In retrospect, Arthur would think that if he hadn't had the sort of servant who thought it was appropriate to tussle with the prince he served as if the two of them were dirty village urchins, none of it would have happened.
It wasn't that Arthur had been particularly keen to approach the strange bluish glow in the clearing any more than the knights who had been hanging back uncertainly had been. But once Merlin had said, "Maybe you should let me go first, sire," as if he were somehow better prepared to face whatever it was than Arthur was, the idiot, Arthur had felt it was a matter of pride to push Merlin back.
He'd felt particularly pleased with the level of contempt that he'd managed to pack into his sneer, too.
But no-one could say that Merlin had ever exhibited signs of knowing what was good for him. He'd actually pressed back against Arthur's arm, repeating his request—"No, really, sire, I insist"—and trying to squeeze past to enter the clearing first.
Arthur had pushed him back again; Merlin had knotted his fingers in Arthur's tunic with an odd sort of desperation. Arthur had shoved Merlin aside; Merlin had yanked Arthur's hair, and it had devolved into the sort of undignified affair that Arthur hoped never to have to acknowledge again.
They'd burst out from behind a small copse of trees, and Arthur had caught a second's glimpse of Merlin's horrified face outlined in blue light before the woods around them had quieted into complete silence, then exploded in a flash of lightning.
Arthur opened his eyes a minute later to the sight of seven magpies streaking across the top of the clearing, their shapes dark against the white clouds and the muted grey of the sky. He tried to remember what it was that seven magpies meant—he'd had a nurse who had sung the rhyme to him as a child—but couldn't.
"Arthur?" he heard from above him, and he turned his aching head to find Merlin looking down at him bemusedly, smiling as if this weren't all his bloody fault.
He tried to get the word what out of his mouth, but his throat refused to yield anything more than a dry, hacking sound. He coughed a couple of times, glaring balefully at Merlin.
"Are you all right?" asked Merlin, lips quirking as he extended a hand for Arthur to take.
Arthur blinked slowly, his joints feeling oddly uncooperative, before finally extending his arm toward Merlin's.
Once he was upright, he pulled his shoulders back, drawing a slow, even breath through flared nostrils. He had found that Merlin had learned to recognise this as a sign of a spectacular berating to come, and the look he always gave Arthur in response, half fright and half amusement, was always particularly satisfying to catch.
Merlin simply quirked an eyebrow at him, though, before shaking his head once and saying,
"Well, come on then. Let's get back."
He walked back towards the edge of the clearing, crunching twigs under his boots and not sparing another glance for Arthur.
Arthur felt a roiling, burning anger flare to life low in his belly, stoked immediately into a fierce flame by Merlin's insolence: his failure to acknowledge that whatever had knocked Arthur on his arse might not have done so if Merlin hadn't flagrantly disregarded an order Arthur had given him, that he'd now walk away from him as if he were entitled to do so.
"Merlin," he called warningly, and Merlin turned around, raised his eyebrows again, and said,
"What exactly do you think you are you doing?" he asked, trying to place his knights by looking for them from out of the corner of his eye.
The last thing he wanted was to have to order that Merlin be put in the stocks, or worse, that he be whipped. Generally, however, Merlin had more sense than to act as if their more private manner of interaction could be showcased like this before Arthur's other subordinates, many of whose first allegiances were to Uther.
"Er … Well, mostly, I think I am getting out of here before we both begin to age," Merlin retorted, intoning his voice in a mockery of Arthur's.
Arthur saved himself from spluttering only by sheer force of will.
"Gareth," he called sharply, barely turning his face to the right.
Perhaps he could order Gareth to take Merlin away as if to be punished. Gareth would know better than to do anything before Arthur got back, and he could ride ahead with Merlin before Arthur was forced to give an order out loud in front of others, after which it could not be taken back.
"What about him?" asked Merlin cheerfully, putting one foot in the stirrup of a handsome golden mare outfitted in a fine bridle and swinging up into the saddle.
"Listen here, Merlin," Arthur began, before stopping, snapping his mouth shut and looking around the clearing carefully for the first time since he'd ended up flat on his back.
He was fairly certain he'd never seen the mare Merlin was riding before in his life.
He looked around, craning his head as far as it would go, then looked again, because he could have sworn the clearing they were standing in now was not the same clearing they'd entered a few minutes earlier.
The trees that they'd been crouching behind before coming forward were gone, replaced by a dark gathering of shrubs, some of which had bright berries clustering heavily on their lower branches. Arthur shook his head slowly, feeling a nagging uncertainty about just how hard he might or might not have hit his head as he fell. The uncertainty spiked into alarm when he saw that none of the seven knights that had accompanied them for the day's patrol were anywhere in sight.
Arthur looked around for his horse, but the only animal in the clearing, apart from the mare on which Merlin was now sitting, looking at him uncertainly, was a roan gelding.
"Where is my horse, Merlin?"
Merlin looked at him the way one might look at a small child who was asking an uncomfortable question.
"Arthur," he said, motioning distractedly towards the gelding and craning forward to peer intently into Arthur's eyes. "Are you sure you're well?"
No, Merlin, I am certain I am not, Arthur almost said before he thought better of it. Because now that he was looking more carefully, he could see that Merlin was wearing a fine velvet cloak with a hood lined in fur, the sort of thing Merlin could not possibly own. And even if he could, Arthur was positive he did not: he would never admit it, but he was fairly certain he could recognise each of the pieces of clothing Merlin owned. It helped that many of them had been Arthur's at one point, but Arthur was almost sure he could have identified any of Merlin's awful neck wrappings, even though none had been ripped from Arthur's old tunics.
Merlin was looking fixedly at him now, eyes narrowed, and Arthur fought to pull himself together, to tear his eyes away from where Merlin's delicately spun tunic laced across Merlin's chest, from where his soft leather breeches pulled across his knees as Merlin leaned forward.
He looked down at himself (somewhat belatedly, considering the circumstances) and noted, with the odd detachment of the utterly confused, that he appeared to be wearing slightly coarse clothing that had been darned at the wrists and ankles, as if someone with longer limbs had worn it before Arthur had.
You are not going mad, he told himself firmly, closing his eyes briefly and counting downwards from ten in his head. There is a perfectly reasonable explanation for why you appear to be seeing things that are not there.
When he looked up, it was to see Merlin hopping nimbly from his horse. He came to stand beside Arthur, gripping his upper arm tightly.
"Arthur. What is it?"
His eyes flicked from Arthur to the horses, then around the edges of the clearing, as if to see what it was that was making Arthur stand like a statue beside him, every muscle clenched.
"What do you feel? Do you think you've been bewitched?" he asked, when Arthur didn't answer.
He looked intently into Arthur's left eye, then into the right, then at Arthur's hands. His fingers pushed Arthur's hair back from his forehead, then patted at his chest and cheeks.
Arthur thought of the blue light, of the seconds he'd lost between walking towards it and opening his eyes to see the sky above him. Yes, he thought. Yes, I think I have been bewitched.
Then he thought of Merlin's clothing and of the scratchy feel of his own breeches' rough fabric at his hips, of all the things that could not be explained away by a flash of light. He looked carefully at Merlin, who did not appear to think anything was amiss, and some odd instinct of prideful self-preservation—Never let them see you uncertain, Arthur, his father always said—made him say,
"No, I … I'm sorry. I was just a bit dazed from the fall. We can— Let's go back to the castle now."
Merlin looked at him for a moment longer, brows drawn together, then finally nodded. He clambered back onto his horse, and Arthur put a shaky foot into the gelding's stirrup. Merlin nudged his horse into motion as Arthur settled into his own unfamiliar saddle. He turned to look at Arthur as he rode, saying,
"We'll go see Gaius when we return. He can have a look at your head."
"Yes," said Arthur gratefully. Gaius will know what to do.
They rode in silence for a few minutes, and Arthur finally broke the silence by asking,
"What day is it?"
Merlin glanced at him sharply, clearly alarmed, before saying, "December. December the ninth."
That, at least, was as Arthur thought, then.
"Arthur, how hard did you hit your head when you tripped?"
When I tripped? Arthur thought indignantly, because rising uncertainty aside, he was fairly clear on the fact that he was not, nor would he ever be, the sort of person who tripped.
"Merlin, I'm fairly certain it was the massive explosion of blue light that knocked me flat," he said disdainfully.
Merlin simply shot him another worried look, the sort of look that, had anyone else been there to see it, might have communicated, Oh dear, here comes the village loon, then spurred his horse faster.
"Blue light?" he asked, clearly affecting nonchalance, but Arthur was spared from answering, Yes, yes, blue light, the blue light we followed into the clearing, you idiot. Or … did we? by the sight of the castle's walls appearing as the two of them emerged from the forest.
Arthur pretended not to have heard the question, and Merlin did not press him further. Arthur felt so addled that he could not even muster up the energy to dress him down for nudging his mare forward onto the drawbridge before Arthur's horse, as if he didn't know better than to precede the crown prince into his own courtyard.
Arthur pursed his lips and tried to be patient: he was certain he'd have a chance to scream himself hoarse any moment now, after all. Just as soon as he saw Gaius. Then everything would be cleared up, and Arthur would find his own clothes and his own horse, and he could banish at least two of his knights, on principle, for deserting him, and give Merlin stable duty for stealing clothes.
The moment after he saw Gaius.
"Merlin! Arthur!" Gareth called cheerfully from the courtyard.
Arthur was about to ask, How in the world did you get back so quickly? when Gareth came forward, took the reins of Merlin's horse, and helped him descend as if Merlin were the knight. He then handed the mare off to a stableboy before turning and climbing up the castle's stairs, turning to call,
"I'll let the queen know you're back!" as he disappeared down the corridor.
"—tell Gaius we need to see him, too!" Merlin called after him, laughing at his hasty departure.
The queen? Arthur thought. He shook his head quickly as he dismounted from his horse. He'd probably misheard. Problems with his hearing, a period of unconsciousness long enough to allow someone to dress him in foul rags (all right, not foul, he'd admit: they were perfectly serviceable, but not anywhere near appropriate). He just had to keep a careful tabulation of the symptoms, then mention everything to Gaius.
"All right, Arthur, we're going to Gaius straight away," said Merlin, wrapping his fingers tightly around Arthur's wrist and pulling him towards the castle like a child.
"Sire!" called a man's voice from behind them, and Arthur and Merlin turned as one to see a man unloading a heavy work cart at one end of the courtyard. He had an extremely large package balanced precariously against one side of the cart, and he called towards them,
"Could you possibly help me to unload this one parcel, sire?"
Not the most proper of requests, but Arthur would not begrudge one of his subjects his help if he was struggling. He started forward, but stopped when Merlin's hand shot out before him.
He turned to see Merlin nodding and smiling, saying, "Of course," indulgently.
He splayed the fingers of the hand in front of him, and the air crackled with an odd sort of pressure before Merlin's eyes turned golden, glittering amber like a cat's. Arthur started, then looked back towards the man and his cart, in the direction where Merlin's hand was pointing.
The roughly wrapped bundle was lifting clear of the cart, despite the fact that the man was no longer supporting it, and Arthur looked between it and Merlin with a dawning sense of horror. His throat constricted, refused to do what he wanted it to for the second time that day. It would not allow him to suck in a breath of air. He was not even able to squeeze a Stop, you fool from it.
Arthur's father had burned dozens of men and women for lesser crimes than this in this very courtyard: he had burned many of them for no crime at all. In that one instant Arthur felt vindicated that his discipline of looking away from Merlin at key points in the proceedings had not been misled; he felt horrified by the prospect of the men he was certain would begin tearing towards them at any second. He felt scared, something that he had only admitted to feeling three or four times in his life. He felt angry, which was a disturbingly common occurrence around Merlin, a man whose job was supposed to be to make Arthur's life easier.
No rush of people materialised to apprehend Merlin, however, and the man who Arthur assumed was a merchant called a grateful, "Thank you, sire!" as his package came to rest on the floor beside him, near the back entrance to the kitchens.
"Of course, Balwen," said Merlin.
Arthur looked around, a stiff talking-to (or, at the very least, some vomit) ready to come out of his gaping mouth, just in time to catch sight of a woman dressed in green silk emerging from the castle.
Morgana, thank heavens, he thought, stepping abortively towards her. When the woman looked up, though, her eyes were lined, and Arthur saw that her hair, intricately decorated with pearls and adorned with a gleaming coronet set with jewels, was greying.
"Merlin, darling," she called sweetly, and Merlin called,
"Mum!" delightedly and rushed towards her just as Arthur placed Hunith's face.
Arthur looked between Hunith and the castle's entrance, feeling an odd sense of disconnection from everything around him, as if the inexplicable had simply added up to too much for his mind to want to attempt comprehension. He looked up from a grounding perusal of the courtyard's cobbles just in time to see Morgana emerging onto the steps, dressed in a simple tunic the likes of which she hadn't worn since childhood.
It suited her.
"Gaius asked me to bring you to his rooms, Your Highness," she said, with a small curtsy. "Gareth told him you might be in need of him."
Arthur was torn between savouring the moment and indulging the natural urge to point out that Morgana had not ever called him Your Highness without sarcasm, not once. He hesitated for a split moment, unsure what to do, but that second was enough for him to realise that she was directing herself at Merlin, who was nodding quickly and saying,
"We'll be up in a moment, Morgana. Thank you."
Morgana inclined her head once and turned quickly, striding back into the castle with a sense of purpose. It was clear that she had been not only unsurprised to have Merlin answer for Arthur, but that she'd expected it.
Of course, Arthur would later wish that it hadn't happened to him at all. But all things considered—the clothes, the cart and the parcel, the Your Highness, the crown on Hunith's head, Merlin's terrifying assurance—he wasn't as ashamed as he might have otherwise been when the world tilted sickeningly around him, making him weave unsteadily on his feet.
"Arthur!" he heard Merlin call sharply, just before the smooth stone of the steps rushed towards him and everything went black.
He woke to the familiar smell of Gaius' workrooms, a blend of warm and pleasant spices and acrid fumes that Gaius had once told him were a side effect of boiling toad entrails. Arthur had been young and impressionable when Gaius had said that, but age had not made him desist in his wish that Gaius had been lying to him.
"The abrasion on his head is minor, sire," Gaius was muttering quietly, his fingers cradling a small bump on the back of Arthur's head carefully.
"Gaius, he asked me what the date was," Merlin whispered urgently, and then, "You don't think—"
"No," Morgana interjected decisively. "It's not that."
"Morgana, I know you don't like talking about Uther—"
"It is not that," she repeated, and Arthur wondered what she meant. He fought the urge to smile at the command in her tone. It was as well known to him as the turns in the corridor outside his chambers, or as the feel of his favourite bow under his hands.
They continued to speak in low voices, and Arthur kept his eyes shut, convinced he'd open them to find everything as it ought to be, but delaying the moment in case … Well, just in case.
"Arthur," he heard finally, spoken in Merlin's voice directly above him.
"Mmh," he said, unwilling to commit to consciousness just yet.
"Arthur, can you hear me?"
He almost answered, "Don't be an idiot, Merlin; it's my eyes that are closed, not my ears," before he realized how stupid that would have sounded.
(Sometimes the urge to poke fun at Merlin won out over even the most basic of Arthur's impulses—like, say, the long-bred habit of making sense when he spoke.)
He settled for a grunted, "Yes," which seemed to satisfy Merlin, whose hand loosened its iron grip on Arthur's wrist.
"I believe it's probably nothing more than the knock to the head, sire," Morgana said, lifting one of Arthur's eyelids with two fingers and taking the opportunity to dig the fingernails of her other hand hard into Arthur's side, quickly and surreptitiously.
Even if Morgana's voice had not sounded odd, and even if the sire had not been spoken over Arthur's head, clearly meant for someone else, Arthur would have taken the meaning of her signal: Stay silent.
Gaius and Merlin looked relieved when he opened his eyes. Well, that made two of them, anyway. Merlin's ludicrous furred hood was still resting against his shoulders, and nothing seemed to have been improved by Arthur's face-first dive onto the courtyard steps.
When he shook his head slowly as if to clear it and muttered simply, "God, yes; my head feels awful," mindful of Morgana watching over him sharply, Gaius and Merlin seemed almost pleased—they, at least, were clearly unaware that anything was wrong.
Gaius nodded briskly and headed towards his cupboards, and Merlin trailed after him like an anxious hen. Arthur looked to Morgana for approval, but if anything, Arthur's willingness to go along with what he'd thought was her plan seemed to have made her angry. Her eyes flashed warningly at him, and Arthur raised his hands—half placation, half indignant What?—as she called to Gaius,
"I haven't yet brought in the new batch of pain remedies we brewed yesterday, Gaius." She smiled sweetly at him, and continued, "But I know Merlin has been meaning to conduct his yearly overview of the storeroom—" Here her voice turned teasing and light, and if the look on Merlin's face was any indication, it was because she knew how little he was looking forward to this task— "So perhaps now would be a good time for him to do that? I'll make sure to apply a poultice to Arthur's head, and you can bring the remedy up with you when you return. It will probably do him good to lie down for some time, anyway."
Arthur objected to both lie down and poultice (which in his experience was synonymous with disgusting) but one look at Morgana's stony face made him keep quiet.
"Are you sure you're all right, Arthur?" Merlin asked for the hundredth time, and Arthur rolled his eyes at him pointedly. He felt bad a second later for mocking Merlin's concern (he was being awfully patient with a man who had already fainted twice in one day), but Merlin seemed to take his exasperation in stride, grinning and saying, "Okay, okay," as he followed Gaius out the door.
Arthur had barely gathered enough wits about him to turn his head back towards Morgana when he felt the cold press of a thin blade at his throat. Morgana darted into his field of vision, eyes wild, and she hissed at him,
"Who are you?"
Arthur answered "Arthur Pendragon" not to be facetious, but merely on instinct. Clearly she could see that he did not quite belong here, which some part of him had known the moment he'd caught sight of Merlin's worried face in the clearing. He'd never answered to any other name, however, and even the people here—in this enchanted kingdom, or in his befuddled head, wherever this place was (though one option was distinctly more terrifying than the other)—seemed to know that much.
"You certainly do a good enough job of looking like Arthur," Morgana spat, pressing her small knife harder against his throat. In the next instant, though, her face changed, and she cocked it to the side, eyes wide, and asked,
"Yes," he answered, frustrated. He then thought better of it, though, and amended, "And no. I think perhaps I am … not the Arthur you expect?"
