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Arthur the Lonely Ogre

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Once upon a time in a land not so far away lived a handsome spoiled young Lord named Arthur who had everything he could wish. He lived in a fine manor house with high ceilings and lots of servants. His farms produced abundance, allowing him to live in luxury. He was a solitary young man and refused the invitations of his neighbors, preferring his own company. Unfortunately, one of his neighbors was an accomplished sorceress who desired his company greatly. When she failed to win his heart, she cursed him into an ogre's form. An unfortunate choice for her as he killed her almost instantly for this, but the damage was done. Twelve feet tall with arms that dangled to his knees, hands the size of a man's head but with stubby furred fingers that might as well have all been thumbs, eyes the size of saucers even if they retained their cornflower blue, knobbly hide where before he'd had the smoothest of skin, tusks growing out of a widened mouth, and a voice that produced nothing but the most terrifying of growls, he could hardly blame his servants for trying to kill him.

Still it was his house, so he drove the servants away with growls and pounding. He ignored the ones sneaking back into the house to get their belongings until they were on their way with what they'd come for. He did catch one butler trying to loot the place. One good roar and the man fainted. The young Lord laid him carefully at the edge of the red and gold wood and watched from a distance until the man woke and stumbled off.

With no one to keep the lovely manse, it soon began to take on the character of an ogre's home. Ogre hands were large and clumsy. Though Arthur tried to be careful, he couldn't manage doors well and they tended to end up hanging open, allowing debris to blow in. He couldn't manage broom or mop and certainly not a dusting cloth. He'd always been an accomplished hunter, and his farmers, those who stayed, didn't seem to object to his taking an occasional sheep. He could manage a rough approximation of cleaning the carcasses and the kitchen held a spit large enough to roast even a bull if necessary, so he kept himself fed. Still it bothered him to see his family home go to ruin. He took to longer and longer walks in the woods and with the full turning of the seasons finally learned to wish for company in his solitary existence.

On one of these walks he heard laughter, bright happy laughter that called to him. Approaching carefully from upwind so as not to startle any horses (horses seemed to have a particular aversion to ode de ogre) Arthur spotted a young couple on horseback, trotting through the red and brown fall foliage. Not seeing any harm in it, Arthur followed along, enjoying their merry chatter and daydreaming about being normal again, able to ride and talk with them.

Suddenly a group of eight unwashed men swung into the lane in front of the young couple, startling the horses as they surrounded them with swords drawn. The men demanded money, which the young man handed over without objection. But the men weren't satisfied and talked of having some fun. One of the men patted the woman on the leg.

"Leave my sister alone!" said the young man, finally drawing the sword that he'd so far wisely left sheathed. "Can't you see she's with child?"

"Probably won't be by the time we get done with her," laughed the leader.

That did it for Arthur. With a roar he ran forward, scooped up the bandit nearest the woman and tossed him against a tree. The thieves were no match for an ogre. Arthur already knew from his experience with his own servants that nothing but the sharpest of blades could pierce his ogre hide, and he could see the rust on the bandit's blades from the trees where he'd been hidden. He showed the thieves no mercy. Two managed to flee, but the rest lay dead at Arthur's feet.

He turned to where he'd last seen the young couple, expecting that they would have fled as well while he had their attackers distracted. Instead, the woman lay unconscious on the ground, her brother leaning over her, alternately trying to revive her and watching the carnage. When he saw Arthur's eyes on him, he rose quivering, sword held out unsteadily to menace the ogre. Arthur eyed the bright steel warily. That sword might be sharp enough to pierce him, though he doubted the young man had ever had to use it in anything other than practice.

Arthur considered leaving them alone. Their horses had run off, it wasn't more than a couple of hours until dark, and the woman was hurt and pregnant, though not far along. Two of the thieves had escaped and Arthur also knew a wolf pack had been menacing the sheep flocks in the area. These two on their own were most likely someone's meat that didn't know it yet. Arthur might be an ogre now, but he remembered being a man and a Lord, someone people looked to for protection, which these two desperately needed.

Arthur took the measure of the skinny young man. There was precious little muscle showing beneath the fine linen of his shirt or the leather of his tight laced vest. He was tall, though only half Arthur's present height, with dark hair and eyes the color of a stormy sea. The way he held his sword indicated he'd had some training, but his trembles suggested he'd never had to use it. Arthur had been in enough battles to be sure he could take the young man even if he'd been in his normal form, but he didn't want to hurt him.

Arthur began to circle the young man, growling quietly, trying to rattle him further. The young man tried to stay between the ogre and his sister, but it wasn't long before Arthur had maneuvered him out of the way. As quickly but gently as he could, Arthur slid his arms under the unconscious woman and cradled her in his oversized arms. The young man shouted and attacked, but Arthur was away, his long legs carrying him over the ground in an easy trot.

"Freya!" called the young man desperately. Arthur could hear him running behind them, but Arthur didn't need to run to keep ahead of him. At one point he heard the young man stumble and fall. Arthur stopped and looked behind him. Fortunately, the boy had dropped the sword well away from his body and not fallen on it. Arthur could see tears in the young man's eyes as he stared, certain the ogre would disappear with his sister. Arthur waited while the young man sorted himself out, including sheathing his sword. Once he was back on his feet Arthur again set off for his house, slowing to a walk now. The man following would still have to hurry to keep up, but he wouldn't have to run.

The sun was setting in a blazing glory when the woman woke in Arthur's arms and cried out. Arthur paused for a moment to shift her weight slightly when she tried to struggle, but she wasn't hard to hold. He had to be careful not to hold her too tightly.

"Freya!" howled the young man, when he heard his sister's cries. "I'm coming, Freya. I'm right behind you. I won't leave you."

"Merlin!" she called, staring into the ogre's face in terror, but clinging to him as though he might drop her. "Merlin, what's happening?"

"I don't know," Merlin panted from behind them. "But I won't lose you!"

