Cenred, king of Escetia, didn't flinch as Arthur's sword traced the soft flesh under his chin. He smirked up at Arthur, strangely at ease for a man on his knees. Behind him, Leon shifted his weight forward, forcing Cenred off balance and pressing the tip of Arthur's sword almost deep enough to draw blood. But the defeated king didn't struggle.
“I know you have him.” Arthur's voice sounded harsh and strained in his own ears—he tried to calm himself, but the smug twist of Cenred's lips threatened to undo him.
“Indeed,” Cenred said, affecting a bored tone. “Is he someone special, then?”
As though Cenred, upon learning of Arthur's search for the enigmatic, newly-proclaimed leader of the Druids, hadn't embarked on a raiding campaign, sweeping through the few remaining Druid camps in his lands to capture the powerful warlock for his own use.
Arthur growled. “Where. Is. He?”
Cenred laughed in his face. “Why should I tell you? You're going to kill me regardless.”
It was true, of course. Arthur didn't try to deny it. “Take him away,” he ground out, and Leon hurried to obey.
“If you find him, give him my regards,” Cenred called out as Leon dragged him off. “And my apologies for being unable to finish what I started.”
Ignoring the doomed king, Arthur spun on his heel and motioned for Percival to accompany him out of the throne room. The castle was secure, and Lancelot and Elyan would be able to handle things while he searched for the warlock himself. As soon as he'd brought Cenred's army to their knees, he'd sent Gwaine to the dungeons where Cenred kept the the few Druids he hadn't killed outright, but Gwaine had returned empty-handed almost immediately. It seemed that Cenred had hidden Emrys away just before Arthur's army attacked; either the Druids didn't know where their leader was being held or, more likely, they knew but weren't confiding in their new conquerors.
To make matters even more frustrating, neither had they been inclined to give Gwaine—and therefore, Arthur—any information about Emrys at all; Arthur still had no idea what the warlock looked like, or even how old he was. Not for the first time, he cursed the Great Dragon under his breath, recalling the way the leathery old monster had simply laughed whenever Arthur had asked how he would know Emrys when he found him. After fifteen years, surely the Dragon should have given him something more concrete to go on than a single name and cryptic, inflammatory words of fate and glory, but Arthur still knew no more about how exactly Emrys would help him achieve his destiny than he had when, as a boy of thirteen, he'd first discovered the ancient beast chained beneath the castle, and shivered at the sound of the warlock's name.
He paused just before leaving the throne room, trying to force himself to think like Cenred long enough to figure out where Emrys could be. Cenred was a coward, a man who ruled through fear and deceit but had the gall to name himself a righteous king. In his arrogance, having heard that Arthur was coming to claim Emrys as his own, he would have felt the need to reaffirm his own power before engaging in battle...
Arthur bit back a curse as Cenred's parting words sank in. Reaching out and grabbing a nearby servant by the shoulder, he ordered the man to take him to Cenred's chambers.
* * *
Arthur shoved the trembling servant into Percival's grip as soon as they reached the ornate doors of Cenred's rooms.
“Wait here,” he ordered brusquely. Percival just nodded and took up a position against the wall; before embarking on their campaign, Arthur had told his closest knights that he led them to war not simply to conquer, but to do what no other king before him had done, and that Emrys would be his key to victory.
Sword clenched in a white-knuckled grip, Arthur braced his hand on the door and took a deep breath.
Now, it was time for him to claim what was his, to finally make sense of his father's death and his half-sister's betrayal, to justify the wars he'd already fought to bring the beleaguered and abused people of the kingdoms bordering Camelot under his protection. Now was the moment that promised his reign would be righteous, uniting all of Albion under a banner of honour, justice, and peace.
Emrys was behind the door.
Feeling his destiny breaking over him like a wave, he entered the room.
It was dimmer than the corridor and he blinked rapidly to adjust his sight. Searching the room with his gaze, he didn't know whether to expect a child, a man in the prime of life, or a wizened old sage—Cenred would have brought Emrys here regardless of his age, wanting to exert his power over his captive as obscenely as possible.
Then the door swung shut behind him with a crash, and a sudden movement across the room caught his eye...
Hanging by his wrists from a hook and chain in the ceiling, a naked young man, hardly more than a boy, startled at the sound of the door. His pale skin gleamed in the low lighting; his chest rose and fell erratically as he struggled against his bonds. He was blindfolded and gagged, and even in the dim light, Arthur could make out the metal wristbands that rendered him harmless, cutting him off from his magic and leaving him vulnerable in the dark.
At the sound of Arthur's whisper, Emrys made a soft, desperate noise in the back of his throat. Arthur was across the room before he'd even made the decision to move.
Sheathing his sword with shaking hands, Arthur's eyes raked over the pale skin of Emrys' body, taking in the long lines of his stomach and throat. Unable to believe that Emrys was real, that Arthur had found him at last, he had no choice but to reach out, dragging his fingers over the perfect ridge of Emrys' hip, curving his palm over it and stepping in close enough to feel the warmth of Emrys' short, muffled breaths.
A burst of heat lanced through him, radiating up from where his palm touched Emrys' skin, clouding his mind and confusing his thoughts. The Dragon's laughter echoed in his ears as he leaned into Emrys; without thinking, Arthur nosed his way up Emrys' neck as the warlock—his warlock—trembled against him. Arthur frowned slightly at Emrys' fear; he opened his mouth to calm Emrys, to say that Arthur was here to save him, that Arthur would protect him...Emrys was so young, too young to be caught up in the hatred for magic that choked the lands, to possess such power, to lead his people alone.
But Emrys swallowed convulsively and Arthur had to taste him, to lick a wet line up his throat, to suckle on the tender skin below his jaw. Emrys tried to jerk away, and the room swam before Arthur's eyes; then his hands were sliding around behind Emrys, holding him in place and slipping over the smoothness of his back, dipping between the firm globes of his arse...
