It began, as all truly horrible things did in Merlin’s life, with magic.
Also, an irascible sheepdog.
In truth, Argie was more wild boar than dog, though he had a snout as long as a rake and with about as many teeth. For such a big dog, he was generally well-behaved, and even if he sometimes over-harrassed the sheep, he’d never attacked Merlin before.
Except that, well, he attacked Merlin.
One moment Merlin was standing upright, crunching on a carrot from his pack and musing over Will’s afternoon fletching lesson (disaster and a half), and in the next, Merlin was tackled by four paws, a great deal of stinking fur, and a snuffling snout beside his ear.
If Merlin wasn’t magical, he didn’t know what would have happened. Nevertheless, magic surged out of him. When Merlin looked up, Argie was ten paces away, howling and rutting at an invisible wall of air.
Merlin searched the hillside. No one was around now, but with the howling racket that Argie was making...
The large elm would have to do.
He released Argie in the nick of time. Trudging up the hill was Rhys—the man who was paying Merlin to keep his sheep under control.
“What, in Lord’s name?” Rhys was demanding, stomping toward Merlin—when he ground to a stop. “Bugger. F—.” And if that wasn’t weird enough (Rhys could drink a barrel to waist-high and not be tongue-tied), he lifted his head skyward and breathed in, his arms falling out to the sides and his whole body rocking like he was doing a child’s fairy dance with the wind.
“Rhys,” Merlin called, “I am not ignoring my job. I was watching the sheep when Argie went barmy.”
“Merlin,” Rhys said, his eyes closed. “I need ya to run. I’m going to hold Argie, but I need ya to climb down from that tree and run as fast as yer skinny legs can carry ya.”
“What—? Just hold Argie, I’ll—”
“No, Merlin, ya dolt—ya got the scent on ya. Smell like ripe fruit. Ya can’t be going into town. Ya need to hide. I’ll tell Hunith. I’ll have her bring you some supplies. Don’t answer to anyone but her, y’hear me? Not even me.”
But Merlin’s grip was slipping on the branch. The scent.
Merlin didn’t have “the scent.” He had magic, yeah, and that was enough. He might smell of herbs and tallow but not omega. That was ridiculous. He was not an omega. He didn’t feel—
But then all the facts hit him in the gut. He was fifteen. The perfect age, and he still had paltry stubble and could never build muscle no matter how he worked at it. And more so, he thought about how dry he felt yesterday, so thirsty, like he could drink the whole well. And then there was the feverishness in his body. It was cool out today yet he felt sweaty, despite the breeze.
Merlin gulped and looked out, really looking at Rhys. Everything about the man was strained. In fact, the expressions on him and Argie looked far too similar.
“Okay, I’ll run,” he said.
Rhys nodded, but there was a gleam in his eyes that Merlin had never seen before. Still, Rhys dragged Argie back from the trunk. It was while Rhys was tying Argie to a distant oak that Merlin made a run for it.
He dove into the undergrowth, ignoring the scratch of brambles and smack of branches. He ran and he ran, using magic to camouflage himself; gathering the bright currents to still the wind and halt the spread of his scent. He only paused when he was deep in the wood, crossing over a surging brook. The thirst was tight in his throat, so he paused to gulp down some water. The afternoon’s light was coming in horizontal so his reflection was bright and clear despite the white foam. What he saw startled him. His eyes were solid gold. Not glowing like they sometimes did when he was alive with magic, but a steady yellow-color; their normal pale blue was missing.
Merlin was glad that this was his first nymph cycle, and that he was not going to go into a full-on mature-omega heat. Still, he had never hated his body more. Even if his desires hadn’t changed, even if he wasn’t addled and begging to be bred, his own pheromones were a treacherous herald, and his lower abdomen churned when he bent over; there was an uncomfortable stretching that he couldn’t help but distrust.
That night he gathered wild sorrel and berries for dinner before he climbed another tree. He called vines about himself so that he was wrapped secure, and finally, fatigue took over.
The moon was directly overhead when the calls startled him awake. By the glow of torches, he recognized Rhys and others. They all had their hunting dogs with them and they were calling his name.
Merlin. Merlin. Over and over again.
Merlin had never been so terrified in his whole life.
At some point in the night, their footfalls were replaced by the howling of wolves, which was worse.
- - - -
It was only when morning came, and along with it, the soft song of his mother, that he was finally able to breathe. Hunith was walking with her herb basket slung over her shoulder and a crossbow in her grip. She was singing a cradle song, but her face was heavy with sorrow.
