The ice was cracking, great sheets of it roaring like wild beasts across the night. Gwaine leaped nimbly from one to the other, heading out to the figure that he’d seen fall. He’d recognise those ears from seventy paces in the dark on a frozen lake.
He had recognised those ears from seventy paces in the dark on a frozen lake.
“No! Go back!” yelled Merlin. “I can take care of this!”
“Too late to go back now!” Gwaine called, cheerfully, as the segment of lake he was standing on started to scritch and creak. “Come on, let’s get to shore!”
“You’re mad!” said Merlin, as Gwaine jumped toward him. “The ice is going to—”
With a horrible creak, the ice under Gwaine’s foot went entirely, and in the same split second as he resigned himself to hypothermia and possibly a mercifully swift death, there was a flash of golden light and he was floating above the lake.
“Interesting,” said Gwaine, turning his ankle in a little circle. The magic seemed to let him move, but not let him fall.
Merlin was looking at him with unrestrained delight, almost as if he couldn’t believe that Gwaine was there. He waved a hand, and the two of them floated gently over the choppy lakewater, the ice lumps making little crumping noises against each other. Merlin dropped them in the snow on the bank, and then stood, wild-eyed and panting as he watched Gwaine.
“What, no hello?” asked Gwaine, holding out his arms, and Merlin threw himself into a hug, clinging to Gwaine like he was a brave knight protector. Gwaine laughed. “That’s better; I did go and try to save you.”
“By making the ice crack even more,” said Merlin, and his slim body was shaking, so Gwaine squeezed him, just to hear him gasp and laugh when he pulled free. Merlin’s clothes were damp — they’d have to get indoors soon. “What are you doing out here? No-one’s supposed to even know where I am!”
“I could ask the same of you,” said Gwaine. “You’re a long way from the Grove, Merlin.”
“I needed to get something from the island in the lake,” said Merlin, patting a belt pouch. “Under a full moon, in the depths of winter.”
“A something for your quest?” asked Gwaine, and Merlin sighed.
"This would be the quest no-one is supposed to know about," he said.
"That's the one," Gwaine replied, and Merlin grinned at him.
“Sort of,” he said, and his happy grin was belied by the nervous movement of his hands. When he'd sent Gwaine off, Arthur had impressed upon Gwaine that no-one could know why Merlin was out there, and Gwaine had nodded dutifully and assumed that Merlin would tell him as soon as Gwaine caught up. It looked like he'd assumed incorrectly. Interesting. “I mean, yes. I mean, I can’t tell anyone. And you can’t tell anyone, either.”
Merlin’s expression was downcast. “Arthur — knows.”
Gwaine took his arm. “One day, you’ll trust me enough to share your secrets.”
Merlin didn’t speak; he looked like he were about to shatter in the cold night air, break like a brittle icicle falling the the ground. He opened his mouth, and then he shut it again. Gwaine nodded.
“Later,” he said. “For now, I have a room in town, with a big bed, and no-one to share it with. You look like you need someone to warm you.”
“Isn’t it usually something to warm you?” asked Merlin, hopping through the snow after Gwaine. “I can’t believe you’re here!”
“Depends on who you’re with,” said Gwaine, thinking fondly of one spectacular drunken night in Camelot, where they’d quite possibly ruined Merlin’s bed forever. “Come on, chop-chop.”
“I’m glad you’ve got a room in town,” said Merlin, walking close by him. “I was going to try to find a stable somewhere.”
“Oh, I don’t have the room yet,” said Gwaine, as Merlin trotted to keep up. “Don’t worry. I’ll get us a good one.”
“What were you doing at the lake?” asked Merlin. “It’s not exactly a good place to hang around, and besides, you’re meant to be in Camelot; Arthur will—”
“I was looking for someone,” Gwaine said. “I was wondering if you’d seen him; about my height, thinner, blue eyes to die for and lips made for—”
Merlin laughed. “You were looking for me?”
“Maybe,” Gwaine replied, bumping shoulders. “Maybe I just have a thing for blue eyes?”
The moment was broken by an unearthly squeal behind them, and he looked at Merlin. Merlin was grinning, a beautiful, wide grin, the moonlight making his eyes shine.
“Run?” asked Merlin.
Gwaine nodded. “Run.”
They ran down the road, and Gwaine laughed at the joy of the cold air in his lungs, and the thrill of it all, as the Thing got closer and closer.
“Got a sword?” Gwaine asked, and Merlin shook his head, his eyes going gold. He was using his magic out here more that Gwaine had ever seen him do in Camelot, although admittedly Merlin had been keeping his magic secret for most of the brief time they'd spent there together.
“Got something better than a sword,” he replied, and Gwaine drew his weapon as the thunder of great feet drew closer.
“Better use it, then!” yelled Gwaine, turning into the fray. It was a wilddeoren, grown huge and fat on the sheep of the downs, and it made a horrible unearthly squalling noise when Gwaine turned on it.
Merlin said something incomprehensible and golden, and a bolt of light hit the wilddeoren. It rolled, squeaking out its displeasure.
“That’s it!” said Gwaine, his blood pumping fast. This was his favourite part of the chase — when he could see the prey moving, trying to determine whether to strike back.
“I could explode it if you like!” said Merlin.
“No exploding. Have you tried getting the smell of dead wilddeoren out of your hair?” asked Gwaine.
“No,” said Merlin, “and I bet you haven’t either.”
Gwaine brought his sword down, and the wilddeoren stopped squealing. “I haven’t,” he said. “But today is not a good day to start.”
He nudged the head free with his sword, the cold stopping the blood from leaking too far. Merlin was watching him carefully, grinning in the moonlight.
“We make a good team,” he said. “You going to bring the head into town?”
“Can’t collect a bounty without it,” said Gwaine, kicking the body off the road. There’d been signs up in some of the towns; it was worth a try. He picked up the dead wilddeoren by its snout. “Come on. You’re getting useful with your magic, then?”
“I’ve been using it a bit more, now that I’m out of Camelot,” said Merlin, their breath fogging in the icy air. “It’s — like having a good stretch after a night in a cramped bed.”
“I’m surprised Arthur let you go,” said Gwaine.
Merlin shrugged. “Mmm,” he said, as they approached the town, the lit streets, the roads that had been cleared for traffic. “Come on, let’s find the inn. I’m tired.”
The inn was the only place with light streaming out its open door, and a swinging sign declared it to be the Pig and Whistle. Gwaine stood aside to let Merlin in, and then followed. The place had the sour-sharp tang of spilled mead, and it mixed with the salt breeze that followed them in the door. He hadn’t realised that they were so close to the sea.
Gwaine put the head of the Thing on the counter. “I heard there was a bounty going for killing the Beast that has plagued your town,” he said, and people stopped drinking, stopped talking. They just looked.
“That’s horrible,” said the barmaid. “Where’d you find it, then?”
“Up on the road near the lake,” said Merlin. “It’s a wilddeoren. They don’t usually journey so far from the mountains.”
“That’s the thing that attacked old Davey, to be sure,” said a patron. “Look at those teeth! Take a bite right out of your leg, they will!”
“We are travellers,” said Gwaine, turning and letting his hair shine in the light. He gave good hair; it was quite deliberate, just as deliberate as Arthur and his posing. When you saw woodcuts of heroes, they all had good hair. “Swordsman and sorcerer, at your service. We need a room for the night and two flagons of your best ale.” He handed over a few gold coins — if he was right, then the bounty would more than cover them. And it was always possible that Merlin could turn leaves into gold, providing they left early enough the next day before the ruse was discovered.
“Which one’s the sorcerer and which one’s the swordsman?” asked a man.
“Guess,” said Gwaine, as the barmaid bit one of his gold pieces.
“I’ll give you a room, sirs,” she said. “Just upstairs.”
She fished a key out from down her top. Gwaine took it — it was still slightly warm from her body heat — and hung it around his own neck, taking a mouthful of decidedly watery ale. The wilddeoren’s head was oozing soggily onto the bar, and Merlin was drinking his ale like he’d not drunk anything in days.
“First door on the left?” Gwaine asked.
“On the right. There’s a bucket, and a good big bed without no fleas,” said the barmaid.
“I’d just magic any fleas away,” said Merlin, magicking the wilddeoren blood off the counter. “Gwaine, do something about that. It’s disgusting.”
