There was fire, the skid of bare feet on frozen ground, and screams. Skirts dragged and eyes streamed as men, women and children ran for their lives. Smoke curled between the buildings, choking them, and the icy wind carried the sounds of coarse laughter. Cold eyes flashed golden in the low light.
Back in Camelot, Merlin writhed in his sleep, and watched his village burn.
“Ealdor!” his cries echoed around the small room. “Ealdor!"
He could see Hunith crawling, choking on the fear and the fumes all around her. She wanted to hide-- to crouch behind a low stone wall and pray they didn’t find her. She needed an escape; she needed safety; she needed saving, and Merlin tried with all his might.
“Stillaþ!” he commanded, raising his hand and focusing all of his energy towards Ealdor; towards making it stop. He could see everything clearly from the edge of Ascetir Forest. He could taste the smoke in the air and hear the yells of his loved ones.
His words made no impact. Merlin could feel the magic building inside him, but it was distant somehow-- almost faint. He felt invisible, like there was no depth or weight to his body. He couldn’t cast a spell because the magic that flowed through his veins was somewhere else. It wasn’t inside him there in Ealdor.
A hooded figure slipped out of the doorway behind Hunith with slow, calm steps. It looked eery and strange against the mindless chaos all around, and Merlin watched in horror as his mother stopped struggling and turned her head. Panic stretched her features when she caught sight of the figure moving so decidedly towards her, and Hunith clawed desperately at the Earth -- making her final bid for freedom.
Merlin could see blood on his mother’s dress, and suddenly he knew her left leg was badly injured. It stopped her from dragging herself to her feet and running. She could do nothing to escape the hooded figure approaching her.
“No, mother! No...” Merlin cried softly. His words were muffled by sleep, but his body lay safe between the four stone walls of his bedroom.
As the figure came to a halt behind her, Hunith dropped all protest. She lay completely still, staring into the earth. The rest of the world lost all gravity for Merlin-- he couldn’t register the destruction of Ealdor, or the murder of its children all around him. All he saw was his mother’s crumpled form lying frozen in fear at the feet of the green hooded figure. She was just thirty feet from the safety and silence of the forest; just thirty feet from Merlin.
“Má réðe cine týne,” he called out desperately, still with no effect.
Hunith’s face twisted with tears, and she spat out words, but Merlin was too far away to hear her. Even at the mercy of this green hooded figure, she refused to beg... However, she did scream. Her last words were torn from her in a blood-curdling cry as gold flashed beneath the green hood behind her. Hunith was thrown back and forth, dirt kicking up into the air.
“Má réðe cine týne!” Merlin gasped again, tears rolling down his face. He tried to push forwards and run. Run to help his mother, run to save Ealdor, run to stop the dark sorcerer and all those who were tearing his home apart, but tug and fight and pull as he might, Merlin couldn’t move-- he was stuck there, standing stock still amid the trees.
Helpless, he watched as the two golden points beneath the hood shone especially bright. Despite all the deafening sound around him, Merlin thought he heard the faint shout of a familiar voice deep in his mind, but he couldn’t process the words-- horror drove all thought away.
Hunith had slowly begun to rise from the ground. She stopped fighting. Her body froze, engulfed by terror, and Merlin watched from the edge of the wood, roaring out spells and ancient words, but achieving nothing. Tears flowed down his cheeks, searing hot in the cold, winter air of the night.
As Merlin drew a shuddering breath, ignoring the burn in his throat where he’d shouted himself hoarse, the spell was suddenly cut short. Hunith’s shriek echoed over and over through Merlin’s mind. He saw her drop fifty feet to the ground, crumpling on impact, and a single, violent crack filled the air. The hooded figure disappeared into the swirling smoke.
Merlin heard himself cry out as terror stole sleep from him. He blinked, but couldn’t see anything in the pitch black night. He lay alone in his small bed, his chest rattling with heavy, shaking breaths.
A sudden coughing fit tore Merlin’s throat, and he rolled to the right, leaning awkwardly over the side of his bed. He needed to breathe; to steady his reeling mind and picture something other than his mother’s body buckling into the ground.
With a thick, snotty inhale, Merlin’s hand reached downwards, lightly touching his fingertips to the cold stone floor. He took a long, deep breath and closed his eyes, the slight brush with something solid and real calming his heart rate.
That hadn’t just been a nightmare, he was sure of it, but it was too clear to be a premonition like he’d had in the Crystal Caves. It must have been a vision of some kind. Had he left his body? Merlin could’ve sworn his mother had stared straight into his eyes just before she--
It was real. It was definitely real.
Shifting back over in bed, Merlin grasped a fistful of blanket in each hand, and lay completely still. He gazed through his window and waited for the night outside to turn light blue-- he was too terrified to sleep again.
* * *
A few hours later, Merlin’s feet were carrying him to Arthur’s chambers. He’d finally removed himself from the safety of his bed a little after dawn, thinking he’d at least have time for a decent bite to eat before heading out (not that he felt like eating with his stomach twisting itself into knots). However, he’d quickly discovered that getting up early in Camelot only meant you were given more things to do. He’d been running errands hither and thither all morning, and Gaius had been too busy complaining about all the things Merlin hadn’tdone to give him much in the way of breakfast.
He didn’t tell Gaius about his vision. Whilst the past couple of years had hardly taught him that What Gaius Didn’t Know Couldn’t Hurt Him(quite the opposite, actually), Merlin knew that unloading this on Gaius would only overwhelm him. He’d been out of his bed visiting the king before Merlin was up, and there were dark shadows beneath his eyes-- not to mention the way he snapped orders, which so obviously betrayed how anxious he already felt.
In return for Merlin’s consideration, Gaius had sent him sprinting to the lower town as soon as he’d staggered down the stairs. His task was to deliver a handwritten message to Gwen, who opened the door with an exaggerated yawn, still wrapped snugly in her blankets. Moments like that were enough to make Merlin think it’d be worth having a secret affair with Arthur, just so he could sleep late once in a blue moon.
After that, he’d trotted ‘specialised potions’ over to half a dozen knights, who were still suffering from their ordeal under Queen Morgana. Sir Leon had endured the worst of them all, but he hadn’t taken so much as five minutes off to ‘recuperate’, and he’d certainly not badgered Gaius for any potions. It made Merlin wonder what all the fuss was about.
The closest to pleasant Merlin’s morning had come to was when he ran into Gwaine, who was, of course, heading to the tavern. He kept his reasons strictly to himself...
“Now, Merlin, you’re far too young and honest a man to be wanting to hear such things,” he’d hiccuped, looking slightly surprised, as if his mouth had spoken without permission, but then dropping in a wink for good measure. Merlin had chortled with laughter as he watched his friend blunder off down the road, and then realised Gwaine had been the first person to make him smile all day.
In one way, running around like a headless chicken and delivering messages on three hours sleep had been a good distraction, but by the time Merlin found himself plodding down the corridor towards Arthur’s chambers to begin his official day’s work, everything was catching up with him. He clenched and unclenched his fists, partly to keep the blood flowing through them in the cold, and partly because he needed to release the tension creeping up his spine. The glum slap of his own boots on the stone put Merlin’s teeth on edge, and he tried with all his might not to hear his mother’s screams play over and over in his head.
He was not in the mood to put up with Arthur Pendragon.
But this was the first morning Merlin had ever been early for work, and true to form, Arthur felt well within his rights to comment (not that he ever really felt he had anything but that right).
“Really, Merlin, my father may be ill, but I’m not king yet. There’s no need to start sucking up already,” he drawled as soon as Merlin stuck his head through the door.
A toothy grin spread across Arthur’s face, but Merlin didn’t respond. He didn’t even raise an eyebrow.
“Ooh. Not rising to the bait, eh, Merlin?” Arthur smiled even more, and then chuckled. “Wow! I’m impressed! What is it? Are you after a day off? Well, you can forget all about that, Merlin. I’m afraid the future of Camelot is a little more important than your herb-picking day trips, or whatever it is you do with yourself.”
Merlin busied himself collecting up Arthur’s bedsheets, and did his very best not to make eye contact.
“Alright, come on,” Arthur strode across his chambers and prodded Merlin in the side with the hilt of a knife he’d been idly examining. “Stop pretending to be interesting and spit it out. What’s wrong?”
Arthur’s unwavering insistence to be as overbearing and nosey as possible (not to mention the newest addition to his collection of Things With Which It’s Fun To Poke Merlin) made Merlin halt what he was doing. He stood stock-still, bent awkwardly over the bundle of white bedding in front of him, and stared straight ahead.
Merlin swallowed the lump in his throat and took a deep breath. Arthur was leaning over, trying to get a good look at him. The joke was fading from his face, and his eyes were darkening with something close to real concern.
“Cenred--” Merlin gulped, his voice beginning before his words were quite ready. “Cenred’s dead.”
“Oh, Merlin,” Arthur sighed exasperatedly after a short pause, and returned to his usual, smarmy drone. “You idiot. Believe it or not, we were side by side when the messengers brought the news the night before last. For goodness’ sake, we had a great feast! Have you only just cottoned on?”
He strode back across the room, half-smiling to himself over what he liked to call Merlin’s Uncanny Ability To Proudly Hunt Down A Rabbit That’s Already Been Dead For A Week.
“You don’t understand,” Merlin muttered, still staring at the bedsheets.
“No, Merlin, you don’t understand,” Arthur proceeded to poke around absent-mindedly in his cupboard. “Remember how you complained all night about that giant hat, even though Gwen and I told you again and again that you looked positively dashing?”
(Which had been a big, fat lie. Merlin had actually resembled a malnourished cockatoo).
“Honestly, if it’s taken you this long to realise--”
“You’re not listening!” Merlin shouted, straightening up and turning around. “You never... you never listen.”
Sucking in a snotty breath, he looked up to meet Arthur’s eyes.
Arthur didn’t move for a minute. Usually, he’d have called Merlin out on his rudeness, and lectured him on how You Can’t Talk To A Prince Like That, but the look on Merlin’s face stopped him. There weren’t many occasions when insulting and bossing Merlin around felt strangely inappropriate, but it just so happened that this was one of them.
Instead of shouting, instead of teasing or joking, Arthur held his tongue. He stared at Merlin, who looked completely deflated and miserable with one large tear running down his face, and waited for an explanation.
There was silence for a minute or two, as Merlin and Arthur shared an uneasy stare; neither feeling sure of the other, but eventually, Merlin cleared his throat with a nervous cough, and continued.
“Cenred’s dead. His kingdom--” Merlin gulped as his heart rate calmed. “His kingdom is falling... That might be a good thing for Camelot-- for your home,” he drew another shuddering breath. “But it’s not for mine. Ealdor can’t possibly defend itself.”
These words were followed again by silence as Arthur mulled them over. It was true that, even when Cenred’s rule had been strong, Merlin’s village had been pillaged by Kanen’s bandits. Arthur had seen Ealdor fight bravely, but he knew that without the magic of Will the sorcerer, that battle would have been lost. With no trained soldiers to protect her, Ealdor would be left utterly helpless.
“Merlin, I--” Arthur started to apologise, but he could see by Merlin’s set jaw that it wouldn’t make any difference. He changed tactic, and asked softly, “do you want to go there? To Ealdor?”
“I-- I do,” Merlin stammered. “Yes.”
He couldn’t explain how he was feeling. He wanted to tell Arthur that people like him didn’t have dreams --no, visions-- without consequence. They came true. They always came true, and in his heart, Merlin could feel that this one already had. Ealdor was more than just one day’s journey away; there was nothing he could do.
“Maybe I could talk to my father,” Arthur’s tone was still apologetic, but Merlin’s anger had faded. “We’re already at war, so perhaps he’ll let me take some men this time and we could... y’know, do something about it.”
Merlin shook his head. “You know as well as I do that even if the king was well enough for that kind of debate, he’d never agree to it, at war or not.”
“Gaius says he’s improving!” Arthur took an eager step forwards, unwilling to give up so easily. “He’s been responding well, and apparently he’s even felt strong enough to threaten a few servants with a day in the stocks--”
“Back to his usual self, I see,” Merlin chimed, quickly turning back to folding and refolding Arthur’s dirty bedcovers.
“No, Merlin, what I’m trying to say is--” Arthur glared at the back of Merlin’s head. “Will you please stop that and listen to me? I’m trying to help!”
When Merlin still gave no indication of having heard him, and continued lazily playing around with the bedsheets, Arthur crossed the room again in a few long, frustrated strides, and grasped Merlin firmly by the arm.
For all his sarcasm, the aching worry in the pit of Merlin’s stomach was growing stronger than ever. He hadn’t felt the touch of another --comforting or otherwise-- since he awoke in the early hours, and the feel of Arthur’s warm hand sent a whole fresh wave of loneliness through him. What he needed more than anything was a good, affectionate hug; the support of protective arms around him. That was the kind of display of affection Arthur would never make towards anyone... Anyone except Gwen, anyway, and definitely never Merlin.
When his eyes met Arthur’s, Merlin felt a tug in his chest as if his heart was drawing them together. He sniffled, and a pang shot through his stomach. His thoughts were lingering on the fact that Arthur didn’t really know him at all, and probably wouldn’t want help him like this if he did. He couldn’t know about the destiny the two of the shared, he couldn’t know about the magic coursing through Merlin every minute of every day, and he certainly could never know how much Merlin needed him to be a friend sometimes, rather than just a master.
“Sorry,” Merlin breathed, breaking their eye contact and staring at the floor between them. “I’m-- uhm, sorry.”
“That’s alright,” Arthur’s voice was low and understanding, and he dipped his head slightly in an attempt to catch Merlin’s eye again. “I can see you’re a little... uhm, let’s going with distressed, shall we?” he grinned weakly, still gazing at the bridge of Merlin’s nose.
Merlin’s lips mirrored Arthur’s, spreading into a thin smile as he nodded.
“You helped me rescue Camelot... as best you could,” Arthur said slowly, rubbing his thumb slowly over Merlin’s arm.
If only you knew just how much I really helped, Merlin thought indignantly, trying not to shiver under Arthur’s touch.
“And I’ll be damned if I’m to do anything but return the favour.”
That made Merlin kick himself for judging Arthur’s friendship so harshly.
“Even if I did, uhm, help you save Ealdor first anyway...” A rather bemused expression came over Arthur’s face.
Merlin nodded again and kept his eyes fixed on the floor. He didn’t quite know what to make of the way Arthur was rambling on-- usually he spoke so precisely.
“Right!” Arthur declared all of a sudden, his abrupt change in volume making Merlin jump visibly, “Merlin! Now that we’ve sorted that out, I need you to make this place presentable. I’ll go and wake my father.”
The hand moved from Merlin’s arm, hit him playfully, and then dropped to Arthur’s side, swinging jauntily back and forth as he strode towards the door.
“Come on!” he called over his shoulder when Merlin failed to move. “Shake a leg!”
The door banged shut behind Arthur, and Merlin quickly tidied away the bedsheets he’d been fussing over, the smell reminding him not to leave it so long before changing them next time. He picked up the clothes Arthur had left strewn haphazardly across the floor, and tossed them into the cupboard in the same careless fashion.
Merlin approached the table, which was littered with plates of food and papers from the night before. He’d just begun clearing it, when the vision of his mother’s terrified face flashed through his head once again. Stopping in his tracks, Merlin bit his lip, and closed his eyes.
Stop it, he told himself. Don’t keep doing this to yourself.
He stood in silence for several minutes, savouring the quiet of Arthur’s empty chambers (so blissfully free of Arthur) and let the cold air from the open window soothe his shattered nerves.
Then, there was a loud knock on the door.
* * *
Despite the fact it had been almost three weeks since the fall of Queen Morgana and the restoration of all that was good and just in Camelot, Lancelot could still be found roaming the castle in wonder. He gazed through the windows for hours, and poured over age-old myths of gallant knights and great battles for days on end. He loved everything that Camelot had been, was, and would be for a long time to come.
He was drifting down the eastern corridor that morning, watching Elyan and Percival battle playfully on the training grounds below, when movement up ahead caught his attention. His dark eyes flicked up, and he saw Gwen. The sunlight shone behind her, framing her beauty-- as if he needed reminding.
If Lancelot had not been a Knight of Camelot, and so honoured with the allegiance of some of the most noble warriors in history, it might have been said that he’d been avoiding Gwen since their return. But, seeing as how he was a Knight of Camelot, it was more like keeping an honourable distance. After all, if he truly was avoiding her, he would’ve dodged through the door beside him, and hidden in a store cupboard until she’d gone. As it was, he simply fixed his eyes on the flagstone floor and marched past her as quickly as his clanking armour would allow.
Gwen had noticed the change in Lancelot, and here she saw a perfect opportunity to confront him. She turned as he brushed past her, opening her mouth as if to speak. When he failed to acknowledge her, Gwen made a rather cliched (but surprisingly effective) display of dropping her heavy basket of linen.
The sound stopped Lancelot in his tracks-- what kind of knight could walk off and leave such a lady kneeling on the floor, completely alone? Lancelot closed his eyes and begged for the strength to resist the way she smiled, the way she laughed, the deep, dark pull of her eyes... Then he spun on his heel and rushed over.
“Here.” he muttered, dropping an armful of red cloth into the basket.
“Thanks,” Gwen replied quietly, trying to hide the smug grin twisting her lips-- same old Lancelot. “I don’t know what happened... I-- I must’ve caught my foot on the rug.”
Lancelot decided it was best to ignore the fact that the nearest rug was ten feet away at the end of the corridor.
“I don’t understand why Arthur has you running around doing a servant’s work, anyway--” he started saying.
“Oh, this wasn’t Arthur’s idea! He’d probably be angry if he knew,” Gwen met Lancelot’s gaze for a brief moment. “Gaius sent me a message this morning. He said the king was on the mend, and Arthur and I should probably try to keep everything quiet until he’s properly recovered.”
Lancelot continued gathering up linen, using his task as a good excuse not to stare at Gwen for too long. She looked so beautiful-- she always did.
“I’m surprised he doesn’t know already...”
Lancelot wanted to kick himself. He knew everything was his own doing. He remembered leaving Gwen a year before, because he’d seen Arthur’s feelings for her, but that didn’t make watching her kiss and hold and love another any easier. He didn’t resent either of them, he just felt an empty, aching hole in his chest where Gwen’s love had once lived.
“Arthur is quite enthusiastic, isn’t he?” Gwen grinned. She loved and admired Arthur, but he insisted on sending her gifts and kissing her in public, even though she said she wasn’t ready for that yet. It felt like she’d told him a hundred times that she could never become a queen --that she didn’t want to become a queen-- but he couldn’t hear it.
Her smile faded to sadness, she didn’t want to hurt him, but the laws and boundaries of Camelot were written in her skin just the same as his. She loved her home, and she knew why each law was there. She couldn’t bear to think of them disrupted for her sake.
Gwen looked over at Lancelot. His features were drawn thin, as though he was pained somehow. She’d never seen him look like that. Her heart still stirred for him in the same way it always had, and judging by the discomfort in his voice, and the speed with which his words faded as he broached the subject of Arthur, he felt that stirring for her, too.
“Lancelot, I’m so sorry,” she whispered, reaching out for his hand as a wave of remorse washed over her. Lancelot’s eyes snapped up to meet hers.
“You have nothing to apologise for,” he said earnestly, before clearing up the rest of the clothes and backing away towards the window. “It was I who left... I saw Arthur’s feelings for you after we escaped Hengist’s castle. I knew he could give you far more than I.”
Lancelot tore his eyes away from Gwen’s face, silently wishing he could look upon her forever. He stared, unseeing, out of the window. Blinking back a tear.
Gwen watched him for some time. Her basket of linen lay forgotten on the floor, and her hands hung loosely clasped in front of her. She took a moment to make sure she could word her next confession just right.
“Do you remember what I promised you in Mercia? Do you remember what I said before you ran off to die for me?” her voice was strong, but she could feel the thickness of tears building slowly at the back of her throat.
Lancelot failed to do more than give a small nod. He didn’t look up, his eyes just followed the fingers of his right hand, drawing circles on the stone window ledge. His face was turned away from her, but Gwen thought she could see the glimmer of a tear or two.
She knew he wanted to be alone, but this conversation couldn’t be put off forever. Swallowing her fear, Gwen crossed the short distance between them and grasped Lancelot’s forearm through his heavy chain mail.
“I promised you that as long as I lived, my feelings for you would never fade. I swear, it was not a lie,” Gwen’s tone was low now, almost urgent. Each one of her words precise and serious-- she was no longer the bashful girl Lancelot knew best. “I can see the reason you left, but that doesn’t mean I understand it--”
“Arthur is my prince,” Lancelot hissed. “And the most honourable of men. I could not cause him unnecessary pain.”
“But you could cause me pain?” Gwen retorted, her voice rising slightly as a jolt of shock and anger shot through her. “You loved me first! My heart was already yours.”
There was a hurt silence. Lancelot’s eyes darted back and forth, searching Gwen’s face. Her cheeks were flushed and she had her bottom lip caught between her teeth, but her gaze was steady.
“Have you not been happy?” he asked quietly. “Have you not fallen in love?”
“I have, I have!” Gwen burst out at once. “But not without great cost...” she conceded more slowly. “I’ve been left heartbroken and alone more than once. I’ve been threatened by death, accused of evil and betrayed by my closest friend. I’ve been forced to watch Arthur court more suitable partners, when I know deep inside that--”
Tears came flooding down Gwen’s cheeks, and she couldn’t finish.
Without a moment’s thought, Lancelot reached out and pulled her towards him; wrapping his arms around her and cradling her head against his chest. She breathed deeply for several minutes, her breath making clouds on the cold metal of his chest plate, and then she pulled back to speak again. Her voice cracked a little, but she refused to stop until she was done.
“Deep down, I know that for as long as he is a Pendragon, Arthur and I cannot be. He needs to uphold Camelot’s laws and form alliances with other kingdoms to protect us all. He’d give up his throne if I asked it of him, but Camelot needs a king who’s just and fair more than I need the love of a prince... I’d rather you left because you didn’t love me than because you thought this was what I deserved.”
Lancelot regarded Gwen’s tearful face, his brow furrowed. Was it possible she was right? Could fear and duty really keep her from loving Arthur the way he loved her? Lancelot brought his hands up to hold Gwen’s face, tenderly wiping away a tear.
“I would never have done it if I believed it would bring you anything but joy,” he whispered.
“I know,” she breathed, her voice soft and warm in the cold air. “I’ve told you before, Lancelot, you’re all that’s right with this world.”
They both smiled as Lancelot brushed a loose strand of hair from Gwen’s face. His sensitive touch sent a flush through her skin, and a shiver down her spine. Gwen closed her eyes, losing herself in his presence.
Lancelot leaned forwards to press a kiss against Gwen’s lips, his heartbeat thrumming in his ears and his fingers shaking for fear of her pulling away. He’d missed her more than he could bear-- she had been the thought that’d kept him fighting when his limbs were too heavy to lift a sword. She was the beauty he insisted there was in the world, when ever he saw tragedy.
The feeling of her lips pushing back against his; the sensation of being kissed by Gwen, and having her small hands grasp his face, sent Lancelot’s heart reeling. Warmth burst through his stomach, and a joy he’d almost forgotten filled every inch of him, because for that moment Gwen was his, and she loved him.
* * *
Arthur froze, his heart no longer beating, his lungs no longer breathing. He couldn’t think, he couldn’t blink. All he could do was stare. At the end of the corridor, he could see Gwen; beautiful, sweet Gwen. Gwen, who always commanded the utmost integrity and honour from him. Gwen who he had been loving and holding for months. And sneaking a snog with her in the eastern corridor? Lancelot. Sir Lancelot, who he’d knighted mere weeks before. Sir Lancelot the noble, the faithful!
Had the whole world gone mad? Morgana was a witch, Merlin was shouting and crying in the middle of his chambers, and suddenly, Gwen was... Gwen was betraying him?
Up until that moment, Arthur had managed to push Lancelot and Gwen’s doting smiles and linked hands in Mercia from his mind. That had been a mistake. The sight of them together hit him hard. His eyes refused to look away, his chest ached and his hands twitched at his sides.
Lancelot and Gwen pulled apart slightly, talking quickly in hushed voices. She kept staring up at him in that special way Arthur had believed she saved only for himself. Gwen’s hands were cradling Lancelot’s face, and she was smiling. Their eyes were locked together as if there was no one else in the whole world; as if they weren’t out in broad daylight, where anyone could walk past at any time.
...Was that his own name he’d just heard?
Turning swiftly back the way he’d come, Arthur hurried off. He needed time to think. He couldn’t just walk straight up to them and demand an explanation-- he’d trusted them both, he’d let Gwen in on all of his secrets and insecurities, and suddenly she was wrapped in the embrace of another. He couldn’t bear to let them see how hurt he truly was.
Arthur knew he needed to figure it out, and come up with a strategy. After all, that was what he did. He’d left his chambers intending to go and see his father, so that was what he’d do. He’d rather listen to his father shout about how ridiculous it was for a prince like him to want to help a servant like Merlin, than lose himself in a confrontation with his own knight.
Arthur needed a little more time to accept the fact that the only woman he’d ever truly loved preferred another man; prince or not.
* * *
As Arthur made his way to Uther’s quarters, Lancelot watched Gwen disappear around the corner in the opposite direction. The last few minutes had thrown everything into the air. What had he been thinking? That kiss couldn’t be forgotten, that conversation couldn’t be undone; he had to set things right. He would have to tell Arthur.
“It’s better to act now than wait,” Gwen’s whisper sounded over in his head. “I can’t lie to Arthur, and neither can you.”
So, there he was, the valiant Sir Lancelot, pacing towards the door of Arthur’s chambers, his stomach feeling as though it was attempting to fight off three griffins at once. Every inch of him knew this was the only way forward, but he couldn’t help the fear coursing through him.
Come on, Lancelot, he scorned. Pull it together! You’re a knight now.
Before his nerves could object, Lancelot rapped his knuckles firmly on the wooden door.
“S’not ‘ere,” came Merlin’s muffled call from inside.
Lancelot breathed a guilty sigh of relief and pulled open the door to step inside. Instinctively, he scanned the room for Arthur, but Merlin’s voice soon drew his attention.
“He’s gone to see the king,” something in Merlin’s tone was different. His words sounded forced and clumsy.
Lancelot inspected him for a moment, his eyes lingering on puffy eyes and a running nose. Merlin stood awkwardly beside Arthur’s table, staring unhappily down at a piece of discarded old carrot.
“Merlin?” Lancelot ventured at length. “Merlin, are you alright?”
A string of sharp nods was all the answer this question produced. Merlin closed his eyes and spread the long fingers of his right hand out on the table next to him, as if searching for support.
“You... er, you don’t seem it,” Lancelot hovered halfway over the threshold, at a total loss for what to do. “You know you can tell me anything, don’t you, Merlin?”
That did it. Merlin raised his head and stared straight across the room at Lancelot, with big, fat tears sparkling in his eyes. Why was everyone crying today?
“It’s Ealdor,” Merlin managed, before losing control and letting out a great sob. “It’s my mother! Lancelot, my mother! She-- she--” Merlin’s deep gasps took over, and he brought a shaking fist up to press against his mouth.
Sweeping the door closed with one, swift movement, Lancelot darted across the room and wrapped his arms awkwardly around Merlin, comforting him until he could compose himself. Merlin tried to gratefully return the embrace, but Lancelot’s bulky armour prevented any movement above a short, appreciative pat on the gauntlet.
A sheepish, soggy half-smile cracked across Merlin’s face as they pulled apart. Lancelot clapped him on the shoulder, not as roughly as Arthur, but with enough force to dislodge him.
“Thanks,” Merlin croaked feebly. “Last night I had a dream-- a vision, really. It was Ealdor being attacked and my mother was hurt. Maybe worse.”
Sympathy washed over Lancelot’s face. He made as if to console Merlin.
“Arthur’s gone to talk to Uther,” Merlin continued, running a hand through his hair. “He wants permission to take some men and protect the village. I know he’ll be too late, but I have to pretend I’m only worried. He can’t know what I saw.”
“He’s a good man,” Lancelot nodded as if agreeing with words Merlin hadn’t spoken. “A very good man.” He seemed lost in his own thoughts.
“Yes, well,” Merlin sighed exasperatedly, staring off into nothing as their conversation lingered on the absent prince. “He can be a bit of a prat about it sometimes, but--”
“But he’s always willing to come to your aid,” Lancelot finished for him.
“Yeah...” Merlin wiped his nose on his sleeve and sniffed loudly. “Weren’t you looking for him?”
Lancelot’s shoulders tensed. “Yes, I was.”
“Can I ask what’s wrong?” Lancelot had just been exactly the kind of friend Merlin needed, and in return, he wanted to help however he could.
“Oh, Merlin. I don’t know how to say this,” Lancelot sighed, rubbing his eyes. “I ran into Gwen in the eastern corridor, and... well...”
Merlin’s expression was suddenly very focused, and he hardly blinked as he stared at Lancelot. “Did you...?” he began to ask, but was cut off by Lancelot blurting out the truth.
“We kissed,” he said hurriedly. “I still love her, Merlin. I’ve tried not to, I really have, but she loves me too and... and...”
Merlin nodded slowly, placing a hand on Lancelot’s shoulder. “And you don’t see why you should hide it, because she knows she can’t marry Arthur when you’re her true destiny?”
Lancelot hummed in agreement, still cradling his head in his hands.
“You know, it’s odd, these kinds of things,” Merlin said quietly, still holding onto Lancelot. “Nobody can fight their fate, but fate never makes it easy. We can’t always get what we want, and sometimes, when we do, it’s worse, because we know what others have lost to give it to us.”
“You’re not surprised?” Lancelot frowned, looking up at Merlin.
“Not really,” Merlin shook his head, his lips quirking into a weak smile. “I do have eyes, y’know. I’ve seen how you look at her. And Gwen’s one of my best friends, I can read her like a book.”
“And can she read you?” Lancelot smiled too, his eyes still a little bleary.
“No one can read me,” Merlin winked, grinning. “I think we both know I wouldn’t still be here if they could.”
They were both quiet for a moment, Lancelot managed to recover himself and loosen some of the tension in his shoulders. He took a few deep breaths. If Merlin could tell that about Gwen, couldn’t Arthur? Maybe he had some inkling of what they felt already, since he was so close to them both. He knew them almost as well as Merlin did.
“I just don’t know how to tell him,” Lancelot sighed. “We only just discovered the truth for ourselves, and now...”
“Wait,” Merlin snapped, his eyes suddenly wide. “When was this?”
Lancelot frowned. “I came straight here. I suppose it can’t have been more than fifteen minutes before I knocked on the door.”
“Oh no,” Merlin sank into Arthur’s chair behind the table. “Oh, this really isn’t good... Did anyone see you?”
“Of course not! We were completely alone.”
Or so you thought, Merlin groaned to himself. Lancelot didn’t know the castle as well as he did. Arthur had left to wake his father at the same time as Gwen and Lancelot were having their little revelation in the corridor, and his path lay directly along that way; he wouldn’t have taken the long way around. He must have seen them.
Urgently, Merlin began to explain. “Look, I know this castle, and I know Arthur. If he was heading to the king’s chambers, he would‘ve gone--”
The crash of the door hitting the wall as it banged open made Merlin and Lancelot lurch in surprise. Arthur came fuming through the doorway after it, just on time-- as always.
“You’d better have done everything, Merlin, because I need you to run down to the stables and--” he barked, stopping mid-command when he saw Lancelot shifting beside the table. They eyed each other for a moment, before Lancelot remembered his manners and bowed clumsily.
With a glare, Arthur turned to Merlin. When Arthur walked in, Merlin had tried to leap from the chair onto his feet, but succeeded only in cracking his knee on the table and knocking a goblet of wine over.
“Graceful as ever, Merlin,” Arthur quipped brusquely. He didn’t so much as bat an eyelid as he watched Merlin hurry to soak up the mess he’d made, all the while rubbing his bruised knee.
Arthur’s hands were clenched into fists. He’d just had a shouting match with his father, and come back to his rooms for some solace, only to find the one person he wanted to see least in the world keeping Merlin company.
“Now get down to the stables and prepare six horses,” Arthur ordered once Merlin was done. He needed to get Merlin out, because if he didn’t he’d end up blurting out all the things his father had said about Ealdor. Merlin shouldn’t have to hear the news when Arthur was angry, so he needed to leave. Quickly.
Merlin crossed the room as fast as he could, more than a little hurt by Arthur’s dismissal. He saw the way Arthur’s eyes locked coldly on Lancelot, and there was no doubt in his mind as to why Arthur was so furious-- not only had he made a ridiculous request to Uther, but he’d definitely seen Gwen and Lancelot kiss in the eastern corridor.
When he reached the door, Merlin took one last, wistful look back across Arthur’s chambers. “Come on,” he said to Lancelot, in one last attempt to save him.
“Merlin!” Arthur rounded on Merlin as Lancelot gave a grateful nod. “He’s a knight! You can’t just order him around.”
“S-- sorry, sire,” Merlin stuttered, unsure exactly who it was he should apologise to.
“And besides,” Arthur carried on, ignoring the fact Merlin had spoken at all. “Lancelot’s staying with me. We need to gather the other knights.”
Arthur crossed his arms and glared until Merlin bowed his head and backed out of the doorway.
“I think Gwaine was planning on visiting the tavern this morning, if you’re looking for him,” he shrugged, then gave Lancelot a meaningful nod, yanked open the door and dodged out, closing it behind him with an ominous thud.
Feeling slightly abandoned, Lancelot watched Arthur cautiously, half-expecting to be ordered to draw his sword. It’d sounded very much like Merlin was about to tell him some very bad, very vital information just before Arthur had come in. Lancelot knew he needed to tell Arthur about Gwen and himself, but when he was angry, Arthur was terrifying.
“Did Merlin tell you?” Arthur demanded at last, beginning to pace with heavy strides.
“Tell me what?”
“About his village.”
“Uhm,” Lancelot was caught a little off-guard. Was that what was making Arthur so furious? Was it concern for Merlin? He certainly hadn’t seemed very sympathetic when he’d sent Merlin scuttling from the room. “Uhm,” Lancelot repeated dumbly, “Yes-- yes, sire. He did.”
“My father refuses to send help, he says it’s absurd to even suggest it. That we should just send Merlin home,” Arthur stopped pacing and took a swing at his cupboard. The satisfaction of the loud bang was short-lived as pain shot up his arm. “He says if Merlin wants to help Ealdor, then his true allegiances are questionable.”
With that, Arthur turned to glare straight at Lancelot; hands on his hips, face sweating slightly. Lancelot didn’t know what to say. Was he hearing Arthur disagreeing with the king? Complaining openly about his decision?
“Sire, I--” he began, but Arthur held up his hands and Lancelot fell silent.
“Gather the knights.”
Lancelot made for the door, wondering whether Arthur planned on ordering his own men to disobey the king.
“Wait,” Arthur called, sounding slightly calmer. “Not all of them. I only need you, Elyan, Gwaine and Percival.”
“And get Leon too, would you?”
Lancelot nodded, then darted through the door into the cool safety of the castle halls. The relief of escaping Arthur in that state rushed through him, quickly followed by guilt, because the perfect opportunity to tell Arthur everything had just passed, and he’d been too afraid to try.
* * *
Merlin cursed, undoing his faulty knot for the third time. Fingers shaking, he tried again. He was too distracted to be dealing with sixannoyed horses on his own. Over the years he’s spent in Camelot, he’d become quite efficient at preparing for journeys (no matter what Arthur said to the contrary), but preparing supplies for six men to travel? That would be complicated enough if Merlin had actually been told where they were going, and how long the journey would be.
He knew better than to assume Arthur was taking this many knights to Ealdor... his behaviour when he’d whisked Merlin out of his chambers had given no indication that he even remembered their previous conversation, so assuming the king had given the all-clear to sending some of his best men away to protect an enemy village a was little over-optimistic, even for Merlin.
And anyway, he thought miserably. Lancelot and Gwen will be Arthur’s main concern now. Forget Merlin.
This silent begrudging was cut short when Arthur appeared soundlessly at the stable door, blocking out the thin rays of sunshine. Merlin continued stubbornly glaring at the side of Gwaine’s horse, refusing to acknowledge Arthur’s presence as he walked forwards and began lightly adjusting the buckles on the opposite side of the saddle.
“Merlin,” Arthur said firmly after a few moments.
“Come and sit with me,” Arthur spoke with an uncharacteristically soft voice, even tagging a “Please?” on the end. It sounded rather uncomfortable between those royal lips.
Merlin blinked in surprise, then hastened over to perch on a hay-bale beside Arthur. He balanced on the very edge, hunched his back, rested his elbows just above his knees and stared moodily at the floor. Arthur’s posture quickly changed to mirror Merlin’s-- going from straight-backed and proud, to slouched. He gazed down at his own hands hanging between his knees, all the hostility of earlier gone. That morning’s quiet, considerate Arthur had returned.
“I know you want to go home,” he said in a low voice. “I know you’re concerned... and, honestly, I’m surprised to find you still in Camelot if you’re this worried. That’s not the Merlin I know.”
“I have duties,” Merlin mumbled.
“No, that’s not it, Merlin,” Arthur shook his head. “You don’t value your duties over your mother’s life. I know you too well to be fooled by that.”
He watched for a response, but Merlin just continued staring at the floor, not really seeing anything at all. Arthur tilted his head, carefully considering his next words.
“You’re afraid of what you’ll find, aren’t you?” he asked the back of Merlin’s head, but it was really more of a statement that a question.
Merlin spun around and met Arthur’s gaze. He was right. The overwhelming fear of his mother’s twisted, broken body already cold and lifeless, was the only thing that had kept Merlin from leaping on a horse at first light.
How did he figure that out? Merlin wondered, but he didn’t acknowledge anything aloud. He dragged his eyes away from Arthur’s face, and tried to focus on the floor again.
Arthur understood. “I thought as much,” he muttered. “And this morning, you were right-- my father won’t give permission for me to take men to Ealdor.”
Merlin drew a deep breath, but didn’t look at all surprised.
“However,” Arthur continued pointedly. “Seeing as how I’m the crown prince, and you are my servant, I refuse to allow you to wander off unprotected into enemy territory. You have valuable information concerning the inner workings of Camelot logged somewhere in that thick skull of yours.”
Merlin rolled his eyes and wiped his snotty nose on his sleeve.
“And for all your short-comings,” Arthur carried on dryly. “I do not have the time or the patience to train another servant.” Saying that, Arthur couldn’t help but grin a little. After all the time they’d known each other, Merlin could tell when he was trying to show he cared without losing face.
Arthur nudged Merlin’s arm to get his attention, and they exchanged a knowing look. Merlin’s gaze, so completely hopeless and vulnerable, stirred Arthur, and before he could stop himself a small confession was tumbling out.
“I want to keep you safe,” the words echoed between them. Merlin’s lips parted a little in surprise, and Arthur tried to distract him by raising his voice and blundering on. “Which is why I’ve decided to accompany you. I managed to train Ealdor up alright last time and--”
“I know,” Merlin interrupted, directing his eyes back at the floor.
“Look, I know it doesn’t sound like much, but you’ll see,” Arthur’s voice was low. “I’m going to--”
“Thank you,” Merlin broke in again, because if he heard one more word about how Arthur would teach the brave people of Ealdor to defend themselves, he might not have been able to hold in his grief. “Really, Arthur. Thanks.”
With a sharp nod, Arthur stood up and finished buckling the horses-- giving Merlin some time to gather himself unobserved. When he heard the sound of Merlin getting wearily to his feet, Arthur turned back towards him and tried one last, lop-sided smile, hoping to elicit at least the smallest cheerful response from Merlin.
When this response was nothing but a small, appreciative nod, Arthur reached up and grasped Merlin’s arm bracingly. Without a word, he jerked his head in the direction of the stable door, and then followed Merlin out into the gloomy air.
The cold hung around Camelot like a curtain, dancing through the mist and trickling down into the courtyard to tease along the back of the knights’ bare necks. They stood huddled together, none of them really talking. Everyone had long since given up trying to coax an answer to why they were there out of Lancelot.
He stood to the side of the group, pale as a sheet and not saying anything. Words like dishonour and betrayal rushed through his head. Lancelot closed his eyes, taking a moment to think-- he’d not had much of a chance since leaving Arthur’s chambers.
He’d had to head down to the tavern to fetch Gwaine; a task far easier said than done. The other knights had left their training and followed him to the courtyard without question, but Gwaine had teased and taunted him, then clung to every table (and human) within arms reach as he was hoisted towards the tavern door. Lancelot couldn’t remember ever apologising so much in his life.
Once they’d struggled through half of Camelot to the castle courtyard, Elyan had taken Gwaine to one side. They’d murmured together for a while, and returned somewhat sobered.
The knights’ shuffling stopped as soon as Arthur appeared around the corner. He was following Merlin, who looked unusually preoccupied as he dragged his feet off to the edge of the group. A frowning Arthur watched him until he stopped and stood there twiddling his thumbs, not making eye contact with anyone.
The knights formed a line as Arthur came to a halt in front of them, clasping his hands behind his back and drawing a deep breath. His eyes combed over each of the men before him as he spoke.
“I’ve gathered you here this morning with an urgent announcement. As you are well aware, not all of the knights in this courtyard are of noble birth,” Arthur’s voice was bare and harsh on the morning air. Elyan shifted uncomfortably, but Gwaine smirked to himself. “A few weeks ago, I decided each of you bore the heart of a knight, even if you did not share his noble blood... Unfortunately, my father doesn’t see it that way.”
Out of the corner of his eye, Arthur saw Merlin’s head jerk up. He didn’t need to turn around to know that Merlin’s eyes were screwing up, and his lips pouting as he frowned.
“My father believes that the First Law of Camelot is sacred. He is, to put it lightly, furious.”
The grin disappeared from each knight’s face. Lancelot looked (if possible) even paler, and Percival was frowning as though he wanted to say something. Arthur forced his next words out into the unpleasant silence.
“The king demands that any such knight prove himself worthy of his title.”
“What?!” Merlin finally burst out, incapable of containing his fury any longer. “They saved Camelot! They’re worthier than anyone! How can you say that? How can you go back on your word? They didn’t ask to be knights, it was your decision, and now you’re telling them they have to earn it like nothing that happened made any difference!”
“Look,” Arthur turned on him in a flash, his vehemence matching Merlin’s. Arthur’s eyes were hard and angry, and he spat out words through gritted teeth. “I spent this morning arguing with my bed-ridden father after weeks of fearing he wouldn’t pull through at all. If it wasn’t for me, they wouldn’t even have this chance. Just because he is my father, and just because I am forced to deliver this message, it doesn’t mean I agree with it. He is still the king, and the law is still the law. We’re bending it enough as it is.”
Merlin fell silent. He felt a twinge of guilt for blaming Arthur so readily, especially considering how he’d made such a rare display of genuine friendship in the stables.
“I’m sorry,” Arthur faced his knights again, spreading his hands out uselessly at his sides. There was no more anger in his voice, only regret. “I know none of you deserve this.”