Arthur nearly choked as his fingers pressed against Emrys' entrance; they slid over the tight, puckered skin too easily, and he withdrew them with a hiss. The wetness on them stood out starkly in the dim light, and Arthur was nearly overcome with rage as Cenred's words sliced through his mind.
“...my apologies for being unable to finish what I started...”
Snarling into Emrys' neck, Arthur ground against him, pressing angry fingers back into his arse, finding the tight knot of flesh...and meeting an unyielding ring of muscle.
Arthur's breath was hot and wet against Emrys' skin, as he shook with relief that Cenred had been called to battle before he'd been able to defile Arthur's warlock.
Rubbing over Emrys' entrance tenderly, Arthur felt dizzy. The Dragon's golden eyes swam across his vision as he slowly, gently began to press a finger into his warlock's body. At last, he understood why the Dragon had merely laughed when he feared that he wouldn't recognize Emrys; Emrys fit against him perfectly, two sides of the same coin ringing in his ears as he mouthed his way up Emrys' neck. Nosing impatiently at the gag, Arthur gripped it with his teeth and pulled it away. Panting, he stared at Emrys' perfect mouth, which gasped for air as his throat worked soundlessly. Arthur pressed his finger in deeper, just over the first knuckle, and was about to cover Emrys' lips with his own, when—
“Please.” The voice was weak, broken and filled with pain. “Don't.”
Arthur froze, his blood running cold. Emrys moaned, low and deep in his throat.
“It hurts,” he whispered. “Let me down. Please.”
At the sound of Emrys' voice, something hot and fierce burst inside Arthur's chest. His warlock was injured, in pain—Arthur had to take care of him, protect him. Wrapping his arms around Emrys' slender frame, he lifted the trembling man off the floor, freeing his bound wrists from the hook on the end of the chain. With a soft cry, Emrys collapsed against Arthur, his arms falling limp and useless over Arthur's shoulders. Burying his face in Emrys' neck, Arthur swung his warlock up in his arms and carried him over to the bed on the other side of the room. He set Emrys down gently, lifting his arms up and placing them over his head with care. Emrys struggled weakly as Arthur's fingers brushed over his chest, but stilled the instant Arthur began to remove his blindfold.
Blue eyes met blue as Emrys blinked up at him, fear and confusion swirling in his eyes as he focussed on Arthur's face. Arthur could only stare back, speechless, lost in the depths of his gaze.
“W-who are you?”
I'm your king. I'm your master. I'm the one you were made for, the one you're going to serve until we both die, the only man you will ever belong to.
I'm your destiny.
Emrys' brow creased. “Arthur…Pendragon?”
Arthur nodded, and Emrys hissed. “Cenred?”
“Will be dead by morning.”
Something fierce, almost joyful, flashed over Emrys' face, running through Arthur like fire, before disappearing into a dark, hate-filled look.
“You've come to finish what he began, then?” His warlock's voice was cold, and Arthur flinched.
“No,” he said quietly, but he didn't back away.
Emrys' eyes narrowed, his lips twisting scornfully. He opened his mouth to reply, but fell silent with a hiss as Arthur sat back on his heels and drew his dagger. Eyes wide with fear, Emrys shuddered underneath him as Arthur leaned forward...and cut the rope that still bound his wrists together.
Emrys whimpered involuntarily as he tried and failed to lift his arms. Sheathing his dagger in one swift movement, Arthur wrapped one hand around Emrys' right wrist and the other around his elbow, carefully bringing his arm down to his side. Emrys stared at him with open disbelief as he repeated the movement; Arthur felt a blush rise on his cheeks as he began to rub Emrys' shoulders, trying to restore life to his abused limbs.
“Don't.” The word was harsh on Emrys' lips, and Arthur jerked away as though he'd been burned. Sitting back on his heels again, he realized he was trapping Emrys' legs beneath him. Emrys glared at him with suspicion as he slid off to the side, kneeling by Emrys' hips but no longer touching him.
Eyes still locked on his warlock's, Arthur raised his voice. “Percival.”
The knight entered at once. “Sire?”
Arthur didn't respond at first, mesmerized by the brilliant blush that stood out against Emrys' pale skin as he curled on his side, trying in vain to shield his nakedness from Percival. After a long moment, Percival shifted slightly, and Arthur shook himself.
“Send for Gaius, and find me a servant.”
“Yes, sire.” Percival closed the door quietly, and somehow Arthur forced himself to get up off the bed. Emrys watched him silently as he opened one of Cenred's cabinets and withdrew a brown cloak. Returning to the bed, he spread the cloak over Emrys' body. Emrys shifted slightly as the fabric brushed over his skin and Arthur backed away again, before he could give in to the temptation to join his warlock under the cloak, stretching out his long, lean body and tasting every inch...
Emrys licked his lips, the pink flash of his tongue derailing Arthur's thoughts and capturing his gaze.
“What do you want?”
Arthur heard the fear concealed in the sharpness of his tone. He was quiet for too long, however, and Emrys' eyebrow raised mockingly.
“Besides the obvious,” he spat, glancing down at himself and then pointedly staring at Arthur's groin.
Arthur felt his cheeks burn, and bit back a hasty reply—the flash of defiance in Emrys' eyes as he lifted his chin was a challenge, meant to goad Arthur into...into proving he was no better than Cenred.
“I want Percival to return,” he said calmly, forcing himself to hold Emrys' gaze until the younger man looked away.
As though his words had magic of their own, there was a knock on the door. “Enter.”
Percival entered with a servant, trailed by Gaius, the royal physician and a terrifyingly stubborn old man who'd flatly refused to be left behind in Camelot.
