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Paint my spirit gold

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After a six-day journey, Arthur and his men finally arrive in the camp.

Arthur can sense his horse, Hengroen, is exhausted, for his trot has become more of a succession of stumbling steps rather than his usual elegant gait. Arthur and his knights are the same and, although they are in a foreign territory, they can at least say that they are going to be able to stop and get some proper rest.

As Arthur approaches he dismounts with a hop, tying Hengroen’s reins around his gloved wrist and continuing his way into the heart of the druid campsite on foot. The druids working outside all pause their work to stare at Arthur and the patrol of knights following him with different expressions on their faces; curiosity, antagonism, hope. Arthur attempts to conceal his weariness as much as possible and nods his head in salute at every druid he passes by.

The settlement is smaller than Arthur would have imagined, but as he stands by the cave entry waiting for Emrys to come out and meet him, Arthur takes a moment to assess his surroundings.

There are about five dozen huts, tents and other structures of all sorts of colours and sizes distributed arbitrarily across the territory—all of them built with wooden sticks and thin fabrics that Arthur muses could be easily destroyed with a strong whirlwind. The majority of the tents end in angular, pointy shapes, and in some of them there are druidic symbols painted or sewed on the fabrics, also adorned with charms and talismans. There’s nothing much aside from that, only some baskets by the tent entries filled with goods and some wooden rectangular tables with small stools, tools for plowing, and wood fires strewn across the ground.

Arthur’s always wondered about the way of life of his people, how little means and goods they own in comparison to Arthur's wealth, but it seems the druids make a living with even less.

Someone begins shuffling out of the cave and Arthur straightens, squares his shoulder and holds his head high. His knights stand behind him, a comforting presence. Leisurely, an old man trudges outside, aided by his cane, and comes to a stop in front of Arthur, gives a quick bow of his head.

“King Arthur, my name is Alator. It is I who you've been exchanging correspondence with.” Arthur nods his head in acknowledgement, the same name he recalls from the signature at the bottom of the letters. “You’ll have to excuse him, but Emrys is not available at the moment,” Alator says. His gaze shifts over Arthur’s shoulder, eyeing the knights before he focuses his attention back on Arthur.

Arthur’s eyebrows draw together in uncertainty. “I—is he unwell?”

Alator makes an almost imperceptible grimace before he shakes his head, placing his hand on Arthur’s arm and ushering him away from the entry of the cave. “Not quite, but he’s indisposed. Allow me to fill you in on the information in the meantime.”

Alator guides Arthur through the camp, explaining anew what he mentioned in the letters. Arthur must spend a period of time of approximately a week with them, embracing nature and the druidic way of life. By doing so, he should demonstrate that, in spite of their differences, he respects their community to Emrys so he will agree to proceed with their peace agreement and consequent alliance.

“We are aware that you employ servants to be at your service, but we don’t believe or countenance such practices. However, for the sake of our, hopefully, future union, we would like to offer you similar commodities. Merlin is Emrys’ right hand, he’ll be at your disposal until Emrys receives you,” Alator comments before halting in the middle of a naked patch of land, one hand resting atop the other on the end of his cane. “You can set your own camp here. We’ll respect your privacy, but we'll gladly welcome you shall you wish to come to our side and partake in our daily activities.”

Arthur motions his knights to approach.

“Begin setting the tents here,” Arthur tells Leon with a pointed look, passing him the reins of Hengroen.

His knights do as asked without question, moving their belongings and horses to the parcel Alator has kindly offered them.

Alator is brief and curt as he tells Arthur that Emrys rests in the cave and that he should not, under any circumstance, be bothered. He will introduce himself when the time's right, and should Arthur have any concerns in the meantime, both Merlin and him are available at all moments.

Since his father’s death, Arthur’s been hearing more and more often about prophecies in regard to a certain Emrys and himself. Prophecies that depict them uniting Albion together and bringing peace to the land, as it appears was foretold by the High Priestesses in the ancient times as well as registered in the sacred writings of the druid tribe. Arthur’s here to accomplish that, to meet this Emrys and seal a pact, and yet Emrys is nowhere to be found.

Merlin, when Arthur sees him later after having set up their tents, turns out to be a young druid lad who parades around the place half-naked, his skin streaked with mud at places, and he wears but a pair of black breeches rolled up to the knees. He walks with light steps and long strides, beams and nods left and right.

His body is slender but seems strong enough for a man who spends his days in the wild, practising magic, working the land, or doing whatever it is the druids do for a living. His skin is as pale as milk and completely unmarked over the area of his chest and arms where other druids display painted symbols, but a black tattoo is imprinted on the top of his back between his shoulder blades. Its ink seems more permanent than that of the rest, though.

When Merlin catches sight of Arthur with his knights, he approaches with a tentative smile.

“King Arthur,” Merlin greets, placing his hands behind his back. “I hope you are finding our home to your liking.” He glances up and down at Leon and then at Gwaine before returning his gaze to Arthur. “Um, Emrys has asked that you please remove your royal clothings and put your weapons away. I know that they serve as protection, but you don’t need them here; we will protect you.”

Arthur hesitates a moment before deciding to ask, “Could I see him now?”

He doesn’t like to be ordered about by a messenger. He wants to deal with Emrys personally. Everything Emrys has to say to Arthur, he can do face to face.

Merlin’s eyes widen just so as he glances over to the cave. “Emrys is still occupied.”

Arthur shifts from one foot to another. “Well then, I’m sorry, but I’m afraid I won’t do as he says if he does not address me personally. I really don’t see how he can be occupied inside when we, his guests, are here outside. I’ve left my home to encamp here, and he’s making me wait. How are we meant to cooperate if he won’t meet me?”

Merlin’s forehead creases slightly, though he nods, eyes fixed on Arthur’s. “I understand. I’ll share your concern with him right away.” With a small bow of his head Merlin turns on his heels and walks away.

Arthur sighs, displeased. Assured that if Emrys wants this to work between them, he can’t keep hiding for long, for the time being Arthur sees no other option but to wait.

*

Late into the night, as Arthur’s knights rest by the fireplace, Arthur’s mind travels home. In the letters they sent each other, Emrys vouched to protect the castle while Arthur stayed here, and Arthur trusts Gaius, his uncle Agravaine, and some of his most loyal knights and members of the council to watch over Arthur’s home with much care.

Camelot is everything Arthur has left. After his father’s loss, Camelot became Arthur’s life. The people, his legacy: Arthur lives for it, and that’s why he’s decided to join forces with the druids after decades of animosity, so their kin can finally stop holding grudges against one another for the mistakes made in the past and work together to build a new and more prosperous era.

For a moment, Arthur’s heart lurches when he wonders if by doing this he’s betraying his father. Uther’s hatred towards magic was well known over all the five kingdoms, but if there was one thing Arthur never agreed on with his father, this was it. Throughout his childhood, Arthur watched many sorcerers die in accordance with his father’s laws. Some of them may have deserved their fates, but many others did not, and Uther took their lives nonetheless. Arthur wants to do better than that; he wants to judge criminals by their sins and not their faiths. He only hopes he’s doing the right thing, but it’s not as though he has many other options.

Arthur’s been losing his allies after his father’s death. Some of them don’t believe a young, inexperienced king like Arthur is ready to take the throne, deeming that the kingdom he’ll build will be weak and will perish, and others, knowing the differences in his ruling from Uther’s, have retreated as they no longer share the new king’s beliefs. Arthur fears his reign will not prosper if he doesn’t mend his father’s mistakes and seek new allies that will help empower his dominion. In striving for this, the druids are his best and only option.

As if reading his mind across the field and sensing all of Arthur’s insecurities, Merlin bashfully approaches the log in front of the fire where Arthur sits.

“I hope I’m not disturbing you,” he says to announce his presence.

Some of the knights pause mid conversation to look at him. Leon and Gwaine, being Arthur’s closest knights, have already meet Merlin, but the rest aren’t aware Emrys has not faced him as of yet. Feeling all eyes on him, Arthur lowers his plate to the ground and signals for Merlin to join them with a tilt of his head.

“Not at all,” he replies.

Leon and the knights resume their conversations as Merlin carefully sits on the ground, leaning his back against the log where Arthur rests.

A short silence stretches between them, but the fact that his knights are laughing and deep in conversation around them helps to ease the awkwardness.

“I apologise for all the inconveniences on Emrys’ behalf,” Merlin says, seeking Arthur’s gaze from beneath his lashes, looking uncertain.

“You’re not the one who has to apologise,” Arthur retorts, and when his tone comes out harsher than he had intended, Arthur reminds himself that the last thing he means to be is hostile, let alone with Merlin.

Merlin lowers his head and for a moment he seems troubled, drawn. He has a very expressive face, so Arthur can’t help looking at him, trying to figure him out.

The knights are chatting amicably beside them as they finish their food, but the druids are all assembled at the other side of settlement, sitting by a common firecamp. Merlin isn’t there where he belongs, he’s sitting here with Arthur. Even though Arthur isn’t feeling very talkative at the moment, he doesn’t want Merlin to feel unwelcome or excluded—he wants to make an effort. He’s bound to bond with these people, and he guesses he might as well begin with Merlin.

Arthur watches him stealthily as the fire dances around his features. His face is all sharp angles and striking contrast: pale skin, but unruly black hair; straight, sharp nose, but a lush mouth. The set of his shoulders is wide, but his chest is lean and so is the rest of him. Now though, as he shrinks in on himself, he looks even smaller.

“You’re young,” Arthur points out in a weak attempt to engage him into conversation. “How come you’re Emrys’ most trusted companion?” The last bit he adds as an afterthought. Arthur wants to know more about him if he’s going to be seeing Merlin more often than not.

Merlin smiles softly, giving a shrug. He’s still shirtless, even in the dead of night. Arthur wonders if he has magic, and if he does, if magic can guard him from the cold. Merlin pulls his eyes away from the fire to look at him, giving him a swift once-over. Here by the fire, his eyes are the same colour of the sky at night.

“I’m not as young as you think,” Merlin says. “I’m definitely not much younger than you are, and you’re a king.”

Merlin’s commentary tears a faint chuckle from Arthur. Leon whirls his head to look over at him.

“That is true, but I didn’t have much of a choice,” Arthur explains. “You, however, must have done something to deserve such high rank.”

Merlin’s eyes him oddly before smiling tentatively. “You can trust me, if that’s what you’re implying. But I’ll prove it to you soon enough.”

Arthur’s not expecting that answer. Merlin’s response is daring but cryptic and, though Arthur’s taken aback, it’s not in a bad way. He nods, toying distractedly with a loose thread on the inside seam of his left glove.

“So you’ve got magic as well, I suppose,” Arthur says, even though he belatedly realises the subject makes him slightly uncomfortable. Not because he has aversion to magic, but because this is the first time in his life Arthur is so near a sorcerer, a group of sorcerers, to be more precise, and the first time he's discussing magic as he would any other topic openly.

Merlin’s lips stretch into a small smile. “You suppose well,” he says, and Arthur gets the impression, not for the first time, that each time Merlin shoots him a reply he’s inwardly mocking him. Idly, Arthur wonders if Merlin knows what entails when speaking to a king.

“Is it—uh, is it powerful?” Arthur asks, still unsure how to approach the subject. Merlin shrugs, an unreadable look in his eye, before he averts his gaze, omitting any verbal response. Arthur feels a prickle rise at the nape of his neck in embarrassment.

Merlin chuckles faintly upon catching the pinched expression on Arthur’s face. “We don’t have to talk about magic if you feel uncomfortable with it. You can tell me about you instead. What is it like living in a castle?”

Either Merlin’s quite perceptive or his magic allows him to read minds. Arthur strongly hopes, for his own sake, it’s the former.

