Merlin was twelve years old when King Uther Pendragon’s soldiers took him to Camelot. They came to Ealdor, and some villagers whispered their suspicions, passed on the rumors they had heard. It was enough evidence for the soldiers to break down the door and pull Merlin away from Hunith’s arms, ignoring her pleas and tears. Merlin struggled, fought instinctively with his magic, and sent one soldier crashing into the wall. Then something hit him on the head, and when he awoke, he was chained in a cage and drugged, his magic untouchable beneath a foggy haze.
In Camelot, the soldiers dragged Merlin and the others they had captured into the castle, brought them before King Uther. Standing beside the king was a man with a horribly scarred face. A silver collar, etched with strange runes, encircled his neck. A fine length of chain led from the collar to a bracelet on the king’s wrist.
Merlin flinched away as the scarred man reached down to touch him. He rested his fingers lightly on Merlin’s head.
“This one—this one is powerful, my liege,” the man whispered. “Very powerful. I have not felt his like before.”
“Excellent,” the king said, and he stroked his fingers over the chain. “And the others, Edwin?”
Edwin sneered. “Nothing. Power enough for a few tricks but little else.”
The king gestured to the guards. “Take them away. They shall be executed on the morrow.” The other prisoners were hauled off, some of them sunk in a terrified silence, others pleading loudly for mercy. Merlin was left in the huge hall, huddled on the floor. Edwin stared at him, an almost greedy expression in his eyes.
“I believe that Sir Letholdus is next in line, sire,” Edwin said, and his gaze flickered to one of the knights standing along the wall. The knight was heavily muscled, dark hair flecked with gray, and he took a step forward. Merlin tried to curl into a smaller ball, his heart pounding wildly.
“That is true,” King Uther replied. “However, if this boy is as powerful as you claim, he demands…special treatment. I believe it is time for Prince Arthur to begin training his own warlock. Summon the prince,” he ordered a guard. Then he nodded at Edwin. “Fit him with a collar.”
Merlin tried to escape then, scrambling to his feet and dashing for the doors. The guards caught him before he had made it ten feet, and they held him tightly, wrenching his arms behind him, as Edwin approached.
“Be still, boy,” Edwin hissed. “Better to be collared than lose your head.”
Merlin felt the cold metal against his neck, and he twisted wildly. There was a snap as the collar closed, and then Edwin spoke strange words, and Merlin could feel the magic awakening, heating the metal briefly before it went cold once more. Like Edwin’s collar, this one had a chain attached to it that ended in a bracelet. Edwin did not touch the bracelet, however, leaving it lying on the floor. Edwin backed away, going to stand next to the king.
The drugs were beginning to wear off, and Merlin reached hesitantly for his magic. Perhaps if he could just—
Pain—pain unlike anything he had ever felt before assailed him. It wrenched a scream from his throat, convulsed his body. The guards let go of him, and Merlin sprawled on the floor, whimpering.
“That is what happens when you try to touch your magic without permission,” the king said. “I suggest you refrain from doing it again.”
Silence fell in the hall, broken only by the whispered murmurings of the court. Merlin managed to sit up, but kept his eyes on the floor, shaking under the king’s cold gaze.
“You sent for me, sire?” a new voice said, and there was the sound of light feet on the stones. Merlin looked around and beheld a young boy, his own age or a little older. He wore fine clothes and a dagger at his belt. He glanced curiously at Merlin, and then stopped a few feet away, back straight, facing the king.
“Yes, Arthur.” King Uther gestured at Merlin. “A new warlock has come into our possession. I have decided that you are ready to accept the responsibility of keeping him.”
Arthur stood up a little straighter. “Thank you, father.”
“Edwin claims the boy is immensely powerful. Are you prepared to exercise the necessary will and discipline to ensure that he obeys your commands?”
“Good.” The king nodded at the bracelet. “Put it on, then.”
Arthur glanced at Merlin again, and this time a hint of uncertainty clouded his features. He stepped forward, hesitating a little, but Merlin did not try and move. Arthur had to be better than that knight. Arthur picked up the bracelet and clasped it around his wrist. Immediately, Merlin felt something. He was…aware of Arthur. He could sense a slight echo of the other boy’s emotions—the uncertainty that he saw in Arthur’s face but also—perhaps it was a hint of pride, pride at the king’s decision. Arthur’s eyes had widened, and he was staring at Merlin.
“Others will be able to wear the bracelet and control you to some extent,” Edwin said, and Merlin turned to look at him. “But from now on, it will only respond fully to Arthur.” He licked his lips. “Tomorrow we will begin your training, boy. I look forward to it.”
Arthur led Merlin to his chambers. The chain was quite long—at its fullest extent, Merlin could stand six feet away from Arthur. The links were very slender and light, but Merlin suspected that no hammer could break them, forged with magic as they were. Arthur kept most of the chain looped around his arm as they walked. He kept looking over his shoulder at Merlin.
They waited in the corridor while a small alcove next to Arthur’s chamber was set aside for Merlin. It was big enough for a narrow bed and a washbasin. A hook was pounded into the wall to hold the bracelet when Arthur wasn’t wearing it. Merlin quickly discovered that if he tried to touch the bracelet himself, he experienced the same wrenching pain as when he tried to touch his magic without permission.
Arthur kept the bracelet on for the moment, though, fingers twisting it around on his wrist. Merlin sat down on the small bed, trying to fight back tears.
“What’s your name?” Arthur asked.
“Merlin,” Arthur repeated. “And where are you from?”
“A—a place called Ealdor. Do you—” Merlin forced himself to go on, past the sobs building in his throat. “Do you know if my mother is all right? They didn’t hurt her, did they?”
Arthur frowned. “I don’t think so. But I will find out for you,” he promised.
Merlin nodded, unable to stop two hot tears from spilling down his cheeks.
Arthur cleared his throat. “You know, I am the prince. You should address me as ‘my lord’ or ‘your highness.’”
“Yes, my lord,” Merlin managed.
Arthur fidgeted for a moment, and then abruptly took off the bracelet and hung it on the wall. “Well, I will return later. I’ll have the servants bring you something to eat, and perhaps a bath as well,” he added, wrinkling his nose.
“I was locked in a cage for three days,” Merlin retorted bitterly, “what do you expect? Your highness.”
“You cannot address me in such a manner,” Arthur said, sounding slightly shocked. “Do you understand that, warlock?” He waited for Merlin’s sullen nod, and then strode from the room.
Merlin curled up on the bed and at last gave in to the tears.
Arthur awakened Merlin the next morning by pulling off his bedcovers and uttering a loud, “Merlin, get up,” in his ear. Arthur slipped on the bracelet, and the sense of awareness, of Arthur returned.
Merlin sleepily followed Arthur into the next room. A large breakfast had been spread out on the table for Arthur—meat, cheese, fresh bread. Merlin merited a much smaller meal—some bread and a bowl of porridge. Arthur sat down and began tucking in, so Merlin did as well. The food was good—better than anything they ever had in Ealdor.
“Here,” Arthur said, pushing the plate of cheese his way. “Have some.”
When Merlin finished eating, he ran his fingers wonderingly over the fine cutlery, the engravings etched on the plates and goblets. Then, slowly, he reached up to feel the collar. His skin had warmed the metal, and he traced the runes with his fingers. He sensed Arthur staring at him, and stopped, blushing. “What?” he demanded.
“Go on, then,” Arthur said. “Do some magic.”
Arthur looked nonplussed. “I don’t know…just, something.”
Merlin scowled. “No.”
“No?” Arthur repeated, and he matched Merlin’s frown with one of his own. “I command you to cast a spell.”
And suddenly Merlin felt a force, urging him to follow Arthur’s orders. It didn’t hurt exactly—more as though someone was pushing against his back, trying to get him to move forward. Merlin resisted. Arthur’s scowl deepened, and his fingers tightened around the chain. The pressure increased.
“Fine!” Merlin gasped, and the force disappeared. He and Arthur glared at each other for a moment, and then Merlin looked down at the table. He raised his hand, and tried to summon his magic. He could feel it trying to come to him, but something was blocking it.
“I can’t, my lord,” Merlin said. “You’re doing something—you have to let me touch my magic.”
“How?” Arthur demanded.
“I don’t know.” Merlin touched the collar again. “How should I know how this—this thing works?”
Arthur grimaced and shut his eyes. “There,” he said after a moment, “try again.”