“I’ll put it on a pike in our room,” Gwaine promised. Merlin made a face, and brandished a tiny bag. When he opened it, it looked like a hole into night.
“Put it in there, and we’ll deal with it tomorrow,” he said, and there was an ooooh from the patrons when Gwaine put it in and the bag didn’t discernably change. Well, it did start to leak wilddeoren ooze, but other than that, it stayed small and night-hole-like. Gwaine was impressed.
“So,” said a girl, getting rather close. “Is there a Mrs Swordsman, or is the — position — up for grabs?”
“Oh,” said Gwaine, making an expansive hand gesture. There was sort of a Mr Swordsman, but he was usually quite amenable to a pretty girl joining them for the night. “You’re gorgeous.”
“Um, Gwaine?” asked Merlin.
“Mmm?” Gwaine asked, as the girls gathered around. The fashion in this town was low-cut and jiggling. Gwaine couldn’t say that he disapproved.
“I’m sorry,” said Merlin, and he collapsed into a heap.
Merlin’s skin was frozen to the touch, and a quick shake didn’t wake him.
“Did he get bit by that thing?”
Gwaine was checking his limbs. “I hope not,” he said. Merlin’s clothes were soaked through — stupid, stupid, why hadn’t he thought of this? — and he was breathing shallowly, a slow wheeze of air. No bites. Just exhaustion.
“I think that’s my cue to go upstairs,” he said, putting one arm around Merlin and lifting him over his shoulder. “Can’t hold his ale. Sorcerers, you know.”
Merlin was a dead weight, but he still made it up to the room with the flealess bed and the unlit fire. Swearing, Gwaine got out the flint from his pocket to start a spark, but Merlin rolled over, said something in that strange magic language, and there was suddenly a cheerful blaze in the grate.
“Let’s get you out of those wet things,” said Gwaine, unlacing Merlin’s boots. Merlin made a slurred noise of protest, but Gwaine kept going until there were no more wet clothes. Which meant that there were no more clothes. He rummaged in his own pack for a nightshirt (for special occasions only) and dressed Merlin, who had gone as floppy and cold as a dead fish.
Gwaine lay out Merlin’s soggy clothes and boots to dry. “Oh, Merlin, Merlin,” he said. “What are you doing? You’ll catch your death of cold if you’re not careful.”
“Sorry,” Merlin mumbled. “You could’ve had one of those girls.”
“You used to be of stronger constitution that a pint of ale wouldn’t finish you off,” said Gwaine, pulling off his own damp clothes.
“Haven’t been stopping much,” said Merlin.
“When did you last eat?” asked Gwaine, blowing out the lantern and navigating to the bed by firelight.
“Tuesday,” said Merlin, as Gwaine climbed under the covers.
“That was three days ago,” said Gwaine, and Merlin smiled.
“Been busy,” he said, snuggling close.
“Too busy to write?” Gwaine asked.
“I tried,” said Merlin. “It returned to me. I was too far from home.”
Merlin curled up in Gwaine’s arms, completely unselfconscious. Gwaine could feel his ribs, and the bird-flutter of his heart through his skin. He was tired; he’d been walking for days, following a weak trail, but Merlin was exhausted. He pressed his lips to Merlin’s forehead, almost instinctively.
“Thank you,” said Merlin, and Gwaine laughed.
“I’ve got you back in my bed. I think I should be thanking you,” he said. Merlin snuffled a little laugh.
“Tomorrow,” he replied, running the flat of his palm over Gwaine’s chest, pressing a kiss to Gwaine’s bare shoulder. All right then; this was a plan that he could be on board with.
“I’ll hold you to that,” he said, once he had the power of speech back. “Tomorrow.”
Merlin woke first the next morning. Gwaine knew this because he slowly drifted into consciousness with Merlin’s fingers tracing the outline of each muscle on his chest, slipping down to his stomach, dipping into his bellybutton and then back up to his nipples. Gwaine didn’t say anything, just rolled over onto Merlin, pressing him into the mattress, finding Merlin’s mouth with his own and kissing him. Morning breath be damned; Merlin was warm and yielding under his lips, legs sliding apart along his to let both of them settle more comfortably, cocks trapped between them, the pleasure-pain of pressure almost enough to get Gwaine off. He was only human, after all, and Merlin was teasing him with long, strong fingers; kneading his backside, scratching lightly along his spine, pressing and touching as if he meant to map Gwaine for future study.
Gwaine shoved a hand between them, and Merlin tried to artfully wriggle from his nightshirt only to nearly maim them both, and Gwaine laughed into Merlin’s mouth as Merlin cracked a smile, muttering a short, neat word that left them both naked. Gwaine pulled them together in one hand, fingers just touching with the broadness of two cocks in his palm, and Merlin kissed up his neck, nuzzling his beard, licking his earlobe and then biting when Gwaine rewarded him with a squeeze and a sharp exhalation of breath. Merlin’s thighs shifted, letting Gwaine closer, and he kissed Gwaine full on the mouth again, sweet-hot and wet, the slide of Merlin’s cock against his as Merlin rocked his hips into Gwaine’s fist, scratching an itch that Gwaine had needed to be scratched for a long time.
Merlin opened his eyes, and they were bright, bright gold. Fuck. If that wasn’t the hottest thing. Gwaine felt something on his body, prickling and twitching, like the little shocks you could get from warm furs on a dry day. The feeling tightened around his hand, enveloped them both, and Merlin gently pulled Gwaine’s hand free, letting Gwaine lean on his arms, the pulsing magic pulling Gwaine’s orgasm from him as he kissed Merlin, unable to stop his hips jerking, collapsing as Merlin closed his eyes and came, the magic fizzing and ticking wildly over Gwaine’s skin, shuddering along with Merlin in the aftermath of an excellent fuck.
“Good morning,” Merlin said eventually, Gwaine’s full weight pressing him into the mattress. Gwaine grinned.
“Good morning,” he replied. “Sleep well?”
“Like a log,” Merlin said, brushing back a lock of Gwaine’s hair that had dropped between them and was sweeping along Merlin’s cheek. “You?”
“Can’t complain,” Gwaine replied, rolling off Merlin so that he could stretch, watching Merlin run lazy fingers through the mess on his own stomach before tasting each digit thoughtfully. “You know, if you’d woken me up like that the first time I’d met you, I’d have made you King, not Arthur.”
“Mmm,” Merlin replied, non-commitally.
Gwaine propped himself up on one elbow. “What? That was meant to be a compliment. I could do with a lot more of that.”
“I can’t stay with you,” said Merlin. “I have to finish my quest.”
Merlin was long and lithe next to him, his skin soft and smooth. Gwaine reached out and scratched his fingers over Merlin’s stomach, over the drying skin. Merlin wriggled, laughing, and Gwaine rested his hand on Merlin’s hip. He liked it when Merlin laughed; when Merlin was silent, his face had the worn lines of one who has seen too much trouble for one so young. Laughing, Merlin was glorious.
“Arthur sent me to check on you. He said I was to send word back when I found you, but he didn’t say I had to return myself,” Gwaine said, the promise of that laugh and that skin and that magic too much to give up. He’d missed Merlin; Merlin was one of the only people in the world who looked at him like he was better than he ever thought he could be.
“It’s going to be difficult,” said Merlin.
“You’re skin and bone — you need someone to look after you.”
“And lonely,” Merlin added.
“You’ll have me to keep you company.”
“And I don’t know if I’ll still be alive at the end of it,” said Merlin, and Gwaine picked up his hand, kissed his way along Merlin’s knuckles. “It’s been a lot more dangerous than I thought it would be.”
“I’ll make sure that you are,” he said, and Merlin sighed, shuffling closer and resting his head on Gwaine’s chest.
“You’re too nice to me,” he said. “Always have been.”
Gwaine laughed. “I’m not nice,” he said, feeling just a bit stupid and smitten; always had been, really, where Merlin was concerned. “I’m dashing. It’s an important difference.”
Merlin hummed agreement, snuggling. “If you’re serious, we’ll leave today. I need to get to the Grove of Sweet Dew before the Imbolc fires are lit.”
“What are you questing for?” asked Gwaine, because it was worth a try.
“Ingredients,” said Merlin, and he sighed. “No more of that. I—I’m not going to draw you into this. It’s not your journey to make, and Arthur is going to kill you when he discovers you’ve snuck away from Camelot. I appreciate the offer, really I do, but I have to do this on my own.”
