Merlin thinks he's adapted well enough to long stretches of riding; Arthur's idea of a hunting trip could be mistaken for heroic quest in the amount of time he could spend tracking a single stag, or a particularly vicious, human-unfriendly bear.
So it's not simply days on horseback that have somehow transformed Merlin into a village crone complaining of aches in every limb; Arthur's happy when he hunts, and if Merlin's learned nothing else during his time in service, uncomplicated happiness for Arthur is more rare than a unicorn. It's Arthur grimly leading five knights and Merlin like a funeral procession, eating ground at a pace that turned an easy three week journey into a twelve day death march.
Thighs aching, Merlin squints through the early evening gloom, trying to work up the motivation to ask Arthur if there's any chance at all they'll be stopping before someone snaps and assassination becomes a viable alternative to staying one more second on a bloody horse. Merlin's three days past the point pretending he isn't talking about himself, though Sir Gawain and Sir Galahad aren't too far behind, due to some arcane interaction between man, armour, and chafing that Merlin would rather know nothing about.
"Sire," Sir Lionel says, the arse-licking bastard, looking as fresh and disgustingly comfortable as if he'd risen from his own bed this morning and not from a camp that consisted of dirt, three trees, and a wind more suited to a freezing blizzard than a crisp late fall night. Merlin sees Sir Gawain's eyes narrow on him from beneath a fringe of damp brown hair with the speculative look of someone very close to outright murder. "The mist is starting to thicken. Should we find somewhere to camp before it's too heavy to navigate?"
It's an intensely practical question that Arthur appreciates not at all, if the stiff line of his back is anything to go by.
"No," Arthur says shortly, not so much as turning his head. Lionel, blessed with a density on par with that of Gaius' porridge, opens his mouth to continue to argue his case, secure in his position as the only other knight in the party who has actually been to Cornwall before and therefore non-expendable at least until they reach the village.
"We're only an hour from the village," Arthur says tightly. Merlin sees his hands are white-knuckled on the reins, fingers twitching for something long and sharp to skewer Lionel as he rides in oblivious privilege.
Lionel bows easy agreement, falling back, and Merlin and Gawain sigh in disappointment, then look at each other in shared misery before Gawain jerks his head toward Arthur desperately. Sighing, Merlin touches his heels to the palfrey, irritated how the knights pull out of his way almost immediately, looking hopeful as only men can when they have nothing else to depend on.
Arthur gives him a sidelong glance as Merlin joins him. "Don't say a word."
"Stop it," Merlin says between gritted teeth, trying to look pleasant and cajoling. "They're going to rebel and leave us here to die."
"Here?" Arthur looks at the slowly thickening fog dubiously. "Good luck with that."
"Fine, they'll die too. And bloody Lionel will be the one to return to Camelot and tell stories about how we mysteriously turned on each other before vanishing into the darkness. There will be songs. Lionel will be the hero."
"The hell he will," Arthur mutters darkly, hands twitching again. Then he shakes himself, and there's a faint--very faint, but there--trace of the usual prat who can be a bastard but has learned to laugh at himself, too, and Merlin feels his mouth twitch just watching. "It's not far. I have been here before."
Not in the last five years; Merlin had asked Gaius, alerted to trouble by the fixed expression on Arthur's face and the equally sour one on the King's. Gaius had hedged and hawed, saying only that Tintagel had uncomfortable associations for the king, being where his wife had died bearing Arthur.
Bad enough that; worse were the records that Merlin had snuck past Geoffrey to find, the neat documentation of Uther's atrocities that had started here. Uther's grief had left few alive in the sleepy village that had died almost to a man, still drunk from celebrating the birth of their prince, thousands dying screaming on pyres so large they could be seen for miles and smoke blanketing almost all of Cornwall as the slaughter continued for weeks.
The village was rebuilt, but perhaps it did not forgive, and of all the territories Camelot might claim, Cornwall was the only one the King seemed to fear.
Merlin looks back worriedly at the knights with them--granted, Camelot knights, and almost a small army in themselves, but still, knights--then at Arthur.
"Don't say it."
"Foot soldiers wouldn't have gone amiss," Merlin says, unable to help himself, as if this argument hasn't been the end of every conversation they've had since they left.
"I know, I'll stop, fine, it's too late now--"
"--but your father isn't the kind to coddle you either," Merlin says grimly, which is almost painfully true. Uther's fear had been almost palpable, and while Merlin was privy to few of the arguments, he could read them in Arthur's body at the end of each day. It was too close to Arthur's fever from the Questing Beast, Merlin thinks bitterly; Arthur's recovery had been slower than he liked, never having been so ill for so long, and Uther had been faced with his son's mortality too recently. There was no way they could come to agreement.
Though Merlin thinks now it's more than that; the man that rose from that sickbed isn't quite the same as the man he was before. Fair enough, Merlin thinks; the person he was before he went to the Isle isn't the same as the one that first went there, sick with despair and grief. In a strange way, though, they seem to slot together more easily, as if the rough edges had been worn away in the time apart, a few more pieces clicking into place between them. What it means, Merlin has no idea, and he doubts Arthur's noticed it at all.
"He has reason," Arthur says briefly, ending the conversation, and Merlin considers leaving him to his thoughts, or whatever passes for thought when Arthur's in this sort of mood. Granted, it can't be pleasant to return to the place where one's mother died and one's father went mad, but Arthur grim mood has been similar to that of a man about to face the block.
It takes several minutes for Merlin to realize that their pace had increased; Merlin looks back, realizing that the fog is thick enough that the knights are no longer in view. "Arthur--" he starts, but Arthur reaches for his reins before he can slow the horse, pulling him along even faster. "Arthur, we're--"
"They have Lionel," Arthur says carelessly, with the faintest trace of satisfied malice. "I'm sure he'll get them there safely."
Merlin scowls. "And us?"
Arthur's mouth twists. "Merlin, trust me when I say, Cornwall is the one place in all of Albion that I cannot get lost. Even if I wanted to."
It might be the fog that makes Merlin chill at the words, but then again, it's probably not. "Arthur, you've been here, what, once?"
"Twice." Merlin stares at him. "Fine, one of those times I was still a babe in leading strings, but that does count."
"No, it really doesn't." Looking around, Merlin's not comforted; did the fog thicken that fast, or did Merlin just not notice the passage of time? Abruptly, Arthur eases the reins over the horse's head and out of Merlin's surprise-slack hands entirely, fastening them to his saddle. "Are you possessed?" Merlin asks warily.
"Oh, for the love of--" Arthur half-turns in the saddle, giving him an incredulous look. "No! I'm tired of being watched. I'm tired of being coddled. And if I spent five more minutes in Sir Lionel's company, I will slaughter him and I'm not sure any of my knights will stop me."
"So riding off in a fog is a logical reaction: brilliant. I wonder why I didn't think of it myself," Merlin snaps, trying to work out a way to get his reins back before he realizes the pointlessness of trying. It's not like he's going to ride back to find the knights alone. And Merlin has to admit he has a point about Lionel. "So you're sure you know your way to the village?"
"Yes, but that's not where we're going. At least, not first."
Merlin stares at Arthur's profile. "Right. So where--"
"There's something I want to see first."
Merlin doesn't like the sound of that at all.
Night falls early, not that the fog really let there be much daylight. Pulling his coat closer, Merlin tucks his hands into the space between the saddle and the warm body of his horse, the short hair smooth against his chilled fingers.
"All right," Merlin says after the silence grows too long. "Surprise me. Where are we going exactly?"
Arthur's expression clearly states he has neither the interest nor the need to tell Merlin anything at all, thanks, but with something uncertain and wary in his eyes that tells Merlin this isn't--at least, not entirely--Arthur being particularly stubborn and reckless.
Before Merlin can find a tactful way to go about making Arthur explain, however, he becomes faintly aware that there's something different about the quality of sound around them, and the fog, though thick, seems to be thinning around them, enough that Merlin can make out faint, dark shapes in the distance. Licking his lips, they come away with a faint taste that isn't quite fog, almost like-- "I taste salt," Merlin says in surprise, wiping his mouth. "Do you hear--"
Arthur looks at him curiously, then smiles suddenly, bright and pleased, and Merlin's heart twists a little at the sight of it. "Right," he says, sounding as young as he really is, than Merlin always thinks of him, because it's so easy to forget Arthur's little more than a boy himself. "I forgot you're from Ealdor. Hold on, let's speed this up a bit."
"What--no--" Merlin tightens his legs just in time, as Arthur sets off, pace moving from a quick walk and accelerating through a trot into a full gallop through the fog. Clinging to the saddle, Merlin wants to shout that he's gone mad and slow the fuck down, you idiot, but maybe he's spent too much time with Arthur, because he really doesn't want to. He can feel himself smiling, something huge filling his chest like light, leaning close over the horse's neck as they ride blind into fog and darkness.
The sound grows louder, like the distant roll of thunder in a long-awaited storm, but heavier, and every breath is filled with salt, coating his tongue and throat. The fog seems to thin more, and Merlin sees a stretch of darkness as the ground beneath them changes, softening. Abruptly, Arthur pulls them to a stop and Merlin wipes his eyes, staring through the faintest hit of mist at a rolling darkness so vast it takes his breath, broken in bright edges of pure white against unmoving rocks.
He's heard stories of bodies of water so vast that they lead to the very edges of the earth, the sound of the tide like thunder, dark water splashing bright and high against rocks hidden beneath. Sliding off his horse, Merlin stumbles on the uncertain ground, looking down briefly to see the shift of sand beneath his feet. It's nothing like the lake of the maze, though it's the only reference he can think of. Making his way across the sand, Merlin comes to the edge of the tide, chill water lapping at his boots as he looks into the stretch of water that feels like eternity.
There's power here, something huge and endless that trembles in his very bones, something more elemental than even his magic. After a second, he feels Arthur's hand brush his arm, stopping beside him, careless of expensive leather and salt water.
"I've never seen anything like it," Merlin breathes.
"I know." Arthur's voice is just as quiet, and just as awed. Merlin glances at him, then away, shifting close enough that their arms brush, as if by accident. Arthur doesn't move away. "I was born here, you know."
Merlin follows his gaze up, an incline of rock and grass to a shape even blacker than the night, towers arrowing toward the sky like unsheathed swords, and feels Arthur's arm press against his briefly. "I wanted to see it," Arthur says quietly. "I was never permitted to come here."
"They say that he wanted to raze it at first," Arthur continues, voice flat. "He thought this might be a more potent reminder; letting it slowly rot away here, a symbol of his purges. He didn't expect them to rebuild the village; when he last brought me here, he tried to make them leave. He'd have flooded the ground if he could have, but Camelot has neither engineers nor magicians to do his will."
Merlin bites his lip. "Why didn't he bring you to see it?"
When Arthur doesn't answer, Merlin makes himself look away; a corpse of a castle, left to crumble into dust for a King's rage and grief, the birthplace of his only son an object of hatred. He wonders, suddenly, how it must feel to Arthur, to see the place of his birth turned into this.
Merlin thinks that he could have hated Uther Pendragon for this alone; if Merlin had not been a sorcerer, but only a man who knew nothing of magic, he'd still hate what his grief had wrought in his only son. Hatred shouldn't ever be stronger than love, and a woman long dead shouldn't be more valued than his living, breathing son.
"We should get to the village," Merlin says reluctantly. He wants to see it, and not because this is the place that the purges began. This is where Arthur was born, and no matter what came of that, for that alone, he would want to know this place.
"So we should." Arthur hesitates, then turns back, and Merlin follows him quietly up the shifting ground to where Arthur left the horses. Mounting clumsily, Merlin gives one last look at the ocean, wondering if it will look different in daylight, less huge and less grand. He doubts it. "We'll come back later. I'd like to see it, considering it's mine."
Merlin, taking his reins back from Arthur, almost drops them. "What?"
"It was gifted to my mother at my birth. An hour later, my father passed it to me by her right. He said it was fitting. I suppose after taking her life, it was only fair I take her castle as well. "
Merlin's hands clench on the reins, biting his lip before the hot words hovering on his tongue find air. Nodding tightly, he waits for Arthur to lead them back to the fog-enshrouded road to the village.
Arthur's direction sense is as irritatingly flawless as it always is; less than an hour later, they reach the village, where they are greeted by frantic, unhappy knights, a nervous but friendly innkeeper, and Lionel with a black eye who obviously wants nothing more than to tattle. Merlin leaves Arthur to mock his knights into good humour and goes with the innkeeper, sending out the stableboys to see to the horses.
The best room is, of course, Arthur's, evicting whoever else had been there before. Merlin thinks this should be more irritating than it is, but a manservant has certain privileges and one of them is sleeping in his master's room while on journeys. One look at the blazing warmth of the hearth, the fresh bedclothes, and the neat cot by the fire is enough to reconcile Merlin to royal privilege.
