Hunith was at the far end of the corridor when she heard her two-year-old’s infectious laughter. It was pouring out of the room the queen generously let them use as a nursery into the sunlit gallery of the Camelot castle. Hunith smiled to herself, shaking her head. Merlin was just a baby, but he was already a handful. She could barely leave him out of her sight for a moment.
And she probably shouldn’t have done so now, not even for a brief visit to Gaius, because there was another, unfamiliar tone mixed in with Merlin’s giggles. There was another child in the room, and it was laughing, too. Worried, Hunith hurried her steps to a run, and froze in the doorway.
Merlin, obviously dissatisfied with sitting in his crib, was instead sprawled on the stone floor, giggling and pointing his finger at an older boy, who was hovering three feet above the ground and grinning at him. Hunith’s hand flew up to cover her mouth in horror – the shiny blond hair and steely blue eyes were unmistakable.
“Prince Arthur,” she breathed, torn between the instinct to catch him and caution not to interfere with Merlin’s instinctive fits of magic. “Merlin, put him down this instant.”
Her son gazed at her sunnily. “Look! I can do!” he proclaimed proudly, and flicked his chubby wrist.
His Royal Highness, the Crown Prince of Camelot and adjourned lands, rotated in midair, whooping in surprise and delight, and demanded, much to Hunith’s frustration, “Do it again! Do it again!”
Merlin was happy to oblige, though the motions of his hand were sloppy and ill-coordinated. Hunith bit her lip.
“Merlin, stop,” she asked again, softer. “Look, you’ve had your fun, sweetheart. Let Prince Arthur down now, please?”
Merlin’s eyes, huge on his tiny face, turned onto her trustingly. He blinked, taking in her expression, and Huntih saw it – the moment he realised that Mummy was not happy. The corners of his mouth drooped, and he reached for her, without thinking.
Hunith, despite her relatively recent status as a noble woman, had been brought up in the country, and five years of life in Camelot couldn’t rid her of her instincts. She threw herself to the floor below Arthur and caught him, just as the boy was about to smash into the unyielding stone.
“Merlin!” Arthur growled, struggling to free himself from Hunith’s arms.
Merlin’s eyes turned impossibly bigger as he realised what he’d done. His face registered open fear, and he squeaked, “Sorry, Ahfur!” before promptly vanishing into thin air.
Hunith blinked. She was aware, of course, that her child possessed the Gift, but invisibility didn’t seem nearly as harmless as opening cupboard doors at will to get sweets.
“Merlin,” she called, panicking. “Merlin, please come back.”
Arthur finally managed to shake her off and sprung to his feet, his too-long, too-heavy tunic twisted all around him, and called with petulance and anger, “We’re not playing hide and seek, Merlin!”
Merlin appeared with a pop not three feet away from him. Arthur made to grab him immediately, and Merlin disappeared again, only to materialize a second later behind Arthur’s back.
“Come back, you little coward!” Arthur demanded, but a grin was spreading irresistibly on his lips as he tried to catch a laughing Merlin again and again.
“Merlin,” Hunith sighed, amused and worried. “Please desist, child.”
But Merlin didn’t hear her; he was too busy playing the newly invented magical variation of tag with Arthur. Laughing and whooping, they ran out of the room and into the unsuspecting castle corridors faster than Hunith could get back to her feet.
She ran after them, trying unsuccessfully to appeal to their good conscience or common sense, as amused servants, guards, and courtiers watched. Merlin could hardly outrun Arthur on his short chubby legs that still stomped more than walked, but he was constantly popping in and out of sight, making Arthur grab at air and laugh harder.
“Stop, Merlin!” Hunith cried, exasperated. “Oh gods, what have I done to deserve you?”
Arthur, learning the game on his feet, realised finally that Merlin was alternately appearing at either side of him, and moved in counterpoint, catching Merlin by surprise and finally grabbing him. Merlin yelped and tripped, tugging Arthur down with him, and they rolled together in a laughing and screaming ball straight through the half-opened doors of the council chambers. They came to a stop at the very centre of the room in full view of the queen and her advisors.
Hunith, who had lost track of her surroundings in her desperate pursuit, had fallen through the doors a moment later, and froze in horror.
There was a long, heavy silence as the queen and the councilmen stared at the unexpected display. Arthur went completely still, his arm still holding Merlin in a headlock, and didn’t quite dare to look at his mother. Merlin, who finally seemed to catch up on the fact that he was really in trouble now, promptly vanished, eliciting several shocked gasps. Almost immediately, though, he appeared again, as if ashamed to have left Arthur to deal with this alone.
“Well,” the queen intoned in an unnaturally even voice.
“Your Majesty.” Hunith curtsied hastily. Her eyes found her husband’s, who was standing to Ygraine’s right, and begged him wordlessly for help. “I’m so sorry. I couldn’t catch them.”
“I can see that,” Ygraine replied, her lips twitching, as she gazed down at the boys.
Merlin looked at her, and sidled closer to Arthur clumsily, just in case.
“Well, well, well, Balinor,” Nimueh drawled, stepping forward. “It appears you have drastically misrepresented the power of your son’s Gift. Vanishing at will at his age – and he’s not even casting a spell.”
“It was an accident!” Arthur said suddenly, scowling at Nimueh and stepping in front of Merlin. “He didn’t mean to!”
“Calm down, Arthur,” the queen chastised him, with a mild frown. “Since you decided to speak out of turn, perhaps you could explain why you were playing with Merlin at all instead of studying like you were supposed to?”
Arthur bowed his head, mumbling something under his breath.
“I didn’t quite hear you,” Ygraine told him dryly. “You’re the crown prince. Speak up so people can hear your voice.”
Arthur’s chin snapped up as he declared mulishly, “I said, arithmetic is stupid!”
Ygraine’s eyebrows arched elegantly. “I can see we’re due to have another conversation about discipline and duty,” she remarked. Arthur bowed his head again. “Now return to your classroom. I’m certain Maitre Dorin is looking for you.”
In retrospect, Hunith thought, they should really have foreseen what happened next.
Dejected, Arthur jerked his arm free of Merlin’s clutches and trailed back for the doors. Merlin looked after him forlornly, then looked back, and it dawned on him suddenly that he was to be left alone with these scary, strict-looking people, who were all staring down at him with expressions that did not bode well. The corners of his mouth drooped down, huge eyes full of summer sky innocence welled up with tears, and he started to cry – at first hesitantly, as if not quite believing life was being so cruel to him, and then louder and louder.
Arthur froze. So did everyone else, because something was happening in the room. The glass of the windows began to rattle ominously, threatening to shatter in the frames. The trembling grew steadily louder and more intense, filling the chamber with liquid menace.
“Somebody stop this!” Ygraine demanded, raising her voice over the sound of rebelling glass.
“I’m trying,” Nimueh hissed through gritted teeth. “It’s coming too strong!”
“Merlin, don’t cry,” Arthur said plaintively, walking back quickly to the distressed toddler. He was the only person in the room who paid no heed to the ominous cracks spreading their web rapidly along the walls. “Oh, come on, don’t. Don’t.”
Merlin stared at him, betrayed, and cried harder.
“Look,” Arthur said desperately digging his hand into his pocket. “Look what I’ve got! Look, it’s got wings and everything!”
Merlin stopped for a moment, peering down at Arthur’s outstretched palm. There was a dead beetle lying there, with tiny legs crooked helplessly upward. Arthur grinned encouragingly. Merlin looked more betrayed and hurt than ever, glancing up at Arthur’s face as if to express his incredulity that something as horrible as a dead bug was shoved under his nose. Arthur’s grin vanished.
“Hey, hey, don’t, come on,” he muttered, as Merlin’s tears began to fall again, heavy as rain.
Above their heads, a glass pane gave and shattered with a loud clang, showering the room in pieces that were fortunately too small to hurt anyone. Gasping, the adults retreated to the relative safety of the walls as another window exploded, then another.
“Arthur, get back!” Ygraine shouted above the noise. “Somebody protect the prince!”
The guards that stepped closer to try and snatch him were pushed back against the walls, but, in the middle of the room, the two boys stood unharmed, the deadly shards dissembling to sparkling dust before they could reach them.
Merlin was wheezing, consumed fully by his grief as only a two-year-old child could be. Clearly desperate, Arthur grabbed at him then, pulling him against his body awkwardly, squashing Merlin’s tiny face against his chest.
“Stop crying, Merlin, please,” he repeated, his free hand sliding up and down Merlin’s back. “Please, Merlin, please. Hey.” Arthur nudged the other boy away slightly to get into another pocket. “Look, I got some fudge left from last night. It’s your favourite.”
Hiccupping, Merlin managed, “Sawberry?”
“Er.” Arthur peered at the crumbled sticky mess in his hand dubiously. “I think so? Here, you can have it.”
He smeared the remains of the fudge against Merlin’s mouth more than fed it to him. Merlin frowned thoughtfully, licking his lips, his tears slowing down.
“Not sawberry,” he mumbled.
Arthur beamed at him. “You can have all my fudges ever – just don’t cry anymore, okay?”
“Okay,” Merlin agreed easily, grinning through fudge and tears, eyes trained on Arthur, happy. “Not go?” He curled his fingers around Arthur’s belt for good measure.
“I won’t,” Arthur assured him. “I’m not going anywhere, Merlin. I’m right here, see?”
Merlin sighed – a contented, quiet little exhale, heard all too loudly in the sudden silence of the room.
The shuddering stopped; pieces of broken glass were glinting on the floor innocently.
Hunith was looking down at her son with mixed feelings of dread and awe, but the queen’s gaze was clear and curious. Balinor seemed concerned; Nimueh was smiling in a menacing sort of way; and Gaius was muttering softly.
“Arthur,” Ygraine said at last, stepping away from the wall and smoothing the fabric of her dress. “Please go to your classroom. Take Merlin with you,” she added, before he could object. “I’ll ask the kitchens to send you some sweets.”
“Sawberry?” Merlin asked, emboldened, peering at Ygraine from the safety of Arthur’s arms.
The queen chuckled. “I think we can arrange that.” She shot a glance at Hunith. “He’s not allergic, is he?”
“No, Your Majesty,” Hunith breathed, mortified.
“Good, good. Off you go then, boys. And Arthur?”
The queen gave him a stern look. “Make no mistake – we’ll be discussing your behaviour later.”
Arthur’s face dimmed as he turned to go, pulling Merlin after him by the hand. “Come along, Merlin. Move your little feet.”
Merlin grinned, entirely too happy for someone who was mostly being dragged out of the council chambers, his feet only barely touching the floor.
“Well,” Nimueh said as soon as the doors were closed. “This was certainly interesting. The boy is Gifted beyond any known precedent.”
“You don’t say.” Ygraine’s tone was dry. “This is the first time I’ve heard my son voluntarily use the word ‘please.’ Clearly, Merlin is the most powerful person in the kingdom.”
“Body! Shield! Body! Shield! Come on, Merlin! You could at least try!”
Clumsily, Merlin pushed the too big helmet back with sweaty hands and glared at Arthur, barely managing to lift his own blunt sword in defence.
“Would you stop that?” he yelled, trying to catch his breath. “Ow! Arthur, I said stop!”
With an exasperated sigh, Arthur poked him one last time in the ribs with the tip of his sword. It was enough for Merlin to lose his shaky balance and fall back, yelping and dropping his own weapon and shield as though they burned his hands.
“Don’t get too cosy,” Arthur grunted, dipping his own sweaty brow. “We’re doing it all again.”
“What? No way!” Merlin shook his head emphatically, hair plastered to his forehead. “I can’t move my arms or legs. Your swords are stupid.”
“Yeah? Well, you wouldn’t be here if you weren’t so damn nosy,” Arthur told him petulantly, kicking Merlin’s shin lightly. He made a face and donned what he thought to be Merlin’s voice. “‘Stop bullying Morris, Arthur. He’s your servant, Arthur. He can’t reply to you in kind, Arthur.’”
“Shut up, Arthur,” Merlin muttered under his breath, grinning.
Arthur’s eyebrows flew up. “Oh, you’re going to regret this.”
“Ow, stop it!” Merlin yelled, laughing, as Arthur launched at him, tickling him mercilessly, as they rolled around in the sweet-smelling summer grass. “Stop it, stop it! Come on, you big prat, let go of me!”
“What did you call your prince, Merlin?” Arthur taunted, knocking away Merlin’s feeble attempts to defend himself with obnoxious ease and advantage that an athletically inclined eleven-year-old would have over a skinny boy eight years of age. “Did you just call me a prat?”
“Yes!” Merlin shouted rebelliously, even as he wheezed with laughter, desperately trying – and failing – to get away from Arthur or respond in kind. “Because you are – a giant – prat!”
“Oh really, Merlin?” Arthur tickled him pitilessly. “Is this the way to talk to the crown prince, Merlin?”
“Augh... Arthur, stop, enough!”
“Beg for your life or I shall bestow death upon you by means of—”
“Tickles,” Merlin finished, laughing harder and more hoarsely now as he managed to knee Arthur in the stomach.
“Oh, you little—” Arthur grunted and spun the boy around, twisting his arm behind his back and pressing his face into the grass. “Beg for mercy!”
Arthur twisted his arm a little harder, and Merlin wailed, “Fine! Fine! Mercy! Now let me go!”
Arthur didn’t budge. “No; you must say, ‘I beg you for mercy, Your Highness’!”
“Or Sire. It’s not that hard, Merlin, even you can remember.”
“No, Arthur, really.”
Arthur realised suddenly that Merlin was no longer laughing, nor paying him any heed. Merlin’s eyes were glued to the edge of the forest, where the river made a soft turn as if licking around the trees. From the shadow of the old oaks and elms, five black-clad riders were emerging.
“What the—” Arthur muttered, sitting up abruptly and pulling Merlin with him automatically. “Who are they?”
“Where’s Geraint?” Merlin asked in a small voice, eyes trained on the rapidly approaching figures.
“I don’t know,” Arthur said, frowning. Sir Geraint was supposed to watch them, but it wouldn’t be the first time he took a detour to the tavern in the middle of the day to ‘wet his whistle.’ It looked like they were alone.
Arthur sprang to his feet, Merlin following him unsteadily. “Maybe they’re friends?”
Arthur’s eyes narrowed as he saw the first rider spot them and draw out his sword. “I don’t think they’re friends, Merlin,” he muttered, his heart hammering tightly in his throat. “I don’t think they’re friends at all.”
He picked up his blunt training sword and stood firm, as Sir Kay had taught him.
Arthur scowled at him. “Are you daft? They’re going to kill you!”
Merlin made what Arthur had long learned to recognize as his stubborn face. “I’m not leaving you.”
Arthur sneaked another look at the riders, all of whom were brandishing swords now, before half-turning toward his clearly mental friend. “Merlin, I’m the future king; they’re obviously after me! If they want ransom or something, they’ll kill you on sight!”
“Then you run!” Merlin snapped angrily, fear and resolve warring in his eyes. “Maybe they won’t even touch me at all.”
“God, but you’re an idiot,” Arthur muttered. “Get behind me at least, you clot!”
Merlin did take a step back, and Arthur turned around to meet their attackers, who were close enough now that he could see their eyes. He locked gazes with the head rider and shuddered.
The man’s eyes were cold. Determined, focused, and cold.
They weren’t after ransom, Arthur knew just then. They wanted him dead.
Quickly, he thought of all the things he dreamed he’d do and never would now. The tournaments; the quests; the adventures. He thought of his mother, and of how not even a Dragonlord’s protection would be enough for her to remain queen-regent without an heir.
He thought of Merlin, and something clenched in his chest. He squared his shoulders and gripped his sword tighter. He would not die a coward. And he would not die before Merlin did.
Something was happening.
Just as Arthur raised his sword to meet the first (and likely last) blow, an unexpectedly strong gust of wind tugged at his hair. It was strong enough to feel like a physical blow, and Arthur tensed his knees to remain standing.
The wind rapidly grew stronger, forming a whirlwind if dust and leaves in front of Arthur, spinning faster and faster like a hungry baby hurricane, impatient to touch the sky. It moved steadily onwards, away from the boys and towards the riders, who were now having trouble controlling their horses.
The wind sang and span triumphantly, angrily, as it crushed the first bandit, knocking him off his horse and lifting him high in the air before dropping him back to the ground heavily. His leg got caught up in his reins and soon, the panicking horse was dragging him away in a mad gallop, his head bouncing off the ground.
His comrades tried to turn around, but the wind got to them first, brutal and vengeful, throwing them off and scattering them away like twigs. The men were screaming, horses were whinnying pitifully and racing away in a panicked haze – and above all, the wind roared madly, furiously, chasing away the threat.
Enthralled as he was by the sight, Arthur glanced back at Merlin – and froze.
Merlin was standing not two feet away, his arm raised high, fingers outstretched commandingly. His eyes were brimming liquid gold.
“Merlin,” Arthur whispered, feeling the hairs on the back of his neck stand on end.
Merlin was shaking with tension; he looked like he could barely stand on his feet, his head falling backwards helplessly, as if someone was pressing it down. But he maintained the spell until the very last rider lay motionless on the ground.
Arthur barely had the time to catch him when the other boy collapsed.
“God, Merlin,” he breathed, sinking to his knees, cradling his friend in his arms, gazing down at his face in horror and wonder. “Merlin.”
That was exactly how Geraint found them some half an hour later, with Arthur gripping his sword belligerently in one hand and holding a wan, unconscious Merlin close to his chest.
No one was telling him anything.
Arthur hunched in on himself, cold and uncomfortable in the damp alcove he had been sitting in for hours. Hours. It had been so long since Merlin was carried into the chambers he occupied with his parents; since Gaius and the Lady Alice had rushed in; since Nimueh had come around snooping.
Everyone ignored Arthur, even the servants. This wasn’t something the crown prince was used to at all, but he didn’t care for etiquette or propriety at the moment. If only someone would spare a minute and tell him that Merlin was alive, Arthur wouldn’t dream of asking for anything further.
Finally, at long last, the door opened, and Arthur jerked up, hoping it was the Lady Hunith or Gaius. But it was Balinor who stepped out, and Arthur froze in his place.
He had never felt at ease around the Dragonlord. It was strange, because Arthur knew perfectly well that the man was loyal to the core. It was he who had helped Ygraine secure her position as queen regent in the chaos that followed King Uther’s death. She had named him Lord Protector of the realm, and he had worked hard alongside Nimueh and the queen to defend Camelot’s borders and to make the kingdom a prosperous, wealthy land.
Arthur didn’t know what disturbed him. Maybe it was that Balinor wasn’t of noble blood, and he never acted as if he was comfortable with his status. The Lady Hunith was the same way – always too humble, always too quiet, as if constantly afraid that someone would show her her place.
Merlin was the only one who showed no deference at all to such matters, but, then again, Merlin’s head was full of insane ideas that all people were equals and should be treated with respect and kindness according to some mad concepts of universal justice. It amused Arthur to no end to listen to his ramblings, and he didn’t even bother arguing with Merlin except to rile him up, and just laughed at him fondly. If Merlin wasn’t the son of the third most powerful person in the kingdom, he might well have been a village idiot.
And this was probably the crux of the matter, for it was seeing Merlin and Balinor together that made Arthur the most uncomfortable.
