Arthur grunted as the older boy’s fist connected with his face. Arthur was smaller, but his anger helped fuel him enough to get his own arm free as he twisted underneath the body pinning him to the ground. The crunching sound he heard as his blow reached its target and Valiant’s accompanying howl of rage were grimly satisfying, yet they still couldn’t drown out the mocking words that echoed in his head; Valiant’s constant teasing had turned more and more cruel until taunts about his mother had pushed Arthur over the edge.
The boys grappled and rolled in the dirt, each trying to best the other as they railed wild blows wherever they could reach. Arthur could hear shouts from nearby and the sound of the guards approaching as their scuffle attracted attention, but he paid little attention, focusing instead on making Valiant pay for his remarks, even as he sensed he was losing the fight.
Soon, however, there were hands on his shoulders, prying him away from the other boy. He struggled against them, arms flailing, trying to get at the young lord, but he was held firm. He could see Valiant similarly struggling, arms pinned behind him by one of the palace guards.
“Now what’s all this? What’s going on?” a deep voice asked from behind him.
Arthur made one last attempt to break free, then quieted sullenly when he realized the futility of his efforts. Stubbornly, he remained silent. He noted the blood dripping down Valiant’s face, his nose likely broken, and thought to himself, good.
“What’s this all about?” the voice asked again.
Both boys remained silent.
“Right,” the voice said with a sigh. “You want to take that one, and I’ll get this one cleaned up before sending him home?” he asked the guard.
At the guard’s acknowledgment, the hold on Arthur loosened and the man said, “All right. Come with me, lad.”
Arthur immediately lunged for Valiant who was being led away, but the man was too quick, grabbing his arm to stop him.
“Oh no, you don’t,” he said to the flailing boy. “That’s enough of that. Now come with me. I’m sure you don’t need your father seeing you like this.”
At the mention of his father, Arthur immediately stilled, compliant, then let himself be led away.
A little girl ran over to the man and took his hand as they made their way to the smithy. Arthur followed them inside, looking around curiously, feeling the blast of heat as they walked past the forge to a door beyond.
The living quarters were small, and the man’s height and broad shoulders seemed to fill the space. He led Arthur to a bench by a small table and bade him sit down. Squatting on one knee in front of him, he reached out his hand to gently tilt Arthur’s face, first this way, then that, making small contemplative noises as he checked over his injuries.
“So tell me what that was all about, hmmm?” he asked again. “That was young Lord Valiant, was it not?” He didn’t wait for an answer, but continued on. “Being fostered here at court for a time? I don’t think your father would be keen to learn of you fighting with one of your visiting guests. ”
Arthur stiffened again at the mention of his father, and jerked his head out of the man’s large hand.
“Especially one so much older and bigger than you.” The man’s dark eyes crinkled with suppressed merriment; his smile was kind.
“He had no right to say those things about my mother.” Arthur spoke for the first time. His voice was low and he trembled with anger.
The man’s smile faded. “No. No, I’ll wager not.”
Arthur’s tense shoulders relaxed at the man’s agreement. He blinked rapidly, eyes suspiciously bright.
The blacksmith pretended not to notice. “I’m going to go fetch some fresh water to wash you up a bit, and we’ll see about getting you some clean clothes. I can maybe find something of my boy’s to put you in for the time being, and you can get these mended.” He pointed to the tears at the elbow and knees, obvious signs of his altercation. “All right, Your Highness?”
Arthur nodded in acknowledgment. “Thank you,” he whispered.
“It’s no worry,” the man said, rising to his feet. “My name’s Tom.” He retrieved a container for the water and walked to the door. “I’ll be back in a bit.”
Arthur nodded again. “Thank you, Tom.”
While Tom was gone, the little girl moved to stand in front of him, staring curiously. He kept his eyes straight ahead, not looking at her.
“Are you really the prince?” she asked.
He darted a glance at her, noting a wild tangle of dark brown curls, wide brown eyes staring. He nodded in answer then returned his gaze straight ahead.
He didn’t acknowledge her, but continued to sit, spine ramrod straight, staring ahead.
Just then Tom returned. He set the water down on the floor by the bench and said, “Give me another minute while I find a cloth and see if I can rustle up something for you to wear.”
He disappeared into the section of their quarters that housed the sleeping area. Arthur could hear him moving about.
Guinevere took another step closer. “My mum’s dead too,” she said.
Arthur flinched and his eyes darted back to her face before quickly looking away. He didn’t speak.
“All right, here we go,” Tom said, returning with a handful of items.
He knelt in front of Arthur again. I’m going to take this off you, all right?” he said, gripping the hem of his shirt.
Arthur nodded and lifted his arms as the shirt was raised. He gasped at the movement, feeling all the places Valiant’s blows had landed. Tom tut-tutted as the material pulled free of his head.
“Gwennie, can you hand me that salve?” he asked, nodding toward the small container he had placed on the bench.
She handed him the little pot and he dipped in his fingers, bringing them out covered in a thick paste.
“Gaius makes this for me for when I get sore shoulders after working in the forge all day. You’re going to have some nice bruises here. They’ll still hurt, but this should help a little, all right?”
Arthur nodded in agreement.
He winced, obviously in pain as Tom’s fingers rubbed the salve into his skin, but remained resolutely still, staring ahead. Small beads of sweat began to break out on his forehead and upper lip.
“Almost done here.”
Arthur gave another terse nod.
When Tom finished with the salve, he picked up another item from the bench and shook it out—a plain shirt, the fabric soft and well-worn. He slipped it over Arthur’s head and helped him thread his arms through the sleeves, ignoring the flush that spread over Arthur’s cheeks when a small cry of pain escaped his mouth. The shirt was a little big and hung loose on his shoulders, but it was clean and it would do.
Next Tom poured some water into a bowl and placed it on the prince’s lap, lifting Arthur’s arms by the wrists and dropping his hands into the water. Gently, he held them, so small and pale against his larger ones, and swirled the water against his skin, washing Arthur’s hands. When he was done, Tom placed the bowl back on the ground, drying Arthur’s hands with a scrap of cloth, taking care to avoid the torn skin on his knuckles. Even so, another hiss of pain escaped Arthur’s lips.
After pouring some clean water onto the cloth, Tom leaned in toward the prince, gently brushing his hair back and wiping the dirt off his face.
Tom spoke as he worked. “I don’t think you need to worry about young Valiant mentioning this. He’ll not want to admit he was bested by a lad smaller and years younger than he.” The smile was back in his eyes and the corner of Arthur’s mouth twitched, as if he wanted to smile, but wasn’t sure he was allowed. “We’ll have you as good as new in no time. You take it easy for a few days, and go see Gaius if need be, and no one need ever know about this.”
Arthur hissed again when the cloth pressed across a sore spot on his cheekbone, but remained still, enduring the ministrations. He was surprised when he felt a small hand slip into his own. He didn’t turn to look at the girl again, but when she squeezed his fingers, gently so as not to hurt him, he gave a small grateful squeeze in return.
Arthur started, pulled from his memories by the voice near his shoulder.
“What is it, Merlin?” he asked, turning his gaze from the window in his bedchambers.
“I asked if you’d be needing anything else for the evening?”
“No, that will be all.”
Arthur turned his attention back to the window, staring out into the dark night. He could see his manservant out of the corner of his eye, hovering anxiously.
“I said that will be all.” His voice held a note of finality.
Merlin sighed. “Yes, sire.”
Arthur waited for the sound of the door closing then let his mind drift again, sinking back into another memory.
Gwen shrieked as a hand grabbed her wrist and pulled her into an alcove. The noise was cut off as skilled lips covered her own, kissing her breathless. She melted against the strong body, moaning as the hand not holding her wrist stroked up her side, stopping at her breast, squeezing and kneading and rubbing a thumb back and forth across her nipple.
She giggled as her wrist was pulled between their bodies and her hand pressed against the bulge in her captor’s trousers. Tilting her head to free her mouth from those demanding lips, she moaned again as his mouth simply attached itself to her neck, nibbling and sucking its way up to the spot just behind her ear.
“Your Highness,” she gasped. “The Lady Morgana is waiting for me.”
“Arthur,” he mouthed against her skin. “I told you to call me Arthur.”
“Arthur,” she repeated; the word sounded like a sigh. “Arthur.”
Arthur sighed as he came back to the present and pulled his gaze away from the window again, looking about his chambers. He noted the table had been righted and the spilt crockery had been placed in a pile at the end, the broken pieces gathered from the floor. One of the chairs was a total loss after its impact against the wall. Merlin, it seemed, had gathered the splintered pieces and placed them near the fire. It was beyond repair. Other evidence of the destruction he’d wrought was apparent—the torn bed drapes, the smear of grey upon the floor, although it appeared Merlin had done his best to clean the spilt ash pail. The ache of his bruised and bloodied fist. Merlin had tried to attend to that as well, but Arthur’s harsh glare had stopped him short. He just wanted to be left alone.
A mirthless laugh escaped his throat. Alone. He supposed he’d gotten his wish.
He walked to the bed and sat on the edge, head bowed, shoulders hunched, arms resting on his legs; his hands dangled loosely between his knees. As the blood pooled in his fingertips, he could feel the throbbing, each pulse a discomfort, reminding him of his foolishness in slamming his fist into the wall. He hoped he hadn’t broken anything.
Though broken bones, unlike other hurts, would heal.
Overtaken by a wave of exhaustion, he slumped sideways and pulled his legs up onto the bed, not bothering to move from the foot, but curling up in a ball where he lay. Even so, Guinevere’s faint scent was still evident as he filled his lungs, flooding his mind with more memories.
She had come to live in the castle after Morgana had arrived. Arthur hadn’t known what to make of Morgana at first, clouds of dark hair, face pale and serious, eyes older than her years. His father had spoken to him, informed him of her parents’ deaths, told him he was depending on Arthur to make her feel welcome. She was Uther’s ward and Arthur was to consider her family.
Arthur took the charge seriously, did his best to befriend the girl, showing her all the castle’s secrets, teaching her everything he knew about life in Camelot. Yet all she did was stare with those large unsettling eyes. He could feel his father’s disappointment as they dined together each evening, knew it was his fault Morgana answered Uther’s questions with quiet monosyllabic responses, her voice dull and flat.
At night when she’d scream, bolting upright in bed, Arthur would hurry to her chambers and hold her hand, wincing as she’d squeeze, awkwardly patting her back as her body trembled, her eyes staring blindly into space. He’d speak soothing words, even as he tamped his own terror down at the otherworldly tone of her whispers, “I see them, Arthur. I see them,” babbling nonsense about people he’d never heard of and places he’d never been.
Of course later, he’d learned what she meant. He hadn’t understood back then, only thought they were nightmares over her parents’ deaths. When Gaius would arrive with a sleeping draught, Arthur didn’t bother to hide his relief, nor could he deny the guilt he’d feel on mornings after, when she’d appear wan and exhausted, dark circles under those pale green eyes. She seemed to withdraw even more and Uther’s disapproval weighed heavily on Arthur’s young shoulders.
Finally, in desperation, he dragged her outside the castle through the town and sought out the blacksmith’s, remembering a day when the small hand of a little girl eased his own heartache over his mother’s death.
Tom was nowhere to be seen, but the girl was there and looked up from her tasks when they entered the smithy. She flashed a big smile and gave an approximation of a curtsey, saying, “Prince Arthur, I knew you’d return one day.”
Before he could respond, she rushed forward, eyes bright, staring at Morgana. “Who’s this? You must be a princess; you’re so beautiful. You’re the most beautiful girl I’ve ever seen. What’s your name?” Before Morgana could respond, she chattered on, introducing herself, just as she had to Arthur when he had first met her. “I’m Guinevere.”
She reached out her hand to touch Morgana’s long dark hair. Morgana stiffened, but allowed the caress. “Your hair is so beautiful. So soft. But where are the flowers? Princesses always wear flowers in their hair.” She dropped the tresses and stepped backward, putting her hands on her hips and cocking her head, her little pointed chin jutting out. Seeming to come to a decision, she took Morgana’s hand in her own and started pulling her from the smithy. “Come on. I know where we can find some.”
Arthur watched nervously, worrying about Morgana’s reaction, but she followed willingly, letting herself be led through the streets, through the city gates, behind buildings, moving farther away from the castle and through the lower town until they reached a field with wildflowers growing everywhere. Guinevere showed Morgana how to fashion the flowers into chains, splitting the stems and threading them together. Morgana watched in silence and let herself be decorated with blossoms, long strands around her neck and a crown upon her head. Guinevere looked her over, surveying her work with satisfaction.
“That’s better,” she said. “Now will you tell me your name?”
Arthur was surprised when she answered. “Morgana.”
“Princess Morgana. I knew your name would be beautiful too.”
“But I’m not a princess,” Morgana said.
Guinevere scoffed. “Nonsense. Of course you’re a princess; you’re wearing a crown.”
That night at dinner the king asked, “And what did you two get up to today?”
“I took Morgana to meet Guinevere,” Arthur said.
“She took us to a field outside the lower town—”
Arthur realized his mistake before he was even finished speaking.
“You took Morgana to the lower town?” His face was thunderous with rage.
A soft voice interrupted. “She made me a necklace of flowers.” Uther turned to look at Morgana, his expression stunned. “And a crown for my hair,” she continued, the ghost of a smile on her face.
Uther was silent. He leaned forward resting his elbow on the table, chin in his hand, contemplating. After a moment he asked, “Guinevere, you said? Tom the blacksmith’s daughter?”
Arthur ate quietly, grateful for the reprieve from what was sure to have been an impressive tirade. He was unsurprised to find, not two days later, Guinevere living in the castle as Morgana’s maid.
The girls were inseparable. Guinevere’s sweet nature and easy chatter caused smiles to bloom more and more frequently on Morgana’s face. The nightmares lessened in frequency and the haunted look disappeared from Morgana’s eyes. Her screams were eventually replaced by laughter.
Arthur remembered how he felt one day, entering Morgana’s chambers and seeing both girls asleep on the bed, curled up like puppies, their two faces practically touching, arms wrapped around the other’s waist.
Staring at his father’s ward, Arthur felt a surge of love and protectiveness for the strange dark haired girl, a fierce need to keep her from further harm. Relief that she seemed happier now and not haunted by terrifying dreams. Shame at his own inadequacy—nothing he did had been able to ease her pain, had come even close to giving her peace the way one afternoon with Guinevere had. Envy at their closeness, that they had each other, while he had no one.
In his chambers, Arthur rolled over onto his back and draped his arm across his eyes. Morgana. He didn’t need to be thinking of her right now, didn’t need to be prodding that old wound, a wound he suspected would always remain raw and unhealed.
