* * *
"The child is healthy, Sire," Gaius murmured, his hand hovering over--but not quite touching--Uther's shoulder. "Healthy and strong. All we had hoped for."
Uther didn't look up, didn't move. His fingers clasped Ygraine's cooling hand, his eyes locked on her still, white face. He pressed her fingers to his lips, his tears tracing glittering trails down her skin.
Gaius pulled his hand back, unwilling to intrude on the young king's grief any further than he had to. Few couples he'd known had been as devoted to each other, as in love, and he shuddered to think what this loss might do to Uther. But he was king, and his duties would tear him away even from this. "Sire..."
"Leave me!" Uther gasped, head bowing, resting on his wife's motionless breast.
"Sire, the child..." Gaius tried again, knowing Uther had yet to even lay eyes upon his son.
"Keep him from my sight," came the response, just as final.
Gaius opened his mouth, before closing it and retreating with a murmured acknowledgment. Time enough, later, to explain the situation to Uther, to inform him his son and heir was not what he thought him to be.
* * *
Merlin's feet hurt.
No, they didn't just hurt. They ached. They suffered, they cried out in lamentations. They rose up in protest and said impolite things about his mother. They were in full and utter rebellion.
Frankly, he thought, hitching his pack higher on his back, he didn't blame them. He'd been walking for days, following the rutted road out of Ealdor, out of Escetia entirely, heading to the city and kingdom of Camelot and his mother's old friend, Gaius. Two days ago he'd been lucky, able to catch a ride in the back of a farmer's cart for half the day.
But since then there'd only been the road and himself, one foot in front of the other, his pack on his back, and his future stretching out in front of him. He wasn't certain what to expect from it, but Camelot was...well, it was Camelot. A city, with royalty and knights and dragons, and everything the small hamlet of Ealdor could never hope to be. He loved his home, but knew how small it was, how backward. And now...
Now he would be living in the castle itself. A bit of a change from his mother's house...he found he couldn't even picture what it might be like. Not really.
One thing was certain, he decided as he looked down at his dusty boots: if he presented himself to the royal physician like this, covered head to toe in road dust and dried sweat, he'd likely be tossed out on his ear. He needed a wash. Hopefully there'd be a stream to provide it, before he reached the city. And to soak his feet. He'd thought them tough enough, back home, but he was used to running barefoot through bracken, not marching down a long, hard road in his winter boots.
Then he topped a rise, and all thoughts of blisters and sore soles disappeared in a gasp. He couldn't stop the smile that spread across his face, as he took in the view.
A broad valley stretched out in front of him, trees sloping down from the hill where he stood. And at its other end, framed against the backdrop of grand mountains, a tor rose, topped with a glittering white city, castle turrets visible at its apex. Distant flags snapped and fluttered in the breeze, the road ahead grew thick with the passing of people, and Merlin laid eyes on his destination at last.
There was a stream, and Merlin took full advantage of it, rinsing both himself and his clothing. He also decided to spend one more night under the stars. There'd be time enough for his new life in the morning, when he could avoid the crowds of the late afternoon, and walk the road before dust had risen for the day.
As he washed, splashing in the chilly water, he thought of the life he'd left behind. The village, his mother...and Will. His best friend, the only one aside from his mother who'd ever seemed to understand him.
And now they were most of week's travel away from each other. His mother thought it best, he knew, but he wasn't certain how to live without Will by his side. Certainly, his best friend had gotten him in a lot of trouble, but he'd always been there to get him back out of it.
Or at least take the punishment with him, he remembered with a grin.
Now Merlin was on his own. He sighed, pulling himself out of the water, flopping down beside his pack. Better to put it all behind him, not think about it anymore. He had a new life here, a new world to be a part of. Time to put childish things away.
He dried off, after a while, and finished making camp. He'd cooked a stew for his dinner with the rations still left in his pack, and sat back to eat it, staring into the flames of his small fire. He wasn't sure he really wanted to apprentice to a physician, but he knew what an honor it was. Especially for someone in his position. A peasant couldn't expect much, a bastard even less, and that his mother had secured him such a place was nothing short of a miracle. Even if it wasn't what he wanted.
But even someone with his luck wasn't going to be allowed near the dragons, let alone get to work with them. He banked his fire, rolled himself into his blankets, and went to sleep, to dream of the glimmering castle, and Will's voice teasing him all through the night.
"No," Arthur said firmly, shaking his head at the groom. "Completely unacceptable. Put the nag back in its stall, and don't return until you've something suitable for a prince, not a farmboy."
The groom touched his forelock, leading the dragon away again. Arthur slapped his gloves against his thigh irritably, feeling as out of place as he always did in the aerie. He knew, as a prince of Camelot, he should be more comfortable on a dragon than off, but he'd never managed to find that confidence. Not the way he could fighting, directing his knights, or even on horseback.
Not that he planned to ever let anyone know. Uncomfortable though he may be on a dragon, it was expected of him, a part of his duty he would not shirk. Besides, being in the air was almost worth it. He'd had dreams of flying all his life, and the first time he'd taken to wing had--almost--made them come true. It was the closest he'd ever get to doing it himself, that he knew.
The groom slunk back, no dragon following behind. "Beggin' your pardon, my lord, but all your preferred mounts have been taken out already, and the ones I've got back here is no more fit than him you've passed up..."
Arthur hid a sigh of relief in one of outward frustration. "Then I suppose I'll have to patrol on hoof, instead of wing," he snapped. "Thanks to you."
"I'm sorry, Sire..." The groom's pointless apology followed Arthur out of the aerie, fading as he strode from the mountain cave with long, purposeful strides.
He relaxed the moment bright sunlight hit his face and the sounds and smells of dragons faded behind him. He knew his father's taming of the great beasts had been an immeasurable victory for Camelot, giving her knights the best mounts in Albion. No other kingdom could stand against a force that could both strike and scout from the air.
He knew that, respected it, even, but couldn't change his own feelings on the matter. No matter how often he dreamed of flying, no matter how often he mounted and flew a dragon, no matter his father's words...he preferred his horses.
And their surroundings, Arthur decided, stepping into the warm, wooden stable, breathing in the smell of horseflesh and warm straw. He nodded to a stable lad, who jumped to his feet, hurrying off to saddle the prince's stallion, Hengroen. The big bay was ready in no time at all and Arthur swung himself up into the saddle, setting his heels to the horse's sides.
Always responsive and ready to run, Hengroen answered well, taking him through the castle, through the city, and out onto the open road. Arthur took full advantage of his knowledge of Camelot's streets and byways to get to the main gates as quickly as possible, only feeling able to breathe freely when he'd passed through the outer walls.
Uther wouldn't be pleased, when his son didn't attend the Hatching, but Arthur couldn't bring himself to care. In almost every aspect, he followed his father's will: he attended to his duties; he surpassed expectations. There were few things over which he'd risk his father's wrath, but watching Gaius collar stumbling baby dragons was one.
Reaching the main road, Arthur gave Hengroen his head, letting the stallion run, barely noticing the tall, gangly peasant boy who dived out of the way.
For the next few hours, he was free. Responsibility and consequences were for later. Until he had to think about them again, he would ride.
Merlin pulled himself to his feet, lips twisting into an amused grimace as he stared after the horse who'd nearly run him down. Ass. So much for arriving to present himself to Gaius not covered in road dust.
He snorted, glaring down the road for a moment longer, then brushed off the worst of the dust and kept moving. He'd gotten a fairly good look at the rider, before realizing the prat wasn't going to stop or veer off course. That much chain mail and lack of common courtesy...must've been a noble. Hopefully not one he'd have to deal with much.
Shaking his head, he adjusted his pack on his back, staring up at the city walls, so close now. Imposing structures, they were formed from thick stone--eight feet thick if an inch--and had to be at least three times his height. Towers that rose another story broke their line, and the gatehouse stood before him, several times the thickness of the wall. A bored guard waved him through, and Merlin looked up as he passed, swallowing as he saw the pointed tips of the portcullis, and the gaping slits of in the ceiling above his head. Blinking against the brightness of the day--and the images his mind conjured of what might happen to whoever was caught within that long, dark tunnel, trying to fight their way through--Merlin emerged into Camelot.
Ealdor was small. A few houses, a few outlying farms, families all related and known to each other. A few dozen people, perhaps, even on market days. Merlin could see at least that many now, just on the street in front of him. The noise, the smell...it was more than anything he'd ever experienced growing up, so far from the center of his own kingdom. He tried to look everywhere at once, following the winding street up, ever higher, as it snaked back and forth toward the castle looming above.
His feet, refreshed by his early stop the night before, were shortly aching again as he sidestepped through the waste of horses and the houses around him. The horse waste at least he could understand, but he curled his lip, watching a bucket of slops fly from the window of a house near him. He skirted the puddle, grateful to his boots. They saved his feet the mess smeared and ground into the packed dirt of the street.
Market stalls lined both sides of the way as he climbed higher, shop workers hawking their wares, calling for passers-by to stop and purchase. The cheerful sound of haggling echoed on every side, merchants wailing, buyers protesting and everyone parting with smiles and calls of good health, tucking coins into pouches, purchases into baskets.
And what purchases they were. Merlin's eyes couldn't take them all in, much as he tried. Weapons of every sort, from huge broadswords and axes, taller than Merlin himself, to slim silver daggers meant to fasten a lady's hair. Fabrics of all kinds, in weaves, fibers and colors which Merlin had never seen. Jewelry, figurines, books, and herbs were crowded cheek by jowl with instruments, tools, and crockery. Fine leathers shared stall space with freshly tanned fur, baskets of nails and horseshoes marked a blacksmith's space.
And the food. Oh holy Gods, the food.
The smells were enough to make Merlin's stomach wrap around his backbone, complaining its morning meal of watery porridge had not been enough, thank you very much. He swallowed, mouth joining in the chorus, watering as he passed by stalls selling pasties, sausage rolls, roasted nuts, drumsticks, and candied sweetmeats of all descriptions.
Digging in his pouch, he came up with a few thin coppers. They proved enough for a pastie, and he ate it while he walked, nearly groaning at the taste of flaky pastry and thick gravy. It might have been more vegetable and filling than meat, but what little meat there was tasted incredible, fresh and savory.
The food revived him, and he had a new spring in his step as he climbed ever higher, the buildings on each side growing more splendid, more opulent and better built, some from the very stone used on the castle itself. Finally, the castle walls loomed high before him, the drawbridge dropped down, allowing passage over a deep moat.
Merlin joined a stream of people crossing, listening to the excited chatter around him with interest. An elderly woman in front of him, escorted by a young boy, was telling her companion a long, half-coherent story--something about Hatchings in her youth.
Merlin couldn't follow, really, but that one word rang out clearly enough. Hatching. Had he truly arrived on the day of a royal Hatching?
It appeared, as he moved with the crowd, that he had. The castle courtyard was packed, a roped off area in the middle holding a few rocking eggs resting on a bed of warm sand. A few showed cracks, here and there there were even small holes in the glistening shells. It appeared he'd arrived just in time...
Merlin rose to his tiptoes, using his height to advantage, just catching sight of an egg splitting down the middle with a crack. A small, slimy creature fell from the shattered remains, still half wrapped in the membrane that'd encased it.
A cheer went through the crowd, as an older man dressed in a long robe stepped forward, snapping a jeweled collar around the hatchling's neck. A stable hand moved in, carefully drying the smooth hide with a soft towel. Merlin felt a smile spread across his face, as the young creature flapped its drying wings, a cry sounding from its mouth.
The other eggs hatched, one after the other, until Merlin forgot his reasons for standing there, forgot his aching feet, forgot his purpose for being in Camelot at all. Forgot everything, in fact, but watching each incredible dragon draw its first breath.
A trumpet sounded as the last hatchling was collared, dried and taken away, and Merlin turned with the crowd, gaze drawn to the balcony above him. A tall, imposing man dressed in rich fabrics and shining chain mail stood there, arms raised. His iron gray hair was cut short in the old Roman style, but it was the golden crown atop that drew Merlin's attention.
"When I, Uther Pendragon, came to this land, this kingdom was mired in chaos. But with the people's help, draconic treachery was driven from the realm. So in a fortnight's time, I declare a festival, to celebrate twenty years since the great dragons were tamed and Camelot freed from the evils of their sorcery. Never let it be forgotten that in Camelot, dragon shall serve man, as God Himself has decreed." He paused, a smile coming over his face, as he let his arms drop. "Let the celebrations begin!"
The cheer he obviously expected rose from the people before him, and the trumpets sounded again. The king disappeared from his balcony, leaving the guards to disperse the crowd. Merlin shook himself, roused from his near trance, looking up to see the sun far past noon. He was late...hopefully Gaius could forgive him the lapse, when he heard what Merlin had been lucky enough to see.
He shook his head, seeking someone to direct him as the courtyard cleared. A pair of guards stood at attention near one door, and he approached, trying to look as nonthreatening as possible. "Where would I find Gaius?" he asked, swallowing at the man's blank stare. He held a huge spear and was dressed in chain mail duller, more utilitarian, and obviously more used than Uther's. If the king meant his guards to intimidate, he'd done a good job. "The, uh, court physician?"
The man turned his stern gaze on Merlin, looking him up and down. "Sick, are ye'?" he asked, a grin suddenly lightening his visage. "Or injured? Your master been tanning your hide, lad?"
Merlin felt an answering grin spread over his own face. "No, but he will if I don't arrive soon. I'm to be Gaius's apprentice."
The guard laughed. "Congratulations to you, boy. He's through here. Head up a floor, to your right, down the walkway, and take the tower door. He's up a long set of steps. It's marked, but anyone can direct you, if you can't read the signs."
"Thank you," Merlin replied, grin widening as he headed through the archway.
He did have to ask the way again, though he could read, his mother having taught him as a child. But he'd never before been in a building as large as the castle, and he quickly lost his sense of direction, enclosed in the stone walls.
Still, once his feet had been set on the right path, he found the narrow stairway that led to Gaius's chambers, and climbed it with alacrity. He ducked automatically through the door, though it proved unnecessary. The room he entered--with a knock, and soft "hullo?"--was large, airy, the door a small wooden inset to a larger, stoop shouldered affair. He couldn't discern the original purpose for the room--the door was large enough to allow the passage of a large cart, but the narrow stair beyond would never let it pass further--but now it was a fascinating mix. Tables were scattered all about, their surfaces covered with glistening jars full of interesting powders, dried herbs, glass bowls full of brightly colored liquids, mortar and pestle, and a hundred tools of the apothecary and physician's trade, all crowded by scrolls and books by the dozens. Shelves covered nearly every wall, even more books and bits and bobs stuffed into them.
He found himself turning in an amazed circle, even as he again called out, looking for the man responsible for the fascinating array around him. "Gaius?" he called, eyes following a rickety line of stairs up to a balcony on the second level, showing just as many books and even more hanging herbs.
No sign of his new master, though. He frowned, turning again, before hearing a door behind him. He turned to see a familiar figure: the white-haired man who'd set collar to the hatchlings. A grin spread across his face, and he hurried forward. "Are you Gaius, sir? I saw you with the dragons, I..."
He flailed, nearly toppling a small table, tripping over his feet in his hurry to reach the older man.
"Careful! Those preparations take hours to make!" Gaius--for Gaius it must be--righted the table, his hands passing over Merlin's for a moment, steadying both the table and Merlin himself.
"Sorry!" Merlin winced, flushing as he pulled back, quickly gathering the bundles of herbs that'd fallen, setting them back on the surface. "Sorry, I didn't mean to...there, that's got everything, and I think..." He pulled back, gripping the straps of his pack, keeping his hands safely contained. "Sorry."
"Who are you, boy?" Gaius asked, staring at him in confusion and no little accusation, his deeply lined face not particularly friendly.
"Merlin," Merlin replied, flushing as he realized he'd forgotten to even introduce himself. "I'm Merlin, I'm...I have a letter..."
"You're Hunith's boy!" Gaius seemed to relax some, nodding to himself, the confused frown turning to a welcoming smile. "Where is my head...sorry, lad, with the Hatching this morning, I lost track of the days. Aren't you early?"
"Late, actually," Merlin admitted, ducking his head slightly. "I should've been here yesterday, but the trip took longer than I thought." And he'd wanted to clean up a bit...not that it looked it, now, what with that noble running him down.
"No matter, no matter. You're here now," Gaius said, accepting the letter Merlin still held out. "We'll find some use for you, no doubt. How does your mother?"
"She's quite well," Merlin replied, embarrassment gradually easing in the sheer normalcy of Gaius's conversation. "As is all Ealdor...the harvest was good last year, and they've planted a few more fields."
"Good to hear it," Gaius replied, nodding to himself. "Well, you'd better put your things away. Take the room back there, it should suit you."
"Thank you, sir," Merlin replied, glancing at the steps Gaius had indicated. And while Merlin was willing to let the incident from before go, he knew he had to say something. "I really am sorry about the..."
Gaius shook his head. "Don't let it worry you. Would've taken more than a fall to truly damage those herbs. Though I imagine the dragons will prefer them uncrushed."
Merlin grinned, excitement that'd been bubbling before now growing, deep in his belly. This man worked with the dragons...maybe he'd get to, too! "I'll be more careful," he promised, before heading up the stairs and into his new room.
Arthur returned late, long shadows already melding toward dusk as he crossed the castle drawbridge. He reined Hengroen in, patting the bay's neck. The horse had done a good day's work, carrying them over the local countryside, and Arthur reminded himself to see to it he was rewarded...extra feed, for certain.
He felt calmer, after the day spent in the forest, having escaped his duty and his watchers. Though he knew he should've taken at least a token guard, he couldn't regret that he hadn't. Not when it'd given him time to simply exist, away from the constant haranguing reminders from his father of what he should be and wasn't.
Dismounting in the stable yard, he led Hengroen in himself, shaking his head when a stable lad came forward to care for him. A few more moments, then he'd go in and face the consequences of his actions. He'd likely be yelled at, punished, possibly in front of his father's retainers...fine. There wouldn't be another Hatching for months; he could play the good and dutiful prince until then.
Not, he had to admit as he rubbed Hengroen's sides down with handfuls of straw, that he knew why he hated them so much. Most seemed to find them occasions to coo and awe over the young dragons, smiling and laughing as they took their first few halting steps, before the ceremonial collars were locked around their necks for the first time. A moment to celebrate birth and promise, to remind the people and lords of Camelot how far their kingdom had come, how rich the tradition they were creating.
But Arthur hated it. Hated every moment, watching the eggs rock and crack in such spectacle, everyone staring and exclaiming over them. Hated watching Gaius come forward with the collars, locking them in place and whispering the traditional blessings as he did. Hated seeing rough towels cleaning the fluids from the small creatures, and seeing them carried off, back to their aerie, and their life of servitude. He always had, since he was a small boy, feeling like snakes were battling in his stomach, making cold sweat spring out on his back.
And he'd always, always been sick after.
So no, the prince thought grimly, he wouldn't attend the Hatchings, not so long as he could leave the castle grounds. His father could shout all he wanted, but in this one matter, Arthur wasn't bending. Maybe someday he'd be king, and have to attend. But he wasn't king yet, and God willing wouldn't have that mantle fall on him for many long years yet.
Hengroen brought his mind back to the present, craning his head back to lip Arthur's golden hair, and the prince was surprised into a laugh. "Greedy thing," he said fondly, slapping the horse's side. "I'll get you your dinner. But then I must be off to find my own."
Still, he lingered in the stable as long as he could, taking strength from the smell of horseflesh and leather, only leaving when his manservant, Morris, entered the stall, looking for him. "Sire? Your father..."
"On the warpath, is he?" Arthur asked, careful to sound as unconcerned as possible. "Very well. Draw me a bath, lay out my clothes, and fetch me something to eat. I'll have words with him once I've cleaned off the stink of horses, and not before. Oh, and make certain Hengroen's tack is cleaned and that he's given extra sweet mash tonight."
Morris bobbed his head. "Will there be anything else, sire?" he asked diffidently.
"Make certain my armor's shined by morning, I've a knighting trial to attend to," Arthur replied, brow furrowing a little. "Oh, and sharpen my throwing daggers...I've a mind to practice in the afternoon."
He strode away, not waiting for a response, slapping his riding gloves against his thigh as he walked.
Even if at times like this, all he wanted to do was saddle Hengroen and ride for the hills and freedom.
Merlin settled into life at the castle fairly quickly, once he learned his way around the towers and corridors, through the enormous stone structure that could've swallowed all of Ealdor and gone looking for more to fill its halls and cellars. At first he'd gotten terribly lost, but after asking directions again and again from endlessly patient guards, and tracing his own steps back a few times, his mental map of the warren finally began to fill itself out.
Gaius gave him easy enough duties at first. He delivered medicines to those that needed them, fetched herbs when he'd proved he could tell the difference between hemlock and parsley. He ground the plants he gathered under Gaius's watchful eyes. And he ate, slept, and lived in Camelot.
Every moment, he could remember that. Even when he swept the floor, or washed a dish. The dragons lived beneath his feet, flew overheard. Knights and ladies passed him in the halls. The city teemed with the lives of more people than he'd ever seen in one place before. Even when performing the most simple task, he did it within the walls of the most powerful city in all of Albion.
He'd even been told he'd get to attend the celebration feast, as an extra server. It seemed too good to be true. A simple peasant like him, at a royal feast!
But all that paled in comparison to his third day in residence. On that day, Gaius roused him early--waking him from confused dreams of a voice in crystal calling his name while he ran in place and couldn't seem to reach it--and tossed a leather apron and gloves to him. "Get dressed, Merlin, and eat quickly."
"Why?" Merlin grumbled, pulling himself gradually upright and yawning deeply. Mornings were not his best time.
"We're going to treat the dragons, and they're less restless before the sun's high," came Gaius's impossible response. "Now get moving."
Merlin didn't have to be told twice. He jumped to his feet, tugging on his breeches and boots, quickly tying his scarf around his neck. Dragons. Gaius was taking him to see the dragons! His stomach shivered in anticipation and he rushed through his breakfast as quickly as he could. He was still busily swallowing the last of his porridge as he took hold of Gaius's huge medical trunk, lifting its weight with no complaint.
"Good to have found a way to get you up and moving," Gaius teased, as he led Merlin out of their quarters, toward the back of the castle complex. The path they followed curved down the steepest side of the tor, a sheer drop with no easy ascent directly to their left. Merlin gazed over the edge as Gaius opened a small wooden door, inset into a larger, arched portal. It was even bigger than the doors to their chambers, though similarly designed. With one last look at the treetops far below them, Merlin followed Gaius into the dim cavern beyond the door, lit only by high slits in the rock and flickering torches.
He breathed in the scent of the place, fascinated by an amazing spicy undertone, unlike anything he'd ever smelled before. It underlaid the more familiar smells of straw, waste and warmth, the perfume of any stable in the world. He followed Gaius into the gloom, trying to look everywhere at once as his eyes adjusted to the darkness.
Merlin had heard, of course, of the great network of caves that extended below the castle and city. A deep underground lake provided daily water for all the people of Camelot through hand pumps at the surface. But the complex below was much more than just a lake. Twisting tunnels led to huge rooms, high ceilings suddenly giving way to small, rounded hallways barely tall enough for Merlin, let alone any but the youngest of dragons. Maze like pathways led out in every direction, all resulting in a subterranean landscape every bit as complex as that above it. Looking around, Merlin had a sudden image in his mind of bubbles moving through rock, somehow pushing it aside and leaving the caverns and paths in their wake.
Gaius seemed to know where he was going all the same, and led Merlin swiftly along, giving him little time to spend with his fancy. They moved down the main corridor, then took an abrupt detour to the left, down one of the smaller passages. It led to a cave Merlin would almost term cozy, and he set the trunk down where Gaius indicated, gratefully easing his back.
The walls rose up and met a few feet above his head, an enclosed space perhaps fifteen feet deep and twenty across. Within, curled together in a veritable nest of straw and old horse blankets, were the hatchlings Merlin had seen born only a few days before. They were tangled together, apparently asleep, their hides of red, brown, black, green and blue shining in the glow of lantern and dim sunlight.
A bored-looking lad rose from a stool near the entrance, inclining his head to Gaius. "Greetings, sir. They seem in good health, just a bit fussy taking their milk. Joss's been adding in the brown powder when he's tempting them."
"Good," Gaius replied, apparently blind to the scene's effect on his apprentice. "Merlin, open that box and fetch me the felt roll of instruments. I'll need your help here."
Merlin--who had been staring into the golden eyes of the green hatchling--started, but did as he was told, grabbing Gaius's tools and joining him at the edge of the nest. "What should I do?"
"Hold each one steady for me," Gaius replied, rolling out his kit. "Start with that big brown lad, there."
Merlin swallowed hard, before stepping closer to the nest and the tangle of its inhabitants. He saw the one Gaius had indicated, sprawled out on its back, legs and wings splayed out across its siblings. The baby dragon was the size of a large dog, and indeed, its abandon reminded him of a giant puppy.
But a puppy he knew how to handle. A dragon...he honestly had no idea. How did you pick it up? What did you support? How did you make certain not to crush delicate wings, or get caught on developing claws?
Gaius didn't seem likely to tell him, though, just told Merlin to get on with it and stop dawdling. Taking a deep breath, Merlin reached down, placing his hand on the hatchling's warm hide.
"Hullo," he murmured, when impossibly deep gold eyes met his, blinking lazily open. "Would you mind coming along with me?"