It helps, Merlin thinks in amusement, if one is a beneficiary of it, following the innkeeper to the kitchen to see what they have ready for dinner. Arthur's the least picky of eaters outside of Camelot, so Merlin simply orders roast chicken added to the menu and tries to decide whether to accept the innkeeper's offer of a private room for the prince and his companions to dine in.
Then he thinks of Lionel. "Send His Highness a tray in his room," Merlin tells him, and goes back check on the horses and get Arthur's pack while two of the serving girls take care of those of the knights.
"Hot wine, by the way, whatever you have at hand," Merlin says to the innkeeper just as Arthur bellows "Merlin!" Merlin rolls his eyes. "He's always like that."
The innkeeper nods, mouth curving in surprising amusement, vanishing as if by magic, and Merlin goes to the common room, where the knights and Arthur are already gathered, looking hideously out of place in the room of townspeople and the occasional farmer.
Arthur sees him first, and Merlin doesn't miss the look of relief as he sets the tankard aside. "Where have you--"
"Seeing to your comforts, sire," Merlin says piously, bowing his head. "If you'll come with me, the innkeeper is assisting with preparing your dinner, so I'll show you to your room."
Arthur looks at him suspiciously, the faintest hint of a smile curving up the corner of his mouth. "Very well."
As Merlin had suspected, the second Arthur was in the room, even warmer now from Merlin subtly nudging the temperature upward, he loses all interest in leaving. When a serving girl comes with the stew and wine, an apology that the chicken is still on the spit, Arthur sends her away with a smile and orders to tell his knights he will see them in the morning.
Stripping off his damp coat and boots, Merlin washes quickly in the warm water in the basin, smirking at Arthur's scowl. "You want me to assist you with filthy hands?" he says innocently. Taking the surcoat and chain mail, Merlin hangs them to dry, wondering if he should ask if the inn has anything in the way of laundry service before finding Arthur a shift. Across the room, Arthur strips off his boots and tunic, breathing a sigh of relief and melting into the hard chair by the small table the innkeeper had brought up. "You're not half bad at this," Arthur says, sounding surprised.
"The innkeeper's wife in Ealdor was a good friend of mum's," Merlin says, surreptitiously checking the bedclothes for cleanliness. "She'd send me to help during their busy season. I learned a few things."
"So you did."
That, Merlin thinks, turning away to hide the sudden hot flush of his cheeks, should not make him feel so pleased.
Going about his duties in the small room feels different, somehow, and not just because the room is an order of magnitude smaller than Arthur's chambers--there's a bed, a cupboard, the table and chair, and very little floor space otherwise. Arthur's presence there isn't quite so immediate, and Merlin's aware that he has Arthur's undivided attention when he'd done eating.
It's due to a lack of anything else to do, Merlin knows, but he likes it anyway, domestic in that way that makes Merlin think of long evenings with his mother as they did their evening chores. It only gets worse when Arthur fetches his own armour and moves the dishes aside, stretching it out for inspection.
"I'll clean it when I'm done," Merlin says uncertainly.
"You have enough to do; get me the oil and a clean cloth," Arthur says absently. "And summon a serving girl."
Merlin makes a face and goes to the door, looking down the hallway just as a girl emerges from one of the two chambers the knights will be using. "Lallia?" Merlin says uncertainly. Her wary expression lightens a little. "His Highness wishes for your presence."
Her face goes still, and Merlin thinks for a second that she hesitates, but the smile stays neatly in place, and Merlin backs up, going to his bag to get the oil as the girl curtseys, saying, "How can I serve you, sire?"
"You could take lessons from her," Arthur remarks, looking up from the chain mail. "Please send up dinner for my servant when you bring the chicken. And more mulled wine."
She curtseys again, turning away but not so quickly Merlin doesn't see the relief on her face. Giving Arthur the oil, Merlin follows her into the hall, catching her just as she reaches the stairs.
"He doesn't--" Merlin starts, remembering the serving girls in Ealdor's inn. It was an unspoken rule, one that it was years before Merlin understood, about serving girls and highborn men. Camelot's not different, exactly; Merlin knows the girls there who serve in bed as well as at meals, but somehow, it's never had quite left a bitter taste in his mouth. Gwen had explained, in her uncertain, circular way, about Uther and Arthur's feelings on servants and service.
"There are--women who are paid for such things, if a guest should desire it," she said, staring past him at the wall, blushing as darkly as a summer rose. "They do not--think it proper to--if a girl doesn't wish it."
Gwen would know; for that matter, Morgana would know. And he does believe them. Morgana, at least, makes no secret of her disdain of the practice of treating serving girls as trollops, and makes no secret of it.
"He doesn't require any personal services," Merlin says quickly, then thinks of the knights. "If you--I mean--if anyone should--offer--something you do not wish, His Highness will not be angry."
She nods, disbelieving.
"I've served him for over a year," Merlin says urgently. "He does not approve of--requiring what should be given freely. I promise you. Come to me if you feel--if any of them--if there is anything. Please."
Lallia hesitates, studying him with sudden attention. "Thank you," she whispers, then blushes, turning away in a flurry of skirts. Merlin watches her for a minute, then goes back to the room, where Arthur is muttering over the shoulder seams contentedly. Closing the door, Merlin looks at him and wonders if this pleasant feeling is what people call contentment.
"There you are," Arthur says, not looking up. "I think the blacksmith is growing sloppy--this is not well-mended."
"It's been mended five times," Merlin says patiently, joining Arthur at the table and checking the links with careful fingers. "I told you so the last time you had it back. Just commission new mail and be done with it."
"Sentimental value will not protect you from a sword or mace," Merlin says ruthlessly. Arthur glares at him, ready to lie and say that no, he's not at all sentimental about this very special armour. "Relegate this to the practice ring and look at the new design I showed you," Merlin says coaxingly. "It looks knit, the links are so fine."
And will be a merry hell to get clean, but Merlin still remembers the sample the royal blacksmith had shown him, close linked and impenetrable to even the sharpest knife. Merlin is very much in favour of things that keep Arthur safe from blades.
"Hmm. What were you doing?"
Merlin looks up, startled. "When?"
"When you followed the girl?" Arthur doesn't look at him, oiling the join of shoulder and arm, and at this angle, there's no way to see his face.
"Just talked to her a bit," Merlin answers warily.
"Because if you plan to sneak away halfway through the night, I'd prefer to know now and not when I have a knife at your throat," Arthur says pleasantly, head bent over the armour. "The door is not quiet and neither are you. A warning would be appreciated."
Merlin flushes. "Nothing--what? With--no! No of course not! I just told her…"
Arthur looks up curiously. "What?"
"Not to be afraid."
Arthur frowns, opening his mouth, then stops, expression slowly melting into understanding. "I told my men," Arthur says briefly. "They won't trouble the girls here."
Merlin smiles. "I know."
The serving girl is friendlier when she returns with the chicken, more bread and wine, and a bowl of stew larger than Merlin would have expected a servant to rate. A lot of things can be said about Arthur and his lack of awareness there are classes other than highborn, but he's never been reluctant to share the advantages of his station, either, or assuring that Merlin understands the advantages of his in serving a prince.
"As it reflects on me if you look slovenly and starving," Arthur had said carelessly. Merlin had thought of all the nobles that come to Camelot with servants too-thin and too-tired, bruised and afraid, then of Camelot's serving folk, and the contrast between the two.
Arthur's more careful with her than Merlin would have expected, but then again, this isn't Camelot. After a few pleasant minutes of questions about the town and the countryside, the kind of questions that any visitor might ask, he sends her away.
Between the warmth of the fire and the stew, Merlin feels himself starting to melt into the chair, comfortable and sleepy. "How long are we to stay here?" Merlin asks, trying to stay awake. "You said a dispute?"
"Pasturing," Arthur says, leaning an elbow on the table with an expression very like contentment. "Pigs. Or sheep perhaps. Some domesticated animals and some fences and perhaps a barn set on fire."
Merlin snickers. "And the local magistrate couldn't handle it?"
"One of the two is of some small rank above him. Justice can be questionable when station is involved." Arthur hesitates, expression fading into something darker. "They're directly beholden to me, not the crown or another lord. They do have the right to demand I do my duty."
And Arthur believes in duty like priests believe in God.
"Tintagel has a castellan," Arthur says unexpectedly. "He was appointed when I was a child and built a manor here to oversee the land and people. But he has not been well and left some time ago for a warmer climate with my father's blessing. He should have been replaced, but--"
Merlin wonders if Arthur knows he sounds guilty. "Are you going to appoint a new castellan?" he asks carefully, wondering what Arthur wants to hear. Maybe he just needs someone to listen.
"I suppose I must; I can't oversee it directly." Arthur draws a finger over the surface of the table. "There's not much in Tintagel's demesne, just the castle and village, a little land that's too salt-laden to be arable. My father divided the rest among his lords."
"So it's not very profitable to the kingdom?" Merlin ventures curiously.
Arthur snorts. "He stripped it of everything that could have made it so. There are no fish folk; the ports were burned and my father refused to allow them to be rebuilt, and the village taxes were set very high to encourage those here to leave. They didn't, and when I came of age, I ordered the castellan to lower them. They have little here, and are allowed to have even less than the common serfs." Arthur hesitates, staring at the wine cup. "The girl you saw--all of them here--are the ones whose families survived the massacre on the night of my birth. It's said they hid in the caves at high tide, where even my father's most determined men could not find them. When my father left, they returned to their village razed to the ground and the bodies of their families and friends nothing but ash, those with property stripped of it and some even of their names if they shared them with accused sorcerers."
Merlin shudders, staring at the fire.
"They were sorcerers," Arthur says softly, voice slurring with belated exhaustion, like the last twelve days are finally catching up with him, and maybe otherwise, he'd never have revealed so much. "Perhaps they deserved to die. But many died that night who should not have, and those left behind were reduced to penury. My mother would never have wanted this. No one sane would want this."
No one sane, Merlin thinks bitterly, would turn their son's heritage into a living grave, either. He lets the silence stretch to the edge of comfortable, then levers himself from his chair. "You should sleep, sire," he says softly. Arthur looks at him blearily. "Let me help you to bed."
Arthur sighs. "I can get myself to bed."
"True," Merlin says as Arthur gets to his feet unsteadily, "but why own a dog and do your own fetching?"
The pensive look melts away, as Merlin had hoped. "Why indeed."
Merlin wakes at dawn from habit, but there's little urgency to get up and about. There are advantages, he admits, to the custom of manservant (or maid) sleeping in their master's room or an adjoining cubicle; Merlin has a luxurious half an hour to wallow in bed, warm and comfortable, before he need start his morning, and the kitchen and woodpile aren't half a castle away.
After dressing, Merlin indulges himself with sending off one of the kitchen boys for wood for the fire and ordering breakfast be brought in a half hour, as well as a hot bath. It's an unusual request for the morning, but it's been twelve days and Arthur's immaculate bathing habits had given way only to utter exhaustion. By the time he wakes up, he'll want to be clean more than he wants food, water, or possibly air.
Everyone seems friendly enough, which Merlin would have expected from any inn. He'd wondered, thinking on what Arthur had told him and of Uther's unbridled fear, if there would be hostility, or even more subtle fear and dislike, but while having a quiet breakfast with the other servants, he doesn't sense anything from them or their light, easy chatter, not even the usual habit of wariness with the highborn in evidence.
Going back up, Merlin considers this as he looks at Arthur, sleeping the deep sleep of the desperately exhausted. He looks incredibly young all over again, the lines of strain eased, features sleep softened and skin flushed. Beautiful, in that way that Merlin thinks over a year should have inured him to by now.
"Arthur," he says finally, clearing his throat nervously at the husky sound of his own voice. Arthur doesn't move. "Arthur, it's time--"
"Mm." Arthur rolls on his side, blanket sliding down one hip, shift rucked up to reveal an expanse of smooth golden skin. Merlin takes a deep breath and thinks of cold water and also, his mother, who would never approve of Merlin ogling anyone. "Sleep."
Arthur eyes slit open drowsily. "Execute you."
Merlin snorts. He'd usually ruthlessly strip away the bedcovers and retreat across the room to avoid seeing what he shouldn't and let Arthur sulk, but--there's no other side of the room. There's ten feet. "Come, sire," Merlin says, switching to cajoling, which always irritates Arthur to no end for no reason Merlin can discover. "Breakfast is here. And a bath."
Arthur opens his eyes fully. "Bath?"
Merlin points at the tub before the fire, table helpfully shoved against the wall. "Still hot."
Arthur frowns, looking torn; warm, comfortable bed, or being clean after long days sleeping in armour almost every night. It's a short battle that ends with Arthur climbing out of bed, tossing his shift in Merlin's' general direction on his way to the still hot water.
Clutching the shift, Merlin checks to see the soap and a clean cloth are in reaching distance, then adds the shift to the pile of clothes that desperately need cleaning.
"I should get these clean before they're fit for nothing but rags," Merlin says absently, picking at the pile. Arthur's shirt seems fine, but the surcoat may not be salvageable.