Instead he thought of happier memories—the first time he kissed Guinevere, or rather, when she’d kissed him, wishing him luck before he took the field to face off against another of Camelot’s squires in a practice tournament for the not-yet-knights. She and Morgana had giggled at his flushed face while they tied a strip of fabric around his arm, but his eyes caught Guinevere’s and her soft, shy smile set his heart racing.
He thought of other firsts—the first time their kisses had been real, both of them trembling and nervous, but having danced around each other for so long, drawing closer to the moment every day, it seemed as inevitable as the coming tide. The first time their bodies joined, sliding into her wet heat, face buried against her neck. The many times after; they couldn’t keep their hands off each other.
“I’m going to marry you one day, and you’ll be my queen,” he had whispered in her ear one afternoon as they lay spent and exhausted, bodies slicked with sweat. She had kissed him, smiling.
“Your father would never allow it.”
“One day I’ll be king,” he had said. “And I’ll be able to do whatever I want. Just you wait and see. I will marry you.”
She had kissed him in response, and then again, and again, and again.
Arthur rolled over onto his stomach and pounded his fist into the mattress, wincing at the fresh shot of pain. Gods, he was a fool. He felt his rage building again and pushed up from the bed, getting to his feet and pacing furiously, barely restraining himself from toppling the table once again and sending the pile of crockery flying. He needed to calm down, to think things through rationally, decide what he was going to do.
But not tonight. He needed a clear head. And he didn’t want to think about what had happened any more tonight. He just wanted to forget. To go back in time before he learned everything he knew now. To have things be the way they were before.
Impossible wishes, he knew.
He could, however, have peace for a few hours, at the very least. He could ask Gaius for a sleeping draught, descend into peaceful oblivion until the morn. There would be time enough on the morrow to face what this day had wrought. Coming to a decision, he stopped his pacing and moved toward the door.
When he opened it, a figure leaning against the other side slumped to the floor, a tangle of limbs sprawling everywhere.
His manservant blinked in surprise, clearly disoriented from being woken up in such a fashion. He struggled to sit upright.
“What on earth are you doing?” Arthur asked. “Were you sleeping in the hall?”
Merlin looked up, eyes bleary with sleep. “I didn’t want you to feel that you were alone.”
Arthur advanced, his sword glinting in the sunlight as it came down hard against his opponent’s shield. He had been relentless all morning, fighting knight after knight during training, wearing them out one after the other, seemingly driven by some unknown fire.
Merlin watched from the sidelines, ready to step in if his prince’s temper led him to doing something he could not take back and would surely later regret. He hadn’t worried until this very moment. Arthur was holding nothing back. Merlin had seen him and Lancelot fight many times before. Even from the start when he had arrived in Camelot—lured by tales of the knights’ bravery and prowess, a younger son from lands afar seeking to better his station in life—they had been evenly matched. During that first tournament, Lancelot had nearly succeeded in unseating Arthur; impressed by the newcomer’s skill, Arthur had persuaded him to stay on. When he proved himself time and again, King Uther had recognized his deeds and loyalty with a knighthood.
They were much alike, the prince and his knight—both idealists, dreamers. And both exceptionally skilled in battle. On any given day, either might be declared the victor. Today, however, the prince clearly had the edge, even with the multiple opponents he had already defeated. Arthur was like a man possessed, driving Lancelot back time and again. Their usual easy enjoyment was nowhere in evidence; instead, their faces were deadly serious, their movements accompanied by grunts of efforts.
The other knights, like Merlin, were watching intently. There were no jokes or calls of encouragement, no jeering for any miscalculations. The tension was palpable and it was clear to one and all this was no ordinary training exercise.
Leon had tried to end the confrontation a short while earlier. Both Arthur and Lancelot stood panting, trying to catch their breaths after a particularly vigorous clash.
“Sire,” he called out. “Don’t you think that’s enough for today?”
Arthur had begun to move again, circling Lancelot, looking for his next opening.
“We’re not finished here yet,” Arthur said. “This is what training’s about, after all. Pushing ourselves… finding our limits then going beyond them.” He spoke as he moved. “For we never know where that next unexpected attack may come from.”
Lancelot’s eyes shot to Arthur’s. A look of uncertainty crossed his face. And when Arthur next attacked, he faltered, stumbling back. Merlin looked on in horror as Arthur’s blade unerringly aimed for Lancelot’s vulnerable side. He heard the gasps of the men beside him and his hand was already in motion to prevent a tragedy when Arthur, at the last second, diverted his sword, flinging it to the ground. His helmet followed right after, then his gauntlets, landing on the grass in a clank of metal.
“Now we’re finished,” Arthur said, as he stalked off the field, refusing to look in anyone’s direction.
Merlin gathered his equipment then hurried after him, scrambling to catch up. He met Arthur in the armoury where he was struggling to remove his breastplate.
“Here,” Merlin said, after placing the equipment he was carrying on the table and pushing Arthur’s hands away. “Let me help you with that.”
Arthur stood still, staring straight ahead while Merlin worked the fasteners of his armour. They both looked over when someone else entered the room.
“Merlin, leave us for a moment,” Lancelot directed.
“No, stay,” Arthur commanded.
Merlin looked between the two of them, eyes locked on the other. The staring match continued on for long moments in silence, neither of the men breaking it. Making a decision, Merlin said, “I’ll… um… just be right outside,” before scurrying from the room. He didn’t go far, standing right outside the door listening in, ready to intercede if necessary.
“So you know,” Lancelot finally spoke.
Another weighty silence filled the room.
“I trusted you.” Arthur roared the interruption. “Out of all my men, it’s you I’ve confided in, you I’ve relied on. I’ve thought of you like my brother, yet you betray me.” Arthur’s voice cracked and Merlin heard the sound of something being thrown against the wall.
“Arthur…” Lancelot spoke again, his voice almost as emotional as Arthur’s had been. “I love her.”
“She’s mine,” Arthur roared again.
“And she loves me too.”
“You both betray me.”
“I would never betray you, my liege.”
“You already have done so.”
“No, no. Arthur, listen to me.” His voice was pleading. “I gladly pledged my fealty when I came here. To the king. To Camelot. To you. I’ve seen your heart. You’re a man I’m proud to follow, a man of honour, a just man who will undoubtedly rise to greatness one day. More importantly, you’re also a good man, with a good heart. You inspire your men; you inspire me. I would lay down my life for you, sire. But what you’re doing with Gwen is wrong.”
“Yes, I dare. I love her, Arthur. I love her,” he repeated more softly. “What kind of life can you give her? You can’t marry her. No one else will have her while she’s in your favour.”
“And who’s to say I cannot marry her?” Arthur cut in.
“You think the king would ever allow such a match?”
“One day I will be king.”
Lancelot’s voice was gentle. “When Arthur? In five years? Ten? Twenty? Would you deny her the chance of a family of her own, a husband and children? Or would you get her with child, when you yourself are to be wed one day? What kind of life would that be for her?”
“She loves me; I know she does.”
“She does, Arthur. As do I. She would never deny you anything.”
“And you? If I commanded you to stay away from her, what say you? What would you do?”
Merlin held his breath waiting for Lancelot’s answer.
“Sire… Arthur, do not ask this of me. I beg you.”
“I saw you yesterday, you know. I heard you. Your words were treasonous.”
“Arthur…” Merlin could barely hear the anguished whisper from Lancelot’s mouth. “What will you do?” he asked.
Arthur didn’t answer, but Merlin could hear his footsteps, knew he was pacing furiously.
“What will you do?” Lancelot asked again. “Arthur.”
“I don’t know.” He was practically yelling.
“She is innocent. Her only crime is to love.”
“And what of your crime?”
“I love her, Arthur.” His words were urgent. “I can give her the kind of life that you cannot. I’m begging you to please consider her. If you love her, as I truly believe you do, then let her go. I’ll take care of her. I can make her happy.”
Merlin heard an angry roar from Arthur, a cry of rage and pain, and then a loud sound as the table in the armoury was overturned, the metallic clank as mail and weapons crashed to the ground. He winced at the task now ahead of him, endless polishing and working out of dents, even as he felt for Arthur’s distress. Seconds later Arthur stormed from the room, heading toward the stables.
Lancelot followed shortly after, hurrying to catch up. Merlin grabbed his arm to stop him and Lancelot tried to yank it free.
“Let him go,” Merlin said.
“But Guinevere…” His eyes were wild.
“He will not harm her.”
“You can’t be sure.”
“I am sure. Give him some time.”
Lancelot ran his hand through his hair, face lined with worry, considering his words.
“He’ll do the right thing,” Merlin said. “It’s Arthur.”
“I hope you’re right.”
“You there,” Arthur called to the stable boy leading a freshly saddled horse. “Who is that for?” he asked.
“Sir Leon, Your Highness.”
“Fetch him another mount. I’m taking this one.”
Arthur swung up into the saddle then set off toward the city gates, riding fast and hard. He didn’t stop until the castle was far in the distance. Dismounting, he tied the horse to a nearby tree then stared back at Camelot.
Emotion filled him as his eyes roved over the graceful lines of the castle. The expanse of pale stone gleamed bright against the deep blue sky, the tall towers and turrets like limbs reaching toward the heavens. She was the pride of Camelot, the heart of the kingdom—an indomitable fortress designed to show off prosperity and to repel opposition, a vision of beauty and strength.
A slight breeze ruffled his hair; the sun was warm on his face. An ache filled Arthur’s chest as he surveyed the land, the legacy that would one day be his. He had never shied from his duty. While he did not always agree with Uther’s decisions, especially his unyielding stance against magic users, he admired the stability he had brought during his reign. Camelot thrived; the lands were bountiful, its people protected. Arthur strived to be the kind of man worthy to take over as custodian one day, one whose head was fit to wear the crown. He would die for Camelot, readily and without hesitation; he would sacrifice much to keep her from harm.
Yet, as each sacrifice was required, he was further separated from the kingdom he loved, a man apart. He did not begrudge the hours spent in service to the crown; he had learned to set aside the envy he experienced at the simple freedoms others enjoyed. These prices were small to pay. The older he grew, however, the narrower his choices became. Like a child vowing to stay up all night when he grows older, Arthur held to foolish dreams of ‘when I’m king’.
The display of anger in the armoury was rooted in one simple truth: he knew Lancelot was right.
His shock when he had come upon them the day before was severe, a cut deep and wounding. He watched and listened, unnoticed, as two of the people he held most dear spilled treason from their lips. Their argument seemed as well worn as a polished stone.
“Come away with me. Marry me. We’ll go back to my home. The road will be long, but I can give you the kind of life you deserve. No one need know you were a servant if you return with me as my wife.”
“You know I can’t.”
“You mean you won’t.”
“I can’t. I can’t do that to Arthur. He loves me. I’ve known him since we were children. It would destroy him.”
“And what of you? Of me? Is our love not worth fighting for?”
Lancelot’s dark head bent toward Guinevere and their lips found each other’s. Arthur fought back the urge to burst through the door and pull them apart, throw Lancelot across the room and smash a fist into his face. He clenched his hands at his sides. When the kiss ended and they separated, Arthur had to hold back the strangled cry that attempted to escape from his throat. The expression on both their faces was devastating.
“Are we not worth fighting for?” Lancelot asked before kissing her again.
She melted into him, completely surrendering as they gave themselves over to their passion. Arthur would have been moved by the obvious strength of their devotion were it anyone other than Lancelot and Guinevere, and were his own heart not currently breaking.
He turned away, unable to bear watching another second. He leaned against the wall outside the door and closed his eyes.
Lancelot’s voice reached his ears a few moments later. “Gwen, my love, we can’t go on this way.”
“I know. I know.” She sounded as if she were crying.
“Come away with me. Please, Gwen.”
“We can’t just leave him. It would break his heart.”
Too late, Arthur thought.
“I love him too, Gwen. I would gladly fight by his side for the remainder of my days, but this is no life for you.”
“He still means to marry me, you know.”
“You know that will never—”
“No,” she cut him off. “I know. It could never be. I may have thought so when I was a girl, but… In time he will come to realize it.”
“Will he, though?”
“If we just wait…”
“For how long? Six months? A year? Five years? And do what in the meantime? Sneak around as we do now, as if our love was some ugly shameful thing?”
“No… It’s not. Don’t say that.” She was crying harder now.
“Would you have me leave, so your heart is not torn in two?” Lancelot’s distress was clear. “If you asked it of me, I would do so. I will fight for our love. For you, Gwen. But if you wanted me to go, if this is too hard for you, I would do as you ask.”
“No, I don’t want that. I couldn’t bear it.” Her sobs grew louder until they were muffled, and Arthur knew she was pressed against Lancelot’s chest.
“Thank the gods. I couldn’t bear it either. Guinevere, Guinevere.” Her name was like a prayer.
Arthur blinked, eyes stinging. How long had it been going on? He had no idea. Was he really that blind? He understood why Lancelot would fall for Guinevere. She was kind and generous; she attracted everyone with her sweet, gentle nature. Just look at how Morgana… no, he could not think of Morgana now on top of everything else today.
Of course Lancelot would love Guinevere too. It was hard for Arthur to think of anyone not loving her once they knew her. Even lazy, impertinent Merlin would do anything she asked. And ever since that day Guinevere took Arthur’s hand, she had lodged herself permanently in his heart. As they grew together, discovered the pleasures their bodies could give one another, she had only entrenched herself more firmly in his affections. She had always been a comfort, a joy, a confidant—both lover and friend. He dreamed of having her by his side while he ruled, his love, his queen.
After seeing Guinevere with Lancelot, Arthur knew she had never felt the same. He believed she loved him; that much he doubted not. Finding out she thought his plans to marry her were naught but a dream was a crushing blow. Lancelot, too, was certain such a match would never come to pass. How many others felt the same? Most likely all, he thought bitterly.
As he stared out at Camelot, surveying his future, Arthur finally felt the full weight of the crown; his chest ached as pressure closed in from all sides. Lancelot was right; he knew it, even as he resisted acceptance. His father would never allow him to marry Guinevere. And when he became king, if he were still not attached, would he not also feel duty bound to create an alliance that would be most beneficial for the continued strength of his kingdom?
The minstrels and poets with their talk of love… He was a fool.
And what of Lancelot? He had been willing to commit treason, to forsake his vows of fealty. Vows to Camelot. To Arthur. His betrayal was perhaps even more cutting. The strength of his ideals had attracted Arthur from the start. Lancelot was, among all his knights, the one he most sought to emulate, to be worthy of. When he had heavy decisions to make, it was Lancelot to whom his thoughts often turned, weighing what choice would best meet his approval. Had he misjudged his friend so badly? How was he to respond to these grave transgressions?