Merlin took a deep breath and reached for his magic. This time, it flooded into him, wonderfully familiar and comforting. Merlin gestured at the table. A knife and a spoon clattered upright and began to fight each other, battling their way across the plates. The knife seized the initiative, spearing a piece of cheese, and started clobbering the spoon with it.
Arthur laughed. “That’s wonderful!” Suddenly his eyes lit up, and he jumped off his chair. “Come on, I have an idea!”
He darted for the door, and Merlin hastily followed. They ran along the corridors of the castle, dodging servants. Arthur led the way up a winding flight of stairs, and they burst out onto the top of a turret. Merlin caught his breath at the view. The town stretched out below them, the houses looking like miniatures, and beyond that the green swell of the forest extended to the horizon.
“There!” Arthur pointed downwards. “See that man walking through the square—the one with the black robes on?”
Merlin leaned over, looking where Arthur was pointing. “Yes. Who is he?”
“He’s my tutor.” Arthur sighed loudly. “We’re doing Latin at the moment—it’s awful.”
“What do you want me to do? Drop a rock on him?” Merlin asked, meaning it as a joke.
“No, Merlin! Maybe…um…knock his hat off?”
This time the magic came easily. The tutor’s hat flew off his head. When he bent to pick it up, Merlin flicked his fingers, and the hat jumped a few paces away. The tutor grabbed for it, and once again, the hat twirled out of his reach. Arthur stifled a laugh, and Merlin felt an answering grin on his face. He could feel Arthur’s amusement, a giddy warmth that flooded through him. Several people in the square below had stopped, watching the tutor’s attempts to retrieve his hat.
“Who is this?” a voice demanded behind them.
Arthur and Merlin both whirled around. A dark-haired girl was standing there. She wore a silk dress and was staring haughtily at Merlin.
“This is Merlin,” Arthur replied. He held up the bracelet, and the girl gasped. “He’s mine,” Arthur added, and Merlin felt a rush of feelings—pride, protectiveness. “Morgana is my father’s ward,” Arthur told Merlin. “Just as bad as having a sister.”
“Well, I have to put up with you, too,” Morgana retorted.
Arthur leaned back against the wall. “I could have Merlin turn you into a—let’s see, maybe a pig. Or perhaps a goat. Which do you think would suit her better, Merlin?”
Merlin started to say that he had no idea how to turn anyone into an animal, but Arthur gave him a sharp poke in the ribs.
“You wouldn’t,” Morgana said, although she sounded slightly unsure.
“Oh, really?’ Arthur smiled lazily. “Go on, then, Merlin. I think we’ll go with a pig.”
Morgana whirled around and dashed back through the doorway. Arthur ran after her, tugging Merlin along. They clattered back down the steps and skidded into the corridor. There was no sign of Morgana.
“She knows all the good hiding places,” Arthur said and began poking around behind tapestries.
“You wouldn’t really want me to do anything to her, would you?” Merlin asked quietly.
“Of course not, Merlin.” Arthur rolled his eyes. “But did you see her face? She really thought you might do it. I know—she probably took this passageway over here down to the kitchens.”
They ducked around the corner and then came to an abrupt halt. King Uther, Edwin, and another man were walking down the corridor towards them.
“Ah, Arthur, there you are,” the king said. “It’s time for your warlock to begin his first lessons with Edwin. Lord Hairud will take his bracelet.”
Merlin did not want to be left alone with them. He edged slightly closer to Arthur.
“But I want to come as well,” Arthur protested.
“It takes time to master control of the collar,” Uther replied, “as I’m sure you have discovered. Lord Hairud has had many years of practice. Besides, you have lessons of your own to attend to.”
“Yes, father,” Arthur muttered, and he reluctantly unclasped the bracelet and handed it to Hairud. Hairud could not actually clasp the bracelet around his wrist, as it was made to fit Arthur’s arm, but he held it tightly in his fingers. Thankfully, Merlin could not sense Hairud as he could Arthur. He had no desire to find out what emotions were running behind the man’s cold demeanor, the slight sneer of distaste that he adopted when he looked at Merlin.
Merlin quickly discovered, though, that Hairud could punish him through the collar. That he could send waves of pain—pain that knotted Merlin’s stomach and shot through his limbs, burning and aching. And Hairud had no qualms about doing so—not if Merlin disobeyed them.
They took him to a room, and Edwin began teaching him spells. Some of them were innocuous—lighting a candle, conjuring objects. But many of them were designed to cause harm—to kill and maim. And Merlin did not want to learn those. But after writhing on the floor in pain—a pain that would continue for as long as was necessary—he inevitably gave in and whispered the words.
They told him he had one purpose—to protect and obey Arthur. He was being trained to become a weapon; a weapon that Arthur would wield.
“If you did not possess some utility to me,” the king said, “I would have you killed. Sorcerers are too dangerous to be left running loose, free to pursue their evil designs. But the collar will keep you under control—allow us to use your powers for the benefit of this kingdom.”
Merlin could never touch his magic without receiving permission—with one exception. If Arthur’s life were in danger, the spells enchanting the collar would allow Merlin to cast whatever magic was necessary to save him.
“And if you should fail,” the king whispered, holding Merlin’s jaw in an iron grip, “you will not live past that hour.”
It seemed to last forever—the demands, and the pain, and the threats. Finally, Hairud took him back to his bed, leaving the bracelet hanging on the wall.
Arthur returned a short while later. Merlin was lying on the bed, facing the wall, but he heard Arthur slip on the bracelet. There was a pause.
“You’re hurt,” Arthur said, and Merlin felt an echo of concern. Hesitantly, Arthur laid a hand on Merlin’s shoulder.
“It’s nothing, my lord.” Merlin scrubbed at his eyes, determined not to cry in front of Arthur again. “I just—just disobeyed some orders.”
Arthur cleared his throat. “You know you cannot be trusted to be allowed to go free,” Arthur said slowly. “No one who uses magic can be trusted.”
Merlin did not reply.
After a few seconds of silence, Arthur cleared his throat again and tugged on Merlin’s tunic. “Come with me down to the stables. I’ll show you my horse. He’s one of the best in the kingdom,” Arthur added proudly.
Slowly, Merlin sat up and followed Arthur. People bowed to Arthur as they passed and stared at Merlin. He was glad when they finally reached the stables, which smelled of fresh hay and leather. Arthur stopped in front of a stall that housed a tall, dark brown stallion. He immediately came over, whinnying and nudging Arthur’s shoulder. “His name is Artax,” Arthur said.
“He’s beautiful.” Merlin rubbed Artax’s nose.
“We’ll have to get a horse for you.” Arthur dug in his pocket and found a few sugar cubes that Artax accepted greedily.
“Me?” Merlin asked, surprised.
“Yes, you.” Arthur laughed. “I’m certainly not going to carry you behind me on Artax when we go hunting.” He narrowed his eyes. “You do know how to ride, don’t you?”
“Not exactly,” Merlin admitted.
“Don’t worry, I’ll teach you.” Arthur led the way over to a ladder, and they clambered up into a hayloft. It was warm, the hay prickly but soft. Arthur flopped down, chewing on a straw. “You’ll love the forest. Father won’t let me go into it unless I’m accompanied by the knights, but it’s the most fantastic place. People say there are dragons and griffons hiding there—not to mention outlaws.”
Merlin wasn’t quite sure that this sounded like a place he wanted to go, but at least it would be out of the castle. And he would get to have his own horse, and be with Arthur and not Edwin or Hairud or the king.
Almost every day, Merlin was taken to Edwin for training. Sometimes the king was there, holding Edwin’s chain, and other times it was another noble. Merlin loathed all of them, but Hairud in particular. The man seemed to enjoy punishing Merlin. Only Edwin ever called him by his name. To the rest he was simply “the warlock,” a term always uttered with a slight shadow of disgust and fear.
Sometimes, if Merlin had been good, Hairud took him out to watch Arthur training with the knights. He made Merlin kneel while he relaxed in a chair, chatting with other nobles and members of the court who were also watching, occasionally tugging on Merlin’s chain as a reminder that he was still paying attention to him.
Merlin ignored him and concentrated on Arthur. He liked watching the fluidity of Arthur’s movements, the way his face tightened in concentration. Arthur was good—despite the fact that his opponents were usually twice his size. Uther dropped by to watch now and again, and Merlin saw how Arthur’s shoulders tensed, how he redoubled his efforts, and how a brief flash of disappointment crossed his features when Uther left without saying a word.
When he was done, Arthur would come over and take Merlin from Hairud.
