Arthur of Camelot is too valuable to dispatch on missions to monitor the perimeters of Uther’s lands — some day, his lands — but the king condescends to let his son lead the royal guard for the central town. Each morning after dawn and evening as the sun is sinking deep into the convex between the peaks of mountains and lush curves of hills, Arthur takes his most trusted men and he rides, cloak flaring out behind him and the dragon of Camelot nearly alive as the wind catches it. He meets people along the way: villagers, tradesmen, prostitutes and vagrants peddling silks and false medicines and religions, and sometimes he when he returns to Camelot, when his room is warm with firelight, tells Merlin about them as the boy brushes Arthur’s clothes and cleans his armor and banks the fireplace.
“How is it that every time you meet a woman in one of your stories she falls all over herself over you?” Merlin demands.
Arthur imagines there are people less fit to serve, but he’s never met any. He doesn’t know why he continues to endure Merlin’s hamfisted attempts, but there is something dear and endearing underneath, and Arthur is well aware of the weak nature of his mother’s soft heart, beating frantically underneath the iron cage of the armor his father had given him.
“You mustn't forget I am incredibly handsome,” Arthur reminds Merlin, who only rolls his eyes and gathers Arthur’s chainmail, folding it in a heap. It’s staggeringly heavy, and sometimes Arthur forgets the weight of it until he sees Merlin struggle to hold it up in his thin, white arms as he lays it away. Hunith told Arthur she’d sent her son to Camelot to work for Gaius, to make his way; Merlin had said he’d left for lack of a place to belong any longer, and although Arthur thinks — during his more foolish moments — that he must know Merlin better than anybody, he still wonders who exactly Merlin is underneath the too-long arms and legs and coltish gleam of adolescence.
“Of course,” Merlin allows in a tone that makes absolutely clear how little he believes Arthur’s latest story, which is — excepting the part about the particularly randy ladies in waiting — at least forty percent true. There are purple bruises under Merlin’s eyes, and Arthur wonders if he’s being kept awake at night by chores or nightmares or other amenable servants; Arthur remembers being seventeen, the terrible urgency of it all and how indiscriminate he was.
“The degree of insubordinate behavior I tolerate from you shocks even me,” Arthur says.
Merlin just grins at him, wide and unashamed. “Go on,” he says, “finish your story then.”
Arthur never tells Merlin of the way he and his men find dead people along roadsides sometimes, entire villages laid to waste by disease or starvation or storms. Recently, he has neglected to tell Merlin of the way his father’s traveling guard has found burnt out husks of settlements at the far Eastern border of Camelot’s territories, men kidnapped and women and children raped or dead, or both. Camelot’s sophistication and art and wealth is deceptive, Arthur knows, and beyond its borders barbarians have always lurked and looked on with jealousy — it’s only that they usually don’t draw so close.
The Albion Uther subdued with steel and fire three decades ago is growing unsettled once more, Arthur knows. The peace his father won then shaped itself into a tense confederacy of loose alliances with Bayard and Cendred and even wilder warrior kings. There was no unity in Albion, but the threat of Uther’s warmaking was enough to win stillness. But Arthur listens to his father’s advisors, especially when his father choses not to, and all the signs are manifest: the starvation and drought, the attacks from neighboring kingdoms, testing, the disquiet among the serfs — and Arthur thinks now of Merlin’s mother, of Hunith’s thin, pale face, her pleading blue eyes, and wonders if they should not have known then that it was coming.
Uther has faded, now, from the forefront of statesmanship, and though Camelot’s feasts and her knights are as worthy of envy and awe as ever, it is the promise of Uther’s leadership that has lost its shine — and the betrayal in that realization is an ache, a stone heavy and sickening in the pit of Arthur’s stomach.
Arthur is Camelot’s prince and its protector, and he will fight in her defense until his dying breath. He has shed tears for her and bled for her and watched it seep into the dark loam of her farmlands and stone of far-flung mountains, and he is happy to give it, to give her anything she needs. Arthur may one day marry, and he would like to love his queen, but he will never love another the way he does these vast expanses of forest and rivers, the way he loves the villages and farms. Arthur remembers being six and a boy and twelve and still a child, but now he is twenty-one and a man, and Camelot is his land; no man shall mar her.
In spring, as green leaves are unfurling around Camelot, coy, a group of Uther’s riders come back halved from their original size, clutching wounds and bleeding freely, and Arthur doesn’t see his manservant for nearly a week after Gaius conscripts him to help with the wounded. One of the secondary halls in the castle smells constantly of feverfew and smoke and other herbs, and when he visits, he asks what he can do and Gaius hands him a stone jar of honey and clean bandages and sends him toward his men, still bleeding, still dying.
He finds Merlin on his knees next to one of the cots, brushing sweat-damp hair away from a soldier’s face, and Arthur notes, not for the first time, what a terribly young seventeen Merlin looks; Arthur doesn’t think he was that wide-eyed or frightened when he’d been that age.
“I’m glad you’re here,” Merlin tells him, a silent, grim hour later, after he has calmly brushed closed the eyes of another young soldier. “The men will feel better after they’ve seen you.”
Men? Arthur wants to say, they’re barely boys, but Merlin probably wouldn’t appreciate it, and all the words seem trapped in his throat, so all Arthur does is nod and pass over the fresh linen bandages, condescends to hold the jars of salve and poultices as Merlin goes from man to man and lays hands upon them.
