Chapter 1: A Dragon's Promise
In their first meeting, Arthur hadn’t been able to hide his elation at hearing the ever longed-for name—as the realisation had struck him midsentence: “yet you called me...friend.” But then the boy—insolent beyond his station, clearly not knowing what Arthur’s was, had fought back. Arthur taunted him, pushing and forcing the physical contact that he’d been bereft of all his life. He had been so caught up in the adrenaline of the meeting that he hadn’t realised the probable effect of the encounter until the guards carted the slender brunet away to the dungeons.
The next morning he watched from his window as the sorceror bent over trapped in the stocks, and was pelted with all manner of fruits and vegetables. He cringed with every piece that struck the brunet’s head, clenching his fists and thinking vehemently that it was not the punishment he would have inflicted on the boy.
Then Guinevere approached and he turned away from the window with a growl.
He went to patrolling with his knights, but when Merlin his Merlin passed him later in the streets, he couldn’t help the jibe that was so clearly a cry for attention: “how’s your knee walking coming along?” The boy didn’t even miss a step and he ached, upset at being denied. He made sure none of his true feelings came across as he walked after him, calling: “oh, don’t run away!”
The sorceror paused, then: “from you?”
“Ah, thank god,” he breathed. Hurrying to correct this slip, he added: “Thought you were deaf as well as dumb.”
“Look, I’ve told you you’re an ass,” Merlin said cheekily, turning to face him. “I just didn’t realise you were a royal one.” When Arthur looked back at his men to judge their reactions, he continued: “Oh, what are you going to do? Get your daddy’s men to protect you?”
One of the nights behind him laughed at that—almost in disbelief. Arthur chuckled, amused by his future’s bravado: “I could take you apart with one blow.”
“I could take you apart with less than that.”
“Are you sure?” He taunted, ignoring the truth that rung from those words. Instead of letting the anxiety show, he tried not to watch as the sorceror stripped off his brown coat and revealed the slender torso. He fought away his nerves with sharp heckles of laughter and turned to take a mace from his guard, tossing it to the sorceror with a flippant jive. He swung his own mace above his head, trying to intimidate the boy into backing down. When that didn’t work, he approached him and said: “I warn you: I’ve been trained to kill since birth.”
“Wow,” the other replied, his impressed tone clearly sarcastic. Then he asked mockingly: “and how long have you been training to be a prat?”
He’d stopped swinging some time ago, and he turned his face away until he could hide the pain that would have so clearly shown in his eyes. This boy was to be his destiny, and Merlin didn’t even like him. “You can’t address me like that!”
“Sorry,” Merlin replied, clearly nothing of the sort. He looked down at the mace in his hand. “How long have you been training to be a prat...” He paused, giving the prince a look from under long, dark lashes, and added: “my lord?”
Arthur gave a grimacing laugh, then swung the mace towards the smug expression. Merlin ducked beneath the trajectory and the fight began—Arthur avoided actually aiming for the boy, and the sorceror in turn used agility and magic (and more falling down than was probably appropriate) to trick his way through. The golden flash in the intense blue eyes told him all he needed to know, and he resolved himself to warn the boy against being so obvious in public where there were money-hungry snitches.
When Merlin turned away, secure in his victory, Arthur took him down with three precise blows that would leave no lasting damage.
After the fight, he said in parting: “there’s something about you, Merlin. I can’t quite put my finger on it.” That would be warning enough until he could have the sorceror to himself.
At earliest opportunity, he’d snuck through the castle to the cavern beneath its depths, waiting patiently for the dragon to arrive in its own time. It did, the sound of its wings ripping through the air. It landed on the rocky outcrop across from him, settling down comfortably. “Welcome back, young Prince,” the deep, rumbling voice came.
“Good evening, Great Dragon,” the Prince said, bowing slightly.
“You’ve had a very important day today, haven’t you, young one?” The dragon said, amused.
Arthur ducked his head, embarrassed. “It was him, then. Wasn’t it?”
“The Merlin you met in the courtyard was the Merlin from your destiny, yes,” the dragon agreed. “You didn’t get off to a very good start, now did you?”
He squirmed uncomfortably in his place. “He was so insolent.”
The dragon chuckled, its tail lashing with its amusement. “Merlin is your other half,” it said wisely, “you are in all things equal.”
“Equal?” Arthur asked, outraged, “I am the Prince! He’s just a peasant!”
The chuckle came again. “Merlin is so much more than that,” it replied. “You will come to know that in time.”
“Does he know?” Arthur asked desperately. “Does he know who we are to each other?”
“Know this he does not,” the dragon replied. At Arthur’s crestfallen expression, he growled a little in reassurance. “Be at ease, young prince. As we speak, the sorceror is on his way down to my keep. I will bestow upon him the truth of his destiny.”
Arthur bowed his head. “Thank you,” he murmured. The dragon inclined its head to the wall and Arthur nodded. Reaching for the footholds and scaling his way up to the ledge far above his head as the dragon flew away to hide for a dramatic entrance. He settled down on a boulder to wait—tensing as he heard the blunt: “where are you?”
“I’m here,” the great dragon replied. Then there was a long silence, followed by the heavy sounds of it settling in to a comfortable position. “How small you are,” it said, “for such a great destiny.”
“Why?” Merlin asked, sounding awed. “What do you mean? What destiny?”
“Your gift, Merlin,” the dragon said, “was given to you for a reason.”
“So there is a reason,” he breathed.
“Arthur is the once and future king who will unite the land of Albion,” it explained.
“Right,” he agreed, sounding wary and unconvinced.
“But he faces many threats from friend and foe alike,” the dragon continued.
“I don’t see what this has to do with me!” Merlin retorted petulantly.
“Everything!” it replied impatiently. “Without you, Arthur will never succeed. Without you, there will be no Albion.”
Get to the point, Arthur thought desperately, tell him we are two halves to be entwined.
“No,” Merlin protested. “No, you’ve got this wrong.”
“There is no right or wrong,” the dragon replied. “Only what is and what isn’t.”
“I’m serious!” he retorted. “If anyone wants to go and kill him, they can go ahead. In fact, I’ll give them a hand.”
Arthur gasped a breath at that, recoiling at the pain and closing his eyes as they watered. The dragon chuckled. He’d known that Merlin had no high opinion of him, but for the sorceror to wish him dead... He breathed out in a low whimper and propped his legs up on the boulder, wrapping shaking arms around his knees.
“None of us can choose our destiny, Merlin,” the dragon said. “And none of us can escape it.”
“No,” Merlin replied stubbornly. “No way, no. No.” Arthur tightened his fists with every repetition and took a shuddering breath as the sorceror continued: “there must be another Arthur, because this one’s an idiot.”
“Perhaps it’s your destiny to change that,” it replied cryptically. There were the heavy sounds of the dragon preparing for flight, then the gusts of wind pushed by his wings.
The dragon settled on the rock across from Arthur, watching and waiting patiently while the sorcerer yelled after the great dragon in an angry and uncouth manner. Arthur hugged his knees tight to his chest and took deep breaths, meeting the dragon’s knowing gaze and Merlin left in a temper.
“He will come around, young prince,” it said reassuringly. “He must. It is his destiny.”
Arthur scoffed, lying his cheek atop one knee. “I didn’t expect him to be happy about it right away,” he admitted quietly. “But I had hoped he couldn’t hate the idea on principal.” Not the idea, a cold voice taunted, just you.
“First impressions are rarely correct, young prince,” the dragon murmured. “He will come around in time. You know this to be the truth.” Arthur sat up properly and nodded in acquiesce. “Destiny has its way of working, no matter if you leave sight of the path you thought you were following. You will have your companion, I promise you this.”
Letting himself be reassured, even if it did not soothe his nerves, he nodded once more and got to his feet. “Thank you, wise one.”
He started his descent, the dragon’s words drifting down after him: “this is not the end of things, Arthur Pendragon. This is only the beginning.”
“Ah,” Arthur said, looking up from his pouring as the door opened and his whole being gave an internal sigh of relief. “Merlin,” he said, reaching for a grape for something to do.
“How are you?” The other asked, almost before Arthur had finished speaking. He was as hesitant as his voice, closing the door with a gentle hand.
“Good,” he replied, taking a grape into his mouth to avoid the words that floated on his tongue: better now that you’re here.
There was a pause, and Merlin said over his shoulder: “I’m pleased.”
Arthur swallowed painfully, picking up his cup of water and crossing to the chair to keep his eyes away from the blue-and-red-and-brown clad servant. “Yes,” he agreed—for something to say more than anything. “And I owe it all to Gaius.” He sunk into the chair even as his thoughts denied the lie he had just spoken. There’s been a familiar brush of magic in his return to health, something that resonated with the feeling of Merlin the prince had grown to revere.
Merlin’s disappointed expression told him all he needed to know about the fact—his manservant really was a hopeless liar. The pause stretched long between them, and then he became of those blue eyes and all their intensity focussed upon him. “I need to talk to you.”
Arthur sipped at his water and forced himself to taunt the boy, remind him of the place he was supposed to hold. “You still haven’t got it yet, have you?” The almost-outraged disbelief in Merlin’s look made his next words playful when they should have been stinging: “I decide when we need to talk.”
“Not today,” Merlin said seriously.
“I sometimes wonder,” he said conversationally, using his goblet to make gestures to shake off his sudden anxious energy, “if you knowwho I am.” He meant it to come across as an imperious thing, but some part of him echoed with the further question: do you know who I am? Do you know who we are meant to be?
“Oh, I know who you are,” Merlin replied.
Arthur nodded, trying not to dwell on how husky the boy’s voice was—had he been crying? “Good,” he said, eyes seeking out the redness of his manservant’s eyes. What had him grieved, Arthur wondered, chest aching to join the pain in his shoulder.
Merlin was half-smiling as he crossed over to the table in precise steps. Arthur forced his gaze away to take a drink, and then he said: “you’re a prat.” Arthur stopped before he could sip and gave the boy a look. “And a royal one,” he added, softer.
Arthur looked away, huffing out a breath in a sort of laugh. “Are you ever going to change, Merlin?” He asked, setting down his cup and rubbing at his shoulder as it gave a particularly harsh twinge.
“No,” Merlin replied, amused, “you’d get bored.” Then his face fell slightly—sad and contemplative. Arthur ducked his head again, squeezing the muscles in his shoulder to try and stave off the pain. “Now promise me, if you get another servant, don’t get a bootlicker.”
Another servant? Arthur thought dully. “If this is you trying to leave your job,” he said, leaving the statement open. Merlin would see an implied threat, not the despair that tore into his heart—pain so close to the healing wounds on his shoulder.
“No,” Merlin said quickly. “I’m happy to be your servant,” he continued, his voice soft but still intense. “Till the day I die,” he added, an odd note in his voice.
Arthur wanted to look up sharply from that. Don’t you dare talk about death, he wanted to scream. He forced himself to look slowly, his expression one of question and not accusation.
Merlin looked stubborn and his eyes seemed to be begging the prince to read something from the words that he hadn’t said. The moment stretched between them, Arthur’s heart aching dully in his chest. “Sometimes I think I know you, Merlin,” he admitted, reaching for the cup again. “Other times...”
“Well,” the boy spoke, “I know you.” Arthur met his gaze across the table, frown pulling at his brows and lip curling upwards. “You’re a great warrior,” Merlin continued, head shaking slightly. His eyes were shiny and damp, dark in the firelight and unmoving from Arthur who curbed the urge to shift under the intensity. “One day, you’ll be a great king,” Merlin said.
With you at my side, Arthur’s thoughts clamoured, but he daren’t speak them aloud. “That’s very kind of you,” he said in their stead.
“But you must learn to listen as well as you fight,” Merlin said.
Arthur flicked his gaze away, unable to face the pain and solemnity in Merlin’s blue, blue gaze. He turned his face away, fighting at the panic that was clawing him to do something more. “Any other pointers?” He asked, making sure he seemed annoyed and affronted.
“No,” Merlin said, finally dropping that sad and serious gaze. He stared down at the table and Arthur took the hidden moment to let the fondness for his manservant warm his expression. “That’s it,” Merlin insisted quietly. Then he readjusted himself and met the prince’s gaze again. “Just...” a half-smile tugged at his lips, “don’t be a prat.”
Arthur frowned at the finality in those words, nearly jumping when Merlin turned suddenly to leave. He looked away and lifted his cup to his lips. (from here on out, we go completely AU and even more OOC.)
He turned his gaze back to the door as it closed behind his solemn manservant. That conversation had been beyond strange, even for Merlin. He pulled himself to unsteady feet, pain firing through his shoulder in protest of the movement.
He called for a guard but none came. Frustrated, he steeled his energy and walked gingerly through the palace corridors, pain flaring with every step.
By the time he made it to Gaius’ quarters he was slicked with sweat, head twirling in wild spins with every breath. The physician cried out at the sight of him, stopping packing mid-movement to hurry him into the nearest chair.
He brushed off the physician’s scolding with a dismissive wave and demanded: “Where is Merlin?”
Gaius froze, and something akin to fright inflamed his eyes. “He’s not off on some errand for you?”
“No,” Arthur answered warily, “he said some very strange things to me and I would like to demand the meaning of them.”
“What did he say?” Gaius asked.
Arthur ignored him, continuing: “and if he is so happy to be in my service ‘till the day he dies’, why did it sound like he was saying goodbye?”
“No,” the physician said, breathless. “No, he can’t have...” He shook his head almost violently. “I beg your pardon, sire, but I must leave in haste—I will call Gwen in to take you to your rooms.”
“Where are you...” He broke off as the pieces came together in his head. “Where has Merlin gone and why?”
“He is gone to the Isle of the Blessed, to seek out the High Priestess of the Old Religion to offer up his life in the stead of his mother’s.” He rushed to his pack and shoved in a few last items. “I must stop him.”
Arthur gripped the sword at his hip and struggled to his feet. “I am coming with you.”
“No, my lord—you are in no condition to undertake such a journey.”
“I will go!” Arthur said forcefully. “Merlin is my...” He paused them, as words were picked up and set aside: manservant, friend, destiny, beloved. Instead, he hardened his glare. “You cannot stop me from going.”
Gaius gave him an intense, appraising expression before heaving great sigh. He turned away, shifting through a number of bottles before selecting one and passing it to the prince. Arthur took it, holding it and staring at the physician in askance. "It's a potion to ease your pain. A very powerful one. You'll need it, sire."
Arthur nodded and uncorked the vial.
Arthur had first wandered down to the dragon's keep when he was six years old. Lady Helen, his latest nanny, was wine soaked and slumbering next to the fire in his nursery.
He didn't remember all that had passed between him and the giant reptile, but the memorable exchange was still burnt into his thoughts over a dozen years later. Trembling and worried as only a child could be, he'd asked will anyone ever love me?
The dragon had chuckled deep in its belly and stretched, resting its head on a claw - as close to the prince as he could get without leaving the large rock formation. Young prince, you are but one side of a coin. Rest assured that all you desire shall be granted in your other half.
At Arthur's childish pleading, he had been given a name. Merlin.
That was the name he yelled as he raced across the stone courtyard and dropped to his knees beside the unmoving figure of his destined companion. He gathered Merlin into his arms, whimpering as the limbs flopped uselessly from their own weight. The skin was still warm to touch, but rapidly cooling even as he clutched Merlin closer.
He shook with repressed sobs, aware of the wetness sliding down his cheeks. He looked up as Gaius approached him, holding a silver chalice in one hand and stirring its contents with a finger from the other. He bent down and pressed the vessel into Arthur's grasp. "There is still yet hope," the physician said, "you must make sure he drinks some of this. A mouthful will do."
Arthur cradled Merlin closer, resting the boy's head on his uninjured shoulder and tilting it back.
His attempt to tip the chalice’s contents into Merlin’s mouth merely caused the clear liquid to slip out from the bow-shaped lips and dribble down his
jaw. Taking a shuddering breath, he lifted the cup to his own mouth and held a measure of the liquid behind sealed lips he pressed to Merlin's. He
coaxed the other's lips open with his tongue and transferred the mouthful into Merlin's dry cavern. He cupped a hand around the pale jaw, massaging the
muscles and forcing Merlin to swallow.
He pulled away then, closing his eyes to the thought that was the only kiss he had and ever would share with his other half.
