Spring arrives in Ebrauc like this: a rain front sweeps in across the bright sky one morning, sudden as a dirty sheep’s fleece thrown across the picking table. A long and violent squall of water upends itself upon them. Impacted slabs of snow crack, groan and fall from rooftops all across the town around young King Peredur’s castle. Peredur’s men spend the morning rushing around, shouting blind through the solid wall of the rain, trying to help shopkeepers whose roofs have fallen along with the snow.
From a sheltered awning on the battlements, Arthur watches the onslaught. When a roof shucks its snow, it goes from bright white to black, and in the noon-time darkness laid over the land by the storm, it’s as if it disappears, like a doused lantern. There is often a sound, too, as the snow rends apart, like a woodsman felling trees heard at a distance. He is put in mind of the fir trees ringing Camelot, adorned in their winter gowns of white, and wonders if the squall will blow out before it reaches them. Old Gaius, perhaps, dead last April, might have known which way the winds blow between here and Camelot. Perhaps milder winds have already reached there from another quarter, and the trees are spry and black-green. Perhaps the Saxon Prince on Arthur’s throne begins with pleasure to plan the planting of the season’s crops, the lambing and the foaling, the fruiting of his conquest.
Arthur could go down into the town to help the men, he supposes. There would be a great fuss: so high-born a guest as he must be dissuaded from inconveniencing himself with all possible vehemence. If still undissuaded, then he must be swaddled up like a babe in its blankets and escorted about as though he might fall, skin his knee and cry for his nurse at any moment. No, easier to stay here.
A surge of self-loathing at his own inertia spears him. But that is an old pain by now, the wound practically healed open, like a piercing in an ear.
Some entertainment at noon: a roof leaks and floods some of the guest chambers, Morgana’s among them. She arrives beneath the awning beside him, flapping water from her sleeves and tossing shining wet hair over her shoulder, elegant as a swan shaking off from a swim. Her eyes meet Arthur’s in greeting, with a crinkle of humour. Flummoxed maids catch up with her a moment later and begin to pat and rub with towels, but there is little to be done while she is still dressed, and little hope in this public place that she will not continue to be dressed indefinitely.
That moment of humour in her eyes was more than they communicate in a day at all, lately. It has become easier between them not to speak. Arthur is trying to have it be enough for him that she is still here, still loyal as far as he can tell. He is trying not to need to rend at her or provoke her to rend at him, both of them sick with caged fury in this place. And after all, he has nothing better to do with his days than battle the foibles of his own temperament.
Another moment later there is a cry of “My Lady!” and King Peredur himself follows her out, at once throwing a great fur about her shoulders and patting fussily. Peredur’s manner becomes more familiar each week, but Arthur can well guess how little Morgana would welcome his intervention.
“I am quite all right,” she says, a little too crisply. She did not hear Peredur scuttling at her heels, Arthur deduces, so her mask is askew. She settles it soon enough. “It was bracing,” she says, with a brilliant sparkle of smile. This shocks a look of such fatuous pleasure from Peredur that Arthur almost winces.
Abruptly, her mask drops again; she looks to the outer walls, and then to Arthur. Now the look in her eye smacks oddly of triumph.
The rain has eased for a moment. Arthur peers down into the lower town and sees a dark figure, carrying a pack, climbing the path from the gate.
Morgana never claimed the authority of prophecy when she said Merlin would return by spring. But today is the day – not the day before, nor the day after – on which he does in fact return.
“My advisor,” Arthur murmurs to Peredur in explanation, before he and Morgana take off down the stairs. He intended to say manservant but it stuck in his throat at the last moment. It strikes him with a flutter of anxiety that he does not know at all who, or what, Merlin is now.
Arthur, Morgana and Peredur’s seneschal meet Merlin down on the steps of the keep.
Merlin is not who he was before. He wears a jerkin of good brown leather, a black woollen cloak: he could be a moderately prosperous merchant dressed for a long journey. His hair has grown out longer than court fashion would prefer, and his face has weathered in the sun. Beside it, the whites of his eyes and the blue in their centre are startling. He is as thin as ever, or perhaps more so, but his shoulders are squared, and there is nothing of apology in his stride.