It is Cendred of Alcase agitating for war, Arthur knows.
It is in all the whispers from his father’s advisors, in all the reports from the border guards, told in the steady trickle of serfs that travel the mountains that part Camelot from Alcase, looking haunted, starved, gaunt. More than the anecdotal evidence, Arthur know that Cendred has always hungered for Camelot, for its corner of the valley and river, it’s sprawling plane and lush forests, the prosperity that is obvious on the faces of Uther’s — Arthur’s — subjects.
“Did — is it because of me?” Merlin asks, his voice hoarse.
Arthur looks up from the maps littering his chambers. The vellum scrolls overflow the table, pouring off of the chair, gathered in piles that are orange and ash-dark from the fire, flicking and licking heat across the room, over Arthur’s bare feet. It is late, deep into the night, and downstairs his father is entertaining a caravan of nobles who have pledged their fealty, wooing them with wine and riches and whores. Arthur escaped hours ago, dashed off between one round of drinks and another and came to his chambers to find them already-warm and Merlin setting out watered wine and meats and cheeses and bread in humbler plates and goblets, wordless.
They are sitting now — too close, wildly inappropriate for a servant and a master, nevermind that Merlin was on the bed — on the foot of Arthur’s mattress, the linens drawn up round their shoulders to keep out the cold, creeping into the room in spite of the roaring fire. The wine’s been drunk and Arthur had picked at his dinner, and in Merlin’s hand Arthur sees a rosy apple, batted from one palm to the other as Merlin watches Arthur with wide, worried eyes.
“What? The shamefulness of my chambers?” Arthur asks.
“Cendred,” Merlin whispers in reply, head dipping low, clutching the fur Arthur had tossed over his shoulders an hour ago tightly. “Is it — would this have happened if you hadn’t gone to Ealdor?”
Arthur studies Merlin and wonders what to say, how to answer that question. It cannot have helped, and Cendred’s soldiers and spies must have told him eventually that the heir to Camelot had trespassed, traveled the border without so much as a by-your-leave. But it cannot help to say so, either, Arthur decides, not when Merlin is already frighteningly docile. Not when his chambers have actually been conspicuously clean and his fireplace always swept since someone had first whispered of war in Camelot.
So Arthur forces himself to turn back to the maps, studying the mountain pass between Alcase and Camelot once more — it will be treacherous in winter, and while Camelot has known its share of cruel winters, Arthur doesn’t wish to try his knights in an unknown season on unknown elevations. If there is to be a campaign, then it comes quickly, in the sweetness of spring and the heaviness of summer, and Arthur thinks of how many yeomen he can rouse, how many men each of his knights will be able to muster if he dispatches them to their own lands now. They may come ill-prepared or poorly armored — or worse, mutinous, cowardly.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” he dismisses. “I doubt Cendred even knows Ealdor exists.”
Arthur sees Merlin from the corner of his eye, and knows he is unconvinced.
“Will there really be war?” Merlin asks, still in a hush. “Will you — ”
“Merlin,” Arthur interrupts, glowering and shoving aside the map beneath his hand — filled with demarcations and stained at the folds with blood and Earth, from the last time it came into use — to remove it from Merlin’s intent gaze.
But Merlin only tips his chin up, defiant, and asks, eyes huge like the deep quarry pools Arthur played in as a boy, when all of Camelot was discovery and delight and joy — before he had known the other half of his love for the land was the weight of her protection. Merlin asks, “Will you have to fight? Will you leave Camelot?”
Arthur resists the urge to remind Merlin that in wars, oftentimes fighting is involved. There is a reedy sound of worry in Merlin’s voice that sets Arthur’s nerves jangling without dignity. It has been a long time since Arthur dismissed Merlin as a simple servant boy, but he’s not ready yet to feel his heart shake at Merlin’s concern, at the pleading that must sit on the tip of his tongue already.
“Merlin, it’s really none of your concern,” Arthur hedges. “And besides, why is it so cold in here? Obviously it has something to do with your appalling skills as a servant. Why, Morgana’s rooms are always — ”
“You think Morgana’s chambers are sweltering and you made me open the windows because you felt it was stuffy,” Merlin cuts him off. “And you shouldn’t go.”
Arthur glares at him. “It’s not really up to you,” he snaps, and sighing, adds, “Nor I.”
And that’s when it happens:
There is a long minute, in the mostly-dark of the room, the orange light of the fire, with the sound of celebration still faint belowstairs, melting into the quiet of Arthur’s chambers, before Merlin shifts, hesitant. And then he leans his weight forward, tipping himself onto his hands and knees — crawling slow and careful across the scant space that separates him from Arthur on the bed, and before Arthur can whisper out, “What are you doing, Merlin?” Merlin has cupped Arthur’s face in his rough, slender hands and pressed his cool forehead to Arthur’s, so close it is like the aftermath of a kiss.
At first Merlin doesn’t say anything, breath going harsher and harsher as the time draws by, but then he gasps, “Arthur, Arthur — ”
“Merlin,” Arthur tries, “I — ”
“I don’t want any other king,” Merlin goes on, fearfulness and need pitching upward in his voice, loud in the small space between them, and Arthur feels his hands close over the delicate bones of Merlin’s wrists, holding him tight, holding him fast. “I won’t serve any — nothing can happen to you, Arthur, nothing.”