He broke from his melancholic thoughts when heavy thump sounded beside him. He turned to see Gaius fallen against the altar, bloodless white. He called the physician's name, dread clawing at him. He set Merlin up against the carved stone and crawled over to the fallen man.
He knew, even before he pressed two fingers into the wrinkled neck and found no throb to answer. He startled, nearly knocking his head into the stone altar, as a sharp gasp of air sounded behind him. "Arthur?" A familiar voice rasped. "What...?"
“Oh, gods...Merlin!” Arthur gasped. He resisted the urge to pull the slighter figure into his arm and hold him close to reassure himself that he was alive, press his ear to the skinny chest and hear the steady thump of a heartbeat. He turned slowly instead, allowing himself to grasp the bony shoulder in a firm hand. “You’re alive.”
“What’s going on?” Merlin rasped, sitting up. “Who...? No. Gaius!”
The late physician’s words came back to him then: to offer up his life in the stead of his mother’s. “A life for a life,” he murmured.
The too-blue eyes turned to him, alight with fury. “He can’t give up his life for mine!” he hissed vehemently.
“Yet you can give up your life for your mother’s?” Arthur asked quietly. “I won’t pretend I can understand that, Merlin—but Gaius cared for you very much. He didn’t want to see you dead just as much as you couldn’t bear for your mother to die.”
“He wasn’t supposed to die for me!” Merlin cried, fighting against his own weakness and the firm hold of Arthur’s arm to get to the fallen physician.
“He knew what he was doing, Merlin,” the prince said.
“Why aren’t you angry?” Merlin shouted furiously, turning wild eyes on him. “He was the court physician and I’m just some useless servant!”
Answers warred in Arthur’s head – your destiny is so much greater than his ever was and because you mean so much more to me than he ever could. “Who are you to decide who lives and dies, Merlin?” He asked hoarsely.
“He wasn’t supposed to...” His voice broke then and he collapsed forward into Arthur’s good shoulder, shaking with sobs and whimpering in his throat.
“I know,” Arthur murmured. A sickening thought occurred to him as he wrapped an arm around his weeping manservant. He himself had been on the very edge of death, only to be pulled back from the edge by something that felt very much like Merlin. What if Hunith was the life he’d have to pay for the service? And all the near-deaths and the final demise of Gaius was all his fault. He shuddered and pulled Merlin closer, murmuring into the dark mess of hair: “I know.”
Gaius funeral had been a solemn affair. Arthur stood beside Morgana, removed from the main crowd, intensely aware of every movement of his manservant standing a pace behind him.
He couldn’t ignore the hitches of breath that were restrained sobs, but he gladly pretended that he did. Only because Merlin would have been embarrassed to think Arthur knew he’d cried—like it was supposed to be something shameful. If it were left to Arthur’s choice, he would take Merlin into his arms and hold him until the sorceror had spent his tears.
But it was not his choice, so he said nothing about the red-rimmed eyes and tear-tracked face when he passed Merlin on his way inside. As much as he’d done to try and get out of it, Arthur’s presence was required at the appointing of the new Court Physician. The man was perhaps thirty and had a shrewd look about him—Arthur disliked him, but mostly because of the circumstances that forced his presence.
Leaving at earliest opportunity, he strode through the castle in search of his manservant. The skin at the small of his back shivered with a familiar sense and he softened his steps as he turned the corner, hearing Gwen and Merlin’s voices as the two of them stood huddled in an alcove.
“...nowhere to go,” he was saying. His voice was broken, Arthur’s heart aching at the very sound of it. “I have to find somewhere to stay.”
“You’re not going, then?” Gwen asked, clearly relieved. “I thought...after Gaius...you might return home. To Ealdor.”
Ealdor is not his home , Arthur thought vehemently. His place is with me.
“No,” Merlin was saying softly. “I’m needed here.” There was a grin in his words: “can you imagine Arthur trying to get through the day without me?” The prince couldn’t even be offended at that.
“You could stay with me,” Gwen offered hesitantly. “My house has been empty since...my father...”
“Thank you, Gwen,” Merlin murmured. Arthur felt his heart clenched and inwardly he screamed in protest. But he soothed when the sorceror continued: “it wouldn’t be right.”
No, it bloody well wouldn’t , Arthur thought bitterly, before creeping round the corner and making sure his footsteps were heavy as he rounded back the corner and found Gwen watching him startled. Merlin’s face was a grim sort of blank and Arthur gave him what he hoped was a believable glare. “There you are, Merlin! I’ve been looking for you everywhere.” His eyes drifted down to the tattered bag sitting at the sorceror’s feet. “Good,” he said, ignoring Merlin’s half-stammering excuses. “You’ve got your things. Come with me.”
He turned on his heel and started walking back the way he’d come.
“Arthur?” Merlin asked, confused.
He looked over his shoulder with a stern frown. “Hurry up, Merlin. I haven’t got all day.”
The sorceror had fallen into step beside him before he turned the corner. Arthur led him up through the familiar path and ushered the sorceror through the door with a look that clearly conveyed his expectation.
Merlin went in, frowning around then back at the prince in confusion. “This is your room.”
“Well done, Merlin,” Arthur replied. “I’m glad to know that after so long in my service, you can recognise my rooms.”
“What are we doing here?” Merlin asked, instead of retaliating. Arthur missed the opportunity for another spar of their verbal warfare, but let the feeling pass. Merlin could be forgiven, under the circumstances.
Arthur didn’t answer him, heading over to a disused door and swinging it open. Merlin continued to frown at him, confused. Arthur heaved a heavy sigh and gesturing the sorceror inside with a sharp jerk of his head. “Inside, Merlin,” he commanded, impatient.
His manservant went in. He stopped halfway into the room, looking around, then back at Arthur leaning in the doorway patiently. “What’s this?” He asked, perplexed.
“Servant’s quarters,” Arthur answered flatly. “Perhaps now that you don’t have half a palace to cross, you’ll be on time in the mornings.”
He tried to make sure his demeanour was imperious—hiding his concern and the hopeful truth of the offer he was extending. But it was clear in the grateful, pained look Merlin gave him that he was more transparent than he’d hoped to be. “Thank you,” he said, lowering his head.
Arthur wanted to grin widely, warmed down to the tips of toes at the clear relief in the sorceror’s expression. He restrained the desire to a small curve of his lips. “Just don’t leave this place in the same state you left your previous quarters,” he said on the matter.
Merlin grinned at him and Arthur’s chest ached in relief. “Wouldn’t dream of it,” he replied.
Arthur turned and left him to it, knowing full well Merlin would do exactly that. But he would gladly put up with it to have his destined companion close and safe—just a wooden door between them.
He eased into his favourite chair and leant his head against the back. He closed his eyes and let the sounds of Merlin unpacking soothe him into relaxation.
Arthur was well-aware of the fact that Merlin had taken his meals with Gaius—whatever the physicians had prepared or had the sorceror prepare. He wondered whether his manservant even knew he was able and supposed to take his meals in the kitchen.
Knowing he probably did not, Arthur sent word down to the kitchen to double his normal portion and had a maid bring him another dinner set.
By the time Merlin carted their meal up from the kitchens, the table had been laid out for two. The sorceror stopped inside the room, looking startled. “Are you expecting company, Arthur?”
The prince looked up from the goblet of wine he had poured for his nerves. “What exactly did you think when you brought all that up?” He asked, gesturing towards the laden tray his manservant was carrying.
“That your appetite was particularly insatiable lately, sire,” Merlin replied, the title sounding downright insulting.
“Are you calling me fat?” Arthur demanded loudly, insulted.
“Would I say something like that?” Merlin asked. Arthur’s affront fell away at the sparkle in the sorceror’s eye that had been present in the long, dragging days since Gaius’ death.
“Of course you would.” He gestured with his cup to the bench on the other side of the table. “Sit down, Merlin.”
The sorceror looked startled again, glancing outside the door then back to the prince. “What? Me?”
“Yes you, Merlin.” Arthur glared at him, setting his cup down on the table. “You didn’t actually think I was going to eat all this alone, did you?”
“No,” Merlin said hesitantly. “I just thought you’d have...more suitable company.”
Arthur clenched his jaw, outraged. “Are you saying you’re too good for my company, Merlin?” He demanded.
“What? No!” Merlin said hurriedly. “I just...I mean...I ate down in the kitchens with Gwen.”
Guinevere , Arthur thought darkly. “Right,” he said through clenched teeth. He scraped his chair back and crossed to the window. “Leave it there, then go.”
“Arthur?” Merlin asked hesitantly.
“I need you to go talk to the blacksmith about the new horseshoes,” he commanded sharply. “Then have my bath prepared. After that, you’re dismissed for the night.”
“Arthur, did I—”
“I have given you a command, Merlin!” Arthur shouted, temper snapping.
“Yes, sire—of course.” There was an indecipherable tone in Merlin’s voice which Arthur closed his eyes to, letting the night breeze wash over him through the open window. He only turned around once the door had closed. He crossed then to the table and glared at the tray laden with food.
He spent a few moments picking through the offerings before his temper broke again and he flipped the tray with a rough jerk. It flew across the room, contents spilling all over the table and floor, hitting the wall with a loud clang. He stood behind the table, fists clenched and breath heaving. Then he jerked on his jacket draped over the back of the chair and stalked out to the knight’s training courtyard.
He gave blows to a heavy sack until his arms burnt with exertion and the fabric was tearing at the seams. Then he stomped back through the otherwise silent corridors back to his chambers.
Not just his chambers, he remembered with a cringe as he entered—but Merlin’s too now. The mess of food had disappeared without a trace, and the copper bath stood by the fireplace awaiting him. He glanced at the door to the servant’s antechamber—it was open just a crack, but there was no flickering candlelight inside. The sorceror had probably gone to sleep already.
Sighing in disappointment, he crossed to the bathtub and dipped his hand in. He grimaced at the barely lukewarm water and dried his hand on the bath linen hanging over the rim of the tub.
Then he crossed to the privacy screen to undress. Standing momentarily stymied by the laces of his shirt and breeches—it had been so long that Merlin had assisted him with dressing and undressing—he shook off his stupidity and yanked at the knots until they came undone. He muttered curses at himself for leaving the bath linen across the room and strode through the cool night air to the bathtub.
He sunk into the tepid water, shivering slightly. He quickly soaped up the washcloth and scrubbed at the sweat and dirt of the day and tonight’s impromptu training session.
Wrapping himself in the bath linen, he shivered at the cold air against his skin wet with cool water and crossed to his bedclothes laid out on the bed. He’d have to ask Merlin to start banking the fire up—the deceptively mild Autumn was swiftly giving way to what promised to be a frigid five months of winter.
Still shivering and clenching his jaw so his teeth couldn’t chatter against each other, he crawled beneath the duvet and set about going to sleep.
The next morning, Merlin thumped down onto the bench across from him and gathered a plate, digging in without a word.
Arthur glared at him tiredly. “I didn’t say you could eat with me,” he pointed out.
Merlin gave him a grin. “That’s because you’re a prat,” he said, before taking a large bite out of his sausage.
And just like that, Arthur knew things were back to normal.
Arthur was heaving with a breath, adrenaline sliding away as he leant on his sword. It sunk through the Grindylow’s chest and down into the sand in the shallows of the lake. He pulled out the sword and watched as the creature seemed to disintegrate into the sand.
He yanked his sword out and slid it back into the sheath. Then he trudged out of the lake, all too conscious of the water sloshing through his boots. Merlin would be disgruntled about having to clean them later, he thought as he waved away the blanket his manservant offered him to dry with.
He squelched over to the woman and stood by her huddled form. “Are you alright?” He asked.
She got to her feet, seeming to glow with some inner power. “You have my saved my life, Arthur Pendragon,” she said—her voice echoing through the clearing, though there was no reason for it to do so. “For that—I will give you your heart’s desire for just one night.”
Before he could move, she disappeared in a flash of brilliant white light. He growled, turning to Merlin. “What the hell was that?” He demanded. The sorceror in question looked dazed, eyes glassy and unfocused. “Merlin?” He asked hesitantly.
Merlin shook his head, coming back to focus. “Could have been a sidhe,” he suggested, “or a sorceress.”
“Are you alright?” Arthur asked nervously, all too aware of what his heart’s desire was.
“I’m fine,” the sorceror replied with the usual grin. “Come on—if we make good time, we might make it back to Camelot before sundown.”
Arthur nodded and trudged over to his horse, vaulting up and waiting for his manservant to scramble inelegantly over the horse’s back. His lips twitched up in a fond smile which had fallen before the sorceror had righted himself. The woman had said he would have his heart’s desire, yet Merlin stayed unaffected.
Yet another reason , he thought bitterly, not to trust evil sorcerors. He spurred his horse a little faster and raced towards the city.
They got back just as the sun was sinking below the horizon at the north wall—quicker to head straight to the stables rather than dismount in the courtyard. Eyeing Merlin and daring him to say anything, he led his mare into the stall and looked around with a tired eye.
“You’ve been neglecting your jobs,” he called to Merlin playfully. Behind him the stall door creaked open “When was the last time you mucked out these—”
He was cut off as he was shoved roughly against the wall and felt insistent lips smashed against his own. He stared wide-eyed, terrified, at Merlin’s face in cross-eyed range. The blue eyes were closed, black lashes fluttering as he continued to press kisses onto the prince’s lips.
Arthur’s jaw fell slack and Merlin took advantage of the slight change with a tongue delving into the other’s mouth and a low moan. Arthur closed his welling eyes and whimpered low in his throat. How am I supposed to survive this? He thought desperately.
Ignoring the wetness trickling down his face, he lifted his hands to Merlin’s face and pushed him away carefully. “Merlin, what are you doing?” He asked, hating how tight and gravelly his voice sounded.
“I would’ve thought that was obvious,” the sorcerer replied half-laughing.
“Why?” Arthur asked.
“Because I love you, you prat,” Merlin replied fondly, pushing him back against the stall.
He leant his head close again, but Arthur held it away from him with the hands still cupping his face. I will destroy that sorceror, he thought furiously. “In the stable?”
Merlin hummed in agreement, stepping closer and pressing his hot length against the prince. “I couldn’t control myself,” he admitted in a husky voice.
“Of course not,” Arthur agreed, thumping his head back against the wall. That’s because you’re enchanted. “Do you think you can make it back to our chambers?”
“Without you?” Merlin asked, pulling away and looking totally confused.
“I need to report to my father,” Arthur reminded him, dropping his arms back to his side.
Merlin pouted and buried his forehead in the crook of Arthur’s neck. “Sometimes I hate that you’re such a dutiful prince and son,” he whispered.
“And sometimes I hate that you’re such a terrible manservant,” he said lightly, running a hand through the hair at the nape of Merlin’s neck. “Have you seen the state of the stables?”
“Is it my fault you’ve barely let me leave your chambers for weeks?” Merlin murmured, making small nips at the tendon where his neck and shoulder met. Arthur shuddered at the sensation and pulled the sorceror’s head away from his neck. “Right, stables,” he muttered, kicking the hay at his feet. “Don’t take too long, okay?”
He hurried out, head ducked low and taking several backwards glances at Arthur still half-fallen against the stall.
He thumped his head against the wall, then a few more times for good measure. What the hell am I going to do?
He hesitated after reporting to his father, then asked for a word with the new physician. As he asked for a powerful sleeping draught, he wished that it was Gaius he was still speaking to. He could have explained properly what the sorceress had done and the real reason he needed the draught, instead of making up some lie about difficulty sleeping.
He headed back to their chambers, a glass bottle held tightly in his fist. He found Merlin sprawled on his bed underneath the covers, giving him a seductive smile. He shivered slightly, trying to repress the desire that coiled low in his gut. He poured a goblet of wine with shaking hands and tipped the draught in.
Turning with a smile, he crossed to the bed and settled down beside Merlin above the sheets. He nestled against the pillows and pretended to sip at the wine. Pressing the cup to Merlin’s lips, he tilted it up until the sorceror had no choice but to drink.
He blue eyes watched him warmly as he swallowed until the cup was empty. Arthur set the goblet onto the table beside his bed and watched the sorceror for signs that the draught was working.
Merlin gave him a fond smile and leant over, pressing a lingering kiss to the prince’s lips. Arthur tried to ignore the expanse of bare skin available to him as he rested a hand on the sorceror’s prominent shoulder blade. Merlin pulled away with a frown. “This would go a lot better if you were participating, Arthur,” he pointed out.