“What do we have to do?” Gwaine grunted loudly, his tone as gruff as his expression. “How do we prove ourselves?”
Arthur’s eyes moved along the line of men, taking in each face in turn. He wanted to let them know how sorry he was; how the ridiculous First Law would be the first thing he’d change in Camelot, if only he could-- but he couldn’t. He had to support his father’s every decision. Camelot couldn’t afford to be split while her king was still recovering from his most recent, and dearest, betrayal.
“Quest,” he told Gwaine bluntly. “Leave Camelot, help those in need and destroy whatever evils you may find. You must search for a worthy cause, just like the most honoured knights of old.”
Elyan raise his eyebrows and glanced sideways at Lancelot. Throughout the whole of Arthur’s address, Lancelot had remained completely still. His eyes hadn’t moved from the castle in front of him.
Percival took a step forward, making everyone start. His eyes locked tensely with Arthur’s for a moment, before he seemed to come to a decision.
“I will quest,” he said, nodding in Arthur’s direction.
“Me too,” Elyan bounded forward to join Percival, starting a fresh line in front of Arthur.
“And me,” came Gwaine’s growl from behind Percival. “I never miss a chance to prove my prowess...” his eyes glinted in Merlin’s direction, and Merlin couldn’t help but smirk into his scarf.
Lancelot tapped his foot and stared straight ahead. Out of the corner of his eyes, he watched Arthur grinning and nodding at his knights. Lancelot wanted to join them. He wanted to prove to himself that he was worthy of knighthood. The death of the griffin and the destruction of the Cup of Life had really been Merlin’s doing, despite what Arthur believed, but every passing moment, Lancelot felt more and more like he’d betrayed Arthur; betrayed himself; betrayed everything he’d wanted to be since he was a boy. He wasn’t even brave enough to look Arthur in the eye and tell him the truth, so how could he ever attempt to prove himself worthy of fighting beside him?
Arthur had expected Lancelot to step forward. He was still the same man, always desperate to prove his worth and fight for justice, stolen kisses or not, but as the silence stretched out, and Lancelot made no move forward, Arthur felt his heart sink. Perhaps he really had misjudged Lancelot-- in every way.
After exchanging a confused look with Merlin, Arthur addressed Leon, who’d been teetering awkwardly at the edge of the scene, painfully aware of his noble family ties.
“Leon, I asked you to join us because I felt it was only right for you to know what’s happening,” Arthur said. “It’s been a few weeks since rebuilding began, and I feel confident in leaving the recovery under your watch while I’m gone.”
“Yes, sire,” Leon dipped his head.
“You’re coming too?” Elyan’s eyebrows were raised again. Arthur nodded.
“Ah, Arthur,” Gwaine beamed. “Just when I thought you weren’t so different from the rest of those bloody nobles!” He strode over and slapped Arthur on the back, chuckling, and then tossed in a hefty apology to the other noble in the courtyard. “Err, sorry, Leon. You’re alright too, y’know.”
“Y-- yes, I’ll be coming with you,” Arthur coughed, the wind having been sufficiently knocked out of him by Gwaine’s heavy-handed display of affection. “The first thing we’re going to do is escort Merlin to Ealdor, and stay with him there until he’s satisfied. He’s been deeply concerned about his family.”
The knights looked sympathetically towards Merlin, who smiled weakly and hoped they would all look away again very soon.
Which they did, because all of a sudden Lancelot was poised beside Elyan. For a second or two, he looked almost as surprised as they did, but then his jaw set in determination. He’d made his choice-- he needed to be there for Merlin. That was one betrayal he could still avoid; one friend he could still be there for; one last chance to feel he’d earned something, even if it was just one person’s friendship and respect.
Percival gave Lancelot a single, wordless nod, whilst Elyan and Gwaine both grinned at him. Merlin’s curious blue eyes were fixed on Lancelot from across the courtyard. It was as though Merlin knew exactly what Lancelot was thinking, and he managed to give a quick smile and a nod before Lancelot’s attention was drawn back to Arthur. He was watching his closely, with a frown on his face, and it gave Lancelot the distinct impression that Arthur knew something, and wasn’t sure how to react, or what to feel.
That lasted for only a moment, before Arthur turned back to addressing the group as a whole. He told them Merlin had already prepared their horses, so all they needed to do was gather any personal possessions and meet him back at the South Gate in one hour.
“Gwaine, you’ll need to find someone to help you into your armour.”
“Thanks, but I think I can dress myself,” Gwaine smirked, swaggering out of the courtyard behind the others.
Arthur obviously could not dress himself, because as soon as Gwaine had disappeared around the corner he barked, “Merlin!”
“I need you to help me get into my armour.”
“Yes, sire,” Merlin rolled his eyes and hurried up the stone steps behind Arthur, trying not to think about what he was going to have to face when they reached Ealdor.
* * *
When Merlin and the knights finally left Camelot and entered the forest, the morning had become afternoon. Arthur rode at the front with Merlin beside him, Percival and Elyan followed, with Lancelot and Gwaine bringing up the rear. Whether Arthur was angriest with himself, Gwen or Lancelot was still undetermined, so it seemed best for him to keep a safe distance until he was sure.
The crunch of leaves crisp with frost, and the dull sunlight shining between bare branches, did little to sooth his mood. Arthur had hoped the pressures, formalities and heartbreak of Camelot would lift as the castle disappeared behind him. He'd thought that, out there, with his friends, he might relax.
In reality, his shoulders were still tense and his mind refused to rest. He wanted to be as far away from Gwen as possible, but with her brother and lover in tow (each blissfully unaware of Arthur’s agitation) he didn’t think he’d ever really escape her. His anguish over being made to look a fool by a girl most would consider just a servant was rivalled only by his concern for Ealdor, and Merlin.
He’d noticed Merlin was still keeping oddly quiet-- he hadn’t spoken more than a few words since his outburst in the courtyard. That had been out of line, and Arthur wasn’t sorry for losing his temper; he was supposed to be leading the knights, he couldn’t afford to be vilified in front of them. Afterwards, as he’d dressed Arthur in his armour, Merlin had said very little. Arthur hated his mindless chatter sometimes, but he found that he hated Merlin’s silence even more. It was unnatural... maybe even a little unnerving.
Since leaving Camelot, Arthur had let his eyes wander in Merlin’s direction numerous times. He was worried about him, and as he glanced over for the hundredth time, he saw that Merlin’s posture hadn’t changed for well over an hour; he was slouched in his saddle, holding the reigns loosely in one fist and staring straight ahead as though he wasn’t seeing the forest at all.
Arthur tittered under his breath, deciding it was probably safer to let Merlin complain about a sore back later, rather than advise him on how to sit on a horse. As he turned his attention back to the path ahead, Arthur continued along his broken trail of thought. He wondered what they would find in Ealdor, and if Merlin had considered the possibility they were too late. Bandits and rogue sorcerers had been running amuck in Cenred’s kingdom for the three weeks since his death; just because the news had only reached Camelot in the past few days, it didn’t mean the people of Ealdor hadn’t suffered already.
Come to think of it, when Merlin had heard of Cenred’s death, he’d celebrated along with everyone else. What changed so rapidly? Why hadn’t his concern surfaced earlier?
The frown on Arthur’s face didn’t go unnoticed. Merlin had kept a discreetly watchful eye on him from the moment they’d ridden out of the city gates. Every now and then, his eyes would dart towards Arthur, and take in the clenched line of his jaw, or the slight twitch of his hands on the reigns. Merlin thought he had a pretty good idea of what was running through Arthur’s mind.
He probably feels like turning around, galloping back to Camelot and demanding an explanation, he sighed to himself.
Seeing as how Lancelot had now left the city, Merlin suspected that Arthur regretted leaving Gwen there alone. It could’ve been the perfect opportunity to get everything out in the open. Merlin’s only comfort was his unshakable knowledge that Arthur would never break the promise he’d made, regardless of how desperately he wanted to.
They’d been riding for a few hours, and Elyan felt like he’d spent half of that time watching Arthur and Merlin flash looks back and forth, each missing the other’s eyes by only a minute or two. At first, he’d thought he was imagining things, but before long he was smirking to himself-- they made quite a pair. After traveling behind them for such a long time, the humour of it had finally vanished, and Elyan’s frustration began to show.
“Would you two please stop that!” He blurted at last, scowling.
Merlin jerked suddenly and turned his head away from Arthur so quickly, he cricked his neck.
“Stop what?” Arthur pulled a face and twisted around in his saddle.
“Stop casting wistful glances at each other and just get out whatever you need to say,” Elyan didn’t break eye contact with Arthur, and made no attempt to hide the irritation in his voice.
Merlin felt the unmistakable tingle of a very obvious blush creeping up his neck and onto his cheeks. He snorted nervously, and grinned. His shoulders started to hunch involuntarily, and he was about to make a highly transparent display of chuckling off Elyan’s comments and denying all knowledge, when Arthur swooped in to save him.
“I would hardly describe any communication between Merlin and myself as wistful, except perhaps my wish for him to one day flower into a half-decent servant, rather than the lazy know-it-all I’m stuck with at the moment.”
Arthur snickered, but Merlin stared at his hands on the reigns and didn’t make a sound. Arthur was reminded of a conversation they’d had, when he’d realised that Merlin actually wasn’t one of his knights, and therefore did not find casual insults at all comforting. Deep down, he was quite a sensitive soul.
Arthur’s grin died away. “I know what it’s like to fear for your home, and I’m simply trying to keep an eye on him-- someone needs to.”
They regarded each other far more openly then. Arthur put on a confident front, but there was something in his eyes that told Merlin he was searching for forgiveness (and the assurance that his pillow wouldn’t go without plumping, or his horse without watering, later that evening). Only Merlin could have understood that look, and a sheepish smile in response was equivalent to his most passionate acceptance of Arthur’s heartfelt apologies. The two of them shared their own little language-- or, at the very least, understood each other better than anyone else.
Heart-rate calming slightly, Merlin slowed his horse and allowed Elyan to ride alongside Arthur. They fell to talking about mace techniques from the week’s training sessions, although Arthur’s answers remained curt at best. Merlin found himself plodding along beside Percival, who was now staring intently at him.
“Hi,” Merlin squeaked nervously.
“I hope your home is safe,” Percival’s voice was deep, and Merlin was still becoming accustomed to it. Percival was a man of few words, whilst Merlin was a man of many, and they hadn’t exactly had much of a chance to bond between defeating queens and rebuilding kingdoms. Merlin felt he could forgive himself for being a bit cautious.
“I lost my own village to Cenred’s men, and I would not wish such a fate on anyone,” Percival said, his expression grave. “My prayers are with your people.”
Merlin nodded his thanks, and silence fell once again. Every step carried him closer and closer to a reality he never wanted to face; his village lay destroyed just over the border of Camelot, and he’d already resigned himself to that. The fear of confronting it was overwhelming, but hearing he wasn’t alone in his loss was something of a comfort, and Merlin was willing to accept whatever solace he could find. He was hungry to know how Percival had ever survived the despair writhing in his gut.
Timidly, he asked, “How did you... carry on?”
Percival frowned for a moment, then answered in a faint voice, his eyes glazing over with harsh memories. “I took care of the bodies one by one, then left. I joined Lancelot and came to your aid. I came to fight the men who’d destroyed my home.”
“Oh,” Merlin could think of no other response. He knew that up ahead, Arthur was probably rolling his eyes at this feeble response to Percival’s honesty, but what else was there to say? Foolishly, perhaps, Merlin had been hoping for some kind of magical cure for the guilt clinging to his heart.
Percival seemed to know what Merlin wanted to hear. He gave him a long, searching look, then leaned across the space between their horses. “If, for some reason, you believe we are too late, I’ll deal with the worst of it myself.”
Merlin’s eyes widened with surprise at the implications behind what Percival had just said. He stared at him, terrified. “What do you mean, for some reason?”
“I’m just saying,” Percival continued calmly, still staring meaningfully at Merlin as he pulled himself upright again. “If your worst fears become reality, you won’t be alone in facing them.”
He seemed to lose interest at a moment’s notice, and looked away again, but Merlin wasn’t done staring. His mind was spinning. Did Percival know about his magic? How did he find out? Had Lancelot told him? No, that wasn’t it. It couldn’t be.
But how could he know? As far as he could remember, Merlin had never so much as uttered a word about the Old Religion in Percival’s presence, so how had he come to this conclusion?
Merlin wanted to tell himself that he was jumping to conclusions too quickly; just because Percival had emphasised a few words, it didn’t mean he knew Merlin’s secret. It didn’t mean he’d tell Arthur.
Merlin’s stomach lurched violently-- Arthur could be one person closer to discovering his secret. Arthur could be one person closer to hating him; one person closer to being hit with yet another betrayal, one just as terrible as Gwen’s, if not worse.
Questions burned through Merlin’s head. He was dying to press Percival for answers; he wanted to demand an explanation, but that kind of thing had always been more of Arthur’s forté. It was too dangerous to discuss anything openly, so Merlin would have to put his faith in the goodness of people, and trust Percival. He’d always been trusting, just like his mother had taught him, although since moving to Camelot, the endless parade of thieves, murderers, impostors and liars bent on treason and destruction had gradually worn his unsuspecting nature thin.
Slowly calming down, Merlin started planning when it would be best to confront Percival (and how exactly he should go about that), when there was a commotion behind him.
Gwaine’s horse had turned around of its own accord, and was trotting back along the path. In the hope of making her behave, Gwaine had started shouting and waving his arms in the air. He whirled around helplessly in his saddle, at a total loss for what to do.
Chuckling, Lancelot watched from atop his own perfectly behaved mare. “What’re you doing?” he called. “Ealdor’s this way!”
“I know which way Ealdor is,” Gwaine sounded irate, but really he was taking it all in good humour. “She seems to have different ideas!” He nudged the side of his horse lightly with his knee. “Gringolet? Come on, girl! What’re you playing at?”
Lancelot tried to offer some advice between gasps of laughter. “Pull a little on her reigns and she’ll do as she’s told. She’s just been distracted by something! Maybe she’s spotted some kind of food.”
“And who am I to deny a strong woman a good meal?” Gwaine winked, but he followed Lancelot’s advice. Gringolet obeyed, tossing her head and blowing air through her nose as she did so. Gwaine patted her proudly. “That’s my girl! Always does as she’s told eventually-- take after Gwaine that way, don’t ya’?”
As he caught up again, Gwaine heard Lancelot still chuckling to himself. “What’s so funny?” he grunted, glaring over.
“Nothing, nothing!” Lancelot hated the thought of falling out with someone on this quest-- especially Gwaine, who looked as though he wouldn’t be afraid to fight dirty.
“You take this very seriously, don’t you?” Gwaine asked after a minute or two, still staring at Lancelot.
Unsure of what Gwaine was referring to, Lancelot made a vague guess (which, of course, turned out to be completely wrong). “Yes, I think mutual affection and respect are very important between a horse and her rider. You need to learn to understand her and--”
“No,” Gwaine inclined his head towards the red cloaked riders up ahead. “I mean this; honour, knighthood, nobility. All that rubbish.”
Lancelot felt a pang of shame shoot through his chest-- he did take it all seriously. It was more important to him that anything, even if his recent behaviour hadn’t reflected that. His stomach twisted, knowing they’d all hate him if they knew the truth... all except Merlin.
Lancelot’s eyes paused on Merlin’s thin frame, and his heart warmed a little. Despite the fact that Merlin’s life was filled with nothing but grief and loss, Lancelot knew he wouldn’t waste a second if someone else was in need of comfort; he was the most honourable of them all.
“Well?” Gwaine’s impatience brought Lancelot out of his thoughts.
“The responsibility of protecting Camelot and her people is always a serious one, Sir Gwaine.”
“Yeah, but,” Gwaine lowered his voice and leaned towards Lancelot. “I’ve heard you’ve not taken that armour off even once. It’s a bit extreme, don’t you think?”
“There’s nothing wrong with being dedicated,” Lancelot said shortly, trying to end the conversation before he became too irritated by Gwaine’s persistence.
Gwaine struggled to keep back a grin. “No, no, of course not... But don’t you ever have any fun? I mean, Camelot women are generally--”
“Just because I refrain from ripping off my clothes at the first whiff of a lady, it doesn’t mean I never have any fun!” Lancelot’s voice had risen as he spoke, and he sounded genuinely angry.
Percival turned around and smirked, which made Lancelot blush. He stared moodily at the floor for a few seconds, and then Gwaine’s resolve cracked and he started laughing.
“There you go, taking me too seriously again!” He shoved Lancelot’s arm cheerfully. “Really, is that what you think of me? That I drop my breeches for every woman I meet?”
“No, of course not!” Lancelot tried to apologise, but Gwaine’s eyes glinting at him were very distracting, and he quickly lost his trail of thought.
“Well, honestly, it wouldn’t be too far from the truth,” Gwaine muttered more seriously, and Lancelot couldn’t tell if he was hearing smugness or regret. “I guess that isn’t so noble, eh?”
“None of us are perfect.”
Gwaine made a disbelieving noise. “I’ll wager you’re the closest anyone gets.”
“I promise you, there are far better men in the world than I,” Lancelot sighed.
Gwaine considered him thoughtfully for a while. As far as he was concerned, Lancelot was akin to the great romantic heroes of the past, forever immortalised and idealised in songs and tales.
“Alright! Name one,” he said, shoving Lancelot’s arm again.
“What?” Lancelot looked up.
“Name one of the men you consider to be so much better than yourself.”
Lancelot thought about it for a long time. He watched the four riders in front of him, each lost in their own world. Arthur was staring defiantly ahead as Elyan tried unsuccessfully to engage him in conversation, Percival was leaning forwards and whispering affectionately to his horse, while Merlin gazed down at his hands. He was meticulously tearing up a sycamore leaf, looking bored and agitated.
“Merlin,” Lancelot decided as he watched him. “He’s definitely the best man I know.”
Gwaine raised a surprised eyebrow, but he didn’t disagree. His eyes flashed in Merlin’s direction, and the grin on his lips widened fondly. Perhaps he hadn’t known Merlin for as long as Lancelot had, but he could still see the goodness in him. Merlin had been his friend when he had no one else, and for that Gwaine would be forever thankful.
He blew out a puff of air and looked knowingly towards Lancelot. “Good one.”
As Lancelot nodded, Arthur called their attention from the front. While they’d been riding, the waning light of the afternoon sun had faded behind the treetops. The evening was growing cold, and the horses had begun to show signs of tiring.
“We’ll have to make camp soon,” Arthur announced, shooting Merlin a troubled look. “We’ve made good progress, but the horses can’t keep going at this speed all night, and neither can we. If we’re exhausted, we’ll be no help to anyone.”
Merlin nodded towards Arthur, who held his gaze for a moment, trying to communicate some unspoken message of support. Then Gringolet whinnied, and Arthur turned to lead everybody off the dirt path and towards a nearby wooded clearing.
* * *
Lancelot and Gwaine set about unpacking and Elyan gathered firewood, while Percival took the horses to the stream. He had a quiet, gentle air about him as he spoke to them, and they followed him obediently. Merlin had offered to help in the hope of catching a moment alone, but Arthur told him to sit down and shut up, because it’d been a long day and he needed to save his strength.
Since Merlin could think of no excuse to go after Percival --who had already told them all not to worry, because he was more than capable of caring for all the horses by himself-- he sat glumly on a log and watched the others bustle around him. It was unusual to rest while everyone else was busy, and Merlin would probably have stood up to help unpack if Arthur hadn’t come over and sat down next to him.
“How’re you feeling?” Arthur asked quietly. Merlin’s only reply was a shrug, so Arthur leaned forwards and put his hand on Merlin’s knee to get his attention. “It might be hard to believe, Merlin, but I do know how you feel. It seems desperate right now, but there’s a good chance your mother’s fine.”
Merlin hoped a lot of nodding would satisfy Arthur. He felt incapable of opening his mouth without blurting, They’re all dead. Please, just leave me alone.
Arthur clearly hadn’t finished trying to cheer Merlin up, “This time tomorrow, she’ll probably be welcoming you with open arms. Maybe she’ll even tuck you in and kiss you goodnight.” At that, he winked and elbowed Merlin lightly, trying to tease out a reaction.
A single, strangled bark of laughter was all Merlin could muster. He dropped his head to his hands for a moment, but disguised it by ruffling his own hair. Then, he managed to force a weak smile.
“I bet she’ll just love Gwaine,” Arthur mused.
Was he ever going to go away? “Yeah, she will.”
“And Lancelot, well,” Arthur huffed a little, and Merlin remembered he wasn’t supposed to know anything about the awkward turn their relationship had taken. “Everybody loves Lancelot, don’t they?”
Merlin turned towards Arthur. He was staring at the ground now, and looking almost as miserable as Merlin felt. With a rush of compassion, Merlin reached up and put his arm around Arthur’s back, squeezing him for a moment.
“Are you alright?” he asked in a low voice.
The look Arthur gave him instantly showed that a hug had not been the right way to go. To say he was glaring would have been a huge understatement-- glower probably wouldn’t have cut it either; that expression was pure evil.
“Get off me.”
“Sorry,” Merlin retracted his arm in a flash, but Arthur didn’t look away.
“I’m fine,” he said, baring his teeth. “There’s no reason why I wouldn’t be fine.”
“Of course,” Merlin mumbled, unable to look Arthur in the eye. He was just trying to be there for him, why did that have to be so difficult? Pushing people away had always been Arthur’s specialty, but was he really stupid enough to think he didn’t need anyone? To think he couldn’t trust anyone?
He could trust Merlin, and he needed him, even if he didn’t know it.
Arthur continued staring at Merlin. He was convinced that if he pretended he didn’t care about Gwen and Lancelot, eventually it’d be true. Eventually, his heart wouldn’t feel like it wanted to rip itself from his body and crawl into a dark corner. Eventually, he might even be able to clap Lancelot on the back and congratulate him on winning the heart of such a woman.
Unfortunately, Merlin putting a reassuring arm around him, and making it sound as though he had every right to be upset, was not helping. Merlin had his own problems, and he couldn’t possibly know how Arthur was feeling. He needed to learn to mind his own business, and stop giving the impression he’d never leave; never lie; never pick someone else first. It just wasn’t the truth. It couldn’t be, could it?
Merlin had a knack for making Arthur think too hard about how he should probably open up. Sharing his affections for Gwen had helped him come to terms with them, so maybe sharing his heartache would help too? He was suddenly worried that he’d start talking before he could stop himself, and so Arthur began formulating an excuse to order Merlin away.
Thankfully, Gwaine chose that moment to interrupt loudly. “Erm, Arthur?”
“We may have a problem...”
As it turned out, Merlin had been right that morning-- he was too distracted to be preparing supplies for six people. As he and Arthur turned to face Gwaine and Lancelot, the problem became very apparent; they only had five tents.
“Now what are we going to do, Merlin?” Arthur fumed, jumping to his feet and stomping over to stand beside Lancelot, who watched him nervously.
Merlin’s hands bunched into fists as Arthur stared at him, hands on his hips. These mood swings were getting worse. One moment, Arthur was quiet and concerned, patting Merlin’s back or holding his knee. The next he was shouting, cursing and stamping his feet like a child.
“Maybe someone should’ve been sent to give me a hand,” Merlin shot back heatedly. “Or better yet, maybe you should’ve checked your own bloody packs before we left. It might have only been for a day or so, but we were all equals once, and it wasn’t my responsibility then.”
Lancelot stepped towards Merlin, hands outstretched in apology. His eyes were sad, and his brow creased with worry. Merlin could see he wanted to say nobody expects anything from you, it was just an honest mistake, forgiven and forgotten. That didn’t matter, because Merlin didn’t want to listen. All the sorrow and grief had finally reached a boiling point inside him, and he released it in Arthur’s direction. For a few minutes, he didn’t care that Arthur was going through a lot of hurt too, he just wanted to be heard.
“That Camelot might be a long way off, but one day, it’ll come. You might think you don’t need me, but you do. You do now and you will again,” Merlin got to his feet, stumbling a little. “You may be a prince, but you’re also my friend, and sometimes I think you should act like it. I’m not some idiot you can punch in the arm and cheer up instantly, and if I’m having a hard time, getting angry with me for not feeling exactly how you want me to won’t help. If it makes you happy, I’ll sleep outside. I don’t care, just be quiet and leave me alone!”
Silence echoed around the clearing as the knights all stared at Merlin. It was the second time in a day they’d seen him shout at Arthur, and it was becoming clear that something was wrong.
Gwaine dropped the bag he was holding, and strode across the clearing towards Merlin. For a moment, it looked as though he was going to hit him. Stepping back warily, Merlin stopped glaring at Arthur and instead fixed his eyes on Gwaine. He stopped a foot away, and they stared at each other, neither saying a word. There was no indication of what Gwaine was thinking, and Merlin frowned at him.
“We can’t let him sleep out here in the cold,” Gwaine finally growled over his shoulder at the others.
“No, of course not,” Lancelot sounded uneasy, stood so close to a raging Arthur.
“He’ll have to share with one of us,” Gwaine didn’t break eye contact with Merlin. “We can take it in turns.”
“He can stay with me tonight.”
Everyone was surprised to hear those words leave Arthur’s lips-- Merlin most of all. He turned towards him at once. Arthur’s voice sounded stark and emotionless against the growing sounds of the forest, and his face was pale in the gloom of dusk. He looked tired and empty, and the closest to defeated Merlin had ever seen him.
The time they’d spent hiding in caves outside Camelot flooded back; the Arthur that Merlin saw before him was not so far removed from the man he’d glimpsed then. He was in desperate need of support, and only lashing out in hope of disguising that.
“No,” Gwaine said loudly, turning to face the rest of the group and swinging his arm roughly around Merlin’s shoulders. “I’ll take him tonight. I think you could both do with a chance to cool off.”
Arthur nodded almost imperceptibly, and Merlin bit his lip, thanking Gwaine quietly. The two of them then set about helping Lancelot pull nearby logs into a small circle around Elyan, who was kneeling in the centre of the clearing, trying to start a fire. Merlin kept his head down, and tried to ignore the way Arthur was staring at him. He hadn’t moved an inch, and his face was blank.
I wonder if that got through to him at all, Merlin thought as he and Lancelot lifted a particularly large, knobbly log together. Or if he’s just even angrier with me now.
* * *
After an evening of awkward silences and half-cooked stew, Merlin ducked into Gwaine’s tent, happy for a moment alone. A grumpy Arthur had insisted Merlin shared with him for the second night, Lancelot had timidly offered the third, and Elyan and Percival had agreed to the fourth and fifth. Honestly, being passed around like that made Merlin feel like nothing but a burden.
As he pulled off his jacket and boots, Merlin found himself missing Will more than he had in a long time. He sighed, remembering all the times they’d built makeshift shelters in Ascetir Forest and camped out all night. Will had shown him how to roast chestnuts perfectly, and talked for hours about girls and boys and how everyone should be allowed to live and love as they pleased, really. Sometimes, the two of them had laughed until the fire sunk to embers, and then curled up under a blanket, protecting each other from the cold air and creepy crawlies.
Merlin quickly wiped a stray tear from him cheek and cleared his throat as Gwaine came in. They exchanged a smile, and then Gwaine rumbled, “Top and tail alright with you?”
Once they’d shuffled under the blankets and nudged each other out of the way, Gwaine and Merlin settled down to sleep. Merlin tried to ignore Gwaine’s feet on the pillow beside him, but they were rather large and distracting. He decided there was no denying it-- Arthur’s were far nicer. Feet were a very private part of a man, and Merlin tried not to stare, but the smell was inexcusable. Then again, he supposed Gwaine didn’t much like sharing his own head space with feet either, and therefore, Merlin elected to keep any and all comments to himself.
And besides, Merlin scowled silently at the darkness. If these were Arthur’s feet, he’d probably be kicking me in the face for being so insolent earlier. Even though it was all true.
Merlin expected to lie awake for hours, tossing and turning as visions of his mother blazed through his head, but as it turned out, his lack of sleep the night before had finally caught up with him. Those thoughts of Arthur (and, unfortunately, feet) were some of his last as he drifted into uneasy dreams.
Gwaine wasn’t so lucky. He lay staring up at the roof of the tent for a long time. He mulled over the day’s events in his head; Merlin’s agitation in the street that morning, his moody silences and his short fuse. It was unusual, but this was an unusual situation-- it’s not everyday the most caring boy in the world discovers his village might’ve been wiped out. Exceptions needed to be made in circumstances like that, but Arthur didn’t quite seem to get it.
Shifting slightly, Gwaine frowned to himself. Arthur, what exactly was going on with him? One moment, he was whispering quietly with Merlin, and escorting him to Ealdor or making him rest while the knights did all the work. Then, suddenly, he’d be shouting and fuming. It was a wonder Merlin hadn’t lost his bloody temper sooner.
Why do these nobles insist on acting so complex? Gwaine snorted to himself, before deciding he’d thought about men enough for one night, and should probably focus on the fairer sex. Just as Gwaine smiled and started running through a list of names --Josselyn? Helen? Marie?-- Merlin let out a deep groan at the other end of the bed.
Gwaine froze. “Merlin?” he said after a moment. “Merlin, what’s happening?”
There was no answer, with the exception of more groaning. This time, there was no doubt in Gwaine’s mind; those were moans of fear. He tried saying Merlin’s name a little louder, in the hope of waking him, but it made no impact.
Suddenly, Merlin’s entire body spasmed. He twisted and squirmed, his legs shooting outwards and his hands leaping up to cover his eyes. A strangled cry ripped from his throat, which Gwaine was only just able to determine as, “Mother!”
The unexpected burst of motion caught Gwaine by surprise, but he managed to sit up quickly and do his best to restrain Merlin. He took hold of those long, flailing legs, and moved himself until he was sitting awkwardly on top of Merlin’s knees. Wasting no time at all, Gwaine then grasped Merlin’s wrists and tore his arms down from where they were clamped tightly against his face. He shook Merlin as hard as he could and hissed his name, desperate to wake him.
Merlin’s writhing quickly lost momentum, and his voice grew quieter. His eyelids gradually pulled apart, and he tried to speak, but he started coughing. Merlin struggled into a sitting position, and turned onto his side to lean over and clutch at his chest with a shaking hand.
Gwaine freed Merlin’s wrists and moved hurriedly off his legs. He shuffled up to sit beside Merlin, and patted him on the back. “Let it out!” he joked weakly, but Merlin didn’t smile. “What was that?”
“Coughing fit,” Merlin rasped, reaching for the waterskin on the floor.
He expected a chuckle, but Gwaine just moved around to sit cross-legged in front of him. “I’m serious, Merlin. You were shouting and kicking like you were having some kind of fit.”
“It was just a bad dream,” Merlin said hoarsely. “About my mother.”
“Merlin,” Gwaine whispered, his eyes dark with compassion. He brushed a rough thumb back and forth along Merlin’s forearm. “Y’know, I heard about Ealdor fighting off Kanen... Your old village has quite a reputation. I’m sure they’re fine. Rumour has it they’re all more than capable of--”
“They’re dead,” Merlin was surprised by the emptiness of his voice. He’d wanted to say it all day, but he’d been too afraid. Something about the way Gwaine was crouching near him, all hushed and concerned, gave him strength enough to face it. “They’re all dead. Even my mother.”
“Now, how would you know that?” Gwaine stared into Merlin’s eyes, unblinking.
A few minutes passed as Merlin fussed with the blankets covering his legs. He knew he could trust Gwaine with anything, but how would Arthur feel if he ended up being the last person in Albion to discover the truth? The more people who knew his secret, the more dangerous life became, and Merlin was having trouble enough protecting Arthur from all the threats he faced already. He could trust Lancelot to the ends of the earth and back, but Percival? He wasn’t so sure.
Don’t be stupid, he told himself, shaking his head. This is Gwaine you’re talking about. He’s the strength to your magic.
Merlin needed support from someone who knew him; someone who really knew him. Gaius was too far away, and Lancelot was facing enough of his own problems. Gwaine had always been honest with him, so why should he be concerned about being truthful?
“I have magic.”
The words reverberated around the tent, and were swallowed by silent darkness. Dread clenched Merlin’s stomach as he lifted his head to face his fate.
Merlin stared, mouth gaping open. “What?”
“Prove it,” Gwaine repeated with a smirk.
Merlin gazed around the tent, not quite believing he was trying to prove he was a sorcerer to a knight of Camelot. He saw Gwaine’s pack lying half open opposite him, and focused his attention on it. His eyes flashed gold and his hand moved up into the air.
A grin spread across Gwaine’s face as he watched a large pickle jar rise out of the bag into the air, and float into Merlin’s arms. He handed it over, and waited, wide-eyed with anxiety.
“I always knew you were special, Merlin,” Gwaine laughed, reaching up and ruffling Merlin’s hair affectionately.
“You’re not going to kill me? Or run and tell Arthur?” Merlin’s heart lurched. He couldn’t quite believe the ease with which Gwaine was accepting his confession.
“I don’t know if you’ve noticed, Merlin, but I don’t run and tell Arthur anything. If it’s important enough, he’ll find out one way or another. And as for killing you,” Gwaine winked. “I think that can wait a while.”
Merlin giggled, still feeling a little nervous, but his shoulders slowly began to relax. He told Gwaine everything he’d seen the night before; the smoke, the crying faces of the people he’d grown up with, and his mother’s fate. He had to pause quite a few times, gulping back tears or pushing the harshest images from his mind, but he was still relieved to finally be sharing his burden.
“And I couldn’t sleep again, so I did some extra work for Gaius and then I went to see Arthur,” Merlin finished at last, eyes fixed on his own fingers again.
The thought of Arthur sent a ripple through him; gratitude, sympathy, anger, guilt. He couldn’t seem to decide what it was he felt. Keeping secrets had become like second nature, but that didn’t make it right, and it could only ever make the big reveal more painful for everyone-- especially Arthur.
The prince of Camelot was nothing but loyal and true, but the three people who loved him the most were all deceiving him; Uther had been lying about Arthur’s birth for decades, Gwen had said nothing about her feelings for Lancelot, and Merlin? He felt as though he was the worst of them all. He lied to save his own skin, and he lied to protect a future he had no real guarantee of. After everything with Morgana and how close Camelot had come to ruin, Merlin could sense the time for the truth fast approaching, and it terrified him.
A tear slipped down Merlin's cheek. Even in the dim light, Gwaine noticed, and he put his arm around Merlin’s shoulders. Gwaine pulled gently so that Merlin’s head came to rest on his broad chest, and he hugged him close. Cheeky grins and crafty jokes were nowhere to be found, this was just Gwaine being the friend Merlin needed-- giving him solace.
“One day, you won’t have to be afraid,” Gwaine muttered into Merlin’s ear. “One day soon, Arthur’ll know the person you really are, and if he can’t see the goodness in you... well, I’ll show him. I promise.”
* * *
The next day dawned bright and chill. Arthur and Merlin rode side by side, but hardly shared a word. The riders emerged from the trees in early afternoon, and began crossing some of Camelot’s great plains. There were fields of long grass and dark patches of dirt where crops would grow in summer. Gradually, they were drawing closer to the edge of Ascetir Forest, and the border of Cenred’s ruined kingdom.
Arthur felt like a fool. He knew he’d deserved every word Merlin had hurled at him the night before, and as a result of his spitefulness, he’d spent the night trying to force Gwen’s whispers out of his head. The silence had made her impossible to ignore, and Arthur had told himself over and over that if only Merlin had been there, he could’ve slept soundly. Either Merlin’s inane chatter would’ve drowned out Gwen’s promises, or the silence would’ve provided Arthur with an excuse to comfort Merlin, and surround himself in someone else’s problems, rather than his own.
Or maybe I could’ve told him what she’s done, Arthur sighed to himself. Maybe I could’ve confided in him.
During the morning’s ride, Arthur had noticed Lancelot wasn’t speaking more than a few words to anyone-- anyone except Gwaine, of course. The two of them had become fast friends. The thought left Arthur disgruntled. Gwaine had an easy, swaggering manner that made him instantly likeable. Merlin had fallen for him the moment they met, and half of Camelot seemed to have gone the same way.
A roar of laughter at the back of the group made Arthur turn, just in time to see Lancelot aiming a torn piece of bread into Gwaine’s open mouth. They were both swaying unsteadily on their horses and fighting off fits of laughter. Percival and Elyan were also grinning back at them, enjoying the show.
“You won’t think it’s so funny when we run out of food!” Arthur called, unsure whether he was feeling too brooding to laugh.
“Ah, Arthur,” Gwaine grinned, perking his eyebrows a little. “I have plenty of contacts over the border. If we run short of bread, I’m sure I’ll be able to find some.”
Stuck for a reply, Arthur swivelled to face ahead again. He watched Merlin out of the corner of his eye. Merlin had taken no notice of the guffaws ringing out behind him, instead focusing on picking up the pace until his horse was in the lead. He was either desperate to reach Ealdor, or sick and tired of riding beside Arthur.
“Hey, Arthur!” Elyan shouted from behind. “What d’you say we take a break when we reach the forest? I could do with stretching my legs.”
“Stretch on your horse!” Arthur snapped, hardly turning his head. “If we keep stopping, we won’t reach Ealdor until sunset.”
“But we’re only just going to make sunset as it is! Five minutes won’t make any difference,” Elyan was far more persistent that his sister, and directed his next question at someone he seemed to think would give in easier. “It’d be fine, wouldn’t it, Merlin?”
The face Merlin pulled was that of a deer caught between a spear and a crossbow. At that angle, Arthur was the only one who could see Merlin’s expression, and he jumped in, covering Merlin’s nervous stutter.
“The people of Ealdor are relying on us, Elyan. We can’t afford to waste a moment.”
Merlin cast a shaky smile over at Arthur, and mouthed thank you. It made Arthur’s heart flitter in a truly ridiculous way, but was confirmation enough that Merlin had finished shouting. Arthur was pretty sure he’d be needing Merlin over the next few days, and all he wanted was to keep any unneeded tension at bay.
* * *
In the end, they did face a delay in Ascetir Forest. After they’d been riding for a while, the horses all swerved off the path and began clambering through the undergrowth, led, of course, by Gringolet. Not even Lancelot could distract them, and there was much shouting back and forth between the riders as they argued over what was happening and how to stop it.
Merlin was the only one who stayed quiet-- he knew exactly what was going on. He’d grown up among those trees, running to and fro, chasing Will and shouting at the top of his lungs in the midst of some imaginary battle or quest. Even after being away for so long, he could still remember every twist and turn of the path. His head filled with memories of the jokes he’d shared, and the games he’d played behind that rock or around this corner.
At first, he’d been as startled as anybody when the horses all whinnied and stormed off the path, but his memory had soon caught up with him. That area had been one of his and Will’s favourite haunts. They’d hidden in the bushes and spied on nobles passing by on journeys to the great cities in the centre of Cenred’s kingdom. Will had cursed under his breath, condemning royalty and all those of rank.
Merlin may have gotten a little carried away with his desire to lighten the mood; he’d cast a sneaky spell on the nearest apple tree. Unsurprisingly, his inexperience and the nature of his magic had confused things somehow. That was the reason why, even in the dead of winter, one apple tree was always producing fruit in Ascetir Forest.
The other part of the spell --the part that’d actually gone to plan-- was also strong as ever. Young and eager to please, Merlin’s only intention had been to frustrate and humiliate the people Will hated more than anyone; he’d bewitched the tree to attract all passing horses with the promise of fresh fruit. It’d been a flawless plan, since the only people able to afford horses in that realm were lords and ladies, princes and princesses, knights and their damsels.
Of course, he’s never realised that one day, prince Arthur, his knights and their Merlin would suffering for that adolescent joke.
The spell would’ve been easy enough to lift, even after all this time, but Merlin was reluctant to do it. There was so little in the world to show Will had ever lived at all, and Merlin didn’t want to wipe away this memory. Yes, they’d been immature, and perhaps even reckless and a little selfish, but that didn’t change the fact it was a good memory. It was something secret Merlin had shared with Will back when his magic had brought them together, rather than pulled them apart.
After a while, the horses found the tree, and started munching away at its apples. Arthur was furiously trying to ascertain how this tree was in fruit in the middle of winter, and how the horses had known about it. Nobody was paying attention, they were all trying to pull on their reigns the way Lancelot had the day before.
“It’s a spell,” Merlin called over Gwaine’s curses.
“Sorcery!” Arthur yelled at once, drawing his sword and swinging it above his head. It would have been quite a threatening move, if he hadn’t been brandishing his sword at a tree.
“Not proper sorcery!” Merlin squeaked, his eyes fixed on the shining blade. “It’s just a silly little spell that’s been here for years. It’s easy enough to overcome.”
Arthur stared at him, his sword arm sinking back to his side. “How do we do that, then?”
“You won’t like it,” Merlin bit his lip, silently berating his own sense of humour all those years ago.
“Come on, Merlin!” Gwaine shouted. “Just tell him!”
“Erm, well,” Merlin began, quickly deciding that staring at Arthur’s boots was by far his safest option. Although Merlin had been little more than a child when he’d cursed the tree, he’d at least had enough sense to come up with a way for each passing noble to conquer it. They just had to mutter the correct phrase-- which was, regrettably, just as ridiculous as the spell itself. “The rider of highest rank has to, erm, say something.”
“Say what?” Arthur growled.
Merlin gulped, and spoke as fast as humanly possible, “Gosh darn this dollop head of mine.”
There was a moment of stunned silence.
“You can’t be serious!” Arthur fumed, acting as though this was all Merlin’s fault (which it was, really, but he didn’t know that).
“Come on, Arthur! What’re you waiting for?” Gwaine grinned at them, quirking his eyebrows.
Arthur closed his eyes, praying for patience, and prepared himself.
Merlin had better appreciate this, he thought. “Gosh darn this head of mine.”
“This dollop head of mine, Arthur!” Merlin corrected him, and there was definitely a hint of amusement in his eyes. “It won’t work unless you say it right.”
“And how do you just happen to know this, Merlin?” Arthur shot back, heat creeping up the back of his neck. He wasn’t going to give in that easily.
“I lived in Ealdor for twenty years, I know these woods and I know the stories that go with them.”
Scowling, Arthur accepted this (rather vague) explanation, and stared at the tree.
This isn’t over, he thought angrily. “Gosh darn this dollop head of mine.”
Nothing happened. Again. The horses continued munching away happily, and the tree looked as healthy as ever. Arthur rounded on Merlin.
“Merlin! I said it right, and nothings happened! You’d better not be--”
“No, look!” Lancelot interrupted, forgetting his silence in the excitement.
They all turned towards him, and watched as his mare responded to a tug on her reigns. Grinning, Percival tried it too; he pulled gently on the reigns, and watching his horse turn back towards the path. There were murmurs of thanks, and Elyan patted Merlin cheerily on the back as he rode past. Gringolet was the last horse to be goaded away, but she came without much fuss when Gwaine shoved three apples into his pack, and grinned down at her.
“You can have those later.”
The bare ground was spattered with tufts of grass here and there, but most of it was dried mud. No birds were singing among the trees, and the chill breeze carried the smell of burning. A light smoke swirled over the roofs of Ealdor as six riders emerged from the edge of the forest.
