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Immortal and Imperishable

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The camp is quiet, fires dwindling to embers as the night drags toward early morning. Muffled sniffles and snorts issue from the small gathering of tents, shadows flickering across the canvas, but the clearing is otherwise still. From the largest tent, settled on the edge some distance from the others, there is a small shuffle, and then the front flap peels inward.

A woman appears, tall and draped in red, her hair intricately twisting over her shoulders. She glances side-to-side, eyes sharp and lips thin, and then relaxes, stepping further out and holding the flap open behind her. A boy follows after her, pale, piercing eyes darting around the clearing beneath a mop of dark curls. He stands beside the woman, who continues holding the flap for the final occupant. This young man looks older than the other boy, although not by much, and, while he is taller, he is also smaller somehow, all edges and sharp angles. He stumbles slightly in the dirt as he walks at a crouch, but quickly straightens up, turning as he stands across from the imposing woman.

“You have the mirror?” she asks, quick and sharp.

The young man nods, tugging demonstratively at one shoulder of his pack. “I do.”

“Contact us as soon as you are able. We have waited long enough as it is.”

“I will not let you down, mistress,” he assures steadily, bowing his head.

She narrows her eyes down at his tousled, brown hair for a moment, and then her face unstiffens slightly. “See that you do not,” she says, lifting her chin. “Only you can make way for the Once and Future King, Emrys. The Pendragon dynasty must be obliterated.”

“I know,” the man replies with another nod, his eyes focused somewhere on her neck as opposed to her face.

The woman stares at him a moment longer, eyes darting over his figure, and then steps back. “Go,” she snaps, turning to the side and nodding to the woods on the opposite side of camp. “You should arrive at first light.” With that, she is gone, dress swirling around her as she disappears back into the tent.

The thin man seems to deflate, shoulders slumping forward as his neck collapses down.

The younger boy smiles at him, nodding toward the woods again, and they walk forward, carefully picking around the detritus left behind from setting up as they make their way across camp. They do not speak, the curly-haired boy sneaking glances at his companion at increasingly intervals, while the other man remains focused on the ground ahead of his feet.

Some distance beyond the last tent, they stop, the taller boy lifting his head to stare at the star-spotted sky poking through the canopy in patches.

“Do you think it will be worth it? Albion?” he asks, his eyes reflecting distant suns.

“Of course,” the younger man replies, frowning. “The prophecy says-”

“I know what the prophecy says, Mordred,” the man interrupts, dropping his gaze to his friend’s face. “I’m asking you what you think.”

Mordred’s frown deepens, his mouth opening in soft confusion, and then he blinks, jaw setting as he nods. “Of course it will be worth it,” he says fiercely. “Our people deserve vengeance.”

“Vengeance is not always justice,” the taller boy answers, looking so much older now, world-worn lines folding across his face.

Mordred’s eyes widen sharply, flashing with surprise and hurt, but it is swiftly swallowed by anger. “Merlin, what- What are you saying?” he snarls, stepping closer to lower his voice into his companion’s face. “That they don’t deserve to die? After everything they’ve done? After what they did to Will and your-”

“Don’t.”

Mordred’s voice chokes off in his throat, his arms quivering slightly in the wind that suddenly rustles through the trees.

“Don’t ever talk about them.”

Mordred drops his head. “I’m sorry,” he murmurs to the dirt. “I only meant...” He fades off with a sigh, staring aimlessly out into the dark for a moment before returning his eyes to his friend. “We’ve all lost someone, Merlin,” he says softly.

“I know,” Merlin answers, his shoulders lowering as he sighs.

Mordred smiles, soft and sad, stepping forward to place a hand on Merlin’s shoulder. “Then it is time we put an end to it.”

Merlin takes a deep breath out at the woods before turning his eyes, meeting the paler ones. He nods with an equally doleful smile, covering Mordred’s hand with his own and clamping it down in solidarity.

Mordred retracts his hand, but only to wrap his arms around Merlin’s neck, hands bumping and tangling with the pack on his back. “Take care of yourself, Emrys,” he whispers into the thin, pale neck.

Merlin chuckles, his hands fists as they clamp onto the boy’s back. “I will,” he answers, and they pull apart enough to rest their hands loosely on one another’s shoulders. “I took care of you, didn’t I? And if I survived that,” he says, dipping his head as he lifts his eyebrows, “I don’t think the Pendragons have a chance.”

Mordred huffs a faint laugh, dropping his eyes to Merlin’s chest, and then his face twists with sadness once again, his fingertips twitching where they brush against the hint of shoulder Merlin’s strap has tugged bare. “You’ll call when you can?”

“I will,” Merlin assures, moving his hands to rest over Mordred’s forearms, and only then does the younger boy release, letting his arms slide down through Merlin’s grip until they are entwined at the fingers.

Mordred looks down at their loosely twisted digits—Merlin’s longer and more delicate, but no less pale—and heaves in a breath, the exhale sounding with conviction. He lifts his head, his mouth closed and firm. With a nod, he untangles their hands, stepping back. “Good luck, Merlin.”

Merlin smiles, tugging up his pack with a bounce and a jolt. “Goodbye, Mordred,” he replies. He turns, stepping into the trees, a whispered word drifting into the air before a rippling ball of blue light is hovering over the path ahead, guiding him forward to Camelot.

---

Dawn had just broken over Camelot as Merlin made his way toward the castle, his eyes wide at the unimaginable size of the city. He had heard stories, even seen a map or two, but they did nothing to prepare him for the towering stone walls and bustling streets. Horses clopped from every direction, and he kept turning at the sound, frantic he was about to be run down. People pushed everything from bread to silks at him from stalls along the straw-strewn streets, and he politely shook his head, lifting a hand in decline as he picked his way through the lower town.

He reached a gate, at which were stationed two, red-wrapped guards, and, after asking where he could find the court physician, was pointed toward the castle. The ring of the city that surrounded the castle was clearly wealthier, and there were signs denoting various businesses stretching out from wood and plaster buildings of various colors and stages of chipping. None of this was anything Merlin hadn’t expected from his conversations with Nimueh, who had been to Camelot at some point in her eternally-shrouded past, but he was surprised to find the area mostly deserted. A mere handful of people milled around, fetching water or feeding livestock, and they were all quiet, subdued, as if the entire center of the city was observing a moment of silence.

Merlin watched the ground ahead of him, careful not to trip or step on anything that would cause him to break the pall as he followed the guard’s directions to the castle. So focused was he on his feet, he didn’t notice coming up on the crowd until he was nearly in it, the streets changing to grey stone as he found himself standing at the edge of a courtyard. He lifted his head, looking out over the sea of heads in front of him, and his blood froze still in his veins.

“Please, Your Majesty.” The man was shaking, his hands and ankles shackled as he stood on the raised, wooden platform. His clothes were torn and dirty, his hair flecked with straw, but his face was turned away from the crowd. “I have two young boys, and my wife- My wife, she is pregnant, Your Highness. We could not survive.”

“I did not ask for more of your excuses!” a man shouted down at the prisoner, his red robes fluttering in the faint breeze as his face contorted in fury beneath a sparkling, golden crown. “You have already been convicted of sorcery and sentenced to death. Now, what are your last words!?”

Merlin’s blood abruptly unfreezes and begins rushing to make up the distance, his hands curling into fists as his skin burned with rage. Red prickled around the edges of his vision as he glared fury at the grey-haired man standing unmoved above the throng, flanked by armored men in crimson cloaks. It could be no one else, this mercenary against magic, and hate welled up thick and acrid in Merlin’s throat as he glared up at Uther Pendragon.

Fingernails cut into his palms as Merlin’s hands shook with the onslaught of emotions, and he did not hear the man’s reply as he turned, his focus on nothing but getting away. He chose the closest street, and, trying to work his way in the direction of the side of the castle he was told housed the court physician, ducked into a side alley that headed roughly that way. His fury simmered down to aching helplessness as he walked, straw billowing around him with the speed of his steps, and his fingers were just beginning to creak loose from their clenched fists when he stepped out into another larger street and collided with something heavy and solid.

“What the- Hey!” a male voice exclaimed as Merlin went skittering backward, catching himself on the side of a building to barely keep from falling. “You idiot, watch where you’re going!”

Merlin pushed himself off the wall, ready to put his restrained rage to good use. “You ran into me!” he snapped, stepping forward to glare at his assailant, and his righteous anger faltered momentarily as he took in the man.

He looked to be about Merlin’s age, and nearly exactly the same height, but the similarities stopped there. He was wearing a fine grey tunic, the laces coming unthreaded over his chest, and dark trousers that tucked into heavy leather boots, the buckles shining in the sun. His arms and legs were thick with muscle, the stretched fabric of his clothes hinting at the curves of sinew, and the dull throb in Merlin’s arm from the impact suddenly made a lot more sense. The man’s hair was gleaming blond and cut neatly, his eyes also blue, but lighter than Merlin’s and sparking with irritation as he returned the glare.

“I did not! You bolted out of there and-” The man stopped, mouth freezing as his eyebrows furrowed, his gaze shifting between Merlin and the alley entrance. “What were you doing back there, anyway?” he asked, eyes narrowing, and something leapt in Merlin’s stomach as the man took a half-step forward, his body coiling into something that screamed dangerous. “No one is supposed to be out here during an execution.”

Merlin’s chest twisted at the word, but he couldn’t afford to be snippy when he noticed this man had a sword strapped to his side and was looking at Merlin like he might feel like trying it out. “I didn’t know,” he answered, straightening his spine, refusing to recoil even as his might-be-attacker took another step forward. “I only just got here.”

The man stopped advancing, the tension in his body unwinding somewhat as he raised an eyebrow, considering him, his eyes lingering on the pack peeking up over Merlin’s shoulders. “No,” he said slowly, and his weight shifted back into a less threatening stance. “No, I suppose you don’t look like you’re from around here.”

Merlin tried to regulate his sigh of relief, but it was still a little too loud as it passed through his nose, and a twitch of the man’s mouth suggested he heard it. Merlin glared at him.

“So, what does bring you to Camelot?” the man asked, crossing his arms over his chest, and Merlin noticed the tell-tale callouses on his hands that came with handling a sword, prompting him to refrain from the biting retort about it being none of his business.

“I came to stay with my uncle,” he replied, shifting a strap on his shoulder.

“Stay?” the man repeated, lifting an eyebrow. “As in permanently?”

Merlin straightened his spine. “Yes,” he snapped, considering using that retort after all.

The blond chuckled, and Merlin blinked, his forehead creasing with surprised confusion. “Good. It’s been awhile since we had a village idiot,” he said with a mocking grin.

Merlin scowled. “Yeah, well I would have preferred Town Prat, but apparently that position’s already taken,” he retorted with a challenging smirk.

The man’s blue eyes widened, his mouth dropping open with a surprising level of shock, and then his lips spread into a disbelieving smile, a faint chuckle escaping him as he shook his head. “I suppose it is,” he answered with a shrug, and Merlin couldn’t help but chuckle a little himself. “So do you know where your uncle lives?” he asked, and whatever tension had lingered between them was gone.

Merlin nodded. “I think so. More or less. He lives in the castle. The court physician.”

“Gaius!?” the man blurted out, eyes popping. “Your uncle is Gaius?”

“Er, yes,” Merlin answered hesitantly, curious at the reaction. “Well, not officially. I mean, not by blood, but he was a close friend of my mother’s.”

“Oh,” the man murmured, still looking rather dazed, but he quickly gathered himself. “Well, Gaius’ quarters are that way,” he said, waving a hand back toward the alley Merlin had exited. “Through the courtyard.”

“Yeah, I know, I was just…hoping to find a way around,” Merlin muttered, looking down as he shifted his feet in the straw.

“Not one for public executions?” the man assumed, his mouth twisting into a sympathetic grimace.

Merlin shrugged. “Guess I haven’t been here long enough to catch the bloodlust,” he replied flatly, his stomach immediately clenched in panic at his carelessness.

The man only hummed thoughtfully, dropping his head to the dirt for a moment. “Maybe you won’t. I’ve lived here my whole life, and I still hate it.” There was a bitter note to the man’s voice, a darkening of his eyes as he gazed unfocused in the general direction of the gallows, and that more than anything was what made Merlin comfortable enough to ask.

“Do you know what he did? The man…in the square?” Merlin clarified, not quite able to bring himself to any more specific a description without feeling nauseous.

The man’s face hardened, as if some sort of physical shutter was pulled over his features. “He was caught using magic,” he answered tonelessly.

“Alright,” Merlin muttered, shifting again, “but what did he do?”

The blond tilted his head in question, eyebrows furrowing, and his blue eyes were searching over Merlin again, as if he’d only just seen him. “He- He was stealing grain from the stores.”

“Is stealing punished by death here?” Merlin inquired, alarmed.

“No,” the man answered, shaking his head and shifting his weight between his feet as he looked away from Merlin’s eyes. “But sorcery always is. No matter the reason.”

Merlin nodded, fighting to appear unmoved and not like his throat was closing up. “He said he couldn’t survive, him and his family,” he found himself murmuring as he looked back in the direction of the square, his eyes focused unseeing at the wall of the building in front of him.

“Everyone is given rations,” the man replied stiffly.

“But those only ever take into account how many people live in a household, not their specific needs,” Merlin argued as he turned back to the man.

He was staring at him with unnerving focus, his eyebrows twitching together slightly. “What do you mean?”

“Well,” Merlin muttered, scratching at his neck as he shifted his gaze, “he said he had two young boys, and surely growing boys would need more grain that the average man. And his wife was pregnant, so shouldn’t that count for a whole other person altogether?”

The man was looking at him as if he’d grown an extra head, blinking blearily. “I-I suppose…” He paused, exhaling softly as he closed his mouth, his surprise shifting into something like curious wonder. “You know, you’re rather insightful for a peasant,” he quipped, but there was a glimmer of truly being impressed in his sparkling blue eyes.

Merlin felt himself flush, unable to completely quell his smile as he dropped his head, tugging at his pack strap as he scuffed a boot across the ground. “Yeah, well…I know what it’s like trying to get by on not enough,” he muttered with a wry smile, glancing up out of the tops of his eyes.

The man’s face was soft and maybe curious, but not pitying, and Merlin felt a rush of gratitude at that, but before he could say anything to diffuse the awkwardness at his admission, people began milling down the street toward them, the execution obviously concluded.

“Well, I should…” Merlin trailed off, jerking a thumb to gesture at the street behind him as he took a swaying step backward.

“Right,” the man blurted gruffly, clearing his throat as he waved a hand up the road. “Gaius.”

“Gaius,” Merlin repeated, nodding and suddenly unsure of what to do with his hands. He clasped them together in front of him with a small snap. “Maybe I’ll, er…see you around. Sometime,” he added, smiling even as his stomach twisted at how stupid he sounded.

Thankfully, the blond just beamed in return, and Merlin’s stomach twisted in an entirely different way. “Looking forward to it, idiot,” he answered, lifting his eyebrows with a smirk.

Merlin tried to scowl, but he could feel his mouth twisting in betrayal. “I’m not, prat,” he answered, flashing a playful grin over his shoulder before turning away, smiling at the feeling of blue eyes burning into his back.

The smile dwindled as he approached Gaius’ quarters, however, a knot of slimy guilt settling in his stomach. He didn’t want to lie to Gaius, but he couldn’t risk getting the old man involved, not when Uther already knew about his past. He would be the first one blamed if anything went wrong, and Merlin had to protect him with plausible deniability, at the very least. Still, there was little comfort found in this fact as he pushed open the door, the old man greeting him with a warm smile and wide arms.

“Merlin!” he exclaimed, his voice low and gravelly, and Merlin couldn’t help but smile back as his uncle’s thin arms wrapped around his shoulders. “It’s been so long. Look how you’ve grown! You were barely three feet tall last I saw you.”

Merlin chuckled, feeling a blush on his neck as Gaius held him out by his shoulders, scanning up and down his height. “It’s good to see you too, Uncle Gaius.”

“Oh, just Gaius is fine, my boy; we’re both adults. My, that makes me feel old!” He laughed, a throaty sound that echoed over the walls around them, and Merlin swallowed around his shame as he forced a grin back. Gaius sighed, one hand clapping against the skin of Merlin’s upper arm as his eyes grew soft and serious. “It is truly good to have you here, Merlin. When I heard what happened, I-I feared…” he faded away, and Merlin nodded, dropping his eyes to the ground. “Well,” Gaius choked, his eyes glistening as he smiled sadly, “you’re here now. That’s what matters.”

Merlin tried for a smile, but it was pained, and Gaius stepped away, dropping his hands.

“Why don’t you go get settled in—your room’s just through that door there—and then you can help me with some tonics I have to prepare,” he said, and Merlin nodded, the smile a little more genuine now.

“Yeah, that- That sounds good. I’ll be out in a bit,” he replied, striding past the elderly man and climbing the stairs to his room.

It was simple, with nothing but a cupboard and a bedside table to furnish the space apart from the bed, but it was warm and comfortable and his, and that was heaven after months of living in the forest with Druids.

He sank down onto the edge of the bed with a sigh, the straw crinkling under his weight, and let his pack slide off his shoulders to hit the wooden floor with a dull thump. He cradled his head in his palms, his breath hot as it reflected back into his face.

The raid on Ealdor had been swift and sure, a group of glorified bandits sweeping through the town on orders from Cenred. Rumors of a powerful sorcerer living in the village had apparently reached him, and he had been eager to gather another asset. It was no secret he was looking to mount an offensive against Camelot, and the more sorcerers he could add to his collection, the better, but they had underestimated the lengths he would go.

The ash had stuck in Merlin’s throat as he pushed through the burning debris, hardly able to see through the smoke of his childhood home. He’d gotten almost everyone else into the forest, but his mother wouldn’t go, wouldn’t leave him. And then the house caught fire.

Wooden beams blocked his path through the door, and he couldn’t move them, couldn’t stop coughing or panicking long enough to use his magic, and, besides, he couldn’t risk shifting anything when he didn’t know where his mother was. He’d called out to Will, eyes streaming from smoke and terror, and his friend had been rushing to help when one of the mounted riders had swiped him across the back with a sword. He went down and stayed there, blood pooling into the dirt around him, and Merlin wasn’t even aware he was screaming until the rider turned to look at him.

The rest is a blur of fire and blood, and the next thing Merlin clearly remembers is stars winking at him through the branches as his body was bounced and jolted, wagon wheels creaking and hushed voices talking in urgent tones.

He was told he was asleep for two days, apparently giving Mordred a black eye and a split lip during brief forays into consciousness in which he frantically tried to escape the helping hands, but the person he remembers is Nimueh.

She was there when he woke up, imposing and direct, and she answered his questions about Ealdor with a brutal honesty that, at the time, he appreciated. He grew to prefer Mordred’s more subtle approach when they began discussing the prophecies, however, something Merlin had been previously unaware of. Truth be told, he was still less than sure he was this Emrys they kept talking about, destined to protect and guide the Once and Future King, but he had accepted the assignment to infiltrate Camelot all the same.

It’s not as if he had to do much of anything, after all. He was obviously supposed to always be on the lookout for the fabled king, but, in the meantime, his responsibility was to gather information, figure out the comings and goings, get his hands on some maps if he could in order to ease the takeover when the Once and Future King was found and Nimueh and their collective band of Druids and sorcerers overthrew the Pendragon regime. Nimueh had been more than clear what exactly her expectations were of Merlin, what her larger purpose was for having him infiltrate Camelot, but Merlin was avoiding thinking about it at the moment, hoping it wouldn’t come to that.

He sighed again, sliding his hands down his cheeks as he sat back up, reaching down to untie his pack. He could hear Gaius in the room beyond, tinkling bottles and pounding a pestle, but he still made an effort to be quiet as he pulled the shard of enchanted mirror from the confines of the canvas bag. It was wrapped in a scrap of linen, both to prevent cutting himself and spying, and he unwrapped it before holding it up to his face. His eyes reflected gold back at him, and then the surface went black, a soft, rustling sound coming from the glass. There was a scuffle of fingers, and then a broad stretch of white teeth beneath bright, green eyes.

“Merlin!” Mordred hissed, ecstatic even as he was making an effort to be quiet.

Merlin chuckled, unable to help himself. “Hello, Mordred. Miss me already?”

“Pillock,” Mordred muttered with a half-hearted narrowing of his eyes. “But yeah, a little,” he added with a sheepish shrug, and Merlin knew he would be blushing even though it was too dark to see.

Merlin smiled somewhat awkwardly, dropping his eyes for a moment. “Well, I’m sure I’ll see you soon enough. Is Nimueh around? I don’t have a lot of time.”

Mordred’s face fell in brief disappointment, but then he smiled again, although dimmer than before. “Yeah, sure, hang on. She was just- Milady!”

Merlin rolled his eyes on impulse, and then quickly controlled his features as he heard a familiar, snapping voice approaching.

“Emrys? Have you anything to report?”

“Not much as of yet, mistress,” he said mechanically, inclining his head even as his fingers tightened on the edges of the mirror. The insistence on formality was one of the main reasons Nimueh had rubbed Merlin the wrong way almost immediately, but he could not deny the commonality of their cause. “It may take some time. I’ll be helping Gaius, but I’m not sure how much access that will afford me to the castle itself.”

“You must find a way in, Emrys, find a way to gain their trust. Seduce a maid or a squire or something.”

Merlin’s mouth dropped open, an embarrassingly strangled sound garbling out of his throat.

“Call me when you have something useful,” Nimueh continued before he could reply, and the poisonous edge to her voice brought him sharply back to reality.

“Of course, mistress. I will find a way,” he said, the words breathy as his head still reeled, and then she was gone, leaving him staring down at his own gobsmacked expression. He stared into his own eyes for a long moment, considering his reflection.

‘You were always special, Merlin,’ he could hear his mother saying, her voice drifting back to him from all those years ago, when he had hidden in the hay loft after being mocked for the first time about his magic. ‘You have a great destiny ahead of you, I can feel it.’

Somehow, he didn’t think tempting a castle maid to bed for information was what she’d had in mind.

Thoroughly disgusted by everything, he wrapped the mirror back up and tossed it haphazardly back into his pack, leaving settling in for later as he left to help Gaius.

Hours went by, pounding herbs into pastes and powders, mixing potions and draughts for everyone from the pub owner to the king, and it occured to Merlin more than once how easy it would be for him to poison someone from his position, but only in that morbidly curious sort of way that causes one to look over a battlement and consider if they could survive the fall. Still, he was starting to scare himself a little, so it was a great relief when, just before the supper hour, Gaius sent him with a basket of the wares they had made, tagged with names and vague instructions on where they live.

It was an easy task, and no one bothered him much, smiling and nodding as if he had lived there all along. The anonymity was comfortable, empowering somehow, and he didn’t even mind when Ms. Collins (a widow whose daughter was in need of a cough remedy) forced him to sit down for a cup of tea before he went, regaling him with the ins and outs of Camelot, which, to her, seemed to be primarily castle gossip.

“From what I’ve heard,” she said, tapping her chest as if she was a great authority on the subject, “he was quite comfortable with Lady Helen at supper last night. They ate just the two of them. Heard it from one of the kitchen maids meself, though I shan’t tell you which one.” She chuckled, her eyes begging him to inquire, but he only smiled and nodded into his tea, not caring enough about her informant to go through the dance of being staunchly refused a few times before she inevitably cracked.

He left, thanking her and bidding goodbye, and then returned up to the castle, having saved that batch of potions for last. The king’s potion was being delivered by Gaius himself, apparently no one else being trusted with the transportation, so Merlin set about hunting down the various servants, maids, and knights whose medicine he carried. He garnered far too much attention in the kitchens than he would have liked, the cook nearly chasing him out under threat of a wooden spoon before he managed to blurt out he who he was looking for, but the rest of the deliveries went smoothly.

One knight, a man named Sir Leon, had requested a salve, apparently for a cut he had obtained during training, as he told Merlin when he beckoned him to step inside his chambers and place the jar on the table, his own hands busy removing his armor.

“I suppose that’s what I get for underestimating Arthur,” Leon chuckled, grey-blue eyes sparkling with fond humor as his brown curls bounced with a shake of his head, looking faintly red where they caught the sun. “Should have known it wouldn’t matter which hand he was using, ‘specially after that tournament back in the spring.”

Merlin smiled, not entirely in on the joke. “Well, I hope Gaius’ salve helps, sir,” he said, not entirely sure how to take his leave.

“Oh, I’m sure it will. Always has,” Leon replied, flashing him a bright smile, and then gave him a nod, clearly permission, and Merlin ducked his head in return before backing out the door.

He took several steps down the corridor, scanning to ensure he was alone, and then leaned against the wall, breathing deeply.

Leon had been nothing but nice, but simply being in that close of proximity to a knight of Camelot, someone who wouldn’t think twice about skewering his heart if they found out his true identity, well, it was nerve-wracking, to say the least.

His heart rate returning somewhat to normal, he looked down into the basket, reading the tag on one of the two, remaining bottles.

Lady Morgana

He had to ask directions from one of the maids carrying linens, but he found the right door eventually, knocking firmly before backing away as feet clicked across the stone.

A woman answered the door, brown eyes widening within her dark complexion. “Oh,” she murmured, tucking a loose strand of tightly curled brown hair back behind her ear. “I-I’m sorry, is it time for the feast?”

“Sorry?” Merlin muttered, tilting his head, and then shook it. “Oh, no. Well, maybe, but that’s not why I’m here.” He reached into the basket, pulling out the blue-tinted vial. “Gaius sent me to deliver this to the lady Morgana,” he explained, holding the potion out toward her.

“Oh, right, of course,” she chuckled, taking it from him and fiddling with her hair again as she looked down, opening the door wider. “I-I just didn’t recognize you. Have you been working for Gaius long?”

“No,” Merlin answered with a smile, something about her immediately putting him at ease. “I only just arrived in Camelot this morning. Gaius is my uncle; I’ve come to stay with him.”

“Your uncle?” the woman repeated, surprised. “He never mentioned- Though, I suppose, I never asked… I’m Gwen,” she rambled, switching the vial in her hands as she extended her right. “Well, Guinevere, but it’s Gwen. People call me Gwen.”

Merlin chuckled, unable to stop himself as the arches of Gwen’s cheeks turned pink. “Merlin,” he replied, giving her hand a brief shake. “It’s good to meet you, Gwen. Are you a maid here in the castle?”

“No, well, sort of,” Gwen muttered, scratching behind her ear as she shrugged. “I’m the lady Morgana’s maidservant. Oh, and I should get her dressed for the feast! It hasn’t started, has it? Although, I suppose you wouldn’t know. Not that you couldn’t know, because, of course, you could, but that’s not exactly your job, is it? Not that your job isn’t important, probably more important than knowing about feasts, but I just-”

Merlin couldn’t help it, he laughed, dropping his head and lifting the backs of his fingers to his lips to cover his teeth. “It’s fine, I-I know what you mean,” he assured, and Gwen’s blush deepened as she bit her bottom lip around a smile, dropping her eyes. “And I don’t think the feast has started. I passed at least three flower arrangements on my way up, so they’re probably still preparing the hall.”

Gwen smiled gratefully, and the very air seemed to brighten around her. “Oh, good. Thank you. I should go help her, then, but it was lovely to meet you, Merlin. I trust I’ll be seeing you again, if you’re staying in Camelot,” she added, her face falling a little with uncertain disappointment.

He beamed back, a disappointed Gwen too much to bear. He’d only just met her, but he suspected fluffy forest creatures gathered around her when she was sad, chirping birds carrying handkerchiefs to her hands, and he certainly didn’t want to be the cause of that! “I am. I’m sure I’ll see you around,” he replied, giving her a small wave as he turned back down the corridor, which she returned with a flick of her hand before closing the door. He chuckled to himself, shaking his head. Maybe Camelot wouldn’t be so bad after all, if more people were like Gwen. His smile evaporated as he picked up the last bottle, a tonic for stiff muscles, and his eyes alighted on the tag.

Oh, god…

Hand shaking around the vial, he tried to force his shoulders down, not wanting to look too much like a sorcerer in hiding. His connection to Gaius was legitimate, and the reason he had been chosen for the assignment, but, nevertheless, he did have a real reason to be there. He wasn’t suspicious, he wasn’t. But every single time he heard footsteps, he expected shouts of ‘Sorcery! Stop him!’ to echo over the stone walls. In spite of his internal monologue of panic, he reached the door unaccosted, but still had to take several, deep breaths before being able to knock.

“Enter,” a low, muffled voice bade, and Merlin closed his eyes, exhaling once more and forcing himself to appear calm.

Of course, that immediately went to hell.

He entered the room, closing the door behind him, and then, upon looking up, nearly dropped the bottle in shock.

There, across the room, sitting at an ornate writing desk, was a young man, his blond hair backlit in a halo of the setting sun. He was wearing a fine red tunic, which looked impossibly soft beneath a brown, leather jacket embellished with silver fastenings and studs. One of his legs was sticking out at an angle from beneath the desk, revealing brown trousers and tall, leather boots.

Merlin wanted to turn around, to flee, to throw himself out the window even, but then those pale blue eyes lifted, and he was well and truly frozen, his traitorous heart skittering.

The young man shot up from his desk, spine straightening against the back of the chair as his quill fell limply from his hands with a soft click. His mouth parted in momentary alarm, eyes widening a margin, and then his lips closed, and he blinked at Merlin, obviously not nearly as shocked by the coincidence Merlin was beginning to suspect was orchestrated.

“You,” Merlin breathed, aware he was gaping like a fish, but unable to command his jaw. “You’re…”

“Yes,” the man, the man from town, the man Merlin was fairly sure had been flirting with him, Prince Arthur of bloody Camelot replied.

Merlin stared at him, finally remembering to breathe, and that seemed to clear his head a little. “Right,” he murmured, looking aimlessly at the four-poster bed. He swallowed, mind still reeling. “Do- Do I…kneel or-or something?” He looked back to Prince Arthur, his hand waving limply between his chest and the floor.

Arthur looked very much like he wanted to laugh, but instead he dropped his head, sucking his lips in around his smile. “If you want,” he shrugged.

“No one wants to kneel,” Merlin replied before he could think better of it, correcting automatically, forgetting the person he was talking to was no longer just random-guy-with-muscles-and-pretty-eyes.

Arthur blinked, tilting his head and searching Merlin’s face with a thoughtful expression, and Merlin hoped it wasn’t considering what way to best sever his neck. “No, I suppose they don’t,” Arthur said simply, frowning as he looked off to the side, as if the notion that not everyone wanted to throw themselves at his feet had never occurred to him.

It was that more than anything that brought Merlin’s mental capacity roaring back. Title or not, Prince Arthur was still a prat.

“I brought your tonic,” he said sharply, sitting it harder than necessary on the table beside him as opposed to walking it to the desk. “Gaius says take two spoonfuls with meals until the pain subsides.” He neglected the formalities because he’d forgotten this person was someone else now, but he didn’t feel like correcting himself either, so he simply turned and made his way toward the door.

“No, Merlin, wait,” came a rushed voice behind him, and Merlin turned, eyebrows furrowed over wide, accusing eyes.

“How do you know my name?” he asked, and he was definitely snapping now, but, the hell with it, he’d been lied to. “I never told you. And you never told me yours, either, thus this marvelously awkward moment,” he muttered angrily, waving his arm in an expansive gesture.

Arthur had the decency to at least look mildly chagrined, his face downturned as he walked out from behind the desk. “News travels fast here, and you could’ve asked for my name.” He was challenging now, crossing his arms and leaning back against the desk, his ankles crossed in front of him.

Merlin glared, his fingers gripping the back of one of the chairs beside him to direct his frustration. “I don’t often feel the need to throw ‘Hey, you wouldn’t happen to be royalty, would you?’ into conversations with people I meet on the street. And, besides,” Merlin snipped, folding his arms across his chest and meeting Arthur’s gaze defiantly, “you would’ve lied.”

Arthur’s mouth dropped open in offense, but the corners of his lips were twitching. “I am the future king of Camelot, Merlin,” Arthur said, and Merlin’s stomach had no right to flip at the inflection on his name. “I am the picture of honesty.”

Merlin snorted, rolling his eyes and backing away before his flush became obvious, but it really was too hot in here. “Right, of course. My mistake, Sire. Forgive me, Your Highness. Please don’t lob off my head for my insolence, my lord.” Merlin stretched the titles out as pompous as he could manage, rolling his hand dramatically in a half-bow with each one as he retreated backward toward the door.

“Merlin, wait!” Arthur urged, rolling his head to the ceiling as his shoulders slumped, as if Merlin were the one being difficult, of all the ridiculous notions. “As thrilling as it is to see you showing proper respect, that isn’t why I sent for you.”

Merlin’s lips formed a confused pout, his head tilting. “Sent for me?” he parroted, a smug smirk beginning to form on his lips as Arthur’s jaw stiffened, even though he didn’t yet understand the man’s embarrassment. “You didn’t send for me. I’m delivering medicine for Gaius. There’s no way you could’ve-” Merlin stopped, eyes widening as an, albeit unlikely, possibility occurred to him.

Arthur was carefully avoiding Merlin’s eyes, watching the progress of his boot as he slid it back and forth across the stone floor.

“You don’t need that, do you?” Merlin questioned, his voice a little breathless with awe and triumph as he nodded toward the vial between them on the table. “You made up a muscle ache so I’d have to come up here and deliver your tonic.”

“No, I had training, and I-I pulled…” Arthur argued weakly, a hand hovering over his arm and shoulder, as if not quite sure where to clearly fake an injury.

Merlin let out a laugh to the ceiling, wondering if he’d accidentally conjured butterflies in his chest. “No wonder we had to make that one last minute! Well, go on, then,” Merlin said, beckoning with a hand before folding his arms. “Why did you resort to subterfuge to get me up here?” he asked, flicking his eyebrows with a smug smile, and he might be flirting juuuuust a little, but only because Arthur blushing could be the very best thing he’d ever seen.

Arthur clenched his jaw, glaring ferociously, but the tips of his ears were still pink, and Merlin only smiled broader. Finally, Arthur seemed to give up, pushing off the desk with a huff and rounding back to the opposite side. “Apart from my desperate need for Gaius’ aid”—Merlin snorted, and Arthur flicked his eyes up to glare anew—“I wanted to show you this.” He spun something around on the surface of the desk, pushing it forward so it slid toward the edge.

Merlin gave him a questioning glance, but Arthur only waved a hand down at the document in answer, so Merlin stepped closer until he could lean forward and make out the words. Of course, he then had to lean even closer, until finally he was picking the damn thing up and holding it mere inches from his nose. “Your handwriting is terrible!” he chided, shaking his head in sheer disbelief at the expanse of awful in front of him.

“Hey!” Arthur blurted, snatching the parchment from his hands. “I had the finest tutors in all Albion!”

“You know it doesn’t count if they say that about themselves, right?” Merlin asked, and he actually thought Arthur was going to stick his tongue out for a moment. “Well, I can’t read that, so why don’t you just tell me what it says?”

Arthur narrowed his eyes again over the parchment before beginning to roll it up in front of him. “I thought about what you said, about the rations. It was- Well, it wasn’t a terrible idea,” he mumbled, looking down at the scroll he shifted between his hands.

Merlin’s cheeks twitched with a restrained grin. “Insightful for a peasant, I believe you said, Sire,” he responded, and Arthur shot him a quick sneer before rounding the desk to lean against the front, tapping the butt of the scroll into his palm.

“Yes, well, I drafted a proposal. For my father,” he said, lifting his eyes meaningfully to Merlin on the last word.

Merlin certainly understood, his eyes straining against their sockets as they widened.

Arthur dropped his gaze, opening the scroll again, although he didn’t seem to actually be reading it when he spoke. “An extra half-ration will be awarded to every boy and girl between the ages of 11 and 16, as well as to women who are with child.” He cleared his throat, tightening the scroll into a cylinder once more, and then looked up expectantly, but Merlin was still too dumbstruck to reply. “It’s not quite a whole extra person, but it, er…seemed fair,” Arthur mumbled, lifting one hand from the parchment to scratch behind his ear.

Merlin blinked, and then his brain caught up, and he closed his gaping mouth. “It-It is. Fair, I mean.” He coughed pointedly, eyebrows furrowing in self-deprecation at his fumbling. “Why did you do it?” he asked before he really meant to.

Arthur frowned at him for a moment before turning a pensive expression to the stone floor. “I suppose it was the-the execution,” he began, and Merlin’s heart ached in sympathy at the hesitation on the word. “If his family had been adequately provided for, perhaps he wouldn’t have felt the need to steal. Of course, he was still a sorcerer,” he added, forehead creasing as though staring down an impossible puzzle, “but maybe…” His eyes shifted around the floor for a moment before he blinked, a quick sigh huffing through his nose as he shook his head lightly. “It doesn’t matter,” he muttered, and Merlin couldn’t think of a reasonable reason to argue why it very much did. “I thought it may help prevent some of the theft in Camelot, that’s why I did it.” His eyes flashed, staring Merlin down as if expecting him to argue, to challenge, to question, and he looked plenty prepared to defend his conclusion.

Merlin, however, had no intention of dissenting. “I’m sure it will,” he affirmed, adding a nod for good measure, and was surprised when Arthur’s eyebrows shot up, clearly flummoxed by the approval, as if Merlin’s opinion actually mattered beyond stroking his ego. The expression was gone a blink later, however, and Arthur was official once more.

“I’m going to present it to my father at the feast tonight. Speaking of which”—he glanced back at the clepsydrae on his desk—“we should get going!” He grinned, so innocent it could only mean trouble, and pushed off the desk, flinging open his wardrobe and pulling out a flowing red cloak.

“Sorry, we?” Merlin asked, stepping closer as he pointed between them. “I’m not going to the feast.”

“Yes, you are,” Arthur answered, still smiling in that terrifyingly impish way as he approached. “My manservant ran off with one of the kitchen maids a few days ago, and I’ve yet to find a replacement. Put this on me.” He thrust the cloak into Merlin’s chest, and Merlin’s arms lifted to fumble at it instinctively.

He stared down at the soft red fabric, plucking at it with his fingers for a moment of confusion before anger overtook him. “I’m not dressing you!” he spluttered, holding his arms back out to Arthur, cloak draped between his limbs.

Arthur only shook his head, still looking irritatingly sure of himself. “It’s only a cloak, Merlin, you’re hardly dressing me, and I can never get it to fasten properly. You have those scrawny fingers; you’ll be fine.”

Merlin’s mouth dropped open with an indignant squawk. “Scrawny? Scrawny!? My fingers aren’t scrawny! Maybe yours are just fat!” he snapped, raising his eyebrows in challenge as he glanced down at the offending phalanges, which didn’t actually look fat at all, but tan and strong and worn in places that would probably rub rough and catch on smoother skin.

Arthur chuckled, unaware of Merlin’s inner turmoil over his damn fingers.

Prat, he was an absolute prat. A prat who cared about children and pregnant women, but still a prat. God, Merlin was a horrible person.

“Will you just do it? We’re going to be late,” Arthur chided, soft and patronizing, and that bristled Merlin out of his musings.

“No, you’re going to be late, because I’m not going. What would you need a personal servant for at a feast, anyway?”

“I always have a personal servant, as do my father and Morgana,” Arthur explained, waving a hand as if this were boring and obvious as opposed to completely absurd. “They taste the food, refill the wine and water. All the usual duties.”

Taste the food?” Merlin repeated, his frown turning into a scowl as Arthur only smiled.

“To see if it’s poisoned,” he replied with a nod.

Merlin barked a laugh. “I am not checking your poisonous food.”

“You don’t know it’s poisoned,” Arthur crooned.

Merlin snorted. “No, and I never will, will I? I’ll just die.”

“With the satisfaction of a job well done.”

“I can’t be satisfied if I’m dead.”

“Your valiant sacrifice will have been in service of the crown.”

“Oh, I so hope that’s what goes on my grave marker!” Merlin whined, high-pitched and earnest, clasping his hands together in pleading. "Here lies Merlin, who died in service of a royal ass."

Arthur laughed, his humor filling the room, and Merlin felt his anger begrudgingly sliding away at the cleansing sound. “You have my word. I’ll go to the stone mason myself,” he chuckled, smiling as he laid a hand over his heart.

Merlin managed to glare at him a few moments longer, and then his lips cracked into a smile as he shook his head in resignation. “Here,” he muttered, lifting the cloak off his arms and beckoning Arthur forward with a wave of the fabric.

Arthur positively beamed as he closed the distance between them, and Merlin thought about strangling him with his own, damn cloak, but then Arthur was right there and his eyes were sparkling and a faint hint of stubble was showing through on his chin and he smelled like summer air and grass and good god, Merlin, focus!

He swung the cloak around Arthur’s shoulders, biting his lip in concentration as he attempted to force his fingers to stop quivering around the golden clasps. Arthur’s breath rushed warm over his face, and Merlin’s eyelids fluttered before he quickly hooked the cloak closed over Arthur’s chest, practically leaping away from him when it was done.

“There,” he said, his voice a little higher than normal, and he covered his mouth with a fist and coughed to reset it. “Now you look like a proper royal prat,” he added, hoping the strain in his smirk went unnoticed.

Arthur’s cheek’s twitched with a suppressed laugh, his smile tight and pulling at the edges. “I suggest you be a bit more mindful of your impudence at the feast, Merlin,” he replied, but the credence of the scolding remark was undermined by his tone.

“I will do my utmost to be polite while I choke and die on your poisoned pheasant, Sire,” Merlin countered with a bow of his head, and Arthur did laugh at that, albeit briefly.

“Don’t be ridiculous, Merlin. We’re having venison,” he answered with a teasing smile over his shoulder as he strode to the door.

Merlin snorted, but did not have time to reply as the door opened and the bubble he had allowed himself to grow comfortable in abruptly popped with the rude reminder that Arthur was Prince Arthur. He dropped his head, clasping his hands in front of him, suddenly shy.

“You know, you’re not actually walking to your death, Merlin,” Arthur murmured over his shoulder as they slowed down a staircase. “You don’t have to look quite so morose.” He turned his head to smile at his taunt as they reached the bottom of the stone steps.

Merlin glared at him, his hands disentangling to form fists at his sides, but he also somehow felt more at ease, and, when Arthur chuckled at his anger, he actually managed to playfully sneer back.

They were silent as they finished their walk to the hall, but, as the wooden doors swung inward to admit them, Merlin couldn’t help but gasp.

It was an impossibly large room, the red-draped walls lit with the flickering light of mounted torches and what must have been hundreds of candles in ornate, metal stands. There were easily a dozen tables, slowly filling up as nobles and knights meandered around the room, laughing and shaking hands while goblets swayed in their hands. The tables were not yet laid with food, but the plates were waiting, glinting silver and screaming luxury, and a horde of servants were already buzzing around, chasing their charges with pitchers as they tried to keep the water and wine flowing.

“Is this all it takes to shut you up?” a voice mocked, pulling him out of his wonder with a jolt. “Because, I must say, that would’ve been nice to know earlier.”

Merlin laughed tonelessly, and smug blue eyes crinkled with amusement before Arthur turned back toward the head table. Merlin hovered uncertainly behind him, pulling a chair out automatically when Arthur paused beside it.

Arthur stared down at the offered seat for a moment before lifting his head to Merlin, a question in the tilt of his head.

“What?” Merlin muttered, shifting on the balls of his feet, his palms sliding against the back of the chair.

“Nothing,” Arthur replied, rattling his head as he swept his cloak out behind him to move in front of the chair. “Just surprised you know what you’re doing.”

In response, Merlin pushed the chair in quick and fast, clipping the back of Arthur’s knees.

The man let out a small yip of surprise, collapsing into the waiting seat, his hands coming up to grip the edge of the table, and then he whipped his head around with a furious stare.

Merlin cocked his head, lifting his eyebrows with a half smirk, and would have been perfectly content to continue the unblinking challenge if a small voice to his left had not broken his concentration.

“Merlin?”

He turned to find Gwen staring perplexedly at him behind a tall elegant woman Merlin supposed was Lady Morgana.

The assumed lady turned back to Gwen, confused, and then followed her gaze to rest on Merlin, pale green eyes narrowing in calculation. Even apart from her unsettling stare, she was an imposing presence, a gold-embellished, crimson dress draped elegantly over her form, and even Merlin could recognize she was stunning, even if his own personal leanings were decidedly less feminine.

“Gwen?” she questioned, inclining her head to the girl even as her eyes never left Merlin. “I don’t believe I’ve met your friend.”

Gwen blinked excessively, her mouth opening and closing as she looked between them. “Oh, of course. My apologies, my lady,” she panted with a small bow. “This is Merlin. He’s Gaius’ nephew; he’s come to stay with him.”

Morgana’s eyes widened, and she looked Merlin up and down with renewed interest, but less threat. “Nephew?” she repeated, perfect, pale brow furrowing. “I didn’t know Gaius had a nephew.”

“He doesn’t, my lady,” Merlin replied with a small bow, tired of being talked about. “Not by blood, at least. Gaius is a very old friend of my mother’s.”

Some of the tension in Morgana’s face relaxed at that, and her appraisal seemed to have a favorable outcome, because she stepped forward, extending a hand. “Well, then, I suppose we should be properly introduced. I’m Lady Morgana, Uther’s ward.”

Perhaps Merlin was imagining it, but he thought he heard a note of bitterness in Morgana’s tone when she went over the king’s name. Of course, there were more pressing concerns at the moment, because Lady Morgana was holding out her hand to him and he had no idea what to do with it. Frantic, he looked to Gwen, who swiftly mimed a curtsey, lifting her hand as if to take an imaginary, offered one. Merlin gingerly took Lady Morgana’s hand, more supporting it than anything else, and began to bend into a low bow when something shot through his arm, a sort of warm shiver that swept under his skin. He gasped softly at the sensation, but concluded the bow, trying to act normally as he righted himself, but his charade was shattered when he found Morgana staring down at their combined hands, her eyes wide.

She lifted her eyes to him, making no move to remove her hand, her expression confused and curious, but there was also a softness in her gaze. “Do I- Have we met?” she asked, sounding slightly dazed as she tilted her head at him.

Merlin couldn’t explain it either, this sense of familiarity, of kin, but he said nothing, so bitterly accustomed to lying that the smile and chuckle were out before he’d even had to think. “I do not believe so, my lady,” he replied, extricating his hand from hers, and she jolted in surprise, as if she had forgotten it had been there. “A beauty such as yours would not easily be forgotten,” he added with another incline of his head.

Morgana blinked and then smiled, the open warmth of it nearly knocking the breath out of Merlin, but the spell was broken by a loud snort behind him.

“Of course,” Arthur muttered, rolling his eyes as he swigged back a gulp of water. “You address Morgana properly.”

Merlin smiled indulgently down at him, Arthur’s expression turning wary. “My apologies, Sire. I assure you, your beauty is not easily forgotten either.”

Arthur spluttered into his water, red-faced and coughing while Morgana let out an airy, tinkling laugh.