"I need you today; get the innkeeper to find someone to take care of it," Arthur says. Surprised, Merlin looks at the tub, which despite being smaller than even the smallest in Camelot, Arthur's managed to fold himself into, submerging as much of himself as possible. Merlin wonders vaguely how he never knew how flexible Arthur was, then looks away, cheeks flushing as he gathers the clothing. "We're supposed to meet with the magistrate this afternoon," Arthur says, eyes closed. "See that a message is sent to tell him we will arrive after the noon meal. And have the kitchen make up something for lunch."
"For how many?" Merlin asks, turning slightly to get a hand to the door, pressing his chin into the topmost tunic. "And where are you going?"
"Where we're going," Arthur answers. "Inform the men I'll send for them when I wish for them." Arthur opens his eyes, expression unreadable. "I think I'd like to see Tintagel in daylight."
If Arthur's aware of the curious looks as he waits by the innkeeper's stable for his horse, he doesn't show it. Merlin, hovering beside him, tries to sense hostility, even going so far as to cast a spell after sending off the message for the magistrate, looking for evidence of--something. There's nothing unusual, however; at worst, there's the same general curiosity, a hint of wonder that Merlin can't quite understand.
Useless, in other words. Utterly, utterly useless.
For a people nearly wiped out by Uther's rage, they're not exactly starving for vengeance, and Merlin wonders at himself, that he finds that so unsettling.
"Stop fidgeting," Arthur says softly. "You're acting like assassins will leap from thin air."
Merlin crosses his arms and pretends he has no idea what Arthur could possibly be talking about.
A kitchen girl comes out to give them their provisions just as the horses are brought out; Merlin mounts before taking them, adding them to the saddlebag with a flask of wine and two of water. Picking up the reins, Merlin thanks her and follows Arthur out of town, resisting the urge to look back every second, but completely unable to stop himself from riding close enough to block most of Arthur's back.
"You're as terrible a bodyguard as a manservant," Arthur says as they get to the main road. In the bright light of day, Tintagel is even more intimidating, the bright sun and clear day sharpening it, razor-edged even where it seems to have crumbled. "What, do you think they'd be mad enough to attack me in the middle of the day?"
Merlin shrugs, coaxing his horse to match Arthur's pace. "It's my job to look after you," he says, lifting his chin. "Nothing else."
Arthur rolls his eyes. "Keep in mind which one of us can actually use a sword," he answers irritably, but his knee brushes Merlin's as he guides them to the left and a old, worn path slowly vanishing beneath the grass, long disused. "Let me see if I can remember--this way goes down to the shore."
Merlin glances at the distant castle uncertainly, then at Arthur. For someone never permitted this close to the castle proper, he certainly knows a great deal about it. "You're sure?"
Following Arthur down the slope, Merlin forgets to ask why they don't go directly by the sight of the ocean, the rich, brilliant blue richer than even the purity of the unclouded sky, white caps of waves breaking on the solid rocks that litter the water like toys thrown by a careless child. There are shadows here and there, which Arthur tells him are deeper water that sunlight can't reach, and as they get closer, Merlin can see old paths in the grass leading here and there among the rocks.
It's not sandy here, and Arthur stops, looking at the curve of rocky land before nodding to himself. "We'll go on foot," Arthur says decisively, dismounting and turning around, leading his horse a little way up to a grassy area. Merlin gets the saddlebags as Arthur sees to the horses. "This goes down to a small cove," Arthur says. "From there, it's an easy walk up to the castle itself."
"Why not use the main road?" Merlin asks, trying to settle the bags comfortably. To his surprise, Arthur takes one after a glance at the sharp angle downward. Merlin supposes he should feel insulted that Arthur doesn't think he can manage his own feet and two simple bags, but then remembers he's not stupid and if Arthur feels like being unusually helpful, who is Merlin to tell him no?
"The road was destroyed," Arthur answers, slinging the bag casually over one shoulder. "My father had it blocked off."
Merlin frowns, wondering why. Thieves and trespassers would speed the decay of the castle if that was what he wished to do. "You've been to Cornwall once, and here not at all, and you still know where we're going?"
"Why Merlin, you sound as if you doubt me. Step where I do; the path is overgrown, but it should be safe enough."
Merlin stares at the route Arthur's taking, following gingerly and wondering how anyone could see anything like a path in this. "Doubt is such a strong word."
"Yet you are doing it anyway. I know where we're going."
Arthur sounds so confident Merlin wants to believe him. But Arthur always sounds confident, even when he's about to die by monster or magic. "Okay, I give up. How do you know?"
Arthur looks back, blond hair highlighted by the sun with a smile, eyes the same dark blue as the sea, and Merlin finds himself staring at him, a little dazed. "My wet-nurse," Arthur says. "She was with us for many years, and she told me of it."
"Your father allowed it?"
"That's a rather liberal word for something he knew nothing of." Arthur turns back around. "She had some skill with drawing, and I have a very good memory."
That's true; Arthur's body memory is perfect, as natural as breathing, and years of training had strengthened it. But Merlin doesn't think even that can explain how easily Arthur moves here, like someone returning to a well-known home after a too-long absence.
The view is even more spectacular as they near the shoreline; Merlin finds himself caught by the rich green of grass, dark stones with flowers of every colour blooming at their edges and poking through the cracks. And Merlin forgets everything when they come to the tiny cove of still turquoise water, stone rising up around them to protect them from the wind.
"This was my mother's favourite place," Arthur says softly, standing at the edge of the water. "She'd come here when she was too hot and too tired and they'd bathe in the water. It wasn't--" Arthur licks his lips, eyes fixed on the water. "It brought her peace."
Merlin crouches, wetting his fingers. "It's beautiful," he says quietly, feeling that contentment again, warm and heavy, easing him toward the ground. Setting aside the bag, Merlin sits down, not surprised when Arthur follows him, thigh pressed against his.
"She'd have them bring a litter on the hottest days," Arthur says softly. "It was cool down here, and she could sleep when the castle was too stifling."
Merlin nods, leaning comfortably against Arthur, faintly drowsy. Twelve days on horseback isn't cured with a night of sleep, he thinks. "I know the feeling," he murmurs, and somehow, his head is settling on Arthur's shoulder.
"Lazy," Arthur murmurs, and Merlin's vaguely aware of fingers running through his hair.
"You should rest," Merlin answers contentedly. "You are too careless with your strength, and you need it all."
"For someone with such great power," Arthur says, pulling his hair playfully, "you certainly do worry too much. I'm safe enough. You're here."
Merlin nods agreeably, but something--something-- "I'll always protect you," Merlin answers, like a vow written in stone, a promise that guided the length of a life, like destiny. "Lie down," Merlin coaxes, lifting his head. "The King won't look for you for hours."
Arthur gives him a drowsy smile. "As you like."
Merlin watches Arthur stretch out, blond head in his lap, running his fingers soothingly through the silky blond hair as the blue eyes flutter closed. Tenderly, he brushes the fringe from Arthur's eyes and watches the water, wondering if he's ever been this happy.
Merlin awakens abruptly, disoriented by the feel of something under him that's nothing like the floor or a bed, and the pleasant weight of a warm body. Opening his eyes, Merlin studies the late afternoon sun, then looks down.
Arthur looks back at him with bleary eyes. "Did we fall asleep?"
Merlin blinks, realizing that one hand is tangled in Arthur's hair, and the other draped possessively over his shoulder, hand resting on the jut of his hip. "Um."
Arthur sits up abruptly, frowning as he settles on the sand with no commentary whatsoever on the fact Merlin had been touching him in very unservant-like ways. "I didn't realize I was so tired," he says, yawning with a slow stretch that Merlin can't help but watch, mouth dry. "Now I'm hungry."
"Hold on." Yes, food, that is what they need, Merlin thinks, trying to shake the sleep fog away. The bags are close enough that Merlin simply reaches out, setting one between them and opening it, taking out the small meat pies and fresh bread, cheese and some fresh pears. Arthur absently gives Merlin his knife to divide it, looking at the water with a faint frown.
"How long have we been sleeping?" he says with a brief look at the sky.
"A few hours?" Merlin hands Arthur a pie and a flask of water. "It was a long ride," he adds uncertainly, but even to himself, it sounds odd. "If we're going to look at the castle before sundown, we'd best hurry."
"I'd rather not try to get back up that path after nightfall," Arthur says around a bite of pie. "Hurry up and eat."
Merlin rolls his eyes, stuffing half the pie in his mouth and offering Arthur a chunk of bread. Getting them each a second one, Merlin packs everything away, following Arthur to his feet and looking around the cove.
"I could stay here forever," Merlin says suddenly, surprising himself. "I can't imagine how anyone could want to leave."
Arthur finishes his share of the bread, nodding thoughtfully. "I know the feeling." Looking across the water, Arthur follows the cliff up with his eyes, expression unreadable and Merlin follows his gaze. From this angle, the castle seems to fill the entirety of the sky. "There's a path--"
"--over there," Merlin finishes, dusting off his hands. He thinks he could find it sleeping. "To the left of that cave."
"It was just rock until she grew too heavy to navigate it easily. Uther meant to build a better path, but the promises of kings are easily forgotten."
Merlin swallows, blinking slowly. The sun seems lower than it was only minutes ago. "That's not true of sorcerers," he says confidently. "Race you?"
Arthur grins, and before Merlin can settle the bag more comfortably, he's already gone, picking his way easily around the edges of the cove. With a surprised shout, Merlin follows him.
It's full night when they reach the top, and Merlin and Arthur emerge into the bailey, the once-paved ground thick with weeds growing between worn stones, vines creeping over the soot blackened stone. Merlin looks up, eyes finding the window that Uther must have watched from, and forgets to wonder how darkness could have possibly fallen so quickly.
"They turned the bailey into a pyre," Arthur says softly, hand on Merlin's elbow. It should be too dark too see this much, but the bailey seems almost alight, and Merlin looks at the wall of the castle, stone blacked for a full thirty feet around. Eyes wide, Merlin can almost see the serfs pressed into service, stripping the land of trees day and night until the bailey was filled while Uther watched, deaf to the screams of the hundreds trapped in the dungeons below for three long days.
Slowly, they cross the bailey, and Merlin flinches as bone is crushed to dust beneath his feet, slow to realize that the vine-covered lumps were the remains of bodies left here to rot. Stopping in the centre, Merlin turns in a slow circle, nausea rising sweet and bitter in the pit of his stomach as he realizes the uneven ground beneath their feet isn't stone any longer, a layer of bone, broken and blackened and falling apart with every step they take.
For a second, Merlin feels heat wash over him, burning through his flesh like a roast on an open spit, and opens his mouth to scream with a voice already destroyed, feeling every individual slash of a metal-studded whip that turned his back into raw meat. The screaming never seems to stop, his magic chained by the iron that was shoved through the palms of both hands, another kind of pain. It would have killed him slower than the fire, but not less painfully, and in the part of his mind not consumed with the agony of it, he thinks maybe this could be called a mercy compared to slow starvation in the dungeons.
Then abruptly, he's bent over, gasping, and Arthur's holding him up, voice soft in his ear, "Merlin. Merlin. There's no fire. You're not burning."
Even though his skin tells him its true, it's a long time before Merlin can open his eyes, and longer until he can believe that what he sees is real. "There's something wrong," Merlin manages, straightening too quickly. Arthur catches him again, and Merlin lets himself be pulled close, head buried against Arthur's shoulder. "Arthur, there's something--we have to leave. We have to leave now."
"I know." Arthur's arm tightens around his waist, one hand gentle in his hair, holding him in place. "And I should care, I know. I just--don't."
Merlin nods his understanding; he doesn't either, and it should scare him, and it doesn't.
After a while, Arthur lets him go, and one hand wrapped around his arm, and Merlin keeps as close as he can as they make their way across the bone-covered ground, unable to ignore the sound of it shattering beneath their feet. Opening the door, Merlin finds himself bathed in the light of the kitchen lamps, nearly as bright as day, and the cook grins at him in welcome. "Ah, there you are. I'd wondered if we would need to send down and tell you it was time for dinner."
"We were enjoying the cool of the cove," Merlin answers as Arthur stops behind him. The cook's smile widens further, bobbling a curtsey. "Has the King returned?"
"Not yet, my lady," the cook answers, then looks at Arthur. "There's a messenger to see you, Your Highness. He's waiting in the audience chamber."
"Thank you for keeping him here," Arthur says, warm against Merlin's back. "We'll be having dinner in my quarters; please see to it. I'll see the messenger afterward."
The cook bobs a curtsey, and Merlin winks as they pass her to the kitchen stairs. "And if anyone asks--"
"I haven't seen either of you," the cook says solemnly, eyes dancing. Merlin snickers, pulling Arthur behind him and into the narrow servants stairs, the door closing behind them and plunging them into darkness.
Merlin grabs for the wall with his free hand, stone cold and slightly slimy. "Arthur," he manages uncertainly, when another name entirely seems to try and twist around his tongue. "Are you--"
"Fine," Arthur says, too softly. "It's--not done."