“Admit it, I’m the best swordsman you’ve known,” Arthur said as they walked back to his chambers.
Merlin tilted his head and replied, “Well, considering you’re the only swordsman I’ve known, that’s not saying much.” And Arthur would shove him, and Merlin would shove back.
When Merlin was thirteen, the king made Arthur punish him for the first time. They were in the hall—empty except for them. Merlin was kneeling at Arthur’s feet, and Arthur was nervously twisting the bracelet.
“But Merlin hasn’t done anything wrong, father,” Arthur said.
“Nonetheless, he must learn that your word is absolute—and the consequences of resistance. And you must learn how to administer punishment.” The king’s mouth twisted. “It is not…pleasant, but it is necessary. I trust that Hairud has spoken with you regarding the best methods.”
“Yes,” Arthur replied quietly. Merlin had not been present for that discussion, but he had felt the unease and distaste rolling off Arthur when he returned.
“Good. Then begin. Continue until I tell you to stop.”
Arthur took a deep breath, and Merlin braced himself. But nothing could have prepared him for what came. It was worse—a thousand times worse than what Hairud could do. It must be because Arthur was Merlin’s true master, because of the bond that had formed between them. Merlin had the presence of mind to realize that, and then all he could think about was the pain. Dimly, he was aware that he was screaming, was on the floor, begging for Arthur to stop.
He didn’t hear the king give the command, but suddenly it was over. Merlin was shaking, panting for breath, his cheek resting on Arthur’s boot. And he could feel a thick, choking sense of remorse, of guilt coming from Arthur. When he finally managed to look up at Arthur, he found Arthur staring down at him, white-faced.
“I expect you to administer any necessary punishments in the future,” the king said.
“Yes, sire,” Arthur whispered.
Arthur did not say anything to him, just took Merlin back to his room. He left Merlin in his small alcove, disappearing back into his main chambers. Merlin stayed there for a few minutes, but he couldn’t stand it—he needed to touch Arthur, to tell him that he didn’t blame him. He could just manage to get his head around the door, chain stretched to its limit. Arthur was lying on his bed, staring up at the ceiling.
“Arthur,” Merlin said, and Arthur turned to look at him. “Arthur, I don’t—I know you didn’t want to.”
Arthur slid off the bed and crossed the room. He put a hand on Merlin’s arm, and then suddenly pulled him closer into an awkward hug. “I’m sorry. Merlin, I’m so sorry. I didn’t think—I never wanted to hurt you like that.”
“I know,” Merlin whispered back, holding Arthur tightly. “I know.”
Arthur never used the collar to punish Merlin again.
Merlin was fourteen when he saved Arthur’s life for the first time. They were sprawled in front of the fire, Arthur gazing blankly at a long treatise on political theory he was supposed to be reading, Merlin attempting to copy letters but getting ink all over himself and the rug. Arthur had come across Merlin looking at the pictures in one of Arthur’s books one day and had seemed surprised to discover that Merlin couldn’t read or write. The next time he had returned from his tutoring lessons, he brought Merlin parchment and ink and insisted that Merlin learn.
Merlin heard the door open and glanced up, expecting to see a servant. Instead, a strange man was standing there, staring at Arthur.
“Who are you?” Arthur demanded, starting to sit up.
A dagger appeared in the man’s hand, and he threw it at Arthur’s chest.
There was no time to utter the words of a spell, but Merlin didn’t need them. The dagger froze, and the assassin hurtled through the air, crashing into the wall and falling, unconscious, to the floor.
Arthur slowly reached out and closed trembling fingers on the hilt of the dagger where it hovered in mid-air. Merlin released it, and Arthur laid it carefully on the floor.
“You saved my life,” he said softly and turned to look at Merlin. He put his hand on Merlin’s arm. “Thank you.”
Merlin could only nod, the adrenaline and terror of the moment finally catching up to him, but he felt Arthur’s gratitude, warm and soothing proof that Arthur lived.
Later, the king came to speak to him.
“I am glad to see that you have learned your place and proven yourself a loyal servant.” The king paused, and then added, “Remember, if Arthur should die, your neck will be under the executioner’s axe.”
Merlin wanted to tell him that he had not saved Arthur out of fear—that he would have done the same even if he hadn’t been wearing a collar. But he knew Uther would not believe him.
That summer, Morgana got a new handmaiden named Gwen. She seemed scared of Merlin at first, but slowly warmed up to him.
“Couldn’t you do this with magic?” Gwen asked him one evening as she repaired a tear in one of Merlin’s tunics. They were sitting cross-legged on Merlin’s bed. Morgana and Arthur were both having dinner with the king.
“I tried once,” Merlin admitted. “It didn’t work too well.”
“What does Edwin teach you, then?”
Merlin shrugged, not wanting to discuss his lessons with Edwin. “Spells to help Arthur in battle mostly.”
“That’s too bad. I mean, helping Arthur is a good thing, obviously,” Gwen hastened to add. “It just seems that there must be so many wonderful things you could do with magic. Like healing illnesses or making things. But perhaps you can’t do those sorts of things. I’ve only seen other warlocks with the king’s knights, helping them to fight.”
Later that night, Arthur was soaking in his bath, which he liked Merlin to keep warm with occasional spells.
“Arthur,” Merlin said from where he was leaning against the bed, “would you—would you mind if I tried to learn new spells? Ones that Edwin doesn’t know?”
“Suppose not,” Arthur replied sleepily. “What kind of spells?”
“Spells to—to help people. If they’re hurt or sick.” Merlin looked at the floor. “Edwin only teaches me to kill things.”
“We will be going into battle together at some point, you know.”
“I know, but I—I don’t want it to be the only thing I can do,” Merlin finished in a rush.
Arthur glanced at him and then rested his head against the tub again. “I think it’s an excellent idea.”
Merlin began experimenting on his own. He started questioning Gaius, the court physician, about remedies whenever they happened to meet. And then one day, Gaius visited Merlin, a heavy book in his hands. “I think this might help you, Merlin,” Gaius said, and Merlin opened the book to find it full of spells. There were spells for fighting, but also spells to heal and create and nurture.
By the time Merlin was sixteen, the collar had grown tight around his neck. He and Arthur had both grown, although Merlin had stayed skinny whereas Arthur was developing a more muscular build—a fact that caused Merlin no small amount of jealousy. Thanks to their bond, Arthur knew he was jealous and often smirked at Merlin when he was putting on his tunic or casually twirling his sword. Merlin scowled and looked away.
“He will need to be fitted with a new collar,” Uther said one day, putting his fingers against Merlin’s neck. Merlin couldn’t help flinching away from the touch, and Uther gave him a cold smile.
Gaius prepared a sleeping draught for Merlin to keep him unconscious while the collar was prepared. Merlin woke some time later to find that he was back in his bed, feeling dizzy and slightly sick. Slowly, he felt at his neck, stroked the new metal and familiar runes.
There was a rustling sound, and he turned his head to find that Arthur was sitting next to him.
“Hey,” Arthur said softly, and he reached out and brushed the hair back off Merlin’s forehead. “How do you feel?”
“I saved you some pastries from supper,” Arthur said. “Your favorites—with the almonds.”
The new collar and bracelet had a chain as well, but it could be detached if necessary. Sometimes Arthur took it off and other times he kept it on. Uther required that it be worn for official court functions, and so it dangled between them a few weeks later at a banquet held to honor a visiting delegation of nobles.
Merlin knelt beside Arthur’s chair, dressed in a new tunic of fine, dark red linen. He knew that he was on display—as proof of Uther’s power and as a promised threat to anyone who might be plotting against the king—and he hated it.
“I have heard that your warlock is especially powerful,” one of the nobles said to Arthur. “Perhaps he could entertain us with some of his magic.”
Merlin tensed. He would not perform like some dog trained to do tricks.
“I do not use Merlin’s power for frivolous pursuits,” Arthur replied, and his fingers stroked Merlin’s hair, comforting, understanding.
“Isn’t this a frivolous pursuit?” Merlin asked the next day when it was raining, and they were stuck inside, and he had enchanted two suits of armor to fight each other in an empty hallway.
“No, we are studying a, uh, practical demonstration of warfare,” Arthur replied in a dignified tone, and took a swig from one of the flagons of ale he had commandeered from the kitchens to hide his grin.
They were seventeen when Arthur entered—and won—his first tournament. It was hard for Merlin to watch Arthur fight and restrain himself from interfering when the opposing knight’s sword came so close to Arthur’s head, when Arthur fell and only just rolled out of the way in time. But Arthur had been very clear that he did not want Merlin casting any spells.