“Oh, I like you!” she chuckled, grazing a hand down Merlin’s arm, but the warm sensation did not reappear at the touch. “You must bring him to more of these things, Arthur.”

“I’ll take it under advisement,” Arthur grumbled, scowling down into the twisting water as he idly swirled his goblet.

Morgana grinned mischievously at the back of his head before flashing Merlin a wink and turning away, slipping into her chair as Gwen pulled it out.

Gwen then beckoned him with a jerk of her head as she withdrew, and he followed closely in the wake of her skirts. “What are you doing here?” she hissed when they reached the edge of the room, standing against the wall to the right of the head table.

“I don’t really know, to be honest,” Merlin shrugged. “I was just dropping off a tonic, next thing I know, I’ve been conscripted as a temporary manservant.”

Gwen looked at him like he was speaking a foreign language, and then seemed to decide she didn’t want to ask, shaking her head with a brusque huff. “Here,” she said, thrusting a metal pitcher of water into his hands. “Wine is on the table”—she gestured behind her to the long, serving table pressed against the wall, covered in full pitchers, spare plates, and rags for mopping up—“but push the water as much as you can. His Highness is your main priority, of course, but fill goblets whenever you see them empty. Don’t give more wine until they beckon, though, and watch Lord Eldridge; he can get a bit spirited after more than a few goblets.”

“Spirited?” he questioned, scanning the room as if he would suddenly recognize the man he’d never heard of.

Gwen hummed, nodding, and pointed surreptitiously toward a group to their right. “Balding, blue robe, huge nose. Just try not to turn your back to him.”

“Why would-” He faded off as Gwen dropped her head, giving him a disparaging look.

Merlin’s eyes widened, his neck heating as he turned back to stare at the man. “Oh,” he murmured, swallowing with dread, and Gwen giggled, nudging his arm with her shoulder.

“Come on,” she said, smiling in what he was realizing was her usual, calming way. “The speeches will be starting soon.”

The prospect of attending a feast was exciting, even as only a servant, and Merlin drank it all in, watching with rapt attention as the king entered, everyone surging to their feet.

Uther was wearing blue now, though he looked no less grand than he had in the square earlier, but Merlin was hardly watching him now, focused instead on Arthur, who had noticeably stiffened at his father’s entrance. As Uther sat down, beckoning the room to do the same, Arthur’s muscles seemed to resent bending, and he lowered awkwardly, his chair scraping against the floor as he shifted a few inches closer.

Arthur bent his head toward Uther, clearly beckoning, and Uther inclined toward him as Arthur’s mouth worked. After a moment, Arthur pulled out the scroll Merlin immediately recognized as his proposal, passing it to his father, who was looking curiously down at the parchment.

He lifted his head to Arthur, likely voicing the question that had rumpled his expression, and, whatever Arthur’s reply, the king seemed to soften, looking more contemplative than confused. He gave Arthur a quick, curt nod, and then turned, beckoning a servant, who immediately dove forward to collect the scroll. One last comment was imparted to Arthur, and, whatever it was, Arthur seemed to be encouraged, smiling faintly as he nodded and replied.

As Arthur turned away from his father, his eyes found Merlin, who suddenly realized he’d been staring. Arthur didn’t seem to fault the intrusion, however, instead quirking half his mouth up into a smile and giving Merlin a ghost of a nod, and Merlin couldn’t help but smile back, feeling as though he was somehow included in the accomplishment. Although, in truth, it had been his idea to start with.

Whatever awe the feast had initially inspired quickly faded, however, as boring old man after boring old man felt the need to stand up and say something boring while the food was served and eaten. Merlin was almost grateful for the task of filling water goblets, the constant need for refills at least giving him something to occupy his mind. He buzzed around the room in something of a daze, but came back to himself as he resettled against the wall, fetching a fresh, full pitcher from the table and waiting for its need.

“It is my stout belief,” one, elderly man was saying, and Merlin faintly remembered the faceless person who told him to sit down several minutes ago referring to him as Geoffrey, “that a sword is not the only weapon one must have in their arsenal to be a wise ruler.” He eyed the room meaningfully, as if condemning them all personally, although most of them had nothing to rule. “For wisdom cannot be achieved on the battlefield. It is a work of the mind, cultivated through strict study of those who came before us, for the past is a teacher to us all.” He smiled, nodding sagely, and then turned to Uther. “In illustration, if I say to our noble king: It takes a wise man to discover a wise man…” He trailed off, lifting his eyebrows meaningful.

Uther smiled, his gaze never wavering. “Diogenes,” he replied, and Geoffrey grinned, beginning the applause that quickly rippled through the room, Uther nodding graciously at the praise.

“And, of course, our brave prince,” Geoffrey continued, and Arthur’s head shot up from where it had been drooping, “who has been under such excellent tutelage,” Geoffrey added, leaving no doubt he was referring to himself, “also must understand the importance of such teachers.”

Arthur drained his water, looking anywhere but Geoffrey, a wild panic in his eyes, and something seized around Merlin’s heart in sympathy.

Geoffrey didn’t seem to notice the discomfort, barreling on ahead with gusto. “And if I were to speak to him of the virtues of the high-minded man-“

Merlin blinked, recognition buzzing across his brain. He glanced back at Arthur, who had gone slightly pale, and his decision was made.

“-and tell him that such a man-“

He gripped the water pitcher tightly in his hands, hurrying forward and hoping not to spill.

“-must care more for the truth-“

He reached the table, bending lower than necessary as he tipped the pitcher toward the goblet.

“-than for what people think-“

“Aristotle,” he hissed into Arthur’s ear, and Arthur started slightly, half-turning his head to peer skeptically up at Merlin, but there was desperation in his eyes. Time nearly up, Merlin did the only thing he could keep silent and hidden, and gave Arthur a lightning smile and a wink, relaying his certainty before backing away and arranging his face into dutiful nonchalance once more.

“-he would answer with…” Geoffrey’s pause hung in the air, one eyebrow lifting as he and everyone else regarded Arthur expectantly.

Arthur’s head twitched in Merlin’s direction, as if to seek final confirmation, but then he stalled, turning toward Geoffrey, the tension in his shoulders visibly bleeding away as he calmly regarded the man. “Aristotle,” he replied with all the confidence in the world, as if he had just been reading the book that morning and found the question insultingly easy.

Merlin wasn’t quite sure if he was offended or proud. As Arthur glanced over at him, though, giving him a quick, grateful nod, it became a whole lot clearer.

“Merlin?”

He jumped, twisting his head automatically to Gwen, and, when he glanced back, Arthur was talking with his father and Geoffrey, quite clearly forcing a laugh.

“Can you run to the kitchens and get more rags?” Gwen asked he turned back to her, her hair frazzled and coming loose from its tie at the base of her skull.

“Sure,” he replied, and she smiled gratefully, relieving him of his water pitcher and moving aside to let him pass.

It was only once he was out in the corridor that he remembered he had no idea how to get to the kitchens from here, and it took bothering a couple of servants before he found the stone-walled room, thick with steam and mouth-watering scents. The cook remembered him, keeping a sharp eye on him as he collected more rags, and he was given a firm, if unearned, scolding about stealing food as he left, her voice following him up the stairs. He only had to ask for directions once on the way back, and was feeling rather proud of his accomplishment as he made his way down the stone staircase of a servant’s entrance to the hall. A faint singing drifted to his ears, and he stopped on a step, listening to the haunting melody. Something prickled at his skin, a tingling itch like what he had experienced with Morgana, but with none of the warmth, and his magic rose to the surface in response, ready to defend as he continued cautiously down the steps. As the room came into view, he froze, the rags dropping to his feet as his fingers went slack

A woman was standing in the middle of the hall, arms outstretched, her mouth open in song, clearly the Lady Helen he had been hearing so much about. She did not, however, seem to be there for entertainment’s sake, considering the entire room was cold and dark, torches and candles all extinguished, and a thick layer of cobwebs was spread over everything and everyone. And not a soul was moving.

Merlin’s eyes immediately went to the head table, finding Arthur slumped in his chair, cobwebs obscuring his face. He was still, but the web was shifting slightly in front of his mouth, and Merlin’s chest unclenched a little at that.

Just then, however, Lady Helen pulled a dagger from her bodice, arching it over her head as she drew near the head table, eyes fixed on the prince.

Frantic, Merlin scanned around the room, searching for watching eyes as well as a strategy. His eyes alighted on the heavy, iron candelabra hanging in the center of the hall, and, with a quick check at its trajectory, he severed the chain with a burst of magic.

The candelabra collapsed with a catastrophic bang of metal on stone, nearly drowning out Lady Helen’s shriek, but Merlin still heard it, wincing at the sound.

The instant Lady Helen’s singing ceased, people began to rouse, and Merlin let out a soft sigh of relief as he saw Arthur and Morgana stirring. Stepping into the room now, he turned to the right, watching as Gwen lifted her head from where she had collapsed against the wall, and then looked back to the center of the room, his mouth dropping open.

Where Lady Helen had lain only moments ago, there was now an old woman, withered and wrinkled, her grey hair hanging over her face in stringy curtains. She rasped out a breath, lifting her head, and Merlin’s eyes darted to her arm as she pulled it free of the debris.

The knife glittered as she held it overhead, her arm pulling back to throw, and, as Merlin watched the pure hatred burning in her eyes, it occurred to him he could just let this be.

He could allow the dagger to find its target, the point piercing true and final. It was inevitable that Arthur would somehow need to be kept from procuring the throne, but, as Merlin looked back to the blond man, bleary-eyed and confused as he woke, his stomach clenched in revolt against this knowledge. It was too soon, no Once and Future King prepared to take over, and it would not help to lose Arthur while Uther was still in power; there would just be another heir named, another person in their way. This was all very logical—good, solid reasons for him not to interfere—but, as the dagger flew free from the woman’s hand, all that was truly blaring in Merlin’s mind was Arthur’s voice calling after him.

Looking forward to it, idiot.

Merlin’s magic reached out ahead of him as he ran, the knife slowing as it spun through the air. His fingers clenched into Arthur’s arm, digging into the leather, and he pulled, pushing back on his feet, the momentum sending them toppling to the floor as time resumed as normal.

The knife sunk into the heavy, wooden chair with a chilling thump, and Arthur scrambled up onto his elbows, staring at it in slack jawed horror. He then rounded on Merlin, his breathing ragged and eyes wide. “Merlin,” he breathed, blue eyes pinning Merlin to the spot and sending his stomach into wild contortions.

“You- You saved my boy’s life!”

Merlin started, watching as Arthur did the same, and they both turned to find Uther approaching, a broad smile on his face.

“A debt must be repaid!” he added as he lowered a hand to Arthur, tugging his son up as Merlin pushed to his feet in front of them.

“Oh, well…” Merlin murmured, ducking his head from the stares of the room.

“Don't be so modest. You shall be rewarded!” Uther continued, nodding superiorly.

“No, honestly, you don't have to, Your Majesty,” Merlin tried again, but Uther shook his head.

“No, absolutely. This merits something quite special.” He was grinning proudly, and Merlin realized he was not getting out of this unscathed.

“Well…” he relented with a small smile.

“You shall be awarded a position in the royal household!” he announced, and Merlin’s stomach clenched. “I believe the kitchens are in need of-”

“Father, if I may?” Arthur interjected, and Merlin thought he could say just about anything and it would be better than the kitchens. “Being that it was my life Merlin saved, and, seeing as my manservant has, er…eloped, perhaps it would be more prudent to-”

“Of course, of course,” Uther replied jovially, clapping Arthur on the shoulder. “The boy will be Arthur’s manservant,” he announced to the hall, and the room broke into applause.

Merlin was conflicted, to say the least, his eyes scanning over the smiling faces of the crowd. Their expressions clearly indicated that he should be nothing less than thrilled with the honor that had been bestowed him, and he wondered how many of them would not hesitate to have a personal hand in his slaughter if they knew his true nature and purpose. Then he looked back to Arthur, and the small smile that met him over a red-cloaked shoulder could not help but be returned, even as a sinking feeling grew in his gut at the realization that he was already in much deeper than he’d ever intended.

When Merlin returned to his room that night, laden down with armor to polish and boots to oil, Gaius was waiting, and Merlin hurried through his congratulations as quickly as possible in order to retire to his room. He tossed his armful onto the bed, the metal clanging together, and then reached into his pack, casting a quick silencing spell around the perimeter. He only had to wait a moment for Nimueh’s face to appear in the mirror, a sure sign that she had been waiting, and he quickly imparted the new developments, although he left out mentioning Morgana, a deep uncertainty within him holding him back from revealing her.

“This is marvelous news, Emrys,” Nimueh replied, her rare smile feral. “The fools are practically handing the kingdom to us!”

“Milady?” Merlin asked, confused.

Nimueh only smiled broader, raising the hair on Merlin’s neck. “Your position as Arthur’s manservant will give us more access to the castle than I had ever dared dream! And, of course, when the time comes, you will be perfectly poised to eliminate him.”

“E-Eliminate him?” Merlin repeated, panicked and flustered. “But, Mistress, surely it would be best to attempt a peaceful resolution before-”

“They do not deserve peace!” Nimueh shouted, her eyes glowing gold, and Merlin flinched even though it was impossible for him to be affected here. “You will kill the prince, Emrys. It is your destiny. But, if you do not believe you can accomplish the task-”

“No,” he blurted, knowing he could give her no room to doubt him, to send someone else to complete the job. “No, I-I will do what must be done. My apologies, Mistress.” He forced to keep his face impassive as Nimueh studied him, not daring to even breathe until she nodded.

“Very well. Keep me informed,” she snapped, and then her image dissolved into his own pale face.

A breath rattled out of him, his hands shaking as he rewrapped the mirror and lowered it to the bed beside him. His eyes landed on the pile of armor on his quilt, the plates and mail that had been entrusted into his care, designed so carefully to protect what he was destined to destroy. He stared at his rippled reflection in the helmet, the twisted version of himself somehow a more accurate depiction that even the most talented portrait artist could achieve. He turned away with a sigh, hanging his head and catching his face in his palms.

“Oh, Mum,” he breathed with a small shake of his head, pleading for direction, and yet, as always, he was on his own.

---

Arthur had no idea what he’d done wrong. If he was someone to whom the option of simply asking was available, he would, of course, have asked. But, as it stood, he was a prince, and therefore doomed to watch from afar and scowl, chasing his thoughts in circles to come up with an explanation why Merlin was currently laughing with the stable boys when he hadn’t so much as smiled at Arthur all week.

For the past week since Merlin had been in Arthur’s service, he had been respectful, efficient, and perfectly unobtrusive. In short, a completely different person than the man Arthur had met. He was never outright rude—which, if anything, only added to Arthur’s unease—but he never met Arthur’s eyes when he dressed him or fastened his armor, always tried to slip in and out unnoticed when he delivered meals, and never spoke unless addressed. On the rare occasions when he couldn’t forgo eye contact entirely, there was a strange sadness in his eyes, a pain that seemed to plague him from within, and Arthur couldn’t understand it.

He wasn’t a bad master, not that he was aware of. Merlin’s duties were not out of bounds of anything any other servant would be asked to do, and yet he looked thoroughly miserable every second he spent in Arthur’s presence. Luckily, there was less time for Arthur to notice it now.

Camelot was holding a tournament at the end of the week, open to knights from all over the five kingdoms. He had been training vigorously to prepare, knowing the expectations on his shoulders, and his knights, for the most part, were looking better than ever. He hoped he would be facing one of them in the final challenge, proving that Camelot’s knights were superior, but, if not, he felt confident he could prevail against whatever opponent he faced. The visiting knights would begin arriving in a few days, and the hunting parties would have to head out, bringing back enough meat to supply the feasts throughout the course of the weekend tournament. He had already planned to go out himself with a small group of his knights, and was intending, as was customary, for Merlin to accompany him. As things stood, however…

His eyes drifted to the now familiar swatch of red on the edge of his vision, Pendragon red, his red. He watched as the stable boys laughed riotously at something Merlin said, one of them grabbing onto the man’s shoulder to steady himself, Merlin’s blue tunic bunching under his grip.

Arthur’s hand tightened around his sword.

“Alright, that’s enough for today!” he shouted, and the sparring around him ceased, the knights stowing their swords.

“Already?” Owain jeered, lifting his arms, sword shining in his hand. “I was only just warmed up!”

Arthur barely refrained from rolling his eyes. “You’ll get your chance at the tournament, Owain,” he replied, hoping his distaste wasn’t too obvious. “It won’t do any good to over-train now.”

Owain was still smiling smugly, but he sheathed his sword.

“You’re all dismissed,” Arthur called, and the group began to disperse, breaking into smaller groups and chatting amicably, some of them rubbing at a shoulder or side where they’d taken a hit. Arthur waved at Leon, signaling him to stay behind, and the man crossed the training ground toward him.

“Sire?” Leon asked with a small bow Arthur couldn’t seem to convince him was unnecessary.

“I was wondering when you thought we should head out for the hunt,” Arthur replied.

“Whenever you wish to leave, Sire,” Leon promptly answered, his back straightening. “I can have the men and horses prepared in a matter of hours.”

Arthur sighed, wondering if Leon would ever stop being so frustratingly formal. “I don’t have a particular time in mind, Leon, that’s why I’m asking you. When do you think would be best?”

Leon’s brows twitched together. “Well, I-I imagine tomorrow would be just as good a day as any, Sire. Leaves us a bit of time in case animals are scarce.”

“Very good,” Arthur said, nodding. “See that the men are prepared. I’ll talk to the stable hands myself.”

Leon nodded, bowed (again), and began walking back to the castle, following after the other knights.

Arthur turned toward the stables, watching the insipid interaction still going on, and his jaw clenched as he strode over. “You there!” he barked, and the stable boys startled to attention, one of them coughing as he choked around a laugh. “I need horses prepared for tomorrow. Mine, Sir Leon’s, Sir Owain’s, Sir Pellinore’s, Sir Bedivere’s, and Sir Geraint’s.”

The boys bowed deeply in response, and then began scuttling away, but Arthur called them to a stop with a split-second decision.

“Oh, and one for Merlin, as well,” he muttered, as if it were an afterthought and not something he’d been agonizing over. He pretended not to notice the way Merlin’s head whipped around in his peripheral vision. “Whichever one can keep up.”

The boys nodded before continuing their escape, and Arthur realized he was now alone with a staring Merlin.

The air thickened between them as he turned, organizing his face into something casual.

“I’m going with you?” Merlin asked, and Arthur cursed himself for the way his stomach clenched at the sound of Merlin’s voice, as unaccustomed as he was to hearing it lately.

“Of course,” he answered, smiling as he met inquisitive, blue eyes, only deeper and darker over the blue tunic that seemed to be the only one Merlin owned. “You’re my manservant. Who else is going to pack the provisions? And fetch water and cook meals once we’re out there?”

“Something wrong with your hands?” Merlin countered, eyebrows lifting in faux innocence.

Arthur fought to keep his smile in check, but all he wanted to do was grin because Merlin was being an idiot again! “No, Merlin,” he replied, “but it’s not my job, is it?”

Merlin narrowed his eyes at him, and Arthur was eagerly anticipating the next charge in their verbal joust, but then Merlin seemed to remember himself, or perhaps forget, and he blinked, his face shuttering to impassive. “My apologies, Sire,” he muttered, his tone low and cold as he dipped his head.

Suddenly, irrationally, Arthur felt a swell of anger, remembering the easy manner in which the somber man in front of him had just minutes earlier been laughing with the stable hands. “Make sure to pack enough food for a few days. And no mince pies. Cook’s most recent batch is awful,” he snapped, growing even more frustrated when Merlin only bowed again. “And polish my armor. And oil my boots. And I think there might be some sort of insect infestation in my cupboard. Ya know, you really are rubbish at cleaning, Merlin; I don’t know why I keep you around.”

“I couldn’t begin to guess at it myself, Sire,” Merlin answered, his voice so brittle, Arthur felt it like a physical blow, a blast of winter wind cutting through his armor.

His anger faltered, giving way to confusion as he searched Merlin’s face, looking for some hint of the reason behind the ice in his gaze, but Merlin turned away, and Arthur actually found it a little bit comforting to see his hands were clenched into fists.

---

Fire. There was fire everywhere, roaring in his ears along with his own scream.

‘Merlin.’

The stinging cuts over his body dripped sluggishly, trying to heal themselves even as more were inflicted.

‘Merlin.’

Something cold and heavy weighed down his leg at the ankle, cutting into the skin with a searing pain, and he knew there was no escape.

‘MERLIN!’

He awoke with a gasp, already sitting up, the linens twisted around his legs and draping onto the floor. Panting, he clutched a hand to his chest, his heart playing thunderously against his fingers as he searched the moonlit room, but there was no one and nothing there.

‘Merlin.’

He started, turning his head side to side, but he could not tell which direction the voice was coming from. It sounded almost as if…

‘Merlin.’

His eyes widened, and now he was sure, having spent enough time with Druids to recognize the sensation.

‘Who are you?’ he thought back, his eyes still scanning warily.

‘Come to me and I will tell you,’ the voice answered, deep and gravelly and eerily familiar.

Merlin opened his mouth, but his questions turned into a gasp as images of corridors and staircases swept through his mind, forming a path through the castle. “Well,” he breathed as the invasion ceased, and he could feel he was alone in his thoughts once more, “that was unsettling.” He got out of bed, though, dressing hastily before creeping past Gaius with a quick silencing charm on his feet.

The castle was quiet, his disillusionment charm hardly more than a precaution, and he made it to the caverns without encountering anyone, lighting the torches along the stone staircase with a wave of his hand. Weaving through the tunnels at the bottom, guided by his internal map, he stepped through a carved archway and found himself on a ledge overlooking a massive cave. He peered over the edge, a few loose stones skittering away with his steps, and he watched as they bounced between the larger rocks below, clicking off the surface before plunging into the darkness of an unseen floor. Stepping back onto firmer ground, he conjured a light, the glowing ball hovering over his head.

“Hello?” he called tentatively, his voice echoing off the rough, curved walls. “Is anyone here?”

“I am, young warlock.”

The walls seemed to shake with the voice, and Merlin leapt back at a sudden rush of noise and wind, his light flickering with his panic. A blast of dust and small flecks of rock hit him, and he lifted his arm, projecting a shield. There was a loud scraping sound, a whipping snap like a flag in wind, and then nothing, the air silent and still except for the faint skittering of still-falling stones.

Merlin opened his eyes, blinking away dust, and, as he lowered his arm and looked back out into the cave, he had to rub his eyes.

“Hello, Emrys,” the dragon said, smiling to show the tips of his teeth. “It took me much longer to get through to you than I expected; your defenses are impressive. Although, I suppose living with Druids does necessitate some precautions with ones thoughts.” The dragon chuckled, actually chuckled, like it wasn’t a gigantic, talking, mythical lizard.

“You- You- You’re a dragon,” Merlin breathed, very coherently, his eyes bulging.

The dragon smiled, more white teeth revealed against dark scales that glittered in the light of Merlin’s magic. “That, I am. I am Kilgharrah, the last of my kind. As are you, young warlock,” he said, dipping his head closer, and Merlin’s muscles clenched even as he stood his ground. “How small you are, for such a great destiny,” the dragon- Kilgharrah murmured, golden eyes searching. “And how very like your father. I see much of him in you.”

Merlin blinked, surprised out of his trance. “My father?” he asked with a small step forward, somehow knowing deep down that Kilgharrah meant him no harm. “You knew my father?”

Kilgharrah nodded. “Many years ago. He brought me here. It is how Uther captured me.”

Merlin’s head was shaking dazedly, overwhelmed with information and questions. “Captured? How did Uther capture you? And what do you mean, my father brought you here?”

Kilgharrah’s eyebrows furrowed, or, at least, the ridges of spikes over his eyes shifted together. “You do not know, do you?” he asked softly, seemingly more to himself. “Do you know how your father died, Merlin?”

Merlin’s jaw locked. “Yes,” he growled. “He was accused of magic here in Camelot. Uther’s forces found him in Ealdor and brought him back for execution.” It was the simple version he told everyone, the bare facts, devoid of emotion.

“But do you know why he was accused of magic?” Kilgharrah pressed, and Merlin’s fist clenched.

“Probably because he was doing magic,” he snapped, his temper pulled too taut to care he was talking back to a creature who could probably incinerate him with a sneeze.

Kilgharrah’s eyes narrowed, and Merlin cared again. “Uther called your father to Camelot to summon me,” the dragon began. “He claimed he wanted to make peace, to stop the slaughter of my kind, but we were both of us deceived, your father and I. Uther imprisoned me, kept me alive here beneath his castle as a trophy, and, your father, he turned on, seeking to eliminate the last of his breed.”

“His breed?” Merlin repeated, forehead creasing.

Kilgharrah nodded solemnly. “The Dragonlords.”

Merlin blinked. And then again. And then once more. “What?” he croaked, expecting Kilgharrah to burst into laughter, but the dragon didn’t seem to be the joking kind.

“Your father was the last Dragonlord,” he continued, and Merlin’s stomach felt like it was dropping into the endless abyss beneath his ledge, “and, upon his death, his gift was passed to you. We are all that is left of our kin.”

Merlin’s mouth opened and closed several times before he could force his vocal cords to comply. “No,” he sputtered, shaking his head in quick, darting motions. “No, you- You have the wrong person. I-I’m not- I can’t be- My mother would have told me.” His words were coming fast, voice shattered and quivering. “She would have told me if I was- if my father was…” He trailed off, trying to get a hold on the rhythm of his panting breaths.

“I am sorry, Emrys,” Kilgharrah said, patient but firm. “I do not know why your mother kept your birthright a secret—perhaps to protect you from suffering your father’s fate—but, I assure you, it is true. You are the last Dragonlord. It is how I was able to call you here.”

“Why did you call me here?” Merlin snarled, suddenly angry, though he had no idea at whom.

His father for giving him nothing but another reason to be hunted, or for not being there to explain it? His mother for never telling him, for dying? Or maybe it was himself for getting into a mess he was beginning to suspect was already way over his head.

Kilgharrah did not seem riled by his attack. If anything, he seemed to grow a little sad, retracting his long neck away. “I told you, Merlin,” he said, surprisingly soft for a dragon, and the use of his given name eased the scowl from Merlin’s face. “We are the last of our kind. I, the last dragon, and you, the last Dragonlord. We are all that remains.”

Merlin felt something tug in his chest as the dragon turned away, a sadness that was not his own in origin, but that he felt all the same, and he knew just as deeply that Kilgharrah had been telling the truth. “I-I’m sorry,” he stammered, dropping his face to his feet. “I just… It’s a lot. To take in.”

Kilgharrah looked back to him with a faint lift of his mouth and nodded, and it seemed to be an acceptance. He did not speak, however, and, after a few, long moments, Merlin broke the silence.

“So, what…what does it mean?” he asked, curious now that his anger had dissipated.

“Mean?” Kilgharrah inquired, leaning forward once more.

“Being a Dragonlord,” Merlin elaborated, the words still strange on his tongue. “What do I, er… Can I…do anything?”

Kilgharrah chuckled, and Merlin smiled weakly back, feeling very, very small. “You can communicate with dragons,” he said, as if this was obvious, and, as Merlin thought about it, he supposed it was. “You can feel them in your conscience, speak to them in their native tongue, and, if you would will it, control them.”

“Control them?” Merlin questioned, his stomach writhing in objection to the idea.

“If you desire,” Kilgharrah answered, seemingly untroubled. “If you command a dragon in Dragon Tongue, it cannot refuse.”

“But you’re talking to me now,” Merlin said hesitantly, listening carefully in case he had unwittingly slipped into a foreign language.

“Just because I am no longer given opportunities to speak to humans does not mean I am incapable,” Kilgharrah replied, sounding more amused than chiding, but the words sent a wave of sadness over Merlin.

“How long have you been here?” he asked, his eyes roving over the walls, noticing for the first time the long gashes in the stone.

“How old are you?” Kilgharrah replied, eyes hard, and Merlin dropped his head.

He supposed it was a rather foolish question, but, still, twenty years trapped in this dark damp cave. It was unthinkable.

“I could get you out,” Merlin offered. “I work in the castle; I could get the key.” He gestured to the manacle around Kilgharrah’s leg.

Kilgharrah smiled, inclining his head. “I know you would, young warlock, but now is not the time. Uther sends men down here on occasion. To ensure I am still in his prison or to taunt me, I am uncertain, but he would notice I was gone and only hunt me again. No, I will never truly be free until the Once and Future King ascends his throne.” He leaned down to Merlin, his expression grave. “Which is another reason I called you, Merlin. The time of your destiny draws near.”

“What do you mean?” Merlin asked, urgent and intrigued as he stepped closer. “Is the Once and Future King here? In Camelot?”

“He will reveal himself to you when you are ready,” Kilgharrah answered, which was really no answer at all.

“But do you know who it is?” Merlin tried again, irritation mounting.

Kilgharrah tilted his head. “I cannot divulge that to you, young warlock. Fate is a path travelled in its own time. I will only tell you to be wary; there are many who would wish to see you fail.”

Merlin pressed his mouth tight, biting at the inside of his bottom lip as he dropped his head to the ground for a moment, collecting himself. He sighed, and lifted his eyes back to golden ones with a nod of resignation. “Thank you,” he said, because there was clearly nothing else for it at the moment.

His eyes caught on something past Kilgharrah’s head, and he looked up to find patches of the wall streaked with the dull, grey light of impending dawn. “I have to go,” he said, looking back to the dragon. “Arthur’s heading out on a hunt at dawn.”

Kilgharrah gave him a short nod, as if he had already known, and that wouldn’t even surprise Merlin at this point.

“Can I…come back? Sometime?” he asked hesitantly, fiddling with his fingers in front of him.

At that, Kilgharrah smiled. “Any time you wish, young warlock,” he replied, and Merlin smiled broadly back.

He turned, and was halfway through the archway when Kilgharrah’s voice stalled him.

“You should not be so quick to judge him,” he said, his tone heavy with a meaning Merlin could not parse out. “Arthur is not your enemy in this fight.”

Merlin saw a reaching expanse of dark wings, and then Kilgharrah was gone, leaving only a dusty brunt of wind and the ever-fading jingle of a chain. He stood there a moment longer, blinking into the empty darkness, and then began the trek to Arthur’s rooms, his face frowning in thought that only led to more confusion.

---

Arthur glanced behind him on pretense of checking how the horses were making their way through the forest.

Merlin had chosen to ride as far back as he could, just in front of the knight guarding the rear, Sir Owain, and Arthur smiled sadistically as he watched the pale boy’s mouth twist into a grimace, no doubt in response to whatever joke Owain had just told. He clearly thought it was hilarious, judging by his own laughter, but Merlin’s hands only tightened on the reins, paling even further under the pressure.

Arthur chuckled just as Merlin looked up, eyes immediately finding his, as if Merlin had sensed the gaze, or perhaps he had been checking on Arthur too. Arthur was going to go ahead and believe the latter. He smiled cheekily back at Merlin, hoping the ‘You could have been up here, but nooo’ was clearly telegraphed in his expression, and, if Merlin’s answering scowl was any measure, the message had been received. He turned back to the trail ahead with a smile still lingering on his face, only managing to smother it when he caught Leon giving him a perplexed frown.

The group passed the trip in relative silence, only muttering and Owain’s juvenile chortling interrupting the steady sounds of the forest, and it was not long before they reached their usual campsite, a spot Arthur usually had great luck hunting at. He lifted his hand in signal, and everyone quickly dismounted, stretching and groaning as they kneaded their backs with their hands. He turned to give the order, but Merlin was already obliging, helping unstrap packs and gathering the horses. Arthur watched as he led them to a large patch of level ground nearby, patting their sides and murmuring softly as the horses shook the trip from their muscles.

“Should we set up camp now, Sire?” Leon said from behind him, and Arthur contained his jump to a mere twitch of his shoulders.

“Probably best,” Arthur replied, turning to the older knight. “It may be late when we return, and we don’t want to be attempting it in the dark.”

Leon nodded, starting back to the clearing.

“And put the cloths up; it looks like it may rain,” he added, and Leon nodded again over his shoulder.

Arthur turned back, caught Merlin’s eye and beckoned him to follow, and then headed to where his own pack had been deposited, unravelling the ties and beginning to unfurl the bedrolls.

Merlin hovered, hands twisting in front of him.

“Here,” Arthur said, tossing a length of rope up at him. “Start stringing up the wax cloth between these trees.” He gestured to two nearby pines standing about five feet apart. “You’ll have to find rocks or something to secure the ends; we didn’t bring pegs.”

“I do know how to put up a tent,” Merlin snapped, and Arthur smiled down into his pack.

“I don’t doubt it,” he replied, completely sincere, but Merlin still huffed, and he could hear twigs cracking as his footfalls moved away.

They worked in silence, Merlin swinging the large white cloth over a central, taut rope tied between the two trees before beginning to stretch the four corners close to the ground with weighted ties. Arthur busied himself with his bedroll, unwrapping and unfurling it as Merlin worked the fluttering cloth above him. There was a particularly loud rustle, and, as Arthur turned, he was smothered by the slick white fabric.

“What in the-” he bleated, scrabbling at the cloth.

“Shit, sorry!”

The shroud was pulled back, lifting away to reveal urgent blue eyes. Merlin held the material over his head, creating a triangular sort of tunnel up from Arthur to his face. “It’s slipperier than I thought,” he chuckled, smiling sheepishly, and Arthur’s heart tumbled even as he fought to glower.

“Careful, Merlin,” he replied, extricating himself from the folds and getting to his feet as Merlin stepped away to give him room, “or you’ll be sleeping out in the rain.”

Merlin tilted his head, a small crease forming between his brows. “I-I thought- Don’t I…have my own?” He waved a hand at the disaster of a tent, a soft pout forming on his face, and Arthur bit his lip to keep from grinning at how young he looked.

“We only have four,” Arthur replied, gesturing out over the campsite, where the knights had paired off to set up their own tents. “All but one of us has to share, but you’re welcome to bunk with Owain if you’d rather.” He waved an arm out to where Owain was setting up his own tent, or trying to, at least, but he seemed to be doing more angry grumbling at a tangled rope than anything productive.

Merlin watched the man for a moment, mouth curling in distaste. “No, I- It’s fine, I’ll just…stay with you.”

Arthur tried not to smile too broadly. His competition was Owain, after all. It was hardly a victory. He was still going to rub it in just a little though. “Are you sure?” he asked, tilting his head and frowning innocently. “You and Owain seemed to get along quite well on the way here.”

Merlin snorted, rolling his eyes. “If I hear one more joke about how big his bloody cock is…” He left the threat to the imagination, glaring across the clearing at Owain, and Arthur couldn’t stop himself.

He exploded into laughter, vainly trying to stifle it with a fist, but that only led to silent shaking as he bent double, gasping for air when he could manage. A lower laugh joined him, and he looked up, wiping his eyes to clear the image of Merlin leaning against a nearby tree.

He was covering his mouth with the back of his hand, and, as he lowered it to reveal a blinding grin, Arthur felt lighter than he had in days.

“Er, Sire?”

Arthur coughed, still wheezing slightly as he righted himself to meet Leon’s curious gaze, his eyes shifting between them.

“We’re ready to head out,” Leon said, his mouth lifting briefly in acknowledgement at Merlin.

Arthur cleared his throat as he nodded. “Right. Very good. Let me just-” He pointed to the half-constructed tent, but Merlin cut him off.

“I can finish it,” he assured, jerking his tousled head at the draping fabric.

Arthur’s feet shifted uncertainly in the dirt. “Are you sure about that? You’ve only managed one rope so far.”

Merlin merely smiled. “Better a little which is well done, than a great deal imperfectly,” he replied with a sage nod, and Arthur lifted an eyebrow.

“Plato,” Leon blurted, flattening his smile and dropping his head as Arthur rounded on him.

Merlin blinked, and then smiled, giving Leon a nod as he appraised him, clearly impressed.

Arthur was just uncomfortable. “Alright, let’s head out,” he barked, and Leon straightened to attention. “You can join us when you’re finished, if you’d like,” he offered to Merlin, trying not to show his personal feelings on the matter.

Merlin smiled, but it was tight, and his eyes flitted away from Arthur’s. “Yeah, I’ll- I’ll try,” he said with a rattling nod, and Arthur felt rather stupid for presuming.

Of course Merlin wasn’t the hunting type. He probably captured spiders he found in his boots and released them back into the wild.

Arthur nodded quickly, trying for a smile, but it probably looked more like an embarrassed grimace, and then he turned away, walking with Leon to join the rest of the knights.

“Interesting boy,” Leon remarked, head turning to Arthur in his peripheral vision.

Arthur hummed.

“Do you suppose he knows Aristotle as well?”

Arthur shot a glare up at him, but it was now Leon’s turn to look determinedly forward. Arthur didn’t miss the slight quirk of his mouth, though, but, as they reached the knights, he had to swallow his retort.

They started off as a group, but, as more and more tracks were found, they began to split off, all agreeing to return to the camp by dusk. Eventually, it was just Arthur and Leon, and, when the trail they were following split apart, he managed to convince a begrudging Leon to allow him to continue alone.

Arthur enjoyed the solitude of the woods, having escaped the stone walls of the castle for the smell of dirt and pine more times than he could count throughout his youth. Even now, when the pressure was growing with every day closer to his coming of age, he still found solace here, forgetting the inevitable with a temporary salve of birdsong and fading sunlight. And…voices?

Arthur lifted his crossbow, lowering his eyes to the ground as his footsteps grew careful, finding soft dirt amongst dried leaves and twigs. The rocks grew high around him, and he picked a path around them as the voice grew louder. Ahead, he could see the rocks diminished, leaving an open clearing, and he crouched down beside a particularly large boulder, readying the crossbow at his chest. With a steadying breath, he leaned out from his hiding place, arrow aimed into the glen, and then he promptly almost dropped the weapon.

“You shouldn’t be here,” Merlin said softly, stroking the shimmering white flank of what appeared to be…

A white horn caught on a beam of sunlight, and Arthur lowered his crossbow, hardly daring to believe it even as his eyes left no doubt. A unicorn. There was a unicorn less than three meters away. And Merlin was petting it.

“They’re hunting out around here, and most of them would probably kill you on sight.”

The unicorn snorted, as if in indignation, and the half of Merlin’s face Arthur could see curled up in a small smile.

“Well, Leon would leave you alone, I think,” he added, stroking through the white mane with his almost equally pale fingers. “Pellinore too, but I’m not so sure about the others.”

The unicorn shifted, pushing its neck into Merlin’s shoulder as it curled its head back toward him.

“Arthur might,” Merlin continued, and Arthur’s back straightened as he stretched forward from his crouched hiding place. “Probably depends on if he were alone. He’d have to shoot you if the other knights were around. Masculinity on the line and whatnot.”

Arthur ducked his head, mouth quivering with a suppressed chuckle, and, when he looked up, he found the unicorn’s dark eyes on him. He froze, pinned by the creature’s gaze, and, as he stared back, he couldn’t help but feel as though it were speaking to him, communicating something he simply did not have the tools to decipher. It was strange, but not uncomfortable, and a sense of calm settled over him before the beast looked away. He gently laid his crossbow on the ground, silently rising to his feet and taking a slow step forward.

“I hope you’re not intending to keep it,” he said, and Merlin jumped, spinning around, his eyes wide with alarm. “I think Gaius would notice a unicorn in your room.”

Merlin didn’t reply, only closed his mouth, eyes flicking fearfully between Arthur and the unicorn.

Arthur saw the exact moment he remembered what he’d been talking about before Arthur’s appearance, his eyebrows shooting up in horror. “I didn’t know unicorns still existed,” Arthur said by way of easing his panic, looking toward the creature as he eased forward.

The unicorn snorted, tossing its head, but made no move to flee.

“I don’t think there are many left,” Merlin answered, looking more normal now as he turned back to the unicorn, resuming his strokes over the muscled neck. “Unicorns are creatures of magic,” he said, softly enough to carry extra meaning, and Arthur stopped within a meter from the animal, a roll of fear and guilt pulling at his stomach.

The unicorn stepped forward, halving the distance between them, and Arthur inhaled sharply at the approach, shoulders lifting as he stiffened.

Merlin looked a bit surprised himself, moving back from the animal’s side as he looked between them with furrowed brows. His eyebrows then shot up his forehead as the unicorn moved again, coming so close, Arthur could feel its breath over his chest.

“Er,” he murmured, because he felt he should say something, and the unicorn bent its head in response, nosing at his hand. “Al-Alright,” he stammered, obliging the unspoken command by brushing his fingers tentatively over the animal’s snout.

It was warm, hair softer than any horse, and Arthur smiled disbelievingly as he grew more confident, shifting closer to stroke through the mane. With a small chuckle, he looked up, beaming at Merlin, but the look on the other man’s face quickly flattened his smile.

Merlin had gone pale, which was saying something in and of itself, and he was blinking copiously, jaw slack as he stared at where Arthur’s hand met the white hair.

“Merlin?” Arthur questioned, concerned. “Are you al-”

There was a loud scream from behind him, and Arthur spun, hand clasping the handle of his sword. The unicorn bolted past him and away, and he realized suddenly how dark the evening had settled in around them, the animal apparently having been emitting some sort of glow. In its absence now, twilight was thickening, only traces of purple light left in the trees, but Arthur charged toward the shout anyway, Merlin’s footfalls directly behind him.

More shouting could be heard as they drew closer, changing direction every so often to follow the noise, and then an unnatural blood-curdling shriek echoed through the dark trees, Merlin’s shoulder jarring against the back of his as they both froze.

Arthur turned to the right, meeting Merlin’s eyes, but he looked just as terrified as Arthur felt. Still, they both faced front in wordless synchronicity, taking off again toward the sound. As they grew closer, there was the unmistakable sound of swords clanging, as well as a cacophony of screams in many different voices. They jumped through a patch of undergrowth and, for the first time, caught a glimpse of the chaos.

There were a handful of wagons scattered over the trail, all but one overturned, contents spilled and broken across the ground. Arthur could make out the red capes and glittering swords of some of his knights, but there were several other people as well, all running and screaming as they went. They appeared to be villagers, mostly women and young children, and Arthur’s knights—Pellinore and Bedivere, he could see now—were moving backwards at the rear of the group, stabbing and swiping at a creature that looked as if it had been spawned from nightmares.

It had the head of an eagle, a large, black beak clicking toward the knights while it swiped at them with front feet that looked like gargantuan paws with talons. Down the creature’s body, the feathers shifted to hair, the back half of the monster resembling something like a lion, tail swishing through the air.

Sir Pellinore lunged forward, jabbing his sword toward the beast’s face, and, as the creature reared up, Arthur saw the wings extending, huge and blacker than even the shadows that closed in around them. They batted around the sides of the animal, sending out a blast of air that Arthur could feel even from where he stood, and it sent Pellinore and Bedivere staggering back.

“Get the villagers away!” he shouted at Merlin as he pulled his sword from its sheath, charging forward. He swiped at the front leg of the monster as it extended toward Pellinore, jumping in front of the man. Shouting, he lunged forward, jabbing at the feathered chest of the creature. His sword splintered with a ringing impact, shards of silver raining over the ground at the beast’s clawed feet, and he stumbled backward, staring dazedly at the broken length still attached to the hilt. The monster shrieked above him, stretching up on its hind legs and clawing at the air, and Arthur could do nothing but watch as his name rung around the clearing in Merlin’s desperate voice.

Suddenly, he was on the ground, a fresh ache in his shoulder from a heavy impact, and he looked up to see a man standing above him, forcing the creature back with a sword.

He was a good fighter, slashing and stabbing with practiced precision, but, as the monster descended with a well-aimed swipe, the man’s sword shattered over him, his block failing, and the glittering talons sank into his chest.

“Arthur!” Merlin called again, this time clearly beckoning, and he turned to find a sword arcing toward him, Merlin’s arm still outstretched from the throw. He surged up, plucking it from the air by the grip, and then twisted his feet as he swung at the advancing creature.

The man fell to the ground beside him, and Arthur tried not to see the blood blossoming over his chest as he thrust out at the monster, Pellinore and Bedivere flanking him, their own swords outstretched. From somewhere behind him, he could hear more shouting, and a flickering, orange light appeared on the ground, casting their shadows ahead.

Leon reached his side, stepping forward to swing a torch out at the beast, and the monster clicked its beak at the air, head and shoulders thrashing. Leon lunged forward with a shout, and the animal reared up as it backed away, coming down on all fours only to turn around and snap its wings, disappearing up into the darkness with a cracking of branches and rippling of wind.

Arthur lowered his sword, staring up after it for a moment before a pained gasp reached up to him. He turned, replacing his weapon at his side as he knelt down beside the man who had saved him.

He was young, likely not much older than Arthur himself, and the torchlight revealed his slightly darker complexion and thick brown hair. There were three distinct slashes stretching down his grey tunic, and they looked deep, blood spreading everywhere. He was awake, though, even if he was clearly in pain, and Arthur gripped his shoulder in support as the man looked up at him.

“Help me!” he bellowed, pulling the man up to sitting as he grabbed one of his arms and slung it over his shoulder.

Pellinore knelt on the other side, and together they hoisted the man to standing as he grunted with the pain of the motion.

“We have to get him back to camp,” Arthur ordered, and they turned, slowly moving forward with the man’s shuffling steps.

“The- The villagers,” the man bit out between panting gasps. “We have wounded.”

Arthur looked up, and the remaining knights and Merlin all nodded in unison before running ahead of them in the direction the villagers had fled. “They’ll find them,” Arthur assured, and he felt the man nod. “What’s your name?” he asked, wanting to know, and wanting to keep the man talking and awake.

“Lancelot,” the man grunted as he struggled over the rocky ground.

“You saved my life, Lancelot,” Arthur said, turning his head under the man’s arm to catch a glimpse of his face, sweat-sheened in the dim moonlight.

“It was my honor, Sire,” Lancelot answered, noticeably weaker.

“And it may yet be again,” Arthur replied as he tightened his hold on Lancelot’s arm. “You are not dying here today, Lancelot.”

“Yes, Sire,” the man answered, thought there was nothing but propriety behind it, and Arthur urged their procession on faster.

It did not take them too long to reach the camp, but, in just that time, it had transformed completely. All the wax cloths had been drafted together to create a single large tent, rigged so a flap extended down the front. There were three fires going, all of them with some sort of pot or kettle hanging over the top, and the knights were rushing around the clearing, their cloaks and bedrolls now distributed and wrapped around huddled groups of frightened peasants.

Arthur searched amidst the chaos, looking for Merlin before he even knew it, and then a commanding shout came from across the camp.

“I need more water!” Merlin appeared from a flurry of white cloth as he pushed away the front of the tent, his arm swiping across his forehead and leaving a muddled smear of dirt and what could only be blood. His eyes found Arthur’s, and his shoulders visibly sank a little in relief, but then his gaze drifted lower to Lancelot, and he beckoned them hastily forward. “Put him down here,” he said, and, for once, Arthur didn’t mind being ordered.