Merlin nods agreement. "I know."
The stairs, while in desperate need of repair, are serviceable enough, and Merlin reinforces it with magic, faintly aware there's a reason he shouldn't, but Arthur doesn't seem to notice the whispered spell.
The door emerges onto a darkened hall, and Merlin looks down in surprise to see the grey, ragged remains of a rug. "He left the rugs?"
"He left everything," Arthur says, eyes flickering over the wall sconces. Another breathed word brings them to light; magic doesn't need anything as mundane as candles. That doesn't seem to surprise Arthur, either, and vaguely, Merlin thinks he should wonder why. "No one was permitted to bring any more than what they wore. He even left his crown."
The hangings are long moth-eaten, crumbling slowly to dust, colours unidentifiable by the eye, but Merlin thinks they were red and gold, once. Following the corridor, lined with dusty, fading paintings, Merlin wonders how he knows the way so easily, passing a faint impression of a serving girl who bobs her head over a stack of clean bedclothes, a knight who pauses respectfully as they pass, murmuring, "My lady" and "Your Highness" before vanishing. The grip on Merlin's arm tightens, and Merlin reaches up with his free hand, prying Arthur's fingers away and threading their hands together, feeling something settle into place at the firm touch.
Arthur gives him a faint, amused smile, fingers tight, and then pulls him faster, making him laugh, passing a bewildering variety of familiar faces watching them with indulgent smiles, until they stop at a wide, plain door no different from any other. With an elaborate bow, Merlin opens it, and Arthur rolls his eyes, pulling him inside behind him and pushing him up against the door.
"I've been wanting to do this since I woke up," Arthur murmurs, hands framing his face, voice tender.
Merlin smiles, eyes heavy, opening his mouth to the familiar press of lips and sighing into the kiss, arm tight around Arthur's waist. It's the slow, easy kiss of familiar lovers, who know each other as well as they know themselves, and Merlin reaches effortlessly with his mind for the bright glow of Arthur, anticipating his welcome. It's not misplaced; Arthur opens for him as easily as a flower to the sun, and Merlin thinks he could lose himself here, never leave such brightness, feel it wrapped around him warm and safe all his days. "The maids will be here soon," Merlin whispers, stealing another kiss. "What will they think to see you act the hoyden?"
"What they thought when Uther first brought me here," Arthur answers lightly, biting Merlin's lip. "If they aren't used to me by now, they never will be."
Merlin laughs, then pushes off the door, leading Arthur to the small settee near the bed. "It's nearly time," Merlin says abruptly, watching Arthur's face.
"I know. It won't be long." Arthur focuses on the wall behind him, expression unreadable.
"The King offered me the position of court sorcerer," Merlin says, very softly.
Arthur nods. "And how did you answer?"
"It's--not an offer to take lightly." Merlin watches his face, unwilling to read his thoughts now, not sure what he'll find. "It's very far from the isle."
"Yes," Arthur breathes. The crash of Arthur's disappointment is so strong he can feel it twist in his own guts, and desperately, he reaches over, grabbing his hand.
"Tell me you want me to stay."
Arthur closes his eyes. "I can't ask that of you."
"You can. You can have anything you want from me, you know that." And Merlin's proved it, God, taken life and death itself in his hands and bringing to heel for the his sake. "Please--"
"It's selfish to ask this of you.."
Merlin tightens his hold. "You don't have to ask. I've been yours since we met. You have to know that."
Arthur looks up, eyes glassy. "It's unfair--"
"No, it's not. Not to me. It's what I want, too. Tell me to stay."
Arthur looks at him uncertainly, and Merlin shows him. This is worth anything. You're worth anything. Don't send me away. I'll be your sorcerer and your lover and everything, everything you need. Please tell me to stay.
Arthur's hand tightens on his. "Then stay, Nimueh."
Abruptly, the warm, bright room vanishes, and cold, rough stone materializes behind Merlin's back. Sitting up, Merlin sees Arthur staring at him, eyes wide.
"Nimueh," he says again, voice flat. Merlin swallows, Arthur's confusion and anger slicing through the haze of magic like a newly sharpened sword--magic, Merlin thinks blankly, and then, oh God.
"Magic," Merlin breathes, looking around them. The room tries to coalesce around them again, and Merlin whispers a spell that winds around them both, bubbling them away from the crawl of magic, realizing belatedly that he can still feel Arthur's mind--and Arthur can feel his and the spell he just cast, and the memories of all of them he's cast since they came here.
"You're a sorcerer," Arthur says blankly. "You."
There's no way to deny it; Merlin rewinds through the half-dazed conversation back to the cove, then before, remembering the heavy warmth that settled over him, feeling Arthur's attention follow his. "I'm not doing this," Merlin tries, shoving the memories to the front of his mind for Arthur to see. "I swear, Arthur, I'm not--"
"Shut up," Arthur snaps, flushing. "This started--" He stops, frowning in memory. "The man, who came to Camelot--to ask for my help--"
"I asked to come along," Merlin says suddenly, remembering. "I never ask to come on these things. I don't like to come when you hunt."
"I argued for only a few knights despite the danger--."
"And a fast pace. We slept almost the moment we finished eating each night--"
"And woke at dawn every morning," Arthur says bitterly. Then, "You're a sorcerer."
"Yes." Merlin stares back at him; there's no way to prove his innocence. "But I swear, Arthur, I swear I didn't do this--"
"--I wouldn't, ever--what?"
Arthur looks away. "Your--the thing. With--" He waves vaguely toward his head, and Merlin blushes. "I can feel it. I saw it. You're not lying to me. This time, anyway."
Merlin nods shakily, trying not to look too much around them. The bubble of space that contains them remains cold and dark, but outside it, the rich, opulent chambers of a queen flash in and out in slivers of light. Arthur's head jerks around as a young woman comes in, curtseying before taking a tray to the table, setting out a meal for two.
"What is this?" Arthur says, looking around in confusion. "I--I remember this. I can't remember this. I wasn't here. This isn't real."
Head clear, it's easier to see the lines of magic around them, woven in gleaming threads that fit together over the stones of the castle. "It's--not real," he says uncertainly. "Not exactly. This is someone's memory." Nimueh's, he almost says, but it's not entirely her, either. Merlin can feel the threads of the spell around them, worked into every stone, every rug, every piece of furniture. It must have started at the cove, when they arrived. "Someone--" Nimueh, perhaps, "worked them into the very stones. The cove, too, I think."
"My mother's memories," he says flatly. "That was my mother. And this Nimueh's?"
Merlin can just touch the edges of them; minutes ago, they were his, her life filling his mind as if it were his own. "Yes."
"This happened?" Arthur says, very softly. "What I--what we felt?"
Merlin hesitates. "I--I think so. Magic can create illusions, but this--isn't that. It's how they remember it."
Arthur nods, watching the servant girl curtsey in their general direction before leaving. "I--" He swallows, mouth dry. "Do we have to be them--" There's something hopeless and helpless filling the question, torn from somewhere deep, like an infected wound that never had the chance to heal. "I felt her. She was carrying me, and she was so tired, and she was--" Arthur breaks off. "I want to see her. I want to know."
Merlin kneels up, studying the threads of the spell that coat the room like cobwebs. "This is--" Merlin looks at Arthur apologetically. "I'm not really--trained in magic, you see. Sort of--fell into it."
Arthur snorts. "In Camelot, I'd be surprised if you were. Is there any way--any way just to watch?"
Merlin frowns, turning back to the room, trying to identify each part. The memories are here, and Merlin reaches through the bubble, following the lines of bright power. Nimueh wasn't like this when he met her, felt her, ended her life. There's something very young here, uncertain, fragile happiness flickering through it, and Merlin thinks of how Nimueh had felt when she looked at Ygraine, feeling the echo of it in himself.
"It wasn't--quite meant to do this," Merlin answers slowly. "At least, I think. We were supposed to feel it, not live it. But--" Looking at Arthur, he shakes his head. "I don't understand--I think it's because she's your mother. Nimueh's magic recognizes you. And, well--" He killed Nimueh, and her magic recognizes him and what he took from her at her death. "I can make it so we can watch. But I can't--it was meant to be felt. She wanted the people who came here to know that."
Arthur nods, staring at the neatly set table. "Show me."
Merlin closes his eyes, reaching for the fragile strands of magic, wrapping them like a weaver does threads of newly-spun wool. Dropping the bubble, he loops the magic carefully around them, showing it what it's supposed to do. We aren't them he tells it firmly, feeling the vague confusion as it swirls around them, tasting them, then reluctant agreement. Now, show us.
Abruptly, the room changes, and they're both sitting on thick, woollen rugs, the room redolent in the scent of food and spice. A woman comes into view, blond hair in a loose plait that reaches nearly to her knees, richly dressed in rich reds, vermilion and crimson velvet and silk, heavy with child.
"Mother," Arthur whispers as she turns, and Merlin's breath catches at the sight of her face, the pure, perfect lines of bone that she gave to her son, the kind of face that even time would have no power to alter, with eyes as blue as the cove waters outside.
"You need to eat," Nimueh scolds, hand coming to rest on the small of her back. Ygraine rolls her eyes as Nimueh pulls out a chair and eases her into it with a mocking curtsey. "Shall I serve you, Your Highness?"
Ygraine snorts. "You'd be a terrible maidservant, Nimueh." Nimueh grins, leaning over her hand to press a playful kiss against the palm, sweetly intimate.
"I'd be a very faithful one," Nimueh says. Merlin aches a little; they're so young, and somehow, he'd never thought of her as ever having been young, but she's barely a girl herself, certainly no older than Ygraine, perhaps little older than Arthur himself now. In the rich dress of a courtier, hair piled high on her head, she looks regal and beautiful and glows in the candlelight every time she meets her Queen's eyes.
Merlin and Arthur watch the easy intimacy between them as Nimueh fills the Queen's--no, Ygraine, Merlin thinks, not queen, not here, not between them--Ygraine's plate, stew and greens and thick pieces of roasted duck with a dark brown sauce spread over it.
"I don't understand," Arthur says softly. Merlin glances at him, feeling his raw confusion mixed with the hunger for this woman, the mother he had never had, whose death had informed the path of his life. "They were--this can't be true."
Merlin watches Nimueh fill her own plate and nearly ignore it, cajoling Ygraine to eat as she picks over the meal, one hand rubbing absently at the swell of her belly. Looking longer, Merlin can see the lines of strain on her face, the habitual shifts of her body; this hadn't been an easy pregnancy.
"Finish the duck," Nimueh says, picking up the fork. "Or shall I feed you myself?"
Ygraine laughs, head thrown back to reveal the pure line of her throat, and it's so much like Arthur that Merlin hurts just watching. "Would you?"
"Oh," Nimueh says, smile darkening, teasing. "I would." Stabbing a small piece, she lifts it to Ygraine's lips, and the two women stare at each other for a long moment before Ygraine's lips part, taking the bite, then the kiss, slow and soft, before Nimueh draws away.
"No," Arthur whispers. "This isn't true."
"Gaius will be here soon," Nimueh says, spearing another bite. "Would you have me tell him you refuse to eat?"
"And get another potion? I think not." Ygraine's eyes fix on Nimueh's hand. "What are you waiting for?"
Nimueh lifts the fork.
"Stop," Arthur says, getting to his feet abruptly. "Stop it, this isn't--she never--she never--"
But Arthur doesn't approach the table, going out of the door, and Merlin struggles to his feet, running after him, looking back only once to see Nimueh's thumb wipe away a drop of sauce tenderly from the corner of Ygraine's mouth before he slams the door shut, leaning back against it.
Arthur, breathing heavily, leans against the opposite wall. "It's lies. All of it."
Merlin doesn't answer; they'd both felt it, just as if they'd lived it as well. Nimueh's worry had been almost overwhelming, she can barely eat, can barely sleep, what was I thinking to permit this?
"God, stop it," Arthur whispers, sinking to the floor, hand against his head. "Stop it, stop it, I can't--it's not, none of it, God, get out, get out, get out of my mind."
Merlin tries, he does, but what Nimueh did so easily, he has no idea how to stop. Arthur's anger and fear twist through him, drawing them tighter together, the desperation to get away pounding through him like it's his own, and there's no way to think through it; even breathing feels too difficult.
"I don't know how," he says desperately, trying to pull back, separate something of himself, some piece of himself he can hold tight, keep safe. He can't even block it, and it feels as if Arthur's consuming him, his own thoughts small and drowning, helpless beneath Arthur like a fish in the vastness of the ocean, lost and alone. "I can't, I can't, I can't even--"
"--think," Merlin whispers, and abruptly, it withdraws like the tide from the shore. Merlin realizes he's not clutching stone, but a soft tunic and warm flesh and Arthur's arms are around him. "I don't know what I'm doing," Merlin says helplessly into Arthur's neck. "I'm sorry, I don't know what she did--what I did when I was her. I don't know what this is."