“Tough luck. I can choose to make the journey, so you’re stuck with me,” said Gwaine. “And would it kill them to serve breakfast in the rooms? It’s freezing.” Something Merlin had said was sitting strangely with him, something— “Merlin?”
“Mmm?” Merlin asked.
“Weren’t you listening? Arthur sent me to find you. I didn’t sneak away; I was sent to find you when your letters stopped arriving.”
Merlin sat bolt upright. “But he burns them,” he said, and Gwaine didn’t want to know how Merlin knew that; the thought was too horrible to bear. “He burns my letters, but he sent you to…”
“Find you, and then I was to come home and let you keep questing,” said Gwaine. “Executive decision — I’m not going home.”
“I can’t tell you what we’re questing for,” said Merlin, and he was trembling. “I can’t.”
“I don’t care,” said Gwaine, sitting up, trying to pull him back into a hug. “You’re not trying to raise an undead army, or turn the land into a living hell, are you?”
“No,” said Merlin, ducking his eyes, but then looking up to meet Gwaine’s gaze. “I promise you it’s for a good cause.”
“Then I’m coming with you. Tell Arthur in your next letter that you’re hopeless at questing and you need a companion.”
Merlin went to say something, and then he stopped, breaking into a fond smile.
“All right. We need to get rid of the wilddeoren, and get passage on a ship,” said Merlin, gesturing to the bag that was oozing oozily onto the floor. He got up, casting around for his damp clothes.
“You are not putting those soggy things back on,” said Gwaine.
Merlin frowned. “I can just make them dry,” he said.
“Yes, and you’ll be wet again as soon as we walk out the door,” Gwaine said. “You’re not really very good at this whole quest thing, are you? You’ve lived in villages and castles all your life.”
“And I suppose you’d have me wander around naked, then?” asked Merlin, turning to face him, wicked smile on his face.
“I’d keep you up here for weeks,” said Gwaine, patting the bed beside him. Merlin cast a quick spell on his clothes, pulling on shirt and trousers, covering all that lovely flesh with ugly, stained traveling clothes, fastening a leather bag at his waist, checking the contents. Ah. Ingredients. “Merlin.”
“I have nothing else to wear,” said Merlin. “I lost everything that I left with.”
“You at least need a cloak,” said Gwaine. “Or a jacket, or something. Leather is good — it blocks the wind. Fur so that if you we go any further north, your breath won’t freeze to your lips.”
“I can’t afford that,” said Merlin. Gwaine shook his head.
“Make it with magic, then?”
“Too hard,” said Merlin. “I need all my magic right now.”
“Tell me why,” said Gwaine, and Merlin drew in a breath, about to speak — and then the door wobbled open.
“Good morning, lads,” said the barmaid from the night before, using her backside to keep the door open as she made her way in with a tray. Shit.“Breakfast, for you both. And the burgomaster wishes to speak with you, once you’re done up here.”
Gwaine silently cursed her, but he had wished for breakfast. He’d have to get it out of Merlin later. Merlin thanked her, taking the tray of breakfast. He wolfed down his share in half the time Gwaine ate his, and Gwaine got up, rummaging through his pack.
“Here,” he said, passing Merlin some of the crumbling cakes he’d bought in Greenleaf, the field rations unpalateable but enough to soothe the stomach of a hungry man.
“I couldn’t,” said Merlin.
“I’ll buy more in town,” said Gwaine. “Go on.”
Merlin capitulated quickly, and Gwaine stood, hands on his hips as he surveyed the town. Snow, snow everywhere except for the sea, and he suspected it was only by a miracle that the sea hadn’t frozen over. There was a ship loading cargo, and he nodded to himself — they could get passage, then.
“Thank you,” said Merlin, his mouth full. He swallowed, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. “We should go and meet with the burgomaster. Give him the head, see if we can trade it for passage out.”
“Passage out and some warmer clothes,” said Gwaine, packing his bag and then looking around for Merlin’s, finding only the night-hole bag. “You’re not going to survive a sea journey dressed like that. And where’s your bedroll?”
“I was intending to get here earlier,” Merlin said, picking up the wilddeoren head. “I was delayed.”
“Merlin, where’s your bedroll? Or your pack?”
“It got eaten,” said Merlin, sheepishly. “But on the plus side, I did manage to fool a chimera into thinking I was in it while it was eating my things.”
Gwaine shook his head. “All right, that settles it. I’m definitely joining you.”
Merlin was silent, and Gwaine turned, completely unwilling to apologise, even if he had offended Merlin’s sense of duty or pride or whatever. Not for the first time, he wondered what Arthur was playing at, sending Merlin on a lone quest. Lone quests were such a ridiculously noble thing to do. He’d never see a lone quest to fruition on his own — you always picked up an adventuring party on the road. Merlin was looking at him with a hopeful smile, and Gwaine grinned back, offering Merlin his hand.
“Come on then,” he said, and Merlin took his hand, jumping to his feet and the two of them half-ran, half-tumbled downstairs and out into the chill morning air.
A dead wilddeoren, they discovered, would get you gratitude and lots of handshakes, but not very much gold. The town was poor, by day, shabby and shivering against the chill northern winds that whipped up flurries of snow against the creaking buildings. What got you passage on a ship was having a sorcerer who could work the weather, and after a quick demonstration of a tiny whirlwind, (totally impressive, Gwaine thought, and definitely something to try out later and see what it felt like against bare skin), Merlin got them a shared berth.
Gwaine got them provisions — there were no warm coats to be had, but he found thrummed mittens, softly lined with fleece to keep Merlin’s hands from freezing off. Better than nothing, he supposed, as he packed his bag with salt pork and unleavened bread, things that would last. It was better than nothing, because Merlin was utterly delighted by the mittens, giving Gwaine one of those warm, soft smiles as he cleaned out the night-hole bag, wiping his hands before stuffing them into the mittens.
“So, do you get seasick?” Gwaine asked. Merlin shrugged.
“I’ve only ever been on a boat twice,” he said. “And never one this big.”
“It’s like being on the back of a really large horse,” said Gwaine, watching as Merlin tucked the little pouch in next to his ingredients bag. “It’ll take you a few days to get over the movement, but once you do, it’s spectacular.”
Gwaine watched the ship’s other weatherworker as they left port, pushing towards the horizon with a fair wind that brushed salt water and sleet into their faces. Gwaine helped the men on the ropes, enjoying the burn in his muscles and the sense of usefulness as Merlin sat and watched the skyline.
“What is it?” Gwaine called, leaning on a rope to look out over the open ocean, the waves rimed with white, the sky darkening off to the east, a storm held magically at bay.
“That storm,” said Merlin, pointing. “That’s because we’re working the weather. If we’re not careful, we’ll raise a magical storm that no-one can escape.”
“Don’t be ridiculous, lad,” said the weatherworker, a tall, grim man. “How powerful are you? We’ll just shunt it out to the open ocean.”
“Powerful enough,” said Merlin. “Powerful enough to know that knocking a storm off course can have consequences.”
“Idiot,” said the weatherworker, stalking off as Gwaine moved to stand by Merlin.
“Can you really knock a storm from the sky?” he asked, leaning on the railing and watching the surf foam under them.
“I’ve never tried,” said Merlin, leaning beside him. “But I expect so.”
Merlin didn’t get seasick, but Gwaine did when he had a hangover, and so it was probably purely by accident that they met the stowaway the next morning. Gwaine was curled up in their bunk in utter misery (after spending most of the night in with the crew, dicing and drinking), eyes only just open and enjoying the sensation of Merlin’s hand in his hair, tangling and re-tangling with the motion of the ship, both of them quiet and still when a girl crept out of a hatch and started going through Gwaine’s bag. Gwaine decided that he was hallucinating her, until Merlin spoke.
“Looking for something in particular?” asked Merlin, and she squeaked, scuttling away from them. Gwaine raised his head. He could see three girls, all three of them with limp, sickly blonde hair, all three of them looking frightened. He blinked, and the image resolved into one.
“Just looking,” she said, her hoarse voice only just audible above the creaking of the timbers and the slop of the waves. She looked up. “There’s a storm coming. Is your friend sick?”
“He is,” said Merlin, still stroking, his gentle hand a lifeline.
“Can I help?” she asked, stepping closer to them. “I’ll trade it for food.”