“Sire,” Merlin says. He looks Arthur straight in the eye and smiles, warm and open. They shake hands, an unaccustomed gesture – does Merlin’s hand linger? Arthur is near-frantic with the impossibility of knowing a thousand things or more. When did Merlin learn of the fall of Camelot? Does he more lament with Arthur the loss of his patrimony, or rejoice at the death of a tyrant? What has he been doing with himself these long months, since he saw off the last refugees from Uther’s madness safely over the sea? What does he know of what Arthur now knows of his magic? Most of all: what are his intentions now?
But Merlin has moved on already. “Lady Morgana,” he says with an unaffected bow. Then he allows the seneschal to introduce himself. Then he permits a page to take his pack and usher him away to a room in the guest quarters.
Arthur feels the old, bullying tone rise at the back of his throat. He can almost hear himself shouting after Merlin to tell him to carry it himself, and some further choice phrases besides. He presses the urge down hard, embarrassed. Merlin could probably turn him into a frog if he cared to. He could make Arthur re-enact every wicked, bullying thing that Arthur ever did to him – that Arthur felt perfectly justified in doing to the mere servant he’d thought Merlin was. Merlin could probably enslave the whole castle with his magic, Arthur and Morgana included, and make them wait on him hand and foot for the rest of their days, till they died on their feet, thanking him for it.
But, Arthur tells himself, this is a shade of the hysteria that finally took his father’s mind from him. It’s yet another face of his character best squashed down and kept hidden, lest he disgrace himself. Arthur has had his fill of unflattering revelations about himself, but it seems that there is always another yet to come. If Merlin wanted to victimise Arthur with magic, he has had ample opportunity – years of the most intimate domestic access – to do so by now. Instead he let Arthur put him in the stocks and have him pelted with fruit; let Arthur make him muck the stables till he was more dung than boy; let Arthur humiliate him, shout at him, insult him, knock him down, run him ragged. But Merlin has never so much as raised a hand with magic to do anything but help him. Arthur does not understand it. What part of him is not ashamed cannot help but be afraid.
Arthur cannot resist attempting a rapprochement almost at once. He paces a while in his own chamber – long enough for the servants to have left Merlin be, he judges – then walks the scant distance down the hall to the chamber they’ve given him.
He knocks at the half-open door. “Come in,” calls Merlin’s voice mildly. Arthur finds himself both surprised and pleased. The sign of a social upstart is usually either too much solicitousness with the servants, or too little.
Merlin has changed into dry clothes – a heavy linen shirt and woollen leggings – and is standing at the table in the centre in the room, removing one of several of what are clearly books of magic from his pack and placing it on a shelf. He sees Arthur enter; sees Arthur react to the book. He smiles apologetically.
“Hello,” Arthur says.
“Hello,” Merlin replies.
Arthur sits down in the chair beside the dressing table – he is not quite willing to intrude so far as to seat himself at the table that Merlin is standing over, and there is nowhere else to sit. It is not a very large chamber: the honour they have paid him is more in its proximity to Arthur’s chambers.
Merlin comes over and sits on the edge of the bed, facing him.
Arthur finds himself smiling foolishly at Merlin, and finds that Merlin is smiling foolishly in return. Something inside Arthur, like an indrawn breath, is released. Merlin is fond of him, he realises, genuinely fond of him. Heaven knows why, but he is.
“How are you, Merlin?” he ventures.
“Well enough,” Merlin replies.
“The people you led from the dungeons have found sanctuary, I am told,” Arthur says. “Thank you for leading them when I could not.” This seems the only decent thing that can be said, at this late stage, though he feels mildly ridiculous speaking so formally: this is Merlin, after all. Arthur has far more feelings about it that this, of course, mostly hinging on Merlin’s absence from Camelot on that final, fateful day, when perhaps he would have been the only creature alive who could have held Camelot against that onslaught, who might have saved Arthur’s father’s life. But Merlin was condemned to death and imprisoned along with scores of other innocents: to break open the dungeons and lead them all to safety in exile was all he could reasonably do. Arthur’s feelings of recrimination are unfair, he knows.
“You’re very welcome,” Merlin says. Then he looks thoughtful and grave, as if he is about to speak again. Arthur thinks it is going to happen now: they are going to have the conversation that dwarfs all other conversations in the grandeur of its shadow, the conversation in which Merlin explains himself to Arthur. They will have to reprise their entire relationship from the start: it may well be that Merlin will have something to explain to Arthur about every single day they have ever known each other. It may be that they could talk all day and all night and still not plumb the depths of Arthur’s appalling and total deficiency of understanding of what has gone on around him. Arthur has itched for these revelations, but now that they threaten to arrive, he is not ready. Perhaps he does not wish to reprise years of his life after all; there is only so much a man can take on board, only so much he can stand.