It’s all Arthur can do to stroke his thumbs, soothing, over the insides of Merlin’s palms, apologizing skin to skin, as he says, “Merlin — I am not your king yet,” although it has never been any secret that Merlin, for his frightening and endless loyalty, has favored Uther with none of it.
And when Merlin’s eyes lift to meet Arthur’s again, finally, they are golden with the secret they keep, and he says, “You’ve always been my king, Arthur.”
But it’s not just Merlin’s voice, and it swells up from the paving stones of the courtyard and swings low from the turrets of the castle and pours into the room from the very edges of Albion, like the Earth is speaking in an atonal harmony, and it is all Arthur can do to close his mouth over Merlin’s to make it stop, to end the hugeness of whatever this is with a kiss, only that makes it worse because it feels, suddenly, like in that moment Arthur has made a vow that stretches out beyond words and borders.
The messengers Arthur dispatch return with promises for a force several thousand strong of yeoman, and his knights send dispatches of forces tens of thousands strong, while Arthur sets the stewards in the castle about marshaling supplies and weapons. Arthur knows, after huddling close with his father and their council, that Cendred has a baker’s dozen of castles, six strongholds that mark encroachment into Alcase — all but the two nearest to the border Cendred’s lands share with Uther’s poorly fortified and understaffed. Of course, taking one will only send manpower and supplies pouring into the remainder, and Arthur and his father and their generals and most trusted knights argue long into the night over which castles to siege.
There has never been much uncertainty about war with Cendred — Alcase may straddle a mountain, but it also borders a sea, and its harbors have been the envy of Camelot’s tradesmen for generations. Geoffrey of Monmoth tells Arthur that ages and ages ago a river had run through Alcase before it fanned out into the sea in tributaries, and the flood and overflow left some of the richest farmland in Albion in its wake. It’s wealth greater than quarried gold or emeralds, and Arthur’s father says he dreams of acres of grains, gold and rippling that night, that it’s a sign.
Arthur dreams instead of Ealdor, of their fear and the neglect they’d endured, of their poverty and the trial of their small, ordinary lives, and he aches to think that he could teach Hunith to wield a pitchfork and give her promises of his care but extend no such guarantee to her countrymen.
“Gwen told me that Morgana told her that Cendred’s sons aren’t telling their manservants to pack up the greater portion of their chambers so they can hie themselves off to war,” Merlin informs him, dropping a plate before Arthur with a sullen thunk.
Arthur forces himself not to look up from his ledger. “You’re beginning to sound like a fishwife, Merlin.”
“If I were a fishwife I could shake you by the ear and forbid you to go to war,” Merlin sulks, and Arthur hazards a glance upward Merlin is studying him with those big eyes again — wide and deep with wanting, as if his father’s expectations weren’t enough already. “And Aelis from the kitchen says her brother said — ”
“Merlin,” Arthur bites out, “I beg you, spare me.”
Pouting, Merlin reaches over, slides the dish closer to Arthur’s ledger. “I’ll shut up if you start eating,” he says.
Arthur isn’t, and hasn’t been, hungry, but to admit it would invite a slew of wailing and fretting and nonsense he hasn’t the patience for. It is his last fortnight in Camelot before he rides out to meet his men, to assign his generals and dispatch his infantry, and he is already lonely, already misses the castle and the lower town and Merlin. Cendred’s too lazy and too much a coward for direct battle, and while it spares loss of life it will be a drain on Camelot’s resources to lay siege to Cendred’s chief properties, render barren the spring with no men to work the farms and hoards of soldiers making use of serfs and what little they have as they wait, bored and huddled on the outsides of fortified castles. Arthur wants none of it.
He takes up his fork, pokes at the fish and fowl and apples. It is a dish of all of Arthur’s favorite foods — an extravagance.
“Merlin,” Arthur asks, “where is all of this from?”
Blinking innocently, Merlin says, “The kitchens.”
“That much, I gathered,” Arthur allows. Should he fail, should Camelot’s armies be pushed back and Camelot itself seized, he wants no one to go hungry or wanting on his watch. “I meant, where did you acquire this feast when we have already instituted rationing throughout the castle?”
To Merlin’s credit, he doesn’t flinch away from meeting Arthur’s gaze.
“I found it in one of the larders,” he says, stubborn.
“You are a profoundly terrible liar,” Arthur accuses.
He suddenly reflects that it is of vital importance Merlin never be taken by enemy forces, since although Arthur doubts Merlin would turn traitor, with sufficient time and questioning any interrogator is likely to divine Camelot’s deepest secrets just through the process of elimination and by watching Merlin squirm awkwardly.
“Then don’t ask me questions that will force me to lie,” Merlin retorts, and as an afterthought, adds, “Sire.”
Sighing, Arthur says, “Don’t do it again,” and begins to eat.
He’s still not hungry, but Merlin’s eyes grow lighter, his face less worried, and Arthur thinks maybe this is the last kindness he can grant Merlin before he has to be told that he can’t come along, that when Arthur rides out with his men in a fortnight, it will be — for the first time in a very long time — without Merlin at his side.
The irony of cowardice in the face of an angry manservant on the eve before riding out to war is lost on no one, and Arthur is grateful that each of his knights limits their mocking to knowing smirks and no more when Merlin bursts into the war room.
“Your highness,” Merlin bites out. “May I have a word?”