“There’s no need to trade,” said Merlin. “We’ll give you food, if you need food.”
“No,” she said, shaking her head. “It violates honour to accept a gift without giving something in return.”
Now that she was close to him, Gwaine could see her skin. It was strangely dry, in flaky scales, and he was repulsed and fascinated. What made someone’s skin peel like that? Sunburn? It was still winter, the sun only out for bare hours before it sank beneath the horizon again. When they reached Safe Harbour, the sun wouldn’t rise at all.
“Then why are you hiding on a ship?” asked Merlin, with a little laugh in his voice. “Surely that’s…”
“…There are things I do,” she said, primly, and then she laid a hand on Gwaine’s forehead. Her eyes were the same blue-green as the sea over ice, and he blinked, feeling something not unlike cool water washing the throbbing from his skull, cleaning away the disgusting, sickly feeling.
“Oh, you lovely creature,” he said, and she skittered back away from him. She looked young — maybe only thirteen or fourteen. No wonder she was frightened. “Wait, that was meant to be…”
“It’s all right,” said Merlin, reaching for their bags. “He won’t hurt you.”
“Will you tell them?” she asked, as Gwaine heard the rustle of Merlin searching through his bag.
“Tell who?” asked Merlin, still rustling about. Gwaine stretched. He felt like running and jumping and yelling. He felt like bottling whatever that girl had just done to him and carrying it around for emergencies. Yes. Emergencies.
“Them up there,” she replied.
“Shouldn’t we?” Merlin asked. “Why are you here?”
The stumping stamp of one of the men outside the door broke the moment, and the girl made a concerned hissing sound, backtracking to the hatch she’d appeared out of. A hefty knock at the door made Gwaine's headache threaten to return; Gwaine looked over there, and then when he looked back, the girl was gone.
“Sorcerer! You’re needed!”
Merlin got up, pulling on his boots, leaning in for a brief brush of fingers before they both left for the open deck, for the men who were buffeting themselves against the howling wind that threatened to tear through the sails. The Captain met them by the great wheel, the ice already collecting in Merlin’s dark hair like soft, freezing stars. Gwaine stuffed his hands into his pockets, his fingers protesting against the cold.
“We need passage through the icebergs,” the Captain said, gruffly. “Thomas has gone to sleep, so it’s your turn to keep watch.”
“What do you expect from me?” Merlin asked. “If we can, we should do as little as possible. The Old Religion will always exact a price for changing things.”
“Just shut up and melt the icebergs, sorcerer,” snapped the Captain. Gwaine stepped forward, but Merlin shook his head.
“Come on,” he said, leading the way down the stairs to the main deck, leaning over the rail as they went. “Come and keep me warm.”
Keeping Merlin warm mostly consisted of spotting the more dangerous looking icebergs and then watching Merlin turn them into water as the ship kept through the narrow channel in the thickening ice.
“What are we looking for at the Grove?” Gwaine asked. If he’d been told a year ago that he’d be traveling to the Grove of Sweet Dew with a magician called Merlin, he’d have laughed and demanded another drink. It was too fairytale; no-one even knew if the fabled home of the elves existed. Besides, he’d had bigger things on his mind a year ago. Merlin sniffed, sneezing.
“I need to get a boon from the elves,” he said. “And the only way that can happen is if I attend the ceremonies at Imbolc.”
“There’s one!” said Gwaine, pointing at a large iceberg, bobbing menacingly in their path. “Do you know what the boon is?”
“It’s not something tangible,” said Merlin, casting a quick spell to melt the ice. “I need to learn the right magic to make the cure.”
Cure, thought Gwaine, but he didn’t press. “You use your magic a lot,” he said.
Merlin smiled. “Stretching my wings,” he said, waving his arms wide to emphasise the point. “And besides, it keeps people away.”
“You want people to stay away from you?” Gwaine asked, shifting.
“It’s better if they do,” said Merlin, his light tone at odds with the expression on his face — hurt, drawn. “All except for swordsmen who don’t know when to be afraid of the warlock.”
“And Princes?” asked Gwaine. Merlin sighed.
“It’s a relief, you know,” he said, blinking at the sea. “That you don’t care.”
“I don’t care?” asked Gwaine. All right — Arthur was still off-limits. “I care.”
“Oh,” said Merlin, and he turned away.
“Merlin,” Gwaine said, with a laugh. “Stop that. I care because if I’m fighting alongside you, then it’s part of our arsenal. And if you can melt an iceberg — who knows how that could be used? You could make a man’s blood boil in his veins.”
“I wouldn’t, though,” said Merlin, zapping another iceberg. “I’m tired.”
“You would when you’re not?”
Merlin scowled. “No,” he said. “I’m not a monster.”
“Good,” said Gwaine, pointing out to sea. “There’s one.”
“How’s Camelot?” asked Merlin, nonchalant as he knocked this iceberg away.
“Do you mean ‘how’s Camelot’, or ‘how’s Arthur’?” Gwaine asked. Merlin shrugged.
“Both,” he said.
“Camelot is going from strength to strength,” he said. “The knights — every man in the kingdom wants to be a knight. And Arthur, gods, they love him.”
Merlin grinned. “Really?”
“Really,” said Gwaine. “And you’re turning into a legend on your own; you and your magic.”
“And how is Arthur?” asked Merlin. “Has he lost much weight?”
Gwaine frowned. “Yeah,” he said. “He has. How did you—?”
“How’s he sleeping?” Merlin said, ignoring the question.
“I don’t know,” said Gwaine, “but he looked tired when I saw him last.”
Merlin tapped his fingers against the wooden decking. “That’s…not unexpected,” he said. “But it’s not good.”
“Are you going to tell me?” Gwaine asked. Merlin sighed.
“I could have worked that out on my own,” said Gwaine. Cure, he thought. It didn’t take a genius to put two and two together and come up with four. Merlin seemed to see it in his face, because he scowled viciously.
“Fine,” he said. “Just go back under decks, then.”
Damn, thought Gwaine, damn damn damn. Merlin zapped a few icebergs with a swift ferocity that he hadn’t had before, and Gwaine stubbornly sat beside him. Eventually, Merlin reached out a hand and wrapped his gloved fingers around Gwaine’s, squeezing tightly. Gwaine squeezed back, and Merlin rested his head on Gwaine’s shoulder by way of apology, and Gwaine decided to try to push a little more gently next time, when it became obvious that certain subjects were off-limits.
Merlin slept like the dead after a day of iceberg-breaking, rocking gently in their hammock, snoring like a wild beast. He’d refused to remove his belt, and his fingers curled nervously around the pouch in his sleep. Gwaine left him like that, left out some food for the stowaway girl, and then went wandering through the ship to see what he could find. He’d lost money that first night, he knew it, and he wanted a chance to win at least some of it back.
The boat rolled on a wave, and he staggered to keep his feet, hearing the crack of thunder somewhere off in the distance. A storm. No rain yet, just the steady back and forth of the waves, and he made it to the men’s quarters without falling on his arse, but only just.
“You come to lose more, pretty?” asked a man who had a hook for a hand. When Gwaine thought about it, he could remember through a drunken haze the man sweeping gold toward his chest with it.
“Hardly,” said Gwaine. “I’ve come to win some back.”
“You didn’t tell me you came on with the magician,” said the man. “I don’t think I should trust you.”
“Please, would I have lost so much if I had magic?” Gwaine asked, palms open, because yes, it was actually true this time that he hadn’t used any magic whatsoever.
“Who’s to know?” asked the man, as thunder rolled. “Have a drink, pretty lad, and tell me your fancy.”
Gwaine took a swig from the proffered flask, feeling the familiar burn of the alcohol — the rum was rough, but it would get him drunk. Drunk enough to forget that Arthur existed; drunk enough to pretend that Merlin was his and only his, that he didn’t share his love with his King. That they were on the road simply to be on the road together.
“Dice are hard when the table keeps rolling,” Gwaine said. “Cards?”
The shout came down from the upper decks. “A sail! Red sails!”
“Red sails?” Gwaine asked.
“Slavers,” the man hissed. “Go and wake your warlock, and tell him to ready his best spells.”
There were people running everywhere below decks, and Gwaine pushed past them to the room where he’d left Merlin. Slavers. He had a bad history with slavers; he’d fight to the bloody death before he was taken. Merlin was awake, the stowaway girl sitting beside him and showing him some kind of blue-ish light. There was a peal of thunder, and through the porthole Gwaine saw the lightning flash.