“I have to do this on my own, Merlin. People won’t respect me if they think you’re helping me to win.”
So Merlin knelt there, nervous and worried, a feeling compounded by the fact that it was Uther who was holding his chain.
When the tournament ended, when Arthur stood there flushed and sweaty, with the crowd cheering wildly, Uther simply nodded at his son, as though he had expected nothing less.
Merlin could feel Arthur’s disappointment and hurt when he put the bracelet back on. They went into Arthur’s tent, and Merlin began removing his armor. Arthur had a manservant, but Merlin had learned how to handle his armor so he could do it when they were away fighting.
“All right, I admit it,” Merlin said. “You are the best swordsman I know.” And he concentrated on his feelings of pride and admiration so that Arthur would feel them, too.
Arthur didn’t say anything, but he gave Merlin a grateful smile.
Two months later, Arthur kissed him for the first time.
They were out with a hunting party, but a rainstorm moved in, so a halt was called and they set up camp. Often when it rained on hunting expeditions, Arthur would command Merlin to stop the storm and bring back the sun. Merlin always refused.
“I’m not going to meddle with the weather just so you can add another boar’s head to your collection,” he told Arthur.
Arthur usually tried to force Merlin to cast the spell, but Merlin managed to hold firm—one of the few times he was able to withstand the force of Arthur’s will. He suspected it was because Arthur secretly knew that his request was self-indulgent and silly. Not that Arthur would ever admit that. When he failed to compel Merlin, he would sulk for a few days, which Merlin always hated—hated feeling sharp anger and coldness through their bond.
This time, though, Arthur said nothing about the rain. Instead, motioning for Merlin to keep quiet, he led them out the back of his tent, eluding the watchful eyes of the knights, and they slipped into the forest. It wasn’t often that Arthur managed to get away from the courtiers, the knights, the king—the entire retinue that attached themselves to the prince.
They moved quietly, the scent of the wet pines enveloping them, the only sound the soft patter of raindrops on leaves. When they came to a brook, overgrown and mossy, Arthur wriggled under some bushes, pulling Merlin with him. They lay on their stomachs, watching the raindrops splash into the water.
“Do some magic for me,” Arthur whispered.
Merlin thought for a moment and then relaxed, opening himself to his magic but letting it flow out of him, seeping into the wet ground around them. The raindrops on the leaves overhead began shimmering with a golden light. The light spread, sparkling through the ripples in the stream, glowing from the depths of the deeper pools.
Arthur reached out and dipped his fingers into the shining water.
Merlin couldn’t hold the spell for long. Gasping, he released the magic, and the light faded, leaving the water dim and gray.
Arthur sighed, and then he turned to look at Merlin. Merlin could sense the affection, mingled with a hint of wonder, both shadowed by the undercurrent of protectiveness that was always there in Arthur’s thoughts. And then Arthur leaned forward and pressed his lips to Merlin’s.
They didn’t speak about the kiss. Arthur treated Merlin no differently, and Merlin could sense the same warmth and fondness in Arthur as always. It confused Merlin, but he finally decided it had been a random impulse on Arthur’s part, not to be repeated.
Months passed and then, suddenly, it happened again. They had been training together, Arthur practicing how to maintain his concentration in a fight while at the same time allowing Merlin to cast spells. After so long together, the give and take came easily to them, and Arthur knocked the sword from his opponent’s hands even as Merlin conjured a sweeping path of flame that left a charred circle on the ground. Uther was watching, and he gave Arthur an approving nod. Winning his father’s attention and praise always put Arthur in a good mood, and the bubbling happiness of it tugged an answering grin from Merlin. When they returned to Arthur’s chambers, Arthur slung an arm across Merlin’s shoulders and then kissed him—a quick brush of his lips. Merlin froze, but Arthur just gave his shoulders a little shake and gestured for Merlin to remove his armor.
A few weeks after that, Arthur came quietly into Merlin’s room and sat down on the narrow bed. Merlin had been sprawled across it, reading a book, but he pushed it aside, sitting up and edging a little closer to Arthur. Even though Arthur wasn’t wearing the bracelet, Merlin could tell he was unhappy. He didn’t know why—a fight with Uther, or perhaps some mistake Arthur had made that no one else had noticed, but that Arthur would spend days berating himself for.
They didn’t talk, just sat together in silence. After a while, Arthur sighed and turned to look at Merlin.
“All right?” Merlin asked.
Arthur nodded and leaned closer, pressing a kiss to Merlin’s cheek, right next to his ear, soft and gentle. Then he stood up and fastened the bracelet to his wrist. “Come on—I’m supposed to go on a patrol of the lower town with some of the guards this afternoon.”
Merlin stumbled after him, still able to feel Arthur’s breath, hot against his skin. He didn’t know why Arthur was doing this, but whatever the reason, Merlin didn’t want him to stop. Arthur was the only one who ever touched him affectionately, and Merlin found that he was beginning to crave these surprising, tender moments.
Unfortunately, he was also starting to yearn for something beyond chaste kisses. He wanted to feel Arthur’s skin against his own, wanted to hear the sounds he imagined Arthur would make if he trailed his fingers down Arthur’s chest, following their path with his mouth and his tongue. But he was afraid Arthur would reject him if Merlin tried, that Arthur would push him away, saying that he hadn’t meant anything so serious, that he didn’t want that. So Merlin tried to control his wayward imagination, saving such thoughts for when he was alone so that Arthur wouldn’t sense it.
Merlin was thinking about Arthur one day when he was left lying on his bed, staring at the familiar stones in the wall. He was just envisioning slowly removing Arthur’s tunic, the way Arthur’s breath would catch, when Arthur himself suddenly arrived. Startled, Merlin sat up, blushing. But Arthur’s words drained away the lingering desire.
“A sorcerer is to be executed, and the king commands that you watch.” Arthur snapped on the bracelet and chain. “Come with me.”
Fewer and fewer magic users were captured in Camelot as the years went by. But if one was, and if he proved too weak to be of use, he was immediately executed. Any woman who used magic was killed regardless of her power. Merlin didn’t know why—could only imagine it was somehow connected to Uther’s hatred of magic. Whenever a sorcerer was executed, Uther always had all his leashed warlocks watch—vivid proof of what might happen to them if Uther decided their death would be more beneficial than allowing them to continue living.
Fear and anger roiled within Merlin as he knelt by Arthur, listening to the sobs and pleading of the condemned man. The guards shoved him to his knees and forced him to lay his head on the executioner’s block. The headsman raised his axe, and Merlin couldn’t watch—couldn’t—and he pressed his face into Arthur’s leg, squeezing his eyes shut.
They passed Morgana, looking pale and furious, on their way back to Arthur’s chambers, and this proof that someone else cared, someone else thought it was wrong loosened Merlin’s tongue.
“That man had done nothing,” he said to Arthur in a low voice. “He didn’t hurt anyone. He wasn’t even powerful enough to pose a threat. It was wrong—”
Arthur whirled around, and his hand tightened on the chain, jerking Merlin closer. “You will not question the king’s decisions,” he said, and there was a sharp, prickling anger, and a bitter sense of shame, strong enough that Merlin physically flinched away. “Is that understood?”
“Yes, my lord,” Merlin choked out. Arthur stared at him for a moment, mouth pressed into a tight line, and then turned away and continued walking, dragging Merlin along behind him.
It was past midwinter when the king summoned Arthur and Merlin to appear before him. “I have received reports that Odin is once again preparing to attack our western border,” Uther said. “When spring comes we will find him hounding our outposts, chipping away at our territory day by day. This time, I mean to finish him once and for all.” His gaze, steady and measuring, rested on Arthur. “I have decided to send you to command our army.”
Arthur straightened. “Yes, sire.”
“You are a skilled fighter, Arthur, and it is time you gained some command experience.” Uther’s gaze flickered to Merlin. “And it is time as well that your warlock repaid the clemency he has been shown.”
Arthur began spending hours discussing strategies and tactics, studying maps and drawing up battle plans. When he wasn’t closeted indoors with his advisors, he was out training with the knights or seeing to the outfitting of the army. Arthur never acted or sounded insecure, but Merlin could feel the nervousness thrumming underneath; a nervousness amplified and echoed by Merlin’s own.