Not wanting to startle her, Merlin hooted softly from his high branch.
Hunith’s skirts whirled as she spun, and even though Merlin knew she heard him, she was surveying the surrounding forest with a ferocious expression. When she finally looked up, directly at where Merlin was sitting, he saw pure fear.
“Oh, Merlin.” Her eyes searched his frame for injuries. “Are you okay?”
“No one—I mean, I had to use my magic to escape, but I don’t think anyone noticed.” Merlin had spent his entire life hiding his magic. Thus, that this—being an omega—would be the source of his public exposure... well, it was shocking enough to be funny.
Hunith sighed in relief. “Good, then they’ll take you.”
Wait, what? “Who will take me?”
“Word has spread. Cenred’s men are coming. There’s a price on you. We have to hurry you out to safety.”
“You mean to the druids?” Merlin asked in a hush. “But they won’t take me. I have...” It went unspoken: magic.
Hunith shook her head. “You’re an untainted omega, easy to match. They will take you. And your magic won’t be a problem. They’ll welcome it.”
Merlin froze. “But you said—”
“When I last tried to join them, they said your time had not yet come. Uther was chasing the druids to his borders and beyond so that there was no safety in numbers, and more importantly,” Hunith glanced down at her hands, “they would have taken you—they always would have—but not me.”
“Oh,” Merlin breathed, hopping off the lowest branch. He’d always wondered why he was raised away.
“Now, the time is here, and we must take you to them.” Hunith walked toward him.
“But they won’t let you stay.” Maybe it was the hormones coursing through his body, but Merlin’s eyes welled with tears. On any other day, he’d be stating his case for his very adult-manliness. He’d be ribbing his mum for worrying too much. But in this moment, all he could think was: But I’m only fifteen. I’m not supposed to lose my mum.
Hunith held her arms out, and he went to her, letting her wrap him in an embrace. Still, no matter how tightly she held him, it wasn’t enough. They were going to have to separate.
For his lunch, there was bread and sheep’s milk cheese. Merlin choked it down while Hunith treated his scratches with balm and then rubbed his chest and arms with herbs to stifle his scent.
Then they ran.
- - - -
Three days later, when they reached the druids, it was as Hunith said, they took Merlin in, calling him Emrys and covering him in talismans and enchanted robes, but they would not take his mother.
In the forest, the druids watched him constantly but never included him in their circles. One of the elders gave him a spell book to peruse but no tutor accompanied it. Among the druids, it was as if he were a ghost. And as for the other omegas, they came almost entirely from the fine Houses. Merlin was the only one without a title. Thus, he was snubbed.
And very alone.
- - - -
Arthur had been convinced that the marriage negotiations were going well until they weren’t.
He’d met the girl that morning, Saeren Fahael, who was lovely in her own way with a smoothly sloped nose, nut-colored hair and beetle black eyes. Her conversation had been teasing, and Arthur had liked the way she’d laughed. That’s why Arthur was completely at ease as the terms of his future happiness were being negotiated.
That was, until Father began the interrogation on the Farhael family’s breeding history.
“Sir Farhael, I believe you are an alpha?” Father asked, even though he knew perfectly well that Sir Farhael was an alpha. Lord, even Arthur could smell it.
“I am, Your Majesty.”
“You have... five children?” Father read from the sheet in front of him.
“Four sons after Saeren.” Sir Farhael beamed proudly, before adding, “And another on the way.”
Father’s brows arch. “Saeren is nearly seventeen, yet her mother still bears young?”
“Oh—no. Lady Teleri is an omega and my second wife. She is not Saeren’s mother.”
“And what happened to Saeren’s mother?” Father asked, face schooled to neutrality.
“She died in childbirth, Sire.”
And then Arthur was desperately yearning for a shield to hide his face behind, because the fallout was inevitable.
Father rose to his feet and uttered a single, “No.”
“Sire.” Sir Farhael was bent back in his chair, face aghast.
But Father had rounded on Lord Temel. “You had said the match was perfect, and yet you neglected such a basic fact that her mother died in childbirth.” Lord Temel’s hand was clenched protectively around his neck, and Arthur didn’t really blame him, what with the red veins popping in Father’s corneas.
This was naturally when Arthur realized it was up to him to salvage the situation. “Lord Farhael, naturally, you have both my own as well as my father’s condolences with regard to your late wife. As you are aware, my own mother died in bringing me into this world. My father still grieves her, as the memory is ever fresh.”
Father, who had long since drawn his sword so as to press the tip to Lord Temel’s Adam’s apple, finally paused, as if realizing himself.