Aside from being a Dragonlord, Balinor’s Gifts were rudimentary at best, and Merlin spent most of his time with Gaius, who mentored him in the Art of magic alongside other Gifted children. Yet sometimes, Arthur would catch father and son talking – Balinor explaining something to Merlin with a patient smile, Merlin’s eyes wide and trusting, or telling him off for some prank, or ruffling his hair.
There was fierce pride in Merlin’s eyes every time he mentioned his father, and Arthur felt humbled by it. His own relationship with his mother was one of tender affection, but Ygraine wouldn’t wrestle with him in the tall, summer-soft grass behind the castle, or carve little wooden figurines for him, or take him to short trips across the kingdom – just the two of them, a campfire, and the legends of the past lulling him to sleep under the stars.
Arthur started, realising suddenly that Balinor was standing right in front of him, studying him with an unreadable expression on his face. He looked tired and worried, and Arthur felt his heart begin to beat madly at the sight. He jumped to his feet.
“Merlin,” he blurted out, words racing each other out of his mouth. “Is he – how is he – better, isn’t he? What’s wrong with him – he wasn’t hurt – I swear he wasn’t hurt!”
Balinor was peering down at him, still saying nothing, and, to his horror, Arthur felt a hot, wet stinging in his eyes. He started to blink rapidly.
“I told him to run,” he went on, in a tone that was half petulant, half guilty. “I told him to run, but he wouldn’t listen! He never listens to me!”
“Arthur.” Balinor’s hand was suddenly clasping his shoulder, warm and reassuring, as the Dragonlord crouched down beside him. “Merlin is going to be all right.”
Arthur blinked, not daring to breathe. “… Really?”
“Yes.” Balinor smiled, relief obvious and sincere in his face. “The spell was too powerful for him; he doesn’t yet know how to balance his magic properly. He shouldn’t have even known it, but I’m afraid he and the Lady Morgana have made it a habit to – read ahead.”
Arthur nodded. He’d lost Merlin as his fulltime playmate about four years ago, when Merlin had learned how to read. He pursed his lips tightly at the thought of Morgana, that insufferable, friend-stealing witch.
“I’m sorry,” he said to Balinor. “I didn’t mean for him to—”
“Do not concern yourself, my Lord. Merlin is more than just a friend to you,” Balinor told him in a graver tone. “He has magic. It is his duty to protect you. It may well be within his duty to die for you. Merlin knows this, as do I.”
“But he’s a child!” Arthur protested hotly. “He’s not one of my knights – he’s bloody eight years old!”
“Nevertheless.” Balinor’s eyes were dark and serious. “He did what he had to today, and he will do it again. You must accept that. You are the future king. People will give their lives to protect you.”
Arthur jerked out of his grip and stomped around angrily. “That’s unacceptable! That’s – I don’t need – I can defend myself! I’m not some—”
Balinor watched calmly as Arthur seethed. “Not Merlin!” he declared finally, with as much royal arrogance as he could muster. “I won’t let anything happen to Merlin – I’d bloody kill him first!”
Balinor’s lips twitched, even as he tried schooling his features back to sobriety as quickly as he could. “It is gratifying to hear you say that, my Lord.”
He studied Arthur quizzically for a moment. “I know that you already show great mastery with the sword.”
Arthur blinked at the abrupt change of subject, then shrugged. He had made it through basic training two years ago, and Sir Bors and Sir Bedivere had constantly been on his back ever since, their lessons sometimes painful but effective.
“I probably wouldn’t best a knight in swordplay,” the Dragonlord mused out loud. “But I bet I could have any of them on their backs with a staff.”
Arthur knew that. He’d seen Balinor beating the crap out of whoever challenged him on the training grounds when he had the time. The knights had never spoken of his fighting skills with anything but respect.
“Would you like me to teach you?”
Arthur stared, his jaw dropping. “You would?” He blushed suddenly, realising he sounded like a simpleton. “That is, if you would grant me that honour, Lord Protector?”
Balinor chuckled. “Call me Balinor, Arthur. There’s no room for privilege in battle. It’ll be a pleasure to teach you; I fear my lessons are wasted on Merlin, anyway. He relies on his magic too much.” Balinor’s smile dimmed. “One day, it might be his undoing.”
Arthur jutted is chin up, determined. “Then I will teach him myself. And if he tries to weasel out of it, I’ll make him clean Gaius’s leech tank again – without magic.”
Balinor laughed heartily, clutching at his sides. He rested a heavy hand on Arthur’s shoulder and nodded. “My Prince, I wish you the best of luck with that.”
Arthur grinned, glancing at the closed door. Merlin’s fate had thus been sealed, and he didn’t even know it.
“I said no, Merlin. Go braid Morgana’s hair or whatever it is you two do locked up in that tower all day.”
Merlin blushed to the tips of his ears. “I never touched her hair!”
Arthur snorted. “I bet you want to. You fancy her.”
“I do not!”
“You filled her bathtub with rose petals.”
“It was her birthday! And at least I didn’t give her a dagger.”
“It was sparkly!”
“It was a dagger. She’s a girl, Arthur, in case you haven’t noticed.”
Arthur sneered. “Looks like you’ve noticed for the both of us.”
Merlin looked as if steam would come out of his ears any moment now, and Arthur ruffled his hair, laughing. Merlin scowled and ducked away.
“I’m coming with you,” he said stubbornly.
Arthur sobered at once. “Merlin, which part of the word ‘no’ do you not understand? I can’t take you with me; I can’t allow the distraction of looking over my shoulder every two minutes to check if you’ve fallen off your horse yet.”
Merlin’s fists clenched. “I’m not a baby! I can take care of myself!”
Arthur gripped his shoulders, leaning down to bring their eyes at an even level. He sighed. An eleven-year-old Merlin didn’t look that much different from a four-year-old Merlin, in Arthur’s view, but he had a point. If Arthur’s childhood had been cut in half by the responsibilities he had to assume as the future king, Merlin had barely managed to snatch a third of his own. Growing up by Arthur’s side, with the kingdom struggling to hold its own against magical creatures and hostile armies, meant becoming mature much faster than nature had intended.
“I know you’re not a baby, Merlin. I know you’re powerful.”
“But the last time you wanted a glass of water, we ended up having a flood in the lower town.” Merlin bristled, but said nothing. “Oh, and the hangovers everyone had after your ‘good-mood’ spell wore off? The snow at Beltane? The time you accidentally magicked away all our swords?”
“I helped you get rid of that griffin!” Merlin snapped. “And you’d never have shot that ghoul if I hadn’t made it visible! And—”
Arthur shook him. “Merlin. You’re. Not. Going.”
Merlin stared at him, eyes hurt and accusing. It was unbearable. Arthur let him go, turning away.
“I have to do this on my own, Merlin. I killed that unicorn.”
“It wasn’t your fault! You didn’t mean to!”
Arthur glared. “Maybe, but it still unleashed the curse, didn’t it? How long do you think we can survive on water? I need to take care of this right now, and Anhora said that no one could aid me.”
“Well, Anhora is stupid.”
But Merlin’s head was bowed, and Arthur knew that was it. He shoved an extra pair of riding gloves into his bag, checked that his water skin was full, and clasped his sword to his belt.
“Take care of everyone here, okay?”
Merlin tilted his head to the side stubbornly, avoiding Arthur’s hand. Arthur sighed, dropping it.
“I’ll see you when I’m back.”
Merlin didn’t deign to answer.
When Arthur stepped out of the labyrinth, he didn’t expect to see Merlin sitting tensely at a crude wooden table under Anhora’s watchful gaze. Unfortunately, Arthur couldn’t say he was surprised, either.
He yelled and ranted at and berated Merlin until the boy looked guilty, though stubbornly unrepentant. Deep down, though, Arthur was glad he wouldn’t have to do it alone.
Merlin solved the riddle, that brilliant mind of his ever sharp, but he still fell so easily for Arthur’s simple ploy as Arthur snatched the goblet. Merlin’s wide-eyed, terrified stare was the last thing he saw before the heavy, slippery-warm darkness pulled him under.
When he opened his eyes, the first things that came into view were the seagulls, circling high in the skies and crying out shrilly to each other. The second thing was Merlin.
“I bloody hate you,” the boy told him, without ever turning away from watching the sea. “I thought you died.”
So had Arthur; it hadn’t occurred to him to question Anhora’s claim that one of the goblets contained poison. His mouth tasted funny and was kind of tingly, just as it did when Arthur swallowed some of Morgana’s sleeping draught by mistake.
Arthur pulled himself upright gracelessly, hissing at the discomfort caused by lying motionless for hours in his armour. Merlin was sitting beside him, leaning against a rock, thin shoulders hunched and a frown on his face.
Arthur reached towards him tentatively, and Merlin whirled around, glaring.
“You’re an idiot, you know that?” he yelled. “You’re the single most stupid person I know!”
Arthur contemplated him for a moment. An apology would likely do him no good, especially since Arthur wasn’t sorry.
“Don’t be so melodramatic, Merlin,” he drawled, careless and taunting. “God, you really are a giant girl, aren’t you?”
Merlin growled and launched himself at Arthur, his fists smashing into whatever part of him he could reach. Arthur caught his wrists before Merlin could split his knuckles raw against Arthur’s chainmail. Merlin struggled against him furiously, kicking and screaming more insults, while Arthur mostly tried to make sure he didn’t hurt himself.
Finally, Arthur managed to throw him off. Merlin landed on his knees, hitting them hard against the rock. He cried out in pain, and turned away from Arthur, his shoulders quivering.
Arthur winced in sympathy, but didn’t say anything and didn’t move to help. Merlin’s tears, on the rare occasions that Arthur happened to witness them, had always made him feel incredibly awkward. His first impulse was to offer comfort, but Merlin wasn’t a girl, no matter how often Arthur teased him about it.
If it was another boy, another young knight in training, perhaps, Arthur might have laughed. Might have even said something cruel, because boys weren’t supposed to do that. But this was Merlin, and Merlin was...
Merlin was different. Arthur couldn’t understand how or why, but he felt it all the same. He hated the feeling of undermining helplessness that tugged at his gut unpleasantly every – blessedly rare – time he saw Merlin cry.
Merlin didn’t make a sound, obviously fighting to get a grip.
“Merlin,” Arthur called after a while. “Help me out of the chainmail, would you? I want to go for a swim.”
Merlin stared at him incredulously, his cheeks mercifully dry, even if his eyes looked suspiciously puffy.
“A swim?” he asked in a hoarse voice. “Arthur, that’s—”
“What?” Arthur lifted his eyebrows innocently. “Do you think an enchanted path will lead us to the ocean every day? I’m not losing this chance to catch a mermaid.”
Merlin snorted. “You won’t catch a mermaid. You’re too ugly.”
“Oi! Not as ugly as you.”
Merlin stuck out his tongue at him. “Morgana thinks I’m cute.”
Arthur rolled his eyes. “Yes, cute, like a baby deer.”
“You shut up!”
“Baby deer. Baby rabbit!”
“I’ll turn you into a rabbit!”
Merlin’s eyes glinted gold menacingly, and Arthur ducked. “No fair!”
Merlin giggled, springing to his feet and chasing after him along the seashore.
Two hours later, they were both drenched, ribs hurting from laughter, salt drying in their hair. No mermaids were caught, although Merlin did have a rather memorable encounter with a jellyfish that Arthur teased him mercilessly about all the way back through the labyrinth. It wasn’t nearly as exciting, as it turned into a straight alley that led them back to where they’d left their horses, but Arthur wasn’t complaining.
Merlin fell asleep in his saddle, lulled by the steady rhythm of the ride, and nearly did fall off, proving once and for all that he really was an idiot. Arthur caught him just in time, rolling his eyes. Merlin, unbelievably, didn’t even wake much, just snuggled closer as Arthur settled him in front of himself, pulling his cloak around them both and tying the reins of Merlin’s patient, quiet horse to the pommel.
“I don’t wanna be a rabbit,” Merlin murmured suddenly in his sleep, before dropping his head back on Arthur’s chest.
Arthur grinned into the night, and rode on.
It was close to midnight when Arthur stepped into his chambers, swaying slightly and grinning still as he remembered a rather raunchy evening he had just spent with his knights at the tavern. He wasn’t drunk, though; nothing on poor Pellinore, who had to be carried back to the castle. Chuckling quietly, Arthur pulled the door closed, and froze, realising that he wasn’t alone.
Merlin was sprawled inelegantly in Arthur’s favourite chair, his long, scrawny legs resting on the table, a thick volume in his lap. At the sight of Arthur, he snapped the book closed and stood up.
“Good night?” he asked casually.
“Um, yes,” Arthur said, confused. “What are you doing here?”
Merlin’s eyebrows rose, and Arthur immediately felt guilty. He hadn’t been seeing much of Merlin lately.
The past few years had been eventful for Arthur. He’d been knighted at fourteen, shortly after they returned from the Labyrinth of Gedref. He had been constantly training ever since, going on patrols, even leading a short winter campaign last year. He was now expected to take part in every council meeting alongside his mother, though he tried to skip those as often as he could. He was also spending a lot of time with his knights, many of who were as young as Arthur or close enough to him in age to become his friends.
Then there was Lancelot, who practically burst into Camelot’s regimented life not two years back. It helped that the first thing he did was save Merlin’s life when the unfortunate warlock happened to be ambushed by a stray pack of serkets. That immediately earned Lancelot Arthur’s good graces. When Lancelot demonstrated exactly how skilled he was with a sword not a few days later, their friendship was cemented good and firm.
Arthur liked Lancelot, and Lancelot admired Arthur. Soon enough they had become inseparable, and Arthur was happy. Merlin was great – he was funny, and cheeky, and brave – but Merlin wasn’t a knight, nor was he a hunter. He just didn’t understand certain things – the best things in life, in Arthur’s view. Besides, he was still a child by looks and manners, while Arthur was rapidly becoming a young man.
Arthur didn’t know what Merlin got up to most of these days. For some reason, he didn’t spend as much time with Gaius as he used to, nor was he seen as often in Morgana’s company. Morgana was undoubtedly still mad at Merlin for unleashing a goblin on the unsuspecting castle. The creature had caused a lot of mayhem making the ladies of the court act very un-lady-like (Morgana included) among other things. Arthur himself wasn’t happy with Merlin, having ended up with a pair of donkey ears. Nimueh had laughed herself stupid over them before spelling them away.
Arthur suspected, though, that the distance between Merlin and Morgana had a more serious reason. Morgana, while a powerful Seer, was not nearly as strong an enchantress. From what Arthur understood, having once overheard Gaius, few people could compare with Merlin where sorcery was concerned. It was therefore stupid to be jealous, but Arthur understood. He didn’t like it when Lancelot made him land on his arse during training, either.
Merlin could be seen conversing with Guinevere, Morgana’s pretty maid, sometimes. They seemed to enjoy each other’s company, and Arthur felt sorry for his friend – Lancelot made no secret of the admiration he had for Gwen. Poor Merlin stood no chance against the dashing young knight, who made the ladies of the court sigh dreamily every time he walked past.
Most of the time, though, Arthur had far more important things to do than think about Merlin’s misfortunes.
He had entered his first tournament at sixteen and won it, and had been giddy over his victory for weeks. His confidence boosted, he found himself chatting more freely with the ladies, offering Lancelot tough competition. Now that he was old enough, the neighbouring kingdoms stopped sending portraits of young princesses over and began sending the princesses in the flesh instead. It was immensely flattering, even if Arthur had no intention of marrying yet – the feasts were fun, and the favours the girls bestowed upon him sometimes even more so. Between that and planning campaigns to defend Camelot should Cenred or Bayard attack, Arthur was happily busy most of the time.
Throughout it all, Merlin had always been there, lurking in the background, never too far away, but never exactly close, either. It was disconcerting to suddenly realise how long it had been since they had spent any time together, just the two of them.
“Here,” Merlin said, making a vague gesture with his hand. “Let me help you out of your armour.”
Arthur frowned. “I’m sure Morris—”
“He wasn’t feeling well.” Merlin shrugged. “I dismissed him. Come on, don’t just stand there. I know how to do this.”
Arthur walked over towards him, surrendering to Merlin’s direction as the boy worked efficiently to rid him of his armour.
“This is unexpectedly kind of you,” Arthur said. “To what do I owe the pleasure?”
“You’re welcome,” Merlin grunted, pulling the mail off of him.
Arthur turned around to look at him as he finished. “Seriously, Merlin. What’s going on?”
Merlin was straightening the chainmail he laid out on the table, his long fingers sliding over the rings of steel absently.
“You’re a great warrior, Arthur,” he said, not lifting his eyes. “I’ve seen you fight. You’re – you’re good. Really.”
Arthur’s frown deepened. “… Thanks?”
“Yeah.” Merlin pursed his lips. “Just – try not to think with your sword, yeah? You’re going to be king one day. You’ll need brains as well as brawn.” He smirked, glancing at Arthur. “Try to read a book or two every now and then, okay? Contrary to what you’ve heard, they don’t actually bite.”
“Merlin.” Arthur was staring at him in ever-mounting confusion. “What are you talking about? Why do you—”
“I’m leaving tomorrow.”
“I don’t understand.” Arthur blinked. “Leaving where?”
Merlin peered at the fire pensively. “Gaius has taught me everything he knows. I’m going to the forest of Ehdrina to study with the Druids.”
Arthur spluttered. “But – Merlin, that’s not till you’re at least fourteen!”
Merlin lifted an eyebrow in a fair imitation of his mentor. “Arthur, my birthday was two weeks ago.”
Arthur stared, shocked. “Oh God. Merlin, I’m—”
Merlin shook his head. “It’s okay. I wouldn’t have remembered yours, either, if there wasn’t a yearly feast in its honour.” He was lying, and they both knew it. “Really, Arthur, it’s fine. I know you’re busy with Lancelot and the knights.”
Arthur leaned against the table, guilt twisting his stomach. Despite Merlin’s words, he was clearly hurt, though he was doing his best to hide it.
He’d make it up to Merlin, Arthur decided instantly. He’d throw him a surprise party when he returned – one that Merlin would remember.
“How long will you be gone?” Arthur asked quietly.
“It’s hard to be certain,” Merlin replied. “But probably no longer than four years.”
Arthur’s mouth fell open. “What?” Merlin looked at him. “Four years?”
Merlin shrugged. “I’m a fast learner, but you never know.”
“But—” Arthur couldn’t wrap his mind around it. “But you’ll miss everything! The – the summer tournament, and the melee, and all the challenges, and—”
“I’m sure you’ll do brilliantly.” Merlin’s smile was soft, if sad. “Just don’t be an arse about it.”
His thoughts a chaotic, panicking jumble, Arthur stared at Merlin as if seeing him for the very first time.
Merlin was thin, thinner than Arthur remembered. With another pang of guilt, Arthur realised that he couldn’t recall when he had last ambushed Merlin at odd times of day, like he used to, bringing him snacks and forcing them down his throat. Merlin, immersed in his damn spellbooks, often forgot to eat. Arthur used to tease him for being a baby and fed him sweets.
They’d sneak out of the castle for an impromptu picnic, often in league with Morgana, who’d sometimes bring Gwen along. Arthur would insist on training Merlin in swordfight, which would inevitably end with Merlin sprawled on the ground and Morgana defending his honour, Gwen laughing at their antics.