“This man was Cenred's manservant, so he can probably help find clothes for—” Percival nodded at Emrys and nudged the servant forward. The man inclined his head respectfully to Arthur and offered a bland, “Your Highness.” Arthur looked him up and down, instantly recognizing the demeanour of a man bred for service, who likely cared not at all which king he served, so long as he served a king.
“What's your name?”
“Cedric, Your Highness.” His tone bordered on mockingly obsequious, but Arthur had neither the time nor the inclination to care.
“Cedric, I need clothing for my—for Emrys.”
Cedric bowed. “At once, Your Highness.”
Satisfied, Arthur dismissed Cedric and turned to Gauis. “He was suspended by his arms for...I'm not sure for how long, but he's in pain. He may have other injuries as well.”
Emrys shot him a dark look. “I can speak for myself,” he snapped.
Arthur looked back at him silently, and Emrys flushed and looked away. Arthur took another step back from the bed as Gaius removed the cloak and began to examine Emrys. Arthur knew he should avert his eyes, but he couldn't; the safe, sure fingers of the physician pressing against Emrys' skin made something clench in his stomach.
After endless minutes, silent except for Gaius murmuring softly as he told Emrys to move this way or that, the physician came over to Arthur.
“He needs food, water and rest, sire,” he said. “His shoulders are exhausted and strained, but not torn. I found no other injuries.”
Arthur let out a breath he hadn't even realized he'd been holding, and nodded his thanks. “As you leave, if you could see that food is sent up?”
Gaius bowed slightly, and left without a word.
Arthur and Emrys were staring at each other when Percival cleared his throat. “Forgive me, sire, but Leon wanted me to request your presence in the throne room as soon as possible.”
With a start, Arthur was pulled out of his contemplation of Emrys and back into the world in which he was now conqueror and king of yet another kingdom. Of course he was needed in the throne room—it had been self-indulgent of him to have stayed away for so long.
Emrys' eyes tracked over his face as he turned to Percival. “Stand guard outside. Let no one in; bring his food in yourself. I'll go to them shortly.”
As soon as Percival passed through the door, Arthur focussed on Emrys again. “Give me your word that you won't try to escape.”
Emrys' eyes widened. “You would trust the word of a warlock, and a Druid?”
Arthur stared at him steadily. “Is there some reason I shouldn't?”
Emrys opened his mouth, then shut it again. Arthur waited, but he remained silent.
“I don't want to have to bind you,” Arthur said finally.
Emrys' mouth twisted. “I'm already bound,” he hissed, as the metal on his wrists gleamed.
Arthur glance flickered down, then up again. “Your word.”
Something dark flashed in Emrys' eyes, but he met Arthur's gaze. “You have it.”
Arthur nodded once, and left without speaking again.
* * *
The sun had long been set by the time Arthur returned to Cenred's chambers. The knight he'd sent to relieve Percival hours ago saluted him as he paused outside the door, and he nodded back absently. Glancing down at himself, he grimaced at the spatters of blood marring his shirt and trousers; he'd given Cenred the honour of a quick death, more to prove to himself that he was no monster than out of respect to the other king. Now, however, he regretted delivering the killing stroke himself. Returning to Emrys while covered in blood left a bad taste in his mouth, but there was nothing for it. Steeling himself against the hatred and disgust he knew he'd see in Emrys' eyes, he entered the room in one swift motion.
Emrys was seated at a table on the opposite side of the room from the bed, picking at the remains of food on a tray. He glanced up sharply, eyes flickering over Arthur's clothes, before turning away. Arthur simply stared, breathless, as Emrys rose and moved to position himself behind the table.
“Cenred?” The dark blue fabric of the shirt Emrys wore clung to his slender frame, making his pale skin glow. His trousers were black and slightly too large, but finely made. Arthur's mouth went dry, and Emrys looked up at him again.
“Dead.” Arthur barely managed to force the word out as Emrys eyed him with disdain. Under Emrys' gaze, Arthur's skin crawled—he felt unclean, foul, a blood-stained barbarian instead of a victorious king. As if sensing his thoughts, Emrys' eyes darted over to the fireplace, where a large tub sat, steaming.
“It was sent up just before you arrived. Your knight brought it in.”
Arthur's eyes traced over Emrys' still-dry hair, and Emrys flushed under his regard. Without comment, Arthur turned and walked over to the tub. He imagined he could feel Emrys' eyes on him as he crossed the room, but when he turned around, Emrys was staring fixedly at the table, spots of colour blossoming high on his cheeks.
Turning back to the steaming bath, Arthur shed his ruined clothing and slipped into the delicious heat with a sigh. The room was silent, save for the faint swirling of the water and Arthur's own breathing.
When he'd soaked away the events of the day, Arthur washed himself methodically. The hair on the back of his neck prickled as he bent forward, exposing his back to the air, to Emrys. Arthur's hands shook slightly as he imagined Emrys' eyes on him, Emrys' cheeks flushed and hot, Emrys' hands reaching out to him...straining his ears, Arthur waited for some sound, some indication of Emrys' regard, but no noise came from across the room.
Emrys stayed quiet as the water began to cool, and Arthur reluctantly stood to dry himself off. Forcing himself to move slowly, calmly, Arthur dressed in the clothes that he'd had Cedric lay out for him hours ago.
“Shouldn't that servant be attending you?” Emrys' voice rang out sharply in the air between them. Arthur drew the laces on the soft sleep breeches together and answered without looking up.
“I dismissed him for the night.” He caught Emrys' eye. “All the servants have been through enough.”
Emrys sneered, and looked away. “How thoughtful.”
Dressed, Arthur crossed the room and sat down across from Emrys. Emrys didn't look at him, and Arthur studied the way his lowered eyelashes fanned out, dark and perfect, against his cheek.
“Cenred's servants are not to blame for the war,” Arthur said softly. “All who swore fealty to me are under Camelot's protection. I will not punish the innocent for the actions of their king.”