“What?” Merlin asked. “What is it?”
“Slavers,” said Gwaine, and the girl hid behind Merlin.
“It’s all right,” said Merlin, turning to her. “We won’t let them get you.”
“To arms!” came the call through the door. “Sorcerer!”
“I’d better get up there,” said Merlin. He took the girl by the shoulders. “Go and hide. Where you were before — hide in there, where no-one can find you, and you’ll be all right.”
He got up, and together they made their way to the deck. The sail was lashing in the wind — and men were shouting, trying to bring it in before something broke, as others tried to steer away from what was indeed a red sail, silhouetted by lighting flashes.
“Merlin!” called the sorcerer. “Over here!”
The ship began to glow, a faint ghostly flame against the night sky. Gwaine had seen it before, out on the open sea, but never like this, never these greenish flames leaping so high.
“What’s the plan?” Merlin asked, as the thunder boomed from horizon to horizon, and the foreign ship grew nearer.
“Magic,” said the other, and Gwaine watched as both men called forth power.
“I can keep back the storm,” said Merlin, the magic crackling along his arms and making his hair stand on end, “or the slavers. I can’t do both.”
“I’ll take care of the slavers!” yelled the other magician, as a lightning bolt arced down from the sky, hitting Merlin full in the chest. Gwaine cried out in alarm, Merlin’s body rocked with the white fire of lightning, but Merlin pushed it back and away from him.
Merlin cast his power forward, and Gwaine knew when it hit the storm because it blinked and flickered with the same intensity as bright lightning. The boat was rolling so hard that he couldn’t keep his feet; he could just hold on as Merlin pushed the storm away, as Merlin’s body twitched with magic. Gwaine’s heart was thumping so hard he could feel it in his throat, and everything smelled of salt and lightning, his hair plastered to his face with seaspray, water in his eyes. He saw Merlin sway in the wind, and he was running before he registered it, feet sliding on the slippery planks as the rain stopped, getting there not in time to catch Merlin, but in time to pull him into a half-hug, check him for injury, pet his hair and look at the clearing sky, the stars above them. And then someone yelled a word in another language, and hot gold ran through him and sleep took hold, grabbing him and tugging him under with all of the force of a rip tide.
Gwaine woke in chains, Merlin curled up by his side. He leaned forward, nosing at Merlin’s hair.
“‘M awake,” Merlin mumbled.
“Good,” Gwaine murmured, “because I think I’m going to need you to magic me out of my chains.”
Merlin opened his eyes abruptly, looking around them in an obvious attempt to work out what was going on. He sighed.
“Oh,” said Merlin. “I’m gathering that not everyone was on the level.”
“You would be correct in that assumption,” Gwaine replied, as Merlin slumped a little against his chains. “And you can get us out of here, yes?”
“I can,” said Merlin. “But we’ll have to steal a lifeboat. I can’t fly or anything. I’m—I’m still learning. And I’m tired.”
Gwaine felt the chill in the air, and hoped they could get a lifeboat. Swimming would not be an option. Well, it was technically an option. But it certainly wasn’t a good one. Merlin shifted closer, snuggling in for (presumably) warmth and companionship. He didn’t begrudge Merlin either; Merlin was terribly pale, like he hadn’t slept at all.
“I think we should start with the manacles,” said Gwaine, pressing his lips to Merlin’s hair.
“Mmm,” Merlin replied, and he felt for Gwaine’s wrists, wrapping his hands around the cold metal. Gwaine realised that Merlin wasn’t wearing his mittens, that his fingers were bluish with cold. There was a whispered word, and the metal heated quietly, and Gwaine felt it drop free. Merlin lifted his gaze, and offered Gwaine a brilliant smile.
“Feet,” he said, quietly, and Gwaine shifted, his chains clinking. There were the shapes of others down here in the hold, men who were still unconscious, one man who was grunting and shifting like he wanted to get out, get away as quickly as he could. “There.”
“Good,” whispered Gwaine. “Now you.”
“Yeah,” Merlin said, “just…let me get my breath back.”
Gwaine slipped a hand to Merlin’s back, rubbing circles against his shivering. This wouldn’t do, it wouldn’t. Merlin was peaky, on the verge of collapse or a fit or something. Merlin leaned into Gwaine’s touch, exhaling sharply.
“There’s room,” said Merlin, “down with the ballast. That’s where Astrid has been staying.”
“Astrid?” asked Gwaine, still running his hand up and down Merlin’s spine.
“The girl,” Merlin said. “We can hide there. I can — I can make a glamour. It’s not the most. The most.” He looked at Gwaine, eyes wide. “They’re slavers. We can’t let them take the crew.”
“How badly do you want to live?” Gwaine asked, as the man who was clanking and groaning swore. So he was trying to escape his chains, too.
“I can’t let them—” Merlin began.
“I know,” said Gwaine, because he couldn’t let them, either. He’d been trapped by slavers before, had perfected the art of fighting without hitting too hard, had perfected putting on a good show for their captors. Slavers didn’t kill the merchandise, but they liked to tell the trapped, frightened men that they would, just to watch them piss in their pants and quake with fear. He pressed another kiss to Merlin’s temple, and Merlin’s hand sought out his own.
“You’re afraid,” Merlin said, wonderingly.
“I thought magic didn’t work on iron?” Gwaine asked, instead of saying yes.
“Mine does,” said Merlin, and there was a clank, and it was both of Merlin’s hands in his, Merlin’s body pressed against his side. “Listen.”
He could hear a seagull somewhere off in the distance. Bloody tough seagull, Gwaine thought, as the timbers creaked and the waves splashed against the bow. No voices, no footsteps. The men were all on deck; they hadn’t expected anyone to wake. Well, Merlin had magic, and he was wrapped in iron, and so he should have still been out cold, and Gwaine — Gwaine supposed that he had a very hard head.
“We’ll go under decks,” Merlin said, his lips brushing Gwaine’s ear. “We’ll work out something.”
They crept along the wall, Merlin going down into the tiny hatch first, Gwaine pulling it shut behind them. It was cramped, uncomfortable, and Merlin leaned against Gwaine’s chest.
“All right,” said Gwaine. “We can stay here…or I can get my sword and…”
“Wait!” said Merlin, softly. “Where’s Astrid?”
“She should be down here,” said Merlin, urgently. “Come on, we have to find her.”
“Merlin, is that really the smartest thing…” Gwaine began, and Merlin looked at him hopefully.
“It’s the right thing,” he said, and Gwaine nodded.
“All right. Get your stuff,” he said. “I’ll get my sword. Wherever we go, we go together.”
“Together,” Merlin echoed, clasping Gwaine’s hand.
They packed their things in silence, the night-hole bag tied firmly to Merlin’s wrist, Gwaine’s sword buckled at his waist, next to the girdle that marked him as a knight of Camelot. One of Arthur’s knights, bound to protect the weak and defenceless.
“I’ll cast a spell for silence, but it won’t last long,” said Merlin. “As soon as I stop concentrating, it’ll go.”
“That’s enough time,” said Gwaine, and shoulder to shoulder they crept from their barracks, up the creaking stairs. There was noise drifting down from above them, shouts and jeers, the sound of men playing and having fun. If they hadn’t known the reason, Gwaine might have walked right up, clapped a guy on the shoulder and joined in, spied out the lay of the land. But no, this wasn’t that sort of a game, and there wasn’t anywhere to run if things went wrong.
Things were going to go wrong. That was a given. But he could probably stave them off a little by not waltzing into the middle of the crew and asking for a pint.
“No—“ said Merlin, and he was bolting, suddenly, up the stairs and onto the deck, leaving Gwaine to follow in his wake. Gwaine followed, of course, because he wasn’t going to be left behind, and he nearly crashed into Merlin when he stilled, when he saw what the men were doing. The stowaway girl was backed against the edge of the decking, her face streaked with tears and terror, as a man hefted a bucket of water at her.
“Stop!” she screamed. “Please stop, I’ll—“ It was too late. Gwaine watched, his heart in his throat as she twisted and her body changed, her trousers tore, her legs sliding together and locking there, huge fins useless in the cold, heavy air. The girl was flapping her tail, desperate to get away, ungainly on the freezing deck.