It had been years. Arthur blinked. How could it only seem like a week?
He looked at Merlin sharply, taking in his awkward posture, his dark clothes. Merlin had always loved bright colours – when had he started wearing black?
And what was it he tried to tell Arthur the other day, probably months ago? Something about a Druid girl and a lake? Arthur had thought at the time that it was just one of Merlin’s stories, and waved it off. It seemed now like a horrible kind of callousness.
Abruptly, guiltily, Arthur realised that he had completely missed the moment when Merlin stopped being a child. He was someone Arthur knew so well and yet didn’t know at all – a mysterious, unknown being trapped inside an awkward teenage body, bits and pieces peeking through, confused and beguiling.
“Anyway.” Merlin shrugged uncomfortably, failing at seeming casual. “I don’t really have much time; I ride at first light.”
“Oh.” Arthur didn’t know what to say. He felt like not only he’d missed something, he was still missing something – something huge by the looks of it, something vital.
“Yeah. I just came to say goodbye. And – if you manage to get yourself killed while I’m not here, just know that I’ll raise you back from the dead and kill you myself.”
Merlin was aiming for a joke, but Arthur couldn’t bring himself to smile. Instead, he walked over and gripped Merlin’s shoulder hard enough to bruise.
“You’ll be back, right? Merlin?”
So damn thin. Arthur could feel the bones shift under his fingers.
Merlin winced, his arm jerking in Arthur’s hold. “Trust me, Arthur, you won’t even notice I’m gone.”
“Yeah, I will.” Arthur exhaled heavily. “Merlin, listen, I’m—”
Merlin pulled himself up on his toes suddenly and pressed a kiss to the corner of Arthur’s mouth, warm breath ghosting over Arthur’s cheek for an instant.
Arthur froze in shock, mouth opened helplessly, as his brain refused to process what had just happened.
“Take care,” Merlin whispered, giving Arthur another sad smile, before slipping out of his hold easily and walking out of the room without glancing back once.
It was a long time before Arthur moved from where Merlin left him. He didn’t get any sleep that night at all.
The May Queen was ginger and ample, an abundance of freckles on her nose, lips stained dark with wine, a white glimmer of teeth beckoning as she laughed. Her whole body shook with it, ripe breasts threatening to spill out of the low cut of her blouse, as she batted away the May King, who was drunk, laughing, and handsy.
Arthur smirked, shaking his head. He wasn’t exactly sober, either, standing under the dome of a dignified oak and looking at the bonfires and dancing people.
“Here.” Lancelot appeared by his elbow, handing Arthur another tankard of ale. “Quite the night, huh?”
“That it is,” Arthur agreed.
He didn’t think he would actually enjoy himself, and only went because Morgana threatened to evict him from the castle.
‘Arthur, in three years’ time, you’ll be wearing an awfully heavy crown on that thick head of yours and won’t be able to have any fun at all. Seize the moment while you still can.’
There was undeniable truth to her words, Arthur admitted, though he tried not to dwell on his twenty-first birthday too much. His mother carried her duties as queen with poise and dignity, but Arthur could see she was tired. She was never meant to lead troops into battle or solve famine crises, and the years of ruling the kingdom hadn’t been kind to her. Arthur often wished he could relieve her burden, but the idea of bearing the full weight of responsibility frightened him. He felt himself neither wise enough nor ready.
“Percival heard a rumour,” Lancelot said suddenly, “that Hengeist has the Shield of Sir Braenegan.”
Arthur looked over to where Percival was blushing furiously and trying to explain to a pretty village girl that he didn’t dance.
Arthur smirked, enjoying the view. He had been raised among men. The physical reality of a life spent training and fighting, tending to each other’s injuries and massaging sore muscles, had taught him to appreciate the aesthetics of the male body without shame or false modesty. He never thought, however, that he could be actively attracted to men until Percival entered the picture.
It wasn’t forbidden, nor was it frowned upon, but it still took Arthur by surprise how calmly he accepted the discovery. Almost as if he had long been ready.
Arthur smiled at Lancelot apologetically. “Sorry. Hengeist, did you say? The warlord from Fyrien?”
“Yes. If he has the Shield, it’s clear why our patrols can’t catch him. It makes him invisible and invincible.”
Arthur shrugged, taking a long swig of his ale. “Sounds like a good quest to me,” he said, clapping Lancelot on the shoulder. “Why don’t you and Percival take care of it?”
Lancelot was clearly surprised. “But don’t you want to go, Sire? I thought you and I—”
“I don’t think I should leave Camelot right now.” Arthur stared into the dancing flames of the nearest bonfire. “Besides, I trust you. And Percival could use some fame to bring back to the ladies.”
It wasn’t that Arthur didn’t want to go. However, what he said was true – his knights deserved a chance to earn some fame and glory of their own. But this wasn’t the main reason he refused.
He didn’t want to spend the whole time thinking about how it was not the same without Merlin, who’d never missed one of Arthur’s excursions in the past. He’d whine or chatter happily the whole way and would inevitably get into the kind of trouble that even a two-year-old child could avoid, like stepping into a swamp or falling asleep in a fairy ring.
Later, as they sat by the fire, Merlin would tell them one of the legends he’d found in the ancient books he was so fond of, his eyes shining a deep, mesmerising blue as fascination made his whole face glow. He’d fall asleep curled up at Arthur’s side, because he was nothing but a twig with big ears and was always, always cold. For some unfathomable reason, Arthur never slept as well without a sharp knee or elbow digging into him uncomfortably through the night.
Arthur sighed. He wasn’t about to tell Lancelot any of that.
But Lancelot’s hand settled on his shoulder, warm and heavy. When Arthur glanced at him, there was a look of sympathy on his friend’s face.
“Arthur, it’s been a year. You miss him that much, do you?”
Arthur blinked. Apparently, he was an open book – unforgivable in a future king. He shook Lancelot’s hand off abruptly.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he uttered testily. “I think you’ve had too much ale, Lancelot.”
Before Lancelot could respond, Arthur jumped quickly into the dancing circle, wrapped his arm around the May Queen’s generous waist, and allowed the drunk, merry crowd to twirl him away.
Some weeks later, Arthur woke up to find his window open, the sun streaming down freely across his face and making him wince.
“Morris,” Arthur mumbled, still half-asleep. “Did you forget to close the curtains?”
There was no response. Arthur groaned, rolling off the bed, his neck creaking. The sun wasn’t high yet, and the early morning air was a little chilly. Arthur sauntered towards the window with the intention of closing it and having another half an hour of a lie-in until Morris showed up with his breakfast.
Suddenly, Arthur stopped.
Something was lying on the stone windowsill – something too odd to be there by accident.
Frowning, Arthur picked it up. It was a single, peculiar-looking feather, a couple of inches long. It was resilient but soft, of a colour that was caught undecided between grey and brown, with a thin white edging. There was some kind of unassuming elegance about it as it lay benignly on Arthur’s palm, oddly warm even when taken out of the sunlight.
Arthur didn’t know much about birds, except those used for hunting. The feather looked like it could have belonged to a bird of prey – a falcon, perhaps, if it hadn’t been a little on the small side.
One thing was certain, though: it had no business lying on Arthur’s windowsill, and Morris was far too competent to have forgotten the curtains, let alone leave a window open.
In the end, Arthur didn’t know why he didn’t simply throw the weird quill out the window. He locked it securely in a box he kept in the cupboard by his bedside before his manservant showed up. Morris’s face was completely devoid of expression, save perhaps for deference, and Arthur decided there was no point in asking him.
Throughout the day, the thought of the strange gift – if it was indeed a gift – churned at the back of Arthur’s mind, making him puzzle over it during the council meeting and the knights’ training. Finally, after landing flat on his back for the third time in a row and waving off increasingly concerned knights, Arthur gave up the pretence.
He stomped into the library. It gave Geoffrey of Monmouth the fright of his life, for he had never seen Arthur anywhere near that part of the castle before. After the initial shock wore off, Arthur was set with several volumes on birds and beasts of Albion. He looked through the pages impatiently, until finally, just as his eyes began to glaze over, he found it.
Falco columbarius (aesalon subaesalon) called by the Norsemen Smyril or Smyrill, commonly known in Albion as Merlin.
Arthur couldn’t help a grin that broke over his lips if he tried.
Sir Tristan De Bois had never been Arthur’s favourite person. Ygraine had nearly died in childbirth, and Tristan blamed Arthur for it. He probably would have blamed Uther, but the king was dead, so his son naturally inherited the burden of the accusation.
Tristan had never made a secret of his feelings towards Arthur, barely being civil to him even when Arthur was still a small child. Thankfully, his visits to Camelot were few and far in between, as his own, considerably smaller land had always been at war with one neighbour or other. Privately, Arthur thought that it was no wonder that Tristan couldn’t make peace with anyone, being as stubborn and single-minded as he was. For the sake of his mother, though, Arthur tried to maintain his end of a healthy uncle/nephew relationship.
Ygraine had worshipped Tristan ever since they were children. Arthur didn’t really know why. His old nanny once told him that Ygraine had very nearly turned Uther down, despite being passionately in love with him, because marriage meant separation from Tristan. Arthur couldn’t quite fathom it, but he also didn’t have siblings.
He imagined having an older brother, sometimes – someone to share the burden of rank with, someone to protect him and take care of him. It never seemed real, too good to be true, but if it were possible, Arthur thought, he would have had a hard time giving it up, too.
The queen seemed to agree, because to this day, Tristan remained the one person in her life who could do no wrong – the perfect brother and the perfect knight. It was amazing and alarming how blind she was to his flaws, how deaf towards what others thought of him. Her own son even didn’t enjoy such a privilege, even though Ygraine loved Arthur dearly.
It would have been less painful, perhaps, had Tristan been a better man. But Arthur had no wish to turn a blind eye to the way chambermaids tried to blend in with the castle walls when Tristan was approaching. He couldn’t miss the broken appendages and bruises the stable hands were nursing whenever Tristan stayed too long. And Arthur heard the rumours of what transpired whenever Tristan decided to visit the countryside, pieces of whispered conversations deemed too unsavoury for a young prince’s ears.
Arthur tried to bring these things to his mother’s attention for as long as he could remember, but the only result he had ever achieved was making the queen angry at him. If everyone had a weakness, Tristan was hers, and there was nothing Arthur could do about it.
He loved his mother too much to make her choose between her brother and her son, so he gritted his teeth and bit his tongue in the face of Tristan’s insults, even as he shook with anger.
This time, however, Tristan had gone too far.
Within the three months of his unusually prolonged stay, he was treating the castle like his own domain, much to Arthur’s irritation. Meal times were rearranged, servants were reassigned, and when Tristan decided he would head the knights’ training – something Arthur had been doing for four years now, ever since he won his first tourney – he met no resistance, aside from Arthur’s heated protests. But Ygraine was used to indulging her brother, and Arthur was chastised for being too proud.
‘Tristan has won many battles,’ Ygraine told him, reproach clear in her voice. ‘You should welcome an opportunity to learn from him, Arthur. You are talented, but your experience can’t rival his yet. This is too important to let your arrogance get in the way. I’m surprised at you.’
Arthur swallowed the insult and pulled back into the ranks, ignoring his friends’ concerned glances. Tristan was a great warrior but a bad teacher, and Arthur began to hate the training sessions with the passion he used to love them.
Tristan also made a habit of walking in on the council’s meetings, talking over all the court advisors, and forcing decisions on his sister. Arthur argued vehemently but uselessly, as Tristan had a way of making Arthur look like a capricious, attention-seeking child. Arthur seethed and fumed and was finally relieved of council duty by his angry mother, who grew progressively more disappointed by Arthur’s poor behaviour.
Arthur had stormed out of the castle then, going off on a weeklong hunt to clear his head. When he returned and walked past Balinor and Hunith’s chambers, he found them empty. That was the last straw.
“Where is Balinor?” Arthur demanded, bursting into the throne room without so much as a greeting. The time for pleasantries was over.
“Mind your manners, Arthur,” Tristan told him coldly. “You’re in the presence of the queen.”
Arthur didn’t look at his mother, glowering at Tristan. “Where. Is. Balinor?” he repeated through gritted teeth.
“Where a Dragonlord’s supposed to be,” Tristan replied arrogantly. “Your western border lies on the edge of the Perilous Lands. It needs to be protected.”
“There are other Dragonlords to do that.”
“Well, Balinor’s the best, isn’t he? He had no business staying here all this time anyway. He’s just a commoner who thinks too much of himself because of his Gift.”
Turning away from Tristan’s sneer, Arthur glared at his mother. “You named Balinor Lord Protector. How could you have let him do this?”
“Arthur, it’s not – I did not take away his privileges,” Ygraine said uncertainly. “But you know he had never been content at court, and—”
“He made you queen!” Arthur had never allowed himself to raise his voice at his mother in his entire life, but he simply couldn’t control himself now. “Balinor risked his life to protect yours and mine! He stood up against warlocks and lords to protect your right to the throne – you wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for him! He’s always been loyal to you – and this is how you repay him?”
“How dare you speak to your mother like that?” Tristan pushed him away roughly. “It is my duty to protect the queen – not some peasant’s!”
“Your duty?” Arthur spit incredulously. “Then where were you, Tristan, when she stood alone against every lord in the kingdom? Where were you when we needed protection from Dagmar? When Bayard attacked our borders? You speak of protection, but you can’t even bring order to your own land! Your peasants are running away; your knights desert you! What kind of leader are you if you can’t even command loyalty of your own people?”
“You little brat,” Tristan hissed under his breath so that only Arthur could hear him. “You’ll pay for this.”
“Arthur, that’s enough!” Ygraine glowered at her son in anger. “I am still your queen, and you will apologise to your uncle. Immediately.”
Arthur looked at her, looked back at Tristan who was sneering. Flatly, he said, “No.”
Ygraine gasped. “Arthur!”
“I will not apologise to him,” Arthur repeated, fiddling with a clasp on his wrist. “I should never have let him walk all over us in the first place. I’m sorry, Mother, but I should have done this a long time ago.”
He pulled his glove off and threw it, forcibly, to the floor at Tristan’s feet. It wasn’t exactly a gauntlet, but it would do.
“I challenge you.”
“Arthur, no!” Ygraine paled, grasping her brother’s arm imploringly. “Tristan, please, he doesn’t know what he’s saying. He’s just a boy; he’ll come to his senses, you’ll see! Arthur, stop this! Apologise—”
Arthur ignored her. He was staring expectantly at Tristan, who smirked haughtily at him and shook off his sister’s hand, before leaning down quickly to pick up the glove.
“Tristan!” Ygraine’s voice shook.
“Don’t worry, my love,” Tristan reassured her, watching Arthur mockingly. “I won’t kill your little princeling. His offence merits a fight to the death, but, for your sake, I will show mercy. First blood will suffice.”
“You will leave if you lose, Tristan,” Arthur demanded. “You will leave Camelot, and you will never come back.”
Tristan’s eyes narrowed. “So be it. Single combat. Noon tomorrow.”
Arthur nodded at him curtly. “I’ll be there.”
He didn’t look back at his mother once as he left the room.
Arthur didn’t expect half the town to turn up for the fight, but rumours travelled fast. Standing in the blazing sun in the middle of the arena, Arthur watched as Tristan took his time to salute the queen and greet the crowd. Finally, he turned to Arthur, towering over him, and raised his sword.
Tristan was a formidable opponent. He was tall and broad, a heavy fighter with a style to match. His two-handed sword was almost a man’s height, and one missed blow meant certain death.
Arthur couldn’t match him for weight and strength, but he was an experienced enough fighter to know that those weren’t all that mattered. Against Tristan, speed was his ally. Tristan wasn’t the most inventive swordsman, either, preferring to rely on a certain number of trusted blows, rather than experimenting. Arthur had to outsmart him, and, after having watched the man on the training ground for a month, he was sure he could.
At first, it seemed like his plan was bound to work. Tristan was too slow, and Arthur caught him in counterattacks easily – except, instead of sliding between the links of his mail to draw blood, Arthur’s sword had bounced off, causing Arthur to lose his balance for a moment.
It nearly cost him the fight, but he rolled over quickly and tried again – with the same result. Time after time had Arthur broke through Tristan’s defence, only for his opponent to back away unscathed.
Arthur couldn’t understand what was wrong, a thing like that had never happened to him.
The moment of doubt cost him dearly. A smashing blow sent him rolling over the arena’s sand, his sword knocked out of his hand. The crowd roared from elation or horror – Arthur couldn’t tell. Tristan pushed away Arthur’s helmet with the tip of his sword.
Arthur froze on the ground, staring up at him, seized by boiling anger and humiliation, as Tristan gloated. His sword slid along Arthur’s cheek almost tenderly before twisting and cutting the skin. Arthur gritted his teeth, because he knew from the motion, knew without looking that Tristan was carving the letter ‘T’ into Arthur’s skin.
“Let that be a lesson to you, princeling,” he sneered, raising his sword up in the air in victory. “The next time you give me lip, you won’t get away so easily.”
Face burning, blood dripping down his neck – a shallow cut on his cheek bleeding profusely, Arthur watched as Tristan bowed to the cheering spectators and the queen. Ygraine was pale as a sheet, but gave her brother a tight nod. Arthur couldn’t meet his mother’s eyes, not wanting to see either disappointment or relief. Awkwardly, he pulled himself to his feet and stalked back towards the castle.
Arthur didn’t go to the feast. Humiliated, shamed, he locked himself up in his chambers, staring out the window for hours as he listened to the sounds of the castle around him. He contemplated throwing himself out into the cold stones of the courtyard, but it was a coward’s exit, and Arthur might be a failure, but he wasn’t that.
The fight kept repeating itself over and over in his head, and it was driving Arthur mad. He couldn’t understand what he had done wrong. He couldn’t see a single mistake he made, but he must have made one – and what a pricy mistake that had been. In the span of one hour at the arena, he lost the respect of every single person he had ever known.
He glanced over his shoulder at the sound of the door being opened and turned away almost immediately.
“Came to gloat, did you?” he spit out bitterly. “Get on with it, then.”
The confident, measured sound of heels echoed on the floor as Morgana walked over to him unhurriedly.
“I have no intention of gloating, Arthur.”
Arthur looked at her, but there wasn’t a single sign of a smirk on her face. Morgana looked pale and worried, and that in itself was enough to make Arthur snap out of his misery.
“You should have won.”
Despite himself, Arthur snorted. “Yeah, well. I didn’t. Guess I’m not as good as I thought I was.”
“No, Arthur.” Morgana laid a firm hand on his shoulder, looking him straight in the eye. “You don’t understand. I watched you. I’ve not been raised alongside you for nothing; I know what to look at in a swordfight. You got him several times. You should have scored.”
He shook his head. “I couldn’t breach his armour. No matter how hard I tried – it was as if he was invincible.”
“Funny you should say that.” Morgana bit her lip. “Arthur, I think that’s exactly what he was.”
Arthur blinked. “I don’t understand. You mean—”
“I mean someone must have enchanted his armour. There is no other explanation.”
Arthur frowned at her. “But it’s impossible. The arena is protected from enchantments of any kind to prevent cheating.”