Arthur wished he could say something to calm the young woman's fears and those of her brother, but he knew his words would only come out as terrifying growls, so he wisely said nothing and concentrated on getting them to shelter. He finally came out of the trees into a clearing that once had been the finely manicured lawn of his manse. He hurried forward, knowing the young man couldn't get lost now, through the ruined front door and up a sweeping staircase. He yanked open the door to the first of the guest rooms he came to, pulling it off one hinge as he'd done with several others so far. He laid the lady gently on the bed and retreated from the room.

Merlin had made it as far as the bottom of the stairs and once again drew his sword. Arthur took the course of least resistance and retreated further down the upper hall. He was a little surprised that the lady didn't leave the room he'd placed her in, but he hoped she might have come to understand his intentions.

Merlin climbed to the top of the stair, his face blotchy and his breathing labored from the chase. "Freya?" he called out anxiously, staring at the ogre, who was double his size.

"Here, Merlin," she called. Merlin followed the sound of her voice and slipped inside the room. Arthur padded closer to hear their conversation, hoping the lady wasn't more greatly injured than he'd thought.

"Freya, are you alright?" asked Merlin, sitting beside her on the bed.

"I'm kind of seeing two of you," said Freya, taking his arm. "My head hurts."

"The baby?" asked Merlin.

"I think the baby's ok," said Freya. "I don't feel him much yet and I don't think I could tell over the pounding of my heart, but I'm not sore there."

"No, you just hit your head on a rock when the horse threw you," said Merlin, worry permeating his tone.

"We need to go, get away from that thing," said Freya, trying to sit up. Merlin helped her into a sitting position but she immediately grabbed her stomach and, turning on her side, lay down again.

"What is it, the baby?" asked Merlin anxiously.

"You'd make a great mid-wife, brother dear," said Freya ironically. "No, it's not the baby, just my head messing with my stomach."

Arthur could hear Merlin moving about the room. "I don't think we're going to get anything to eat, but you'll need water. There's a pitcher here and there must be a pump nearby, but I'm afraid to leave you."

At that Arthur clomped across the hall and down the stairs. He hid under them, knowing now that the pair would stay and hoping Merlin would come down if he thought Arthur out of the way. It wasn't long before he heard footsteps creeping down the stair. Arthur stayed very still, not wanting to frighten his guest into a retreat. Merlin peeped around the foot of the stair and froze, seeing Arthur's saucer like eyes peering back at him. Arthur tried smiling, though with the tusks he knew it wasn't likely to make him seem any more genial. Merlin blanched but didn't run, which Arthur took as a positive sign. Moving slowly, the ogre pointed toward the kitchen.

"You first," replied Merlin warily.

Arthur shrugged and lumbered out from under the stair. Merlin had the pitcher in one hand and the sword in the other. Arthur decided to ignore the sword. As long as he stayed a few of his steps in the lead, it was likely he'd hear an attack and be able to avoid any serious injury, though he'd hate to injure his potential friend. If he could show Merlin where to get food and water for his sister, maybe he'd calm down and accept that Arthur was trying to take care of them. Arthur led the way through the dim halls, which got narrower and lower as they approached the servants' areas of the house. Arthur ended up scooting through the doorway to the kitchen on all fours, but fortunately the kitchen itself had ceilings nearly high enough for him to stand.

The way Merlin peeked through the kitchen door convinced Arthur that he was wondering if he was on the menu. Arthur was glad he'd cleaned the bones off the spit from the night before. Even a deer carcass wasn't likely to reassure his guest. He pointed to the door leading into the courtyard, and the pump, and backed off as much as possible from the path between the two doors. Merlin took a glance back the way they'd come, but then seemed to decide something and sheathed his sword. Arthur heard him pumping the water, but stayed still, waiting for Merlin to return.

When he did, Merlin gravely said, "Thank you."

Encouraged, Arthur took a step forward making a happy chuffing noise and pointed to set of keys hanging by another doorway.

Eyes wide, Merlin held the water pitcher to his chest as he stepped back as much distance as Arthur had come toward him. Arthur stopped and so did Merlin. It was a long moment before Merlin would look where Arthur pointed, but when he did, he said, "The storerooms. Is there food down there?"

Arthur nodded, making the happy chuffing noise again. He knew he probably shouldn't, but he couldn't help trying to verbalize. Merlin set the pitcher down and found a candle in a holder. He dug through the ashes of the banked fire for an ember to light it with. Taking the keys, he started down the stone steps to the cellar. Arthur didn't follow. He knew from experience that stair was a tight fit. Instead he hauled in firewood and built up a blaze in the fireplace to push back the gathering gloom of twilight. It felt like forever before Merlin reemerged, a basket on his arm, though Arthur knew it couldn't have been more than a half an hour at most.

"There's a lot of rotting food down there," said Merlin warily. "But there are some pickles that look edible and plenty of nuts. There are some lentils that would make up into a good soup and dried spices to flavor it. There are crocks of jam and flour in a stone bin I think we could use, but there's no milk or eggs to mix it with, is there?"

Arthur shook his huge head for the milk and nodded for the eggs.

"Can you understand me?" asked Merlin sharply.

Arthur nodded his head emphatically.

"You can understand me, you just can't talk?" asked Merlin disbelievingly.

Arthur nodded again.

"So there's no milk?"

Arthur shook his head.

"But you could show me where to find eggs?"

Arthur nodded.

"Ok," said Merlin shutting his eyes momentarily as if having trouble comprehending his current reality. "Do you mind if I drink your ale?"

Arthur shook his head.

"Ok," said Merlin again, glancing out at the darkness beyond the window. "Eggs in the morning, ale tonight." He took the candle with him as the sun's light was quickly failing, picked up the pitcher of water and headed out the door they'd originally come through.

Arthur waited in the kitchen knowing Merlin would be back for the ale.

