."
"If none of them plan on committing treason, who are they going to send to break us out?"
"We'll find out later. For now, let's pass the word."
Merlin, for as nervous as he was about their impending escape, managed to doze off several times as he lay wrapped around Arthur in the dark, waiting for the second bell. So it came as a bit of a surprise to wake finding Arthur leaping over him off the cot like a cat, but he woke thoroughly and completely. They both had their cloaks on, as they did all the time now in the December chill, so there was nothing else to prepare except stuffing rushes under their blankets on the cot as they had agreed to do, to make it look as though they were still there. The key clanked quietly in the lock and Merlin was very startled indeed to see Lancelot at the door. They smiled at each other in that brief moment as the door swung open, but they were as quiet as they could be as he locked the door behind them and stopped at the other dungeon doors to let the company out.
Lancelot spoke in hand signals to Arthur and the knights, and since Merlin had no idea what all the arm waving meant, he stuck close to Arthur as Lancelot lead them out past the sleeping guards. Through the cellar doors and the maze of cellar tunnels they went, then up the stairs to the courtyard door, where they waited, barely daring to breath, until the second bell struck, signalling the change of the guards. At the first peal, they were running through the door, as swiftly and quietly as they could go across the cobbled stones, racing under the edge of the tower and over the moat bridge, then through the bushes and down the embankment under the bridge to the edge of the moat.
There, Lancelot picked up a handful of the thick, oily mud and daubed it all over his face and hands until only his eyes shone in the faint light of the torches high above. Looking around, Merlin could see their clothes were sufficiently dark, but even though Arthur's face was well covered, his hair stood out like gleaming gold. He took up a handful of the mud and began to rub it in, until Arthur gave him a murderous look. Merlin raised his eyebrows and shrugged, and Arthur rolled his eyes but let Merlin continue, and soon the whole company blended in eerily well with the night.
They emerged from under the bridge but stayed off the road, walking as silently as possible through the tall grasses until they reached the edge of the forest. Here, Arthur stopped Lancelot with a touch on his arm, and the company gathered 'round.
"Well met, Lancelot!" he said, and looked around at the company. "We thank you."
"I am glad that I could help you, your Majesty," said Lancelot. "There is a camp in the glade about a quarter mile in. There are tents ready and a proper welcome with a hot meal. Let's talk there, away from prying eyes and ears."
They made their way to the camp and Merlin stopped in his tracks.
"Gwen! Gaius!" He brushed past Arthur and without any shame at all, gave Gwen a brief hug, then wrapped his arms around Gaius and said, "I wasn't sure I'd ever see you again."
"Oh, my dear boy. You can't think we'd leave you there to rot, do you?"
"And you didn't visit once," said Merlin, finally releasing him, and sitting down next to him on a camp stool.
"Not for lack of trying, mind," said Gaius. "The King was quite clear: no visitors."
"But Leon came, almost every day," said Merlin.
"I expect that was Uther's doing, wanting reports. But my dear boy, how are you doing? You're not suffering any ailments or anything, are you?"
"Not at all. But you should know…" and here, Merlin trailed off, not quite knowing how to breach the subject with his friend, his mentor – his family, really, who had taken such good care of Merlin's secret, better care than he had himself. He took a great breath and let it out. "Arthur knows," he said, quietly. "The whole company do. But don't worry!" said Merlin, seeing Gaius blanch. "To a man, they feel indebted to me. I saved their lives, all of them, at least once. Arthur has asked them to remember that and bide their time."
Gaius let out an explosive breath. "I can only hope that their word holds," he said. "This is a most dangerous time."
"I've been very careful," said Merlin. "I've only used it when the choice has been that, or death."
"Then you've grown wise in your travels, haven't you?" Gaius smiled, rising. "Here, you can pass around the hot water. And Merlin, don't forget to wash the mud from behind your ears."