Arthur sighed heavily, resting his head back on the headboard. “I know.”
Merlin leant up, scowling at him. “Don’t you want this?” He asked.
“I do!” Arthur said hurriedly, sliding his hand up to the sorceror’s neck. “Believe me, I want this more than anything.”
“Then what’s wrong?” Merlin asked, perturbed.
“I wonder whether you actually want this,” the prince admitted mournfully.
“Of course I do!” Merlin snapped impatiently, his eyes blinking heavily as the draught clearly took hold. “I’m the one initiating it.”
“You’re enchanted,” Arthur told him painfully. “The woman in the woods. She did this.”
Merlin sat up properly, frowning at him. “But the woman in the woods said...” He trailed off, eyes going wide. “Arthur, am I your heart’s desire?”
Arthur flinched at his tone, clenching his eyes closed against the welling tears. He nodded, then turned his face away.
“No, no, it’s okay,” Merlin said hurriedly, gently. He took the prince’s chin in slender fingers and turned his face towards him. Arthur refused to open his eyes, even as the sorceror pressed feather-light kisses all over his lips. “You have me, Arthur.” His voice was starting slur and his grip was slackening.
“But for how long?” He asked hoarsely.
“For...” He broke off, breathing heavily. “Arthur, was there a potion in that wine?” He demanded, sounding angry and slurred.
“Sleeping draught,” Arthur admitted, clenching his eyes shut tighter and bringing a hand to cup the sorceror’s head as Merlin slumped against his chest. “I thought it would be easier for you to sleep this off.”
“Arthur,” Merlin protested sleepily. “I love you.”
“I know,” the prince replied, pressing a kiss to the damp temple. “I love you too.”
Merlin hummed, and before long he was snoring lightly on Arthur’s chest. Shuddering in defeat, Arthur slipped out from underneath him. He collected the haphazardly thrown clothes and redressed the sorceror with detached efficiency. He thought about moving Merlin to his own room, but laid him back on the bed and pressed a kiss to one sharp cheekbone.
Then he swept out of the room, pulling a hooded cloak over himself. He led his eager mare past the sleeping stableboy and followed his earlier path back to the grindylow’s lake.
He flung himself off the horse and glared around the clearing, plunging his sword into the dirt.
“I thought you would be locked up in your rooms with Emrys right now,” a familiar voice commented. He whirled around to see the woman from earlier leaning against a tree, watching him curiously. He yanked his sword out of the ground and approached her, squinting through the bright glow she emitted.
“Undo the enchantment,” he commanded angrily, gripping the hilt.
She smiled pleasantly. “I can’t—but it will be over as soon as the sun rises anyway.”
“Will he remember?” Arthur asked through gritted teeth.
“Yes,” she replied calmly. “He will remember everything clearly, even once his thoughts and feelings are different than they are now.”
“Make him forget,” Arthur asked, bowing his head. “It’s not fair—just let him forget, please.”
“You’re a very strange man, Arthur Pendragon,” the sorceress remarked. “It is not many a man who would waste his only night to be with his beloved to cross a kingdom to beg for them to forget.”
“It won’t be my only,” he said, frowning.
She laughed cruelly. “And what makes you think that? The word of a dragon?”
He scowled at her, stepping forward and raising his sword. “What are you implying?”
“Kilgharrah is charged with ensuring that the destiny of Albion comes to pass,” she said coldly. “By any means necessary. If you have to believe that you and Emrys will become lovers in order to do what you must, then the dragon would have no issue in letting you think it was meant to be.”
“You’re lying!” he spat harshly, pressing the tip of his sword to the sorceress’ stomach.
She gave him a mocking sort of smile. “If that’s what you need to believe.” Her eyes flashed and the clearing was momentarily lit with blinding light. “Merlin will remember nothing from the moment you killed the grindylow. Just as you wish.”
He gave an angry shout and drove the sword through her body and into the tree behind her back. Brilliant green liquid poured from the wound and she smiled at him one more time before she slumped, lifeless.
He yanked the sword out, spraying himself with the ichor and cringed. A sidhe, then—no sorceress. Trudging back over to his horse, he mounted and rode back to Camelot as fast as his mare would go.
He left her in the hands of the confused stableboy, returning to his rooms and finding Merlin still fast asleep in his bed. He closed his eyes in pain, remembering the sidhe’s words. Shoving them aside, he pulled his chair over to the bedside and sunk gratefully into the seat, watching the sorceror slumber unknowingly.
If you had to believe that...then the dragon would have no issue in letting you think it was meant to be .
He drifted to sleep with tears drying on his face.
Chapter 2: In The Service Of A Prince
Arthur had been acting increasingly strange since the Questing Beast and all the events that had followed from that. But never more noticeably so than since he’d killed the grindylow and the sorceror had knocked Merlin unconscious. Everything about his behaviours seemed unendingly guilty and avoidant.
The Prince seemed to constantly shift between giving Merlin too many jobs and ensuring he had no time at all during the day to return to their chambers for a rest; or giving him basically nothing to do and pacing around their chambers like a trapped panthera, until he left the room in a huff without a single word towards his confused manservant.
“It’s wintertime,” Gwen answered one evening. They were gathering food for Arthur and Morgana, respectively, and Merlin had been reiterating his usual complaints about Arthur. “No war campaigns to head or tournaments to train for—and Uther forbids him from going on regular patrols while the crime gets to its winter standard. He’s probably just bored.”
“Does he have to take it out on me?” Merlin whined.
Gwen gave him a confused look. “I thought you said he was ignoring you?”
“Yes, when he’s not working me into exhaustion,” he complained. “Do you know how many times he’s had me muck out his stables this week?” He asked. She smirked at him, amused. “Eight! There’s only seven days in a week!”
She shook her head and picked up the dinner tray. “I’m sure he’ll settle down soon.” She gave him a final smile before she hurried off to Morgana’s tower before the stew had time to cool.
Arthur took the double-portion the chef offered him and left the room at his own sedate pace, murmuring a quick enchantment to keep it warm as he made his way through the castle to their chambers.
“There you are Merlin,” Arthur drawled, looking up from his seat by the fire. “I thought you’d got lost.”
“Ha-ha, very funny,” he replied, smiling. “Come on, get it while it’s hot.”
Arthur made a protesting moan about having to leave the fire and draped a pelt over his shoulders as he made his way over to the table. Merlin scooped him a generous portion and sat across from him with a small bowl. “That’s all you’re eating?” The prince asked, disbelieving.
Merlin glanced down at his bowl then back up at Arthur with a frown. “Yes?”
Arthur scowled at him as he lifted the ladle and slopped another scoop into his bowl. “You need to eat more,” he said, “put some meat on your bones before you freeze to death out in the courtyard.”
“I wouldn’t have to go out in so often if you didn’t keep making me muck out the stables,” Merlin muttered unhappily, before spooning up a mouthful of the thick, rich broth.
Arthur hummed distractedly, and when Merlin looked up, he was frowning at him seriously. “Is that the only jacket you own, Merlin?”
Merlin scowled at him. “Sorry, sire, I left my rabbit fur coat in Ealdor.”
“Foolish of you,” Arthur commented, before turning his attention back to his meal. They ate in silence for some time, until the prince shattered the peace with an unexpected: “I would like you to warm my bed tonight, Merlin.”
Merlin, who had been eating a mouthful of stew at the time, sucked in a shocked gasp and spent the next few moments coughing and choking. He felt a hard thump on his back that dislodged the problematic potatoes and took a few moments to breathe. “What?” He asked after the prince had walked around the table and sunk back into his seat.
“The weather has gotten cold enough to make a bedwarmer necessary,” Arthur told him, frowning in that particular way he did when Merlin was overreacting to something he found completely normal.
“Why me?” Merlin asked, dropping his spoon. “I could get a chambermaid, or...”
Arthur rolled his eyes and used a bit of bread to soak up some stew. “Don’t be ridiculous, Merlin. You’re the natural choice.”
“But...” he spluttered. “Arthur, you can’t ask me to...I mean...I...you...I’ve never...”
Arthur rolled his eyes again. “Merlin. I’m not being unreasonable. Ask Gwen if you need some tips—she’s done it often enough.”
Merlin felt himself flushing, ducked his head. “Yeah...I’ll just...go ask her...now...” He scrambled away, internally panicking as he raced through the castle to Morgana’s tower.
Arthur wants me to lie with him! For warmth! He thought hysterically, thumping on the heavy wooden doors desperately.
It opened on a startled Gwen. “Merlin?” She asked, bewildered. “Is there something wrong? You look...”
“Gwen?” Morgana asked, “what’s going on?”
“It’s Merlin,” Gwen called over her shoulder. “He looks terrified.”
The lady appeared in the doorway and gave him a concerned look. “Bring him in and sit him down,” she commanded gently.
Gwen ushered him inside and he didn’t think to struggle until he was seated in one of the lady’s cushioned chairs. “No, no, I’m...” He slumped at Gwen’s arched look and buried his face in his hands. “Arthur asked me to warm his bed.” At their silence, he looked up to find them frowning at him, confused. “What?”
“That’s not unusual,” Gwen told him gently.
“I’m surprised it’s taken him this long to ask actually,” Morgana commented from the other side of her dinner table. “He usually asks much sooner.”
Merlin gaped at them, horrified. “But...I’ve never warmed anybody’s bed before!” he protested.
Gwen chuckled. “It’s not hard,” she told him gently.
“Hard is not my complaint,” Merlin murmured.
“Gwen has been warming my bed since she was my handmaiden,” the lady offered. “She could help you.”
“I’ll show you how it’s done,” Gwen decided, slowly getting to her feet.
Merlin gripped her hands, flushing with embarrassment. “No, no—it’s fine. I know the basics. Just...” He got weakly to his feet. “I have to do this, don’t I?”
Gwen frowned at him. “It’s nothing strange, Merlin. Bedwarmers are one of the essential comforts in the palace for wintertime.”
“It’s really not a big deal,” Morgana offered calmly.
“Yeah,” he agreed, defeated. “Yeah I’ll just...well, he should be going to bed soon.”
“Goodnight then, Merlin,” Gwen said, leading him towards the door.
Merlin, once a safe distance away in a deserted corridor, fell against the wall and let himself shake for a few moments. Arthur wanted to lie with him and apparently the whole castle thought it was commonplace. He took a deep breath and trudged reluctantly back to Arthur’s rooms. The lights were all extinguished but the struggling fire. Arthur was sitting in his bathtub, arms hanging over the rim and head tilted back. As if he hadn’t asked Merlin to...
Arthur looked up as he entered, firelight casting half his face into deep shadow. “Did you find out everything you needed to?” He asked.
“Yeah,” Merlin replied, ducking his head with embarrassment. “All sorted.”
“Excellent,” Arthur replied. “I have to see Leon about the night patrol—will you be organised by the time I get back?”
“Yeah,” Merlin agreed weakly.
Arthur nods and stands up in the bathtub. Merlin turns away, averting his eyes and busying his hands by rubbing down the stain left on the table from tonight’s meal—already cleared away by some other servant in his getaway.
The prince gives him a confused frown over his shoulder as he leaves the room and Merlin went to his room to change. He pulled off his neckerchief and laid it carelessly on his bench. He paused, hands on his collar, and cringed—should he even bother changing? Arthur would expect him to be... He shuddered and pulled off his jacket.
Was he supposed to wait in the bed or...? He shook his head and crossed back into the main room. He stands by the fire, staring into the flames and wishing they would warm cold dread in his stomach. He rubs sweaty hands on his breeches and nearly jumps out of his skin when Arthur returns.
The prince is giving him a concerned look again, or possibly still. But he shakes it off and shuts the door. “All ready?” He asks.
Merlin swallows painfully and nods, not trusting his voice. Arthur heads over to the changing screen and waits, frowning impatiently at his manservant after a few moments. “You don’t expect me to undress myself while you’re standing right there, do you?” He asked.
Merlin flushed, embarrassed and crossed over. Normally, he would make some quip about Arthur not being able to undress himself but his voice was still stuck in his throat. He peeled off the winter jacket and took it to the armoire, returning with Arthur’s winter bedclothes.
He didn’t realise how badly his fingers were shaking until he was trying to unknot the laces at Arthur’s neck.
“This is what I meant about feeding you up, Merlin,” Arthur interrupted his thoughts. His hands came up to catch the trembling sorceror’s and Merlin hesitantly met his concerned gaze. “I don’t know how you get through the day with only those threadbare clothes between you and your bones.”
“I survived eighteen years in Ealdor, Arthur,” Merlin replied, his voice shaking.
“Yes,” Arthur murmured. “I suppose you did.” He dropped the sorceror’s hands and tugged the laces free of their notes. He dropped his arms back to his side and Merlin took a steadying breath before he went back to changing the prince.
He avoided letting his skin brush the prince’s bare flesh, wincing when he realised it wouldn’t be avoidable before long. He quickly pulled the bedclothes over Arthur, wanting to cover up his nakedness just as much as wanting to keep him warm. The breeches were an almost painful task, but he persevered.
He stepped away quickly, retreating back to the fire and not watching as the prince got himself into the bed. There was a few minutes of shifting, and then his voice sounded a bit irritated: “Merlin, are you sure you got the proper bedwarming concept from Gwen?”
“I got it, sire,” Merlin replied, flushing with shame.
“Well, my bed is freezing,” Arthur said pointedly.
“Right, sire,” Merlin replied nervously, “sorry, sire.”
“Sire?” Arthur repeated, confused.
“No need to call me sire, Arthur,” Merlin said, trying for light as he pulled off his tunic and folded it over the second chair on the fire. He hesitated on his breeches, but clenched his eyes shut to strip them off and crossed quickly to the bed blindly.
He slipped beneath the sheets and pressed himself close to Arthur’s warm torso. The Prince jumped almost violently and sat up to stare down at him in disbelief. “What are you doing?” He demanded, confused.
Merlin paused and winced. “Bedwarming?”
“Bed...oh, by the gods-Merlin!” He turned his back to swing his legs out of the bed and buried his face in his hands. “There’s no way I would expect that from someone so callously!”
“But you said...” Merlin trailed off, confused.
Arthur muttered curses as he crossed over to the fire. Merlin, embarrassed, tugged the sheet around his torso and sat up. Arthur held up what looked like a frypan with an attached lid. “This,” Arthur said pointedly, “is a bedwarmer. You’re supposed to put coals from the fire in there and put it under the mattress.”
“Oh,” Merlin said, mortified.
Arthur, looking flushed, picked up Merlin’s clothes and crossed to the bed. He placed them above the duvet and frowned seriously at the sorceror. “I would never command you to lie with me, Merlin,” he said quietly. He shook his head. “No wonder you looked so terrified when I asked.”
“I thought...” He trailed off, then hurriedly tugged on his tunic. “I’m sorry.”
“Not your fault,” Arthur murmured, staring down at his hands. “Next time, just ask okay?”
He shook his head and stood, allowing Merlin time to tug on his breeches and run, embarrassed, to his own chambers. He buried himself and his shame beneath the woollen blankets and the wolf-pelt Arthur had casually discarded and didn’t come out until he woke up in the morning.
When he did so, he found his normal jacket missing and one of Arthur’s older fur-lined coats in its place. Recognising it for the apology it was, he donned the gift and joined the prince for breakfast.
Merlin blamed Aelred, the new court physician.
“Colds are perfectly normal for wintertime, he said,” Merlin mimicked impatiently. “There’s nothing to worry about at all!”
“Merlin,” Arthur mumbled, “shut. Up.”
“Right,” the sorceror agreed, readjusting the prince’s position.
Arthur took the arm being pulled further over his manservant’s shoulder as permission to burrow his burning forehead into the crook of Merlin’s neck. He hissed as he managed to work up the neckerchief and press against equally warm skin.
Merlin huffed in irritation and managed to work the door to Arthur’s chambers open. He shuffle-dragged the prince over to the neatly made bed and deposited him unceremoniously onto the mattress.
“Merlin,” he whined. “I don’t feel well.”
“You don’t say,” Merlin muttered, yanking the prince’s boots off and wincing at how sweaty they were—even compared to normal.
“What’s the matter with me?” Arthur asked piteously.