One evening they were sitting by the fire—Arthur slumped in his chair, Merlin leaning against it—both exhausted but with that tension stretched tight between them. Merlin knew how Arthur had been dealing with the tension—for the past two nights he had heard Arthur in bed with one of the chambermaids. It had happened a few times in the past, and Merlin had always pulled his pillow over his head and tried to ignore it. But this time he had lain there in the dark, listening and feeling jealous—not of Arthur, but of the maid. He had never—no one had ever, would ever want him in that way, too afraid of or disgusted by his magic to think of such things. But perhaps Arthur—perhaps Arthur did want him. Perhaps those kisses did mean something more.
Sitting there by Arthur, Merlin wanted him so badly. He couldn’t stand it, and so he slowly put his hand on Arthur’s thigh. Holding his breath, he inched it upwards, dragging against the fabric of Arthur’s breeches. He felt Arthur’s muscles tense, and he glanced up. Arthur was staring down at him. Merlin moved his hand another inch.
Arthur drew in a sharp breath. “Merlin?”
Merlin rose to his knees, not breaking eye contact with Arthur. His fingers brushed against Arthur’s groin, and Arthur jerked, gasping.
“Please,” Merlin whispered. He rubbed his hand against Arthur, feeling Arthur rapidly hardening under him. “Please, let me.”
Arthur swallowed. “Merlin, don’t—don’t do this because you—I mean, you know I would not require—”
“I know.” Merlin tried to relax, tried to let his desire, his need spill out of him so that Arthur would feel it.
Arthur drew in a ragged breath and let his legs fall open.
Merlin moved around so he was kneeling between Arthur’s thighs. He was blushing, fingers trembling as they tangled in the laces of Arthur’s breeches, mouth dry. When he managed to get Arthur’s cock out, he slowly touched it, lightly encircled it with his fingers, and Arthur gave a strangled groan. Merlin felt clumsy, blood pounding in his ears. He wet his lips and then leaned forward, licking at the tip of Arthur’s cock. He slid his mouth around it, choked, and pulled back.
He could feel Arthur fighting against the lust, trying to send feelings of calm, of reassurance to Merlin. Arthur unclenched one of his hands from its grip on the chair and threaded his fingers, shaking slightly, through Merlin’s hair, urged him forwards once more.
The arousal and desire were almost too much. Merlin could feel Arthur’s, and he knew Arthur felt his as well—both feeding into each other, creating sensations twice as powerful. It pounded through them, hot and overwhelming. Merlin managed to find an awkward rhythm, sucked a little harder. His own erection was achingly hard, but he couldn’t think enough to pry his fingers off Arthur’s leg to touch himself.
“Merlin—I’m—” and then Arthur was coming, hips thrusting involuntarily, and the rush of Arthur’s climax surged through Merlin, ripped his own out of him with a choked cry. He sagged back, trying to breathe, wiping at Arthur’s seed that had spilled out of his mouth. His mind was reeling, limbs loose from the pleasure. He rested his head on Arthur’s leg, completely drained.
“Gods,” Arthur muttered weakly.
A few stunned moments passed, and then Merlin felt Arthur tugging on his chain. He allowed himself to be drawn up, resting against Arthur’s chest, Arthur’s arms going around him. His mouth sought out Arthur’s. This kiss was long, open, and yet hesitant as well, feelings that both of them had kept close suddenly exposed. Merlin finally broke away, laid his head next to Arthur’s neck, just wanting to be held. They stayed there for a long time, their heartbeats slowing, every shift and sigh that the other made carefully heard, examined, and remembered.
Arthur took Merlin into his own bed that night. He kept touching Merlin, as though he had wanted to for a long time and was trying to take advantage of every second, afraid that the opportunity might disappear. He petted Merlin’s stomach and ran his hands over Merlin’s chest and shoulders, explored Merlin’s face with his fingertips, and rubbed his thumb over the bones in Merlin’s wrists. Little sparks of pleasure kept jolting through Merlin in the wake of Arthur’s fingers, the connection between them still so open and raw. Merlin finally caught Arthur’s hands in his own.
“I can’t—anymore—not right now. Later, I promise.” He kissed Arthur to show that he meant it.
Arthur nodded, and Merlin wriggled around so that his back was to Arthur. Arthur slid an arm over Merlin, pressing close.
Merlin woke the next morning to a low hum of arousal. He twisted, moaning a little, and realized that Arthur was stroking his cock. Opening his eyes, he found Arthur leaning on an elbow, grinning down at him.
“You hogged the blankets,” Arthur said. “And drooled all over my pillow. I’m not used to sharing my bed.”
“Me, either,” Merlin returned, biting back a gasp. “But I—oh—prefer your bed to mine.”
“That’s good.” Arthur leaned in for a kiss. “Because I plan on keeping you in it.” His hand on Merlin’s cock slowed down, and Merlin grunted in protest, reaching down to encourage Arthur to move faster.
“Now, Merlin,” Arthur chided, grabbing his hands. “I’m trying to make this last. We barely made it a minute last night.”
“No. Now be good.” Arthur stretched Merlin’s arms up above his head and wrapped the chain that they had been too befuddled to remove last night around Merlin’s wrists. Not tightly—Merlin could have freed his hands if he wanted to—but he found that he didn’t. That giving himself over to Arthur made his stomach tighten, his cock jerk in Arthur’s hand.
“Better,” Arthur murmured. He bent down and began pressing hot kisses around Merlin’s collar. Merlin moaned.
Arthur raised his head enough to smile at Merlin. “Like that, do you?” He dipped his head again, this time licking and nipping a little at Merlin’s neck. Merlin writhed, thrusting his hips, trying to increase the pressure on his cock.
When Arthur finally let him come, Merlin collapsed back on the pillows, breathing heavily. “So lovely,” Arthur whispered, nuzzling Merlin’s neck, kissing along Merlin’s jaw. “My lovely little bird.”
Merlin craned his neck to look at Arthur. “Did you just call me your little bird?”
Arthur flushed and started to pull away. Merlin quickly tugged a hand free and grabbed his arm. “I don’t mind,” Merlin said quietly.
Arthur studied him for a moment and then returned with a sigh, pressing his own hard cock against Merlin’s leg. Merlin moved against him, and Arthur brought Merlin’s hand up to his mouth, sucking each of Merlin’s fingers, licking his palm. When his hand was wet, Merlin wrapped it around Arthur’s cock, rubbed him, teased at the leaking tip with his finger. Arthur cried out as he came, muffling the noise in the pillows.
“I am taller than you, though,” Merlin said as he held Arthur afterwards.
“By half an inch, if that,” Arthur retorted, and Merlin laughed, happy, content.
Before they walked out of Arthur’s chambers, though, Arthur put a hand on his arm. His face was serious. “Merlin—no one can know about this. My father—the king would think it a sign that you were—were corrupting me, gaining too much influence.” He glanced away, jaw tight, and Merlin could feel his cold unhappiness, the thick guilt that always welled up whenever Arthur disagreed with his father.
“I know. I understand,” Merlin told him.
They tried to be careful, but Merlin couldn’t help the smiles that crept across his face whenever Arthur looked at him. They couldn’t help the touches that lingered slightly longer than before.
It was enough—enough for the king to notice.
The day before the army was going to set out from Camelot, Hairud appeared in Merlin’s room. He hadn’t been near Merlin for a long time. Arthur knew how Merlin despised the man and always tried to keep them well apart. Hairud took the bracelet and brought Merlin to the hall, shoved him down on his knees before Uther. Merlin looked at the floor and tried to calm the frantic beating of his heart.
Long moments passed in silence. “My son has formed a strong bond with you over the years,” Uther finally said. “You have saved his life. Proved your loyalty.” There was a pause. “I hope that this has not…encouraged you to think that your influence is greater than it is.”
“No, sire. No. I—I do not presume anything,” Merlin managed.
“Do not think for one moment that I have forgotten what you are,” the king continued. “That I have forgotten the taint of magic, your capacity for evil. Look at me,” Uther commanded, and Merlin raised his head.
“Your closeness with the prince concerns me. You could be whispering things to him, turning him against me.”
“Please, sire. I would never—never do that.” Merlin couldn’t stop his voice from shaking. “I swear, I would not.”
Uther stared at him for a long moment. “I need you to convince me that you mean it,” he said, and nodded at Hairud.
The pain burst white hot through Merlin’s body. He tried to hold back the screams, but couldn’t, finally fell to the ground. It went on and on, and darkness was creeping into the edges of Merlin’s consciousness when it finally stopped. He couldn’t move, just lay there, face pressed to the stones, gasping.
Uther crouched next to him. “Swear to me that you are not plotting to turn my son against me.”