Their gazes hold for an instant, and Merlin lets Arthur assess him quietly. Judging by Merlin’s purposeful enquiring tone, Arthur believes Merlin’s trying to subtly wheedle information out of him, but there isn’t any trace of malice in his face, and he does seem somewhat expectant. Arthur doesn’t know what to make of him as of yet and, albeit he seems to be a good lad so far, Arthur has learnt from experience that appearances can be deceiving.

However, if there’s one thing Arthur knows almost for certain it’s that getting along with Merlin is quite possibly the key to meeting Emrys soon.

*

The following morning as Arthur and his men have a quick breakfast, Arthur watches Merlin and Alator ambling around the cave’s entry, seeming to be conversing in hushed voices.

“Do you think they are talking about Emrys?” Leon asks, glancing fleetingly in their direction.

Arthur fiddles with the apple in his hands, not taking his eyes off of them. Alator seems to be agitated, for his hands move relentlessly as he gestures to their surroundings, but Merlin couldn’t look calmer. He places a comforting hand on the old man’s shoulder, and offers a reassuring smile.

“I know they are,” Arthur replies, confident. “I think they are waiting for something before introducing us to Emrys. I just don’t know what.”

Alator begins slowly making his way inside the cave with the help of his cane whereas Merlin stays put, letting his eyes roam over the camp in a surveying manner, until his gaze suddenly snaps to the side and accidently meets Arthur’s.

Arthur stops fidgeting with the apple, grubby fingernails piercing the skin. The scent is suddenly overwhelming, but Arthur holds his breath, waiting for Merlin's response now that he's been caught observing him.

But Merlin's only reaction is to pin Arthur down with his gaze, lips twitching, before he lifts his hand up in the air to greet him with practised ease, completely disregarding Arthur's behaviour as suspicious.

Arthur acknowledges him with a tilt of his head before pulling his gaze off him, not wanting Merlin to approach him now, not without having a reasonable excuse for him having been watching him. The next time Arthur looks, Merlin is gone.

Arthur mulls over that moment for a good span of his morning.

The druids still act wary around him and the knights whenever they have to interact in some fashion, and they regard them with discomfort any time they display their weapons, as well as while they train. Arthur remembers the promise he made and how lenient Merlin and Emrys have been so far in this regard. He isn't home, and one of the purposes for Arthur being here is that he and his knights do an exercise in adjusting to these people's habits, which means that sauntering around with their swords dangling from their belts is the complete opposite.

That first night by the campfire, Merlin didn't forbid them to hunt per se, but he strongly reasoned against it and requested it wasn't done in their presence at all, as it goes against their religion. He also suggested that they forego their weapons earlier, for they wouldn't be needing them. But Arthur and the knights have clearly not complied.

It occurrs to Arthur that his own reticence to carry out a simple request might be the cause for Emrys' absence.

Before midday, Arthur approaches Gwaine, his mind made up.

“I think we should perhaps cast our swords aside,” he goes straight to the point, watching Gwaine polish his dagger.

Gwaine raises an eyebrow, taking his gloves off before tossing them to the ground. “And go unprotected? These people have magic, Arthur.”

Arthur leans closer, because Gwaine is naturally loud and highly incompetent when it comes to understanding the meaning of private conversation. “I know that, but if they want to harm us, our weapons would be pretty useless against magic, don’t you think?” Gwaine seems to consider it for a moment before he lets out an affirmative sound and nods his head. “Having our swords strapped to our belts all the time is not causing a good impression. I don't want the druids to fear us, I'm here to negotiate peace, after all, and I promised Emrys we'd do this.”

Gwaine nods his head again, holding Arthur's gaze. “Alright, I’ll talk to the others.”

After giving Gwaine a swift pat on the shoulder, Arthur leaves him to his own devices.

He goes to feed his horse and, as he peers amongst the bushes, he can't help but wonder how even though the camp sits unfenced in the middle of nowhere the druids stay safe. The woods hold many dangers; Arthur's lost count of the times bandits have surprised him as he was out on a hunting trip or patrolling, and the Saxons are a constant threat. However, the outskirts of the settlement appear peaceful and secure enough, for druids wander around freely. Arthur deducts that magic is likely involved and yet again Arthur thinks of Emrys, wishes they could sit to talk together face to face. Arthur has so many questions, so many concerns they need to address.

Because he's his only connection to Emrys, Arthur seeks out Merlin to spend some time with him.

He wants Merlin to see his interest in taking the negotiations between them to the next level, as well as his interest in him personally, seeing as Merlin is the only person Arthur has established direct contact with. But mostly Arthur wants to prevent Merlin from thinking he’s spying on him and demonstrate that he’s willing to wait to meet Emrys as long as they come to terms with the peace agreement as they are supposed to. The last thing Arthur means is for Merlin to harbour the idea that he’s suspicious of him or Emrys, even if he is—at least a little bit.

“I want to apologise for this morning,” Merlin surprises him by saying when Arthur comes upon him. He’s kneeling on the ground, planting seeds. Arthur’s eyebrows twitch, but he doesn’t utter a word, waiting for Merlin to explain himself. Merlin dusts his hands on his breeches before pushing to his feet. “One of the kids got himself in trouble, so I was unable to be with you for breakfast. But then I saw your face, and you seemed let down.”

Arthur wants to answer that of course he’s let down, because he’s yet to meet Emrys and still hasn't been given a proper explanation for his absenteeism. But he brushes it of, avoiding any sort of confrontation. "Is the kid alright?"

"Mordred is a little rebel. He drives Alator crazy, but we sorted it out," he answers, a farway look on his face, before he shakes his head and his demeanour becomes guarded. “I'd like to make it up to you, so would you join us for supper later?"

His tone is hesitant but his gaze is clear and open. There’s a spot of brown on his forehead, some mud on his left cheek and temple where he must have swept the sweat from his forehead with his dirty hands.

He looks oddly fetching.

The thought is fleeting, but it crosses Arthur's mind nonetheless. He pushes it away as soon as he realises he oughtn't entertain such thoughts about Merlin.

“I know you and your knights have your own territory, so to speak, but I think it would be nice if we could begin breaking the invisible barriers between us,” Merlin continues after Arthur's lack of response. “Getting together for a meal, as a group. I’d certainly like that. What do you say?”

Muddled by Merlin’s proposal and still slightly dazed at himself, it takes Arthur a moment to answer. “Of course, I think the same. I’ll tell my men and we will join you for dinner.”

A slow smile makes its way to Merlin’s lips, dimpling his cheeks. He nods his head, says, “I look forward to it.”

*

Gwaine complains about leaving their parcel and tents unwatched, and some other knights echo him in their aversion of dining with the druids.

“Do we really have to?” Gwaine whines, as irritating as always. Arthur wonders if Gwaine always contradicts him on purpose.

“I mean no offense, sire, but I’m with him. What if we leave and they somehow use the time we’re away to creep into our tents?” Geraint comments, looking to the other knights for support. “We know nothing about them.”

“And we won’t ever if we stay on this side of the camp, you moron,” Percival argues, elbowing him in the arm. Geraint scowls up at him.

Arthur sometimes wishes his knights were less his friends so that they wouldn’t question his orders so lightly. But what they lack in discipline they make up for in loyalty.

Arthur lifts his hands up to mid-air, meaning to appease them. “Alright, lower your voices, will you? We wouldn’t want them to overhear,” he says, and they at least have the decency to look a bit contrite. “I won’t force any of you to come if you don’t want to, but Percival is right. We came here to bond with the druids, and now is the perfect opportunity to do so. I also believe that if we dine with them Emrys will finally receive me for the meeting. Therefore, the ones who want to are welcome to come along with me and the druids.”

Leon nods his head at him and so does Percival. Gwaine rolls his eyes before saying, “Fine, but I hope they have ale.”

When Percival snorts something about him being a drunk arse and the two of them begin trading insults back and forth, Arthur moves away and lets them be.

A while later Arthur joins Merlin by the fire they have set up, taking the generous bowl of food Merlin offers him with a smile. Judging by the taste, Arthur assumes he must be eating a soup of cucumbers, carrots, and some other types of vegetables. Leon and Gwaine sit next to him, occasionally answering the timid questions the druids throw their way and, not too long after that, Arthur sees Gwaine in deep conversation with some druid lad, his intent clear in his pose, a sparkle in his eyes.

Merlin smirks as he watches Gwaine luring the boy in, shoulders brushing against Arthur’s warmly. “It seems that your knight likes Theo.”

Arthur snorts into his glass knowingly. “Gwaine likes everybody.”

At Arthur’s answer, Merlin chuckles, his frame shaking with mirth.

Arthur's eyes slide to him.

Fireflies are dancing around Merlin, around them all, but the glow they elicit is no match for the radiant light Merlin's eyes are shining with, slanting with glee.

Arthur shifts, ending up closer to him, seeking his warmth unconsciously.

But Arthur isn't the only one enraptured by Merlin.

Everyone assembles around the fire, listens attentively as Merlin regales them with tales depicting the age of dragons, reciting them with such detail and enthusiasm, that Arthur almost believes Merlin's lived those adventures himself.

Truth be told, he seems to be an honest, friendly lad that cares greatly for his community, and if Emrys is anything like him, Arthur knows he's in good hands.

Overall, the evening is proving to be surprisingly pleasant in the druids’ company, especially because neither the druids have shown opposition to engage him in conversation nor his knights to mingle.

When Merlin stands to begin cleaning up, Arthur realises the two of them have mostly been left alone. He offers his help but Merlin shakes his head, taking the plate and glass from Arthur’s hands softly in a brush of fingers. Arthur rubs his hands together after the touch.

“No, please, you’re our guest. I appreciate the gesture, but it’s late and you must be tired. I’ll have this settled in a moment,” Merlin explains, glancing at him from beneath his lashes. Arthur believes Merlin’s cheeks are coloured red faintly, and he wonders if it’s because he's feeling bashful after having been the center of the attention in his presence, or something else.

Even though Arthur’s not used to doing these types of tasks himself, he almost protests when Merlin refuses his aid. But as Arthur’s about to slip inside his tent, he sneaks Merlin a look.

Bowls, glasses and cutlery are gathered in a pile in the air, an invisible force wiping them clean. Distantly, Arthur hears Merlin humming some melody as he performs the magic, bidding his friends goodnight as they retreat to their huts for the night.

Before Arthur is caught staring yet again as Merlin puts out the campfire, he reluctantly forces his gaze away, a pleasant feeling staying with him all the way until he surrenders to sleep.

*

Arthur soon falls into the pattern of their routine.

Both adults and children have a handful of varied tasks to see to daily. There are builders and workers. There are crafters of charms, talismans and tools they use to collect stones and crystals worth studying. There are farmers and croppers, teachers of all kind that, according to Merlin, convey topics deemed sacred to them. Their lessons draw on the significance of their connection as human beings to the earth and the wild, exploring animal, tree and star lore, magic, arts and music, myths about their deities and so on. Arthur's even heard them discussing body worship and sexuality candidly, which explains many things.

Topics that would seem fundamental to rule a kingdom, such as politics, military strategy, territorial defense and combat training, fade into the background.

There is an undeniable sense of community, cemented on a culture so peaceful, creative and rudimentary, that Arthur's never witnessed elsewhere, but it's certainly intriguing and fascinating.

But however intrigued Arthur is, he's far more interested in seeing how much of this is Emrys doing and how he himself gets involved in their traditions. He's still expectant to finally meet him, for days keep going by and Arthur, as comfortable as he is with Merlin, wants to negotiate with his leader.

*

As he lingers on the edge of sleep for some time, Arthur lies on the thick mat in his tent, pondering about his current situation.

His expectations regarding his arrival to the settlement and his meeting with Emrys have definitely not gone according to plan. He knew beforehand that he would have to set camp for days and prove his worth as a potencial ally to the druids, but Arthur wasn’t counting on Emrys’ absence all throughout it. Four days have passed and Camelot's still without its king. Arthur can only hope everything's well, that no enemies have heard that the castle’s regent is away.