It was sunset, and everything felt like a dream to Merlin. All ghosts of a smile had left his face hours ago. He could feel the eyes of the knights boring into his back as they approached the gate of the village. Merlin knew their faces would be wracked with concern-- they must’ve seen his shoulders stiffen, his knuckles grip white on the reins.
They came to a stop before the gate, which was blackened in places by smoke and stray flames. For a short time, no one said a word. The smell of ash had been lingering between them for too long, and each was as horrified as the next to know what they faced on the other side of the fence. To one degree or another, they’d all joked with Merlin, and told him Ealdor would be fine. They’d all believed it, too, and the same ache of anxiety twisted through each other their stomachs. It felt as though they’d let Merlin down.
He was still sitting at the front, a lump rising in his throat, hardly breathing at all. Merlin didn’t know if it was all harder because he’d been expecting it. If it’d been a shock, he could have denied it. He could’ve shouted and raged, but as it was, despondent acceptance filled his bones. Nausea built in his stomach and chills ran along his arms. The silence was unbearable, and everyone was watching him, waiting.
Arthur’s horse shifted slightly on the cold ground. He brushed his fingers over her neck, and then cleared his throat. The sound seemed to echo through the air. Ignoring the four knights behind them, Arthur spoke softly to Merlin. “Do you want me to go first?” His voice was low, and cracked slightly from the thick stench of smoke on the air.
It seemed to take forever for Merlin to turn towards him. When he did, Arthur saw how tired he looked; there were dark circles beneath Merlin’s eyes and his skin was grey in the fading light. As their eyes met, Arthur almost expected a smile to spread across Merlin’s face. It was rare he looked so gravely serious without it ending in a joke or a giggle.
No such smile came, and Arthur yearned to reach over and show Merlin how much he cared. Arthur was overcome by feelings he rarely connected with Merlin; the urge to protect, and to wash away pain and misery. He missed Merlin’s smiles almost as much as he missed his own.
Arthur’s stomach twisted horribly-- had he ever made Merlin look like that? His head filled with all the harsh, careless words he’d thrown at Merlin over the years, and those times he’d not thanked him for everything, or checked to see if he was alright. The thought of the hours Merlin had spent in Camelot’s dungeons, cold, alone and falsely accused, sent a shudder through Arthur. He reproached himself for every rough, forceful hand he’d ever laid on Merlin, in any attempt to manipulate or intimidate him.
Is that what he sees when he looks at me?
“I’ll go,” Merlin croaked, his voice little more than a whisper.
Clumsily, Merlin clambered out of his saddle, then gazed up at Arthur, waiting for him to do the same. He didn’t want to ride into his old village, high and mighty atop some great steed. No, Merlin wanted to walk in through the gates, just as he’d walked out all that time ago-- humble, and full of regret.
Arthur slid gracefully to the ground. Behind them, the sounds of the other knights climbing down from their horses broke the silence, but neither of them turned.
As he stepped forward, Merlin felt Arthur’s gloved hand close tightly around his wrist. It was a private, tender show of support; unexpected, but welcome. Merlin’s skin shivered against the cold, and his chest ached with the dull thrum of his heart. He didn’t want to do this, but he had no choice.
They walked slowly towards the gate, each footfall a bigger struggle than the last, but Merlin could feel Arthur’s solid weight beside him. He tried to take comfort in the thought that he was not alone; he had Arthur. He had Arthur gripping his wrist in support, and muttering words Merlin couldn’t quite catch under his breath. He had Arthur taking each step with him, their feet moving in perfect synchrony.
They halted a foot from the gate. It was hanging open a little, and some of the worst destruction was visible over the fence already-- Merlin could see the collapsed roof of Matthew’s old house. Any view of the ground was blocked by the fence, and Merlin felt his strength to fight back images of corpses disappearing. He slowly reached forward to push the gate, listening to his own shuddering breaths as it fell open.
Arthur stared, transfixed by the sight before him; children lay face down in the earth beside their parents. Splayed backwards over a low stone wall, there was an old man with his eyes still open wide. A woman Arthur recognised from his last visit as one of the bravest villagers was crumpled in a heap beside the rubble of Matthew’s house. Her blonde hair was spread out in front of her, thick with mud from being trodden into the ground by heavy feet. Not even the cattle had survived... It’d been a massacre.
Once he was over the initial shock of the scene before him, Arthur’s immediate reaction was to tighten his grip on Merlin’s wrist. He looked over as he heard Merlin’s breath catch in his throat. His eyes were closed, and he was biting his lip. There was the tiniest of movements in Merlin’s neck as he shook his head.
The silence was deafening. Arthur released Merlin’s wrist when he tugged at it, and watched him walk forward through the gate, towards the wrecked houses. He looked so small and alone as his feet dragged over the ground. Arthur stared helplessly after him, rooted to the spot.
The sound of footsteps told Arthur the knights had gathered behind him. They all gazed after Merlin, lost for words. It wasn’t right, and Arthur knew it. They were supposed to be the fearless ones. For all their shining armour and vicious weaponry, the knights stood still, paralysed by the murder of so many innocents, while Merlin faced it all by himself. He was a servant; a village boy; the quietest, most gentle and caring man Arthur had ever come across, and yet, he stared death straight in the eye.
“We can deal with this,” Percival’s voice over Arthur’s shoulder made him start. “You need to get Merlin away.”
Arthur nodded slowly, but still failed to move. He watched Merlin bend his knees and reach out to a twisted body, lying little more than thirty feet from the edge of the forest.
“Who’s that?” Elyan asked quietly.
Gwaine answered, his tone thick and solemn. “Merlin’s mother.”
Brushing the hair from Hunith’s bloodied face, Merlin let a sob burst out from within him. He choked on his mother’s name, each ragged breath so heavy it felt as though it could be his last. Merlin’s panic was mounting. His hands trembled violently. One covered his mouth, muffling his cries, while the other hovered over his mother’s knotted hair and ripped dress. Tears ran freely down Merlin’s cheeks, and as they fell to the ground, he saw them glimmer gold for a moment.
Sickness swelled in his stomach. Hatred boiled through his veins. It’d all been the work of magic. Hunith, lover of a Dragonlord, mother of a warlock, had been murdered by magic. She deserved so much more than that. She had spent her life protecting magic, adoring it, and this was how it thanked her. It cast her into the mud, cutting her life short with pain and cruelty.
A hush fell as a spark of magic erupted from Merlin’s fingers; it was part of him, too. The magic that had done this was woven through his body, and wrapped around his soul. It repulsed him. Disgust bubbled inside him, and every single word of betrayal and loathing he had ever heard the king utter about sorcery echoed through Merlin’s head.
Maybe he was right after all.
Just as Merlin was working himself up to boiling point, his thoughts were cut short; Arthur crashing into him. His plate armour leaving sore bruises across Merlin’s back, but at that moment, it didn’t matter, because Arthur’s strong arms were wrapping around Merlin, and hoisting him to his feet.
“Merlin,” came a hoarse whisper in his ear. “Merlin, come on. You can’t stay here.”
Arthur didn’t know what else to say. Were any words right at a moment like that? He could only cling onto Merlin, and hope he understood that he wasn’t alone; Arthur was there. He was no replacement for a mother, but he was loyal and caring somewhere deep down.
Turning Merlin around in his arms, Arthur was surprised by how little resistance he faced-- Merlin had fought him over far less in the past. Arthur had heard Merlin’s sobs as he raced across the distance between them, but that hadn’t prepared him for the despair in Merlin’s eyes. Arthur had been raised to never cry, and so he was at a total loss for what to do. It’d taken him a whole day to figure out which words of comfort would be fitting when Merlin had cried over the death of the Dragonlord, so what could he possibly do to ease Merlin’s pain? There was no knights’ code for consoling friends who’d just lost their entire childhood.
“You can’t stay here, Merlin,” he repeated weakly. “Please. Please, come with me.”
Leaving one of his arms around Merlin’s back, Arthur turned and led the way back towards Ascetir Forest. He took them to the little stream a short way into the trees. Arthur wasn’t very familiar with Ealdor, but he did remember one or two things from his last visit, and from stories Merlin had told him about life before Camelot. Over the past few years, Arthur had been subjected to countless tales about how Will found a lizard under a rock near this stream, or how once Merlin cleared the water in one leap. It was the only place he could think to go, and he hoped the familiarity of it would calm Merlin a little.
They sat down side by side on a log, staring into the rushing water. Merlin sniffed loudly and rubbed his eyes as Arthur pulled off his gloves and leaned forwards to rinse the feel of leather off his bare hands. The cold water made him gasp, so he quickly wiped it off on his thighs and rubbed his hands together to warm them. Merlin carried on drawing uneven breaths beside him, but dropped his hands to his lap, leaving his eyes red and puffy.
Arthur hated feeling so completely drained and powerless to help.
“Merlin, I’m sorry,” he muttered.
Without looking up, Merlin reached over and clasped Arthur’s hand. He squeezed hard, seeking reassurance in the warmth of Arthur’s skin. After a moment of stillness, he found it-- Arthur squeezed back.
Merlin almost smiled, but his eyes welled up again and he let out another sob. Merlin made his free hand into a fist and pressed it against his lips, trying to push his gasps down. As the time since discovering Ealdor in ruin grew longer, crying in front of Arthur felt less and less acceptable. He knew Arthur would never tell a soul, and the apologetic tug he gave Merlin’s hand said it’s alright, I understand, but Merlin still couldn’t ignore the twinges of embarrassment in his stomach.
“I’m sorry,” he panted at last, squeezing Arthur’s hand again. “I just-- I just--”
“It’s alright, Merlin,” Arthur leaned in until his nose was brushing against Merlin’s cheek. “It’s alright.”
Arthur carefully separated their hands, and gently held his under Merlin’s chin. They stared at each other for a moment, both very aware of the fresh tears building up in Merlin’s eyes. Arthur smiled weakly, and moved his hand around to the back of Merlin’s neck, pulling him closer. Merlin rested his head tentatively against Arthur’s chest.
“Your armour’s cold,” Merlin mumbled after a minute or two, and Arthur let out a small chuckle.
He pushed Merlin upright again, and then reached up to the fastenings of his breast plate. They undid easily, and Merlin watched him with sad, blue eyes. Once Arthur had lifted off his breast plate, and set it down to lean against the log, he pulled Merlin back into the embrace.
Chain mail was hardly softer than plate armour, but Merlin didn’t complain again. He could feel the rise and fall of Arthur’s chest as he breathed, and he shivered when Arthur’s chin came down to rest lightly on his head. It was the closest they’d ever been, and the weight of Arthur pressing against him comforted Merlin more than it had with Lancelot or Gwaine.
Roughly, Arthur rubbed his left hand up and down Merlin’s arm. As a child, he’d seen fathers comfort their sons in that way, and it’d always seemed effective, although he’d never experienced it himself. Merlin sucked air in through his nose, and Arthur winced at the snotty, unattractive sound.
He was quite surprised when Merlin said his name. “Arthur?”
“If you can take your armour off that easily, why do you make me do it?”
There was the hint of a grin behind Merlin’s words, and Arthur couldn’t help smiling to himself. That was the Merlin he knew.
* * *
Elyan and Lancelot made their way through the empty village in silence, neither taking their eyes off the blazing fire in the field beyond. Setting up camp together had been difficult. In the darkness, it was hard to organise the tents into a circle, and collecting enough firewood had been close to impossible. They’d worked in companionable silence, although Elyan had begun to feel as though Lancelot wanted to speak, but didn’t know what to say.
As they climbed over the last low wall, crossing the final stretch of night between them and the glow of flames, the figures of Percival, Gwaine, Arthur and Merlin came into focus. The four of them were standing quite a distance from the fire, and watching it in silence. Merlin was the closest of all, his hands hung loosely by his sides, and his legs were shaking a little where he stood.
Arthur nodded at the two of them when they drew level with him. Elyan stopped to stare silently at the fire as well, but Lancelot hesitated for a moment, then took a few steps forward to slide a hand onto Merlin’s shoulder. Merlin started at the unexpected touch, but he didn’t turn to look at Lancelot, he just carried on gazing ahead. The worst of the bodies had already been consumed by the flames, and the rest were no longer visible in the burning brightness.
The faces of all the people Merlin had grown up with flashed through his mind, and he took a sudden gulp of air. The smell of burning and the thick smoke flooded his lungs and he choked, then doubled over, coughing. His eyes began to water, and he felt Lancelot bending down next to him, asking if he was alright over and over again. Merlin nodded, clutching his throat. He didn’t feel like talking anyway. Since his first dream two days before, Merlin had cried more than he’d have thought possible, and finally he just wanted quiet.
Shrugging out of Lancelot’s grip, Merlin paced over towards Percival, who was standing alone on the far side of the funeral pyre. Arthur made a move forward, stretching his hand out as Merlin brushed past him, but Merlin didn’t stop. His eyes were streaming, and his heart felt as though it wouldn’t ever beat the same again, but for once, he didn’t need comforting.
He received little more than a glance from Percival as he came to a stop beside him. The orange light of the fire glinted dully in the sweat and dirt on Percival’s bare arms, and Merlin was reminded sharply of how Percival had been the one to gather Ealdor’s dead and build the fire around them. He’d kept the promise he’d made the day before, and saved Merlin from having to deal with the corpses of his most loved.
“Thank you,” Merlin muttered, watching the light dance across Percival’s face. “Thank you for everything... For doing this.”
“I keep to my word, Merlin,” Percival’s expression was blank, but there were shimmers of something behind his eyes. “No man should have to set light to his own family.”
Merlin didn’t answer. He was slowly realising that he might never find release from the guilt and loss he felt, simply because nobody else had ever escaped it. There was no solution to a loss so complete.
Out of the corner of his eye, Merlin saw the others turning away from the fire, and heading back to camp. Lancelot hurried to walk beside Gwaine, who reached up and patted him on the back. They lagged behind Arthur and Elyan a little.
Merlin waited until they were out of earshot, then looked back up at Percival. He was surprised to find Percival gazing back at him with kind eyes that made Merlin’s next words sounded harsh amid the crackling flames.
“How much do you know about me?”
Percival frowned at him, but offered no reply, so Merlin tried again.
“Yesterday, in the woods, you said something, and it sounded as though--” Merlin faltered. If Percival didn’t know anything, what he was doing could end very badly. The day before, he’d been exhausted, both physically and emotionally, so maybe it’d all been in his head.
“If you’re worried I’ll tell Arthur, there’s no need.”
Merlin blinked a few times, not quite sure whether or not he’d imagined Percival’s voice speaking those words. “I’m sorry, what?”
“Not all of us grew up in kingdoms where magic is forbidden,” Percival smiled down at Merlin. “I grew up with people like you, Merlin. I can see the magic shining in you as clearly as I see the courage in Arthur.”
A shiver ran through Merlin as he registered these words. Was it really that obvious? Was ignorance in Camelot the only thing between him and death? He stared back into the fire. None of the people he’d grown up with had seen the magic in him either, but they hadn’t been ignorant. Merlin’s fingers clenched into fists and he closed his eyes, remembering visions of magic tearing through Ealdor. He refused to be that. If this was the work of magic, then maybe he’d been wrong. Maybe Gaius was wrong too, and Kilgharrah.
“That’s not all I am,” Merlin managed at last, opening his eyes again.
There were several moments of silence as Percival studied him. “I sense this isn’t the first time you’ve tried to fight your fate,” he said at last, earning a startled look from Merlin. “You’ve come a long way on your own merit, Merlin, that much is clear. To this day, you remain the only person I’ve ever heard Lancelot describe as more noble and brave than Prince Arthur. You’ve earned the trust and friendship of a Pendragon, and that has to count for something,” Percival clapped a strong hand on Merlin’s shoulder. “There must be a reason you risk discovery for him every day, even if I do not know it. You’ve suffered an unimaginable loss here, Merlin, but don’t throw away what you have left.”
Merlin’s skin tingled beneath Percival’s fingers as his head filled with all the things Kilgharrah had promised him; the future he and Arthur shared, their destiny. He’d trusted in it for so long, it felt like he hadn’t stopped fighting to protect it since the first night he’d saved Arthur from that flying dagger. Merlin’s stomach squirmed, and he pressed his head into the palm of his hand.
Percival’s smile grew warmer. He pushed against Merlin’s shoulder, turning him back towards Ealdor. “Go and rest,” he said quietly. “I’ll stay with them.”
Merlin nodded, his eyes bleary with tears and smoke, then stumbled back through the village, leaving the remnants of his childhood in Percival’s hands.
* * *
When Merlin emerged into the firelight at the edge of camp, his vision was immediately obscured by a lot of silky, dark hair. Gwaine squeezed him tight, and his beard scratched against Merlin’s cheek. The surprise made Merlin cough a little, but he patted Gwaine on the back and returned the hug. As they pulled apart, Merlin thought he saw Gwaine hurry to wipe away a tear, but he turned away so quickly it was hard to tell.
Lancelot took Merlin’s attention next. He moved forward, somehow managing not to shiver in nothing but a thin white shirt and leather breeches, and placed a hand on Merlin’s shoulder. The look in Lancelot’s eyes spoke a thousand words of sympathy, and Merlin felt his heart thud loudly as he stared into those brown eyes. Merlin tried to say something; to promise they’d talk tomorrow and figure out what to do about Gwen, about everything, but his voice caught in his throat, and the moment passed. Lancelot’s hand slid gently down Merlin’s arm, and then its comforting touch was gone all together.
“Merlin,” Arthur’s voice made them all turn.
He stood beside his tent, staring solemnly into the fire. The dim light reflected in Arthur’s plate armour, and lit his face from beneath. His hair was ruffled, and he was twisting a pair of leather gloves between his fists. The agitated movement of his hands and the way his shoulders hung told Merlin that Arthur was close to breaking. He could read that body language, even through thick armour-- Arthur needed to retreat, and hide from his failures for a little while.
Arthur barely looked up as he ducked inside the tent. He piled his armour in the corner, then stood glaring at it for a moment. Why did he wear it? He’d been too late to defend anyone. Ealdor had faced her foes alone, and lost. That armour was supposed to symbolise his honour and bravery, but as of late he’d been showing anything but courage. He’d scorned Merlin over the tents night before; something so trivial, so obviously accidental, that it made Arthur feel sick. He’d also managed to push Gwen away, although how he’d done that was a mystery.
I must’ve changed, he decided. Disappointment and not measuring up were nothing new to Arthur, but felt all the more potent tonight, because they weren’t just words being shouted across an empty hall by his father. This time, they were in his heart, and he expected his friends were feeling the same way.
As Merlin came in, Arthur busied himself with setting up the bed. He fumbled about undoing his bedroll and arranging blankets, and (for what must’ve been the first time in history) told Merlin off for trying to help. He ordered him to stand back, and tried to hide the fact he was giving Merlin an extra blanket-- he was a tiny thing, and needed as much insulation as possible.
Merlin stared around restlessly, all the things Percival had said playing over and over in his head; There must be a reason you risk discovery for him every day.
He watched Arthur bustle about, cursing every now and then, and squinting in the darkness. There was a reason. Merlin was always carrying a little bit of Arthur around in his heart. The little part of him that laughed when he fell was Arthur. That tiny ache of remorse when he practised magic was Arthur, too.
Mother believed in us, he thought to himself. He remembered how his mother had spoken about Arthur all that time ago. Her words had given him the strength to stick to his destiny, and since then they really had become two sides of the same coin. Although, Merlin wasn’t sure if it’d always been true, or if his feelings had twisted to fit the phrase.
Finally done with the bedding, Arthur looked up to find Merlin wiping away tears again. He pretended he hadn’t noticed, and patted the side of the bed in front of Merlin, signalling for him to climb in. They both pulled off their boots, and Merlin shrugged out of his jacket.
With no bickering and a minimal amount of elbowing, Arthur and Merlin settled down back to back under the blankets. Arthur stared into the shadows in front of him, and wondered whether he was more likely to dream about Gwen breaking his heart tonight, or the horrors he’d let pass in Ealdor. Neither took his fancy, but soon enough it became apparent he wouldn’t be dreaming for a long time-- Merlin was making a lot of distracting noises, sucking air in through his snotty nose and clearing his throat loudly.
“Merlin,” Arthur snapped after a few minutes, forgetting himself in his exhaustion.
“Yes?” Merlin’s voice was soft and quiet between heavy breaths. Arthur’s irritation eased, and he rolled over to gaze at the back of Merlin’s head.
“Are you okay?” It was the most ridiculous question in the world, and Arthur wished he could take it back as soon as it’d left his mouth.
After a moment’s silence, Merlin mumbled, “Yeah... I’m not dead.”
Arthur winced at that. He knew he should be quiet, but his mouth just kept speaking of its own accord. “I’m sorry, Merlin. That was a bloody stupid question.”
There was no reply-- a sure sign Merlin agreed.
“This is just... Today, what’s happened...” Arthur didn’t know what he was trying to say, but it was turning into even more of a disaster than asking if Merlin was okay.
“My mother, she...” Merlin cut in, his throat thick with tears. He was finding it hard to form words; to force sound between his clenched teeth, his locked jaw, and his quivering lips. His nose and forehead crinkled up into a tight knot, trying to keep his tears at bay. “She meant more to me than anyone. I’d have given my life to--” he swallowed, ignoring the fist-like lump forming in his throat. “--To save her.”
Behind him, Arthur frowned, a strange thought passing through his head; what would life be like if Merlin had been given that chance? What kind of boring, ordered existence would Arthur be forced to face without his bumbling manservant to confuse things?
Terrible, he decided. Abysmal.
Every prince needed a friend like Merlin to keep him entertained; to keep him grounded, and to babble on and on, pretending he knew more than he let on. Life would be pretty dull without Merlin. He’d given Arthur a purpose after everything that’d happened with Gwen and Lancelot-- if it wasn’t for Merlin, Arthur might’ve dropped everything and run far, far away... Or at least killed someone.
Merlin shifted onto his back and their eyes met. Silent tears were flowing freely down his cheeks, visible in the cold light of the full moon. His breathing was low and controlled.
“I couldn’t have done this without you, Arthur.”
Lips slightly parted, Arthur gazed straight back at Merlin. For a moment, Merlin was afraid he’d said too much. He moved his hand a little closer to Arthur under the blankets, not breaking eye contact, but looking for even the tiniest sign that he was going too far. None came, and when their fingers connected, it tugged Arthur out of his daze. He pushed his finger back along Merlin’s, stroking tenderly.
Merlin could’ve sworn he heard Arthur breathe his name. Staring into his eyes, Merlin saw how tired Arthur truly was. He’d been through so much over the past month or so, and yet he hadn’t been lent the support he truly needed. Merlin had tried, but the ache of fighting his sister, rescuing his father and rebuilding an entire kingdom was still too much for Arthur to bear.
After all that, he’d still had to face the pain of losing Gwen. Merlin had seen them together often, since returning to Camelot. Sometimes they’d walked hand in hand through the palace gardens, or managed to steal what they thought was a secret kiss in Arthur’s chambers, or along a quiet corridor. On some small, confused level, it’d hurt Merlin to see that someone else could give Arthur something he could not.
Perhaps it’d been because, deep down, Merlin recognised the way Gwen looked at Lancelot. Perhaps the twist in his stomach when he’d seen Arthur and Gwen together had been nothing more than a reaction to being faced with happiness and togetherness, when he’d given that up for himself long ago. Perhaps the way Gwen had smiled and giggled and smirked when Arthur brushed his fingers along her jaw had only made Merlin’s heart clench because it reminded him of Freya, and all the things he wished he could’ve made her feel, before she passed away.
Merlin frowned. It wasn’t really any of those things, and he knew it.
“You saw Gwen with Lancelot yesterday, didn’t you?” he whispered, hoping to give Arthur the chance to open up-- the same chance Gwaine had given him the night before.
The warmth of Arthur’s fingers left Merlin’s at once, and Merlin bit his lip. Had he just ruined everything?
Quiet slowly filled the tent, but inside Arthur’s head, there was nothing but noise. He couldn’t understand how Merlin knew about Gwen and Lancelot. Maybe it’d been going on for weeks and Gwen had confided in him, since they’d always been such good friends. Maybe everybody knew, and Arthur had just been played for a fool-- blinded by her smile. He wanted to shout that nothing had happened, that it wasn’t true. He wished he didn’t care. He felt like a child whose dreams had been crushed with one word.
After all, he’d loved her. He would’ve given everything up for her; scattered Camelot to the wind, and fled with her hand in his. He’d sworn that propriety, rank and politics made no difference-- that he was for her, always. Why hadn’t she felt the same? She’d always been more reserved with her feelings, wanting to hide their kisses from the knights. She’d even hung her head in shame that day in the forest, when the king discovered them.
Arthur’s chest felt like it might burst. What does Lancelot have that I don’t?
“Yes,” he said at last, although the voice he heard didn’t sound like his own. It was too strained, and too choked with heartache.
Merlin reached for Arthur again, not hiding beneath the blankets this time. Arthur didn’t try to push him away, he opened the fist he’d made and clasped onto Merlin’s hand.
“How did you know about this?” Arthur asked, his voice still not as strong as he’d hoped.
“Lancelot. When he came to see you yesterday, he sort of ended up confessing to me, and, well, I knew which way you must’ve gone to see the king. He doesn’t know you saw them. It’s tearing him apart--”
“If it was tearing him apart, you’d think he might do the honourable thing and talk to me about it. This is just...” Arthur bit back immoraland a stab in the back. “It’s completely dishonest.”
“I know,” Merlin rubbed his thumb over the back of Arthur’s hand, and it felt like silent permission to open up. He didn’t need to worry about his pride, not with Merlin, not now.
“I don’t understand it, Merlin... Guinevere, did she ever truly...”
Merlin knew that as soon as Arthur said those words aloud, he’d have convinced himself they were true; he was doubting whether Gwen had ever really loved him. Everything was always so black and white with Arthur-- nobody could love two people at once, any victory that wasn’t ultimate and all-encompassing was a failure...
There was no denying that Gwen had loved Arthur, and there was a possibility she still did --beneath all that condescension and arrogance, it was hard not to love Arthur-- but in the end, she loved Lancelot more. Their affections for each other had started long before Arthur had even looked at Gwen twice.
“She did,” Merlin whispered, squeezing Arthur’s hand. “She did love you, I know it.”
“Well then why would she do this? She promised--” Arthur was losing control. Gwen hadn’t promised him anything; not really. He’d been the one with all the promises, and all the stupid dreams. Never had he felt like a bigger fool-- not when he’d sprouted donkey ears, not when he’d been defeated by Morgause, and not even all those times he’d trusted Merlin’s word and made an idiot out of himself in front of the whole court.
Merlin felt a rush of compassion. Arthur had never exposed his weaknesses so readily before, but it seemed like a wall was coming down. Something inside them had linked when they joined hands, and all of a sudden the tent was flooded with Arthur’s insecurities. Merlin wanted to comfort him, but he didn’t want to give Arthur false hope. For once, he deserved to hear the truth.
“Look, Arthur,” Merlin began, staring at the shadows above them. “I’ve known Gwen for as long as I’ve known you, and she wouldn’t hurt a fly. She believes in you, just like we all do, but do you remember Vivian? Gwen stepped aside for her, and do you remember Elena? Well, Gwen told you to go through with that, too.”
Arthur rubbed his free hand on his forehead, but said nothing.
“She fell in love with Lancelot when he first came to Camelot, and I know what you’re thinking; it was you or him, and for some reason, you lost,” Merlin’s voice was growing harder the longer he spoke. “Try looking at it from her view. She knows what taking a servant for a wife could do to you. What it could do to Camelot.”
Arthur made a sound like he wanted to protest, but Merlin spoke over him, determined to make his point.
“Gwen’s lucky enough to love two people. She had a choice. She could choose a prince who loved her a lot, but whose feelings for her could jeopardise the safety of an entire kingdom, or she could choose a knight, and live a quiet life with no concerns but their own. It was her future or Camelot’s. If it were you, Arthur, what would you have done? Which was the right choice?”
Arthur frowned up at the shadows. Surprisingly, everything Merlin had said made a great deal of sense. It sounded like Gwen.
“But why didn’t they say anything?” he asked after a while. The rest of Merlin’s story was plausible, but surely there was no excuse for being so secretive.
“Lancelot came to tell you straight away yesterday morning, but... But, honestly, you were pretty scary when you came storming in,” Merlin’s tone was soft and apologetic again. “I think he was hoping to catch you at a better moment.”
“A better moment?” Arthur’s voice rang with a familiar, incredulous tone which translated loosely as Merlin, you’re an absolute imbecile.
“You know,” Merlin mumbled. “When you didn’t seem so... erm, hotheaded.”
“I was only hotheaded because I’d seen them!” Arthur seethed into the silence for a little while, pretending not to enjoy the way Merlin stroked a thumb back and forth across his hand.
It was her future or Camelot’s, he thought slowly. A prince whose feelings for her could jeopardise the safety of an entire kingdom, or a knight with no concerns but their own.
It was reasonable, but that didn’t make it fair. Sometimes, it seemed like Arthur’s future factored into the way everybody treated him. Other nobles, the knights, servants... everybody he’d ever met, really. They looked at him as someone to charm, someone to impress, someone to oblige. Even when he’d found love, his title had tainted it, and snatched it from him.
“If I wasn’t a prince,” he muttered, distinctly not looking Merlin in the eye. “Do you think she’d still pick him?”
Merlin’s grip tightening on Arthur’s hand. “Don’t do that, Arthur. Don’t ask me that.”
“I’m serious, Merlin,” and he sounded it.
“You’re-- you’re going to be a great king, Arthur,” Merlin stuttered a little, unsure just what it was Arthur wanted to hear. “There isn’t a soul in Camelot who doesn’t believe in you. It’s your integrity and your commitment that Gwen loves--”
“How would you know what she loves?” Arthur snapped.
Merlin’s reply was bordering on frantic. “I just... Arthur, you can’t think that giving up the throne--”
“I didn’t say I’m abdicating!” Arthur let out a strangled bark of laughter, and broke free of Merlin’s hand to push his arm. “Don’t worry, Merlin, I won’t ask your opinion in future. God forbid I risk frightening you like that again.”
A nervous smile appeared on Merlin’s face. It was a relief to see Arthur returning to himself a little, even if that self was as arrogant and patronising as ever. He decided not to rise to the bait and bicker with Arthur. Instead, he defended himself as best he could.
“Good! You can’t get away from it anyway, Arthur. Destiny always catches up eventually.”
“And what would you know about evading destiny?”
Arthur was suddenly more curious than sarcastic. Merlin had popped up in Camelot out of nowhere, fresh-faced and free as a leaf in the autumn breeze. From what he’d told Arthur, Merlin had spent his childhood running around the woods like a lunatic, rolling down hills in the sun and jumping in streams just to cause a mess.
“I tried to escape mine before, but I just ended up losing someone,” Merlin said, all distance and sadness.
Arthur’s hand shot down to grip Merlin’s again. “Who?”
“A girl,” Merlin gulped, his hand trembling in Arthur’s as those days with Freya crashed through his mind. “A girl I loved. I wanted to drop everything and go with her... just, go.” Arthur made a gentle hushing noise, but Merlin couldn’t stop talking, his voice just kept tumbling on. “But-- but she died. It wasn’t meant to be, Arthur. My destiny, it-- it stopped us. It took her away.”
Merlin closed his eyes. It was all true; Arthur was his fate, and it’d been Arthur’s sword that took Freya’s life. Destiny had set things straight. Destiny was in control.
Merlin’s nails dug into Arthur’s hand, making him inhale sharply. Arthur could almost feel the emotions swirling beside him in Merlin. It was that familiar sense of something just out of reach; something Merlin wasn’t saying; a puzzle Arthur had yet to piece together.
“What’s your secret, Merlin?” he breathed, running his thumb over Merlin’s tense knuckles in the darkness. “What’s this destiny?”
There was a brief moment while Merlin cleared his throat. How much could he say? How much did he want to say? He’d already revealed more than was safe; A servant like him with a destiny? And Arthur had just accepted it, he hadn’t put him down or dismissed him. It was as though, deep inside, Arthur knew.
Don’t risk it, Merlin told himself. He’s confronted enough secrets over the past few days. There’s always next week, next month, next year. Don’t rush it.
Merlin wasn’t ready to tell Arthur the whole truth. He swallowed all his dangerous, self-destructive, stupid thoughts and tried to inject some sarcasm into words that echoed through his entire body. They were truer than anything else he’d ever felt.
“Ealdor’s gone... my mother, f-father, Freya, Will,” Merlin let out a sigh, smiling a little desperately. “Unless I’m destined to live the rest of my life with a crotchety old physician, it must be you.”
Merlin turned his head and gazed across the pillows towards Arthur.
“So... it’s your destiny to serve me?” Arthur frowned.
Serve, Merlin thought. Protect, advise, love, support. Trust Arthur to stop so quickly.
“Exciting prospect, eh?” he hummed, tugging lightly at Arthur’s hand, which was still clinging to his own.
“Yeah,” Arthur murmured, his eyes combing Merlin’s face, distracted.
“Well you certainly sound enthusiastic,” Merlin grinned far more genuinely. “I know I’m not exactly a fair maiden, but--”
“I like you more than you think,” Arthur cut in abruptly, still staring at Merlin.
The grip of their entwined fingers tightened, and Merlin forced down the lump in his throat. Arthur had never acted like that before; his voice was different, and the look in his eyes was something Merlin had only ever seen shadows of, never knowing for certain. He could feel their legs brushing together beneath the blankets as Arthur’s thigh pressed against his.
Arthur gulped. A small voice inside him said perhaps what he was doing wasn’t right, but he was looking at Merlin’s face, all pale skin and striking eyes, in a way he’d never considered in the past. He was just tired and lonely; he was just latching onto the one person who was always there for him, the one person who never seemed to leave his side-- Merlin.
Blinking in an effort to clear his mind, Arthur gritted his teeth. He liked girls, he liked Gwen. Merlin was smelly. He was smelly and bony and infuriating. He never did anything on time, or in the right order. He was rude and disrespectful and he refused to learn his place or shut his mouth, but he was still doing something to Arthur. His heart no longer felt like it’d been snatched out of his chest. Merlin was putting him back together, little by little.
Merlin’s been through a lot, too, Arthur said to himself. That’s why we’re here. I’m supposed to be keeping him safe.
Their eyes were still fixed on each other, neither moving, neither breathing. Merlin seemed to be feeling better. He wasn’t crying anymore, and he’d even smiled. Maybe --just maybe-- that was Arthur’s doing. Maybe he was putting Merlin back together, too. Maybe they were becoming a whole.
Heart pounding like a war drum, Arthur loosened his hold on Merlin’s hand and moved his arm up to tuck it under Merlin’s neck. His forearm curled around Merlin’s shoulders and his fingers rested lightly against his shirt. He felt the tickle of Merlin’s hand on his thigh, and hardly dared to breathe.
Arthur pulled gently at Merlin’s shoulder, and without a word, Merlin slid towards him under the blanket. They settled with Merlin’s head resting on Arthur’s collarbone. Arthur’s left arm was wrapped around Merlin’s shoulders, and he wiggled his fingers until Merlin grasped them in his own.
Lying there in silence, Arthur drew in a deep breath. He closed his eyes, savouring the warmth of another person lying against him-- ofMerlin lying against him; a servant, a subject, an ally, a friend. Arthur lifted his head, not really thinking anything at all, and pressed a kiss into Merlin’s dark hair.
Merlin felt Arthur’s mouth against the top of his head, and a shiver ran down his spine. He needed Arthur’s friendship, he wanted his comfort, and at that moment, he realised he was yearning for Arthur’s touch. All the closeness they’d shared that night; all the walls they’d brought down and the confessions they’d made... The emotions of it swelled in Merlin’s stomach. They flowed into his chest and down his arms like a rush of magic.
As Arthur’s lips left his hair, Merlin turned his face upwards with the smallest grin on his face. Arthur gazed at him for a moment, face shrouded in half-shadows. Then, in one movement, Merlin pushed upwards and Arthur swooped down. Their lips pressing lightly together in something warm, affectionate and completely unexpected; a kiss. And for that split second, Merlin could’ve sworn Arthur’s heartbeat matched his own.
* * *
In the morning, the sound of clanging outside woke Arthur. He shifted his head and cracked his eyes open, to discover that his neck was stiff with sleep. Merlin was still there, his head was still lying on Arthur’s chest and his right hand was grasping Arthur’s shirt where it lay across his stomach. Merlin’s expression was blank, and Arthur watched him sleep for a few moments. The night before, everything had felt so real, and he didn’t want to lose that, but he didn’t know how Merlin would react when he woke up and found himself draped all over Arthur. Would he be embarrassed? Would he regret it? Arthur wasn’t even sure what he was feeling himself.
Their fingers were still knotted together, resting just below Merlin’s bony shoulder. Arthur smiled fondly at the sight, a little surprised by how much he liked being so close to Merlin. After what they’d discussed, Arthur knew he should talk to Lancelot. They ought to get everything out in the open, but he couldn’t bring himself to move. He didn’t want to wake Merlin, in case he blushed and backed away. It was a cold winter and the pale sun offered no warmth as it leaked through the clouds, but there, under the blankets and hidden from the world, Merlin’s body heat warmed Arthur-- inside and out.
A faint call of his name pulled Arthur from his daydreams. Outside, he heard the murmur of Percival’s voice. The clanging of weapons had gone, meaning the knights had finished their morning training. Arthur nudged Merlin’s head with his chin, because no matter his feelings on the situation as a whole, Merlin would not want to be found like that by the knights.
“Ngh,” was all the reply Merlin could muster, so Arthur shrugged his shoulder repeatedly until Merlin had no choice but to lift his head. “Arthur... What--?” he mumbled, voice still thick with sleep.
“Get up,” Arthur shoved him off, then shuffled up onto his elbows, blinking around the tent. Perhaps giving Merlin a few minutes to come to his senses would be best-- smothering him from the moment he awoke wouldn’t do either of them any favours.
Wrinkling his nose against the chill air, Merlin rubbed his eyes and sat up. He managed to wrestle the blankets down to his feet, and then crossed his legs, holding his face in his hands. The night before ran through his head. He remembered trudging through Ealdor’s destruction in the fading light, and watching the blaze of flames. He remembered hatred and anger soothed by Percival’s wise words.
That hadn’t been the end of it. He could recall the journey back to camp and the look in Lancelot’s eyes, then Arthur’s face came to mind, lit from beneath by dancing fire. Followed by the tent, and the warmth of quiet voices. They’d spoken of destiny, and Merlin remembered the closeness that’d seared between them, and how he’d almost repeated Kilgharrah’s words to the one man he’d sworn never tell.
Merlin’s stomach tightened as he recalled the touch of Arthur’s lips against his own. Had that been real, or a dream? He remembered reaching up to hold onto the back of Arthur’s neck, and whispering something about love and always, before drifting into sleep. Was it true, or had he just been searching for affection after losing his mother?
Timidly, Merlin lifted his head from his hands and blinked towards Arthur. He found blue eyes gazing back at him in a look that said no, it wasn’t a dream. Merlin moved his eyes over Arthur’s despondent face, taking in his ruffled hair and how the neckline of his red shirt had pulled down over his shoulder. That was when he knew; Arthur was all Merlin had left, and he could be --he would be-- everything Merlin ever needed, or wanted.
“Mornin’,” Merlin mumbled, unable to hold back a blush and a bashful grin.
“Good morning, Merlin,” Arthur spoke calmly, never taking his eyes from Merlin’s face. He decided a smile must be a good sign-- it was better than shouting, anyway, and definitely preferable to more tears. “We should--”
What exactly they should’ve done was a mystery to Arthur, so it could either have been an enormous blessing, or an absolute disaster that Percival chose such a moment to interrupt.
“Sire,” he panted, sticking his upper torso through the flap of the tent (Merlin expected his head would’ve scraped the ceiling otherwise). “I’m sorry to intrude, but the morning is getting on and we have urgent business to discuss.”
“Of course,” Arthur’s tone changed at once. His quiet concern was saved just for Merlin, and his princely voice returned, as stern and authoritative as ever. “I’ll be right there.”
As Percival nodded and ducked out of the tent, Arthur slid to the edge of the bed. He was too focused on buckling his boots and trying to get his thoughts straight to see or hear Merlin get up and walk across the tent, so when Arthur stood up and turned, he jumped at the sight of Merlin standing so close behind him. With a smirk, Merlin held up Arthur’s chain mail.
“Lift,” he said, just the way he had a thousand times before.
“Merlin, you don’t have to--” Arthur stammered, feeling startled and confused; their relationship had gone a little past duties like that.
“Lift, Arthur,” Merlin repeated in his best no-nonsense tone.
Arthur obeyed, lifting his arms into the air and allowing Merlin to dress him in the rest of his armour, too. The tension in his shoulders relaxed a little as Merlin tied the clasps on his gauntlets, eyes glinting up to wink at Arthur.
Once Arthur was ready, Merlin stepped back. His hands slid off Arthur’s shoulders and down his chest, lingering for a moment on his stomach.
Arthur let out a deep breath. That hasn’t happened before.
“You’re all set,” Merlin informed him, leaning back to look Arthur up and down, admiring his own work in the same self-satisfied way he always did. Every time Merlin dressed him, Arthur seemed to look more impressive-- the only difference that morning was the look they exchanged. All hints of a smirk had gone as Merlin gazed at Arthur, his eyes bluer than ever.
Arthur stared back, his heartbeat suddenly very loud. Merlin’s body swayed slightly as he shuffled forward a step. The movement was small, but it meant a great deal. They stood close together, chests almost touching, neither blinking.
Leaning forward slowly, Merlin’s eyes flicked down to Arthur’s lips. He wanted to kiss them again-- was that wrong? Arthur wasn’t moving back, he was just standing still; staring, breathing softly. With a tiny surge of courage, Merlin pressed forward, and they were kissing again.
The second time was different. Neither of them moved, they just stood with their arms hanging loosely by their sides. Arthur didn’t wrap his arms around Merlin, because somehow, it still felt a little strange, and anyway, he was wearing armour heavy enough to crush such a skinny frame. So instead Arthur just closed his eyes and breathed Merlin in, appreciating his scent in a way he never had before. It was familiar and comforting and altogether heartwarming.
“Sire!” Percival’s voice floated into the tent and all of a sudden Merlin was several feet away, scratching nervously at the back of his head. Arthur took a breath, preparing to say something (although what that something was eluded him), when Percival’s head poked in through the opening of the tent again.
It sounded as though the situation was only going to get more urgent. Arthur nodded at Percival and followed him out into the morning air, casting only a quick glance in Merlin’s direction
It turned out what Percival wanted was a rather pressing matter. He was concerned for the safety of other villages in Cenred’s kingdom, and wanted Arthur’s permission to leave Ealdor and ride out to give any help he could.
“I understand it isn’t the grandest of quests, sire, but I know what it is to lose family,” Percival’s eyes darted towards Merlin, who gave him a small nod. “If I am to prove my worth as a knight, then I can see no other path for myself.”