The dragon slowly blinked again--giving Merlin the absurd impression it was actually considering his request--before shuffling forward over its siblings and leaning its head against Merlin's chest. A grin broke over his face as he raised a hand, scratching its eye ridges until the hatchling let out soft churring noise, not unlike a purr.
"Merlin..." Gaius's voice broke into Merlin's distraction, though it was soft, indulgent. He blushed, gathering the gangly hatching up into his arms, and carried it over. "Thank you, lad," Gaius said, taking the young dragon and stretching it out between them.
Examining the creature, he pointed out anatomy to Merlin, drawing his attention to the problem areas, the exact nature of what he was on the lookout for. Patches of dry skin, watering eyes, bad color, labored breathing, spots too warm or too cold...all the myriad smalls signs of health problems that might afflict a young--or indeed, not so young--dragon.
Merlin drank it all in, taking copious mental notes. He couldn't believe he was truly here, smearing ointment over a scaly patch of skin as a dragon cooed at him, eyelids heavy as it stretched in pure abandon. He laughed at the expression, looking up to see Gaius grinning at him.
They examined each of the hatchlings in turn, and each one rested trustfully in Merlin's arms. When they finished he nearly floated back out of the aerie, hardly aware of his surroundings, of the heavy weight of the trunk once again in his arms. He'd touched, fed and held actual dragons. It'd been a childhood dream come true.
"What did you think of them?" Gaius asked, glancing over at him.
"They were..." Merlin paused, not certain he really had the words. "Amazing," he said, at last, even though it was woefully inadequate. "Not quite what I'd imagined," he admitted, "but so...so incredible."
"What had you imagined?" Gaius asked, holding their door open for Merlin, gesturing for him to proceed into their chambers.
Merlin shrugged, dropping the chest back in its accustomed place, standing and stretching his back again. "It's a child's fancy," he warned, shaking his head, remembering the long games of pretend he'd often played with himself. "But I'd always imagined they could speak. Though I suppose the children wouldn't, would they?" he added, grinning over at Gaius.
"Most children can't, at that age," Gaius agreed, his smile not as bright as Merlin expected. "Did you often think of dragons?"
"All the time," Merlin admitted, moving to help Gaius prepare their midday meal. "My mother used to know if she couldn't find me, I was off astride a log, flying to the rescue of the entire kingdom." He laughed softly at himself. "I had quite a few adventures with only a fallen tree."
Gaius chuckled, patting Merlin's back in passing. "As have most boys, I expect. You'll find the riders feel almost as if their dragons could speak to them...they're much more intelligent than all give them credit. Remember that, when you treat the young ones."
Merlin's eyes widened. "I'm to do it again?" he asked, unable to keep the eager hope out of his voice.
"You proved competent enough today," Gaius replied, laying a slice of cheese over a bit of thick bread, spearing it on a toasting fork. "And you're bright enough to know to report to me if you're in over your head. I'm busy enough with the sick and injured humans in this place, I can't be bothered by the teething lizards." And though Gaius sounded annoyed, the twinkle in his eyes let Merlin know all he needed to. Gaius knew just how much this meant to him.
"Oh Gaius!" Merlin grinned, so wide he thought he might split his face. "Thank you!"
"You can pay me back by unearthing the floor of that room of yours," Gaius said, an answering smile tugging at his lips. "And by taking a preparation to Morgana. She's having nightmares again, poor child. Now eat, and get to your work."
Merlin took the toasted bread Gaius held out to him, and the flask of medicine, grinning all the way out of the room. Treating the young dragons. Him! It was beyond his wildest hopes. Maybe he could eventually treat them all, young and old, and truly find his place here. A dragon healer...yes. He thought he liked that. Maybe it wasn't riding them...but it was working with them, having a relationship, a kinship. It started to fulfill those dreams.
* * *
"Get your sword arm up, Blaise," Arthur barked, walking down the line of sparring knight hopefuls, examining each in turn. They were good lads, but few among them had what Camelot needed. He did the best he could, but so many of the noble's sons sent to him had little drive to learn to fight, to put the energy necessary into the endeavor.
Fewer still could master combat not only on the ground, but in the air. Arthur glanced up, as a shadow passed over him, shading his eyes to see Leon whirl by, his dragon gliding gracefully in a rising thermal. Arthur didn't begrudge him taking over the dragon training in the least, grateful the other man was willing to do it and save him the experience. But few of the other beasts moved or cornered as cleanly as Leon's, and Arthur shook his head. He'd grown up hearing about the unmatched precision of Camelot's dragon flights, but it never seemed to match the songs, when seen in real life.
Pushing the thought out of his head, he turned back to his knights in training, walking the line of them, giving directions, adjusting a grip here and there. Frustrating as it sometimes was, the work soothed him. It was familiar, it was safe...and it wasn't under his father's watchful eye. Uther had been watching him even more closely than usual, after the day of the hatching. He hadn't been pleased that Arthur had shirked his duty. Arthur was no stranger to his anger, or his punishments, but still could not say he'd enjoyed the experience.
Out here, though, Arthur was in his element, and he felt himself truly relaxing. Later, he'd have to fly patrol. Later, he'd have to face his father, report on his whereabouts for the entire day, verify he'd done what was expected of him. Later, he'd have to deal with Morris cringing every time he snapped, with Morgana tormenting him, with the rest of his life.
Right now, he was in command. Right now, he was in control. And right now, later could take care of itself.
Treating the young dragons became Merlin's daily highlight. He rose early--earlier than he ever had on his own, at least--and rushed through breakfast each morning, eager to get to the aerie. He took the small kit Gaius had put together for him, and hurried off, always with excitement thrumming through him.
Gradually, he got to know the others who worked within the aerie. There were stable hands who readied the dragons for flight, or exercised them on their own. Riders who took the dragons out, flying them on patrols or simply for the time spent in flight. And he got to know the dragons, as well.
There were several different types, apparently scattered at random through each clutch. The smallest and quickest were couriers, fast dragons even a lad could ride to take messages from one end of the kingdom to the other. Then there were the bludgeoners. Huge and immensely strong, they pounded the enemies to rubble with the force of their attacks. And last, Merlin's favorite, were the fighting drakes. Lean and agile, they pulled eagerly at their harnesses, ready for anything.
Even in each kind, they had their own personalities. Some were docile creatures, spoiled and well cared for, while others were high strung, difficult to control by any but the most experienced rider. He had his favorites among the dragons he saw pass, and he'd begun to make friends with a few of the other lads.
In less than a week, he'd found his place. In less than a week, he felt as if he'd always been in Camelot, as if he finally, finally belonged.
He should've known it was too good to last.
Merlin smeared greasy ointment over the biggest hatchling's hide, concentrating on the tender skin beneath its collar, a match to the ones each dragon wore. He checked every day to make certain the gold bands weren't pinching, hadn't become too tight. So far they didn't seem to be, though the dragons had grown since hatching. He'd decided they must have duplicates in larger sizes for each clutch, and that someone more trusted to handle gold and gems took care of changing them when necessary.
He grinned as the hatchling trilled softly, arching into his touch, eyes at half-mast. The small dragons were so wonderfully responsive...he loved spending time with them. His mother had kept a few cats back home to keep down the mice, but even at their most insistent they had never been as sweet.
The hatchlings stirred, one chirping uneasily, and Merlin frowned. He looked up to see what was distressing them, and realized he'd been hearing the sound of a raised voice for a few minutes, at the edge of his awareness. A voice which was getting progressively louder. The hatchlings grew ever more restless, one crying out softly. Merlin shushed her with a gentle touch, before setting down the hatchling he'd been treating.
He ducked out of the room, striding quickly down the hall to the main corridor, eyes widening at what he saw.
"Are you truly that incompetent? You can't expect me to ride with that!"
The speaker was tall, broad shouldered, muscled--obviously a fighter--and had the haughty, sneering expression Merlin had come to associate with the younger petty nobles. Pity, his face would've been handsome, if set in a less disagreeable expression. Especially with that blond hair and those incredibly blue eyes.
"I'm sorry, my lord," Johnny--a younger, quieter stable lad--bowed away, the complicated leather strapping of a dragon harness in his hands. Merlin could see, even from his place in the shadows, that it was in bad repair, cracked and patched. "I'll just fetch a new one..."
"And you expect me to break it in?" the blond spat, his gloves slapping against his thigh, face red with indignation. "I don't have time to do your work for you. If you were anything other than a worthless, useless..."
"Hey, hey, hey," Merlin interrupted, moving between the nobleman and Johnny, holding his hands out. Johnny was a shy, sensitive lad...he was liable to take this hard. Merlin couldn't stand by and watch him take the abuse he didn't deserve. "There's no need for all this."
"No need?" replied the blond, eyebrows nearly meeting his hairline. "And I suppose you think you're a fit judge of what's needful and not?"
Johnny tugged at Merlin's jacket, but Merlin waved him away with a quick, reassuring smile, before turning back. He recognized the man, now. The same one who'd ridden him down, the day he'd arrived in Camelot. An ass all around, then, not just to the peasants on the road. "I think shouting at this boy isn't going to get your dragon ready any faster. And it is disturbing my hatchlings."
"Your hatchlings?" The blond let out a bark of harsh laughter. "Look at you. You don't own the clothes on your back! Those hatchlings belong to the king, and no one else."
"All the same," Merlin replied, pursing his lips slightly, trying to get hold of his temper. "It's my duty to keep them well, and having a prat like you running his mouth off isn't helping me do it."
He turned to go, but the man's voice called him back. "A prat, am I?"
Merlin paused, praying for a moment of patience, before turning back. "For a start," he confirmed, noticing Johnny had disappeared, though he thought he saw a few others loitering about. Probably watching the show. "You're also an ass."
"Any other names you think you've the right to call me?" The blond's tone was genteel, even courteous, but Merlin could see the fire in his eyes. "No?" he asked, when Merlin remained silent, just lifting his chin, staring the man down.
"None spring to mind," Merlin replied, crossing his arms, not about to back down, now that he had the noble's full attention. Better him than Johnny; the lad wouldn't be able to defend himself and would likely suffer at this man's hands, and Merlin was older...better equipped to handle it.
"Well I've one for you," the blond replied, a smirk spreading across his face. "You're an idiot."
"Thanks," Merlin returned, just managing not to curl his lips. This ass needed a lesson, and needed it badly. "I'll remember that. Is there anything else, or weren't you leaving?"
"In my own time," the blond replied, glancing down the hallway toward the hatchling cave. "First I think I'd better see how you're managing this duty of yours...wouldn't want the king's property damaged, would we?"
He took a step toward the cave, and Merlin sidestepped in front of him, holding his hands out, fear spiking through him. Gaius had told him, more than once, that no one else was allowed near the hatchlings...he couldn't imagine what damage a spoiled brat in this mood might do. "I wouldn't."
"You think you can stop me?" the blond asked, smirk widening as he took another step forward.
"I think someone should," Merlin snapped, planting his hand against the man's muscled chest, pushing him back sharply.
A strange shadow crossed the blond's face, and he moved--faster than Merlin could react--gripping Merlin's fist and twisting his arm behind his back. "That was stupid, even for the likes of you. Threatening royalty's a hanging offense."
"Royalty?" Merlin barked, twisting in the grip, gasping when the blond's hand tightened. "You?"
"I'm Prince Arthur." A low chuckle met his ear. "Told you there was another name for me."
Arthur watched the guards lead the ridiculous peasant away, breathing once, heavily, through his nose. Of all the bloody cheek...the boy had actually raised a hand to him. And all to protect first a stable lad, then those ridiculous hatchlings...
He frowned, striding out of the aerie. He wasn't forcing himself onto a dragon, now. Not after an incident like that.
How had the peasant not known who he was? Treating the hatchlings meant he was trusted...but who was he? Arthur was fairly certain he'd never seen him before--ears like that he'd remember.
Bravery, too, he had to admit grudgingly. The boy hadn't backed down. And he might've been tall enough, but he was slightly built, no muscle, no grace to him. He didn't know how to fight.
And yet he'd still blocked the way of a dragon rider dressed in armor. Arthur huffed an amused laugh, resting his hand on his sword-hilt as he climbed the path to the castle. Was the boy enough of an idiot to believe he could win?
Or was he that determined to protect the baby dragons and the stable boys?
Arthur slowed, considering it. He understood protecting those who couldn't protect themselves. He understood serving those below you, taking their burdens into yourself. A king might live in a castle, but he was the greatest servant in the land, existing to protect, care for and above all serve his people.
This boy...he'd been serving. Not the noble in front of him, but his charges...and his peers.
Arthur sighed. Dammit. He'd let his own anger and frustration overcome his good sense, and a lad just doing his job--a lad committed to doing it well--was now shivering in the dungeons.
Because of him.
Groaning, he turned, heading to Gaius's chambers. He'd been an ass, and now he'd have to fix it. He could only hope Gaius knew the identity of the boy...and would be willing to cover for Arthur, to free him.
The dungeons of Camelot stunk. Even to someone who'd spent a great deal of his childhood shoveling manure to fertilize his mother's garden, who'd watched from the shadows as she'd brewed foul tinctures and dressed festering wounds. The smells of filth and blood surrounded him, there, too, but the dungeons added the unmistakable stench of fear.
Merlin huddled against the back wall, the chill of the stone seeping through his thin jacket. He was an idiot. A complete and utter idiot. He had porridge for brains. Not that Prince Arthur hadn't deserved it--he had, and more--but Merlin was a peasant, a nobody...and one lucky enough to have been given his dream. So of course he'd challenged the bloody prince.
He dropped his head back against the stone wall, wincing. Now what? Would they ever let him out? Just how serious an offense was it, insulting a royal prat? If Arthur treated everyone that way, Merlin supposed it couldn't be too bad. Otherwise the dungeons would be bursting at the seams.
Where had he gotten off, anyway, treating Johnny like that? The boy had just been doing his job, and even if he'd grabbed the wrong harness...there'd been no need for Arthur to harangue him for it. Merlin didn't like to believe someone who'd eventually rule the entire kingdom planned to treat all his future subjects that way. And if he did...Merlin would be heading back to Ealdor, dragons or no.
Assuming he'd ever get out of this cell. They wouldn't leave him in the dungeon to rot, just because he'd called the prince a prat and given him a bit of a shove, would they?
As the minutes slipped by, he had to wonder if they would. He tugged his jacket even closer around himself, shivering in the damp air. Someone would at least have to eventually let him know if they were leaving him incarcerated until the end of his natural life, wouldn't they?
Gradually, he felt his eyes grow heavy, his limbs the same, and he drifted off. Even uncertainty wasn't enough to stop sleep from coming for him, tugging him down.
A dark passage opened up before him. Merlin held his torch higher, illuminating the rough hewn stone walls on either side. He walked confidently, taking a branching passage with no hesitation. An archway opened up before him and he ducked to step through. From a doorway barely large enough for a single man to pass, the cavern opened up in front of him, immense.
The light of his torch couldn't reach the other end, and Merlin raised it higher still, blinking against the glare. "Hello?" he heard himself call out to the darkness. "Why do you call me here?"
A shuddering sound answered him, like the creaking of huge trees, the snapping of leather hides, the clanking of heavy chains. It grew in volume, until a great wind extinguished his torch, and something spoke from the darkness.
"We have been waiting for you, Emrys..."
Merlin jerked awake, blinking away confused images from his dreams. He rubbed his eyes and looked up, to see Gaius looking down at him, his friendly face transformed into a mask of grim disapproval. "I send you to the aerie alone, trust you to look after yourself, and you call his royal highness an ass?"
"It wasn't entirely my fault," Merlin protested. "He is an ass."
Gaius stared at him for another moment, before the stern mask broke into a fond--if exasperated--grin. "Thankfully, someone seems to agree with your assessment of his behavior. Though I wouldn't go looking for an apology--Arthur is not known for them." He stepped back, holding the cell door open. "Come along. I'm already behind today, and having to spring my wayward apprentice from the dungeons is setting me further back."
"I'm free?" Merlin asked, grinning in relief as he scrambled to his feet. Maybe he wouldn't rot and die here, after all. "Thank you, Gaius!"
Gaius waved off the thanks, herding Merlin from the dank dungeons and back to the light and day above. Merlin thought he caught sight of a flash of blond hair and red tunic, as they emerged and headed across the courtyard, but he couldn't be sure.
Not that he truly cared. He'd been lucky enough to escape the dungeons, he was grateful for that. The castle was huge...it shouldn't be too difficult to avoid the prince in future. It wasn't as if they moved in the same circles. He would keep his head down, treat the hatchlings, and do his best to stay out of the way of the royal prat.
His new plan solidified, Merlin followed Gaius across the courtyard to their rooms, his heart lightened. The prospect of dinner and rest seemed infinitely more interesting after contemplating an eternity in the dungeon.
"Thank you, Morris, that will be all," Arthur said, waving his manservant away. Morris bowed and stepped out of the room, leaving Arthur alone for the night. He stared down at the report in front of him, hand resting on his goblet.
"Strange. It almost looks like you know how to read."
Arthur closed his eyes, praying for patience. "Morgana. So kind of you to drop by. What do you want."
"I can't spend time with my little brother just because I wish to?" Morgana asked, stepping into his room, her diaphanous sleeves wafting in the breeze from his window.
"You can. You don't." Arthur replied, standing and lifting his goblet to her. "What is it this time?"
"I heard you had a boy thrown in the dungeon today." Morgana crossed to his table, snagging an apple from the basket there, turning it over and over in her hands.
Arthur fought the urge to hunch his shoulders guiltily, taking another sip of water. "So?"
"You did." Morgana dropped the apple again, shaking her head. "You actually did. Because he challenged you? When you were the one in the wrong?"
"How do you know I was in the wrong?" Arthur snapped, slamming his goblet down. "You just assume, from rumor..."
"Leon was there. He saw you."
Arthur clenched his jaw, striding to the window. "My knight is a gossip."
"Your knight is honest," Morgana said evenly, coming up behind him. "Arthur...it's no better, is it?" she asked, her voice softer, kinder.
"I don't know what you're talking about," Arthur said flatly. Her sympathy burned worse than her accusation.
"Oh Arthur..." Morgana sighed. "Have you told Gaius? He may be able to help, concoct a remedy..."
"A remedy?" Arthur repeated, turning on her. "A remedy for what? A prince who can't perform his duties to his father's satisfaction is not the same as a cough, Morgana. There's no cure for not measuring up."
"You hold yourself to too high a standard, Arthur," Morgana said, shaking her hair back from her face. "And so does Uther. You're just a man, he can't expect..."
"He can and he does," Arthur cut her off. "He's the king. The king. If I am to follow him on the throne, I have to be more than a man. If I'm to lead, to rule our people, I..."
"Cannot throw them in the dungeon whenever they disagree with you," Morgana interjected smoothly. "No matter how uncomfortable you are, how little you want to be somewhere. Arthur, you know that."
Arthur glared at her, knowing she was right and hating her a little for it. "I had him released," he said grudgingly.
"You had him thrown in there in the first place," Morgana reminded him, but she softened. "Will you talk to Gaius?"
Arthur sighed, slumping back against the wall. "Maybe. I don't see what he could do, but...maybe. I'll give you no promises."
She leaned up, kissing his cheek. "I'll not ask for any. But you should. He's helped my nightmares."
"And you think that means he can help me." Arthur shook his head. It'd be worth a try, he supposed. But how could the court physician formulate a tonic that would keep his gut from clenching, his back from sweating, his head from spinning every time he stepped near a dragon?
"You'll never know until you ask," Morgana pointed out, ruffling his hair with a grin. He scowled at her, but privately had to admit he felt better. He could only find himself relieved that his boyish crush on his father's ward had faded. Having her as his older sister--while sometimes infuriating--was also much, much better.
Gaius watched the door close behind Merlin, grateful again for the resilience of youth. The boy seemed no worse the wear for his afternoon. He hadn't expected, even when he'd agreed to look after Hunith's boy, that he would grow to care for him so quickly. He had, in fact, feared it would be the opposite, though he'd agreed readily enough to her request.
He glanced toward the hearth, where he had burned the letter she'd sent with Merlin. The boy had been lucky he hadn't been waylaid and searched. Hunith was discreet, but her words had still hinted all too close to the truth.
And now this. Merlin had met Arthur, met and challenged him. Gaius had observed Merlin, and while the boy had little respect where it wasn't warranted, he wasn't a fool. He knew better than to challenge a prince, a noble, merely on principle, whether he agreed with their actions or not. He might be from a small village, but he knew how city life worked.
And Arthur...Arthur had been a model prince, in many ways. He might give the servants hell, but he knew when to push and when not, and Gaius had never known him to escalate so quickly, and then back down in such immediate remorse.
Gaius sighed. The evidence continued to mount that Hunith was correct. Merlin was indeed his father's son. He had known, sending Balinor to Hunith, that the two of them might fall in love...should he be so surprised by the result of their time together? There was no doubt Merlin's destiny lay here, in Camelot.
Whether it also lay with the son of Ygraine...Gaius couldn't venture a guess.
A knock at his chamber door pulled Gaius from his thoughts. He pushed himself to his feet. "Come in, come in...sire?"
For, as if summoned by Gaius's thoughts of him, it was Arthur who pushed open the door. He entered, looking around the room as if he hadn't been there just that afternoon. "Gaius. Hello."
"Hello," Gaius replied, slipping off his reading glasses. "Please, come in. What can I do for you?"
Arthur walked a few feet further into the room, stopping to examine the contents of a low table. "I came to...to check on the boy. You had no trouble, with his release?"
"None," Gaius assured him, examining Arthur. He had always kept a close eye on the lad, ever since his birth. But it had grown harder, in recent years, the older and more independent Arthur grew. "Merlin's in his own room now. And, I daresay, knows better than to let the incident repeat."
"Good, good," Arthur said, picking up a jar of herbs, before putting it back down. "See to it that he does."
Gaius acknowledged the words with a inclining of his head. "Is there anything else, sire?" he asked, knowing better than to tell Arthur to get to the real point of his visit. He'd been touchy as a brooding hen, lately, and was not likely to take it well.
"Uh...no," Arthur admitted, a slow flush starting to suffuse his cheeks. "No," he said again, more strongly, squaring his shoulders. "I was speaking to Morgana, and she said you had helped her with nightmares."
"I have done my best," Gaius replied, hiding a slight frown. What could the child's dreams have to do with Arthur?
"She suggested I...seek your advice," Arthur went on. "For a...minor affliction of my own."
Careful not to let his expression change, Gaius nodded again, running through the possibilities in his mind. Not likely to be venereal...Arthur, to his knowledge, had yet to do more than trap a serving girl behind a tapestry for a few quick kisses. Besides, if that was the case, he would never go to Morgana with the problem. But what else would the young man be so embarrassed by?
"Good," Arthur said, crossing his arms over his chest. "Good. Gaius, I hope...that I can rely on your discretion. If my father..."
"He will hear nothing from me, sire," Gaius promised, changing his mind. The lad more than likely had caught himself an embarrassing itch. Fast enough to fix, and a moment to remind him of the dangers of illegitimate princes.
Arthur relaxed, slightly. "The problem is..." He paused, before swallowing. "It's the dragons."
Whatever Gaius had expected, it was not this. As Arthur went further, outlining how he felt, riding, being near them, a huge number of things became sickly clear to the physician. Down to the scene Merlin had witnessed that day, the way Arthur always avoided hatchings, everything.
But more than that, the certainty that there was nothing Gaius could do, not with Uther on the throne, not without revealing secrets not his to tell...that ate at him all the more. For all he could cure illness, heal the wounded, he could not further change Arthur's nature.
No more than Uther had already required of him.
Arthur finished, flushing as he told Gaius the last of it. How he loved to fly, but how it felt wrong, dizzying in a way, to do it from a dragon's back. He didn't know if the physician could truly do a thing for him, but he'd all but promised Morgana he would ask...and advisor to his father or not, Arthur knew he could trust the older man. He'd always been an ally, ever since Arthur'd run to him for scrapped knees and sweets to heal them.
He listened now, not interrupting, just letting Arthur talk, try to find the words to explain what he felt near the beasts who made Camelot what she was. He trailed off at last, not wanting to look up into the old man's face, but forcing himself to. "So there you have it. Is there anything you can do?"
Gaius stayed silent for a few moments, his brow furrowed in though. "There may be," he said, at last, and Arthur's gut began to unclench. "A tonic to ease your stomach, and the height sickness, yes. As for the rest...I will have to think on it." He hesitated, a moment, before nodding slowly. "Tell me, Arthur...your manservant. Morris. How has he worked out for you?"
"Morris?" Arthur blinked, surprised by the apparent change of subject. "He's...fine. I suppose. I don't spare him much thought, so long as he does his work. Why?"
"Some of what you've described bears watching," Gaius said, slowly. "It is nothing to fear, but in order to treat it...I would like to have someone with medical training nearer to you."
"Morris doesn't have that," Arthur snorted. "I believe his father is a tanner." It would explain the stink, at least. "Do you have a suggestion for a replacement?"
"I will make inquiries," Gaius promised, his face clearing. "Until then, I will work on that tonic for you. And Arthur...do not fear. You are not made less by what you've described. We all have our burdens."
Arthur swallowed, but nodded. He shouldn't need the reassurance, he knew. A prince--a king--was strong on his own. But he couldn't deny he felt better for hearing it. "Thank you," he said, forcing an unconcerned smile. "I'll await your candidate, and your medicines."