“And what have you been up to, these last months?” he hurries to say, lightly. Perhaps up to was the wrong thing to say, but he must let it stand now: it would puncture the lightness to backtrack and correct himself.
“A bit of visiting. A bit of searching. A bit of experimenting,” Merlin says. “But I’m not ready to tell you about it yet.” His smile now has a gentleness that Arthur struggles not to find insulting.
There seems nothing that Arthur can say.
“In any case,” Merlin says, mock-dusting off his knees, “I need to unpack.” And he gets up, with an air of expectation.
Arthur has just been dismissed by his own manservant. He stands, nods, and shows himself out.
Arthur tries to read, but has no patience for it, so he throws on a seasoned cloak and goes out to take his usual circuit of the battlements and courtyards. Over the long and wearing months of his confinement here, he has designed a route that allows him to expend as much as possible of his empty time while not appearing aimless to an observer. By late afternoon he has returned to the battlements overlooking the main gate, the circuit almost finished. The rain has stopped, and painfully bright shafts of westering sunlight are piercing a weak spot in the clouds. He glances down toward the gate and sees what appear to be two familiar figures astride horseback.
He stops short and stares. Yes, it is Merlin and Morgana. No woman of this keep has mountains of white fur as magnificent as Morgana’s, and Merlin’s gangling limbs and heron-like neck are as familiar to Arthur as the back of his own hand. Merlin’s seat has improved remarkably, though; it’s not the posture of a knight, to be sure, but he is very much riding the horse now rather than the horse riding him.
This is intolerable. Arthur takes the stairs to the stables at once, rousts the startled grooms from their game of knuckles, and secures himself a mount. He takes off at a trot, never mind the curious eyes in the street.
The ground outside the keep is treacherous, water sheeted over the still-frozen earth, and he cannot break into the canter he longs for. He is good enough a tracker to see where they have left the road, nonetheless.
He catches them soon enough. They have faced their mounts back around towards him – waiting for him. He knows neither of them have the woodsmanship to have detected his pursuit by natural means.
“This is not to be borne!” he cries out, still at a distance. A tide of pomposity has overtaken him and he has been swept away, helpless. He cannot bear to wait for civilised hallooing distance. “I have had enough of it! You will explain yourselves to me!”
Their horses startle at the violence of his arrival. Morgana, the stronger horsewoman, firms her grip on her reins with some success, but Merlin, who is barely adequate, is in danger of losing control of his bay mare altogether. Morgana angrily sizes up the distance to the bay’s bridle, preparatory to lunging to help. Ashamed, Arthur pulls up short and gentles his mount in closer.
“Go back inside and wait,” Morgana calls coldly. “This is no business for you.”
“I am your bloody king,” Arthur says. “Everything you do is my business and I will not go back inside.”
“Arthur,” Merlin says, with palpable distress.
But at the same time, Morgana’s temper snaps. “You’re not anyone’s bloody king at present, and never will be, if you don’t leave us to work,” she spits. “You’re not the only one who’s had enough.”
“You dare,” Arthur says.
“Arthur,” Merlin says again, at an even higher pitch, and tries to reach out a hand to lay on Arthur’s forearm, to calm him. Merlin’s mount, still unsettled, gets a perilous look in her eye.
“All right, hold the saddle horn, Merlin,” Arthur says, in a training-master’s voice. “Lean over!” And they are forced to circle the horses around away from each other, Arthur talking Merlin through it. For a while things are looking as dire for Merlin’s seat as they ever did – he’s a sack of potatoes about to fall off a cart – but he comes good in the end. Arthur is exhilarated; he remembers how well he does as a leader, a trainer of men – it is what he was born to do. For a moment he forgets his errand here, in pleasure. “There,” he says. “You’re a far better horseman than you once were, Merlin. My congratulations.”
Merlin grins. Then his face falls, and Arthur remembers again. “It’s really sorcerers’ business, Arthur, I’m sorry,” Merlin says. “I know you’re going mad with nothing to do. But please, let us work.”