After a hasty wash of hands and face, the company found seats around the fire. Merlin crowded close to Arthur on a short length of log. Others found camp stools and stumps, and upturned logs that had yet to be split into firewood. Gwen passed around bowls of thick rabbit stew, then sat down close to Lancelot with a touch on his arm, and a smile. It made Merlin nothing but happy to see them together, and Arthur must have felt the same way; Merlin couldn't feel an ounce of tension in him anywhere, and after all this time, he was an expert in reading Arthur's hidden feelings.
And really, he couldn't feel any tension at all, which didn't make sense to Merlin. For surely, escape was a direct challenge to the King's authority? Merlin remembered Arthur saying, long before they left on their quest, that he was not yet ready to challenge his father's authority and become King.
"Arthur," he said, after he finished his last bite of stew and set the bowl aside, "Has it changed, then, since the Spring. Are you ready to challenge your father?"
Arthur stared intently into his bowl, scraping the last of the stew from the edges onto his spoon. "I believe it has come to that, yes."
"Before – you said you weren't ready for it. Not that much time has passed since then."
"No. But circumstances have changed," said Arthur. And while Merlin thought about that, he realized the company had gone silent and were listening to their conversation. "My father was still a strong ruler when we left. He was not yet mad, or mad enough to have it affect the decisions he made as King. That is no longer the case."
"Sire, the King – he is not well," said Gwen, looking anxious. And Merlin could read in her gaze what it was she was really trying to say: would you challenge a man who is no longer your equal to a fight?
Arthur smiled, and Merlin knew two things: that Arthur understood what it was that Gwen was really saying, and that Arthur really had let go of his feelings for her completely, to the point he could be happy for her and even be friends. "I will not challenge him at sword point," he said. "But I will challenge him with words in front of the people of Camelot, its knights, and its courtiers. I will expose his madness for all to see, and if I am certain that I have the support of the people, I will claim the kingship for my own."
"But what of Uther?"
"I will see to it that he's cared for the best he can be until he succumbs to the madness," said Arthur. And Merlin, hearing the unspoken pain behind Arthur's words, took Arthur's hand in his own and squeezed.
"What if you do not have the support of the people?" asked Merlin, anxious that this might not work out.
"Haven't you been listening to Sir Leon when he visits?" asked Arthur. "I trust that he knows what he says when he reports that the people resent the way the King has treated us, and that they are not comfortable with his decree that all should convert to Christianity. I trust him when he says I have the sympathy of my father's knights and that they are loath to commit treason against Camelot but that they would follow me."
"You have all that and more, my Lord," said Lancelot. "The knights are with you to a man, I am certain of it."
"And you have the support of almost everyone in the lower town," said Gwen.
"And your father's court are with you," said a new voice, and a plain-cloaked figure stepped in into the circle of light and threw back her hood.
"Morgana," said Arthur, breaking into a smile, and rising and crossing to her.
She threw her arms around him and said, "Welcome home, brother."
Arthur held her at arms length, and his genuine, bright smile dissolved into a smirk. "You must have missed me a great deal if you're calling me brother."
"I missed you so much," said Morgana sweetly but with a dangerous flash in her eye, "that I am going to ignore your blatant attempt to rile me."
Gwen pulled up a camp stool for Morgana and gave her a bowl of the hot rabbit stew, then sat down. "My lady—"
"Next time you leave on an adventure, Gwen, and don't ask me along," Morgana interrupted, "I may be so desolate that I forget your sword." She cast aside her cloak to show not one but two swords dangling from her belt.
Gwen had the grace to smile, even though it was apparent that she was extremely embarrassed, and Lancelot laughed and said, "I told you, you should have invited her."
"So what do we do, then?" asked Merlin, looking at Arthur.
Arthur looked around the circle, catching everyone's eye. "Tomorrow morning, we go and face the King."
Chapter 16: Light of Arthur - Chapter 15
The next day dawned bright and chill, but by the time they mounted the horses Lancelot had gathered for them all, the sun was shining bright and there was no wind, so the ride was not uncomfortable.
"The courtiers will all be awake," said Morgana. "Apparently your execution is a big deal."
"The knights as well," said Lancelot.