He wondered that he was taking this so fully in his stride, but then he reasoned it was only to be expected, to some extent. As much as his father liked to pretend otherwise, it wasn't as if anyone in Camelot wasn't extremely well acquainted with magic and strange happenings by now.
She said nothing, but the blade ceased to press so firmly into his neck, and her other hand came to rest above his face, trembling slightly. She held it above his forehead, and Arthur watched in disbelief as her eyelids fluttered, shielding eyes that had gone blank—but not before flashing golden for an instant beforehand.
"Arthur," she said finally, and Arthur, who had had enough of that, said,
"Yes, as I said. But— I'm not. That is, I don't— I don't belong here."
The last part of his broken sentence rose in a rather pathetic self-pitying whine. He could hardly help it, though.
"No," she said simply, and Arthur, too relieved at her easy acceptance to question it overmuch, asked, still in that reedy voice that he would not own up to later,
"Can you help me get back?"
Her lips twisted ruefully.
"Perhaps. But first I will have to figure out what it is that brought you here. I do not believe you mean anyone here any harm, however."
"I don't," he said honestly, because he could not imagine wishing harm on Morgana or Gaius—or Merlin; well, not real harm, anyway—in any situation. He breathed evenly as he thought of what to say next. He finally settled on, "Where am I?"
"Camelot," she answered simply, shrugging her shoulders. "But you knew that. You know us."
"I do," he said, not sure how to say, And yet I don't. She said it for him, though, in the brief distrustful look that she shot him, as if she couldn't help herself.
"You do not wish to harm Queen Hunith? This would not be the first time a rival sorcerer tries to wreak havoc at court."
Violent sorcerers: well, apparently things other than Merlin's infuriating insubordination stayed the same. Rival, though—that was new.
"I am not a sorcerer," he answered, honestly, but even his brief glimpse of the Merlin of this Camelot made it clear that he would never be able to say, And I do not know any sorcerers, either ever again, and mean it.
He was not sure how he knew that what he had seen of Merlin here was true in his Camelot, as well, but he was. Perhaps (definitely) it was the dozens of unexplained things that always seemed to happen around Merlin, all of which Arthur had expended much effort pushing to the back of his mind.
"I am—" he began. "I am Prince Merlin's servant?"
Not words he would have ever envisioned passing his lips, but he knew enough about court etiquette to infer this from what he had experienced so far.
"Queen Hunith and Prince Merlin do not like the word servant," she said, prissily.
"Well," he amended, piqued (what did it matter what one called it, anyway? What mattered was what one did), "His companion, then."
She nodded firmly.
"And you are— Gaius' apprentice?"
She nodded again.
"Father," said Arthur, coming finally to something that he should have asked straight away. "Where is father?"
A brief flash of pain crossed Morgana's features, and she said, quietly, "Uther is … no longer with us."
Arthur felt a sharp stab of grief for a loss he had not suffered, but he heard the weight behind Morgana's Us and said,
"We are siblings?"
"Not by blood," she said, but the tilt of her chin and the conviction of her voice were familiar.
(In every way that matters, Arthur, he saw a young version of her saying as she tremulously extended a grimy, spit-soaked palm towards him. That was before she had had to trade in her tunics for gowns.)
"In—in my Camelot," he offered, quietly, "That has never mattered."
"That," she said, turning away so she would not see her smile, "our Camelots have in common."
She did not say anything else, but her grip on her knife loosened finally, and she stood up to fetch something from a cupboard. She brought a small (disgusting-smelling, disgusting-smelling) jar back with her, and she lifted his head with one hand and applied a salve to the cut on his scalp efficiently with the other.
When she was finished, she lowered his head to the pillow and said,
"I do not believe anyone sent you here with the intent to harm. That is— Well, I believe they sent you here to harm you, in some way, without knowing quite where they were sending you, or what you might find here. Does that seem plausible to you?"
Arthur thought longingly of his soft breeches, of his fine horse, and of his sudden appearance in a world where he apparently served a man who had never done a particularly good job of serving him, and said,
"Yes. That makes … a certain amount of sense."
She nodded briskly.
"I believe, then, that it will be a matter of turning back whatever has been done to you, rather than of investigating why it might have happened, or working to thwart the efforts of whoever might have sent you here. That will be easier. There's also the matter of what has happened to our own Arthur, but something tells me that he was not the target here, and that he has suffered no harm."
Some part of him smarted at her easy dismissal of his own problems—the way she seemed to neatly turn away from the question of why someone might want to hurt him—but then he reasoned that to this Morgana (regardless of how familiar the sharp line of her jaw might seem) he was little more than a stranger.
He nodded to her as she had done to him, and said,
"Right. What can I do to help?"
"Do you have magic?" she asked, inquisitive, and the complete lack of censure or concern in her voice made him pause for a second. She looked at him curiously, until he answered honestly,
"That, too, is the same, then."
"Magic—" he said, not quite knowing how to ask. "Magic is not outlawed here?"
She shot him a bemused look, but as understanding flooded her eyes her face softened, so that it looked almost pitying.
"Outlawed?" she said, finally. "No, of course not. Magic is the cornerstone of Camelot. It is what makes her great—the living thread that ties her to Albion, and Albion and its people to her."
Arthur tried to look as if this made sense to him, and said,
"And so you use magic in the court."
She looked a bit exasperated, as if Arthur were repeating a question she had just answered—which he supposed he was—and said,
"Of course. Merlin—Prince Merlin, but we do not call him that—is responsible for dealing with magical issues in the court, and for seeking to maintain a balance of magic within the kingdom as well as a magical peace with other lands. The queen—you and I are given permission to call her Mother Hunith, but we do not do this in public, and I believe you have not done it at all for many years—has no magic of her own, but she has the ability to bear magical children, of course, which makes her powerful and respected in her own right."
Arthur boggled at this utter reversal of the laws he had known so well since his youth—laws of propriety, and of court dealings, and laws that strictly governed the meaning of what magic meant and was.
"My own magic," Morgana was saying, and Arthur started, some unnamable thing prickling beneath his skin, making him almost sure that this, too, was somehow true in his own Camelot, "is nowhere near as strong as Merlin's, but it has always been valued because it is of a different sort. I have—at least Gaius believes I have—the Sight, and I would not contradict him, though I do not feel in full control of it. I have always been able to tell the truth of things from listening to it told, and I have some healing magic. Gaius has made long study of the same art, but he says he had not come across a talent like mine before you and I were brought to court."
Here Morgana blushed very prettily indeed, with the sort of self-pleasure and bashful awareness that Arthur had not seen from her in many, many years. It made him smile.
"In my Camelot," he said, and his voice sounded sad for some reason, though he had not yet had a chance to fully think through how all this compared to his own life, "Things are not as you say."
"No," she said, softly. "That much I can tell from your being here. You have fear about you, and uncertainty. And many doubts."
Now she sounded more like the sorcerers Arthur had known—breeding unhappiness and working ill on the will of others.
"It's not like that—" he protested.
"You do not have to explain anything to me," she said, dismissively, and at that moment the sounds of Gaius' and Merlin's voices could be heard echoing up from the bottom of the stairs outside Gaius' chambers, where they were clearly speaking to someone else.
"Surely the inventory can be conducted at some other time, Kenway," Merlin was saying, and the tone in his voice—No, I haven't done what you've asked, but I know you'll let me get away with it, really—was so familiar that Arthur felt a brief tug at his chest, and he turned his face away from Morgana's knowing eyes.
"I will do everything I can to discover what has happened here, as quickly as possible," she said to him. "In the meantime you must not reveal to anyone what you have told me. Merlin may suspect something—his power runs very deep, and he has been attuned to you since we were children. Always attuned," she said, her voice drifting off, slightly, and Arthur wanted to stop and ask her what she was thinking, but she seemed to gather her thoughts quickly, and continued.
"You attend Merlin throughout the day," she said hurriedly, leaning in to seek his eyes as if urging him to pay attention. Arthur did. "You take his meals to him when he does not take them with the queen, and you oversee the running of his chambers. You accompany him when he rides out, and you are entrusted with protecting him—when he needs you to, that is."
She did not say, When the power of his magic, which no physical skill that you possess could ever rival, fails him for some reason, as if she knew how badly it would sting Arthur's pride to hear it. The enormity of it—of what Merlin must be able to do, and of the ridiculous things that Arthur had said to him on this topic when they had argued about battles and protection in the past—struck Arthur right then, but he turned his mind away hurriedly from that deeply uncomfortable thought.
"Merlin trains the castle sorcerers at midday, usually, but he is patient and will not be angry if you ask for guidance about what to do. Make sure you do not tell him what we believe is happening, though—he will not take kindly to something happening to our Arthur," she concluded as Merlin and Gaius finished their conversation downstairs and began to climb towards them.
"Otherwise, come to me, or to the Lady Guinevere. Except do not call her that. Everyone calls her—"
"Gwen," he finished for her, and she smiled as if it pleased her to know that Gwen was in the elsewhere that Arthur came from, too.
"Yes." Then, as if the thought had only just occurred to her, "In your Camelot—what do you do? Are you a knight?"
He knew it was ridiculous, but he felt the familiar anger that came from someone not according him his station—even though this Morgana had no reason to know to do so.
"Of course not," he blustered, but his bravado faded somewhat in the face of her expectant features, which seemed to demand some moral and right answer from him, such as healer or tender of the poor. He pressed on.
"In my kingdom," he said, emphasising the my subtly but decisively (or so he hoped, anyway), "I am crown prince."
Her face was comically blank for an instant, and then she burst into laughter so gleeful and unrestrained that when Gaius and Merlin came back in, asking her what the matter was, she could not answer for wiping her eyes and gulping in great heaving breaths.
Arthur had never stopped to think that fastenings, when done the wrong way around, might not be as logical to navigate as fastenings done up in the direction that they were meant to be handled were. He stared at the lacings on Merlin's breeches for a long, long moment, and finally reached clumsy hands towards them more out of an unwillingness to admit that he didn't know what he was doing than as the result of having formulated any coherent plan of action.
He was just thinking of how terribly this rankled, and of how he would make his own Merlin, unsuspecting or not, pay for it endlessly when he returned, when Merlin reached a steady hand towards his and stopped him. He undid his own breeches swiftly, and then asked, almost shyly,
"Arthur, are you really all—"
"Fine!" Arthur cut him off.
He was, needless to say, not fine at all, and he was almost certain Merlin knew that. He felt adrift and unsettled and deeply unhappy, because something was so clearly wrong, and yet he could do nothing about it. He could not rely on any of the usual tactics that he normally employed when battling a problem: he could not identify an evil to do away with, or an enemy to defeat. Trusting Morgana, however, was not something new to him, and if she said that she would help him then he was content to let her do what she could, even if he could do little more than wait while she worked.
For now, anyway.
In that instant he remembered that it was not his right, not here, to speak to Merlin as he willed (though now that he was on the losing end of the bargain he wondered if it was ever anyone's right to speak to anyone as he had been taught to speak to servants), and he looked up, trying to remember how one apologised.
Merlin seemed unfazed by his sharp tone, however, almost as if he'd expected it, and Arthur supposed that just because circumstances were different, that didn't mean that his personality necessarily was. He suspected he'd be a bad-tempered servant regardless of where he was, especially if he had not been trained to it—when you and I were brought to court, Morgana had said, as if it were an event and not a fact of their lives.
As Arthur watched, Merlin pulled his tunic over his head, and unwrapped the lacings of his undergarments from his waist. At this point he did look to Arthur, and Arthur took his cue to drag the heavy basin of water towards the centre of the room, where linens were draped over chairs in preparation for Merlin's bath.
Merlin smiled at him with soft eyes, and Arthur remembered that Merlin could have probably moved the tub with none of the effort that it had taken Arthur to do so.
Perhaps he had just managed to apologise inadvertently, after all.
Merlin held one hand over the water, palm down, and in the next instant steam rose from the basin as if the cooks had just poured in four brass kettles' worth of boiling water. Arthur watched, half frightened and half fascinated, but as Merlin stepped forward he gathered his wits about him and moved forward to help him lower himself into the tub, as Merlin always did for him.
As he placed his hands around Merlin's hips Merlin jerked his head sharply to look at Arthur over his shoulder, clearly not expecting it, and Arthur blushed fiercely.
How in all the bedeviled world was he supposed to manage this without missteping?
(And why should he, some petulant part of him wondered? Surely he could feign illness and remain in Gaius' rooms until Morgana found a solution. Would anyone ask after him, or would they take his excuse as truth? Then his thoughts jerked in a new direction: who else apart from Morgana was able to tell a lie from a truth in this place, and would they think to examine him for signs of subterfuge?)
Suddenly he felt a burst of panic, unwanted and unfamiliar, unfurl in his chest. He'd never last long enough without being discovered for Morgana to help him, and if others were not as willing to believe him as she had been, he may well not be allowed life long enough to find a solution of his own.
He might never get back to a world that made sense.
He was reminding himself to breathe evenly when Merlin lowered his eyes away from Arthur's as he slid the rest of the way into the tub, a small smile curving his lips. When he looked at Arthur again his eyes showed no signs of anything being amiss: they were warm and trusting.
Oh bloody hell, Arthur spared some panic to think, because what if in this Camelot, where Merlin was probably accustomed to getting what he wanted (as well he should be), what he wanted was Arthur? He was looking at Arthur now the way Arthur had seen visiting noblemen look at the castle's kitchenmaids (well, all right, not quite like that, but Arthur could not find anything more familiar to compare the look to). Though in his own court Arthur did his best to ensure that all men knew that the king and prince of Camelot did not stand for that sort of thing, sometimes it was inevitable, trying to stop the course of something they saw as their right. Not all courts had been as ruled by grief as Camelot had been since Arthur's mother's death, and to demand propriety, which was the exception and not the rule, could give great insult. Sometimes it was not a battle worth fighting.
Arthur had therefore not known what it was to give a maid a look and expect her to do as she was bid without words, though sometimes he fancied that a scullery maid or a handmaiden was looking at him expectantly, as if they wished he might do just that. Morgana had told him many times that that sort of wishful thinking was best left to children and dullards—then she would pause and make an Oh sort of face, as if she were just remembering that Arthur was one or both—but that hadn't entirely dissuaded Arthur from his impression.
"Arthur?" Merlin asked now, and Arthur realised he must have been standing by the tub, arms by his sides and a faraway look on his face as he let his mind wander, for a long time.
"Sorry," he said, the word feeling odd in his mouth, and he distracted himself from his uncertainty by busying himself with fluffing the linens. Whatever this Merlin might want—and heavens, what if the Arthur that this Merlin knew had already done things that made Merlin believe Arthur wanted things, too?
Not that Arthur could see any version of him letting his eyes linger on the dip of Merlin's collarbones, or on the soft, pink corners of his mouth when he smiled.
Well. Whatever this Merlin might want, Arthur was certain that he would no more do anything Arthur didn't want than his own Merlin would; whatever else he might complain about, Arthur was absolutely certain of Merlin's good heart. He had no cause to worry—not about this, anyway.
"Arthur," Merlin repeated, and as Arthur looked at him, he continued, hesitantly, "About what happened in the woods today…"
For a moment Arthur thought that Merlin might be about to say, What are we supposed to do now? revealing his status as co-conspirator as he had so many times in the past. But Merlin only looked at him expectantly, not in a way that suggested We've been exiled to another Camelot by sorcery, what the hell do we do? but rather in a way that said, Let's talk about our feelings, and that was a look Arthur knew to avoid in any world.
"Yes?" he asked, hoping Merlin would elaborate, but this only served to make Merlin pinch his face unhappily. Eventually he closed his eyes and leaned his head and arms against the rims of the basin.
"How is your training with Gawain going?" he asked, at length, and Arthur floundered for a moment before accepting the respite for what it probably was and answering,
"Well, thank you." He tried to tack on a Prince Merlin—physically attempted to force himself to it, trying to shape his lips around the words—but could not.
He pressed his lips against a panicked laugh.
"Gareth says that he thinks soon his brother will be as skilled with a sword as Gareth is with water, thanks to you," said Merlin, with a small smile, and Arthur mustered up an uncomfortable upward tilt of his mouth in return.
"He needs to learn to shield his left side better, and to parry more quickly when his sword locks," he said, because those were the things that Gawain had had trouble with when Arthur had trained with him as a young man, many years ago.
Merlin grinned. "Well, I suspect the former comes from having Gareth always at his flank," he said, and Arthur smiled in agreement. That had always been the problem in their own training, too.
He wondered what Gareth did "with water" here, but decided the wisest thing (the best thing for his sanity, at least) was probably not to ask.
"I enjoy training with Gawain," he offered finally, because Merlin seemed to be waiting for something, and Merlin looked pleased but still expectant. It was at that moment that Arthur finally realised that Merlin wasn't doing much other than sitting there, and he looked around, then took up the washcloth he found with an uncertain hand.
Well, it wasn't as if he'd never washed anyone before.
All right, he never had bathed anyone before, but surely it couldn't be that difficult. He had been bathed often enough himself, and he'd berated Merlin endlessly until he'd gotten it just right, so he'd just … do what he liked. It'd be like training Merlin by showing him, something Arthur did often enough with his knights.
He fumbled for the soap—pressed with flowers, soft and waxy in his hand and better than what Arthur had at home—and scrubbed the washcloth against it. Merlin helpfully leaned his head forward, exposing his neck and back, and Arthur moved the washcloth against his skin in even circles, trying to focus on the movement and not on what was happening.
Some part of him felt he could not bear the humiliation, but in the end it was anticlimactic: it wasn't as if there was anyone else there other than he and Merlin, who Arthur knew could keep a confidence. It wasn't as if Merlin were spurring him to complete some terrible and mortifying task, either—he simply raised his arms and stood when necessary, and it would have been not unlike brushing down a well loved horse if there hadn't been an odd sense of tension in the air, no doubt brought on by Arthur's uncertainty.
After he'd bathed, Merlin dressed in a soft blue tunic, also finer than the sorts of things Arthur owned. (Arthur wondered if it was possible to spin cloth using magic.) Merlin did not ask for Arthur's assistance, and he walked to the basin and placed his hand over the water until it steamed again.
"Go ahead," he said to Arthur, and Arthur bristled at the impropriety of it—a servant, even if, by some vagary of fate, he was the servant, washing himself in his master's rooms. Evidently this Camelot was nowhere near as civilised as Uther's, but Arthur felt grotty from sweating nervously all day, and so he washed quickly and efficiently as Merlin prattled about the room.