Arthur stood in front of Percival, to the left of the fire ashes. He was grimacing, but the look he gave Percival held nothing but respect. He wanted to put a friendly hand on Percival’s shoulder, but their difference in height made that difficult, so instead he just patted his knight on the arm.
“Protecting those who cannot defend themselves is noble indeed,” Arthur said loudly. “If that is the quest you choose, then I wish you all the luck in the world. I know you’re more than capable.”
A smile spread across Percival’s face. “Thank you, sire.”
The two men nodded, in need of no more words, and Percival turned to gather his belongings. He wanted to set out as soon as possible, seeing as how he’d already lost so much time.
“Uhm,” Elyan spoke up from where he sat sharpening his sword. “I’ll go too-- if that’s alright, sire? I’ve travelled through these lands many times. Some of the villagers know me.”
Arthur looked him up and down for a moment. Elyan had made a valiant effort to form some kind of bond with him the past two days, but Arthur’s reservations about Gwen and those connected to her had meant he’d been cold and unresponsive. If Elyan had known about Gwen’s feelings for Lancelot, it seemed unlikely he’d have tried so hard to connect with Arthur. He must’ve believed that Arthur would marry Gwen one day-- he probably thought they could be brothers.
I was a total arse, Arthur scolded silently. Yes, he’d been hurt and confused and suspicious of everyone, but he’d given no explanation to anyone. He’d just started acting differently, and expected his knights to fall into step. That wasn’t fair. Elyan was brave and loyal, even though he was still settling into a new home. It was Arthur’s duty to make amends.
“You were a blacksmith?” he asked after some consideration.
“You can make and repair weapons?”
“Yes, sire,” Elyan stood up, resting his sword before him.
“Then yes, it’s vital you accompany Percival.”
Elyan’s face split into a grin. He grasped his sword in one hand and hurried to help Percival collect their tents. Arthur watched him go, content that the people of Cenred’s kingdom were safe in the hands of two of the most capable men he knew.
“Elyan!” He called as a thought hit him. “Take some extra food with you. Gwaine and I can hunt for the rest of us.”
“We can what?” Gwaine seemed to wake up from where he was lazing against the side of his tent. He looked dubiously up at Arthur.
“Don’t tell me you don’t know how to hunt, Gwaine,” Arthur smirked, walking over to kick Gwaine’s boot. “I’ll start thinking you’re as bad as Merlin.”
“I’m an excellent hunter!” Merlin piped up, unable to hide the quirk of a smile on his lips, even from across the campsite.
That made Arthur and Gwaine both laugh, and Merlin scowled a little. He turned back to polishing Arthur’s sword as Lancelot wandered over to sit beside him.
“Percival, Elyan-- take them. We’ll be fine,” Arthur pointed towards three of the five small sacks of food they’d brought with them. “People will be low on food. Feed yourselves well, and them, if you can.”
Both knights nodded, retrieving the bags and strapping them to their horses. Arthur went back to bickering with Gwaine about what they should hunt and where (Arthur’s philosophy being the bigger the better).
On the other side of camp, Lancelot tilted his head in Arthur’s direction. “He seems in better spirits.”
“Yeah,” Merlin looked over too, and smiled when he caught Arthur’s eye. “We talked for a while last night... Sometimes everything just gets a bit much for him. What with, y’know, the throne and all.”
Lancelot smiled as Merlin winked at him, but the look didn’t last long. He had a lot pressing on his mind. “Merlin, I was wondering when you’ll be heading back into the village?”
“Oh, uhm,” the smile disappeared from Merlin’s face and his shoulders tensed at once. Of course, he still had to face that. “I guess I’ll go in a minute.”
Lancelot reached out to clutch Merlin’s arm, and spoke in a low voice. “Do you want me to come with you? It won’t be easy.”
“No, it’s alright,” Merlin knew he had to go alone. “I think I need some time to say my final goodbyes,” he swallowed hard, not looking Lancelot in the eye; he didn’t want to break down in tears again.
“Alright, if that’s what you want,” Lancelot didn’t press the matter any further. “If Percival and Elyan are leaving, Arthur and Gwaine are hunting and you’re going into Ealdor, I guess someone has to guard camp.”
“It doesn’t seem there’s much to guard against now,” Merlin mumbled. They’d already slaughtered his village, why come back? “Maybe you should take this chance to talk to Arthur about Gwen.”
“Does he know?” Lancelot hissed at once, panic jolting through him. He wouldn’t believe Merlin had betrayed his secret, but no one else knew. Guilt had been weighing him down more and more as time passed, and Arthur’s foul mood had left Lancelot unwilling to draw any attention to himself.
The look Merlin gave him confirmed Lancelot’s worst fear; Arthur knew.
Lancelot’s insides suddenly felt very dark and cold. He’d been a coward, avoiding the problem, too afraid to be honest. Arthur was always going to discover the truth-- no lie could stay hidden forever, after all.
Lancelot took a deep breath and dropped his head into his hands. Would Arthur send him away? He didn’t want to leave; he couldn’tleave. Everything Lancelot had ever dreamed of was so close; Camelot, her knights, the honour of protecting her people. He’d held it in his hands for little more than a few weeks, and now it was slipping away. Finding a quest and earning his place in Camelot would mean nothing if Lancelot was too frightened to confess his sins.
Merlin put a hand on Lancelot’s back, a soft sign of comfort.
“I talked to Arthur and I think he’s going to be alright,” he whispered. “It’ll take some time, but he seems to understand.”
With eyes bleary from being pressed so hard into his palms, Lancelot looked up into Merlin’s face. He wasn’t lying; he wouldn’t lie.
“Just do it when you can,” Merlin kept his voice low. “Arthur’s a good man, you said it yourself.”
“He is,” Lancelot nodded slowly, hazarding a glance across camp to where Arthur was still huddled with Gwaine. “He deserves more than this.”
“I know what it’s like to be keeping a secret from him,” A lump formed in Merlin’s throat. He hated secrets. All that’d happened the night before would only make telling the truth about his magic even harder. Arthur could probably forgive Lancelot, but Merlin? His lies ran far deeper. “It’s torture. At least, this way, one of us can be free.”
When Lancelot nodded, Merlin gave him one last concerned look, then set down Arthur’s sword and got to his feet. Everyone turned to look at him.
“I’m heading up into the village,” he announced, throwing his hands out on either side of him, then deciding that looked too much like a shrug, and pulling them in again. “My mother’s house wasn’t too damaged. I’m going to see if there’s anything I can, y’know...” his voice trailed off. He didn’t want to say salvage like it’d been some accident resulting in a few dead crops.
The camp fell silent. Arthur was on his feet in an instant, taking a step towards Merlin; a wordless promise to accompany him-- so very Arthur.
“I don’t need anyone to come with me,” Merlin smiled weakly. “I know these woods. I’ll be fine. Just come and get me when... erm, if you need me.”
Once he’d exchanged a meaningful nod with Percival and a pat on the back with Elyan, Merlin headed out of camp again. He followed the path trodden down by the knights the day before. He knew at least two shorter routes, but he found it was a small comfort to see their footprints. It reminded him that he wasn’t alone, even if deep down, he knew it wasn’t true.
* * *
The others had done a thorough job clearing away bodies and debris. There was little evidence of the slaughter that had taken place between the humble houses of Ealdor; all that was left was the odd patch of deep red on the ground. Merlin was grateful he didn’t have to see his friends and family lying dead again, but the memory of where each person had lain was burnt into his mind. He knew thatscrape of earth was where Kay had drawn his last breath, and as he passed by his eyes dragged themselves over to the dark patch where his mother’s body had crashed to the ground.
Gasping with a shudder, Merlin forced himself to look away. He focused on the familiar doorway of his old home-- the place he’d been born; the place he’d grown up; the place he’d left defenceless three years before. Merlin’s legs were far longer than when he was a boy, and his strides stretched much further, so he reached the low garden wall before he was quite ready.
Walking up the path and into the house was like a dream. Merlin felt like he was floating through the rubble in a vision, but once inside, his eyes quickly adjusted to the darkness. The table had been flipped over, and one of his mother’s wooden stools lay in pieces. There were scorch marks up the north wall and the little food in the house had been plundered. The chickens were dead, dotted through the house and garden as though they’d run...
...While on fire, Merlin groaned, hands tightening into fists. It was too much-- it was disgusting. Who could be so vicious? So cruel? These weren’t human actions, they were disgraceful. Anger and vindication nagged at the corners of Merlin’s heart, but he held it back; Ealdor deserved better than that. He couldn’t honour their memory with more of the rage and hatred that’d killed them. It was the time for mourning and regret.
Merlin sunk slowly to the floor, his head buzzing. He leaned against the wall beside the doorway, and stared around him. His mother had never really had many possessions, and anything she’d kept had clearly been stolen or destroyed. Merlin just wanted to sit for a while, thinking of her. He owed her everything-- which meant that, if his destiny was true, one day, Albion would owe her everything, too.
As he gazed around, trailing long fingers through the ash on the floor, something beside the table caught Merlin’s eye. It was pale against the blackened room, and he squinted at it. Could it be parchment?
Curiosity got the better of Merlin, and he heaved himself up onto his feet and crossed the room. He’d been right, it was parchment. Parchment patterned by ink in his mother’s handwriting.
Merlin dove down to retrieve the letter. He and Gaius were the only two people his mother ever wrote to, and so this letter could only be intended for one of them. Tears welled in Merlin’s eyes at the sight of his own name, written so carefully in his mother’s hand. The love in the curl of her M and the dot of her i were as clear to Merlin as any kiss or embrace. He could still hear the echo of her voice calling to him, and his heart beat loudly in his chest.
I’m sorry it’s been so long since I last wrote, but as I’m sure you’re aware, King Cenred is dead. Everything is falling apart around us-- there were screams in the forest last night, and one of the children hasn’t returned from a game out beyond the southern ridge. I fear little Tommy is lost forever.
Three days ago, I made for the Camelot border. I hoped to see you again, and take refuge with Gaius... Perhaps even to beg your king for assistance. I’m sure Prince Arthur would’ve been happy to send aid, if I remember his kindness correctly.
However, when I reached the borders, I found a guard dressed in the clothing of Camelot. He told me all of Cenred’s people were being refused entrance. I was named as an enemy and had to run deep into Ascetir Forest to escape.
I have no quarrel with the guards, they do not know me and so they must treat me the same as any other, but it seems citizens of Camelot can cross the border at will. I’m writing to plead with you to hurry to Ealdor. If you accompany me, I can enter Camelot and find the help we need.
I understand Camelot has suffered greatly at Cenred’s hand, and is still rebuilding. I pray the prince can spare you for a few days, although I am sure his need for you now is greater than ever.
With all my love,
It felt as though Merlin’s heart was on fire. He stared at the words before him, tears flooding silently down his cheeks. His mother must have written it only a few days before-- possibly even on the evening of the attack. Any earlier, and a messenger would’ve taken it. Any earlier, and Merlin would’ve seen it, would’ve done something, before it was too late.
He rubbed roughly at the damp skin beneath his eyes, brushing away the tears that clung to his lashes. Merlin folded the parchment carefully and tucked it into his pocket, pressing his fingers flat against it through the leather of his jacket. His free hand clenched into a fist at his side.
Cenred’s people had been refused escape. They were turned away at Camelot’s border. His mother had been chased away by guards.
Only a Pendragon had the authority to give an order like that.
* * *
Another brown leaf curled into flames beside the stream as Merlin mouthed forbearnan for what must’ve been the hundredth time that day. The small sliver of smoke disappeared into the pink sky above as evening drew in. He hadn’t returned to camp since reading the letter. Instead, he’d wandered between the broken houses and up towards the stream. He sat just where Arthur had held him the day before, and started burning leaves as he muttered to himself until the light faded.
There was nothing in the world Merlin wanted less than to go back to camp and face Arthur. He couldn’t do it. They’d just begun to make progress, to strengthen their bond to the point where destiny finally seemed plausible, and suddenly it was all gone. Arthur’s openness, the solace he offered and the soft press of his kiss had all turned to ash in Merlin’s mouth.
How much did Arthur know? Merlin asked himself, losing count of the number of times the same thought had run through his head.Arthur was giving all the orders for weeks, surely one so important couldn’t have slipped past unnoticed?
Merlin had been there for every sleepless night Arthur suffered during his father’s slow recovery. He’d seen Arthur’s devotion to restoring peace and order in those first few uncertain days. Many of Camelot’s people had suffered because of Cenred’s actions, but that was not the fault of every man, woman and child living in his kingdom. Arthur knew that.
A mound of earth exploded on the bank as Merlin let out a shout of frustration. His nails were digging into his palms, making rows of white crescents. Nothing made any sense. He hadn’t heard a single conversation between Arthur and his men that didn’t focus solely on the salvation of all people affected by Morgana, Morgause and Cenred. He’d seen no guards on the journey from Camelot. Arthur’s horror over what had happened in Ealdor was plain from the moment they’d spotted the first wisps of smoke over the trees.
Arthur had argued with his father over far less in the past. He wouldn’t issue an order like that. Merlin’s head dropped into his hands, and he sighed. But no one else would’ve had the authority. Who else could it have been? The king?
Gaius did say Uther had been improving over the past week or so; he’d grown stronger day by day. Once the gravity of Morgana’s betrayal had sunk in, maybe Uther would be looking for someone to blame. Cenred was an easy target; he’d been the man with the army, the man who’d made an invasion so easy. He’d played a part in Morgana’s plots before.
A few years before, when Merlin’s mother had ventured to Camelot and begged for help against Kanen, Uther had refused her. Even when he and Cenred were allies, Uther had been unwilling to aid the outlying villages. Banning them from his kingdom in their hour of need was cruel, even for Uther, but Morgana’s treachery had affected him in ways no one could’ve foreseen.
The thought of Arthur keeping a secret like that order made Merlin hurt in parts of his heart he hadn’t known existed.
Just like the secret I’m keeping, he bit his lip and went back to burning leaves. Would a lie like that really make Arthur any more dishonest than Merlin? Both could be justified as being for the good of Camelot, and either could end in disaster-- one already had.
A rustle in the leaves behind him made Merlin spin around, his golden eyes fading back to blue. It was just Lancelot, tiptoeing through the undergrowth in the hope of not startling Merlin. Clearly, he’d been unsuccessful.
“You’ve been gone for hours, I was getting worried,” Lancelot whispered apologetically. “Are you alright?”
He rested a hand on Merlin’s shoulder as he reached his side. They both stared into the stream, breathing quietly as they watched the water rush past. Merlin decided to ignore Lancelot’s question; it was far too complicated.
“Is Arthur back?” he asked instead.
“Yes,” Lancelot’s hand squeezed Merlin’s shoulder. “When I told him you’d not returned, he asked me to fetch you. He said you’d be here, and here you are.”
Merlin wanted to smile, but the letter in his pocket wouldn’t allow him. His thoughts were clouded by contradictions. He still felt the tug of needing Arthur, of wanting him, but the threat of everything he was feeling being Arthur’s fault loomed in his mind.
“Have you talked to him yet?” Merlin looked up at Lancelot, who shook his head.
Merlin nodded, but said nothing. He knew what it was like to want to tell Arthur a secret, but to be too afraid of what it could mean. That was a battle he fought almost every day.
“I guess we should head back,” he sighed, getting to his feet. The muscles of Merlin’s legs were sore from sitting for so long, and his knees cracked as he straightened up.
Without a word, Lancelot put a hand lightly on Merlin’s back and walked him away from the stream towards camp.
* * *
Arthur’s voice faded away mid-sentence when Lancelot and Merlin trudged out from the trees. He was caught off guard by the squirm of his stomach as Merlin’s big ears and scruffy hair came into view. It seemed that, all of a sudden, he found Merlin far more interesting than reeling off the Knight’s Code for Gwaine, who wasn’t really paying attention anyway.
“Merlin!” Arthur called, halfway between standing up in greeting and staying where he was. A small part of him wanted to make a comment about it being about bloody time Merlin graced camp with his presence, but knowing Merlin had been picking through the belongings of a murdered village all day, he decided against it. Merlin probably needed a hug and some quiet, not a punch in the arm and a ruckus of laughter.
There was no sign Merlin had heard Arthur’s shout. His eyes stayed fixed on the ground as he traipsed over and sunk down onto a log, opposite where Gwaine was lounging by the fire. He sat staring at his fingers, and Arthur watched with an ache in his chest. He wanted to do something; he wanted to make it better, but he couldn’t.
He couldn’t do anything with Gwaine beside him stoking the fire, and with Lancelot so nearby, tending the horses. Gringolet had been restless all day, which put the other three horses on edge as well. Percival and Elyan were long gone.
“Gwaine and I caught your favourite,” Arthur said loudly, staring straight across the fire. There was no way Merlin could pretend not to hear that. “It’s rabbit!”
Looking up for a split second, Merlin nodded towards Arthur, the corners of his mouth barely managing to twitch into a smile. It made Arthur’s insides clench-- surely there wasn’t something else lurking behind Merlin’s blue eyes? His silence couldn’t be directed at Arthur any more than the rest of the world... Just that morning they’d been winking and smirking and kissing. A single day apart couldn’t change that, could it?
It took less than a day to begin it, Arthur reminded himself, wincing. All these open-ended situations were driving him crazy. He was used to clear boundaries, and knowing exactly where he stood as a brother, as a son, as a prince. The past few weeks had shaken that away. It felt like everything was slipping through Arthur’s fingers; like he was no longer in control.
He wanted to take control. He wanted to grab hold of one of the things that was spinning so wildly out of his grasp. Arthur wanted to open his mouth and call Lancelot over, put an end to their charade, if he couldn’t put an end to Merlin’s brooding silence... But what would he say? Out in the open, with an audience, any words leaving his mouth would sound like an accusation.
Arthur wasn’t sure he could keep his temper. He wasn’t sure he’d be able to keep down the snarling, sobbing monster inside him. All he knew was that he needed to hear the truth from Lancelot, or from Guinevere, before he could hope to move on. Talking it out with Merlin had helped-- he could make Arthur see sense, and pull him back together, each kiss and every whisper sewing another seam, but the nagging doubt of lies and guilty stares was still there beneath the surface.
“So, Arthur!” Gwaine’s growl broke the silence as Lancelot settled himself beside Merlin, not quite managing to look Arthur in the eye. “Knights and quests and nobility, eh?”
“What about them?” Arthur finally dragged his eyes away from the opposite side of camp. He frowned down at Gwaine, who was peering warily into the cooking pot; Elyan’s skills were going to be sorely missed.
“Well, what of it?” Gwaine didn’t look up as he spoke. “You must know some stories or something.”
Arthur nodded, then realised nobody was looking at him. “Yes, I do. I’ve been hearing them since I was old enough to listen.”
“Go on, then!” Gwaine made a vague gesture, indicating the group as a whole. “Fill the silence. Food’s gonna be a while yet.”
Glaring over at Gwaine (because no knight should be giving his prince orders), Arthur cleared his throat. He glanced in Merlin’s direction and saw him look away at once. The setting sun was shining down, lighting Merlin’s ears from behind and casting a shadow over the frown on his face. This sudden awkwardness between them made Arthur uneasy. He’d taken a leap and revealed his weaknesses the night before, Merlin couldn’t hide away from him now. It just wasn’t very... Merlin.
“Alright,” Arthur sighed, looking at everything except Merlin (the trees, the tents, Gwaine’s nose). “How about the tale of the Green Knight?”
“In the days of old, the great kings held magnificent Yuletide feasts every year,” Arthur began, his voice quickly falling into the familiar rhythm of the story. “One year, during such a feast, a stranger entered the Great Hall of Camelot. He was a large knight, clad all in green, and he challenged the court. He refused to leave until a knight fought him. One man, an unnamed knight we’ll call Garan, stood forward to accept the challenge.”
Merlin looked up, listening intently to Arthur’s voice. It held nothing of his usual sarcastic drawl; his tone was low, and full of a quiet pride-- a love for the tale he was telling. The pale light left shadows beneath Arthur’s eyes and the fire reflected in his armour. It shone dimly in the steel on the left of his breastplate; a prince with a glowing heart. Could he really be responsible for anything but the happiness and joy of his people?
“The Green Knight said that Sir Garan could deal him one blow, as long as he promised to accept the same blow in return a year from that night. Garan accepted, and taking up an axe, he cut the Green Knight’s head from his shoulders in one swoop.”
Arthur’s eyes glinted around camp again, this time holding Merlin’s gaze.
“To the surprise of the court, the Green Knight got to his feet and lifted his severed head, holding it under his arm. He told the Young Knight to seek him at the Green Chapel in a year’s time, then swiftly departed.”
“Sorcery?” Lancelot muttered, catching Arthur’s attention.
“Probably. It’s an old story,” Arthur told him. “It comes from a time when magic was still rife throughout Albion.”
The meat in the pot made an unpleasant gurgling sound. Gwaine frowned, poking at it with his wooden spoon. Arthur peered over his shoulder and pulled a face that said he had no intention of eating that.
“A year passed,” he continued after a brief pause. “And as the winter months drew in, the young Sir Garan left Camelot in search of the Green Chapel. He rode for weeks in the bitter cold and harsh sleet. Rain seeped through his armour and the wind tore at his banner, but still he rode on.”
Gwaine grunted dismissively, but Arthur ignored him. This part of the tale was about having the strength to endure; to keep going, to keep moving on. He stared meaningfully over at Merlin, willing him to find that part of himself.
“Just when Sir Garan could ride no further, he came upon a castle among the hills. It was the castle of Lord Balinek. There, he was given food, shelter and the promise of a guide to the Green Chapel when Christmas Day came.”
Arthur’s heart lifted when Merlin’s gaze rose to meet his again. He’d been told that Lord Balinek represented someone who lends a helping hand when all hope seems lost. Arthur wanted to be that someone for Merlin-- Merlin had been that person for him, after all.
“During his stay, Sir Garan struck up a bargain with Lord Balinek. He remained in the castle, resting, while Balinek went out hunting. They agreed to exchange whatever trophies they’d gained at the end of each day.”
As Arthur considered what he was about to say, he couldn’t help but glance over at Lancelot. It was unlikely he’d heard this story before, but something told Arthur it would stick in his head for some time.
“On the first morning, Balinek’s wife snuck into Sir Garan’s bedchamber and tried to seduce him. She was very beautiful, and the young knight did everything he could to resist, but before she left him, they shared a single kiss.”
Lancelot shifted where he sat, staring at his boots. Arthur carried on, suddenly feeling very uncomfortable.
“When Balinek returned that evening, he gave Sir Garan a fox skin, and received a single kiss in return.The second day, Balinek’s wife gave Garan two kisses, and he passed them on to Lord Balinek, never revealing the identity of his lady. On the third and final day before Sir Garan left for the Green Chapel, Balinek’s wife gave him three kisses and a silken girdle of her own. When her husband returned at dusk and presented Garan with a stag’s antlers, he received three kisses in exchange, but Garan kept the girdle hidden. He made no mention of it to anyone in the castle.”
Merlin could feel the tension radiating out from Lancelot, and saw him run nervous fingers through his hair. Across the fire, Arthur’s gaze was fixed on them. Gwaine’s attention was still consumed by the cooking pot, so Merlin took this chance to send an imploring look Arthur’s way.
Please don’t do this to him, he thought desperately. Just give him one more day.
Seeing the expression on Merlin’s face, Arthur pulled his eyes away from Lancelot’s hunched form and finished the story.
“A guide took Sir Garan to the Green Chapel at first light the next morning. When the Green Knight emerged from the trees, he was so impressed by Garan’s bravery that he feigned the blow to his neck. He told Garan to return to Camelot as an example of the importance of honouring one’s word. It was a blessing to have survived, but Garan’s joy was tainted by the knowledge of his treachery in Balinek’s castle. For many months after his return to Camelot, he wore the silken girdle on his arm as a reminder of his sins and the dangers they posed to his place as a knight.”
Camp fell silent again. Lancelot sat twiddling his thumbs and refusing to meet anyone’s eye. Merlin leaned down to pick up a stick and fiddled with it, distracted. His eyes glazed over with thought.
Lies, lies, lies-- they’d never felt so prominent in the past. Before Morgana’s betrayal and Gwen’s choice, the subject hadn’t really held much weight with Arthur. It seemed the world wanted him to hate secrets more than Uther hated magic, so when the time for the truth finally arrived, Merlin would have even further to fall. So that when Arthur finally discovered what Merlin really was, it would hurt him more than ever.
Gwaine’s chuckle broke the tense quiet. “What an idiot!”
“Excuse me?” Arthur turned on him, teeth gritted, jaw locked.
“Why did he volunteer in the first place? And why stick to his word if it’d get him killed? Seems pretty crazy to me,” Gwaine was still laughing to himself, shaking his head and lying back idly against a boulder.
“He was a knight, he had to do the honourable thing. That’s how knights like you and me and Lancelot are supposed to live.” Arthur had forgotten himself in his frustration, but quickly caught up. He looked across the fire at Lancelot, who was staring back at him, surprise lining his features. Gwaine snickered on, oblivious.
Ignoring the way Merlin’s head snapped back and forth between them, Arthur directed his next words more towards Lancelot than any other. “I believe that, in our hearts, we all have the ability to do what’s right.”
There was no anger in his eyes. His voice was quiet, determined, and Lancelot felt it flood through him. He knew that soon, he and Arthur would discuss everything that wasn’t being said. All the secrecy had gone on long enough.
“If what’s right counts as risking our lives for no good reason, I’d rather not,” Gwaine smirked, looking up from the cooking pot at last. “Rabbits are ready, anyway. And Merlin, since Arthur insists they’re your favourite, why don’t you go first?”
Merlin obediently clambered to his feet and head over to squat by Gwaine’s side. Telling Arthur his favourite was actually chicken, not rabbit, probably wasn’t a good idea-- especially since Merlin still couldn’t decide how upset he was feeling. All Arthur’s talk of doing the right thing was swirling through his head, and the letter was burning a hole in his pocket. He didn’t know whether the two could both come from one man.
Merlin’s first taste of Gwaine’s Special Rabbit Stew sent him into a coughing fit.
“I think I’ll cook tomorrow,” he spluttered, once he could finally breathe again.
* * *
Arthur took first watch. He couldn’t sleep in his tent with an evening of Merlin’s tense shoulders and awkward silences running through his mind. The way he’d been acting was a bloody mystery. One moment he’d been glaring at the ground, ignoring everything around him, then he’d make some disjointed comment, stare at Arthur with a frown on his face and return to glowering at his boots.
Have I done something wrong? Arthur asked himself, waving goodnight to Gwaine. That morning, it’d been Merlin who’d offered to help with his armour; Merlin who’d sidled forward and pressed a kiss against his lips; Merlin who’d insisted on going back into Ealdor alone. Was there something Arthur had missed? Something he’d forgotten?
Maybe, for him, it’s not the fact I’m a prince that’s a problem, Arthur sighed, picking at the mud caked on the soles of his boots. Merlin had never seemed to care about titles before. Maybe this time, it’s just me.
Since they’d known each other, there’d been several moments when Merlin had seemed not quite his usual, bumbling self. Occasionally, he would say something particularly thoughtful, poignant or encouraging, and at those times, Arthur hadn’t paid too much attention-- why would he? It’d been Merlin talking. He wasn’t much more than a continuous flow of words, constantly tumbling into each other; only occasionally making sense.
As he stared into the dying embers of the fire, Arthur wished he’d listened more. What was it Merlin had said?
“I’m happy to be your servant, until the day I die,” Arthur whispered, his words (or rather, Merlin’s words) swallowed up by the night. “Servant,” he repeated to himself, “not friend, not... anything else.”
Arthur glared up at Lancelot’s tent. Merlin was in there; he’d been in there for an hour. Lancelot had called him and he’d followed. It made sense, really. It was the third night, which meant Lancelot’s turn, but a part of Arthur had expected something different. After everything they’d said and done the night before, Arthur had thought that maybe Merlin would just... stay with him.
The only thing separating them was a thin veil of cloth. Arthur could easily pull it aside, grab Merlin by his skinny arm and drag him back into his own tent. He could demand an explanation for everything unusual and out of place Merlin had ever told him. He could shout and scold Merlin for not making sense-- for being just as confused and unsure about what was happening between them as Arthur was.
Or, Arthur sulked. I could hug him and tell him I’m sorry. Sorry about Ealdor, sorry about his mother, dinner, the tent-- everything. Anything.
With a sigh, Arthur returned to picking at his boots. He wasn’t going to do any of those things. If Merlin wanted to scowl across a campfire and share a tent with Lancelot, then fine. He could. Arthur refused to let himself chase after Merlin. The memories of the last servant he’d pursued and the last friend he’d chased, were still too vivid. Arthur didn’t want Merlin becoming nothing but another ache of regret.
Inside the tent, Merlin was already fast asleep. He’d barely spoken a word to Lancelot before curling up under the blankets, resting his head on his hand and squeezing his eyes shut until he felt himself drifting away. If he’d known the ordeal he was about to go through, Merlin probably wouldn’t have slept a wink all night.
A cold sweat broke out on his skin, and before long Merlin’s breathing grew shallow and uneven. He tossed and turned; not violently enough to wake Lancelot, but enough to pull the blankets down off his chest and twist his shirt tight around his body.
He was in a cave. It was freezing cold, and Merlin began shivering uncontrollably. The rough stone walls curved up on either side of him, stretching above his head and into impenetrable shadows. There was no way of knowing how high the ceiling was, or how deep in the earth Merlin found himself. He didn’t know that place, but his senses tingled, making the hairs on the back of his neck stand on end-- there was magic near.
He wasn’t alone. The hollow sound of footsteps echoed behind him, slow and determined. Merlin could turn his head a fraction either way, and he could speak if he chose, but he couldn’t move his body. He couldn’t angle himself around to face the person behind him. That didn’t matter, anyway-- he didn’t need to. He knew those footfalls almost as surely as he knew Arthur’s.
Morgana held a candle in one hand as she walked calmly into Merlin’s vision. Her hair curled perfectly around her pale face, and the long, green dress she was wearing floated along the floor behind her without a sound. Her usual smirk was nowhere to be seen. She looked tired and small, but Merlin could feel the power radiating from her. He could see in the stiff movements of her body and the harsh lines of her face that she was still strong, and that she was completely in control of him.
“Merlin,” she said, placing the candle on the floor behind her and clicking her fingers, making a hundred others light up all around them. “It’s been too long.”
There was nothing Merlin could do but stare at her as she turned to face him. He hoped all the anger and hatred he’d felt towards her over the past year would combine in his eyes. He wanted her to know how he felt. How he despised her. How he thought she deserved nothing better than that cave.
“I hear you’ve been through a lot,” Morgana didn’t bat an eyelid as Merlin glared down at her. “Didn’t mummy take a little fall?”
It took all of Merlin’s restraint not to scream at her; not to leap forward and let his magic run wild. The feel of the spell holding him was fading slightly, as though Morgana was loosening his bonds. She started walking again, moving in a tight circle between Merlin and the ring of candles. At his back, she reached up to run cold fingers through his hair. It made him shiver and twitch, hating every moment.
Icy fingers slid down his neck and onto his shoulder as Morgana came around to his right side. They stared into each other’s eyes, and it was hard to believe such an exchange had ever been filled with warmth and friendly affection.
Morgana’s hand trailed along the sleeve of Merlin’s jacket as she spoke to him.
“I’ve lost parents too, Merlin... We all have. It can be hard,” her eyes glinted golden for a moment. “Especially to see them pass before their time.”
Merlin’s shoulders tensed as Morgana’s hand slid into the pocket of his jacket, her fingers groping for what only he could know was there.
“And at no fault of their own,” she quirked her eyebrow as she drew out the letter.
Her eyes didn’t widen in surprise, her lips didn’t part in the tiniest display of shock. Morgana’s face remained cold, hard and unyielding as she stepped away from Merlin, unfolding his mother’s parchment carefully.
“A guard dressed in the clothing of Camelot...” she read aloud. “All of Cenred’s people refused entrance... Oh, Merlin, surely Arthur must have realised an order like that was as good as a death sentence.”
It wasn’t until that moment, when Merlin heard Morgana blaming Arthur so readily, with an air of malice that dared him to disagree with her, that he knew for sure what he truly believed.
“It wasn’t Arthur.”
“Oh?” Morgana’s eyes left the page before her and stared straight into Merlin’s. “But hasn’t he been in charge all this time? Isn’t he the only one with the authority?”
Merlin almost flinched at the familiarity of that thought-- it’d been his, mere hours before.
We aren’t alike, he said to himself. We’re nothing alike.
“It wasn’t Arthur,” he repeated, finding he could shake his head as the touch of magic crumbled away. “He couldn’t do that. He wouldn’t do that.” Not to me.
There were several seconds of silence while Morgana gazed intently at Merlin. Her piercing green eyes seemed to see far more than what was in front of them. Merlin wanted to shudder and look away, but he wouldn’t give her the satisfaction. He was already feeling crushed inside with everything he’d seen and felt and done the past few days, and he couldn’t let Morgana see that. He refused to give her the leverage she was looking for.
“I suppose you’re right,” she said quickly, her words coming fast, her tone dismissive. “Arthur doesn’t have a decision like that in him. He’s far too noble, far too good to give a command that could threaten a single peasant, even if their death could save the whole kingdom.”
Merlin’s hands clenched into fists at his side and his jaw locked. “Arthur had to repair everything you destroyed. You can’t accuse him of risking Camelot’s safety when all you did was bring her to her knees.”
“And he let me!” A smirk tugged at the corners of Morgana’s mouth as she stalked forward, approaching Merlin again. “As did you...”
Merlin felt his anger bubble to the surface. He couldn’t hold down his shout. “You abused his trust, his love!”
“They’re his greatest weaknesses,” Morgana sighed, coming to a halt inches from Merlin’s face. For a moment, the magic around him tightened, forcing him to stare straight back at her.
“They’re his greatest strengths,” Merlin whispered, the words biting out between his lips. It didn’t matter what Morgana said, Arthur’s mercy and honour were what made him a great prince, and would make him a great king.
“Always so quick to defend him...” Morgana grinned, tilting her chin so she could look down at Merlin through her lashes. “What about his father?” She retreated several paces and the magic around Merlin eased again. “Uther. Are you so happy to protect him?”
Merlin said nothing. The realisation that it hadn’t been Arthur, that it couldn’t have been Arthur, came hand in hand with accepting that it must’ve been Uther. He was responsible for yet more hurt. He’d sent Merlin’s mother away when she was most in need. He’d sacrificed the people of Ealdor, and countless others. Somehow, he’d found a way to give the order and send guards to the border.
The lines of Merlin’s body and a twitch of muscle in his jaw must’ve betrayed his feelings, because Morgana made a tutting sound, staring down at the letter once again.
“Perhaps we’ve found some common ground after all, Merlin.”
He wanted to deny it more than anything. He wanted to scream no, and you’re wrong, we share nothing, but he couldn’t. The burning in Merlin’s heart and the pain of his nails digging into his palm told him that, deep down, Morgana was right-- their feelings towards Uther were mutual.
“Why does what I feel matter?” Merlin grunted at last. It was the best he could do with all the anger, shock and confusion flooding through him.
“You’re close to Arthur,” Morgana shrugged, but there was something hidden beneath the surface; something she wasn’t saying.
“That’s not it,” Merlin shook his head. “There’s something else. Why me? Why am I here?”
Morgana gave him a pitying look, as though he wasn’t grasping a simple situation. Shuffling his feet slightly against the magic, Merlin stared right back at her, refusing to let her faze him. His mouth set into a thin line and he glowered down at her.
“How many secrets do you have, Merlin?” Morgana’s voice cut through the empty cave, all power and impatience.
Suddenly, Merlin’s heart was in his mouth. His mind raced to catch up with Morgana’s words. He hadn’t made a sound when he’d cursed Morgause in the Great Hall. If she’d survived, she wouldn’t have known it was him, so Morgana couldn’t know either.
You’re safe, he told himself, not quite believing it. Your secret’s safe.
Morgana raised her eyebrow, waiting for a response. “Merlin?”
“I-- I have my fair share,” he muttered. She was just playing games with him. She didn’t know anything-- she was trying to scare him. She wanted him to make a mistake and tell her something he’d regret. That was all it could be.
“I think you’ve lost count,” a smile played across Morgana’s lips. “How many are you keeping from Arthur? How many of them would see you dead? I’m sure he’s finding his life is nothing but a web of secrets now... What with me, you...”
It seemed as though Morgana intended to say something else, but then thought better of it. Her eyes glinted in Merlin’s direction, glowing gold once again and sending an involuntary shiver through him, eating away at something inside.
“I can’t see Arthur being ready to rule until he knows the whole truth,” she said.
“What truth?” Merlin blurted out at once. Hearing his fears spoken in Morgana’s voice was putting him on edge. He needed to know what she knew, to see what she’d seen-- she was a Seer and he wasn’t. She’d never lose that power and he’d never gain it.
“Merlin,” Morgana sighed again. “It’s not that easy. You need to answer my question, and properly this time. How many secrets are you keeping from Arthur?”
Without thinking, Merlin began counting them out in his head. The magic, Kilgharrah, Excalibur-- she was just asking for a number, wasn’t she? He wouldn’t tell her anything more. If all it took for her to tell him what she’d seen was a number, then he could do that, couldn’t he? What was the harm in a number?
Morgana nodded, then paced back and forth, muttering under her breath.
“You’re certain?” she said after a few minutes.
Merlin sucked up his fears. “Tell me what you’ve seen.”
“Merlin!” Morgana surged forwards, and the prickle of magic that’d been on the verge of dropping from Merlin’s body pulled so tight he could hardly breathe. He gasped, making Morgana smirk, but when she spoke, her desperation was poorly masked. “Tell me you’re certain. Don’t lie.”
“I’m certain!” Merlin choked before he could stop himself, desperate for breath again.
“Excellent,” Morgana relaxed, and so did the spell’s tension. Merlin breathed deeply, closing his eyes, searching for a strength that was rapidly leaving his body. He heard Morgana’s footsteps circling him again, and through his eyelids Merlin saw the circle of candles around them sear brightly for a moment.
Merlin opened his eyes to see Morgana standing before him once again, her long hair windswept and curling across her face. Her expression was a mixture of shock and delight.
“What did you do?” Merlin slurred, suddenly realising how drained he felt. It was as though half of his body was sleeping. He could feel part of himself lying dormant-- his stomach held a dead weight and his heart seemed like it wasn’t beating right. What’d happened? What had she done to him?
“I’ve done nothing more than we discussed,” Morgana grinned. “When your last secret is revealed, Arthur will take his place on the throne.”
Before Merlin could respond, a yell tore through his mind. Someone was crying out behind him, shouting incomprehensibly. He sounded desperate, as though he were fighting for his life. Merlin knew that voice, although it took him a few moments to recognise it--
Panic gripped Merlin. He spun around, breaking through the last remnants of the magic holding him still. His eyes combed the cave behind him. There was an uneven stone floor, a curved wall, some crates and a chair, but no Arthur.
The shout rang out again, this time coming from near Morgana. Merlin turned frantically back towards her, but she hadn’t moved. She stared at him, a questioning look pulling the smugness from her face. Maybe she couldn’t hear it?
As Arthur’s yells echoed through the cave, Merlin spun around in a circle, scanning the walls, peering at the shadows. Arthur sounded close, but distant all at once. Merlin stopped spinning as his eyes came to rest on the pile of crates. One of them had fallen open, showing an odd array of coloured bottles and vials, but it wasn’t the crates that caught Merlin’s attention, it was what lay on top of them.
It was unmistakable. He’d recognise it anywhere; that deep shade, the smooth fabric, the golden clasp. It was a green cloak; a green cloak just like the one he’d seen on the hooded figure only a few nights before, stalking through Ealdor, face hidden, eyes golden. The figure who’d stood above his mother, who’d sent her spiralling into the air.
Merlin turned back towards Morgana, ready to shout, to curse, to injure, to kill-- to do what, he didn’t know. All he knew was the sick feeling inside him. The anger, the fury, the utter despair.
She was gone. It was all gone. As Merlin turned, hurling out the words “It was you! You did this!” he felt the hard, cold ground against his back, and saw the cloth ceiling of the tent above him. He’d woken up, but the darkness was still all around him, and Arthur’s yelling didn’t cease. If anything, it was louder.
Lancelot’s hand was on Merlin’s shoulder in an instant. He was shouting, too-- why was everyone shouting?
“Move, Merlin! Get up! We’re under attack!”
When Merlin staggered out of the tent, fumbling in his pocket for the feel of his mother’s letter, there was a fire blazing to his left. The air was thick with heat and smokey chaos, but the chill breeze whipped through the trees, making Merlin suck in a sharp breath. There were flames licking up the sides of Gwaine’s tent.
Arthur’s shouts assaulted Merlin’s ears and the crash of footsteps in the woods around them tugged at his senses, but he couldn’t be distracted.
“Gwaine!” tore from Merlin’s throat as he spun on the spot, eyes scouring the dim confusion around him. Gwaine’s tent was burning, but that couldn’t mean--
He couldn’t be--
A yell of “Merlin!” sounded out from across camp and Merlin’s heart began to beat again-- it was Gwaine’s voice. He was alright.
Merlin turned, squinting across camp to see Arthur and Gwaine standing back to back, each facing a rather large, leather-clad man. Arthur crouched low, leaning into his sword in the way Merlin had seen him do a thousand times before-- ready to fight for his life. Merlin watched him move in sync with Gwaine, each striking out and pulling back at the same time, despite fighting two separate battles.
The man before Arthur was shorter than him and wielded a small axe. He was bald, with chain mail glinting beneath the dark leather and torn cloth of his jerkin. He grimaced, baring his teeth, but Merlin knew far better than to think that could intimidate Arthur. The hours he’d spent watching Arthur train had tuned Merlin into his body language, and although Arthur was tense with the adrenaline of battle, his confrontation with this bandit wasn’t straining his abilities. His life was safe in his own hands.
Merlin didn’t know Gwaine’s mannerisms so well. The man facing him was taller, but not as broad. His gloved fists clasped a broadsword, but it seemed Gwaine was holding his own against such a formidable opponent-- he was a deceptively skilled warrior, after all.
A desperate call drew Merlin’s attention. He looked to his right and saw Lancelot’s frantic gestures. Two men lay dead at his feet, but more were swiftly approaching from the trees.
“Get behind me!” Lancelot shouted, beckoning Merlin over.
Merlin obeyed without question. He didn’t want to hide behind Lancelot, but he had no sword and it felt as though there was a battle waging inside him, too. He doubted he could’ve supported the weight of a weapon if he’d been handed one.
Whatever Morgana had done in the cave, the dregs of it were still coursing through his body. As the fearsome men approached him and Lancelot, Merlin wanted nothing more than to use his magic. He could hear Lancelot’s deep breaths through the quiet between them, and his shoulders were tense under his armour.
It didn’t need to be anything spectacular. If Merlin could just break a branch or fell a tree, it could protect them for a short time, and at least save Lancelot from fighting so many men on his own, but for some reason, it wasn’t working. That build of magic he always felt before casting a spell was absent from Merlin’s stomach. He stared at a large sycamore tree, willing one of the branches to snap. It was something he’d done many times before, but his magic wasn’t responding right. He felt it fluctuate up into his chest, rippling through his insides and twisting around uncomfortably.