They laid Lancelot just underneath one of the draped sheets of cloth overhead, the man having finally succumbed to unconsciousness, and it was only then that Arthur caught a glimpse of the full damage the monster had done.

There were at least six people in what he saw now was the designated medical tent, all of them visibly splattered in various levels of blood. Most of them were bandaged, red splotches seeping through the coverings, and there were two children, their pale faces draining the color from Arthur’s own.

“They’re going to be fine,” Merlin said softly, and Arthur’s eyes shifted to find blue ones looking at him with a calm, level gaze. “The children only have minor lacerations, and most of the other injuries are burns I can just treat and wrap up.”

“Most?” Arthur caught, and Merlin’s face pinched before he dropped it, focusing on cutting Lancelot’s tunic away with a dagger.

“Two of them have rather severe wounds, and they’ve been left untreated for days,” Merlin explained in hushed, solemn tones, not meeting Arthur’s eyes. “I fear the limbs are infected, and I don’t have near the supplies to…” He didn’t say it, but he didn’t need to, and Arthur’s stomach clenched as he looked past his shoulder into the tent, noting one man whose leg was almost entirely wrapped in cloths, the bit of skin showing through a dark mottled color Arthur knew all too well from the battlefield.

“If we could get them back to Camelot?” he asked, and Merlin sighed, twisting his head back to the tent.

“Maybe,” he muttered, shaking his head gravely, “but it would have to be quick.”

“Are they well enough to travel?”

Merlin nodded, although it seemed somewhat conflicted. “For the moment, yes.”

“And Lancelot?” Arthur looked down at the man on the ground between them, watching as Merlin’s careful fingers danced over the torn tissue.

He leaned back with a sigh. “No, his condition is too delicate.”

“But you can save him?” Arthur stared at Merlin, watching as the cerulean gaze roved over Lancelot, and it occurred to him dimly somewhere at the back of his mind that he barely knew this man he had taken on as his servant. Overriding that, however, was the certainty that he could trust Merlin with this, that in Merlin’s hands was as safe a place as someone could be, and it frightened him a little how easily he, of all people, had fallen into such unquestioning faith.

Merlin met his eyes, suddenly older. “I’ll do everything I can,” he said, and his voice rang with steel, leaving no room for doubt. “Where’s that water!” he shouted again, kneeling up to project over Arthur’s head.

“Hot or cold?” someone—Bedivere maybe?—called from behind him.

“Both!” Merlin snapped back, and there was a burst of movement, one of the fires being partially obscured as a figure bent over it.

“Merlin, Merlin!” A young boy was running to them, waving a fistful of weeds, Sir Geraint following briskly in his wake. “I found them!” The boy stopped at Arthur’s shoulder, thrusting his bounty out for inspection.

Merlin smiled at the child, his hands surreptitiously moving the torn tunic to cover Lancelot’s wounds. “Thank you, Michael, you did very well. These are going to be a great help.”

The boy beamed as Merlin took the flowered stalks, and then ran back into the clearing, the smile on Merlin’s face slipping away with his departure.

He looked up to Geraint, who remained standing at Arthur’s side. “Take these. Some of the villagers should know what to do with them.”

Without so much as a hesitant glance to Arthur, Geraint nodded, taking the plant.

“Geraint,” Arthur said, stopping the man as he made to turn away, and he actually looked a little frightened for a moment, as if Arthur were going to chide him for his lack of decorum. “When you’re finished with that, take some of the other knights and see if you can salvage one of the wagons. We need to get the wounded back to Camelot as soon as possible.”

“Tonight, Sire?” the man asked.

“Do you think that possible?”

Geraint looked up, eyes scanning around the forest. “The moon is bright tonight, Sire. I believe we can manage.”

“Good,” Arthur replied. “The rest of the villagers should accompany you as well. I’ll remain behind with Leon and Bedivere until Lancelot is well enough to travel.”

“Sire-”

“Inform the others of this plan,” Arthur ordered, cutting off the man’s objection, and Geraint bowed, taking his leave.

Merlin returned to tending to Lancelot, fingers twisting at the man’s wrist, his forehead furrowed in concentration. “You don’t have to stay,” he said, so quiet, Arthur might have thought he’d imagined it if Merlin hadn’t continued. “I can look after him, just me and maybe one knight.”

“He saved my life,” Arthur said in explanation, and, as Merlin met his eyes, his small nod showed he understood.

A cauldron hit the ground between them, and Arthur turned to find Leon kneeling beside him, passing a water skin to Merlin’s waiting hands. “What can I do?” Leon urged, giving Arthur a quick nod of formality.

“Clean the wound as best you can,” Merlin replied, thrusting a cloth of what appeared to be a torn tunic into Leon’s waiting hand.

Leon nodded, and Merlin stood up, disappearing inside the tent with the bulging water skin.

Arthur listened to his rustling and clinking beyond the white partition, soft, comforting murmurs rolling out unintelligibly in Merlin’s low voice.

“He’s been like that since we got back to camp,” Leon murmured, diluting the blood in pink rivers over Lancelot’s sides. “Just took charge and put us all to work. He even yelled at Owain.”

“He yelled at Owain?” Arthur questioned, placing a ready hand on Lancelot’s shoulder as the man groaned weakly, threatening to wake.

Leon nodded. “Owain didn’t want to give up his cloak.”

Arthur glowered, turning around to look into the clearing over his shoulder, searching for the man.

“He has something,” Leon said, pulling Arthur out of his glaring.

“Something?”

Leon shook his head, face turned down to Lancelot’s chest, which looked only slightly better now that the blood was being wiped away, gashes clearly exposed. “I can’t explain it,” Leon mused, “there’s just…something.” He turned his head to Arthur, a twitch of a smile revealing he did not mean it in a bad way, but Merlin appeared again before Arthur could ask any more questions.

“Alright,” he sighed, kneeling back down beside Lancelot, a bundle of cotton in his hands. “You’re going to have to hold him. Hard.” He unfurled the cotton, revealing a length of thread and a long, glittering needle, and Arthur knelt above Lancelot’s head, pressing his hands into his shoulders.

To his credit, Lancelot went through the ordeal bravely, staying remarkably still and never crying out. He hissed out his pain through gritted teeth, hands tight fists, and, despite Arthur’s snarling, Merlin refused to give him anything, insisting he was too weak to risk putting to sleep. Eventually, Lancelot passed out again, and Merlin finished his work in silence, thanking one of the village women with a weak smile when she brought him a stone bowl.

“What is that?” Arthur asked as he leaned closer, Leon and the cauldron gone between them, and he brushed against Merlin’s shoulder as he worked.

“Comfrey and honey,” Merlin replied, spreading the sticky mixture of torn green leaves over the sutures. “It will prevent infection and speed healing, but he’s lost a lot of blood.”

“But he’ll be alright.” Arthur tried to phrase it like a statement, but he could hear the fearful uncertainty permeating his voice.

Merlin stared down at Lancelot, his eyes focused on the man’s pale face. “I don’t know, Arthur,” he said after a moment, tone soft with sympathy. “We can move him into the tent once the others have gone, and I’ll stay with him through the night in case he develops a fever.”

“I’ll stay too,” he said, placing a hand on Lancelot’s still shoulder, and Merlin, after a beat, nodded.

It was surprisingly quick work packing up the camp and loading the supplies and villagers into the two wagons the knights managed to get rolling again. Before the moon had even fully risen, the caravan was heading out, Merlin situating the last of those unable to walk into the second wagon, imparting quick, muttered directions to a couple of women who would be riding with them.

Arthur watched him, watched the waves and twists of his hands as he gesticulated at the bandages and bowls of herbs, and the women nodded eagerly, their bodies rapt with attention. He leapt down from the wagon, landing in the flickering light of the torches held by the departing knights, and promptly startled back a bit as the young boy Arthur had seen earlier wrapped himself around his waist.

The boy seemed to say something to him, angling his head up toward Merlin’s face, and Merlin looked shocked for a moment in the firelight.

He quickly recovered into a tender smile that sent something spiraling in Arthur’s stomach, and patted a hand through the boy’s hair before gently pushing at his back, urging him on to join the leaving group. He stood there for some time, staring after the rolling wagons, and the torchlight slowly faded from his body.

It seemed to Arthur he was suddenly something otherworldly, standing in the middle of the clearing, moonlight catching blue-silver at the tips of his dark hair and glowing through his skin, making the shadows of blood and dirt on his exposed forearms even more apparent. He was a creature apart, as far from understanding as the impossible monster that had caused all this, and, as Merlin turned to him, eyes glittering sapphire under the sidelong light of the moon, Arthur nearly staggered.

“They’ll be alright, Arthur,” Merlin assured, a hand briefly pressing to his shoulder in an unprecedented gesture of familiarity, and, even though Merlin was completely misinterpreting his reaction, Arthur nodded, glad to follow the assumption.

They moved back to the tent, where Lancelot had been settled in the center of the structure, the end flaps let down to enclose them and conserve their heat. Merlin checked on the bandages and brushed a hand over Lancelot’s forehead before dipping a rag in a bowl of clean, cool water, wringing the excess before patting it to the man’s face.

“Where did you learn to do all this?” Arthur asked, a question that should have troubled him earlier, but Merlin seemed to do it so naturally, he had hardly realized it wasn’t part of the everyday.

Merlin’s mouth twitched, but his eyes were so far away, so sad, the expression could hardly be called a smile. “Necessity is the most effective teacher.”

“Who said that?” Arthur muttered, and Merlin genuinely chuckled, sitting back to lean against one of the trees propping up the structure.

“No one, I’m just saying it to you now. Although I’m flattered you think I sound like a Greek philosopher.” He rolled his head to Arthur along the curve of the trunk, a tired smile curling at his lips.

“I wouldn’t get used to it; I’m sure you’ll be back to sounding like an idiot any moment now,” Arthur muttered, smiling back.

“Prat.” Merlin’s smiled broadened, Arthur’s matching it, and then he twisted back to center, closing his eyes with a sigh.

Arthur watched him, dark eyelashes quivering over candlelit cheekbones. He cleared his throat. “I’m serious, though,” he continued, and Merlin opened the eye closest to him. “I want to know how you learned all of that.” He waved a hand vaguely in the direction of Lancelot’s bandages, nearly losing his balance where his elbows were propped up behind him.

Merlin didn’t notice, or was gracious enough not to comment. “I just…had to learn,” he said with a lazy shrug. “I lived with some refugees for a while before I came to Camelot. They weren’t exactly unaccustomed to injuries.” His expression darkened as he looked unfocused at the shifting cloth opposite them.

“Refugees?” Arthur pressed, but he kept his voice soft. “Refugees from what?”

Merlin blinked, his body stiffening, and Arthur imagined he could almost hear the metallic ring of a door being slammed and locked between them.

“It was a long time ago. In Essetir.” He stood, brushing his back. “I’m going to get more water,” he muttered, and then pushed out into the night, Arthur left watching the wax cloth fluttering limply back into place behind him.

---

Lancelot’s breathing was rough and grating, and Merlin anxiously wiped the damp cloth across his forehead, but it didn’t seem to be helping anymore. He huffed out a breath, withdrawing the damp fabric, and shivered as a drop rolled down his arm.

The nights were growing colder as autumn crept up on them, and Merlin laid the rag into the bowl to tug his blanket tighter around his shoulders. He turned to look over his shoulder to where Arthur was sleeping a few feet behind him, wrapped tightly in his own dark blanket.

He was pulling restlessly at the folds of his bedroll, frown lines tightening and relaxing across his face with his vain quest for more warmth. He mumbled something, or perhaps it was just a whimper, but, either way, Merlin couldn’t take it.

Watching a moment longer to ensure Arthur was still completely asleep, Merlin let his magic loose, the room warming with his will.

Arthur’s fingers gradually slackened on the rough wool, his expression easing out, and Merlin couldn’t help but smile as he watched the rise and fall of his chest even out with slow, sleepy breaths.

As he stared, he felt something tug within him, like a hook latched behind his stomach and now being drawn in, and he gasped a shaky breath as the sensation spiked, his magic singing under his skin in harmony. He blinked, rattling his head, and the feeling disappeared like a candle snuffed out, quick enough to make Merlin question if it had ever been there at all. He was probably just overtired, he reasoned, but, turning back to Lancelot’s pale face, he knew there would be no rest for him any time soon.

In spite his best efforts, Lancelot’s condition was worsening. His body was failing him, too slow in replacing the blood he had lost, and there was nothing Merlin could do but make him comfortable, wiping at his fevered forehead and chest with cool cloths.

Well, almost nothing.

He bit his lip, looking back over his shoulder at where Arthur was now sleeping soundly, the melting candles turning his blond hair to strips of gold.

Warming the room was one thing, harmless, easily brushed off between the candles and their combined body heat. But Lancelot?

Merlin turned back to the dying man, brushing a wave of brown hair off his damp forehead, and Lancelot opened his mouth in a rasping heave of air in response.

His whole body shuddered, shivering even as he sweat, and Merlin’s jaw set, decided.

He moved to kneel beside Lancelot’s chest, rolling down the wool blanket to reveal the bandaged wounds. Gingerly placing one hand on the stained cotton, he rested the other over the man’s face, resting on his forehead and stretching over his eyes, and, with one last glance back at Arthur, he closed his eyes.

“Ic hæle þina þrowunga,” he whispered, picturing the wounds on Lancelot’s chest, the blood that had stained his tunic, and he imagined the process in reverse, the liquid returning to his veins and strengthening his struggling heart.

He felt it the moment the spell finished, his body uncoiling with a sigh, and he opened his eyes, moving his hands to Lancelot’s bandages. He tilted his head low, carefully lifting on the cotton, and the tension that had lingered in his limbs for hours rushed out with thick exhale.

Just as he breathed out, however, someone breathed in, a sharp gasp hissing through the tent.

Merlin’s head shot up, his hands recoiling as he wobbled backward, and then he froze, his body hollowing as he found Lancelot’s brown eyes fixed on his face.

Lancelot held his gaze for a moment, blinking blearily, his mouth parted, and then he looked down to his own chest. He lifted a quivering hand to his bandages, resting at first, and then pressing lightly, and Merlin didn’t dare breathe lest he break the trance and attract those hands to his throat. Endless moments ticked by, but Lancelot finally looked back at him, wincing with the pain as he made an attempt to sit up.

“You-You have-” he stammered weakly, but Merlin broke in.

“No,” he muttered, violently rattling his head.

Lancelot grimaced, closing his eyes as he let his neck relax back onto the bedroll behind his head. “I saw you,” he whispered, eyes heavy-lidded, but still alert. “Ic hæle…something.”

Merlin did not reply, his fingers tightening in the wool blanket that had pooled around his back.

“You saved my life,” Lancelot breathed, the words almost drifting away in the air.

Merlin blinked, his grip relaxing as his lips popped open. He scrutinized Lancelot’s gaze, searching for any hint of malice, of fear, but he found only warm surprise. He frowned. This was not the reaction he would have expected. As he considered all of those wonderful possibilities, he subconsciously turned, eyes flicking over his shoulder to Arthur’s still-sleeping form.

Lancelot shifted on his bedroll, and Merlin snapped back to him, half expecting to find a knife to his throat. Lancelot was only turning his head, however, his eyes shifting back from where they had followed his gaze to Arthur. “I won’t reveal you,” he said simply, his voice rapidly losing its drowsiness.

Merlin said nothing, but something in his expression must have betrayed his skepticism, because Lancelot sat up in spite of his visible pain.

“Merlin,” he said, expression firm, “I give you my word of honor, I will not betray you. To Arthur or anyone else.”

If it were any other human being, Merlin would have scoffed at the promise, but Lancelot’s voice was so sure, his gaze so unflinching, his oath must have formed itself in the stars upon him making it, heavy as it was with sincerity and strength. “Thank you,” Merlin said with a nod, shocked himself at his belief.

Lancelot appeared to understand the significance of the trust, and nodded solemnly back.

There was a dragging inhale from behind him, followed by a breathy groan.

“Merlin?” Arthur murmured sleepily, face scrunching into a frown before his eyelids began to twitch with waking, and Merlin heroically pushed down the glowing feeling in his chest that was threatening to spread into a grin. “Who’re you-” He sat up, wrinkled expression snapping open in surprise. “Lancelot!” He batted at the blankets, tangling himself worse before getting free, and Merlin dropped his head to smile at the ground as he shifted out of the way. “You’re awake!”

Lancelot nodded, a tired smile stretching his lips. “Indeed, and feeling much better, Sire. Thanks to Merlin.” He inclined his head toward Merlin, who flushed and dropped his head, watching Lancelot’s smile out of the tops of his eyes. “I owe him my life.”

“And I owe you mine,” Arthur said with a solemn dip of his head. “When we return to Camelot, I will ensure you are justly rewarded.”

“No reward is necessary, Sire,” Lancelot replied, shaking his head. “I was only doing my duty.”

“No, you weren’t,” Arthur answered, smiling softly when Lancelot looked up in alarm. “You have no duty to me, Lancelot, no more than any other citizen of Camelot, and I doubt many of them would do what you did.”

Lancelot dropped his head, evidently unwilling to acknowledge what the general populace did or did not feel toward the royal family.

“I certainly wouldn’t,” Merlin muttered, and Lancelot blanched, his expression stretching with horror as he looked between them.

Arthur elbowed him hard in the arm, and Merlin swayed a bit where he was sitting. “You already did,” he said with a broad smile.

“So when do I get my reward?” Merlin asked, and Arthur nearly pushed him over that time.

“Your reward, Merlin,” Arthur replied, all smug superiority as he turned his head, “is the honor of being my manservant.”

Merlin gave his smirk a withering look, and then turned to Lancelot. “Here’s hoping you do better than me,” he whispered conspiratorially, and Lancelot’s lips quivered as he ducked his head. Merlin dodged as Arthur tried to swat his head, standing up and grabbing the empty water skin from beside the bedrolls. “I’ll get you some water,” he said, smiling down at Lancelot, who nodded gratefully.

“Get it for everyone, Merlin, I’ll need to see the knights in here right away,” Arthur ordered up over his shoulder, and Merlin nodded in acquiesce, giving Lancelot a raised-eyebrow, ‘See what I have to deal with’ look when Arthur turned his head.

Lancelot pursed his lips against a smile, and Merlin made it his solemn mission to make that man laugh at Arthur’s expense if it was the last thing he did. Honestly, Arthur didn’t need everyone treating him like the second coming.

He bent out of the tent, scanning the fire-cast shadows for silhouettes as he fetched his and Arthur’s water skins from where he’d left their packs. The knights would presumably have their own on them wherever they were patrolling, and Merlin had almost resigned himself to a staggering search through the dark, debris-littered forest when Leon drifted into view along the edge of the orange circle of light.

“Sir Leon!” Merlin called, and the man started. “The prince is asking for you,” he said as he approached, and Leon seemed to instinctively straighten. “You and Sir Bedivere. Lancelot is awake”—Leon’s expression softened with relief—“and I think Ar- my lord wants to find out what he knows about the creature.”

Leon nodded, and then turned his head, issuing a complex, trilling whistle Merlin took to be some sort of signal, because, a few moments later, Sir Bedivere appeared from the opposite side of the clearing. “We’ll head right in,” he said as Sir Bedivere approached, looking concerned.

“I need your water skins,” Merlin interjected, holding up the two already in his hands. “I’m to refill them and bring them to the tent.”

Bedivere only nodded curtly, unfastening his skin and passing it to Merlin before heading in the direction of the tent, but Leon lingered, slowly removing the pouch.

“You know, Merlin,” he said as he passed it over, “if it doesn’t bother Arthur, it doesn’t bother me.”

Merlin looked at him, head tilting slightly, and then dropped his eyes as he smiled. He nodded to show he understood, prompting Leon to smile as well.

“And, as for me,” the man continued as he started to walk away, “you can drop the title as well. But I wouldn’t presume as much for anyone else.”

Merlin nodded again, and then they both turned their backs, heading in opposite directions as Merlin went toward the nearby stream. It wasn’t flowing particularly strong, so it took a while to fill up the skins without moving the opening so low it would catch silt, and, by the time he made it back to the tent, the conversation was deep in progress. Of course, he would walk in at the worst, possible moment, fumbling to keep ahold of the damp skins as his body struggled with an intrinsic, panic response.

“He found it in one of the books. Said it was called a griffin, and that it was a creature of magic,” Lancelot said, and Merlin could see the strain in his eyes to not look in his direction. “That’s why our weapons were useless; only magic can harm the beast.”

Merlin finally managed to make his body move, stepping forward and distributing the skins, meeting no one’s eyes.

“Are you certain?” Arthur asked, brow furrowed. “There is no other way?”

Lancelot dropped his gaze with a baleful shake of his head. “I’m afraid not, Sire. We tried everything. Fire seems to deter it, but it does not burn, and all our steel only shatters on its flank, as you saw.”

For some reason, Arthur glanced up at Merlin then, so quickly, he almost missed it, and he barely had time to begin to look confused before the blue eyes were turning away.

“We will have to find a way,” Arthur said, and Merlin forgot it was impossible for a moment, Arthur sounded so sure.

Lancelot coughed loudly, wincing and clutching at his chest with the motion, and Merlin noticed a sheen of sweat on his paling forehead.

Arthur took the moment Lancelot was composing himself, breathing deeply with a strained expression, to turn around and look at Merlin, a question in his lifting eyebrow, and Merlin shook his head. “We’ll let you get some rest,” he said, clapping Lancelot on the shoulder, and the brunette man smiled, looking half-asleep already.

“Thank you, Sire,” he replied, voice soft and strained as he nodded.

“I’ll go fetch some herbs to make a tea to help with the pain,” Merlin said, smiling down from where he stood hovering at the fringe of the group. “It should help you sleep easier.”

Lancelot smiled up at him, softer than the others. “Thank you, Merlin,” he answered, and, though it seemed to go unnoticed by the others, Merlin felt the added weight of the reply settle heavy on his shoulders.

“I’ll go with you,” Arthur said, rising from the ground, and Merlin looked around, waiting for someone else to stand before he noticed Arthur’s eyes were on him.

“Me?” Merlin asked, cringing internally as Arthur huffed a laugh.

“Of course you, you idiot,” he chuckled. “Can’t let you go wandering around the woods by yourself in the dark. You’ll get yourself eaten, and then who will wash out the dishes?” He smirked, tilting his head with a cavalier flick of his eyebrows.

Merlin flashed back a snide smile. “How selfless of you, Sire,” he quipped, inclining his head in a pantomime of respect.

Leon coughed around a snicker, covering his mouth with a fist as he dropped his head, while Sir Bedivere merely frowned in confused surprise as he looked between them.

Arthur rolled his eyes. “Come on,” he mumbled, clipping Merlin with his shoulder as he brushed past and out the tent.

Merlin chuckled, pointedly not rubbing his arm as he followed.

They scavenged around the forest for a time, Merlin glaring while Arthur smirked, purposefully holding the torch so as to shadow wherever Merlin was looking, and pointing out every type of foliage with an: “Is that it?” Merlin thought he deserved a knighthood for only tripping him twice.

“Merlin?”

“FOR THE LAST TIME, VALERIAN IS NOT THE PRETTY PURPLE FLOWER!”

Arthur tilted his head, an arrogant smile on half his lips. “I don’t believe I said ‘pretty’, Merlin.”

Merlin snarled, glowering up at His Royal Pratness before turning back to his search.

“I did have an actual question, though.”

Merlin closed his eyes, hanging his head and sighing down at the ground. “Yes, my lord?”

Arthur chuckled, his footsteps heavy and clinking as he walked around to Merlin’s side. “Where did you get this sword?”

Merlin stiffened, hoping it went unnoticed. “I, er…found it, Sire. On the ground. Must’ve fallen out when the wagons were toppled.”

Arthur hummed, a ringing sound cutting through the dark, and Merlin lifted his head to find the sword being pulled from its sheath, glittering golden in the torchlight. “It’s a fine blade. Almost identical to the one the beast destroyed.”

Merlin winced, internally reprimanding himself for forming a sword that looked so much like Arthur’s old one, but it had been the first thing to come to mind. At least this one didn’t include the ostentatious ruby embedded in the hilt. Bloody Pendragons and their red.

“Perhaps I should check with the villagers when we return, see if one of them is missing it,” Arthur continued, turning the blade over in his hand.

Merlin snapped a foxglove stem in half. “I’m sure they would rather you have it, my lord,” he muttered, trying not to sound too frantic or polite, but he probably failed on both counts.

“Still,” Arthur murmured, and Merlin fought not to jump as the sword was concealed again with a shrill grate.

He made a mental note to create a story with Lancelot to explain the sword’s appearance and lack of owner before Arthur could ask him any questions.

“It was good, though.”

Merlin looked up, head tilting as Arthur avoided his gaze, favoring watching the progress of his boot kicking at the undergrowth.

“What you did. Throwing me the sword,” Arthur clarified with a wave of his hand, eyes drifting across Merlin’s for a moment.

Merlin ducked his head, granting himself a moment to press out his smile. “You’re welcome, Sire,” he said as neutrally as possible.

“I didn’t say thank you,” Arthur snapped.

Merlin cocked his head with a pout of coy confusion. “Didn’t you?”

Arthur glared. “No, Merlin,” he sneered, “I was merely acknowledging that you didn’t completely screw something up for once.”

Merlin didn’t rise to the taunt, his smirk only growing. “So, an acknowledgement?”

“Yes,” Arthur answered, feet shifting in the dirt as his back straightened, a stiff, wary expression squaring his jaw.

Merlin lifted an eyebrow. “Is an acknowledgement like a royal thank you?”

“No.”

“Because it sounds an awful lot like-”

“Just pick your herbs,” Arthur growled, head rattling irritably as he glared at the surrounding trees.

Merlin’s lips twitched. “Yes, Sire.”

Arthur was more or less quiet as they finished their task, and Merlin didn’t have cause to trip him again, but he was considering smothering him with his bedroll as Arthur’s sleep-induced mumbling filled the tent.

He had waited for everyone to go to sleep, lying still and feigning unconsciousness as the knights argued over watches, but it was Bedivere’s turn now, and Merlin knew he would only move to a tree trunk and go back to sleep. Really, it was a wonder Arthur hadn’t been killed already, surrounded by this lot. Then it wouldn’t be Merlin’s problem, one way or the other.

Merlin lifted his head off the makeshift pillow of his folded bedroll, listening for any movement. Only sleepy breaths greeted him, and he dared stir, slowly curling his body up to sitting.

Arthur was lying to his right, closest to the entrance, a spot he had stubbornly claimed in spite of Leon’s perfectly reasonable assessment that he would be safer further inside.

Merlin rolled his eyes, shaking his head at the idiocy of bravery, and then glanced around the tent, finding Leon on the opposite side of Lancelot, positioned near the back flap. All three of them were still apart from the shifting of their lungs, and Merlin slowly pushed back his blanket and rose to standing. He cast a quick silencing spell on his footsteps, but walked on tiptoes anyway, picking around Arthur’s splayed limbs as he moved toward the entrance.

Arthur shifted in his sleep, narrowly avoiding Merlin’s ankle with his calf, and Merlin froze, holding his breath. But Arthur only murmured—“I don’t wanna-” something or other—and lolled his head side to side before stilling again.

Merlin’s lips formed a tight circle as he pushed out the captive air, his eyes closing briefly in relief before he made quick work of the remainder of the distance, silently pulling away the tent flap and exiting into the darkness. Reaching out with his magic, he sensed Bedivere across the clearing, propped up against a tree and drooling on his shoulder. Merlin huffed a laugh and turned the opposite direction, walking until he was certain the trees would conceal him before forming his own light. The blue orb twinkled in front of him, and he touched a fingertip to the warm, flickering surface.

“Find it,” he whispered, and the orb flashed gold a moment before beginning to move through the trees. He stretched his arm down his side, opening his palm, and the silver hilt of a sword formed in his hand, the blade reaching toward the ground as he conjured it. He held the weapon at the ready, prepared to meet the griffin around every rock and tree, but the light only continued to bob ahead of him, leading the way further and further into the woods.

It wasn’t his best plan, he would admit that much, but he hadn’t been able to think of an alternative. The griffin could only be defeated with magic, and he couldn’t do magic surrounded by Arthur and the knights, so this would just have to do: him wandering out into the dark to defeat the beast alone. No, definitely not his best plan.

He sighed with self-deprecation, and then stalled abruptly, a sound behind him drawing his attention. He called the light to pause with a thought, quietly moving to crouch behind a nearby bush, and only when he was still could he clearly distinguish the footsteps creeping up to his position.

They were soft, clearly not armored, and Merlin ducked low behind the leaves as he waited for the owner to appear. A silhouette appeared, glancing side to side in the weak light, and Merlin lunged from his cover sword-first.

A swift kick to the shin sent the man—at least his grunt of surprise sounded masculine—toppling backward, but he drew his sword as he fell, swinging it out when Merlin moved in front of him. He caught the blade with his own, wincing at the loud clash of metal, and then parried the force away. With a twist of his wrist, he spun his weapon in his grip, coming down again on the stranger’s sword, but this time close to the hilt. The impact caused the man’s grip to falter, the metal flying from his hand and disappearing into the undergrowth, and Merlin followed the recoil, turning his shoulder to bring the polished point of his sword to the man’s throat.

The stranger let out a small gasp, stretching his neck away from the threat, and his face caught in the moonlight that reached around Merlin.

“Lancelot?” Merlin spluttered, eyebrows rocketing up as he blinked.

“Hey, Merlin,” Lancelot chuckled nervously, his throat bobbing with a swallow.

“What are you doing?” Merlin asked, eyes scanning the surrounding trees in case anyone else decided to pop out of nowhere.

“I saw you sneaking out of the tent,” Lancelot answered briskly. “Thought you might need some help. Although”—he nodded down at the steel still hovering over his artery—“I’m reconsidering that assumption now.”

“Oh,” Merlin muttered, rattling his head as he lowered the sword and stepped away. “Right. Sorry.” He swapped the weapon in his hands, reaching down toward Lancelot.

He grasped Merlin’s forearm and pushed up from the ground as Merlin pulled. “Don’t apologize,” he insisted, waving his hand in dismissal. He smiled, brushing at the backs of his trousers. “It’s good. You should be able to handle yourself with a blade as well as- Well…”

Merlin smiled, releasing Lancelot’s arm to replace his sword in his dominant hand. “Magic, Lancelot,” he said, and the man started, eyes wide. “You can say it. The word won’t get you killed.”

Lancelot seemed to blush in the dim light, eyes cast down as he smiled sheepishly. A moment later, he was severe again. “So, what are you doing out here, anyway?”

“Looking for the griffin,” Merlin replied, remembering himself at Lancelot’s question, and he lifted the light higher over them, enhancing its brightness.

To his credit, Lancelot was only mildly startled by the flash in Merlin’s eyes. “Alone?” he asked, eyebrows lifting. “You were going to take on a griffin alone?”

“Didn’t have much choice, did I?” Merlin answered sharply, and huffed out a calming breath before continuing. “The griffin can only be killed by magic, you said that yourself,” he explained, and Lancelot frowned, but nodded. “Well, I can’t exactly whip out a spell in front of the crown prince of Camelot”—he waved his hands through the air in illustration as they began to walk—“so it seemed like the only thing to do was to take care of it myself.” He shrugged, bracing on a tree as he stepped carefully around a patch of thorns, and, when he looked back, Lancelot was staring at him, face wrinkled and perplexed. “What?”

Lancelot shook his head. “Nothing, it’s just… Well, you’re not what I expected.”

“Of a servant?” Merlin joked.

“Of a sorcerer,” Lancelot revised.

Merlin sobered instantly. “Well, you never know, I might turn on you yet. Destroy all your crops or take over your mind and force you to kill your friends and-”

“No, I- I didn’t mean it like that.”

Merlin didn’t reply, and, after a stretch broken only by the crunching of leaves and cracking of twigs, Lancelot sighed.

“Okay, maybe I did. A little. But mostly it’s just that you seem so…ordinary.”

“Gee, thanks,” Merlin snorted, but he wasn’t angry now, not when Lancelot sounded so contrite.

“I just mean you have a regular life. With a regular job and friends and all that. You’re not…living in a tree and dancing naked under the full moon.”

“How do you know?” Merlin twisted his head around, lifting his eyebrows. “I could enjoy a good, starkers romp in the moonlight.”

Lancelot laughed, and, just like that, whatever tension had lingered between them dissolved. “Somehow, I doubt that.”

“Can’t quite picture it?”

“If it’s all the same to you, I won’t try.”

Merlin shrugged. “Fair enough,” he chirped, and Lancelot chuckled.

“So, where are we going, exactly?” the man asked as they walked further into the trees.

“To find the griffin,” Merlin answered, holding back a branch and allowing Lancelot to pass in front of him. “I’m tracking it,” he clarified with a wave toward the blue orb ahead.

“Oh,” Lancelot said with the air of someone who couldn’t even begin to understand, but also didn’t know what questions to ask. “And when we find it?”

“I kill it.”

“How?”

“I have a few ideas.”

“You mean you don’t know!?”

“Shhh!” Merlin snapped out a hand, grabbing at Lancelot’s shoulder.

Lancelot froze under his fingers, his body not even moving with breath, and Merlin took a half step forward to stand level with him.

He twisted his neck left and right, scanning the surrounding trees, but couldn’t see anything. He wasn’t even sure he had heard anything, but he knew somehow, felt the presence vibrating through his skin, and he let his magic spark at the surface, ready to defend.

Lancelot shivered, though Merlin doubted it was from the cold, and he opened his mouth to ask if he could feel it too when the silence cracked with a shriek.

The trees split in front of them, revealing the dark body of the beast, and it was all Merlin could do to focus on keeping the orb illuminated overhead as they dove to the side, away from the glinting claws that lunged for their chests.

Lancelot scrambled up from the ground, tugging at Merlin’s arm, and they turned toward the creature, backing away to gain whatever meager cover they could from the nearby trees as they extended their weapons. “What now?” Lancelot shouted as the griffin spun in the dirt, scratching at the ground in preparation for a charge.

“Don’t die!” Merlin answered, knees loose and readied to spring, heart pounding in his throat. There was just enough time to hear the beginning of Lancelot’s frantic chuckle before the griffin pounded toward them with a cry. Merlin leapt left, landing in a neat somersault before coming up with a twist, his boots scraping through the dirt to face the creature.

Lancelot appeared to have done something similar in the opposite direction, but the creature had ignored him, and was now coming directly at Merlin.

There was no time to even swing his sword, in spite of how ineffective it would currently be, and Merlin took a step back, flinging his left hand out in front of him and forcing his magic to take shape. It eagerly sprang from him, more controlled than he could ever remember, and the griffin’s claws glanced off the conjured shield. Merlin staggered back under the onslaught, cracks of golden light appearing over the surface of the magical barrier, and his heart stuttered with panic as he tightened his grip on the sword.

“Hey! HEY!”

What the-?

Merlin and the griffin both turned, Merlin craning his neck around the black bulk of the beast, and he might have sighed with irritation if the situation hadn’t been so dire.

Lancelot was standing far too close behind the griffin, waving his sword side to side through the air, the blade glinting in the faint moonlight. “Over here!” he shouted again, jumping slightly.

The griffin turned away from Merlin, who couldn’t decide if he was relieved or not, and started toward Lancelot, stalking rather than lunging this time. They turned a half-circle around one another, Lancelot’s eyes wide but focused as he twirled his useless sword in his hand, ready to attack.

Merlin’s breathing hastened as he thought, every spell he knew racing through his head and getting dismissed just as quickly. His hand shook on the cold hilt of his sword, and he strengthened his grip to still the tremor. He gasped, looking down at his clenched hand, an idea occurring to him, and he shot forward just as the griffin slashed at Lancelot.

The man dove to the side, sparing his head from being severed from his body, but his sword was not so fortunate, metallic kindling littering the forest floor as one of the monster’s claws connected. Lancelot twisted in the leaves, mouth popping open with a sharp gasp as the griffin began its second approach, closing in with a bellow on the grounded man. He lifted his arm and turned his head in a last effort to ward off the blow of the creature’s descending limb, but Merlin got there first, sword and eyes glowing as he opened a gash in the griffin’s extending talons.

The beast shrieked in pain, leg bent toward its chest as it limped back from the duo. Merlin slashed at the air, and the griffin retreated even further, weakly swiping out at him with its damaged claw. Lunging forward, Merlin jabbed at the feathered neck, but the monster dodged the blow, rearing back to strike.

With no time to even slow time down, Merlin leapt to the side, the griffin’s glittering beak only grazing his arm instead of removing it. He spun the sword in his grip, clenching the hilt with both hands, and let the momentum of his dive carry him forward, beneath the neck of the beast. The blue flames surrounding the blade vanished within the dark breast, and there was a cry that Merlin thought for a moment came from him, it was so piercing, the shrill note of agony vibrating to his bones. With a wrench and growl of effort, he pulled the sword free, stumbling back out of the way as the griffin crumpled to the ground in front of him, lifeless.

The silence ached in his ears, broken only by the heavy hiss and huff of his breathing, and he slowly came back to himself in the stillness. His movements seemed stunted, as if he were trapped in one of his own spells, time moving sluggishly around him, and didn’t immediately understand as he looked down that that was his own arm covered in blood. His tunic was torn across the exterior of his right bicep, dark slowly staining down the sleeve, and he watched the progress for a moment, fascinated.

“Merlin? Merlin!” Lancelot appeared in front of him, hair matted to his forehead from exertion, brown eyes roving over him with frantic concern. “You’re bleeding,” he panted, grabbing at Merlin’s wrist and turning his arm to better access the wound, and only then did Merlin realize he was still holding the stained sword.

That thought brought his mind back with a snap, and he wobbled slightly as reality crashed into him. He could hear voices, loud and beckoning, and he stretched his senses out to find the knights and Arthur crashing through the underbrush toward them.

Oh, god, Arthur!

“Here,” Merlin rasped, and then swallowed, refreshing his throat. “Here,” he repeated, holding his sword out to Lancelot, “take this.”

“What?” Lancelot questioned, but took the hilt from Merlin’s hand. “Why? What are you-“

“You woke up, heard a sound in the forest,” Merlin rushed, spelling the griffin’s blood off his tunic where it had spattered back from the wound, but he left his bloodied arm to add to the credibility of the story he was still concocting. “You followed it, found me here—unconscious and about to be killed—and attacked the griffin before it could finish the job.”

“What? Merlin, no!” Lancelot stepped in front of him, trying to push the sword back into his hand. “You killed the griffin, not me. I can’t take credit for something you did.”

“Lancelot, look at me!” Merlin snapped, shaking his hands over his chest. “No one will believe I killed it! I’m not even supposed to know how to use one of those.” He waved a hand toward the sword in Lancelot’s grip.

“But you do,” Lancelot replied, as if it were a simple matter he’d just settled. “And you didn’t use magic for it either; I know natural talent when I see it.”

“But I had to use magic on the sword!” Merlin insisted, glancing frantically at the trees he knew the knights were only seconds from bursting through. “Everyone heard you say the griffin could only be killed by magic, but if one of us was going to manage without and kill it with just brute force-” He finished the thought with an illustrative jab toward Lancelot’s chest.

Lancelot hissed irritably, face contorted with confliction as he shook his head at the ground. “But it isn’t right! You saved my life twice in one day; I won’t repay you by taking your glory.”

“Glory? Glory!? Lancelot, they’ll throw me in cold irons and burn me in the courtyard!”

Lancelot winced, and Merlin knew he’d finally gotten through.

“You want to repay me for saving your life?” he asked, and Lancelot looked up, expression strained. “Save mine.”

Lancelot blinked, seeming thrown by the earnest in Merlin’s tone, and opened his mouth to reply just as the branches behind him exploded.

“Merlin!?” Arthur was shouting through ragged breaths, a broken stretch of branch caught in his hair, leaves dark against the moonlight reflected in the disheveled strands. His head turned, taking in his surroundings with the quick, precise movements of a trained warrior, and he slowed slightly over the body of the griffin before landing on their two, frozen figures. “Merlin!” he panted, lowering his sword, and Merlin found some of the tension in his own body uncoiling at Arthur’s visible relief. “Lancelot!” he added, drawing closer, but his open expression dimmed somewhat as his eyes alighted on the sword in Lancelot’s hand. “You killed it,” he said, breathless, gaping at the weapon a moment before looked up at the man. “But- How? I-I thought- You said-”

The longest second in all of recorded time passed over them, and then Lancelot spoke, and Merlin could breathe.

“My sword was forged far from here, Sire,” he said, and Merlin blinked, trying not to look too surprised.

He had forgotten he had conjured the sword with magic, and was suddenly immensely grateful he hadn’t made it anything elaborate. Nevertheless, the metal could be anything—or not even metal at all, in spite of looking like it—but he had modeled the style after the more familiar swords of Essetir, so Lancelot’s explanation would seem credible enough.

“Perhaps it is something in the steel,” he added, and turned the sword toward Arthur for inspection as the prince reached them, just as Leon and Bedivere bounded into view.

“Lancelot! Merlin!” Leon gasped, and, however bedraggled Arthur looked, the two knights looked worse, and Merlin refused to consider what that implied about Arthur’s fitness level.

It wasn’t an easy feat, considering how Arthur had come bounding in here, sweaty and battle-ready, calling Merlin’s name like he cared. The bastard.

He shook his head, refocusing on Leon’s voice as the knights approached.

“-heard the griffin and feared the worst. And then, when the noises stopped…” He trailed away, looking between the two, bloodied survivors, and then turned, starting slightly when he saw the griffin, his hand twitching toward his sword. “It’s- You-” He looked to the sword that was now in Arthur’s hands, being turned over in tanned, calloused palms. “But…how?”

“It may have something to do with the steel,” Arthur said, brow furrowed as he continued to stare down at the blade. “Lancelot’s sword wasn’t forged in Camelot. Perhaps there is something in the metal that the beast was vulnerable too.”

Merlin held his breath, trying to keep his body from visibly stiffening, but, though Leon looked perplexed, he did not look suspicious.

“We will have to examine it upon our return,” Leon advised, leaning around Arthur’s shoulder. “Hopefully it is something we can replicate.”

“Indeed,” Arthur said with an official nod, gripping Merlin’s (Lancelot’s) sword and twisting it through the air with a whistle before returning the hilt to Lancelot’s hand. “If there are any more of those things”—he nodded toward the griffin’s corpse—“our people should be prepared.”

Leon and Bedivere nodded, spines straightening, and even Lancelot’s jaw squared as he sheathed the sword in a nimble swipe.

Merlin looked between them, wondering if there was some magical quality contained in Arthur’s orders that he was simply immune too.

“Let’s get back to camp,” Arthur said, hand on the hilt of his sword, and somehow that small gesture made him look every bit a prince. “It will be dawn soon. We’ll make for Camelot as soon as light allows.”

The group sans Merlin nodded again, and moved as one back in the direction the knights had come from. Merlin made to follow Lancelot, shifting around Arthur, but the blond stepped to block his path with a shoulder.

“What were you doing out here?” he hissed, eyes darting over his shoulder as if the conversation were about state secrets.

Merlin raised an eyebrow. “Why are you so sure it was me?” he replied, the whispering apparently contagious. “Lancelot could’ve wandered off.”

Arthur rolled his eyes with a sigh that Merlin wasn’t quite sure he deserved. “He’s capable, yes, but, somehow, it seems more likely that you’re the one with the death wish.”

Merlin almost laughed, although Arthur had slightly miscalculated what the imminent threat to Merlin’s continued breathing was. “I couldn’t sleep,” he answered with a shrug. “Thought I’d collect a few herbs to help Lancelot build up his strength for the journey. I heard a noise, and then the griffin was there, chasing me.” He tried to look embarrassed. “I didn’t mean to get so far from camp,” he murmured, looking sidelong across the ground. His eyes snapped back up at Arthur’s heavy sigh.

“Idiot,” Arthur muttered, shaking his head, but the slight smile Merlin could see at the corner of his mouth gave lie to the scorn in his tone. “You’re lucky Lancelot came after you. If it had been me, I would’ve just let the griffin take off with you. Might’ve even begged.”

“On your knees, Sire?” Merlin quipped, because, apparently, he really did have a death wish, or maybe it was just the waning thrill of battle making him foolish enough to forget who he was talking to and flirt.

The look of absolute incredulity Arthur gave him might be worth it, even if he were about to lose his head. Just as quickly, however, Arthur’s expression change into something sly and predatory, and Merlin’s blood wasn’t quite so cold anymore. “No, Merlin,” he hummed, and Merlin did not shudder. “I’m afraid it would take more than a griffin to get me on my knees.”

It would be hell picking back through the woods to the campsite in the dim moonlight, but Merlin wouldn’t complain, not while the darkness was gracious enough to hide his no-doubt-flaming face. He was sure he was moments away from coming up with a clever retort, but Arthur took the opportunity from him, smirking with a flick of his eyebrows as he moved to walk away.

He playfully bumped Merlin’s arm with an elbow as he turned, and Merlin winced, jolting away with a jagged hiss of air. Arthur whirled back around, posture immediately defensive. He opened his mouth, a glottal sound starting in his throat, but Merlin’s hand instinctively drawing up to the wound on his arm stalled the word. “You’re hurt,” Arthur said, softer than he had any right to, but there was nothing tender about the hand that pulled Merlin’s fingers away.

“It’s nothing,” he said, but couldn’t help but flinch as Arthur’s fingers probed the split skin. “Just a graze. It tried to bite me and-”

“It tried to bite you!?”

“Yes, but it didn’t,” Merlin offered, his tone growing higher in hopeful appeal.

Arthur snorted, head bent down close to the gash. “Not sure if you’ve noticed, Merlin, but you are, in fact, bleeding.”

“It’s shallow,” Merlin dismissed, shrugging as best he could with one of his arms in a vice. “I’ll put a poultice on it when we get back to- What are you doing?”

Arthur had pulled his mail shirt up on his torso, exposing the hem of his red tunic, which he was now ripping across the bottom. “What does it look like?” he grumbled, flicking a glance up at Merlin through his lashes.

“Making more work for me?” Merlin guessed, and Arthur chuckled.

“So ungrateful.” Arthur shook his head in a pantomime of chiding, and then prodded at Merlin’s arm until he lifted it, holding it aloft. For all the dirt and callouses on Arthur’s hands, his fingers were gentle as they wrapped the scrap of fabric around Merlin’s wound, holding one end fast while he deftly spun the other in quick circles.

Merlin was sure that tunic was rife with things he really didn’t want near an open wound, but he could simply use a healing spell on the gash later, and removing it would only serve to hurt Arthur’s feelings. The feeling in his own chest, a warm sort of swirling he’d previously only ever associated with magic, had nothing to do with his reluctance. Nothing at all.

“There,” Arthur said, smiling with self-satisfaction as he tested the tie over the binding. His hands lingered on Merlin’s arm, guiding Merlin to twist it side to side with a gentle pressure of his fingers. “I think you’ll live.”

“Oh, you’re a physician now too, are you?” Merlin muttered, lifting his eyebrows, because banter was easier than untangling the knot in his stomach.