“I—I swear.” Merlin’s voice rasped in his throat. “I swear it. I am loyal, sire. Please…please believe me.”
“I believe that you are loyal to Arthur.” The king rose to his feet. “I suppose that must be enough. But if I should sense that changing—I will make sure that you beg for your own death.” He nodded at Hairud. “Take him away.”
Merlin could barely walk, collapsed onto the floor of his room when Hairud pushed him inside. Arthur found him there when he returned.
“Merlin? Oh, gods, what happened?” Arthur gently turned him over, helped him up onto the bed. “Who did this to you?”
“I told him to stay away from you,” Arthur said in a tight, furious voice. “Did someone—did—did the king order him to do this?”
“Yes. But, Arthur—”
But it was too late; Arthur was already striding from the room.
He was gone a long time. Merlin lay there, terrified of what might be happening. At last, he heard the door of Arthur’s room open and a few seconds later, Arthur appeared. He looked pale but slightly calmer.
“I ordered a bath drawn up for you,” Arthur said, coming over. “And Gaius is bringing something over to help with the pain.” He took Merlin’s hand and held it tightly.
“What about—what about your father?”
“He is convinced of your loyalty. Of my loyalty,” Arthur added bitterly. “I made it clear that it is my duty to protect you, just as much as it is your duty to protect me.” He looked at Merlin. “No one will ever hurt you again. I swear it.”
Merlin swallowed and leaned closer, and Arthur slipped his arms around him.
“I don’t protect you just out of a sense of duty, you know,” Merlin whispered.
“I know. And the same goes for me—with you. I—you’re my friend—and—and—”
Merlin kissed him, silently understanding.
It was a warm, windy spring day when they first encountered Odin’s army. It had taken them two weeks to get here, wagons bogging down in mud, scouts bringing back reports that Odin was already capturing villages on the border, looting and burning.
Merlin glanced at Arthur. Dressed in his full armor, Arthur sat proudly on his horse, looking every inch the prince, the commander. Unafraid and confident. Merlin could sense the reality, of course—the nineteen year old boy who was nervous and worried.
“Ready?” Arthur asked him.
Merlin nodded. “Yes.”
“Right.” Arthur took a deep breath. “You know what to do.” He turned to the knights at their side. “Sir Leon, order the charge.”
Merlin reached out for his magic. The wind began to rise, whipping at cloaks, tossing the branches of the trees into the air. Dark clouds formed above them, and the first rain drops spattered down, harsh and tinny sounding against Arthur’s armor.
There was a yell, and the first wave of horsemen galloped out, heading for Odin’s lines of pikemen.
“Now, Merlin!” Arthur shouted.
Merlin harnessed his magic and tore the lightning from the sky, sending it hurtling into the front ranks of Odin’s army. The rain came down harder. Merlin thought he could smell the charred earth, even from their station on the hilltop. He struck again and again.
“Their archers!” Arthur snapped. Merlin gritted his teeth and concentrated, setting fire to as many of the arrows arching through the air at them as he could. They burned as they flew, turning to ash that fluttered down onto the battle, now hotly contested on all sides. Several of the knights had their own warlocks with them, but none could manage spells on the same level as Merlin.
“Damn—our left flank is breaking. Come on!” Arthur wheeled his horse around, setting it to a gallop, and Merlin followed.
“Wait, Arthur!” he cried, but Arthur vaulted from his horse, drawing his sword and charging forward, yelling for the men to follow him. And then he disappeared into a swirling mass of spears and swords and blood.
All it would take was one lucky sword thrust, one second’s lapse of concentration. And Arthur would be gone—lost to him.
Merlin let loose his magic. Lightning stabbed down, tearing into the ranks of men. He could feel Arthur, sense where he was, and he reached out with his spells, flinging aside soldiers and knights, trying to get to Arthur. He had never drawn on this much power before, and it raged within him. The battlefield faded before his eyes, drowning in a sea of gold, the pull of his magic. His only thought—protect him. Protect Arthur.
Dimly, he was aware that someone was shouting his name. And then he felt Arthur, fighting against him, trying to stop the rush of magic.
“Merlin, stop! It’s over!”
Arthur was gripping him, shaking him. “Stop it! You’re going to kill yourself!”
Control returned slowly, both of them struggling together against the magic’s wild strength. Suddenly, it stopped, disappearing back into Merlin. He blinked, and Arthur’s face—pale, flecked with blood—came into focus.
“Never do that again,” Arthur breathed. “Never!”
Merlin tried to reply, but the words wouldn’t come. He staggered forward, and darkness closed around him.
He woke to find himself lying in Arthur’s bed in the tent. It was night, but candles flickered on the table where Arthur was sitting, bent over a piece of parchment.
Merlin tried to sit up and found that he barely had the strength to lift an arm.
Arthur heard him stir and quickly came over, kneeling by the bed. He brushed his fingers through Merlin’s hair. “How are you feeling?”
“Hungry.” Merlin’s stomach punctuated this with a growl.
“Right.” Arthur laughed, a relieved smile on his face. “I’ll get you some food.” He didn’t move, though, still petting Merlin’s hair, his other hand finding Merlin’s under the blankets. “I could feel you slipping away,” he whispered.
“I just—I thought you were going to die. Dashing off into the melee like that.” Merlin swallowed and blinked up at the ceiling, remembering the terror of the moment.
Arthur kissed the side of his mouth. “Odin’s men turned and ran. We’re going to go after them tomorrow. Ensure that he never terrorizes Camelot again.”
After Merlin had eaten, he fell asleep again, briefly rousing when he felt Arthur climb into the bed with him. By the morning, he felt much better if still a little shaky. He insisted on being allowed to go see the wounded men.
“I can help them, Arthur. Please.”
“If you’re sure you’re up to it,” Arthur agreed reluctantly. “But don’t try to do too much.”
It was when they stepped out of the tent that Merlin saw the full effects of the battle. The roiled earth, charred and black from the lightning. The dead bodies, many still crumpled on the field where they had fallen, crows circling overhead. The stench of death and pain.
There were many wounded, some crying out in agony, others too weak and near death to speak anymore. The first man Merlin approached—a foot soldier with an ugly gash in his thigh—shrank away. “My lord, please! I have done nothing—”
“It’s all right,” Arthur said. “Merlin can help you. I promise, he’s only going to try and heal you.”
Merlin knelt down and put his hands over the wound, whispered the spell. The man shut his eyes, but then opened them in shock as the wound knit together, the red lines that signaled the onset of an infection fading away. “You’ll still need to rest,” Merlin told him. “And keep from putting too much weight on your leg for a while.”
The man traced the pink scar. “Th-thank you,” he stuttered, eyes still wide with wonder.
Arthur helped Merlin stand. “How many people did I kill?” Merlin asked him in a low voice, leaning against Arthur’s shoulder.
“We both killed men,” Arthur replied. “But now you just saved one. Think of that, Merlin.”
They started encountering villagers the next day—driven from their homes by Odin’s men. Some of them were injured, and they all looked frightened and exhausted, many having lost their homes and possessions. Merlin helped as many as he could. Healing wounds, conjuring brightly colored birds to make the children laugh and smile for a moment. He could feel Arthur watching him as he did, and he sensed the pride and deep affection through their bond. There was a new emotion as well, something that cast the other feelings in a stronger, more brilliant light.
For a while, Merlin wasn’t quite sure what to make of it, but then he recognized what it was one night when they were lying together in Arthur’s tent. Arthur was on his side, watching Merlin, who was drifting off towards sleep. He felt the emotion, and opened his eyes to look at Arthur. Arthur had a half-smile on his face, and when he met Merlin’s eyes, Merlin realized that Arthur was in love with him. He knew that Arthur had loved him for a long time, but this was different, deeper. It went beyond desire, beyond friendship.
“Go to sleep,” Arthur murmured, and he slid down into the bed, pulling the blankets up. Soon, Arthur was breathing deeply, but Merlin stayed awake, wanting to treasure the moment, to cradle it against him, letting it fill all the lonely and empty spaces inside him.
Another battle, another victory. They moved into Odin’s territory, pursuing his army. Here, the villages were unspoiled, but they reeked of poverty and hopelessness. Odin was a harsh ruler who taxed his people heavily and brought little aid to those villagers far from his castle. Arthur’s face grew grim as they rode along, and he issued strict orders that the villagers were to be left unmolested and distributed any food that could be spared.