It’s a blessing Uther is in the armory, Arthur thinks ruefully. Although having Merlin thrown in the stocks for three days and therefore unable to make a scene — which Arthur assumes will epic — when Camelot’s armies ride out might keep him from trying to follow, Arthur would prefer not to lock him away. Arthur would like to be able to run his fingers through Merlin’s dark curls, to press his face into the delicate curve of Merlin’s neck, to mouth at the skin there, to kiss him slow and deep and consuming before he goes.
“Do I have any choice in the matter?” Arthur asks, and before Merlin can launch another volley of pouts and protests, Arthur decides to spare them both the charade and dismisses his men. “Yes, Merlin?”
“You’re not going out there without me,” Merlin snaps, the second the door to the chamber is shut.
Arthur supposes it’s a minor blessing that Merlin seems to have developed an allergy — despite his obvious love for undermining Arthur’s authority — to undermining Arthur’s authority in front of Camelot’s generals and council and noblemen.
“Are you even listening to me?” Merlin demands.
Arthur rolls up the vellum map beneath his hands — watches as the green-tinged hills and the hatch marks indicating villages, towns, Camelot’s people and earth and fields disappear under his palms — and sighs. “Careful, Merlin — you’re starting to sound like that fishwife in the lower village again.”
“And I’m also thinking about taking you by the ear for real this time,” Merlin huffs, cheeks bright red with fury.
Arthur rolls his eyes. “I recognize that it’s difficult for you to keep track of all of these tertiary facts sometimes, Merlin, but it behooves me to remind you that I am actually the crown prince of Camelot and — ”
“You’re not going without me!” Merlin interrupts in a shout.
“You’re certainly not coming with me,” Arthur counters.
“And why not?” Merlin’s moved from one-dimensional fury to something that glimmers with fearfulness, and Arthur hates it when Merlin looks afraid. Merlin is stupidly fearless in the face of Uther and threats of the castle dungeons and when Arthur is all frustration and entrapment just simmering underneath his skin and — perhaps this is when Arthur should have known, first — Arthur likes him best that way.
“In all likelihood it’ll be a matter of siege, Merlin,” Arthur lies, “and honestly, I’d rather not have to endure your nattering on top of sitting in a hot tent for three months waiting for Cendred to surrender.”
Merlin glowers at him. “You’re a terrible liar, too, Arthur.”
Only to you, I think, Arthur thinks, annoyed. “And even if there was to be a battle, it’s hardly as if you’d be any use,” he snaps.
Sticking out his chin, Merlin says, “You’ve trained me how to use a sword.”
“Very poorly,” Arthur retorts. Merlin’s ability to defend himself with a weapon is deplorable on a good day; the thought of him attempting to do so with just the skin of chainmail between him and the sharp steel of a blade, the copper tips of a longbow arrow — it doesn’t bear consideration. It won’t happen.
“You’ll need someone to take care of you,” Merlin argues, desperation threading into his tone. “You can barely dress yourself alone.”
“I doubt Cendred’s armies are going to point and laugh if my cloak isn’t properly ironed, Merlin,” Arthur says.
He chooses not to point out that prior to Merlin’s arrival in Camelot, and between Arthur’s revolving cast of servants, he’d managed to care for himself without any evident difficulty, and maybe it is because there is some truth to what Merlin has said.
Arthur’s armor fits better when Merlin helps him put it on, his cloaks are warmer, his boots — those without holes from rats — never take on water, and when Arthur has taken ill or taken to long rides through the deepest and thickest of his forests, it is always Merlin waiting for him on the other side of his chamber doors, usually smirking, and always ready with a teasing comment or supper, mulled wine, a bath.
In the last week, it has been with hazy blue eyes as Arthur pins him to the bed, presses open-mouthed kisses along Merlin’s collarbones, down the sweep of his chest, as Arthur listens to Merlin’s heated pleading.
“I’m coming with you,” Merlin decides.
“No,” Arthur said, simply and cheerfully.
“You can’t stop me,” Merlin tells him stubbornly, and Arthur decides he’s above dignifying that statement with anything but a disbelieving look, at least until Merlin adds, “And — and what about — about when you’re lonely? Gwen says you could be gone for months, and months and months.” His lips knit into a distasteful knot. “I heard Sir Galahad talking about the camp whores.”
Arthur vows Galahad will take third watch every night for the first leg of the journey, and says, “Merlin, I’m not taking you along to replace the camp whores.”
“That is not what I meant and you know it!” Merlin bursts out. “Arthur, this is — ”
Arthur had always imagined the weight in his father’s words had come of Uther’s years, the heaviness of Camelot’s jewel-encrusted crowns, but maybe it stems from something different altogether. He feels the mass of the words caught in his throat growing out of nauseating worry, out of the image of Merlin cut down on a battlefield, of him anywhere but smiling and well and safely ensconced behind Camelot’s walls.
“I won’t have you there distracting me,” Arthur tells him, flat and final, the way his father has declared executions and punishments and wars and the ends of arguments for all of Arthur’s life. “You’ll stay here — I won’t have you on the front lines or even in the camp or anywhere near the battle, Merlin.”
Merlin looks mutinous. “I will not yield, Arthur.”
Arthur smiles, regretful. “I didn’t think you would,” he sighs.