Morgana appeared sceptical. “Who sets up this protection?”
“Nimueh. She always has.”
Morgana glanced over her shoulder briefly, as if checking that they weren’t overheard. “Arthur... Have you noticed how close Nimueh and Tristan appear lately? It’s almost impossible to see one without the other.”
“You think she helped him?” Arthur asked incredulously. “But why would she do that? I mean, I know she never liked me much, but surely this is taking it a little far?”
“All Nimueh has ever wanted was power.” Morgana looked at him pensively. “Arthur, a year from now, you’ll be of age to assume the throne. What if something happened to you before you could do that?”
Arthur shrugged. “My mother can’t remain queen without an heir, and she—”
“—will never conceive again.” Morgana nodded. “But Tristan is of royal blood. He and Uther were distant cousins. He is a man, and is not yet old. He could marry and have an heir.”
“Morgana, that’s...” Arthur trailed off, overwhelmed by the prospect. “How do you know? Did you See this?”
She shook her head gently. “Not entirely. I can’t See people whose Gifts are greater than mine. That’s why I know that Nimueh is helping Tristan; I could never See her future.” She smoothed the silk of her skirt nervously. “But I did See him.” She lifted her wide, fearful eyes at Arthur. “He wants to marry me and so secure his rights to the throne.”
“But how would that—”
Morgana’s long fingers wrapped around Arthur’s wrist. “I am your sister, Arthur. Uther Pendragon was my father, too.”
Stunned, Arthur could do little but stare at her. Morgana’s eyes filled with tears. “I have Seen this. Your mother doesn’t know, but Nimueh – she’s Seen. Arthur. Arthur, I’m so scared.”
He pulled her close instinctively, his arms numb from shock but gentle around her fragile frame.
“I’ve Seen things, Arthur. Terrible things. I Saw myself wearing the crown; killing people” – Morgana’s voice broke – “innocent people. This must never come to pass, Arthur. I don’t want that future – I don’t want it!”
Arthur held her fast. “My sister,” he whispered into her hair. “You are my sister.”
She pressed her forehead against his shoulder. “I’ve always known, I think. Whenever someone suggested we should marry, it just felt so wrong.”
Arthur stroked her hair awkwardly. “I won’t let anything happen to you,” he promised. “You’ll marry whomever you want, okay?”
Morgana sniffed softly, nodded, pulling away.
“So Tristan wants me dead.” Arthur tapped his fingers against the windowsill. “And Nimueh? I never trusted her.”
“She knows that. She knows she’d lose her place in court when you’re crowned. She’d do anything to prevent that.”
“So they will try again.”
“They can’t just kill you, not yet,” Morgana said. “People love you, Arthur. If you were to die at Tristan’s hand now, they would never accept him. He needs to make them lose their trust in you first.”
“Hence all his meddling.” Arthur gritted his teeth. “And this.”
Morgana pried his hand away from the fresh, angry scar. “Let me,” she said softly.
Arthur looked at her, nodded. Her fingers pressed lightly against the abused skin, and she whispered, “Áfeormiane lácnianes.”
Arthur winced at the sudden sensation of heat and a burst of pain. It felt as if Morgana slapped him. She smiled. “There. Good as new.”
He grazed his fingers across his once again smooth cheek wonderingly. “Thank you.”
Morgana bit her lip, frowning. “Tristan will do everything in his power to discredit you. You can’t allow that to happen.”
Arthur gripped her shoulders. “Don’t worry,” he said. “I won’t.”
He had no idea how he was going to follow through on that declaration.
Commanding loyalty, Arthur knew, had a lot to do with setting the right example. Hard as it was, he swallowed his pride and asked Tristan for permission to rejoin the knights’ training. Tristan taunted him and gloated for almost an hour, but he had no grounds to not grant Arthur’s request, particularly not with the queen sitting right there and watching her son with a proud smile.
Arthur bowed to his mother, nodded at Nimueh, whose silent vigil in the throne room hadn’t escaped his attention, and made himself shake Tristan’s hand.
His knights greeted him back with open joy, and no matter how hard Tristan was being on him during practice, Arthur never complained. It soon became clear to Tristan that his constant picking on Arthur, especially after his victory, wasn’t exactly chivalrous and could seem petty in the eyes of the knights and soldiers. He realised he had to make a grand gesture to defuse the impression, and restored Arthur’s position as captain of patrols.
It was a small victory, brought on by diplomacy rather than brawn, but Arthur took it. Organizing patrols gave him freedom to spend time away from Tristan and to interact with the knights without his or Nimueh’s watchful eye.
Subtly, Arthur began to distinguish a circle of those whom he trusted implicitly and whose loyalty to him was absolute. They were, first and foremost, Lancelot, Leon, Percival, Kay, Caradoc, Pellinore, Owain, Pelleas, Galahad, Gareth, and Guinevere’s little brother Elyan, whose knighting had been postponed by Tristan’s interference.
“You’re doing a great job on patrols,” Morgana told Arthur during a lull at the feast some time later. “People love seeing their prince defending their villages from bandits and keeping the roads safe.”
Arthur was moody. “It won’t matter much at the tourney, will it?” he grumbled. “I still can’t beat him.”
Morgana bit her lip. “I’ve been watching him practice. He’s still as invincible as ever.” She sighed. “Arthur, you have to withdraw.”
“I can’t withdraw.” Arthur snorted humourlessly. “I might as well abdicate right now.”
“But he’ll kill you,” Morgana hissed, her fingers gripping his wrist painfully. “He can see that people respect you, no matter what he does. And tournament is supposed to be a fair fight. No one will suspect if he – you have to pull out.”
“And what happens if I do?” Arthur asked quietly. “Should I just step down and let him slaughter whoever steps in my place? Lancelot, perhaps? Leon? Owain?”
Morgana’s cheeks flushed at the mention of her current favourite.
Arthur scowled into his goblet. “I can’t withdraw. If saving my friends is the only thing I can do by facing him, then so be it.”
He got spectacularly drunk after Morgana excused herself, and barely made it to his quarters before passing out.
The tournament went the way Arthur had expected. He and Tristan were steadily making their ways towards the finals. Arthur had never had such strange duels with his knights as he did now when they faced him one by one at the arena. They seemed almost torn between desire to knock him out of the competition and unwillingness to injure him so that he’d have a fighting chance against his uncle.
Arthur glared at them, and he wasn’t gentle. He never injured anyone too badly, but he thought they got the message.
Tristan made it clear that victory wasn’t everything he was after, when during the second day of the tourney he killed his opponent – a young, recently knighted man called Ewan. Arthur didn’t need to see Tristan mouthing at him ‘You’re next’ during that night’s feast to know what was coming.
The morning of the finals, Arthur woke up early, a heap of sun falling onto his face from an open window. Morris must have forgotten to close it again.
Or had he?
His heart beating madly in his chest, Arthur sprang to his feet and ran to the window.
There was a long, flat bundle wrapped in a red cloth – a very familiar red cloth. It reminded Arthur strongly of a cloak of his that had gone missing about three years ago, when Merlin had left the castle.
Grinning, Arthur grabbed the parcel and dumped it on the table, knowing even before he pulled at the strings binding it what he’d find inside.
It was a sword – the most beautiful sword Arthur had ever seen. He lifted it, reverently, unable to take his eyes off it. It had an almost perfect balance and felt light, yet not too light, in his hand. Arthur flicked his wrist and the sword sang as it cut the air, a beautiful, clear sound.
There were runes engraved along the blade in golden ligature. On the one side, it said, ‘Lift me up.’ On the other – ‘Cast me away.’
Arthur looked back at the discarded cloth and discovered another quill, slightly bigger than the first one, but undoubtedly taken from the same bird. There was also a message. Arthur’s fingers shook as he unfolded it; he couldn’t stop grinning.
Something tells me that you might have need of a special weapon. This sword was forged in dragon’s breath (don’t tell my father, please, he’ll have my head) and it can kill anything, alive or dead, creatures of flesh or magic. Now please, Arthur, listen to me, this is important.
NEVER let anyone else touch this sword. You don’t know its power, and you don’t need to, but believe me when I say it’s enormous. In the wrong hands, this sword can do great evil. Kilgahrragh told me that, and he’d never yelled at me like that before, not even when I accidentally sat on his tail, so I believe him. This sword was made for you and you alone. Don’t let it out of your sight.
I can’t write more – the Druids are very strict about this ‘complete isolation from the outer world’ business. If they catch me, I’m done for, so please, Arthur, PLEASE, don’t let me have risked my neck for nothing. Whoever’s out to get you, you’d better get rid of them, or I’ll dig out your corpse and turn it into something nasty.
P.S. Its name is Excalibur. I went through ten rounds of hell to make it, so try not to drop it in a pond, yeah?
Laughing out loud, Arthur glanced at his new sword with newfound appreciation before rereading the message – not for the warnings (they were quite infuriating), but for the inimitable rhythm of Merlin’s speech, insulting and caring and mostly laughing at Arthur.
After Morris had dressed him, Arthur looked at the bands of cloth that had held the wrappings of the sword together. They were clearly torn off a shirt, the thin, fine linen speaking for itself, its dark blue colour somehow so familiar.
Making a split second decision, Arthur grabbed one of the bands and tied it securely around his arm.
“Whose colours are you wearing, little princeling?” Tristan sneered as they faced each other. “I hope you said goodbye to her.”
Arthur didn’t reply. He bowed to Ygraine, who was hiding her nervousness with truly royal poise. Morgana was sitting beside her, pale and unnaturally still, her eyes glued to Arthur.
The queen dropped her kerchief, and the fight began.
Arthur had never felt more in his element. It was as if all his life had been leading to this moment – all his training, all his hard work coming to fruition. The sword Merlin sent him was flashing, light and certain, in his hand, swift like a lightning bolt.
The first time he had grazed Tristan’s shoulder, drawing blood, Tristan stared at him through the slit in his helmet, his disbelief pouring out of him. Arthur caught a glimpse of Nimueh, who was frowning. He swished the sword back into position, not allowing himself a moment of triumph.
It was almost unfairly easy after that. With every clash, every scratch that Arthur’s sword left on his body, Tristan grew more and more furious, forgetting the first rule of a swordfight – no emotions. Arthur held his own in check firmly, no matter how loudly his blood sang, revelling in this revenge.
He caught Tristan in counterattack, knocking the sword out of his hand and tripping him backwards. Tristan landed heavily on his back, his helmet sliding off with a clang. The spectators gasped loudly, and the arena erupted in deafening cheers.
“Go on,” Tristan spat, as Arthur pressed the tip of his sword to his throat. “Kill me! I know you want to.”
Arthur stared down at him, chest heaving, heart threatening to beat out of his chest, and realised he had won.
He pulled back.
“Go home, Tristan,” he ordered. “Leave my castle and never come back.”
Arthur turned away from Tristan, greeting the cheering audience and beaming at Morgana, who was hugging Gwen in the stands.
People would say later that bandits attacked Tristan’s party on their way home. The ambush was cunning, and there were no survivors.
Arthur would look at Nimueh then, at the small hint of a smile curving her lips.
His coronation was to be held a year from now, and Arthur knew that the battle for his rightful place had only just begun. He sent a party to bring Balinor and Hunith back to Camelot, but, to his surprise, Lancelot returned alone.
“Balinor said he’d come on a moment’s notice should you need him,” Lancelot told a concerned Arthur. “But he doesn’t want to move back for good.”
“Why? Didn’t they like it here? Before Tristan, I mean?”
Lancelot looked at him in a way that suggested Arthur was missing something again. “Sire, they had a set of chambers in Camelot. In Edwhir, they have a home.” He fiddled with his sleeve. “You should have seen the Lady Hunith. I’ve never seen her so – so confident. So happy.”
“Oh,” Arthur said, numb. “Right. I just thought—”
“She sends her love.” Lancelot’s tone was quiet.
Arthur nodded. He felt as if he failed his friends somehow. But of course Hunith would want a house of her own – what woman wouldn’t? Arthur should have taken care of it a long time ago, while they were still in Camelot. Maybe they would have still been here then...
“Merlin is going to kill me,” Arthur muttered. If he was feeling the absence of Hunith and Balinor so acutely, he could only imagine what it’d be like for Merlin.
Lancelot glanced up. “Balinor said Merlin already knows.” He paused. “Arthur, it’s their decision. It’s not your fault.”
Arthur frowned and didn’t answer. Lancelot may have been right, but it didn’t make him feel any better.
Will Williamson (Arthur seriously couldn’t believe some people) was a tall, sturdy fellow with short brown hair cut like a particularly chunky bowl and an expression of disgust lurking in the teal of his eyes as he surveyed the courtyard.
Arthur hated him on sight. He didn’t even know why he’d agreed to meet a commoner asking for an audience, considering it wasn’t even petitioners’ day. He probably wouldn’t have if the castle didn’t feel so heavy and oppressing these days, with Nimueh’s fake smiles following Arthur’s every move.
“I’m Prince Arthur of Camelot,” Arthur said to the peasant, who barely even bowed. If anything, he looked like he wanted to punch Arthur in the face, not show respect before the heir to the crown. “What is your business here?”
The man reached into his pocket and produced a quill – a very familiar-looking quill.
Arthur had to grab it out of his hand. “Where did you get this?”
“He said you would help.” The insolence of Will’s challenge was almost enough to cover the hope that saturated his voice. “I think that you’re just another snotty rich git who can’t be bothered to lift his arse and help common people, but he said – he said you’d help. That you’re different. Are you, Prince Arthur of Camelot?”
His tone was glaringly mocking, and Arthur wanted nothing better than to test the firmness of Will’s jaw with his fists. But the quill was warm, soft, and familiar in his hand, and Merlin trusted him.
Gritting his teeth, Arthur asked, “What do you need?”
The expression of astonishment on Will’s face was more than enough payoff.
Of course, Merlin couldn’t ask for something easy, could he?
The next day’s dawn saw Arthur riding with a small company of his trusted knights into a hostile kingdom to protect a small village from bandits. There was nothing significant about Ealdor, except that Hunith was from there, and Merlin used to visit it with her for a couple of months every other summer.
Evidently, he had also befriended this great oaf Will, who was viciously trying Arthur’s nerves by riding alongside him and telling him exactly what he thought of people born into wealth and nobility. The other knights thought it was entertaining, so Arthur didn’t shut him up, but his thoughts were mostly consumed by Merlin.
Merlin, who never told him about Will.
Arthur couldn’t help looking over the other man every once in a while, trying to see what it was that Merlin found so attractive. Arthur saw nothing he liked, but he supposed Merlin wouldn’t agree. Merlin wasn’t born into nobility, either. He might have had better manners (sometimes), but he had always been fiercely proud that his place at court was earned by what he did, not who he was.
Yes, Arthur could grudgingly see how Merlin would take to Will like a duck to water.
For some reason, it was quite a disturbing thought.
Defending Ealdor from Kanan and his goons was the most fun Arthur had had in years. If his communications with Merlin weren’t so damnably one-sided, Arthur would have gladly told him as much.
As it was, he had to suffer through Will’s, “You know, you’re probably not as bad as the rest of them. And well, um, thanks.”
Arthur glared at him, smiled at the happy villagers who came to see them off, and wished them a good harvest.
Back at the castle, his chambers were perfectly warmed, lit, and empty, with a clean scent of loneliness lurking in every corner.
Back when Arthur was still a child, Morgana had teased him mercilessly for his chubbiness in an expression of what he now knew to be sisterly affection (and had seemed like pure evilness at the time). One day he yelled at her, bragging that when he grew up, girls would be fighting over him.
He didn’t think he’d find it to be quite so accurate.
Arthur had never in his life understood the concept of being romantic, but even he realised that saving a beautiful girl in the woods from big, bad bandits who threatened her virtue definitely warranted some feelings.
Sophia of Tír-Mòr was breathtakingly lovely and sweet and looked at Arthur with such unabashed adoration that he simply had to spend more time in her company. She smiled, she kissed him, she made that nagging feeling of some indistinct longing that had been his constant companion for years now go away.
There was a certain point after which Arthur remembered things very distantly. Like Sophia saying the word ‘elope’ and the coolness of her hand in his and the walk through the woods.
The next thing he knew, Arthur was walking into a lake in his armour, and Sophia was kissing him goodbye. It was vaguely nice, if confusing.
Then there was another girl, dark-haired, with skin that looked faintly green, and she was drenched as if she had – well, drowned.
And then the two girls were fighting viciously, with claws and hair pulling, while Arthur slowly sank into the lake, unable to appreciate the show.
Suddenly, there were strong, willowy arms around his waist pulling him up, breaking the surface of the water. Arthur gasped for breath, his lungs burning. He could turn his head just barely and there was the dark, greenish-looking girl. Arthur still couldn’t feel his limbs properly, and that solved the dilemma of helping her or resisting.
“Gods, you weigh a ton,” she hissed in his ear, tugging him towards the shore. “Merlin owes me so much for this.”
Arthur spluttered, coughing up water. “Merlin? You know Merlin?”
“Yes. He says hello. He also says to tell you that next time you feel like getting a girlfriend, he’d be grateful if you at least stayed away from the Sidhe.”
“Could have told me that himself,” Arthur complained petulantly. “But he never talks to me anymore. Who the hell are you, anyway?”
“I am the Lady of the Lake. Merlin knows me as Freya.”
“Freya. Nice to meet you, I guess. I’m—”
“—incredibly stupid and rude. Yes, Arthur Pendragon, I have noticed.”
Arthur rolled his eyes. “All my friends love him. All his friends hate me.”
“It seems to be a telling kind of pattern.”
She pushed him out onto the sandy shore unceremoniously, retreating back into the water at once.
“Wait!” Still moving sluggishly, Arthur rolled over to face her. “Merlin – you talked to him. Did he say when he was coming home?”
She cocked her head, studying him. Arthur looked his fill, too. He supposed she was quite attractive – once one overlooked the whole not-really-alive thing. The thought was distinctly unpleasant.
On the other hand, if he tilted his head to the side just a little, she looked a little like a wet hissy cat. Which, in Arthur’s opinion, was a marginal improvement.
“You care about him,” Freya said at last, her dark, disconcerting eyes boring into Arthur.
Arthur had no reason to blush. He blamed it on the remnants of Sophia’s enchantment.
“Of course I care!” He tried not to sound defensive. “He’s my friend.”
The slight smile playing on Freya’s lips vanished. “He is my friend as well, Arthur Pendragon. Know this: if you ever bring any harm to him, there will be no river, no stream or well or lake in Camelot that will be safe for you.”
The dizziness was still overwhelming, but Arthur struggled to overcome it. “You’re threatening me like a vengeful river god.” He narrowed his eyes. “You’re in love with him.”
Freya tilted her chin up defiantly. “I’m not the only one.”
“What is that supposed to mean?” Arthur coughed up more water. “Is he a Druid ‘Prince Charming’ now?”
Freya ignored him, melting gracefully into the water. “He will return to Camelot before you turn King. Remember my warning, Arthur Pendragon.”
“Wait!” Arthur shouted. “What did you mean, you’re not the only one?”
But Freya was gone, leaving him with nothing but the rippling circles on the surface of the lake.
“Great,” Arthur groaned, falling back onto the wet sand. “Just great. All your friends are lunatics, Merlin! You hear me? All of them!”