At this, Emrys looked up with him, a bitter smile on his face. “What does the king of Camelot care for innocence?”
Arthur regarded him soberly. “I have sworn to rule justly, and with honour. I will not punish an innocent person.”
The smile bled off of Emrys' face. “And yet, my people are still in Cenred's dungeons.”
The silence stretched between them as Arthur considered his response, knowing exactly what Emrys expected him to say.
“Magic killed my mother,” Arthur said at last. “And my father. Magic drove my half-sister mad.”
Emrys didn't flinch, or look surprised—the twin tragedies of Arthur's birth and ascent to the throne were known throughout many lands. Everyone in the divided lands of Albion knew that magic was outlawed in Camelot, that Arthur had upheld his father's decree. In the eyes of Camelot's law, no one who practised magic was innocent.
But the eyes of the law were blind.
Taking a deep breath, Arthur spoke the truth he'd told none but those he trusted most.
“Magic is a tool, no more, no less. How it is used depends on the sorcerer. Magic, itself, is neither good nor evil.”
And how Gaius, who had been his father's oldest friend and confidante, had wept the first time Arthur had spoken those words; how Leon had simply stared at him with silent approval; how Gwaine had laughed, and told him it was a good thing he'd got that figured before running off to find his precious—and magical—destiny...
Emrys' brow creased in confusion, then disbelief, as Arthur continued. “Your people remain in the dungeon for their own protection.”
“Because magic is outlawed.” Emrys' voice was tight.
“Yes.” Because Camelot's king had been killed by magic. Because Arthur had gone to war immediately and, in the few months of his three-year reign that he'd spent in his own castle, had been forced to spend all his energy in making his kingdom strong. Because his people were afraid.
Because something had made him wait, held him back until he could return in triumph with a symbol of strength and unity, dispelling their fear.
“Then why am I still alive?”
The starkness of Emrys' words couldn't quite conceal his desperation, and Arthur had to grip the arms of his chair to keep from rising up and pulling Emrys to him.
“You have a destiny.” The words seemed to leave Arthur's throat of their own accord, falling softly into the distance between them.
Emrys' face clouded. “One that I accepted long ago.”
And Arthur couldn't breathe. His blood pounded in his ears as he gasped, “You know?”
“I've known since I was a child.” Emrys was clutching the arms of his chair, hunching forward into himself as if to ward off a blow.
Pain shot through Arthur, pain and longing and desire, and he stared at Emrys in disbelief. “Then why resist me?”
Emrys looked up at him, scorn and anger written across his face. “I accepted that I'm destined to give my life for my people,” he spat. “That doesn't mean I'm willing to go without a fight.”
The words hit Arthur like a physical blow, and he reeled back in his chair. “What?”
Emrys glared at him. “When I was born, a seer told my mother that I was destined to give my life to ensure my people's safety.” He leaned forward, drawing Arthur forward as well with the intensity of his stare. “And I will fight tyrants like you with everything I have until the day I die.”
He will be your rock.
Arthur stared at Emrys as the memory of the Dragon's words washed over him.
He will be your strength in times of weakness, your comfort in times of pain, your compassion in times of anger.
Emrys stared back at him, naked hatred filling his eyes.
Together, you will build a kingdom greater than any the world has ever known.
Arthur rose jerkily. “It's late.”
You are his destiny.
Emrys looked at the bed, then back at Arthur. His eyes burned with defiance, and Arthur clamped down on the desire that surged in him.
And he is yours.
Arthur exhaled painfully. “I'll send for a cot.”
Emrys' eyes widened slightly, before his expression became guarded. “You will not—” He broke off, and Arthur bit his lip as the words force me hung unspoken in the night.
“No,” he said quietly.
Emrys stared at him. “Or bind me?”
Arthur shook his head.
Emrys raised an eyebrow, his eyes growing cold. “Then what makes you think you'll survive the night?”
Holding Emrys' gaze, Arthur leaned forward. “Have you ever killed a man?”
Emrys flinched. “No.”
Arthur called for a servant.
* * *
When Arthur woke the next morning, Emrys was staring at him with an inscrutable expression from a nearby chair. Holding perfectly still, Arthur fought down the heat that rose in him as Emrys seemed to search the very depths of his soul. Emrys' eyes darted back and forth, over his face, his body, his hair, never resting long enough for Arthur to catch his gaze. He worried his bottom lip between his teeth in an unconscious display of nerves, and Arthur found himself fascinated by the gradual reddening of the tender flesh.
After a long moment, Emrys shifted in the chair. “What do you want from me?” he asked in a low voice.
Arthur felt a shiver run through him. “Last night, you told me of your destiny.”
Emrys looked at him warily, and Arthur swallowed. “My destiny is to unite all of Albion under my rule.” He paused, feeling the weight of the moment pressing down on him, suffocating him. Emrys frowned slightly, not understanding, and Arthur summoned his strength. “I have already begun—this is my third victory. But I will never be more than a simple warlord unless I have magic—you—by my side.”
Emrys stiffened, anger flashing over his face. “I'm not a weapon,” he spat. “My people—we don't use our power for war.”
Arthur regarded him levelly, but said nothing. Emrys focussed on a spot somewhere over Arthur's shoulder, visibly trying to calm himself. When he spoke again, his voice shook with emotion, but there was no hint of pleading in his tone.
“I want to see my people.”
It was not a request, and Arthur studied the rigid lines of Emrys' shoulders as he gripped the arms of the chair.
“I have things to attend to this morning,” Arthur said after a moment. “We'll go this afternoon.”
Trembling slightly, Emrys sat back in his chair. Blue eyes clouded and dark, he watched in silence as Arthur dressed and left the room.