Emrys said he would watch over Camelot and guard it if an attack were to occur, but he also said they would see each other and talk about what they wanted to achieve. Yet Arthur’s still waiting for that to happen, so his words mean little to him now. Emrys is going to have to find a way to compensate Arthur in some manner or another for all the lost time and inconveniences.

The fabric of the tent entry flaps about before someone pokes their head in. Arthur pushes up on his elbows, expecting Leon, probably, but comes across Merlin instead, who has stepped inside without Arthur’s consent.

“King Arthur,” Merlin greets.

He calls Arthur by his title, but with the teasing way he pronounces it, he might as well not say anything at all.

Arthur recalls the events from two nights ago, the sort of mutual understanding that developed between them with the little push from the wine. Merlin's company yesterday night by their own firecamp, the way he timidly, slowly succeded in winning the knights' favour in spite of their differences, and then vacillatingly sought Arthur's approval with his gaze.

He's been trying to make Arthur feel at home, which is far more than can be said about Emrys.

“I was hoping you'd come with me to the forest and help me with some chores,” Merlin continues, gaze dropping to Arthur's bare chest.

Instinctively, Arthur pushes the blankets further up over his body, before he mentally chides himself when Merlin casts his eyes down to the ground. He sits up straighter, letting the blanket pool over his hips when he realises there's no need to be modest when Merlin isn't.

He considers asking Merlin about Emrys, but given that Merlin hasn’t mentioned him, Arthur supposes that if he were to ask he’d be given a negative, so he saves his breath.

Instead, Arthur’s gaze lingers on the soft but hopeful tilt to Merlin’s mouth and the light in his eyes. “Of course,” he replies, realising that he doesn’t mind at all.

Merlin peers around the tent quickly before returning his gaze to Arthur and smiling. ”I’ll wait outside.” He whirls around quickly and heads out.

Arthur stands and begins dressing a bit less fluidly than he normally would have, had George been assisting him. All the while as Arthur gets into his clothes he can see Merlin’s shadow reflected on the side of the tent through the fabric as he waits outside, pacing quietly. When Arthur is midway into adjusting his chainmail, Merlin’s shadow suddenly fades away. Arthur stills, then hurries to slip his feet inside his boots and strides out, looking about to see where Merlin’s gone to.

He pauses when he catches sight of him off to his right by the trees, where Arthur and the knights' horses are tied. He's befriending Hengroen, caressing the horse's head and flank with gusto.

In response, Hengroen nuzzles at Merlin’s arm and chest with his nose, neighing contently at Merlin’s ministrations in a way Arthur has never seen directed at him before. Merlin stumbles slightly on his feet, laughing, when Hengroen excitedly pushes his head forward, tapping his hooves against the ground.

At this point Arthur isn't even shocked to see that, even his horse, seems completely taken by Merlin. There's just this air of joy and life surrounding him, so vibrant and uplifting.

Amused, but not wanting to disrupt Merlin’s moment with his horse, Arthur approaches quietly.

Merlin tilts his head towards him with a grin, but his eyes stay on Hengroen. “His fur is so soft,” he says, sounding a bit in awe.

Arthur’s lips tug in a smile of their own accord. “Well, I’d hope so, I always see that he’s well taken care of. Hengroen’s been my horse since before I became a knight.”

Merlin doesn’t take his eyes off Hengroen until Arthur comes to stand behind him and his cold metal chainmail brushes against the skin of Merlin's shoulder.

“We don’t have horses here in the camp, but they are beautiful animals,” Merlin shares quietly, hands still attached to Hengroen’s neck. In such close proximity, Arthur can’t help noticing that Merlin's slightly taller than him, even barefoot. It makes a buzzing rise inside Arthur’s stomach.

He turns around to face Arthur, but upon realising how near they are standing, his smile wavers. He inches away gently, seeming strangely flustered and lowering his head.

“Shall we go?” His voice comes out pitched low, and when he meets Arthur's eyes he does so from beneath his lashes, like he's taken a liking to doing.

Arthur’s chest goes a little tight. He takes a step backwards. “Lead the way,” he replies soundly.

*

Merlin takes him away from the heart of the settlement, carrying an armful of buckets of different sizes and refusing Arthur's help with a shy smile, overlooking the druids' curious glances with much more grace than Arthur himself.

At first they stroll across the woods in a comfortable enough silence, until the vegetation surrounding them thickens and the murmurs from the campsite subside and become promptly replaced by the singing of the birds. It's then when Merlin speaks about how serene and fortunate living in the druids' company makes him feel, and Arthur finds it impossible to miss the fondness he uses to describe the wildlife and its labours as he continues on talking at length of its wonders.

As trivial as the rural life might have appeared to Arthur before, it seems to play a fundamental part in Merlin's everyday life. Merlin talks of it all with such delight that Arthur considers the possibility that living surrounded by nature could be a much more remarkable and fulfilling experience than he had ever imagined.

Arthur asks about the fields he’s seen at the border of the camp where it seems they have plants and a small selection of chicken and cattle for eggs, milk, and such. Merlin replies that they do indeed cultivate grains, fruits, and vegetables of many types. They like to eat fruits and dried fruits of all kind and because they lack the trees that bear many of those fruits in the settlement's grounds, they get them from the outside.

Arthur looks at Merlin thoroughly as he speaks of the camp and its people with clear affection in his voice.

“Do you miss it?” Merlin asks all of a sudden after he's paused for breathing.

Arthur raises his eyebrows at him. “What?”

“Home,” Merlin replies simply.

Arthur nods and wonders not for the first time if Merlin’s alone or if his relatives are among the druids. Arthur hasn’t seen him with anyone other than Alator, and because he knows Merlin lives inside the cave, he’s probably closer to Emrys.

Considering if it is too personal of a question, Arthur ponders asking Merlin about it as they approach what seems to be a small lake. In the end, he decides it shouldn’t be wrong to want to know more of him, especially not when Merlin never seems to have any problem asking Arthur personal information.

“What about you?” Arthur asks. “Don’t you have a family?”

Merlin seems taken aback but not bothered at all by Arthur’s question. He lowers the buckets to the ground with a clang.

“The druids are my family,” he answers roundly. And when he catches sight of the look on Arthur’s face he adds, “My father was close with the druids, but he was a man on the run, chased by your father’s men for his powers. When my mother gave birth to me, she knew it was too dangerous for her to keep me while my father was being sought as she knew they’d come for me, so she brought me to the camp because she was certain that here I would be safe. I never knew what fate they suffered.”

Arthur doesn’t offer an apology because Merlin doesn’t seem to be waiting for one, and he’s glad—he’s tired of apologising for his father’s mistakes.

Merlin begins rolling up his breeches before slipping his feet inside the water, bucket in hand. Arthur observes as Merlin dips it down first, washing its inside with his hands before filling it to the top and hoisting it up onto the ground beside him. Arthur stands there behind Merlin, just watching him work, looking at his straining muscles and the lines of his back and arms.

“Are you going to just stand there?” Merlin whirls his head around to look at him after he’s finished filling up the third bucket. The tilt of his lips is an amused one.

Arthur immediately forces himself to do something else but stare. The chainmail is definitely a bother, especially now that he’s meant to work in a crouched position that makes the small metal rings dig against his stomach. Inside the camp, the sun is not a problem as the high trees provide shade, but out here in the open, the sun is shining bright in the sky above them, hitting Merlin’s back and heating up Arthur beneath his layers of clothing.

In spite of that, Arthur takes his boots and socks off and mirrors Merlin’s position by the shore, receiving a lopsided smile from Merlin.

Arthur clicks his tongue when his hold on the bucket wavers and he splashes some water onto his breeches, and Merlin chuckles, sending him a funny look. Arthur cups some water onto his palm and splatters Merlin in revenge, smiling when Merlin shouts at him that it feels cold on his ribs. Arthur moves a few steps away when Merlin’s eyes fill with intent, but Merlin doesn’t throw any water at him in return, he only sets out to continue filling the remaining big buckets, occasionally glancing at Arthur with a smirk.

When all the buckets are brimming with water, Merlin lets out a sigh, and after surveilling that the task has already been seen to and seeming satisfied with himself, he begins walking into the water.

Arthur’s eyebrows draw together. “What are you doing?” he asks.

Merlin throws Arthur a grin over his shoulder, getting deeper and deeper into the lake until he doesn’t have any more ground to walk on, and he disappears beneath the surface. He comes up a beat later, brushing the water from his face and turning around to face him.

“Come on—join me,” Merlin tells him, patting the water before him with the palm of his hand. “It’s too hot, and the water is really nice.”

For a moment, he thinks of standing up from the grass and following Merlin into the water to refresh himself. Here away from the camp, with the birds chirping above them and the sun bringing a rosy colour to Merlin's cheeks, Arthur almost forgets about Emrys.

But when he realises how reckless letting his guard down would be, Arthur feels like he has no option but to decline. “I’m not in the mood for a dip.”

In truth Merlin's invitation is both daring and incredibly enticing. Arthur’s sweating inside his chainmail, his muscles are tense, and taking a dip now would be the equivalent of a hot bath back home. But the idea of stripping before Merlin and wading into the lake with him causes a stir in his stomach. Arthur’s not a man easily moved by his drives, but he’s human, and he can only be tempted so many times before his body starts responding. Merlin is already cheeky enough as it is, walking around in so few clothes and looking at him with that glint in his eye all the time; he didn’t need to add to it.

Arthur is sure this is entertaining for Merlin, rubbing shoulders with a king, acting like he would with anybody else. But the visit to the camp means something more for Arthur; it’s important for his kingdom. As much as Arthur would like to behave as though he were a few years younger and give free rein to his desires, there are some things he can’t afford to do anymore because of who he is. Indulging in his needs with a druid lad when he’s in the camp for crucial negotiations seems foolhardy behaviour.

But Merlin rolls his eyes good-naturedly, surprising Arthur with the gesture. “You’re no fun, King Arthur,” he tells him and then goes underwater for a few seconds.

Arthur doesn’t really mean to, but at the amicable tone of Merlin’s voice and the easy grin on his face, Arthur finds himself smiling right back. If he didn’t know better, he would dare say Merlin is becoming too trustful and too comfortable around him in shuch a short time. Arthur can’t say he minds, though. He likes it and, if things were slightly different, he wouldn’t mind encouraging it.

Merlin doesn’t stay in the lake for long, swimming back and forth a few times before slowly making his way out. Arthur busies himself by admiring his surroundings, only stealing some glances in Merlin’s way now and then. As Merlin approaches droplets of water cling to his hair and tickle their way down the side of his face, falling over his shoulders and down his chest. Arthur doesn’t fail to notice either how Merlin’s breeches stick to his figure; to his thighs and legs and especially to his crotch.

Arthur’s eyes inadvertently sweep over him to find that there’s very little left to the imagination. Merlin doesn’t seem to mind much, though, making no attempt to prevent Arthur from peering at him, showing little modesty.

He shakes his head to dry his hair as if he were a dog, making it stand up in odd angles.

When Arthur takes notice of the sudden and loud thumping of his pulse, he tears his gaze away and clears his throat. “Are we finished?” he asks, attempting to sound unaffected. With both the incessant heat and Merlin’s exhibition, Arthur is feeling the urge to go and confine himself in his tent for some time alone.

“Not yet,” Merlin tells him. “I hope you aren’t bored. I have no idea what you would normally do in your castle, but life here at the camp is quite calm.”

Arthur shakes his head. “I’m not bored at all.”

Merlin beams. “Well, then,” he says approaching a tree and placing his hand on the trunk. “Cover your head,” Merlin warns before his eyes glow gold and almonds begin raining from the branches.