Morgana gives him hell over it, but Gwen is more understanding, and Arthur finds out that Merlin’s not the only person breaking rationing rules when there is a plum tucked in with his bread and cheese that night at dinner. Gaius gives Arthur a smile, knowing and approving, and Arthur’s father only rolls his eyes and says something under his breath that sounds suspiciously like, “I’d really rather not know.”
“You really only have yourself to blame,” Arthur tells Merlin reasonably.
Merlin appears to disagree, and does so sulking in the far corner of the cell Arthur appropriated for him. There’s food and water and a half-dozen blankets, a thin pallet, and the guards have been given explicit directions about the care and feeding of the prince’s manservant, so truly, Arthur thinks Merlin is overreacting.
“You’ll be released in four days,” Arthur continues.
It’s long enough that the caravan should be well over the mountain pass, beyond Merlin’s reach, and then — for months and months and months, Arthur thinks ruefully — all he has to worry over whether there are enough horses, whether his men have enough training, whether they have enough archers, whether there are enough supplies.
He finds himself saying, softly, so the guards won’t hear, “I’ll be back sooner than you think, Merlin.”
It’s a lie, of course. These campaigns always last longer than planned. They extend beyond the fortitude of yeomen and knights and serfs and supplies, and each accord signed at the end is always just a comma, a breath before it begins again. Arthur has studied warmaking enough to hate it, the waste and stupidity of it, and he wishes that tonight he wasn’t going to his bed alone, that Merlin could be trusted to stay in Camelot without this nonsense, that he could have this — have Merlin — one more night at least. He’s never ached with regret like this before on the night before battle, but Arthur has never had anyone to return to afterward, either.
“Let me come with you,” Merlin says, breaking the long silence and turning round. He gets to his feet — shaky after being curled up on the floor so long, bony knees clutched close to his chest — and comes to the wall of bars. His face is all pleading, imploring. “I won’t be any trouble, I swear, I just want to come with you.”
Arthur swallows hard. He wonders how wars are ever fought at all, when there are lovers everywhere that plead like this. Arthur’s first loyalty is always to Camelot, and anything he wants — anyone — is secondary, third, at the end of the list, but he lets himself take a step closer, to close his hand over Merlin’s, where they are clutching at the bars of his cell.
“Arthur, please,” Merlin whispers, desperate and catching Arthur’s gaze. “It’s my job to take care of you.”
And because the guards have wisely withdrawn to the other side of the dungeon and are conspicuously looking at something other than their prince, Arthur allows himself another indiscretion — leans in and presses a kiss, nearly chaste, to Merlin’s knuckles. He lingers a moment, committing the warmth of Merlin’s skin to memory, before he draws away and meets Merlin’s eyes once more.
“You’re a subject of Camelot, Merlin,” Arthur reminds him softly. “It is, actually, my job to take care of you.”
Merlin spouts treasonous curses at Arthur’s back, his voice a lingering echo long after Arthur has walked out of the deepest parts of the dungeon, where he’s put Merlin under lock and key. It’s Gwen waiting for him in his chambers when he makes it there, and although she has turned down the bed and lit his fire and prepared a meal and mulled wine and a bath, it’s not the same at all.
“Merlin will understand,” Gwen says, helping Arthur out of his coat. “Eventually.”
Arthur smiles tiredly. “Eventually being the operative word.”
“Be careful, sire,” Gwen tells him, her eyes bright like copper tonight. “We all — well, we all want you to come back. Safe and sound.”
Arthur presses his hand against the cold stone walls of his chamber, draws his palm across the mantel of his fireplace. His father’s father’s father built this castle, on land won during barbarian wars, and he’d built great walls and small villages and offered protection for the villagers that settled nearby in exchange for a tithe. Arthur’s great-grandsire had expanded the castle, built in gleaming turrets, repaved the courtyard, dug a moat and filled it, and claimed in a series of battles hundreds and thousands of acres more, growing the kingdom, adding to its coffers rich farmland and river and valley. His grandfather had standardized planting cycles and helped design the irrigation channels still used to this day and been a great patron of artists, and Camelot’s castle windows gleam with colored glass because of him.
Uther had quelled the warlords that had sprung up toward the end of his own father’s reign, carving out a rich and jealously guarded corner of Albion for Camelot’s own. He’d married Igraine and sired Arthur and banished magic from the kingdom, burned books and women and boys. He’d sent Arthur on suicide missions and ordered the starvation of his own people; he’d had Guinevere’s father killed and cast Arthur into the dungeons for saving a life. He’s been a good and terrible father, a good and terrible king, and Arthur knows now — the way he knows the earth and trees of Camelot — that Uther will not live forever, that his reign will not stretch like the place where the sky meets the earth, and that Arthur fights not just because he is ordered, but because this is his land, too.
In the end, all men are more or less forgotten, but Arthur, when he is but a footnote in Camelot’s history — may it be long, and may it be rich — wants to be remembered for having been a dutiful prince, and with luck, a dutiful king. He will ride when he is needed, and whatever else is lost in this transaction will be recorded and forgotten amongst Geoffrey’s library stacks.
Merlin will forgive Arthur eventually, and even if Arthur does not return — and he must, he must — Merlin will forget eventually, as well.
“Thank you, Guinevere,” Arthur tells her, his hand still on the stone of the wall, his back to her probably expectant face. “Good night.”
She leaves without another word and Arthur spends the night at his window — one of the dearest views in the castle — and by the time the sun begins to peer over the furthest hills, when it is coloring the clouds peach and pink and rose, he is ready.