"With luck, I'll have both for you tomorrow, sire," Gaius replied, his own smile gentler. "Try to get some rest."
Feeling lighter, and grateful for it, Arthur left the physician's chambers. Morgana had been right. Not that he ever intended to let her know it, of course. But even if Gaius couldn't help, even if his ideas came to naught...Arthur still felt better for having told him.
Having told him, and hearing it didn't make him the complete failure of a man he'd always thought he was. Perhaps that, alone, would make it easier to bear.
"You want me to what?" Merlin's voice broke as he stared at Gaius in horror. "Why me?"
Gaius, still looking as if he'd not just suggested the most ridiculous notion in the history of Albion, set a bowl of porridge in front of his apprentice. "Arthur has been seeking a new manservant for some time."
"But why me?" Merlin repeated, gaping. Being manservant to the royal prat would severely interfere with his plans to avoid him. Severely. Didn't manservants have to...to dress their lords?
Gaius chuckled, gently. "A position in the royal household is generally considered to be an honor, Merlin, not a punishment. But since you ask...aside from my desire to do what is best for you, you will be observing Arthur from a medical standpoint, as well."
Merlin blinked, surprised at the sudden swell of concern that rose within him. "He's ill?"
Gaius settled across from him. "Not actively, but he has a condition that bears watching. You have sharp eyes, lad, and a gift for disarming those you meet. The prince is more sensitive than he seems. He has few in his life he can trust."
Merlin groaned, softly. Dammit. Bloody hell. How was he supposed to resist that? "I'll think about it," he agreed grudgingly, standing and leaving his breakfast untouched, trying to preserve the illusion he had a choice. "I need to get to the aerie."
Gaius smiled indulgently, but let him go, waving him along without a word. Merlin stumbled out through the early morning mist, taking the by now familiar path to the hatchlings' cave. Servant to Arthur. To the prince, the heir apparent. To the future king.
Well, put that way, the idea did have considerable merit. He could do much worse than a position with the royal family. If he could keep from getting sacked, he'd be set for life...royal servants had more power than some nobles. From that standpoint, he'd be mad not to jump at the chance. It might not be as interesting as being Gaius's apprentice full time, but it would give him more security, a higher standing. And unless Arthur chose to throw him into the dungeon again himself, there'd be few who could touch him. The king, a visiting noble whose rank exceeded the prince's...but no one else.
Was that worth it? Merlin wondered, ducking into the aerie, letting instinct guide his feet, his mind still too lost in thought to truly pay attention to where he was going. And could he refuse, even if it didn't seem so? Gaius had said Arthur had few people he could trust. Well, part of that might be how much of an ass he was, but then who wouldn't be, in that situation? If there was no one he could talk to...
Merlin tried to imagine what his life would've been like, without Will to make things easier for him as a child. How much more alone he would've felt. Even if the secrets they'd shared had been small enough, he'd still had him. If Arthur truly had no one like that in his life...then it was sorely needed.
But why would he accept Merlin as that confidante? He was more likely to ignore him, abuse him, or insult him, than take him into his trust. But could Merlin refuse, when Arthur was obviously so alone? He knew that the prince's mother had died in childbirth, and that Arthur had been raised almost completely by the servants, with some help from Uther's ward, though she wasn't much older than Arthur himself. It sounded lonely, to Merlin, who'd had his mother all his life. No father, true, but Hunith had never let him feel the lack for long. It didn't seem as if Uther had done the same for his son.
Merlin sighed, lifting a torch and lighting it, ducking down a back tunnel, his feet carrying him along confidently. He wasn't at all sure this was a good idea, but neither did he think he'd be able to refuse. Maybe Arthur would, and then he could stop thinking about it. That seemed more likely than anything else, actually. Arthur wouldn't want him around, not after Merlin had challenged him in the aerie. So he could tell Gaius he was completely willing, and then not have to worry about going through with it.
But what if Arthur said yes?
Merlin stumbled over a loose rock, then blinked, raising the torch higher. Shivers played up and down his spine, as he turned in a circle, trying to get his bearings. Where...where was he? The hatchlings' cave was close to the entrance, and he suddenly knew he'd been walking much too long...and he didn't need a torch to reach it, the way was well lit.
What was he doing?
Swallowing, he looked back the way he'd come, then forward again. He should retrace his steps. Go back to the surface. Instead he took one step, then another, and then began to stride swiftly, feeling oddly confident of the way. He knew he'd never been here, but he felt no hesitation, either.
An archway opened up before him, and he ducked to step through. From a doorway barely large enough for a single man to pass, a cavern opened up in front of him, immense and dark, outcroppings of stone barely visible through the darkness.
The light of his torch couldn't reach the other end, and Merlin raised it higher still, blinking against the glare. "Hello?" he heard himself call out, not at all certain as to why he expected a response.
But response he received, nonetheless. A shuddering sound whipped through the cavern, like the creaking of huge trees, the snapping of leather hides, the clanking of heavy chains. It grew in volume, a great wind whirling around him, causing his torch to flicker.
Merlin ducked away, sucking air into his lungs as the largest dragon he'd ever seen landed on an outcropping in front of him. "Emrys," it said, voice strong, rich, everything Merlin had always thought a dragon's voice would be. "You've come at last."
Merlin gaped at him. "I...me?" he asked, weakly, feeling he should explain his name wasn't Emrys, that he could go back up to the castle and find the man, if the dragon needed him to. But did one really try to explain that to a dragon who could take off his arm in single bite?
The dragon chuckled softly, an actual smile lighting his eyes and face. "You, young dragon lord. Long have we dragons awaited your coming. Or had you thought it all to be coincidence?"
"Dragon lord?" Merlin repeated, surreptitiously pinching himself. He didn't think he was dreaming, but how could this possibly be real? "I'm sorry, but I think you have the wrong person..."
The dragon laughed again. "Your coming shook the stars, son of Balinor. My kind have waited in enforced silence for you to arrive and fulfill your destiny."
"Enforced silence?" Merlin repeated, the words distracting him even from correcting the dragon as to his mother's name. "You mean...all of you can talk?"
"Before the Purge, there was not a dragon who could not," it responded, settling itself on the rock with the sound of crushing stone. "We are not dumb animals, as your king would have you believe. Once, we were your allies, not your servants."
Merlin scrubbed a hand over his hair, at once fascinated and overwhelmed by evidence of what he'd always dreamed about dragons, from his earliest memories. He slipped the torch into the ring by the archway and sat down on the rock floor, turning his full attention to the dragon in front of him. "What happened?" he asked, fascinated.
"A great tragedy, compounded by man's frailty," the dragon replied. "When Uther first came to this land, he was little older than you. The dragons and humans lived apart, threatened from the outside, each besieged in their own territory. Through an unmatched show of bravery, Uther tracked and found the king of the dragons and proposed an alliance between their peoples. Impressed by the young man's spirit, the dragon king, Kilgharrah, agreed. The two bonded, as dragon and rider.
"Together, their people formed a near invincible army, one that could strike and scout from the sky, one that could infiltrate the enemy camps, one that could understand and outmaneuver any foe they faced. In a few short years, the dragons and their knights had carved the kingdom of Camelot from the wilderness and chaos surrounding them. Uther was crowned king of the humans. He and Kilgharrah led their people together, and the kingdom knew a golden age of peace for nearly ten years."
"How did it end?" Merlin breathed, awed by the dragon's story. How had he never heard any of this before? Even growing up in Ealdor...he couldn't believe no one had told him this.
"In tragedy, bloodshed, and betrayal," the dragon said sorrowfully. "Uther felt himself betrayed by Kilgharrah, by the dragon royal family. Blinded by grief, he turned against the dragons. They were forced to choose between exile and subjugation. Those who remained were to be bound by ancient magics, their minds put to sleep until they were ruled by instinct alone. No longer did knight and mount rise to the sky as equals, and the golden age splintered into shades of darkness."
"That's horrible." Merlin shook his head, not sure he could--or wanted to --believe what the dragon was telling him. "Why did they stand for it?"
"They didn't," the dragon replied. "But once their king was imprisoned, bound by magic beneath the castle, the dragons lost their will to fight. Until the king of the dragons rises, his subjects will remain enslaved. And he is chained and forgotten by all."
The sound of huge metal links clinking together accompanied the dragon's words as he shifted, and realization hit Merlin, hard. "You're Kilgharrah," he said, with deep certainty as he examined the king of the dragons. What had he done to drive Uther to such ends?
"You're quick, young dragon lord," Kilgharrah replied, actual pride in his rich voice. "I have waited long years in darkness for your arrival."
"Why?" Merlin managed, overwhelmed. What could he possibly do to help the king of the dragons? He was just a peasant boy, a nobody!
"Your destiny is intertwined with that of my people, Emrys," Kilgharrah replied. "It is written in the stars for those that retain the ability to read them. You are tied to the young Pendragon. It is through him that balance will return, and it is only through your help will he achieve it."
"The young Pendragon?" Merlin repeated, now convinced he'd somehow fallen asleep and was dreaming. Why else would a talking dragon be telling him to look after the royal prat? "You can't mean Arthur?"
Kilgharrah laughed outright, his wings coming up in his amusement, raising a wind through the cavern. "Yes, young dragon lord. Your destinies are linked. Without you, he will fail. Without him, you will never never fulfill the purpose for which you were born. Watch him well."
"How am I supposed to do that?" Merlin asked sourly. As if he didn't already know the answer. As if Gaius hadn't already given it to him.
It would figure, he thought, as Kilgharrah laughed again, that he'd finally meet a dragon from his daydreams, only to have it reiterate what Gaius had already told him.
Looks like I'll have to get used to being a royal servant.
"Merlin?" Arthur repeated, staring at Gaius. "Your apprentice?" The boy I made an ass of myself in front of? The boy I threw in the dungeon with no real provocation?
"That is the Merlin I meant, Sire," Gaius replied, though he at least had the grace to not--quite--smirk at Arthur's reaction. "He has the necessary training and he's a quick study. The decision is, of course, yours, but I have no one else so well matched to you--and the necessary duties."
"Is he willing?" Arthur asked, rubbing his forehead. He could wish this wasn't happening all he wanted, but he had told Gaius of his difficulties. If the physician had a solution, he should at least try it. No matter how unlikely it seemed.
"He is," Gaius replied, seeming very sure of his answer. "His duties to you would be his priority, though I would hope he'll still have time to study with me."
Arthur nodded, knowing his own demands of a manservant were not so great as to keep him from time with Gaius--or with the bloody dragons, if he felt so inclined. Better him than Arthur, so far as the prince was concerned.
He ran a hand back through his hair, before nodding again, this time in acquiescence. "Then if Merlin is the best choice, Merlin it will be. I'll expect him to attend me in the morning."
"Very good, Sire," Gaius replied, bowing slightly. "The first batch of the tonic will be ready by then--I'll have him bring it with him."
"Thank you, Gaius," Arthur replied, leaning back against the edge of his table. "I'll inform Morris his services are no longer required." He spared a moment to wonder how the boy would take it. Probably with relief...he'd never seemed to like either his duties or his master much.
Would Merlin? Merlin, who'd already seen him at his worst, and agreed to work for him, anyway? Merlin, who hadn't backed down, not even when he'd learned who Arthur actually was? In fact, he'd kept glaring at him, just as boldly, even while the guards dragged him away.
Arthur shook his head with a snort of amusement. Whatever it might be like having this Merlin for a manservant, it didn't seem likely to be boring.
* * *
* * *
One year later:
Arthur lifted his hand and--instantly--the knights behind him drew to a halt. Roused from his half doze, Merlin tugged on his horse's reins, as he'd learned to do when Arthur made that particular gesture. His mare, Bramble, slowed to a stop and he patted her neck, stifling a yawn. The entire hunting party stood in relative silence as Arthur bent over the forest floor, doing whatever it was he did when he was tracking something. Merlin had never quite followed it. All he knew was that Arthur would make them all stop while he looked around, or touched a leaf or bent over the trail for a moment, then they'd be off again. It might be hours before they actually found any game, but Merlin had learned not to question the prince's methods. Whatever else he might be, he was an excellent hunter.
In the months Merlin had been in Arthur's service, he'd learned a lot about the prince, and much of it was completely incongruous. The hunting, for instance. Most of the knights preferred to do so on wing, soaring their dragons over the forests and frightening beasts so they ran into clearings, easy shots for adept aerial archers.
But Arthur...Arthur preferred hunting on hoof, tracking game from the ground, looking for signs that prey had passed through. He was actually quite skilled; he'd explained once, when he'd been feeling particularly patient, how he read the signs, the trails--the way a single blade of bent grass could tell him the tale of what had passed through and when, how fast it had been moving and how big it was.
Though he'd said it with a haughty, arrogant expression, Merlin had been genuinely impressed with the amount of effort and patience--not to mention pure prowess--it took to hunt the way Arthur did. And, incredibly, he seemed to have just as much success as the aerial parties. It was likely one of the reasons he was allowed to hunt on horseback.
In fact, Arthur seemed to spend a great deal of his time figuring out how to do things from the ground as efficiently as most knights did from the air. Merlin had been bewildered by it, at first. For the son and heir of Uther Pendragon, Arthur certainly didn't seem to care for the dragons much. He avoided the aerie whenever he could and he seemed to despise the idea of actually flying one.
Yet when a flight would pass overhead on patrol, Merlin would often catch the young prince gazing up at it as wistfully as he himself, expression distant and longing, as though he could wish for nothing more than to join them.
It made no sense.
Merlin asked, once, if Arthur was afraid of heights. Based on the curt reply--and the extra workload Arthur had assigned immediately after, a workload that kept Merlin working long into the night--he decided it might be the case. And that asking about it probably hadn't been the smartest thing he'd ever done.
Not that the realization managed to shut him up. Merlin's mouth had always had a way of running off by itself, speaking without bothering to let his brain weigh in on the merits of his conversation, or the receptiveness of the audience. And while he was at first afraid it would mean he'd end up in the dungeon--or at least the stocks--more often than he'd be in Arthur's rooms, it hadn't proved to be the case.
Oh, the prince definitely told him off, snapped at him, even assigned him extra chores, if Merlin let himself grow too cheeky. But Arthur never lost his temper the way he had on their first meeting. He never threatened the dungeon, and even the stocks were only a vague promise, rarely followed through. Merlin had wondered if Arthur felt guilty for having overreacted so severely before, but he dismissed that thought quickly. More likely the prince didn't feel like trying to find another servant to run his errands and do his bidding for the hours Merlin would be escaping work in the stocks. Better to have him wear out his arms polishing shining plate armor, and be saved the search for a temporary replacement.
For that was another thing Merlin had noticed: the rest of the servants seemed to go out of their way to avoid the young prince. Merlin had heard horror stories from Morris shortly after he'd taken over the young man's position as Arthur's manservant--much to Morris's apparent relief. Stories of the prince's tempers, of his anger, of his irrational behavior, especially around the dragons. Arthur would, apparently, be perfectly calm one moment and completely impossible the next, lashing out for no discernible reason. It made the rest of the servants nervous and--at first--lent credence to Gaius's claims of an unspecified "condition" afflicting him.
Merlin, however, soon recognized the symptoms for what they were. And he'd never been very good at putting up with tantrums.
The first time Arthur tried it on him, snapping at him for selecting the wrong flying tunic for the third time in a row, Merlin had snapped right back. "If you're so particular, Sire, maybe you should be picking out your own clothes."
Arthur, a moment before retorting, had looked bewildered and Merlin knew then that the prince simply wasn't used to being challenged by anyone, excepting only his father. (Merlin had been unlucky enough to bear witness to many of Uther's visits to his son. Though for all the warmth displayed between them, as Uther ordered Arthur about and harped on his shortcomings, he would've thought them strangers at best, enemies at worst.) But aside from Uther, not a person seemed to hesitate in trying to give Arthur what he demanded, no matter how unreasonable.
Gradually, the image of his prince grew clearer in Merlin's mind. A good, skilled, talented young man, ignored all his life by his father, spoiled by the servants who'd raised him. The current servants paid for it now, but Merlin liked to think he was helping with that. At least, he didn't let Arthur get away with tantrums between the two of them.
From what he'd heard on his daily trips to the aerie to tend the growing hatchlings, there'd been fewer incidents there, as well.
So Merlin let himself be dragged out on Arthur's interminable hunts, knowing the prince enjoyed them as he enjoyed few things in his life. Merlin let himself be dragged into arguments over nothing, dodged when Arthur threw pillows and rolls of bread at him, and generally tried to be as much of a friend to the prince as he was a servant. And the more the real Arthur shone through the prattish exterior, the easier it became.
At least when he wasn't saddle sore and exhausted, Merlin thought, pushing back another yawn as Arthur finally swung himself back in his saddle, gesturing forward again. The group moved out, and Merlin pulled Bramble's head up from the patch of grass she'd been chewing, setting her after them.
They'd gotten up even earlier than usual that morning. For Merlin, who'd gratefully sleep until the sun was high, Arthur's enthusiasm for rising an hour before it had even crested the hills wore thin very, very quickly. They'd been in the saddle since, tracking Gods only knew what through the misty morning. Arthur seemed sure of his quarry, which meant they'd get something, but there was no guarantee as to when.
Or that Arthur would stop when they did.
Merlin yawned again, not bothering to cover his mouth this time. He supposed he shouldn't mind. Arthur saw to it he got portions of the meat, when he accompanied the hunt. And it wasn't difficult work, carrying water to the knights and trying not to laugh when they attempted to cook themselves lunch over an open fire. He always took over, and they always ended up eating well.
But it kept him from the castle and the aerie and it kept him from sneaking time with his hatchlings, or chatting with Lancelot, his friend and the newest of Arthur's knights. But then Lancelot was at least with him, here, Merlin reflected, glancing over at him. Though he was, for his part, focused completely on Arthur, not even glancing back to provide Merlin a smile of shared adversity. Besides, he was too happy being there, being a knight, fulfilling his lifelong dream to risk complaining.
Merlin made a face down at Bramble's ears, hoping Arthur would kill whatever he was following soon, and let him go back somewhere warm, that stayed still and didn't rock back and forth the way a horse did.
The morning dragged on, though, Arthur growing more and more intent, making them stop for longer and longer periods. Merlin wasn't the only one growing restless, as the sun rose higher and burned off the mists. Lancelot still seemed intent, but the rest lost their focus, glancing amongst themselves, chatting occasionally until Arthur glared at them. Merlin found himself hiding a grin. Arthur usually preferred to hunt with a smaller groups, ones more accustomed to the patience ground hunting required. And to be on the trail of something that had him this excited, while boring the rest...
Well. Merlin knew he was likely the one who'd pay for Arthur's mood, later. But as he woke up more and the general air in the party relaxed, he couldn't bring himself to mind. He'd found to his surprise that he enjoyed the company of Arthur's knights. They weren't the stuck-up prigs he'd feared them to be, before he'd really known any of the nobles at court. In fact, they were most not so different from Will--minor lords and second sons, eager to prove themselves.
They were good men, loyal to Arthur and willing to accept Merlin's presence on the hunting trips, or on the practice field. They brought him into their conversations at times, and at the least showed him a kind of indifferent acceptance and respect.
Morning dragged out, faded, and the knights began to grumble for a stop and their midday meal. Arthur chafed under the delay, but his suggestion of eating in the saddle had Merlin shaking his head firmly. "No. We all need the break, Arthur, and so do the horses." Not that he was sure of that, but Gods knew Arthur at least paid attention to the health of his beasts, even when caught in a hunting frenzy.
The prince acquiesced, with poor grace, dismounting and leading his mount to drink. Merlin slid gratefully down from Bramble, handing her reins to Sir Leon as he prepared a fire for the meal.
Merlin grinned, quirking his eyebrows at Lancelot, who'd come to help him, before pushing himself back to his feet. "Yes, sire?" he asked, trying to school his grin into an appropriately deferential expression as he crossed over to Arthur, holding out a water skin to him.
Arthur took it, taking a long drink. "Let the knights fend for themselves for their meal. You come along ahead with me."
"Are you sure?" Merlin asked, eyes widening in surprise. He wasn't much good on hunts, and he knew it. "Sir Lancelot would be better at..."
"No," Arthur said, shaking his head, squirting a good portion of the water over his hair, letting it trickle down to cool his face, before he shook it off, droplets flying in all directions and sparkling in the rays of sunlight. "You'll do well enough. Hobble your mare, we'll go on foot."
"As you wish," Merlin agreed, deciding it really wasn't a point worth arguing. Whatever they were after, Arthur was obviously not willing to let it get even another half hour's distance on them.
Merlin fetched the food he'd brought for the knights out of his saddle bags, handing it to Lancelot. He knew the former peasant at least knew how to cook it. He had plenty of useful skills aside from his ability to slay rampaging griffins. Even if that had been what led to his knighthood, not his rabbit stew. "Arthur and I are heading on."
Lancelot laughed softly. "I'm not surprised. Good luck to him, then, and to you. We'll catch up with you as soon as we can."
"Hurry," Merlin mock-pleaded, before getting to his feet again at Arthur's impatient call.
He followed Arthur off into the woods, trying to walk as silently as possible through the underbrush. "What're we tracking?" he whispered when Arthur slowed, gazing at something in the dirt.
"Shh!" Arthur hissed. Unnecessarily, Merlin thought; he'd barley breathed the words. The prince seemed to realize the same thing, relenting after a moment. "I don't know," he said, pointing at a depression in the dirt. "The hoof is cloven, but it walks too lightly for a deer of that size. It's the wrong shape for a goat or pig. I've never seen anything like it before."
"So we're going to kill it?" Merlin asked, frowning. He didn't understand how Arthur could find something completely new and still want to destroy it.
"We're going to find it and see," Arthur replied, glaring at him. "After that griffin, we can't be too careful."
"Point taken," Merlin murmured under his breath. The griffin attacks had been brutal, and only Lancelot's quick intervention had saved Arthur's life. The action had led to Lancelot's knighting and rise to the nobility, but a repeat was still the last thing Camelot needed.
They headed deeper into the woods, Arthur moving more swiftly now that he'd left the rest of the knights behind him. Merlin did his best to keep up, to stay silent. He had no idea why Arthur had brought him along, but he was glad of it. Perhaps his overtures of friendship were landing.
"Merlin!" Arthur gestured him forward, pointing to a wooded ravine before them. "It's there...go in this end and flush it out. I'll head it off from here."
Perhaps not. Merlin gulped, nodding. Flushing out game was not his idea of a good time. And Arthur seemed to delight in assigning the job to him. He headed down the other side of the ravine, slipping a bit on the steeps sides, wincing at the noise it caused. Arthur would hear that. But what did he expect? Merlin hadn't ever claimed to know how to move silently through the wilderness. The opposite, really...he and Will had always made as much noise as possible, the better to frighten away ghosts and fairies.
Frightening unknown game seemed a poor substitute, somehow.
Reaching the bottom of the ravine, Merlin headed back toward Arthur's position, no longer bothering to be quiet. He hoped that whatever they'd caught would surrender quietly and be enough of a catch that Arthur would be willing to go home.
Mind focused completely on the thought of a warm meal and stolen time spent with his hatchlings, Merlin nearly stumbled over her. He caught himself, mere feet away, breath freezing in his chest.
White. She was impossibly white, from the tops of her silvered hoofs to the tip of her spiraled horn. Sleek, with a full mane and narrow, tufted tail, her muscles rippled under her smooth hide as she tossed her head, looking at him. He hardly dared to breathe, watching her.
The name reverberated through his mind, as he watched her, her liquid dark eyes meeting his. Jeweled lights danced in their depths and for a long moment he couldn't move, held in their ageless gaze. Only when she turned away was the spell partially broken. He blinked, taking in a deep breath. Air rushed into his lungs, cool, crisp, and tasting as new as if it were the first breath he'd ever drawn.
She turned, picking her delicate way down the ravine, her cloven hoofs leaving few marks upon the damp ground, disappearing into the trees. Merlin marveled again at Arthur's skill, to have followed this creature, when she left so little evidence of her passage.
Oh Gods. Arthur.
Merlin rushed forward, wanting to warn the unicorn, to give her a chance to escape. He didn't know if Arthur would consider her a trophy and he didn't want to find out. "Arthur!"
Busting through a scrim of bushes, Merlin slid to a halt in wet leaves, transfixed by the scene before him.
Arthur stood there, crossbow dangling from his hand, all his attention on the unicorn. She held her head high, as she approached him, one delicate step after another. She stopped, a mere foot in front of him, her horn bridging the distance between them.
She lowered her head, her horn touching Arthur's breastbone, laying on the bare skin above his heart.
A flash of light blinded Merlin. He fell to his knees, eyes overcome by brightness, Arthur's sudden cry sounding in his ears. "Arthur!"
He struggled forward, blinking against the afterimages, not knowing what he could possibly do. He knew only that he must reach his prince.
But, as his vision cleared, Merlin scrambled backward just as quickly. Arthur was gone. In his place crouched a golden red dragon, a young male by his horns, wings half-mantled in anger.
Merlin looked wildly around the ravine, but the unicorn--and Arthur--were gone. He gulped, backing further away from the dragon, knowing he was completely out of his element. The hatchlings he could control, but they were still too small and clumsy to do any real damage. This was a full-grown male, just reaching his prime, agitation shining in his blue...wait.