Arthur watches a bit mesmerised the change of colour in Merlin’s eyes as he uses his arm to shield his head. When almonds stop falling after a few seconds, Merlin repeats the action with a few other trees and then begins picking them up from the ground. Arthur rushes to help, grabbing one of the smallest, empty buckets and placing handfuls of almonds and nuts inside. Merlin flashes him something like a private smile when they both grab the same nut on the floor. Arthur gently places it on Merlin’s extended palm.

Once the ground has been cleared of fruits, they sit down close together. With a touch of his fingers, Merlin's breeches go dry, and Arthur can’t help but steal another glance at Merlin’s golden eyes.

When Merlin catches him peering, he lowers his head with a small smile before looking up again. “Sorry, I don’t mean to make you uncomfortable. I know you don’t see magic often.”

Arthur shakes his head softly. “You’re right about me not being used to it, but you’re wrong about it making me uncomfortable. Now that I’m seeing it this close it’s actually quite—beautiful,” he finishes lamely, making Merlin laugh.

Arthur was actually going to say breathtaking—that watching Merlin doing magic is breathtaking—but he supposes that’s not something he should say so lightly.

“I think so, too,” Merlin replies, knocking their shoulders together. Arthur’s lips part in puzzlement at Merlin’s forward gesture. “You want some nuts?” Merlin asks, grabbing a rock and crushing one of them beneath it with a rap. Arthur glances at the offered almond in Merlin’s fingers before taking it and placing in his mouth. He’s astounded at how tasty and tender it is.

Wanting to return the favour, Arthur glances down at the floor, grabs a small rock and smashes it down on a almond he picks from the bucket. Embarrassingly, instead of breaking the fruit open, Arthur only achieves smacking his thumb. He lets out a hiss, while all Merlin does is throw his head back and laugh with all his might in the most carefree way. For a beat, Arthur's pain vanishes and all he can do is drink in the sight of him, held completely spellbound by the picture he makes. Even if his pride hurts at being so useless at such a simple task, the happy crinkles around Merlin's eyes and the slow, genuine grin Merlin shoots him dry his mouth. All the possible retorts Arthur could have come up with die in his closed up throat.

“Here,” Merlin says tenderly when he sobers, touching Arthur’s hand before taking the almond from him and breaking it open in a swift move. Merlin’s hands are lithe and his fingers long and agile, and when Merlin brings the almond to Arthur’s lips, Arthur can do nothing but open them to welcome the tips of Merlin’s fingers. He’s never felt so embarrassed and so aroused at the same time. When Merlin takes his hand back with a smile, Arthur’s neck is already burning and his pulse going wild.

Arthur quickly makes up an excuse to return to the camp after that and, still with the same grin, Merlin nods his head and agrees that he should head back as well. Arthur attempts to grab a couple of buckets but Merlin stops him, saying that they could be at it all morning going back and forth if they were to carry the buckets. With a quick flick of his hand the buckets rise up into the air and begin trailing after him.

Arthur feels unable to be any more awed than he already is at the turn of events the morning has taken. Though they don’t say much on their way back, Arthur does wonder if this is really what Merlin does in his day-to-day life or if this trip was, for some reason Arthur can’t fathom, simply an excuse to spend some time with him alone.

*

Once back in the camp, Merlin comments on how they should have picked up some wood for the campfire on their way, and that Arthur doesn’t have to come, but that he’s going to get some himself. Arthur needs some time away from Merlin to clear his head, but out of politeness Arthur goes with him anyway.

When they return, Arthur heads straight for his tent and washes himself as best as he can with one of the water buckets they had filled before, iddly regretting now not having taken that dip in the lake and had a proper wash.

At midday, Arthur meets with Percival, Gwaine and Leon for some quick hand-to-hand combat training, realising belatedly that they are attracting a crowd, for some of the druids stop to stare. As soon as they wrap the training up for the day, they meet the druids for lunch. Merlin sits next to Arthur, flashing him a small smile and telling him that if he wants more almonds, he can crack and peel him some. Leon sends an inquisitive look their way, but Arthur wisely avoids his gaze.

After the druids have scattered and Gwaine has again disappeared with Theo, Leon and Percival move away as well with the rest of the knights, leaving Arthur alone with Merlin.

During the moment of quietness they share, Merlin grabs a flower petal from the ground. He twirls it between his fingers delicately, fixing Arthur with a glance. "Do you also use flowers in cooking in Camelot?"

He passes the petal over to Arthur, turning his attention to him.

Arthur thumbs at it distractedly. "I don't visit the kitchen often, but I'd say it's not custom."

The seams of Merlin's lips turn up. "Plants are incredible useful. Not only in cooking, but also for healing."

As interesting a topic as the healing properties of plants and such may be, Arthur finds that he cannot for the life of him concentrate at all on the tales Merlin is telling him. Merlin doesn’t seem to take notice of Arthur's penetrating eyegazing, or if he does, he doesn’t say.

A couple of young male druids come running towards them as Merlin continues on speaking, their eyes set on Merlin. When they pause before him, one of them wheezes, “Emrys, we’re being attacked.”

Merlin’s smile wavers, his speech halts, and in a beat the softness that was gracing his face as he spoke about herbs is quickly replaced by a sense of anger. He sends a quick, sideways glance to Arthur before returning his attention to them.

“Who?” Merlin asks simply, showing an authority in his voice that rings alien to Arthur. It makes him stare at Merlin in astonishment, completely thrown at his change of demeanour. He’s so struck by it that Arthur doesn’t realise that Merlin is the one being addressed as Emrys.

“We believe they are Saxons, and they are everywhere. We’re concerned they have somehow heard King Arthur is here.”

Arthur stiffens at the mention of his name and swiftly attempts to stand up, but Merlin places his hand on Arthur’s chest and holds him down.

“No,” he says in a rough voice, looking Arthur dead in the eye. It takes him a moment to speak, but when he does it is to say, “You stay here and I honour my promise to you. Now I protect you.” Arthur peers at Merlin in confusion, ready to protest, to tell him to stay back. It’s his and Emrys’ job to protect him and the rest of the people. But then he realises what’s happening. Merlin’s boyish charm, his sweet smiles and tender voice; it’s all gone.

And all of a sudden it clicks for Arthur.

Emrys’ hasn’t yet come face Arthur. Emrys is still missing and yet Merlin isn’t scared, he’s not looking for his leader; he’s acting. And he knows how to act because it’s not the first time he’s in charge. These druid boys who have addressed him as Emrys have come straight for him, as they always do because Merlin is not who he said he was. He’s not a simple druid; he’s Emrys.

As much of a surprise as it is, it makes sense. Merlin’s been here from the start. Arthur wondered how Emrys would keep track of him, and his first thought was that magic would be involved, but no. It’s been simpler than that. Arthur’s had Merlin stuck to his side all along. What a better way to get to know Arthur than to watch his every move in person. Arthur thought Merlin would tell Emrys everything he learnt of him, but it’s been even simpler than that. Emrys hasn’t needed any messenger, for he’s the one that’s been with Arthur, getting information out of him directly, watching him, interacting with him.

The way Merlin has behaved, and more importantly, the way the druids behave around him, how he stands out from the rest; Arthur should have noticed sooner.

“You—” Arthur breathes, unable to utter more than that. But there’s no need; his face must already show everything that’s on his mind, and judging by Merlin’s expression, he seems to realise. But he doesn’t explain why he lied or hid behind someone he wasn’t.

He simply nods once tensely and pushes past the two druid boys, leaving a puzzled Arthur behind.

But Arthur isn’t going to take that. He’s been honest since the start, and he doesn’t like having anyone fool him, least of all Merlin, whom Arthur thought he had developed some sort of understanding with, but who also happens to be the leader of the druids and thus the man whom Arthur has had to seal a pact with all along.

Arthur stands and follows Merlin’s—Emrys’ retreating figure until he’s able to catch up to him after a short run and grab his arm, whirling him around.

“You lied,” Arthur accuses bluntly, not bothering to keep his tone down.

Merlin’s eyes narrow as he fixes him with a hard look. Arthur is aware this is possibly the worst moment to confront him, but his pride is stung, and the trust Arthur thought he had been building with Merlin these past days now feels like it’s been based on false intentions, some sort of fake rapport, designed to bring them together.

“Why?” Arthur demands to know, steadily holding Merlin’s cloudy gaze.

“I did what I had to do,” Merlin says. “Your father slaughtered us for decades; your knights have been haunting and capturing us year after year at every chance they get. You could’ve been just the same, Arthur. I needed to know you were honest at heart before showing you Emrys’ true face.”

“You didn’t even give me a chance. You misjudged me from the start and hid behind just a mere—druid. You were just trying to keep yourself safe.”

“No,” Merlin refuses ferociously, looking somewhat hurt at Arthur’s words. "If my intention was to conceal who I am, why would have I exposed myself to you? I could have just sheltered myself inside the cave, let someone else be me. I've done this because I was aiming to truly get to know you, the real you, not the king you are but everything underneath. For you this treaty means power, but this isn't a business deal for me—this means freedom." Merlin searches his gaze fiercely. “I had to know it was real freedom, not free rein for you to do with magic as you pleased. I was only being careful, protecting my people.”

“From me,” Arthur grits out angrily. He’s not the enemy. Merlin should know that by now; he should have known that from the start. He should have told him about Emrys sooner.

“From danger,” Merlin corrects. “I couldn’t agree on any truce between us without knowing you. When you came, you were just another Pendragon, but today you’re more than that,” he tells Arthur, and his hand comes up to rest on Arthur’s chest, right over his heart. Arthur gazes into Merlin’s eyes at the tingle it causes, but he forces Merlin’s hand away with a slap on his arm. It’s not that easy. Merlin can’t use the trust they have built to excuse his misleading actions. The expression on Merlin’s face shuts off abruptly. “You refuse me?” he asks, voice much colder than before.

Arthur clenches his teeth, not really meaning to do so.

If he makes the wrong choice now, he doesn’t know how Merlin will react. He’s a leader just like him, but Merlin is completely opposite to Arthur in many aspects. Arthur realises in this moment that he has no clue about the way Merlin rules. He hasn’t seen him ordering anyone about, hasn’t seen anyone serving him like George serves Arthur. Their lives are different, and they are different. But in spite of that, Merlin holds the key to the peace Arthur longs for, and Arthur knows he needs Merlin on his side. He wants Merlin on his side.

But he’s frustrated. Merlin’s betrayal has hurt him.

Druids are running around them to find shelter, closing their tents and huts and shielding them with magical bubbles that shine in a fan of colours and create such beautiful images around them that Arthur would pause to appreciate if not for the rush of the moment. He and Merlin should also get away from the middle of the camp and quick, but Arthur believes this heart to heart is just as important. He needs to be sure he is making the right choice by trusting the druid tribe, by trusting Merlin.

He lifts his chin and decides to speak what’s on his mind. “I am resentful of your actions, but I want us to get along. I am not my father, I want justice and shelter for your people and mine the same. I don’t want to use magic to my advantage, but I want to have sorcerers on my side. I want to achieve that with you, but I will not tolerate any more lies. You’ve known who I was from the start, and I want to know who I am dealing with in the same way.”

Merlin takes his time to answer in spite of the situation, glancing across Arthur’s face before his lips turn up at the corners just so. “Then we both want the same thing.” Merlin’s hand, comes up to touch Arthur’s chest once again, this time with a trace of hesitation. Arthur doesn’t understand the gesture to know what it means or how to reciprocate, but he assumes it means trust. The glint in Merlin’s eyes is pure hope, and it serves to reassure Arthur that they are going to be alright, that they are in this together. He draws the palm of his hand to Merlin’s chest, pressing his fingertips to the warm skin and holding Merlin’s steady gaze.