* * *
His knights had all assembled by the time Arthur arrived in the throne room. After their previous conquests, his five most trusted men were old hands at assuming control of a fallen kingdom, calming the populace, rooting out resistance, and easing the transition of power as much as was possible. This time, Leon was the one Arthur had chosen to remain behind when they returned to Camelot, running things until Arthur decided which lord he would entrust Cenred's kingdom to, in return for even greater loyalty.
In fact, it was Leon who greeted Arthur first, meeting him halfway as he crossed the floor and pressing a small metal key into his hand.
“We found this on Cenred's body,” Leon said quietly. “Gaius says it's magic.”
The key gleamed against Arthur's palm, the same colour as the bands that bound Emrys' power. Arthur swallowed and slipped the key deep into his pocket.
Leon nodded, and they went to join the other knights.
* * *
Of course, Gwaine had been the first one to mention Emrys by name, not even attempting to disguise his curiosity in the slightest. Arthur supposed that Gwaine had managed to cajole at least some information out of Percival, which didn't upset him as much as he'd claim if asked directly—though he was sure that his knights (mostly Gwaine) gossiped among themselves, he trusted their discretion around outsiders completely.
“He's...hostile,” he replied to Gwaine's query. The other knights appeared ready to leave it at that, but Gwaine raised an eyebrow.
“Can you blame him?”
Arthur sighed, fighting down the irritation that Gwaine always managed to provoke in him by being so infuriatingly right. “Of course not,” he replied, unable to admit out loud how much he'd hoped that Emrys would know of their shared destiny, and how much the stark contradiction of reality had hurt.
Gwaine, being Gwaine, narrowed his eyes suspiciously. Arthur cut him off by turning to talk of logistics and planning, but he knew that the matter was far from resolved.
Sure enough, Gwaine followed him unapologetically as soon as he was able to leave. Arthur sighed, but said nothing as Gwaine accompanied him back to Cenred's rooms. His father would have been the first to chastise him for allowing his knight to be so presumptuous...
...but his father was dead, and had been mourned as a king by an entire kingdom, but mourned as a man only by his son and an old physician.
So when, paused outside the room, Gwaine's response to Arthur's muttered, “Don't frighten him,” was to bump his king companionably in the shoulder, Arthur merely rolled his eyes and opened the door.
Emrys was standing by the window that overlooked the courtyard. He turned sharply as they entered, his eyes darting warily from Arthur to Gwaine and back again.
“Emrys,” Arthur began. “This is—”
Gwaine stepped forward, extending his hand. “Gwaine. Sir Gwaine, actually, but the only one of us who actually worries about titles is that one.” He nodded at Arthur, and leaned toward Emrys conspiratorially. “I don't know if you've noticed, but he can be a bit...stiff.”
Gwaine winked at Emrys, and the warlock stared at him, eyes wide with disbelief. Arthur felt himself flush with anger; just as he was about to round on Gwaine, however, Emrys' lips curved in a small, involuntary smile. Gwaine beamed at him, then turned back to Arthur.
“So,” he said with a grin. “on to the Druids?”
* * *
Emrys kept shooting sideways glances at Arthur as they walked through the corridors, and Arthur could feel Gwaine's smug smile as he brought up the rear. Clamping down on his frustration that it had been Gwaine's cheek, of all things, that made an impression on Emrys, Arthur had forced himself to be gracious in response to Gwaine's teasing. That Emrys hadn't acknowledged the knight's extended hand had been a small comfort, and that he'd silently fallen into step at Arthur's side had been another, but neither victory erased the fact that the first smile, no matter how strained, that he'd seen on Emrys' lips had been for Gwaine.
Gwaine, of course, knew Arthur well enough to understand his irritation, and had raised both his hands in a gesture of innocence as soon as Emrys turned away. Arthur had motioned Gwaine to follow them and the knight did with a grin, rightly guessing that Arthur's annoyance was more with the situation that with Gwaine himself. Thankfully, however, Gwaine kept silent as they walked, and the only sound in the halls was the echoing of their footsteps.
When they arrived in the dungeons, Arthur nodded to the guards as they unlocked the large cell where the Druids were being kept. Behind him, he heard Emrys hiss through his teeth, before pushing past Arthur and Gwaine.
“Emrys.” A tall, pale man stepped forward, extending both hands. Emrys clasped the man's arms, smiling the first real smile Arthur had seen on his face. Swallowing against the want that pooled in his belly, he watched as Emrys moved among his people, murmuring reassurances and allowing them to run their hands over his arms and back.
“I'm fine, I'm fine,” he repeated, glancing quickly at Arthur. Arthur managed not to flinch as several of the Druids turned suspicious gazes on him; the rest ignored him completely. Gwaine shifted beside him, nudging him surreptitiously in the ribs.
“You can see they're being cared for.” Sheer willpower kept Arthur's voice steady. “We've given them bedding, clothing, food, water...”
Emrys' back stiffened, and he spoke without turning. “Thank you, my lord, for treated your captives like people.”
Arthur winced, but said nothing.
Once Emrys had touched everyone in the cell, he turned to Arthur. His people surrounding him, he met Arthur's eyes without flinching.
“I would like to stay here tonight.”
A wave of possessiveness swept over Arthur like panic—he bit back the instinctive words of refusal before they could escape his lips, and clenched his jaw. The thought of leaving Emrys down here, of returning to his chambers alone after so long...
He inclined his head slightly. “Very well.”
Then, before he could change his mind, he turned and swept from the cell.
Gwaine followed at his heels. “Arthur—” he began, his tone questioning.
Arthur gritted his teeth. “Shut up, Gwaine.”
* * *
Arthur managed to keep his resolve for the rest of the evening, throwing himself into the mountain of scrolls and parchments his knights had assembled. In the middle of the night, however, mind fogged by hours of sleeplessness and need, he tossed and turned as the image of Emrys' piercing blue eyes flickered and danced behind his eyelids.