"Sir Boniface is visiting," he said as he adjusted the materials on the writing desk, and Arthur wrinkled his face unwillingly, thinking of Sir Boniface at home, who always had food caught in his beard.
"I know. I have no idea why mother insists on continuing to host him at court when he visits, particularly now. I know it's midwinter soon, but surely we could have found some excuse to avoid the unpleasantness of his presence? He could have been shipped off to another nobleman, I'm certain."
His counterpart must not have been very communicative, and Merlin must be adept at reading him, because he raised expressive eyebrows at Arthur and said, "I know," again.
When Arthur was dressed, the two of them walked down to the hall together, but Merlin stopped every few paces to knock on a door and ask after someone's health, or to talk to some maid passing in the corridor, asking how her day had gone. Arthur tapped his foot impatiently more than once, and Merlin shot him a disapproving look each time, but Arthur felt vindicated when they finally arrived in the hall to find everyone else already sitting down. Merlin had a good heart, yes, but not a king's heart: he could not distinguish between those who truly needed his help and those who would abuse his generosity, and he could not make the necessary judgment not to help someone when it would harm others to do so.
That made the two of them different.
As they found their places, Merlin next to his mother and Arthur standing behind him, hovering somewhere between him and a smiling Gwen, who looked the same as ever except for her scarlet dress, Arthur felt an odd surge of protectiveness rise in him. Courts were vicious places, as he well knew, and he could not imagine that Merlin—the Merlin he knew or this Merlin, who, much like Gwen, seemed the same except for the title tacked on in front of his name, which no-one seemed to use, anyway—could ever fare well in that sort of environment.
Arthur only became more convinced of this impression as dinner wore on. Merlin's (he supposed they were Merlin's, anyway) knights teased him as if they were all friends sitting at a local tavern, rather than men sitting in the presence of their queen and (perhaps more importantly) in front of Boniface, who was a foreigner, not from court.
Arthur was surprised by Hunith's indulgent smiles, but Sir Boniface's increasing cheek as he observed the dynamics of the table was everything but surprising. He clearly had no love of Merlin or Hunith, and, seeing that others were allowed to speak to them informally, and perhaps not understanding that that might be a privilege accorded only to their friends, he began to do the same.
The more he drank, the more careless he seemed to grow, until even the usually good-natured Gwen was frowning unhappily at him, but clearly unwilling to say anything.
"Camelot is very fortunate indeed," Sir Boniface was blustering with half a bite of rabbit hanging from his mouth, face turned towards the knight on his right but voice loud enough to be heard by everyone at the table, "To have such splendid fortified walls, particularly when they give the impression of protecting …. more than they do."
The Sir Boniface that Arthur knew had few wits to serve him, and this one seemed no different. But though the insult might be clumsy (perhaps clumsy enough not to be entirely understandable), it was nonetheless inexcusable that he'd be willing to voice such a thing at the queen's own table, while enjoying her hospitality.
Merlin's hand tightened on his spoon, but he said nothing, clearly too polite to insult a guest, or perhaps not sure how to reply. At the sight of Merlin's wince, Arthur, who had had enough of it all five dishes ago, darted forward to pour more wine into Boniface's cup, taking the opportunity to say,
"Actually, Sir Boniface, I think you'll find that the walls were originally built low—though of course I can see how they must seem splendid to anyone not from Camelot—precisely to give the impression that there was not very much to protect behind them. This was before Camelot developed any form of real defence, or before it rose to its full power. The men who built the walls were unwilling to tempt fate, and their strategy proved fairly sound. With time, however, it was thought that more height should perhaps be added to the walls, but by then the city was so prosperous that fortifying it further seemed futile, as it lived alongside so many other kingdoms in peace. And actually," he said, reaching down to squeeze the junction of Boniface's neck and shoulder as painfully as he could as he straightened up from pouring the wine, "I think you'll find that the walls are really only the first line of defence for a city whose riches are really rather vast."
There was some truth to this early history of the walls, at least in Arthur's own Camelot, though obviously nothing could be as clear-cut as Arthur had made the more recent history sound. It was hardly as if Camelot had not had to be fortified many times in the last century, and sometimes Arthur thought there were no walls high or strong enough to protect their people. The subtleties of that were well beyond Sir Boniface, however: he was left to grimace pitifully (but silently; Arthur would give him that) at Arthur's unyielding grip on his neck.
Arthur looked around the table and, at the sight of Gwen's red dress, felt himself jolted back unceremoniously to the present, where his current status might well mean the whip for laying a hand on a nobleman.
No-one was even looking up, however; they seemed to think it was perfectly normal that a servant should address his betters, and Hunith was actually smiling at him, a small twinkle in her eye as she bent her head to cut her meat.
This was a mad court, Arthur concluded, where no-one knew anything of propriety. And—if the amount of times Arthur had spilled food and drink tonight were any indication—where servants were valued regardless of their skill. Not even Merlin in the early days had exhibited the sort of ham-handedness that Arthur had shown again and again in this single sitting, but everyone seemed not only to find Arthur's clumsiness unremarkable, but to expect it.
Arthur wondered if his counterpart were somehow dim-witted, if he were perhaps kept on at court out of pity, because of Merlin's good will. The extremely exasperated look Gaius was shooting him suggested otherwise, though; it was not the patient look of someone dealing with a man who knew no better. In fact, his eyebrows seemed to be distinctly trying to remind Arthur of some past conversation during which he had told him not to act like such a fool, now that he saw Arthur clearly disregarding his advice.
Arthur finally released his hold on Sir Boniface, whose face was red and whose breathing was uneven by that point, and returned to stand by the wall. Another servant—Nelda, Arthur thought her name was—grinned at him as she took some plates back to the kitchen, and Arthur smiled back.
Arthur's impulsiveness appeared to have the unintended side effect of making the knights think twice about their own foolishness. For the rest of the meal, they were less riotous, more respectful. Gareth and the knight on Merlin's left seemed to physically draw nearer to him, as if closing ranks. Arthur simultaneously approved and disapproved: it was good that they would show loyalty, but bad that they chose to do so in such a way that suggested Merlin needed protection.
Arthur could not see Merlin thinking long about this sort of thing, though. He seemed to forget Sir Boniface's insult immediately, and he soon went back to smiling in his usual generous, hapless way. Arthur suppressed a snort, and when Merlin looked at him, he tried to communicate disapproval in a way that was appropriate to a servant.
(He thought briefly that that was perhaps not possible, but then he thought of the dozens of times that Merlin had checked him with some subtle downturn of his lips, and reconsidered.)
Merlin seemed, if anything, amused by Arthur's frown: he raised a glass to him, either in thanks or in mockery, and turned to practically shout some humorous story at his mother in a decidedly undignified way.
By the time dinner was over, Arthur was wondering if he might be able to surreptitiously educate Merlin in how to run an ordered court, while he was here. The last thing he wanted was to draw attention to himself, but surely this havoc could not be allowed to continue, not if Hunith and Merlin were to be respected enough to rule. That thought alone—that Merlin ruled anybody—still seemed more amusing than anything, at least until Arthur thought of the desolation his Camelot had suffered in the last three years. Protecting people was hardly a laughing matter.
He walked Merlin back to his rooms, occasionally reaching a hand out to steady him. This Merlin could no more hold his drink than the man who had more than once collapsed in Arthur's bed after a feast, never learning his lesson despite the fact that Arthur unceremoniously tipped him over onto the floor every time.
"You should learn your lesson, already, Arthur," said Merlin, echoing Arthur's own thoughts, and Arthur raised a sardonic eyebrow at him. At least he hoped it was a sardonic eyebrow: the expressions he gave more thought to were not always a success, or so Morgana and Merlin told him.
"About what?" he prompted, when Merlin promptly seemed to forget he had said anything at all.
Merlin paused in the corridor, turning to look at him, and said,
"I do not need protecting, from Boniface or from anyone else."
Something seemed to come over him as he said this: he stood up straighter, and his voice seemed more sonorous, somehow—Arthur wondered if it was magic, or simply some kingly bearing in Merlin that seemed like magic only because Arthur had never had occasion to see it before.
Arthur began to apologise, but in the next moment Merlin laughed, putting his hand on Arthur's shoulder and saying, intimately,
"It's not that I don't appreciate it, of course."
Arthur tensed, and Merlin immediately retreated, though perhaps it would not have been noticeable to anyone else. His hand remained on Arthur's shoulder, warm and reassuring, but his body drew back subtly and something in his face shuttered.
Arthur felt unexpectedly unhappy at this turn of events.
"You should show more sense," he said finally, and his voice sounded gruff.
Merlin laughed again.
"So you always tell me," he said, turning to walk towards his chambers again.
"I'm serious," Arthur insisted, and Merlin turned his head, fixing him with an intense look, and said,
"When aren't you?"
"Sir Boniface," Arthur began, hoping against hope that the circumstances were the same: if they weren't, perhaps he'd complain of his head wound again. "Sir Boniface is a terrible vassal, Merlin, and that's why you keep him from court. He barely feeds his people, and yet he is your first defence against attacks from the north. He has an over-inflated sense of his own importance, and the last thing he needs is for someone to give him the impression that the authority of the court is flexible! What's worse, he has no natural heir, and so we're subject to his whimsy in picking one. Why in the world would you not check him when he was asking for it?"
"You know perfectly well why not, Arthur," Merlin answered as they reached the door to his chambers. "What does it cost us, giving the man one last impression that he is a nobleman of consequence, when he will return home to find his lands under new lordship?"
"New lordship?" asked Arthur, not certain what Merlin meant.
"Oh, yes," he said distractedly as he headed towards one of his chests. "I didn't tell you. Mother and I settled on Andhun. He was instructed to move his household in after we called Boniface to court—though I still wish mother had sent him to someone else for the duration."
Arthur goggled, probably quite stupidly. This was just what he and his father had talked about doing with Boniface, more than once. They spoke about it the way one might speak about owning a winged horse, though: it was a nice idea, but very unlikely to come about. They could hardly risk conflict with Boniface, or with the kingdom's other lords, if they began to fear that the king might strip them of their lands at any moment. Fear and greed often motivated vassals to act preemptively to protect what was theirs, and he and Uther had always feared that would be the case if they moved against Boniface.
"He'll fight you," he said, not sure what else to say.
"He'll try," Merlin replied, and he seemed aloof and powerful, quite unlike Arthur had ever seen him. "Who will fight with him? The people he has starved and abused for two decades? I don't think so. His fellow nobles? None have any love for him. But if for some reason they wish to speak for him, they know they can do so at council."
Council. Council, which Uther had disbanded the year that Arthur had taken over the running of the guard.
"And what if he decides to rise against you, maybe with Hengist's help?"
"Then that is his choice," said Merlin, coldly, "But he would do well not to consider it. We are not taking his personal riches—we are relocating him to the small manor west of his lands. We intend to pay him a generous annuity to compensate for some of the loss of his land, which we take from him because he has not provided for his people, which was a requisite for holding it. And if despite this fair treatment, when he has done nothing to merit it, he chooses to bite the hand that has fed him many times in the past, then he can rest assured that we will reach out and strike him before he can strike us."
Arthur found himself drawing unconsciously back towards the wall. He supposed it was the implicit threat of magic, unknown and terrifying, that did it, but some small part of him found Merlin terrifying now, for his own sake, magic aside. He did not know this Merlin, this Merlin who said strike him and clearly meant kill him, though Arthur supposed he might not do the deed himself. What did Merlin know about death? What did Merlin know about seeing life fade from a man's eyes, and knowing you were responsible for it?
Nothing, Arthur thought viciously. He knows nothing, and he has no right to speak of it as if he does.
Then he thought of Edwin, and the Druid assassins, and of the way he had accepted those and other victories without explanations because probing more deeply did not appear necessary.
(Because he hadn't wanted to probe, more like.)
"Arthur?" Merlin asked curiously, and Arthur found he had inched across the room, back almost pressed against the wall, to sit on a low wooden chest.
He waved a hand dismissively, and Merlin seemed to read head wound in the gesture, thankfully. He nonetheless walked over, and crouched in front of where Arthur sat, reaching out one hand towards both of his.
"You look after me," he said, and it sounded so ridiculous, put that way, that Arthur huffed a laugh.
"You do," he said, and then his voice turned serious. "You have always striven to protect me, Arthur."
He paused, and turned his face to the right.
"I have always known that. Mother has always known that. In fact, I'm not sure there is anyone in this court who does not know that. You have never failed us—not when it has been Sir Boniface being vicious at a table, without knowing that he has no power over us, or when it has been war at our door. You have never failed us, and as I told you—after your father, and before then—we will not fail you."
Arthur cocked his head consideringly, somewhat unsure of the concept: to have the knowledge that someone would not fail you, rather than the weight of not failing others on your shoulders, all the time. That changed things—even if that person was Merlin.
Merlin seemed to remember suddenly that this might be the sort of thing that might make Arthur uncomfortable, because he stood up briskly and walked to a sconce in the wall, brushing one hand over a sleeve as if to wipe something from it.
Arthur wasn't sure what to feel. On the one hand, he was getting a picture of what people might expect of the Arthur they knew in this place, and it was not an entirely flattering one. Clearly he was loyal, as everyone's lack of surprise at Arthur addressing Sir Boniface had shown. And yet Merlin had hinted that something had changed after Arthur's father's death, that Arthur had required some guarantee of loyalty in return from Merlin. Arthur could not think of anything that would make him ask for such a thing, that would make him admit weakness in such a way. But then again, he had never lost a father.
He was clearly not a good servant, and yet Merlin (and others in the court, it seemed) valued him beyond that—Merlin had made a place for him in the castle and in his household, perhaps despite others' misgivings. Furthermore, this court did not seem to have the stiff and familiar hierarchy of Arthur's own, and so servitude did not seem to carry the same negative weight that Arthur had always been told it did.
Arthur got the rather strange sense that he was valued here, which was not something he had ever felt before. He was loved in his Camelot, yes, and admired—but this sense of having some inherent worth, independent of status, was not something he had previously known.
"Thank you," he said finally, not because it necessarily made sense in light of what they had been saying, but because it seemed to be what the situation called for, in an odd way.
Merlin turned his head from his perusal of the light and smiled at him.
There was something soft and sleepy about his features (and something fond, always fond), but he was still fully dressed—he was making no move to get into bed. Arthur wondered if there was something else that needed to be said.
Then he remembered it was his job to assist Merlin in doing these things, here, and he started forward, ready to brave the inside-out logic of the breeches' lacings once more.
Arthur's good will towards Merlin lasted precisely until midday the next day.
Merlin woke up, and Arthur brought him his meal. He had to navigate his way to the heart of the kitchens, which he had never really had to do before, but he met Nelda on the way there, and she chattered happily as she walked, clearly assuming he was walking in the same direction. He followed her and nodded at what he hoped were the appropriate places.
She appeared to be Gwen's handmaiden, and Arthur smiled at the thought—Gwen, with that proud tilt of her chin and her powerful voice, now noble in name and not only in bearing.
When they arrived in the kitchens, Arthur marvelled that up until that moment he had entirely missed the opportunity that going to the kitchens actually presented. When he got there, he was given a choice: a choice about what to take to Merlin, and he gleefully called for meats and fruit and even two slices of cake to be placed on his laden tray.
He almost dropped the tray twice on the way back up to Merlin's chambers, but he was too busy savouring the wonder of being able to ask the cook to serve him "A slightly fatter slice of that spice cake, please," to feel too frustrated with his own clumsiness.
He was built for swords, anyway, not trays.
As he walked, he suddenly thought about the dozens of unsatisfying meals that Merlin had brought him over the past two years, and frowned. Merlin had had the choice of bringing him cake, and he had brought him dried fruit that had seen better days?
He had worked himself up to quite a state of righteous indignation by the time he opened to the door to Merlin's rooms, and he was getting ready to tell Merlin all about it, too, prince or no. Then he remembered Sighard, his father's steward, with his dour face and tight fist, and reconsidered. Sighard had always had a particular dislike of Merlin, too, which Merlin always suffered with patience and respect for his betters.
He had seen no sign of Sighard in this court, but— well, perhaps Merlin did not really have a choice of cakes at home.
He served Merlin his breakfast with surprising good cheer, inexplicably heartened by the fact that he didn't seem to spill any of the water during his second attempt at serving a meal.
He dealt with two merchants at Merlin's bidding, and though it still felt extremely odd to be taking orders from Merlin, he felt confident that Morgana would find a solution soon, and that he would be able to go home and make Merlin's life hell (in a measured way, because this Merlin had not been all that bad to him) soon.
It was just the kind of day in which things worked out in one's favour. He felt it.
When it began to near midday, Merlin departed for his training with the castle sorcerers. He asked if Arthur wanted to go with him, but Arthur felt that for all his ability to deal with this world, in which everything that Arthur knew to be up was down, he was not ready to see a group of people practicing magic openly, under the direction of the prince. Merlin seemed to think this refusal was normal, and as he headed off, Arthur stared out the window pensively, not really sure there was anything he needed to be doing. He thought about taking a nap in his pallet—there were upsides to this servant business, he supposed, now that he was in his rooms at midday with nothing clamouring for his attention—or about going to see Morgana. In the end, however, the impropriety of sleeping in the middle of the day and the fear of seeing defeat in Morgana's eyes drove him to take a walk, and he wandered around the castle grounds, taking in small details that he hadn't been able to for many years.
He was nearing the east field behind the wall when he heard the clanging of metal, and he reached for a sword that was not there as he hurried towards the sound. He peered carefully around the corner, but it was quickly clear that there was no threat to be seen: only a neatly ordered line of men, wearing Camelot's red livery (with a dragon entwined around a Druid symbol; his father would have a fit) and practicing together.
Tristan was at the head of the line, calling the movements, and Gawain and Bors were there, too, along with a series of men Arthur didn't recognise. He walked out onto the field and Tristan caught sight of him.
"Oy, Arthur. Want to join us?"
Arthur did: he longed for the feel of a sword under his hands, and when Tristan cocked his head towards a small store of weapons set up on a low platform, Arthur hefted a heavy sword and joined the line.