“Mermaid!” The shout was traveling through the slaver crew, and men were crowding. She was crying, frightened, and Gwaine met Merlin’s eyes. Merlin nodded.
“Let her alone!” Merlin shouted, as Gwaine unsheathed his sword. “She’s afraid! She’s only a child!”
Men turned, and Gwaine spat; he knew some of them, had diced with them. Men who were willing to betray their crewmates.
“Do you know the bounty that they pay in Safe Harbour for a mermaid?” asked a man, as the girl struggled against the heavy hands holding her.
“Do you know the bounty that the Merfolk will pay to have her back?” asked Gwaine, as they approached, Gwaine’s sword and Merlin’s magic threatening in the dusk light.
“What was your name?” asked one of the crewmen, pointing at Merlin. “It was Merlin, weren’t it? You caught yourself a fish of your own, have you mate?”
“I said leave her alone,” Merlin repeated, bringing his hands together and a thunderclap as loud as the booming surf knocked the crewmen flat. Gwaine sighed.
“Probably not the smartest thing you could have done,” he said, as the girl struggled free. As she’d dried off, she had legs again, but they were still scaly, with odd fin-toes at the bottom, her shift barely covering enough for modesty. She ran to Merlin, hugging him tightly. Merlin put a protective arm around her as the men struggled to their feet, and Gwaine backed toward them, sword at the ready.
“You’re on a boat, lads,” said the ringleader. “There ain’t nowhere you can go. Give us the girl and we’ll only put you into the brig for the rest of the trip. If we have to take her, we’ll put you into the deep.”
“Right now, I think the deep is the more preferable option,” said Merlin, casting a backward glance at the sea. Thunder rumbled off in the distance, and Merlin looked at Gwaine, giving him a little grin, patting his belt pouch with the ingredients in it, twining his fingers through the girl’s. She squeezed his hand. Merlin was mad, but pretty, and powerful, and Gwaine nodded, sheathing his sword and taking Merlin’s hand.
“Sounds fine to me,” he replied, his heart knocking against his ribs and the thrill of the adventure thrumming in his veins. “Shall we?”
“Yes,” said Merlin. “Let’s.”
They ran down the deck and jumped, hands breaking loose in the air, Gwaine trying to remember what was the best way to land in water. The world went dark as he hit, his body stinging with thousands of pinpricks of force and cold. The water was freezing. It took the breath from Gwaine’s lungs, tearing it from his body and off amid the ice. Merlin reached for him and grabbed him with a hand on either side of his neck, pressing their lips together as they both went under. There was a burn in his neck, and he pulled away, taking a gasping breath in from instinct. He felt his lungs flood with water, but instead of choking him, it felt like air. Thick, muggy, freezing air. He could taste salt in the back of his mouth, salt and seaweed and burning.
“Did you turn me into a fish?” asked Gwaine, trying to see in through the murk. He was relieved that he could talk — the bulk of the ship was still overhead, and he didn’t think that breaking the surface to have a conversation would be the smartest tactical move right now.
“I once turned Arthur into a fish,” said Merlin, unhelpfully. “It was to teach him a lesson.”
“Did it?” Gwaine asked.
Merlin shrugged. “He almost got eaten by a pike. So I’d say — yes.” A ball of light appeared between them. “I didn’t turn you into a fish. I gave you gills. And I’m freezing.”
There was a silvery flash in the water between them, and suddenly the stowaway girl bobbed near the ball of light, swimming into Merlin’s arms.
“Thank you,” she said, hugging him tightly. “I didn’t know you weren’t human either.”
“I’m human,” said Merlin, hugging her back. “Now. Where’s your home? I don’t even know where the shore is from here.”
“I’m from the Kingdom,” she said. “I sort of — ran away.”
“Not at all a bad thing,” said Gwaine, wriggling his fingers as numbness started to set in. Merlin was pale in the dim light, blinking furiously in the salty water. “But do you have anywhere to go now?”
“I…” she said, still clinging to Merlin. “I want to go home.”
“Do you know the way?” Merlin asked, his voice very gentle. She looked around.
“I think there’s a portal nearby,” she said. “Wait here. I’ll see.”
“Wait…?” Gwaine asked.
“You’ll have to come with me,” she said, with a flick of her tail. “We’re in the middle of the ocean — you’ll freeze to death if you stay here. Humans are so soft and warm.”
Merlin swam to Gwaine as the fish-girl dove deep, sliding his freezing hands around Gwaine’s waist, up and under his shirt.
“What do you know about Merfolk?” Merlin asked, the water from his lungs warm against Gwaine’s ear. Gwaine smiled.
“I know that when they’re young, they go out into our world to seek knowledge,” he said. “But that’s usually as schools — I’ve never seen one on their own before.”
“You’ve seen a lot, then?”
Gwaine laughed. “I’ve seen enough.”
He’d met a Selkie girl, once; her skin had been stolen by a rugged old man, and he’d helped her retrieve it. She’d kissed him before turning back into a seal, and he’d had to scarper pretty quickly, because she was pretty, and then she’d been gone, and he hadn’t exactly been — subtle.
Something pierced the water, hard and fast, running out a rope to the end. A harpoon. Merlin gave Gwaine a wide-eyed look, and, blinking the salt away, Gwaine gazed back. The men were trying to catch them.
“Down,” said Merlin, and Gwaine nodded, leading the way into the depths. Something silvery and bright slipped around them, and he heard laughter in his ear. The fish-girl.
“The portal is still working,” she said. “Follow me.”
He’d seen magic a few times, been through it a few more. An old man had once healed his leg, and the swirly colours had kept Gwaine from passing out, even though he should have from the pain. This was different — this smelled like salt and ash and home, and it was cold and hot and bubbling over his skin, Merlin’s hand in his the only thing anchoring him and stopping him from trying to break free, trying to move through the current and out to the side.
“Don’t fight it,” Merlin said, or maybe thought, because water was roaring in Gwaine’s ears, but Merlin’s voice was as clear as a bell. “If you get lost here, I’ll never find you again.”
The roaring stopped, sudden, and his skin felt like it was on fire, a burning prickle that ran up his arms, made every hair stand on end, as Merlin kicked with his legs and tried to follow the girl. Gwaine joined him in seconds, and it was light here, lighter than it had been on the other side of the portal, bright and it made him blink, the water soft against his body, Merlin’s hands smooth where he reached for Gwaine. They reached the shallows and stood, dragging themselves to the beach. Gwaine gasped for air — water— anything— and Merlin grabbed his neck, kissing away the gills, stroking frozen fingers through Gwaine’s hair as they sat on the hot sand, grains covering skin and clothes.
“You’re all right,” Merlin said. “You’re fine. I promise, you’re fine.”
He kissed Gwaine, gentle and sweet and reassuring, petting his hair, stroking soothing patterns against the residual burn on his skin. Gwaine rolled them so that Merlin was the one with his back to the sand, leaning down to press a hard kiss to Merlin’s mouth.
There was a cough.
“Ah,” said a voice. “You are…guests?”
“They’re mine!” said a voice, and Gwaine looked up to see the stowaway girl looking rather more imperious than she had previously. “They’re mine, and they saved my life!”
“Yes, Princess, but…”
“And I want you to send a company through the portal to stop the slavers on the boat!”
“Yes, Princess, but…”
“NOW!” she said, stamping her foot. Gwaine rolled off Merlin, and Merlin flashed him a wide-eyed look — they belonged to the girl, did they? Slavery might be the better option of the two. Merlin was shaking violently as the blood rushed back to his extremities; pale, cold hands turning pink, pale cheeks brightening.
“Come with me,” said the man, and Gwaine struggled to his feet, Merlin following, both of them sticky with salt and sand. Merlin swayed, and grabbed Gwaine’s arm tightly, as if he were about to collapse again. “You should get clean. The water from the other world is horrible; this will help.”
The pool of water that he led them to was limpid and green, and the salt washed from them into it, clouding the water. Gwaine wasn’t sure when they were left alone, the warmth suffusing his whole body with pleasure, like he was melting into the water. Merlin leaned back against a rock, eyes closed, and it was only when he began to snore that Gwaine realised he’d fallen asleep. He could hear far-off shouts — an army, returning victorious from battle — and he pressed very lightly on Merlin’s shoulder.
“Wake up,” he said. “Come on, they gave us a bed. Sleep there.”