“There’s a curse on the castle, sire,” Merlin replied, pushing him back down to lie properly on the bed. He was starting to sweat from exertion and continued contact with Arthur’s feverish body.
“Then we have to break it!” Arthur said valiantly, struggling to sit up.
“Arthur you can’t stand up without falling over, you’re in no state to go traipsing about the castle trying to kill a sorceror.” Merlin pushed him back onto the bed and tugged the duvet up over his weak struggles. “You just rest. I’ll take care of this.”
The prince protested, but his words were unintelligible through his slur. Merlin stood up and strode towards the door. The room gave a violent tip and he latched on to the wooden post of the bed to hold himself upright. Shaking his head to rid himself of the vertigo, he stood properly and took another step.
He tipped backwards and clung back on to the post, taking deep breaths until the room ceased twirling. He nearly jumped when he felt hot hands on his waist. He turned his head to glare at the blurry Arthur that tugged him away from the bedpost and onto the mattress. The very soft, very nice mattress. He relaxed into it, almost being embraced as he sunk deep into the cushioning.
“Gods, you’re just as bad as I am,” Arthur murmured, a warm hand settling onto Merlin’s forehead.
“No!” the sorceror protested, sitting upright with a jerk and getting lost in a world of black spots for a few moments. “I have to find the sorceror and get him to stop the spell.”
“What are you going to do?” Arthur asked, “faint on him? You’re not going anywhere.”
“I have to...” He trailed off, gesturing uselessly at the door and forgetting for a moment what it was he had to do.
“No, you don’t,” the prince said, pushing him down onto the pillows. “I’m going to see if I can find a guard who’s still coherent enough to fetch a potion from Aelred.”
“Aelred,” Merlin said darkly, glaring at the bedpost until it slid out of focus. “It’s all Aelred’s fault.” As he drifted towards unconsciousness, he thought for a delirious moment that there was a hand running through his hair comfortingly.
He woke up a day later, arms and legs tangled with Arthur’s as an embarrassed Uther stood over the bed. Arthur removed himself quickly, startled, and stared at his father in something akin to fear.
The King averted his gaze, flushing furiously. “The enchantment has been lifted,” he said firmly. “You’ll have to find a new court physician.”
Arthur fell back onto his pillows with a groan, weak and glistening with fever sweat. Merlin closed his eyes and growled slightly in his throat. “Aelred. I knew it was his fault.”
Arthur didn’t say anything, but a moment later a downy pillow smacked Merlin in the face. He opened an eye and glared tiredly at the prince. “Go order a bath. I’m in dire need of a wash.”
“Prat,” Merlin mumbled. He rolled out of the bed, wincing as his sweat-sticky clothes stuck to his skin and hung heavy and irritating. He crossed the room on weak legs, only pausing when an errant thought strayed into his mind.
Frowning seriously, he left the room at a fast pace, forcing himself not to wonder why sharing a feverishly hot bed with the crown prince was so familiar.
Merlin repressed a yawn and forced his eyes open wider in a fruitless attempt to dispel his lethargy. It had been a long day of frustratingly boring formalities with visiting nobility. This feast wasn’t even the last order of the night. After the meal the entire party was to undertake in a moonlit walk to celebrate the longest night of the year.
Thankfully, Merlin could easily sneak off once the feast was done with. The entirety of Camelot would be out in the night air—one person would hardly be missed between the crowd.
Arthur lifted his cup above his shoulder in the indication it would soon be empty and Merlin lifted a nearby jug. He crossed over to the prince and noticed how the King averted his gaze with a frown. It had been like that since the whole debacle with the court physician. Uther had been unable to meet his son’s eyes whenever Merlin was within sight—it was unnerving, but Arthur had assured him it was nothing to worry about.
He filled Arthur’s cup to the top and stepped away, falling back into place by the wall with the rest of the servants. He fought off a yawn, then frowned when he noticed some of the noblemen at the table starting to fall asleep in their seats.
He cursed internally and set down the jug, looking around the room desperately. It was an enchantment, it had to be. He gathered his magic and dispelled the false sense of tiredness, looking about the room with more focus. A young nobleman’s daughter smirked at him, stirring her goblet of wine with an ornate dagger.
She rose from her seat as more noblemen slumped in their chairs. Uther glanced around at them in sleepy confusion, then his eyes locked on the lady started walking up the aisle between the two tables. She was whispering words of power, the dagger beginning to glow with a too-bright light.
Merlin fought to surge forward, but his feet were sealed to the floor. He looked around, panicked, looking for anything that could help. He picked up the jug and threw it towards her, but it bounced off an invisible shield and spilled on the ground in the sorceress’ wake.
He fought to move again, but his feet remained stationary. She raised the dagger above her shoulder, intent to throw it and Merlin gave a sob as defeat sunk through him. He raised his hand just as her arm gained its momentum and shouted familiar words. Power surged through him and the dagger quivered in mid-air. It shuddered, then flew backwards to plunge itself into the sorceress’ chest.
She stared, shocked, then collapsed to the ground. All the noblemen jerked awake almost instantly, and Uther had stood sharply. He was pointing a shaking finger at Merlin and it took a moment for the words he was screaming to sink into Merlin’s awareness.
“Guards! Arrest him! Take him to the dungeons immediately!”
“No, wait!” Merlin found himself protesting, raising his arms in defence as two knights strode closer.
“Father!” Arthur was protesting. “Father, he saved your life!”
“He’s a sorceror!” Uther bellowed at his son. “He will be executed at dawn for his treachery!”
“Father!” the prince protested, horrified.
“Enough!” Uther bellowed, just as the guards reached Merlin and clenched steady fists around his biceps. “Take him away.”
Merlin allowed himself to be dragged away, taking a look over his shoulder to see Arthur’s terrified face watching after him. He didn’t even struggle as the guards walked him down to the dungeons, resigned to his imprisonment.
They left him standing in the middle of a hay-strewn cell, closing the door with a final clang that echoed in the sudden silence. He shivered and wrapped his arms around his torso, crossing the room to sink to the floor beneath the barred window. He had ‘till dawn to plan his escape.
He closed his eyes and refused to let his tears fall. Even if he managed to keep his life tomorrow, he would never be able to return to Camelot until Arthur was king.
Arthur , he thought painfully. Who would protect the prince with him in hiding? Who would be his companion and...dare he say it? His friend. Arthur had all the subjects he could ever want, but no one to stand up to him when the prat needed it.
He shivered and turned his face to the wall. He had an escape to plot.
Would it he be burnt? Or beheaded? Neither were particularly pleasant prospects. He hoped it would be a private execution—it would be a lot more difficult to escape from a city-wide crowd. He had a vivid thought of looking out over the crowd and seeing Arthur’s face among the gathered spectators. He was wearing the same terror-filled expression he’d had at Merlin’s arrest.
The sorceror frowned and opened his eyes. Terror. Not disgust or betrayal. He groaned and thunked his head back against the stone wall. After everything they’d been through together, the uncountable times Merlin had saved his life, Arthur was afraid of him.
He hooked his arms around his bent legs and pulled them up towards his chest. He rested his chin on his knees and closed his eyes to concentrate. He’d have to use magic to escape, even if it was damning himself further. He’d never escape the knights otherwise.
He’d have to flee the kingdom. He took a deep breath and expelled it with a shuddering sigh. How was he to fulfil his destiny if he wasn’t even here to protect Arthur?
The door squealed on its hinges as it opened and Merlin looked up wearily. He took a moment to realise it was Arthur and scrambled to his feet. The prince’s face was set in determination and Merlin resisted the urge to press himself against the wall.
“Sire,” he said, bowing his head. “What are you doing here?”
Arthur gave a frustrated sigh. “Breaking you out,” he replied.
Merlin jolted his head up, startled. He frowned at Arthur in confusion and opened his mouth to ask. Arthur just shook his head sharply and grabbed Merlin’s wrist. He stuck his head out the cell to look down the corridor. Then he held a finger to his lips and started running away from the cell, pulling Merlin along by the wrist.
“Where are we going?” Merlin whispered.
Arthur just shot a glare at him over his shoulder and held a finger to his lips again. He continued leading Merlin away, turning down a familiar staircase. Merlin frowned, pausing as best as he could. “Arthur, do you know where this goes?” He asked nervously.
“You really can’t grasp the concept of staying quiet, can you Merlin?” Arthur replied curtly. “Of course I know.”
Before Merlin could reply, they turned into the cavern and came face-to-face with the dragon. It resettled its position upon seeing them, and spoke: “This is very risky, young prince.”
“I know,” Arthur replied impatiently. “I’m not going to chance it, however. Are you going to help us or not?”
“Wait, you know the dragon?” Merlin asked in disbelief.
“Now is really not the time, Merlin,” Arthur replied impatiently. “Yes, I know the Great Dragon. Yes, I knew you’re a sorceror. Yes, I know about our destiny. I’ve known since before we first met. Now can we please focus on getting out of the castle?” He started pulling Merlin towards a stone staircase he’d never dared to take before.
“We don’t have any provisions,” Merlin pointed out, teetering precariously on the steep stairs.
“It’s been taken care of, Merlin,” Arthur said quickly. “Now would you please just shut up for once?” He released his wrist as they reached the outcrop the dragon was perched on.
“Are you ready?” The dragon asked.
“Yes,” Arthur answered. It lifted itself into the air with a few powerful thrusts of its wings and Merlin cried out in surprise when one of its talons gripped him around the waist and lifted him into the air.
They flew deep into the cavern, further back than Merlin had been able to see from the entrance—probably further than he had even believed it to go. Questions were burning on the back of his tongue, but he knew he couldn’t be heard over the rush of wind.
The dragon dropped them by a far wall, giving them an intense look as he strained against the end of his chain. “Good luck, young ones,” he said, before turning and flying back the way he came.
“You know the dragon,” Merlin managed out eventually.
Arthur glared at him. “Yes, Merlin. Now come on.” He strode over to a staircase carved into the wall and started the ascent towards a crack in the roof that showed green treetops and a star-filled sky.
By the time they reached the opening, he was exhausted and Arthur had to pull him up and out of the fissure. A mounted knight stood on the far side of the clearing, two reigns held in his hand. The two horses were packed with saddlebags, but not heavily. Merlin looked at the prince in askance, but he was already striding towards the night.
Merlin followed him, breathing heavily.
“Were you followed?” Arthur was asking.
“No, sire. Everybody was preoccupied with the solstice,” the knight replied.
“Thank you. Your loyalty will always be remembered,” the prince said, offering a hand for the knight to shake in lieu of what would probably be a hand on his shoulder.
The knight handed over the reins to the prince and turned, galloping at full speed in the direction his tracks had come. Merlin stared after him in confusion, only breaking his concentration when Arthur put one of the reigns in his hand. “Come on,” he said, “we need to get as much distance between us and Camelot as we can.”
Merlin took the reins, confused, then watched as Arthur swung himself up onto the horse’s back without further world. Merlin scrambled to mount his own steed and kicked it to follow after an already-galloping Arthur. “Where are we going?” He yelled.
“Merlin, just this once can you stop being an idiot? What part of running away do you not get?” Arthur shouted back, glaring coldly.
Merlin scowled back at him, but bent himself low over the horse’s neck as it transitioned into a gallop.
Arthur didn’t let them stop until dusk the next day. He eyed their surroundings nervously and dismounting, coming to help Merlin when the sorceror’s legs threatened to give out on him. The prince helped him over to a fallen log, then headed to his horse to unpack a tent.
“Where are we?” Merlin asked, his voice gruff from the extended ride with little opportunity to rehydrate.
“We’ve just crossed the border into Cenred’s kingdom,” Arthur explained, spreading a treated leather over the ground. “Cenred found a sorceress for a bride and revoked his anti-magic laws. Even if my father sends knights after us they can’t do anything while we’re in Cenred’s territory. You should be safe.”
He unwrapped the tightly packed tent and started setting up the tent.
“Here,” Merlin said, crossing the frost-crusted grass on his knees. “Let me.” He held a hand up towards the tent and muttered the string of sacred words that assembled the tent in its desired shape. Then he turned to look at Arthur and waited for the prince’s reaction.
He expected fear, or perhaps awe. But Arthur merely opened the tent flap and gestured the sorceror inside. He was outside for some time, returning with the two saddles and their attachments. “We’ll have to walk tomorrow,” he said, putting them down in the corner and starting to sort through the contents. “I shouldn’t have pushed the horses so hard, but I wanted to cross the border as soon as possible. I couldn’t risk us getting caught while still in Camelot.”
“Walking,” Merlin repeated, glaring down at his half-numb legs and wondering if he could survive a day of walking at the pace Arthur was imposing upon them.
“It’s not too far,” Arthur told him, coming over with food wrapped in thin oil-cloth. “We should get there by noon.”
Merlin frowned, confused. “Where are we going?” He asked, accepting a chunk of bread and cheese from the prince.
Arthur looked genuinely surprised by the question. “To Ealdor,” he said eventually, his voice soft. “I thought you might want to see your mother before we go into hiding.”
Merlin realised he wanted to do exactly that. If word reached Ealdor about a sorceror being found in Uther’s court that had become a fugitive, she’d only worry if she didn’t have proof he was safe.
When he looked up at Arthur, the prince was watching him with an undecipherable expression. Something twisted in his chest, and he felt his helpless confusion cross his face. “Why are you doing this?” He asked.
Arthur huffed a laugh and looked down at his modest meal. “Which part are you questioning?” He asked quietly.
“All of it!” Merlin replied loudly. “Why break me out in the first place? And why are you coming with me? You’re supposed to be king! Now you’re stuck being a fugitive with me! I don’t understand. Why would you do any of it?”
“Merlin,” Arthur said seriously, putting down his food and knee-shuffling across the tent until he sat sitting beside the sorceror. “You’re the most important part of my destiny—my fated companion, the other side of my coin. We’re supposed to unite Albion, together. I can hardly do that if you’re lost somewhere in solitary exile now, can I?”
“But you’re the crown prince of Camelot,” Merlin pointed out, agitated.
“Yes,” Arthur agreed. “But our destiny is greater than that. I can still be king of Albion without belonging to Camelot, but I can’t be king without you beside me.”
“That makes sense, I guess,” Merlin conceded begrudgingly. He spent some time eating, then looked beside him at the prince. “Why aren’t you afraid of me?” He asked quietly.
Arthur looked at him then, eyebrow raised imperiously. “Afraid? Of you? What would I be afraid of you for – your boundless idiocy?”
Merlin scowled at him. “I’m a sorceror. We’re all evil manipulators out to destroy the goodness and reign of Camelot,” he spat viciously.
Arthur glared at him furiously for a few moments, before cuffing him over the head. “Shut up, idiot,” he growled. “How could you even think I would...” He took a deep breath and stood as best as he could in the small tent. “I’m going to check the horses,” he said through clenched teeth.
He picked up a saddlebag and left the tent. Merlin tucked his arms into the fur-lined sleeves of his jacket, frowning after him in confusion. After a while, he shuffled over to the remaining bags and started looking through them. He paused at one, unnerved to find his book of spells packed atop a bundle of familiarly-coloured cloth.
He picked the book up, turning it over and thumbing through a few pages to confirm that yes, it was his book. He set it aside and pulled out the red fabric, shaking it out. He held the tunic in his hands up. It was the same shade as his usual, but the fabric was less worn than his own shirts. Deeper in the bag, there was another tunic—this one in his usual blue—and a pair of supple brown breeches.
Outside the tent came the sounds of Arthur’s chainmail shifting against itself and he caught his breath, stuffing the book and his tunic back into the saddlebag guiltily. He waited for Arthur to come in and catch him at the bags, but there was only the sounds of more clinking.
Merlin frowned and picked up a bedroll. He loosened the straps and spread it out on the other side of the tent. He pushed against the roll, giving a contented sort of sigh at the cushion of sheep’s wool packed in between the cotton covering. Arthur’s bedrolls were always so much more comfortable than the ones provided for a mere manservant.
He sighed and glanced at the small square of bare ground left on the other side of the tent—if he’d even be able to fit a bedroll there. Gritting his teeth, he went back to the pile of saddles and bags. He shuffled the bags aside and scowled slightly, setting his jaw tightly.
Soft-soled footsteps sounded out from outside the tent, and a shaft of dying sunlight passed through the door as the prince stepped inside. “Arthur,” he said tightly, “where is the other bedroll?”