Merlin’s smile broadens, perhaps at Arthur’s gesture or maybe in response to Arthur’s increasing heart rate.

In a blink, Merlin’s hand is gone, and he’s running off towards the cave, helping Alator inside. Arthur rallies to join his small group of knights crouched behind the boulders right beside their tents, where they are taking cover with their crossbows readied to fire. While they scan their surroundings, Arthur’s unwavering gaze sets on the cave.

The clearing has gone far too quiet, and the battle ambience is palpable in the air. Someone is due to make the first move at any moment, and then all hell will break loose. Leon passes Arthur a crossbow, and Arthur grabs it distractedly, gaze still locked on the entry until Merlin comes out slowly, assessing the ground.

He’s completely exposed; there’s no one out there but him. No one seems to be covering him, and he isn’t wearing any sort of body armour. If someone aims, they won’t miss. Arthur fidgets, indecisive in what to do.

Suddenly, an arrow flies across the space and pierces through the juncture between Merlin’s chest and shoulder and Arthur gasps. Merlin stumbles backwards and hisses in pain, the knights begin shooting, and the calm breaks. Arthur attempts to stand up to get to Merlin, but Leon grabs at his shoulder and holds him down.

“He’s hurt!” Arthur tells him.

“It’s too dangerous, sire.” Leon shakes his head as he grips Arthur’s chainmail tightly.

Arthur glances back at Merlin, heart hammering inside his chest, ready to come to his aid if Merlin so needs. Merlin breaks the tail of the arrow sharply, barely wincing as he does so, before raising both of his hands at his sides with a grimace and shouting something in the druidic language.

By magic, all the weapons are jerked from their grasps and fly up into the air until they clash in a bundle right over Merlin’s head, as though attracted by a magnet.

“No one shoots a weapon in my home,” he says, loud and clear and Arthur watches him, rapt. This is the first time he’s acting as a leader before Arthur’s eyes, and Arthur doesn’t want to miss a detail. “And those who dare will face the consequences at my hands. Saxons are not welcome in the druids’ territory.” The weapons drop to the ground in a succession of clanging noises, and Merlin’s hands close into half-fists.

Arthur doesn’t know what has changed until he sees the Saxons grabbing at their throats, and he realises Merlin’s strangling them. For a second, Arthur panics. He doesn’t know what Merlin is capable of, but Arthur's certain that, although he hasn't been completely honest, he’s a good man and Arthur trusts he will show mercy.

“This place is sacred, and if you ever dare attempt to invade here again armed, I will not be so benevolent. Now leave before I change my mind.”

Merlin’s hands come down as abruptly as the Saxons fall to the ground gasping for air. Some crawl around on the ground, others cough and grab at their necks, and the cleverer ones take off in a run. Arthur watches one of them attempting to come closer to the settlement only to be thrown to the ground on his back by magic as he bumps against a thin curtain of blue sparkles Arthur assumes must be some sort of magical barrier.

Arthur stays in his crouching position, witnessing the Saxons dispersing and the druids venturing out of their huts warily.

“Are you alright, sire?” Leon asks him, hand on Arthur’s shoulder. Arthur nods at him before he pushes to his feet. In a few long strides, Arthur crosses to the center of the camp and trots his way inside the cave, where he had seen Merlin walk after his speech.

Inside, Alator stops Arthur from entering further. “King Arthur,” he says, using his cane to halt Arthur’s entry to Merlin’s tent.

“I want to see him.” Arthur grits his teeth.

“He’s being taken care of at the moment. I’ll send word to you once he’s in a better condition and recovered from his battle wound,” is all Alator answers. A couple druids stand behind Alator and before Merlin’s tent, protecting him.

For a brief instant there’s a bitter retort on the tip of Arthur’s tongue—the man lied to Arthur about Emrys’ identity—but Arthur’s better than that. He only sighs and says, “I’ll wait.”

*

Merlin receives him a while later, after a couple young boys have come out carrying a basin barely stained with blood and some bandages.

Arthur pushes into the tent to find Merlin kneeling on top of a brown cushion on the floor with his back turned to him and a snake wrapped hazardously around his body, hugging his arm and his neck, its tongue poking out with a hiss. Merlin’s head is down and his back, Arthur can't help but notice, is full of small fresh-looking bites. Gobsmacked, Arthur can’t help but stare at the line of Merlin’s back for a moment too long, at the sharp contrast between his white skin and the violet marks. It’s frightening, but at the same time watching Merlin handling the snake around his body has got certain appeal to it.


When Arthur shakes himself out of his reverie, he comments in a loud voice, “So you’re Emrys.” Merlin inclines his head to the side just so, enough to demonstrate Arthur that he’s heard him.

“I am,” he answers vehemently.

Coming into terms with it outside has been one thing, but having Merlin confirming it in the quiet of the tent, and now that the heat of the moment is over, sends a thrill running down Arthur’s back. Merlin is not only a young, caring, and hardworking druid as he’s already shown, he’s also a powerful and selfless leader. Arthur had pictured someone wise but old, someone who had decades to practice and perfect their magic and by doing so had earned everyone's trust. He was definitely not expecting this.

“Should I call you that, then?” Arthur asks, and he can’t help that his voice is slightly tainted with anger.

“Merlin is my real name. Everything I’ve told you, the way I’ve behaved around you—there’s no lie in all that. Please, this is not worth fighting over, Arthur.” Merlin’s voice is gentle and rings genuine enough for the resentment in Arthur’s chest to dissipate.

Arthur can agree with the fact that he doesn’t want to fight, at least. Besides, there’s something deep inside him that believes Merlin’s words.

“Well, that was incredibly stupid what you did out there.” Arthur clears his throat. “But it was also really brave,” he adds when he realises he sounds more concerned than he should.

Merlin snorts a chuckle before turning around fully to face him. The snake on his shoulder almost matches his movements before it slowly descends from Merlin’s bicep across his chest and hips and begins crawling over the ground. Arthur warily stays put, not sure how to act around it. It is obvious that the bites across Merlin’s skin have been caused by it, and albeit Merlin seems well enough, Arthur’s knowledge about snakes forces him to keep his distances.

“Don’t be afraid of Kilgharrah,” Merlin comments before settling on the cushion cross-legged. “She won’t harm you.”

Belatedly, Arthur notices that the wound in Merlin’s shoulder is not gaping open and seeping blood; it looks almost healed. “Your wound,” Arthur breathes, amazed at the extents of Merlin’s magic. If he’s capable of that it makes sense for him not to wear protection at all. Still, Arthur can’t help thinking that Merlin’s a bit of an idiot for risking his life like that.

Merlin merely smiles, touching his fingers to his shoulder. Instead of speaking about the snake or his wound, he says, “We’ll do the ritual tomorrow.”

Arthur is slightly taken aback at the abrupt turn of the conversation. “So soon?” he wonders out loud.

The snake hisses, but Arthur focuses his attention on Merlin. Arthur was aware that some sort of ritual is meant to take place to forge the alliance between them, but he believed a longer period of time should have to pass before it would happen.

“Soon?” Merlin asks, showing just as much surprise at Arthur’s words.

“I—I thought I was supposed to prove myself to you,” Arthur says. All of a sudden, Merlin’s eyebrows rise in noticeable amusement.

“And what do you think you’ve been doing? There has been not a moment you’ve spent here when I haven't been watching you,” Merlin tells him and something inside Arthur stirs. “I’ve seen what I wanted to already; you’ve been patient and kind, and you’re undoubtedly a good man. I see no point in delaying this any longer. You want peace and so do I. We should perform the ritual to unite ours souls promptly.”

“To unite our souls?” Arthur asks, shocked. This is the first time he’s hearing about the soul bounding bit.

“Sit,” Merlin offers him, patting the floor before him where another cushion lies. Arthur does, after he makes sure the snake is far away and huddled over herself in a corner. “It is a part of the ritual to magically bind our souls together, but it is just like any other part of the process,” Merlin explains shortly, but Arthur has his doubts.

“Like any other, you say? You mean to bind yourself to me and myself to you.”

Merlin’s lips quirk before he speaks. “I can see where your resistance is coming from, but I can assure you it is a painless process.”

Arthur snorts. “Pain is not what I have in mind exactly. I mean, what about me? What about marriage? You do know I am supposed to have an heir and a wife someday, don’t you? But how can I if I am bound to you, and my soul is yours?”

Merlin places both of his hands over Arthur’s on his lap, forcing Arthur’s gaze down on them. “I’m not taking anything from you, I’m just giving you a part of myself to fulfil the union between our kinds. You’ll still be able to have your own future,” Merlin reassures, but Arthur feels more and more edgy as moments pass. This is something he wasn’t aware of, and it seems to him of great importance. He’s heard of these rituals, and they never seem quite as simple as Merlin makes this one out to be. A magical union sounds so strong and permanent that it would overpower a simple marriage.

“Don’t feel confused, Arthur,” Merlin’s voice pulls him out of his thoughts. “I promise you that you’ll be able to choose whom you want to reign in your heart.” Merlin’s eyes are sincere, but his touch clouds Arthur’s judgement and makes the boundaries blurry, makes Arthur want.

*

The next day, sometime after dawn, Leon comes into Arthur’s tent. “Sire, I’ve received word from Gaius,” he tells him, extending the letter to Arthur. “He says they haven't seen anything unusual across the borders and everything seems alright in the castle. But this is from before the Saxon’s attack on the camp, so if you wish, some of the knights could depart to Camelot and make sure everything's still in order.”

“Good. I want you and Gwaine here, but tell Percival to lead the men,” Arthur says.

After a soft bow of his head, Leon leaves Arthur to his business.

It’s only after he hears commotion outside later on that Arthur pokes his head out. He sees the knights looking stricken, so Arthur makes his way out of the tent and is met by some druids glancing at them with hostility, led by what looks like a teen.

“Yeah, leave, we don’t want you here,” he’s saying. Other druids are nodding along, so Arthur glances between them and his knights.

He steps forward. “What’s going on here?” he asks as calmly as possible. The last thing he wants is to fuel the druids’ displeasure.

Percival approaches quietly. “They have seen us packing our belongings, and now they are revolting.”

Arthur glances back at the druids, and the boy fixes his blue eyes on him. “You should leave with them. You shouldn’t even be here. You’re a monster like your father!” he shouts, throwing an apple at Arthur’s legs.

Arthur attempts to sidestep it, but he’s too late to avoid the impact against his shin. Though the gesture itself upsets him, Arthur’s far more hurt at the words.

Merlin appears from amongst the bushes, eyebrows drawn closer together in a scowl, hands once again clad with mud.

“Enough, Mordred,” he admonishes, using a loud authoritative voice. He directs his gaze towards the boy, but he manages to grasp everyone’s attention, even from the people who were inside their huts and seemed unaware of the uproar. Arthur, too, turns to listen to him, recalling Merlin having already mentioned Mordred before.

His steps are sure as he approaches, coming to stand in the middle of the two of them, facing his people and shielding Arthur with his body. “King Arthur is our guest of honour, and you shall all respect him as such. Him and his knights the same. I do not want any hostility from your part towards him as I have not seen King Arthur being hostile in any way to us.”

Some druids frown, like the boy, as though in disagreement with Merlin’s words, but the majority of them bow their heads respectfully and nod in apology, showing their loyalty to Merlin.

Arthur shares a quick look with Percival before returning his gaze to Merlin.

“Mordred,” Merlin says, fixing the boy with a hard stare. “I fully expect you to offer King Arthur a gift in apology for your discourteous behaviour.”

“There’s no need for that, honestly,” Arthur intervenes in a low voice, shocked, but Merlin rounds on him.

“There is,” he insists, voice still as fierce. “When someone disrespects another, it is common that an offering is made to them as a token of sincere apology. This is how we do things around here. Mordred will apologise to you, or he’ll face a more severe punishment.”