It was strange to follow rather than to lead, but it was heady to feel in control again. He wondered what it said about him that he only felt in control when he had a weapon at hand, but then he lost himself in the smooth rhythm of blow and parry and retreat, and did not think on it any longer. When Tristan paired them up—he and Bors trained together—Arthur took pleasure in delivering the sound lashing that he knew he could. Bors looked a bit surprised by his vehemence, but he was good-natured about it, and by the end of the match the rest of the small group was watching the two of them, cheering one or the other on. When Arthur forced Bors' sword from his hand and Bors was forced to raise his hands placatingly, Arthur wiped the sweat from his brow and smiled happily up at the weak winter sun.
Tristan laughed his booming laugh, and said, "Pendragon, when will you come out from under the prince's skirts and join us already? We've been after you for years, and we've made no secret of it: what more would you have us do to win your favour, your highness?"
He said the last with a mocking grin.
Arthur's mouth tightened as the men around him laughed, and a man Arthur did not know called out,
"Leave it be, Tristan. There are things wound together than cannot be unwound."
A few of the men laughed again, but more gently, and most looked serious, as if the man had delivered some profound truth.
Arthur said nothing. He reasoned that he did not know why his counterpart might have resisted joining the knights—perhaps he was not of noble blood, but if they were courting him then that could hardly be a problem. The obvious explanation was that Merlin would not allow it, because he wanted to keep Arthur close—"under his skirts", as Tristan had so charmingly put it. That seemed likeliest, but Arthur could not know for sure, and even if he did know for certain, something inside him would simply not speak out against his ruler, whoever that ruler might be.
That he had been taught from very early on.
Merlin was the prince here, and whatever reasons he had for things were not to be questioned.
He excused himself with a laugh that probably sounded strained, and he walked back to the castle with a familiar rush of anger sounding in his ears. By the time he reached the door he was nearly ready to kick it down in pursuit of Merlin, who clearly needed to be taught a thing or to about the sort of man Arthur was.
He was stomping down the corridor towards Merlin's chambers, intent on waiting for him there—he was not too cowardly to seek him and the other sorcerers in the courtyard; he was not—when he ran into Gwen, almost mowing her down in his haste.
"I'm sorry!" he said, backing away quickly from where he'd placed his hands on the wall beside her head, hemming her in. "My lady," he added belatedly, still too unaccountably amused by the title to do anything but accompany it with a smile.
"Arthur," she said cheerfully, and then, taking a closer look at him, "Arthur? Is something the matter?"
He wondered what it was about the Arthur in this Camelot, that everyone seemed to be able to read him like an open book. What sort of man wore his feelings and convictions on his face like that? Then he remembered that Gwen had read his face, and not the other Arthur's, and he flinched at the implications of what that might mean for him at home.
That—like an alarming number of things he had discovered here so far—was too discomfiting to think about, so he shook his head, focusing on Gwen again.
"I was just training with the knights," he said, diplomatically, leaving off the petulant And why don't I do that full time, I ask you? Why?
She smiled and said, "Ah, yes. Tristan's still trying to win you over, is he?"
She seemed amused by it all, and that was somehow too much for Arthur. Was it some kind of joke to these people, that he was so fully under Merlin's control, compliant enough that he did not even wield a sword in defence of his city, as any man worth anything should?
"Yes," he answered tightly, and if she was surprised by the anger in his voice, she did not show it. Arthur was also getting the feeling that his counterpart was rather mercurial in his moods—why people would put up with such a thing, he did not know.
"Well, it's good to be so pursued, is it not?" she said, still amused, and something in Arthur snapped.
"Perhaps he would not have to pursue me like some sort of damsel if Merlin did not keep me locked up in his rooms," he gritted out, unwilling to think about how little that sort of behaviour might help to counteract the impression that he was tied up in Merlin's breech-strings.
Guinevere's face changed so quickly that it was almost comical. Her laughing features closed abruptly, settling into firm lines of disapproval and something stronger and more unfavourable.
"You should not be so ungrateful, Arthur," she said, and Arthur sobered, too.
If nothing else, it was clear to him that he owed Merlin a debt of kindness in this place (though he was not entirely clear what it might be), and he was not the sort of man who would not honour that. But it rankled even more, somehow, knowing that he was honour-bound to keep his life as it was.
But it is not your life, he remembered. It didn't make as much of a difference as he thought it might.
"I know Merlin has always made a place for me by his side," he began, trying to remember that Merlin was the prince, and that being close to the prince was an honour in any kingdom. Had he and his father not told Merlin the same thing many times?
"He has," said Gwen cautiously, almost as if she were urging him to continue the thought himself.
"And I am grateful for that, Guinevere—" her face hardened again, and he amended— "Gwen."
"But … surely Merlin knows that I can serve him best as a knight, Gwen. I have no—" he had to stop here to shove the word out— "magic, and so I cannot help him in that way. But I am quick with a sword; I am better than most of the knights Tristan trains, and if Merlin would allow me to, I could serve him much better there than I can at the table. I do not seem to have much skill at serving him there—I know you know that much."
She laughed a little, kindly. Then her brow furrowed, and she asked,
"What do you mean, 'allow you'?"
"Well," he began, a little awkwardly, because he did not know the history or the dynamics of it, "I mean that of course anyone must have the prince's leave to carry out what work he or she wishes to perform in the castle, and though I am happy to serve Merlin, and very grateful for the privilege," (he wasn't, but she seemed to approve of that) "I wish I could serve by doing what I do best, which is protecting this city."
"But—" She stopped, clearly confused. "I thought you chose to serve Merlin, rather than to train with the knights? I thought you said he'd given you a choice, that he'd encouraged you to take up Tristan's offer of training? After … your father," she said delicately. "I thought that was partly what this thing with Gawain was all about—I mean, yes, he was falling behind, and Tristan asked you to train him individually, but I thought it was partly about Merlin trying to entice you to join Tristan's men?"
She stopped again, and looked down, and Arthur could see a familiar look on her face: she was berating herself silently for letting a little too much slip.
He tried to work through what she had said to him, and he swayed a little on his feet. He did not know what to make of this revelation—that he would choose to serve in Merlin's chamber rather than on the guard. He didn't think it sounded plausible, not even for another version (for lack of a better word) of him.
"I chose this?" he asked, dubiously. "That doesn't seem to be—"
"But it is," interrupted a voice from behind him.
He spun around to see Morgana standing behind him in the corridor, widening her eyes at him significantly. He remembered her warning not to let the truth become known to anyone, and he winced a little at the disapproval in her eyes.
She walked up to them, greeting Gwen with a smile and a hand on her forearm.
"Good morning, Gwen."
"Morning, Morgana!" she answered cheerfully.
With this exchange of peasantries completed, Morgana turned back to Arthur, and said,
"You know you chose this for yourself, Arthur. It surprised everyone—Merlin most of all, I think. But you once said to me that this city had many knights in her service, and that you could do the most good by protecting its most valuable warrior. You know that Merlin can turn back three or four times as many men as all the knights together. And while he can protect himself, he does not have eyes in the back of his head, despite some misguided attempts to acquire them."
Gwen laughed, and Arthur, imagining what that might have been like, snorted in spite of himself.
"You chose a less ordinary life in order to make sure the city retained its most extraordinary asset."
There was a firmness in her voice which would have helped to placate Arthur even if her words hadn't. It made sense: he had sacrificed some degree of his independence, but she was right to point out that he was doing something worthy. The knights, with their light-hearted teasing, which he realised now that he thought about it had held no hint of malice, seemed to know that, too.
He nodded at her, ready to accept her explanation, but she seemed to be trying to communicate something else to him, something that he clearly was not understanding. When his face continued to show curiosity, she spoke again.
"That is not the real reason why you chose to be in Merlin's service rather than in Tristan's, of course," she said, and both he and Gwen perked up a little, both eager to hear this extended explanation, if for different reasons. "Merlin has been good to you from the very first, Arthur," she said, and Arthur nodded in what he hoped was a grateful manner, though he wished people would stop saying that. "He has never treated you as a servant, and he has never treated you as anything less than an equal."
In a flash, Arthur saw all the times that he had taken pains to remind Merlin precisely that he was a servant: the times that he had asked him to perform pointless and menial tasks partly to demean him, the times that he had stressed the boundaries of personal and social space between them. Merlin might be unbelievably clumsy, and he might be a bit of an idiot at times, but he had always been a loyal idiot—a devoted one, even, if Arthur was really fair—and Arthur had not always rewarded that with the same loyalty that Merlin clearly showed the Arthur of this Camelot.
"When we were left alone here, after father, Merlin would have had a dozen reasons to treat you differently, to show you your place as he never had before. Many were expecting it. But he did the opposite: he tried to keep you on a course that you had wanted, one that you thought was no longer open to you. He reminded you of how Tristan valued you, and of how there was always a place for you with the knights, if you wished it."'
"You chose not to join them because you wanted to protect him and the queen," she said, and then she looked at him shrewdly, something in her eyes saying, Pay attention. "But you told me that the real reason why you chose to stay with him was because a brother never leaves a brother. I still believe that was one of the wisest things you have ever said to me, and one of the most perceptive."
She didn't say anything else about them being twinned or wound together or whatever else it was that others seemed to keep repeating to him here, but it was implied. And for the first time in two days, Arthur wondered if maybe he was missing something by not listening carefully when people tried to explain.
Over the next few days, Arthur watched Merlin carefully, trying to see the coiled power that everyone had told him was there. After their conversation with Gwen, Morgana had told him that there were complications that she had not foreseen, and that she would need more time to make sense of how to send him back, to understand what had happened. Arthur would have suspected her of conspiring to keep him there, but the exasperation in her eyes made it clear that she wanted him gone as much as he wanted to be gone. She told him to go to her again at week's end, and Arthur suppressed the large sigh he wanted to emit but wasn't quite able to stop himself whining, "But it's only Monday!"
She hadn't said anything, but the look she'd shot him had spoken volumes about what she thought of that.
Arthur therefore found himself with a week's worth of time to fill and no real tasks to perform. Merlin's official business as prince appeared to be winding down as midwinter approached, and since Arthur had no real part to play in preparing for the feast, he mostly lounged in Merlin's rooms, pretending to fold clothing.
He didn't really know how one folded clothing properly, so he put his own attempts at the bottom of chests and dragged up the things his counterpart had already folded to the top.
He and Merlin played chess and dicing games, and occasionally Gwen would come into Merlin's rooms, and join in a game or watch as the two of them played. Gwen and Merlin expressed surprise that Morgana was not joining them more often, and Arthur would feel a brief twinge of guilt every time they looked around for her. He had seen her poring over Gaius' books in his chambers, and knew she was working tirelessly to find a solution for him. For them, maybe, considering how often Merlin and Gwen looked at him strangely, as if not sure quite what to make of him.
On Thursdays Hunith and Merlin heard petitions, and so he spent a whole morning watching as they settled disputes and heard pleas for grain from villages or individuals. Seeing them work was eye-opening. Hunith's soft laughter and her careful look of concern resulted in her subjects speaking freely about their problems, without fear of censure. This meant that Hunith and Merlin often heard petitions for the better part of a day, but there was something to be said for the absence of fear. The two of them were always able to collect all of the necessary information, and they ruled fairly and, in Arthur's opinion, well, most of the time.
It was incredible what the use of magic did for this Camelot, too: Merlin alone was able to repair damaged property that was involved in a dispute easily, and Arthur heard from Gawain that Merlin was training a young courtier who supposedly had the power to control the growth of plants and crops. Arthur could barely imagine what that might mean, the certainty of being able to feed your people.
Arthur finally dared to watch the sorcerers' training the day after the petitions, and what he saw filled him with terror, but also with a strange sort of exhilaration, mostly due to the possibilities that it suggested were open to his own Camelot.
Merlin was an excellent teacher. He was kind and patient and seemed wise beyond his years as he walked quietly among the different people practicing their different skills. They were practicing in the woods, in a hollow near the west cliffs, and Arthur felt insignificant and at a loss as he watched them.
There were men and women, old and young. As Arthur watched, Gareth squeezed his fist in the air and made a column of water come rushing out of the nearby river, spinning in on itself the way a strong wind often made leaves spin in the courtyard. It twisted like a snake and knocked a passing Gawain off his feet. He'd come to deliver a message for Merlin, and was on his way out of the clearing when it happened. As he spluttered and tried to right himself, a red-haired woman came up behind him, saying,
"Let your brother alone, Gareth."
"Or what, Ragnelle?" he taunted, speaking to her as if she were a fellow knight, or some fellow merchant, and not clearly a lady of the court. Arthur started forward, about to berate him, but at that moment the earth around Gareth pocked and burst, as if invisible shovels were pressing inwards and upwards in it, and he fell back on his arse, laughing, as vines crept from the upturned earth and fastened his arms and legs. The vines were not strong, but there were enough of them to bind him effectively.
"I give, I give," he called, smiling, and Gawain tipped his head towards Ragnelle, saying,
"My lady," as he continued walking in the direction he'd been going.
"She's really coming along, isn't she?" asked Merlin in a pleased voice, coming up behind him. Arthur didn't know how to say You could unite this Albion into a single kingdom, with your water-weavers and earth-turners and fire-breathers. So he only nodded dumbly, trying not to start as two young men beside him laughed shrilly, gouging large pieces of rock from the cliff behind them and hurling them towards each other as if they were toys.
"My father," Arthur breathed unconsciously, not sure how to finish the thought. Is mad not to see the potential of this was treacherous, especially when Arthur could see the danger, too. It would take unimaginable power to keep these myriad terrifying skills under control, and Arthur shivered to think what that meant about Merlin. There was no guarantee that his own Merlin could manage it—Arthur thought of his fine-boned wrists and his guileless face and was almost certain he could not.
(Then he asked himself what wrists had to do with it, and concluded that—well, probably not very much.)
But this clearing was full of laughing people, all working together towards a purpose, for Camelot. And even if Arthur did not know quite how to finish his original thought, it was clear that Uther would do well to think long and hard about the implications of his edicts, of the doors he was closing.
Merlin seemed to overhear him as he whispered, and his face was sympathetic when he turned to look at Arthur. Arthur wondered how recently he and Morgana had lost Uther, or how deeply the two of them were loved by others in the court, that everyone was still so careful around them. Merlin wrapped a hand around Arthur's wrist, and warmth spread into Arthur from where Merlin's fingers pressed into his skin. He wondered if it was just the unknown feeling of having someone stand beside him so openly, or whether Merlin could work magic by touching others.
He turned to look at Merlin in return, surprised by the tenderness and the fierceness he saw in his eyes, but when Merlin caught him looking his face closed off as it had once before, in his chambers.
"We don't really want you to fall backwards onto your head again, Arthur," he said teasingly as he moved away.
Arthur wondered what he meant.
On Saturday, Arthur went to see Morgana as agreed. He could tell the moment he entered Gaius' workroom that the time had not been enough; her face was drawn and she was bowed over one of Gaius' books like an old woman.
"Arthur," she said, and the apology and guilt in her voice made Arthur recoil.
"Morgana," he said hurriedly, "Do not worry. I know you are working as hard as you can. Please—"
He didn't know why he was so desperate to have her stop sounding like that. It probably had something to do with the look on her face, which was hauntingly familiar. He had seen it on her features before, as her problems with sleep grew worse in his own Camelot, and the skin under her eyes bruised to deep purple crevasses. He had not realised until now that the Morgana of this Camelot was different from his until now, when she looked the way he was used to seeing her: exhausted and diminished.
"Please do not trouble yourself on my account," he repeated. "I am certain we'll find a way out of this."
"Oh, I'm not tired," she answered, and at the disbelieving look on his face she amended, "Well, I am, of course, but it's not really that."
"What is it, then?" he asked, trying to puzzle out, at the same time as he listened to her answer, what it was that made Morgana here different (or had made her different, anyway), less worn.
Was it her magic that was giving her trouble at home? Did she not know how to make sense of it, whereas here she was surrounded by those who could guide her? And could someone be found to help her, in Arthur's Camelot?
"Arthur?" she asked, and Arthur realised he must not have been paying attention as she spoke.
"I'm sorry," he said. "Sorry. I was thinking about my Morgana."
She smiled, but looked curious as to what he might mean.
"I was just saying," she said, "That I am afraid."
"Of what?" he asked, more nonplussed than truly concerned, at first.
"I am afraid we will not be able to find a solution without Gaius," she said, her voice low. Her brow drew together even more tightly. "To be honest, I'm afraid we will not be able to find a solution with Gaius' help. I am afraid we will not find a way to help you. And I am terrified we will not get our own Arthur back."
She looked up at him sharply, as if she was ready to apologise for what she had said, but he waved her off. He understood. He liked the people here well enough, and even cared for them deeply, by association, but he missed his Camelot, his Morgana, his pathetic-excuse-for-a-servant Merlin. He looked at Morgana's pale face, and as he was letting his eyes sweep over her furrowed brow, what she was saying truly sank in.
Morgana was afraid.
This was what Morgana looked like when she was afraid. Not when she was tired, not when she had missed a night of sleep. All this time Arthur had thought she had been growing increasingly exhausted, but what had been building in Morgana had been terror. She had been afraid—of his father, of him, maybe?—for months, and she was growing increasingly more afraid, and Arthur had done nothing as his sister lived a half-life of fear and uncertainty.
Something of his own horror must have shown on his face, because Morgana almost lunged at him in alarm when she caught sight of him.
"Arthur?" she asked, raising a hand to his face. "Are you well? Do you feel all right?"
"Yes, yes," he said, lying about the state of near-panic he found himself in for the hundredth time since arriving in this other Camelot. "I'm sorry," he repeated.
"It's just— It distresses me to see you this way, Morgana. I suggest you suspend the search over the next few days. It's not as if that much will be happening in the castle over midwinter, and you say the other Arthur is probably not in danger—"
"I do believe I have figured that much out," she interrupted excitedly, pulling a piece of parchment towards their end of the table.
Arthur made what he hoped was an encouraging gesture with one hand.
"There was a woman in court," she began, "When the four of us were children, who could supposedly … roll and unroll time at will," she said, making a face as if she expected Arthur to tell her how foolish that was. He was of half a mind to, but he kept his face carefully blank.
"They used to say that she could make a feast appear to last for many days and then return the revelers to the starting-point, so that no real time had passed and they could use the days that they had spent in feasting again, this time to work the fields or attend to whatever their responsibilities might be. It was as if the days had not passed at all, Gaius says, and the only evidence of the days of feasting were the remnants of the food and drink in the hall. No-one could remember what had taken place, but they had the evidence to tell them that they had enjoyed themselves."
"And," Arthur said cautiously, trying not to misunderstand her, "This is what you think it will be like, once I return to my own Camelot?"