"Shh." Arthur's hand strokes down his back, achingly gentle, the other cupped protectively over the back of his neck. "I'm sorry, I--"
"You're sorry?" Merlin chokes back a laugh. "I'm a sorcerer. I should know this. I should know--I'm sorry. I don't know how to fix this."
Arthur snorts softly, an echo of Ygraine. "Well, I'm sure you'll get better. Eventually."
Merlin laughs again, but it feels more like a sob. Arthur radiates careful calm, and Merlin wonders how he knew to do that, how he can even know how.
"The first thing I learned," Arthur says, "is that the man who is angriest when he lifts his sword is the one that doesn't leave the field. Whatever else happened before doesn't matter; you never fight from a place where you cannot think." Arthur pauses, considering. "Apparently, this applies to magic as well. Useful, that."
"Good lesson," Merlin mumbles, trying to get closer, bury himself in all that affectionate calm. He hadn't thought that Arthur--he had known he cared, but it's so much better to have it like this, to feel it. To be sure. To be certain.
"I'd be thrilled to take you back to the practice field for the lessons," Arthur answers, amused, and Merlin sees himself as Arthur saw him then, covered in padding and falling over his own two feet. If this castle makes no sense, then Arthur's behaviour is making even less. The calm slips just a little, edged with faint worry. "Merlin?"
With a tremendous effort, Merlin pulls away; to his surprise, Arthur doesn't let go, opening up space less than the length of a breath between them. "Is the magic doing something to you? It is, isn't it?"
Arthur opens his mouth, then hesitates, and Merlin's surprised to feel the order in Arthur's thoughts, the neat lines that don't seem to match the reckless prince at all. "It's affecting you, isn't it? God, it's doing something to your mind and making you--nice."
What kind of magic makes someone nicer? That makes even less sense than all the rest.
"Well, no, and I'm always nice when you deserve it. You just usually don't," Arthur says, after a few seconds of thought. "Merlin, I can feel you. Everything. It's rather difficult to sustain any kind of unthinking rage when you feel like you'll collapse into tears if I so much as frown at you."
Merlin's eyes narrow. "I am not going to collapse into tears."
"So you say now," Arthur mutters, then shakes himself. The anger is still there, but banked carefully and set aside for later. Merlin thinks of how Arthur fights and imagines him doing this, the neat compartmentalization that's the reason Arthur is so rarely defeated in battle, that allows him to think through rage. "Better?"
"I think so," Merlin says, and Arthur reluctantly lets him go, leaving the places he'd touched cold and uncomfortable. Merlin fights the urge to reach for him, hands clenched in his lap. "I--don't know how to stop this. When we get back, the book--"
"Book?" Arthur's eyes widen suddenly. "You have a book? Gaius gave you a magic book? In Camelot?" Before Merlin realizes what Arthur's about, he's following the associated memories, sifting through them with methodical patience in the space between one breath and the next. "You idiot," Arthur breathes, staring at him. "Not just a book. All this time. You've been--Christ, all of that?"
"Eh." Merlin looks at him helplessly, dizzy from the year of his life that passed in a single moment, from how easily Arthur did that. "I'm sure it's not so--very--"
"Dear God," Arthur mutters, shaking his head. Dusting himself off, he gets to his feet, extending a hand. "We're going to talk. Later," he says grimly. "About the difference between bravery and outright stupidity."
"Like you're one to talk," Merlin says hotly, jerking a trellis, a noblewoman, and a pack of dogs from Arthur's memories and shoving it between them. "There's an example of wisdom there, yeah?"
Arthur flushes. "That was--I was very young--"
"That was two weeks before I arrived!" Merlin crows, then stops, realizing what he'd just done, and so easily--God, so easily, as easily as magic, as breathing, as living. "Oh. Um. I didn't mean to--though you did it first, with the--book."
They stare at each other.
"This is--odd," Arthur says in epic understatement.
Merlin realizes uneasily that he likes this. Like it too much, perhaps. Likes knowing what Arthur's thinking, able to follow the quicksilver changes of mood that never reflect on his face, feel that mind, bright and brilliant, the mind that will one day belong to the greatest king in Albion's history. The greatest king ever.
"What--" Arthur looks at him, then stops. "No, that's--what? No, stop thinking that, stop right now, we have to--" Arthur looks around them helplessly. "You said this is real? All of it? My mother and Nimueh?"
"It's their memories, at least," Merlin tells him. "I--magic is--I don't know how, but I do know it's real. It's how they remember it."
"Both of them."
Merlin nods silently.
"They were--" Arthur breaks off, blushing.
"Yes, I noticed that." Merlin tries not to squirm as Arthur flips through their shared memories, studying them intently, blushing himself at the memory of the kiss and where it could so easily have gone. "But--I mean, kings have mistresses, and they love their wives, I've heard and--"
"Stop," Arthur grits out, "trying to make it better."
"Right. Good idea." Taking a breath, Merlin looks up at him. "It's not over. There's more. It's--still happening."
"Then there's something we're supposed to see," Arthur says, not looking at the door. "Something--she put this here for a reason."
That's there, too--Merlin can't imagine how much magic this must have taken. Another servant passes them, and belatedly, Merlin realizes the hall is glowing, slipping back into its past all over again. Arthur watches the maid pass with a resigned expression.
"We could leave," Merlin says uncertainly. There's nothing in the spell that makes them stay, but then, there's no reason for there to be. This is Arthur's history and the woman who gave him life and died before she could shape it. Arthur doesn't want to leave, even if he thinks he should. And Merlin doesn't either.
"Can you tell--tell when this is? Exactly?"
Merlin frowns, pressing a palm against the stone. "I--oh." Startled, Merlin jerks back, just as there's a sudden rise of voices. The bedchamber door bursts open, Nimueh stumbling out in surprising disarray. The velvet of her bodice is crushed, laces loose, hair a tumbled mess: she's flushed, eyes glassy, and Merlin realizes what they must have been doing.
Then he knows, and heat rising in his cheeks, the image of Ygraine stretched out on the bed and Nimueh beside her, Ygraine's hands threading through the weight of her hair filling his head. Arthur makes an unclassifiable sound, and Merlin grabs for his sleeve. "I didn't need to see that," Arthur mutters. "Bad enough to walk in on my father--"
"God, shut up," Merlin breathes as Uther's bedchamber pushes into his head, shuddering. It's not an improvement.
"Get me Gaius," Nimueh shouts, grabbing a passing manservant. "Her Highness has started her labour. Get the royal physician and send a message to the king at once. Where the hell are those useless maids of hers?"
"I--I will find them, my lady," but Nimueh shakes him off, muttering a crisp phrase before going back in the door. Merlin looks at Arthur, then follows Nimueh back inside.
Ygraine is sitting up on the side of the bed, looking stubborn.
"In the name of every god I have ever worshipped," Nimueh says caustically, "you are an idiot."
"Walking helps," Ygraine says stubbornly, extending an imperious hand. "Now help me. It's been a very long nine months and I'm quite ready to see my son."
Scowling, Nimueh obeys, looping an arm around Ygraine's waist. "You drive me mad," Nimueh says as Ygraine gets to her feet, leaning heavily against her. "Is it the royal blood that robs the highborn of all common sense?"
"Taliesin knows?" Ygraine says, face twisting slightly. Taking a shuddering breath, Ygraine sighs. "He'll be here?"
Nimueh sighs. "Yes, they felt it when we did. You think they'd dare go far when you are so close? Perish the thought. Count yourself lucky they did not insist on settling in your own chambers for the duration of this."
"God, no," Ygraine says with a breathless laugh. "Good, good. Make sure Gaius doesn't send him away."
"Your brother won't let him, be easy. Can you relax?"
"Now?" Hand pressed to her belly, Ygraine grins. "Oh, he's ready, he's so ready. Do you feel him, Nimueh?"
"Since the moment of his conception," Nimueh answers softly. Reaching over, she presses a hand against the soft linen. "Patience, little one. We've waited this long, we can take a few hours more without ill effect." After a moment, Nimueh turns them around, leading Ygraine back to the bed. "Yes, walking helps, I know. I'm a midwife myself, if you recall, but you must save your strength. This birth will not be easy."
"I know," Ygraine answers mutinously, obviously ready to argue the point, but the door opens abruptly, admitting Gaius. Merlin stares at him.
"Somehow," Arthur says, bemused, "I never imagined him young."
Merlin nods, eyes wide. Gaius' hair is long in the old style, as he wears it now, but dark brown, the lines on his face wiped away. Very young, Merlin realizes; not so much older than Merlin is now, and looking between Ygraine and Nimueh with something that isn't entirely pleasant.
"Lie down, my lady," he says, shooting Nimueh an unreadable look.
"I think not." Ygraine lets Nimueh brace her against the headboard, pillows piled up behind her, then meets Gaius' disapproving eyes. "And we will use the birthing chair."
Gaius mouth thins.
"I do not care what wonders you learned in Rome," Ygraine says pleasantly. "This is not the empire."
Gaius frowns but goes to the table, pushing the dishes aside for his bag. "Do you need anything for the pain, Your Highness?"
"I can control it for her," Nimueh says sharply. "The potions will make her drowsy by the time hard labour begins. We cannot afford that."
"I'm aware of the dangers," Gaius says flatly before turning to Ygraine. "With your leave, I'd like to examine you."
Merlin stills, watching in horror as Gaius crosses the room and Ygraine leans back, reaching for her skirts, and then Arthur says, "No, no, I think not." and Merlin breathes, "Thank God. Now."
Outside the door again, Merlin pushes away the memories of what comes next, reaching to smooth them from Arthur instinctively. "Christ, thank you," Arthur says, heartfelt. "That I did not need to know."
"That makes both of us." Merlin's never seen a woman in childbed. He's certain he doesn't need to, ever. "So--your birth. This is your birth."
"So it seems." Arthur's eyes flicker to the door. "My father never spoke of this. Of Nimueh being there."
"Gaius either," Merlin admits as they watch a flurry of servants going up and down the halls, frantic with the impending birth but doing nothing useful as far as Merlin can tell. "I--what do you know of it?"
"That it is a subject best not spoken of in Camelot," Arthur says grimly. "Taliesin. He's a druid, isn't he? Leader, head druid, something of that sort?"
Merlin nods warily.
"My father has bounty on his head. Magic, high treason, the list is long and rather boring after several pages of it--but here, he's welcome." Arthur chews absently on a thumbnail, looking troubled. "My father said magic killed my mother. But he never said why, or how."
"Gaius never--" Merlin looks at him uncertainly. "I don't know. He never speaks of such things."
"I wonder--" Arthur says softly, then a woman's choked cry echoes through the hall. "Mother," Arthur says, startled. Then, thoughtful, "Do you hear something--"
Merlin's eyes fix on a group of people approaching them, Nimueh's memory providing him instant recognition, even if the soft, earth coloured clothing and long formal robes had not. "Arthur," he says, pointing, and Arthur turns. The man in front is young, but somehow not, and filled with power, glowing from him like light; even Nimueh at her strongest never came close to this, like the difference between a single torch and a bonfire.
"Taliesin," Arthur says, without hesitation. The group stops at the door, and Nimueh is there in seconds, strained face lightening as she bows, stepping back. As they go in, Arthur's eyes fix on the last of the men, dressed as the others, but the neat formal robes are unfastened, revealing the sword slung at his hips. "That--that's Sir Tristan. My mother's brother."
Merlin remembers the silent knight outside of Camelot, and then looks at the fair-haired man again. "He was a Druid?"
"How am I supposed to know?" Arthur snaps irritably. "He's dressed like them! And what is that--that--Merlin, you have to hear that!"
"Humming?" Merlin had noticed it, but it's not a sound at all.
"Yes! Like--" Arthur searches for the word, then looks at Merlin. "Wait, it's not a sound? What does that mean?"
"It's magic," Merlin says. "And you've never felt it before, not when I was doing magic right beside you." Merlin can feel it in his bones, trembling through the soles of his feet from the earth far below them, like sunlight and celebration and hope, like the beginning of everything. "It's--" Merlin frowns, looking at the door, following it to the source. "Oh. Arthur. It's you."
"I'm not--I've never--"
"No, but--" Merlin can't help following it back inside, wanting to see this, and they both watch as Taliesin and Nimueh help Ygraine to a chair--birthing chair, Arthur thinks at him in horror--and seat her carefully. Taliesin leans over, kissing her forehead, face filled with such tenderness that it makes Merlin catch his breath.
"He's coming," Ygraine says, head tilting back, an ecstatic smile lighting her face. Nimueh wipes the sweat away with her free hand, her other twined with Ygraine's. "I can do this."
"You can," Nimueh says, kissing her temple and smoothing back her hair. "I'm here. You're ready? This won't be as other births. He was conceived in magic, and so his birth must follow."
"I know." Ygraine closes her eyes. "I'm ready."
"I do not like this," Gaius says, out of easy hearing, looking at Tristan. "This birth--"
"Be easy," Tristan says from beside him as the others fall silent, eyes closed, the entirety of their attention focused on that warm hum. "Let nature take its course."