Arthur beamed, and Merlin’s internal organs rearranged themselves. “Just one of my many talents,” he replied.

“Apart from being a prat?”

Arthur laughed. “That too,” he said with a small bob of his head, and then he slapped Merlin on the back, the opposite side as his injury.

In spite of his best efforts, Merlin wobbled a bit under the hit, his legs growing less and less certain beneath him as the exertion from earlier began to make itself felt.

“Merlin?” Arthur questioned, moving his hand from Merlin’s back to his shoulder and steadying him. “Are you alright?”

“Yeah, yeah,” Merlin replied, but his voice was breathy and sounded distant in his ears.

Arthur bent down to catch his eye, looking up into his face with a small smirk. “You’re not gonna faint on me, are ya?”

“No,” Merlin sneered, but Arthur only smiled broader. “I think I’m just tired.”

Arthur looked almost worried for a moment, but the small frown quickly vanished. With an exasperated sigh, he moved to Merlin’s left side, grabbing his forearm and slinging it across his shoulder.

“What are you doing?” Merlin protested even as he leaned into Arthur’s grasp.

“Ya know, you really should stop questioning me, Merlin,” Arthur admonished, but he still wrapped his right arm around Merlin’s waist. “I am royalty, after all.”

“Royalty?” Merlin snorted, head lolling against Arthur’s shoulder as they began to walk. “More like a royal pain in the-”

“Merlin,” Arthur warned, grip tightening slightly where he held Merlin’s wrist.

Merlin smiled, dropping his face to the ground. “Sorry, Sire,” he murmured, voice wobbling as his body jostled against the cool, mail-cloaked one.

Now it was Arthur’s turn to snort, and Merlin grinned, watching the progress of their feet and wondering if he was imagining Arthur’s thumb stroking circles over his pulse.

---

The ride back to Camelot was uneventful, and yet still stressful, Arthur spending an inordinate amount of it turned around to make sure Merlin hadn’t fallen off his horse. His manservant had woken up that morning looking as though he hadn’t slept at all, and his body lolled dangerously with every sway of the steed. Arthur also noticed Merlin hadn’t removed the strip of Arthur’s tunic from his arm, but he was hesitant to point it out, lest Merlin remove it at the reminder.

There was something pleasant about that small stitch of Pendragon red against Merlin’s usual blue tunic, and a secret smile twitched at Arthur’s mouth every time his eyes found it, a token of the possessiveness he already firmly felt. Of course, Merlin was rather helpless on his own, a magnet for trouble he then dove headlong into, so it was only natural that Arthur would want to have him near at all times, that he would loathe the distance of two people riding between them almost as much as he loathed not knowing how to insist Merlin move up.

It had been a stressful ride back, indeed, but there had been no relief, Uther summoning Arthur the moment he had arrived. Arthur tried to downplay the griffin attack as much as possible, not wanting to inspire one of his father’s famous overreactions, but it had happened anyway as soon as Arthur had suggested inducting Lancelot as a knight.

“You know the code, Arthur,” Uther said, scowling down at him from where he stood on the raised platform of the throne room.

“Lancelot saved my life. Twice!” Arthur insisted, hands flying out to his sides in irritated emphasis. “Is that not more proof of honor than the nobility of his birth?”

Uther’s face darkened. “You question the royal houses!?” he shouted, thunderous.

“No, father,” Arthur replied tiredly, thinking now was not the best time to mention the few knights he had been required to remove from his service due to treachery. “I am merely suggesting that Lancelot’s actions should speak for themselves, regardless of his station.”

Uther searched him for a moment, brow furrowing. “I see you feel strongly about this,” he said, slow and thoughtful.

Arthur nodded, the angry knot in his chest loosening hopefully.

Uther sighed, frowning as he turned his gaze to the side and worried at his bottom lip.

Of their own accord, Arthur’s eyes used the moment to shift to where he knew Merlin was standing, shielded from Uther’s immediate view—Arthur suspected intentionally—by a large, stone column. As soon as blue eyes locked with his, Merlin began gesticulating frantically, pointing toward the wooden door they both knew Lancelot hovered just behind, and then miming some sort of swiping motion through the air.

Arthur twitched his eyebrows together, shaking his head to convey his confusion.

Merlin’s arms fell limp for a moment, his eyes rolling heavenward in irritation, and he was incredibly lucky Arthur was one) all the way across the room, and two) in the middle of an audience with his father, because otherwise he would be on the receiving end of a sharp clip to the back of the head.

Some of his impatience must have shown in his glare, because Merlin quickly began moving again, pointing toward the door, and then slowly forming a fist, moving his hand side to side as his lips worked around a silent word. He repeated it a few times, jabbing at the door again, and, suddenly, it clicked.

“The tournament!” Arthur blurted, probably a little too eager, but Merlin beamed, and that made his father’s alarmed stare easier to bear without embarrassment. “Allow Lancelot to participate in the tournament. I assure you, he will prove his worth.”

Uther considered him carefully, and Arthur fought to keep his hands from clenching with anticipation. “Very well,” he finally said, and Arthur’s stomach relaxed. “I will allow it. But, if I do not agree…”

“I will not go against you,” Arthur interjected, bowing his head. “If, by the end of the tournament, you do not see in him what I do, I will not mention this matter again.”

Uther nodded. “Good,” he said brusquely. “You may go.”

Arthur bowed, dipping slightly at the waist, and then turned, hearing Merlin’s soft footsteps shuffling behind him to the door.

Lancelot was sitting on the floor immediately to the left of the entrance, but leapt up at their appearance, bowing to Arthur. “Your Highness,” he said, speaking to the ground before straightening.

Arthur inclined his own head in acknowledgement, and he thought he may have heard Merlin snort, but wasn’t certain enough to retaliate. “Lancelot,” he said, and the man swallowed, eyes bright and expectant. Arthur cleared his throat. “I spoke to my father and-”

“You get to compete in the tournament!”

“Merlin!?”

Merlin blinked like a startled doe as Arthur rounded on him. “Oh, I-I’m sorry. Did you wanna tell him?”

“Yes!” Arthur squawked with a jabbing nod. “That’s why I was, you know, speaking!”

Merlin bit his lip and dropped his face. “Sorry,” he muttered, but his contrition became less sincere as a smirk grew on his mouth.

Arthur huffed, shaking his head and rolling his eyes as he turned back to Lancelot, who looked cautiously excited. “You do get to compete in the tournament,” he confirmed, and the man grinned. “My father has agreed to see how you perform, and then decide whether you can become a knight.”

Lancelot sighed out a heavy breath of relief. “Thank you, Sire,” he panted, nodding deeply. “I will not let you down.”

Arthur smiled, stepping forward to clamp his hand on the man’s shoulder. “You have nothing further to prove to me, Lancelot,” he assured, “and I am certain my father will agree.”

Lancelot’s smile turned shy, and Arthur was perplexed by how one man could possibly be so brave and so humble all at once. “Your faith in me is more than I deserve, Sire.”

“Lancelot,” Arthur sighed, shaking the man’s shoulder slightly, “you don’t have to add a title onto everything you say to me. I mean, I’m sure you’re trying to make up for Merlin’s complete lack of propriety-”

“I resent that, my lord Sire Highness.”

“-but it’s really not necessary.” Arthur shot a smirking Merlin a glare before returning to smiling at Lancelot.

Lancelot, proper as always, ignored the prince/manservant exchange, seeming neither amused nor offended. “I’ll try to remember that, Si- Sorry,” he muttered as Arthur raised an eyebrow. “How- How would you prefer I address you, er…” He trailed away, eyes shifting anxiously.

Arthur smiled, shaking his head in amused indulgence. “Arthur is fine.”

“Just don’t call him prat,” Merlin felt the need to add. He didn’t meet Arthur’s eyes when Arthur looked across at him, but he definitely knew he was being watched if the growing grin was anything to go by. “That one’s mine.”

Lancelot smiled, but quickly stifled it, ducking his head, and Arthur chose to overlook it just this once.

“Are you trying to get put in the stocks, Merlin?” Arthur snapped, glowering at the brunette.

Merlin, clearly lacking any and all self-preservation instincts, only chuckled. “It has been awhile; I suppose I could be getting nostalgic.”

“You were in the stocks?” Arthur asked, turning properly toward him. “When? Why?”

Merlin blinked, brow furrowing, clearly puzzled by Arthur’s earnest reaction.

Arthur was more than a little confused himself, and cleared his throat, dropping his eyes from Merlin’s for a moment as he shook it off. “No one else should be sending you to the stocks,” he added, haughty once more.

Merlin smiled softly, almost fond, as if touched by the concern Arthur was trying not to show, and wasn’t that just so completely, infuriatingly Merlin. “It wasn’t a big deal. I accidentally interrupted a meeting when I took that message about grain stores to the king last week.”

“He sent you to the stocks?” Years of diplomatic training meant only a little of his anger leaked through, but Merlin—damn him—noticed, blue eyes narrowing shrewdly. His tone, of course, was nothing but sarcastic.

“Well, I did interrupt an important discussion about what color would be best for his robes for the opening ceremony of the tournament. Prepare yourself for a shock: They went with red.”

Arthur couldn’t believe his ears for a moment, and gaped at Merlin, unable to believe he would dare say such a thing, but it was funny, so he quickly found himself laughing. It was a breathy chuckle at first, but quickly grew to downright improper, sure to carry back into the throne room.

“I don’t know why you’re laughing,” Merlin said, but he was chuckling a little too. “You have nothing to wear now. Not without matching, and that would be rather embarrassing.”

“I’ll be wearing armor, Merlin,” Arthur reminded, laugh settling into an aching grin.

“What about after? When you’re just watching?”

Arthur’s amusement faltered. “Are you implying I’m going to lose?”

Merlin shrugged, eyes roving over the ceiling. “I don’t know. I’ve never seen you fight.”

Arthur stared at him a moment longer, and then grinned, tilting his head.

Merlin, for once, looked appropriately afraid.

“Well, Merlin,” Arthur crooned, and Merlin’s eyes widened, “we’ll have to do something about that.”

---

“Ow, ow, ow, ow.” Merlin hobbled into Gaius’ chambers, each step punctuated with a pained syllable.

Gaius lifted his head from grinding something in a mortar, turning from his spot at the low, wooden table to look over Merlin’s hunched form with a raised eyebrow.

“I was helping Arthur practice for the tournament,” Merlin explained, but Gaius only tilted his head. “As a target,” he added bitterly, wincing as he continued walking.

Gaius chuckled, and Merlin gaped at him, betrayed. “Yes, he doesn’t often miss, Arthur.”

Merlin glared at him, and Gaius sighed, rolling his eyes and standing up off the bench.

“Sit down,” he said, waving a hand toward his vacated spot. “I’ll get you a salve for the bruises.”

“Does it come in buckets?” Merlin grit out as he lowered himself gingerly down, arm braced against the tabletop for support.

Gaius smiled at him over his shoulder, but did fetch a rather large jar from the cupboard. “Do you want me to…” He waved a hand up and down Merlin’s body as he approached.

“No, I can do it,” Merlin replied, holding his hand out for the jar. He sat it on the table behind him before pulling his shirt up over his head, grimacing as his muscles wrenched. The salve was cold and thick, and Merlin rubbed it between his hands before beginning to massage it over his torso, hissing at the occasional, painful brush across purpling skin. Soon enough, however, the balm began to take effect, and he could feel the soothing coolness sinking into the worn tissues.

“Better?” Gaius asked from where he was still hovering at Merlin’s side.

Merlin nodded, replacing the lid. “Much. Thank you.” He passed the jar back up to Gaius, who moved to put it away, and was just about to say he was going to bed when another thought voiced itself instead. “Gaius?”

“Hmm?” the old man hummed in reply.

Merlin bit at his lip, puzzling over the words long enough that Gaius had returned to sit in a chair beside him before he spoke again. “Something happened in the forest when I was out hunting with Arthur.”

“The griffin,” Gaius said with a nod, expression furrowed. “Are you alright? I heard there were some injuries.”

“No, no, I’m fine,” Merlin assured with a dismissive wave of his hand. “And most of the injuries weren’t that bad. I patched most everyone up. Oh, I never heard, how are the villagers?” he asked urgently, guilty for not inquiring after them sooner.

Gaius gave a small smile, and Merlin’s panic diminished somewhat. “You were right about the gentleman, his leg did need to be amputated, but everyone else’s injuries were easily taken care of. You’d done most of it already, actually; I was hardly needed.” He smiled proudly, and Merlin ducked his head, embarrassed at the compliment.

“Where is he? The man?” he asked, hoping to divert the topic.

“He had family in the city,” Gaius explained, leaning forward over his knees toward Merlin. “He is staying with them. But that isn’t what you were going to ask me.”

Merlin opened his mouth, and then closed it, dropping his head to stare at his boots on the stone floor. “We saw a unicorn in the forest,” he said, opting for the direct approach. Looking up through his lashes, he saw Gaius’ eyes had widened, but he nodded for Merlin to continue. Merlin sighed, shaking his head down at the ground, hardly able to believe he was about to say this. “Arthur showed up and it…approached him.” He looked up, afraid Gaius may be falling off his chair, but the old man only looked quizzical.

“Yes?” Gaius prompted, lifting that eyebrow again. Then he blinked, seeming almost startled, and began to laugh. “Oh, Merlin, don’t tell me you believe those silly stories? Arthur is the prince of Camelot! You can’t possibly think he’s still a vir-”

“WOAH!” Merlin blurted, spine smashing into the table behind him as he attempted to fling himself away from the rest of that sentence. “No. No! I-I don’t- No.” He was giving himself a headache, he was shaking his head so violently, but he had to make absolutely certain that Gaius never, ever mentioned that topic again, both because it was disgusting, and because Merlin’s thoughts spiraling around images of Arthur bedding faceless noblewomen was leaving a thick bitterness in his mouth. “I meant magic. I thought you had to have magic to touch a unicorn.”

Gaius’ jaw stiffened, his pale eyes suddenly not able to focus on anything for too long, especially Merlin.

“Gaius?” Merlin prompted when the man didn’t voice the something that was clearly on his mind.

His mentor was clearly warring with himself over something, brow creasing as he breathed heavily through his nose.

Merlin stayed silent, confused at the reaction, but he didn’t want to push and risk alienating the only friend he had in this city and Arthur’s face was absolutely not materializing in his mind right now!

“Merlin,” Gaius began, his strained voice pulling Merlin from his thoughts. “You have to understand, this is something I have been sworn to never repeat to another soul as long as I live, or I will quickly stop living.” He turned his head to look directly into Merlin’s face, and Merlin nodded, about the only thing he could do in that situation. “I have sworn an oath to the king himself, Merlin. That is how sacred this secret it.”

“Gaius, you don’t have to-”

“No, Merlin,” Gaius interrupted, anxious but determined. He leaned forward, stretching a hand out to Merlin’s knee. “You are Arthur’s friend- No, don’t argue,” he snapped when Merlin snorted. “I have known Arthur his whole life, and you are more than just a servant to him, don’t think you’re not. He’d have had you beheaded by now if he didn’t care.”

“I’m not that bad,” Merlin murmured, but Gaius silenced him with a knowing look.

“My point is, you and Arthur- Well, I can’t quite explain it, but it feels almost as if…as if you two are meant for something. As if your destinies are somehow intertwined,” he said, slow and thoughtful.

Merlin’s stomach twisted, and, for a moment, he thought he may be sick on the floor between them, but years of practiced subterfuge kept his expression clear. Gaius couldn’t possibly know about the prophecy. He would’ve said something, and it probably would have been much less kind than this.

“I think this is something that you will need to know, Merlin,” the man continued, his soft tone somehow conveying the seriousness of the situation more than any lecture could have. “But you can never tell anyone. No one, Merlin. Not even Arthur.”

Merlin gave a deep nod. “I understand, Gaius. I swear to you, it will go with me to my grave.”

Gaius smiled, fingers tightening on Merlin’s leg. “I know, Merlin, I know. I trust you.”

Merlin managed to smile back through the nausea.

Gaius leaned back, his hand leaving Merlin’s knee as he folded his arms in his lap. “I don’t suppose you know anything of Arthur’s mother?”

“I know she died in childbirth,” he said with a small shrug. “The servants don’t talk about her much.”

Gaius hummed, nodding. “No, I suspect not. Uther is rather…sensitive about the topic, as you can imagine.”

Merlin nodded as if sympathetic, but he couldn’t honestly see Uther having an emotion over anything, provided that emotion wasn’t anger, at least.

“Uther and Ygraine had tried for years to conceive a child, but without success. I made her many tonics myself, but nothing worked. Nothing.” He sighed gravely, pinching the bridge of his nose.

Merlin didn’t even breathe.

“They were desperate, both of them—Ygraine for a child, and Uther for an heir.” He paused, sucking in a ragged breath. “So, they turned to magic.”

All of Arthur’s hits combined would have paled in comparison to the blow that fell to Merlin’s stomach now.

“Uther contacted a sorceress named Nimueh,” Gaius continued, and Merlin’s vision began to blur around the edges, heart hammering so fast, it was more one constant note than separate pulses. “She worked with them all through the pregnancy, but, as you know, magic always has a price. To create a life, a life must be taken, but I don’t think anyone ever dreamed…” Gaius sighed, still not looking at Merlin, who was trying to regain control of his reaction before Gaius did look. “Uther was devastated, wild with grief. He blamed magic for Ygraine’s death, and what we now know as the Great Purge was the result.”

Merlin couldn’t swallow enough times to drain the acid from his mouth.

Nimueh. Nimueh had known Uther, had helped him. And then she had sent him here to-to what? To enact her revenge? Was any of this about him at all; did he even have a destiny here? And why hadn’t she told him about her history with Uther?

He jumped, gasping as Gaius’ hand gripped his shoulder. The man’s face came into focus as he blinked, soft and wrinkled with concern.

“I know this must be a shock,” he said gently, and Merlin almost laughed, “but you had a right to know.”

Merlin managed to nod, or at least bob his head weakly. “So, the-the unicorn…” he breathed, unable to continue, but Gaius understood.

He pulled away his hand, but stayed close in front of Merlin. “Arthur does not have magic, not the way you and I do,” he explained with a secret smile. “But he was born of it. It is a part of him, an echo that lives in his soul as surely as it lives in yours. That is part of the reason I am so convinced of your shared fate.” He smiled, as if this was reassuring, and Merlin realized, to him, it probably was. He didn’t know Arthur’s fate was to die, likely at Merlin’s own hand. “You and Arthur…you’re two halves of a whole. Destiny has great things in store for you, Merlin, I can feel it.” He said it so earnest, so hopeful, and his smile held so much faith, Merlin couldn’t help but smile faintly back, even as most of him wanted to cry.

“Thank you, Gaius,” he answered, voice only breaking a little. He swallowed. “I hope you’re right,” he added, and he might have even meant it.

Gaius just continued to smile, eyes a little dewy. “Well,” he said, clapping his hands on his legs before beginning to stand, “I think it’s about time we got to bed. I’m sure you have an early morning ahead of you, getting ready for the tournament.”

Merlin huffed a laugh, the pain in his body returning to the forefront of his mind as he rose, clutching at his back. “I can hardly wait,” he grunted. “Don’t know how I’ll get to sleep tonight.”

Gaius laughed, ushering Merlin to bed with a sleeping draught, but Merlin never took it.

As the sun began to creep grey into Merlin’s room, carrying birdsong along the weak rays, Merlin was still hunched over the edge of his bed, staring down at the empty shard of mirror with questions he couldn’t bring himself to ask.

---

“No.”

“I wasn’t exactly asking, you know?”

“I don’t care, no.”

“Merlin,” Arthur sighed, pinching the bridge of his nose as he pressed his eyes shut, “I told you, it wasn’t my idea.”

The brunette crossed his arms, blue eyes stubborn. “So go back and tell your father to send someone else.”

He let out an incredulous bark of laughter. “Of course, why didn’t I think of that? Oh, that’s right, because he’s the bloody king!”

Merlin’s glare sharpened, and then he looked away, expression turning frustrated and helpless.

Arthur could relate. “Look, I don’t like it any more than you do-”

“Well, you can’t possibly like it less.”

“-but these are the king’s orders. You were there; you heard him,” Arthur added, waving a hand at the obstinate boy.

“Those were hardly orders,” Merlin countered, and Arthur couldn’t help but roll his eyes. “It was, at most, a suggestion.”

Arthur shook his head, biting his lip and lifting his head to the sky in a quick prayer for patience. “Well, when the king suggests that you attend to Sir Valiant, you attend to Sir Valiant.”

Merlin clicked his tongue, rolling his eyes and turning to scowl out the window.

Arthur dropped his head, biting at his lip in restraint.

It had been the night before, the first feast of the tournament. Sir Valiant, if he merited the name, had won every match that day, and had apparently impressed Uther with his skill, if their being engrossed in conversation all night was any measure. In Arthur’s opinion, Valiant was nothing but a brute, toying with lesser opponents instead of giving them the dignity of a clean defeat, but Uther seemed to see it differently, and, when Valiant mentioned his servant had fallen ill on the way to Camelot and was unable to attend to him, the king had eagerly offered up Merlin as a substitute.

Merlin, of course, had promptly dropped the water jug he had been carrying, sputtering over the mess as his mouth tightened into a thin line.

Arthur didn’t think he’d ever forget that expression, the stifled anger and resentment that come with having your own life taken from your hands, and, in that moment, he had seen on Merlin’s face what he had felt churning in his stomach. Of course, Uther would not be swayed—not that Arthur could argue much—and, now, the next morning, it was time for Merlin to report to Valiant’s tent.

“What about Lancelot?” Merlin asked, and Arthur could see in his eyes this was a last, desperate hope. “You told me to help him practice.”

Merlin had been working with Lancelot, getting him in shape for the tournament, as Lancelot had said his swordsmanship was a little rusty. According to Merlin, Lancelot had been just fine, but Lancelot insisted Merlin was helping him improve every day. Arthur just had to take their word for it, however, because, in spite of all the laughter and clanging sparring he could hear as he approached the clearing in the forest where they practiced, the second he broke through the trees, they always stopped, suddenly needing a break for water or something or other. They were always together now, it seemed, wandering the grounds and talking—or Merlin was, at least, lips moving wildly as his hands flipped and swooped through the air in indecipherable gestures—and they were frequently found in the corner at meals, whispering and nudging one another. And maybe, maybe, it had bothered Arthur a little, his servant—whom he had rescued from a lifetime of kitchen duty, thank you very much—getting so close with the would-be knight Arthur had taken under his wing (and, really, Lancelot wouldn’t even be here if it wasn’t for Arthur, and now he was being repaid by being replaced) but, even so, Arthur never would have interfered with their practicing. Arthur wondered briefly if Merlin suspected as much, that Arthur wasn’t fighting harder because he was glad for the separation, but he quickly dismissed it. Even after such a short time, he was fairly sure Merlin knew him better than that.

“You can still help him practice any time you’re not attending to Valiant, but you do have to attend to Valiant, Merlin,” Arthur replied, much less stern than he’d intended, not that it would have had any effect on Merlin’s reaction either way, and the boy only snorted.

“Yeah, because I’ll have so much free time between polishing your armor and licking Valiant’s boots,” Merlin snapped, flicking a hand toward Arthur’s feet.

Arthur shook his head. “You won’t be attending to me anymore, Merlin. Not until after the tournament.”

“What?” Merlin bleated, and Arthur had thought he looked wounded before. “What do you mean? Why not?”

Arthur blinked, completely taken aback by the frantic reaction. “Well, because that’s too much to do,” he muttered, gathering himself. “It’s much easier to find me another servant than it is to find Lancelot someone else to practice with.”

“So you’re replacing me!?” Merlin very nearly shouted, and then shot a nervous glance backward toward the door.

“No,” Arthur replied, measured and careful. “I’m not replacing you, I’m merely…giving you a leave of absence.”

“I don’t need a leave of absence,” Merlin insisted, grimacing in disgust at the idea. “I can get everything done. And, besides,”—he crossed his arms with a cocky tilt of his head—“how will you get dressed without me?”

“I can dress myself, Merlin,” Arthur muttered stiffly, unamused.

“You got your head caught in a sleeve,” Merlin said, smiling.

Arthur spluttered. “Those are big sleeves and I- You know what, I don’t even need to be having this conversation with you! I gave you an order, now go attend to Sir Valiant.”

“But I want-”                                                        

“It doesn’t matter what you want!” The words no sooner passed Arthur’s lips than he regretted them, ashamed under Merlin’s startled, blue gaze, and he felt his contorted expression slide away. “I need you to stay with Valiant,” he said softly, dropping his eyes sidelong to the floor. “I- I’m not sure-”

“He can be trusted?”

Arthur’s head shot up. “You don’t think so either?” he asked, and Merlin shook his head with a frown, his eyes not quite meeting Arthur’s. “Why not?”

Merlin said nothing, turning his head a fraction away.

“What do you know, Merlin?” Arthur urged, perhaps a little gruffer than necessary, but Merlin was being petulant, and he was frustrated and tired. He hadn’t slept well last night, knowing this conversation was coming with the dawn.

It seemed a small eternity until Merlin spoke, and, when he did, it was in a small, hesitant voice Arthur didn’t think he’d ever heard before. “It- It is not my place to speak ill of a knight.”

Arthur’s mouth may have clipped the stone at his feet. “Not your- Merlin, you just told me I got my head caught in a sleeve.”

“You did get your head caught in a sleeve.”

“That’s not the point!” he snapped, whipping his hands to scatter the words. He sighed, trying to overcome the ever-present urge to strangle the brunette in front of him. “Merlin,” he began, notably calmer, and the other boy didn’t look quite so alarmed, “my point is, you don’t have to worry about what you say to me.”

Merlin looked surprised, blinking in a burst, and then his face settled into wary confusion.

“If I was going to throw you in the stocks, I would’ve done it by now. And I’d have a lot more cause than speaking ill of a knight.” He chuckled lightly, and an answering smile quivered on Merlin’s lips.

He then nodded, more to the floor than to Arthur, before properly meeting his eyes once again. “Thank you. Sire,” he said with a lift of half his mouth, and Arthur felt as though he’d never truly heard his title until this moment, when the weight of the word filled Merlin’s mouth.

Arthur smiled back, and then cleared his throat. “So, what is it? Why do you not trust Valiant?”

Merlin worried his lip, eyes downcast with indecision. He then nodded, a quick jolt of his head that seemed mostly to himself. “Something he said at the feast last night…”

Merlin!” Arthur groaned, possibly more frustrated than he had ever been in his life. Merlin had that effect on him.

“Alright, alright!” Merlin muttered, waving a hand at him, and Arthur made yet another mental note to remind Merlin exactly who he was. “He was asking your father about…succession.”

Arthur’s fist clenched, his jaw stiffening, but he bit back the ill-directed bellow that rose in his chest. “Go on,” he said, and Merlin raised an eyebrow at, as Merlin liked to call it, his ‘I have to be diplomatic because you’re important, but I’d really rather strangle you’ voice.

“Apparently, Valiant is, like…an extremely distant cousin of yours or something, and he was- Well, he wasn’t exactly asking—he was being a bit more subtle than that—but I believe what he was trying to do was figure out what it would take for him to become heir to the throne…” Merlin said the last part very carefully, hesitating over every word, and it was only his obvious awareness of how upsetting this information was that stopped Arthur from launching a chair into the wall.

“He what?” Arthur bit out, and Merlin cringed sympathetically.

“They were talking about how well Valiant had been doing in the tournament,” Merlin continued, quicker now, “and, naturally, your father started boasting about how well you had been doing, and…I don’t know, it just felt like he was trying to…undermine you somehow. I don’t know, I’m probably just-”

“Don’t do that,” Arthur interjected, and Merlin lifted his head from where he had ducked it, rubbing at the back of his neck. “Don’t doubt your instincts, Merlin. They’re your most important tool in battle.”

“Arthur,” Merlin said gently, taking a small step forward, “this isn’t battle. This is a git with a big mouth.”

“What did he say?”

Merlin blinked, brow creasing as he tilted his head. “Sorry?”

“You said he was trying to undermine me,” Arthur spat, his palms aching where his fingers dug into the muscle. “What exactly did he say?”

Merlin watched him warily for a moment, as if gauging how close Arthur was to flying into a rage, but he must have passed inspection, because Merlin answered. “Small things. Nothing immediately improper, but- Like, I remember he said something about how he wasn’t so sure how you would perform today, considering you had been favoring your left leg.”

“I was not favoring my-”

“I know, I know,” Merlin soothed, lifting his hands. “I was there, remember? But, that’s what I mean, little things like that. They’re not obvious, but he still-”

“He’s suggesting I’m not up for the task of being king,” Arthur said coldly, and Merlin nodded, dropping his head. “He’s trying to make me look weak.” He slammed a fist down on the table, impressed even through the red haze of fury that Merlin didn’t startle. He bit at his lip, considering, while Merlin remained mute in front of him, hands clasping together as he watched, eyes earnest with concern.

Finally, Arthur took a deep breath, pulling his hand from the wood and turning to his manservant. “I need you to stay with him,” he said.

Merlin straightened slightly, but looked more determined now than argumentative.

“I need to know what he’s up to. Right now, it’s just talk, but, if he makes a move…” He stopped, looking up at Merlin out of the tops of his eyes.

Merlin gave a firm nod. “I’ll let you know if I find anything,” he said, ducking his head before moving past Arthur toward the door.

“Oh, and Merlin?” Arthur called, and Merlin spun on his boots, door half-open in front of him. “Do be careful,” he said, dropping his head as he smiled. “I can’t keep getting new manservants. People will start to talk.”

Merlin beamed back at him, and Arthur blinked, a little thrown by the brilliance of it. “And, if there’s one thing you hate, it’s being the center of attention.”

“Go!” Arthur commanded, but it was broken up by a laugh, and the small apple he plucked off his breakfast plate and threw ricocheted off the door as Merlin ducked quickly out.

---

Merlin had had better days. He was dirty, damp, and aching, and he ducked into yet another alcove to avoid a group of patrolling knights, not wanting to risk running into Leon or Lancelot and having to explain things. All he wanted was a bath and his straw mattress, not a fuss made over his bloodied lip and rotten-fruit-stained clothes, so he was winding his way up the castle stairways, staying as out of sight as possible.

So, of course, he ran headlong into someone.

“Oh, god, I’m sorry, I didn’t- Lady Morgana!”

The woman looked terribly pale, even more than the moonlight or shock could account for, and she clutched her cloak closed tightly at the neck. “Merlin,” she breathed, face relaxing somewhat as she blinked. It quickly formed a frown, however, as she scanned over him. “What happened? Your face-” She reached a hand up toward his lip, and then stopped, eyes flicking down to her own hand in apparent surprise before she lowered it back to her side.

“It’s nothing, my lady,” Merlin assured, nodding as he attempted to angle his face away from the light. “Just an accident on the training ground. I’ll make a salve for it when I get back to Gaius’ chambers.”

“You’re quite good at that, aren’t you? Medicine,” she said, smiling softly as she folded her arms.

Merlin rubbed at the back of his neck, looking at a spot on the wall near Morgana’s feet. “I have learned a lot under Gaius’ tutelage, my lady.”

Morgana raised an eyebrow. “Are you certain you don’t have noble blood in you, Merlin?” she asked coyly. “Because that was an evasive answer equal to any lord.”

Merlin smiled down at his boots, his instant fondness for Morgana making more sense all the time. “I did not mean to evade your question, my lady, only to express that any talent I may possess is due to Gaius’ teaching.”

“I’m not so sure of that,” she countered, green eyes almost eerily focused. “Arthur told me about what happened in the forest. Surely, Gaius didn’t have time to teach you all of that.”

Merlin watched her, forehead wrinkling in suspicion, and, as he stared, a corner of her mouth twitched. “My lady, if I may,” he began softly. “Why are you asking me this?”

Morgana faltered, lips trembling apart, and her eyes widened for a fleeting instant before she ducked her head. “I- Nothing. I was merely…curious.”

A thought occurred to Merlin, so sudden and strange, it was almost as though it were planted there. “Did you…need something? From Gaius?” he asked, leaning in toward her.

“I-” Morgana stammered, taking a small step backward as she tugged at the top of her cloak again. She hesitated, eyes flicking side to side over the empty hallway as she tugged at her top lip with her teeth. “I-I have nightmares,” she said softly, not meeting his eyes. “Gaius gives me a tonic for them, but it’s been so long since I had one, I thought they were gone. I checked his chambers and he wasn’t there.” She looked desperate, helpless with fear, and Merlin, yet again, felt a kinship between them, like the tug of a thread strung around his heart.

“I can make it for you,” he offered, and her head snapped up, reminding him of his position. “If you would like, that is. My lady,” he added stiffly, his voice rushed, but the knot in his stomach loosened as she smiled.

“I wouldn’t wish to trouble you,” she said, voice exhausted. “You look like the last thing you want to do is more work.”

“Helping you would hardly be work, my lady,” he said, and she returned the smile he gave her. He nodded his head down the corridor toward Gaius’ chambers, and she started silently across the stones, slowing to look over her shoulder after a short distance.

“Don’t walk behind me, Merlin,” she muttered, rolling her eyes. “I know you’re supposed to, but I’ve always found it rather disconcerting.”

Merlin chuckled, and then quickened his stride to come level with her.

“Does Arthur always have you working this late?” she asked as they reached the large, wooden door, her tone heavy with disapproval.

Merlin shook his head, closing the door behind her, assuming discretion was more important than propriety in this particular situation. “No, my lady. I wasn’t working with Arthur today. I’ve been…temporarily reassigned.”

“Reassigned?” she repeated, sitting down in the chair Merlin pulled out. “He didn’t dismiss you, did he? Oh, him and his precious ego, I swear!”

“He hasn’t dismissed me,” Merlin interrupted, turning from where he was pulling vials from the cupboard, and a half-risen Morgana slowly sank back into her seat, expression skeptical. “I’ve been moved to Sir Valiant’s service for the duration of the tournament.”

“Valiant!?” Morgana screeched incredulously, and then flashed a worried glance back to the door. No one burst through to defend her honor, however, and, after a moment, she continued. “But he’s horrible! Is that how you got that bloody lip? Did he strike you!?”

“No, no,” Merlin soothed, temporarily abandoning gathering ingredients to wave Morgana down with his hands. “That was a still-quite-ripe apple. I spent most of today in the stocks.”

Morgana’s brow wrinkled as she tilted her head. “The stocks? Why were you in the stocks?”

“I was late,” Merlin shrugged, turning back to the cupboard and continuing to fish out ingredients. “And his armor wasn’t shiny enough, and I wasn’t quick enough wiping his brow, and a couple of other things, I don’t honestly remember.” He moved to the table beside her, clinking the bottles down onto the surface before dragging over a mortar and pestle.

“That’s ridiculous!” Morgana snapped, turning her body toward where he stood as he worked. “You have to tell Arthur. He would never allow-”

“I’m afraid Arthur doesn’t have a choice in the matter, my lady,” Merlin answered with a strained smile down at her. He quickly realized his slip, however, and expected to be reprimanded for leaving off Arthur’s title, but Morgana only looked at him quizzically, not appearing the slightest bit startled. “It was the king’s request that I attend to Valiant during the tournament. His servant fell ill on their trip here and had to return home.”

“Why does it have to be you, though?” Morgana asked, and Merlin’s hands paused in their work.

It was the question he had been pondering all day, piecing together bits and pieces of his close observance of Valiant to try and form an answer, but it was only now, hearing the question formed aloud on Morgana’s lips, did he know the truth of his suspicions. “I think, if I may…” he said, pausing to flash her a sidelong glance.

Morgana rolled her eyes, but curled a hand to encourage him on.

Merlin focused intently down at his hands mashing flowers into the tonic. “Valiant talks about Arthur a lot, my lady. Always degrading him, boasting about all the ways he’s superior.” Now it was Merlin’s turn to roll his eyes, but the austereness of the situation quickly settled back over him. “I believe, in having me as his servant, or, rather, taking me from Arthur-”

“It’s just another way of asserting his superiority,” Morgana said, frowning as she looked down to her knees.

Merlin nodded, suppressing a small smile. They really were a lot alike, Morgana and Arthur, although neither of them would agree with the comparison.

“Still,” she said, lifting her head, stubborn fire flashing in her gaze, “you shouldn’t let him mistreat you. You are still a citizen of Camelot; he has no right to issue you punishment.”

Merlin did smile at that, albeit with a note of bitterness. “I am only a servant, my lady,” he replied, weaker than he would have liked. “I’m afraid not all rights descend to me.”

“You don’t truly believe that, do you?” Morgana questioned quietly, eyebrows folding.

Merlin only tilted his head, gaze moving away from her as he strained the liquid into a vial.

“I know you haven’t been here very long, Merlin,” she continued, rising to stand beside him, “but surely you know you’re more than just a servant.”

Merlin’s mouth moved around a clarifying question, but Morgana didn’t give him the chance, plucking the vial from his grasp and walking around him with a knowing smile.

“Thank you for the tonic,” she said, turning back at the door. “I would appreciate if this stayed between us, though. You understand?” She phrased it like a question instead of the usual entitled assumption of agreement so common with nobles, her face genuinely concerned with his approval.

He smiled, nodding. “Of course, my lady,” he said, and she smiled warmly back before sliding out into the corridor, the door closing with a soft click behind her.

As soon as enough time had passed for her to get some distance away, Merlin left, rushing down to the caves beneath the castle, magic surging out in response to the tumult in his chest, torches and tapestries flickering and shifting in his wake.

“Do you know why I’m here?” he asked the seemingly empty cavern, but a rustle and rush of air greeted his words.

“To talk to me, I would assume,” Kilgharrah replied as he came to perch on the large rock out ahead.

Merlin huffed, patience worn thin by a day taking orders from a moron and a crippling amount of helpless self-doubt. “No, why I’m here in Camelot. Do you know why I came here?”

Kilgharrah’s massive head tilted slightly. “Because it is your destiny, Emrys.”

“Yes, but do you know what that destiny is?” He was nearly shouting now, stepping further onto the outcropping toward the dragon.

Kilgharrah was silent for a moment, watching him with sharp eyes. “You are to help the Once and Future King herald in the new age of Albion.”

“How? How am I supposed to do that?” Merlin barked, arms swooping out in irritation.

“The path will become clear when you-”

“Do I have to kill them?” Merlin interjected, the time for cryptic non-answers far past. “Uther, I can understand, but the others? Morgana, Lancelot, Leon, Gwen? Arthur?” he added after a moment’s pause. “They will defend Camelot, defend the Pendragon reign. Does he have to die? Do they all have to die?”

Kilgharrah’s scaly eyebrow lifted. “Destiny is not a fixed course, young warlock. There are many paths to the same destination.”

“What does that mean!?” Merlin snarled, fingers tugging up through his hair. “It’s a simple question! Do I have to kill them or not?”

“These choices are your own, Emrys,” Kilgharrah said almost kindly, his head bowing. “You are not bound by the same fates as men.”

Merlin blinked, aggression withering as his hands fell back to his sides. “So…I am going to help the Once and Future King, but how I get there…that’s my decision?”

Kilgharrah nodded, the gesture sending a wisp of wind ruffling through Merlin’s hair. “Indeed, young warlock. Your question is your own to answer. Will you kill them?”

Merlin opened his mouth, ready to recite the answer he had been so sure of only months ago, but his lips slowly closed, and he left without another word.

---

It was the second-to-last day of the tournament, and Arthur was, for once, looking forward to the end. He hadn’t seen Merlin at all in the past two days, except from a distance when he was running around after Valiant, and Morgana had started informing him at regular intervals that he was going to wrinkle if he kept glowering like that, but Arthur couldn’t help it. Valiant was up to something, he was sure of it, and Merlin was far too close to it for Arthur’s comfort.

He adjusted his sword at the thought, anxious with the unknown, and continued his stride through the colorful tents. He had had his tent moved to the far side of the cluster, earning a few raised eyebrows from the servants who couldn’t understand why he’d want to be so far from the castle, but the switch allowed him to walk past all the other tents without drawing suspicion. He slowed as he drew near Valiant’s tent, tugging at the buckles on his armor for an excuse, but stopped completely when he heard a loud shout from within.

“You call this polished!?”

A figure staggered out from the flap of the tent, legs stuttering over the ground in an attempt to gain balance, but the body quickly hit the ground in a splay of limbs.

“What did you do, spit on it!?” Valiant emerged, brandishing a helmet in front of him while his other hand held his sword.

Merlin lifted a frail arm for a shield as Valiant threw the helmet toward him, thankfully missing to hit the grass.

Arthur’s fists clenched.

“Do it again,” Valiant barked, pointing down at the discarded helmet.

A muscle twitched in Merlin’s neck, but he nodded, reaching out the gather the helmet to his side.

“And sharpen this,” the paltry excuse for a knight added, tossing his sword down at Merlin’s feet. The blade hit against the outside of Merlin’s calf, and, while Arthur was too far away to see if there was a wound, he did see Merlin’s teeth dig sharply into his lip as he twitched.

Arthur wanted to lunge, to shout, to strangle that sneer off Valiant’s face, but Merlin only nodded down at his legs.

“Right away, Sir,” he grit through bared teeth, and Valiant huffed a smug chuckle before turning back inside.

The moment he was gone from sight, the tension in Merlin’s body unwound, and he sighed, pushing to his feet with the helmet tucked under his arm. He picked up the sword, turning it so the edges caught the light, and then shook his head exasperatedly, no doubt seeing, just as Arthur could, that the blade was plenty sharp enough. He then stiffened slightly, head slowly twisting on his neck as if to check for onlookers behind him before he began to walk toward the castle.

Arthur stayed, waiting to be noticed where he was hovering, and watched as Merlin side-stepped closer to the tent. Arthur opened his mouth to warn him he was about to trip on one of the tent pegs, when Merlin swung the sword down to his side in one lightning sweep, the blade cutting cleanly through one of the support ropes, which went rocketing upward as the tension was released.

There was a yelp from inside the collapsing fabric, as well as a rather impressive crash, and Merlin leapt forward, sword cradled in front of him as he started to run. His eyes found Arthur’s then, however, and he stopped, mouth popping open in surprise. He threw a quick glance back at the half-fallen tent, the cursing from within growing more animated by the second, and then turned back to Arthur, expression tight with guilt.

Arthur responded with a silent jerk of his head, toward his tent instead of the castle, and Merlin looked skeptical for a moment until a clear word broke through the furious snarling.

“MERLIN!” Valiant bellowed, and Merlin’s eyebrows shot up before he turned on a heel, scurrying to Arthur’s side.

They walked as fast as they dared, studiously avoiding one another’s gaze. They tried to look as nonchalant as possible, in spite of the shouting behind them gradually garnering more attention, but no one attempted to stop or question them, and they were barreling through the entrance of Arthur’s tent in record time. They simply stood there for a moment, breathing a little heavier as they listened to Valiant’s raving fade away, but when their eyes met as they made to turn away, they broke.

Valiant’s helmet and sword tumbled to the ground with a clatter as Merlin staggered back, clutching at his stomach as he bent double with laughter. He snapped a hand out to latch onto a nearby table, holding himself upright, while Arthur stepped back to brace himself against a chair, the tent blurring as his eyes watered with mirth.

“Are you insane!?” he finally managed to wheeze out, his lungs heaving for air.

“I don’t know what happened,” Merlin laughed, shaking his head helplessly. “I was just sitting there staring at his fat, stupid face, and then the rope was just there, and I…” He shrugged, waving a hand through the air, and Arthur couldn’t speak for another few minutes as he crumbled into laughter again.

“You’re going to get the stocks for that, you know?” he asked when he could breathe.

Merlin grinned, and then shrugged a shoulder. “That’s alright. Some things are worth it.” He sighed, leaning against the table, a distant smile on his face. “Every rotten egg I get, I’ll just think of Valiant screaming like a girl.”

Arthur chuckled, shaking his head down at the ground, and Merlin was still beaming at him when he lifted it. “It was a rather great sound, wasn’t it?” he said, and Merlin chuckled, turning his face to the draped fabric ceiling.

“That it was,” he mused, long, thin fingers rapping against the wooden table edge. “That it was.” He looked back at Arthur, his smile soft, and Arthur felt a bit wrong-footed by the shift

Sunlight was filtering through the draperies in the tent, casting a red glow that caught in Merlin’s hair and flushed his face, and the awareness that they were alone and staring at one another only a few steps apart hit Arthur with a twist in his stomach, and he swallowed hard against it.

Merlin’s smile faltered, and he pushed away from the table, leaving Arthur with a sickly feeling of guilt he couldn’t quite affix a cause to. “I should go,” Merlin said, a little stiffly to Arthur’s ears as he gathered up the foreign helmet and sword, strapping the latter to his belt. “The eggs await,” he added, a bit lighter, but his smile still didn’t quite reach his eyes, and then he turned away, heading toward the exit.

“Merlin-” Arthur began, twisting to face him, but no further words came, in spite of the fact that he felt there was something he had forgotten to say.

Merlin smiled fondly, his head tilting a fraction, and Arthur was both unsettled and relieved at the apparent reading of his mind. “Come see me later,” Merlin said, eyes widening along with Arthur’s, as if he was surprised at his own boldness. “Maybe bring a tomato or something,” he added in a quick mutter, feet shuffling in the grass. “Mix it up a bit.” He laughed, high and nervous, and then dropped his head with a small cough.

Arthur smiled, impossibly charmed by the oddity of his manservant. “I’ll see what I can do,” he answered, and Merlin’s shouldered relaxed with relief.

“Good, that’s…good. Well,” he muttered, taking a sweeping, backward step toward the exit, “maybe I’ll see you, then. I’ll be the one in the stocks,” he joked, pointing behind him with a thumb, his chuckle quickly aborted to an awkward hum.

Arthur sucked his lips around a smile, and Merlin let out a strangled cough as he backed further away, slapping a fist against the opposite, open palm.

“Right, I’ll just- Yeah-” He turned on the spot, nothing short of charging out the flap of the tent, and Arthur waited until he could no longer hear the clink of the metal helmet before he burst into laughter.

Running a hand through his hair, he leaned back against the chair, sighing happily up at the ceiling, ribbons of red and gold streaming out from the fabric epicenter. “Merlin,” he murmured, shaking his head, his chuckles slowly growing to full laughter again in the sunlit silence of the Pendragon tent.

A half hour later, Arthur was still smiling for no reason, tossing an apple through the air and periodically taking bites as he made his way to the lower town. As he neared the stocks, shouting reached his ears, and his steps quickened with concern. He rounded the corner just in time to see a handful of lettuce slap Merlin across the cheek.

Somehow, it was only then that it occurred to Arthur that he’d never seen someone in the stocks before. He had sent people there, of course, for reasons that seemed incredibly petty now that he saw what happened to them, but he’d never been there for that part, never cared to know the consequences he had lain down. Seeing Merlin there—locked in wood and iron, back bent awkwardly, head twisting to accommodate a swallow—lifted something thick and acrid up Arthur’s throat, and he moved forward to stop it, to pry that lock apart with his bare hands if he had to.