Blue eyes. Not golden, like every other dragon he'd seen. Blue, and familiar blue eyes, at that, for all that they were in an unfamiliar setting. The dragon crouched, curling in on itself, anything but aggressive. And at its feet...torn scraps of familiar fabric. Arthur's shirt, his vest, his breeches...all there, but torn asunder.
Merlin swallowed, pushing himself slowly to his feet, taking a step forward. Then another, when the dragon didn't lash out. He squinted, looking closer... "Arthur?"
"I don't see anyone else here, do you, Merlin?"
Oh bugger. Merlin felt his eyes widen, to hear Arthur's shaking voice coming out of the...the dragon's mouth. Oh shite. "Arthur, you're a dragon," Merlin heard himself say weakly.
"Thank you for that," the dragon--Arthur--replied testily, shifting his weight uneasily, wings still half unfurled, his claws digging furrows in the earth. "I hadn't noticed." He sounded mostly annoyed, but Merlin thought he detected a thread of real fear in Arthur's voice.
"What...how...why?" Merlin babbled helplessly, staring at his prince. How could Arthur be a dragon? Yes, Kilgharrah had told him dragons could take human form, but...wouldn't everyone have known if Arthur was one? And how could he be? Uther wasn't. And if he was, how had he kept it hidden?
"If I knew that, I'd be fixing it," Arthur snapped, shaking his head, now easily the size of Merlin's torso. "Where the bloody hell did that unicorn go? And what did it do to me?"
Realizing that having both of them in a panic wouldn't solve anything, Merlin throttled back his own, hands gripping his hair as he paced. "All right. All right. We'll have to...to just...figure this out, and get you back to normal. Before anyone sees. Our dragons can't talk, they'll think you're a renegade..."
"A renegade what?" Arthur interrupted, his voice bringing Merlin abruptly back to himself. "What're you talking about, Merlin? No dragon can talk. No more than any other animal."
Merlin snorted. "You're doing a bang up job of it, then, aren't you?" he pointed out, forcing himself to look at the Arthur-dragon in front of him. He was a fine specimen, that much was obvious. A fighting drake, lean and quick, for all he was practically the size of a bludgeoner. Well-muscled, large, with huge, well-formed wings. No question he'd be a good flyer with that shape. He reminded Merlin a bit of Kilgharrah...smaller, yes, but not by much. And he had strength in him that the older dragon--locked so long away from the sun, chained to his rock--lacked.
Merlin sighed, shaking his head. He had to talk to Kilgharrah, find out what was going on. But before that, he had to keep Arthur hidden. There had to be a way to fix this, but until then...there was too much risk. Uther wouldn't stop to listen, if he heard tell of a renegade dragon on the loose. He'd attack, and likely have Arthur bound by magic before he could even tell his father who he was. Assuming Uther would listen, even if he did.
Right. Get Arthur to safety, get the knights out of the way...and get back to the castle in secret to speak to the dragon king. No problem.
Aside from how to convince the knights on the hunt to leave without their prince, how to find his way back to the castle after dark on his own, how to get Arthur to agree, how to explain things to Kilgharrah, how to sneak in without being seen...One thing at a time, Merlin.
He took a deep breath, turning back to Arthur, who looked as miserable as a fighting drake possibly could. Merlin wondered if he even knew how much his body language was showing of his mood. "We'll sort it out," he said. "It happened, that means it can be put back."
"And what do you know about working magic?" Arthur asked, but the restless shifting stopped, and his wings lifted, slightly. "If that damned unicorn hadn't..."
"Might as well wish we hadn't been hunting her," Merlin pointed out, walking closer still, laying a hesitant hand on the soft under-skin of Arthur's neck. His hide felt warm and soft beneath Merlin's fingers, pulse beat thrumming hard beneath the thick skin. He slowly stroked along the column, letting his hand reach up to the underside of Arthur's chin, trying to soothe him as he would a hatchling.
Arthur leaned into the touch, his restless clawing of the ground gradually ceasing. It wasn't until a soft, familiar sounding churr escaped him that Merlin stopped, embarrassed. The gorgeous dragon was still Arthur, after all.
"I think I can get someone to help us," Merlin said in the heavy silence between them. "K-Gaius should know what to do."
Arthur nodded his great head, sighing and resting it on his forepaws. "I suppose that's the best we can hope for," he agreed grudgingly. "He's usually competent enough, when it comes to dragons."
Merlin nodded, laying his hand gently on Arthur's head. "He is. Stay here, and out of sight. I'll deal with the knights and bring Gaius back." Perhaps that would be a better first step, than going to Kilgharrah. And it would keep him closer, mean he wouldn't have to leave Arthur on his own... "You'll be all right on your own?"
"I'm not a child, Merlin," Arthur snapped. "I can manage a few moments by myself." But Merlin felt the shiver that ran through him, and he leaned his weight against Arthur's bulk, comforting him as best he could.
"I'll be fast," he promised with a final, gentle rub of Arthur's eye ridges, trying not to think on why it seemed so natural to touch him in this form. Or why Arthur was allowing it. "Just...be safe."
He pushed away, reluctantly, watching as Arthur curled himself into a tight ball, his wings coming up to cover him, until the dusky reds blended with the fallen leaves and rocks of the ravine. "Don't dawdle, Merlin," Arthur's voice rumbled from beneath the leathery canopy.
"Yes, sire," Merlin replied, smiling to himself as he pushed past Arthur's dramatically increased bulk, hurrying toward the spot where they'd left the knights. It went much faster, not having to move silently through the underbrush. He crashed through bushes, slid on leaves, picking himself back up when he fell and running on.
Thank the fates, it was Lancelot he found first, playing sentry for the group still relaxed around the fire. Merlin skidded to a stop in front of his friend, gasping for air. "Arthur..." he panted, waving his hand vaguely, trying to get more words past the wheeze in his throat. Dammit.
"What happened?" Lancelot asked, immediately on alert, his hand going to his sword hilt. "Does he need us?"
"No!" Merlin managed, trying to catch his breath. "No," he went on, less forcefully. "The...the path collapsed. I think he's broken something. I've got him comfortable but we need...need Gaius, before we can move him," he babbled, putting together as convincing a story as he could. "He still knows more than I do, and I don't want to make it worse," he added, giving Lancelot his best pleading, innocent expression.
Lancelot looked him over for a long moment, before nodding slowly. "So you need me to lead the knights back to the castle, and bring Gaius to you, here," he said, his tone making it clear that he didn't buy Merlin's story for a moment, but that he trusted him enough to go along with it. Merlin was again grateful it'd been his own research that had allowed Lancelot to beat the griffin. The knight believed in him, in a way the other nobles did not.
Merlin nodded, hard. Gaius might be all he needed. Gaius was a dragon healer, had been one before the Purge...he had to know nearly as much as Kilgharrah. And he was free to leave the castle, as the dragon king was not. "If you can?" he asked, hopefully. "I'll stay with Arthur. I've got medical training, and I'm thin enough to fit down where he's fallen..."
"All right, Merlin," Lancelot agreed, raising a hand, probably to forestall any further stories Merlin might have. The other man was noble to a fault, and didn't approve of falsehoods, or the easy way Merlin spun them. "I'll bring Gaius back myself...and not alarm the castle by spreading the tale of Arthur's misfortune."
"Thank you," Merlin replied, clasping Lancelot's arm tightly. "Tell Gaius...tell Gaius to bring the green salve." He didn't know if Gaius would understand what had happened, merely from Merlin requesting dragon-hide ointment, but it couldn't hurt to try and give him a warning.
"I will. Be careful, Merlin," Lancelot replied, visibly steeling himself for going back to the others. Merlin knew just how loath Lancelot was to lie...but with any luck he could create an excuse for the knights to return without needing to resort to outright fabrication.
Whatever he said, it must have worked. He and the others left within moments, sounding rather cheerful about it. Merlin watched only long enough for them to disappearing, before stealing into the clearing to fetch Bramble and Hengroen. The day was waning, and he thought he and Arthur might both be glad of a fire--and possibly some food--before Gaius arrived. Which meant he needed the contents of his saddle bags.
He led the horses most of the way back to Arthur's ravine, hobbling them above it and stripping them of their tack. He was more clumsy with it than the dragons', but managed well enough.
Taking the bedrolls Arthur had insisted on packing, he slid back down into the ravine, seeking out his dragon prince. "Arthur?"
"Right here," came the grumbled answer. And indeed, Arthur was exactly where he'd left him, looking as if he'd barely shifted. "That was quick, for you. Where's Gaius?"
Merlin walked over to the dragon, still internally marvelling to hear Arthur's voice coming from it. "Shift over, will you?" he said, spreading the blankets out beside Arthur, under the shade of his wing. "Lancelot is getting him."
"You told Lancelot?" Arthur croaked.
"No!" Merlin assured him, looking up from scrapping a clear spot in the dirt for the fire. "No. I told him you'd fallen down a hill and broken something," he said, offering Arthur a grin.
Arthur snorted, an impressive sound given his new breath capacity. "Thank you, Merlin. That's exactly what I want my knights thinking of me."
"You'd rather I told him you grew wings?" Merlin asked, hiding a laugh as Arthur used said wing to push him over. "Ow."
"Shut up, Merlin," Arthur grumbled, sounding a great deal more like himself. Merlin busied himself building the fire, starting to relax a bit on his own. Gaius was on his way. He'd help sort this out, and life could go back to normal.
* * *
Arthur carefully extended his wing, sheltering Merlin beneath it, protecting him from the growing drizzle of rain. There was no need for both of them to get soaked, just because they were stuck here until Gaius arrived. And for all he was a peasant, Merlin was obviously not used to roughing it. He didn't need to catch a chill.
The boy was infuriating enough on his own, Arthur didn't want to add the sniffles into the mix.
Thankfully, Merlin didn't mention it, just rested his slight weight against Arthur's side, poking at his fire with a stick. He'd wrapped himself up in both their blanket rolls, Arthur noticed, and he curled his wing more completely around Merlin, sheltering him from the wind, as well. No surprise, really; Merlin was as skinny as they came, of course he'd be freezing in weather like this, all damp and miserable.
Again, Merlin didn't comment, but his shivering eased, and he dropped the stick to hide his absurdly long fingers under the blankets again, his eyes closing. They'd fallen silent some time earlier and--much as Arthur found himself missing Merlin's usual chatter--he hadn't brought himself to break it. He had enough on his mind.
Why had this happened to him? He could still hear the unicorn's words in his head, the words he'd heard right before she'd touched her horn to his chest, and his world had exploded. She'd told him to claim his birthright.
And then she'd turned him into a bloody dragon. What was that supposed to mean? Claim his birthright...how? Was she trying to make him more comfortable around dragons by making him one himself? Why would she even bother? From what little he knew of unicorns, they were solitary, distant creatures who never interfered with human society. So why would she care if he couldn't ride a dragon without feeling that deep sense of wrong?
In that vein, why wasn't he feeling it now? He'd been startled, certainly, finding himself in a a body most decidedly not his own, one bigger and more powerful than he'd ever had before. One with too many limbs and a distinctly different center of gravity, to boot. But after the first shock of the transformation had passed...
He heaved a sigh. He felt almost more disturbed by how natural this all felt, than by the actual change itself. It made no sense whatsoever, of course, but...it didn't feel wrong. He looked up, tail switching slightly as he contemplated the sky above. He could fly on his own, now. He could leap up there, leave the earth behind, live out the dreams he'd had almost every night for as long as he could remember. Dip and whirl and chase the clouds and skim the earth and truly fly, in a way he'd never been able to, on the back of a dragon.
What did that mean? What birthright was the unicorn talking about?
And what did Merlin, of all people, have to do with any of this?
Because Arthur couldn't deny he felt comfort, in the younger man's presence. The thought of anyone else having seen him at this time was abhorrent. Even the idea of Gaius--who he'd trusted with all his secrets since his first scraped knee--finding out made his stomach twist. But Merlin...he didn't mind.
In fact, he hadn't even minded when Merlin had started touching him, stroking his throat, scratching above his eyes...it'd calmed him down, when it should've made him all the more uncomfortable. Even now, Merlin's slight, warm weight against him felt good.
And more than that...he'd let Merlin take over, after it'd happened, without thinking. Let him make the plans, actually obeyed him, when he'd told Arthur to stay put. He'd done it automatically, but now he had to wonder why. Merlin had never known his place, not since the first moment they'd met, but...Arthur had always before at least challenged him on it, reminded him who was--at least nominally--in charge.
This time, he hadn't. He'd let Merlin direct him, decide for him. And it still didn't feel wrong. What did that mean?
Maybe nothing more than depending on a friend in a crisis, he tried to reassure himself. Though that, in and of itself, was strange enough. He was a prince. Princes didn't have friends, certainly not among their servants. But this big-eared, goofy-grinned peasant had apparently become one.
Arthur couldn't deny he trusted Merlin. Trusted him with his life, apparently, considering their current situation. And while the idea should've scared, or at least shamed him, he could only find comfort in it.
Huffing another breath, he curled himself more completely around the peasant boy, lending him what warmth he could, resting his head close to Merlin's sleeping form. His servant had protected him...now he'd return the favor.
The sound of dragon wings woke Merlin from his doze. He groaned, snuggling into warm blankets, trying to keep the comfort of the moment before.
Until he heard Arthur's familiar chuckle, reverberating beneath his body. "Wake up, Merlin," he said, and Merlin's soft cushion heaved beneath him.
Recalled abruptly to their situation, Merlin pushed himself up, scrubbing the sleep from his eyes. He yawned, staring up into the twilight sky. "How long was I asleep?" he asked, flushing when he realized he'd been sleeping on Arthur, the fire burned down to little more than embers.
"A few hours," Arthur replied, lifting his horned head to contemplate the sky as well. "Gaius must be here...a lone dragon flew overhead a moment ago."
The thought of Gaius on a dragon seemed incredibly incongruous to Merlin, though he knew it shouldn't. He nodded, extracting himself from the nest of blankets he'd created, shivering slightly as he built the fire back up. "Hope so," he said, thinking longingly of his warm room and the food back at the castle.
Arthur made a noise of agreement, shifting his weight. He opened his wings restlessly, before folding them in again. The deep red of his back and wings made him fade into the growing dark, only the light gold of his underside showing clearly. Merlin had to admit Arthur made a strikingly beautiful dragon...and a part of him would miss this, when Gaius fixed it.
Not that Arthur was likely to feel the same.
The snap of wings sounded again, a moment later, and a large, dark shape appeared, silhouetted against the sky, before landing in front of them. Gaius and Lancelot slid down as the greenish copper dragon settled itself before Arthur, bowing its head.
Merlin flushed, as Lancelot's eyes grew wide, examining the scene before him. But he stayed silent, as Gaius strode confidentially forward, looking at Arthur.
"You're your mother's son, there's no question of that," Gaius murmured, examining Arthur from tip to tail, his voice thick with emotion.
"I'm...what?" Arthur barked, making Lancelot start, staring openly. "Gaius, what're you talking about?"
"I'm sorry, sire," Gaius said, shaking his head as he came forward, still looking Arthur over. "I did not mean to...to say it that way. But anyone seeing you now would know you for Ygraine's son."
"Arthur's mother was a dragon?" Merlin asked weakly, the idea making a horrid kind of sense. Uther and Kilgharrah had been allies, and the dragon king had never told Merlin exactly what betrayal had set Uther against the dragons. Losing his beloved wife seemed likely to do it.
Gaius nodded. "Sister of the dragon king," he murmured, apparently lost in memory. "The most beautiful of her kind. Golden in both forms, she outshone the sun. Many were disappointed when she picked Uther for her mate...and the world mourned her loss."
"Gaius, what're you talking about?" Arthur interrupted, claws again digging at the earth. "My mother...my mother was a noblewoman, not an animal."
"Dragons are not mere animals," Gaius countered firmly. "As your current form shows well enough. Dragons are creatures of magic, able to change their shapes. Your mother was one, and her death led to the chaining of her people."
"Chaining?" Arthur repeated, frowning deeply, the expression easy to read even in his unfamiliar form. "What do you mean?"
"Dragons have been forced to keep one form," Merlin heard himself say softly. "Their collars lock them into one shape and keep them docile, easy to control..."
Three sets of eyes locked on Merlin and he squirmed, trailing off under the shocked regard. Gaius recovered himself first, mouth snapping shut. "Kilgharrah," he said, and it was not a question.
Merlin nodded anyway, flushing. "He...spoke to me. And..."
"Who is Kilgharrah?" Arthur broke in. "And what's this about collars and..." He shook his great head abruptly, his tone changing, becoming abruptly commanding. "Someone tell me exactly what is going on here."
Gaius exchanged a glance with Merlin, before sighing. "It's a long story, sire. But I will tell you all I can."
"See that you do," Arthur directed, still half-raised on his haunches. His nostrils flared, his wings remained half-mantled, and Merlin moved back over to him, gently stroking his neck. He wasn't certain why his presence seemed to soothe Arthur, but he also wasn't above using it.
Gaius settled on a fallen log as Lancelot bowed himself away, seeing to the dragon that'd brought them. Arthur gradually relaxed, settling back down as Merlin leaned against him, concentrating on trying to calm his own whirling thoughts. Arthur was a dragon. An actual, born dragon, not just made to look like one by a spell. What did that mean? Did Uther know? How could he not? And if he did...what had he done to his son?
"You've heard, of course, that your father brought peace to this land," Gaius said, staring into Merlin's fire. "Before Uther, Camelot as we know it didn't exist. The land was in chaos, the woods overrun with bandits. Wyverns ran rampant through the mountains. Dragons had long lived here, but were under siege from their lesser cousins, their nesting grounds under attack. The humans were too busy with their own concerns, trying to scratch a living out on lands too often threatened.
"Into this, Uther arrived, and saw the folly of fighting two wars on two fronts when an alliance could be made. He sought out Kilgharrah, the king of the dragons, and proposed such an alliance. In doing so, he became the first dragon rider not also a dragon lord."
Merlin started slightly at that. Kilgharrah had often called him a dragon lord, without truly explaining the meaning behind the title. But if Gaius knew the term, too...he'd have to ask him, later, and find out what it was.
"And so he tamed the dragons and brought peace to Camelot," Arthur recited, obviously not interested in the retelling of a story he'd heard so often, even with added details. "I've heard the songs. What does that have to do with my mother?"
"Ygraine was Kilgharrah's sister," Gaius replied, turning back to Arthur, though his eyes seemed to look past him. "His sister, and the most beautiful dragonness--and woman--of her generation. She'd long been promised to Kilgharrah's general Gorlois but they say all that was forgotten, the moment she laid eyes on Uther.
"It was she who persuaded her brother to listen to the human's proposal. She who helped convince the dragons to ally with the humans. Uther--who loved her from that first moment, as well--fought all the more bravely for her." Gaius sighed, softly. "I've never seen a love like theirs, Arthur. Not in all my life. It might have been easier for all, had he been less devoted to her."
"What...what do you mean?" Arthur asked, voice hoarse. From what little Merlin knew of Ygraine, this was probably the most anyone had ever told Arthur of her.
"Humans and dragons cannot easily conceive," Gaius explained. "Great magic was needed to bring Uther an heir. Many called for him to set Ygraine aside, to take a human wife to assure his succession. But Uther would not hear of it, even when Ygraine herself offered to become his mistress and allow another to sit beside him as queen. She undertook a quest to find an answer...and succeeded, at great price."
Gaius fell silent for a moment, his gaze once more on the fire, as if he could see the ghosts of the pasts dancing in the flames. "Ygraine became pregnant. In nine months, she gave birth to Uther's heir. But her human body could not take the strain, and the magics the dragons used--while strong enough to create her son--demanded a life to restore the balance. She died, as she'd known she would, leaving Uther a broken man, and her son unaware of his heritage.
"Uther took her death as a personal betrayal, only increased when he learned others among the dragons, including her brother, had known the price she would pay and had allowed her to cast the spells." Gaius went on, outlining the Purge, the magic used to keep the dragons captive, but Merlin had to wonder how much of it Arthur actually heard. The truth of his birth had shocked him into silence. Merlin raised his hand, gently stroking Arthur's cheek, feeling wetness against his fingers. So, dragons could cry.
"Why...why didn't I know any of this?" Arthur asked at last, his voice thick, the words obviously forced out around his tears. "Why had I never...never turned into a dragon before?"
"Uther had strong wards placed on you the day you were born," Gaius replied. "Wards to keep you human. He thought it would be enough to banish the other half of your heritage. You yourself have already discovered it wasn't. I don't know what broke the wards, but your discomfort with the plight of your people has always been clear."
"That's...this is why?" Arthur asked, raising his head, a sudden, strangled hope in his voice. "It's because I...I am one?"
"It is, sire, and I'm sorry I could not tell you before," Gaius replied. "There are those who serve and love your father who do not agree with his every decree."
"But you collar the hatchlings," Arthur protested. "I've seen you do it. How can you...?"
Gaius hung his head. "I do. There are others who would create those collars to destroy a dragon's intelligence and free will. I simply put them to sleep. Every dragon I've treated in the last twenty-one years will recover when their collars are removed." He sighed, raising a hand to pinch the bridge of his nose. "It's poor justification, I know. But I could not abandon them, not to someone who saw them as animals."
Arthur shook his huge head, pressing it in tightly against Merlin's side for a long moment. Merlin stroked his hide gently, knowing his own questions for Gaius could wait. It was Arthur's reactions, Arthur's pain that mattered now.
The prince pulled away again after a long, silent moment. "So how do I change back?" he asked, voice rough. "None of this matters until I get home."
"I don't know, sire," Gaius replied.
"Of course you do," Arthur countered. "You're a dragon healer...just tell me."
"I'm sorry, Arthur, but I don't," Gaius said, shaking his head. "I know it's possible, of course, and I've some knowledge of the mechanics, but I couldn't tell you how to go about it. No dragon has ever been able to explain the workings, and most learned before they lost their baby teeth. You'll have to figure it out yourself."
"My fa..." Arthur swallowed, his wings shivering. "The king will be expecting me home tonight. I can't afford to take the time to ‘figure it out,' Gaius, I have responsibilities."
"Your father can be told you're hunting," Gaius countered, pushing himself to his feet and tossing a saddle bag to Merlin. "Lancelot was already quick enough to tell your knights you were on a trail and weren't likely to leave it. It will buy you a few days, at least."
Merlin opened the bag, finding food, the green salve, and the rolled leather of a dragon rider's harness. He blinked, thinking Arthur wasn't likely to want to be ridden. No matter how much Merlin would love to see the sky.
"A few days," Arthur repeated, snorting. "Wonderful." He flipped his wings closed, shifting his weight from one paw to another. "Fine. I'll stay here in the woods and you feed my father excuses."
"Gaius is less likely to end up in the stocks than I am," Merlin pointed out, opening the second bag Gaius tossed over, finding and slipping on the fur-lined leather jacket it contained, grateful for the warmth. "I'm sure it won't take us too long to work out, Arthur."
"You're staying?" Arthur asked in surprise, and Merlin felt the tense muscles of Arthur's foreleg relax.
"Of course," Merlin replied, tugging out a leg of lamb obviously provided for Arthur's dinner. "It'll take me a few days at least to mend the mess you've made of your clothes."
Merlin and Gaius gathered together the rest of the supplies he'd brought, piling them in a corner of the ravine. Lancelot spoke quietly to Arthur, for a few moments, before bowing to him.
"Do you really not know how he changes back?" Merlin asked in an undertone, taking the last bag from Gaius.
"The words would hold no meaning for him," Gaius said, gripping Merlin's shoulder. "Look out for him. He needs you more than he knows right now."
Merlin nodded, glancing back at his prince. "He's got me," he said firmly. Whatever this development meant for his destiny, he had no doubt Kilgharrah had been aware of it. How could he not be, when Arthur was his nephew?
Arthur watched Gaius fly off as Lancelot disappeared through the trees to lead the horses back to the castle. He stared into the sky long after Gaius and his mount had disappeared, trying to make sense of what he'd learned, trying to fit the story Gaius had told him in with what he knew of his parents, his kingdom's history. He could barely believe it was possible, that the truth could be so different from what he'd been told.
But he was a dragon, there was no denying that. And there was no denying how uncomfortable he'd always been in the company of dragons. If they were truly his kin, imprisoned in their own minds, tortured by their silence...
Arthur shook himself, watching as Merlin moved about, sorting through the supplies Gaius had brought. Occasionally he paused to check the meat he had roasting over the fire, a full leg of lamb. He'd at some point exchanged his usual thin jacket for the fur-lined leather one of a dragon rider that Gaius must have provided. Arthur didn't know if Merlin knew it's purpose. Even if he did, he might just be trying to keep warm.
But if not...did he expect to ride Arthur? Did Arthur want him to? He wasn't certain, and the question bothered him. Almost as much as the comfort he'd found in Merlin's presence over the course of the entire day, and the events that'd marred it.
He liked Merlin, that much was no secret. The boy's irreverent attitude and adorable grins had steadily grown on him, since that first day he'd challenged him. More than anyone else before in his life, Merlin had been a true friend, always willing to sacrifice himself for Arthur's safety while at the same time bullying Arthur into better behaviour. It hadn't always been pleasant--for either of them--but Arthur couldn't deny he was a better person for Merlin's influence.