Arthur thought back to their recent confrontation, to Lancelot’s entreaty to let Guinevere go, let her have the life he couldn’t provide. Lancelot had been willing to make that very choice. Arthur had listened while Lancelot offered to step aside, if only Gwen required. He himself was willing to do for love what he asked of Arthur now. Was Arthur willing to do the same? Was his love no less strong?
He shook his head in disbelief. Even now, when his heart lay in tatters and the ground had crumbled beneath his feet, Arthur still aspired to be a man Lancelot would respect, to make the choice that would make him proud.
A bird cried overhead, circling lazily on the wind. Arthur looked up, blaming the blazing light of the sun for the sudden blurring of his eyes. He knew he should get back before someone came looking for him.
The decision had already been made; he knew his course before he even took the field this morn. Mere hours had passed since he rode out this afternoon, yet Arthur felt years older. He mounted his horse and turned toward Camelot.
“What?” Arthur barked. “If you have something to say, just say it, Merlin.”
He had come back from his ride and left the horse at the stables before going to face Lancelot and Guinevere. In a foul mood on his return to the castle, he had ordered a bath and some food from the kitchens, choosing to dine alone in his room. He was not fit company for anyone. The hot water had done much to ease the ache in his muscles, yet Merlin’s continued hovering, like an anxious nursemaid, had kept the tension from leaving him completely.
All evening the boy had been on the verge of speaking, gearing up his courage, then obviously changing his mind at the last moment. His behaviour was so far removed from his usual habit of blurting out whatever inane thoughts popped into his mind that Arthur was almost unnerved. He had finally reached his limit.
“It’s just that…”
“Just that what?” Arthur asked, annoyed by his continued hesitancy.
“What you did…”
“What I did…” Arthur repeated, encouragingly.
“Yes. It’s just that…”
“For gods’ sake, Merlin, spit it out. Whatever it is you’ve been trying to say, spit it out and then leave me in peace. You’re driving me mad with this… this…” he waved his hand in some incomprehensible gesture.
“What you did—for Lancelot and Guinevere—well…” He gave a nod of acknowledgment to Arthur’s look of impatience when he hesitated yet again. “It was sort of wonderful,” he blurted in a rush. “Admirable,” he added. “Noble, even.”
Arthur wasn’t surprised that Merlin somehow knew the outcome of his conversation with Lancelot and Guinevere. Inexplicably, the boy always seemed to know everything that went on in Camelot.
Nevertheless, Arthur had no desire to discuss the day’s events with his servant. What he wanted was to nurse his hurt in private, fall into dreamless sleep and forget for a while. Forget the look of relief and gratitude on their faces when Arthur told them they were free to love one another without harm, that they were still welcome in Camelot and he expected them to stay; they would see no further interference from him. Forget the way Guinevere had thrown her arms around his neck in thanks while begging for forgiveness, her slight body so familiar in his arms, her tears dampening his skin. Forget the way his heart had lurched, for one blazing moment, when he thought she was choosing him instead.
But no, she was happy to be free. To be free of him. How long had she been humouring him, giving him her body while holding her heart in reserve? He didn’t want to hear how noble he was while he still reeled from their betrayal; his body seemed an insufficient vessel to contain the swirling riot of emotions residing in his gut.
“That will be all for tonight,” he snapped at Merlin. “Please leave me.”
“Arthur…” His tone was contrite. “I didn’t mean—”
“I said that will be all. Goodnight.”
There was a long pause before Merlin spoke again. “Yes, sire.”
As much as Arthur desired to lose himself in sleep, sleep continued to elude him. He tossed and turned, unable to settle. His mind refused to let the recent events go. In frustration he finally threw off the bed clothes, determined to track down a servant to fetch a sleeping draught from Gaius. He felt a pang of guilt at the thought of waking the old man up at this late hour, but he had responsibilities; he couldn’t go without sleep night after night.
When he opened the door, a familiar form slumped in a pile at his feet.
He shook his head, rolling his eyes, and leaned down to shake the man by his shoulder.
“Merlin, wake up.”
Long ghostly fingers rubbed at his eyes as Merlin struggled to sit up. “Arthur?”
“No wonder you’re so useless during the day.” Arthur leaned over and slipped his hands under Merlin’s armpits, hoisting him to his feet. Merlin swayed gently, still not quite awake.
“Come on. I’ll walk you back to Gaius’. I need to get something from him anyway. And then you can get some proper sleep. In your bed, Merlin. Not on the floor. What goes on in that addled head of yours, I wonder.” His fond tone belied his words.
“Nothing important, sire.”
“Now that I can believe.”
Training over the next few days was tense. Arthur suspected his knights knew of the reason behind his altercation with Lancelot. He couldn’t bear to be thought a fool by all his men, to see their pitying looks. Not in the mood for Gwaine’s jokes, and unwilling to face Lancelot again so soon—especially while holding a weapon in his hand, Arthur reorganized their usual schedule.
“Have Lancelot work with the more seasoned men today—Gwaine, Percival, Bedivere and the others,” he bade Leon. “He’ll lead the training. Not you, though. I want you with me,” he said. “We’ll take on the younger knights. They could use a good workout.”
Leon gave him a searching look, pausing as if he wanted to say something, but only answered, “Yes, sire,” before walking off to give Lancelot Arthur’s instructions. Lancelot looked over at Arthur as Leon spoke, a troubled expression on his face, but Arthur only looked away.
What had Lancelot expected, after all? Just because Arthur had chosen to step aside for Guinevere’s sake didn’t mean he had forgiven Lancelot’s betrayal. Indeed, he was more angry than ever before. Survival in battle depended on the trust between the men; knowing someone had your back could be the difference between life and death. Aside from his personal heartache, Arthur grieved for the chinks now existing in Camelot’s armour, the weakening of her most able defence. The Knights of Camelot were known far and wide for their strength and skill. Their reputation was, after all, what had brought Lancelot here to begin with. Arthur had always felt the bond he shared with Lancelot, the kinship between them—the camaraderie, loyalty, and trust—epitomized the very essence of what it meant to be a knight of Camelot. What were they now but an ordinary collection of men, a group of soldiers like any other? What he had regarded before as a cohesive unit, a force nigh unstoppable, now seemed broken beyond repair.
He turned from the field, looking toward the castle, noting the sturdy walls of her perimeter, the majestic rise of her architecture. Was her strength simply an illusion? Did she house unidentified vulnerabilities? Could she be shattered by one well-aimed blow from an unexpected quarter? Arthur felt a chill to his very marrow; a sense of unease crept under his skin. He turned back to the training area, surveying the row of newer knights standing with Leon, eager to spar with the prince. A cloud passed in front of the sun and shadows fell on their bright young faces. For a moment their appearance shifted, the shadows settling over the bones beneath their skin, turning them to corpses. He blinked and the moment passed. Shaking off the image, Arthur joined the men and prepared to teach them all he knew. He hoped it would be enough.
Each night he would return to his rooms, exhausted and sore, and a bath would be waiting for him. As he submerged himself in the water, head back, eyes closed, attempting to relax, he let the heat seep into his tight muscles. Merlin seemed to have recovered from his recent taciturn mood and was back to his old self, complaining about his various chores, chatting away about castle gossip, giving his opinions of the patients who came to see Gaius, not even attempting to hide his disgust at some of their ailments. Really, Arthur wondered why Gaius had taken the boy on to begin with. He seemed to have little aptitude for the healing arts, and even less interest if his commentary was anything to go on.
“Merlin…” Arthur began.
“Shut up?” Merlin asked, finishing for him and not sounding the least bit upset.
Arthur opened his eyes and raised his head, turning to look at the boy. That had been what Arthur was about to say. Habit, really. Merlin simply stared back in expectation, his bright blue eyes wide, waiting for the rest of what he had to say. Arthur realized, however, that he didn’t mind his servant’s prattle. Indeed, the steady stream of words had half held his attention while he soaked; more importantly, it had kept his mind from dwelling on more painful matters.
Letting out a sigh, Arthur leaned his head back against the edge of the tub and closed his eyes. “Never mind,” he said.
Silence filled room for only a moment and then Merlin was speaking again, picking right back up where he had left off.
Arthur continued to have his evening meals sent up to his room, but he knew his father would not be pleased with his repeated absences. When he received a summons to meet with the king the following morning, he was not at all surprised.
“Arthur,” his father greeted him, looking up from his breakfast. “I have not seen you these past few days. Is everything going well with the training?”
“Sit,” Uther said, motioning to the seat across from him.
Arthur nodded and accepted the plate of food which appeared in front of him the moment he was seated. Uther returned to his breakfast. After a few moments he spoke again, not looking up from his meal.
“There is unrest to the east,” Uther said.
“Possibly. The reports are unclear.”
“What sorts of reports?”
“Rumours Cenred is consorting with the Druids.”
Chewing more slowly, Arthur turned the information over in his head.
“Do you think they’re a threat?”
“He’s consorting with sorcerers,” Uther snapped. “Of course they’re a threat.”
Arthur studied Uther, who continued to eat, as if completely unaware of his son’s scrutiny. The strong jaw was as familiar as Arthur’s own, as was the aristocratic nose. His hair, which had once been dark, was now shot with grey. Arthur’s own light colouring—his fair hair and blue eyes—had come from his mother. Or so he’d been told; she had died shortly after he was born. Uther was still a handsome man, but he looked weary. The lines on his face were deeper, his eyes dull as cold steel; he rarely smiled.
He hadn’t been the same since Morgana’s betrayal. Never a warm man, Uther became even more closed off after she was gone. Arthur remembered the jealousy he’d felt when he watched his father with his young ward. He seemed to derive such joy from her company, even when they fought, as they often did, especially during her teenage years. As she grew older and began to blossom into a young woman, she was his father’s favourite companion. Arthur had never received such affectionate smiles, had fought all his life for his father’s approval. Always trying to do what’s right, to make his father proud, Arthur was lucky to get a “well done,” perhaps even a clap on the shoulder. Yet Morgana could defy him at every turn, and with one vivacious smile had his father eating out of her hand, praising her for her fighting spirit and “keeping him on his toes.”
Uther doted on the girl. When he had woken from a sound sleep, her knife piercing his chest, it wasn’t the wound or loss of blood that almost killed him; it was his broken heart. She had fled into the night in wake of her failed assassination attempt and hadn’t been seen nor heard from since. Luckily, Morgana’s strength wasn’t sufficient for the blade to do more damage that it had. Uther’s rib had stopped its progression before it could reach any vital organs. Regardless, the strike had been deep and had, in a way, hit its mark; Uther had never fully recovered from the attack.
Arthur, likewise, had been changed from that night forward. Although he had been jealous of his father’s attentions, he hadn’t begrudged Morgana them. He loved her like a sister, even if he didn’t understand her and still found her company unsettling. She was complex and confusing, and with her incomparable beauty, seemed to have the entire world worshipping at her feet. With Morgana, however, there was always so much more going on under the surface. He berated himself for not realizing the truth sooner.
Convinced Morgana had been bewitched, Uther’s vendetta against sorcery reached new heights. Executions, which before had occurred perhaps once a fortnight, now increased in number to several a week. If any rumour of sorcery reached the king’s ears, soldiers were immediately dispatched to capture the accused. Arthur remembered those dark months, the grim cast to each day, the moment of clarity he experienced as he watched the body of a young boy burn.
Just weeks prior at an execution quite similar to that one, Morgana had wept in his arms.
“She’s just a girl,” Morgana had choked out, sobs wracking her slender form. “She’s just a girl.”
Suddenly, Morgana’s nightmares held new meaning; the attack against Uther became crystal clear. He knew with a certainty that left zero room for doubt: Morgana had magic.
Arthur never mentioned his discovery to the king. He was convinced his father wouldn’t believe him anyway. And eventually the brutal scourge had eased, though Uther’s stance toward magic had not. Time moved forward.
So many secrets, Arthur thought. Guilt still ate at him over his failure to protect Morgana, his inability to see what was right before him all that time. How she must have hated them. Enough to try and murder Uther in his sleep.
Arthur brought his attention back to the matter at hand, addressing his father.
“I’ll gather some men and head out today to investigate,” he said.
“Very well then.”
Arthur pulled his horse up short. “Look. There, up ahead,” he said to Gwaine who had ridden up beside him.
“Where? I don’t see anything.”
“Beyond those trees,” Arthur said, pointing a gloved hand toward the northwest.
“Ah, well spotted. Is that the remains of a camp?”
“I’m not sure. It’s hard to tell from here. Come on, we’ll investigate.”
They began moving again, picking their way through the trees, the rest of the men following behind. As they approached the well-hidden clearing, it became obvious this was once a thriving settlement, albeit temporary in nature, and a sizeable one at that. Arthur felt ice in his veins at what was left of it now.
The men were silent as they surveyed the scene. Broken crockery, tents with large gashes down the sides, the ground stained with blood. He couldn’t help but be aware of the mounds of freshly turned dirt, one after another, at the far end of the clearing. Arthur dismounted from his horse and walked among the ruins, kicking at random items with his boot, shifting through the rubble. Near the remains of a fire ring, he went down on one knee, picking an item off the ground and turning it over in his hands. It was a child’s toy—a crudely made doll—the fabric covered in blood. His stomach roiled and he felt as if he might be sick.
Arthur heard someone approaching from behind; a hand rested on his shoulder, squeezing gently.
“This was slaughter,” Arthur said, looking up from the toy and staring ahead at what was left of the camp. His mind’s eye could see the settlement as it must have been before, a place full of activity with food cooking over the fire, people milling about—working, joking—children playing nearby. Now it was lifeless as a tomb.
“Druids,” said a voice behind him. “They were druids, sire.”
Arthur was at once surprised and not surprised to realize who had joined him as he recognized Merlin’s voice. His heart briefly seized at the words his manservant spoke. Arthur had wondered about Morgana’s whereabouts countless times over the years; he always imaged that she may have found refuge with the druids. They were known to be a peaceful people and friendly toward magic. He was somewhat surprised to find one of their settlements within Camelot’s borders, but they had not been the target of Uther’s wrath for quite some time. He supposed they must have felt it safe to return to their previous homes. And even if Morgana had found a place with the druids, Arthur consoled himself, the chances that she had been here, in this very camp, were slim.
“How can you know?” Arthur asked.
“Ealdor, my home, is not too far from here. We often traded with the druids. I recognize their workmanship.”
Arthur nodded, taking him at his word.
Who would have dared decimate these people, Arthur wondered? If this were years prior, Uther may well have been responsible; he had little mercy those early days after Morgana’s disappearance. But if the king had resumed attacks on the druids, Arthur would surely have known. Not bandits either, he thought, looking at the few weapons and other valuable items scattered about. Bandits would never have left behind anything that could possibly be sold. Who, then?