Arthur looks angrily to Morgana, but she has been staring into the woods, face averted, holding her mount steady this whole time. She does not deign to acknowledge him now.
It is hopeless: Merlin is so sorry for him, and Morgana so not even remotely so. Arthur turns his mount and goes, without taking his leave, at the reckless canter he can no longer resist.
Humiliatingly, he almost comes unstuck in what turns out to be a thin skin of water floating over a solid, glassy puddle of ice. His horse’s hooves skate for a long second of terrible, frictionless motion; the beast snorts in fright and stumbles, but recovers. They slow to a walk after that, dejected.
No-one’s mood has improved by dinner.
Peredur has invited Merlin to dine, and naturally Merlin has accepted. Merlin’s taking a seat at table like an equal arouses a certain petulance in Arthur, which he tries unsuccessfully to quash. Merlin is down in the mid-lengths of the table among Peredur’s knights, far from the side of any of the royalty in attendance, as quite reasonably befits his status, Arthur tells himself. He is doing no harm to anyone down there, and when Arthur glances his way, he does not seem to be disgracing himself. But that is an annoyance too; it seems an affront that Merlin should have allowed someone other than Arthur to teach him table manners.
Morgana is positively vengeful. She is radiant in a carmine velvet gown, her hair a black flame, a garnet pendant like a drop of blood winking deep in her bosom. She has observed too well Arthur’s distaste for her indulgence of Peredur’s attention. She dotes on his every word tonight, her hand so often laid on his wrist to emphasise a point that he is forced to eschew the roast meat on the bone so he can eat one-handed.
Arthur downs his tankard mutinously in two long gulps and starts straight into another.
“Is it not curious, Sire,” Morgana says to Peredur, “how in some men an indulgence in drink tempers the natural masculine energy and renders it more agreeable to gentle company, while in others the indulgence is pure, wicked dissolution?”
“Curious indeed,” Arthur interjects, rather too loudly.
“That is your observation, My Lady?” Peredur prompts, rapt. “And what are the signs distinguishing one sort of man from another?”
Everything is made worse by the burbling sound of Merlin’s sprightly conversation with Peredur’s knights, further down the table. They seem to be talking about breeds of sheep, of all things. It would never have been tolerated as a subject for the high table in Camelot, and yet no doubt it suits the peasantish temperament of Peredur’s court. Their tone is that of men enjoying civil company, at ease with their topic. The contrast to Arthur’s end of the table is marked in all regards.
“You do not, then, My Lady, object to a man who may indulge thus from time to time?” Peredur enquires, near quavering with earnestness. Arthur does not entirely understand, having lost the thread of the conversation to a rush of self-pity.
“Oh,” Morgana says, with soft but vehement surprise. “Oh no, Sire.”
Arthur is on his fifth drink before the main course arrives.
Perhaps not more than three hours later, Arthur is listing over sideways on his knees in the dark in his chambers, vomiting spectacularly into the pail with which a maid previously brought up his bathwater. Merlin is kneeling beside him, stroking his back and holding him up. Arthur’s drunken memory may be faulty, but what he recalls is that Merlin is saying, “All right, love. You’re all right.”
When Arthur wakes up the first time, it is still dark. He feels horrifically ill, parched and throbbing with pain. He groans in great earnest. Merlin is there; he helps Arthur sit up, helps him drink cool water from a clean goblet. Arthur falls back into the bed, passive and spent.
He does not sleep again right away. For a while he watches Merlin pottering around the room, tidying and setting things in order by the light of a part-shuttered lantern. Merlin is strangely dressed – when did he get new clothes? And these are not Arthur’s rooms– has his father moved him to a different chamber? But he knows he is too ill to reason well, so puts off these questions for another time. A great sense of peace and wellbeing, of sheer, knee-melting relief, is washing over him, despite his physical illness. He wonders if his knights will rib him for his slowness at training this afternoon, or if his father has some punishment in store. He feels a stab of such love and gratitude, it approaches physical pain. He falls asleep.
When he wakes a second time he is yet unwell, but his reason has returned. He remembers the fall of Camelot. He lies perfectly still on his side in the bed, feigning the death that he might have preferred, had he been given the choice.