Finally, unable to bear it any longer, he called the knight posted outside his door and ordered Emrys to be brought to him. When Emrys appeared, flushed and angry, Arthur waved the guard away curtly and stalked over to his warlock. Emrys flinched away from him, but Arthur closed the distance between them and gripped him by the shoulders.
“Tell me you don't feel this,” he hissed, staring into Emrys' flashing eyes. A muscle in Emrys' jaw jumped, and Arthur barely resisted the urge to cover it with his mouth, to suck on the pale skin before him until it was swollen and purple and claimed.
“Let me go.” Emrys' voice was low, angry.
“Not until you look me in the eye and swear that you feel nothing.”
Emrys' eyes flashed to his, then slid away as a blush coloured his cheeks.
“Swear it.” The frustration in Arthur's tone was tinged with hope; Emrys' shoulders shuddered beneath his hands.
“You represent all the wrongs that have been done to my people,” he whispered, staring down at the ground. “You are everything I hate. My destiny—”
Emrys' words were cut off as Arthur surged forward, pulling Emrys close and claiming his mouth in a fierce, desperate kiss. Emrys gasped with shock, then moaned and pressed against him, and Arthur nearly collapsed as swirling heat and pleasure coursed through him. Wrapping Emrys in his arms, he ground their hips together, nipping at Emrys' soft, perfect lips and plundering his mouth with his tongue. He felt Emrys' body stiffen even as the twin proofs of their arousal pressed between them, and moaned into Emrys' mouth.
Suddenly, Emrys made a pained noise and shoved Arthur away. Arthur staggered back, more stunned by the rejection than the blow, and gaped as Emrys leaned heavily against a chair, chest heaving.
“No,” Emrys ground out, screwing his eyes shut and clenching the chair in white-knuckled grip. “I won't, I can't—”
“You can.” Arthur took a step forward, arms outstretched, and Emrys' eyes snapped open.
“If you want me, you'll have to force me,” he gasped, his eyes wild as they met Arthur's.
Arthur froze in place. After a long moment, he let his arms fall. Emrys watched him, eyes too wide in his pale face, as Arthur turned to the door.
“Sir Owaine,” he called out. The knight entered immediately. “Take him back to his cell.”
Emrys didn't look back as he left, but Arthur watched until the door swung shut behind him. Biting back a cry of frustration, he threw himself back onto the bed.
A flash of gold startled him, and his eye was drawn to the key Leon had handed him, sitting innocuously on the table by the bed.
With a sharp hiss, Arthur sat up and grasped for the key, the barest outline of an idea beginning to shape itself in his mind.
No. He was going mad; there was no way it would work.
But if it did...
He didn't sleep that night, but when morning came, he had a plan.
* * *
When Emrys was brought into the throne room, his eyes were flashing and his head was held high. His people followed, flanked by knights, and stopped in a silent, tight-knit cluster as Emrys was taken to where Arthur stood at the foot of the throne.
Emrys glared at him angrily when Arthur waved the guards away. “What is this?” he snarled, fists clenched at his sides. “Has your mercy finally run out?”
Arthur looked at him steadily, fingers closing around the key in his pocket. “No.”
With a single, fluid motion, he withdrew the key and caught one of Emrys' wrists. Emrys sucked in a startled breath as the band blocking him from his magic was unlocked, and sent clattering to the floor.
Arthur released Emrys' freed wrist, and held out his hand, palm-up, towards the other.
Disbelief splashed starkly across Emrys' face, he placed his arm in Arthur's hand.
The second band joined the first on the floor, and Arthur's heart constricted in his chest. “You and your people are free to go.”
Emrys stared at him.
Swallowing, Arthur continued. “My men will escort you back to your camp, and will help you rebuild, if that is your wish.”
Emrys' mouth worked silently, and his arm was still cradled in Arthur's hand.
“When I return to Camelot, I will end the ban on magic. Your people will be welcome in every land under my rule.”
At this, Emrys' mouth twisted, and he finally jerked his arm away. “'Welcome'?” he sneered. “Do you really think a royal proclamation will—”
“No.” Arthur cut him off. “That would be going against your destiny.”
Emrys' face clouded, but he said nothing.
Arthur took a step forward, ducking his head and lowering his voice. “Even if you and your people are protected in the eyes of the law, we both know nothing will change.” Arthur let his voice, soft and intimate, colour the air between them, and Emrys shuddered. “You will spend the rest of your life battling hatred and fear.”
Emrys' eyes flashed, but Arthur was close enough to see despair hidden beneath his defiance. “I will give my life for the safety of my people,” he stated in a shaky voice.
“You are willing to die for them.” Arthur took another step forward, and Emrys' breath hitched. “But are you willing to live for them?”
Emrys' eyes flickered to Arthur's lips, then back up to stare at him in confusion.
Taking a deep breath, Arthur balanced on the dagger's edge. “Give your life for your people,” he murmured. “Give your life to me.”
Emrys' brow furrowed and his lips parted slightly—before his confusion could give way to anger, Arthur was speaking, low and urgent.
“Pledge your life, your service, the loyalty of your people, to me. Return with me to Camelot.”
Emrys hissed. “Return as your prisoner, as your weapon—”
“No. As my Consort.”
The word hung in the air between them, shielded from all onlookers by the closeness of their bodies. Arthur steeled himself to go on.
“With you at my side, with you—” he faltered, but forced himself to continue, “sharing my bed, all will know the place of honour that magic holds in my kingdom.”
Spots of colour appeared on Emrys' cheeks, and his breathing was shallow. “You will take this chance, risk the anger of your people, for—”
“I will take this chance for my people, for my kingdom—for all the people and kingdoms of Albion.” Unable to hold back, Arthur reached forward, gripping Emrys by the arms and bending forward until their foreheads touched. “For your people. For you.”