“Oh,” Arthur said softly. There was a long pause, silence only broken by the sounds of the prince tying the tent flap closed. He took a deep breath and sighed it out. “Sorry,” he murmured quietly. “When I packed I thought...”
“What?” Merlin snapped impatiently, turning on him to glare furiously. “That I’d be happy to sleep on the cold ground?” He demanded icily.
Arthur sighed, not looking up from the toes of his boots. “I thought we’d just share,” he admitted tiredly. He looked up and met Merlin’s eyes, defeated. “It’s fine. You use it—I don’t think I’ll be getting any sleep anyway.”
Merlin went to reply, but stopped, taking in Arthur’s changed appearance. The chainmail and fine tunic he’d been wearing not ten minutes ago were gone. In their place was a tunic of raw wool—it made Merlin itch just looking at it. He couldn’t imagine any reason why the prince was wearing something so coarse.
“What happened to your mail?” He managed out eventually.
“I thought it was a bit too conspicuous,” the prince answered, ducking through the tent to settle in the patch of bare floor. “I buried it. No one will find it unless they know where to look.”
“Why?” Merlin asked, moving to sit on the bedroll across from the prince.
“It’s not exactly easy to blend in wearing armour, Merlin,” Arthur reminded him, in the familiar tone that said you’re an idiot.
“I mean why are you trying to blend in?” Merlin clarified, still bewildered. “You’re the prince.”
“Not anymore,” Arthur admitted, defeated. “I’m a fugitive as much as you are now, Merlin. From now on, I’m not your prince.”
“You’re just my prat,” Merlin said, trying for humour to lighten the prince’s suddenly dark mood. There was a short pause, and Arthur looked up at him with an unreadable expression. He realised exactly what he had said and flushed in embarrassment, staring at the prince in mortification. “No, I didn’t mean...” He ducked his head and resisted the urge to cover his face with his hands. “Not my prat,” he corrected. “Just a prat.”
“Right,” Arthur replied dubiously, saving Merlin from further embarrassment. He pulled something out of the saddlebag he’d brought back with him and tossed it at the sorceror. “It’s going to get cold soon. You’ll need that.”
Merlin shook out the bundle to reveal the wolf-pelt he’d had on his own pallet back at the palace. He frowned—why had Arthur brought this? He had other, finer furs to choose from.
Of course, Merlin thought dully, he’ll be using those. He probably brought this for me as an afterthought when he went in to get my book... A thought occurred and he paused in his lying down. He rose up on his elbows to frown at Arthur who was sitting in the same position across the tent. “You knew where to find my book,” he said accusingly.
“The magic book?” Arthur confirmed. “Yes. There’s only one loose stone in the wall large enough to hide it.” He gave him a disapproving look. “Not that I haven’t walked past and seen it in plain sight often enough. You really ought to be more careful—” He broke off his lecture with a pained look. “Well, I guess that doesn’t matter now, does it?”
“I guess not,” Merlin agreed softly. He spent a moment in silent impasse with Arthur, then settled down with his head down on the extra padding that served as a pillow. He turned his back to Arthur and spent some time staring at the fabric of the tent wall with only the calm breathing of the prince to keep him entertained. “Thank you,” he said quietly.
“For what?” Arthur asked, surprised.
“Rescuing me from the dungeons,” Merlin said. “I couldn’t remember if I’d said thank you yet.”
“You don’t need to,” Arthur replied softly. “But you’re welcome,” he added after a long pause.
“Goodnight Arthur,” Merlin murmured.
“Goodnight, Merlin.” There was something sort of wistful in Arthur’s voice, and as Merlin drifted towards the rest that had been begging for him for the past day, he contemplated why. Perhaps Arthur was longing for the opportunity for his own slumber? Or maybe he was missing the castle at Camelot, and all of its decadent comforts.
On the fragile edge of sleep, where one was too tired to react to the world, but aware of it in a dreamy sense, Merlin felt his head lifted and rested on a hot, warm lap. A brief, damp pressure was all he registered of a gentle kiss Arthur bestowed on his temple.
The last fall into unconsciousness was accompanied by impossible words: “I would do anything for you, Merlin.”
Asleep, the sorceror smiled.
Chapter 3: Arthur The Useless
Arthur shivered in the early-dawn air, but resisted the sensation by shoving his hands under his armpits and walking briskly to check on the horses. They woke noiselessly at his approach, huddled together for extra warmth not provided by their blankets.
The frost-licked grass was uncomfortably cold even outside the thick leather of his hunting boots and he moved from foot to foot as he opened a bag filled with a meagre portion of oats for the horses. He ran a hand down the velvet-soft nose of his mare and murmured apologies. “I couldn’t grab much more. Wouldn’t have been comfortable with burdening you further either.”
The horses snorted in answer and bent their necks down to eat. He slid a hand beneath the blankets, wincing at the feel of skin rubbed raw of hair that met his fingers. “I’ll have to keep your girth-straps loose for the trip,” he murmured to the eating horses. “Don’t want to rub your skin open.”
“Arthur?” A voice called uncertainly, rough with morning’s first-use.
The blond turned and gave the sleepy-looking Merlin a tired, reassurng smile. “Yes, Merlin?”
“What are you doing?” The sorceror asked, confused.
“Taking care of the horses,” Arthur replied. Wasn’t it obvious?
“I thought I heard you talking to someone,” Merlin replied, rubbing his eyes tiredly.
“Just the horses,” the blond replied gently, patting the nearest one’s neck to support his point. “Sorry if I woke you,” he added, guilt clawing at him when it became clear how exhausted Merlin still was.
“It’s fine,” the sorceror replied, stepping out of the tent wrapped in the wolf-pelt he’d used the night before. “Did you get any sleep?”
“I may have caught a wink or two,” Arthur lied. At Merlin’s concerned expression, he added: “I was too wound up to rest anyway.” That, at least, was the truth—but Merlin didn’t look reassured about it.
“You look exhausted,” Merlin said. “You should try and get some sleep.”
“Can’t,” Arthur replied dully. “Anyway, we should get going soon.” Without waiting for the sorceror’s inevitable protests, he stepped into the warm interior of the tent and handed Merlin out the fur-lined coat. He was all too aware that it would be insufficient once the snows came, but there was nothing he could do about it now.
Perhaps they could find a deep cave in the wilds, uninhabited by a hibernating bear, easily fortified enough for them to make a permanent base. Then he’d keep Merlin by the fire, make sure he was protected from the harsh nature of Winter.
The sorceror would hate it. Arthur sighed in defeat, deciding he would address the matter when it came about, and started packing up the bed roll. It still lingered with warmth where Merlin had been lying, traces of Merlin’s unique scent still teasing the air. He adjusted the straps tightly and attached it to one of the saddles.
Packing the wolf-pelt into one of the saddle bags, he carried the first saddle out and tried not to let guilt overtake him when the horses stepped away from him reluctantly. He strapped the saddles on, loose enough to keep them upright so long as they went without a rider. Which they would.
When he turned to pack up the tent, he found Merlin kneeling beside the second saddle, strapping on the wrapped bundle that had been fully assembled just moments ago.
“Magic,” he murmured. “Must be useful.”
Merlin shot him a frown, then lifted the saddle. Arthur took it from him without a word, saddling up the second horse and taking hold of their reins. He offered one to Merlin and, trying not to look back at the gaping roots where his armour was buried, they set off.
Merlin grew more lively as the sun crawled higher beyond the canopy of grey, filling the silence with idle chatter and anecdotes about hunting trips when he was a boy in Ealdor. Neither of them dared to mention Camelot or the life he had led there—it was an unspoken agreement.
Arthur didn’t want Merlin to ask him again about his motives. Not that he was likely to—the sorceror had heard the word destiny and conceded entirely. He knew it was his place to help Arthur unite Albion. His easy interpretation of ‘two sides of a coin’ made his lack of feelings clear.
Arthur sighed, ducking his head and closing his eyes. He could suffer through this. Knowing Merlin did not return his regard was not new. He’d been plagued by that truth for months, nowhere to escape in the winter confines from his manservant and the knowledge that he had allowed his feelings to be manipulated by the Dragon.
“Are you actually asleep right now?” Merlin asked, breaking Arthur’s introspection.
Arthur lifted his head and glared fuzzily at the sorceror. “No,” he replied. “I’m just...thinking.”
“Uh-huh,” Merlin intoned skeptically. “What am I saying? You’re perfectly coherent.” He shook his head and took hold of one side of the mare’s reins. “Come on, we need to turn up here.”
Arthur was thankful the sorceror knew the path back to his home—for a delirious moment, he couldn’t remember the course he had plotted. He allowed himself to be led, one hand tangled in the reins and the other danging limply by his side. The day was warming enough he didn’t have to shiver with every icy breath that stole into his lungs.
Perhaps he could buy a cloak as they passed through Ealdor. They weren’t a village known for their trade, but surely someone might be willing to sell a badly provisioned wintertime traveller an old cloak for warmth? He shivered as a particularly icy blast of wind blew through the path, stepping closer to the horse he had fallen into step beside.
The warmth beside him was intoxicating, and he slipped a hand beneath the horse’s blanket. Then he pressed his face to the quilted wool and hummed in relief at the heat. He started drifting into a half-sleeping state, jerking awake when he stumbled and becoming aware of Merlin yelling his name in a panic.
He lifted his head over the horse’s neck and glared at the sorceror. “What?” He asked, his voice gruff with his exhaustion.
“This is ridiculous,” Merlin was ranting, “you haven’t slept since dawn of the solstice! You’re nearly dead on your feet. You’re going to work yourself to death before your knights even catch up!”
“I’m fine,” he replied defensively. “I’ll get you to safety, I promise.”
“You can’t protect me if you’re dead, Arthur,” Merlin shouted.
“I’m not going to die, Merlin,” Arthur replied sternly. “Don’t be hysterical. If it means so much to you, I’ll rest while you console your mother.”
“We should stay in Ealdor,” the sorceror said. Arthur lifted his head and glared at him, trying to convey how stupid he thought that idea was. “They would hide us, you know they would.”
“I won’t put anyone else in danger,” the blond replied when it became clear his glare was ineffective.
“They’d lay down their lives for you, Arthur,” Merlin said softly. “You saved the village and they will remember that.”
“I said no, Merlin,” Arthur snapped.
“Give me one good reason!” the sorceror yelled, furious.
“I won’t ask anyone to die for me!” Arthur bellowed back.
“If you drag us out into the wilderness like this, you’re going to me killed anyway!” Merlin snapped.
Arthur felt fear strike through him and he came around the horse, stopping Merlin in his tracks with a hand on his chest. “Merlin, I wouldn’t risk your life like that,” he said softly. “Not now. I have nothing left but to keep you safe.” His voice was rising in pitch, hysteria rising as Merlin continued to watch him blank-faced. “I will do everything and anything to protect you, Merlin. I gave up my kingdom for you! How can you even think I would risk your life by leading you into your demise? You think so little of me!”
“Arthur!” Merlin yelled, coming up and gripping his hands. The blond lifted his head, not able to recall when he’d let it drop, and met the too-blue eyes of his destined companion. The only thing he could decipher in his tired state was concern, but there was something else...something he couldn’t name... “You need to rest, Arthur,” he said gently. “Let us stay the night, at least, in Ealdor. We can get some proper sleep and sort out better provisions.”
“That,” Arthur said through a sleepy stupor, “makes sense.”
“Alright,” Merlin said, stepping away and taking the horses’ reins away. “Just a little further up this way,” he promised, and they started walking again.
They’d barely made it three steps into the village before Hunith was shouting her son’s name and running towards them. She practically glowed with joy at seeing him and Arthur took the reins away without a word. The sorceror laughed as he swept his mother up in an embrace—dissolving into relieved tears before either of them had exchanged words.
He nearly slumped where he stood, relieved to find the village safe and warmed to see Merlin so happy about his reunion. The world was more than half blury, his attention drifting—catching snatched of words. He understood enough when Hunith invited them eagerly into her home, trudging along with horses in tow.
He dropped their reins, knowing they wouldn’t get far, and shuffled inside while Merlin and his mother stayed outside to talk to a neighbour who had approached. He stared for a moment at the bare floor by the hearth, the near exact patch of stone where had Merlin had lain in the brief time they’d spent in Ealdor protecting his home from bandits.
Arthur crossed to the space and stretched out, face pressed to the fire-warmed stone, content to exist in the space his beloved had once occupied. He was asleep as soon as his eyes closed.
Awareness hit him like a blow and he sat up, shouting “Merlin!” as he tore his sword out of its scabbard. He looked around in a panic, only calming down when he felt hands on his shoulders and could hear a familiar voice.
He looked blearily up into Merlin’s concerned face and allowed himself to be pushed back down into the bedroll. “I’m right here,” Merlin was saying. “I’m safe, Arthur. We’re fine. Go back to sleep.”
Arthur wrapped a hand around one of his wrists as he closed his eyes, measuring the steady thump of Merlin’s pulse as he drifted back to sleep.
He woke more gently the next time. There were day-to-day noises coming through the open windows and when he sat up, he recognised with some confusion that he was using a familiar bed roll. He lifted the wolf-pelt wrapped around himself to his nose and inhaled the calming scent of Merlin.
His boots were a short distance and he pulled them on before crossing to the door and looking around the wintry sunlight for his missing companion. The horses were tied to a post a short distance away and he crossed to them, giving them a few reassuring strokes. He wondered where the saddles and their bags had gone, looking around and noticibly relaxing when he saw Merlin standing a short distance away.
“Finally awake then, you lazy prat?” Merlin asked, smiling. “I had to unpack and everything by myself while you slept away.”
Arthur flinched, fist clenched in the mare’s mane. “You should have woken me up,” he said. “I would have helped.”
“I was joking, Arthur,” Merlin replied, confused. “That wasn’t genuine criticism. Are you sure you’ve had enough sleep?”
“How long have we been here for?” Arthur asked, concerned.
“A day and a half,” Merlin replied, dropping down two bags in front of the horses. They gaped open to reveal coarse-looking hay, but the horses bent their necks to eat eagerly enough.
Arthur groaned. “We’ve been here for too long,” he said. “We should leave right away. Where are our things?”
Merlin avoided his gaze, shuffling to his other foot. “I want us to stay in Ealdor,” he admitted quietly.
“Merlin, we’re fugitives,” he explained, aching from the need to disappoint the sorceror. “Uther might burn the whole village merely for letting us stay the night.”
“A messenger came a few hours ago,” Merlin replied. He held up a letter, adding: “he aked my mother to help him find a way to get it to us. When I revealed myself, he seemed surprised—but not hostile.”
“He’s just a messenger,” Arthur told him. “He’s probably only here to scout our location. If we go quickly, we can get a good head start on the mercenaries.” He took the letter gingerly. “What does it say?”
“It’s for you,” Merlin replied. “I didn’t open it.”
Arthur frowned. Turning it over, he was only partly surprised to see the king’s personal crest in the red wax seal. “I’ll read this, then we need to get provisions. We’ll ride through the night.”
Merlin sighed. He looked disappointed, but he nodded and walked towards his mother’s house. Arthur sunk into a nearby upturned log, wincing as the cold through the seat his breeches.
With a shaking hand, he broke the seal and unfolded the message.
I cannot say I understand why you would betray me and give up your crown for a sorceror, but of all the reasons, love is the most noble.
You are a sensible man, Arthur, so you will have crossed the border to Cenred's kingdom. In honour of our relationship, I will not pursue you out
of my jurisdiction.
Go, with my blessing, and may you find happiness in your new life.
Arthur sighed, getting to his feet. Stomping to send feeling back into his feet, he headed back to the hut. Merlin was sat at the table, head bowed close to Hunith. He stood quickly when the blond entered, and Arthur let the letter fall to his side.
“He won't pursue us over the border,” he told them. “If you want to stay...”
Merlin rushed to him, wrapping him up in an impromptu embrace. “Thank you.”
Arthur nodded tiredly and sunk into the closest seat.
“You can stay here,” Hunith said gently, reaching out and clasping a hand around his forearm. “So long as you’re comfortable enough on the floor.”
Arthur nodded. “Thank you,” he said gratefully. He sighed and rubbed at the headache forming in his temple. “I’ll need to find somewhere to work.”
“What are you talking about?” Merlin asked, sitting on another side of the table.