Mordred lowers his head in shame as Arthur watches his hands curl into fists. His face has gone a shade redder as well. Even though his words weren’t pleasant, and Arthur doesn’t appreciate his father being called a monster, Arthur can’t help but feel slightly bad for him. An apology right then would have made it. Arthur doesn’t need a boisterous gift to be convinced of the boy’s regret, especially because preparing a gift is probably not going to change the boy’s mind.

That’s why later Arthur makes his way inside the cave and attempts to talk Merlin out of it.

Because there are no guards by the tent, Arthur ventures inside.

He pauses when he catches sight of Merlin inside a tub, shaving his face. Merlin’s gaze snaps up to look at him, and he smiles softly when he realises it’s Arthur, lowering the small round mirror he was using onto a small stool next to the tub where a basin and a small cloth lay. “Arthur,” Merlin’s voice is laced with surprise and also contentment if Arthur's reading it well.

“Sorry, I didn’t mean to come in unannounced. I should have waited outside.” Arthur tears his gaze away respectfully.

“I wouldn’t make you wait outside. You are always welcome in here,” Merlin replies to him, gesturing for him to come forward, so Arthur does.

Merlin goes underwater for a moment and washes the remains of lingering cream over his cheeks and chin before he comes up, rubbing at the water in his eyes. He stands suddenly, and Arthur purposefully tries to avoid peeking at Merlin’s glistening bare arse as he steps out of the tub, at the muscles of his thighs and arms and his sharp shoulder blades, the tattoo on his back. There's not a part of his body unworthy to look at.

While he passes the cloth over his hair, Merlin says, “Tell me what’s troubling you.”

The next time Arthur dares throw a look his way, Merlin’s body and the floor where he stands and are miraculously dry, and Merlin’s slipping inside some black breeches. It takes a few moments for Arthur to regain his composure and to find his voice.

“It’s about Mordred,” Arthur gives a simple enough response to ensure it won’t give him away. Truth is that Merlin keeps tempting him inadvertently, continues to push Arthur’s buttons, and Arthur does his best to keep himself in check, but he can’t deny that he craves Merlin.

Merlin nods for Arthur to come sit with him on the cushions on the floor.

“Arthur, what you’re doing here is important, and you shouldn’t let anyone tell you otherwise,” Merlin replies. The snake appears to own a cushion as well, and it lays curled over it, looking straight at Arthur in an intimidating manner. Arthur avoids gazing at it.

“I know. I just believe that Mordred’s punishment is a bit excessive. He’s only a kid,” Arthur explains. “He probably didn’t know what he was saying.”

Merlin’s face pinches, and for a moment he looks as if he knows more than he lets on. At last, he settles for saying, “He’s not a kid—he’s a warrior. He’s one of the strongest sorcerers among the druids. I know him well, and he’s always rebelling like this. Believe me, this is not the first time he’s apologising to someone. And if he doesn’t like the punishment, then maybe he should learn to respect the people I consider my friends.”

Arthur’s so struck by the last word that he stops dwelling on the matter for longer. Friends.

His astonishment must have shown on his face, for Merlin reaches out tentatively with his fingers to touch Arthur’s hand as he begins speaking again. “Either way, tonight we’ll be holding a small celebration to rejoice in the ritual. The druids as well as I are really honoured you’ve agreed to perform it, and we want to thank you for becoming one of us. This means the world to us.”

Arthur regards Merlin silently for a beat, then peers down at Merlin’s fingers drawing patterns over Arthur’s knuckles, across his fingers, enveloping Arthur in a vibrant heat. He swallows noisily, then nods his head yes. “I’m looking forward to it as well. ”

Merlin’s lips grace him with a broad smile.

*

That evening as the feast preparations begin, Merlin stops by Arthur’s tent. Once again, he doesn’t wait for Arthur to acknowledge him before sliding inside with a concerned frown on his face.

“Some of your knights are leaving,” he states, sounding bemused.

For a moment, Arthur contemplates the idea of Merlin thinking he’s going with them, wonders how Merlin would take that.

Her glances up at Merlin from the papers he was reading. “Yes, they are travelling home. After the Saxon’s attack here, I’m—”

“You’re worried,” Merlin finishes for him, as direct as ever. “I understand. Though there’s no need. I’ve personally seen to it. There are no enemies at the borders of Camelot, and the citadel seems to be safe as well.”

Arthur wants to ask how exactly Merlin has been able to see to it when he hasn’t moved from the camp all night, but he refrains from asking so as to avoid seeming untrusting.

Merlin’s eyes move around the scarce contents of the tent before settling on the mat where Arthur sits. His gaze is intense and full of determination, and for a moment Arthur feels unsure of Merlin’s intentions.

Without Arthur’s permission, he draws closer and sits on the edge of the mat, mirroring Arthur’s position but facing him, making their knees touch.

“It's pleasant knowing you are no longer afraid to be alone with me,” Merlin tells him and Arthur’s eyebrows raise of their own accord. He’s ready to protest when Merlin goes on saying, “At first you wouldn’t see me without your men by your side, and now you’re allowing them to leave while you stay here surrounded by sorcerers, unprotected.”

Arthur chooses his next words carefully. “You said you’d protect me, and I trust that you will.” It’s not after he’s said them that Arthur realises he actually believes it.

It seems to be the proper response, for Merlin lowers his head and smiles before gazing up at him from beneath his lashes. “As you know, the ritual is being prepared for tonight. Are you sure this is something you want?”

Arthur doesn’t think he has a way out of this, but even if he had one, he believes he wouldn’t take it. There’s something about Merlin he can’t help but feel drawn to. At the same time he was proving himself to Merlin as a worthy king, Merlin has also proven himself to Arthur to be a good ally and a good friend, as Merlin called them before. While it's true that Arthur would have liked to know Merlin's identity from the start, he has had time to mull over the reasons why Merlin hid it and he believes he understands now. But not only that, the development of the events as they have happened has allowed them to get close personally in a manner Arthur doesn't think would have been possible had them began talking business from the get go.

All in all, Arthur is sure about his choice, even if it’s not what he had originally had in mind when he came to the camp a few days back.

“Yes,” he replies.

Merlin’s eyes get that glint of intent again. "Forgive me if I am too daring, Arthur," he whispers, and Arthur doesn't understand until he belatedly realises Merlin’s head is leaning closer to his. Arthur’s gaze lowers when he finds Merlin’s mouth a few inches away, and Merlin's intentions become evident.

Arthur has his warning and he knows this is crossing the line. The alliance is one thing, and the ritual another, but going forward with this is a different matter entirely. Maybe they shouldn't, they probably shouldn't, and yet Arthur doesn't think he can stand going another moment without giving in.

Slowly, their lips find one another, and it's not until their trembling mouths are touching that the utter want that had been pooling in his belly over the last agonising days suddenly surges through Arthur.

The kiss is nothing but a brush of lips, but it's enough to touch Arthur.

His nose is still rubbing against Arthur’s, so Merlin uses that leverage to turn his head to the side. "Am I being too daring?" Merlin repeats, a touch of concern and hope in his voice.

Arthur's lips turn into a smile of their own volition. "I think you're not being daring enough," he answers, deciding to give his mind a rest. Deciding that allowing himself to have something he wants is not sinning. Because he might be a king, and his duty might always come before his own well-being, but today, for once, everything's looking up and for a moment he wants to be a little bit selfish.

Merlin's answering smile is bright and disarming. Without rush, he licks his lips and gives the kiss a new angle before making their lips meet again.

Convinced of this, Arthur encourages it by putting his hand over the warm skin of Merlin's shoulder, letting his thumb rub feather-light over the tender spot where Arthur remembers Merlin getting shot at—where the skin is as silky as the rest of him, where instead of a scar there’s nothing more than a faint red swollen spot.

The kiss breaks with a smack of lips when Merlin sighs at the contact. A significant look passes between them, and something must have awakened inside Merlin as well, for he shoves Arthur onto his back on the mat and straddles him.

A palpitating pulse rises in Arthur’s groin at Merlin’s bold move and the purpose in his gaze.

Given than Merlin is already shirtless, Arthur sets one of his hands across Merlin’s back and the other on his side, just below his ribs. His skin is smooth to the touch as Arthur stakes his fingertips over the expanse of Merlin’s back, relishing in the way his stomach sucks in and out when Arthur comes across a ticklish spot, and only pausing when his fingers bump against one of the snake bites.

His curiosity gets the best of him, and Arthur finds himself asking in a gentle voice, “What are these?”

Merlin gives a gentle snort before he answers in all seriousness, “My battle wounds.” Arthur stares at him, doesn’t understand until Merlin smiles at him and adds, “The snake gives me life. Even with my magic, there are some limits I can’t reach. Only a few know of this, but not all snakes’ venom is deadly. There are a few that give you life, you just have to know where to look.”

Arthur wants to delve deeper into the subject, he wants to learn more about Merlin, about everything magical, but another time. "Seems fascinating," he murmurs, snagging another kiss.

Merlin responds with fervour before smiling when his name is called out outside. He makes an attempt to lift himself from Arthur’s hips and says, “It really is a fascinating subject, but I should probably go outside and help organise. I’ll leave you to prepare, as well.”

Arthur’s hand tightens over Merlin’s thigh, wanting to stay like this for a beat longer. But Merlin, even though he knows what he’s caused inside Arthur’s breeches, is always ready to work hand in hand with his tribe at every possible chance.

"I'll meet you outside, Arthur." He stands, smile still as radiant, and with a last glance he crosses outside the tent in a few strides.

*

After the turn of events and the sudden closeness they have developed Arthur decides to finally do as Merlin asked of him that first day.

Arthur’s not displayed his crown about after his arrival, nor his cloak and armour, but he’s been wearing his chainmail for precaution. Tonight, though, Arthur decides that he won’t be needing it any longer. He trusts Merlin fully now. He knows Merlin has his back now more than ever.

Tonight is an evening for joy and celebration, so Arthur disposes himself of the chainmail at last and places it neatly inside the small trunk alongside his cloak with the Pendragon crest and his armour.

He knows this feast is partially for him, but he doesn’t want to be seen as King Arthur. Tonight he wants to be treated like an equal, which is why he came in the first place. He leaves his fancy robes behind and instead dresses in a white shirt and soft brown breeches like the ones Merlin wears all the time. He sticks his feet inside his boots because if there’s one thing he’s not used to is walking around with bare feet like Merlin and his people do. The feeling of the grass between his toes, the roughness of the gravel, and the rocky ground are not things Arthur’s accustomed to.

When Arthur comes out, he stops dead in his tracks, mesmerised.

There’s music and dancing and some sort of banquet. The food is not in any way measurable to the delicacies Arthur would eat during a feast back home, but he guesses it’s comparable in some manner. There are grapes of all shades; green and purplish, colourful and fresh. There are oranges, pears, apples, and many other types of fruits that Arthur doesn’t think he has tasted before and that he can't recognise. There are juices for the youngest and wine for the adults. The druids are wearing fine robes as well; girls exhibit some flowers on their heads while others lay sewed on their dresses; some of them even display paintings on their faces. Men are clad in more fitting garments than usual, new decorative tattoos, and runes perhaps, adorning their necks and arms and other various patches of skin their clothing don't cover.

The celebration seems to already be in full swing, but that is not what makes him suck in a breath.

Over them, between the branches that stick out of the tree trunk surrounding them are different-sized coloured balls of light suspended in the air. Some shine gold, others blue, and others red, but they all float over their heads, casting a beautiful glow over the people and giving the ambience a magical touch. Arthur’s seen many elaborately decorated ornaments in the celebrations held in the castle, but he’s never seen something quite as simple and breathtaking as this.

Taking a couple steps farther in, he ventures closer to the multitude of druids and knights alike.