And then, Merlin laughed.

“20 to Ben!” he exclaimed, shaking bits of lettuce from his hair. “Arm’s really coming along too, Jesus,” he added, working his jaw in circles. “You’ve got some competition, Ed. Alright, who’s next!?”

Arthur just stared. So did everyone else, but they were looking at him, and, eventually, Merlin did too. At least, he tried to, wriggling and stretching his neck until he could follow the crowd’s gaze.

“Ar- Sire!” Merlin sputtered, clearly surprised. “What are you doing here?”

Arthur blinked, and then remembered how to work his body. “You told me to come,” he snapped, hooking a thumb over his belt and ambling forward, apple crunching as he took another bite.

Merlin looked at least a little chagrined at being confronted with their previous conversation, his shoulders shifting as he dropped his eyes, but he never stopped smiling. “I know, but I didn’t expect you would.”

“Are you joking?” Arthur replied, moving to stand in front of Merlin so he could stop craning his neck like that. “The chance to see you being pelted with rotten food? Wouldn’t miss it for the world.”

Merlin beamed. “The whole world?” he crooned, and Arthur nearly choked on his apple at that tone coming out of that mouth. Merlin just grinned at him. “I think I’m flattered. I’m not positive, but I’m pretty sure.”

“Glad to hear it,” Arthur grumbled, and Merlin chuckled. “How long have you been in here?”

Merlin shrugged, but, when he spoke, his tone was anything but nonchalant. “Twenty minutes or so,” he answered.

Arthur’s jaw squared, and Merlin smiled in commiseration. They both knew that wasn’t enough time for Arthur to let him out without causing suspicion.

“Just enough time to get a good game going,” Merlin added, nodding toward the small gathering of townspeople.

Arthur quickly turned, having forgotten there were other people for a moment, but he and Merlin had been talking too quietly to be overheard regardless. “A game?” he questioned, looking over the crowd. They were arranged in something of a queue, he supposed, but, other than that, nothing appeared to be organized.

“Yeah. I’ve been in here a lot lately—Don’t ask,” he added in a low mutter when Arthur rounded on him, “and so it only made sense to liven it up a bit.”

“You livened up…the stocks?” Arthur dropped his head, raising an eyebrow at the splattered, grinning brunette.

Merlin nodded eagerly. “It’s a point system. 5 if it hits the board, 10 for the torso, 15 for a limb, and 20 for the face. Oh, and minus 30 for the groin, because you really have to draw the line somewhere.” Merlin bobbed his head as if he were imparting sage wisdom, and Arthur was nearly undone, having to duck his face and take several deep breaths before he could speak.

“You made a game out of people throwing food at you?” he asked, chuckles breaking the words.

“Mhmm,” Merlin hummed, eyes bright and proud, like it was the most brilliant thing in the world, and, Arthur thought, maybe Merlin was.

“You’re ridiculous,” he chuckled, shaking his head. “You can’t even do punishment correctly!”

“It was boring!” Merlin insisted, slumping as he rolled his eyes.

“It’s supposed to be boring, Merlin,” Arthur attempted to chastise, but his damn face wouldn’t stop smiling. “You’re meant to be reevaluating your choices.”

“Ah,” Merlin sighed, brow furrowing with thought. “Well, then, given this valuable time to reconsider my place in the universe, I’ve come to the conclusion that I’d prefer to be in the stocks in the summer.”

Arthur snorted, but quickly schooled his expression into polite curiosity. “Really? And why is that?”

Merlin sort of shrugged, but mostly just twitched. “I like strawberries,” he replied, and it took Arthur a moment to remember Merlin was in the stocks and they were having a conversation about seasonal preferences for being pelted with fruit, the comment was spoken in such a casual tone.

“Well, try to make all your mistakes in the summer, then,” Arthur replied with a smirk.

Merlin barked a quick laugh, dropping his face. “I will certainly endeavor to, Sire,” he said, bowing his head as best he could.

Once again, Arthur found himself caught in a smiling and staring contest. He cleared his throat. “Right, well… Don’t let me ruin the fun,” he called, waving back over the produce-wielding crowd. “I’ll be back within the hour to congratulate the winner,” he added, and a few of the group laughed, but he flashed a heavy glance Merlin’s way.

Merlin nodded, a small, grateful smile brightening his blue eyes, and then turned back to the people. “Alright, Ed! Time to defend your title!” he exclaimed, and the laughter and goading followed Arthur all the way to the gate.

---

“It’s fine, really,” Merlin sighed, batting Lancelot’s hand away. “I’ll heal it, alright? Now can we talk about something else?”

Lancelot huffed, nostrils flaring. “Will you just let me-”

Merlin growled, brushing him off again. “Of the two of us, who is the trained physician?”

“But, I just-”

“Ah-ah!” Merlin snapped, stretching away as he lifted a hand as a barrier between them. “Trained physician,” he said, slow with emphasis as he tapped his fingers against his sternum. “And sorcerer, so, ya know,” he muttered, lifting the cool, wet cloth to his swollen eye, “I can handle it.”

Lancelot sighed, leaning back against the wall beside the carved window seat where Merlin sat. “I still say you should tell-”

“No.”

“He would want to know.”

“No.”

“No, he wouldn’t want to know?”

“No, I don’t want to tell him.”

“Why not?” Lancelot pled, moving in front of Merlin, arms stretched out in frustration. “He could put a stop to it!”

“I told you,” Merlin snarled, trying to be extra intimidating to make up for only having one exposed eye to glare with, “I can handle it.”

Lancelot opened his mouth, clearly prepared to continue this pointless circle of an argument, but they were interrupted by the clicking of heels, too close to avoid.

Merlin pulled the cloth from his eye, hastily shoving it up his sleeve before two figures rounded the corner.

“But it makes so much more sense,” Morgana was saying, sounding even more frustrated than Lancelot.

“I could never impose upon you like that, my lady. You have been too kind to me already,” Gwen replied from where she followed a few steps behind her, hands clasped together.

Morgana sighed, and Merlin imagined he could hear her rolling her eyes. “I understand you wish to remain with your family, Gwen, but you’re all the way in the lower town! It’s terribly inconvenient, and your brother is home now; surely he can take care of your father.”

“I’m afraid, my lady, you have never seen my brother’s attempt at supper,” Gwen answered, and Morgana laughed, both of them smiling when their faces appeared in the light of a torch.

“Oh,” Morgana said as she saw them, eyes travelling between the two men. “Lancelot. Merlin. What are you doing here? Shouldn’t you be at the feast?”

“We were, my lady,” Lancelot replied, bowing deeply, “but we have since had our fill.”

“Yeah,” Merlin snorted, crossing his arms. “Of Valiant.”

Merlin!” Lancelot hissed in censure at the exact moment Morgana groaned.

“Oh, he was awful tonight, wasn’t he?” she spouted. “By the way,” she added, looking around at them all, “if anyone asks, I’m asleep in my chambers right now. I couldn’t take one more minute sitting next to that pig.”

Merlin nodded, never agreeing with a statement more in his life, while Lancelot and Gwen merely ducked their heads, too polite to agree.

“You fought well today, Lancelot,” Morgana continued, and the knight started.

“Thank you, my lady,” he said, nearly bending in half with a bow.

Morgana smiled softly. “I heard Uther was quite impressed. Although, in my opinion, you should have won. Valiant throwing that sand was in poor taste at best.”

Merlin knew Lancelot agreed—he’d even used some almost-impolite words during their discussion—but Lancelot showed nothing more than a slight stiffening of his back now.

“He was the better fighter today,” the knight answered with a brisk nod, “but I doubt he will fare as well tomorrow.”

The tournament had been divided into two large groups that fought through their own ranks before two champions emerged for the final round. Arthur, not wanting any of his knights throwing a fight with him, and put them all in the opposite group from him, the group Valiant had happened to be in, and the final melee of that side had come down to Lancelot and him. Valiant had won—or cheated, as Merlin had been correcting every time Lancelot used the ‘w’ word—and would face Arthur in the final tomorrow.

Merlin wasn’t concerned about Arthur losing, not on the basis of skill alone, but he still hadn’t been able to find out what Valiant was planning. The possibility that he would attempt something in the ring tomorrow, right in front of everyone, was slim, but Merlin was concerned all the same. He’d been redoubling his efforts to expose Valiant, which meant spending more time around him, which had, of course, led to his current predicament of not being able to blink without pain. Merlin was lucky like that.

“Merlin?”

“Hmm?” He turned, realizing he had at some point moved to look out the window, to find Lancelot and Gwen had drifted off to the side, talking quietly together and avoiding making direct eye contact, and Morgana had shifted to directly in front of him. He took a small step back. “Sorry, I-”

“What happened to your eye?” she asked, alarmed and drawing closer, cornering him against the wall.

“Your eye?” Gwen echoed, and Merlin looked desperately to Lancelot for help, but the traitor only moved out of the way to let Gwen pass. “Oh, gods, Merlin,” she breathed as she peered up at him, fingers lifting near his cheek, but not touching. “That looks terrible. How did it happen?”

“I can venture a guess,” Morgana growled, and Merlin grimaced even though the thousand imagined scenarios of painful death he could practically see flashing through her eyes were not directed at him.

Gwen looked across at the pale woman, confused, and then looked back to Merlin, eyes growing wide with horror. “No. No, he-he wouldn’t dare. Would he?”

Merlin looked anywhere but at anyone.

“Merlin?” Gwen pressed, and he made a mental note not to forget that she could be intimidating when she wanted.

“It-It was an accident,” he lied horribly, voice shaking all over the place. “He was training and-”

“Right,” Morgana snapped, grabbing him around the wrist and tugging him away from the group, “that’s it.”

“Ah! What are you-” Merlin spluttered, but Morgana hissed him silent.

“No, Merlin! This has gone too far, and we’re putting a stop to it right now.” Morgana’s grip was relentless, her deceptively frail fingers holding like a vice.

Merlin twisted back to Lancelot and Gwen, but neither of them looked ready to interfere. Gwen looked concerned, whereas Lancelot just looked smug, but their faces disappeared as Morgana dragged him around the turn of the corridor and started up a staircase.

“My lady-”

“Shh!” Morgana spat, hand tightening, and Merlin felt it was in his best interests to be quiet after that, simply stumbling along after her as she led him to the only logical destination.

Arthur was sitting behind his desk when they burst in, Morgana forgoing all proper decorum of knocking, but Arthur didn’t seem surprised, only raising an inquiring eyebrow. “Before the shouting starts,” he said, scraping his chair out behind him as he stood, “can you at least close the door? I think the kitchens heard you last time.”

Morgana made a low sound in her throat, almost a growl, and never took her eyes off Arthur as she muttered, “Merlin.”

Merlin obliged, glad to be released from the vice of Morgana’s fingers, and he stretched his wrist in circles as he turned and latched the door.

“Now,” Arthur began, crossing his ankles in front of him as he leaned back against the front of his desk, “what can I do for you?”

“For starters,” Morgana snarled, stepping forward, her body opening to wave a hand back at Merlin, “you can remove Merlin from Valiant’s service immediately.

Arthur’s eyes dropped to his boots. “I can’t do that, Morgana. I don’t expect you to understand, but-”

“Oh, I understand perfectly,” Morgana interjected, folding her arms. “You and Merlin and your secret little spy project, but, for heaven’s sake, Arthur, enough is enough!”

“What are you talking about?” Arthur questioned, uncrossing his feet and planting his hands over the edge of the desk on either side of his hips. He flicked a glance past her to look curiously at Merlin, but Merlin only shrugged, careful to angle his left side out of view.

“What am I talking about? Look at him!” she shrieked, flapping a hand back again.

Arthur looked between them, face progressively wrinkling in confusion.

Morgana turned back then, and gave a long-suffering sigh as she lunged out at Merlin, grabbing him by the elbow and jerking him forward with a lurch before he could do anything to prevent it.

Merlin stumbled as he regained his balance, but kept his face turned to the ground.

“Merlin?” Arthur inquired, and Merlin could hear his boots click a step closer on the floor.

Merlin took a deep breath, licking at his lips, his teeth digging into the bottom one as he slowly lifted his head, eyes fixed on the curtains over the window to his right.

“Your eye!” Arthur blurted, taking another small step. “What- What happened?”

“Yes, Merlin,” Morgana chirped, arms crossing as she lifted a superior eyebrow. “What did happen?”

Merlin looked between them, throat crackling as he fumbled for words.

“Merlin!”

“It’s nothing,” Merlin spluttered at Arthur’s shout. “Just a training-”

Morgana and Arthur both scoffed.

“Okay!” Merlin exclaimed, lifting his hands in surrender. He sighed, frustrated, running a hand back through his hair. “There may have been a small altercation.”

“With Valiant,” Morgana supplied, the name venomous on her tongue.

Merlin nodded, dropping his eyes apologetically at Arthur’s hurt expression. “He suggested he would win tomorrow,” he explained, lifting a hand at Arthur, “and I…respectfully disagreed.”

Arthur’s lips twitched as he raised a brow. “You respectfully disagreed?” he repeated with a skeptical smirk.

Merlin dropped his head, trying to hold back a smile himself. “I told him I had a better chance of beating you than he did,” he said, and Arthur barked a laugh while Morgana beamed with pride.

“And then he hit you,” Arthur surmised.

“And then he hit me,” Merlin confirmed with a nod, shrugging as Arthur chuckled.

The blond shook his head, smiling down at the ground, but his expression soon turned serious, and Merlin knew what was on his mind as clearly as if it were being spoken.

“It’s really not that bad,” he consoled, fingertips brushing across his cheekbone. “I think it looks worse than it is. I doubt you’ll even be able to see it tomorrow.”

“But he still hit you,” Arthur countered.

Merlin opened his mouth, but any attempt at excuses would have been pointless, so he simply closed his lips again. “It’s only one more day,” he said instead. “If he’s going to try something, tomorrow is his last chance. I have to be there.”

Arthur shook his head, biting his lip. “But if he-”

“I can handle Valiant,” Merlin interjected, rolling his eyes dismissively.

“Merlin,” Morgana scoffed, “he’s twice your size! And with his temper? You wouldn’t stand a chance!”

Merlin raised his eyebrows at her.

“Oh, please,” she muttered, flicking a hand at him. “You’re not offended. He’s a giant!”

Merlin bit his lip over a smile. “I appreciate your concern, my lady, but-”

“Morgana.”

Merlin’s eyebrows creased together. “My lady?”

“No,” she said, shaking her head. “Morgana, just call me Morgana.”

Merlin’s mouth moved mutely, and he looked to Arthur for help, but Arthur only lifted his eyebrows and looked away, clearly not getting involved. “With all due respect, my lady,” Merlin began hesitantly, “I would feel more comfortable if-”

“And I would feel more comfortable if you didn’t,” Morgana interrupted. “It’s all just so formal. I’ve been trying to get Gwen to stop for years.”

Merlin once again glanced at Arthur, but he had become deeply interested in the pattern on his dressing screen. “All the same, I don’t think-”

“Oh, honestly, Merlin,” Morgana snapped, rolling her eyes. “It’s just a name! You call him Arthur.”

“Well, yes,” Merlin admitted, “but I have no respect for him.” He lifted a hand in gesture toward Arthur, who dipped his head with a sly smile.

“Charming,” he muttered, wrinkling his nose at Merlin.

“I try,” Merlin chirped back, flicking his eyebrows in taunt.

Arthur snorted, shaking his head incredulously, but whatever he was opening his mouth to say was cut off by Morgana’s nauseous groan.

“You two,” she said, looking between them as she shook her head, face wrinkled with disgust.

“What?” Merlin said, the question echoed in Arthur’s voice, and he looked to find Arthur’s eyes shifting to him, getting both of them smiling before they turned back to Morgana.

Morgana rolled her eyes with an exasperated sigh, dress spinning around her legs as she twisted toward the door. “I’ll see you tomorrow. And you!” she scolded, poking Merlin in the chest with an impossibly sharp finger. “Be careful! I’d rather not have to disembowel anyone tomorrow.” She then floated past him, a terrifying angel draped in green and gold, and swooped around the door, closing it with an impressive thud.

“Does she mean Valiant or us?” Merlin asked as Arthur’s boots clicked to his side.

Arthur clapped a hand on his shoulder. “How about you just be careful, and we won’t have to find out?”

Merlin chuckled, and Arthur’s hand slipped from his arm as the man moved in front of him.

“Really, though, Merlin,” he said, a crease of worry forming between his earnest eyes. “Do be careful.”

Merlin smiled softly. “I will,” he assured, nodding. “And, hey, if all else fails,” he continued with a shrug, “I think I could probably outrun him.”

Arthur blinked, growing still for a moment, and then laughed, dropping his head to shake it at the ground before giving Merlin’s shoulder a push. “Idiot,” he muttered, beginning to move back toward his desk. “Get some sleep. We have an early start tomorrow.”

Merlin bowed his head. “Yes, Sire,” he said, and headed to the door. He stopped short of closing it, however, pushing his head back into the room. “Goodnight,” he bade, smiling when Arthur looked back.

Arthur returned it with a small nod. “Goodnight, Merlin,” he replied.

Merlin had to bite his lip around a grin all the way back to Gaius’ chambers.

---

“No!” Arthur barked, twisting away from the fingers fumbling at his arm. “Now it’s too tight! You’re doing a buckle, not tying a tourniquet!”

“Sorry, Sire,” George murmured, ducking his head and returning to the fastening, fingers shaking over the metal.

Arthur rolled his eyes, turning his face to stare at the opposite wall of the tent, the direction in which he knew the arena was waiting, slowly filling with people ready to watch the final. He wasn’t worried, not really. He knew his skill was superior to Valiant’s, but Valiant hadn’t had the best reputation for fair play throughout the tournament, and Arthur was going to have to keep both eyes open if he wanted to remain unscathed. And he was going to need his armor to be properly attached, which his substitute servant, George, seemed to have made his personal mission to ruin.

“It’s in the wrong spot; move it up! What are you even doing down there!?”

“It’s alright, George.”

Arthur’s neck cracked as he turned to the tent’s entrance, where a familiar silhouette stood backlit in the opening.

Merlin dropped the tent flap, his features visible now without the blinding sunlight, and he smiled at Arthur as he approached. “I can take it from here.”

George sighed in obvious relief, cowering when Arthur glared at him. “Sire?” George asked, not able to meet his eyes.

Arthur nodded. “You’re excused,” he said, and the flap was fluttering with his exit before Arthur could so much as blink.

“Wow,” Merlin chuckled, turning to stare after the man, “you sure scared him off.”

“Just as well,” Arthur muttered, shifting in his loose, rattling armor, “he was incompetent.”

“You loved him the other day,” Merlin replied, grinning as Arthur narrowed his eyes. “What was it you said?”

“I can’t recall.”

“Oh, that’s right! ‘George brought me the best breakfast, Merlin. George polished my keys, Merlin. George tucked me in and sang me to sleep, Merlin.’”

“He did not tuck me in!”

“So there was singing, then?” Merlin teased, lifting his eyebrows as he reached Arthur’s side. “I thought I heard something.”

“Are you going to help me or not?” Arthur snapped, holding an arm out, and Merlin smirked as he took it, cradling Arthur’s arm with one hand while the other undid the buckle George had been trying to massacre.

“So,” he said, working his way up Arthur’s arm to his shoulder, “how are you feeling?”

“How am I feeling?” Arthur echoed, turning his head to where Merlin was hovering just behind his shoulder.

“Stop moving,” Merlin scolded, pushing at his neck to force his face front again. “And, yeah, about the final,” Merlin clarified, small clinks of metal drifting up to Arthur’s ears as the panels of his armor slowly shifted into place. “How are you feeling?”

“Fine,” Arthur answered, not knowing quite where to look while the person he was speaking with was behind him.

“Valiant seems nervous,” Merlin said as he moved across Arthur’s back. “He wasn’t shouting as much, at least.” He flicked his eyes up from his work to give Arthur a small smile as he started on the right shoulder.

Arthur opened his mouth to reply, but the words were stalled by an involuntary shiver that shot down from his neck where Merlin’s cold fingers brushed his skin.

“Sorry,” Merlin murmured, his breath warming over the spot.

“It’s fine,” Arthur assured, forgetting his orders as he turned to follow Merlin’s voice, and was startled to find how close he was, blue eyes widening barely a hand’s length from Arthur’s own. Arthur released a breath, Merlin’s eyelashes fluttering with it, and then the brunette made a small, strangled sound and pulled away, tugging at the buckles down Arthur’s right arm.

“I think you’re good,” he muttered, eyes scanning over Arthur’s body, lingering on the various fasteners.

Arthur cleared his throat. “Good,” he grunted with a curt nod, “that’s- Yeah, good. Can you grab the-”

“Sure,” Merlin clipped in response, darting away to the table where Arthur’s colors and sword were placed. “Do you want me to-”

“No, I can do it,” Arthur interrupted, holding out a hand to take the tunic from Merlin. He hastily tugged it on, arranging it over his armor before he added the sword and belt. He fiddled with it more than necessary, buying time before he had to turn back to the conversation, not yet having anything to say.

He didn’t know what it was, but something about Merlin always made him feel…unbalanced. He was at ease in every other area of his life, with the possible exception of dealing with Morgana, but all Merlin had to do was flash a smile at an odd moment, and Arthur’s tongue stuck in his mouth.

“Well,” Merlin said, smiling uncertainly, “I guess I’ll see you out there.”

“What?” Arthur murmured, the words taking a moment to sink in. “Oh, right, yeah. I’ll, er, be out in a bit.”

Merlin nodded, turning his back. “Oh, I almost forgot,” he said suddenly, stopping at the tent’s exit. “I, er…brought you something.” He lifted a shoulder in a half-shrug, fishing a hand in the pocket of his coat as he returned. “It’s kind of stupid, but-” He faded away, stretching an arm out, and Arthur saw a tail of red fabric dangling from Merlin’s loose fist. “I just…thought you might want to have it back,” he murmured.

Arthur opened his hand, letting Merlin wind the torn strip from Arthur’s tunic down into his palm. It had been cleaned, the color a little duller from what was no doubt a vigorous scrubbing to remove Merlin’s blood, but it was clearly still Pendragon red, and Arthur slowly curled his fingers down to brush over the threads.

“And, you know, I didn’t lose my arm,” Merlin blurted, movements jerky as he lifted a hand to the back of his neck, “so maybe there’s still a bit of luck in it for you.” He scratched at the juncture of his neck, catching on the red cloth tied around his throat.

“I-” Arthur started, but it was less a word than a breath with tone.

“You don’t have to keep it,” Merlin continued muttering, “but it’s yours, so…yeah.” He swallowed, cracking his fingers in front of him as he backed away. “I’ll, um, see you after. Well, probably not right after, because I’ll have to help Valiant out of his armor, mop up the blood and whatnot”—he let out a stunted chuckle—“but, um, after that. After the after.” He puffed out a breath at the ground, chest deflating as his shoulders bobbed. “Good luck,” he said, suddenly formal, and he snapped a stiff nod before vanishing back into the light.

Arthur stared at the vacant air for a moment before dropping his eyes to the strip of cloth in his hand. He lifted it up toward his face, fingers brushing idly over the surface, as if just to assure himself it was there, that any of that had really happened.

Merlin probably hadn’t meant to give him a favor, not likely having enough experience with formal events and customs to even know what a favor was, but the gesture still warmed Arthur, and he smiled down at the red cloth as his fingers tightened over it.

“My lord,” a voice called, Leon’s head appearing through the entrance a moment later. “It’s time.”

Arthur looked up, and then dropped his eyes again. “Coming,” he replied, hastily knotting the strip of cloth around his belt as he followed Leon toward the arena.

---

It had been hours, and Merlin’s pulse still hadn’t returned to normal. He had spent the entire final round of the tournament torn between terror Valiant would unleash some magical horror, and giddy excitement that Arthur was wearing the scrap of tunic on his belt, but either way, he had been having an anxiety attack.

Arthur had won, of course, and Valiant hadn’t done anything but throw his sword in frustration, but that had Merlin even more nervous. If all Valiant’s conniving hadn’t been about defeating Arthur in the tournament, what was his plan? Merlin couldn’t shake the uneasy feeling he had about Valiant’s conversation with Uther, this nagging in the back of his mind that he was missing something important. His magic didn’t like it either, spiking and lunging out at unexpected moments, and he’d had to look confused over far too many slamming doors and shattered glasses for his liking. He wanted to talk to Kilgharrah, wanted to know if what he was sensing was accurate, if Valiant posed a threat to his mission as well as to Arthur, but he hadn’t had any time with Valiant running him all over the place out of spite.

“Fetch me that box, boy,” he barked, boot colliding with Merlin’s shin as he passed where Merlin was oiling his armor on the floor.

Merlin bit his cheek, tossing the rag aside as he rose to his feet, back snapping with the stretch. He walked across the room to the desk Valiant had indicated, grabbing the wooden box off the surface and moving it to the table the knight had moved to stand beside.

“And that rag,” he snapped, pointing down to Merlin’s abandoned polishing, and Merlin turned back, swiping up the cloth and tossing it onto the table.

“Anything else, my lord?” Merlin deadpanned, crossing his arms.

Valiant smirked, leaning his hip against the edge of the table. “Eager to get back to Arthur?”

“Prince.”

Valiant’s eyebrows twitched. “What?”

“It’s Prince Arthur,” Merlin snapped.

Dark eyes flashed, and Valiant pushed up from the table, sneering as he moved forward. “You think you’re so special, don’t you?” he taunted, stalking closer, and Merlin felt his magic lurch in his blood. “The prince’s little favorite.” He scoffed, scanning Merlin up and down, smirk growing as Merlin stepped back. “Bit small for my taste,” he added, and Merlin’s fists clenched, “but to each their own.” He laughed and turned back to the table, opening the top of the box, and then hissed in pain, pulling his hand back from the wood.

Merlin ducked his head, giving the gold in his eyes a moment to dissolve while Valiant cursed at the splinter in his index finger. When he lifted his face again, Valiant was plucking at the shard of wood, thick, dirty fingers fumbling at the delicate piece.

“Get those out,” he snarled, waving his uninjured hand at the contents of the box before moving across the room toward his bags.

Merlin bowed his head, angling his body away from where Valiant from rummaging in his pack so his smirk could go unnoticed. The box was heavy wood, intricate carvings laced around the exterior, and the inside was draped with blue velvet, a piece laying over the top. Peeling it back, Merlin revealed two, silver goblets, slightly tarnished, but a large, embossed crest was still clearly visible: three, intertwining serpents.

“A token for the victor,” Valiant said at his shoulder, and Merlin jumped at the sudden proximity. The man reached forward, removing the smaller goblet from the case. He lifted it into the air, quirking his head with a smug lilt of his brows. “Long may he reign,” he drawled, and a chill ran through Merlin as Valiant slowly grinned, eyes never moving from Merlin’s. “Go,” he muttered, waving his free hand in dismissal. “Find your prince. He probably needs a good rub down after the fight.” He laughed, bashing a hand into Merlin’s back and laughing even harder as Merlin buckled.

Glaring, Merlin rattled himself loose from Valiant’s touch, nails digging into his palms as he stormed from the room, slamming the door in his wake, but the man’s guffaws echoed after him, chasing him down the stone corridor. He could feel his magic burning in his veins, and he blinked down at the ground, trying to clear what he knew was in his eyes. His breaths were hissing through his teeth, arms shaking with tension, and he knew he couldn’t hold it in for long. Ducking into a staircase, he collapsed against the stone, one hand gripping into the cold surface while the other lifted to his face. He panted into his palm through bared teeth, his whole body trembling, but it was no use, and he let out a sharp gasp as he felt his magic leap from him.

A thunderous crash echoed in the corridor, and he knew instinctively it was one of the suits of armor on display, pieces bouncing over the floor with metallic crashes and rings. He heard a few startled shouts, footsteps rushing toward the scene, and took off up the stairs, bounding several steps at a time.

“Merlin?”

He stopped, stumbling and catching himself on the carved edge of a window.

“What was that sound?” Gwen asked, peering out of a door that led to the third level of the castle, her eyes glancing up and down the staircase.

“I-I don’t know,” Merlin lied, voice still a little shaky, but hopefully Gwen would contribute it to his running. “I think it was downstairs.”

Gwen hummed, nodding as she looked back the way Merlin had come. “I suppose they’ll tell us if it’s something important. Are you done with Valiant, then?” she asked, eyes turning critical as she searched his face.

“Yeah,” Merlin answered, forcing himself to smile. “I was just heading up to Arthur.”

“Oh, he was brilliant, wasn’t he?” Gwen gushed, leaning forward to place a hand on his arm. “The way he dodged that one jab? Oh, and when Valiant tried to kick dirt in his face? He wasn’t fooled for a second!”

Merlin could genuinely smile at that. “It was quite impressive,” he agreed, not wanting to get too complimentary, lest it get back to Arthur. He’d never hear the end of it.

“Do you know whose favor he had?”

Merlin choked, coughing into a fist. “Sorry?”

“The red ribbon. On his belt,” Gwen expanded, waving a hand over her right hip.

“I-I don’t know,” Merlin murmured, swallowing. “I didn’t see him before he went out.”

“Morgana said she saw you leaving his tent just before the final.”

Merlin opened his mouth, throat creaking around almost-words. “No,” he squeaked, shaking his head. “Must have been someone else. I should go.”

“Merlin?” Gwen said warningly, eyes narrowing with suspicion.

“Got to prepare for the feast.”

“Merlin!?”

“Sorry, Gwen!” he called over his shoulder with a shrug. “Boots to oil, buttons to polish…”

“MERLIN!?”

“See you down there!” he shouted, and, if she said anything else, his hurried footfalls drowned it out. He was going to pay for that later—probably in the form of Morgana threatening the truth out of him with a knife to his more sensitive areas—but, right now, all he wanted was to get this feast over with, and get Valiant out of their hair.

“Finally!” Arthur barked when he entered, standing up from the table. “I was beginning to think I’d have to dress myself!”

Merlin chuckled, something instantly easing in him with Arthur’s presence. “I would never allow that to happen, Sire,” he assured, laying a solemn hand over his heart. “It would reflect very poorly on me if you showed up to the feast naked.”

“Why do you think I can’t dress myself!?” Arthur blared, and Merlin didn’t stop laughing until he ran out of air.

The feasts, however, were getting much less entertaining. Where Merlin had first been enchanted by the grandeur, the spectacles were now turning into nothing but more work, and all he could see were goblets he’d later be polishing and stains that would have to be removed.

“It’s not even half over,” Arthur whispered, barely turning his head as Merlin refilled his wine. “How can you possibly be bored?”

“It’s alright for you; you get to sit down and drink all night,” Merlin hissed back, moving his lips as little as possible.

“At least you don’t have to listen to Geoffrey,” Arthur retorted, head bobbing to the left, where the elderly man was currently deep in drunken discussion with Uther.

“I do have to listen to him,” Merlin muttered, glowering. “I just don’t get to be drunk while I do it.”

Arthur coughed into his goblet, clearing his throat as he wiped his mouth with the back of his hand.

“Arthur?” the king inquired, turning at the commotion, and Merlin snapped his back straight.

Arthur waved a hand, shaking his head. “Fine, I’m-I’m fine, just…swallowed wrong.”

Merlin kept his face impassive as Uther looked between them, but had to suck his lips flat when Arthur turned, flicking a guilty grimace up at him. He moved away from the head table, leaving his pitcher of wine with a kitchen maid as he went on a run for more candles. Halfway there, however, he ran into a pale, frantic Gwen.

“Oh, Merlin, thank god!” she panted, latching onto his arms. “I’ve been looking everywhere! When you weren’t at the feast, I-”

“Woah, slow down,” he eased, bowing his head down toward her. “What’s wrong?”

Gwen swallowed, eyes scanning side to side before she spoke in a hushed, earnest whisper. “It’s Morgana, she-she’s having one of her nightmares, thrashing about, muttering to herself. I can’t wake her!”

Cold fear swept through Merlin, his eyes widening, but he spoke calmly for Gwen’s sake. “Did you call for Gaius?”

“I can’t!” Gwen insisted desperately. “I’m not supposed to let anyone know; I have to find him myself! I only came looking for you because she called for you.”

Merlin’s forehead creased, and he paused for a moment, waiting for footsteps to his right to fade away. “What do you mean she called for me? What did she say?”

Gwen was breathing heavily, body quivering in Merlin’s arms as her head rattled. “I-I don’t know, she was just screaming and- and there was something about a-a snake.”

“A snake?”

Gwen nodded, tears shining in her eyes as her voice cracked. “Yes, snakes. Silver snakes.”

Merlin’s stomach lurched, the entire castle seeming to grind to a stop around him, and he felt a lightning chill race up his spine. “Oh my god,” he breathed, meeting Gwen’s fearful gaze. “Arthur.”

“Arthur?” Gwen echoed, but Merlin was already gone, running back toward the hall, his blood pounding in his ears.

He could hear Gwen begin to run behind him, her shoes clattering down the stairs, but he was leaping them several at a time, his magic steadying him. He had been so stupid, so stupid! Valiant had practically told him, and he’d missed it! And now Arthur could be- He rattled his head, shaking loose the thought, because he couldn’t be too late, he couldn’t be. He wasn’t ready, not yet. He couldn’t lose him yet.

He burst back into the hall, startling several servants gathered near the doorway, the entire staff hovering at the fringes, the room gone silent save a single voice.

“-in gratitude of your continued hospitality,” Valiant was saying, silver goblet extended in a gloved hand, “and to honor a battle well-won.”

Arthur smiled with obligatory politeness, bowing his head as he lifted an arm toward the cup.

“NO!” Merlin roared, elbowing out from the servant’s ranks.

The whole room whipped toward him, but he watched only Arthur, whose mouth opened with alarm as Merlin raced to his side.

“Merlin?”

“It’s poisoned,” he panted, looking to the offered drink. “Valiant poisoned the goblet.”

Arthur’s eyes widened, and he looked to the cup, expression darkening as he lifted his gaze to Valiant beyond it.

Valiant only laughed. “Poisoned?” he scoffed. “That’s ridiculous! How dare you accuse me of such a thing?”

“Yes,” Uther snarled, moving forward to stand at Arthur’s shoulder. “How dare you? Slandering such a noble knight. I should have your head!”

“Father, please,” Arthur interjected, half turning back, a buffer between the seething king and Merlin. “I’m sure Merlin is just overtired. Or perhaps got a bit enthusiastic with the wine.”

“I’m not-”

“Merlin,” Arthur snapped in warning, expression firm, and Merlin faltered, lips trembling in silence. Arthur looked back to Valiant. “I apologize, sir knight,” he said evenly, and Valiant bowed in acknowledgement. “I would, of course, be happy to accept-”

Merlin’s throat unstuck. “No!” he bleated, diving through the gap between them, grabbing the goblet on his way past, wine slopping over the sides.

“Merlin!” Arthur barked, but Merlin shook his head.

“No, he poisoned it!” he argued, jolting the near-empty goblet toward Valiant. “I know he did! He- He-” Merlin lost the words, distracted by a strange sensation creeping up his arm. Looking down, he saw the silver goblet clutched in his hand, which was shaking slightly, a tingling numbness beginning to spread through the limb. In the shifting light, his eyes caught a slight sheen on the metal, and he gasped, a dark conclusion forming in his mind. The cup clattered to the floor, his weak fingers no longer able to hold it, and, as he looked up, breaths growing labored as the numbness spread across his chest, he saw a corner of Valiant’s mouth lift in a smirk.

“Merlin?”

He shifted his eyes to Arthur, blinking to keep his frightened face in focus. A spasm of pain ripped through his heart, and he clutched over it with a pitched gasp, staggering back as his legs began to rattle.

“MERLIN!”

The room swooped in an arch as he fell to the ground, heart thumping erratically in his chest, and he could hear his rapid, wheezing breaths, too short and sharp to do any good.

“Merlin!? Merlin, look at me!”

The world shifted again, his limp body tugged by groping arms until blue eyes appeared, set below a halo of gold.

“Stay awake; you have to stay awake! Merlin? Merlin!”

Black swirled around the edges of Arthur’s face, and Merlin didn’t even have time to apologize for disobeying the order before the darkness swallowed him entirely.

---

“Merlin? Merlin!” Arthur shook him, rattling the body in his arms, but Merlin’s eyes remained closed, his head lolling limp like a child’s toy. “Where’s Gaius?” he shouted to the room at large, everyone gathering around them like a spectacle from one of their beloved travelling caravans. “Where is he!? DO SOMETHING, YOU FOOLS!”

The bleary-eyed nobles burst into activity at the admonishment, muttering apologies as they bumbled into one another in their haste to be of use, and Arthur was glad to see Leon push through the crowd, kneeling at his side.

“Valiant has been restrained, my lord, and Guinevere has gone to look for Gaius.”

Arthur nodded, the tone of the assurance registering more than the actual content. He looked down Merlin’s body, watching the trembling rise and fall of his chest with mounting dread, and then his glance was pulled away, catching on something glinting in Merlin’s palm. Carefully, he turned the pale wrist, lifting the boy’s—too cold, too still—hand for examination. A thin film of liquid shone in the candlelight, and Merlin’s arm shook in Arthur’s grip as his own quivered.

“The goblet,” he said, swallowing to clear the breathlessness as he lowered Merlin’s limb to the stone. “Get the goblet, but don’t let it touch your skin! I think the surface was coated in something.”

Leon’s eyes widened. “Then, Sire…if you had touched it-”

“I know,” Arthur clipped, staring down at his own, bare hand on Merlin’s sluggishly shifting chest. “I know.” He saw Leon nod from the edge of his vision, rising in a blur of silver and red as he moved in the direction of the fallen cup.

“Arthur!” his father’s urgent voice hissed from overhead. “Get away from him! You don’t know what this is! If any of the poison is transferred to you-”

“Then it will have found its intended target,” Arthur grit out, fingers gripping into Merlin’s tunic with the effort of controlling his voice. “He saved my life; I will not simply abandon him.”

“He’s a servant!” Uther scoffed, hand swinging into view as he gestured down at Merlin. “There are hundreds more to take his place.”

“And how many would do this?” Arthur spat, twisting to meet his father’s gaze as he gently shook Merlin’s body in illustration. “How many would dare speak out? How many would save my life at risk of their own head!?” It was as close to a direct confrontation as he had ever come with his father, in spite of the hundreds of times he had disagreed, but he couldn’t bring himself to regret it, not even as Uther’s eyes flashed and narrowed in dangerous recognition.

“You-”

“Let me through! LET ME THROUGH!”

They both turned toward the voice, and then Uther dropped a glare to Arthur, a promise that the price for his insolence had yet to be paid, before stalking away in a swirl of his cloak just as Gaius burst through the knights surrounding them.

His green eyes were wild with panic as they landed on Arthur, travelling down his arms to where Merlin lay within them. Fear creased over his features, and Arthur felt its grip tighten on his own heart as Gaius knelt to the ground beside him. “What happened?” he snapped, voice short with restraint, but Arthur saw his hands were shaking as he pressed at Merlin’s neck.

“The goblet, it was covered in poison,” he explained, gut roiling with guilt. “There’s still some on his hand. Left palm.”

Gaius carefully pulled up Merlin’s sleeve, lifting the contaminated hand by the forearm. He narrowed his eyes at the skin, turning it this way and that in the light, and then bowed his head, nostrils flaring over the dampness.

Arthur watched, the arm wrapped around Merlin’s back stiffening as he held his breath.

“Aconite,” Gaius whispered, face frowned in worry. “We must get him to my chambers,” he said, hurriedly removing his robe and draping it over Merlin, taking care to wrap the tainted hand in a sleeve. “Quickly.”

 “Sire,” Lancelot beseeched as he bent low over him, “I can-”

“I have him,” Arthur snapped, balancing in a crouch before hoisting Merlin up with him.

Merlin moaned weakly, turning his head into Arthur’s chest, sheen of sweat growing on his forehead, and Arthur’s arms tightened protectively.

“I have him,” he repeated as they began to move, and the wrinkle between Merlin’s brows eased, but his breathing was growing fainter, and Arthur lifted him a bit higher so the sound still reached his ears.

Gaius shouted and snarled through the corridors, clearing a path as they rushed to his chambers, where the man waved toward a cot near the center of the room. “Put him down there,” he ordered, and Arthur obliged, gingerly lowering Merlin onto the straw mattress.

Merlin shifted with a whine, hair beginning to stick to his forehead as he panted, and Arthur turned away, pacing while Gaius perched on a nearby stool to continue his examination.

He couldn’t stop looking, however, stealing glances over his shoulder, and he froze when he saw Gaius sigh, bowing his head as he pressed a hand to Merlin’s chest. “What?” he asked tremulously. “What is it?”

Gaius didn’t answer, didn’t move except to brush a strand of damp hair from Merlin’s furrowed brow.

“Gaius?” Arthur pressed, stepping to the man’s shoulder.

The physician let out a shaky breath, bracing himself with the edge of the cot as he stood and turned to Arthur. “Aconite is...an extremely lethal poison, Sire,” he said softly, eye contact wavering. “Even absorbed through the skin, its effects are quick. I-I’m afraid-”

“No,” Arthur muttered, shaking his head. “No, there has to be something you can do.”

Gaius dropped his face, turning back to look past his shoulder at Merlin. “I can try to slow it down, make him as comfortable as possible, but”—he sucked in a breath, swallowing hard before looking up again at Arthur—“I’m afraid there is no cure.”

Arthur took a step back, head continuing to rattle in disbelief as he looked between Gaius and the boy behind him, Merlin’s dark eyelashes twitching against his ever-paling cheeks. “No. No! There’s got to be something, a-a tonic or-or an herb.”

Gaius looked up from the tops of his eyes, the horrible answer written in his gaze.

Arthur’s mouth trembled as he breathed, and he had to look away, turning around to run a hand through his hair. He then placed his hands on his hips, dropping his head to breathe deeply at the floor, trying to clear the cloud of panic and guilt from his mind long enough to think, to plan, because there had to be a solution, there was always a solution if you were brave enough, strong enough, or stupid enough.

He blinked, lips popping apart as his eyes widened at the ground. “Gaius,” he said, breathless as he spun back, “is there anything you can do?”

Gaius tilted his head, the wrinkles in his forehead deepening. “Sire, I-”

Anything,” Arthur repeated, gripping Gaius’ shoulders as he lowered his voice. “Anything at all.”

Gaius opened his mouth, confusion written plainly on his face, and then he froze, eyes widening. “My lord, you-you can’t-”

“I can, and I will,” Arthur said, unyielding, his fingers tightening over the physician’s tunic. “Just tell me, Gaius.” He looked desperately between the man’s eyes, trying to make him understand, make him see. “Tell me what it will take, and I’ll do it.”

Gaius stared at him, head shaking in a daze. “Your Highness, your…your father-”

“I don’t care about my father!” Arthur snarled, releasing his grip and stepping past the gaping elder. “That poison was meant for me, Gaius. Me! And I will not let him die because of it!” He pointed down to Merlin, arm shaking, but his voice was steady. “Now, tell me what to do.”

It seemed like an eternity before Gaius moved, his face fluctuating through expression too fast for Arthur to interpret as his eyes shifted between them. “There is a rumor of a man,” he finally began, soft and hesitant, and Arthur barely managed not to collapse with relief. “It is said he lives in the woods to the west, appearing only to those who seek with a pure heart.”

“A pure heart?” Arthur repeated, his insides twisting as every horrible thing he had ever done flashed through his mind. “Can’t you do something here? Some…spell or something?” he muttered, unable to stop the grimace from curling his face at the word.

Gaius’ eyes twitched, as if in offense, but it cleared quickly. “No, Sire. As you know, I no longer practice magic, and Merlin’s condition is delicate. I would likely do more harm than good.”

Arthur sighed, frustrated, biting his lip as he dropped his eyes to his shoes, but then Merlin whimpered from the cot, fingers twitching over Gaius’ robe still wrapped around him, and Arthur squared his jaw. “How do I find him?”

Gaius’ shoulders lowered, a soft breath passing through his nose. “If the stories are to be believed,” he said with a small tilt of his head, “you ride west, and he will find you.”

Arthur swallowed, the reality of his decision thickening in his throat, but there was no doubt. “How long?” he asked, not able to form the question any more specifically than that.

Gaius bowed his head, folding his arms in front of him. “A day, two at the most.”

Arthur couldn’t breathe. “Is that- Will it-” He closed his mouth helplessly.

Gaius nodded, understanding. “I believe so, Sire,” he answered, “but you must not delay.”

“Right,” he murmured, nodding, his mind travelling ahead to planning as opposed to dwelling on the time he could already feel slipping away. “Of course, I- I’ll leave at first light.” He looked past Gaius—who was bowing his head—to Merlin, and the pale lips quivering over slow, rattling breaths were all the assurance Arthur needed.

“Arthur!”

He turned toward the door, thin arms wrapping around his neck as fragrant, dark hair fell over his face.

“Thank god!” Morgana breathed into his shoulder, fingers scrabbling at his back. “I thought-” She stilled, and he knew, placing his hands over hers to steady her as he pulled away. “No,” she whispered, eyes wide and head shaking as her hands twisted to grip at Arthur’s forearms for support. “No, I-I saw- Merlin,” she squeaked, and then swallowed, green eyes beginning to glisten. “Is- Is he-”

Arthur shook his head, pulling her two hands together in his. “He’s alive,” he said, and Morgana nearly collapsed with a wracking gasp. A small, whimpering sound drew his attention up, and he realized Morgana had not entered alone.

Leon stood in the doorway, face almost remote, but Arthur knew him too well for that, and the tightness around his eyes gave away his concern. Lancelot was just in front, arm around a quivering Gwen, who had her hands clasped over her mouth.

“Oh, god,” she choked, lowering her fingers to her chin as she shook her head. “Merlin! Gaius- Gaius, what-” The sentence shattered into a strangled breath, her face contorting in agony before she ducked it to the ground, hand lifting back to her lips.

“Merlin has been poisoned,” Gaius answered gravely, and everyone but Arthur looked to the physician. “Valiant contaminated a drinking goblet with aconite. It was intended for Arthur,” he explained, nodding toward the prince, and Arthur felt Morgana’s fingers tighten sympathetically on his arms, “but Merlin intercepted it.”

Arthur bit hard at the inside of his cheek, avoiding the five pairs of eyes he could feel burning into him from every direction.

“There is a cure,” the physician continued, and Arthur snapped his head up while the others side with relief, heart stuttering with fear, but Gaius gave him a small reassuring glance before continuing. “A flower that possesses properties known to reverse the effects. It is very rare, however, and only grows some distance from here.” Here, he paused, passing a meaningful nod to Arthur. “I believe it is the prince’s intention to journey there at first light.”

Silence followed, and Arthur was grateful, the few shocked seconds necessary for him to wrap his head around the lie. “Er, yes,” he murmured, able to meet everyone’s eyes but Morgana’s. “I should be back within the day.”