A sound startles him but then he remembers: Merlin is here. He does not think he can bear to speak or be spoken to yet, so he is careful to stay still and keep his breathing deep and even. Merlin is making sounds behind him, over his shoulder. Curiosity prompts him to open one eye. In the mirror on the far side of the bed, he can see what Merlin is doing – he is refolding Arthur’s shirts. Arthur owns so little that is genuinely his own these days that he has become precious about letting the servants touch things; lately he manages his own wardrobe, and it is no wonder it is not up to Merlin’s manservantly standards.
Then something else happens: Merlin finishes with the wardrobe and turns to Arthur. Arthur drops his eyelid to half-mast. In the mirror, Arthur sees Merlin approach the bed and sit carefully on the edge. It is difficult to describe what happens next. Merlin bends over him. The only way Arthur can think of to say it is that Merlin bends over him the way a willow bends over a stream. He lifts the hair gently from Arthur’s forehead. And then there is a gesture for which there can be no innocent explanation: he strokes the back of his finger very softly along Arthur’s cheekbone. It makes the hair rise all over Arthur’s body. Instantly, Merlin is pulling the covers up and settling them around Arthur’s jaw. His hand lingers on Arthur’s shoulder: Arthur is sure he can feel its heat through the covers.
Then it appears that Merlin is going to get up and go. It is an intolerable provocation. Arthur rolls over and captures Merlin’s hand before he has a chance to withdraw it.
Merlin almost jumps out of his skin. But Arthur has devised what his own game will be, even as he is rolling over – he has plucked a plan out of the air, and it is ingenious. The game is that he sees nothing strange about holding Merlin’s hand. He is sleepy, and mildly confused – that is his game.
“Hello,” he says, in a wondering tone.
“Hello,” Merlin says, sounding frightened, but responding to Arthur’s smile as if he cannot help himself.
“I was very drunk, I’m afraid,” Arthur says.
“Yes,” Merlin says softly.
“I have some vague memories of...” Arthur gestures to the part of the room where the pail once sat. “Thank you for your assistance, as always.”
“It’s all right,” Merlin says. “How are you now?”
“Not too bad,” Arthur says. “I’ll survive.”
“All right. Well.” Merlin pulls his hand free of Arthur’s with ill-concealed regret, and gets up and goes.
Arthur makes himself respectable enough to show his face by noon, and eats some dry bread and cheese in the kitchens. Then it’s to the battlements, for some bracing wind in his face. It is clear, bright and cold again today, as if yesterday had never been, but for a shimmer on the ground in the distance beyond the gates.
He turns to take the stairs down to the lower keep and comes face to face with Merlin, who is startled. And carrying his pack.
“You’re not leaving?” Arthur demands, with an edge of hysteria he would have preferred not to have voiced.
“No, of course not!”
“Then you’re going out again, and leaving me here to rot.”
“Arthur,” Merlin says helplessly.
“Your pity is insufferable. I don’t need your bloody pity. I need to get out of here. I’m going mad!” This is self-evidently true, as he is in a public place bellowing like a fishmonger. “Please,” he says, “I need you to take me with you. I need you to let me in on this.”
“I can’t,” Merlin says. “Please don’t ask any more.” He looks as though Arthur has just hit him. “Please, I have to go.”
And he has the sheer bloody hide to turn away as if he is actually going to leave.
“How long have you been in love with me?” Arthur says, in an unkind tone. This is not something he has planned. He still does not know what to make of what he saw Merlin do in the mirror in his chambers this morning; it is too freshly strange for him to have formed any sort of conclusion about it at all. But he is desperate to get any sort of hook into Merlin, to find any way of pinning him down.
Merlin turns back towards him. “Forever, I suppose,” he replies flatly. “But you did make it very difficult early on, what with the throwing me in the stocks and all that.” He smiles a little, as if at a private joke.
“I suppose so,” Arthur says, deflated.
Merlin says no more, only looks at him.
“All I can say is, you’ve got bloody awful taste.”
“Don’t say that,” Merlin says. And then he picks up his pack again, and proceeds to leave, as if the whole conversation never happened.
That afternoon, Arthur sends a servant to the seneschal to have Merlin’s chamber unlocked. And why shouldn’t he enter his own advisor’s chamber? He prepares himself to make this argument, but no one questions him. The servant that the seneschal sends back with the key simply unlocks the door, bows and leaves.
So then he is standing alone in the middle of the room. There is nothing to stop him doing anything, anything at all.