"I cannot be certain, you understand."
She said this slowly, as if to impress upon Arthur that what she was saying was little more than guesswork. It was not reassuring.
"But I believe that our Arthur is where you are meant to be. I believe that no time is passing where he is. I believe that when you return the time will … roll back here, as well, and it will feel to those of us who remain after you are gone as if we are back at the moment when you arrived here, in this place.
When you arrived, when you were first brought into Gaius' rooms, I felt a great amount of power clustered around you. Gaius believes the Sight works in many different ways—as I told you, I can tell a truth from a lie, and sometimes when something happens I feel as if I knew already what the outcome was, before the event even took place. I also get … impressions, sometimes, particularly of magic or intent. When Merlin brought you into Gaius' chambers, I believed, at first, that the power that was gathered around you was meant to harm you. I now believe that it is perhaps more subtle than that. The power is meant to affect you, yes, but not necessarily to harm you. Look."
She pointed to a marking on the parchment that she had placed in front of them.
"I have been watching you this week, as often as I can. And I am almost certain that whatever is tying you to our Camelot is also tied to this rune—Morality. The power of the spell is twined with it, I think. At first I thought it might be the sign of some protective magic working against the spell, perhaps the result of some ward woven around you by someone in your own Camelot."
"Merlin," he said, and she dipped her head in agreement.
"Yes. But then—" she pointed at another marking— "This rune, Change, Transformation. What I was just telling you, that the power is meant to affect you, but not necessarily to harm you. I now think perhaps it is meant to change you. And then there's this—"
She jabbed her finger towards the final marking she had made on the page.
"You believe I'm meant to learn something here. To discover something, and to be changed," said Arthur, cottoning on to what she was suggesting.
Morality, he thought.
"I am here to learn something, and to change for the better?"
(Or for the worse, but thinking about such things just now could not possibly be helpful.)
Morgana shrugged—a deep, weary heaving of her shoulders.
"Arthur, this is only a guess," she said. "I could be utterly wrong. The spellcaster could wish you grievous harm, and he or she could have laid these false clues for us. Or I could be seeing what I want to see: if the intent here is to teach you a lesson, as it were, then that means that the spellcaster wants you back in your own Camelot, and that he or she will send our Arthur back to us when your path here runs its course. Much as I like having you here," she grinned, "I want that very badly.
On the other hand," she continued, "the runes do seem clear. And I have gotten the sense from you that you that the world you come from is … not as it is here?"
Arthur thought of the sweet, cloying smell of burning flesh, of the waxy ashes that littered the courtyard after his father had sentenced another man or woman to die. The flakes settled on the hair, and felt and smelled like death. Then he thought of Gareth's water-trickery, and of Merlin's confident leadership here, inextricably tied to magic.
Not as it is here, Morgana said.
Well, that was one way of putting it.
"Right. Well, this at least is a theory, then. As good as any, since we have no other."
She put her forearms on the table and leaned forward onto them.
"If it is as I think … can you think of anyone who might want you to see this world, for any reason, who might want you to change your mind on some matter? Knowing who cast the spell would be a big help."
I am the crown prince, Morgana. There is no shortage of people who wish to change my mind on any number of issues. But even as he thought it the answer came to him, took clear and unmistakable shape in his mind.
Yes, he knew someone who wished to change his mind on many matters—who had told him so herself, and who perhaps had the magic to send him here.
Morgause, who had spoken her poison so beautifully (have you ever been fully sure that it was poison? a treacherous part of him whispered).
"I think perhaps it was a woman," he said to Morgana, slowly. "Who believes she was wronged by my father. Whether that is truly the case I can't say."
Morgana nodded and made a notation on her parchment, but fear gripped him as he watched her think.
"Casting this spell," he began. "Holding time still in one place, and giving it speed in another, while sending me across from my home to this Camelot. It must have taken a tremendous amount of power."
Morgana did not say anything straight away, but then again he supposed he had not really asked her a question.
"The woman who had a similar power in the court here," she said, cautiously, clenching and unclenching one hand, "She died very young. Gaius and I have always believed the two things were not without connection."
Good, Arthur thought savagely. Then he thought that it might be many years before this use of power took its toll on Morgause at all, and felt unaccountably disheartened.
"Then again," Morgana said, elaborating when Arthur had not expected her to, "It is said by many wise people that each of us has many possible fates in store. I think perhaps that this is what our two Camelots are—two such fates for you and me and the others. And it may well be that it was also your fate to undergo this … change. If that is the case, someone skilled in reading such things might well have been able to take advantage of a pathway that was already there."
"And," she said, raising one finger in the air to forestall his immediately reply, "Was Merlin with you?"
"Yes," Arthur admitted suspiciously, and at his tone Morgana's face hardened. He tried to look intimidated and contrite, and he must have been successful, because she continued.
"Merlin is, we believe, a sort of … conduit. He can ground a spell to the earth, and draw power from the earth to strengthen it, to focus it. To make it more powerful. It is his chief strength, and it is why Camelot is so powerful with him for a prince—because any skill any of us possesses, no matter how limited, can be augmented to something fearful and mighty with Merlin's aid."
As Morgana had been speaking, the lines in her face had ceased to look as deep. Just a few minutes of someone listening to her—was that all it took, Arthur wondered? None of Gaius' cordials, no days-long sleep? How could they—how could he—have been so blind? And was he alone in his obliviousness, in failing to see what the true problem was? What did Gaius know? And Merlin?
He did not know what manner of punishment would befit Morgause's crime when Arthur returned (if he returned, and if he ever found himself in a position to dole out punishment to her), but for this single insight into how alone and desolate Morgana must be feeling, Arthur would see Morgause thanked, in whatever way he could. It might be that they could never act against her, anyway, though Morgana's theory that Merlin might have been responsible for powering the better part of the spell—that was what he took from what she had said, anyway—gave him some hope.
"Morgana," he said. "I truly do not wish for you to be troubled, as you have been this past week. I think we should ask for Gaius' help."
She seemed to think this over.
"We cannot know how he will react," she said after a long pause. "Gaius was always loyal to your father. I think some part of him still is. I am certain that he would not take the chance that our Arthur might be in danger while you are here. I believe he would tell Merlin, whether we asked him not to or not.
As of now, the spell has done nothing—nothing except keep you here. What if the introduction of some new power, some new intent, turns it harmful? Some spells are designed to do that, and power without careful direction can also turn against its caster's intention. I think it is probably better if we establish as much as we can about this on our own before we go to anyone else."
"But—" Arthur tried to think of a way to say what he needed to without giving offence— "I do not like the thought of you having to toil alone."
She laughed, almost happy again. "Arthur, I am hardly toiling. It has been taxing, deciphering the shape of the runes, but also interesting. It has brought me closer to understanding my own skill. And I am frightened, that's true. But I am hardly alone, am I?"
Arthur did not have to think about this at all.
"No," he said, and meant it wholeheartedly. "Never alone."
Arthur had been in Morgana's Camelot (he had begun calling it this in his head without realising it) for ten days when he saw the first council convened. By that point he had learned from Nelda how to mend a stocking, and for the first time in his life he could identify the tailor's and the shoemaker's homes in town, and their market storefronts. He had also learned that Merlin's feet got so cold in winter that he needed a hot stone in his bedclothes to stop his toes from turning blue, and that he had a fondness for walnuts.
Arthur had turned over and over in his mind the question of what it might be that this Merlin expected of him. He looked at Arthur in exasperation and in anger sometimes, but he was also affectionate, and fiercely protective. Arthur had been taught that any servant worth having lived with the question, What does my master want? at the forefront of his mind, but with Merlin the answer to that seemed to be Nothing.
He wanted Arthur's companionship, that much Arthur had realised, and he seemed, oddly, to want Arthur's happiness. He usually had a few requests a day for Arthur to fill, but on the whole Arthur was allowed a surprising amount of time and freedom with which to roam the castle, or to watch Merlin attend to his duties, if Arthur wished.
Merlin always seemed most pleased when Arthur chose to do the latter, and Arthur told himself that it was partly because Merlin knew how rubbish he was at some of the basics of ruling, and could tell that having Arthur around to make sure he did not make an absolute hash of it was a good idea.
"Where shall we send the patrols next, sire?" Tristan would ask, and Arthur could swear he could see the wrong answer forming in Merlin's mind.
South, his tongue screamed as it peeked out from the corner of his mouth in indecision, even though he already had a garrison in the south, and someone should definitely be sent to check on Boniface in the north. Even during his short stay in Morgana's Camelot, Arthur had realised that it was not a kingdom anywhere near as beset by worries or conflicts as his own was, but still. Was Merlin daft?
He'd be itching to let Merlin and Tristan and everyone else in the room know exactly what he thought of Merlin's terrible idea when Merlin would shrug blithely and ask,
"What do you think, Arthur?"
Arthur would try not to dwell on the impropriety of asking a servant his opinion, and would simply say,
"If you send them anything but north, you are an idiot. Sire," he added as an afterthought.
Merlin grinned at Tristan.
"There you have it," he said. "Exactly what I was going to suggest."
He turned to wink at Arthur, and his eyes seemed to dare Arthur to speak out loud what he was thinking: Liar, liar, liar!
It was the way things always seemed to go in Hunith's court—short of disrespect, Hunith and Merlin seemed to accept (to want; to encourage, even) all manner of input from those serving them.
It was not proper, not in any way. But Arthur found he could not bring himself to truly dislike it.
He supposed he should not have been surprised, then, when Merlin informed him that Hunith had ordered a council to be called, and led him towards the library rather than towards the hall. Nothing in this Camelot ever worked quite as Arthur expected; he was, at least, beginning to expect that he would be constantly surprised.
The library was not as it was in Arthur's Camelot: the shelves were pushed against the wall or sheltered inside hollows carved out of the stone for that purpose, and in the centre of the room sat a very large rectangular table made of polished dark wood.
Hunith was already sitting, but she was not sitting at the head of the table. She seemed to have chosen a place at random, and when Merlin sat down, he did not do so next to her, but across from her. He placed his hand on the back of the chair next to his and looked at Arthur as he asked,
"Would you like to sit?"
"At council?" Arthur squawked, horrified.
It was true that the equivalent meeting had not been held in Uther's court for many years, but he had not been too young when they were a regular occurrence to remember that each seat was reserved for a noble, arranged according to stature.
"Yes," said Merlin, smiling as if extremely amused. "At council."
"No, thank you," Arthur said primly, standing next to the door.
"Suit yourself," said Merlin, cheerfully.
Sir Kay and Sir Bedivere came in through the side door and sat at one end of the table, and Arthur wondered whether Merlin had been playing some sort of joke on him, inviting him to sit.
Tristan, Gawain, and Gareth entered together, chatting amongst themselves, and sat near Hunith. It was not completely unheard of for sons, rather than heads of a household, to come to council, but the fact that Gareth and Gawain seemed to be allowed two seats seemed odd.
Well, Merlin and Hunith's court had shown him time and time again that informality could be stretched to encompass meanings far beyond Arthur's wildest dreams of impropriety.
He watched disinterestedly as a few more people that he did not recognise entered and took their seats. When Morgana and Gaius walked in and sat down confidently, Morgana shooting him a bemused look, Arthur wondered whether he might have misunderstood what Merlin had meant by My mother has called a council. He was busy trying to figure out what sort of council this could be when the head cook walked in and plopped himself down in a seat next to Hunith, as if this were the most natural thing for him to do in the world. He was followed by a stableboy whose name Arthur thought was also Arthur, and by Nelda. She sat down next to Merlin.
Well, perhaps this was a meeting to establish how visiting noblemen might be served at the midwinter feast the next day. That seemed far-fetched to him, but anything was possible. This was his thinking, at least, until Hunith cleared her throat and said,
"I hereby call this royal council to order."
Arthur was not quite able to suppress his disbelieving cough, and Hunith looked at him inquisitively, but did not say anything.
"I call you here to rule on the matter of Ealdor, an outlying village of Cenred's kingdom that sits almost on Camelot's border. Though they are not part of our kingdom, the people of Ealdor have sent Freda, daughter of Ricbert, to relay the plight of their village to the court, and to ask for our help. Though we may rule not to give them aid, it is my judgment that we should reward her long journey, at least, with an audience. What do the rest of you say?"
"Aye," said Tristan from one end of the table, and he was followed by Sir Kay. Then, to Arthur's utter bewilderment, the cook and the stableboy voiced their Ayes as well, and the young chambermaid standing next to Arthur by a bookshelf moved forward, insinuating herself into a space between Gareth and another man, and also gave her vote.
Before Arthur's no doubt stupefied face, twenty-seven of thirty-two people who chose to speak—all who were there were apparently free to choose to speak, and Merlin had clearly meant his invitation to Arthur in earnest—voted in favour of Hunith's suggestion.
"Send in Freda, daughter of Ricbert," said Hunith clearly, and a pageboy standing next to Arthur swung open the door and ushered a pale girl with freckled cheeks in.
"Your highness," she said, inclining her head to Hunith, and then, turning to the table, "People of Camelot."
"You are given the right to speak, Freda," said Merlin kindly, and as Arthur listened, she proceeded to tell a tale he had heard once before—which was, in fact, familiar to him in every way except for the supplicant that brought it to the castle to be heard.
It elicited a very similar reaction to the one it had then, too. Ealdor was Cenred's responsibility, and taking action to check Kanan might give Cenred a reason to start a conflict that could be avoided if Camelot kept to its own business. The discussion was not long, and in the end it was Bedivere who outlined the many problems with helping Ealdor, though he expressed regret that more could not be done. The mood of the table seemed to suggest that most of the others agreed with the points he made.
Freda seemed downcast, but not as if she had truly expected any other conclusion to be reached.
Arthur saw Hunith, whose eyes were pained, look around the table as if to measure whether the debate had gone on long enough to call for a vote. She drew breath to do it, and Arthur felt, suddenly and inexplicably, a pressing urge to stop her from making the same mistake that his father had made when faced with the same situation.
"Queen Hunith," he said from his place at the wall, assuming that one could join in at will, as the chambermaid who had been standing next to him had done at the beginning. "May I speak?"
"Arthur," she acknowledged him. "Go ahead."
"People of Camelot," he began, the way he had seen others do, and they all turned their eyes to him. "I see that you are becoming ready to reach a conclusion, though most of you do so with heavy hearts."
Tristan nodded briefly at him, and the others continued to watch him with interest.
"If my father were here," he said, and paused immediately when he noticed the sudden and absolute change in the atmosphere of the room. It was as if suddenly each and every person at the table had been given a reason not to listen to him, and he looked to Morgana for support only to find her watching him with wide, chagrined eyes. He pressed on only because he did not know what else to do: it was not as if he could stop to ask her to explain what it was that he had done.
"If he were here," he repeated, and a few people shifted restlessly in their seats, "he would advise us all to take the course of action that we have heard Bedivere outline."
Bedivere let fly a small sound from between lips that Arthur could not interpret as anything other than outrage. He groped desperately for a way to continue that would not increase the animosity he felt from the people in the room even more, but he found none.
"People of Camelot," came a meek voice from his left, and he turned, expecting to see someone else, to notice Morgana sitting straight and proud in her chair, though her hands were trembling slightly.
There was an emotion on her face that Arthur could not quite identify, but when she spoke again, he was able to put a name to the familiar sound: for some reason, she felt guilty. Why she would feel such a thing it was beyond him to understand, but that was only in keeping with the entire inexplicable situation.
Morgana continued, "Before Uther—"
She stopped, and drew in a short breath. She seemed to be gathering her strength.
"Before Uther was banished from this city, he had been a wise and trusted counsellor of our queen for many years. He had many moments of wisdom, and I am certain that Arthur has an important point to make. I urge you to open your hearts and listen to him. Listen to my brother, for he is not a man who speaks without thinking, and he has Camelot's best interests at heart. That you know."
There was a low, displeased rumbling around the table, but Merlin tapped lightly on the tabletop, once, and it desisted immediately. People turned their faces to Arthur again, if a bit grudgingly, and Morgana shot him a look that seemed to say Go on, clearly trying to bolster him.
Arthur could say nothing. His mind was stuck on the first thing that Morgana had said, and he had not really processed the rest: Banished from this city.
Banished. He had thought his father was dead, had assumed that from the first. Now that he thought back to the conversations he had had he realised no-one had actually said that—that Uther had died. People's strange reluctance, their tact in mentioning him, made a terrible sort of sense now that he knew the truth: not dead, but banished.
He racked his brains for any reason why this might have happened to his father, and only one came to mind. Uther must have committed some grave ill against Hunith and Merlin to have been sent away.
He must have committed treason, a small voice whispered, and it sounded too much like Morgause's for Arthur to feel at peace with it.
You cannot know that, he told himself. In your city it is only treason that is punished by banishment, but it may not be so here. Many things are different.
It was true that he could not be certain, but he could not doubt that the sudden shift in the room's mood could well be explained by treason: if Uther had committed a serious wrong against these people or their kindly rulers, they would be right to despise the very mention of him.
It was only by virtue of the same part of him that had been trained to keep fighting even in the face of injury or shock that he was able to keep speaking despite his mounting horror and shame. As if from a great distance, he heard himself continue,
"My father would agree with you, and he would be wrong."
Another dissatisfied mutter swept the table, and Arthur gripped the back of the chair in front of him with both hands and pressed on.
"It is true that little can be done by conventional means to help the people of Ealdor, but that is not reason enough to let them perish. Kanan has taken their stores for the winter, and in the cold and dark of these months, that will mean that they cannot survive."
He knew he was speaking sense, but the only friendly faces in the room were Morgana's and Gaius' and Hunith's and Merlin's, and he suspected that that was more out of love for him than anything else. Freda was looking at him adoringly, but that was only the result of hearing him speak what she had dearly hoped to have someone say in Ealdor's defence.
Banished. Banished. Banished, he heard loudly inside his own head, even as he continued to speak.
"We cannot give aid to Ealdor without causing trouble with Cenred; that much is true. But it would be truer to say that we cannot give aid to Ealdor openly if we are to avoid conflict with Mercia. There are other ways to rout villains, which do not involve knights wearing Camelot's livery marching in ordered lines. We can send a group of men, for example, acting as volunteers, to help Ealdor—I know I myself would go. They can keep Kanan's men away this winter, and in the spring the people of Ealdor may have more choices open to them than those they do now. That would be very good indeed, because make no mistake: at this moment, their 'choices' all lead to death."