Nor could he deny his feelings for Merlin went a bit beyond simple friendship, gift though that was. He'd never pursued his servant, not knowing how Merlin felt, not wanting anything that wasn't honest. And as the crown prince, he'd had all too many offers that weren't. Princesses, serving girls, knights and nobles alike had approached him, seeking extra favor, extra standing in the kingdom...everything sleeping with a prince could grant them. Arthur had fallen for it once or twice, when he'd been younger. Each time he'd ended up brokenhearted, when the lover he'd thought held his heart wanted him only for his title.
So he hadn't yet risked things with Merlin. He didn't think Merlin would be so impressed by his title to agree to a dalliance if he wasn't interested...but neither did he want to hear his manservant reject him. So Arthur hadn't spoken a word of his regard in the months Merlin had served him, dressed him, prepared his baths, massaged his stiff muscles, and generally been there. Always chattering, always ignoring the differences between them, always being a friend.
How far would that extend now? Arthur knew Merlin loved dragons. He spent enough of his precious little free time with them. Merlin had also always seemed to understand that Arthur didn't care for the aerie. But now...now that it had turned out Arthur was one of those creatures he so loved...would he ever want Arthur only for himself?
And how ridiculous was it for Arthur to even be considering? Merlin had never given any indication he thought of Arthur as more than a friend. And a friend was amazing enough, the prince knew he shouldn't hope for more. Even if by some magical chance Merlin did feel the same, he was a servant, a man...they could never have something that could exist outside Arthur's chambers.
Still...what he wouldn't give for those moments in his chambers...
The fire popped, juices from the lamb escaping and hitting the flames. Arthur started, shifting his weight and trying to pull his mind away from its useless wanderings. "That finished yet?" he asked, his stomach growling loudly. The dried meat he'd eaten hours before was not nearly enough to sustain him now.
"Almost," Merlin assured him, grinning as he looked up from the saddle bag he'd been digging through. "I've got some bread in here, if you want..."
Arthur curled his lip, making a face. Bread sounded rather disgusting to him, in this form. "Meat, thank you, Merlin. You can save the bread for yourself."
"Thanks," Merlin replied, closing the bag and crossing back to Arthur, flopping down next to him. He leaned back against Arthur's side, tipping his head back to look up at the clear, starlit sky. "It's nice out here tonight."
"Mmm," Arthur murmured, not certain whether he agreed or not. But it was nice to be out of the castle, alone with Merlin. If he'd been himself, he would be enjoying the impromptu camping trip as much as Merlin seemed to be. As it was...
As it was, he couldn't get Gaius's words out of his mind. Had his mother truly been...been a dragon? So few people had ever spoken to him about Ygraine. The little he knew of her came from a few stories he'd heard as a child and what existed in the records. Those were sparse enough, almost all from the time of his birth locked away for his father's eyes only.
Perhaps that right there was answer enough. Why would Uther bother to lock the records away, if he weren't hiding something? And an alliance between humans and intelligent dragons was quite the thing to hide, to try and force his people to forget...
What if it was true? If all dragons had once been able to speak, had had their own society? If they had...then what Uther had done was wrong. Even if he had been overcome with grief, to make all dragons pay because he'd lost his wife...
Arthur's stomach twisted. He'd spent his life studying to be a good king, learning everything he could about ruling. He'd spent untold hours considering how best to resolve issues, to care for his people. To protect them.
And he'd spent all his life in his father's shadow, attempting to make him proud.
It sickened him to realize his father may have let his own grief so deeply punish the people who looked to him for protection. To realize that maybe the man he'd always turned to for approval had bungled so spectacularly.
Uther Pendragon was his king, his father. His liege, his lord. He was not supposed to be a man, as fallible as any other.
"Merlin?" Arthur murmured, latching on the first thing that came to mind to ask, knowing he couldn't stay alone with his thoughts any longer. Not with where they were leading him.
"Hmm?" asked Merlin, working his bony shoulders back against Arthur's side.
"You said that Kilgharrah spoke to you..." Arthur prompted, hoping it would be enough to start Merlin chattering again, distracting him from the blackness of his thoughts.
"Quite a few times, actually," Merlin admitted readily. "He's chained up beneath the castle...really deep in the aerie."
"How'd you even know he was there?" Arthur asked, curling his neck around to rest his head beside Merlin, looking up at him.
Merlin shrugged, a flush appearing on his cheeks, visible even in the dim light of the fire. "I...dreamed the route, several times. Finally I just took it, one day when I wasn't paying attention. And there he was."
"So he's real," Arthur said, huffing a sigh. Kilgharrah was real...which meant the rest of Gaius's story was likely to be the same. And Arthur could hardly deny it, when faced with the evidence of his own wings and claws.
"Yeah," Merlin confirmed, his voice gentle. "He'd told me most of the story...but not about your mother. I would've told you that, if I'd known..."
"Thank you," Arthur said softly, though he wasn't certain how true that was. Merlin would've wanted to, he was sure, but would he have risked it? Arthur knew he wouldn't have believed him. "Do you think...would he be likely to help? Now?"
"I could ask him," Merlin said, chewing his bottom lip thoughtfully. "I'd have to leave you behind and sneak in, but that wouldn't be too hard. I don't know if he'll give us a better answer than Gaius, though," he added with a rueful grin. "He's very cryptic most of the time."
"We can hardly blame him for that. He apparently didn't get very far trusting humans," Arthur pointed out with another sigh. What had his father done? Could he possibly undo it? And even if he could...could he truly stand by and wait until he was king? God willing his father had many, many years left. But if he did, could Arthur live knowing his people were trapped within their own minds?
"He hasn't met you, yet," Merlin replied, reaching over and rubbing Arthur's head, his hand feeling good against the underside of his chin. "He'll trust you when he does."
"You seem awfully sure of that," Arthur remarked, turning his head toward the soft touch. He had to wonder again what he'd done to inspire Merlin's unwavering loyalty and belief.
"You're strong," Merlin replied, fingers moving to scratch Arthur's eye ridges. "You'll be an amazing king, when you give up being a prat. He'll be able to see that."
"Unless he's as blind as you," Arthur grumbled, embarrassed by Merlin's quiet faith in him, his sincere compliments, mixed as they were.
Merlin laughed softly. "Unless that," he agreed, releasing Arthur to check the meat over the fire. "It's done. I'd tell you to let it cool, but considering you can breathe fire, I doubt you'll burn your mouth on this."
Arthur laughed, but ate the lamb quickly, grateful Merlin had actually taken the time to cook it, to make this seem a bit more normal in the midst of the strangeness. He was lucky in his best friend.
Merlin chewed contentedly, tearing another chunk of bread free from the loaf in his hands. He sliced a second piece of cheese, leaning back against the tree behind him. Taking a deep breath of the crisp, autumn air, he let himself relax with a long, happy sigh.
The stillness of the day shattered as Arthur crashed through the underbrush, landing in a muddle. He picked himself up and glared back at his long tail as if it had personally betrayed him. Merlin, by now used to the display that had repeated itself all morning, made certain to hide his smile behind his bit of cheese.
It probably wasn't very kind of him to laugh at Arthur's awkwardness in the air. But after nearly a year of seeing his prince excel at everything he put his hand to, it was a refreshing change to see him struggling a bit.
Even if Arthur was mastering it disgustingly quickly. Of course, Merlin reflected as Arthur launched himself skyward again, the prince had spent his entire life studying every aspect of his role as his father's son, and training himself long past the point of normal endurance to exceed all expectations. Maybe he'd never flown all by himself before, but he'd certainly trained to ride a flying dragon, to interpret the cues of their bodies in flight, the same way he'd learned a horse.
Or so he'd said. Whether it was that, instinct, or something else entirely, it seemed to be working. Arthur was taking to wing incredibly quickly.
Landing, however, seemed to be giving him no end of trouble.
"Not a word from you," Arthur grumbled, extracting himself from the remains of a small tree.
"I wouldn't dream of it, sire," Merlin replied, grinning openly at him, honestly delighted to hear Arthur sounding more like himself and less like he had the night before. Merlin knew everything he'd learned had to have been one hell of a shock and he didn't blame Arthur for needing time. But he couldn't help being relieved to hear his familiar prat once again.
Merlin sighed to himself, watching Arthur once again leap upward, his huge wings pushing the air down and lifting him up into the sky. It wasn't the most graceful take-off Merlin had seen, but it was effective. And full of the pure, physical power that so often marked Arthur's movements. Merlin couldn't help but admire him now, no more than he could help himself when watching Arthur fight in a tournament.
But then, Merlin reasoned, he wasn't blind. And Arthur--human or dragon--quite simply looked good. He was gorgeous, strong and protective. And block-headed, stubborn, infuriating...and kingly and inspiring. A study in contradiction, really, Merlin decided. The prat and the Crown Prince, all rolled into one. No one frustrated Merlin more strongly, and no one moved him more deeply. He'd die for Arthur in a heartbeat and that fact had ceased to frighten him. His fear now was not being in time to save his prince.
Merlin knew he wasn't the only one so devoted to Arthur. His prince inspired loyalty even in the knights who didn't like him very much. He was a king in his bearing, utterly devoted to his subjects. Occasional ass or not, Arthur would give all he was for his men...and his men couldn't seem to help wanting to give the same to him.
And then give him something else entirely, Merlin admitted to himself with a wry grin. Arthur had been celibate the entire time Merlin had known him--so far as he knew--but it certainly wasn't for lack of opportunity. Merlin had had to usher more than one hopeful out of the prince's bedchamber when he'd gone in to prepare it for the evening.
You'd have to be a monk to resist Arthur, and Merlin was no monk. Time had eased the sting of Will's absence in his life, but he hadn't forgotten their time together, or what it'd felt like. Imagining being with Arthur, the same way, Arthur who was somehow more than a friend, who moved him so much...
Merlin flushed, looking away from the sight of Arthur wheeling through the sky above him. It was a moot point, if they didn't figure out how to get Arthur back into his usual form. And even then...Merlin knew his place. He was a servant, a peasant, and Arthur would be the next king. He'd marry some beautiful princess, produce beautiful, prattish children, and Merlin would be lucky to continue on as his manservant. It was just the way things were.
Arthur landed again, this time managing not to destroy any of the local foliage. He was breathing hard, a smile on his draconic face as he walked over to Merlin, nudging his boots with one forepaw. "Having a good time, are you?" he asked, leaning over Merlin, taking full advantage of his huge size.
Merlin just resisted the urge to reach up and wrap his arms around Arthur's head, instead settling for a cheeky grin. "Best I've had in years, sire. Did you break anything? Or just the trees?"
"Oi!" Arthur nudged Merlin's chest, this time, tumbling him down beside the tree he'd been leaning against. "None of that from you."
Merlin, curled into a ball and giving up his attempts not to laugh, managed to nod at him, finally. He pulled himself up, standing and resting a hand on Arthur's foreleg. "How was it?"
Arthur looked up, his long neck extending as he contemplated the sky. "It was..." He hesitated, something Merlin had rarely seen him do. "It was right," he said at last, a soft confidence filling the words.
"So you think Gaius was telling the truth, then?" Merlin asked, leaning against Arthur as he settled down again, flipping his wings closed against his back.
"Yes, yes, I think he was.," Arthur replied, but he sounded thoughtful, now. "This is...very natural." He snorted, then. "Damned inconvenient, too, but...natural."
"It does seem to suit you," Merlin agreed, turning to look at Arthur again. He frowned, noting a rough patch of hide forming along his neck. "You need to be oiled...you're getting scaly. Hang on, Gaius brought us some dragon-hide ointment." He pushed away from Arthur, heading to the saddle bags.
A shadow obscured the sun, as Merlin bent over the bags, searching for the ointment. He looked up to see Arthur peering over his shoulder. "You're going to oil me?" the prince asked, sounding amused.
"It's that or let you dry out and crack," Merlin replied, feeling rather defensive as his hand closed around the pot. Hopefully they wouldn't be out here too long. Arthur was a large dragon, and what little Gaius had brought wouldn't last for long. "And I don't want to hear you complain if you do," he added, pushing Arthur back out of the way so he could stand again.
Arthur went, crossing over to the open, sunny center of the clearing they'd moved to, once the sun was up. Merlin followed, grinning to himself as Arthur flopped down, yawning hugely and spreading his limbs and wings wide. Dragon he might be now, but he'd done the same thing often enough, when Merlin had been ready to massage his sore muscles after a tournament or long day's training.
Merlin dipped his hand into the deep pot, gathering the thick ointment and warming it between his palms until it softened. "Do you have any itchy spots?" he asked, smoothing his hands over the rough patch on Arthur's neck, working the salve in to soothe the skin.
Arthur didn't answer right away, arching into the touch. For someone who showed as little physical affection as Arthur did, he was practically a cat when it came to this, responsive and demanding. Which, Merlin reflected, shouldn't surprise him. That described Arthur in almost every other way, as well. The hatchlings, too, as they'd grown. Almost yearlings, now, they were larger, rowdier, but no less appreciative of the time he spent oiling their hides and spoiling them. Maybe it was as much a draconic trait as anything else.
Pushing the thoughts away, Merlin continued to rub Arthur down, working the salve into his skin, moving to his back, then tail as the prince directed him. No rough patch had grown very large, and for all Arthur was much, much bigger than the hatchlings, Merlin found it wasn't that much different than treating them. Merlin relaxed into the familiar work, realizing with no little guilt that he was enjoying himself immensely. It wasn't often he got so much unstructured time alone with Arthur, away from the castle. To have this now, and not have to spend it hunting...he sighed, contentedly. It wouldn't last, and Arthur was probably not enjoying himself much, with all he'd learned. But Merlin was going to enjoy it, while he could.
"What're you so pleased about?" Arthur asked, after Merlin had released his tail, and moved where his wings joined his sides, carefully smearing salve along the thinner hide on the underside.
"I much prefer this to polishing your armor and scrubbing your floor," Merlin replied, ducking out from under Arthur's wing to grin at him for a moment, before going back to what he'd been doing.
"I'm not surprised," Arthur grumbled, shifting his weight. "Let's hope you're better at it, too."
"The hatchlings haven't complained," Merlin pointed out, quickly biting his tongue when Arthur stiffened beneath his hands. "I..."
"They couldn't, could they?" Arthur asked, his teasing voice having gone soft, serious. "Even if you'd been torturing them, if anyone had...they wouldn't be able to complain. To say so. Even the lowliest serf still has his voice, Merlin. He can still speak out." He pushed himself to his feet, claws digging into the dirt and grass as he paced the length of the clearing, tail whipping back and forth. "Dammit! Merlin, how could he? How could he do this?"
Merlin pulled back, biting the inside of his cheek. What could he say? What explanation could he possibly give for Uther's actions? "He loved her, Arthur," he said, at last. "Losing her had to...to be hard..."
"And that excuses his actions?" Arthur asked, whirling on Merlin, his wings raised in anger, a snarl on his lips. "He's the king, Merlin. He can't...he can't let his personal feelings affect his rule. And if he has...if he did..." He stopped, closing his mouth, his eyes, fighting a obvious deep, internal battle within himself. "He's wrong," he said at last, sagging, more defeated than Merlin had ever seen him. "He's wrong. What he's done..."
Merlin hesitantly crossed over to Arthur, gently laying his hand on his foreleg. "He thought he was protecting his people," he said, quietly. "I won't...it doesn't excuse him. But it explains it, some."
"Maybe," Arthur sighed, before drawing himself up. "Maybe it does, but it can't go on. If what Gaius said is true, if every dragon in that aerie can speak, can reason...we can't allow them to live chained."
Merlin thought his heart might burst from pride, as Arthur said the words, his voice so strong, so determined. A prince many would die to save, he'd thought earlier. Die following, and feel their lives well spent. Never before had he seen it so clearly. "We can't," he agreed, more grateful for Arthur's "we" than he could ever have said. "We'll speak to Kilgharrah, as soon as we get back...and even if he doesn't have a plan, we'll come up with something. I'm with you, you know that."
Arthur nodded, a smile crinkling the hide near his blue eyes. "I do, Merlin. And I thank you for it." He paused, before sighing once more, again looking up at the sky. "And we have work to do." So saying, he again snapped out his wings, clawing his way up into the air, leaving the ground, Merlin, and everything else behind him.
But Merlin watched him, kept his gaze on him. Arthur wouldn't be alone in this, even if he tried to be. He had Merlin, he had Lancelot...and whether he knew it or not, he had the rest of the knights and most of the guard. Uther had gained their loyalty through his years of work for peace, and through his heavy handed rule.
Arthur...Arthur had gained them through his own personality and his own regard. The prince never shirked, never stopped in his commitment to his people, and it showed in the loyalty they held for him.
Merlin had to pray it would be enough.
* * *
Arthur flew, riding the wind, listening to his body as it sang the song of the air.
This was what he'd dreamed. This was what he'd wanted. This was what he'd hoped for all his life...and what had always felt wrong, before. No wonder he'd hated the feeling of riding another dragon. How could he not, when he was a dragon himself?
For he was. He couldn't deny it. Not with as good, as right as this felt. This was who he was. Not all of himself, no. No more than the human half had been all of who he was. But this was what he'd been missing, a part of himself he'd never before known he needed.
He was Arthur Pendragon and he had finally come into his own.
The knowledge was--almost--enough to make up for what he had learned, what he would have to do now that he knew the truth. Arthur had never truly considered rebelling against his father for anything more than his attendance at a hatching. But this...he couldn't let this go on. He couldn't.
All of which meant...meant he'd have to take some kind of action. When he was human again, he'd have to lead a revolt against his own father.
It wasn't that he thought himself ready to be king, better equipped for the role. But he couldn't let his father's tyranny continue. The very values and morals Uther himself had instilled within his son wouldn't allow Arthur to stand by, knowing what he did, and let his father continue to subjugate his people. No future clutch of hatchlings would be collared. No dragon now chained could remain so. And if it meant challenging Uther...he would have to.
But maybe it wouldn't come to that. It had been nearly twenty-two years since his mother's death. Perhaps Uther would see the error in his reactions, now. Perhaps Arthur could bring his father around, fix things.
He had to try.
Banking, Arthur went into a steep dive, before pulling up for a landing. He carefully took everything he'd learned in his spectacular crashes into account, arresting his momentum and stopping himself. He came to an easy landing in the clearing, looking up at the sound of sudden, wild applause.
Merlin had jumped up from his place beneath a tree, clapping loudly, a delighted grin on his ridiculous, beautiful face. "Nicely done, Arthur!" he cried out, running over to Arthur's side, skidding to a stop beside him. "That was wonderful!"
Seeing Merlin there, so earnest, so genuine, his eyes shining with joy and pride, Arthur was overwhelmed with the urge to wrap the younger man in his arms. Wrap him in his arms, drag him in close and hold him, kiss him...
The ground abruptly rushed up toward him, the clearing tilting, and Arthur gasped. Distantly, he heard Merlin's voice crying out to him, but it seemed to come from a long, long way away.
A moment later, the disorientation passed, and his vision cleared. He found himself staring at his fingers, buried in the dirt. He lifted one hand, turning it back and forth, examining the familiar sword callouses, nails, skin...his hand. His human hand.
A warm weight of fabric landed on his back, and Arthur looked up, to see Merlin kneeling beside him, once more the same size as he was, instead of so much smaller. "Hullo," Merlin said, with a shy grin, adjusting the cloak he'd thrown over Arthur's shoulders.
Arthur rose slowly to his feet, swaying slightly as he adjusted to standing upright once again. He eased his arms, his shoulders, marvelling a bit as he felt his muscles move against each other. "Huh..."
"What'd you do?" Merlin asked, releasing Arthur as he grew steady on his own feet, stepping back. "You just...you changed!"
"I'm not sure," Arthur admitted, tugging the cloak around himself, colder now that he was human once again. And naked. "It just seemed to happen..." When I was imagining kissing you...
"You'll have to see if you can make it happen again," Merlin said, heading back to the saddle bags. "Gaius did bring you some clothes, if you want to get dressed."
"In a minute, maybe," Arthur replied, frowning to himself. He'd been thinking of pulling Merlin into his arms, holding him, kissing him...all very physical sensations, all of which depended on him having a human body.
Was that the key? He'd been imagining himself human, been thinking of exactly how it felt...
Letting the cloak fall to the ground, Arthur closed his eyes, imagining spreading his wings, switching his tail, the heavy feeling of his horns upon his head, talons digging in the dirt. And once again, he heard Merlin yelp from far away. He opened his eyes, smiling down at his forepaws, once more a dragon.
Arthur let out a trumpeting call of triumph, beating his wings against the air, reveling in the freedom. He'd felt the sharp, internal click--like a sword sliding home in its scabbard. And what was more, he was certain he could find it once again on his own, without needing the extra step.
To test it, he reached inside his mind and twisted. Only moments later, he felt a breeze through his hair and sighed in relief. Yes. He knew this, now.
A gentle, fleeting touch on his arm brought Arthur back to himself and he blushed, to find Merlin beside him, a soft smile on his face. "Here," he said, holding out a pair of breeches and a tunic. "It's a long walk back to the castle."
Arthur pursed his lips. It would be a long walk and there was no real need for it. Not when he could fly them both back within spitting distance of the city walls, and leave no one the wiser. But that meant letting Merlin ride him. An idea when he knew should seem abhorrent...and really, really didn't.
Besides. It was practical. They needed to take quick action, not spent a day and a half walking. "Don't be an idiot, Merlin. Get that riding harness out and ready. I'm not walking back to Camelot."
Merlin gaped at Arthur, certain he hadn't heard him correctly. But his prince still stood there--distractingly naked--smirking at him. "You...really?" he asked weakly, hoping Arthur wasn't teasing, certain that he was.
"Really, Merlin," Arthur replied, smirk softening slightly. He was obviously enjoying himself, and that in itself made Merlin smile in response. "Get the harness."
Merlin's grin widened and he jumped to do as Arthur asked, his hands shaking with excitement. He dug through the saddle bags to find the harness, lifting it out and making a face as he did so. "This is much too plain for you," he said, carrying it back, frowning as he turned it over and over in his hands. "I'll have to get Joss working on a new one...you deserve something better than this."
Arthur chuckled, as Merlin reached him. "Does it really matter?" he asked, looking over the harness himself. "How often do you expect me to wear it?"
Merlin flushed, realizing he had been thinking in long term. But Arthur did deserve better than just the standard...and he couldn't quite express why he felt so. "Suppose it doesn't," he agreed, shrugging. "Are you ready to leave?"
Arthur glanced up to the sky, before nodding. "Yes. There's no point in putting it off any longer...and we'll have time to speak with your dragon king, if we leave now." So saying, he closed his eyes, and again melted into a dragon, right in front of Merlin.
Merlin shivered, certain he'd never get used to the abrupt change, but somehow hoping he'd get to. That even after everything was sorted, he'd still get to be close to Arthur, get to see him like this. He had no idea how their lives might change, if Arthur was serious about freeing the dragons, but however they did...he wouldn't willingly lose his prince.
Taking up the harness again, he quickly buckled it onto Arthur, adjusting the straps and saddle until it fit well. "Pinching anywhere?" he asked, glad again that Arthur could answer, and he didn't have to guess.
"It's fine, Merlin," Arthur replied, his hide shivering slightly as he twitched his muscles. "Let's get this over with."
"Yes, sire," Merlin agreed, jumping down to grab the saddle bags, attaching them to the rings on Arthur's harness. He paused only long enough to shrug into the dragon-rider's jacket and googles Gaius had provided, then coughed, softly. "You are sure about this?"
"Just get up here, Merlin," Arthur ordered, bending his foreleg to let Merlin mount more easily. "I don't know about you, but I don't want to eat your cooking for another night."
Merlin chuckled, relieved, and climbed up, clipping his belt to the straps of the harness, settling himself between the ridges of Arthur's shoulder blades, his legs fitting neatly down the sides of his neck. The overwhelming excitement of actually being on a dragon was somehow not dampened by it being Arthur...if anything, it had him wriggling all the more.
"Sit still, would you?" Arthur grumbled, with no real admonishment in his voice. "Are you set, or are you going to fall off?"
"I'm set," Merlin promised, going abruptly still, forcing himself to stop wiggling. But nothing would stop his hands shaking with excitement. "You can...you can take off."
Apparently only waiting for his word, Arthur did just that. His powerful back legs launched them skywards, wings beating down, a rush of wind and noise sounding in Merlin's ears as they left the ground behind them.
Distantly, he heard his own cries of excitement, his whoop of joy, and he threw his arms wide, trusting Arthur and the harness to hold him as he leaned into the wind, finally, finally flying on a dragon.
And not just any dragon, but his best friend, his prince...his Arthur.
Arthur seemed to catch the same joy of the moment, as Camelot spread out beneath them, sunlight gleaming over the river in the distance, the whole of the land laid out in patchwork fields and winding roads. He trumpeted again, a sound of pure draconic bliss, and whirled through the air, dipping and weaving, reacting to Merlin's shouts and encouragements as if he could actually hear them, though the wind tore the words away.
Merlin crouched low over his neck, his throat thick, eyes streaming with tears of unbridled joy. This was...was everything. Better than any dream, better than any imagining, better than any description. Moving with Arthur, like this, so far above the earth, feeling great muscles flex between his thighs, the incredible sensation of wind about him, of speed and pure, unadulterated elation...
It was living love. He would never forget it, as long as he lived, he was certain of it. A moment of complete and utter perfection, one he would treasure until the end of his days, even if it never happened again.