"There is nothing natural about that child!" Gaius hisses, and Ygraine's head jerks up, looking at Gaius, eyes flickering gold to match Nimueh's. "You asked my opinion long ago, and it hasn't changed, Your Highness."
"You will speak when spoken to," Ygraine says softly. "And never will you speak of my son in such terms again."
Gaius mouth sets in a hard frown. The memories are too confusing to follow, but Merlin can feel Arthur trying to track them down--magic, conception, nature--and then--
"The King wished for a son," Ygraine says, more gently. "You cannot disobey the King. It was his will that we do this."
"He did not understand what you would do." His eyes go to Nimueh. "You bend our laws, my lady, with less care than a child playing with her mother's mending."
"This night was written before either of us were born," Nimueh says flatly. "Her child, not any your king would put in any belly that would have him. Do not speak of what you do not understand."
"He cannot claim to be king without a son of her body. And he knows that as well as you. If you cannot be productive, leave us. Your presence fouls this room."
"I stand witness for the king--"
"Who could not bother to attend his own son's birth!" Nimueh snaps, straightening, eyes the gold of the sun, filled with anger. "It's not for him we do this. It was never for him."
Arthur suddenly breathes out. "Miscarriages," he says, voice startled. Merlin jerks around, torn between the birth and Arthur's shock. "They said--it was difficult for her to conceive. The court had thought he would put her aside, take another wife despite her rank and station, or even a concubine to--and then she conceived. They called it a miracle."
"That's it," Nimueh says encouragingly, both of Ygraine's hands in hers. Ygraine tilts her head back, face flushed and twisted in pain. "Almost there," Nimueh whispers.
Merlin closes his eyes, searching out Nimueh's memories--there, Uther, there, Ygraine, there-- "She couldn't conceive. The last miscarriage took with it her ability to carry a child."
"A miscarriage," Arthur whispers, watching his mother. "It's a kinder way to explain losing a child when your husband comes to your bed drunk and you try to send him away--"
"Arthur." Merlin grabs for the memories, but Arthur fights him, holding an ugly darkness of blood and useless apologies and the long fever that Ygraine woke from knowing she would never carry a child again. "Arthur, don't--"
"I see the head," Gaius says, and Merlin's attention is jerked back, the humming increasing; even the stones seem to tremble with it. "One push, Your Highness. I think--"
"One more," Nimueh says, forehead pressed against Ygraine's, panting as she eases Ygraine's pain. "He comes, beloved."
Ygraine's body twists, almost convulsing, and for a second, the entire world seems to still, time suspended around them, waiting. A tiny cry breaks through the room, and God, Merlin thinks vaguely through the rush of magic that's light and heat and joy, the whole world must feel this; Ygraine's shocked cry echoed a thousand times through everything, and something huge snapping through the room, through the castle, through every person privileged to be here and witness this, the beginning of a new world, the birth of a new king.
"You have a son," Gaius says calmly, hands shaking as he wraps the tiny shape in clean linen. Nimueh's the one that takes him from Gaius, cradling him gently before easing him into his exhausted mother's arms.
Ygraine looks down, mouth curved in an incredulous smile. "It worked," she whispers, and Nimueh laughs, suddenly, leaning a hand on the chair, dizzy with relief, with happiness too great for her to bear. "Nimueh--"
"What will you call him?"
Ygraine curves a finger against his cheek. "Arthur."
Arthur makes a broken sound, eyes on his mother. "I remember. What happened to her. I remember everything."
The magic in the castle rises up, terrible and ruthless, and answering Arthur's demand, the room stilling before everything goes far, far too quickly, flickering through past and future almost too fast to see, but not to fast too understand. Gaius with Nimueh on the isle "The King has a favour to ask on behalf of his Queen", the summoning of sorcerers and Druids both who knew what was to come, bowing to Nimueh's certainty she could fix what Uther's actions had destroyed, that she could bring life through Ygraine and fulfil the promise of the birth of a new king.
They bowing to her every demand, raising magic like Albion, perhaps even the world had never seen before, an effort that drained them, some even to death, all focused on changing the fabric of time and fate to give them this one thing, this child. They would pay any price that was asked, Nimueh whispered at the end, trembling with exhaustion, desperate, pleading, anything, anything at all. Just give her this child. Give her the son he stole from her.
"That's how it began," Merlin breathes. Then. "No, it's--"
Abruptly, the room dissolves, and Nimueh is kneeling on the bed beside a pale, thin Ygraine. "Come, beloved," Nimueh says, holding a cup to Ygraine's lips with trembling hands. "Drink this. It will--it will help."
"Nothing will help," Ygraine says, cracked lips curving in a smile, and Merlin remembers Arthur in his bed, feverish from the Questing Beast. "You--we both knew--"
"No! I do not accept that. Drink this. Drink it and you will heal--"
"I won't." Ygraine obediently drinks from the cup, then falls back on the pillows, face ashen. "How is he?"
"Thriving," Nimueh says bitterly. "As was foretold. Your son is--"
"Our son," Ygraine says, one hand reaching out and grabbing for Nimueh, fingers weak and desperate, clinging. "Don't, Nimueh."
"How can I look at him and not--"
"You can. You have to. His father--" Ygraine sucks in a shallow breath, eyes closing briefly. "His father never will, not after this. Promise me--"
"I can't!" Throwing the cup aside, Nimueh stares down at her. "How can you--how can you ask this of me, how can you think I can--"
"Bring him to me."
Nimueh stiffens. "Ygraine."
"Bring me my son. Now."
Nimueh's eyes go distant for a moment, then she sits back on her heels as the door opens, a confused woman entering, clutching a bundle of linen in both arms.
"My nurse," Arthur says softly. "She never told me this."
"Bring him here," Ygraine says imperiously. Warily, the nurse circles wide around Nimueh; Merlin can't blame her. The elegant lady is nowhere in evidence now, dark hair in a messy plait, dress creased, face pale and filled with pain. Ygraine takes the child carefully, placing him on the bed between them, nodding for the woman to leave. As the door closes, Ygraine looks down, and the sickly woman seems to vanish, replaced with love so vast and so strong that Merlin's' throat closes.
"She loved me," Arthur says, sounding surprised and pleased and angry and everything that could be in between. "I never thought--"
"Of course she did." Merlin goes to the foot of the bed, watching Ygraine unfold the linens from around him, smile widening at the sight of baby, small and round and perfect. "Arthur," he breathes. "That's you."
Arthur chokes back a laugh, coming up behind him, warm against Merlin's back, and they watch Ygraine trace the baby's face in wonder. "He looks like me, I think," she says softly, looking at Nimueh. "Don't you think?"
"Yes." Nimueh looks down unwillingly, body unyielding. "He does."
"He's perfect," Ygraine says softly. "He's mine. And he's yours. This is the son you gave me. Look at him, Nimueh."
"Look at him!" Ygraine grabs Nimueh's hand, pressing it against the small, vulnerable swell of his belly. "My son. I would have given more than my life for this--"
"--to have him. This is what I created, what we created, what we've done. Feel him, beloved. There's nothing, nothing I wouldn't give, nothing I wouldn't do--"
"I did this to you," Nimueh whispers, eyes filling with tears.
"No. I did. I wanted this. I would do it again, I would do it a thousand times, nothing else mattered, not when--not when this is my reward." Looking down, Ygraine tickles his chin, eyes soft. "Arthur," she says tenderly.
Nimueh looks down reluctantly as Arthur twists under her hand, mouth open in a wide toothless smile.
"Look at him, Nimueh," Ygraine breathes. "He was foretold when time began, this one. He will be great, and he will be powerful, and he will change the world. And even if he were none of those things, I would have asked for this. Because he is my son, and I love him."
Nimueh's mouth trembles, hand softening as she strokes up to his cheek. "He's you," Nimueh whispers, like a promise.
"Promise me he will be safe."
"If--if all goes awry, he must be safe."
"His father will protect him," Nimueh says slowly, frowning.
"No, he won't."
Nimueh looks at Ygraine sharply. "You've seen it?"
"I was never a good Seer," Ygraine whispers, and Merlin watches flickers of gold fill the hollow blue eyes. "But since his birth, it's been clear. He will not be safe. Not alone. Not when I'm gone." Ygraine touches the baby's cheek again. "And--" She hesitates, looking uncertain. "There's only one way this can happen."
Nimueh pulls her hand back, then reaches for Ygraine, touching her temple. "Show me."
Merlin's breath catches as Ygraine's eyes flutter closed; pyres of burning wood that cover the length of Camelot, of Albion; the screams of the condemned as cold iron is thrust through their flesh, breaking their bond with the earth and their magic; starved to death in a hundred dungeons, their bodies committed to the fire with the still living, still screaming; heads falling beneath the executioners axe: villages wiped away until not even the memories remain of those who died--
"Gods." Nimueh jerks her hand away, eyes wide with horror. "I have to warn them! I have to--"
"You can't." Ygraine looks down tiredly. "We can't stop this."
"For him? You'd condemn--how can you--"
"Yes!" Ygraine straightens with sudden strength. "For him, for Hunith's son, for the thousands that will be born, for the world they will been born into. This is everything, Nimueh. I don't know--the other paths are dark and I saw the light die in every one, never to return. I saw it, I watched it, I walked a thousand worlds every night and everything ended, everything. I don't think--I know. They all end in darkness and the end of everything. But this one--in this one, the light comes back." Shaking, Ygraine braces herself on one hand. "I Saw it, Nimueh. And I am not a great Seer, but when I see truly, I have never been wrong. When I was a girl, I Saw the queen I would become, and the man that I would marry, and the woman I would love, and the son I would bear. He'll change the world, Nimueh, he'll--I've Seen it, and--and--" Ygraine's voice breaks. "And now I See this. This is how it must happen."
"No," Arthur murmurs, staring at Ygraine. "No, it wasn't."
"How long until it begins?" Nimueh whispers.
"A day. Maybe two." Ygraine's eyes grow distant, blue sinking under glassy gold, voice changing. "The King's grief is the grief of guilt and he will not rest until all that reminds him is buried beyond memory. The Druids alone will be spared, but their price will be exile until the dawn of the new king's reign." Ygraine's mouth twists in an awful smile. "Mine is my life. I pay it gladly."
"And my price? Do I die, too?"
Ygraine's face twists, growing human again, the Seer fading into a broken woman. "No," she whispers, tears filling her eyes. "No, yours is to bear witness. That's your price. I'm sorry. I'm so sorry."
Nimueh's breath catches in a sob, and Ygraine reaches for her, pulling them together, their shared grief filling the room.
After a while, Nimueh nods, cradling Ygraine's face for a moment, eyes soft. "I love you," she whispers, thumb wiping away Ygraine's tears. "Beloved--"
"I'm not." Nimueh smiles tremulously. "I would--I would do it again--"
"Stop," Ygraine whispers.
"I would do it a thousand times." Nimueh says implacably. Your son-- he will be great, and he will be powerful, and he will change the world. Even if he were none of those things, I would do this. Because he is your son. And because I love you." Sitting up, Nimueh wipes her eyes, looking down at the baby, then at Ygraine. "Show me what path he must take. And I will make it so that no other can be followed."
Ygraine's eyes widen. "No living sorcerer is powerful enough to chain the future. A hundred--even a thousand--"
"No," Nimueh says softly, cupping her hands before her. Merlin watches as the air coalesces, glowing a sullen red, edged in angry black. It's nothing like the bright glow of magic that had surrounded her before, nothing like the Druids; Merlin flinches from the chill of it, and even in memory, he can feel its hunger, reaching, searching for something to take. Nimueh smiles a little, looking down at it. "No living sorcerer can."
Ygraine's eyes fix on the tiny ball for a moment, then on Nimueh. "When?"
"When it's time. When it begins."
The room goes dark, and Merlin wonders what happened before the same darkness slips through him. "Arthur, he starts, but the words catch in his throat, and then there's nothing at all.
Merlin wakes on cold stone, head aching, with a faint sense of something wildly amiss. Opening his eyes, he stares at the shadows that fill the ceiling, then rolls onto his side with a groan. "Arthur?"
After a heartstopping second, Merlin hears movement, then a hand wraps firmly around his wrist. "I'm fine," Arthur says through his own headache, bewilderment and disbelief and a mix of a thousand uncomfortable emotion swirling through the words. Merlin whispers a command for light, illuminating the room and a dusty, tired-looking Arthur.
A tired looking, shocky Arthur. "What the fuck," Arthur says, sitting up, looking around them. "Was that supposed to happen?"
"I--" Merlin frowns, sitting up as well, noticing that Arthur hasn't let go of his wrist. "I don't know. Probably?"
"Is it over?"
Merlin wishes it were over--history tells him what happens next. Ygraine dies, and Uther kills the greater part of Cornwall, and proceeds to do his level best to wipe out all the magic in Camelot, and damn well succeeds. "I don't think so," he says reluctantly, looking around. "It--doesn't happen here, though."