He looked around the table and wished fervently that he had known not to mention his father—his father, the traitor—because all that he had said afterward seemed to have had no real effect on the table's discontent. He feared they might all vote against his proposal solely because he had made the mistake of saying something that this Camelot's Arthur would have known never to say.
"I think there is merit in Arthur's suggestion," said a woman's voice, and Arthur turned.
This time he was expecting to see Morgana, loyally standing by him.
It was the Lady Ragnelle, however, and Arthur looked at her in surprise. She smiled at him.
"Arthur is urging us to think outside the boundaries of what is expected," she said, and then, in a firmer voice, "And for that reason, he is right to mention Uther."
There was a low murmur of agreement.
Traitor traitor traitor, thought Arthur. You are nothing but the son of a traitor here.
He felt a fiery hatred for Morgause, for sending him to this place, but in his heart he knew that she had not been responsible for this. She had made certain that he would see it, yes; but she had not been involved in advising Uther in whatever harm he might have wrought in the past.
"I believe we can do more than send a band of men to help the people of Ealdor," the Lady Ragnelle was saying, and Arthur fought to concentrate. "Arthur speaks of looking beyond what, on the surface, appears to be within our grasp. I think he is right. After all, from what Freda says," she said, turning to look at the girl, "Cenred has not concerned himself with the fate of Ealdor for many years. Perhaps it is a bother to him, this distant village, and perhaps he would be glad to be rid of it. We have not had conflict with Mercia in many years, and its value as an outlying border town, looking out for Camelot's attacks, is long gone. Perhaps we can make it attractive for Cenred to yield this land. We could, maybe, suggest a hefty payment in crops next year, to compensate for giving Camelot wardship over Ealdor."
At this she extended her hand, and a branch from the tree outside tapped insistently at the windowpane. The meaning was clear: I can help to ensure the growth of such a payment.
"Cenred will look to us to provide a reason why we wish to protect the people of Ealdor, Ragnelle," said Gawain, almost reluctantly, as if he did not like to contradict her, "And he will conclude that we wish to increase our own power over his, for that is almost always what rulers conclude."
"Yes," she agreed. "That is true."
"Could there not be some reason why a city such as Camelot and a village so far away might wish to have closer ties?" asked Nelda, and at this Merlin laughed, and answered,
"Of course there is. Marriage comes to mind, for one."
Arthur spared a moment away from his self-abasement to wonder at this turn of events: he had not hoped to force anyone to marry in order to protect Ealdor. But Hunith had grasped some other meaning from Merlin's words, and she spoke, clearly pleased that her subjects had thought of it,
"We can give the impression that one of our knights has an interest in one of Ealdor's young girls," said Hunith. "That would certainly provide a good excuse, though Cenred might think Camelot foolish for its indulgence."
She turned to look at Freda, clearly not wanting to ask her explicitly to participate in the subterfuge, but the girl nodded vigorously and said,
"I will agree to that."
"As will I," called Gareth cheerfully from the other end of the room, and with that the tension in the room shattered as people laughed.
"That sounds plausible, then," said Hunith, sounding extremely satisfied. "If we can agree to it, I will send messengers to speak to Cenred on Gareth's behalf. They will speak of the current situation in Ealdor, and we shall do our best to paint Kanan as a nuisance that Camelot will be happy to take off Cenred's hands. For the sake of love," she added slyly, glancing at Gareth, and he laughed.
"We will also send out a group of men to aid Ealdor immediately; if Cenred looks for a reason why we acted without his permission, we will have already provided him with one. Gareth would not want Freda to be harmed, after all, and Gareth is a favourite of the court."
"Clearly," Gawain said with great feeling, trying to feign despondence, and people laughed again.
Arthur strained to make his lips turn upward along with the rest of them.
"In addition to this, as a token of our good will, we will offer Cenred payment for the privilege of guarding Ealdor: a number of hundred-weights of grain, to be determined by those responsible for the grain stores and approved by this council at a later time. Hopefully he will know not to look a gift horse in the mouth—we will be driving our generous bargain with much conviction."
Nodding and sounds of agreement could be seen and heard around the table, and Hunith clapped her hands and called a vote, clearly eager to settle the matter while people were in accord.
Thirty out of thirty-three individuals voted in favour, and as Hunith gave the final count, Merlin said formally and almost forcefully,
"We thank you, Arthur Pendragon, for thinking of what others could not see."
There was a small, defiant cheer from Gawain, and the others expressed similar sentiments with varying degrees of reluctance.
It should have been a proud moment for Arthur, especially considering his current status—though his notions of what status even meant were probably well beyond recuperation after the shattering they'd received here—but his,
"I am thankful the Lady Ragnelle was able to think so resourcefully," tasted like dry earth in his mouth.
Arthur wished he had never learned about this during his time here. He wished he could ignore the knowledge, now that he had it. But now that it had been spoken in his presence, it could not be taken back.
Morgana passed him on the way out of the library, squeezing his shoulder sympathetically and leaning in to whisper,
"I am sorry, Arthur. I thought— Well, I don't know what I thought. I thought you knew, I suppose. I did not want to speak about it, and so I made myself believe I thought you knew. I am so sorry."
"You could not possibly have known that I didn't," he said.
That Morgana should not suffer further for his father's actions and his own trespass just now was abundantly clear to him.
She nodded at him, but did not seem convinced, and her head was hanging as she walked with Gaius from the room.
Arthur kept standing by the wall, attempting to appear as insignificant and unobtrusive as possible. He had not ever known this feeling, this desire to disappear or to draw others' attention away from himself. It appeared that he was successful despite his lack of practice, for no-one paid him any mind, and when he looked up, only Merlin and Hunith remained in the room with him. He wondered if they had sent the others out, and felt embarrassed at the thought.
"Arthur," said Merlin, softly but commandingly.
Arthur looked up, only for a moment.
"You should not ever be ashamed of your father," he said, pinpointing the problem immediately, though that was perhaps not surprising. It could not have been difficult to connect Arthur's mood to what had happened during the council.
"Arthur," said Hunith, and her voice sounded like compassion and love and pride and all sorts of things that Arthur had been told were always in mothers' voices.
This time he looked up because he was helpless not to.
She smiled at him, the way the Hunith he'd known before had smiled at him in Ealdor, so Arthur kept his head up.
"Merlin is right," she said, and she did not sound pitying, merely sorry. "Neither he nor I have ever believed that Uther had any real choice in falling into madness."
She said something else, but Arthur, as he had been when Morgana had said banished, was now stuck on madness. He was not sure if this new information was more or less distressing than the last.
"I am not even sure he meant us real harm," Hunith said, trying to get his attention by leaning towards him. "I know he certainly never meant for harm to come to you or Morgana, who have suffered most for this."
"The two of you have spent years feeling guilty," said Merlin, and his voice was low but impassioned, as if he did not want to startle Arthur. "None of us have ever been able to make sense of why. You cannot possibly still believe that you can be held responsible for your father's actions."
He said it the way people said things they had already said many times before.
Arthur had thought he had felt frustration at being in this place before, but it was only now, at this time when he needed answers and could not ask any of the questions, that he felt the real weight of his displacement.
"Why do you think—"
He trailed off purposefully, trying to look desolate (which did not take much effort) and hoping that Hunith or Merlin would take up the thread.
If the three of them had already spoken about this often, then perhaps they would be willing to indulge Arthur once more.
"I still believe what I have always believed— that it was your mother's death that planted the seed of grief that grew with such terrible speed in Uther's mind. I think Merlin's birth was a reminder of that which he wished to forget, and with Merlin's coming, and the manifestation of magic in others, he felt completely trapped amidst the very thing that he most wished to escape."
Hunith's voice did sound as if she had been over this many times; that made sense to Arthur. He tried to think of what he would have felt like, attempting to make sense of Uther's actions and departure as a child, and he thought immediately that he probably would have spent entire days asking Why.
"I think it was Morgana's magic manifesting that finally made it impossible for him to bear, though," said Merlin, carefully, as if he did not want to upset Arthur any more than he already was, but wanted to offer his own perspective.
Arthur wondered if Merlin had shared this with the other Arthur at some other point, or whether it was something he was saying for the first time. From the sound of his voice, it could be either.
"Morgana has always felt responsible for it all— but she had no part in it! For years she has worked long hours in Gaius' workrooms, healing and tending the sick as some sort of penance. And you—" Merlin's voice took on an edge again— "You, Arthur, have made a life out of protecting me and my mother as you believe your father failed to protect us. You would make a knight to be reckoned with. You could be a shoemaker if you wanted, and I'm certain you'd be good at it. But instead you serve us— you serve me out of some sense of duty."
He spat the last word out as if it were poisonous, and Hunith shot him a sympathetic glance. Something in her gaze said she did not fully believe what Merlin was saying to be true, however, and Arthur thought of what Morgana had told him earlier in the week and felt inclined to agree.
"Uther was a dear friend to us, Arthur. To me especially," Hunith said. "And I have always counted you and Morgana among my children. I still think of you in this way."
Arthur nodded and tried to look grave, as if he were slowly sifting through what had been said. But his mind was spinning, and there was no real order to his thoughts. Grief had changed his father's life here—this much Arthur understood, for it was the same with his father in the Camelot he knew. But whereas in Arthur's Camelot Uther had transformed his grief into control and strength, here it appeared to have devolved into madness. That madness seemed to have driven some crime for which he had had to be banished, in spite of the royal family's unwillingness to force a dear friend away.
Arthur wondered what it was that his father had done. He wondered whether Morgana really did feel the guilt Merlin believed she did, and whether that made her lonely in this place, too—this place where Arthur had thought she was well counselled and well loved. He wondered what the Arthur of this place truly thought of his father, and questioned how he had made peace with Uther's actions, if he had at all.
Hunith was looking at him expectantly, with a look that reminded Arthur of the way in which his nurses had looked at him once, when he was still young and before Uther had sent him away to be trained with the knights.
"Thank you," he said, and for the second time since he had been here, as he had when Merlin had spoken to him after that first feast, he truly meant it.
Hunith looked extremely happy to hear him say it, too.
Arthur could not fully explain what came over him in the next instant. It was something about Hunith's eyes, which looked pleading, and something in his own heart, which perhaps made him long for the pleasure of feeling the word in his mouth once more. He had not realised how much he had missed it since riding away from Morgause.
"Thank you," he repeated, and he reached a hand out to clasp Hunith's.
He remembered what Morgana had told him. "Thank you, Mother Hunith."
Now that he knew that his father was alive—disgraced, sent away, but alive—Arthur felt that it was impossible for him not to see him. He spoke briefly about it to Morgana, who said that Hunith and Merlin had always allowed those who wished to do so to visit Uther, and in fact encouraged small acts of kindness towards him.
He asked her why it was that Uther had been banished from Camelot, but that she would not speak about. He tried to tell her that if she did not inform him he might let something that was not proper slip, but she only said that Uther would not notice, and that as for his madness and his treason, the history of the two would become clear the moment Arthur and Uther spoke.
She was willing to explain that Merlin's birth had triggered some sort of flourishing of power in Camelot, and that this had continued and intensified throughout their childhoods. After Merlin's birth more individuals had begun being born with stronger magic to wield, and some men and women who had never shown signs of any magical skill suddenly showed signs of power. The woman Morgana had told him about, who had had the ability to manipulate time, had only been able to make the feeling that time had passed burst into being in people's minds, before Merlin's birth.
Gaius and Morgana had concluded much of what they believed about Merlin's focusing power from the events that had taken place after his birth. Morgana hinted that her own magic had come with Merlin, too, and that it had seemed to flare more brightly and become more powerful because of her close contact with him, but this seemed to be tied in her mind to Uther's banishment, as Hunith had suggested, so she did not really elaborate.
The entire story made Arthur reconsider the events that had taken place in his own Camelot over the past two years, and question whether Merlin's arrival might have had anything to do with the sudden intensity with which they had had to ward off attacks in the city. It was difficult to tell, because Uther had been tightening his own grip on the kingdom well before Merlin had come to court, and no-one would argue that that had not had an effect on the feelings and actions of his subjects.
Arthur had to spend two days gathering his courage to ask Merlin for permission to go to Uther. When they were both lying in Merlin's chambers after the midwinter feast, pleasantly full of food and drink, Arthur finally deemed it a good time to ask, as respectfully as he could.
(In the aftermath of the council, Arthur realised that he had not truly felt the difference in stature that had always stood between him and Merlin in this place until his confidence in his own worth had been shaken. Somehow, prince and manservant had meant nothing to him, but son of a good woman and born of a traitor had made all the difference to that. The knowledge of it had changed all the interaction he had had with Merlin since, in a way that he disliked.)
"Merlin," he said, and Merlin turned to look at him from where he was sprawled on the bed. "I would like to see my father."
He supposed, in retrospect, that he hadn't so much asked as said, but he had infused his voice with as much deference as he was able to.
"Of course," Merlin said quickly, and then, immediately, "When would you like us to go?"
"You want to come?" asked Arthur, completely taken aback, and Merlin did his best to hide the hurt that washed across his features at the question. He was not at all successful.
"Not if you don't want me to, of course," he said coolly. His eyes betrayed him. "But you have never gone alone before. Is everything all right?"
"Yes, yes, of course," said Arthur, and he tried to think about some way to wave Merlin off without wounding him further.
The truth was that he would not have minded the company, but despite Morgana's reassurances, he was afraid that if someone else were there to see, he might make a botch of it and give himself away.
"Arthur," said Merlin quietly, as Arthur was trying to come up with a plausible reason why he wished to go alone.
"I have noticed— That is to say, this past week you have … not been entirely yourself. I know that the midwinter feast is always difficult for you, that it brings back unpleasant memories. But I can't help but wonder … does this have something to do with what happened in the woods, when you hit your head?"
Arthur laughed harshly—he couldn't help it—and Merlin turned his face away.
"No," said Arthur, sensing he had somehow just hurt Merlin's feelings even more than he already had. "No— It's only that I remembered something funny."
It was rather weak, but Merlin rallied gamely and smiled. Arthur thought of all the kindnesses that Merlin had done him so far, and then about the kindnesses he and Hunith must have done the other Arthur in the past. To keep a banished man within riding distance, and guarded not to avert danger but for his own protection—Morgana had told him this was the case—out of love for two people was perhaps kinder than any queen or prince should be.
"Merlin," he said, still afraid that something might go awry during the journey, but unwilling to deny Merlin anything—he and Hunith had hardly denied Arthur anything. "I would be very pleased if you would come with me."
They rode out the next day at dawn. It was almost as if Merlin could sense the strange urgency Arthur was feeling: he felt, somehow, that this was the crux of it, what Morgause had intended for him to learn here. Her hatred of Uther, whether one believed her story or not, was absolute. (And Arthur had felt the doubt that her story was false, which he had worked so hard to shut out after confronting his father, creeping out from the crevices into which it had never fully disappeared every day since he had been here.) What else could she hope to gain by this immensely complicated and dangerous act, if not to force Arthur to see his father laid low?
Arthur wanted it over with.
Merlin was silent on the ride there, which took over half a day. Every so often he glanced over at Arthur as if to ascertain that he was still there, and that he was well, but he never voiced any of the questions he clearly had out loud. At one point he pointed out a hawk flying overhead, tail and wings fanned and flapping powerfully, and Arthur looked up without comment, though he did his best to smile to show his appreciation.
The sun had moved on far beyond the highest point in the sky when they reached a small cottage in the forest, nestled next to a lake.
Merlin called out a loud "Hello," perhaps sensing Arthur could not do it himself, and Arthur sat up straighter on his horse and braced himself.
When the door opened slowly, almost as if the person inside were mocking Arthur's fear, however, it was not his father's face that looked out. Blue eyes in a girlish face blinked owlishly in the weak winter light, and it took Arthur a moment to place the face.
"Sophia?" he asked, incredulously, and she acknowledged him with a duck of her head and an unhappy smirk.
"Sophia," said Merlin, somewhat nastily. Arthur looked over at him in surprise.
"I assume the two of you are here to see the fool, the loon," she said, sing-songing in her childish voice, and Merlin's voice cracked through the air like a whip in response.
"Do not call him that," he said, and his voice sounded terrible, commanding and dark.
Sophia shrank back against the door, hunching into herself, and Arthur was about to say something in her defence when Merlin continued, his voice severe.
"You asked for our permission to dwell here to await your father's return, Sophia, though we have told you before that we do not believe he is coming back. You asked us to spare your life despite your crimes, despite your attempts on a courtier's life, whatever your reasons might have been for such an offence—"
Merlin's eyes flicked towards Arthur. It was only for an instant, but Arthur had a sinking feeling he knew who the courtier might have been.
"We granted that wish under the condition that you provided for Uther if he could not provide for himself, and if I find that you have neglected your duties, Sophia, you can rest assured our mercy will not be long-lived."
"Sire," she said, and now her voice was meek and pleading, more like Arthur remembered it. "As you know, I believed at the time that Arthur had committed treason against the court, too, as his father had, and I believed the price that I had to pay in order to return to my people was to take a traitor's life, for justice's sake. I was clearly mistaken, of course, and I am happy to pay the price for my mistake. I am grateful for your compassion."
She curtsied, bowing her head below her doorway.
Merlin's eyes said that he did not believe any of it: he did not believe she had thought Arthur guilty of anything, and he certainly did not believe she was happy to serve any sentence, or that she felt any gratitude. It was clear, however, that he and Hunith had, for whatever reason, accepted this story when it had first been told, and so he could hardly take back his belief now.
"Very well," he said, and his voice still sounded like ice and fire. "We will ride on, then. You do not require anything?"
"Nothing, sire," she said, and as she bowed again Arthur could have sworn he saw an unnatural blueish glow about her face.
It reminded him of the light he had seen in the clearing when this had all begun, though he somehow knew the two were not the same.
They rode on for a very short time, taking a path through the woods, and Arthur was momentarily distracted from the thought of his father by the thought of what his own Sophia might have done in his Camelot, that the two of them had disappeared together and Merlin had followed, but only Arthur had returned.
How naïve he had been, to think no sacrifice had been made for his return.
"We are here, Arthur," Merlin said quietly, and Arthur pulled his horse short and looked assessingly at the squat building in front of him.
It was little more than a shack, covered in strange symbols and thatched unevenly.
"The roof needs repairing," said Merlin, as they gazed upon it. "I will send someone to do it as soon as we return."