There is fair weather for the first two days of their journey, flags flying and spirits high. The third day, it begins to rain, and Arthur barely acknowledges, on the fourth day, that Merlin has finally now been released and will probably be destroying the contents of Arthur’s chambers, for the rain has turned into a waterfall, and the horses are being led now, instead of ridden, navigating through heavy mud.
It’s a two week journey, the circuitous route Arthur plotted out with Camelot’s generals and its council, to position their phalanxes strategically below the crests of valleys and at the bends of rivers. The trek is wretched, and by the beginning of the second week all of Arthur’s joints ache from the constant rain and cold, and the higher they climb over the mountain pass the thinner the air grows.
Worse still, the grim sense of anticipation is growing, as if one by one, the knights are realizing what’s to come next. Arthur huddles with his closest circle — all twelve of them, which even he admits is a ridiculous and large number — each night, and they sigh and argue over maps and surveys and pieces of rumor they’ve heard, managed to snatch through intrigues Arthur is loathe to engage in.
He finds himself saying, “Merlin heard from my father’s ward’s lady’s maid Morgana heard that Cendred’s sons aren’t engaging.”
Lionell cocks a brow at Arthur. “Merlin heard from a lady’s maid — ”
“ — that Lady Morgana heard — ” Sir Percival continues.
“Pretend I said nothing,” Arthur snaps, interrupting them both.
“Noted, sire,” Percival says, cheeky, and Arthur decides that after he’s through punishing Galahad for talking to his manservant about bloody camp whores it will be Percival’s turn to endure third watch.
Sir Tristam says suddenly, “But do you not find it strange? That Lady Morgana would know such a thing at all?” and suddenly it is strange, and the fights begin again and so does the pointing and jockeying over the map, and Arthur’s brief flight of fancy is over.
At night, after the first watch Arthur always volunteers to take, he lies on his bedding and stares upward. Sometimes he stares through trees and sometimes he lies under a rain-sodden ceiling of a tent. But when he can, he watches the stars overhead, navigates by them, plots a hundred thousand courses back home, and he imagines that when he returns, it will be Merlin who meets him at the city gates, his anger long forgotten. Arthur thinks about the hot wine that Merlin will pour for him and the clean linens of his bed and how he’ll get drunk on the sweetness of Merlin’s mouth, aflame from his skin. And when he wakes up the next day, to the sun breaking over Camelot, it will be to quiet prosperity, that he will oversee petty arguments about farm borders, about a stolen calf or two, and that he will never have to leave again, that he can talk about wheat taxes until Merlin pleads mercy, until even Morgana is sick of him, and that he will grow old and slower without any fanfare — that there will be peace.
When he does wake up, it is usually to foul weather and Galahad’s betrayed expression, so Arthur just blinks once, twice, before folding up the dream and putting it away. He rolls to his feet and goes out to face another day.
They are right to have suspected, Arthur thinks, because when they reach the most tenuous of Cendred’s borders, they meet not one, but both of Cendred’s sons, neither of whom appear to be cowering behind their wives.
The camp whores, although less persnickety than Merlin, are otherwise an unacceptable substitute. Arthur wakes up groggy and in searing pain in their tent, and their collective response appears to be to rouse Percival — doing his rotation on third shift, now — who comes and pours ale down Arthur’s throat berates him.
“Why am I in with the camp whores?” Arthur manages to ask.
“Because we thought it suitably petty punishment for being shot with an arrow,” Percival reports.
Arthur manages to look at his shoulder, heavily bandaged and appearing still to be bleeding sluggishly. He hopes that Gaius’ doctoring lessons took, that whomever treated the wound washed it first thoroughly, that they’ve packed it with honey and clean bandages. He’s feverish, nauseated, but he pushes that out of his head long enough to demand a report, a rundown of what happened after he was knocked off of Ironside and before his men decided to collectively volunteer to muck out Camelot’s privies by sticking him in with twelve skittish prostitutes.
Percival says they’ve made progress, and when Tristam comes, bringing broth and more news, it appears to remain true. Cendred’s eldest, Eustace, is among the dead from the first bout — Arthur remembers the dark green of his eyes, the very black of his irises, just before Arthur had run him through — and the younger, Reynold, has taken both armies and fallen back, into the valley.
“The valley,” Arthur sighs, feeling sleep clutch at him.
“We’ll puzzle it out,” Tristam says, with more certainty than Arthur can bear to feign at the moment. He’ll try harder later, once his body stops flaring up in agony. “There must be a way to approach.” Percival laughs. “There are — the key is finding one that isn’t suicide.”
“Both of you, go away and send back the whores,” Arthur grumbles. “They were quieter.”
They are, and after a while, Arthur feels sorry for having been disparaging of them during the beginning of his stay. His presence in the tent seems to drive away the majority of their tormentors, and so they take a shine to Arthur as well. They bring him ale and food and help clean his wounds. Aelis — and Arthur hopes fervently this isn’t the Aelis with whom Merlin had been gossiping — makes him a tea of willow bark, and Daphne brings water from the stream and a clean linen to wipe the dirt and blood and sweat from Arthur’s brow. They gossip around him, telling stories and singing songs like the knights, and most of all, they seem to marvel at Arthur’s continued disinterest at tumbling them.