"Oh." Arthur runs a hand through his hair. "That--makes sense, I suppose." Shaking his head, he looks at Merlin. "My mother was a Seer."
"Yeah." Merlin hesitates. "She knew my mother's name."
They look at each other, at a loss for what to do next. "We could go--find--"
"In the King's chambers." He has a feeling that when they leave the room, no matter where they plan to go, that's where they'll end up. "Where your mother--"
"Oh." Arthur looks away.
"We don't have to," Merlin says, tripping over the words. "I mean--I think I can get us free of this. I know I can. It's just memories. We can leave. You don't have to--" See that. Not watch your mother die. Not watch your father go mad. No one should have to see that. "We can leave."
Arthur doesn't answer, and Merlin fights the utterly natural urge to read his thoughts; it's difficult, almost impossible to stop himself, and his magic hates it, hates the separation, and he does, too. Arthur looks up at him, brow creased.
"Don't--" Arthur stops himself, looking uncomfortable, shifting on the floor. "Whatever you're doing, stop. It's--"
"I was trying to--give you some privacy," Merlin says awkwardly, holding his thoughts strictly in his head. It feels like losing a limb, a phantom pain from something that should be there and isn't, making everything unbalanced, wrong.
"I--" Arthur licks his lips, staring at the floor. "I can't feel you. I don't like it."
That's all it takes; Merlin can't summon the will to even try to stop it, not when he feels like he might go mad if he keeps holding back. Moving closer, he breathes out at the flood of Arthur, filling up the emptiness, feeling Arthur's grip shift from his wrist to his hand. Merlin lowers his forehead against Arthur's shoulder, already feeling better, echoed in Arthur's relief.
"Okay," Arthur says, voice wobbly, "this could be a problem." He doesn't seem terribly worried, though, and Merlin smiles against the dusty wool. "You think it's funny?"
"Well," Merlin says after a second, "it kind of is." Curling closer, Merlin sighs, impossibly comfortable even now on this incredibly hard floor in a castle that by some definitions could be considered the most haunted place in the world. Being near Arthur feels more necessary than breathing; it's not hard to see why Nimueh would bring life and death to heel for Ygraine's sake, for this. Ygraine had been like this to Nimueh, bright and brilliant, like coming home after a too long absence and knowing you would never have to leave again.
"Yes," Arthur whispers against his hair. "It feels like that."
After a few long minutes, Merlin reluctantly straightens. "We should--" he starts and Arthur nods, getting to his feet and pulling Merlin up behind him, fingers twining through his, settling as neatly as a puzzle piece falling into place.
The ghosts of various servants run to and fro around them, easily ignorable as they go to the king's chambers. Opening the door, they go inside, where Uther paces helplessly at the foot of the giant royal bed and a priest straightens, looking at Uther over the motionless body of the Queen of Camelot. "She's gone, sire."
Merlin's eyes flicker to Nimueh and stop there. Face washed of colour, she stares sightlessly at the bed, and Merlin feels something stretching between her and into darkness; something bright, something fading and twisting, an overextended thread that's the bond between them, and Nimueh's pouring everything into it, but it's not enough. No one is that strong, even her. Softly, almost apologetically, it snaps.
Something snaps in Nimueh, too, her brightness dimming, dying like a gutted candle, leaving nothing but darkness behind.
In Ygraine's chambers, Merlin had watched her create that tiny dark ball of light, the shape of something forming in her mind, and remembers Nimueh's smile when she looked at it.
No living sorcerer can.
She'd known--somehow, she'd known what would happen when the bond broke between them, what she would become. She wouldn't be sane. And what she planned to do could not be done by someone who was.
"Bring her back," Uther says, voice raw, edged in disbelief. "You--you--you gave her that child. You can do this."
"It doesn't work that way," Nimueh says dreamily, mind forming a spell unlike anything Merlin has ever seen, twisting impossibly together, Ygraine's vision filling her mind completely. "A life has to be taken for one that is given. You knew this could happen."
"Then take the boy in trade," Uther shouts desperately. Arthur goes still, and Merlin thinks, hopes, for a second, no, he didn't, he wouldn't-- "Take that misbegotten creature and do with it what you will, but bring her back."
Nimueh looks up then. "No."
Uther unsheathes his sword, more clumsy than Merlin's ever seen him, the tip resting in the vulnerable hollow of Nimueh's throat. "Do it," Uther says, voice raw with rage. "Give me my wife back!"
With a roar of rage, Uther turns around, eyes fixing on the cradle in the corner, a frightened maid beside it. Merlin feels Arthur's hand tighten as Uther storms across the room, looking down into it with neither love nor understanding, and more than anything, Merlin wants to rush between them, block Uther from the sight of that baby with his own body. "I'll kill it, and you as well," Uther chokes out. "All of you, for what you've done to me."
Nimueh smiles, rising lazily from the chair and crossing the room. "You'll love him," she breathes in a terrible promise. Her hand brushes against his shoulder, a love spell twisted out of recognition spun between her fingers and draping Uther in glittering magic like cobwebs. "More than your own life, more than your kingdom, more than your very soul. And every hour of every day, you will see your wife in his face and remember her and feel as you do now, a grief that will never heal and never ease, never soften. That's your price, for the son you took from her, and for the son I gave her that you could not. You will love him, and he will be the wound that will never mend for all the days of your life."
Stepping back, Nimueh looks at the still figure on bed as Uther collapses, hopeless, horrible sobs ripped from him like he's being torn apart. "I'll keep my promise, Ygraine," Nimueh whispers. "He will be protected. Even from me."
The room fades away, but Merlin doesn't notice, cradling Arthur in his arms, shaking as if he'll never stop, and Merlin curls up around him, helpless to ease a loss so much worse than death. No son should learn this, know this to their bones, how much they were hated by their own father.
Everything after is almost a coda; they wander the castle without stopping, watching guards dragging sorcerers and innocents through the bailey, thrown into the dungeons, serfs conscripted from the fields and worked until their bodies littered the ground for others to climb over and finish their tasks. Uther watches from a window, eyes flat and blank, as the wood begins to fill the bailey, as the dungeons echo with the hopeless screams of those who will feed Uther's fires.
Nimueh chants, small and pale in the back of the most crowded cell, the iron ripping apart her magic and her mind at once, but the spell doesn't need magic, not yet; three days unmoving and sometimes seemingly unbreathing, her head lifting only when the first cell opens and the first ones are dragged away.
"What's going on?" someone says frantically. "What is he doing?"
Nimueh looks up as the screaming begins, horror-filled, pain-soaked, terrible to hear. Nimueh smiles, a faint glow surrounding her as she reaches down, casually jerking the iron from her flesh when the first death begins to fuel the spell she built, reaching for the terrified, pain-mad men and women being thrown to the greatest fire that Albion had ever seen, weaving the fragile threads of a Seer's vision into an unbreakable chain, creating a path that no one living would ever be able to do other than follow.
Merlin watches, sickened, as she weaves the magic of a hundred, a thousand sorcerers into it as neatly as a woman sews a tapestry, creating the protection that would follow Arthur all his life--that would send a young, frightened servant from Camelot to a country far from her home, settling in a village to bear her own son in the safety promised by a Seer, that Nimueh turns from potential into fact that no one can hope to escape. Every death foreseen is added to give it power when that death comes to pass, and Merlin thinks sickly of every time the executioner's axe had fallen, every man and woman that died in Uther's purges whose death was added to it for the long years between Ygraine's death and the day Merlin left his mother's home.
Nimueh looks beyond the guards, meeting Arthur's eyes. "This is how it began," she says, and for a second, the young girl who loved Ygraine looks out, lost and broken and left behind to be both witness to Uther's madness and executor of Ygraine's will. "This is what you are, Arthur Pendragon. This is what you cost us all. And knowing this is the price you pay for it."
They find themselves standing in the bailey, after, and Merlin looks around at the ordinary darkness, feeling the chill of the evening as something distant. Absently, Merlin pulls his coat closer, wondering vaguely why no one's come to search for them.
"That was part of it," Arthur says, looking at the castle with wide, unseeing eyes. "This is the last part of what she wrought. For us to come here, and to see this."
Uncertainly, Merlin reaches out and touches the stone; there's nothing left within. "It's gone," Merlin says, sure in a way he can't explain. "The--this is all that was left. The rest of what she did ended when I came to Camelot."
It's odd, to think of that, to think of Ygraine and Nimueh shaping the future into a single, inevitable path that led to this, to them, to the moment Merlin stepped foot in Camelot, giving him what they'd let the world burn to protect. He wonders how she could have known he'd be strong enough to do it.
"What she did, yes," Arthur says quietly, mouth tight. "But what they all did here--it's not over. It never will be, not as long as I live."
"No, Arthur. No." Pulling him around, Merlin looks into his face, shuttered and dark. "They chose this, they chose it. Not--not you."
"That doesn't change what was done for me." Arthur looks away as Merlin draws him closer, trying to press his own certainty into Arthur's skin, make him believe it. "How can anyone live with--with knowing--"
"You're not theirs," Merlin whispers frantically. "You're not. No matter what they did, it wasn't for you, it was for themselves and what they wanted to have come to pass. It was never for you."
Arthur nods blankly, disbelieving, and finally, he lets Merlin tug him back toward the wide stone archway that leads down to the cove. The quiet seems indecent when Merlin can still hear the echoes of long-forgotten screams filling his head, their boots loud on the gravel of the broken stone path.
They don't linger in the cove, going back up the uneven rock without even stumbling; Merlin's body remembers the path from Nimueh's memories. The horses wicker softly in welcome, and when Arthur lets go of him, the hurt is almost physical.
"God," Merlin says, leaning against the horse. "That's--"
"Come on," Arthur says, already mounting but looking no happier. "We'd best get back before--" he stops, frowning.
"I don't know," Merlin says, scrambling onto the horse's back. "I think they're alright. The knights, I mean--" Merlin shrugs helplessly.
"I had a meeting with--" Arthur trails off, then rolls his eyes. "Right, let's assume all of this was to get us here and start from there. Merlin, can you--"
"Find them, of course, just a second." Closing his eyes, Merlin hunts out the sparks that are the knights, as familiar to him now as they are to Arthur. Frowning, Merlin sits back. "Huh."
"They slept all day," Arthur says blankly, outrage vanishing suddenly beneath unwilling amusement. "Do remind me to mock them for this."
"I doubt," Merlin says dryly, "that you'll need the reminder."
Merlin feels it before they see it, like a cold wind or a long sigh before a much needed rest; Arthur stops, feeling it when Merlin does. "Arthur," he says, useless as it is, because Arthur's eyes are flickering to the village, spurring his horse, and Merlin follows; they both know what they'll find.
Five knights wait, bewildered, on an overgrown road, dazed and fully-dressed, horses beside them, surrounded in the long-burned houses of the village that died in Uther's fires the week of Arthur's birth. Pulling up, Arthur turns his horse in a tight circle, studying the overgrown land, empty of industry, dead fields and burned out dirt beneath the cold light of the moon.
"Sire," Gawain says, sounding shaken. "I don't understand--"
"Is everyone alright?" Arthur says harshly. Falling silent, Gawain nods. "Good. We're leaving."
The knights seem almost relieved; without argument, they mount their horses, noses turned south, while Merlin looks for something--anything--
"There won't be," Arthur says softly, reaching for Merlin's horse's bridle and turning it, leading him from the village.
"It--" Merlin looks back helplessly. "I didn't know."
"You weren't supposed to," Arthur says grimly, looking down pointedly, and Merlin sees their saddlebags have returned from wherever they left them. A part of him wants to open them, but he already knows their own things will be there and nothing more.
"I didn't--I should have." Somehow, this is the worst of it. A haunted castle, how mundane, memories caught in stone, fine, a secret history written into their minds, yes--but a village, a people, a serving girl, a room. "It felt real," Merlin says, looking back. "It felt--how can I--"
"How can I protect you from what I do not even know is not true?" Merlin shouts back, not caring if the knights hear him, not caring if his words carry to Uther's own ear. "I don't--"
"You will." Letting go of the bridle, Arthur reaches for his hand, fingers tight. "What you don't know, we will learn. We have time, Merlin."
Merlin thinks of Nimueh, of Taliesin, of the power that rippled through them, the expert ease they brought magic beneath their will. "When she was my age, she could bring life and death to heel," he says, frustrated. "She could change the fate of a kingdom--"
"And destroyed herself to do it. We won't make their mistakes," Arthur says, blue eyes dark, and Merlin wonders if it's the memory Ygraine that makes him imagine sparks like molten gold, like a dusting of falling stars in an endless night. "We've only started; it won't be the same for us. We'll do better."
Merlin's hands clench on the reins. "How do you know?"
"I remember--I remember her. I remember everything," Arthur says bitterly. "The life she lived, the queen she was, the man she married, the woman she loved, the son she bore--and the lie she told. There was another way. But not one that would bring me what I needed most. Not to be the king she saw."