“Sire,” Leon interjected, stepping out from behind the group, “that may be a problem.”

“What?” Arthur questioned, releasing Morgana’s hands. “Why?”

Leon opened his mouth, silent for a moment as his eyes darted nervously. “The king,” he muttered. “He has ordered you confined to your chambers.”

Arthur blinked, the air in his lungs seeming to frost. “What?”

“He sent knights to your chambers,” Leon continued, stepping forward, and Arthur’s fists began to shake, “but I came here first. They’re ordered to stay posted outside your door until-” He stopped, eyes trailing past Arthur, who winced at what was left unspoken.

“No,” Morgana gasped, horrified. “He wouldn’t. He-”

“Morgana,” Arthur warned, but he knew she was too far gone to stop.

“He can’t do that!” she shrieked, teeth flashing beneath red lips. “He can’t lock you up like some sort of prisoner! And keeping you away from Merlin? Now!?”

“Morgana!”

“It’s wrong! He’s wrong! He-”

“MORGANA!” Arthur exclaimed, hearing heavy, armored footsteps pounding down the corridor toward them.

Morgana looked ready to slap him, her arm actually twitching, but then seemed to notice the incoming company, her head lifting to the door.

Everyone moved away from the entrance, Gwen moving to Morgana’s side while Leon and Lancelot formed an apparently unconscious barrier in front of Arthur. A small group of knights burst through the door, hands readied at the hilts of their swords, and a wry smile twitched at Arthur’s lips.

“Gentlemen,” he greeted with a bob of his eyebrows as he looked over the group.

Leon coughed over a snort beside him.

“I appreciate your dedication,” Arthur continued, edging his way forward between the taller men at his side, “but, as you can surely see, the threat to my life has passed.”

One of the knights near the front—Sir Carlisle, he thought, but he never had bothered to get to know the ones more loyal to his father—stepped forward, clearing his throat with shifting eyes. “Your Highness, we have orders from the king to escort you back to your rooms.”

“Escort me?” Arthur parroted, tilting his head in mock confusion. “Is there some further danger I should be aware of?”

Sir Carlisle turned his head, looking back between the other knights for help. “Well, no, Sire, but-”

“No more of my father’s friends trying to poison me?”

“Sire,” Lancelot hissed.

Arthur glared up out of the corners of his eyes, but then bit his lip and turned back to the knights.

“No, Sire,” Carlisle replied, increasingly uncomfortable, “but the king’s orders are to remand you to your rooms until the boy expires.”

Arthur’s knuckles cracked into a fist, but Lancelot moved first, shifting forward toward the squirrely man.

“Merlin,” he spat, arms shaking at his sides. “His name is Merlin.”

“Lancelot,” Arthur eased, their roles reversing as he placed a hand on the man’s thick forearm.

Lancelot stood firm a moment, breathing in huffs, and then the tension in his body eased, and he stepped back to Arthur’s side once again. “My apologies, Sire,” he muttered, and an idea occurred to Arthur, a slim chance.

“See me in my chambers later,” he barked, attempting to scold, and Lancelot snapped a surprised look down at him before mellowing into something like suspicion.

He nodded. “Yes, Sire.”

Arthur flashed a glance at Leon, perfectly impassively, and then turned to Morgana and Gwen. He opened his mouth, but Morgana headed him off.

“We’ll stay with him,” she assured, taking Gwen’s hand. “We will send someone to you if there is any change.”

Arthur looked between them in wordless thanks, and then moved toward the door. “If I may,” he snapped, jerking his arm away from a knight who made to take it, “I believe I can walk myself to my chambers.”

The knight bowed his head, stepping back with a blush. “Of-Of course, Sire. Sorry, Sire.”

They did not stray far, however, and he was surrounded the entire way back to his rooms as he made certain to glare at each of them in turn.

“Your Highness,” Carlisle said with a bow as they arrived, pushing open the door. “Two guards will be stationed outside, should you need anything.”

“Meaning I’m not permitted to get anything myself,” Arthur filled in, and Carlisle—evidently not an entirely lost cause—bowed his head in embarrassed acknowledgement. “Thank you,” he bade mechanically, official nod and all.

Carlisle returned it, and then backed away, leaving Arthur to brush past through the door.

The second he was on the other side, he closed it with childish vigor, snarling as he paced up and down the length of the room. The knights posted outside complicated matters—quite a bit more than complicated, if he were being honest—but Arthur Pendragon was nothing if not stubborn, and, by the time Lancelot knocked, he had a plan already formed.

“You asked for me, Sire?” Lancelot said, and he looked a little nervous, in spite of how obvious Arthur thought he had made the ruse.

“Yes, Lancelot, come in. Close the door.”

The knight obeyed, and came to stand in front of Arthur at the end of the table, far enough from the door to avoid being overheard.

“Lancelot, I need to know,” Arthur began, talking softly. “How much do you care for Merlin?”

Lancelot blinked, frowning. “My lord?”

“It’s not a trick question,” Arthur meant to assure, but really more snapped. “How much do you care for him.”

Lancelot shifted on his feet, eyes dancing aimlessly around the room before resting back on Arthur. “Truthfully, Sire?” he asked, brow lifting.

“I would not ask otherwise,” Arthur confirmed with a nod.

Lancelot’s spine straightened, and his voice rang solemn as an oath. “More than my own life.”

Arthur smiled, dropping his face to their boots for a moment. “Enough for treason, then?”

“Yes, Your Highness,” Lancelot replied, hiding his own, small smile. “Plenty enough for that.”

“Good,” Arthur said, and Lancelot let out a breath. “Ready a horse; we leave at nightfall.”

Lancelot clicked his feet together, bending into a bow before he made toward the door.

“Lancelot?” Arthur called, holding his progress.

“Yes, Sire?”

Arthur chewed at the inside of his cheek, carefully considering the words. “If it were me, and not my father…would your answer be the same?”

Lancelot blinked, brow furrowing in concern as his mouth slowly opened.

“And just assume I want the truth,” Arthur added, and Lancelot closed his lips to chuckle down at his shoes.

“My lord,” he answered, lifting his head, “my answer would not change were I speaking against God himself.”

Arthur smiled down at the table in front of him. “Let us both hope it does not come to that,” he said with a bob of his head, “though it is a comfort to know I would have such good company in hell.”

---

“This is madness,” Leon muttered, shaking his head as he helped Arthur ready a pack. “Absolute madness.”

“Well, I don’t exactly have many options, do I?” Arthur snapped back, wrapping the large dinner Leon was able to procure and shoving it into a bag. “I can’t leave through the door.”

Leon sighed, exasperated, which seemed to be his usual state when dealing with Arthur. “Yes, but the window? Really?”

“I told you,” Arthur whined with a roll of his eyes. “Lancelot will drive by with the cart. Gwen filled it nearly to the top with straw; it’s perfectly safe.”

Leon lifted his eyebrows in skepticism, but said nothing, tying the top of the pack and pushing it across the table. “And what if the king wishes to see you while you’re gone?”

“Tell him I’m ill,” Arthur answered, waving a flippant hand as he held the pack at his side.

“He’ll want to see you all the more, then,” Leon countered, and Arthur groaned.

“Then tell him I’m…practicing my Latin, or-or reading poetry or something.”

“Reading poetry?”

“It could happen!” Arthur sputtered, and Leon chuckled, looking past him to the window.

“What happens if you’re caught, Sire?” he asked softly, not meeting Arthur’s eyes.

Arthur watched the wrinkles form over his friend’s forehead, gripping a hand to Leon’s shoulder. “It will be fine, Leon,” he assured, giving the man a light shake. “I never got caught when I snuck out all those times on you.”

“What do you mean, all those times?” Leon blurted, twisting as he glowered. “I thought it was only the once?”

Arthur dropped his head, lifting his eyebrows. “Leon, really,” he drawled, “I was 14. You really think I was so shamed by your lecture that I didn’t try it again?”

Leon mouthed around phantom words, vague spluttering sounds drifting up from his throat.

“I’ll be back by dusk tomorrow,” Arthur settled, giving Leon’s shoulder a final clap before moving to the window ledge, the sound of hoof beats coming close across the square. He hopped up on the stone outcropping, hands gripping at the edge. “Make sure Morgana gets some sleep, and don’t let Gwen forget to eat; I know she’s done that a few times when Morgana’s been ill.”

Leon nodded, knees snapping straight as he pressed his arms to his sides.

“Oh, and, Leon?” He turned around, a final check for timing. “Don’t let him die on me.” Arthur didn’t even give him time to nod, Leon’s eyes only blinking in surprise before Arthur leaned back, rolling himself out the window. The fall was fast, too quick to even savor, and then his mouth was full of dust, straw sticking into his back and biting at his neck.

“Sire?” came Lancelot’s sharp mutter of concern.

“M’fine,” he mumbled, waving a hand up at the silhouette of Leon in the window, and the shadow bowed its shaking head in response, “just get us to the horses.” He tried to shift to sitting, but the straw was too pliable, and he only rocked a bit, bouncing with every rise and fall of the cobblestones.

“Yes, Sire,” Lancelot replied, and Arthur couldn’t check in the dark, but he glared at the back of his head just in case the man really was chuckling.

Thankfully, the trip in the cart was short-lived, Gwen having arranged for horses just beyond the western gate, and they took off into the woods, Lancelot following as Arthur led him over the familiar paths.

“Where are we going?” he shouted up as they rounded another bend, perpetually bombarded with branches they couldn’t see to dodge, but Arthur refused to slow down.

“I don’t know,” Arthur admitted, squinting as if it would finally start helping. “Gaius said the sorcerer would just sort of…find us. If our hearts were pure.”

“If our hearts were-”

“I don’t know,” he crabbed, shaking his head, “but that’s what Gaius said. That you don’t find him; he finds you.”

“And if he doesn’t, Sire?” Lancelot asked, voicing the question Arthur was too afraid to.

Arthur didn’t answer, giving the reins a sharp flick as his grip tightened.

The moon was high by the time they stopped, the terrain growing too unpredictable to navigate in the dark, and they only unpacked the bare minimum, ready to continue at first light.

Lancelot insisted on taking the first watch, but Arthur couldn’t sleep, so they sat together, Arthur lolling his head back against a tree while Lancelot carved patterns in a stick with his knife. It felt like nothing but a blink, but it was light when Arthur opened his eyes, Lancelot rattling his shoulder.

“Sire?” he beckoned, voice wavering in Arthur’s waking ears.

He turned, blinking the fog of sleep from his eyes to bring the man into focus.

“It’s time to go,” Lancelot said, smiling sympathetically, but Arthur could only groan, and they packed up and continued in silence as dawn burned its way across the sky.

A couple hours later, they stopped, walking a ways into the woods until there was a large enough path of level, grassy ground to let the horses rest and graze.

Arthur was sitting over a fallen tree, one leg bent up beside him while he sipped from his water skin, when Lancelot approached from his back.

“Your Highness-”

“No,” Arthur growled, the sentence already finished by Lancelot’s hesitant tone, but the knight continued anyway.

“If we don’t turn back soon-”

“I said no!” He spun on the bark, leaping off the tree to glare up at the man. “We’re not going back until we find him.”

“But, Sire,” Lancelot implored, “you said the sorcerer finds us, not the other way around. How can we possibly hope to-”

“Because we have to!” Arthur bellowed, water skin tossed to the ground as his arms flailed in fury.

Lancelot stepped back, and Arthur hated the pity in his eyes.

“Get the horses,” he snarled, swiping his skin up from the dirt and storming back toward the path.

The beginning of a word came from Arthur’s back, and then there was a loud crack, breaking off Lancelot’s voice. Arthur spun, boots kicking up dirt as he pulled his sword, and there was just enough time for his eyes to find Lancelot lying on the ground before he was thrown backward, sword soaring from his hand. He rolled to the side, anticipating a blow, and then twisted to standing, fists at the ready.

“It is not my intention to fight you, Arthur Pendragon,” an old man said from where he stood next to Lancelot’s prostrate form. “Besides, I believe you were looking for me.

The man was cloaked in pale cream, an added shawl overlaying it, and a large hood draped over his pure white hair. His eyes were large, glistening blue even from this distance, and in his hand he held a tall staff, wrapped with twine where his hand clutched the wood.

Arthur watched him, eyes shifting between him and his fallen man. “Is he hurt?” he asked, nodding toward Lancelot. “Did you harm him?”

The man shook his head. “It is only a mild sleeping charm. He may awaken with a headache, but nothing more.”

Arthur narrowed his gaze. “You’re a sorcerer,” he said, and the man bowed his head. “Are you the one we’re looking for? The one no one can find without-”

“A pure heart,” the man concluded, nodding. “I am Anhora,” he announced, like it was supposed to mean something more, “guardian of the unicorns that dwell in these woods.”

“Unicorns?” Arthur echoed, and then jumped, spinning toward a sound to his right.

A glittering white horn appeared, followed slowly by a similarly glowing body, and Arthur knew without any reason that this was the unicorn he had found in the woods with Merlin weeks before. Merlin.

“I need your help,” he said, lowering his arms as the creature moved to Anhora’s side, snorting and tossing its head.

“I know,” Anhora replied, a single, grey eyebrow lifting, “although, you are earlier than I expected.”

Arthur frowned, and Anhora chuckled, turning to the unicorn as he stroked a hand through the mane.

“Our meeting has been foretold, as all things in life.” He smiled up softly, running a hand down the white nose of the creature as it nuzzled back into his hand. “But not for this time.”

Arthur took small steps forward, curious and, strangely, not afraid. “What do you mean?”

Anhora lifted his fingers from the unicorn, switching the staff between his hands as he brushed through the leaves toward Arthur. “I am not meant to help you yet, Arthur Pendragon. Not until you are united with your destiny.”

“My destiny?” Arthur chuckled, not quite sure what else to do, but it choked away as Anhora nodded.

“The sorcerer Emrys,” the man supplied, and Arthur’s heart skipped before pounding. “Together, he and the Once and Future King will come to me, seeking my aid. You”—he nodded toward him—“are the Once and Future King, and Emrys is your destiny.

Arthur blinked, head spinning, and he shook it to unstick his words. “No, there’s- there’s been some sort of…misunderstanding. I’m not this…Once and Future King,” he explained, waving a hand through the air at the lofty title. “I don’t know any Emrys.”

“You are,” Anhora said lightly, eyes twinkling as he smiled, “and you will. And together you will bring about the glory of Albion, uniting the worlds of man and magic once more.”

If Arthur hadn’t been sure before, he was now positive Anhora was mad, considering he had no intention of working with sorcerers to bring back magic, and he didn’t have time to be wasting on the delusions of an old man. “Look, I’m not him, alright?” Arthur snapped. “I’m not your king, and I don’t know any sorcerers. I’m only here because-”

“You need my help,” Anhora interrupted, eyes flashing, “but what makes you think you are worthy of it?”

Arthur blinked, mouth shifting uncertainly.

“You, Arthur Pendragon,” the sorcerer continued, pacing to the side, “with your legacy of blood.”

Arthur swallowed, fingers brushing against his thigh as his hands began to quiver. “I- That wasn’t-”

“You?” Anhora finished. “One does not have to be holding the sword to get blood on their hands. But you have done that too, haven’t you?” His eyes flickered with gold, and Arthur instinctively recoiled.

“I-I don’t-”

“The druid camp?”

Arthur’s knees faltered, and he stumbled back, eyes wide with horror. “How-How do you-”

“I see into men’s hearts,” Anhora snarled, dropping his head and glaring with steely eyes. “I see the dark, the secrets, the screams that haunt your dreams at night.”

Arthur staggered, sucking in the dirt-scented air in a desperate attempt to stave the growing bile in his throat.

“So, tell me, Arthur Pendragon,” the man said, planting his staff in the ground as he halted his advance, “are you worthy?”

Arthur’s breaths echoed around the clearing, ragged and damp, and he bowed his head, squeezing his eyes shut against the memories. He clenched his fists, the pain in his palms centering him somewhat, and he forced his lungs to slow. “No,” he choked, shaking his head. He swallowed before he lifted his face, jaw squaring with determination, “I’m not.” He shrugged, broken and helpless. “You’re right; my heart isn’t pure. I’ve done…so many things, terrible things, things I doubt I will ever forget.”

Anhora’s blue eyes were sharp and focused, but he did not move, an apparent statue in the sunlight of the clearing.

“You can think what you like of me, judge me as you see fit, and you would probably be right,” Arthur continued, emboldened, stepping forward again, “but I’m not here for me. My manservant is sick, he’s dying, and he has done nothing wrong. He doesn’t even let me kill spiders; he makes me put them outside!” Arthur bleated, waving a hand out at his side. He sighed, biting at his lip as he tried to plan his words, but they were coming out before he’d decided them. “Please,” he said, the first time in recent memory, and his voice cracked over the rusty word, “I can’t let him die.” He shook his head, trying to swallow down the sting building behind his eyes. “I can’t.”

Anhora’s brows were wrinkled atop calculating eyes that darted over Arthur’s face, and, even though his eyes weren’t glowing to indicate any magic, he felt as if the man could somehow see straight through him. “Your manservant,” he said finally, soft and slow, “what is his name?”

Arthur blinked, surprised by the shift. “Er, Merlin,” he answered, clearing his throat to remove the creak. “His name is Merlin.”

Anhora’s eyes widened for a blink, and then he shifted, planting his staff in closer to his body as he smiled. “Merlin,” he breathed, nodding as if to himself. Then, he drew himself up, regarding Arthur officially once more. “Here,” he said, holding out a hand, palm flat and flexed.

A clear crystal vial appeared in the air in front of Arthur, and he jumped back with a gasp, but, when the bottle did nothing but hover, he hesitantly stretched out an open hand, and the cool glass drifted gently down to his palm.

“Give him this potion,” Anhora continued, both hands clasping back to his staff. “He will recover.”

“But I never told you-” Arthur stopped, looking up from examining the vial to find the clearing empty, sorcerer and unicorn both gone. He turned, scanning the trees, but the pair had completely disappeared, and Arthur instead looked back to the potion, lifting it up to let sunlight filter through the liquid, clear with swirls of shimmering blue.

A small groan issued from across the clearing, and Arthur thrust the bottle into a pocket of his jacket as he raced to where Lancelot was stirring.

“Lancelot?” he beckoned, falling to his knees. He pulled at the man’s shoulder, turning his over, and sighed in relief as alert, brown eyes greeted him.

“Sire?” Lancelot asked, and Arthur let out a breathy chuckle, because of course Lancelot would come out of a magic-induced sleep and remember to use his title. “What happened? Were we attacked?”

“No, we weren’t attacked,” Arthur soothed, pressing back on Lancelot’s chest as the man made to get up in a rush, and the slight wince of the knight’s eyes told him Anhora was definitely right about the headache.

“Then what-”

Arthur fished into his pocket, pulling out the vial in response, and Lancelot’s eyes widened as they alighted on the crystal.

“Is that-”

“Yes.”

“You found-”

“He found me.” Arthur turned the glass in his palm, unable to stop himself from smiling down at it.

“How did you convince him to help?” Lancelot asked, slowly sitting up to peer at the potion.

Anhora had given him more than enough ways to answer, but none of them made any sense to Arthur, so he merely shook his head, still in a daze of awe. “I have no idea.”

---

His head hurt first, a veritable lightning storm of agony striking down as he twitched his eyes against the light. His chest came next, the entire castle seeming to be piled over his lungs, fighting his attempts to breathe. Next was his throat, stinging with drought, his lips cracking as he opened his mouth to suck in a raspy breath. Of course, as soon as the air was in him, it burst out, huge coughs wracking his body, and he tried to shift onto his side to ease their passage. From somewhere overhead he heard a shout—his name, maybe—but it was too close, too loud, and Merlin groaned, clutching at his skull.

“What are you doing? Lay back down, you idiot!”

Merlin moaned, unable to resist the firm hands pushing him down even if he had disagreed with the recommendation. “Could you insult me a bit quieter?” he coughed, eyes squinting at the shadowy head that housed the well-known voice.

Arthur chuckled, silhouettes of arms stretching to the side. “Here,” he said, thankfully softer, and Merlin blinked to focus the cup in his hand.

He slowly sat up, wincing with the effort, and Arthur’s face creased with concern, his free hand moving to Merlin’s shoulder to steady him. “Thanks,” he wheezed, and Arthur gave him a small smile before passing across the water. Merlin gulped it greedily from the second the first drop hit his tongue, soothing his aching throat.

“Easy,” Arthur warned, lowering Merlin’s arm to a more appropriate sipping angle, and the tenderness of the gesture caused Merlin to pause, swallowing his current mouthful and holding the cup in his hand.

“What happened?” he asked, voice clear now that it had been watered.

“Well,” Arthur chirped, moving up from his crouch to sit on the edge of Merlin’s cot, “you tried to get yourself killed. Almost managed it too.”

Merlin smiled sheepishly as he ducked his head, fingers circling the top of his cup.

“What were you thinking?” Arthur implored, shifting a little further up on the mattress. “You knew the cup was poisoned.”

“I didn’t know the outside was-”

“That’s not the point, Merlin!”

“I know,” he murmured, still focused down at his shifting water.

Arthur sighed, elbow resting on a knee as he pinched at the bridge of his nose. “Why would you do something like that?” he asked, shaking his head as he turned, expression angry and confused.

Merlin frowned, puzzled at the question. “What do you mean?” he countered, sitting up a little straighter. “I couldn’t just let you drink it.”

“Why not?” Arthur blustered, blue eyes flaming, and, for a moment, Merlin could do nothing but stare back.

He let out a small, incredulous laugh. “Because...you’re you,” he said, lifting a hand to wave over Arthur’s body, “and I’m just…”—he shrugged, dropping his face—“me.”

Arthur scoffed, shaking his head down at his knees. “You really are an idiot, you know?” he muttered, smiling as he turned.

Merlin chuckled, tapping at the side of his cup. “You have mentioned it once or twice, Sire.”

“Well, it would seem you need reminding,” Arthur quipped with a smirk.

Merlin laughed, lifting his eyebrows in acceptance. His smile then faded, and he swallowed, shifting the cup in his hands. “Arthur,” he ventured, looking up from his downcast eyes, “what did happen?”

Arthur tilted his head with a pout.

“It was aconite, wasn’t it? The poison? I recognized the symptoms.”

Arthur wasn’t looking at him, twiddling his fingers as his arms dangled off his knees.

Merlin shifted on the cot, moving a bit closer to draw the prince’s attention. “Arthur, there’s no cure for aconite.”

Arthur bit over his bottom lip.

“I shouldn’t be alive.”

“Well, Gaius found a cure,” Arthur said, smile ringing false as he twisted to face him. “Some rare flower. He made a tonic with it.”

“A flower?” Merlin murmured, frowning down at his lap. “What flower? Where-”

“Merlin,” Arthur interjected, placing a halting hand on one of Merlin’s, covered knees, “it’s not important.”

“But-“

“Merlin,” Arthur snapped again, and the slight edge to it closed Merlin’s lips, “just leave it, alright?” He nodded, trying to persuade, his hand slipping off Merlin’s knee as he stood. “The important thing is you’re alive. Which is good,” he chirped, suspiciously winsome smile hitching on his face, “because you only got through polishing half my armor yesterday.”

Merlin blinked, mouth dropping open.

“I suppose you can take the morning off, though,” he continued as he swaggered backward toward the door. “But I expect you by lunch at the latest.”

A series of flummoxed clicks and sputters issued from Merlin’s throat. “I was poisoned!” he finally blurted. “I nearly died!”

“But you didn’t,” Arthur beamed, tilting his head, lifting his arms in an exaggerated shrug. “Night, Merlin!”

“Arthur!” he shouted, but the man only flipped him a two-finger salute and a wink. “ARTHUR!” he tried again, leaning forward as if that would help his shout round the door, but the wood clicked shut, only a fading laugh answering him.

He rolled his eyes, crashing back down to his pillows with an exasperated sigh. “Prat,” he muttered up at the ceiling, rattling his head, but he couldn’t quite stop the tugging at the corners of his mouth.

---

“Hide me!”

The door hit the stone wall with a bang before Merlin slammed it shut, bracing it closed with his back as he fumbled with the lock.

“Merlin, what-”

“Lady Vivian’s looking for me,” he panted, eyes wide and terrified as they shifted side to side over Arthur’s chambers, as if Vivian might pop out at any moment.

“Vivian?” Arthur frowned, slowly rising from behind his desk. “Why?”

Merlin’s mouth floundered for a moment, brows twitching together as he took a few steps into the room. “She seems to have…taken a bit of a shine to me,” he murmured, cringing as his eyes flickered between Arthur and the floor.

Arthur lifted an eyebrow, folding his arms as he rounded the desk. “That sounds like the opposite of a problem,” he replied, and Merlin let out a strained sigh, rolling his head.

“Yeah, well, she has a bit of a…reputation,” he stressed, eyebrows rising with implication.

Arthur stood up straighter, arms untangling to his sides as his jaw squared. “I didn’t take you for the kind to look down on a lady for expressing her sexual-”

“What!? No!” Merlin spluttered, shaking his hands in front of him. “She has a reputation for getting attached to servants who then get…unattached from their heads,” he said, making a swiping motion across his neck.

Arthur blinked. “Oh.”

“Yeah, oh,” Merlin muttered, eyes narrowing, and Arthur had to duck his head to hide the amused quivering of his mouth. “Now hide me!”

“So bossy,” Arthur chided, trying to remain severe as he shook his head. “You know, maybe you without a head isn’t such a bad idea.”

“You’d miss me,” Merlin smirked with a bob of his head.

Arthur couldn’t help but chuckle at that. “God help me, I probably would,” he replied, mouth helplessly compelled to follow Merlin’s grin.

“Your Highness?” A knock rattled the door, Lady Vivian’s shrill tone piercing the wood, and Merlin leapt back, spinning toward the entrance. “Are you in there?”

Arthur stepped to Merlin’s side, scanning over the room for options. “The dressing screen,” he hissed, pushing Merlin toward the paneled covering as he passed.

“Ew, no!” Merlin bleated, nose wrinkling as he eyed the screen. “Your socks are still-”

“You can finish that sentence, or you can keep your head on your shoulders,” Arthur interjected, pausing just shy of the door. “Your choice.”

Merlin opened his mouth, ready to retort, but another series of knocks cut him off.

“Your Highness? Is that you?”

The brunette’s face fell in a glower. “I really hate you right now,” he muttered, scuttling behind the barrier.

“So long as you hate me quietly,” Arthur chirped back, and Merlin leaned back to flash him a sneer before he disappeared.

“Your Highness?”

“Coming!” he called, his footsteps purposefully heavy as he moved to the door. He swept the door open, Lady Vivian startling away from it, hand recoiling from where it had been about to collide with Arthur’s chest. “Lady Vivian,” he said, nodding to the woman and her handmaid, a small, red-headed girl who bowed deeply and would not meet his eyes. “To what do I owe the pleasure?”

A snort issued from behind the dressing screen, and Arthur had to bite his lip to keep from laughing, but the anxious blonde in front of him didn’t seem to notice.

“I was wondering if you knew where your servant was. The tall one.” She lifted a hand over her head as a measurement, and Arthur’s grip tightened on the door handle in restraint.

“I have many servants, my lady,” he replied, nonchalant as he shrugged. “I’m afraid I’m not always privy to their whereabouts. Which one are you looking for, exactly?”

“He’s sort of…thin,” she described, hands waving through the air as if she could sculpt Merlin out of it. “Brown hair. Incredible blue eyes.” Her face turned dreamy, and Arthur’s stomach twisted, hot and sudden. “I mean, his ears are a little big, but-”

Something crashed to the floor behind him—his washing bowl, if he had to guess—and Lady Vivian halted, trying to peer around him.

“What was that?” she asked, pushing up on her toes to see over his shoulder.

“Oh, nothing,” Arthur dismissed, shifting to block her view. “Just some armor I haven’t put away. You were saying? Something about big ears?” he prompted, and what felt like a boot hit him in the back. He coughed around a snort, fairly certain this was the best moment of his life to date.

“Er, yes,” Lady Vivian murmured, forehead creasing skeptically. “Do you know the one I mean? He’s with you all the time.”

The back of Arthur’s neck prickled, sensing this was verging on dangerous territory. “I believe I do, yes,” he relented, and Lady Vivian sighed happily, the tension leaving her, “but I believe he is mucking out the stables at the moment.”

She wilted, pouting in a way that reminded Arthur forcibly of Morgana when they were younger and he locked her out of his boys-only fortress—which was only a broom cupboard now to his older eyes.

“I can find someone else for you, if you’d like,” he offered, trying to evoke concern. “What was it you needed from him?”

She blushed, taking a small step back as she ducked her head. “Oh, it was nothing, really,” she muttered, tucking her hair behind her ear. “I’ll just find him at the feast. Er, sorry to have disturbed you,” she added with a quick bow, which he returned.

“No trouble at all, my lady,” he assured. “And, please, do not hesitate to ask if there is anything further you require.”

She smiled, nodding in response, and then clicked away down the corridor, her maid following behind.

Arthur waited, watching until they turned the corner, and then leaned back, closing and bolting the door.

“Big ears!?” Merlin roared, stepping out from his shelter.

Arthur bent down, picking up his projectile boot. “You threw a shoe at me.”

“BIG EARS!?”

Arthur chuckled, and then smoothed his face back to serious, waggling the sole of the boot toward his furious manservant. “You shouldn’t throw things at the crown prince, Merlin.”

“You’re not the crown prince yet!” Merlin snarled, stalking behind him as he walked across the room.

“Semantics,” he shrugged, placing the boot on the corner of his desk like a trophy before sinking into his chair.

Merlin looked as though he could breathe fire, glaring down at Arthur from across the wooden surface, arms folded and pulled tight.

“Oh, come on, Merlin. It was just a joke,” he muttered, rolling his eyes.

His manservant only further narrowed his gaze.

Arthur sighed, wilting back into his chair for a moment. Then, he snapped his fingers, finishing in a point at Merlin as he leaned forward. “I know what will cheer you up,” he said, opening a drawer, “writing my speech for tonight!” He tossed a roll of parchment on the desk, grabbing a quill and flicking it atop the paper before leaning back in his chair, lifting his legs to cross his ankles on the edge of the table.

Merlin’s mouth dropped open. “That’s an hour from now!” he exclaimed, arms uncrossing to fling out to his sides.

Arthur let the front chair legs click back to the floor, extricating his feet from the desk. “Yeah, well, I did start,” he murmured, rubbing at the back of his neck, “but I got stuck. It’s not easy, you know! There’s a lot of responsibility being crown prince.”

“Oh, yes, the trials of nobility,” Merlin drawled, rolling his eyes. “How do you bear it? All the girls and glory.”

Arthur laughed. “Seems like you have your fair share of girls too, if Lady Vivian is any indication.”

Merlin barked a humorless laugh, bending over the front of the desk as he opened Arthur’s unfinished speech. “You can have her. Why is she even here anyway?”

“The same reason all the noblewomen are,” Arthur shrugged, passing the quill as Merlin’s bony fingers beckoned for it. “Now that I’ve come of age, I’m supposed to start looking for a consort.”

Merlin’s arm jolted, nearly toppling the bottle of ink, and he shot out a hand to steady it. “Sorry,” he muttered, taking the quill up again as he cleared his throat. “Wha-What were you saying?”

Arthur raised an eyebrow, but Merlin wasn’t looking at him, sharp cheekbones flushed as he focused down at the parchment. “Well, that’s mostly what this feast is about,” Arthur explained, watching the servant closely. “Yes, it’s my birthday and coming of age ceremony, but most of the nobles are here to ensure their daughters are considered for my future queen.”

Merlin’s hand stalled over the page, quill quivering a little as he swallowed. “Oh?” was all he said, voice slightly higher than normal.

Arthur tilted his head, considering the odd demeanor. “Yes,” he confirmed questioningly. “Are you alright?”

Merlin lifted his face, a bright smile plastered on it. “Of course,” he chirped, and Arthur recoiled, confused and alarmed at the eerily convincing shift. “You wanna look this over before I go?”

“What?” Arthur murmured, the words taking a moment to be understood. “Oh, um, no, it’s fine. I trust you.”

Merlin smiled, but there was something sad in his eyes. “I’ll see you at the feast then, Sire,” he said, inclining his head before leaving, his steps hurried, and the door closed loudly in his wake.

Arthur frowned after him for a moment before spinning his speech, reading through Merlin’s additions. He could see the moment Merlin’s hand had faltered, a slight swipe of ink across the page, and he traced his fingers over the black mark. It was then he noticed a small scrawl written across the bottom, centered just below the bulk of the speech in Merlin’s swirling hand.

Don’t muck up

Arthur laughed out loud.

---

“Nice speech.”

“Hmm?” Merlin hummed, turning toward Morgana where she had appeared beside him. They really needed to put a bell on her, or at least buy her jangly jewelry.

The black-haired woman smiled in that knowing way that always made the hair on Merlin’s neck stand up. “Arthur’s speech,” she clarified, nodding toward where the man in question was shaking hands and faking laughs. “You did a good job on it.”

Merlin cleared his throat, pointedly looking straight ahead. “I’m sure I don’t know what you mean, my lady.”

Morgana snorted. “No, I’m sure you don’t.” She waggled her eyebrows at him, and Merlin turned away to hide his smile. “He did do a good job, though, didn’t he?”

Merlin nodded, and then realized she wasn’t looking at him. “I suppose he did,” he replied.

“Oh, come off it,” she snipped, nudging his arm. “You’re proud of him, really; I can tell.”

“Well then it must be so, my lady,” he said loftily, inclining his head toward her.

Morgana huffed, rolling her eyes. “No wonder you two get along so well; you’re both impossible.”

Merlin chuckled, turning back to the feast just as Arthur looked around at him.

His circlet crown caught on the flickering flames of the torches around the room, and he might have actually looked regal if not for the face he made when he caught Merlin’s eye, mouth twisting into a grimace as he rolled his eyes to the ceiling.

Merlin coughed over a snort, lifting the backs of his fingers to his lips and dropping his eyes to compose himself before shaking his head at Arthur, who was now smirking triumphantly at the reaction. Merlin bit his lip and looked away, unable to keep up eye contact without grinning, and Arthur had turned back to conversation with one of the noblemen when he looked back again.

“Blech!” Morgana spat, nose wrinkling at him.

“What?” Merlin asked, feeling a flush forming beneath his neckerchief.

Morgana shook her head disparagingly. “You can’t really be that blind, Merlin.”

His forehead creased. “What do you mean?”

She rolled her eyes. “Never mind, forget I said anything,” she muttered, and Merlin opened his mouth to press further, but Morgana cut him off. “Oh, here we go,” she mused, nodding toward where an elderly gentleman was bowing to Arthur, smiling as he waved his hands between the prince and his daughter, a petite brunette with a flushed face. “Awful, isn’t it, the way they parade them around like that? Like they’re prized cattle or something.” She sneered as another man approached, greasy-haired and touting a blond daughter.

Merlin shifted in his boots. “I suppose.”

“They’re people, for heaven’s sake! They should get a say!” She growled, folding her arms and shaking her head with disapproval. “I certainly wouldn’t want to be saddled with Arthur for the rest of my life.”

Merlin somehow managed to smile, shrugging a shoulder. “Well, someone has to,” he muttered, his stomach wriggling uncomfortably as Arthur bent low over the blond woman’s hand. “Camelot needs a queen.”

Morgana’s face was blurry in his peripheral vision, but he could feel her stare on the side of his face. “It doesn’t, you know. Not necessarily.”

His hands tightened where they were clasped behind his back. “Oh?” he squeaked, the question not nearly as casual as he’d intended.

“No,” Morgana answered, not seeming to notice his discomfort. “Arthur could always name someone else as heir.”

Merlin shook his head, the question of who would succeed Arthur infinitely more complex a matter for him than Morgana had any idea. “Arthur wouldn’t want that,” he said softly.

“Arthur doesn’t want any of them either.” She nodded toward the now veritable queue of ladies, princesses, duchesses, and the like lined up with their fathers to greet the freshly crowned prince, raising her eyebrows as she looked back to Merlin. Her eyes pierced him, and Merlin, uncomfortable under the focus, tried to lighten the ever-heavier conversation.

“Arthur doesn’t know what he wants,” he chuckled, forcing a stiff smile. “He sent me back to the kitchens three times this morning because he couldn’t decide what kind of bread he wanted.”

Morgana smiled, but it didn’t seem to be in response to his poor attempt at humor. “He may not always be decisive about his breakfast,” she allowed with a tilt of her head, but her eyes turned calculating again just as quickly, “but Arthur knows what he wants. And, in case you haven’t noticed, Pendragons always get what they want.” She winked, and Merlin felt rather like he’d been struck in the head, none of Morgana’s words getting through to him with any meaning.

“I, er-”

“Oh, Lady Vivian!” Morgana called, cutting him off, and Merlin instinctively searched for something to dive behind as Morgana waved to his approaching doom. “How are you?” she asked, taking Vivian’s hands. “I feel as though we haven’t had any time to talk.”

Vivian smiled, inclining her head, her blue eyes flickering to Merlin for a moment, and he stepped back, looking resolutely anywhere else. “Our visit has, indeed, been rather full, my lady.”

“We must make some time to talk before you go,” Morgana urged, smile strangely wide and bright on her face. “You’re to be here for the duration of the festivities, are you not?”

Vivian nodded, retracting her hands from Morgana’s to fold them over her embellished, pale-blue gown. “At least into next week,” she replied, smile growing wider as she cast Merlin another look.

“We have plenty of time, then!” Morgana chirped, as if nothing delighted her more than Vivian’s company.

Merlin wasn’t sure who was more alarmed by the reaction, he or Vivian, but the blonde quickly recovered, bowing her head and smiling.

“I look forward to it,” she said, and her eyes turned to Merlin again as he moved, trying to extricate himself from the conversation.

“Oh, I’m sorry; I’m being rude!” Morgana laughed, worrying with its insincerity, and Merlin’s concern only grew when she laid a possessive hand on his arm. “Lady Vivian, this is Merlin. I don’t believe you two have been properly introduced.”

Merlin turned to her beaming grin, the picture of innocence, and regretted every time he had defended her when Arthur ranted about ‘that vindictive harpy’.

“No, we have not,” Vivian eagerly replied, eyes roving over him, and Morgana’s fingers dug further into his arm as he twitched. “Merlin, was it?”

“My lady,” Merlin answered with a brittle smile, retreating a surreptitious step as he bowed.

Vivian tilted her head, and Merlin wondered if he looked like a large cake to her rather than a person, considering the way her eyes glinted. “You’re in Prince Arthur’s service, are you not?” she asked, innocently enough, but Merlin instantly thought of about a dozen things he could pretend to have to do tonight if she asked to commandeer him.

“Indeed, I am, my lady,” he answered, rattling his arm loose from Morgana’s grip.

“He seems to keep you very busy,” she said, teeth glittering, and he was reminded forcibly of Kilgharrah, although he felt safer with the dragon. “Tell me, is he a benevolent master?” Her eyes blinked owlishly at him, lips puffed out in a curious pout.

Merlin’s stomach rolled, but he managed a tight-lipped smile. “Exceptionally so,” he assured with a nod. “I am never reprimanded without due cause.”

Lady Vivian giggled. “Oh, I’m sure that doesn’t happen often. You seem like an excellent servant.”

Morgana sucked her lips around a smile.

Merlin was going to enchant her hair to start greying. “I make a sincere effort, my lady,” he said through his teeth.

Vivian opened her mouth, no doubt to reach new levels of inappropriate, when the most beautiful sound Merlin had ever heard broke in.

“Merlin, I need you,” Arthur snapped, suddenly at his side. His expression was tight with anger, and Merlin was seized with a momentary fear that he had done something wrong, but immediately realized he didn’t care. Arthur could be taking him to the dungeons, and Merlin would still thank him for the reprieve.

“Of course, Sire,” he said, bowing before repeating the gesture to each of the ladies in turn. “Excuse me, Lady Morgana, Lady Vivian.”

Vivian looked rather stricken, but Morgana only nodded, waggling her eyebrows as her gaze moved between him and Arthur’s retreating back. ‘Always,’ she mouthed, and Merlin’s smile turned a bit confused.

“Merlin!”

“Right away, Sire!” he called, darting after the flowing, red cape. He maintained a respectable distance behind Arthur as they made their way out of the hall, winding down a few, bustling corridors, but moved up level as they ascended the deserted staircase. “Aren’t you supposed to be riding a white horse when you do that?”

“What?” Arthur spat, unaccountably frustrated.

Merlin blinked at him, steps faltering a bit on the stone. “Er, nothing. Never mind.”

“No, sorry,” Arthur sighed, shaking his head as he pinched over his forehead, rubbing into his temples. “It’s just been a long night. What were you saying?”

“Er,” Merlin murmured, dizzy with surprise.

Had Arthur just…apologized? In a regular, human way, instead of his usual, royal, ‘I will admit to making a mistake and then immediately turn it around to being your fault’ way?

“Ya know, a white horse,” he finally managed as they came to the top of the steps. “Like a knight in shining armor.”

“I’m not in armor,” Arthur answered, giving Merlin a curious, sidelong glance.

“I know,” Merlin muttered, rolling his eyes, because he wasn’t crazy, thank you very much. “It’s just an expression.”

“And my armor wouldn’t be shining, even if I was wearing it,” Arthur continued as if he hadn’t heard, “because you’re the one responsible for polishing it.”

“Hey!” Merlin bleated in offense. “That armor is spotless! You could blind someone with how shiny that armor is!”

Arthur laughed, one of his rarer, proper ones, and Merlin smiled at the tension that drained from him. “Alright, alright,” he chuckled, sounding a little more like himself. “So what am I doing on a white horse in shining armor?”

“Saving me, of course.” Merlin tilted his head, beaming, but Arthur just blinked at him, looking a bit lost. “Ya know, from Lady Vivian and Morgana.”

“Ah,” Arthur mused, lifting his head in a nod. “Yeah, what was going on there? You looked even more sickly than usual.”

Merlin gave him a quick sneer on principle before answering. “Morgana was trying to feed me to the wolves.”

“The wolves?” Arthur mocked, lifting an eyebrow.

“Hey, you didn’t see the way she was looking at me!” Merlin defended, pointing across at the prince.

Arthur’s face twitched in a scowl. “Actually, I did.”

Merlin twisted toward him, surprised by the snarling tone, but Arthur merely dropped his head, clearing his throat before continuing with a smirk.

“You’re lucky I intervened, really. Morgana would have just stood there.”

“Morgana,” Merlin growled, shaking his head at the empty corridor ahead.

Arthur laughed. “I told you she was a harpy, but no.” He waggled his hands in the air in mocking, pushing the door open and nodding Merlin in ahead. “You defended her. Thought the sun rose and set with her.”

“Yeah, well, I don’t like her anymore,” he muttered, sounding petulant even to his own ears.

“Oh, really?” Arthur chuckled, sliding the bolt across the door.

“Nope,” Merlin clipped, shaking his head. “You’re my favorite now.” He grinned, and Arthur laughed, unfastening his cloak and hanging it over a chair.

“I’m honored,” he said, placing an open palm over his heart.

“Don’t get too excited,” Merlin warned with a dip of his head. “I have extremely low standards.”

“Well, if that’s the case, I’m sure Vivian-”

“Low standards are still standards.”

Arthur laughed, shaking his head as he shrugged out of his jacket.

“Here,” Merlin said, smiling softly as he crossed the room, holding out his arms for the leather.

Arthur gave him a strange look, as though they hadn’t done this a million times before, but did hand over the coat.

Merlin stepped away to hang the article in the cupboard, and then returned, Arthur startling under his hands as he untied the laces over his chest.

“Your, er, fingers are cold,” he mumbled at Merlin’s raised eyebrow.

“Sorry,” Merlin muttered, rubbing his hands together briefly to warm them before going back to his task.

Arthur cleared his throat. “So, tell me, Merlin,” he said, “how does it feel to be the servant of the crown prince of Camelot.” He smirked, all smug pride, and Merlin bit his lip down at Arthur’s chest, not wanting to give him the satisfaction.

“Rather the same as it did the regular prince of Camelot, Sire,” he replied evenly. “Just with one more thing to polish,” he added with a nod up to Arthur’s head.

Arthur blinked at him, and then grinned. “You’re really not going to let me enjoy this at all, are you?”

Merlin restrained a chuckle. “Just keeping things in perspective, Sire,” he muttered, nudging at Arthur’s arms, prompting him to remove his metal bracelets.

“Oh, and that’s your job, is it?” Arthur joked, slipping off the bands and handing them to Merlin, who temporarily rested them on the table.

Merlin sneered at him. “One of my many duties as servant to the crown prince of Camelot.”

“I knew it!” Arthur cheered, triumphant as he pointed a taunting finger in Merlin’s face. “You do care!”

“Yeah, yeah,” Merlin muttered, rolling his eyes, “now take that crown off before your head gets too big for it.”

Arthur simply stood there for a second, grinning horribly.

“And stop smirking!” Merlin snapped, feeling himself flush.

“Who’s smirking? You’re smirking!” Arthur laughed, pulling off his crown and resting it beside his bracelets before he turned to removing his tunic.

“Prat,” Merlin muttered, shaking his head and averting his eyes from the revealed, tan chest.

Arthur’s tousled hair emerged from the red folds of fabric, blue eyes sparkling over a grin, and Merlin was almost glad for the shirt being tossed over his head, hiding his breathless gaping. “Idiot,” Arthur replied, ruffling at Merlin’s scalp through his discarded tunic.

Merlin batted his hands away, the sweet scent of sweat and earth and Arthur filling his senses as he breathed. He tugged the tunic off before the swirl of emotions overwhelmed him.

Arthur was still smirking at him, and, unfortunately, still without a shirt.

“Do you, um, have your smallclothes?” Merlin asked, looking resolutely at his face.

Arthur blinked several times, and then shifted his gaze around the room. “Er, no, I-I can do that,” he muttered, moving across the room to behind the dressing screen.

Merlin gripped tightly to the back of one of the chairs, bowing his head and breathing deeply as he tried to ignore the sounds of Arthur’s belt. “So, how was your birthday feast?” he asked for something else to focus on, but his voice was wrecked, all high and scratchy.

“Fine, I suppose,” Arthur’s voice drifted out from behind the screen.

Merlin laughed, leaning back against the chair as he turned to face the voice. “You suppose? Arthur, the whole kingdom was there, not to mention representatives from all the other ones. And they all brought presents.”

“I’m just not much for birthdays,” Arthur’s response came, soft and muttered.

“Why not?” Merlin asked.

Arthur remained silent, the rustling of fabric ceasing, and Merlin cringed, realizing his mistake.

“I- Er- Shit,” he murmured, fingers subconsciously gripping at the corner of his pocket to trace around the small object inside.

Arthur—thank god—chuckled. “It’s alright.”

“No, no, it’s- I’m- Shit!”