The third day of his confinement, after the fever has receded, after many cups of willow bark tea, all twelve of his advisors contort themselves into the tent, around Arthur, propped up by many pillow and packs, and glower at him.
“Congratulations, sire,” Lionell says, “you’ve successfully turned our camp whores against us.”
Arthur frowns at Daphne, peeking in the tent flap. “I don’t sense that treason’s within their capabilities, Sir Lionell.”
“They’ve decided tumbling us is beneath them,” Percival complains.
Galahad says, “There appears to be a consensus they’d rather tumble you.”
Arthur rolls his eyes. “Meanwhile, the issue of the valley.”
The valley backs up to Cendred’s stronghold, a fortified castle with walls three feet thick, and a rumored nexus of underground tunnels. It stands between Arthur and two hundred thousand acres of some of the richest farmland in Albion, between Cendred’s people and a river that fans out to the ocean and — Arthur cannot help but to remember this, listening to the patter of rain overhead — Ealdor, the face of Merlin’s mother. He knows only of how Cendred has treated Hunith, the way her village had looked tired and brittle, on the verge. He knows that Cendred hungers for war. He knows it is Cendred that’s drawn him from Camelot, away from his people and his land and his father and Merlin and brought him to this place, standing at the top of the valley staring down.
There are thousands of men below, waiting, their weapons readied.
Arthur unsheathes his sword, watches it gleaming in the gray light of morning, and in a voice he doesn’t truly recognize, he says, “For Camelot!” and he means it, he feels it, it runs like blood through his veins and into the marrow of his bones and burns underneath his skin: for Camelot, for Camelot, for Camelot.
He loses sight of Percival and Lionell early in the fray, the blood-rust of their chainmail disappearing with a dull glint from the sear of the mid-morning sun. There are no arrows now — both sides have exhausted their supply, exhausted their archers — and the fighting is messy, desperate, without discipline, and the mud on the ground is earth mixed with blood, with the pools of rain that had poured like rivers the night before.
A blow to his shoulder — and he doesn’t know who, only that it’s a club and that the pain lacerating through his body is enough to send him him loose from his horse — knocks him down into it, the slick and mess.
Arthur is winded and feverish and he can’t feel his fingers and toes, knows he’s numb and worn to the bone. And when he looks out across the killing field to see most of the fight has been won, the exhaustion seeps deeper into his bones.
He reaches — as always, as he always must and always will — for his sword, but there is a shadow stretched dark and ominous over him, and Arthur hears the sound of steel overhead. He doesn’t have time to think, doesn’t have a second to spare for a final thought, a last moment of tenderness; he closes his fist around the pommel of his sword instead, and he is about to draw it in when gold arcs out across his field of vision, when utter silence falls across the dip of the valley.
Arthur sees it is in fits and starts — the wind is roaring, whipping the grass — and still there is silence, but there is also Merlin, standing over him, one hand outstretched, the Earth aching and screaming in time to the tremors in his fingers. And Arthur sees Reynold, bloody and battered and holding his sword, frozen in shock, ready for a killing blow and still in place.
And Arthur must say, “Merlin,” stupidly, because Merlin turns to him — and his eyes are golden now, no trace of the blue Arthur finds so dear, loves so well — and when he opens his mouth the voice that pours from him is not his own.
It’s the atonal hum Arthur recalls like a sudden sear of memory, from the night he kissed Merlin for the first time, only this time he’s not protected by the castle walls. Arthur wants to say that Merlin’s a sorcerer, that he’s lied all this time, but watching him standing there, the roar of the land underneath him, sorcerer seems such a small word for whatever Merlin is, for whatever is happening, and Arthur — through the pain and the cold and the narrowing of his vision — can’t say anything at all.
There are no barriers, and lying on the ground he can hear the voices — and it is voices, it is more than one voice, it feels like it’s all voices — wailing up from the heart of the earth and the corners of the sky and just beneath the skin of trees, the rush and whitecaps of rivers and oceans — they speak together.
They say, Arthur, son of Uther, and You were born for this land, for what you call Albion, and You shall be her ruler, and they ask him — they ask him:
Arthur, do you accept?
And Arthur tells her, yes, because it has never been in question, there has never been any doubt, for Arthur is Camelot’s prince and its protector, and he will fight for her until his dying breath. He has cried for her and bled for her and watched it seep into the earth. Because he is unwavering in his devotion, and it makes sense, finally, that it should be Merlin — whose eyes are golden, whose skin is glowing from the inside out — that he loves, when he speaks for Albion, because one day Arthur may marry, but he will never love another as the way he loves the earth, her rivers and villages and farms.
He says, yes, yes, I do, until his own voice falls away, until he’s saying it with something in the bone, until it’s rattling his teeth and making him dizzy with the strength of it, his love for the land, the promise of his reign.
Then live long, Arthur, the earth sings, Merlin’s lips shaping the letters, for you are our One and Future King.
There is a light, a great whirl of noise and sound and wind, and then nothing at all — pure white, like snow on a February morning.
When Arthur swims to the surface of awareness, it’s to stare blearily into Merlin’s eyes — blue again, Arthur thinks stupidly, thank God — wide and frightened and close. They are curled together on a clean pallet, under clean blankets, and Arthur has been changed into clean clothes and has his nose buried in the clean, sweet skin of Merlin’s neck.