Arthur split his forces, sending a smaller contingent off to their right, blocking a pass through the mountains and forcing Odin to turn further north. They caught up to him on the shores of a lake, trapping his army with the water to their backs. Arthur sent messengers, asking for Odin’s surrender.
“Show him that there is no hope of standing against us,” Arthur told Merlin, and Merlin summoned a wind that whipped up the waters of the lake, waves towering up, ready to crash down on Odin’s camp if Merlin let them.
The messengers returned within the hour, bearing word that Odin had agreed to a meeting. Arthur took Merlin with him, and Merlin sat by Arthur’s side, Odin glancing at him nervously. Arthur demanded a large portion of Odin’s eastern territory in addition to the complete surrender of his army.
“The land is worthless,” Odin protested. “Why would you want it? The people scrabble for a living, barely able to survive.”
“That is exactly why I want it,” Arthur replied.
Odin surrendered, swore not to attack Camelot again. He disbanded his army and slunk back to his castle. Arthur made preparations to return to Camelot but first sent riders out, proclaiming to the people that they now owed their allegiance to the Pendragons, assuring them that help and a new lord would soon be sent to them.
When they arrived back in Camelot, word of their victories had already reached the city. People lined the streets, cheering for Arthur. The king summoned them to appear before him immediately. He clasped Arthur’s hand. “You did well, Arthur. I am proud of you. Extremely proud.”
“Thank you, father.” Arthur pulled Merlin forward. “I could not have done it without Merlin’s aid.”
Uther turned to look at him. “Yes, I have heard about your warlock. He has proved as powerful as we expected.” Uther returned to his throne. “I have heard other rumors as well. Rumors that he has used his magic to heal people.”
Arthur nodded. “That is true.”
“You have made your feelings on this matter clear to me, Arthur,” Uther said in a low, grim voice. “But I would ask you to be careful. In the past, others have claimed they used magic to heal, only to turn those promises into death and pain. That…thing next to you is no different.”
Arthur put his hand on Merlin’s shoulder. “I believe Merlin’s intentions are honorable. I have seen him heal many people with my own eyes.”
Uther frowned. “I shall let it go for now, then. But I warn you, Arthur—if I should find that the warlock has harmed any of the citizens of this kingdom, no words of yours can save him.”
Uther’s distrust and scorn stayed with Merlin, diminishing the pleasure he felt at being back in Camelot, seeing Gwen, and Gaius, and Morgana again, getting to take a bath and put on clean clothes.
“You smell better,” Arthur told him, pulling Merlin into his arms. “I was almost ready to order you into the next river we passed.”
“You smelled just as bad,” Merlin retorted, sticking an elbow in Arthur’s ribs. Arthur huffed and tightened his hold.
Sighing, Merlin rested his head on Arthur’s shoulder, staring at the wall. Even though he had healed so many of the soldiers and knights, they still sometimes looked at him with distrust, just like Uther. At night while they were on campaign, if Merlin had sat with Arthur around the fire, an uneasy silence had settled over the company. It wasn’t until Merlin left that jokes and laughter had broken out.
“Hey,” Arthur said quietly. “It’s all right.” His fingers stroked Merlin’s collar.
Merlin shivered, feeling a rush of arousal. He turned and sought out Arthur’s mouth, wanting more—more proof that Arthur cared for him, protected him, loved him.
Arthur responded eagerly, his fingers sliding under Merlin’s tunic to find warm skin. Merlin tugged, drawing Arthur towards the bed. They stumbled a bit, trying to draw off their boots while still kissing. Merlin’s knees hit the bed and he fell back, Arthur straddling him. Merlin drew off his tunic, tossing it aside.
“Do you want me to chain you up?” Arthur whispered, leaning down to lick one of Merlin’s nipples.
Merlin moaned just at the thought and nodded. He loved being slightly restrained, allowing Arthur to have control. He knew Arthur liked it as well. A sign that Merlin trusted him, felt safe enough to give in completely.
Arthur had driven a hook into the headboard to hold the bracelet while they slept. Now, he left the bracelet on, but attached one end of the chain onto Merlin’s collar and one of the links to the hook. It was loose enough that Merlin could move about a little, but he couldn’t sit up or reach for Arthur if Arthur chose to draw away slightly.
Which was what Arthur proceeded to do. He knew it drove Merlin crazy to have to lie there and watch him slowly take off his clothes, not being able to touch. Arthur drew it out until pleading noises were escaping Merlin. Arthur laughed and reached for Merlin’s laces, untying them, and then slipping off his breeches, revealing Merlin’s already hard cock. Arthur blew lightly on it and licked it, a long wet stripe from base to tip.
“Oh, gods,” Merlin gasped. “More—please, Arthur—I need more.”
“Impatient, aren’t you?” Arthur murmured, abandoning Merlin’s cock and stretching out against him, kissing Merlin again. “My little bird—so good, so beautiful.”
“Arthur,” Merlin whimpered, thrusting up, feeling their cocks rub against each other for one glorious moment.
Arthur groaned a little, too, but then he pulled back slightly. “Get my fingers wet.” He slipped his fingers into Merlin’s mouth, and Merlin sucked on them. Arthur’s eyes squeezed shut as he did, his breath hitching in his chest.
“Good,” Arthur finally gasped, and he moved his hand down to briefly stroke Merlin’s cock, then reached farther and slid a finger into Merlin. He moved it in and out, keeping his eyes on Merlin’s. “Merlin—can I—” Arthur pulled in a deep breath. “Would you let me—let me take you?”
The burning rush of desire that swept through Merlin was answer enough, but he nodded anyway. “Yes. Oh, gods, yes, please.” They had fingered each other before, but never gone further, still experimenting, still a little hesitant, still learning their way over each other’s bodies.
Arthur fumbled in the chest next to the bed for a vial of oil. Merlin waited, his breathing speeding up slightly in anticipation. He wrapped one of his hands in the chain to keep himself from reaching for his cock, throbbing between his legs. Arthur rolled back and kissed him, then urged Merlin to turn over onto his stomach. “Spread your legs for me,” Arthur said in a hoarse voice.
Merlin did as Arthur bade him, spreading his legs, feeling the chain pull slightly on his collar as he stretched out.
“That’s it,” Arthur murmured, running his hands over Merlin’s back, always liking to touch Merlin as much as possible. There was a pause as Arthur dipped his fingers into the oil, and then he slid one of them back into Merlin, working in another next to it.
They had learned to keep their desire from intensifying to some extent, but Merlin was rapidly losing his grip on it and could feel Arthur’s pounding into him. He hoped he’d be able to hold off. He wanted to come with Arthur inside him, filling him. “Hurry,” he gasped.
Arthur got three fingers in, moving them around, finding that spot that sent shivers of pleasure through Merlin, made him cry out. Then Arthur removed his fingers and coaxed Merlin up onto his hands and knees. Merlin felt Arthur’s cock, beginning to push inside, and he gripped the blankets.
Arthur thrust forward slowly, his hands gripping Merlin’s hips. Merlin was aware of some discomfort, the burning stretch as Arthur pushed farther, but the bliss of Arthur claiming him overrode it, tore pleading moans out of his mouth.
Arthur started with shallow thrusts, but when Merlin began thrusting back against him, he pushed deeper, stretched himself over Merlin’s back. He stayed there a moment, clutching Merlin’s shoulder with one hand.
And then they were lost, caught in the rhythm. Arthur thrusting forward, reaching around to stroke Merlin’s cock.
“Yes,” Merlin whimpered. “Arthur—feels so good.” He fought as long as he could and then gave in, came over Arthur’s fingers, slumped down onto the bed.
Arthur held his hips up, kept thrusting raggedly and then stilled, spilling his seed into Merlin. He pulled his cock out and slid a finger back into Merlin, lightly rubbing his reddened hole. Merlin bit the pillow, muffling the needy sounds he was making, hips jerking involuntarily.
Arthur let him down gently, reached over to unhook the chain, and then lay down slightly on top of Merlin. Merlin turned his head so that he could accept Arthur’s kisses, let Arthur lick lovingly along his collar.
“My little bird.” Arthur pulled back so he could look into Merlin’s eyes. “I—I—”
“I can feel it, you know,” Merlin told him. “I can feel that you love me.”
Arthur blushed and looked away, but Merlin reached out and cupped Arthur’s chin in his fingers, turned him back. “Can you feel it?” Merlin asked him. “Because I do. Love you.”
“Oh, yes,” Arthur said, and he brought Merlin’s hand up to his mouth, kissed the palm of Merlin’s hand. “I’ve felt it. I can always feel it,” he finished softly.