The flight came to an end, as Merlin had known it must. But even as Arthur came to rest in a clearing not far from the city, even as the prince dug his powerful claws into the ground, landing with more grace than Merlin had yet seen him manage, the sense of awe and delight still flowed through him. He gradually became aware he was panting, much as Arthur was himself, hands grasping his air in disbelief.
"Was that...did that just...was that real?" he heard himself ask, the worlds tumbling broken and incredulous from his mouth.
"It was," Arthur replied, flapping his wings once or twice before settling them, craning his head back to look at Merlin. "I could never have imagined you being this heavy."
The familiar teasing, so perfectly Arthur in the midst of a moment so far from anything Merlin had ever felt, broke something within him, and Merlin let out a laugh that was half sob. He didn't know what had happened, was happening, but this moment, this ride, all of it...something had changed, up there in the air, and he knew he'd never be the same again.
Arthur hid his concern, seeing Merlin so overcome, laughing and crying in the same breath. He'd known Merlin loved the dragons, but he'd never have thought a single flight would affect him this much. He settled himself, waiting for Merlin to calm down on his own, feeling a little awkward.
What did you do when someone cried? Arthur had never been sure, and even less so, now, when he was still feeling the effects of the flight, himself. If it had felt right before, on his own...it was nothing compared to how it'd felt, sharing it with Merlin.
Not that he was about to cry. But then he wasn't half the girl Merlin was, either. "Think you can get down?" he said at last, when Merlin had seemed to gain some control over himself, his laughing tears subsiding into soft hiccups.
"Yeah," Merlin replied, sounding more himself, squirming around on Arthur's back. "Yeah, I can...just a moment." Finally, he unclipped himself and slid down, the goggles he'd worn to protect his eyes pushed back over his hair, his lips parted in a wide grin as he came into view. He patted Arthur's foreleg, gently, fingers lingering for a moment. "That was...was...yeah. Thank you."
Arthur felt a sudden lump in his throat, and he swallowed, hastily. "Yes, well...you're welcome. It got us here faster, anyway." He hesitated, wanting to say something more, to tell Merlin what it had meant to him, what Merlin meant to him...but the words stuck against his teeth. Coward. "Get me out of this, would you? We've still got a walk ahead of us."
"Right away, sire," Merlin promised, patting his leg again, before hurrying to do as Arthur said, freeing him from the harness and saddle bags. Which they would now have to carry, joy of joys. At least it wasn't too far to the castle.
Soon enough, Merlin was helping Arthur shrug into his vest, adjusting the leather over the curve of his shoulders. Arthur felt himself relaxing further, the familiar actions pushing away some of the turbulent thoughts of the last few days. "We'll make the gates by mid-afternoon. We can borrow horses from the guard station, there, and be at the castle soon enough."
"You don't think they'll wonder, when we come back empty handed?" Merlin asked, looking up from repacking the dragon paraphernalia into a saddle bag. "I mean...you never do."
"I'll tell my father the truth. We were tracking a unicorn," Arthur replied, buckling on his sword belt, relaxing still further at the familiar weight by his side. He gripped the hilt, taking comfort in the solid feel. "Only an idiot would slay one."
Merlin nodded, tying the bag closed, slinging it over his shoulder. "We'd better get a move-on, then."
Not bothering to remind Merlin--again--that he should've been giving the orders, Arthur picked up the other saddle bag and slung it over his own shoulder, following Merlin through the trees toward the road.
Back home. Back to Camelot. Back to the heritage and people he hadn't known he had, when last he'd walked those halls. A people he now had to do right by, even if he wasn't certain how.
Still, a cautious optimism seemed to overlay all his worries, and he gave into it, letting it soothe him. He wasn't certain how everything would turn out, but at least a part of him seemed to firmly believe it would. And that was enough to go by, for now.
Riding a horse back to the castle was an incredible let down after covering so much further so much faster on Arthur's back, soaring through the air. A dragon flight went overhead, as they rode, and both Merlin and Arthur's heads rose to follow their progress, gazes even more wistful than usual.
Merlin took it as a good sign, and kept mostly quiet as they climbed the hill to the castle, winding up and around through the city streets. It seemed strange to be back. Too loud, too much, as if much more time had passed than only two days. He couldn't imagine how much stranger it had to be for Arthur, returning to his city after all he'd learned.
They dismounted in the courtyard, handing reins to the servants hurrying forward to take them. Merlin took the saddle bags in hand, glancing over at Arthur. He didn't want to be apart, to leave his prince on his own, but...he couldn't exactly follow him to the throne room when he had obvious duties to fulfill.
Arthur looked up at the keep for a long moment, before shaking his head. "I could use a bath, Merlin," he said, voice carrying in the wind. "See that one is brought up and readied."
"At once, sire," Merlin promised, hoping he could rope someone else into giving him a hand. Filling Arthur's bath was always a daunting task.
"Good," Arthur replied, still staring at the steps up to the keep. If Merlin hadn't known Arthur to always be decisive, he would've said he was hesitating. "I'll be there directly. I have to let the king know I've returned."
Merlin nodded, moving closer. "You'll be fine, Arthur," he murmured, in a soft undertone.
Arthur turned to him, flashing a confident grin. "Thank you, Merlin, for stating the obvious. I'll see you in my chambers."
Merlin grinned back, amused as always by Arthur's continued prattishness in place of gratitude. It had taken him time to realize Arthur's sarcastic expressions of thanks were as honest as another's serious, but once he understood that he'd begun to believe the meaning behind the tone. "I'll be there."
Arthur headed up the steps at last, squaring his shoulders as he reached the top. Merlin felt a rush of pride for him, cutting through the low level anxiety buzzing through his body. Arthur would be fine. He was strong. He would manage, even knowing what Uther had done.
Merlin took himself to Arthur's room, readying a bath first of all, before sorting through the saddle bags they'd brought back.
By the time Arthur returned, tight lipped, his shoulders set and stiff, Merlin had cleaned himself, refilled the bath, sorted through what they'd brought back and sent word to Gaius that they'd returned. He was bent over the remains of the clothing Arthur had been wearing when he'd first gone dragon, seeing if any of it could be salvaged for more than cleaning rags.
He stood, when Arthur entered, crossing over to him and helping him out of his vest. "Your bath's ready, sire," he said quietly, trying not to let his hands linger too long on Arthur's skin, much as he wanted to soothe him.
He might have indulged himself, had Arthur been a dragon. But like this, reticence prevented him. He simply helped Arthur undress, as he had so many times before. But Merlin couldn't help just gently touching the soft hairs at the back of Arthur's neck as he pulled away. "How did it go?" he asked, when Arthur didn't seem likely to say anything himself, and Merlin's curiosity could stay quiet no longer.
Arthur snorted, softly. "He asked why I didn't bring back her horn," he said, shaking his head.
Merlin blinked, astonished Uther could even...but then, he hadn't seen the unicorn. Maybe he just didn't understand. "I'm not sure what I would've said to that," he admitted, carrying Arthur's clothing away as the prince stretched.
"That makes two of us," Arthur agreed, groaning softly as he leaned over, touching his toes. Merlin glanced over, and caught the view of Arthur's back, strong legs leading up, up...it made his mouth go dry. "I'm not sure what I told him, but I think he was satisfied." With a last stretch, Arthur grabbed the towel Merlin had laid out for him and crossed to his bath. He slipped into the warm water with a grateful sigh. "Thank you, Merlin, this is lovely."
"You're welcome," Merlin replied, coming over to soap up a cloth, gently washing Arthur's back. His prince slowly relaxed under his touch, leaning forward to give Merlin better access.
"I can't even imagine what will happen," Arthur murmured softly, his eyes on the water. "When he finds out I know..."
Merlin bit his lip, slowly wetting Arthur's fine, silky hair in preparation for washing it. He protected Arthur's eyes with one hand as he used an earthenware cup to scoop warm bath water, sluicing it back over Arthur's head. "Maybe it won't be that bad?" he suggested, hopefully, not believing himself for a second.
Arthur chuckled softly, leaning into Merlin's touch again, as he massaged suds through Arthur's hair. "I don't think that's very likely, but I admire your optimism."
Merlin grinned, putting himself to his work with a lighter heart. So long as he could ease Arthur from the darkest of his moods, they'd get by.
He finished washing Arthur's hair and left him to finish his bath on his own, laying out fresh, clean clothing for the prince to change into. A knock on the door sounded, as Arthur was pulling himself out and wrapping the towel around his middle. Merlin answered to find a serving girl with the meal he'd requested be sent up. He smiled, taking the tray from her and carrying it over to Arthur's table.
"Ah, good," Arthur said, toweling his hair off as he walked to the table, droplets of water glistening on his golden skin. Merlin swallowed, watching a single drop slide down, down from his neck, pausing briefly in the notch between his collarbones before moving down still further, across his chest, the flat planes of his stomach, finally disappearing at the towel wrapped around his waist. "Merlin?"
Merlin snapped his eyes back up to Arthur's face, finding the prince watching him with one eyebrow raised, an amused smile playing around his lips. "Are you going to hold that for me while I eat?"
Merlin felt himself flush, setting the tray down abruptly, busying himself filling Arthur's goblet. Enforced camaraderie in the woods or not, he couldn't forget himself so much as to blatantly stare at the prince, no matter how wet and half-naked he was. "Sorry, sire. I thought you might like to eat before...before we go to the aerie."
Arthur dropped the towel he'd been holding, his face going carefully blank. "Yes. No point in putting it off, is there?" He thumped down into his chair, staring at the chicken, sausage and cheese on his plate. "He's been kept waiting long enough down there."
"He can wait long enough for you to have dinner," Merlin said firmly, setting Arthur's goblet in front of him. "Eat up, you'll need your strength."
To Merlin's mild surprise, Arthur did as he was told, making a face, but tucking into the meal in any case. Merlin took up the towel he'd abandoned, finishing drying the prince's hair as he ate. He knew he was fussing over Arthur a bit more than usual, but he couldn't seem to help himself. He needed to be near him, to be...doing something for him. And as long as Arthur didn't seem to mind, he was going to indulge the need as much as he could.
Soon enough, Arthur had finished his meal. He dressed, letting Merlin help him more than he usually did, as well. It was true enough Arthur could dress himself, and usually did, unless he needed to look particularly presentable. He'd made Merlin do it all for him, a few times, but that was as much to tease as anything, Merlin had been sure. Now, though...it felt somehow different, the way Arthur was letting Merlin take care of him.
Merlin shook off the feeling, giving Arthur's brown leather jacket one last tug, making sure it settled into place just so over his shoulders. Satisfied, he clipped Arthur's sword onto his belt, and stepped back, running a hand over his hair. "Ready?"
"You've made sure of it," Arthur replied, a smile on his face Merlin might almost have called fond, if he'd seen it on anyone else. "Let's go meet my uncle, shall we?"
Arthur followed Merlin through the aerie, watching the dancing shadows at the edge of the torchlight. He'd never ventured so far beneath the dragon stables himself. It didn't seem to deter Merlin...he moved confidently through the dark tunnels, ignoring offshoots on either side.
"Are we ever going to reach this cavern of yours?" Arthur snapped, unable to fight off his sense of unease, being here, doing this. His father had welcomed him back warmly enough, before chastising him for returning empty handed. Was he really contemplating a rebellion against him?
But he couldn't sit idly by, could he? Not knowing what he did now.
Shaking his head, Arthur resolved again not to make any decisions on his course of action until he had actually spoken with Kilgharrah. He knew things had to change, but as to how...he just wasn't certain.
"We're almost there," Merlin assured him, looking back with a reassuring smile. "Promise."
"Can't be fast enough for me," Arthur grumbled, distantly grateful Merlin never seemed to take his bad tempers personally. Merlin was much more likely to snark back than fold under Arthur's ill humor.
And he didn't, now, merely grinned back over his shoulder and kept trotting along, leading them through ancient stone passages. Passages whose sides still bore the marks of the picks that'd long ago created them.
Finally, Merlin paused in a dark doorway. "This is it," he said, indicating the space before them. "Are you..." he paused, flushing slightly. "I mean...we're here."
Arthur nodded, taking a breath. "Then I suppose you'd better announce me, hadn't you?" he asked, striving to sound as cool, as confident as possible. He'd visited the courts of foreign kings before. This was, in many ways, no different. Even if the king was an imprisoned dragon.
"Yes, sire," Merlin replied, smiling reassuringly one last time, before ducking through the doorway. He fixed the torch to the wall, turning to the black space beyond. "Hullo?"
Arthur followed him, stopping abruptly as the sound of dragon wings spread throughout the huge cavern revealed by Merlin's torch. He squared his shoulders waiting as the largest dragon he'd ever seen landed on an outcropping of stone.
"Young dragon lord," the huge dragon said, his rich, commanding voice causing Arthur's throat to thicken. It was true. It was all true. Here was a dragon, actually speaking. "What story would you hear today?"
Merlin smiled, and Arthur furrowed his brows, realizing the "young dragon lord" had been directed at his manservant, not himself. What did that mean?
"No, your majesty," Merlin replied, gesturing Arthur forward. "I brought someone to meet you. King-in-Exile Kilgharrah, may I present Crown Prince Arthur Pendragon of Camelot?"
Arthur stepped forward into the light, finding Kilgharrah's golden eyes focused on him as he bowed. A bow calculated to show the exact degree of deference a prince should, meeting an allied king. "My lord."
"So you have been let off your leash at last," Kilgharrah said, examining Arthur closely. "But do you know, I wonder, what lies before and behind you?"
"I know that you are my uncle, my lord," Arthur replied as steadily as he could. "Brother to my mother and king of your--our--people."
Kilgharrah threw his head back, laughing loud and deep. "So the physician has broken his oath as well as his wards. Good, good. It is beyond time he return his fealty to his own people. Welcome, young Pendragon. You have the look of your mother about you."
Ignoring Merlin's horrified gasp of "Gaius?!" and his own misgivings related to Kilgharrah's surprising words, Arthur half bowed again. "Thank you. That's something I've heard twice in as many days."
"And something you will no doubt hear more often, when our people are free," Kilgharrah replied, settling himself down on his rock, flipping his wings closed. "But you and your rider did not come to hear that. You have questions, I'm sure. Ask."
Arthur, who'd opened his mouth to inquire as to how they could free the dragons, shut it again abruptly. "‘Rider'?" he repeated, glancing at Merlin. "Merlin?"
"Surely you've noticed the bond between you," Kilgharrah replied, sounding all together too amused for Arthur's peace of mind. "When you flew together, if not before."
Merlin coughed, his face ruddy even in the torchlight. "I...uh. Thought I was imagining it," he said, not meeting Arthur's eyes.
"No, Emrys, you were not," Kilgharrah corrected. "It is rare for a dragon lord to bind himself to a single dragon, yes, but my nephew is no ordinary member of our kind."
"Excuse me," Arthur broke in, before Merlin could let loose the river of questions he no doubt had. "What, exactly, is a dragon lord and what makes you think Merlin is one? And what is all this nonsense about a bond?"
Merlin snapped his mouth shut, his hurt puppy eyes already making Arthur regret his hasty words. But honestly. What was going on here?
"It is far from nonsense, Nephew," Kilgharrah said firmly. "You have been honored by his choice and he by yours. The bond between dragon and rider, once established, is unbreakable. Only death severs it. As it deepens, you will know each other's minds, moods. No one can hide you from the other and no distance can truly separate you. It is the most sacred connection that exists between dragon and human, one which has seldom been created in our history. And never by accident."
"We'll be in each other's heads?" Merlin asked weakly, the look of terrified horror he was giving Arthur a match for the roiling emotions twisting the prince's gut. How long before Merlin knew how...how he felt about him?
And then where would they be?
"You will know each other as no one else," Kilgharrah replied. "Where you choose to go from there is up to you." He shifted his bulk again, eyes locked on Arthur's. Somehow the look in their golden depths calmed him.
"As for a dragon lord," Kilgharrah went on, "it is what it sounds. They are few, humans who are kin to us in a way far different than your own heritage, young Pendragon. Merlin is one because his father, Balinor, was the same. They have long been generals, allies and friends of we dragons. They possess some measure of our magic and, moreover, they can break the greatest of our spells."
"Merlin has magic," Arthur repeated, staring at his manservant in utter disbelief. It placated him very little that Merlin looked just as surprised. "Are you certain?"
"Perfectly certain, Nephew, as you would be yourself, if you listened to your instincts. Few are the dragons who could disobey the commands of a dragon lord, as you've no doubt found." Kilgharrah chuckled, softly. "All of us are lucky Emrys is who he is, or he could make himself king with our help. High King, over all Albion, and who could deny him?"
Arthur glanced over at Merlin, who shook his head hard, wrinkling his nose. "King? Me? Gods, no! You and Arthur can have it!"
Arthur couldn't help smiling at Merlin's rejection of the idea, even with all he'd suddenly learned about him. "You'd make a mess of it, anyway," he said fondly and was rewarded with Merlin's shy smile.
Straightening, Arthur turned back to Kilgharrah. "Obviously there is much I don't know about our people and my heritage. And while I did come here in part to learn of it, there is a more pressing matter. Those chained above us."
Kilgharrah nodded gravely. "You jump right to the heart of the matter. Since the year following your birth, the dragons have been held prisoner. Those who had riders have not been able to recognize them, though the humans have been attentive. Those who have grown to maturity since have been collared, their minds asleep...and this must stop."
"I agree," Arthur replied, thinking of the knights he'd seen--always older, near his father's age--bedding down with their mounts, taking extra care of their ills. He'd always thought it the regard of a master for a beloved steed, but if they'd once shared the bond Kilgharrah described, only to have the other's mind go quiet...he shuddered at the implications. "I...am not one to willfully defy my lord and father, but..."
"But he is blinded in his grief," Kilgharrah said quietly. "This must end if your people--human and dragon--are ever to live in peace as equals again."
"How do I free them?" Arthur asked, resolve strengthening once again. The dragon king was right. He had to do this.
"You do not," Kilgharrah replied. "Not by yourself. The dragons are bound by the magic of our people, spells forged into the living metal of their collars. Only a dragon lord can break those spells. You will protect your rider, while he destroys the enchantments holding them."
"Me?" Merlin said again, his eyes wide. "I-I wouldn't know where to start!"
"That can easily be fixed," Kilgharrah assured him. "Your magic need only be wakened and trained, and I can do that. I can teach you the spells you'll need. All that matters is that you have the drive to help free us."
"I'll follow Arthur," Merlin replied, resolve in his soft voice. "No one should live chained."
"Then we will start with your lessons," Kilgharrah said, before turning his gaze to Arthur. "As for you, Nephew, find those you can trust. This will not be easy...but it is necessary."
Arthur agreed, glancing over at Merlin, still so shocked, so quiet. What would all they'd learned do to them, when they left this cave?
"Now," Kilgharrah said, stretching himself once before settling back down again. "I have raised questions in both of you. Ask."
Merlin walked slowly from Arthur's chambers, his feet hesitating on the by now familiar path back to his own quarters. He had left Arthur's room reluctantly, but it could no longer be put off. Whether it was the growing bond that apparently lay between them, or the hesitance at seeing Gaius, after all he'd learned, he wasn't sure. Both dragged at his heels and slowed his feet.
Gaius, a dragon. A dragon who had chained his own people, kept them in their draconic forms, kept their minds quiet. How had he managed it? Did Uther know? He must; how else would he collar the hatchlings? But if Gaius had done it...
Merlin bit his lip, hearing again Gaius's words, only the night before. It is poor justification, I know. But I could not abandon them, not to someone who saw them as animals. Maybe, maybe he could understand that. That Gaius had chosen to do the deed, lest someone with less sympathy irreparably harm the young dragons.
But still, his mind cried out against it. Gaius had been a surrogate father to him, always there for him. He'd taught him so much, how to truly make a difference, when it was right to fight. And now, to learn this...
But then...if he had fought, he too would be caught, unable to influence Uther in any way at all. As it was, he could still look after his people's health, make sure they were ready to awake, when it came time. And Gaius had told Arthur the truth, once Arthur had discovered part of it for himself. Maybe he'd been waiting for this day as eagerly as Kilgharrah. Maybe he had been doing what he could.
Even if he had locked the collars around the necks of every clutch of hatchlings in the past twenty years.
Merlin reached the door long before he'd sorted out his feelings about Gaius. And he hadn't even touched on bonding with Arthur, on hearing what a dragon lord was, or that Kilgharrah had apparently known the father he'd never met. It was all too much to take in, on top of discovering Arthur was a dragon. His head was full, his emotions numb. What else was there he didn't know? What more could the day bring?
He pushed the door open, slowly, seeing Gaius bent over a work bench, humming softly to himself as he worked. Merlin watched for just a moment before entering the room. As long as he'd known him, Gaius had been good to him, good to the dragons under his care. Judging by that, Merlin couldn't condemn him.
Gaius looked up, a welcoming smile on his face. "So you and Arthur have returned. I had no doubt he'd figure the change out on his own."
"He did," Merlin confirmed, sweat springing up on his back as he faced his mentor. "Though I don't see why you couldn't have just shown him, yourself."
Gaius's deeply lined face grew still. After a long, silent moment, he sighed, softly. "Kilgharrah told you, no doubt," he said. "I imagine he has little love lost for me."
"So it's true," Merlin said, throat closing on the words. "You're a...a..."
"A dragon, yes," Gaius confirmed. "I know it is likely to do very little good, but I had my reasons. If I had not stayed, not done what I could...things would be worse. Arthur needed someone watching over him who knew the truth...and Uther needed a voice of reason, even if he's seldom heeded it."
Merlin sighed. Part of him wanted to be angry, to rant and rail against the unfairness of it all. But it hadn't been fair for Gaius, either, had it? What would he have done, had he been in the physician's position? Died fighting or given in and tried to make the best of things, to do what he could for his people? He wasn't sure, and couldn't condemn the man for what he'd chosen.
"You've always helped me do the right thing," Merlin said softly, his indignation melting away, leaving him at least slightly at peace. "And it can't be easy. Have you...been able to help?"
"More than I could've hoped," Gaius replied, smiling gently. "I spirited a dragon lord out of Camelot, nearly twenty-one years ago. I sent him to a good friend, a former apprentice who had moved to a small village outside the kingdom. Twenty years later, she sent me his son, the lad who's grown as dear to me as if he were my own."
Merlin's eyes filled with tears, his vision blurring as the meaning of Gaius's words sunk in. "You knew my father?"
"Balinor was a good friend, in the days before," Gaius replied. "A strong man, who always did what was right. You're very much like him, Merlin. He would have been so proud of you."
Merlin's tears spilled over and he went willingly into Gaius's arms, as the old man held him close, soothing the soft sobs he suddenly couldn't stifle. He cried, and cried, not trying to stop himself after Gaius's soft encouragements, letting the fear and shock of the past few days melt away under the flow of his tears.
Finally, he pulled back, feeling a little foolish, but undeniably better. "Tell...tell me about him?" he asked, hesitantly.
"Gladly," Gaius replied, squeezing his arm. "Sit down, I'll fetch you some tea, and something to eat."
Merlin settled himself at the table, wiping a last few times at his nose, sighing softly. Tomorrow, he'd worry about magic lessons and palace intrigues. Tonight...tonight he'd finally learn about his father.
"Lancelot," Arthur called, gesturing for the knight to approach him, grateful it hadn't taken much of a search to find him. But then Lancelot was often near the practice fields, never content with the hard won skills he had. He always strove to improve, something Arthur admired in him.
"Sire," Lancelot replied, as he came forward, bowing before him. "It is good to see you well," he added, no hint in his face that the last time he'd seen Arthur, Arthur had both wings and a tail.
Arthur chuckled, softly, admiring the man's discretion. "It's good to be it. I have something I would like to discuss with you, if you've time."
"I am at your disposal, my lord," Lancelot replied, inclining his head, sliding his practice sword back into the rack with the others.
"Good. Accompany me back to my quarters," Arthur instructed, turning to walk with him, clasping his hands behind his back as he walked, half his mind still occupied with what he'd need to say to Lancelot, once they were alone and couldn't be overheard. "How have you settled in here, at the castle?"
"It's a bit different, than my life before," Lancelot admitted, falling in beside him. "But thanks to you and Merlin, it has become home to me. I would like to thank you again, sire, for what you did for me..."
"Nonsense," Arthur cut him off, remembering the argument with his father after he'd made Lancelot a nobleman, and therefore eligible for knighthood. But what was the point of being a prince if you didn't use your power now and then to help those who'd saved your life? "It was the least you deserved. A fact the king has admitted, though don't tell him I told you so," he added, grinning over at the other man.
Lancelot smiled back, shaking his head slightly. They fell into a companionable silence, as they covered the rest of the distance to Arthur's rooms. Arthur knew Lancelot held himself to a higher standard than any of the knights, a higher code of conduct, and he admired him for it. Still...there were things to which Lancelot would never stoop that still would need to be done, and Arthur had to hope this would not be one of them.
They reached his chambers and Arthur stepped in first. He turned as Lancelot let the door close behind him. "I've brought you here to ask you to do something dishonorable," he said, deciding getting it out bluntly was the only real choice he had.
"Sire?" Lancelot asked, his eyes widening.
"I know," Arthur replied, shaking his head, crossing over to his table, placing both hands on the surface, leaning against it as he tried to think how to phrase this, what to reveal. "And it is a request, not an order. You have every right to refuse me. But I hope, for the sake of the friendship between us, you will hear me out."
"I swore my oath to you, my lord," Lancelot replied, softly but firmly, crossing over to him. "To you, and to Camelot, no other. My sword arm is yours. What would you have me do?"