********************

Arthur woke in the morning, flopped all over his grand bed, arms and legs hanging over the edges. He wasn't normally a morning person, but this morning he woke as though from a happy dream. It took him a moment to remember what was causing this unaccustomed euphoria - his guests! Arthur popped out of bed, banged his head on the canopy and bumped into a well dented wardrobe before he managed to get his oversized limbs sorted out. He took a moment to calm himself. He was still an ogre and his guests weren't likely to see him otherwise anytime soon, though Merlin had thoughtfully brought up a bucket of ale for Arthur when he'd gone for his own pint. Disappointingly, Merlin had immediately retreated to the room Arthur had placed Freya in instead of drinking with his host. Still, it was a start.

Arthur padded into the corridor, knowing that tiptoe was useless with his oversized feet. The door to the siblings' room was shut and Arthur sat down to wait for one of them to emerge. Arthur was fairly certain that Merlin had slept across the door the night before after dragging and yanking it shut so he wasn't sure if the lack of light from the crack below the door indicated that the young man was still sleeping or that the curtains were still shut tight. A brushing noise reached his ear. As quietly as he could he padded past the closed door and looked over the banister to the hall below. Merlin had found a broom and was sweeping a year's worth of wind wrack out the double doorway.

Arthur watched for a bit, until Merlin looked up and saw him there. "Should I be worried that you're closer to my sister than I am?" asked the young man suspiciously.

Arthur shook his head and descended the stair.

"She says she's a bit better this morning, but her head still aches," said Merlin hostily. "We will be missed you know. I mean not right away. I'd gone to tell Freya that mother was ill and couldn't visit her as planned, but no one was expecting her to ride back with me, and it wouldn't have been surprising if I'd stayed with her a few days, so it will be a few days, but we will be missed." Merlin threw his broom aside. "I've already been to your stables so I know there are no horses. I've no idea where we are and even if I did, I wouldn't trust you enough to leave Freya here alone to go for help and she shouldn't walk far in her condition. So we'll have to wait for a rescue party. Freya is married to Sir Oswald. He'll come for her. He won't like the looks of you so you'd better just make yourself scarce when he comes. Do you understand?"

Arthur nodded. He did understand. He'd trained with Oswald and they'd been to each other's homes several times. He'd know where he was, though he probably wouldn't recognize Arthur's distorted features. But maybe… it would be a few days… maybe if he could get Merlin to understand him a little; maybe there was some way to break the enchantment? Oswald wasn't stupid, he might be able to recognize Arthur. Then again, he might just attack Arthur on principle. Ogre after all. Still, even a slight chance was a chance.

Arthur fleetingly considered taking the siblings home. He didn't know where the squire lived, but he could return them to Sir Oswald's estate. But Merlin was probably right that Freya shouldn't walk so far and he was quite certain her brother would object if he tried to carry her again.

Merlin grabbed up the broom and turned back to his sweeping. "I don't mind doing a few chores in exchange for your hospitality. Freya will probably pitch in too when she's feeling better. She doesn't like to sit idle even though she's a Lady now. Our father's a squire, so we were raised to work. But you keep clear of her, you hear?" Merlin shook his broom at the ogre and Arthur couldn't help but laugh.

Apparently his laugh was at least recognizable for what it was, because Merlin blushed to the tips of his ears, threw his broom down again and stalked outside. Arthur followed him, making what he hoped were apologetic noises. Merlin controlled himself visibly and turned to face the ogre, though he kept his eyes averted. "I know. I'm a joke with a sword. That's probably why you took us."

Arthur shook his head, wanting to explain but completely unable. He shuffled forward slowly and was gratified that Merlin didn't back away this time. He reached out with his stubby hand and patted Merlin's shoulder as gently as he could, which judging from Merlin's jump, wasn't very gentle at all. Arthur pulled back his hand, but at least Merlin hadn't fallen and didn't seem injured. Arthur reached for the young man again, slowly. This time Merlin did take a step back, but only one as he watched the ogre's stubby furred fingers reach for him. Arthur dropped his hand and thought a moment. Then he clapped his hands and pointed to a path leading around the side of the house. He took a few steps down it and looked back to see that Merlin was following.

The young man looked annoyed, but he followed Arthur around the side of the manse to the kitchen entrance, hurrying to keep up with the ogre's long strides. There Arthur turned onto another path leading into the grounds. He stopped as soon as he could see his destination and pointed.

"A chicken coop," said Merlin. Like everything else on the estate, the coop was showing signs of neglect and needed a good cleaning. The door to the coop had been torn off and the chickens roamed around freely. Arthur hadn't been able to do anything for them other than bring up an occasional bucket of water in dry weather, but they seemed to be able to find enough forage for themselves that a number had continued to make their homes in the coop.

Merlin crept forward, careful not to startle the birds. When he returned to Arthur, his shirt was held up to create a pouch and Arthur was certain he'd gotten no fewer than a dozen eggs. "I already put the lentils on to simmer for soup, but they'll take a while and these will make up into some nice scones for breakfast." Merlin looked almost shy. "You're trying to take care of us, aren't you?"

Arthur nodded. He'd go out and get a deer or a sheep later for dinner. In the meantime, he'd missed the treats he couldn't cook for himself and his mouth watered for scones and jam. He followed Merlin into the kitchen, ducking nearly double to get through the door.

Merlin checked the baking cupboard set into the fireplace wall and pronounced it hot enough, gave the lentils a stir and proceeded to mix up the dough for the scones. "They'll be a little dry without milk," he said apologetically.

Arthur nodded and concentrated on staying out of the way while Merlin flitted about the room.

Once Merlin had popped the sheet of scones into the oven he said over his shoulder, "I'll go see if Freya is feeling up to coming down to breakfast."

Arthur could see by the tense set of Merlin's shoulders how worried he was to have his sister in the same room with the ogre, but Arthur didn't want to miss out on either the food or the company. The ogre shuffled forward tentatively. Merlin turned sharply to face him, his eyes wide and wary. Arthur raised his right hand and crossed his heart.

Merlin's eyebrows rose in surprise. "You promise? Not to hurt her?"

Arthur nodded and made the gesture again.

"Ok," said Merlin, still trying to comprehend the reality of the friendly ogre. He retreated from the room and was gone long enough Arthur worried the scones might burn. When he returned with his sister, the siblings stopped just inside the entrance to the kitchen, both looking as though they were ready to take flight on the instant.