Emrys' eyelids fluttered closed, and a shudder made his entire body shake in Arthur's grasp. Arthur was aware of all the eyes on them, could vaguely hear the murmuring of the Druids, saw his knights standing like statues out of the corner of his eye.
Emrys opened his eyes slowly, and Arthur could see the tumult in them as he considered Arthur's offer—to hold so high a place, to inextricably unite magic with the Crown itself...
After an eternal moment of silence, Emrys drew in a strained, stuttering breath. “Yes.”
His reply was so faint that Arthur thought he'd imagined it. “Yes?”
Emrys pulled back slightly, meeting Arthur's gaze with terrified resolve. “Yes.”
Relief and joy washed over Arthur as he slid his hands up Emrys' arms to his shoulders and pressed him gently to the ground. Shaking as he sank to his knees, Emrys looked up at Arthur, wide-eyed and uncertain.
Arthur drew himself up to his full height. “Leon,” he said, raising his voice enough to carry through the room, “administer the oath of fealty.”
Leon stepped forward and spoke the words softly; Emrys repeated them in a clear voice whose strength belied the trembling of his limbs. Arthur let the familiar words of the oath wash over him, eyes locked on Emrys' as his warlock pledged his life and the loyalty of his people to Arthur Pendragon, King of Camelot.
“Rise.” Arthur's tone was one of command, and Emrys stood before him. Tearing his eyes away, Arthur turned to face his knights.
“You all stand witness to the oath,” he said formally. “From this day forward, the Druid people are subjects of Camelot and all the kingdoms under my rule, and they are to be treated with all the justice and compassion that entails.”
His men shifted, with several nods and faint smiles appearing among theirs otherwise solemn expressions. Satisfied, Arthur turned to the Druids.
“As your king, I swear to protect and defend you against those who would do you harm. Your well-being is the well-being of my kingdom.” He paused, guessing there would be some kind of reaction to his words, and was not disappointed.
“Emrys?” The tall man from the cell stepped forward, his voice questioning.
Arthur turned to Emrys, who was standing motionless behind him. “Go to them,” he said quietly. “Tell them whatever you will. Reassure them.”
Emrys started forward. Arthur caught his elbow as he passed. “And when you've finished, come to me.”
Without looking up, Emrys nodded. Arthur released him, and he walked forward into the arms of his people.
* * *
That night, Arthur heard the soft click of the door to his co-opted chambers, and glanced up from the scrolls he was reviewing with a forced expression of calm.
Emrys entered the room hesitantly, licking his lips and stopping far back from the desk where Arthur had been attempting to distract himself with reports. Arthur's eyes roamed over his body, taking in his flushed cheeks, red-bitten lips, and trembling limbs.
Clearing his throat, Arthur rose in one smooth movement. Emrys' eyes flashed to him before sliding away, nervous. Swallowing against the sudden dryness in his mouth, Arthur took a careful step forward.
"How are your people?" His voice didn't shake.
Emrys shifted slightly. "They're...well." He didn't look at Arthur, but his tone was clear and strong. "They understand. They don't like it, but they appreciate my...sacrifice."
His eyes met Arthur's briefly, and the flush on his cheeks spread to his ears, his neck, the elegant swoop of his collarbones...
Forcing himself to focus, Arthur took another step forward. "You swore fealty to me," he began, “and I accepted. But that's all that you swore."
Emrys blinked, something like fear darting across his features. "B-but you said—"
"I did." Arthur watched closely as emotions flickered in Emrys' eyes. "And I want—" He broke off, reminding himself to breathe.
"You know what I want," he went on, suddenly hoarse. "But I will not..." He stopped again, and closed the remaining distance between them.
"But I will not force you," he said softly. Something twisted in his chest, but he made himself continue. "I want you by my side in every way. But if you don't want—if you don't feel..."
He stopped, throat closing with emotion, and Emrys' blue eyes finally locked with his.
"I—" he whispered, the flush on his cheeks making Arthur's head spin, "I feel it too."
Arthur sucked in a sharp breath—the room was too hot, his limbs were on fire, his arms moved of their own accord, slowly reaching up to grasp Emrys by the shoulders—
"B-but—" Emrys gasped out, making Arthur freeze. "I-I've n-never—"
He stopped, wincing and looking away, and Arthur nearly reeled back at the significance of his words. Emrys caught his bottom lip between his teeth, and Arthur felt as though all the air was forced from his lungs as he realized again how young his warlock truly was.
"Oh," he breathed. Emrys' eyes flashed to his, fear and shame warring in their liquid depths, and Arthur felt his heart pounding in his chest.
"I have," he said softly. Before Emrys could respond, he pulled his warlock forward and brushed their lips together.
Emrys stiffened in his grip; Arthur released his shoulders in favour of sliding one arm low around his waist, and cupping the back of his head with the other. Forcing himself to ignore the rushing of blood in his ears, Arthur pressed soft, close-mouthed kisses into the velvet skin of Emrys' jaw.
"Let me," he whispered, working his way across Emrys' cheek. Emrys' breath hitched as his hands came up to clench Arthur's shoulders, and Arthur slid his tongue between his warlock's lips.
Fire shot through him as Emrys gasped in surprise; before Arthur could stop himself, he was pressing his hips forward, pulling Emrys against him as he licked into Emrys' mouth.
Emrys moaned, his fingers tightening on Arthur's shoulders, and Arthur shuddered as Emrys' tongue brushed hesitantly across his. Making an encouraging noise, Arthur nipped softly at Emrys' lower lip, and Emrys' hips stuttered against him.
Dizzy with the heat kindling between them, Arthur allowed himself to fall into the kiss, cataloguing each noise, each frantic shudder, that Emrys made as they clung to each other in the middle of the room.
When Emrys was mewling softly and thrusting into Arthur's groin, Arthur pulled back. The sight of Emrys staring at him in confusion, lips swollen from his teeth and cheeks glowing from his touches, nearly destroyed his resolve, but he managed to stay the course. Loosely clasping Emrys' wrists, he drew the younger man back towards the bed.