A scrap of red at the periphery of his vision caught his attention. Arthur set down the doll and stood, walking over to the bright object. On first examination, it looked to be one of Camelot’s own banners; the red material was embroidered with a dragon of gold. But the colour was off and the emblem was crude—nothing like Camelot’s own majestic beast. A shoddy approximation, at best. From a distance, it would pass easily enough.
The reception he and his men had received at the last village they had passed through now made more sense. When Arthur and his knights rode into town, instead of the usual reception they had enjoyed in the past—shops and townsfolk eager to earn coin and favour—they were reluctantly offered accommodations and provisions. Mothers had ushered their children into their homes and out of sight. Arthur had wondered about the tense atmosphere, but attributed it to the unrest Uther spoke of. The villagers had all been tightlipped, however. Arthur was unable to get any information from them about the nature of their unease. Now, he realized they had all been afraid. Of them.
Lancelot, Gwaine and Merlin had joined him while he studied the false banner.
“Do you think this is Cenred’s work?” Gwaine asked.
“I don’t know,” Arthur answered. “Would Cenred really be so bold as to slaughter women and children, both? On Camelot’s own soil? Such a move would be an act of war.”
“Our scouts have reported no amassing of force in Escetia,” Lancelot said. “If they intend war, they seem ill prepared to fight one.”
“Perhaps not yet. Anyway, we have no proof this is Cenred’s work. I’m not yet sure what to make of this. I think it’s time we return to Camelot. I need to report this news to my father.”
Arthur folded the scrap of material and walked toward his mount, tucking the banner safely away in his bag. He bowed his head in thought for a moment, then nodded, as if coming to a decision.
“Merlin,” he said, looking over to his manservant who had followed closely behind. “How would you like to visit your mother?”
“You there,” Arthur said to a servant he passed in the corridor.
“Fetch me some wine and bring it to my chambers.”
“Right away, my lord.”
Arthur paced as he waited for the servant to arrive. Drowning his troubles in drink wasn’t perhaps the smartest decision he could make, but right now, he simply didn’t care. He had heard news of Lancelot and Merlin’s return to Camelot earlier in the day and arrived to greet them just in time to see Guinevere fling herself into Lancelot’s arms, kissing him as if he had been gone for months rather than a few weeks.
It had been hard enough having Lancelot with him while they investigated the cause of the unrest, yet Uther had insisted, arguing that Lancelot had travelled more widely than the rest of the knights and could pick up important details the others might otherwise miss. When Arthur had tried to convince the king Lancelot’s time would be better spent training the younger knights in their absence, Uther rejected the idea immediately, stating Sir Leon could easily be substituted for the task.
Arthur knew his father was right, and in truth his arguments had been made half-heartedly, but the strain of travelling together, trying to act as if there was no tension between them, had taken its toll. So when they made ready to return to Camelot after coming across the decimated druid settlement, Arthur jumped at the chance to have Lancelot accompany Merlin to his mother’s village. The decision had a three-fold advantage: Arthur could gain some relief from the constant reminder of Lancelot and Gwen’s perfidy; the two men could find out from Hunith and the other residents of Ealdor any rumours regarding this heinous attack; the visit would make Merlin happy.
The latter was reason enough for the decision. Arthur was fond of the boy; he imagined it would have been difficult for Merlin to come so close to his former home and go no farther. Arthur couldn’t bear the thought of disappointing Hunith as well, were she to find out how near they’d travelled. He’d grown fond of her on his several previous visits to Ealdor. Having never known his own mother, Hunith’s treatment of him, as if he were her own son and not the visiting prince, would always be something he’d treasure.
Nothing had prepared Arthur for his reaction on their return. He’d not anticipated the acute pain he’d feel watching the lovers reunite; indeed, it was as if he were experiencing their betrayal anew. Then he’d had to sit with his father while Lancelot reported what he’d learned—nothing significant beyond what they’d already discovered—knowing all the while the reason for the flush on the knight’s cheeks and the swelling of his lips. White hot jealousy burned like an ember in Arthur’s gut.
To add insult to injury, Uther had asked him to stay once Lancelot departed. Then he’d been informed the daughter of one of his father’s friends would be coming to court to be presented as a possible wife. Arthur’s heart lay scattered in pieces; he still longed for Guinevere. How could he possibly think about marriage to anyone else?
A knock at the door announced the servant’s arrival. Arthur gestured him in, then motioned for him to leave the wine on the table. He drank the first goblet quickly, undiluted, wanting only to feel the spirits numb his pain. By the third cup—or was it his fourth—his thoughts, as often happened when he took to drink, morosely turned to Morgana. He castigated himself anew at his failure to understand, to prevent that dreadful night and her subsequent departure.
“Never enough,” he mumbled, taking another large sip of wine. “Never ever enough.”
Arthur looked up, bleary eyed, and saw Merlin tending the fire.
“What are you doing here? Weren’t you going to see Gaius?”
“I already saw Gaius. That’s all taken care of. I’m here to help you ready for bed.”
“Bed?” Arthur asked, incredulously. “Isn’t it a little early for bed? I haven’t even eaten my supper.”
“Yes, that much is obvious,” Merlin muttered under his breath.
“You should drink some water.” Merlin tried to remove the goblet from Arthur’s hand, pushing some water toward him at the same time. Arthur refused to let go.
“No, Merlin. I intend to get drunk tonight.”
“I don’t think you’ll need much effort there, sire.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Nothing.” He sighed and nudged the water toward Arthur again. “You really should drink some water. Your head is going to feel this tomorrow.”
“Maybe I don’t care. Maybe I want to feel it tomorrow. Better than feeling…” he trailed off, rubbing the heel of his hand against his forehead.
Merlin watched him quietly then pushed a plate of food in front of him. Where did that even come from, Arthur wondered? “…least have something to eat.” Arthur looked at Merlin realizing he was speaking.
“You need to eat something, Arthur. Come on, now. At least some bread.” He nudged the plate even closer.
“All right,” Arthur said, exasperated. “Nag, nag, nag. You’re worse than a woman, Merlin.”
Merlin rolled his eyes, but seemed satisfied when Arthur tore off a chunk of the bread and started eating.
After more food had made its way into Arthur’s stomach, Merlin reached for his wine again, trying to remove it from his hand. Arthur gripped the cup with both hands, shoving Merlin away, and brought it close to his chest. “You can’t have this, I told you.”
Merlin rolled his eyes again. Arthur felt he really should speak to his manservant about his insubordination.
“Let me help you get changed. Then you can go back to your…” He waved his hand in the direction of the wine. “Drinking yourself stupid.”
Arthur placed the cup on the table and watched Merlin warily as he approached.
“Oh, for... nevermind,” Merlin said. “Here. Lift your arms.”
Arthur did as he asked, marvelling at how heavy they felt. It must be his muscles. He flexed, admiring his bicep. Yes, he was very strong.
Merlin was laughing, struggling to get his shirt over his head.
“What’s so funny?”
“Nothing, sire,” Merlin said, wiping the smile from his face.
“Would you please get on with it, then?”
After more tugging, and a bit of yelling, Arthur was dressed in his night shirt. The material was soft against his skin. This had been an excellent idea. He was glad he thought of it.
“Now your trousers,” Merlin said. “I’m afraid you’ll have to stand for this one. If you can,” he added under his breath.
Arthur was incensed. How dare Merlin impugn his ability to function? He was the Prince of Camelot.
“Of course I can stand, Merlin,” he said, pushing away from the table and getting to his feet. The room spun. He reached out wildly and grabbed the first solid thing his hand landed on.
“I’ve got you,” Merlin said, removing the hand clutching his wrist and bringing it to his shoulder, winding it around his neck. “Come on. Let’s get you to bed.”
“You promised,” Arthur complained as he let himself be led across the room. “You said if I changed my clothing, I could have my wine back.”
“Right,” Merlin said, depositing Arthur on the edge of the bed. “So I did. But you still have your trousers on.”
“Details, details,” Arthur said. But he lay back, pulled up his night shirt and worked at the tie at his waist, frowning when, after several minutes, the laces seemed to only grow tighter.
“For gods’ sake,” Merlin said, pushing his hands away. “Let me.” After only a moment Arthur felt the tie loosen and trouser being pulled down his legs. He shifted his hips up in an attempt to help, but somehow only succeeded in getting the legs tangled on his feet.
“How is it possible for someone to be so incompetent at everything?” he asked, exasperated.
“Would you… hold still,” Merlin snapped, ignoring him, finally working Arthur’s feet free.
“Finally. Are you quite finished?” Arthur asked.
“Yes. All done. You can go back to your… excessive drinking.”
“Thank you.” The bed was comfortable. Maybe he’d just shut his eyes for a few. He wasn’t sure he felt like walking across the room again either.
“Merlin, fetch me my cup.”
Arthur heard a huff, then, “I should have seen that one coming.” But then he heard movement and a moment later the sound of drink being poured. Good man, Arthur thought.
“Here you are, sire.”
Arthur opened his eyes and saw Merlin standing in front of him, holding out his cup, an eyebrow raised, eerily reminiscent of Gaius. He struggled to sit up, then took the cup, staring defiantly back at Merlin. Eyes locked on his servant’s, he brought the cup to his mouth and took a sip, then promptly spit its contents everywhere.
“This is water!”
“Yes, well, you didn’t specify.”
Arthur spluttered. “I didn’t specify? Did I not say I wanted to get drunk tonight?”
“I think you can cross that item off your list.”
“Merlin,” Arthur bellowed.
“Fine. Fine. Give me the cup. I’ll get you your wine. But tomorrow when your head is splitting open and you’re sicking up in front of your knights, don’t say I didn’t try and stop you.”
“Gods. All right. I’ll drink the water. If only to get you to shut up.”
Merlin regarded Arthur with great seriousness. “Thank you, sire.”
“Hrmph,” Arthur said as he swallowed the water down. When he was done, he handed the cup back to Merlin.
“I’ll get you your wine now.”
What was the point? Arthur thought. There wasn’t enough wine in the world to make him forget his hurt. His earlier mood returned with a vengeance and he leaned back on the bed, covering his face with his arm, feeling his throat close and an embarrassing wetness forming at the corner of his eyes.
He took a deep breath trying to regain his composure then said, “No, don’t. I’ve had enough.”
Enough. That was something he would never be. Never enough for any of them. “Not enough,” he said, repeating out loud his thoughts from earlier. “Why am I never enough?” He heard a hideous sound escape his mouth and wetness spill down the sides of his face. Please, gods, let him not remember any of this in the morning.
“Arthur?” Merlin’s voice was soft, hesitant.
“Leave me. I require nothing else this evening.”
The mattress dipped next to him as Merlin sat on the edge of bed.
“Gods, Merlin. Do you never do as you’re told?” His laugh caught on another sob. He didn’t remove his arm from his face.
“Never enough for what, Arthur?” Merlin asked.
“For any of them.” Arthur’s answer was the cry of a wild beast. He continued on, pouring out his heartache. “For Morgana. I tried, Merlin. I really did. And yet she left and would likely just as soon see me dead. If I had known, I would have… I would have done anything to help her. But she never even gave me a chance.”
He didn’t even try to stop the tears now; his words were punctuated with hiccoughing breaths. “And Lancelot, my brother in all but blood. His vow of fealty proved all too easy to break. How am I to command when I’m not even enough for my best of knights?”
Rubbing his sleeve across his face, wiping the wetness away, he spoke again. “And of course, now Guinevere. I’ve never been enough for her and I was completely oblivious. Even the love of a prince isn’t good enough for a servant girl. What must I do?”
“Arthur,” Merlin cut in. “I don’t think you—”
“If you ask my father, there’s probably nothing I can do. I’ll never measure up, according to him. I’m a constant disappointment. I can see it in his eyes every time he speaks to me.”
“That’s not true. Your father loves you. He’s incredibly proud of you.”
“He’d rather have her.”
“I meant my mother, but Morgana too. He always preferred her to me.”
“Don’t bother to deny it. We both know it’s true.”
“Arthur.” Merlin fitted his hand around Arthur’s wrist and squeezed, trying to halt the flow of words from his lips. “Stop. Please. Just stop it. None of that is true. You’re drunk. You don’t know what you’re saying. You’ll feel differently in the morning.”
Arthur started to speak again and Merlin squeezed harder. The words died on his lips.
“Listen to me. Arthur. You’re a good man, and one day you’re going to be a great king. You are enough. And you’ll be enough.” The next squeeze was gentle. “You’ve always been enough for me.”
Arthur pulled his arm free and rubbed his face. He leaned up on his elbows to look at Merlin and laughed. “That’s nice of you to say, Merlin, but I meant enough to the people who matter.”
He couldn’t miss the flash of hurt that crossed Merlin’s face. Suddenly, he felt a lot less drunk; his face heated with shame. Merlin stood and turned away from the bed, so Arthur couldn’t read his expression.
“Wait. I didn’t mean—”
“I’ll just clean up here and let you get your rest, sire,” Merlin said.
Arthur reached out to grab the tail of his shirt as he started to walk away. “Wait, wait. Come back, Merlin.” Merlin just stood there, facing away.
Merlin’s voice was low when he spoke again. “I may just be a servant, but I would lay down my life for you, sire.”
Arthur dropped the hem of his shirt. He leaned his elbow on his knees and placed his head in his hands. “I know. I know, Merlin.” And he did know. That was how Merlin had come into his service, after all. When he’d voluntarily drank from a poisoned cup that had been intended for Arthur. Uther was so impressed by his loyalty, he’d promoted Merlin to Arthur’s personal manservant. “I’m drunk. Completely stinking drunk. I have no idea what I’m saying.”
When Merlin still didn’t move or respond, Arthur added, “I’m sorry, Merlin. I didn’t mean that.”
Merlin’s feet moved, but instead of walking away, they began to turn back in his direction. Arthur lifted his head up, and although the hurt he had inflicted was still evident, he was overwhelmed with relief to see a smile on his servant’s face and shining blue eyes staring down at him.
“You must be drunk if you’re actually apologizing.”
As predicted, Arthur was sick in the morning and his head felt as if a blacksmith’s hammer was unrelentingly pounding on the inside of his skull. Merlin was uncharacteristically quiet as he readied Arthur for the day. At first Arthur thought his servant was being considerate of his diminished physical state, then the events of the prior evening came rushing back. Overcome by embarrassment knowing Merlin had witnessed his emotional breakdown, Arthur was even more short with him than usual, complaining about the breakfast, snapping at him to hurry up with things, insulting his skills and abilities. Instead of parrying with an insult of his own or a witty retort, Merlin grew even more quiet and he seemed even more clumsy than usual.