With a sigh, he released Temel’s collar and turned around to face Lord Farhael. “It is as my son says. I did not bring you and your daughter here to waste your time, but I fear that is exactly what has been done. I cannot in good conscience allow my son to marry a woman whose own mother died of childbirth. After I lost my Igraine, I could never bring myself to remarry. And as our line is already thin, it is essential that Arthur marry a woman with,” Father frowned at the impropriety of his words, “a solid breeding history in her family.”
“Then I fail to understand,” Lord Farhael said primly, “Why not have Arthur choose an omega at the ball?”
The room went quiet.
Father was turning pumice yet again, and as Lord Temel's face only had just begun to regain its color, it was once again Arthur’s duty to speak. “The omegas are raised by the druids, my Lord. And as my father and the druids are at war...”
“I understand that, Your Majesties, and I share many of your opinions on sorcery, but the omegas themselves are not magical. Regardless of her yearlong sanctuary in the forest, my young wife is the joy of my existence. And certainly, with an omega as your son’s mate, childbearing would no longer be a concern. Otherwise, you know as well as I do, all beta females, my daughter included, take a great risk in bearing an alpha’s young.”
“That is enough,” Father said, voice gruff.
“My apologies, Sire.” Lord Farhael’s bow was very low, indeed.
“Apology accepted,” Father said. “It seems today has been one of constant, unintentional insults. And Lord Temel, if you mistakenly thought I’d forget this failure, we will be renegotiating the terms of your royal tithe this afternoon before Council meetings.”
With that, Father strode from the room, but not before Arthur caught the look on his face: mouth set in a line and eyes angled skyward. It was an expression that was both thoughtful and irritated.
Arthur had a bad feeling about it.
- - - -
It was a month later, a week after Ostara, when Father called him away from his knights and asked him to accompany him for a “walk on the grounds.” As this had never happened before, Arthur knew the topic without having to ask.
Still, it was awkward to hear his father say, “A mating between an alpha and an omega is sacred in both the New and Old Religions. It is most unfortunate that it has the taint of the druids.”
“Unfortunate,” Arthur agreed, though it was well known that no one besides the druids had the powers to protect omegas, suppressing their scents so that marriages could be arranged by contract and not force. Otherwise, omegas had to be locked in stonewalled basements following their nymphing, which no one thought was particularly humane.
And as much as Father hated sorcery, his conquests on the druids had been the shortest-lived. Besides being impossible to find, the druids had used their role with omegas to open doors for sanctuary in all lands.
Father continued, “But if the relationship were to be... non-magical, it could prove beneficial for Camelot. You’ve met few omegas, but they are charming—always charming.”
Arthur had quite bluntly never been allowed in the presence of a young omega. He had memories of Morgana’s mother from when he was a child, but that was about it. Though, it was not like he hadn’t thought about it. The way other alphas described them, you’d think omegas were made of honeyed mead. Rather ridiculous. “I will do whatever is best for Camelot, Father. You know that. Though, as we’ve said before, it’d be nice if she were fair.”
“All omegas, the males even, they’re always fair,” Father said darkly, before forcing a smile again. “I wanted to give you the option. I had it, though I refused it for your mother.”
“To go to the omega ball.”
Arthur stared for a long moment at his father. He did not want reproach if he agreed, and there was always the chance that Father would be amenable now and change his mind later. Magic was afterall involved. Arthur needed to know his father was certain.
But the king shook his head wearily. “You could not attend, of course, as the prince of Camelot. The druids remain our enemies. You’d have to go under a different title, but those details would be attended to. And even upon going, there’s no certainty that you would be chosen.”
“It's the omega who chooses?” Arthur couldn’t stop his laugh. He’d never heard of anything like it.
“Both alpha and omega must agree. The druids will have it no other way. They seek ‘true pairings.’” Despite his soft eye roll, Uther's tone wasn't harsh, as it normally was when he spoke of sorcery. But then Arthur's parents had been a love match, a rare thing.
“Oh, well...” That didn’t sound so bad. Arthur had never had a problem attracting female interest. And the idea of going under a different name appealed to him. He could find a wife who liked him just for him, Arthur. Not Arthur Pendragon, Prince of Camelot. Arthur didn’t really consider himself a romantic, but to have someone whom he genuinely liked, someone he could fall in love with even, that wasn’t to be abandoned lightly, was it? There was honor in such a pursuit.
“You would leave in two weeks,” Farther said.
“I will think on it,” Arthur said carefully.
But that was a lie.
Unless Father changed his mind, Arthur was decided. He would go and collect a mate.