There was no answer, except for the wind cackling madly in the treetops.
A week before Arthur’s twenty-first birthday, there was still no sign of Merlin.
Arthur stood at the parapet on the western gallery, watching the servants hang the celebratory garlands. He felt the strangest urge to burn the eye-assaulting banners.
“You’re sulking,” Morgana said, sneaking up on him.
“Leon said you were downright evil during the morning practice. He also said Lancelot nearly punched you.”
Irritation flared up in Arthur’s chest like a flame. “So my knights spend their time gossiping now instead of sorting out their footwork? That explains a lot.”
“They are just concerned about you, Arthur,” Morgana said softly. “As am I.”
“He should be here,” Arthur grumbled. “It’s been four years. And Freya said... Well, it doesn’t matter what she said. He’s not here, is he?”
“You’re not yet King,” Morgana reminded him. “The coronation is in three months.”
“I know. I just thought he’d care, you know?”
Morgana was smiling at him.
Arthur glared at her. “What?”
“Oh, nothing,” Morgana said innocently. “Nothing at all.” She studied him pensively for a moment. “If I didn’t know better, I’d say you looked worried.”
Arthur sighed. “I am worried,” he admitted. “Merlin might be an idiot, but he’s always been good on his word. Now that Nimueh knows she can’t stop me assuming the throne, who do you think will be her next target? Camelot needs magical protection, and if Merlin’s not here—”
“You think she might do something to him so that you’d make her court sorcerer?”
Arthur nodded grimly. “She’s been awfully nice to me lately.” He bit his lip. “And Merlin still isn’t home.”
Morgana placed her hand over his carefully. “Merlin’s stronger than most people think, Arthur. I’m sure he’ll be fine.”
Arthur squeezed her hand gratefully. “I hope so.” He stared at the disgustingly cheerful banner hanging out of the window. “I hope so.”
The feast was magnificent, and Arthur tried very hard to appear happy. His mother was beaming at him, pride and joy making her look ten years younger. She was exceptionally beautiful in her regal, blood red gown, and Arthur was overwhelmed with affection.
Morgana sat, dangerously gorgeous, to his left, and Arthur pulled Lancelot into a seat to his right before Nimueh could take it. Lancelot kept throwing lovesick glances over Arthur’s shoulder to where Gwen was dutifully refilling Morgana’s cup, but otherwise remained a perfectly pleasant companion.
A few hours later, when the atmosphere in the Great Hall was more happily drunk rather than officially festive, Morgana grabbed both Arthur and Gwen by their hands and led them out of the castle, into the crowded streets outside the citadel where common people were also celebrating merrily. Most of the younger knights followed them out, and Arthur was finally relaxed enough to laugh freely, surprised and humbled by the depth of his people’s love for him.
“You deserve it,” Morgana whispered. “Tristan could never have this.”
Bonfires were laid out around the castle, and Arthur ended up watching the dancing crowd in the very same field where he and Merlin had stood against the bandits as children. The memory was a tugging, bittersweet sensation in his chest.
Whispers erupted suddenly over the field, making Arthur’s head jerk up in anticipation.
“The Druids. Look, here come the Druids.”
And indeed, a procession was emerging from the black line of the forest. Tall, hooded figures were marching slowly in a flying wedge, like an advancing army – only instead of fear, their presence commanded respect and fascination. The crowd was completely enraptured with them.
Arthur stood tall, knowing they were headed for him. His heart was beating madly in his chest, and he couldn’t help but sweep his eyes along the lines, searching for that one gangly figure. He couldn’t see Merlin anywhere, and disappointment was warring with dread inside his chest.
“Greetings, Arthur Pendragon,” the man at the head of the procession said, bowing in a manner that suited an equal rather than a vassal. “You have come of age tonight, and we came to bring you the blessings of the land and to test your intentions.”
Arthur frowned slightly. “Test my intentions?”
“You are a great warrior. But before we accept you as our king, we must know that the land itself accepts you. It is an ancient rite. No man could truly rule a land that does not want him.”
Arthur swallowed. Somehow, he had a bad feeling about this.
“Very well,” he said, straightening up even further. “Tell me what I must do.”
The Druid leader turned away from him, nodding at someone in the midst of the formation, and then—
It was Merlin walking towards him slowly, and Arthur almost swayed with relief but then, as he took in the man in front of him, he felt his heart trying to crawl into itself inside his chest, desperately seeking refuge.
It was undoubtedly Merlin, the same Merlin whom Arthur had known his entire life, but there was nothing of the gawky, awkward boy he remembered so well in this stunning young creature.
Tall, slender, strength hinted subtly in the broad line of his shoulders, in the whisper of muscles beneath the glorious stretches of creamy, pale skin, he walked confidently forward, bare feet gliding over the evening-wet grass. He was stripped from the waist up, his torso covered in the most exquisite ink patterns Arthur had ever seen, runes and symbols twining and curling in a mesmerising, mysterious display. Low, so low they went that looking at them felt almost indecent, and Arthur snapped his eyes up guiltily.
Shame flooded his veins as he realised what he had been doing. Merlin was so young, and his friend, and – and Arthur couldn’t stop staring.
Merlin’s face was free of ink, except for his eyes. Framed by smudged charcoal, they looked almost ethereal, too blue to be of this world. His lips were dark and glistening wetly, as if he’d only just been drinking some potent, viscous wine. There was a crown of grapevine leaves in Merlin’s hair that likened him to a forest spirit – wanton and innocent at the same time, like a mischievous child of a pagan god who lured travellers off their ways to seduce them into fate unknown.
Arthur couldn’t breathe. He wanted to pluck the leaves out of Merlin’s hair and throw a cloak over him to shield him from everyone’s staring eyes. He wanted to yell at him for making a spectacle of himself. He wanted to shake him, to remind him that he was still Merlin, Arthur’s Merlin. The boy with dimples and goofy smiles, not this manifestation of magical rebellion.
Arthur would do it, too, except he dared not touch him. He had a horrible, frightening feeling that he would not be able to stop if he did.
The Druids flanked Merlin, as he knelt at Arthur’s feet, holding up a silver goblet.
“You must drink from the Cup of Life,” the Druid leader said, making Arthur start.
He’d all but forgotten the man’s presence. Looking down at Merlin, who was peering up at him from under his lashes, the barest hint of a smirk curving his lips, felt like trial enough.
“It’s filled with the blood of the last dryad who walked this land. Our ancestors have preserved it. If her spirit accepts you, your reign will be blessed, and you will drink her blood as water. If it does not, it will turn to poison, and you will die. The choice is yours, Arthur Pendragon.”
Vaguely, Arthur heard someone gasping behind him, felt a movement as if to stop him. He lifted up his hand, a silent order to back off. Slowly, he placed his hands on top of Merlin’s holding the goblet.
Their eyes locked. Suddenly, a voice sounded in Arthur’s mind. Merlin’s lips weren’t moving, and it should have been scary, but somehow, it wasn’t.
‘Do not be afraid, my Prince. The blood has long gone into the earth. Grapevines have grown where it was spilled. The cup is full of wine, Arthur. Only wine. This is how the Druids preserved it. Have no fear.’
The wine tasted wild and fierce on Arthur’s tongue as he drank it down to the bottom. His head was spinning, and he felt at once euphoric and omnipotent, a surge of untamed, feral power striking through him like a lighting bolt.
He opened his eyes to find Merlin standing once again and grinning at him. The faintest whisper caressed his cheek.
“Happy birthday, Arthur.”
Around them, the people of Camelot were dancing and cheering.
It was late in the afternoon the next day when Arthur went in search of Merlin. The events of the previous night weren’t as clear in Arthur’s head as he would have liked them to be – compliments of the Druids’ concoction, no doubt. The only thing he was certain of was that Merlin wasn’t with him for the better part of it, much to Arthur’s irritation and ambiguous relief.
There was something about Merlin last night, something that made it dangerous to be around him. Arthur couldn’t make sense of his own thoughts. He just wanted to find Merlin sooner and make sure that everything was as it had been between them.
Merlin never used to have chambers of his own in the castle before he left, so it took Arthur some time, as well as several inquiries, to track him down. As it turned out, Merlin had commandeered one of the inner towers, magically expanding the inner section to serve as living quarters.
The door stood half-open when Arthur approached, and he stepped over the threshold hesitantly.
Merlin was unpacking. He was facing away from the door, focusing on arranging his impressive collection of ancient volumes on newly constructed shelves. Alerted by the sound of Arthur’s entrance, he turned towards the door, and Arthur froze, his throat constricting painfully.
If he thought that seeing Merlin in the light of day without that otherworldly look to him or, God forbid, leaves in his hair, would make last night seem like a particularly devious nightmare brought on by too much wine, Arthur was grossly mistaken.
Merlin was thankfully clothed, his charcoal breeches and crimson tunic speaking for a better taste than Arthur remembered him having. There was no sign of ink anywhere on him, and Arthur realised, with an unexpected twinge of regret, that the runes painted on him last night must have been ceremonial and therefore temporary.
The trouble was, Merlin wasn’t any less a presence for any of it. Arthur’s gaze was as reluctant to leave the tender dip between his collarbones as it had been the previous night, and he seemed unable to help it.
A smile bloomed with breathtaking swiftness on Merlin’s lips the moment he saw his visitor.
His voice was yet another punch to the gut; its deep low cadence new and unfamiliar but gripping deep to the bones, a vague hint of accent that hadn’t been there before but that was way, way too hard to ignore.
When Arthur failed to respond, Merlin’s smile faltered slightly, uncertainly. “Um, Sire? I’m sorry if I—”
As if a spell had been broken, Arthur was finally able to move. He grinned, walking the rest of the way inside the room and clasping Merlin’s shoulder. “Welcome home, Merlin.”
Merlin beamed at him, and Arthur realised suddenly that Merlin was slightly taller than him now. The thought was... disconcerting in a vaguely promising sort of way.
Arthur cleared his throat. “It’s good to see you.”
Merlin was still smiling, but his expression turned mildly puzzled. “It’s good to see you, too.”
Realising he was still touching Merlin, Arthur pulled back, embarrassed, taking a few steps across the room. “So. This is where you chose to reside?”
Merlin nodded, looking around. “It’s close enough to the council chambers, but independent enough so that I wouldn’t disturb anyone when working.” He frowned minutely. “Unless you’d rather I picked somewhere else?”
“No, no, this is perfectly fine. You’re close enough to my chambers, too.”
“Yes,” Merlin said, ducking his head for a moment.
The silence was awkward, and Arthur felt it keenly, searching for something else to say. He had never felt awkward around Merlin in his entire life, and it was painful. He almost wished for a horde of magical creatures to attack the castle right now, so that he and Merlin could shake off this nonsense and fight back to back, like they used to.
“So,” Arthur drawled finally, after clearing his throat another couple of times. “How – how were the Druids?”
“Oh, grand,” Merlin replied at once, sounding way too happy for something to say. “Really. I learned a lot – about the land, about the kingdom—”
“And about magic?”
“And about magic,” Merlin agreed, chuckling. “They are very particular about theirs. It’s all ritualised, timed, and structured. Very natural – as in close to nature.”
“Yes, I kind of got that impression last night,” Arthur told him dryly. “What with the ivy crown in your hair and all.”
“Oh, that.” Merlin laughed, embarrassed. “Yes, well. They thought it would be appropriate.”
“Really? They thought making you look like – like Pan would be appropriate?”
Merlin’s head snapped up. “Excuse you. In no way did any part of me resemble a goat.”
Arthur smirked. This, at least, was familiar territory.
Until Merlin’s eyes glinted dangerously, and he added, “Funny you should mention Pan, though. I kind of met him. He’s actually a bit – shy.”
Arthur stared. “You met Pan?”
“You met Pan?”
“Yes. He was on his way to meet Cernunnos, and I sort of ran into them. Then, the Druids decided to conduct a ritual, and—”
“Cernunnos?” Arthur interrupted, thrown. “The horned god? The one who’s got the – the” – Arthur made a helpless if unmistakable gesture with his hand – “like a stag?”
Merlin frowned. “He’s a forest keeper and a fertility god. Of course he’s, well. Endowed.” He glanced away and added in a softer tone. “And the horns are beautiful actually.”
“Merlin,” Arthur said in a low voice. “What kind of ritual was it exactly?”
Merlin flushed but tilted his head up defiantly. “What kind do you think? You were the one who liked to stare at those frescos for hours at a time, remember? I’m sure you can extrapolate.”
Arthur swallowed. The frescos were explicit.
“And you – he – did he—?”
Merlin’s cheeks were scarlet now, and he looked away. “It was so that the land would prosper.”
“Oh God,” Arthur groaned. “Merlin.”
Merlin folded his arms across his chest defensively. “Arthur, he chose me. I couldn’t refuse him.” He paused. “And I didn’t want to.”
“Great.” Arthur shook his head. “That’s just fantastic. My best friend is a slut.”
“Oi! I didn’t get into it for me, you know.”
Arthur rolled his eyes. “So help me, Merlin, if you tell me you took part in a horned god’s orgy for the good of the kingdom—”
Merlin stared at him incredulously. “He’s Cernunnos, Arthur. I’d like to see you try and resist him when he’s seducing you.”
“Well, sounds like you tried really hard,” Arthur said dryly.
Merlin said nothing.
Arthur bored into him angrily for a long moment, before unclenching his fists with an effort. He didn’t even know why he was so angry. It wasn’t like he could defend Merlin’s honour by challenging a wayward pagan god who could probably devastate Arthur’s lands if he were sufficiently angered.
Which, considering Merlin’s many talents in the realm of infuriating people, Arthur should probably be grateful.
The thought must have occurred to them at the same time, because Merlin suddenly grinned and winked at him. Arthur shook his head, but his own lips were twitching.
“People are right,” he grumbled. “Druids and their rituals... Downright indecent, the lot of them. I should ban them from the kingdom for good.”
“Why?” Merlin tilted his head up curiously. “It’s not like they’re trying to make you take part in their rituals.”
They stared at each other for a moment, as the words sank in, and then burst out laughing. Every time one of them tried to stop, all they had to do was glance at the other to crack up all over again. In the end, Arthur had to wipe away tears; Merlin was clutching at his sides.
“God, I missed you,” Arthur blurted out unexpectedly.
Merlin looked at him, breathless with laughter, face flushed with joy. Arthur wanted to kiss him so badly at that moment it hurt.
Startled by the sudden impulse, he straightened up, distancing himself from Merlin’s pull.
This could not be happening. There must be something wrong, something very, very wrong with him. Something not even a healer could help.
“I have to go,” Arthur mumbled hoarsely, not meeting Merlin’s eyes. “Late patrol. I’ll see you around.”
Merlin’s face creased in worry. “Arthur, what’s wrong?”
“Nothing! I just forgot, and now I have to – sorry, talk to you later!”
Merlin looked puzzled and a little hurt, but Arthur couldn’t deal with it right now. He smiled the smile of the happily insane and ducked out of the room.
“Morgana, have you ever heard of the Druids casting a lust spell?”
Morgana blinked, looking up from where she was polishing a sword – something she didn’t trust the servants with.
“I beg your pardon? A ‘lust spell?’ Did the sun touch your head, Arthur?”
“No, I was just wondering if it’s possible at all…” Arthur trailed off awkwardly.
“Well, first of all, the Druids are peaceful and highly intelligent people. They don’t utilise such methods. You have gotten them confused with a Sunday fair trickster.” Morgana’s lips pursed in disapproval. “And second of all, have you seen the Druids? They don’t need any lust spells. Just ask any village girl or a noble woman, for that matter. Their husbands wouldn’t even blame them.”
Arthur cringed. “I have to say, Morgana, it is disturbing how little like a lady you sound sometimes.”
She smirked. “I grew up with you and your knights. What did you expect, curtsies and simpering?”
“Just – okay, fine, that was a stupid question. Sorry I bothered you.”
“Arthur,” Morgana called after him. “Is this about Merlin?”
Arthur stood absolutely still. “Of course not. Why do you ask?”
Morgana’s expression was all too knowing. “You’re not the only one who noticed that he... grew up,” she said slyly, her smirk returning. “I’d hurry up if I were you, before someone steals him from you.”
Arthur pressed his lips together tightly. “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
Morgana smirked. “Of course not. It must be some other crown prince who can’t keep their eyes off him ever since he came back.”
“It must be.”
“Funny, I’m almost certain I heard people call him Arthur. Popular name these days, apparently.”
Arthur gritted his teeth. “Morgana, drop it.”
Something in his tone must have been off, because Morgana had finally put her weapon aside and peered at him closely, her teasing smile fading.
“Arthur, what’s wrong?”
“Nothing. Stay out of this.”
“I don’t understand. I’m sure Merlin likes you, too; he’s always followed you around like a puppy. To be honest, I’m not even surprised. You’ve always been very close, and now that he’s all grown up and gorgeous to boot—”
“Morgana, I said drop it.”
She frowned. “Why are you being like this?”
“Because it can never be, Morgana!” Arthur slammed his fist into the nearest wall. “Because what I feel when I see him is – inappropriate and not right and can never be!”
Morgana stood up, looking torn between worried and angry. “Arthur, there’s nothing wrong with being in love.”
“There is – if you’re about to be king!” Arthur breathed heavily. “Do you think it’s been easy for me, looking at him every day since he returned, knowing that I can never touch him? Even if – even if – he wanted the same, we could never have that.”
“Because I must marry for the kingdom, not for love,” Arthur snapped.
Morgana fell silent as he glared at her.
Arthur took a deep breath, trying to reign in his emotions. “Camelot might be a stronghold of the Old Religion, but I still can’t marry a man. People would think—”
“Yes, I do wonder what people would think,” Morgana cut in dryly. “What would they think if their king were to ally himself with a Dragonlord and the most powerful sorcerer in Albion?”
Arthur closed his eyes. “Morgana—”
“What are you really afraid of, Arthur? You come in here raving about lust spells and duty and gods know what other nonsense, but that’s not the real reason. Why are you denying yourself something so wonderful?”
He peered at her for a long moment silently. At last he spoke in a quiet, resigned tone.
“Because it was never meant to be. I was born of magic. My father gave his life to create mine.” Arthur drew in a breath cautiously. “I was born – created – for one single design and purpose alone: to be king. I was never meant to be happy.”
He stepped towards her impulsively, squeezing her hands in his. “You are a Seer, Morgana. You know that I’m right. I know you can feel it.”
Tears glinted in the corners of her eyes, but Morgana blinked them away stubbornly. “The future isn’t set in stone, Arthur. You have to allow yourself to believe.”
Arthur gave her a sad smile and said nothing. Morgana pressed her forehead against his shoulder, and they stood like that quietly for a while.
The preparations for the coronation were underway, with honourable guests starting to arrive as early as three weeks prior to the event and the castle was abuzz with anticipation. Most days, Arthur tried to lie low, the castellan’s obsessive questions about what colour bed sheets Arthur preferred, convincing him that the man was utterly insane. Arthur felt very little guilt when he snagged Gwen from Morgana and pushed her into this mess. She rose to the task with a charming smile and a great deal of tact. Arthur considered giving her the position permanently.