It wasn’t until later that Arthur remembered the cruel words he had spoken before falling asleep, and his shame was even greater than it had been the prior evening. He channelled his emotions into the training, sparring hard with the knights, sweating the spirits out of his system, working his body to the state of exhaustion, hoping he’d sink immediately into the oblivion of sleep later that night.
When Merlin met him in the armoury afterward and began to help him with his equipment, Arthur, in his own clumsy way, tried to make up for his earlier boorish behaviour.
“Once you’re through here, why don’t you check if Gaius could use your help with anything? I’ll have no need of your services this evening.”
Merlin looked up in surprise and his fingers fumbled at the ties of Arthur’s gambeson. He brought his attention quickly back to his task, but not fast enough for Arthur to miss the look of hurt that flashed across Merlin’s face, the same look he had caused last night with his thoughtless words. What in the world had he done now, Arthur wondered? He was trying to give Merlin the evening off.
Maybe an evening wasn’t sufficient to convey his remorse.
“I’ll have no need of you tomorrow as well. Don’t bother showing up in the morning.”
There. That should be clear.
Only, watching Merlin’s reaction, Arthur saw his servant’s face go white—if that was even possible, his skin was already so pale—and, were his hands shaking?
“Who will take care of your armour after training?” Merlin asked.
“I’ll have one of the squires attend to it.”
“But… that’s my job. I prefer to take care of it myself.”
“What does it matter?” Arthur snapped. “You’re not the only one capable of polishing armour, you know.” Why was Merlin making this so difficult?
“No, I know,” Merlin whispered.
He finished his tasks in silence, refusing to meet Arthur’s eyes. When he was done, he asked, eyes downcast, “Will that be all, sire?”
Arthur was at a loss. Somehow things had gone terribly wrong, but he wasn’t sure why and he had no idea how to rectify the problem. Or, moreover, what specifically the problem was. He refused to consider that he would not be able to make up for his cutting remarks. Merlin would forgive him; he had to. He’d give him the entire week off, if he thought that would help. “That will be all.”
His eyes followed Merlin’s figure as he departed without another look or word. A new heaviness weighted in Arthur’s chest.
The days blurred together. Arthur threw himself even harder into training, determined his knights would be ready in the event of an attack. Rumours continued to filter in from the east and another druid camp had been found, decimated in the same manner as the first. The perpetrators of the attacks were still unknown, though Arthur believed Cenred was somehow involved. He couldn’t take his suspicions to the king with no proof, however, no matter how strong his instincts were on the matter. His instincts, after all, had proved less than trustworthy lately.
After months of avoiding each other and speaking only through a veneer of politeness, he and Lancelot had eventually settled back into patterns of old. Arthur confided in him his suspicions about Cenred and used him once again as a sounding board. He had begun to rely more on the other knights, especially Leon, during their rift, but it felt good to share his concerns and receive valuable advice again from his most able knight. Their former closeness, however, was a thing of the past. The betrayal was too fresh in Arthur’s mind; the hurt too deep.
Likewise, his heartbreak over Guinevere was a wound slow to heal. He tried to put her out of his mind, but she had lodged herself deep in his heart long, long ago. Her presence there was not easy to excise. When he’d take himself in hand late at night, alone in his bed, her dark eyes were the ones he pictured, her soft skin and sweet taste. Her yielding flesh filled his mind as he spilled over his fist, gasping her name in the darkness. He had tried to replace her in his thoughts with other women, but she always slipped through his mental defences, her smiles more effective than a battering ram, until he simply gave in, wanting her whatever way he could have her, even if only in his fantasies. Afterwards he’d feel shameful and weak, wanting her so desperately while she yearned for another.
The evenings were the loneliest. No matter how hard he pushed himself, how tired he was at the end of the day, there was still that stretch of time after bathing and supper before he could mercifully lose himself in sleep. Arthur had never realized how much he enjoyed Merlin’s idle chatter and gossip until his silence replaced it. He missed Merlin’s overly familiar attitude, his cheeky insults. He missed the casual touches when Merlin helped him dress. Before, Merlin’s fingers tended to linger on his skin; he’d smooth the fabric over Arthur’s shoulders, or fuss with his laces and ties. Now Merlin was all business, unnervingly efficient, and he didn’t touch Arthur unless there was absolutely no possible way to avoid it. Knowing the blame for this loss could be laid firmly at his own feet did not diminish the ache Arthur felt over yet another unfavourable change in his closest relationships. He had tried to apologize to Merlin, to find ways to make it up to him, but his servant remained distant. Some words, Arthur realized with a heavy heart, could not be made unspoken.
Shivering against the chill in the air, Arthur burrowed deeper under the blankets. Merlin had started a fire before he retired, and it gave off some heat, but it was obvious winter was here to stay. He wondered if Merlin had a warm enough blanket in his room back at Gaius’; the boy was skin and bones, not an ounce of body fat on him to help keep him warm. Probably not, he suspected. Arthur resolved to arrange delivery of one, although knowing the foolish boy, he’d probably give it to Gaius to use. Two, then, one for each of them.
Feeling satisfied with his decision—there was no reason to stop trying to be kinder to Merlin even if his actions so far had little effect on the boy—Arthur rolled over onto his side, pulling the covers under his chin. At least Merlin had stopped that brainless habit of sleeping outside in the corridor, he thought.
As he lay there waiting for sleep to steal his thoughts away, Arthur grew increasingly agitated. He couldn’t get the thought of Merlin, shivering and cold on the hard stone floor, out of his mind. He’d only assumed Merlin had gone back to sleeping in his room at Gaius’, but how could he know for certain? He hadn’t needed to leave his chambers in the evening for quite some time, the extra training having tired him enough to remove the need for a sleeping draught. Finally, knowing he would get no rest until he assured himself Merlin wasn’t waiting on the other side of the door, Arthur threw the covers off, dragged himself from his warm comfortable bed and rolled his eyes as he made his way across the room.
When the familiar long limbs spilled into the room as the door swung wide, Arthur wasn’t sure what he felt—exasperation, to be sure, anger, and an unexpected tenderness, that Merlin would still sit vigil, unwaveringly loyal, despite his personal feelings for Arthur. What was he going to do with this boy?
“Gods Merlin,” Arthur said as his servant sleepily blinked up at him, teeth chattering, limbs quivering from the cold. “You haven’t the sense given a goat.” He hauled him to his feet and pulled him into his chambers, shutting the door against the chill.
“If you’re going to insist on… whatever it is you think you’re doing, at least come in out of the cold. You can sleep by the fire.” He motioned to the thick carpet covering the stone floor in front of the hearth. As Merlin stood staring longingly at the orange flames, Arthur strode to his bed and pulled the thickest, warmest blanket from the pile—it was soft, fur lined and plush. He threw it at Merlin’s head. “Here. You can use this.”
Merlin caught it automatically, and held it in his hands, staring at Arthur. Arthur shook his head. “Well, go on. Lie down and get some sleep.” He watched as Merlin lowered himself on the rug, curled his long legs up and tucked the blanket around him. When he was satisfied Merlin was settled and comfortable, Arthur climbed back into bed, arranging his own covers over his body. He wasn’t quite as snug as he had been before giving Merlin his best blanket, but when a quiet, “Goodnight, Arthur,” reached his ears, he felt warmer than he had in weeks.
Arthur stretched, the ache in his muscles from the prior day’s training a low burn, but he felt more rested than he had in ages. He pushed back the covers and swung his legs over the side of the bed, wondering why Merlin hadn’t woken him up yet this morn. When he spied the lump of fur in front of the fireplace, a mess of tangled black hair peeking out from one end, he remembered the events of the previous evening—finding Merlin out in the hall and forcing him to come inside to sleep in the warmth. He shook his head at his ridiculous manservant. What had he been thinking?
Walking over to the figure wrapped tightly in the fur, Arthur stared down at the sleeping boy. He was curled in a ball, his knees bent up toward his chest, and his hands were formed loosely into fists beneath his chin. His lashes were a thick sooty sweep across his cheeks and his lips, pink and full and delicately curved, were slightly parted. He looked so young. Fragile. Arthur had the urge to let him sleep; he obviously needed it, as he hadn’t even stirred when Arthur came near. Pushing aside the impulse, he knelt by the boy and gave his shoulder a shake. “Merlin, it’s morning. Time to wake up.” He was tempted to use one of the absurd greetings Merlin used to call to him, before things had become so strained—“up and at ‘em, lazy daisy” or “shake a leg, let’s have you”—but would have felt foolish if Merlin responded with the quiet efficiency he had of late.
When Arthur’s attempts to wake him produced nothing more than a snuffling groan and for the ball that was Merlin to burrow even deeper under the blanket, he gave another, harder shake. “Merlin,” he said, louder than before. “Wake up.”
This time the ball seemed to unwind, like a cat stretching lazily, and the long lashes fluttered open. Deep blue eyes stared up into Arthur’s own.
That lush mouth curled up into a soft sweet smile and Merlin’s hand emerged from the blanket, long fingers reaching to trace the side of Arthur’s cheek, pushing the hair back away from his face. “Arthur,” he breathed on a sigh.
Arthur froze at the gentle touch; his heart stopped for a moment, then pounded furiously in his chest. It had been so long since anyone had touched him with anything resembling tenderness. He could tell the second Merlin realized where he was, what he was doing. The shutters started to fall as his expression shifted into wariness; he snatched his hand away. Arthur was desperate to capture the moment, to keep that look on Merlin’s face—one of complete heartfelt devotion, as if Arthur was everything he could ever wish for. Arthur grabbed Merlin’s wrist, the bones delicate beneath his grip, and brought his hand back to his face, spreading his fingers across his cheek and holding them there against his skin. His own hand was trembling. He had no idea what he was doing, only that he couldn’t lose this, couldn’t have Merlin take it away again so soon. A small crease appeared on Merlin’s brow and his lips moved as if he would speak. Desperate to keep the spell from being broken, acting on instinct with barely a thought, Arthur stopped the words Merlin would speak with his lips, surging down and capturing his mouth in a kiss.
This time it was Merlin who froze, his body stiffening and his breath gasping. Yearning for the return of the boy who had looked at him moments ago with such love and affection, Arthur deepened the kiss, pressing his lips more firmly against Merlin’s, a small entreating noise escaping from his throat. When Arthur’s tongue probed between his lips, licking into his mouth, Merlin let out a jagged moan, his body arching into Arthur’s, the hand on his cheek sliding to his hair, gripping it in his fist. The sharp tug seemed to loose something inside Arthur and he growled, biting down on Merlin’s lip and tugging him close as Arthur lowered himself to the ground. He pushed at the blanket separating them and grabbed at Merlin’s bony hip, pulling him over on top of him.
As the boy’s body settled against him, draped over his chest, Arthur could feel his long legs tangled with his own, his sex, morning stiff, pressing into his thigh. Merlin whimpered and tried to pull away, lifting his hips, but Arthur growled again, bending his knee to press his thigh into Merlin’s erection, his hand sliding from his hip to grip the flesh of his buttock and hold him near.
Another ragged moan escaped from his gorgeous lips and Arthur caught it with his mouth, enthralled at the responses coming from the boy. His dark eyelashes fluttered; his hips rocked against Arthur’s thigh; his hands clutched at the fabric of Arthur’s night shirt, clawing and grasping without any coordination. Arthur mouthed at his jaw, licked a line up the long column of his neck, sucked gently at his skin and brought his lips back to swallow the heady noises coming from Merlin’s throat, frantic whimpers and quiet gasping moans.
Arthur marvelled at the beauty of this boy, falling completely apart in his arms, his breathing ragged, body practically shaking as he rubbed his hard length against Arthur’s muscular thigh. Arthur’s hands remained busy, urging the boy to chase his release, slipping under the waistband of his pants to knead the rounded flesh of his arse. With his face buried in Merlin’s throat, he could feel the rapid beat of Merlin’s pulse. Nosing his way up to the soft patch of skin behind his ear, he slipped a finger in the crease between the mounds of his buttocks, biting down hard on his neck. He chased the bite with his tongue, licking soothing strokes across his flesh, holding Merlin tightly as he shuddered and jerked, sob like cries wrung from his lips, his prick spasming against Arthur’s thigh, staining it with wetness.
Arthur’s own breathing was harsh and ragged. Aroused beyond belief, his entire body was coiled with tension; his skin felt like it was on fire. As soon as Merlin’s trembling eased, Arthur rolled him off enough so that he could reach his own erection. Burying his face in Merlin’s neck, Arthur stripped his cock with quick agile strokes, panting against the boy’s skin, mouthing artlessly with urgent lips, until he spilled over his fist with a low groan. He lay there, heart racing, catching his breath. Then he rolled over onto his back and used his night shirt to wipe his hand clean of his release.
When he had recovered, Arthur leaned up on his elbows to look at Merlin. The boy was curled on his side, facing away from Arthur, his head buried in his hands. Arthur felt a pang of something uncomfortable in his gut. He reached over to touch Merlin’s shoulder, and felt his stomach drop when Merlin flinched, seeming to curl ever further in on himself. A flush stained Merlin’s cheeks and Arthur could see it spreading down his neck and up his face until even the tips of his ears had turned a bright red. He wanted to tell Merlin he was beautiful, to say thank you, to reassure him somehow, but he couldn’t help but feel weighted by guilt, as if he’d taken advantage of Merlin in his sleep-blurred state. Clearly, the boy didn’t want anything to do with him now he was fully awake.
Arthur sighed and removed his hand from Merlin’s shoulder, rubbing his fingers over his eyes, feeling confused and uncertain. Then he rose and prepared himself for the day. Merlin hadn’t moved from his spot on the floor and Arthur ached to take him in his arms to apologize. Instead, he said, “I’ll see you after training,” before leaving the room. He didn’t wait for an acknowledgment.
If Arthur had thought things were strained between him and Merlin before, there was no comparison to how tense they were now. Prior to that morning, Merlin avoided touching him, performing his duties involving Arthur’s person with quick efficient dispatch. Now, he couldn’t even bear to look at Arthur.
Arthur had tried to speak to him that afternoon, when Merlin had shown up in the armoury at the end of training. Still troubled by guilt for taking pleasure with his servant before he was even fully awake, Arthur wanted to address the issue head on, clear up his lingering uncertainty. Merlin had responding willingly, enthusiastically even. He had seemed to enjoy their physical pleasure, to want Arthur. Yet afterwards, he couldn’t even bear for Arthur to touch him.