“We grow our own food and everyone pitches in, isn’t that what you said, Merlin?” Arthur asked.
“Yes,” Merlin replied, clearly surprised at the fact the blond had remembered such a thing. “That’s the way it is.”
“I don’t know how to farm,” Arthur admitted. “But perhaps there’s something else I could do.”
“You don’t have to work,” Merlin snapped, surprised. “You’re the prince!”
“Not any more,” the blond replied quietly, fiddling with the folds of his letter.
“Arthur...” the sorceror said, disbelieving. “You don’t—”
“Yes, I do.” Arthur met his eyes sternly. “I must do something, but I know not which of my skills are useful here.”
“Rowan owns the largest crop field,” Hunith suggested quietly. “Most of the boys help him out with that. But there’s nothing to do there until the spring.”
“There’s nothing for anyone to do in the wintertime,” Merlin explained.
Arthur managed a weak smile. “Well, that hasn’t changed.” His stomach gave a loud growl and he ducked his head, embarrassed.
“You must be starving,” Hunith said gently. “I’ll make you something to eat.”
“Let me help,” he said, beginning to rise from his seat.
“No, no, it’s alright,” she answered. “You’ve had a difficult journey.” She disappeared outside and Arthur slumped back against the table.
“Are you seriously going to do this?” Merlin asked quietly.
Arthur turned his head and frowned at the sorceror. “Do what?”
“Live like a peasant.”
“Can’t be that hard,” Arthur replied lightly. “You managed it.”
Merlin managed a laugh, but it was weak at best. He grew serious before long and watched the blond in concern. “I don’t mind taking care of you, Arthur,” he told him seriously. “I’m used to it.”
Arthur reached out and grasped his hand. “We are finally equals, Merlin. Take advantage of that.”
Merlin grinned mischievously, raising his eyebrows. “You want me to take advantage of you?”
Yes, please, a voice in his head cried desperately. He forced an easy smile. “I want you to think of me like you did Will.”
Merlin’s eyes grew wide and he looked away quickly, the tip of his ears growing pink. Arthur scowled and refolded the letter in his hands. I knew I hated that kid for a reason, he thought bitterly.
Before Merlin was forced to reply, Hunith re-entered with a clean pot and utensils. Merlin hurried off to help her with the meal.
The awkwardness mostly slipped away, after Merlin’s mother had moved past the fact he used to be the prince. After they finished, Hunith produced a board game with small, intricately carved pieces. Arthur sat for a while, watching the mother and son play the game. He didn’t pick up the rules, but Merlin’s good-natured curses at his losing streak were enough entertainment in his half-exhausted state.
Hunith headed to bed first, Merlin staying awake in an attempt to teach an almost slumbering Arthur the rules to the game. He gave up before long and they both stood, heading over to the bedroll. They froze, and Arthur looked at the sorceror awkwardly.
“We can share?” Merlin suggested awkwardly.
Arthur sighed. “It’s alright,” he replied softly. The sorceror couldn’t make his discomfort any clearer. “I’m not that tired,” he lied. “I’ve only been up for a few hours. You use it, I’ll sit up by the fire.” Merlin opened his mouth to argue, by the blond pinned him with a stern look. “Go to sleep, Merlin.”
Merlin frowned, but didn’t say anything as Arthur strode past him and settled on the bench beside the fire. He stared into the flames, feeling himself sinking into a semi-conscious state. He leapt, hand tugging at the hilt of his sword, when he felt a hand on his arm.
Merlin was shaking his head. “Come on, you clotpole.”
He dragged the blond across the room by the elbow and manouvred him down into the bed roll. Arthur went to protest, but his voice froze in his throat when Merlin lay down as well—back warm against Arthur’s side.
“Goodnight,” he managed out eventually.
Merlin shook the wolf pelt out to cover them both and sighed deeply. “Goodnight, Arthur.”
For the first week, Arthur had managed to chance it that Merlin was heading to do his laundry when Arthur’s own needed cleaning. He’d bought three shirts and two pairs of breeches—all in raw, undyed materials and cheap fabrics. Initially, he’d gotten very strange looks from all the villagers who remembered his face—why would a prince be dressed in such rags? they whispered amongst themselves.
Luckily the suspicion didn’t last much longer than a few days.
When Merlin was headed off to do his own laundry every second day, he pointedly asked both Arthur and Hunith whether they needed anything washed. Arthur had been hesitant to agree the first time— Merlin wasn’t supposed to be his manservant anymore, he couldn’t expect him to keep doing his chores—until Hunith handed over a bundle of laundry.
Arthur helped Merlin lug the load to the small hut set up as a communal laundry, but was quickly shooed away.
However, after a week staying in Ealdor, he spilled a wax candle, drenching his sleeves and part of the chest in tallow which quickly hardened in the cold air. It was his second last shirt. Unless he wanted to rewear his dirty clothing an extra day or go about shirtless, he needed to wash them today.
Sighing in resignation, he changed into his clean shirt and took the bundle of his laundry toward the hut. It was empty and he sighed in relief, before looking around in assessment. How exactly did one launder clothes? Water, he assumed, and some sort of soap.
There was no pump of water in the village, but there was a well not too far from the hut. He found a bucket in the corner and picked it up, heading out and walking purposefully towards the well. On the second trip—the laundry tub was large—he felt a familiar tingling at the back of his neck. He looked up and around to find Merlin standing by one of the villager’s huts watching him curiously.
Arthur gave him a reassuring smile as he turned the handle to raise the bucket from the depths. He dropped his gaze with the exertion, and when he looked up again while untying the bucket, the sorceror was gone.
Sighing a little in disappointment, he lugged the bucket back into the laundry hut. He tipped it into the tub and decided there was enough water, he knelt beside it and reached for the first of his shirts. He submerged it in the water and looked around for the soap—it was across the room on a shelf and he carried it back to the tub.
He decided to leave the tallow-stained shirt for last, dipping the soap into the water and rubbing it against the fabric of his first shirt like he would himself in a bath. He rubbed the suds into the armpits and lower back where the sweat was concentrated.
The coarse fabric irritated his hands, but he persevered—he was man enough to be able to wash his own clothing!
Deciding he’d cleaned it enough, he draped it over the rim of the tub to dry and reached for his breeches. There was a dirt-mud cake along the hems from the dust roads of the village and he scrubbed at them, groaning in frustration when the stains refused to give. Taking a deep breath, he rubbed at the leather vigorously in his frustration.
When he lifted the breeches from the tub, they were still hemmed with mud and he frowned, whining at them as if that would fix it.
A shrill giggle behind him yanked at his attention and he turned around warily to see a group of girls from the village standing in the doorway. They were all grinning, amused, and the giggle had come from the one in the middle, who was now stiffling her noises with her hand.
They’re laughing at me , he realised, devastated. He turned away, slumping over himself and turning back to the tub. Hopefully his audience would grow bored with his incompetence and leave soon.
He folded further in on himself as they continued to watch, their titters increasing as the time stretched on and his frustration mounted. His fists were clenched tightly beneath the water, knuckles aching at the strain. He could barely see them through the sudsy water and when he finally lifted his breeches, most of the mud was gone.
It wasn’t Merlin’s standard, but it would do. He left them overhanging the tub and reached for the tallow-stained tunic.
“Alright, girls–that's enough.” Arthur turned around, defeated, to find Merlin in the doorway glaring sternly at but patiently at the three girls. Arthur turned back to the tub and submerged the tunic in the water. He picked at the tallow, but it didn't budge.
Merlin's footsteps were hesitant on the stone ground, and when Arthur turned to look, the sorceror was getting to his knees as well. He was giving Arthur a gentle, concerned look. “What are you doing?”
The blond glared at him half-heartedly. “Laundry, Merlin. I thought you'd be able to recognise it by now.”
“I do your laundry,” the sorceror reminded him warily.
Arthur flinched. “You do my washing alongside yours,” he protested weakly, knowing now for sure that it wasn’t true. “I had a mishap with a candle, so I had to do my laundry a day early. So here I am.”
“Oh, Arthur,” Merlin said quietly. “Have you ever done laundry before?” He asked gently.
“No,” Arthur admitted begrudgingly.
Merlin hummed and dipped his fingers into the tub, shivering slightly. “We use cold water for clothes whose dye runs easily,” Merlin explained carefully. “Anything else, we use the kettle to heat the water.”
Arthur pulled his hands out of the tub and turned away, shaking with pent up emotion. He’d never felt so entirely pathetic. Merlin was gentling the blow as much as he could, but it was still proof of how much a complete idiot he was.
“Luckily,” Merlin said with forced brightness. “I don’t need a kettle.” Arthur turned to glance at him, but the sorceror’s attention was fixed on the laundry tubbed. He spoke a word in the Olden Tongue and the water began bubbling slightly.
The blond dared to lean over the tub, his face getting lightly buffeted by steam. He leant back and glanced at Merlin, before reaching towards the water. A delicately-fingered hand caught his wrist deftly and pushed it away. “There’s a reason why I don’t mind doing your laundry, Arthur,” he told him gently. “Just watch.” He turned back to the tub and murmured a few words in the Olden Tongue.
At the golden flash in his eyes, the clothes in and over the tub began to move themselves—going through unmistakeable washing movements. Arthur stared for a few moments, then hung his head in defeat. “Right.” Useless, he thought hatefully, completely and utterly useless.
“Arthur?” Merlin asked hesitantly. “Is everything okay?”
Arthur continued to avoid his gaze, wringing his sopping sleeves onto the already wet floor. “Fine,” he managed out eventually, “everything’s fine.”
“Arthur, you know you can always—”
“Merlin!” Arthur snapped angrily. “I told you everything is fine.” He glared tiredly at the tub of laundry that was washing itself. “Is that going to keep cleaning itself?”
“Well, yes,” Merlin said carefully.
Arthur nodded tightly. “Good. I’m going for a walk.” He stood quickly and turned on his heel, stalking out of the hut and wishing Merlin had called after him.
Instead, he trudged toward the forest in lonely silence.
Merlin had taking to watching him with a careful, concerned expression for days after the laundry incident. Arthur tried not to let it bother him. The last thing he wanted from the sorceror was his pity. He knew he was useless here, he didn’t need the reminder in Merlin’s every sympathetic look.
He’d been taking longer and longer walks in the forest. There was nothing for him to do in the village, unskilled as he was. He trudged through the frost-covered forest and paused on the edge of the forrest.
Across the village there was terrified screaming. Arthur’s hand flew to the sword still belted at his side—from habit and paranioa in equal measures. He drew it and ran towards the noise. There was female screams and men’s panicked yelling, growing clearer as he drew close.
He rounded the last house to see a large brown bear swiping at a first line of villagers armed with pitchforks. His eyes widened as he faltered—the bear should’ve been hibernating in a cave somewhere. Why was it here now?
He put away his sword and ducked around a hut, walking to a different vantage. Combat weapons were all but useless—if you could get close enough to attack, you were already dead. He reached for the dagger on his other hip and balanced the familiar weight in his hand.
Coming around the other corner of the hut, he kept the bear in his sights and waited for it to swipe towards something before it. His own heartbeat thumping steadily in his ears, he drew the dagger back and threw it forward. It embedded itself in the bear’s side. It roared in fury and turned towards him, dropping down onto four legs to amble towards him.
He cursed and backed away, crying out in surprise when something clattered against his head. He caught it as it fell, recognising the crude crossbow a moment before he was aiming at the bear’s roaring maw.
It took a few moments to realising the thud that sounded was the animal hitting the ground, dead. He looked up to see a gnarled man frowning at him studiously from atop the roof. “Thanks,” he murmured, lifting the crossbow to indicate his meaning.
The man nodded, and climbed away—probably to get off the roof. Heartbeginning to fade in his ears, he became aware of cheering and applause. Looking around in confusion, he saw the villagers gathered around—celebrating his slaughter of the beast.
Old Man Simmons, the unofficial leader at times, came forward and clapped his shoulder. Arthur stared unhearing at the man’s lips, managing to make out the word ‘reward’ and little else.
He looked down at the dead bear, considering. All he could see in his mind’s eye was Merlin standing in the morning air, shivering through the thin material of his coat. “The meat can be distributed evenly amongst everyone,” he announced. “I only ask for the pelt.”
Another cheer reached his words, and soon the crowd dispersed—to prepare themselves or spread the word, he couldn’t guess. Simmons was talking to him again, and he forced himself to pay attention through the draining adrenaline. He hadn’t been this wrecked since his first few battles as a green knight.
“Talk to Garrick,” the old man was saying, “he knows the most about stripping game.”
Arthur nodded and enquired where he might find such a man.
Simmons nodded toward the bear, which was now being lifted into a cart. “They will take the bear to Garrick. Thank you again, Prince Arthur.”
Arthur flinched in startlement. “Arthur,” he corrected. “Just Arthur.”
Simmons’ eyebrows raised, but he nodded, gesturing for Arthur to follow the cart. He did so, hands still locked around the crossbow in his hands. He would have to find the owner and return it.
They stopped outside a hut he’d never been to (though there were a number of those) and spotted the man from the roof standing in the doorway, directing the cart around to his fenced back paddock. Arthur crossed and offered the crossbow out, head bowed. “Yours, I believe,” he murmured.
It didn’t move from his hands, and when he glanced up, Garrick was watching him in that same considering expression. “I think you’ve earned that well enough, boy,” he replied in gruff voice. “I’m Garrick,” he explained after a few moments.
“Arthur,” he mumbled, dropping the crossbow down to his side.
The man hummed in consideration. “So. You want the pelt, do you, boy?” He asked. “A trophy of your victory?”
Arthur winced. The man’s voice was sneering—and to think not longer than a fortnight ago, that would have been his reasoning. “No, sir,” he replied softly. “I’d like to make a coat,” he admitted, quieter still, “maybe a bed thow if there’s enough left.”
There was silence and when he looked up, Garrick was studying him carefully, a sparkle of approval evident in his eyes. “Very well,” the man agreed. He waved Arthur to follow him and headed through the hut towards the back entrance. “I assume you know nothing about making clothing,” he commented. Before Arthur could agree, he continued: “you can ask my wife Ena for help. She knows fur working better than any other in the village.”
“Yes, sir. Thank you,” he replied.
They reached the fenced paddock, where the bear was now set on a stone slab. Garrick peered at the bear’s peirced head. “This was no lucky shot,” he said gruffly.
“No,” Arthur agreed, a glimmer of pride rising in his chest. “I’ve been hunting, probably since before it was appropriate for me to do so.” I should warn you, his voice echoed in his memory, I’ve been trained to kill since birth.
Garrick hummed thoughtfully. “Good then,” he said. “If you’d like, you can join me in the village hunt. I go twice a week. There isn’t much game during this time of year, but the villagers appreciate any supplement to their stores we can find.”
Arthur felt a warmth spread through his cold extremities as the realisation sunk in. This was something he could do, a purpose he could serve in this place where he’d been utterly useless. “I’d like that, sir,” he admitted.
“Good,” Garrick said, something warm in his previously cold expression. He turned back to the bear. “Now—first lesson. How to skin game.”
Arthur’s days were spent either in the forest with Garrick, laying rabbit traps or hunting wayward deer, or in Garrick and Ena’s hut with the wife, cutting and piecing together cuts of the fur.
She’d been surprised at first to learn that the coat wasn’t for him at all. But once he told her it was for Merlin, she’d had a patient sort of understanding expression and told him how much of the pelt to cut.
Nights were spent tucked by the fire with Hunith and Merlin. The tension borne of Merlin’s pity and his own defensive resentment had disappeared, leaving behind a homely sort of dynamic that kept the best parts of their lives at Camelot.
Arthur had yet to learn the rules and strategy of the wooden board-game that Hunith and Merlin usually took out most nights, but he was content to watch them play.
The air had grown a sharper edge to its cold, which Arthur knew meant that snow was only days away. He hurried to finish the coat under Ena’s instructions, consumed with the image of Merlin caught in the snow, pale and blue with the cold. Three weeks since they had fled Camelot, he hurried through the dark pathways of the village, hands warm buried inside the folds of fur he carried in his arms.
He let himself into their hut, gasping a little at the transition between the outside temperature and the hut warmed by the healthy fire Merlin was tending. The sorceror looked up as he entered, eyebrows raised. “You were out late tonight,” he pointed out, settling himself onto the ground by the fire.