"How do you make sure that they stay here?" asked Arthur, suddenly, for even Merlin's and Hunith's benevolence could not stretch to letting two criminals roam at will, surely.
"The same wards that I put in place when we first brought your father here were extended to include Sophia two years ago," he said, still quiet and cautious. "And only recently Gareth added protection at the lakeside, and Ragnelle protection in the woods."
Arthur nodded. He made no move to approach the cabin, and Merlin did not rush him.
They sat in silence for a while longer. A length, Merlin asked,
"Would you like me to call for him?"
Yes, please, Arthur thought. Out loud, he said,
"No. I will do it."
He drew in a slow breath through his nose, and let it out slowly. Then he gathered his voice and called, "Father! Father, are you there?" as loudly as he dared.
There was a beat of silence, and then,
"Father? Father?" came a low, gravelly voice from inside the hut.
Arthur felt an urge to turn his horse and flee, but Merlin's hand, which landed suddenly but not entirely unexpectedly on his thigh, gave him the courage to stay where he was.
"Who calls for a father?" came the voice, still from inside the shack.
Nothing could have frightened Arthur more than the terrible expectation of who might emerge from the door, in time.
"I certainly do not have any sons. I do not have any daughters. I am an unfortunate man indeed, to have lost my wife and my children. For any children of mine would have surely never left me to live in darkness."
With this rather cheerful pronouncement the door swung open, revealing Uther's shockingly familiar face.
He would have thought his father the traitor would look different. He looked exactly the same, though, except for the shabbiness of his clothes, which were nonetheless of good quality. Arthur suspected Merlin and Hunith's handiwork.
"Hello, father," he said again, not sure what else he could say.
"Hello, Arthur," said Uther, but his gaze was fixed on Merlin. "Brought your sorcerer, I see. Or perhaps he brought you, as he is the one that has had you bewitched all these long years."
"I have bewitched no-one, Uther," said Merlin, and then, as an afterthought, "Hello to you too."
"Arthur," said Uther, and unexpectedly his voice grew desperate and plaintive, like a man pleading for his life.
"Arthur, my son, will you not see the truth? Can you not see that sorcery is evil, and that Hunith's court is beset with this darkness all the way to its core? It is his fault," he said, pointing at Merlin with an outstretched arm, "His fault that Hunith was ensnared and turned all of Camelot to dimness in her confusion. He and others like him— they corrupted Morgana first, Arthur, but now they have also corrupted you. Don't you see? You are bewitched, which is why you cannot see that all magic-holders want is to breed dissent and war and fear, and that they have caught all of Camelot in the midst of this chaos.
This cannot be allowed to continue, Arthur, and it is within your power to end it—he trusts you enough to sleep in your sight, does he not? He cannot always keep his treacherous eyes open. Camelot will fall if he is left unchecked, do you not see?"
Morgana had said she would see their father's madness plainly as soon as the two of them were together, but all Arthur heard were things that had been familiar to him all his life. If strange glyphs had not been painted on Uther's house, and if he had not drawn coarse symbols with soot on the backs of his hands, Arthur was not sure he would have realised anything was amiss.
Merlin caught where Arthur's eyes were looking, and he whispered out of the side of his mouth,
"He is not alone, your father. Not far from here lives a man who believes it is his calling to hunt sorcerers, and he is the one who has taught your father how to 'ward' against magic. He took the money we used to send your father for many months before we realised what he was doing, but by then he had already painted the symbols on the house, and taught Uther to paint them on his own hands."
"I see," said Arthur, and, as if the act of saying the words had unlocked some truth inside him, suddenly he did see.
There was nothing to discover here, other than what he had already seen: this, this hatred of magic that Arthur knew so well, this was the madness that Uther had been banished for.
His father did not look so very different, or sound like someone else. He made sense when he spoke, and believed what Arthur had always known him to believe. The only difference was that in this Camelot, Uther had had no power. Arthur's mother's death had engendered this hatred of magic in him, but he had not had a throne from which to sentence men and women to death and make his beliefs law. Magic had flourished around him in spite of his wishes, and the people of Camelot had seen the great good it could do, if it was harnessed. Uther had not been there to sow fear and hatred in their hearts, at first, and when he had spoken of his fears 'for Camelot', they had seen them for what they truly were: fear and hatred of his own, rather than fact.
In this Camelot, Uther also hated magic. But he had no power, and so they called his ravings madness rather than the king's decree.
They rode away after they had been there long enough for Merlin to leave some bread and meats at the gate, beyond which Uther would not allow him to pass. Uther spoke the entire time that they were there, repeating variations of what he had already said, and in this repetition, Arthur did hear madness. Perhaps Uther had not been mad, not at first, but his time alone in this cabin with only his fears for company had driven him away from sanity by now.
"Are you ready?" Merlin asked quietly, when Uther had turned away to re-trace a glyph on the walls of his house with a piece of coal.
"Yes," said Arthur, but he could not seem to make his legs work to encourage his roan to motion.
Merlin did not say anything, but he reached out a hand towards Arthur's horse's rump and smacked it once, and then he inclined his head in the direction of the path, and the roan went. Merlin rode next to him, close enough to touch, and when they had passed Sophia's cottage and Arthur felt he could speak again, he asked,
"Why did you send him here? I mean … I understand why you needed to keep him in check, but why not the dungeons? Why not—"
The noose, the pyre, he wanted to say, but suddenly he was not sure Hunith or Merlin were capable of building the sort of kingdom in which men were sentenced to the ultimate punishment.
Perhaps the Arthur of this place had never asked Merlin this question before, for after looking at him shrewdly, as if wondering whether Arthur really wanted to hear what Merlin had to say, Merlin began to speak, and did not stop for a long time.
"He was not always as he is now," Merlin said, cautiously, which Arthur had already figured out. "At first he seemed sensible and knowledgeable, and mother and others were hesitant to ignore his concerns, even. When Morgana's magic manifested, however, it was as if someone had lit a fire inside him. He stopped sharing his anxieties in council and took them to nobles away from the court, and to the markets. He incited others to hatred and he won the heart of many before my mother gathered strength in her own heart, and sent him away."
His father had incited peaceful people to violence against their neighbours. Arthur wished he could say that that was different in his Camelot, but it was not.
"I think it was," Merlin said, and then stopped. He seemed to think carefully about what to say, and then started again.
"Your father has always loved you, more than words can express. But his grief consumed him, so that he almost forgot that love. It did not help that at that time Nimueh was still with us," he said, and Arthur's ears perked up at the familiar name.
"I now believe that Nimueh did not fully understand magic, either—not any more than your father does. But at first it was difficult to tell that she was different from the others who were manifesting after I was born, whose strength was increasing. Gaius said to me once, when I was very young, 'Use your magic, Merlin; do not let it use you.' It is simple and a bit trite in wording, perhaps, but it is still the best advice he has ever given me.
I believe Nimueh did not understand this. She was sometimes thoughtless with her power and with the responsibility of guarding the wishes of others. She would not listen to reason, or to anyone who spoke of moderation. Your father's hatred burned hotter and hotter in the face of her defiance, of her reckless and hazardous use of magic.
Your father was not right about me being dangerous, and he was not right about Morgana or any of those who live with us at court now. But he was perhaps right about Nimueh, about her thirst for knowledge and power, and it took us a long time to realise that she needed to be checked as much as he did. Together they wrought great havoc in the city—unlikely allies in chaos, though they hated each other fiercely—and when your father asked you to ride out against one of the beasts Nimueh had bred in the forest—"
Merlin looked conflicted, as if he were making some terrible choice now, rather than recounting something that had happened in the past.
"You must understand, Arthur. We were only young. My mother could not risk losing you, and so she sent the Lady Arianna and Sir Bedivere to ride against Nimueh, and asked Uther to ride with us to this place, where we put up wards instead of listening to what he had to say, as she had said she would."
Merlin looked away into the distance, and Arthur looked away, too, because Merlin's eyes were glistening and he did not wish to embarrass him.
"We did wrong by your father, Arthur," he said, as if admitting to some great crime, rather than relaying the story of what any good ruler would have done. But all Arthur saw was two leaders left without a choice, one too young to fully know what to make of all that was happening and one grieved by the loss of a friend.
"Then again," said Merlin, and his voice had that strange fire in it again. "He did wrong by you. And for that reason alone, I do not regret what we did."
Arthur stopped his horse, looking at Merlin's back for two or three paces, until Merlin stopped his horse, too, and turned it around to face Arthur.
Arthur thought of the times he had ridden out to face some danger—always with an odd joy in his heavy heart, because it was his duty to defend his people and he relished their trust in him. But his father … his father had stayed behind more than once, unwilling to risk Arthur but more unwilling to give up the stubbornness that his endless store of fear lent him. And though before this moment Arthur had never wanted anyone to speak on his behalf at those times, now that he saw Merlin doing it, becoming angry at Uther's choices, he found that he had been lacking it, and that he had wished it, though he had not allowed himself to think on it.
"Merlin," he said, thinking suddenly of what Merlin had said in the library, after the council. You have made a life with me out of duty, he had accused, and suddenly Arthur felt it was vitally important that he know otherwise.
"The loss of my father, and everything that happened then—it still weighs heavily on my heart. But you said the other day that you believe I have made my choices since based on that weight, and— I do not serve you because I feel guilty, Merlin. I serve you because you are a good man, and it is an honour and a pleasure to stand by your side."
He was thinking of some way that he might embellish this, and make it convey more fully what he meant—the safety and joy of this sense of companionship between the two of them, which they had in his Camelot, despite the many distances that had lain between them at first, and which they clearly had here, too.
He stopped his efforts at the sight of the look on Merlin's face, though.
It was the look that Merlin had shut away from him once or twice before since his arrival, but Merlin did nothing to disguise it now. It shone brightly from his features: it was in the heat of his eyes, and in the tiny pink space between his lips, where he was drawing breath. It was in the flush in his cheeks and the set of his jaw.
It was devotion, the sort of devotion Morgana had spoken of the Arthur of this Camelot having for Merlin, and Merlin for him, and it was—
It was longing.
It was longing to see Arthur happy, and longing to make him happy. It was longing for Arthur himself—not the superficial longing of knights for scullery maids, but the sort of longing that Arthur had seen in his father's eyes when he looked at his mother's throne, and the sort of longing he had heard in Gwen's terrible cry when her father had been taken.
It was desperate in a way that was ghastly to look upon, but it was also hopeful and ferocious, and it seemed to spark an answering heat in Arthur.
Arthur found himself thinking, suddenly, that he wanted this. He wanted someone to want him like this. He wanted someone to put his happiness first, or together with his own, and to love him this fiercely.
Merlin wanted him, and when Arthur saw it in his eyes, he remembered what it was to want anything at all.
It had been so long—so long since he had expressed need to others, so long since he had even admitted needing something to himself—that he had forgotten how wonderful it was to wish for something, and to know that it was yours.
Arthur spent the next two days riding in the woods around Camelot, jumping his horse over frozen streams and trying not to think of anything. The days after the castle's midwinter feast were always lazy, as people consumed the last of the food and drink, and so Merlin waved him away happily when he asked for permission to go riding, though he seemed a bit uncertain as he watched Arthur depart.
Arthur tried to think of nothing as he rode, which of course meant that he could hardly do anything but think. He thought of his father, yes, but oddly he spent much more time thinking about the people in this Camelot than he spent thinking about his own loved ones.
He thought of the prosperity that Hunith and Merlin had built and nurtured, the sort of prosperity that allowed them to seek out responsibilities as they had with Ealdor, and allowed them to bargain with other rulers by enticing them, rather than by attempting to cow them. He also thought of Hunith's polished wooden table, of the haphazard way in which she encouraged her subjects to sit around it, and of the fact that she encouraged anyone who wished to sit to do so, if they had something to say.
The two things were twinned together, he knew.
He thought of Morgana, from whom a great weight seemed to have lifted when he had visited her after returning from seeing Uther, and had said simply,
"I do not blame you for father leaving. I could not, because you had no hand in it. I do not believe your Arthur has ever blamed you, either, and you should stop blaming yourself."
She had turned away, and at first he thought he had only managed to make her sadder, but a few hours later he had walked past Guinevere's rooms and seen the two of them laughing inside, laughing and laughing as if they could hardly help it, and he had smiled as he passed.
Mostly he thought about Merlin, though he tried not to admit to himself that that was what he was doing. Unlike with the others, however, he spent most of the time thinking about his own Merlin, at home. He felt as if the Merlin here were some important piece of a puzzle, which had allowed him to see the Merlin he already knew for who he truly was.
If this Merlin was powerful, then Arthur believed his own Merlin was powerful beyond anything he could have imagined two weeks ago, too. Perhaps he would never have the control of the Merlin here: he surely had not been trained from childhood, and he had surely been taught to hide and fear his magic, rather than to take pride in it, to share it.
But he had to be nothing like the man Arthur had imagined he knew, before arriving here. Every time some suspicious blow had knocked Arthur unconscious at some critical moment, someone had made sure that he had not just closed his eyes for the last time. It was Lancelot, he had told himself, or luck, or his own unbelievable prowess, which—he supposed, now that he thought about it—he believed served him while he was lying on the ground as well as it did when he was standing on it.
It was mortifying to discover that Morgana had been right all along: that sort of wishful thinking was best left to children and dullards, and Arthur had known it, but he had entertained it nonetheless.
The Merlin who lived in this Camelot made no secret of his devotion: to his mother, to Morgana and to Guinevere and to Gaius, and most of all to Arthur. Arthur could well believe that people here might be more aware of the fates that Morgana had spoken to him about, and they seemed to assume that his and Merlin's lay tied together. They did not seem to think anything was very odd about that.
In his own Camelot, Arthur had not had the privilege of growing up in a court like Hunith's. For he saw now that it was a privilege, being able to value people based on the strength of their convictions and their hearts rather than on the depth of their purses or the vastness of their armouries. But while he acknowledged that he had not necessarily been taught any better, he could perhaps not excuse the way in which he had worked, almost tirelessly, to replicate the wrong things his father had taught him, even when he had suspected that they might not be entirely good.
He had embarrassed Merlin because he could, more than once. And though he hoped that he had told him, also more than once, that his company was valued and his courage and loyalty were admired and appreciated, he had only done so when faced with some extenuating circumstance—say, death.
He could not help but be a product of the home in which he had been raised, but now that he saw the way in which Merlin looked at him here he wondered whether Merlin ever looked at him like that at home, and whether he had missed it for his obstinacy. Because he thought he knew now what all sorts of what he had thought were unnamable feelings had been: his desire for Merlin to be around to aggravate him, even if that's all he did, for one. His desperation to make sure that Merlin did not rush into danger, thinking he could face it (he had been able to do it all along, of course, but Arthur only knew that now), all spindly limbs and frail ribcage. His ability to confide in Merlin what he had never told others, not in the almost twenty years of life he had had before Merlin arrived.
He had not thought it possible that he might feel anything for Merlin beyond a sense of companionship and mild irritation, but he had not thought all manner of things were possible, until he had come here. But now that he had seen the heady look in Merlin's eyes, he could tell that he had craved Merlin's devotion, perhaps without realising it fully, because he himself was devoted to Merlin. He had done his best to pretend otherwise, but some part of him—the part of him that had ridden to Ealdor, that had swallowed the liquid in the goblet before Merlin could look, that had pushed Merlin to stand behind him every time danger showed its face—had always known that to resist what he felt was hopeless.
Arthur rode and rode and rode, and when his horse grew tired he tied it to a tree wherever he could find something that was still green for it to eat, and then he would walk in large circles around the area until he judged enough time had passed. At that point he would get back on the horse, and ride again.
He was not sure when the jumble of thoughts in his head put themselves into some sort of order, but from one instant to another he ceased to feel the urge to flee, and he turned his horse and cantered it back towards Camelot. He rode it first to the clearing where everything had begun, where Morgause had landed him without warning, and he was startled, but not entirely surprised, to see Merlin waiting for him there. He dismounted from his horse and walked over to him, and Merlin handed him a flask of wine, which he took gratefully.
Merlin was wearing the same fur-lined hooded cloak that he had worn the day when Arthur had first seen him here, and the same fine boots. He stood completely still as Arthur walked around the clearing, stretching his legs and noting each of the different things he had first seen two weeks ago—the bushes, and the gnarled tree in one corner, and the grey sky above.
"Merlin," he said finally, when he had had enough of looking and felt ready to say something.
"Mmh?" asked Merlin lazily, and as Arthur walked up to him, his eyes looked impossibly blue, even in the hazy light of the December sky.
"What was I doing?" Arthur asked, finally putting the pieces together so that he knew that this was the right question. "Before I fell and hit my head?"
"You weren't doing anything, Arthur. You tripped," Merlin answered, but there was a slight coyness in his voice that Arthur had known to listen for, or perhaps had hoped to hear, when he asked.
"Merlin," he repeated. "Tell me. I want to know."
"Well, Arthur, if that's what you really want," said Merlin, and his lips curved up into a smile. "Then I am happy to tell you we were doing this."
And when he leaned forward and kissed Arthur, Arthur was not at all surprised.
It was strange, taking off his clothes in the middle of a frost-covered clearing and not feeling even a hint of the cold. Merlin had done something to the ground, or to the air, or perhaps to both, because Arthur felt as if he were undressing in the middle of his rooms with a fire blazing, instead of outside on a winter morning when he should by all rights be freezing.
He felt shy, but utterly unashamed: he was certain no-one would happen upon them (because they weren't cold, and Merlin could do that sort of thing), and some hot flame inside his belly felt as if it would sputter out and die if Arthur did not do this right now.
Merlin ran his hands down Arthur's arms, and then up the soft skin on the inside of his thighs, and there was a moment when Arthur felt as if Merlin must have arms everywhere, like some sort of sea creature.
(The last was a fairly unappealing thought, so he turned his mind away from it determinedly.)
Arthur had imagined that if it came to this—and he had certainly thought it might, in these long days of riding—all the thinking he had done over the past two days would somehow stand him in good stead, so that he could lie with Merlin without any of the shadows of his past clouding the view.
In the end, of course, that was not true at all, and when Merlin rolled them over to lie on top of Arthur, Arthur pressed one foot against the ground and rolled them back so that he could lie above Merlin, rather than the other way around. He pinned Merlin's body between his arms and made himself into as solid a presence as he could, the way he had been taught to do as a young knight, before he realised what he was doing. When he tried to pull back, though, to yield as he had hoped to be able to do, he found that he could not.