Somehow, Merlin’s magic felt wrong. As though it’d been used or abused in someway-- as if he didn’t quite have control of it. It was still present inside him, but since he’d woken up it’d been raging around, popping up and sizzling down deep in his chest like a pan of boiling water. It wouldn’t respond to Merlin’s demands, it just squirmed and sunk away, leaving him defenceless.
A yell of pain made both Merlin and Lancelot look over their shoulders. They saw the bald man who’d been fighting Arthur sink to the ground, but Gwaine was also falling. His hands were gripping a wound on his thigh and his teeth were bared in pain. He slid down onto his other knee, head bowed.
The large man before him turned his attention to Arthur, who was spinning to face him, but not fast enough. Merlin saw the broadsword glint in the light of the fire and he saw Arthur, framed in time for a split-second as his eyes moving upwards towards it. There was no way he could defend himself-- no one’s reactions were that fast.
No one’s except Merlin’s. He screamed Arthur’s name, raising both his hands and letting a blast of magic out before any coherent thoughts could properly form in his head. It wasn’t any spell he knew, it was more like the instinctive magic he’d practised in his youth.
Merlin hadn’t thought about it... he wasn’t sure what’d happened. It was as though all the vehemence and passion seething through him had finally burst free. Everything was entirely impulsive; more a decision made by his magic than his mind. It hadn’t functioned when he’d told it to, but when his heart felt like it might be ripped from his body, it’d saved him. It’d saved Arthur.
The sword fell from the large man’s hands as he was blown into a tree at the side of the clearing. Arthur blinked, seeing his own death fade as fast as it’d appeared-- cast from his path by something incredible, something unexplained.
He turned to gape back across camp. There was Lancelot, sword in hand, enemies swarming down on him, and beside him, there was Merlin. Merlin, whose hands were outstretched. Merlin, whose face was twisted with fear and surprise and determination, as though he’d just fought off an assailant; as though he’d just thrown every ounce of himself into a sword move, or a mace swing.
Only, he wasn’t holding a sword or a mace. There were no fallen bandits at his feet. His eyes were staring straight back into Arthur’s, and his fingers were held out stiffly in front of him.
That was when Arthur saw it; the thing he’d missed a hundred times; the sight that always evaded his lazy eyes, his unwatchful gaze. A glimmer of gold in Merlin’s eyes, and sparks leaping between his fingers. It could’ve been a reflection from the fire, except it wasn’t, and Arthur knew it. He sensed it from the soles of his feet to the roots of his hair, like a wave of shock that hit him everywhere at once.
Arthur felt himself gagging for air; he couldn’t breath. He felt his fingers loosen around the hilt of his sword; he couldn’t tighten them. He felt his heart stumble over this thing he didn’t know, this thing he couldn’t explain, and all he could do was stare.
He stared and stared, not blinking even when the smoke began to sting his eyes. The word sorcery ran through his head, over and over.Sorcery, Morgana, evil. Merlin’s name didn’t fit. It couldn’t fit, he was Merlin.
But he wasn’t Merlin-- he couldn’t be. Merlin wasn’t a... a sorcerer. Merlin wasn’t a liar, a traitor, an enemy to the crown. Merlin was Arthur’s friend-- he was loyal and honest and terrible with a sword, but he was innocent. He chattered on for hours about nothing, he gave Arthur advice when he hadn’t asked for it and he always, always needed protecting. He couldn’t do anything right. He’d drop his own head and then fall over it if it wasn’t attached to his body. There was no way he could be a sorcerer. There was no way he could be practising magic.
Arthur could hardly move. He could hardly see what was happening. He could hardly hear Lancelot’s cries as the hoard of men behind him took hold, lifting him off his feet. The same thing happened to Merlin-- large, thick, leather-clad arms wrapped around his waist and took him away. Arthur watched, not quite registering the desperation with which Merlin kicked his feet and swung his arms; not quite processing the strange words leaving Merlin’s lips. Another language? Probably.
Either way, it didn’t matter. That wasn’t Merlin-- it couldn’t be.
* * *
The sky above turned light grey as morning approached. Gwaine growled at Arthur to leave him and go after the others. He tried to stand countless times, but ended up slumping down again with a sharp breath. Arthur ignored him until he fell silent. He was trying to reconcile his mind with the fact that the sorcerer he’d just seen carried off into the forest with Lancelot was Merlin; his Merlin.
Arthur stared after them --after him-- for what could’ve been an hour, before birdsong finally pierced his haze. He began trudging around camp, collecting up any debris he could find and piling it up. Two of the tents were still standing. Arthur emptied his own of all the blankets, beginning to slowly take it down and pack it away. The rhythm and familiarity of it calmed him. He’d taken apart a thousand tents in his life, and he’d cleared up after a hundred battles, it was something he knew; something he trusted.
By the time Arthur finished folding up the first tent, Gwaine was asleep against a log. The wound on his leg was deep, but would leave no permanent damage, just a scar.
The horses had been cut free at some point in the night, and must’ve fled in fear amid the flames and confusion. In silence, Arthur collected all the bags they hadn’t lost and left them leaning against a log on the opposite side of camp.
The final tent was Lancelot’s. Arthur stepped soundlessly inside. In the corner, Lancelot’s pack lay half open. It was dark leather, but still looked quite small beside Merlin’s. For the first time, Arthur was struck by how heavy Merlin’s pack must always be-- half the time, he carried Arthur’s things as well as his own.
And yet he always carries it, Arthur thought, his heart aching slightly (not that he’d allow himself to acknowledge it). All along, Merlin could’ve made things easier for himself, but he hadn’t. He’d just carried Arthur’s pack, as well as his own.
“Gave him an excuse to complain,” Arthur muttered, unable to hold in a snort of laughter which was immediately followed by a sick feeling in the pit of his stomach.
Arthur closed his eyes as he picked up the bags, trying to stem the flow of images in his head-- Merlin’s shocked face, the flashes of golden light, his fear as he was lifted away. A sharp intake of breath was the only outward sign of Arthur’s inner battle. He fought to push down dark visions of Merlin and Lancelot, locked away, bloodied and dirty, desperately in need of help.
After carrying Merlin and Lancelot’s bags outside and placing them gently beside the others, Arthur went back inside. He collected the blankets that’d been scattered across the floor when Merlin and Lancelot surged to their feet the night before.
As he bundled them in his arms, a fleeting snatch of blue caught Arthur’s eye. He peered over the pile of cloth in his arm, looking for what he’d dropped. Lying on the bare tent floor in front of him was Merlin’s blue scarf.
A tear slipped from Arthur before he could stop himself. He felt it run down his cheek, lonely and cold, and he closed his eyes for a moment. Arthur dropped to his knees, letting the blankets fall to the floor as he reached out for the blue scrap of fabric. He grasped it between his gloved hands, biting down hard on his lip.
Merlin’s name ran through Arthur’s mind over and over. His shoulders shook in and effort not to sob; he didn’t want to cry. He nevercried. All the things Merlin was-- a servant, a support, a friend, an equal-- swarmed down on Arthur. For those few seconds, he let himself feel it all; the confusion, the betrayal and the weight of so many lies.
“It wasn’t you,” Arthur breathed through a snotty nose. “I know you.”
But it was Merlin, and he knew that, too.
Another tear ran down Arthur’s cheek as he pressed his face into the soft, thin fabric of Merlin’s scarf. He drew a deep breath, allowing the comforting smell of Merlin, still painfully familiar from the previous morning, to flood him. It pulled at his heart-- that was Merlin;that was the person he knew.
Slowly, Arthur got to his feet, wiping tears on his gloves. Then he stuffed Merlin’s scarf into the pile of blankets, before gathering them together again and carrying them outside.
I’m strong enough for this, he told himself.
A grunt of pain across camp told Arthur that Gwaine was awake again. Arthur dropped the blankets with a cough and headed over, bending down to examine Gwaine’s leg.
“M’fine!” Gwaine mumbled, shifting away from Arthur’s outstretched fingers.
“It needs to be dressed,” Arthur told him calmly. He wasn’t asking permission.
After tearing a few strips of cloth from one of the blankets, Arthur carefully pulled away the fabric on either side of Gwaine’s cut. It was just above his knee, and there was a fair bit of blood, but Arthur had seen much worse.
Ignoring Gwaine’s hiss of pain, Arthur set to work cleaning the wound. It wasn’t usually Arthur’s role to tend the injured, but he’d sustained enough cuts to know how to deal with them. It wasn’t long before Gwaine’s leg was clean and bandaged in green cloth.
“There you go!” Arthur patted Gwaine’s shoulder. “You’ll just have to take it easy for a while.”
“I can’t take it easy when Merlin and Lancelot are out there somewhere,” Gwaine scowled up at Arthur, his eyes burning and his lips drawn into a thin line.
Arthur straightened up at once. He blew out a puff of air and put his hands on his hips, then turned around and started wandering back and forth. What was he supposed to do? There wasn’t exactly a line in the Knight’s Code for situations like this.
“Why didn’t you go after them, Arthur?” Gwaine demanded, watching Arthur pace. “Why did you just let them get away? I told you I could look after myself, you should’ve just--”
“Because of Merlin!” Arthur burst out, whirling to glare down at Gwaine. He couldn’t believe he was having to say it aloud. “Didn’t you see what he did?”
“What did he do?” It was almost a challenge. Gwaine’s voice was hard and unforgiving, and his anger was directed solely at Arthur. His piercing gaze did not waver as they stared at each other.
“He--” Arthur stopped and took a deep breath. He ran a hand through his hair, turning away from Gwaine to stare back towards the spot where it’d happened-- where Merlin had... “He used magic.”
“What do you mean, so?” Arthur snarled, eyes fixing coldly back on Gwaine. “If he’s using magic, that makes Merlin a sorcerer, and sorcerers are evil, Gwaine. They’re nothing but liars. All they want is to see Camelot fall.”
For a few moments, Gwaine stayed silent, and Arthur (foolishly, perhaps) thought he’d won. It was a surprisingly empty feeling, believing that he’d just convinced someone Merlin couldn’t be trusted. It sat awkwardly in Arthur’s stomach, as though it shouldn’t be there. Deep down, a voice was telling him he was wrong, but twenty-four years worth of hatred was a lot to unlearn in the name of one person-- whoever they were.
“Do you really think,” Gwaine muttered at last, sounding as though he was barely containing a shout. “That every sorcerer in the world is out to hurt you? This is Merlin. Our Merlin. Your Merlin. Is that what you think of him?”
“He’s been lying all this time!”
“And for what?”
It was unnerving how controlled Gwaine’s words were when Arthur felt as though he might break down at any moment. He forced himself to breathe deeply and think.
Several minutes passed in silence, and Arthur realised there was no answer to Gwaine’s question. It’d been years with Merlin-- years. Any other sorcerer who’d tried to win Arthur’s trust had done so over a matter of weeks, the only exception being Morgana.
And he’s not Morgana, Arthur said to himself. As much as Merlin’s magic brought back into sharp relief the sting of Morgana’s betrayal, Arthur couldn’t ever see them as alike. There was something in Morgana’s air, in her presence, that Merlin didn’t carry. He was insolent sometimes, yes, but never conceited.
“For nothing,” Gwaine concluded, seeing Arthur wasn’t going to answer him. “You know him, Arthur. We all do. You know his heart, and he’s not evil. He couldn’t be.”
“But...” Arthur’s voice was getting lost in his swirling thoughts. “He’s lied for so long.”
Gwaine smiled sadly, reaching up to pull Arthur’s hand. Arthur bent his knees, sinking to sit on the log. “I know,” Gwaine muttered to him. “But everyone has secrets. I do, Merlin did... You probably have a few yourself, princess.”
At that, Gwaine’s smile brightened and he winked. Arthur almost grinned despite himself, but Gwaine’s next words killed any chance of a smile.
“I bet even Saint Lancelot’s hiding something, eh?”
Arthur’s shoulders stiffened under Gwaine’s rough pat on the back. He stared at his hands for a minute, frowning as he twisted his silver ring around his thumb. Once Gwaine’s expression had become serious again, Arthur finally felt comfortable enough to speak.
“Like what? What secrets?”
“I don’t know about the rest of you ladies,” Gwaine sighed, seeming happy to be given an excuse to fill the silence. “As for me... Well, d’you really want to know?”
“Yes!” Arthur said, perhaps a little too eagerly. A small, nagging part of him hoped Gwaine was about to reveal something momentous-- like a long-lost relation to Morgause or a crippling fear of rejection. Whatever it was really didn’t matter to Arthur, as long as it was outrageous enough to make magic seem like old news.
“I’m of noble birth!”
Gwaine shrugged, “I was born a nobleman.”
Well, that was certainly unexpected.
“And you had your title revoked?” Arthur prompted, staring at Gwaine as if he’d never seen him before.
“No,” Gwaine shook his head, smirking. “It probably should’ve been, though.”
Arthur made an exasperated sound suspiciously close to agreement.
“That’s your big secret?” he asked after a moment. “That you let me face all the consequences of knighting a commoner when you wereactually a noble?”
“Hey!” Gwaine was suddenly very defensive. “I had my reasons, just like Merlin did. He wouldn’t have kept this magic business to himself without good reason.”
The mention of Merlin’s name sent Arthur’s heart straight to his throat. He tried to swallow, but his efforts came to no avail. He was struck by images of Merlin during all those witch hunts, Aredian’s accusations and all the speeches Uther had given on the evils of sorcery-- speeches Arthur had often repeated.
“My father would’ve killed him,” he nodded slowly. The humour and ease of the moment had gone once again.
Gwaine said nothing. He looked down at the wound on his thigh, pressing his fingers lightly around the edges and sucking in a sharp breath as pain shot through his muscles. Gwaine loathed to admit it, but Arthur probably had a point about him staying put.
He’d never been very good at sitting around recovering while his friends were in trouble. Especially friends like Merlin and Lancelot, who Gwaine knew wouldn’t waste a second in coming to his aid. All of a sudden, they were on his mind again. He’d promised to show Arthur the light in Merlin when his secret was finally revealed, but was one conversation really enough?
“But why would he stay, if it meant living a lie?” Arthur sounded awkward; he hated having to ask a question he didn’t already know the answer to.
Gwaine could do nothing but shake his head, Merlin hadn’t told him why.
Arthur nodded graciously. If he couldn’t find the answers with Gwaine, then he’d just have to ask Merlin himself. He got to his feet and strode over to the pile of blankets he’d left abandoned near the bags. He bent to his knees and rummaged through the cloth until he found Merlin’s blue scarf.
Then Arthur paced back across camp, wrapping the thin piece of blue fabric around his arm. By the time he reached Gwaine, it was tied securely around his bicep. He offered his hand to Gwaine, who pulled himself gingerly to his feet.
“I’ll have to ask him myself,” he smiled, and Gwaine grinned back at him, relieved. They’d already lost enough time.
* * *
Lancelot groaned as his shoulder slammed into cold metal. Aching pain thrummed through his right side, but he ignored it. He pulled the blindfold from his face, blinking as his eyes readjusted, then scrambled over to where Merlin was lying nearby.
Darkness was falling quickly, but Lancelot could still make out Merlin’s features in the pale moonlight. The rag of cloth that’d been covering his eyes had slipped down to hang loosely around his neck. In silence, Merlin rubbed at the red marks where rope had burned his wrists. His head rested on the dirty black floor of the cage, and his unfocused eyes stared out at nothing.
“Oh, Merlin,” Lancelot whispered, leaning over him. He wasn’t sure whether it was best to try and comfort Merlin, or let him come around on his own.
While they were being marched through the forest, blind and stumbling, Lancelot had thought nothing could be worse than listening to Merlin’s disjointed shouts. He’d cried in strange languages, stopping only to let out a sob of shock or a grunt of pain when their captors hit him. Lancelot had tried muttering calm words under his breath, but the men around them had only laughed and jeered.
Hearing Merlin fall silent had definitely been worse than listening to his anguish. There was nothing Lancelot could’ve done, and he knew it, but it felt like Merlin had given in-- like they’d finally broken him. The way he lay still in the filth on the cage floor only confirmed Lancelot’s fears. Merlin’s eyes dimly shone gold, then faded quickly. The ropes must’ve withstood his most powerful spells, because now they were gone and he had no energy left to fight.
The cold numbed Lancelot’s skin. He brought his fists up to his mouth, breathing heat onto them as he stared out between the bars. They were in a small metal cage, raised to about shoulder height on some kind of platform. It was on the outskirts of what looked like a large bandit camp. Great, burly men with no hair and an outrageous affection for leather bustled around to their left, outlined by the roar of a fire nestled amongst shabby tents.
They’d travelled non-stop for hours, but judging by the size of the camp, they were still within Cenred’s borders. His kingdom had sprawled east for league upon league of rugged woodlands and harsh moors. Peaceful villages like Merlin’s had always been few and far between, and judging by the mounds of plunder stacked in and around the smokey campsite, these bandits had managed to wipe most of them out.
Merlin suddenly started to cough, drawing Lancelot’s attention again; the first thing he needed to do was take care of his friend. Making a low, hushing sound, Lancelot tucked his hands under Merlin and lifted him slightly, so Lancelot could cradle Merlin’s head against his stomach.
There was little resistance from Merlin. He shifted around into a more comfortable position on his left side, but said nothing. He didn’t even look up-- his mind was obviously full of Arthur. He was probably replaying that moment back in camp over and over again. What’d possessed him to reveal his magic so readily after years of secrecy?
Then again, it was hardly Lancelot’s place to lecture Merlin on what he should and shouldn’t reveal to Arthur. He could tell Merlin needed him to be a comfort. For whatever reason, what’d happened, had happened, and Merlin was regretting it. Everything was going to change now. If either of them saw Arthur again, they’d have a lot of explaining to do-- and a lot of confessing.
“He’ll come for you, y’know...” Lancelot mumbled, because what else could he say? “It’ll be okay. He’ll come.”
After a long pause, Merlin wiped away the fresh tears burning down his face. “No, he won’t. Didn’t you see his face? He won’t. That’s... that’s it.”
Lancelot shook his head and sighed, but said nothing. Gently, he brought his hand up to comb through Merlin’s hair. It was something he remembered his sister doing for him a lifetime ago, when they’d been huddled in the dark corner of their old village, and it’d soothed him then.
Merlin’s breathing calmed as Lancelot’s fingers ran through his hair again and again. Neither said a word, but Lancelot hummed out a low, comforting sound that made the tension in Merlin’s shoulders slowly ebb away. He let tiredness wash over him, feeling his drained magic beginning to reshape. It tickled through the aching muscles of his fingers, rushing to the sore marks on his wrists and the stiff pain in his neck.
* * *
As soon as Merlin let his eyes drift shut, they were flying open again-- or, at least, that was how it felt. Really, he could tell an hour or so had passed, because his magic felt stronger, refreshed... Just in time to return to the cave; just in time to find himself face to face with Morgana once again.
Merlin wiggled his fingers against his thigh, testing for the binding curse that’d trapped him the night before. It was nowhere to be found. He let out a relieved breath and spun to look around the cave. The pile of crates behind him were still there, but the tell-tale green cloak was nowhere to be seen.
It doesn’t matter if she’s hidden it, Merlin scowled. I know what she did.
When he finally directed his eyes forward again, Merlin jumped, seeing Morgana standing before him. She laughed, swishing her green cloak across the stone floor-- so she wasn’t hiding it, she was parading it. Merlin flushed with a fresh wave of loathing; a feeling that was becoming more and more familiar to him.
Morgana only smirked, delight dancing through her eyes. She lifted her hands and brought the green hood up to rest on her head, never once breaking Merlin’s gaze.
“Recognise me?” she grinned.
“Oferswinge!” Merlin roared, his right hand leaping into the air, directing all his power towards Morgana. He felt the spell rush through him. It burned behind his eyes and in the soft skin of his palm, but it seemed to disappear as soon as it left him. Morgana didn’t move-- she barely flinched.
“Taking lessons from Gaius now, are you?”
Her voice echoed a smug taunt, but the look in Morgana’s eyes was murderous. She’d recognised the spell Gaius had wielded against her sister. Secretly, Merlin had searched for it in his book, and committed it to memory. Gaius had always taught Merlin that his magic was for good, and good alone, but there was no harm in learning to defend himself.
“Is that the spell you used to, let me guess, save Arthur?” Morgana asked, her voice dripping with sarcasm.
Merlin opened his mouth to speak, but no words came out. He was sure his magic had recovered from whatever had happened in camp, not to mention the strain of fighting against enchanted rope, but oferswinge had been one of the strongest spells he knew, and it’d got him nowhere. It was clear Morgana knew about his magic, but how?
“Luckily, I had the sense to protect myself before you arrived,” she said, watching him closely. “It really was no fun restraining you last time-- I much prefer watching you squirm.” The venom in Morgana’s tone reached a new height. She began toying with the fastenings of her cloak, the smile reappearing on her lips. “I must admit, Merlin... I didn’t expect to see you again so soon.”
“How did you know?” Merlin blurted out, hands clenched into useless fists at his sides. “How did you know I had magic?”
Morgana’s grin widened. “I was a little surprised at first... Especially after the way you treated me back in Camelot. Surely, Merlin, you’ve not forgotten the night I whispered magic to you, and you turned away?”
Her malice was unmistakable and her words fluttered with anger, but somewhere deep down, somewhere lost, Merlin sensed hurt. For a moment, he thought that maybe this affected Morgana more than she would ever let on.
“Surely, you remember the night I confided in you, and you acted as though you didn’t know me at all-- as though you, yourself, weren’t everything you pretended to fear? To hate?” Morgana raised her head, disguising her pain well.
Merlin simply nodded. He remembered it all-- he’d never forget.
There was a long silence while Morgana glared at him, her eyes cold, her jaw set. Then, calmly, she spoke again. “But when I brought you to watch Ealdor’s destruction, I heard you. I heard you shouting spells, trying to protect your pitiful mother, and I felt you, Merlin. I felt the way you strained to pull magic up from inside yourself. Fortunately, only your mind was present in the forest, so your incantations were useless-- more annoying than anything... As you can see, I’ve made more of an effort this time.” Morgana’s eyes glinted as she motioned around with her hands.
Raging feelings froze Merlin until he barely remembered to breathe. Tears stung his eyes and his nails dug into his palms. Morgana had only known where to find Ealdor because he’d taken her there. Once, she’d insisted on helping them, protecting them, only to murder them years later. And she’d done it to get at him. Merlin knew that his mother, Kay, Lynn, everyone... had all been innocent. They were just more casualties along his road to greatness. This wasn’t the way to reunite Albion-- it was cruel; it wasn’t fair.
“You...” Merlin croaked at last, refusing to let his tears show. “You sent those guards, didn’t you?”
There was a silence that seemed to stretch out forever. Morgana’s eyes flicked up and down Merlin, judging him. He stared straight back at her. He wouldn’t break eye contact. Any small victory counted for something when faced with the woman who’d tortured his mother and destroyed his home.
“Yes, Merlin. I did.”
Merlin’s hand clapped over his mouth. He took a shaky step backwards, desperately trying to convince himself she was lying, but she wasn’t-- he knew she wasn’t. How could she be? There was no one else who could’ve done it. He should’ve seen it before, but he’d been blind.
“I’d hoped you’d blame Arthur,” Morgana drawled, a vicious grin on her lips. “But what with this new, magical revelation, I found I didn’t need a dead parent to drive a wedge between Prince Arthur and his puppy.”
Merlin nodded into his hand. Morgana’s voice echoed through his head.
“You see, since you were so gullible, so utterly convinced that Uther, and only Uther, could be responsible for your mother’s death, combining our magic was just too easy.”
It was all starting to make sense. Morgana had caused Merlin’s grief, then used it to manipulate him. She’d cursed him, and he’d fallen for it. She’d combined his magic with her own, which was dark --something Merlin strove to avoid with all his might-- and so, back in camp, his power had spun out of control.
For an hour or so, all the magic Merlin had learned in Camelot had gone from his mind. Only his natural, instinctive magic had remained, and it’d been wilder than ever. It’d reacted more to his instincts than his wishes. He hadn’t had time to think.
“Last night, Merlin, you wanted the king dead as much as I did. You’d already given me the perfect way of breaking Arthur, so the next step was only logical.”
“Wh-what step?” Merlin rasped, trying to ignore the overwhelming sickness rising in his stomach. His mind was raking through the evening before; Morgana’s muttered spell, the way the candles had seared, how her eyes had flashed as he confessed his secrets.
“Binding Uther’s life to you,” Morgana smirked, beginning to pace. “Don’t you understand yet? As soon as Arthur discovers all three of your secrets, his father will die. He’ll have to take his place on the throne, whether he’s ready or not.”
A particularly satisfied ring carried through Morgana’s last words, a ring that Merlin registered somewhere in his mind. He closed his eyes, letting his hands drop down to slide into his pockets, pushing away the feeling of guilt in his soul.
He was still processing everything. It was all twisted and warped in his head, but he kept repeating the same phrase over and over-- I’ve started something I can’t stop.
“Why...” Merlin mumbled weakly, casting his mind back to what Morgana had said. “Why do you want Arthur to be king? Only weeks ago you were trying to kill him. You spent a year trying to kill him. What’s changed your mind all of a sudden?” Merlin’s voice grew stronger as he spoke, and he even managed to inject a little sarcasm. “Found that sibling bond again, have you?”
Morgana laughed, “I still dream, Merlin. I dream of Arthur, I dream of you, and sometimes, I even dream of my old maid, Guinevere, and all her secrets.”
Merlin gulped, his shaky confidence disappearing again. Morgana was talking about Gwen and Lancelot-- what else could it be? She must’ve foreseen their kiss. She must know that Gwen had decided her love for Lancelot was deeper, more real, than her feelings for Arthur.
“I grew up with Arthur,” Morgana continued, watching Merlin with that same air of poisonous delight. “We were siblings, as you say... I know how strong he is. I know that once he becomes king, Camelot will be enslaved for years. I’m not as naive as I once was-- I know I can’t beat him when he’s surrounded by people he trusts; people he loves.”
Merlin stared at Morgana, defiance rising up inside him. “Arthur still has those people. Gwen made her decision for all the right reasons,”for the love of Camelot, for the good of the kingdom, for the truth of what she felt, deep down. “And he still has me.”
“Have you not been listening at all, Merlin?” For a moment, Morgana’s voice took on a patronizing quality eerily similar to that of her brother’s. It sent a shiver down Merlin’s spine. “You’ve been lying to him for years. It’s not a question of whether he’s got you, it’s a question of whether he even wants you. Whether he can stand to be around you, knowing everything you are.”
Merlin’s heart was in his mouth; Morgana was putting into words all of his deepest, darkest fears. He knew Arthur well enough to realise he didn’t deal with lies and secrets well. They’d driven him close to murdering his own father before, and sometimes it seemed as though he could do a lot worse to Merlin.
It wasn’t as though Merlin had spent all that time simply hiding knowledge of a friend selling healing charms or the odd, age-old book of spells he might stumble across in Gaius’ chambers. It was so much more than that. Merlin had lost count of the amount of times he’d offered up his life in exchange for Arthur’s, but he still doubted Arthur would ever truly believe all the lies had been for him, and no one else.
Tears welled up inside Merlin; tears he barely managed to bite back. He focused on the sound of Morgana’s pacing, following her path with his eyes. As she spoke, he hung onto her every word. She was explaining everything so fully-- why? What with Morgause’s absence, maybe Morgana really didn’t have anyone else to talk to. There was nobody left for her.
And she’s always been one to gloat, Merlin pondered, his stomach giving an uncomfortable pang at the familiarity of the thought. He used to know her so well.
Another swish of Morgana’s green cloak dragged across the cave floor as she paced back and forth. She didn’t sound lonely, but she did sound proud. Merlin knew better than anyone that the Pendragons could disguise any emotion with a good dose of pride.
“To kill Arthur would be tempting,” she was saying. “But making an example of him would be far more effective. We can’t afford any chance of those loyal to Uther thinking they can get off lightly...” It seemed as though Morgana was talking to herself more than Merlin. Her brow was creased with concentration and she wrung her hands distractedly. “No, what with my own allegiances, Gwen’s betrayal, the discovery of your lies and his father’s death, Arthur’s reign will end before it’s even begun.”
She wanted to break Arthur. She wanted to take everything away from him, and then attack. It made sense, in a perverted kind of way. There weren’t many people Arthur loved, and as much as he tried to hide it, he needed them. Gwen had hurt him, and that night in the tent, Merlin had thought that maybe --just maybe-- he could be the one to fix that.
Magic would change everything. Arthur was probably somewhere far away, brooding. He was probably hating Merlin, ruing the day they’d met, regretting ever trusting him, wishing he’d never held him, never kissed him.
No, Merlin thought, sucking in a deep breath. He wouldn’t let that happen-- it was just what Morgana wanted. He knew her plan, and so he could do everything in his power to prevent it. He needed to keep his place by Arthur’s side. If he didn’t even make an effort to provethat he was still the same Merlin, Morgana would win. If he left Arthur to feel betrayed and abandoned, more people would suffer. Camelot would fall.
“You want to steal everything from him,” Merlin spat out. “But I won’t let you.”
He glared through the dim light towards Morgana, who turned towards him, a shadow of surprise fleeting across her face.
At that moment, Merlin decided; he’d get out, he’d find Arthur. He’d make him listen. Merlin would gladly throw himself to the ground, or rise up above the trees, if that was what it took to win Arthur back again.
“I’ll never leave him,” he told Morgana’s dark grin. “You won’t ever steal me away from him.”
* * *
Lancelot placed a hand on Merlin’s forehead. His breathing had changed over the past hour, and his limbs had started twitching slightly. The soft, peaceful look on his face had contorted. Merlin’s eyes had scrunched up and his brow was creased with a frown. Something had clearly shifted inside him. He must’ve been dreaming, and after everything that’d happened, Lancelot guessed whatever was running through Merlin’s head couldn’t be very pleasant. Tenderly, he brushed away a strand of Merlin’s dark hair.
A rustling in the bushes caught Lancelot’s attention. He raised his head, pressing it back against cold metal bars. They were still a long way from the outermost bandit tents-- other prisoners would’ve shouted and screamed, which would’ve been hard to sleep through, so the cages were left a good distance away, nestled in the darkness.
Just as Lancelot was thinking he must’ve imagined the noise, it came again. It was a definite sound of movement nearby, and Lancelot craned his neck to see over the edge of the cage. The night swallowed everything that wasn’t within a foot or two of the bars, so when a head suddenly appeared beside him, just outside the cage, Lancelot yelped in shock.
“Quiet! For God’s sake, Lancelot,” hissed a familiar voice.
“Ar--Arthur?” Lancelot croaked, peering towards the dirty blond head on his left. It looked as though Arthur had smeared earth on his cheeks to camouflage his pale skin in the darkness, but the moon still glinted slightly in the metal of his plate armour.
“Well it’s hardly Guinevere, is it?” came Arthur’s whispered reply, frustrated and sarcastic. Both men noticed how smoothly he said her name-- there was no hesitation or stutter, and Lancelot’s heart only skipped one beat, rather than its usual dozen.
“Is Merlin alright?” Arthur asked anxiously, his head bobbing around the edge of the cage until he reached the door.
“I think so,” Lancelot uttered as quietly as he could. “He’s dreaming.”
“Typical,” Arthur huffed, but his concern wasn’t well concealed.
His head disappeared below the level of the cage for a moment, then reappeared again, wielding something small and metallic. He quickly ascended the few makeshift steps the bandits had left behind and began fiddling with the lock.
“What’s that?” Lancelot whispered, squinting towards him.
“Gwaine couldn’t stop the horses from carrying off the last of the lamps, but he managed to hold onto his lock pick,” Arthur answered, not attempting to hide his vexation. He’d already chastised Gwaine for that particular lapse in judgement.
“Why does he have a lock pick?”
“I’m trying not to think about it.”
Lancelot muffled a laugh, and Arthur grinned at him. It felt oddly natural-- sort of comfortable in a way nothing had been between them since before leaving Camelot.
The cage door clicked and Arthur pushed it open, cursing under his breath as the hinges creaked. He wasted no time in crossing the metal floor and crouching beside Lancelot, his eyes fixed on Merlin. Despite the cold night, Merlin’s skin was damp with sweat, and as Arthur pulled off his glove and replaced Lancelot’s hand with his own, Merlin let out a small noise.
Arthur frowned, leaning in closer. Merlin’s nose brushed through Arthur’s hair as he strained his ears to pick up any words, but the close proximity was distracting him. The memory of Merlin sidling forwards and pressing a kiss against his lips the day before swarmed up from the pit of Arthur’s stomach. He drew back to look Merlin over, somewhat overwhelmed by conflicting feelings.
Part of him wanted to feel that kiss again. Perhaps not right at that moment, because Lancelot was only inches away and because Merlin looked sweaty and ill and more than a little unpleasant, but maybe soon. Maybe after Merlin had washed, slept some more and properly explained himself, Arthur could kiss him again. Maybe.
Another part of Arthur asked whether he’d simply made some kind of mistake-- whether everyone had imagined the spell in camp. After all, this Merlin didn’t look particularly magical. He looked tired and broken. He didn’t look evil or all-powerful, but he did look mistreated. There was a small cut on his left cheek and as Arthur’s gazed drifted downwards, he noticed the unmistakable burn of rope encircling Merlin’s thin wrists.
A bubble of anger burst in Arthur’s chest. He grunted, damning the men who’d tied Merlin and damning himself for not acting sooner, then reached out and shook Merlin’s shoulder as gently as he could. Lancelot began bending his legs beneath Merlin, lightly nudging him off. Merlin was sleeping quite deeply, but once Arthur lifted him into a sitting position, his bleary eyes opened.
“Arthur?” he murmured, only half conscious. “Arthur, I won’t let her steal me. I won’t.”
Merlin rubbed his eyes and blinked several times, frowning as he stared at Arthur through the dark. Arthur watched him without a word. He had absolutely no idea what Merlin was talking about, as usual. He’d probably meant to say sorry I betrayed your trust for three years, but his sleepy mind was obviously confused.
Merlin had never been good at waking up; at least that much hadn’t changed.
“Come on,” Lancelot urged, his hand on Arthur’s shoulder. “They’ve been sending someone to check on us every hour.”
Arthur’s stomach jolted in panic, and he quickly wrapped his arms around Merlin’s waist, and hoisted him over his shoulder. Arthur felt Merlin’s hands splay out over his back, and he could still hear him mumbling indistinctly.
They scrambled out of the cage and down the steps, then Arthur led the way to a small cluster of bushes nearby. There, he crouched down, lifted Merlin off his shoulder and gazed intently into his sleep-dazed face.
“Merlin?” Arthur whispered, propping Merlin against a bush and gripping his face. “Merlin, are you alright?”
It was clear Merlin was in no fit state to string together a coherent sentence. He mumbled apologies over and over, and kept insisting no one could steal him-- something Arthur thought was very Merlin, considering the fact he’d just been taken from the clutches of bandit slave traders.
Lancelot hunched down beside them, rubbing at a bruise on his ribs. He’d not been injured as badly as Merlin, but he’d still suffered for putting up a fight. Arthur looked up at him, something close to pleading in his eyes, but all Lancelot could do was shake his head; he didn’t know what’d come over Merlin, but it wasn’t good.
“Gwaine’s waiting about half a mile back along the ridge,” Arthur told Lancelot, his eyes stuck on Merlin even while his arm pointed back in the right direction. “Take Merlin to him, give him some water, do whatever you can. I’ll catch up soon.”
Arthur stood to leave, but Lancelot caught his arm. “Where are you going?”
“I’m going back to the camp. Those men have been pillaging and burning through this kingdom for long enough,” Arthur suspected they were responsible for the terror in Ealdor, and probably countless other villages. “They need to be stopped.” They took Merlin.
“Arthur, please,” Lancelot didn’t let go of Arthur’s arm. He hung on tighter, inclining his head down towards Merlin, who was slipping back into an uneasy sleep at their feet. “You need to carry him. I’m too tired.”
“He’s only tiny,” Arthur argued. Every inch of him was aching to sneak between the bandit tents and fight. That twinge of pride he’d been raised to protect was urging him into motion-- he couldn’t run away.
Arthur turned to leave, casting a quick glance down at Merlin, but Lancelot reached out and grasped his other arm too. “Please, Arthur, it won’t do any good. There are too many of them. We need you to find the way. I can’t carry Merlin on my own.”
With a sigh, Arthur looked down at Merlin again, this time letting his eyes linger on his face, pale and gaunt in the moonlight. There was dirt and sweat in Merlin’s hair and dark shadows beneath his eyes, and the only movement in him was the slow rise and fall of his chest as he breathed. Lancelot was right-- he’d be a dead weight to carry.
Perhaps attacking the camp wasn’t the best idea Arthur had ever had. He didn’t know how many men were there, where the guards were and which way to go to reach higher ground.
After looking back and forth between Merlin, Lancelot and the distant glow of the camp, Arthur sighed.
“Yeah, you’re right,” and it definitely wasn’t defeat in his voice, it was concern; concern for Merlin. Or something like that.
Lancelot released Arthur’s arm, a weak smile on his face, and patted him on the back.
It was a familiar touch, much like something Arthur would’ve done to Lancelot when they’d first met-- back when Lancelot was all nerves and honour and Arthur was the man in charge. It felt like a lifetime ago, but Arthur wasn’t angry with Lancelot anymore. The ache of seeing him with Guinevere had faded into a dull sadness.
Definitely an improvement, Arthur thought. Although I tend to fight better when I’m angry.
He wasn’t quite sure when that hurt had numbed. It was probably somewhere around the time he’d looked across camp to see Merlin glaring at him and turning away. The magic had helped, too. There wasn’t much room for pain over Guinevere with all these new feelings about Merlin crowding Arthur’s head and heart.
With a curt nod in Lancelot’s direction, Arthur crouched down and lifted Merlin over his shoulder again. It made Merlin wake up for a moment, groaning and shifting slightly to get the pressure off his stomach, but before long his mutterings at Arthur’s ear subsided into quiet breathing again.
* * *
When they found Gwaine, he was sitting moodily on a fallen tree, picking at broken bark and grumbling to himself. He’d wanted to go along and help, but Arthur had forbade it.
(“Your leg won’t take it!”
“Marge is a bloody good leg! She’s walked on worse.”
“Gwaine, if you want to keep Marge at all, you’ll stay here.”)
When Lancelot stumbled into view, Gwaine’s face lit up and he scrambled to his feet, purposefully not wincing at the pain.
“Lance!” He shouted, reaching out and welcoming his friend into a one-armed hug. All Arthur had seemed to care about was savingMerlin Merlin Merlin, but Gwaine had been just as concerned for Lancelot. He was pretty fond of the honourable idiot, after all.
“Hey!” Lancelot grinned at Gwaine as he pulled out of the embrace. “Are you alright?”
“Am I alright?” Gwaine scoffed, hitting Lancelot roughly on the shoulder. “There’s you having been kidnapped by the worst dressed men in Albion for an entire day, and you’re asking me if I’m alright!”
They both laughed. Lancelot cleared his throat and lowered his voice slightly. “Yeah, I’m fine. Merlin, on the other hand...”
All hints of a grin dropped from Gwaine’s face in an instant and Lancelot’s voice faded to quiet as he turned to see Arthur struggle down the muddy, leaf-strewn slope towards them. Lancelot rushed forward, reaching out to steady Arthur as he teetered sideways, almost falling under the uneven weight of Merlin on his shoulder.
“He’s heavier than he looks,” Arthur puffed, lifting Merlin down and leaning him against the log. He seemed more awake after the journey, muttering and even opening his eyes from time to time.
“What’s wrong with him?” Gwaine demanded at once, crouching in front of Merlin and ignoring the pain in his leg. He grasped Merlin’s shoulders, then moved his hands up to examine Merlin’s head for injuries, but found none.
“I think he’s just really, really tired,” Lancelot explained. “He was having nightmares before Arthur arrived--”
“Nightmares?” Gwaine turned around at once. “Was he kicking? Shouting for his mother?”
Lancelot frowned. “No... He was just sort of twitching and muttering.”
There was a moment’s awkward silence before Lancelot continued. “He was fighting those bandits all day, and they kept hitting him. Plus he hadn’t had more than an hour’s rest before I woke him in the tent because of the attack.”
Arthur paced back and forth, listening intently. Merlin had slept well enough in his tent two nights before.
“He had a nightmare when he shared with me,” Gwaine said gravely, getting to his feet again. “He said he was dreaming about his mother.”
“But we hadn’t been to Ealdor at that point!” Arthur cut in, making the other two jump. “He thought she was fine.”
“No, Arthur,” Gwaine sighed, stepping forwards. “He knew she was dead before we left Camelot... It’s his magic. He said he has dreams sometimes.”
For several minutes, Arthur just stared down at Merlin. He was dropping back into sleep, looking small and fragile and so very cold. He was shivering against the wind and his eyelids were fluttering. All the things Arthur had said to him before Ealdor; all the jokes about his mother and the biting, frustrated words, came flooding back.
Merlin had known that whole time. He’d known what he was going to find. He’d known what they were heading for, and yet he’d let Arthur comfort him with empty words, and he’d let Arthur berate him for acting out.
It made Arthur want to wrap his arms around Merlin and not let go. He felt like such a fool. He should’ve known it from the moment Merlin walked into his chambers that morning, but he hadn’t. He’d been blind.
“Right,” Arthur said loudly, his jaw set in determination. “Come on, we have to keep moving. We need to be long gone before those bandits notice anything wrong.”
He took up his pack from where it’d been lying against a rock and headed towards Merlin, bending down to examine him closely again. He wiped his thumb back along Merlin’s cheekbone, staring intently at his fluttering eyelids. Merlin didn’t look sweaty and ill like he had in the cage. He was still frowning, but it was different-- more peaceful, somehow, as though he were finally resting.
“Arthur,” Lancelot’s footsteps approached from behind. There was a hint of hesitancy in his voice that Arthur hadn’t heard since telling Garan and The Green Knight around the campfire. “Arthur, he needs to rest. You mustn’t wake him.”
“I’m not going to wake him.”
With all the gentleness his clunky armour would allow, Arthur tucked his left arm under Merlin’s knees. When they hung hooked over the crook of his elbow, Arthur turned his attention to supporting Merlin’s back and head with his right arm. It was a shaky start as Arthur straightened his legs, but soon enough he was standing beside the log with Merlin cradled safely in his arms.
Gwaine looked sideways at Lancelot for a moment, eyebrows arched, then collected together his own things and stood ready. Lancelot quickly followed suit, and within a few minutes, they were on their way, battered and bruised, but stealing between the trees with as much speed as they could muster.
After a while, Gwaine began lagging behind. More than once, he stopped to lean against a tree and clutch his injured leg. Arthur didn’t notice. He was in the lead and focusing most of his energy on keeping Merlin asleep despite the uneven forest floor and the way his heavy boots were dragging through the fallen leaves.