Merlin tries to say, “Arthur, I wanted to tell you,” and “Arthur, don’t be angry,” and “Arthur, please,” but Arthur only hushes him with a kiss, presses his mouth over Merlin’s. He too tired to talk, in too much pain to argue.
Arthur knows has won the battle and lost his father’s war, that he will no more hate Merlin for his magic than he has censured him for his insubordination, that he loves the way Merlin’s hands card into his hair, the way their bodies curl into one another, the heat of Merlin’s skin beneath the covers — the promises and devotions that Merlin whispers into Arthur’s skin, like writing spells and protections to the bone.
Arthur thinks, and maybe he says out loud, that he would let no one hurt Merlin, that he’d lay down his life just as he would lay down his life for Albion. He curls his hands into Merlin’s dark curls and holds tight, listens as Merlin says that Arthur mustn’t , that he’s promised, that he’s to be Albion’s — Merlin’s — once and future king, and that there will be no other.
Arthur spends a week alternating between sleep or wishing he was asleep when Merlin forces him to drink vile herbal mixtures Arthur swears are poison and that Merlin protests are healing draughts. Lionell and Percival and Tristam take turns attempting to coerce Merlin into letting them set for home, and are each soundly sent away with Merlin’s screeches that Arthur is still healing and that any attempt to move him would be tantamount to murder until Arthur threatens to walk to Camelot.
“You know, for a king, you are an utter wanker,” Merlin snipes at him.
All of Arthur’s knights immediately find something else to look at.
Since the last battle, as they’ve sent Cendred and his remaining son and daughters into exile and contracted agreements of vassalage with his subjects, Merlin has been glued to Arthur’s side. No one has mentioned — although they all must have seen — the magic, and Arthur supposes that a brotherhood of silence may be the standard until he has the luxury of making the rules on his own. He’s grateful it apparently extends to Merlin’s almost farcical insubordination.
“Firstly, I am not yet king,” Arthur tells him, perched stiffly on his horse. He aches all over and it’s a trial remaining upright, but damned if he’ll give Merlin the satisfaction of admitting it. “And secondly, when I am, I shall remember all of your various and sundry wrongs and you’ll be in the stocks until you’re gray.”
Merlin makes a face. “I do not know why she likes you.”
Arthur blinks at him. “Who?” he asks.
“Albion,” Merlin sighs at him, as if it’s obvious, and then, giving Arthur a long-suffering look, hurls himself off of his own horse with a great deal of flailing and pageantry. It’s enough to send Arthur’s heart soaring into his throat in terror, but Merlin cuts off any genuine attempts at concern by shouting flatly, “Oh no, I’ve fallen from my horse and I cannot possibly be expected to continue traveling — we absolutely must stop so that I may rest for a night and recover.”
Lionell actually chokes on something Arthur thinks sound suspiciously like laughter.
That night, Arthur actually manages to banish Merlin from his tent for an entire hour before his manservant slips in while the knights are changing watches. Either that or Merlin’s insubordination is contagious and Arthur’s entire retinue has contracted it — the possibility is too mortifying to countenance.
“I brought you some water,” Merlin tells him, settling down on the small mountain of soft, clean furs he’d appropriated for Arthur’s bed.
“I’d rather have ale,” Arthur lies, and drinks.
He lets Merlin undress him and help him onto his back. Arthur’s shoulder hurts and his side hurts and his leg hurts and Merlin thinks his foot is broken, which is preposterous, but if Arthur’s idiot manservant — sorcerer — should like to fuss over him, then Arthur is simply too exhausted from waging four months of war to argue.
It’s still a cool night, for all it is a summer month, and they sleep close together underneath two blankets for warmth; still, Arthur cannot sleep.
Early in the morning, toward the very end of third watch, Arthur finds the courage to ask, “What do you mean, Albion likes me?” close to Merlin’s ear, waking him.
“It means just what it means,” Merlin answers, his voice husky with sleep. But he doesn’t protest when Arthur says:
“How do you know?”
Merlin opens his eyes at that, studying Arthur’s face, and Arthur wonders for a moment what exactly Merlin sees. Arthur hasn’t looked at himself in ages, not in still ponds or fast-moving rivers or in the mirror that the camp whores shared between them, carefully guarded. He must be a fright: a cut on his cheek, freckles dark across his nose, a bruise on his mouth.
“I can feel it,” Merlin admits. “I can feel her, and — ” he leans in, presses a shy, soft kiss across Arthur’s bruised lips, and it’s sweet, so so sweet “ — she likes you.”
Arthur raises one brow. “And you? Or are you just channeling Albion,” he asks, mostly in jest, but with a thread of fear. Merlin has always been a conflation of many things Arthur has never known and wouldn’t begin to imagine, and all things seem possible when he is around, hurling himself off of horses and ending battles with a swift, deadly force, raising the voices of Albion, of the Old Religion, until they roar in Arthur’s ears like a heavenly chorus.
“I like you differently,” Merlin tells him, cheeky, but sobers long enough to say, “Anyway, Arthur — why else would she crown you?”
The light outside the tent has gone from the watery pink-gray of 4 a.m. to something rose-gold and enveloping. When Arthur asks, “Crown me?” Merlin’s blue eyes gleam another color altogether as he reaches out, traces a hand over Arthur’s hair, fingers leaving a shivering trail. And the searing, blinding light of morning rolls over the last hill, pours down into their valley, over their tent, and everything washes gold like the dearest of metals.