The three stared at each other for a moment before Freya dropped a curtsey.

Smiling, Arthur bowed. Unfortunately, he straightened up too far and banged his head on the ceiling. He cried out in pain and dropped to his knees, knowing from experience it was the fastest way to sort out his height versus the height of the room. Grumbling, he rubbed at the pain and looked up to check the new dent in the ceiling before looking back to his guests. Merlin had stepped in front of his sister and Freya had a hand over her mouth, but at least they hadn't run. Arthur swept a hand toward the table in the center of the room, hoping they would understand the invitation to be seated.

The two glanced guardedly at each other in unspoken communication. Freya took the bench furthest from Arthur and Merlin pulled the scones from the oven. He slid them off the pan into a bowl he'd placed on the table for that purpose. "Oh, I forgot the jam," apologized Merlin, glancing at Arthur.

"It's in the cellar, isn't it?" asked Freya, immediately understanding her brother's dilemma. "Go on. I'll be fine. He promised, didn't he?"

Arthur nodded. Pulling his legs out from under him, he sat down on his arse, accidently kicking the bench on his side of the table. Grimacing, he gathered his knees to his chest.

Merlin frowned, but lit a candle and descended the stairs. A moment later they heard the squire's son cry out and Freya called out, "Are you alright?"

"Yes, fine," answered Merlin's voice sounding annoyed. Footsteps on the stairs announced his return. "Slipped in something down there. There's a lot of rotting food."

"Well, if we're going to stay a while, we should clean it up," said Freya firmly.

"I'll take care of it after breakfast," said Merlin, seating himself at the table and opening the jam. He split half the scones and filled them with the preserves.

"Are you going to eat all of them?" laughed Freya.

"No," said Merlin, pushing the plate full of scones over near Arthur.

Arthur grinned and popped a scone into his mouth. They were only single bites for him but he chewed happily and rubbed his stomach to show his appreciation.

Merlin and Freya split the rest between them. "We'll need more light than a single candle in the cellar," said Freya.

Arthur growled and raised his hand. He pointed to a cupboard.

Merlin rose and checked it. "There're a couple of lanterns in here," he reported. "That will make it easier. You should probably go back upstairs."

Exasperatedly, Freya said, "I am not going to spend all day in bed. I promise to let you do all the heavy lifting and not overtire myself, but I'd prefer not to die of boredom."

"You still have a headache though, don't you?" asked Merlin anxiously.

Freya opened her mouth to argue, but Arthur growled and waved his hands across each other, palm out.

"I don't think he wants us to argue," said Freya warily.

Arthur nodded and pointed at her to indicate she was right.

"It's like playing charades," said Merlin.

Arthur agreed with that as well. Then he got up and blocked the doorway to cellar. Crossing his arms across his chest he shook his head.

"But the food is down there," objected Merlin.

Arthur stepped aside and swept his arm out to indicate the doorway.

"I don't get it," said Merlin.

Arthur let out a gusty sigh. He spotted a broom propped in a corner. Ah, well, it was hardly the only broom in the house. He reached out a long arm for it and snapped it in two.

"No cleaning," said Freya. "We can go down to the cellar for food but you don't want us to clean the house?"

Arthur nodded, making a happy chuffing noise.

"Are you angry at me because I was sweeping this morning?" asked Merlin worriedly.

Arthur shook his head and shuffled forward. He reached a hand toward Merlin, keeping his movement slow. As lightly as he could, he patted Merlin's shoulder. Freya gasped in reaction, but Merlin stayed still and only eyed the ogre warily.

"Umm?" said Freya, trying to guess Arthur's meaning but coming up with nothing.

"It's what you said this morning isn't it? Or rather what I said that I thought you meant. You're trying to take care of us, aren't you?" asked Merlin.

Arthur nodded, chuffed, and pointed at him to confirm his guess.

Sotto voice, Merlin said out of the side of his mouth, "I think we're pets."

Arthur growled fairly loudly.

Freya's spine stiffened, her eyes wide. "No, guests. Isn't that right, master Ogre?"

Arthur nodded and pointed at her.

"I see," she said, relaxing slightly, "and guests don't generally do the cleaning. However, it seems your staff is a bit behind in their work."

"You didn't eat them, did you?" asked Merlin, semi-serious.

Arthur growled at him again.

Freya hit her brother on the shoulder hard enough to make him wince. "Of course not. Obviously, they've all run off."

Arthur nodded and wondered if it would be possible to show Freya where his pensioners lived. They hadn't anywhere to run and some of his servants had taken shelter with them. She might get a better idea of how things stood and she seemed kind enough she might be able to do something for them. He certainly hadn't been able to fulfil his duties toward them. On the other hand, he didn't really know their opinions and he could only guess at what wild stories they might have come up with to explain his change of circumstance. He'd have to consider that idea carefully before doing anything about it.

"In that case, I shall consider myself your guest," said Freya formally. "But if you don't mind too much, I'm rather used to keeping myself busy with my own household and I'd rather not sit idle."

A low growl issued from Arthur's chest, but he sat back down and pulled up his knees again.

"Good," said Freya. "So we'll just get some chores done as they aren't a strain on either of us to do them." She stood up from the bench. "In the meantime, I was wondering if there might be some clothes I could change into while I wash my own?"

Arthur tilted his head considering. The siblings looked like they'd slept in what they were wearing and neither would be used to that, though it was probably harder on Freya than Merlin. Arthur shrugged and pointed up.

"Upstairs somewhere?" asked Merlin, also rising.

"The attics, maybe?" asked Freya.

Arthur nodded.

"Can we find something for you as well, while we're up there?" asked Freya.

Arthur looked down at the breeches he was wearing. He'd torn through his own wardrobe when he'd first been changed, but nothing had half fit. He hadn't gone up to the attics because that stair was even tighter than the one to the cellar. He never did find a shirt that would work, but he'd finally found a pair of breeches in the room of one of his fatter servants that he'd managed to cram into and they were tattered with a year's worth of wear. He nodded at Freya wishing he could show his gratitude.