Beneath a cover on the table there is half a small wheel of cheese and a slim, bone-handled knife. It’s hard to know whether the knife is Merlin’s or the household’s. It’s not as ornate as the ones that arrive with Arthur’s supper, but it may be that they use different silverware for different guests. Arthur runs his finger along a carving mark in the bone.
Merlin arrived only with his pack, so there is little to see in the wardrobe. He has few clothes, and only one good tunic: the embroidered one he wore to dinner last night. None of the clothes date to his time in Camelot, which suggests he’s been living somewhere stably, for at least part of the time he’s been absent – that tunic hung too well on him last night not to have been made for him, or at least altered to fit. On a shelf is a pile of drawers, worn to softness, which Arthur puts back swiftly, embarrassed, when he realises what it is he’s pawing. On the floor of the hanging space are neatly tucked away a small cooking pot, a bedroll tied up with a leather thong, and a pouch of dried beans. The bedroll might be the one he had in Camelot, for when they went out on overnight hunts, but Arthur can’t be sure.
In a cedar chest there are some smallish wooden boxes, which prove to contain rudimentary potion-making equipment: a crude beaker and a tripod; some stirring and measuring implements; a set of glass vials containing substances of various kinds; a set of empty vials of the same kind. They might have once been Gaius’s: the vials have a familiar shape, but perhaps it is a common shape for a vial. Arthur does not know whether Gaius was in on Merlin’s magic-using. It is hard to believe he could not have been, their living in such close quarters as they did. If he was, he was playing a deep game, to be sure. He was Uther’s oldest adviser, and trusted as much as anyone; it would be hard to know whether to feel admiration or disgust.
That’s it: everything Merlin owns – except the books and the writing things on the shelf. Arthur himself does not own much more. His fortunes have decreased, and Merlin’s increased, so much that they are almost peers.
He carries the books to the table and sits down.
They are ancient-looking things, scuffed and stained with age to the point that they look palpably wicked. They would not be spelled to do something terrible if someone who wasn’t the owner opened them, would they?
Surely not. Merlin has left them out in plain view of the servants.
Arthur inhales carefully and opens the first one.
Nothing happens. It isn’t even in a language he can recognise. The hand and its letterforms are spiky and somewhat crude, and the illustrations are simple line drawings rendered in the same black ink. There is no decorative illumination: it’s a working book, a tool of trade. He is fairly sure it is potion-making apparatus that is pictured: complex structures of pipes, burners and vials. Then, there is a page on which he recognises a beaker and tripod just like the one Merlin has in the wardrobe. There are marginal notes in two different hands, both familiar: Gaius’s hand, elegant and careful, fit for scribes’ work; and Merlin’s, which looks like Gaius’s if it were attacked by a cat. The ink of Merlin’s notes is much fresher. Arthur pores over the potion’s instructions, but cannot make out a thing in this strange language. In the end, frustrated, he is forced to concede that he cannot tell if this is a magical potion.
He sets the first book aside and opens the second. He can read this one: it seems to be a bestiary. Here is something like a dog with three heads. Heavens, here is a serpent-like thing, bigger than the ship it is shown swimming beneath. On another page is something in the shape of a man that seems to be able to collapse itself into a puddle of water. And then, good God: it’s the griffin, that winged creature that once terrorised Camelot, the one that Lancelot killed.
Except that perhaps Lancelot did not actually kill it after all – at least, not by himself. Because there is an incantation here, and a description of a blue flame. And a very definitive statement about the impossibility of killing the griffin with anything but the blue flame.
Arthur puts his face in his hands.
What he feels is something like vertigo, as if the bottom has fallen out of the centre of him. This can only be a fraction of how it would have felt if he had been brave enough to go ahead and ask Merlin to tell him everything. Merlin has the power to re-tell him the story of the last several years of his own life and render every day of it unfamiliar. It is probably the most terrifying power that he has.
Arthur needs a nap and he needs it urgently. But when he thinks about having to get up and go back to his own chambers, he feels intolerably persecuted by the whole world. There is a bed just here. When he considers taking his boots off, he also feels intolerably persecuted. The bed smells like Merlin. He would not have thought he knew how Merlin smells.
When Merlin returns that night, the wardrobe is still ajar, the books are still on the table and Arthur is still in the bed. He has been awake for a while, but so far only been able to bring himself to throw the covers back and sit up against the headboard.