Lancelot kept an eye on Gwaine. He saw how his footfalls were uneven and he heard the ragged breaths Gwaine failed to disguise. When Gwaine slowed down, so did Lancelot, and when Gwaine stopped to rest, Lancelot waited patiently for him. The soles of Lancelot’s feet were burning in his boots and his thighs were past the point of aching, but he made no mention of it.
After an hour of watching Gwaine struggle, Lancelot slipped an arm around his waist to support him. Gwaine looked up with a pained smile and nodded his thanks, but said nothing. He leaned heavily on Lancelot, but his pace picked up and his breathing steadied.
They walked through the darkness for several leagues. Arthur hadn’t travelled through those woods often, but he’d been studying maps of Albion since he was old enough to read, so he knew where he was heading.
Merlin slept almost soundly in Arthur’s arms. He wasn’t heavy, but Arthur hadn’t slept for a long time and the weight of his armour was already enough to make his shoulders sag. He watched the slow rise and fall of Merlin’s chest as he breathed and tried to imagine being so enveloped by sleep himself. Arthur closed his eyes every now and then, but he didn’t stop walking-- not once.
Not until a shout from behind drew his attention. Lancelot called Arthur’s name, and when he turned he saw Gwaine sitting on the ground a way behind. Lancelot stood beside Gwaine, gripping his shoulder and frowning towards Arthur.
“He needs to rest,” Lancelot explained as Arthur crossed the distance between them. “It’s his leg.”
Gwaine didn’t look up. His face was lined with pain and anger; he wasn’t the type to let an injury get the better of him. Arthur could see Gwaine’s knuckles turning white where he was twisting his hands in the fabric of his breeches.
“Are you sure you can’t go on a little longer?” Arthur asked, hating himself for pushing Gwaine’s endurance so much. “We can make camp in the caves at the foot of the mountain. It can’t be more than a few leagues away now.”
Gwaine scowled, shaking his head. There were beads of sweat on his forehead and fresh blood was shining on the torn green bandage Arthur had tied around his leg; it needed changing.
Lancelot clearly had the same thought as Arthur, because he quickly pulled open Gwaine’s bulky leather pack and tugged out the green blanket. He tore off a strip and knelt down in front of Gwaine, setting to work uncovering his cut and cleaning it.
With the other two preoccupied, Arthur took his chance to set Merlin down gently against a tree. He laid Merlin’s legs out as softly as he could and used his gloved hand to cushion Merlin’s dark head as he brought it back to rest against the rough bark.
A quick glance over his shoulder told Arthur that Lancelot was busy poking at Gwaine’s wound, and Gwaine was busy baring his teeth and squinting in the opposite direction. Their voices murmured on quietly, already caught up in a familiar exchange not unlike Merlin and Arthur’s usual banter.
When he was sure he was being ignored, Arthur pulled off his gloves and leaned forward. He wiped away the flecks of dirt on Merlin’s forehead and ran his fingers along Merlin’s cheekbones. He made his touch as light as possible; he wanted to clean some of the dark smudges from Merlin’s skin, but not wake him. Not yet.
The uneasy rumble of Merlin’s lies still churned through Arthur’s stomach, but the time for confrontation and confession would come when Merlin awoke. While Merlin was resting, Arthur just wanted to be close to him. He needed to keep reminding himself that this was the same Merlin it’d always been. Nothing was different, Arthur just knew more. Only by remembering that could he hope to keep a hold of himself when they finally talked openly.
Before he knew what he was doing, Arthur had tilted forward and pressed a kiss against Merlin’s head. He stayed there, his hand cupping Merlin’s cheek, his nose resting in Merlin’s hair, for several seconds. Then, the sound of Lancelot and Gwaine’s voices stopped, and he opened his eyes.
“Arthur?” There was an unsettling twinge in Gwaine’s voice. “Arthur, what’re you doing?”
Arthur moved away from Merlin at once. He turned his back on the other two and pretended to be sorting through his pack, although really he was just fiddling with the metal clasp and trying to catch his breath.
“Didn’t, uhm, didn’t look like nothing,” Gwaine still sounded uncertain, but he was too tired and confused to let go of what he’d seen. “I mean, I know it’s Merlin, but what would Gwen say?”
All of Arthur’s movements suddenly stilled. Gwaine watched his back, waiting for an answer to what he thought was a perfectlyreasonable question. Lancelot straightened up and glanced back and forth between Arthur and Merlin. His foot was tapping the ground beside Gwaine, making the leaves rustle.
“I mean,” Gwaine continued more warily. “I know you two aren’t exactly official, but everybody knows.”
Lancelot’s head snapped around and he glared down at Gwaine. He tried grimacing and widening his eyes as a warning for Gwaine to back off, but his signals were in vain. The hunch of Arthur’s shoulders was reaching his ears and the thin veil of silence in the air was just waiting to be torn.
A grin spread across Gwaine’s lips-- ignorance really was bliss. “Come on, Arthur, the way you look at her! A blind man could see it.”
“Enough!” Arthur shouted, rising to his feet and spinning around to face Gwaine in one swift movement. His eyes were suddenly full of anger and his teeth were bared. The shout echoed into silence.
Merlin shifted slightly in his sleep and made a small, humming sound. Gwaine and Lancelot both watched him for a moment, too afraid to meet Arthur’s eyes or break the tense quiet.
“Guinevere and myself are no longer involved,” Arthur said, his voice low and calm again as he stepped in front of Merlin. “She loves another.”
“Who?” Gwaine asked indignantly, and Lancelot wondered just how hard he could press his boot into a freshly bandaged wound without drawing blood again. “Can’t you fight him for her?”
Lancelot decided he really didn’t care about not drawing blood.
“No,” Arthur shook his head and pulled his gloves back on as he looked up to catch Lancelot’s eye. “It’s not my place to come between true love.”
“But!” Gwaine exclaimed, flailing his arms in an attempt to get to his feet. “But you’re the prince! You’re a bit of a prat sometimes, but--”
“I’m not going to force her to marry me,” Arthur broke eye contact with Lancelot to glare at Gwaine. “Not if she has feelings for someone else.”
Arthur paced towards Lancelot, sending a swirling sensation through his stomach. He stood completely still, not looking away from Arthur’s face-- Arthur’s eyes were sad, but his mouth had twisted into a slight smile. He placed a heavy hand on Lancelot’s shoulder and gazed meaningfully into his eyes.
“I want her to be happy.”
Lancelot nodded, a weak smile playing across his lips. “I’ll do my best, sire.”
“I’m sure you will.”
They stared at each other for a moment longer, before Gwaine broke the silence.
“So I don’t get Gwen or Merlin?”
“I think maybe we can let Merlin and Gwen decide for themselves,” Lancelot said diplomatically, saving Gwaine from one of Arthur’s biting retorts.
With a wink and a grin, Gwaine scrambled to his feet. He hopped over to where Merlin was still sleeping against the tree and bent down to study his face, poking at bony shoulders and nudging Merlin’s knee with his boot.
“I’m not quite sure he’s my type,” Gwaine smirked after a minute. “Plus, I don’t fancy he’d like us fighting over him, Arthur.”
Arthur opened his mouth to argue that Gwaine was being far too presumptuous and nobody had said anything about wanting to fight for Merlin in the first place, but he was drowned out by a snicker from Lancelot. Gwaine chuckled too and ruffled Merlin’s hair.
“Come on, Arthur,” he said over the sound of Merlin’s sleepy murmurs and shuffling. “I think I can make it a few leagues now.”
After exchanging a look with Lancelot that could be translated only as do you want to kill him or should I?, Arthur hurried over to bundle Merlin up in his arms again and follow Gwaine in the direction of the mountains.
* * *
Merlin had been hit around the head and enchanted before. He’d gone three days without sleep and he’d drunk too much ale, but he’d never experienced a state of mind as blurred and fuzzy as he did on the journey back from the cage. He remembered seeing Arthur’s face, he remembered being lifted from the ground, but nothing that’d been said to him carried any meaning.
As he drifted closer to the surface of consciousness, Merlin thought he remembered hearing his own name spoken over and over. He’d been leaning against a tree, Gwaine and Lancelot had been there, Arthur had been crouched close to him, and then--
A green cloak. Merlin had seen a figure hooded in green between the trees. His heart lurched and, as the memory returned to him, he ripped himself from the remnants of sleep. Merlin’s hands moved out on either side of him and he coughed, sitting up slightly and squeezing his eyes shut against the burning brightness of the morning sun.
He rubbed his eyes with the heel of his palm and gazed around. He was lying under several blankets, but the chill air was making his nose and fingers numb with cold. Bright, clean light was peeking through the flap of Arthur’s tent.
Merlin blinked quickly and hoisted himself up to lean on his hands. He was in Arthur’s tent. Chain mail and armour were piled beside the doorway, his blue scarf lay beside him, folded carefully into a square, and outside it was silent but for the chirping of lonely birds.
Where was Arthur? Merlin vaguely recalled apologising to him over and over. He remembered talking to Morgana, telling her that he’d never leave Arthur. But that didn’t mean Arthur couldn’t leave him...
“Good morning, Merlin.”
The sound of Arthur’s voice made Merlin jump and spin around so fast he cricked his neck. Squinting in pain and rubbing a shaking hand over his nape, Merlin looked up at Arthur. He was sitting on Merlin’s right, in the back corner of the tent.
“Ar--Arthur,” Merlin croaked, clutching his throat as the burn of hours without water tore his voice. “Arthur, I--”
A waterskin appeared in front of Merlin’s face, dangling from Arthur’s hand. As he reached up gratefully to take it, Merlin made a point of not touching Arthur, although he was sure he saw a slight tremor in Arthur’s fingers as they pulled away.
Merlin gulped more water than he really needed as an excuse to stay silent for as long as possible, then mumbled, “Thanks.”
Arthur nodded curtly and reached out to take the waterskin from Merlin again. He placed it on the floor and stared down at his boots for a few moments, twisting his silver ring around his finger in a habit Merlin had come to recognise as uncertainty.
“I-- uhm,” Merlin stammered, trying to make Arthur look up at him. “Wh--what happened last night? I don’t really, uhm, remember much. Have you--?”
“No,” Arthur said at once, looking Merlin squarely in the face. “No, I’ve not slept a wink.”
“Oh.” Merlin gazed timidly at him.
After several long, silent seconds, Arthur spoke again. “I carried you here from the bandit camp. Lancelot said you’d been dreaming, and none of us...”
Merlin’s eyebrows rose a fraction of an inch as Arthur trailed off. He watched through the corner of his eye, pretending to be fiddling with a loose thread in the blankets as Arthur swallowed stiffly.
“None of us had the heart to wake you,” Arthur finished after a moment, more than a little pained by the words leaving his lips. He wasn’t sure how comfortable he was about discussing his heart with Merlin. As familiar as it felt for them to be together like this, it was also odd and new and awkward. Neither of them had ever been very good at ignoring problems until they disappeared.
“Th--thank you,” Merlin muttered, barely loud enough for Arthur to hear. A smile flittered across Merlin’s lips for less than a second, but was lost in the soft lines of fear and worry creasing his brow and tugging his mouth down at the corners.
Arthur stared at him, frowning as he wrestled down all the thoughts and images that’d rushed through his head while he sat in silence, waiting for Merlin to wake; images of his father’s hunt for sorcerers and of all the evils he’d seen magic spin over the years. Arthur couldn’t connect that vehemence and cruelty with the calm rhythm of Merlin’s breathing as he slept; so shallow, so quiet and melodic.
In the hours he’d spent listening to the morning birds begin to sing and watching the sun rise through the cloth of his tent, Arthur had planned out the conversation he wanted to have with Merlin. He knew exactly what he wanted to say and how he wanted to say it-- or, at least, he had known all that before Merlin had begun shifting restlessly in his sleep, and when he’d shuffled into a sitting position and turned his blue eyes on Arthur, the whole plan had dissolved.
Merlin had a way of throwing Arthur off like that.
“I-- erm, we should,” Arthur stuttered, his mouth moving without his mind’s consent. “Talk, I think.”
Merlin nodded, saying nothing.
“I mean, you know, about the whole--” Arthur made a strangled gulping sound, closed his eyes for a moment and revelled in the solitary privacy of his dark, heavy eyelids. “--Thing.”
“Arthur, I’m so sorry,” Merlin began, flooding with remorse. He stared up at Arthur desperately, his eyes still a little droopy with sleep and his hair plastered dark and messy against his pale skin. "I really, really am. It's just so--"
"You'll have to do better than that, Merlin," Arthur said, somehow falling into a cold, detached tone. “You explained Guinevere well enough, now I’m giving you the chance to explain yourself.”
Arthur’s gaze was unwavering. He stared straight at Merlin, his face free of all expression but for a small muscle twitching in his jaw. Merlin felt his throat go dry.
It was the moment Merlin had been waiting for; his chance to explain everything. After years of shadows and hiding and secrecy, Merlin finally had the opportunity to be who he really was, and change Arthur’s mind about what was truly right and just and fair.
Merlin could see everything laid out before him. The road to fate, to peace, to destiny, was there beneath his feet. He could feel his whole life building up behind him, waiting for this moment, preparing for this chance.
The words stuck in his throat. Merlin said nothing. A lifetime of chatter and half-kept secrets, and when it all came to a head, what did he do? Nothing. He said nothing. He just sat there, staring up at Arthur with no feeling in his fingers and no thoughts except run. Merlin was frozen, petrified, using just his eyes to beg Arthur for the forgiveness he probably didn’t deserve.
The quiet stretched out between them, and Merlin was close to crumbling from the horrible weight of it when Arthur finally spoke.
“How long have you been... studying...” he began, the clench of his jaw clear in the stiffness of his words.
“I didn’t study m-- it,” Merlin said hurriedly. He found the word magic wouldn't pass his lips when Arthur was staring so intensely at him. “I was b--born with it.”
Slowly, Arthur nodded. He looked down at his hands and Merlin sighed with relief as the harsh blue gaze left him. Then, Arthur squinted towards the sunlight peeking through the tent, and asked loudly, “Is that possible? I mean, I didn’t know that could-- uhm, that was possible.”
“It is,” Merlin confirmed, shifting under the blankets and crossing his legs. He could feel the tension ease a little. “I’m living proof, after all.” He shrugged his shoulders, raised his hands by his side and smiled slightly.
Arthur looked at Merlin out of the corner of his eye and nodded again. His shoulders were hunched up to his ears and Merlin wanted little more than to massage the knots out of Arthur’s muscles in the way he had done so many times before, after training session or particularly tough days of council with Uther.
“And why--” Arthur started to ask before dropping his head into his hands and running his fingers through his hair. It made the blond strands stand up on end.
Merlin watched him intently. The sun was soft under the white fabric tent and it surrounded Arthur in pale light. He was leaning with his arms across his knees, and his dark blue tunic hung loosely from the spread of his back.
Fear and shock from having this side of himself finally revealed to Arthur still thrummed beneath Merlin’s skin, but as his eyes traced the taut muscles of Arthur’s arms and neck, he couldn’t stop the feelings that rushed back to him. The memory of warmth and closeness they’d shared three nights before washed over Merlin. He felt the loss of Arthur’s trust and friendship (and dare he say love?) like a blade in his stomach.
“Why--” Arthur managed at last, looking back at Merlin with eyes that most certainly were not prickling with the threat of tears. “Why did you stay in Camelot?”
Merlin gaped at him for a moment. “What?”
“Why did you stay? If you were a sorcerer--”
“I’m a warlock,” Merlin mumbled, his face flushing slightly. “Not a sorcerer.”
“Alright...” Arthur frowned after a few seconds, giving Merlin one of those familiar looks that suggested he was being a complete idiot. “If you were a warlock, why didn’t you leave Camelot? You do know magic is outlawed, don’t you?”
A shiver ran through Merlin when Arthur said magic so calmly, with none of the usual anger or hatred-- with no real feeling at all. Merlin hadn’t expected to ever have to explain this to anyone. Leaving Camelot had never really been an option for him, especially after meeting Kilgharrah and learning that his future was already set in stone.
He didn’t quite know how to tell Arthur he hadn’t left because not only did he have nowhere to go, but the thought simply hadn’t occurred to him-- he hadn’t had much time to think since he’d saved Arthur’s life at the feast all that time ago.
“Because of you,” Merlin said, more to himself than to Arthur. It was true, after all. Completely true.
Arthur, of course, had no idea that Merlin had spent his first year in Camelot talking to an age old dragon about how the two of them completed each other. As far as he was concerned, Merlin was a disrespectful peasant who’d become his servant, then his friend, and then something more. Merlin’s magic didn’t spell destiny to Arthur in the same way Arthur’s crown meant everything to Merlin.
Sometimes, Merlin almost forgot that. He was more than a little taken aback when Arthur sat up and suddenly said, “Well, you don’t have to stay because of me anymore.”
There was a brief moment where Merlin forgot to breathe.
“I-- what?” he gasped. It was true that, back in the cage, when everything had been desperate and uncertain, he’d believed Arthur would hate him. The thought of Arthur banishing Merlin for his magical abilities wasn’t a new one, but since then he'd carried Merlin for hours and sat with him while he slept. It’d almost seemed as though things were going well.
Arthur pursed his lips and looked at his boots. He felt as though he was sending Merlin away for all the wrong reasons. When Arthur had imagined banishing a sorcerer (or a warlock) from his kingdom, it’d always been because magic was evil. It’d always been because creatures that cast spells and wove enchantments were untrustworthy. He’d always thought it would be because he hated all those who practiced sorcery.
He didn’t hate Merlin. The longer they spent together, and the more --well, the more Merlin-- Merlin was about his magic, the quicker Arthur felt his doubts melt away. He wasn’t tense or edgy around Merlin the way he had been with Morgause or the Druids. He wasn’t telling Merlin to leave out of anger or disgust.
“I-- I want to keep you safe,” Arthur murmured, echoing the words he’d spoken in the stable. “You can’t come back to Camelot.”
Arthur’s tone was quiet and he looked sad, almost regretful, but a bubble of anger rose up inside Merlin. He knew Arthur was trying to save him, but it still hurt that after years together, after everything Merlin had done for Arthur, it could end so quickly. It hurt that Arthur could just say the word and push Merlin out of his life.
“I’ve got nowhere to go,” Merlin told him steadily, fixing his eyes on the bridge of Arthur’s nose. “You can’t just send me away. You need me.”
Arthur let out an exasperated, slightly desperate huff of laughter. He blinked back a tear, still not looking at Merlin. “I don’t want you risking your life just to be my servant.”
“Oh my God,” Merlin put his head in his hands, pleading for strength. “You really are a complete prat.”
He looked up to see Arthur staring dejectedly at him, and Merlin was caught between an unexpected urge to kiss Arthur for being so chivalrous and ridiculous and an overwhelming impulse to clout him for exactly the same reason.
He opted to do neither. Instead, Merlin studied Arthur for a few moments, considering whether now was the right time to share some of Kilgharrah’s words.
When it came to it, Merlin felt like one secret exposed between them was more than enough, but something inside him felt uneasy. Surely, if Arthur was to hear the truth from Merlin himself, it’d make it easier to accept? More secrets and lies would never regain Arthur’s trust.
Or his affection, Merlin found himself thinking, before shaking his head. He needed to be sensible. He needed to be honest. He knew Morgana would get the truth to Arthur in her own way, if the plan wasn’t progressing fast enough.
“I’m not just your servant,” Merlin said at last. Arthur opened his mouth to speak, but Merlin cut across him, trying to cling to the glimmer of courage he had left. “I’m your...”
The glimmer faded.
“My what?” Arthur asked.
“Your-- uhm,” Merlin tripped over his words. “Arthur, the thing is, me and you, we’re kind of... It’s a long story, but I swear it’s true. It just feels right, y’know? And it’s not been easy. I mean, you were bloody difficult and you kept shouting and sacking me and calling me a--”
“Merlin, please,” Arthur’s voice was loud and clear. He sounded irate, but the twinge of annoyance was something Merlin had heard often. Really, Arthur wanted to laugh at him, but he had to be all Arthur about it, so instead he was losing his temper. “Stop babbling and spit it out.”
After taking a deep breath, Merlin gulped, closed his eyes and slowly began to speak. “You and I are destined to unite Albion together. You’re going to be a great king one day,” probably sooner than you expect, “but you’ll need my help to bring magic back--”
“Bring it back?”
Merlin nodded and his stomach lurched as he saw the look on Arthur’s face.
“Merlin, just because I’m willing to look past the fact you’re a... a warlock, or whatever you said, it doesn’t mean magic isn’t evil.”
There was a long, stony silence after that. The only sounds were the calls of birds outside and the low, shaky breaths Merlin took as he tried to pull himself back together. It’d never been easy hearing Arthur talk about magic the way he did, but when he knew what Merlin was and still wouldn’t accept it...
Merlin sniffed loudly, rubbing a fist against his stinging eyes. He couldn’t look at Arthur. He couldn’t face the fact that maybe he’d ruined everything-- maybe he’d spoken too quickly, or done something wrong along the way. Maybe there’d been some golden opportunity to prove the virtues of magic to Arthur, and he’d missed it.
“It’s not evil,” Merlin said through gritted teeth. He could feel a tear slipping down his cheek,but he ignored it. “It’s no more evil than a sword or a spear. All those people who attacked you, your father, Camelot,” Merlin closed his eyes as visions of countless sorcerers rushed through his mind. “They only did that because he attacked them first. They just wanted justice.”
Arthur sprang to his feet, making Merlin jump, and then stormed towards the opening of the tent.
“I don’t have to listen to this,” he said, his anger spilling over as he turned to glare down at Merlin. “You have no right to talk about my father like that! How dare you pass judgement on the way we protect our kingdom.”
“But you don’t!” Merlin shouted, clambering to his feet. “You don’t protect it, you condemn it! Every sorcerer you murder is another nail in Camelot’s coffin.” A small voice in the back of Merlin’s mind told him to stop. Arthur rarely took part in the sentencing of sorcerers, but this speech had been brewing and festering inside him for far too long. “You have no idea how many times I’ve saved you or your father or your kingdom by using magic! The king would kill me if he knew who I was, but if it wasn’t for me he’d have fallen a long time ago. He tricked and hunted and slaughtered my people and he locked Kilgharrah away forever. So how dare you tell me that was all for protection! It wasn’t. It was nothing but hatred.”
Tears were flowing freely down Merlin’s face. He wiped at them angrily, clenched his fists by his side and stared at Arthur with all the defiance he could muster.
“Your people?” Arthur said quietly. He let his hand fall from where it’d been holding the tent open and slowly looked Merlin up and down.
Merlin nodded, his anger melting away. “Yes. People with magic. Innocent people.”
Arthur cleared his throat, watching Merlin closely. He’d become more and more accustomed to having Merlin shout at him, and although it should’ve made Arthur want to shout back and send Merlin away, he only felt sad and deflated.
There had been numerous times when Arthur had seen his father’s hatred of magic blind him, but to think that Merlin had been there, casting spells and weaving enchantments to protect Camelot... It made Arthur wonder how many of his triumphs had really been his own.
“Who, erm,” he mumbled when he saw the tension in Merlin’s shoulders begin to sag. “What’s Kil-- Kilgha...?”
“Kilgharrah?” Merlin said at once.
“Yeah... who is that?”
“He’s the last of his kind,” Merlin told Arthur, looking as though he was braced for attack at any moment. “Uther chained him under the castle until I set him free two years ago.”
“You set him free?” Arthur asked before he could stop himself, and Merlin nodded.
There was more quiet as Arthur worked through this new information. Someone --or something-- had been hidden away beneath Camelot, unbeknown to him or most of the court. It was a creature of magic, that much was plain, and it’d escaped two years before...
“The-- the dragon?” Arthur said after a minute. Merlin had set the dragon free? “The dragon that almost burned Camelot to the ground?”
Merlin gulped and Arthur saw his eyes dart towards the opening of the tent. He stepped in front of it, fully blocking Merlin’s escape route, and stared pointedly at him. “Merlin, did you set that dragon free?”
“Y--yes,” Merlin stuttered, his chest rattling as he took a shaky breath. “But I didn’t think-- I mean, I only did it because I had to. He wouldn’t have helped me save Camelot if I didn’t.”
“Save Camelot?” Arthur repeated in that way that made it sound like the most absurd thing in the world. “Save Camelot? Did you not see what it did? How it almost killed me, how it almost killed Gwen--”
“Yes, Arthur, I saw!” Merlin interrupted, the strength in his voice returning. “He’d lost everyone. He was angry, he was really, really angry.”
“It killed a dozen knights!” Arthur shouted, throwing his hands up in the air. “It burned them right in front of us. You were there! You saw what it did.”
“Yeah, I did,” Merlin sighed, his shoulders sagging. He didn’t want to fight anymore. It felt like they’d talked too much already. “And I stopped him. When he knocked you down, I spoke to him and he stopped.”
Arthur’s eyebrows were raised now. He stared disbelievingly at Merlin, as though even after all he’d found out, he still couldn’t quite picture Merlin being brave; Merlin being powerful.
“He apologised, Arthur,” Merlin said through gritted teeth, trying not to think about the way Arthur was gaping at him. “He was at my command, and do you know what I did?”
Arthur shook his head almost imperceptibly.
“I showed mercy,” Merlin told him, lifting his chin. “Can you believe it? A sorcerer--”
“--Warlock,” Arthur interrupted, and it made Merlin’s heart melt right there.
“A warlock,” he corrected himself, “showing mercy.”
Slowly, Arthur’s gaze dropped to the floor. He nodded, not quite sure whether he was nodding to accept Merlin’s story or just for the sake of something to do; some way of answering.
Arthur was still trying to stomach the knowledge that here was just another thing he hadn’t managed to achieve. Just another thing he’d failed to do to protect his kingdom. It didn’t matter to him that he’d been fighting a dragon. His father had captured it all those years ago, so Arthur should’ve been able to slay it. He shouldn’t have had to rely on Merlin to fight his battle for him.
“I just...” Arthur trailed off, waving a hand in the direction of the sunlight outside. He needed a moment to collect his thoughts.
Merlin nodded. He watched Arthur turn and leave, then he silently discarded the shirt he’d been wearing for several days and rooted around in his pack until he found his favourite red shirt. Once he’d pulled on his boots as well, Merlin headed out into the chilly morning light.
The two tents were set up just inside a cave. Merlin looked around for a few moments, swallowing down the lump in his throat-- he’d never had good experiences with caves.
Arthur was standing out in the sunlight with his back to Merlin. The cave was at the top of a small hill at the foot of the mountain, and the woods were just down below. The sun was hitting the mouth of the cave and Arthur closed his eyes, relishing what little warmth it gave to the cold winter air.
He was thinking quietly to himself. Thinking about the sorcerers he’d met, the sorcerers he’d fought, the sorcerers he’d killed, or watched die. It was odd that the one thing he’d always been taught to hate, and the one person he felt as though he knew every inch of, had proved to be one and the same.
Ever since he’d met Merlin, Arthur had thought there was something a little different about him. While he would’ve preferred it was something simpler, like a fondness for silk gowns or an actual mental affliction, Arthur was beginning to think that Merlin being a warlock wasn’t so terrible.
At least he’s on my side, Arthur huffed, smiling slightly. Merlin would always be on his side. That much, he knew for certain.
“Hey,” came a small voice behind him. Arthur turned to see Merlin shivering in the cold. His shoulders were hunched and he was twisting the sleeve of his red shirt between his fingers.
“Hey,” Arthur replied quietly. The full night’s sleep had done Merlin a world of good. His skin looked healthier and his eyes were bright as he stared at Arthur. The chill in the air was making Merlin’s cheeks turn pink. Arthur reached out for him instinctively.
Merlin shuffled forwards until he was standing face to face with Arthur, the morning sun hitting them from the side. The fingers of Arthur’s right hand were lingering on Merlin’s forearm as they gazed at each other.
Then, they pressed towards each other. Arthur wrapped his arms around Merlin’s waist, hugging him close, and Merlin locked his arms around Arthur’s shoulders. Arthur turned his face into Merlin’s neck, surprised by the sudden sting of tears in his eyes.
“Magic took my sister, Merlin,” he said against Merlin’s skin. “I can’t just forget that.”
“I know,” Merlin whispered into his ear. They pulled apart again, but Merlin kept his hands on Arthur’s biceps and leaned down slightly to look into his eyes. “But it gave you me.”
Arthur chuckled despite himself. Merlin was grinning at him in a way that made his stomach feel warm and his fingers tingle. They stayed like that for a few moments, grinning at each other with teary eyes, until Arthur swooped forwards to press his lips against Merlin’s.
Arthur heard Merlin’s sharp intake of breath and felt long fingers lock in his hair. It took a few moments for Merlin to respond, but when he did, his enthusiasm made Arthur’s head spin. He closed the gap between their chests and curled both arms up around Arthur’s neck. Merlin jumped slightly when Arthur moved his hands back around his waist, but that surprise was quickly lost in a small hum of approval.
It was Merlin’s tongue that slid along Arthur’s lips first, and Arthur opened his mouth for him, their lips parting together and their tongues sliding side by side, as if they’d kissed like that a hundred times before. For several minutes, the heat between their mouths was the only thing in Arthur’s world. He could feel Merlin’s nose pressed against his cheek, freezing cold from the winter air, and Merlin’s chilly fingers knotting in the blond locks at the back of his head, but it was all just... background to him.
They pushed back and forth where they stood, vying a little for dominance, but smirking against each other’s mouths as they did so. Arthur tried to count their kisses by the happy lurches of his stomach, but before long there’d been too many, and he found his focus shifting to how many knobs of Merlin’s spine he could run his fingers over before it made Merlin shiver.
Just as Arthur felt Merlin’s hands slip from their safe position on his neck and begin to tickle down his arms, the sound of voices drifted up from between the trees. With a small protest from Merlin, Arthur pulled away and listened. It was Gwaine and Lancelot returning from their morning scout.
Arthur and Merlin turned to stare down the slope towards the edge of the forest. Gwaine and Lancelot were already visible through the outermost trees, ambling along at their own pace, wearing only thin cloth shirts, breeches and boots. Merlin wondered how these knights didn’t freeze-- now that he was away from the warmth of Arthur’s body, he was beginning to feel the cold again.
“Everything alright?” Gwaine called from down below, and even from that distance the grin on his face was plain. “Have you two kissed and made up?”
Merlin blushed, running a nervous hand along the back of his head. Timidly, he smiled at Arthur, who nodded sternly back at him. They both reached up and wiped at their lips automatically, then Merlin turned and headed back towards the tents as Arthur walked forward to greet the others.
* * *
Lancelot and Gwaine had found no sign that the bandits had tracked them far, so they spent most of the day checking and rechecking supplies. They were low on food, as was to be expected since Arthur had sent Elyan and Percival away with most of their reserves.
None of them ate until the early evening. Merlin gathered firewood by himself, staying close to the cave at all times, and piled it in the corner beside a makeshift stool Gwaine had put together out of rocks and an old log. Merlin leaned over the twigs and dead leaves and muttered his usual forbearnan spell, but when he looked up to see Arthur gazing curiously at him, he couldn’t help but feel a pang of guilt. It didn’t seem like using magic in front of Arthur would ever feel natural.
Once Merlin had filled the cooking pot with water, thrown in some vegetables and started stirring the thin broth, Gwaine came to sit beside him.
“So, Merlin,” he sighed. “Am I to take it you and Arthur are thick as thieves again?”
“Yeah... He almost banished me, but then he realised he couldn’t survive a day without me.” Merlin flashed a grin as Gwaine chuckled and patted him on the back.
“Well, he’s not wrong there.”
There were a few moments silence while they both stared into the cooking pot. Merlin stirred vigorously, hoping that somehow he could make the broth look more like a broth and less like vegetables floating around in water. Gwaine frowned-- he obviously felt his rabbit stew had been far more successful.
“Thanks, by the way,” Merlin said quietly after a while.
“For what?” Gwaine looked up at him. The warmth of Merlin’s smile was reaching his eyes, and it made the knots of hunger in Gwaine’s stomach disappear.
“For talking to Arthur.”
“Uhm, I didn’t--”
“Do you really expect me to believe he figured out I wasn’t some evil magical overlord all by himself?” Merlin shook his head at Gwaine, still grinning. “I know you talked to him.”
Gwaine was quiet for a minute after that. “I promised you I’d show him. I always keep my promises.”
“I know,” Merlin put a friendly hand on Gwaine’s knee. “Thank you.”
They stared earnestly at each other for a moment before Gwaine huffed with laughter and patted Merlin hard on the back again. “Just doing my duty.”
When their laughter died down, Merlin looked over at Arthur. He was kneeling with Lancelot on the other side of the cave, scratching out a map as best he could on the dirty stone floor and trying to decide what should be their next move.
“I think it’s going to take a bit of getting used to,” Merlin admitted, continuing his and Gwaine’s conversation. “Which is understandable. He’s always hated magic.”
Gwaine sighed, but it didn’t sound content or carefree; it sounded rather forlorn.
“What?” Merlin narrowed his eyes.
“You’re always making excuses for him, Merlin.”
Gwaine took the wooden spoon and began stirring the broth.
When he spoke, Merlin couldn’t keep the defensive tone out of his voice, although he wasn’t sure whether he was trying to protect himself or Arthur. “How d’you mean?”
Gwaine didn’t look up. “I know Uther’s been teaching him all that sorcery-hating stuff since he was a baby, but has he actually apologisedto you yet?”
“Arthur doesn’t really apologise,” Merlin mumbled, suddenly feeling very uncomfortable.
“Every man needs to make an exception,” Gwaine was clearly not dissuaded by Merlin’s discomfort. “You’ve put up with him condemning people like yourself for years. Don’t you want to hear him say sorry? Say he was wrong?”
Merlin shifted where he sat, chancing another glance in Arthur’s direction. He was frowning down at the floor, his chin in his hand as he and Lancelot discussed the exact position of Rhos Wenlock in relation to the Mercian border.
As if he sensed Merlin’s gaze, Arthur stopped talking and looked up. Their eyes met across the cave and Merlin felt his heart lurch. Arthur gave him a small nod and his lips curved into a smile. Merlin smiled back.
“No,” he told Gwaine once the moment had passed. “I know how hard this is for him. It’s not about me.”
“I saw the two of you this morning,” Gwaine said, still staring into the cooking pot. Merlin felt his ears flush red. “I just don’t want him to hurt you.”
“Don’t worry, he won’t.”
Merlin poked Gwaine in the arm, he turned to face him and they shared a smile. Once Gwaine had conceded, they fell into easy conversation, laughing as they watched Arthur and Lancelot bicker with each other and shuffle around on the floor, tossing loose pebbles back and forth as they sketched out giant mountains and tiny trees.
* * *
A little after sunset, Merlin called out that supper was ready. Gwaine got up and bounded over to sit beside Lancelot, leaving Merlin and Arthur to perch next to each other beside the fire. They shared a nervous smile and Arthur squeezed Merlin’s shoulder as he sank into his seat, which seemed to dispel the tension.
If Merlin had expected awkward, stilted conversation between Lancelot and Arthur, he was pleasantly surprised. The two of them laughed together like old friends and joined in with Gwaine’s fireside stories of barmaids and drunken brawls (although their own stories were far more subdued, and didn’t include half as many broken bottles).
Merlin kept quiet and watched the others talk. Arthur’s face was creased with a smile broader and more genuine than Merlin had seen since before they’d set out in search of the Cup of Life. It was a relief to see Arthur relax and let go in the warm glow of Merlin’s magical firelight, even after all the twists and turns his life had taken in such a short space of time.
After Gwaine’s third tale of being caught with his trousers down by the angry (but, thankfully, very fat) husband of a nameless maiden, a companionable silence fell over the small camp. Everybody took another reluctant spoonful of Merlin’s stew, which was proving to be less-than-edible. Lancelot sighed loudly, then blushed and smiled at Merlin, holding up his bowl to indicate how much he appreciated the meal.
Gwaine barely silenced a snort of laughter, but Arthur cleared his throat and drew everyone’s attention before Merlin could pull a face across the campfire.
“I’ve been thinking about our next move,” he said, gazing at each of them in turn. “I know we’ve been through a lot since we left Camelot, but my father’s orders haven’t changed. Those knights of inferior birth must prove their worth. Now, Gwaine--”
“Ah!” Gwaine made an indistinct sound of protest. “My leg’s been much better all day. I told you Marge’d pull through. Don’t go telling me not to strain myself, princess.”
Arthur glared at him. “I was going to say that you’re actually a noble, however unworthy you are of that title, so you can just return to Camelot if you want.”
Gwaine ran a hand through his hair with a flourish. “Nah, I’d rather not miss all the fun, and it really feels like I should do something to earn my place... Are there any unicorns near Camelot?”
“No!” Arthur and Merlin shouted in unison, surging forwards.
“Alright, alright! I was only thinking--” Gwaine began, his hands raised in surrender.
“Trust us,” Merlin told him gravely. “It’s not worth it.”
Gwaine nodded, but Arthur watched him cautiously for a few moments before turning to Lancelot.
“As for you,” he said, giving Lancelot a once-over. “There are plenty of fearsome beasts in these parts. Any of them would make a worthy prize.”
“I have no sword,” Lancelot murmured, holding up his hands apologetically. “The bandits took it from me.”
Arthur stared down into the fire. “There are plenty of other quests that don’t require a sword,” he said after a few minutes. “Either way, we need to move out in the morning. It’s too dangerous to stay in one place when we’re so vulnerable.”
“We have Merlin,” Gwaine rumbled through a mouthful of carrot. “He can protect us all.”
Merlin blushed violently and shot Gwaine an angry look. When he turned around again, Merlin saw Arthur gazing thoughtfully at him. The firelight glinted in his eyes, making them almost as golden as Merlin’s could turn.
“Yes,” Arthur muttered, his voice barely reaching a whisper. “I suppose he could.”
Of all the ways Arthur had viewed Merlin over the years, he’d honestly never seen him as a fighter. He’d seen Merlin dressed in chain mail and armour, he’d seen Merlin afraid plenty of times, and he’d even glimpsed him being brave once or twice, but Arthur had always felt that swords and spears and shields looked out of place between Merlin’s nimble fingers.
It was only then, sitting silently beside the fire, that Arthur fully realised why-- those hadn’t been Merlin’s weapons. He didn’t need the cold, hard drive of steel. He had something different altogether.
“Uhm--” Arthur shook his head dumbly. He’d lost himself in Merlin’s flushed cheeks and bashful grin. Lancelot and Gwaine had lost interest and fallen to their own conversation.
“Are you alright?” Merlin smirked, and Arthur suddenly had a sneaking suspicious that he knew exactly what Arthur had found so distracting.
“Yes, yes, I’m fine,” Arthur answered a little to quickly. He tried shovelling in a mouthful of stew to cover his fluster. “Argh! But this food certainly isn’t!”
Merlin chuckled into his bowl. “Sorry, sire.”
“Don’t call me that,” Arthur said at once, pointedly not looking directly at the blinding smile Merlin sent his way.
“Sorry, Arthur,” Merlin corrected.
Arthur grinned despite himself and set down the wooden bowl, trying to coerce his expression back into one of mild distaste.
“What with all these abilities, Merlin, one might expect you to have picked up a few cooking skills,” he said after a moment. “Couldn’t you have...?” Arthur wiggled his fingers in the air.
“No,” Merlin was still smirking-- it made his eyes crinkle up at the corners. “It doesn’t work like that.”
“Of course, of course,” Arthur nodded, frowning down at his hands.
Merlin stared at him for a few seconds. He knew Arthur, and this was what he did when he was trying to understand something, but not lose face; he asked questions, a lot of questions, then carefully logged away every answer. Arthur was trying to find out more about Merlin’s magic without asking directly. He was trying to be casual and unconcerned about it-- which was very Arthur, after all.
“It’s late,” Arthur mumbled, after a few minutes, pushing his fingers through his hair. “We should probably...”
“Yeah!” Merlin sprang to his feet, then tried to cover his enthusiasm with a slow amble towards Arthur’s tent. Arthur followed him, leaving Gwaine and Lancelot to organise first watch between themselves.
Once he was inside, Merlin pulled off his jacket, folded it and carefully bent over to lay it down on the floor. When he stood up and turned around, Merlin saw Arthur hovering halfway through the tent flap, watching him intently.
There was a look on Arthur’s face that Merlin had never seen before. He was frowning slightly beneath his mussed blond fringe, and chewing his bottom lip. Merlin couldn’t help but grin, although he tried his best not to look too smug.
Arthur blinked several times before moving fully into the tent and letting the cloth fall closed behind him.
“So,” Merlin sighed, reaching up to untie his neckerchief and dropping it on top of his jacket.
“So,” Arthur echoed, stepping forwards again. He was still only wearing his blue tunic and breeches-- he didn’t need to change before bed. Instead, he just stood there, twisting his silver ring around his finger and letting his eyes glide up and down Merlin, lingering on his belt as it dropped to the floor.
Once Merlin had pulled off his boots, he padded over to Arthur with outstretched fingers. They gazed at each other for a moment, nose to nose, then Merlin leaned in and kissed him.
This kiss had much more uncertainty and much less tongue than the one they’d shared that morning. Merlin’s fingers tickled across Arthur’s ribs and down to his hips. It made Arthur gasp and grasp onto Merlin in exactly the same way.
Merlin could feel the tension in Arthur’s muscles building even as his own melted away. He leaned forwards slightly, pressing his hips against Arthur’s and letting out the smallest groan.
Arthur pulled back, whispering, “Merlin, I think...”
“Yeah?” Merlin said quietly, not opening his eyes.
“Merlin, I need...”
Arthur gulped. “Merlin, I think I need time.”
“Oh,” Merlin opened his eyes, blearily putting them to work searching Arthur’s face. He was blushing-- Arthur never blushed. “Oh, okay.”
Merlin smiled weakly, let go of Arthur’s hips and turned to clamber under the blankets.
Arthur gulped again, trying to ignore the redness of Merlin lips and the thumping pulse in the back of his head. He told himself that it this was the right thing to do; that Merlin’s eyes weren’t darker than usual and that his voice hadn’t cracked at all.
They settled down next to each other, listening to the low murmur of voices outside the tent. Merlin was careful not to touch Arthur-- in fact, he didn’t even look at him. He wasn’t angry, he was just... He was just being cautious.
The tickle of Arthur’s fingers on his own made Merlin start a little, but he didn’t move; he just carried on watching the flicker of the flames outside. There, under the covers, in the dark of night and on the edge of sleep, Arthur could finally say something without words. Merlin smiled to himself and squeezed Arthur’s hand, because, when he thought about it, that really was fine with him.
Packing up in the morning took no time at all, although Gwaine kept muttering that it would take even less time if Merlin would only wave his hand around. For the most part, Merlin managed to laugh that off. He’d conjured fire and answered a few stunted questions, but being so open about his gifts still didn’t feel quite right. Flaunting his magic in front of Arthur seemed a little too much like tempting fate.
They set off before the sun had fully risen above the grey winter clouds. The pace was slow-- they each carried a heavy pack, although Arthur and Lancelot insisted on carrying a tent each. The ache of nights without sleep and the constant pang of dark bruises was beginning to weigh down on them all. After traveling for a few leagues, Gwaine began hissing out sharp breaths and his injured leg shook every now and then.