"Why don't you go up and see what's there while I get after the dishes?" Merlin asked his sister. "I'll come up in a bit and move around anything that's in your way."

"I could do the dishes, Merlin," said Freya.

"Yes, but I've no desire to be asked my opinion on ladies' things," said her brother irreverently.

"Now I see how you are," said Freya teasingly. She nodded an acknowledgement to the ogre and headed upstairs.

Merlin visibly relaxed once she was out of the room. He ignored the ogre while he stirred the lentils and gathered up the dishes and brought in water.

Arthur stayed silent, doing his best to be invisible. It wasn't as if he could carry on any kind of a conversation. He wanted more, but watching, just having someone there, was more company than he'd had in so long.

"I'm protective of her. You can see that I'm sure," said Merlin suddenly, dipping a dish into a tub full of water.

Arthur made his chuffing noise, hoping Merlin would hear it as agreement since his back was to the ogre and he couldn't see him nod.

"We're twins, you know? We were always together growing up. I miss her so much now that she's married and has a home of her own."

Arthur wished he had some way to answer, to talk about his own sister.

Merlin finally looked at the ogre. "As long as you don't hurt her, I don't care what you do to me."

Arthur slipped his legs under him and knee walked toward the young man. He tried to smile, but Merlin just grimaced in return. Arthur tapped the baking sheet Merlin had yet to wash.

"More scones?" asked Merlin hopefully.

Arthur clapped his hands to show his approval. Then he got to his feet and lumbered out the door. Lentil soup would be nice for mid-day, but the ogre was already craving meat. He'd hunt and possibly stop by a beehive he knew the location of. Bee stings couldn't get through his ogre hide and honey could be used in several ways. He hoped Merlin knew a few more recipes.

*******************

The days soon settled into a routine. Merlin was always up first and Arthur would usually find him in the kitchen when he woke. Freya slept later, but would be up by the time breakfast was ready. Arthur was careful to stay on the other side of the room from Freya so as to give Merlin the least amount of concern for his sister. The twins would spend the morning cleaning and fixing the house or gathering berries, nuts and root vegetables nearby while Arthur went off for the day's hunting. After their mid-day meal, Freya would take a nap, usually with a headache, which (though he felt sorry for her) Arthur thought the best time of day because Merlin would relax and be less defensive when she wasn't in the room with them. Then Merlin would talk to Arthur while he worked instead of Freya. Merlin always seemed to be in motion. Evenings, the twins would retire to Arthur's library and play chess or checkers or read each other stories out of Arthur's books. Arthur would sit just outside the door, so as not to intrude, and listen.

Arthur found he loved listening to the sound of Merlin's voice. He hadn't realized how lonely he'd gotten with no human voices in the house. It didn't matter that Merlin spoke of inconsequentialities, it was enough that he was there.

One afternoon after the twins had been with him a little over a week, Merlin led Arthur around the side of the house to the tool shed. Merlin wrestled out a heavy ladder and asked the ogre if he could carry it. Arthur happily obliged. Where Arthur had been both strong and graceful as human, now he was extremely strong and awkward. He'd been an excellent swordsman and missed feeling that he was good at anything really. So a chance to use his strength for something other than wrecking something was welcome.

Merlin led him back around to the front of the manse. "What say we fix the front door today?"

Arthur dropped the ladder and clapped, doing a little step-hop in his excitement.

"You like that, do you?" asked Merlin with a smile. Pointing, he said, "I'll need the ladder there so I can see how much damage you did to that top hinge. I may have to redrill the holes in the frame and the door, but I think the door itself is salvageable. I could carve some new handles that would work better with those mitts you call hands than these brass knobs."

Arthur worked happily all afternoon with Merlin, holding the door straight while Merlin took measurements and unscrewed the remaining hinge. He set up sawhorses and laid the door (that was nearly as tall as he was) across them. Merlin might not have been a fantastic swordsman, but he was nearly magical as a craftsman. Arthur's heart thrilled delightedly to see Merlin setting right the home he'd broken. He sat watching the squire's son dreamily, waiting for a task that called for brute strength and imagining his home beautiful again under Merlin's touch.

A sudden shout from the forest's edge and the pounding of hoof beats broke his happy dream. Merlin glanced from Arthur to the lightly armored knight with sword raised high racing toward them. "Go!" shouted Merlin at Arthur and then he was running toward the knight, who had three more armed but unarmored men at his heels. Arthur roared a warning at the knight, but retreated inside the house and watched from the front window. Merlin snatched a hold on the knight's saddle and pulled up his feet, forcing him to slow to a stop in the middle of the courtyard.

"Oswald!" shouted Merlin, as he got his feet back under him. "Don't attack him! He hasn't hurt us. He saved us from bandits."

"We saw the bodies. Where's Freya?" demanded the auburn haired knight.

"She's in the house," said Merlin breathlessly. "I'll bring her out."

"That was an ogre, Merlin," insisted Sir Oswald. "That monster can't be left alive."

Merlin straightened. "I saw him kill half dozen armed men. You've only three with you and this is his home. If you attack him, you'll be killed. Please, let me just get Freya and bring her out. He won't hurt me or her. Do you want to die before you see your son?"

Arthur saw Oswald glance up at the window where he stood. The ogre roared and did his best to make a scary face. He heard a sound behind him and half-turned to see Freya by the upstairs banister. He held up a hand to sign that she should stay where she was and was surprised by her answering nod. She placed a hand on her enlarged belly and waited patiently.

"Freya!" yelled Oswald, guessing the cause of the ogre's distraction and dismounting.

Merlin grabbed a hold of his sword arm and used his weight to hold his brother-in-law back. "She's safe, Oswald. She's fine. Do you hear screaming? If you go in there, you will get her killed. Trust me, I can bring her out. Just give me five minutes."

Oswald turned maddened eyes on the younger man. "Two minutes and if you ever grab my sword arm again, I will kill you, brother-in-law or not!"