Merlin mumbled something, and Gwaine pulled him near, letting him rest. He could feel the wash of worry in his gut — Merlin was weak, too weak. He needed medicine, not just sleep. Solo quests; deathtraps, the lot of them. Merlin was limp and unresisting when Gwaine lifted him from the water, letting him sleep on the warm sandy bed. He’d never seen a place like this before; the clear, pure blue of the sky reflected in the water, air hot like midsummer, birds wheeling overhead. The merfolk had left them fruit, too, spread out on huge green leaves, like some sort of offering on an altar. Gwaine's stomach rumbled, and so he ate a piece, a red thing like an apple but sweeter, but with a hard, bitter centre.
“Stupid human,” said a voice. Gwaine turned to see their saviour watching them, her hands on her hips. “You’re not supposed to eat the stone.”
“Astrid, isn’t it?” Gwaine asked, as Merlin stirred. “Merlin—”
“Princess, to you,” she said, all confidence now that she was on her home turf. Gwaine grinned. Princess, then.
“Oh, fruit!” said Merlin, and he grabbed a piece of what looked like a melon. “Thank you, my lady.”
“You’re very welcome,” she said, doe-eyed. Merlin dug in, seemingly oblivious to her attention. “Why didn’t you use your magic to escape, Merlin?”
“I wasn’t strong enough,” said Merlin, reaching out for more food. “And I was worried I’d tip the balance even further out if I tried to do too much.”
“You were worried about the big storms,” said the Princess. “The ones that threatened to make the boat tip and the waves crash.”
“They were caused by us,” said Merlin, through a mouthful of melon. “I can see it, if I concentrate. The lines of light that shape the world.”
“You can’t move through water without disturbing the surface,” said the girl, as matter of fact as anything. “Not even the best of us. All you can do is learn to predict where the ripples are going to wash. You can’t be afraid to use your magic.”
“I’m not,” Merlin said, but the huffy effect was rather spoiled when he licked pineapple off his fingers.
“Aren’t you?” she asked, her eyes deeper than the ocean. “You store it up, like rainwater in a hollow, and then there’s no more room for water there. What will happen when you run out of room, Merlin? Have you ever seen a blowhole?”
“Magic isn’t — magic doesn’t work like that,” said Merlin, quietly.
“Of course it does,” she said. “Now get up, and put on your shirt. My father will wish to meet with you; he’s brought the whole court to the surface to see what you are.”
She didn’t farewell them when she left them to dress properly. Gwaine flashed Merlin a grin.
“So, she’s — a bit annoying,” he said, and Merlin laughed.
“I think magic rots the brain,” he said, pulling on his shirt. “Every magical creature I’ve ever met has wanted to preach at me, or teach me a lesson. Seriously, I think they’d rule the world if they didn’t spend so much of their time telling people what was best for them.”
“She likes you,” said Gwaine, and Merlin laughed.
“Don’t be stupid,” he said. “I’m not — I’m not like that.”
Merlin, for all his apparent world-weariness and great sorcery, just didn’t seem to understand that he was attractive — desirable. Forget power being an aphrodisiac (although it was one of the best that Gwaine knew); Merlin also had a bright, pleased smile that made you feel like you were the only thing in his mind, ever, and he was strangely adorable, even with the ears. His heart was good, too, and—
“You’re staring,” said Merlin, ducking his head. “Do I want to know what you’re thinking about?”
“You,” said Gwaine, hoarsely.
“Oh, go away,” Merlin said, with a laugh. “We’re on an enchanted tropical island, surrounded by gorgeous mermaids, and you’re thinking about me.” Gwaine opened his mouth to protest, and Merlin held up a hand. “Come on, my lusty swain, let’s go meet this King.”
They were ridiculously under-dressed, Gwaine realised. The Princess had changed into a sea-green shift, the yoke jeweled with bright gems and shells, her bare arms clattering with bracelets. Even the guards were bejewelled, great ropes of amber at their necks, gleaming in the sun. Their traveling clothes didn’t even come close; stained and still salt-crisp from the sea of the other world. The Royal Court was in a grove of trees and flowers, tiny birds fluttering, butterflies lighting on trees, and on the shoulders of the people. They differed only slightly from Merlin and Gwaine, a little more green, with skin like scales.
The King was on a dais, his daughter beside him, and another woman who Gwaine supposed was his wife. She had long, grey hair, set through with jade and gold; this was not a poor society. Their little stowaway princess has been slumming it indeed, probably hoping for an authentic experience out there in the world. She was lucky, Gwaine thought, that Merlin had been the one to find her, and not one of the other crewmen. Gwaine and Merlin approached, stopping at the foot of the dais; Gwaine could feel people watching him. If they decided that Merlin and Gwaine were a threat, they’d be speared on a trident quick as thinking.
“Honoured guests,” said the King. “You risked your lives for my daughter.”
Gwaine bowed, dragging Merlin into a bow beside him. Merlin looked up.
“Any man from my home would do the same, my Lord,” he said. “We are taught to treat others with respect and dignity. We thank you for your hospitality.”
“You are most welcome,” said the King, inclining his head. “And where would your home be, Sorcerer?”
“Camelot,” said Merlin. Idiot, Gwaine thought lovingly. Did he really expect a mermaid — man — king — to know where Camelot was? It was just a little kingdom beyond the borders of Mercia.
“Where does that fall in the five kingdoms?” asked the King.
“The mortal realm,” said Merlin. “Far from here; many days travel over land and sea.”
“Yet you possess magic,” he said. “My youngest daughter has been telling me that you beat back a storm, and that you saved her life. What is your name when you travel in my land?”
“Emrys,” said Merlin, and Gwaine was about to contradict him when he heard a hum from the assembled people, saw them shift and move back. There was quiet, now, absolute quiet. Even the jeweled butterflies had stopped fluttering. Merlin looked at Gwaine with an ok, so I might need to tell you something grin, and Gwaine nodded, just slightly.
The King held out his hand and Merlin stepped forward, pressing his palm to the King’s. The silence reigned until the King nodded, and spoke. “You are Emrys,” said the King, and Merlin stepped back. “The wonder is mine, that I have lived to see this day. And your companion, he is your King?”
“My King is in Camelot,” said Merlin, as people began to shift and speak again, a bee humming overhead. “This is my champion; he is accompanying me to the Grove of Sweet Dew.”
Merlin hadn’t given his name, Gwaine thought; he wasn’t entirely stupid in the ways of court -— he’d served Arthur for long enough. There was a reason. Merlin’s champion. Well. That was — that was new. New and brilliant, and Gwaine felt warm from the inside, warmer than just the sun beating on his back could make him. Merlin’s chosen champion.
“We cannot go to the Grove,” said the King, “just as the elves cannot come here. We each have our lands, sorcerer.”
“I know,” said Merlin. “I seek no boon from you; your kindness thus far has been enough.”
“Ridiculous. If your kingdom is in need, then we will come,” said the King, with a warm, calculated grin. Gwaine wondered what he was like when he wasn’t ruling; did he like to drink with his men, as Arthur did? Was he ridiculously formal, but meant so well that no-one minded? “I will value an alliance with Camelot. Take this stone and put it in your moat; it will grow, and when it is time, a new portal shall open.”
Merlin bowed. “Thank you, my Lord,” he said, and Gwaine bowed too.
“Your companion is human, and you are not far from it yourself,” said the King. Gwaine saw Merlin stiffen, but he wasn't sure why. “You cannot stay within my borders. My people grow restless already, asking why I have allowed you to stay so long in our domain; my daughter should have never brought you here. We can all feel it in the magic of the water; your home is stable, easy to exist in, but here the balance is tipped as gently as on a knife-edge.”
Gwaine shook his head. No, this wasn’t good, not good at all. He found his voice. “Please, Sire; Merlin must rest. He’s exhausted — going back into the ice will kill him.”
“I understand your concern, but I do not share it,” said the King, suddenly stiff and formal. “He will not die; the magic in his veins will sustain him. You have tarried too long in my kingdom, and my gratitude only extends so far.”
“It’s fine,” said Merlin, and Gwaine sighed. Some champion. “Thank you. But may I ask a question; what happened to those on the boat with us? There were good men on board.”
“They are safe,” said the King. “We do not claim those who bear the children of our kingdom no harm. The order was to take the ship back to the mainland, and to let the slavers drown.”