Merlin was twenty-one when Arthur was crowned king. Uther had fallen ill that winter, breath wheezing in his throat, coughing wetly. Gaius’s medicines did little to help.
Arthur spent many hours sitting next to his father, eyes shadowed from lack of sleep. One day, he brought Merlin with him.
“Can you?” Arthur asked, voice desperate. “Can you help him?”
Merlin stared down at Uther. The king was sleeping fitfully. He felt Arthur’s panic and sorrow fluttering against him. Merlin summoned his magic, tried casting a spell, and then lowered his hand.
“Magic cannot heal everything,” he said.
Arthur shut his eyes. “Would you, even if it could?”
“Of course,” Merlin replied, but he hesitated, and Arthur heard it.
“You wouldn’t? You’d let him die?” Arthur’s breathing had quickened, his face flushed.
“He put me in a collar!” Merlin turned away from the king, gripped the bedpost. “He hurt me. He thought I was worthless—a thing, not a person!”
“He’s my father!” Arthur shouted back.
“I know!” Merlin lowered his head. “And I would help him. But I can’t. He’s dying, Arthur—and sometimes you can’t change that.”
Arthur slumped back down into his chair by the bed. He finally summoned Sir Leon, had him take Merlin back to his room.
Arthur didn’t return that night, and the next morning, Gwen came to tell him that Uther was dead. That Arthur was king.
The air was fragile between them when Merlin next saw Arthur. Arthur gave him a tired smile but didn’t say anything. Merlin stayed in Arthur’s bed, but they remained silent except for a few words, a slight distance between them. Merlin finally leaned over and kissed Arthur, then tried to find sleep.
Sir Leon held Merlin’s chain at the coronation. Arthur stood, pale and composed, repeating the vows of kingship. The crown his father had worn was placed on his head, and Arthur lifted his chin slightly, placed his hand on the hilt of his sword.
The next day, Arthur summoned Merlin to appear before him. Merlin started to kneel, but Arthur shook his head, and so Merlin remained standing, head slightly bowed. He was nervous, uncertain, aware of the eyes of the courtiers, the knights fixed upon him.
Arthur stood up and moved forward so that he was in front of Merlin. Sir Leon had handed Arthur the bracelet, but Arthur hadn’t put it on. Now he unclasped the chain from it and tossed the bracelet to the side. It clattered on the floor, loud in the silence. Merlin looked up, meeting Arthur’s gaze. What was going on? Was he no longer Arthur’s? Was Arthur going to give him to someone else? Frantic pleas rose in Merlin’s throat, but Arthur stilled him with a look.
Arthur took the chain off Merlin’s collar and let it fall to the floor. Then he reached forward and unfastened the collar. Slowly, he drew it off Merlin’s neck. “I trust you,” Arthur said. “I trust you, Merlin.”
He raised his eyes and swept them over the court. “From this day forth, practicing magic is no longer a crime in my kingdom.” He looked back at Merlin. “The others will be released as well.”
Merlin raised his fingers to his neck, feeling where the collar had rested for so long. Hesitantly, he reached for his magic. It was there, flooding into him. Merlin swallowed, blinking back tears. “Thank you, my liege,” he whispered, and he knelt before Arthur. “I pledge my loyalty. I pledge my loyalty to you, Arthur Pendragon.”
It was strange, not to have the collar around his throat. Strange to be able to walk freely about the castle, about the town. Strange—but wonderful.
And yet Merlin missed his connection to Arthur. Missed being able to sense Arthur’s feelings, to feel the proof of Arthur’s love for him. And so he clung to Arthur when they were in bed together, found excuses to touch Arthur throughout the day, followed Arthur with his eyes so that Arthur would see him and give him a smile.
One evening, Arthur climbed into bed next to Merlin, a wooden box in his hand.
“What’s that?” Merlin asked, yawning. He had been out walking all day, visiting the fields around Camelot and giving the sprouting plants an extra bit of encouragement.
“I got you something,” Arthur said, handing him the box.
Puzzled, Merlin opened it. Lying there, glistening in the light of the candles, was a silver collar. It was made of thin squares of metal, closely linked together, each one with a small dragon etched on it.
Arthur picked it up. “See, here’s the clasp. So you can take it off whenever you want.” He hesitated, looking down at the blankets. “I thought—I thought you might like it. You’ve seemed worried. Not that you need to be.” He glanced up at Merlin.
Merlin took the collar from him and slowly fastened it around his neck. It was much lighter than the old one. He trailed his fingers over it, traced the outlines of the small dragons.
“Well?” Arthur asked.
Merlin answered him with a kiss, pushing Arthur down onto the bed.
“I take it you like it then,” Arthur said, smiling and breathless when they pulled apart.
Merlin threaded his fingers through Arthur’s, drew Arthur’s hand up to his neck. “Touch me,” he whispered. “Like you always did.”
Arthur stroked the collar, lightly trailed his fingers along it. Then he shifted upwards, flipping them so that Merlin was lying underneath him. He bent down to mouth along the line of the collar, licking, sucking Merlin’s skin. Merlin moaned and tugged at Arthur’s tunic, wanting it off, wanting to feel Arthur against him.
Arthur obliged, sitting up to strip off the tunic, tossing it to the floor. He drew Merlin’s off next, his calloused hands familiar, comforting as they slid over Merlin’s stomach and up his arms. Arthur sat back, just looking at Merlin for a moment. Merlin smiled and stretched a bit, Arthur smirking at him, but he finally reached up, wanting Arthur back, pressed close.
Arthur returned, settling against him. He rubbed his cock against Merlin’s, pushing their hips together. Merlin sucked in a breath, squeezing his eyes shut. “I—I won’t last if you keep that up,” he managed to say.
“What do you want, then, Merlin?” Arthur murmured, his breath hot against Merlin’s ear. “Do you want me to suck you off? Do you want me to get you on your knees and put my cock in your mouth? Do you want me to open you and then thrust inside?”
Merlin swallowed, shivers of arousal darting through him at Arthur’s words. “I want you inside me, fucking me,” he rasped, voice hoarse.
“Take these off, then,” Arthur ordered, pulling at the laces of Merlin’s breeches. Merlin wriggled around, stripping off his clothing while Arthur stood up to pull off his own breeches and retrieve a vial of oil. He came back and settled himself in between Merlin’s spread legs.
First, he sucked on Merlin’s cock just a little, stroked his balls. Enough to set Merlin whimpering, bucking his hips. Then Arthur pulled off and slid a slick finger into Merlin, then another, opening him up.
“Ready?” Arthur asked, propping himself above Merlin, rubbing his cock along Merlin’s arse. Merlin nodded, spreading his legs a bit more, hooking them around Arthur’s thighs.
Arthur pushed into him with a groan. “Gods—so perfect.”
Merlin shut his eyes as Arthur thrust into him, concentrating on the feel of Arthur’s cock inside him, small moans torn out of him whenever Arthur hit that spot that sent pleasure coursing through Merlin’s body.
Arthur paused, buried deep in Merlin, and Merlin opened his eyes, questioning. Arthur slipped his fingers under Merlin’s collar, tugged at it, pulling Merlin up for a kiss. Merlin clung to him, urged Arthur to start moving again. Arthur drew back, slammed in again, thrusting slow and hard.
“Merlin,” Arthur gasped, voice tight and strained. “Say it—say it—”
Merlin fought to speak past the building stimulation. “Yours,” he managed. “I’m yours. Always yours. Oh, Arthur, move—move faster.”
Arthur thrust into him again.
“And you—” Merlin gasped. “Tell me—”
“Always—always. Never—never leave you.”
Merlin came, body tightening around Arthur’s cock. Arthur thrust one final time, resting his head on Merlin’s chest as his seed filled Merlin. Then Arthur collapsed, panting and sweaty. Merlin held him tightly, smoothing his fingers through Arthur’s hair.
“Love you,” he sighed, feeling Arthur’s protective warmth all about him. “Love you.”
Arthur finally stirred, raised his head to look at Merlin, gently kissed him. “My little bird,” he said softly, smiling.
Arthur reached down and drew the blankets up around them, settled them against the pillows, Merlin in his arms. He rested the fingers of one hand against Merlin’s collar, and Merlin entwined his own fingers with Arthur’s. They lay quietly, watching the firelight painting the walls with a red, flickering glow. “Do some magic for me,” Arthur whispered.
And Merlin did.
~ The End ~