"Think on my request," Arthur said, lips quirking, "before agreeing." He pushed himself away from the table, pacing the length of his chamber. "Lancelot...you saw me last night. You heard Gaius's words."
"I did," Lancelot confirmed, quietly. "And as I said last night, word of what I saw and heard shall not pass my lips. Not unless and until you ask it of me."
Arthur allowed himself a grim smile. "I know, and I thank you for it. But what we learned...we can't allow it to be forgotten. I may have returned none the worse for wear, from my...excursion, but I can't pretend I haven't learned what I did."
"You would be less than the man you are, if you had thought to," Lancelot said, nodding slowly. "But this cannot be what you've brought me here to ask. What would you have of me, sire?"
Arthur took a deep breath. "There is a way to...to free my people. All my people. But my father...I cannot order you to commit treason." He risked a glance at Lancelot, but the other man met his eyes steadily, no censure within them. "I hesitate to ask you to bear this burden, but you are my best knight. I need you by my side."
Lancelot nodded again, half-bowing where he stood. "I am your man, Arthur Pendragon, in life and in death. My loyalty is yours," he replied, simply conviction behind his words. "I will aid you in any way I can. I've never known you to act in any but the best interest of all. The same cannot be said..." He hesitated.
"For my father," Arthur finished for him, sighing softly. "I know. Lancelot...thank you. I don't know yet when we'll be moving, but it will be soon. And I will need you by my side, when we do."
"I will await your command," Lancelot said. "And Arthur...I'm glad to hear it. It takes more honor to change what you know is wrong than it does to hide behind the rules that would allow you to look the other way. You are a good man, and I will follow you."
Arthur swallowed, hard, striving to stay as composed as possible. "Thank you, Lancelot," he said quietly, offering the other man his hand. "You're a good friend."
They clasped each other's arms for a long moment, before Lancelot released him. "I should return to my training. Send for me, when it comes time to plan."
Arthur agreed, watching the man bow himself out and leave. He'd had no idea how lucky he was, the day Merlin had brought Lancelot to him, persuaded him to watch the man fight. But it wasn't just his sword arm that made him a knight--though Arthur had to hope he'd never enter a tournament, or Camelot would have a new champion. No, it was his bearing, his honor, his very self. He breathed the code.
And somehow, Arthur had won his loyalty. A few more men like that, and his Camelot would be safe from anything that could assail her.
Assuming she could survive what was coming now.
Merlin couldn't sleep.
It wasn't for lack of trying. It wasn't for lack of tiredness. After everything that'd happened since he'd last been in his bed, he'd expected to collapse into it and not wake until Gaius dragged him up at dawn. Even now, exhaustion pulled at him, making him literally ache for sleep, rest, oblivion.
But it wouldn't come.
He sat up, hitting his pillow a couple times, before flopping back down again, glaring up at the dark ceiling. This was ridiculous. He should've been asleep hours ago. Instead, it felt like he was stretched too thin, somehow, like sleep danced just out of reach.
"Bugger it," he muttered, finally pushing himself up. If he was awake, he might as well be useful. He had a load of Arthur's clothes the palace seamstress had returned to him, freshly mended...he could put them back up in the prince's room. Arthur slept like a log, when he was in the castle...Merlin didn't have to worry about waking him. Unless he knocked over a piece of furniture, and then at least he wouldn't be awake on his own, would he?
Knowing it wasn't the best reasoning in the world--and not really caring a whit--Merlin pulled himself up, not bothering to change out of his sleeping clothes as he gathered together the stack of Arthur's things, sneaking slowly past Gaius sleeping in the outer room.
There were few enough people moving about, this late at night. He saw a few guards, nodding to them as he passed, but no one gave him a second look. Not when he was known as Arthur's servant. The prince's whims had sent him all over the castle at much odder hours than this.
He ducked down the last hallway to reach Arthur's chambers, frowning at the strip of light dancing beneath the door. So Arthur was awake...or had fallen asleep with his candle burning again. He was likely to burn the whole place down, careless as he was sometimes, Merlin thought with a mixture of fond exasperation as he pushed open the door.
Merlin jumped, hearing Arthur's voice ring out, so strong and commanding. He'd have been reassured, if it weren't directed at him. "It's just me, sire," he replied, coming further into the room, until Arthur could see him from his seat on the bed, a book open on the coverlet beside him.
"Merlin?" Arthur raised an eyebrow at him, looking down to the stack of fabric in Merlin's arms, then back up to his face. "Are you actually working when you could be sleeping?"
"If I could do the second, I wouldn't be doing the first," Merlin replied testily, moving over to Arthur's wardrobe, a yawn breaking through as soon as he'd said the words. Somehow, all the sleepiness he would've expected to feel in his own chambers was seeming to steal over him now.
"Well, carry on then, I suppose," Arthur replied, folding his arms over his bare chest, watching Merlin as he moved about the room.
Merlin put Arthur's clothes away, finding himself growing more and more sleepy the longer he lingered in his prince's presence. He yawned, again, jaw nearly cracking with the force of it, only to hear Arthur curse softly.
"Damn you, Merlin, that's contagious," Arthur muttered, his eyes half closed when Merlin looked over at him, before yawning again himself.
Which only set Merlin off once more. He laughed, when he finally stopped, shaking his head. "I don't understand it, I wasn't a bit sleepy back in my room..."
"So you thought you'd come up here for it?" Arthur asked, stretching his arms out above his head. "Not surprised I'm tired now, watching the lazy way you work..." But his heart obviously wasn't in the teasing, his eyes nearly closing of their own accord.
"Why were you still up?" Merlin asked, not certain why he cared, but finding the answer suddenly important. Both of them had been through a lot, in the past two days--they both should've fallen asleep the second their heads hit the pillow. Even with everything they had to think on, the pure physical exertions should've been enough to send them into an exhausted stupor. So why...?
"Couldn't sleep," Arthur admitted, half-rousing to say the words, before subsiding back down again. "Apparently didn't get enough of...of your chatter...earlier today..."
Merlin grinned, as Arthur's words were broken apart by another yawn. He crossed over to the bed, picking up the book Arthur had been reading, marking the place and setting it beside the prince's bed. "Anything I can get you, sire?" he asked, adjusting Arthur's blankets, just resisting reaching out to stroke his hair.
Arthur's hand snuck out, latching onto Merlin's sleeve. "Blow the...the candle out. When...when I'm ‘sleep..."
"I will," Merlin promised, wondering if he'd even be able to stay awake long enough to manage that much, himself. But he sat on the edge of Arthur's bed, watching the prince's breathing slow and even out, his eyes drooping ever further.
And he knew it was wrong, knew he shouldn't, but Arthur's bed was so soft, and it was such a long walk back to his own, and he was so tired...
Gradually, without being fully aware he'd done it, Merlin stretched his length out on the prince's bed, beside him, and fell into a deep, exhausted--and yet not dreamless--sleep.
Arthur woke slowly and quite reluctantly. He'd been having a dream, a dream of running through the woods with another boy, near his own age. They'd been playing some ridiculous game of knights and dragons, laughing and shouting with the kind of free abandon he'd always envied in the children of Camelot's citizens. Children who never had to wear scratchy court clothes, or sit through boring banquets, or anything like that.
And in the dream, he hadn't. He'd been able to get as dirty as he liked, to do whatever he wanted...and he'd had a friend with him, to make it all even better. Dream or not, he didn't want it to fade away with the light of day, and Merlin's usual cheerful greetings.
Merlin. Had Merlin been in the dream? He wasn't certain, and he shook his head against the memory, as more awareness returned. He was disgustingly comfortable, he decided, warm and supported just right, his blankets a perfect nest around him, his pillow rising and falling rhythmically, a soft pulse beat thudding reassuringly under his ear...
Arthur woke up all at once, stiffening as the disparate sensations all led him to one inevitable conclusion. He was shamelessly cuddled up and around--someone. And judging by the snoring he'd heard all too often on overnight hunting trips, the soft, ridiculously endearing snuffling noise above his head...oh God.
He was in bed with Merlin.
Panic spiked through him, pushing through the soft wave of heavy sleepiness trying to draw him back down. To his mortification, Merlin's hand moved along his arm, sliding up and down, soothingly. "Shhh," his servant whispered, obviously not awake in the least. "S'okay..."
Arthur forced himself to relax again, though he couldn't force himself to slide away from Merlin's soft touch. He shouldn't be enjoying it, not like this, not when Merlin didn't even know what was happening. The boy must've fallen asleep before he'd left, and the two of them had just...
Just what? Done this on their own? Wrapped themselves all around each other, until Arthur wasn't certain if he could extract himself, even with Merlin's help?
God knew he didn't want to.
But what would Merlin say, when he woke up? How would he handle this? Arthur wasn't certain if his servant had slept with many others, but he'd certainly never wrapped himself around Arthur like this before, even when their bedrolls had been next to each other in the night.
Of course, they hadn't been bonded then, either, he reasoned, remembering Kilgharrah's words. Maybe that was all it was. It might explain their insomnia the night before, too. God knew he hadn't been able to close his eyes for a moment, until Merlin had appeared in his room. And he had thought of going down to the infirmary, though he'd told himself it would've been to ask for one of Gaius's potions.
What if it hadn't? What if the bond wanted them closer? Arthur couldn't deny he enjoyed being pressed this close to Merlin, though he rather wished he knew Merlin's thoughts on the matter.
As if in answer, a wave of sleepy contentment suddenly washed through him, until a smile tugged at the corners of his lips. It disappeared, quickly, as a shiver went down Arthur's spine. Somehow, he knew the emotion wasn't his own. He was far from content, and very, very far from asleep, right now. But that only meant...
You will know each other's minds, moods. No one can hide you from the other and no distance can truly separate you.
"Oh bloody hell," Arthur whispered, as Kilgharrah's statement came back to him. Know each other's moods. The damn dragon could've been a little more clear on that, couldn't he? He'd only given them more riddles, when Merlin had asked if they'd be in each other's heads...apparently the budding dragon lord had been in the right about that.
In fact, concentrating on the sleepy feelings, just on the edge of his mind, made them grow stronger. Arthur bit his lip, closing his eyes, trying to convince himself he wasn't invading Merlin's privacy. Not when Merlin had apparently chosen him, even if he hadn't known he was doing it.
The contentment was still there, fading spikes of worry beneath it. He could tell Merlin was asleep, he realized, feeling a heavy lethargy pulling at him. And he could somehow feel his presence, too, a bright, golden spark in his mind. One he was certain he could find, even with his eyes closed.
So his uncle had been telling the truth.
Well. Bloody hell. Now what was he supposed to do?
Worry and indecision pulled Merlin from his sleep, though he'd tried to soothe them already. He woke to hear himself saying "It's all right," his eyes opening slowly as he did so.
To find Arthur's head on his chest, the prince wrapped firmly around him, as they lay together in the royal bed.
Merlin blinked, and blinked again, but nothing changed. He was still here, still exactly where he should not be. And Arthur was still holding him. "Ar-arthur?" he squeaked.
Arthur lifted his head, his eyes meeting Merlin's, and everything else was forgotten, for a long moment, as Merlin stared into them, feeling his heart nearly overflow with just how much his prince meant to him.
Arthur gasped, deeply, a spike of shock slicing through Merlin's mind, before an answering swell of...of oh Gods, love flowed through him. He had just a moment, to feel Arthur's realization, acceptance, decision, and then prince's lips pressed tightly against his own.
Merlin fell into the kiss, arms coming up to pull Arthur close as their lips moved against each other, as Arthur's tongue brushed shyly over his mouth. Merlin opened to him, a soft gasp escaping him.
But the sensations, warm and soft and hot and wonderful as they were, paled under the weight of what Merlin could feel, the emotions reeling between them, back and forth, sliding through, around, and into the other as easily as breathing. Somehow, as they'd slept, the bond between them had deepened. Merlin knew Arthur's surprise, his worry, and his longing, all as if they were his own.
Never would he have guessed his prince could want him like this, let alone so deeply. Never would he have guessed that his own, impossible love and desire could be returned. He'd pushed his own cravings down so far, knowing a servant couldn't hope to catch the eye of his employer.
But apparently catch it he had. He tried to reassure Arthur, to soothe the worry and disbelief he could sense within his prince's mind. To reassure him that yes, this was real, that yes, Merlin wanted him. Not the crown prince, not the dragon, just Arthur, the glorious, gorgeous prat who meant the world to him.
Finally, they broke apart, panting softly. Merlin felt his cheeks grow hot, to see Arthur above him, looking down at him with wide eyes. "Arthur..."
Arthur simply watched him, for a long moment, before a smile broke over his face. He lowered his head to Merlin's chest, laughing softly as he pressed a small, secret kiss against Merlin's sternum.
Merlin wasn't sure how to take the prince's obvious amusement, but he couldn't help smiling along with his laughter, so free, so purely happy, as he'd so rarely heard him. "Enjoying yourself, are you?" he asked, shyly lifting his hand to stroke his fingers through Arthur's fine hair, letting soft strands slip between them.
Arthur laughed again, looking up at him, pressing a soft kiss against Merlin's exaggerated pout. "Very much," he replied, his eyes dancing. "Oh Merlin, you really are such an idiot."
"And you're a prat," Merlin returned in the same fond tone, still raking his fingers through Arthur's hair. "Why are we repeating things we already know?"
Arthur leaned into his touch, eyes closing as a rush of contentment surged through the bond. "If you'd told me you fancied me, we could've been enjoying ourselves for months already."
Merlin snorted, absurdly grateful that Arthur was still so Arthur, even pressed all against him with arousal thrumming beneath their skin. "You could've spoken up, my lord," he pointed out, admiring the long, strong column of Arthur's throat as the prince arched back into his touch.
"Mmm, no," Arthur sighed lazily. "You're my servant. You're supposed to to anticipate my needs and take care of them before I have to ask."
"Let's see how well I can manage that then, shall we?" Merlin laughed and pulled Arthur in for another kiss, deciding he needed it even if the prince did not. But the wave of approval that met his action--and every one thereafter--was more than answer enough.
* * *
* * *
Merlin slumped, staring at the stubborn circlet of metal in front of him. The stubborn, intact metal circlet. It lay exactly where he'd placed it on the stone floor, mocking his best efforts.
"Try again, Emrys," Kilgharrah said evenly, apparently immune to the frustration currently eating Merlin alive. "The power is there, but you must focus it."
Resisting the urge to snap that he was trying, Merlin instead took a deep breath and centered himself as Kilgharrah had taught him. Losing his temper wouldn't help him master this any faster. And master it he must. They were running out of time.
Samhain was fast approaching, the festival now only days away. Kilgharrah had set it as the night they must act. The veil between the seen and unseen was thinnest upon that night and the dragons' true selves would be closer to the surface than on any other night of the year.
Merlin was willing to take any advantage he could.
He closed his eyes, visualizing the golden pool Kilgharrah had taught him to find within himself. It greeted him with warm tendrils and he imagined himself kneeling, dipping his hands within it and gathering the glowing light up until his skin sang with a tingling vibration.
Rising again, he whispered the words Kilgharrah had taught him and a ghostly grey shadow of a blade appeared before him. Concentrating, ignoring the sweat that sprung up on his brow, he poured the handfuls of glowing light into the shadow shape in his mind until the blade solidified into a glowing golden reality.
He opened his eyes, almost feeling the heavy weight of the bright steel in his hand, and pointed at the collar. "Ic bebeode þisne sweord þæt hé forcierfe þá bende þæra dracan. Un clýse!," he said, the golden sword in his mind's eye slicing through the collar and the magics that held it closed.
"That was much closer," Kilgharrah said before Merlin could do more than slump back in disappointment. "You are finding the way of it. A blade may not be the best tool for you...you are no warrior."
"What was your first clue?" Merlin asked, glaring down at the stubborn collar. Gaius had promised it was enchanted exactly as those placed upon the hatchlings...and once closed, it was made to never open on its own again. The magic in the collar allowed it to grow and change shape with the dragon who wore it, but only that dragon's death would open it.
That or, apparently, a dragon lord. Merlin still wasn't convinced of the second. He ran a hand back through his hair, wishing he could just break the bloody thing already and go back upstairs to Arthur.
Arthur. A grin spread over his face, thinking of his prince. In the weeks since Arthur had discovered his true nature--since they'd bonded--he'd spent every night wrapped in the other man's arms. Even now, he could feel him at the edge of his awareness, far above him. If he closed his eyes, let his mind reach...
Peace, satisfaction and accomplishment flowed through him, as Merlin could almost hear the clang of blade against blade. Arthur was training or sparring, more at peace with himself than he would've been anywhere else within the castle. Certainly than he would've been if he'd been in the throne room...Uther did not inspire calm in his son these days. Merlin withdrew, not wanting to distract the prince at a vital moment, but still felt a passing--if slightly distracted--greeting as he moved his awareness away once more.
"My nephew is devoting himself to his training," Kilgharrah's voice broke through the last of Merlin's distraction. "And you should do the same. Once again, young dragon lord. But this time we shall try it another way."
Merlin opened his eyes, flushing to be caught out in thinking of Arthur--again--when he should've been paying attention. "Yes?" he asked, shifting his weight, the cushion beneath him not thick enough to compensate for the cold stone floor upon which he sat. "Cutting it doesn't seem to be getting me anywhere."
"It does not," Kilgharrah agreed, regarding the collar in front of Merlin with obvious distaste. "The physician has wrought his work well...and so your challenge is greater. His magics heal when cut...so we must shatter them, instead." Nodding to himself, the huge dragon shifted his weight with the sound of cracking rock. "Yes. Yes, that is likely to work. We will alter the spell like so."
Merlin listened, as Kilgharrah outlined his changes, dubious as to their efficacy. But he was game to try...they had to find something. So once again, he closed his eyes and reached for his magic, whispering the new words Kilgharrah gave him. This time, a mist formed around the collar, solidifying into a heavy rim of golden frost as he poured his magic into it. He reached out, using the new triggering phrase, speaking with as much command as he could.
Something surged through him, a force like a torrent, a wind, a waterfall, a fire, an earthquake, all at once. While he knew he still sat exactly where he'd been, Merlin's whole world tipped, shuddered, and reassembled itself before he could even blink. He gasped, his lungs suddenly remembering how to draw in air and he stared down at where the collar had been.
In its place lay a circle of golden dust, cracked and shattered gemstones making small, colorful heaps within the shavings. He shivered, staring at the evidence of what he had, apparently, achieved. "I...think it worked," he managed, his voice hoarse to his own ears.
"You need not sound so surprised, Emrys," Kilgharrah said, though to Merlin's ears he sounded just as nonplussed as Merlin felt. "It has always been within you. But you must devote yourself to your studies...we wish only to free my people, not disintegrate them."
Merlin nodded dumbly, still staring at the remains of the collar. At least he knew, now, that Kilgharrah hadn't been lying to him. He had power. There was no denying that, not with the evidence in front of him. Now he had to simply learn how to harness it. "I...don't suppose we could wait until next Samhain?" he asked weakly, poking at the pile of dust with a fingertip, inspecting the golden sheen it left on his skin.
"We cannot," Kilgharrah said firmly. "I did not pick the festival merely for convenience, young dragon lord, or because the dragons will be closer to themselves. On the night of Samhain, every dragon bonded to a rider and every rider with a bond will feel it all the more deeply. And my rider cannot know what we plan, what we know. If that night passes without the freeing of my people, Uther will know who and what you are."
Merlin's head snapped up, his jaw dropping. Somehow, even having heard Gaius say that Uther had been Kilgharrah's rider, he'd never let himself realize what that meant. Never let himself think on the bond they must have shared, the bond he and Arthur had now. Never let himself think it would still be active, after so many years. "You mean he...you're..."
Kilgharrah nodded gravely. "He blocks his awareness of me, as much as any human can. But on that night, no block, no wish will withstand the thinning of the veils. I will buy you what time I can, catch his mind...but I cannot hold it for long. And he will know Arthur's wards have fallen, he will know his son has bonded. In his present state of mind...you would be lucky to escape with your life. And once he knows the physician has merely sent my people's minds to sleep...he will turn to the work of another to destroy them. If we do not act this year, this season...the dragons will truly be destroyed, never to rise again."
Merlin swallowed, his mouth suddenly dry. He couldn't lose Arthur, couldn't let that happen. He couldn't. He swallowed again, letting out a steadying breath. "Then we act now," he said, hoping his words sounded steadier than he felt.
Kilgharrah nodded, solemnly, and reached out his head, lightly breathing on the shattered collar. It shimmered before Merlin's eyes, reforming until it was unmarred once more. "Again."
Closing his eyes, Merlin sent up a silent prayer of hope and determination, before once again reaching for his magic. It seemed it was up to him. Gods, don't let me fail him.
Arthur felt Merlin's presence retreat from his mind as his rider's awareness returned to his own duties. The prince couldn't hold back a small swell of disappointment, even as he turned his own attention back to the training field. Ever since the morning they'd woken up together, since they'd wound themselves around each other's hearts and minds, Merlin had checked in with him multiple times per day, a soft touch at the edge of his mind like a gentle hand on his arm.
Asked before all of the strangeness of the past few weeks, Arthur might have said he'd find the presence invasive, unsettling. Instead it was a comfort and a joy, knowing he was in Merlin's thoughts, that his rider had him so often on his mind. It only seemed fair, when Merlin was so rarely away from Arthur's.
"Excellent block," Arthur observed to Blaise, nodding when the young man sent him an excited grin. The prospective knights were doing well...a fact which had him quite pleased. Now if only they could pull off their coup without alerting these boys...the last thing he wanted was to have to face them in combat.
Arthur attempted to push the thoughts from his mind, but they lingered despite his best efforts. He would free the dragons, there was no question of that. He had to...anything else was unthinkable. But fighting his own men, betraying his king--even when his father was so completely in the wrong--the possible consequences and outcomes of his actions ate at him. He wanted no boy to die, because he could not let his people live enslaved.
He looked up as the metallic jingle of chain mail announced a presence, and nodded when Lancelot approached him. "Sire," Lancelot said, bowing slightly.
Arthur nodded to the knight, stepping back from the sparring trainees. "Yes, Lancelot?" he asked in an undertone.
"Sir Leon has assigned himself--and the two of us--as the only flying patrol during the Samhain festival," he said, tone carefully conversational. "It will allow the others to attend the banquet, as you ordered."
"Excellent," Arthur replied, relaxing slightly. Leon was unfailingly loyal to him, to an extent that'd surprised him some, when he'd first brought the man into his confidence. And now if he'd made the arrangements... "Have him see to it as many of the stable hands are relieved of their duties for the night as possible, as well. The festival this year is to be of special importance...we wouldn't want anyone missing out on it."
Lancelot smiled, half bowing. "We certainly wouldn't," he agreed. "I'll relay your orders, sire." He paused for just a moment. "How is Merlin? I've not spoken to him for several days."
Arthur couldn't stop himself from glancing toward the dragon stables, where he knew Merlin practiced, trying to master the magics Kilgharrah was teaching him. "He is well," he replied, looking back, afraid that, despite his efforts, he couldn't keep the fondness out of his voice as he spoke. Judging by the amusement in Lancelot's eyes, he hadn't managed it. "Or so I'd guess, anyway," he added, scowling.
Lancelot didn't--quite--grin at Arthur as he nodded once more. "I am glad to hear it. Merlin has been a good friend to me."
Arthur opened his mouth to reply--though he had no idea what he planned to say--but a call from the field distracted him before he could humiliate himself further. Lancelot left with a quick bow and Arthur went back to his work.
Work which lasted much longer than he would've wished, feeling sharp shocks of excitement and increased worry from Merlin over the course of the afternoon. He didn't know exactly what was happening in Kilgharrah's lair, but it was obviously deeply affecting his rider.
By the time Arthur was able to escape for a quiet dinner in his room--one he fully intended to share with Merlin--his skin felt too tight and the inside of his head buzzed unpleasantly. He dropped his armor beside its stand, scrubbing his hands through his hair and grimacing. He'd grown used to Merlin being there to greet him in the past year and his absence now did nothing to soothe Arthur's agitation.
Tugging his shirt over his head, Arthur tossed it aside and flopped face first onto his bed, burrowing into the soft coverlets with a low groan. He knew the restlessness coursing through him, knew the petulant frustration growing in his chest. He'd given into it often enough in his life, lashed out to relieve the internal tension, the aggravation that had no real target...but he didn't want to now. Somehow, knowing Merlin would feel it...it made him want to do better. Made him want to be not only a better king, but a better person.
His manservant was making him soft.
Arthur groaned again, knowing he should push himself up, should clean up after himself, change...but he didn't. Maybe he wouldn't cause the servants merry hell, but he wasn't so far gone as to pick up his own room. He wasn't.
His resolution lasted only for a few minutes, before he climbed to his feet and hung up his own armor, tossing his soiled shirt into the basket Merlin had--pointedly--placed behind his dressing screen. Merlin was exhausted, had been working hard all day...he didn't need to come back and clean up after Arthur as well.
By the time Merlin's footsteps sounding down the hallway, Arthur'd already had dinner and a steaming bath brought up, both covered to stay warm. Merlin burst through the door, a look of guilt replaced by shock as the meal, the straightened room, and Arthur standing beside it met his eyes. "Arthur?"
"Close the door, Merlin, you're letting in a draft," Arthur replied, unable to keep all the smug satisfaction out of his voice.