"The townspeople are aware that Uther intends to execute you, Sire," said Gwen. "They know of your imprisonment. If they see you riding at the front, they will follow and offer their support."
And so it was that Merlin, riding at Arthur's right, looked back as they entered the courtyard and found almost all of the people from the lower town following along behind. The courtyard was filled by the time they approached the steps and dismounted.
They didn't have long to wait before Uther came out, even thinner than the last time Merlin had seen him, his remaining hair white and his eyes burnt coals in his head, leaning on Maolciaran and followed by the knights and courtiers. Merlin saw Sir Leon give the slightest nod in their direction, and he watched Arthur give a slow blink in response. Arthur took a step forward.
"There is treason in the air!" said Uther, his voice frail but full of venom. "Treason or sorcery. How is it that you escaped? Tell me!"
Arthur stood silent, and Merlin could tell by the way Arthur kept swallowing that it cost him a great deal to stand and say nothing.
"Are these knights yours? Or perhaps you have a sorcerer among you?" asked Uther, shaking off Maolciaran and descending the stairs.
"Tell me, Arthur, which is it? Did you have a hand in your escape? Tell me you are just a pawn, rescued and brought before me against your will." Uther's hand strayed to the pommel of his sword, and he reached the bottom of the stairs.
"Father – my liege – I do not wish to fight you. I wish only for you to see reason."
"Reason?" Uther screamed. "There is no reason in sorcery! There is no logic in treason!"
"You disobeyed a direct order, Arthur," continued the King, marching ever closer, "and now we have sorcery in the kingdom once again, after I had scoured it away, you let it in, Arthur, and you let it help you escape."
"How did I let it in, father? Who is the sorcerer among us?" asked Arthur. "To a man, we are, as ever, good and loyal to Camelot," said Arthur, and Merlin could tell he was choosing his words carefully. "And as I have tried to tell you many times, father, I saw who brought the light back to Camelot, to all of Albion. I know who took the light away in the first place. It was not the fault of Loarn. It was the Great Dragon!"
Gasps went up around them; most present had not been privy to the private conversations between Arthur and Uther, and those who had must have stayed silent. Merlin looked wildly around, but it was obvious the sentiment of the people lay with Arthur.
"And again, I tell you, you lie," said Uther, coming closer. The townspeople who had filled in around them backed far away, giving the King a wide berth. "It was prayer and belief in our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ that saved us. It was a miracle of God! The same God who rid this kingdom once and for all of sorcerers and their ilk. But you, Arthur, you are the devil. You have brought that evil back into my kingdom, and for that you will pay." He drew his sword; Merlin, knowing where his strengths lay (and didn't), touched Arthur's arm in support, and retreated to stand with the others behind them.
But Arthur did not draw his sword. "Father," he said calmly, but loudly enough for everyone to hear, "I know what madness has come to—"
"Madness?" Screamed Uther, enraged. "Madness? It is madness to call your treasonous ways truth! It is madness to open the door to sorcery once again! It is the defiance of a child to insist that your lies are truth, when you are so clearly guilty, Arthur. You cannot be allowed to continue," said the King, raising his sword and lurching forward with the clear intent to engage.
And still Arthur did not draw his sword.
"If you will not stay imprisoned until you see the error of your ways and apologize to me, if you will not renounce the ways of the Old Religion and pray with me daily to the Lord that sorcery be forever ended in Camelot, then you must die!"
Uther took another lurching step forward and swung his sword.
Before Merlin had the chance to do anything with his magic, Arthur had drawn his sword and deflected his father's blade. Merlin watched, terrified.
"Father, please – do not fight me. I have no wish to fight you. I only wish you to see reason, to see the damage you are causing this kingdom and your people. Please—"
But Arthur's words enraged the King. He ran at Arthur, sword raised, and just as he began to swing the sword down, his boot caught tight between the cobbles and he fell forward, fell fast, and before Arthur could move his sword, Uther had impaled himself on it.