Merlin released the knight's arm and ran up the steps into the manse. He spared a glance for Arthur, but as soon as he noticed Freya at the top of the stair, he motioned her to come down.

Arthur growled, just loud enough to get attention.

Merlin turned to him and said, "I'm sorry I can't stay and finish the door but you knew they would come for us."

Freya stopped beside her brother, in full view of those outside and dropped a curtsey to the ogre. "I thank you for your hospitality, Master Ogre. I apologize if my husband seems discourteous. I assure you, he's only concerned for my welfare."

Despair gripped Arthur's heart and he knew he could not bear to be left alone again. He bowed clumsily, pointed to Merlin, then to the floor. He pointed to Freya and then out the door.

"I think he wants me to stay," said Merlin, paling.

"Merlin needs to come with me," said Freya firmly.

"Freya!" called Oswald, bouncing on the balls of his feet impatiently.

She held up a hand that firmly shooed her husband off.

Arthur shook his head.

Freya took a step toward the ogre, shaking a finger, "Now look here…"

Merlin caught her around the waist and held her back. "He won't hurt me, Freya. He just doesn't want to be alone. You should go."

"Oswald won't leave you," said Freya stubbornly.

Merlin snorted. "I doubt your husband thinks I'm worth a fight. I'll be fine. There's just a lot of work to do here." He touched her stomach and grinned. "I want to see my nephew. You send a messenger to me when the baby's born. I'll come then."

Arthur made the chuffing noise he'd perfected as his positive and nodded vigorously.

Merlin glanced at him before reassuring his sister. "You see? He agrees. I'll come back to you when the baby's born."

"That will be months yet, Merlin," said Freya hesitantly.

Merlin swallowed and pulled her into his arms, his sister returning the hug. "It's the best way, Freya. I'll be safe, and you don't want to get your husband killed. Trust me. Go." He released her and walked to the ogre's side.

"Freya, please!" begged Oswald from the foot of the front steps.

Regretfully, she looked at her brother before descending the stairs to her husband's waiting arms.

Oswald remounted his horse and pulled his wife up in front of him before shouting a command. "Merlin, come on!"

Merlin waved through the window and saw his sister murmur something to her husband and nestle against his chest. Their conversation couldn't be heard from inside the house, but the men turned their horses and rode back into the forest.

Merlin watched until they were out of sight. He seemed to sag once they were gone. He glanced over drooped shoulders and said to the ogre, "I guess we'd better finish up that door."

Arthur watched the squire's son return to his work, but where earlier he'd seemed joyful in his work, he now slouched his way through the sanding and planing. Arthur sat nearby, but Merlin stayed silent and didn't look his way. Arthur hadn't meant to make it a demand or imply that Freya couldn't leave if Merlin refused, but he realized now that that was what he'd done.

On the other hand, he had promised that Merlin could leave in a few months. And Arthur did know where Oswald lived. He could take Merlin there easily if he couldn't stand being at the manse. Merlin would probably follow without a great deal of difficulty and as soon as he recognized landmarks, he'd perk up. But Arthur saddened at the thought of Merlin leaving him. He'd thought that they were becoming friends and his breath caught at the thought that that could still be true. It wasn't just that the manse was being cleaned up, Arthur loved Merlin's company. He'd miss him desperately if the young man left. Arthur compromised with himself. If Merlin didn't perk up in three days, he'd lead him back to Sir Oswald's manor.

When the sun set and twilight began, Merlin silently cleaned up his tools. Arthur picked up the ladder in preparation to follow him back to the tool shed. Merlin finally looked at the ogre. Dully, he said, "I suppose we should just leave the door where it is. Finish with it tomorrow."

Arthur nodded and tried to make the chuffing noise again. Merlin turned away. They got the tools put away and dinner eaten in silence. It being harvest season, Merlin had found plenty of vegetables growing in the garden despite the weeds and he made some hearty shepherd's pies that Arthur gladly ate two of. Arthur smiled and clapped when the pies came out, trying to show his appreciation of all that Merlin was doing for him. Merlin blushed a little at the praise, but kept his head down over his meal.

After Merlin had cleaned up the dishes and lit a candle, he said to Arthur, "I'm tired. I'm just going to sleep." Arthur nodded and the ogre followed the young man up the stairs. But when Merlin put out a hand to open the door to the room he'd shared with his sister, Arthur instinctively blocked him. Merlin looked up at the ogre quizzically. For a moment, Arthur didn't even know what he wanted, but then he realized that he didn't want to leave Merlin alone in his current morose state. He started using his hands to herd the young man down the hall. He didn't touch Merlin, he merely invaded his space. It was enough to get Merlin to move to the large double doors at the end of the hall, both of which still hung open on broken hinges.

Merlin stepped through the doorway and stopped, looking around by the light of the moon and his candle at the oddly listing bed, which obviously hadn't been made in an age. The doors to the wardrobe had been ripped off and the drawers dangled from the dresser. Blankets and men's clothes littered the floor, though there wasn't any wind rack in this room, the windows and the glassed-in doors to the balcony being firmly shut against the darkening night.

"This is your room, isn't it?" asked Merlin carefully.

Arthur nodded, though Merlin couldn't see him as the ogre stood behind the younger man.

Warily, Merlin asked, "Why did you bring me in here?"

Arthur slid past him to the bed and patted the pillow in invitation, but when he looked at Merlin's face, he instantly regretted his impetuousness. The younger man looked pale and drawn in the candlelight.

Before Arthur could think of a way to undo his mistake, Merlin sat down on the edge of the bed and setting the candle on the nightstand started drawing off his shoes. "Thank you for not doing this while my sister was here," he said woodenly. "She would have of worried." He blew out the candle and lay down on his back still fully dressed and with his face turned away from Arthur.

Arthur moaned when he saw how ridged Merlin lay. He was quite certain he'd terrified his friend and badly needed to reassure him. Arthur picked up a quilt from the floor and spread it over Merlin. Starting at his shoulder and working all the way down to his feet, he tucked the blanket under him. Then he worked his way up the other side until Merlin lay well and truly swaddled. Arthur curled up on his side next to his friend on the bed.