“I wouldn’t quite go that far,” Arthur said as he emerged, loose, cream tunic unlaced in a V down from his neck.

Merlin ducked his head, rubbing up his neck as he fought to curl the corners of his lips.

“Merlin, really,” Arthur eased, lifting his arm as if to grip Merlin’s shoulder, but then his expression hitched, and he let his hand fall back to his side, “it’s not a big deal. I-I don’t even remember her.”

Merlin watched him, heart aching as Arthur turned toward the window, eyes so very far away, and Merlin’s fingers twitched with the sudden urge to trace away the stiffness in his jaw. That clearly obvious loss of any ability to think rationally was most likely the cause of what he said next. “My mother died too.”

Arthur’s head snapped toward him, as if he’d forgotten Merlin was there.

“A few years ago,” he continued, staring down at his hands as he slid them back and forth across the top of the chair. “I just-” He stopped, uncertain, but Arthur’s eyes never wavered, watching him expectantly. “I thought sometimes it might be easier. If I’d never known her.” He gave a quick jerk of a shrug, twisting his fingers together. “Like my father.”

Arthur turned completely toward him now, and it was Merlin’s turn to shift away, pointing his body toward the window.

“He died before I was born. I don’t think he even knew about me,” he chuckled, a breathless huff that quickly choked off. He could feel Arthur staring at him, and cleared his throat, centering himself. “Look, the point is,” he said, turning back to the blond, “remembering or not doesn’t make it any easier.”

Arthur blinked at him, lips shifting aimlessly for a moment. “I- Merlin, I- I didn’t know-”

“I didn’t tell you,” Merlin shrugged, stepping back from the table to begin his escape toward the door. The conversation had gotten too close, too intimate. He’d let down his guard.

“But I should’ve asked.”

Merlin chuckled sharply. “Asked if I was an orphan?”

Arthur dropped his head, not rising to the bait. “Merlin-”

“It’s fine, Arthur,” he assured, lifting a hand between them as he continued to back away. “You know now.”

“Still, I-”

“I should get back to Gaius."

Arthur stared at him, eyes wide and brows furrowing. “Er, right,” he mumbled, looking down at his feet for a moment as he cleared his throat. “Right, of-of course. I’ll, um…see you tomorrow.”

Merlin nodded. “Goodnight, Sire.” He was reaching for the handle of the door when his elbow brushed against the weight in his pocket, and he quietly sighed, rolling his eyes at himself, because of course he’d forget about it until it was awkward. “I, er…” he stammered, turning back.

Arthur raised an eyebrow.

“I got you something,” he said in a rush, looking just past Arthur’s shoulder before dropping his eyes to his pocket as he tried to wriggle his shaking fingers inside. “Well, made, not got, I guess, because you don’t pay me enough to afford anything halfway decent.”

Arthur laughed, shaking his head down at the ground before returning to smiling in the candlelight like a goddamn Greek statue.

Merlin floundered, lungs caught mid-breath for a moment. “I- It- Er-” He coughed. “I mean, it’s not gold or covered in rubies or anything, but I-I just thought…” His words faded, lips twitching in indecision, and Arthur—the beautiful marble-carved bastard—just smirked at him, eyebrow slowly rising in prompt. “Here,” he muttered, finally freeing his hand, holding the gift out in his closed palm while he looked aimlessly off to the right.

Arthur smiled at him a moment longer, and then took his good sweet time swaggering the few steps to hold his hand below Merlin’s.

Merlin suddenly regretted everything about this decision. He regretted carving this stupid dragon from stone—black with veins of gold—using his magic, and what if Arthur noticed, what if Arthur knew? What if Arthur thought he was a sentimental idiot? What if that little stone dragon told Arthur that Merlin sometimes just watched his lips when he talked or held his breath while he undressed him or saw his eyes when he closed his own? But it was too late for any of that now, because Merlin’s fingers were brushing against Arthur’s palm as he placed the carving within it, his magic trembling at the contact.

Arthur lifted the black dragon up in front of his face, eyes wide as he turned it in the light that caught on the ribbons of gold. “You made this?” he asked, soft and breathless.

Merlin nodded, clenching his hands together behind his back.

“I- I don’t-” Arthur shook his head dazedly, looking up at Merlin over the top of his gift. “No one’s ever made me anything before.” He flushed a bit as he said it, and Merlin nearly whimpered.

“Well, now they have,” he said with a grin, but it faded into a soft smile as Arthur continued to stare with that awestruck look on his face. “Happy birthday, Arthur,” he murmured.

Arthur looked between him and the dragon, mouth silently shifting, and Merlin’s chest couldn’t possibly ache any more at the reality of striking Arthur Pendragon speechless.

He bowed his head, accepting the unspoken gratitude, and then turned back, opening the door.

“When’s yours?”

“Sorry?” Merlin asked, closing himself into the room again.

Arthur swallowed, still looking rather desperately lost, but at least he was forming words again. “Your birthday. When is it?”

“Oh, um,” Merlin murmured, frowning down at the floor, “well, I don’t actually know.”

Arthur tilted his head.

“We didn’t have anyone who knew how to keep track of that sort of thing in my village,” he explained with a shrug. “We sort of just went by the seasons; we never knew what day it was, exactly.”

“So, you never celebrated?” Arthur surmised hesitantly.

“No, no, we did,” Merlin corrected. “It was just- Well, the day I was born was the first snow of the year. Mum always said I called it down with my crying.” He chuckled at the memory, and Arthur smiled. “So, we just celebrated then. The day of the first snow.”

Arthur gave him a curious look, something Merlin might call fond if it didn’t hurt to think about such a possibility. “Guess it’s coming up soon, then.”

Merlin’s smile stuttered, and he turned his gaze. “Yeah, well, I haven’t exactly kept up with the celebrations.”

Arthur nodded, the type of agreement that truly understands as opposed to just not knowing what else to do.

Merlin swallowed, pointing back toward the door with a thumb. “I should really-”

“Oh, yes, of course,” Arthur mumbled, waving a hand at him. “Well, goodnight, and I- Er-” He waved the dragon in a small flick through the air. “Yeah.”

Merlin bit his lip, nodding as an excuse to duck his head. “Goodnight, Arthur.”

The small smile Arthur shot him before the door closed kept a warm light glowing in his chest all the way down to Gaius’ chambers, where he crept past the sleeping old man to his room. In there, however, the darkness started to creep in, heavy with the knowledge of things he couldn’t forget once alone. The shard of mirror burned a hole in the back of his mind, calling even though it couldn’t actually do that. He felt Nimueh’s magic sometimes, no doubt trying to contact him through the mirror, but he wasn’t ready to talk to her yet.

He had confirmed the story Gaius had told him with Kilgharrah—or mostly confirmed, at least, considering the way Kilgharrah talked in riddles—and now had no idea how to proceed. Nimueh had known Uther, a fact she had willfully concealed. How could he be sure he wasn’t settling her score? How could he be sure of the rest of what she’d told him? And then there was Arthur.

He groaned, collapsing onto the bed. Here, in the dark and the quiet, he couldn’t hide from it any longer. He liked Arthur, genuinely liked him, liked him in a way he wouldn’t even call like if he was being honest with himself. He didn’t want him to suffer, to hurt, to die, and especially not at his hand. He was even getting soft where Uther was concerned, so worried about the toll it would take on Arthur.

At least a dozen times a day he considered leaving, considered packing up and running away from them all, but where would that leave them? Nimueh would just send someone else to take his place, someone who didn’t care that Arthur was different, that he wasn’t his father. No, the only solution was somehow convincing Nimueh that Arthur wasn’t the threat she thought he was, that he could be an asset. Of course, he hadn’t quite figured out a way to do that yet, and, thus, he found himself avoiding.

He threw his arm over his face, blocking what little moonlight filtered through the shutters. He didn’t know how to do this! All this talk of him being some sort of chosen savior of magic, Merlin was starting to doubt all of it. Maybe the prophecy was wrong, maybe he could just be some poor unfortunate orphan who helped his uncle make potions and occasionally saved the life of the crown prince. Maybe he didn’t have to be important. Maybe he didn’t have to be Nimueh’s Merlin or Arthur’s Merlin, he could just be Merlin. Regular, ordinary, average Merlin. Maybe he didn’t have to choose, maybe he could just be.

Tears stung at his eyes, and he bit hard into his lip to keep them from spilling. He sucked in a gasp, rattling the air out in an attempt to stave off a sob, and, suddenly, all he wanted was to go home. He could smell the fields, see the deer running on the edge of the forest, hear Will’s laughter as they raced to the lake, feel his mother’s arms around him.

He didn’t want this, any of it. He didn’t want this destiny, he didn’t want to be a savior. He couldn’t even save himself. His mother. Will. Arthur.

He opened his eyes, denial burning fierce in his chest.

He couldn’t allow that to happen. There had been enough death in this war, enough needless cost. He wasn’t going to lose anyone else. He would find a way somehow. He would persuade Nimueh, he would protect Arthur, he would convince him to step aside for the Once and Future King. He could do that. He was Emrys, for chrissake, surely he could do that!

Still, for all his conviction, he couldn’t chase the fire from his nightmares.

---

“Gaius?” Arthur called, bursting into the physician’s chambers, having sent Merlin off to muck out the stables.

Gaius turned from his spot at the low, wooden table, eyes wide and eyebrows rising. “Sire. Is something wrong?”

“No, I- Er-” His stomach twisted unpleasantly, suddenly uncertain, but he strode forward anyway, too far gone to turn back now. “I was wondering if I could ask you something. About Merlin.”

Gaius’ eyebrows rose further as he spun to rise from the seat. “Merlin, Sire?”

“Yes,” Arthur clipped, going for official, but missing rather impressively, and he cleared his throat to cover the slip. “I was wondering what he…likes.”

If Arthur had thought Gaius’ eyebrow could rise no higher, he would’ve been wrong, but now there was a small smirk playing at the corner of the elderly man’s mouth as well. “What he likes, Sire?”

“Yes,” Arthur muttered with a sharp nod, gripping his hands into fists as if facing a warrior in the arena, “what he likes. I believe his birthday is coming up, and I- Well, he got me something for mine,” he added by way of non-sentimental explanation.

Gaius’ forehead creased as he stepped closer. “His birthday, Sire? I wasn’t aware Merlin had a birthday.”

“Well, he doesn’t. Not officially.” Arthur didn’t know why he was the one explaining this, why Merlin had told him and not Gaius, but, alas. “He said his mother always used to celebrate it on the day of the first snow.”

“Ah,” Gaius murmured, dropping his head to the floor as he smiled softly. “Well, Sire, I am not certain I would be the most qualified person to ask.”

“What do you mean?” Arthur asked, panicking a little now. “You’re his uncle. Well, practically, anyway. And you live with him. Who else would know if not you?”

Gaius smiled, a worrisome twinkle in his eye. “I was referring to you, Sire.”

Arthur blinked, lips parting with a small pop. “Me?” he questioned, and Gaius nodded. “But I-I only just met him.”

“So have I, for all intents and purposes,” Gaius shrugged, moving across the room to fetch a bundle of hanging, dried herbs, “and you have spent much more time around him than I.”

Arthur’s mouth shifted wordlessly, gaping and flapping in his perplexed panic. “But-But I- I don’t-”

“Sire,” Gaius said, placating, “I would help if I could, truly, but this is something you would be better served to do on your own.”

“But I don’t know what to do,” Arthur said, voice small and terrified.

Gaius smiled, and, in a rare gesture of affection, placed a hand on Arthur’s bicep. “I’m sure you’ll think of something, Sire,” he assured.

Arthur’s answering smile twisted into more of a grimace than anything else, but Gaius seemed satisfied, and gave him a brief nod before moving away to continuing preparing…whatever medicinal thing he was preparing. Arthur watched his back for a moment as he moved about the room, hoping the man would suddenly turn back to him with a surge of brilliance, but no such reprieve came, and he reluctantly turned around, letting himself out the heavy, wooden door.

“Arthur?”

He couldn’t even pretend otherwise; he leapt like a startled cat. “Merlin!” he gasped, breathless with alarm. “What are you doing here?”

The brunette quirked an eyebrow at him, dirt and god-knows-what smeared over his face and clothes, but his teeth still flashed white as he smiled. Three small children huddled behind him, two girls and a boy, and his hands were cupped around something small and…feathery? “I was hoping to take a bath before I went upstairs, but it seems you’ve found me a mess regardless.” He chuckled, and Arthur weakly attempted to reciprocate. “Did you need something?”

“Did I- No, no,” he muttered, shaking his head. “I don’t need anything, I was just…talking to Gaius.”

“Oh?” Merlin inquired, looking ridiculously rumpled and somehow not awful, even covered in manure, as he tilted his head and creased his brow. “Are you ill?”

“No,” Arthur said, stepping back as Merlin stepped forward, looking concerned. “I just needed to talk to him.”

“About what?”

“I- It-” Arthur spluttered for a moment. “What have you got there?” he muttered, focusing down at the object in Merlin’s hands.

“Oh, right!” Merlin blurted, almost leaping a little as he turned back to the children behind him. “They found it. It’s an owl,” he said, lifting his hands up to reveal the small, brown and white flecked head of the creature. “Can’t be more than a few months old. It was out round the inner wall; must’ve hit it last night and got stuck. Its wing’s broken, so I was gonna splint it up.”

Arthur raised an eyebrow, looking between the feathery bundle and the children. “You’re going to put a splint…on a bird?”

“Yeah,” Merlin affirmed, nodding with a dopey grin. He moved toward the door, the wide-eyed kids following in his wake, staring up at Arthur in awe. “You wanna help?” he asked, hand on the doorknob.

“Help?” Arthur bleated, looking down at what he could now tell were the bird’s eyes, wide and yellow. “How would I help?”

Merlin shrugged. “I don’t know, holding it still or something.”

Arthur watched the twitching creature, a wary eyebrow rising.

“Oh, come on, it won’t bite,” Merlin muttered, rolling his eyes. “Well, it might, but it won’t do any harm.” He then pushed open the door, beckoning the children ahead of him before flashing a smile over his shoulder at Arthur, letting the door begin to fall shut as if confident he would be followed.

Reluctantly—but, honestly, how could he not watch Merlin splint up an owl—Arthur did follow, flashing Gaius a quick shake of his head when the man raised an eyebrow at him in surprise.

“Gaius, I need some linen, something I can tear into strips, and some small rods,” Merlin beckoned, delicately placing the trembling animal on the surface of one of the tables.

“Get that thing off my table!” Gaius bellowed, and the owlet—one wing bent backward at an unnatural angle—shuffled close to Merlin’s hand, brown head pressing into his fingers.

“But, Gaius, his wing is broken,” Merlin whined, pulling a face that Arthur could only assume always, always got him his way, and, indeed, he could feel Gaius breaking under the dewy eyes.

The physician sighed, rolling his eyes and brandishing a wooden spoon at them. “Fine, but you’re scrubbing that whole table when you’re done!”

Merlin beamed and nodded, and then turned back to the children, waving them in closer, but they hesitated, their wary eyes fixed on Arthur. Merlin tilted his head at them, confused, and then followed their gaze to Arthur, mouth opening in understanding. He then gave Arthur a peculiar look, a request in it as he nodded his head down toward the bird still nestled against him.

Arthur raised an eyebrow, and Merlin shook his head, exasperated, before donning a pointed smile.

“My lord,” he said with all the care of a snake, “perhaps you could assist me in setting the wing?”

Arthur’s eyes widened in panic, and he looked down at the owl, which seemed to be regarding him with the avian version of suspicion. “Me?” he creaked, and then coughed, remembering himself and his nearby subjects. “Perhaps that is a job best left to you, as I have very little experience in the matter.”

Merlin raised his eyebrows, flashing the mocking challenge of a smirk he always had when he thought Arthur was being pompous. “Yes, I am sure Your Royal Highness has much better things to do,” he began, and Arthur’s eyes twitched a quick glare, “but, I’m afraid, I can’t manage it on my own, and I don’t believe any of the children are able enough to hold him should he struggle.”

Arthur looked down at the creature, which was still watching him with shrewd, yellow eyes and an expression that most certainly indicated it was going to struggle. Struggle at Arthur’s eyes, perhaps. “I-I don’t know-” he stammered, uncertain how to conclude so as not to admit a weakness.

“I’ll walk you through it,” Merlin assured with an undoubtable smile, speaking soft enough that the children wouldn’t hear.

Arthur hesitated a moment longer, watching the owl’s eyes narrow at him in a dare, and that was really the deciding factor. “Alright,” he said, stepping forward, and the creature let out a small squawk, as if surprised at his boldness, “what do I do?”

Merlin smiled, small and secret and quickly stifled. “First, we’re gonna have to stretch his wing out. I need to set the bone.”

“Won’t that hurt him?” Arthur asked, falling into the trap of personal pronouns, but it was difficult not to grow fond of the precocious little thing, who was still looking at Arthur reproachfully as he pushed himself tighter to Merlin, staking his claim. Arthur’s lips twitched in a smile.

“Not too much,” Merlin muttered, looking up as Gaius knocked something off a table across the room, turning to give his young apprentice a strangely dark look. Merlin cleared his throat, bowing his head to the owl before looking back to Arthur with a too-bright grin. “Can you, er, rip those linens?” he asked, nodding his head toward the small pile of scraps Gaius had placed on a nearby table. “About that thick,” he added, lifting up a hand to indicate the width with his fingers.

Arthur frowned, confused, but nodded, moving away to his task.

“Move more behind me, alright?” Merlin said to the children, his voice notably changing as his audience did. “I don’t want any of you getting clawed or anything if he panics.”

Over the ripping of the fabric, Arthur could hear the hushed whispers and titters of the kids, the shuffling of feet indicating they were quick to follow Merlin’s advice. When he turned back, Merlin was bent low over the owl, worrisomely close to its sharp beak, but he didn’t appear to be in danger, the owl merely blinking…well, owlishly up at him as if Merlin were telling the greatest of stories. Arthur coughed, trying to get his attention, and Merlin startled, causing the owl to ruffle indignantly, rattling its small head.

For a moment, Merlin only stared at him, shocked with a fear Arthur could not comprehend.

“Everything alright?” he asked, looking around to the children, who were curiously peering out from behind the servant.

“What? Oh, yes, everything’s…everything’s fine. You done with those?” He pointed down to the bundle in Arthur’s hands, avoiding his eyes.

“Yes,” Arthur replied, raising a skeptical eyebrow as he stepped closer. “Merlin, are you sure-”

“I’m fine,” Merlin muttered in assurance, snapping the torn linens from Arthur’s grip and laying them out on the table, much to the owlet’s interest.

He skittered hesitantly across the wooden surface, bending down to peer at the cloth. After a few seconds, he grew brave and plucked one up, shaking it around in his beak before releasing it, apparently disappointed it was not prey.

Arthur chuckled. “He doesn’t seem to be feeling that wing all that much, does he?”

Merlin took a moment to reply. “Must’ve gone numb from the shock. I’m gonna need you on my other side.”

Arthur moved, following Merlin’s instructions as they worked over the owl, who was remarkably well-behaved, considering. “It’s alright,” he soothed when the owl gave a small squeak as Arthur wound the linen around his set wing to hold the rods in place. “Nearly there. You’re almost done.”

Merlin’s hands froze where they were testing the knots and rods, and Arthur looked up his arms to find the brunette giving him a disbelieving look.

“What?” he muttered, and Merlin briskly shook his head and ducked back to his work, but Arthur saw the ghosting smile.

“Alright,” he said after a few more minutes of tying and tugging, “I think that’ll do it.”

“Can we take him back outside now, Merlin?”

“Yeah, can we, Merlin?”

Merlin chuckled down at the two girls, who had evidently gotten over their shyness enough to bounce at Merlin’s waist, hands clasped in pleading below their chins. “No, not yet,” he answered, and they wilted with a pout. “He needs some time to heal first. It’ll probably be a couple weeks before he can fly properly again.”

The girls wobbled back on their heels, dejected, but the young boy stood back, simply watching the small owl as it stared back at him, tilting its disproportionately large head side to side. “What are you gonna do with him?” he asked, his small voice barely reaching Arthur’s ears, but Merlin was closer.

“What do you mean?” he replied, kneeling down closer to the boy’s eye level.

The child hesitantly met his eyes, twisting at the cuffs of his ratty shirt. “Where does he go now if he can’t fly?”

Merlin smiled, brilliant and bright and instantly reassuring, and even Arthur found himself a little calmed by the gesture, though it wasn’t directed at him. “I’ll keep him with me,” he said with a small glance across the room, and Arthur turned just in time to see Gaius at the tail end of an eye roll. “He’ll be safe here in Gaius and my chambers.” He smiled again, but the boy continued to look hesitant, his round eyes full of concern as they lingered on the bird. “You can come visit him if you like,” Merlin offered, and the lad perked up.

“Really?” he asked, breathless.

Merlin nodded. “Of course. Just make sure you knock first,” he added. “Gaius tends to drop things when he’s startled.” He winked, and the boy giggled as Gaius huffed, but then the old man only smiled, shaking his head fondly at his apprentice. “Now,” Merlin said, standing upright, hands on his hips, “you lot should get home. Your families will be worried.”

The children dithered, casting glances around him to the owlet, who was now hopping along the edges of the table, as if contemplating a leap down.

“Go on,” Merlin shooed, ushering them toward the door, and they giggled as they scampered away from his pushing arms. “And wash your hands before you eat anything! You don’t want owl on your bread!”

The children’s dramatic sounds of disgust echoed back to them through the closing door, and Merlin bowed his head, shaking it down at the ground.

“They’re not gonna wash their hands,” he muttered, turning back to Arthur, who found himself a little frozen. He tilted his head, searching Arthur’s face with confusion, and it hit Arthur that he was now meant to reply.

“Oh, er, no,” he stammered, smiling awkwardly as he shook his head. “Probably not.”

Merlin twitched a small smile, still looking a little skeptical, and then turned back to their grounded patient. “Now, what do we do about you?” he asked, and the owl appeared to answer, giving a single cheery hoot. Merlin stared for a moment, and then laughed, and Arthur couldn’t help but join him, the way Merlin’s whole face lit up and his body shook as he broke into peals of mirth. “Well, Gaius,” Merlin chuckled, looking across to the elderly man. “Whadya think?”

“I think,” Gaius said crisply, looking between Merlin and the owl, “that my objections have been overruled.”

Merlin laughed again, stepping to the side of the table, and the owl immediately scurried to him, leaning slightly against one of the servant’s protruding hipbones. “Maybe not. Arthur still hasn’t weighed in.”

Arthur himself had quite nearly forgotten he was there, feeling more as though he were watching a dream. “What?” he murmured, swallowing through a dry throat.

Merlin smiled, and Arthur’s throat was in drought once again. “What do you want to do with him?”

“With the owl?” Arthur clarified, gesturing down at the creature, which hunkered down further into Merlin as Arthur hand passed. “What does it matter what I think?”

“Well, you were here,” Merlin replied, shrugging, slender fingers absentmindedly stroking across the owlet’s feathery head. “Do you think we should let him go?”

Arthur blinked, frowning. “But, you told the children- I thought he wouldn’t be able to fly for another couple weeks?”

Merlin nodded. “Yes, at least that long.”

“Well, then we can’t just let him go, can we?” he asked, because surely this wasn’t his decision, especially not when it was such an obvious one. “He wouldn’t survive the day.”

Merlin slowly smiled, and Arthur warmed, feeling very certain he had said the right thing. “Agreed. Well, sorry, Gaius,” Merlin chirped, chuckling as the owl head-butted him, frustrated by Merlin’s stilled hand. “Looks like we have a new pet!”

“As if I didn’t know that the second you brought that thing in here,” Gaius muttered, but his face didn’t quite match up to the irritation. “He’s staying in your room, though. And you’re cleaning up the droppings!”

“I will, I will,” Merlin conceded, lifting his palms at his shoulders. “I promise. Thank you, Gaius,” he added softly, and the man nodded with a gruff grunt, returning to his work of clearing bottles out of a cupboard. “Well, come on then!” Merlin sang, bending to lower his arm to the table surface, and the owl dutifully climbed atop it, claws gripping into Merlin’s forearm as he lifted the bird up. “Let’s show you where you’ll be staying.”

Arthur watched him walk several paces, beaming at the owl that perched on his arm, a strange charm emanating from him. He was younger somehow, and yet older, youthful with passion and exuberance, but aged with compassion. Arthur heart ached in the best way, the scene striking a chord of memory within him, and he knew with all the confidence of battle what he needed to do.

“I’ll see you upstairs,” he said, and Merlin spun around, surprised a moment before he flushed, clearly having forgotten Arthur was there. “After you get him…settled,” he finished lamely, and Merlin ducked a smile before lifting his head with a proper nod.

“See you upstairs,” he confirmed, and Arthur turned before that smile could incapacitate him further.

He did not go to his rooms, however. He went to Leon’s chambers, where he knew the man would just be returning from his watch.

“Sire!” Leon started as Arthur entered. “Is something wrong?” he asked, hand already going toward his sword, body tensing for a fight.

“No, no, nothing’s wrong,” Arthur dissuaded, batting his hands. “I just- Your patrol. It takes you through the caverns, correct? By the treasury?”

Leon hesitated, but his posture relaxed. “Yes,” he replied, wary.

“Who are you on the watch with?” Arthur asked, trying to keep his tone calm, but Leon grew more suspicious.

His eyes narrowed, and he lowered the goblet he had been drinking from to the table. “Lancelot. Sire, what is this-”

“I need you to get something from the treasury for me,” he interjected, and Leon, excellent knight that he was, said nothing, merely watched and waited for further explanation. “I would do it myself, but then my father would know, and…well, he would not approve.” He shook his head, half certain this was the worst—not to mention craziest—idea he had ever had. It was too much, too big, too special. But, then again, that was exactly why it worked.

“Of course, Sire,” Leon replied, diplomatic as ever. “Whatever you need.”

Arthur beamed.

---

“Shh! Shut up, you stupid owl!”

Merlin rolled over, blinking blearily in the grey, pre-dawn light of his room.

“Ow!” the man’s voice hissed again, and there was a rustle of fabric and thud of feet from somewhere near the door. “What the- That’s it, I am going to pluck and cook you myself! Roast you over the fire and serve you with orange sauce!”

“I think berries would work better,” Merlin mumbled, yawning as he sat up, and there was a delighted hoot in the dark room before claws settled softly in his lap. “Aw, there, there,” he crooned, stroking down the back of the owlet’s head. “Don’t listen to mean ole Arthur.”

“It bit me!” the dark silhouette of the prince bleated, and Merlin chuckled.

“Archimedes,” he corrected, and the figure tilted its head. “His name is Archimedes.”

Arthur snorted. “Of course it is.”

“Owls are renowned for their wisdom, you know,” he boast, and the now-more-defined-Arthur’s head rattled in that way that always meant he was rolling his eyes.

“Yes, and their mathematical prowess as well, I’m sure.”

“Naturally,” Merlin chirped, smiling down at the small puff of feathers in his lap, who was now cooing happily and leaning into Merlin’s strokes.

“I thought you said he wouldn’t be able to fly for a few weeks.”

Merlin’s finger stalled in their petting, and Archimedes nibbled lightly to encourage him on. “He can’t. Not properly, at least, only for short distances. It’s really more guided gliding than anything else.” He may have been talking a little fast, but Arthur didn’t seem to notice.

“Whatever you say. Now, get up.” He kicked at the side of the bed, hands on his hips.

Merlin blustered, looking up at him with unconcealed incredulity. “Excuse me?”

Arthur’s leg bounced, a quick series of nervous spasms that Merlin almost missed, and a lump moved down his throat as he swallowed, eyes averted. “Get up. I need you.”

“For what, waking up the birds?” he spluttered, shaking his head. “Arthur, it’s still dark outside.” He waved a hand at his loosely shuttered window in illustration, but Arthur’s gaze did not shift.

“Yes, very good, Merlin. What a relief to see your eyesight remains unimpaired.”

Merlin glared at him, and even Archimedes let out a disgruntled squawk his direction.

Arthur looked down at the bird, surprised and offended, as if he had heard some hidden word within it, and then rattled his head, turning back to Merlin. “It’s important,” he said, and there was just enough of the edge taken off it, just enough of a request over an order, that Merlin’s indignation over being awoken hours before he was supposed to faded.

He sighed, shifting Archimedes up and off him as he swung his legs over the side of the mattress.

Arthur tilted his head down at him. “You sleep in trousers?”

“Yeah, well,” Merlin muttered, grating out a breath as he stretched, “never know when you’re gonna be woken by the crown prat.”

Arthur sneered at him, and Merlin grinned back, rising to his feet. He walked to his cupboard, pulling out a blue tunic and his leather jacket, and then laid them on the bed behind him, peeling off his current shirt.

Arthur made a strangled sort of coughing sound, and, when Merlin looked up at him after releasing his head from the fabric, he had turned away, seemingly incredibly focused on where Archimedes was nibbling at the corner of Merlin’s pillow.

Merlin lifted his eyebrows in a small gesture of accepting the strangeness, and then finished dressing, tugging the jacket tightly around him as the warmth of his blanket faded away, leaving his still sleep-flushed skin shocked by the chill creeping in the window. “Right then,” he muttered, hopping precariously as he forced his feet into his boots, and Arthur jerked in an aborted gesture to steady him, “what was it that couldn’t wait ‘til the sun was up?”

Arthur stiffened, fingers clenching once before hanging slack again. “This way,” he commanded, far too pompous for the hour, and Merlin followed with a sigh, shoulders drooping in resignation.

His first thought was the stables—a bright and early ride his presence was absolutely necessary for—but then turned the wrong way down the corridor. Next, he considered the kitchens—“They always give me too much bread for the cheese; you bring my breakfast up from now on!”—but Arthur turned to go up the staircase, and Merlin’s brow gradually furrowed as more and more possibilities were removed. Finally, he was forced to admit he had no idea what Arthur had in mind. To the best Merlin could guess after all the wandering, they were on the north side of the castle, nearing the first tier of battlements that rounded the sides of the building for patrol.

“Are we going on guard duty?” he asked, wishing Arthur had said something before volunteering him; he would’ve brought his bloody blanket up.

“What?” Arthur spluttered through a laugh. “No. If the day comes when I ask you to be a guard, Merlin, you’ll know I have well and truly cracked.”

Merlin sneered at him, but Arthur just grinned, continuing to lead him up the winding staircase. “Seriously, though,” he blurted after a couple more flights. “Where are we going?”

“Do you have something against surprises, Merlin?” Arthur queried innocently over his shoulder.

“No,” Merlin muttered begrudgingly. “Not normally, anyway. Only when I think I’m about to be locked in a tower to rot.”

Arthur chuckled. “I wouldn’t lock you in a tower, Merlin,” he drawled. “I’m a prince, remember? I’m supposed to save people from towers.”

“Princesses,” Merlin corrected, “not servants, and aren’t those princes supposed to be handsome?”

“You know, on second thought, maybe we’ll just forget it and-”

“No, no!” Merlin spluttered, stumbling on a step as he grappled at Arthur’s wrist. “I wanna know!” He put on his best pitiful eyes, completely unashamed so long as it worked, and it seemed to, Arthur rattling his head and carrying on with a huff.

They had apparently been nearly there, as Arthur stopped in front of a heavy, iron door a moment later, not able to meet Merlin’s eyes for longer than a blink. “Through here,” he said unnecessarily, bobbing his head at the exit.

Merlin raised an eyebrow. “Are you sure you’re not-”

“I am not going to lock you in a tower!” Arthur snapped, inexplicably irritable all of a sudden, and Merlin’s eyes widened. “Now just- Well, go on.” He shifted between his feet, waving a hand toward the door to imply Merlin would be going through first.

Eyebrows steadily climbing in suspicious skepticism, Merlin nevertheless reached out a hand, grasping firmly to the chilled iron. With an effort, he pushed the handle down, the metal shifting with a thunderous clang in the pre-dawn calm, and he winced in spite of himself. Pressing on through the door, however, his face quickly slackened into wide wonderment.

The grey light of the barely-waking sun was just beginning to tinge with yellow, warming the tones of the city stretching out below him. Smells of roasting meat and baking bread rose in the smoke that drifted up from Camelot, sucked up in a breath of frigid air as Merlin gasped, because everything before him, from the poorly shingled roofs to the trees on the hills far beyond, was covered in a thin layer of snow.

He moved to the edge of the battlement, hardly feeling the cold as he placed his hands upon the stone ledge, fingers melting patterns in the icy covering. A breeze passed, carrying with it a fresh twist of white flakes that swirled and spiraled against the lightening sky, and Merlin was quite suddenly laughing, a breathy, disbelieving thing that burst from the irrepressible warmth bubbling up from his chest.

“Arthur,” he said, voice more air than sound as he turned.

The man had followed him through the door and was now standing self-consciously in front of it, as if afraid to come any closer. “I thought you’d want to see it first thing,” he muttered, looking past Merlin to the kingdom beyond. “It’s been coming down for a few hours.”

“A few hours?” Merlin questioned. “Why were you awake so early?”

Arthur shrugged, pushing at a loose stone with the toe of his boot. “Couldn’t sleep.”

Merlin frowned. “You could’ve woken me earlier,” he replied, not sure why he should be irritated by such a thing, but he didn’t like the idea of Arthur sitting alone in his rooms, not even a fire to warm himself by—unless he knew how to do it himself, which was something Merlin doubted.

“I suppose,” was the only response, but Arthur still looked troubled, a stiffness to his posture as his gaze held pointedly toward the growing, eastern light.

“Arthur?” Merlin pressed after several long moments, moving closer, and then startling back again as Arthur surged suddenly.

“I got you something.” The words were rushed, as if a dam had burst with a colossal push.

Merlin blinked, bewildered. “Got me something?” he echoed.

Arthur’s fingers tapped against the side of his thigh. “Yeah, for your-for your birthday.”

Merlin’s gaping went unnoticed as Arthur delved into his pockets, fishing around with a look of great concentration, and not a small amount of anxiety.

“There,” he said finally, fingers emerging clamped around a small square of linen, apparently folded. He was holding it with great care, sending a rush of fondness through Merlin he’d never before had occasion to experience, and it nearly knocked the breath out of him as he watched Arthur fiddle idly with the corners of the parcel.

“You didn’t-”

“I know,” Arthur interrupted, flashing a meek smile up at him, the only eye contact he was able to make so far. “But I wanted to.” He fidgeted with the package a moment longer, and then sucked in a great breath, holding it out within his palm. “Here.”

Merlin told his arms to move several times before they complied, and his fingers plainly refused to stop their quivering, but he could always just blame it on the cold. He gingerly removed the linen from Arthur’s hand, the weight of something inside making itself known. Cradling the item in his hand, Merlin carefully peeled back each layer of wrapping, not wanting to accidentally pull away the treasure, but, when the final veil was removed, he nearly dropped the whole thing anyway.

The necklace was silver, a bit of tarnish darkening the lines and ridges of the circular pendant dangling from the chain. There was an embossed stamp in the center, as if someone had pressed a signet ring into the cooling metal, and the form of a swan rose up as if it were swimming across the shining, silver surface. Merlin ran his fingers over the image, feeling the darkened grooves of the feathers skipping against his skin. He opened his mouth to find he had no words, but Arthur had luckily been spared the affliction.

“It was my mother’s,” he said, voice nearly carried away with the steadily falling flakes that stuck to his hair and shoulders. “That’s her crest.” He pointed vaguely across at the charm in Merlin’s hand, as if there were any doubt what he could be talking about.

Twin sensations of joy and guilt twisted in Merlin’s stomach, battering against the sides of his throat as they competed for which would be voiced. “Arthur I- I can’t take this,” he insisted, dazedly shaking his head. “It was your mother’s.

“And it’s been gathering dust in the treasury, along with everything else of her my father locked away,” Arthur replied bitterly, eyes flashing where they fixed on the glinting medallion.

“Well, still,” Merlin murmured, because what else was there to say to something like that? “You should have it. Or someone else, someone important.”

Arthur tilted his head with a puzzled expression, and Merlin’s words raced against his flush.

“Some other royal,” he amended hastily, boots clicking softly as he shifted on the stone. “I mean, isn’t this the sort of thing you ought to give to…an heir or-or a wife?” If he choked a little on the word, Arthur didn’t seem to notice, and Merlin swallowed hard to prevent a relapse.

Arthur placed his hands in the pockets of his trousers, apparently immune to the cold. He was wearing only his red tunic, bereft of even his knight’s cloak to protect him, and looked out over the low stone wall, eyes squinting against the rising sun as it spread its pink tendrils out from the horizon to meet the purpling blue overhead. “Perhaps,” he mused, “but I’m not certain- I don’t believe…” He trailed away with a sigh, dragging a hand down from his forehead to his jaw. “If I marry”—Merlin’s heart did an unapproved flip in his chest at the uncertainty—“it will be for political convenience, not for- Well,” he muttered with a small cough, “I’m unlikely to have any affinity for her personally. And, to be quite honest,”—he turned, fixing Merlin with a smile that drooped with sadness around the edges—“it is with other royals that I would feel most uncomfortable leaving it.”

Merlin looked down at the shining piece of silver in his hand, fingers twitching uncertainly over the metal. “But why?” he asked, lifting his head. “I mean, I’m just...me,” he mumbled, shrugging.

Arthur chuckled, watching his feet kicking at the flagstones. “That you are,” he said, smile brighter now, “but that’s sort of the point.”

Merlin blinked at him, shaking his head to indicate his continued confusion.

Arthur folded his arms, ambling a few steps toward the sunrise. “I know very little of my mother, as you know,” he began, inclining his head, “and what little I do know, I’ve heard from Gaius, as my father refuses to speak of her.” His eyes darkened, a momentary shadow before he continued. “But I feel as if I knew her, through his stories.” His eyes grew far away, skimming over the horizon as if he could see through to Avalon itself, a small smile playing at his lips. “She loved Camelot, though she had no claim to it, and the people loved her in return. Once, when disease was spreading in the lower town, my father ordered the gates shut, and all provisions were to be kept within the castle to ensure the court’s survival. My mother”—he smiled again—“locked herself in her rooms, refusing to eat unless her people could as well. Nearly starved herself before my father relented.”

Merlin ducked his head, smiling, knowing there was yet another Pendragon whom he did not doubt would do the same rash thing without a second thought.

“She’d read to them too,” Arthur continued, carried away now, it seemed, with his memories, albeit once-removed. “Gather out in the town square. Philosophy, fables, whatever she could lay her hands on. She’d sit out there and read to them for hours, sometimes even sending guardsmen to bring torches so they could continue into the night.” Arthur chuckled, but Merlin dared not join in, afraid to break him from the image before his mind’s eye. It seemed, however, a needless effort, as Arthur turned to him a moment later. “So, the other day, when I saw you with the bird and the children...”

Merlin nodded his preemptive understanding, and Arthur did not quite smile, but his eyes seemed to warm.

He then stilled, taking in a deep breath, arms unfolding as he drew his spine back, and Merlin a tingle of anticipation crawl up his neck. “My mother kept my father honest,” he said, with all the poise of a royal proclamation. “She reminded him that a king is only as good as his subjects, that he must never think himself above them, never mistake privilege for power.” His lips twitched, and he looked again to Merlin, who wasn’t entirely certain his knees were still there. “I think she would’ve liked you,” he said softly. “You never let me away with anything.”

Merlin couldn’t breathe, couldn’t coordinate his brain function into something as complex as that, and was only sure his heart was even still managing to beat because he could feel it rattling out to the tips of his fingertips. He was honored, so profoundly honored, and he imagined he could have spent countless days frozen in that moment and still have had no idea how to express the slew of emotions scrabbling atop one another in his chest. “Arthur…” he breathed, and then found he couldn’t go on.

Arthur smiled, downturned eyes twinkling through his lashes. “Just take it, Merlin,” he said, though not unkindly, and, slowly, half-wondering if he was still asleep, Merlin did, unwinding the chain to its full length before draping it over his neck.

The metal was cold against his skin, a sharp confirmation that he was indeed awake, and he felt the weight of the pendant pull down as he slowly released his grip until just two fingers held on to the medallion, twisting it to face him. Finally, he let it go, relishing the small pressure of it against his sternum. “Thank you,” he said, hoping even a portion of the awe, the shock, the daze of joy he felt was transferred through those words, because he knew how precious this was, and he wanted Arthur to know he understood the weight of the burden far exceeded the measurement of its metal.

Arthur smiled, remaining anxiety loosening up around the edges. “You’re welcome,” he replied, and then the seconds stretched away from them as they stood apart, staring at one another in the breaking-to-yellow dawn.

Finally, Arthur cleared his throat, and only then did Merlin hear the beginning clatter of horses and carts from below, voices greeting one another in the streets. “I should go,” he said, gesturing back toward the door. “Father wanted to see me at first light. Something about my speech for tonight.”

Moment sufficiently broken by the mention of Uther, Merlin rolled his eyes. “Another one?” he groaned. “Arthur, you’ve given a speech every night for over a week! When is this feast going to be over?”

Arthur drew himself up, draping a hand over his chest. “They are celebrating me, Merlin,” he drawled. “I suspect we will run out of wine before we run out of occasion to drink it.”

Merlin barked a laugh. “I’ll be sure to make a toast to your humility,” he teased, and Arthur laughed, the sound seeming brighter in the crisp, clean air.

“Be sure that you do. Everyone should know how humble I am.” He winked, and, as Merlin was laughing, disappeared through the door, closing the metal with a heavy thud.

Merlin turned back to the city, leaning against the stone wall on his elbows. It was cold, his sleeves dampened by the snow, but he didn’t care. He merely stood there, looking down at the pendant spinning from its chain between his clenched fingers. Smiling idly, he looked out over the city, now bustling beneath him as merchants set up their stands and hollered at one another over prime locations.

He could grow accustomed to Camelot, he realized then. He could feel at home within her stone towers, learn the heartbeat of her horse hoofs, trace the ashy smoke to smiths’ kilns and bakers’ ovens. He could carve out a place for himself among these walls, these people. He could belong here, with Gaius, Gwen, Lancelot, and Morgana. With Arthur, his mind prodded, and his cheeks tingled with a blush in the cold. He looked down again to the charm dangling from the chain below his neck, swinging in a slow, glittering arch between his chest and the world beyond.

Yes, he could be at home with Arthur.

A loud nicker burst in his ears, followed by rather raucous laughter for the hour. He peered down, weaving his head side to side, as if such a small gesture would help him see through the growing crowd. A path cleared in the throng, and a small procession made their way up the cobblestones, cart clattering away behind them as they came. At the forefront was a man—or perhaps a boy, given his build—walking on his hands, periodically flipping around in a maneuver that made Merlin cringe in sympathy for his spine. The horse pulling the cart was covered in ribbons and bells, the ends draping back to connect with the equally garish decoration on the cart itself, which was overflowing with music and men. Legs and arms flailed from every side, waving and laughing, and Merlin knew this must be yet another travelling troupe come to pay homage to their future king.

He chuckled to himself, watching the gay procession, and then he frowned, focusing in on one face as the wagon rounded a corner, exposing the back to Merlin’s vantage point. His skin crawled over his bones, the cold finally making itself felt, and he clutched instinctively at the amulet around his neck—as if to protect it, protect the precious, fragile hope it symbolized from falling back into the uncertain darkness—because there, sitting on the back of the cart with a fake smile and searching eyes, was Mordred.

---

There had been no other option, really. He couldn’t avoid Mordred or the boy might think him dead, reporting back to Nimueh, who would send an assault. He didn’t fancy arranging a casual meeting in the marketplace, a quick, faux-surprised exchange of hello, yes I’m fine, nothing to see here, and he doubted Mordred would leave it at that even if he tried. So, there really had been no other option but to follow Mordred, wait for him to be alone somewhere they could talk, and then pick his moment.

Which was how Merlin found himself tugging a struggling Mordred backward into the stables, one hand clamped over his open mouth, breath and failed words hissing hot out the gaps between Merlin’s fingers.

“Stop struggling, you idiot!” he hissed, and the boy stiffened, the fight lessening, and Merlin knew for certain it was because his voice had been recognized when Mordred pulled his hand away, spinning to face him.

“Merlin?” he questioned, blinking. “Merlin!” he added, and all the irritation and panic was blown out of Merlin for a moment as the boy barreled into him, arms tight and hands clinging. “I thought you were dead!” he bleated, voice tight with emotion. “When we didn’t hear from you, we thought- But I had to come check, I had to know for certain. I knew you weren’t dead, I knew it, I could feel it!” He held Merlin out by his upper arms, looking over him as if he could any minute dissolve into a ghost.

The outburst had derailed Merlin, and he struggled to pull the task at hand back to the forefront of his mind. “No, I-I’m not dead,” he managed, and Mordred laughed.

“Well, no, clearly not,” he chuckled, releasing Merlin’s arms as he took a step back and surveyed him. “You look rather well, actually. Manservant to the crown prince must pay well.”

“Not particularly,” Merlin muttered, mind firmly back to its purpose now. “What are you doing here, Mordred?” It was a mark of how much had changed that he only felt a small spasm of pity for the look of hurt that flashed across his friend’s face, but he had larger priorities now. Like keeping Arthur alive.

“I-I was sent to find you, to see if you were still alive,” he began, clearly remembering his own business as well. “Nimueh’s here,” he added, and Merlin barely contained the panicked hitch of his breath. “She wanted to talk to you. You… You haven’t checked in in a while.” There was disappointment there, a personal betrayal, and Merlin did feel a stab at that.

He hadn’t wanted to involve Nimueh, had wanted to keep her away from Arthur and Camelot at all costs, but he had never meant to hurt Mordred. “I-I’ve been busy,” he lied feebly. “There was a tournament a month or so back, and now the feast.”

“Yes, I heard about the feast,” Mordred snapped bitterly, shooting a glare at some unseen point outside the wooden stable walls. “The masses celebrating their prince. I’d rather we were feasting over his corpse!”

Merlin’s stomach roiled at the thought, at the venom in Mordred’s voice, and he regretted more than anything at that moment that he had not taken him with him, that he had let him stay with Nimueh for his mind to be further poisoned by her lies. “Mordred,” he said gently, drawing the boy’s attention back to him, “there’s a lot you don’t know, don’t understand.”

The young man looked at him curiously, head tilting as he frowned.

“I-I need to talk to Nimueh,” he said, accepting his fate, at least that far. He looked into Mordred’s curious, green eyes, daring to risk the truth. “I don’t- I don’t think Arthur is our enemy.”

Mordred recoiled from him, eyes wide, head beginning to shake. “What? Why would you- Why would you say that? Of course he’s our enemy, Merlin, he’s a Pendragon!”

“Shh!” Merlin hissed, stretching his arms out toward the boy, but Mordred retreated even further.

“How can you say that? After everything they did, how can you say that!?”

“It’s-It’s complicated, alright?” Merlin urged, retreating now that he’d seen the violent reaction. “I just need to talk to Nimueh. Is she here? In Camelot?”