He catches sight of Leon dancing with a young lady and Gwaine leaning against a tree with Theo intimately. Arthur pulls his gaze away quickly, not meaning to pry and intending on finding Merlin. Some teenage girls bow at Arthur as he passes them by, holding their dresses with their hands, and Arthur, struck, smiles and bows right back. He looks up to see Merlin leaning against the side of a tent staring at him with something like a fond smile. The girls take off in a run, giggling, and Merlin pushes off the tent to shorten the distance between them.

“I see my people are finally falling for your charm,” Merlin tells him, the tilt to his mouth an amused one. “You look really good.”

Arthur finds himself smiling and raking his gaze down Merlin’s body. Surprisingly, he’s wearing a shirt tonight and a necklace with the symbol of the druids. He seems different but just as appealing. "Of course I do," he jokes, tearing a snort out of Merlin, before his smile widens when Arthur comments, softer, “You don’t look too bad yourself.”

They find Mordred talking to a couple of other boys but Merlin’s presence alone is enough to make them disperse. Some druids turn to them, but others continue with their celebrations.

“Mordred has made something for you, King Arthur.” The more Merlin calls him that, the more Arthur is convinced Merlin does it to tease him.

Mordred seems a bit nervous as he retrieves a small wooden box from inside his tent and comes out offering it in both hands to Arthur. Arthur shares a look with Merlin before he accepts Mordred’s token. Upon opening it, Arthur looks astonished at the boy. Inside the box is a carved wooden dragon figurine supported on a thin base that seems to be a triskelion.

“This is really incredible, Mordred,” Arthur tells him sincerely. The edges of the figurine are well-accomplished, the modeling is almost flawless, and the wood is soft to the touch.

“Uh,” Mordred glances shyly up at Merlin. “Emrys helped me a bit.”

“That was supposed to be a secret.” Merlin punches Mordred softly on the shoulder, and Mordred rolls his eyes with a reluctant smile.

Arthur glances at Merlin, his smile brightening. “I really like it. Thank you both for making it for me.”

Mordred shrugs. “Also, sorry for saying those things before. Your father hurt my parents once, but that’s in the past. If Emrys trusts you, then so do I.”

A significant look passes between Merlin and Arthur, and now Arthur understands. His father hurt many families during his reign, and this is not the first time Arthur’s been held responsible for his father’s actions. This is one of the reasons why Arthur hopes to prove himself a better ruler than him, and it’s one of the reasons Arthur’s here now. He wants to be fair and kind and demonstrate that equally to his people and people like Mordred.

“I’m sorry to hear that. I’ll find a distinct place for your gift in the castle and exhibit it proudly,” Arthur puts his free hand on the boy’s shoulder and squeezes softly, looking him in the eye. Mordred nods briskly before running away with high colour on his cheeks.

Arthur smiles as he places the gift back inside its box, making his way to his tent and looking silently at Merlin as they walk.

“What is it?” Merlin asks him.

Arthur shakes his head. "It’s just—I didn’t know you would help Mordred with his gift or with the preparations for the feast. You're their leader, and yet you act like one of them. Those first days you were kneeled on the dirty ground working on the land—I know you and I are different, but I’ve never done something like that."

They come inside the tent, and as Arthur places Mordred’s gift safely inside the trunk with his royal clothing Merlin stays by the entry.

He belatedly shrugs one shoulder in response when Arthur glances up at him. "I don't like feeling superior. I am their leader, yes, but it doesn't mean anything more to me than a title. My magic is more powerful than theirs, but that's it. I'm just the same as them. Why should I let them do all the work and sit all day in my tent and do nothing? I mean, don't get me wrong, but I'd get bored. I like being in constant contact with nature, and I like getting my hands dirty."

“That’s really admirable,” Arthur says in all honesty, approaching him.

Arthur’s much closer to the townspeople than his father ever was, but he hopes they can one day look up to him in the same manner the druids look up to Merlin.

Gently, unsure, Arthur slips his hand over the side of Merlin’s neck and across his nape, letting his thumb rub across the lobe of his ear. Merlin’s lips tug into a smile, and his eyes shine just so with mirth, but aside from placing his hand over Arthur’s waist, he doesn’t move, waiting for Arthur to take the lead this time if he so wishes.

But a chorus of ’Emrys, Emrys!’ comes from outside, forcing them apart. Grudgingly, but because Merlin's eyes are full of promises, Arthur follows Merlin outside.

As soon as Merlin steps from the tent, the druids begin cheering, and the music goes up in a regular melody of drums and clapping.

Merlin, unlike Arthur, doesn’t need a crown or a throne to be listened to; his mere presence is more than enough. He’s not feared—he’s respected, but it goes beyond that. He’s loved by his people. Arthur thinks it’s a beautiful way to rule, and for the first time since he arrived in the camp, Arthur knows for certain that this alliance is exactly what his father’s reign had been missing.

“Tonight is a cause for celebration,” Merlin begins speaking in a loud, even tone. More cheering goes around, and more music resonates to encompass Merlin’s words, pausing after a few beats to allow him to speak again. “We celebrate that the time for running and hiding is over. We celebrate that we’re at last free, that we will no longer be afraid, and that we are respected as equals. We celebrate that our magic is not perceived as something vicious anymore. Tonight we delight in the triumph of the union between our kinds.”

As Arthur watches, he can’t help but grin at the happiness in everyone’s faces, at the glee in Merlin’s demeanour as he speaks. When Merlin pauses, he grabs at Arthur’s hand, lacing their fingers together tightly and pulling their joined hands up in the air over their heads. “Tonight we all celebrate that tomorrow we are one.”

Music starts again, louder and more accelerated, and the druids quickly begin to dance and jump to it, asking Gwaine and Leon to join them in circling around the fire with their hands grasped together. A few druids approach where Arthur stands to grab at his hands and thank him, kids hug and cling to Arthur’s legs, and a couple of old ladies go as far as to grace Arthur with more presents. When it’s over, Arthur feels the happiest he’s been in a while, so when Merlin pulls him along to dance with him, Arthur agrees enthusiastically, forgetting about who he is for a moment and allowing himself to let go.

It’s an odd dance, with much clapping, jumping, and twirling, and is nothing compared with the elegant dances Arthur’s accustomed to, with uncomfortable coordinated moves, slow rhythms and pauses. In the castle, Arthur dancing with another man would be deemed a scandal, but here it has no importance, for they aren't the only ones.

Merlin laughs all the while until he drags Arthur away from the circle by the arm, eyes shining with delight. Arthur feels a bit out of breath, but his chest is bursting with happiness as he lets his eyes slowly survey the elated group of people surrounding him. Merlin calls for everyone’s attention. “It is time.”

Alator appears by Merlin’s side and offers Merlin a couple manuscripts that appear to be the contract Arthur’s been waiting for eagerly since he arrived. Merlin passes them over to Arthur.

“Take as much time as you need to read it over and make sure you agree completely. If you wish to change something, we will do so in the presence of our friends and before one another so nothing can be considered faulty later,” Merlin tells him, holding his gaze with intent.

Arthur nods his head at him before turning his attention to the document in his hands, going over each sentence, each paragraph of the document thoughtfully. Arthur allows Leon to read it over his shoulder if he so wishes as well, trusting him and his judgement. Arthur’s known him since he was young, and Leon has always shared his ideals, even when Uther was king, therefore Arthur values his opinion.

When Arthur has finished reading it for the second time, he can vouch for the accuracy of everything Merlin’s written.

Merlin seeks peace and protection for his tribe and offers the same in return. Merlin asks of him that all sorcerers stop being persecuted and that Camelot’s improper laws regarding magic are abolished. He promises on the druids’ behalf to never do anything to harm Arthur, his townspeople or his reign, and to put his magic as well as himself at Arthur’s service if he ever were to need it, not only for war but also for harvests, counseling, and so on.

Merlin’s wishes and offers are clear and leave no place for fallacies, and Arthur agrees with every single one of them. Even with the last clause: the soul-bonding.

“Everything's in order,” he says evenly, extending the paper over to Merlin. The druids and the knights watch the exchange expectantly. The music has again stopped, and the camp has been drowned into quietness. The only sounds are the cracking of the fire and the distant cicadas and crickets.

Merlin gives him a small but strong smile, taking the paper from his hand and signing it first himself before allowing Arthur to do so as well. Arthur barely hesitates before scribbling his signature at the bottom of the page and repeating the process in the copy Merlin holds.

“King Arthur is officially one of us now,” Merlin tells the druids with clear enthusiasm in his voice. “He and his people the same will always be welcome in our house as we will be in Camelot.”

The druids respond with the same fervor as before and more, and Arthur relishes in the positive change in their demeanour so much that his heart fills with pride for what he’s accomplished.

“We can go when you want,” Merlin tells him close against his ear.

“Go where?” Arthur asks, not wanting to leave.

“To perform the ritual,” Merlin’s smile gets an edge of mischievousness to it.

Arthur’s stomach flips when he thinks about them offering their souls to one another.

Now more than before Arthur is certain he wants this. He does miss home, but he’s having a pleasant time here too, away from his responsibilities and feeling free to act without the fear that he will be judged.

Arthur knows that when he leaves the settlement and he can’t take Merlin with him he will miss him. The bond, if they go along with the ritual, will be something they will share, and it will keep them together even from afar. It will be the closest he’ll be to Merlin and something to remember him by.

“Come,” Merlin guides him away from the camp by the hand, towing Arthur across the thickets of bushes and trees until they come to a stretch of land where the grass is of a yellowish colour. Six tall and thick trees form a circle, letting the the white rays from the moonlight creep in from amongst the high branches. A thin stream can be seen behind the trunks of the farthest trees, which must weave its way to the lake they visited a couple of days back. On the opposite side, there’s a small fire going.

Merlin comes to a stop before the stream, cupping his hands together as he gathers some water in the palms of his hands and wets the ground at his feet, turning it into mud. He tears some strands of grass from the ground and mixes it with the mud, creating a mixture that he deposits on a small basin by the fire that Arthur now takes notice of. The grass grows back almost immediately by magic.

When Merlin sees him standing by the fire, he beams.

“For this part, we will have to strip and paint on each other’s bodies before saying the plea to bind our souls,” he tells him, and Arthur's nerves come crashing back. Merlin must have felt the tension oozing from Arthur’s body, for he adds, “I know we’re in the middle of the forest, but we’re alone. However, if you’re not comfortable with undressing completely you can leave your undergarments on.”

But Arthur shakes his head. They have already agreed to be equals, so if Merlin stands nude before him, Arthur will, too, stand nude before Merlin.

Quietly and unhurriedly they strip until their clothes are piled in a heap beside them, and they sit before one another with their legs crossed and their knees brushing together. The strands of grass tickle Arthur’s naked skin like a playful caress, but it's Merlin's warm but respectful gaze what makes Arthur's hairs stand on end. Before Merlin turns to the basin, he sends Arthur a proud, fond smile that warms Arthur’s insides. He dirties his fingers even more with the mixture of earth, water, and grass and then rubs it all across his chest.

“We have to be connected to the four elements of nature for the ritual to work. You have to smear the mud all over your body,” Merlin says, passing his hands across his hair so it stands up, small bits of grass sticking to it.

Arthur huffs incredulously at the gesture, restraining from doing the same to his hair. “Your traditions are so strange, so primitive.”

Merlin snorts through a grin. “Of course you don’t understand. You live surrounded by treasures crafted by men, but you have forgotten the most elemental treasures of nature,” he tells him.

Arthur makes a face at his muddy hands once he’s dipped them into the basin. “You call covering yourself in mud a treasure?” he asks, teasing him.