Merlin closes his eyes, remembering Arthur's murmured denial when Ygraine showed Nimueh the path they must take--"No, it wasn't."
"What--what did she see?"
Uther, tossing bodies like kindling onto burning pyres; Nimueh in that tiny cell, weaving the future together to guide Arthur through every danger that an unprotected child could face, binding Uther to his son's safety with his own pain--sending a woman to a village far from Camelot and the laws of magic--and far from the exiled Druids who had been waiting, too, and not just for the promised king.
"She knew what you would be. The Druids told her, the place you would have with them, the destiny you had stretched before you. It wasn't this. Not then. She changed that, too. She hid you where they could never go, took from you what you should have been. So I could rule the world." Arthur looks at him hopelessly. "Tell me again, that this wasn't for me. Everything--everything that's happened--it was all for me."
The journey back goes almost impossibly fast, though they slow the pace, giving the unnerved knights the days they needed for the village memories to fade into something softer, less edged in magic and fear. Sleep spells are simple things; Merlin casts them each night as the sun sets, easing the knights into pleasant dreams that will teach them the story they will tell. The village was gone, burned away, the people lost. Uther will ask no questions; Tintagel will remain nothing but a blackened memory to commemorate Uther's grief.
He can't give Arthur the same kindness, a memory rewritten and purged, but he can give him other things, and sometimes, sometimes he can make him forget. For a little while.
"I want to rebuild it," Merlin murmurs, tilting his head back on the thick wool pad by the fire, watching the stars as Arthur's mouth trails curiously down his neck, golden hair twined idly between his fingers. Arthur pauses, a question rippling between them. "I don't know. It's safe now. And I can cleanse it to be sure."
"Hmm." Arthur presses a kiss against his collar, tongue tracing slickly over the bone.
"It's--," Merlin says, catching his breath at the soft scrape of teeth. "I don't know why. But it should be made whole again."
Merlin rolls his eyes, slapping the back of Arthur's head, feeling the ripple of Arthur's laughter trickle over his skin. "I'll restore it, then, when you're king. All of it. It's the place of your birth. For that alone, it should be cherished."
Arthur lifts his head, and Merlin's struck silent at the sight of him, drowsy blue eyes and flushed skin, lips swollen and soft. Merlin draws him into another kiss, breathless when Arthur pulls away.
"It's yours, then," Arthur says, pressing a kiss to the corner of his mouth. "You can do anything you want with it."
Of course, unspoken but crystal clear, and Merlin draws him back down again.
"Nothing was left of them?" Uther asks curiously, looking between his son and the gathered knights; Merlin, off to the side and unnoticed, wonders anew how Arthur can seem so much at ease, answering questions and adding remarks on their journey and it's conclusion, with a mind stuttering in barely-controlled chaos.
"Nothing," Arthur answers, looking a little bored. "It looked like a village fire. Whatever the dispute was, it must have escalated beyond simple pastures, if this was the result."
Uther nods, then hesitates. "There was no sign of anything--else?"
"No." Arthur tilts his head; for a second, Merlin thinks he sees flecks of gold touch the pure blue, a cold anger all the deeper being kept so severely in check; Merlin sees Uther leaning over the cradle again, face drawn tight with anger--it, boy, misbegotten creature, take it, I will kill it. "Was there something I should have known to look for?"
"No," Uther says uncomfortably, looking away. "Of course not. It is merely--a surprise."
"There is little there to keep anyone with sense," Arthur answers idly. "Barren fields, a crumbling ruin, and poor soil for any kind of crops. Better they go elsewhere."
"Yes," Uther says slowly, eyes on his son. "Of course. If that is all, you may go. You must be tired after so long a journey."
"I'm quite used to it," Arthur answers with a flawless bow. "Nothing good could come from there; best it's left to rot out of memory. Sire." Turning, Arthur misses the flash of guilt, the way Uther shifts in his throne, hand almost raising to call back his son.
Merlin doesn't, and he doesn't miss that Uther's hand lowers again, letting the moment pass. They always pass, and they always will; Uther will never be strong enough to love his son and his wife both, and even Nimueh's spell could only force this much from him.
If this is all that he can give his son--this half-life of maybe and almost, love given in careful measures to be withdrawn at the slightest offence--he doesn't deserve Arthur's devotion.
When Merlin arrives at Arthur's chambers, Arthur looks at him, the unhealed wound that Uther is to his son looking out of his eyes.
"I'm surprised he didn't wonder more," Arthur says, picking up a cup only to put it down, restless and flickering between the young prince and grieving son and angry man and sometimes all three. Merlin leans back against the door, thinking of how often he's watched Arthur like this and never understood what it meant. "He barely asked a question, he was so relieved to hear them gone."
He's ashamed, Merlin would tell him; he loves you like he loves nothing else, and you cost him his wife. He doesn't know how to love you both. Little by little, that shame had created a wound in his son that would never heal, giving his son the same endless pain to carry all his days.
Merlin traps the thought behind a smile before Arthur can sense it. Not yet. "You need a bath," he says, wrinkling his nose. "Too many days in the saddle, sire."
Arthur stops, blinking, and Merlin shows him himself--sweat-darkened hair, filthy surcoat, boots long beyond even the most meticulous cleaning, mail stiff with dirt. "And you didn't order me one?"
Merlin's smile widens. "Now why would I bother when I can do this?" It doesn't even need words; instinct pulls his magic free, sending it to do his bidding, and Arthur watches, enchanted, as the tub materializes, wide and deep, hot water cascading down to fill it from empty air. It's showy and silly and Merlin feels ten all over again and his mother snorting "Show-off" when he learned to slice their winter vegetables mid-air.
"Show-off," Arthur mutters affectionately, stripping off the surcoat with a grimace of distaste. Merlin pushes off the door before Arthur can tangle himself in his own armour, unfastening the leather straps and lifting it so Arthur can duck away. "What, you can't do this with magic, too?"
"I prefer to do this myself," Merlin says, leaving the chain mail on the table for later as Arthur tosses his tunic aside, then shirt, boots toed off and removed with his trousers before settling bruised and tired muscles into the hot water with a sigh so deep that Merlin stops, shirt twisted in his hands at the wave of yearning that ripples beneath his skin.
When he turns back around, Arthur's all but submerged, and Merlin pulls up a stool, leaning against the side, fascinated by the way Arthur melts in the water, mind clearing into the simple body-pleasures of hot water and clean herbs and relaxing muscles that Merlin can feel like they're his own.
Sighing himself, Merlin trails his fingers over the surface of the water, watching each ripple, a little lost in Arthur's pleasure as it uncoils through them both.
I want to keep this, Merlin thinks. I don't want to give this up.
Merlin turns his head, looking at Arthur drowsily. "Hmm?"
"Did you assume you were exempt from a decent standard of cleanliness?" Arthur says sardonically, not opening his eyes. "Take off your clothes. Without magic."
The wash of desire makes him unsteady on his feet; Merlin stumbles a little as he reaches for his tunic, feeling Arthur's amusement slip across his skin like bare fingers. When he looks, Arthur's watching him, and he snaps the lace of his shirt.
"Damn it," he mutters, jerking tunic and shirt over his head at once, working off boots and trousers, not daring to look up again or he'll never get this done. It's two endless, shaky steps to the edge, then Merlin feels Arthur, drawing him in, hand steadying against his hip, water splashing up as he's settled comfortably between long, heavy thighs and against a broad chest.
He wonders if anyone has ever been this happy, feeling Arthur's thoughts focus on him, clear and so bright, that mind. This is worth any price that might be asked of him. Any price at all.
"I love you," Merlin says, unthinking, so natural it almost need not even be said; Arthur's hand checks itself at his waist, fingers tightening on his hip, and Merlin turns his head at the splintering feeling that's fear and love and resignation all three. "You can feel that, can't you?"
"Yes." So low that Merlin wouldn't have heard it if he couldn't feel it, too, thrown between them like a gauntlet, or a white flag. Turning around, Merlin shifts until he can straddle Arthur's lap, looking down at him; this is what Uther taught him, ground into him from the cradle, love like an unending battle, something you had to fight for, something you had to beg for, no matter how small or uncertain the reward.
"It's not like that, not with us," Merlin breathes. Cupping Arthur's face, Merlin kisses him, almost shocked by the blaze of feeling that Arthur has for him and the dark edges that is Arthur's certainty this will be another lifetime of humiliation, hoping and begging for what he needs and never able to have it. No. Not like that. Not with me. Never with me.
Arthur would believe him, if he could; Merlin reaches further, Arthur opening around him, letting him search for whatever he wants, willing to give him this, anything, anything--
That isn't a father, Merlin thinks viciously, looking at the scars Uther's left in his son, wounds that never heal before they're opened once again, rage washing through him anew. Uther, and all he's done to destroy his son, Ygraine and Nimueh, who wove this future that Arthur must walk without care for the man forced to live it, the thousands whose blood was spilled for his sake that will haunt Arthur for all his life. He doesn't deserve you. None of them do.
"I love you," Merlin whispers, cradling Arthur's face in his hands. "I would have chosen you, had I been given the choice. I would have. This is everything."
It's so simple, as easy as breathing, as thinking, as living; he's so much more powerful than anyone could have ever dreamed when they dreamed of him, a whole world set burning compared to the bonfire that is Taliesin and the torch of Nimueh.
You're not his. Merlin strips away the devotion, the pain-edged memories of the kindnesses Uther gave like poisoned sweets to bind his son to him further, You've never been his, ruthlessly burning away the curdled, rotted sweetness of love that was never returned in kind, You're not theirs, Ygraine and Nimueh and the thousands and thousands that died in agony for Arthur to be born, to live, to rule. You're mine, all your life, all my life, this is the path that was set for you, to come to me, just for me, and Merlin rips away the last of the poison Nimueh left behind as her final gift to the future she had wrought. They thought they would create a king, and they did, but he won't be theirs when Merlin is done. He'll be nothing they could ever have imagined. I'll be everything, everything you could ever want, ever need. Nothing else matters. Give me this.
He won't accept no, he can't, but he wants Arthur to say yes, to take everything Merlin wants to give him: the world, his magic, the destiny Merlin will write for him anew, himself in whole. Magic glitters over them, fragile threads as delicate as a Seer's vision and as easily broken, waiting as Arthur stares up at him, eyes wide, the blue slowly vanishing beneath a flood of startling gold.
Yes. Then, Anything.
"You'll never regret it," Merlin says fiercely, and kisses him, magic rising through his skin, every place they touch, binding them together, threads strengthening as they coil around them like chains, tamping down the instinctive fear, I promise, I promise, I promise, until there's no room left for anything but certainty between them; nothing in this world or the next can keep them apart.
Merlin gasps, distantly aware of the water-soaked rug beneath his back and Arthur's tongue buried in his mouth, the flash of desire drowning them. Wrapping his legs around Arthur's hips, he says, "Please," and Arthur's slick and hot and huge, pushing inside him, rough and desperate and perfect.
Merlin leaves lines drawn in blood down Arthur's back, sucking promises into his skin, leaving himself everywhere they touch, offering Arthur the same, God, Arthur, please, "Harder," the shattering edge of orgasm rising up beneath them and crashing down, terrible and wonderful and consuming everything in its path.
The world shook when it received its promised king; Merlin thinks it must have felt it now, when Merlin took him for his own.
Arthur smiles weakly against his throat, bright, so bright, trembling exhaustion and ecstasy wrapped around them both. It will learn.
Merlin nods, pressing helpless kisses to sweat-damp hair. It will.
Curled warm and close as night falls around them in the warmth of Arthur's bed, Merlin says, We have to be careful, trading slow, drowsy kisses as Arthur moves lazily inside him, Merlin stretched wide and slick around his cock, Arthur's fingers laced through his and pinning him to the bed.
Hmm? Arthur licks gently at the hollow of his throat, lifting his head, and Merlin frees a hand, reaching up to trace a thumb beneath eyes glazed in gold. Ah. That.
"Yes," Merlin says, voice scratchy, pleased, liking Arthur draped in his power, feeling it curl through him protectively, possessively. "That. Though that, I can hide for you." It's everything else he's not sure they can.
Arthur catches his hand. "Don't worry. He won't notice. He never sees me." Mind free of a lifetime of bitterness or even interest, as if they speak of a stranger, Arthur presses a soft kiss to Merlin's palm. "He never has."
No need to ask who Arthur refers to. Merlin hooks a knee higher on Arthur's hip, drawing him deep with a low, pleased moan, loving how Arthur fits inside him, perfect, perfect. But if he does--
"It doesn't matter," Arthur murmurs, lacing their fingers together and pinning Merlin's hand to the bed. Leaning down, Arthur brushes their lips together, kiss-bruised and achingly gentle, radiating everything Merlin's ever wanted from him: love and devotion and unshakable, immovable certainty, focused on him entirely. "If he does, he will no longer be king."
Merlin parts his lips for the next slow kiss, content.