But it was as if Merlin knew exactly what was going through Arthur's head. Arthur had thought this same thing every time Merlin had showed no surprise at the poor grace with which Arthur served him. Merlin seemed to understand that an inability to compromise on certain things was somehow at the heart of who Arthur was, and he did not seem to want to try to change it, or to want it changed at all. It made Arthur think that the Arthur of this Camelot was probably not comfortable with giving way, either, and that Merlin understood that. But that knowledge did not help him: it only made doing this, lying here with Merlin's body soft and warm underneath his, seem almost impossible despite the desire with which he wanted it.
And then Merlin, who seemingly knew his Arthur better than that Arthur perhaps knew himself, and who seemed to have an uncanny understanding of Arthur now, too, let himself relax under Arthur's hands, let his body become yielding and pliant. He allowed Arthur to bite at him and to press his fingertips against his wrists, against his hips, and if Arthur was a little forceful, eager and terrified, Merlin did not say.
Arthur wondered if Merlin would bruise, but when Merlin arched up and moaned softly, exposing the long line of his neck and the curve of one knee, Arthur found he could not bring himself to worry overmuch that Merlin would.
Merlin pressed his hands flat to the ground and lifted his hips insistently, asking for all sorts of things without words, some of which Arthur could not fully imagine. He was asking Arthur, and yet the warmth of the air around them and the sound of Merlin's soft, keening gasps, which seemed to press onto Arthur's skin, made Arthur feel as if it were him that was pinned between Merlin's arms. He licked down one of Merlin's sharp collarbones and up the other, and he held Merlin's cock firmly in his hand and tried to do everything he knew he liked, not sure if that was the right place to begin.
Merlin moaned as if everything were wonderful, though, and he did not stop even when Arthur did, sitting back on his ankles to consider what he might do next. Eventually Arthur crooked one finger into him and then another, using his other hand to hold Merlin's knee up and to the side, marvelling at the sight of the two of them melting into one another. Merlin had brought some sort of oil with him, and Arthur did not think he would ever smell rosemary again without thinking of this moment.
"Arthur, Arthur, Arthur, please," said Merlin, finally, speaking for the first time, and Arthur was only too happy to do as he asked.
Arthur also knew he would never forget the sound that Merlin made when Arthur slid into him, a rumble that sounded as if it came from somewhere low in Merlin's throat and seemed to say, I give you permission to call me yours the way I call you mine.
Arthur pushed into Merlin evenly but a little desperately. He lowered a hand and felt the sweat on their bellies and the slick place where they were joined, and he whispered,
"You are beautiful, Merlin," into Merlin's ear.
He leaned back to look at Merlin's face, just in time to see his eyes flash gold before they shut in pleasure.
Arthur Pendragon did not know how to yield, but he would do his best to show Merlin how deeply he desired to learn how.
They walked back to the castle together. It took hours, and it was dark by the time they reached the courtyard, Arthur leading his roan by the reins with one hand. His other hand was clasped tightly with Merlin's, and as the sun disappeared entirely behind the horizon and the night draped inkily across the sky, not a star in sight, it had sometimes seemed as if he only knew where he was going because Merlin was with him.
They slept tangled up in Merlin's sheets—which were, like most things Arthur had seen in his short time serving Merlin here, better than Arthur's own—and woke each other up with languid kisses. Merlin had business to attend to, so Arthur let him get up, but not before he had made him almost inexcusably late. Afterwards, he allowed himself to lie in bed and enjoy the certain knowledge that no-one needed him to be elsewhere.
When he finally got up, he made his way slowly to Morgana's rooms, stopping to say hello to those people he recognised as he passed. Gwen was just going into her chambers as he walked past the door, and she caught sight of his face and asked, cheerfully,
"What are you smiling about?"
The answer was on the tip of Arthur's tongue before he caught it, and with the thought of what Gwen might have thought if he had answered, of what others might think, Arthur felt the first flash of uncertainty skip across his mind.
He did not answer her straight away, but she only waited for him, smiling curiously.
"Why do you think I have chosen to stay with Merlin, all these years?" he asked finally, requesting reassurance in the only real way he knew how.
She, too, was silent for a long time, long enough that Arthur wondered whether she would answer at all. Finally, though, she cocked her head and said,
"I think Merlin sees you for who you truly are, and that you do the same for him. I think that makes you both better men. When he looks at you, he does not see your father's son, or his manservant, but you—Arthur Pendragon."
(Not your father's son, and not the prince, but you.)
He could tell the moment he entered Gaius' workroom that this time Morgana had figured it out, that she had some answer ready for him. It was in the tired but relieved lines around her eyes, and in the strands of hair fluttering messily about her face.
"So— what is it?" he asked loudly as she was bent over a book, and she stood up with a start and clearly prevented herself from gracing him with some rude gesture only through discipline.
"Come here," she said, and he walked over to where she was still working on the same piece of paper, which now had one more rune written on it, in the centre of the page.
"I think I have finally made sense of the last element of the spell," she said musingly, and Arthur fought the urge to hurry her along.
She knew how anxious he was, and he was sure she was anxious, too, but she would clearly get there in her own time.
She pointed one long graceful finger at her own writing.
"Choice, Divergent Paths. It is hidden, almost out of sight, but it is what is binding Morality and Discovery and Transformation together. I could not see it at first because it was not meant to be seen. It's the trick of the spell, if you will, meant to be invisible until the enchantment is broken."
"So you're saying," Arthur said, smiling widely because it was so ridiculous, "That I simply have to choose to go home, and I will?"
It seemed too simple, like a child's puzzle box whose only trick was that it was not a puzzle at all. Then again, deciphering the key to the spell had been anything but simple, and perhaps it was only that Morgause had not counted on Arthur having Morgana on his side.
"No, I—" Morgana seemed a bit flummoxed. Then she smiled, too, and said, "Well. In essence, yes. Merlin will have to be around, mind."
"To focus the spell," he said.
"Yes," Morgana answered. "But I believe you need only to think it, to truly wish it, and you will be home."
Arthur laughed—cackled, really, though he did not like to think of how the sound had exploded out of him—and she joined him. They stood there, bracing their hands on the countertop and gasping for breath, until he surprised himself by saying, slowly,
"You know, I have the oddest feeling—as if I've somehow known that all along."
He hugged Morgana goodbye, and thanked her for her trust and loyalty, which he had not had a chance to earn before she had given them. He made sure to pass by Gwen's chambers on the way back to Merlin's, to smile at her one more time and to thank her for their conversation earlier.
The best description that Arthur could think of for what happened after he left Gaius' workrooms was that Morgana's revelation had somehow loosened the bonds between him and this world, which now seemed familiar even though it was not—not truly. As he walked through the corridors, it was almost as if he could see the gaps through which the spell must have squeezed him to get him here, as if the space between Morality and Discovery had become a visible thing.
He looked around Merlin's chambers and saw his own things placed on the chests and tables, and when Merlin came in Arthur believed for a moment that his cloak, clasped at the neck, was a raggedy piece of cloth.
"Arthur," he breathed softly as he came towards him, and Arthur let him—let him come forward and lick at Arthur's neck and run his hands across his chest and clasp them behind him.
He let Merlin tumble him onto the bed, and let Merlin muss his hair every which way. When Merlin shimmied forward across Arthur's body and nudged his cock past Arthur's lips Arthur felt a sharp jolt in his chest, and though he tried to tell himself that it was mostly surprise, it was not.
He tipped his head back and let Merlin do as he wished, and for an instant he felt a twinge of sadness that when the spell reversed these things (their gasps and their warm breath and the words they were whispering in each other's ears) would wind back on themselves, as if they had never been.
Then he thought of the Arthur of this Camelot, who had been on the cusp of discovering this for himself, and he allowed himself to enjoy the thought of re-exploring everything for the first time, though he himself would not be there to do it.
Merlin cradled Arthur's jaw between both of his hands, and pushed forward into Arthur's mouth with a gentleness that only seemed to make Arthur hungrier for Merlin's touch, and more expectant for whatever else was coming. He could hardly feel the bed under him, but he could feel each of Merlin's muscles shifting under his hands as Merlin moved above him.
When Merlin came into Arthur's mouth, on his lips and on his cheek, Arthur thought Oh, and then, as he lay there panting, Oh.
Merlin had done something, maybe before he'd arrived in his rooms—had made himself ready so that Arthur only had to think Please and then he was inside Merlin. He moved his hips lazily and trailed his fingertips up Merlin's ribs, and he did not say I love you.
He did love Merlin, in a way he had not imagined he could (despite having felt it for a long time), but this wasn't the place in which he was first meant to speak those words.
Arthur threw his head back and moaned other things, though—amazing and always and some mumbled words that were little more than gibberish—moving his hands to fist against the sheets. He could not get enough of the certainty in Merlin's eyes, which said, I will never leave you much more loudly than Merlin himself did—and it was not as if Merlin were being quiet about it.
Afterwards, they curved into each other like spoons, and the last thing Arthur saw as he closed his eyes was Merlin turning to smile at him, his hair dark as it fanned against the pillow. His lips moved—Arthur could have sworn he said, Goodbye, Prince Arthur. Be well, but that could hardly be possible—and then something shifted, and he was seeing Merlin's face outlined by the grey light of a pale sun, and the leaves were rustling in the trees.
Arthur opened his eyes a minute later to the sight of seven magpies streaking across the top of the clearing, their shapes dark against the white clouds and the muted grey of the sky. He tried to remember what it was that seven magpies meant—he'd had a nurse who had sung the rhyme to him as a child—but couldn't.
"Arthur?" he heard, and he turned his aching head to find Merlin looking down at him from directly above his face, crouched over him so fully that he was almost curved in on his own knees as he knelt on the ground.
"Merlin," he said, and he grinned as he caught sight of the small dip in Merlin's left cheek, which deepened when he smiled. He was hardly smiling now, but Arthur could see it as clearly as if Merlin were grinning back at him.
The other Merlin had smiled more, but that small dip had never been visible.
Arthur's body felt as if it had been lying there for weeks, which he supposed it had been. He dragged his head around to look across the clearing and saw his knights blinking sleepily, looking around as if waking from some long dream. He looked more carefully, half-expecting to see the pink arc of Morgause's smile peeking out from between the trees.
He was pleased when he did not find it amongst the branches: he did not think he would have known what to do with her, just now.
He perhaps would not ever know what to do with her, or what to make of what she had done.
"Arthur," Merlin repeated above him, urgently.
He looked intently into Arthur's left eye, then into the right, then at Arthur's hands. His fingers pushed Arthur's hair back from his forehead, then patted at his chest and cheeks.
"Are you all right?"
"Merlin," Arthur began. When his voice came out in a croak he cleared his throat and whispered, once more, "Merlin."
Merlin, whose eyes seemed wild with the fear that Arthur might be about to expire right then and there, leaned over him completely, his ear almost to Arthur's lips. Arthur felt a brief urge to shout as loudly as he could, but he repressed it only because he had something terribly important to say, and he could not waste this chance, while his knights were still getting their bearings and could not hear.
"Arthur, what is it?" asked Merlin, his voice creeping distressingly towards panic, and Arthur murmured,
"Merlin. What were you thinking, jumping in front of an unknown spell like that? It could have been anything. Have you no sense at all?"
Merlin was close enough that Arthur could actually see the muscles in his neck tense. He could feel the muscles in the rest of Merlin's body clench, too, where his knees and thighs were pressed against Arthur's chest, and where his arm brushed Arthur's shoulder.
"What?" Merlin asked in a dry whisper, pulling back and looking at Arthur's face.
Arthur did not know what he would do if Merlin tried to pull off one of his awful, transparent denials, but Merlin stopped before he said anything else, and looked intently at Arthur's face. Arthur was not sure what he saw in it, but suddenly Merlin grinned—dip in his left cheek and all—and said,
"I may have no sense, Arthur, but you can trust me when I say that on that point, I have always felt in good company."
Arthur tried to think of some rejoinder. He felt relaxed and oddly content, though, as if he could sleep for a week and could not be bothered with bickering, and so he only smiled in return. Merlin seemed somehow more terrified by this than he might have been by any other reply, and he pulled back warily, as if expecting some trick. He clearly was not afraid, however—despite Arthur's best tantrums, he wondered if Merlin had ever felt afraid when Arthur ranted. Probably not.
And if Merlin's eyes were anything to go by, he was not only unafraid, but also as happy as Arthur had seen him in a long time.
"Sire," called Gawain, and Arthur turned his neck again to find him propping himself up against a tree as if he might fall over if he did not. "Are you and Merlin hurt?"
"No, Gawain," he answered, using his stiff arms to raise himself so that he was sitting upright. Every bone in his body creaked as he did so.
Gawain nodded smartly and did not ask any more questions, as if it were taking all of his concentration to stay standing. Arthur almost laughed at how easily they all accepted things like unexplained explosions of eerie blue light: they, who lived in this world where supposedly there was no magic to be had.
He was considering how he might manage to get up when a hand appeared in front of his face, and he looked up to see Merlin, shifting on his feet as if nothing had happened, as if he were ready for the next thing.
"Arthur," he said as Arthur tried to get his body to cooperate. When Arthur looked up at him, he said fondly, "Let's get back, all right?"
The nine of them wound their way back to Camelot slowly, a raggedy band of men with aching joints and one sprightly companion. They did not meet anyone as they made their way back to the castle, and for that Arthur was desperately glad. He knew how cowardly it was, but the truth was that he could not begin to think how he would greet Gwen, or how he would start to apologise to Morgana.
He certainly had no earthly idea what he would do when he saw his father. He wondered what Uther would look like to him now: he had the feeling it might be a bit like gazing upon a straw man in a faraway field, whose shape would suggest one thing until you forced your eyes to look more closely in order to see another.
The gleam of a polished chest as he entered his rooms reminded him of Hunith's table, and as Merlin heated his bathwater—properly, if you please, none of that pretending you can only lug up two pots of hot water from the kitchens at a time—Arthur tried to remember what his Gwen and his Morgana looked like, here.
All he seemed to remember clearly was the firm set of Gwen's mouth, because she held her fierceness in check, here, and the deep grooves of Morgana's drawn features, behind which she kept her fears and weariness to herself.
He thought suddenly that if nothing else, he would do his best to make them look as they were meant to—whatever that might mean for them.
You have taught me something about what true nobility might be, he would say to Gwen, and to Morgana, You are never alone, sister.
Then he would repeat the latter, as often as he had to.
As for his father— Well. A time when it became impossible not to face him across some fault line would come soon enough, he suspected.
He did not have to think on Merlin, who was there already, puttering about the room as Arthur undressed, almost as if he knew Arthur needed him not to leave. But then Arthur snuck a careful glance at him, and the sight of his cheerful face, so empty of the hot, heavy look that Arthur had come to take for granted, felt not unlike a blow to the chest.
Arthur did not think he had made a sound, but a moment later Merlin was crouched beside the basin in which Arthur was bathing, looking into Arthur's face worriedly.
"Arthur? Is something the matter?"
Arthur could not bring himself to say No, but neither could he say what it was that was wrong: how could he possibly begin to put any of it into words?
"You know?" Merlin said, as if he and Arthur had been in the middle of a conversation, rather than sitting together in the weight of Arthur's silence. "For a moment, earlier? Before you opened your eyes, after the light had knocked us both down?"
"Yes?" Arthur said, trying to disguise how urgently he wanted to know what Merlin was about to say.
"It was almost as if… " Merlin continued, his voice light, as if Arthur hadn't spoken. "Almost as if you weren't quite there, in the clearing. As if the person on the ground was you, but also not you. I know it sounds mad, but I could have sworn for a moment it was as if you were somewhere else entirely, and the man lying next to me was a complete stranger."
Arthur laughed—a sort of choked, relieved, desperate little laugh.
"Well, not a complete stranger," he said, thinking of all the things that had linked his and Morgana's Gwen, and Gaius, and Merlin so closely together.
And then, because Merlin had given him the perfect opening and because he suspected that if he did not do it now he might never do it, and that was no way to begin this return to his old (new) life, he told Merlin the whole story: runes and tables and clumsy wine-pouring and all.
Merlin listened intently for the entire time it took Arthur to tell him everything. He was only as far as his third day when he had to climb out of the tub, because he was cold and his skin was pruning, which was something he had always hated. The two of them sat next to the fire after that, and Arthur told Merlin every detail he remembered: the smell of the books in the library and the scent of Hunith's hair, how proud his people had been of Merlin, and how stark and sharp the bones in Uther's fingers had seemed.
Merlin did not say, What did you think when you saw that? or Wait—repeat that, please. At no point did his face show any sign at all of I don't believe you, and in retrospect it was probably this quiet faith and his patience that drove Arthur to blurt out the one thing he had told himself he would not say, not yet.
"Do you know what the worst part of it is?" he asked, and Merlin said nothing, only inclining his head to show that he was listening.
"The worst part of it is that though I know I was not meant to be there, and though I thought about the place where I was meant to be for most of the time that I was there, looking back on it there are things about being there that I wish I had not had to give up."
Merlin spoke for the first time in the whole telling of it, and asked, quietly,
"What I miss most," Arthur began, swallowing around a dry throat and telling himself not to be a coward, "Is the look that you—that Merlin, that is—always had on his face. All the time you looked at me with something in your eyes like—"
Merlin's brow knotted as he listened, and Arthur rushed out,
"It was— Like knowing we would never have to leave each other. Like certainty. Like home, even though it was everything but. Like … I couldn't possibly explain," he finished, because he really didn't know what else to say.
What little he had managed had been vague, but also specific enough for his purposes, if Merlin could hear it.
Merlin raised himself onto his knees and moved towards Arthur carefully, kneeling beside him and looking straight into his eyes.
Then he turned to stare into the fire, as if he were deciding something. When he finally looked back at Arthur, he leaned back on his heels and said, softly but clearly,
"I think you'll find—" he looked up, and his eyes were golden— "That you don't have to explain it."
Arthur looked at him in the faint glow of the firelight. His eyes were full of fire and his mouth was soft with wonder and affection, and in his face Arthur could see the past that he'd had a glimpse of, as well as the future he wanted.
Arthur smiled widely, touching one finger to that place on Merlin's cheek.
"No," he said. "Perhaps not," and leaned in towards Merlin's lips.
____One for sorrow,
Two for joy,
Three for a girl,
Four for a boy,
Five for silver,
Six for gold,
Seven for a secret never to be told.