Mordred was still watching him, eyebrows furrowed with wary concern. “Yes,” he said, nodding slowly. “She’s down in the caves. Just outside the city gates.”

“Can you take me to her?” Merlin asked, eyes darting at every sound that seemed too near the door.

“What, now?”

“Yes, now!” Merlin snapped, patience growing thin under the anxiety of the situation. “I’ll have to help get ready for the feast soon, and I’m not even supposed to be awake yet, so this is the only time I have.”

“Well, we’d better go then,” Mordred deadpanned, eyes cold as he folded his arms. “Wouldn’t want you neglecting your duties.”

“Mordred-” Merlin began to plea, tired and exasperated, the high of the morning rapidly crashing to shards around his feet, but the opening of the stable door interrupted him.

“Merlin?” said the last person Merlin wanted to see right now. “Merlin, are you- Oh.” Arthur stopped short, taking a half-step back in surprise as he rounded one of the stalls, eyes falling on them where they stood. Close together. Alone. In the stables.

Merlin’s lungs closed up, willing him a quick death.

“I-I didn’t realize you-” Arthur could not have made this any worse even with an effort to do so, his eyes darting over the scene, every assumption playing out plainly on his face. Then he rattled his head, apparently shaking the shock away as a moment later a demure expression of impartial politeness took over his face. “I don’t believe we’ve met,” he said, extending a hand to Mordred, who was looking the newcomer up and down with curious displeasure. “I’m Arthur Pendragon.”

Mordred flinched for barely a blink, a flicker of the fire banked in his eyes sparking through, but only Merlin would have noticed, having been expecting it. “Will,” he replied, extending his arm, poisonous smile sparkling across his face.

Merlin wanted to run, to scream, to drown in the tidal wave of fury and hurt and hate that crashed down on him with that single word. He understood the point, of course, Mordred using Will’s name at the moment he shook hands with the crown prince, but it was such a wicked thing to do, so cold and vindictive, and, in that moment, Merlin knew he had never known Mordred at all. Or at least he didn’t anymore.

“One of Merlin’s friends from Essetir,” Mordred was adding as he withdrew his hand. “Hitched a ride up here with some traveling jesters. Said they were coming to perform for the crown prince?”

Arthur smiled, turning his eyes to Merlin to share in what he thought was their private joke, but some of the horrible writhing in Merlin’s stomach must have shown on his face, for the blond froze, face unfolding into earnest concern. “Merlin?” he asked, feet shifting in the straw as if to step toward him, but he hesitated, flicking a glance to Mordred. “Are you alright? You look paler than usual.”

Merlin nodded, not quite sure what he was agreeing to, or maybe it was just a gesture meant to soothe? He didn’t know, but he was nodding anyway, head bobbing up and down in a rhythm he could not control or stop.

“Do you need to see Gaius?” Arthur pressed, and Merlin knew he must look truly terrible if Arthur ‘just-spit-on-it-it’ll-be-fine’ Pendragon, of all people, was suggesting the physician. “Merlin,” he said again, drawing closer now. “Merlin, you need to sit down. You look like you’re about to faint.”

“M’not gonna faint,” Merlin murmured, because, in spite of whatever Arthur may say, he was not, in fact, a girl. “I’m just tired. Haven’t eaten,” he muttered, rattling every plausible excuse, but Arthur didn’t look suspicious, only determined. It somehow made the whole thing that much worse, and Merlin clutched at his stomach, sinking to a bale of hay on the ground behind him, suddenly sure he was going to be sick.

“Right, you stay here,” Arthur commanded unnecessarily, as Merlin’s legs seemed to have gone missing. “I’ll fetch you some food and water. Can you stay with him?” This he directed at Mordred, who looked a bit stunned by the question.

“I, er, yes. Yes, of course,” he muttered, and Arthur nodded quickly before turning away, rushing out the door in a flurry of the red cloak he was now wearing.

The whole building was shaking, or maybe it was just Merlin, and he stared at the floor just inside the door, waiting for the familiar, boot-clad feet to reappear.

“Merlin-”

Merlin shook his head violently, the movement sending him into another bout of shivers, and he hugged his arms tightly to his body. “Don’t,” he spat, shocked himself at the malice in the word. “Don’t you dare.”

The warmth of Mordred’s hovering hand over his shoulder dissipated, and they both sat in silence, waiting for the prince’s return.

“I’m sorry,” Mordred whispered after a moment, and Merlin could see from the corner of his eye that the boy was twisting his hands in his lap. “That-That was a wretched thing to do.”

“Yes,” was all Merlin could manage for a reply, but he felt it said enough, and Mordred seemed to agree, as he made no further effort to placate Merlin.

Arthur returned quickly—thank god for small mercies—with a loaf of bread, a small dish of honey, and a jug of water, all balanced together rather precariously in his arms. “Gwen said the sugar would help,” he muttered as he unloaded the wares on the bale at Merlin’s side. “I ran into her at the water pump. Barely managed to get away without telling her where you were. You’re welcome, by the way.”

Merlin couldn’t quite manage a reply yet, but he huffed his shared amusement, and his body wasn’t shaking so vigorously anymore, as if Arthur’s very presence warmed the chill from his bones.

He didn’t often think of Will, not if he could help it, and, when he couldn’t, he tried to pick the happier moments. Stealing apples from Mr. Pritchard’s trees, magically turning the Harvells’ sheep yellow, outrunning Old Man Weston’s irritable, even-older goat. He tried to call those memories up now, but it was too far gone, his mind unprepared for the onslaught following Mordred’s words, and he couldn’t go back now and stopper the flow, the replaying final moments of his friend’s life as he ran toward Merlin to help. However, it was small comfort to find that Mordred’s cruel jab had not hit its desired mark, and Merlin felt an even stronger pull now, a fierce determination to ensure no one else died needless deaths in a pointless war.

“Thank you,” he said, a little belatedly, but Arthur smiled all the same. Merlin ripped off a chunk of the bread, dipping it in the honey before carrying it to his mouth, and was surprised to find the syrupy sweetness did help, coating his tongue and carrying away the taste of guilt and bile. “S’ good,” Merlin murmured through the sugar and starch, and then swallowed, clicking his tongue a few times in preparation for clearer speech. “So,” he muttered, swigging from the jug of water to dislodge the few, remaining crumbs, “what was it you needed?”

Arthur tilted his head at him, puzzled.

“When you came in,” Merlin continued, hurrying through another bite of bread as he waved at the stable door. “You were looking for me.”

“Oh, right,” Arthur said, princely composure returning. “I was going to tell you that you have the day off. I already spoke with Gaius and the cook, so no one should be bothering you.”

“The day off?” Merlin repeated, swallow rough in his dry throat, and he took another gulp of water to soothe it. “But what about the feast?”

Arthur lifted an eyebrow. “I thought you’d be glad to get out of one.”

“Well, yeah,” Merlin muttered with a hesitant shrug, “but, I dunno, they’re not all bad.”

Arthur smiled to the ground for a moment. “By all means, come if you want. Just don’t do anything else, alright? No polishing armor or mucking out stables or carrying firewood.”

“Was it Gwen?” Merlin asked, tilting his head in earnest inquiry. “Did she tell you I was pregnant? I knew I shouldn’t have trusted her, but I just had to tell someone, ya know?”

Arthur laughed, shaking his head. “You’re ridiculous,” he mocked, but it sounded more like a compliment, especially when paired with a fond grin Merlin quickly returned. “I’ll see you later, then?” he asked, turning to leave, but waited for Merlin’s answering nod before moving to the door. “Oh, it was good to meet you,” he added, inclining his head to Mordred, who looked appropriately stunned. “Make sure he takes it easy, alright? No heavy lifting.” He grinned, flashing a wink.

“Don’t you have a speech to write?” Merlin snapped, and Arthur laughed, closing the door and leaving the two druids alone once again.

It was quiet for a long moment, only the sounds of town and the small shuffling and breathing of horses encroaching on the silence.

“So,” Mordred muttered, voice a little higher than usual, “that’s Arthur Pendragon.”

Merlin nodded, still staring at the abandoned doorway. “Indeed, it is,” he replied not able to entirely stifle his warm smile.

“He’s…not what I expected,” Mordred murmured, and Merlin smiled properly at that, ducking his head before looking back up at the boy, watching the young man’s face twisting in confliction.

“Come on,” Merlin said, offering him a reprieve from his obvious inner turmoil. He rose from the bale, nudging Mordred on the arm as he went. “Let’s go talk to Nimueh.”

Mordred smiled gratefully, and then led the way, pushing the door open for Merlin before heading out into the streets. It was a long walk, and they almost seemed to be going in circles, so winding and numerous were the tunnels, but, at last, there was a light near the curve of one of the stone passageways, and Merlin stiffened, his blue orb leading their way brightening with his resolve.

“Mordred,” Nimueh’s voice said, and a shadow appeared on the wall. “It’s about time. I was about to send someone to-” She stopped as she turned the corner, eyes widening as they alighted on Merlin. “Merlin?” she breathed, stepping forward, her eyes roving over him in disbelief. “You’re- You’re alive! We- We thought-” She stammered, head shaking slightly as she continued to gape. “It is so good to see you unharmed.”

Merlin almost believed her. Almost. But now that he knew Nimueh had lied about Uther, he looked at her differently, looked past the concern and built-up appearances of what he wanted to see, and he noticed the cold in her eyes through the entire pseudo-emotional speech. His eyes narrowed, and her expression faltered, façade dropping to suspicion and curiosity, as if he were being evaluated all over again.

“You wanted to see me?” he asked, voice dead.

Nimueh’s lips quirked in a dangerous twitch of a smile. “I didn’t expect I would,” she said, airy and unconcerned once again. “We thought you were dead.”

“So I’ve heard,” Merlin replied, crossing his arms in defiance as Nimueh’s eyes flashed. “We need to talk, Nimueh.”

Mordred’s small intake of breath was the only sound, although Nimueh’s eyes did widen, and Merlin realized quite suddenly that he had never used her name so simply with her before. It felt right, though, like a levelling of the ground, and Nimueh’s smile turned so sweet, it could only be described as wicked.

“Yes, I can see that,” she said, as if to herself, and then snapped at Mordred, eyes never leaving Merlin’s. “Leave us.”

Mordred flicked a quick glance at Merlin, but Merlin doubted it would have made any difference he had been screaming for him to stay, before bowing his head and turning away, his boots echoing off the walls as he retreated.

“Well, well,” Nimueh drawled, folding her pale, thin arms across her chest as she sidled to his left, “Camelot has certainly changed you. All grown up now, are we?” She grinned, flashing glittering, white teeth, and Merlin fought the urge to tug at his neckerchief, suddenly very conscious of his exposed throat.

“I know about Uther,” Merlin said, and was greeted with the rather pleasant sight of Nimueh’s face falling with surprise. “About you working with him and Ygraine.”

Nimueh smiled again, a tight twisted thing that made Merlin’s inside coil. “Oh, really?” she asked, voice light as ever, but there was an edge to it now that suggested Merlin tread carefully. “And what do you think you know about that?”

“They came to you to help conceive a child,” Merlin explained, ignoring the woman as she circled around his back, but he could feel her eyes on the back of his head, like the prickling in the air just before lightning strikes. “And you did, but you didn’t tell them the price would be Ygraine’s life.”

“I didn’t know!” Nimueh spouted, and, this time, as she rounded back to Merlin’s front and glared at him with wide, fervent eyes, he knew the emotion was genuine. “I told them magic always has a price, that the price for creating a life would be high. I did not know the queen’s life would be the forfeit.”

“But you didn’t stay,” Merlin continued, unmoved. “You didn’t help them, you didn’t explain. And then Uther went mad, blamed all magic for her death.”

Nimueh laughed, shrill and manic. “Uther was mad long before then, boy!” she spat. “He was mad with power, with greed. He didn’t care what the cost was, he just wanted an heir. I tried to refuse him, you know,” she said lightly, turning her eyes to Merlin as she paced. “Tried to warn him, to convince him not to interfere with the natural order. If his wife couldn’t conceive, she wasn’t meant to; destiny is not a thing to be meddled with. But he wouldn’t listen. He imprisoned me,” she hissed, voice rattling, eyes wild. “Tortured me for weeks before I agreed. And, even then, I only did it out of fear. He was already planning to execute me and move on to someone else. I didn’t have a choice!”

Merlin’s brow was furrowed, lips moving in indistinct motions of hesitation as he watched Nimueh raving in front of him. Gaius had never told him that, never mentioned Nimueh being imprisoned. Kilgharrah hadn’t either, for that matter, but the dragon hardly ever said anything meaningful when Merlin asked, let alone just offered up unsolicited details. It was possible Gaius didn’t know, that Uther had never told him the exact means he had acquired a sorceress. However, it was also possible Nimueh was lying, and it was on that conclusion that Merlin’s mind settled.

“Then why not tell me?” he pressed, shifting his stance. “Why send me here to kill Uther and not tell me that you knew him, that he’d tortured you? Why lie about the whole reason we’re even doing this!?”

Nimueh stiffened, fists clenching as she rounded to face Merlin. “My shared past with Uther has nothing to do with-”

“Of course it does!” Merlin interjected, and Nimueh was startled enough to lean back. “How can it not? He tortured you, you said it yourself. Your deal is the entire reason we’re here, that any of us are here! The Great Purge would never have even happened if you hadn’t-”

Nimueh was laughing again, even more crazed than before, and there was a definite crackling in the air now as her magic sparked dangerously. “You think this was my doing? That Uther’s massacre was out of grief!?” Her laughter grew, as if Merlin were the most ridiculous creature she had ever laid eyes on. “He hated magic long before I met him. Oh, he was content to use it when he needed it,” she added, eyebrows rising as she nodded, “but he was never going to let us live in peace. The second he had his son in his arms, we were all as good as dead. The plans for the Great Purge were drawn up months before his little brat was even born!

There was so much hate in her eyes, loathing hanging thick on every syllable, and, no matter how little else may be true, he knew that one detail most certainly was.

“But why lie?” Merlin asked, gentler now, too tired to keep up being self-righteous.

Nimueh sighed, an uncharacteristic exposure of weakness that made Merlin instantly suspicious. “I was ashamed,” she said, shaking her head. “I was ashamed of my involvement, afraid you would think exactly what you did think: that I was somehow to blame for the slaughter reaped upon our kind.” She looked up at him, eyes sad and earnest, and Merlin truly would have loved to be able to trust her, as distraught as she looked. “I did not want you to think I had sent you for some kind of personal revenge. I do not delight in death, but this is necessary, Merlin,” she urged, taking a step closer to him, hands shifting as if to take his own, but a quick twitch of his eyes prompted her to hold their separation. “You know what the prophecy says. You are to help the Once and Future King rise to power and restore Albion. And, to do that,” she said, softer now, as if she truly regretted it, “the Pendragons must die.”

Merlin was shaking his head before she had even finished. “No,” he snapped, and Nimueh’s eyes flashed at the impudence. “There has to be another way. A way that no one else has to die.”

Nimueh chuckled dryly. “What? We send ambassadors? Have diplomatic dinners? Vote?” She laughed, shaking her head. “You are a lot of things, Merlin, but I never took you for a fool. Uther would never agree to peace! He would go along with the idea, perhaps, but only to lock the doors during the meeting and kill us where we stood.”

Merlin winced, an involuntary acknowledgement of the truth of the words. “Uther, no,” he agreed, shaking his head. “But he is an old man, growing frailer by the day.” It wasn’t exactly true, there was nothing imminently wrong with Uther than Merlin had seen, but time was the enemy of us all, and not even Uther could hope to be reversing it.

Nimueh raised an eyebrow. “What are you saying, Merlin?”

Merlin swallowed, dropping his eyes as he composed himself to say what he had been repeating in his head ever since Mordred had mentioned Nimueh was here. “I’m saying that, while Uther is, indeed, a lost cause, he is not much longer for this life.” He paused, allowing the words a moment to settle in the silent air between them. “And, upon his death, I do not believe Arthur would be quite so unmoved by our plight.”

Nimueh did nothing but stare at him for several long moments. “Arthur?” she questioned flatly, as if to clarify.

Merlin nodded.

“You believe Arthur would be…sympathetic.” It was phrased as a statement, although one she clearly thought him stupid for believing, and Merlin fought not to glare at her. Now was not the time.

“I believe he could be reasoned with,” Merlin amended, preparing his speech. “Uther’s efforts to rid Camelot of sorcery have made them vulnerable to attack, especially from nearby kingdoms where the people have fled. My own history is evidence of that.” He waved a hand over his sternum, and Nimueh nodded, in acknowledgement or sympathy, he couldn’t say. “The surrounding kingdoms will seek to take advantage of Camelot, using magic as a weapon they know we cannot match.”

“We?” Nimueh caught, expression shrewd, and Merlin’s jaw twitched.

“Force of habit,” he muttered, shrugging. “I have lived here some time.”

“Indeed,” Nimueh said, slow, calculating, and Merlin felt the full weight of her gaze as it settled on him, the feelers of foreign magic prodding at the edges of his mind, but he was strong enough to repel her infiltration, and held his ground. “This Arthur,” she said, as if she did not know who he was by his name alone, “you believe he can be turned to our side?”

“I believe he can be made to understand,” Merlin rephrased, uncomfortable with the phrasing of war, all sides and factions and absolutes.

Half of Nimueh’s mouth lifted as she tilted her head. “And yet, you have not told him.”

Merlin did not need to ask what she meant. “I-I do not wish to put him in that position, my lady,” he murmured, feeling a return to formality would be wise. “So long as Uther is still living, still king,” he added to stall off any morbid ideas, “it would be…difficult for him.”

“You do not believe he would choose you?”

It did not escape Merlin that it was a question, that Nimueh was not confident of the answer, and that alone made a small spark of hopeful confidence flare in Merlin’s chest. “I-I do not believe he would let me die,” he answered, certain of the words as soon as he said them. “He is not cruel,” he continued, meeting Nimueh’s curious gaze with confidence now. “He would not punish magic for magic’s sake with death, not if no one got hurt.”

Nimueh watched him, eyes narrowing slightly as that familiar prying sensation swept over him. “You care for him.” She sounded more certain than ever.

Merlin blinked, dropping his eyes, a frightened flutter in his heart. “I-I would not wish to see him harmed.”

It was a long moment before Nimueh spoke again. “And Uther?”

Merlin lifted his head, taking a breath with relief of having passed the more difficult topic. “I am…less concerned for Uther,” Merlin admitted with a small incline of his head, “but I would not wish to kill him, not before his time. If magic were to be implicated in his death, I fear it may poison Arthur against us for good.”

Nimueh nodded, seemingly deep in thought. “Very well,” she replied cautiously. “I will consider your proposal. But, Merlin?” she added, eyes sharp with focus as she looked at him squarely. “Do not let yourself be blinded by sentiment. Arthur may not be his father, but he is still a Pendragon.” She dropped her chin, expression unyielding. “Be certain you do not forget that.”

Merlin nodded, grateful, at least for the moment, to have escaped her wrath, but there was something in the intense focus of her eyes that set something cold and slimy loose in the pits of his stomach, a slow, creeping kind of dread. “I won’t, mistress,” he assured, title back in place as he bowed his head. “And thank you for your continued faith.”

Nimueh inclined her head briefly in acknowledgement. “So long as you continue to deserve it, Emrys,” she replied, rattling Merlin a little with the cryptic threat of it, but she left without another word, turning her back on him and moving deeper within the cave

The light he had seen upon arrival was now gone, signaling Nimueh’s disappearing act had been much further than merely around the corner, and he conjured up his own light once again, following the return path the orb seemed to remember better than he. Mordred was waiting for him on a rock outside the entrance and, upon seeing Merlin step out into the yellow light of the forest, leapt up and stumbled over the boulders to meet him.

“Well?” he asked earnestly, scanning Merlin over, no doubt for signs of blood or scorch marks, or any other horrible punishment Nimueh had doled out.

Merlin smiled, allowing the hope that had taken root in his chest to finally bloom. “She’s going to consider it,” he replied, referring to the rather more detailed and colloquial version of his idea he had delivered to Mordred on their way here.

Mordred smiled back, but it was clearly only for Merlin’s benefit.

“What?” Merlin asked, stepping closer, bowing his head to more clearly see the boy’s face. “You don’t think it will work?”

“No, it’s not that,” Mordred said, shaking his head as he looked off into the trees. “It’s just…well, I don’t know, Merlin.” He shook his head as he shrugged down at the ground. “I don’t know if it’ll work. And I’m worried about you.”

“Worried about me?” Merlin scoffed, but the sadness peering up through Mordred’s eyelashes showed he was sincere. “Why?”

Mordred sighed, looking away again for a moment before sharp eyes returned to Merlin’s. “You’re too close,” he said with authority beyond his age, the authority of a soldier, and Merlin’s stomach withered at the sound. “You’re being taken in.”

“Taken in?” Merlin parroted again, with only slightly less derision. “Mordred, I’m not being brainwashed.”

“I don’t mean it like that!” the younger boy snapped, and Merlin was startled into stepping back at the urgency of it. “You’re forgetting, Merlin,” he continued, shaking his head, desperate to be understood. “You’re forgetting who they are, what they’ve done. You’re not safe here, Merlin,” he said firmly, clearly reaching his point. “No matter how much it may feel like it, no matter how much they seem to accept you”—he leaned forward, swallowing hard—“they will still kill you the second they find out what you are.”

Merlin shook his head softly, the fresh bloom in his chest quaking with frost. “You don’t know that,” he whispered.

Mordred leaned back, face soft with pity. “Neither do you,” he said.

They didn’t move or speak, simply stared at one another for a long time, more equals now than Merlin had ever considered them before. Finally, Merlin dropped his gaze.

“I should get back,” he muttered, looking up over the rise toward the castle. “Someone will have seen us walking out here.”

Mordred snorted. “And they’d send out a search party for a servant lost in the woods?”

Merlin opened his mouth to argue, but a far-off voice did it for him.

“MERLIN?”

He flashed a smile at Mordred, who was staring up the hill, alarmed.

“It’s just Lancelot,” Merlin assured, stepping up onto the rocks and heading up toward the voice. “One of Arthur’s knights. And a friend,” he added as Mordred hesitated to follow.

The boy did eventually, clamoring up after Merlin, who whistled and waved as soon as Lancelot came into sight.

“There you are,” Lancelot sighed as he approached. “Gwen was worried sick. Said His Highness said something about you not feeling well and then took off.”

Merlin chuckled. “I’m fine. I was just a bit lightheaded. I’d forgotten breakfast.”

Lancelot rolled his eyes, clearly wondering how Merlin managed on a day-to-day basis, and then his gaze alighted on Mordred with polite curiosity.

“Oh, right,” Merlin muttered, stepping to the side. “Lancelot, this is- er-”

“Will,” Mordred intervened, stepping forward and stretching his hand toward Lancelot while he shot Merlin an apologetic look. He knew Merlin had never again been able to say Will’s name aloud. “I’m a friend of Merlin’s from back home.”

“Lancelot,” the knight answered, smiling as he gave Mordred’s hand a firm bob. “It’s a pleasure to meet you. Merlin didn’t mention you were coming.” With this, he cast a small sidelong glance at Merlin, a protective check that this guy was alright.

Merlin smiled shyly, nodding in reassurance.

“It was sort of a surprise. Or, well, an accident, really,” Mordred chuckled, ever the accomplished liar. “I hitched a ride with some of the bards that are performing at the feast. Thought I’d stop here a night before looking for someone to take me on tomorrow. Couldn’t believe my eyes when I ran into Merlin!” He laughed, elbowing Merlin in the arm, and Merlin remembered himself and chuckled back. “So far from home. What’re the odds?”

Lancelot smiled, but was still looking warily at Merlin, who knew he could be doing a better job of this whole subterfuge thing. “They do say it’s a small world,” he answered politely, and then addressed Merlin. “Are you certain you’re alright, Merlin?” he asked, and Merlin recognized it as an opportunity for escape.

Instead, he nodded. “I’m fine. Just tired.” He smiled up at Lancelot’s still-hesitant face. “Archimedes had me up early pretty early.” It was half true, at least, the other half being Arthur.

“Archimedes?” Mordred questioned. “The mathematician?”

“No, the owl,” Merlin muttered, rolling his eyes. “What would a dead mathematician be doing in my bedroom?”

Mordred looked thoroughly perplexed, but Lancelot only laughed, and they both followed Merlin as he started up the hill.

Mordred didn’t stay for the feast, instead heading back to whatever dark and dreary hole Nimueh and her clan had hunkered down in, so Merlin went alone, busy as usual with filling goblets and replacing candles. He caught Arthur’s concerned gaze several times, the paler eyes lingering on him more than usual it seemed, and Merlin tried to sneak a smile to him whenever he could, reassuring him he was fine, really, he had been resting all day. Which wasn’t the slightest bit true, considering Mordred had wanted to see everything, but Arthur needn’t know that. At one point, Arthur waved him over—well, quirked his head in a beckoning motion while holding eye contact, anyway—and unrolled his speech on his lap, whispering through a last-minute check.

“It’s fine, Arthur,” Merlin assured again, sighing as he lingered under the pretense of filling Arthur’s water glass.

The prince quickly drained it, keeping him there. “What about this part? The ‘generosity that extends beyond even your magnanimous reputations’?”

“I think you’re gonna win,” Merlin said, nodding very seriously.

“Win?” Arthur repeated, breaking their carefully constructed servant/master pantomime to peer up at him with befuddlement. “Win what?”

“Oh,” Merlin chirped, affecting surprise, “is this not for the elegant bullshit contest?” He tilted his head in confusion, committed to his expectant expression even as Arthur huffed, rolling his eyes.

“Seriously, though, is it alright?” he asked, suddenly too young and vulnerable for Merlin to draw it out any longer.

“It’s good, Arthur, really,” he affirmed, nodding as he smiled. “You should’ve been writing your own speeches all along; you hardly even need me.”

“Ugh, don’t say that,” Arthur snapped bitterly as he rolled the parchment back up. “I hate doing it without you. Everyone else is insufferable; constantly assuring me it’s amazing and perfect.” He rolled his eyes with distaste, and Merlin sucked his lips in around a smile.

“And that’s a bad thing?”

“Well, no,” Arthur muttered, folding his elbows onto the table. “But what if it wasn’t good? They still wouldn’t tell me. Whereas you are completely bereft of any sense of decorum and would waste no time telling me a pig could write a better speech.”

Merlin smiled tightly to barricade a laugh. “Well, I don’t know about that,” he replied, going for airy. “Pigs are much better at poetry than speeches.”

Arthur choked on the water he was drinking, spluttering and wiping at his chin before looking up at Merlin, shaking his head as he restrained a grin.

Merlin lifted his eyebrows, and then skittered away, feeling Arthur’s eyes on his back, and, if Arthur looked his way a bit more than any other direction as he scanned over the hall during his speech, well, Merlin didn’t really mind.

Several hours later he would be dreaming of those eyes, watching the everyday scene of putting Arthur into his armor unfolding in his head. Nothing was out of the ordinary, nothing to make it worthy of a dream at all, and then, quite suddenly, Arthur stopped him, pressing a tentative hand to his chest, palm shifting over Merlin’s tunic as it pushed the silver medallion into his skin. Merlin looked at him, questioning, and Arthur slowly looked up, eyes flitting down to Merlin’s lips as his fingers tightened into the tunic, and then he was getting closer, getting blurry, and Merlin’s dreamscape heart was pounding in his chest.

But it wasn’t his heart, and, a second later, he was startled awake by a shout.

“Merlin!?” the frantic voice continued, his door rattling with their fists. “MERLIN!?”

He scrambled out of bed, nearly tripping before he shook his legs out of the linens, and swung open the door with a sleep-wheezed: “What!?”

Morgana stood before him, robe thrown over her night dress, her pale face tear-streaked in the weak morning light, and her hands quivered as they grabbed his own. “Merlin,” she rattled, voice high with a restrained sob. “Oh, Merlin.”

“Morgana, what happened?” Merlin said, body instantly alert, and his eyes searched over her as her hands held fast to his. “Are you alright? Are you hurt?”

She shook her head, a shudder running through her body as she swallowed. “No, I- Merlin, something’s happened. Something-Something terrible!” She choked, a fresh flood of tears spilling over her eyes as her knees stuttered, and Merlin abandoned propriety entirely, stepping forward and wrapping an arm around her as he supported her down the stairs.

A small hiss, and then there was light in the room, Gaius haven awoken and found a candle, now heading toward them to help Merlin ease Morgana down the stairs. “My lady,” Gaius said as he pulled the chair that small bit nearer, lowering her into it with a grip on her shoulder, “what is it? What’s happened?”

Morgana shook her head, eyes pressed closed as if she would open them to hell. “It’s-It’s awful. Oh, god, Merlin, it’s so awful!”

“Morgana, it’s alright,” he soothed, kneeling down in front of her and placing his hands atop hers on her lap. “Whatever it is, we’ll fix it. We can fix it, okay? Just tell me what’s wrong.” And he meant it, oh god did he mean it, and he could tell by the look Gaius was giving him that maybe he shouldn’t, but he could no longer deny the strange familiarity he had with Morgana, this undeniable something that tethered him to her, and he knew he would slay the gods themselves if that’s what was required.

But Morgana only shook her head, the speed worrying now. “No, you can’t. No one can. I-I tried- Merlin!” She snapped her eyes open, staring at him in panicked delirium, her fingers vices where they gripped into his forearms. “Merlin, I tried! I TRIED!”

“Morgana!” Merlin shouted, grabbing at her elbows and pulling her forward as she made to collapse back into the chair in tears again. “Morgana, tell me what happened! You have to tell me what happened!”

She stared at him, and Merlin wasn’t entirely sure she could see him at all until she nodded, her breathing stuttering into something a little less concerning. “The-The girl,” she stuttered through hiccups and swallows. “The one who’s always in the kitchens. The little one, with-with the brother?”

Merlin nodded, recognizing the description of the nine-or-so-year-old girl who haunted the kitchens with her younger brother, both orphans the staff had seemingly unwittingly adopted.

“She-She-” Morgana’s voice pitched higher, and she seemed at risk of losing it again, but Merlin gripped her tighter, and she gripped him back, anchoring herself with a breath. “There was a fire—this morning, when they started the bread—and she- Her-Her brother was inside and she-she-” Her face crumpled, and she hung it for a moment, sucking in a breath that rattled like plague. When she looked up, she was no version of herself Merlin had ever known, weak and worn and defeated. “She used magic, Merlin,” she whispered, and though it was impossible, though he knew it wasn’t true, Merlin felt as though Morgana knew those words meant so much more to him, as if she too could feel the cold stab that surged through his heart. “She used magic to save him, and now-” She faded away, and, though the sentence didn’t need to be finished, it seemed Morgana needed to finish it. “She’s in jail. They’re in the throne room now, deciding-deciding-”

Merlin slid one hand off her arm taking her hand, and Morgana gripped it back, the frantic fight draining more out of her with every labored breath.

“I tried,” she whimpered, a spattering of tears falling onto Merlin’s hand, trailing down the back to slide around his wrist. “I tried to talk him out of it, but he-” She shook her head with a stuttering breath as she clung to Merlin’s hand. “It’s set for dawn tomorrow,” she said, and no one asked what, no one breathed, the weight of sorrow settling heavy over all of them in the silent grey light of morning that brought comfort now, but would betray them tomorrow. “Arthur was still in there when I left,” she continued, sniffling a little, but otherwise composed. “I’ve never seen him so angry.” Her head swung slowly side to side, as if she could hardly believe the memory of it, and Merlin’s spinning mind finally settled on something.

“Gaius?” he said, straightening up as much as he could without yet breaking his grip on Morgana.

The physician’s eyes snapped to him as if out of a daze, and he looked suddenly every one of his years.

“Put on some tea. We have to warm her up.” Morgana gave his arm a small squeeze of thanks, and he smiled at her briefly before continuing. “I’ll find Gwen, tell her what’s happened. She should be down here right away.”

“Where are you going?” Morgana asked, and Merlin was grateful she was only curious and not betrayed, because he doubted he could have said no had she asked him to stay.

Nevertheless, his words were hard when he answered her. “I’m going to find Arthur.”

Her eyes widened only a moment, and then she nodded, a firm jerk of her head that ought to be reserved for going into battle, but, as she released him and he rushed past the staring physician to the door, he wondered if she wasn’t exactly right.

---

Arthur pounded his desk, the pain in his fingers a welcome shift in focus from the furious red haze in his mind. The wood was bare beneath his aching digits, the contents of the desk knocked off by a rage-fueled swipe of his arm, and papers and broken glass now littered the surrounding floor, his clepsydrae lying in pieces in a pool of water at the base of the wall it had shattered against. He could feel his pulse in his fingertips, hear it in his ears, and his breaths burned as they were pulled through his raw throat.

He had never shouted like that at his father, never shouted like that at anyone, and his body was still thrumming with it, vibrating with the rage and adrenaline and frenzy that had nowhere to go. And yet, at the same time, he felt very small, hopelessly broken and weak, and all he wanted to do was collapse to a heap on the floor and cry for how helpless he was, but that would solve nothing, and, though breaking his possessions wasn’t productive either, he would at least have an easier time explaining that if anyone walked in. Which he highly doubted anyone was going to, considering he was practically a prisoner in his room now, his father’s knights ‘escorting’ him up and now likely posted outside the door. No, it was unlikely anyone would disturb him no matter what he broke or how much he hypothetically cried, but some things not even the knights of Camelot have been trained for, and one of them was shouting earthquakes just outside the door.

“What do you mean I can’t go in?!”

Arthur whirled around, scraping a piece of parchment that was once grain inventory across the stone.

A muffled reply came, followed by a theatrical scoff.

“What, is he supposed to starve? I have to bring him his breakfast, it’s my job. You know, that thing you do sometimes when you’re not down at the tavern hitting on Ellen Jayton while she picks your pockets?”

Arthur was at the door before the spluttering cry of offense was even out of the knight’s mouth, and he whipped it open just as the man was leaning forward, hand on the hilt of his sword and a very stubborn—and also a fair bit stupid—manservant glaring up at him. For a moment, Arthur couldn’t speak, even as everyone turned to him, his mind sticking to the look on Merlin’s face when he’d opened the door, as if challenging the man to dare attempt it, not a hint of fear or doubt in his eyes. Now, as Merlin’s deep blue turned away from the guard and alighted on Arthur, his skin buzzed with something entirely different than fury, and he felt almost, for a fleeting breath of a moment…afraid. There was a surety in Merlin’s gaze, an ice there that held no hesitation, no mercy, only mission, and, in the blink before they softened with concern, Arthur hoped to never make an enemy of the man he had just caught a glimpse of.

“Sire!?” the knight he now firmly believed Merlin was somehow going to incapacitate said, startled by his sudden appearance. “What are you-”

“I’m not leaving,” Arthur snapped bitterly, and the man blinked, taking a small step backward, an only slightly dignified version of cowering, “but he’s coming in.”

Merlin didn’t quite smile, but his eyes warmed. He made no move to enter, however, the reason quickly becoming clear when the now-really-just-asking-for-it Sir Young stepped in front of him, extending a hand to bar Merlin’s non-existent forward progress.

“We have strict instructions not to allow anyone in or out of your chambers, Sire,” he said, and Arthur raised an eyebrow.

“I highly doubt my father intended you to prevent me eating breakfast,” he said drily, and the man’s neck darkened a few shades.

“His orders were very specific,” the knight defended, at which point Arthur stepped forward, prompting the entire group beyond to step back.

“And now I’m giving you new ones,” he snarled, and the two knights—armed, taller than him, and technically employed by the king—flinched.

Merlin only twitched a brief smirk.

“Now step aside,” Arthur added, slow and deliberate, letting the threat of every syllable sink into the air around them.

No one moved, no physically shifting occurring, but something about the knight’s retreated, gave up, and Merlin, always intuitive when it came to that sort of thing, moved forward through a gap.

“Truly, Sire, I must insist-” Sir Young began, evidently more foolhardy than Arthur had given him credit for, but it was not Arthur’s mouth opening and the spark of fury in his eyes that caused the man to stall his protest. No, he was looking at Merlin.

The knight’s hand had grabbed onto the servant’s shoulder, wrapping around the edge of his arm, and Merlin’s eyes shot down to the invading digits before following up the knight’s arm to his face, and there again Arthur saw the look of brokered power, of the righteous kind of fury he always imagined sitting on the countenance of angels he was warned reaped vengeance and death upon the unjust.

Arthur couldn’t breathe.

Under the weight of Merlin’s steady gaze, Sir Young retracted his hand, mute as he stepped back, staring at the servant with something between terror and shock.

Without a word, Merlin turned, taking the two steps to the door and ducking in past Arthur, who did not even so much as look at the men before shutting them out.

Arthur stared at the wood for a moment, releasing a breath to ease the tension of the altercation from his body, and then turned to find Merlin right there.

“Are you alright?”

Arthur blinked. It hadn’t been what he was expecting, and the shift was almost jarring: from a screaming match with his father to Merlin’s hushed tones and roving, blue concern. “What?” he murmured, voice watery to his ears.

Merlin’s forehead furrowed as he searched Arthur’s face, and then he turned away to place the breakfast plate on the table, the sparse sampling of bread, cheese, and cured meat clearly more his excuse than Arthur’s meal. “Morgana told me what happened,” he continued as Arthur stepped a bit further into the room, drawing up level with Merlin when he looked back. “Are you alright?”

It was not a question often asked of the crown prince, not sincerely anyway, and it bowled Arthur over even hearing it the second time. “I- Yes-” he stammered, but Merlin held his gaze, expression never wavering. Arthur sighed, swallowing hard as he dropped his head and rubbed at the temped of his forehead. “No,” he admitted, and the word was raw in his wrecked throat.

A few clicks of boots and Merlin was there again, hands twitching helplessly at his sides as he earnestly searched Arthur’s face. “What can I do?” he asked, and Arthur could feel the touch in the words, the arms wrapped around him, the hands on his face pushing out creases worn from exhaustion and heartache, but Merlin never moved.

“Nothing,” Arthur said, though if he was still talking to Merlin or reprimanding himself for his own ineptitude, he wasn’t certain. “There’s nothing.”

Merlin looked away, shaking his head, still in the stubborn stage of denial Arthur had passed through long ago, although Merlin was quieter about it. “There must be something,” he hissed, clearly conscious of their audience. “Where is she being held? How many guards? Surely we can get her out.”

Arthur huffed a laugh made of glass. “And take her where, Merlin?” he asked rhetorically, the thought having already occurred and been dismissed a thousand times. “They’ve lived here their entire lives. They have no family, no friends beyond those here in the castle and town.” Arthur waved a helpless hand out to his side. “Even if I could get her out, there’s nowhere they could go they’d be safe, and they’re too young to support themselves.”

“Someone could go with them,” Merlin tried, but, again, Arthur had been there before.

“Who? Who would do that? Who could we trust to do that?” he asked, because, somehow, he and Merlin had ended up the only two on a team against circumstance. “I can’t leave. You can’t leave. Lancelot or Leon would do it, I’m certain, but could we ask that of them? To give up their entire lives to go on the run with a couple of kids, knowing the best knights Uther can spare are on their trail?”

“I can leave,” Merlin said, and it startled Arthur how easily it came out, how certain, and his tongue moved before he could check the weakness.

“You can?” he asked, and he could tell Merlin knew he didn’t mean it like an offer when the man ducked his head, eyes darting down and away.

“I-I don’t want to,” he answered, barely audible before he looked up, “but I would. For this.”

Arthur looked at his servant and felt suddenly so horrible for making him that, for keeping someone like Merlin in a place like this, for exposing something so good, so kind, so pure to a world of evil and vengeance and death. This was no place for angels.

“It doesn’t matter anyway,” he sighed, turning away from a reaction he couldn’t bear to watch. “After my…outburst, Uther took the brother.” He winced as the gasp came from behind him. “If the girl isn’t still in her cell in the morning, if she doesn’t go on the pyre tomorrow-” He stopped, the words unbearable, but he had to force himself to say it to accept the truth in them. “Uther will kill him instead.”

There was a scrape, a groan of wood.

“Oh my god,” Merlin breathed, and Arthur turned to find him seated at the table, eyes moving over the table as if reading words carved into the surface. “That- That’s-” He let out a shuddering breath, his mouth closing, and then set his jaw as he turned to Arthur again. “No, there must be something,” he defied as he stood, and Arthur couldn’t help but admire the fortitude, futile as it was. “Where’s the boy? Can we get to him?”

Arthur shook his head. “Uther won’t tell anyone where he’s keeping him, but I suspect it’s in the dungeons, the old ones below the eastern wall. Those are entirely cold iron,” he added in answer to the question in the crease of Merlin’s brow.

The man deflated, a bitter grimace on his face, as if this, of all things, was the final dash of the final hope. Once again, however, Merlin rallied. “You have to talk to him,” he ordered, moving in front of Arthur again. “You have to convince him.”

“Merlin,” Arthur said, exhausted. “Merlin, I tried. He-”

“Then try harder!”

Arthur started, blinking as he neck snapped back away from the shout.

Merlin’s face was twisted in anger, but the overriding pain and desperation was spoken clearly by his eyes. “He can’t get away with this. He can’t! These are children, Arthur!” He waved a hand back toward the door, and Arthur winced.

As if he hadn’t already known that, as if he hadn’t already mentally catalogued all the birthdays, weddings, children, and grandchildren that were never going to be.

“We can’t let them die!”

“You think I didn’t try!?” Arthur exploded, angry at all the wrong people. “Why do you think I’m locked up in here, Merlin? Because I politely disagreed?”

Merlin’s eyes hardened, but Arthur didn’t give him the chance to speak.

“There are diplomats here, Merlin! People from all across the five kingdoms, some from even further. And they all heard my father threaten to disinherit me if I spoke out again.”

The servant looked surprised, perhaps even verging on shock, but he still didn’t look convinced, so Arthur continued.

“If that happens, how long do you think it would take them to rally their armies? How long do you think Camelot would survive under an assault from that many sides? We can’t afford to look weak!”

“Weak?” Merlin said quietly, but it still stopped Arthur dead, and he could swear he felt himself physically shrinking under Merlin’s disparaging gaze. “You don’t want to look weak?”

“I- It’s not about me,” Arthur stammered, sick at himself. “It’s about the kingdom. If I’m no longer heir to the throne, if Camelot falls into enemy hands…” He faded away, shaking his head down at the ground. “I have to protect my people, Merlin,” he said, falling back into his duty, his birthright, his burden and honor. “I can’t do that if I’m not king.”

Merlin’s face was stone, his eyes something even colder. “And what about her?” he asked, turning his head just slightly to indicate back toward the door. “Is she not your people? Do you not have to protect her?”

Arthur winced, Merlin’s soft tone a battle-axe. “I-I have a greater responsibility, Merlin. I can’t throw everything away for-” He stopped, the planned words too heartless to force from his lips.

“For a sorcerer?” Merlin surmised, and Arthur could do nothing but watch as something died in his servant then, a flicker of hurt crossing his face before he was staring at Arthur like a stranger.

“No,” Arthur argued, and, even though it was true, he knew Merlin was already decided. “For one person. Any person. I have to put the needs of the whole above the needs of the individual.”

Merlin scoffed, but there was no teasing in it, only bitter disgust. “That is such bullshit,” he said without anger, his eyes screaming disappointment. “You hide behind your crowns and your titles, so, when the time comes, you can make the easy decision and pretend it was noble. But it’s not, Arthur.” He took a small step closer, staring straight into Arthur’s face like he could read every dark dirty corner of his soul. “It’s cowardice,” he said sharply, and Arthur turned his eyes away. Merlin rattled out a breath, and, when Arthur looked back to him, his jaw was set, his eyes tight, and he swallowed hard. “I thought you were different,” he creaked, shaking his head, eyes blinking back betrayal.

The back of Arthur’s neck bristled defensively, not because Merlin was wrong, but because he was right, and Arthur had had enough of it pummeled into him by his own conscience. He didn’t need Merlin looking at him like he had personally shattered every last hope he had.

“Different?” Arthur spat, even just repeating the word stinging a bit, but he tried not to let it show. “Different from what? From you?” He waved a hand at Merlin’s chest, and the man’s eyes flashed at the dismissal. “Because, yes, Merlin, I am different from you. You have no idea what it’s like to have the responsibility I do; you will never understand what it means to wear this crown,” he hissed, pointing up at the golden circlet over his hair. “I have to make the hard decisions. Me. That is my responsibility, my duty to my people, and I have to put that first, even above myself.”

Merlin didn’t appear to be growing any more sympathetic, instead just looking at Arthur like he was breaking him more and more with every word, and somehow this made Arthur so angry he wanted to scream.

“So how dare you, how dare you tell me it’s cowardice? How dare you even pretend to know the burden of those crowns and titles you so easily dismiss? You know nothing of what it is to be noble!” He was shouting now, and Merlin staggered a step back, eyes wide open and aching. Arthur breathed heavily, watching the deep blue eyes searching between his. He closed his mouth, set his jaw. “You’re just a servant,” he almost spat, but his voice broke. “What do you know of honor?”

For a moment, he thought Merlin might fall. He recoiled as if Arthur had struck him, mouth agape as he stared, still searching for something within Arthur’s face. Scant seconds later, however, he closed his mouth, the sorrow in his eyes icing over, and there was nothing in its place. He gave Arthur a nod that was more with his eyes than anything else, and then turned, evidently dismissing himself for the door.

Arthur’s stomach writhed in panic as he watched Merlin’s back getting farther and farther away, and he wondered if he would wake up, if this would all be a nightmare, because he could never have really said that, could he? “Merlin, stop,” he said, at least at first, but his voice rose as the man’s steps did not even hitch. “Merlin, wait. Merlin!”

A twitch of his fingers against his thigh, a small shift of his head that might have been a wince, but he did not stop.

“Stop! Merlin!” He stepped forward, boot hitting hard on the stone. “Dammit, Merlin, I am your future king!”

“No.”

Arthur’s anger fell from him in an instant, shattering on the floor in a cloud of shame and regret as Merlin turned, eyes glassy, expression taut.

“You’re your father’s son,” he said, voice thin and brittle, and he held Arthur’s gaze for a long, heart-stalling moment before he blinked, turning and disappearing out the door with a closing click that was so loud with finality, Arthur shuddered.

He wanted to shout after him, tell him that was the same thing, but he knew it wasn’t, not really, and instead he moved on shaking knees to the table, barely managing to pull a chair out before he collapsed onto it. His breathing was ragged, coming in quicker and quicker gasps and heaves, and his heart was barely managing to keep up, aching under the strain. Arthur clutched a hand over it, gripping tightly into the fabric of his tunic as he squeezed his eyes shut, willing the building burn away. The image of Merlin turning back filled the dark canvas of his eyelids, a little sliver of silver peeking out from beneath the laces of his blue tunic, and, with that, Arthur was undone, the added weight of his mother’s disapproval crushing down on him as he wondered how it was possible to feel so much pain without any blood to show for it.