Emrys' eyes were wide, and he trembled as Arthur paused at the foot of the bed. Moving slowly, Arthur released Emrys' wrists and slid his hands up under Emrys' shirt, holding Emrys' gaze as he eased the soft fabric up and over his warlock's head. Emrys' arms hung limply at his sides as Arthur's hands moved to the laces of his trousers; he made a choking noise as Arthur slid them down over his hips, exposing his already-hard cock.
As if in a dream, Arthur began to pull his own shirt off, when Emrys' hands on his stopped him.
“Wait,” Emrys whispered, a flush creeping down over his chest and stealing Arthur's breath. Emrys raised his eyes to Arthur's, and Arthur gasped as blue was eclipsed by gold. Then the cool night air on his skin made him flinch; his clothing was gone, and Emrys was smiling at him shyly as his skin glowed faintly in the dim light.
Arthur smiled back, a giddy lightness washing over him as his skin tingled with magic. Drawing Emrys to him, Arthur pressed him back, lowering him down slowly onto the bed. Then Emrys was stretched out before him, pale and golden and perfect, and Arthur had to bend down and kiss away the flash of fear he saw underneath the anticipation in Emrys' eyes.
Emrys' lips parted for him eagerly this time, and Arthur ran his hand down Emrys' stomach, tracing the ridges of his hips before cupping the firm flesh of his cock. Emrys moaned and bucked up into Arthur's fist, and Arthur smiled into their kiss.
Breaking away suddenly, Arthur ignored Emrys' whimper of protest and began to mouth his way down Emrys' glowing chest, pausing to worry the peaked nubs of his nipples until he cried out. Lapping away the sting of his teeth, Arthur continued exploring Emrys' body until he was keening helplessly, thrusting up against nothing as his neglected cock bobbed in the air.
Arthur grinned as his own cock throbbed in sympathy, and dipped his head to run his tongue over the sensitive skin of Emrys' slit. Emrys' hands fisted the bedclothes as Arthur took him into his mouth, revelling in the taste and feel of him. He took Emrys as deep as he could, and hummed with satisfaction as Emrys came, suddenly and with a strangled cry, shooting his seed into the back of Arthur's throat before sinking down bonelessly into the bed.
Pleased with himself and shaking with desire, Arthur nuzzled the hot, soft skin of Emrys' inner thigh before crawling back up along his body and claiming his mouth in a kiss. Emrys moaned at the taste of himself on Arthur's tongue, his body warm and pliant as Arthur ran sure, possessive hands over his shining skin. Nudging Emrys' legs open with his knees, Arthur's fingers dipped between the smooth globes of Emrys' arse, and Emrys startled at the touch.
“Shh,” Arthur whispered into his mouth, reaching out for the small tub of ointment he'd sent for discreetly before Emrys had come to him. Coating his fingers liberally, he pressed one against Emrys' entrance, swallowing Emrys' gasp before biting his own lip to dampen his arousal.
Emrys stared at him, eyes heavy-lidded and trusting, as Arthur stroked over his entrance. When Arthur began to press a single finger into him, he made a soft noise, hitching his hips slightly. With his free hand, Arthur pressed one of Emrys' legs up towards his chest, spreading him open wide and baring the innermost part of him to Arthur's eager eyes.
Arthur worked him open slowly, nearly moaning himself as Emrys' tight little hole began to loosen, accepting Arthur's fingers into the perfect heat of his body. When Arthur had three fingers inside and Emrys was pressing back against them, he could wait no longer; withdrawing almost abruptly, he pressed the throbbing head of his cock against Emrys' entrance. Screwing his eyes shut with the effort of holding back, he began to push into Emrys, barely registering the way his warlock moaned and writhed beneath him.
After an eternity, he was fully seated; opening his eyes at last, he gazed down into Emrys' glazed, glowing eyes.
Fighting back a curse, Arthur buried his nose in the golden skin of Emrys' neck, hips stuttering forward, driving him deeper into Emrys' body. Emrys' arms wrapped around his shoulders, and Arthur felt tingling heat spread across his back as Emrys panted in his ear.
“A-Arthur,” Emrys moaned, and Arthur thrust forward again, mind dizzy with the magic washing over him. Then Emrys cried out, his fingers gripping Arthur's shoulders hard enough to bruise, and Arthur was pounding into him, all thoughts of restraint forgotten. Emrys' entire body shook with the force of his thrusts and his cries matched the rhythm of Arthur's hips; Arthur sucked a harsh bite into Emrys' neck, marring the golden skin with red, before coming with a shout, buried to the hilt inside his warlock's body.
Trembling with the aftershocks, he somehow managed to catch himself before collapsing on top of Emrys. Raising his head slightly, he met Emrys' eyes and watched in dazed fascination as the gold faded, to be replaced by an expression of wonder.
“Arthur.” Emrys cupped Arthur's chin in his hands.
Breathing shakily, Arthur began to pull out, biting his lip as Emrys clenched around him unconsciously. Rolling to one side, he drew Emrys close, tucking his warlock snugly against him and resting his chin on Emrys' head.
“Emrys,” he murmured, the rumble of his chest making Emrys' shoulders vibrate under his hand.
Emrys' voice was low, hesitant, and Arthur pulled back to look down at him.
“'Emrys' is the name I was given when my power made itself known,” he said softly, glancing up from below his eyelashes before watching his fingers trace patterns on Arthur's chest. “But I was born...Merlin.”
The name hung in the air around them, and Arthur knew he'd been given something precious, both a gift and a promise. Holding his warlock against him until he could barely tell where one of them ended and the other began, he buried his nose in soft, black, beloved hair.
“Merlin,” he whispered back, and it was a gift and a promise of his own.