Arthur moved back from his place in the lead, giving Gwaine a tired smile as he fell into step beside him. He wished they could walk without their armour for a while. A day spent free of the heavy press of metal on his shoulders was all it’d taken to remind Arthur how much he liked the feel of a cold winter breeze along his spine. Thick leather gloves and chain mail kept Arthur warm against the biting chill, but they also made him sweat and pant.
He looked up for a moment, catching sight of Merlin stumbling through the frozen undergrowth a few paces ahead, and a thought struck him.
“Merlin?” Arthur called. Merlin turned around to look at him. “Merlin, are you warm enough?”
A smirk broke out across Merlin’s face before he could help it. He quickly tried to force the odd, twisting feeling of hearing Arthur’s voice so full of concern back down into his stomach where it belonged. He pursed his lips, frowned and nodded at Arthur as seriously as he could.
“Yeah, I’m-- erm, I’m fine... Thanks.”
Arthur nodded back, feeling a flush that had very little to do with the cold spread across his cheeks. He sensed Gwaine’s eyes boring into the side of his head and he really wished he could ignore the way Lancelot had glanced over his shoulder from up ahead.
In all the embarrassment, Arthur lost his footing. His boot lodged itself under a particularly large tree root and he toppled for a moment before righting himself. When he looked up, Arthur’s gaze was met by Merlin’s dopey grin. It held a fondness Arthur had never seen on Merlin’s face before, and he found himself smiling back.
“Ah, love,” Gwaine sighed.
“Shut up,” Arthur said at once, redirecting his eyes to the floor. He could hear Lancelot snickering to himself.
“I can remember my first love affair with a sorcerer,” Gwaine continued, completely ignoring the glare Arthur sent his way in favour of winking at Merlin, who blushed and turned away at once. “She really was quite a woman. Not unlike yourself, Merlin.”
Merlin scratched his head nervously and fixed his eyes on the floor, trying to concentrate on weaving a path through the undergrowth. He really, really didn’t want Gwaine to start talking about...
“Not that I’m saying you’re a woman!” Gwaine exclaimed suddenly, startling a nest of starlings in the trees above. “No, I mean she had the same pale skin, the same dark hair... The same thin, lithe sort of--”
“Gwaine!” Arthur snarled, and Merlin breathed a sigh of relief.
“Oops!” With a smirk, Gwaine held up his hands in surrender. “Sorry, Arthur. Didn’t mean to step on your toes there.”
A muscle started twitching in Arthur’s jaw. “You’re not stepping on anything,” he said through gritted teeth. “I just don’t think that Merlin--”
“Maybe you should let Merlin speak for himself, eh?” Gwaine put in cooly. Arthur scowled at him, then looked expectantly up at Merlin, who was watching them over his shoulder.
Merlin felt his knees shake under Gwaine and Arthur’s equally hard, equally terrifying stares. He opened his mouth to say something witty and noncommittal like I don’t think anything I say can make Gwaine shut his mouth, but instead only managed to squeak, shake his head and snap back around to stare at the floor again.
“You see, fellas,” Gwaine continued, clearly taking Merlin’s silence as consent rather than crippling embarrassment. “Magic really can be a wonderful asset to intimacy...”
At that, Arthur choked on air, and his eyes flew open so wide he thought they might fall out.
Gwaine carried on musing and smiling fondly to himself, “Nissa and I were young and full of energy,” he looked over at Arthur, cocking his head to the side. “But I think maybe we were a little more flexible than you...”
“I’ll have you know I’m perfectly flexible!” Arthur blurted out, face turning red with indignation, then even redder with the realisation of what he’d just said.
“Oh, really?” Gwaine grinned at him and Arthur felt as though he might curl up into a ball and never look any of them in the eye again-- least of all Merlin, who was staring straight ahead, his cheeks the colour of beetroot.
Arthur could find nothing to say that wouldn’t make the situation even more uncomfortable, so he just put on his best scowl and resolutely did not look in Gwaine’s direction.
“Well, I’m sure you’ll find magic useful in ways you’d never imagined,” Gwaine winked at Arthur, then raised an eyebrow towards Merlin. “I bet you’ve got an idea of what I mean, Merlin?”
Merlin stopped in his tracks, turned around and stared at Gwaine. His ears were a brilliant red and his forehead was creased with a tiny frown. He opened his mouth and raised a finger as if he was about to make a particularly damning comment, or set Gwaine straight about something, but no sound passed his lips. After a moment, Merlin let his hand drop back to his side, turned away and started walking again.
“Ah!” Gwaine cried, grinning even more. “I see!”
Arthur, however, didn’t see at all, and quite frankly, he didn’t want to (or, at least, not in the middle of a freezing cold wood with Gwaine laughing over his shoulder. If he was going to... see, he’d do it on his own terms. And Merlin’s. His and Merlin’s terms).
“I think it’s important people know about these sorts of things,” Gwaine drawled on. “I know Camelot isn’t exactly the best place for a little light experimenting, but magic isn’t just for killing people.”
Merlin could’ve forgiven Gwaine at that point, if it wasn’t for his next sentence.
“Nissa showed me the ways those time-manipulating spells can prolong pleasures that otherwise last mere seconds...”
Lancelot made a nervous coughing sound, but still didn’t turn around.
“...and there are more tickling spells than even you could memorise, Merlin! Then there’s the sort of slicking, wet ones that come in handy when you find yourselves--”
At that point, Arthur groaned loudly (no longer able to ignore the sick feeling in his stomach) and did his best to close his ears.
* * *
Gwaine eventually prattled himself into silence with details about exactly how Nissa had flicked her wrist while casting a binding spell, or the way his legs had tingled when she’d drawn a glowing hand across his skin. Merlin and Arthur couldn’t look each other in the eye for several hours afterwards, although Merlin was secretly a little unsure how much of the heat in his stomach was from embarrassment, and how much of it was something else entirely. If he’d actually considered some of Gwaine’s comments useful... Then, well, Arthur didn’t have to know that.
Eventually, they emerged from between the grey trees of the forest and clambered over countless frosty hills. Lancelot and Arthur took it in turns to lead and Gwaine had finally made peace with the twinges of pain from his leg. He didn’t need to stop and rest half as much after Lancelot redressed his wound for the third time, tying the bandage in a complex pattern his mother had taught him as a child.
It was several hours of breathless silence and stilted conversation with Lancelot before Merlin felt able to address Arthur directly.
“Where exactly are we?” he asked loudly.
“I thought your sense of direction was pretty good, Merlin,” Arthur answered, and although his voice was still edged with uneasiness, the joke sounded pretty natural-- pretty them.
“It is,” Merlin squinted towards Arthur in the pale sunlight. “But I spent a whole day walking through the woods blindfolded, and then a whole night being carried around asleep, so I’m bound to be a little disorientated.”
“Oh,” Arthur swallowed thickly, “right.”
“So where are we?”
Arthur sighed and pointed towards the dark line of trees on the horizon. “We’re approaching the edge of Darkling Wood.”
Merlin stopped in his tracks. The others all stopped too, staring back at him. He frowned and looked slowly between them.
“Are you serious?” he said, his voice pitching slightly higher than he’d have liked.
“Yes...” Arthur made no attempt to hide his amusement.
Merlin bit his lip. “Is it really a good idea to go in there on foot?”
“There’s nothing to be afraid of,” Arthur shrugged, frowning.
“Are you sure?” In Merlin’s experience, there was plenty to be afraid of in Darkling Wood.
“We’ll be fine, Merlin,” Arthur sighed, his smile fading. He stepped towards Merlin, lowering his voice so the others couldn’t hear. “Gwaine, Lancelot, and I are knights of Camelot,” Arthur nodded towards Merlin. “And we have you.”
Merlin made no such effort to keep his voice down. “Gwaine’s injured, Lancelot’s weaponless and I’m pretty sure we’ve established that I’m...”
“What?” Arthur asked, and his intense gaze all but undid Merlin.
“Unreliable,” Merlin hissed back. The hairs on the back of his neck stood up at the memory of losing control. He felt magic prickle uncomfortably in his fingers.
Arthur gave Merlin a puzzled look-- unreliable? What did he mean by unreliable?
“It’s...” Merlin said quietly, unsure how to explain everything. “My magic, it’s just been... acting up, recently. In the cage, in the clearing--” in the cave with Morgana. “If I’d been in control I’d never have--”
“Saved my life?” Arthur had pushed in close and his warm breath ghosted across Merlin’s lips. His eyes were hard, his brow furrowed. If Merlin hadn’t known him better, he’d have said Arthur looked hurt.
“Arthur, I--” Merlin tried weakly. He hadn’t meant for it to sound like he was regretting what he’d done, but no matter how much he’d wanted to tell Arthur the truth over the years, it still wasn’t easy. Part of him still wished they could go back to the effortless trust of a prince and his idiot.
There was a horrible moment while Arthur gazed straight back at Merlin, his eyes hard and unreadable. Then, all of a sudden, a smile cracked across his lips. He shook his head, stepped backwards and placed a hand on Merlin’s shoulder.
“It’ll be fine,” he said, and it might’ve been the most earnest Merlin had ever seen him. “I promise.”
Merlin glanced nervously over Arthur’s shoulder towards Lancelot and Gwaine, who were watching from a few feet away. He nodded at them, and did his best to grin. Arthur beamed, hit Merlin playfully on the shoulder, and turned back towards the dim outline of the trees. The others followed suit, but Merlin lagged behind, the anxious twists in his stomach as prominent as ever.
* * *
They set up camp deep among the trees. Darkling Wood wasn’t large, as woods went, but crossing it took a day’s journey and they hadn’t reach the outermost edge until early afternoon. They had to stop and make camp while there was still daylight to burn, because Arthur, Lancelot and Gwaine needed time to hunt.
Merlin stayed behind to set up the tents and poke at the ground with an old stick; someone needed to make sure everything was ready when the others stumbled back, inevitably bickering, with a small animal ready for cooking. He didn’t mind, really. He padded around at his own pace, emptying the packs and putting together the tents by hand. Merlin wasn’t sure what imaginary boundaries or borders were stopping him from using his magic in all the ways he’d wanted to for years, but he suspected it was something close to guilt.
With Lancelot, Gwaine and Arthur long gone, the silence settled around Merlin. It made the hairs on the back of his neck stand on end. He was edgy; very, very edgy. He hated Darkling Wood, and nothing Arthur could say would change that.
For Merlin, those trees were full of dark, cold memories of Morgana, Morgause and the chains that’d held him down, snaked around his body, unaffected by his spells-- all too similar to the bandit ropes that’d bound Merlin as he stumbled through other unseen forests a few days before.
He shivered, rubbed his hands along his thighs and started collecting firewood. A full campfire was too dangerous in Darkling Wood, but Merlin could vaguely remember some spells that might darken the flame. Hopefully, he could make it so that they went unnoticed.
By the time Merlin had finished dividing the blankets between the tents, he could hear voices approaching. The sun had sunk behind the line of the trees and a familiar night time chill was settling itself in the folds of Merlin’s body. He was looking forward to starting up the fire and eating whatever the others had caught.
It turned out dinner was a pair of thin, black rabbits.
“We could’ve caught a deer, if only Arthur hadn’t insisted on sticking so close to camp,” Gwaine grumbled as he sat down. “Merlin can look after himself, y’know, princess.”
“It was nothing to do with Merlin,” Arthur glowered at Gwaine as he handed the rabbits over. “The light disappears fast out here.”
Merlin was just glad to have the three of them back. His stomach was growling and the empty cooking pot had been calling out to him for over an hour. While the others bickered, Merlin muttered his spells, doing his best to keep his hand steady and his voice even under Arthur’s roaming gaze, then set about preparing the meat.
A word or two from Merlin had the rabbits ready much faster than usual, and they all settled down to eat as the last shreds of sunlight faded from the sky. Arthur and Gwaine carried on squabbling as they ate, but Lancelot made his way over to sit beside Merlin with a small nod.
Merlin smiled warmly at him. Although they’d been kidnapped together, it felt like an age since they’d last talked properly.
“I wanted to thank you,” Lancelot said quietly. “I never did tell you how grateful I was for the way you talked to Arthur about Gwen and I.”
“Oh,” Merlin looked down at his food, unable to hold back his grin-- a grin that was probably a lot more to do with how the conversation with Arthur had affected his own life, rather than Lancelot’s. “Oh, yeah, uhm, that’s no problem. No problem at all.”
“While you were asleep on the way back from the bandit camp, Arthur and I made peace,” Lancelot carried on, either ignorant of or just choosing to ignore the elated hint in Merlin’s smile. “He forgave me.”
“That’s brilliant!” Merlin beamed. “You and Gwen, I mean-- That’s just great. You’ll be good for each other. Perfect, in fact.”
“Perfect...” Lancelot shook his head and chuckled.
Merlin nodded eagerly. “Yeah! She’s... She’s lovely and... and you’re lovely, so it’s-- it’s a good match, really.”
For a few seconds, Lancelot smiled thoughtfully over at Merlin. Then, he leaned in close and lowered his voice. “From what Gwaine tells me, you think Arthur’s pretty lovely too?”
A tingle ran from Merlin’s stomach all the way up his spine and he felt his cheeks flush bright red. “Arthur...” he said shyly, “Arthur’s different.”
“Different?” Lancelot shoved Merlin’s arm lightly, still smiling.
“Yeah,” Merlin nodded, feeling the blush reach his ears. “He’s...”
Across the low campfire, Gwaine burst into a ruckus of laughter while Arthur swore and started throwing twigs and small stones at him, shouting something about showing respect for authority.
“He’s different,” Merlin finished, making Lancelot chuckle again and pull him into a one-armed hug.
When they broke apart, Merlin went back to his bowl of food, leaving Lancelot to gaze around camp. He’d noticed that Arthur had a knack for finding secluded clearings to settle down in, and this one was no exception. The stars were visible through a gap in the foliage above them, and Merlin had set up the tents at either end of the clearing, then arranged the fire between two logs in the centre.
Lancelot’s eyes fell on the log opposite him, where Arthur and Gwaine were sitting, and then moved slowly up as he stared between the trees behind them. He’d never spent much time in Darkling Wood before, but the hushed sounds in the darkness around them unnerved him. As he squinted into the woods, Lancelot caught sight of movement behind Arthur. What he saw had him leaping to his feet in a moment.
On the other side of camp, Arthur was so distracted by teaching Gwaine a lesson that he didn’t hear the rustle of frozen leaves behind him. The first indication he had that anything was wrong was when Lancelot’s weight crashed into his shoulder, forcing him to the ground and sending his bowl of rabbit flying into the air.
For a few seconds, he lay there disorientated, but then the sight of Gwaine leaping to his feet and grabbing his sword made Arthur’s heart lurch, and he scrambled up and turned around.
A few feet away, an enormous black spider was crawling through the undergrowth towards him. Each long, hairy leg was easily as thick as Arthur’s wrist, and the dark bulge of the spider’s body reached waist height. Arthur took a few steps backwards, pulling out his sword and twirling it through his fingers, never taking his eyes off the spider.
“Erm, Arthur?” Merlin’s voice shook as he spoke.
“What?” Arthur glanced over at Merlin for a split second. He’d risen to his feet too, but he was facing away from Arthur, towards the woods, where at least three more spiders were crawling out from between the trees.
Arthur looked back towards the first spider, and saw the shadows of many others emerging slowly from the darkness. One or two wouldn’t have posed much of a threat, but it was clear they were surrounded.
“Merlin, get behind me,” he called as calmly as he could, waving a hand behind his back.
Within seconds, Arthur felt Merlin’s fingers wrapping through his own, and the press of Merlin’s chest against his back. He squeezed his arm around Merlin for a moment, then went back to clutching his sword in both hands. Lancelot and Gwaine had also moved towards each other, and were standing back to back close by.
The first few spiders to approach them were easy opponents. They crept too slowly, giving Arthur more than enough time to prepare himself, but the faster he struck out, the quicker the next spider scuttled forwards. Merlin managed to kick at any that came his way, which gave Arthur time to spin around and defend him.
Arthur was agile and he had good reflexes-- an all around great fighter, so he was just about able to protect himself and Merlin from the assault. Gwaine, on the other hand, was still suffering from spending a day walking on his injured leg, and he needed Lancelot’s help in fighting off all the spiders that came their way.
Except Lancelot didn’t have a sword, so he couldn’t help. He lashed out as best he could, and even managed to ward a few off with a large stick, before one of them caught it between its pincers and snapped it into pieces.
Merlin watched them helplessly. He pressed against Arthur’s back, at a loss for what to do. The thought of using his magic for something bigger than the odd fire spell terrified him-- what if it still wouldn’t work?
The way they were leaning together meant Merlin could feel it every time Arthur turned desperately towards Lancelot and Gwaine’s shouts. His face was pale and drawn in a way Merlin had only ever seen when his men were in trouble. Arthur wanted to help them; he needed to help them, but he couldn’t.
Merlin swallowed the lump in his throat and muttered, “Lancelot needs a sword.”
“I know,” Arthur growled, slashing out at another spider and watching it retreat back into the shadows. “I wish I could give him mine.”
Merlin looked over to where Lancelot was throwing stones at approaching spiders. His eyes were wide and wild with a fear Merlin had never seen on his face before. He was usually so calm, so collected, so brave.
“Give it to him,” Merlin murmured, swallowing his fear.
“What?” Arthur turned. Merlin expected to see anger in his face; he expected another one of those don’t be such an idiot looks, but instead, Arthur’s eyes were bright and uncertain. They flickered back and forth between Merlin’s, as if searching for permission.
“Give Lancelot your sword,” Merlin hissed into Arthur’s ear. “I’m here. I’ll protect you.”
Arthur only needed to think about it for a split second. He could either carry on fighting a losing battle and watch as Gwaine and Lancelot were overwhelmed by enemies mere feet away, or he could toss his sword over the fire and put his life in Merlin’s hands.
It wouldn’t be the first time, and with any luck, it wouldn’t be the last.
“Lancelot!” Arthur bellowed, launching the large, steel blade into the air. He watched it soar forwards and land squarely in Lancelot’s outstretched palm.
After that, Arthur would’ve seen how his two best knights fought off a hoard of foes with ease, if only he’d been able to open his eyes.
As soon as he’d released his sword, Arthur felt a strange wave of power envelope him and Merlin. It pulsed outwards over and over, throwing spiders back across camp and into the trees. Arthur turned his face towards Merlin, pressing in as close as he could get, and sensed the magic radiating out from Merlin’s chest. It made Arthur’s hair stand on end.
He spent several minutes with his head against Merlin’s chest. Arthur listened to the sounds of battle, so new and yet still so familiar, and grounded himself on the beating of Merlin’s heart through the roaring soundlessness of magic. It felt so raw, so natural, that Arthur had to hold his breath for the beauty of it. The feeling of magic rushing through and around him caught in Arthur’s heart, making him think that maybe he’d felt it somewhere before-- perhaps when he was young and safe and warm in the dark.
When Arthur finally felt long, cold, surprisingly normal fingers threading through his hair, he opened his eyes and pulled backwards. He blinked and stared around. There were a few dead spiders scattered on the ground. Lancelot and Gwaine were sitting side by side on a log, breathing heavily and wiping at the sweat on their brows. Merlin was grinning dopily at Arthur again.
“You...” Arthur croaked. “You didn’t even blow the tents over.”
Merlin pursed his lips, feigning annoyance. “Warlock,” he said, pointing at his chest.
“But I felt how powerful that was!” Arthur protested, not quite sure why this small detail was so important to him. “How did you do that and not even rustle the tents?”
“I’m not always clumsy,” Merlin smirked, and that was the last he’d say on the matter.
All four of them stayed awake that night. They stamped out Merlin’s fire and brought blankets from inside the tents, then sat huddled in pairs against the cold. Arthur wasn’t quite sure how he and Gwaine ended up squeezing themselves (armour and all) under one small, moth-eaten grey blanket while Merlin and Lancelot sat happily beneath an enormous woollen creation, but he suspected sorcery.
After a while, Arthur and Gwaine’s huffing and elbowing turned into general conversation, and although they kept their voices low, they managed to laugh and tell stories in the same way they had the night before.
Merlin stayed quiet. He stared at the circle of ashes left from his fire, thinking deeply. Arthur had thrown his sword to Lancelot, leaving himself defenceless, all based on a whispered promise from Merlin. He’d lent his life to magic, in a strange sort of way. He’d trusted it. He’d trusted Merlin.
Not to mention the way Arthur had ended up curled into Merlin’s chest with his eyes squeezed shut and his arms covering his head. He’d looked both young and old at once. It seemed like something fundamental had shifted between them once again.
Suddenly, it’d been as though Merlin could see everything Arthur was, had been, and would be. He could see a young boy, so full of enthusiasm and promise, and an old man, lined with experience and wise behind light blue eyes... But as he sat there, gazing through the darkness, Merlin could still see Arthur. He was just as he always had been, ever since Merlin wandered into Camelot. He was strong and fair, and he was still hiding behind a veil only Merlin had been able to lift.
He’s ready, Merlin found himself thinking. It was a shock, but it was true-- Arthur was ready to fulfil his destiny. Accepting Merlin’s magic had been the biggest challenge he could face.
* * *
Merlin must’ve dozed off, because he was woken up in the morning by Arthur shaking his shoulder.
“Come on, Merlin,” Arthur ordered-- back to his old, irritable self. “Rise and shine!”
“Hmph,” Merlin grumbled, rubbing his eyes.
“Up and at ‘em!”
“Let’s have you, lazy daisy!”
“Oh shut up,” Merlin whined, glaring blearily up at Arthur as Gwaine broke into laughter somewhere behind him.
“Ah, see, you don’t like it either,” Arthur grinned. He was surprisingly upbeat for someone who’d been awake all night, and Merlin was not impressed.
“No, I don’t,” Merlin grumbled, staggering to his feet and stretching.
“Here you go!” Gwaine bustled past, stopping to shove a chunk of bread into Merlin’s hands.
“Where were you hiding that?” Merlin squawked, suddenly much more awake.
Gwaine grinned as he hoisted his pack onto his back. “Ask me no questions and I’ll tell you no lies.”
“But--” Merlin started.
“Trust me,” Lancelot raised his hands, taking a break from dismantling one of the tents. “You don’t want to know.”
“I-- Oh,” Merlin relented when Lancelot gave him a particularly pointed look. “Alright. Thanks, Gwaine.”
“Any time!” Gwaine was already wandering over to give Lancelot a hand packing up.
Merlin stared after Gwaine for a moment, before noticing Arthur watching him closely. As Merlin turned around, Arthur smiled. Merlin felt himself blush. He ran a hand through his hair, making it stick up ridiculously (something he realised all too late), and opened his mouth to say something about how Arthur should’ve slept too, when Lancelot appeared beside them.
“Sire,” he said curtly, and suddenly Arthur’s blue eyes had left Merlin. “I’ve been meaning to return this.”
Lancelot held out Arthur’s sword. Arthur stared down at it for a moment, then slowly reached out to wrap his gloved fingers around the leather hilt. Without a word, Lancelot let go of the blade. Arthur held it up to the light, examining it, seemingly oblivious to the way Merlin was frowning at him.
When Lancelot bowed his head and began to leave, Merlin finally spoke up.
“I think you should give that back.”
Arthur looked up, and for a moment, Merlin thought he was about to be told to mind his own business.
“Why?” Arthur asked. There was no hint of a sneer in his voice, which was a step up from the way he’d dismissed Merlin’s advice in the past.
“Lancelot needs a sword,” Merlin said shortly. “I can protect you, Arthur, you know I can. You saw what I--”
“Yes, I saw, Merlin,” Arthur moved to slide the sword back into its hilt. “But I still need my sword. Lancelot’s more than protected with the three of us.”
Merlin almost lost his temper. “I thought you trusted me!”
“I do,” Arthur rested the point of the sword in the dirt and leaned on the hilt, looking puzzled.
“Then trust me in this,” Merlin implored, taking advantage of the eye contact Arthur was giving him. “Give it back.”
“Merlin,” Arthur sighed, exasperated. Why did this have to come down to a question of trust? He’d not gone a day without a sword since he’d been strong enough to wield one. “I can’t just--”
“I know where you can find another sword!” Merlin interrupted, his eyes wide. “I can lead you to it. Just... You just have to trust me.”
Arthur hesitated, his eyes flicking back and forth between Merlin and Lancelot. “Where is it?”
“Not far,” Merlin said at once. “You can have it by this evening.”
For a moment, Arthur looked as though he was about to say no. His brow furrowed and he stared down at the sword in his hand, then slowly back up towards Lancelot, who was still hovering beside them, unsure whether he should leave or not.
Then, Arthur nodded. “Alright,” he said quietly, passing the sword back to Lancelot. “Let’s go.”
He clapped Merlin on the shoulder and walked over to pick up his pack. Merlin stood still, caught between grinning because Arthur had trusted him again, and shivering in guilt, because he hadn’t forgotten Morgana’s words. He knew what would happen when Arthur discovered all three of his secrets. The promise of their future was tantalisingly close, but Merlin wasn’t sure how much right he had to push Arthur towards it.
* * *
Within half an hour, they’d set out, thankful for the sunlight forcing the nastiest creatures into their holes. Merlin thought Darkling Wood was almost pretty in the cold light. The frost on the dark leaves above his head glistened as it melted and each glimmering spider’s web was a work of art. It only took him an hour to convince Gwaine that thwacking every single tiny spider he saw didn’t count as revenge.
Eventually, the dark trunks of gnarled old trees gave way to the light bark of a wood Merlin recognised. They were finally reaching the fringes of Darkling Wood, where ordinary trees blended with their sinister sisters and chased the evil from their branches. Soon enough, they were walking though bright woodland once again, welcomed by the call of birds and the rustle of shrubbery.
“So where are we heading?” Gwaine asked after a while.
Merlin took a moment to gaze around and gather his bearings. Whilst journeying through Darkling Wood, they’d crossed back over the border into Camelot, and judging by the position of the sun, they were a good number of leagues to the west of the castle. No more than a few hours away was the lake where he’d taken Freya; the lake where he’d retrieved Arthur’s sword, Excalibur; the lake where he’d hidden the blade once more, embedded in a rock and enchanted so that only its true owner could retrieve it.
“We just need to keep going west,” Merlin announced, unused to taking charge.
“You know there’s only a few hours of daylight left now, don’t you, Merlin?” Arthur was starting to sound irritable again. “Don’t forget we need to stop and hunt.”
“There isn’t far to go,” Merlin quirked his eyebrow. “The lake can’t be more than two hours away.”
“Lake?” Arthur said loudly. “We’re going to a lake?”
Merlin nodded and Arthur made a humming sound.
“Have you been there?” Merlin could hardly believe it; the sound he’d heard from Arthur was definitely recognition.
“I’ve been to a lot of lakes in my lifetime, Merlin,” Arthur rolled his eyes as he spoke.
“But-- but you’ve definitely been to this lake? The lake to the west of Camelot? That lake?” Merlin knew he was speaking too fast, asking too many questions, but he couldn’t help it.
“Yes, Merlin. I’ve definitely been to this lake,” Arthur still sounded as though he wanted nothing more than quiet.
“When? Why?” Merlin was as abrupt and determined as ever-- it made Arthur sigh a long-suffering sigh. He stopped walking, and Merlin stopped too. They stood several feet apart, facing each other.
“I went there when I was a boy,” Arthur told him, his voice was bored but he fixed his gaze above Merlin’s head, as if he couldn’t look him in the eye. “I ran away when I was six, after my father told me that one day I’d be king. I didn’t--”
Arthur ran a hand through his hair, looking pained, and Merlin frowned at him.
“I didn’t think I was worthy,” he finished, finally looking at Merlin as if daring him to argue.
Merlin glanced ahead to where Lancelot and Gwaine were idling along, seemingly oblivious. Arthur was still staring defiantly at Merlin, his jaw set and his eyes angry. It made Merlin’s heart ache a little, imagining a young Arthur scampering through the forest and curling into himself beside the lake, his face damp with tears and his heart heavy with a burden he wasn’t ready to bear.
Returning there would surely drag up old insecurities for Arthur; the feeling of being less than his father, the feeling of never being ready, never being enough. Those weren’t the ideal things to be running through Arthur’s head when he pulled the sword from the stone and began his reign. Merlin’s mother had never laid a burden on his shoulder’s the way Uther had lain one on Arthur’s. He knew the hurt of losing a parent, and he knew the shock of being faced with a destiny he wasn’t ready for.
Part of him twisted and ached inside, knowing that what he was doing would force Arthur to face those same pains, but Merlin had to clench his fists and swallow that guilt. He’d done worse to protect Arthur; he’d poisoned his friend and he’d stand by as his own kind were killed. Thanks to the hardships and difficulties Merlin had faced alone, he knew the kind of support Arthur would need. He could be there for him. He could make things right.
Merlin glanced towards Gwaine and Lancelot again, then slid forward towards Arthur. He reached out and wrapped his fingers around Arthur’s arm, wanting to tell him that he was the most worthy of them all; wanting to tell Arthur what his future would be --what theirfuture would be-- but knowing he couldn’t. He had to show Arthur; they had to get to the lake and seek out the sword. It was the only way.
“I’ve been there too,” Merlin muttered, staring straight into Arthur’s eyes. “That’s where I took her. Freya, the girl I loved.”
It was hard to read exactly what Arthur was thinking. He frowned slightly, as though he was considering the odd parallels between his own life and Merlin’s. Arthur had gone to the lake to hide from his future, and Merlin had gone there to bury a future he could never have.
“Come on,” Arthur mumbled, tilting his head towards the others. “We have to hurry.”
* * *
By the time they reached the lake, the sun was sinking fast. Lancelot and Gwaine dropped their things near the water’s edge and then headed off to hunt while there was still light. Arthur made a show of wanting to go with them, but then spent twenty minutes fussing about setting up his tent, by which point it was too late to follow.
Merlin hadn’t mentioned the sword again since that morning. He’d spent the journey trying to think up how best he could convince Arthur that Excalibur belonged to him, and after much scowling and muttering about awkward princes who can’t work out their destinies for themselves, Merlin had settled on a plan.
A month before, he’d enchanted the sword so that only Arthur could pull it from the stone... Twisting a prophecy to match the truth was probably his best option. Seeing as how Merlin was the one who’d put the sword in the stone, he could invent whatever story he liked, and no one could argue. He needed Arthur to believe he was ready to rule, and so telling him that only a prince who was finally worthy of the crown could retrieve the sword seemed like the best idea.
Once he’d made his mind up, Merlin wasted no time in putting together the other tent. Little more than half an hour after Lancelot and Gwaine had left to hunt, Merlin found himself standing in the middle of camp, opposite Arthur.
“You have to trust me,” he was saying. “We’ll be there and back in no time.”
“Why’re you being so secretive about this, Merlin?”
“I just...” Merlin twisted the sleeve of his jacket between his fingers. “You’ll see when we get there.”
“Where are we going?” Arthur folded his arms, frowning.
“Not far,” Merlin told him, the shadow of a smile on his lips as he started walking backwards.
“Where?” Arthur said again, but he was already following Merlin, and the way Merlin tangled their fingers together and tugged him along only further confirmed his decision; he was trusting Merlin. Again. Whether he wanted to or not.
They wandered around the edge of the lake for some time, each making the odd comment, and then Merlin pulled on Arthur’s hand and led him up a wooded slope. The sun was sinking swiftly behind them. Arthur knew Gwaine and Lancelot would be back soon. They were both good hunters, and neither would be pleased to find camp completely empty-- devoid of even a fire.
“Merlin, this better be--” Arthur huffed, but his exasperation was cut short by the sight that met his eyes as he came over the crest of the hill.
There, beneath the trees, illuminated by the last streams of sunlight breaking through the leaves, was a sword. A sword with its blade buried deep in a stone. It was beautiful. There was a gold inset running down from the handle of the sword, etched with a language Arthur didn’t understand.
He stood transfixed for a moment, feeling a rush of recognition that he didn’t fully understand. Arthur’s heart reeled, as if the sword were his own-- as if it was a part of him in some way; intended for his hand and no other’s. The whole clearing was filled with a raw, natural presence that Arthur knew at once; it was the same feeling of magic he’d felt the night before, when Merlin had fought off the spiders.
There was magic in the air, and magic in that blade, Arthur was sure of it. Not the evil, twisted magic he’d been taught to despise, but a magic more akin to Merlin’s own. It felt real and true, as though it were somehow ingrained in Arthur, too. As if it were close to him-- a part of him, if you will-- in the same way Merlin was.
Arthur felt Merlin’s touch slip from his fingers. He didn’t pull his gaze from the sword, but out of the corner of his eye, he saw Merlin move to the edge of the clearing. There was silence but for the occasional tweet of a bird. Arthur’s own breathing rattled in his chest, and when Merlin finally spoke, it made him jump.
“You have to pull it out,” he said.
“What?” Arthur looked up to see Merlin watching him. He was emitting a bright, buzzing, eager energy, brimming with possibilities. It was something Arthur had sensed in Merlin before-- the feeling that he lived for moments like this.
“You have to pull it out,” Merlin repeated. “It’s your sword. It’s why I brought you here.”
Arthur looked back and forth between Merlin and the sword in the stone, and asked, “It’s mine? How is it... Merlin, how did you know it was here?”
“There’s a prophecy,” Merlin said smoothly. “It says that when a prince is ready for the throne, he’ll be able to pull this sword from the stone. You’re ready, Arthur. I know you are.”
Arthur shifted where he stood. The sword was beautiful, the sun was glimmering and Merlin was fizzing with expectation, but part of him still felt like that small, crying, six-year-old boy. However much he practised, however many enemies he beat and however often he proved himself in the joust or the melee, it was never quite enough. There was always some new challenge for him to overcome. There was always one more flaw in need of ironing out.
After everything-- all the damning remarks, all his father’s disbelief, Arthur didn’t know if he’d ever be ready.
“You have a destiny,” Merlin’s voice was so strong, so certain, that it made Arthur look up at him. “You’re going to be king-- a great king. I know the people you love won’t always be there for you. I know you’ve lost Morgana and one day, you’ll lose your father too.” At that, Merlin took a moment to run a hand through his hair. “I know I’m not the one you chose to face this journey with you, but I promise to always be here for you. I promise... I promise to be at your side, day-in, day out. I’ll protect you, I’ll support you, I’ll polish your bloody boots if that’s what you want--”
Arthur laughed despite himself. He could see in Merlin’s eyes that he meant everything he was saying.
“Whatever you want me to be, I’ll be,” Merlin continued, grinning. “I won’t leave. I won’t leave unless you tell me to. Never.”
They exchanged warm smiles. Arthur looked Merlin up and down, letting his heart run free for a moment, and feeling the rush of an affection that’d sprung from heartbreak, loneliness and despair; a love that’d grown from having and needing only each other. Arthur had never felt a closeness like it.
When Merlin tilted his head towards the sword, Arthur walked forwards. Slowly, he circled the stone, coming to a halt on the opposite side. He stared down, wondering at the way the metal seemed welded into the stone.
“Merlin, this is never--” he started to say, but something about the way Merlin looked at him made Arthur stop his protests and reach out for the hilt anyway.
“You can do it,” Merlin whispered, all trust and sincerity, and for a moment, Arthur believed him.
That moment was all it took. Arthur wrapped both his hands around the hilt of the sword, feeling his shoulders loosen at the familiarity of it, and pulled upwards. The blade slid easily from the stone and gleamed in the fading sunlight. Everything froze for a moment. Arthur stood transfixed, not quite believing his eyes.
Merlin gasped. One moment, he was watching Arthur pull Excalibur from the stone, his heart swelling with pride and his stomach tingling with love. Then, suddenly, everything was dark and Merlin felt his chest constrict. He swayed on his feet and clenched his fists. The grass was still cold and hard beneath his feet, but all he could see was the inside of a bedchamber.
The heavy red curtains were drawn tight against the dying sun. A single candle lit the darkness, its light falling on the person lying beneath the musky, deep purple bedding. It was Uther. The lines of his face were more pronounced than ever, and even in the dim light, Merlin could see how his eyes were open wide. His face was clouded by something like fear.
A gasp, a cough, a second that dragged on for eternity, and Uther’s chest stopped rising with breaths. He was still; completely, utterly still. Merlin’s heart twisted painfully. He hadn’t been the one to set the curse, he hadn’t been the one to bind Uther’s life to his and Arthur’s journey, but his insides ached with the knowledge that he’d been a part of it somehow. The king, however consumed by fear and hatred, was still Arthur’s only family. He still meant a great deal to Arthur, and Arthur was the only person who meant anything to Merlin.
Merlin hardly dared to breathe as the candle faded to blackness. He blinked, opening his eyes to see the woods again. Arthur was standing there with a grin on his face, holding Excalibur aloft.
A single tear slid down Merlin’s cheek. He swallowed the others as best he could and pasted on a smile. Arthur turned to gaze at him, his eyes all wonder and joy.
“Ha!” Arthur barked, slightly hysterical. “Look at that!”
“You did it,” Merlin said quietly, his heart pounding.
"I did it!" Arthur echoed, his face still split with a grin. He pulled his gaze from the blade in his hand and looked over at Merlin. As their eyes met, Arthur's expression softened.
“Her name’s Excalibur,” Merlin raised a hand towards the sword.
Arthur looked back and forth between Merlin and the sword, then shrugged and nodded. His shoulders sagged and he sighed, letting his sword hand drop down, before winding his way out from behind the stone and pacing towards Merlin.
Another twinge of guilt snaked its way through Merlin as he watched Arthur approach him, smiling, blissfully unaware of how he'd just lost the last of his family. The way the last rays of sunlight hit Arthur almost made him glow-- a centre of warmth and life and good in the cold, dark of winter.
When Arthur finally reached Merlin, he stared intently at him for a moment; blue eyes searching blue eyes. Then, those same blue eyes dipped down to stare at Merlin's lips, and before Merlin could open his mouth, it was pressed against Arthur's.
The kiss bent Merlin backwards. He splayed his fingers against Arthur's chest plate as a strong hand wrapped around and pressed into the small of his back, holding him up. Excalibur hung from Arthur's right hand, the point scratching into the earth, forgotten.
Merlin pushed back against Arthur’s lips and trailed his hands up to cradle Arthur’s jaw. They both closed their eyes, listening to the sound of breathing, and lost themselves in each other. Arthur was trying to thank Merlin for all of it, for believing in him, but all Merlin could think was that the first thing Arthur had done as king was kiss his sorcerer.
When they broke apart, Arthur was grinning triumphantly. He reached up and wiped the tear from Merlin’s cheek. “Come on, Merlin,” he smirked. “It wasn’t that exciting.”
Merlin smiled sheepishly, then bit his lip and gazed up at Arthur through his lashes. Arthur watched him, a little bemused-- it wasn’t as if they hadn’t kissed before, but there was something different in Merlin’s eyes. They were shining and wet with tears, but full of a strange kind of awe.
Then they were suddenly a lot closer, because Merlin had grasped hold of Arthur’s head and pulled him into another kiss.
“Mrrlnn!” Arthur squawked, his voice muffled by Merlin’s mouth. He was so surprised, he almost dropped Excalibur. “What d’you think you’re doing?”
“You started it,” Merlin was grinning too, his eyes dancing as he pulled away. “Now come on. The others’ll be waiting.”
Arthur spluttered something about how he was the one who should be giving orders, but Merlin was already disappearing down the slope, so he just rolled his eyes and slid the sword into his sheath. He could catch up in no time, after all.
They stayed near the lake for three days. There were plenty of animals to hunt in the woods, and Arthur still hadn’t formulated a real plan of action. He didn’t like setting out without knowing exactly where he was heading. He spent the time exploring the trees with Lancelot, and circling the lake with Gwaine.
Excalibur rarely left Arthur’s side. He felt at one with it in a way he’d never felt about any other weapon. The hilt was like an extension of his fingers, the blade an extension of his heart. The only time it wasn’t bound to Arthur’s side was when Merlin took it for polishing. He would sit by the water’s edge when the sun was setting with the blade resting flat across his knees, and stare out at the lake. Arthur supposed Merlin was thinking about the girl he’d lost there; Freya.
They’d passed the point where Arthur would ask Merlin to polish his sword or help him into his armour. Arthur never ordered Merlin to prepare supper or collect firewood, he just went about it of his own accord. Since they’d returned to camp with Excalibur, Merlin had grown quieter around Arthur. During the day, they didn’t bicker in the way they once had, and when Arthur spoke, Merlin listened with an intensity Arthur hadn’t seen him exhibit before.
When darkness fell each evening, and Gwaine offered to take first watch as he always did, Arthur tried to push back the barriers Merlin had put up. He pressed a kiss to Merlin’s hand when Merlin reached to untie his chest plate. He pulled off his gloves, shed Merlin’s jacket and rubbed circles around his shoulder blades. He lay on his side and linked their hands together, tugging gently until Merlin gave in and kissed him.
They were always quiet. The only sounds were Merlin’s gasps and Arthur’s wet kisses. The tent echoed with a silence that made each night feel like a dream. Merlin melted into the blankets, gazing up at Arthur with wide eyes. He wanted to whisper a hundred apologies, a thousand secrets, but he always just lay flat on his back, smiling and kissing without a word, trying not to think about the future.
He spent those three days sitting in waiting. Merlin knew it wouldn’t take the messengers long to discover them, and so he spent his time watching Arthur plan a journey he’d never take to slay a creature he’d never face. Merlin spent those three days preparing for the whirlwind that would sweep them up the moment Camelot’s messengers arrived.
A whirlwind that began late at night after their third day, when the sound of hooves echoed through the trees. Merlin and Arthur had been pressed together inside their tent, sharing a quiet moment, not yet having begun to shed armour and boots in favour of blankets and tightly wrapped arms.
Gwaine and Lancelot were still outside, sitting beside the campfire, and the sound of them drawing their swords sent Arthur hurtling outside in the blink of an eye. He stood in the middle of camp, making vague hand signals as Merlin dashed around the fire to stand by his side-- wanting to reach for Arthur’s hand, but knowing there was no need. Not yet.
As two riders appeared through the trees, adorned in red cloaks of Camelot, Arthur stopped his frantic movements; he could always recognise his own people.
“Who goes there?” he called, walking forwards.
“Messengers of Camelot!” a nervous voice replied. “We search for Arthur.”
“Well, you’ve found him,” Gwaine grinned, pushing his sword back into its sheath. “Come on down.”
Arthur shot Gwaine a disapproving look and moved over to steady the first horse as its rider dismounted. He was a large man, balding, and clearly many moons older than any of them.
“Sire,” he said, bowing as his companion clambered to the ground behind him. “We’ve been sent to bring you back to Camelot at once.”
“Why?” Arthur frowned between the two men. He didn’t turn at the sound of Lancelot putting away his sword and stepping up to stand beside him. “What’s happened?”
The two messengers exchanged a look that Merlin understood all too well.