Merlin did as he was told, still gaping at Arthur. "What did...I...I'm sorry, I finished as soon as I..."
"Oh Merlin," Arthur said, shaking his head fondly. "Shut up. I'm not angry with you." He felt a flush suffusing his cheeks. "I simply...you've been busy today, and..."
A slow, amused smile spread over Merlin's face and Arthur could feel his touched surprise. "And you're doing something nice for me," he finished, his grin deepening until his dimples showed.
"Hardly," Arthur protested, trying not to smile. "Just had to take matters into my own hands or starve to death."
Merlin chuckled, crossing the distance between them and sliding his arms around Arthur's neck. Arthur tipped his head up slightly, sighing into Merlin's soft kiss as the other man's lips met his. "Don't let me keep you from your meal..." Merlin murmured when they broke apart, his hands now buried in Arthur's hair.
Arthur laughed, kissing him again. "Or you yours," he said, forcing himself to pull away and tug Merlin over to the table. "Sit down."
Merlin once again did as he was told, though he half-rose when Arthur filled his goblet. He flushed when Arthur raised his eyebrows. "Isn't this a little backward?" he asked, fidgeting with his too long sleeves as Arthur sat down across from him.
"Yes," Arthur replied, lifting his goblet briefly to his lips. "Eat up."
Merlin shook his head, but bent willingly to his meal, only just stopping himself from refilling Arthur's goblet when the prince raised his eyebrows again. "Is there a reason for all this?" he asked, picking up a chicken leg.
"No," Arthur said firmly, heat moving up the back of his neck. "I was hungry, and didn't feel like waiting until you decided to come back upstairs to see to your duties."
"Mmm," Merlin said, a grin playing at his lips again. "And waiting on me, that's just teaching me a lesson, is it?"
"Exactly," Arthur agreed, deciding he'd make as big a fool of himself as he had to, to see Merlin look that pleased. Dammit, he was a besotted fool. "Good of you to see the point on your own, Merlin."
Merlin chuckled, but seemed to relax after, letting Arthur refill his goblet and turning their conversation to Arthur's day--training, patrol, avoiding his father--typical for the past few weeks.
"And what of yours, Merlin?" Arthur asked, trying to sound casual, though he badly wanted to know what his rider had learned to have kept him so late in Kilgharrah's company, and so agitated most of the afternoon.
Merlin set down his goblet, pursing his lips as he stared at his empty plate. "I think...I mean..." He bit his lip, looking up at Arthur through his lashes, his eyes wide and hopeful. "I did it. I broke a collar."
Arthur felt a cold shiver go up his spine, straightening him up where he sat, the teasing of before forgotten. "You're certain?"
Merlin huffed a near laugh, though there was no humor in his face, or through their bond. "Very. Blasted the first one to dust. I need to make certain I won't hurt the ones we're freeing, but...I'll be ready by the feast."
Arthur nodded, swallowing, his mouth suddenly dry. "Then we have three days. And God help us."
* * *
Merlin slipped out of his room, trying to feel like he didn't have a target painted on his back. Gaius had already made excuses for him--he wasn't expected to serve at the festival tonight. No one would think it odd if they saw him on his way to the dragon stables...it was well known he looked after the hatchlings, when Arthur gave him time. There was nothing suspicious at all in his movements, yet he couldn't shake the feeling of being watched.
If Uther somehow found out what they were planning, if he somehow suspected...
Merlin shivered and firmly told himself to calm down. He couldn't afford to be distracted, not with what he had to accomplish tonight. And if Uther somehow did find out, Arthur would still protect him. Uther wouldn't chain his own son as a beast and Arthur wouldn't let anything happen to Merlin. Of that, Merlin was very sure.
Breathing a bit easier as he thought of his prince, Merlin strode quickly down the path to the aerie, hoping Arthur and the others were already in position. Kilgharrah had taught Merlin a simple sleep spell, but it would be much easier if Sir Leon had managed to clear everyone else out. Merlin already suspected he'd need all his strength to break the dozens of collars holding Camelot's dragons prisoner.
And once the dragons were free...well. They'd deal with Uther's reactions then.
Merlin ducked through the familiar rounded door of the aerie, breathing a sigh of relief when he saw Lancelot just inside. "Has everything gone to plan?" he asked, as Lancelot straightened.
Lancelot nodded and the knot of tension in Merlin's belly eased somewhat. "We are the only humans here. Sir Leon was able to get nearly everyone released for the celebrations and Prince Arthur...persuaded the rest."
Merlin snorted, smothering a laugh at Lancelot's diplomatic way of putting it. "Did he yell at them, or knock them out?"
"He gave them the evening off," Arthur replied, appearing beside them, his face calm in the light of the torch. But beneath the collected exterior, Merlin could feel his roiling emotions, excitement and mischief equally balanced with worry. "Come along, Merlin, we don't have much time before someone realizes the dragons are unattended."
"Yes, sire," Merlin replied, calming his own smile and sending a wave of reassurance to Arthur. They could do this. He could do this.
After all, he had no choice.
Sir Leon nodded to Merlin, as he drew even with the knight, standing guard at the main hall, where the corridors to the stalls branched out. "They're quiet, now. I'll give warning, should anyone interrupt. Good luck to you, Merlin."
Merlin smiled tersely back at the knight, though he appreciated the words. "Now or never, isn't it?" he offered, looking back at Lancelot and Arthur. All three of these men were ready to die to protect him. He knew it, had heard them say as much, heard Arthur reassure him of it. If he slipped, if he fumbled, they would pay the price.
Snakes coiled through Merlin's gut, his back soaked with sweat beneath his light jacket, but he struggled not to show it. "Any ideas on where we should start?" he asked Arthur, trying to sound as casual as if he were picking a tunic for the prince.
"The fighting drakes," Arthur replied, reaching over and squeezing Merlin's shoulder lightly, strength seeming to flow out from his fingers. "They'll give us support, should we need it. Followed by the females, then the hatchlings. We'll leave the bludgeoners and the couriers for last."
Merlin swallowed, and nodded, taking comfort in Arthur's steady presence. "All right," he agreed, knowing they had a long night ahead of them. "Let's get to it."
Heart pounding in his chest, Merlin led the way down the hallway to the fighter stalls. He'd practiced and practiced...and there was no more time to worry. It was time to act, and let everything else fall by the wayside.
Merlin moved unhesitatingly to the stall of his favorite drake, a lean, strong creature who'd never turned down the treats Merlin had brought him, and never showed him any aggression. He could only hope the regard would carry over, when the drake was brought back to himself.
"Ready?" he asked Arthur and Lancelot, who both took firmer grips on their sword hilts, but nodded.
Merlin slipped the door of the stall open, smiling reassuringly as the glossy brown drake reached his nose out, pushing it familiarly against Merlin's chest. "Hullo," he said quietly, scratching the dragon's eye ridges, feeling a rush of jealousy from Arthur. "I don't have any treats today," he said, letting his mind slowly sink to the golden pool within him, as he slid his hand down the long, powerful neck and let it rest on the jeweled collar.
"Abricep benda!," he whispered, feeling the surge of power that accompanied the words, a deep thrill going through him, a satisfaction deeper than any he'd known. It felt so right.
The collar beneath his fingers crumbled, falling aside as the dragon reared back, shaking his great head. A hard jerk on Merlin's arm drew him back, and Arthur stepped in front of him, sword at the ready.
The drake shook, letting out a call that gradually lessened as it fell back to the floor, body writhing, shrinking...and finally changing into that of a tall human man, long, dark hair obscuring his face.
Merlin swallowed, hard, stepping forward to look over Arthur's shoulder at the nude figure as he gradually rose to all fours, raising one hand and staring at it, for a long moment. He looked up at them, eyes wide in his handsome face. "So," he said, voice rough with long disuse. "You finally figured it out, eh Princess?"
"Excuse me?" Arthur gaped.
The man chuckled, coughing a time or two to clear his throat, before pulling himself to his feet. He winced with the movement, stretching slowly and carefully. "'Bout time you realized who you were...lot of us have been waiting long enough."
Arthur snapped his mouth shut, but Merlin ducked past him before he could work himself into a royal snit of a comeback. "Excuse me," Merlin said, making sure to look the dragon man in the eyes, and not...lower. "Were you...awake? Behind the collar?" Gaius had said they wouldn't be, but if they had been...he shuddered at the horror of the thought.
The man shook his head, his hair swinging about his shoulders. "No. Last thing I knew for certain, I was a lad, being told things were going to change. Didn't know myself again until just a moment ago...but I remember," he said, face darkening. "Aye, I remember well enough."
Merlin swallowed, but held his hand out, ignoring Arthur's start of worried surprise. "I'm Merlin," he said, fighting to keep his voice even. "And you're free now. Will you help us free everyone else?"
The dragon considered him with deep gold eyes for a long moment, before a friendly grin broke over his face and he gripped Merlin's arm tightly. "As if I didn't know you already, Merlin. My name was Gwaine, before this all started...I think it's past time it was again. What do you need from me?"
Merlin grinned, relaxing and turning back to Arthur and Lancelot, expecting Arthur to be glaring a bit. He hadn't liked being called to task for not knowing who he was...Merlin could feel his guilt for that.
But though Arthur was upset, he didn't show it. He took a step forward, holding out his own hand. "Thank you, Gwaine. My father does not know what we do here tonight...but it must be done. Merlin will break the collars, and we must guard him. With our lives, if necessary."
"He's given mine back, might as well spend it for him," Gwaine agreed, clasping Arthur's hand as well. "With luck, the rest will feel the same."
"With luck," Merlin repeated to himself, but pushed the words from his mind as Gwaine greeted Lancelot. He moved on to the next stall, preparing himself to speak the spell once more.
Dragon stall after stall blurred together, as Merlin broke the collars that had bound their inhabitants. Not all took human form, but each listened to either Arthur or Gwaine. Only once did Merlin have to jump in, preventing a drake obviously half-mad from captivity from attacking Arthur. He hadn't known what he was going to do, but when he commanded the dragon to stop, it had, and Kilgharrah's words on the power of dragon lords came back to him.
Not every dragon joined their group. Many, finding themselves their collars broken, fled, heading to the doors and freedom, assured Leon would not stop them. But others stayed, until the newly freed were supporting and comforting each other, as Merlin added to their ranks, one by one.
He'd finished with the fighting drakes and moved onto the females--first the fertile monarchs, and then the immature maidens. One, in particular, stood out in his mind. She fell forward, upon changing, and Lancelot covered her naked body with his cloak, catching her in his arms as she fell. She smiled up at him, brown eyes dark in her dusky face and Merlin heard her whisper the name Guinevere in answer to Lancelot's question as he turned away.
And while he had expected to grow tired, as the evening progressed, as he cast the spell over and over, the opposite seemed to be true. Merlin could feel the golden light of magic thrumming just beneath his skin, until he found he didn't even need to reach for it, between one dragon and the next. It was there, ready for the calling, each powerful surge only feeding on the one before it.
He'd just stood from freeing the last of his hatchlings--the big, brown male he'd held first, now a dark skinned child, asleep next to his siblings, to find Arthur looking at him. "Arthur?" he asked, a little unsteady from the force of the magic moving through him.
"Your eyes are glowing," Arthur said, blinking at him. He shook his head, swallowing visibly. "We've only the couriers and the bludgeoners left...we'd better hurry. This won't escape my father's notice for too much longer. Not with the number of them leaving."
Merlin nodded, trying to rein the magic back in, to get it once more under control. "All right. I think...I may be able to do more than one at time, when we get over there," he said, flexing his fingers lightly. "We have enough here to help them..."
Arthur pursed his lips, but nodded at last. "If you think you can. Lancelot!"
Lancelot stood, from where he'd been talking with the female he'd helped earlier, and hurried over, bowing quickly. "Yes, sire," he said, glancing back at Guinevere before turning his full attention to Arthur.
"Stay here and guard the women and children," Arthur said, taking in the room, filled as it was. "If you hear the sound of anyone approaching, bar the door. We'll be back as quickly as we can."
"As you command," Lancelot agreed, straightening. "They will come to no harm with me."
Arthur clapped his shoulder, smiling grimly. "Of that, I'm certain. We'll be back soon." He nodded to Merlin, who followed him from the room with a last smile for Lancelot.
They were almost done. Only a few more dragons to free, and then Kilgharrah himself. Merlin hadn't thought, before, that he'd be able to break the chain that bound Kilgharrah's ankle, keeping him too far from the exit to escape. Gaius had told Merlin that his magics could not bind the dragon king to one form, but had been enough to enchant the manacle about his ankle to adjust size, keeping him always chained too far from freedom, no matter what form he took.
Now, with collar after collar crumbling beneath his fingers...Merlin thought perhaps he'd be able to do this, as well. And then...then it would be over, one way or another. He hadn't let himself think beyond the releasing of the chains, and he wasn't sure Arthur had, either.
They'd know soon enough.
The collars of the couriers fell to his spell in one recitation, the small group of them blinking up at Merlin between one breath and the next, it seemed. He slumped, surprised to find strong arms around him, as the surge of power retreated from his head and left him steady again.
Arthur looked down at him, hand coming up to brush Merlin's hair back from his forehead. "You're still glowing, you know," he said, his voice surprisingly conversational, considering the worry Merlin could sense bubbling just beneath the surface. "It's uncanny."
Merlin blinked, doing his best to pull the magic inside his skin where it belonged. "Sorry," he mumbled, pushing himself up a little. "We're almost done, though...and then I'll go back to normal." I hope. As exhilarating as wielding this magic was, it was overwhelming, too. He wanted it to end, to seek out Arthur and their bed.
As if catching the thought, Arthur bent forward and kissed him, soft and fast. "You're doing well," he said gruffly, a blush staining his cheeks as he pulled back. "Don't mess it up now."
"Yes, sire," Merlin promised, a grin spreading over his face as Arthur hauled him to his feet. "Come on."
The bludgeoners--huge dragons who rained down destruction on the enemy while the smaller fighter drakes distracted them--proved no more difficult to free than the others. One, giving his name as Percival--though he said nothing else--fell in with them, walking beside Gwaine as he went from one freed dragon to the next, explaining the situation and the changes to them.
Finally, there was only Kilgharrah left. Merlin took a deep breath, reaching out for an unlit torch against the wall.
It sprang to life the moment his fingers touched it, fire licking at the wood, the warmth catching him by surprise. He yelped, but managed to keep his hold. "I'm all right," he said, before Arthur could get out a word. "I'm all right."
"Good," Arthur muttered, clearly thinking the situation was anything but. "Let's get this over with."
Quickly, Merlin trotted down the by now familiar corridors toward Kilgharrah's lair, hoping the dragon king had been able to keep Uther out of his mind, had been able to keep the secret of their action. It was almost over, they were almost free...
As if summoned by his worries, the sound of steel against steel sounded far behind them. Merlin whirled, looking back. Leon was there, and Lancelot, and the dragons they'd freed...
"Go!" Arthur ordered, his hand coming down on Merlin's shoulder, spinning him and pushing him forward. "Move!"
Blindly obeying the authority in Arthur's voice, Merlin did as he was told, running over the uneven floor, no longer surprised when Arthur caught him before he stumbled, making a headlong flight to the dragon king.
His breath rattled in his ears, mixing with the pounding of Arthur's boots, the slapping sound of Gwaine and Percival's feet. They had to make it, had to get there before Uther's men...had to finish this.
They reached the doorway at last, and Gwaine pushed Merlin through, even as Percival began to shift back to a dragon, his immense bulk filling the corridor behind them. "Free the king!" Gwaine hissed, turning back and adding his own, smaller bulk to Percival's wall of protection.
Arthur gave Merlin a fierce grin, and tugged him through, already calling out his uncle's name. "Kilgharrah! Your people are free!"
"Then it is time I join them," came the reply, as Kilgharrah landed with a rush of wings and creaking stone, regarding them both. "Young dragon lord. Release me."
No longer unsure, no longer hesitating, Merlin raised his hand, stretching it out toward the king of the dragons. A huge, grey shadow of a blade appeared between them, and he poured his magic, his self, into it.
"Ic bebeode þisne sweord þæt hé forcierfe þá bende þæra dracan. Un clýse!," he commanded, his voice echoing off the walls of the cave, shaking its very foundation.
The golden sword sliced through the chain, through the shackle holding Kilgharrah prisoner. With a surge greater than any other, Merlin felt the magics break, felt Kilgharrah take his freedom.
And then he felt no more.
Arthur swore, catching Merlin as he fell, scooping up his rider and lowering him gently to the rock floor, allowing himself a moment to cradle him to his chest. Merlin was breathing fine, apparently just unconscious...and the unearthly golden glow had faded from his eyes and skin. He looked like himself again.
A fact for which Arthur was incredibly grateful. Merlin had seemed more and more like a stranger, as they'd moved through the aerie, releasing the dragons from their bonds. Arthur didn't understand the magics he commanded, but it hadn't been hard to see the effect they'd had on him.
Laughter pulled his mind back, and he saw Kilgharrah swooping through the open space above his rock, the chain lying broken on the ground. "Freedom! Finally, after so long, freedom!"
"Uncle!" Arthur bellowed, rising to his feet, standing over Merlin with his sword drawn. "We have company..."
"Let them come!" Kilgharrah crowed, diving down from the ceiling, landing on his accustomed rock outcropping once more. "Let them come and face the might of the dragon king."
The command rang through Arthur's bones, impossible to disobey. He heard Gwaine and Percival react in the corridor behind them, and the sound of boots against stone came closer and closer.
Arthur took a tighter grip on the hilt of his sword, setting himself to protect his rider with his life if necessary. No harm would come to Merlin, he wouldn't allow it.
Merlin stirred beneath him, groaning softly, but Arthur couldn't bend to assist him, couldn't spare the attention, even as he felt his rider wake and push himself up. "Arthur?"
And then Uther burst through the open doorway, his hair and eyes wild, his face a mask of rage and pain like none Arthur had seen before.
On the edge of his awareness, Arthur heard Merlin bark a few sibilant syllables and a golden wall sprang up in the doorway, preventing Uther's men from following. But it was too late to stop the king.
Uther strode forward, naked blade in his hand and madness in his eyes. "You," he grated, no sign of the father Arthur knew in his face, his voice. "I fight all my life to keep you from this madness, to give you a kingdom free of their venom and this is how you repay me?"
"Father, I..." Arthur started, but got no further.
"I had hoped my blood enough to save you," Uther went on, still advancing. "But you're like the rest of them, set to betray at the first opportunity, use their magics to your own ends, no better than her..."
"Uther, be silent!" Kilgharrah's voice rang through the chamber as he came in to land on the ledge before them, his dragon shape melting into that of a human.
He was old, eyes sunken in a lined face. But those eyes were bright, his bearing strong. Uther whirled on him and stared, his sword swinging up to guard, the point wavering.
Kilgharrah took a step forward, his dignity in no way lessened by his nakedness. He looked Uther up and down, compassion and sorrow in equal measures on his lined face. "Oh Uther...so many years passed and you still have not forgiven her. Ygraine made her decision. Without it, you would not have your son."
"She had no right to hide from me," Uther replied, his voice strained, the words a helpless protest, his sword dipping as his hand shook. "And neither did you. No right to decide without telling me..."
"And how could you have chosen?" Kilgharrah returned, his calm surety overriding Uther's choked protests. "Given the choice between wife and son, love and heir, mother and child...how could you have picked? She gave her life willingly, so that her child--your child--might live. And how have you repaid her?"
"She betrayed me..." Uther's sword clattered to the ground, his words no longer an accusation, but a desperate plea for understanding.
Arthur's heart twisted in his chest, the sorrow he'd first felt when Gaius had told him of his birth returning tenfold as he watched his father's proud form bent under it now. His mother had knowingly died so that he might live, had given her life for his before he'd been born. Tears blurred his vision and he blinked them away, starting slightly at a soft touch on his arm.
Merlin stood there, pale but himself once more, pressing in against Arthur's side. Supporting him, through this latest, impossible trial. It was that alone that steadied his hand once more, let the tears receded until he had time for them. Later.
"She loved you, Uther," Kilgharrah countered, his voice infinitely gentle. "She loved you and she believed in you. In Camelot. She gave herself to your dream, long before she decided to give you a son, as well. Not a day goes by I don't miss my sister, but she did what she thought was right. Be angry with her if you must, but don't deny the truth of who she was to assuage your own guilt."
"I would not..." Uther's voice cracked, hard, as he shook his head.
"You still do, rider mine," Kilgharrah said, moving still closer, one measured step at a time. "On this of all nights your mind is laid bare to me. Ygraine was wrong to keep her decision, the cost of her actions, from you. Accept that you are angry with her over that, and let go of the hate that hides your guilt. Let your son know his people, his heritage. Let him know his mother's kin."
"She..." Uther stood, shaking, more vulnerable than Arthur had ever seen him. In that moment, seeing what his father had become, what his mother's loss had cost him...Arthur forgave him his actions. Never would he condone them, but he could forgive. He had done his best and fallen short. No man was beyond that.
"She left me," Uther managed, at last, a single tear sliding down his cheek as Kilgharrah enfolded him in his arms, holding his rider close. And, slowly, the king of Camelot gave into wrenching, heartbroken sobs, at last truly mourning the loss of his long dead wife.
Merlin tugged gently at Arthur's sleeve, and they slipped away, leaving dragon and rider to themselves. Whatever else would come of this night, it seemed Uther had learned to grieve at last.
Merlin squirmed slightly, trying to get comfortable in the finery Arthur had insisted he wear. And while no, it wasn't every day his best friend was made regent to two kings at once, Merlin really could've dealt without the ceremonial clothing Arthur seemed to think his rider needed to wear to commemorate the event.
Gwen--as Guinevere had asked to be called--laughed softly beside him, reaching over and squeezing his hand. "Relax, it's not so bad," she whispered, color high in her cheeks as she watched the proceedings. Or rather, Lancelot's part in them, Merlin thought.
He'd made good friends with the dragon maid, in the time since she'd been freed, since Morgana had come running across the courtyard to throw her arms around the childhood friend she'd been told had died. Gwen and Morgana had proved nearly inseparable since, but Lancelot had certainly done his best, Merlin knew. He'd have to let his friend know Gwen seemed to share his fascination.
"It's itchy," he returned, under his breath, catching Arthur's quirk of a smile, the rush of amusement in his mind, though the prince's eyes didn't move from Geoffrey's face as he spoke on the responsibilities of kingship. Merlin sent back an acknowledgement of fond irritation, and shifted his shoulders again.
But, uncomfortable or no, Merlin couldn't suppress the swell of pride, of accomplishment in his breast. Only a month ago, the scene before him would've been impossible. Dragon and human, once again united, and declaring Arthur leader of their combined legacy, before all the people of the city, all the citizens who had been able to make the journey.
What had passed between Uther and Kilgharrah in those moments they spent alone in the cavern, Merlin did not know. But when the king emerged, he seemed a different man. Older, smaller...but somehow more at peace. He had embraced Arthur, murmured an apology--in and of itself something Merlin had never heard--and called off his men.
Kilgharrah called for Gaius, for the seneschal, and in little time the few freed dragons who had remained were given quarters within the castle, provided with clothing and food. Before dawn broke, Camelot had been changed. For the better, Merlin thought.
Word had gone out with the new day, that the dragons were once more allies, that the "evil magics" spoken of had been defeated and the true allies of the kingdom once more returned. A lie Merlin thought prudent, considering the situation, the years of propaganda Arthur now had to defeat.
He'd done what he could, drinking with Gwaine in the lower city, starting rumors and spreading stories to let the common people come to terms with the sudden change of status. And applying his magic, where he could, to regain trust in the dragons, to bring the truth of them out to the masses.
Somehow, impossibly, it seemed to have worked. At least in part. Either the people remembered the times before better than Uther had thought, or what dissension there was stayed below the surface, but the celebrations marking the dragons' return had been well received, and lasted without intervention.
Perhaps it helped that Prince Arthur, beloved as he was, had not only announced a regency, to take his father's place as Uther retreated from public life, but had shown his alternate form as often as he and Merlin thought they could get away with. He'd burst through more than one pair of trousers and shirts, especially once he discovered Merlin could mend them with a whispered word and a gesture.
The magics Merlin had first learned to touch under Kilgharrah's tutelage grew. With Gaius's patient training he had begun to master what had once seemed impossibilities. That, combined with his official recognition as Arthur's bonded rider, had changed his life in ways he never could've anticipated when he'd first set foot on the cobblestones of Camelot's streets, more than a year before.
But here he was, watching his prince swear to uphold the laws of the kingdom, to serve his people, to live up to the gravity of his office. Merlin's heart swelled with pride, hearing Arthur's clear voice ring out over the courtyard.
At last, the oath taking was over. Merlin stepped forward, silently reciting the spells he must cast, as Leon stepped forward and relieved Arthur of his red cloak. Dressed only in a simple white robe, he bowed his crowned head for a moment, before shifting, changing, the shape of his dragonform taking over, until he stood there on the courtyard stones, wings half raised. "I, Arthur Pendragon, swear to serve all my people, all the days of my life!"
The words rang out again, carried to every corner of the courtyard--and down into the town, to those who hadn't been able to fit--by Merlin's magics. Arthur took flight, amid the cheers of his people, the swirling winds of his flapping wings buffeting those in the courtyard as he leapt upward to the sky, taking Merlin's heart with him in a rush of triumph and love.