There was a vast silence, and into it a terrible cry, and then Arthur was on his knees easing his father to the ground and onto his back, and as Merlin ran up and fell to his knees beside Arthur, it looked as though Arthur's sword had pinned Uther to the ground.
"Father! Father!" cried Arthur, and it devastated Merlin to see him so broken, with nothing he could do to help.
Uther was not dead yet; still, he breathed, but there was a trickle of blood down the corner of his mouth. He looked at Arthur, confused, and seemed to see him clearly for the first time since they left on their quest. "Arthur? What—"
"Father!" Arthur's head bowed and tears that Merlin had never seen before in his Prince's eyes rolled freely down his cheeks. "Why?" he asked. "Why?"
Uther's gaze held a lifetime of pain and regret, something Merlin had never before seen in the King's eyes. "I have done you great wrong," he gasped.
"Father," cried Arthur, recognising the clarity of thought that came just before death. Merlin ached with Arthur's pain, and he dashed his hands across his eyes to rid them of his own tears.
"Arthur—" the King coughed weakly and the trickle of blood at the corner of his mouth increased. "Arthur – be a better king than I."
A spasm took his lungs, and the cough brought the blood gushing, and then Uther stopped.
There was a wrenching wail. Arthur fell up on his father's body, sobbing, as a murmur took up among the crowd, became a cry of alarm, a shout. Merlin, through his tears, recognised Arthur couldn't stay where he was. He grabbed Arthur's arm and pulled, but could not move him.
"Arthur," he tugged. "Arthur! Please – we can't stay here. Please – there will be time for tears later, I promise you," said Merlin, knowing very well that fathers were worth them.
And then two shadows descended upon them, and Sir Leon and Sir Kay bent down to help Merlin and Arthur to their feet. Merlin wrenched off his neckerchief and hastily cleaned Arthur's face, watched him gather his expression into something he could hold together, and ascended the stairs with him. He stood off to the side as Leon and Kay turned him around, and Leon shouted across the crowd, "Behold! Behold!" he raised Arthur's arm, and silence descended upon the courtyard. Merlin watched, proud and grateful beyond words, as Leon proclaimed, "Behold Arthur Pendragon! King of Camelot!"
Chapter 17: Light of Arthur - Epilogue
The crowning ceremony took place on Alban Arthan. Merlin stood near in the new outfit Arthur had insisted the tailor have prepared for today; a voluminous velvet robe in Pendragon red with the Pendragon crest emblazoned on his chest. Thankfully, there was no hat. However, Merlin's face heated until it prickled when he discovered that the only way his robes differed from Arthur's coronation robes was that they were not lined in ermine, but in fox.
The ceremony was brief, but he kept looking for the faces of the company and of Gaius, Morgana, Gwen and Lancelot in the crowd and smiling at them so much that by the end of it, his face was hurting. And the moment Arthur was crowned, to the thunderous applause of the hundreds of Camelot's people who came to see her beloved Prince come into his own, he made three decrees:
"Henceforth from this day, let it be known across all Albion that sorcery is welcome in the kingdom of Camelot. The intent of man, the destiny of man, is adjudged by the gods," he continued, casting a glance at Merlin, who could do nothing but smile back; he was sure his face was luminous. "Sorcery and the practice of magic is not evil, though there may be evil men who wield the power of magic. Just as there are men good and true who wield that power in the selfless aid of others." He looked at Merlin again, who was overwhelmed in that moment with love for this man, his King, his life, and he could barely breathe as Arthur smiled at him before turning back to the people in the hall.
"Lancelot du Lac, step forward."
Lancelot, surprised but unafraid, removed himself from Gwen's side and came to stand in front of Arthur.
"This day let it be known this day across all Albion that no good man who wishes to serve the King of Camelot and who has the skill and the honour to serve with dignity and faithfulness shall be turned away for lack of noble blood. Lancelot du Lac, are you ready to take up the livery of Camelot?
"I am, Sire."