Arthur would never bed a servant who was unwilling, but after Guinevere, something Lancelot had said during their confrontation had stuck with him, and he wondered how willing a servant could actually be. Who, after all, would refuse the prince? As Lancelot said, Guinevere would never deny him anything, even as her heart apparently belonged to another. Did Merlin only acquiesce because of who Arthur was? Did Arthur imagine the expression on his face, the one he wore when he first awoke?
Clearing his throat nervously, Arthur spoke as Merlin worked to remove his hauberk. “Merlin,” he began, “about this morning—”
He stopped abruptly when Merlin’s head shot up to his, blue eyes wide, his face wearing a look that could only be described as panic. Merlin pulled his hands away from his task as if they suddenly burned, and he took a step back, away from Arthur.
Arthur swallowed, unsettled by Merlin’s reaction. Was he that uncomfortable around Arthur now? Was Merlin afraid of him?
He took a deep breath before trying again. “Look, Merlin… I—”
“I think I left something on the field,” Merlin cut in, voice high-pitched and strained. He took another step backward, putting more distance between the two of them. “I’ll…” he continued, moving slowly toward the door, “just be… right back.” Then he turned and fled.
Arthur stood helplessly, looking at the empty doorway, not sure how he was feeling about Merlin’s reaction. He noted, however, his heart was racing and his palms were damp. He shut his eyes and took a few deep breaths, trying to quell his response. When Merlin didn’t return, Arthur wiped his hands on his trousers then removed the rest of his armour, concentrating on his task so he wouldn’t have to think about what had just happened. Leon entered the room just as he was finishing up.
“Arthur, there you are. I wanted to ask you about—”
Arthur, still upset, wasn’t in any frame of mind to form coherent thoughts. “Not now, Leon,” he said, walking past him, bumping his shoulder as he went by.
That evening, Arthur paced restlessly in his chambers, wondering if Merlin was going to show up. When he heard a small knock on the door as someone pushed it open, he was filled with relief to see Merlin appearing on the other side carrying a tray with his supper.
He kept far away from the boy, not wanting to scare him off again.
“Thank you, Merlin,” he said, waiting for him to place the tray on the table and move away before walking over to eat his meal.
Merlin busied himself in his chambers, building the fire, turning down his bed, getting his night shirt readied.
Without looking up, Arthur started to speak. He could hear Merlin still the moment he began. “I’ll not have you sleeping in the corridor again,” he said. “You’ll sleep in here, in front of the fire. And,” he hastened to add before Merlin bolted, like a frightened colt, “you’ll have no need to worry… about me.” He pressed on before he lost his nerve. He needed to get this out. “I won’t… touch you again. You’ll be safe here. I give you my word.”
He wanted to look up, to see Merlin’s reaction, but he didn’t think he could bear to see panic or fear in his eyes again.
“I’ll arrange to have a pallet brought up tomorrow. You shouldn’t have to sleep on the floor.”
After a long pause, Merlin finally spoke. “Thank you, sire.”
Having Merlin sleeping in his rooms every night was a new kind of torture. Before that morning, Arthur had rarely given his manservant a thought, certainly not the kinds of thoughts he was now having about the boy. Images of Merlin filled his mind at all hours of the day.
Arthur was dining with his father one evening, discussing the latest reports from the scouts who had returned earlier in the day. Merlin was leaning over his shoulder to pour him some wine when Arthur glanced at his servant and caught sight of a small, fading purple bruise on his neck, just behind his ear. His words faltered mid-sentence as he was brought back to the moment the bruise was formed, his teeth biting into Merlin’s skin, the boy shaking and trembling against him as he spilled his release.
He felt hot all over, arousal pooling in his stomach, and Arthur forced himself to tear his eyes away and return to the conversation, as if the serving of the wine had interrupted his thoughts, and not Merlin’s pale skin, marked by his mouth.
That night he couldn’t get the image out of his mind, that small dark bruise. He found his eyes drawn to it again and again, every time Merlin was near. He wanted to touch it, press against it with his thumb. He wondered how long it would be until it had faded completely. Irrationally, the thought made him angry and he wanted to mark it fresh, suck again on that long, elegant neck and taste his skin, biting over the exact same spot, bringing blood to the surface as proof that Arthur was there.
He noticed every detail about Merlin now, how striking his colouring was—the night-dark hair against the pale white skin, the deep pure blue of his eyes. And though he was young, and Arthur was used to thinking of him as a boy—Merlin having started serving him when they were both much younger and he being the older of the two by several years—he realized Merlin had at some point grown into a man. He was taller than Arthur, if only by a bit, and though thin, evinced a wiry strength. No, he wasn’t a child. Not by any means. And he was definitely of age. The realization eased some of his guilt over what had happened, but he still hadn’t forgiven himself for taking advantage of his servant and for making him so obviously uncomfortable.
His lingering guilt, however, couldn’t stop the memories from stealing into his thoughts multiple times during the day. Merlin’s mouth proved to be the biggest distraction of all. Arthur found himself staring at it all too often. Plump, pink lips, delicately bowed. They were almost pretty, like a girl’s. But Arthur remembered all too well the taste of them, the slight scrape of stubble as his own lips mouthed across Merlin’s jaw, the throaty sounds escaping from between them.
His eyes were drawn again to that lush gorgeous mouth as Merlin stood near, assisting him with his armour after training one afternoon. The lips were parted, just a bit, and the tip of Merlin’s pink tongue was pressed between his teeth as his servant struggled with a fastening that was proving resistant to his efforts. When it finally gave way, his mouth curved up into a smile, revealing the small dimple in Merlin’s cheek that had appeared all too infrequently lately. Arthur’s heart gave a lurch, and when Merlin’s fingers brushed against the back of his neck, the kind of casual touch he hadn’t felt in so long, Arthur’s eyes fluttered shut and he drew in a breath, all concentration focused on that tiny spot where Merlin’s hand was touching his skin.
He felt Merlin pause and braced himself for the inevitable pulling away, but his servant surprised him, continuing to remove his armour, not stopping his fingers from brushing against Arthur’s skin again and again, the way they used to, before Arthur learned to appreciate such minor affections. Arthur kept his eyes shut, feeling the increase in his pulse at every slight touch. He craved it. He hadn’t realized just how much until that very second. He thought about that one morning, Merlin’s fingers brushing his cheek, his breathy voice as he said Arthur’s name, the press of his body against his own, and Arthur wanted it again. Wanted it with a ferocious strength that took him by surprise.
As much as Arthur had missed the Merlin of old—the impertinent talking back, the overly familiar attitude—he realized, now that he was seeing the first traces of his return, he didn’t really want that Merlin at all. No, Arthur wanted the Merlin he had caught glimpses of only once before—the one who shivered under his touch, who gasped and whimpered against his skin. The one who looked at him with adoration and unravelled in his arms. He’d give almost anything to have that Merlin back again.
Not wanting to open his eyes and see who was currently assisting him—the distant Merlin of late, the old Merlin with his casual touches, or the one he so desperately desired—Arthur stepped out of reach and without turning to look at the boy, asked, “Could you please find Sir Leon? He said he needed to speak to me about something.” Unable to stand the thought of another disappointment, he only relaxed after Merlin replied, “Yes, sire,” and left the room.
That night he was attuned to every sound Merlin made, each time he shifted under the blanket, trying to get comfortable, the small noises he made as he settled himself on his pallet, the change in his breathing when he finally fell asleep. Arthur longed to get out of bed, to walk over and stare his fill at the beautiful boy, trace those high cheekbones with his eyes, those ridiculous ears, the sensuous curve of his lips, the long column of his neck. But he had promised. He wasn’t sure he trusted himself to keep his hands at his sides, his lips from tasting that sinful mouth one more time.
Instead, he lay quietly in bed, trying to ignore the hardness between his legs, but unable to keep thoughts of Merlin from filling his head—the way he had rocked against Arthur’s thigh, his long, slender fingers clutching at his chest, the sounds he made as he pulsed his release. But especially that expression on his lovely open face, the one that said Arthur, and I want you, and I adore you.
Arthur reached his hand down and squeezed his length, not planning anything other than easing the ache. But as soon as he touched himself, a rush of images filled his mind—Merlin’s pale fingers wrapped around his cock; that perfect mouth, closing over the head, licking at the moisture beading at the tip; and those eyes, deep and blue and expressive, staring up at him from under a fringe of black lashes. Arthur tried to banish the pictures from his mind, thinking of Guinevere and her sweet smile and dark shining eyes. He had never been aroused by thoughts of men before, but Guinevere’s image refused to stay fixed. Dark eyes faded to blue and soft brown curves shifted to ivory, taut and angular. Finally, Arthur gave up the pretence and let himself indulge, muffling his voice in his pillow as he stroked himself off, seeing Merlin in his mind’s eye—pale and wanton and beautiful. Only Merlin.
Twice the following day, he could swear he caught Merlin looking at him. The first was during training, after a particularly skilled bout with Lancelot. Even as he was filled with uncertainty these days, and troubled by doubts, Arthur’s confidence never forsook him on the battle field. Wielding his sword grounded him in ways nothing else could. He knew his skill had been impressive; even Lancelot agreed. And when Arthur turned to walk off the field, yielding the area to the next pair of fighters, he was flushed with victory and smiling broadly. A movement on the sidelines caught his eye and he looked over to see Merlin watching him, a soft smile on his lips and his face holding a look of pride. There was something else there as well—a heated intensity to his gaze that Arthur felt right in his gut. But when Merlin saw Arthur looking, the smile disappeared abruptly and his face shifted into an impassive mask. It all happened so quickly, Arthur was left to wonder if he had only imagined the expression he had just seen on Merlin’s face.
The second was in the armoury afterward. There were no casual touches this time, and Merlin flinched at any accidental contact with Arthur’s skin. Arthur tried not to be disappointed, to put his inappropriate thoughts aside, but Merlin was so near, and his craving for the boy all-consuming. He couldn’t keep his eyes closed this time, couldn’t deny himself the chance to revel in their closeness. If he breathed deeply, he could even smell his skin. Arthur turned slightly as Merlin’s fingers fumbled with a buckle on his armour. He looked over at the boy’s face, eyes drawn to his mouth, and imagined leaning in, closing the small distance between them, and crushing those plump lips with his own. He swallowed, pushing the impulse back, and lifted his eyes away from such delicious temptation. His heart gave a leap when he saw Merlin’s gaze firmly fixed on his own mouth.
When Merlin realized Arthur was staring at him, his eyes snapped up and he took a short step back. The colour bloomed on his cheeks. This time, however, he didn’t run, but took a deep breath, as if steeling himself, and moved back to finish his task. Arthur was tempted to lean in, crowd closer to see if the blush would spread, but he held fast to his promise. He wouldn’t act on his desires.
It wasn’t his imagination, Arthur decided. He had caught Merlin staring at him numerous times in the past weeks, gaze heated, and not at all afraid. When their eyes met, Merlin didn’t turn away in embarrassment. No, he held Arthur’s eyes a little longer than usual, the flush stealing over his cheeks. His fingers reached automatically to his neck, as if he wasn’t aware what he was doing, touching the spot that used to bear Arthur’s mark. Arthur was mesmerized by the gesture, the rush of blood colouring his skin. Something stirred in him, possessive and wild, but as always, he pushed such feelings back, refusing to let them take hold, cause him to do something he’d later regret.
The small touches had continued; indeed, they had grown more bold and were not the innocent ones of old. Merlin’s fingers lingered on his skin, soft caresses that raised goose pimples where they passed. He stood closer as he helped Arthur dress, so near Arthur could feel the heat from his body through the fabric of his clothing, feel the warmth of his breath in his ear. Merlin’s actions had to be deliberate, and Arthur grew increasingly frustrated, unable to act on his desires. He took his anger out on Merlin, snapping at him, short-tempered, increasing the tasks he assigned—often the most unpleasant he could find.
Merlin retaliated by taunting him in small unsettling ways, standing even closer, leaning into his body whenever he could, wetting his lips with a slow sweep of his pink tongue while looking up at him through a fringe of lush thick lashes. Arthur had no idea how he resisted such obvious goading, but he somehow managed, even if he repeated his act of seeking release while Merlin slept peacefully nearby.
Everything came to a head one brisk afternoon. Arthur arrived at training agitated and tense. The crisp clear sky seemed to mock his stormy mood. The meeting with his father over breakfast had not gone well.
“How is it that we still do not know who’s behind these attacks?” Uther had asked as they ate their meal, discussing the report of yet another slaughtered druid camp, this time to the west, made to look as if Camelot was the perpetrator.
“I have my suspicions—”
“Well, confirm them,” Uther said with a stern look in Arthur’s direction.
Feeling like a failure under the weight of Uther’s disappointment, Arthur could only answer, “Yes, father.”
Later on the practice field, Arthur called out, “Leon, let’s you and I have a go at it, shall we?”
“Are you sure, sire? You’ve been at it hard all afternoon. Don’t you want to take a break?”
“Ah, scared to fight me, I see. I don’t blame you one bit.”
Leon tipped back his head and laughed. “Come on, then. Let’s see what you’ve got.”
Leon fought well, but he was no match for the prince. Arthur knew he had nothing to prove, but he gave it his all anyway. With a sword in his hand, he was in his element. This was where he excelled. The rest of his life may have been a riot of tumult, but here, on the field, he was at home. He felt invincible. Arthur was tiring, but nonetheless, he looked assured of an easy victory. That is, until he noticed Leon nodding in acknowledgment to someone off the field. Curious, Arthur turned to look and saw Guinevere standing there; she was joined quickly by Lancelot. He raised his hand to her face, stroking his knuckles tenderly over her cheek, and her answering smile was like the cut of a blade.
Completely unprepared for his visceral reaction to the sight, as if he’d been punched hard in the gut, Arthur faltered when Leon pressed the attack. Unable to get his shield properly in place, Leon’s blow fell at an odd angle, wrenching his shoulder. The pain shot through his arm, but at least managed to bring his full attention back to the fight, and even with his arm hanging practically useless at his side, he surged forward and quickly disarmed the other knight.
“Well fought,” he congratulated Leon, grasping his forearm in acknowledgment. When Arthur winced, Leon asked, “Are you all right, sire?”
Arthur nodded. “You’re not so useless, after all,” he joked. “It’s nothing. My shoulder. I’ll get some salve from Gaius. I think, however, I’ve had enough for the day. Can you finish up here with the men?”
Merlin was by his side almost instantly once Arthur was off the field. He relieved Arthur of his shield and hovered over him like a worried nursemaid. When he stood too close, as had been his wont of late, Arthur took a step back. Once his hauberk had been removed, Merlin began working on the ties to his gambeson. Merlin crowded close again, and Arthur gritted his teeth in irritation. When he felt Merlin’s hot breath in his ear and his fingers gently stroking the back of his neck, anger flared at his body’s traitorous response. He twisted away, grimacing at the pain in his shoulder.