Merlin finally looked at the ogre and Arthur thought he could see a half smile on his lips in the moonlight. "So just sleeping then?" he asked, a bit of the wry humor Arthur loved to hear in his voice.

Arthur nodded, chuffing happily. Merlin sighed out his tension and his eyes closed, but Arthur watched him long into the night and it was a long while before the squire's son actually slept.

*******************

Arthur woke slowly in the morning, some awareness making him careful. Sunlight peeked rosily through the frost covered windows. Arthur hadn't covered himself the night before and the chill wafted against his shoulders and back, but a warm spot cuddled against his chest. Arthur barely dared move his head to look down, but there were Merlin's dark locks pressed against his sternum, his breath warm on Arthur's skin. Arthur's arm lay across the young man's midsection and he lay fascinated at Merlin's closeness.

"Merlin," said the ogre wistfully, though he heard only his own growls. "Merlin."

Merlin moved against him, returning to consciousness. Sleepily he asked, "Who's there?" He blinked and sat up sharply, getting his bearings. Sagging, he said, "Must have been dreaming. I thought I heard someone say my name."

"Yes!" cried Arthur, though again it came out only growls. He nodded vigorously, nearly bumping Merlin's head with his chin. He slapped his hand against his chest trying to indicate that he had called Merlin's name.

Merlin cocked his head at the ogre, as though wondering if the beast was going mad. "You said my name?"

Arthur nodded and said Merlin's name repeatedly, but again, he heard only growls.

"I can hear that you're trying to talk," said Merlin sympathetically.

Arthur huffed in disappointment.

"Come on, I'll make you scones," said Merlin encouragingly. "You've been practically inhaling the jam."

Today seemed to be Arthur's day to be morose while Merlin chivied him through chores. The squire's son insisted on leaving the mending of the front doors for afternoon while he washed the bedding and the clothes Arthur had been stomping all over for a year and hung it out to dry in the cool autumn air. Arthur hauled all the bedding out of his room, water from the well, and the wash tub from the storeroom. Every so often he'd rumble out the same series of growls.

"You're still trying to say my name, aren't you?" asked Merlin, looking up from his scrubboard.

Sitting nearby, Arthur lowered his head to his knees.

With a wry tilt of his head, Merlin said, "Nice to know what it sounds like in ogrish."

Arthur lifted his head and let out a series of growls.

"Was that swearing or name calling?" asked Merlin.

Arthur stood up and stomped into the forest, determined to find dinner before he said or did something he'd regret. He knew better than to get within arm's reach of Merlin in such a mood. His ogre strength and clumsiness could easily result in his friend's injury or death. Arthur jumped in a pond to cool his temper along the way. He'd needed a bath anyway and the cold wasn't a problem to his ogre body.

Arthur was contrite when he returned an hour later and dropped a deer carcass at Merlin's feet. He hung his head and let out a descending growl.

Merlin had finished hanging the laundry and was back to work on the doors. He looked from the deer carcass to Arthur. "If that means sorry, then so am I." He straightened up from his work. "I can't imagine how frustrating it must be to be able to understand but not communicate."

Arthur sat on the ground and pulled his knees up so at least their heads would be at similar height.

"That venison won't clean or cook itself," said Merlin gently.

Arthur rumbled back to his feet. Merlin could be a bit of a nag. He expected everyone to work as hard as he did himself.

"I'll have the doors ready to go back up in a couple of hours," said Merlin cockily. "You'll like that, I know, but you'll have to lift them into place."

Arthur clapped his hands to show his approval and hauled the deer carcass to the kitchen. It both annoyed and endeared him that Merlin never seemed to want to stop working, and that he had started including Arthur in his plans. Arthur wanted to treat Merlin as an honored guest; throw him a banquet, take him riding over Arthur's demesnes, play a game of chess with him in the evening. His mind wandered into happy daydreams again as he wondered if he could convince Merlin to read him a story this evening.

**********************

Merlin toed Arthur awake. "Hey, Sleepy, there's a bed upstairs with your name on it if my reading's that boring."

Arthur looked up from where he was lying on a bearskin in front of the fireplace in the library to the slight smile on the face of the man glaring benevolently down at him. He rolled to a sitting position and pointed to the book still in Merlin's hand and clapped.

"Oh, you like the story?"

Arthur nodded happily.

"Then why'd you fall asleep?"

Arthur wished he could communicate that, but points and growls were not enough to explain that he hadn't done this much work in one day since he'd been turned into an ogre, so he just shrugged.

"Come on then," said Merlin, leaving the book on a table and taking up a candle. Arthur hurriedly banked up the fire and followed his friend upstairs. Merlin turned to him at the top of the stairs. "Would you like me to come in with you again?"

Surprised, Arthur nearly missed a step. Eagerly he nodded and made his chuffing noises.

The moonlight was brighter tonight in Arthur's room. Merlin placed his candle on the bedside table but instead of sitting down to pull off his boots, he moved confidently to the wardrobe. He pulled out one of Arthur's nightshirts and held it up. "Would you mind?"

Arthur shook his head. He couldn't help staring, his heart pounding madly, as Merlin turned his back and changed into the garment that had been his. Merlin left his day clothes folded neatly over a chair and crawled between the clean sheets. Arthur once again curled on his side on top of the covers struggling to contend with the eruption of tender feelings that he'd never be able to express.

"Don't you get cold without the covers?" Merlin asked quietly after he'd blown out the candle.

Arthur shook his head. In his ogre form, he could walk around in a snowstorm without feeling much bite from the winter winds.

"I'm always freezing," said Merlin. "Other than high summer, I'm cold. Maybe that's why I'm always moving… trying to stay warm."

Arthur's breath caught a little. He patted his chest.

"What?" asked Merlin.

Hesitantly, Arthur laid an arm around his friend and exerted the slightest pressure, hoping to extend an invitation instead of communicating a demand.

Merlin wiggled closer. "I didn't mean…" he said laying his head on Arthur's chest.