“It is grave news indeed, sire,” the other one piped up. He was small, and far younger than Merlin. He sounded bewildered and a little afraid to be addressing a prince-- no, a king.
“What is it?” Arthur gritted out, his apprehension curling slowly into anger. “Tell me.”
“Arthur...” Merlin breathed, edging forwards to clutch his hand. This was never going to have been easy. Maybe he should’ve told him himself, maybe he should’ve insisted they head straight back, maybe...
“The king has died, sire,” the older messenger said quietly. “Your presence is urgently required.”
Arthur took a step back, pulling his hand from Merlin’s grasp. He nodded several times and squeezed his eyes shut. Merlin thought he could see a tear shimmer down Arthur’s cheek, but he hoped the darkness would hide it from the others. Gwaine stood stock still nearby, his face sullen, and Lancelot bowed his head in respect.
The dead silence of the night rang through Arthur’s ears. He felt as though he hadn’t heard the words at all-- as though he’d imagined it. Images of his father ran through Arthur’s mind. His stomach twisted with the memory of seeing Uther injured for the first time, after a bloody battle on the borders of Camelot. That’d been the moment he’d realised his father wasn’t invincible; he was as mortal and fragile as any other.
That fear of loss coursed through Arthur’s veins again. People had warned him to prepare his father’s death since Morgana had turned, but Arthur had never truly believed it. He’d clung to Gaius’ reports that the king was improving-- that he was getting stronger. The last time Arthur had seen his father, he’d been well enough to argue. He’d been bed-ridden, yes, but he’d shouted loudly enough. Arthur had shouted, too.
“Arthur,” Merlin breathed again, moving towards him. There was no touching, Merlin just stayed close enough for Arthur to feel his presence. “Arthur.”
After a few moments quiet, Arthur gulped. “When?”
“Sunset three days ago, sire--”
“Three days?” Arthur burst out, and Merlin saw his hands curl into fists. “It took you three days to find me! Three days to tell me--”
“We must be almost two days ride from Camelot,” Merlin whispered frantically, trying to calm Arthur with a hidden hand on the small of his back. “And they had to search for us. It’s not their fault, Arthur.”
Merlin made a shushing sound only Arthur could hear and gave the messengers a meaningful look. They nodded back at him, grateful.
Everyone was quiet again, watching Arthur. He hid his face in his hands for a moment, then shook his head and shifted out of Merlin’s touch. “What’s happening now?” he asked, his voice steady. “Who’s taken charge?”
The older messenger looked relieved to speak again. “Sir Leon addressed the people, sire. He made the announcement and took control of the city’s defences. The court physician has been arranging the funeral.”
Arthur nodded, not looking any of them in the eye.
“I need to get back,” he said after a few minutes. “I need to get back now.”
Camelot was vulnerable. Two weeks under magic’s evil rule had brought her to her knees, and the absence of a true leader could only be pulling apart everything that’d been rebuilt. Leon was a brave, honourable man, but the people didn’t trust him the way they trusted Arthur. He’d spent his whole life earning their respect, and now he’d abandoned them in their hour of need.
“We brought these horses for you, sire,” the younger messenger squeaked, indicating the stallion he’d been riding. “We can follow on foot.”
“No,” Arthur shook his head, backing off to the other side of camp. “No, that’ll take too long. We’re two days ride away!”
With an angry kick at the ground, Arthur turned his back on the others. He squinted at the earth with his hands on his hips, wracking his brain for a faster way home. He couldn’t spend another two days traveling; there wasn’t any time to waste.
There must be a faster route, he thought, desperately trying to picture the maps he’d studied as a boy. There must be.
The touch of fingers on his side made Arthur jump. He swung around, ready to fume, but saw Merlin jump backwards out of the way of his arm. His eyebrows were raised and his mouth was sad, but his eyes were sparkling through the dark.
“What is it?” Arthur grunted, not bothering to apologise.
“I might know of a way you can get back by morning,” Merlin muttered.
Arthur frowned. “What? How?”
“Shh!” Merlin waved his hands in the air, indicating for Arthur to keep his voice down. “I think there’s only room for the two of us. It’s... It’s unusual.”
“We’ll need to walk for a bit tonight, but it won’t take long. You’re going to have to trust me again.”
They stared at each other for a moment, then Arthur glanced over Merlin’s shoulder towards the others.
“Does it involve...?” he waved his hands around.
Merlin nodded. “Of a kind.”
“Hm,” Arthur squinted at the messengers’ horses. They were large, strong stallions, but they weren’t quite the prize horses he and the knights had ridden to Ealdor; hurrying to Camelot at full gallop would surely exhaust them. He’d lost horses that way as a youth, and it was always a horrible feeling.
Arthur caught Merlin’s eye again and gave him a short nod, then squeezed his shoulder and walked back towards the others.
“Alright,” he announced loudly. “Here’s what we’re gonna do. You two,” he pointed at the messengers. “Ride to the outlying villages in Cenred’s kingdom. You need to find Sir Percival and Sir Elyan. They’ve been there helping the villagers. Take these horses and tell them to return to Camelot as soon as they can.”
Both men nodded, and Arthur was grateful to see them climb back into their saddles and ride off-- he’d forgotten not every servant questioned his every order like Merlin did.
Once they’d left, Gwaine and Lancelot turned back to Arthur, each with their eyebrows raised. He ignored their expressions and proceeded to give them his instruction. “You two have proved yourselves more than worthy of your titles,” he patted each of them on the shoulder, smiling a little. “Now I must ask you for one last favour.”
“Anything for you,” Gwaine winked, smirking.
“I want you to stay here tonight,” Arthur told them. “Rest as best you can, and in the morning pack up the tents and bring them back to Camelot. You’ll have to travel on foot for a while, but I’ll send horses out to meet you.”
“Yes, sire,” Lancelot gave a quick bow.
“Fine by me,” Gwaine sighed, then tilted his head behind Arthur. “What about Merlin?”
Arthur followed Gwaine’s eyes across camp until they met Merlin. He was standing beside the fire, biting his lip and grasping his left arm with his right-- clearly a little uneasy.
“Merlin’s coming with me,” Arthur said. “Apparently, we’ve got a bit of walking to do.”
* * *
The land they traveled through was bathed in deep blues and purples, glimmering under the pale light of the moon. Merlin took the lead, a spring in his step as he worked his way through the bushes and fallen branches of the forest, and then hurried across the dark expanses of fields.
Arthur trailed behind him, blinking the sleep from his eyes even as his shoulders sagged under the weight of his armour. Images of his father’s last moment (where had he been? What had he thought? Was it quick? Painless?) distracted him, and he barely kept track of the direction they were heading.
After a while, Arthur’s gaze left the cold hills around them and focused on the back of Merlin’s head. Large, pale ears bobbed up and down with each footfall, and Arthur mirrored Merlin’s steps through the undergrowth almost exactly.
As he watched, Arthur felt the need to speak about his father growing. Merlin had listened to him when he’d opened up about Guinevere, and given him something besides just sympathy. Merlin had been realistic.
“The last time I saw him, we quarrelled,” Arthur said loudly, hoping to coax Merlin into a conversation. “I shouldn’t have left Camelot the way I did.”
Merlin nodded without looking round. He was all too aware of the pain in Arthur’s face when the messengers had given him the news about Uther, and Merlin couldn’t quite stomach the thought that he’d been a part of that. It was Morgana’s fault, or so he kept telling himself, but his own magic should’ve been able to stop it somehow-- if only he hadn’t been too afraid to use it.
“You do remember, don’t you?” Arthur called, picking up speed.
“Yeah,” Merlin said over his shoulder. “Yeah, I remember.”
He was close to dismissive, and Arthur didn’t know why. When they’d talked about Guinevere, Merlin’s voice has been low and soft, soothing Arthur’s tense muscles. Merlin had even shared a few secrets of his own-- telling Arthur of his own heartbreak, and revealing how he felt about his mother.
There was a surge in Arthur’s stomach at the memory; Merlin had lost a parent, too, and he’d gone through it alone. Perhaps they’d parted on good terms, but Merlin’s mother had still been everything to him, and suddenly she was gone. He was just as alone as Arthur.
“It was because of you,” Arthur tried a different approach, less focused on himself and more concerned by all the things Merlin would’ve needed to hear, but didn’t.
It was enough to make Merlin stop walking. “What?”
“I left for you,” Arthur repeated, catching up so that they stood mere feet apart. There was a frown creasing Merlin’s forehead and his lips were pursed.
“I thought it was because of Gwen,” he said, raising a questioning eyebrow.
Arthur sighed, running a hand through his hair. “So did I, but now I’m not sure. I mean, I was thinking of you-- your safety, your distress... I think it was for you.”
After staring for a little longer, Merlin managed a smile.
“I shouldn’t have left,” Arthur said again. He stared fondly at the spread of Merlin’s lips and the crinkle around his eyes, realising the truth in his next words as he spoke them. “But so much has changed... I wouldn’t alter it if I could.”
Merlin looked at him thoughtfully. “Thank you,” he whispered after a moment, brushing his hand against Arthur’s and turning to carry on walking. Those words had eased his mind more that Arthur could possibly know, and if he didn’t look away, he felt sure he’d cry.
“Merlin,” Arthur stayed rooted to the spot. “I’m trying to say something.”
He reached out and took hold of Merlin’s arm, turning him around and staring into his eyes. Merlin looked surprised, but not angry... Somehow, he never lost his temper when Arthur grabbed him. The searching look Merlin gave him made Arthur push on.
“Before we go back and it all starts, I wanted to say...” Arthur swallowed his pride, lifting his chin. “I wanted to say I’m sorry, Merlin. I’m sorry I didn’t reach your mother in time.”
Merlin lifted his free hand to his lips, his eyes wide and suddenly shining with tears.
“I’m sorry you had to go through that alone,” Arthur carried on, squeezing Merlin’s wrist tighter than was probably necessary. “And I’m... I’m sorry that--”
Arthur squeezed his eyes shut, fighting the burning hot tears with all his might. He bunched his hands into fists and gritted his teeth, condemning himself for breaking so easily. People died, it was just what happened. His father had been strong, but he was also old, and Morgana’s betrayal had broken him. He couldn’t rule forever.
Merlin made a hushing sound, placing a cold hand on Arthur’s cheek. His nose brushed against Arthur’s as their breath mingled in the air between them.
“I’m sorry,” Merlin breathed, closing his eyes too. “I’m so sorry about your father.”
“S’not your fault,” Arthur mumbled.
Merlin made a small, indistinct sound and shook his head. Arthur cracked an eye open to look at him, and saw damp glistening on Merlin’s cheekbones. He was crying too? Crying for Arthur? For the king?
Arthur whispered “Merlin...” at the same time as Merlin mumbled “I’m sorry,” again, and then they were both leaning forwards and kissing.
It was a cold, sad press of lips on lips. Merlin didn’t move his hands from Arthur’s face, and Arthur’s arms found their way loosely around Merlin’s waist. It wasn’t passionate in the way many of their other kisses had been, and it didn’t make Arthur’s stomach tingle with heat or his fingers itch to touch or to hold, but it did make his heart lift.
Feeling Merlin’s mouth against his, feeling Merlin’s palms cradling his jaw and Merlin’s chest pressed close, gave Arthur a new boost. His heart warmed enough to stop his tears and remind him that there was still a lot left to do; that Camelot was still his, and that she needed him.
When the kiss ended, Merlin drew a sharp breath and bit his lip. He truly was sorry for the way in which Arthur had lost his father, but knowing that he could be there for Arthur, with quiet words and gentle touches, was better than the fate Morgana had planned for him. She’d underestimated their bond, and now they were on the brink of a new age. Now Camelot was theirs for the taking.
“Come on,” Merlin murmured into the space between their mouths. “We’re almost there.”
They pulled apart and Arthur gazed around him. It was dark, but he knew the lands around the castle as well as he knew himself, and he didn’t recognise the wooded glade they were standing in. A stream was running along nearby and the ground was spotted with tufts of frosted grass, but Camelot was no closer than it’d been an hour before.
He frowned at Merlin, who simply smiled and led him through the last remaining trees into a wide clearing. They could see the stars shining in the night sky above, and the dark black outline of mountains far to the north.
Arthur marvelled at the beauty of it for a moment. He turned on the spot, drinking everything in with wide eyes, until his gaze fell back on Merlin. He was watching Arthur with a small smile, but when their eyes met, his expression grew serious.
“You’re going to have to trust me on this,” he said for what felt like the hundredth time. “I mean it.”
“I do,” Arthur looked Merlin straight in the eye as he spoke. “I trust you, just... get on with it.”
They both smirked, then Merlin closed his eyes and stepped forwards, turning his head towards the sky. A low hum came up from his throat-- almost inaudible at first, but quickly growing into a roar of words Arthur didn’t understand. Merlin’s voice grated through the night, reverberating with power and depth and secret meanings.
“Dracan, eom, ala, sece findan metan, teosu hus anbid! Aerne!”
This must be magic, Arthur found himself thinking. It was beautiful in an odd way; laced with age and wisdom. It tickled down Arthur’s spine and echoed through his ears like a thousand voices from long ago.
Merlin opened his eyes again, still staring at the sky and whispering strange words under his breath. He could feel Arthur’s eyes on him, but he couldn’t be distracted. He focused all his energy and magic into the call; muttering it over and over. He sent his heart out as best he could, willing it to find what he was seeking; willing it to find Kilgharrah.
The silent night stretched on. The air was stirred by a light breeze and the moon disappeared behind a single, lonely cloud, only to reappear again several minutes later. Merlin didn’t move. He carried on staring, carried on muttering, carried on hoping beyond hope.
Arthur kicked the dirt once, then looked up at the sky, too. There was nothing. Nothing was happening. He didn’t know what he’d expected-- he didn’t know how magic worked. Maybe he thought a secret path would reveal itself to them, or an unused underground passage. Maybe he’d expected to blink and find himself in his own chambers.
“Merlin...” Arthur started to say, because it really didn’t seem as though Merlin had noticed that nothing was happening, but just as the words left his lips, Merlin’s face split into a grin and the air began swirling around them.
There was a loud, whooshing sound, and the moonlight was blocked out by a large, looming shadow. Arthur’s head snapped up to see an enormous, pale underbelly, a long neck and two giant wings descending on him. With a shout, he back away, drawing his sword and crouching low to the ground-- Merlin had summoned a bloody dragon!
It wasn’t just any dragon, either, it was the beast that’d tried to destroy Camelot. It was the creature that’d burned Arthur’s men before his very eyes. It was the monster that’d cut down women and children as they ran for cover.
“Stay back!” Arthur yelled, his teeth bared as he lifted Excalibur.
“Arthur!” Merlin hissed, glaring.
The dragon’s landing was surprisingly soft for such a giant creature. It shook its wings, then folded them up and squinted down at the two figures in front of it. Arthur watched its every move, not daring to look away or drop his guard for a moment.
“Arthur!” Merlin said again, his agitation clear. “Stop it.”
Arthur shook his head.
“Ah, young warlock,” the dragon’s voice was old, but clear. Etched with decades upon decades of life and experience. It addressed Merlin, turning its head towards him as it spoke. “I see you’ve finally decided the time has come for the prince to know the truth.”
“I didn’t really have much choice,” Merlin said, sounding so calm Arthur had to do a double take. “The... The witch,” Merlin gave the dragon a pointed look. “Left me no choice, really.”
“What?” Arthur was so confused, he almost forgot to point his sword at the dragon. “Merlin, what’re you--?”
The others ignored him.
“She doesn’t realise that her efforts to take over only lessen her chances of success,” the dragon shook its giant head. “But I am glad to meet the great prince Arthur at last.”
The dragon turned its attention towards Arthur, and he brandished his sword and took a step forward. His courage bubbling up from nowhere. “Stay back!” he shouted again. “Evil creature, I failed to slay you once before, but I will not make that error again.”
Arthur and the dragon locked eyes for a moment, and although it was impossible to tell what expression the dragon was pulling, Arthur glowered back.
Or, at least, he was glowering until he felt a sharp pain on the back of his head that made him stumble forwards.
“Merlin!” Arthur cursed, rubbing at the spot where Merlin had hit him. “What the hell was that for?”
“For being a prat!” Merlin shouted back. “And I’ll do it again.”
The dragon made a strange noise that sounded suspiciously like chuckling. “I know humans can be frustrating, Merlin,” it said. “But I doubt hitting the prince will help your cause.”
“Oh, he does it all too often!” Arthur found himself saying, lowering his sword a little. “He was always frightfully insubordinate.”
“Perhaps now you understand why!” Merlin exclaimed, pulling a face. “One of you was always chastising me for something or other.”
The dragon tilted his head slightly, staring down at Arthur. “I can sympathise, young prince,” he said (and since when had Arthur been thinking of it as a him?). “I myself have lost count of the number of times Merlin has asked for my advice, then ignored it.”
Arthur grinned, letting Excalibur drop to his side and gesturing exasperatedly towards Merlin. “He was always late, he never addressed me properly.”
“He failed to come when I called,” the dragon joined in. “When I gave him a solution to his problem, he would argue indefinitely.”
“He lost my clothes, he stole my breakfast,” Arthur felt himself getting into the swing of it.
He hadn’t had a lot of reason to complain recently, and he’d missed it. Merlin just watched them with his mouth gaping open.
“He put every effort into avoiding keeping promises,” the dragon (Kilgharrah, was it?) shook his head, a low chuckle rumbling up from his stomach again.
“And his sword work is truly atrocious,” Arthur punched Merlin lightly on the arm, trying to get him to join in the jest. “I’ve never trained with anyone worse.”
At that point, the dragon howled with laughter. “I did find the swing he took to break my chains most ungainly.”
“Alright, that’s enough!” Merlin folded his arms, sulking as Arthur doubled over with laughter and wiped a tear from his eye. “We’reactually in a bit of hurry.”
“He’s right,” Arthur sighed, straightening up and somehow managing to compose himself; quickly becoming as serious and stoic as ever. “We need to get back to Camelot by morning.”
Kilgharrah sobered as well, fixing his small eyes on Merlin again. “And you want me to take you, is that correct?”
“What?” Arthur stared, horrified, as Merlin nodded.
When Kilgharrah narrowed his eyes, Merlin started to stammer. “You-- you did it last time!”
“And I told you then,” Kilgharrah sounded impatient. “I am not a horse, Merlin.”
“But--” Merlin looked helplessly at Arthur. “But Arthur needs to get back so he can begin his reign! We can’t unite Albion if we get killed by bandits in the forest or-- or--”
“Last time?” Arthur was close to squeaking. “Do you mean to say you’ve ridden a dragon before, Merlin?”
“Only once,” Merlin scowled, feeling very defensive again.
“And when did you have time for that?”
“It wasn’t for leisure!” Merlin threw his hands up in the air, pointedly ignoring the way Kilgharrah was looking back and forth between them. “I was in a hurry.”
Arthur put his head in his hands, muffling his voice slightly. ”Honestly, Merlin, I’d rather walk.”
“It’s not that bad, maybe a little bumpy...” Merlin put his hands on his hips. “And earlier you were saying how desperately you needed to get back! There’s nothing faster than flight.”
“You misunderstood,” Arthur didn’t look up from where he was massaging his forehead. “I wanted to get back alive.”
Merlin pulled a face, stared at Arthur for a minute or two, then came to some kind of decision and lunged forward to grab his wrist.
“Come on,” he said , pulling Arthur towards Kilgharrah. “You told me you trusted me, and I’ll make sure you don’t fall and die a horrid, mangled death.”
“Merlin, get off--”
“Young warlock,” Kilgharrah interrupted, dipping his head so he was almost eye-to-eye with them. “I have not yet agreed to carry you to Camelot.”
Merlin relinquished his grip on Arthur’s wrist and stepped forwards, towards Kilgharrah.
“You know I can command you,” he said quietly. “Don’t make me do that again. You know I will.”
After a long, tense moment, Kilgharrah bowed his head a little further. Arthur couldn’t quite believe his eyes-- Merlin had convinced adragon to carry them home.
He still had his doubts and fears over magic, but everything he’d seen from Merlin so far had been strangely beautiful, and felt right somehow. Arthur’s mistrust for Kilgharrah was slowly ebbing away, but that didn’t make the idea of riding him like a horse any more appealing. There was little he hated more than being at the mercy of another.
It took a ludicrous amount of scrabbling and squabbling to climb onto Kilgharrah’s back. Merlin was light and nimble on his feet, but Arthur was weighed down by heavy armour, and found it hard to lift his arms high enough to pull himself up. Thankfully, one short, stern word was enough to ensure that Merlin would never speak to anyone of the way he’d had to push on Arthur’s behind to lift him onto the back of dragon.
Once Arthur was positioned firmly behind Merlin, straddling Kilgharrah’s neck at the base and tucked cosily between his wings, they were finally ready to set off. The faint light of morning had cut across the sky as they’d been in the clearing, and a few birds were singing when Kilgharrah finally bent his legs ready for flight.
The sensation was definitely not one Arthur enjoyed. He wrapped his arms around Merlin’s middle, holding on tightly, and Merlin clung to Kilgharrah’s neck with a grip so loose, so casual, that it made Arthur’s stomach flip at the thought. They were flying and Merlin hardly even bothered to get a firm grip... No wonder he was always so bruised.
Arthur’s head spun as he watched the ground disappear beneath him, and his stomach twisted at the feel of nothing but cold, empty air beneath his boots. He’d enjoyed climbing trees and racing up to the top of the castle turrets as a boy, but flying through the air atop a giant dragon was something else entirely. Arthur ended up squeezing Merlin and resting his chin on Merlin’s shoulder, partly out of nerves and partly out of what he would later insist was concern for Merlin’s safety, since he was leaning right over and gazing, wide-eyed at the land rushing far beneath their feet.
When Merlin turned to press a kiss against Arthur’s temple, he shook his head, trying to nudge Merlin off. That only made Merlin chuckle and do it again, moving slowly down to the tip of his nose. All of Arthur’s angry words were lost to the wind, so he settled for squeezing his arms around Merlin until it was painful. The feel of Merlin’s fingers made Arthur look down, and when he saw the way Merlin was clinging to his hands rather than Kilgharrah’s neck, he suddenly felt very faint. Either Merlin was incredibly stupid, or had brilliant balance.
For the first time since they'd met, Arthur went with the second option.
The sun rose as they flew. Once Arthur spotted Camelot, highlighted by sunlight on the horizon, he didn’t look away until they made ready to land. The dawning of this new day felt much more like the end of one chapter than the beginning of another, but Arthur knew he had a lot ahead of him.
Jumping down from Kilgharrah was far easier than climbing up. He landed in a field less than a league from the castle, and didn’t shake out his wings until Merlin and Arthur were safely on the ground (although Merlin still somehow managed to trip over his own boots when his feet touched solid earth again).
“You have a great future,” Kilgharrah told them, watching as Arthur pulled Merlin to his feet. “I don’t doubt that you will call on me again, but for now I must bid you farewell. It is no mean task to repair the damage Uther Pendragon wrought upon Albion.”
Arthur opened his mouth and stepped forward, his intention of arguing for his father’s honour obvious from the way his forehead creased and the accusing finger he pointed at Kilgharrah. Luckily, Merlin managed to dive in first.
“Thank you,” he said loudly, craning his neck to look upwards. “In time, I’m sure Camelot will welcome you as it once did.”
Kilgharrah bowed his head. “Until then.”
The air whipped and swirled around them again as Kilgharrah took flight. Merlin watched him fly back the way they’d come, his wingbeats long and heavy, and he sighed. Beside him, Arthur was dusting himself off.
“Is he always that...?” Arthur asked, pulling a face.
“Yeah, always,” Merlin grinned.
Arthur snorted, then stopped rubbing at a grubby mark on his gauntlet and started on Merlin instead.
“Ow!” Merlin yelped, jumping away from Arthur’s hands. “What’re you doing?”
“You fell off a dragon, Merlin,” Arthur dropped back into his usual drawl once again. “You’re filthy.”
Merlin stood still while Arthur brushed the worst of the frosted mud off his jacket. He’d resigned himself to the fact that some things would never change-- and one of those things was Arthur’s fussiness.
However, just because it was normal, it didn’t mean Merlin had to be happy about it. He sulked for the entire time, only breaking out into a huffy smile when Arthur pulled off his glove and ran a warm thumb over Merlin’s chin. Arthur grinned back, and they stared into each other’s eyes for a moment, before leaning in for a quick kiss.
“Come on,” Arthur winked when they pulled apart. He turned and headed off towards the broad, dirt road that led directly to Camelot. Merlin hurried after him, his whole body buzzing.
* * *
The walk only took an hour, but Merlin could see the tension mounting in Arthur’s shoulders with every step he took. For what it was worth, Merlin did his best to find odd little topics to fill the silence-- he knew Arthur found it easiest when Merlin talked.
By the time they were within hailing distance of the castle, Merlin was broaching the subject of why exactly Gaius was able to get five glass jars for a gold coin, rather than the usual three, and Arthur’s smile had faded altogether. His face was ghostly pale and his fringe was sweaty, but the determination in his eyes shone through.
“Hey,” Merlin murmured, knocking their shoulders together. “You alright?”
Arthur swallowed hard as they approached the drawbridge. “Yes, Merlin,” he said stiffly. “I’m fine.”
Merlin nodded and reached down to grasp Arthur’s hand. They walked in perfect synchrony, each stride matching, pressed close together to hide their tangled grip. It was eerily similar to the way they’d approached the gates of Ealdor. It’d been little more than a week before, but after everything that’d happened, it felt like an age ago.
A shiver ran down Merlin’s spine as he recalled the way hate had surged through him at the sight of his mother, lying cold and broken. The grief of it had become a dull ache in the pit of his stomach that only truly disappeared in the heat of those moments when he and Arthur moved together, breathed together, and held each other as one.
“Are you ready?” Merlin whispered, so quietly he wasn’t sure if Arthur had heard.
“Merlin,” Arthur stared ahead, watching the drawbridge open. “I’ve had no sleep, my knees are still shaking from that dragon, none of my knights are with me... I’m supposed to be king, and I’m not even riding a horse into the city,” Arthur glanced at Merlin and smiled. “And I’m holding hands with a warlock.”
Merlin grinned and squeezed Arthur’s hand especially tight. “I’d say you’re all set.”
Arthur’s smile faltered, and he looked ahead again. “This isn’t going to be easy.”
“You’re right,” Merlin shook his head. “It’s not.”
Their eyes met, and Arthur’s expression was unreadable for the whole of one minute, before he broke out into a smirk again. “At least I’ve still got you, eh, Merlin?”
A huff of laughter was all the response Merlin could give. “You prat.”
Epilogue: Maybe One Promise
After everything, Merlin never expected to go from keeping three secrets to four, but as he raced through the cold stone corridors of Camelot, he realised that was exactly what’d happened. He turned a corner and ran headlong into Gwen, who simply smiled at him, having finally forgiven them all for what she called gallivanting off into the sunset without so much as a goodbye. Merlin smiled back, mumbled some half-baked excuse about Arthur doing late night arithmetic, then stormed off on his way again.
It’d been a month since they arrived back in Camelot, and Merlin had found keeping his magic a secret much easier. He’d relaxed after Arthur had promised to begin repealing the ban as soon as he felt the people were ready. His magic was something Merlin had practice hiding.
The same couldn’t be said for his whatever it was with Arthur. Merlin hadn’t even realised it was a secret until he found himself stumbling through stories about Arthur working late and refusing to eat, just to explain away why he ventured up to Arthur’s room after all the other servants had gone.
Once he got there, things could be a little awkward. Merlin still held the title of manservant, but he didn’t really do any serving, and Arthur was unsure exactly how to treat him. If supper was set up when Merlin arrived, things tended to be easier. They could eat happily, and blame any awkward silences on hunger.
Every once in a while, Merlin would slip through the door to find Arthur staring out of his window. Usually, he’d start asking after Gwen, then sigh, his shoulders reflecting all the ways he felt he’d never live up to his father. They didn’t really talk on those nights. Merlin would quietly massage the tension from Arthur’s back and press kisses to his neck, then make the lights of all the candles float around the room until Arthur laughed and told him to stop before he burned down the whole kingdom.
That particular night, however, when Merlin pushed open the door to Arthur’s chambers and slid inside, it was to see Arthur sitting on the edge of his bed in his shirt and breeches, just waiting. Merlin locked the door by hand, then pressed his back against it and smiled sheepishly.
“Hi,” he mumbled, his eyes raking up and down over Arthur, who nodded slowly, watching Merlin closely.
“It’s been a month," Arthur said, pulling himself to his feet. “I’ll be crowned tomorrow.”
“I know,” Merlin was a little distracted by the fact Arthur was barefoot and-- and was that a jar beside the bed?
“It’s my last night in these chambers,” Arthur clapped a hand on one of the bedposts, rubbing his thumb along the wood. “And I was thinking...”
“Yeah?” Merlin was feeling a little breathless. He pressed his palms against the door and closed his eyes.
Arthur smirked and let go of the bed post, enjoying how easily he could make Merlin dizzy. The fact they hadn’t taken that step hadn’t escaped his attention. There’d been more kissing than could ever be deemed necessary, and plenty of rolling around on the bed, snorting with laughter and insulting each other, but since the night when Merlin had grasped Arthur’s hip, and Arthur had said he needed time, their clothes had always stayed firmly in place.
The way Merlin’s chest was rising and falling told Arthur that the thought hadn’t evaded him, either. It made Arthur’s stomach bubble with anticipation as he paced across the cold flagstones between them.
“I was thinking,” he said, keeping his voice level. “Since you’ve been working in these rooms for so long too, you might want to stay tonight. Just as a farewell.”
Merlin jumped at the touch of Arthur’s fingers fussing over his jacket. His eyes snapped open to meet Arthur’s gaze, and he nodded. Arthur’s only response was a smile, then he leaned forward to kiss Merlin.
The tension in Merlin’s shoulders melted away. He found his arms curling around Arthur’s shoulders and neck, and he opened his mouth, gasping against Arthur’s lips. Warm hands found their way under Merlin’s jacket and around his waist. Before he quite knew what was happening, Merlin was pushing Arthur back into his room and kissing him with vigour.
Arthur smiled and opened his mouth too, squeezing around Merlin’s waist and almost lifting him off his feet. The rough feel of Merlin’s hands twisting through the hair at Arthur’s nape encouraged him, and he hummed happily as their tongues slid together.
Merlin hummed too, and pushed his chest forwards so every inch of him was pressed tight against Arthur. He revelled in the wet warmth between them as they kissed, so familiar with each other’s mouths after a month of nothing but this.
When Arthur’s hands slid down to curve around Merlin’s arse through his breeches, Merlin gasped and bit his lip. He was ridiculously sensitive in his heady state, and it made Arthur chuckle.
“Shut up,” Merlin shoved lightly at Arthur’s bicep, but then wriggled his hips and pushed onto his tip toes to give Arthur’s hands easier access.
Arthur whistled and spread his fingers, watching the way Merlin’s teeth bit into his lower lip, and enjoying the keening sound forcing its way up from Merlin’s throat. He shifted his leg so it just pressed between Merlin’s, then started to kiss along Merlin’s jaw.
At first, they were closed-mouth pecks, but as Arthur moved back to nose behind Merlin’s ear, Merlin whined and tightened his grip at Arthur’s nape. That made Arthur open his mouth to swirl his tongue against the skin there.
Merlin pushed his hands underneath Arthur’s shirt at the curve of his lower back. He could feel a dusting of soft, fine hairs there, and he spread out his fingers, trailing them over the warm skin and thumbing at the waist of Arthur’s breeches.
“Merlin,” Arthur murmured, his breath catching as he kissed down Merlin’s throat and nuzzled his scarf out of the way.
“I think, uhm--” Arthur had definitely intended to say something, but then Merlin’s scarf had made an obstacle of itself, so he had to let go of Merlin’s arse and tug it off. The fresh expanse of pale, welcoming Merlin distracted him.
“B--bed?” Merlin asked, his jaw going slack at the soft, wet touch of Arthur’s mouth between his shoulder and neck.
Arthur nodded, wrapped his arms around Merlin’s ribs and spun them around. They walked backwards towards the bed, kissing the whole way. Merlin stumbled over the rug, suddenly very aware of just how many layers he was still wearing.
Reluctantly, he pulled his fingers out from where they were tracing a line under the waist of Arthur’s breeches, and plucked at the shirt still covering Arthur’s arms. Eventually, Arthur released him, and Merlin yanked violently at his jacket, keeping his lips pressed to Arthur’s as much as possible.
When his jacket was finally lying abandoned on the floor, Merlin turned his full attention back to Arthur’s mouth. He pushed his fingers through the hair above Arthur’s ears and covered Arthur’s mouth with his own. He ran his tongue along the back of Arthur’s teeth and crashed their lips together, making their chins and noses collide at odd angles.
After a minute or two, Arthur pulled back, leaving Merlin panting into the hot, sweaty air between them. He looked down and saw the way Merlin’s nipples were making peaks through the thin fabric of his shirt. It made Arthur grin and kiss the tip of Merlin’s nose, then he placed his hands flat on Merlin’s chest and rubbed a thumb over each nipple.
Merlin’s mouth went slack for a moment. He groaned quietly, closing his eyes and leaning into Arthur’s touch. Arthur’s heart warmed, and he pressed dry, chaste kisses to Merlin’s mouth until he wet his lips and opened his eyes again.
They stared at each other wordlessly, then Merlin’s hands were on Arthur’s lower stomach, touching, pressing, tickling-- before long, he moved to the ties of Arthur’s breeches. An eager groan at the back of Arthur’s throat and a brief nod was all it took before Merlin’s long fingers were fumbling with the laces, grazing Arthur’s cock in the frenzy and making him gasp.
As he felt his breeches loosen, Arthur reached for the hem of Merlin’s shirt. He tugged it over Merlin’s head and dropped it on top of his jacket, then ran his hands along the newly exposed skin. Arthur traced the lines of hair between Merlin’s nipples and down from his navel, then pressed a kiss to the top of Merlin’s head.
When Merlin finally managed to shove Arthur’s breeches down and brush a knuckle over his cock, Arthur inhaled sharply and dug his fingers into Merlin’s hipbone. Merlin paused for a few uncertain seconds, then caught sight of the lustful look on Arthur’s face, and curled his fingers around the base of Arthur’s cock.
Arthur bucked his hips forward and swooped in to kiss Merlin. It was messy and desperate, punctuated by their groans as Arthur brushed his fingers over Merlin’s nipples and Merlin held onto Arthur’s cock with one hand, stroking it with the other.
One of the hands on Merlin’s chest slid down to palm at his crotch, and he inhaled sharply, his head spinning as Arthur finally pushed him down onto the bed. Merlin lay on his back with his feet still grazing the floor, and watched, dazed, as Arthur pulled off his shirt and cast it aside.
There was a delicious, close heat between their chests when Arthur laid himself out on top of Merlin. Both of them had dark eyes and sweaty fringes, but they smiled sweetly at each other and shared a long, slow, careful kiss.
“Is this...?” Arthur whispered, his hips moving in small circles.
Merlin sucked in his bottom lip and nodded, pushing his hips up to meet Arthur’s. They both moaned again, and Arthur lifted one of his hands to run it through Merlin’s hair and cup his cheek.
“I’m glad that we--” Arthur began, but he was cut off by Merlin leaning up to kiss him. One of Merlin’s hands gripped the back of Arthur’s neck, the other tickled along his stomach.
“Me too,” Merlin smiled, pressing kisses to the palm of Arthur’s hand.
Arthur just watched him for a moment, his head and heart full of a blissful happiness he could only ever reach with Merlin. Then he felt fingers around his cock, and he gasped out Merlin’s name, earning himself a cheeky grin.
Merlin flicked a thumb over the head of Arthur’s cock, taking his time to smear precome down the length. Their faces were so close, they were almost nose to nose, and Merlin watched as Arthur’s expression shifted and changed under Merlin’s touch. He grinned at the sight and pushed up to suck at the sweat on Arthur’s neck.
When Merlin teased at the soft skin behind Arthur’s balls with his free hand, Arthur groaned, and the next thing Merlin knew, Arthur was gripping his wrists and pinning them above his head.
Merlin made a small noise in protest, but Arthur kissed it away before sliding down the bed to attack the laces of Merlin’s breeches. Whining slightly, Merlin thrust up into the brush of Arthur’s fingers, and Arthur mouthed across his stomach. Once the ties were properly undone, Arthur lifted Merlin’s hips and gently pulled his breeches down over his thighs.
As soon as Merlin’s cock was free, Arthur took it into his mouth. He licked a strip up from Merlin’s balls, then hollowed his cheeks around the head, making Merlin cry out in surprise. Arthur saw Merlin’s hands scrabbling back and forth across the bedsheets, and he reached up to grasp one of them. He squeezed Merlin’s fingers and Merlin squeezed back. Then Arthur carried on swirling his tongue around Merlin’s cock.
A familiar, needy heat was building in Merlin’s stomach. He writhed on the bed, tugging at Arthur’s fingers with one hand, and searching for something to cling to with the other. The feel of Arthur’s mouth on his cock was the only thing Merlin’s sex-addled brain could process. It made his head spin and his heart lurch.
“Ar--Arthur,” Merlin panted, sensing his orgasm approaching. He pushed a hand through Arthur’s hair, making small, desperate sounds.
At those tell-tale signs, Arthur pulled off. Merlin felt the cold air on his spit-slicked cock, and keened, pushing his hips up in search of friction. Arthur was already kneeling on the floor, unbuckling Merlin’s boots. He threw them across the room, followed by Merlin’s breeches, then reached for the jar beside his pillow.
“Come here,” Arthur rasped, his throat burning from thirst and kissing and precome. He sat down among the pillows and leaned against the headboard.
Merlin stared at him with bleary eyes and bruised, parted lips, but obeyed without question. He positioned himself over Arthur’s thighs, watching intently as Arthur coated his fingers with oil and set the jar aside.
“What--” Merlin began weakly, but Arthur pulled him in for a kiss. Their tongues slid along each other again as Arthur’s clean hand grabbed onto Merlin’s thigh, pulling him open where he was straddling Arthur’s lap.
The first touch of Arthur’s oiled fingers over his hole made Merlin gasp and lurch forwards, but after a moment he collected himself (as much as possible) and tentatively pushed back again. It felt odd for a short time, but then Arthur kissed him and all the tension eased out of Merlin’s body again.
Soon enough, the way Arthur trailed his fingers around Merlin’s entrance, pushing in and pulling out from time to time, had Merlin bucking and cursing. He made deep, guttural noises every time his prick grazed Arthur’s, and he peppered kisses all over Arthur’s face.
The third time their cocks rubbed together, Merlin just about had the sense of mind to lick his palm and fit it around both of them. Arthur groaned and sucked at Merlin’s bottom lip, slipping a second finger into him.
Merlin whined and leaned against Arthur’s chest with his free hand. They were both sweating and panting, hypersensitive from the heat and brainless from some uncontrollable need to crawl into each other’s skin. Merlin rubbed his thumb over Arthur’s nipple and wondered somewhere deep in his mind why they’d waited a month for this.
The speed of Merlin’s hand on their cocks increased with each groan, until Arthur crooked his fingers inside Merlin and he suddenly came undone; his mouth fell open as come coated his hand. The erratic jerks of Merlin’s hand as he climaxed pushed Arthur over the edge too, and he came with a cry.
Afterwards, they both breathed heavily and kissed, soft and lazy, until Merlin collapsed against Arthur’s chest. Tiredness ached through his bones and his thighs burned from straddling for so long. They sat still for a minute or two, then Arthur kissed Merlin’s hair and rolled him off his lap, into the pillows.
Merlin managed to work his way under the blankets. He ignored the breathless way Arthur laughed as his limbs scrabbled around, and kept his face buried in cool dark fabric. Then, there was silence again. Arthur trailed soft fingers along Merlin’s spine, and Merlin hummed contentedly until Arthur pulled his hand away and clambered under the covers beside him.
He stayed sitting up, staring around the room. “I think I might be quite lucky,” he said after a while.
“Oh, you are,” Merlin laughed into the pillow. He felt Arthur’s hands in his hair and twisted around until he was lying on his side. He frowned up at the serious expression on Arthur’s face. “Alright, why d’you think you’re lucky?”
Arthur watched Merlin for a long time. He carded his fingers through Merlin’s mess of hair, then ran them along Merlin’s shoulder and down his waist, making his breath hitch. There was a brief moment when Arthur considered not saying anything at all, but then he realised he wanted to say something, even if he wasn’t sure how.
“I used to have this terrible servant,” Arthur said quietly, his eyes locked with Merlin’s and his tone laced with what he hoped Merlin would hear as hidden, half meanings. “But he’s something else to me now.”
“Yeah,” Arthur nodded. “I didn’t quite know what to make of him.”
Merlin pushed himself up to sit beside Arthur. The blankets pooled over their laps, and Merlin reached out to rub Arthur’s stomach. He didn’t look up, but he was still playing along. “Sounds awful.”
Arthur smirked. “The worst,” he said, placing a hand over Merlin’s. “He was tall-- unfairly tall, and he was clumsy and rude and lazy...” The way Merlin blushed made Arthur’s heart flip over. “But now... He tastes like cherries, and he makes me happy.”
The shock of Merlin’s blue eyes suddenly darting up to meet Arthur’s made him freeze for a moment. He studied the pale curves of Merlin’s face, wanting to run his fingers over the redness around his mouth, but managed to shake himself out of it when he realised Merlin was grinning at him.
“Sometimes,” Arthur corrected himself, far too late. “Occasionally. Once in a while.”
Merlin made a non-committal sound and stuck out his bottom lip, turning to gaze across the room as if weighing up what he’d just heard. “I always thought he was just a warlock.”
“That too,” Arthur nodded slowly, entwining his fingers with Merlin’s where they were still resting on his stomach. “But it doesn’t matter so much to me.”
Hearing Arthur say that, after such a long time of being unsure, made Merlin feel as though his insides were bathed in happiness. They’d been up and down over the past few weeks; Arthur had never reverted back to his old beliefs, but he had moments of doubt. Merlin understood-- he’d had his own doubts too.
“Do you know what I think?” Merlin asked, leaning in so that his nose brushed against Arthur’s. “I think this person might like you quite a lot.”
“Hm,” Arthur pressed a quick kiss to Merlin’s lips. “The feeling’s mutual.”
Merlin’s grin widened. He squeezed Arthur’s fingers with one hand, and grasped his jaw with the other, pulling him in for another kiss. Arthur made a small, appreciative sound, and Merlin all but forced him back against the headboard, licking inside his mouth with abandon.
When they finally pulled apart, Arthur looked a little dazed. Merlin brushed a hand through his hair and his smile turned bashful. “I should probably go,” he muttered, biting his lip.
“Don’t,” Arthur said at once, grabbing Merlin’s free hand, as if prepared to hold him there for the whole night.
“I won’t,” Merlin winked, and Arthur chuckled again.
“If you keep this up, Merlin, I’ll be asking Geoffrey about the rules on royal escorts.”
Merlin quirked his eyebrow and poked Arthur’s stomach. “Is that a threat?”
“No, that’s definitely a promise.”