Merlin was all over the castle, too – helping Gwen, chatting with the knights, having prolonged conversations with Gaius and Morgana, and generally being everywhere. A lot of his time was spent putting out fires set by the arriving sorcerers, who were all clearly aiming to be noticed by the future king.
Just last morning, Arthur saw Merlin chasing after what looked like an insane cross between a pig and a bat. The creature was spitting fire and Merlin was black as a chimneysweep, his eyes wide and wild, hair all over the place. As they passed him, the bat-pig neighing happily, coughing up glittering smoke, Arthur laughed so hard he had to lean against the wall for support. Merlin turned his head as he ran past, shooting something graphic and definitely disrespectful in Arthur’s general direction.
It almost felt like old times.
There was a conspicuous lack of Nimueh. Arthur was vaguely worried until Morgana told him she had overheard Nimueh arguing about something with Geoffrey of Monmouth in the far corner of the library. That was unusual in itself, as Nimueh rarely sought anyone’s counsel, least of all from the rambling historian. But as days passed and nothing unexpected happened, Arthur began to think that he might have been concerned over nothing.
He spent his time training the knights, hiding from Gwen and the castellan, and trying to avoid his mother, whose sudden fits of sentimentality were unexpected and embarrassing. There were only so many repetitions of ‘I remember when you were just a baby’ that Arthur could bear with a stoic face.
During the afternoon, Arthur was walking through the corridors in search of some peace and quiet when he noticed that the door leading up to Merlin’s chambers was open. Grinning, Arthur dived inside, counting the stairs as he climbed.
This newfound infatuation with Merlin didn’t go away as Arthur had hoped, but the time that had passed since Merlin’s return had made it almost manageable. Arthur would still feel a tight wave of heat wash over him every time Merlin walked into a room unexpectedly, but Arthur was used to suppressing that particular reaction by now.
Merlin, bless him, seemed to notice nothing.
“You would not believe the morning I’ve had,” Arthur started complaining even as he climbed the last of the steps. “I’m telling you, Merlin, this coronation is going to give me grey hair. Can you believe Morgana? She said—”
Arthur cut himself off midword as he pushed the door to Merlin’s room open.
Merlin wasn’t alone. There was a man sprawled in Arthur’s usual chair – tall and broad shouldered, built like a fighter. His clothes suggested that he was probably a mercenary, one of those swords for hire who deemed themselves adventurers. He was also quite striking, bright hazel eyes smirking at the world from either side of a rather noble nose and long hair thick and shiny enough to make most ladies cry with envy.
Arthur hated him immediately.
“Arthur.” Merlin smiled at him, warm and welcoming. Noticing Arthur’s gaze, he said carelessly, “Oh, this is Gwaine.”
Arthur lifted his eyebrows, regarding the stranger coolly. The fact that he was being subjected to the same treatment didn’t serve to improve his mood.
“And he is—?”
“He’s a friend of mine,” Merlin said, rising to his feet at last and walking towards them. “Gwaine, this is Prince Arthur Pendragon.”
“Your Highness.” Gwaine’s smirk was blatantly insulting.
After a moment beside them, Merlin cleared his throat. “Gentlemen, is this a private staring contest or can anyone join?”
Gwaine laughed and turned away from Arthur, clasping Merlin’s shoulder in what Arthur found to be an overly familiar manner.
“Merlin, my friend, you can join me in anything you want any time you like.”
Merlin grinned. “Stop it. We have company.”
Well, that was just too domestic for Arthur’s taste. “So… Gwaine. How do you know Merlin?”
Gwaine and Merlin started to speak at the same time.
“We met in a tavern near Ascetir—”
“Well, I got lost in the woods that one time—”
They looked at each other and burst out laughing.
Great, Arthur thought. Not only were they about to feed him some half-baked and clearly fake story, they couldn’t even get it straight.
“Well, to be fair, we’re both right,” Merlin said, grinning. “Depends on how you look at it. You see, Arthur, there was a little bit of accidental time travel involved, and—”
Arthur lifted up his hand. “Merlin, I already have a headache from listening to Morgana’s nagging for the better part of the morning. I don’t need the details of that particular blunder of yours.”
He glared at Merlin for good measure, but Merlin just mouthed the word ‘prat’ at him and shook his head.
“What are you doing in Camelot, Gwaine?”
Gwaine opened his mouth, but Merlin cut in. “That’s what I was trying to tell you. I invited him – I’ve seen him in action, and he’d make a great knight, Arthur.”
“Oh, really? Since when do you know anything about being a knight, Merlin?”
Gwaine frowned, but Merlin was undeterred.
“Look, Arthur, just give him a chance. Your final test is what, one minute against you in single combat?”
“I can make mincemeat out of you in far less than that,” Gwaine said with such casual aplomb that Arthur had to laugh.
“I applaud your audacity, but it won’t save you from ending up on your arse, Gwaine.”
Merlin rolled his eyes. “Oh, be off already, will you? You can always brag later.”
Arthur was just about to inform his misguided friend that Gwaine wouldn’t have anything to brag about, but that was the exact moment when Merlin lost his patience and kicked both Arthur and Gwaine out of his chamber.
An hour and a half later, Arthur was drenched in sweat and panting, no longer being able to summon enough energy to even glare at Gwaine, who seemed to be in a similar condition.
“Okay,” Arthur said, calling for a halt. “Okay, you can fight, I give you that. Merlin was right, you’re knight material.”
“I’m honoured, Sire.”
Arthur squinted at him. “You don’t seem too honoured. Do you even want to be a knight?”
Gwaine shrugged, lowering both his sword and dagger. “My father was a knight. I never knew him, but it can’t be that bad.”
Arthur looked up at the sky, begging for patience. He peered at Gwaine curiously. “So why are you doing it, then?”
Gwaine glanced over his shoulder towards the castle, taking his time sheathing his sword. “To help a friend.” When Arthur kept staring at him, Gwaine shrugged and grinned. “What? I don’t have too many.”
Arthur snorted. He had a feeling that, despite first impressions, he was going to like Gwaine quite a lot.
Nimueh set off her gambit three days before the coronation. She waited for the last possible moment to maintain plausible deniability and make the impression that she actually wanted to help.
Arthur wasn’t fooled.
“Merlin cannot stand with the prince during the coronation,” Nimueh told the assembled council members. “He has not yet passed his Rite of Vision. As high priestess of the Old Religion, I regret to say that I cannot allow Merlin to speak for magic of the land unless he completes the rite in three days.”
Arthur looked at Geoffrey of Monmouth, who was fumbling with his notes unhappily, and then looked over at Merlin, who was standing with his jaw clenched tightly, his back so painfully straight it might snap.
Arthur suppressed a sigh. He just knew this wasn’t going to end well.
Arthur knocked on the half-open door of Merlin’s room and stepped in without waiting for permission.
Merlin was packing. He looked at Arthur over his shoulder for a moment, otherwise ignoring him.
“You’re not seriously thinking of going.”
“Why?” Merlin pushed his bedroll into his bag haphazardly, cursing under his breath when it refused to stay put.
“Well, for one thing, you can’t even pack properly,” Arthur said, batting his hands away and righting the crumpled blanket.
Merlin left him to it, moving to find something on his bookshelf. Arthur watched him with growing concern.
“Merlin, I’ve spoken to Gaius. He says you’re too young to take the rite. No sorcerer under thirty has ever passed. In fact, most of them died.”
“I went to the Forest Temple last night and had a Vision, Arthur,” Merlin said breezily. “Obviously, I’m not too young.”
Arthur rolled his eyes. “Of course you did. You just never take it easy, do you, Merlin?” He shook his head. “It’s too dangerous. I can’t let you do it, not now.”
Merlin stared at him angrily. “I don’t understand. Do you actually want Nimueh to stand with you?”
“Of course not; don’t be an idiot. If you can’t stand with me, then I’ll stand alone.”
“But you can’t.” Merlin’s tone was filled with earnestness and desperation. “Camelot is a kingdom built on strength and magic. It is the way of things; it has been since before your father conquered it. And you – oh, Arthur. Your reign is supposed to be the Golden Age. Magic must pledge its allegiance to you, and if it’s not through me, then I – then there’s no purpose to me at all.”
“God, Merlin, what utter nonsense,” Arthur snapped. “Your magic has saved my life countless times. It saved the kingdom more times than I can recall. I don’t care what some stupid old hag thinks. You don’t have to prove anything to me.”
“Oh, but I do.”
Merlin was suddenly right in front of him. Arthur blinked. When had he moved so close?
“You don’t understand, do you?” Merlin said with a sad smile. “Arthur, I’ve known you my whole life. You can be a prat sometimes, sure, but I’ve seen you do things – extraordinary things. Your devotion to your people rivals no one. You’re harder on yourself than anyone, yet forgiving of others. You truly are the first knight – in battle, in courage, honour, and generosity. When you lead your men, you’re like a torch, Arthur. They can feel your light, even if they can’t see it. It’s in their hearts.” He bit his lip, paused. “And it’s in mine.
“Arthur, don’t you see? To me, to us, to all of us… you’re everything.”
Arthur’s chest was aching from the breath he forgot to release.
Merlin’s fingers skimmed lightly over his temple, sliding down to the line of his jaw, resting there, warm and gentle.
Arthur dared not breathe.
“You’re everything,” Merlin repeated, voice barely louder than a whisper. “You deserve only the best, and if I’m not it—”
“You are. Of course you are.”
Merlin smiled, ducking his head for a moment. Arthur fought not to bury his face in Merlin’s hair. It was unfair how much he wanted.
“You don’t know that,” Merlin said softly. “I don’t know that. I intend to find out. For you. And if I don’t come back—”
“Stop saying that. You’re not going. I forbid you.”
“—then I’m sorry about this.”
For a moment, Arthur thought Merlin was going to kiss him. But then a light whisper ghosted over his temple, and the world went dark and quiet.
Arthur came to, feeling as though his head was about to explode. It was dark in the room, and starlight was seeping in through the tall windows.
Gwaine’s face was hovering over Arthur, frowning in the darkness. Merlin was nowhere to be seen.
“Oh God – he left, didn’t he?” Arthur groaned, sitting up clumsily. His whole body ached from lying motionless in an awkward position. “That idiot. I’m going to murder him.”
Gwaine didn’t look happy. “You might want to hurry, then. I fear Merlin has a good head start.”
“Do you know where he went?”
Gwaine shook his head grimly. “No. I only just heard of the quest at all.”
“Right,” Arthur said, thinking quickly. He grabbed Gwaine’s arm. “We need Morgana.”
Gwen opened the door to her lady’s chambers, her face drawn with worry.
“Arthur?” She blinked in surprise. “I mean, Sire – this really isn’t a good time, the nightmares are keeping her awake; she’s very weak—”
“I’m sorry,” Arthur said, brushing past her into the room. “This can’t wait.”
“Arthur!” Morgana was sitting up in her bed, knees pulled towards her chest. She was shaking, her eyes bloodshot and wild.
“I’m sorry, Morgana, I’m so, so sorry,” Arthur repeated urgently, sitting beside her and taking her hands in his. “I need to know where Merlin is.”
“No!” She jerked in his grasp reflexively. “You know I can’t See him. Arthur, please don’t make me, please, it hurts so much when I try...”
She was hysterical, desperate, and Arthur’s heart clenched in sympathy and guilt, but he had no choice.
“Morgana, he’s in danger. I don’t trust Nimueh for one second. I have to know what was revealed to Merlin in his Vision.”
Morgana felt suddenly lax in his arms. “That I can tell you,” she whispered. “His Vision was so powerful – every Seer in the kingdom must have felt the echoes last night. And I – I Saw—”
“What?” Arthur clasped her hands in a grip that must have been painful. “Morgana, what did you See?”
Her lips trembled. “He went to the Perilous Lands.”
Arthur blanched. “No.”
Tears rolled down Morgana’s cheeks. “No one has ever come back from there, you know that. Arthur, Arthur, I fear all is lost if you can’t save him. These nightmares, these dreams... They’ve never been so strong. I’m certain that Nimueh is behind them. She wants to drive me mad.” Morgana was trembling. “And she’s succeeding.”
“I’ll take care of that,” Arthur vowed solemnly. “Morgana, I’ll take care of you. I’ll bring Merlin back and everything will be all right. I promise. I promise.”
He glanced back at Gwen, who had obviously been restraining herself by sheer force of will. At the first sign from Arthur, she rushed to the bed, pulling Morgana gently into a soothing embrace.
Arthur exchanged a brief look with Gwaine then turned to leave.
“Arthur,” Morgana called after him. “Seek out the Keeper of the Bridge. He’ll help if you’re honest with him.”
Arthur bowed his thanks, mouthed a ‘take care of her’ at Gwen, and swept from the room, Gwaine at his heels.
As Arthur was about to mount his horse, Gwaine laid a hand on his arm.
“Arthur, I’ll go. You can’t leave Camelot now.”
Gwaine frowned. “Your coronation is in two days. You know the law; if you’re not there, if anything happens—”
Arthur cut him off. “Then we’ll just have to make sure it doesn’t. Merlin and I will both be back for the ceremony in time.”
Gwaine narrowed his eyes. “You’re risking the future of your kingdom for one man.”
Arthur hopped onto his horse, pulling at the reins. “If you’re coming, you’d better hurry up, Gwaine,” was all he said before breaking into a gallop, rushing out of the castle gates.
The Keeper of the Bridge turned out to be a dwarf-like fellow with a nasty smirk.
“So, Courage and Strength have arrived at last,” he drawled by means of greeting, looking up both Arthur and Gwaine in a most infuriating manner. “About time, too. Magic is fading.”
“What do you mean by that?” Arthur snapped. “Where’s Merlin? Is he all right?”
The Keeper squinted at him curiously, seemingly in no hurry to let them pass. “So much concern for one warlock. Why not find another? In your land, they are aplenty.”
“I don’t have time for this.” Arthur stepped towards the bridge. “Please let us through. My friend is in danger; I need to find him. Please. Please.”
The Keeper regarded him for a moment silently, evaluating. At long last he smirked. “Such humility is uncommon in those of royal blood. It’s quite refreshing.” His eyes glinted. “I will let you pass, Arthur Pendragon, if you leave me your most prized possession.”
“What do you mean—” Arthur started, but he already knew the answer wouldn’t be forthcoming.
‘He’ll help if you’re honest,’ Morgana had said.
Arthur’s fingers curled around Excalibur’s hilt reflexively. Merlin said never to let the sword out of his sight, but Merlin was in trouble now and the Keeper’s eyes saw too much, looked too deep. He’d know if Arthur lied.
Gritting his teeth, Arthur pulled the sword out, handing it over. It felt like committing the worst kind of treason.
The Keeper smirked, wrapping his hands around the weapon. Arthur clenched his fists, feeling like a man forced to watch as someone pawed at his wife.
“The price is fair,” the Keeper said. “You have shown yourself an honest man, Arthur Pendragon. You will be rewarded. Your sword will be placed where none but you could wield it. When the time comes, if you’re still deserving, you will have it back.”
“Thank you,” Arthur said, feeling naked and powerless without his trusted weapon. “Now please, can we pass?”
The Keeper stepped out of the way, giving Arthur a mock bow.
Somehow, Arthur didn’t think punching him would be a great idea.
They found Merlin about five hours later. He hadn’t managed to get very far into the Perilous Lands, and his five companions might have had something to do with it.
“Slave traders,” Gwaine said in disgust as he and Arthur crouched behind a rock, looking down at the scene below. “That man over there is Jarl. He usually scavenges Cenred’s border. Someone must have paid him handsomely to go this far from home.”
Arthur hardly even heard him. His eyes were glued to Merlin, who was on his knees, bound to a burnt tree carcass, his hands tied before him. His head was bowed, but Arthur could see the gag in his mouth. Blood was trickling down from the corner of his lips, crimson droplets standing out sharply against the pale skin.
The five bandits surrounding him were apparently amusing themselves by throwing stones and dirt at the prisoner. Merlin looked barely conscious.
“Bastards,” Gwaine spat quietly.
Arthur went nearly blind with fury as he watched. Jarl stepped forward and pulled Merlin’s head back roughly, rude fingers grabbing a fistful of the rich dark hair, tugging painfully. Even from a distance, Arthur could feel the heat of Merlin’s glare as Jarl ran his free hand in a mockery of a caress along Merlin’s lips, stretched painfully around the crude gag.
“Dammit!” Gwaine swore. “Why doesn’t he use his magic?”
“I don’t know,” Arthur pushed out through gritted teeth. “But that man will be missing an arm before he dies.”
It was five against two, and Arthur was missing a weapon; it probably called for a bit of strategic thinking but Arthur couldn’t bear it.
With a growl, he sprang forward, rolling over and knocking the first man out before he even finished turning towards the sound. Grabbing the bandit’s sword, Arthur sprang to his feet, launching for Jarl instantly. Gwaine was at his side in the blink of an eye, holding his own against three opponents.
It went down too fast to be satisfying. The bandits were caught completely by surprise and didn’t really have the time to recover before it was all over. Despite his promise, Arthur ran the blade through Jarl’s heart the first chance he got, pushing him off his sword with his foot and wishing he could kill him twice, thrice, a dozen times for every time he laid a finger on Merlin.
Time was short, though, and Arthur was trained too well. He whirled around to find two of Gwaine’s marks already on the ground, unmoving. As Arthur watched, Gwaine knocked the sword from his last opponent’s hand, caught it, and delivered the final blow in the span of one speedy motion. He really was a swordsman like no other.
Barely even nodding at him, Arthur dropped to his knees beside Merlin.
“Merlin. Merlin, can you hear me? Here, let me get this out.” Arthur reached for the gag. “Gwaine, cut these damn ropes off.”
Merlin groaned as Arthur pulled the gag out of his mouth as gently as he could. His bindings came off, as Gwaine sliced through them deftly, and Merlin slumped forwards helplessly. Arthur caught him by the shoulders, looking into his face.
“Merlin, are you all right? Merlin. Talk to me, dammit. Merlin.”
Merlin nodded finally, the movement weak and groggy. “What are you doing here?” he whispered hoarsely.
Gwaine was already holding a waterskin to his lips, and Merlin drank gratefully, every gulp strained.
Still shaking with anger, Arthur reached for his knife to cut the ropes binding Merlin’s wrists. To his surprise, Merlin jerked away from him awkwardly, his limbs still asleep, panic flashing across his eyes.
Something clenched tight in Arthur’s chest at the sight.
“Merlin, you idiot.” He was barely able to find his voice. Merlin had never recoiled from him in his life. “I’m not going to hurt you.”
Merlin just shook his head vehemently. “No, Arthur, no, don’t – wait!”
Arthur yelped, the knife cracking in his hand, a sharp stab of heat cutting through him the moment he touched the ropes. Merlin cried out sharply, tensing all over, before biting hard on his raw lips to muffle the sound.
“What the hell?” Gwaine stared.
Breathing heavily, obviously in pain, Merlin managed, “The rope... dvimerit threads... to block my magic. They had a net, too.” He pulled his legs from under himself with a groan, slumping against the tree, cradling his bound wrists to his chest. “No blade will cut these. Unless—” His eyes searched Arthur’s belt. “Arthur, where’s Excalibur?”
Arthur threw away the useless knife and stared at him guiltily.
Merlin blinked. “You’ve got to be kidding me.”