“I don’t know what you’re playing at,” he said, voice cold as steel, “but I’m in no mood for your games.”
He didn’t want to hear whatever Merlin had to say. He only wanted a few moments alone to nurse his wounds in private. “See if Gaius has some sort of salve for my shoulder. Bring it to my chambers with my supper.”
“And make sure there’s a hot bath waiting for me.”
When Merlin still didn’t make move to leave, he added, “That will be all.”
After a long pause, Merlin said, “Yes, sire.”
The hot bath did little to ease the ache in his shoulder. And having Merlin tip-toeing around the room while he bathed only reminded him of one more thing he couldn’t have. Seeing Guinevere and Lancelot together had affected him more than he expected. His mind had been so occupied with other thoughts lately, he hadn’t dwelt as much on that particular wound. But seeing them, their obvious love for each other clear in every small gesture, it was as if the bandage had been ripped away, leaving a fresh bleed.
He groaned as he pulled himself from the tub. Merlin was immediately by his side with a towel. He rubbed it over his hair then wrapped it around his waist, grimacing with each move.
“Why don’t you lie down on the bed and I’ll rub this into your shoulder?” Merlin suggested, holding up the pot of salve.
The surge of arousal he felt at the thought of his servant’s hands on him both unsettled and irritated him. He didn’t need this added complication to his life. He needed to put Merlin out of his mind, not give himself more images to make his nights more restless. But he was tired, and sore, and worn down; he knew it would be difficult to reach the muscles himself.
Coming to a decision, he arranged himself on his stomach, the towel draped over his hips. Arthur shut his eyes and tried to relax. He felt the bed dip next to him, then he shivered at the first touch of Merlin’s hands on his skin. Merlin pulled them away.
“Sorry. Sorry. I should have warmed it up first.”
Arthur grunted in response, not wanting to admit it wasn’t the temperature of the salve that caused his reaction.
Merlin’s fingers were strong as they kneaded their way across his shoulders. Eventually, Arthur started to relax as the salve worked its way into his muscles, warming them and easing the ache.
“Right there. A little harder,” he directed.
Merlin pressed deeper, but the angle was wrong.
“I can’t really get… wait… let me…” then he was shifting on the bed, swinging his knees over Arthur’s hips and straddling his thighs.
As Merlin’s weight settled on the back of his legs, Arthur’s previous state of relaxation disappeared. His shoulders tensed and he gave a small gasp as his muscles contracted painfully. Merlin made a little clucking noise, stroking his skin in a soothing manner, both hands pressing into the flesh by his shoulder blades.
“Try to relax, sire.”
Arthur did try, but the gentle rocking motion on his thighs, the agile hands on his bare skin made him acutely aware he was all but naked and there was a boy touching him everywhere, his weight pressing him into the bed. Every inch of skin burned with a deep heat wherever Merlin’s hands roamed and he felt himself start to harden.
Arthur closed his eyes, ignoring his erection, and tried to let the salve and the deep tissue massage do its work. After a while he became aware that Merlin’s hands had at some point ceased their therapeutic movements and were now moving over his body with what could only be called caresses—slow sensuous strokes, the salve coating his palms allowing them to slip smoothly over his skin. Merlin’s breathing had also changed. His breaths were deeper, heavier. His thumbs pressed down the sides of Arthur’s spine, sliding all the way down from the base of his skull to his lower back, slipping beneath the edge of the towel, skimming the edge of his rear. Arthur buried his face in the crook of his elbow and tried not to reveal how his own breathing was more laboured. Merlin repeated the motion again and again, the slow slide down the spine, the tease below the hips.
His hands eventually stilled, thumbs pressing into the indentations just above the globes of his arse, fingers splayed loosely at his waist.
“Can I…?” he started, his hands sliding slowly up Arthur’s back, then back down to his waist.
“Can you what?” Arthur prompted, face muffled in his arms, but his mind screaming yes.
“Can I…?” His thumbs slid beneath the fabric again and dipped slightly farther down, grazing the top of the crevice of his rear. His breathing was quicker now, still audible to Arthur’s ears. Arthur waited silently, not wanting to interrupt Merlin’s request. After a moment, he finally spoke.
“I know you won’t touch me, but… would it be all right if I touched you?” His hands had stilled at Arthur’s hips, but he could feel them trembling.
Arthur didn’t respond right away, the request causing his face to flush with a sudden rush of heat, every nerve hyper aware of the boy balancing behind him.
“Please, Arthur,” he begged in a low breathy voice. “This isn’t a game. Please let me touch you.”
Arthur squeezed his eyes tighter at the sudden onslaught of feeling. He didn’t trust himself to speak. Instead he shifted his leg, crooking it slightly at the knee, relieving the pressure on his throbbing shaft and tilting his arse in the air, letting the towel slip from his hips.
A small gasp escaped from Merlin’s lips and he was still for one shocked moment, as if he couldn’t believe that Arthur was acquiescing, then he gave a noise of appreciation before sliding his hands reverently over the muscular globes of Arthur’s arse.
Arthur’s hips bucked instinctively, his cock seeking friction, rubbing against the bedding. As Merlin explored his body, strong agile hands kneading into his flesh, Arthur reached a hand down to fist himself, aching for relief. Merlin let out another small noise, as if he were choking, and his fingers dug even harder into Arthur’s arse. Then his slick hand, still covered in salve, slid in the crevice between his rounded flesh, stretching him apart, exposing his hole.
Arthur had never had anyone touch him so intimately, never been this close with another man. He knew, of course, what some men got up to together on long campaigns, but he had never felt the desire to explore such things, his heart while away still belonging to Guinevere. He was unsure what he wanted, if he could allow another man to touch him there. When Merlin’s slick finger glided over his hole, Arthur reacted immediately, clenching his cheeks tight and gasping into his arm, a strangled noise of protest escaping his mouth.
Merlin retreated immediately, pulling his hand away, moving his fingers back to the curve of his arse, then sliding his palms upwards, massaging slowly, and pressing soothingly into his lower back.
“Shhh,” Merlin said. “It’s all right.” After a few more gentling strokes he whispered, “Gods, you’re so beautiful.” His voice was reverent, worshipful. His hand were as well, touching him as if he were precious, a rare treasure to hold.
Arthur’s head was spinning at the sensations this man’s hands were bringing out in him. He marvelled how the tables had turned, how he was the one unravelling while Merlin’s touch took him apart. Shaken by his reactions and how vulnerable he felt, Arthur wanted Merlin to lose a little of his control—to be more like the boy who had trembled against him, shuddering and shaking apart with his release. Arthur shifted his leg a little higher, bringing it back toward his chest, spreading his arse wider, offering himself to Merlin’s touch.
“Oh,” Merlin breathed with a sigh. “Gods, Arthur.” His voice shook. He didn’t waste a second, sliding his hands back down, spreading him wider and pressing a single slicked finger against his hole. Arthur’s hand sped between his legs; he was already near the edge of his release. His emotions were too overwhelming to process. He only knew that he wanted more, wanted Merlin, his hands, his fingers on his flesh. Releasing his cock to reach behind him, Arthur groped blindly for Merlin’s hand. Pulling it away from where it held his arse prised open, he tugged it around his hips, telling him without words what he needed. The boy didn’t disappoint. He wrapped his hand around Arthur’s own, fisting them over his cock. Together their fingers intertwined as they stroked Arthur toward his climax. Merlin was almost incoherent, babbling, “Oh gods. So beautiful. Gods, Arthur. Gods.”
Merlin’s other hand was still poised at his entrance, the tip his finger pressing at the delicate furled skin. As Arthur spun toward completion, moaning and thrusting into their fists, Merlin pushed in with his finger, breaching his opening. Arthur felt his body clamp tight around the intrusion as he spasmed and pulsed in thick stripes across the bed. He barely recognized the harsh, broken cries coming from his mouth as his own voice.
Merlin gave one last stroke to Arthur’s sensitive cock before pulling his hand away. Arthur heard him frantically working at the laces of his breeches and then the rhythmic movement as Merlin stripped his cock, fast and hard. In just minutes Merlin was crying out and Arthur felt the hot splash of come across his arse, each drop incinerating him to oblivion.
Wrung out and exhausted, a little embarrassed by his uncontrolled responses, Arthur lay face down, listening to Merlin’s panting breaths. He tried to ignore the loss he felt when Merlin finally moved off his legs. He felt exposed and strangely vulnerable, reliving the things he had just let Merlin do. And now he was lying naked, alone on the bed and covered with seed. But then Merlin returned with a damp cloth and tenderly wiped him clean, as if he were fragile as glass.
Drained by emotion and sinking into post-orgasmic torpor, Arthur longed to lose himself in sleep. As he began to drift, he felt a blanket being pulled up over his hips, then the soft press of lips at the knob of bone near the top of his spine, breath hot on his neck. He shivered with pleasure.
“Goodnight, Arthur,” Merlin said.
The next morning Merlin was quiet as he helped ready Arthur for the day. His fingers were back to their old clumsiness and when they brushed against Arthur’s skin, a pink blush spread over his face. Arthur stared, fascinated, watching the blood rise up to his ears. He wanted to lick them, see if the temperature was as warm as it looked. Again preferring to face things head on, Arthur asked, low, while Merlin’s face was inches from his own, “So, not a game?”
Merlin’s head whipped up and the look on his face was so raw, it took Arthur’s breath away—full of heat, and longing, and the same devotion Arthur had seen the morning he woke him in front of the fire.
Humbled, Arthur searched his eyes, stunned by the emotion laid bare to him.
“No,” Merlin whispered, never averting his gaze. “Not a game.”
Arthur reached his hand to Merlin’s neck, rubbing his thumb tenderly across his cheek. Then he tugged him closer, kissing him soft and sweet. “Merlin,” he breathed, a smile in his voice. Then he pulled the man to his chest, wrapping his arms around him and holding him close. They swayed gently for a few moments until Arthur pulled away, placing a kiss at his temple as he released him. Merlin’s radiant smile filled his belly with warmth.
In the upcoming days, Arthur didn’t have time to explore this new dynamic with his manservant, but he had plenty of time to think about what had transpired. After leaving his chambers, he was summoned almost immediately to meet with his father. Hours later he was riding out of Camelot’s gates with his men, toward Escetia, tasked with discovering whether rumours of amassing forces held any truth. Typically, Merlin would have accompanied him on such a mission, but Gaius had requested he stay behind to help with an outbreak of illness in the lower town.
The days were long and the nights were cold and Arthur felt a sense of isolation from his men that hadn’t existed before Lancelot’s betrayal. He watched while they sat around the fire laughing and joking over the evening meal; their camaraderie was evident. Arthur sat apart, observing, but not joining in. The men made attempts to include him, but even they seemed relieved when he retired early for the evening.
Arthur lay in his tent, listening to sound of their voices, the occasional peal of raucous laughter. Loneliness settled over him like a blanket. He shut his eyes, willing himself to fall asleep before he completely succumbed to his maudlin mood. They’d be travelling home soon. Already he could feel the weight of his father’s disappointment, knowing they’d be returning once again with no real answers. Cenred was up to something, of that he was certain. Yet, they had been unable to uncover any overt evidence of his plans. What they had determined, however, was Escetia had become a refuge for the druids. They were fleeing Camelot in the wake of the attacks on their settlements. Cenred had the magic users on his side. Perhaps they were the only army he’d need.
Pressing his fingers against his forehead, Arthur groaned. His father would be unbearable. As would watching Guinevere and Lancelot reunite once again. The sting Arthur usually felt when thinking about Guinevere wasn’t as sharp this time, the pain not so deep. Another face, paler and angled sharp, kept slipping to the forefront in his mind—blue eyes, heavy lidded and sleep-soft. The smile on Merlin’s face after Arthur had kissed him that last morn. The hot splash of his seed on Arthur’s bare skin.
Arthur felt his cock stirring as he thought about Merlin. Deciding that spending his release would help him relax, Arthur kicked off his breeches and began stroking himself to hardness. For the first time since he left Camelot, Arthur allowed himself to indulge in the memories, playing them over in his mind at his leisure, lingering on specific moments—the tug of Merlin’s fist in his hair, the hot slide of his tongue against his own. As he stroked himself, using his thumb to roll back his foreskin, sliding the gathering wetness over the head of his cock, he thought of Merlin’s hands, those long elegant fingers, how they stroked across his cheek, so loving and tender, how they clutched at his clothing that first time, grasping and clenching almost desperately as his body trembled and shook with desire. How they kneaded deep into his muscles, first relaxing Arthur, then arousing him unbearably. How they spread him open, then penetrated him while bringing him off with his fist.
Fully hard now, and aching with need, Arthur spread his knees wider. Curious, he reached between his legs with one hand, rubbing the soft bit of skin behind his balls for a moment before sliding his finger down to press at his opening. Grimacing, he pushed the tip of his finger against his hole, feeling awkward and uncomfortable. He took a deep breath and continued to stroke his cock, focusing instead on the memory of Merlin’s hands, how he had felt as his slick finger slid against his hole. Bringing his hand to his mouth, Arthur sucked his finger between his lips, slicking it with spit. He reached down between his legs again, pushing in with increased pressure. This time his finger slipped into his body. His breath hitched and he flushed with heat; his body gave a little reflexive jerk of discomfort, but he kept his finger there, trying to get used to the sensation. When he had adjusted, he pushed it in even deeper, as far as it would go. Picturing Merlin’s graceful hands, he wondered how much deeper they could slide, how many more fingers he could fit. Remembering the feel of Merlin’s length on his thigh as he rutted against him, Arthur let himself imagine Merlin’s cock replacing those fingers, buried deep inside.
The thought of Merlin draped over him with his cock stuffing him full was almost too much for Arthur. He started pumping his erection hard and swift and with a long quiet shudder, he spilled over his fist, his finger slipping from his body as he climaxed.
After he had let himself relive those memories of Merlin, he found it almost impossible to keep thoughts of the man out of his head. He had imagined Merlin’s lush mouth, the long tendons of his neck, his elegant fingers, so many times, he couldn’t wait to compare his recollections with the real thing. And he had yet to see it, but Arthur had also imagined Merlin’s cock innumerable times—in his hand, between his lips… buried deep in his arse. Night after night he’d dreamed about what he would do if he had Merlin in his bed again; he hoped he’d be given the chance to make some of those fantasies come true. When they broke through the trees and the tall towers and stately walls of the castle came into view, her graceful lines draped in a veil of white, Arthur’s heart gave a leap of joy. They spurred their horses faster, hurrying toward Camelot.