"Please, Merlin," rumbled Arthur, still hearing only growls, but hopeful Merlin would understand his intent.

Merlin stilled but his breathing quickened. "Say that again?" he asked breathlessly.

Arthur repeated himself and very daringly began to stroke Merlin's back in the hope of comforting him. He was delighted when Merlin cuddled against his chest in response.

In barely a whisper, Merlin asked, "Tell me your name?"

"It's Arthur," he rumbled sadly.

"Arthur?" repeated Merlin.

Shocked, Arthur fell off the bed, kicking out the shim they'd placed earlier trying to scramble to his feet, and fell into the wardrobe; creating a hole in one of the doors with his elbow and knocking it over. He clapped his hands and nodded wildly at the man sitting up in the now oddly listing bed staring at him.

"Okay, okay! I get that you're excited," said Merlin, his eyes blown wide.

Arthur dropped to his knees and inched back to the bedside, begging for Merlin's understanding.

"Just calm down a minute and let's work this out, okay?" breathed Merlin.

Arthur nodded, his fingers drumming restlessly on the mattress.

Very cautiously, Merlin explained, "I could understand you when my ear was on your chest. It was like I was hearing a human voice as well as the growls." Merlin cocked his head. "It's a very nice voice."

Arthur nodded vigorously. He tapped his chest.

"Yes, said Merlin firmly, "I think we could try it again. But you tend to flail when you get excited. I need you to lie down and stay still."

Arthur climbed carefully back onto the bed and lay down on his side, trying to calm the racing of his heart.

Slowly, Merlin lay back down. He pulled up the covers and placed his ear on Arthur's chest. "Now, tell me about Arthur."

Arthur talked slowly, pausing often to let Merlin respond or ask a question. He told him about growing up in the manse and battles he'd been in and the sorceress who'd turned him into an ogre.

"I remember you," Merlin said at one point. He got up onto his knees and put his hand on Arthur's cheek, tilting his face into the moonlight. "You won the tournament at the castle two years ago and again last year. You didn't come this summer though." Arthur swept a hand down indicating his ogre form. "Right," agreed Merlin. "I don't suppose the other knights would have jousted with an ogre."

Arthur tapped his chest. It felt so good to have someone understand him again, not to mention the wonder of holding someone close… holding Merlin close.

Merlin shook his head sadly and dropped his hand from Arthur's cheek. Faintly, he said, "It's not me you need."

Arthur slowly raised his hand to touch Merlin's cheek. When the younger man turned his eyes to the ogre, Arthur tilted his head on the pillow questioningly, hoping he was getting better at non-verbal communication.

Merlin gave a rueful smile and laughed depreciatingly. "You need some pretty pretty princess to come along and give you a kiss. All the stories say so."

Arthur's heart stuttered in his chest and he tapped it hoping Merlin would lie down and listen again.

Merlin sniffed as though determined not to cry and burrowed back under the covers snuggled into Arthur's chest.

Arthur waited until his hope settled against him before he said very wistfully, "I wish you'd try."

Merlin crawled back to his knees, a hand on Arthur's shoulder supporting him. "Are you sure?"

Arthur held Merlin's gaze and nodded. He stayed very still as Merlin leaned in close to his face, stopping near enough for him to feel the younger man's breath on his lips. Arthur's eyes slid closed in anticipation. Then Merlin closed the distance and placed a gentle kiss between Arthur's tusks. He deepened the kiss slightly, pressing into the bow of the ogre's lips. A rainbow of color exploded in the darkness behind Arthur's eyelids. For a moment he felt as though something had picked him up and was twirling him in the air like a quarterstaff. Instinctively, he grabbed hold of what he hoped was the bed, afraid he might crush his Love. The dizzy feeling stopped abruptly as though he'd been dropped from a great height and landed hard. He felt Merlin pull away and opened his eyes.

Merlin's eyes were still closed, his hands on Arthur's shoulders, and he licked his lips as though enjoying a last taste of a delicate sweet. Merlin's lashes blinked apart and his mouth rounded into an O. "You're even more handsome than I remember."

Arthur released the death grip he held on the headboard and touched his mouth. No tusks. He ran his hands over his face. Normal sized eyes. His own aquiline nose. His hair could do with a barber. He blinked and looked at his hands… human hands, not ogre hands. "You broke the spell!" he cried in joy, sitting up and throwing his arms around Merlin, crashing their lips together.

At first, Merlin returned the kiss, melting into Arthur's arms and hanging on to him as if he'd found his anchor. It lasted only a moment before Merlin broke the kiss, frowning painfully, his eyes cast down, as demur as any maiden.

Arthur kept his arms around his love and stroked his back. He kissed Merlin's cheek and brow, not yet used to his restored voice and unsure what to say.

Merlin tried to shrug him off. Bitterly he asked, "You're a Lord. Don't you have to get married and raise an heir and a spare?"

Arthur laughed softly. "My older sister has four sons. Believe me; she'll be thrilled to welcome you into the family knowing her sons will end up as my heirs."

"Freya!" cried Merlin, finally looking into Arthur's eyes.

"Yes, Love," said Arthur, continuing to sprinkle kisses over Merlin's face. "We'll go tell your sister day after tomorrow. And your parents as soon after that as you'll introduce me."

"What's wrong with tomorrow?" asked Merlin guardedly.

"No horses," said Arthur firmly. "We couldn't make it in a day without them. But some of my farmers caught and kept some of my horses for me. And I know some of my servants took shelter with my pensioners. I couldn't do much for them other than hunt for the pensioners occasionally and keep the predators down for the farmers, but about half of the servants are still with one group or the other, so there'll be people to stay with the house and start restoring it properly once we've gotten everything sorted."

"Then you won't need me," said Merlin, casting his eyes down again.

Arthur tipped Merlin's chin up. "Only forever. According to the stories, only true love's kiss can break such a spell. I'd be mad to throw that away. All that I have is yours. Only say you'll stay."

"Forever," breathed Merlin, as he leaned in to capture Arthur's lips once more.