Lancelot, eyes shining, knelt and drew his sword, and presented it hilt first to Arthur, who took it and laid it upon Lancelot's shoulder. "I declare you this day Sir Lancelot du Lac, knight of the realm of Camelot. Go henceforth and perform your duty with honour in support of your kingdom and your King." And when Lancelot rose, such a cheer went up as Merlin had never before heard in that hall.
When the cheering died down, Arthur looked once more at Merlin and said, "Merlin, son of Hunith, approach and stand at my left side."
Immediately a murmur rose from the people, and there was much shuffling around so that everyone could get a better view. Merlin wasn't sure what Arthur intended, but as he approached – could he dare hope that he understood what Arthur was about to do?
Somehow he reached Arthur's side, and Arthur turned them so they faced each other, and took both his hands in his own. "I, Arthur Pendragon, would take Merlin, son of Hunith as my consort, this day and forever more until the end of all time. Merlin, this I pledge to you: as you have given me every moment of every day, I give to you all I have and all I am in this world. Just as my soul is twined with yours for all eternity, let our lives twine in faith and family and love, until in death we race forward to meet one another again in the next life.
"Merlin, son of Hunith, will you stand by my side? Will you live and love with me? Will you rule with me until the end of all our days?"
Oh, Arthur. For the first time since Arthur called him forward, Merlin unfroze; he shut his eyes and took a deep breath, then opened them. "I will," he responded, and gods, he really was a girl, because there was no way he could stop the tears of joy running down his face.
Arthur raised the corner of his mouth in the barest smirk, then turned them both to face the crowd. "Bring forth the crown of the royal consort!" he called, and there was Gaius coming forward with a wooden casket opened to a bed of red velveteen, atop which rested a thin, jewelled circlet.
"Your Majesty," said Gaius, presenting the casket to Arthur and smiling at Merlin like the proudest father. Arthur took the circlet and said, "Kneel." Merlin found his knees, and the circlet was placed upon his head. It was heavier than he would have thought, but it fitted comfortably, and didn't feel as though it would easily slip off.
"Merlin, son of Hunith, named this day Consort to the King and henceforth known as Prince Merlin, rise," said Arthur, taking both of Merlin's hands in his own and pulling him to his feet. They turned to the crowd. "Let it be known this day across all Albion that I, King Arthur Pendragon and Prince Merlin do take one another into our hearts and declare each other home. Whom the gods have joined, no one can put asunder. I declare to you this day that we are one!"
And as the crowd gasped and exclaimed and cheered, Arthur leaned in and took Merlin's mouth in a kiss that held all the familiar and breathtaking promise of eternity.
Uther lay in state until Arthur was crowned; the day after the celebration of their crownings and marriage and Lancelot's knighting, they climbed the hill to the base of the giant, spreading oak at the top, and laid Uther in the grave next to Arthur's mother Ygraine. Maolciaran said a Christian prayer over him, and Arthur let him. Uther's choices were Uther's to make, and he would not take that away from him, even in death, even if the gods had forsaken him.
"But you will leave Camelot when you are finished," Arthur had told him in the council chambers before the funeral. "Camelot and her people will worship the gods of the Old Religion as they have done since the beginning, for those gods have seen to her prosperity, and her people know the cycles of the earth and the seasons and of life itself through them."
And so it was that after the funeral, Arthur and Merlin settled into their life together. Each day, they ruled together in peace and with the coming of spring, prosperity; each night they curled together under the dragon quilt and pledged anew their love for one another and their devotion to one another.
As Alban Arthan rolled around again, Merlin threatened to proclaim by royal decree that the holiday be renamed. "By rights it should be Alban Arthuan, 'Light of Arthur'," said Merlin, as they lay draped over one another in front of the fire. "It's the anniversary of your birth, and it was you who brought back the light."
Arthur rolled his eyes and nipped Merlin on the ear. "That's an unnecessary bit of hubris, Merlin, but if it makes you happy…."
"It does," said Merlin, feeling rather satisfied with this, one of his few attempts at exercising the power of his station.