Arthur nodded, crossing over and setting his bundle on the log bench before Merlin. “I was just making the finishing touches,” he explained as he sat down. He unfolded the fur and lifted the coat, shaking it out into shape.
“Oh, Arthur,” Hunith said fondly as she came over with two bowls of stew. “It’s lovely. You did very well for your first try.”
“Thank you, Hunith,” Arthur said, glowing at the compliment. He held it out towards Merlin, who took it with an amused expression.
“Yes, very good,” the sorceror said. “So this is what has been keeping you from us the past week.”
He missed me , Arthur thought, the warmth in his chest growing to dispell all lingering cold from his treck through the night. “Go on then,” he said.
Merlin fixed him with a confused look. “Sorry?”
“Try it on!” the hunter laughed, amused at the sorceror’s bewilderment. Merlin glanced at his mother, still confused. Arthur’s mood began to drop as he realised the sorceror genuinely didn’t want to. Still, he tried to keep his words light: “I’ve spent a week making that for you, Merlin. The least you can do is try it on.”
“Me?” Merlin managed out weakly. “You made this for me?”
Arthur rolled his eyes. “Well, it certainly wouldn’t fit me.” He forced himself to turn back to the fur next to him. So, Merlin didn’t want it. His efforts were for nothing, but that was fine. He should’ve known it would happen. “This is for you,” he said to Hunith as she settled beside him. “You can wrap it around your shoulders or fold it around your neck,” he explained.
She took it with a surprised, pleased expression. “Thank you, Arthur,” she said gratefully, running her hands across the warm material. She set it in her lap and smiled at him brilliantly, picking up her bowl of food.
“Well?” Merlin’s voice interrupted his attempt to ignore the sorceror. Arthur turned his head to look at the brunet and froze. “How do I look?” He asked hesitantly.
The jacket fit almost perfectly, cuffs turned up to reveal the fur lining. It hung open—Arthur hadn’t managed to get laces for it yet. As he took in Merlin standing awkwardly by the fire, he was struck by a wave of admiration and adoration he had never felt so strongly. I made him that, he thought stupidly, and he’s wearing it.
At Merlin’s puzzled expression, he nodded tightly and reached for the bowl Hunith had brought him with trembling hands. He looked down at the spoon as he gripped it, making slight waves in the stew. I love you, the words clawed at his tongue. I love you, Merlin.
He forced a spoonful into his mouth to choke out any words that may have made their way out without his permission. “This is very good,” he said in their stead once he’d swallowed.
“It’s the rabbit you caught yesterday,” Hunith explained. “Our winter stores have never been so stocked,” she commented.
“You’ll be glad of that the longer it gets,” he pointed out. “It’s been a while since you housed two people, let alone the three of us.”
Hunith looked a little sad as she contemplated the fire, but she merely hummed in acknowledgement. Merlin stepped in then, filling the air with his usual prattle. When Arthur dared to look at him, the coat was folded carefully on the ground beside him.
Nobody went for the board tonight and they all headed to their beds without a word. Arthur stayed up into the night, watching Merlin shake from the cold in his sleep. With a sigh, he tucked his own bear-fur throw around the shaking shoulders. He dared to stroke his hand over one sharp cheekbone before settling back onto his own bedroll and ignoring his own shivers as he watched the sorceror slumber.
“I love you,” he admitted into the quiet.
Outside, the snow began to fall.
Chapter 4: Parting
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
Arthur glanced back at the hearth, torn letters curling black in the embers. Shaking his head, he redirected his attention back to the slumbering Merlin and glanced down at the final letter in his hands.
‘Going on a quest. Back soon.’
It was short, and Merlin would probably be annoyed by it. But all his explanations for leaving had digressed into confessions he wasn’t yet ready to make.
How did you explain that you were going to find your companion’s fugitive father without admitting the only reason was to provide them happiness? Merlin would think he was mad, until he realised Arthur’s real reasoning. Then he would likely be disgusted, and Arthur could not live with that.
The long winter spent in Ealdor, locked in such proximity to Merlin was both a gift and a curse. While he could bask in every moment spent with the sorceror, the weight of his secret was bearing heavily on his shoulders. He wondered how Merlin could have spent so long keeping his magic ‘hidden’. But then again, he didn’t care for Arthur as much as the hunter did for him.
Arthur sighed. He folded the letter once and set it beside Merlin’s head. He paused before he stood, giving in to impulse after only a token amount of internal protest. He bent over and pressed a kiss to Merlin’s forehead, lingering there and fluttering his eyes closed. He ached with longing, wishing he could have this when Merlin was awake and consenting—wished the sorceror wanted this too.
He lifted his lips and sighed, staying a hair’s breadth away from Merlin for a moment. Then he opened his eyes and pulled away, gathering his resolve to leave.
“Arthur?” Merlin mumbled sleepily, cracking one eye open to squint at him in confusion.
“Shh,” Arthur soothed, pulling the bear throw up to cover the sorceror’s shoulders. “Just a dream, Merlin. Go back to sleep.”
Merlin hummed and mumbled his acquiesce, eye closing. He was snoring slightly after a moment and Arthur sighed in relief. He stayed until he knew Merlin would be deep enough to stay asleep and stood, picking up the bedroll and pack from the doorway.
He smoothed the mane of his mare and she nosed him in greeting. He checked the ties connecting the two horses and vaulted himself into the saddle. He kept them at a walk to the edge of the forest, then kicked them into a gallop.
He didn’t stop until the sun rose.
He turned back the way he came, imagining Merlin waking up. He’d roll over and not see Arthur there, thinking nothing of it for a moment—that Arthur had gone on a hunt with Garrick. Then the realisation would come to him slowly—that Garrick and Ena were gone to the city to visit a blacksmith for repairs. He would sit up, worried, and find Arthur’s bedroll missing completely. Eventually he’d find the letter and...know that Arthur was gone, but not where or why.
Stomach clawing with guilt, he forced himself to turn around and set his foot back in the stirrup instead of running back to Ealdor and reassuring the sorceror he was safe.
Just as he made the decision to get on the horse, his neck prickled with the familiar sense of Merlin is watching me and the sorceror’s voice filled the grove. “Arthur, where are you?”
Arthur forced a sarcastic smile. “In a forest, Merlin,” he replied, since that much was obvious.
“Stay there,” Merlin said, his disembodied. voice panicked and hurried. “Which direction did you go? I’ll come and find you—”
“No!” Arthur yelled suddenly.
Merlin broke off, and Arthur could imagine the startled, hurt expression. His chest ached and he ducked his head, ashamed.
“Stay in Ealdor,” he requested softly. “I need to do this on my own.” He paused, waiting for a reply. When none came, he added: “look after your mother. If I haven’t returned in a fortnight, find me like this again.”
“Take care, you stupid clotpole,” Merlin said bitterly. Abruptly, the prickling sense stopped and he dared to sigh in relief.
Mounting the horse, he left the clearing.
His first stop was a tavern two days’ ride away, where pickpockets and highway theives eyed him with intent. He rested hand on the hilt of his sword and all but the keenest were deterred.
He sat at the bar, glaring at the keep until he approached with a mug of ale. “What can I do you for?” He asked suspiciously.
Arthur dropped the silver coin he’d been palming onto the bartop—easily tenfold the cost of his mug. “I’m looking for a man named Balinor,” he explained, making sure his expression was stony.
The barkeep fingered the coin with obvious greed. “What business do you have with him?” He asked.
“He’s my father,” Arthur said. It was the closest approach to the truth he dared to mention, but even saying it made him ache with longing.
“I didn’t know Balinor had a son,” the barkeep remarked, curious.
“Neither did he,” the hunter replied darkly. “He left my mother to escape the law, neither of them knew she was with child.”
The barkeep snorted and tucked the coin into his pouch with a sneer. “Balinor hasn’t been seen around these parts for twenty years, but they say he’s living in a cave somewhere up in the white mountains.”
Arthur nodded and drained his mug, getting to his feet. “Thank you,” he said, making sure his voice was edged in bitterness. He snapped the hand of a pickpocket that reached for his purposefully-empty pouch, leaving the tavern without a word to anyone.
He rode hard for the mountains, repeating his enquiry at every roadside tavern that he came to. They all said the same thing, but the inn at the foot of the mountains added to the tale—
“On the northernmost ridge, that’s where you’ll find him. He’s mad, mind you. You won’t get much out of him,” the innkeep’s wife informed him. “Probably best to keep your imaginings and head back home.”
“No,” he said firmly.
She shrugged and pulled out hand-drawn map, showing him the path to take to the cave. He paid an extra pair of silver coins to keep his horses in their stable and made the far-too-steep trip on foot.
Three days into the trek, he collapsed in exhaustion at the mouth of a cave, fingers dropping into the still surface of the pool. Merlin’s name fell from his lips before he closed his eyes and let his weary body give out.
He woke up on his own bedroll, wrapped in a wolf pelt that smelt of Merlin. He inhaled deeply and smiled, burying his nose in the fur and drifting back towards sleep.
Then his neck prickled and he sat up, looking around the cave and waiting for Merlin’s hesitant “Arthur?”
“Merlin,” he greeted, smiling and wrapping the throw around his shoulders. “Has it been a fortnight already?” He asked curiously. At last count he’d been nine days into his quest.
“Yes,” Merlin replied. “How’s your quest going?” He asked bitterly.
Arthur spotted the man across the fire, watching him curiously. “Well,” he replied. He recognised some features in the man’s face similar to Merlin’s own—those that couldn’t be matched with Hunith’s. It was Balinor, no doubt of it.
“So, you’ll be heading back soon?” Merlin ventured.
“That’s plan. Look for me again in another fortnight,” he replied.
“Don’t get into any trouble without me,” the sorceror said, before his presence disappeared from the cave.
“You are one strange traveller, boy,” the man replied.
“Balinor, isn’t it?” He ventured. At the older man’s nod, he continued: “I’m Arthur. I’ve been looking for you.”
“Have you now,” the man replied. “Though I suppose there is no other reason for someone to come this way.” He stood and swept his arms open. “Well, you’ve found me. Do your worst.”
“I’m not here to harm you,” Arthur replied calmly. Balinor sat, fixing him with a curious, guarded expression. “I’ve been staying in a village called Ealdor,” he explained carefully. Recognition flickered over Balinor’s expression, then it steeled. “With a woman named Hunith,” he continued.
Balinor’s fists clenched and he turned away, eyes settling on Arthur’s pack and the weaponry a few feet away at the hunter’s side.
“And her son,” Arthur added after a few moments. “Your son.”
Whatever the man had been expecting, it was not that. His whole body became slack with shock, and he stared at the hunter in disbelief. “What?” He managed out eventually.
“I was speaking to him just before,” Arthur explained carefully. “His name is Merlin. He’s never been told about you.”
“Who is this Merlin to you?” The man asked warily.
“He’s my companion,” Arthur explained. Then he dropped his eyes to the fire with the familiar confession clawing in demand of being spoken. “I’m his closest friend.”
“He must mean a great deal to you,” Balinor mused. “That you would come so far from the village through hostile land just to seek out his father.”
“He does,” Arthur admitted.
“I'm a dragonlord,” the man said seriously. Arthur frowned, unsure of why he was mentioning it and what the hunter was supposed to take from that. “Do you know what that means?”
“Sir?” The blond asked uncertainly.
“When I die, Merlin will become the last of the dragonlords.”
Arthur smiled, leaning back against the boulder. “Honestly, sir, after ‘the most powerful sorceror to ever walk the earth’, dragonlord doesn't even compare.”
Balinor scowled at him. “What are you saying?”
Arthur sighed, meeting dark eyes hesitantly. “I don't suppose you ever heard of Emrys?”
“Emrys?” The man hissed, surprised. “You mean...my son is the prophecised Emrys?”
“Merlin is much more than that,” the blond replied softly. He was struck by a wave of melancholy, and reached for his waterskin. He paused and murmured: “so much more,” and took a drink.
“Tell me,” Balinor said conversationally, “have you handfasted with my son yet?”
The blond choked mid-swallow, spluttering inelegantly. “No,” he managed out hoarsely. “No we...aren’t.”
“Why not?” The dragonlard asked curiously. “You clearly love him deeply. If he-”
“He doesn't,” Arthur interrupted quietly. “My feelings for Merlin...” He took a deep breath and hung his head in well-known dejection. “They are not an indication of his.”
“I'm sorry,” Balinor murmured. He reached across and rested a comforting hand on the hunter's shoulder. “I didn't mean to upset you with my assumptions.”
Arthur sighed slightly. “I've come here for him—though without his knowledge. I want you to return with me to Ealdor. I want to give him the family he's never had the chance to have.”
“Noble as your intentions may be, I cannot.” Balinore stared longingly towards the entrance of the cave. “Else I would.”
“Why can't you?” Arthur asked hesitantly.
The dragonlord sighed. “Twenty years ago, Uther Pendragon declared war on magic and all things entwined with the Old Religion. I managed to escape the purging of the dragonlords, but I was forced to flee Camelot.” He shivered and shifted to add another stick to the fire. “I thought I would be safe in Ealdor, and for a time I was. But Uther sent his knights across the border in attempts to kill me. I fled before they arrived, but I knew I could never risk Hunith's safety.”
Arthur smiled. “Cenred rescinded his ban on magic,” he explained. “Uther cannot send mercenaries across the border for magic-related crimes.” He ducked his head. “And you would not be the only fugitive hiding out in the village.”
Balinor looked stricken. “My son?”
“For sorcery, in front of the king and all of the nobles at the Yuletide feast.” He met the dragonlord's eyes nervousy. “And I for betraying the kingdom and assisting him to escape.”
Balinor gave him a serious look. “He must be very important to you, to risk going against your father and rescinding your claim to the crown.”
Arthur flinched - he had never mentioned his royalty before now. Somehow, he wasn’t surprised the dragonlord knew. “He is the most important. I will do anything to keep him safe.” He took a deep breath and clenched his fists. “And I would do anything in my power, dimished though it is, to ensure his happiness.”
Balinor touched his shoulder again, and when the hunter looked up he was smiling. “I will come with you.”
On the edges of the forest before the outskirts of Ealdor, Arthur paused. He braced his arm against a tree, stopping Balinor in his tracks. The horses huffed, but fell into a stop behind them. “You should let me walk ahead,” he suggested. “I don't know if they will welcome me, let alone a near-stranger.”
The dragonlord nodded and took the reins when the hunter offered them. Arthur took a deep breath and stepped out from the treeline. He nearly lost his breath when he saw Merlin and Hunith coming over the hill with bundles of wood and cloth in the arms.
The sorceror was smiling slightly as he spoke to his mother. Then he turned his head and caught sight of the hunter standing half in the shade of the trees. His too-blue eyes grew impossibly wide and the bundle fell out of his suddenly slack arms. His lips formed Arthur's name, tone or volume indistinguishable from the distance.
He took one step over the dropped bundle, the next leg moving faster. The next stride was faster again and soon he was running across the grass-closing the distance between them.
Every one of Arthur's muscles tensed as the gap closed. He could imagine vividly the pain blossoming across his face at the punch Merlin would throw. He flinched as the sorceror crossed into his personal space. Then his eyes opened wide as he realised Merlin wasn't hitting him.
The sorceror had one arm wrapped around his waist, the other pressed between their torsos as a shaking hand clenched the fabric of his tunic. The head of dark hair was doing its best to burrow into the crook of his neck.
It took him a few moments to realise the hot gusts of breath on the skin of his neck were words. “It's you. Arthur, you sodding great prat.”
He raised a trembling hand and cupped it around the head on his shoulder. “Merlin,” he breathed.
The sorceror pushed him away and there was the punch he'd been imagining. He ended up sprawled in the grass, cupping his smarting jaw.
“You prat!” Merlin yelled. “You leave me a six word note and then disappear for a month! I didn't know where you were going or when to expext you to be back or how much danger you were in!”
“I didn't know myself,” the hunter murmured unhappily, getting to his feet.
“Then you shouldn't have gone,” the sorceror growled.
“I had to,” Arthur replied.
Just then, Hunith reached them. She gasped and dropped her own burden. “Balinor?” She asked, breathless.
“Mum?” Merlin asked, confused.
“Merlin,” the hunter said quietly, “this is Balinor.”