His hand trembling slightly, Arthur reached to wipe the blood off Merlin’s chin, and said nothing.
Their progress towards the remains of the Fisher King’s castle was painfully slow. Arthur walked ahead, clearing the path, and left Gwaine to look after Merlin, who had a couple of cracked ribs and was covered in cuts and bruises all over.
Merlin’s magic was tied as tightly as his swollen wrists were, preventing him from healing. Though, truth be told, Merlin had never been much of a healer anyway, Arthur thought grimly. For all his love of peace, Merlin’s Gifts spoke of his great potential as a battle mage first and foremost, though Merlin always denied it.
Gwaine had one hand on the small of Merlin’s back and another on his elbow, steering him along. Merlin bit his lips against the pain whenever he stumbled, but walked stubbornly on. He wasn’t mad at Arthur for giving up Excalibur, but he was mad at Arthur for coming at all.
Arthur was mad at Merlin, too. The idiot had outright refused to abort his quest in view of his condition. How Merlin was going to lift the curse off the entire realm of the Fisher King while being barely alive and cut off from his magic, Arthur had no idea. He drew the line, though, when Merlin ordered him, forgetting his place yet again, to go back home and ‘get crowned, for goodness’ sake.’
If Gwaine hadn’t been there to interrupt their shouting match, they’d probably have still been at it.
They were nearly at the castle’s gates when the wyverns attacked them.
Arthur and Gwaine pushed Merlin back without so much as a glance at each other, ignoring his protests.
“Stop!” Merlin yelled. “Stop before you hurt them; they’d never listen to me if you do!”
“Merlin, stay out of the way!” Arthur barked.
But Merlin had never been good at following orders. Arthur thought that having his magic stripped from him would make him less careless, but clearly Merlin was too far gone to see sense.
He ducked under Gwaine’s sword and jumped away from Arthur’s reach, meeting the descending creatures head on.
“Merlin – the hell are you doing?” Gwaine bellowed as Arthur roared wordlessly, torn between the urge to protect Merlin or to kill him.
Ignoring them both, Merlin threw his head back and shouted in the deep, guttural tongue of the Old Religion. The wyverns were now surrounding Merlin, circling him and huffing menacingly as he continued speaking to them in a voice that seemed to be coming straight from the underworld.
Every instinct in Arthur screamed at him to strike before the beasts changed their minds. Beside him, Gwaine’s sword was quivering in sympathy. Merlin was still talking.
After what seemed like an eternity, the wyverns visibly hesitated before, one by one, they headed back into the skies.
Arthur stared. “But I thought – Merlin, your father is still alive. I thought you’d only become a Dragonlord when he died?”
Merlin slumped tiredly, leaning heavily against Gwaine, who’d jumped to his side.
“No, you’re right,” Merlin confirmed, wincing as he brought his bound wrists to his chest. “I couldn’t order them to do anything, but I could talk to them.” He glanced back at the black dots in the sky and shrugged awkwardly. “I guess they listened.”
“That was stupid; they could have bitten your head off,” Gwaine grumbled, wrapping a cautious arm around Merlin’s shoulders, staring at him with reproach. “Though I’ll be damned if it wasn’t incredibly brave, too.”
Merlin smiled at him, before ducking his head.
Arthur turned away abruptly, something dark and ugly churning in his stomach. “If you’re done making eyes at each other, we have a quest to fulfil.”
He didn’t bother waiting for them as he stomped inside the castle.
The search of the castle was slow and fruitless.
“You know, it would be more helpful if we knew what we’re looking for,” Arthur grumbled. Merlin tried his best to conceal his condition, but he was steadily fading, as if he needed magic to sustain him. Seeing him struggle did nothing to improve Arthur’s mood.
“I’m sorry,” Merlin muttered, leaning against the wall for a moment of respite. “This part of the Vision wasn’t really clear.”
Arthur rolled his eyes. “Is it ever? God, Merlin, you’re shaking.”
“I’m fine,” Merlin said instantly, pushing himself off the wall.
He looked feverish, a thin sheen of sweat glistening on his temples. Arthur had to suppress the urge to reach out and wipe it for him. Merlin’s lips were pressed together in a stubborn line, and Arthur knew better than to argue with him. He knew all too well what it felt like to be exhausted and hurting to the point where a single look of sympathy could undo you.
He’d allow Merlin his dignity for as long as Arthur could bear it. Looking at him now, it was all Arthur could do not to sweep Merlin into his arms and carry him.
“I think we’d better split,” he said aloud, glancing around the gloomy halls. “Cover more ground. Gwaine?”
“Agreed.” The knight nodded. “I’ll check the East wing.”
His footsteps faded rapidly, as if the old castle was swallowing them. Arthur rubbed his forehead tiredly.
“Come along, Merlin. There has to be an answer somewhere.”
They walked along the dark gallery, checking all the archways and corners, but the only thing they found was devastation and abandonment.
“Look.” Arthur pointed at a half-opened door. “Looks like a throne room.”
It was. It was also completely empty, except for a massive, ancient chair in the middle of it, carved from some dark, stone-like wood Arthur had never seen before. Curious, he reached out to touch it.
“Arthur, no!” Merlin shouted, but it was too late.
The moment Arthur’s palm touched the chair, he was sucked forward, thrown into the seat by unknown forces, his arms and legs pinned down and held in place by luminous, unyielding restraints.
“No!” Merlin yelled again, anger and fear transforming his face into something dark and powerful. “Let him go! This is my quest, not his! You can’t do this! Take me instead!”
Arthur had half a mind to ask Merlin what the hell he was babbling about, but, at that moment, a most peculiar sensation washed over him.
Suddenly, he could hear his heart beating fast and steady in his chest, every beat echoing through his whole body, sending off a pulse of energy. Again and again, with sharp, quivering aftershocks – his heart was pumping not blood but something else, something even more vital, and it was sending it away, outside Arthur’s body, along the lines of the magical ropes restraining him and into the dark throne.
“No,” Arthur muttered, dizzy, as if he was losing blood. “What—?”
Merlin was frantic. He rushed to the door, probably to call Gwaine, but the massive door-leaves shut in his face, throwing him back.
“I have waited a long time for this, Emrys.” A croaky, ancient voice echoed under the crumbling ceiling. “And what a gift you have brought me.”
Merlin whirled around and Arthur managed to turn his head. The man who stood to his left now hadn’t been there a moment ago. This was, Arthur realised with abject horror, the Fisher King himself, and he was a vision. Time had drained him of strength, washed away his colour, but his magical powers were clearly still intact.
“Let him go,” Merlin half-pleaded, half-ordered. “The curse – it needs life force to be lifted, doesn’t it?”
Which explained why Arthur was feeling weaker by the moment.
The Fisher King laughed. “A curse? There was no curse. I created this throne to collect the power of my land.”
Merlin’s eyes widened in horror. “You drained your own land? All the people, the plants – everything? Why?”
The Fisher King squinted at him scornfully. “Are you naïve or stupid? A life of immortality is worth every sacrifice.”
“It wasn’t a sacrifice – it was murder! And now you’re killing him!”
“He is strong and powerful, the Promised Prince.” Arthur cringed at the look of hunger on the ancient face. “He will sustain me for a long time, Emrys. And when there’s nothing left of him, it will be your turn.”
Hands and feet tingling with cold, Arthur found it harder and harder to breathe, but he jerked in his restraints, pulling at them stubbornly.
“Merlin, don’t be an idiot,” he uttered with difficulty. “Get the hell out of here.”
Merlin’s eyes snapped to meet his own, even as Arthur’s voice left him. Silently, he begged Merlin to hear what he could no longer say.
Promised to protect you. It’s always been you. Run. Run, Merlin. Save yourself. Take care of my kingdom. Run. I’ll try to hold on as long as I can. Give you time. Hurry.
FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, MERLIN, RUN!
Something rumbled in the air between them, like a peal of thunder breaking over a silent field. An enormous surge of power rolled across the room, shaking the walls, rattling the broken windows, until finally coiling tightly around Merlin.
“No!” the Fisher King protested, alarmed. “Your magic is bound. You can’t—”
Arthur watched, helpless and fascinated, as Merlin’s eyes flared familiar gold, more intense than Arthur had ever seen them. Merlin’s silhouette was vibrating, shivering, the energy building up in him making him glow all over. The ropes on his wrists became red-hot and smoking, clearly burning his skin. Merlin blinked, and they burst into flames, making him yell and stagger – and then his hands were free.
He straightened up, roaring, unfolding swift and furious like a god of vengeance. Raw, blunt, untamed magic burst out of him in a devastating wave.
The Fisher King didn’t even have time to defend himself before being torn to pieces by the onslaught of power Merlin seemed to be unable to control.
The restraints of the throne fell off abruptly. Arthur, still dizzy, dazed by the sudden rush of energy flowing back into him, threw himself out of the chair barely in time. Under Merlin’s furious gaze, it exploded with a deafening sound, unleashing the life of the whole realm held prisoner by the Fisher King’s enchantment.
The room disappeared in a burst of white light. Though dazzling, it was also soft, warm, and happy. Arthur felt himself drifting, cradled gently by wave after wave of grateful, sentient sparks of colour twirling everywhere around him. Blue and red and golden, purple and silver, emerald and teal – the lights danced around him, talking to him in words he couldn’t understand, rejoicing in their freedom. Arthur smiled and smiled and smiled, and felt everything: every blade of grass growing, every flower blooming, every bird surging into the sky to meet the sun.
The Fisher King’s realm was restored, and the curse was no more.
Arthur came to probably only moments later, but he felt as though centuries had passed. He pushed himself off the floor and looked around, still disoriented. At the other side of the room a slim, broken figure was lying on a pile of debris, barely breathing.
Arthur rushed to him and turned him around gently, cradling his head. Merlin looked terrible, lifeless and spent, his wrists covered in angry burns, his eyes sunken deep, his lips void of colour.
“Merlin,” Arthur breathed. “Merlin, please. Not now. Please, please, God, not now.”
Merlin’s lashes fluttered faintly, and Arthur let out a sigh of relief as two familiar slivers of blue were revealed. Merlin stared up at him, blinking. A smile began to curve hesitantly on his lips, colour gradually seeping back into his features.
“You never listen, do you?” Arthur half-laughed, half-choked, holding him close. “God, Merlin, how did you do that?”
Merlin licked his lips, shaking his head gingerly. “I didn’t do anything.” He coughed as Arthur helped him sit up, reluctant to let go of him. “You did.”
Arthur pushed the fringe out of Merlin’s face, not even trying to resist. His fingers tangled in Merlin’s hair, lingering. “What did I—”
“Gave your life for mine, you stupid, stupid man. The throne was never designed to take what was freely given.”
Arthur stared at the angry red and black stripes curling up Merlin’s arms and swallowed. Burns like those would scar unless Gaius saw to them soon. Merlin would be half-sick from the pain once the adrenaline wore off.
“But you – you were bound, and your magic—”
Merlin shrugged, a smile lurking shyly in the corners of his mouth.
“It didn’t like seeing you on the brink of death,” he confessed, staring at the floor. “I couldn’t reach it, no matter how I tried, but when I saw you dying in that chair, it was—” He shook his head, searching for words. “It was like something broke inside of me. Then all I saw was fire.”
Arthur watched him, worried. “How are you feeling now?”
Merlin grimaced. “Beat. Sore.” He flicked his wrist, wincing, and the broken pieces of glass collected into an overgrown icicle. Merlin grinned wryly. “Normal. Ow.” He flinched, pressing an arm around his ribcage.
“I can see that,” Arthur said dryly. He stood up, bent over, and carefully gripped Merlin’s waist. “Come on, up. Gently, now.”
Merlin hissed through gritted teeth but pushed up to his feet, paling as he straightened to full height. He looked nauseated, and he was swaying.
“‘mfine,” Merlin managed. “You can let go now.”
Except Arthur didn’t want to, and he couldn’t help remembering that Merlin had never once told Gwaine to let go.
“What the hell happened here?” Gwaine demanded, bursting in through the doors. “Who shook the bloody castle?”
Merlin stretched his lips in a parody of a smile and tried to wave at Gwaine, but his knees buckled, and he would have ended up sprawled on the floor if Arthur hadn’t caught him.
“Right,” Arthur said, not feeling smug at all when Merlin had to sling an arm around his shoulders for support, clinging to Arthur as if he were a lifeline. “Time to go home. Don’t know about you two, but I have a coronation to attend in the morning.”
He half-helped half-carried Merlin down the stairs, refusing Gwaine’s offer to lend a hand even though, despite appearances, Merlin wasn’t exactly a lightweight.
The sun was shining as it set, the grass green and soft under their feet where nothing but dust and rubbles used to be. Merlin was slumped, warm and sharp-angled, against Arthur’s side. Arthur smiled softly all the way to Camelot’s border.
Arthur never admitted to being nervous, but he had thrown up twice before his first tournament. He had always thought that the coronation would be ten times worse, but, as it turned out, there was no room left for jitters of any kind.
On their way back from the Perilous Lands, they had only stopped once to give water to the horses, and yet they were very nearly late for the ceremony. Arthur was far more concerned with the way Merlin looked green and ready to faint as they rushed through Camelot’s courtyard.
They were immediately surrounded by knights and servants, who ushered Arthur into a chamber next to the Great Hall where his mother and the councilmen were waiting for him impatiently. As far as Arthur could tell, Merlin was swept off somewhere in his wake, but he couldn’t see him, no matter how much Arthur craned his neck to look.
Arthur was then distracted by Morgana, who pulled him into a tight embrace, whispering, “She fled the castle, Arthur. Nimueh fled!”
It was a relief to see Morgana back on her feet and not in pain, but when Arthur tried to get her to call Gaius, they were separated by the commotion.
Arthur was ushered into a corner behind a hastily erected screen. There were so many people around him, trying to tidy him up, change his clothes, or wash his face, that Arthur had a hard time concentrating on giving Leon the right order regarding immediately dispatching patrols on magical lookout. Leon was nodding as if he actually understood, and then Geoffrey of Monmouth, who proceeded to meticulously recite all the vows and steps of the upcoming ceremony, stole Arthur’s attention.
Upon catching a glimpse of Merlin, Arthur tuned out the droning tones automatically. He was standing at the other side of the room with a group of Druids, who seemed decidedly displeased. By the looks of it, the leader was reading Merlin the riot act. Arthur gritted his teeth, because couldn’t the idiot see that Merlin was swaying on his feet? Had everyone in the whole bloody castle gone blind?
Suddenly, Lancelot was there, looking impeccable and stunning in his full knight’s regalia.
Arthur grabbed his arm. “Get Gaius in here, would you?”
Lancelot frowned. “Arthur, I really don’t think there’s time—”
“Sire, you need to listen to me,” Geoffrey interrupted, frowning. “The fifth vow would be to protect and—”
Someone pressed down on his shoulders and Arthur stiffened instinctively until he realised it was Gwen. She glared at him, armed with three hair brushes at once. “Please keep still, Sire.”
“Sire, we’ve been checking the borders ever since Nimueh – are you sure you wish to—”
“—it is important that you do not change the order when naming your predecessors—”
“Can someone get His Highness another cloak?”
“No, not that sword, you stupid boy, go and get the ceremonial sword—”
“Would you like a glass of wine for your throat, Sire?”
“—and the seventh vow starts with—”
Arthur had had enough.
“EVERYBODY SHUT UP!”
At once a dead silence fell over the crowded chamber as everyone stared at Arthur in shock. It was incredibly satisfying.
“Thank you,” he said, glowering at them. “Now, you all need to listen to me. Merlin has been badly hurt, and if I don’t see the court physician checking him out in the next five minutes, I swear to God, you all have another thing coming.”
Someone gasped, and Arthur realised belatedly that Hunith and Balinor were also there – he had invited them personally to the coronation months back. There was a look of fear on Hunith’s face now.
That was also the exact moment when Arthur finally caught Merlin’s gaze. Perfect.
“His Highness is exaggerating, Mum,” Merlin said, glaring daggers at Arthur. “I’m fine.”
“No, His Highness really is not, Merlin,” Arthur intoned dryly, still too loud in the silent room. “And you’re not fine. I will not have you collapse and ruin the whole ceremony because you’re too damn stubborn for your own good. Lancelot, please, get Gaius.”
“Right away, my Lord.” Lancelot bowed, doing a poor job of hiding a smirk, and was off without another word.
“That’ll be quite enough, Guinevere,” Arthur said, his tone marginally calmer now, as he stepped away from Gwen’s ministrations. “Thank you.”
She curtsied. “Sire.”
“And Geoffrey, I appreciate your dedication, I really do, but you’ve had me memorising these vows for years, and if I haven’t by now, it’s likely I never will.”
Geoffrey seemed scandalised, but bowed reluctantly and headed for the Great Hall.
Arthur was finally able to take a breath, as the general level of noise in the room rose once again, albeit quieter than before. Ygraine walked over to him, her face a mixture of reproach and amusement.
Arthur blushed. “I’m sorry, Mother,” he said quietly. “I didn’t mean to shout, but they just wouldn’t listen.”
She looked up at him critically. “Arthur, you know I don’t condone rudeness, particularly in those of nobility. The higher your station, the more possibilities there are to abuse your power. Remember, you’re the servant of your people as much as they are yours.”
Arthur bowed his head. “I know.”
Ygraine smiled. “Look at me. You’re about to be crowned King, and here I am teaching you manners.”
Arthur grinned back sheepishly, taking her hands in his gently and lifting them to his lips. “I hope you never stop.” He pressed a kiss to each hand, overcome with affection. “And I am sorry. But it’s a long ceremony, and Merlin—”
“Yes.” Ygraine smiled slyly. “Merlin. You’d avert the end of the world if it saved him a headache, wouldn’t you?”
Arthur spluttered. “What?”
Ygraine peered at him in surprise. “You deny it?” She tilted her head pensively. “Arthur, you are my son. I know you better than anyone. Your temper is your father’s gift, but you are much better at controlling it than he ever was.” She bit her lip, smirking. “Except for the times when Merlin is hurt, upset, in danger, or not here.”
“It’s all right.” Ygraine squeezed his hand. “To be honest, on some level, I have known we were headed for this moment since you were five and force-fed him all your desserts.” She patted his cheek fondly. “I hate to break it to you, Arthur, but you don’t share well.”
“I am glad of this. At the very least it’ll save us the trouble of having to deal with some spoiled, bratty princess for a queen.”
“Mother!” Arthur hissed, flustered. “What are you saying?”
She frowned slightly. “Being coy really is an unattractive quality in a man, Arthur. You’re in love with Merlin, are you not?”
His cheeks burning, Arthur barely whispered, “… Yes. But – I can’t just – what about the kingdom? An heir?”
Ygraine shrugged delicately, seemingly unconcerned. “Arthur, an unhappy king doesn’t make for a strong leader. Politics are important, but personal happiness of a monarch should not be underestimated. Just look at the Fisher King. How do you think his story started?”
Arthur just blinked.
“And as for an heir” – Ygraine glanced at someone over Arthur’s shoulder – “I’m certain your sister can ensure the continuation of the Pendragon line.”
Arthur gasped. Ygraine smiled wryly. “Oh, yes, I know about Morgana. A woman always knows. And anyway, Arthur, you more than any other person alive should know that the traditional way of having children isn’t the only way. Just look in the mirror.”