Merlin drops his pack at his feet. Finally it appears he is annoyed. Not a tenth as annoyed as Arthur has been feeling for months now. But it’s something. “Well, you’ve made yourself at home, haven’t you?” he says.
“I’ve just been learning more about how you’ve been making a fool of me for years,” Arthur says, getting to his feet.
Merlin looks stricken.
Has everything Arthur does always had the power to distress Merlin so? Arthur is not sure of anything about their past any more. But he does have this power now, and it fills him with reckless purpose. He stalks over to Merlin. “A fool, a liar, a braggart and a persecutor of innocents,” he says loudly, right into Merlin’s face.
“I’m sorry,” Merlin says abjectly. “I didn’t want to.”
“Are you planning to make a puppet of me? Is that it? Are you going to wheel me out on ceremonial occasions to say yes, sir and no, sir, while the two of you rule?”
“No, Arthur,” Merlin says. “Please.” He raises his hand in a gesture of warding, as if he thinks Arthur is going to hit him. Arthur finds this so outrageous – the tacit accusation so extravagantly unjust – that he swats angrily at Merlin’s hand. But he finds that he has caught Merlin’s wrist instead, and now they are embroiled in a one-armed wrestle for the control of it.
“Or am I a puppet already? Is that what’s going on?” Arthur shakes Merlin’s wrist savagely.
“No!” Merlin says.
“If you’re in love with me, you’ve got a bloody funny way of showing it.” And then, having said that, Arthur’s rage reaches a peak. He has so many things to say, he struggles to get a full one of them out. A series of angry sounds comes out of his mouth, each one aborted before it can form a word in favour of the next, more suitable vehicle for the urgency of his anger.
“Don’t,” Merlin keeps saying. “Please don’t.”
Then Merlin starts to kiss Arthur. He does not try to kiss Arthur’s mouth, which is too busy trying to speak; instead he holds Arthur’s head still with his free hand, and kisses Arthur’s jaw, and cheek, and temple, and forehead. Arthur lets go of his wrist, surprised into helplessness. Merlin cups his hands around Arthur’s face as if it is something very delicate that will shatter if dropped. He does it all the while as though he is completely terrified. His hands are shaking. His kisses soon begin to stutter to a halt. But it is intolerable to Arthur that he should stop. Arthur seizes Merlin. He kisses him on the mouth, still half in anger.
He has not realised how much he has yearned to be touched in kindness, these long months. He arches like a cat for it. His skin itself is hungry.
Merlin seems so delighted with him, delighted to be holding him, to be touching him, to be kissing him; his hands are trembling as he touches him. It’s delightful to be wanted so much, irresistible to indulge him. Arthur lets Merlin take his clothes off, half just to see the look on his face. It doesn’t disappoint, and Arthur kisses him soundly in appreciation.
Arthur feels a distant sense of surprise at his lack of shame at what they are doing. But who will judge them here, he thinks. He cares nothing for their hosts, and Morgana is surely too far gone down her own strange path to trouble herself.
In the end, he’s so delirious he lets Merlin do something terrible. He lets him enter his body from behind, mount him as a stallion mounts a mare. Senseless with pleasure and humiliation, Arthur can hear the sound of himself bleating like an animal. It feels wonderful and unbearable, and the fact that he is allowing it to happen is also unbearable, and the fact that it feels wonderful is also, in itself, unbearable.
Afterwards, Arthur sleeps for a time. When he wakes, the covers are pulled up over him and Merlin is sitting at the table in only his leggings, writing furiously on a scroll. Merlin hears him wake and smiles at him before going back to work.
Eventually Merlin puts his pen down. He speaks as though they are already in the middle of a conversation, a conversation that is bordering on an argument, and have just paused for breath. He says, “I know you don’t want to hear this, but I need you to stop pushing Morgana. I’m afraid she’s going to break with you if you don’t stop pushing. And we need her. I need her to tell me what I need to do. I don’t have prophecy the way she does – I’m blind without her. I know you two don’t get along, but I just need you to stop. Just be the bigger man and stop. Please.”