Merlin smirks. “I call covering you in mud a little treasure,” he mocks plainly, before he smudges his dirty hand against Arthur’s face, first in a playful pat, then in a slow, sweet caress, skating with his thumbs across Arthur’s cheeks and brushing his fingers over his neck and jaw. “You need to stop being so stiff,” Merlin mumbles, quietly, smile softening.

Arthur goes very still; the gesture taking his breath away.

Merlin doesn’t seem to take notice, or if he does, he doesn’t acknowledge it. He continues rubbing some earth over the skin of his shoulders, arms, and thighs, and Arthur does the same until the mud that was on the basin before is now spread over their skins. Arthur thinks of himself in his throne, with his crown, his royal robes and his cloak, and then pictures himself now, naked in front of a man in a forest and covered in dirt. The extents to which Arthur would be willing to go for Camelot.

“Give me your hands,” Merlin says, touching his fingertips to Arthur’s thighs.

Arthur complies, and once their hands are linked Merlin begins slowly reciting words in the same language he spoke when the Saxons attacked them—the same sorcerers use to incant magic. Arthur limits himself to watching him, surprised that this time his eyes aren’t shining golden. When Merlin stops he stares at Arthur fixedly before telling him, the tilt of his lips quirked in amusement, “You have to repeat after me.”

Arthur does as best as he can, though the words roll strange on his tongue. However, at each new word they utter, the ground shakes below them until Arthur notices that the tree roots are intertwining with one another and curling together over the surface around them, leaving Merlin and him nestled close. Merlin, bathed in the silvery moonlight and the orange flames of the fire alike, gives him an encouraging smile when he catches the astonishment on Arthur’s face as Arthur watches the scene unfold before him.

“What does it mean? What were we saying?” Arthur inquiries.

Merlin peers at the beauty around them before meeting Arthur’s gaze. “You cannot possess me for I belong to myself, but while we both wish it, I give you that which is mine to give.” Merlin says in a soft, harmonic tone, and the words sound like music to Arthur’s ear. “You cannot command me, for I am a free person, but I shall serve you in those ways you require with allegiance, today and tomorrow all the same.”

“That’s really inspiring,” Arthur tells Merlin honestly, glancing down at their joined hands when he feels a warmth spreading across his chest at the words and their significance. “But your eyes, they haven’t—”

“The ritual is magic somehow, yes, but I’m not using my magic, because this is no spell, no enchantment; it’s a sincere plea to the gods for our souls to be connected.”

Now more than ever, the idea that this ritual is really a work of the gods serves purposefully to reaffirm—just as Arthur thought—that their union is really unbreakable and mightier than any other.

“Lastly, we should give our mutual consent with a gesture of affection,” Merlin tells him and Arthur’s gaze zeros in on Merlin’s mouth, knowing there’s no better gesture than a kiss. Merlin understands.

His eyes close, and then his lips seek out Arthur’s lips in a quiet, slow kiss that awakens a stir in Arthur’s stomach and lower. Merlin’s warm mouth, his deft tongue, and his tingling fingers on Arthur’s neck all envelope Arthur in pure affection that seals forever around Arthur’s heart.

Merlin breaks the kiss as he leans downwards, caressing Arthur’s neck and collarbones with his mouth and setting Arthur's body on fire. “Wait,” Arthur breathes, looking into Merlin’s dark, large eyes and halting him with a hand on his shoulder. “Is this—is this also a part of the ritual?” Arthur believes he already knows the answer, but he wants to be certain that this is them and not a side-effect from the bond.

Merlin seems taken aback as he draws away from Arthur’s body. An unhappy line forms between his eyebrows before he answers, “No, it isn’t. We can stop anytime now. The bond has been sealed.”

In spite of the fact that they both can see where the kisses are leading to, Merlin’s ultimately leaving the choice to take this further to Arthur. The ritual is over; their souls have been united. The peace agreement has already been closed, and they don’t need to do this anymore. If they hadn’t kissed before, Arthur would have assumed that the want in his stomach was because of the bond, but he knows that’s not the case.

“I don’t want to stop,” Arthur confesses.

He’s always felt inclined to lay with men before women, and he’s slept with some, but it’s never meant anything more than a quick fumble for relief. Merlin is another matter entirely.

In the short time they have spent together, Arthur’s somehow managed to develop a fondness for him. He’s found himself relentlessly drawn to Merlin, feeling continuously enticed to get closer to him after feeling emboldened by Merlin’s lively and unabashed attitude. If he doesn’t have this; have Merlin, Arthur knows he’ll regret it.

At Arthur’s answer, confidence returns to Merlin’s face in an instant, his smile cheerful and wide. Merlin lays him down on the grass and climbs over him, hands caressing Arthur’s arms, his flank, the side of his arse. He relentlessly stokes Arthur's mouth with his own, licking into it with a sort of languid, heavy tenderness, like he’s learning him. In return, Arthur can’t stop himself from bucking his hips up into Merlin’s flat stomach to make his desires known as he keeps Merlin’s mouth pinned down over his own with a hand on the back of his neck.

“Have you ever had someone inside you before?” Merlin asks him in a rough voice.

Arthur nods his head twice. “I have.”

Merlin responds with a self-assured smirk. “But not like this,” he tells him, sliding down Arthur’s body and planting a kiss on Arthur’s heart before he tells him to turn around. Arthur shifts to his stomach with urgency, hugging their disposed clothes to his chest like a pillow, wanting the meaning of Merlin’s words to be revealed to him, wanting to know if he means the bond, his magic, or just him.

The next time Merlin puts his hands on him, phantom touches begin roaming all over Arthur’s skin. He feels the wash of magic through his body as Merlin’s tongue opens him up with the aid of his fingers and something else, something magic, and Arthur gasps at the sensation and claws at the earth when he senses ghostly fingers skimming over his nipples, his dick.

Merlin talks, but Arthur barely hears him past the pulse in his ears, the surge of tingling energy that runs coursing down his spine as he feels himself wrapped around Merlin’s magic and body as he leans himself down over Arthur, whispering against his ear, smiling against Arthur’s prickling skin. “I want to see your face,” Merlin tells him, hands wrapping around Arthur’s chest, holding him tight and fast like something precious before he turns Arthur in his arms with barely any effort at all.

Arthur feels like he’s in a trance.

His body’s already over sensitised at all the touching, and his hands grip at Merlin’s arms to keep him snuggled close, because if Merlin moves an inch away, Arthur is sure he will fall apart. The heavy sex smell is all Arthur can inhale. The roots Arthur can feel against his back give over into a yielding surface that engulfs them as Merlin presses Arthur down against the ground and slowly slides inside his body.

Arthur can’t utter a sound, and all he can see is the blue of Merlin’s eyes, the small drops of sweat collected on his brow and temples, the redness of his cheeks, and the ecstasy he’s feeling in the lines of his mouth. He hopes this feels the same way for Merlin as well, like they have abandoned this reality and have been plunged into a new one in which they have absolutely no control of their own bodies, where all they can feel is pleasure.

Then Merlin’s bottoming out; his balls tucked in against the crease of Arthur’s arse, his body curled perfectly around Arthur and their foreheads touching. They share a breath at the latent drag of Merlin’s cock as he crashes and rolls deep into him and they sink and sink into the earth, melting together.

Merlin's fringe is slick with sweat, the salty taste of him on Arthur's lips, beneath his tongue. Merlin’s fingers coat with Arthur’s come after he loses the ability to hold himself back any longer, grunting against the side of Merlin’s neck and slumping pliantly in Merlin’s embrace. Then Merlin finally gives over to his own orgasm and tendrils of magic eject from his body and twine around Arthur’s limbs, the trees, and the whole yellow forest, staying around them for a while, staying forever in Arthur’s mind and soul.

*

“Will I see you again?” Arthur asks the next morning, hope not quite concealed in his voice.

Leon and Gwaine await on their horses. The druids stand near as well, Alator and Mordred amongst them, watching the farewell between Merlin and him after Arthur kindly reminded them that Camelot will welcome them whenever they are in need.

Merlin slowly smiles, caressing Hengroen’s neck. “You will see me sooner than you expect.” Merlin’s gaze, when he snaps it up to focus his attention on Arthur, holds a promise for more.

Satisfied enough with Merlin’s response, he takes a step closer to him. He won’t kiss him in public, but he knows what to do to symbolise just the same. Slowly, Arthur drags his hand up and places it over Merlin’s heart while he nods his head at him once. Merlin seems amazed for a moment as he glances up at him through large eyes, but he regains his smile and mirrors Arthur’s action, putting his own palm on Arthur’s chest.

“Be safe on the journey home, King Arthur,” Merlin tells him, using that tone again and looking at him with that glint in his eye before taking his hand away. Arthur offers him a private smile before turning and mounting on his horse, excited at the prospect of returning home.

The journey lasts five days and during the first night Arthur realises Merlin’s been with him on the ride back all along; not corporally but spiritually. The bond they share now acts as a constant reminder, alerting him when in danger, warming him when cold and making his heart tug with something close to love. But it’s not only just that. A blue ball of light has been showing him the right and shorter path home, guarding and protecting him, until Gwaine, Leon and Arthur reach Camelot at dawn of the sixth day, safe and sound.

George is standing at the staircase to receive him, as is Gaius and his uncle, and after a brief meeting with the council to discuss his stance as forged in the druids’ camp and the most important obligations of the pact, Arthur is soon headed to his chambers to rest.

The next morning when Arthur wakes, he finds Merlin lying awake on the bed by his side.

Quickly, Arthur attempts to sit but Merlin presses a hand to his chest and smiles. “Good morning,” he says.

“What are you—how did you get in here?” Arthur touches Merlin’s flank, his shoulder, and his face to make sure he’s really there.

“Through your window,” Merlin replies simply, unfazed. “I wanted to check you had arrived home safe.”

Arthur snorts an incredulous but content laugh, shifting closer.

Merlin presses his forehead against Arthur’s, his hand resting on Arthur’s back. Arthur’s heart swells at the implications of having Merlin in his bed. Be it the bond or not, Arthur’s body feels lighter when he has Merlin this close.

It's Merlin who kisses him first, shutting the curtains around the bed with a snap of his fingers. A drop of want settles in Arthur’s stomach and starts to blossom as Merlin smiles into the kiss while his hands wander across Arthur's body, and he relishes in Merlin’s touch for as long as their pleasure lasts.

George comes into Arthur’s chambers at some point, but he knows better than to disturb him if the curtains are drawn. Merlin stays for a while after that, and all the while they laze in Arthur’s bed in a way Arthur’s not accustomed to at all. It’s not proper for a king to behave this way, he knows, but then Merlin tells him that he’s a king, but he’s also a man and he has the right to take some time away for himself sometimes.

Merlin stands bare and pads across the room, inspecting it without shame, before he heads to the window. He’s managed to seduce Arthur again for the second time today, so Arthur doesn’t miss the pleased little smirk plastered onto his face.

“Do you need a horse?” Arthur offers, lacing his breeches and observing Merlin grinning brightly before him.

Merlin snorts as he climbs onto the windowsill and Arthur rushes forward to catch his arm. “What are you doing, you idiot?”

Merlin kisses Arthur’s hand, eyes sparkling dangerously. “I’ll see you soon, Arthur,” he says before he leaps out of the window without warning. Arthur almost throws himself after Merlin, shouting his name on the top of his lungs as he holds onto the window frame.

But in the blink of an eye, Merlin’s already shapeshifted into a gorgeous blue bird and is spreading its wings open, taking off into the distance. Arthur huffs a laugh, though he sags against the wall with his heart about to pound its way out of his chest. He watches Merlin fly away with a growing smile until Merlin becomes nothing but a small, unrecognisable dot in the distance over Camelot’s citadel.

No matter how far he flies now, Arthur knows that this visit has been the first of many to come. Soon, Arthur is certain, Merlin will return, and soon Arthur will have once again in his arms the man that owns his soul.

 

FIN.