“He's your father,” Hunith said, her voice breaking.
Merlin looked as if someone had struck him in the face. Arthur looked between them for a moment and took the horses’ reins from Balinor’s slack hand. He walked slowly away, aware that the conversation started as soon as he was far enough away. He sighed heavily and hunched his shoulders, glancing over his shoulder as he turned the corner.
He met Merlin’s eyes over the dragonlord’s shoulder as he embraced his father. Sighing, he forced a smile and nodded, before heading back to Hunith’s hut. A few villagers called hello as he passed, and he made sure to nod and smile in return to each of them. None stopped him on his journey, but they never had.
All through-out the winter, the people of Ealdor had kept him somewhat estranged—they still thought him the prince that had saved their village. The Spring would no doubt be the very same.
Sighed again and tied up the horses by the hut. He grabbed a few handfuls of hay from a nearby cart and spread it before the horses. He thought about unpacking them, then thought about asking Merlin to leave the village with him. Then he sighed and trudged away towards the forest.
Merlin loved Ealdor—it was the home he’d never found in Camelot. As loyal as he might be to Arthur, bound by their now-useless destiny, if he went with the hunter now he would forever resent him for the loss.
Perhaps things will be different , he thought to himself. There will be more game now—birds and beast no longer cowed by the weather. I’ll have more to do. But there would still be Merlin. Always Merlin, just there—always within reach but always just beyond his grasp. He kicked a pile of twigs and sat down on a boulder beside the brook.
He’d been coming here since before it was safe to brave the weather—tucked into his old rabbit-lined coat Hunith had pressed into his hands. He lifted it to his nose, but the elusive scent of Merlin had long since faded. He tilted his head back to look at the white-grey sky and heaved a sigh.
Merlin hadn’t been dressed in the bear-coat earlier, swapping it back for his lightweight leather jacket he’d worn since Arthur had first known him. Had probably used this past month to get back into the rhythm of his pre-Camelot life. A life Arthur had no place in.
He closed his eyes. I can’t stay, he thought in pained realisation, I can’t go back to the weightless stalemate. He couldn’t spend another three months here in their domestic farce, spending every other moment wanting to pull Merlin into his grasp and show the sorceror precisely how he felt.
Merlin would be hurt when he announced his intent to leave. The sorceror wouldn’t understand why he needed to leave—not unless Arthur explained. But he would save them both the embarrassment of his unwanted confession.
“Thought I’d find you here.” Arthur looked over his shoulder, sinking into resignation as Merlin clambered over a few rocks to sink onto the boulder beside him. “You always came here to think,” he added, “before you left, that is.”
“I didn’t think you knew about this place,” Arthur admitted quietly.
Merlin gave him a lopsided smile. “Oh, I know everything about you Athur,” he said playfully.
The hunter sighed. “No you don’t,” he answered, resigned. If you knew how I loved you, you would be running in the other direction. Not sitting so calmly beside me.
Merlin chuckled, clearly disagreeing with his statement. “So...you went to find Balinor.”
It wasn’t a question, but Arthur replied with a quiet “yes.”
“How did you even know about him?” The sorceror asked. His tone was quiet, attempting to be casual—but there was a soft edge of longing in his words.
“Hunith told me about him,” Arthur admitted quietly. “A month or so after we’d been staying here—when you had that fever.” He reached down to the ground and picked up a smooth pebble, skipping it across to the other bank to give his hands something to do. He remembered that night all too well.
You look at him the way Balinor used to look at me, she had said, giving him a sad look. He hadn’t known the name, but was unsurprised to learn it was Merlin’s father. Hunith was kind and good like her son, deserved to have someone feel as much for her as Arthur did for Merlin.
The woman’s longing for her past love had been obviously, but it wasn’t until the sorceror’s drunken confession after the celebration of the first bloom of spring that Arthur decided to find the man. Your father may have been a tyrant, Arthur—but at least you had one. Sometimes I think I would give anything to have known my father.
“Thank you,” Merlin whispered softly. “You didn’t have to, but I’m glad you did. I haven’t seen Mother smile like that since...” He broke off with a huff of a sigh. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen her so happy.”
“I didn’t do it for her,” Arthur confessed, glaring at pebble he had picked up. He tossed it artlessly into the brook, watching it sink heavily to the bed.
Merlin was quiet at that. With a whispered word, the pebble rose back out of the water and settled itself beside Arthur unexpectant. “We’ve been busy since you left,” he commented instead.
“Oh?” Arthur prompted, eager to get away from the subject of his motives.
“Wilhelm married Greta and moved into her house with her mother,” he continued explaining.
“Wilhelm,” Arthur repeated, trying to place a face. “The one who lived in the hut on the far side of the hill?”
Merlin nodded. “Next to the river.”
Arthur frowned and nodded, wondering what Merlin was leading into with this.
“Me and Mother have been preparing the house,” he continued, “for us to live in.”
Arthur couldn’t help the pang in his chest. “You and Hunith are moving into a stranger’s house. Without me.”
Merlin laughed. “Not without you, Arthur, I meant—”
“Well, what else then, Merlin?” Arthur snapped, standing up and pacing away. “That hut is barely big enough for two.”
“It’s for us, you dollophead,” Merlin said, impatient. When the hunter turned back around to look at him, he was scowling at the ground between them, irritated. “You and me. I thought you’d appreciate the privacy.”
A home for the two of us, Arthur thought dully. He spent a longing moment daring to imagine it. As the warm glow of imagined contentment disappeared, it left an aching sort of longing in its place. He sighed. “I couldn’t, Merlin,” he whispered, lowering his gaze.
He could nearly feel the sorceror stiffening in his seat on the boulder. “What?” He croaked in disbelief.
“I was thinking about leaving Ealdor,” Arthur admitted.
“You just got back!” Merlin cried.
“Permanently,” the hunter corrected gingerly.
He dared to look at Merlin’s expression and found it twisted in perplexity. “I don’t want to leave Ealdor,” he pointed out sadly.
“I’m not asking you to,” Arthur admitted miserably. “You should stay here in Ealdor, with your mother—and now your father. I meant to leave on my own.”
“Arthur,” Merlin whispered in disbelief. “Why?”
“I can’t stay here,” he confessed quickly. He left the with you unspoken—no use causing undue hurt. “I’ll go mad if I do.”
“Arthur, you’re meant to become the greatest king in Albion—and I’m meant to be right there beside you!”
“Destiny, Merlin?” He asked agonizingly. “The cryptic promises of an insane dragon that have been for naught since I gave up my crown to save you.”
“It will happen, Arthur!” Merlin cried desperately. “Somehow it will.”
“You and I were given very different promises of the future, Merlin,” the hunter replied quietly. “Neither will come to be now—it doesn’t matter.”
“What are you talking about, Arthur?” Merlin yelled hysterically.
“Nothing,” Arthur replied tiredly. “It’s not important.” He turned towards the village. “I should collect provisions and make my goodbyes...”
Merlin’s hand hooked into his bicep and yanked him around to face the furious sorceror. “By the gods, Arthur, would you just tell me already?” He demanded.
“I can’t, Merlin,” Arthur snapped back, temper simmering.
“Why not?” Merlin retaliated coldly.
“Because I’d lose what little of you I have left,” Arthur admitted, ashamed when his voice broke on the words. “Just leave me with what I’ve got, Merlin. Please.”
“Arthur?” Merlin asked, concerned. “What do you mean?”
The hunter closed his eyes. This is it then, he thought with aching epiphany, this is where I lose everything. He gripped the sorceror’s chin with his thumb and forefinger and pressed his lips to Merlin’s unsuspecting mouth. He spent a few stolen moments pressing more ardently, daring to taste the seam of bow-shaped lips before he pulled away.
The sorceror was staring at him in utter confusion—Arthur had never seen him so bewildered. He sighed and stepped away. “Forgive me,” he murmured, concience crying out for appeasement. “If I could take one thing with me, I’d choose it to be that.”
Shaking his head at his own stupidity, he turned to walk away.
Merlin’s hand tightened on his arm and tugged him to a stop. “Arthur,” he said. “What... Why?”
Arthur sighed, hanging his head. “I love you,” he whispered, hurt thumping dully when he realised it was the only time he’d said the words for the sorceror to remember. “I have since before I even met you.”
“What?” Merlin croaked inelegantly.
Arthur sighed again, frowning at the dirt underfoot. “The first time I met the Great Dragon,” he explained, “he said I had grand destiny. But beyond that he promised that I would finally have someone to love me. He said that it would be you.” He tugged his arm from the suddenly slack grip. “I’m sorry. I’ve been at the mercy of a dragon’s meddling since I was a child. There never was any hope for me.”
At the sorceror’s silence, Arthur began to walk away. Maybe he could leave before Merlin exploded with outrage and denial.
He was caught again, this time pulled around to meet Merlin’s frenzied expression. “He never told me any of this,” he pointed out.
Arthur chuckled, shaking his head and looking at the ground again. “You and I have very different interpretations of ‘Two Sides Of The Same Coin’.”
Merlin gave a shocked squeak. “Is that what he meant by that?”
Arthur smiled bitterly. “Probably not to you,” he dismissed the sorceror’s concerns. He lifted a hand and cupped his shoulder, trying not to be insulted by the flinch at his touch. “It’s alright, Merlin. I know you don’t. I was the fool here.”
He let his arm fall again and turned to walk away. He felt a spark of annoyance when Merlin yanked him around again, clenching his jaw.
“Arthur, you can’t just tell me this and leave. Give me time,” he pleaded.
“Merlin,” Arthur sighed, resigned. “I know that time won’t change your heart. I’d rather not wait around on false promises.”
Merlin looked honestly hurt and dropped his arm voluntarily. “At least stay until the traders come through. You’ll be safer with them than on your own.”
“And where would I stay, Merlin?” Arthur asked painfully. “In the home you’ve tried to make for us before you realised what it could mean to me?”
The sorceror looked stricken. “I didn’t know,” he said, lost. “I should have realised...”
“You had no reason to,” Arthur dismissed with a shrug. He tugged his jacket back into place.
“Please stay with me, Arthur,” Merlin begged softly. “If not for me, then for Mother. She put so much work into putting our home together. Would you disappoint her by not even trying it out?”
Arthur sighed, guilt appropriately stirred. “Just until I’ve recovered from the quest,” he warned tiredly. “Then I have to leave.”
“Okay,” Merlin agreed, clearly disappointed. “Come on. I think Mother wants to thank you properly.”
Arthur was grateful at the attempt to change the subject, but his mind couldn’t be moved. This was the end of things.
The night was unbearably silent, the only noise the lapping of river a few paces away from their hut. Merlin’s breath was barely audible, thought their stretcher-beds were less than an arm’s span apart. Arthur had slowed his breathing to match, silence stretching between them with uncrossable distance.
He sighed heavily and turned on his side, burying his nose in the bear-throw that had soaked up Merlin’s scent in his absence.
“Arthur?” Merlin’s voice broke the silence.
The hunter nearly sobbed in relief. “Yes, Merlin?” He returned, making sure his voice was calm and steady.
“You said,” Merlin started, then faltered.
Arthur winced and closed his eyes. Why couldn’t they just pretend this had never happened? The silence stretched on again and Arthur rolled back onto his back.
“You said you’d loved me before you met me,” Merlin said hurriedly, as if he had to force himself to say the words.
“Yes,” Arthur agreed quietly. “I did.”
“Then it’s not really me you love, is it?” He ventured, a note of desperate pleading in his words. “It’s just the idea of me.”
Arthur hummed unhappily. “I’ve loved the idea of you before I knew your name,” he replied agonizingly. “Meeting you didn’t discourage me from my feelings at all.” If anything, having Merlin exactly as he was had deepened his adoration. But he wouldn’t speak the thought alive. Merlin was looking for his loophole, and now Arthur recognised the fact he couldn’t tear the chance away from him.
“You idealised me,” Merlin pointed out.
“Merlin you shattered all my ideals,” he confessed. In the unhappy silence, he sighed and rolled over again so the sorceror couldn’t see his face. “It didn’t make me love you any less,” he added quietly, half-hoping the sorceror wouldn’t hear him.
Merlin whimpered a bit at that.
The silence stretched on long enough Arthur dared to think their conversation was over. He closed his eyes, intent to attempt sleep again.
“I don’t love you,” Merlin said to him, sounding disappointed.
“I know you don’t, Merlin,” the hunter replied tiredly. “I know you won’t, barring another magical intervention.”
“Another?” The sorceror squeaked.
Arthur cursed internally, opening his eyes to glare at the stone wall. “The grindylow,” he explained quietly. Merlin had a right to know. “You weren’t knocked unconscious. She wasn’t even a sorceror—it was a sidhe. As a reward for rescuing her, I was to be given my heart’s desire for one night.”
“Why don’t I remember?” Merlin asked angrily.
“I couldn’t bear it,” the hunter confessed, aching. “That you would look at me with disgust, and treat me with as much suspicion as you do now.” He took a deep breath. “You kissed me in the stables and waited in my bed,” he admitted, trying not to remember in torturous detail. “I slipped you a sleeping draught and left to remove the spell. When it couldn’t, I asked for you to forget instead.”
“I was your heart’s desire?” Merlin asked. It was an eerie echo of his own enchanted words in the candle-lit softness. Arthur, am I your heart’s desire?
“You are,” he answered painfully.
Arthur, you have me, the bespelled sorceror had promised.
If only , he thought.
Merlin inhaled sharply in the silence. “Maybe...” he trailed off, silence reigning once more. “Maybe I could love you?” He said uncertainly.
Arthur flinched, whimper caught in his throat. “Don’t,” he begged. He closed his eyes at the sudden welling of tears. “I know now you can’t, Merlin. Don’t you dare torture me with false hope.”
“Stay, Arthur,” Merlin pleaded. “Stay so I can at least try.”
“Please don’t,” Arthur replied, clenching his shaking hands into tight fists. “Of all your power, Merlin—the only one I beg of you not to use is my heart.”
“I don’t want you to go,” Merlin murmured unhappily.
“I must leave,” the hunter said resolutely. Into the sad silence, he added: “You can always find me, Merlin. Just like you did while I was away on my quest.”
“It won’t be the same,” the sorceror replied, a half-sob buried under his words.
“Things must change, Merlin,” Arthur answered. “It would only destroy us both if we stayed.”
“I’m sorry,” Merlin whispered.
“It isn’t your fault,” Arthur assured him. “It never has been.”
They left the silence then, and once Merlin was making the half-snuffing breaths that meant he was deep in sleep, Arthur sat up. He pulled on the tunic sat beside his pillow and laced up his rabbit-lined coat against the mid-night air. Shoving his feet into well-worn boots, he crossed to his pack and crouched to open it.
Merlin had tried to convince him to unpack it, but he’d dismissed the idea—saying it would make more sense to do so when he had a full day to sort through things. He pulled out the letter penned while Merlin had visited with his mother and father and left it sitting on the stripped stretcher.
He took a deep smell of the bear-throw before folding it in the top of his pack. Rolling up the bedroll, he glanced at the unaware sorceror across the room. When he looked back around, one of Merlin’s neckerchiefs were hanging on the back of a carved chair. He stuffed it in the lid of his pack and buckled it up securely. Shouldering the pack and the burden of their parting, he left the home Merlin had tried to make them.
Their horses were still tied at Hunith’s cottage, had shied away from him at the prospect of moving when he had tried to take them to the new hut. The mare woke when he approached, taking one glance at his pack and snorting. He sighed in defeat, but she let saddle her without antic. Pack fastened, he hoisted himself up into the saddle and paused when he saw Hunith and Balinor watching him from the doorway of the cottage.
Hunith was frowning, but it seemed to be with unhappiness rather than any real disapproval. They met eyes and Arthur tried to convey all the day’s events in his expression alone. She nodded regretfully and tucked herself into Balinor’s embrace.
Balinor watched him stoically, expression understanding yet disapproving.
Neither said anything to disuade him and he walked the mare to the road of compacted dirt. He paused and sighed, lowering his head. “Take care of him, will you?” He asked.
When he turned to look at them, they nodded silently. He turned back to face the road and steeled himself. Then he kicked her into a gallop and raced from the village, leaving his heart behind.
Just when you finally think everything's going to end great, and then Merlin and Arthur decide that they want an equally angst-filled sequel.
Keep an eye out.