Arthur finds this unspeakably, woundingly unjust. But it seems impossible to argue, not while his body is still soft and loose and slippery with the oil Merlin used to ease his way before. He turns his hot face into the pillow. A noise makes him look up: Merlin is wide-eyed, stumbling toward the bed, and taking his leggings off again. Arthur finds himself unable to bring himself to move, let alone resist. Merlin climbs over him and kisses the back of his neck fervently. Merlin adds more oil, as if that could possibly be necessary, and enters Arthur again. He presses deep: it feels deeper than he was before. This time he lays his whole body down adoringly, plastered over Arthur’s back. He rocks his hips to thrust, a shallow movement that ensures he is never anything less than startlingly deep inside.
“Oh Arthur,” he says, voice so thick with devotion and desperation, he sounds a breath away from crying. All at once, without meaning to, Arthur forgives Merlin for doing this to him – and actually, forgives him for everything. Something about his devotion is impossible not to forgive.
Merlin explains himself at last, later that night, when they are lying unclothed in bed again.
“The thing is,” he says, “people like Morgana and me need to be careful. When people see what we can do, it frightens them.”
“That’s what you’re worried about: that I’m going to be afraid? Are you serious?” Arthur gets up on his elbow.
“Yes,” Merlin says ardently. “I’m bloody serious.” Arthur sees that he is. “I don’t mean that they’re frightened just like when someone jumps out behind you and says boo. I mean that they don’t see you as really a person any more. It’s like you’re a bear, or not even that, something worse than a bear – because with a bear, you don’t mind if it’s off in the woods doing its own thing, as long as it’s not here bothering you. But they see you as a kind of bear that can’t be allowed to live anywhere. That has to be...” Merlin flaps his hand. “Eradicated.”
“Has this happened to you?”
“Yes. Didn’t you ever think, now that you know what you know, why the hell my mum, who knows I’m a sorcerer, would send me to Camelot, where magic was outlawed? When we lived somewhere where it was perfectly legal?”
“I must be a bit stupid,” Arthur says. “Do you mean that people were finding out, and they were scared?”
“Yeah,” Merlin says. “I mean, people had found out, and then, well, suddenly, everyone started wearing amulets of protection – useless things – and any time someone’s cow’s milk went dry, people would start asking whether they’d had an argument with me. I couldn’t go into the public house in the end without everybody suddenly stopping talking and staring at me. They wouldn’t say a peep again until I’d left. My mum was afraid of what they’d do next.”
“I’m so sorry, Merlin,” Arthur says. He finds that he wants to go back to Ealdor and belt the lot of them around the ears. “But you can’t think that I would ever...”
“You have to imagine...” Merlin interrupts. And then something strange is happening to Arthur. Something is moving on his chest. It’s a soft little green light, moving over his skin. It tickles as it goes, lifting all the hairs on his chest. There’s something kittenish about it: Arthur wants to catch it, but it’s faster than quicksilver when he tries, always already gone. After a few tries, he laughs aloud.
Merlin closes his hand over it, where it sits over Arthur’s heart, and it disappears. “You have to imagine,” he says, “something like that. Something impossible, something I can do to you by means you don’t understand, something you can’t stop me doing. But it’s not little and sweet like that. It’s enormous, and extraordinary, and completely unnatural, and by rights no one in the universe should be able to do it. But I can. And I’m doing it, and you can’t stop me. Can you try to imagine that? Because that’s what I’m talking about.”
“I don’t expect I’ll be able to imagine it until I see it. You’re just going to have to have some faith in me,” Arthur says. He touches Merlin’s wrist. There is a line that must be where his shirt cuff usually comes down to: the skin is brown from the outdoors on one side of the line, and pale on the other. It looks like there should be a difference in texture, but the skin is just as soft on either side. It’s easier to speak in this pleading tone when he is looking at Merlin’s wrist rather than his face. “And God help you, Merlin, if you’re doing all this to see me on the High King’s throne, and you don’t have faith in me, you’re on a fool’s errand. And you know what? Even if you can’t summon up the faith in me, have faith in this. I would rather do anything, absolutely anything in the world, than die here of old age.”
“All right,” Merlin says at last, simply.
They kiss for a long time, to chase away the night’s chill. Arthur discovers a new delight: rolling on top of Merlin and holding his wrists down to kiss him. Then they get up again, get dressed and leave the castle. Magic stills the sound of their footfalls. Out on the battlements, the moon is up, and Merlin stops Arthur with a hand to the chest. “Your hair’s too bright,” he says. He strokes his fingers through it and it comes away black. Then they go below, and out into the night.