And each festival day, they climbed the hill to the giant, spreading oak and gave thanks to the Lord and Lady for all that they had and all that they were. And if Merlin were lucky, he could, for a time, watch Arthur shine, glow golden like a god in the sunlight dappling through the oak: the Oak King himself, come down into the world to lead all Albion into the light.
This story – I don't even know where to begin. I guess first and foremost it's just that: a story, not a history. That said, I did incorporate several historical elements, though I've taken grave liberties with them and bent them to my own purposes, as I have done with some elements of Merlin BBC canon (for instance, in this story, Sir Bedivere did not meet his end at the hand (claw? teeth?) of the Questing Beast as he did in S01E13). Anyway, here are some notes, in no particular order:
Spells Used (please find a reference for Old English here):
usky: The shorthand name for the Dark Ages precursor to scotch whisky
haggeis: As you might have guessed, haggis.
usquebaugh: The Dark Ages precursor to scotch whisky
Gadrian: Gather together, collect, store up
Taliesin is accredited with having written a balad about Urien of Rheged.
Comgall mac Domangairt was indeed the king of Dalriata, and he did have a brother Conall, but Conall did not rule South Pennines, as far as I can figure, and, in fact, there is no (easily obtained) record of him having ever crossed Hadrian's wall.
There was an extreme weather event of 535-536 that caused an even more catastrophic temporary climatic change than the Year without a Summer of 1816, but it's been speculated to have been caused by an eruption of Krakatoa, not an eruption of an Icelandic volcano.
The Papar of the Hiberno-Scottish mission with their croziers and little bells were responsible for much of the missionary work in Great Britain and Europe, but the mission originated in 563 with the foundation of Iona by the Irish monk Saint Columba, and I have played with time in this story, having them be around at least 30 years earlier and forging further inland to Dalriata. Or maybe I made the assumption that the monks were already doing this work and Saint Columba simply organized their efforts into a lasting mission instead of unorganized attempts here and there. (What? It could have happened that way…) There is speculation that they may also have settled Iceland (or at least overwintered there) before the Norsemen set foot there around 870 AD, but there is no archaeological evidence to support that claim. I'm staking claim, in this story, to the theory that all the archaeological evidence was eventually buried in volcanic output, like Pompeii.
I have also taken liberties with the supposed dates of Arthur's birth and reign, placing it perhaps 30 or so years after the accepted date range of ascension, which is 500 AD plus or minus a few years. I've assumed Celtic/druid/pagan holidays with (I think) a Saxon reference thrown in somewhere, and thrown in a Welsh one, Alban Arthan, in lieu of Yule since Yule looks to have originated in the Germanic pagan tradition and I wanted Samhain, Ostara and Alban Arthan for their symbolic significance in the story. I should make clear that my only knowledge of Arthurian legend is what I've learned from being a fan of Merlin BBC/Shine, in all its anachronistic glory, and what little research I did on the legend came from Wikipedia when I was looking for some knights to accompany Arthur and Merlin on their journey.
The appearance of the miracle of light was purely authorial in intent, and it was happy chance that I could provide an explanation, with Merlin's decree at the end of the story, for the more poetic and older interpretation of Alban Arthan (Light of Winter): Alban Arthuan, which means Light of Arthur, from which comes the title of this story.
Any other inconsistencies or downright terrible flubs are purely accidental and entirely my own fault, and I hope that you forgive me for them. I did a great deal more research than this, but it's for nitpicky detail things to answer questions like: 'if it's a few weeks past the summer solstice, when does the sun rise and set in Iceland, and what is the solar azimuth and elevation?' Or, 'assuming the walking pace of a horse and hilly snow-covered paths and roads, what is the reasonable distance in Roman miles converted to leagues a group of eight or nine people could travel in a day, assuming they're hauling a cart with them?' This is necessary research for verisimilitude, but different for every story, so I did not include it here.
Now, if you've stuck with me this far in my ramblings, there is only one other thing I can tell you: thank you so much for reading my story. I hope it brought you as much pleasure reading it as I had writing it, and if so, please consider leaving a comment here, and also for Itzcoatl here for her amazing artwork.
--Venivincere, August 24, 2010