Reeling, completely speechless, Arthur could only stare at her in astonishment. The queen was smiling indulgently, in the way of mothers everywhere when they watched their child figure out right from wrong without help for the very first time.
Arthur glanced towards the door through which Merlin had left some minutes ago. “But… What if he doesn’t want it?”
Ygraine laughed softly and shook her head. “That, you’ll have to find out for yourself.”
The ceremony went without a hitch. Perhaps Arthur wasn’t dressed in his finest clothes, but few could tell the difference. Arthur did not forget one word of his oaths, to the obvious (and a little insulting) relief of Geoffrey of Monmouth. The crown weighed heavy and uncomfortable on Arthur’s head, and he jutted his chin forwards and up instinctively, reminding himself that he’d have to get used to it.
Merlin was the first to go on one knee before him, pledging the allegiance of magic to the crown. Much to Arthur’s relief, he seemed better by leaps and bounds, albeit still far too pale. But his eyes were fierce and loyal as he gazed up at Arthur, the ritual words falling smoothly from his lips, his magic flowing freely through him and curling around Arthur like a beam of sunlight.
Merlin should never be on his knees, though, not like this, and Arthur could hardly wait to jerk him upright, clasping his arm for a moment too long, gripping his shoulder tightly with his free hand. Merlin smiled at him, and Arthur had to remind himself that the ceremony had only just begun and that he couldn’t leave just yet, dragging Merlin with him.
He had to listen, flanked by Merlin and soon after Lancelot, to the oaths delivered by the knights, citizens and freemen, merchants and craftsmen, soldiers and serfs.
It seemed endless – and then Arthur was swept into a celebratory procession across the town, during which Merlin managed to disappear into the crowd. Arthur didn’t know if he was more relieved that Merlin (hopefully) was dragged off to get some much-needed rest or worried that yet another of the ‘only Merlin‘ kind of incidents had taken place while he wasn’t looking. Arthur spent the better part of the day with his people, then back with his councilmen, and then it was time to prepare for the feast.
Arthur had never liked to be pampered by servants, and having four people attend to his bath and four more help him dress was grating on his nerves. He gritted his teeth not to snap at them, and ultimately didn’t, because his ceremonial clothes were more than elaborate and it wouldn’t do for the newly crowned king to appear wrapped haphazardly in gold and crimson.
The feast was a magnificent once-in-a-lifetime event, with tables being assembled in the Great Hall and several nearby chambers. The servants took shifts so that everyone to enjoy the delicious meal; the musicians were invited from all over the land and abroad, while numerous honourable guests showed off their finery – waves of silk and velvet spiked with gold and jewels.
Merlin was among those seated with Arthur at the main table – sitting right next to him, in fact – but, with the constant flood of toasts and speeches, Arthur didn’t have much time to even eat, let alone talk to him. Later, as the formality of the evening had finally been won over by the copious amounts of wine and mead and people began to mingle chaotically, Arthur had once again lost track of his wayward best friend.
At one point, he saw Merlin dancing with Morgana, eliciting gasps and sighs from the guests at the picturesque pair they made. For his part, Arthur smirked into his goblet. Merlin made a picture all right, but Arthur was certain that his newly discovered prowess with dance steps had less to do with a sudden onslaught of a previously uncommon grace and more with the fact that unfortunate things tended to happen to people who stepped on Morgana’s dresses. It was gratifying to know that Merlin wasn’t that far beyond the healthy self-preservation instinct after all.
Merlin was dressed for the occasion, too. Forest green and shades of blue – he wore the colours of the land he loved so much, and they suited him incredibly well. Opposite Morgana, who was a sensation in purple and carmine, he looked like her fairy brother who’d taken human form for a night.
Arthur lost him for a while after that, distracted by the Mercian ambassador. When Arthur saw Merlin next, he was laughing at something Percival had said. Gwaine was at his side, one arm slung heavily over Merlin’s shoulders, the gesture easily proprietary and obviously raising no objections.
Arthur clenched his teeth and looked away. Enough was enough. He owed himself to get a straightforward answer, because it wasn’t only about his own mental health anymore. With a distressed ruler, the whole kingdom was in danger.
Or something like that.
It was hours, though, before Arthur could finally escape the clutches of his happily drunk subjects and reach his blessedly empty rooms. It was so late that it was probably early, and perhaps the wise thing to do would have been to talk to Merlin in the morning instead of summoning him to the king’s chambers in the middle of the night. But Arthur didn’t think he could get any sleep tonight, and a mean part of him saw no reason for Merlin not to suffer with him.
“Why is it so dark in here?” Merlin said, appearing in the doorway and squinting at the two lonely candles set on Arthur’s table. “Do you want me to—”
“No.” Arthur shook his head. “Might as well let my eyes rest. And really, Merlin. I would have at least thought that this” – he touched the crown he had only just taken off – “would give you some respect.”
Merlin smiled as he padded slowly towards Arthur, gliding rather than walking. Arthur swallowed.
“I’m so sorry, Your Majesty,” Merlin purred, and bowed. “Is this better?”
Arthur snorted. Merlin never had learned how to bow – always bending his back, never lowering his eyes.
“Could you help me with this?” Arthur asked, indicating the clasps on his ceremonial jacket.
Merlin rolled his eyes, but stepped forward obediently. “You called me here in the middle of the night so that I’d help you undress? Only you, Arthur.” Merlin’s deft fingers started releasing the tricky clasps, skimming over Arthur’s chest. “Where’s your manservant?”
Arthur shrugged, careful not to let his breath stutter. Merlin’s proximity wasn’t helping his tenuous grip. “He never seems to be around, does he? You want the job?”
Merlin let out a chuckle. “So that you’d have legitimate grounds to push me around all day? No thanks.”
“I do have legitimate grounds to push you around all day, Merlin. I’m your king.”
Merlin’s eyes flew up to meet his for a moment, mischief evident in the teasing flutter of eyelashes. “Yes, Sire.”
He pushed the jacket off of Arthur’s shoulders, letting it fall to the floor, and made to step back, but Arthur caught him by the waist before he knew what he was doing. Even in the sparse light, there was no mistaking the flush spreading across Merlin’s insanely sharp cheekbones.
For several long, drawn out moments, Arthur could do little but look at him, drowning almost literally in the startled glint of his eyes, mesmerised by the uncertainty of the parted lips, so very close to his own.
“I’m bad at this,” Arthur muttered, sad, as his fingers slid along the back of Merlin’s neck, curling in his hair. Merlin let out a soft gasp and Arthur closed his eyes for a moment. “You’re – Merlin, I – you—”
“Did you see Lancelot dance with Gwen?” Merlin blurted out in a slurring, panicked rush of words. “Turned quite a few heads, those two, and then there was Morgana. I’d watch out if I were Leon; I think she’s on a mission and—”
“Is you babbling right now a sign that you’re too drunk to make conscious decisions?”
Merlin swallowed. “N-no. I barely had a glass all night.”
“Are you in love with Gwaine?”
“What? No. Why on earth would you think—”
“Then do you – are you—”
Arthur would never know if Merlin took pity on him or if it was an act of desperation fuelled by his own feelings, but, before Arthur could embarrass himself any further, Merlin leaned in and kissed him, short and scared, right on the mouth.
And that was it, Arthur thought as he stared into terrified blue eyes, pupils blown so wide they seemed black.
“I’m sorry.” Merlin moved ineffectually, trying to twist out of Arthur’s arms. “You really need to let me go, Arthur, or I’ll – I’ll – I can’t control it—”
“By all means” – Arthur didn’t even try to fight his grin – “don’t.”
Merlin managed to make some kind of startled noise before Arthur covered his lips with his own.
Merlin whimpered into the kiss, all but falling into Arthur, hands sliding up along his back, gripping a little too tightly. Arthur couldn’t waste time for niceties – he wanted too much, had wanted for too long, and if the stuttering, gasping sounds Merlin was making were any indication, he wasn’t alone in his feelings.
The kiss turned frantic. Arthur pulled Merlin flush against him, trapping Merlin’s thigh between his own, and yes, it felt incredible. Holding Merlin like this, his lithe, slender body vibrating with energy, pushing and pressing against Arthur, as if driven by a will of its own – it was everything he’d ever dreamed of and more, so much more.
Merlin gasped as Arthur sank his teeth into his lower lip, sucking hard. Arthur seized the moment to make the kiss even deeper, heat rising from where their groins were pressed together, hips sliding and rolling, seeking out mindless pleasure in a way that at another time would have been embarrassing.
“Is this a one-off thing?” Merlin breathed, sounding husky and drunk. Arthur groaned, sucking a bruise into his neck. “Because I don’t think we should – Arthur, I don’t think I – oh, Gods – don’t think I can, if—”
Arthur nipped at Merlin’s exposed collarbone, licking into the hollow of his throat, coaxing a delicious shiver out of him. “This isn’t a one-off.”
“Oh,” Merlin gasped. “Well. Good.”
Arthur lifted his head, staring at Merlin. His eyes were half-lidded with arousal yet still worried somehow, cheeks dusted with a delicate blush that made Arthur ache, lips dark and swollen, black hair all over the place, begging to be touched, pulled, and ruffled every which way. He was breathing hard, and Arthur wanted him, his whole body shaking with it. For a moment, he was scared of what he might do if he let himself go.
Merlin’s eyes widened and Arthur saw his own realisation and fear staring back at him. And then Merlin went pliant in his arms, pink tongue darting out to lick his lips, hips shifting to the side just so, because Merlin was a horrible tease and apparently liked to play with fire.
Arthur growled, smashing their lips together again. He walked Merlin back towards the bed and pushed him down none too gently. Merlin, that insufferable, insane, fearless creature, had the gall to laugh.
Arthur straddled him, pinning his wrists above his head and nuzzling at his jawline before sucking an earlobe into his mouth. Merlin’s laughter died with a hiss like a blown candle. He bucked up, pushing against Arthur’s weight, squirming and rubbing himself against the length of the body pressing him down.
Arthur groaned and instinctively ground down, hard; it was so good, criminally good – just lying there locked together, hardly even moving. It felt almost too good, too much in mere moments, and when Merlin’s teeth grazed Arthur’s chin, slick tongue teasing the sensitive line of the barely-there stubble, Arthur lost what little control he had.
He crushed Merlin’s lips with deep, heated, desperate kisses, too much teeth and tongue and hands clawing at each other and scraping clothes to get to skin, hips jerking and stuttering in selfish need to rip more pleasure from one another sooner, faster, right bloody now.
Merlin flipped them over, straddling Arthur’s thighs, a firm hand on his chest held him down, and it was all Arthur could do not to pounce on him. Merlin looked wrecked, wanton; the smirk stretching his lips was lust incarnate. Arthur gulped, watching through the desperate haze of arousal as Merlin pulled his tunic over his head slowly before throwing it away.
Then Arthur could do nothing but stare, forgetting to breathe completely, because oh, not all the runes had been temporary; the remaining inky patterns nearly made Arthur forget his own name.
They started curling artfully around Merlin’s nipples, two strings of letters and symbols twisting and turning like grape vines. They met and twined over Merlin’s solar plexus, streaming down to carefully dip into his navel and then snake lower, lower still, hinting at something that made Arthur gasp. He reached out mindlessly, head void of thoughts and consciousness itself, hands trembling with scalding, oppressing want.
Merlin rose up on his knees, swiftly undoing the laces of his breeches, pushing them down just enough to reveal a proud, fierce-looking dragon stretching its wings just above Merlin’s cock.
Arthur felt as if something had exploded inside his brain, making him blind and deaf but for the wild, feral roar that filled his whole being, tearing at him from the inside. The tattoo burned before his eyes, and for the longest time he lost all awareness of the world around him. There were distant sounds of ripping clothes, gasps and moans seeping in from afar, slurping wet noises filling his ears without really penetrating, the creak of the bed being but a faint echo.
Merlin was all Arthur knew at that moment, his universe narrowing down to moving with Merlin, in Merlin, his every sense being filled by Merlin, overcome with him. Merlin’s hands scratching down Arthur’s back viciously, the pulse in his neck fluttering trustingly under Arthur’s lips, legs spread wide, knees urging Arthur on and on, further, deeper, demanding an impossible, inhuman rhythm as Merlin fisted a handful of Arthur’s hair and jerked him up into a desperate, hungry kiss, insatiable and wild.
It was a rush to completion, frenetic and crude, but something had to give before the unbearable build up of suspense could be broken. Merlin latched onto Arthur’s jaw, open-mouthed and wet, fingers greedy and rude in his hair, at the small of his back. The litany of ‘ArthurArthurArhurArthurArthur’ hit Arthur’s senses, drawing out reserves he didn’t think he had left, and he pounded harder into Merlin, teeth clenched tight, arms shaking with tension.
Merlin keened, too far gone to do anything but hold on, and came with a startled gasp that would have been a shout if he hadn’t lost his voice. Gold burst from under his lashes as he spasmed around Arthur, pulling him under vengefully. For the longest moment, they could do little but cling to each other, shattered and shattering, falling and twirling, bound together by ecstasy in a tight ball of mind-ripping pleasure without beginning or end.
It felt like ages before Arthur opened his eyes. He was lying sprawled on his back, Merlin warm and boneless against his side, fingers idly teasing the hair on Arthur’s chest. Sensing the change, Merlin propped himself up on his elbow, peering down at Arthur, and smiled.
“Welcome back,” Merlin murmured before leaning over and kissing the tip of Arthur’s nose sweetly.
Arthur blinked. “What...” He cleared his throat and tried again. “What was that? It’s never been like this before. Was – was that a spell?”
Merlin snorted. Then, seeing Arthur’s pout, actually laughed, the sound husky and raw, his whole body moving with it.
Arthur nudged him. “What’s so funny?”
“Oh, Arthur.” Merlin planted a fond kiss on his cheek and Arthur almost purred, but caught himself at the last moment. “Only you.”
“What about me?”
“You – this. It’s been years. Do you have any idea how long I’ve been – I never thought you’d ever look at me that way. Then finally, when I lost all hope, you summon me here out of the blue, shag me within an inch of my life without so much as a warning, and then have the nerve to ask me if I put you under a spell.” Merlin shook his head, still laughing. “Just, seriously. You alone.”
Arthur lifted his hand to cup Merlin’s face gently, kneading at his cheekbone with curious fingers. “Years?”
Merlin, unbelievably, blushed, even as he turned his head to kiss Arthur’s palm. “I’ve wanted you like this since you hit your growth spurt,” he confessed bashfully. “And I think I’ve been in love with you since I learned to say your name.”
Arthur sucked in a breath. “Merlin...”
Merlin’s eyes met his briefly before Merlin bent his neck and kissed him, long and sweet, a leisurely slide of lips.
“I’m not exactly Percival,” Merlin muttered. “Or Lancelot. And you’re – you. I never hoped—”
Arthur wrapped his arms around him securely, fighting for control. If he gripped any tighter, he feared he might break something. “You’re beautiful,” he breathed into Merlin’s ear. “God, Merlin, you’ve no idea, do you?”
Merlin made a vague noise, lips pressing, hot and hopeful, to Arthur’s shoulder.
“I summoned you, because I wanted to talk,” Arthur told him softly. “To tell you that there will be no princesses and no queen; that I wish to share my kingdom with you because I – well, because the thought of losing you makes me physically ill.”
Merlin froze, staring down at him. “You wish to—” he choked.
Arthur ran his fingers down Merlin’s spine soothingly. “Very much. It’s all I could think about ever since you came back.”
“Arthur,” Merlin managed, his voice still not entirely there. “The kingdom is… kind of a lot. Are you sure you wouldn’t rather—”
Arthur cupped his face, holding his eyes. “It’s you or no one. I’ve waited long enough, Merlin. I’d rather it was you.”
Merlin kissed him, hot and messy and whimpering a little, disbelief and happiness stripping him of any finesse. Arthur rolled them over, slotting a leg between Merlin’s, rocking gently. Merlin groaned.
Arthur buried his face in Merlin’s neck and breathed in deeply, closing his eyes. “I’m in love with you.”
Merlin shuddered in response, gathering Arthur close. “Yeah?”
Arthur lifted his head up, grinning. Merlin was watching him through half-lidded eyes; his expression so full of shy, hopeful joy that Arthur could barely stand it. “Yeah.”
Merlin laughed quietly, unable to contain it. Arthur’s heart seized as he looked, a sweet, tugging kind of pain that he knew he’d never stop feeling. He nuzzled his way up Merlin’s throat until he could nibble at the ridiculously firm line of his jaw and kiss Merlin’s smile.
Merlin prodded him gently. “All this – when you wanted to talk?”
Arthur huffed out a laugh. “Yes. But then you had to go and brand yourself – with my family crest no less. I’m only human, Merlin. What did you expect?”
Merlin went suddenly very quiet beneath him. “You like it?”
Arthur leaned back slightly and traced the black pattern with his fingers, teasing Merlin into a shiver. “I love it,” he breathed, sliding down to replace his fingers with his tongue. “It means you’re mine.” Arthur licked a stripe from Merlin’s navel to the dragon, biting down very gently.
Merlin hissed, bucking up reflexively. “Thought of you as they chanted,” he confessed, relaxing under Arthur’s soothing hand. “Didn’t know this would appear, but I felt – I felt – like a ringed bird, one of those hunting things you keep, and I – oh gods, Arthur, I loved it.”
Arthur kissed the quivering ink, rubbed his face against Merlin’s taut stomach – just kissing and nuzzling, unable to reign in the rush of possessive tenderness that came over him. Merlin’s fingers tangled in his hair, pulling gently.
Arthur went up willingly, snuggling close, too tired to do anything but kiss. “I’ll get you a ring,” he muttered against Merlin’s lips. “If you want one.”
Merlin smiled vaguely, tracing Arthur’s eyebrows with his finger. His eyes were deep and troubled again. “Arthur, are you certain about this? It’s not too late to—”
“Merlin,” Arthur interrupted, even as his eyes were drooping closed.
Merlin sighed. “Shut up?”
Arthur grinned into his shoulder. “You guessed it.”
A few short hours later, they were woken up by Morris. He had finally found his way back to his master’s chambers only to be dismissed on the spot, but not before he’d made out that there were two bodies huddled under the coverlet and it wasn’t just his hangover talking.
“I could turn him into a toad,” Merlin offered, opening one eye grudgingly. “He’s useless. I’m doing all his work anyway.”
Arthur snorted. “Oh really, Merlin? You wouldn’t last a day as my manservant.”
“Hm, you’re probably right. You’re too demanding—”
“I am not!”
“Look who’s talking…”
“Prat.” Merlin hummed, grinning.
Arthur kicked him lightly under the covers.
Merlin laughed. “Case in point.”
Arthur watched him – bed hair, pillow creases, and all – and couldn’t keep a stupid, horribly besotted smile off his face.
Merlin blinked at him sleepily, his mirth fading, remnants of the aborted conversation from the night before making him frown. He opened his mouth, and Arthur knew it was to repeat his question.
So Arthur just looked at him.
Merlin stared back. Finally, he let out a quiet little sigh and shut his mouth.
Arthur grinned and rewarded the unexpected show of intelligence with a kiss.