Merlin nodded. “Thank you,” he said. Gwaine shifted — a little harsh, perhaps, but men had done worse for their children. Uther had done worse for Arthur, as far as Gwaine could tell.
“You are dismissed,” said the King, and they bowed, leaving from under the arched branches, past the guards who were suddenly more deferential, less threatening. Gwaine shaded his eyes with his hand, the brightness of water and sand too much to bear, and he looked out to the horizon. Not a sail or an island in sight, just flat, blue water as far as the eye could see.
“You will get ready,” said a guard, and Merlin tugged on Gwaine’s hand.
“Come on, then,” he said. The people were exiting now, and Gwaine watched as they moved to the water, jewels shining in the wet, tails vanishing.
“So they came onto land for us,” said Gwaine, and Merlin gave him a fond look.
“Yes,” he said. “Considerate, really.”
“Not considerate enough to let you get your strength back,” said Gwaine, his feet scuffing in the fine sand with little whuffing noises. “And what was that, Emrys?”
“It’s what the Old Religion calls me,” said Merlin. “It’s my other name.”
“You are a strange, strange creature,” said Gwaine, shaking his head. Merlin stopped, stock still.
“No!” said Merlin, shaking his head, his voice a little too loud. “Take that back. I’m—I’m human, I’m not—“
“Sssh,” said Gwaine, grabbing his wrists. “Merlin, I didn’t mean it like that. Of course you’re human.” He pulled Merlin close. “Of course you’re human.”
“Arthur said—“ Merlin began, clinging to Gwaine and he swallowed. He pulled away, quickly. “It doesn’t matter what Arthur said. Come on.”
Gwaine was about to say something, to pull him back; when there was a commotion behind them as they turned just in time to see the Princess running across the sand to them. She didn’t look sickly and strange here — here, her rough skin was clearly scales, her old flaking patches given way to fresh fishscale that was iridescent in the sun.
“Merlin!” The Princess barrelled into him, wrapping both arms tightly around him.
“Astrid,” said Merlin, with a broad grin. He hugged her tightly.
“I will not let anyone forget this,” she said. “I won’t. And I’m going to take you through to Safe Harbour — Father promised I could go, as long as I didn’t run away this time.”
“Through the portal?” Merlin asked.
“Of course,” she said. “How else will we get you there?”
Merlin looked at Gwaine, and Gwaine could read the trepidation in his expression. Through the portal meant through frozen seas, through water that would burn as it froze them to death.
“I don’t think I can make an air bubble around us,” said Merlin, frowning. “For a start, I don’t know how. I just guessed last time; we were lucky we got gills, and not our chests turned inside out.”
“I’m more worried about you freezing to death,” said Gwaine.
“And you?” asked Merlin, with a grin.
“Ah, see,” said Gwaine, “I’m too hot to freeze.”
Merlin pushed him playfully, grinning at the bad joke. “Our heavy things should be dry,” said Merlin. “If we put them in the bag…”
“We’ll freeze to death before we can get them out,” said Gwaine. “Put them on, and magic the water out of them when we re-surface.”
“I suppose so,” said Merlin. “All right, we’ll just have to use magic to get to shore; I’ll cast the spell, and we’ll hope we don’t die from the cold.”
“Do not cast the spell for breath underwater,” said the Princess. “The journey will be swift, this time. We cannot go within the bounds of Safe Harbour, but we can take you to a beach nearby.”
“So we’re not going back through the same portal?” Merlin asked, wriggling into his coat. “Clever. How far does the network go?”
“As far as the stones skip,” she said, and Merlin patted his belt. “I shall come and visit you in Camelot one day, Emrys.”
“Do that,” he said, pulling on his gloves. “My King would love to meet a real mermaid.”
“And if you ever tire of your champion…” she said. “I would not be averse to taking his place.”
“You’ll find a champion of your own, Princess,” said Merlin. “Your destiny is to rule, not to follow a wandering sorcerer.”
“Destiny is only a tide. You can swim against it if you choose.”
“I know,” said Merlin, putting a hand to her cheek, the soft wool a barrier between them. “But I have chosen my path.”
“It is a shame,” she said. “If I had known you were Emrys, I would have been more respectful.”
“No,” said Merlin, “I don’t deserve it. Come on, the water doesn’t want us here. Let’s go.”
Gwaine’s clothes were heavy with water as soon as they waded into the shallows, bright fish sparkling around his knees and swimming away again as the Princess pulled off her shift, leaving only her jewels. Men joined them, armed with tridents and harpoons, weapons that would travel well in the water, and as the water reached their shoulders, Merlin took Gwaine’s hand.
“It’ll be quick, I think,” he said, letting go. “I hope. Deep breath, hey?” And then he took a massive breath and ducked under, the men dragging him away like a rip tide. Gwaine sucked in a breath just as strong arms grabbed him and he too was being shoved through the water, so fast his ears popped and his head spun, so fast that he tried to gasp but he couldn’t, and all he could see was white, and then they burst through and there were no bubbles to make the water run white, just the endless hollow boom of surf on the rocks shaking through his body.
The water was icy after the warmth of the mermaid’s kingdom. It snatched at Gwaine’s body, and had he not been being shoved through the water by strong flippers, he would have floundered and started to sink. He gasped in as soon as his head broke the surface, dragging himself up the beach alongside Merlin, feet slipping on the icy shingle of an unfamiliar bay, night wrapping the rocks with sleet. Merlin was coughing, a hoarse, barking cough, and he collapsed onto his hands and knees before he was even out of the shallows. All right, then. Probably not going to be able to magic the water away — and anyway, they’d be soaked again in minutes.
“Goodbye Emrys! Goodbye Champion! Fare well on your quest!” called a voice on the wind, and Merlin turned, waving weakly. The heads of the merfolk were just visible above the water, and a gust of snow obliterated them, made Gwaine blink the ice from his eyes. Gwaine waved, but more importantly drew Merlin close, pressed their palms together. Merlin was wearing the waterlogged mittens, and a dribble of seawater splattered out of them when he squeezed Gwaine’s hand.
“Which way?” Gwaine asked. Merlin looked around, frowning, and then he pointed. It was so dark; he didn’t know how Merlin knew, it was just a guess, it had to be.
“There,” Merlin said. “I’m sure of it.”
“I hope you’re right,” Gwaine replied. He couldn’t see any shelter — couldn’t even see any driftwood to make a fire. He led the way, and they’d barely gone thirty feet before Merlin stumbled, his feet dragging on the rocks. Gwaine fancied he could see lights off in the distance, just faint specks in the snow against the dark sky. He’d heard of these places, the cold places where it was always dark in winter.
“Come on,” said Gwaine, putting an arm around Merlin to steady him. “There’s lights ahead. Only a little way to go, Merlin.”
“I’m not cold anymore,” said Merlin, and he looked at Gwaine with huge, guileless eyes. “Let’s just find somewhere, find a cave and sleep. We can get to town tomorrow.”
Merlin was freezing, his wet clothes sticking to his body in the wind. Gwaine shook his head.
“No,” he said. “We’re going to make it into town tonight.”
He cursed mermaids — he cursed stupid, stupid mermaids who didn’t understand that human bodies were soft and warm and couldn’t take the cold so easily, that human blood freezes in veins and hurts. There were definitely lights ahead, and each step was harder than the last. Merlin was breathing in little gasps.
“Your magic,” said Gwaine, his teeth clicking as he shivered. “Is there any way you can send a signal—”
“I can try,” Merlin said, and he whispered something in that strange language. A brief wave of warmth washed over Gwaine, and there was a shout from up ahead. He realised that the lights weren’t houses at all — they were torches, people on sleds, running out to meet them. Merlin tripped, and Gwaine held him up, realising that Merlin had gone limp — he’d lost consciousness. The lights were drawing nearer, and Gwaine held Merlin against his body, neither of them shivering anymore.
“Help me!” Gwaine yelled, his fingers numb, his body no longer freezing. “Somebody help me!”
Strong hands grasped him around the shoulders as his vision blurred. Merlin was a dead weight in his arms, and someone took that weight. Gwaine made a strangled noise of protest, his voice failing him. He was Merlin’s champion. He was supposed to keep Merlin safe. He needed to keep Merlin safe.
“It’s all right, lad,” said a gentle voice, close to his ear. A young man’s voice, light and lilting. “It’s all right. This is Safe Harbour, and you are welcome.”