Arthur’s eyes scanned the courtyard looking only for one face. Not the one he would have expected to seek only weeks ago. Instead of warm brown eyes and long dark curls, he sought a thatch of night-dark hair atop porcelain skin. When he caught sight of a flash of crimson, his eyes were drawn to Merlin, bright kerchief around his neck, standing near the stables. His cheeks were flushed pink from the cold and snowflakes adorned his hair and lashes, like sparkling jewels. Arthur couldn’t help the smile that took over his face. Merlin’s answering grin carried no uncertainty, only pleasure at Arthur’s return.
Dismounting, Arthur strode toward his manservant, leading his horse toward the stable.
He stopped, standing close, looking into shining blue eyes, brilliant sapphires gazing up through a sable fringe. “Merlin,” he said.
“Welcome home, sire.” His voice was warm as he took the reins from Arthur’s hand.
They stood staring at each other, the cold weather having no effect on the coil of heat winding through Arthur’s belly. Merlin broke their eye contact first, giving a small laugh, as if his happiness was too great to be contained and had bubbled up from the pressure through a much needed outlet.
“Let me…” he said, nodding toward the stable, starting to move in that direction leading Arthur’s steed.
“Right. Yes,” Arthur agreed, following alongside, concentrating on keeping his hands at his sides, and not where he wanted—on Merlin’s shoulders, pulling his slender body back against his chest.
The moment they were through the stable door, Arthur’s control snapped. He manhandled Merlin into the first available open stall and swung the door shut behind them. Merlin dropped the lead he was holding, only half-heartedly attempting to get free, saying in a flustered voice, “Arthur… what…”
His words were cut off by Arthur’s lips as Arthur pressed Merlin back against the stable wall and kissed him with all the pent up passion that had been building the entire journey home. Merlin tensed in surprise, but only for fractions of a second before he melted against Arthur, his mouth opening to emit a low moan, his hands reaching up to sink into Arthur’s hair, nails scraping on his scalp. Arthur immediately took advantage of his parted lips and thrust his tongue between them, tasting Merlin’s mouth as if he were starved. His hands moved to Merlin’s hips, pulling them tight against his own. Then he brought one gloved hand up to Merlin’s jaw, tilting his head so he could kiss him even more deeply, tangling their tongues together. He analyzed the taste, the textures of his mouth, determined to never again have only hazy memories to rely on.
Arthur kissed him for a few moments more, shifting his hips against Merlin’s, his erection growing, arousal building like a rising storm. He could feel Merlin’s own cock becoming hard as he moved from his lips to bite at Merlin’s jaw then suck down his neck. He licked wet stripes across his skin, tasting him, drinking him in, then moved to the spot behind Merlin’s ear, the one that used to bear his mark, and sucked against his skin, nipping him sharply with his teeth.
Merlin’s frantic little whine went straight to Arthur’s cock and he rocked his hips harder against the boy, grinding against him.
“Thought about this…” Arthur panted the whispered confession in Merlin’s ear. “Thought about you...”
He reached his hand down between their bodies and cupped it over Merlin’s cock, squeezing.
“What you’d taste like,” he continued. “The noises you’d make.”
In response, Merlin’s hips bucked into his hand and small desperate whimpers fell from his lips.
Arthur fumbled at the laces of Merlin’s breeches, growling in frustration when his still-gloved hands were too bulky and inept for finesse. Reaching his hand up to his face, he pulled his mouth away from Merlin’s skin long enough to use his teeth yank the glove off one hand. He tossed it into the straw at their feet and went back to his task, loosening the tie and plunging his hand under the fabric.
He groaned when his fingers closed over Merlin’s hot shaft and it twitched beneath his fingers. Pulling back to look at Merlin’s face, he was rewarded with the sight of his manservant, face flushed, mouth open and panting, lips red and swollen, his eyes gone dark with desire.
“Gods, look at you,” Arthur murmured, moving his hand over Merlin’s cock, watching his lashes flutter and his chest heave with a gasp as he stroked.
Wanting to finally look at what he was touching, Arthur leaned in to kiss Merlin hard on the mouth, then he sank to his knees, pushing aside the fabric of Merlin’s coat and tugging his breeches down.
A strangled noise came from above and Arthur looked up to see Merlin’s eyes staring down at him, shocked and wild.
“What are you doing?” he asked in a choked voice, hands plucking at Arthur’s shoulders, feebly attempting to get him to rise.
“Tasting you,” Arthur said, torn between keeping his eyes locked on the wrecked face of the boy above him or examining what was jutting out a fingerspan from his lips. The hot flesh in front of his face won and Arthur grasped Merlin’s cock with his fist, sliding the foreskin away and revealing the rosy head, a few clear drops of liquid beading at the slit. He stuck out his tongue, bringing his face closer, and licked the wetness away, his own eyes drifting closed at the taste, salty and pungent.
Wanting more, he closed his lips around the head of Merlin’s cock, moaning, sliding his tongue across the head again, savouring his flavour. Arthur had never done anything like this with another man before, but he’d received pleasure in this manner, so he understood in concept what to do. What he didn’t expect, however, was his own craving to have Merlin in his mouth, to suck him down, feel the vein on the underside of his cock against his tongue. He didn’t expect the effect his actions would have on Merlin, his hips bucking frantically, incoherent noises pouring from his mouth.
Arthur pulled back, gagging, eyes watering, and looked up at Merlin. His own desire flared at the pure naked want on his face, hot and hungry and intense.
“You’ll have to be quiet,” Arthur said, voice low and hoarse.
Merlin nodded, and when Arthur grasped the base of his cock in his hand again, Merlin’s head flung back, knocking into the wall with a thump, hips jerking in response. Arthur used his gloved hand to grip Merlin’s hip, holding him steady against the wall, his thumb digging into his flesh. He moved his mouth back around Merlin’s erection, slurping and sucking, no art to his actions, but driven by an uncontrollable urge to get as much of Merlin in his mouth as he could.
As he knelt, completely consumed by his need, devouring Merlin’s cock, he began to hear the voices of the other men arriving in the stable, the squires and stable boys assisting with the returning horses. Merlin lifted his head, panic that they may be caught now mixed with the desire showing on his face. Arthur simply continued his actions, hollowing his cheeks to suck harder, eyes locked on Merlin’s. He sped the movement of his hand, swirling his tongue around Merlin’s shaft and almost had to shut his own eyes against the sight of Merlin, hand reaching for Arthur’s hair, trying to tug him away, but unable to before his body tensed and he spasmed against Arthur’s tongue, filling his mouth with hot seed.
Arthur pulled back a little, trying to swallow it down, savouring the slightly bitter flavuor on his tongue, rapt at the expression on Merlin’s face—pain and pleasure combined—but he was unprepared for the continuing pulsing of Merlin’s cock and he struggled to swallow again as more of Merlin’s release dribbled out of the side of his mouth. When Merlin stilled, Arthur pulled his hand away to frantically work at his own laces, trying to release his own aching cock. Merlin sunk down to the ground, kneeling next to Arthur and joined his hands to the task, freeing his erection from his breeches then wrapping his fingers around it.
Licking at the corner of Arthur’s mouth, cleaning his seed off his skin, Merlin pressed his lips against Arthur’s, capturing his low moan as he spilled on the ground. Arthur pulled his mouth away, panting, resting his head against Merlin’s forehead; their hands gave one last slow pull against his spent cock and he gave a shudder, oversensitive. After a moment, he pulled back to look at Merlin’s debauched face.
“It’s good to be home,” he said, slightly breathless, face breaking into a grin.
Merlin lips quirked, then he broke out in a dazzling smile, a bark of laughter leaving his lips. They collapsed against each other again, laughing softly and Arthur felt almost giddy with the ridiculousness of it all.
“Arthur,” she gasped.
“Guinevere. Are you all right?”
“Yes, yes I’m fine. You just startled me.”
“I’m sorry. I was… preoccupied. I wasn’t looking where I was going.”
“Oh. Is anything wrong?”
“It’s—” Arthur automatically started to tell her about the recent conversation with his father, Uther’s disappointment at Arthur’s continuing failure to uncover more about the attacks on the druid camps or Cenred’s plans, but stopped himself. For a moment he forgot she was no longer his, no longer the one he could turn to for comfort, for a sympathetic ear. A hot flash of rage burned briefly in his gut. He shook his head, quelling the flare of emotion, tamping it down.
“It’s nothing important,” he said.
Realizing his hands were still holding her shoulders, Arthur dropped them and took a step backward. He cleared his throat and looked away.
“Are you… how have you been?” Guinevere asked.
“I’ve been well. And you?”
“Fine. I’ve... I’ve been fine.”
Was this how it’d always be now, he wondered? Polite strangers? The awkward conversation was bringing that urge to flee even more into focus.
Guinevere put her hand on his arm. He stared at it, uncomprehendingly, then looked at her questioningly.
“Arthur…” she faltered.
He continued to stare, noting the flush creeping up her cheeks. He felt detached, as if he were simply an observer to the conversation instead of a participant.
“It’s just that…” she continued. “I haven’t had the chance to… You’ve been gone so much and… I wanted to say I’m—”
“It’s all right, Guinevere,” Arthur cut in, interrupting her stammering while removing her hand from his arm. He took another step back.
“But I wanted to—”
“There’s no need,” he interrupted again. He didn’t want to hear whatever she had to say, whether she was sorry, or grateful, or missed him, or something else entirely. Anything at all was going to hurt in some way and he wasn’t prepared right now to hear it. He didn’t need the scab ripped open anew.
“I want you to be happy,” he said.
She stared him, her eyes searching his face. “I am,” she finally said.
“Good. That’s… good.”
“I’m sorry, but I’ve somewhere I need to be. It was good to see you, Guinevere.”
“Oh… of course.” She took the step back this time, looking flustered.
He gave a slight bow, then turned, heading down the corridor at a swift pace. His only impulse had been to escape the conversation with Guinevere, to keep his thoughts and memories at bay, lest they consume him. But as he walked, he realized he had spoken the truth; he did have somewhere he needed to be. His footsteps picked up speed.
Merlin looked up as he burst through the door.
Arthur strode across the room and grabbed Merlin’s upper arms, pulling him close, kissing him soundly. His lips were demanding and sure and Merlin responded instantly, opening his mouth and seeking out Arthur’s tongue with his own. Arthur urged him closer still, pushing his knee between Merlin’s leg and rubbing his thigh against his groin. Merlin’s moans filled his mouth.
Heat uncurled in Arthur’s stomach, spreading through him like a wildfire. Since Arthur’s return to Camelot after his last mission away, his time with Merlin had been a revelation. Their frantic reunion in the stable was only the beginning. They had righted their clothing, kicked straw over Arthur’s release and exited the stall so Merlin could take care of Arthur’s steed. Ignoring Gwaine’s assessing stare, Arthur had left to report to his father. He didn’t see Merlin again until that evening. They didn’t discuss what had happened earlier, but Arthur was aware of every small touch, every glance. When Merlin prepared to retire to his pallet, Arthur stopped him, grabbing his wrist.
“I’d like you to…” he hesitated. Arthur didn’t want this to be a command. He thought back on what Lancelot had said to him, the realization he’d had that any request would be seen that way regardless. But he was too selfish, wanted this too much, to not ask at all.
“If you’re willing, I’d like you to share my bed tonight.” He was strangely nervous, pulse beginning to race, palms growing damp.
He needn’t have worried. Merlin looked into his eyes, a soft smile on his face, and said, “I’m willing.”
Arthur felt his stomach drop, as if he were falling. Merlin’s expression held nothing back, every thought and feeling bared to him. The pure devotion staring back at him made Arthur tremble with a tumult of emotions. He wanted so much, too much, all at once—to gather him close, protect him, and keep that look in his eyes forever; to be the kind of man worthy of what was being offered; to throw him on the bed, strip him naked and ravage him senseless. Instead, he wordlessly tugged Merlin toward the bed, climbed under the blankets and moved to make room, pulling Merlin in afterwards.
They lay on their sides, facing each other. Arthur’s chest grew tight, as if he couldn’t breathe, unable to look away from Merlin’s face, sharp angles casting shadows in the dim light. Merlin leaned over, pressing his lips softly against Arthur’s, lightly touching his tongue to his top lip, catching the small gasp of air. He pulled back then, saying, “You should get some sleep, sire.”
As if the words themselves caused the exhaustion he suddenly felt crashing over him, Arthur’s eyes fluttered shut. “Arthur,” he slurred, already half asleep. “Call me Arthur.”
He felt another soft kiss on his lips, then Merlin moved closer, tucking himself against Arthur’s chest, feet and legs tangling with his own. A quiet, “Good night, Arthur,” was the last thing he heard before sleep overtook him.
Merlin had been in his bed every night since. And there were few that ended as that first night had done. Arthur could never have imagined the sheer pleasure this shift in their relationship would bring. With a look, or a touch, Merlin could have him aching and hungry. He used his fingers, then his mouth to take Arthur apart, leaving him writhing and desperate for release. The first time Merlin slid his cock into Arthur’s arse, Arthur was shaking from the overwhelming sensations, pleasure and pain, Merlin’s sweat slicked body draped across his back, hips pushing into him, and Merlin’s hot breath in his ear, panting, “Arthur, Arthur,” like a prayer.
That same heady arousal was rising as they kissed in his chambers. He could feel it washing over him like a wave, swamping him and pulling him under so he was drowning in a pool of desire. He freed his lips to growl in Merlin’s ear, “I need you inside me.” Then there was the frantic tugging of clothing, the stumbling toward the bed, the slick slide of fingers preparing him, the exquisite burn as Merlin’s cock filled Arthur deep.
The sight before him was beautiful, the tendons of Merlin’s neck taut and straining, lips red and swollen, eyes dark and intense and he leaned over Arthur, thrusting into him. Arthur locked his eyes on Merlin’s, grasping for something to ground him before he broke apart into pieces. Merlin had Arthur’s knee hooked over his elbow, Arthur’s strong thigh bent toward his chest and he leaned over to kiss him, panting into his mouth. “I’ve got you,” he said. “I’ve got you, Arthur. You can let go.”
Arthur surrendered, giving himself completely to the moment, to Merlin, not thinking of anything but the beautiful boy above him, their bodies joined together, the inferno building between them. Nothing existed but Merlin. Not his loneliness, his heartache, the uncertainty of the future, his doubts and insecurities. When he was here, like this, everything faded away. Morgana, Guinevere, Lancelot, his father—the betrayals and disappointments. He could take them all, deal with them all if he could only have this. This one thing was his, his alone to treasure and keep.
“Merlin,” he practically sobbed, voice breaking on the name as he spiralled to his release.
Yes, he could deal with everything else if he could just have this.